Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Eight

If Carina was happy with Amalia and Donovan's trades, she was even happier to have her jennets home. For several days after their return, she could be found in the paddock or the barn, talking to her animals, inspecting hooves and ears, checking coats for ticks and sores, and making liberal use of the currycomb. "What would you have done if I'd brought you the alpaca you keep asking for?" Amalia teased.

"You wouldn't see me at all, which would leave you to do your own cooking," Carina answered as she rubbed oil into an old saddle she had found in the barn. "But at least the cooking is easy right now, with all the goodies you brought from town. You did really well."

They were in the barn and Amalia pretended great interest in the condition of a harness hook.

Her shift in mood wasn't lost on Carina. "Donovan is pretty good at trading."

"Yes. He's quite the charmer."

"We shouldn't send him anywhere with Gonzales any more. He's a little too earthy and Donovan needs a more steady influence."

"That's true, even if it's not exactly what I meant."

"There's more?"

Amalia sighed. "Just that he's quite the charmer."

Suddenly everything was clear. "He's got a good heart. I doubt he would ever mean to hurt anyone."

"Of course not. But those grasshopper types who never think about the consequences of their behavior. . ."

"It's a problem, isn't it?"


Carina put down her rag. "As long as we don't take him too seriously," she said, "I don’t think we have to stop enjoying his company. He works hard and he means no harm."

Amalia turned away and affected nonchalance. "That's not what I meant at all. I just don't want him causing trouble for any of our friends or trading partners. He's going to pull a trick on the wrong person some day and get shot for it, and I won't be the least bit sorry."

Carina smiled to herself as Amalia walked outside, then she picked up her rag and returned to her work.

* * *

The brisk blue skies and golden poplars of November worked their magic on Donovan. After his adventures in Macrina, the simplicity of plants, wells, fences and animals was invigorating. He found himself humming old tunes as he went about his work cleaning milking equipment, drying fall herbs and vegetables, mending fences and checking the traps. What had he ever liked about urban life? Compared to the grotesqueries and degradations the nation's dying cities, this was heaven.

Sometimes he and Carina would hitch one of the jennies to a cart and trade with the valley neighbors, exchanging squashes, beans and different types of hay. Who could've guessed there could be so many varieties of all these things? But no, an acorn squash was not a pumpkin, a pinto bean was not a black bean and alfalfa was too rich for daily feed and must be traded for brome and timothy.

It was all new and surprisingly interesting.

Under Amalia's direction, he re-plastered one of the low adobe walls on the property. He trapped a rabbit for Carina to make into a stew. He refurbished an old truck wheel for one of the carts. He helped wash raw wool and learned how to keep it from felting in hot water. One afternoon he built a hammock in the garden with some rope he found in a shed. The sisters had a grand time trying to enjoy it together without being tipped into the fallow cabbage bed. In the evenings when Carina turned on the electric light so Amalia could read to them, he struggled with his knitting, trying to extend his ramshackle scarf into an even more questionable afghan. Well, it didn't have to look good to keep him warm. When he needed a break from counting stitches, he admired the peaceful domestic scene— the two women, one reading from a novel called Vanity Fair, the other mending a shirt or working the drop spindle while the tabby dozed in a nearby chair or a friendly lap. It was all very cozy and comforting.

* * *

"So," Carina said one morning over cornmeal pancakes flavored with some of the Petersons' honey, "What are we going to do about Thanksgiving?"

"I don't see why we have to do anything different from any other day," Amalia said. "If we're not thankful the rest of the year, we're not going to make up for it with just one dinner."

"That's not the point, and you know it." Carina pondered. "What can we do this year? Cornmeal stuffing, obviously, but I hate to kill one of the chickens, and no one around here raises turkeys."

"Will quail do?" Donovan asked. "I'm not so good with a bow and arrow, but if you've got enough ammo, I can shoot some. I see coveys out there all the time."

Carina nodded. "Yes, I think quail would do. And there's that can of cranberries you got in Macrina."

"I'm curious to try those. I didn't know what they were but Diana said I should take them."

"She's a clever girl. She'll make someone a terrific wife one day."

"That's if she wants to marry at all," Amalia said. "She'd probably be better off if she didn't, given her prospects around here. But then, she did express an interest in Donovan."

"Oh did she?" Carina gave him a wicked smile. "When's the date?"

"Sometime after she reaches puberty, I would think.”

"Speaking of the Petersons," Amalia cut in, "Do you want to invite them? They've done us several favors this year."

Carina brightened. "That's a good idea." She turned to Donovan. "How good are you with a shotgun? We'll need a lot of those quail if we're going to invite your little girlfriend and her family."

"I can get as many as you need. They're all over the place. Nothing's too good for my girlfriend."

Amalia rolled her eyes. "I'll see if I can get us some potatoes," she said, changing the subject. "We had no luck in town, which was odd, but the McKnights usually have some."

"I haven't had a potato in awhile," Carina said. "I wonder how their animals are doing?"

"I’m sure they wouldn't mind a friendly house call." Amalia stood up. "I guess that settles it. I'll go to the Peterson's tomorrow and invite them."

* * *

"Have you ever hunted quail?" Amalia asked, watching as Donovan inspected the shotgun.

"I've hunted game before."

"But have you hunted quail? Without a dog?"

Carina was nearby, sorting through her father's hunting gear. "Gonzales has a good pointer," she said. "Maybe we—"

"No." Amalia's voice was firm.

Donovan sighed. "I haven't ever hunted quail, with or without a dog."

Carina had found what she was looking for— a canvas bag that could hold as many as a dozen birds. She looked at Amalia. "Maybe you should go with him. He won't get as many if he tries to do it alone."

"He can throw rocks to flush them out," Amalia said. "He'll just have to make sure he finds them if he hits them."

"Maybe we should just kill a couple chickens."

Donovan took the bag out of Carina's hands and looked it over. "I shouldn't have much trouble finding the dead quail," he said. "There's not so much ground cover as all that."

"And where do you think your going to find them, if not where the ground cover is thickest?" Amalia wanted to know.

"I've seen them. I know where they hang out."

Carina put a hand on Amalia's arm before she could say more. "Let him see how he does. If he can't get enough quail, we'll go with chicken. It won’t be the end of the world."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Everyone was finishing breakfast and coffee when Amalia returned from her errands. "The Sinclairs will be by with the oats in about an hour," she said, "And I heard there's good prices on baking soda, toothbrushes and work boots in the shops, so maybe we can stop at a couple places on our way out and see what they've got."

"Have something to eat, dear," Melinda said. But Amalia shook her head at the offer of eggs, and found only dribbles when she upended the coffeepot over her cup. She shrugged and began putting things into boxes and baskets for the trip home. Melinda jumped to help. "Why don't I do this while you make deliveries?”

Donovan stood up, trying to pretend his head wasn't pounding. "How about I take care of the deliveries so you can stay here and wait for the oats?"

"Okay," Amalia said without looking him in the eye. She turned away and went to harness the team. Donovan went after her, but found himself unsure what to say. She worked with the animals silently, the air so dense with her disapproval that it was almost a visible thing.

"You're mad at me," Donovan finally said.

Amalia tugged at a harness strap. "I have no right to be."

"But you are."


Donovan considered. "I guess I just don't see why."

"After the long conversation we had about not wasting money and how I hate people who carry on like Gonzales, you wonder why I'm disappointed in you?"

"Disappointed in me?" Donovan started to shake his head, but it hurt too much. "Don't talk down to me. I'm a soldier, not some ignorant yokel. How I spend my free time is my business."

"I guess that's why I'm disappointed," Amalia said, still refusing to look at him. "I thought you were smart enough to find more productive uses for your time than hanging around bars."

"I don't have to justify myself to you."

"Of course you don't." Amalia checked the harness straps one last time. "I think that's what disappoints me most of all." She rubbed Regan's muzzle and clucked at Goneril. "So how long do you think it will take to make your deliveries? There's a lot to do today and we'd like to be on the road by noon."

Donovan wasn't feeling well enough to change mental gears this quickly. "I don't think it will take very long. Maybe I can do a pickup or two and just make the rounds."

"That's kind of what I had in mind."

"And then we break camp, hit the stores and go home?"


"Good. I'm ready to leave this place."

* * *

It was a pleasure to crest the hill and wind down the valley road, the little farm growing larger amid the scrub and fallow fields, the narrow ribbon of the creek shining silver in the afternoon light. Goneril and Regan seemed to know they were almost home and held their heads high, sniffing the air and pulling the cart with such enthusiasm that Amalia had to keep a firm hand on the reins to prevent them from breaking into an eager trot.

The party pulled into the driveway as Carina dashed from the barn to greet them. Grandma Peterson poked her head out the kitchen door and tottered her way into the group, grinning. She sent Diana to fetch her bags and climbed up onto the buckboard with surprising agility.

Gonzales and the Petersons didn't stay long, in spite of Carina's friendly offer of tea and a snack.

"No, mi hijita," Peterson said. "We need to go see how things are getting along at the ranch. We hired two of the Torres brood to mind the place, and they’ve probably let the bees escape and the sheep wander into the arroyo by now."

"And my mamá is waiting, bless her heart," Gonzales chimed in. "She still thinks I'm a boy who can't hardly take care of himself. Since she gives me such a handsome allowance, I don't see much point in telling her different."

As the party trailed away in a cloud of dust, Carina rubbed the jennets' noses, and an uncertain look passed between her and her sister. "We might as well," Carina said.

Amalia pressed her lips together and started taking things out of the wagon. Donovan stepped forward to help. "Why don't you unload and let us carry the things inside?" Amalia told him.

If this arrangement struck Donovan as odd, he gave no sign, and began staging coffee, flour, oats, lard, and canned goods near the kitchen door. When everything was out of the wagon and still no sign of Amalia and Carina, he paused. It was a fact that they were nervous about something and Donovan guessed they didn't want him knowing the location of the secret storeroom he knew they must have. With an easygoing manner, he loaded his arms with tins of baking soda and sacks of salt and headed inside.

He found no one in the kitchen but heard a faint murmur of feminine voices. Since he knew the house well by this point, the only place their storeroom could be was a basement of some kind. The question was how one got to it. Silently, he moved to the kitchen table and set his items down. He waited again, straining for a sound.

There it was.

He stepped into the hallway and saw that the door to the linen closet was open. Inside was a dark hole where the floor should have been. He crouched and listened. He couldn't make out the words, but Amalia's angry tone and Carina's soothing murmurs made him suspect they were talking about him. He went back outside and brought in a few more items, making sure to stomp loudly on the kitchen floor, but only as far as the table and then back out again. That should put an end to their worries that he would raid their stash. There would be time enough later to find out what they had.

When Carina came outside again, she found him pulling wool pelts out of the cart. "Those go in the barn."

Donovan slid the wool back into the cart. "Good. They stink."

"That's why we don't bring them in the house until we've washed them." She tugged on Goneril's bridle. "Why don't you come out to the barn and help me finish unloading? Then we can curry these big babies and let them in the pasture with their little goat friends." She looked Goneril in the eye. "Do you miss your friends? Are you glad to be home?"

"They sure moved like they were glad to be coming home once we were back in the valley.”

"They can smell when they're almost home. They rely on all their senses, unlike us."

"They know a good thing when they've got it," Donovan agreed.

"Also unlike us." Carina gave him a serious look. "You do know when you've got things pretty good, right?"

"Yes." He ducked his head. Her meaning was obvious.

"Then I guess we don't have to say any more about it." Carina rubbed the jenny's nose as if Donovan's foibles in town were already forgotten. "I'm sure glad to have my sweet babies home. You've had quite an adventure, haven't you?"


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Six

A clatter of pans and kettles roused Donovan from a deep slumber. The thin walls of the tent where he had collapsed with Gonzales were no protection from the racket of breakfast being made. Wooden chests opened and slammed shut. Spoons pounded furiously against the sides of bowls, and pot lids clanged into place.

He cringed, rolled over and tried putting his pillow over his head, but that was no good. And now that he was awake enough to think in a limping sort of way, it occurred to him that maybe all the noise of breakfast-making really did have a motive behind it. Hadn't Melinda and Amalia been quieter all the other mornings?

He sat up and pressed his face with the palms of his hands, wondering what time it was and how long he had slept. There was no light coming in through the walls of the tent, but he guessed dawn was not far off. In that case he had slept, what, three hours? He looked at Gonzales, still snoring and oblivious to the commotion. He had a vague memory of Gonzales being a lot more drunk than he himself had been, singing and shouting during the rickshaw ride back into town and stumbling into seemingly everybody's campsite but his own. He had even blundered into the wrong tent, waking a group of children and causing a big headache for Donovan as he tried to get the man into his own camp, against his protests that he knew where it was and "didn't need no help from no thieving card shark."

Well, that headache was nothing like this one. How long had it been since he had been in the habit of drinking? Too long, his head and queasy stomach told him as he swayed to his feet. He needed coffee and some greasy eggs. He stumbled out of the tent and made his way to the campfire where Amalia and Melinda crouched together near the flames, keeping an eye on breakfast. They were quiet now, seeming to have run out of ways to make noise. They looked up as he approached, but said nothing. "Good morning," he mumbled, sitting on a box near the fire.

Melinda raised her eyebrows but didn't return his greeting, instead bending back over her skillet of eggs. Amalia had been keeping an eye on the coffeepot, but now she scowled and walked away. Donovan looked around, hoping Peterson or Diana could help break the atmosphere of feminine disapproval, but they were gone, their bedding neatly rolled and staged near the tent.

"Where did Diana and your father go?" he asked Melinda.

She had taken the skillet out of the fire, but kept stirring so she wouldn't have to look at him. "They went to get the animals."

Donovan remembered that today was their last trading day, the day they would complete the bigger deals they had made and pick up any last items they needed in the town’s shops. Tonight they would be sleeping in the desert again. Suddenly Donovan longed to get back to the simple rhythms of country life. This trip was an ugly digression from a lifestyle he was beginning to appreciate.

Melinda spooned some eggs onto a plate and set the covered skillet into some warm ashes. Then she removed the coffeepot from the grill over the fire and poured herself a cup. She must have heard Donovan's stomach growl because she gave him a pointed look. "Are you expecting someone to wait on you? Serve yourself."

Donovan moved stiffly as he fixed himself a plate and poured a cup of Amalia's strong coffee. Just when he was beginning to think he would suffocate under Melinda's disapproval, a jangle of harness and creaking of wheels announced the return of Peterson and Diana. They were each driving a cart, with Gonzales' horse, Melinda's pony, and Amalia's jennets tethered behind. Diana pulled her team to a stop, shrieked "Breakfast!" and hopped down off the box. Melinda pressed a plate and cup into her hands, and the girl fell to eating like a starving animal.

"Don't gobble your food, Diana.”

"It's all right," Peterson said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. "That's a fine girl you got there."

"She'd be a bit finer if she minded her manners."

"Mind them for what? For afternoon tea at some fancy New York restaurant, buried under the rubble these past twenty years?" He tousled Diana's hair. "She's a growing girl who did a man's work this morning."

"Yes," Melinda said, "I suppose my poor baby is hungry, having to do work that should've been done by a man." She glared at Donovan as she said this, and he hoped she meant to include Gonzales in her condemnation of the useless men of their party.

"Speaking of men," Peterson said, "Where's Gonzales? Don't tell me he's still sleeping."

"He is." Melinda sipped her coffee, regal in her righteousness.

"Well," the old man scratched the back of his neck. "I hate to do it to the guy, but I guess I’m going to have to wake him up."

Diana jumped up. "Let me!" Before anyone could stop her, she darted over to the tent, opened the flap and poked her head inside. Loudly and off tune she began singing:

Que linda esta mañana
En que vengo a saludarte
Venimos todos con gusto
Y placer a felicitarte!

From inside the tent, the others could hear a shuffling, and then a mumbled, "Madre de Dios, mi hijita, cállate!"

Diana choked back a giggle and launched into the next verse.

"Cállate, Diana! Shut up!"

The girl squealed as a sock hit her in the face. She jumped back from the open tent and ran to hide behind her mother.

Gonzales lumbered out of the tent and looked around. "Damn! It's still dark out." He looked at Diana. "That sun ain't coming up for another hour."

"And there's a lot of work to be done before it does," Peterson said. "We brought your horse around for you."

"There's plenty of eggs," Donovan added. "Have some. You'll feel better."

Muttering under his breath that nothing was going to make him feel better, and how people got no business singing the Mañanitas song at such an ungodly hour, Gonzales stumbled toward the fire, and with trembling hands, poured a cup of coffee.

Melinda eyed him coldly, then turned her attention to her daughter. "What on earth were you singing?"

"I learned it in the market. It's like Happy Birthday."

"Only it ain't my birthday, kid." Gonazles sat down and stared dumbly into his cup.

"Behave yourself," Peterson said, "Or I'll send her to your house to sing it again when it is."

"I need that like a hole in the head. Where's those eggs?"

Sullenly, Melinda ladled a spoonful onto a plate and handed it to him.

"That's it?"

"You want more, get it yourself."


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Five

Donovan approached the doorway to the darkened room and peered inside. It was a tiny place, perhaps an office in better times, hazy with sweet-smelling smoke and lit by a dirty oil lamp. The room seemed populated by shadows, all of them engaged in smoking, snorting or injecting things. Before he could get his bearings, a tall man in the shiny, green-tinged remnants of a tuxedo came up to him. "We take silver or gold," he said in a pleasant tone that managed to convey the idea that silver and gold were not only the patron's best choice of payment but the only choice. "What would you like?"

Donovan was crafting a response when he saw her. Pale and ethereal, she sat on the floor on the opposite side of the room, staring at nothing with such an expression of vulnerability on her face that he was moved like he had been when he first saw her. "I came to get her,” Donovan said.

"Good. She just takes up space and never spends more than a dollar on her damn cheap huffers."

Donovan passed into the room and lowered himself onto the floor beside the redhead, who pouted and looked away with a poorly disguised lack of curiosity. "Hey," he said, "What's your name?"


Donovan tried to scoot a little closer, the pallor of her skin seeming to beg for the warmth of his own brown and healthy body. "That's a pretty name. Is it your real name, or just the one you go by?"

"What's it to you?" She turned away, as if hoping this would discourage him, and picked up a paper bag. She held it to her face and inhaled deeply.

Donovan put a hand on her shoulder. "Honey...Valerie, please don't do that."

"Why should you give a damn? You want to fuck me? It'll be twenty dollars. In silver."

"That's pretty steep," Donovan said.

She nodded in satisfaction and took another hit off her bag.

"I didn't search all over this place to buy you for an hour. I want to talk to you."

"Yeah, right. What are you, a Fed?"

"No, I just think you're interesting."

"You don't even know me."

"I know you don't belong here." They sat in silence a few minutes before Donovan spoke again. "What's in the bag?"

Valerie raised her eyebrows as if it were a foolish question. "Around here they call it a roadrunner. A little paint, a little coal diesel." She held the bag toward him in a ghostly parody of good manners.

"I don't do that sort of thing. I do plenty of other things I shouldn't, so there need to be a few I don't. That way I'll have a chance of squaring things later with the Lord."

"I don't want to hear anything about the Lord," Valerie said. "It's because of him I'm in this place."

"I don't know that I'd go blaming God for my troubles."

"Well, I blame him for mine. I used to be a good girl. A good Christian girl." She held Donovan's gaze to make sure he understood this point. "My family had a small place in the mountains and it was a hard life, but we managed okay. But then my father died and it was just my sick mother and us four girls. We sold our stock and seed for medicine and were left with nothing."

Donovan took one of her slender hands. "I'm sorry."

"There was nothing to do but look for work. My oldest sister left saying she was going to join the Guard and send us money, but we never heard from her again." Valerie started to raise the bag to her face again, but Donovan's hand on her wrist stopped her. "So that left three of us to figure out some other way of making money. We had no skills and lived so far from everything. None of us could find work we could do that earned any real money except. . .” she waved a hand. "This. So we drew lots. I lost." She wrenched her hand from Donovan's grasp and inhaled again from the bag.

"Earning your bread, no matter how you have to do it, isn't going to kill you, but that stuff will.”

"I don't care. I'm as good as dead anyway. My mother and sisters take my money, but they don't talk to me. Not like I'm one of them. I'm just the disgusting whore who gives them money so they can keep living on their mountain being good Christians."

Seeing that the man in the tuxedo was glaring at them, Donovan stood up. "Come on." He helped Valerie to her feet. He put an arm around her waist and guided her back into the noisy dance hall. "Is there someplace we can go? Somewhere a little quieter?"

Valerie looked at him a long moment, swaying from inhalants, moonshine and high heeled shoes that pinched her toes. Then she took his hand and led him around the perimeter of the dance floor to a door he hadn't noticed earlier. Beyond was a dim tunnel of doors. Valerie led him to a room at the end of the hallway. "This one's mine," she said, as she opened the door onto a tiny closet of a room, bare except for a bed, a dirty mirror, and a few crumpled dresses wadded on the floor in a corner.

"This wasn't what I meant."

"Hey, you said you just wanted to talk, right?" She shut the door behind them, stepped out of her shoes and flung herself on the bed. "If you meant what you said, it shouldn't matter where we are." She closed her eyes. "So talk."

Donovan did. Since there was no other furniture, he sat on the edge of the bed and told her of his adventures as a street kid in the city. He played with the tattered hem of her skirt while she told him of life on her mountain. He lay down next to her and wrapped a lock of her strange orange hair around his hand as he told her about farm life with Amalia and Carina. He said little about his days in the Guard, but she seemed to understand the need to keep a secret and didn't press him about the gaps in his story any more than he pressed her about the missing parts of hers. When finally it seemed there was no more to say, he leaned over and kissed her.

"It's not really twenty dollars," she said.

"I know."

"I just say that when I'm tired and I want to make a man go away."

"I kind of figured that."

"You don't have to pay me anything. I like you."

"Maybe I want to give you something, because I like you, too."

When Donovan left an hour later, Valerie was asleep and he had left under her pillow a ration book he had lifted earlier in the night, and a small gold piece worth considerably more than twenty dollars.