The trading party consisted of Grandpa Peterson, his widowed daughter Melinda Nuñez, Melinda's ten year old daughter Diana, and a one-eyed former Marine who everyone called Gonzales. They headed west across the valley toward the foothills, traveling an old asphalt road now covered in hard-packed earth from years of blowing dust. Everyone was polite to Donovan the first day, but not particularly warm. He tried to pretend it didn't bother him, but on the second evening he tagged after Amalia when she went to collect kindling for the fire. "Am I doing something wrong?"
Amalia stooped to examine a bit of tumbleweed. "Why would you think something's wrong?"
"It seems no one likes me.”
"We're cautious people. No one knows anything about you except that you've been in the Guard, which isn't encouraging. It'll take them awhile to learn to trust you. You've got to be patient."
"But isn't there anything—"
"No." Amalia turned away and resumed her search for firewood. "There are some things you can't charm or rush."
* * *
In spite of her cool words, Amalia must have said something on his behalf because that evening Gonzales made a point of sitting next to him when they gathered around the fire for dinner. "How're you liking our camp food?" he asked. "Ain't like one of Carina's home-cooked meals, is it?"
"Carina's a good cook," Donovan agreed. "But this will do all right." He sopped a bit of tortilla in the fat left on his plate from their meal of skewered jackrabbit.
"It sure beats the crap they served us in the service, don't it?"
"That's not saying much, is it?"
"No, I guess not." Gonzales launched into a tale about a bivouac in the tar sands of Alberta, where they had nothing to eat but what they could salvage from the Chinese and Canadian troops they had routed. "Most of it wasn't no good because what they couldn't take with them they set on fire." He chewed a bit of dried pumpkin and chased it with a swig of watered homebrew. "We tried shooting a few birds, but they were so small all we got was feathers." He turned to Diana. "You should've seen the drumsticks on one of them little things. No more meat than a piñon nut." He patted his stomach and gazed into the fire. "Even a bad day in our little valley is heaven on earth compared to some of what's out there. Wouldn't you say?" He fixed Donovan with his one eye.
"I've been in some spots that I thought were good, but nothing like this."
"I won't die for their oil," Gonzales went on. "But I'll gladly die for this land."
"Sure enough," Peterson agreed. He poured himself some homebrew and passed the bottle to his daughter who twitched her lips and passed it to Amalia.
"The land is everything," Amalia agreed, pouring a healthy shot into her cup. "We can't live without it, so we might as well be ready to die defending it."
"I'll kill anyone who tries to take it!" Diana piped up.
"And a good shot like you, I have no doubt of it," Peterson said. "You take after your grandpa, don't you?"
Melinda edged closer to her daughter. "Such talk. You're a good little hunter, but you don't want to be too much of a tomboy. The boys won't like you."
"There's no boys, anyway," Diana pointed out. "They grow up and have to run away, or else get drafted."
"It won't be like that forever," Gonzales told her.
"And you'll be wanting a husband," Peterson added.
"Not from the boys in our valley."
"From Macrina, then?" Amalia asked. "You'll disappoint your mother if you move away."
Diana considered this. "Maybe I won't marry at all. Or maybe when I grow up I'll marry Donovan."
Before Donovan could react, Gonzales slapped him on the back, laughing. Picking up the cue he threw his head back and laughed, too.
"What's so funny?" Diana demanded, but even her mother was laughing, and the girl was left to wonder just what everyone found so amusing.
* * *
Early the next morning they found themselves on a crest overlooking a valley. Below them was a cluster of drab little buildings with people, animals and even a few motor vehicles moving about the dusty streets. In spite of his concerns, Donovan had been looking forward to a taste of his old city life. Amalia caught the disappointment on his face. "Come on, now. We told you it wasn't much, didn't we?"
"Yes, I guess you did."
"It's busier than it looks," she assured him. "This is one of the back roads. Other people coming to market take the south road if they can, because it's easier and they can approach in the dark and be all set up before the market opens. We have to wait until there's a little light because this trail is so steep. But it’s safer from a chance meeting with Feds or raiders."
They were walking alongside the cart so as not to overtax their team on the rough terrain. When they got to where the road turned sharply downward, Amalia halted the jennies and pulled a yellow scarf on a stick from the back of the wagon. With a bit of wire, she affixed it upright so it fluttered in the breeze. Donovan looked around and found everyone doing the same thing, raising yellow flags on their wagons or attaching scraps of yellow fabric to their saddles. "What's this about?"
"It's one of the ways we let the townspeople know we're not here to raid. There'll be a checkpoint at the base of the mountain, where they'll confirm that we're not trying to trick them, but at a distance, this is how we make sure we look friendly." Amalia climbed onto the wagon seat. "You want to ride or walk?"
"I'll walk for now."
"Don't worry, the town isn't as dull as it looks," Melinda said, coming up behind Donovan on her pony while her daughter readied their cart for the descent into town. "They can't pretty it up, you know. If they look like they're doing well, someone will be along to make trouble."
"There's a little life in this old place, just you wait and see," Gonzales called to him from behind Diana's cart. "I'll take you to a bar I know and introduce you to a pretty girl or two."
"Don't encourage him." Amalia called back. She and the donkey cart were well down the trail now but voices carried clearly on the mountain air.
"Not to mention there's children around," Melinda added.
"I'm not a child, Mama," Diana said, slapping the reins across the back of her donkeys as she began the descent. "You think I don't know about bars and whores?"
Melinda sputtered while Gonzales and Grandpa Peterson laughed. Peterson pulled his cart up to Melinda and murmured reassuring words to her while the others went on ahead.
Donovan, disconcerted by the fuss he had started, changed his mind about walking and tried to catch up with Amalia, but he had strapped his leg into the brace that morning and it slowed him down. He found himself struggling beside Diana's cart.
"Want a ride?" She tugged on the reins with one hand and pulled the brake to a full stop. "Get in. It don't make no difference to the team on the downhill, as long as I don't get careless with the brake."
Donovan scrambled onto the seat beside her. The girl released the brake ever so slightly and they started down again. "So where are we going once we're in town? I understand there's a market."
"A big one, with long benches that go up on each side."
"Benches that go up? You mean a stadium?"
"It's a market. I don't know if there's a fancy Guard word for it."
"Stadium isn't a fancy Guard word. It just means a place where they used to play sports, kick balls around and things like that."
Diana furrowed her brow. "Why would they need such a big place for something like that? Me and some of the valley kids play ball games when we get together for parties, but we don't need a special place for it."
"I've been told they used to have big groups of people who practiced their games until they were good enough that other people would come and spend all afternoon watching them. That's what the benches are for. Sometimes the players were so good people would pay them."
"Pay them money? Just to kick a ball around?"
"That's what I've been told."
Diana giggled. "You're making that up."
"No, I'm not."
"Well, someone must've told you a story because no way would anyone pay kids money just to kick a ball."
"They paid grownups to do it, not kids. And they gave them special clothes, too, so they would all look the same."
"What?" Diana fell over her reins screeching with laughter. Her donkeys flattened their ears in annoyance and Melinda maneuvered her horse down the path, curious to know what the fuss was about.
"What's so funny up there?"
"Donovan says--" Diana gasped for breath. "He says the market at Macrina— that men used to—"
"I told her it sounded like an old sports stadium," Donovan cut in. "She thought the idea was funny."
Melinda pursed her lips. "It used to be the high school football field, but I've never known them to use it for that. The school didn't have enough students for a team when I was a kid and there wasn't enough fuel to bus anyone over for a game, anyway. I only know about it from my father."
Diana swiveled around on her seat, leaving the donkeys to find their own way. "So it's true? They used to pay men to play ball games at our market?"
"Watch your team, Diana," Melinda cautioned. "No, the Macrina high school had a student team. They were teenage boys and they weren't paid anything. But there were big national teams and if you were a good student player, you could maybe get paid to play on one of the big teams when you grew up. Your grandfather says those men made a lot of money."
"Just to play a game? They didn't actually grow or raise anything?"
"No, they just played their game and people paid money to watch them."
"But that's crazy."
"We would be crazy if we did it," Donovan said. "But people were rich then."
"Well, we're going to sell all our stuff at market. Then we'll be rich, too."
"Are you going to buy a ball team with your money?" Donovan teased.
Diana tossed her head. "That would be stupid." The wagon lurched over a rock and she clucked at the donkeys. "When I get some money, I’m going to buy a mule."
* * *
They hadn't been on the valley floor for long before they came upon some men who appeared to be mending the road. They paused at their work in curious attitudes, as if the approaching party was the most important thing they had seen all day. In a field off to one side, two boys who had been poking sticks at a cooking fire rose slowly and watched the wagons, their bodies tense and faces unreadable. It seemed as if everyone was holding his breath. This was no ordinary road crew.
Amalia and Gonzales had been at the head of the party but now they dropped back and let Peterson draw his cart forward. As he approached the road workers he raised a hand in greeting. "Buenos días, vecinos," he called. "It’s Jules Peterson y mis amigos de Valle Redondo."
The oldest of the crew straightened and tipped back his hat, "Come a little closer, amigo, it's hard to recognize anyone with the sun behind him. Is that really you, Jules?"
Peterson clucked to his team. Once the men were close enough to recognize each other, the road worker's face lit up in a grin and he dropped his heavy shovel. "Óye, Peterson! Long time, friend!"
Peterson jerked on the reins and his mules shuffled to a stop. "Good to see you, too, Espinoza. We've got some stuff to trade today, if you've got folks who are interested."
"Claro, of course we're interested." Espinoza tried to peer into Peterson's wagon but the goods were covered with a tarp. His eyes scanned the rest of the party. "Three wagons, eh? Not so many, but you'll do good business just the same."
Now that everyone seemed reassured, Gonzales came trotting up on his buckskin. He touched his hat brim and nodded toward Espinoza, then turned his attention to the other men, who had been gathering around their leader. "Óyen, hombres, what're things like these days? Any news? You know we don't hear nothing in the country."
The men exchanged sharp glances, but only Espinoza spoke. "Same old, as far as we know. We don't get much news either. Everyone who comes here is in from the country to trade, just like you. They don't know nothing about the war or the government."
"No Guard sightings?" Melinda asked. "No tax collectors?"
"No, Señora," the man said with a shrug. "Our courier from the post office in Jonasville comes almost every week, and there's probably a spy or two, but we can't do nothing about that."
"Of course not," Gonzales said, the expression on his face suggesting he didn't agree with Espinoza at all.
"So are there any new rules we need to know?" Peterson asked. "I haven't been here since May and I don't think anyone else. . ." he looked at the members of his party for confirmation.
Espinoza frowned and turned to the other members of his group. "Anything new since spring, amigos?"
"Just that Miss Janie's getting a little forgetful," one man piped up. "If you lodge any of your animals with her while you're here, get her to write you a receipt every time either one of you does something. There've been a few problems with people disagreeing on what got done and what's been paid for."
"Good advice for anytime." Peterson straightened up and twitched the reins. One of his mules stomped a hoof. "I guess we better get going, then. It'll take us a little while to set up and we'd like to make a few sales before the sun goes down."
"I'm going to trade for some cash and visit the Tortuga Rosa," Gonzales added with a grin. "I could stand for some good liquor, and a little female company to enjoy it with."
"You'll find everything just like you're expecting it." Espinoza stepped back from the road and his men did the same, dragging their carts and phony road-mending equipment with them. The boys who had been watching the scene from the side of the road moved back toward their fire, still darting wary glances at the trading party.
Peterson, Amalia and Diana called to their teams and the wagons jerked forward with a creak of harnesses and shuffling of hooves in the dust. Gonzales trotted toward the head of the group while Melinda dropped back to bring up the rear.
Donovan, now sitting next to Amalia in her wagon, waited until they were out of earshot, then leaned close. "Clever checkpoint, but how were they going to get word to the town if we weren't what we appeared to be?"
"I think they have a radio or a telegraph setup or something," Amalia said, stiffening at Donovan's nearness but not moving away, either. "Those kids you saw by the fire? Their job is to run and get word to the town about danger while the men cause as much delay as possible."
"When I was in the Guard, there were some places that booby-trapped the entrances to their town or ranch. It doesn't look like they do that here."
"I don't know. If they have a plan other than to delay, hide the stuff and look poor, they aren't talking. I don't blame them. You can never be completely sure who's a spy, or who may go turncoat someday."
They were passing houses now— dirty, tumbledown buildings with peeling paint, cracked walls and weeds in the yards. A few ragged children emerged out of doorways and courtyard gates, and stood at the side of the road to watch the wagons pass. They observed the proceedings in silence, but their eyes were alert.
"They're sizing us up," Amalia said. "They'll be here again when we leave and will beg for money. Right now they figure we probably don't have any, so they'll leave us alone."
"It's hard to believe much trade goes on here. Everyone seems so poor."
"That's the way they like it to look." They were coming closer to the center of town now, and while the houses were fewer, they were larger and had once been of better quality. "A lot of these homes are chameleons," Amalia said. "On the outside they look like they're falling apart, but they're actually quite nice on the inside."
"Looks like they don't mind keeping the church looking good," Donovan said as they came upon a tall adobe structure with freshly painted plaster all the way up to its bell tower. A little shrine out front contained a brightly painted statue of the Virgin Mary and was bedecked in paper flowers.
"The authorities expect Catholics to do that. It would be a red flag if they let the church fall apart. The government would know they're up to something."
"I guess you're right. Everywhere I went in the Guard, the churches were better taken care of than the homes. We always saw it as a sign the local people weren't going to be a lot of trouble, if they cared about religion so much."
"It's the opiate of the masses."
Amalia shrugged. "Just an old saying. Religion is a good way to keep the people quiet. Make them afraid God will punish them if they don't follow the rules. They're supposed to stay quiet and wait for their reward in Heaven."
"Are you religious?"
"You mean in a church way? We went to church a little when I was a kid. We were Presbyterians. Protestants," she added, seeing the puzzled look on his face. "But I never liked being told how to think. I spent a lot of time reading and it made me ask questions."
"We didn't have any real sort of religion where I grew up," Donovan said. "People in the gangs were into the symbols, though. They wore crosses, prayed to saints, that sort of thing. But they made up most of their saints— dead gang leaders and family members, you know. I've done a little of it myself. It seems more real than a church god."
"When God is so cruel and far away, it makes better sense to pray to someone who you're sure really cares.” She turned the wagon onto a broader, busier street. They were now on the town's main thoroughfare, flanked on either side by shops, some open for business, but many boarded up and charred from a long-ago fire.
Horses, carts and bicycles moved up and down the street, churning up dust where there had once been asphalt. People walked down mud-brick sidewalks as if on important business, ducking in and out of shops, stopping to tip a street musician or examine the wares of a vendor. There were quite a few of these vendors. They had set up on sidewalks and driveways, selling wares as diverse as fresh apples, straw hats, treasured family heirlooms and hot snacks.
"These guys are mostly locals," Amalia explained. "They often use the same spot over and over. It's free to set up on the street like this, but there's no security and you might get harassed if you're not a townie, which is why we prefer the main market, even though we have to pay for a spot."
The smell of grilling meat from a sidewalk vendor reminded Donovan that they hadn't eaten since their spartan breakfast of dried apples and parched-corn brew that passed for coffee. When a little girl, clad only in a man’s dirty shirt long enough to pass for a dress, dashed up to their cart shouting "Pepitas!" and waving a little bag, he put a hand on Amalia's arm and asked her to stop.
"Like we don't have perfectly good pumpkin seeds of our own to sell."
"But they're way back there in the wagon somewhere, and this little girl…"
"Was probably made up by her mother to look more like a beggar than she really is. I wouldn't be surprised if she gets three squares and has a comfortable bed to sleep in at night."
Donovan eyed the little girl critically. She stared at him with huge brown eyes, shuffled her bare feet and held out the bag again. "Pepitas."
He dug in his pocket where he still carried a little money from when he was in the Guard. "How much?"
"Cinco." She held up her other hand, displaying all five fingers, in case her point wasn't clear.
Donovan handed her a nickel. She snatched it from his fingers, gave him the little bag of roasted pumpkin seeds, then dashed back to a ramshackle stand in an old driveway where two other children— an older boy and a girl just barely out of diapers, had been watching. "Thank you," Donovan called after her.
Amalia started the team again. "You go buying from every kid that's selling something, there's no point coming to market. We're here to sell as much as we can and spend as little as possible, otherwise we might as well have stayed home."
"It's just a snack," said Donovan in reasonable tones. He opened the bag and popped a few in his mouth. "They're pretty good, too. At a nickel, they're a bargain. Want some?"
Amalia shook her head, but held out her hand and let Donovan fill it with chile-roasted pepitas. "They're good," she agreed. "But salty." She looked around at the other street vendors. "I'll lay you odds they've got a father or some kind of older relative out here selling drinks."
"Everyone's got an ulterior motive in your world, don't they?"
"Don't they in yours?"
He considered, briefly distracted by a motorized scooter that sputtered past them exhaling the distinctive scent of old cooking oil. He wiped a little dust from his face. "No," he said. "Not everyone's got something up their sleeve. They're just trying to survive, like we are. In general, people have been pretty nice to me, and the ones who have tried to scam me, well, it’s nothing personal, wouldn't you say?"
"I'll say that's a generous way of looking at it."
Donovan was about to elaborate on his thoughts when a man approached their cart wearing a wooden box full of drink bottles strapped around his neck. "Refrescas!" he shouted. "Cold drinks! You thirsty? I got cold water, cold apple juice, cerveza. . ."
Amalia sneaked a look at Donovan, barely restraining a laugh. "I told you this would happen. I wouldn't be surprised if this was that little girl's uncle. Didn't I tell you?"
Donovan grinned. "Yes, I guess you did."
* * *
The market was in the town's high school football field, just as Melinda had said. There was a broad gate for vendors and a smaller one for those who wished to browse or buy. Shoppers could come and go as they pleased, free of charge. But a stooped little man in a straw hat stopped the trading party at the vendor gate. "How many tables you going to be wanting?"
"Well," Peterson said, looking at Melinda and Amalia's carts as he considered. "Me and my daughter will each need one. Amalia?"
"I can make do with one," Amalia said.
"So that's three. Gonzales?"
Gonzales patted the bulging packs strapped to his buckskin's haunches. "I was thinking I'd just rent a quarter space in the bleachers for today and tomorrow."
The man in the straw hat nodded. "North side bleachers are open, first ten rows." Behind him was a polished wooden board with a map of the stadium painted on it and little numbered holes for each section a vendor could rent. Some of the holes had colored pegs in them, indicating that someone was assigned to that spot. "Let's see. . ." He ran down a list of available spaces and explained the pricing system. "That's if you're paying up front, of course. Add a nickel to everything if you want to pay at the end of each day instead."
"Two-thirty West sounds good to me." Gonzales dug in his pocket and produced some coins.
"It's a deal," the old man said. He took the money, counted it into a cash box and handed him a worn wooden coin that said 2-30W. "Put that in your pocket in case anyone questions you. Return it tomorrow afternoon when you leave." He handed him a little bracelet of red and yellow wool. "Here's your Tuesday bracelet. Be sure and return it tomorrow and exchange it for your Wednesday bracelet or you may get fined."
Once Gonzales had everything he needed, Peterson, Melinda and Amalia went through a similar procedure to get tables on the field, which was the main market area. When everyone had a colored bracelet for the day, they were allowed to drive through the gate and find their assigned spots.
While Gonzales headed toward the bleachers, Amalia, Donovan and the Petersons found their tables, third row in, on the twenty yard line. "It's not ideal," Amalia said, "But we'll make it work."
Already most of the field was full. Around him Donovan saw signs, banners and brightly colored tablecloths set out to attract passersby. It was still early in the morning, but already shoppers were working the aisles, checking the wares at each booth, comparing merchandise and haggling over prices. It had been a long time since he had seen such an abundance of goods in one place, available to whoever could afford them. It was such a distraction that Donovan could barely concentrate on the business of unloading the wagon.
Diana was struggling to stay focused too, and finally Amalia sent Donovan over to the Petersons’ table to fetch her. "Why don't you two make the rounds and find out what prices are like today? That way we'll have some idea what to charge."
This was the opportunity they had been hoping for, and they didn't wait to be asked twice. Melinda barely had time to call for Diana to stick close to Donovan and be back in thirty minutes before they were lost in the maze of tables.
"Do you know where we should go first?" Donovan asked, moving clumsily because of the heavy brace.
"It's a little different every time. Most vendors don't get the same spot over and over, so you have to go back and forth. Eventually you'll see everything and then you can decide what to go back and buy."
"Sounds like you've got a system."
"I do." She trotted over to the nearest stall-- a long table covered with a lace tablecloth. The display consisted mainly of books and small items of crystal, silver and china. The white-haired lady gave a tight smile as Donovan joined Diana in examining her family heirlooms. Donovan had seen her type before and knew she was torn between needing to make a sale while dreading to part with her treasures. Even decades after the century of abundance had come crashing down, people still clung to the remnants-- a frosted crystal cat, a porcelain bowl painted with green shamrocks, a book of color photographs of Paris, a silver bracelet.
"Do you like jewelry?" the woman asked Diana, pushing a heart-shaped silver box toward her. "This will keep your things nice."
Diana shook her head. "I like horses."
"I see." The woman looked through her books for a moment, producing a big brown book. It was obviously quite old, with wear on the edges of its cover and the stamped gold lettering almost worn away. She opened it to show page after page of color prints on thick creamy paper. "All the major horse breeds. The text gives you history and description of the breed, and of course you get some very nice pictures."
Diana took the book and examined the pages reverently.
"Twenty dollars," the woman said.
"Oh, that's too much."
"We could discuss. I don't have to have cash. I'll accept food, ration coupons, tools or seeds."
Diana handed back the book. "No, my family only just got here. I'm just looking today."
"I'll be here tomorrow, too. Please come back. I can hold the book for you, if you like."
"No," the girl said. "I can't promise anything without talking to my mom and I don't want to keep you from making a sale."
As they wandered away, Donovan smiled at her. "That's a pretty grown up attitude you've got. I could tell you liked that book."
"She probably won't sell it to anyone else today and I probably won't be able to buy it, anyway." She tried to sound philosophical. "It's not like we've got that kind of money to spend on books. My family needs a new horse bridle, salt, shoes, canning jars, and some canned foods like what we can't grow for ourselves. Only if we do really well can I think about buying something just because I like it."
"It seems too bad you can't have something for fun now and then." They merged into the stream of shoppers and headed toward the next table.
"I can have something fun. It just has to be useful, too." They were in front of a table that had wool for sale in various forms -- raw wool, undyed yarn, spun yarn and cloth in various vegetable-dyed colors and a few finished products such as hats, mittens, scarves and blankets. Remembering the instructions Amalia had given them, Diana was suddenly all business. She examined a pair of mittens and some orange yarn as if intending to buy. "How much?" she asked, pointing to an undyed skein.
"Two dollars? That's a lot. How about a dollar and a quarter?"
They haggled for a few minutes. The young woman at the table finally refused to go lower than a dollar sixty and Diana said she would let her mother know. She and Donovan wandered away, pretending to be deep in thought. Once they were out of earshot, Diana said, "That's more than they were charging last time. If everyone's prices are that high, we'll make some good sales today."
"Are you going to buy that book, then?"
"No." She shook her head. "I'm saving up for a mule."
* * *
When they got back to their tables, fifteen minutes later than they had promised, Diana and Donovan had checked the going rates for wool, dried apples, chiles, eggs, seeds, socks and used clothing. Donovan had also managed to lift a wallet, although he had done it so cleverly that Diana hadn't noticed. It was nice to have a little money in his pocket again.
"You've done some good work," Peterson told them, after Diana finished rattling off her mental tally of the day's prices. "So did you get a feel for how things operate around here?" he asked, turning to Donovan.
"Yes, sir. It looks like there's a bit of a black market going on, in addition to the regular trade, but most of these folks seem to be honest."
"I've learned not to question where some of these people get their stuff. Best just to be glad there's still a place where a person can buy a working flashlight battery, fertilizer, or a bit of kerosene without needing fifty different types of credentials saying you're allowed to do it."
"It's a pretty clean and well-organized place. I've seen markets in other towns that were dirty and not very safe."
The old man smiled. "Yes, everyone has to pay a fee to sell here, but it's worth it. They use the money to pay people to keep it orderly. They have men go through and make sure nothing is happening that shouldn’t. Maybe you saw one of them-- the guys in the red and blue vests? No? Well, you'll see one soon enough. They don't check into the origins of what anyone is selling. That would be bad for business. But they do make sure there's no stealing going on. Just honest trade. Steal or cheat a customer and you'll be kicked out."
"Good idea." He would have to be careful if he picked any more pockets.
"It's what our government used to do," Peterson continued. "In fact, that used to be the whole reason we had a government, but now. . ."
"Dad," Melinda broke in. "Are you going to finish helping set up or are you just going stand there talking about the old times?"
Peterson turned around in mock indignation. "Young lady, you need to indulge me. I'm in my dotage."
"I have a feeling that excuse won't work for me," Donovan said. He walked the few steps to Amalia's table and found her struggling with an overhead rack that had become unstable under the weight of strings of dried chiles, apples, squashes and a few items of fancy clothing. "Do you want me to hold that?" he asked, seeing her struggling to hold a pole and simultaneously wrap a length of twine around it.
"No," she said. "You take the twine and the knife. I've got the pole. Tie it to the ring on the tabletop, then twice on the table leg— low and high."
Donovan did as she directed, then did the same on the other side. The rack still seemed shaky, so they stacked a couple sacks of animal feed and ears of dried corn against the poles. When they were done, he stepped out in front of the stand to take in the effect. Amalia had spread a colorful Indian blanket over the table and arranged jars of pumpkin seeds and various types of pickles and preserves along with some goat cheeses, small tools and utensils and a few pairs of hand-knitted socks.
Underneath the table were baskets and boxes of what Amalia called "back stock," with an ironic little smile. "I only set out one or two of each of the things we brought. There's not enough room to display it all and why would I? One jar of pickled nopales looks just like any other. If someone wants to buy one, we offer to sell them two. When they buy our display item, we set out a fresh one. It keeps our display uncluttered. You want to make it easy for people to see what you have to offer."
"Sounds like you're pretty good at this."
"It's not my calling, but I've learned to do it well enough."
She went on to explain her pricing strategy and Donovan gave her a few tips based on the prices he and Diana had collected. As they were talking, customers started wandering up, checking out what they had to sell and asking questions.
Before he knew it he found himself negotiating the sale of strings of chiles, sacks of dried corn and jars of Carina's applesauce. Some of the customers had cash to spend and Donovan, with his years on the street, fell into an easy negotiating style, but many customers wanted to make trades and this was trickier.
"Do we need aspirin and cough drops?"
"Only if they're in sealed boxes and at least a year from the expiration date."
"Are we interested in strawberry seeds?"
"Who's the seller? No, I don't know him. We've never tried strawberries, so if they don't come up, I'll have no way of knowing if they didn't sprout because of us or because the seeds were no good."
"How about soap?"
"Oh, yes. As long as it's not lavender-scented. Carina hates lavender."
"What about piñones?"
"No, we've got plenty at home. But ask her if she's got some salt, spices or jerky to trade."
It took the better part of the day, but by sunset Donovan felt he was beginning to get a sense of how the local barter economy worked, and what kinds of things Amalia and Carina needed for the farm. Some things surprised him, like the way Amalia turned down a perfectly good opportunity to trade some chiles for a battery, but then bartered a pair of socks for canned pears and a CD of an old rock band.
"I don't know that I'm ever going to learn to do this on my own," he told her as they were shutting things down for the evening. "Sometimes you make trades that seem a little strange."
"You mean like the Rolling Stones CD?" Amalia asked with a slightly guilty smile. "That was just a sentimental impulse-- my grandmother used to listen to their songs, and they were a favorite of her mother. Don't let it confuse you. Our main goal is to get things that we can't make for ourselves or barter from our neighbors. If you stick to that principle, you won't go wrong."
They covered the remaining wares on their table with a blanket and were taking the items off their overhead rack and storing them under the table when Melinda came up. She had been absent for the past hour, but Donovan had scarcely noticed. "I staked us out a camping spot," she announced. "Diana is over there now with our carts. I turned the animals out to pasture at Cortina's and told him we'd bring yours along shortly."
"Cortina's is kind of far," Amalia observed.
"Well, they said Janie is getting a little loopy, and Klein's is full."
"I knew we should've tried to get here by Monday."
"No point worrying about it now. Are you done here?"
"I suppose so." Amalia looked over at Donovan. "You've been wearing that brace all day. You up for walking, or should I drive the cart over here and pick you up?"
"I can walk," he said, although she was right to ask. He was tired and the bands were starting to chafe through his pants.
They set off toward the end field, where the horses and carts had been tethered for the day under a tarp. Together Amalia and Melinda got the animals harnessed and hitched to the wagon and Melinda gave instructions on how to find their campsite.
"So I guess there's some kind of guard for the night?" Donovan asked as they made their way toward where the campfires were already dotting the old soccer field.
"Yes, it's included with our fee. There's never been an incident, although of course we take the most valuable and portable things with us, like cash, batteries, jewelry and the like. Anyone can be tempted, especially if it's something that fits easily into a pocket"
"Do they charge for the campground, too?"
"Not yet, although there are rumors that they might start after the first of the year."
"I guess the safety makes it a bargain."
"Most of us think so. That's the reason we come here. There's another town about an equal distance away from our valley. It's called Higdon. It's actually a little bigger and the road is easier because it's mostly flat, but they don't do anything to protect their merchants, so even some of the Higdon folks would rather come here. Our only fear is that Macrina will become too big one day and start to attract attention."
"And what will everyone do if that happens? If the Feds move in, I mean?"
"I don't know, but we'll figure something out. We're resourceful."
* * *
It didn't take long for Amalia and Donovan to set up camp. Once they had things in order, Amalia announced she was going to take the jennies to the Cortinas. "Do you want to come along?" she asked Donovan. "We may have to do some walking on the way back if we can't hitch a ride, but I plan to stop at Mother Reyes' house on the way out and get my ration book. She lives in one of those chameleon houses I told you about and you might find it interesting."
Although his leg was aching and he had been looking forward to a rest in front of the campfire followed by an early night's sleep, curiosity got the better of him. He hoisted himself off the wooden box he had been using as a stool and joined Amalia in unharnessing the jennies and saddling them to ride. Getting into the saddle was tricky, and he wasn't a good rider even without the brace. but at least the animals were short and slow, unlike Gonzales' frisky buckskin, which he hadn't seen since morning.
"Where's Gonzales?" he asked as they threaded their way out of the campsite.
"No telling, but I have a pretty good idea. I sometimes wonder if the only reason he comes to town is so he can visit the bars and whores."
"So he wasn't joking this morning on the trail?"
"No. and it's a shame. There's some nice young women in the valley who would like to marry a guy with Gonzales' prospects-- his mother has a lot of land and isn’t expected to live much longer. Gonzales will be a rich man by local standards, but instead of developing his property or at least doing basic maintenance, he goes off to town and raises hell every time he gets a little ahead. He won't ever find himself a wife among the local girls if he keeps behaving like that, and he'll need a wife if he's going to run that place like it needs to be run."
"Maybe he's just not cut out to be a rancher."
"No, he loves the land and has quite a knack for it when he applies himself. It's the war that did it to him. He hasn't been the same since the Alberta campaign."
"I've seen fighting get to a lot of people. Even some guys who seemed pretty tough."
"It doesn't seem to have gotten to you."
"Yes it did," Donovan said, a little surprised at the sudden intimacy of their conversation. "That’s why I left. And I'm sure it wasn't nearly as bad as Alberta, although raiding your own countrymen is bad enough."
"You couldn't take it any more?"
"It was that. But there was also a girl. A fellow soldier. She was shot during a raid. Several of us were. She didn't make it."
"The bullet in your shoulder."
"Yes. The man was only defending what he had spent his life trying to hold onto for himself and his family. I started to figure that out, with all the time I had to think and be pissed off in the hospital. If I had a wife and kids, I would've hoarded for them, too. It's crazy what they made us do. We take a vow to protect this country and its people, but instead we kill them and kill ourselves trying to do it."
"Well, you survived and got out. In time, maybe you can try to put a few things right."
"I don't know about that. I'm not the sort to join one of the rebel groups or anything. I want out of the game altogether. They take the young ones, street kids like me with nothing going for them. They give us our first regular meals, new clothes, give us a little education--"
"Indoctrination, more like. Propaganda."
"I guess. They tell us that we're making things like they used to be back in the old days, a more equal society…"
"An interesting lie, because this is where equality is."
"Maybe you're right. Out here it looks like your efforts amount to something."
"We've got our problems too," Amalia cautioned. "But that's just life. We can't make every little problem go away, because in the end, it's we who are the problem."
They were approaching the end of the road and merging with a busier street, dimly lit with solar street lights that had been absorbing the sun's power all day. A few shops were still open for business, lit from within by lanterns and oil lamps. People wandered the sidewalks, some of them going into the stores, some just peering in the dirty windows. Somewhere a street musician was playing a harmonica. A few children ran shrieking down the sidewalk, a rangy mutt loping beside them. At the end of the block a man in white was quoting the Bible, shouting his apocalyptic message to passersby. He pointed at a nicely dressed young couple and screamed "Sinners!" but the girl giggled and the boy hurried her away. A man in an embossed leather vest with a badge strode up to the street preacher and said a few words to him. Meanwhile a horse trotted along pulling a light trap carrying a neatly dressed family. A trio of scooters zipped past, going the other way in a cloud of dust and the smell of coal diesel.
"It looks like there's a bit of a night life around here," Donovan remarked as they passed an adobe building that seemed to be of enormous interest to some of the street crowd. One sniff of the air, redolent of grilled meats, spices and baking bread, explained everything. "It’s a restaurant!"
"I told you this town wasn't as sleepy as it looked."
They continued for a few blocks, then turned onto a residential street. Most of the houses were dark, with only a few lights glowing softly from dirty windows and weed-blown courtyards. It was peaceful after the relative bustle of the main drag, but there was something close and mysterious about it, too. The houses were ramshackle, the lights faint and few, the trees too twisted against the darkening sky to make anything about this dirt road with its weedy and crumbling sidewalks feel homelike. Without any streetlights, shadows darkened and elongated across the road, and by the time they had passed the third house, the darkness had engulfed nearly everything in their path. It was with relief that Donovan sensed more than saw Amalia turn Goneril in the direction of a gate, hardly distinguishable from the others with its splintering wooden posts. They walked their animals into a dusty courtyard of cracked and missing tiles, almost artistic in its placement of broken planters and dead potted trees.
Amalia swung herself down from her jenny, tossed the reins over a post and helped Donovan off his mount. His brace squeaked as he followed Amalia to the door of the seemingly deserted house. Amalia jerked a string by the side of the door and from somewhere inside, a bell jangled. There was no response at first, then they heard light, tapping footsteps. There was a scrabble at the door as someone fumbled with the locks, then the door opened a crack.
"Who is it?"
Amalia's lips curled down in annoyance. "It's me, Magda. Amalia Channing."
The door opened a little and Donovan could see a pale face rimmed with a mass of dark hair. "Who's the man with you?"
"His name is Donovan Sloan. He's a friend."
"And how do I know that?"
"Because I'm telling you so. For Christ's sake, let us in. What the hell is that you have on? And where's your grandmother?"
The door swung open to reveal a young woman, perhaps in her teens and certainly not older than twenty, standing in the dim light of an oil lamp, dressed in a stiff red gown of some kind of fancy shimmering material, her neck and arms dripping with gold chains and charms. The dress was too tight for her pudgy body, but she wore it as though the bulges and straining seams were the height of fashion. She stood back to let Amalia and Donovan enter, pouting her full, stained lips and glaring from under kohl-blackened lids. "My grandmother is resting," she said. "She wasn't expecting you. It's been so long she was beginning to think the raiders got you." She turned an imperious gaze upon Donovan. "Maybe they have."
"Cut the crap," Amalia said. "All we want is to see Mother Reyes, get my ration books and go. Your grandmother is still alive, right? You haven't suffocated her with a pillow or anything so you can get your inheritance a few years early?"
Magda widened her eyes in mock horror as she shut the heavy door behind them, so many rings glittering on her fingers that it seemed remarkable she could lift her hands. "I don't know how you can say such a thing. I guess being out there in the country without a husband dries you up and makes you bitter." Without waiting for a return comment, she led the way across the tiled floor, wobbling a bit in her stilettos, to another heavy door, this one of finely carved and polished oak set in a freshly plastered wall decorated at the top in a blue design that looked vaguely native. "Come on," she said. "You can see for yourself how well I care for Nana."
They walked into a sitting room so bright with electric lamps and so clean and richly furnished that one didn't notice at first that it was small. The plastered walls were decorated with the same blue trim they had seen in the previous room and the ceiling was free of smoke and soot stains, even though there was a fire blazing in a rounded fireplace in one corner. Paintings and Indian rugs of unusually bright colors and high quality hung on the walls, and thick-pile woven rugs of a strange design lay scattered over the tiled floor. The dark wood and leather furniture looked too stiff to be more than decorative, but in a concession to comfort, there was an extra rug and a mound of plush tasseled pillows in front of the fireplace. Perched on one of the pillows was a tiny wren of a girl who watched the strangers with glittering eyes.
"Hello, Cruz," Amalia said. Her words were affectionate, even if her tone was not. "You've grown so big since I last saw you. You're almost all grown up, aren't you?"
The girl rose warily and brushed down the skirt of her ruffled dress. Like Magda, she was weighted down with jewelry. She stared silently at Amalia for a moment, then fixed her gaze on Donovan. "Who are you?"
"He's Mrs. Channing's bodyguard," Magda said, crossing the room in quick strides and opening another door. "He's here to make sure Nana doesn’t short Mrs. Channing any of her ration coupons because you know they're terribly poor out there in the country, without a thing to eat but tumbleweeds and cow manure."
"Oh, for God's sake," Amalia sighed, following her into a hallway with Donovan close behind. She looked for a moment as though she would say more, but seemed to think better of it.
They walked past a few closed doors, finally coming to one near the end of the hall. Magda opened it after a perfunctory rap. "Nana," she said. "It's that friend of yours." The way she spat the word "friend," she could've been talking about rats. "And she seems to have brought a friend of her own with her."
Amalia and Donovan stepped into a bright little room full of blond wood furniture and decorated with old photos and religious pictures. In the bed, looking lost amid the white sheets and colorful quilts, was a white-haired old woman, frail and wan, but with startling blue eyes that lit up at the sight of her guests. "Amalia!" she said, pushing herself up in bed and holding out her gnarled hands. "Come here, dear. I've been so worried."
Amalia took the woman's hands in her own for a moment, but then gave the woman a hug instead. "Mother Reyes, it's so good to see you."
"Good to see you too, mi hijita. Stand back and let me have a look at you."
Amalia submitted to the old woman's clucks and nods as she took in her short hair, boots, heavy work pants, and checked cotton shirt stained with the dirt and sweat of a day working the market. "You still dress and cut your hair too much like a man, I see."
A haughty sniff from the doorway indicated Magda's approval of this remark.
"But you look strong and healthy. You get enough to eat?"
"Then you won't need your ration books," Magda grumbled.
The older women ignored her. "Do you still read?" Mother Reyes asked.
"Yes, I'm reading Robinson Crusoe with Carina, and the Bible every night before I go to sleep."
This last surprised Donovan and it must have shown on his face because both women turned toward him. "And who is this nice-looking young man?"
Amalia motioned him forward. "This is Donovan Sloan. He works on our farm now."
Mother Reyes took one of Donovan's hands. "I'm glad to know the girls have a little help. A farm is too much work without a man."
"He can't be much help with that thing on his leg," murmured a voice from the doorway.
"He manages just fine," Amalia said. Her eyes met the old woman's and flashed her a wink so quick that Donovan would've thought he was imagining it if he hadn't caught the slight change in Mother Reyes' tone when she answered.
"I bet he does," she said. Before Magda could make another caustic remark from the doorway, Mother Reyes looked at her. "Magda, dear, why don't you leave me and my friends to talk a bit. I'm sure your daughter could use a little company. You should never leave a child alone with a fire."
Magda pouted. "Cruz is fine. And besides, Laura is out there. Somewhere." She turned on one of her sharp heels and flounced away. Amalia shut the bedroom door behind her. "So how are you really?" she asked, settling herself into a chair beside the bed. "I can't believe you've put up with her attitude for so long. I thought she would've run away by now, or that you would've kicked her out for the sake of your own sanity."
The old woman put a cautionary finger to her lips and motioned for Donovan to pull up a chair. "Let's talk softly. I don't put it past her to listen at the door."
Amalia took one of Mother Reyes' hands in her own. "Can't you find someone else to take care of you? I know you can afford to pay."
"Yes, that I can. And I do. Laura still does most of the cooking and cleaning. Magda doesn't do much at all except go through my closets and jewelry boxes, trying to wear everything at once."
"Will Kevin not take her back, then? You don't need so much anger and negativity around here."
"Kevin doesn't need it either, I'm afraid." Mother Reyes sighed. "And I can hardly turn my daughter's only child out into the street. She and my great-granddaughter are all I have left."
"You have friends, Mama. Friends can be just as good as family."
Mother Reyes winked at Donovan. "Doesn't that sound more like something Carina would say?"
"It sure does." When Amalia bit her lip in annoyance he added by way of explanation, "She's feeling happy. It was a good day at the market."
Mother Reyes patted Amalia's hands. "We need more good days for you, then. You used to be such a chipper little thing when you were a girl."
Sensing her embarrassment, the woman changed the subject. "So how is your sister? I have a couple letters from Miles for her."
"Oh, she'll like that."
"She's doing well, then?"
"Yes, of course. Going out on veterinary calls and enjoying raising the animals, as always. She's pestering me to trade for an alpaca."
"Why don't you?"
While Amalia and Mother Reyes talked a little about farm animals and economic matters, Donovan looked around the small bedroom, paying attention this time to the little things—the rosary and glass of water on the nightstand, the lace runner on the dresser and the little bottles and framed photos that were arranged on top of it. The photos were of a man in the stiff-looking suit and tie of long ago, a pretty, laughing young woman, a black-haired little girl with a mischievous smile, and a fuzzy snapshot of two young mothers with their children. This was the picture Donovan wanted to look at more closely, and he stood up.
"Amalia's mother and I were great friends," Mother Reyes said, seeing what had caught his interest. "And so were our girls."
"My parents had a summer home just outside of town," Amalia said. Her tone was oddly clipped, as if each word carried a price. "We came here every year during school vacations. Our parents wanted us to get used to the land in case the worst happened. Regina was our best friend and was Magda's mother."
Donovan nodded. Asking what had happened to Regina seemed like dangerous territory. "Your family doesn't have a house in town any more."
"No. My father sold it when the war with Iran began."
"A smart move," Mother Reyes added. "Things were so crazy here for awhile. Soldiers, shortages, riots…"
"We were hardly immune," Amalia reminded her. "Since we still had to come to town for supplies."
"Of course." Mother Reyes patted Amalia's arm and Donovan remembered that Carina had said their father died in a food riot. "But I still think you were better off where you were. At least your family and your livelihood weren't in daily danger, and that was what your father wanted."
"Yes," Amalia said in a tone that sounded unconvinced. She stretched her arms overhead and pretended to yawn. "Well, I hate to cut this short, Mama, but we're pasturing out at Cortina's tonight and we need to get out there while there's still a chance we can hitch a ride back into town."
"Your letters and ration books are where they always are, love." The woman fumbled with the drawer of her nightstand. Amalia reached over to help. Inside she found a stack of envelopes clipped together and marked with her name. She flipped through them, pulled out the ration books and did a cursory check for missing coupons.
"I'm sorry my granddaughter is so greedy and has been giving you a hard time tonight," Mother Reyes said.
"It's a tough world out there," Amalia said in a tone that didn't match the generosity of her words.
"Not for her, it isn't. I give her everything she needs, and more. The world may be mean, but that doesn't mean she should be. I've told her. . ."
Amalia's face softened and she gave Mother Reyes a hug. "Don't worry about it, Mama. I'm way too old to care what a teenager thinks of me."
"Well. . ." Mother Reyes looked away, ashamed nonetheless.
"I’m more worried about you than about her," Amalia went on. "Are you getting everything you need? I wanted to bring you something tonight but I had no idea what you might want."
"You're so sweet to offer," Mother Reyes said, clutching Amalia's hand. "But I know how hard you work and your mother would haunt me from her grave if I took anything more from you. She'll probably haunt me anyway for letting Magda keep Carina's ration books. I should be giving them to the church to help feed the poor."
"Well, as Regina's comadres, we promised to help look after Magda if anything should happen. You know that."
"Like that little ingrate needs your help. Some days I'm tempted to cut her off entirely, let her see what the world is like when you don't have Grandma and generous comadres to pay for every little whim."
"That's between you and her." Amalia kissed Mother Reyes on her thin cheek. "We've got to get going."
"Of course. Will I see you again soon? Next month's market, maybe?"
Amalia exchanged guilty glances with Donovan. "Well, we thought we might send Donovan alone next time," she admitted. "That is, if the weather holds and it doesn't snow."
The old woman turned and flashed her blue eyes on Donovan. "If you come, you'll be just as welcome in my home as Amalia and Carina have always been." She fumbled for his hand.
Donovan started to shake her hand, but then gave her frail body a quick embrace instead. "Thank you, Mother Reyes. I'm looking forward to seeing you again."
"And I'm looking forward to seeing you too, young man. Take care of my girls for me, you hear?"
* * *
The road out of town was lit only by a few dim stars on this hazy night. Amalia pulled a small battery-powered light out of her donkey's saddlebag and stuck it through a loop on the animal's bridle that until now Donovan hadn't been able to guess the purpose of. This provided a little shaky light on the path ahead of them. As they rode quietly through the town's outskirts Amalia was silent and Donovan was reluctant to intrude on her private thoughts.
Cortina's place was a ranch on the west side of town that had sufficient pasturage that the owner had built a small ostelery. Tonight one of his sons was minding the operation. Although Martin didn't know Amalia and Donovan by sight, Melinda had described them, so he was waiting. "You Ms. Channing? I didn't expect you so late." He took hold of the bridle so Amalia could dismount.
She swung a leg over the saddle and jumped to the ground stiffly. "We had to make a stop along the way and it took longer than we thought."
"Ain't that the way of it?" The man handed off the jenny to a little boy, then went to help Donovan. "You'll be wanting a rubdown and pasture tonight for these animals," he said. "Anything else? Oats? Alfalfa?"
"No, pasture is enough. And they can stay in the pasture all day tomorrow with maybe a bit of alfalfa around suppertime. Check for harness sores, check their hooves for stones, the usual sorts of things. We'll probably leave day after tomorrow."
While the boy took the animals away to be curried, Martin made a few notes and calculations on a piece of ledger paper. After examining it, Amalia nodded and handed him some coins. "Any wagons heading back toward the market that you know of?"
The man shook his head, his eyes darting skeptically toward Donovan's brace. "I'm sure if you wait long enough, someone will come by."
They waited at the gate for several minutes before Amalia turned on her flashlight. "Come on," she said. "We can't wait here all night and we'll probably encounter someone along the way." She cast a doubtful look at his leg. "You can still walk a little, can't you?"
"Sure," Donovan said, although he was anything but certain he could hold up the entire way. Luckily after only a quarter of a mile they found a man on the side of the road, digging a stone out of the hoof of one of his mules. He was just climbing back onto the wagon seat when Amalia and Donovan came upon him.
"I can take you into town," the man offered. "But not to the market itself, and only if my mule don't start limping again. I don't want to be unfriendly but. . ."
"Of course not," Amalia said, helping Donovan onto the seat. "We wouldn't feel right asking you to go out of your way. And we wouldn't want to add to the load of an animal that's hurt."
The man flapped the reins and clucked to his team. The mules pulled against the traces and the wagon jerked forward. Two miles later, he dropped them off in the center of town and went on his creaking way. "Come on," Amalia told Donovan with a tug at his sleeve, but Donovan hesitated, sniffing the air. He was hungry and this time his stomach wouldn't be denied.
"Why don't we get us a bite to eat at that restaurant? My treat." When he saw the hesitation in Amalia's eyes he added, "We haven't eaten since lunch. What are we going to do? Go back to camp and wake everyone up cooking?"
"I had thought we'd just eat whatever leftovers there were, plus maybe some of the dried or canned goods."
"When we can eat a hot meal in a restaurant instead?"
"We're here to make money, not spend it."
"I've got a little cash of my own. Let me treat you. It's the least I can do after all that you've done for me."
Amalia shook her head. "If you want to go in and get something, that's your business. I'll wait out here."
Donovan's stomach growled. This was not an acceptable answer. He grabbed Amalia's hand. "When was the last time a man asked you out to dinner?"
Amalia was so surprised by this tactic that she had no answer ready.
"That's what I thought. Come on, then." Donovan put a hand on the back of her waist and guided her toward the scent of cooking food. And this time Amalia was too stunned to do anything but go along.
* * *
From outside, the restaurant was an unpromising lump of badly plastered and crumbling adobe, but it was nicer on the inside, with tiled floors, fresh paint, and some warped and fading prints of famous paintings by way of decoration. The place was dim and smoky, with most of the light coming from flickering wall sconces, and oil lamps on the mismatched tables. Chairs wobbled on the uneven floor, and dishes, glasses and silverware seemed to have come from any source the proprietor could find. Although it was all clean, nothing matched anything else. The patrons were as mismatched as the décor, with most in casual, if not outright dirty, workaday garb while others were dressed in the finery of decades past, out for a celebratory meal.
Amalia and Donovan found a place to sit, and a teenage girl in a faded dress and clean apron approached their table. She announced the evening's menu, which was dictated by what was available that day. With the offerings limited, they made up their minds on the spot and ordered a carafe of the strong local wine for good measure. As they sipped their first glasses, Donovan tried to keep his conversation directed toward questions he had about the workings of the market and their plans for the rest of their stay in town, but by the time their entrees arrived and they were pouring their second glasses of wine, he was feeling bolder, although not so bold as to ask any direct questions about her and Carina. He cast about for the nearest safe topic. "Tell me about Magda. How did a sweet old lady like Mother Reyes end up with someone as mean as her for a grandchild?"
"No one really knows. Back when my parents were growing up, they would've probably given her a pill for it." Amalia wrapped a bit of quail in a scrap of tortilla. "She got all her notions about life from her grandmother's photo albums and whatever things had been saved in closets and jewelry boxes. She wants to be rich."
"That's silly. No one is rich. No one who is honest, at least."
"That doesn't matter to her, and it doesn't help that her parents and grandparents were better off than a lot of their neighbors. It just gave her notions. Like all sensible people, her family has always pretended to be poor, but Magda wants to show off."
"Where did Mother Reyes get the money to support these ideas of hers?"
"I'm afraid it wasn't all good. Her husband ran a bank in town. It went under during the bank runs that followed the mortgage loan collapse, but some say he worked out a deal with his parent bank, which was one of the big multinationals." She shrugged and turned back to her meal. "It would explain a lot, since he seemed to be doing better after the crash than before. He died peacefully in his sleep a few years ago."
"Yes, he was lucky, but his daughter wasn't. Regina was my best friend, and her husband had a ranch. Regina wasn’t one for country life, so they lived in town most of the year. They got word one night that their foreman had armed the ranch hands and declared the property his own. They rode out with the loyal hand who had come to warn them and the loyal hand shot them in the desert just a little ways east of town."
"And no one did anything about it?"
"What could anyone do? Things were still pretty chaotic at the time. As you can see, it’s better now. Unlike some people, the citizens of Macrina organized themselves, once they realized they could no longer count on the government."
Donovan considered this, moving some of the food around on his plate with his fork. "They seem to have done a good job of it. I guess that was just a lie they told us in the Guard, that ordinary citizens can’t be counted on to work together for the common good. That’s how they justify going after hoarders, you know.”
“I know. But how do they think the United States came together in the first place, if not by average people? The Feds are destroying this country, but we’ve found a way to manage, just like the old pioneers. Maybe someday we’ll even be able to get regular gasoline again.” At the skeptical look in Donovan’s eyes, she added, “Why not? We couldn’t get coffee and chocolate for several years, but the Macrina market has those now.”
Donovan's eyebrows went up. "You’re kidding. Chocolate?"
"Sometimes. If you can pay for it, of course."
"Do you think they have any here?" Before she could answer, Donovan waved the waitress over. "Do you have anything chocolate?"
"We have butter cake with chocolate icing. But there's only one piece left. We've got plenty of apple pie--"
"No, we want chocolate. Bring the cake."
The girl left and Amalia stared. "That's going to be very expensive.”
"Nothing is too good for the woman who saved my life."
Amalia pursed her lips. "I don't know what you're talking about. It was all Carina's doing. I'd just as soon have shot you, or don't you remember?"
"I remember lots of things."
Amalia sat back in her chair and folded her arms. She pretended great interest in the doings of the diners around her until the waitress brought the cake, set it in front of her and hurried away. Amalia stared at the dessert as if uncertain what to do next.
Donovan had never seen her flustered. "Go on. Don't tell me I've wasted my money."
"Only if you have some, too." She pushed the plate toward the center of the table and waited until he had picked up his fork before tucking into the dessert. "This was a good idea," she admitted. "Don't tell Carina, but I do get tired of honey and apples all the time."
"One wouldn't know it."
"There's no point complaining or wishing for things."
"You're right there's no point in complaining, but wishing? There's no reason to go on living if you're not wishing for something."
Amalia started to shake her head, but when she looked at Donovan again her lips twisted into a wistful smile. "You have no idea how much time I spent wishing," she said. "Until I realized that it only got me into trouble. A person can't take. . . well, there's just no use in. . ."
"I know," Donovan said. He reached across the table to take her hand, but she pulled it away. "So," he said, as if nothing had happened, "We were talking before about Magda. I wonder, do you think she'll let me in to see Mother Reyes if I come to town alone? You’ll want me to pick up the ration book, right?"
Amalia pushed the empty dessert plate to one side. "I honestly don't know what Magda will do. When Carina and I talked about having you come to town for us, we thought she would have run off again by now or that Mother Reyes would've been able to answer her own door. This puts things in a different light."
"Maybe I should bring some chocolate with me, wear fancy clothes and pretend to be rich."
"Yes," Amalia said, "She can probably be bribed."
"Give her an old necklace, a pair of earrings…"
"A silk scarf and some bangles…"
"And lipstick. Don't forget the lipstick!"
Amalia suppressed a giggle. "Well," she said, "You’re obviously resourceful. You'll figure out a way."
The waitress brought them their check, and after puzzling over it for a moment, Donovan laid a few coins on the table. Then he stood up and pulled back Amalia’s chair for her, taking her arm and leading her out the door. "Yes," he said, "I will figure out a way. You should trust me."
As they left the restaurant, the chivalrous hand on Amalia’s elbow somehow came to be clasping hers, something they both pretended not to notice as they walked the dark, narrow street back to camp, and as Amalia climbed into her bedroll to sleep, she noted that the earlier haze had vanished and the stars in the clear night sky seemed especially bright and promising.