Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Twenty-One

The storm overtook them as they reached the valley floor, rolling in with cold crippling winds that rocked the wagon as the rain burst upon them in a deluge. Visibility dropped and the gray, wet world closed in. The downpour plastered their clothes to their bodies, chilled their blood, and turned the path to mud. Wheels stuck in ruts and Donovan had to get out and push. Goneril and Regan balked. There was no place to find shelter except in deserted Catalunia. Carina climbed down from the wagon, grabbed hold of a bridle and tried to lead the jennets to shelter by example.

House after house was unsuitable. They were caved in, crumbled, or so unsteady in appearance that taking their chances with the storm seemed more reasonable. Finally, in the thick of downtown Catalunia, where the few remaining signs swung crazily in the wind, Carina spotted something promising. "Over there." She pointed to a small stone library.

Donovan hurried ahead to try the door. The double doors opened readily and they led the jennies into the shelter of the building.

In the lurking silence of the dusty foyer, Donovan and Carina stood dripping while the bedraggled animals hung their heads in the traces. Outside, the rain continued falling in sheets, but here in the library the storm was reduced to a patter against the roof and windowpanes.

"I don't see us going any farther today," Carina said needlessly.

The tarps had kept most of their goods dry. The lanterns lit without a problem and Donovan went searching for a place to bed down the animals while Carina unhitched them, rubbing their ears, patting their necks and speaking to them with the first real affection she had shown in weeks.

"I found something," Donovan said, emerging out of the gloom. He took hold of Regan's bridle and led the way.

"A reading room?" Carina said, upon leading Goneril into the place Donovan had found. "Well, it doesn't seem to be leaking. I guess that's the most important thing."

They got the animals clean and gave them some hay from the wagon. "We should build a fire," Donovan said, noticing that Carina was shivering.

"I suppose the ceilings are high enough, and there's enough broken windows we won’t suffocate ourselves," she said. "But where?"

"The only thing I saw that didn't look flammable was the entryway. If we moved the wagon, we'd have enough room." Donovan took her hand and led her back the way they had come, and this time Carina assessed the foyer with an eye toward what might burn. The floor was marble, the ceiling was high, and there was nothing nearby that could catch sparks. Far above their heads was an absurd folly of a cupola where colored glass glowed dimly in the fading light of day. "If we moved the wagon into that room over there," Donovan pointed, "We could build the fire here in the middle of the floor."

"What will we burn? Books?"

"Why not? You don’t think anyone’s going to read them, do you?"

They pushed the wagon into a small room and shut the door, then gathered a stack of reference books which Donovan lit with crumpled newspapers and magazines. The Catalunia phone directory caught first, then a thesaurus and encyclopedia. Then they were all ablaze, and Carina held her hands out toward the warmth. But books burned quickly, and it took a lot of them to keep the fire fed. After a few minutes, Donovan went to the wagon, retrieved a small hand saw and disappeared into the stacks. By the time he returned, Carina had traded her wet clothes for dry. She stood as close to the flames as she dared. When Donovan brought over an armful of sawed-off wooden chair legs, she let the cloak drop to the floor so it would be safe from sparks and helped him make a teepee of them. Then she stood back, picked up her cloak and put it back on. "I'll get some more books," she said, picking up a lantern. "Just to keep this thing going until the wood catches."

Donovan used her absence to change into dry clothes and spread out their bedrolls near the fire. It wouldn't be comfortable sleeping on the marble floor, but he tried to fold as much as he could underneath for padding. Then, realizing they hadn't eaten all day, he brought out some food and a bottle of scotch to take the edge off the cold.

The flames were dying and the chair legs were starting to smoke in a desultory sort of way when Carina returned, her arms full. She set the books next to the fire, collected a few off the top and took them to the room where the wagon was stored. "For Amalia," she said when she returned. "She'd never forgive me if I spent a night in a library and didn't bring home souvenirs."

Once the chair legs caught, the fire began putting out real warmth. Carina sat on a bedroll and accepted a brownie. She downed it almost at a bite, ate a second with nearly equal speed, then fell to nibbling some dried apples.

"It's nice to see you have an appetite." Donovan poured a cup of scotch for her, then one for himself.

"We've done a lot today."

"We've done a lot every day."

"I guess we have, haven't we?" Carina allowed herself a smile. "It feels like we've been gone forever."

"It hasn't even been two weeks."

She turned to him in surprise. "Are you sure? That doesn't seem right." She tallied the days in her mind. "It feels like a lot longer."

They gazed into the fire, sipping their drinks. When the fire looked like it might be faltering, Carina added another book, then sat back and took off her cloak. Her blue necklace glowed in the firelight and Donovan admired it for a long moment, then pressed his lips against her throat.

Carina sat back in surprise, but said nothing. When he kissed her again, it was on the lips, and she  pulled him to her with an intensity of need that surprised him.

"Are you sure this is what you want?"

"Didn't you know? I’ve wanted this for a long time."


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Twenty

That evening as they drew near the Sanchez farm, Carina balked. "I'm not up for explaining," she said. "They'll think I'm needy, and I can't stand for even one more person feeling sorry for me right now." So they made camp in a recently cut hay field, using the wagon and their tarps to fashion a crude tent.

At dawn they hitched the jennets and prepared to tackle the pass. They wound their way upward in the cool of early morning, the fertile valley receding behind them as they climbed. It was hard work and as the sun rose higher Goneril and Regan sweated under the strain. Donovan and Carina shed their jackets as the mountain air warmed to valley-like temperatures. Finally they came to the pass. There were a few small rocks scattered over the road, but nothing they couldn't drive over.

"We may make camp early," Donovan remarked.

"I hope so," Carina said, looking at the sky in concern. "It's too warm today. That front is close by."

"What are you talking about?" The sky was blazingly clear in all directions.

Carina started to say something about cold fronts and warm air, but Donovan was no longer listening.


Carina saw it too. "Maybe it's not as bad as it looks.”

"I don't think we're going to get off that easy." Donovan allowed the jennets to walk up to the boulder, where they stopped of their own accord. He set the brake and climbed down for a closer look. He kicked it, then went back to the wagon for the shovel and tried to leverage the boulder out of the way, but it didn't budge. He stepped back to consider. It didn't block the entire path. Animals and humans could easily pass to either side. But the wagon...

"At least it's not tall," Carina pointed out. "It's not as high as the axle is wide. Maybe we could build a ramp. You know, run one set of wheels up over it, while the other set remains on the road."

Donovan looked at the wagon, then at the rock, making quick mental notes. "We'd have to take everything out. But yeah, we might make it work. We could use the sides of the wagon to make a ramp."

"How long do you think it would take?"

"Maybe a couple hours, if all goes well."

Carina glanced toward the spotless horizon. "I think we need to try it. If we don't get through the pass ahead of the storm it'll only be that much harder afterward. And a storm is coming. I can feel it."

They unhitched the jennies, led them to the other side of the rock and tethered them to a scrawny sapling. Then they began moving boxes, bags, baskets and bedding to the other side where they staged it all neatly against the side of the mountain. Finally all that was left was the coffin.

Donovan climbed into the wagon and lifted one end, then the other. Then he scrambled out. "The other side is lighter," he said. "All you have to do is get in and push it toward me until most of it is out, then climb down and grab your end."

The coffin was heavier than Donovan was prepared for. He watched Carina stagger under the weight of the other end and wondered how big Miles had been. It was with a relief as much mental as physical that he finally set the coffin on the ground some distance from the sheer drop and the great rock in the road. He noticed Carina was rubbing her hands where the metal handles had bruised her skin. "Are you all right?"

"Yes." She looked at the coffin for a moment, then returned to the problem of the wagon. "We'll remove the sides, and then use some of these smaller rocks to support the ramp in place."

Soon they were both at work releasing the boards that formed the high wooden sides of the wagon. While Donovan set them in place and tried to construct a way to keep them steady on top of the rock, Carina went searching for smaller stones to hold them stable on the ground. It took several trips, but at last their ramp was as secure as they could hope for under the circumstances. They pushed the wagon forward. "Wait a minute," Donovan said. He took a closer look at their setup. "I'm worried about the wheel on the ground slipping. We'll dig a groove to keep the wheel in place and make sure the wagon goes where we want it to and doesn't slip off the ledge."

Carina glanced at the sky again and frowned at the gray smudge on the horizon. She grabbed a trowel while Donovan got the larger shovel and together they started chopping a narrow trench in the dirt road. They were covered in dust by the time they were through, but when they finally stepped back to assess their work, they were satisfied. "I guess it's time," Carina said. She took a long rope, tied one end to the shaft and the other to the horns of Goneril's harness collar.

"Come on, baby." She gave a tug and Goneril began moving forward. Behind them, Donovan pushed the wagon until the one wheel caught in the groove and the other began going up over the ramp.

With an ease that was deceptive, the wagon went up and over the boulder, tilting crazily to one side before sliding smoothly down the other side of the ramp. Some rocks they had placed as a defensive barricade kept it from continuing down the path. The cart stopped with a jerk and an echoing rattle of loose boards.

Carina left Goneril nibbling some weeds. "We're pretty smart, aren't we?"

"We are." He threw his arms around her.

Carina laughed, but something she saw over his shoulder made her catch her breath.

"What?" He let her go and spun around. In the distance was an unmistakable dark line against the horizon. "How long do you think we have?"


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Nineteen

On their first day of travel, the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was warm on their backs. Carina remained quiet, but it was a resigned silence, not the intense gloom of before. Donovan watched the way her gaze followed the eagles soaring in the mountain passes and wondered if she was finally feeling better.

That evening she spent a long time brushing the jennies and checking their hooves for stones. She fussed over them in much the same way she used to, and even sang them a little ditty of her own invention, but Donovan sensed a lack of conviction and suspected she was only going through the motions.

When he woke up in the middle of the night and found her gone, he wasn't sure what to make of it. He found her sitting in the wagon next to Miles' coffin, speaking to the pine box in a low, uncertain voice. Sometimes she seemed to ask a question and other times she rambled, as if explaining some important point. After watching from the shadows for a few minutes, Donovan began to feel embarrassed, as if he were intruding on something so intimate even the moon had no business being out where it could see. He stole back to bed and went to sleep.

He awoke a few hours later. It was still dark, but he sensed it was nearly dawn, and Carina had still not returned. He went back to the wagon and found her asleep, her head pillowed on an arm flung over the top of the coffin. Donovan shook her awake and she sat up with a start. "It's time to get up," Donovan said, pretending that for her to sleep in this fashion was the most ordinary thing in the world.

She wandered over with the coffeepot while he was stirring the coals from the previous night's campfire. "I can do that."

Donovan had just gotten some fresh kindling to light. "Why don't you see if you can pick out something you'll like for breakfast? I'll get the coffee started."

Carina looked like she wanted to say something, but went to rummage among the food baskets instead. She fried Donovan a mixture of potatoes, goat cheese and re-hydrated jerky, but when they sat down to eat, she had only a brownie and a cup of coffee in front of her. She met his eyes as if expecting comment. Not getting it, she sighed in gratitude and ate. She had set her napkin aside and was sipping the last of her coffee when she finally spoke the thought that had been troubling her. "There's no smell."

Donovan scraped the last bit of food onto his fork. "What are you talking about?"

"The coffin. There's no smell of rot or anything; just the box itself. You don't think...?"

"They embalm them before they ship them back.”

"I suppose they have to, don't they? I guess I'd just kind of hoped..."

"Hoped what?"

"That maybe there was a mistake." Carina ducked her head.

"It's a matter of record. They gave you his effects. Didn't that convince you?"

"I didn't look."

"Then how did all that stuff get into the fancy new box Alvi gifted you with?"

"He did it for me.”

"Maybe you should look now. I'll sit right here with you. It'll be okay."

Carina drew her knees up to her chest. "No. But do you think maybe we should open—"

“Absolutely not." Donovan set his plate and cup aside and put an arm around her shoulders. "You're talking crazy. He's gone and there's only this, what you see around you." He saw the genuine distress in her eyes and drew her into his arms. "When we get home, we'll have Amalia look at everything. She'll tell you the truth. Will that be okay?"

Carina sniffled and nodded.

Donovan cupped her chin and raised her head so he could look into her eyes. "We have a plan then, right? There'll be no more crazy talk on this trip." He brushed his lips over hers, then picked up his plate and coffee cup.

Carina took the dishes out of his hands and turned away. "It won't take long to pack all of this. If we hurry, we should be able to make the Sanchez place by evening."


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Eighteen

Donovan was waiting when Alvi and Carina arrived in the gypsy cart. Alvi pulled up behind him, set the brake and jumped down. "I'll try to make this fast," he assured her. With supple ease, he climbed up into the driver's seat of Donovan's cart and picked up the reins. Donovan fished in his jacket pocket and handed Alvi the claim ticket. Then to the older man's surprise, he didn't leave. "I thought you were going to wait with Miss Carina."

"I changed my mind," Donovan said. "I want to make sure the wagon gets packed correctly. Besides, this is supposed to be my responsibility."

"You are either very brave or very arrogant," Alvi chided.

Donovan gestured at his new black clothes. "I'm a mourner in a town that's full of them. I'm a certified 4-F and wear a brace. I hardly rate a second look."

"But you will not show ID."

"Are you saying you can't get me past the guard?"

Alvi drew a long breath. "Of course I can get you in." He clucked to the team and slapped the reins against their backs. The animals pulled against the traces and the wagon jerked forward.

At the gate, two privates saluted smartly and one grinned. "Morning, Alvi. You bringing us a load of hooch?"

"Don't you wish, Private Wilson!" He showed the claim slip. "I'm afraid my errand is a little less cheerful today."

Wilson glanced at the ticket. "Sorry to see that. Was he kin to you?"

"After a fashion. Do you need to inspect our wagon?"

"For you?" He offered a sly smile. "Not unless there's a chance you got something good back there. We just got paid, you know. Your deals are better than what we can get in town."

"No, I'm afraid I don't have anything today, but I'm leaving this morning to make some trades. I'll be back in a few months, and we'll do business then."

"Looking forward to it."

"So am I, friend." Alvi started the team again and was through the gate before the soldier had a chance to ask for Donovan's ID.

"That was easy," Donovan said.

"Easier than I expected," Alvi admitted. "That's the problem with taking them young like that. They rarely have the cunning of a more experienced man and don't recognize a trick when they see it. It's no wonder we're losing the wars."

Donovan thought back to his own escape more than a year ago. "I'd still be with my unit if it wasn't for naïve young recruits."

"Indeed. Which road are you taking to Valle Redondo?"

"The way we came. Trés Ladrones. Catalunia."

"A lonely road," Alvi said. "There's very little out there. Not much help if something goes wrong."

"Safe from Feds though," Donovan reminded him. "And too far from anything worth stealing to be attractive to raiders."

"There is some truth to that. Do you travel armed?"

"I got my shotgun back this morning."

"They are usually good about returning hunting weapons. People have to eat. Hungry people only cause trouble." They were passing a few storage buildings, with Building 32 straight ahead. "Did you find some nice gifts for your Amalia when you went shopping yesterday?"

"A few things.”

"And what are your plans for after you get home?"

"Help finish the harvest, I guess. Try to do a little trading in town before the holidays."

"Ah, yes, Christmas presents. It's fun to buy pretty things for children and ladies, isn't it?"

"It’s a lot more fun than plowing and stringing chile peppers."

"That it is," Alvi agreed. "A word of caution, friend. We have talked about my unadvertised business, and you know I sometimes hear important things." He frowned in concern. "I continue to hear of plans to clean up Macrina. The town is growing prosperous and the Feds want their cut. They also suspect there are young men of draft age there. It's been a long time since they've recruited in that area."

"That's what I heard."

"If I were you," Alvi said, his voice low and sincere. "I would make my trades in Higdon for a little while."

"Higdon?" Donovan looked at him skeptically. "I hear they're disorganized and unsafe."

"Unsafe for a lady. Unsafe for an old man like Peterson. But not unsafe for a young and clever man like yourself. Should you fail to take my advice and find yourself in Macrina on the day of a raid, I can't guarantee that your papers will be much use. They might help, they might not. A large unit with full cross-checking capability would see through it in a minute."

"I see your point. I don't suppose you know when Higdon's market days are?"

"It’s my job to know everyone's market days. Higdon is usually the second week of every month. But each year they have a special market period starting the first of December. It is usually quite good. There is a road that goes from Higdon directly to Mexico, which makes their Christmas market very unique."

"I'll keep that in mind.”

"I hope so, friend. It would be a terrible tragedy for the ladies to lose you simply because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, don't you agree?"

Before Donovan could answer, they found themselves pulling into a long drive that extended across a series of bays across the front of Building 32. Alvi handed his claim ticket to a corporal and was directed to a bay at the end of the row. As they pulled up, some young recruits brought out a crude wooden coffin while two others began recklessly moving the goods in the wagon aside. Donovan jumped down to direct them and for a few minutes everything was confusion. Finally they got the coffin in, strapped it down and began re-packing everything else around it.

"Be sure they tie the tarp down well," Alvi advised. "They say the front is still a few days away, but things could be moving faster than they predict and it's hard to see a change with the mountains in the way." He frowned at the sky and called the corporal over. "Any chance we can get a plastic tarp?"

"No, sir. Regulations."

Alvi fumbled in a pocket and slipped a coin into the young man's hand. "We will be traveling a long way. It would be a shame if one of our war heroes were exposed to the elements on his final journey home, don't you think?"

The corporal stole a glance at the coin and slipped it into a pocket. "Yes, sir, it would." He walked away and returned a few minutes later with a brown plastic sheet. He handed it to the recruits and had them tie it on top of the canvas tarp.

When the men were finished, they stepped back and saluted. Donovan climbed onto the box, Alvi clucked at the jennies and they were on their way.

They passed through the base in silence and were almost at the gate when Alvi said, "You will make certain Miss Carina gets home safely.”

Donovan looked at him, startled. "Of course. What kind of question is that?"

"It isn't a question. I only wish I didn't have this other commitment."

"I can look out for her."

"I don't worry for her physical safety," Alvi said. "I worry for her feelings. She is fragile right now and could do something rash."

"I don't see her setting things on fire again."

"That isn't quite what I meant." Alvi flashed Donovan a look that was completely lost on him. "I don't want her putting her hopes in the wrong places."

"Oh, she won't do that."

"Really?" They pulled through the gate with a smile and wave to the guard. Up ahead, parked beside the curb, was the red gypsy cart. Carina was standing by the donkeys, rubbing Patrón's nose. Alvi pulled the team to a stop, jumped down and walked over to her. "That didn't take so long, did it?"

Carina shook her head. "I suppose not."

He took her hands in his and started to say something else, then pulled her close instead. In her ear he whispered, "Do nothing foolish, dear. Have a safe trip home. I will visit you in the spring."