Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book Two, Chapter Six

In spite of her efforts, Amalia only saved half their pumpkin and winter squash harvest. But the seeds from these hardy survivors would grow a stronger crop next year, and the pantry and cellar were full of food anyway, taken in trade from Carina's veterinary calls. There was no way they would be able to eat all of it this winter. As Amalia put the last of the edible pumpkins into the cart, she made a mental note to go through their stores and see what they could give to their poorer neighbors.

As she drove Cordelia toward the barn, she passed the new paddock and stifled a smile. Alpacas were such odd-looking creatures. Especially the white one with the black spots. It looked like a shaggy mutant Holstein calf. But Carina doted on them, and that was all that mattered. It was a shame she didn't have more time for them, considering how long she had wanted them. After a few days of mooning around the paddock, getting them used to her presence, she suddenly had more calls to go on and was now as elusive as she had ever been.

With as much time as Carina spent riding around the valley, Amalia she would have been better off trading for a horse. There had been so many occasions in the last few months when a horse would've come in handy. But then Amalia remembered that it was she who always protested the idea. Horses were picky eaters and keeping one would be expensive. Still, if Carina was going to be out on the road so often, it would be nice to have a faster animal, one more suited for riding. She would ask Donovan what he thought.

Then again, why bother? Donovan favored anything Carina wanted these days. Everything except her long absences, which he said put her in danger, as if there were any danger in this valley. If she suggested buying an animal that would get Carina home quicker, he'd jump on that in a minute. He would be all for buying a horse, and damn the expense.

Amalia wasn't sure if Donovan's solicitous attitude toward her sister troubled her or not. If she gave herself a chance, she could torment herself over the way he paced the floors when Carina was out late or the way he sometimes watched her from across a room. It would be easy to let her suspicions consume her, but what would be the point in that? Either she trusted him or she didn't. If she lost her trust, she would have to make changes in her life, and she wasn't ready for change. She took a deep breath of the cool autumn air and tipped her head back to feel the sun full on her face. She deserved a little interlude of peace and simple pleasures.

She came around the path behind the chicken coop to find Will on his knees doing something to the pen. "What are you working on?"

"Something made a hole in the fence. Probably a coyote."

"Did we lose anything?"

"A broody hen is missing, but I don't think it got eaten. The hole is too small. It probably just escaped once the hole was there."

Amalia scanned the area. Other than the section down by the creek, there weren't a lot of places to hide, but the imagination of a hen looking to hide her nest seemed to know no bounds. "Send Tasha to look for her."

"I did." Will stood up, already taller and stronger than when he had first arrived on the farm. He would be a powerful man one day. "Need help putting up those pumpkins?"

She didn't, but she invited him along, anyway. While they worked they made idle chat about the weather, the animals, and their winter plans. "I was thinking maybe we could add on to the barn," she said.

"What for? Seems big enough to me."

"Well, I thought maybe Carina should have a horse if she's going to spend so much time on the road. And if we have a horse, we'll have to have a place to put it."

"What would we build with?"

"I haven't decided. Wood is easier, but expensive. Adobe is cheap, but I only know how to do repairs, not construction. We'd have to get someone to help us."

"Shouldn't be a problem. Carina knows everyone and they all seem to owe her favors."

"Yes, they do, don't they? Speaking of Carina, have you seen her today? I thought she said she was sticking close to home."

"She was doing something with the goats this morning. Then later I saw her go off toward the creek."

"What on earth would she be doing down there, when there's so much else to be done?" Amalia spoke as much to herself as to the boy.

He answered as if it had been a legitimate question directed at him. "Donovan went down there to check some traps. Maybe she went to help."

"Carina won't touch a trap." Amalia straightened, her mood suddenly darkening. "Why don't you finish this, then put Cordelia in with the goats. I've got some things I need to take care of."

Trying not to look like she was hurrying, she went down the path to the creek, following the stream as it meandered through the sage and cottonwoods. Finally she saw them up ahead, walking the dusty track beside the water, close together, but not touching. They were talking about something, but although Amalia couldn't make out the words at this distance, it seemed from the cadence of their voices to be inconsequential. Tasha crept out of the brush a little ways beyond them. "Any luck?" Carina called.


"Keep looking."

Tasha darted back into the weeds. Donovan turned to say something to Carina. She laughed, but it was a polite, nervous laugh, like she wasn’t sure if it was right to be amused. Then Donovan said something else, stepping closer to her. She moved away, but suddenly her foot slipped on the loose pebbles of the creek bank. Donovan grabbed her arm and held on, even after she regained her footing.

Amalia hurried over.

Donovan turned at the sound of her footsteps and let go of Carina's arm. "Hello, there. We were trying to help Tasha find the broody hen. That is, until your sister nearly fell in the water. I tried to tell her chickens don't swim."

"I had no idea it took three people to find one hen. We don’t need eggs that bad."

"I was checking my traps, too."

Carina went to Amalia, her eyes lowered. "I was just getting ready to go back to the house and get lunch ready."

"Good. We can go together." They turned and walked in silence up the path. Finally Amalia could stand it no longer. "Do you need me to talk to Donovan?"

"What about?"

"You don't think he's a little too solicitous?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"You don't need to protect him. If he's bothering you. . ."

"He means nothing by it. He got in the habit of caring for me when we were away."

"You're home now, so I'll tell him to stop."

"No, Amalia. He'll think you're suspicious, and men don't like jealous women."

Amalia's back stiffened. "I don't think I asked for your relationship advice. I was only trying to help."

"I know. Thank you. But I can take care of myself."

They continued toward the house in silence. Suddenly the air was pierced with the sound of happy screeching. "I found it!" Tasha shrieked, barreling into Carina's legs. "I found your broody hen!"

* * *

The days grew shorter and a cold wind came in over the mountains. Poplars exploded into color as the rest of the land turned dull. Late fall and winter were always bleak times in a land that supported green, growing things only reluctantly. The last of the harvest was brought in and the pantry and storage rooms were piled high with goods to last the family and animals through the winter. Carina and Amalia siphoned off a bit of their store and had Will drive it up to the Torres family.

They were surprised and flattered when the family offered to give them another alpaca out of next spring's crias. "You're going to end up with a whole herd at this rate," Amalia told her sister.

Carina settled in for the winter. She no longer went out on random calls, keeping to pre-scheduled appointments or waiting for people to seek her out. She took Will under her wing and began teaching him what she knew about animals. Sometimes Diana rode over and joined in the lessons. The two growing children made a charming pair as they bent their heads over a hen or mixed remedies for worms, mites or thrush. They smelled different liniments and tried to guess the ingredients, and they raced each other to see who could file down a goat's hooves the fastest, bickering genially over whose animal was more docile and whether the winner had an unfair advantage.

Tasha was as busy as she could be helping Amalia can apples and distill herbs. She reveled in the smells and colors of fall, and Amalia learned to trust her around the stove. She was, in spite of her youth, a sensible girl, grateful to have a home and determined to prove herself worthy of its advantages. Sometimes she trotted after Amalia when she went to check the fences and irrigation lines. But as the weather turned colder, she stayed indoors more often, where she could practice her reading, do a bit of mending, or crochet items for market.

Market! The more the autumn dragged on, the more eager Donovan was to get away to town— any town. He had planned to go at the beginning of November, but a last-minute problem with the wagon kept him at home making repairs instead. Often while he was mulching a field or doing maintenance on equipment, he would pause and look up at the glorious November sky and think that if the weather didn't hold or if a jennet got sick and he couldn't make the trip to Higdon after Thanksgiving, he would go mad.

Without being quite sure how it had happened, he had found himself in the role of paterfamilias, and he didn't like it. Even when he was in the Guard and his hours were rarely his own, his spirit had always been free. But something had changed. The monotony of farm chores weighed on him, as did the constant sense that he had to set a good example for the children. It wasn't that he didn't want to live a moral life. It was the necessity of it that burdened him and made him feel like he was being shoved under water, deprived of the air he needed to breathe.

And then there was Amalia. For all that he admired her, he didn't want to be tied down to her. In his frustration, all her virtues became faults. Her intelligence was arrogance. Her high standards were rigidity. Her endless capacity for labor, mannishness. No matter that since his return from Jonasville, she had tried to be more feminine. She dressed for dinner now and always wore a ribbon in her hair, which had grown down to her shoulders since Donovan's first arrival on the farm. She spent more time in the kitchen, where she could turn out remarkable desserts with very little effort. She made a point of asking Donovan's opinion on matters, and even when she ignored his advice, she at least gave all appearance of considering it seriously. Donovan was unmoved. Amalia had become the person who stood in the way of what he desired.

He wanted to speak to Carina, to ask if there weren't some other way, but she had been unapproachable all season. First the veterinary calls, then the lessons for Will and Diana. . . would she ever settle down and be the same woman he used to talk to for hours? They had once had so much in common, and now they were strangers living in the same house. Sometimes he found himself staring at her over the dinner table or from across the living room while the women knitted and the children had their lessons, and he would be so overwhelmed that he had to walk away, lest he give in to the temptation to either kiss her madly or grab her by the shoulders and shake and shake.

As Thanksgiving approached, Donovan found himself anxious, but this time in a good way. Once the holiday was past, he could load the wagon and head for town. He needed to be out on the road, away from the press of responsibility, and these two maddening women. He would make good trades, but he would also drink, steal, gamble and whore until he got it out of his system. Maybe then he would be able to face farm life again. And if he couldn’t, well, he had his papers. He could go to a federal town and blend in with the mourners. He could go to a wild town that was off the federal charts and lie low. He could become an outlaw, or join the Underground and seek adventure. Or he could simply find himself another valley and another farm, one without two attractive widows to ensnare him.

When the problem of what to have for Thanksgiving came up again, his first impulse was to offer to go to market, where surely there would be turkeys for sale. Amalia had different ideas. "Will says he knows a little about quail hunting. Maybe—"

"I don't want to try that again. How about I just go find you a turkey, like last year?"

"What, go steal one from a group of crazy supremacists? We don't need a turkey that bad. You were eager to do quail last year, so I thought. . ."

"Maybe you shouldn't have."

Amalia walked away, hurt and puzzled. Donovan felt so bad that he tracked Will down while he was doing the evening milking.

"I know how to hunt quail. It ain't easy without a dog, but with two of us, I bet we can do it. The trick is to have one person flush them out and watch where they fall, while the other person just concentrates on shooting them."

The day before Thanksgiving, they got up before dawn, loaded up their gear and headed out as the sun was starting to rise. They reached a good spot just as it was becoming light enough to see. Hunting the small birds tried their patience, and they missed several of them as they dropped, but by late afternoon their bags were full and they headed home across the fallow fields.

The women were excited, but although Carina would eat animal flesh, she couldn't bear to clean or dress it, so that task fell to Amalia. After Donovan washed up, and with Amalia still out back cleaning quail with Will, he approached Carina. She was working alone in the kitchen, making a pumpkin pie. He came up behind her and put a hand on the back of her waist.

"Don't," she said, moving away under the pretext of reaching for a bowl.

"You push me away like Catalunia never happened."

"It happened in another reality. This is now."

"We have the power to change it, you know."

"Maybe this is what I want." Carina picked up a wooden spoon and examined it as if it held some special significance. "You're free to change your reality however you want, but you can't change mine."

"I'm not free to do anything. It's fix this, feed that, check the other, and always be a good example to the children."

"It's a little more than you bargained for, isn't it?"

"Yes," he said, relieved that someone had noticed.

"You were never meant for this kind of life. We talk about it sometimes. We understand."


"Me and my sister."

"Your sister doesn't understand anything. She would tie me wrist and ankle to this place if she could."

Carina shook her head. "No she wouldn't." She looked out the window, checking that Amalia wasn't on her way back yet. "She only holds on because she knows she'll have to let you go someday. When the time comes, she won't try to keep you here. She'll probably pretend she doesn't care in the least."

"What will you do? Will you keep pretending you don't care?"

"I don't care," Carina said, turning away.

"You're lying." He put his arms around her and could feel the rapid beating of her heart. "Is there nothing you. . ."

"Please." She pulled away and was silent for a moment. Long enough for Tasha to come bursting in from the bedroom, where she had been looking for a lost ribbon.

"Found it! Will you put it in my hair now?" While Carina bent over the girl's hair, Tasha stared up at Donovan with curious eyes. "Are you helping make dinner?"

"Actually," Carina said, "He was going to go down to storage for me because I'm out of sugar."

* * *

As he went down the steps into the storage room, Donovan thought back to his first days on the farm, when he had been so certain they had a large hoard of valuable goods. It looked like he was finally going to get a chance to find out.

At the foot of the stairs was a battery-powered lantern. He turned it on and held it aloft, his eyes widening in surprise. The room was bigger than he had imagined, and well-organized, with rows and rows of neatly labeled racks and shelves. He found another lamp on a table in the center of the room and he turned it on so he would have more light. Then he looked all around, taking in the tightly spaced wooden vigas overhead, the plastered adobe walls fronted on all sides with utilitarian metal shelving, and the floor of hard-packed earth. It was cold down here, but he scarcely noticed. He was too astounded at what he saw.

There were bolts of cloth and bins of yarn. There were whole boxes of batteries and flints. There were solar panels and lanterns, light bulbs, machine parts and flashlights. There was liquor— lots of it. Not just homemade wine, but hoarded vintages, as well as brandy, whiskey and rum. And this was also where they had stored their parents' old clothes— nice things in suede, silk, leather and velvet. One whole shelf glittered with crystal, china, brass, and tarnished silver and copper. And in a small casket, he found real treasure— gold and diamond rings that must have been their parents' wedding rings, gold chains, silver earrings. There were jewels here, too— earrings and chokers set with glittering stones in green, red and blue. And in another casket was an astonishing hoard of gold and silver coins.

Donovan sat down on a stool, dizzy with shock. These women were rich. What the hell were they doing living like paupers? Of course, some of this wealth had probably been earmarked for setting up the clinic Carina and Miles had once planned. But still. . . had he been stealing for these women for the past year when they were fully capable of buying anything they needed? He was too stunned to know if he was angry, but he suspected he was.

Still reeling, he looked around for the sugar. He couldn't stay down here long or Carina might grow suspicious. He found the sacks of sugar near a shelf of spices and beside an amazing array of canned goods. No wonder the meals around here were so good. He scooped some sugar out of the sack and into the canister Carina had given him. Then he tied the sack tightly and went to the table to turn off the light. For a moment, he cast a look back over at the small chest where he had found the coins. Surely the wouldn't notice if. . . No, what kind of thinking was that? He hurried back up to daylight before he could reconsider. They knew exactly what they had, and they would miss it.

When he returned to the kitchen, he found Amalia stirring the soup for the evening meal and talking idly to Carina as she fluted a pie crust. They both looked at him as he handed over the sugar, but he kept his face blank, as if he'd seen nothing remarkable. "So when's the pie going to be ready?"

"Tonight," Carina said. "But you can't have any until tomorrow.

"Too bad. I'd hoped you want someone to taste it first, make sure it's good."

"We'll just have to take our chances."

He kissed Amalia on the cheek then went to his room to lie down and wait until dinner was ready. He was overwhelmed, his mind on fire with possibilities. He wouldn’t steal from them, of course. They had treated him well. But now that he knew they had resources, he himself had options. He was still pondering the matter when Amalia called him to dinner.

* * *

The next day, after a spartan breakfast of coffee and oat cakes soaked in milk, the women banished Will and Donovan from the kitchen. They spent the rest of the morning and early part of the afternoon chopping, beating, stirring, steaming and baking, and at three o'clock, they sat the family down to a feast. But although the ladies and children enjoyed the meal, Donovan drank glass after glass of wine and brooded.

After dinner, they sipped port in the living room, all of them stuffed and sleepy. The children, who had each been permitted a tiny glass of wine with dinner, dozed off. Amalia rose to put them down for naps, then yawned and murmured something about how she wouldn't mind taking a nap herself, if only it weren't for the dirty dishes and the leftovers. "We can't leave that stuff out."

"I'll do it," Carina offered. She got to her feet and stretched her arms overhead, as sleepy as her sister.

"It's not fair to let you do it alone."

"I'll help," Donovan said.

Carina's eyes narrowed in suspicion, but she went to the kitchen and began pumping water into the sink. She tensed when Donovan came up behind her, but he merely began scraping plates into the scrap bucket and handing them to her. They worked in silence for a long time, washing dishes, putting leftovers into containers and taking the ones that needed to be kept cold to the small root cellar. Carina washed the kettles and utensils that she could, then they took the ones that needed scouring outside to scrub with sand. They were rinsing them at the pump, pouring the dirty water into the drain that led to the gray water tank, when Donovan looked at her.

"You know, I'm leaving for Higdon in a couple days. What do you think Amalia and the children would like me to get them for Christmas?"

Carina rambled for a bit, offering ideas and speculations.

"And what about you? What do you want?"


Donovan wiped his hands on his pants and considered her in the fading light. "I guess I should've known," he said, "That a woman of your resources would want for nothing."

Carina set aside the last of the skillets. "What do you mean by that?"

"Oh, come on, Carina. You think I didn't see what you've got down there in your little hoarding room? You've got some nerve taking payment from some of the poorest people in this valley and letting me and Alvi buy you things, when you're rich."

"No," Carina said, shaking her head. "It's not like that at all."

"Well, that's sure how it looks to me."

"Most of that is what our parents put by for us. It's for drought years, for years when we lose crops to insects or lose stock to disease. It's for hiring hands when we become too old to work. And it was once going to be for our children. It'll be for Will and Tasha now, and any others we might adopt." She met his eyes earnestly. "We're not bad people, Donovan. So what if we hold things back for the future? The best way you can help your neighbors is to not need their help. And I resent what you said about my work. I never charge people who are too poor to pay. I'd do all my work for free, if it were practical."

"Practical? Yes, you're the most practical of women, aren't you? You spend years living in some fantasy world, give false encouragement to a federal spy and sleep with your sister's man. Then you claim it was all just another non-reality and climb back up on your pedestal, like you've got some kind of moral high ground."

"Stop it. You're drunk. You know it's nothing like that."

"Do I? Then why won't you prove to me it wasn't just some game of yours? You're rich. We could leave this place, go away somewhere, set ourselves up with a farm, a house in a town somewhere, or anything you like."

"You're talking crazy. I would never leave my sister."

"Why not? With a hoard like that, she can take care of herself. Besides, she expects you to leave."

Carina's frown was hurt and sincere. "She does?"

"Yes. She thinks when Alvi comes back. . ."

Carina dismissed the notion with a wave of her hand. "Oh, she knows I don't like him that way."

"So run away with me, then. You like me that way. The world may be falling to pieces, but that's what makes it interesting. There are Catalunias all across this country. We can explore every one of them. You can wear pink scarves, we can make love by moonlight in abandoned mansions and we don't have to ever let it end."

Carina grew misty-eyed for a moment, considering the possibilities. But then she wiped her cold hands on her apron. "I've already given you my answer. And when wine has worn off, you'll see this is the only way."

"I'll never agree that this is the way it has to be. But I can be sure to never ask you again." He put a hand on her wrist. "Are you really that loyal to your sister? Do you really want this to be it? Forever?"

"I hate that word, forever. But I can't do it. I just can't."

"You don't mean that." He tried to meet her eyes, but she kept her gaze fixed stubbornly on the ground.

"Yes, I do. Please don't tempt me again. Ever."

Donovan stepped back, suddenly ashamed. She looked on the verge of tears as she stood in the fading light of day, hugging herself in her thin black dress as the wind whipped her skirts. Her collar had come open and the blue necklace glinted at her throat, mocking him. "Okay, then." He walked toward the house, kettles forgotten, not even noticing as she sank down to the ground, pulled her knees in close and began to cry.

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