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."


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Donovan went out at dawn the next day and by noon had only managed to kill one bird and it was so full of shot that it was useless as food. Although he knew that the proper technique was to shoot the bird’s head off, so as to not get shot in the meat, it was easier said than done when a cloud of quail rose unexpectedly before him and he had to get off a shot as best he could. Discouraged and embarrassed, he sought out Carina in the kitchen, where she was stirring a pot of curds.

"It's okay," she reassured him. "They really are hard to get without a dog."

"It isn't that I'm not a good shot, but by the time you find them, flush them out and aim. . ."

"I know."

"And there were at least two others I'm pretty sure I hit, but I couldn't find them once they dropped. I guess that's why they say to use a dog."

Seeing that his hands were empty, Carina handed him a strainer lined with a clean cloth and instructed him to hold it over an empty pan. "More experienced hunters than you have needed a dog to hunt quail. We'll have Amalia kill a chicken or two."

"I hate for us to have to do that." He watched as Carina poured the remaining curds into the strainer, the whey streaming through to the pot below. "Is there no place we can get a turkey? I haven't had one in years and I'd be happy to pay for it."

"The only people I know who raise any sort of birds besides chickens are the weirdos at the God's Candidates compound. We don't have any dealings with them and you in particular wouldn't be welcome."

"Why not? Everyone wants money and mine is as good as anyone else's."

"Not to them." Carina picked up the ends of the cloth and began twisting it, squeezing out the whey. "They're Aryan supremacists and would shoot you on sight."

Donovan laughed. "White supremacists? Out here in Mexican and Indian territory?"

"We didn't always have people like that out here. They turned that way when the economy went bad and they felt like they had to blame someone." Carina set the tightly wrapped cloth of curds on a plate and tied it with twine. "They're alleged to be self-sufficient, although I sometimes wonder. They're also overrun with kids, since breeding seems to be part of their plan. They probably think they can supplant the native population with their own home-grown one. They're absolutely nuts, and that's why we don't have any dealings with them, even though Amalia and I could probably trade with them if we wanted to."

"They're the only ones you know of who raise turkeys?"

"I'm afraid so."

"So where are they, if you don't mind my asking."

Carina looked at him sharply. "Why do you care? I'm telling you, they're crazy. Dangerous-crazy. You don't want to go there."

"How can I avoid them if I don't know where they are?"

"You won't run into them if you stay around here. Were you planning on going somewhere?"

Their eyes met, and Donovan looked away first. He handed Carina the empty strainer.

"I was just curious."

* * *

That afternoon Donovan went out again with the shotgun, but had no luck and was gone until almost dusk. He came in as Amalia and Carina were sitting down to dinner and slid into his spot at the table as though his late arrival was unremarkable.

The women looked at each other, eyebrows raised. Amalia was the first to speak. "I could've used your help this afternoon. We were going to work on the door to the big box stable."

"I must've forgotten." He ladled sweet corn onto his plate.

"Did you get any more quail?" Carina asked.

He shook his head and reached for the beans. "I might head out again in the morning. I think I'm close to getting the hang of it."

Carina and Amalia looked at each other again, but it was Amalia who had words at the ready. "I think you'd do better to spend your time helping around here instead of wasting another day trying to figure out how to kill small birds that aren't worth the trouble."

"She's right," Carina said. "Your skill will get better over time. It would make more sense to practice over the course of the year and plan on having quail next Thanksgiving."

"I was thinking I'd get a rabbit or two instead. I still want to head out early, before the sun's up."

"I guess that's a reasonable proposal. . ." Carina began.

"Oh, please. That's not reasonable at all." Amalia turned on him. "Are you up to something? All of a sudden you've got the hunting bug and it looks pretty strange to me."

"I'm not up to anything," he said, stirring his corn into his beans before reaching for a tortilla. "I don't see why you’re so suspicious just because I want to provide my friends with a nice Thanksgiving dinner."

"A rabbit dinner?" Amalia looked skeptical.

"Why not, since I'm having such bad luck with the quail? It'll save you having to kill any of your chickens, won't it?"

Amalia sat back in her chair with poorly concealed irritation, her arms folded across her chest.

Carina frowned. "I guess you can give it a try. I don't think rabbit is very traditional, but—"

"I want to help. It's not like I'm any good with cooking or decorating. This is what I can do. Isn't Thanksgiving about being thankful for what you have? We can be grateful for rabbits, can't we?"

"I guess I don't need any help with anything in the morning. . ."

"Well, I do," Amalia said, but the look of quiet resignation on Carina's face checked her. "Fine. Get some rabbits. But that's it. After lunch, you're helping me with that box stall."