Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-Four

Donovan and Will traveled toward the center of the valley, and at the church crossroads they turned south toward the mountains. The pass was tricky and the cold wind beat at them like a living thing, cutting through their clothes and even penetrating Donovan's coat. The hot stones cooled, and man and boy huddled deep into themselves, not speaking, just hoping to get through to the valley where the lower altitude would offer warmer temperatures. As they started down the switchbacks, Donovan took stock of the vast empty plain stretching out below them. Dun and dusty with only a faint smudge of green in the distance, it seemed to offer no protection, no existing structure in which to shelter for the night. The few tiny dots scattered at random across the valley floor were so far from the road that it would be foolishness to seek them out with no assurance that they were sound. They could be abandoned homes melting into the ground, or they could be working farms, fallow for the winter, inhabited by friendly folk or hostile. There was no way of knowing.

They spent their first night in the shelter of the wagon, underneath a tarp. The wind still blew frightfully across the flat expanse of land, carrying before it dust that seeped into clothes, shoes, hair and food. They chewed, drank and slept in dust and woke up in the morning with grit in their eyes. They packed their bedrolls and heated their rocks in the cooking fire as they drank silty morning coffee and ate sandy eggs and sweet cornbread cakes frosted with dirt. Then they hitched up the jennies and continued on their way.

They made good time and soon found themselves at the bit of greenery they had seen from the mountain pass. It was a large creek, almost a river, running fast, feeding trees and other growing things as it went. Here they found a well-maintained bridge and a small adobe hut where a wizened old man, skin the color of the desert, stumbled out, waving his arms. "Hello there! Stop! Álto!"

Donovan halted the wagon, unsure what to make of the gnarled little figure with his wild white beard and flapping rags. "Hello, Uncle. What can we do for you?"

The man sized them up with piercing eyes. "Do?" He said the word as if it were ridiculous. "This is a toll bridge. What you can do is pay me, or you and your animals get to practice your swimming." He cackled to himself, as if he had told a very funny joke.

Donovan looked again at the bridge. It was a solid one, and looked to be the only one for miles. It also had a heavy chain across it, closed with a padlock. The old man probably had the only key. "What's the price to let us cross?"

The man hobbled over and helped himself to a peek under the tarp. "Why don't you make me an offer? I'll tell you if I like it."

This was not what Donovan wanted to be doing today. The old man knew he could name his price. "Five dollars, federal."

"Federal money?" The man looked at him like he was possessed. "What would I do with federal money out here?

"Two dollars silver, then."

He shook his head. "Don't need silver, either." He made a sweep of his arm that took in the trees, shrubs, cacti and flowing stream. "Who here would take my money? Not the fish. Not the rabbits. Not the birds. Certainly not the yucca and nopales I eat nearly every day." His eyes returned to the cart. "Nearly every day," he repeated.

Donovan turned to Will. "Get down and see what he wants. Offer him some of the canned goods and maybe some cornmeal or dried apples." He looked at the man sharply. "Sound good?"

"Yes, yes, yes." He followed Will to the side of the wagon and selected happily from their stores.

"How much farther to Higdon?"

"Keep to the road and you should be there before nightfall." He held a jar of rhubarb up to the light. "Ain't that pretty? Almost too pretty to eat." He set it on the ground with his other items. "Okay, boy. That's enough." While Will put the basket back in the wagon, the man shuffled toward the bridge. Slowly, as if he had all day, he unlatched the padlock and dragged the chain out of the way. He gave a little wave as Donovan and Will passed through. "Good luck to you! And don't forget to bring me something from town. I'll still be here."


They arrived at the outskirts of town as the setting sun was casting a glow over the distant buildings, dipping them in gold. But any illusions of beauty were shattered by the rough hovels they passed on the outskirts— old mobile homes shored up with mud, and shacks made of metal signs, concrete blocks and scrap. Here and there were large ranch houses, reduced to ruins sheltering several families at once, with ragged children who ran to the road to beg as the wagon lumbered past. They were aggressive urchins who got in the way of the jennies and launched themselves onto the wagon where Will beat them off with the butt of his shotgun, totally without sympathy. The children spat and screamed curses more depraved than what Donovan heard in his Guard days.

Things didn't get better in town. The streets were mobbed with dogs, goats and even more dirty children. Street vendors didn't just call out their wares from the gutters and sidewalks, but rushed the wagon, waving grilled meats, bags of piñones and bottles of questionable home-brew that they swore was beer. An accordionist parked himself in front of the wagon as if he would rather be run over than not get his nickel. A street preacher damned them, a prostitute flashed her breasts and a powerful-looking man screamed threats for no discernible reason. In defense of their goods, Will climbed into the back of the wagon, took the safety off his shotgun and aimed at anyone who came near. Donovan pulled out a pistol. Exasperated almost beyond reason, he fired a bullet into the ground at the musician's feet. The man jumped back, spat a mouthful of curses, but moved out of the way. Donovan shouted to the jennies and they broke into a trot.

Their display of firepower was effective. The fringe element kept their distance, although they still screeched at them as they rumbled past. Donovan scanned the streets for signs that there was more to the town than this mayhem and saw to his relief that the busier district up ahead seemed relatively clear of riff-raff. There were men on horses, other wagons like his own, a few motor scooters, and bicycle carts and rickshaws. It was a hopeless jumble, but not threatening. There were shops, signs, and even a few people who looked like law enforcement. Obviously they only protected the downtown district, but if he could make it there, goods intact, that would be enough.

He slapped the reins on the jennets' backs and urged them to hurry.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-Three

Donovan stood in the driveway doing a last-minute check of the load. He shivered in the frivolous leather coat from Catalunia. It had softened under Carina and Amalia's efforts, and both the hallway mirror and Amalia's eyes told him that he cut a fine figure in it, but it felt awkward to him— too rich, and with too many memories. Amalia came out of the kitchen carrying hot bricks wrapped in flannel. She lined them up where his feet would rest. His and Will's.

Yes, Will was going too, at both women's insistence. Their arguments had been quite reasonable: no one should travel alone, and he was going to a town rumored to be crude and unrefined. Will was sensible, a good shot, and even had rudimentary veterinary skills. Not to mention that it was never too soon to start training the next generation to do the marketing. In sum, there was no reason in the world for Will not to go along. No reason, other than that he would put a crimp in Donovan's plans.

Will was proud to bursting over having been asked to accompany Donovan to market. With an air of self-importance, he walked around Goneril and Regan, checking their bits and harness, inspecting their hooves and patting their flanks. Once he had assured himself that the jennets were ready to go, he scrambled onto the seat. Tasha came running out of the house.

With a sigh, he climbed down. "What is it?"

Tasha threw her arms around him. It was the first time they had been separated since the day he found her.

"I'll come back as quick as I can. You're my baby sister, remember? I'll never stay away longer than I have to."

Tasha nodded, fighting back tears. Will climbed back onto the wagon.

Amalia had gone back into the house and now she re-emerged, this time with some heated stones. Carina followed with a basket of food. She started to put the basket in the wagon, but Donovan took it from her hands.

"There's some special things in there for you," she said, so softly he almost didn't hear.

He moved a few items out of the way and nestled the basket into the empty spot.

Carina took a few steps back while Amalia slipped a couple of warm stones into his pockets. "Be safe out there."

Donovan gave her a hug and tried to make it seem like he meant it. Then he climbed onto the seat beside Will. He looked at the two women and the wide-eyed girl, struggling with his feelings. Did he love them? Yes, he loved all three of them, but he had to get away from them, too. It would only be a week and he would have a devil of a time ditching Will, but he would have a good time in Higdon. He needed this trip. It would refresh him, restore his sense of who he was and what he wanted. Things had closed in so completely...

Amalia darted forward. "Are you sure this is the right thing? Maybe you should go to Macrina instead. Or maybe just wait another month."

"Don't be silly." He bent down and gave her an amicable kiss. "See you in about a week."


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-Two

As he went down the steps into the storage room, Donovan thought back to his first days on the farm, when he had been so certain they had a hoard of valuable goods. It looked like he was finally going to get a chance to find out.

At the foot of the stairs was a battery-powered lantern. He turned it on and held it aloft, his eyes widening in surprise. The room was bigger than he had imagined, and well-organized, with rows and rows of neatly labeled racks and shelves. He found another lamp on a table in the center of the room and he turned it on so he would have more light. Then he looked all around, taking in the tightly spaced wooden vigas overhead, the plastered adobe walls fronted on all sides with utilitarian metal shelving, and the floor of hard-packed earth. It was cold down here, but he scarcely noticed. He was too astounded at what he saw.

There were bolts of cloth, bins of yarn, and whole boxes of batteries and flints. He saw solar panels and lanterns, light bulbs, machine parts and flashlights. There was liquor— lots of it. Not just homemade wine, but hoarded vintages, as well as brandy, whiskey and rum. And this was also where they had stored their parents' old clothes— expensive things in suede, silk, leather and velvet. One whole shelf glittered with crystal, china, brass, silver and copper. And in a small casket, he found genuine treasure— gold and diamond rings that must have been their parents' wedding rings, gold chains, silver earrings. There were jewels here, too— earrings and chokers set with glittering stones in green, red and blue. And in another casket was an astonishing hoard of gold and silver coins.

Donovan sat on a stool, dizzy with shock. This was no modest stash; these women were rich. What were they doing living like paupers? Of course, some of this wealth had probably been earmarked for setting up the clinic Carina and Miles had once planned. But still...had he been stealing for these women for the past year when they were fully capable of buying anything they needed? He was too stunned to know if he was angry, but he suspected he was.

Still reeling, he looked around for the sugar. He couldn't allow himself to get distracted and stay down here too long or Carina might grow suspicious. He found the sacks of sugar near a shelf of spices and beside an amazing array of canned goods. No wonder the meals around here were so good. He scooped some sugar out of the sack and into the canister Carina had given him. Then he tied the sack tightly and went to the table to turn off the light. For a moment, he cast a look back over at the small chest where he had found the coins. Surely they wouldn't notice, what kind of thinking was that? They knew exactly what they had, and they would miss it.

When he returned to the kitchen, he found Amalia stirring the soup for the evening meal and talking idly to Carina as she fluted a pie crust. They both looked at him as he handed over the sugar, but he kept his face blank, as if he'd seen nothing remarkable. "When's the pie going to be ready?"

"Tonight," Carina said. "But you can't have any until tomorrow."

"I'd hoped you want someone to taste it first, make sure it's good."

"We'll just have to take our chances."

He kissed Amalia on the cheek then went to his room to lie down until dinner was ready. His mind was on fire with possibilities. He wouldn’t steal from them, of course, but now that he knew they had resources, he himself had options. He was still pondering the matter when Amalia called him to dinner.

* * *

The next day, after a spartan breakfast of coffee and oat cakes soaked in milk, the women banished Will and Donovan from the kitchen. They spent the rest of the morning and early part of the afternoon chopping, beating, stirring, steaming and baking, and at three o'clock, they sat the family down to a feast. But although the ladies and children enjoyed the meal, Donovan drank glass after glass of wine and brooded.

After dinner, they sipped port in the living room, all of them stuffed and sleepy. The children, who had each been permitted a tiny glass of wine with dinner, dozed off. Amalia rose to put them down for naps, then yawned and murmured that she wouldn't mind taking a nap herself, if it weren't for the dirty dishes and the leftovers. "We can't leave that stuff out."

"I'll do it," Carina offered. She got to her feet and stretched her arms overhead.

"It's not fair to let you do it alone."

"I'll help," Donovan said.

Carina's eyes narrowed in suspicion, but she went to the kitchen and began pumping water into the sink. She tensed when Donovan came up behind her, but he merely began scraping plates into the scrap bucket and handing them to her. They worked in silence for a long time, washing dishes, putting leftovers into containers and taking the ones that needed to be kept cold to the small root cellar. Carina washed the kettles and utensils that she could, then they took the ones that needed scouring outside to scrub with sand. They were rinsing them at the pump, pouring the dirty water into the drain that led to the gray water tank, when Donovan looked at her.

"I'm leaving for Higdon in a couple days. What do you think Amalia and the children would like me to get them for Christmas?"

Carina rambled for a bit, offering ideas and speculations.

"And what about you? What do you want?"


Donovan wiped his hands on his pants and considered her in the fading light. "I guess I should've known," he said, "That a woman of your resources would want for nothing."

Carina set aside the last of the skillets. "What do you mean by that?"

"Oh, come on, Carina. You think I didn't see what you've got down there in your little hoarding room? You've got some nerve taking payment from some of the poorest people in this valley and letting me and Alvi buy you things, when you're rich."

Carina shook her head. "It's not like that at all."

"Well, that's sure how it looks to me."

"Most of that is what our parents put by for us. It's for drought years, for years when we lose crops to insects or lose stock to disease. It's for hiring hands when we become too old to work. And it was once going to be for our children. It'll be for Will and Tasha now, and any others we might adopt." She met his eyes earnestly. "We're not bad people, Donovan. So what if we hold things back for the future? The best way you can help your neighbors is to not need their help. And I resent what you said about my work. I never charge people who are too poor to pay. I'd do all my work for free, if it were practical."

"Practical? Yes, you're the most practical of women, aren't you? You spend years living in some fantasy world, give false encouragement to a federal spy and sleep with your sister's man. Then you climb back up on your pedestal, like you've got some kind of moral high ground."

"You're drunk. You know it's nothing like that."

"Do I? Then why won't you prove to me it wasn't some game of yours? You're rich. We could leave this place, go away somewhere, set ourselves up with a farm, a house in a town somewhere, or anything you like."

"You're talking crazy. I would never leave my sister."

"Why not? With a hoard like that, she can take care of herself. Besides, she expects you to leave."

Carina's frown was hurt and sincere. "She does?"

"Yes. She thinks when Alvi comes back..."

Carina dismissed the notion with a wave of her hand. "She knows I don't like him that way."

"Run away with me, then. You like me that way. The world may be falling to pieces, but that's what makes it interesting. There are Catalunias all across this country. We can explore every one of them. You can wear pink scarves, we can make love by moonlight in abandoned mansions and we don't have to ever let it end."

Carina grew misty-eyed for a moment, considering the possibilities. But then she wiped her cold hands on her apron. "I've already given you my answer. And when wine has worn off, you'll see this is the only way."

"I'll never agree that this is the way it has to be. But I can be sure to never ask you again." He put a hand on her wrist. "Are you really that loyal to your sister? Do you really want this to be it? Forever?"

"I hate that word, forever. But I can't do it. I just can't."

"You don't mean that." He tried to meet her eyes, but she kept her gaze fixed stubbornly on the ground.

"Yes, I do. Please don't tempt me again. Ever."

Donovan stepped back, suddenly ashamed. She looked on the verge of tears as she stood in the fading light of day, hugging herself in her thin black dress as the wind whipped her skirts. Her collar had come open and the blue necklace glinted at her throat, mocking him. "Okay, then." He walked toward the house, kettles forgotten, not even noticing as she sank down to the ground, pulled her knees in close and began to cry.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-One

The days grew shorter and a cold wind came in over the mountains. Poplars exploded into color as the rest of the land turned dull. Late fall and winter were always bleak times in a savage land that supported green, growing things only reluctantly. The last of the harvest was brought in and the pantry and storage rooms were piled high with goods to last the family and animals through the winter. Carina and Amalia siphoned off a bit of their store and had Will drive it up to the Torres family.

They were flattered when the family offered to give them another alpaca out of next spring's crias. "You're going to end up with a whole herd at this rate," Amalia told her sister.

Carina settled in for the winter. She no longer went out on random calls, keeping to pre-scheduled appointments or waiting for people to seek her out. She took Will under her wing and began teaching him what she knew about animals. Sometimes Diana rode over and joined in the lessons. The two growing children made a charming pair as they bent their heads over a hen or mixed remedies for worms, mites or thrush. They smelled different liniments and tried to guess the ingredients, and they raced each other to see who could file down a goat's hooves the fastest, bickering genially over whose animal was more docile and whether the winner had an unfair advantage.

Tasha was as busy as she could be helping Amalia can apples and distill herbs. She reveled in the smells and colors of fall, and Amalia learned to trust her around the stove. She was, in spite of her youth, a sensible girl, grateful to have a home and determined to prove herself worthy of its advantages. Sometimes she trotted after Amalia when she went to check the fences and irrigation lines. But as the weather turned colder, she stayed indoors more often, where she could practice her reading, do a bit of mending, or crochet items for market.

Market! The more the autumn dragged on, the more eager Donovan was to get away to town— any town. He had planned to go at the beginning of November, but a problem with the wagon kept him at home making repairs instead. Often while he was mulching a field or doing maintenance on equipment, he would pause and look up at the glorious November sky and think that if the weather didn't hold or if a jennet got sick and he couldn't make the trip to Higdon after Thanksgiving, he would go mad.

Without being quite sure how it had happened, he had found himself in the role of paterfamilias, and he didn't like it. Even when he was in the Guard and his hours were rarely his own, his spirit had always been free. But something had changed. The monotony of farm chores weighed on him, as did the constant sense that he had to set a good example for the children. It wasn't that he didn't want to live a moral life. It was the necessity of it that burdened him and made him feel like he was being shoved under water, deprived of the air he needed to breathe.

And then there was Amalia. For all that he admired her, he didn't want to be tied down to her. In his frustration, all her virtues became faults. Her intelligence was arrogance. Her high standards were rigidity. Her endless capacity for labor, mannishness. No matter that since his return from Jonasville, she had tried to be more feminine. She dressed for dinner now and always wore a ribbon in her hair, which had grown down to her shoulders since Donovan's first arrival on the farm. She spent more time in the kitchen, where she could turn out remarkable desserts with very little effort. She made a point of asking Donovan's opinion on matters, and even when she ignored his advice, she at least gave all appearance of considering it seriously. Donovan was unmoved. Amalia had become the person who stood in the way of what he desired.

He wanted to speak to Carina, to ask if there weren't some other way, but she had been unapproachable all season. First the veterinary calls, then the lessons for Will and Diana...would she ever settle down and be the same woman he used to talk to for hours? They had once had so much in common, and now they were strangers living in the same house. Sometimes he found himself staring at her over the dinner table or from across the living room while the women knitted and the children had their lessons, and he would be so overwhelmed that he had to walk away, lest he give in to the temptation to either kiss her passionately or grab her by the shoulders and shake and shake.

As Thanksgiving approached, Donovan found himself on fire with an almost electric anticipation. Once the holiday was past, he could load the wagon and get away from the press of responsibility and these two maddening women. He would make good trades in town, but he would also drink, steal, gamble and whore until he got it out of his system. Maybe then he would be able to face farm life again. And if he couldn’t, well, he had his papers. He could go to a federal town and blend in with the mourners. He could go to a wild town that was off the federal charts and lie low. He could become an outlaw, or join the Underground and seek adventure. Or he could simply find himself another valley and another farm, one without two attractive widows to ensnare him.

When the problem of what to have for Thanksgiving came up again, his first impulse was to offer to go to market, where surely there would be turkeys for sale. Amalia had different ideas. "Will says he knows a little about quail hunting. Maybe—"

"I don't want to try that again. How about I just go find you a turkey, like last year?"

"What, go steal one from a group of crazy supremacists? We don't need a turkey that bad. You were eager to do quail last year, so I thought..."

"Maybe you shouldn't have."

Amalia walked away, hurt and puzzled. Donovan felt so bad that he tracked Will down while he was doing the evening milking.

"I know how to hunt quail. It ain't easy without a dog, but with two of us, I bet we can do it. The trick is to have one person flush them out and watch where they fall, while the other person just concentrates on shooting them."

The day before Thanksgiving, they got up before dawn, loaded their gear and headed out as the sun was starting to rise. They reached a good spot just as it was becoming light enough to see. Hunting the small birds tried their patience, and they missed several of them as they dropped, but by late afternoon their bags were full and they headed home across the fallow fields.

The women were excited, but although Carina would eat animal flesh, she couldn't bear to clean or dress it, so that task fell to Amalia. After Donovan washed up, and with Amalia still out back cleaning quail with Will, he approached Carina. She was working alone in the kitchen, making a pumpkin pie. He came up behind her and put a hand on the back of her waist.

"Don't," she said, moving away under the pretext of reaching for a bowl.

"You push me away like Catalunia never happened."

"It happened in another reality. This is now."

"We have the power to change it, you know."

"Maybe this is what I want." Carina picked up a wooden spoon. "You're free to change your reality however you want, but you can't change mine."

"I'm not free to do anything. It's fix this, feed that, check the other, and always be a good example to the children."

"It's a little more than you bargained for, isn't it?"

"Yes," he said, relieved that someone had noticed.

"You were never meant for this kind of life. We talk about it sometimes. We understand."


"Me and my sister."

"Your sister doesn't understand anything. She would tie me wrist and ankle to this place if she could."

Carina shook her head. "No she wouldn't." She looked out the window, checking that Amalia wasn't on her way back yet. "She only holds on because she knows she'll have to let you go someday. When the time comes, she won't try to keep you here. She'll probably pretend she doesn't care in the least."

"What will you do? Will you keep pretending you don't care?"

"I don't care," Carina said, turning away.

"You're lying." He put his arms around her and could feel the rapid beating of her heart. "Is there nothing you..."

"Please." She pulled away and was silent for a moment. Long enough for Tasha to come bursting in from the bedroom, where she had been looking for a lost ribbon.

"Found it! Will you put it in my hair now?" While Carina bent over the girl's hair, Tasha stared up at Donovan with curious eyes. "Are you helping make dinner?"

"Actually," Carina said, "He was going to go down to storage for me because I'm out of sugar."