August is a sweltering month even for an Outlander like me. Breathing is like what Gran and Ma would do when my little brother Georgie would get the croup. They’d put a pot of water on to boil and then put a blanket over him and the pot so he’d have to breathe the steam in to loosen the junk up in his chest and throat. August is like breathing steam without having to put a cover over your head; with no place to run and escape it except down into the lowest reaches of the cellars and basement of the house and outbuildings. As bad as it was, at least I wasn’t all cooped up in the house with a bunch of self-important, nosey, busy bodies like Francine was. I swear if she wasn’t so happy I would feel sorry for her.
Not only is the month sweltering, it is busy. The last of the blueberries were picked the first week of the month. Even though the season started early there were still some left even into August if you knew where to look and by this time the estate children were expert harvesters and knew just where to look. I had them leave the berries that were in the deepest parts of the forest for the animals. My reasons were that I was hoping that by leaving the animals a share that it would draw them away from the estate and the farms at least long enough for us to harvest the vineyards and orchards that everyone had worked so hard on. The last thing I wanted was for a grizz or some similar beasty to work its way closer to the animal pens and the houses and outbuildings of the estate.
Even harvesting as we did we still had some trouble. Dogs can only do so much. I’d never seen such a collection of animals come in where the boys and girls acted as sentries. The raccoons that live around here are fat and almost too lazy to be bothered to hide during the day compared to the mean and scrawny ones that I used to peg for Gran and Ma. Mostly the coons seemed to like the melon patches but they weren’t averse to climbing the fruit trees or yanking down thorny fruit canes to get at what they wanted.
And if it wasn’t coons or possums or squirrels it was deer in the precious corn crop or smaller animals like ducks, black birds, and ravens in the other grains. We were eating well just trying to keep nature from taking over the gardens, orchards, and fields.
We did still get our share out of the garden however. I had my face buried in a slice of watermelon making the children laugh as they taught me to spit the seeds when our first set of visitors arrived. What a mash up that was. Not only was there a family to feed and house but their outriders and other attendants had to be taken care of as well. I got out of most of the hoopla except for the evening meal.
I kept as quiet and in the background as I could manage but when they asked me a direct question I couldn’t help but answer. “Really Mistress Fel, don’t you miss Captain Uhl taking care of the paperwork for the estate?”
I don’t know where that boy-man learned to talk but he sounded more like the headman’s wife than the headman. I gave him a half smile and shrugged but then turned to his Da and said, “We don’t always get to pick and choose our responsibilities. The Captain has familial responsibilities as well as responsibilities with the council. There are weekly reports detailing events and activities here at the estate and on the farms. There are experienced members of the estate that lend me their expertise. The Captain, of course, is available for any unusual situation that might arise that cannot be handled in his absence.”
A bit more conversation ebbed and flowed around me and I was making plans for my nightly escape when the elderly gentleman that traveled with them – an uncle of some type – brought something to everyone’s attention, “Mistress Fel, I saw today that you converse quite comfortably with the estate staff. And here tonight I see you quite ably avoiding some of the rudder statements by my grandnephew while remaining exceedingly polite.” The grandnephew in question looked like he’d have a thing or three to say to his uncle if he could ever find the courage. “Yet we are supposed to believe that you come from the Outlands.”
Statements that weren’t a question yet nevertheless seem to require an answer. I sighed and sat back in my chair and gave him the simplest answer I could without revealing anything he wanted to know. “Different people, different circumstances, different settings require different responses. You people are unused to the rough ways of the Outlands. You are guests here at the Corman estate. I do not wish to embarrass Francine and Cor - nor the Captain and Winnie - all of whom have accepted me and given me their confidence. Therefore, when in polite society I behave politely. However, I am perfectly capable of behaving … less politely … should the situation warrant it.”
Strangely enough the old man started chuckling and then outright laughing. “Touché Mistress Fel. Touché. Now, tell me more about how the winemaking is going. You mentioned that the primary liquor in your area had been something called Mescal … made from a plant called agave. I’ve had it and was not particularly impressed. I’ve always kept a bottle of Corman rice wine in my cabinet since I was a lad my nephew’s age but I hear that you are bringing some of the other varieties back into production.”
The old bushel britches was really just wanting to see if he could be first to get in on the new stock of spirits we were putting back. Would have been a lot easier if he had simply said so than dancing around it and snooty. But that’s people for you. Why make something easy when you can complicate it all out of proportion?
They left after nearly a week only to be replaced by another family. These were mostly men with only two young women with them and a different sort of people from the first group. The girls were not starchy at all and kind of nice, but silly enough to be irritating for me to talk to when all I could think about was work that I was wasting time being away from. I left them to Francine and they all got along well. The men I took hunting several days running just to keep them from being bored and grumpy. Jonah always came with us and it was he that told me that the unmarried son of the family was a boyhood friend of Cor’s.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard that Cor had taken another wife.”
I know I should have been offended but it wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t sure if the man – his name Luke Jackson – meant it how it came out or not. “Why is that Mr. Jackson?” I asked as I continued to cut down cattails to bring back to Mrs. Wiley so that we could add another starch besides potatoes or rice to the table.
“Well,” he said finally having the sense to think about what he was saying before he fell out of his mouth. “I suppose that might have sounded rude but really he was just always in love and completely snout over tail with Francine and … uh … that … I mean … hmmm …”
I shook my head and realized that Cor’s friends were even more ham-fisted with their words than he was. They all still seemed to have a lot of boy attached to them compared to men of the same age where I came from. “He is still head over hills for Francine.”
“But … er … he married you too … um …”
I looked at him and said, “It is a proxy marriage Mr. Jackson and you well know it. Cor was given no choice in the matter. It was either that or … or consequences for the estate that he has devoted his whole life to avoiding.” I shook my head, part of me irritated with the fact that people seemed blind to the reality Cor and I had been force to face. Turning back to the man I said, “Cor chose responsibility or personal preference. And that is as far as I will go to satisfy you curiosity on the subject. I would prefer not to carry this conversation any further.”
I started to walk away but he grabbed my arm. Had I felt the least bit threatened I would have scalped him then and there as I did not appreciate being manhandled. He saw the look on my face and dropped his hand like he’d grabbed a hot skillet. “Sorry … just don’t … I didn’t mean to …” He stopped talking and then really looked at me. “Cor and I have been our whole lives. I never understood his … infatuation … with Francine. She’s a nice girl but … I don’t know … just not my type. I was surprised to hear that family of hers let her marry someone they hadn’t chosen for her to be honest. But looking at you and knowing Cor … you just don’t seem his type at all … and I have to say it even if it does sound insulting, but I don’t mean it that way. I just don’t … it just doesn’t seem like him to … to …” He faltered not knowing how to continue.
I gave him look for look. He may have been ham-fisted but at least he’d been honest enough with his questions. Finally I answered him, “I refuse to be insulted by the truth Mr. Jackson. You are correct. I’m not Cor’s type. Anyone that knows him at all will know that. I wish you had talked to Cor about this yourself. Perhaps if more people had stood with him then maybe none of this would have happened. Maybe he wouldn’t have been forced into something so … so alien to what his life was meant to be. But we are well beyond being able to change things, they are what they are. Cor and I have worked out a way to live with the situation. It is not our problem that other people now can’t understand how we live with what they stood by and allowed to be done to us.”
He nodded with a serious look on his face and in his eyes and said, “I … I think I’ll look Cor up when he gets back. See how he’s doing. It’s been too long and I’d like to rectify that.”
There was a brief lull when the Jackson family took their leave and I was thankful for it. The apples and pears were coming in and they added an enormous amount of work on top of trying to find something constructive to do with the last of the fruit like nectarines, peaches, and raspberries. And to get away from the house and Francine’s complaints of being bored with no company to keep her entertained I went harvested in the woods with the children and they taught me about wild black cherries, ground cherries, mayapples, mulberries, pawpaws, and ground nuts. I dug peppermint plants and trimmed them to dry for tea and then replanted the clumps around the cabin to fill in the empty spots. Sumac, lambs quarter, and sweet flag also came home in my basket.
Every day it seemed we added a crock of cucumbers in the cellar, pickled squash, and then began to add dried corn and cornmeal by the sack. I ate fresh tomatoes to my heart’s content – like some ate the apples – and what didn’t get used fresh was used to make tomato juice, tomato sauce, salsa, and tomato preserve. We dried no small amount of all of the produce, keeping the large drying shed full to bursting with no let up. And if a fly flew too close to the wineshed it seemed unable to go in a straight line for several minutes afterward.
Great wagon loads of grapes were brought in every morning and it was a joy to watch the faces of the men and women in charge of that operation. A lot of grapes made it to the table as well and I don’t think we’ll run out of raisins until the Mississippi decides to run east and west. As a matter of fact so much food was so handy that I was “sampling” in between meals. I wasn’t used to that much access to food with little to no restriction. Suddenly my boney areas were getting padding and I was struggling to keep everything covered.
I was putting another crock in the cellar when I discovered that I couldn’t raise my hands as far over my head as I used to. I finally figured out why and let go a rather rude word.
“Gilly!” Mrs. Wiley said in pseudo shock. “Yer may be grown and married ter Young Cor but I hear such a word from you again and I jest might feed you cleaning paste for ter clean yer mouth with.”
I snorted. “Jonah says it all the time and you don’t wash his mouth out.”
“Use ter. But then I had ter do it so often he grew ter like it and it weren’t no use no more. No whats the matter thets put you in such a foul mood.”
I sighed and tried to wiggle the shirt comfortable again and she figured it out before I had to explain it. “Ah ha, thet leather shirts giving yer fits. Noticed ta other day it were looking a bit snug.”
Irritated I said, “I don’t have time for this.”
“No, yer don’t. And why should yer when we can make yer up a nice cotton blouse in less’n half the time it would take to cut and sew another like the one yer have.”
“I like my leathers,” I whined. “They’re mine. I made them. And besides, I’m an Outlander and …”
“Yer were an Outlander. Now yer belong to Kipling … and ter the Corman estate in particle … ter us. Tis no crime to put aside something in faver of something else when it jest plain makes sense. ‘Sides, if yer wish ter keep them infernal leathers, jest split it and use it as a vest or jacket. It look like it just be the chest were it is growing too small.”
I looked down and realized she was right. Somehow or other I was finally looking like a woman and not like a flat chested pole. I growled, “At least my skirt still fits.”
“That’s a cause it is just a wraparound tie up. My mam used ter be fond o that style too. Leaves room for a growing belly when yer is with child.”
I squawked, “I’m not with …”
She laughed. “Yer take on so about the strangest things Gilly. Let’s go get yer measured. The women will be fightin’ over who gets ter fix what. They’s always complainin’ that our Gilly won’t let anyone do fer her.”
By the next morning there wasn’t one, not two, not even three … but five blouses waiting for me to try on. It was so strange and I didn’t know what to make of it. But as soon as I had gotten over my snit I realized I was being foolish and the cotton blouses were much more comfortable though it meant more laundry as they showed sweat and dirt much more than the leather ever had.
It was especially nicer in the evenings when I would sit and write the reports to the Captain. Each week he would respond, congratulating us on how well things were going and share what news he could.
“Rachel is a wonder. I’ve begun to forget what my life felt like before my daughter came into this world. Certainly it was less colorful … and less noisy. Winnie is so much better that I have hopes of returning to the estate once the weather cools. For now it is still better if she does not have to deal with the realities of so many guests and what their purpose is. She still becomes agitated when the subject that we avoid speaking of comes up but not to the same extent she did when we first arrived here at the fort.”
“I am gratified to report that the estate’s reputation has not been hurt in the least by the two sets of visitors. Quite the contrary in fact though I try not to insert myself into such conversations when I hear them. I prefer to let nature take its course.”
“A rather strange thing has happened. Luke Jackson sought me out here and I was quite surprised to see him. He and Cor were as close as brothers before the marriage, even going on a few early runs together. We had a nice chat and he admitted that his father and older brother were quite impressed by how things are being run at the estate. It may be slightly different than in recent history but the results are more than sufficient to show that it has been a needed change.”
“Frankly my dear I am not sure how to broach this next subject except crudely. As you are well aware women of suitable age are not numerous in the settlement. As I am sure you are also aware given how you handled the troops that were with me when you first came to Kipling, young men can be rather single minded on certain subjects. Luke Jackson isn’t the only man to mention that it is a shame that Cor has two fine young women as their wives when they have none but he has been the first to have done so in such a way that makes me think that perhaps he could be a serious suitor for your hand.”
“By that I mean that it is not beyond some men to perhaps pursue you – or Francine – for themselves. While I am aware that you and Cor are far from a love match you and he both agreed to the commitment of marriage and it would be unwise to allow any of the men to believe that they have a chance in changing that.”
“Please do not be insulted by my warning as I mean no harm or disrespect to you. In fact it is a testament to you that so many, on such short notice, would have the temerity to say anything to me at all. And Luke, for all he is a bit wild, is a fine young man from a good family that have stood friends with the Cormans for many years. I know the situation was not of your choosing or Cor’s but I would not like to see either of you hurt should you, perhaps, develop feelings for someone else in his absence.”
The letter continued on a bit and then closed again with “I mean no insult” and some more kind words trying to make me feel better because he was basically saying I needed to be careful not to act like a saloon girl. I was mad for a long while until I calmed down enough to see his side of it. It didn’t make me feel much better that someone would think I’d do such a thing, but on the other hand I put it down to the Captain maybe finding out he was more upset at what he’d let happen on his watch than he’d figured on being. Maybe Winnie wasn’t the only one thinking about their daughter’s possible future.
There were things I had come to accept were out of my reach. To be reminded of that hurt a bit and made me angry all over again. At the same time I’m pretty sure I believe the Captain is only looking out for my best interest in his own way and just being clumsy about it. It was a bad place to be in but I’ve been in bad places so much in life I eventually just shrugged it off and let it go as nothing particularly new. Lord knows I’d had men take an unwanted attention to me in the past with no expectation of being treated honorably. And Luke Jackson may have been a grown man in body but he still seemed to have some growing up to do if he thought he could just look at a gal and she’d toss all of her personal honor over the cactus heap just to be with him.
I just hope I don’t have too much of that nonsense get in the way further down the road. It is hard enough to keep up the problems I already have without people wanting to add more to the pile.