I tied up Flecha and made sure my gun and knife were in plain view and my necklace and coins weren’t. Then I went inside.
It was a dark place, smoky from braziers and oil lamps, since electricity didn’t seem to reach this far from the core of downtown, and was probably too expensive, anyway. I was worried at first about the presence of so many men but then I noticed most of them were occupied with pool or card games. There were very few whores, and they seemed oddly sedate and discreet. The men made a point of ignoring the waitresses, even though they were young and attractive.
It was all very puzzling until a stout woman behind the bar shouted, “Hey, Missy! Shut the goddamn door! You think I want to heat the whole town?”
I jumped to do as she said, then approached her cautiously. She looked strong and had an air of authority about her. No wonder the men didn’t dare harass the waitresses.
“Are you here to drink or to jump at your shadow?”
“Do you have Scotch whiskey?”
A man on a barstool grinned at me. “She has something she calls Scotch whiskey.”
“Stuff a cactus in it Wilson.” She turned back to me. “Just one shot, Missy? I’m running a special on the house brand.”
While she poured my drink, the man who had spoken before leaned toward me. “You know the house brand is what she cooks up in her bathtub, right?”
I wasn’t here to drink, so it didn’t make any difference to me. “As long as it won’t kill me, I don’t care.”
“Oh, it won’t kill you. Might kill anything that’s ailing you, though. My brother tried to use it to worm his dog.”
“Did it work?”
“He said it did.”
The woman came back with my drink and quoted me a price, but her eyes were on the man she called Wilson. “What kind of lies are you telling this young lady, cabrón?”
“Only that your house whiskey is a great tapeworm remedy.”
While the two of them bickered, I made my escape. I wandered around for a bit and settled on a spot at a long table where people were holding an animated discussion. Most of it seemed to be about local politics, which meant nothing to me since none of it was about the derailment or the groups fighting in the area. I soon grew bored and went back to the bar, where I tried to strike up a conversation with Wilson about the train. He just shrugged and said he didn’t like to speculate on things like that.
Next I tried to get information from the bossy proprietress, but she was no help, either. “I didn’t stay in business this long by flapping my jaw. I know only what happens within these four walls, and I don’t talk about that either. Want another drink?”
I accepted, but asked her to mix it with water this time.
After an hour and several unsuccessful attempts at conversation, I sat down at a table by myself and wondered what to do next. While I was sitting there, a man came in with a guitar. He settled himself on a stool in a corner, tuned his instrument and began singing. He warmed up with a few old twentieth century songs — one about a hound dog, and another about someone named Leroy Brown. Then he sang some Spanish love ballads, which not even the whores and waitresses seemed to appreciate. I was beginning to feel sorry for him, since his audience was so clearly ignoring him.
Then he launched into some corridos. They were of the informational variety, giving the news of the day. Now he had everyone’s attention, as he sang of distant wars and disasters, as well as news from closer to home. He had songs about storms, songs about miners, and even a song about the local mayor’s daughter. I listened more closely when one of his songs about the civil war mentioned the Cobre plot. News traveled fast, even though the song wasn’t very accurate.
And then he sang the Bella Diana song.
I felt my face grow hot. So many lies! I wanted to crawl under the nearest table, dig a hole in the floor and not come out again, ever. But the worst was yet to come. His song ended with Robert and Will both abandoning me, and Will becoming a civilian-killing maverick. If I had to listen to another minute of this, I would surely do something I would regret. I jumped up from the table and made my way out the door as quickly as possible.
I had hoped no one would notice, but a snub-nosed waitress chased after me and caught me unhitching Flecha.
“You always sit at a girl’s table and don’t leave a tip? I gotta eat, you know.”
I fumbled in my pocket and handed her a coin. “Sorry.”
She turned the coin over in her hand. “I didn’t mean you had to give me so much.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I hadn’t meant to give her a quarter ounce of silver, but it was too late now. Anger always made me careless.
The girl was looking at me strangely now. “I heard you asking about the derailment. Of course no one’s going to talk to you. They don’t know you. But if you want, I could get the information for you.”
The thought of using a local contact hadn’t occurred to me. “What will you charge?”
“Got another one of these?” She held up the coin.
“How do I know you’ll tell me truth?”
She shrugged as if it was all the same to her. “Why would I lie? I’m not from here. I’m just trying to get enough money to go back home. I hate this place.”
We agreed upon a time and place to meet the next day, then she went back to work and I returned to camp, sneaking back into my lean-to with no one seeming the wiser.
I was unhappy to be woken up only a couple of hours later by people talking and banging pots and pans as they prepared to start the day. I was tired and my head hurt, but I got up and made some coffee. After a meal of greasy eggs and cheese, I felt a little better and began packing my gear. I would meet with the bar waitress, and then get back on the road. As a parting gift to the nice old man who had let me share his campsite, I gave him my Last of the Mohicans book. I didn’t have room in my packs for two books, and I was tired of the weak females in that story, anyway.
I met the waitress a little later in the morning at a local park. She looked tired and had blue circles under her eyes, but she seemed chipper and eyed Flecha curiously. “You look like you’re on your way somewhere.”
“East, for now.”
“You mean Texas?”
Suddenly I was suspicious. “Look, if you’re with Lone Star. . .”
Her eyes grew big, then a change came over her as if she was adding up a long column of numbers in her head. “I see.” She seemed very pleased with herself. “That’s why the song made you so upset.”
I tried to deny who I was, but she was clever. I had been asking about the derailment, which had indeed been carried out by Coyote on Will’s orders. I was alone, of the right age and description, and I had become agitated over the Bella Diana song.
“And you have a horse loaded down with military gear, and you’re heading east, just like the song said. A girl on her own is unusual, you know.”
“Look, will you just tell me about the derailment? Are my friends still in the area? Did they do it on orders or on their own? And is it true Will has turned maverick?”
She gave me a smug little smile. “I’ll tell you everything, Diana, but we need to renegotiate the price first.”
Didn’t that just figure? “I’m not made of money, you know.”
“Oh, I don’t want money. Not really. I was saving for someone to escort me back to Texas. But since you’re going that way. . .”
“That’s it? All you want is protection on the road? You got a horse, gear, and all that?”
“No, but I’ve been saving my money and I can buy anything I need. So is it a deal?”
I didn’t have much choice. Besides, a little company might be nice. “Sure. But what’s your name?”
Her name was Charlene, and we spent the rest of the day getting a horse, food and equipment for her. She hadn’t been lying about having money, and she was even able to afford real coffee for us both. She also showed herself a good rider. She said she used to have a horse back home in Texas. I haven’t asked yet how she came to be stranded in this nowhere desert rail town, but I’m sure I’ll find out eventually. Everyone has a story.
While we went about our errands, Charlene told me everything she had been able to find out about the derailment. According to her, Will had indeed gone maverick and formed his own splinter group, although it wasn't by choice. Unitas had asked him to leave after he had led his new command in a series of needless derailments and a particularly savage attack on a mafia town. Butchery wasn’t the Unitas way and Will had become a liability. But he had a core group of loyal followers and they were now roaming the nearby area, harassing México Lindo and Don Reymundo, robbing travelers and derailing trains to finance their endeavors.
“So they’re really still working for Unitas,” Charlene explained. “But more like an allied group in their own right. Unitas can’t acknowledge their help because they’re too reckless.”
I’m spending tonight with Charlene in the room she has in an old house on the fringes of downtown. It’s a cramped and dirty place, but it’s got electricity. Too bad I’m too tired to stay up and enjoy the electric light. We’re supposed to head out in the morning, but I’m feeling uneasy about Will. I can’t help feeling like I’m partly to blame for his behavior, or that at the very least I should use whatever influence I have left to try and stop him.
I keep saying I’m done with the war, but if I keep allowing every little rumor to tempt me to meddle. . .
I guess I’ll sleep on it. Maybe things will be more clear in the morning.
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