Sunday, December 17, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book Two, Chapter One

There was just enough light to see by as Donovan guided his team onto the road that lead through the valley and onto a narrow trace northwest. At first he tried to engage Carina in conversation, but she huddled in her cloak, answering only in monosyllables. Finally Donovan fell silent and watched the terrain, letting his mind wander.

At noon they stopped in a field for lunch. Carina climbed down from the wagon and laid out some food while Donovan fed and watered the animals. He joined Carina on the heavy Indian blanket, noting that she was still wearing her cloak.

"It's warmed up a little. Aren't you hot?"

Carina unclasped the cloak and laid it aside. In her badly-dyed dress and with the wind blowing through her shorn hair, she looked like a child. She picked up a boiled egg and peeled it, spending an inordinate amount of time examining it for eggshell. Then she lost interest, set it aside and folded her hands in her lap.

"You have to eat something."

She picked up the egg again, then sighed and set it back down.

"Try a tortilla."

Carina picked one up, examined it, then tore off a strip. She was still nibbling the edges by the time Donovan finished his meal. He got to his feet, went to the wagon and returned with a cup. "Drink this."

Carina sniffed at the contents.

"It's vitamins. Amalia said to give it to you if you wouldn't eat." When she still hesitated, he added, "We're not continuing until you drink it."

She drank quickly, as if eager to get the matter over with, then handed back the cup and set her half-eaten tortilla aside.

"Finish that, too. You can keep eating along the way."

Carina slipped the scrap of food in her pocket, then began putting things into baskets and boxes, which Donovan loaded into the cart. He helped her onto the seat, got the jennies hitched again, and they continued on their way.

By late afternoon they were in the mesas. It was colder here and the wind whipped about, carrying dust and small pebbles. As the sun dipped lower Donovan pondered their options. They needed a place to camp for the night.

"There's an abandoned rancho nearby," Carina said, as if reading his thoughts. "There'll be another road about half a mile on. When we get there, turn right."

It was the most she had said all day and he turned to thank her, but Carina was wrapped in her cloak again, brooding. When he found the turnoff, it was hardly a road, but merely another wagon path like the one they had been following. Soon he started to see fence posts denuded of barbed wire and leaning at crazy angles. There were piñones too, twisted from the wind but heavy with nut-bearing cones. Donovan made a mental note to pick a few on the way out, if they had time. They would make a nice snack for the road.

Finally they came around a bend and saw it up ahead— a rambling stone edifice ringed by low walls of melting adobe. From a distance the house looked intact, but as they drew near, it became obvious it had been abandoned for a long time.

Windowpanes and parts of the roof were missing. The wall of one wing had collapsed, and doors hung awkwardly on their hinges. Donovan shivered and wondered if this place was haunted, but it was too late to go somewhere else. He looked around, hoping to find a barn or even a pump house that might offer a more hospitable shelter, but the outbuildings appeared to have been made of wood and adobe. Unmaintained, they had crumbled, leaving only the stone mansion.

Donovan pulled the wagon to the great double doors. "Are you sure. . ."

"People have been stopping here for years." Carina climbed down and pushed against the doors. One opened easily and she propped it with a stone. The other caught and Donovan helped her with it. Inside was a tiled foyer, once elegant but now covered in grime. A staircase with a heavy oak banister spiraled toward a second floor obscured by darkness. All around were shadows and a penetrating, musky odor.

Carina seemed impervious to it all. "Bring the animals in. I'll show you where to put them." Without waiting for an answer, she moved into the darkness.

Donovan unhitched Goneril and Regan, tied one behind the other and led them up the steps into the hallway. He half-expected them to balk, but they seemed unperturbed by their strange surroundings and glad of a chance to get out of the wind. He had the foresight to bring one of the lanterns, and a good thing because Carina was nowhere to be found. He called her name and heard a faint response toward the darkest recesses of the house. He led the animals across the littered floor and down a hallway. He peered inside a few rooms along the way but saw only broken furniture, a cracked and cobwebbed sink stripped of its faucets, and floors covered in trash.


"Over here."

He turned a corner and found himself in a larger room with a long sofa in one corner, its cushions slashed and missing their stuffing, and on the other side a great hulking entertainment center, still cluttered with television, speakers and other media. Donovan found electronics more disturbing than any other remnants of the oil years because they gave the impression of having once been alive. When Carina emerged out of the shadows with her ashen skin and dark cloak, it was no wonder his breath caught as if he were seeing a ghost.

Just as quickly, he came back to his senses. "What are you doing? There could be anyone hiding back here. Or anything."

She took hold of a bridle. Beyond this room was another that had been used for animal shelter before, because the floor was littered with old hay and manure. A few high windows let in the last of the daylight, casting everything in gray. "They'll be safe back here," she said. "It's not likely anyone else will come around, but if they do, we'll get to them before they get to our animals."

Donovan nodded, seeing the wisdom in what had before seemed a perversely random decision. They made their way back to the wagon, and while he brought in feed for the animals, Carina carried in the smaller necessities for the evening.

That night they had an uneasy meal at a heavy oak table in the Spanish Gothic dining room. Again Carina only picked at her food. Having no more need to give instructions, she had lapsed back into silence and single-syllable answers. To Donovan, it was like dining with the sullen spirit of a disapproving ancestor. After dinner he checked on the animals, since Carina remained oddly perfunctory about their welfare. Then, there being nothing else to do, he joined her in the front room where she had laid out their bedrolls on top of a musty mattress that had been dragged there years ago by other travelers.

He found her lying on her side, head propped on her bundled cloak, staring at her open Bible by the dim light of her lantern. Donovan set down his own lantern and got underneath the covers. "Would you like to read to me a little?"

She closed the book. "No." She switched off the light, then lay on her back, eyes closed. "I'm not like Amalia. I can only find the depressing parts."

Donovan looked at her face. The shadows of his lamp made her eyes look sunken, almost as if she were dead. Disturbed, he turned off the light. Immediately the darkness pressed in on him, complete and overwhelming. Tiny sounds magnified, and the notion that this place was haunted returned. He tried to close his eyes and sleep, but his unease was too powerful to put aside. His shotgun lay on the floor beside him. He touched it and was slightly reassured, but still he couldn't relax.

In the darkness, he heard Carina breathing, and it wasn't the deep, regular breath of sleep. He found her body in the dark, reaching for her as if to comfort her, but really seeking release from his own fears. "Are you okay? Are you cold? Is there anything--

"I'm fine. Please don't touch me." She rolled on her side, turning her back to him.

Donovan waited until he was certain she had at last fallen asleep, then lit his lantern again and found his way to the wagon. By moonlight, he located the bottle of hard cider he had stashed and took several long pulls. When at last he felt its glow spreading through his body, he went back into the house, no longer caring what spirits might inhabit it. He crawled inside his bedroll, turned off his light and went to sleep.

* * *

Donovan awoke the next morning in a shaft of sunlight streaming from a broken window. Carina was gone and the hollow in which she had slept was cold. He shivered as he pulled on his boots and jacket before going in search. The smell of coffee gave her away and he found her in the remains of a tiled kitchen full of odd appliances, most of which he could not identify. She had made a fire in a bowl-shaped grill.

She murmured a greeting, poured some coffee into a mug and handed it to him but took none for herself. One of their baskets was resting on a counter and she took out a few items, set a skillet on the grill and cooked a mixture of eggs, cheese and shredded tortillas. It took only a few minutes, but it was enough time for Donovan to wander to the broken windows, musing on the mangled patio furniture and the dry swimming pool full of blown leaves and debris. In the distance the flat-topped mesas stretched into what seemed infinity. "If it wasn't such a cold morning it would've been nice to eat outside," he remarked, not really expecting an answer. "I'm sure at least some of that furniture is still good."

Carina set a plate in front of him. "It's too windy. I would've rather cooked outside. It's safer. But I couldn't have kept a fire going in the wind."

Donovan found a chair and sat down. "Thank you for going to all this trouble. I wasn't expecting a hot meal."

She started putting things away. As if anticipating his next remark, she said, "I already ate."

"I don't believe you."

"I can't do anything about that." She picked up a basket and made to take it to the wagon. "Will you be having any more coffee?"

"How about you drink some?"

"I had some already."

"No you didn't."

"I don't want any."

"Fine." He finished what was in his cup and held it out to her. "I'll take the rest of it, then."

* * *

Before they left, he made her drink two cups of Amalia's herbal drink. She protested, but he was firm, with the result that she sat sullenly on the wagon seat, unspeaking, for most of the day. Stopping to gather piñones was out of the question, but that was just as well. Donovan was ready to put the abandoned rancho behind them.

The wagon trace wound across and between the mesas and they suffered most of the day through cold rough winds that whipped across the flat tops and whistled through the passes. Just as it was once again time to start thinking of where they would stop for the night, the trail merged with a larger road which dipped into the foothills. In the distance was a cluster of buildings.

"I don't think we'll reach town before it gets dark," Donovan said.

"It's only an old ghost town, anyway."

He looked at her sharply, then again at the town. It was too far to tell from here, but yes, it did seem a little too quiet. "You and Amalia never said Catalunia was deserted."

"There's a ranger's cabin around one of these bends in the road," Carina said, ignoring his remark. "We can stop there for the night."

The stone cabin was small and had a friendly, cozy look to it, in spite of its broken windows and loose door. A small stream burbled nearby, perfect for watering the animals, and there was a barbeque pit that still retained its cast iron grill. Donovan set some baited hooks in the creek and settled Goneril and Regan in an outbuilding for the night.

By the time they had finished their few simple chores, Donovan was pleased to find a couple of small fish on his lines. He cleaned them and gave them to Carina, who fried them and gave them to him for dinner, wrapped in tortillas. For herself, she made a quesadilla out of a single tortilla and a bit of cheese. Donovan didn't think it was much of a meal, but since she ate it without having to be cajoled, he let the matter go.

* * *

The next morning they tackled the switchbacks as soon as there was enough light for the jennies to find their footing. Before the sun was full in the sky, they had reached the valley floor.

The wagon tracked its way through a meadow of dull silver grass, mountains on every side, as if they were in the concave hollow of a bowl. As they bounced along the rutted path, they passed fallen fence posts and mailboxes, overgrown driveways leading sometimes to nothing and sometimes to buckling trailer homes or small frame houses that had collapsed after years of neglect. The rusted hulks of automobiles lay strewn in weed-choked yards, sometimes burnt and smashed, other times abandoned intact, but useless. The wind played about old swing sets and with the bleached and warped remains of plastic children's toys and patio furniture, pathetic reminders of the trivial uses to which precious oil had once been put.

The buildings became more numerous and closer together as they went on. A bank and gas station had been burnt, the remains painted in mocking, obscene graffiti. Fast food restaurants had been allowed to fall to pieces after the doors had been kicked in, windows smashed, and the kitchen equipment dragged out and sold for scrap. At every turn Donovan guided his team around blowing trash, long-dead electrical lines, and signs and traffic signals that had come loose from their posts and dashed into the intersections.

He pulled up short in front of the caved-in remains of a supermarket, its plate glass windows gone, its asphalt parking lot clotted with weeds and half-covered in dust. Looking around uneasily, as if there might be witnesses among the ruins, he jumped down from the wagon and unwound a stray cable from where it had lodged around the rear axle. He paused while climbing back onto the seat and opened his mouth as if he would speak, but thought better of it. Carina had shed her cloak and looked almost pretty in her straw hat with its fluttering black ribbon, but there remained something unapproachable about her, and in this heavy, silent atmosphere, talk seemed wrong and perhaps even blasphemous.

They continued past a motel that would never see another guest, past an empty diner whose sign promised they never closed, and past looted shops advertising sales on electronics, clothing and camping equipment. As they reached the other side of town and the buildings began to space farther apart, Donovan found himself breathing again, as if the very air in the center of town had been deprived of oxygen. He twisted around in his seat and looked back. There was something too still about the place, as if the town had not yet resigned itself to its fate and whatever negative force had driven the people away still lingered. He shuddered and turned back toward the road.

Gradually the path climbed again. Goneril and Regan pulled against the traces, their coats darkening with sweat as the sun reached high noon. Donovan knew he should pull over and let them rest before tackling the pass, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop again in this haunted valley. They had to someplace where it wasn't an abomination to be among the living.

From the bowl of the valley Donovan had been able to see the exact point of Trés Ladrones pass, but now as they entered the switchbacks, it was obscured by the meandering path as it wound back and forth, ever upward. The wind grew colder as they went higher, but it was a fresh sort of cold that blew away the last of the oppressive weight they had carried with them from below. When they turned a corner and found their way obstructed by fallen rocks, it didn't at first seem like much of a difficulty. Donovan parked the wagon at an angle and set the brake, then he walked up ahead, taking stock of the situation.

"None of them are very big," he said when he returned. "But there's a lot of them." He went to the back of the wagon and pulled out a shovel, one of several seemingly odd tools that Amalia had insisted they pack. "Bring the team behind me as I clear the way."

It was slow going. The rocks seemed to go on forever, although Donovan knew logically that this stretch couldn't be more than half a mile. Occasionally there was a bigger stone in the road and he would have to lay down his shovel and drag it off to the side. After half an hour of this, having only gone a few hundred yards, he stopped and rubbed his back, fighting discouragement.

"I can take over for awhile."

Carina was watching him solemnly, her eyes clear and frank in the afternoon sun. He shook his head. Amalia could've done it. A week ago, Carina could have, too. But not now.

"You need to rest," she insisted, holding out her hand for the shovel. "You should eat and have something to drink."

"Get back in the wagon and guide the team," Donovan told her. "I'm fine."

"Now you sound like me. Maybe I'll work up an appetite."

She was right. He was thirsty and nearly dizzy with altitude and hunger. Reluctantly he handed her the shovel. "Just the small ones," he cautioned her. "And if you start to feel bad. . ."

"I know." She began scraping the rocks toward the edge of the road, careful not to toss any over the edge, where they might start a rockslide below. She worked more slowly than Donovan and soon found her billowing skirt to be a hindrance, so she gathered it into a knot at her knees. Donovan, eating stale cornbread as he guided the jennies, tried to remember if this was the first time he had ever seen Carina's bare legs. She had pretty calves. Too bad—

No, he had to stop that line of thinking. It would only lead to trouble. He took a long drink of water, and since Carina was too busy to watch what he was doing, he topped it with a swig of cider. It was what the officers in the Guard used to give them whenever a task was so demeaning that no one in his right mind would keep after it for long. He released the brake and let the jennies draw the cart forward a few more steps. They were going to have to make faster progress than this if they were to make it to shelter before sundown. This pass was too dangerous for them to stay long. Little rocks tumbled down even as they worked, and a bigger one could fall at any time. There was nowhere to camp and there was no way they were going back to Catalunia. They would have to get through before nightfall and that was all there was to it. He took another pull at the cider and went to relieve Carina.

In this way they took turns as the afternoon wore on. At one point Carina paused while handing him the shovel, looked him in the eye and said, "Can I have some?"

She had smelled the alcohol on his breath. He hesitated to share, for fear it might trigger some new expression of grief, but the cider had strengthened him, the sun was going down soon and if it would fortify her for the final stretch of road ahead. . . "It's in my bag, underneath my jacket."

When they reached the end of the rocky pass and saw only a clear path ahead on the way down, they looked at each other, sighing with exhaustion and relief. Donovan's cheer lasted only a moment though, as he looked at the sky. "It'll be dark soon." He glanced around skeptically. Unless they planned to camp in the middle of the road, there was nowhere to go, only the mountainside to one hand and a sheer drop on the other.

"The Sanchez place is at the foot of this mountain," Carina said. "If we're careful, and if we use the lanterns, and if the road is clear the rest of the way down. . ."

"That's a lot of ifs."

"Do you have any better ideas?"

Donovan drove the team down the switchbacks as fast as he dared, but the road was steep, the jennies were tired, and the lengthening blue shadows made the footing uncertain. He kept an eye out for someplace they could stop, but saw nothing. Finally he turned to Carina in frustration. "I guess we're going to need those lanterns after all."

He set the brake and they brought out the solar lights from where they had been charging during the light of day. They hung one on each side of the front of the wagon, and Carina took a third lantern and walked ahead of the team.

It took nearly an hour, but finally they saw a pinprick of light in the distance. "That's the place," Carina said unnecessarily.

"They won't mind us dropping in like this?"

"It's been a long time, but it'll be okay."

It seemed like another hour before they pulled in at the gate, but that was just a trick of the darkness and exhaustion. They stopped in front of a low adobe farmhouse, and before they could get down and knock, an old man emerged from a blue front door hung with red peppers. He approached them holding a lantern aloft while a terrier ran toward the wagon, yapping furiously. "Good evening, strangers. Buenas noches."

"Noches, Manny," Carina said. "It's me, Carina Cunningham."

The man's wrinkled face broke into a pleased but perplexed smile. "Carinita?" He shone the light in her face. "Pos, it is you! Where did you come from? You look tired." He set the lantern on the ground and helped her from the cart. "Who is this with you?"

"Donovan Sloan. A new member of our family."

Manny frowned in confusion but asked no questions. "Mucho gusto." He nodded in Donovan's direction. "Come inside. Elena will fix you something to eat while I put your team up for the night. Then you can give us the news and tell us what brings you out this way."

Donovan climbed down from the wagon. He was exhausted and apparently Carina was too, because suddenly her knees buckled. She grabbed Manny's arm and Donovan rushed to her side and supported her around the waist. She managed a tight smile, but he could tell it was only for appearance. She was so pale even her lips were white. "Let's get her onto a bed or something," Donovan said. "She hasn't been well and I think today was too much for her."

* * *

They stayed a full day at the Sanchez place while Elena and Manny fussed over Carina as if she were their own daughter. She almost had been, Donovan found out from the pieces of conversation he picked up. She had once been engaged to their son, Miguel, who had been with the Underground and was forced to flee in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again. "Poor Miguelito," he heard over and over again.

"I'm sure he made it to Canada."

"Yes, of course. That's where he said he would go if he was ever in danger."

"What a shame he has never been able to write."

"It's to protect us. It's because he loves us."

Denial, all of it. Donovan now saw how easy it had been for Carina to fall into the same trap, with Miles away for so long. It was easier to lie to oneself than to accept the harsh realities. He allowed himself a few cynical shakes of the head as he made repairs to the wagon during their extended visit. "I might lie to other folks," he thought, "But at least I don't lie to myself." It didn't occur to him to wonder if this was a virtue.

Manny and Elena were kind, and under their care Carina got some of her strength back. They plied her with rich foods which she nibbled politely, and she spent what seemed an inordinate amount of time asleep among the soft white sheets and pillows of Miguel's old bed. If this caused her any painful memories, she hid it well.

She hid everything well. She deflected questions so neatly and managed to spend so much time sleeping that by the time they left on the morning of the second day, the gentle old couple were almost as clueless as to their real errand as when Carina and Donovan first arrived.

Once back on the road, however, Carina slumped into a pensive mood. "I'm tired," she said, in answer to Donovan's inquiries, and he knew she didn't speak of an exhaustion of the body but of the spirit.

After another day on the road and a night at an old recreational campground in the mountains, they finally found themselves on a bluff overlooking a scene of bustling activity. There were buildings here, roads, and even electric lights and motor vehicles. This was a small federal city. They had reached civilization at last.

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