Donovan stood in the driveway doing a last-minute check of the load. He shivered in the fancy 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. Still, it would keep out the wind, which would be a greater problem on the trail than the cold. 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 none of them knew, other than by rumor. 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. "Come back soon."
"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 heated stones for their pockets. Carina followed with a basket of food. She started to put the basket in the wagon, but Donovan took it from her hands. "I have a system."
"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. "I'll miss you. 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 a kiss, then slapped the reins against the jennets' backs. "See you in about a week."
* * *
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 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 vile 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 pointed it 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.
* * *
Cold settled over the valley. Without Will and Donovan, the sisters reverted to old ways. Amalia finished mulching the fields and went about 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. "Dear God, I hope not."
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 everything, 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 a 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 dragged about, 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. 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."
"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.
"And you slept with him."
Carina hesitated long enough to run out of any other options 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 leaned back against the pillows and closed her eyes, her heart pounding as if she'd been running. There was no point trying to sleep tonight.
* * *
Oddly, Carina's confession seemed to make 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, 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."
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. 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 would go to all that trouble. 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 do you think we should 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?" Carina's mind staggered at the thought. 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.
* * *
They 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. "We can always get more goods."
"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 anything they 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. "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, leaving the town even more lawless 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."
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 to have his papers checked. 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 emotions expecting miracles."
* * *
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 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?" Her eyes moved to 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 pulled a knife out of her pocket and cut 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 give a damn 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 pray 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. For a moment she thought they were too intent on plunder to notice her and she crept toward the kitchen with a thought of making a dash toward the animal pens. But a gangly freckled soldier grabbed her by the arm. "You going to tell us where the stash is, bitch? 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."
"Well ain'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."
"Ain't got a girlfriend. And those rat holes ain't what I'm talking about."
To Amalia's horror, he walked over to the hall closet and went straight to the trap door as if he had known where it was all along. There was only one way he could've known. In a sudden rage of betrayal, she kicked at the freckled boy's knees and 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," the freckled one said. "I want to kill the bitch myself."
"Don't kill her Malone," came a voice from the hall closet. 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. Oh, lord. That trick wasn't going to work this time Tasha, it wasn't— A shot rang out. "Clumsy brat," someone said. And then the footsteps continued, back and forth across the linoleum. Amalia sagged against her captor, her mind shocked numb.
"Come on, bitch. Think I got all day?"
He dragged her out onto the front porch and prodded her down the stairs. She tripped on the final step and sprawled in the dirt, only to be hauled up by her bound wrists and shoved along. Up ahead was a vehicle slightly different from the others. A lean man with blazing red hair stood outside the passenger door, overseeing operations. From every direction men ran up, saluted, asked questions, got answers, saluted again and were on their way, in a sequence so fast and precise that it seemed like the choreographed dance of mechanical dolls. As Malone shoved her in front of Strecker, she heard him say, "Well, catch the little Paul Revere, dammit! Shoot him if you have to. But don't tell me we can't move faster than some kid on a fucking donkey!"
Malone forced Amalia to her knees and saluted. "I caught one of the hoarders, Captain. She says she's a colonel's sister."
"Oh, really?" Strecker looked down at her, grinning like a lazy cat. "So where's your stockpiling certificate?"
"He didn't give us one," Amalia snapped.
"Well that's too bad, isn't it?"
"Can I shoot her? Bitch pulled a gun on me."
"No. Go help clean out the house, Malone. Dismissed."
Malone kicked Amalia in the knee, saluted Strecker again and took off toward the house. A few other men rushed up to the commander with questions, then made for the barn. In a lull amidst the swirling confusion, Strecker assessed Amalia with a maddeningly knowing smile. "So are you the veterinarian?"
Amalia felt sick. He knew everything. "No. That would be my sister."
"And are those your animals?"
Amalia twisted around in time to see a group of soldiers herding the frantic goats toward a transport truck. "It would appear they're yours now."
"Yes. As a colonel's sister, you should've known better. Hoarding is the same as stealing from the people."
"What people? We don't take what we didn't earn. We don't beg, and at least we share with the poor. What will you do with your take of our things? Buy your wife a pretty dress?"
The commander gazed at Amalia coolly. "Stand up." As she struggled to her feet, Strecker grabbed her from behind and pressed a blade against her throat. "Impertinent little bitch like you, I ought to kill you."
Amalia closed her eyes. "Go ahead. I'm not afraid to die on my own land." She held her breath, waiting for the knife plunge in. She was startled when instead Strecker stepped back, chuckling, and began sawing at the rope that bound her wrists. She turned around to face him, rubbing her chafes and bruises.
"Aren't you going to thank me?"
"I could've killed you."
"You still can. In fact, I wish you'd just go on and get it over with. Quit making a game of it."
Strecker's eyes lit up in amusement. "I don't want to kill a colonel's sister. It's bad policy. Besides, I sort of like you. You'd have made a good soldier. A better one than your cowardly friend." He motioned to some men in the distance. "Bring Sloan over here."
Amalia's eyes widened as two men standing guard down the drive flung open the door of a truck and dragged out a man in rumpled khakis. They each took an elbow and marched him up to Strecker. Only the captain's hand on her arm and the presence of an aide a few feet away kept her from flinging herself upon Donovan with no other thought but to kill.
Donovan had been badly beaten, of that there was no doubt. One whole side of his face was swollen and dark. Rope burns ringed his neck, as if he had been subjected to mock execution. Amalia was almost moved to pity, but then she remembered what he had done.
He raised his head and looked at her and the shock of his pleading eyes was so great, she found herself saying the words before she even knew she had planned them. "What a shame I didn't kill you when I had the chance."
Strecker found this amusing. "Would you like another chance now? I can arrange it."
Donovan looked at the captain, startled, but Amalia sneered, "I'm not playing your sadistic games."
The captain was about to comment when a commotion on the path commanded his attention. It was a group of several soldiers, some of them carrying dead chickens and one of them leading Carina by a rope tied in front around her wrists. She was stumbling and screaming curses, which the men seemed to find funny. They dragged her in front of Strecker, where she stood gasping, her face so streaked with tears that she didn't recognize Donovan and could barely acknowledge her sister. "So this is the veterinarian?" Strecker asked.
Donovan nodded slightly while one of the men in the group said, "She's just a stupid cunt who cries over dead animals."
Carina turned on him in a fury. "You killed my alpacas!"
Before the soldier could respond, Strecker silenced him with a shake of the head. "I'm sorry my men got carried away. I was hoping we could do a little business."
"Business?" Carina spat. "Give me back my animals. That's the only kind of business I want with you."
"I'm afraid I can't do that." He looked her up and down. Her clothes were torn and she was covered in cuts and scrapes that would be deep blue bruises by morning. He took the rope from the soldier's hands and accepted his belated salute. "You know, we have a lot of animals in the Guard. Cavalry, mule teams, livestock for food. Trained veterinarians are hard to come by, and I'm willing to forgive a war widow who made a little error in judgment by hoarding a few things. I think we can make a deal, don't you?"
"Me look after your animals? I'd kill them before I'd ever think of caring for them!" She launched herself at him, butting him with her head and kicking with her sturdy work boots.
Strecker had never been attacked by a woman and was caught off guard. Amalia made a grab for her. "Carina, no!"
A soldier caught Amalia and pulled her back while other soldiers swarmed over Carina, throwing her to the ground in a flurry of fists and kicks. One man raised his rifle over his head like a club and Amalia screamed as it came down. The blow fell squarely on Carina's head and with a little shudder, she lay still. Amalia lunged for her, twisting and kicking at her captor until she felt the muzzle of a pistol at her ear and heard a soft click.
Strecker tugged his cuffs and collar back into place, trying to regain his composure as he stared at the still form on the ground. He darted a glance at Donovan, slumped between his captors, eyes shut. Then he motioned to the man holding Amalia. "Let her go." The lines of his face and body were a study in fury, but his voice was as smooth as ever. "I don’t need to be defended with such enthusiasm against a woman."
Amalia examined her sister with trembling hands. Carina was breathing lightly and rapidly, but at least she was alive. Her pulse was irregular, but maybe that was to be expected. She pressed down gently on the bump that was already swelling on her temple and suppressed an urge to retch into the weeds. It was a soft lump, swelling fast. Almost certainly a fracture. Even under the best of circumstances, with all their arsenal of medicines and equipment, there would've been little she could've done but hope. In this first moment of shock, she couldn't grasp what was happening except in the most academic terms. Amalia knew the pain would come later, but for the moment, she said a silent prayer of thanks that she could turn a dry and defiant face toward Strecker. "Aren't you finished here yet?"
"Not quite. I have a special entertainment for you that I think you'll enjoy." He motioned to an aide. "Have they found a place yet?"
"They say the trees are awfully small, sir."
"I didn't ask for an analysis of the trees! All we need is one good one. Did they find it?"
"Good. Lead us there."
A soldier tried to jerk Amalia to her feet, but she fought him. "I'm not leaving my sister."
Strecker gave her a disbelieving look, but motioned to a couple of his men.
"Don't move her!"
"Shut up," Strecker said. "I'm starting to get tired of you."
With the aide leading the way, they headed toward the apple grove, the two soldiers and Donovan bringing up the rear. Amalia's heart sank as they drew near the largest tree — a lone cottonwood that towered over the scrawny fruit trees. Hanging from a limb was a noose, swinging in the breeze. In spite of herself, she shuddered, but in this moment, bereft of everything and everyone she loved, and too stunned to think in any terms but those of the moment, death didn't seem like such a terrible thing. Her only worry was that the drop didn't look as if it would be enough to break her neck and end her life quickly.
The soldier dragged her in front of the noose while the men carrying Carina dropped her unceremoniously onto the ground. Amalia cringed. Surely this would complete the work the rifle blow had begun. She gathered her courage, looked up at the noose, noted the step ladder below it and turned to Strecker, a cold question in her eyes.
"No." Strecker turned to Donovan. "It's time."
Donovan's eyes widened in shock. "But you promised!"
The captain laughed. "Yes I did, didn't I? Tell us where you've been, tell us what they have, if your story checks out, we'll let you live. That was the deal, wasn't it?"
Strecker turned to Amalia. "You see how shallow human nature is? This is why people can't be allowed to hoard things and run their own affairs. They can't be trusted."
Amalia's voice was low and bitter with contempt. "There’s nothing you or anyone else could've done to me that would've made me betray the ones I love."
"Perhaps not. All the more reason I wish you were on our side."
"Fuck you." Amalia threw herself onto the ground beside Carina but didn't bother to check her vitals again. There was little point.
Donovan's captors prodded him up the stepladder and wrapped the rope around his neck, then both stood back to await Strecker's signal. Instead, Strecker came forward to do the job himself. "You see, Private Sloan," he told him, seeming to enjoy drawing the matter out. "We've got no use for a man who betrays his country." With a sweep of his arm, he indicated Amalia and Carina, the house, barn and fields. "And a man who betrays his friends doesn't deserve to live."
Amalia turned her face away as Strecker pulled the ladder out from under Donovan's feet.
* * *
A winter wind blew down off the mesas. Amalia knew she must be cold but her brain refused to process that information with any degree of urgency. As she sat watching the transport trucks leave in clouds of fumes and dust, nothing seemed very urgent at all. She kept waiting for the grief to tear into her, but for now she was blessedly calm, each thought passing through slowly, as if under water.
She looked at Carina, her face marred by the purpling lump on her temple, her body scratched and bloody. Her hands were still bound together in front of her, clasped together as if in prayer. Amalia bent over the knot, struggling with it, tearing her nails down to the quick. She unwound the rope, threw it aside and rubbed Carina's cold, chafed wrists. That was better.
Thoughts began trickling in, as slowly as the plumes of smoke rising over the Petersons' place. She should've killed Donovan on sight. First instincts were always best. But then, was it such a terrible thing they had done, taking in a stranger and caring for him? They had given him everything. Was this the payback they deserved?
She suppressed the urge to look at the body still hanging from the tree. He could stay there and rot for all she cared. She wondered absently what it had taken to break him. Alma Red Wing had once said he was weak of spirit. What had she seen that they hadn't? Once again— her mind kept returning to this point as if it were the center on which the entire wheel revolved— where had they erred? Love didn't deserve this kind of payback. Something had gone wrong with the world, and it went deeper than economic collapse and scarcity of oil.
Amalia brushed a lock of hair out of Carina's face, then got to her feet and took a few slow steps, hunched over like an old woman. She looked out across her land. They hadn't burned the house, at least, and even if they had contaminated the well, there was the creek for water. But what would she eat with her stores and animals gone and nothing left with which to buy more? She couldn't work the land by herself. Was there any point in living at all?
Her gaze drifted toward the distant mountains and mesas, and a memory stirred. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. But no help would come from these hills. That was where death arrived in the last of the oil age's diesel trucks. Her strength would have to come from inside. She closed her eyes and held her breath. With all her options taken, all she was left with was the choice to live or die, and there had been enough death. So that left life, and she would have to be strong enough for it.
Amalia looked out across the land again, this time seeing it in her mind as it used to be, before she was born, before her family had chosen it as a quiet haven where perhaps they could wait out the turmoil undisturbed. Before the depredations of the wars, it had been dotted with peaceful farms and ranches, with people who felt safe traveling country roads to towns where they could always be sure of fair treatment.
That was how things must be again. Once the convulsions of this time of change passed, there would be peace again. Of this one thing in all the confused and hateful world, she felt sure. To her surprise, she found herself praying that she would live long enough to see it.