The nomad stepped out in front of the herder, who stopped dead in his tracks, the contents of the two buckets he carried sloshing quietly against their lids.
“Put them down, and walk on, and live.”
Sweat sprang from the herder’s brow, from fear as much as the sullen afternoon heat, but he stood his ground.
“I might live for a while, nomad, but my family will sicken without this water, and I’ll not be able to make the journey to the oasis and back before they die.”
The nomad grinned slightly. “They’ll have even less chance of surviving if I kill you. If you live, you can at least try to get them to water in time. If you do not return, will they wait too long before setting off to find you?”
The herder spat at the nomad’s feet – a brave and costly insult in this parched land. “For all I know, you’ve killed them already. I’d not put it past you – nomad scum, clutching to the old ways by leeching from those of us who work to survive. Your type have stolen from me before, but it’ll not happen again. I’ll die before you take this water.”
“That can be arranged,” drawled the nomad, drawing an old but well oiled machine pistol from his billowing dishdasha. “But allow me to introduce a third option; I could simply shatter the bones of one of your legs, and take your water. A whole new layer of uncertainty for you, no? Will you survive the journey home? What will you find there if you do?”
The herder stood rigid, shaking slightly, jaw clenched in determined silence, his sand goggles reflecting the nomad’s face in duplicate.
“Listen, friend,” said the nomad. “I have no love of killing, and I merely do what I must to sustain my own existence. As do you – our routes across the dunes of life may be different, but ultimately we are the same. We both seek to survive. I offer you the chance to see another day, but if I do not take your water I will not see another sunrise. I assure you, your family have come to no harm from me; I spied them at your tent no more than an hour ago. Return now, start driving your herd to the oasis, and you will all live. But leave the water with me.”
“Damn you, nomad, this …”
“I tire of this discussion, friend. Last chance. Leave the water, accept my terms, and save your family. Or I kill you now, take your water anyway, and come back for your family later. Choose.”
The herder’s eyes were still hidden behind mirrors, but the nomad could see the indecision churn through the man’s body like a sandstorm, the sweat running freely from his face. And then he gave in, lowering the buckets to the sand, and hanging his head.
“Damn you, desert demon. Damn you,” muttered the herder, and stepped back from the buckets.
“Why curse a man who has allowed you a chance at life, friend? The desert demands harsh choices of us all, as does the world. It is the way of things.”
“It was your ways – the ways you cling to – that made the world so,” replied the herder, bitterly. “Your ways which brought the heat and the sand, and damned us all. And still you cling to them, and steal from us to do it.”
The nomad laughed. “Ah – a student of history! So rare these days, these oases of knowledge. But friend, if you know your history, you’ll know that cowards survive better when they avoid becoming heroes. Am I right?”
The herder said nothing, seemingly staring at his feet … or perhaps the buckets. The nomad picked one up, and waved at the herder with his pistol. “Go on, family man. Go save your kin. Your hatred for me will keep you warm at night.” Still silent, shoulders slumped, the herder walked away across the dunes toward his tent.
After watching the herder disappear, the nomad sighed, pocketed his pistol, and drew out his locator pad. His sand-tank was less than a kilometer to the south, but the dunes were treacherous. And if he didn’t replenish the tank’s cooling system soon, he’d end up having to race the herder’s family to the oasis on foot.