Pete’s family came to reclaim the desert and their futures. Pete, Reny and Keri chased lizards and played in the desert. They dug cool forts in the ground and disguised the entrances with tumbleweeds. They climbed the spiny Joshua trees.
And they dreamed of rain.
And had nightmares about sand gnomes riding hot winds scented with blooming cactus.
Pete lay down on the hot sand between the thorny tumbleweeds and looked over the rise at the house. Not much to see at the moment, nothing moved except the shimmer of heat waves that made the house dance like a mirage. A spiny lizard crawled out from under a green tumbleweed and crouched when it saw Pete. He knew just how the lizard felt.
He slid backwards through the sand to the entrance of the fort and slid his hand beneath the tumbleweed to grab the stems where there weren’t so many thorns. He lifted it only enough to slide under into the cool dark earthen space beneath.
Pete slid the shield on the lantern open only a crack. Enough to see Keri’s dirt-stained face where she lay curled into a ball like a pill bug as far under the sloped roof as she could get, and Reny sitting up against the higher back wall.
“They still out there?” Reny asked.
“Don’t know. Didn’t see anyone but they could be anywhere.”
Keri whimpered which earned Pete a dark look from Reny. Reny leaned forward and patted Keri’s bare foot.
“Shhh, don’t worry. We’re safe here.”
Pete scooted across the rough dirt floor and put his back against the dirt wall. He lifted the lantern and hung it from the twisted nail hook on the ceiling.
“We can’t stay here forever,” he whispered. “We need water. Food.”
“Not yet,” Reny whispered back. “They could be out there waiting for us.”
“And if we wait too long?”
Reny’s dirty face looked like a mirror of his own. Pete reached up for the lamp. “We need to save the candle.”
Keri whimpered softly again. Pete closed the shutter anyway.
“I want to go home,” Keri said from the dark.
Pete heard Reny shift. Bits of dirt rattled in the dark. “We can’t, Keri. Try to take a nap, okay?”
That’d be best for all of them but Pete couldn’t shake the images that stuck in his mind.
It had all started with the wind. He and Reny and Keri had been out in the desert chasing lizards but the small stripped ones ran so fast and if you grabbed them by the tail it could come right off in your hand. They’d come back together at the fort when the wind blew up and sent dust and sand into their faces. And it smelled of blooming cactus, just like they had been warned. The wind that heralded the coming of the sand gnomes.
Reny had been the one that pulled the tumbleweed out of the entrance of the fort and saved them all. He had pricked his hand in several places doing it.
Reny yelled for them to get inside. They all knew the drill. Keri dropped and went in as quick as a jack rabbit. Pete had stood there like an idiot staring at the house as four enormous dust devils converged on the house from every direction. They were monstrous large dust devils filled with sand and dust and tumbleweeds all twirling around. Pete had seen his parents, and Reny’s parents, running for the shelter of the house, his mother yelling for him even though he couldn’t hear her words over the wind. Then Reny had grabbed and shoved him towards the fort, shouting to make himself heard.
They had gotten inside and Reny had pulled the tumbleweed into place in the entrance. Then they sat in the dark holding on to one another while they waited for the sickly sweet smelling wind to go away. The wind howled outside for a long time before it finally stopped and the smell faded. Reny had saved them and Pete felt sick inside when he thought about how he had frozen.
That’s why, after they waited a long time, he had insisted on being the one to go out and check on the house.
But now, what would they do now?
They didn’t have any weapons. What weapons their families owned were in the house with their parents, if their parents were even still there. Maybe they had driven the sand gnomes off. It could have happened. They had planned for it and drilled for it ever since they came down from the North to try and reclaim this spot of desert.
But if it hadn’t worked, if the sand gnomes had taken their parents, then it was just them and what hope did they have against something that could ride dust devils like the ones he had seen?
Reny and Pete agreed that going out after the sun set gave them the greatest chance of getting to the house. Reny thought they all should go but Pete thought Reny should stay behind with his sister.
“I want to go.” Keri was nothing more than a shadow in the dark fort.
“You’re too slow. If we have to run, you’d get caught.”
“I’m faster than you!”
“I’ll go,” Reny said.
“No!” “No!” Pete and Keri said at the same time.
“You should stay with your sister,” Pete added quickly. “I’ll go check it out. I’m faster than you too. If they spot me, I’ll shout and run away from the house. That’ll be your chance to get out. Head up the wagon road towards Quartz Hill. Get help from the marshals.”
“We could all go for the marshals,” Reny said.
“I need to check the house. I’ll get water if I can.”
“I’m thirsty,” Keri said.
They were all thirsty. Pete’s mouth tasted of nothing but sand and grit. His lips felt as dry as a lizard’s back. And, even though none of them had said anything, he could already feel the chill in the air. When night came completely it would be very cold and they had nothing except shorts and thin shirts.
“I’ll be fast. If the sand gnomes took them then they’re probably gone and we’ll need the Marshal’s help to track them anyway.”
“Fine,” Reny said. “Be careful. Watch the sand.”
Pete shuddered at the thought of a dirty hand suddenly coming out of the sand and grabbing his ankles. He didn’t need to be warned.
He needed to move but suddenly he didn’t want to leave the comforting darkness of the fort. He felt safe with the close earth walls and Reny. Even Keri. He knew better. The only thing that had protected them this long was the fact that they had remained hidden. Going out again could expose them all, but what other choice did they have?
“I can go.” Reny’s voice sounded shaky.
“No.” Pete got onto his hands and knees and crawled to the faint opening shadowed by the big tumbleweed. “I’m going. Remember, listen in case I yell and then go yourselves.”
“We will,” Reny said.
Pete reached out for the tumbleweed and pinched a spot with a thorn. He jerked his hand back then reached out again and very lightly ran his fingers along the thicker stems at the base. He got a grip on the tumbleweed and pushed it out. He immediately pulled his hand back in and listened. If there were any sand gnomes about he wanted them to think that the wind had shifted the tumbleweed.
He couldn’t hear hardly anything except his own heart pounding and Keri’s sniffles. He inhaled deeply and only smelled the dirt in the fort and the sand. He reached forward and started to wiggle out the entrance. A sharp barking howl cut through the night like a warning. Pete dropped to the sand. The grains pressing into his cheek felt soft, except for one twig, and still had some warmth. The cry repeated itself and he relaxed his body against the sand. Nothing but a coyote. Another answered from farther away.
Pete wiggled the rest of the way out and picked up the tumbleweed. In the faint light he could see better and didn’t have to fumble around to avoid the thorns. He dropped it in place over the opening and then crawled up the small rise again just as he had done earlier. The desert looked blue now that the sun had gone down. Light still bled over the horizon behind him but the area around the house looked still and empty as if no one lived there.
He chewed a piece of loose skin free on his lip while he studied his options. Crawl along, trying to hide between tumbleweeds or just make a run for it? The sand gnomes could just be resting right under the sand. In that case it wouldn’t make any difference if he ran or crawled, if he got close enough they would hear him and reach out of the sand with their dirty claws to pull him down and juice him.
Anyway, that’s what the stories said. Sand gnomes squeezed and pressed their victims until every last drop had been squeezed out of them just like he’d seen his mother wring a rag.
Running it was. It felt riskier but he’d rather already be running if they tried to grab him. It gave him a better chance to get away and a shout warning for the others. Pete took a big breath. He got up on his hands and feet. The cold air made him shiver. No one yelled as he stood. Everything remained still.
Pete ran like the jack rabbits they chased through the tumbleweeds. Sand flew from beneath his feet. He twisted and dodged around the tumbleweeds that blocked his path. His breath scratched at his dry throat. He kept his eyes fixed on the weathered gray boards of the house porch. One hundred feet. Seventy. He passed the big water trough that Pappy kept for the horses. The big wood lid lay cast aside and split in two. There was only sand gathering in small dunes along the bottom of the trough.
Fifty feet. The Joshua tree beside the porch reached for the house with spiny limbs. Forty.
Sand erupted in front of Pete. It flew in his mouth. In his nose. He coughed and choked couldn’t see anything with all the sand in his stinging eyes.
A harsh voice came out of the sand. “Gotcha!”
Rough hands grabbed his arms and yanked him almost off his feet. Pete opened his mouth to yell but the hands threw him face-first to the ground. More sand went up his nose and mouth. Then something pressed down on the back of his head. It felt hot and dry, hard but it curled over the back of his head and something sharp pricked at his neck. A foot! It pressed his face harder into the sand. He couldn’t breathe!
Pete panicked. He kicked and reached up to grab the sand gnome’s ankle — it could only be a sand gnome — but his flailing arms were knocked away. Pete reached up and clawed at the sand around his face. If he could clear away enough —
The foot came off his head and shoved against his shoulder. Pete flopped over coughing out sand. It felt like his whole mouth was full of nothing but sand. He spit and spit and still his mouth felt gritty and dry. Through the sand in his eyes he could only make out a blurry shape standing over him.
Pete coughed out more sand. A foot kicked him in the stomach. The pain was sharp and shocking. For several seconds Pete couldn’t breathe at all.
“I said quiet!”
Pete lay as still as possible. He didn’t move though the sand clung still to his tongue. He did the only thing he could do and blinked rapidly to clear sand from his eyes. Gradually he was able to see again.
A sort-of man stood above Pete, with the stars above his head as he looked at the desert with suspicious eyes. A sand gnome, just like the stories said, with a bald scaly head. Bony spikes started small above his little eyes and then curved around down either side of his head, getting bigger as they went. If he had ears Pete couldn’t see them but obviously the sand gnome could hear. Almost no nose at all, a bump with slits. He wore light sand colored robes that covered most of his body which looked much wider side to side than front to back. It was one of his clawed bare feet that had pressed Pete’s face into the sand. He snorted and looked down at Pete.
“Call your friends.”
“Who?” Pete croaked, and coughed out more sand.
The sand gnome pointed a short scaly finger at Pete. “Call them now.”
“I don’t have —”
The sand gnome kicked at him. Pete rolled away and the sand gnome snarled and came after him. Pete tried to get up but the sand gnome caught him before he could even get one leg under him. Clawed fingers grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him up, tearing the cloth. The sand gnome shook Pete until he thought his teeth would turn to sand.
“Call them! Call them! Call them!”
Stay put, Pete thought desperately at Reny. If they tried to run now the sand gnome would see them.
“Alone! I’m alone!”
The sand gnome dropped him. It caught Pete by surprise and he didn’t catch himself. He sprawled backwards and fell onto a tumbleweed. Thorns dug into his back and arms. He yelped and jerked away.
The sand gnome laughed at him and grabbed an arm. “Come on!”
Pete tried to stand but the sand gnome didn’t give him a chance and dragged him across the yard to the house. Pete gave up struggling and let himself be dragged along. And he watched the desert for any sign of Reny or Keri. He didn’t see them and that made him feel a little better. At least they still had a chance to get away even if the plan had gone horribly wrong.
The sand gnome yanked him up against the weather boards of the porch steps and let him go. “Get inside!”
Pete felt a small bit of hope. If Reny saw them go inside then it’d be a chance for Reny and Keri to escape, get to Quartz Hill like they’d talked about and find the marshals to come and help. Pete held up a hand as he climbed to his feet.
Standing up he discovered that the sand gnome wasn’t really any taller than him, but so wide it made him seem bigger. The sand gnome shoved him towards the porch.
“I’m going.” Pete walked up the porch steps and pulled open the screen door. Inside he might be able to get his hands on a weapon.
The sand gnome followed him on up into the porch where Pete’s mother usually sat to shell peas. Just the other day she had put an apple pie out on that rickety one-legged table to cool in the night air. Now sand covered the boards that she had him sweep all the time and the screens were torn in several places. A couple smaller tumbleweeds sat against one side of the porch. The door to the house hung open with the top hinge torn clear of the splintered wood frame.
“Inside!” The sand gnome shoved Pete towards the broken door.
Pete did as he was ordered but it didn’t feel like his house when he got inside. The orderly refuge that protected two families against the heat of the desert was in shambles. The floor rugs scattered in heaps of sand. Chairs toppled, two splintered into kindling, and the wide mantle board that Pete’s dad had spent many nights polishing, torn free from the place above the fireplace. One of the pretty blue curtains that Reny’s mother patiently stitched hung in tatters as if shredded by claws. If Pete hadn’t known that only hours before the house had been full of life he would have assumed the place was long abandoned.
Tears, the first his eyes had managed, welled up in his eyes. He clenched his fists and —
The sand gnome grabbed him and shoved him roughly towards the wall. Pete came back at him, not thinking at all, raising his fists to try and fight. The sand gnome moved fast and shoved him hard again and didn’t let go. He drove Pete right back into the wall with enough force that Pete felt stunned. His tears flowed freely now and through them he saw the sand gnome’s face right in front of him. A clawed hand came up and grabbed his jaw. And squeezed. Pete hit at the gnome but his hand only bruised his hand on the bony spines beneath the sand gnome’s robes.
A long tongue flicked up the side of his face, retracing the tracks of his tears. Pete tried to squirm and push the sand gnome away but the sand gnome held him fast. The tongue flicked across his eye and sucked away his tears. Then his head was forced to the side. Again the tongue retraced his tears and flicked across his eyes. Pete tried to choke back his sobs but more tears came.
The sand gnome hummed under his breath and his tongue flicked out again. And again.
Then Pete heard a loud thud and the sand gnome fell. It happened so fast that his knees hardly held him. He pressed his hands against the wood wall to steady himself. Reny stood on the other side of the fallen sand gnome, with their hardwood bat in his hands. Keri hovered in the doorway, rising on tiptoes to see.
“You okay?” Reny asked.
Pete sniffled and pushed away from the wall. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“Is he dead?” Keri asked.
The sand gnome snorted, blowing sand across the boards. They all jumped and Keri let out a small shriek.
“No.” Pete pointed at the torn curtains. “Grab those. We’ll tie him up.”
Reny handed Pete the bat then Reny and Keri went to the windows and pulled down the shredded curtains. The sound of the fabric being torn into strips made Pete clench his teeth. These sand gnomes! Pete tightened his hands on the worn sweat-stained wood. He wanted to hit the sand gnome as hard as he could and his arms shook with the effort it took not to swing. He felt tears sting his eyes again and blinked them away.
Reny came back with the strips and hovered above the sand gnome, shifting from one foot to the other. Keri held more of the curtain remnants.
“Do it. Tie him tight.” Pete lifted the bat as if about to swing. “If he tries anything I’ll clobber him.”
Reny set the strips aside. He used both hands to shove the sand gnome over onto his back. The sand gnome snorted again but his head fell back exposing his wide flat white throat. Pete watched carefully for any sign that the sand gnome might wake.
“I am!” Reny grabbed a long strip and laid it across the sand gnome’s belly. He lifted one arm and set it across the ribbon and then the other. Then he grabbed both ends and quickly tied a knot which he pulled tight until the sand gnome’s wrists came together.
“More,” Pete said. “Wrap it around. And through the middle.”
“I know.” Reny wrapped the strip around and tied another knot. And again. Then around through the middle. He ran out of cloth and picked up another.
Keri danced from one foot to the next. “Hurry!”
The sand gnome snorted more loudly and started to lift his head. Pete raised the bat above his head. Reny froze with a strip of cloth in his hands. The sand gnome’s head dropped back and he started snoring again.
Reny wrapped and tied two more strips around the sand gnome’s wrists until they couldn’t hardly even see his hands anymore.
Pete pointed the bat at the sand gnome’s feet. “His feet too. Then his knees. We need to make sure he can’t get away.”
Around the time Reny was working on the sand gnome’s knees the sand gnome groaned and lifted his head. Pete lifted the bat.
Reny worked fast. He wrapped and tied. Keri handed him more strips when he needed them until they ran out of cloth. Just in time. The sand gnome’s eyes opened. He his lids snapped shut and back open again. He lifted his head and looked up at Pete standing over him with the bat.
Pete lifted the bat. “You’re going to tell us what happened to our parents!”
The sand gnome snorted and shook his head. He tried to sit up and flopped back to the floor. “What?”
Reny scrambled back and stood. Keri went to him and pressed to the backs of his legs and peeked around at their captive.
Pete swung the bat down so that it pointed at the sand gnome’s head. “Our parents. They aren’t here. Where did the others take them?”
The sand gnome rolled onto his side. Keri shrieked and hid her face behind her brother’s legs. Pete took a step back and swung the bat up above his shoulder. The sand gnome put his tied hands on the floor and shoved himself up into a sitting position. He brought his hands up to his mouth and bit at the bindings.
The sand gnome kept worrying at the knot.
“Stop it!” Pete swung the bat and hit the sand gnome in the side of his head.
The sand gnome’s tongue stuck out and he toppled over to the floor again.
Keri peeked out. “Is he dead now?”
Pete edged an inch closer and held out a hand for the others to stay back. The sand gnome let out a rough sigh and Pete saw the sand gnome’s chest rise and fall, then rise again.
“No. Not yet, but he’s out again.”
“I messed up,” Reny said. “I should have tied his hands up behind his back.”
“We’re not redoing it,” Pete said. “You guys need to see if there’s any water in the house and food. Then get going to Quartz Hill to tell the marshals what’s happened.”
“You’re coming too,” Reny said.
Pete shook his head. “I’m going to try to find our parents.”
“Let the marshals do that!”
“Reny, you know what they do.” Pete glanced at Keri. “You’ve got to get your sister someplace safe. I’ll get him to tell me and I’ll go after our parents.”
“With a bat?”
Pete held out the bat to Reny. “No. Not with that. Watch him.”
Reny took the bat and came over to stand over the sand gnome. Pete crouched down close to the sand gnome and tried not to think about it licking his face. He searched through the sand gnome’s robes. A whiff of cactus bloom came up from the sand gnome as he worked. Just like on the wind. He found a leather belt around the sand gnome’s waist with several pouches. One contained thick pieces of cactus meat. Another some sort of dry plants. Pete left those alone. On the other side he found a sheath with a long curved dagger. It was thin and white, made of bone or something. Pete thought it looked like a snake’s fang except no snake ever grew that big. He hoped. One side was sharped and the point looked as sharp as a needle. He sat it aside on the wood.
Reny whistled. “Good thing he didn’t get that out.”
Lucky for them. Pete kept searching. He didn’t find anything else on the belt. But up around the sand gnome’s neck he noticed a gold chain. He pulled it out of the robes and found what looked like a golden whistle on one end but like no whistle he had ever seen. Two golden fangs curved upwards on the mouthpiece, making it impossible to blow the whistle without poking your lips. Pete grimaced but he twisted the whistle free from the thin wire holding it to the chain and put it aside too. More searching failed to turn up anything else.
Pete scooped up the knife and whistle. He slipped them into his pockets and held out his hand for the bat. “Go see if you can find some clothes and get dressed.” The air in the house was already getting cold without a fire. “I’ll watch him.”
“Holler if you need help.”
While the sand gnome snored Pete dragged over an unbroken chair and sat down with the bat balanced across his knees until the others came back downstairs. They had both gotten dressed in their long pants, coats and shoes. Keri had on the colorful hat her mother had knit.
Reny brushed at his arms. “They’re sandy but they left the clothes and stuff. It’s just all scattered around.”
Pete got up and passed the bat over to Reny. “I’ll be quick. Watch him close.”
Just as Reny said their bedrooms upstairs looked like the dust devils had come inside and thrown things around just for fun. His school books looked like bleached leaves scattered around the room. A lizard skittered out from under a tumbleweed in the middle of the floor and ran for the shelter of the toppled dresser. Pete pulled clothes off the floor, shook the sand out as best he could and dressed. He took the knife and whistle and put the whistle in his pants pocket. The knife he slipped through his belt.
Then he went out of his room and around the landing into his parents’ room. It felt weird to walk in there with them gone but the room itself didn’t look anything like it usually did. The bed leaned up against one wall with a sand dune against the bottom. Everything destroyed, just like the other rooms, but it smelled strongly of mother’s rose perfume that she brought down from the North. He saw the broken crystal bottle against the wall.
Pete blinked back tears and went down on his hands and knees. He brushed sand aside with his hands, looking for the notch.
There. A chip in the side of the board. He tried getting his fingernail under it. His finger slipped and the nail tore. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stuck the finger in his mouth and sucked on it, tasting blood and sand, then took his hand out and shook it. He needed something else.
Pete thought of the dagger. He pulled it out of his belt and tried the tip on the notch. Slowly, carefully he eased the board up. Sand made a faint hissing sound as it poured down into the space in the floor. Pete shoved the board aside.
Just enough moonlight came through the window that he could see a dark cloth shape in the space beneath. He reached in and took it out, surprised about the weight and feeling like he was going to get in a lot of trouble.
Except there was no one here to tell him otherwise.
He drew back the cloth and his breath caught when he saw the rainmaker. Only about the size of an apple, it was a ball of engraved metal strips wrapping around and around from different directions. He turned it and caught just a glimpse of some bright spark inside that caught the moonlight. Pop had believed that the rainmaker would help them tame the desert and drive back the sand gnomes if he could only figure out how to make it work.
Pete didn’t have any idea but if it could drive back sand gnomes then he would take it. Maybe he could figure out a way to use it.
Reny shouted downstairs and Keri screamed. He heard the sand gnome roaring.
Pete dropped the rainmaker into its bag and stuffed it in his shirt. He snatched up the dagger and ran out onto the landing. His feet slid on the sand and he very nearly fell the entire way down the stairs. He caught his balance on the railing and hurried downstairs.
Reny and the sand gnome wrestled over the bat. The sand gnome was sitting up and had a grip with his fingers on the fat end. He was trying to yank it from Reny’s grasp. Reny yelled as his feet slipped in the sand and he fell to his knees, but he hung on. The sand gnome shoved the bat at Reny’s face so that his own hands hit his nose. He still clung to the bat.
Pete ran up behind the sand gnome. He pressed the point of the dagger against the back of the sand gnome’s neck. “Let go. Now.”
The sand gnome held very still. Pete pressed a bit harder and drew a drop of blood. The sand gnome let go of the bat.
Reny got to his feet. He swung the bat back.
Reny stopped his swing. “Why not?”
“I’ll take care of him. Just get going. You know what to do. Take care of your sister.”
Keri was sitting against the wall by the door with her hands around her knees. Reny looked over and when he saw her he lowered the bat. He looked back at Pete.
“We can’t leave you.”
“You have to.” Pete looked at the spot of blood trickling down the back of the sand gnome’s neck. It looked as red as anyone’s. “If we leave him he’ll just get loose. Instead he’s going to take me to our parents.”
The sand gnome laughed. “I’m not taking you anywhere!”
Pete twisted the dagger. The sand gnome hissed and tried to pull away. Pete pressed hard. “Don’t move! You do what I say!”
A louder hiss from the sand gnome but he stopped moving. Pete looked at Reny. “Go. Now.”
Reny put the bat to his shoulder and went over to Keri. He crouched down and whispered something in her ear. She turned and wrapped her arms around his neck. He stood up and she swung her legs around his waist.
“We’ll send help.”
“You won’t get far enough to find help,” the sand gnome taunted. “After I juice this one I’ll come for you and your little sister, too!”
“You’re not juicing anyone,” Pete said. He met Reny’s eyes. “Go.”
Reny carried Keri out of the room. Pete listened to him walk across the porch and down the steps. Then they were gone and it was just him and the sand gnome. He wanted to kill the sand gnome but that wouldn’t get their parents back. Pete took a step back away from the sand gnome but held the dagger ready. If the sand gnome made him, he would do it.
“What’s your name?” Pete asked.
The sand gnome twisted around and looked up. His broad tongue flicked out. “Cinctores.” He lifted his hands towards his mouth to bite at the knots again.
Pete swiped the dagger at Cinctores. The sand gnome jerked away and lowered his hands. Pete pointed the dagger at him. “Don’t try to escape. If you make me, I’ll kill you.”
Cinctores laughed. “You think a scrawny little human like you is going to kill me?”
“You’re the one tied up, aren’t you?” Pete pointed at the door. “And now you’re going to show me where my parents are.”
“Sure,” Cinctores said agreeably. He gestured with his bound hands at his legs. “Cut me free and we can go.”
Pete hesitated, sure it was a trap. “You’d better not try to escape.”
“Or what? Oh, right. You’ll kill me. But I can’t show you where your parents are just sitting here, now can I?” Cinctores shrugged. “You’re probably too late anyway. I’ll bet that right about now they’re being fed into the millstones. But if we hurry you can probably join them.”
Pete slid the dagger under the bindings on Cinctores knees while watching him warily. The sharp edge cut through the curtain cloth like it was tissue paper. He moved down and slit the bindings around Cinctores’ ankles and quickly moved back.
Almost as fast Cinctores got to his feet. He stopped against the wood floors. “That’s better. All right, boy. Come along then if you’re so eager to be juiced.”
Cinctores walked out of the room, his claws rapping hard against the wood. Pete hurried after him expecting some treachery from the sand gnome. But Cinctores just went out across the porch, down the steps and started walking off into the desert. Pete ran after him but trailed along several feet back. He held the dagger ready.
The desert looked different at night under the moon and stars like another world altogether. The sand gleamed like the snow they used to get up in the mountains. Each cactus, each tumbleweed looked like boulders. It was a world of blue light and shadows. In the distance Pete heard coyotes singing again and wondered what they sang about. A few minutes later he heard the mournful sound of an owl hooting.
Cinctores set a hard pace but he didn’t seem to be trying to get away. He didn’t try for the bindings on his hands again. Pete kept up with him, just staying far enough back that Cinctores couldn’t surprise him and attack. Pete’s mouth still tasted like it was full of sand. His throat hurt. His lips cracked and he chewed on another piece of loose skin as he walked.
Pete watched Cinctores broad back carefully. The sand gnome could be leading him to their base or he could just be leading him off into the desert to die. While they kept walking Pete wasn’t going to freeze but what if they kept going until the sun came up? How long could he really keep this up? Cinctores was a sand gnome. He could probably go without water for weeks.
“How much further?”
Cinctores pointed with his bound hands. “See that rock formation? That’s the claw. Our nest is on the other side.”
Pete didn’t know if Cinctores was telling the truth or not. A rock tripped Pete and he almost fell. Pete felt the rainmaker shift in his shirt. He had almost forgotten about the device. He caught his balance and looked at the sand gnome but Cinctores didn’t show any sign of noticing.
Pete transferred the dagger to his other hand and reached into his shirt. He pushed the rainmaker out of the rough cloth bag. Pop had thought the rainmaker could help them reclaim the desert. That’s what brought them South in the first place. They’d been promised free land if they could reclaim it from the desert. Pop and Reny’s dad believed they could do it. Pete and Reny used to spend hours watching their fathers design irrigation systems and talk about the crops that would be planted.
The man that sold the rainmaker said it was an ancient device built by a powerful alchemist. Pop said he had papers that proved it, but the means to make the device work had been lost. Reny’s father and Pop had argued over the purchase but Pop had used his own share to buy it. Pete didn’t have any idea how the device worked. But if he could get it to Pop, maybe he would have an idea.
The rock formation drew closer but Cinctores kept the same tough pace. Pete surprised a snake which slithered off under a bunch of cactus. Had Reny and Keri made it out safe? There could have been other sand gnomes lying in wait to capture them. But if Reny did make it to Quartz Hill then the marshals could come and track down the sand gnomes. Pete and Cinctores had left enough of a trail that it shouldn’t be hard for the marshals to follow.
It worried Pete that Cinctores wasn’t trying to escape. The sand gnome had to have something planned, Pete just couldn’t figure out what it was yet. He slid his hand into his pocket and felt the sand gnome’s whistle. The sharp fangs almost pricked his fingers. He had that too. Cinctores might not realize yet that it was missing off the chain he still wore. It was gold. Maybe he could use it to bargain back his parents.
Pete clenched the dagger and wished he had a better plan.
At last they reached the rock formation and Pete saw a dim glow coming up from the other side. Cinctores walked up the sandstone rocks with Pete following behind. Cinctores stopped at the crest.
“See! There’s the nest! And look? Your parents haven’t been juiced yet!”
Pete rushed forward eagerly. On the other side of the sandstone a gully opened up and led into the ground. Clever dwellings had been built underneath the overhangs. A massive mill with big woven sails and huge grinding stones sat in the center of the gully but the air had gone still. The sails hung limp. Pete’s heart jumped to see his parents, and Reny’s parents, sitting with their backs to the base of the mill. Several feet away a large bonfire roared. Many sand gnomes laid flat on rocks around the fire while others busied themselves with tasks. A couple stood guarding the parents.
Pete was so caught up in seeing his parents that he didn’t hear Cinctores creep up stealthily behind him. He only realized when he heard a harsh chuckle right behind him. He spun around, slashing with the dagger, but too slowly. Cinctores hit him in the chest with his bound hands and sent Pete flying backwards over the edge of the gully.
The impact drove the breath from Pete’s lungs. He slid backwards down the gully wall in a shower of dirt and rocks. Sand gnomes hissed in surprise. Pete slid to a stop and looked up. Cinctores stood at the top of the galley and tore the bindings on his hands free with his teeth. He pointed a claw at Pete.
“I found this one sneaking around back at the farm!”
Pete looked up and all around him scaly, spiky sand gnomes gathered. Pete managed to draw a breath and scrambled up into a crouch. He held the knife out to ward off the sand gnomes.
“Stay back! I’m taking our parents and we’re going!”
“Pete!” his mother sobbed.
“Son! Watch out!”
Pete spun around at Pop’s shout and slashed at a sand gnome that drew too close. The sand gnome jumped back and chuckled. It was a female, Pete thought. Her head dodged back and forth.
Pete slashed again. “Back! Back!”
A loud snort made him turn around again. A mound of sand rose up in front of the fire. The sand gnomes moved aside. Another loud snort and twin geysers of dust blue out of the moving sand pile. The way to his parents had cleared. Pete hurried over, watching the sand. Their parents were tied up with leather cords. Pete cut Pop free first and handed him the dagger.
Bony spines erupted from the sand pile as it poured away like sand in an hourglass. The top of a scaly head emerged, but bigger than any of the sand gnomes he had seen so far. The eyes appeared and were fixed right on Pete beneath large spikes. With a loud groan the largest sand gnome Pete had seen pulled himself up out of the ground. He stood almost as tall as Pop and twice as wide with a hide lit orange by the dancing bonfire.
“What’s this?” A deep chuckle. “A boy. How sweet, Cinctores? You brought me a child.”
Cinctores had scrambled down the slope and joined the others. Now he stepped forward and bowed. “Should I juice him, for you, Lord?”
The massive sand gnome ran a thick tongue across his lips. “No. I want to suck the juice out of this one myself. I’ll squeeze his flesh dry!”
The crowd of sand gnomes laughed. Pop stepped forward, having cut the bindings on the others. He held out the dagger. “You’ll not touch him!”
With a roar the sand gnome Lord snatch a rock from the ground and hurled it at Pop. It hit him high on the head and he crumpled to the sand.
“No!” Pete reached into his shirt and yanked out the rainmaker. He didn’t think beyond that they’d been told it would drive back the sand gnomes. He threw it as hard as he could at the sand gnomes’ lord.
The massive sand gnome hardly blinked when the rainmaker flew past his broad head and vanished into the bonfire. He looked back at Pete. “You missed, boy. Now you’ll feed me!”
The sand gnome lord took two steps towards Pete when a loud crack split the sky. A lightning bolt hit the sand near the gathered sand gnomes and scattered them like sand in a wind.
Right above the fire the rainmaker reappeared. The long metal strips rotated and expanded outward. The symbols etched in the device glowed red hot while an inner core shown with a cold blue light like the moon.
On th ground Pop groaned.
Another lightning bolt hit the ground nearby. The sand gnome lord turned and looked at the rainmaker slowly floating higher above the bonfire.
“What is this?”
Pete hurried to his parents. Pop stirred and Reny’s father helped him to his feet, but he looked dazed. Above the fire the rainmaker’s metal strips started spinning faster. The symbols blurred and the glowing ball in the middle expanded.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Pete said.
Reny’s mother screamed and pointed at something behind Pete. He turned and saw Cinctores snarling at him.
Pete dove and grabbed up Cinctores fallen dagger. The sand gnome lunged at him and Pete thrust the dagger upwards.
It sank into Cinctores broad neck. Hot blood gushed over Pete’s hand. The sharp, sulfurous smell of it made him gag.
The sand gnome made a gurgling, coughing noise and staggered back.
The sky cracked again and a lightning bolt came down and hit Cinctores and from there jumped to the sand gnome lord. Reny’s dad helped Pete up.
“We really need to get out of here!” Reny’s dad pointed up the steep gully wall. “We need to climb!”
Pete reached into his pocket and pulled out the sand gnome’s whistle. “Wait!”
His parents and Reny’s parents gathered around him.
Cinctores and the sand gnome lord collapsed to the sand. Another bolt of lightning hit one of the buildings in the gully. In the sky above a dark cloud gathered over the sand gnome nest.
Pete looked at the whistle. The sand gnomes commanded dust devils, what if this was the way? He grimaced and put the whistle into his mouth. He pressed down and the fangs sank into his cracked lips.
A wind smelling of cactus blooms swept around them. Sand and dust swirled up. The mill sails filled and started turning. The massive stones ground together and a voice that could have come from the stones themselves spoke.
“What is your wish?”
Pete pulled the whistle free and shouted into the wind. “Take me, my parents and Reny’s parents home!”
The dust devil swirled around them. The biggest dust devil he had ever seen. Sand flew in his face. He tried to grab his parents but he couldn’t see them. He felt his feet leave the ground and then he was spinning around faster than he had ever spun around on his own. He felt sick.
Time lost meaning. Pete knew sand and wind. The smell of cactus. Then it faded away. His feet touched ground. He was too dizzy to stand and fell onto the ground coughing out sand.
When he looked up he saw his parents, and Reny’s parents, also on the ground. Reny’s mother retched onto the sand. He heard a noise. It sounded like shouting. He looked the other way and there was the weathered farm house. The dust devil brought them home.
But the shouting came from dark shapes heading towards them across the sand. His head spun and he couldn’t quite see what it was. The sand gnomes come to drag them back?
Pete blinked. Not unless sand gnomes had taken to riding horses. The marshals! And that was Reny behind one of the marshals, waving!
Thunder rumbled through the sky. The marshals dismounted and one helped him to his feet. Pete saw Keri run to her mother. Thunder shook the sky again and one of the marshals shouted.
Pete turned to look. Lightning bolt after lightning bolt split the sky so bright that it hurt to look at. And with it came a different scent in the air that tickled his nose.
Something wet hit his face. Pete looked up. Another cold drop landed on his cheek.
Then they came faster. Pattering into the sand around them, soft at first and then harder.
The captain of the marshals went to Pop. “We should get everyone inside! There’s going to be flooding!”
Reny’s family went first, up the porch steps into the house. Pete’s parents came to him and put their hands on his shoulders and urged him inside.
“Not yet! Give me a minute!”
Pete walked away from them out into the falling rain. It came harder and harder. He laughed and threw back his head. He let the water wash over him, across his split and dry lips. He felt like the desert itself taking a long drink after far too long.
The next morning when the sun came back out Pete joined the others outside when the marshals returned from their mission to scout out the fate of the sand gnomes.
The marshals rode up in a group, mud splashed on their horses. The captain, a tall man with long blond hair dismounted and came to stand in front of Pop.
“No sign of the sand gnomes. The gully sits at the bottom of a lake. Any that lived must have fled. But we did find this on the shore.” The captain held out the rainmaker, tightly curled into a ball again. “A toy, perhaps?”
Pop took the rainmaker. He handed it to Pete. “My son’s. He must have dropped it before we escaped.”
The captain turned and looked at their fields. All of the irrigation ditches and the low fields gleamed with water. “You are lucky! It looks like you’ll have plenty of water for your crops!”
Pete tucked the rainmaker into his shirt. Pop hugged him to his chest. “Very fortunate indeed.”
This story is the 22nd weekly short story release. I originally put this story out under my pen name “Michael Burges.” I wrote this at a workshop back in 2010, drawing on elements of my childhood. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which elements.
I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Alley Cat, a fantasy set in a my Goblin Alley series that introduces a character who makes a guest appearance in the series.