“I told you girl, to treat him well. All I see is more trouble.”
I looked up to see Miz Lana in her wagon. I shrugged. “I have done what I could to not cause him trouble.” Looking back over my shoulder I shook my head, “But it appears that boys will be boys until they decide to be men.”
Miz Lana cackled. “That way is it? What was the cause of it if I might be so bold?”
“I was telling him of the cats of the grassland ahead of us on this road. He thought I told a story. I was showing him proof I was not.”
“And this proof included flashing your silkies?”
I felt myself redden. “I have a scar high on my leg from a cat claw.”
“What?!” she asked in alarm. “Is this true?”
Sighing I asked, “I’ll show you but not where the whole wagon train can see.”
A burly man I had identified as the wagon master said, “And my wife as well to bear out this so-called proof you have.”
I climb in the wagon with Miz Lana while a rawboned woman of indeterminate age road along beside. I felt like a dancehall whore, flashing my bare skin, trying to let no man see my wares. The wagon master’s wife looked and then asked, “How long ago?”
“Summer before this one past. The young lioness went after me more for jollies than hunger as there was a fresh bison kill not too much further down the road.”
The woman looked over at her husband and nodded. I covered myself as he rode close. “What can you tell us of these monsters?”
I shook my head. “Not monsters, they’re big cats. Bigger than the tree cats that live in certain parts of the forest in these parts.” I proceeded to tell them what I had told to Gid. I noticed both Gid and Tad had ridden up and paced the wagon I sat in. The wagon master asked, “What else can you tell us?”
“You do not want to go through the grasslands in the early morning or evening as that is when they hunt most often. It is safest to travel through in large groups as quickly as possible during the hottest part of the day. They are sleepy and indolent during the noonday sun since they are up most of the night tracking prey. If they attack as a group you’ll not get out without some losses. Keep children and small animals in the wagons. Avoid fresh kills because even if it wasn’t done by a lion they’ll try and steal it from the predator that did if it is in their territory or if they are hungry. Do not wander into the tall grass. Avoid any watering holes that other game is using as they may have it staked out. If you have a lame animal, muzzle it or it will broadcast its distress and draw the predators for what they think is an easy kill.”
The men around nodded but one said, “Cross that grassland in a fast day? We’ll lose at least a wagon if not a beast or two in that airless heat. And for what? A child’s nightmare tale?”
His voice seemed to carry some weight and I knew as quickly as they had started to listen they would close their ears. I’d watched it happen season after season in the wagon trains. But this wagon master surprised me. “You’ll all do as I bid or you can get left behind. I saw some tracks last time we were through, though they were a couple of days old and barely legible. I’d never seen the like but it fits with the stories. I won’t put the women and children to danger just because a few of yers gots too much lead in the arse to get a move on.” He looked around and then said, “We break early tonight. Use the time wisely. From that point we should hit the grassland mid-morning and with due haste be able to make camp half way to the river crossing.”
Tad gave me a dirty look which I ignored. I also ignored him when he muttered to no one in particular, “I can’t believe they’re listening to a dimwit.”
I exited Miz Lana’s wagon on the side opposite from him and Gid and put my back into gathering more wood. Soon enough there would be none to gather. The grasslands were only the beginning. After that came the treeless land around the big river and then the rocky fields that was all that was left of a city that stretched for miles in all directions. Where they turned off from there I did not know.
I was able to collect two more bundles of wood and a piece of a third before we broke for the night. Gid had said nothing more to me though Tad had had fun enough making comments, especially when I stopped to take some wood from a wagon broken down along the road. “You don’t even have enough sense to respect the dead. Stealing from them when you could see three crosses lined up at that camp.”
I told him, “I’ve set my feet to serve the living, not worship the dead. To me it looked like whoever survived to bury those beneath the crosses was leaving it all so that some other soul didn’t have to follow in their footsteps. What more generous act could that be?”
I heard Miz Lana cackle and then say, “Come girl. Help me lay this fire so we can put some food in their bellies. Maybe that will settle his lordship’s mood to one less irritating to the rest of us.”
All her words did was make Tad angrier. I set myself for a slap or at least a push but he jerked away and stormed off. Turning I saw Gid watching me but since he said nothing neither did I.
I didn’t just help Miz Lana set the fire, I did most of the prep and cooking as well while she watched and mended some piece of cloth. That was fine. It was a test and I knew it but it saved me from having to make conversation which I was grateful for. The rabbit I had caught was the only meat in the soup so I diced it fine and seared it before adding the other ingredients. The soup alone would not carry the men far so I added dumplings. It thickened the soup into a stew and made it go further besides.
Like the night before the men ate first, but unlike then Gid wasn’t in time to stop Tad from taking a last bowl that left barely a serving in the bottom of the soup pot. After the others had left I scraped it out and gave it to Miz Lana, a woman of girth. “Split it with me child,” she offered kindly.
I shook my head. “Regardless of what Gid may think there were no banquets in my past. I’m used to running long miles on thin rations and it does me no harm. Besides, I still have two mush patties from breakfast I have not eaten.”
“Land sakes girl …”
I took the pot off to clean it rather than listen to her protestations. When that was finished I came back with it full of water to finish the rest of the crockery. Miz Lana watched me from her rocker and then said, “You’ve a cool nature. Most young women would have thrown a fit by now; at the very least had an attitude or felt sorry for themselves.”
I shrugged. “Waste of energy. What good would it do except create more problems? Better for me to accept the way things are and do my best to make my way. Fighting only brings beatings and beatings do nothing but make the next several days harder than they could have been.”
“Had me a father and a husband that used to beat me regular. ‘Twas almost a sport for them. When they both finally died I got me a husband that were just the opposite, too soft. Never understood him nor him me. He set me aside as I made him feel too bad though my past wasn’t his doing. Finally wound up with a man that didn’t need to hit but didn’t need to prove he didn’t by being weak. Took me near about a lifetime to find him and when he died there for a long time I wished they’d planted me with him.” When I didn’t respond she asked, “What was your Pa like?”
“A good man as men go. He was raised by the church but never felt the calling to be a Brother himself, nor a traveling preacher though he had the talent for sharing the Good Book so that even the lowliest layman could understand and appreciate what it contained. Fighting wasn’t his first choice but he could and he was the best in our community at the bow and the sling; that’s who taught me despite some of the Sisters thinking it wasn’t a girl’s place to be skilled in such things.”
“A progressive was he?”
“No. He was just my Papa. He said it was his duty to make sure that I could take care of myself so that I could do whatever task God gave me in this life.”
“And your mother?”
“Soft. Gentle. But strong in her own way. She had beautiful hands that played scissors and needle like a traveling bard plays his strings during story time. His pledge to God was Papa’s first calling, but Mam was his second. He kept her safe, worked to see her happy. When they were together there was barely any need for a lamp their joy in each other was so bright and shiny.”
Ern who had come to get warm by the fire said, “Sounds like a faradiddle.”
I nodded. “Better if it had been. When Papa died too much of Mam went with him. She didn’t outlive him by even a day.”
I’d had enough of questions and of memories. I stood and packed the last items away in Miz Lana’s wagon and then took the rags off as if I was going to rinse them out by the stream some bit away from camp. In reality I simply wanted to be away from them. At least Aunt had meant to hurt me with her words when she bothered addressing me at all. It was cruel, but easy to put down to her sour nature. These people wielded weapons that they didn’t even realize they held and I was dying the death of a thousand cuts from their words.