Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book One, Chapter Ten

It was another hot, cloudless afternoon. The dry winter had been a portent of a rainless spring and summer. With the well water lower than the women had ever seen, they decided to clear an irrigation line from the creek that had been clogged with silt for several years. Although the distance wasn't far, it was difficult work because the ground had hardened in the sun to the consistency of baked clay. When Donovan and Will hit a particularly bad patch they would pour a little water on it, but with water so precious they preferred to muddle along as best they could in the dust.

One afternoon, the clop of hooves and rattling of metal canisters caused Donovan to stand up from his work and look toward the drive. Will looked up at the same time and dropped his pick. "Who's that?"

The visitor was a dirty, brown-skinned boy driving a bony mule hitched to the most uncertain-looking vehicle Donovan had ever seen. It wasn't even a real wagon, just a raft of boards attached to what appeared to be a couple of old truck axles, complete with wheels and balding tires. The wagon bed had a hastily-built rim of stakes and baling wire around it to keep its cargo of covered plastic pails and old metal canisters from falling out as they bumped against each other on the rutted road.

"I'll go see what he wants," Will said, noticing the driver was about his age.

"No, you go tell Amalia someone's here and I'll talk to the boy," Donovan told him, but it was too late. Will had already run off. Donovan laid down his shovel and walked over, taking off his gloves and stuffing them in a pocket. The boy had parked his cart just outside the kitchen door. Donovan saw the boys exchange a few words. They fell silent as he approached.

"This is Jimmy Montoya," Will told him. "He says he lives on the north side of the valley."

"You've had a long drive. What can we help you with?"

"My dad said I need to talk to Miss Amalia or Miss Carina right away."

Donovan glanced at Will. "Go see if you can find one of them."

"I'll be right back."

"So are you the new hand?" Jimmy asked Donovan.

"Not all that new, but I guess compared to the rest of you, I am. How are things on your side of the valley?"

"Terrible. Everything's burning up-- the alfalfa, the beans, the chiles. We had no corn this year, the kitchen garden is ruined, the goats and cows are low on milk and we're afraid to plant our squash and pumpkins. Don't want to throw seed away, you know. But we got to eat and now the well is bringing up sludge, when it brings up anything at all."

"I take it you don't have a creek on that side."

"We have an arroyo, but it’s only full in the winter. This last winter, it never filled at all and we weren’t able to store any water in our tanks. We've been filtering the sludge from the well, but it ain’t enough, so we was wondering. . ."

"Jimmy!" Carina came running from the goat shed, with Will darting ahead like a calf. "Look at you, handsome! You're getting to be so grown up. Miles had better get home quick or I'll be getting me a new husband, I think."

Jimmy accepted Carina's hug and teasing good-naturedly. "Hi, Miss Carina. I was just telling your new hand here—"

"Donovan," Carina corrected him. "And he's not just a hand, he's family."

"Okay. I was just telling him our well's almost dry and we could sure use a little creek water."

"Of course," Carina said, motioning Jimmy down from the wagon. "Take as much as you need. It's not running real high this year, but when times are tough we help each other out, don't we?" She hitched his mule to a nearby post and herded him toward the door. "But I've got conditions on my water. No one can take it without first coming inside, having a little something to eat and giving me all the news."

Jimmy's shoulders sagged in relief. "It's sure hot out and I wouldn't mind a little rest before heading back."

"You'll get that, plus a bath, and maybe we can find you some clean clothes, too."

"I bet he'll fit something of mine," Will offered, following them into the kitchen.

"Good idea. Why don't you two go do that while I see about making us something to eat? Will you be needing a meal, Jimmy, or just a snack?"

"I ate my lunch in the wagon about an hour ago," Jimmy said. "So I ain't really starving or anything."

"Sounds like you just need dessert, then."

The boys took off down the hall and Carina started bustling around the kitchen.

"You seem to like that boy,” Donovan observed.

"I like all children. If they hadn't shipped Miles away, we probably would've had a dozen."

Donovan poured a glass of water. "I wonder how come the boy came all the way over here. The Petersons are closer. There must be other families on his side of the valley. If he goes far enough down this road he'll eventually come to where he won't have to ask anyone to take creek water."

Carina set out some dessert bowls. "The Montoyas probably got water from the Petersons last week and didn't want to bother them again so soon. They're a very proud family. They hate to look like they can't take care of themselves. As for why Jimmy didn't drive to the end of the property lines, take a good look at that mule and you'll have your answer. He's thin, poor thing, and the trip to get here was probably as much as he could bear. I'll have to take a look at that creature before I let Jimmy drive him back."

She was about to say more when the screen door burst open. "What kind of contraption is that outside?" Amalia asked, entering the kitchen with Tasha at her heels. "Looks hardly sturdy enough to get here, no matter where it came from."

"It's Jimmy Montoya's cart," Carina said. "They're low on water up there."

"And the boy is going to fetch it back in that? With that bag of bones pulling it?"

"It's probably sturdier than it looks."

"I guess we'll see, won't we?"

"Yes, we will." Carina stepped back and admired the desserts she had prepared. "What do you think?"

Amalia and Donovan nodded noncommittally at the six little bowls of layered nuts and preserves decorated with mint sprigs, but Tasha pulled a chair up to the counter and examined them. "These look fancy," she said. She did a quick calculation on her fingers. "Do we each get a whole one?"

"You sure do." Carina set the girl on the floor and moved the chair back to the table. "Now, tell the boys to come eat. I think they're in Will's room." When Tasha hesitated, Carina urged her on. "It's okay. Will has a friend with him, that's all. Go on and he'll introduce you."

Still uncertain, Tasha headed down the hallway. Amalia followed her with her eyes. "You wouldn't know she's such a tough little thing, as shy as she is."

"Being wary of strangers isn't such a bad thing for a girl," Donovan said.

Carina took some spoons out of a drawer and began setting the table. "Donovan, could you go get an extra chair? And Amalia, how about we mix up a pitcher of that powdered lemonade?"

"What is this, a party for the Montoya kid?"

"We haven't seen anyone from the north side in a long time, and it will be fun for the children."

Amalia raised her eyebrows. "Anything for the children, of course. Do you need me to get the lemonade out of storage or do you keep a can out here?"

"I have some here. I just thought I'd ask so you wouldn't go saying I never consult with you on anything."

Carina took a can out of a cupboard and started mixing lemonade powder with some cool water from one of the big kitchen crocks. Amalia, after watching the preparations in silence, went outside. Minutes later, she was back with a handful of herbs, weeds and grasses. Just then Tasha wandered back into the kitchen, a puzzled frown on her face. "Didn't find them back there, did you?" Amalia asked.

Tasha shook her head.

"Listen." Everyone in the kitchen stopped what they were doing. They could barely make out the sounds of running water and laughter from the far side of the garden.

Tasha's eyes widened. "Are they playing with the shower?"

Carina strained to look out the window but could see nothing. "I told Jimmy he could have a bath. . ."

"Well, I think it's turned into a water fight, but since it'll save us watering the garden, I suppose it’s okay."

While Amalia was saying this, Tasha slipped out the door. A minute later the whooping increased in volume, now clearly audible over the adults' voices.

"It sounds like they're having a good time." Carina set the lemonade pitcher on the table and began rummaging in the cabinet for matching glasses.

Amalia tried to arrange her grasses decoratively in an old vase she found under the sink. "They better enjoy it while they can. At this rate they'll be out of water in another minute or two."

Sure enough, the laughter soon died down and was replaced by excited whispering. A few minutes later, three damp children, two clad in towels, one wrapped in shirt of marginal cleanliness, trooped in the front door and scampered into the children's bedroom. Donovan caught a glimpse of them from his position near the pantry. "Looks like we're going to have a few puddles in the hallway."

"There's worse things to have in the house than happy children," Carina said. After a quick glance at her party preparations, she announced that she was going to fix herself up, too.

"Oh, no," Amalia mumbled. "We'll be waiting until next Thursday for you to be done primping."

"I heard that!" Carina called from down the hall. "It'll only take a second!"

Amalia and Donovan looked at each other. "Should we dress, too?" Donovan asked.

"Hell, no. My sister seems to have forgotten there's some real work to do around here, in addition to getting the Montoyas their water. Why she has to turn a simple bit of food and water into a gala event is beyond me."

They waited, sipping lemonade and fidgeting until a storm of running feet heralded the arrival of the children. They trooped in, hair still damp, but neatly dressed. Jimmy and Will were both wearing clean work shirts and cut-down pants, and Tasha was in a sleeveless silk blouse that had belonged to Amalia and Carina's mother, which with the addition of a ruffle and a sash made a passable party dress.

The boys scooted into chairs while Tasha climbed into hers in undignified fashion. Amalia poured them some lemonade. "Drink it slow because that's all we've got for today," she told them. "And don't eat until Carina gets here. It's bad manners to eat before your hostess sits down."

"Hostess?" Tasha frowned at the unfamiliar word.

"The lady who fixed up this party for you," Amalia clarified.

The children cast regretful looks at their desserts, but waited. "Where did she go?" Jimmy asked.

"She wanted to get dressed up, too."

"Why didn't you get dressed up?" Will wanted to know.

"Because there's still a lot of work to do. We're going to enjoy Carina's party, but after that we all need to get back to work, okay?"

All three children nodded and Jimmy added, "They're expecting me back tonight, so I guess I need to start filling those cans soon."

"We'll help," Amalia said. "But what does your father plan to do about the long term? You can't collect water in cans all summer."

"He's going to dig a new well any day now. He sent Carlitos to the reservation last week with a message for Alma Red Wing to pick a spot for us, but she was busy doing healing ceremonies so she couldn't come right away. Papá is hoping she can come find our water in a few days."

"Who is Alma Red Wing?" Donovan asked.

"She's a curandera. The best wise woman around." Jimmy said.

Amalia nodded slightly. "She lives on the reservation on the other side of the mountain. She does things for people, some of it real like midwifing, some of it magic like banishing the evil eye and such."

"She can cure susto." Jimmy added.

"Uh, yes. She can cure susto, a sort of jinx."

"I see."

Amalia went on. "They say what she's best at is water witching, and people around here have used her before. For the price of a goat or a few chickens she'll come out with her divining rod and tell you where to dig your well."

"Divining rod? That's a stick that points to water, right? Couldn't anybody do that?"

"You'd think so, but as much as I hate to admit it, Doña Alma is the only one I've ever known to have any success at it. You don't have to believe in magic, just your own eyes."

Donovan was getting ready to ask a question when Carina breezed into the room in a flowing blue dress, her hair loose, lips rouged, bangles jingling on her wrists. Tasha clapped her hands and was rewarded when Carina took off her locket and put it around the girl’s neck. As the girl examined the locket in wonder, Carina beamed at the assembled group. "What are we waiting for? Let's not let good food go to waste."

* * *

The sun was low in the sky before they had Jimmy and his rickety wagon back on the road. Carina had checked the mule and pronounced him healthy but dehydrated and undernourished. This led her to stuff every empty nook in the wagon with animal feed, much to Amalia's annoyance. Carina thought Jimmy should spend the night, but he swore he was expected home that evening and Amalia and Donovan supported him in this. "He's a big boy. He'll be safe enough out there and it's not like the mule doesn't know the way."

They sent him off with a wagon loaded down with water, hay and corn. Will and Tasha begged to know when they would see him again. "Why don't you come to the water-witching?" he said. "You can watch Doña Alma do her ceremony and there will be a well digging and a feast after."

The children turned eager eyes upon the grownups. "Can we?"

The adults exchanged glances. "Sure," Carina said. "We really should go and help with the work."

"Neighbors help each other," Amalia said, although there was a timbre to her voice that suggested she wasn't thrilled about it. "Let us know when Doña Alma is coming and we'll be there with food and shovels."

Jimmy grinned. "I'll tell Papá. I knew you'd want to help." He reached his arms toward Carina for a hug. "You may be the farthest away, but you're my favorite neighbors."

He flapped the reins on the mule's back and started the slow, plodding way toward home. The jugs and canisters didn't rattle this time, full of water and bolstered as they were by bundled hay. Will and Tasha ran a little way down the road, shouting their good-byes, and then they were alone again and everyone trooped back inside for dinner.

* * *

A few days later, Jimmy was back, this time on a pony. He had only enough time to relay the news that Alma would be doing her witching ceremony on Sunday, and then he was off to give the news to other neighbors.

Sunday morning everyone got up before dawn, fed the animals, milked the goats and had a cold breakfast of cornbread and milk. Amalia hitched Goneril and Regan to the large market cart and Donovan loaded all the tools they could think of.

Everyone was dressed for a festival, Carina in her usual blue, Donovan in his nicest summer slacks and shirt, the children in their only summer finery. Even Amalia had bowed to necessity and put on a yellow shift with a swirling hem that showed off her neat calves. The adults tucked bundles of work clothes into the wagon, in case they should be called upon to help dig the new well. They loaded the children in, then headed out as the sun streaked orange across the morning sky. The children soon fell back to sleep, nestled on grain sacks. The adults rode up front, saying little as they watched the valley come to life with the dawn.

It was a long way to the other side of the valley, past the expanse of the Peterson ranch, past the Garza estate, and onto another road through a neighborhood of abandoned homes, the remains of a trailer park and a gutted gas station. Then there was a pasture dotted with anemic-looking sheep, and finally some larger estates once again. Unlike the ranchos on the creek side of the valley, these were in dire straits, but only the Montoya's, near the end of the road, was on the brink of ruin. Everywhere the fields were parched and dusty, the animals thin and few in number.

Will and Tasha woke up, and on seeing their friend Jimmy, scrambled out of the wagon. After a quick introduction to his brother Carlitos, the children were off to parts unknown.

The adults smiled indulgently as the kids ran off, then Carina hurried to embrace each of the Montoya women in turn while Amalia and Donovan shook hands with the men and made inquiries about the nature of the well-digging and the tools that would be required.

"We'll know when Doña Alma gets here and finds our water," said José, the patriarch. "She'll not only tell us where it is, but how far down we'll have to dig to find it. Then we'll go a little lower than that as insurance against the next drought."

"We have an auger, so it won't be all shovels and sledgehammers," added Pete, the oldest son, who was in his teens and lived in terror of the military draft. "It's hand-powered, but the Garza boys think they can find a way to hitch the mule to it and save us all some sweat."

The Garza "boys" were all men in their forties, bachelor sons of petite Chata Garza, widow of Simón, killed years ago during the fighting in Tehran. The men were all on one form of medical discharge or another and lived in their childhood home. Their stated reason for not having married was that they wanted to help their mother with the ranch, and they were so friendly and helpful that no one dared hint that there could be any other reason for it, even as local daughters grew up and pined for husbands.

The Garzas were busying themselves with the drill, a pole and a set of harness straps when the Montoyas led Amalia and Donovan over. The men greeted Amalia, then welcomed Donovan and shook his hand. "Always nice to have another man in the valley.”

"Is Doña Alma here yet?" Amalia asked.

"No," José said. "She should be here soon, though. It's what, a little after eight?"

Amalia looked at her watch. "Past eight-thirty. Closer to eight forty-five."

Pete shrugged. "She said she'll come, so she'll come."

"We're forgetting our manners," José said. "My wife and daughter have made coffee and breakfast. Please go have some."

Knowing the Montoyas' poverty, Amalia and Donovan demurred, but when he insisted, they agreed that maybe some coffee would be good. As they walked toward the house, Donovan asked, "Can they really afford this? Coffee for everyone?"

"It doesn't matter if they can afford it or not. It's part of their hospitality. They've asked us for a favor and this is the favor they're doing for us in return. Even if this is the last coffee they'll ever see, they'll give it to us because it's good manners."

"Are all country people like this?"

"Like what?"

"You know, generous."

"Of course, if it's their neighbors. When these are the only people you can count on in times of need, you make sure to treat them right." She gave Donovan a quizzical look. "Aren't people that way in the city? I mean, not total strangers, but don't people in gangs help each other?"

"Not like this.”

"Well, out here we make sure to let our neighbors know we appreciate them, even when it's inconvenient or just a big pain in the ass."

Donovan laughed and suddenly Amalia laughed, too. "Yes, it is a pain in the ass sometimes. There. I've said it."

"Sounds like it needed saying."

Amalia stopped and sniffed the air. "But sometimes a little inconvenience pays off. That smells like real coffee, not the kind that's made out of chicory and dandelions."

"I wonder where they got it. Coffee’s getting hard to find in town."

"Maybe they have a stash of beans they roast up on special occasions. Let's hurry and get some, just in case there isn't enough to go around."

* * *

It was nearly ten o'clock before Alma Red Wing arrived. The compound was thick with the assembled neighbors of the valley. so when the children, who now numbered close to a dozen and were staking out the road, came dashing up the drive shouting, everyone milled around the low wall that marked the property line and pressed against each other to watch the cloud of dust on the horizon. Slowly the cloud resolved itself into a little party of Indians on horseback. In the lead was a short brown woman with deeply lined skin. Tassels and feathers were woven into her graying braids, and she was decked in layers of heavy turquoise jewelry, her shoulders wrapped in a bright red shawl. She sat her palomino easily, with a pride that gave her plain features an air of dignity. Beside her rode a tall man in a black velvet shirt and strings of animal bone necklaces. His face was weather-lined, but his hair still hung glossy and black below his shoulders, held in place around the forehead by a broad band of red cloth. He carried a drum strapped to his back, and out of respect to Doña Alma, he rode his horse just a step behind hers, his mount's neck even with the withers of her palomino. Behind them both rode a little girl in blue, solemn and acutely aware of her own importance as she struggled to match the easy dignity of her elders.

As the party turned in at the gate, the assembled crowd fell silent, bowed their heads and crossed themselves. Carina joined in unabashedly, but Amalia and Donovan stole glances at each other.

Alma led her party to where José and his family were assembled in front of a table covered in a red and green Indian blanket with bowls of food and cups of coffee laid out in offering. "Bienvenidos, Doña Alma," José said. "Mi famila les doy a usted y a su ayudantes bienvenidos y toda la hospitalidad de mi casa. Por favor, usa lo que tenemos como lo suyo. Dios les ha guiado a ustedes a este lugar."

"Do you know what he said?" Donovan whispered in Amalia's ear as José and Doña Alma ritualistically handed a cup of herbal tea back and forth.

Amalia nodded, watching the little welcoming ceremony with a hint of bemusement. "He says he and his family welcome her, for her to use whatever she needs, God brought her here, that sort of thing."

"And what are they doing now?" Doña Alma and the Montoya family seemed to be engaging in a complicated little ritual of bows and greetings.

Amalia shrugged. "Beats me. My father used to say there are almost no authentic Indian ceremonies left in these parts, so I suspect most of this is made up, just like the dowsing ceremony will be." Catching the look of disappointment on Donovan's face, she added, "But that doesn't mean it's no good. If it puts people in the right frame of mind, it serves its purpose."

"I thought you didn't believe in that sort of thing."

"I don't. But there's a big difference between not believing it works for me and not believing it works for anyone else. If it works for them and it doesn't hurt me any, I'm for it."

Doña Alma and her attendants had by now dismounted and handed off their horses to the Montoya children, who took them to the paddock. Meanwhile, José and his wife led the Indians in an improvised procession to the rocky and windswept area around the well, with the neighbors following in silence. When they were all gathered in a circle around the well, Doña Alma shooed the Montoyas away. She murmured a few words in a language only the Indians understood, and the little girl in blue handed her a leather pouch. The pouch contained blue cornmeal and Alma began sprinkling it in a broad circle around the old well, chanting in her native language as she went.

After she had gone around three times, the girl built a fire inside the circle and the man sat down on the ground and began tapping on his drum with the tips of his fingers. The drumbeats became louder as the fire fed off the sticks and herbs the girl fed it. She added some bundled sage, which gave off a pungent smoke, and now Doña Alma came over to the fire, chanting as the drumbeats increased in volume and tempo. She threw a handful of cornmeal into the fire, then some herbs and a powder that popped and made green sparks. Then she stood in the smoke, swaying and chanting.

This went on for awhile, the curandera standing over the fire while the drum beat its steady rhythm. The Montoyas and their neighbors found themselves lulled into a trance, swaying like the curandera to the rhythm. Then Doña Alma began a stomping dance around the perimeter of the cornmeal circle, first slow, then faster, throwing herbs into the fire as the drums beat louder and louder. Then suddenly all sound stopped and Doña Alma was left swaying and muttering over the flames, before the drums took up a beat again, soft and steady like a heartbeat.

For two hours this went on, Doña Alma alternating between frenetic dancing and solemn chants, the drummer keeping pace with her moods and the little girl feeding the fire, handing the curandera the items she needed without her having to ask. Finally, at no signal the crowd could discern, the girl moved away from the fire and knelt in a prayerful attitude. Doña Alma remained by the flames, chanting and moaning, but it was clear this time that she intended the fire to go out. Thirty minutes later it was reduced to glowing embers. From a flask hanging by a cord at her waist she drank a mouthful of a local moonshine and spat it onto the coals. The flames leaped up a final time, then died.

The little girl now brought Doña Alma a Y-shaped stick and the curandera rubbed it in the ashes of the fire. The crowd scattered as she prepared to leave the magic circle to find water. Across the field she went, chanting softly, trailed by the little girl, both of them following the direction indicated by the divining rod. Back and forth, they wandered through the parched stubble of cornfields, bean fields and hay pastures. Finally at what seemed the most unlikely spot of all, the rod appeared to jerk downward. The girl handed Doña Alma a bit of cornmeal and she tossed it on the spot. Then, just to be certain, she walked a circle around the area, holding the stick steady, alert to any signs of life. Again it twitched at the spot and again she drizzled a little corn. At the third time, she gave José, who had hurried over at such promising signs, a steady look.

"Su agua está aquí."

Everyone sprang into action. While José’s wife led Doña Alma and her assistants to the house for lunch, young Pete and a handful of men too old to help with the digging trooped off to the corral to slaughter goats for the evening's feast. José led the rest of the men and the hardier women, including Amalia, to the site of the new well and everyone started digging a shallow basin with the predicted water site at its center. After watching for a few minutes, most of the women went back to the house to wait on Doña Alma, tend to the youngest children, and begin cooking. The children old enough to no longer toddle scurried back and forth among the different activities, sometimes helping the adults by scraping coals from the ovens or by taking water and tools to the well diggers. They played as much as they worked, hiding in the barn, chasing each other through the fields and getting underfoot as the men dragged the giant tripod and auger to the well site and set it in place.

The drilling was slow, difficult work. They had to stop often to let the mule rest and to allow water to soften the baked earth. Some men wandered off to see how the goat roasting was coming along. Some, like Donovan and Amalia, merely waited, talking a bit and occasionally fanning themselves with their hats. About twenty feet down, the ground became damp and sandy. The work sped up. When the mule tired at fifty feet, everyone took a break while one of the neighbors went to get one of his own mules to take over the task.

Donovan and Amalia wandered in the direction of the house in search of Carina, who they found sitting under a tree near Doña Alma, talking quietly, each in a pidgin of the other's language.

"Señora Amalia," the curandera greeted her. "Mucho gusto."

"Good to see you, too," Amalia said, taking the offered hand and squeezing it. "Me agradezco que me rememora."

"I forget no one. The old woman's gaze settled on Donovan. "¿Quién es este hombre?"

Carina made a quick introduction. The woman smiled, but when Donovan took her hand in greeting, a flicker of fear crossed her face. She composed herself with a shake of her narrow shoulders, and her benevolent wise woman's smile returned. "How did you find us?"

"I was lost in the desert. I got lucky."

"Lucky." Doña Alma considered the word. "La suerte es cosa misteriosa. ¿No tienes familia que te extraña, que te busca?" She frowned and considered how to translate. "Your family. They do not look for you?"

"I'm an orphan.”

"We're his family now," Carina added. "Nosotros somos su familia."

The curandera pondered this. "Cuídale bien," she finally said, directing her attention to Carina, "Cuídale quien le elige para ser miembro de su familia."

Amalia and Carina exchanged curious glances at this pronouncement. "What do you mean?" Amalia asked, unwilling to go so far as to ask what business it was of hers who they chose for family, but the old woman said she was tired and asked for a fresh cup of water. They hurried away to fulfill her request, leaving Donovan behind.

After an uncomfortable minute of Doña Alma's black eyes boring into his own, he could stand it no longer. "Is there something wrong?"

"Eres peligro a todo este valle," she hissed, no longer the kindly curandera but an angry Indian woman with the gift of sight. The lines on her face deepened into a scowl. "Eres débil y desagradecido." She reached for a staff lying in the grass beside her and shook it at him. "Déjanos. No te quedas aquí."

Donovan was so startled he took a few steps back, his eyes wide with shock at such treatment. He didn't understand Spanish, but the hostility of her meaning was clear. He quietly murmured, "I'm sorry," then followed the women toward the house.

* * *

After a snack of some nuts and dried fruit, Amalia, Carina and Donovan wandered back to where drilling on the well had resumed. Donovan was still shaken by his encounter with the curandera and he hung back, standing apart from the women as he watched the proceedings.

The new mule was stronger than the Montoyas' and was rapidly gaining ground, mud already oozing around the bore. Finally someone stopped the mule and set her trotting in the opposite direction to bring the shaft back up. When the pipe reached the surface, the bit was removed and the hollow pipe dropped back down the hole. Sledgehammers came out. The rest of the work would be done by hand.

The men stripped off their shirts and took turns pounding the pipe into the mud. As it went deeper, additional sections were screwed on, checked for proper fit and painted with sealant. Then the pounding would begin again. The pipe slowly inched its way downward and mud started bubbling over the top. This caused some excitement, even as the men wielding the sledgehammers became splattered with each stroke of the hammer. "It don't matter," one said, "I have a feeling we'll all get a shower real soon."

There were enthusiastic nods of agreement as the mud turned to brown, silty water. A few of the younger men were so encouraged that they rushed the pipe to catch a the overflow and rub it on their faces and in their hair. "Out of the way," said lame Lupe Garza, who was taking his turn at the sledgehammer. "You'll get your water soon enough."

A few hammer blows later, there was a rumble and spindletop of water burst from the pipe, showering everyone in cold, clear water. The flow died down quickly, but the shouts of the workers brought people running from the house and barbeque pits. Children swarmed out of nowhere, squealing and rushing to dip their hands into the bubbling flow. Women cupped water in their hands to drink, then wet the heads of their babies with the remaining drops, like a blessing.

After a little while, Doña Alma arrived, followed by her attendants. She dipped a bundle of sage in the burbling fountain and flung the drops at the crowd, chanting a blessing. Then the little Indian girl handed her a white china cup and she filled it with fresh water. She sipped the water daintily, smiled on the crowd and pronounced it "Sano y dulce." Everyone cheered.

* * *

The more expert well-diggers remained at the site to pound the pipe deeper into the aquifer, then add a tap and pump. Everyone else returned to the house and prepared for the evening's festival. The goats were removed from the spits and carved, the meat stacked onto waiting platters. Quick-cooking foods that had been prepped earlier in the day were now put onto the fire. Bread came out of dome-shaped mud ovens and kettles of beans were pulled out of their beds of hot coals. Tables and benches were improvised, blankets spread on the ground for picnic-style feasting, dishes and silverware of all description set in a common area. Children scurried to and fro to set out utensils, cups, and bottles of home-brewed beer. A CD player and speakers were brought out, fresh with precious batteries, and on a side table were cakes, pies, cookies and a big bowl of rice pudding, all covered with a sheet to keep away flies and to minimize their temptation to small children.

When the men came trooping back, tired and wet, freshly scrubbed with well water, Señora Montoya sent three of the older children with a clean washtub to get water for everyone to drink.

All was almost ready when Doña Alma approached José Montoya. "Yo me voy.”

José's eyebrows went up in surprise. "No, Doña," he exclaimed. "Please stay. Disfrute la fiesta.”

The curandera was firm. "És su fiesta," she said. "Your party. For you and your family. Me voy ahorita."

He had no choice but to let her go. He sent Carlitos and Jimmy to get the horses and directed Pete to bring Doña Alma her pay— a goat and kid, which he tethered to the little girl's saddle. Then the entire company wandered down to the gate to see the wise woman off. Before she could mount her horse, her eyes met Donovan's in the crowd and her satisfied expression clouded. She beckoned to Carina. "Aquel hombre," the woman whispered, clutching Carina's arm. "Es peligroso."

Carina smiled and patted her hand. "No Doña. He's very kind."

"No es malo," the curandera tried to clarify. "Not a bad man, pero. . ." she frowned, searching for a way to make herself understood. "Falta coraje."

Carina stole an anxious glance over her shoulder at Donovan, who at the moment did indeed look like the coward Doña Alma claimed him to be.

"Es débil," the woman continued. And before Carina could protest that Donovan had taken his place at the well with a sledgehammer and wasn't weak at all, the woman added, "Es débil en el espíritu, en el alma." She tapped her chest for emphasis.

She sighed, mounted her waiting horse and placed a gentle hand on Carina's hair. "You know what I say?"

"Yes, but--"

"Bueno." Doña Alma kicked her horse with her heels and moved toward José, who had been watching her curiously. After flicking his eyes toward Carina, he gave Doña Alma a bow and made a small speech thanking her for saving his farm and family. The curandera accepted his thanks, blessed him and each family member individually, offered a blessing to the assembled crowd and then moved her horse onto the road. Her attendants fell in behind her, the goats bleating, their bells jingling. The crowd watched them retreat down the road until they were a cloud of dust mingling with the setting sun.

"Bendígala, Dios!" someone said aloud.

"Yes," someone else chimed in. "God bless her."

"And God bless the food," José added. "Let's go eat."

* * *

The feasting went on past sundown, and after everyone had his fill, someone pulled out a guitar and someone else grabbed an accordion. Tables, chairs and benches were moved out of the way for dancing. Donovan didn't know the country dances and sat out at first, watching as Carina and Amalia danced to the Spanish and native rhythms of the local music, taking their turns with the Garza boys and each of the men in turn. Although Carina was an enthusiastic dancer, it surprised him that Amalia was the more graceful one. He tried to ignore both women's increasingly frequent glances toward him, embarrassed that he didn't know these local dances.

Diana ran up to him. "Aren't you going to dance?" She tugged his hand.

"I don't know how to dance to this kind of music."

She furrowed her brow in confusion. "It's just ordinary dancing. Come on."

With a little patience and a lot of laughter, Diana soon had Donovan doing some of the simpler steps, but as he moved through the crowd with her, he still didn't feel confident in approaching Amalia, who obviously knew these dances well. At last he felt like he could cut in on Carina, though. He handed off Diana to Lupe Garza. "Isn't this fun?" Carina said, clasping his hand for the twirling maneuver that Donovan was still having difficulty with. Fortunately for his ego, she was no better.

"It would be more fun if they played something I knew how to dance to."

"It doesn't matter if you know the steps," she said, demonstrating by missing a beat in the music. "See? None of us are any good, either. We don't get enough practice."

"Your sister is good." Donovan looked to where she was executing a perfect twirl with Grandpa Peterson.

"She doesn't count. She can dance to anything."

Suddenly Lupe cut in. "She wants to dance with you again," he told Donovan, depositing Diana in front of him and leading Carina away.

"Is that true?"

"You're better than he is."

"He must be pretty bad, then."

"He steps on my feet."

The musicians were tiring. They finished a song, and then stopped for a break. Someone put on a CD and although Donovan didn't know the song, he knew the style. He had danced to this type of music as a kid. Diana launched into the dance with enthusiasm, bouncing and swaying as if it were a song written just for her.

Donovan scanned the group. Carina was dancing with José, but Amalia was gone. He caught a glimpse of her yellow dress by the refreshment table and thought she looked unhappy. He handed Diana off to Pete, who had been dancing with a tall, aggressive girl who appeared to be making his life miserable. It obviously wasn’t easy being one of the only teenage boys around. Rid of Diana for the moment, he moved toward the refreshment table, but by now Amalia had wandered into the fields, her pale dress visible against the dark of the land. He came up behind her. "Why did you leave? I hadn't gotten to dance with you yet."

"You danced with Carina. I figured if you wanted to dance with me, you would’ve."

"It's a little intimidating to cut in on someone who's so good."

"That didn't put anyone else off, and I'm not so good as all that. Anyone can do it."

"Teach me, then."

"Out here?"

"Why not?"

She laughed. "All right. What do you want to learn? You were doing okay there at the end."

"Show me how to do that twirl thing you were doing with Peterson."

She walked him through the moves. Back at the party, the band started up again and the strains of their instruments carried faintly to the drought-hardened bean field. They picked up the beat and Amalia danced with real enthusiasm this time. When the song ended, she leaned back in Donovan's arms. "That was nice. You dance well."

"It's easy when you have a good partner and no one watching."

Amalia was silent for a long time. "Thank you for following me out here," she finally said. "I was feeling lonely."

"With so many people around, I don't see how."

"Alan was a good dancer. Sometimes parties bring back too many memories."

"I'll dance with you anytime you want. Or anything else you might like. Loneliness is optional, you know."

Amalia pulled away. "Save your flirtations for the girls your own age, or haven't you noticed them watching you tonight?"

"I'm not interested in the local girls. They're all looking for husbands."

"And you'd rather have fun without the commitment."

"You make it sound like a crime."

Amalia considered. "No. I think I'm beginning to understand the temptation."

* * *

It was past midnight when they hitched their team and headed home. The children slept soundly even as the wagon bumped over the road. Carina was too tired to talk, and Amalia seemed glad to not have to speak. Donovan watched her out of the corner of his eye as he drove. Cautiously, he took her hand and was surprised that she didn't pull away and even seemed to smile a little in the faint light of the stars. The warm night air was gentle on his skin, and when he breathed, the clear sky, the distant stars and the desert breeze came into his body with a rush that intoxicated him.

It was a letdown to arrive at the ordinary little farm. Seeing that Carina and Amalia were tired, he offered to put up the animals. By the time he returned to the house, he felt certain everyone would've gone to bed. He was surprised to find Amalia set up with the book and lamp in the living room, Carina and the sleepy children on the sofa. "They insisted," Amalia said. "But you don't have to stay up if you're too tired.

Although whittling had become Donovan’s new evening project, he didn't trust himself with the woodcarving knife at this late hour. He found his latest attempt at knitting and settled into a chair. Amalia picked up her knitting and opened Pride and Prejudice to where they had stopped the night before. "But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before. . .'"

Donovan pretended not to notice the occasional glances the sisters were exchanging and tried instead to remember what count he was on, when to knit and when to purl, but it had been so long since he had knitted last that he couldn’t keep it all straight.

"'All were struck with the stranger's air, all wondered who he could be. . .'"

Well, it didn't matter how it looked, since it was just for him. He would knit straight through and see how that turned out, but as he listened to Amalia's clear soft voice, even the simple act of knitting failed him and he let the needles drop into his lap.

Amalia stopped reading and looked around. "I guess that's enough for tonight."

"I'll put the kids to bed," Carina offered.

For some reason Amalia blushed. "We'll do it like we've always done." She headed for the children's room with Tasha in her arms while Carina pulled Will off the sofa. She tossed a glance over her shoulder at Donovan. "Don't stay up too late."

Donovan thought he detected something coy in her manner, but was too tired to puzzle it out. "Not much chance of that. I'm going to bed as soon as I can find my candle."

"Take the lamp. We already have one lit in the children's room, so we don't need this one." Without waiting to see if he would take the lamp or not, she guided Will to his room. Amalia had already gotten Tasha into her nightgown and was tucking her into bed. "Don't worry about that," Carina said. "I'll take care of it."

"I don't mind."

A look passed between them. "Wait long enough and it will be too late."

Amalia looked at the floor. "You like him, too."

"It hardly matters whether I like him or not. I've still got a husband."

"You won’t be jealous?"

"Of course not."

Amalia kissed Tasha on the forehead, then went into the bedroom she shared with Carina and changed into a heavy silk robe that had once been her mother's. She paused in front of the mirror and ran a comb through her hair, then on impulse put on a dab of Carina's lipstick. She smiled at her reflection and was relieved to see that in the dim light of the oil lamp, she still looked almost like the young woman who had once been thought a beauty. That was another lifetime ago, but maybe everyone was right, that you sometimes had to take a chance, take happiness where you found it.

She padded on bare feet down the hall, passing the children's room where Carina was telling a story in soft, measured tones. She stopped outside Donovan's room. He had left the door ajar, whether from carelessness or expectation, she couldn't be sure, but it didn't matter why the door was open, or why he was still awake with the glow of the lamp spilling out into the hallway. All that mattered was that the door swung inward at the pressure of her fingertips. She stepped inside and shut the door softly behind her.

No comments: