So why did I still feel guilty?
“Enough of that,” I told myself. I made some coffee and checked my fishing lines. Success! It was only one fish, kind of small, but just the right amount for breakfast. And it was better than those dumb sardines.
I had no trouble crossing the river, since it was running pretty low, and I spent most of the day riding through rough country. There were rocks, dips, hills, and dry arroyos (although I don’t think they call them that here). It was enough like certain parts of my own country that I could forget at times that I was far from home. And although I couldn’t forget that I was alone, the novelty was nice, and I knew that as soon as I came to a town or a main road, there would be companions for the asking.
Late in the day, I came out onto a plain where I found a road running parallel to a rail line. There were people, animals and even a few motor vehicles here. I stopped a family pushing handcarts full of bundles and asked which way to the nearest town.
“Follow this here road west, and you can’t miss it,” the father said.
I was disappointed to hear I had to backtrack a little, but I didn’t know this land and its people, so it was best to stick to my plan. I could get more information in town, and besides, that was where I had told Charlene I was going, in case she decided to catch up with me.
So I fell in with the other traffic moving along the road. A few of the older travelers made jokes when we passed an old gas station, but they were bitter jokes—the kind people make when they’re deeply angry.
As we neared town, we started seeing strange signs. They were small and appeared to be made of that poor-quality wood they call particleboard. The signs were painted, nailed to stakes and driven into the ground at intervals. Each had only one or two words, with things like:
“What do you think?” I asked a woman who was leading a donkey carrying her two small children.
“I think I’m glad my kids can’t read. I can’t afford nothing like that.”
I had never seen a real carnival before, although I had seen the remains of a water park once, with its big empty pools and enormous slide to nowhere. I was intrigued, so when we got closer to the town and the signs for the carnival pointed down a side street, I decided to take a look.
I guess after all the signs and anticipation, I had been expecting more. Instead, the carnival consisted of a few patched and grimy tents, some animals, some dull-looking children’s rides, and a handful of oddly dressed people milling around. There weren’t a lot of customers, and I felt bad for the workers. Still, it wasn’t like they had much to offer.
Since I was hungry, I went to a food cart where a man with what appeared to be a bone sticking through his nose was selling skewers of something he swore was alligator meat. I had only seen alligators in picture books, so I bought one, but I think it was just ordinary chicken.
Then I went to see the animals. They had alpacas, which didn't impress me, since my neighbors had some in Valle Redondo. There was also a monkey, an adorable squirrel that could fly, and a wild cat that the carnival workers swore was tame. But I don’t believe you can ever really tame one of those creatures, so I kept my distance. What surprised me most was the bird—the biggest one I had ever seen. It had a long skinny neck and big feet, and if it hadn’t been for the feathers and beak, I swear I wouldn’t have believed it was a bird at all.
After I left the animals, I came across a tent advertising shows for “men only.” There was music inside, and this was the only part of the carnival that seemed to be doing good business. I figured it must be whores, like in a bar.
Finally I ended up at a place where there were games set up. One of them involved shooting at targets for prizes, and I felt pretty sure I’d have no trouble with that one. The man running the game wasn’t much older than me, and seemed like a nice enough sort, although he talked way too fast, not like a Texan at all. I paid for three tries, and he handed me a rifle. It was different from any of the guns I had ever used, and it felt a little awkward. So I didn’t think much of it when I missed the first shot. Or the second. But on the third try, I couldn’t help thinking something wasn’t right.
“Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with this gun?”
“It’s right as rain, Miss, but if you want a different one, take your pick.”
He let me select a different gun. I paid for another three tries, and missed them all. This was unbelievable. I had been shooting rabbits at farther range than this since my eighth birthday! But I figured I’d give it one more go and see what happened. I paid for another three chances. When I was through, I threw the gun onto the counter in disgust.
“I’m sorry, Miss. But I have a nice consolation prize for you!” He reached under the counter and pulled out a small paper bag of peppermint candy. “For being such a good sport!”
I glanced all around, suddenly glad the carnival wasn’t very busy. I pulled my pistol out the holster and laid it on the counter. “I don’t know what you’ve done to this game,” I said, “But I’ve been hunting since I was a kid, plus I’m a trained assassin. Now, give me a real prize, unless you want me testing my aim on you.”
“Hey, no need to get mad. Everyone has an off day, you know. I miss sometimes, too. No big deal, right? Good days. Bad days. That’s life.”
“Don’t tell me about life. Just give me a prize or give me my money back.”
“I can’t do that. You think I can go giving prizes to everyone who misses just because they say they’re some kind of expert marksman and it’s my fault they missed?”
I took aim at his earlobe.
“Don’t make me call security," he said.
“Don’t make me have to shoot them, too.”
“Fine.” He gave a tight smile. “Since you’re a pretty girl and such a good sport. . .”
“No need to flatter me.”
He reached under the counter. “For you. Congratulations.”
I looked at my prize.
“What? I want a real prize. This is just a doll.”
“That’s what the prize is! Come back here if you don’t believe me. See if I’ve got anything better.”
“Can I keep the candy, too?”
“Take it all. Just quit harassing me. It’s bad for business.”
I put the candy in my pocket and picked up the doll. “So is cheating.”
I started walking away. But I hadn’t gone very far, when he came after me. “Hey, wait a minute!” He stopped and looked at the me oddly. “Are you serious that you’re an assassin?”
“I’ve done that kind of work before, yeah. Don’t get no ideas, though. I don’t do that sort of thing any more.”
“I wasn’t thinking to hire you for that,” he said. “I was wondering if maybe you could help me make my game better.”
“You want me to help you cheat people?”
“I’ll pay you.”
I didn’t need the money, but it was getting dark. “Is there a place around here I can camp for the night?”
“Better. You can stay in my tent.” He laughed at my skeptical look. “It’s okay. I share it with my mom. She has an act.”
“Yeah. I think her latest involves singing and playing the trumpet while riding around in circles on a bicycle with a parrot on her head. But I might be wrong.”
In spite of myself, I laughed. He did, too, and just like that the whole silliness with the rigged game was forgotten. He told me his name was Aaron, and since I had already had supper, he got a friend to mind his booth and took me to his tent.
It was a sad, drab looking thing on the outside, but certainly big enough for three and even a few more. On the inside, there were rugs and animal hides covering the ground, and a gauzy curtain separated the tent into rooms, so his mother could have some privacy. It seemed a comfortable enough place, with cushions and blankets, all lit by the cool, dim glow of solar lanterns.
Aaron showed me where I could put my things, and said he had to go back to work. Apparently they run some of the shows pretty late, and even after the games shut down, there is security work to do, cleanup and money-counting. These aren’t lazy people by any stretch.
So I’m feeling pretty decadent in this big tent tonight. Aaron gave me some pillows, so I’ve got a nice soft nest here with my blankets. And I checked behind the curtain to make sure that there really is another female using this tent, and there is. She appears to like purple things. Nevertheless, I’m sleeping with my knife under my pillow. One can’t be too careful.
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