No one knew how long the war had been raging. Not because it had started so long ago, but because everyone was getting a little too senile to remember the details.
“You stay here,” muttered George in a low wheeze. “I’m going out on a supply run. We’re almost out of water. Just stay here and stand guard until I get back.”
“WHAT?” shouted Walter.
“STAY HERE,” shouted George. “STAND GUARD UNTIL I GET BACK.”
Walter’s eyes moved slowly back and forth for a moment, as though he were reading something from the inside of his own head. Finally, he nodded and gave George a big grin and a thumbs up.
“Damned idiot,” muttered George as he hobbled away from the wagon, leaning heavily on his walker. “Gonna get us all killed.”
It wasn’t really Walter’s fault, and George knew it. Poor fool’s hearing aid hadn’t had batteries in years. He did the best he could.
But these days, that might not be good enough anymore.
George’s walker glittered in the hot sun as he crept across the canyon floor. Beatrice tracked him easily from up on the plateau. She lay flat on her stomach, her blue perm wiggling gently in the wind.
“Today’s the day, girls,” she called over her shoulder. “He’s going out for more supplies. Walter’s in there alone. No way he’ll hear any of us coming.” She allowed herself the luxury of a wicked chuckle, which ended in a mild coughing fit. When she had finished, she reached out her arms behind her. “Help me up, Ethel.”
Together, they managed to get Beatrice up on her feet. Gloria stood by watching, her shotgun slung against her shoulder. She adjusted her hair net and glasses, impatient to get moving. “While we’re young, ladies,” she grumbled in a voice that had known countless packs of cigarettes.
“Oh, Gloria, you just be patient,” answered Ethel in a cheerful, teasing tone. “We’ve waited this long, we can wait a few minutes longer.”
“Maybe you can,” came the irritated reply.
“Both of you just stop it. The enemy is down there.”
“And their wagon is unguarded. George isn’t going to be gone for too long, and we need to get in there and end this miserable siege once and for all.” Gloria spit into the sand at her feet to emphasize her point.
Beatrice wrinkled her nose. “Now listen, Gloria, I know we’ve all been here for a long time and we’re all very tired and a little on the irritable side. Ethel, why don’t you fix us up some sandwiches while I get all our ammunition together.”
Walter watched George disappear into the distance. It took quite a while, and Walter may have dozed off a couple of times.
His ears weren’t what they used to be, he would be the first to admit, but his eyes were as sharp as they ever were, so long as he was able to keep them open.
He glanced away from the canyon entrance for a moment and took quick stock of their supplies. They were getting very low. There was hardly any food left, and no more than a day’s worth of water. George would need to go out on a supply run soon. “George!” he shouted. “Water’s getting low!”
There was no answer. Maybe George had gone out.
No matter. Walter knew his duty and he did it well: guard the wagon and keep the enemy away.
His joints were getting sore, so he shifted his position on the old couch cushion he used as a seat. He checked his rifle to make sure it was loaded. Then he checked the flamethrower’s fuel supply level. All good. Then he checked his rifle to make sure it was loaded.
Gloria leaned heavily on her cane as they crept down the switchback trail into the canyon. She used the shotgun as an extra aid to keeping her balance.
Beatrice was in the lead, as always. She had the best eyes out of all of them, as hers was the only set of glasses which hadn’t been cracked or badly scratched by the harsh desert sands. Her rifle was strapped to her leg, where she could reach it easily. She’d tried strapping it to her back at first, but she had trouble reaching all the way back there to get it.
Ethel, bringing up the rear, only had a small pistol tucked away in her purse. She was carrying the grenades and the sandwiches. You never knew when you’d get a bit peckish, especially on a day like this.
All three of them wore sun hats, dirty and with the occasional tear in the fabric, but still functional. It didn’t do much against the desert heat, but it did protect their necks and faces from sunburn. There probably wasn’t a single tube of sunscreen left in the whole world. Now and then, Ethel’s pale blue hat, which was slightly too large for her but matched her blouse, would get picked up by the breeze and blown gently to the ground, so she’d taken to holding on to the brim as she hobbled along down the rocky path.
Beatrice had found the little trail a few days ago while scouting the boys’ wagon for weak points. George and Walter surely thought the only way into their little canyon was through the pass guarded by Walter. They had never noticed the path down the steep slope behind the wagon.
The only trouble was that there was no way to get down the path quietly. There were too many stones, small and large, which were easily disturbed and crashed to the ground below, and it was too easy to slip. Gloria and Beatrice could slip fairly quietly, but Ethel cried out every time, then broke into a giggle of relief that she was okay. George’s ears were still very sharp.
But George wasn’t in the wagon right now.
The three women crept slowly down the path, taking their time and keeping their balance. Beatrice’s hip was giving her a lot of trouble, and Gloria’s knees were sore beyond reason, but neither of them complained. Everyone wanted to end this. Today was the day.
Walter was in there alone. He wouldn’t hear them coming and they’d take him out easily. Then they’d hide and wait for George to hobble back to the wagon. It would be easy to dispose of him. The end. The end of the war, at long last.
Walter wasn’t worried at all. He kept his eye on the pass, the only entrance to the canyon, half a mile away and blurred by the haze of the desert’s heat. It was true that he was alone, but what did that mean? One man against three women? Everyone knew that a war was man’s work. That was the way it had always been. He didn’t want to hurt them, of course, them being fragile and delicate things, but if it came down to him or them, he knew who would be left standing.
Gloria spat over the edge and watched as it drifted silently down until she could no longer see it. They were still pretty high up, but making steady progress. Beatrice was keeping a close eye on the wagon as they descended, as well as on the pass in the distance. She knew the nearest source of water was a long ways off, and George shouldn’t be back until after dark, but, well, one never knew. Maybe today would be the one day that Walter actually came outside and looked around instead of staying hunkered down in that wagon of theirs. Maybe George would come back early for some reason. They had to be careful.
They were relying fairly heavily on not being seen. They didn’t exactly blend into the terrain, their pastel colors creating a strong contrast against the beige sands. They needed to be careful, but they were going slower than they ought to, and the sun was starting to get a little low in the sky.
“Hey, ladies, can we maybe pick up the pace a little?” said Gloria. She was fumbling in her purse for a pack of cigarettes again, an old nervous habit from days gone by. She tried to imagine the taste of the tobacco in her mouth, but all she got was the dry, dusty air of the desert.
“We don’t want to rush,” replied Beatrice. “We wouldn’t want someone to fall.” She turned her head slightly so she could be sure Gloria and Ester would both hear her, but kept moving slowly forward. “This path is very dangerous, and we wouldn’t want someone to—”
There was a sudden scraping sound, and from Ethel’s perspective in the back, Beatrice seemed to suddenly vanish. She strained to see around Gloria’s larger frame. “Beatrice! Are you alright, dear?”
Gloria crouched down to Beatrice’s level, a long and slow process which caused a great deal of creaking and scraping inside her body, the volume of which would surely have given them away if George had been nearby. “That’s what you get for not paying attention. Now come on, what’s the damage?”
Beatrice calmly took a moment to take stock of all her parts. Head? Still on. Glasses? Miraculously, unbroken, and she could still see fine. Back? It appeared to be on the ground, and there was an ache coming from somewhere. Arms? Seemed alright. Legs? Still attached, but giving her a funny feeling.
She tried to stand up, and remembered what pain felt like. With Gloria’s help, she got herself leaned against the cliff side, and Ethel helped to get one of her rose-colored pumps off. Her ankle was swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
“Well, shit,” spat Gloria, glaring at their leader.
Beatrice glared right back at her with an expression that used to send her little grandson running in fright. “I was only trying to keep both of you safe. If you hadn’t been complaining—”
“If you had kept your eyes on the path, you’d have been fine. I don’t need anyone to teach me how to walk down a trail.”
“Ladies, please!” Ethel’s voice contained within it the nervous giggle of someone who really, really didn’t like confrontation, and had spent a lot of decades defusing and avoiding it. “We’re all on the same side here. let’s all have a sandwich, and then we can figure out how to proceed from here. There’s no need to fight.”
It was dusk by the time the trio had made it to the bottom of the trail. It had taken some serious teamwork to help Beatrice down to the bottom. Ethel had advocated for giving up and just heading back to base; they could try again another day. The boys would run out of water again before too long. But Gloria pointed out that they were more than halfway down, and getting back up would be even more difficult than just following through.
They did their best to keep an eye on the wagon, but Gloria’s eyes were no good, and Ethel was mostly focusing on helping Beatrice hobble down the trail. They just had to carry on as quietly as they could and hope George was taking his sweet time on his supply run.
“Knowing Walter, I’m sure he won’t be hurrying back,” remarked Gloria. Ethel giggled in response, which provoked a harsh “Shh!” from the other two.
At long last, the ground leveled out beneath their feet. The wagon was no more than a a hundred feet from them, and there was still no sign of George. Beatrice needed a break after the long walk, so Gloria volunteered to go on ahead and scout the enemy camp while Ethel got her settled in with another sandwich and some extra ammunition for her rifle.
Walter awoke with a start. It was getting dark outside, and he was thirsty. He reached for his flask, but it had been empty for hours. George would have to go on another supply run. Where was he?
He saw a shadow moving in the darkness outside. “George!” he called out. “We’re out of water again!”
The shadow froze in position. He looked at it again; the shape was all wrong. That wasn’t George at all.
So, they were finally making their move. He’d show those women their place tonight at last, after all these long years. He fumbled in his pocket for his best-kept secret, something he’d been saving for just such an occasion. The hearing aid was worn out and the hook was patched over with cellophane tape, but it still worked, as long as it had a battery.
Out of his other pocket, he drew the packet of Energizer size 14s, and popped out the very last one. He always kept it close, for just such a situation. He pulled off the orange tab and gave it a minute to breathe. The shadow wasn’t moving. He had time, and every second would help the battery live just that much longer. As it was, its lifespan couldn’t be very long, it being so old already.
The shadow twitched. Time was up. He popped in the battery and slung the hearing aid over his right ear.
He winced as it squeaked its start-up greeting to him. It had been so long since he’d heard anything at this volume, it was painful – but no matter. There was work to be done, a fight to be won, and a long war to be ended at last.
He listened closely to the footsteps on the sand, slowly approaching the wagon entrance. Yes, this was it. The time had come at long, long last.
Gloria didn’t bother to be too quiet as she hobbled around the side of the wagon, leaning more heavily than ever on her cane after the long walk down the trail. Light was streaming out from inside it, and she could see Walter’s silhouette. He was moving. She stopped dead in her tracks as he called out for George. Had he returned already? Had she not noticed?
She stood without moving, hardly daring to breathe, eyes darting around as far as they could without actually turning her head as she searched for the second enemy combatant – but he was nowhere to be seen. As long as Walter didn’t see her, she would be safe.
Her eyes returned to the light in front of her. Walter’s shadow had moved. Before she could process what was happening, he leaped out in front of her, and in an instant she was engulfed in flames.
“GLORIA!” While Ethel ran for cover, Beatrice couldn’t help but cry out as she saw one of her last remaining friends and comrades ignite. The flames cast devilish shadows all around, but she could still see Walter standing there, directly ahead, cackling with maniacal laughter as he searched for his next target. His eyes fell on her in the same instant, and he reached for his rifle.
But Beatrice’s was already aimed and ready to fire. She squinted at him through her glasses and squeezed the trigger.
Nothing happened. She’d forgotten the safety. As she fumbled to find it in the dark, she felt more than heard the bullets slamming into the cliff wall behind her. One bounced off the boulder she was partially hidden behind. At least, she got the gun ready. She took her time lining up the shot. This time, the rifle fired, and Walter stopped laughing.
Moments later, there was a second shot, and Beatrice slumped down over her gun, her sprained ankle never to heal. No one had been watching for George’s return.
His gun in one hand, he used the other to inch forward on his walker. He hobbled past the corpse of his last remaining friend, past the charred remains of that uppity woman who used to always spit. He reached Beatrice’s body and poked it with his gun, just to be sure she wasn’t pulling some sort of trick. Satisfied, he holstered his weapon and turned around.
“Come on out, darling,” he cried.
Ethel edged her way out from behind the wagon. She looked the way she felt: terribly ashamed of herself, and wishing this whole mess would all just disappear.
George was grinning. “It’s about time, my love. We’ve finally taken care of them all. The world is ours, at long last.”
“Well, George,” stammered Ethel weakly, “I suppose you’re right. We’ve finally taken care of them all. Almost.”
George faltered. “What do you mean… Almost?”
Her tiny little pistol was already aimed at his head. Her hands did not tremble. Her aim was true.
“I am sorry, George. No hard feelings, I hope.” She managed an adorable little smile, just for a moment, before she resigned herself to the inevitable.
She did what had to be done. Then she brushed the grime off of her blouse, returned the pistol to its place in her purse, and headed for the wagon to claim her rightful reward.