Friday, December 22, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book One, Chapter Eight

Donovan stood alone in the kitchen, warming his hands over the stove as the coffee boiled. He glanced toward the window where a light snow was falling; tiny flakes driven on the winter wind. It wasn't sticking, and the sky to the west was clearing. The road to Macrina would be clear and he could go to town, even if it meant nearly freezing.

His heavy wool jacket lay across a kitchen chair and he picked it up and held it in front of the oven door, turning it this way and that to warm it before slipping his arms into the sleeves. Then he put on his scarf, hat and gloves, and poured a cup of coffee. That should keep the cold at bay.

He picked up the solar lantern and slipped out the kitchen door. Ice crystals collected in the folds of his clothes and dropped into his coffee. The cold stiffened his leg and made it ache. Would it ever be like it had been before? Carina said no, but a man could hope.

He entered the barn through the side door, set down his coffee and lit the barn lanterns. Now that he had some light, he could sip his rapidly cooling coffee and take his time examining the wagon. He had meant to load it the day before but Carina had needed his help with the livestock and Amalia ended up doing it alone.

He pulled back the tarp and checked the supplies-- feed for the donkeys, a spare harness, a few tools, a saddle in case he needed to do any riding, water, a tent. The trade goods were bundled in as well- wool yarn, socks, old clothes, preserves, pickles, eggs, and cheese. There were jars of filtered honey and honeycomb, left over from last season, which he would sell on behalf of the Petersons. The cart was also weighted down with scrap metal that Amalia wanted him to trade for extra shoes for the jennies, since there wasn't a forge in the valley. Carina had asked him to get Goneril re-shod while he was at it. She didn't like the way she had been shod the month before, although Donovan couldn’t see what the problem was, and it obviously wasn't serious enough to keep her from pulling the wagon.

He checked that everything was packed properly— heaviest items over the front wheels, breakables surrounded by softer items such as wool and sacks of feed. It all seemed in order, except for the spot where he would stash the food he would eat on the trip. He was pulling the tarp back into place when the side door creaked open and Amalia came in, bundled in a heavy cloak and dusted with snow. "Don't you trust my packing skills?"

"Of course I do." He pulled the tarp taut. "I just like to see where everything is so I can find it later. I feel bad you had to do it all alone."

"Carina couldn't have handled that goat on her own, and I didn't mind. It's not like there's a lot of other work to be done in January." She frowned at the worn canvas. "I don't know if I trust this tarp in the snow. I know it's not sticking, but it might be different on the way back." She went into the tack room. "We'll double up, just in case the weather turns. You’re too confident of your luck. It’s going to get you in trouble some day.”

Donovan followed close on her heels. "I wish you'd quit saying things like that. What have I ever done to you and your sister to make you feel like you can pass judgment on me?"

"Let's just say you make some deals in town that are a little too good." She opened a wooden chest.

"What's wrong with that? I'm helping, aren't I?"

"You know what I'm trying to say, so quit acting innocent."

"I make that extra money from playing poker," Donovan said. "What’s it to you, anyway? I bring back more stuff than you could ever get on your own, and you know it."

Amalia straightened up, a dusty bundle of canvas in her hands. "You've been good to us, but at what cost?"

"There is no cost." He tried to take the tarp from her hands, but she took it away from him and walked to the cart, unfolding it and shaking out the creases. Donovan grabbed one end of the canvas and together they began fastening it on top of the first. "Why can't you accept a little good fortune now and then?"

Amalia stared at him across the wagon. "How are we supposed to sleep at night when you're gone, knowing you're up to things that could be dangerous? Pick the wrong pocket, cheat the wrong man at cards, or on a trade. . . and now you're going out there all alone, taking risks with our goods and animals. What are we supposed to do while we're waiting, not knowing what's happening out there?"

"If that's how you feel, then why are you letting me go?" Donovan gave a slight smile. "Come here so I can talk to you."

She shook her head.

He walked over and stopped just inches away. "I'll take good care of your things, and I can certainly take care of myself." Wanting to reassure her, he moved closer and rested his cheek against her hair. She stiffened but didn't move away.

They stood that way for only a minute, but it seemed much longer, until Donovan began to sense a change in her. He moved so he could see her face, and was startled when she kissed him—a hungry, heated kiss, as if she had been contemplating this move for a long time. She pressed against him with the bold and sensuous way of a young woman with all her dreams still ahead of her. He started to return her kisses out of kindness, but was surprised to find himself genuinely aroused. Then suddenly she pulled away.

"Don't you ever--"

Donovan laughed. "You were the one who--"

"That's not the point."

"Isn't it? Well, it's not like there's a point to anything else we do."

"You don't get it at all." Scowling, she headed toward the door. "Don't come anywhere near me!" She made sure to slam the door behind her.

Donovan stomped back to the cart in confusion, slammed a hand against it, and slumped against one of the high wooden sides. By the time he had recovered his thoughts and felt like he could face the peaceful domesticity of the kitchen again, he found only Carina with her curious but inscrutable glances. Amalia was nowhere to be found.

* * *

In spite of the cold, he was glad to get on the road. The wind drove pellets of ice into his face, but they melted on contact, cooling his thoughts as well as his body. He drew down his hat, ducked his head and pulled up his scarf to cover his nose and mouth. It only helped a little. The muffler soon iced up and even his pocket stones gave out. He would have to put up with the cold or make camp early.

It was nearly noon before the weather broke, but gradually the snow stopped and the skies showed signs of clearing. Once the sun came out, there would be a chance of it actually getting warmer.

He made camp that evening near an arroyo and headed into the mountains the next day. Here the previous day's snow had stuck, but the drifts weren't high and he was able to drive the wagon in the ruts made by another driver. The sight of the occasional cougar track kept him on the alert, but he saw no evidence of bears, which was his greatest worry. He camped that evening near the summit, and in the morning affixed his yellow traders' flag to the cart and started down the path to the valley floor.

His first order of business was to find a safe place to leave his wagon at the market. Then he took Goneril to the blacksmith. He haggled over the price and offered a bit of old cast iron in trade. Satisfied that he had made the best deal he could, he left the jenny at the blacksmith's hitching post and decided to visit Mother Reyes and see if she had any letters or ration books.

As he walked down the main street he took in the scene— vendors hawking their wares on the streets, carts rumbling past on their way to market or out to the fields and home, children bundled in layers of rags and ponchos begging, selling or chasing each other through the streets. A musician played a homemade guitar on a corner, crooning a ballad in a combination of Spanish and some native Indian language. A plastic-picker made her way down the street with her canvas bag of broken toys, dishes and electronics from another time, hoping to gather enough to sell to a trader from the melting plant. The smoke and smells of street cooking mingled with the chants of the vendors, the shouts of the children, the clop of hooves, the crunch of bicycle tires on gravel, and the animated voices of ordinary people going about their business. It was a lively scene and Donovan took a deep breath, glad to be a part of it.

He had stopped to watch a file of Indians pass— nativists showing their political sentiments by wearing tribal costumes, when a child's shriek distracted him. He turned and saw a dark, tiny little girl, running toward him, chased by an older boy shouting curses at her. With a cry, the girl tripped and sprawled in the dust at Donovan's feet, catching him off balance and nearly bringing him down. The boy was going too fast to stop and crashed into them both. This time Donovan had a split second to prepare and used his braced leg to stabilize himself and absorb the impact. The boy stumbled, murmured something that sounded like an apology and was about to bolt when Donovan realized that the girl seemed awfully calm for someone who was supposed to be scared out of her wits. An old memory stirred. His movements more instinct than thought, Donovan grabbed the boy by his collar and held on. In the same deadly voice he had once used on belligerent hoarders, he said, "Give me back my wallet!"

* * *

The boy's name was Will and he claimed to be eleven years old. He was thin from hunger, but his features suggested he would be sturdy, even rugged, if he could ever get enough to eat. He handed back Donovan's wallet with a look of disappointment in his gray eyes, but as he rubbed a hand through his hair, he seemed more embarrassed at having tried to steal than at having been caught.

"Thought this brace made me slow, did you?" Donovan put the wallet back in his pocket.

Will shrugged. "It was worth a try."

Donovan looked at the girl, standing at his feet. She was the first black person he had seen since leaving the city and the Guard. Not mixed-race like he was, she was so dark the dust of the road made her look like she was dusted in sugar. The image wasn't inappropriate. She looked sweet, with intelligent eyes that tilted up at the corners. If she survived the streets, she would be a beauty some day. Donovan glanced critically at her bare, cracked feet, wondering how she was avoiding frostbite with no shoes. "Who are you?"

The girl lifted her chin. "Tasha."

"She's my sister," Will said. He motioned to her and she went to stand next to him.

Donovan considered. A family relationship seemed unlikely, given Will's waxy skin and the faint splash of freckles over his nose. "It's a bad business you've got her into," he said. "It's not right to steal."

"How else are we going to eat? I wouldn't do it if we had some other way.”

"Your family has no friends who could care for you?"

"We're not from here. We only arrived last week."

"Where have you been sleeping?"

"There's a burnt building where some of the other children sleep."

Donovan turned away so the children wouldn't see his anger and confusion. There was no way he could abandon these kids, not with his own memories of the street. He couldn't take them home with him, though, could he? "Come with me."

Will and Tasha stared. "Where are we going?"

"To the blacksmith. I’m going to ask him if there's a decent place where you can eat and sleep. Maybe a place where you can go to school or something."

"There's no place like that here."

The children were right. The blacksmith didn't know of such a place, but he directed them to the church. "The priest will think of something," he said, pausing over his hot irons only long enough to cast a disapproving look at the children.

They went to the church, but although the ancient priest was kind, he didn't know of any place, either. "The church has no one who does that, although it used to be something we were known for. There's a ranch a couple days' ride from here that is good, but they only take boys."

"I don't go anywhere Tasha can't go," Will said.

The priest's frown deepened. "If you aren't willing to be separated, that only leaves Miss Stevens' place, but I don't recommend it."

Tasha's eyes widened. "Is that the place. . . ?"

"Yeah, that's the place the other kids talked about," Will said.

"Well, that's the only place I know that's close and takes both boys and girls."

Donovan thanked the priest, accepted his blessing and took the children back into the street. As the children stood squinting in the sunlight, Donovan asked, "So what's with this Stevens place?"

"Nothing," Will said.

"Don't 'nothing' me. I saw how you acted in there. What's up?"

"All the kids where we've been staying know about it. It's no good. The lady sells kids to work on farms and if she can't sell you, she makes you work at her house, or at a food stall on the street. If you disobey, you get no food and she beats you. She even puts kids out to beg sometimes. She likes the ones who are crippled. They make the most money."

"Maybe those children are exaggerating."

"I don't think so."

They walked down the dusty market road. Donovan wasn't sure what to do now. He kept his head down, jaw set, eyes focused on the patch of ground in front of his feet. In spite of the limitations of his brace, he moved quickly and the children hurried to keep up. Tasha grabbed his hand. "Can we go home with you?"


"We'll be good."

"That's not the problem. I've got no place for you."

"You got no home, either?"

"I have a home. It's just that it belongs to someone else. I can't go taking you there without asking."

"So ask," Will said.

Donovan stopped. "It's not that easy. It's far away. Two days by donkey cart, and that's if the weather's good." He shook his head. "Once I take you there, you're staying. There's no place to send you away to. But I can't go taking you home and just assume my women can look after you."

"You're like us then," Will said. "You ain't got no real place." He looked at Tasha. "I guess we'll go try and pick some pockets, and hope the other kids don't steal from us while we sleep, like last night."

Tasha's eyes welled up with tears. "Are you sure we can't go home with you?" she asked Donovan. "I'm tired and I like you."

"It's okay," Will said. He put an arm around her. "Haven't I taken good care of you 'til now?" He turned accusing eyes upon Donovan. "Go on. We don't need any more of your kind of help."

Donovan hesitated. "I'm sorry. . ."

"For what? Getting our hopes up?" He patted Tasha's shoulder. "I don't care so much about me, but she don't deserve this kind of life."

"No one does.”

"Well, go on. We'll make out okay." He turned his attention back to Tasha. "Let's see if we can get some of the stuff they throw away from the restaurant, like last night, remember? The rats aren't all that big. We'll take some sticks and—"

"Oh, for Christ's sake."


Donovan sighed. "Will you two cut that out? Come on."

"What do you mean, 'come on.'"

"I mean we've got to get back to the market."


"I'm selling goods from the farm." He glared at the children. "You're both going to help." He turned back toward town and began walking again.

Will and Tasha exchanged triumphant smiles behind Donovan's back, then ran to catch up with him. The girl grabbed his hand while Will babbled in excitement about how much help they would be.

"That's good," Donovan said grimly. "Because when I show up at the farm two extra mouths to feed, I’ll be lucky if my women don’t kill me."

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