Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chapter Forty-Two

Although Amalia had complained of Donovan's outrageous assumption that he could add two extra mouths to their household, the children worked hard and soon became proficient in a number of small tasks. Tasha's small hands seemed unlimited in their talents as she sewed, crocheted, teased wool, and sorted seeds and herbs with the patience of a much older girl. Will seemed to grow taller and stronger overnight on Carina's good cooking and was a ready worker on any odd job they presented him with. He had a surprising amount of knowledge about animals, although he was vague about where he had learned so much. Carina thought he might have worked for a vet or farrier, while Amalia was certain his parents had owned a ranch.

It was Donovan who finally got Will's story out of him on a gorgeous winter afternoon of clear blue skies. They had gone to check their traps and were been disappointed to find that instead of a jackrabbit, one of their traps had caught a young coyote.

Donovan leveled his gun to shoot it, but Will stopped him. "Don't waste your ammo." He double-checked the safety on his rifle, then walked up to the snarling animal, felled it with a single blow of his rifle butt and bent to remove it from the trap.

"Are you sure it's dead?" Donovan asked, jittery at the thought of what an injured animal might do to the boy. "I don't want it waking up and attacking you."

"Oh, he's dead, all right. I've done this a lot."

Donovan considered while they disposed of the animal and put the trap into a bag to take home for cleaning. "Where'd you learn to kill a coyote like that?"

"Practice. One of my first jobs was guarding the animals at night, with nothing but a piece of old pipe. You get pretty good with a pipe when it's the only thing you've got."

"I thought you said your mom and dad were townies."

"They were. Probably still are, for all I know."

"You mean you're not really an orphan? You have a home you could go to?"

"I'm not an orphan, if you mean are my parents still alive. I have no reason to think they're dead. But no, I don't have a home to go to."

"You ran away."

"Not from them."

"Then from who?"

"From the man they sold me to."

They were at the next trap now, empty and unsprung. "They sold you to a man out in the country who needed a hand."

"Yeah." Will moved forward to check if the trap was still baited. "There were too many of us and it was supposed to be like an apprenticeship."

"Seems like you learned a lot."

"I learned some things." He took off down the trail.

Donovan hurried to catch up. "Why didn't you stay?"

Will’s face clouded over. "There were things he wanted to teach me that I didn't want to learn. Everyone in town knew what he was like, but he paid good prices to our parents if we had the kind of look he wanted."

"I guess that's why you couldn't go home."

"They needed the money and would've sent me back."

They checked a few more traps in silence before Donovan’s curiosity got the better of him. "What about Tasha? Don't tell me again that she's your sister."

The boy shrugged, picked up a stone and tossed it into a fallow field. "She is my sister, as far as I'm concerned. When I found her she didn't have no one. I promised I'd be her brother and look out for her always."

"So she was alone?"

"She was with her mother, but her mother was dead."

"Where was this?"

"Off to the side of a road in the dark. I was trying to get to Jonasville and I guess they were, too. Or maybe they were leaving it. Tasha couldn't really explain what happened. Her mother must've been sick or something. I don't know."

"How long ago was this?" Donovan asked, in some concern. "Does she remember?"

"I don't think she remembers much," Will said. "I don't even know if she remembers her real name. She never told me. I call her Tasha because I had a sister, a real one, with that name. But she's pretty smart. She might remember more than I think. She always surprises me."


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Chapter Forty-One

Donovan heard Carina's voice in the other room. "Bring it around like this," she said. "Hook. Pull. Good. Let's do another one."

He walked into the living room and found Carina on the sofa with Tasha, taking advantage of the crisp morning light to teach the little girl how to crochet. Yarn was strung everywhere, but Donovan could see that Tasha was making progress. Although she handled the needle awkwardly, a sizable tail of crochet dangled from her fingers as she hooked her next loop.

Carina watched the operation closely. "One more and I'll teach you how to turn around and go back the other way so we can make a granny square." She looked at Donovan. "Her hands are too small for knitting needles, but she's taking to crochet pretty quick."

"Good. Ever since Amalia said. . ."

"Don’t pay any attention to what she says. She thinks everyone's useless. Even me."

"I wouldn't say that."

She motioned Donovan over. "Look at these nice even stitches."

Donovan examined the chain obediently. "Better than I could do."

"Which isn't saying much." Carina arranged Tasha's needle and yarn for the next stitch. "We'll go backwards now. Let's do the first ones together." With her hands guiding Tasha's, she made a few stitches. "Let's see if you've got it."

"I understand," Tasha said. She made a few loops and tugs with the needle, frowned, then bit her lip in concentration as she made the next stitches in the row, just as even as the first ones had been.

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised,” she told Donovan. “She's good at sewing, too."

"Maybe she should've been picking the pockets instead of Will, since she's so good with her hands.”

"Oh, hush." Carina stood up, disentangling herself from the yarn. "Did you want to see me about something?"

"I just came in to see if there were any other gloves around. Amalia is killing us out there with her fence-mending." He held out his scratched and bleeding hands.

"What happened to the leather gloves you had this morning?"

"I gave them to Will."

"So she's got both of you working on this project?"

"Was there some other plan?"

"Will was supposed to take one of the jennies and collect firewood along the creek. I guess we'll have to send him tomorrow."

"Amalia's been anxious about this fence."

"Yes, and I suppose it's best we give her what she wants today. It'll make it that much easier for us if she's in a better mood tomorrow."

Carina motioned with her head for Donovan to follow to her bedroom. "I think I have another pair of gloves you can use." She called back to Tasha. "Wait for me when you get to the end of the row, okay?"

She led Donovan into the room she had once had for her own but that she now shared with Amalia so the children would have a place to sleep. The room had seemed spacious before, but now it felt cramped and messy, even though not a thing was out of place. Carina pulled open a dresser drawer and rummaged among gloves, scarves, belts and knitted hats. "Here." She handed him a single glove of heavy canvas. "I know there's another one somewhere."

Donovan tried to pull the glove on. "It's too small. I guess I'll give these to Will and take mine back."

Carina handed him the other glove and shut the dresser drawer. Without meaning to, she glanced at her image in the dresser mirror and smoothed her hair.

"You look exquisite, as always.”

"Do I really?" Her eyes searched his for confirmation, then returned to the mirror. "In Miles' last letter he asked for a new picture of me, but I don't have one. I don't know if I'd send him one if I did. I'm not the same person. It was a long time ago."

"You're a beautiful woman, and any man would be proud to carry your picture with him."

Carina smiled. "You know all the right things to say, don't you?"

"What do you mean? I only speak the truth."

"The truth as you see it at the moment." She turned back to her reflection and leaned in to examine her face more closely. "And the truth is that I'm getting older and he's far away."

"He's getting older, too."

Carina's features softened. "Yes, I sometimes wonder in what ways he's changed, and if the ways he's different now will be compatible with the ways I've changed. We have magnificent plans for when he comes home: the clinic, the home we'll build. But what if. . . ?"

"Any man would be happy to come home to you."

Carina refused to meet Donovan’s eyes but took his hand in both of hers and pretended to examine it, caressing the small nicks and scratches from the morning's work. Then she brought his hand to her lips, kissed his palm and cupped it against her cheek. "If I wasn't married. . ."

Donovan held his breath, acutely aware that nothing he said would be the right thing.

Carina gave an odd little sigh and examined his hand again, tracing the scrapes from the barbed wire. There was a small quaver in her voice when she spoke again. "I'll give you some ointment for these, and you'll get your gloves back from Will before you do any more work on that fence." She pushed past him toward the bathroom and handed him a little glass jar. "This will keep those scratches from getting infected."

He took the jar and grabbed her hand. "If you weren't married. . ."

Carina smiled as if shaking off a foolish daydream. "But I am married. Amalia, though. . ."

"What about her?"

She opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it. "She needs your help with that fence."


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Chapter Forty

In spite of the cold, Donovan was glad to get on the road. The wind drove pellets of ice into his face, but they melted on contact, cooling his thoughts as well as his body. He drew down his hat, ducked his head and pulled up his scarf to cover his nose and mouth. It only helped a little. The muffler soon iced up and his pocket stones cooled. He would have to put up with the cold or make camp early.

It was nearly noon before the weather broke, but gradually the snow stopped and the skies showed sluggish signs of clearing. Once the sun came out, there would be a chance of it actually getting warmer.

He made camp that evening near an arroyo and headed into the mountains the next day. Here the previous day's snow had stuck, but the drifts weren't high and he was able to drive the wagon in the ruts made by another driver. The sight of the occasional cougar track kept him on the alert, but he saw no evidence of bears, which was his greatest worry. He camped that evening near the summit, and in the morning affixed his yellow traders' flag to the cart and started down the path to the valley floor.

His first order of business was to find a safe place to leave his wagon at the market. Then he took Goneril to the blacksmith. He haggled over the price and offered a bit of old cast iron in trade. Satisfied that he had made the best deal he could, he left the jenny at the blacksmith's hitching post and decided to visit Mother Reyes and see if she had any letters or ration books.

As he walked down the main street he took in the scene— vendors hawking their wares on the streets, carts rumbling past on their way to market or out to the fields and home, children bundled in layers of rags and ponchos begging, selling or chasing each other through the streets. A musician played a homemade guitar on a corner, crooning a ballad in a combination of Spanish and some native Indian language. A plastic-picker made her way down the street with her canvas bag of broken toys, dishes and electronics from another time, hoping to gather enough to sell to a trader from the recycling plant. The smoke and smells of street cooking mingled with the chants of the vendors, the shouts of the children, the clop of hooves, the crunch of bicycle tires on gravel, and the animated voices of ordinary people going about their business. It was a lively scene and Donovan took a deep breath, glad to be a part of it.

He had stopped to watch a file of Indians pass, wearing native costumes representing their political sentiments, when a shriek caught his attention. He turned and saw a dark, tiny little girl, running toward him, chased by an older boy shouting curses at her. With a cry, the girl tripped and sprawled in the dust at Donovan's feet, catching him off balance and nearly bringing him down. The boy was going too fast to stop and crashed into them both. This time Donovan had a split second to prepare and used his braced leg to stabilize himself and absorb the impact. The boy stumbled, murmured something that sounded like an apology and was about to bolt when Donovan realized that the girl seemed awfully calm for someone who was supposed to be scared out of her wits. His movements more instinct than thought, Donovan grabbed the boy by his collar. In the same deadly voice he had once used on belligerent hoarders, he said, "Give me back my wallet!"

* * *

The boy's name was Will and he claimed to be eleven years old. He was thin from hunger, but his features suggested he would be sturdy, even rugged, if he could ever get enough to eat. He handed back Donovan's wallet with a look of disappointment in his gray eyes, but as he rubbed a hand through his hair, he seemed more embarrassed at having tried to steal than at having been caught.

"Thought this brace made me slow, did you?" Donovan put the wallet back in his pocket.

Will shrugged. "It was worth a try."

Donovan looked at the girl, now standing at his feet. She was the first black person he had seen since leaving the Guard. Not mixed-race like he was, she was so dark the dust of the road made her look like she was dusted in sugar. The image wasn't inappropriate. She looked sweet, with intelligent eyes that tilted up at the corners. If she survived the streets, she would be a beauty some day. Donovan glanced critically at her bare, cracked feet, wondering how she was avoiding frostbite with no shoes. "Who are you?"

The girl lifted her chin. "Tasha."

"She's my sister," Will said. He motioned to her and she went to stand next to him.

Donovan considered. A family relationship seemed unlikely, given Will's pale skin and the faint splash of freckles over his nose. "It's a bad business you've got her into," he said. "It's not right to steal."

"How else are we going to eat? I wouldn't do it if we had some other way.”

"You have no family or friends who could care for you?"

"We've only been here a week."

"Where have you been staying?"

"There's a burnt building where some of the other children sleep."

Donovan turned away so they wouldn't see his anger and confusion. There was no way he could abandon these kids, not with his own memories of the street. He couldn't take them home with him, though, could he? "Come with me."

Will and Tasha stared. "Where are we going?"

"To the blacksmith. I’m going to ask him if there's a decent place where you can eat and sleep. Maybe a place where you can go to school or something."

"There's no place like that."

The children were right. The blacksmith didn't know of such a place, but he directed them to the church. "The priest will think of something," he said, pausing over his hot irons only long enough to cast a disapproving look at the children.

They went to the church, but although the ancient priest was kind, he didn't know of any place, either. "The church has no one who does that, although it used to be something we were known for. There's a nice ranch a couple days' ride from here, but they only take boys."

"I don't go anywhere Tasha can't go," Will said.

The priest frowned. "If you aren't willing to be separated, that only leaves Miss Stevens' place, but I don't recommend it."

Tasha's eyes widened. "Is that the place. . . ?"

"Yeah, that's the place the other kids talked about," Will said.

"Well, that's the only place I know that's close and takes both boys and girls."

Donovan thanked the priest, accepted his blessing and took the children back into the street. As the children stood squinting in the sunlight, Donovan asked, "So what's with this Stevens place?"

"Nothing," Will said.

"Don't 'nothing' me. I saw how you acted in there. What's up?"

"All the kids where we've been staying know about it. It's no good. The lady sells kids to work on farms and if she can't sell you, she makes you work at her house, or at a food stall on the street. If you disobey, you get no food and she beats you. She even puts kids out to beg sometimes. She likes the ones who are crippled. They make the most money."

"Maybe those children are exaggerating."

"I don't think so."

They walked down the dusty market road. Donovan wasn't sure what to do now. He kept his head down, jaw set, eyes focused on the patch of ground in front of his feet. In spite of the limitations of his brace, he moved quickly and the children hurried to keep up. Tasha grabbed his hand. "Can we go home with you?"


"We'll be good."

"That's not the problem. I've got no place for you."

"You got no home, either?"

"I have a home. It's just that it belongs to someone else. I can't go taking you there without asking."

"So ask," Will said.

Donovan stopped. "It's not that easy. It's far away. Two days by donkey cart, and that's if the weather's good." He shook his head. "Once I take you there, you're staying. There's no place to send you away to. But I can't go taking you home and just assume my women can look after you."

"You're like us then," Will said. "You ain't got no real place." He looked at Tasha. "I guess we'll go try and pick some pockets, and hope the other kids don't steal from us while we sleep, like last night."

Tasha's eyes welled up with tears. "Are you sure we can't go home with you?" she asked Donovan. "I'm tired and I like you."

"It's okay," Will said. He put an arm around her. "Haven't I taken good care of you 'til now?" He turned a combative gaze on Donovan. "Go away. We don't need any more of your kind of help."

Donovan hesitated. "I'm sorry. . ."

"For what? Getting our hopes up?" He patted Tasha's shoulder. "I don't care so much about me, but she don't deserve this kind of life."

"No one does.”

"Well, go on. We'll make out okay." He turned his attention back to Tasha. "Let's see if we can get some of the stuff they throw away from the restaurant. The rats aren't all that big. We'll take some sticks and—"

"Oh, for Christ's sake."


Donovan sighed. "Will you two cut that out? Come on."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean we've got to get back to the market."


"I'm selling goods from the farm." He glared at the children. "You're both going to help." He turned back toward the market and began walking again.

Will and Tasha exchanged triumphant smiles behind Donovan's back, then ran to catch up with him. The girl grabbed his hand while Will babbled in excitement about how much help they would be.

"That's good," Donovan said grimly. "Because when I show up at the farm with two extra mouths to feed, I’ll be lucky if my women don’t kill me."


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Donovan stood alone in the kitchen, warming his hands over the stove as the coffee boiled. He glanced toward the window where a light snow was falling. It wasn't sticking, and the sky to the west was clearing. The road to Macrina would be passable and he could go to town, even if it meant nearly freezing.

His heavy wool jacket lay across a kitchen chair and he picked it up and held it in front of the oven door, turning it this way and that to warm it before slipping his arms into the sleeves. Then he put on his scarf, hat and gloves, and poured a cup of coffee. That should keep the cold at bay.

He picked up the solar lantern and slipped out the kitchen door. Ice crystals collected in the folds of his clothes and dropped into his coffee. The cold stiffened his leg and made it ache. Would it ever be like it had been before? Carina said no, but a man could hope.

He entered the barn through the side door, set down his coffee and lit the barn lanterns. Now that he had some light, he could sip his rapidly cooling coffee and take his time examining the wagon. He had meant to load it the day before but Carina had needed his help with the livestock and Amalia ended up doing it alone.

He pulled back the tarp and checked the supplies: feed for the donkeys, a spare harness, a few tools, a saddle in case he needed to do any riding, water, a tent. The trade goods were bundled in as well: wool yarn, socks, old clothes, preserves, pickles, eggs, and cheese. There were jars of filtered honey and honeycomb, left over from last season, which he would sell on behalf of the Petersons. The cart was also weighted down with scrap metal that Amalia wanted him to trade for extra shoes for the jennies, since there wasn't a forge in the valley. Carina had instructed him to get Goneril re-shod while he was at it. She didn't like the way she had been shod the month before, although Donovan couldn’t see what the problem was, and it obviously wasn't serious enough to keep her from pulling the wagon.

He made sure that everything was packed properly— heaviest items over the front wheels, breakables surrounded by softer items such as wool and sacks of feed. It all seemed in order, except for the spot where he would stash the food he would eat on the trip. He was pulling the tarp back into place when the side door creaked open and Amalia came in, bundled in a heavy cloak and dusted with snow. "Don't you trust my packing skills?"

"Of course I do." He pulled the tarp taut. "I just like to see where everything is so I can find it later. I feel bad you had to do it all alone."

"Carina couldn't have handled that goat on her own, and I didn't mind. It's not like there's a lot of other work to be done in January." She frowned at the worn canvas. "I don't know if I trust this tarp in the snow. I know it's clearing up, but it might be different on the way back." She went into the tack room. "We'll double up, in case the weather turns."

"I'm sure it will be fine."

"No, you’re too confident of your luck. It’s going to get you in trouble some day.”

Donovan followed close on her heels. "I wish you'd quit saying things like that. What have I ever done to you and your sister to make you feel like you can pass judgment on me?"

"Let's just say you make some deals in town that are a little too good." She opened a wooden chest.

"I'm helping, aren't I?"

"You know what I'm trying to say, so quit acting innocent."

"I make that extra money playing poker," Donovan said. "What’s it to you, anyway? I bring back more stuff than you could ever get on your own."

Amalia straightened up, a dusty bundle of canvas in her hands. "That's more to it than that."

"Tell me, then." He tried to take the tarp from her hands, but she took it away from him and walked to the cart, unfolding it and shaking out the creases. Donovan grabbed one end of the canvas and together they began fastening it on top of the first. "Why do you always have to highlight the negative things? Can't you just accept a little good fortune now and then?"

Amalia glared at him across the wagon. "How are we supposed to sleep at night when you're gone, knowing you're up to things that could be dangerous? Pick the wrong pocket, cheat the wrong man at cards, or on a go out there all alone, taking risks with our goods and animals. What are we supposed to do while we're waiting, not knowing what's happening out there?"

"If that's how you feel, then why are you letting me go?" Donovan gave a slight smile. "There's something else going on, isn't there? Come here so I can talk to you."

She shook her head.

He walked over and stopped just inches away. "I'll take good care of your things, and I can certainly take care of myself." He pulled her close and rested his cheek against her hair. She stiffened but didn't move away.

They stood that way for only a minute, but when Donovan moved to let her go, she pulled him back to her and kissed him hard, pressing her body against him. Then just as suddenly, she turned away.

"Don't you ever--"

Donovan laughed. "You were the one who--"

"That's not the point."

"Isn't it? Well, it's not like there's a point to anything else we do."

"You don't get it at all." Scowling, she headed toward the door. "Don't come anywhere near me!" She made sure to slam the door behind her.

Donovan stomped back to the cart in confusion, slammed a hand against it, and slumped against one of the high wooden sides. By the time he had recovered his thoughts and felt like he could submit to the peaceful domesticity of the kitchen again, he found only Carina with her curious but inscrutable glances. Amalia was nowhere to be found.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Donovan and Carina returned to the farm by mid-afternoon. After rubbing the donkeys down, they stopped by the goat paddock before heading to the house, and the brief visit seemed to banish all remaining traces of Carina's dark mood. They had just reached the kitchen garden when a sharp, sweet smell made them pause and sniff the air appreciatively.

"Oh, good," Carina said. "Amalia made wassail like she promised."

"What is that?"

"Hot spiced apple cider," Carina said. "It's almost too warm for it today, but we'll enjoy it just the same."

They came in through the kitchen door, stopping in the entryway to shake the dust off their clothes. The pot of wassail simmered on the stove, a few dark loaves of a cake-like bread sat cooling on a rack, and underneath all the sweet smells was another scent, that of real food cooking. Carina peeked inside the stove's warming reservoir. "Tamales! Amalia must've planned this for days, or at least since last night, to have gotten the corn husks soaked."

"Where is Amalia, by the way?"

She wasn't in the living room, but they found another surprise— a small plastic Christmas tree. It was old and bedraggled, but with ribbons tied on its branches and a few shiny chains and ornaments, it hardly seemed to matter. Scattered around it were a few gifts, some wrapped in bits of bright cloth and others in old paper, hand-decorated with dabs of red and green paint. It all looked so festive that Carina went running down the hall to find her sister.

From one of the bedrooms, Donovan could hear their voices, Carina's happy and excited, Amalia's more sedate, embarrassed at the fuss. After a few minutes the two women came into the living room, each carrying packages. Amalia was so pleased at the effect of her cooking and decorating that she almost forgot to be cool to Donovan. "How was church?" she asked with a little downward curve of her lips that suggested she had already guessed at the fiasco of the Mass.

"I've never been to Catholic church," Donovan said. "I had nothing to compare it to, and I have a feeling that was a good thing."

"That Joaquin. . ." Carina said.

"Complete disaster?"

"Well, it was entertaining, at least."

While the women talked, Donovan went to his room to get the gifts he had bought in Macrina on a market run he had made earlier in the month. He had paid extra to have them wrapped in real Christmas paper, but as he brought them into the living room, he couldn't help feeling exposed and phony, as if there was something artificial about his gifts that didn't hold up well against the women's more sincere efforts in cloth and paint. Nevertheless they gushed over the wrapping paper as if it were foreign riches.

"Where did you get that?"

"I haven't seen Christmas paper in ages."

"It must've cost you a fortune. You shouldn't have done it."

"I'm going to be real careful with mine," Carina said. "I won't tear it a bit, and then I can use it again next year."

"Yes," Amalia said. "I suppose if we reuse it a few times, that makes the cost work out, more or less. She looked at Donovan. "You shouldn't have done it, though."

"I wanted to get you something nice," Donovan insisted.

"But the paper?" Carina smoothed an angel on a blue background. "It's the thought that counts, not the gift, and certainly not the packaging."

"Well, I did it," Donovan said. "And there's no point discussing it now."

The gifts the women gave Donovan were simple, mostly homemade things— sweaters, a cap, socks. They also gave him a nice pair of leather work gloves that he felt certain they had bought from Alvi. The women’s gifts to each other were in a similar vein—items they had made or repaired on the others’ behalf. Among these items there seemed to be no surprises because they giggled and teased each other like they had known all along what they were getting, and didn’t mind a bit. But Amalia had also bought Carina a special gift—a watch. “So you can quit saying you lost track of time out there in the goat pen."

"Oh, I don’t think it’ll do much good for that,” she said, admiring it on her wrist. “I wouldn’t want to wear such a nice thing where I could lose it. Not after the way I lost my last one.” She gave Amalia a mischievous look. “Your clever plan has failed.”

"Give it back, then. Maybe I could use a new watch, myself.”

Donovan broke into their playful bickering. “Aren’t you going to open what I got you?”

Guiltily, they tugged at the colorful wrapping, using their nails to break the cellophane tape.

There were amber earrings and a necklace for Amalia, who liked to wear shades of brown and yellow. Carina, who always went about in blue, got a bracelet of silver and turquoise beads and a silver hair clip decorated with a turquoise bird. And each woman got a small box of chocolate.

The women looked at their gifts in silence. Finally Amalia spoke. "This is way too much. You shouldn't spend your money on us this way."

"Not even if I want to?"

Both women dropped their heads, ashamed of themselves. Carina recovered first, throwing her arms around Donovan's neck and kissing him. "Thank you. I'm sorry I have such bad manners." She kissed him again.

"I guess I've got bad manners, too." Amalia came over and did the same, then stepped back and smiled self-consciously. "You'll have to forgive us. We're out of the habit of getting presents from a man."

"Or from anyone except each other," Carina added. "We hardly remember what we're supposed to do."

"I think you're just supposed to say thank you," Donovan said.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Donovan had cause to remember Carina's words about the length of Catholic Masses. It seemed to go on forever— the kneeling, the rising, the responses he didn't know and wasn't prepared for. The sermon about the Christ child started off well enough with some readings from the Bible, but devolved quickly into a long ramble about the joys of parenthood, punctuated by little waves and affectionate glances at the woman and baby in the front pew. Even Carina, who adored children in much the same way she loved animals, was disgusted.

"Sometimes I swear they should've kept that rule about priests not marrying," she muttered to no one in particular.

Emma nodded. "Or at the very least teach them the difference between Baby Jesus and their own brats."

"Did he even go to seminary?" Carina asked. "Or did the family just set him up and that was the end of it?"

"He went away for a couple years," Emma whispered back. "They say he was at seminary, but who knows?"

The young man dropped the communion wafer while intoning, "This is my body. . ."

"Which is dropped on the floor and stepped on for you," Emma muttered while Carina suppressed a giggle. Both women skipped communion.

* * *

When it was over and the congregation dismissed, they filed into the sunlight of the warming December day. Donovan took a deep breath and admired the cloudless sky. "Sure is beautiful."

"Yes," Carina said. "It would've been nice to have had a white Christmas, but this is so pretty I don't think I care."

"A shame the service wasn't any better," Emma sniffed. "I had hoped Joaquin would be a little more serious about it once he got settled in."

"He's still young," Carina said. "He'll get better."

"It's easy for you to be patient. You're not Catholic."

While Carina visited with the valley farmers, Donovan walked around the property. The grounds were neatly tended with rock beds and native plants. Already Donovan had learned enough to distinguish nopal, yucca and the drought-resistant vine that produced a stinking gourd. Behind the church lay a fallow vegetable garden and a low adobe building, whether house, school or some other type of official structure he couldn't be sure.

A trail wound past the house and up a dusty hill. Curious, he followed it past more fields, all lying fallow for the winter. The trail dipped and rose again, curving past another adobe building and up to the crest of a low mesa. It was hard going for Donovan with his weak leg, but finally he reached the top, breathing hard. He looked at the desert landscape all around and then stopped short, noticing the wall and iron gate. He was almost as surprised the gate hadn't been stolen for scrap, as he was by what lay beyond. This was the local cemetery.

He put his face against the bars, gazing in wonderment at the long rows of neat headstones and crosses, many decorated with votives, homemade paper flowers or winter greenery. The stones seemed to spring of their own accord out of the land, backdropped by the string of mesas that formed one of the boundaries separating the valley from the rest of the world. The wind swept down off the range, fluttering the ribbons of the decorations and stirring up clouds of pale dust that swirled across the graves.

At the sound of a footstep, he turned around. Carina stood wrapped in her faded cloak, regarding him with an unreadable expression. "Do you want to go in?"

Donovan hadn't been considering it, but hesitated to say so. He tugged at the gate and said, "It's locked," as if that settled the matter.

She motioned for him to follow her. "The other gate is always open."

She led him to a smaller gate farther down the wall and it creaked open with a sound that echoed in lonely waves that carried on the wind. Inside, the ground was packed hard as stone, covered with a light film of dust and punctuated by a few hardy weeds. They walked the rows of graves in silence, stopping every now and then to examine a decoration or read a name. The nicest stones were from the early years of the century. They were polished, deeply carved, and had flowers or trees inscribed as part of their motif, along with fading photographs behind glass. The earliest stones were worn nearly smooth by the constantly-blowing dust, and the most recent ones were poorly made and already chipping or fading. Some of the new graves had only wooden slabs with names scratched into them, and a few were marked only by an outline of stones and a wooden cross with no names at all to identify the dead.

Donovan turned to Carina, an unspoken question in his eyes.

She led him to a plot outlined with rocks, and pointed to a long double headstone. It was a handsomely carved and polished piece of granite, but contained only names, no dates. "They bought it long ago, when their money was still worth something. Maybe someday we'll be able to find someone to add the dates."

"At least their names will be remembered," he said, taking her hand. He thought it odd that the grave was bare while so many of the others were covered with offerings. Now that he considered the matter, he had never known either woman to go to the cemetery. "I'd be happy to drive you here to decorate, if you like."

Carina pulled her hand away. "I don’t like to think of them as something in the ground. Let's go back." Clutching the velvet wrap against her body, she started toward the gate.

Donovan hung back for a moment, then followed. Outside the gate, she waited, head down, face obscured in the shadow of her hood. He held out his arm and she took it without a word.

They were halfway down the hill before she spoke. "If I didn't know Miles was coming back some day. . ."

"You'd be strong, just the same.”

"No, I wouldn't. Amalia would, but I wouldn't be able to stand one more death."

Donovan chose his next words carefully. "Things happen, you know. Unexpected things. And we have to-"

"No." She let go his arm and hugged herself, shaking her head so hard the hood fell back and her curls tumbled across her shoulders. "Bad things aren't inevitable. They can't happen all the time."

"You're right," Donovan said, putting an arm around her. "Good things happen, too. I guess I just never had any faith to lose, let alone any to try and hang on to." They were at the base of the hill and he guided her across the yard toward the wagon. "Finding your farm was the best luck I ever had, but it looked like the worst luck possible when I was lying on the ground with Amalia threatening to shoot me. I guess I'm trying to say not to take it all so hard. Things have a way of working themselves out."

"Of course they do. My husband is coming home and we're going to start a medical clinic. Things will get easier."

"Aren't they a little easier now?" Donovan asked, slightly hurt. "I know I'm still learning, but I sort of hoped I was helping a little."

Carina's face broke into a smile. "Of course you're a help. You're one of the best things that's happened to us in a long time, too.”

He gave her a quick hug and offered her a hand into the cart.

Carina gathered her spangled skirt, then hesitated. "I don't suppose," she said, "That you've learned how to manage those hobbles?"

Donovan cast a wary glance at Goneril's legs, still in their leather hobbles. Working around the feet of an animal that could kill with a single kick made him nervous. It seemed like a foolish way to die. "I think I can manage it.”

He put Carina into the wagon and she sat back and closed her eyes. "Good," she sighed. "Funny how sometimes you don't realize how tired you really are."


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Six

The sun had risen and was gleaming off the stained glass windows of the little adobe church. Donovan was surprised at the number of people arriving, some on horseback, some in carts or improvised traps like their own. A few were even on foot. "I had no idea there would be so many people."

"The valley isn't as deserted as it looks, is it?" Carina smiled. "Some of them come a long way for holiday Mass. This church serves a large area."

There were no places to tie their jennet, all sign posts, fence posts and other improvised hitching spots having been taken away over the years by people seeking scrap or building materials, so Carina put the hobbles on Goneril. "I don't like having to do that to her," she said. "I know how she hates it."

"It's not like we'll be here long."

"It's Catholic Mass," Carina reminded him. "We could be here all day." She took Donovan's arm. "Or at least it will feel that way. But let's go inside and see who's here."

The church was neat and freshly whitewashed, lit with oil lamps and candles. People milled about the entryway in their best winter clothes, some of which were indeed very fine, while others were merely clean, well-mended and neatly pressed. Donovan could hardly follow the thread of any one conversation for the way everyone drifted back and forth between English and Spanish. Before he could become exasperated, he and Gonzales recognized each other in the crowd. Gonzales waved and pushed his way through, leading a frail woman with a dowager's hump and a hopeful look in her milky eyes. He greeted Carina first and pulled his mother forward. "Mamá, you remember Carina Cunningham, the veterinarian."

The woman reached out, straining to see through the clouds of her cataracts. "Of course I do."

Carina grabbed her outstretched hands. "Nice to see you, Señora. Te miras bien."

The old woman smiled at the compliment. "You know better than to lie." She coughed into a handkerchief. "Maybe in the spring I'll shake this thing."

"Ask your son to look for some horehound next time he's in Macrina."

"My boy looks for whores in Macrina, not horehound."

Donovan was so startled by this feisty remark that he was unprepared when Gonzales changed the subject by introducing him. "Donovan lives with Carina and Amalia, and helps out on their farm.”

"Oh, good," the woman said, clutching at Donovan's hands. "We need more good men in this valley. The war has carried them all off and when they come back, they’re like my worthless son. You be good to those girls, and the Lord will bless you."

"I'll do my best. And I'm sure your son is better than you think."

"I'll be the judge of that." She reached for Gonzales' arm again. "Take me to a pew. I need a little time with my thoughts before the service starts."

Carina took Donovan around the room, making introductions. He met the Mallory family, a young couple with a brood of active children, impossible to count because they were constantly in motion. He met the Bustos girls, all five of them in pants and fancy boots, made hard-eyed and bitter by their life alone on their deceased father's sheep ranch. He met a weathered man who spoke in a flat tone and refused to meet his eyes. Carina whispered that he was autistic and had held the position of church groundskeeper ever since he was found abandoned on the steps as a boy.

"Are the Petersons here?" Donovan asked, looking around.

"I doubt it. They're so Lutheran that it hurts." She tugged his sleeve. "Let's go find a place to sit. There'll be more time to visit later."

Donovan followed her lead, dabbing his fingers in the holy water and crossing himself as she did as they went into the nave. They hadn't been seated long when a woman in a red wool dress with gold buttons sat down next to Carina. "How are you, dear? It seems I hardly ever see you any more."

"Things are going well, Emma. And you?"

She gave a tight little smile. "About as well as can be expected."

While Emma and Carina got caught up, Donovan looked around. In a pew on the other side of the aisle he noticed a crowd of children and their elderly relatives gazing toward the altar, entranced by the bisque santa in her crèche, dressed in white robes and lace. A few women in the front pew seemed equally captivated, gazing at her lovingly as they murmured over their rosaries, but most of the people filing into the pews were intent only on each other, shaking hands, greeting old friends and exchanging news. With so much work to be done and so much distance between the larger ranches, the times when people could get together were too precious to be wasted in piety.

As the sun began to light the rose window, a few weather-beaten men in black suits walked up the aisle, guiding the stragglers to their seats. A woman in a green velvet shift began playing the piano, and this appeared to be the signal the congregation had been waiting for because everyone fell silent as the young priest came up the aisle in his flowing robes, preceded by an altar boy in a yellowing cassock trimmed in lace.

Carina whispered in Donovan's ear. "The priest is Joaquin Estrada. His parents are pretty important in the valley. He was able to dodge the draft."

Donovan nodded in understanding. It had been a big joke in the streets of his youth that if you wanted to be sure of never having to fight, become religious. Some of the more manipulative boys in his gang had tried it, going to churches, temples, and even mosques, willing to preach anyone's faith if it would keep them out of the war or allow them to spend their army days blessing wounded and dying soldiers behind the lines. So many new religions had sprung up to accommodate these men that the Feds had put a stop to it by drafting any religious who didn't have an established church of his own, and not just any church would do. Its congregation had to prove a history going back to at least 2012, otherwise, a priest, rabbi, or imam was just as draftable as the next guy.

"He's lucky to have gotten a church so young," Donovan whispered to Carina. "I hear some of the old-timers won't step down. They think the young ones don't take it seriously."

Emma leaned toward them with the air of a curious bird. "He wouldn't have got this one, except Father Waltrip died a couple years ago. They say it was a hunting accident. It was a little suspicious, if you ask me."

"Yes,” Carina agreed. “It did look odd. The timing, the circumstances. . ."

The music stopped and the three sat back in their seats with the air of guilty schoolchildren. Joaquin, who didn't look old enough to be styled "Father," was waving to a pretty young woman on the front pew. She held a baby in her lap and was moving the baby's arm so that she could wave, too. A sudden crash made the young priest spin around. The altar boy had managed to knock over the goblet of sacrificial wine.

"Estúpido!" Joaquin hissed, loud enough for everyone on the first few rows to hear. "Get some more, pendejo!" He turned back to the congregation and smiled sheepishly. His large gray eyes scanned the room before falling on the young woman and baby again. He waved. They waved back. He held up his right hand and made the sign of the cross over the congregation. "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Five

In spite of the women's entreaties that he stay through Christmas, Alvi insisted on leaving. "There are deals to make and people along the road waiting for me," he told them. "I would be selfish to spend my time in the company of two beautiful women while my friends across this lovely land expired for lack of silk scarves and calamata paste."

"But. . ." Carina looked at the low gray clouds. "The weather. . ."

"Means nothing to me. I am the storm and the desert wind."

Amalia had taken a sip of coffee, but now she choked. "Maybe you should be like the desert wind and come around more often."

"Of course, my dear." He glanced at Donovan, standing by the low garden wall. "Your new friend has asked a special commission of me, so I won't delay any more than is strictly necessary."

Both women gave Donovan a puzzled look, but he made a motion as if to say it was unimportant. Now it was Carina's turn to throw her arms around the peddler's neck. "Be safe out there. And if you hear anything. . ."

"Corazón, if I hear so much as a rumor I will have Patrón and Caudillo gallop all the way here so I can give you the news."

"Thank you." She hugged him again.

Donovan shook Alvi's hand. He had given him all his gold that morning and much of his silver, leaving only enough to buy into a poker game next time he was in Macrina. He prayed it was the right call. "See you this summer."

"You will," Alvi assured him. "And you won't be sorry."

While the women exchanged curious looks, the peddler climbed onto the seat of his wagon. Donovan half-expected him to make a flowery speech of some kind, but instead he seemed genuinely sad. "Adiós, my friends. We will meet again soon."

* * *

A few days later, Carina began preparing for Christmas. From out of chests and drawers, she produced a carved nativity, wreaths of willow branches with red ribbon bows, and candles scented with bayberry. She hung Christmas stockings on the wall near the heating stove in the living room, and from under her bed she brought out a box of small dried gourds, painted with Christmas scenes. She fixed Amalia with a serious look. "You'll let me hang these this year, won't you?"

Amalia rolled her eyes. "If you must."

"I think I must."

"How come Amalia doesn't like these?" Donovan asked after she had walked away.

"They bring back memories, and she's always been a little shy about showing her work."

"She made them?" Donovan inspected one of the painted gourds more carefully.

"It was a project she and Mother undertook on our first Christmas after we moved here for good. Amalia has a real talent for artistic things." Carina's eyebrows flickered in annoyance. "I think she should do things like this to sell, or maybe specialize in fancy needlework. People are starved for pretty things, and it's easier than hoeing, but she won't hear of it."

"I wonder why."

"Too many deaths and too much hard work, I suppose."

Their next project was to make Christmas cookies. Amalia protested that they were a waste of sugar, butter and good wheat flour, but Carina found her star and bell-shaped cookie cutters and wouldn't be deterred.

Over dinner that night Carina looked hesitantly at her sister as she picked at a quesadilla. "I was thinking," she said. "It might be nice to go to Mass this year."

Amalia looked at her in disbelief. "We haven't been to Mass in years. Why now?"

"It just seems like a nice thing to do. Get out and see a few of the neighbors, give thanks and all that."

"We can give thanks right here."

"Sing carols."

"You don't want to hear our valley neighbors try to sing, and we've got batteries for the CD player. We can play carols here."

"You know that's not the point. There's just something about going to Mass on Christmas day."

"I'll go with you," Donovan said. "I didn't think you were Catholic, though."

"We're not," Amalia said. "She just likes churches. They give her an excuse to dress up."

"There's nothing wrong with that."

"How about you two go do Mass and when you get home I'll have some wassail waiting. That way you can't say I’m never festive."

Carina beamed. "Okay. We'll do presents, too."

Donovan was surprised when Amalia nodded as if she was expecting this. He had thought he was the only one who remembered Christmas presents, since neither woman had mentioned it previously.

Carina turned to Donovan. "I'll find something nice you can wear to church. It'll be fun."

* * *

The sun had not yet cast its first glow over the mountains when Donovan hitched Goneril to the two-wheeled trap, hung a couple of lanterns and brought it around. He was wearing a dark wool suit, a slightly faded blue shirt, and a silk tie, all of which made him feel very elegant.

The kitchen door opened and Carina hurried over in a flounced blue dress with spangles at the hem. She had tied rags in her hair the night before and now it hung in long loose curls, bright against the fading blue velvet of her cloak. She hiked up her skirt and climbed onto the seat.

Donovan slapped the reins on Goneril's back. There was a sturdy wool blanket on the back of the seat and Carina arranged it so that it covered her clothes, including the cape. "You'll want to wrap up," she told Donovan. "Most of the time we don't notice how much dust we get on ourselves, but today. . ."

Donovan stopped the cart and did as he was told, then clucked to Goneril again.

"You're pretty excited, for just going to church.”

"Real opportunities for socializing are kind of limited around here," Carina reminded him. "If we could make a living in town, I'd move there in a second."

"As a veterinarian and an herbalist, I bet you'd do well."

"Macrina already has a veterinarian," Carina said. "Higdon has one, too. Until a couple years ago, the reservation also had one. I can't go moving in on someone else's turf. There wouldn't be enough business to go around, and it might even be considered an act of aggression."

"I see." Donovan set the brake as they started down a hill. "I suppose it's not much different if you want to set up shop as an herbalist?"

"There are amateur herbalists like me and Amalia everywhere. My mother could've done it because she was an expert and had a license, but not us."

"I guess you wouldn't want to go very far from here looking for work?"

"This is the land we know. Besides, with the mail so uncertain I want to stay where Miles can find me when he gets discharged."

"Maybe when he comes back?"

Carina shook her head. "I'm established here. Miles will come home and we'll have a doctor in the valley again. The wars will end and new people will come out here to live, or will come out of hiding and return to the homes they once had. Babies will be born. People will invest in land and businesses." She smiled, her eyes full of confidence at a future full of heightened possibilities. "It can only get better, can't it?"


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Four

The snow had stopped but the steps to Alvi's caravan were still coated with a sheen of ice when Donovan knocked on his door. Alvi answered, no longer wearing his colorful gypsy attire, but dressed in soft gray pants and a sweater. With his tousled hair sticking up in all directions, he looked like a boy playing campout.

The wagon was more spacious than it appeared from the outside. Shelves full of goods lined the walls, and a board on a hinge could be swung down to serve as desk or workbench. Sturdy wicker chests ran along the perimeter, and colorful cloth, trinkets, shoes and specialty foods were set out like jewels on display. Light came battery-powered wall sconces, charged during the day by a solar panel on the roof. The wagon was heated by a brazier that Alvi had filled from the kitchen stove after dinner.

"Nice place you have."

"It's home." Alvi gestured around the tiny room. "Please take your time. I don't sleep well, so I'm always up late."

As Donovan examined some of the cans and jars, he noticed the man had dropped his exuberant air and salesman's patter. "I think I just want some of the beef jerky. I don't even know what some of these other things are."

Alvi had started to sit down, but now came closer. "Those are olives," he said, pointing. "Sort of like pickles, but with the texture of a mushroom." He grinned when Donovan made a face. "They're an acquired taste, but very good."

"I'll take your word for it."

He pointed to a tin with a scene of horses and snow. "Maple syrup, all the way from Maine."

"Didn't Maine secede?"

"Yes," Alvi said. "That actually makes their syrup easier to get. The Feds won't let them go because they want the timber, so there's a war up there. The soldiers send maple syrup home and the army makes sure it doesn't get stolen on the way. They don't want men moaning and possibly defecting because their families aren't being taken care of, you know."

"Is there a true civil war going on?" Donovan asked. "I mean, across the nation? Or is it just a few local rebellions?"

The peddler pulled a couple of folding stools from pegs on the wall and took a bottle of whiskey out of one of the wicker chests. "Have a seat," he said, grabbing glasses from one of the display shelves. "I didn't want the ladies to hear it because I know how hard it is for them to keep their spirits up, but there's no reason you shouldn't know what's going on."

Donovan pulled up a stool and accepted a glass of whiskey. “This is good. Where do you get it?"

"Don't make me reveal my secrets. My sources are how I make my living."

"I won't criticize. So what kind of news have you been hearing?"

"They say someone detonated a nuke in Washington," Alvi said. "I've heard a lot of different stories on who did it, but it really doesn't matter. The dead were mostly civilians, not government people. Everyone important is hiding now and no one's sure if they're still alive, dead, or sick from radiation poisoning."

"Who's running things?"

"We think the elected officials are, from a bunker somewhere, but there's no way to be sure." Alvi shrugged. "Some people say the Feds set off the nuke themselves so they could go into hiding and not have to answer to the people. Regardless of which story is right, it's likely we're living under a dictatorship."

"How has this impacted the wars?"

"Not much. The wars pretty much run themselves any more."

"Even the civil war? What about Texas?"

Alvi scowled. "I don't know why the Feds are bothering with Texas. Three years of drought across the South have damaged their crops, the aquifers are running dry, they still haven't recovered from the hurricane that damaged their only remaining deep-water port, and the ordinary civilians are too busy squaring off by race and religion for them to do much in the way of nation-building. I say let them go. They'll be back in a few years when their problems amplify to where they realize can't make it alone. But some people say that's why they did it— seceded, you know. There's a philosophy these days that secession will end the race riots by forcing people to work together to fight the common federal enemy."

"It's a bad way to make people get along. Wars kill people and damage the land."

Alvi reached for the whiskey bottle and topped off their glasses. "Well, they went and did it, regardless of what we think about it." He capped the bottle and sat back. "I'm telling everyone not to be surprised if they send some units through the countryside looking for recruits to fight in Texas."

"You mean to kidnap and draft people." Donovan pondered this information. "That's going to be tough on me."

"Yes, you're a deserter, aren't you?"

"Is there nothing the girls don't tell you?"

"I doubt it," Alvi said, taking the question more seriously than it was intended. "I was naive when I got into this business. I knew nothing except that there was an old man who did well in this region and had died. Carina, Amalia and their parents treated me kindly. In fact, my first summer as a peddler was spent on this farm while my burro healed from an injury. They treated me like family and I will always be in their debt." He fixed Donovan with a steady eye. "There is nothing I wouldn't do for them, you understand?"

"They saved my life. I understand perfectly."

Alvi took another sip of whiskey. "Then you know why they sometimes tell me a little more than they should. Their secrets, and yours too, are completely safe with me."

The two men nursed their drinks. Outside, an owl called from the mulberry tree. "So how are you avoiding the draft?" Donovan asked. "You look like the kind of guy the Guard would pick up without hesitating."

Alvi grinned. "I'm older than I look, but thank you for the compliment. I'm 4-F and have the letters to prove it." He patted his chest. "I wear them on me at all times."

"No way." Donovan's eyes widened. "I’m more 4-F than you, and they'd take me off the street in a minute."

"It's all about who you know. You don't really think the big guys care who wins the war, do you?" Alvi took a gulp of his whiskey and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "They're in it for the money. Supply them with what they're really after and they don't care if you fight their stupid war or not."

Donovan could scarcely contain his excitement. "What do those papers cost?  If I can't pay now, I can get the money."

"I don't do credit, not on this type of deal. Nothing personal, it's just if I come back in six months and you're gone. . .well, you know how it is."

"Tell me how much the papers cost."

Alvi leaned back and quoted a number. "In gold," he added.

Donovan drew in his breath. "Can you do it on a down payment? I can give you two thirds now and the rest when you bring the papers on your next trip through."

Alvi considered. "I wouldn't normally agree to such a thing for someone I just met, but I suppose you're family now. I can spot you the balance until I return."

They shook hands and Alvi settled back onto his stool. Donovan suddenly felt relieved, as if he already had the papers in his hand. Only six more months and he would be out of danger forever. The thought of what he could do with his freedom made him smile.

"I see this has made you happy. Or is it just the whiskey?" Alvi topped off their glasses again.

"The whiskey helps, but knowing I'll have papers soon. . . I had no reason to think I'd ever get such lucky break."

"If you don't give up hope, your lucky day eventually comes."

Donovan tossed back the rest of his whiskey and stretched his arms overhead. "I'm starting to believe that maybe it does."


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Three

Donovan went to the barn where he found Carina currying the peddler's donkeys and talking to them in a tone as affectionate as if they were her own, singing snippets of song and speaking rhymes and nonsense as she rubbed them down. "Need any help?" he asked.

"Could you start cleaning the harness?" She pointed to a mound of wet leather straps.

Donovan had no love for cleaning tack, but grabbed a rag and went to work. "So tell me again who this guy is."

"He goes by Alvi, but he says his full name is Alvaro Zapata, El Zapatero." Carina giggled. "It's a joke. Zapato means shoe; zapatero is a cobbler."

"Isn't that clever."

"Don't be sarcastic. I've never believed it's his real name."

"What do you think it is, then?"

"Oh, who knows? Something Middle Eastern, probably. Ali, maybe?"

Donovan gave her a sharp look. "You're letting a foreign terrorist camp here for the night?"

"He's not a terrorist or a foreigner. He was born in this country, and so were his parents and grandparents. He's as patriotic as the rest of us."

"That's why he goes by a phony name, then."

"No." Carina paused while rubbing a flank. "It's probably because he figures people who don't know any better will make accusations for no other reason than his heritage." She began brushing again in sure, circular strokes. "So he pretends to be Hispano. I don't think he fools anyone for very long, certainly not the real Hispanos, but it's long enough for people to see that he's as harmless as the rest of us."

"And you're going to let this guy stay here tonight?"

"Why not? He's stayed here before." She stopped currying. "Amalia and I have known him for years, since he first started this circuit with a single donkey and a little open wagon covered with a tarp. He took up peddling about the same time we moved out here, so it's like we've grown up together."

Donovan mumbled something and resumed his work.

"I think you're jealous!" Carina said in wonderment, putting down her currycomb.

"Why would you think that?"

"You've gotten used to being the only man around here."

"I'm still the only man around here. He's leaving tomorrow and I'm staying."

"Maybe he'll stay longer."

"Maybe he will, but he'll leave eventually."

Carina returned to the donkeys and picked up a brush. "Give him a chance," she said. "You'll really like him once you get to know him."

* * *

Dinner that evening was a hilarious affair, with Alvi and Carina exchanging flirtations and Amalia joining in, offering sarcastic commentary as they dined on a strange casserole Donovan had never had before, made of flat noodles, cheese and tomato sauce.

"Where did you ever find lasagna noodles and pomodoro sauce?" Amalia asked. "Don't tell me again you went to Italy. I really want to know."

"But I did go to Italy, my sweet." Alvi took a sip of wine. "My brave Caudillo and Patrón are excellent swimmers and pulled me and my wagon all the way." He turned to Carina. "It was a very hazardous trip, bonita. I fought off sharks and pirates and braved two hurricanes to bring you the very best in international cuisine. I was even kidnapped and held hostage aboard a ghost ship."

"Must've been the ghost of our global economy," Amalia remarked.

"It was, and I became very depressed by it while waiting for my chance to escape." Alvi said. "But now I am here to single-handedly restore our global village to its former glory. You ladies will have strawberries in wintertime and ice cream in summer, Egyptian cotton for your bed sheets and Chinese silk for your dresses. We will all live like royalty once again."

"What about the oil?" Donovan asked. "Maybe Patrón and Caudillo could help lay a new pipeline."

"Even better," Alvi said, "They will walk treadmills to create electricity. We will have no more use for anyone's oil."

Carina smiled dreamily. "No more use for oil would mean an end to the wars. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Everyone at the table nodded and the conversation took a more serious turn. "What do you hear about the wars?" Amalia asked. "We hear so little out here in the country, and in Macrina they won't talk because they're afraid any little bit of bad news will hurt business."

Alvi reached for a piece of bread, dabbed a bit of goat butter on it and considered. "We are still at war with China over the oil in Siberia, but you probably knew that much."

"I doubt that one will end in our lifetime," Amalia said.

"There was some kind of setback, though." Alvi chewed thoughtfully, as if the details were fuzzy and he couldn't remember. "There was another big earthquake in Japan, bigger than the Tokyo Temblor of '32, and soldiers had to be pulled off the front to put down riots at on the main island. Hokkaido is definitely gone. Japan decided to let them secede without a fight."

"What else?" Carina asked. "Anything new in South America?"

Alvi reached across the table and squeezed Carina's hand. "Yes, I know that is where your dear Miles is." He considered. "We have secured some new resources in Paraguay, of all places, but there have been a lot of casualties from guerillas. Not to worry, though," he said, seeing Carina's frown of concern. "The rebels attack the men guarding the new pipeline, not the regular troops and certainly not the men who only do medicine and supplies. I'm sure your husband is safe."

"Paraguay is a long way to transport oil by pipeline," Amalia remarked. "It's land-locked. Do you know which country they're taking it through so they can ship it out?"

Alvi held up his hands in confusion. "I have no idea. I'm a peddler, not a geographer."

"Maybe your donkeys know," Donovan said with poorly disguised sarcasm. "Since they seem to be so good at everything else."

"Maybe they do." Alvi met Donovan's eyes, then offered a placating smile. "They are much smarter than I am. It is only through their strong legs, good sense and Carina's love of animals that I have the good fortune to have such generous friends as I do tonight."

Donovan suddenly felt ashamed of himself. Alvi talked like a snake oil salesman, but there was nothing malicious about him.

"So is that all the news?" Amalia asked. "Doesn't sound like much."

"Well," Alvi shrugged. "All bad news is much the same. Someone tried to shoot the president a few months ago, but didn’t succeed. Too bad. There was a hurricane in North Carolina over the summer, and another in what's left of Florida. There was an explosion that damaged the Port of Baton Rouge, but it wasn't nuclear and they say they'll have the port facilities back to one hundred percent by summer." Alvi thought a moment. "The president tried to suspend the Supreme Court a few months ago, after their ruling on the Texas secession case, but—"

"The what?" Amalia asked.

"Texas seceded?" Carina leaned forward. "We didn't hear about that."

"I thought everyone knew," Alvi said. "Yes, they voted to secede and there is already fighting along the border with Louisiana and Arkansas."

Amalia turned to Carina. "I wonder if the fighting will affect us. The Feds might decide to move troops through here to seal the state border."

"Maybe they'll bring Miles' unit up from South America to do medical," Carina said hopefully.

"But then," Amalia said, "Maybe they'll just let West Texas go. Unless they've found a way to rejuvenate those old oil fields, who in their right mind would want it?"

"Don’t laugh," Alvi cautioned her. "After you've tried the Angus beef jerky I acquired outside Odessa, you will wish you had never said a bad word about Texas."

"We don't get Angus out here," Donovan said. "I'll buy some, if the ladies won't."

"It's a deal, my friend. Come to my little house after dinner and we will talk."

"Speaking of after dinner," Carina began gathering empty plates. "Alvi brought us something special for dessert." She went into the kitchen and reappeared a few moments later. In her hands she carried a carved wooden bowl that had been in the family for generations, and in the bowl, more rare than gold, was a pyramid of ripe tangerines.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Two

It was a week after Thanksgiving. The day dawned cold and gray, and by mid-morning, a heavy sleet began to fall, making outdoor work impossible. Carina had been waiting for just such a day. "Let's work up some herbs," she suggested to Amalia. "We're running low on a few things and they'll make the house smell good."

"Got to have the house smelling good," Amalia said. "But yeah, I was thinking it would be a good day for that. Maybe some mullein and sage?"

"We've also got that aspen bark."

"Okay. And how about some chamomile? You're running low on hair rinse."

"If I am, it's because someone else around here is using it too." Carina fixed her sister with a look that made her blush. "How about I do the chamomile while you work up the other stuff?"

While Carina stoked the kitchen stove and set a pot of water to boil, Amalia and Donovan put on hats and leather ponchos and went out to the drying shed. The scent of so many herbs in one small room was disorienting, but Amalia seemed immune to it and got straight to business. From a wooden chest she pulled a few plastic tubs which seemed to Donovan the height of luxury and prosperity. By the light of their strongest electric lantern, Amalia began selecting from the dried weeds and flowers hanging in bunches on the wall and from the ceiling. She told him a little about their properties as she handed them to him.

"You know a lot about this stuff," Donovan said.

"Not really. I don't think I'll ever be able to match my mother. She knew this stuff better than anyone I've ever met. People used to come here from all over the valley for advice, and we did a good business in medicinals while she was alive."

"She sounds like an interesting woman."

Amalia opened a small chest to reveal a mound of thin, curled tree bark. "She tried to teach me and Carina her business, but Carina was only interested in what potions she could use to worm her animals and how she could keep her hair from getting greasy out here where she couldn't wash it every day. As for me, I just didn't have the same talent for it."

"You must've learned something. You saved my life."

"Antibiotics and a fast horse saved your life. Even so, nothing makes you feel more inadequate than being unable to save your own mother."

"Maybe there was nothing anyone could've done."

"No. I'm sure there was something, if only I could've found it."

Donovan considered debating this point, but thought better of it. "I know you did the best you could."

"My best and Carina's best weren't good enough." Amalia looked around one last time, then tucked a basket of aspen bark under her poncho. "Come on. Even at the slow pace she works, Carina must've gotten those bottles sterilized by now."

* * *

By afternoon the kitchen was strewn with herbs and bottles. While Donovan worked at the kitchen table with the mortar and pestle, Amalia measured strong grain alcohol into bottles and Carina stood over a steaming pot on the stove. When a distant jangle of bells caught their attention, Carina looked up from her work and went to the kitchen window, while Amalia ran toward the front of the house. Donovan’s first instinct was to grab a gun, but something in the women's attitude told him there was nothing insidious about the situation.

Amalia hurried back to the kitchen. "It's Alvi! Get your shoes!"

Carina clapped like a little girl. "It feels like he’s been gone forever! I wonder how he made it through in this weather."

"I'm sure he's used to it, and a good thing. I've got a pair of boots that need his attention."

"Who is Alvi?" Donovan asked, tagging after the women as they ran toward their bedrooms.

"He's a peddler," Carina said. "He also repairs shoes."

Donovan peeked out the window to see a dark man in wild, colorful clothes pulling up by the gate. He was driving two large donkeys hitched to a gypsy wagon emblazoned with yellow letters and jingling madly with bells. Donovan tried to read the side of the cart, but the looped and scrolled letters spelled out words that were unfamiliar to him: Alvi: Zapatero, Vendedor de Comidas Finas, Nociones y Más."

Carina pushed past him in her heavy blue cloak. She ran down the front steps and over to the cart where the man grinned and swooped off his little fedora, impervious to the cold and sleet.

"Alvi, it's been so long. Where have you been?"

Alvi held his hat over his heart. "I have been all over the world looking for the very best merchandise to tempt my beautiful Carina and her gracious sister."

Carina glanced toward the cart, her face glowing with anticipation, but then her gaze fell on the donkeys, ears drooping, their fur muddy and bedraggled. "I think the first thing we need to do is get your animals clean and bedded down, because you aren't going to continue on in this weather."

"Alvi and his famous all-weather burros go everywhere, in all kinds of weather." He darted a glance toward his team. "But if my lovely hostess insists, I'm sure Caudillo and Patrón would enjoy a visit to your warm barn."

"I do insist." Carina grabbed a bridle and led them past the house, stopping near the low wall by the mulberry tree to back the wagon into a favorable spot and unhitch the team. Then while Carina continued to the barn to rub down the animals, Alvi started setting things in order, lowering a set of steps to the wagon door and rummaging inside until the little gypsy cart rocked back and forth as if possessed.

Donovan nearly collided with Amalia as she came out of her bedroom, a pair of work boots in each hand.

"Where'd he go?"

"Carina parked him around back. She's off to the barn right now to bed down the donkeys."

"Good, then maybe he'll do my shoes first." She threw on a leather poncho, pulled up the hood and hurried out.

This left Donovan alone in the kitchen. The only boots he had were his Guard boots and a pair that he had bought in town the month before. Neither was in need of repair, and he had seen peddlers before. After straightening the kitchen and covering anything that looked like it might need protection against the omnipresent desert dust, he put on a jacket and went to the barn to help Carina.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Chapter Thirty-One

Carina awoke in the pre-dawn hour and couldn't go back to sleep. She got up and went into the kitchen where she found Amalia at the kitchen table, reading by the light of an oil lamp. She looked up when Carina entered the room, the fine lines around her eyes unusually distinct in the uncertain light.

"You're up early," Carina said.

"No, I'm up late."

Carina filled the coffee pot. "He won't come home just because you're waiting all night for him."

"That's not why I'm doing it." Amalia shut the heavy book. "I was worried he might've sent someone to raid us. I couldn't sleep, not knowing if we were safe."

Carina stole a glance around the room but saw no binoculars or gun. What she did see though, was a glass on the table, still almost a quarter full of whiskey.

"I don't see how you were able to sleep," Amalia went on. "Knowing that we might be in danger, knowing that something could've happened—"

"Well, I figured you were probably handling things," Carina lied. "It's not like I slept well. I kept waking up and finally decided there wasn't much point to keep on trying." She reached into the cupboard. "Will you want some coffee?"

"Sure. Were you going to make breakfast, too?"

Carina shrugged.

"It's okay if you're not hungry," Amalia said. "Maybe I'll just have some more of that soup from last night."

"I can make us a proper breakfast," Carina said without enthusiasm.

"A proper breakfast is whatever we say it is."

"In that case, how about I make us some cornbread to go with it?"

"If you insist." Amalia opened her book again. A few minutes later, Carina was still standing in the middle of the kitchen, staring at nothing, as if breakfast were too daunting a task to undertake under the circumstances. Amalia sighed and went over to her. "Honestly, love," she said, putting an arm around her sister's shoulders. "The cornbread doesn't matter."

* * *

Later in the day, the women sat on the porch listlessly hulling pecans from a batch they had traded for from a neighbor along the creek. It was tedious work, made more so by the chill November air that stiffened their fingers, but the house seemed stifling today. They cracked the dark wooden shells, fastidiously picked out the meats and tossed them into a bowl, keeping an eye out for any change to the horizon. Toward mid-afternoon, Amalia's eyes fixed on a distant point and she paused in her work. "Looks like a little bit of dust toward the mountain road.”

Carina squinted into the distance. "Could be anything."

"I guess it could."

They went back to their work. The dust cloud grew larger.

"Should we be worried?" Carina asked.

"I don't think so. Seems to be only one person and raiders usually travel in groups." Nevertheless, Amalia went inside and got a shotgun.

"Why don't you get the binoculars, too?"

"Haven't seen them."

"Maybe Donovan took them."

Amalia didn't resume shelling nuts. Instead she watched the dust intensify and moved to the edge of the porch to get a better view.

"It's got to be him,” Carina said.

"Where would he have gotten a horse?"

"He could've gotten it anywhere, but I'm sure it's him."

The two women hurried down the path to the road. To be on the safe side, Amalia kept the shotgun with her, but kept the safety on.

As soon as the rider noticed the two figures standing at the gate, he kicked the horse into a canter. Hollering and holding on for dear life, Donovan swooped the Peterson's little mare between the gateposts and down the garden path, pulling up sharply by the kitchen door. He turned around in the saddle, breathless and excited as the women ran up to him.

"Donovan! We're so glad—"

"Where the hell have you been?"

Donovan dismounted and stood before them, dusty and beaming. "I had to run an errand." While the women sputtered and asked questions, he pulled a heavy pack off his saddle and held it out to Carina.

"What is it?"

"Open it up and look."

Amalia scowled. "Why don't you just tell us what it is?"

Donovan rolled his eyes in mock exasperation. "It's your Thanksgiving turkey."

* * *

That evening as Donovan slept, the women whispered in Carina's room.

"That's some story he told," Amalia said. "I don't believe it for a minute."

"I'm sure the part about Diana lending him the mare is true."

"I didn't mean that. I hope the poor girl doesn't get in trouble over it."

"I checked the horse good and sent it back with a bag of oats. I believe Donovan paid some money, too. That should smooth things over."

"I don't know why you would try to cover for him."

"I was covering for Diana, but like it or not, Donovan is family, and we have to start thinking of him that way."

"I'm not used to having family members who steal."

Carina sighed. "The turkey.”

"Yes, that damn turkey. I don't care what his convoluted story is, there's no way he paid money for it."

"Well, I know it's wrong of me, and if he stole it from anyone else I'd be angry, but look at who he got it from. Those God's Candidates folks are scary."

"That doesn't make it right to steal from them."

"They shot that Indian boy a few years back, remember? All he wanted was a drink of water and directions to the main road."

"So they're mean, evil people. Two wrongs—"

"Stop your moralizing. I didn't say I felt good about it."

"But you'll cook that turkey anyway."

"I can't let it go to waste." Carina fixed her sister with a sly smile. "If I suggested we throw it on the compost pile, you'd pitch a fit. You don't like waste any more than I do. What's your real issue? Maybe you're just disappointed he's not what you thought he might be?"

"What do you mean?"

"He told me about the fun you two had at the restaurant in Macrina. I think he turned your head a little."

"Don't be silly. He's what, fifteen years younger than me?"

"So? It's been a long time. Maybe you should have some fun. It doesn't have to be serious."

Amalia stood up. "I can see this conversation is going nowhere."

"Okay. Just don't give him a hard time about the turkey. It's a good one, no matter how he got it."

Amalia started toward her room, then on a whim peeked in on Donovan. He lay sprawled across the bed, still in his dusty clothes, looking like nothing could wake him.

She folded her arms and leaned against the door frame. How could someone who looked so innocent be a thief? Could one even trust a face like that? She stepped into the room and covered him with a quilt.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Chapter Thirty

Donovan was out the door early. Carina, who rarely slept long enough to wake by the palest streak of sunlight, found him gone when she padded into the kitchen to stir up the fire and set a pot of coffee to boil. She began gathering things to make breakfast, only to find that the remaining tortillas from dinner were gone. She had planned to scramble them with eggs and chiles, but now they were missing. So was half a pan of cornbread, and the hard-boiled eggs and dried apples. She immediately suspected Donovan, but it was too much food for someone who only planned to be out hunting until lunchtime. He had taken enough food to sustain himself for a whole day or even two days, but that was ridiculous, wasn't it?

Uncertain what to do, she paced the floor, occasionally peering out the window. Thinking things would seem different in a little while, she heated the skillet, added a bit of oil and broke some eggs. Donovan hadn't left for good, had he? Surely not. A Guard deserter with a weak leg and only a day's worth of food couldn't get far, could he? Then she remembered the gun and the money he had won in the poker game. How much money did he have? She wasn't sure, but he wouldn't get far on foot. Not unless. . .

A dreadful thought occurred to her and she dropped the spatula. She had the presence of mind to move the skillet onto a cool spot on the stove, then ran out the door, grabbing a poncho off a peg on her way out.

The moon was still up and the sun was just starting to cast a glow over the horizon, so she didn't need a lantern. She ran unimpeded, house shoes flapping against her heels, all the way to the paddock where she threw herself against a fence rail and peered into the gloom. The goats trotted over right away, but she wasn't worried about them. A shadow in the middle distance raised its head, big ears pointed skyward as if picking out morning stars.

Where were the others?

She ducked between the fence railings and pushed her way through the herd, soiling her slippers but scarcely noticing as she scanned the paddock. There she was, over at the far end of the field, tugging at a weed.

But there was no sign of Cordelia. Carina's heart raced in panic. Then she remembered that she had put her in the barn for the night because the bad hoof had been bothering her again. Not even troubling to rub a kid's ears in passing, she hurried to the barn. She swung the heavy door open and ducked inside, glad to be out of the wind, except that here inside the barn everything was dark. There was a lantern on a peg near the unused stall, and matches somewhere nearby if she could find them.

She felt her way toward where she knew the barn lantern should be. The dark was oppressive, pressing against her like a physical thing. Where was that lantern? A sharp crack suddenly echoed across the room like a gunshot. Carina whirled about, but could see nothing. She held her breath, straining her senses.

The sound rang out again and Carina's shoulders slumped in relief. It was only the stamp of a hoof, followed by a noisy exhalation and jangle of halter rings. Cuing off the sound, she shuffled her way toward it in the dark. "Hey, baby," she said, finding the animal by warmth and scent. She patted the jenny's neck. "You scared me. I bet I scared you too, coming in all alone without a light. Shame on me."

She patted Cordelia for a few minutes, then with a sigh, leaned her whole body against the sturdy little animal. "Where could he have gone? He'll come back, won't he?"

* * *

Carina avoided her sister at lunchtime in the hope Donovan would return in time for dinner and keep her from having to endure Amalia's speculation on the matter. Dinner couldn't be put off forever, though, and as the sun went down, she fed and watered the stock, put the Cordelia back in the barn after being allowed the run of the paddock for the afternoon, then washed and went inside.

She found Amalia in the kitchen, tending a pot of beans that had been simmering most of the day. "Where've you been?" she asked. "You and Donovan made yourselves pretty scarce, for all that talk about being willing to help me today."

"I'm sorry." Carina peered into the pot. Maybe if she didn't offer an explanation, she could put off the moment when she would be asked for one. "How about you sit down and rest?"

"Where is Donovan? And where were you?"

"I was around." She added a bit of dried chile to the soup. "The goats kept me busy, and I'm trying a new poultice on Cordelia. I made it using that turmeric we found when we were in the cellar putting the market goods away. It's probably too old to still be much good, but I figured it couldn't do any harm, and. . ."

"Where's Donovan?"

Carina hesitated. "I don't know." She stirred the soup in slow figure eights.

"What do you mean you don't know? Is he still out hunting rabbits?" Amalia looked toward the kitchen window, frowning. "It's almost dark, and he never takes this long."

"I don't think he went rabbit hunting.”

"What makes you say that?"

Carina told her about the missing food. "He packed enough for a day or so, but the odd thing is he left on foot. All the animals are here. He can't get to town on foot, carrying all that food and water, too."

Amalia flung herself into a chair. "Did he take one of the guns? He can stretch his food by hunting, and he can buy or steal an animal to ride."

This hadn't occurred to Carina. "Should we ask the neighbors?"

Amalia shook her head. "If we went asking around and then it turned out he was innocent. . ."

"We'd feel bad for being too hasty and giving him a reputation he didn't deserve." Carina went to the cabinet, took out two bowls and ladled the soup without bothering to taste it. She handed a bowl to her sister, remembered they had no spoons, retrieved some from a kitchen drawer and sat down. Instead of eating, though, she stirred her bowl of beans and broth, watching the steam rising from it. "I don't suppose there's a chance he planned on coming back at dinnertime and managed to hurt himself out there? Maybe he was just extra hungry this morning. Or maybe he wanted the cornbread to bait a snare."

"Doesn't sound likely to me," Amalia said. "But I know how we can find out. Let's see if he took his money with him."

"I hate to snoop."

"We'll do it anyway." Amalia stood up and headed down the hallway.

Donovan hadn't done much to make the room his own. It was the same clean, spare room he had recuperated in, the only changes being the clothes hanging on pegs on the wall, his attempt at knitting draped over a chair, and an extra pair of boots lying in the middle of the floor.

"Seems like he would've taken some of these extra clothes, or at least the boots if he wasn't coming back," Carina mused.

Together they searched the room, but didn't turn up any coins. "If he left any money behind," Amalia finally said, "It's not in here."

The two women stared at each other, uncertain what to do next. Finally Amalia shrugged in a show of unconcern that didn't fool Carina for a minute. "He'll either come back, or he won't. We still have to eat and run this place." She pushed past her sister and returned to the kitchen. She sat down at the table, confronted once again by the bowl of soup. This time, she forced herself to taste it.

Carina sat across from her and resumed stirring. "How is it?"

"Cold. Not enough salt."

"The soup on the stove is still hot. We could—"

"It doesn't matter."