Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-Eight

The winter passed in a monotony of cold and chores. The women heard no news and eventually quit hoping. All they had was the land and each other, and that would have to be enough. At least as far as the land was concerned, they had reason to be optimistic. The winter had been wet and the creek was running high. On a cold day in March, Amalia and Will hitched docile Cordelia to the plow and went out to the fields. They would've liked to have had Tasha along to help drop seeds, but she had been ill with a chest ailment and it was better that she stay in the house. Will and Amalia could manage alone.

In spite of the bitter cold that had followed on the heels of a line of showers the day before, it was a perfect day for plowing. There had been just enough rain to soften the earth and put down the dust, and the sky overhead was a blazing cloudless blue. Will and Amalia bickered over who was stronger and should therefore have the harder task of guiding the plow. Amalia shrugged, sensitive to his young ego, and allowed him the first turn. "When you get tired, we'll switch."

"If I get tired."

"Of course." She picked up the lead and began guiding Cordelia across the field, the plow carving a neat line in the earth behind them.

They worked steadily for about an hour, then stopped for a break. Will rubbed his shoulders and windmilled his arms. "Tired?" Amalia asked.

"No. It's just been a long time since the last plowing. And it's cold."

Amalia picked up the lead again, Will grabbed onto the handles and they continued.

"Wait a minute." Will jumped onto the back of the plow, driving the blade deep into the earth as Amalia stopped and grabbed Cordelia's bridle.

She looked across the field toward the house. Here came Tasha, running wildly, no coat, no scarf. "Is that child trying to catch pneumonia?" She looked toward the road and her heart set up a pounding that took her breath away. She grabbed onto the plow for support. Guard. There was no doubt about it. There were trucks. Transport trucks. They weren't just here to steal what they could carry away in a saddle pack; they were here to strip the valley clean. Coming to her senses, she fumbled with Cordelia's traces. "Go warn the Petersons."

Will swung onto the jenny's back and grabbed hold of her stiff mane. "But Tasha"

"They don't care about children. Go!" She slapped the jennet's rump and took off toward Tasha, scooping her up mid-stride. "Does Carina know?"

"Yes. She was in the kitchen when I saw. She went"

"Good." There was no time for that now. She dashed into the house and deposited Tasha on the floor, in such a panic she scarcely knew where. She grabbed her pistol and shoved it into her waistband as she moved through the kitchen, then flung open the door to the hall closet. The door to the room below was propped open, a gaping black hole. She dropped to her knees and pulled it shut, tugging a bit of carpet over it and throwing down some quilts and blankets for good measure. She closed the door and looked around wildly. What next? Their plans had always hinged on a small number of raiders, after little things like coins and jewelry. Or maybe a Guard scouting party of only a few men. But a whole unit? A wave of weakness swept through her body. There was nothing she could do against so many. Nothing except hope that Carina got the animals herded out into open country so the soldiers wouldn't be able to catch them all. Pray the men would fly through the house in too much of a hurry to look at anything closely.

They pulled into the drive in a roar of coal diesel, kicking open the door without bothering to check if it might already be open and storming into the house in their heavy boots. She shrank against the wall as they pounded past, opening doors, tossing furniture aside, upending knitting baskets and breaking random objects in their rampage. Hoping they were too intent on plunder to notice her, she crept toward the kitchen with a thought of making a dash toward the animal pens. But a freckled soldier grabbed her by the arm with a grip intended to inflict pain and fear. "You going to tell us where the stash is? Or do we have to find it ourselves?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. Get your hands off me. I'm the sister of Colonel Evan Gaddington and you have no right"

"Well isn't that cute." The boy shouted to one of his companions. "Hey, Ravotti! The hoarder says she's the sister of some Colonel Gaddington."

Ravotti stopped on his way to the bedroom and took a good look at her. "You're kidding, right? Well, lucky for you. Maybe we won't hang you."

"Hang me for what? You can't prove" Too late. Already soldiers were filing out of the back of the house with coins and jewelry in their hands. How had hey found the secret cubbyholes so quickly? "That's not hoarding," Amalia said, changing tactics. "So what if a woman wants to keep a pretty thing or two? I bet your girlfriend does the same."

"Those rat holes aren't what I'm talking about."

To Amalia's horror, he walked over to the hall closet and went straight to the trap door. There was only one way he could've known. In a sudden rage of betrayal, she reached for her pistol, but another man pounced on her, forced the gun out of her hand and shoved her against the wall. "Want me to shoot her?"

"No," another man said. "I want to kill the bitch myself."

"Don't kill her Malone." It was Ravotti, and he seemed to be a leader of some sort. "Take her to Strecker. If she's really a colonel's sister, he might have other plans for her."

Muttering, Malone tied Amalia's hands behind her back while soldiers began filing in and out of the storage closet, taking away gold, salt, spices, solar panels, batteries, everything the women had saved against scarcity. Frantically, she cast about in her mind for something she could do or say to make it stop.

Suddenly there was a shriek and an enormous crash from the kitchen. Amalia cringed. That trick wasn't going to work this time. A shot rang out. "Clumsy brat nearly got me killed," someone said. And then the footsteps continued, back and forth across the linoleum. Amalia stifled a whimper and sagged against her captor, her mind shocked numb.

"Come on, bitch. Think I got all day?"


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-Seven

The women waited until after breakfast before asking Will any questions. He still looked peaked, but he was eager to get back to work and ashamed to have brought the wagon home empty.

"Goods can be replaced," Amalia assured him.

"You did the right thing by getting the animals home safe," Carina added.

"But how did you manage to lose everything? We're just curious."

Gradually the story came out of the strange trip to Higdon, the wild, barely-tamed character of the place, and the market where vendors and customers stole from each other right out in the broad light of day. There were brawls and carryings-on in the middle of customer traffic, so that he and Donovan had to keep their hands on their guns and their eyes peeled at all times. Donovan was in top form, never missing a trick. The night before they were to head back, the wagon was loaded high.

Will had made a friend, an honest boy of about his own age and they pulled their wagons together for the night and agreed to take turns sleeping and keeping watch. Donovan used the arrangement as an excuse to run a late errand in town.

"Hunt up a card game," Amalia said.

"Probably." Will went on to describe how late in the night, his friend had shaken him awake. Before they could get their bearings, soldiers swept through their campground, swarming over wagons and taking any contents considered contraband, including batteries, fuel, solar panels and any guns and ammunition not specifically for hunting. Able-bodied men were rounded up and herded toward a transport truck. "I figured I got off easy," Will said. "We'd been mostly trading for food and animal feed. Donovan was away, so I figured he hid somewhere, but when he didn't come back, I got worried. Since there were still soldiers on the streets, I figured I'd wait an extra day."

In the morning with still no sign, he realized he would have to get out and look around. "I paid a beggar girl to watch my spot, hitched up and started driving through the streets." He didn't know what he was looking for, but the military presence meant he didn't need to guard his wagon so carefully. He found a Guard encampment just outside of town. Up to this point he had assumed Donovan was in hiding, but on a hunch, he went to the Guard camp. He found the area where the prisoners were penned and bribed a guard for information. "The man said he was being held as a possible deserter, but didn't know what would happen next."

"They weren't planning to shoot him?" Carina asked.

"Not right away. They hung a few guys later that day on the town square as an example, but Donovan wasn't one of them."

"They were probably checking his papers," Amalia said. "What did you do next?"

"Made friends with the guard. I brought him some food, talked to him, pretended like I was interested in joining up some day." He made a face. "Man, was that guy dumb. I finally asked what would happen to him if a prisoner escaped. He said nothing, so long as no one could prove it was his fault in particular. So I went back to the market, sold everything for gold and silver, and went back. I gave him half and said he could have the rest if he let Donovan out. The guy said he'd be back on duty first thing in the morning, and if I came early while it was still dark, he'd let him go."

"And did he?"

"No. I went back the next morning just like he said, but there was a different guard on duty, and he wouldn't bargain with me."

"That was very resourceful of you," Amalia said soberly. "But that only accounts for the first week, and here it is January."

Will went on to describe how the Guard had loaded Donovan and the other prisoners into transport trucks and took them away. Then the entire unit bugged out, and the town devolved into an even more lawless state than before. He tried to buy some goods with the money he still had so he wouldn’t come home with nothing, but everyone tried to rip him off, including the man who was boarding the animals. Before he realized it, he was broke and didn't have enough food to get home. On the advice of a girl he met at the market, he applied for a job as a delivery boy. His pay and tips were enough to keep him and the animals fed, but there was never enough left over to buy supplies for the trip home. Then one day he made a delivery to a veterinarian whose assistant was sick with a fever. Will's training with Carina and natural rapport with animals got him a two week arrangement with not only pay, but room and board for himself and the team. By the time the assistant was on his feet again, Will was ready to go.

Carina was pleased to hear that Will's education had gotten him out of a tight spot. "But you still came home with no food. Did you not have as much money as you thought?"

"Oh, I had enough, but the bastard at the toll bridge took it all."

"Toll bridge?"

Will had to explain. "I thought I had enough food to make him happy, but he saw I was alone, so he took advantage. He left me a few tortillas and told me to live off the land, as if anyone could live off the land out there. It's just desert."

"Well, at least you got home safely," Carina said.

"But Donovan..."

"Got himself into this mess by his own bad behavior," Amalia sighed.

"I thought you loved him."

She sat back in surprise. "I do. You can love a person without liking everything they do. The situation he found himself in was his own fault. You did the most anyone could've done."

"I only did what was right." Will got to his feet, eager to get out from under feminine eyes for awhile. "I'm going to check up on Goneril and Regan."

After he was gone, the women looked at each other. "That's one good kid," Amalia said. "I know I was bitchy about it when Donovan first brought him here, but I'm glad we have him."

"He's going to make Diana a fine husband someday."

"What a silly thing to be thinking about at a time like this." Amalia stood up.

"So what about Donovan?"

"What about him? They've surely shot him by now."

"We don’t know that."

"We know they were hanging deserters. We know they carted him off for additional investigation. It's best we consider him dead, for the sake of our sanity."

"But what if he's not?"

"There's still nothing we can do about it. We don't know where he is and we'd be fools to go traipsing to every Guard unit and asking. If he's still alive and can get away, we'll just have to hope he comes back to us. But I'm not going to waste my time expecting miracles."


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-Six

Oddly, Carina's confession made things a little easier. Amalia was curt with her, but not unkind, and she resumed her usual chores, spending whole days outdoors in the cold looking for projects, coming into the house red-nosed and shivering. She made soup and forced herself to eat it, and she went to bed at a decent hour, whether she could sleep or not. When she wasn't outside, she immersed herself in her books, frowning over the pages as if searching for a wisdom that had until now eluded her.

Shamed and contrite, Carina also returned to work, dragging Tasha along with her to barn, coop and paddock. In the evenings she knitted while the girl resumed her crochet projects. When Tasha asked about Will, Carina offered soothing words in a hopeful tone she by no means felt.

It was with no real sense of optimism that she greeted Tasha one afternoon as she came trotting up with the news that there was a wagon on the road. "Now honey, don’t go getting your hopes up. It could be anyone."

"It's Will."

Although she hardly dared believe it, there was something in the girl's certainty that made her heart skip a beat. "Let me see those binoculars."

"Come down to the road. That's where you can see best."

Carina threw on a poncho and hurried down the drive. Sure enough, there was someone on the road. She peered through the lenses, trying to adjust the focus. There. Yes, it was Will, with the wagon, Goneril and Regan. But where was Donovan? She handed back the binoculars, her blood pounding in her ears. "Go tell Amalia. Now." As the girl scampered off, Carina took off up the road at a run.

Will saw her and urged the jennies into a canter. The wagon bumped frightfully and he almost passed her by as they met on the road. He pulled back hard on the reins and shouted to the team. Both animals dug in their heels, wild-eyed as Carina leaped into the wagon and threw her arms around him. "Where have you been?"

Before he could answer, Amalia ran up, carrying Tasha. Will dropped the reins and grabbed the girl as she stretched out her arms to him. She sobbed against his shoulder, arms in a near-stranglehold around his neck. "It's okay, baby. I'm home. Don't tell me you doubted me."

Will scooted over on the seat so Amalia could climb up and take the reins. They pulled into the drive and halted by the kitchen door. Once they had all climbed down, they stood looking at each other awkwardly. Will put Tasha on the ground, but she flung her arms around him and held on. Amalia and Carina simply stared. There was no need to ask the question aloud.

"The town was raided by the Guard," Will finally said. "They picked him up."

* * *

They had a hundred, no, a thousand questions, but the jennies were lathered and the boy was reeling with hunger and exhaustion. For the moment, they had to be content with Will's simple answer, "I tried to get him out, but it was no use."

They put him to bed and set Tasha to feeding and nursing him. Then they went to inspect the wagon. There wasn't much underneath the tarp, just a bit of animal feed, some empty water canisters, and the empty food baskets. Even the camping equipment and tools were gone. Too stunned to parse this bit of evidence, they led the animals to the barn and unhitched the wagon. "We can't let them have too much water, too fast," Carina said. "We don't know how long they've been without."

"Colic. Yeah, I know."

They worked in gloomy silence. If they didn't comment on Will or the news he brought, maybe for a little longer it wouldn't be real. Finally they got Goneril and Regan into their stalls and began walking back to the house. Just outside the kitchen door, Carina took her sister's hand. "I'm sorry. I never wanted to hurt you or come between the two of you. I told him..."

Amalia stopped and looked at her. "I know."

* * *

They went into the house and found Will asleep, Tasha sitting vigil by his side. "I guess his news will have to keep until morning." Carina sighed.

"It'll be the same bad news, regardless."

Since Tasha wouldn't leave Will's side, they brought her some mending to keep her busy and went into the kitchen. They had left a pot of soup warming on the stove, and forced themselves to eat.

"I wonder why his papers didn't help?" Carina wondered aloud.

"If it was a full Guard unit with radio support, they could've checked the papers against data back on base."

"But why would they go to Higdon? That town's not big enough to be worth an entire unit."

"That's what we hear. It's been years since anyone from around here has been there. Maybe it's different now."

"But Alvi said..." Carina looked at Amalia, a horrible suspicion in her eyes. "You don't think...?"

Amalia sat back, blinking in surprise. "I can't imagine why."

"I can." Carina ducked her head.

"I have trouble believing Alvi could be that devious. He must've gotten his facts wrong."

"Maybe that's it," Carina said. "He misinforms the Feds. They probably misinform him, too."

They sat for a long time without saying anything. Finally Carina looked up. "So what should we do? Maybe Alvi..."

"I doubt it."

"He would do it for your sake, Amalia."

Amalia looked at her hands. "Let's be realistic. They've probably shot him by now." She got to her feet and began clearing the dishes. "Until I hear something that gives me reason to believe otherwise, that's what I'm going to assume. It's better than going around hoping for something that isn't possible. If I were you, I'd do the same."

"What, consider him dead?" The thought stung like venom. It couldn't be possible she had pushed him away, denied her opportunity for happiness, and now would never have another chance.

"It's better this way. We'll talk to Will in the morning. If he tells us anything to make us think there's hope, we'll decide what to do then. But honestly, when has any military unit not shot its deserters?"

Carina knew Amalia was thinking of her husband, but just because they had shot Alan... "Well, I'm going to wait and hear what Will has to say before I make up my mind."

"Good luck," Amalia said, and she meant it sincerely.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-Five

Cold settled over the valley. Without Will and Donovan, the sisters reverted to old ways. Amalia finished mulching the fields, shivering in faded clothes, her hair pinned up under a cap. Carina roamed the house and grounds, enjoying her animals and the knowledge that for at least a week, she wouldn't have to feel the burden of her and Donovan's unspoken desires. She sang as she milked the goats and cooked simple meals that were never intended to feed the bottomless appetites of a working man and growing boy. The women spent an entire day working up herbs, to Tasha's delight. The evenings were relaxed and cozy without the scrutiny of a man. They sprawled in undignified fashion on the sofa, neglected their hair, said whatever they pleased, and who was to notice? One night they ate nothing but sweets and called it supper. For Amalia and Carina, it was like old times. Tasha was both shocked and delighted.

But after a week and a half had gone by, a restlessness came over them. They scanned the horizon as they went about their chores. They paused at windows. They exchanged worried frowns across the dinner table, and Amalia's voice faltered and trailed off at odd times during their evening readings. Tasha grew petulant, plotting the days until Will's return on a calendar. She appropriated the binoculars and carried them everywhere, even to the outhouse. The women would've liked to have used the binoculars themselves, but the sight of Tasha's neck scraped raw from the strap gave them pause. She didn't understand all the ordinary reasons for delay. She lacked the resources of patience that they had.

At the end of the second week, someone had to break the silence. "I hope one of the jennies didn't go lame," Carina offered. "I packed bandages and liniment, but if one of them got a ruptured tendon or something..."

"Donovan would send Will home on the good jenny to get Cordelia, don't you think?"

"One would hope."

The next day, "You don't think the wagon broke down do you?" Amalia stared out the window. "He would send Will for help, wouldn't he?"

"I'm sure of it."

And the day after that, with still no sign, Carina blurted out at dinner, "You don’t think he got into trouble, do you?"

Amalia pushed her plate away, the worst of her fears having now been put into words.

After they put Tasha to bed, they sat up late into the night talking. Had he been arrested for pick-pocketing, or for his tricks at the card table? Or worse, had he been shot? Higdon was a rough town. Maybe his tricks were no good there. Or perhaps they had been set upon by raiders. Their bodies could even now be mummifying in the desert sand. Or perhaps Donovan had decided to move on to other places, other ventures. This was Carina's suspicion, but that didn’t explain why Will hadn't returned.

All their hopes centered on Will. In spite of everything they had been through with Donovan, they still didn't think of him as their own. But the boy, with his honest, resourceful ways, would surely return if he were alive to do so.

Illness. They had caught some sort of sickness in town and when they were better, if they got better, they would return. Nothing else made sense. Even if cart, goods and animals were stolen from them, Donovan would find a way to get money and some form of transport home. And if Will had somehow been left on his own, he would draw on his resources as a runaway and find his way back. So yes, they must be ill.

The next question was what to do about it. One of them could take Cordelia and go in search, or maybe borrow a horse. But then, if Will and Donovan were still alive, they must be on their way back by now. And if there really was some terrible danger out there, the sister who went looking would expose herself to it and the one who remained behind would be left no wiser. The only thing to do was stick together and wait.

By the third week Tasha had become whiny, clingy and an all-around nuisance. In aggravation and above Carina's weak protests, Amalia dosed Tasha into lethargy. "It's better for her and God knows it's better for us," she said. "It's either that or I lock her in the barn where she'll only annoy the animals."

The nightly readings stopped. Chores went undone. Meals went unprepared because no one could stomach the thought of food. The women spent their time pacing floors, staring out windows, knitting, or working the drop spindle in such desultory fashion that nothing seemed to come of their efforts. Yarn broke, stitches were dropped and they were constantly re-doing.

They forgot about Christmas and were surprised to realize it had passed. Tasha moped and Amalia and Carina moved in a fog from lack of sleep. But each time Carina shut her bedroom door and tried to rest, memories flooded back. She felt vaguely responsible, as if whatever had happened were somehow her fault. The thought kept her awake at night, sitting up in bed, knitting by touch in the dark.

One night Amalia opened her door after spending several hours drinking, trying to find comfort in her Bible and not succeeding. She stumbled into Carina's room and sat on the bed. "You don't need to knit in the dark. You do a lousy job of it and I know you're up, anyway." She lit an oil lamp. "That's better, isn't it?

"I guess so." Carina looked at her knitting. Her sister was right. It was awful.

"That's a pretty necklace."

Carina's hand flew to her neck. She wore the blue necklace always, but until now she had always worn a shirt or sweater with a high collar so she wouldn’t have to explain it. She had wondered what she would do when spring came, but now in her low-necked nightgown, it looked like she would need an explanation sooner than she thought.

"I don't think I've ever seen it before." Amalia leaned forward for a closer look, and Carina could smell the alcohol on her breath. "It looks expensive."

"I got it in Jonasville."

"Jonasville." Amalia turned away. "You never did say much about that trip."

"There wasn't much to say."

"You got a pretty necklace out of the deal. That's an odd thing to hide from your sister."

"I forgot."

"Forgot," Amalia scoffed. "A person doesn't forget a thing like that. Least of all, you." She was silent for so long Carina thought maybe she was through speaking. But as she reached for her knitting, Amalia said, "It couldn't be from Alvi or you would've said so. Donovan got it for you, didn't he?"

Their eyes met. Carina looked away first.

"You slept with him."

Carina hesitated long enough to run out of any other option except the truth.


Amalia didn't react at first, and simply stared at the floor in silence. Carina scarcely dared to breathe. Finally Amalia spoke. "Have you slept with him since you've been back?"


"But he wanted you to."


"I see." She got to her feet and left, shutting the door behind her. Carina wilted against the pillows and closed her eyes, her heart pounding as if she'd been running. There would be no point in trying to sleep tonight.