We were quiet after that. It wasn’t a bad quiet but it was a thoughtful one. Gid seemed to like that I tucked myself near him and the only time I stopped was when I had to steal one of my braids back from Rook who seemed to think it a game to take turns between tugging my cloak or goosing me to make me jump.
I was wiping the horse slobber from my braid yet again when Gid slowed and then swore. On alert I looked where he was glaring and the block house, only a little further ahead, was fairly vibrating from all the people milling about and talking at the top of their lungs.
“I should have known.” I looked at him waiting on an explanation. Turning to me he said, “Lurna has called all the family together that she could get on short notice. I hate this.”
“Do … do you wish to go someplace and wait them out?”
‘Hah! I would if I thought it would do any good. The whole lot of them have more staying power than a burr in a horse blanket and even more ability to be irritating. I suppose I’d better go face the music … but I’m going to tuck you somewhere away first until I can get the feel of the crowd.”
I looked at him then asked, “Is this … is this protecting me?”
Gid turned a scowl in my direction and then his face softened into a smile. “Yes, this is protecting you.”
“But it is because of me that they are upset.”
“No. Because of my choice.”
“You said I was your choice.”
“And you are … but it’s more about the act of choosing than you personally. Lurna expects us all to run everything by her first.” He started to add something then stopped.
Hesitantly I asked, “Did you run … Vaniece by her?”
‘Yeah. Yeah I did. But Lurna thought she was better as a choice for Jace. Vaniece got caught betwixt and between. I made her choose.” He shrugged. “So Lurna put her to Jace who seemed surprised but happy to have her. I made an ass of myself a time or two before I realized it was more how fast she seemed to get over me than that she got over me.”
“Ah. And … and then there was Tad.”
“Yeah. Had I known how strongly he felt I would have stepped out of the way sooner and willingly or tried to get Lurna to lay off the matchmaking with Jace. I won’t hurt Tad by telling him this but I think we are both lucky to have escaped. Vaniece seems to want way more attention than anyone has the time to give her in a house this full; more than she should need in any house. And she can’t fix brew worth spit and her cooking isn’t much better.”
Judiciously I said, “She made the tortillas for the morning meal.”
“And the only reason she can do that is because Lurna wouldn’t let up until she learned how to properly. Vaniece’s father is a merchant and widow; he hires a keeper for the house work and a cook for the kitchen. She just never had to learn apparently, she was never made to. And here now Lurna is determined to turn Vaniece into the lady of the block house even if she has to drag her into it kicking and screaming. Vaniece thought that with all the children around to share chores the burden would be very light. She had no idea how much work Lurna puts into making things run as well as they do despite the trouble all those hellions cause.”
I didn’t dare criticize but it seemed to me that if Lurna spent more time organizing the “hellions” that the chaos and resulting work wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad as it seemed it was on my short acquaintance with it. The church orphanage had a lot of problem children as well, not just poor to no manners or the need to fight with everyone and everything but many had deformities from birth and had simply been left on the church steps or were brought back by our missionaries, but even with all of that it had run smoother than what I had witnessed this morning.
Turning to Gid I said, “Let them think I’m dim or slow. That you just wanted a woman to do for you, to work, and that since I’m quiet it suits you.”
Gid was back to scowling. “No.”
I looked at him.
“I said no and that’s the end of it. They can accept my choice or not, either way I’m not giving you up even if Lurna bays at the moon and brings every female relative birthed in the last 50 years to bear against me.”
There were a couple of male snickers coming from behind some trees and Gid move sharply between me and the group that trailed out. “Easy boy. Had no idea you were so set on the gal though I suppose we shoulda known the way Tad and Ern are trying to put Lurna off the scent that it must be something like that.” Gid just scowled.
“Aw now son, don’t be thisaway. You know Lurna only wants the best fer ya. She’s had your raising since your own Ma died.”
“I know it and that’s why I’ve been trying to be patient but this was a dirty trick. First she acts like she’s dying and Yulee has to fix the brew and cook the hash all the while facing down a houseful of savages out to get her and now we come back from business to find Lurna has set up a veritable avalanche of relatives to fall on us.”
One of the men chuckled, “Aye boy, you have my sympathies. Best ter get it done and over with and then go find a little private place to spark ter make yerself feel better.”
“Privacy?! There’s not a speck of it to be found anywhere, not even the flaming barn,” Gid barked. That only turned the men’s chuckles into true laughter.
“Ah well, best face the music anyway. Then we can all eat and drink and after drink comes drunk and after drunk comes sleep.”
“We’ve got work to do!” Gid squawked in outrage as he was lifted onto the shoulders of the other men. I simply stood there unsure what I was supposed to do. Gid called back, “Take Rook to the barn! Try and unload him and I’ll find you as soon as I can!”
Rather than lead the horse straight through I went around the back way that we had left by. It was easy enough to do since everyone’s attention was focused towards the front. Poor Rook was nearly as glad to hide out in the barn as I was. I removed the packages from his back and put them into the wagon that had been moved into the barn. Then I took off his saddle and blanket and the rest of his tack and rubbed and brushed him down. Papa had been particular about how his horses were treated and he’d taught me that God made us stewards not to do a half job but a whole one and not just a whole one but one to the best of our ability. Rook got the whole treatment … rub down, brushing, I combed his mane and tail and even treated his ears for mites when I found them. I gave him his feed portion and then stood back to admire a very contented horse.
Suddenly the barn door opened and the mop-headed trio from this morning came in. “Oh, there ya are U-Lee.” Their tone warned me as soon as I heard it so I was on guard. “Gid is in a bad way. He needs you ter come.”
I waited them out to see how far they would take their farce and when I didn’t respond in any way they got confused and said, “Well … er … um … ya see …”
I sighed and shook my head. “No. Gid told me to wait here until he came. You may now go out and tell the others they won’t be able to fool me into disobeying him.”
One of the twins sneered, “Sure of that are ya? Well, guess it’s for the best. All you’d see him doing is kissing Vaniece. It’s her he loves with his heart. He only wants you for his loins.”
I continued to look at him. “Aw wait, maybe you ain’t heard. See Gid, he’s heart broke. It’s the only reason he woulda fallen so low as to get a woman from the slave cages. And you ain’t worth that much as it is since he only paid five silvers for you.”
Calmly I told them, “He got a bargain. There was a half-price sale to entice him to take me off their hands.”
“You’ll have to ask them that. Right now I have chores to see to. It’s evil to leave someone you care for all the work. Come Judgment Day God will be sure to point out the failing for everyone to see if he doesn’t get you sooner than that.”
They looked at me like I was crazy and left the barn a lot quicker than they had entered it. I looked at Rook and asked, “Was it something I said?”
Gid walked in behind the boys just in time to hear me talking to his horse. “Getting lonely in here all by yourself?”
“What did those limbs of satan want?” he asked coming to check over Rook and then leaning back in surprise. “Don’t tell me they did this?”
I couldn’t stop them. My lips twitched when I answered, “It would be a lie if I did.”
I bit my bottom lip to try and stop the twitching but it had caught Gid’s attention. “What’s this? Are you really gonna smile?”
I shook my head but Gid seemed inclined to take advantage and swooped in for a kiss and tickle. “I’m not sure I want to know what it took to get you to nearly smile. But I’m going to ask anyway.”
I shook my head, lips twitching again. “They … well they aren’t quite the … the genius tricksters they believe themselves to be. I’ve been had at by those much more interested in causing harm. They’re nothing but babes in the woods and I was just thinking what their faces would look like if I were to tell them their heads are much bigger than they should be.”
Gid started chuckling and it turned into a belly laugh. “Aye … that’d be a sight for sure.” He calmed down and said, “Come walk with me? I think the worst is over. Father’s brothers are all already three-quarters soused but I would like you to meet Lurna’s brother Ned, he’s the one I told you runs the tight ship.”
I nodded but felt bound to ask, “Are you sure? They are your family.”
He placed my cloak around my shoulders and said, “They could be yours too if you can bring yourself to get to know them and they you. I know you’ve done nothing but see their backsides up to now, but they aren’t normally quite this bad. And they’re actually tolerable in small numbers most of the time.”
With that ringing recommendation we stepped out and I noted it was cooler in the evenings than I expected for the time of year. The noise hit me like a hammer and I nearly retreated behind Gid but he put his arm around me and though I was quiet and unable to bring myself to answer many of the questions thrown at me I wasn’t actually required to as many of the questioners had a habit of answering themselves.
Gid and I were tugged this way and that but eventually we wound up at the end of a long trestle table with the man called Ned. Gid left to go get us something to drink and Ned and I were talking about books … the ones I’ve read, the ones he had read, the village library, and how new books were being printed in Yellow Rock by a man who had finally managed to duplicate a working printing press from plans salvaged from an old-city by his grandfather. For now it was mainly technical manuals and reprints of old books, but a mission not far from Yellow Rock had placed an order for several Bibles.
I was listening raptly when I felt the first sting. I brushed it away but wasn’t concerned; it was only one after all. Then there were two more, I was on the border of becoming concerned when suddenly it felt as if my leg was on fire. I jumped up and shook my skirts which were covered with large ants.
“Oh … oh … oh …” I tried not to panic. Panic was the enemy but my chest was already tightening, my throat closing up. I tried to call, “Gid!” but it barely came out in a wheeze.
I could hear laughter and Lurna half-heartedly asking someone what they had done this time. I tried calling Gid again but not even a wheeze came out.
Then Gid was there and he was calling my name and brushing the ants from me and getting stung a few times himself. That’s about when people started to realize something was wrong. An old woman came to my rescue. “The trough boy, get her to the trough.” She shouted behind her, “Someone bring me some fresh onions! Now! Lolly get my bag and bring the Echinacea out of it.”
I heard Lurna start to say something and the old woman answer sharply, “Oh for heaven’s sake woman, she can’t breathe, she must have the allergy to them.”
I don’t remember much for a while after that except struggling for air. At some point the woman told Gid, “I think the onion and the herbs stopped the worst of it but it may take her some time to draw a full breath. She needs to be watched to make sure she doesn’t need another treatment.”
A while after that I realized we were in the barn and Gid was fanning my face. He only stopped to throw something at the door and scream, “I said go away!!” I think it was his boot, I can’t be sure.
The next time I awoke it was still dark but my internal clock told me morning couldn’t be far away. I shivered. Gid was instantly aware of it. “Shhh. I know it’s a bit cool. You took a dunking in the trough and we had to strip you to find all of those little red demons; they were everywhere. Look at me Yulee, can you breathe?”
I nodded though my chest was sore like the time Aunt had stropped me there because she caught one of her men staring at me. “I’m … I’m fine,” I croaked.
“You’re not fine. But as soon as you’re able to travel we’re leaving.”
I shook my head.
“Yes. They’ll deliver the last of the supplies we bought before noonday. So long as it is no later we can be at the cabin before the sun sets.”
I gave a shuddering whisper, “Your family …”
“Some family,” he muttered in fury. “I bring you to meet them and they try and kill you.”
I patted his arm because his hands seemed to roam all over me; not in pleasure but to comfort and get comfort. “They didn’t know.”
“I didn’t know. If Miz Justine hadn’t been here, hadn’t figured out what was happening as quickly as she did …”
I patted his arm again and gladly leaned against him as my strength seemed to be waning. My voice only wanted to come in a whisper but I told him, “I’ve never been bit by so many. The regular ants don’t bother me so much, it’s only the red ants made during the Great War. Even up to four or five bites and all I get is a bad headache and sick to my stomach. I’ve …”
“… never been bit by so many. You said that. And you wouldn’t have this time either if …” He shook. The look of fury in his eyes was frightening. “They hid under the table and drizzled honey on your shoe and then dumped a box of the things they had collected earlier in the day while we were at the market; this was no spur of the moment trick, they planned this.”
I shivered and he pulled me closer. He asked, “How do you feel?”
“I can breathe.”
“Thank God,” he whispered into my hair. “Beyond that how do you feel?”
I couldn’t lie. “Tired.”
“Then sleep. I’ll watch over you.”