My nerves were telling me to stop and to hurry and go faster all at the same time. As I pulled the travois back down the trail I tried to keep an ear out for anything bad but I was feeling the bruises I knew I had and worried even if I did get a heads up I would be in no position to fight whatever it was. By force of habit I ignored my fear, Jonah and the boys needed me to keep it together.
Then I heard something vaguely familiar from down the trail. For a moment I froze and then I prayed that I wasn’t causing us more trouble and gave the piercing whistle that I learned from the Captain’s men so long ago. All was silent and I was set to whistle again when I heard someone blow a strange off-key horn but it sounded like they were going the wrong direction. I whistled again as loud as I could. Another blast from the horn sounded closer that time. I used almost the last of my breath, even falling to one knee, to whistle one more time and then I could hear them clearly on the trail.
I heard the creaking and jangling of the saddled horses hurrying up the trails as fast as it was safe to do so before I saw the riders. It was the Captain, Robbie, and two other men I didn’t recognize. I was shaking, trying to hold the travois up because we were on an incline heading down and I didn’t want all the blood to rush to Jonah’s already abused noggin.
It was a real mash up as I tried to explain what happened between their sharp and pointed questions they threw at me. The boys’ babbling only made things even more like a dream powder sniffer’s confessional. Robbie had dismounted and was checking Jonah and the boys over and then finally said he could do nothing more until he got them back. The travois was attached to Robbie’s horse and one of the outriders took the boys up with him while I took the Captain and the other outrider back to the spring.
The next couple of hours only come to me in flashes. I do remember getting mad and telling the Captain that I wanted my spear back when the outrider wouldn’t give it to me. The Captain’s patience was understandably strained at that point and he snapped, “You can have the blasted spear back Fel when we get you to the house and checked out. It would have been more helpful,” he gritted. “Had you informed us that you had been injured.”
At first, as I led them to the spring they thought it was only nerves that was causing me to act loopy. They found out otherwise when the Captain took me up on his horse while the outrider hauled the bear carcass back on another travois we had built after having field dressed it and carting the innards off into the woods a ways. I kept almost sliding off the horse and it was then that the Captain discovered that all the blood on my clothes didn’t belong to just Jonah and the bear. To say he was highly annoyed didn’t quite do it justice.
I hadn’t been thinking too clearly and must have passed out myself at some point because I came to in the cabin in my bed. I couldn’t place the time or location though because all I could see was the angel with Docia’s face.
Robbie had indeed promised her that she would see me and when it became so obvious to him how important it was and how much she trusted him to keep his word he determined to do it sooner rather than later.
“Oh Fel. Oh Fel. When are you ever going to learn not to take on things that are so much bigger than you are?” After assuring myself that I wasn’t going mad and that Jonah and the boys were well I went back to sleep from one of her concoctions and didn’t wake up until the next morning.
For nearly a week after that you couldn’t separate us by more than a few feet. We laughed. We danced and pranced around. And in general acted about half our age. It made even Jonah, who at first was in a great deal of pain, smile and shake his head at our silliness. Robbie didn’t even mind when Docia slept in the cabin with me and he in the main house.
Jonah’s injuries were serious but not life threatening. He was fine, just knocked around more than was good for a man his age. The buxom widow became his shadow and helped Mrs. Wiley manage her brother who was not at all pleased to be told it would be a couple of weeks before he had the full use of the arm back.
Mrs. Wiley got fed up with him only once but once was all it took. “Jonah! If yer don’t do as the healer says yer are going ter think that bear tapped yer with a feather. A cause when I’m done with yer …” She didn’t even have to finish the threat. The fact that she was brandishing a meat clever didn’t hurt her case either. I think it is a good thing that Jonah decided to mind Mrs. Wiley otherwise his hide might have joined the bear’s hanging on side of the tanners shed.
As for my injuries, I was bruised and some of my muscles were strained but that was all. I only had two punctures wounds from a claw rather than rips in the skin and they were soon cleaned and patched up. I refused to be kept abed much to everyone’s consternation. Docia explained that I’d only go into a nasty pout and do what I wanted anyway if I wasn’t allowed up to at least try and help so everyone gave in though none too gracefully. I couldn’t do a lot that first day but with Docia helping I was at least able to cut the last of the cabbage and set them for pickling.
Francine took to her bed again as a result of a nightmare she claimed was induced by the bear and the ruckus afterwards. I heard by way of Docia that Robbie was rather surprised at how she was acting and then when he had spoken with from Rubine he came to see me directly.
Docia and I were pitting cherries on the small porch of the cabin. Mrs. Wiley and the other women had shooed me away after I had nearly tumbled from one of the ladders up in the fruit tree. The kitchen boys – their names finally revealed to be Topher and Benji – tattled. They’ve become rather enamored of me I am afraid, especially after I had the tanner drill a hole in two of the bear claws which I then turned into necklaces for the boys.
Robbie asked if we could go into the cabin for a moment. “Sure. But it is going to be hotter than blue blazes in there.”
He gave me a grin. “I know it and I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want some privacy for this.”
I balked until he said that he had no secrets from Docia if I wanted her to be there as well. Docia smiled brightly when he said that and she sidled up to him but waited until he made the move to show her some affection.
As we sat, me on the bed and them in the only two other places to sit besides the floor – the table chair and the rocker – Robbie got a very serious look on his face. “Fel, how often is Francine like this?”
“You mean the megrims?” At his nod I answered, “It comes and goes. When her aunts were here they pretty much had her day planned out for her and we got along very well and she was helping with the estate work. Within a week of her aunts leaving it was like all of it was too much for her, or too much to be bothered with, and she’d slid back into her old habits of moping if anyone is looking and eating sweets and reading when she doesn’t think anyone is … looking I mean.”
“Hmm.” He looked like he was trying to find the right words to ask something.
“Robbie, ask me a question straight out. If I don’t know the answer I’ll tell you. If it is just my opinion I’ll tell you that and why I think it. I won’t rat on you if you have to ask me something … delicate. And I won’t make Francine look any worse than the truth already does.”
He lips twisted in a small humorous smile. “Thank you for that. I’ll be honest and it is the carrying tales that I’m most concerned with. I’ve never had quite the same opinion of Francine as Mother has. And Father only thinks that she is immature for her age. I lean towards father’s diagnosis of the problem but there are other things that lead me to believe that there are other issues in play.”
“Your Da might be right,” I told him. “At the same time she is a grown married woman and I too think knows more than what she lets on.”
“OK, let’s start with that then shall we. You seem suspicious of her … er … condition.”
I nodded then shrugged. “Look, Francine is OK … not my cup of tea but Cor truly loves her and it would hurt him bad should something happen to her. I think he is going to get a wake up call one of these days and I also think he already knows that things aren’t always as she tries to make them seem … at least when he isn’t nursing a real affection for her … uh … assets. The thing is I’m not sure that Francine isn’t doing anything but replaying what she learned as a little girl. One of her aunts revealed maybe more than she meant to when she told me that Francine’s mother’s fragility was more mental than physical and that she was dosed regular with relaxing teas of various strengths depending on how she was acting. I don’t think the aunts did it to Francine while they were here but they seemed prepared for it just in case. Francine may be playing her role the only way that she thinks is expected of her. And face it, if she was used to some great estate with lots of people doing for her and such and coming here may have been a bit of a shock.”
Thoughtfully Robbie said, “Then you concede that Francine’s behavior may be legitimate, just not for the reasons she ascribes to them.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know if concede would be the word I would use. I think it is possible that Francine is wound too tight and having trouble playing her role. I also think that making people believe that is how it is could be part of her act. Either way it isn’t healthy or helpful. She doesn’t do anyone any favors; especially not herself or Cor.”
He remained thoughtful and then asked, “Has anyone brought this up with Cor that you know of?”
Unwilling to give chapter and verse of our private conversations I told Robbie, “Let’s just say he isn’t a stupid man. But he is in love and that makes him a lunkhead about certain things. He isn’t completely blind, he just isn’t around enough to have to deal with the full consequences of it. People have been enabling Francine for a long time. Here it was Mary or Winnie or her aunts when they visit. Even Mrs. Wiley and I do our share by not making a fuss … it is just the fuss isn’t worth the effort because nothing you do for her makes her move any faster or do the job right. Underneath all of that pretty blonde hair is a mighty stubborn woman. You cannot move her if she does not want to be moved. We all work around her the best we can without doing anything that would be hurtful to her on purpose. Or that would hurt Cor when he suffers enough as it is.”
He asked a few more questions but they always came back to the same thing. He was trying to figure out why she acted as she did and I really just didn’t care why, it was results that I had to deal with.
I had to say goodbye to Docia a few days later but it wasn’t a sad parting. “Oh Fel, Robbie said that we’ll come back when we can. He has to get back because his father asked him to teach a course at the school to the very youngest students and I … I …”
I hugged her as her face started to crumple. “Don’t you dare cry Docia. Now you listen here and this is for your ears alone. If … well … if someone cared for me the way Robbie cares for you, I don’t think I would want to leave them either.”
Docia looked at me with a troubled expression. “I haven’t wanted to ask. I haven’t wanted to spoil things. Is … is it … very bad being a second wife?”
I bumped her with my shoulder. “Naw. Not the way you’re thinking. We’ve worked that part out between us but I’m asking you not to say a word about that, not even to Robbie … understand?”
Her eyes were wide then she whispered, “You mean …?”
I whispered back with my head close to hers, “Neither one of us wants what people seem to expect from us. We’ve worked it out and it is only between Cor and I, not for anyone else to chew over. It’s important you remember that. I trust you Docia, but I couldn’t stand for anyone else to make it their business. I’m … content I suppose you could call it to have it this way. He does love Francine and is miserable thinking he is being unfaithful. And he is as strange about some things as Da was.”
Docia remembered my father and nodded her understanding. Then, like she had given it quite a bit of thought she told me, “Maybe it wasn’t your Da that was strange but the other men where we came from.”
I gave it some thought of my own and then said, “That might explain it but that doesn’t mean that Cor isn’t strange all on his own.” I told her the story of the fancy under things and we both wound up laughing so much her worries were wiped away.
For a day or two after she left my heart felt like it had been carved up, so much so that I thought to give being a sister to Francine one more try. She was flat out nasty in her own way saying that I hadn’t been interested in her wellbeing before so why should she believe it now. I couldn’t deny it but couldn’t explain to her either that it was because I just didn’t trust her and the reasons for those feelings; I didn’t know whether she would carry the tale to her aunts or not and from them to the Lathrops we really needed to worry about. The thing that made me give up though was when she said, “Besides, what on earth would we talk about? You are only civilized half the time and only because you have to be – fighting a bear of all things instead of having the sense to let the men do that – and cannot possibly understand the finer points of conversation.”
That brought me to my senses and I realized I was lonesome but that I didn’t need to let my lonesome make be stupid. I had continued to work in the gardens and help Mrs. Wiley and the other women set things aside for after the season was over even when Docia was with me but now I threw myself into the work as hard as I ever had in the beginning. I refused to sit around feeling sorry for myself. Even if I had still felt a little sorry for myself after that, all the tasks that were set before us would have stolen time from that useless past time.
The cherries were a lot of work but a lot of reward as well. I had only had a few cherries in my life and those had been dried and something Da had received in payment for some fancy smithing he had done. Fresh, ripe, juicy cherries was a different thing all together though I did like them dried as well. However I did note due to my folly that eating too many just plain lacked good sense as I spent most of one night dealing with the results and being glad that the outhouse wasn’t all that far off from the cabin.
Cucumbers and potatoes were the two largest crops that month though summer squash came in a close second. The potatoes were a welcome change from having rice at almost every dinner. I also showed Mrs. Wiley how to bread and fry sliced cucumbers and we added a new dish to the menu that everyone seemed to like. Most of the cucumbers though went to pickling in the giant crocks down in the cellar.
And I feasted on two more new foods as well; nectarines and plums. It turns out I had tasted plums, but in dried form from the traders that would come through. Gran had them in her medicine box and while they tasted fine they had a foul result that ruined even the thought of nibbling on them. Gramp liked them when he had a stomach problem. After he ate the dried plums we all avoided the outhouse as much as possible though it was never exactly a good place to set up housekeeping.
The flavor of nectarines was something I couldn’t describe except that I knew it was fruity. As I’ve said before, describing the flavor of something you have never tasted before is difficult when you have very little to compare it to.
It was only the end of June and Mrs. Wiley was very pleased to be able to tell me that the cellars were filling up nicely. To make room we had to reopen the old spirits cellar – not spirits as in spooks and haunts but as in fancy liquid courage and the like – which hadn’t seen use in over a decade.
In the middle of cleaning the place out I came up with another bucket of dust and cobwebs to find a commotion in the yard. Topher and Benji saw me and ran over. “Oh Miss Fel … that midwife is asking for you.”
Winne’s time had finally come.