Friday, December 29, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book One, Chapter One

It was the bells that first alerted her to the presence of the stranger—goat’s bells jangling, the sound carrying clearly through the desert night. Amalia barely heard. She bent her head over her book and continued reading aloud. "When I came home from this journey, I contemplated with great pleasure the fruitfulness of that valley, and the pleasantness of the situation; the security from storms. . ."

There it was again, clearer this time. She looked up, Defoe forgotten. Her eyes, too tired for someone only in her forties, met those of her younger sister Carina, and they shared an unspoken question. Was it a coyote, or something more dangerous?

Before either of them could speak, they heard the bells again, this time accompanied by the frantic braying of a donkey. Amalia jumped to her feet, dumping her knitting to the floor, and turned off the battery-powered lamp. Carina reached in the dark for the oil lantern and lit it with a battered lighter she kept in her pocket. "I’ll be out in a minute," she whispered.

Amalia grabbed her shotgun and stepped outside. She looked around and nervously ran a hand through her short, fading hair. The night was clear and the waning moon gave plenty of light to see by, but after the luxury of an electric light, her eyes needed to adjust to the night. The goats had calmed down, but now she heard a commotion from the chicken coop. Maybe it was just a coyote, after all. She slipped the safety off her gun and started walking in the direction of the sound.

She covered the distance with the fast, sure strides of a much younger woman, one accustomed to walking everywhere, but before she could enter the chicken run, a shadow emerged from the open door of the coop. Amalia sucked in her breath. This was no coyote. She raised the gun. "Drop it and stay where you are."

The figure gasped in surprise and dropped the squawking chicken. He made a slight motion but didn’t run or speak.

"Who are you? Come here where I can see you!"

The shadow swayed slightly.

"I said come here," Amalia repeated. "If you think I'm scared to shoot a man, you're wrong."

At a sound behind her, Amalia wheeled about in panic. Did the thief have a partner? No, it was only Carina, long pale hair flying, pistol drawn, running to join her. Amalia turned back to her prisoner, only to find him gone—loping toward the creek with an odd limping gait, gasping for breath with every step. Amalia cursed and took off after him. A man who knew she had chickens, goats, and a donkey was not a man she could let get away.

She didn’t have far to run. The man stumbled over a clump of weeds and fell with a wrenching scream that would’ve made a gentler person than Amalia cringe. She trotted over with a snort of satisfaction and leveled the gun at his chest. "Don’t even think of trying anything, you son of bitch."

The man nodded, gasping as if too close to the brink of death to try any tricks. He attempted to speak, but only a dry rasping noise escaped his lips. He tried to cough, but the effort seemed to cause him pain because he gave a little cry and collapsed in a tearless whimper.

Carina caught up to them, bringing the lantern, and she held it up so they could get a better look. The stranger didn’t appear dangerous. He young and lanky, of indeterminate race, not bad looking but pale underneath his toffee-colored skin. He flinched at the light. "Please help me."

Carina, always quick with her sympathy, took a step closer. "Look," she said. "He’s bleeding."

Amalia was less impressed by the blood than by his clothes. "Good. Maybe he'll bleed to death and save us the trouble of shooting him. Can’t you see he’s wearing a Guard uniform? I bet he's not alone. The bastards are here to rob us."

"No," the man gasped. "I’m alone. I swear."

It was all the same to Amalia. "Then we need to kill you so you don’t go back and lead them here." She had relaxed her grip on the shotgun, but now she leveled it at his chest.

"Amalia, no. He’s harmless."

"Harmless as a snake."

The man squirmed. "I’m a deserter. They’ll kill me if I go back. Why would I betray you?"

"He’s right," Carina said. "There’s no need to kill him."

"You believe him?" Amalia was incredulous. "Even if he's telling the truth, what are we supposed to do? Maybe he won’t go back and tell the Guard, but he’ll tell someone, sooner or later. I don’t like this either, but it has to be done."

The man struggled to his knees. "Please. If you’re going to kill me, at least help me stand so I can die like a man. And could I maybe have a drink of water first? I’ve been in the desert three days and had no water since yesterday. I don’t want to die thirsty."

Carina turned on Amalia. "We can’t do this." She set the safety on her pistol and shoved it into the waistband of her pants. "Is this how we were raised to treat people?"

"We were raised in another time, Carina."

"Well, these are pretty bad times if we can’t give a drink of water to a man who is hurt. Things aren't so bad we can’t at least clean his wounds."

"I’d be grateful forever if you helped me." The man turned pleading eyes on Amalia. "I can help you with your farm. You won’t be sorry."

"We don’t need any help around here. We don’t need anyone."

"That’s just not true." Carina kicked the ground in exasperation. "You know, maybe if someone had treated your husband with kindness when he deserted--"

Amalia sucked in her breath.

"If someone had taken care of him, maybe. . ."

"Shut up!" Amalia now looked as likely to shoot Carina as the stranger. "How can you compare. . . oh, just shut up!"

"Fine. Go on and shoot him, then. What do I care?" She set the lantern on the ground. "You’ll need this so you can see to dig the grave. I’m sure you'd have wanted someone to do as much for Alan." She affected a toss of her head and stalked off into the darkness.

Amalia turned back to her captive. She was quivering and breathing as heavily as if she had been running. Her palms were wet—too wet to get a good grip on the trigger. She stared deep into the man’s eyes, then turned away in disgust. "Wait here," she said. "I’ll go find you something you can use as a crutch."

* * *

Rescue is a tactile thing. Donovan knew without opening his eyes that he was safe. Everything from the soft pillows and mattress to the fresh-smelling sheet and the steady breeze on his cheek told him that he had found not just refuge but luxury. He hardly dared open his eyes for fear it would turn out to be a dream, but the rumble of his stomach and the soft tearing sound nearby told him that this was no fevered illusion. Slowly he opened his eyes. His gaze fell upon a woman, her smooth blonde hair drawn into a knot at the nape of her neck. She sat in a chair at the side of the bed, her head bent over a basket from which she took clumps of wool and tugged them into little puffs, hence the soft sound he had heard. This task seemed to completely absorb her, but she must have sensed she was being watched because she looked up.

"Hello, stranger." She set her work basket on the floor and put a cool hand on his forehead. "How are you feeling?"

Donovan tried to answer but found his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. The woman took a glass off a nearby table and helped him sit up. He tried not to cry out from the pain in his ribs and shoulder, instead focusing on the glass she held to his lips. He sucked at the liquid greedily, even though it tasted strange, both sweet and salty with an odd grassy flavor he couldn't place.

"Enough." The woman pulled the glass away. "Let's make sure you hold this down okay before you have any more." She eased him back onto the pillows. "How are you feeling?" she asked again.

"Thirsty. Hungry."

"Does anything hurt?"


"What's your name?"


"I'm Carina. Do you know where you are? Do you remember how you got here?"

"I'm at a house in the desert. A place with a creek. I walked a long way from the main road to get here."

"Why didn't you stay on the road?"

"They would've found me. They would've shot me for stealing their truck and deserting."

"You nearly died anyway." Carina pulled back the sheet and examined his bandages.

"At least in the desert I stood a chance. I got lucky."

"Lucky my sister Amalia didn't shoot you. Lucky you didn't displace one of these broken ribs and puncture an organ. Lucky that the infected gunshot wound in your shoulder didn't gangrene, and lucky you didn't bleed to death from the cut on your leg. It looks more recent than the other wounds. What happened?"

"A stupid accident after the truck ran out of gas."

She fussed with the ends of the bandage binding his rib cage. "Well, you were very lucky. How's your stomach feeling? Any pain? Nausea?"

Donovan shook his head. "Does this mean you'll give me something to eat?"

"Yes, but no solid food today. And if you feel at all sick, let me know." She went into another room and came back with extra pillows. With a bit of effort on her part and a lot of gasping and pain on his, she got him into a sitting position, resting against the mound of pillows. She handed him the glass he had been drinking out of before. "Think you can manage it yourself this time?"

Donovan took it gingerly and lifted it to his lips. Carina smiled. "I'll get you something to eat."

He drained the glass and let it fall into his lap, then he looked around. The room was small, its plastered walls nearly bare of decoration. Through a window framed by blue curtains he could see a shady courtyard, and another window offered a view of scrubland and distant mountains. Bookcases lined an entire wall, and in the far corner a tabby slept curled on an upholstered chair. Beside the bed was a table with an oil lamp, a book and a surprise luxury-- a small electric fan. This and not the open window was the source of the steady breeze he had been enjoying. Donovan smiled, not sure how he had come to merit such an indulgence.

A wonderful smell suddenly riveted his attention— a tempting aroma of chicken and garlic. His stomach growled so violently he worried it might leap out of his body and he put a hand on his belly to quiet it. He had been groggy before, but now he was fully awake, straining for the sound of Carina's footsteps. He didn't have long to wait. Carina stepped briskly into the room carrying a tray. "I hope you're hungry."

"I'm so hungry I could eat your cat."

"I don't recommend you try it. She's probably stronger than you right now." Carina set the tray on the nightstand. "You're going to have to let me feed you. I don't think you're ready to handle a spoon." Donovan submitted to the indignity of being fed with as little self-consciousness as a baby bird. He couldn't make out what he was eating, but it seemed to be some kind of gruel flavored with chicken stock and garlic. He was so hungry it could've been mud and he would have been grateful. When he finished, he was given the added treat of a cup of cool herbal tea, slightly sour and sweetened with honey. He could handle the cup on his own and Carina watched as he sucked it down.

"You'll probably start feeling sleepy in a few minutes. I put some things in there that should help you rest."

Donovan handed back the cup and lay back against the pillows with a sigh. "I don't think I need any drugs to help me sleep. You've been very kind. I don't think I can ever do enough to repay you."

Carina placed a hand on his forehead. "Don't think about that right now. I'm going to do some work around the house, but if you need me, just call."

Donovan nodded and started to say something, but the effect of the tea and warm food was overwhelming. He closed his eyes and went to sleep.

* * *

"You gave him some of the bouillon?"

Donovan recognized the voice and tensed under the covers. The women were in the next room and probably couldn't see him, but he kept his eyes closed and remained still, just in case.

"Well, yes," said Carina in reasonable tones. "What would you have had me do? He shouldn't have solid food yet, so I couldn't use the dried meat. Should I have killed a chicken and made soup from it instead?"

"Of course not," said Amalia. "You cure chickens, you don’t kill them. It's just that it's so hard to get bouillon. There's never any in town, so we have to be careful with it."

"I think I know that as well as you do. Don't worry, he won’t need much. I made an atole for him and he kept it down okay. He'll be on solid food soon."

"I just wish it were someone else's food he was eating."

"Don't be stingy. He'll be a big help to us once he's well. You know we can't run this place alone. It was hard enough after Dad died. And now without Mom. . .” Her voice trailed off. "And there's no telling when Miles will be discharged, so we can use the help."

"Right now he's no help at all. He's just a drain on our food sources and a lot of extra work for you."

"I don't mind."

"Of course you don't," Amalia said. "But while you're in here giving this guy alcohol rubdowns for his fever, I'm out in the fields alone."

"It won't be forever. His fever was down today and I think he can help us soon with indoor things like cleaning and carding that wool I got from the Petersons. He can sort beans for cooking, he can make corn ristras, bundle herbs for drying. . ."

Amalia mumbled something that Donovan couldn't make out.

"Let's not argue," Carina said. "You agreed to help me with his bandages."

Donovan tried to mimic the deep regular breathing of sleep as the women entered the room, then he opened his eyes and smiled sleepily. "What time is it?"

"Time to change your bandages and move you around a bit," Carina said. She pulled off the sheet and helped him sit up. She ran her hands along his ribcage with a light, firm touch and seemed satisfied. "Any change to how you feel? You haven’t tried to get up, have you?"

Donovan shook his head.

"Let’s have you sit all the way up and put your feet on the floor. I can get a better look at this shoulder that way, and there's no reason for you not to move around so long as you're careful."

Sitting all the way up and turning around took more effort than just sitting up enough to eat. Donovan cringed and leaned heavily on Carina, but finally he was sitting up straight, feet planted on the floor. He would’ve sighed with relief if it hadn’t hurt so much.

Carina picked at the bandage on his shoulder, frowning at the amount of blood and fluid that had seeped through. She asked Amalia for a pair of scissors. With a few quick snips, the bandage fell in ribbons to the floor and Carina examined the oozing hole in his shoulder. "How long ago were you shot?"

"About two weeks before I deserted."

"Amalia, hand me the little flashlight."

Donovan raised his eyebrows in surprise when he saw the flashlight, but said nothing as Carina used it to peer at the hole more closely.

"Do you know if they got the bullet out?"

"What?" Donovan’s mind had been elsewhere.

"The bullet. Did they remove it, or do you think it might still be in there?"

"I think they got it. I really don’t know. I bled a lot and passed out. When I woke up, I was all bandaged up and lying in the ward. I assume they took it out."

"It isn’t healing well, if they did. I poked around while you were unconscious, but maybe I need to look again."

"Maybe it's just that he hasn't given the wound a chance to heal," Amalia suggested. "Deserting his base, running around the desert, stealing chickens, and getting dehydrated isn't exactly a recipe for quick recovery."

"I hope that's all it is," Carina agreed. She met Donovan’s eyes. "You've had your autoimmune vaccination, right? No exposure to any weird new diseases that you know of-- LVV, Toronto Flu, any of that?"

"I’ve had the Emerging Virus series and the doctors say there’s been no new strains since 2039."

"The Guard hasn’t updated its vaccine regimen in three years?"

"They give us our boosters. We don’t need anything else for domestic service."

Carina murmured skeptically and returned her attention to the open wound. "I hate to stitch this up when it's still draining, but. . .well, let's just clean it and cover it again and see what it does in the next twenty-four hours. If it doesn't look any better tomorrow we may want to do a bit of exploratory."

Amalia nodded as if this were a reasonable decision and handed her a bottle of fluid with a long thin straw at the top. "You better hold onto something," she told Donovan. "No one ever likes what she's about to do."

"It's not so bad," Carina said. "It's just saline. Weak salt solution. It'll feel uncomfortable, but it won't hurt as bad as anything you've already been through."

Carina was right that the sensation was not so much painful as odd and uncomfortable. He tried not to squirm, although he found the sight of blood and pus running down his arm more disturbing than the actual procedure. Amalia wiped the dripping mess with a towel. "I don't like the look of this."

"Me either." Carina took the bloody towel and sniffed it, then wrinkled her nose in distaste. "This is going to require some aggressive action if it's not better by tomorrow."

Amalia handed her another wound-flushing bottle, this one filled with a brownish substance. Carina fixed Donovan with a steady look. "This one will hurt. I'm not kidding. But there's no way around it, so just do your best to be still and it'll be over in a few seconds."

"Hold my hand," Amalia told him.

Donovan did as he was told and gripped her hand so hard he wondered that her bones didn't crack. He closed his eyes, sucking in deep ragged breaths, too distracted by the pain in his shoulder to notice the duller pain in his ribs. But as Carina had promised, it was over quickly and then she was pressing a cloth against his shoulder. "It's okay," she said. "We're done, except for a bit of ointment, and I promise it won't hurt. It's got some herbs in it that will numb the pain.

She took a little jar from Amalia as she talked and scooped out a bit of odd-smelling jelly, then rubbed it around and partly inside the bullet hole. As she had promised, it took the knife edge off the pain, leaving only a dull ache. Then Carina and Amalia bandaged him, one woman holding a thick pad over his shoulder while the other tied it in place with strips of cloth. Finally Carina stepped back and examined her work. "I wish I could be more optimistic about that shoulder," she said, speaking as much to herself as to anyone else. "There were no red streaks, though, so maybe it's not as bad as it looks."

She turned to Amalia. "Let's wash up and do his leg now, then we can think about lunch."

The gash on the leg was long and deep, criss-crossed neatly with black stitches. Donovan was startled. "How did those get there?"

"You spent your first two days alternating between delirium and unconsciousness. Trust me, you didn't feel a thing."

Donovan pondered this as Carina examined the gash, cleaned the outside of it and slathered it with ointment. "It's pretty warm," she remarked as she reached for the roll of cotton bandaging. "I guess I need to keep a close watch on this one, too."

Soon Carina had him bandaged again and she seemed relieved to be finished. "Thank you," Donovan said. "I had no idea I would be so much trouble."

"Oh, it's no trouble," Carina said, but Amalia raised her eyebrows and began putting the medicines and instruments back onto a tray.

"I guess I'm lucky I ended up at a doctor's house."

Carina started. "I’m not a doctor. My husband is, though." When a flicker of worry crossed his face, she added, "I'm a veterinarian. Not quite the same, but I know what I'm doing." She pointed to the jars and bottles Amalia was gathering onto the tray. "Our mother was a very accomplished herbalist. She could cure almost anything."

"Except herself," Amalia said. She picked up the tray and headed out of the room. "Let's wash up and eat. I’m hungry and I’m sure you are, too."

Carina stared after her. "Mom caught a strange fever last winter," she explained. "Nothing we did seemed to help. It's been hard for my sister."

"It can't have been easy for you, either."

"No, but I still have a husband. He was drafted a long time ago, but he'll come home some day and we have big plans." Carina shook herself a little. "But that's enough about me. We need to be thinking about lunch."

Donovan nodded and made motions as if he would lie down. Carina helped ease him onto the pillows. "We'll bring you something to eat in a few minutes."

She picked up the soiled bandages from the floor and made her way toward the door. Donovan's voice stopped her. "Carina?"


"I'd like to help out a little." He tried to think how to say it without sounding like he had been listening to their earlier conversation. "If you've got any kind of work that a guy could do lying in bed, I'd be really privileged if you'd let me do it."

* * *

After a lunch of posole and a cup of Carina’s herbal tea, Carina set her workbasket of laundered fleece by the side of the bed and gave Donovan a demonstration of how to tease the wool for carding by pulling each lock apart and picking out stray debris. It was simple enough, and Donovan got to work. He cleaned wool for half an hour before the tea, tedium and general weakness of his body caught up with him and he fell asleep. When he awoke the sun was low in the sky and he could smell food in the kitchen. He guessed they were having posole again, but there was another smell too, that he couldn’t place. It was pleasant, and he got back to work on the wool, hoping he might finish before dinner and charm an extra portion.

He had teased all but the last three locks when Carina came to check on him. Her eyes lit up with pleasure at the sight of the fluffy cloud of wool ready for carding. "This is great. I looked in on you earlier and you were asleep, so I didn’t think you’d finish before dark."

"I don't want you to think I’m lazy."

"Why would I think that?" Carina and Donovan each took one of the two remaining locks of wool and fluffed them out.

"I’ll be better soon, and then I can pay you back for everything you’ve done for me."

Carina gathered the cleaned wool into the workbasket. "You should be thinking about getting healthy again. Then if you think you owe us anything, we can work something out." She started toward the door.

"Aren’t you going to show me what to do with that next?"

Carina hesitated, resting the basket on her hip. "Let’s see how you’re feeling after dinner. I don’t want you doing too much, and carding might make you use that shoulder. You should rest."

"This kind of work is restful."

"I guess it is. It sure beats working out in the fields." She set the basket on the chair and started toward the kitchen. "I’ll show you how to card it after dinner. It’s something you can do without a lot of light, so it’s a good evening chore."

Dinner was posole again, but it was good, and Donovan didn’t mind. The broth was thicker than the soups he had been given at the mess hall and had plenty of hominy, vegetables and bits of chicken. He wondered where the women got such good food. Surely they didn’t grow or raise everything on their little farm, just the two of them. They must be hoarders. That was why Amalia was so suspicious of him. The flashlight and the little battery-powered fan by his bed explained it all. They probably had a stash somewhere of food, medicine, batteries and who knew what else. Maybe they even had gold. No wonder they feared the Guard. Guardsmen would take everything.

Donovan's thoughts were interrupted by Carina entering the room, accompanied by the pleasant smell he had noticed earlier. He examined the bowl she set in front of him.

"What's this?"


"These aren't like any apples I've ever seen. What did you put in them?"


"What's that?"

"A spice. It used to be very common."

So they hoarded spices. If they had a lot, they were rich. "I see," Donovan said, digging into his apples with enthusiasm.

"We trade for spices sometimes," Carina said quickly. "Being a veterinarian is a big advantage in the country."

"So there are other farms out here?"

"A few farms, a church, a small mill, a couple towns and a reservation are all within a few days' travel, but we don't leave often, now that Mother is gone. I haven't been to town to trade or collect my ration books in months."

"And you can make a go of things, without your ration books?"

Carina twisted her hands. "This time of year, when things are growing, it's not so hard. Especially if we can trade or get some work."

"What do you usually trade? When you can, of course."

"Fruits and vegetables, in season. Preserves. Goat cheese. Eggs. Alfalfa. We don't raise sheep but we trade for wool with some of our neighbors here in the valley. Then we make yarn and knit socks and sweaters to sell. If we need something that will bring in a little more money, we might trade a picture, a piece of old jewelry, some of Mom's herbal remedies or a pair of Dad's old shoes." She shrugged. "We trade what we have, like everyone else."

"I see," Donovan said again. He could tell by the way Carina was darting her eyes about the room that they had more than she was telling. This was a good place to make friends and lie low. He flashed Carina his most disarming smile. "This is the best dessert I've ever had. If there's any you don't know what to do with, I'll try to help you with it."

Carina took the empty bowl. "You really shouldn't have any more. I'm trying not to overtax your system, since you were without food for several days." At Donovan's pleading look, she relented. "I'll give you a little more, but that's it. And I'll bring your tea, too."

After Donovan had his second bowl of apples and a cup of tea, he felt warm and almost too full to do anything but sleep. But he had promised Carina he would work, and he wanted her to trust him, so he let her teach him the simple task of brushing the cleaned wool between spiked wooden paddles and rolling the straightened fibers for spinning. As the sun went down and the room darkened, he heard scuffling in the other room. Carina, who had been mending a sock, jumped up. "Amalia," she called. "Let's do that in here tonight." She laid down her work and left the room.

A few minutes later, Carina was back, her sister following with a brass lamp in her hands and a book and some knitting under her arm. Amalia set these items on the nightstand while Carina pulled up a second chair. "When Amalia and I left the city and came to live out here with our parents, the family agreed that each person could have one luxury. Amalia's choice was books."

"It's something I can share," Amalia added, switching on the electric lamp. She cast a wary eye on Donovan while Carina pulled the curtains closed.

"What did you choose, Carina?" Donovan asked, pretending that the bright electric lamp was not in any way remarkable.

Amalia answered for her. "She chose her vanity."

"That's not a nice way of putting it."

"But you admit it's true."

"I suppose so." She turned to Donovan. "I use my allowance for lotions, perfume and things like that, rather than always make my own. I've kept a few nice dresses instead of cutting them up for quilts or trading them in town, and I still have a bit of costume jewelry, although I only wear it for special occasions."

"Which is every holiday she can remember," Amalia said, "Plus a few she makes up."

Carina settled herself into a chair and picked up her darning. "So what? When Miles returns--"

"Yes, I know," Amalia said. "Everything is going to be wonderful when Miles comes home." Her tone was softened by the affectionate glance she cast her sister's way. She flipped open her book. "At least my indulgence can be shared."

"We're reading Robinson Crusoe," Carina said. "We hope you enjoy it."

"Tough luck if you don't." Amalia set a heavy marker on the book to hold the pages open, picked up her knitting, and began reading where she had left off the previous night. "Being glad I was alive, without the least reflection upon the distinguished goodness of the hand which had preserved me. . ."

Donovan leaned back against the pillows, carding wool mindlessly while he listened to the words.

"As soon as I saw but a prospect of living and that I should not starve and perish for hunger, all the sense of my affliction wore off; and I began to be very easy, applied myself to the works proper for my preservation and supply. . ."

The sound of her voice was soothing, the scene peaceful and luxurious beyond anything he had ever known. The comfortable bed, the bright pure light, the simple steady rhythm of easy tasks and the indulgence of being read to seemed like a dream.

"And if nothing happens without His knowledge, He knows that I am here, and am in this dreadful condition; and if nothing happens without His appointment, He has appointed all this to befall me," Amalia read.

Donovan's head began to nod. He tried to keep his eyes open, but in spite of his wish to continue, the paddles slipped out of his hands. Before he could will himself awake, he was asleep.

* * *

He was awakened the next morning by Amalia bringing him his breakfast. She helped him sit up and set a tray of scrambled eggs with goat cheese and a side of baked beans in front of him. Then she handed him a cup of herbal tea and a glass of an unknown orange liquid with an efficient air that was not exactly surly, but was not particularly friendly, either. "Carina can't be here this morning. She had to go look at a horse on the reservation."

Donovan tried to conceal his disappointment. "That's good, isn't it? It means she'll make a trade, right?"

"Maybe." Amalia opened the curtains. Meanwhile the tabby cat slunk into the room and leaped onto the bed. Donovan gave her a bit of egg.

"I wouldn't bother feeding that little beggar. She gets enough to eat catching mice and lizards."

"I don't mind. It's worth sacrificing a bit of food to make a friend."

Amalia turned to leave. "No wonder you and Carina have so much to talk about. You're cut out of the same cloth."

Donovan scratched the cat's ears with one hand and ate with the other, pretending not to notice that Amalia had left the room. "Is it true what she said? Are you just scamming me to get an easy meal?" The cat purred and butted his hand in answer. Donovan gave her another bit of egg, then finished his breakfast and set the plate aside for her to lick clean. Next he tasted the contents of the glass. The liquid was both sweet and sour, and he wasn't sure if he liked it, but a deeper part of his body seemed to crave it and before he realized, he had drained the glass. By now his medicinal tea had cooled enough to drink and he was sipping it when Amalia returned. She raised her eyebrows at the sight of the cat licking the plate and removed the dirty dishes in silence. When she returned a few minutes later, she was carrying the tray of medical supplies. "Time to have a look under those bandages," she said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Donovan didn't dare question her qualifications, and he found Amalia's hands surprisingly gentle as she removed the bandage on his shoulder. She examined the wound and seemed satisfied with what she saw. "It might be getting a little better. At least it's no worse." She moved over to the medicine tray. "I'm going to flush it with iodine again, since that seemed to help yesterday. I won't be able to hold your hand this time.” Donovan braced himself for the pain, which mercifully didn't last long. When she was through, Amalia daubed some ointment and tied on a fresh bandage.

When she unwrapped his leg, however, her eyes narrowed in genuine concern. "This isn't good. It's red, and it's too warm." She frowned at the swollen gash. "I think we need to open this up, wash it out and let it drain, but Carina is the one who has experience with that sort of thing and without her here. . ."

"When will she be back?"

"Tomorrow or the day after if it's a straightforward case. If it's something more serious or if there's other paying work out there, she might be gone for awhile."

"Can we get a message to her?"

"Phones out here quit working years ago. I would have to send someone, and there's no one to send." She selected a pair of small scissors from the tray of medical instruments. "I'll cut a couple of those stitches and maybe that will be enough to let the leg drain without it bleeding too much. You've lost enough blood as it is." Before Donovan could question her judgment, she snipped two stitches open. A thick greenish pus oozed out and Amalia dabbed it with a rag soaked in iodine. "This isn't good at all."

"Should we open it the rest of the way up? I’m not afraid of it bleeding a little."

"Let's see how it does like this. In the meantime I'll see what I can find around here to boost your immune system."

Donovan watched her rub ointment onto his leg and re-bandage it. "What can I do to help today?"

Amalia stopped rolling the remains of a length of clean bandage. "There's a lot to be done, but not if you can't get around. I don't want you on your feet if that leg is getting worse."

"Maybe moving around will help. Get the blood moving."

"That still doesn't mean you're ready for farm work."

"Isn't there something I could do around the house? Something that wouldn't involve a lot of standing, like fixing something?"

Amalia considered. "Think you could fix a sewing machine?"

* * *

Donovan bent over the old treadle sewing machine, trying to understand why the needle wouldn't move. It didn't help that he had only the vaguest idea how the machine was supposed to work in the first place. It was at least a hundred and fifty years old. But Amalia had explained what was supposed to happen when the machine worked correctly— the foot treadle turned the belt, which somehow caused the needle to move up and down. As Donovan peered at the primitive mechanics he knew it had to be a very simple problem. It could be as basic as something stuck in one of the gears, so he checked that first.

Luckily Amalia had a box of spare parts. Was there anything this family hadn't hoarded? Antibiotics, apparently. Donovan resisted the urge to rub his throbbing leg. Amalia had given him an extra dose of echinacea and was trying some colloidal silver as well, but from the way the leg was feeling, it didn't seem to be doing much good. As a veterinarian, maybe Carina could get some antibiotics somewhere. He hoped she would be back before things got worse.

There it was— a tiny gear with a missing tooth. Having a strong flashlight really helped. Donovan selected a few tools and began removing parts so he could get to the broken gear. He laid the pieces out in the order they had to be replaced, just as he had learned in the Guard. Fixing things was something he had done a lot of during his service and while it wasn't one of Donovan's natural talents, it was something he had become competent at with training. There. It was a simple matter of removing a clip and replacing one wheel with another. Maybe Amalia would be impressed.

He put the machine back together, then worked the treadle slowly with his good foot. Obligingly, the needle dipped and rose. The next step would be to try sewing a test piece, but Donovan didn't know how to sew. Using the table for support, he pulled himself to his feet and stood listening for any sound that might indicate where Amalia was. Hearing nothing, he picked up the walking stick she had given him, hobbled to the kitchen, and peered out the screen door toward the fields and animal pens. There was no sign of her, but that didn't mean much. She could be inside the barn or on the other side of the house. She could be at the creek, or anywhere. He couldn't wander around looking for her. Not with this bad leg. Getting out of bed had been a bad idea. He felt worse rather than better.

He was making his way toward his bedroom when a photograph in the hallway caught his eye. It was a family portrait of a kind Donovan had often seen in the homes he raided with the Guard. The man in the picture was round-faced and genial, the woman blonde and smiling in a pink dress that struck Donovan as too clean and fancy for any time much past 2012. Standing between the two grownups was a tall boy in his early teens with a determined set to his jaw, and in front of their parents were two blue-eyed girls, golden hair flowing over their shoulders like melted butter. The younger girl looked a lot like the woman who had gone out on the veterinary call this morning, but it was the older girl, perhaps seven, who Donovan found more interesting. How did this chubby-cheeked girl with the radiant smile grow into the hard-eyed woman who would have just as soon shot him the other night? Donovan stared at the photo, trying to understand who his rescuers were, but the throbbing in his leg reminded him of more important matters. He needed to get off his feet.

* * *

In spite of the pain, Donovan managed to doze off. Amalia woke him up for lunch, offering him a plate of tortillas, beans, and squash. She also brought him a glass of water and a cup containing an herbal concoction. She helped him sit, but narrowed her eyes in suspicion when he gasped in raw pain as the bed tray grazed his thigh. "It's worse."

It was a statement, not a question.

"I'll do what I can," she said, waving a hand in a gesture of futility. "But I have no experience with infections. I'll just be guessing."

"It'll be okay," Donovan said, as much to reassure himself as her.

"I suppose I could go to the Petersons and see if they could spare someone to find Carina. They have a granddaughter who's a sensible sort and could ride out to the reservation. Or maybe one of them could come here and mind you while I go."

"I'm sure it's okay. It's probably just one of those things that gets worse before it gets better." He toyed with his beans.

"Well, you won't get better without food, so eat and be sure to drink everything in both those glasses." Her tone was short, almost angry. "I have to go irrigate one of the fields. It's pretty far from the house, so if there's anything you need, ask for it now."

Donovan shook his head.

"I'll be back in about an hour to dose you again with whatever I can find that makes sense. We'll do that every hour. Maybe by tonight I'll have a better idea what to do if we don't like what we see."

* * *

By dinner time Donovan was feverish and had no appetite. "Eat it anyway," Amalia insisted as he stirred his soup with a complete lack of interest. "I killed a chicken to make that for you, so you're going to eat it, even if I have to spoon it down your throat."

Even in his fevered state Donovan could make out a hint of real worry underneath her tough attitude, but nothing in his body urged him to eat. It was only the vague understanding that Amalia had done a remarkable thing in killing one of their precious chickens that made him finish the bowl.

"You better keep it down," Amalia said, as she took the empty dishes away. She handed him a glass. "I added something to help you sleep this time."

"What about the bandages? Shouldn't we. . ."

"Not right now. Carina always says it's not good to go changing them all the time." She ran a hand over Donovan's bandaged shoulder, then his leg. She tried to keep her expression neutral, but the nervous working of her jaw gave her away. "You still feel warm. If this doesn't look okay in the morning. . ."

"What will we do?" Donovan handed back the glass and lay back against the pillows, feeling dizzy.

Amalia's long silence said more than her response. "Something." She left and returned a few minutes later with a heavy blanket. "Mother used to believe that if you heated a sick person up enough, it would make their fever break." She tucked the thick folds around him. "If it becomes unbearable, push it off, but try to put up with it. If we can get you sweating, maybe your fever will go away."

Donovan mumbled something noncommittal. Amalia had dosed his tea well. She left the room and he soon fell into fevered dreams.

* * *

He dreamed he was in the city again, back in the big brick house, once a mansion, once a high-priced architect's office, now the squalid home of the Malthusian Exiles. They were a gang that had its start as a band of impoverished university students who were unwanted by the military draft and too poor to continue their studies or buy tickets home. The gang's character had changed over the years and now it was just a ragged collection of moonshine distillers and drug dealers. Everyone in the city knew the Malthusians dealt in illegal substances, but the Guard and what few city cops still worked a beat had bigger things to worry about and generally left them alone.

In his dream, the large rambling house was much as he remembered it: dark, dirty, with odd bits of old finery, such as a stained glass window and a mahogany dining table. Strangely, he dreamed there was a painting of flowers hanging in a common room. Somehow Donovan knew that the painting had once been considered valuable. As he wandered from room to room, stepping over the bodies of people sleeping off the effects of home-brewed liquor and smuggled heroin, he realized the entire house was decorated in such paintings— pictures of fruit, pictures of women in long dresses, and pictures of horses jumping over hedges. Suddenly his sister was at his side, gesturing in annoyance at the paintings and complaining that they didn't help anyone. Then they were standing in a room with charred and blackened walls, the ceiling gone and open to the sky. Somehow he knew that the fire had been his fault. His sister slapped him. "You burn the house down and steal nothing but pretty pictures. What good are you?" Now Donovan remembered that it was he who had stolen the paintings and hung them in the hallways. He told his sister he would do better and steal something good, something they could eat, but she slapped him again. "It's too late. You'll only join the Guard and burn the house down again, after robbing us blind." When he looked around again, he was wearing his Guard uniform and standing on the mahogany table, surrounded by flames.

He opened his eyes, drenched in sweat, and shoved the blanket to the floor.

The next morning, Amalia came in with her medical tray to find Donovan nearly incoherent with fever. She could barely keep him still while she cut away the bandage on his swollen leg. What she saw when she removed the sticky, smelly bandage made her gasp. She hurried away and when she returned she was carrying a bottle and a piece of cotton cloth. "I'm sorry," she said, as she wet the cloth and pressed it over his nose and mouth. "Breathe. I'm sorry, but you have to breathe." Donovan gasped against the damp cloth and struggled for a moment, then lay still.


Alice Audrey said...

Knowing he will betray them makes this much harder to read.

Carol said...

Interesting. I always enjoy reading through short stories. Especially suspense ones. Very well done!