Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Chapter Forty-Six

Amalia hurried into the kitchen to find a tall array of shelves on the floor and all its former contents scattered across the linoleum. The young men were standing in a confused huddle around something. To Amalia's surprise they moved apart without a word and let her through. Tasha lay underneath two heavy cast iron kettles. With a cry, Amalia knelt down beside the girl and moved the metal pots away, feeling her all over for broken bones. The girl was breathing, but faintly. "Tasha," she said. "Tasha, wake up."

She looked around wildly. Something didn't seem right, but with the men watching her in confusion and with her own heart pounding at how narrowly they had missed a gunfight over access to the linen closet, she couldn't gather her thoughts. How could that shelf just fall over? And how could the pots have flown off and hit Tasha in just such a way?

"Tasha, can you hear me?" Tasha's eyelids flickered and Amalia bent closer. "Are you all right?" The girl moved again, but this time it was just one eye, almost like she was trying to wink. Amalia sat back, startled. She looked around again. No, there was no way those kettles could've fallen where they did by accident.

Amalia glanced up at the young men. They weren't afraid to shoot a woman in cold blood, but an injured child was another matter. She forced down a sudden leap of hope and screamed. "This is all your fault! You did this!"

The leader took a step back, startled. "Ma'am, I wasn't even in this room."

He had called her ma'am. That was a good sign. "It wouldn't have happened if you hadn't come here, if you could've just taken what you needed and left. But no, you had to scare this poor child so bad she tried to climb the shelves to get away from you. And look what happened!" She jumped to her feet and the three men all moved back.

"Look at her!" She was shrieking again now and Donovan came rushing into the room in spite of his promise to guard the closet. "Look what they did to the baby!" Amalia said to him, trying to signal that Tasha was all right without the raiders catching on.

Donovan looked at the still form on the linoleum and remembered the day she and Will had tried to pick his pocket in Macrina. With difficulty he suppressed a smile and glared at each of the young men in turn. "What's the matter with you that you'd hurt an innocent child?"

"I'm telling you," the leader said, "we weren't even in here."

"Well, help us get her into bed where we can at least care for her," Amalia said. She turned to the one in the military uniform, who seemed to be the weakest and most easily led. "Pick her up and take her to the children's room. It's the second one down the hall." When she saw him move to obey, she turned to the one in the suit. "You start some water boiling, in case we need to sterilize anything. And you," she turned finally to the leader. "Come with me and help me check for broken bones and monitor her for signs of concussion or skull fracture."

Donovan stepped out of the way while the young men sprang into action. He went to the bathroom and tried to look busy sorting through herbal concoctions and bandages while keeping a casual eye on the linen closet. From the children's room he could hear Amalia's voice directing the men and cooing at Tasha. Every now and then one of the raiders would hurry past, galvanized by Amalia's orders to complete some useless task. Then he heard new steps, light and cautious, coming down the hall.

He grabbed Carina and yanked her into the bathroom.

"What's going on?" she demanded.

"You won't believe it," Donovan said. "Just go in the children's room and play along. Tasha's okay."

She looked at him in confusion. "Did they hurt her?"

"No, she's faking." He shoved her back into the hallway and after a moment, he heard her shriek. Now all was confusion again, one man's voice raised in denial, another one dashing toward the kitchen on some new errand. The rangy man in the suit appeared in the doorway of the bathroom, fingering a loose button. "I'm supposed to get some bandages," he said. Donovan handed him a roll of bandages and a pair of scissors and he darted off.

Gradually things calmed down again as Carina took charge of directing the medical operations. Soon Donovan could hear Tasha's voice, bewildered and rising in a series of questions as everyone, even the raiders, spoke soothing words to her. It didn't matter what happened next. The raid was over.

Donovan went and stood in the door of the children's room, gazing in amused silence at the tableau— the child, the hovering women, the nervous young men standing in uncomfortable poses in the corner. Amalia looked up and met Donovan's eyes with an expression of barely suppressed relief. She murmured something to Carina, then went to meet him. Together they went into the kitchen.

"That was some stunt you two pulled off,” Donovan said.

"She's a very clever girl." Amalia looked at the floor, covered in broken crockery. "Although if I'd known she had a trick like this up her sleeve, I'd have made sure not to have anything breakable on these shelves."

Donovan squeezed her hand. "We'll clean it up, and I'll get you some new stuff in Macrina." He gave her an affable smile. "You're really amazing, you know that?"

She pulled her hand away. "Go tell that to Tasha when those bastards are gone. It was her idea.” She glanced toward the back of the house where they could still hear Carina's soft tones directing the men at some trivial task. "I hope that's it, though. I hope they leave after this."

"They will.”

"How do you know?"

"If I'd been brought up out here instead of the city, they're what I would've become. After something like this, I would've just taken whatever seemed easy and left."

True to Donovan's prediction, the raiders left soon after Carina said it was time for Tasha to get some rest. They pocketed a few items on their way out and stuffed their saddlebags with food while Carina pretended to examine their horses, delaying their advance to the Petersons. But they made no more attempts to search out hidden nooks and crannies. They showed no more interest in closed doors. And as they swung into their saddles and rode away, they looked like little more than boys playing a dangerous grownup game.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Chapter Forty-Five

Donovan joined Amalia in the kitchen and was astonished at what he saw. Tasha, taking him at his word about the raiders being after food, had loaded the table with whatever food was to hand: dried apples, half a pan of cornbread and even the pie that Carina had made on a wild impulse to celebrate who knew what. Before he could say anything, he saw horses outside the window and went to take a look. Three of the men were dismounting, while the fourth remained outside to keep an eye on things. They had some experience raiding, if they knew enough to post a lookout.

When they burst through the door and stomped into the kitchen, Donovan reconsidered. These were just teenagers, dressed in the latest raider fashion of whatever rich attire they could find, no matter how inconvenient or inappropriate. One was in dusty blue jeans embellished with velvet and leather patches. His red shirt was of some kind of shiny material and he wore a tooled leather vest trimmed in silver. The second raider was more subdued and wore what looked like a faded military dress uniform. The third was dressed improbably in a gray business suit. They all wore gold earrings and numerous gold chains, but they were young. This could mean they would be ruthless, but it might also mean they could be tricked.

Amalia stepped forward to meet the men as they tramped into the kitchen in their ill-fitting boots. "Gentlemen, you could've knocked."

"We don't knock," the one in the leather vest said. He looked around the room, scanning it for valuables. His gaze fell upon the table.

"We thought you'd be hungry after such a long ride," Amalia said. "There's no other places to stop for miles in the direction you came from. Please have a seat. Would you like some wine? It's not very good, but..."

All three men cast longing looks at the table, but then the one in the vest came back to his senses. "Look lady," he waved a hand, then looked at Donovan. "You, too. We want money, whiskey, batteries, ammo, and anything else you've got." He sized up the room. "Are you going to make me an offer, or do we need to find what we want on our own?"

Amalia forced a smile. "I'm afraid we're very poor."

"That's what they all say. Have it your way." He motioned to the other two and they pushed past Amalia, Donovan and Tasha in a rush.

Amalia and Donovan's eyes met again and Donovan reached for his gun, but Amalia shook her head. Already they could hear the sounds of cabinets and closets opening, objects being tossed off shelves. "Just keep an eye on them," she whispered.

Donovan and Tasha followed her lead and watched as the raiders checked under sofa cushions, under rugs, behind chairs and inside chests and cabinets for anything that might be of value. They picked up pictures, checked the frames for precious metal, fiddled with the backings and dashed them onto the floor. They tossed away books and keepsakes. Amalia cringed as knives were brought out and cushions ripped open, the flocking probed and picked over, but she made no move to stop them, standing near the linen closet door.

The raider in the suit came out of the women's bedroom holding a handful of cheap costume jewelry that Amalia had left out in the hope they wouldn't seek more valuable items. "Can't you do better than this, lady?"

"I'm afraid not. We've been raided before.”

The man grumbled and shoved the items into his pocket. "Move."


"I said move."


"I don't care where, just get the hell out of the way so I can see what you've got behind that door."

"It's just a linen closet. Do you need towels and blankets?"

The one in the leather vest walked over, unimpressed with his takings from the children's room. "You let us decide what we need. He shoved Amalia against the door.

Donovan jumped between them, still resisting the urge to grab for his weapon in spite of the man's repulsive behavior. "You don't need to push the lady."

"Obviously I do because she ain't out of the way yet." With a malevolent gleam in his eye, the man reached for his gun. "And if you don't both let us see what's behind that door..."

Amalia and Donovan were both reaching for their weapons when there was a sudden shriek and crash from the kitchen. It was deep and loud and seemed to go on and on with lots of smaller crashes behind it. "What the—" The man in the vest ran toward the kitchen, the other two at his heels.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Chapter Forty-Four

Donovan rested for a moment against the plow. A bitter wind tugged at his jacket and he wondered by what stretch of the imagination this could be called spring planting. He gazed back along the row. Will was catching up quickly with the seeds.

In the next field, Amalia and Tasha were moving at a good clip. Donovan slapped the reins against Cordelia's back, pulling the plow around to start the next row. A sudden movement caught his eye. It was Carina running toward them from the direction of the paddock. This wasn't her usual happy loping, either.

Donovan jerked on the reins and tossed them to Will, who had come running up to him, curious. "Wait here," he said. He caught up with Carina just outside Amalia and Tasha's field. "What is it?"

"Raiders!" She pointed toward the mountain road.

"Are you sure?" Amalia asked.

Carina nodded. "I don't think they're Guard," she said, turning toward Donovan,

"Probably up to no good, just the same. How many?"

"At least three. Maybe four."

Donovan looked at Amalia. "We can handle them."

She nodded. "We'll go protect the house. A party that small won't be after livestock, except maybe the chickens. . ."

"That's where I’m going," Carina said. She glanced over at Will, still holding Cordelia in the next field. "Have him ride over to the Petersons and warn them."

Carina took off toward the chicken coop and Amalia and Donovan started toward the house at a run. No sooner than they were inside when Amalia started pulling guns off their racks and ammunition out of cabinets. She grabbed a pair of binoculars and went out onto the front porch, anxiously scanning the horizon. Donovan peered over her shoulder at the rapidly growing dust cloud. "What do you think?"

She handed him the binoculars. "They look like irregulars to me."

He peered through the lenses. Four scrawny horses and four dirty-looking men in varying outlandish types of dress. "Definitely irregulars." He handed back the binoculars, stepped back inside and looked around. "What's the plan?"

Amalia looked around the room, momentarily at a loss, then everything came back to her, all the plans she had made over the years with her family, with Carina, on how to deal with such a scenario. "Hide the good stuff: money, spices, jewelry, and anything with batteries or solar panels. Act nice when they arrive, like they're friends and we're expecting them. And keep them away from the linen closet."

They sprang into action and Donovan was surprised at the number of odd cubbyholes and hidden places devoted to the purpose of hiding goods from prying eyes. The women had never shown him these places before, but now with a real enemy almost at their gate, Amalia had no choice but to open the secret trapdoors, the hollow books, the false panels so they could hide the batteries, flashlights, solar lamps, money, and ration books. "Leave a few things out," she urged, as he tried to put every last coin, bracelet and coupon into the false bottom of a basket. "If they find nothing they'll know we're hiding things."

A sudden slam of the kitchen door sent them dashing into the hallway, hearts pounding. They couldn't be here yet, could they? It was only Tasha. "Are the raiders. . ."

"Yes, they're coming," Amalia said curtly, brushing past her to grab a few guns from where she had left them on the kitchen table.

"It's okay, honey," Donovan said. "They won't hurt you. They aren't here to bother children." He tried to get past her to help Amalia with the ammo.

"What do they want?"

"Money. Valuable things. Maybe food. But not children."

"Definitely not children," Amalia said.

They each hid a gun and a knife on their persons, and just in time, because now they could hear the clop of hooves coming up the drive. Donovan and Amalia exchanged looks. Donovan was already feeling the familiar adrenaline rush of a raid. It felt strange to be on the receiving end, but he knew he would have no problem firing on these men, if it came to that.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chapter Forty-Three

That evening, after they had put the children to bed, Donovan told the women what he had learned from Will. The three of them sat on the porch, bundled into blankets and huddled over cups of hot tea as they talked, unwilling to go inside and lose their chance at private conversation.

"Those poor kids," Carina said. "It makes you wonder how they can stay so good-natured."

"Children are pretty resilient." Amalia bent over her cup and took a sip.

"I survived just as bad, maybe worse," Donovan pointed out.

Carina shook her head. "I can't help thinking how different children are now. Things were pretty crazy while we were growing up, but at least parents still looked out for their kids, still tried to give them something like a childhood."

"Plenty of parents still do. There's Diana, and all the kids who aren't picking pockets on the streets of Macrina." Amalia took another sip of her tea.

"But kids work so hard now," Carina said. "I think it's sad we can't offer Will and Tasha things like school and music lessons and play time."

Amalia sniffed. "That stuff's overrated. I sometimes think it was a shame we were raised that way. It gave us expectations. But there's no reason we can't teach the kids reading and basic math. They'll need that, even if they do have to spend their entire lives living on isolated farms and working in the dirt with animals."

"You make it sound like a life sentence," Donovan said.

"Isn't it?"

For a moment no one spoke. The women pretended to be absorbed with their tea while Donovan stared at a distant star. "Well, I like it out here," he finally said.

"Tell me that again in twenty years," Amalia mumbled.

"Maybe I will."

"If you're still around."

"Where would I go?"

"So it is like a life sentence.”

Before Donovan could answer, Carina spoke up. "We need a plan on how we're going to raise these children."

"What's to plan?" Amalia asked. "They’ll work like the rest of us until they get old and die."

Carina chose to ignore her sister. "When will they have lessons and who will teach them?"

"You've got more patience than I do."

"But you're smarter."

"No I'm not. And even if I were, you're the one who likes kids, not me."

"You don't like kids?" Donovan interrupted. "But I thought all women—"

"I'm not all women." Amalia got to her feet. "I think I'll go check on the animals before we go to bed. I need to stretch my legs a bit." She stepped off the porch and vanished into the darkness.

Donovan stared after her. "I'm sorry," he told Carina. "I didn't mean to offend her."

"She's just feeling sensitive. She's never been very good at handling new people underfoot. It makes her tired. She'll get over it."

"I wouldn't have brought those kids here if I'd known she hated children."

"She doesn't hate them. It's just that people who need a lot of attention sap her energy. Once we're in a routine, she'll be all right again."

"As all right as before? I don't know if that'll be an improvement."

Carina gazed in the direction her sister had gone. "It's hard for her to let people in, and having so many of the people she cared about die only made things worse. I wish I could help, but a sister's love just isn't enough sometimes."

"I guess."

"She likes you very much, even though she'll never admit it." She toyed with the fringe on her blanket. "I'd kind of hoped..."

Donovan murmured something noncommittal and looked out toward the fields.

Carina stood up with a sigh. "Well, maybe I'll try to put her and Tasha together. She’s such a quiet, self-sufficient child I think Amalia could really warm up to her." She moved toward the door. "Are you coming in?"

"No, it's peaceful out here. I think I'll count the stars for awhile."

"Suit yourself." Carina shivered and went inside.

Donovan walked to the edge of the porch. After waiting a few minutes to make sure Carina had gone to bed, he stepped out onto the same path Amalia had taken, leading toward the fields and barn. There was enough of a moon that he didn't need to go back for a lantern, and by now he knew the paths between the buildings well enough to navigate them with minimal light.

He found her where he thought he would, leaning on one of the posts that supported the fence they had been repairing around last year's alfalfa field— the field that would be for corn this year. The fence was supposed to be rabbit-proof. Donovan came up softly behind her as she stared at the bright molten disk of the waning moon.

"I want to apologize."

She spun around, startled, then turned back to the moon and the field. "The fence isn't right."

Donovan looked where she was looking. Sure enough, there was a rabbit, long ears up and alert as it sat hunched between the furrows. A few feet away another one nibbled at some remaining stalks. "I guess it's not. Might be a good place to set a trap, though."

Amalia huddled in her sweater and shivered. Donovan took off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. "They're so pretty," she said, still looking at the rabbits, her voice unusually tender. "I wish. . ."

"You told me once you didn't like to wish for things."

"I don’t. What's the point?"

"I'm beginning to think you wish for a lot of things."

She shrugged and continued scrutinize the rabbits. "At least it's just the leavings, but we're going to have to fix it before spring."

"Hush." He put his arms around her and drew her against his body. Her head fit perfectly under his chin and they stood like that for a moment, both of them pretending they were looking at the fields.

Suddenly she turned, twined her arms around his neck and kissed him, but then pulled away, as if frightened at what she had started. She handed back his jacket. "I'm sorry. That was inappropriate.”

Donovan put his coat back on. "Why do you do this? You act like you want me, then you push me away."

"You don't really want me. You're just lonely." She shrugged. "And I guess I am too."

"Well, if we're both lonely, what's wrong with. . . ?"

Amalia turned toward the house and started walking. "Everything."

Donovan caught up with her. "You don't really believe that." He caught her hand and held on in spite of her token resistance. "Happiness is wherever you can find it."

"Maybe for you."

"And for you too, if you want it." He stopped her outside the kitchen door. "Look," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "You don't have to tell me who or what I am. I know I'm young. I know I'm not reliable, I know I'm not always honest. But I do care about you, Amalia. Sometimes you just have to take a chance. If we both didn't have a need—"

Amalia lifted her chin and pulled her hand from his. "I may have needs, but you wouldn't be faithful, and I don't need you." She opened the door and slipped inside before he could answer.

Donovan stood outside the door, hugging himself against the cold. Then he willed himself to relax, to let the cold in. His shivering stopped. It didn't seem so bad when you didn't fight it. He turned and started walking back toward the fields. It was a fine night to watch the rabbits.