“Out!!” I came out of bed as the door burst off its hinges.
Two days after the big blow up with Francine I was still struggling to get my feet under me. I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to go. Jonah and Mrs. Wiley had started to turn optimistic and say that Cor wouldn’t send me off but I knew what my luck was and I knew what men were like except for the rare few like my Da or Jonah … and even that most likely didn’t come until they got some age on them. Most of all though I knew how much Cor loved Francine and how easy it would be for her to work him around to see her way.
I was dead asleep, fatigue from worrying and warmth from the fire sending me to dreamland to escape for a while. It was a couple of hours before dawn when the crash had me flying out of bed with my knife in hand.
“I don’t care what it takes or how much it costs I am getting rid of you!!”
I tried to stay calm. You don’t run from a charging bull but I couldn’t help but try to defend myself. “Cor …”
“Shut up!! Start packing. I want you out of here and if that means I haul you to the fort then so be it. I won’t let you corrupt my household one more moment than I have to! I can’t believe I fell for it you Outland who…”
I didn’t let him finish. I ran. I could take a lot of things but having him call me a saloon girl wasn’t one of them. I felt so stupid. So unbelievably stupid. How could I trust a man?! I ran into the night with the words “Good riddance!!” ringing in my ears.
It took a while for my panic and subsequent anger to subside and once it did I realized I needed more than a sleeping shirt and a small knife for protection. Before the sun came up I snuck back to the cabin. It was in a shambles. The rocker was broken like it had been thrown against the wall but my belongings had been stacked carefully and neatly on the still rumpled bed. I took the bow and quiver that I had been using and pulled out my old rucksack and stuffed it with my clothes, the medicine box that Docia had sent, and few other things that I had been collecting.
I slunk out feeling beaten in spirit if not in body and still having no idea where I would go. I had failed to take the time to really get to know the territory, only caring about the small part of the estate that I had wandered and the forest that surrounded it. I thought about taking food but knew I wouldn’t be able to carry enough to make much difference. And I didn’t want to take anything from the mouths of the people that I’d been working so hard to feed. I felt bad enough as it was, I didn’t want to add that sorrow on top of it. Part of me wanted to say good bye to Jonah and Mrs. Wiley but hearing raised voices at the house dissuaded me … I didn’t want to bring any trouble on anyone.
I needed to regroup and decided to fall back to a place that I knew I could hunt some dinner and fill my wine skin with water at Tumbler’s Spring. I couldn’t stay there long so I made a dash, caught a couple of frogs and then took off deeper into the forest. I stayed deep in the woods but my mind was in such a jumble that I got little done; I couldn’t even rest. I did wander around a bit but didn’t find any water source and knew I would have to go back to the spring.
Carefully I crept back. I did not want to run into Jonah who seemed to be able to hunt me down no matter where I was. I saw nothing unusual. I heard nothing out of the ordinary. Slowly I moved through the brown and dying grass and refilled my wine skin but as I corked it all of the crickets stopped. I froze and then made to sprint but something that felt huge landed on me from behind. I fought to escape but it wouldn’t let me go.
Growling a voice said, “Stop. Fighting. Now. I don’t want to hurt you.”
I froze. Cor. I was flipped over and I prepared for what I thought was coming. I had fought hard and won my freedom too many times. I knew eventually I wouldn’t be able to escape. I might not be able to stop him from using my body but I refused to give him power over my emotions or mind. When he flipped me over I spit in his face. I tried to scratch his eyes and he pinned my wrists.
“Stop Fel,” he growled using his whole body to weigh me down so I couldn’t move. “I told you I don’t want to hurt you.”
Unable to fight I used words instead. “Hurt me one way or hurt me another. Does it matter?”
He stilled and then shook his head he said, “God Fel … no, I … I deserve that don’t I? I’m not … that’s not what I’m trying to do. Uncle Rob told me you know how to fight and I’ve seen it myself in how fast you can move. But I’m a lot bigger than you and could hurt you without meaning to. I knew I’d have to get you in one move or you’d run and I might not be able to find you again.”
Still unable to move I said, “So you found me. If you aren’t going to rape me then let me go.”
I couldn’t see his face but I felt him shudder. “I’m not out to hurt you Fel. I know you don’t think so but I’m not. I ... I swear … for what it’s worth I swear on my own life. I … I’ve got to fix this somehow. I can’t … Fel … Fel I’m not like my father! I’m not!!”
God help me I heard the pain in his voice. Real pain not the pretend kind that some men use to get their way. I stopped squirming and said carefully, “Get off me.”
“I will just … just don’t run. I’ll chase you and … God Fel just don’t run.”
I sighed. “Give me a reason not to.”
“Give you a …” The shadows were so long that I couldn’t see his face but I heard surprise in his voice. Then he said, “You hold my life in your hands Fel. I can’t live with myself if I don’t fix this … I have to fix this somehow.”
I snorted in disbelief. “It’s your life, not mine. Stupid to put your life in someone else’s hands willingly.”
“Stupid or not, you have it. All I’m asking is … is you … you hear me out. That’s all. I swear it.”
He got slowly up and carefully and moved away. I sat up just as slowly and even more carefully and then put a few more feet between us but didn’t run. Cor’s voice had a deadness to it I’d never heard from him. “I shouldn’t have listened to Francine, not without talking to someone else before I … before I went off half-cocked like I did. I owed you that and I haven’t got any excuse for what I said. I haven’t got any excuse for what I did. I was wrong … wrong for what I did and said, wrong for the way I treated you.”
I’d never heard a man admit to such things. Even so, I don’t know why I believed him. I can’t point to a single thing. Frankly I had every reason not to. But I knew how he loved Francine. I knew how easily it would have been for her to wind him up with her words, had even expected it. This … this abject misery coming off of him I hadn’t expected, hadn’t even considered a possibility.
I shrugged. It wasn’t like my temper and mouth hadn’t dug me a few holes in my life. “Fine. I believe you.”
My words threw him or a loop. I could tell. “You do? But you … you can’t.”
I shook my head and didn’t know whether he could see it or not. “That’s foolish. You ask me to hear you out and then tell me I have your life in my hands. I tell you I believe you and you just say that I can’t. Does that make the least bit of sense?”
There was an uncomfortable silence that was only broken when Cor asked quietly, “You really believe me?”
I sighed. “I suppose I must.”
He leaned forward and I jumped and worried I’d been a fool again when he grabbed my arms and pulled me towards him. I put the flat of my hands on his chest to hold him off but he just said desperately, “Come back Fel. Jonah … Mrs. Wiley … so many … I can’t stand the look on their faces when they look at me. I feel like a fool. Worse … I feel like … like I’m turning into my father, like a monster. God Fel just come home.”
“It’s not my home. It never has been so don’t call it that.”
He shuddered again, like a dog that has been kicked so many times but can’t seem to stop looking for human companionship. “That’s my fault too. I … I haven’t been taking any of this seriously have I? Been so worried and making it all about me. Doing the same thing as … as …” He shuddered again and I felt bad for him. It’s hard to find out your golden idol really has feet of clay.
I patted his arm and said, “Not so tight. I don’t like bruises.”
He released me immediately and I almost fell on my rump. Setting myself right I told him. “I’m not going to ask why you did what you did because it is a stupid, useless question. Besides, I can guess. Francine got her heart pinched over something them Lathrops did or said and needed to blame someone and I was what was handiest as a target.”
“No Cor. I don’t want any explanations or reasons. I don’t want to hear excuses for her or rationalizations or justifications for what happened.”
I had learned the hard way that if I stayed calm other people did as well and this seemed to be true of Cor as well. He said, “Will you come back?”
“Back to what? Back to the next time she says something against me? I may be an Outlander but we aren’t near as stupid as people think we are. If nothing else I know when I’m being set up for an ambush.”
I could just barely make out that he shook his head. “I won’t do that. I make a lot of mistakes Fel … a lot of them … but I rarely make the same mistake twice. As much as it … as it kills me to say it, I swear I won’t take … anyone’s … words against you without …”
The struggle he was in was almost a physical thing I could feel. He’s loved Francine since he knew what love was if Luke Jackson was telling the truth. Love does strange things to people and not all of them good from what I’ve seen. I saw my Da break when he knew my Ma and Georgie were gone, that he couldn’t save them. I don’t know if he would have stayed that way, never got the chance to find out. Cor seemed a bit like that as he realized that Francine maybe wasn’t perfect … maybe a lot less than perfect … and that he had some hard truths to deal with for his own self as well.
Suddenly it seemed that all I really wanted was to see Jonah and Mrs. Wiley again. I just wanted to see them … and the other folks who had accepted me. I wanted to make sure they made it through the winter, to see if what we did has been enough. That’s all I wanted. I didn’t want to be with Cor or see Francine but the other was so important that I was willing to deal with it if I could just have a place even if that place wasn’t mine.
“We do this I want your word Cor … your solemn word on the life you say you are putting in my hands … that you won’t kick me out until after Spring comes. Not until after I know that the folks here have made it through winter with enough to eat.”
In a serious voice Cor told me, “Fel … I’ll never do this again. I won’t ever kick …”
“Don’t make those kinds of promises Cor. One, right now I don’t think I can bring myself to believe it and two … two I’m not sure that maybe one day I won’t want you to kick me out.” Talking to him in the dark where I didn’t have to see his face I could tell him that. The dark meant I didn’t have to see his face but didn’t mean I couldn’t sense him kind of fold in like that kicked dog I already mentioned. “Cor I’m not saying it to be hurtful though I feel like I should have a right to after what happened. I’m being honest. I don’t want anymore … misunderstandings. I’ve been holding up my end of this bargain. You haven’t been around to see it, to give me a chance to prove myself. You don’t know me from Eve and that’s fine, got it and understand it, and not too sure I want to get known that well by a man anyway. But you blow in after being gone all summer and just … just didn’t even give me a chance to say boo without even looking around. Life ain’t fair but what’s happened to me is going a bit far on the other piece of that. I don’t want to be treated like that for the rest of my life.”
“You won’t,” he said quietly. I could tell he meant it but no way was I in the mood to believe in fairy stories.
“Just forget it Cor. I’ll go back for my own reasons. But you’d best keep your word that nothing like this is going to happen until at least past Spring.”
“It won’t ever happen again.”
“And don’t try and sell me a bill of goods. I’ve seen what men can be like. Know what women can be like too for that matter. I just have a whole lot less reason to trust people than maybe you do … and this hasn’t changed my mind about that.”
He just sat there and finally I stood up. “Well, might as well go on back. I probably have a scold coming from Jonah if nothing else.”
Cor got slowly to his feet as well. “He won’t … he’s already spent it all on me. I swear Fel … I …” He fell silent as he realized there wasn’t anything he could add that would change things.
The moon was full so while we had to take it slow the trail was lit up enough that we didn’t break our necks getting back. Cor stopped me when I would have left the path to head to the cabin. “Come to the house Fel. I … I haven’t fixed the door or cleaned up the mess I made. And besides, you deserve to live in the house and I’ll tell Francine that and …”
“Oh no,” I told him. “No way are you getting me to live under the same roof as her. I may have to pull together to keep this estate going but creeping around like a mouse trying not to set her off ain’t happening. And don’t go giving me the ‘she’s sorry’ routine either. You I can believe are sorry. I’ve seen it and heard it in your voice. Her … I don’t know Cor. I’ll work with her ‘cause I don’t seem to have much choice but … to expect me to …”
“All right. I’ll stay outside so you can …”
Surprised I said, “You’ll what?! Uh uh. No. I don’t need you or any other man to guard my door like I’m some kind of prisoner.”
“That’s not what I meant. I’ve heard we’re having problems with bears and …”
I snorted. “Like you’re going to stop a grizz if it comes for me. Besides, I’ve already done for one grizz. I might not be in the mood to take on another but I’m done being chewed on for a while so if there are any grizz around they’d best just carry themselves on down the trail.”
It took him a moment to catch up. “What? A … a grizzly? You killed a grizzly bear here? When?”
“Don’t come out of your skin. It was back not too long after you left. It wasn’t a big one.” More honestly I added, “It wasn’t a cub but he wasn’t a full grown one either. Probably just kicked out by his Ma to make room for a new cub. Ask the tanner to show you, he has the skin. Either way that should tell you I can take care of myself. Now leave off already.”
He did but I found out the next morning he hadn’t really gone far as I found him sticking his head in the creek where it flowed away from the cabin. I told him, “You don’t listen very well.”
“No. If I had listened better we wouldn’t be where we are at.”
Wasn’t anything to say to that so we walked towards the house but I didn’t like the idea of walking in with him like I was something he had caught and reeled in. I didn’t get a chance to stop though because Jonah came hoofing it after he saw us. He gave me a concerned look. “Gilly?”
I sighed. I didn’t feel like going into it but knew I needed to say something. “What have we got on the list today? I don’t like getting such a late start but sometimes you just gotta take things as they come.”
I could see Jonah wanted to ask questions but with Cor there he wouldn’t. Jonah did give Cor a closed which Cor accepted with a sigh. Jonah looked at him a moment more, then nodded and said, “Lots of pumpkins that need to be peeled and dried. Need to get out and see if we can’t clear the fields of some of these geese that are flying in. My shoulder is aching and that means a weather change is coming.”
I went toward the house while Cor asked Jonah to show him the smoke house so he could see just how much meat the estate had to work with so he could figure how many of the hogs would need to be slaughtered.
That left me walking towards the house alone … it was a feeling I knew I needed to get used to but no matter how many times I try and remind myself it is a lesson I seem to have to relearn the hard way.