Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Chapter Fifteen

The market was in the town's high school football field, just as Melinda had said. There was a broad gate for vendors and a smaller one for those who wished to browse or buy. Shoppers could come and go as they pleased, free of charge, but a stooped little man in a straw hat stopped the trading party at the vendor gate. "How many tables you going to be wanting?"

"Well," Peterson said, looking at Melinda and Amalia's carts as he considered. "Me and my daughter will each need one. Amalia?"

"I can make do with one," Amalia said.

"So that's three. Gonzales?"

Gonzales patted the bulging packs strapped to his buckskin's haunches. "I was thinking I'd just rent a quarter space in the bleachers for today and tomorrow."

The man in the straw hat nodded. "North side bleachers are open, first ten rows." Behind him was a polished wooden board with a map of the stadium painted on it and little numbered holes for each section a vendor could rent. Some of the holes had colored pegs in them, indicating that someone was assigned to that spot. He quoted a few prices and locations, adding, "It's a nickel extra if you want to pay at the end of each day instead of up front."

"Two-thirty West sounds good to me." Gonzales dug in his pocket and produced some coins.

The old man took the money, counted it into a cash box and handed him a worn wooden token. "Put that in your pocket in case anyone questions you. Return it tomorrow afternoon when you leave." He handed him a little bracelet of red and yellow wool. "Here's your Tuesday bracelet. It's imperative that you return it tomorrow and exchange it for your Wednesday bracelet or you'll get fined."

Once Gonzales had everything he needed, Peterson, Melinda and Amalia went through a similar procedure to get tables on the field, which was the main market area. When everyone had a colored bracelet for the day, they were allowed to drive through the gate and find their assigned spots.

While Gonzales headed toward the bleachers, Amalia, Donovan and the Petersons found their tables, third row in, on the twenty yard line. "It's not ideal," Amalia said, "But we'll make it work."

Already most of the field was full. Around him Donovan saw signs, banners and brightly colored tablecloths set out to attract passersby. Everything was organized and tidy, without so much as a scrap of garbage in sight. Although it was still early in the morning, shoppers were already checking the wares, comparing merchandise and haggling over prices. It had been a long time since he had seen such an abundance of goods in one place, available to whoever could afford them, and Donovan could barely concentrate on the business of unloading the wagon.

Diana was struggling to stay focused too, and finally Amalia sent Donovan over to the Petersons’ table to fetch her. "Why don't you two make the rounds and find out what prices are like today? That way we'll have some idea what to charge."

They didn't wait to be asked twice. Melinda barely had time to call for Diana to be back in thirty minutes before they were lost in the maze of tables.

"Do you know where we should go first?" Donovan asked, moving clumsily because of the weight and traction of his leg brace.

"It's a little different every time. Most vendors don't get the same spot over and over, so you have to go back and forth. Eventually you'll see everything and then you can decide what to go back and buy."

"Sounds like you've got a system."

"I do." She trotted over to the nearest stall-- a long table covered with a lace tablecloth. The display consisted mainly of books and small items of crystal, silver and china. The white-haired lady gave a tight smile as Donovan joined Diana in examining her family heirlooms. Donovan had seen her type before and knew she was torn between needing to make a sale while dreading to part with her treasures. Even decades after the century of abundance had come crashing down, people still clung to the remnants-- a frosted crystal cat, a porcelain bowl painted with green shamrocks, a book of color photographs of Paris, a silver bracelet.

"Do you like jewelry?" the woman asked Diana, pushing a heart-shaped silver box toward her. "This will keep your things nice."

Diana shook her head. "I like horses."

"I see." The woman looked through her books for a moment, producing a big brown book. It was obviously quite old, with wear on the edges of its cover and the stamped gold lettering almost worn away. She opened it to show page after page of color prints on thick creamy paper. "All the major horse breeds. The text gives you history and description of the breed, and of course you get some very nice pictures."

Diana took the book and examined the pages reverently.

"Twenty dollars," the woman said.

"Oh, that's too much."

"I don't have to have cash. I'll accept food, ration coupons, tools or seeds."

Diana handed back the book. "I'm just looking today."

"I'll be here tomorrow, too. I can hold the book for you, if you like."

"No," the girl said. "I can't promise anything without talking to my mom and I don't want to keep you from making a sale."

As they wandered away, Donovan smiled at her. "That's a pretty grown up attitude you've got. I could tell you liked that book."

"She probably won't sell it to anyone else today and I probably won't be able to buy it, anyway." She tried to sound philosophical. "It's not like we've got that kind of money to spend on books. My family needs a new horse bridle, salt, shoes, canning jars, and some canned foods like what we can't grow for ourselves. Only if we do really well can I think about buying something just because I like it."

"It seems too bad you can't have something for fun now and then." They merged into the stream of shoppers and headed toward the next table.

"I can have something fun. It just has to be useful, too." They were in front of a table that had wool for sale in various forms -- raw wool, undyed yarn, spun yarn and cloth in various vegetable-dyed colors and a few finished products such as hats, mittens, scarves and blankets. Remembering the instructions Amalia had given them, Diana was suddenly all business. She examined a pair of mittens and some orange yarn as if intending to buy. "How much?" she asked, pointing to an undyed skein.

"Two dollars."

"That's a lot. How about a dollar and a quarter?"

They haggled for a few minutes. The young woman at the table finally refused to go lower than a dollar sixty and Diana said she would let her mother know. She and Donovan wandered away, pretending to be deep in thought. Once they were out of earshot, Diana said, "That's more than they were charging last time. If everyone's prices are that high, we'll make some good sales today."

"Are you going to buy that book, then?"

"No." She shook her head. "I'm saving up for a mule."


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Chapter Fourteen

Once they were past the phony road menders, the trading party began passing houses— dirty, tumbledown buildings with peeling paint, cracked walls and weeds in the yards. A few ragged children emerged out of doorways and courtyard gates, and stood at the side of the road to watch the wagons pass.

"They're sizing us up," Amalia said. "They'll be here again when we leave and will beg for money. Right now they figure we probably don't have any, so they'll leave us alone."

Donovan looked around, frowning. "It's hard to believe much trade goes on here. Everyone seems so poor."

"That's the way they like it to look." They were coming closer to the center of town now, where the houses were larger and had once been of better quality. "A lot of these homes are chameleons. On the outside they look like they're falling apart, but they're actually quite nice on the inside."

"Looks like they don't mind keeping the church looking good," Donovan said as they came upon a tall adobe structure with freshly painted plaster all the way up to its bell tower. A shrine out front contained a brightly painted statue of the Virgin Mary and was bedecked in paper flowers.

"The authorities expect Catholics to do that. The government would know they were up to something if they let the church fall apart."

"I guess you're right. Everywhere I went in the Guard, the churches were better taken care of than the homes. We always saw it as a sign the local people weren't going to be a lot of trouble, if they cared about religion so much."

"It's the opiate of the masses."

"The what?"

Amalia shrugged. "Just an old saying. Religion is a good way to keep the people quiet. Make them afraid God will punish them if they don't follow the rules. They're supposed to stay quiet and wait for their reward in Heaven."

"Are you religious?"

"You mean in a church way? We went to church a little when I was a kid. We were Presbyterians. Protestants," she added, seeing the puzzled look on his face. "But I never liked being told how to think. I spent a lot of time reading and it made me ask questions."

"We didn't have any real sort of religion where I grew up," Donovan said. "People in the gangs were into the symbols, though. They wore crosses, prayed to saints, that sort of thing. But they made up most of their saints— dead gang leaders and family members, you know. I've done a little of it myself. It seems more real than a church god."

"When God is just a cruel and distant phantom, it makes better sense to pray to someone who you know will really care.” Amalia turned the wagon onto a broader, busier street. They were now on the town's main thoroughfare, flanked on either side by shops, some open for business, but many boarded up and charred from a long-ago fire.

Horses, carts and bicycles moved up and down the street, churning up dust where there had once been asphalt. People walked down mud-brick sidewalks as if on important business, ducking in and out of shops, stopping to tip a street musician or examine the wares of a street vendor.

"These vendors are locals," Amalia explained. "They often use the same spot over and over. It's free to set up on the street like this, but there's no security and you might get harassed if you're not a townie, which is why we prefer the main market, even though we have to pay for a spot."

The aroma of grilling meat from a sidewalk vendor reminded Donovan that they hadn't eaten since their spartan breakfast of dried apples and parched-corn brew that passed for coffee. When a little girl, clad only in a man’s dirty shirt long enough to pass for a dress, dashed up to their cart shouting "Pepitas!" and waving a little bag, he put a hand on Amalia's arm and asked her to stop.

"Like we don't have perfectly good pumpkin seeds of our own to sell."

"But they're way back there in the wagon somewhere, and this little girl…"

"Was probably made up by her mother to look more like a beggar than she really is. I wouldn't be surprised if she gets three squares and has a comfortable bed to sleep in at night."

Donovan eyed the little girl critically. She shuffled her bare feet and held out the bag again. "Pepitas."

He dug in his pocket where he still carried a little money from when he was in the Guard. "How much?"

"Cinco." She held up her other hand, displaying all five fingers, in case her point wasn't clear.

Donovan held out a nickel, and with practiced agility, the girl snatched it from his fingers and gave him the little bag of roasted pumpkin seeds. Then she dashed back to a ramshackle stand in a driveway where two other children— an older boy and a girl just barely out of diapers, had been watching. "Thank you," Donovan called after her.

Amalia started the team again. "You go buying from every kid that's selling something, there's no point coming to market. We're here to sell as much as we can and spend as little as possible, otherwise we might as well have stayed home."

"It's just a snack," said Donovan in reasonable tones. He opened the bag and popped a few in his mouth. "They're pretty good, too. Want some?"

Amalia shook her head, but held out her hand and let Donovan fill it with chile-roasted pepitas. "They're good," she agreed. "But salty." She looked around at the other street vendors. "I'll lay you odds they've got a father or some kind of older relative out here selling drinks."

"Everyone's got an ulterior motive in your world, don't they?"

"Don't they in yours?"

He considered, briefly distracted by a motor scooter that sputtered past them exhaling the distinctive scent of old cooking oil. "They're just trying to survive, like we are. In general, people have been pretty nice to me, and the ones who have tried to scam me, well, it’s nothing personal, wouldn't you say?"

"I'll say that's a generous way of looking at it."

Donovan was about to elaborate when an old man with flaccid cheeks and an entrepreneurial gleam in his hollow eyes approached their cart. Strapped to his neck was a primitive wooden box full of bottles. "Refrescas!" he shouted. "Cold drinks! You thirsty? I got cold water, cold apple juice, cerveza. . ."

Amalia sneaked a look at Donovan, struggling to restrain a laugh. "I told you this would happen. I wouldn't be surprised if this was that little girl's grandpa. Didn't I tell you?"

Donovan grinned. "Yes, I guess you did."

Next >> 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Chapter Thirteen

They hadn't been on the valley floor for long before they came upon some men who appeared to be mending a serrated pit in the road. They paused at their work in curious attitudes, as if the approaching party was the most important thing they had seen all day. In a field off to one side, two boys who had been poking sticks at a cooking fire rose slowly and watched the wagons, their bodies tense and faces unreadable. It seemed as if everyone was holding his breath. This was no ordinary road crew.

Amalia and Gonzales had been at the head of the party but now they dropped back and let Peterson draw his cart forward. As he approached the road workers he raised a hand in greeting. "Buenos días, vecinos," he called. "It’s Jules Peterson y mis vecinos de Valle Redondo."

The oldest of the crew straightened and tipped back his hat, "Come a little closer, amigo, it's hard to recognize anyone with the sun behind him. Is that really you, Jules?"

Peterson clucked to his team. Once the men were close enough to recognize each other, the road worker's face lit up in a grin and he dropped his heavy shovel. "Óye, Peterson! Long time, friend!"

Peterson jerked on the reins and his mules shuffled to a stop. "Good to see you, too, Espinoza. We've got some stuff to trade today, if you've got folks who are interested."

"Claro, of course we're interested." Espinoza tried to peer into Peterson's wagon but the goods were covered with a tarp. His eyes scanned the rest of the party. "Three wagons, eh? Not so many, but you'll do good business just the same."

Now that everyone seemed reassured, Gonzales came trotting up on his buckskin. He touched his hat brim and nodded toward Espinoza, then turned his attention to the other men, who had been gathering around their leader. "Óyen, hombres, what're things like these days? Any news? You know we don't hear nothing in the country."

The men exchanged sharp glances, but only Espinoza spoke. "Same old, as far as we know. We don't get much news either. Everyone who comes here is in from the country to trade, just like you. They don't know nothing about the war or the government."

"No Guard sightings?" Melinda asked. "No tax collectors?"

"No, Señora," the man said with a shrug. "Our courier from the post office in Jonasville comes almost every week, and there's probably a spy or two, but we can't do nothing about that."

"Of course not," Gonzales said, the expression on his face suggesting he didn't agree with Espinoza at all.

"So are there any new rules?" Peterson asked. "I haven't been here since May and I don't think anyone else. . ." he looked at the members of his party for confirmation.

Espinoza frowned and turned to the other members of his group. "Anything new since spring, amigos?"

"Just that Miss Janie's getting a little forgetful," one man piped up. "If you lodge any of your animals with her, get her to write you a receipt every time either one of you does something. There've been a few problems with people disagreeing on what got done and what's been paid for."

"Good advice for anytime." Peterson straightened up and twitched the reins. "I guess we better get going, then. It'll take us a little while to set up and we'd like to make a few sales before the sun goes down."

"I'm going to trade for some cash and visit the Tortuga Rosa," Gonzales added with a grin. "I could stand for some good liquor, and a little female company to enjoy it with."

Espinoza chuckled. "You'll find everything just like you're expecting it." He stepped back from the road and his men did the same, dragging their carts and phony road-mending equipment with them. The boys who had been watching the scene from the side of the road moved back toward their fire, still darting wary glances at the trading party.

Peterson, Amalia and Diana called to their teams and the wagons jerked forward with a creak of harnesses and shuffling of hooves in the dust. Gonzales trotted toward the head of the group while Melinda dropped back to bring up the rear.

Donovan, who had by now joined Amalia in her wagon, waited until they were out of earshot, then leaned close. "Clever checkpoint, but how were they going to get word to the town if we weren't what we appeared to be?"

"I think they have a radio or a telegraph setup or something," Amalia said, stiffening at Donovan's nearness but not moving away, either. "Those kids you saw by the fire? Their job is to run and get word to the town about danger while the men cause as much delay as possible."

"When I was in the Guard, there were some places that booby-trapped the entrances to their town or ranch. It doesn't look like they do that here."

"I don't know. If they have a plan other than to delay, hide the stuff and look poor, they aren't talking. I don't blame them. There are a lot of evil people in the world these days. You can never be completely sure who's a spy, or who will turn on you someday."


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Chapter Twelve

Early the next morning they found themselves on a crest overlooking a valley. Below them was a cluster of drab little buildings with people, animals and even a few motor vehicles moving about the dusty streets. In spite of his concerns, Donovan had been looking forward to a taste of his old city life. Amalia caught the disappointment on his face. "It's busier than it looks. This is one of the back roads. Other people coming to market take the south road if they can, because it's easier and they can approach in the dark and be all set up before the market opens. We have to wait until there's a little light because this trail is so steep. But it’s safer from a chance meeting with Feds or raiders."

They were walking alongside the cart so as not to overtax their team on the damaging terrain. When they got to where the road turned sharply downward, Amalia halted the jennies and pulled a yellow scarf on a stick from the back of the wagon. With a bit of wire, she affixed it upright so it fluttered in the breeze. Donovan looked around and found everyone doing the same thing, raising yellow flags on their wagons or attaching scraps of yellow fabric to their saddles.

"It's one of the ways we let the townspeople know we're not here to raid," Amalia explained. "There'll be a checkpoint at the base of the mountain, where they'll confirm that we're legitimate, but at a distance, this is how we make sure we look friendly." She climbed onto the wagon seat. "You want to ride or walk?"

"I'll walk for now."

"Don't worry, the town isn't as dull as it looks," Melinda said, coming up behind Donovan on her pony while her daughter readied their cart for the descent into town. "They can't pretty it up, you know. If they look like they're doing well, someone will be along to make trouble."

"There's a little life in this old place, just you wait and see," Gonzales called to him from behind Diana's cart. "I'll take you to a bar I know and introduce you to a pretty girl or two."

"Don't encourage him." Amalia called back. She and the donkey cart were well down the trail now but voices carried clearly on the mountain air.

"Not to mention there's children around," Melinda added.

"I'm not a child, Mama," Diana said, slapping the reins across the back of her donkeys as she began the descent. "You think I don't know about bars and whores?"

Melinda sputtered while Gonzales and Grandpa Peterson laughed. Peterson pulled his cart up to Melinda and murmured reassuring words to her while the others went on ahead.

Donovan, disconcerted by the fuss he had started, changed his mind about walking and tried to catch up with Amalia, but he had strapped his leg into the brace that morning and it slowed him down.

"Want a ride?" She tugged on the reins with one hand and pulled the brake to a full stop. "Get in. It don't make no difference to the team on the downhill, as long as I don't get careless with the brake."

Setting his ego aside, Donovan scrambled onto the seat beside her. "Where are we going once we're in town? I understand there's a market."

"A big one, with long benches that go up on each side."

"Benches that go up? You mean a stadium?"

"It's a market. I don't know if there's a fancy Guard word for it."

"Stadium isn't a fancy Guard word. It just means a place where they used to play sports, kick balls around and things like that."

Diana furrowed her brow. "Why would they need such a big place for something like that? Me and some of the valley kids play ball games when we get together for parties, but we don't need a special place for it."

"I've been told they used to have big groups of people who practiced their games until they were good enough that other people would come and spend all afternoon watching them. That's what the benches are for. Sometimes the players were so good people would pay them."

Diana giggled. "You're making that up."

"No, I'm not."

"Well, someone must've told you a story because no way would anyone pay kids money just to kick a ball."

"They paid grownups to do it, not kids. And they gave them special clothes, too, so they would all look the same."

"What?" Diana fell over her reins screeching with laughter. Her donkeys flattened their ears in annoyance and Melinda maneuvered her horse down the path, curious to know what the fuss was about.

"What's so funny up there?"

"Donovan says--" Diana gasped for breath. "He says the market at Macrina— that men used to—"

"I told her it sounded like an old sports stadium," Donovan cut in. "She thought the idea was funny."

Melinda pursed her lips. "It used to be the high school football field, but I've never known them to use it for that. The school didn't have enough students for a team when I was a kid and there wasn't enough fuel to bus anyone over for a game, anyway. I only know about it from my father."

Diana swiveled around on her seat, leaving the donkeys to find their own way. "So it's true? They used to pay men to play ball games at our market?"

"Watch your team, Diana," Melinda cautioned. "No, the Macrina high school had a student team. They were teenage boys and they weren't paid anything. But there were big national teams and if you were a good student player, you could maybe get paid to play on one of the big teams when you grew up. Your grandfather says those men made a lot of money."

"Just to play a game? They didn't actually grow or raise anything?"

"No, they just played their game and people paid money to watch them."

"That's crazy."

"We would be crazy if we did it," Donovan said. "But people were rich then."

"Well, we're going to sell all our stuff at market. Then we'll be rich, too."

"Are you going to buy a ball team with your money?" Donovan teased.

Diana tossed her head. "That would be stupid." The wagon lurched over a rock and she clucked at the donkeys. "When I get some money, I’m going to buy a mule."