Sunday, December 24, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book One, Chapter Six

The day dawned cold and gray, and by mid-morning, a heavy sleet began to fall, making outdoor work impossible. Carina had been waiting for just such a day. "Let's work up some herbs," she suggested to Amalia. "We're running low on a few things and they'll make the house smell good."

"Got to have the house smelling good," Amalia said. "But yeah, I was thinking it would be a good day for that. Maybe some mullein and sage?"

"We've also got that aspen bark."

"Okay. And how about some chamomile? You're running low on hair rinse."

"If I am, it's because someone else around here is using it too." Carina fixed her sister with a look that made her blush. "How about I do the chamomile while you work up the other stuff?"

While Carina stoked the kitchen stove and began boiling jars and bottles, Amalia and Donovan put on hats and leather ponchos and went out to the drying shed. The scent of so many herbs in one small room was disorienting, but Amalia seemed immune to it and got straight to business. From a wooden chest she pulled a few plastic tubs which seemed to Donovan the height of luxury and prosperity. Amalia cautioned him not to get the herbs mixed up in the same bin and turned her attention to finding the items she needed. By the light of their strongest electric lantern, Amalia began selecting from the dried weeds and flowers hanging in bunches on the wall and from the ceiling. She told him a little about their properties as she handed them to him.

"You know a lot about this stuff," Donovan said as he sealed the tops of the bins against the sleet outside.

"Not really. I don't think I'll ever be able to match my mother. She knew this stuff better than anyone I've ever met. People used to ask her for advice, and we did a good business in medicinals while she was alive."

"She sounds like an interesting woman."

Amalia examined a bundle of coriander hanging from a nail. "She tried to teach me and Carina her business, but Carina was more interested in what potions she could use to worm her animals and prevent hoof rot, and I just didn't have the same talent for it."

"You must've learned something. You saved my life."

"Antibiotics and a fast horse saved your life. Even so, nothing makes you feel more inadequate than being unable to save your own mother."

"Maybe there was nothing anyone could've done."

"No. I'm sure there was something, if only I could've found it. The earth heals its own."

Donovan considered debating this point, but thought better of it. "I know you did the best you could."

"My best and Carina's best weren't good enough." Amalia looked around one last time, then tucked a basket of aspen bark under her poncho. "Come on. Even at the slow pace she works, Carina must've gotten those bottles sterilized by now."

* * *

By afternoon the kitchen was strewn with herbs and bottles. While Donovan worked at the kitchen table with the mortar and pestle, Amalia measured strong grain alcohol into bottles and Carina stood over a steaming pot on the stove. A distant jangle of bells caught their attention and Carina moved to the kitchen window, while Amalia ran toward the front of the house. Donovan’s first instinct was to grab a gun, but something in the women's attitude told him he didn’t need it.

Amalia hurried back to the kitchen. "It's Alvi! Get your shoes!"

Carina clapped like a little girl. "It feels like he’s been gone forever! I wonder how he made it through in this weather."

"I'm sure he's used to it, and a good thing. I've got a pair of boots that need his attention."

"Who is Alvi?" Donovan asked, tagging after the women as they ran toward their bedrooms.

"He's a peddler," Carina said. "And he repairs shoes."

Donovan peeked out the window to see a dark man in wild, colorful clothes pulling up by the gate. He was driving two large donkeys hitched to a gypsy wagon emblazoned with yellow letters and jingling madly with bells. Donovan tried to read the side of the cart, but the looped and scrolled letters spelled out words that were unfamiliar to him: Alvi: Zapatero, Vendedor de Comidas Finas, Nociónes y Más."

Carina pushed past him in her heavy blue cloak. She ran down the front steps and over to the cart where the man grinned and swooped off his little fedora, impervious to the cold and sleet.

"Alvi, it's been so long. Where have you been?"

Alvi held his hat over his heart. "I have been all over the world looking for the very best merchandise to tempt my beautiful Carina and her gracious sister."

Carina glanced toward the cart, her face glowing with anticipation, but then her gaze fell on the donkeys, ears drooping, their bodies bedraggled and cold. "I think the first thing we need to do is get your animals clean and bedded down, because you aren't going to continue on in this weather."

"Alvi and his famous all-weather burros go everywhere, in all kinds of weather." He darted a glance toward his team. "But if my lovely hostess insists, I'm sure Caudillo and Patrón would enjoy a visit to your warm barn."

"I do insist." Carina grabbed a bridle and led them past the house, stopping near the low wall by the mulberry tree to back the wagon into a favorable spot and unhitch the team. Then while Carina continued to the barn to rub down the animals, Alvi started setting things in order, lowering a set of steps to the wagon door and rummaging inside until the little gypsy cart rocked back and forth as if possessed.

Donovan nearly collided with Amalia as she came out of her bedroom, a pair of work boots in each hand. "Where'd he go?"

"Carina parked him around back. She's off to the barn right now to bed down the donkeys."

"Good, then maybe he'll do my shoes first." She threw on a leather poncho, pulled up the hood and hurried out.

This left Donovan alone in the kitchen. The only boots he had were his Guard boots and a pair that he had bought in town the month before. Neither was in need of repair, and he had seen peddlers before. After straightening the kitchen and covering anything that looked like it might need protection against the omnipresent desert dust, he put on a jacket and went to the barn to help Carina.

He found her currying the animals and talking to them in a tone as affectionate as if they were her own, singing snippets of song and speaking rhymes and nonsense as she rubbed them down. "Need any help?" he asked.

"Could you start cleaning the harness?" She pointed to a mound of wet leather straps.

Donovan had no love for cleaning tack, but grabbed a rag and went to work. "So tell me again who this guy is."

"He goes by Alvi, but he says his full name is Alvaro Zapata, El Zapatero." Carina giggled. "It's a joke. Zapato means shoe; zapatero is a cobbler."

"Isn't that clever."

"Don't be sarcastic. I've never believed it's his real name."

"What do you think it is, then?"

"Oh, who knows? Something Middle Eastern, probably. Ali, maybe?"

Donovan jerked in surprise. "You're letting a terrorist spy camp here for the night?"

"He's not a terrorist or a spy. He was born in this country, and so were his parents and grandparents. He's as patriotic as the rest of us."

"That's why he goes by a phony name, then."

"No." Carina paused while rubbing a flank. "It's probably because he figures people who don't know any better will make accusations for no other reason than his heritage." She began brushing again in sure, circular strokes. "So he pretends to be Hispano. I don't think he fools anyone for very long, certainly not the real Hispanos, but it's long enough for people to see that he's as harmless as the rest of us."

Donovan held a loose buckle up to the light, frowning. "And you're going to let this guy stay here tonight?"

"Why not? He's stayed here before." She stopped currying. "Amalia and I have known him for years, since he first started this circuit with a single donkey and a little open wagon covered with a tarp. He took up peddling about the same time we moved out here, so it's like we've grown up together."

Donovan mumbled something and resumed his work.

"I think you're jealous!" Carina said in wonderment, putting down her currycomb.

"Why would you think that?"

"You've gotten used to being the only man around here."

"I'm still the only man around here. He's leaving tomorrow and I'm staying."

"Maybe he'll stay longer."

"Maybe he will, but he'll leave eventually."

Carina returned to the donkeys and picked up a brush. "Give him a chance," she said. "You'll really like him once you get to know him."

* * *

Dinner that evening was a hilarious affair, with Alvi and Carina exchanging flirtations and Amalia joining in, offering sarcastic commentary as they dined on a strange casserole Donovan had never had before, made of flat noodles, cheese and tomato sauce.

"Where did you ever find lasagna noodles and pomodoro sauce?" Amalia asked for what must have been the third time. "Don't tell me again you went to Italy. I really want to know."

"But I did go to Italy, my sweet." Alvi took a sip of wine. "My brave Caudillo and Patrón are excellent swimmers and pulled me and my wagon all the way." He turned to Carina. "It was a very hazardous trip, bonita. I fought off sharks and pirates and braved two hurricanes to bring you the very best in international cuisine. I was even kidnapped and held hostage aboard a ghost ship."

"Must've been the ghost of our global economy," Amalia remarked.

"It was." Alvi said. "But I am here to single-handedly restore our global village to its former glory. You ladies will have strawberries in wintertime and ice cream in summer, Egyptian cotton for your bed sheets and Chinese silk for your dresses. We will all live like royalty once again."

"What about the oil?" Donovan asked. "Maybe Patrón and Caudillo could help lay a new pipeline."

"Even better," Alvi said, "They will walk treadmills to create electricity. We will have no more use for anyone's oil."

Carina smiled dreamily. "No more use for oil would mean an end to the wars. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Everyone at the table nodded and the conversation took a more serious turn. "What do you hear about the wars?" Amalia asked. "We hear so little out here in the country, and in Macrina they won't talk because they're afraid any little bit of bad news will hurt business."

Alvi reached for a piece of bread-- Carina had made real wheat bread for the occasion, not her usual cornbread. He broke off a piece, dabbed a bit of goat butter on it and considered. "We are still at war with China over the oil in Siberia, but you probably knew that much."

"I doubt that one will end in our lifetime," Amalia said.

"There was some kind of setback, though." Alvi chewed thoughtfully, trying to remember. "There was another big earthquake in Japan, bigger than the Tokyo Temblor of '32, and soldiers had to be pulled off the front to put down riots at on the main island. Hokkaido is definitely gone. Japan decided to let them secede without a fight."

"What else?" Carina asked. "Anything new in South America?"

Alvi reached across the table and squeezed Carina's hand. "Yes, I know that is where your dear Miles is." He considered. "We have secured some new resources in Paraguay, of all places, but there have been a lot of casualties from guerillas. Not to worry, though," he said, seeing Carina's frown of concern. "The rebels attack the men guarding the new pipeline, not the regular troops and certainly not the men who only do medicine and supplies. I'm sure your husband is safe."

"Paraguay is a long way to transport oil by pipeline," Amalia remarked. "It's land-locked. Do you know which country they're taking it through so they can ship it out?"

Alvi held up his hands in confusion. "I have no idea. I'm a peddler, not a geographer."

"Maybe your donkeys know," Donovan said with poorly disguised sarcasm. "Since they seem to be so good at everything else."

"Maybe they do." Alvi met Donovan's eyes, then offered a placating smile. "They are much smarter than I am. It is only through their strong legs, good sense and Carina's love of animals that I have the good fortune to have such generous friends as I do tonight."

Donovan suddenly felt ashamed of himself. Alvi talked like a snake oil salesman, but there was nothing malicious about him.

"So is that all the news?" Amalia asked. "Doesn't sound like much."

"Well," Alvi shrugged. "All bad news is much the same. Someone tried to shoot the president a few months ago, but didn’t succeed. Too bad. There was a hurricane in North Carolina over the summer, and another in what's left of Florida. There was an explosion that damaged the Port of Baton Rouge, but it wasn't nuclear and they say they'll have the port facilities back to one hundred percent by summer." Alvi thought a moment. "The president tried to suspend the Supreme Court a few months ago, after their ruling on the Texas secession case, but—"

"The what?" Amalia asked.

"Texas seceded?" Carina leaned forward. "We didn't hear about that."

"I thought everyone knew," Alvi said. "Yes, they voted to secede and there is already fighting along the border with Louisiana and Arkansas."

Amalia turned to Carina. "I wonder if the fighting will affect us. The feds might decide to move troops through here to seal the state border."

"Maybe they'll bring Miles' unit up from South America to do medical," Carina said hopefully.

"But then," Amalia said, "Maybe they'll just let West Texas go. Unless they've found a way to rejuvenate those old oil fields, who in their right mind would want it?"

"Don’t laugh," Alvi cautioned her. "After you've tried the Angus beef jerky I acquired outside Odessa, you will wish you had never said a bad word about Texas."

"We don't get Angus out here," Donovan said. "I'll buy some, if the ladies won't."

"It's a deal, my friend. Come to my little house after dinner and we will talk."

"Speaking of after dinner," Carina began gathering empty plates. "Alvi brought us something special for dessert." She went into the kitchen and reappeared a few moments later. In her hands she carried a carved wooden bowl that had been in the family for generations, and in the bowl, more rare than gold, was a pyramid of ripe tangerines.

* * *

The snow had stopped but the steps to Alvi's caravan were still coated with a sheen of ice when Donovan knocked on his door. Alvi answered, no longer wearing his colorful gypsy attire, but dressed in soft gray pants and a sweater. With his tousled hair sticking up in all directions, he looked like a boy playing campout.

The wagon was more spacious than it appeared from the outside. Shelves full of goods lined the walls, and a board on a hinge could be swung down to serve as desk or workbench. Sturdy wicker chests ran along the perimeter, and colorful cloth, trinkets, shoes and specialty foods were set out like jewels on display. Light came from wall sconces that Donovan supposed were wired to the solar panel he had seen on the roof. The wagon was heated by a brazier that Alvi had filled from the kitchen stove after dinner.

"Nice place you have."

"It's home." Alvi gestured around the tiny room. "Please take your time. I don't sleep well, so I'm always up late."

As Donovan examined some of the cans and jars, he noticed the man had dropped his exuberant air and salesman's patter. "I think I just want some of the beef jerky. I don't even know what some of these other things are."

Alvi had started to sit down, but now came closer. "Those are olives," he said, pointing. "Sort of like pickles, but with the texture of a mushroom." He grinned when Donovan made a face. "They're an acquired taste, but very good."

"I'll take your word for it."

He pointed to a tin with a scene of horses and snow. "Maple syrup, all the way from Maine."

"Didn't Maine secede?"

"Yes," Alvi said. "That actually makes their syrup easier to get. The feds won't let them go because they want the timber, so there's a war up there. The soldiers send maple syrup home and the army makes sure it doesn't get stolen on the way. They don't want men to defect because their families aren't being taken care of, you know. Turncoats are always a danger in a civil war."

"Is there a true civil war going on?" Donovan asked. "I mean, across the nation? Or is it just a few local rebellions?"

The peddler pulled a couple of folding stools from pegs on the wall and took a bottle of whiskey out of one of the wicker chests. "Have a seat," he said, grabbing glasses from one of the display shelves. "I didn't want the ladies to hear it because I know how hard it is for them to keep their spirits up, but there's no reason you shouldn't know what's going on."

Donovan pulled up a stool and accepted a glass of whiskey. “This is good. Where do you get it?"

"Don't make me reveal my secrets. My sources are how I make my living."

"So what kind of news have you been hearing?"

"They say someone detonated a nuke in Washington," Alvi said. "I've heard a lot of different stories on who did it, but it really doesn't matter. The dead were mostly civilians, not government people. Everyone important is hiding now and no one's really sure if they're still alive, dead, or sick from radiation poisoning."

"So who's running things?"

"We think the elected officials are, from a bunker somewhere, but there's no way to be sure." Alvi shrugged. "Some people say the feds set off the nuke themselves so they could go into hiding and not have to answer to the people. Regardless of which story is right, it's likely we're living under a dictatorship."

"How has this impacted the wars?"

"Not much. The wars pretty much run themselves any more."

"Even the civil war? What about Texas?"

Alvi scowled. "I don't know why the feds are bothering with Texas. Three years of drought across the South have damaged their crops, the aquifers are running dry, they still haven't recovered from the hurricane that damaged their only remaining deep-water port, and the ordinary civilians are too busy squaring off by race and religion for them to do much in the way of nation-building. I say let them go. They'll be back in a few years when they realize can't make it alone. But some people say that's why they did it— seceded, you know. There's a philosophy these days that secession will end the race riots by forcing people to work together to fight the common federal enemy."

"It's a bad way to make people get along. Wars kill people and damage the land."

Alvi reached for the whiskey bottle and topped off their glasses. "Well, they went and did it, regardless of what we think about it." He capped the bottle and sat back. "I'm telling everyone not to be surprised if they send some units through the countryside looking for recruits to fight in Texas."

"You mean to kidnap and draft people." Donovan pondered this information. "That's going to be tough on me."

"Yes, you're a deserter, aren't you?"

"Is there nothing the girls don't tell you?"

"I doubt it," Alvi said, taking the question more seriously than it was intended. "I was naive when I got into this business. I knew nothing except that there was an old man who did well in this region and had died. Carina, Amalia and their parents treated me kindly. In fact, my first summer as a peddler was spent on this farm while my burro healed from an injury. They treated me like family and I will always be in their debt." He fixed Donovan with a steady eye. "There is nothing I wouldn't do for them, you understand?"

"They saved my life. I understand perfectly."

Alvi took another sip of whiskey. "Then you know why they sometimes tell me a little more than they should. Their secrets, and yours too, are completely safe with me."

The two men nursed their drinks. Outside, an owl called from the mulberry tree. "So how are you avoiding the draft?" Donovan asked. "You look like the kind of guy the Guard would pick up without hesitating."

Alvi grinned. "I'm older than I look, but thank you for the compliment. I'm 4-F and have the letters to prove it." He patted his chest. "I wear them on me at all times."

"No way." Donovan's eyes widened. "I’m more 4-F than you, and they'd take me off the street in a minute."

"It's all about who you know. You don't really think the big guys care who wins the war, do you?" Alvi took a gulp of his whiskey and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "They're in it for the money. Supply them with what they're really after and they don't care if you fight their stupid war or not."

Donovan could scarcely contain his excitement. "What do those papers cost?"

"They're very expensive."

"I can pay. If I can't pay now, I can get the money."

"I don't do credit, not on this type of deal. Nothing personal, it's just that everything is so uncertain and I have to pay cash up front. If I come back in six months and you're gone. . .well, you know how it is."

"Tell me how much the papers cost, and in six months I'll have the money."

Alvi leaned back and quoted a number. "In gold," he added.

Donovan drew in his breath. "I can get it. But can you do it on a down payment? I can give you two thirds now and the rest when you bring the papers on your next trip through."

Alvi considered. "I wouldn't normally agree to such a thing for someone I just met, but I suppose you're like family now. I can spot you the balance until I return." He stood and held out a hand. "It's a deal, friend."

They shook hands and Alvi settled back onto his stool. Donovan suddenly felt relieved, as if he already had the papers in his hand. Only six more months and he would be out of danger forever. The thought of what he could do with his freedom made him smile.

"I see this has made you happy. Or is it just the whiskey?" Alvi topped off their glasses again.

"The whiskey helps, but knowing I'll have papers soon. . . I had no reason to think I'd ever get such lucky break."

"If you don't give up hope, your lucky day eventually comes."

Donovan tossed back the rest of his whiskey and stretched his arms overhead. "I'm starting to believe that maybe it does."

* * *

In spite of the women's entreaties that he stay through Christmas, Alvi insisted on leaving. "There are deals to make and people along the road waiting for me," he told them. "I would be selfish to spend my time in the company of two beautiful women while my friends across this lovely land expired for lack of silk scarves and calamata paste."

"But. . ." Carina looked at the low gray clouds. "The weather. . ."

"Means nothing to me. I am one with the storm and the desert wind."

Amalia had taken a sip of coffee, but now she choked. She started to shake his hand, but gave him a hug instead. "Maybe you should be like the desert wind and come around more often."

"Of course, my dear." He glanced at Donovan, standing by the low garden wall. "Your new friend has asked a special commission of me, so I won't delay any more than is strictly necessary."

Both women gave Donovan a puzzled look, but he made a motion as if to say he would tell them later. Now it was Carina's turn to throw her arms around the peddler's neck. "Be safe out there, okay? And if you hear anything. . ."

"Corazón," he said, taking both her hands in his, "If I hear so much as a rumor I will have Patrón and Caudillo gallop all the way here so I can give you the news."

Carina ducked her head. "Thank you." She hugged him again.

Donovan shook Alvi's hand. He had given him all his gold that morning and much of his silver, leaving only enough to buy into a poker game next time he was in Macrina. He prayed it was the right call. "See you this summer."

"You will," Alvi assured him. "And you won't be sorry."

While the women exchanged curious looks, the peddler climbed onto the seat of his wagon. Donovan half-expected him to make a flowery speech of some kind, but instead he seemed genuinely sad. "Adiós, my friends. We will meet again soon."

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