Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Forty Nine

The men huddled in their jackets as they rode through the cold desert night. The sky was clear and the moon illuminated their path in a wash of pale light. With the mesas close by and dawn still several hours away, there was no need to hurry, so they made their way down the broken remains of an asphalt highway, barely noticing the stunted winter weeds and dry scrub along the side of the road. All around them the desert was alive with coyotes ranging for food while mice and rabbits rustled in the scrub.

Will kept close to the flank of Coyote's horse. He hadn’t been able to sleep, so he was glad to be on the road, but the silent valley disturbed him. He had never liked the flatlands where he felt exposed, his every move watched by the sky and the nameless hulks of the mountains.

It was almost dawn and they were starting up into the mesas when Coyote reined in.

"What is it?" Harley asked.

He indicated the bend in the trail with a jerk of his head. "Three of them."

Harley didn't bother to ask what he meant. He motioned his men off the trail, into a stand of mesquite. After a few minutes they heard the quiet clop of hooves. They waited until the riders were almost upon them, then kicked their horses forward.

The lead rider, a sturdy brunette with cropped hair and a hardened look to her features, pulled a semiautomatic.

"Put that away," Will said. "We don't hurt women if they don't hurt us first."

She made to lower her gun, but as the other men rushed her companions, she aimed again, this time with a glint in her eyes that meant business. Annoyed, Will whipped out his pistol and shot the gun from her hand. Her mare started, rearing and twisting in the air. Harley reached for the bridle as she came back down, and Will lurched forward and caught the reins.

The girl flung a look over her shoulder at her companions, both of them young female soldiers like herself. She turned back to Will and Harley with panicked eyes. "What do you want?"

"We want to know who you are, who you're with, and what you're doing in this area," Harley said.

"My name is Jane, and we're not with anyone. We live near here."

"Right," Boeing sneered. He was holding the bridle of a pinto laden with bundles and panniers. The rider was a black-haired girl with pale skin and an arrogant tilt to her head. "Just out for a casual morning ride in the dark, aren't you?"

"Why not?" she asked archly. "Aren't you?"

"About as casual as yours."

Seeing that Will had a tight grip on Jane's horse, Harley jumped to the ground. "Come here so I can talk to you."

Jane's eyes widened and she shook her head.

"Are you going to make me pull you off that horse?"

She glanced again at her companions. "Are your men going to leave my girls alone?"

"Unless they ask us not to," Boeing said.

"Shut up with the cute remarks," Harley told him. "You're scaring these ladies." Then to Jane he said, "This isn't what you think. Now get down off that horse."

She dismounted, holding one of her hands in an awkward way. Harley motioned for Aguilero to help him pat her down for weapons, then led her up the path to talk. The girls who remained watched the young men nervously. "What do y'all want?" one of them asked.

"We're on a mission," Boeing said.

"Who are you with? Or are you with anyone at all?"

"It's okay. We're affiliated."

"Why’d you stop us? We're no one."

"Quit acting dumb," Coyote said. "You're with Lone Star.”

"What if we are? We're still not important."

"You are to us. We went to the trouble of capturing you, didn't we?"

"If you don’t want to rape us or rob us, I don't know why you bothered. We ain't got no information."

"What would we get if we robbed you?" Boeing asked, eyeing the panniers.

"Not much. Just apples, cornmeal and some eggs. And coffee."

"Coffee?" Coyote craned his neck to get a better look at the panniers.

“No,” Will told him. “We can't just take it. They've given us no real trouble."

"Maybe you want to share?" Boeing asked.

The black-haired girl tossed her head. "Why would we want to share with you?"

"Because I'm good-looking?"

Both young women found this remark so startling that they surprised everyone, even themselves, by laughing.

They were wheedling in earnest when Harley called to them. "Don't turn this into a party, men. Will, come here, would you?"

Will walked his horse to where Harley and Jane sat in a clearing behind some acequias.

"I'm afraid one of Miss Jane’s fingers is broken," Harley explained. "You're the nearest thing we've got to a doctor."

Will crouched beside her and took Jane's hand in his, then pulled out his flashlight to get a better look. "I think it’s just dislocated. I can set it for you right now, if you like. He gave the flashlight to Harley and felt each of the joints more carefully. "It will hurt."

"It already hurts. I’m not afraid."

Will moved her injured finger back and forth, checking its range of motion. "I would hate to make you wait to get back to your medic for something like this. You do have a medic, right? We have one of our own back at camp, of course—" with a twist of his wrist, he snapped Jane's finger back in place. Unprepared, she yelped and tried to pull away, but Will had her arm in a firm grip. "It's okay," he said. He cupped her hand between his own and turned to Harley. "See anything around here we could use for a splint?"

While Harley searched for a branch that could be split flat, Will used his knife to cut a strip off the tail of his shirt. "Too bad there's no snow," he said. "That joint will swell up on you and hurt worse than it has to. But I'll wrap it tight, which ought to help a little, and maybe your medic will be able to do more for you when you get back to camp."

Jane submitted to Will's doctoring, watching his face with an odd light in her eyes. When the three of them rejoined the others they found a fire burning and a pot of coffee brewing. "Look who's consorting with the enemy," Jane said.

"Speak for yourself," the brunette said with a sniff. "You're the one holding hands with one of them."

Jane pulled her bandaged hand out of Will's grasp. "Break up this little party you're having and get ready to go. These men need to speak to Bonham, and we're going to lead them there."

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Alice Audrey said...

Is it too much to hope that Will will become interested in Jane? But then if the did, it could be just in time for Diana to turn around and appreciate him, though I don't really see her budging on the sibling thing.

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

Nothing will turn Will away from Diana, but Jane's support will prove helpful here and again in Book Two.