The vision giggled. “Oh … oh you … you don’t need to do that. Perhaps to Mother Lurna.” The words said I didn’t but the look in her eye told me that it would be better if I continued to.
As I was standing up I had to shift to the side quickly when I large mule reached out and almost had the edge of the hood on my cloak. “Watch that blasted animal!” Gid snapped.
“He’s only funning,” the boy riding him snickered.
“I’m not,” Gid barked. “Do it again and I’ll geld him and you both brat. Find your manners or get gone.”
The boy looked like he’d been slapped. I wasn’t sure what to do so I put my hand on Gid’s arm. “There was no harm done. It’s not the first time …”
Before I could finish Gid said, “Well it’ll be the last. You’re limping from the burn and though you haven’t said it you’re favoring your hand … probably mangled the covering on it again fixing that guy’s shoulder.”
Before another moment passed I found myself on Gid’s horse with him behind me. A chill wind blew and he pulled me beneath his cloak. He looked at Vaniece and asked, “Did you at least tell Jace you were riding out?”
“Oh I didn’t want to bother him, he’s in his workshop.”
Gid snorted. “Jace is always in his workshop. You should have either told him or not come out. Certainly not only with one escort.”
She seemed to take great pleasure in Gid’s company and told him wistfully, “Oh Gideon, you always did worry so.”
He muttered darkly, “Wouldn’t have to worry if you would use more sense.”
From the look on Vaniece’s face that wasn’t exactly the response she had expected. The boy just goggled until Gid asked, “What are you looking at sprat.”
“Uh … she’s quiet.”
“Maybe you lot can borrow some from her and save my ears from ringing.”
The boy continued to stare at me like I was a bug he’d caught and asked, “Don’t she talk?”
I felt Gid’s chest bounce but no one else would have known he was laughing. “Say something so the boy knows you can talk.”
I turned to look at the boy and said, “What would you like me to say?”
When he heard my voice he said, “How come you talk like a rich man’s fancy piece? Ern said Gid bought you from the slave cages.”
Gid snapped, “Hank!”
“Ain’t Hank,” the boy said with a smirk
“Whoever you are you little limb of Satan watch your mouth!” Gid growled no longer laughing.
Both Vaniece and the boy eyed him warily. “It’s the truth,” I said calmly. Turning to the boy I said, “Gid rescued me. From a … a terrible fate. I owe him my life.”
The boy asked, “Oooooo. What was the terrible fate?”
“Something a nice young man doesn’t need to know about until he’s older unless he wishes to have his mother get wind of it.”
His eyes got real big. “Oh.”
There was only a short silence, just enough time for Gid to begin to relax when Vaniece asked, “Is your name really Yulee?”
I answered quietly, “Yes.”
“I’ve never heard the name before.”
She asked, “But where are you from?”
“The other side of the peaks.”
Amazed she said, “No. Really?”
Another question. “But where on the other side of the peaks?”
Another partial answer. “Near a great river.”
“I didn’t know there were rivers on the other side of the peaks.”
Then the boy broke in and said importantly, “I heard there were lots of things on the other side of the peaks that are different from here. I even heard there was a great river called the Mississippi.”
I responded, “Yes.”
That startled the boy. “You’re from the Mississippi?!”
“Near it,” I told him.
“Closer than I was to the peaks.”
They both started talking at me at the same time and I was rescued from answering either of them when a voice called out sharply, “Vaniece! You went outside the wall.”
A man a few years older than Gid rode up on an Appaloosa horse. “You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“I’m not alone.”
“With only a boy for company you might as well be.” The man turned to Gid and scowled. Then blinked as if seeing me for the first time. “Oh. Er … you must be …”
The boy piped up, “Her name is U-Lee. It sounds funny doesn’t it? Never heard it before. And she don’t hardly talk and when she does she don’t say much. I think Ern is right, she ain’t all there.”
I almost fell from the saddle when with a snarl Gid reached out to snag the scamp but the boy and his pony skipped out of the way then went off saying, “Best get back to Ma and tell her what I’ve learned. She wanted to know but Ern and Tad ain’t been still long enough for her to ask all her questions.”
Gid groaned. “We are definitely sleeping in the barn.”
The man Jace turned his horse to ride between Vaniece and Gid’s mount. He smiled and said to me, “You’ll feel like you’ve ridden into a carnival until you get to know us.”
Gid muttered, “By then she won’t think it she’ll know it.”
Reproachfully Vaniece said, “Really Gideon. You’ve turned so hard and sour. You just need a week or two back home and then everything will be back as it should.”
“Ain’t staying a week or two,” he groused. “I plan to stay at most a day or two.”
Jace and Vaniece both started making noise at that. Jace said, “Lurna will insist on it Gid.”
“She can insist all she wants but we ain’t staying to please her. I need to get to the cabin and make it fit for winter.”
Vaniece retorted in a tone that said she was used to getting her way and didn’t like to be thwarted, “But surely … um … Yulee here would like us to get to know her.”
“There is not that much to know,” I said favoring Gid’s plan more now that I’d had a small taste of what I had merely thought he was exaggerating about.
We entered the gate of the village and it closed behind us as we were the last ones in. For it to be so late there were a great many people about and lots of noise. Where only Gid could hear I asked, “Is it always like the first market of the season?”
“This?” he snorted. “This is calm. The village celebrates at the least little excuse and a couple of wagons full of trade goods is a better excuse than most. Just wait until Lurna finds out I’ll have none of her plans. Then we’ll be pecked to death by all her relations coming to tell us we’re breaking her heart and worrying her into an early grave.”
I gave a delicate shudder without meaning to and I felt his chest bounce in a silent chuckle. No one else seemed to realize we were carrying on a conversation with each other rather than paying attention to them. In fact they just continued to talk at us and amazingly enough not expect any answers as they seemed to be making their own up with the little bit they had heard before we arrived.
Finally we got to a large block structure and dismounted. My feet had not been on the ground two seconds when the doors flew open and out poured a veritable sea of children of all ages most of them so identical looking that it was no wonder their mother could not remember their names or tell them apart.
I slid behind Gid and let him run interference. “Back you sprats! Yulee needs to see Aunt Verna. Move I say! You, out of the way before you get stepped on. And you, stop climbing my leg, I’m too tired for a piggy ride.” He finally lost patience and cursed. “Tad! Ern! Where’s the wagon?!”
Tad and Ern came out cautiously took one look at Gid’s exasperated face and nearly fell down laughing. I sighed and shook my head. I asked quietly, “Tad, please help. All three of you have worked hard all day and had next to nothing to eat. I don’t know why but Gid wishes me to see your Aunt Verna. The sooner it’s done the sooner you three can rest as you deserve.”
I don’t know if Tad was trying to make amends or if he was as tired as I sensed that Gid was but at my request he elbowed Ern and they scooped kids up and off the walk way and tossed them into the arms of older kids, even throwing a couple at Vaniece and Jace. They flanked us and got us in the house and into an antechamber where the din was a distant rumble.
Tad and Ern look at each other then flushed and said, “Uh … you’re welcome.” Tad told Gid, “Ma is out inspecting the wagon. She probably thought you’d go there first to escape.”
“And I will, just as soon as Aunt Verna …”
The door opened and a dark haired, dark eyed woman entered wearing a dark blouse and a matching split skirt, the kind used for riding though she appeared to be using them for everyday clothes as well. “Gideon,” she said and even her voice was dark. At her appearance Tad and Ern left the room quickly.
From a pocket on his pants Gid pulled something out and I realized it was the skin the legal man had given him at my purchase. He held it out to the dark woman and said, “I want to make sure this was done right.”
The woman arched an eyebrow but took the skin and looked it over thoroughly. “It is a simple document but a solid sales contract. Did you get a receipt for your money?”
“Aye.” He gave her another slip, this time one of rough paper.
She nodded. “All is in order.”
Gid relaxed. He turned to me and said, “See. She can’t take you back.” I blinked and then realized he was referring to Aunt Giselle. It had never been my worry but I thanked him just the same.
Gid’s smile melted when his aunt said forbiddingly, “Her face is bruised.”
Realizing she was looking at him suspiciously Gid started to bow up. I stepped between the two and said, “I was bruised when he bought me.”
She grabbed my hand as quick as a snake but I didn’t jump as I was used to the same treatment from my aunt. She turned my hand this way and that. “And the burn?”
“Skillets get hot.”
She stared at me hard and though she was good, Aunt Giselle had been better at intimidating people. I returned her hard stare with a calm one and eventually she released me. Turning to Gid she said, “Lurna is expecting you.” To me she said, “You I wish to speak with.”
Gid said rudely, “Well too bad. I’m not throwing her to the pack of wolves this family can turn into. She stays with me.”
His Aunt Verna merely raised one brow and gave him a curious look as he guided me from the room and back into the bedlam of children and animals that seemed to roam the corridors of the house in equal numbers. The noise was disconcerting to me but it irritated Gid and he all but dragged me through the crowd, ignoring all of the questions being pelted at him, and then pulled me outside into a courtyard and towards another structure that I learned was Jace’s smithy on one end and on the other end the barn.
A large number of people tried to follow us out but a woman’s voice snapped, “Go inside children. I wish to speak to Gideon. Alone.”
Several of the children went, “Oooooooo, he’s in trouble now.”
What must have been an unusual silence for that house fell in the dooryard in front of the barn. Pulling no punches Lurna opened with a hard salvo, “Gideon, how could you?! Y0u bought a … a … female from the slave pens?”
“Lurna …” Gid started warningly.
“And the things I’ve already heard … and no, not from your brothers; from others that returned with you. What was wrong with finding a nice girl from a good family around here?!”
“Where did your father and I go wrong?! I know your heart was broken but you can see that Vaniece and Jace are good together.”
The snap in his voice was as hard as a whip. I’d heard the tone before but I was pretty sure that Lurna had never heard it from Gid, at least not if the look on her face was anything approaching the truth. “Yulee is mine. I will not give her up. Not for you. Not for anyone. Accept that or not, it is up to you.”
Lurna was completely outraged and I was sure that the situation would soon devolve into something too many would regret. Into that breach I said, “He rescued me.”
“I …” she blinked. “He what?”
“He rescued me.”
Gid started to shake his head. “Yulee …”
I turned to him. “You rescued me and you know it. God sent you to rescue me. Why else would you have picked me? You said yourself that you could have had any of the women there, even some outside the cages, but … but you picked me when you had absolutely no reason to.”
Gid sighed, his anger gone or at least gone for now. “Yulee … I told you …”
“I know. But you said yourself you didn’t know why it was me. What other reason could there be but that God sent you?”
He opened his mouth to answer then closed it. “You’ll just believe what you want to believe. And it is too late and we are both too tired to argue about it.” He looked at Lurna and said, “We are sleeping in the barn. We’ll talk in the morning about splitting what is in the wagon. Some of it is Tad’s and Ern has some coming to him as well. I’ve got papers that show what I bought out of my own pocket. The remainder is for you and Jace to decide about.”
“But Gideon …”
“No. I’m not getting into another discussion or argument tonight. Tell that lot to leave us be unless they want to be thrown down the well.”
With that he reached over into the wagon and pulled out a pack, one I had never seen before, and then guided me over to the bay farthest from the house and away from the noise that still seemed to threaten to unhinge the doors and shutters, or at the very least shake the chimney and make it more lopsided than it already was.