When the old man awoke, he thanked me for the coffee and took eggs, cheese and tortillas out of a pack so we could cook a nice breakfast. We were almost finished eating, when he developed that same tense, curious look about him that I had been noticing in the faces of other vendors as they went about the business of getting ready for the day.
“You haven’t heard the train whistle, have you?” he asked.
“No. Should I have?”
He frowned slightly and looked up at the lightening sky. “It’s late.”
“Trains are often late.”
He mumbled something, then seemed to forget about it. We tidied our camp and I helped him get his booth ready for business. Once customers started showing up, I considered my obligation done and started checking out the wares at other stalls.
As I had expected, there were the usual goods—wool yarn, knitted goods, old clothes and shoes. There were samples of animal feed from vendors licensed by the town as honest traders—negotiate your price and they would deliver an agreed-upon amount within the week. There were dried foods, home-canned produce from local gardens, nuts both in the shell and out, homemade wine and whiskey, and of course jerky, cheese, and the like.
And then there were the booths that always depressed me, run by older women who had been born when people still had electricity every day and could run gasoline-powered automobiles once a week or more. Their booths sold luxury goods that almost no one ever wanted. Who needed crystal cats, jewelry boxes and delicate china cups that looked like they would break before you could even get them home? Still, one woman appeared to have some good books for sale, so I stopped to take a look. One book was particularly amazing to me. It was full of color pictures of water. Lots of water, like the biggest lake in the world.
“Is this a real place?” I asked.
“Cape Cod? It’s under water now, but of course it’s real.”
I flipped through the pages, and now the cute little houses and funny columns with lights on top made me sad. But of course it was under water. The amazing thing was that such a place ever existed at all. I set the book back on the table. “Do you have any books about Kentucky?”
The woman rummaged around. “Here,” she finally said. “It’s a novel about a race horse from Kentucky.”
I took the book and flipped through the pages. It didn’t have pictures, and the book was falling apart, but if I was ever going to achieve my dream of working with Kentucky horses, this was exactly what I needed. “How much?”
We haggled for a little while, and I did a poor job of it. My eagerness must have shown in my face, because she eventually stood firm on a price that was more than I wanted to pay. Well, I didn’t need to buy real coffee. Chicory blend would do. I paid her price and I guess she suddenly felt bad because she gave me a scarf as a bonus. It was red with flecks of gold and black, and it was made of an old fabric that felt like silk but wasn't. I couldn’t think what use I might have for such a thing, but I thanked the woman for her nice gesture and went on my way.
I looked at imported goods next: chocolate, batteries, light bulbs, pens, food in little cans, spices, herbs, and other interesting things from faraway places like California, Ohio and Pennsylvania—they had it all. I found a licensed medical vendor and bought some iodine. I found a vendor of water purifiers and bought a new filter for my canteen.
By now it was nearing noon and food vendors were hawking cooked meats, beer, sweet drinks and empanadas. A few musicians had staked out corners and were strumming, piping and singing with off-key enthusiasm in the hope of earning a few coins.
It would’ve seemed normal, but for the rumors that were starting to circulate: the train was late. It had been diverted by rebels, who were on their way. No, the train was merely derailed and the goods stolen by thieves. It was a plot to discredit the town government and show they couldn’t keep shipments safe. No, it was just poor rail maintenance, one of those things that sometimes happens. There was fighting in the area, and the town would soon be taken over by the Republic of Texas, which would restore law and order. But that was absurd, everyone knew Don Reymundo and his allies with México Lindo were responsible. They would starve the town, then execute a classic pincers movement and take the region as their own.
The rumors ran the gamut and I didn’t know who to believe. Then I heard the most disturbing rumor of them all.
“It was that new splinter group from Unitas that did it. They like to derail trains.”
Suddenly the bright noon sun felt like ice on my skin. I looked around, but couldn’t see who had spoken. I waited, not daring to move, hoping I would hear something more, but all I got for my trouble was a nudge from a little girl trying to sell honeyed pecans while a nearby musician screeched about how he missed his amorcita.
I spent the afternoon trying to find out more about the derailment, without looking like I was in a panic. There was only one person in Unitas who was a rail demolition expert, and he was Will’s best friend. Coyote wouldn’t strike out on his own. If he had derailed that train, it was with Will’s help. But a splinter group? That couldn’t be right. Will was up for his own command. He didn’t need to form a group of his own, and it wasn’t like him to cause random chaos. He was a good man who had dedicated his life to protecting people. He got carried away at times, like thinking he was doing me a favor by making me marry him, but he wasn’t malicious.
Something didn’t add up.
I finally ended up back at the old man’s booth, where he was doing good business. “I thought you’d gone on your way,” he said.
“I had some supplies I needed to get,” I said. “And it’s late now.”
“It sure is. Too late to get out on the road, unless you’re not going far.”
“Can I stay at your campsite again?”
“Makes no difference to me. You’re no trouble. Do as you please.”
When the market closed, I tidied up while he balanced his accounts for the day. Then we went back to camp and pooled our food with some neighbors to make a nice supper of potatoes, calabaza, cornbread, and cabrito with red chiles. We finished up with some sweet homemade wine and everyone settled in to talk and tell tales around the fire, as if we were all old friends instead of a motley group who had only just met and would likely not see each other again after the market days were over.
Throughout all this, I tried not to let on how anxious I was. I helped with the cooking but when I settled down to eat, the food tasted like wood. I helped clean up afterwards but I kept getting distracted, washing the same things over and over. My mind drifted during the interminable stories everyone seemed determined to tell. How many lies and rumors could they repeat in an evening, anyway? Why should I care about someone’s niece’s pet chicken or about the latest earthquake in California? I struggled to smile and nod at all the appropriate times.
Finally everyone grew sleepy and began wandering back to their tents. I made a show of settling into my little lean-to, but I’ve got other plans for tonight. I’m just waiting now. I need to make sure my new friends are asleep. If they see me leave, they’ll either worry or think I’m up to no good. But if Will and Coyote are in the area, and especially if they’re derailing trains, I need to know about it.
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