Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book Two, Chapter Four

On the first day, 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 deep gloom of before. Donovan watched the way her eyes followed the eagles soaring in the mountain passes and wondered if she was finally feeling better.

Their first night 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 except for 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 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. I thought we had this discussion. 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."

* * *

As they drew near the Sanchez farm, however, Carina balked. "I don't think I'm up for explaining," she said. "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 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 little 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. "Dammit."

Carina saw it too. Just before the next bend in the road was a boulder. "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 obstacle, 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.

"Are you up for it?" Donovan asked.

"Do I have a choice?"

Donovan climbed into the wagon and lifted one end, then the other. Then he scrambled out. "The other side is lighter," he said. "That makes it easy. 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. At least there's handles."

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.”

"It might be okay, but I guess we shouldn't take a chance.”

"We'll dig a groove. That will keep the wheel in place and help make sure it goes where we want it to and doesn't slip off the edge."

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. "Yell when you're ready," she called.

Donovan braced himself against the back end of the wagon. "Ready!"

Carina held Goneril's bridle with one hand and a knife in the other, ready to cut the rope, should the wagon start to slip over the cliff. "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 barricade kept it from continuing down the path out of control. The cart stopped with a jerk and an echoing rattle of loose boards
Carina left Goneril nibbling some weeds and trotted over, beaming. "We're pretty smart, aren't we?" She gazed in admiration at Donovan, then at the wagon as if it had played an equal role in resolving their difficulty.

"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?"

* * *

The storm overtook them as they reached the valley floor, rolling in with cold gusting 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 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 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.

Luckily 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."

"Show me."

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?"

"Not likely."

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 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 didn't say anything, watching him with a curious expression, as if wondering what he might do next. When he kissed her again, it was on the lips, and she threw her arms around his neck and pulled him to her with an intensity of need that surprised him.

"Are you sure this is what you want?"

"I’ve wanted this for a long time."

"I don't want you to regret anything."

"This isn't a place for regrets."

* * *

Morning failed to cast a different light on things. Carina left the warmth of Donovan's body to stir up the fire, but when he suggested they make coffee and have breakfast, she looked at him incredulously. This was not a day for something as mundane as breakfast. Sunlight streamed in the windows and lit the colored glass of the cupola, and she was seized with a desire to take a good look at the world.

She dressed and went outside while Donovan damped the fire and folded a piece of soft cheese into a tortilla for a hasty breakfast. Then he hurried after Carina and found her picking her way along the cracked sidewalk, throwing her head back from time to time to admire the infinite blue of the sky. "The prettiest days are always the ones right after a storm," she told him. "It's too muddy to travel today. Let's go exploring."

They made their way down potholed streets and through sticky expanses of mud. They explored an old school, an office building, and a post office covered in graffiti. Donovan wasn't sure if it was the glow of the golden day or just the warmth of Carina's sudden happiness, but Catalunia no longer seemed malevolent. In a corner store they found a few good safety razors and some dusty and curling postcards showing a much busier town than the one they found themselves in now. They stopped at a playground and after checking the strength of the chains, Donovan pushed Carina on a swing. Then they squelched through the mud of a little park and sat on a stone bench to rest and ponder. When Donovan pulled his uneaten breakfast out of his pocket, Carina laughed. "You still haven't eaten that thing?"

"When would I, with you dragging me all over town? But I'm not like you. I can't live off the air."

Carina closed her eyes, tipped back her head and allowed a breeze to caress her face. "With air this good, I bet you could if you tried."

Donovan studied her. "It's nice to see you happy."

Carina stretched her arms overhead. "Don't make me analyze it. Right now is just a nice moment. I'm going to try not to think about anything else."

They went walking again, this time into a residential area. Most of the houses looked unsafe, but one caught their eye. It was made of concrete that had once been plastered and painted to look like adobe, and inside there was still a bit of furniture and a fireplace that looked like it might work. "It would probably be more comfortable than the library," Donovan offered.

They went back to the library, loaded their things, and moved into the house. They parked the wagon in the garage, but Carina wouldn't let Donovan turn Goneril and Regan out into the scrubby yard to forage. "There's something wrong with the water here," she said. "That's why this town is abandoned. Everything that grows is contaminated."

Donovan stabled the animals in the garage and gave them hay and rainwater while Carina found a mouse-eaten broom and tried to clean up a little. They cooked dinner in the fireplace that evening and spent the night in a proper, if musty bed.

In the morning Donovan found Carina sitting on the lumpy living room sofa, flipping through an old magazine. She had found a pink scarf and knotted it loosely around her neck, and had put on a bit of lipstick. He approached her with a frown of concern.

Carina smiled. "Good morning. Want me to make some coffee?"

"Sure." His gaze wandered toward the window. It was another pretty day. Good traveling weather. "Don't you think we should get on the road?"

She stood and threw her arms around his neck. "Not today." She kissed him, then went into the kitchen for the coffeepot, and went out the back door to where she had already set up a spot on the concrete patio for a fire. She lit a bit of kindling with her flint, added a few broken branches from a long-dead potted tree, then set the grate over the fire and sat back on her heels to wait for the coffee to boil. "Too bad the fireplace is too small for the coffeepot," she said, "But it's nice to be outside on a day like today."

"Then why don't you want to travel?" Donovan asked, sitting beside her.

"I've got the whole rest of my dull farm life waiting for me back there, and for just a couple days, I want to pretend that things turned out different." Noticing the look of worry on his face, she smiled, her eyes reflecting all the blue of the morning sky. "I'm not trying to dodge reality; I'm just putting it off for another day. We'll leave tomorrow." She pulled the pot of boiling coffee off the grill and set it on the concrete. "Get your coffee cup, and one for me, too. And my magazine. I'll read you all the stories and we'll pretend we're an ordinary couple from the early years of the century, enjoying a leisurely morning coffee while ignoring that the world is falling apart."

* * *

Donovan played along for an hour, then wandered off to check on the animals and the state of the wagon. He found some parts that were loose, so he made repairs, concluding it was perhaps well enough that they were staying in town another day. But the state of the animals' feed worried him. If Carina wasn't ready to move on by the next morning, they would have to turn Goneril and Regan out to forage, no matter what the condition of the local weeds. And too bad for them, should they find themselves short of forage farther on, because after tonight there would be no more hay until they got home.

Carina spent the rest of the morning poring over old magazines and a family scrapbook that had been left behind, alternating these activities with long pensive gazes toward the mountains. She prepared lunch for Donovan around noon, but took only a few dried apples for herself after spending several minutes and a lot of effort trying to open an old tin of mandarin orange slices, only to find them spoiled.

"What did you expect?" Donovan asked.

"I don't know."

When Donovan returned to his work, she went upstairs and made a thorough investigation of the rooms. She found some books and a tarnished silver bracelet that perhaps Amalia would like. In a dresser drawer were a few fading ribbons that she could put in Tasha's hair. There was an entire sewing kit on a hall closet shelf and she confiscated the needles, pins and scissors, leaving the thread behind because it was of poor quality and had become brittle. A bathroom cabinet turned up several towels, and the bedroom closets proved to be treasure-troves of old clothes, although little was of any practical value. But when she came across a men's leather coat, she laid it out on a bed and examined it. The leather was stiff with age, but if they oiled it properly at the first opportunity, it might work for Donovan.

When he came in for dinner, the coat was lying across a chair. "Try it on," she urged him. "Carefully. If you like it, I'll condition it when we get home."

The coat was almost a perfect fit, a little long in the sleeves, but nothing one could complain about. "It's a good thing we're heading out tomorrow," he said, looking at all the things she had found. "Another few days in this place and we wouldn’t have any room in the wagon for all your stuff."

"Some of it is yours now, or don't you want the coat?" She had been about to go outside and start dinner, but came over to him instead. "And yes," she said, "We are most definitely leaving in the morning."

Donovan hung his head. "I didn't mean it that way." He kissed her on the forehead.

"Yes, you did. I know I've been silly, and you've been very kind to indulge me." She returned his kiss with a few that weren't quite so platonic. "We'll get up early in the morning and leave. If you're up for it. Because I think I'd like to keep you up all night."

"Maybe we should skip dinner and get an early start on that."

Carina laughed and abandoned any notion of cooking.

* * *

True to her word, Carina was up before dawn, wearing the absurd pink scarf again, but otherwise sensibly dressed. She stirred about making coffee, preparing breakfast and packing. She had Donovan's coffee waiting for him when he came downstairs. He sat at the rickety kitchen table and stared at it sleepily. "You're spoiling me. Late mornings like yesterday, late nights like last night— I don't think I know what to do with this early morning stuff any more."

"I'm sure you'll remember once you're on the road."

"We're trying to make the ranger's cabin, right?"

"Yes." Carina sipped her coffee. "With any luck the roads will be clear. You can never be sure after a storm."

Donovan frowned in concern. "Is the area we'll be going through prone to rock slides?"

"Not usually. I think I'll take this broom with us, though. It's pretty beat up, but it will be good for clearing branches and small debris."

They left Catalunia as the sun was coming up over the mountains. They bounced over the broken concrete of the residential area and found their way onto the main path out of town. Theirs were the only tracks in the smooth wash of sediment that was slowly obliterating the road. All around them the darkened eyes of vacant buildings stared, but now that Catalunia had been their private playground for three days, the spirits that remained no longer held any power over their imagination.

The road followed a straight path out of town through waving silver grasses, deadly with contaminants. Then they were at the foot of the mountain, staring at the switchbacks winding toward the tree line, where everything looked green and inviting. If all went well they would reach the cabin by nightfall. The next day they would be at the rancho, and the day after that, home.

Home. Donovan had not been allowing himself to think about it. The whole weight of Amalia and the children, and now the problem of Carina, pressed on him every time he thought of the farm. Not that he regretted a thing, but it didn't seem likely he could continue on with both of them like this. He had always drifted in life, never planning too far ahead, and things had always worked out. But now it seemed he had backed himself into a corner where he had responsibilities and uncomfortable decisions to make. He didn't like it a bit.

Carina scooted closer and leaned her head against his shoulder. "It's too pretty a day to be so pensive."

Donovan sensed that her statement was a poorly disguised question, but if he said what was on his mind, they would have to talk about it, and that would make it real. He wasn't ready to feel the yoke of all those commitments. Not today. Carina had been right to insist they delay in Catalunia. Suddenly he wished this journey would never end and they could go on like this forever, traveling forgotten back roads, sleeping in abandoned places. It was crazy that he was going to have to make a choice, and that his choice would hurt someone he cared about.

But there was still time before he had to do anything, and out here in the mountains, time seemed a flexible thing. Maybe if he was careful, it could be stretched out a little longer. They still had two more days, and the sky was still mockingly bright with promise. He put an arm around Carina's waist. She had no more substance than the thin mountain air. "Yes, it's a pretty day, isn't it?"

* * *

They had to stop and clear the road a few times, so it was nearly dark before they reached the ranger's cabin. It was too late to do any fishing, so they ate out of their stores. The meals were growing dull without fresh eggs, game or vegetables, but there was no point in complaining. The next morning they headed out at dawn and soon found themselves among the mesas. Carina grew thoughtful as the day wore on, and even the animals seemed to know they were barely a day from home.

When they stopped for lunch, Carina made love to Donovan in a desperate, frenzied way, as if she could somehow keep time from slipping away, but it didn't lighten her mood. If anything, she became more silent as mid-day sloped into afternoon. By the time they reached the rancho, she was deep inside her thoughts and had to be brought back to reality.

"Where do you want to put the animals?" Donovan asked for the second time. "We can't keep them indoors. We're out of hay. They need to forage."

"Oh." Carina scanned the grounds without seeing.

"Never mind. I'll figure it out."

By the time he got the animals taken care of, the sun was going down. He found Carina on the back patio sipping scotch and watching the golden light fade out over the mesas. At the sound of his footsteps, she turned and smiled, but it was a sad sort of smile, one that masked words he wasn't sure he wanted to hear. He sat next to her and accepted a glass of scotch— a real glass, not a cup.

"Where'd you find these?"

"In there." She waved a hand in the direction of the house, which explained nothing. "They seem to be real crystal."

"Maybe we should take them with us."

"If you like."

They watched the darkening sky in silence for awhile. A cool wind picked up and Carina shivered.

"Want me to get your cloak?"

"It doesn't matter." She took a deep breath. "About tomorrow. . ."

"What about it?"

"I want things to be as they were before. Between me and you. And between you and my sister, if that's possible. What's between us can't continue."

Donovan knew what she said was the proper thing, but fought a sudden wave of anger that she should be the one to say it. "Why not? We'll just tell her the truth."

"Yes. I'll tell her that two weeks after I've found myself a widow, I've stolen her man. That'll go over well."

"She'll get over it. She loves you. You're her sister."

"Some sister I am." Carina reached for the bottle, but then seemed to think better of it and set her empty glass aside. "Especially after I was the one who encouraged her with you. No, after tonight, it's over."

"Don't I get a say in this?"

She shook her head. "I don't know what your plans are, but the whole rest of my life is on that farm. This has to be it. Don't you understand?"

"No." He got to his feet. "Has there been nothing real about these past few days?"

Carina cast a guilty look at her hands. "My feelings for you are real."

"But you never intended it should last."

"I didn't intend anything. I didn't think at all. Did you?"

Donovan stopped pacing, ashamed of himself. "No."

"So I guess that settles it."

"It doesn't settle anything."

"It does for me."

He gazed at the stubborn set of her shoulders and the maddening way she lifted her chin, and he knew with a sick feeling in his stomach that she wasn't going to change her mind. What was it Alvi had said? Obsolete women who didn't think they needed a man? A quiet voice inside him whispered that Carina was giving him a great gift, sacrificing her feelings to give him some measure of freedom, but he needed to prove her wrong. "Come to bed." He reached for her hand.

"It'll be no different in the morning."

"You don't know that."

"Yes I do. I've made up my mind."

"I'll make you wish you hadn't."

* * *

Carina stood on the patio, cooking the last of their food. It had been insanity to delay so long in getting home, to the point where their food stores were this low. If the wagon broke down or a jennet went lame today, they would have to hunt or forage. Carina straightened her back and looked out across the mesas. No, they wouldn't be so lucky. They would be home tonight. She stirred the contents of the skillet, fighting back tears. It was good food, but the smell made her gag. So did the smell of coffee. She held her breath and took the food off the grill, then walked toward the empty swimming pool where the air was clearer. Here it smelled only of wind, dust and piƱon. She breathed deeply, waiting for the knots in her stomach to unravel.

Feeling a little better, she went back and divided the food onto two plates. Her stomach had settled, and a good thing, since she had no choice but to eat it. The brownies were gone, the juice Amalia had packed at the outset of their trip had gone rancid, and she needed something to sustain her. Courage alone wasn't going to do it. Not when every time she breathed she wanted to cry.

Donovan walked onto the patio looking tired and pale underneath the glow of his brown skin. Carina's breath caught and for a moment she thought she'd never seen him look so handsome, all in black with that vaguely accusing look in his eyes. She couldn't bear it and turned away. "Breakfast is ready."

"So is the wagon." He sat down but only picked at his food.

"Better eat it. Other than a few dried apples, it's all we've got until we get home."

"Are you going to eat, too?"

"Yes." Instead of sitting down, she took an empty bowl, filled it with earth from the defunct garden and shook it out over the coals. They wouldn't have time to let the fire die of its own accord.

"You can still change your mind."

"I know that."

Donovan's eyebrows flickered and he looked away. "Just making sure." He fell to eating, as if it were a chore that couldn't be put off.

* * *

They spent the morning traveling the broad flat expanse of the mesa, finding themselves at noon on the edge of the trail leading to their valley. Donovan halted the team, set the brake and put a hand on Carina's wrist. "Wouldn't you like to—?"

She pulled her hand away. "No.”

Donovan straightened the wagon, clucked at the team and they started down the switchbacks. They were nearly at the bottom, just one curve of the road between them and a full straight view toward home, when Carina, acting on a last wild impulse, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard, as if trying to imprint some final memory of him upon her mind. Then just as suddenly, she pulled away and looked into the distance, jerking her chin up in the familiar way that Donovan knew was her way of staving off tears. "Is that it?" he asked.


"You'll regret it."

"I know."

"Okay, then." He slapped the reins against the jennets' backs and they turned the last corner toward home.

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