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The sun was white and hot, and the wind blew ceaselessly.
Annie Hatch stood alone on her ranch house porch, one hand absently rubbing her stomach as she tried to decide what to do. The late-morning sun made her squint, the temperature already riding near ninety.
But the wind that coasted across the high desert made her wish, for the first time in a long time, that she were back in California.
It hissed softly through the brush, and whispered softly in her ear.
Of course, she thought; you could also just be a doddering old fool.
A quick smile, a quicker sigh, and she inhaled slowly, deeply, taking in the heat, and the piñon, and, so faintly she might have been imagining it, a sweet touch of juniper.
Wind or not, voices or not, this was, all in all, far better than Hollywood.
That was where she and Burt had made their money, so many years ago it might have been a dream; here was where they had finally made their lives, no dream at all.
A breath of melancholy fluttered her eyelids closed for a moment. It wasn't easy being a widow, even after fifteen years. There were still too many times when she thought she heard him clumping back from the stable behind the house, or whistling as he fiddled with the generator, or blowing gently on the back of her neck.
The wind did that to her, too.
"Enough," she muttered, and strode impatiently to the end of the porch, leaned over the waist-high, rough-hewn rail, and looked down the side of theadobe house to the stable. She whistled twice, high, sharp, and loud, and giggled silently when she heard Nando curse, not very subtly letting her know he hadn't finished saddling Diamond yet, was she trying to get him trampled?
A second later he appeared in the open doorway, hands on his wide hips, glaring at her from under his time-beaten Stetson.
She waved gaily; he gestured sharply in disgust and vanished again.
"That's cruel," a soft voice said behind her.
She laughed as she turned. "He loves it, Sil, and you know it."
Silvia Quintodo looked at her skeptically for as long as she could. Then she grinned broadly, shaking her head as if at a child too angelic to be punished. She was a round woman, face and figure, with straight black hair forever caught in a single braid that hung down her back. Her skin was almost copper, her large eyes the color of a starlit night. Today, as always, she wore a loose, plain white dress that reached to mid-shin, and russet deerskin boots.
"You're staring;" she scolded lightly.
Annie blinked; "I am? I'm sorry. My mind was wandering." She stared at the weathered floorboards. "I guess I'm just feeling my age today, dear."
Silvia rolled her eyes, -- oh, please, not again -- and returned inside to prepare an early lunch.
Annie thanked her silently for not feeding the self-pity.
In truth, she knew she wasn't so bad for an old lady of sixty-one. Her face was narrow, accentuating green eyes and dark, not quite thick, lips, the lines there were more from the sun than her age. Her hair was white, but softly so, cropped short and brushed straight back over her ears. Practical, but still lovely. And her slender figure was such that, even after all these years, she was still able to turn more than a few heads whenever she drove into the city or up to Santa Fe.
It was good for her ego.
Oh brother, she. thought; it's worse than I thought.
What it was, was one of those days that crept up on her now and then -- when she missed Burt so much it burned. There was never any particular reason for it, no specific thing that jogged her memory. It just happened. Like today. And the only cure was to take Diamond and a canteen and ride into the desert.
Maybe, if she were brave enough, all the way to the Mesa.
Sure, she thought; and tomorrow I'll wake up and find Burt beside me in bed.
A snort behind her made her jump,
She whirled just as Diamond thrust his head over the rail, his nose catching her stomach and shoving her back a step.
"Hey!" she said with a scolding laugh. "Knock it off, you big jerk."
He was already in bridle and saddle, a short black horse with a rough diamond blaze between his eyes. Nando stood beside him, grinning, one hand on the animal's rump, his stained brown hat pushed back on his head.
"Serves you right," he told her smugly. He could have been Silvia's twin, not her husband, save for the ragged streaks of gray in his hair, and the fact that his broad blunt nose, had been broken too many tunes for him to be rightly called handsome. Those who didn't know him figured him for an ex-boxer or an ex-Marine, not the foreman of a ranch that wasn't much of a ranch anymore.
Annie made a show of ignoring him and his rebuke. She adjusted her straw Western hat, fixed the strap under her chin, and swung her legs easily over the rail. Without pause or hesitation, she grabbed the horn and swung lightly into the saddle. Only then did she look down at him. "Not bad for an old lady, huh?"
"The day you get old, Señora," he answered solemnly, "is the day I stop shoveling horse shit for a living and start selling bad turquoise to the tourists up Santa Fe."
Diamond shook his mane impatiently
A warm gust made them turn their heads, but not before she saw the expression on his face.
When he looked back, he was somber. "It talks."
"I wouldn't know."The X-Files: Whirlwind. Copyright © by Charles Grant. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.