“There it is,” Gid told me.
We were looking down into a long, narrow valley. Within the valley were three distinct living districts. The closest was the town of Yellow Rock that took its name from a large outcropping answering that description that lay roughly center of the town green. It was a place that had long ago outgrown the protections erected during the Great War.
The second district was smaller than Yellow Rock but not by much and in fact looked much newer, being laid out in an obvious grid pattern. It was called Shale. It was only about ten years old and came to be because Yellow Rock had outgrown the natural bowl that it sat in. The elders of both towns expected that one day Shale and Yellow Rock would actually merge into one large town though that was likely a generation or two into the future.
The third was Gid’s home village, called Riverside. It predated the Great War by a number of years and was originally something called a “bedroom community”. Riverside was small but made up for that by being completely surrounded by a high, thick wall of many different materials; what usually being dependent on what era during which it was added.
“It looks like an ant mound from here,” Gid said.
“Yeah, it does!” agreed both Tad and Ern smiling. I glanced at Gid and realized he hadn’t necessarily meant it as a compliment.
There was a wide road that connected the three districts. Gid explained, “We’ve got the furthest to go but the least people traveling there. The wagon master, Miz Lana and most of the train go to Yellow Rock. Best say your goodbyes now.”
“They’ve already been said,” I told him. “Miz Lana explained some of this as we packed up this morning.”
“Good enough.” Looking concerned he said, “The road in is steep. You’ll need to walk but stay out of the way of the wagons in case one breaks away. It’s happened before. And when the horses smell home they’ll be more eager and pull harder no matter how we try to hold them back.”
I shrugged. “Horses are horses. I’ll move to the back of the train with the others to keep out of the way.” Reluctantly he nodded and went to go help Ern and Tad with the team and wagon.
In my opinion it had been a bad idea to push the schedule. The lack of breakfast and the long day had everyone fatigued. Yes, their homes were within sight but to me there was no reason to take the risk. By the time the wagons all got to the bottom of that piece of the road most everyone appeared to agree. Several wagons had nearly overturned and more than one person was thrown off his or her horse. One man in particular took a bad spill.
I had hands on his arm and was slowly rotated it when Gid road up and snapped, “What are you doing?”
There was a distinct pop and the man sagged in relief. “Thank ee.”
I answered quietly, “You’re welcome.”
“Sorry fer the trouble.”
“This isn’t trouble,” I told him. To relieve his apparent embarrassment I said, “Yours isn’t the first shoulder I’ve put back where it belongs. The last time I did it the man was sick all over me from my front to my feet and he was twice your size which made for a lot of puke. Now that was trouble.”
“Wallllll I reckon so,” he said, his pride obviously less pinched than it had been at finding out a bigger man than he had had worse trouble.
I stood up and brushed my hands and skirt off and then turned to Gid to find the man thanking him as well before limping over to remount his horse with the help of friends. He wouldn’t be doing anything but a walk but at least he had the sense to know he had to get back on the horse.
I picked up my pack but was simply too tired to put it all the way on so I slung it over one shoulder. Gid walked his horse beside me then asked, “What happened? I turned around to find you and word reached me you had stopped at the bottom of the trail.”
“A wagon tried to take one of the turns too quickly. It caused that man’s horse to skitter into the loose rock on the edge of the trail. The beast was too upset to get its full balance with rider attached so it dumped him and ran ahead. We put the man on a stretcher and as you saw, I put his shoulder back in place once we got to the bottom.”
He looked at me. “A healer is usually called for such a thing.”
I shrugged and limped along. “The first time I put a shoulder back in place was my Papa’s who’d been knocked from his horse by a type forest cat we called a panther that was after the church’s goat herd. Papa killed the cat but had been too injured to make it back. I found him when I went out to take him his lunch. He told me what needed doing. When Old Annie heard she thought I might have the makings are a yarb woman and Papa wasn’t against me learning so long as I kept up with my chores and other studies as well. The Sisters liked the idea of having another helper for the traveler’s hospital so wrapped some of my other schooling into service there.”
After a moment he teased, “So you’re finally giving the full story without me having to pull it out of you like its buried treasure.”
I didn’t know what to make of his sudden change in mood so I answered honestly, “It wastes less time than upsetting you because you have to ask more than one question to get the answer you seek.”
He chuckled and then got down off his horse startling me yet again. I simply looked at him waiting on an explanation should he decide to give one. “Tad and Ern are going ahead with the wagon. It isn’t going to hurt a thing to rest my horse and walk with you a while. And it is getting late and while the Avenue is usually safe there are still animals about … and sometimes beggars or the like.”
Slowly the trail emptied as we passed the turn off to Shale. When there were no others about Gid started talking again. “Hiram already rode out from the village to meet us. He’s one of the younger boys; I think he is twelve or something close. His twin is named Hank. Ignore them if they try and prank you, not even Lurna can tell them apart all the time.”
“Twins … like your step mother and sister.”
“Aye. There’s three sets between my father and Lurna. She had a set of twin girls with Tad’s father but one died of the spots when it was a babe.”
“Oh … oh … well …”
He snickered. “Yeah, you’re not the first person to have that reaction.”
Cautiously I asked, “How many of you are there?”
“Don’t know exactly. I stopped counting after a while. All I know is that I’d go to work for my uncle during the summer and come back and there was at least one more in the house.”
I looked at him but couldn’t tell for sure if he was exaggerating or not. Then he sighed and said, “Lurna will try and get us to sleep in the house but I always feel … strangled. It got to be so bad that until I was old enough to go on my own to tend to the place my uncle left me I’d crawl out on the roof and sleep there in all but the worst weather. Even the barn is crowded but at least not with people. You mind if we kip under the wagon as we have been doing?”
“It will be as you say.”
He turned and looked at me hard. “You don’t need to say things like that.”
I wasn’t sure what I had said wrong and he must have seen it on my face. More gently he said, “I bought you but I don’t mean to own you.”
That only confused me more. He sighed and stopped us right in the middle of the road. “I know your life hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t led you to have many … many expectations. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t intend on treating you like that … like that fat cow you called your aunt did.” He put his hands, one of them still holding the horse’s reins, on my shoulders. “I mean for us to get on. Make something between us. I mean for you to learn that even if my mood gets nasty, I won’t turn my hand against you.”
Trying to understand I reminded him, “You said you needed a woman.”
He nodded. “Aye, I did. I do. And I mean you to be that woman. I don’t mean you to have to worry that that means that I’ll beat on you to get my way. I know how to ask. I know how to accept no when you need to say it.”
I finally understood what he meant when he pulled me close. “Oh,” was the only breathless sound I could make.
“Aye. So now do you understand?”
I swallowed hard and nodded but couldn’t bring myself to look any higher than his throat. He solved that by tilting my chin. “Yulee, I don’t intend on being like those other men that have been at you. Give me time to show you. OK?”
Before I could answer there was the sound of horses coming down the trail and a feminine voice calling out. “Did she go lame Gideon?”
A vision on a white horse rode up looking much like the golden haired princesses that appeared in the pages of the fairytales that once resided in the church’s library. I didn’t need to guess.
“Hi! I’m Vaniece. You must be … U … U … uh …”
Gid looked like he’d been struck dumb. Pulling my cloak around me I curtsied politely the way I’d been trained. “Yulee Mistress Vaniece, my name is Yulee.”