“Four things greater than all things are, - Women and Horses and Power and War” ~Rudyard Kipling
The third book in the Raven Ladies series is finally out. I’m still on the hook for the prequel/fourth book in the series and then my publisher will be looking at the long term success of the books to see if they want more. Right now, the numbers look pretty good for the series to live on, but more would always be better, and thus another promotion blog post.
In the Gunfighter’s Gambit we return to the Gieo and Fiona storyline. Even while Claudia was heading west, Fiona and Gieo were heading southeast. Normally this would be the promotion post for the blog where I talk a little about the book, throw out some teasers, and then post the first chapter for perusal. Not gonna do that this time though. What I’d really like to talk about is Maude.
The cast in the Gunfighter’s Gambit is almost entirely new. Fiona, Gieo, Alondra, Ramen, and Shrimp all made it out of Tombstone and into New Mexico, but the rest of the characters were built from the ground up and there is some serious diversity in the book as the gunfighter’s journey heads into two antiquarian societies. Where everything in the Steam-powered Sniper in the City of Broken Bridges was modernized steampunk, everything in the Gunfighter’s Gambit is heading backward in time. This required me to write an entirely different type of character: anachronists!
Maude is a grandmother, a rancher, a hunter, a lone survivor, and Fiona’s most trusted companion and advisor in the Gunfighter’s Gambit. In writing Maude, I wanted to create a character unlike anything I’d written to this point. In doing so, I also ended up writing a relationship that isn’t easily definable between Fiona and Maude. In the chain of command, Maude is Fiona’s subordinate, but in life experience terms, Maude has far more. They’re equal in survival skills for the post-apocalyptic world, but in entirely different ways. Their relationship can’t be described solely as friendship, sisterhood, mother/daughter, boss/employee, or mentor/mentored. In Maude, I wrote a character that I think you’ll love, who has absolutely no interest in being loved by you or anyone for that matter.
Maude is Fiona’s antithesis. She isn’t young, she was never beautiful, society didn’t laude her accomplishments (although they were numerous), and yet she found a comfortable place for herself within the world in a way Fiona never did. By the time the Slark invaded, Maude had built a life worth being proud of while Fiona hadn’t done anything she wanted to even put her name to. With how much Maude lost in the cataclysm and invasion, she plays her cards close the vest and takes protection of what little she has left very seriously.
Rudyard Kipling would have loved Maude. Three of Kipling’s quotes followed me while I was writing this remarkable woman into my book:
Rudyard Kipling would have loved Maude. Three of Kipling’s quotes followed me while I was writing this remarkable woman into my book:
“An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.”
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them: 'Hold on!'”
“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack”
The book is an adventure tale about a journey to protect love in many forms. This is an excerpt from the book where Fiona and Maude are on the trail talking to reconcile their differing views of the world both old and new.
Fiona, Maude, and Shrimp were back on the trail by first light, heading southwest into the open desert with no greater goal than simply being found. They rode slow to conserve their horses and made no attempts at concealing their trail. The desert wouldn’t necessarily be kind, and Fiona didn’t know how long they would have to wander before finding some sign of the Apache, but she hoped, if they were obvious enough, Alondra’s prediction would come true and the Apache would find them.
She and Maude both kept sharp eyes to the desert around them, which was how they spotted the coyote at about the same time. The lanky animal was following along beside them at a distance of a few dozen yards, occasionally glancing over to keep the two riders in sight.
“That coyote bitch has been following us for miles now,” Maude said.
Fiona couldn’t tell the gender of a coyote on sight, but she believed Maude could. She hadn’t even considered the coyote to have a gender the night before. It was simply a strange, unknowable, wild animal. “Yep,” she said.
“Looks like you made yourself a friend,” Maude added.
“I wasn’t looking to,” Fiona replied. “I just gave her a half a lizard.”
“That’s usually how a person starts a coyote friendship.” They rode on in silence for awhile before Maude continued. “A coyote friendship is a fickle, worthless thing. She’ll be warm when you’ve got food and vanish at the first sign of trouble. They’re not dogs.”
Fiona and Maude both glanced to Shrimp trotting along beside them. He’d apparently picked up on their new companion as well, although he seemed determined to ignore the distant coyote. Shrimp glanced in the coyote’s direction, but always snapped his head back to front after only a brief glance. When Maude and Fiona looked to him, he let out a little bark to add to the conversation.
“What animals should I befriend then?” Fiona sniped.
Maude thought on the question awhile. It was asked in jest, but Maude gave it due diligence all the same. If nothing else it seemed an interesting philosophical conundrum to the old rancher woman.
“I’d say you’d do well to befriend a rattlesnake,” Maude mused. “Their friendship is hard-won and dangerous to garner, but once you’ve got it, it’s going to be solid. There’s not much a snake can do for you. Still, it’ll do what it can once it calls you friend.”
Fiona snorted at this. Even from the context of the conversation, it wasn’t clear if Maude meant herself or Fiona or both or was talking out of her ass about literal snakes. Maude certainly matched the definition of a rattlesnake and her friendship fit the description as well. So too did Fiona though, and Gieo actually referred to Fiona as a rattlesnake often. In fact, it was one of the first things Gieo had called her—she’d done it in such a loving, excited way, that Fiona couldn’t help but take it as a compliment.
“Remember Facebook?” Fiona asked.
“Nope,” Maude replied curtly.
“Oh.” Fiona had planned to make a joke about having a friend list full of desert animals by the time they were done with their desert trek. Maude’s terse response made sense though. What the fuck would a person like Maude care about something as frivolous and ultimately fleeting as social networking.
“The world did itself a big favor by getting rid of shit like that,” Maude said. “We’d just about ruined experiencing the world with cell phones and everything that went with them. Staring at a tiny screen with the whole wide world around you was just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen folks do.”
Fiona nodded her agreement to this. She’d had a cell phone, like everyone else of her generation, but she’d never liked it. It was a tether to a life she didn’t want and her phone never brought her good news. Before the cascade that destroyed technology and killed most of humanity in the process, she’d dropped her cell phone in a champagne ice bucket outside someone’s room in the hallway of a casino in Las Vegas. Not having it with her when humanity struck the epic blow to both sides probably saved her life.
“Where were you when the cataclysm ended everything?” Fiona asked. There wasn’t even true agreement on the nomenclature of the event. The egg heads in the City of Broken Bridges called it the Cascade and so too did some of the former military folks in Tombstone, as Fiona recalled. Most of the Ravens called it the cataclysm though and gave it little thought or reverence.
Maude spit. “It didn’t end everything.”
“Tell that to the billions of dead folks,” Fiona said.
“At my ranch, most likely,” Maude said, “working like a dog or doing what we’re doing right now.”
That was about the answer Fiona expected. Maude probably rode horses and shot the shit as a primary hobby for most of her long life. The world in all probability stopped making sense a long time ago and only circled back around to making sense after the cataclysm rolled all the technological clocks back. There wasn’t any way Fiona could make Maude see that the world was a better place now, not with how many children and grandchildren Maude had lost. She glanced over to the stoic old woman with the hard features and sharp eyes. No, Fiona was wrong about the world and Maude not getting along. Maude was strong and knew herself; she’d never let the world dictate to her the way Fiona had. In that way, the world likely was worse for Maude simply because it didn’t have as much family and friends as it once did. Maude was going to be who she was regardless of how many cell phones or Facebook pages there were. Fiona envied the hell out of that.
“Are you going to tell me where you were, or you going to make me guess like an idiot?” Maude sneered.
“Passed out drunk on one of those big floating air mattress things in the middle of the Bellagio’s pool.” Fiona hadn’t ever told anyone that. Nobody had asked, probably because it didn’t matter, but all the same, she’d never admitted to anyone to that point exactly how stupid and serendipitous her survival had been. It was a big pool and she was far enough away from anything electronic, insulated by the large rubber raft she was laying upon, that the electronic pulse that destroyed most of humanity and the Slark invaders hadn’t touched her despite being in the middle of one of the most electrically demanding cities in the world.
“You’ve got a dumb kind of luck watching out for you,” Maude said.
Fiona couldn’t deny that. She’d done more than her fair share of keeping herself alive and she’d certainly had others shield her, Ekaterina, Veronica, Carolyn, Gieo, and even Zeke among them, yet with all that, she knew she should be dead. Luck definitely played a large part in her survival, and most of it was aptly called dumb luck.
Maude directed Fiona’s attention to a green spot in the desert off to the northwest a quarter of a mile out. They adjusted their path and began to head toward it. It was mid afternoon when they rode up on the wellspring watering a tiny scrap of the desert. Fiona wasn’t sure exactly how far they’d gotten although she guessed they were likely south of old Jaurez by then, but probably not by much.
They dismounted and set to watering the horses in the verdant little pools. Fiona polished off the last of the hot, dusty water in her canteen and dunked it into the clearest, tiny pond to fill again. Shrimp began lapping at another, smaller pond a little ways off. Fiona glanced over to the dog that was warily eyeing something across from the little delta of streams branching from the wellspring. The coyote had snuck up on them enough to take a drink herself.
Fiona remained stock still, watching the coyote that in turn watched her even as it drank. Fiona lifted her refilled canteen to her mouth to drink as well. The coyote stopped lapping at the water momentarily at spotting the movement, but resumed as soon as she’d assured herself Fiona meant her no harm in the action. Up close and in the light of day, the coyote didn’t look like a dog at all. She was lanky and perfectly formed in ways Shrimp wasn’t. There was a certain awkwardness to the shape of the cattle dog mutt that simply didn’t exist in the coyote. She was flawlessly suited to the world and a little beautiful because of it. Her coat was the same tan of the desert, broken by tiny steaks of darker and lighter shades to mimic shadows and sun. Her head was pointed and precise for hunting small game. And her tail was bushy in a decidedly un-doglike way.
“I watched her head toward the wellspring before I even saw it,” Maude whispered from behind Fiona. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say she knew it was here and thought we might want a drink.”
“And why do you know better?” Fiona whispered back.
“Because that’s not in the nature of a coyote friendship to offer water in exchange for nothing,” Maude replied.
Fiona turned her attention back to the coyote. The coyote paused in its drinking with its mouth still hovering above the water, but without its tongue emerging again. Casual as you please, the coyote turned away, having drunk its fill, and wandered back out of range. It sat in a sandy patch beside a saguaro cactus and waited.
“Your friend there may have helped us more than just the water,” Maude said, drawing Fiona’s attention away from their desert guide.
Fiona stood slowly as not to frighten off the coyote with sudden movement. She screwed the cap back onto her full canteen and turned to see what Maude was talking about. The old rancher woman had walked a little circle around the wellspring, coming to a stop over some tracks.
“Five riders, maybe more,” Maude said. “They were riding single file, but there is enough size variation in some of the hoof prints to venture a guess.”
Fiona knelt beside the churned earth and the u-shaped hoof tracks. A spill out of water had created mud of the desert floor at one point and then dried to cast several near perfect prints. There was no way of knowing how old the tracks were since they were created in dried mud; the edges were crisp, but that could still mean a matter of several weeks or a couple hours. “Any guesses on who left them?” Fiona asked.
“Apache,” Maude replied without hesitation.
“How are you so sure?”
Maude pointed to a set of their own horses’ tracks. “See a difference?”
Fiona stood and glanced between the two sets of prints. The difference was immediately apparent. Their horses had left muddy prints as well, but there were little dots along the u-shapes where horseshoe nail heads sat. The curves of the other tracks were perfectly smooth and unbroken. “They don’t have horseshoes.”
“Yep,” Maude said. “I’m guessing the West Durango folks probably have blacksmiths since they’re stationary, but the Apache likely don’t bother with metal working.”
“I guess we follow them,” Fiona said. “Water is rare enough in the desert that we’re likely to find another wellspring again along their trail.”
“You’re finally starting to think like a tracker,” Maude said.
Fiona smirked. “If I get too good at it, you’ll be out of a job.”
“I’ll be long dead before you’re even a tenth the tracker I am.”
Fiona hauled herself back up into Molly’s saddle. “Shit, you might be long dead before I have breakfast again, old woman.”
Fiona spurred Molly into a gallop down the Apache trail, heedless of whether anyone was following. She heard Maude scrambling to keep up and Shrimp barking at the commotion well behind her. She glanced out of the corner of her eye to see the coyote easily loping along through the desert a dozen or so yards off to the right.