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.



  1. wow first the bridge troll now crazy town people Donovan must wish he hadn't gone there especially with the boy,Will whom he is responsible for. I love the descriptive details you put in your story so I can picture it all.

  2. I would fear for Will going back, but I know he makes it all right. What rough place.

  3. Yes, thank goodness you have written the "Will and Diana Adventures". Will this make Donovan more or less responsible though?

  4. Somehow I think they will stick together...for which I am glad