Mule skinner: I couldn’t explain it better: “A muleskinner is a professional mule driver whose sole purpose was to keep the mules moving. The term “skinner” is slang for someone who might “skin” or outsmart a mule” (more).
Skinners: Part II
It was dark now. Really dark. Moonless, thank the gods, though a lack of light wouldn’t fool the motion sensors. But there were no motion sensors directed toward the hay fields and pastures, where random wildlife would have them in a constant uproar, and so he circled wide around the small village of barns and storage buildings to come in from the back. Once among the buildings, he knew the location of each and every camera and sensor, knew their range and sweep.
He never thought he’d be grateful for being saddled with the task of placing all those cameras.
His goal was the foaling barn. He was certain he could get into it without being seen and within it, in the little apartment set aside for him, he’d find Sandy, the head foaling man. Sandy he could trust. Sandy would have answers.
A deep breath, a final dart across a vacant paddock, a hurdle over a half-door left open for ventilation and he was in. His boots landing on bare, hard-packed dirt. Fresh straw and alfalfa mixed with horse filled the air. A single red light made navigation within possible without disturbing the brood mares bedded down for the night. A quick mental tally put Tandy, Mindy and Sparkle in residence, though they weren’t actually due for a couple of weeks. A soft whicker greeted him as he eased the door of the stall open.
Tempting, so very tempting to go down that row looking for the source of at least one new, high voice, but any stall with a horse would have a monitor. Theoretically, those monitors echoed only to Sandy’s apartment, but now wasn’t the time to test that theory.
The apartment was unlocked—not surprising since it had no lock. Sean eased through the door into complete darkness—again, not surprising as Sandy would be asleep. He tapped the switch and light flooded the short hallway. Coveralls and outdoor clothing lined one wall, a bench the other. Down the short hall was the living room, still in shadow. Too much shadow: the monitors should be casting a low red glow across the room. In the light from the hall he could see the easy chair and sofa, a couple of end tables—all as it should be, except . . . there wasn’t a paper or magazine anywhere, not so much as a stray sock on the floor.
That . . . was weird. Sandy had an apartment in the big house, one he shared with his wife and three children, but this time of year, this was his home. A home without Adrienne to pick up after him.
The bedroom was also empty, the bed neatly tucked and plumped. He sank onto the bed, staring into the dimly lit room. He’d been hoping for answers and all he got was more questions. Now . . . he’d have to go blind into the main house.
He pushed himself up and headed for the coveralls hanging just inside the apartment door, exchanged his fur-lined jacket for insulated coveralls with the Sunrise logo on the back, and stuffed his pony tail up inside a billed cap. It made the cap perch oddly, but anyone seeing that blond tail would know exactly who it belonged to.
He pulled the bill down over his eyes, and with another deep breath, headed boldly out into the night.
The mansion had begun life as a simple farmhouse. Over the generations, rather than tear down and begin anew, they’d simply added wings . . . and sometimes height. Building materials varied from prefab to distantly quarried marble, depending on the whim of the current owner. Servants had been added in much the same way, coming here to live and work, staying to marry and breed. Their living quarters comprised most of the wings.
Among those who lived here were Uncle Willi, his wife, Samantha, and their two children, Sam and Bindy. They lived as far from the delivery entrance as Uncle Willi could get them.
Which made the delivery entrance the safest place for him to come in.
He had keys, a hefty set of keys, one which got him inside. Storage rooms, pantry, kitchen . . . empty, as they should be this time of night. He strode, quietly but purposefully along the halls and up a back staircase, trying to look like a tired man ready for bed; not a hard stretch: he was downright exhausted.
His immediate goal was Tomas’ office. One way or another, there should be correspondence, letters of condolence, cards . . . something to give him a clue to that shrouded gate. He reached the office without incident, pulled off his glove, and touched the keypad in the correct sequence . . .
Nothing happened. His heart skipped a beat. He tried again. Still nothing. He tried Tomas’ code . . . which also failed.
Well, so much for speculation. Only one person, Willi, would change those codes, and when he’d left, only two other people, Tomas and Winni, had had them. Which meant . . . Tomas was dead, and Winni had confided—completely—in her brother.
Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.
He slumped against the wall, rubbing his eyes, trying to think what to do next.
Everything depended on Winni. Did she know Willi had cancelled Sean’s code? He was to inherit the ranch, whether or not Winni survived Tomas, but what if Winni decided otherwise? What if Willi had convinced his adopted mother to fight Tomas’ will?
It was certainly possible. Willi had resented him from the day Tomas first began talking adoption. Before that . . . before that he’d been beneath Willi’s notice. It was possible, even probable, that he’d expected to inherit, as closest living relative to Winni.
Until Sean Riley had come into the picture.
Damn. What had he walked into?
He could leave now, just cut his losses and go, the three of them, as Seamus had begged, but those mules . . . dammit, they were Seamus’. Tomas had promised. And those mules could mean the difference between a decent living and barest survival for all three of them. All they knew was mules. He had an ident implant that would link them with Sunrise, but even so, who would hire three kids? With the mules they could head for Prosperity, if that’s where Seamus thought they should go. It was a long ride, but well beyond Sunrise territory. It was the land of independent skinners.
But for that, they needed the mules. And the mules’ papers were in that office. He knew where.
“You shouldn’t have come back, Sean.”
His heart skipped a beat. Slowly, he turned to face the flat voice, looking down as he’d known he must.
“Bernadette.” Her full name, as she preferred. Her father, who followed his own choice always, never called her anything but Bindy, and never without a slight sneer.
A faint smile tightened her mouth. She was a homely child, there was no other word for it. Small, sallow, morbidly obese, she kept to the shadows of any gathering, doing her best not to be noticed.
Except with him. With him, she’d shared her dreams, because, she said, he never laughed at her.
He hadn’t seen anything funny about wanting to return to the stars from which humanity had come.
“Why not?” he asked very quietly, and she said, in the same low voice:
“You know. Otherwise you’d have come in the front door like an honest man, in your fur coat rather than coveralls, which you hate, and you wouldn’t have your hair stuffed up in that stupid hat.”
And if she was going to call her father, she would have already.
“Why aren’t you in bed?” he asked.
“I’ve been waiting, just in case. For three nights now. I figured you’d see the gate and know to be careful.”
“Only thanks to Seamus.”
She grunted. “He’s a spook, but a useful one.”
“He is that.” Sean hesitated, then: “Is it Tomas?”
And by her tone, that was all he was likely to get out of her.
“You’ve got to leave, Sean. Papa . . . he wants you gone. He’s been telling Aunt all kinds of bad things about you. Things that aren’t true, but she’s confused. I think her brain is going. I think . . .” Her voice shook. “I think he’s giving her something to make it go. It’s not safe for you to stay here.”
It was no more than he’d expected. Still . . . he looked at the office door. “Damn. I wish I could get in there.”
“You should just leave.”
“Tomas . . . he promised Seamus the team. Said he had the papers all made out. Waiting. If we had them . . .”
“That explains . . .” Her voice faded and she looked away.
“Explains what?” When she didn’t answer, he grabbed her arms, tried to force her to look at him. “Explains what, Bernadette?”
She didn’t flinch, for all his grip had to pain her, didn’t react at all, just stared down at the floor. Then: “He was mad. Really mad. I heard him tell Mama that Tomas was a damned fool, passing up so much money, and then giving the goldmine away to a blithering idiot.”
His heart skipped a beat. “The mules?”
“Tomas told him?”
She shrugged. “He didn’t have to. Papa has all the phones tapped.”
“Gods.” Horror filled him. Could it be—
“Here.” Standing on tiptoe, she reached past him and punched in a code.
The door clicked and he pressed the handle down, cracked the door, then turned. “You’re an angel,” he whispered and leaned down to kiss her cheek, but she turned her head at the last moment and met his lips, a fleeting, innocent kiss that ended as quickly as it began.
She was smiling as he pulled away, blushing. “I always wanted you to be my first. Not quite how I imagined it, but I’ll take it any way I can get it.” She pushed him through the door. “He hasn’t been able to get the safe locks changed yet. The ident tech was called up to the City. Now do whatever you need to do, then get out of here.”
He went directly to the safe, the one keyed to his ident as well as Tomas’ and no one else. That’s where the papers would be, Tomas had said.
As if, in retrospect, he’d known something might happen to him.
His hand froze. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? Gods, what had happened here after he left?
The safe opened. The papers were there . . . along with a thick envelope addressed to him, in Tomas’ impatient hand. He lifted the packet out, his hands shaking. Gods . . .
He dropped the packet on the desk, took up the envelope—
“Sean!” A hiss from the doorway. “Dammit, Sean, you’ve got to go!”
Then he heard it, too. A shout from far down the hall, just before an alarm blared.
He snatched up the packet and envelope, shoved it in the front of his coveralls . . . and ran, pulling Bernadette with him.
Down the stairs to a hallway, down that hallway to a closet . . . that was so much more. You could get out this way, but not in, and he doubted, very much doubted, that Willi knew about this particular exit.
“Sean, what’er you doing? You’ve got to—”
He stopped her with her second kiss, a real one this time, and whispered against her lips: “I’ll be all right. Trust me. Just wait here until you know it’s safe.”
Her hands gripped his arms, and her voice caught in a tiny sob. “I wish I could go with you.”
“So do I,” he said, and realized then that it wasn’t just to make her feel better. He liked her. He truly did. She was clever. And brave. She deserved better than a father that mocked her every time she opened her mouth. And if that father was, in fact, trying to disinherit him, and if he found out she’d helped him get these papers . . .
But even if she weren’t underage, the fact was, she was panting hard from just the small dash to get here. She’d never make the hike back to the camp. Physically, it was impossible. And he had no idea, none whatsoever, what the future held for him.
“I’ll come back. Five years. Ten. Whatever it takes. I’ll come back for you, hear?”
She gave a wry huff. “It’s sweet of you to even think of it.” She shoved at his chest. “Just . . . go, will you? You’re taking up too much room.”
“Idiot,” he said softly, and gave her a third small kiss as he reached behind his left hip and pressed the indentation he knew he’d find. The hidden door slid open.
“Hah!” Bernadette’s breath huffed against his cheek. “I might have known.” Her hands steadied him as he took a step back, feeling for the rungs of the ladder that would take him down to a tunnel well below the foundation.
“Take care of yourself,” he said by way of parting.
“Don’t worry about me. As far as Papa’s concerned, I’m too fat and stupid to worry about.”
“He’s a fool. You’re worth a million of your brother.”
“Just move it, will you?”
Another feeling after the rungs, then he paused, suddenly realizing. “Stormy!”
“The horse? What about him?”
“I can’t—” Gods, it was the final blow. “I can’t take him with me.”
There was no way they could possibly care for the horse and he’d be a magnet for thieves. And while he had the papers for the mules, Stormy would, truly, be considered stolen property—even to him. He just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t betray his father’s memory that way.
“Where is he? I’ll tell Danno. I promise. I won’t forget, Sean. I . . . I know how much you love him.”
Danno. Sandy’s son. Where the hell was Sandy? But he didn’t have time to ask. Couldn’t worry about Sandy. Not now.
“Tell him . . . tell him the aerie. He’ll know.” He’d better. Danno had shown him the viewing spot, years ago. And Danno loved Stormy almost as much as he did.
Sounds of feet running past the door. Her hands shoved him, hard. He caught one of those hands, guiding it to the hidden button, and as he worked his way down the ladder, the door slid shut between them.
A red glow touched the edges of the rocks as Sean stumbled into what had been the camp. The tent was down, the fire out, and Seamus was tucked in a sleeping bag, his head pillowed on Fin’s lap.
And Sam, Pal and Choclat were packed, and Jerri, Bill and Taffy were saddled.
Stormy’s tent was still up.
Gods, Seamus had known. Somehow, he’d known.
Fin shook Seamus awake and got stiffly to his feet.
“You’ve got the papers.” It wasn’t a question.
He patted the front of the coveralls.
“Good.” Fin headed for Bill and dug into a saddlebag for hardtack and a chunk of chocolate. “Eat up.” Handed them to Sean along with a thermal of caff and swung onto Bill’s back. “You can sleep in the saddle.”