Author's Note: This is an early chapter from the sequel to Tin Soldier. The sequel picks up seven years after Tin Soldier ends, and follows Will, Diana, and Amalia after they leave Valle Redondo and get involved in the civil war following federal abandonment of the region.
This chapter establishes the reasons behind the unlikely friendship between steady, unimaginative Will (Diana's future husband, for those who are reading Diana's Diary), and Coyote, who derails trains for fun and hears voices in his head which are often frighteningly accurate. I decided to cut this chapter because it does little to move the narrative forward.
In this scene a small group has been stationed at an abandoned mine, charged with the task of destroying the nearby rail line, should truce negotiations in a nearby town fail. Will is annoyed to have been separated from Diana, who was assigned to go to town with the delegation. Coyote is frustrated that there's no guarantee he'll get to derail a train. Oh, one other thing-- some of the people in this story use military code names, hence some of the odd (to us) names in this piece.
This was a fun chapter to write, so here it is.
*** *** *** *** ***
Will climbed the trail up the hillside, where he found Coyote sitting behind the cover of some mesquite, watching the tracks below. Suddenly he sat up a little straighter and stared at the horizon. Will saw nothing to merit such attention, but then he felt as much as heard a faint rumble in the distance. The sound grew louder, resolving itself into the chugging of pistons, and now he could see the line of smoke. A coal-burner. Diesel engines were more interesting because they were rare, but they lacked the added drama of the long gray plume extending across the sky.
With a clatter, the engines sped past and Coyote pulled his knees to his chest and hugged himself as he counted the cars. He was still grinning as the last car passed and Will stepped into his line of sight. “Fourteen,” Coyote told him. “Six of them boxcars, two tankers, two cattle cars, and the rest flatcars.” He cast a glance at the rapidly diminishing train in the distance. “Ain’t it beautiful? Don’t you just want to blow it up?”
Will blinked in surprise. “Well, no. Not really.”
“Why do you want to blow it up if you like it so much?”
“I don’t know.” He stood and brushed the dust off his pants. “Want to see where the explosives will go?”
“Sure, but don’t get your hopes up. If negotiations go well, the track stays.”
“Yeah, I know.” Coyote bounded down the hillside, sprinted up the raised embankment and leaped onto the tracks. Then he began walking along one of the hot metal rails, holding his arms out for balance.
Will followed more cautiously, stopping at the edge of a wooden tie. “Well? You said you had a plan to show me.”
“Geez, have you always been so uptight?” Coyote began explaining the best places to lay the explosives. “If we wanted to use all the powder, we could put it here, here, and down there, then set it off all at once and make half the train go up in the air.” His eyes lit up as he said this. “But I suppose you guys want to do it the boring way and just use the minimum you need to get the job done.”
“Uh, yeah. Save powder. We might want to use it on other trains, you know.”
“Right.” Coyote kicked a rock. “In that case, we could just put some here and on the opposite side.” He pointed. “And see that spot there, with the missing spike? If we take out a few more spikes, unscrew the bolts and pull the rails off kilter, we’ll be sure of success, even if we only use enough powder to destroy the engine.”
“Shouldn’t we just do a plain old derailment, then?”
“No explosion?” Coyote looked like he had been insulted. “No man, that’s no good. Just because we're going for the afternoon freight don’t mean there won’t be any people on board. Better to kill them off right away. It’ll save us the trouble of chasing them down and shooting them.”
“Seems kind of a shame to kill people just doing their jobs.”
“We went over this already, and Harley agreed it was the best way. It'll be nice to get us a train with lots of supplies on it. We might want to negotiate with Don Reymundo. Besides, I'm almost out of ammo, and the food here is boring.”
“I guess those guys know what they’re getting into, signing up to drive trains.”
“If we don’t blow them up, it’ll just be some other group. Why let the other guys have all the fun?” Coyote began walking on the rails again, singing softly to himself:
I’m a thousand miles from home,
Just waitin’ for a train...
Will began climbing the hill back to their base at the abandoned mine. Coyote hardly noticed and kept on singing.
* * *
Their camp lay behind the tree line, where a cluster of ruined buildings lay hidden from view. They were using the shell of a stone building for the horses, another for their own camp. A third building stood just outside the yawning mouth of the mine, but it had been constructed of wood and was so dilapidated that the next gust of wind threatened to collapse it into firewood.
Will found Tiffany and Ikea sitting in the shade of a tree, mending arrows. A few feet away, a pair of solar cookers gleamed in the afternoon sun. "What's for dinner?" he asked, sitting down and picking up an arrow.
"Put that back unless you plan on fixing it," Ikea said.
Will took a closer look. The fletching was frayed and needed replacing. He took out his knife and got to work. "So what's for dinner?" he asked again.
"Beans," said Tiffany. "And hominy."
"Well, later we're going to look for something we can make a salad with," Ikea offered. "And Galileo is keeping an eye out for game while he's on watch, but. . ." she held a shaft at eye level, checking that it was straight. "I figure if we just assume it'll be beans and hominy, then if it's something better we'll be pleasantly surprised."
"Which is better than being unpleasantly disappointed," her sister added.
"I suppose so." Will rummaged among the feathers the girls had laid out and selected a straight-looking one with nice tight barbs. He held it against the shaft, frowned, and set to work splitting and trimming it.
"Did Coyote get to see his train?" Ikea asked.
"Yeah. It made him happy, even though he didn't get to derail it or blow it up."
The girls exchanged bemused, knowing looks.
"I just wish I understood why, if he likes trains so much, he feels like he has to destroy them. It doesn't make any sense."
"Macy says the train and those voices in his head have something to do with how he lost his parents, but she doesn't know any details."
He checked the trimmed feather against the shaft again and reached for the pot of pitch. "Well, he's the new guy, and eventually we find out everyone’s secrets. If he doesn't get himself killed, someone will figure it out eventually."
"Macy says she’s going to find out."
"Why, so she can harass him about it?"
Ikea looked at Will in surprise. "She wouldn't do that. She likes him."
"Could've fooled me. I know she likes his money, but she only fights with him the rest of the time."
"That's how you can tell they like each other. It's just their way."
"Like showing how much you like trains by destroying them?"
The girls fell silent and Will turned to see Coyote walking toward them across the patchy grass. He threw himself onto the ground beside their stack of arrows. "So what are we doing for fun this afternoon?"
"Fixing arrows," Will said. "Or making new ones, if you prefer. Your choice."
Coyote scowled in annoyance and rolled over on his back, pillowing his head in his clasped fingers. "It's too nice a day to work. We did some hard riding yesterday, and I got hardly any sleep at the lake. This is a good afternoon to take a nap."
The others looked at him in dismay. Daylight hours were for working and there was always plenty to do. "You took a nap just the other day." Will pointed out. "There'll be plenty of time for sleeping, even with taking our turns on watch."
"No, I've got other plans for tonight. I need to get my rest now."
"What are you planning on doing tonight?" Ikea asked cautiously.
Coyote mumbled something incoherent without bothering to open his eyes.
"Did you check with Galileo?"
"I ain't no little kid who has to ask permission for everything."
"But we're soldiers," Will said. "We have to work together. And that means telling each other what we're doing and making sacrifices for the group, and—"
Coyote sat up. "Aren't you a fine one to talk? Who found who sneaking around in the woods a couple nights ago?" He got to his feet. "If anyone needs me for something important, wake me up. Otherwise I'll see you at dinner."
After he had gone, the three looked at each other in confusion. "Think we should say something to Galileo?" Ikea asked.
"We can figure this out ourselves," Will said. "We'll look like a bunch of tattling street kids if we go running to Galileo every time Coyote acts weird."
"And he acts weird all the time," Tiffany agreed. "We'll just watch him and see if we can figure out what he's up to."
Ikea selected a feather from the pile and held it to the sunlight. "I sure hope it's not something dangerous. You never know with him."
* * *
After his turn on watch ended, Will made his way to the room he shared with Coyote in the abandoned building. The room was empty, but he wasn’t surprised. He stretched out on his bedroll and closed his eyes with no real expectation that sleep would come. Barely half an hour after he had managed to drift into a hazy dreamless state, he was shaken awake. "Will. Wake up."
He sat up, frowning. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Coyote said. "But I need your help."
"With what? Can't it wait until morning? Go to sleep."
"I don't want to sleep. This is the best time."
"Best time for what?"
"Just come on, before Galileo wakes up."
Will struggled out from beneath the covers and slipped his feet into his moccasins. He strapped on his hunting knife and grabbed his flashlight, but didn't turn it on. There was just enough moonlight to see their way out of the roofless shell of a building. He would turn the flashlight on once they were away from where the girls might spot them from their watch site.
Coyote trotted down the path toward the mine, head up and eager, as if on his way to claim a prize. Will trailed after him, scanning the ground for loose rocks by the dim light of the half-moon. He followed Coyote into the mouth of the mine and turned on his light. Coyote already had his on, and together their beams created shadows along the walls. "What do you want in here?" Will asked.
"What do you think?"
Will tagged along, increasingly suspicious. Sure enough, in the darkest corner just before the path twisted and dipped into the earth, was a pair of steel tracks. "No," Will said. "It's too dangerous."
"It's okay. I already scouted it out. You can go a long way and there's nothing but more track and some old tools."
"You came all the way back here by yourself? That was a dumb thing to do. There might've been poisonous gases."
Coyote rolled his eyes in annoyance. "I brought a candle with me. Candle goes out, air's no good."
"You're lucky you didn't get yourself blown up, then. Some of the gases and dust might be explosive."
"There's worse ways to go. Are you going to help me?"
"Help you what?"
"Tear up the tracks," he said, as if it were obvious. Seeing Will hesitate, he added, "Your mother said we should, you know."
"She was referring to the spur on the outside of the mine, but somebody already got to it. She didn't say anything about inside the mine."
"And what, you do everything your mommy tells you?"
"You're the one who brought her up." Will walked toward the rails, kicking rocks and debris out of the way as he went. He stabbed his light toward the darkest part of the tunnel, where it seemed to disappear into space. "How far did you want to go?"
"As far as we can."
"Well, maybe we could tear up a little of it. It would be nice to sell the steel."
"Anything's better than nothing."
"But no explosives."
"What, you think I’m stupid?" Coyote scoffed. "We'd cave the whole place in, and then we'd never get to see how far the rails go."
"We're never going to know, anyway. We're only tearing up a little bit of it. Maybe ten or twenty feet at the most. That's it. I doubt we'll be able to even get that far. It's hard work, you know."
"Yeah, sure." He walked back to one of the wagons, pulled off the tarp and began poking around for tools.
"We're not doing it tonight."
Coyote paused, a pick in each hand. "Why not?"
"Because it's night, and we're supposed to sleep at night. We aren't nocturnal like owls."
"Is that all?" He tossed the picks to the ground and resumed his search for digging and prying tools. "It doesn't matter down here. It's always night. Daylight outside won't make it any different."
"Good," Will said, turning Coyote's reasoning around. "I'll see you in the morning."
Coyote threw down a shovel in disgust. "Fine. Get your beauty rest. You goody types are no fun, anyway."
"I'm not here to impress you. I said I'd help tomorrow, and I will."
Coyote muttered something noncommittal and returned to rummaging among the tools.
"Are you coming with me?"
"Back to bed?" He said it like the idea was preposterous.
"No, you go on. I wouldn't be able to sleep, anyway."
* * *
Will awoke to find the sky already pink with dawn. Annoyed at having slept so late, he pulled on his boots and went looking for Galileo. "The girls aren't off watch yet, are they?"
"Tiffany's still up there. Ikea came down to start breakfast."
"Great." He wondered what he would eat if she botched it as she had dinner.
"Have you seen Coyote?"
Will thought fast. "He said something about trying to get us a rabbit when they come out to graze at dawn. I'm sure he'll be back once the sun is full up."
Galileo raised a grizzled eyebrow doubtfully. "You come help me with the horses, and let's just hope he shows up soon for his watch."
Will followed him to the building where they were keeping their animals. They put out some hay and oats, scanned the area to make sure there was still enough forage for the donkeys, then grabbed some buckets and set to work bringing in water from the creek nearby. When the animals finally had everything they needed, they went to where Ikea was working over two cooking fires. One had a small grill over it where a pot of coffee was boiling. Over the other, she was doing something to a skillet of potatoes. Will poured a cup of coffee and offered to take a cup to Tiffany.
"That would be nice. Tell her I'll have breakfast ready by the time Coyote relieves her."
"That's if he gets back on time," Galileo said. "I hope I don't have to have a talk with that boy."
"Maybe Tiffany has seen him.” Will took the second cup of coffee and started up the hill before anyone could ask further questions. He found Tiffany sitting on a rock, glumly watching the horizon. "Seen anything?"
"No," she sighed. "Not so much as a raccoon."
"I don't suppose you've seen Coyote?"
"Should I have?"
"No, but it would've been nice if you had, because then it would mean he isn't where I think he is."
"And where's that?"
"He was hanging around the mine last night. I told him. . ."
"Like telling him anything ever does any good. Is Galileo looking for him?"
"You don't think something could've happened to him down there?"
"I hope not. I’m going to look for him."
"Be careful. It'd be pretty dumb if you both got yourselves hurt."
"I know. Can you cover for us for a little while, in case Galileo comes wondering where we are?"
"Sure. Her eyes drifted again toward the empty horizon. "At least now I've got some coffee, I won't fall asleep, although I'm probably still in danger of dying from boredom."
* * *
Will followed the gleaming rails, his flashlight creating a dim tunnel of light in the blackness of the mineshaft. He swept the area with his beam, illuminating bulks and shadows on both sides of the track. Although his heart was in his throat, imagining a collapsed body each time, the forms always turned out to be the same thing— heaps of rubble or old tools and carts. He carried a tallow candle, checking it from time to time as he went along. Sometimes it glowed a little brighter, other times it flickered and grew dim. Always the flame rose back to normal and he was reassured. He continued walking, looking for signs that Coyote had been this way.
As he got deeper into the mine, more and more rubble clogged the lines, although he could see spots where it looked like someone had tried to shovel the rails clear. A poor tracker, Will couldn't be certain if those were Coyote's boot prints and evidence of his work on the tracks, but he had little reason to believe anyone else would have been down there recently or been so dedicated to clearing the narrow gauge line that the miners had once used for their carts.
The rail dipped and twisted, then came to an intersection. Will was deep underground now, and he hesitated, shining his light down each of the tunnels in turn. They were equally black, equally forbidding, and none looked any likelier than the others to catch the eye of a rail fanatic. "Coyote!" He got no answer. Knowing that Coyote was left-handed, he decided the left tunnel was as reasonable a starting place as any.
The shaft was claustrophobic with a low ceiling and walls so close to the tracks it seemed remarkable that any useful product could have come out of this particular hole in the earth. A few twists and turns, and now the tight, enveloping walls pressed in around him like a trap. His candle sputtered. He stopped and shone his light as far down the tunnel as he could, illuminating nothing, not even lumps and mounds that merited inspection. It seemed the air down here was thicker, shutting off the range of his light, allowing the darkness to press more closely. Or maybe his batteries were getting low. He shook his flashlight, frowning. The candle flame sputtered again. This wasn't the place. There were no more boot prints, no evidence that anyone had been this way in a long time. He turned back.
At the intersection, his candle burning strongly again, he shook himself, wishing for some source of light other than his poor flashlight and candle. The main tunnel was so full of turns that no illumination could come down here from the outside world, and each of the smaller tunnels was merely a darker patch of black in an already oppressive place. If Hell was really underneath the earth somewhere, there was no need for it to be full of flames. Unrelieved darkness was enough.
Will fought the temptation to start back toward the light of day. If Coyote was down here and in trouble, he had to find him. He looked at his flashlight and shook it. It had seemed a little dim before, but it appeared to be working better now. Surely it would last long enough for him to do what he needed to do. With the darkness already taking its toll on his mood and nerves, he started down another shaft.
This one was a little wider, although the going was tougher. Rocks and debris were so thick in some parts that they completely covered the tracks. This seemed an unlikely route for Coyote to have taken, for all that there were boot prints here. Will was about to turn back when a discarded pick caught his attention. He went closer and inspected it. It seemed relatively new. Was it one of theirs? It was hard to tell. He shone his weakening beam down the tunnel, but saw only indistinguishable mounds and shapes. They were probably just more rocks and perhaps some discarded equipment from years ago, but at this distance he couldn't be sure. A fallen body would lie just that way on the tracks, wouldn't it? Will's candle was starting to sputter. He should leave, but as much as he hated to do it, he had to check the dark mass lying across the rails up ahead.
He moved forward, holding his breath as much out of fear of what he might find as fear of gases. The blackness pressed in on all sides as his light began to dim. The candle flickered in earnest and he could feel the lack of oxygen. He breathed rapidly, trying to get enough air. Just a little farther. . .
As if snuffed by an invisible hand, the candle went out. Confused, Will took a few steps forward. Those shapes—were they really only rocks? He had come too far to leave without being sure. He would never forgive himself if Coyote was down here and he left because he was afraid to go just a few more steps, but his light was dimming rapidly and would be lucky if his batteries lasted long enough to get back to. . . what? The train? The tunnel? It was all becoming confused.
He stumbled over a rail tie, started walking again, found he was going the wrong way and turned again. Or was the other the right way? He scanned the walls, trying to remember which bit of rock was which, finding it suddenly all the same. Only one way was the right way, back toward air and life, and now he could no longer remember. Why hadn't he marked his path? Now that he was in this situation, what was it he was supposed to do? Drop to his knees, start crawling and hope there was air lower down, or was that what one was supposed to do in a fire? Would it work here, too? Maybe he should just keep walking, since at least one direction had to be the right one. Even if he guessed wrong, there might be another pocket of air ahead. He swayed, wondering why he couldn't reach a decision and why the entire mineshaft was closing in on him in a rush.
A sudden beam of light stabbed his eyes. "There you are." Coyote grabbed him by the arm and began tugging him, stumbling, back up the tracks. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Looking for you," Will mumbled, trying to orient himself.
"Down here where there's no air? Do you think I'm an idiot?"
Will didn't answer and instead tried to focus on getting oxygen into his lungs and not tripping over rocks, ties and rails as they made their way back to the clear area where the three tunnels met. He sank to his knees, breathing deeply of the richer air, waiting for the whistling in his ears to fade. "Where were you?" he said, when he could speak again.
"On the hill, waiting for the morning train," Coyote said, as if it was obvious. "You actually thought I was down here somewhere?"
"What else was I supposed to think?" Will got to his feet slowly, not wanting to risk another bout of dizziness. "This is where I left you."
"Yeah, but I wasn't going to spend all night here."
"I didn't know that. You didn't come back. I thought you might've gotten hurt or sick." Now that his initial sense of relief had passed, Will felt stupid. He had done a foolish thing coming down here alone. "Come on," he said irritably. "Galileo was wondering where you were."
"Yeah, that's what Tiffany said when I went to relieve her on watch." Coyote caught up to him and shone his strong light on the path. "She told me you had come down here."
"Well, you don't have to stick with me now. I’m feeling better. I know my way back. Go on before Galileo finds out and we're all in trouble."
"Tiffany's covering for us."
They continued up the track in silence, the view resolving from black to gray, until finally they were back in the wide mouth of the mine entrance. Will took a deep shuddering breath, grateful to see daylight again. "You go on. I'll be along in a few minutes." He looked at his feet for a moment, searching for words to cover his embarrassment. "Thanks for finding me. That was pretty stupid."
Coyote looked at him in bewilderment. "No it wasn't. I mean, yeah it was kind of dumb to go alone and not have an extra flashlight and all, but. . ." He shrugged in confusion. "That was cool you would go to that much trouble to find me, just because you thought I might be in trouble. I don't think anyone's ever bothered about me like that before."
"That's what we do in this unit. We look out for each other."
"Yeah, maybe, but not like that." He studied Will's face. "I know I ain't worth much, but. . . well, you shouldn't do it again. You've got people who care about you. You got no business risking your neck over me."
"We risk our necks every day, and you took your chances looking for me, too."
"No I didn't. I've already explored these tunnels, and I kind of figured where you were, anyway."
Will nodded slightly, remembering that Coyote had superior tracking skills and was aided by his supernatural sense of things.
"But I would've taken a chance for you. You're all right, you know?" Coyote slapped him on the back and bounded toward the entrance. "See you after my watch. And when you get back to camp, don't eat that crap Ikea is calling breakfast. Stick to the coffee."