Between the full moon and the glare off the snow, I could see okay. And I had a flashlight, too—a real one with batteries, not the kind you have to shake. I didn’t take the map, since Unitas trained me how to orient myself without one. And besides, I wanted the doctor to have it so he and Marisa could find the rendezvous point.
It was slow going, even with the moonlight. Flecha hadn’t slept much at our campsite and wasn’t too happy to be on the road again, but we’ve known each other so long that I think she understood that I wouldn’t make her work like this for no good reason.
Just before dawn, I reached the place where we had intended to camp, and it was here that I encountered the first evidence of other groups converging on the area. A campsite had been abandoned so recently that the ground around the covered fire was still warm and muddy, and there were hoof prints everywhere. Obviously Dr. Ruston and Marisa and I couldn’t have stayed the night here, even if we had made this spot on schedule, so maybe all those delays weren’t such a disaster after all.
I couldn’t tell group affiliation from what little evidence was left in the mud, but from what I knew of groups in the area, I guessed it was a party from one of the major groups, like México Lindo or Lone Star. Both groups were dangerous, but México Lindo could be particularly troublesome.
I pulled up and decided to wait awhile, to give the group ahead of me time to get wherever they were going. I was glad I waited, because soon I heard riders on the path. Flecha and I ducked into the cover of the tree line. Not a minute later, two riders came along. They stopped and examined the churned-up mud of the camp, but Flecha’s prints mingled enough with those of the other animals that the men didn’t notice anything amiss at first. They murmured to each other in their crisp Sonoran accents, about how their people appeared to be ahead of schedule, and how they didn’t appear to be being followed. But then the younger one frowned.
“Parece que tienen un caballo más,” he said with a touch of concern.
His companion looked skeptically at the mud. “Imposible. ¿Cómo puedes decir?”
“A ver.” He pointed to the hoof prints and began counting.
This was no good. In another minute, they would notice Flecha’s tracks heading off alone into the woods. I pulled out my gun and waited, holding my breath.
“Te preocupes demasiado, pendejo. Vén. Nos esperan.”
The older man kicked his horse and moved off down the road. With a final look of concern, the younger one followed.
I put my gun away and allowed myself to breathe again. I would have to be more careful.
I began walking Flecha slowly down the road, keeping an eye out for footpaths and traces that might cut through to the town or mine, all the while pondering the problem of México Lindo. When they had just been local citizens seeking unification with Mexico, they hadn’t been so hard to deal with. But then the northern states of Mexico got in on the act, and now México Lindo was a menace, unwilling to negotiate with anyone other than thugs like Don Reymundo. Or desperate miners like the ones at Cobre.
I needed to find Robert, fast.
About half a mile down the road, I found a track leading into the trees. It appeared to go in the general direction I wanted, and on impulse, I took it. This time luck was with me and after another mile, the path broadened. I urged Flecha into a trot.
After another mile, we came upon a cluster of shacks centered around a few dilapidated mobile homes held together with nails, twine, and wishful thinking. A few dirty children came down to the path and stared at me. I selected the most naïve-looking of the older children and asked where the mine was. When all I got was a blank stare, I asked again in Spanish, but still got no answer.
Then a woman came out of one of the shacks. She couldn’t have been much older than me, but three of the children turned to her. “This lady is asking about the mine, Mamá.”
The young woman looked at me with suspicious eyes. “Why do you want to know?”
This was the village where the miners’ families lived, no doubt about it. Luckily I had already thought this part through. “Tengo mensaje urgente,” I told her. “But I need your help.” I reached in my pocket and retrieved one of the gold chains Vince had given me. “Quiero comprar algo pa’ llevar.”
Her eyes lit up at the sight of the gold, but she held herself in check and said, “What you have on is better than anything I can sell you.”
“That’s the whole point.” I gave the necklace to one of the girls. “Give this to your mother.” I turned back to the woman. “I need a disguise, and I need it right away. Something old. Lo más peor que tienes. Es urgente.”
It’s amazing what a little gold can do. In no time, I had my pick of the saddest-looking rags this side of the Rio Grande. The woman pestered me about the my message while I layered myself in dirty wool and cotton, and I did my best to keep up a vague running chatter that implied everything while saying nothing at all.
“But what does it all mean?” she finally asked in exasperation.
By this point I had noticed that her hovel didn’t contain reading material. Not so much as a Bible. “Can you read?”
“Too bad, because I can’t either. But I’ve been told the message is really, really important.” I finished wrapping my hands in cotton scraps in place of gloves, and turned to the children. “Want to help disguise my horse? Their enthusiasm drowned out the last of their mother’s concerns, and we trooped outside to smear mud on Flecha, taking special care to cover up her markings. She didn’t like it, but trusted me, as always. And then I took the red ribbon Clara had given me seemingly forever ago, stripped it into shreds, and wove one through Flecha’s forelock, the other through her tail. Then before anyone could ask any more questions, I gave the children a little bag of dried apples and headed off down the path.
As soon as I was away from the village, I kicked Flecha into a trot. The stop had been necessary, but now we were behind schedule.
When we came to the mine, I drew my rags and blanket around myself and hung back in the tree line, watching all the activity. Something was up. And in the distance I could see the Cobre road, with people coming and going. I could only hope I wasn’t too late.
I settled in to wait. By now it occurred to me that I had been up all night and hadn’t eaten or had so much as a cup of coffee.
Coffee! Just the thought of it set my stomach growling. And a big plate of greasy eggs! Or better yet, since it was lunch time, beans, tortillas, and some good goat cheese. Or empanadas stuffed with calabaza or cabrito.
I was deep in my food fantasies when I saw them.
All thought of food vanished as the group on the horizon grew larger. A sudden thought struck me—would anyone I knew, besides Robert, be with this party? Will wouldn’t be with them, of course. He knew what I felt for Robert, and Unitas or no, he would just as soon see Robert ambushed and dead. But assignments changed, and I had other friends.
But as the party approached, it looked like just Robert, his bodyguards and a few scouts and messengers. Even at this distance Robert looked so good, I could scarcely breathe. He had such a proud bearing, and a fine, aristocratic air about him! Fancy manners for this rough country. But he was from a rich hoarder family and had been raised with proper manners and years of book learning. He was smart! My world was full of brutish men who could ride, rope, shoot and grapple animals and enemies with ease. But a man who could rise to a position of high leadership just by thinking? Anyone could learn to fire a gun, but brains were a marvel.
I jumped down from my horse and tossed the reins over a bush. Then I took my messages from a pocket and hid my weapons amid the folds of my rags and blanket. I reached down into the mud and rubbed a bit on my face to disguise my features. And then, with my blood pounding in my ears, I moved out onto the path and waited, head down, hair covered.
One of the outriders saw me and spurred his horse forward. “You’ll need to get out of the way, m’am. We’ve got a lot of riders coming through.”
I thought I detected a Mexican cadence to his voice, so I answered in Spanish, trying to mimic the dialect of the northern provinces. “Tengo mensaje pa’ Sputnik. Es de los mineros y es muy importante.”
The man stopped and his horse skittered nervously.
“¿Qué dice este mensaje?”
“No sé, Señor. No puedo leer.”
He held out his hand. “Dámelo.”
“No.” I shook my head, not trusting him. “I must give it to him in person.”
He was annoyed, but at just this moment, another of Robert’s riders came up, and while the two men argued over whether I should be allowed to deliver the message in person and whether or not to frisk me for weapons first, it became a moot point.
I kept my head down and my blanket pulled close about my face as Robert halted his horse inches away from me. He exchanged a few words with his riders, and I knew they were talking about me, but so many thoughts were buzzing in my brain that I couldn’t grasp what they were saying. All I knew was that Robert was right here next to me, and his physical presence was affecting me in a way I had thought I was long over.
What had I been thinking by not going to him at Christmas? I had an urge to throw off my head covering and look him in the eye, but an odd shyness gripped me and instead I handed him the official message. I had added more details so I wouldn’t have to speak, and while he read it, I reached to slip my other message in his coat pocket. He lowered the letter and looked at me. He reached for my hand, but I dropped the note into his pocket and took a step back. Our eyes met just for an instant, then he turned back to the message.
Now I looked at him frankly and saw his face grow stern. The man who had first accosted me on the road pulled closer, his eyes narrowing, his horse tossing its head.
Robert looked at me, a sudden flicker of interest in his eyes. But a motion from his guard caught my attention and I realized to my horror that he had drawn a gun. Without stopping to think, I pulled my pistol from beneath my rags and shot him. Robert’s horse reared up in surprise, and while he struggled to regain control, I shot another guard who was also drawing a bead on him. Then two other guards went after each other, shots were fired, and everything devolved into confusion.
Robert brought his horse under control and pulled his gun, and in the chaos, I made a run for the tree line. One man fired after me, but missed, and then I heard two more shots, but neither came anywhere near me, and I think it was just people in Robert’s group shooting at each other.
I ducked between the trees, jumped into the saddle and kicked Flecha hard. We raced out from under cover, onto the main road, since there was really no other road to take. A rider was now coming after us and I leaned low over Flecha’s withers and kicked her again, praying that whoever was after us wouldn’t start shooting, and that as tired as Flecha and I both were, we could outlast our pursuer.
Luckily, they weren’t very motivated, or else didn’t feel safe taking off after me without backup. I was soon alone on the road, heading toward the mine. But this wasn’t the way I wanted to go. I cast a glance over my shoulder, then looked all around. No one. Flecha and I moved off the road, into the forest.
We couldn’t stop here because we were leaving tracks in the snow and mud. But soon we came to a stream, and we waded into the water and followed it about a quarter mile before clambering out and continuing on our way, this time in the direction Robert’s group had approached from. There was another little town that way, and that was where my note to Dr. Ruston had said to meet me.
Soon Flecha and I found ourselves on a forest path that appeared to have once been a road, perhaps for people with homes in these mountains. I let Flecha choose her own pace, and we walked among the pines and aspens, both of us tired, both of us hungry, and me deep in thought.
I had hoped I had grown beyond such wild feelings for Robert, but now I realized what a foolish mistake that was. Caught up in a sudden flood of emotion, it seemed insane that I was willfully keeping myself apart from him. What was I doing wandering the countryside, trying to stay away from him? He had touched my hand when he had taken the letter from me. It was just a light graze of his fingertips on mine, but it had felt like lightning and the memory of it made me dizzy.
I could still turn around and go back to him. Oh, yes, I could. I could spend this very night in his arms, if he would have me. And I would never leave him again.
I pulled up short on the reins. Flecha stopped and tipped her head, fixing me with a questioning eye.
No, I couldn’t go back. What was I thinking? Feelings are a form of sabotage and not to be trusted.
I slapped the reins against my horse’s neck. “Come on, Flecha. Let’s see if we can find a place to shelter for the night.”
Toward nightfall we found a mountain farm where the surly owner gave us some food and the use of a stable in return for a silver coin. So instead of sleeping with Robert tonight, I’m bedded down with the horses, no better or worse than any of the animals.
I guess until I can think and plan like a human being and quit rushing off on impulse and emotions, that’s appropriate. But at least I got the job done. From that standpoint, today was a success.
◄ Previous Entry
Next Entry ►