Friday, March 16, 2012

Chapter 18

Chapter 18

“Being allies does not mean you make my life harder than you already have!”

I slapped a mosquito that was out here in the twilight and then in a reasonable voice I told Cor, “If you wanted to talk here at the cabin so other people wouldn’t overhear us then I suggest shouting loud enough to be heard in the Outlands is not going to accomplish your goal.” Cor looked like he had been through a real pile on. The sleeves of his cotton shirt were rolled up to his elbows but unevenly, his leather vest was all askew, the tail of the shirt was half in and half out, and his hair looked like he’d been struck by lightning. There were also some pink splotches where none belonged.

Sighing I asked, “Francine really pulled out the waterworks huh?”

“What?” Then looking suspiciously at me he said, “How did you know? Is that what you were going after?”

“No, I wasn’t going after Francine you lunk, she’s nowhere up to my weight in this fight no matter what her aunts might think … and from what I’ve seen so far neither are they. It’s just that her coloring pots are all over your front.”

He looked down and then starting wiping at them. Snarling at me he said, “Look what you’ve done. If this is how you behaved no wonder you had to worry about men where you are from beating you.”

He knew immediately he’d crossed the line; my body language must have been screaming it even if I wasn’t. “Wait! Dammit!! That came out wrong I didn’t mean literally …” More quietly he said, “Damn Fel … don’t look like that … I’d never …” Then he fell silent as a lot of the fight just went out of him. After a moment of both of us trying to jigger around, me looking for a way to escape that wouldn’t cause me to break my neck in the dark and him trying to be careful not to set me off in a run but making sure that if I did his much longer legs would catch me before I got too far, he admitted, “That was uncalled for. I told you sometimes my anger caused the words coming out of my mouth to get ahead of my brain. This … this is one of those times. I … I didn’t mean it.”

He sounded ashamed. I shouldn’t have let him off but I suppose everyone deserves at least one second chance. I’d been given a few and it was time to pay it forward. Still I told him quietly, “You did mean it … you just don’t understand what your words really mean. For all you are a grown man Cor with more years than me – though not as many as you act - for all you’ve been all over the place and have lots of experience with both the good and the bad life can throw at you, you’ve never had to live like I have. You’ve never been that far down the pecking order. You’ve always been someone special, someone people want to know or be able to say that they are friends with the heir of the Corman family. You meant what you said … but this time I’ll also accept that you didn’t mean for it to come out of your mouth.”

“Fel …”

He reached out with his hand out palm up for I don’t know what reason but I wasn’t biting. I backed up and he sighed, shook his head, and then dropped the hand slowly. He turned away and then said quietly, “Why would you do something so … so … hare brained? They had barely gotten in the door and you got them drunk?! They missed lunch and then when they didn’t come to check on her like she expected Francine went to look for them. At first she just thought they were exhausted from their journey but when they finally woke for dinner all bleary eyed and they all figured out …” He shook his head again. “Then the way you acted all through dinner. They couldn’t tell whether you were having a joke on them or not. First you’d act cool as a cucumber and then you would act feather headed. Francine was hoping for an evening of entertainment and company and instead your hijinks sent them all to bed early to finish recovering. Even I was getting a headache trying to keep up with your nonsense. Then when I wanted Francine and I to … er … retire a little early for the evening since it would be the last chance for a while we wind up in a fight because she said that you are spoiling everything.”

I said, “I hope you reminded her that I wasn’t your choice, that it was her own doing that brought this situation on.”

Frustrated he banged his fist on the side of the cabin and said, “That’s what started the fight. Francine and I never fight. I’ve never seen her this upset. She was being completely illogical. First she said she hadn’t wanted this second wife business at all which is a fairadiddle because she most certainly did; she even mentioned it when we were honeymooning. Then she said you were my fault and I reminded her I hadn’t even known about you until I got back from my run down to the Southern Region and I was expected to just accept it all without a fuss because all the proxy paperwork had already been filed and approved by the Council. Then she tried to make it out like the council was doing this and I reminded her that her family was part of the necessary unanimous vote on all proxy marriages. I also told her that I’d heard nothing but this second wife business being what she needed to be able to handle the ‘less than optimal’ conditions she faced here on the estate. Then she really blew up and said I was trying to blame her aunts for this whole mess when all they wanted what was best for her and she went back to blaming you. Then I …”

“You what?” I prompted since he seemed to need to bleed off some of his shock from his sweet little Francine finally showing that she had some teeth and claws to her.

He hunched his shoulders and said, “Then I asked her if she was up to helping around the house yet or not since supposedly that is what this whole second wife business was supposed to do, ease her burdens.”

“What did she say to that?” I asked pretty surprised that he’d actually been angry enough to let it slip out.

“She said that I had only married her to have a housekeeper and the stress and strain of it all was why she hadn’t … hadn’t …”

“Hadn’t?”

“It’s her aunts you see.” I didn’t see so I kept my mouth shut and waited a bit until he finally said, “They keep bringing up the fact that she isn’t … isn’t … er … pregnant yet. Normally by now – though they’ve been more … er … distracted than they normally are - they are complaining that I travel too much and poor Francine isn’t receiving the … er … attention that is her due and that I should have been able to … er … provide her some … er … comfort by now.”

I snorted in disbelief. “From the way you make things out to be you and Francine don’t have any problems in the … er … comfort department.”

Outraged he stood back up and snapped, “We don’t!”

In a calming voice I told him, “Then Francine will get caught when she gets caught. For some it happens the first time and for others it takes a while is all. Fretting about it isn’t going to make it happen any sooner and might actually make it worse.”

“That’s what Winnie has said.”

I nodded even if he could see me in the dark. “And Winnie is full of good sense. Besides, given what she has had to go through with babes she ought to know … she and the Captain both.”

His only answer was a noncommittal, “Hmmmm.”

“Now that you’ve got that off your chest what say you go back to the house and get some rest since you intend to be off to the fort tomorrow.”

“I will as soon as you explain what kind of game you are playing.”

I figured if he wasn’t seeing it that I had no choice but to explain it to him. “Remember how you said you couldn’t even guess how I was going to act from one minute to the next?”

“That’s not exactly what I said. I said you were acting hare brained.”

I could hear a bit of relief in his voice that I wasn’t holding onto a grudge from what he said which I suppose I should count as a good thing. I was learning that Cor could roar and be nasty about it but that he wasn’t fond of that part of himself and felt bad afterwards; probably leftover Da issues where he didn’t want to turn out like his old man had done. Not wanting to be forced to manage him but suspecting that I would have to on occasion I decided to use a bit of humor right to put him more at ease. “Good eye ‘cause that was the effect I was going after. Reckon you’ve hunted a few hares have you?”

“A few,” he agreed.

“Ever watched them evading something that was out to eat them? How they seem to move this way and that so that they are always as many jumps ahead of what is after them as possible?”

He snorted in the dark and said, “And I’ve seen a few bloody carcasses where the strategy didn’t work.”

“Oh well, nothing in life works every single time. They missed my cotton tail this ‘un.” I heard him swallow a chuckle and I finished by saying, “It worked this time Cor because they weren’t expecting it. They had some idea that I was just some dirty, uneducated Outland female. I can guess exactly what they thought they were going to do.”

“What’s that?”

“They were going to show up like a bunch of fairy godmothers and by the time they were done turning me from Cinderella into a princess I’d be so grateful and so in their pocket that I’d be the perfect tool for whatever use they put me to. They still think they can but Da didn’t raise me to be a fool for man nor woman. If this is the best the Lathrops have to offer then we’ll have no troubles.”

Finally thinking and being serious rather than furious Cor said almost to himself, “So Uncle Rob is right, the Lathrops really do mean to try and add the Corman family to their side of the equation. I still don’t believe that Francine understands what it all means but her aunts surely must.” Turning more directly to me he added, “But a word of warning Fel, it isn’t really these women that we need to worry about but the heads of the family on the Council. And not just the heads of the Lathrop family. If they truly are trying to build a coalition and had enough power to force a proxy marriage on me while I wasn’t even around to defend myself from it, then it has to be more than just one family in on this. The Lathrops provide most of the fuel for the settlement and have quite a bit of old tech still in working order that they will lend out … at a cost and not always of coins. Their currency includes favors and influence as well.”

“And you married into this family? Willingly?”

Quietly he said, “Not everyone in the family is like that. There are some good people there that treated the young boy I was with a great deal of care and kindness. Francine’s mother was a gentle soul, even more fragile than Francine is. She died when Francine was barely into her teens. Her father is a good man even if he and I don’t see eye to eye on the issue of multiple marriages. He works his fingers to the bone to provide for all of his wives and children equally and fairly.”

Just as quietly I said, “I never said they were demons from a hot zone. But what they want to do is wrong even if, in their eyes, they have the best of intentions. And the way they are going about having their way is even more wrong. Realizing they would do this to you, doesn’t it make you question everything else you thought you knew about them as well?”

It was obvious he wasn’t ready to go that far with it when he said, “There has to be something salvageable from this mess. The Lathrops and Cormans have been friends for generations. Both of our estates have too much to offer the other. Some of the rice straw that is leftover from our harvest time goes towards their biofuel production. We also have the largest paper mill in Kipling where we turn some of the rice straw into paper rather than clear cutting the forest like they did in the old days and because we do it they don’t have to; they’re estate is much more barren of trees than ours being almost exclusively devoted to silage crops for the biofuel production. The rice and cotton we produce gets traded directly for biofuel, and in fact we are one of the larger contractors because of the size of our fields that require farm machinery to keep in production. The only thing that separates our estates is the ridge you can see to the north and the independent farms that exist between here and there. We’ve lived in harmony since the Dark Days. I can’t understand why they would seek to change things and certainly not like this.”

“Who knows why people do what they do? All we know is that they are doing it and it’s up to us to stop it since no one else seems interested in doing so.”

“Uncle Rob says we have allies on the Council so we aren’t completely alone.”

“And those others don’t seem too willing to put their own neck on the chopping block yet.”

He sighed and then admitted, “True.”

“Cor my ways might not be your ways but that don’t mean I’m using them for anything other than your benefit … and in the process mine. If they don’t know me, aren’t sure of me, then they won’t know exactly how to handle or manage me. And if they can’t do that then they won’t be able to manipulate me as easily. I’m not saying they won’t still do it, but they’ll have to work harder and take longer to do it and that will give us time to create a counter strategy.”
There was a little bite of cynicism and disbelief to his words when Cor asked me, “And what would you know about strategy?”

Trying to remember that most people didn’t expect Outlanders to have too much intelligence above a sand lizard and not get offended by it, “Da said it was the bread and butter of his folks. He just didn’t want the life they had planned for him until he’d gotten out and experienced a little of life on his own terms. His own terms just kind of led him down an unexpected path. Just because he didn’t use it the way his people did didn’t mean that he wasn’t good at it and that he didn’t teach those same lessons to me.”

“Is your name really Fel McConnell? Uncle Rob didn’t seem to believe that it was when I explained what had happened to Francine’s aunts.”

I said a little snappy because I disliked being thought a liar, “Well if he doesn’t believe me he can come ask me himself. That’s the name my Da gave me and my Ma agreed to. If he doesn’t like it that’s just too bad.”

“No need to get bent out of shape Fel. It’s an honest question.”

“How would you like it if someone asked if your name was really Corman?”

“Point taken … Prickle Burr.”

He seemed to be making that a sort of nickname for me. I’d never really had one before … at least not one that you’d hear in polite company though the Headman had been fond of calling me a few things on a regular basis. Da and the rest of the family had just always called me Fel.

Cor shook himself like he was getting rid of the last of whatever was riding him and said, “Let’s go back to the house, I still have a few things to take care of with Uncle Rob so that I can leave tomorrow. Do you have those letters written you wanted to send?”

“Yes. I’ve given them to the Captain already. He said he’d put them in with the packets you were carrying. But I’m not going back to the house.”

“Fel, it isn’t safe wandering around in the dark on a nearly moonless night like tonight.”

“I can see better than you think but I don’t plan on wandering around. I’m staying here at the cabin.”

“What?! It’s not even finished.”

I told him, “It’s more finished than the place I used to live.”

He tried a different tact. “There’s no bar on the door yet.”

It met with the same result. “And all we had was a hide to cover the doorway into the long house and that didn’t keep the wind out much less anything more substantial. Stop fussing Cor. The plan was for me to move here so that Francine could have the house. What is the sense in putting that off? Especially now that her aunts are visiting? They’ll see that she isn’t being … what did the Captain call it … oh yeah … they’ll see she isn’t being disenfranchised and that you still hold her in high esteem and aren’t more interested in your new toy.”

He squeaked, “Of course I’m not!”

I chuckled at his predictable reaction. “You know it obviously, and I’m smart enough to know it. I’m still not sure exactly what the Lathrops mean for me to be within their plans, but this way I’m not quite so close and underfoot and can maybe get a better idea of it. Let’s see what they make of it while you’re gone. Look, just go make up with Francine … you know that is what you want to do. Leave me to live my life the best I can. It is what we agreed to.”

There was a little grumbling on his part but not much. He really did want to make up with Francine.

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