Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Four

Four hours after their arrival, Donovan serenely raked a pile of coins toward him while the other men at the table glowered in disgust. "Don't turn your back on this one on the way home," one of them told Gonzales. "He could be planning to murder you in your sleep and you'd never know it."

"And no one would suspect him, either," the other man muttered. "Not even if they found your blood on his hands."

"Hey, why all the talk when all I did was win a couple card games?" Donovan protested. He turned to one of the pretty girls who had been hovering ever since he started winning, and he handed her a few coins. "Get us all another round and be sure to get something for you and your friend." As he said this, he slapped the other girl's hands away from his stash. She was a little too fearless for his taste and had been trying to pull something on him all night. He turned back to the group. "One more game, guys? Win it back?"

The strangers exchanged glances, but it was Gonzales who pushed his chair away from the table. "Count me out, friend. I've been trying to win it back for quite a while and look where it got me. The only money I got left is for liquor and girls, and I ain't giving you a chance at taking that, too."

The other men took their cue from Gonzales and also declined to play any further. After they got their drinks, one disappeared into the dance hall while the other wandered over to the pool tables to see if he would have better luck there. Gonzales pulled one of the girls onto his lap. "I had no idea you were a shark,” he told Donovan.

"A shark? No, I was just lucky tonight."

"Uh-huh." Gonzales agreed in a way that made it clear he didn't agree. "Be careful," he said. "Just 'cause this ain't the city don't mean there's no dangerous characters. And this ain't like in the service either, where there's a CO to keep a man in line if he loses it. This is no-man's land, and if you pull a trick on the wrong guy, there's no telling where it will end."

Donovan forced a smile. "I like to think I'm a pretty good judge of character, but I'll be more careful, like you say."

Gonzales tossed back the rest of his drink and stood up, still clutching the girl. "So how about it?" he asked her. "You got a room here?"

The girl nodded, but her gaze was on Donovan and the mound of silver coins and federal bills he was scooping into his pockets. Donovan caught her glance and shook his head, so she turned back to Gonzales. "Sure, I got a room.”

As Gonzales and the girl walked away, the other girl looked at him with anticipation, but Donovan had other things on his mind and craned his neck looking for the redhead. It had been awhile since he had seen her last. "Maybe later," he told the little Hispana. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a silver quarter. "If I'm interested later, I'll find you."

The girl tossed her black curls and walked to another table of card-players where maybe she could do better. Donovan stood and looked around the room. It was unlikely the redhead had left the club, although if she was unaffiliated with the house, it was a possibility. More likely she was in the dance hall.

He walked into the dark room, waiting for his senses to adjust to the dim light and loud music. The brace hindered his ability to move through the crowd, so he stayed near the wall, scanning the room as well as he could. The girl he was looking for was not among the twirling and gyrating dancers. He kept moving, but she wasn't among the people standing at the bar, or one of the ones sitting on the battered sofas watching the dancing. He was about to give up when he noticed a doorway leading to an even darker room. He had a feeling he knew what went on here, but it was worth a try.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Three

Gonzales and Donovan didn't stay to eat dinner but started toward town as soon as they had concluded their deals for the day. Melinda gave them disapproving looks, but she took what was left of the money and ration books and promised to give them to Amalia when she returned from her errands. "I hope you don't plan to be out late," Melinda said, glaring more at Donovan than Gonzales, who she considered a hopeless case.

"I'm just tagging along to see more of the town and have a real beer, if I can find one. I'll be back early."

Once they got to the main drag, Gonzales hailed a bicycle rickshaw and they were treated to a swift, bouncy ride down the dusty street, then through a few increasingly dismal side streets until they found themselves in a suburban slum of ramshackle huts, abandoned cars and broken mobile homes. Not even weeds seemed willing to grow in this barren moonscape where the hard-packed earth was scarcely distinguishable from the surrounding rock. Scraggly chickens and a few lean mutts poked among the trash at the margins of rusting fences. Dirty children ran up to the rickshaw with their hands out, clamoring for coins. A few sullen men sat in the doorways of their shacks, drinking uncertain homebrews out of old bottles and staring vacantly as the rickshaw clattered past. From inside one of the hovels, a baby shrieked.

After a few more bends in the road, Donovan saw a sprawling concrete block of a building, silhouetted against the darkening sky. It had been designed to mimic native adobe but was now just a cheap architectural abandonment. The exterior glittered with sickly pink lights hung on long strings draped over the walls and around two big windows facing what was left of an asphalt parking lot. Bicycles, horses and a wagon were tied to posts in front and there were a few electric and coal diesel scooters as well. All of these were guarded by two big men with shotguns who strode back and forth casting distinctly suspicious looks on anyone who tried to approach a mode of transport without showing a chit to the greasy-haired teenager who was keeping tabs. As their rickshaw pulled into the driveway, they could hear the crash of frenetic music, vaguely Tejano with a native drumbeat and something else going on that Donovan couldn't place.

"So what do you think?" Gonzales asked as he tipped the driver.

Donovan looked around, excited to find himself in a place where something was happening, no matter how irrational, after so long in the country. He stepped around a young man who even at this early hour was on his knees puking into a patch of yellow weeds. "I think this will work."

They pushed their way through the knot of men hovering around the doorway and entered a large open space that in spite of the promise of the lights at the windows, was dimly lit and of questionable cleanliness. To their right stretched a long bar backed by shelves of bottles of all description, although Donovan knew from experience that most of the bottles probably contained the same thing--local rotgut being passed off as imported liquor.

Scattered around the bar were a few tables where men played cards or engaged in animated discussions with each other and whores, most of whom seemed to be local Hispanic and Indian girls with dusky skin, dark curls, bloody lipstick and brightly colored dresses. On the other side of the room were several pool tables, their felt surfaces in varying states of patching and repair. This area was more brightly lit than the bar and was full of men and garishly painted women tossing back drinks and taking shots at the colored balls, laughing or cursing as the balls ran up against the seams in the poorly repaired felt.

Toward the back was the doorway to the dance hall and Donovan could see people moving around to the chaotic thumping of the music. A rangy redhead stalked out of the room and looked around, sullenly sizing up the crowd. Underneath her heavy makeup, her skin was waxy, tinged with blue around her eyes, collarbone, and the slender joints of her wrists, as if she were bruised. The dim light reflected off the spangles of her dress, only partially disguising its poor cut and drooping hem. She walked over to the bar, found a spot near the bartender's well and said a few words. The bartender, a short dark man with a hook nose, nodded and poured her a double shot.

Clutching her drink, she leaned against a blank spot on the wall, surveying the room from the rim of her glass as she sucked down the harsh brown liquor. Three men, made bold by the local moonshine, approached her, drawn by her unusual coloring and the flame of her waist-length hair, even though her face was too angular, her manner too desultory to be attractive.

Gonzales noticed Donovan wasn't following him to the bar and stopped to see what he was looking at. "She's a strange one," he said. "I noticed her here last night."

"Did you get anywhere with her?" Donovan asked, pretending to turn his interest to his drink options.

"I didn't even try." Gonzales put a foot up on the brass rail and motioned the bartender over. "Bourbon," he said. "House is fine. And whatever he wants." He made a motion with his head to indicate Donovan.

"How about some scotch.”

"You got it." The bartender took a couple more orders and began racking up glassware.

"The scotch is probably the same as the bourbon," Gonzales pointed out. "All of it likely distilled last week from some local farmer's cornfield."

"Yeah, but you got to ask, you know. You never know when you might get lucky." Without intending to, Donovan found his gaze wandering back to the redhead, who was still talking to the men, forcing a smile and sucking on her whiskey with determination.

The look wasn't lost on Gonzales. "If getting lucky is what you're after, I wouldn't bother with her."

"Is she not what I think she is?"

Their drinks arrived and Gonzales tossed the bartender a silver coin. "Oh, she's a whore, all right," he said, taking a gulp of his home-distilled bourbon and grimacing. "And if you like them with an attitude, I guess she's the one for you. But me, I can't do it if they don't seem to want it. I mean, I know none of them do this for kicks, but if they can't at least pretend they like me a little. . ."

"I hear you," Donovan said. "I’m not really interested in her. Just curious. She doesn't fit in."

"I know that's right." Gonzales looked around the room. "But hey, it's too early to be thinking about the girls. They'll be here all night and we ain't even got started yet." He spotted what he was looking for and gave Donovan a grin. "I see there's a game going on over there," he pointed. "You up for some poker?"


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Two

Morning sales were brisk. Carina's remaining pickles and preserves sold out, as did the socks. By midday they had done well enough that Amalia thought it was time to start buying things for the farm. During a lull in traffic past their booth, she handed Donovan a shopping list.

"Could you read it to me?" he asked.

"Can't you read my handwriting?"

"Not very well."

Amalia leaned in close, pointing to each neatly written word and reading it aloud. "On these bigger items, like the fertilizer and the wheat flour," she said, "You just want to make the deal. Make sure they'll be at camp tonight or back here at market in the morning and we'll collect then, when we have our cart and animals. Get a chit for any deal you make, and a receipt if you make a down payment."

"What if I can't find some of these things, or if I can't get good quality?"

"Then we'll have to buy in town on our way out. Be sure to use federal money or offer to trade wherever possible. We try to hold onto our hard currency, like silver, for emergencies."

Donovan was satisfied with these instructions and after pocketing the money and ration books, he moved off into the crowd of shoppers. He found his childhood street smarts returning as he went about his mission, teasing, flattering, sassing and bullying as the situation seemed to warrant, until he got the price he wanted. When he got hungry he indulged himself with a piece of sausage sold by an old woman with a strange accent he couldn't place. He listened to a musician for awhile and tossed a coin into his cup. He bargained for some kerosene and a new water filter to be delivered to their campsite later in the evening, and he found good deals on yeast, oats, lard and sugar. Late in the day, tempted and unable to regulate his habitual urges, he picked another pocket.

He wandered into the bleachers, checking out the offerings of the smaller vendors. At length he ended up at Gonzales' spot, where in spite of his bloodshot eyes, the man was set up neatly and talking a good line. Once his customer had moved on, Donovan sat down. "How are things going?"

"Business is booming, man." Gonzales grinned like a well-fed cat. "The party will be good tonight."

"You mean it wasn't last night?"

"This will be better. Come with me. Melinda ain't going to be distraught if she doesn't have to feed us tonight."

"Where are you going?"

"Tortuga Rosa. It's a bar on the outskirts of town. Just an old warehouse, nothing fancy. Cheap drinks. Cheaper women." He laughed and gave Donovan a playful punch on the shoulder. "Come on, hombre, how long's it been, anyway? A man's got needs, right?"

"Well," Donovan said, "I suppose I could join you for a drink."

"Sure, man. Just a drink, maybe dance with a pretty girl or two. That brace won't slow you down much, and just about every man there is old, crippled or faking it, so you won't stand out. And you don't have to spend a lot of money to have some fun. I bet it's been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Yes," Donovan admitted. "It's been pretty damn long, now that you mention it."


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chapter Twenty-One

Donovan was woken by a rustle of tent flaps, crackling of cooking fires and clatter of pans, as early risers began preparing for the day, murmuring to each other in the chilly darkness before dawn. He stretched inside his bedroll, rolled over and glanced toward the fire. Amalia was already up, filling the coffeepot with real coffee and exchanging whispers with Melinda, who was breaking eggs into a skillet.

He got to his feet and wandered over, grateful for the fire's warmth.

"Good morning," Amalia said. A pair of earrings that had been set out on the Indian blanket for sale the day before glittered in her ears, but her attitude was as commonsense as always. "I'm glad you're up. I was thinking it would be nice to have a little cream for the coffee this morning, but Peterson is out getting more wood for the fire and we hate to wake Diana up so early. No point trying to rouse Gonzales because he's probably hung over. Do you mind?"

"Of course not." Donovan had only just sat down, but stood up again, suppressing a sigh. "I need to bandage my leg up before I put that brace on again, though. I've got raw spots everywhere."

"We've got bandages and ointment in the first aid kit," Melinda said.

"Where's that?"

Amalia set the coffee to boil and stood up. "I'll show you." She led him to a small chest near the tent. The tent was supposed to be for Diana, but she preferred to sleep under the stars like the grownups, so Gonzales was using it instead. Amalia dug through the chest and produced a roll of bandages, some pins and a jar of ointment. "Do you need. . ." she looked at his leg, as if she would help as she had with his injuries of the summer, but then she pressed the items into his hands and said, "Don't take too long. Remember, we have real coffee this morning."

Puzzled by her nervousness, Donovan went inside the tent, trying not to disturb Gonzales. This proved unnecessary since he was sleeping the deep unwakeable sleep of a man just in from a wild night on the town. Donovan tried to ignore the reek of alcohol as he removed his pants, which had stuck to his chafe wounds in the night and were now spotted with blood. The ointment took away some of the pain, and once he had wound bandages around the chafed areas and put on a fresh pair of pants, the brace seemed more bearable than the previous day. Why hadn't he thought to do this before?

When he returned to the fire, he found Diana wrapped in a blanket and sitting on a wooden box blinking sleepily at the flames. The expression on her face was so innocent that he put a hand on her head. "Good morning, sweetheart. You ready to earn that mule today?"

"Hm," she said with a sleepy half-smile.

"She's ready for some breakfast, is what she is," Melinda said, handing the girl a plate of eggs.

Diana took the plate without a quibble and forked a bit of egg into her mouth.

"Did you ladies still want me to find you some cream?"

"Oh," Amalia said, taking the coffeepot off the fire, "Only if someone else really needs it. I thought it would be nice, but it's a little late now. We’ll make sure to trade for some today, instead."

"I'd as soon we didn't spend the money," Melinda said, scooping eggs onto a few more plates and passing them around. "I never could learn to like coffee with cream.”

"I like cream in my coffee when I'm in a certain type of mood," Amalia said as she poured coffee into mugs and handed them out, including to Diana, who took hers eagerly.

"What kind of mood is that?" Donovan asked.

Amalia ducked her head and turned away, muttering something vague about how being in town brought back memories.

"I could use a few less memories, myself," Melinda said, sitting down beside her daughter and starting on her eggs. "This was where they picked Estéban up on a supply run. He was forty-five years old and fat, but they drafted him anyway. I nearly went berserk when I found out, but even though I inquired everywhere I could think of, I haven't seen or heard from him since. My poor little girl doesn't even remember her daddy."

"I'm no poor little girl," Diana protested.

Donovan shot Amalia a worried look. "I thought you said the Feds don't come through here."

"It's been eight years since the last time.”

"Yes," Melinda sniffed. "I think after their last drafting run they took a look at my husband and the others like him and figured this was the bottom of the barrel. Duplicating their drafting efforts around here wasn't going to result in anything better."

Donovan sipped his coffee, only partly reassured. "I would think they could be back any time, then," he said. "To get the young men who were just children eight years ago."

Melinda and Amalia exchanged glances.

"The town has a good warning system," Amalia reminded him.

"All the more reason to keep this brace on, I guess," Donovan sighed. "Maybe it wasn't such a crazy idea, after all."

Everyone ate in silence as the sounds of the camp coming to life continued around them. When they were finished, they put their empty plates in a basket which Diana took to the communal washtubs. Amalia covered the fire and Melinda set a plate of food and cup of coffee in the warm ashes for her father's breakfast. After they finished tidying the campsite and Diana had returned with the clean dishes, they gathered their coins and small valuables and started walking with the other vendors toward the market. The sun was just starting to gild a few wispy clouds in the sky. It was a promising sign of a good day.