Friday, March 16, 2012

Chapter 22

Chapter 22

Cor wasn’t kidding about having to leave in a couple of days; he and the Captain were so busy that we didn’t even see them at meal times. In fact the whole estate was a twitter and it was turning into a huge ruckus. I thought it strange but Jonah said it was normal and I would see why the next day.

I sure did see. Before luncheon the men arrived that were going out with Cor bringing with them the midwife that Mona sent to care for Winnie. With their arrival all of the supplies they would need were pulled together and then separated into individual portions as well as the portion that went into the wagons that would go on the run with them. And this work was on top of all the regular chores that had to be done including the gardening.

And then they were gone and it was so quiet that the whole estate felt deserted for a couple of days until people could get used to all the men being gone. No sooner had that happened than Francine’s aunts prepared to return to the Lathrop estate. I worried about it and even took the aunt named Hazel aside.

“Er … Missus Hazel … uh … I don’t know how to ask this except to just do it. Will … will Francine be alright when you women leave?”

Hazel was in the middle of folding her clothes to put in her trunk and stopped in mid fold. Slowly she stood erect and then turned her head to look at me. I thought she was going to bite me at first until I realized the reason she was showing all of her teeth … the good ones in front and the bad ones in the back … was that she was smiling.

“Fel … perhaps I have been too harsh on you. It is simply amazing that someone from the Outlands would have the sensitivity to see that Francine is more fragile than she lets on.” I nearly told her that her precious Francine wasn’t near as fragile as she pretended and that she was twisting them a clanker of a tale but I didn’t. It might have been the truth but it didn’t suit my purpose to tell it so I kept the words behind my teeth.

I wondered how much to play it but I finally just said in all honesty, “She is better with you here. She seems more clear headed.” Looking around to make sure no one else heard me I told her, “I accidentally overheard Cor explain to Francine that there wasn’t any coin for her to go over to the fort and shop with and that he had rescinded the letters to the merchants there. She seemed … upset.”

Hazel asked in snooty voice, “And you would not be?”

I shook my head and in all honesty told her, “I wouldn’t expect it in the first place. Cor is trying to pay off the estate debts so that he can provide a better life for those that are dependent on him. And anything we need can come from the estate or worst case the surrounding farms. Plus it takes outriders to ensure safe travel and with the harvest seasons starting men are hard to spare except for emergencies. And then there is Winnie.”

“Ah yes, Winifred. That is a huge consideration.”

“Yes’m. I don’t mean to be uppity but … just in case Francine … that she …”

She looked at me then sighed. “Her mother was much worse. If her megrims are mild a tea of chamomile or lavender may prove helpful. If she is slightly more … upset … a tea of passionflower would be my recommendation. If her nerves are very taxed then a tea of valerian or black cohosh will be necessary. However …”

When she gave me what my Gran called “the eye” I acted like she had poked me with something sharp though in reality I could pull it off better than she could. “Yes’m?”

“Do not use the black cohosh if there is even a slight possibility that she is with child. Do you understand me?”

The last was said with gritted teeth. “I would never Missus Hazel. Never ever.”

She sighed and said, “Very well. I will make sure that a supply is left with Mrs. Wiley if the estate does not have any on hand.”

As I walked downstairs I considered her solution. While I’m not against using such teas my concern is that I don’t believe Francine is really the hysterical type … at least not now having observed her for weeks on end. It is possible that she saw the attention it brought her mother and she is merely replicating what she learned by example. Plus Docia had told me that some such teas were addictive if you take them too regularly. It was a quandary that I would continue to be in over the coming days.

After Francine’s aunts arrived they kind of …well … whipped her into shape is the phrase that comes to mind. She wasn’t hard to be around. She didn’t sigh and mope. She actually participated in the work though I did note that she got a lot less of it done than her aunts did. It almost made me like her aunts … well, maybe respect the old buffalo herd would be more correct. It would take a lot to get to like them as a group though I could stand some of them on a one on one basis without too much trouble.

In fact those feelings made me even more leery. The Captain kept reminding me they were “the enemy” but I had a hard time seeing it. I could imagine it but they weren’t acting like my enemy, at least not while they were in my presence. And they could have done a lot more to try and get me to their side. I didn’t give them a lot of chances because I kept busy but still, they could have made chances and they didn’t.

I think they would have manipulated me if they could have but I was beginning to think that maybe I had kind of turned that plan on its ear and they were returning to the Lathrop estate to regroup. It could have been anything. All I know is it gave me a headache to think about and I was more than glad to see the last of them as their carriage pulled away even though they also took with them a lot of extra hands that were nice to have around.

The first two days after her aunts left Francine remained as they had left her. Perky and more than willing to help. She even made a few jokes that were actually funny. The work was hard and the days were long and on the third day I noticed her getting where she would just stare off into the trees or have to be asked something twice before she would respond. The fourth day it was nearly noon before she joined the rest of us women even though I tried to fetch her earlier. By the time a week was up she point blank refused to come down due to a recurrence of her “sick headaches.”

The midwife at first tried to do what she could but within a couple of days threw her hands up and told me in confidence, “There’s nothing wrong with that girl that a good swift swat on the behind wouldn’t cure. I’d offer to do it in the name of health and medicine but she’s twenty not twelve for all that she acts it.”

I could see why Mona had chosen the woman to be midwife to Winnie. She was in her fifties and looked it. She also had a ready smile that could light up a room. But you didn’t let the smile or age fool you because she was strong in both body and mind. I watched her manhandle Jonah into letting her look at a boil on the back of his shoulder. I didn’t think anything could move Jonah unless he wanted to move. I liked Rubine on short acquaintance. She reminded me a bit of what my Gran must have been like before age and sorrows got to her.

I was happy to leave Winnie to Rubine and Francine to her sick headaches. June was here and with it came the furnace blast of summer and just in time to make all the work that needed to be done that much more difficult.

The garden was busting out all over in a way not even my Ma’s garden had ever done and all she had to look at something and it would grow. The beans that ran on their trellis reminded me of that old story of the giant and the beanstalk. The vines seemed to grow by the foot each night and we’d no sooner clear them off then they were ready to be picked again.

Jonah was happy as a drunk pig. He said, “Been many a year since the gardens have give so well. Must be all the purty ladies whats tending ter ‘em.”

I thought he really was drunk after that until I saw him giving the eye to one particularly still-buxom widow. I had to stifle a laugh and run behind a bean pole a couple of times to keep him from knowing I was looking. Mrs. Wiley caught me at it once and gave a small smile. “Reckon Jonah is tired of spending his winters cold and lonesome. Tish seems a likely arm full though Jonah would be smart rememberin’ that she’s has outlasted three husbands now. Seems she might like to fill her winters up with something besides rocking and knittin’ too as I hear all three of the men died with a smile on their faces.”

I whooped with laughter loud enough that it drew attention and I had to haul my sack of beans to the kitchen to keep anyone from asking me what the joke was. I tried to explain to Winnie and the Captain about it but they only smiled wanly and changed the subject. I was confused as I had found it hilarious then Rubine caught me as I left the room and explained.

“Dear Fel, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. God created us to be one with another so long as it is marked by a covenant.”

“Then why didn’t Winnie and the Captain find it funny if there is no harm in it?”

Rubine smiled and sat me down and started brushing the tangles from my hair, something she seemed to enjoy doing. She said it reminded her of her daughter that had been lost to the plague. “There are different types of people in this world and they tend to stick together. It has nothing to do really with whether those people are good or bad but more with what they see as proper and not.”

“So you’re saying they think I’m not proper.”

“No, not the way you mean it. They see it as a matter of propriety.”

“Isn’t that the same thing as proper?”

“Not really. Propriety is how people like to see how they act. It isn’t that they don’t see you as proper Fel, just that their own propriety gets in the way of them seeing the joy in the simple things that you can see.”

I thought that over and then said, “You make it sound like I’m still a child and I’m not. I’m an Outlander that has lived rough and done things that …”

She stopped me, “I’m well aware of the life you led. I’m not judging you Fel. As a matter of fact I understand better than you think. You aren’t making fun of two oldsters getting up to antics, you are finding the joy in it that they still want to and can.”

Sighing as she finished braiding my horse tail I told her, “I know I’m rough. I know I’m crude. I shocked Cor all to pieces a couple of times teaching me that you actually could make a grown man blush. But I thought I knew where to draw the line and protect them from what I am. I thought I had it all figured out. What you say makes me wonder if I have anything figured out. Or maybe what I figured was all wrong. Maybe instead of being embarrassed Cor was just disgusted.”

She put a friendly arm around me and said, “Now don’t think that. You shouldn’t have to protect people from who you. If they can’t accept you Fel then that is their problem and not yours. And where is that horse sense you usually have? I shouldn’t have to tell you this.”

I sighed and then shook myself. “Being silly. I get the megrims sometimes when the moon is coming but usually only when it is going to be a bad time of it. I hope that isn’t it. I have too much work to sit around drinking willow tea or chewing the bark like snuff.”

“The moon? Ah, you mean your womanly cycle. Too much willow bark isn’t good for you. Before you resort to it let’s try a tea of angelica or black haw.”

Relieved that there was something besides the nasty tasting willow I asked her, “What are those?”

From there I got a lesson in a great many herbs for womanly afflictions from scant menses to late menses to menses too heavy to all of the other things that can come with the moon time. I wound up having to ask the Captain for more rice paper to keep all of my notes on. I know I’ll have to ask for another bottle of ink soon as well. Quills were easy enough to fashion but it wasn’t yet the time of year for the fall nuts and berries that I could get my own inks and colors from.

The heat seemed to go higher each day and I was surprised I suffered from it so much. It was sensible Jonah that explained. “Been out ter the Outlands a few times when I were a young and adventuresome man. Can’t say I cared fer it over much. But the thing I do remember is the air weren’t near so wet as it is here. Out there the wind would dry yer ter hard leather and yer’d never even noticed the heat because yer never seem ter sweat. Here, it fair spills from yer like a spring on some days.”

After a moment he looked over at Mrs. Wiley and said, “Speaking of springs, yer reckon the berries out ter old Tumbler’s Mill be ready?”

Mrs. Wiley, more than a little exasperated at the hijinks the two kitchen boys were getting up to snapped, “How am I ta know. How about yer head on out in the morning and find out. And while yer at it, take those two menaces with yer. Maybe a day long hike will take some of the wiggles out of their britches.”

That night I casually mentioned that Jonah was taking the boys to see if the berries were ready for harvesting when Winnie moaned. She startled me so bad I nearly turned my plate over jumping up to see to her.

“Oh Fel, I’m sorry Dear, I didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s just when you mentioned Tumbler’s Spring into my head popped the frog legs that Mary would fry. Remember Captain? I’d go to the spring and bring back a bucketful and oh …. They were the most delicious thing.”

I looked at Rubine and asked her, “Can she still eat ‘em or will they make that baby jump around in her stomach?”

The Captain harrumphed but in the end tried to hide a smile at Winnie’s outrage. Rubine answered, “There’s no reason why she can’t.”

Turning to Winnie I said, “Well, if it is hoppers you want then if there are hoppers to be had you’ll have them. The hot weather may have driven them to swim deep but I should be able to catch a few. I’ll check with Mrs. Wiley and Jonah.”

They both said they didn’t see a problem with me going to the spring and that I’d probably keep the boys from being left in the woods by Jonah if they irritated him too much. I noticed the boys listening and I could see mischief in their eyes that I intended to stop. “More like I’ll tie them to a tree and just walk away and let the forest have them. It makes me irritable to have a lot of tomfoolery going on while I’m trying to hunt. Ask my sisters if you don’t believe me. I left more than one of them to make their own way home when they wouldn’t shut up and walk quiet.”

That gave the stinkers something to think about and Jonah gave me a wink where the boys couldn’t see.

We were already on our way as the sun came up. I wore my new moccasins and was glad I did. My skin is as tough as old whang leather so the saw briers and such didn’t bother me overly much, but the skeeters and gnats like to chew me to ribbons. The spear I had fashioned from an old plow hoe that I had straightened and the ax I carried in my belt helped us to cut our way through the very overgrown trail.

A two hour hike brought us to a cool place hidden in the forest and it seemed like everywhere you looked ripe blackberries and blueberries hung in clusters with gnats going after the sweet juice. Jonah made a face and said, “They’re in early, way early. Never saw so many in all my days. Don’t like it at all.”

Not sure why he was upset I told him, “We haven’t missed the season completely Jonah. We get people out here and we’ll get gallons and gallons of them.”

I popped a fat juicy blackberry in my mouth that was far bigger than any I had found around my home and then licked the corner of my mouth to keep the juice from being stolen by an annoying bug. Jonah, still looking around at what I thought of as vast abundance, shook his head. “Not that Gilly. Been thinkin’ on it and don’t like the signs that keep ter addin’ up.”

My Gran used to talk of signs and since she was right more often than wrong I listened to him. “God don’t give abundance like this unless he means ter send a hard time. We gots the gardens givin’ plenty. We gots the grain fields all over doing so well we likely won’t get a good price for it come the fall. We gots us more heat than we know what ter do with but we ain’ts got no drought ter go with it. Tis all a blessin’ true … but it leaves yer wonderin’ if God thinks yer need a blessin’ like this then what might He be sendin’ next.”

I shrugged. “Well I’m not stupid. If God’s offering then I’m of a mind it would be a good thing to accept. I can’t change the weather but I sure know how to put clothes on and take clothes off.”

Jonah nodded and set the boys to filling the packs we had brought with us while I took my bow and quiver and the small net that Jonah had found for me and went to investigate the spring with Jonah’s word of caution ringing in my ears. “Mind why theys call it Tumbler’s Spring Gilly and watch where yer puts yer feet.” As soon as I got near the spring I understood even better. Because of the way the vegetation grew around the spring.

The frogs were indeed staying deep and were of no mind to come to the surface to get scooped up and they just swam away from the net since I couldn’t get close enough to them without causing a racket. I was beginning to get a little irritated by the croakers when I had the idea to tie a string to my bow and treat it like I was fishing. Soon enough I was pulling frogs out an arrow at a time. I was just thinking of teaching the boys the skill when I heard a shriek and then a roar.

Now normally I wouldn’t run blindly into a situation but when I heard Jonah yell in pain and then a great bit of crashing I took off like an arrow. I skidded around the spring and then faced near about the only thing I fear … a grizz. I hadn’t seen one in years; the drought and poor harvest had run them out of the area. Guess I know now where they run to … or at least where this one run to … or it’s ma anyway.

It was a grizz and male but not as big as I was used to seeing them so it couldn't have been more than a year old, maybe two. This one was big enough though and it looked like it had already took a swat at Jonah and the boys were cornered against a big shaft of rock that rose from the ground. I needed to distract the grizz or it would go after the unconscious man on the ground or the small boys that could escape.

“Hey you mangy ol’ thing. Want to chew on somebody then why don’t you try chewing on me!”

Grizz bears are not particular with their meals. If you are going to offer yourself up they are not going to say no. I figured being on my menses probably struck its nose as interesting too. I should have thought of that and been more cautious. Stupid mistake. We might have been what passed for civilization but that didn’t mean that there were still things in the forest that wanted to eat you.

I didn’t have but a split second to set myself. Grizz are fast but this one had never run up against a hunter that knew how to handle them. The butt end of my spear was braced against the ground and the sharp end split the fur and skin beneath easily. The bear had impaled itself. But the grizz had long arms and it still managed to send me tip or tail knocking the wind from me.

The boys screamed and I scrambled trying to get out of the bear’s way. When I did turn I saw that the bear was just kind of lumbering like it was trying to figure out what happened. It looked at first like it was going to leave and come back another day but couldn’t because the spear was in deep. It even batted at the stick in its chest twice after it sat down. Then it made a grunting groaning sound and lay over.

I knew from experience it might still get up so ran over to Jonah. He had a serious gash on his head that the bugs were already swarming in and a bad gash on his arm that I tore my shirt to close up. I nearly came out of my skin when something thudded into my back but the noise they were making soon told me it was bear but cubs.

“Hush now,” I told them. “We need to get Jonah back to the house. I need you to sit with him and stay quiet. Only call if he starts to do something.”

“Miss Fel … don’t leave us!”

Trying to be calm for them I said, “I’m not leaving you. I need to cut a couple of saplings and fix a travois so we can pull Jonah because he is too big for me to carry.”

The bear was already drawing flies when the travois was finished and I was able to secure Jonah to it. He had moaned a bit but didn’t wake up. I was worried about running into something else that would eat us and I was aggravated at being unable to save my spear but it was too deeply imbedded for me to pull out and Jonah was too important for me to take the time to cut it out. I grabbed my bow and quiver and the hatchet and started pulling the travois.

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