Friday, March 16, 2012

Chapter 40

Chapter 40

January. The start of the new year. But to start something generally means ending something too. With the way things have gone I’m trying to decide exactly what that means for me and my future.

My illness ended just in the nick of time. We had a break in the weather and I was actually able to enjoy it. It was still cold but not the killing kind of cold or the storms that we’d been having. Two days after it warmed up we were all surprised by a caravan of wagons pulling in late in the afternoon.

A rider came up and when I recognized that it was the Captain. I sent one of the boys that were standing around gawping to get Cor and andother to run in the house to tell Mrs. Wiley we needed warm drinks and that we’d need to get their rooms aired out real quick.

The ruckus drew the other people in the house’s attention. Francine came out to the porch and was honestly pleased to see Winnie and the baby. I know it is bad of me but I thought for a moment she would resent having the attention taken off of her. I was wrong and I’m glad.

We were all happy for about five minutes. I stood back and watched the hugging and carrying on but then Winnie pulled me into it which caught me off guard. I was barely able to untangle myself before we hurriedly went inside to get baby Rachel and Winnie out of the weather where more ooo’ing and aww’ing went on as Francine’s relatives saw the baby for the first time. I have to admit at she is a cute little thing with a head full of golden curls that I suspect will eventually cause the Captain to get mighty protective. She’s a little spindly compared to what Georgie was, but then again Gran said Georgie was a whopper when he came out cause Gran thinks Ma had sugar sickness right there towards the end.

While the other women were still cooing at Rachel the Captain pulled the rest of us aside to give us some awful news. “Cor, yesterday riders from the Lathrop estate finally made it through the snow and to the fort. There’s been a tragedy there.”

Immediately Francine and her female relations got into a pucker. Now, I say that and I know it sounds bad but I don’t blame them for their feelings. I suppose if I had family like that I’d get into a pucker too upon hearing there was a tragedy. I just wished they would have waited to get so upset until after the Captain had explained it; it would have made the telling a little quicker if we had only had to calm them down once.

“It isn’t just a problem for the Lathrop estate but for everyone here in the territory … and some outside it for that matter.”

My first thought was plague. They were a regular problem ever since the Dark Days and tended not to stay in one confined area but spread as people tried to move to avoid infection. The Captain’s news wasn’t plague but now that I’ve had a chance to think on it I’m sure some folks consider it to be just as bad.

The Captain asked, “You know that last bad storm that blew through?” At Cor’s nod and with everyone hanging on his words, including Jonah who’d come in to welcome and Mrs. Wiley who had wheeled in a tray of warm drinks, the Captain continued. “It was bad at the fort, and looks like you suffered from downed trees from it here, but over the ridge at the Lathrop estate it had an unexpected component of lighnting to it. Overnight they took a bolt to one of their fuel processing barns that was powerful enough that it escaped the lightning rods and ran across the grounding wire and caught some dry grass around the outside of the building. The best that can be determined is that it smoldered, passed under the building and then came up into the holding tank area. It was out of control before they even realized a fire had started and how widespread it had gotten.”

Cor asked tensely, “How many killed?”

“None which is completely astounding under the circumstances. They’ve been warned for years that they were putting living quarters too close to their production facilities.” He shook his head. “The fire burned too hot and too fast for them to even marshall a defense and get close enough to get physically hurt. However, it occurred at their largest production barn and spread to two adjacent structures. Best estimate from their report is that their manufacturing capacity has been cut by over half, possibly closer to seventy-five percent if they can’t salvage any of the equipment and get base materials to get back on line. They also lost two large silos of grain when embers drifted on the wind and some silage for their animals.”

I knew it was bad but Francine and her relations – and the others too – seemed to consider it an even greater catastrophe.

I said, “But no lives were lost.”

Glyssen moaned, “You just don’t understand. Without the fuel our family … they … they … they will starve!” Then all of them started up to crying and moaning.

I looked at the Captain and Cor trying to understand. “But they can plant crops in the spring.”

One of the other cousins snapped, “Have you no feeling?! Our people are not Outlanders that grub for …”

Cor snapped, “That’s enough. Yes, this is a tragedy but you do yourself or the rest of the Lathrops any good descending to that kind of behavior and I won’t have it under my roof.”

There was something in his voice I’d never heard before. I saw momentary surprise on the Captain’s and Winnie’s faces as well. And quickly hidden satisfaction on Jonah’s. Francine gave a little moan and then fainted dead away.

Shame on us but I think we all thought for a minute she was playing but it turns out that she wasn’t. When she finally come around she was a green as a new pea. Cor carried her upstairs and Lollie, who had come by to see one of the men who’d gotten chilblains on his feet, was called to check on her.

I helped Winnie and the baby get settled while the Captain kept Cor busy until Lollie finished looking Francine over. A very irritated Lollie eventually all but threw Glyssen and the others from the room so she could actually do the looking over. I’ll admit I had half an ear turned that direction and then Cor was called in.

I already had my suspicions. If it had been nothing Lollie wouldn’t have taken as long as she did. The triumphant looks that Glyssen kept throwing my way also gave me a pretty good clue. When Cor walked into the Captain and Winnie’s sitting area looking like he’d had an anvil dropped on his head I knew before he even said, “I’m … I’m going to be a father.”

The Captain got a huge grin on his face and started the congratulations. Through the upstairs window I saw one of the boys run out to Jonah and a couple of men he was standing with and I could see they’d gotten the news too. There was happiness and relief on each of their faces. Part of me was happy and relieved too … but another part of me was scared of the unknown that gapped even larger in front of me. But if I’ve learned nothing in life I’ve learned that you can’t let fear rule you or you are already dead twice over.

Winnie touched my arm and I forced myself to smile at her. “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.”

My voice drew Cor and the Captain’s attention and there was another awkward silence. I kept my smile firmly in place and told Cor, “Stop worrying, you’ll be a good Da.” He blinked and I told him, “I’m going to go see if Francine needs anything then make sure that Mrs. Wiley has all the help she needs down in the kitchen.”

The door was ajar so I just went right on in to the sitting room. I don’t know what those ninnies thought but they ringed themselves around her like they were her protectors or something. I rolled my eyes but kept my smile in place. “Just wanted to wish you happy and to ask if you want anything like ginger tea or biscuits or something.”

Francine puckered up, “I don’t like ginger; I prefer my special blend of tea. You know that.”

I shrugged. “Well, you may prefer it but you can’t have it. Most of the stuff in that blend of yours isn’t safe for to drink when you’re pregnant unless you want to give yourself a miscarriage or have the baby be born with something wrong with it. Your Aunt Hazel reminded me of it when she was here. Frankly I’m surprised she and Muriel didn’t take it away from you then. It might have been part of the reason why it has taken you so long to get caught with child.” At her arrested look I added, “Matter of fact, I’ll get Lollie to make a list and we’ll get rid of all the temptation you might have since you’re used to drinking so much of it. You’ll have to find some other way to settle your nerves from here on out … at least until after you’re finished nursing this one. Of course by then you’ll probably be caught with another one so you might as well give up all thought of that special blend from here on out. I’ll talk to Cor so he knows too. Men don’t always think of those things.”

Glyssen snapped, “You’re just jealous and trying to make her miserable.”

My smile disappeared real quick. “Excuse me but you’re looby. The whole point of me being brought on was to take some of the stress off of Francine so that an heir could happen. I’ve known and accepted that from the very beginning. Why on earth would I be jealous because I’ve done my job and Cor is getting the heir he needs?”

That stopped her, “You … you mean you … you really aren’t jealous? I mean Francine … I mean she said …”

Francine pinched her cousin hard enough to make her say “Ow.” I snorted. “I don’t know what you think you know but I can assure you that I never figured on it being any other way than Francine having Cor’s heir.” I didn’t tell her why I knew it would be that way of course. “He loves her. I’m just … just the extra. I’m here because Francine kept pushing at Cor and when that didn’t work somehow or other she had a hand in convincing the Council to force a proxy marriage on him without his knowledge. The time Cor spends with me he spends because Francine forced him to, not because he especially wants to. Those are the facts. You might not have known them before but you do now. I’m no threat to Cor’s heir and never have been.” Looking at Glyssen especially I told her, “Yes, I’m an Outlander. But there isn’t anything wrong with that. I doubt anything but an Outlander could have put up with this ridiculous situation for as long as I have. I’m … I’m practical. So, practically speaking, it only makes sense that after two years Francine is finally pregnant. And she’s going to stay that way and you are going to help by getting rid of all the teas and concoctions she has hidden up here and don’t tell me she doesn’t. Because if you don’t, I will write to Elder Lathrop and I don’t think anyone is going to like what I have to say on this subject.”

I turned and left the room leaving them to think whatever they would. I hadn’t really thought too long and hard about Francine being addicted to those teas and such. I know it happens just like some of the men from my town would get addicted to the ceremonial pipe blend and as Gran would say would ceremony way more than was seemly. I don’t know, maybe I should have thought more of the possibility but I didn’t. The subject had come up and I’d skirted around it but nothing had ever forced me to take it head on. It all just came at me full tilt when Francine turned her nose up at the ginger tea the way she did. I don’t even know if my suspicions are correct but for sure I’ve put her and everyone else on notice to be careful about what she drinks. No one else made much of it … no one that is except Winnie.

After dinner – a celebration dinner I would have avoided if I could have without making myself look petty and ridiculous – Winnie asked me to come up with her and see Rachel before she put her down for the night. Once we got to her room she closed the door firmly and turned to me and asked, “Is that smile on your face ready to crack yet?”

I hadn’t been expecting the remark and the surprise caused the smile that I had plastered on my face to slip. I was having a hard time putting it back where it had been so I shrugged and gave it up. “Not really. Mostly I’m choking on the crow that Francine keeps trying to feed me but I figure she has some of it coming. I kind of pulled a fast one on her earlier today.”

“About her teas and such; I heard,” she stated.

I admitted, “Yeah.”

Giving me a quizzical look she asked, “Do you … hmm … how do I say this?”

“Well, don’t ask me since I don’t know what it is you want to say,” I told her with a smile to take the sting out of my words.

“Humph,” she said and then made a face as Rachel’s nappie said it was time to be changed. She got serious as she pinned the little wiggle worm into a clean and dry one and said, “Fel … I … I’m sorry I had a hand in putting you in this position.” She looked down at Rachel and I could see how troubled she was. How can you be upset with someone that is truly sorry like that?

I reminded myself that it was water under the bridge. “Let it go Winnie. It isn’t going to do you … or Rachel … any good to let it eat you up. I’ve … I’ve carved out a place for myself here. It might not be … well …” I stopped and changed direction because the last thing I want is anyone feeling sorry for me. “It is what it is and it is more than what I had before. Just … just let it go ‘cause at this stage there isn’t a whole lot either one of us can do to chance things.”

She looked at me but I could tell she wasn’t done feeling bad but there wa nothing I could do for her. I’d already told her to let it go but I couldn’t force her to let it go. And maybe remembering would keep her from falling into the trap of good intentions in the future. Sad I have to look at it like that but better than choosing to be bitter and angry.

Then putting it aside for now she asked, “Do you think that Francine is too … too dependent on those teas of hers? I always thought they were merely an affectation but could there be something else to them?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. And before you get the idea that I don’t care that’s not it either. I’ll see she stays away from them until this baby gets born, after that it’s back to being her business … hers and Cor’s. I’m not Francine’s keeper. I wouldn’t live my life like that but that’s why I’m me and not her.”

She nodded like she understood but whether she agreed or not I couldn’t say. What she did say however was, “Cor needs to be aware of it. And he also needs to deal with it. Will you tell him?”

I sighed. “Looks like I will.”

Then she got down to business and said, “The Captain shared that there have been problems between you and Cor.”

I crossed my arms and told her, “All worked out.”

She gave me a look and then said, “In other words mind my own business?”

I uncrossed my arms realizing I’d sounded like a belligerent two year old. I shook my head and sighed. “Don’t take this the wrong way Winnie ‘cause I really do understand that you mean well … for Cor … for me … the family … your sister’s memory … all of it. But to my way of thinking people have meddled enough. Whatever there is of it, Cor and I are grown and we’re going to have to … to figure this out on our own. I don’t know exactly how we’ll do it but we’ve managed with what’s been thrown at us thus far. And this baby? It was inevitable. And Cor loves Francine.”

Quietly she said, “I never said he didn’t. In fact I know he does. But where does that leave you?”

I snorted. “The same place it was always bound to leave me Winnie. This is what folks wanted. This is what you all are getting. The rest of it? Well, that’s a big fat unknown but whatever it winds up looking like I don’t want it dictated to me anymore.”

I turned and opened the door to leave only to find Cor standing there. I rolled my eyes and said, “Listening in at private conversations now?”

He opened his mouth automatically to deny it but then shook his head. “It wasn’t intentional.”

I shrugged and then scooted around him and down the hall. I headed for the kitchen and then detoured out the side door when I heard all the happy laughter in the kitchen. I had to detour around my next destination – the greenhouse – when I heard the same thing there.

It’s not that I’m not happy for Cor; or for Francine for that matter. But the situation just brings home to me that there are things that if life keeps on the way it is that I’ll never have. Might not even have them if things change either but I wasn’t certain which way it would go right at that moment. I was trying to decide what I wanted to do, immediately and in the future, when Jonah found me staring into the forest considering a hike to Tumbler’s Spring.

“Weather change is coming,” he said.

I was about to say something about the weather always changing when I got a look at his face and realized he wasn’t just talking about the weather. I shrugged. “Nothing stays the same forever.”

“Might have been providential intervention getting them Lathrops off our backs.”

“How so?”

This time he shrugged. “They’s was getting ter big fer their pants. This fire is gonna hurt ‘em … hurt ‘em bad.”

“How bad?”

“Ter hard to tell right now Gilly. Depends if it is as bad as the Cap’n be making out. If it is, gonna set that whole estate back a good spell. They’s was always too dependent on that there fuel makin’ operation.”

I thought about it for a moment, “And you think somehow now they aren’t the threat they were before?”

“Mebbe. But could make ‘em worse if they’s start calling in the loans or asking for payment in goods or land rather than coin. Gots ter see where this heir being half Lathrop leads. Right now there’s no tellin’.”

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