I took the sack and opened it cautiously. I trusted Cor but only up to my memories giving me reason to be cautious. The Headman had handed me a rucksack full of snakes once and if I had just stuck my hand down in the bag I would have been black as a burnt log and deader than dead … in fact without the caution that my Da taught me was the first survival skill you needed I would have been dead several times already in this life.
I carefully opened the sack over near the fireplace where I could peer down inside it first. When all looked OK I plopped down onto the floor and carefully upended the sack in front of me. Several pieces of folded rice paper were tied together with a piece of rough, gray yarn. There was also a few paper wrapped bundles but it was the letters that I was after first.
With shaking hands I untied the bundle of papers and they fell loose in my lap. The first one I picked up was from Hannah and was typical. She was a good speller but she hated writing because she was so slow and because she had a hard time forming the letters in the right directions.
Fel, I miss you so much. I just want you to know I am good with life. I enjoy being married. I hope you do. Carter and his brother are fine men. Nel says she enjoys being married too. They don’t hit. Carter killed a small bear with only his hands when it charged me while I was getting water from the creek. He shook for two hours and would not let me out of his sight. I am big but he treats me like I will break. I like being married real good. I will tell the others things and they can write more. Your sisters, Hannah and Nel
I refolded it slowly and carefully and the next letter I picked up was from Daphne of all people. I was very surprised as I didn’t know that she could read or write.
Fel, I am shure u r suprized to here from me. I am suprized to. I nevar thot that I wuld miss u but I do. I culd uze sum help with the she cats a round here. Lem sayz thay r jellus az thay did not git picked to be wifes in the furst famalys. I told Lem it waz stoopid because I did not care so long as I got to be hiz wife, it did not matter if he was furst or not. He smiled at me. He smiles at me all the tyme. He is diferant from uncle. I am very glad to no that not all men r like uncle. I am going to have a babee. Mona is surprized that I tuuk so soon. Lem and I want to hav many babes so hiz ma will hav a lot to keep her buzy and not b so buzy with him. She is nice, better than ant but do not tell hur I sad so. I do not think peeple here no whut it iz like in the Outlands. Sum r soft. Sum jest do not want to believe thet stuf still hapens even tho the dark dayz are over. Lem’s ma buyz me to much stuf. She spinds more coyns now thet a babe will be here. Lem sad I kan send this to u az I hav more then I kan ever ware. Docia cryd wen she hurd frum u. She axed us to rite to u becose you r far away and will be lonely with no wun to take car of. I wisht u were here to hep me with the catz. Ur sister, Daphne
There was a paper covered bundle that I knew was from Daphne because it was labeled “Frum Daphne” in the same blocky lettering she had used to write the letter. She seemed to have changed but not so much that she wouldn’t want me to know exactly what came from her. It made me smile for old times sake. The edges of the paper had been folded so that you didn’t need string to hold it closed which I thought was clever. I went from smiling to laughing at what I took out after I figured out what it was.
Cor made a strange noise and I looked up to find him staring off at anything but the silly, frilly things I had in my hands. “Cor, for you to be a grown, married man you sure do act like a boy that hasn’t even gotten fuzzy yet.”
He gave me an irritated look and then shook his head. “You aren’t the least embarrassed are you?”
Shaking my head I said, “I refuse to be embarrassed of silly things and certainly not because I’m female. I don’t know why you would be either. Surely you’ve seen Francine prancing around in things like this since it seems this is what women here wear.”
Stubbornly he said, “That’s not the point.”
Conceding some of the point I told him, “OK, maybe it would be a little different if you saw Francine in them but this is just me and we both know there’s nothing between us.”
“That’s not the point either. I mean it is but …” He stopped for a moment then gave me a quizzical look. “It really doesn’t bother you?”
I shook my head at his silliness. “Cor I’m not asking you to do my laundry. It is just plain foolish to pretend I am not a female. If I wasn’t we would not be in this fix. They are just under things though I’ve never seen the like in all my life. They wouldn’t hold up to much from what I can see and all of that ribbon and lace has to be itchy.”
He had no comment to that so I moved on to the last letter, from Docia.
Sister, I cried and cried and cried to finally hear word of you. I will try to make you proud of me and use good words but I am sorry that the page is all messed up from me crying. I am just so happy. I will tell you right away that I am very well because I know that is the first thing you will want to know. Robbie is like no one I ever imagined, even better than Prince Charming. He is not like the Headman or my brothers. He does not yell and shout. He smiles a lot and he even smiles at me. When I asked him why he said it is to make up for all the smiles I didn’t get. That is a strange thing for him to say but it is not the strangest. He is bashful and moves real slow when he wants to spend time with me. I do not know whether to tell him that he does not need to, that if he will keep me he can ask of me anything and I will not stop him or complain. If Missus Uhl was not his Ma I would ask her but she is so I won’t. I may not be smart but I do not think Robbie would want his Ma to know about such things as him being bashful like that.
Another strange thing is that I am not scared. Not hardly of anything except Robbie sending me away. There was a horse that went loco. I just roped him and tied him to a tree like you taught me and waited for him to tire himself out. Then when he was finally too tuckered to hurt me I went to find out why had acted like he did. He was a stallion but even stallions do not act like he acted. He still tried to nip me when I found it. He had been stung by a giant wasp that had somehow gotten caught in the poor things saddle blanket. I put a poultice on it to ease his pain and take the poison out of it and did not think anything of it. But when I thought to look all the boys in the yard were staring at me. I thought I had done something wrong. I was very scared to even come out of the orchard where I had run and hid. Robbie and Mister Uhl found me and explained that no one was mad at me, that I had surprised them by being so strong and smart about what to do for the poor horse. No one but you has ever called me smart. I do not know exactly what it all means.
I know your life cannot be what you want. I know that being a second wife has to twit your pride and hurt your feelings. I know you Fel like I know my own hands. I would take your place if I could even if it meant leaving Robbie because you would do the same for me. It makes me mad that you have to do this thing when you never asked for it or had the choice and the rest of us get so much better. I tried to explain it to Robbie but it is hard when that Cor is his cousin. I think even when they mean well men will stick together and never understand women. I think God did that on purpose though I can’t think why because it makes life very hard sometimes.
There is a thing that I spoke to Missus Uhl about and she said she understood. She is a woman too. I made you a medicine box. I put what I think you could need that might take you a while to collect if you had to make one for yourself. I have found that some of the plants that we used to use do not grow here and Robbie is teaching me what they use for the same purpose. Inside the box is a paper with notes for everything to make sure you remember and will know about the ones you have never seen. Robbie says I draw beautiful pictures and he has me helping him to make books up that can be used in the midwife and healer schools. I like that kind of learning and I am practicing my reading and writing and Robbie is very pleased and says that he is proud of me and amazed that I did not let the men stop me from learning. He has heard stories from our other sisters of why some of them cannot read or write or cypher the way the women here can. I think he heard most of it from Daphne who still likes to talk too much when he went to visit her mother in law who seems to enjoy getting lots of attention like that.
Daphne is with child. She is almost crowing about it as you can imagine. But she is not as bad as she used to be. I think she was very lonely and just did not know how to join in our games when we would play and work. I do not think her aunt would have let her even if she had tried. And she told me a surprising thing. She said that she learned to read and write by sneaking and listening to you teach us. If her uncle had found out he would have had her stripped in the square and beaten and then sold her off to another settlement as a lesson to the rest of us. I did not know that Daphne was that brave. She is turning into a real sister though she can still be Daphne.
Before I forget, in the box you will even find dried willow bark to make tea with for those times when the moon comes and you are miserable. I know you never let it stop you but some days you were very sick and this is better than trying to chew it like you sometimes had to.
I miss you Sister and Robbie has promised that we will see each other again. I do not know when and I do not know how but I know for a fact that we will. Do not lose hope. No one here will ever think of you as a saloon girl. I will love you forever. Your sister, Docia
I did not realize it until Cor put a finger on my cheek but my face was wet with tears. I jumped up and brushed the useless tears away then turned so he could not see them.
Softly Cor said, “You miss them.”
It was a simple statement of fact so I gave him a simple fact right back. I said, “They were all I had that made life bearable.”
Regretfully Cor said, “I would take you to the fort Fel, I really would but there are only a few days before I have to leave on another run. It is an important one and could mean a lot for the estate and there are things I must take care of here on the estate before I can set off.”
I shook my head, still not looking at him. “I don’t expect you to do anything like that. You have to do what you have to do. Life is just like that.”
He waited a moment and then asked, “Don’t you want to look at your other packages?”
I’d finally gotten myself under control and turned around and smiled; it may have been small and watery but it was still an honest one. “I’ll wait until after you leave. Knowing Docia she’s put something in there that might make you uncomfortable.”
“Oh … uh … well … wait to open hers but … but there’s one in there from me.”
For a moment I almost didn’t realize what he said but when I finally figured out he wasn’t fooling I asked him, “Why? Because you are sorry you can’t take me to see my sisters?”
“Well no … I mean yes I’m sorry for that but … well …”
Then I remembered. He couldn’t get something for Francine unless he got something for me. “You didn’t have to do that Cor. You could have just said you did … I’d never tell Francine our business.”
Then he grumped a loud “No.” But then he shook himself and said, “No … I mean that’s not why I did it. This whole second wife business wasn’t my idea or yours but just because we’ve got it worked out between us doesn’t mean I expect you to be a slave to the estate or get treated like you are a piece of farm equipment. Go on and open it. I want to make sure they’ll work.”
He was so insistent that I picked up the one he pointed at and opened it. Inside were partially finished moccassins that had leggings that were attached to them. Cor took one and inspected it. “Jonah said the cobbler can’t come for a while as several of his children have the spots and those that haven’t he expects to shortly. I asked Aunt Mona and Docia about shoes for you and Docia said that you would prefer something like this and it would be better for you too until the skin of your foot stops being so tender. Aunt Mona agreed. I know they are not exactly like the ones you had but the way these are will keep briars and vines from tearing up your legs like you seem to let them do. Docia said that you would know how to finish them.”
I nodded, amazed that he would think of something like this and doubly amazed he would ask Docia and Mona about it. Too intrigued by the design to really look at him while I talked I said, “I’ve been making or helping to make my own clothes and things since I was a very little girl. Ma and Gran said it was a mark of growing up when girls could do things like that and my Da taught me things because he said I wouldn’t be dependent on others for my needs so much. I think he always worried that if something happened to him or Ma I might get stuck under the thumb of some mean man and if I had the skills to take care of myself I might escape that fate. More than one had already come to Da and wanted to trade a few horses for me.”
“What?! I thought you said you were only twelve when they died.”
“I was.” Then his tone of voice registered and I really looked at him and then sighed. “Cor, the Outlands are a hard place. The people here … they can be brave and strong. I’ve seen ‘em. The Captain and a man named Carter that now has Hannah for his wife showed me that first and it kept me from going completely savage on them. But brave and strong often means that you’ve got what my Da called scruples. I think it is the same as that honor that you go on about sometimes. The Outlands are mean Cor, they scrub the honor and scruples out of people and often leave nothing but mean and brutal behind. Being taken as a wife at twelve and thirteen isn’t unusual where I come from. Sometimes … sometimes being taken younger just out of pure meanness isn’t unusual either. It isn’t good to be alone in the Outlands. The places and people and animals don’t care about life all that much … or at least about nobody’s life but their own.”
I could actually hear him swallow twice before he asked quietly, “Did … did that happen to you?”
“The bad stuff? No. My Da was a strong and clever man and would have killed any man that tried to hurt me or Ma or Gran several times over. Gramp did put the bones of a few men in his forge ... my Ma had a sister that got stolen and ... and hurt so bad she didn't live. Gramp hunted them down and gave them ... well, there's no justice in the Outlands but he sent them to their Judgment as Da would tell me after one of Gramp's stories. Docia got caught when she was a little girl and that’s part of the reason why she is the way she is I think. I hope Robbie is nice to her. Her letter says he is and that he is gentle … but maybe you could tell him he doesn’t have to be quite so gentle with her. She seems afraid that … well … if I know Docia she is afraid he’s gonna get frustrated and then send her away so that he can find one that he doesn’t have to worry about breaking. Docia won’t break. If the life we lived and the things she had to endure didn’t break her, a nice man like Robbie isn’t going to.”
“What about … you said … you said the Headman had you punished because …”
I sighed and looked at him. Cor was a nice man and I know it hurt him to have to hear about things that were so different from the way he would like to believe things should be. “Cor, I’m a strong person. Not just on the inside either. My Da taught me to take a life and I have of my own free will done it. And of my own free will I’ll do it again if need be. There’s not much that I let hurt me. Even if something like that had happened to me I wouldn’t have let it stop me. That doesn’t mean that I’ll just lay it all aside to continue to draw breath. I have never wanted to be a saloon girl and you know what I mean by that. I’d rather starve to death or die slow and hard than willingly take up such a life as that. And that is what made the Headman so mad. He was out to break me and he couldn’t. And because he couldn’t break me and make me cry he couldn’t … get manly with me which made him even madder and was the real reason her threw me in the stocks the way he did. If I died then he could forget … I wouldn’t die because I didn’t want him to ever forget that there was someone he couldn't break and that one day someone might come along and break him.”
Looking away from his too kind face I added, “There’s been a few close calls. I know what a man looks like whether I want to or not. But for whatever reason whether it was because I was stronger, smarter, faster, or just ‘cause God said that wasn’t my fate that day …” Turning back I said, “I could give you more details but I don’t think that is what you want. Mostly I think you want … or need … to know that I’m ok, that some man hasn’t scarred me for life. Well I’m fine. Life is hard. Sometimes the memories you make are good and sometimes the memories you make aren’t. I’m lucky. For every bad memory I have at least one good. It balances out.”
He got up out of the rocker and turned to face the fireplace. I didn’t know what to say. I’d never met a man aside from my Da that felt bad because he couldn’t protect females from life happening and even my Da had been a realist. I don’t know if he’d started out that way though. Ma used to tell stories of how silly Da could be when she first came to know him.
“I keep forgetting.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Huh?”
“I’ve been going on runs since I was a boy with my father. We’d go to places and dig around looking for pieces of old tech for him to bring back home and play with in his lab. Some of those places were in the Outlands and some were in the old cities in the east. I saw some horrible things. But every time I’d come home it was like all of the bad stuff was a … a dream. That it didn’t really happen, that it couldn’t be as bad as I remember it. I’ve seen it but … I’ve never really had to live it. And I was always sure that even if it had happened, that it was as bad as I remember it, it could never happen here … that here was a … a safe place … a sacred place. My father was a rotter Fel, I admit it, but he was a civilized rotter; his tongue was his weapon not his fists. Growing up and the plague that killed so many took some of that idealism away but …” He sighed. “When I’m here I can forget about how bad it is in other places.” He turned and looked at me. “I never even thought to ask Fel. I never even thought about it period. I’m sorry for that. I never even thought to ask you if you were afraid of me like you would be afraid of the men in your old place.”
I crossed my arms and gave him an impatient look. “Don’t you start. You’re as different as night is from day from all of them others. You’re like my Da … hard times haven’t rubbed out your scruples, instead they seem to have made them dig in even harder and deeper. As a result you’re silly about some things that you don’t need to be. I’m not like Francine Cor. Just because someone sees my underthings or even my skin doesn’t mean I’m gonna faint or throw a hiss fit like some old rattler. Now stop feeling bad right now or you’ll make me feel bad … and I don’t like feeling bad for telling the truth.”
His eyebrows went up and the higher his went up mine came down until my face felt as scrunched up as an old woman’s. Then he smiled. “OK, I give. Just promise me if anyone … er … bothers you that you’ll say something. To me … Uncle Rob … Jonah … somebody. You don’t have to take care of yourself by yourself now that you are here.”
I gave him a noncommittal answer because I wouldn’t lie to him but I don’t think he noticed. He just seemed to be relieved to get beyond the topic. “There should be a couple of other things in the paper. The storekeeper is a friend of mine from boyhood and I asked his mother what some of the other women have been coming in for and she put together the things in there. I’ll leave coin for you and if you need anything Mrs. Wiley or Uncle Rob should be able to help you get it.”
With that he jammed his hat back on his head and made to escape but then froze, staring at the door.
“What?” I asked him perplexed at this new bit of strangeness.
He muttered, “They’re probably watching and keeping time, the old battle axes.”
I spluttered a laugh. “Honestly Cor. If they say something just tell them that you took their words to heart but that you are concerned for Francine’s well-being and that you didn’t want her ill from worry so you thought it best to spend some time at her side.”
He gave me a suspicious look. “You are awful good at this lying business.”
I shrugged. “You are concerned about Francine and want to sit with her, just not for the reason you are telling them. The Lathrops have lived this way since the Dark Days and seem to be invested in it in a way that we can’t understand. I don’t have to like what we are doing Cor, but if we are going to do it then best to keep it as close to the truth as we can and just make it something they can understand at the same time.”
I got him half way through the door before he said, “Francine is going to …”
Continuing to push him out like he was a stubborn pig that didn’t want to go to slaughter I told him, “When Francine starts to say something you say that while you admire her aunts and would like to honor them, her beauty has been preying on your mind for days and all you can think of is her so it wouldn’t do you any good to try anything with me.”
I shut the door on his squawk and then threw the bolt that Jonah had installed. It was a relief to have his over large self out of the cabin so I could reread Docia's letter in peace. But as I sat down I thought that if my brother had had a chance to grow up it would have been nice to have had him turn out like Cor though maybe not quite so silly about females.