Spain, 1940: Potes, a remote northern mountain village, is Carlos Tejada’s first independent Guardia Civil command. He soon discovers that this “promotion” is a mixed blessing. The villagers are unwelcoming. He and his pregnant wife, Elena, have no place to live but the jail, and his own men seem strangely hostile. Is it just their suspicion of his wife’s Republican sympathies? Or is there more going on in the beautiful but bleak area, recently devastated by the civil war? Tejada discovers that there may, indeed, be a new outbreak of that war with Potes as its epicenter. And he must find a way to reconcile his love for his wife with his duty.
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The baby didn't like the blizzard. At least, that was how Elena thought of it. She sat up a little clumsily, to pay closer attention. Her husband, whose shoulder she had been resting against, straightened also, and adjusted his arm, so that his cloak covered her as well. "What's the matter?"
Elena huddled against him, seeking protection from the cold. "Nothing. The kid's awake."
Lieutenant Tejada laid a thoughtful hand on his wife's stomach. "How can you tell he's awake?" he asked after a moment. "Maybe he's just kicking in his sleep."
"Because it's an awake sort of kicking." Elena sighed. "Although it is past his bedtime."
"I'm sorry." The reproach in Tejada's voice was mostly directed at himself. "You should have stayed in Salamanca."
"I thought it would be easier to travel with a guardia and without an infant," Elena replied dryly.
"Obviously a misapprehension." The lieutenant's voice was just as dry. The wind whistled through the broken windowpane opposite them, whirling a few more flakes into the gradually widening puddle of snowmelt. Tejada felt his wife shiver again, and struggled with a futile anger. It was just after ten, but darkness came early in the winter, and the snowstorm had cut off all light long before the train had dropped them off in this cheerless waiting room over four hours ago.
The train connections had been almost suspiciously good, and Tejada had not been overly worried when they had reached the tiny junction of Unquera and found that their ride was not waiting for them. After all, driving was difficult, and doubtless their chauffeur had assumed that the train would be late in this weather. But a four-hour wait was too long. A southerner by birth and temperament, the lieutenant disliked the storm on principle, but had he been alone he would have been less impatient. Elena had been a remarkably good sport, but she needed food and sleep and warmth, and none of those would be forthcoming at Unquera. He kissed her forehead, wishing that he had insisted that she stay behind with her parents until the child arrived. But she had wanted to come with him, and he had not really wanted to be separated from her less than a year after their wedding.
"How did I get talked into this?" he said aloud.
"Rodríguez." His wife was succinct.
The lieutenant snorted. A month ago, the transfer had seemed like an answer to all of his difficulties; a move away from his overbearing and incompetent captain and a promotion to his own command, so that he would have no direct contact with another irksome superior. Moreover, much as he had denied it to himself, Elena was unpopular with his colleagues in Salamanca. She was too much of a leftist. In Potes, she would not be the daughter of a known political dissident, but merely the wife of the commander.
"Of course it's only a little post," Captain Rodríguez had said, with a slight sneer. "But if you'd condescend to take a command outside of Madrid, Lieutenant, I think you'd be ideal." And Tejada had ignored the hostile sarcasm, and had said that he would be delighted to command the Guardia Civil post in the Cantabrian village of Potes.
His ears caught something besides the bitter whistling of the wind, and he hurried to the door of the deserted waiting room, hoping that their ride to Potes had finally arrived. For a moment he could make out nothing in the swirling whiteness, and then the tramp of hooves and the creak of harness leather attached themselves to a pinpoint of light that became a wagon, carrying a single lamp, which trundled out of the darkness and toward the station. Oh, God, thought Tejada, who had studied the map and knew that a good fifty kilometers, mostly uphill, lay between the train station and their final destination. Don't they even have a truck?
As the cart rumbled nearer, Tejada saw that the driver was huddled in an ancient wool overcoat that by no stretch of the imagination could be considered a guardia's uniform. Frustrated, he glanced back toward the shelter of the station. Elena had not risen from the bench. Her weary indifference decided him. He stepped out into the road and held up one hand.
The driver of the wagon saw the lieutenant at the last minute and pulled on the reins so hard that the horse neighed in protest. "Good evening, Señor Guardia." The words were whipped away by the wind.
"How far are you going?" Tejada demanded curtly.
"To Argüébanes, sir." The driver fumbled inside his coat and produced a faded wallet. "I live there. See, here are my papers."
"Is that in the Liébana Valley?" Tejada absently took the wallet, flipped it open, and glanced down at the man's safe conduct. The gesture was a formality. It was next to impossible to read anything by the dim light of the wagon's lamp, and he did not intend to waste energy trying.
"Yes, sir." The man shivered in his overcoat. "I'd hoped to be back sooner, but with this weather ..."
Tejada nodded. "We're going to Potes," he explained. "And our ride seems to have been lost in the storm as well. Can you take us?"
The words were not really a question. So the lieutenant was caught off guard when the driver said nervously, "Of course, Señor Guardia, I'd be honored to take you and your partner but I'm afraid you won't find it very comfortable. Or very dignified."
"I'm not spending any more time in that damned waiting room," Tejada said, making it clear that his statement had been a command rather than a request. "Just a moment." He turned. "Elena! Come on."
The lieutenant had not particularly noted the driver's reluctance to take on a passenger, but it was impossible to overlook the man's surprise at the sight of Elena. "But who's she?" he ventured.
"My wife." Tejada's voice was at its most forbidding.
"Of course. Of course. I only thought — that is, I assumed when you said we that you meant another guardia. That is, I thought you were on duty, sir."
"If I were on duty," the lieutenant said, as he heaved his luggage into the back of the wagon, "I would walk. Let's get going."
It was a long, gloomy journey, the silence broken only by the plod of the horse's hooves in fresh snow, and the creak and rattle of the cart. The snow eased as they turned inland, into the dark gorge that provided the only access to the Liébana Valley, where Potes was located, but the wind intensified, whistling violently through the narrow slit cut by the river. Although impatient at the cart's speed, Tejada soon was grateful for its stability as they crawled along the hairpin turns of a nearly invisible road, with the bitter gale threatening to sweep them over the narrow ledge into the roiling white water below. As they passed through the gorge, the snow that had accumulated on Elena's coat began to melt through it, and she was shivering uncontrollably long before they reached the first village hidden under the folds of rock. Tejada squeezed her shoulders. "Almost there," he said gently, privately resolving to make whoever had left them waiting at the station clean latrines for the next six months.
"I'm all right."
He shifted position, trying to shield her from the worst of the wind, and reflecting that one of the things he loved about her was her unfaltering courage. "Someday I'll take you on a proper honeymoon."
"Biarritz, maybe?" she suggested, through chattering teeth.
Tejada, who had spent an unforgettable and not entirely pleasant night with her in Biarritz the preceding summer, snorted slightly. "I don't think so," he said, aware that he also loved her sense of humor.
"Are you newlyweds, then?" The driver joined their conversation unexpectedly.
"Last summer," Elena explained.
"And you're new to Potes, sir?"
"Yes." Tejada knew that there was no reason to vent his irritation on the driver. "My name is Lieutenant Tejada. I'll be commanding the Potes post."
The only emotion Tejada could definitely identify in the monosyllable was surprise. The driver lapsed back into silence, and his passengers, who were tired, did not speak further either. The jolting of the cart was too uneven to allow either of them to doze off, although Tejada feared that his wife would succumb to the cold if she fell asleep, and Elena dearly would have liked to have been unconscious for part of the ride.
The driver broke the monotonous silence a few hours before dawn. "This is Potes, Lieutenant."
At an indeterminate hour of the morning, in the midst of a blizzard, the town was not prepossessing. A cluster of largely roofless buildings huddled together on either side of the bumpy road signaled the center of the town. Tejada thought longingly of the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca. "Where's the post?" he demanded, glad that the journey at least was finishing.
"Just across the river, sir." The driver raised an arm and pointed. "The building with the flagpole."
Tejada mentally measured the distance, considering the possibility of walking it with baggage in the dark. "Take us over there," he ordered.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant." The driver sounded frightened. "I can't. The wagon's too heavy for the bridge. "
"Then how the hell do the Guardia vehicles manage?" Tejada snapped, exhaustion wearing his patience thin.
"There was another bridge before the war. But it was destroyed when the town was burned. There's another bridge about a kilometer down that way, sir, that can carry trucks. The road loops back. But in this weather ..." The man stopped, his voice pleading.
"He has to get home, Carlos," Elena interjected. "We can't take him that far out of his way."
"You're in no condition to walk that far!" her husband retorted, annoyed that she was undermining his attempts to protect her.
Courage was one thing. Pigheadedness was quite another.
Elena's breath appeared in a cloud, as it hissed between her teeth, but she said nothing. Tejada frowned, wet, cold, furious, but fighting with her was the last thing he wanted to do. To his surprise, the driver of the wagon coughed. "There's a fonda a little ways further, on this side," he offered. "It's mostly a bar, but there are a couple of apartments upstairs that Anselmo used to rent in the summers to hikers. Maybe you could put up there for the night, and your men could pick you up tomorrow, sir."
"I'm expected tonight," Tejada said harshly. It occurred to him that if he had waited for appropriate transportation the issue would not have arisen.
"Yes, sir." The driver was meek. "I only thought your lady might want to get out of the cold faster."
On the other hand, Tejada thought, if I'd waited for official transport we might still be at Unquera. And if they'd been so anxious for their new lieutenant to arrive they would have sent someone to meet the train. He nodded capitulation. "Set us down there," he ordered.
Elena heaved a sigh of relief as the cart halted. The driver jumped down with startling spryness. It occurred to her that she had been thinking of him as an old man, and she wondered, with the light-headedness of the sleep- deprived, what had given her that impression. His hair (or his baldness) was hidden under a cap, and his throat and hands were muffled against the cold. Perhaps his voice had sounded old to her? Or the way he had hunched over the reins? Regardless of his age, he was heaving their suitcases out of the back of the wagon without apparent difficulty. Just as if he were a taxi driver, depositing us at the Ritz, she thought, amused. She saw her husband climb down and go to help him, and heard the man say easily, "Don't worry, sir. I'll get these. You'd better start hammering on the door. Anselmo sleeps like a stone."
Obediently, Tejada moved toward the door and rapped on it, first with his knuckles and then with the heel of his hand. There was still no answer by the time the wagon's owner had deposited their suitcases on the ledge and helped Elena down. The lieutenant shrugged and hit the door with his rifle butt. "Hello!" His voice carried in the storm, and echoed around the valley. "Wake up!"
"Anselmo!" The wagoner added his voice to the lieutenant's. "Anselmo! Oy! The new lieutenant's here and needs a room! Anselmo!"
A light finally went on inside, and the door creaked back to reveal a thin woman wrapped in a robe, with her hair in gray twists around her face. "What are you —?" she began, and then blanched. "Luis? The Guardia?"
"This is the new lieutenant," their driver, Luis, explained. "I can't take him over the footbridge, and he doesn't want to spend more time in the snow. Can you put him up until dawn?"
"The rooms aren't made up." The woman was shivering in the wind, which was blowing into the doorway. She turned to Tejada. "I'm sorry, Señor Guardia. We weren't expecting — that is, you'd have to wait."
"Look," Tejada interrupted her. "My wife has been traveling for almost twenty hours. She's expecting a child, and it's snowing. All we need is a room."
"Or a manger," Elena murmured, unable to repress a grin.
"Don't blaspheme!" Tejada growled. "You're exhausted, and you need rest! There's nothing funny about it."
The innkeeper's wife had listened to this exchange without changing expression, but now she smiled slightly. "Come in, Señora. I'm afraid it won't be much warmer than a manger, but at least it's out of the wind."
Elena stepped inside with relief. The room was dark except for a lamp in one corner, but she received the vague impression of a long rectangular space, with a bar counter at the far end, and a few rickety tables, with chairs piled on top of them for the night. As she made out the shapes of the upturned chairs, she remembered how much her feet hurt, and realized how sorry she was that she could not sink into one of them. The truth of her husband's comment about twenty hours of travel suddenly struck her, and she wondered a little vaguely how much longer she would be able to remain upright. Carlos was setting the bags inside the doorway, and the innkeeper's wife was ushering her toward a stairway, talking all the while. "The fire's banked for the night, so hot-water bottles will be difficult, but I can offer you extra quilts." She heard her husband thank the man who had driven them from Unquera, and heard the innkeeper's wife say, "Good night, Luis," as the door to the street closed.
She turned to the gray-haired woman, swaying with weariness. "I'm sorry. The bathrooms are ...?"
"This way." The woman smiled comprehension, and took her elbow. "I'll show you. It's the second floor, Lieutenant," she added over her shoulder, as Tejada picked up the first of the suitcases.
Elena made her way to the bathroom. She was too tired to feel more than a bit disappointed to discover that it was a latrine. Somehow she found the strength to drag herself up two flights of stairs, following her hostess's directions. A door off the upstairs hallway opened into a large room with a table shoved under a shuttered window. She passed through the room down a passage too short to be called a hallway, but just wide enough to accommodate a closet, and saw lamplight flickering off a bed. The gray-haired woman was tucking in a sheet, and there was a pile of folded blankets stacked beside it. Elena went toward the bed and sank onto the mattress, begrudging the effort it took to kick her shoes off her throbbing feet. The room was freezing, and she hastily decided against undressing further as soon as she took off her coat. She wormed her way under the sheets, pulled the blankets the woman had given her over the bed as best she could, and closed her eyes, relieved simply to be dry and lying down.
She was already asleep when the lieutenant brought up the last of their bags a few minutes later. He spread the blanket a little more completely over the bed and inspected Elena before turning out the lamp on the night table. Her face, always thin, seemed more sharply drawn in the dim light. Only the curve of her stomach was generous. He sat beside her and touched her belly lightly. Neither she nor the baby stirred. Very gently, he pulled the pins out of her hair, and uncoiled the long braid onto her pillow. She shifted, murmured his name, and then sank back into deeper sleep. The lamplight glittered off the single diamond set in a tiny gold cross that nestled in the hollow of her throat.
Tejada looked at the forgotten ornament, and smiled in spite of his own exhaustion. He had given her the necklace when she had first confirmed her pregnancy, and she was seldom without it, although she wore no other jewelry. He stroked her hair for a moment, and then forced himself to his feet one more time. His pistol became unbearably heavy as soon as he unbuckled the holster, and it was once more a weight separate from his clothing. He stooped, ignoring his aching back, and slid first his rifle and then the pistol under the bed. He undressed, shivering, and then slid into bed, profoundly grateful that Elena was already warming the icy sheets. At least we're here, he thought, as his head touched the pillow and he snaked an arm around his wife. And after a trip like this, what else can go wrong? Then he was asleep.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Watcher In The Pine"
Copyright © 2005 Rebecca Pawel.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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