Trying to sound as if I wasn’t afraid of shaming Gid I searched my memories of how Mam had acted when she had the supervision of young girls. “Thank you,” I told them. “Your family needs feeding but before I put a meal before them could you tell me what you have been eating while on the road.”
Jasmine shrugged, “Not much after the pemmican and hard tack rain out. Tad’s Uncle Gerry helped us escape and would not let us have a fire and then Jace wouldn’t either after the trader caravan went one direction to warn other towns in the area while we came this way.”
I thought a moment then nodded. “I’ve had a prong roast cooking for most of the day. We’ll shred it, add water to the pan drippings to make a broth and then thicken it a bit with some cream.” Then I remembered I still needed to milk the cow.
A hand came around my waist and pulled me backwards. I nearly yelped until I realized it was Gid. He said, “I know that look and you don’t need to worry about the animals on top of the rest of it. I’ve had the boys milking our cow as well as the others Jace brought along from town. All of the wagons, including ours, will have to stay out in the weather so that the barn can hold all of the creatures we now have the care of.”
I turned to look at him over my shoulder and before I could say anything he put his forehead on mine. “I’ve had the boys build a fire for you. Will that be enough or should I collect some more children to do your bidding?”
Conscious of the eyes watching I told him, “Jasmine and Gladys have been well taught by Lolly and work with hardly any direction. If … if perhaps … hmmm … the smaller children could be rounded up and looked after to keep them from underfoot and from wandering off until they know their way?”
“The whole herd of jackthumpers are making beds in the great room and …” he raised his voice enough that it carried. “And they’d best get it all done proper or they can go to bed hungry. Children don’t run wild as savages in my home or there will be consequences to pay.”
Jasmine and Gladys looked at each other then nodded before following me out to the patio while Jace went to speak with Tad and Ern. The girls were as helpful as they had been upstairs and soon enough had enough mugs dug out of the kitchen cabinets for everyone. The twins Hiram and Hank brought buckets of water to be heated for clean up and I noted they were far more subdued than last time I’d seen them. I said naught to them and they left in a hurry as soon as the buckets were poured into the cauldron I used for heating wash water.
When the soup was finished to my satisfaction I wondered how to call everyone to meal but upon turning found I didn’t have to as there were a great many eyes peeping at me from around the hedge, doors, and windows facing the back of the house. Sighing I said, “They look like I expect them to go into the soup pot rather than eat from it.”
Jasmine and Gladys looked surprised for a moment and then giggled. Bashfully Gladys told me, “Gid said he’d do just that if we gave you any trouble.”
“Hmmm. Well, I do my best not to disobey Gid but I’m not really partial to children in my soup, it throws the flavor off. All those dirty toes and ears you know. So it is with relief that I can say that you’ve been very helpful and I appreciate it. Could you please tell the others to line up so we can fill their mugs? I’ll carry trays to those upstairs.”
Lurna came from where she must have been visiting the privy and said, “No need for that. Ned is finally sleeping peacefully.”
“Perhaps a tray for Jace and Vaniece?”
She shook her head and I could see that although she seemed to feel better she was still far from rested and well. “No. Jace has already brought Vaniece down with him. Did she not come here to help?”
Trying to avoid a situation I said, “I was focused on other things and may have missed her.”
Lurna gave me a look that said that my ploy was as easy to see through as a dragonfly’s gossamer wings but she didn’t say anything. Instead she stepped forward and clapped her hands. Children being children they weren’t completely silent as they were given their portion but they were so quiet compared to what I had witnessed before that I worried for their health. Gid came around the cabin with a worried look on his face until he saw me ladling several larger mugs of soup for him and the older brothers. He took it from my hand and inhaled the steam and said, “Ahhhh! This is some like.”
“There should be enough for more for you and the older ones.”
“Humph,” Gid snorted. “Just to be sure let’s put a lid and a guard on it.” I had to bite my lip to keep from smiling at how serious he was.
From under my lashes I looked at him and said, “It shall be as you say.” His eyes widened briefly at my attempt at humor, and poor though it was, he smiled broadly and I felt a weight fall from my chest that I had forgotten was sitting there. “Eat from my mug?” he asked. “This way I’ll be sure you get your share.” I nodded and I saw him relax.
Gid sat at the table with Jace, Tad, and Ern after dragging a chair from inside for Lurna to sit on near a small poured stone table that I sometimes used while I did the mending and sewing. Vaniece looked expectantly around like someone was going to fetch her a chair as well and when no one did glowered from the corner of the patio while everyone ignored her. I wasn’t sure how things had changed but they had.
I was about to sit at Gid’s feet when I suddenly remembered all that I had dropped before running into the clearing in front of the cabin. I stood straight to go get it before darkness fell but Gid read my mind as only he seemed able to and said, “Sit. I found your pack when I was showing Hiram and Hank the cistern. Unfortunately the dogs used the bark you dropped as a chew toy before I realized what it was.”
I was resigned and said, “I should have thought to wrap it and put it in my pack instead of carrying it free like that. But even if the dogs didn’t get it it would have been ruined for what I wanted it for by now anyway.”
“I was going to cut you some noodles from the inner bark.”
Vaniece trilled an astonished laugh. “You feed poor Gideon tree bark? Can you provide nothing better? No wonder he is thinner than last we saw him; you are starving the poor man.”
Ignoring the hurt she tried to offer I told her, “I was raised to the yarbing way. There are very few things in this forest that I can’t find some use for.” Thinking I sounded like a braggart I tried to show some humility by adding, “My Mam and the Sisters would be very disappointed in me if I did not do everything to do my duty to Gid. So even if it seems odd at first to you, I promise I’ve been trained properly and would never do anything to hurt him.”
Gid’s hand circled my wrist and then tugged me into his lap. It was a place I had been often but it was disconcerting to be there with his family looking on. I felt my face grow hot when he said, “I’ve no complaints about anything.”
Gid insisted on feeding me between his own bites of soup. I desired to tell him that there was no need but he must have sensed the unsaid words and shifted me so that I was firmly planted and unable to take my leave unless I wished to make a scene.
After the meal each child washed their own dish and carefully set it to dry on the soapstone counter in the kitchen before washing themselves and finding their pallets. Each one was asleep as soon as they lay down and some before they could even find the energy to pull their covers about them. Despite my youth I’d worked my share in the church orphanage and almost out of habit righted a blanket here and rolled a child back into their bed there until they were all as snug as they were going to be.
I glanced up to find Lurna looking at me with troubled eyes. I crossed the room to see if she needed anything but she shook her head before I could ask and trod wearily up the stairs back to Ned’s bedside. Lolly came down and gratefully took the last mugful of soup that I had saved for her and told me that Ned woke once to ask for something to drink and about everyone’s health before dozing back off.
“Mother said that if I wish I can lay a pallet in the hall in case I am needed.”
I shook my head. “There is no need to sleep on the floor like the children. There is another cot that we can set up for you.”
“What of Tad and Ern?”
I nodded. “They are taken care of as well. They’ve decided to sleep with the wagons until tomorrow when the rest of your family’s goods can be brought in. Tomorrow will you help me ready more rooms so we can get the children up off the cold floors downstairs?”
She nodded and her normally serious face betrayed a small smile. “You aren’t what was expected but you seem to make Gideon happy.”
I swallowed and was about to say that it was the only thing I cared about when Gid came up from below stairs and grinned a big toothy grin and said, “Oh, she does that and more.”
I looked at him but he only smiled bigger. “Are you free to speak Mistress Yulee?”
Still shocked at his public foolishness I could only nod and follow him to our sleeping chambers. He pulled me inside and had me against the wall before I could think. His hands were busy going places they were want to go while he mumbled, “I was coming to look for you when the carnival showed up. I was worried I’d …” He shook his head as if to clear it and mumbled, “Tell me I didn’t hurt you. Tell me it’s alright between us. Tell me …” He brought his lips down on mine until I was nearly faint with lack of air.
“Tell me …”
To keep from being swallowed whole I pulled back and said, “I will if you’ll let me think. I can’t think hardly at all when you do this.”“Good,” he muttered and that is all that was said for a bit.