Friday, December 15, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book Two, Chapter Three

Donovan sat on the striped sofa flipping through a deck of cards by the light of a solar lantern. It was after nine and the electricity had been turned off, but he didn't care. He wasn't used to so much bright light, anyway. With practiced ease, he laid out a game of Klondike. After a few hands he went to the bedroom door. Carina appeared to be sleeping. That was good. He had contemplated giving her one of Amalia's tranquilizing drinks, but Alvi had been so emphatic about the dangers of mixing such a drink with alcohol that he abandoned the idea. Now he had to wait until he was certain she wouldn't hear the sound of the door opening and closing. He needed to be sure she would sleep deeply enough not to wake and wonder where he had gone.

He switched off the lantern, waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, then walked to the balcony. The lights in Alvi's wagon still shone. Didn't it just figure he was an insomniac? Donovan couldn't escape the feeling that the location of their room, right where Alvi could see it, was no accident. He wouldn't approve of Donovan leaving Carina alone, even if she was asleep, but there was no way around it. They were out of money and he was tired of Alvi paying for everything. Where did he get all that money? Spying must be lucrative. There were probably ample opportunities for blackmail.

Donovan sat down again, but he had to leave soon. He had already made a mental map of how he would get to the cab stand without being seen from the campground. If only he could be certain that Carina was really asleep and Alvi wasn't wandering the grounds, looking for people to pump for interesting information. Donovan stretched out on the sofa and closed his eyes.

Suddenly he sat up. How long had it been? He hurried to the window and glanced toward the gypsy wagon. No change. Back to the bedroom. No change there, either. He wished he knew what time it was, but he sensed he couldn't wait much longer. He patted his pockets to make sure he had the last of his money on him, then he checked his papers. All was in order.

He slipped out the door and down the hallway to a staircase at the far end of the building. At the ground level, he shut the door softly behind him and looked around. He was standing in a bare dirt field with a long row of stables in the distance at the end a dirt path. That was where their animals were, if he wanted to get one. But no, it was easier to hire, even if it meant spending money. The driver would know where to take him, and maybe he could talk the boy into giving him the "special" rate.

He walked around the far side of the building, making a long circuit before coming up behind the last cab in the queue. He knew he couldn't ask this boy to take him anywhere because they went out strictly in the order they had arrived, but that didn't mean he couldn't catch the next driver before he pulled in. When he saw an impossibly young Hispano boy come around the corner driving a bay hitched to a two-wheeled gig of old auto parts, he ran over. "Where can I find a poker game, son?"

The boy yanked on the reins. "You looking for directions or you looking for a ride?"

"I was kind of hoping you'd take me. That is, unless you’re looking forward to waiting in the dispatch line tonight."

The boy looked at the line of hacks and rickshaws waiting for customers. "I don't make no money sitting in line."

"And I don't win money standing here talking." Donovan reached for the door. "Have we got a deal?"

"Claro. I know just the place."

* * *

The sun was straining the sky pink when Donovan stumbled in the door, reeling with drink and exhaustion. He was hungry, rumpled and dirty, but his pockets were heavy. He leaned against the door and murmured a prayer of thanks to his personal gambling deities. As an afterthought, he added a silent, fervent hope that Carina hadn't noticed his absence. Moving slowly so his pockets wouldn't jingle, he peeked inside the bedroom door. She lay with her back to him, seemingly asleep, but as he tried to think how he could get undressed and climb into bed without waking her, she rolled over and opened her eyes. From the cool way she appraised him, it was obvious she had been awake for awhile.

"Where have you been?"


"I can't believe you'd go carousing when—"

"No, Carina. It wasn't like that."

She sat up and pulled the folds of the blanket around her. "What else is one to think when a man stays out all night?"

"I had things to do."

"In the middle of the night in a strange town?" She reached for the new black dressing robe lying across the chair by her bed. "That sounds like whores, cards and drinking to me."

"Not whores," Donovan assured her. "Absolutely not whores."

"So just cards and drinking."

"Yes." When she still looked unconvinced, he sat on his unused bed. "We were out of money. I had to get us some more."

"By playing cards."

"You know that's how I get my money."

"I thought you just stole."

"Thanks a lot."

"So you don't steal?"

"Not always. Okay, I picked a couple pockets, too. But most of the money I won."

"Won honestly?"


Carina stalked into the bathroom where she splashed some water on her face, then she went back into the bedroom and dug in her bag for the makeup Amalia had insisted on packing. "Did Alvi go with you?"

"No. Don’t say anything to him, because he'll want to know why I didn't ask him to stay with you."

She examined her makeup kit as if rouging her cheeks and applying mascara was an overwhelming chore. "How did we manage to run out of money already, with Alvi paying for so much?"

"I don't think you realize how expensive those clothes were. And then there's this room and quartering the animals. . .yes, Alvi has been helping, but I don't feel comfortable with the way he tries to buy everything.”

"Why not?"

"A man has his pride." Donovan went into the bathroom to wash up. The cold water felt good on his face, but he would need hot water for shaving. Maybe there was someplace he could go for a shave before they had to be at the base. He should've asked Alvi about that. Maybe one of the vendors he had seen setting up coffee by the cab stand would know. "I'm going downstairs. Do you want anything?"

Carina looked up from toying with a lipstick. "No. I'll make us some coffee, though."

"I'll buy us some."

"I thought money was a problem."

Exasperated, Donovan began pulling things out of his pockets and laying them on the bed in front of her: gold, silver, federal bills and coins, ration books, and a man's gold ring. "I can afford to buy you a cup of coffee, Carina."

She sucked in her breath. "This is so wrong. Why do you do it?"

"How else am I supposed to get money? Should I have hauled my share of this year's crops to town and tried to sell them? I couldn't have done it even if I wanted to. They don't need our stuff. They've got the ranches and the train."

"But we've got other resources. I'm going to get a settlement today. It won't be much, and it'll be in federal scrip, but. . ."

"That's your money."

"I can pay you back for the clothes, at least."

"Some of that came from your money anyway, or don't you remember? No, I guess you don't. You weren’t paying much attention when Amalia and I tried to figure out what we would need for this trip." Donovan gathered his money. "But I wouldn't let you pay, anyway. Sometimes a man likes to buy things for a pretty woman."

Carina peeked into her compact mirror. "I'm not pretty this morning."

"You are to me." He said the words without thinking, and their eyes met. Donovan looked away first. He grabbed a handful of federal coins and shoved them in his pocket. "I'm going to get some breakfast." He had his hand on the door when Carina called his name.

"If you still want to buy me a cup of coffee," she said, "I’d like that very much."

* * *

Alvi showed up at eight o'clock, fresh and dapper in a black double-breasted suit. He wore a black felt fedora with a black and gray speckled feather in the band, and the collar of his matte silk shirt was closed with the latest fashion— a gold button imprinted with the picture of an animal, in this case a jaguar. Donovan felt unstylish by comparison in the handed-down suit he had worn to Mass the previous Christmas. He wished it had occurred to him to do a little shopping of his own while Carina was trying on dresses, but there was nothing he could do about it now. At least he'd gotten a good shave from one of the street vendors, and had the boy trim his hair while he was at it. Donovan was exhausted and he knew it must show around his eyes, but at least he didn't look unkempt.

Carina was still getting ready, so he motioned Alvi to a seat.

"Thank you. You look like you hardly slept last night."

By now Donovan had figured out some of the nuances of Alvi's speech and behavior. This was his way of saying he knew. "I didn't."

If Alvi was disappointed that they wouldn’t be debating this point, he gave no sign. "I don't sleep so well myself. Sometimes it gets so bad I have to go for a walk to clear my head."

"Do you?" Damn him.

"I especially like that part of the morning just before the sun comes up, when the people who have been up all night are coming home and the ones who turned in early like good children are starting their day. It's very interesting, like watching the changing of the guard."

"I bet it is."

Alvi fell silent for a moment, then looked Donovan in the eye. "I ran into an old acquaintance this morning. He lost a lot of money in a poker game last night; a game where he had reason to believe someone was cheating. Too bad. He has a sick child at home."

"Yes, too bad. One would think a man with those kinds of responsibilities would be more careful."

"You would think, wouldn't you?"

"Yes," Donovan said. "I would."

Alvi stretched out his hands and examined his nails. For all his ready cash and fancy suit, his hands remained those of a working man, calloused and patched with deep-set grime. "It was a very odd evening at the establishment my friend went to. It seems a few wallets went missing."

Donovan shrugged. "It happens."

The men locked gazes, each waiting to see if the other would come right out with it. Finally Alvi said, "If I ever hear of you cheating or stealing from my friends again—"

"How am I to know who are your friends? Will they be wearing special signs?"

"They are all my friends in this town."

"All of them?"

"All of them." Alvi took a breath. "You know, those papers I got for you. . ."

Donovan scowled. "How much do you want?"

Alvi sat up, genuinely surprised. "I don't want any of your stolen goods." Reading the disbelief on the younger man's face he went on. "I only want for you to take your game elsewhere. What you do in Macrina or some other town is your business, but we have our ways here and don't need any of yours." Before Donovan could sputter a reply he added, "Did you ever think of her?" He waved in the direction of the closed bedroom door. "If you'd been caught, what was she supposed to do? I can't take her home. I’m committed to a circuit going the other way. I’ve stayed too long in town as it is. My movements only look free. I’m caught up in this game as much as anyone."

“Quit, like I did.”

“And be a fugitive?” He chuckled. "Thank you, no. What I do has its perks. But for every man I’ve got goods on, there’s someone else with goods on me. If you’d been caught last night, it’s Carina who would’ve suffered. She would've been stranded here. Most likely, she would've tried to make it home on her own and anything could've happened without someone to protect her."

Donovan felt his face grow hot. He hadn't thought about the danger to Carina.

"You were selfish."

"No. We were nearly out of money and there are things we need before we go home."

"I would've bought them for you. What do you want?"

"A gift for Amalia, and a few things for the children because they're growing so fast. And some proper dye so if Carina keeps insisting on wearing black, she can make some of her own things from the wool we trade for in the valley." He frowned. "I don't want you to pay for it. I can do it myself."

"Feeling the weight of being head of the household, are you?"

Donovan's eyebrows went up. "That's not how I would've put it. But now that there’s no one coming home, they have no one but me to look out for them."

"They can look out for themselves."

"Women shouldn't have to."

The peddler smiled. "Maybe you haven’t noticed, but Amalia and Carina are the last of an obsolete breed; women raised to neither need nor want a male protector. Oh, they like being fussed over, as who doesn't? It’s fun for them to have a man like you around for decoration, but they don’t need you."

Donovan bristled at the suggestion he was merely decorative. "There’s a lot of work to be done on that farm; the kind of work that only a man should be doing. You've seen the condition Carina is in. You can't say she doesn't need someone."

"Someone, yes. A friend, absolutely, but a man, specifically? No. If you hadn't been there, Amalia would've brought her to town and it would've worked out fine."

Although he knew Alvi was right, Donovan didn't want to hear it. "This is an interesting conversation, but the reality is that I was there and I'm looking out for her. For both of them. The children too, damn it. If that means I have to steal in order to give them what they need, that's what I'll do."

Alvi stood and stretched his arms overhead. "Life is tough when you've got to be the alpha male."

Donovan wasn't sure what that meant, but had a vague feeling he should be insulted.

"You know," Alvi went on, "There's a reason why in countries where a man is allowed more than one wife, he often doesn't bother. It's because the headache and responsibility—"

The door to the bedroom opened. Carina looked from one man to the other in bewilderment as the conversation suddenly stopped. "I’m sorry I interrupted your private chat."

Alvi walked over to her. "Carina, angel, you are the prettiest of war widows and I must give you a kiss." He pressed his lips against hers just a little too long to be platonic, then stepped back to get a better look at her. "The dress is lovely, my dear. Turn around, let me see. Margaret did a wonderful job. I will send her flowers as a token of our appreciation." He took her arm, preempting any attempt by Donovan to get close. "Do you have everything you need?"

"I think so." Carina scanned his face in bewilderment.

"Good." He steered her toward the door, not bothering to see if Donovan was following. "Let's get this travesty over with."

* * *

“Travesty” was the right word for it. They were taken to a room where little flags were pinned to their lapels and they were coached on how the ceremony would proceed, and then they were led to an outdoor chapel where the flag-draped coffin had already been placed and a group of soldiers stood waiting for the function to begin.

It was in essence a military funeral, originally conceived as a substitute for the graveside services that the government could no longer afford, since there weren’t enough soldiers to travel to all the towns where they were required. The passage of years had elaborated and stylized the service into a masterpiece of scripted ritual, part military, part religious, part something else entirely. There were times to sit, times to stand, times to kneel. There were words that must be spoken on cue and songs that must be sung with just the right air of pathos. Flags unfurled, bells rang, soldiers saluted and fired blanks into the air. Men who had never known the deceased spoke well-rehearsed lines about the unique qualities of the dearly departed and expounded on what a terrible loss to the country was his valorous and untimely demise.

Finally a man with medals covering his chest pinned a special Widow’s Medal on Carina while a trio of effeminate young soldiers sang of the beauty of honor, country and sacrifice. Carina closed her eyes, bit her lower lip, and with every fiber of her being forced down the urge to scream. With a supreme effort of will, she accepted the box containing Miles' effects and the folded flag from his coffin. She ducked her head and curtsied as she had been coached, and the soldiers saluted her.

Then it was over and she was deposited at a counter in a stark gray office. A teenage girl in uniform wandered over. “Name?”

“Carina Cunningham.”

The girl pulled a folder from several that were lined up on her desk. She opened it, flipped through a few papers and looked up. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said, in a manner that suggested she recited the phrase dozens of times a day. She reached into a file drawer, rifled through some papers and pulled out an envelope. After checking that the name on the outside matched the name on the file, she handed it to Carina and pushed a pen and sheet of paper toward her. “Sign and date by your name, indicating you received your settlement.”

Carina did as she was told, the muscles in her jaw working.

“When can we expect pickup?”

“What?” Carina looked at Alvi and Donovan for guidance. “I guess tomorrow morning.”

The men had held back out of respect, but now they hurried over. “How early can I come by?” Donovan asked.

“We open Building 32 for pickups at 0500.”

Donovan put an arm around Carina’s shoulders. “Will you be ready to leave in the morning?”

She nodded. “I’ve got to get out of here.”

“I’ll be here at five o’clock, then,” he told the girl behind the counter.

“Great. I'll get you a claim slip.”

This last was too much for Carina. She turned to leave, blundering into Alvi who pulled her close and whispered something in her ear. “I’m going to take her outside," he told Donovan. “We’ll meet you out there.”

While the girl pounded the keys of a typewriter, Donovan debated asking if this process was always so insensitive, but what would be the point? He had been in the military. Maybe there had been genuine compassion once, back in the early days of the resource wars, but a whole generation had grown up since then. People no longer expected mercy.

The girl shoved a colored piece of paper at him, the words, “Captain Miles Cunningham” and the date and time of pickup neatly typed. Then she handed him a crude printed map with Building 32 circled. “Go to the east entrance. Show them your ID and your ticket and they’ll let you in. Take the first left and you’ll see it straight ahead, can’t miss it. There’ll be people there to load the coffin for you, if you need assistance.”

“Thank you.” If they were checking ID that meant Carina would have to go. He wondered if there was any other way. Maybe Alvi. . .

“Will there be anything else?”

Only that Carina be strong for this one last thing. “No. You’ve done enough.”

* * *

That afternoon Donovan tried to get Carina to go with him to town to help him buy some things for the family, but she was agitated and begged to be allowed to hole up in their motel room and rest. "I'm not up for dealing with people right now," she said. He went to the shopping district alone.

It was a busy place, not unlike Macrina in its combination of shops and street vendors, but here no one pretended to be poor. The feds were diligent about both tax collection and crime control, so a show of poverty would have been useless. Due to the moderate wave of prosperity brought by the railroad, everyone with something to sell wanted to stand out. The result was several blocks of shiny windows, freshly painted signs and inviting displays. License certificate ribbons and patriotic flags fluttered from the street vendors' stalls, criers stood on corners hawking news, passing out advertisements and directing people to specialty stores. It seemed there wasn’t a shop window that didn't feature flags, eagles and slogans in big letters and bright colors. Everything was quite brazenly for sale and Donovan was dazzled.

He found a shop that specialized in children's clothing and selected a few ready-made items for Will and Tasha. He went to a general dry goods store that offered free deliveries, and from a list he had memorized for Amalia, ordered cloth, needles, thread, ribbon, buttons, and dye. On impulse, still thinking enviously of Alvi's smart turnout that morning, he went into a haberdasher's and tried a few things on. He agonized over the price, but paid anyway, then went back out to the street and mingled with the crowds until he found a pocket to pick. It wasn't much, but it would help. He bought some tacos from a street vendor and sat down in a park to eat them, watching the people go by.

He marveled that since coming to town, no one had challenged him about his draft status. The leg brace and being in the company of Alvi no doubt helped. But now that he was alone in broad daylight, he couldn’t help noticing a few puzzled glances as he went about his business. Still, they let him be. Maybe it was the black suit he was still wearing from the morning's service. Mourners were common here. People retrieving their dead were a big part of the local economy. Funny how it hadn't occurred to him before that this would be a perfect cover for a man like him. Who would expect to find a deserter brazenly walking the streets of a federal town, and who would dare harass a crippled man in mourning?

With these thoughts, he found a cheaper clothing store than the haberdasher's and bought himself some black pants, a couple of dark shirts and a black jacket and hat. Then he picked another pocket, a better one this time, and was ready to finish his shopping.

He went inside the best ready-made ladies' store he could find and bought Amalia some pants and shirts for farm work, a skirt she could wear with either one of the shirts and a lilac dress trimmed in black that would be appropriate for Miles' funeral. He had to pay to have the items delivered to the hotel, but that was okay.

His final stop was a bakery that also sold confections. Here he bought big boxes of chocolate for Amalia and Carina, and smaller boxes for the children. Remembering the way the dessert the night before had sparked Carina's appetite, he also bought a dozen brownies, and when the baker threw in an extra one free, he fished it out and ate it as he wandered the streets, trying to remember which was the quickest way toward the cab stand.

Suddenly something in a display window caught his eye. He stepped around a woman cajoling her cranky toddler and took a closer look. It was a deceptively simple necklace— merely a few blue beads strung on a collar-length silver chain. But the beads! Donovan had never seen anything so intensely blue before. The one in the center was like a teardrop flanked by smaller round stones which decreased in size on either side until they became the same size as the tiny links of the chain itself. Although the gems weren't faceted, they had been polished until they seemed to glow with an inner light, impossibly beautiful, impossibly blue. He reached a hand in his pocket. He still had one gold piece, a couple of silvers, a federal bill and a few federal coins. In Macrina, that would get him a long way, but money didn't buy as much in Jonasville. Well, it never hurt to ask.

* * *

It took two hours for him to drum up the cash he needed. Long enough get nervous that the chocolates in his bag might melt. Long enough to worry his luck wouldn't hold and he'd get caught. Finally he hit the jackpot when he found an old man dozing in a church pew. Who would be on the lookout for a pickpocket in church?

In short order the blue necklace was his. He even had enough money left over to find a store that sold scotch whiskey. He hired a bicycle rickshaw and went back to the motel, exhausted and only now remembering that he hadn't slept the night before. Well, it had been worth it.

When he got back to the motel, he found that most of his purchases had already been delivered and were piled on the sofa. He wondered if the delivery boys had disturbed Carina, or if someone from the front office had let them in. Not that it mattered much, but he had hoped Carina would have a few hours to herself.

He set the bags from the confectioner's on the coffee table and started toward the bedroom with a mind toward taking a nap before they had to meet Alvi for dinner, but a low murmur of voices from the other side of the door stopped him. He strained his ears, trying to make out actual words, then put his hand on the doorknob and walked in.

Carina sat on the edge of her bed, clenching a fold of her skirt so tightly that her knuckles were white. Alvi was leaning over her, speaking words so low, fast, and intense that even with the door open, Donovan couldn't make them out. On the bed was a polished wooden box trimmed in silver, closed with a key, and on the floor was the collapsed remnant of the cardboard box she had been given at the ceremony that morning. Donovan’s first thought was that Carina had become distraught over the keepsake box Alvi had brought her, but by the way the peddler's eyes flashed as he stood up straight, it was clear that something more was going on. "Friend Donovan," he said in a voice as cool and smooth as a knife blade, "It would be nice if you knocked before opening doors."

Donovan walked into the room and met his gaze. "Why would I knock before entering my own room?"

"I'd hardly call it yours since you have yet to sleep in it. Besides, I was thinking of Carina. There are certain courtesies—"

"Hush, Alvi," Carina said, just barely above a whisper. "It doesn't matter."

Alvi rearranged his features into a smile. "Well, then. If it doesn't matter to the lady, it doesn't matter to me." He made a show of looking at his watch. "It's almost dinnertime anyway, so this was good timing."

"I'm not hungry."

"We're not starting that again are we, love? We will have an early dinner at a less pretentious place tonight, since we have to be on the road early in the morning." Then to Donovan, "I told her I would take your wagon to collect her dear husband in the morning. They won't look at my ID. Not that I care if they do."

Donovan wanted to protest but recognized the wisdom of this plan. "I’ll have the wagon ready. Carina and I can follow with your wagon if you like, so we can all get on the road immediately after."

"It sounds like we are in agreement." He turned to Carina. "If this lovely lady will do us the honor, we will go get something to eat. And then," he looked at Donovan, "We will all turn in early. This will be a good night to rest and not be out late, don’t you agree?"

* * *

Carina sat nervous and silent throughout dinner at the little taqueria up the block from their motel. She nibbled a quesadilla but spent most of her time rearranging the beans on her plate and pretending not to notice the tension running just below the surface as Alvi and Donovan discussed the food, the town and whether the fine weather would hold. “On base they are saying a cold front is on its way and to expect storms,” Alvi said.

“Are their reports usually accurate?”

“Yes, unfortunately, and I’m afraid I have no choice but to head out in the morning. I’m behind schedule.”

Carina looked up. “Why would a peddler be on a schedule?”

“All of life is a schedule, my sweet, but I recommend you wait until the storm passes before trying to go home.”

“If you can travel through it, so can we. I hate this place. Being isolated in the country is better than being surrounded by the phonies and poseurs here.”

“I have more experience traveling in bad weather than you have, and your route is directly in the path of the storm.” He shrugged. “But the front is still a few days out. Things might change. If you make good time, perhaps you’ll be home before it arrives.”

“We should have no problems,” Donovan said. “We cleared some of the roads of hazards on our way up, and the animals are rested.”

“I’ll try not to worry, then.” Alvi motioned to the waitress and ordered flan for everyone. “I shouldn’t be ordering dessert for a girl who hasn’t eaten her supper, but I’m afraid I can’t resist.”

Carina looked away. “I don’t want it, Alvi.” But once the custard was in front of her, she made short work of it.

After dinner Alvi walked them to their motel room, but left almost immediately, claiming to have a lot of packing to do. Donovan couldn’t imagine what kind of packing a man had to do when he took his home with him, but he was glad to be rid of him. Carina seemed glad to see him go, too. “I like him,” she confessed as she collapsed into a chair. “But he tires me sometimes.”

“He’s a very intense person,” Donovan said diplomatically.

“Yes.” She gazed at nothing, pondering. “Thank you for putting up with all of this. I’ve been a lot of trouble.”

“You’ve been no trouble at all.” Donovan wandered over to his packages and pulled out the bottle of scotch.

Carina sat up. “Can I have some?”

“After last night?”

She ducked her head. “I’m sorry. Just a little to help me sleep.”

There were no glasses in the room, only earthenware mugs, but Donovan poured a generous amount for her, and then some for himself. He looked at all the packages that would have to go into the wagon and suddenly felt weary to the bone. Maybe it wouldn’t take long to get everything staged by the door. He could hire someone to pack the wagon in the morning. There would enough to do once they were on the road. No point making things harder than they had to be.

“You shouldn’t lie to me,” Carina said, startling him out of his reverie.

“What are you talking about?”

“You. Saying I’m no trouble. I’ve been nothing but trouble.”

“It’s not your fault.”

She frowned and sipped her drink. “It's not all my fault, but enough of it is. Still, you shouldn’t lie. Alvi lies. I’m not sure why, but he does. It depresses me to only get more lies from you. I count on you to tell me the truth when he won’t.”

“What does Alvi lie to you about?”

“You tell me.”

Too late, he saw the little trap she had sprung. Well, it wasn’t like he had been sworn to secrecy. “Alvi has to lie. He’s an informer.”

Carina nodded, as if he were confirming what she had already suspected. “I should’ve realized long ago.”

“I don’t think there’s any malice in it,” Donovan said, surprised to find himself taking up for him. “He gives a lot of disinformation. He’s even helped people escape to the Underground.”

“So he plays both ends against the middle. Nice.”

“Whatever his faults, his feelings for you and Amalia are sincere.” He thought back to Alvi’s remarks while they were sitting in Margaret’s waiting room. “He'd do anything for you.”

“Except take no for an answer.” Carina tossed back the rest of her scotch and stood up. “I’m going to pack my things and get ready for bed. Thanks for the drink.”

After she left, Donovan stacked and staged his purchases near the door, then poured himself another drink and went into the bedroom. He found Carina in her new nightgown, thankfully white, not black, standing in front of her empty luggage. Clothes and other items were spread across the bed in disarray and there was an expression of utter confusion on her face. “Do you need help?” he asked.

“No, it’s just. . .” She shook her head and smiled at her own folly. “How hard can this be, right?” She began picking things up and stuffing them into a bag with abandon. “It just seems so hard to get started on anything. I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong, and then I won’t have another chance. It's like every decision is irrevocable.”

“I don’t think how you pack is going to make much of a difference on the rest of your life,” he said. “But if you don’t leave out something to wear tomorrow, you’re going to find yourself irrevocably having to unpack again.”

Carina looked at her bag with a start, then sat on the bed and ran her fingers through her hair. “I don’t know why you put up with me. I feel like I’ve totally lost my mind.”

“Lost your illusions, more like.”

“I guess I had a lot of them to lose.” She looked up and searched his face earnestly. “Isn’t anything as it seems?”

“I’ve never thought so.”

“I liked my illusions.”

Donovan fumbled in his pocket, pulled out a blue velvet box and handed it to her.

The necklace seemed to glow with an inner light in its nest of white satin. Carina’s breath caught and she looked up at Donovan in confusion. “This must’ve cost a fortune.”

“Not really.”

She rose to her feet. “You didn’t steal it, did you?”


“But you probably stole to pay for it.” She hesitated, as if she would give it back. “I can’t wear blue any more. I already made up my mind about that.”

Donovan took the necklace out of her hands and held it up so she could see the full effect of the light shining through the gems, then he clasped it around her neck. “Of course you can wear it. It’s the color of your illusions.”

She reached a hand to her collarbone and touched the cool stones. Without meaning to, she smiled. When she looked at Donovan again, a little of the old warmth and humor lit her eyes. “I guess there’s no harm,” she said, “In wearing a reminder of how foolish I can be.”

* * *

Donovan stood outside the motel in the pre-dawn darkness, directing the two boys who were loading their things into the wagon. It wasn't hard work, but leaving space for the coffin was a tricky matter. The load would have to be re-packed at the base no matter what they did. It was either that or take the wagon empty and come back for their things afterward. At least this way saved time.

Carina came out of the motel, her last bag slung over her shoulder. She was wearing new black pants and boots, which made her look more capable and less delicate than she had seemed in her fluttering skirts. The clothes must have imparted some confidence, because she held her head up and moved with a measure of her old style, not particularly graceful, but direct and sure like one of her goats. She approached the side of the wagon and looked in, then she handed one of the boys her bag. "This goes behind the seat," she said.

"Yes, ma'am." The boy moved some boxes and packages around.

"Is that everything?" Donovan asked.

"Yes. I even looked under the bed, just in case. But if you have time, you might want to take a look, just to be sure. I’m still not in my right mind, you know."

"Actually, I was thinking you look like you're feeling better today."

Her gaze wandered to the keepsake box that the boys were loading into the wagon. "I slept a little better last night. Do you think it's time to get Alvi?"

"Yes, we're almost finished."

Carina walked to the campground. Alvi's wagon was in its same spot, but the donkeys Caudillo and Patrón were in their traces, worrying their bits and tossing their heads. Although she didn't feel the familiar surge of affection that she usually got when she saw an animal, Carina forced herself to rub their ears and noses. Now that the initial knife edge of grief was receding, she could remember some of Amalia's words and appreciate their wisdom. If she went through the motions long enough, the feelings would eventually come back, too. She patted her old friends and although she lacked the heart to coo and talk nonsense to them, she found herself smiling into their wise brown eyes. "I bet you know all his secrets."

She went around to the door and knocked. It opened at once, as if Alvi had known she was there and was waiting. He was dressed in the colorful gypsy outfit that Carina now recognized for a disguise. Nonetheless, it was a style that suited him. In the warm glow of an oil lamp he looked dashing and full of happy energy. "Good morning, my lovely," he said, reaching down a hand and guiding her over the threshold. "Come in and sit down. I was just finishing packing."

Carina looked around doubtfully. There were no wares or personal effects to be seen, so she couldn't imagine what kind of packing there was to be done. But as she sat on the edge of a wicker chest, he moved about tightening the many ties and straps that kept items hanging on his walls or lying flat on top of shelves and chests as the wagon bounced along the country roads. "I don't think I've ever seen what all you do back here," she remarked.

"That's because it's so dull, darling. I would never bore you with such matters if it could be helped."

Carina fell silent, looking at her hands. "About yesterday. . ."

Alvi stopped what he was doing. "Miss Carina, let us both forget what I said yesterday. It was too soon. I was out of line and I apologize."

"No," Carina said, shaking her head. "I mean, yes, it was too soon. But I was flattered. You're so sweet."

"Sweet." Alvi spat the word and returned to his work. "I live to be 'sweet.’"

"I'm sorry. That was the wrong word."

"Yes, it was."

"Well, what I meant was—"

Alvi looked at her again. "I know what you meant. You were quite clear. I was not listening, and that was wrong of me."

"This isn't about right or wrong."

"Isn't it? Good. That puts my mind at ease." He saw his jacket hanging from a peg and put it on. "Shall we go? I don't want to get a late start on my journey, and I'm sure you don't, either."

Carina got to her feet. "Yes, I suppose it's time. But Alvi, I don't want us to part like this. I don't like how it's suddenly all different."

The man's features softened. "Nothing is different between us. You can reject me a hundred times and I will still be your friend." He put a hand against her cheek and she closed her eyes and leaned into it with the instinctual move of a cat. He was about to speak when he saw the necklace.

Carina sensed his sudden shift in mood and opened her eyes. "What is it?"

"That's a very lovely necklace you're wearing." Alvi said quietly. "I don't think I've ever seen it before. Is it new?"

She reached a hand toward her collar. "Yes." Then she dropped her eyes. "Donovan gave it to me."

All Alvi said was, "How nice of him," but Carina sensed the sudden change that went far beyond anything that had been said before. Her racing mind thought of all the explanations she could bring to bear on the matter. How dare he think there was anything more to it than just another one of Donovan's youthful, impulsive gestures? But she sensed too, that anything she said would only make things worse. She pulled her collar up close around her neck and turned toward the door. "We should go. Caudillo and Patrón were looking impatient."

Alvi latched the door, followed her down the steps, then folded the stairs out of the way and locked them for travel. "They should know better than to be impatient," Alvi said to no one in particular. "I've told them again and again. Too much hurry is never a good thing. It takes patience to get what you want."

* * *

Donovan was waiting when Alvi and Carina arrived in the gypsy cart. Alvi pulled up behind him, set the brake and jumped down. "I'll try to make this fast," he assured her. Then he climbed up into the driver's seat of Donovan's cart with an easy, graceful movement and picked up the reins. Donovan fished around in his jacket pocket and handed Alvi the claim ticket. Then to the older man's surprise, he didn't leave. "I thought you were going to wait with Miss Carina."

"No," Donovan said. "I changed my mind. I want to make sure the wagon gets packed correctly. Besides, this is supposed to be my responsibility."

"You are either very brave or very foolish," Alvi chided.

Donovan gestured at his clothes. He was wearing his new black and gray. "I'm a mourner in a town that's full of them. I'm a certified 4-F and wear a brace. I hardly rate a second look."

"But you are afraid to show ID."

"So are you saying you can't get me past the guard?"

Alvi drew a long breath. "Of course I can get you in." He clucked to the team and slapped the reins against their backs. The animals pulled against the traces and the wagon jerked forward.

At the gate, two privates saluted smartly and one grinned. "Morning, Alvi. You bringing us a load of hooch?"

"Don't you wish, Private Wilson!" He showed the claim slip. "I'm afraid my errand is a little less cheerful today."

Wilson glanced at the ticket. "Sorry to see that. Was he kin to you?"

"After a fashion. Do you need to inspect our wagon?"

"For you?" He offered a sly smile. "Not unless there's a chance you got something good back there. We just got paid, you know. Your deals are better than what we can get in town."

"No, I'm afraid I don't have anything today, but I'm leaving this morning to make some trades. I'll be back in a few months, and we'll do business then."

"Looking forward to it."

"And so am I, friend." Alvi started the team again and was through the gate before the soldier had a chance to think about asking for Donovan's ID.

"That was easy," Donovan said.

"Easier than I expected," Alvi admitted. "That's the problem with taking them young like that. They rarely have the cunning of a more experienced man and don't recognize a trick when they see it. It's no wonder we're losing the wars."

Donovan thought back to his own escape more than a year ago. "I'd still be with my unit if it wasn't for naïve young recruits."

"So which road are you taking to Valle Redondo?"

"The way we came. Trés Ladrones. Catalunia."

"A lonely road," Alvi said. "There's very little out there. Not much help if something goes wrong."

"Safe from feds though," Donovan reminded him. "And too far from anything worth stealing to be attractive to raiders."

"There is some truth to that. Do you travel armed?"

"I got my shotgun back this morning."

"They are usually pretty good about returning hunting weapons. People have to eat. Hungry people only cause trouble." They were passing a few storage buildings, with Building 32 straight ahead. "Did you find some nice gifts for your Amalia when you went shopping yesterday?"

"A few things.”

"And what are your plans for after you get home?"

"Plans? I don't know. Help finish the harvest, I guess. Try to do a little trading in town before the holidays."

"Ah, yes. Christmas presents. It's fun to buy pretty things for children and ladies, isn't it?"

"I suppose. It’s a lot more fun than plowing and stringing chile peppers."

"That it is," Alvi agreed. "A word of caution, friend. We have talked about my unadvertised business, and you know I sometimes hear important things." He frowned in concern. "I continue to hear of plans to clean up Macrina. The town is growing prosperous and the feds want their cut. They also suspect there are young men of draft age there. It's been a long time since they've recruited in that area."

"That's what I heard."

"If I were you," Alvi said, his voice low and sincere. "I would make my trades in Higdon for a little while."

"Higdon?" Donovan looked at him skeptically. "I hear they're disorganized and unsafe."

"Unsafe for a lady. Unsafe for an old man like Peterson. But not unsafe for a young and clever man like yourself. Should you fail to take my advice and find yourself in Macrina on the day of a raid, I can't guarantee that your papers will be much use. They might help, they might not. A large unit with full cross-checking capability would see through it in a minute."

"I see your point. I don't suppose you know when Higdon's market days are?"

"It’s my job to know everyone's market days. Higdon is usually the second week of every month. But each year they have a special market period starting the first of December. It is usually quite good. There is a wagon trace that goes from Higdon directly down to Mexico, which makes their Christmas market very unique."

"I'll keep that in mind.”

"I hope so, friend. It would be a terrible tragedy for the ladies to lose you simply because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, don't you agree?"

Before Donovan could answer, they found themselves pulling into a long drive that extended across a series of bays across the front of Building 32. Alvi handed his claim ticket to a corporal and was directed to a bay at the end of the row. As they pulled up, some young recruits brought out a plain wooden coffin while two others began recklessly moving the goods in the wagon aside. Donovan jumped down to direct them and for a few minutes everything was confusion. Finally they got the coffin in, strapped it down and began re-packing everything else around it.

"Be sure they tie the tarp down well," Alvi advised. "They say the front is still a few days away, but things could be moving faster than they predict and it's hard to see a change with the mountains in the way." He frowned at the sky and called the corporal over. "Any chance we can get a plastic tarp?"

"No, sir. Regulations."

Alvi fumbled in a pocket and slipped a coin into the young man's hand. "We will be traveling a long way. It would be a shame if one of our war heroes were exposed to the elements on his final journey home, don't you think?"

The corporal stole a glance at the coin and slipped it into a pocket. "Yes, sir, it would." He walked away and returned a few minutes later with a brown plastic sheet. He handed it to the recruits and had them tie it on top of the canvas tarp.

When the men were finished, they stepped back and saluted. Donovan climbed onto the box, Alvi clucked at the jennies and they were on their way.

They passed through the base in silence and were almost at the gate when Alvi said, "You will make certain Miss Carina gets home safely.”

Donovan looked at him, startled. "Of course. What kind of question is that?"

"It isn't a question. I only wish I didn't have this other commitment."

"I can look out for her."

"I don't worry for her physical safety," Alvi said. "I worry for her feelings. She is fragile right now and could do something rash."

"I don't see her setting things on fire again," Donovan said, not getting his point."

"That isn't quite what I meant." Alvi flashed Donovan a look that was completely lost on him. "I don't want her putting her hopes in the wrong places."

"Oh, she won't do that."

"Really?" They pulled through the gate with a smile and wave to the guard. Up ahead, parked beside the curb, was the red gypsy cart. Carina was on the ground, looking like an undernourished child as she rubbed Patrón's nose. She glanced up as they approached and opened her mouth as if she would speak, but changed her mind. Alvi pulled the team to a stop, jumped down and walked over to her. "That didn't take so long, did it?"

Carina shook her head. "I suppose not."

He took her hands in his and started to say something else, then pulled her close instead. In her ear he whispered, "Do nothing foolish, dear. Have a safe trip home. I will visit you in the spring."

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