Getting back to the main house wasn’t pleasant but I did it … and not over anyone’s shoulder either. I was moving as slow as my old Gran had there at the end but it was under my own power and I wasn’t leaning on Cor even if he said I could. “No thanks. I might have to let people think I’m a ninny for putting up with this other mess without complaint but when it is just the two of us I’m going to exercise my pride as much as I feel like.”
“Maybe … but I can’t see you leaning on me if we traded shoes.”
Moving slow also gave us a few more minutes to take care of one last thing. We agreed that our “arrangement” was between the two of us and that’s it. We weren’t even going to tell the Captain or Winnie. They wanted so badly for this mess to turn out for the best we figured they wouldn’t be able to keep from meddling when they saw how we felt about certain parts of it.
I was relieved on the one hand and uncomfortable on the other. I didn’t want to lie to them – they’d both of them treated me fair from the very beginning when they really had no reason to – but at the same time I had a feeling that they just wouldn’t be able to not show how disappointed they were that “good intentions” failed again. They’d get to feeling guilty and give something away.
I didn’t have too long to think on it though as the next few days were very full. First off Mrs. Wiley and I learned how to work together. It wasn’t as hard as it could have been. She wasn’t like my sisters; she was a little territorial in the kitchen but mostly because she didn’t think it was “seemly” for me to be working there all the time for some reason. I put it down to the same strange starts that Jonah would have about me working in the gardens. Both were a little silly considering I was capable and experienced but Winnie told me that I was to let it be, that they might be worried we didn’t need them if they didn’t do their work and they both needed the job. I butted out but I always made sure that Mrs. Wiley knew that I would do my fair share and I was always around with two extra hands when she needed it.
Her taking over the kitchen didn’t leave as much empty time on my hands as I thought it would because of other stuff starting with Jonah taking his job of “rejuvenating” the cabin seriously. That took up almost a half a day and a piece of one every day after that as he insisted I come and have some say over every little thing it seemed. I was worried about all the work that Jonah seemed to be planning until he said, “It’s all right Gilly. Everything will come from Corman land and no out of Young Cor’s coin bag except fer the new roof shakes. But even that there’s OK because them Filburtons owe fer some help rebuilding their barn after the main beam gave way in a storm and their boy is a dab hand at making good ones; and fast too. And Young Cor has said yers ter have the pick o’ the house fer furniture.” When I opened my mouth to object he said, “I know Gilly, most o’ that stuff in the big house be too fancy but there’s some good, sturdy pieces stored in the old assayer’s office yer likely ain’t seen.”
“What is an ... that word you used and why would it need an office?”
He shook his head. “An assayer isn’t a what so much as a who. It is a man what’s got the job of measuring and weighing silver, iron, lead and the like. The Corman estates has some mines but most have been played out. Still get a little bit come in here and there but Young Cor uses the assayer up to the fort for the valuation of it.”
When I wasn’t doing what Jonah asked of me I was writing notes to all of my sisters. I was going to send them all to Docia and hope that she was able to pass them along. I figured that with her living with the folks she did that she more than even perhaps Daphne would be able to keep track of where everyone was and perhaps be able to pass things back and forth.
And not that I wasn’t really glad to write to my sisters but it was the first excuse that came to my mind to escape from Muriel Lathrop and her all seeing eye. But that was later after that first day.
The morning she arrived there was a fog that didn’t seem to want to lift. Francine had us all dressed and waiting like some kind of royalty was about to visit. Winnie and the Captain got out of it because of her condition. Some of the men took off at a run when they heard the woman was coming which gave me some idea that her reputation was known and what I feared of her was probably close to truth. Those men that hadn’t been smart enough to escape early were lending Cor their support I suppose but good Lord they all looked about as happy as if they were heading to an appointment with the tooth puller.
“Fel … Dear … are you sure you wouldn’t like to borrow one of my blouses?”
Trying real hard not to roll my eyes I told her, “Francine you’ve asked me that about ten times now. I’m sure a woman of your aunt’s … er … stature is well aware that I come from the Outlands. I don’t want to give her the impression that I’m trying to pull anything over on her. I’m pretty sure she’d see right through it.”
I might not have rolled my eyes but I caught Cor doing it after he heard my excuse of why I absolutely refused to wear that silly, frilly looking excuse for a piece of clothing called a shirt that Francine expected me to put on for ol’ Muriel. That didn’t even cover the fact that I’d have to stuff the thing full of apples just to keep it from gapping open at the top and showing what little bit I had to the world. Francine might have given the impression that a good stiff breeze would knock her over but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t built with more cushion than I was … quite a bit more cushion in that department. We were about the same on the other end but I had an idea that hers would spread as the years went by if she didn’t get up off of it more so I wasn’t too put out.
Finally we all heard the creaks and clomps and rattles that precede a wagon – or in this case a carriage – and out of the fog she finally came. Oh glory when first one woman then two and then … for a moment I lost count … it was like being bore down on by a heard of buffalo. I was sorely tempted to run for the nearest tree to avoid the stampede. Seems like as a surprise not only Muriel had come but several other aunts and cousins. I wasn’t the only one that looked like they’d like to get out of the way; Cor’s eyes widened in near panic and I swear I saw horror written across the faces of some of the other men.
What got to me is how Francine burst into tears and all but fell in their arms. You would think she hadn’t seen them in a month of Sunday’s but I knew for a fact it had been less than two months as she had been visiting them when I had originally been taken into Kipling. Then she has to make everything that much worse when she stops, draws a breath and then dramatically announces, “Aunt Muriel, he finally did it … he took a second wife.” Then she falls into this kind of faint thing and I didn’t know whether to puke or howl with laughter.
Of course Cor, the big lunkhead, swoops in like the hero in one of those nauseating stories I used to read my sisters and picks the ninny up and carts her upstairs in his arms. She’s all pale and her hair is artfully curled and falling down his arms and her bosom all but tipping out and I would give another body part to know just how she rigged that to happen and have it look like a story book picture rather than just plain silly. Had I tried to pull something off like that I would have looked like a sack of sticks with a horsetail; probably would have drawn flies before someone got around to picking me up and hauling me off someplace … and it wouldn’t have been a soft feather bed if I don’t miss my guess.
And not only did she have her little dramatic scene but when the other men took high tail it out of there it left me to deal with eight of the most terrifying females I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The women from the Lakesider tribe had nothing on these behemoths. And when they all turned to look at me I was wondering if I was the appetizer or the main course.
Then my wicked side rose to the surface as it sometimes did when I was under duress … and not so under duress if I’m honest … and I said, “Well, that was predictable. Francine has worked herself into another one of her sick headaches. I suggest we leave her to Cor. He’ll tuck her up and one of those long quiet naps she’s so fond of will fix her right up. I’m sure you ladies must be parched. If you’d care to come along I’ll make sure that you’re taken care of since it seems to be beyond Francine at the moment.”
I set them all in what Winnie had told me was called the parlor. I could tell I was not at all what they expected and I was going to keep it that way. The more on their heads I could keep them the less likely they would be able to work whatever mischief they were out to make. Right now about half of them looked like they smelled something that came in on the bottom of somebody’s shoe and the other half were trying to look friendly and failing miserably at it.
“If you ladies would excuse me just one moment I’ll be right back. There’s a fair breeze that comes through this window – assuming there is any breeze to be had of course – so hopefully you’ll feel a little cooler.”
I barreled into the kitchen and Mrs. Wiley asks, “They have you hopping already Gilly?”
“Uh … uh no. Um, you didn’t happen to move … ah, there it is.”
She stopped kneading the bread she had her hands buried in and then slowly looked up at me and said, “Gilly …” like my ol Gran would sometimes say when she suspected I was about to get up to something. Mrs. Wiley just shook her head and then went back to kneading the bread and I made my escape with what I had come for.
I had originally meant to make this for Cor and his men friends. The previous afternoon they’d hauled a bedstead from the assayer’s office to the cabin and even helped to set it up. Despite a few comments that turned Cor’s ears pink and turned my eyes inside out trying to find any place to look but at them, they were good natured enough and didn’t complain. I figured they deserved a treat and on top of that they were getting cooped up in the house when I knew every one of them would have been out for a gallop given have a chance.
I’d found the bottle when I had done all the cleaning in the cellar. I’d also found the jug of dried staghorn berries down there as well. It had immediately brought to mind something my Gramp would do every now and again when he got a bottle. I had made a batch of staghorn tea early that morning and then had set it to cool in a bucket of well water down in the cellar. The bottle was given the same treatment.
I remember when I found the bottle – along with the others of its kind – and had asked Jonah what it was. “Gilly, that there is rice lightening.”
“Don’t yer worry about it none. I best not ever catch yer drinking that stuff. It’ll turn yer tip over tail in no time.”
“You mean it is liquor made out of rice? Like mescal is made out of agave?”
He shook his head. “Not sure what mescal or that agave yers talking about is but like I said, better not catch yer drinking this stuff. This is a man’s drink and is meant to put hair on her chest.”
My Gramp used to take staghorn tea and lace it with mescal and make what he called “hard lemonade.” My Da said it wasn’t really lemonade but I wouldn’t know as I have never seen a real lemon much less tasted one. All I know is if Gramp had a glass or two of that mix of his, he slept really well. I was just going to give the Lathrop ladies a drop … or two … because they were bound to enjoy a nice long nap after the harrowing trip they must have experienced.
I took the tea pot and dumped the cool tea in and then tipped the bottle of rice lightening over in it so that some good sized splashes thinned the tea out a bit … or more than a bit if you were wanting to be exact. I took the tea service that Francine had cleaned up and took it and put that on a tray and away I went.
As soon as I walked in the door I found Cor being grilled. One old gudgeon was saying, “You really must let us send some help to you Cor. It wouldn’t be a problem. Consider it a late wedding present.”
“That’s all right Aunt Beulah, really. You know how I feel about such things. The Corman estates will stand on their own.”
Another biddy that looked like she sucked unripe persimmons to improve her disposition intoned, “Pride goeth before a fall.”
When he heard someone enter he turned quick in a flash like he was hoping to be rescued. Putting on my most eager to please face I said, “I am just so sorry I wasn’t quicker. I’m still learning all of these new things here at Cor’s home. I know if Francine was herself she’d be here to take care of you but since she isn’t please allow me to offer you some refreshments.”
I got a suspicious look from Cor but he was knocked off track when the head buffalo caught him a good one in the ribs with her elbow and said, “Cor dear, aren’t you going to introduce us?”
“Uh … well … that is … Hmmmm.” He stopped and cleared his throat looking like he’d rather be roasting on an open spit than doing what he’d been asked to do. “Aunt Muriel, may I present Fel … er …” I nearly snickered. He’d just realized he didn’t even know my Da’s surname.
“Fel … such an … unusual name.”
I would not have my goat gotten so easy. If they wanted to pick at me they’d need to sharpen their claws a little more. “My Da named me. Seems a lot of women in his family are called that including a sister and an aunt and his grandmother before that. Fel McConnell at your service ladies,” I said with a flourish as I handed dainty tea cups around. “I’m sure the trip must have been a taxing one but could you please, oh please tell me about it. There is still so much for me to learn and ladies such as yourselves I’m sure have a lot to teach. How did you dare travel so far alone? When the Captain … that would be Captain Uhl … brought me here we traveled with a large troop of men and it was ever such a rough trip; there were pirates and bandits and rough men, oh my.”
Aunt Muriel had just taken her first sip of the “tea” when she said, “Oh, what an … an unusual flavor. Quite tart, yet sweet.”
“I set it cooling early this morning. I knew the heat would be horrendous and wanted to make sure you had something proper to greet you. Francine was so antsy that I feared she might do herself some damage so I thought to try and alleviate at least some of her burden.”
All this time I could feel Cor staring at me hard enough to poke holes but I could not look at him for fear of giving the game up and laughing myself silly. Finally I’d seen that the aunts were ready for their second cuppa and I added to the fun. I had refilled everyone’s and then blinked hard and heavy at the tray. “Oh … oh dear. Cor I’m … I’m so sorry. You must think I’m the silliest thing with feathers where my brain should be and no manners at all. Next time you’d best say something even if it leaves me in for an embarrassment; mayhap then I’ won’t forget.”
“Huh?” I think he thought I’d lost my marbles.
Finally turning to him but not really looking him in the eyes I said, “I forgot all about your cup. Here you go.”
I didn’t give him a chance to do anything but take the cup from me that I nearly shoved into his chest. He raised the dainty thing to his lips and when he finally registered the taste of what he was drinking he set his cup back onto the saucer in such a way that I had to turn back to the ladies or it would have been all over right then.
Four cups and then finally I was able to lead them all sloshing up to their rooms. It wasn’t a very straight line mind you. They were already weaving a bit. Then once in their rooms I was oh so pleased to help them get comfortable and that they really should rest after such a strenuous adventure as they must have had. A couple of them were snoring before I left their rooms and then I returned to the parlor to clean up the mess.
The Captain had joined Cor and I caught them peering down into the tea pot. They both looked up as I entered the room. “What are you doing just standing around. I doubt we’ll see them again before supper. Far be it from me to make suggestions but now might be a good time to get Jonah to go see what he can find out from their wagon driver and perhaps you Captain could speak with their outriders on pretext of hearing if they had any problems at all. Cor you might want to see if Francine would like a bit of this tea to calm her nerves. It certainly appears to have loosened her aunts up a bit.
I had gathered everything up and was going back to the kitchen when Cor caught up with me and grabbed the teapot and peered inside it again. “I didn’t poison them you know.”
He gave me a suspicious look.
“You drank it too.”
His suspicious look got deeper and I decided to battle it with an innocent look in return.
He asked, “What is it?”
“Oh this? Tea.”
“That is not just tea.”
I shook my head and said, “Of course it is tea, but I never said it was just tea.”
Smiling I continued on to the kitchen, sat the tea pot down and was going to wash it but Mrs. Wiley said, “Leave it be Gilly. No sense in good drink going to waste. Jonah will want a spot of it I’m sure. Just set it in the cellar so it stays cool.”
“Yes Mrs. Wiley.”
I was going to make my escape but she caught me as I was leaving and said, “You’ll get away with that this time but you’ll have to come up with something else for next.”
I gave her a bear got the honeypot look and said, “Oh I will.”