Once inside the stockade I didn’t dare dismount but I did put the mule as close to the women’s wagon as I could.
Docia whispered fearfully, “What’s to become of us now Fel?”
I patted her shoulder to try and comfort her because I had no words that would do so. Nephew rode over with the man that had greeted him so joyfully and introduced him. “Father, these are the maids we brought back. All are in good health – or as good as can be expected under the circumstances – but a few do need for you to take a closer look at their wounds.” I could see the distrust writing itself upon my sisters’ faces and after a moment and a nudge from the older man, Nephew could as well.
He looked at me at a loss for how to proceed. If not for the building hysteria I saw in the eyes of a couple of the women I would have let him sink on his own. Putting aside my own discomfort I said, “Is this … your father perhaps?”
“Huh? Oh … oh yes. My wits have gone begging. Maids of … well …” He gave a small smile and said gently, “Maids of Kipling, may I present my father, the Chief Healer of our settlement.”
I asked, “And he’s a real healer and not just a saw bones?”
Nephew’s mouth fell open but the older man had picked up on what I was trying to do. He smiled and nodded. “Not a saw bones … we chase them out of the settlement every time they try and make their way here. But you needn’t worry about me; my wife is Head Midwife and will most likely prefer to see you first. For some it is less worrisome to see a healer of their own sex.”
Nephew’s ears turned rosey as he realized his mistake and rushed to say, “None of that happened on the way here Father. We took care of their honor. But I suppose Mother would still like to assure them they are safe now.”
My sisters relaxed but only slightly; it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. Unfortunately, after the two men returned to the Captain’s side, that feeling of safety didn’t last for long as we all noticed how many men were crowding into the area and how some stared hungrily at us.
Unknown to me why I had come to trust Captain Uhl my eyes sought him. It was with no small shock that I witnessed him embracing a woman … a very pregnant woman. It was at that moment that a man grabbed my leg and without meaning to I called out, “Captain Uhl?!”
I didn’t like the sound of panic in my voice. I liked even less the effect it had on my crèche sisters but there were too many men and they seemed to surround us. Realizing just how vulnerable we now were, my mind began to spin. At least at home I would have known what to expect and I would have known which man to be the most dangerous or devious. With so many unknown males fanning out I felt like a lamb in the middle of a jackal pack.
“Enough! Let me through I say!!”
It wasn’t Captain Uhl’s voice cracking like thunder but that of an older woman that wasn’t afraid to use the cane she leaned on to make her point and move someone along a little faster. Captain Uhl himself wasn’t far behind her and what her cane didn’t move, his presence did.
When she was near she said, “You there, girl …” I saw Captain Uhl lean down and tell her something. “You girl … Fel is your name. Drive this wagon forward between the posts of that fence over yon.” And turning to glare at all the males in sight she said, “If I catch one uninvited past that gate, regardless of family I’ll drop you from the lists. Have I made myself understood?”
Whatever that meant seemed to work on them better than even a painful crack in the shin with her cane had done.
I tried to control my shakes as I climbed from the mule to the wagon seat and do as she ordered. It was easy enough to go forward once the men had moved out of the way and I relaxed just enough not to spook the team of horses I was trying to drive. As soon as the back of the wagon passed through the posts a large gate swung shut and then was barred by two boys who were summarily told to help us get down, to take the cattle and wagon, and then to scram or the old woman would know why not.
It was only a matter of minutes before the boys were hurrying off with the wagon and my crèche sisters and I were left standing with what belongings we had. The old woman glowered and then sniffed. As a capable looking woman came into the space we occupied the old woman said, “Mona, these are the lot of them and sorry enough they look.”
“Mother!” the woman reprimanded but not with any real anger. She looked us over and I saw kindness in her eyes, real enough even if some of it was faked. “My son has said your lives before Kipling was not easy.” She stopped as if trying to pick her words carefully. “I cannot promise you a life of ease here either, but you have the chance at a different life than the one you left. Certainly one bereft of … hmmm … saloons and rules against protecting yourselves and your homes if attacked. But first I would like to get to know each of you and perhaps you will let me tend to any injuries my son was unable to whilst on the road.”
Finding my voice I said, “You are Nephew’s mother, the wife of the Chief Healer of Kipling.”
A little confused before figuring out who I meant she smiled, “My son is named Robbie after his uncle. Did he not introduce himself?”
I shrugged, “Everyone called him Uhl but then there was Captain Uhl. It was easier in my mind to name him what he was … the Captain’s nephew … or just Nephew.”
Still smiling like a picture I had once seen in a book the woman said kindly, “I see. Yes, Robbie is my son and my husband is the Chief Healer. And I do what I can to make sure all the midwives in Kipling territory have what they need to do the job right.”
Still not ready to relax I asked, “My crèche sisters were told they would be wives.”
“And that is important to them? You?”
I shrugged, “It is better than being a whore. As a wife there is usually a family, or the chance to make one, and it’s a safer life.”
Her smile faltered momentarily then she sighed. “I had hoped to put you more at ease before your new life was dumped in your lap but it appears that perhaps it is best gotten out of the way first.”
I immediately tensed, sensing that at least a few facts had been left out on purpose and they had to do with why the Kipling men searched so far afield for women.