Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chapter Forty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You ran away."

"Not from them."

"Then from who?"

"From the man they sold me to."

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

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

"Seems like you learned a lot."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So she was alone?"

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

"Where was this?"

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

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

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


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Chapter Forty-One

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

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

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

"Good. Ever since Amalia said. . ."

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

"I wouldn't say that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I gave them to Will."

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

"Was there some other plan?"

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

"Amalia's been anxious about this fence."

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

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

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

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

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

"You look exquisite, as always.”

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

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

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

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

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

"He's getting older, too."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about her?"

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


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Chapter Forty

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Will shrugged. "It was worth a try."

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

The girl lifted her chin. "Tasha."

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

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

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

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

"We've only been here a week."

"Where have you been staying?"

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

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

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

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

"There's no place like that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nothing," Will said.

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

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

"Maybe those children are exaggerating."

"I don't think so."

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


"We'll be good."

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

"You got no home, either?"

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

"So ask," Will said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No one does.”

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

"Oh, for Christ's sake."


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

"What do you mean?"

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


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

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

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


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm sure it will be fine."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

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

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

"Don't you ever--"

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

"That's not the point."

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Eight

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

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

"What is that?"

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

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

"Where is Amalia, by the way?"

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

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

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

"That Joaquin. . ." Carina said.

"Complete disaster?"

"Well, it was entertaining, at least."

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

"Where did you get that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not even if I want to?"

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

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

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

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