Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Crystal City: The Tales of Alvin Maker, Volume VI

Orson Scott Card

  The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied so that you can enjoy reading it on your personal devices. This e-book is for your personal use only. You may not print or post this e-book, or make this e-book publicly available in any way. You may not copy, reproduce or upload this e-book, other than to read it on one of your personal devices.

  Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at:

  To Chris and Christi Baughan

  Evenly matched


  1 Nueva Barcelona

  2 Squirrel and Moose

  3 Fever

  4 La Tia

  5 Crystal Ball

  6 Exodus

  7 Errand Boy

  8 Plans

  9 Expeditions

  10 Mizzippy

  11 Flood

  12 Springfield

  13 Mission

  14 Plow

  15 Popocatepetl

  16 Labor

  17 Foundation



  Nueva Barcelona

  It seemed like everybody and his brother was in Nueva Barcelona these days. It was steamboats, mostly, that brought them. Even though the fog on the Mizzippy made it so a white man couldn’t cross the river to the west bank, the steamboats could make the trip up and down the channel, carrying goods and passengers—which was the same as saying they carried money and laid it into the laps of whoever happened to be running things at the river’s mouth.

  These days that meant the Spanish, officially, anyway. They owned Nueva Barcelona and it had their troops all over it.

  But the very presence of those troops said something. One thing it said was that the Spanish weren’t so sure they could hold on to the city. Wasn’t that many years since the place was called New Orleans and there was still plenty of places in the city where you better speak French or you couldn’t find a bite to eat or a place to sleep—and if you spoke Spanish there, you might just wake up with your throat slit.

  It didn’t surprise Alvin much to hear Spanish and French mingling on the docks. What surprised him was that practically everybody was talking English—usually with heavy accents, but it was English, all the same.

  “Guess you learnt all that Spanish for nothing, Arthur Stuart,” said Alvin to the half-black boy who was pretending to be his slave.

  “Maybe so, maybe not,” said Arthur Stuart. “Not like it cost me nothing to learn it.”

  Which was true. It had been disconcerting to Alvin to realize how easily the boy had picked up Spanish from a Cuban slave on the steamboat that brought them downriver. It was a good knack to have, and Alvin didn’t have it himself, not a lick. Being a maker was good, but it wasn’t everything. Not that Alvin needed reminding of that. There were days when he thought being a maker wasn’t worth a wad of chawn tobackey on the parlor floor. With all his power, he hadn’t been able to save the life of his baby, had he? Oh, he tried, but when it was born a couple of months too soon, he couldn’t figure out how to fix its lungs from the inside so it could breathe. Turned blue and died without ever drawing air into it. No, being a maker wasn’t worth that much.

  Now Margaret was pregnant again, but neither she nor Alvin saw much of each other these days. Her so busy trying to prevent a bloody war over slavery. Him so busy trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with his life. Nothing he’d ever tried to do had worked out too well. And this trip to Nueva Barcelona was gonna end up just as pointless, he was sure of it.

  Only good thing about it was running into Abe and Coz on the journey. But now they were in Barcy, he’d lose track of them and it’d just be him and Arthur Stuart, continuing in their long term project of showing that you can have all the power in the world, but it wasn’t worth much if you was too dumb to figure out what to do with it or how to share it with anybody else.

  “You got that look again, Alvin,” said Arthur Stuart.

  “What look is that?”

  “Like you need to piss but you’re afraid it’s gonna come out in chunks.”

  Alvin slapped him lightly upside his head. “You can’t talk that way to me in this town.”

  “Nobody heard me.”

  “They don’t have to hear you to see your attitude,” said Alvin. “Cocky as a squirrel. Look around you—you see any black folks actin’ like that?”

  “I’m only half black.”

  “You only got to be one-sixteenth black to be black in this town.”

  “Dang it, Alvin, how do any of these folks know they ain’t one-sixteenth black? Nobody knows their great-great-grandparents.”

  “What do you want to bet all the white folks in Barcy can recite their ancestry back all the way?”

  “What do you want to bet they made up most of it?”

  “Act like you’re afraid I’ll whip you, Arthur Stuart.”

  “Why should I, when you never act like you’re gonna?”

  Now, that was a challenge, and Alvin took it up. He meant just to pretend to be mad, just a kind of roar and raise up his hand and that’s that. Only when he did it, there was more in that roar than he meant to put there. And the anger was real and strong and he had to force himself not to lash out at the boy.

  It was all so real that Arthur Stuart get a look of genuine fear in his eyes, and he really did cower under the threatened blow.

  But Alvin got control of himself and the blow didn’t fall.

  “You did a pretty good job of looking scared,” said Alvin, laughing nervously.

  “I wasn’t acting,” said Arthur Stuart softly. “Were you?”

  “Am I that good at it you have to ask?”

  “No. You’re a pretty bad liar, most times. You was mad.”

  “Yep, I was. But not at you, Arthur Stuart.”

  “At who, then?”

  “Tell you the truth, I don’t know. Didn’t even know I was mad, till I started trying to mime it.”

  At that moment, a large hand took a hold of Alvin’s shoulder—not a harsh grip, but a strong one all the same. Not many men had hands so big they could hold a blacksmith’s shoulder afore and behind.

  “Abe,” said Alvin.

  “I was just wonderin’ what I just saw here,” said Abe. “I look over at my two friends pretendin’ to be master and slave, and what do I see?”

  “Oh, he beats me all the time,” said Arthur Stuart, “when no one’s looking.”

  “I reckon I might have to start,” said Alvin, “just so’s you won’t be such a liar.”

  “So it was playacting?” asked Abe.

  It shamed Alvin to have this good man even wonder, specially after spending a week together going down the Mizzippy. And maybe some of that pent-up anger was still close to the surface, because he found himself answering right sharp. “Not only was it playacting,” said Alvin, “but it was also our business.”

  “And none of mine?” said Abe. “Reckon so. None of my business when one of my friends reaches out to strike another. Guess a good man’s gotta just stand by and watch.”

  “Didn’t hit him,” said Alvin. “Wasn’t going to.”

  “But now you want to hit me,” said Abe.

  “No,” said Alvin. “Now I want to go find me a cheap inn and put up my poke afore we find something to eat. I hear Barcy’s a good town for eatin’, as long as you don’t mind having fish that looks like bugs.”

  “Was that an invitation to a meal?” said Abe. “Or an invitation to go away and le
t you get about your business?”

  “Mostly it was an invitation to change the subject,” said Alvin. “Though I’d be glad to have you and Coz dine with us at whatever fine establishment we locate.”

  “Oh, Coz won’t be joinin’ us. Coz just found the love of his life, a-waitin’ for him right on the pier.”

  “You mean that trashy lady he was a-talkin’ to?” asked Arthur Stuart.

  “I suggested to him that he might hold out for a cleaner grade of whore,” said Abe, “but he denied that she was one, and she agreed that she had plain fallen in love with him the moment she saw him. So I figger I’ll see Coz sometime tomorrow morning, drunk and robbed.”

  “Glad to know he’s got you to look out for him, Abe,” said Alvin.

  “But I did,” said Abe. He held up a wallet. “I picked his pocket first, so he’s got no more than three dollars left on him for her to rob.”

  Alvin and Arthur both laughed at that.

  “Is that your knack?” asked Arthur Stuart. “Pickin’ pockets?”

  “No sir,” said Lincoln. “It don’t take no knack to rob Coz. He wouldn’t notice if you picked his nose. Not if there was a girl making big-eyes at him.”

  “But the girl would notice,” said Alvin.

  “Mebbe, but she didn’t say nothing.”

  “And since she was planning on getting what was in that wallet herself,” said Alvin, “seeing as how you two already sold your whole cargo and she no doubt saw you get the money and divvy it up, don’t you think she would have said something?”

  “So I reckon she didn’t see me.”

  “Or she did but didn’t care.”

  Abe thought about that for a second. “I reckon what you’re saying is I oughta look inside this-here wallet.”

  “You could do that,” said Alvin.

  Abe opened it up. “I’m jiggered,” he said. Of course it was empty.

  “You’re jug-eared, too,” said Alvin, “but your real friends would never point that out.”

  “So she already got him.”

  “Oh, I don’t suppose she ever laid a hand on him,” said Alvin. “But a girl like that, she probably doesn’t work alone. She makes big-eyes…”

  “And her partner goes for the pockets,” said Arthur Stuart.

  “You sound experienced,” said Abe.

  “We watch for it,” said Arthur Stuart. “We both kind of like to catch ’em at it, iffen we can.”

  “So why didn’t you catch them robbin’ Coz?”

  “We didn’t know you needed lookin’ after,” said Arthur Stuart.

  Abe looked at him with calculated indignation. “Next time you go to beatin’ this boy, Al Smith, would you be so kind as to lay down one extra wallop on my behalf?”

  “Get your own half-black adopted brother-in-law to beat,” said Alvin.

  “Besides,” said Arthur Stuart, “you do need lookin’ after.”

  “What makes you think so?”

  “Because you still haven’t thought about how Coz wasn’t the only one distracted by her big fluttery eyes.”

  Abe slapped at his jacket pocket. For a moment he was relieved to find his wallet still there. But then he realized that Coz’s wallet had been there, too. It took only a moment to discover that he and Coz had both been robbed.

  “And they had the sass to put the wallets back,” said Abe, sounding awestruck.

  “Well, don’t feel bad,” said Arthur Stuart. “It was probably the pickpocket’s knack, so what could you do about it?”

  Abe sat himself right down on the dock, which was quite an operation, seeing how he was so tall and bony that just getting himself into a sitting position involved nearly knocking three or four people into the water.

  “Well, ain’t this a grand holiday,” said Abe. “Ain’t I just the biggest rube you ever saw. First I made a raft that can’t be steered, so you had to save me. And then when I sell my cargo and make the money I came for, I let somebody take it away from us first thing.”

  “So,” said Alvin, “let’s go eat.”

  “How?” said Abe. “I haven’t got a penny. I haven’t even got a return passage.”

  “Oh, we’ll treat you to supper,” said Alvin.

  “I can’t let you do that,” said Abe.

  “Why not?”

  “Because then I’d be in your debt.”

  “We saved your stupid life on the river, Abe Lincoln,” said Alvin. “You’re already so far in my debt that you owe me interest on your breath.”

  Abe thought about that for a moment. “Well, then, I reckon it’s in for a penny, in for a pound.”

  “The American version of that is ‘in for a dime, in for a dollar,’” said Arthur Stuart helpfully.

  “But my mama’s version was the one I said,” retorted Abe. “And since I got exactly as many pennies and pounds as I got dimes and dollars, I reckon I can please myself which ones to cuss with.”

  “You mean that was cussin’?” said Arthur Stuart.

  “Inside me there was cussin’ so bad it’d make a sailor poke sticks in his own ears to keep from hearin’ it,” said Abe. “Pennies and pounds was just the part I let out.”

  All this while, of course, Alvin had been using his doodlebug to go in search of the thieves. First thing was to find Coz, partly because the woman might still be with him, and partly to make sure he hadn’t been harmed. Alvin found his heartfire just as he was getting clubbed in the head in a back alley. It wasn’t no hard thing to make it so the club didn’t do him much harm. Put him down on the ground convincingly enough, so they wouldn’t feel no need to give him another lick with it, but Coz’d wake up without so much as a headache.

  Meanwhile, though, the woman and the man was strolling off as easy as you please. So Alvin searched them with his doodlebug and found the money fast enough. It was no great difficulty to make the man’s pocket and the woman’s bag unweave themselves a little, and it wasn’t much harder to make the gold coins all slippery. Nor was it so hard to keep them from making a single sound when they hit the wharf. The tricky thing was to keep the coins from slipping through the cracks between the planks and falling into the slack water under the dock.

  Arthur Stuart, of course, had enough experience and training now that he was able to follow pretty much what Alvin was doing. That was why he was stringing out the conversation long enough to give Alvin time to get the job done.

  In a way, thought Alvin, we’re just like that pair of thieves. Arthur Stuart’s the stall, keeping Abe busy so he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and I’m the cutpurse and pickpocket. Only difference is, we’re sort of unstealing what was already stolen.

  “Let’s go eat, then,” said Arthur Stuart, “instead of talking about eatin’.”

  “Where shall we go to find food that we can stand to eat?” said Alvin.

  “This way, I think,” said Arthur Stuart, heading directly toward the alleyway where the coins had all been spilled.

  “Oh, that doesn’t look too promising,” said Abe.

  “Trust me,” said Arthur Stuart. “I got a nose for good food.”

  “He does,” said Alvin. “And I got the tongue and lips and teeth for it.”

  “I’ll happily provide the belly,” offered Abe.

  They had him lead the way down the alley. And blamed if he didn’t just walk right past the money.

  “Abe,” said Alvin. “Didn’t you see them gold coins a-lyin’ there?”

  “They ain’t mine,” said Abe.

  “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” said Arthur Stuart.

  “I may be a loser,” said Abe, “but I ain’t weepin’.”

  “But you’re a finder now,” said Arthur Stuart, “and I don’t see you doin’ no keepin’.”

  Abe looked at them a bit askance. “I reckon we ought to pick up these coins and search out their proper owner. No doubt somebody’s going to be right sorry for a hole in his pocket.”

  “Reckon so,” said Alvin, bending over to pick up a few
coins. Arthur Stuart was doing the same, and pretty soon they had them all. It was quite a bit of money, when you had it all together.

  “Gotta carry it somewhere,” said Alvin. “Why don’t you put it into those empty wallets you got?”

  Alvin fully expected that Abe would realize, when he started loading it in, that it was exactly the amount that had been stolen.

  But he didn’t. Because the money didn’t fit. There was too blamed much of it.

  Arthur Stuart started laughing and kept laughing till he had tears running down his cheeks.

  “So now who’s the weeper?” said Abe.

  “He’s laughing at me,” said Alvin.


  “Because I clean forgot that you and Coz probably wasn’t the first folks they robbed today.”

  Abe looked down at the full wallets and the coins that Alvin and Arthur Stuart were still holding and it finally dawned on him. “You robbed the robbers.”

  Alvin shook his head. “You was supposed to think they just dropped your money and ran or something,” he said. “But I can’t pretend that when you go finding more money than they took.”

  Abe shook his head. “Well, I’m beginning to get the idea that you got you some kind of knack, Mr. Smith.”

  “I just know how to work with metals some,” said Alvin.

  “Including metal that’s in somebody else’s pocket or purse some six rods off.”

  “Let’s go find Coz,” said Alvin. “Since I reckon he’s due to wake up soon.”

  “He’s sleeping?” asked Abe.

  “He had some encouragement,” said Alvin. “But he’ll be fine.”

  Abe gave him a look but said nothing.

  “What about all this extra money?” asked Arthur Stuart.

  “I’m not taking it,” said Abe. “I’ll keep what’s rightfully mine and Coz’s, but the rest you can just leave there on the planks. Let the thieves come back and find it.”