Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Sputnik took Diana to where the Unitas horses were tied and Diana's experienced eyes sized up each of them in turn. They were good ones, with deep chests, muscular hindquarters, small proud heads, and wide eyes that watched the busy scene nervously.

"I thought we'd done a good job when we stole horses from the corral at Terralinda," Diana said, "But these are amazing."

"They're racing horses," Sputnik said. "We have ties to Unitas groups all over the former United States. There are some cells in Kentucky that we can sometimes cut a deal with, as long as we can guarantee the safety of the train. In terms of actual trade cost per animal, these are no more expensive than the best we raise here, but we have to assure the Kentucks that their animals will arrive safely, and that's not easy."

Diana approached a bay mare, giving her plenty of time to get used to her scent before patting her on the neck.

"We recently added a rail demolition expert to our group. I guess you know that, don't you? Before we picked him up, he was just a crazy unaffiliated who derailed trains because he thought it was fun."

"I remember Coyote. We have quite a file on him. His kind are the worst. We can send out spies and guards, and coordinate with Unitas groups in other regions in order to protect the lines for an important delivery, but it only takes one renegade who isn't with a group to ruin it all."

The mare shook her head and Diana clucked soothingly. "I sure wouldn't mind having one of these big babies, if there weren't so much rough terrain I had to cover."

"That's why we don't usually make them available to units like yours. It's not to be stingy, but they're bred for speed, not hardiness. They're good for quick important messages, but day to day trudging through the mountains and deserts would use them up quickly."

"I know. I read a lot about horses when I was a kid. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up, although it turned out that my brother Will has a lot more talent at it than I do."

"Will Channing, the marksman? He didn't turn out to be a veterinarian, either."

"Our training was cut short." Diana frowned and turned away. "Let's go eat."

Sputnik offered her his arm again, but this time she refused. "I remember now you came from Valle Redondo," he said.

"There are no secrets in Unitas, are there?"

"It's my job to know everything. I guess I shouldn't have mentioned it."

"It's okay. People are always talking about the Valle Redondo massacre, so I haven't had much of a choice but to get used to it. It's not that people are mean. If anything, they're a little too nice. I don't want anyone's pity."

"I think you underestimate the impact your tragedy had on this region. It galvanized people into joining the resistance movements. If not for that, we'd probably still be under federal control, being bled dry for their resource wars."

When Diana remained silent, he went on. "I grew up in Castaño, a little mountain village you've probably never heard of."

"We were hoarders and had organized ourselves against the Feds. One day my father left on a supply run and didn't return. In a valley town, he was cornered by a group of federal mercenaries on a recruiting mission and shot himself, rather than be drafted. The day I learned of my father’s death was the same day we heard what happened to the people of your valley. I know it sounds presumptuous, but I've always felt like our losses were somehow connected."

"That's kind of nice," Diana said. "I mean...not nice, but..."

"I know." He offered her his arm again, and this time she took it and they began walking back toward the party. "I didn’t want to stay in Castaño after that. I'm a terrible coward, but I couldn't live with myself if I kept hiding on my mountain while other people fought for my freedom. So here I am."

"I'm sure you're not really a coward."

"Oh, yes I am. Why do you think I have this job? My family breeds scholars, not fighters. Luckily there's always a need for brains. I'm glad to do my small part."

"A real coward would've stayed on the mountain," Diana said. "Anyone can pull a trigger, but being able to coordinate—"

"Something like this?" They were approaching the food line and he waved a hand in the direction of a long line of grills and warming dishes. "I'm curious to see what they ended up with, since Morton's people usually talk a better game than they can follow through."

"I'm sure it'll be better than anything I'm used to eating. If you're so good at organizing things, is there any chance you can arrange a feast for my unit? We get awfully tired of rabbit and nopales."

"Stay in one place long enough, and maybe I will."

"So that's the problem. If only we'd stay still, we'd have fine food and horses all the time, is that it?"

"And nice clothes, too," he said, playing along, but casting a longing look at Diana's pretty figure. "My buyer and seamstress outdid themselves with that dress. I hope you like it. I told them you should have something simple but disarming. Something you could get a man's attention with, and get him talking."

Diana suppressed an urge to pull up her bodice. She got in the food line instead, behind a couple of Lone Star women in regulation denim dress skirts. "It's not what I would've chosen for myself, but I've had no trouble getting noticed."

"And you definitely got me talking."

He said it with such a rueful tone that Diana couldn't help smiling. "The real test isn't if it works on you, but if it works on an Apache."

"Well, I'm a numbers man and they're men of the earth, so it stands to reason that—"

Their conversation was interrupted by a screech from one of the Lone Star women.

"No barbeque? What kind of party is this?"

Diana laughed. "I guess you were right about Morton's organizers."

"Barbeque," he muttered. "What idiots. You don't invite an important group like Lone Star to a function under truce and not offer potato salad and barbeque."

"But they do have tamales."

"So they're favoring the México Lindo faction. It's no surprise to me."

"Can you really make those kind of assumptions based on a buffet line?"

"You’d be surprised at how much of human interaction is political. Everything from food to cuff links has a meaning, if you care to see it. Never pay much attention to what people say. Watch for the other signals."

1 comment:

Alice Audrey said...

But she's there specifically so she can pay attention to what they say. :). I love the screech, "no barbeque?!" LOL.