Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book One, Chapter Four

Donovan was woken by a rustle of tent flaps, crackling of cooking fires and clatter of pans, as early risers began preparing for the day, murmuring to each other in the chilly darkness before dawn. He stretched inside his bedroll, rolled over and glanced toward the fire. Amalia was already up, filling the coffeepot with real coffee and exchanging whispers with Melinda, who was breaking eggs into a skillet.

He got to his feet and wandered over, grateful for the fire's warmth.

"Good morning," Amalia said. A pair of earrings that had been set out on the Indian blanket for sale the day before glittered in her ears, but her attitude was as commonsense as always. "I'm glad you're up. I was thinking it would be nice to have a little cream for the coffee this morning, but Peterson is out getting more wood for the fire and we hate to wake Diana up so early. No point trying to rouse Gonzales because he's probably hung over. Do you mind?"

"Of course not." Donovan had only just sat down, but stood up again, suppressing a sigh. "I need to bandage my leg up before I put that brace on again, though. I've got raw spots everywhere."

"We've got bandages and ointment in the first aid kit," Melinda said.

"Where's that?"

Amalia set the coffee to boil and stood up. "I'll show you." She led him to a small chest near the tent. The tent was supposed to be for Diana, but she preferred to sleep under the stars like the grownups, so Gonzales was using it instead. Amalia dug through the chest and produced a roll of bandages, some pins and a jar of ointment. "Do you need. . ." she looked at his leg, as if she would help as she had with his injuries of the summer, but then she pressed the items into his hands and said, "Don't take too long. Remember, we have real coffee this morning."

Puzzled by her nervousness, Donovan went inside the tent, trying not to disturb Gonzales. This proved unnecessary since he was sleeping the deep unwakeable sleep of a man just in from a wild night on the town. Donovan tried to ignore the reek of alcohol as he removed his pants, which had stuck to his chafe wounds in the night and were now spotted with blood. The ointment took away some of the pain and once he had wound bandages around the chafed areas and put on a fresh pair of pants, the brace seemed more bearable than the previous day. Why hadn't he thought to do this before?

When he returned to the fire, he found Diana wrapped in a blanket and sitting on a wooden box blinking sleepily at the flames. The expression on her face was so innocent that he put a hand on her head. "Good morning, sweetheart. You ready to earn that mule today?"

"Hm," she said with a sleepy half-smile.

"She's ready for some breakfast, is what she is," Melinda said, handing the girl a plate of eggs.

"Thank you," she murmured as she forked a bit of egg into her mouth.

"Did you ladies still want me to find you some cream?"

"Oh," Amalia said, taking the coffeepot off the fire, "Only if someone else really needs it. I thought it would be nice, but it's a little late now. We’ll make sure to trade for some today instead."

"I'd as soon we didn't spend the money," Melinda said, scooping eggs onto a few more plates and passing them around. "I never could learn to like coffee with cream.”

"I like cream in my coffee when I'm in a certain type of mood," Amalia said as she poured coffee into mugs and handed them out, including to Diana, who took hers eagerly.

"What kind of mood is that?" Donovan asked.

Amalia ducked her head and turned away, muttering something vague about how being in town brought back memories.

"I could use a few less memories, myself," Melinda said, sitting down beside her daughter and starting on her eggs. "This was where they picked Estéban up on a supply run. He was forty-five years old and fat, but they drafted him anyway, and I haven't seen or heard from him since. My poor little girl doesn't even remember her daddy."

"I ain't no poor little girl," Diana protested.

Donovan shot Amalia a worried look. "I thought you said the feds don't come through here."

"It's been eight years since the last time.”

"Yes," Melinda sniffed. "I think after their last drafting run they took a look at my aging husband and the others like him and figured this was the bottom of the barrel. No point coming back here."

Donovan sipped his coffee, only partly reassured. "I would think they could be back any time, then," he said. "To get the young men who were just children eight years ago."

Melinda and Amalia exchanged glances. "I think they would've been back by now, if that were the case," Melinda said.

"And the town has a good warning system," Amalia reminded him.

"All the more reason to keep this brace on, I guess," Donovan sighed. "Maybe it wasn't such a crazy idea, after all."

Everyone ate in silence as the sounds of the camp coming to life continued around them. When they were finished, they put their empty plates in a basket which Diana took to the communal washtubs. Amalia put out the fire and Melinda set a plate of food and cup of coffee in the warm ashes for her father's breakfast. After they finished tidying the campsite and Diana had returned with the clean dishes, they gathered their coins and small valuables and started walking with the other vendors toward the market. The sun was just starting to gild a few wispy clouds in the sky. It was a promising sign of a good day.

* * *

Morning sales were brisk. Carina's remaining pickles and preserves sold out, as did the socks. By midday they had done well enough that Amalia thought it was time to start buying things for the farm. During a lull in traffic past their booth, she handed Donovan a shopping list.

"Could you read it to me?" he asked with some embarrassment.

"Can't you read my handwriting?"

"Not very well."

Amalia frowned at him curiously but seemed happy to lean in close, point to each word and read it aloud. "On these bigger items, like the fertilizer and the wheat flour," she said, "You just want to make the deal. Make sure they'll be at camp tonight or back here at market in the morning and we'll collect then, when we have our cart and animals. Get a chit for any deal you make, and a receipt if you make a down payment."

"What if I can't find some of these things, or if I can't get good quality?"

"Then we'll have to buy in town on our way out. Be sure to use federal money or offer to trade wherever possible. We try to keep hard currency, like silver, for later."

Donovan was satisfied with these instructions and after pocketing the money and ration books, he moved off into the crowd of shoppers. He found his childhood street smarts returning as he went about his mission, teasing, flattering, sassing and bullying as the situation seemed to warrant, until he got the price he wanted. When he got hungry he indulged himself with a piece of sausage sold by an old woman with a strange accent he couldn't place. He listened to a musician for awhile and tossed a coin into his cup. He bargained for some kerosene and a new water filter to be delivered to their campsite later in the evening, and he found good deals on yeast, oats, lard and sugar. He picked another pocket.

He wandered into the bleachers, checking out the offerings of the smaller vendors. At length he ended up at Gonzales' spot, where in spite of his bloodshot eyes, the man was set up neatly and talking a good line. Once his customer had moved on, Donovan sat down. "How are things going?"

"Business is booming, man." Gonzales grinned like a well-fed cat. "I'm going to make out like a bandit today. That means the party will be good tonight."

"You mean it wasn't last night?"

"Tonight will be better. You want to come along?"

"Where are you going?"

"Tortuga Rosa. It's a bar on the outskirts of town. Just an old warehouse, nothing fancy. Cheap drinks. Cheaper women." He laughed and gave Donovan a playful punch on the shoulder. "Come on, hombre, how long's it been, anyway? A man's got needs, right?"

"Well," Donovan said, "I suppose I could join you for a drink."

"Sure, man. Just a drink, maybe dance with a pretty girl or two. That brace won't slow you down much, and just about every man there is old, crippled or faking it, so you won't stand out. And you don't have to spend a lot of money to have some fun. I bet it's been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Yes," Donovan admitted. "It's been pretty damn long, now that you mention it."

* * *

Gonzales and Donovan didn't stay to eat dinner but started toward town as soon as they had concluded their deals for the day. Melinda gave them disapproving looks, but she took what was left of the money and ration books and promised to give them to Amalia when she returned from her errands. "I hope you don't plan to be out late," Melinda said, glaring more at Donovan than Gonzales, who she considered a hopeless case.

"I'm just tagging along to see more of the town and have a real beer, if I can find one. I'll be back early."

Once they got to the main drag, Gonzales hailed a bicycle rickshaw and they were treated to a swift, bouncy ride down the dusty street, then through a few increasingly dismal side streets until they found themselves in a sort of suburban slum of ramshackle huts, abandoned cars and broken mobile homes. Not even weeds seemed willing to grow in this barren moonscape where the hard-packed earth was scarcely distinguishable from the surrounding rock. Scraggly chickens and a few lean mutts poked among the trash at the margins of rusting fences. Dirty children ran up to the rickshaw with their hands out, clamoring for coins. A few sullen men sat in the doorways of their shacks, drinking uncertain homebrews out of old bottles and staring vacantly as the rickshaw clattered past. From inside one of the hovels, a baby shrieked.

After a few more bends in the road, Donovan saw a sprawling concrete block of a building, silhouetted against the darkening sky. It had been designed to mimic native adobe but was now just a cheap architectural abandonment. The exterior glittered with sickly pink lights hung on long strings draped over the walls and around two big windows facing what was left of an asphalt parking lot. Bicycles, horses and a wagon were tied to posts in front and there were a few electric and coal diesel scooters as well. All of these were guarded by two big men with shotguns who strode back and forth casting suspicious looks on anyone who tried to approach a mode of transport without showing a chit to the greasy-haired teenager who was keeping tabs. As their rickshaw pulled into the driveway, they could already hear the crash of frenetic music, vaguely Tejano with a native drumbeat and something else going on that Donovan couldn't place.

"So what do you think?" Gonzales asked as he tipped the driver.

Donovan looked around, excited to find himself in a place where something was happening, after so long in the country. He stepped around a young man who even at this early hour was on his knees puking into a patch of yellow weeds. "I think this will work."

They pushed their way through the knot of men hovering around the doorway and entered a large open space that in spite of the promise of the lights at the windows, was dimly lit and of questionable cleanliness. To their right stretched a long bar backed by shelves of bottles of all description, although Donovan knew from experience that most of the bottles probably contained the same thing--local rotgut being passed off as imported liquor.

Scattered around the bar were a few tables where men played cards or engaged in animated discussions with each other and whores, most of whom seemed to be local Hispanic and Indian girls with dusky skin, dark curls, bloody lipstick and brightly colored dresses. On the other side of the room were several pool tables, their felt surfaces in varying states of patching and repair. This area was more brightly lit than the bar and was full of men and garishly painted women tossing back drinks and taking shots at the colored balls, laughing or cursing as the balls ran up against the seams in the poorly repaired felt.

Toward the back was the doorway to the dance hall and Donovan could see people moving around to the chaotic thumping of the music. A rangy redhead stalked out of the room and looked around, sullenly sizing up the crowd. Underneath her heavy makeup, her skin was waxy, tinged with blue around her eyes, collarbone, and the slender joints of her wrists, as if she were bruised. The dim light reflected off the spangles of her dress, only partially disguising its poor cut and drooping hem. She walked over to the bar, found a spot near the bartender's well and said a few words. The bartender, a short dark man with a hook nose, nodded and poured her a double shot.

Clutching her drink, she leaned against a blank spot on the wall, surveying the room from the rim of her glass as she sucked down the harsh brown liquor. Three men, made bold by the local moonshine, approached her, drawn by her unusual coloring and the flame of her waist-length hair, even though her face was too angular, her manner too desultory to be attractive.

Gonzales noticed Donovan wasn't following him to the bar and stopped to see what he was looking at. "She's a strange one," he said. "I noticed her here last night."

"Did you get anywhere with her?" Donovan asked, pretending to turn his interest to his drink options.

"I didn't even try." Gonzales put a foot up on the brass rail and motioned the bartender over. "Bourbon," he said. "House is fine. And whatever he wants." He made a motion with his head to indicate Donovan.

"How about some scotch.”

"You got it." The bartender took a couple more orders and began racking up glassware.

"The scotch is probably the same as the bourbon," Gonzales pointed out. "All of it likely distilled last week from some local farmer's cornfield."

"Yeah, but you got to ask, you know. You never know when you might get lucky." Without intending to, Donovan found his gaze wandering back to the redhead, who was still talking to the men, forcing a smile and sucking on her whiskey with determination.

The look wasn't lost on Gonzales. "If getting lucky is what you're after, I wouldn't bother with her."

"Why? Is she not what I think she is?"

Their drinks arrived and Gonzales tossed the bartender a silver coin. "Oh, she's a whore, all right," he said, taking a gulp of his home-distilled bourbon and grimacing. "And if you like them with an attitude, I guess she's the one for you. But me, I can't do it if they don't seem to want it. I mean, I know none of them do this for kicks, but if they can't at least pretend they like me a little. . ."

"I hear you," Donovan said. "I’m not really interested in her. Just curious. She doesn't fit in."

"I know that's right." Gonzales looked around the room. "But hey, it's too early to be thinking about the girls. They'll be here all night and we ain't even got started yet." He spotted what he was looking for and gave Donovan a grin. "I see there's a game going on over there," he pointed. "You up for some poker?"

* * *

Four hours later Donovan raked a pile of coins toward him while the other men at the table glowered in disgust. "Don't turn your back on this one on the way home," one of them told Gonzales. "He could be planning to murder you in your sleep and you'd never know it."

"And no one would suspect him, either," the other man grunted. "Not even if they found your blood on his hands."

"Hey, why all the talk when all I did was win a couple card games?" Donovan protested. He turned to one of the pretty girls who had been hovering ever since he started winning, and he handed her a few coins. "Here, honey, get us all another round and be sure to get something for you and your friend." As he said this, he slapped the other girl's hands away from his stash. She had been trying to pull something on him all night and it was getting old. He turned back to the group. "One more game, guys? Win it back?"

The strangers exchanged glances, but it was Gonzales who pushed his chair away from the table. "Count me out, friend. I've been trying to win it back for quite awhile and look where it got me. The only money I got left is for liquor and girls, and I ain't giving you a chance at taking that, too."

The other men took their cue from Gonzales and also declined to play any further. After they got their drinks, one disappeared into the dance hall while the other wandered over to the pool tables to see if he would have better luck there. Gonzales pulled one of the girls onto his lap. "I had no idea you were a sharp,” he told Donovan.

"A sharp? No, I was just lucky tonight."

"Uh-huh." Gonzales agreed in a way that made it clear he didn't agree at all. "Be careful," he said. "Just 'cause this ain't the city don't mean there's no dangerous characters. And this ain't like in the service either, where there's a CO to keep a man in line if he loses it. This is no-man's land, and if you pull a trick on the wrong guy, there's no telling where it will end."

Donovan forced a smile. "I like to think I'm a pretty good judge of character, but I'll be more careful, like you say."

Gonzales tossed back the rest of his drink and stood up, still clutching the girl. "So how about it?" he asked her. "You got a room here?"

The girl nodded, but her gaze was on Donovan and the mound of silver coins and federal bills he was scooping into his pockets. Donovan caught her glance and shook his head, so she turned back to Gonzales. "Sure, I got a room.”

As Gonzales and the girl walked away, the other girl looked at him expectantly, but Donovan had other things on his mind and craned his neck looking for the redhead. It had been awhile since he had seen her last. "Maybe later," he told the little Hispana. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a silver quarter. "If I'm interested later, I'll find you."

The girl tossed her black curls and walked to another table of card-players where maybe she could do better. Donovan stood and looked around the room. It was unlikely the redhead had left the club, although if she was unaffiliated with the house, it was a possibility. More likely she was in the dance hall.

He walked into the dark room, waiting for his senses to adjust to the dim light and loud music. The brace hindered his ability to move through the crowd, so he stayed near the wall, scanning the room as well as he could. The girl he was looking for was not among the twirling and gyrating dancers. He kept moving, but she wasn't among the people standing at the bar, or one of the ones sitting on the battered sofas watching the dancing. He was about to give up when he noticed a doorway leading to an even darker room. He had a feeling he knew what went on here, but it was worth a try.

He approached the doorway and peered inside. It was a tiny place, perhaps an office in better times, hazy with sweet-smelling smoke and lit by a dirty oil lamp. The room seemed populated by shadows, all of them engaged in smoking, snorting or injecting things. Before he could get his bearings, a tall man in the shiny, green-tinged remnants of a tuxedo came up to him. "We take silver or gold," he said in a pleasant tone that managed to convey the idea that silver and gold were not only the patron's best choice of payment but the only choice. "What do you like?"

Donovan was crafting a response when he saw her. Pale and ethereal, she sat on the floor on the opposite side of the room, staring at nothing with such an expression of vulnerability on her face that he was moved like he had been when he first saw her. "I came to get her,” Donovan said.

"Good. She just takes up space and never spends more than a dollar on her damn cheap huffers."

Donovan passed into the room and lowered himself as best he could onto the floor beside the redhead, who looked at him with a poorly disguised lack of curiosity. "Hey," he said, "What's your name?"


Donovan tried to scoot a little closer, the deathly pallor of her skin seeming to beg for the warmth of his own brown and healthy body. "That's a pretty name. Is it your real name, or just the one you go by?"

"What's it to you?" She turned away, as if hoping this would discourage him, and picked up a paper bag. She held it to her face, inhaling deeply.

Donovan put a hand on her shoulder. "Honey… Valerie, please don't do that."

"Why should you give a damn? You want to fuck me? It'll be twenty dollars. In silver."

"That's pretty steep," Donovan said.

She nodded in satisfaction and took another hit off her bag.

"I didn't search all over this place to buy you for an hour. I want to talk to you."

"Yeah, right. What are you, a fed?"

"No. I just think you're interesting."

"You don't even know me."

"I know you don't belong here." They sat in silence a few minutes before Donovan spoke again. "So what's in the bag?"

Valerie raised her eyebrows as if it were a foolish question. "Around here they call it a roadrunner. A little paint, a little coal diesel." She held the bag toward him in a ghostly parody of some childhood memory about sharing.

"I don't do that sort of thing. I do plenty of other things I shouldn't, so there need to be a few I don't. That way I'll have a chance of squaring things later with the Lord."

"I don't want to hear anything about the Lord," Valerie said. "It's because of him I'm in this place."

"I don't know that I'd go blaming God for my troubles."

"Well, I blame him for mine. I used to be a good girl. A good Christian girl." She held Donovan's gaze to make sure he understood this point. "My family had a small place in the mountains and it was a hard life, but we managed okay. But then my father died and it was just my sick mother and us four girls. We sold our stock and seed for medicine and were left with nothing."

Donovan took one of her slender hands. "I'm sorry."

"There was nothing to do but look for work. My oldest sister left saying she was going to join the Guard and send us money, but we never heard from her again." Valerie started to raise the bag to her face again, but Donovan's hand on her wrist stopped her. "So that left three of us to figure out some other way of making money. We had no skills and lived so far from everything. None of us could find work we could do that earned any real money except. . .” she waved a hand. "This. So we drew lots. I lost." She wrenched her hand from Donovan's grasp and inhaled again from the bag.

"Earning your bread, no matter how you have to do it, isn't going to kill you, but that stuff will.”

"I don't care. I'm as good as dead anyway. My mother and sisters take my money, but they don't talk to me. Not like I'm one of them. I'm just the whore who gives them money so they can keep living on their mountain being good Christians."

Seeing that the man in the tuxedo was glaring at them, Donovan stood up. "Come on." He reached a hand down and helped Valerie to her feet. He put an arm around her waist and guided her back into the noisy dance hall. "Is there someplace we can go? Somewhere a little quieter?"

Valerie looked at him a long moment, swaying from inhalants, moonshine and high heeled shoes that pinched her toes. Then she took his hand and led him around the perimeter of the dance floor to a door he hadn't noticed earlier. Beyond was a dim tunnel of doors. Valerie led him to a room at the end of the hallway. "This one's mine," she said, as she opened the door onto a tiny closet of a room, bare of decoration other than a few crumpled dresses on the floor in a corner.

"This wasn't what I meant."

"Hey, you said you just wanted to talk, right?" She shut the door behind them, stepped out of her shoes and flung herself on the bed. "If you meant what you said, it shouldn't matter where we are." She closed her eyes. "So talk."

Donovan did. Since there was no other furniture, he sat on the edge of the bed and told her of his adventures as a street kid in the city. He played with the tattered hem of her skirt while she told him of life on her mountain. He lay down next to her and wrapped a lock of her strange orange hair around his hand as he told her about farm life with Amalia and Carina. He said little about his days in the Guard, but she seemed to understand the need to keep a secret and didn't press him about the gaps in his story any more than he pressed her about the missing parts of hers. When finally it seemed there was no more to say, he leaned over and kissed her.

"It's not really twenty dollars," she said.

"I know."

"I just say that when I'm tired and I want to make a man go away."

"I kind of figured that."

"You don't have to pay me anything. I like you."

"Maybe I want to give you something, because I like you, too."

When Donovan left an hour later, Valerie was asleep and he had left under her pillow a ration book he had lifted earlier in the night, and a small gold piece worth considerably more than twenty dollars.

* * *

A clatter of pans and kettles roused him from a deep slumber. The thin walls of the tent where he had collapsed with Gonzales were no protection from the racket of breakfast being made. Wooden chests opened and slammed shut. Spoons pounded furiously against the sides of bowls. Pot lids clanged into place. Each sound felt like a blow to the head, like part of some larger plan to turn this terrible headache into agony.

He groaned, rolled over and tried putting his pillow over his head, but that was no good because now he couldn't breathe. And now that he was awake enough to think in a limping sort of way, it occurred to him that maybe all the noise of breakfast-making really did have some sort of motive behind it. Hadn't Melinda and Amalia been quieter all the other mornings they had camped? Surely it didn't require this much noise.

He sat up and pressed his face with the palms of his hands, wondering what time it was and how long he had slept. There was no light coming in through the walls of the tent, but he guessed dawn was not far off. In that case he had slept maybe, what, three hours? He looked at Gonzales, still snoring and oblivious to the commotion. He had a vague memory of Gonzales being a lot more drunk than he himself had been, singing and shouting during the rickshaw ride back into town and stumbling into seemingly everybody's campsite but his own. He had even gone into the wrong tent, waking a group of children and causing a big headache for Donovan as he tried to get the man into his own camp, against his protests that he knew where it was and "didn't need no help from no thieving card sharp."

Well, that headache was nothing like this one. How long had it been since he had been in the habit of drinking? Too long, his head and queasy stomach told him as he swayed to his feet. He needed coffee and some greasy eggs. He stumbled out of the tent and made his way to the campfire where Amalia and Melinda crouched together near the flames, keeping an eye on breakfast. They were quiet now, seeming to have run out of ways to make noise. They looked up as he approached, but said nothing. "Good morning," he mumbled, sitting down on one of the boxes that passed for seats near the fire.

Melinda raised her eyebrows but didn't return his greeting, instead bending back over her skillet of eggs. Amalia had been keeping an eye on the coffeepot, but now she scowled and walked away in an unrealistic imitation of having other matters to attend to. Donovan looked around, hoping Peterson or Diana could help break the atmosphere of feminine disapproval, but they were gone, their bedding neatly rolled and staged near the tent.

"Where did Diana and your father go?" he asked Melinda.

She had taken the skillet out of the fire, but kept stirring so she wouldn't have to look at him. "They went to get the animals."

Donovan remembered now that today was their last trading day, the day they would complete the bigger deals they had made and pick up any last items they needed in the town’s shops. Tonight they would be sleeping in the desert again, just their little group, alone under the stars. Suddenly Donovan longed to get back to the simple rhythms of country life. It would be good to get away from this ugly place.

Melinda spooned some eggs onto a plate and set the covered skillet into some warm ashes nearby. Then she removed the coffeepot from the grill over the fire and poured herself a cup. She must have heard Donovan's stomach growl because she gave him a pointed look. "Serve yourself. There's no waitress today."

Donovan moved stiffly as he fixed himself a plate and poured a cup of Amalia's strong coffee. He ate in silence, feeling like Melinda was analyzing his every move. Just when he was beginning to think he would suffocate under her disapproval, a jangle of harness and creaking of wheels announced the return of Peterson and Diana. They were each driving a cart, with Gonazales' horse, Melinda's pony, and Amalia's jennets tethered behind. Diana pulled her team to a stop, shrieked "Breakfast!" and hopped down off the box. Melinda pressed a plate and cup into her hands, and the girl fell to eating like a starving animal.

"Don't gobble your food, Diana.”

"It's all right," Peterson said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. "That's a fine girl you got there, you know."

"She'd be a bit finer if she minded her manners."

"Mind them for what? For afternoon tea at some fancy New York restaurant, buried under the rubble these past twenty years?" He tousled Diana's hair. "She's a growing girl who did a man's work this morning, so let her eat."

"Yes," Melinda said, "I suppose my poor baby is hungry, having to do work that should've been done by a man." She glared at Donovan as she said this, and he hoped she meant to include Gonzales in her condemnation of the useless men of their party.

"Speaking of men," Peterson said, attempting to ignore his daughter's poorly disguised hostility, "Where's Gonzales? Don't tell me he's still sleeping."

"He is." Melinda sipped her coffee, regal in her righteousness.

"Well," the old man scratched the back of his neck. "I hate to do it to the guy, but I guess I’m going to have to wake him up."

Diana jumped up. "Let me!" Before anyone could stop her, she darted over to the tent, opened the flap and poked her head inside. Loudly and off tune she began singing:

Que linda esta mañana
En que vengo a saludarte
Venimos todos con gusto
Y placer a felicitarte!

From inside the tent, the others could hear a shuffling, and then a mumbled, "Madre de Dios, mi hijita, cállate!"

Diana choked back a giggle and launched into the next verse.

"Cállate, Diana! Shut up!"

The girl squealed as a sock hit her in the face. She jumped back from the open tent and ran to hide behind her mother.

Gonzales lumbered out of the tent and looked around. "Damn! It's still dark out." He looked at Diana. "That sun ain't coming up for another hour."

"And there's a lot of work to be done before it does," Peterson said. "We brought your horse around for you."

"There's plenty of eggs," Donovan added. "Have some. And some coffee. You'll feel better."

Muttering under his breath that nothing was going to make him feel better, and how people got no business singing the Mañanitas song at such an ungodly hour, Gonzales stumbled toward the fire, and with shaking hands, poured himself a cup of coffee.

Melinda eyed him coldly, then turned her attention to her daughter. "What on earth was that you were singing?"

"Mañanitas," she replied, moving toward her abandoned coffee cup now that it seemed she would escape any punishment from Gonzales. "It's a song I learned from some of the kids in the market. It's like Happy Birthday."

"Only it ain't my birthday, kid." Gonazles sat down and stared dumbly into his cup.

"Behave yourself," Peterson said, "Or I'll send her to your house to sing it again when it is."

"I need that like a hole in the head. Where's those eggs?"

Sullenly, Melinda ladled a spoonful onto a plate and handed it to him.

"That's it?"

"You want more, you can get it yourself."

Gonzales ate his breakfast without further complaint. Peterson accepted a plate from his daughter and sat down, too. Everyone was finishing breakfast and coffee when Amalia returned. "The Sinclairs will be by with the oats in about an hour," she said. "And I heard there's good prices on baking soda, toothbrushes and work boots in the shops, so maybe we can stop at a couple places on our way out and see what they've got."

"Have something to eat, dear," Melinda said. But Amalia shook her head at the offer of eggs, and found only dribbles when she upended the coffeepot over her cup. She shrugged and began putting things into boxes and baskets for the trip home. Melinda jumped to help. "Why don't I do this while you make deliveries?”

Donovan stood up, trying to pretend his head wasn't pounding. "How about I take care of the deliveries so you can stay here and wait for the oats?"

"Okay," Amalia said without looking him in the eye. She turned away and went to harness the team. Donovan went after her, but found himself unsure what to say. She worked with the animals silently, the air so dense with her disapproval that it was almost a visible thing.

"You're mad at me," Donovan said.

Amalia tugged at a harness strap. "I have no right to be."

"But you are."


Donovan considered. "I guess I just don't see why."

"After the long conversation we had about not wasting money and how I hate people who carry on like Gonzales, you wonder why I'm disappointed in you?"

"Disappointed in me?" Donovan started to shake his head, but it hurt too much. "Don't talk down to me. I'm a soldier, not some ignorant yokel. How I spend my free time is my choice and my business."

"I guess that's why I'm disappointed," Amalia said, still refusing to look at him. "I thought you were smart enough to find more productive uses for your time than hanging around the bars."

"I don't have to justify myself to you."

"Of course you don't." Amalia checked the harness straps one last time. "I think that's what disappoints me most of all." She rubbed Regan's muzzle and clucked at Goneril. "So how long do you think it will take to make your deliveries? There's a lot to do today and we'd like to be on the road by noon."

Donovan wasn't feeling well enough to change mental gears this quickly. "I don't think it will take very long. Maybe I can do a pickup or two and just make the rounds."

"That's kind of what I had in mind."

"And then we break camp, hit the stores and go home?"


"Good. I'm ready to leave this place."

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