“Tad drive you out here?”
I jumped then mentally sighed as Gid stepped off the path and joined me on the rock I sat on. “No.”
When I didn’t say more he snapped, “No? That’s all you can say?”
He was looking for a fight it seemed. “I answered your question. If you want something other than the truth you need to warn me before I give it to you.”
He snorted. “So his calling you a dimwit and a whore don’t bother you.”
I shrugged. “What good would it do if it did? Reacting would only encourage him to say more of the same. Would that not do the exact opposite of what you would have of me? You told me that your family will not like me. Tad is only the first to make that truth plain. Why fight the inevitable?” After a moment I said, “Besides, what I like and do not like matters not. It will not change things. You paid five silvers for me and are owed their fair worth in return for the investment.”
“Aye,” he rasped. “That I did.”
I sensed more than saw him before he pulled me to my feet. I felt his hand as it traveled to my waist and then make its way to a place few men had touched me and none with anything other than violence in their minds. Gid’s hand was different, it didn’t pinch and pull, but I still couldn’t stop my heart from beating fearfully since in the end the goal was just the same.
Then he cursed as we both heard Ern stumbling through the brush calling, “Gid?! Tad has gone and gotten in a fight with that bruiser Cummins and isn’t fit to stand guard. The wagon master is angry and says we’ll have to split his watch and he was pulling a double tonight.”
I was roughly dragged back to the wagon and ordered, “Stay!”
I crawled under the wagon then tried not to listen as Gid nearly did as much damage to Tad as the man called Cummins had. Had he only been fooling before about his injuries, there was no way for him to be when Gid got through.
I woke in the night when Gid crawled under the wagon with me but he merely shared his cloak and his warmth. I did wake in the morning to feel his hands roaming but not for long as the camp came awake. In my ear his breathed, “This may be all I get for a while but it is something I intend to enjoy as chance permits.”
It is both a promise and a threat though I’m not sure he realizes it; he’s a man after all and knows me not. During my morning prayers I asked the Lord to give me the strength and endurance to live with the cup He has set before me. In the end I still shuddered in revulsion, not sure which was better … to be a murderess or a whore. I thought perhaps if I were to tell him … but he’d bought me, those five silvers and that legal paper gave him the right. I resigned myself to my fate yet again. I pulled my clothing until it was modest and then left the cover of the wagon and started my day.
I was making oat cakes this time. “You’re awful quiet this morning girl, even for what I’ve seen of you thus far.”
I looked at Miz Lana and nodded, “Yes ma’am.”
“Any particular reason?”
“No ma’am, not particular ones.”
I stayed on the far side of the fire away from the three men who all three looked ready to chew off heads if one wrong sound was made. They were only slightly better after several mugs of strong brew and after biting into an oat cake to find I’d hidden honey-sweetened dried fruit within.
Tad finally found it in him to complain when he bit down on one and winced. “You did this on purpose wench. You know my mouth is in no shape to chew something like these rocks.”
I said nothing, just kept frying. I had my back to him, not expecting what came next. “Why you little … Teach you to play deaf and ignore me.”
He was off balance so the fist only grazed the side of my head but it made me jump and I tumbled sending the frying pan skidding into my leg and some grease towards my hand. Pulling my hand back away from that danger only made my fall clumsier and my hand went down on the stones surrounding the fire causing a breathless scream to rise in my throat. When I finally stopped moving I had my back to the wagon wheel fighting nausea and wondering which hurt worse, my palm or my shin since I hadn’t put the leather apron over my underskirt yet.
“Oh Lord,” Miz Lana gasped as she and several other women rushed to my side to see how bad it was.
Still ready to puke, more from reaction than from the pain since I had a tea in my pack I knew I could take for it, I tried to stand up but was pushed back down. “Are ya mad gilly?” one woman asked. “I’ve run against a cookfire ring a time or three in my years and it hurts.”
“Yes ma’am,” I gasped, nearly laughing to keep from crying. “It does. But we have the grasslands today and I don’t know about the rest of you but I want to get through it without turning into animal feed. Once was enough for me.” I managed to crawl away and stand. “There’s no time for this. We need to pack up and leave.” I turned leaving them gaping at my back and limped to the wagon looking for my pack then almost whimpered when I saw it was still underneath.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt someone lift me and set me on the wagon gate but it turned out to be Gid. “Let me see.”
“There’s no sense in it.” Then hesitantly I said, “But … but it would be kind if you would hand me my pack.”
As he reached under the wagon I tried to look to see where Tad was. Gid stood up and caught me searching. “He’s back of the train. He won’t bother you again.” He face was like a thunder cloud.
I whispered, “I’m not trying to interfere with your family Gid.”
“Had nothing to do with that. Tad wanted Vaniece too. He’s mad at me because I’m not pining for her like a knot head the way he is. He had no right to take his heartbreak out on you.”
I shrugged then winced. “I’m the handiest target that he thinks he can use and get rid of rather than live with. When you get rid of me in disgust he’ll believe himself justified.”
“That makes no good sense. I paid five silvers for you. I’m not just going to throw that away.”
Cynically I gave a very unladylike snort. “Grief and anger very seldom have anything to do with sense, good or otherwise. And it hits everyone different. My Mam, a woman I thought to be one of the strongest people I knew, held my Papa as he died and then lay down right beside him and gave up and joined him before the sun had risen on the next day. She left me … left me to … to take my infant brother from her still warm body … left me with no qualms, just assuming that God would see to me and Jubal, like it wasn’t her care any longer.” I winced at sharing, winced as if God Himself had forced the words from my mouth no matter how tightly I had shut my teeth over them. “It takes everyone different Gid. That’s all there is to it.”
I reached in and pulled the precious glass bottle with its waxed seal and a package of black poplar fluff from the place I kept them. Not knowing what to say he instead asked me what I was doing. “Balsam Fir sap. It’s the best I have right now for these burns. I need to spread this fluff and then coat it with the sap. It will act as a second skin and keep the burn from getting infected until I can get someplace and tend it better. There’s no time for fussing as everyone seems wont to do.”
“You really do fear the grasslands.”
I told him, “Fear them? No. Respect what they contain? Yes. When my time comes to be carried off by the angels I don’t want my marker to read it was from some beasties’ tooth or claw.”
He snorted at my words. “No, nor I. Do you need anything else?”
I handed him a carafe. “Would it be possible to have some of the hot water from someone’s fire?”
A woman with a nosey air but apparently a good heart saw what else I held. “Willow bark tea. I was just coming to offer to make ye soom. Here Gid, give me that and you run and do man’s wark. This be woman’s wark so scat.”
The carafe of tea was made and carefully wedged where the lid wouldn’t pop off by the time the wagon master called the sign to move out. I spent the first hour on the road sipping the bitter brew and praying I wouldn’t further embarrass myself by puking down the side of the wagon.
We were three-quarters through the grasslands and making good time when the animals started to get nervous. Another half league and we smelled it … a fresh kill. There is no mistaking the odor of viscera marinating in the hot, noonday sun.
I had my sling out and loaded despite the pain in my hand. A horse tried to break from its rider’s control and plunge into the grass. I stood up in the wagon. Not a breath of air was to be felt yet the grass rippled in places on either side of the road. I straddle the grain bags and noted the ripples trying to move to the head of the train. “Ern, do you see them?”
He stood and then sat, white in the face. “Something is trying to cut us off.”
“If they get ahead they’ll attack from both sides.” Then it hit me. “Where are the dogs?!”
“They’re tied in the wagons. Or chained in Roof’s case.”
I started praying. “God please, please, please … they may be your creatures but so are we. Feed them some other way, let us pass safely through. Give us Your hedge of protection.” Over and over just like Papa had taught me when my fear escaped my managing. Sometimes He answered the way I wanted. Usually He just gave me the strength to endure whatever lesson He had in mind for me. But this time He must have felt my lesson could wait.
We were forced to jerk to a stop as the lead wagon halted unexpectedly. Then we started again and after another hour the entire wagon train was out of the grasslands. Another hour and we were circling to make camp for the night. The wagon master came over and looked at me before grousing, “Yer didn’t say they’s had all that hair around their faces.”
Surprised I asked, “What?”
“There was a big ‘un what had hair all around its face.”
Thinking quickly I said, “That … that was a male. The hair … the fur … it is called a mane. I never saw a male, only the female we killed.”
“Well upfront we saw that there male and day-um the thing was easy three times the size of ol’ Roof, mebbe more. One swat from it could have taken down any horse in the train; even the big mules.”
I swallowed. “The big males don’t usually hunt. They have a … a harem … they call it a pride. There’s generally one big adult male per pride that is the leader and the lionesses do the hunting and bring down the kills for the male.”
The wagon master’s wife snorted being a more steady type than her husband and said, “Figgers. Male that big thinks he’s too good to move his arse to hunt.”
I bit my lip but felt I had to say, “Actually it’s because he knows the females are better at it than he is.”
That sent the woman off into a peel of laughter. She slapped her husband on the back and then gave him a smooch on the cheek. He gave her a look but said, “Oh go on with ye already woman.”
Suddenly the tension was broken and everyone went about their business. It had been a long and stressful day but there was still work to be done before darkness fell.