Monday, June 18, 2007


When they got to the conference room, Diana had no luck getting a place near an exit. She found a spot near a plate glass window, and although the glass looked thick, she figured she could break it if she had to get out quickly. Not that she expected such a thing to be necessary. Boeing was right that it was a dull group. Most of the guards were red-eyed and squinting, nursing hangovers. Only the Christian environmentalists appeared alert, and they were more annoying than dangerous.

She steeled herself for a long morning. Working for Unitas was a crazy way to earn the right to a horse, a meal and a place to lay her head at night. Sometimes she wondered at the strange ways her life had turned. From farm to reservation to insurgent group in just seven years had been dizzying. Her mind returned to the crowd of refugees outside the party the night before, dirty, unwell and scrambling over one another to get the leftover scraps from the feast. She shuddered to think how easily she could have become one of them.

A stir among the Mexicans brought her out of her reverie.

"Como fue el café, borracho?"

"Fuerte, gracias a Dios."

An odd silence followed. Then, "Melá…capej tajpalej. . ."

A voice whispered back, "Imanín, compalej. Imanín."

Diana wondered what Unitas planned to do about these people from Mexico. They were invaders and must be stopped. Things were complicated enough as it was.

Morton got to his feet and called the assembled group to order, then he made a speech that Diana only half-listened to. It was standard political-speak about peace, neutrality, friendship and economic benefit. She had heard its like before, and judging from the reactions of the other people in the room, the subject was as tired to them as it was to her. Only the freckled preteen at Diana's elbow seemed to take the words at face value. Judging from the adoration in her pale eyes, she was obviously one of Morton's supporters.

Diana drifted back into her own thoughts. Although Boeing stood behind Patton's chair with back erect and shoulders squared, she could tell from the furrow between his brows that he was miserable. Sputnik, trying to take notes, seemed annoyed about something. Don Diego of México Lindo and Don Manuel of Hispanos Unidos were clearly at odds, although just yesterday it had looked like they had made a friendship pact. Oh well. Alliances came and went. Remembering what she had learned last night, Diana scanned Morton's face for clues and found his confident, cat-like smile disturbing.

"I'm telling you again," Don Diego said, raising his voice, "Unless I can be assured of my people's rights, I will not be satisfied with such an arrangement."

"You're asking for special privileges," Patton said. "We need to guarantee the same rights for all.”

"This is Aztlán. My people came from this land thousands of years ago. Whites have no rights here. I can maybe give concessions to the Hispanos, since they’ve been here five hundred years...”

"They are my people, también."

"Entonces, act like it, traitor."

"Gentlemen," Morton cut in with alarm. "We're all grownups here. We all have a stake in this land and want the same things."

"Maybe you do," the Isleta delegate said. "But we don’t believe in your mythical Aztlán. And as for the Hispanos, they were our first oppressors. Five hundred years is nothing when the Pueblo nations—"

"All the more reason to forget about the past and start over again as equals," Patton said. "We all have a claim on this land, and there's enough for us to share."

"Not enough land suitable for mining and ranching,” Don Manuel said. “And we all know there’s not enough water."

Morton spoke up again. "I don't think we're going to get anywhere by rehashing whose claim is the oldest. What I want to know is if you'll support my efforts to bring order to this town and the surrounding area, so we can end the problem of raiders and refugees. They bleed us of our ability to make our living off the local ranchos. We have to fix these problems before we can address any other issues."

"Don't be ridiculous. It doesn't take a dictator to accomplish those things," said a Navajo. "We hear you get your money off drug-running anyway, so what's this about ranching?"

"Will you be holding free elections?" Patton wanted to know.

"Of course he won't," Diego said. "Elections no significan nada. Too easy to mislead the voters and too easy to rig the ballots if you don't like the results."

"Unitas would be happy to oversee free and fair elections," Patton offered.

"Of course you would," Morton said. "But now isn't the time for that. We have problems we need to address immediately."

Manuel snorted. "Yes, we help you bring order, you get the credit, and no matter how free and fair the election afterward, you still win."

"Nice try," an Apache leader said. "But we aren't falling for it."

"Nor are we." Diego and his aide got to their feet, their bodyguards falling in behind them.

Everyone at the table stared and Morton jumped up. "Don Diego—"

Patton half-rose out of his seat as well.

Diego turned to his men. "Inán!"

Gunfire ripped across the room. Morton and one of his lieutenants fell to the floor. Sputnik dropped his notebook and shoved Amalia under the table. As he reached for Patton, a spray of bullets hit the conference table. He tried to shield his commander, but slumped to the table instead. Boeing grabbed both men and pulled them to the floor as an explosion rocked the room.

Part of the ceiling came down, flames raced up the walls, and through the smoke and screams, Diana heard the continuing staccato of gunfire. She had to get out, get to the horses and ride for Choate. It was the plan. But—she looked toward the conference table as men and women shoved past in a panic, some on their own, others dragging their wounded. What about Auntie? What about the others? She drew her gun and shoved wildly through the crowd.

Someone grabbed her arm and she heard a familiar voice in her ear. Libby's words came out in a hopeless jumble of languages. "No, Diana. Véte! Mápe!"

"But Auntie—“

"Temiwe a ellos. Take Huracán, el kwinna— black one, white blaze. Dígalos destroy the rails. Go now!"

Diana looked toward the exit. The crush of people seemed hopeless, but Libby was right. Her entire reason for being here was to leave at the first sign of trouble.

Like in some strange nightmare, Libby disappeared into the haze. Flames were now obstructing one of the exits and climbing toward what remained of the ceiling. There wasn't much time. With her pistol at the ready, she pushed her way toward one of the windows, where some Apaches were beating at the glass with chairs and the butts of their rifles. One drew back and fired into the glass, but it was of some sturdy twentieth century make that refused to shatter.

Choking, Diana threw herself into the melee at the nearest door and tried to push her way through. She realized her mistake as others pressed in behind her. With a silent prayer that God forgive her, and an even more fervent prayer that no one else do what she was about to do, she put the muzzle of her gun against the head of the man in front of her and pulled the trigger. As he slumped to his knees, a few people pulled away in confusion. She stepped on the body, gaining enough space and air to fire at the next person in her way.

Now a few other people were getting the same idea, and she needed to get out fast, before someone decided she was expendable, too.

She passed the pistol into her left hand, drew her knife with her right and began firing and cutting with abandon, forcing her way toward the whiff of fresh air and daylight ahead. Her skirt caught. Why had Auntie made her wear such a stupid thing? She yanked it toward her and felt a sudden flash of heat against her arm and down her back. Ahead of her was the freckled girl who had stood beside her during the conference. She didn’t want to shoot her, but she had to move now! The shouts and gunfire were growing louder. She shoved the girl out of the way and saw her disappear under trampling feet. Diana emerged into daylight, shaking and coughing.

For a second, she could do nothing but move out of the way and try to catch her breath. Her mind had become a blank, focused only on surviving the moment. But— yes, the horses! She had to ride to the Choate mines. She tried to run, but found herself stumbling instead, pushing and threading her way through a mass of people. Adding to the confusion were the townspeople who had come to help or merely watch, crowding the sidewalks and gawking. She shoved a few of them out of her way and made the corner, looking for the Unitas horses. All around her were riders grabbing their mounts and she hoped Huracán or a horse like him, was still available and hadn't been stolen in the confusion.

She found the Unitas boy wild-eyed and aiming a shotgun at everyone who came near.

She ran up to him, hoping he recognized her. "Me recuerdes, mi hijito?" When the boy nodded, she grabbed the black horse's bridle. "Libby said for me to take Huracán." She looked longingly at her hardy mustang. "Take care of Flecha for me."

"Qué pasa adentro?"

She shook her head. "Es locura."

"Are people dead?"



"I don't know." She looked up at the horse, really seeing it for the first time.

Huracán was a sixteen hand monster. She looked around wildly. The boy couldn't help her up— he was fending off a Zuni who wanted to steal a horse. She hiked up her skirt, clambered up onto the hitching post and vaulted herself onto Huracán's back, then she turned the stallion's head toward the road and kicked him hard.

The powerful animal leaped as if on springs, scattering crowds ahead him. She could manage only a trot at first, but within a couple of blocks, the roads cleared and Diana urged him into a canter. Her mind was still cluttered, thoughts and images muddled and disjointed. Her emotions veered wildly and she found herself fighting a threatening flood of tears. She needed to put a stop to that fast, at least until she was well out of town, so she struggled to focus on practical matters. How fast could this horse cover the distance to the mine, and what time was that stupid train?

The sound of approaching hoof beats brought her back to the moment. She glanced over her shoulder. Two México Lindo men. Diana kicked Huracán into a gallop and reached for her pistol, remembering with a sick feeling in her stomach that she had fired all her rounds escaping the hotel. Why hadn't she reloaded or asked the Unitas boy for a gun? A bullet whistled past her ear. She kicked Huracán again and gave him his head, praying that the men wouldn't shoot the horse in their zeal to stop her.

One man spurred his mount forward and caught up to her. Diana silently blessed the Apaches for teaching her to ride with no hands, as she dug in with her knees, let go the reins and removed her belt. She had never whipped a horse in her life, but if ever there was a time to do it....

The man drew his gun. For a moment their eyes met and she was shocked by the malice she saw there. She heard the shot as she dropped to the horse's side and pressed her body against his shoulder - another reservation trick. She reached behind her with the leather belt and slapped Huracán's flank as hard as she could. Huracán took off as if he had wings, taking her breath away and leaving the México Lindo men in the dust.

Huracán ran full-out for nearly half a mile before Diana, shaking, grabbed the flying reins and slowed the stallion to a canter, then a trot. After looking all around and seeing that she was alone, she pulled his head up, forcing him to walk. She would let Huracán catch his breath, and then continue at a more reasonable pace.

How many people had died back there? Surely they hadn't all gotten out. Had México Lindo been plotting treachery all along? Had they gotten wind of Morton's plan to cut them out of the deal they were making, or was it revenge for the hangings at the lake? And had it been all of México Lindo in on the plot, or only the foreign-born faction? Her mind flashed on the evil in the eyes of the man who tried to shoot her. The memory set up a trembling that welled up from the pit of her stomach.

The shaking spread through her entire body as the whole crazy morning came back to her in a rush— Patton and her new friend Sputnik lying in a pool of blood on the table, and Boeing pulling them away. After the bomb had gone off she hadn't seen anyone again, other than Libby. Had they made it out of the building in time? All that smoke, all those bodies trampled and piling up at the exits...

She was cold now, and her teeth chattered, in spite of the sun burning her skin. How many people had she killed in her escape? She had never killed anyone at close range before, and certainly not people who were as innocent as she was. They had only wanted fresh air and freedom. She dropped Huracán's reins and examined her hands, muddy with dried blood, now mingled with her own sweat. She tried to rub them clean on her skirt but found she was shaking too hard. She forced her fingers around the reins and clamped her knees tight against Huracán's sides.


That was the person she was trying not to think about. Had she been hurt? Had she gotten out in time? Will would want to know, and what would she tell him? How could she live with herself, knowing she had abandoned the woman who had cared for her all these years, leaving her back there to die while she saved her own skin?

Diana twisted in the saddle and vomited a putrid yellow liquid onto the road, feeling like every organ in her body wanted to leap out through her throat. But then the spasm subsided and she felt a little better, as if it had been her stomach and not her mind that was twisting itself into knots. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and drew a shaky breath. She couldn't allow herself to keep thinking these sorts of thoughts. She had a job to do. There would be an entire lifetime in which to feel guilty, but she had only a few hours to get to Choate ahead of the train.


Alice Audrey said...

Will I ever find out what Amalia had in mind? Quite the dramatic scene. I had no idea Diana had it in her.

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

Amalia had talked Patton into finding safer, town-based assignments for her, Will and Diana. It's something she wanted for a long time but hadn't previously pursued.

As for Diana's behavior in a crisis, it all comes down to fear, training, and a strong sense of duty.

She's been shooting guns since she was a kid. Her grandfather taught her how to hunt and gave her her first rifle for an eighth birthday present. Although their valley was mildly prosperous, everyone had to supplement with hunting and foraging.

By the time of Tin Soldier when Diana is ten, she's a sufficiently accomplished hunter that her grandfather brags about her. It was a fairly easy step to go from hunting game to working for a sniper unit, although shooting people isn't something Diana likes to do. That's where training and duty come in. And the fact that she has no other realistic options but to work for Unitas, since she has no skills and no formal education.

Alice Audrey said...

But unlike some people she can read and write. ;)

I never questioned her working for Unitas. I assumed Amalia brought both Diana and Will into it just naturally.

Still, to even come up with the idea of shooting people in order to clear a jam takes a certain cold bloodedness that I didn't know Diana had. I have it, but I didn't know she had it. It makes me look at her differently.