Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book One, Chapter Two

Donovan wasn't sure how long he spent in feverish dreams. Sometimes he was a child running through city streets and sometimes he was with the Guard putting down a food riot or raiding a rich man's home. Sometimes he dreamed he was wandering the desert. There were moments of pain, when it seemed people were cutting and poking him. Other times he imagined an old woman sat by his side, murmuring to herself as she counted off the rows on her knitting. Through it all, hands held various drinks to his lips, some sweet, some bitter, some simply foul.

Finally there came a day when the lights didn't jump and shimmer, and noises weren't always one room over. A vague sweet smell hung in the air, accompanied by a soft rustling that made him open his eyes slowly, wary of what he might see. It was Amalia, stripping the shucks from ears of corn and making ristras by the light of an oil lamp. Donovan was aware that time had passed, but wasn't sure how much. "Hi. I've been out of it awhile, I guess."

Amalia dropped the knotted ears of corn and placed the back of a hand on his forehead. Her eyebrows flickered but she gave no other sign of emotion. "You're fever is gone. Are you really conscious this time or are you going to start babbling again about shooting hoarders?"

Donovan sank into the pillows. "Sorry. I had the strangest dreams."

"You sure did." She tossed her half-string of corn into a basket with the unshucked ears. "I'll get Carina. She'll be glad to know her patient is coherent again."

It was a long while before Donovan heard Carina's light footsteps in the hall. She burst into the room, carrying an electric lantern which she set on the table by the oil lamp, brightening the area by the bed, but making the shadows in the corners even darker and crazier than they had been before. “Are you back with us now?"

"I guess so," he answered as she pulled down the quilt and ran her hands over his bandaged shoulder, then over his thigh.

Carina sat in Amalia's vacated chair. "Do you have any idea how sick you were? Your wounds got infected. Septicemia set in. Blood poisoning. Left untreated, it would've killed you."

"What did you do?"

"I traded for some antibiotics from the reservation. They can sometimes get things the towns can't, and as a veterinarian, I'm allowed to buy or barter for medicines, when they're available."

"Thank you. I know you could've traded for something a lot more valuable."

"What's more valuable than a friend and farm hand?"

He smiled shyly. "I don't know how good I'll be at farming."

"It takes a long time to really understand your land and animals, but Amalia and I will teach you. That is, if you still want to learn."

"I do," Donovan said, picking at the quilt. "Amalia would probably prefer I not bother her, though."

"I wouldn't be too sure of anything with her. That tough girl act is how she keeps from getting hurt again. Just because she doesn't want you to get close doesn't mean she doesn't care. She saved your life."

Donovan frowned. "I thought you did. You're the one who got the medicine."

"Yes, but it was Amalia who made sure you didn't die before I got home. She cleaned your wounds and came to the reservation to find me. Grandma Peterson stayed with you."

"The old lady? I thought she was part of my dream."

"She might as well be. She spends most of her time in a back room on the Peterson ranch, knitting and making candles with the wax from their honeycombs, but Amalia talked her into coming over here. First time the poor thing has been off the Peterson ranch in over a year."

"I guess Amalia can be persuasive when she wants to be."

"You sound skeptical, but she's very talented. There was a time when she would've had a great future."

"So why—"

"So many things changed when the oil got expensive. I guess you've always lived like this, so how would you know?" She stood and stretched. "But here I am talking about serious things when you need to be resting. I’ll get you some water and your medicine."

"What about food?" Donovan hadn't realized he was hungry, but now that he said it, his stomach rumbled.

"Are you hungry? That's a good sign. I'll fix you something to eat."

"Thank you. And if Amalia is out there, tell her--"

"No. I think she'd rather believe you don't know what she did for you."

"I don't understand."

"She doesn't like getting credit for doing the right thing. Trust me on this, okay?"

* * *

This time, Donovan didn't try to rush his recovery. He couldn't have even if he wanted to, between Carina's gentle voice urging him to rest and Amalia's cool reminders that if he got sick again she was turning him out into the desert where he could figure things out on his own. He spent a lot of time in bed knotting corn into ristras for drying, carding wool, working the drop spindle and even learning to knit a little, although he did it badly and the winter scarf he made for himself was such a bedraggled-looking thing that Carina could barely suppress her giggles.

Sometimes when the women were out of the house, he went exploring. He found Carina's bedroom, fancifully decorated with mirrors, fans and pictures. She had paintings of birds and horses, and the photos of Carina with her animals were too numerous to count. It seemed she had spent her entire life caring for things that were feathered or four-legged.

As near as Donovan could tell, the women had grown up with something approximating twentieth century luxuries. He had already figured out they were well-educated and his discovery of Carina’s school yearbooks confirmed it. The books were poorly made, but full of photographs of an urban school and the teenage students who went there. The inside covers contained the scribbled sentiments of Carina's classmates, as well as some jokes about rabbits. On an inside page for the Urban Ranching and Agriculture Club, Carina as club president posed with rabbits and guinea pigs in her lap.

It took longer for him to find anything of equal interest in Amalia's room, which looked at first as impersonal as Donovan's, only with a lot more books.

He was about to give up on her room as a source of information when he discovered a sketch pad and pencils in the bottom of a drawer, along with some scarves, ribbons, dried flowers and a few stuffed animals. He opened the sketch book and found it full of town and farm scenes, including animals and people who he recognized from some of Carina's photographs. Donovan was no connoisseur of art, but he knew skill when he saw it.

More intriguing than the sketch book were the things he found at the back of her closet. He started by examining Amalia's work clothes-- sturdy, serviceable pants and shirts, all neatly mended, but behind them were dresses in bright colors and fine material. None of this was very different from what he had found in Carina's closet, but it was so strange that Amalia could have ever been like her sister that Donovan sat down to try to piece the two images of her together in his mind.

When he resumed his snooping, he found a rusting file cabinet at the back of the closet. Inside were stacks of letters bound in ribbon, and photographs arranged in books for viewing. With no prospect that the owner of all this treasure would be back soon, he gathered as much as he could and limped to the bed. The photo albums contained not only pictures of Amalia's childhood, but photos of her parents and people farther back in time who were presumably grandparents and great-grandparents. Some pictures were so old they were only shades of gray.

Next he picked up one of the letters and opened it. It was from Amalia's husband, Alan. Donovan was trying to puzzle out the handwriting and having no easy time of it when a light step at the door made him look up with a start.

"What are you doing?" Carina asked, more surprised than angry.

Donovan scrambled to fold the letter. "I was just curious."

Carina pursed her lips and scooped up everything on the bed with a swiftness that startled him. "Well, you should've asked. We don't spy on each other in this family."

"I'm sorry."

There was a rustling and banging from the closet as Carina put everything back into the filing cabinet. "You're lucky it's me who caught you. Amalia would've been furious."

"I know."

"Then why did you do it? If you think you're going to find something valuable in this room, good luck."

"No, I swear." Donovan got to his feet. "Believe anything else you want, but not that. It's just that I wondered, you know."

"About what?"

"About you. And her."

Carina seemed taken aback. "What's to wonder?"

"Who you are, where you came from… Why you never mention the brother in some of those photos."

The diversion worked. "We'd rather forget him if we could."

"Was he killed in the war?"

"No. He's a high-ranking officer leading the war. He could've arranged exemptions for Alan and Miles, but he didn't. The bastard won't even arrange a stockpiling certificate for us. He says he doesn't like our attitude about the war." She turned toward the doorway, indicating with a jerk of her chin that he should follow. "You are never to speak Evan's name in this house, and if you have other questions, ask me. Got it?" Carina shook her head in frustration. "With as much work as there is to do around here, you must have a pretty active imagination to have anything left over for curiosity."

* * *

Donovan settled down after that. He accepted Carina's warning and set himself to work with a renewed vigor, as if making up for lost time. In the heat of late August he limped around the kitchen on his improvised cane, helping cut melon rinds for pickling and pulling the spines out of prickly pear cactus for salads. As the weather cooled he tried to master the art of feeding the cast iron stove, which seemed to burn either red-hot or barely at all unless it received exactly the right amount of fuel and its many doors and flues were set just so. Then it was time to cut pumpkins and apples for drying. Some of these were strung like corn and hung on the sunny front porch until they were ready for storage. Others were blanched and dried on big screens or else boiled and canned. Red chiles were brought in from the fields, bundled into ristras and hung to dry from hooks on the patio. Soon the porch and drying shed were full to bursting, and the jars of preserves multiplied in the pantry like colorful, oversized jewels.

All of this was new to Donovan, who had never given much thought to food, which always came from stores, homes, civil distribution points and the street vendors he stole from as a kid. In the Guard, food was the mess hall's problem. It struck him as amazing that in a society where most people couldn't be sure where their next meal was coming from, he could still be so ignorant of how it was grown and preserved.

"So you've got to make this last all winter?" he asked Carina one day as they set a screen of sliced pumpkin to dry in the sun.

"We'll supplement it with milk, eggs, maybe a bit of meat and a few things from our next run to town, but yes."

"You're going to town?"

"One of us has to. It's been a long time because it's hard for one of us run this place alone, even if only for a little while. But with winter coming, we need to make a few trades and see what we can get with our ration coupons."

"How do you get your ration books all the way out here?"

"We have a system," she said, heading back into the house and gathering the pumpkin seeds for cleaning and salting. "We have them sent to a friend's address in town, where they sometimes have postal delivery. We have an understanding. She can have one of the books as long as she holds the other for us. It's worked pretty well so far."

"She's never tried to steal the other book?"

"Why would she? She's a friend."

"This is all so different from what I'm used to. People are nicer here."

"Maybe so," Carina said, "But that doesn't mean there aren't rules. Things can turn ugly when you don't play right."

* * *

Although Donovan's ribs healed quickly, his shoulder retained a painful catch when he moved his arm a certain way. Carina said the problem might be permanent. "The shoulder is one of the body's most complicated joints, you know."

More worrisome than the shoulder was the injured leg. The women had cut away some gangrened muscle, and although he could get around okay, the leg wasn't as strong as the other. The result was a limp that wasn't so obvious when he was rested, but became more pronounced as the day went on.

"It might get better over time," Carina told him. "The body has an amazing capacity to rebuild."

"Think of it as your ticket out of ever being picked up on the street as a possible draft candidate," Amalia told him.

"Why would I be wandering a street?"

"We're thinking you could help us by doing supply runs in town," Carina said, meeting Amalia's eyes briefly, then looking away. She had been pouring apple sauce into canning jars while Donovan sorted dried pumpkin seeds, but now she came to where he was working at the kitchen table. "We could do a lot more trade if it didn't always mean one of us going alone while the other stayed home. So we thought—"

"You thought," Amalia interrupted.

"We agreed," Carina said, with another glance at her sister, "That you would go to town with Amalia next week and see how we do things there. Then maybe we could send you regularly. . ."

"What town is this you keep talking about? I don't know that I want to go anywhere I might be recognized or picked up. A limp won't stop them, you know. They need people for desk jobs, too. If they pick me up and find out I'm a deserter—"

"Yes, we know," Carina said. "But it really would help if we had a man to do our trading. There can be gangs on the roads. We have to wait until some of the other people in the valley need to make a town run, so we can go in caravan, and sometimes that's not convenient. A man, even if he's traveling alone, is much safer than a woman." She stole a glance at her sister. "Although of course no one with any sense would tangle with Amalia."

"And it’s not a good idea to leave just one person back here on the farm," Amalia added. "What if there were an emergency, or if raiders came?"

"Macrina isn't such a big town, really," Carina hurried on. "So you don't need to worry about being noticed. It's off the main road and has never been a target for much government interference. It was always a poor town, and the Feds don't bother with poor people."

"Then why trade there, if the town is poor?"

"Because the government is run by idiots," Amalia said scornfully. "Once everyone in these valleys figured out there wasn't any federal presence in Macrina to rob them blind, they all started going there. It's become a good market town."

"And don't worry. We can disguise you a little; make you look like no one they would want for their army, just in case anyone is scouting for recruits or deserters."

"Well," said Donovan uncertainly. "If trading is the way I can help you the most, I guess I can give it a try."

* * *

A few days later, while Amalia was in a shed sorting scrap metal and weighing its value as trade, Carina sought out Donovan where he was spreading compost on what would be their bean field in the spring. "I've got something for you," she said with a funny light in her eyes. "Don't worry about walking the fences when you're done with this field. Just wash up good and find me. I'll be with the animals."

Donovan didn't bother to ask which animals, because with Carina there was never any telling. She might say she was going to spend the afternoon trimming the goats' hooves only to be found mixing a new udder cream or walking a fence line, looking for a missing guinea hen, the goats forgotten. There wasn't much point in pinning Carina to a schedule. She did what needed doing in her own way, her own time. Under her care the animals produced so well that Donovan had noticed a sort of reluctance on Amalia's part to criticize any of Carina's other failings as a homesteader.

He finished composting the small field, returned the equipment to the barn, rubbed the jenny down and turned it loose in the paddock. He went to the garden to take a shower in one of the two stalls set up under bins that warmed the water in the sun, then put on some clean clothes and set off in search of Carina. He selected the goat paddock as a likely place, leaning heavily on his walking stick as he went down the path. He tried to hide the fact that he still tired easily, but it showed up in his limp, like a conscience that wouldn't let him tell a lie.

He didn't find Carina at the goat pen, although he saw evidence that she had been there in the form of a full water trough and several placid goats feeding from an overflowing hay bin. The jennet named Goneril stood nearby, watching the scene with sleepy eyes. Carina had told him donkeys were good guard animals, but on a day like today, he wondered just how much truth there was to this assertion. Goneril didn't look alert enough to notice a predator if it walked under her nose.

He found another jennet, this one named Cordelia, alone in a separate paddock on the other side of the barn. She had been favoring a foreleg as recently as three weeks ago and Carina was keeping her away from the others to prevent reinjury. Cordelia was a friendly creature who craved companionship, and Donovan thought the solitude a little cruel as she trotted up to him for a rub and a handful of weeds.

The only place left for Carina to be was the chicken coop, and sure enough that's where he found her, mending a small hole in the fence of the ranging area. She worked steadily, but still found time to coo and chat with the curious hens that had gathered to investigate the proceedings. It was the rustle in the flock and not the sound of Donovan's footsteps that drew her attention. She set down her tools and sat back on her heels. "I hope you didn't have any trouble finding me."

"Not too many places you can be."

Carina sighed and looked a little glum. "It’s too bad, isn’t it? I want to add some sheep, a horse or two and maybe a few alpacas, but Amalia says we've got as much as we can handle as it is. I suppose she's right."

"What's an alpaca?"

"What kind of education are they giving in the cities these days? They're kind of like a small sheep with a long neck. Their wool is good for weaving winter clothes and blankets. They come from South America. You know where that is, right?"

"Of course," Donovan said, proud to show off the knowledge of military history that he had gotten in the Guard. "That's where Venezuela is, where we sent our troops to get more oil in 2012. Only they didn't have as much as they said they did, and they set the wells on fire so we couldn't get any of it. It was a big loss."

Carina looked at him curiously. "Yes, the loss of life in that country was tremendous. But you probably mean the loss of the oil, right?" Before he could answer she shrugged. "It's okay. You were taught what's important now, and oil is precious. It's life that's cheap. Give me a second to finish this fence and we can go to the barn together. I've got something for you." She bent back over the fence, twisting a new piece of wire in place with a pair of needle-nose pliers.

"Need any help?"

"No, it's a very small hole, strictly a one-person job." She tinkered a few minutes more, then sat back and gathered her tools. "I'm done now." She cast a fond look at the chickens as she stood up. "Be good, chickies. You won't be going anywhere now."

* * *

In the barn, Carina handed Donovan a strange looking contraption of steel and leather bands. "What is this?" he asked.

"It's a leg brace. A very old fashioned one, but it will do the job."

"But my leg is getting better, isn't it?"

"This isn't for you to wear around here. It's for when you go to town."

Donovan caught her meaning. "To make informers think I'm worse off than I really am."

"That, and to make sure you don't walk too normally. Just to be on the safe side, I was thinking we might also put a tack in your shoe."


"You know, put a tack in there so you won't be tempted to put your full weight on that leg."

"I don't think I'll need that kind of reminder. I'm a deserter, remember? The last thing in the world I want is to get picked up."

"Well," Carina said, "Things happen, we get distracted." The look in his eyes made her pause. "Okay, you know best on that one. But do try the brace on. If it doesn't fit, I'll need to adjust it."

"Where did you get this thing?" he asked as he buckled the straps of the hinged device onto his leg. "I hope it doesn't feel as barbaric as it looks."

"It probably will. That's the point." Carina helped adjust a strap near his ankle. "I got it when I was on the reservation. It's old and had been in there in a barn for years along with a lot of other stuff no one used. They didn't mind giving it to me, and I was able to fix it with some old harness leather." She stepped back to admire her handiwork. "Well, you certainly look handicapped."

Donovan took a lurching step forward. "I feel it, too."

"Walk up and down the barn a little. See if maybe this is something you can get used to."

Donovan dragged himself out of the tack room and went lurching and thumping across the dusty floor. At the end of the row of stalls he turned around. "It's definitely stiff and heavy enough that I won't be caught walking anything like normal."

"Great. Maybe we can skip the tack in your shoe, then."

"Uh, yeah. I think so." Donovan reached down to adjust a strap. "And maybe we can oil this hinge a little, too."

"And make it easier for you to walk? No way."

"But I have enough trouble getting around as it is. I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but don't you think it's a little much?"

Carina pursed her lips. "We’ve got a few days to make any final decisions. But in the meantime, won't you please practice with it a little for my sake?"

* * *

It was still dark when Carina, the early-riser, woke Amalia and Donovan for their trip to Macrina. While Carina made breakfast and prepared some food for the road, Donovan and Amalia did the morning chores and packed last-minute items into the wagon. As they came into the kitchen and sat down to plates of eggs, beans and cornbread, Donovan scanned Carina's face for signs of anxiety but found none.

"You're not worried about being here all alone with no one but Grandma Peterson for company?"

Carina sipped her cup of half-coffee, made with chicory, dandelion and burnt corn to make the coffee go farther. "I don't mind. I'm probably more anxious about you two and the Petersons heading into open country. I'm glad you're going together. It's safer that way."

"We've never seen anyone dangerous on the road to Macrina," Amalia reminded her. "But with the troubles they’ve had on some of the other roads, I suppose it’s only a matter of time. I'm glad to have Grandpa Peterson along. He's still a good shot even if he moves a little slow these days."

"Well, I'm a good shot too," Donovan said. "Anyone trying to raid our wagons will wish they hadn't."

Carina smiled at his little show of bravado. "I'll be waiting when you return. I'm looking forward to having some decent coffee."

Amalia agreed. "If there's none at the store or at market, I'll pay a visit to Don Andrés, the mule breeder. I think he nearly always has coffee. It's one of his favorite forms of payment."

"Tell him I'll pay him a house call, if it comes to that," Carina said. "I know he's got someone closer, but. . ."

"You know I will." Amalia finished off her eggs and sopped the chile sauce with a tortilla. "We can work something out with him. He's good folks." She was about to say something else when she suddenly sat up, listening. "I bet that's the Petersons. They're early."

Donovan watched her grab a lantern and head toward the gate. "You know," he said, turning back toward Carina, "About that brace. . ."

"Oh no," Carina set down her fork in exasperation. "I thought we had agreed on that. As a deserter, I would think you'd jump at anything that would make you safer."

"But you yourself said there hadn't been military in Macrina in nearly a decade."

"That doesn't mean they won't come back someday. You were in the Guard. You know that."

"What I know is that the Guard is chronically short of fuel and they go where they think they have the best chances of getting what they need. Some little town in the mountains where they've never had much luck before isn't on their agenda."

Carina stood and began clearing the table. "What about informers? You never know who's a spy. Besides, we had an agreement. You'll take the brace, you'll wear it in town, and we can decide afterwards if you think Amalia and I are being too cautious." She met his eyes over the stack of dirty plates. "You did agree to this arrangement, remember?"

"Well, yes, but—"

"But nothing. We keep our commitments in this family." She set the dishes in the sink and began working the pump handle on the sink. "Let's not argue. It's going to be a lovely day for driving through the country with friends. So go outside and say hello to everyone. They're waiting."

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