Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 39

Chapter 39

“Don’t care. Just let me sleep and I’ll be fine and ready to go in the morning.”

“Shhhh. Let me help you get cooled down.” I felt a couple of buttons go.

Thinking this was standard issue guy stuff and really not feeling up to his version of playing I mumbled, “Thor I told you …”

I felt something cool and damp being run across my forehead and down my neck. “Ahhhhh.”

“See? Doesn’t that feel good? Now just lay back. It’s just my bandana, that’s all.”

It did feel good. “Thor …”

“Shhh. It’s OK. I’m not going to leave you … never again … let me do this, take care of you.” I meant to tell him I could take care of myself but I fell back to sleep.

In the morning I felt considerably better and was badly embarrassed to find that I needed to get halfway dressed before I could even get out of my own bedroll. Luckily Thor had somehow gotten the tarp set up to give us some privacy so I wasn’t giving the other folks a peep show.

“How do you feel this morning?” Thor asked quietly as he leaned on one elbow watching me struggle to get straightened up under the covers. He had a look on his face I’d never seen before and I didn’t get it.

“I’m fine. And stop enjoying this. I don’t know how my shirt got all bunched up but I hope you left me some dignity.”

He smiled like a goof again and said, “Left you boatloads of dignity. Shipyards full of it. It nearly killed me but I did it. Now seriously, how are you feeling?”

He may have been smiling but I could tell his question really was serious so I didn’t give him a smart comment like my mood wanted to. “Washed out but lots better than I did last night. I’m rarely sick so don’t let this give you any ideas. See? Fever’s gone.”

“I’ll feel better after I see you eat some breakfast. But either way you aren’t on point or rear guard today, maybe not tomorrow either and …”

“Don’t.” I didn’t need this.

He stopped, giving me a confused look. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t … over compensate or whatever you’re doing. This is about the … the Argument.”

He opened his mouth then closed it. He sighed and then sat up and helped me to do the same. “Some. But I’m done trying to compartmentalize our personal relationship from our working relationship. The world is different from what it used to be. There is no employer rules to follow and society can kiss my behind so I’m going to make up my own rules from here on out.”

Leery I asked him, “And what is that supposed to mean?”

He kissed my forehead, “It means that this is a lot harder than I was admitting, even to myself. Yes, I know you are capable and stronger than I probably realize. However …”

“However?”

He puffed his cheeks out and then ran his large hands through his shaggy mane. “I’m still figuring this out Rochelle. The normal rules of how things are supposed to work are in the toilet and I … I’ve never …” He made an impatient sound with himself. “I talked to Bedros and he said a few things that needed saying.”

“You did what?! When?” I hissed at him. “This was our business, between the two of us.” I still wasn’t sure what “this” was anymore but I had considered it private one way or the other.

“Rochelle, don’t get bent out of shape. It was yesterday after you went back to sleep. I felt like a jack @#$. I figured the man has managed to stay married for fifty some odd years so he should have at least some idea how to fix things because I was at my wits end.”

“I can’t believe you would tell our business to anyone else. Oooo,” I moaned. “He must think I’m some kind of …”

“Stop that. He didn’t say anything bad about you. He had a few … home truths … to give to me.” I just looked at him, confused. “Rochelle, don’t laugh. He really raked me over the coals.”

“Uncle Bedros? No way. Besides, I can’t see … well OK, the Argument … but the rest of it … we’re … we were … partners. You never forced me and still haven’t. I’ll go tell him. There’s no need for folks to start thinking …”

“Whoa there,” he said, keeping me from getting up. “He was right … is right.” He sighed again and said, “I went from one extreme to the other with you; from acting like you were just one of the guys to expecting I had a right to all the things a woman can give and then some plus we were, are, working together in a very dangerous environment and I expected you to tow that line too without complaint.”

I shook my head, “I was right there and I know how things were. But you never heard me whining about it and no one else did either.”

“No. No you didn’t. Which only let me get away with it for as long as I did. And we’re going to have to work on that. I’m a big guy Rochelle and used to having my way most of the time or at the very least getting a say in how things go. I’m used to being the boss and working people like chess pieces. I forget to turn it off sometimes. You … you are used to having the control of most things being out of your hands or being taken out of your hands by people or circumstances. To survive you’ve … you’ve just learned to live with it and let it go. You need to stop that because … unintentionally … I’ll let you be that way just to keep having my way. You’re going to have to learn to put your foot down.”

I snorted, “You have to be the only person I’ve ever met that doesn’t realize I’m about as bossy as they come.”

“No, you just come off that way sometimes. But after Bedros said it I started thinking … you’ve been backing down from day one. Maybe it was subtle but that’s what you were doing. You were the peacemaker. You took a lot of crap being dished your way with just a shrug like it was no big deal. Plenty of times you could have fought over something and you didn’t. You made it seem that it was because it wasn’t worth it, but it wasn’t that. You’ve stood there while people talked you down your whole life probably. You’ve ‘turned the cheek’ so many times it’s a wonder you don’t spin in circles all day long. Your parents must have been incredibly supportive to balance all of that out and give you a safe haven to live in.”

“My parents were better than incredible,” I said aggressively.

“See? You can fight – you will fight – but only in protection of others or if you don’t feel like you have any choice. But you don’t start fights … and I should have remembered that. It’s probably why you found football so freeing, it let you play out your aggression on the field where it was safe and expected, that way it didn’t stay bottled up all the time and you lose control of it. If I’d been using my head for something besides a wig holder I never would have said three-quarters of the things I did. It’s going to take a while to get you to trust me again, I get that, but I will Rochelle. We’ll get back to that place.”

He was making me feel things and I didn’t want to feel them. I didn’t want to hurt him but I didn’t want to get hurt either. So I said nothing.

“Another thing Rochelle, you’re my woman and no one is going to get in the way of me taking care of you … and that includes letting myself get in the way of it. I’m not your boss. I’m not your friend … or not strictly your friend anyway. I want to be your lover.” At my upset expression he added, “Not in a physical sense yet but I want us to get there. But … look at me Rochelle … in every other way that’s what I am. And I’m done trying to pick the time and places when I get to act like it. You were sick last night and it scared me. You aren’t in any shape to take on the added responsibilities of those two positions. I am making a unilateral decision that you are going to be given light duty. Period. If the other guys don’t like it that’s too bad. I’m the leader, you’re my woman. If you were in shape for it, it wouldn’t be an issue but you aren’t and I’m not putting you in unnecessary danger just for appearances sake. Got it?”

“Thor …”

“I mean it Rochelle. Things are going to be different. You aren’t one of the guys and I’m done using that as an excuse to not pay attention or to assume you’ll just take whatever I dish out. Look at me Love.” He’d never called me that … never really used the word and it startled me enough that I did look even when I wanted to ignore him. He further threw me for a loop when his voice got all deep and husky. “I’m going to treat you like the woman you deserve to be treated as.” He took my hand and stroked it. “You’ll see Rochelle. Just give me a chance.”

He was waiting for an answer. Lucky for me the deep soulful thing he was doing got rudely interrupted when a group from Whiteman showed up with some intel on the road ahead. If it had been anyone else I had a feeling that Thor would have told them to go to the devil but a leader doesn’t ignore what they were offering.

We all finished packing and headed out. The roads were incredibly muddy if you couldn’t stay on the highway and it took some time to get out of the stream of traffic created as others besides ourselves left since the market was over for another month. I managed to avoid Thor for a while but when one of our wagons bogged down in a washed out place in the road it took everyone’s strength to get it out again.

But something was wrong. Normally I could have helped to lever the wagon out without breaking a sweat; I can’t count the number of times a neighbor would call and Dad and I would go over and help get a tractor unstuck. At first I put it down to not having eaten properly for a couple of days. I’d eaten a small bowl of porridge for breakfast but that’s all I’d been able to stomach. I put the lack of appetite down to nerves but I was only fooling myself.

When we stopped for a lunch break I nearly fell out of my saddle getting off my horse. Thor ran over and caught me but the world still spun. And that’s all she wrote. Even if Richards hadn’t made me replace Pilbos in the Elder Wagon, Thor would have. My fever was back and it kept creeping up all afternoon.

That night we stayed east of Sedalia and the next night we were in a place called Syracuse, Missouri but I don’t remember much of it. I was up for a few hours the day we turned south to Versailles, Missouri but it wasn’t until the next night when we stopped in Iberia that I was feeling well enough to do more than sleep through dinner.

“Come on, easy does it. I’ve got the tent set up.”

I rolled my eyes. “Thor you’re being ridiculous. I’m not made of glass. I look like an idiot with you carrying me. The guys are never going to take me serious again.”

“They take you anything but and they’ll answer to me.”

He’d been going on like that since Knob Noster. It was completely freaking me out. And so was all the looking after me that he was doing. He even insisted on feeding me for crying out loud. OK, so I was as weak as a kitten even when I could keep my eyes open but he was taking it too far. Everyone had learned to keep their distance when he was washing me down to try and break the fever. And no one said a word when our days were a lot shorter than they needed to be.

“Thor, enough.” He wasn’t listening. “Thor, I mean it. No more. I don’t need a babysitter. And … and this is … Frankly I don’t know what to call this is but it is too much.”

“You’re sick. I’m going to get that tea Richards prescribed.”

Running out of patience I said, “That’s an example of what I mean. Richards didn’t prescribe anything. He just suggested that it might help to bring my fever down. You’ve been dumping the stuff down my throat ever since. I’m practically sloshing with tea. I expect little tags to sprout from my ears at any moment.”

Thor shook his head but refused to put me down. “Now who’s being ridiculous? Here,” he said as he laid me on a pallet he’d made of my bedroll under a tent made of the tarp and mosquito netting I kept habitually handy. “Get comfortable. I’ll bring you something to drink and then bring your dinner when it’s ready.”

He didn’t even give me a chance to object. The thing was that it was true. I was really weak. And not happy about it in the least. It had been years since I was sick like that. Normally my constitution was that of a mule, nothing fazed me. I hadn’t meant to but I quickly fell asleep yet again but woke up when I heard voices.

“I’m doing everything everyone suggests but she still isn’t getting better. Now what the @#$% is wrong? Why don’t you just use some of those antibiotics you got from Whiteman.”

“Take it easy Thor. She is getting better. I heard her threaten you with great bodily harm this afternoon when you wouldn’t give her any privacy.” He chuckled. “Every man in the crew was relieved to hear her say it. We’ve all been worried.”

“Not worried enough apparently to tell me which of those @#$% pills to give her,” he murmured murderously.

“That’s because they wouldn’t have helped and could have just made things worse. It’s not bacterial and there’s no sign that it’s going into her chest; the little bit of coughing she has done was productive and cleared any congestion up. It’s a cold Thor … a bad one but still just a cold. Antibiotics won’t help a cold. You just have to go through the infection cycle. It’s a wonder more in the caravan haven’t been sick. Stress is debilitating as you well know. How many newbies did we have go through the cycle of constant colds when they first got taken on? It took six months to a year for them to harden to the life we led. I expect the same to hold true here. Look at everything Rocky has gone through since The Collapse. And the fight she was in and then the argument you two had … it just used up the last of whatever she was using to hold it all back. The rain didn’t help either.”

“Are … are you saying this is my fault?” he asked quietly, stunned at the possibility.

“Not all of it certainly, but it didn’t help. And don’t tell her I said so, she’d do me some damage, but she may be big and tough however she is still a female and that means her monthly vitamin and mineral levels are going to be low at certain times making her more vulnerable than the average male. And who knows how being a GWB affects her metabolism.”

Thoughtfully Thor said, “Every once in a while she talks about feeling like she isn’t getting enough protein. Could that have contributed to this?”

It was then that I realized Elsapet had been standing there as well. She said, “I wouldn’t doubt it. Most people get most of their protein from meat. Meat is made up of amino acids. The human body requires twenty-two different amino acids to build body organs, muscles and nerves. The body also converts amino acids that combat invading bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Altogether the body uses about fifty-thousand different amino acids to function, including five thousand specialized ones called enzymes. We can internally manufacture most of what we need but eight of the twenty-two I mentioned that are special can only be obtained through from outside sources such as the food we eat. If only one of those eight essential amino acids are missing our bodies cannot function properly. Guess what food sources best supply those eight amino acids?”

I didn’t hear an answer from either men and Elsapet continued. “Animal products. That isn’t to say that your body cannot obtain them through carbohydrates found in plant products such as beans, but they are much lower in those amounts. Take tryptophan for instance. In the lab we called it nature’s Prozac because it is the amino acid essential to manufacturing serotonin. It raises an interesting series of questions for everyone, not just for Rocky. I’ll talk to mother and look over the food supplies and try to address this in the menu. I know Uncle and Ludvig were trying to avoid slaughtering the animals but we may not have any choice.”

Thor said, “Hold off on the slaughtering. Montgomery and Barkley spotted a herd of whitetail and they’ve gone to check it out.”

As I heard their footsteps go away I decided that that moment might be a good time to start the foot-putting-down thing that Thor had mentioned. I rolled over and tried to get up. Thor was there before I’d even made it to all fours.

“Hey beautiful. Let me help you.”

“Thor.”

“Hmm?”

“Bring me a big piece of wood.”

He opened his mouth and then closed it looking at me suspiciously. “What for?”

I smiled sweetly, “Because Dear, I’m going to knock some sense into you.”

His eyebrows flew up into his shaggy hair. “Oh you are are you?”

“Yes,” I smiled sweetly. “You seem to have lost your mind somewhere along the way. I am not helpless. I am not fragile. I am not made of glass. I do not need to be carried everywhere I go. And I am perfectly capable of walking to the latrines by myself … and having some privacy to do it.”

He snorted like he was hearing me but wasn’t believing me.

“Thor, I’m not kidding. I may not be up to riding tomorrow – I’m not stupid – but the day after that I’m going to give it a shot. I may not make it long but I’m still going to try. I’m not going to sit in that blasted wagon a moment more than necessary.”

He looked at me and I could tell he wanted to keep smothering me with his version of affection, that he didn’t like that I was taking my reins back from his control. But he didn’t say so so I gave him some brownie points. “All right. But no guard duty. Not until you’re able to sit your horse all day. And no guff either that I’m trying to molly coddle you or whatever is going through your head. We had the same rule for Evans, remember?”

I got quiet and nodded, “Yeah. OK, I can agree to that.”

“Detente, who would have thunk it.”

I threw a weak whap his way but we both grinned, then he got serious again. “Rochelle, are you really feeling better or is this … just a way of saying that you’re tired of my company.”

That mine field was waiting to catch me if I wasn’t careful. “I’m feeling better. But don’t push Thor. I haven’t had time to … to think … about any of it.” I could see his shoulders go all still. I continued to be very careful in my answer. “I don’t want to leave; I never did, not really. I … and … I … I don’t want you to either. But this? I feel like I’m living in a fish bowl. It’s hard to take.”

He looked at me and then all the tension went out of him and he let out a deep breath. “OK, I can work with that. How about … how about you seeing if you can sit with everyone else to eat dinner tonight, see if you’re up to it. If you are we’ll stay, if you aren’t we’ll leave. Afterwards I’ll take my bedroll and …”

“No.” At his questioning look I said more than a little embarrassed at the admission, “You … you don’t need to move your bedroll. Just … just let me … get my feet back under me. I don’t like feeling helpless.”

He got close and then slowly put his arms around me, either like he was afraid I would bolt or break if he moved too fast. “You sure?”

Just as slowly I relaxed back into his arms. “Yeah. I … yeah … yeah, I’m sure. Just don’t push.”

We sat that way long enough that I almost dozed off again. But he was a man of his word and when it was supper time we took it with everyone else and when I’d had enough of the company and was having trouble keeping my eyes open we went back to the tent. Thor had guard duty after that and then later I felt him come into the tent and I rolled over to get closer. We didn’t do anything with that “closer” anymore than we had before but Thor’s sigh was one of contentment … and so was mine.

I wasn’t in any shape to ride the next day and that night in Vienna, Missouri we had another rain storm and I got chilled again despite not getting wet at all. Thor got soaked and I worried he was going to catch what I’d had since he’d been the one taking care of me.

“Relax Kitten, I haven’t been sick in years.”

“You better find some wood to knock on and your head doesn’t count. And what’s with the … the names you’re calling me?” I’d thrown modesty out the door and was helping him to get out of his wet clothes and trying to dry him off the best I could manage between my own shivers.

“If you don’t like it I’ll stop.”

I could feel myself blush in the dark, both from his lack of sufficient clothing and from the knowledge that I wasn’t just shivering from the cold. “Just … just don’t do it where other people can hear it.”

He finished dressing and then sat beside me snuggled up next to me. “Nope. This is strictly private … between the two of us.” He backed up all of a sudden, shook his head and then cleared his throat. “They couldn’t keep the fire going so it’s nothing but cold grits. Not very appetizing but it’ll fill the hole and I’ve got some jerky in my pack.”

“Where’s my hobo?” The strange question caught him off guard. “The two cans that I keep in the side pocket of my pack. They should be inside a zip bag.”

He found them and handed them to me. “Help me roll the tarp back so that I can have bare ground.”

I took one of the small fuel tabs that I had saved for emergencies and put it in the small can that had formerly held potted meat. The top can was just an empty vegetable can that I had punched air holes in. I smeared just a dab of Crisco on the flat “top.” I lit the fuel tab and then sat the vegetable can over the top of that. “Give me the grits.” I cut the cold glop that had congealed into a solid mass into thin slices and proceeded to fry them on my makeshift stove top. It would have been nicer if I’d had bigger cans … a tuna can and a metal coffee can … but I didn’t so I’d made do with what I could find.

I also made a little bit of busted down gravy using water, flour, and a little bit of the dried sausage we had picked up at the market. We shared a mess kit to keep clean up to a minimum but we each had our own mug of something warm … him some instant coffee that made him grimace something terrible and I had some Tang with a little powdered cider mixed in.

“Now this is something like,” he grinned. “You want anything else to drink? If not I’m going to move your stove so that we can put the tarp back down.”

“No, go ahead. Sorry about the coffee. It’s the one thing that I couldn’t have when I lived at home and didn’t think to salvage for along the way.”

“Couldn’t?” he asked.

“Well, not couldn’t exactly.” I was a little embarrassed. “Look, my folks … well … the truth is my family was … was as monetarily challenged as Jonathon’s were well off. I’ve already told you about his family. We weren’t poor, poor … we owned the land and house and all the farm equipment free and clear. Dad, and my grandfather before him, never believed in taking out loans like a lot of farmers did. Just we were kinda shy as far as … um … liquid assets went. I never felt like I was being forced to do without … my parents saw to that … but … well, we did things a little different from a lot of people. Plus my folks were kinda old-fashioned about some things.”

Thor just waited. He’d learned that trying to get me to say something faster than I was ready to say it only made me go slower or not talk at all.

“Remember how expensive coffee had gotten? Or maybe you don’t … I guess you could get all kinds of stuff where you were at that would have cost an arm and a leg for my family.”

He agreed. “Sometimes. Other times I would have given a lot to have had something from the states and couldn’t find it even if I had had the money to spend on it.”

“Well, then you’ll understand. But the thing is … coffee was like my dad’s only vice, or at least that is what Mom said. She pinched the budget every which way to make sure he could have his half pot a day. So for us that meant that coffee was for the man … and we’d drink tea.”

“From what I heard decent tea was as bad as coffee.”

I laughed, “Not that kind of tea though we did stock that for lunch or supper sometimes. We made different teas from Mom’s herb garden. Lemon verbena with honey has always been my favorite but mint is a close second. We did lots of stuff like that. Mom used to get ahead of the cost curve; if we couldn’t grow it then we’d buy it in bulk and store it for the year. Like with the coffee; if no one has messed with anything then when we get home I’ll be able to brew you up some real coffee. We’d just gotten the new supply of beans in before we left.”

“Beans? Coffee beans?”

“Yeah, it was cheaper in the long run to buy the green coffee beans and store them. That way there was less waste; we just roasted and ground what we needed when we needed it. And buying in bulk meant we’d pay the same price for the good stuff that would last a long time as people were paying for the cheap stuff at the stores.”

Thor looked at me and I thought he was upset for some reason. He was, but not at me. “You’re getting the short end of the stick here aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question so much as a statement. But one I got right away.

“Let’s not go there Thor.” For good measure I did the girl thing and got up in his lap. I startled myself a bit by doing it but in for a penny in for a pound. I had to make up my mind at some point if I was going to commit to being with Thor or not … and it looked like my subconscious had made the decision already.

I must have startled Thor too if the look on his face meant anything. “Hi,” he said finally.

“Hi.”

He put his arms around me. “You sure about this Rochelle? I’ve been trying to not push, give you time.”

“I’m about as sure of this as I am of anything. We’re still talking like you’re still willing to come with me back to the farm. I … I still want that to happen.” I was trying to wiggle around to get comfortable.

Thor groaned. “OK, less of that or you’re going to have me walking out into that rain again praying that it is cold enough to cool me down.”

I couldn’t help it, I put my arms around his neck and smiled. “Oh woman, you’re gonna kill me,” he moaned. But he still put his arms around me as well. I hadn’t meant to but I did start getting drowsy. I felt Thor lay me down and I slept the rest of the night.

The next day was another slow one. The rain had made a real mess of things and it was a lesson learned that each wagon needed to keep a supply of dry wood, kindling at the very least, to start a fire with. Breakfast barely qualified as such – oatmeal that was just as gloppy as the grits had been – and no one was in too great of a mood. Before we got going I used what little heat remained on the fire to heat up two gallons of the milk that had come off the cows and then added a good dollop of honey and a little nutmeg to it. Everyone that wanted it had a cup of the stuff. It wasn’t the perfect solution but it stopped the youngest kids from crying and the honey and nutmeg made it seem like a treat rather than a trick to cover their hunger.

Thor didn’t freak when I told him I wanted to try and ride that morning. Besides we both knew that taking both mine and Pilbos’ weight out of the wagon would help to keep it from bogging down. As he helped me get into the saddle – I could sit but I wouldn’t be doing anything fancy for a while – he asked, “Another one of your mother’s recipes?”

“The milk?” I asked and then at his nod I shrugged. “I was growing so fast I was hungry constantly. But my stomach couldn’t keep up and handle all that I wanted to put in it. I had some kind of reaction to the supplements the doctors wanted me to drink. My grandmothers and mother came up with the idea from some old family receipts. I could drink as much honeyed milk as I wanted to; it filled me up without making me sick.”

As he made sure my saddle was tight he said, “Speaking of sick, don’t overdo it. I know you want to be up and about again … just take it easy, please.”

I patted his hair, “You need a haircut.”

“Rochelle …”

“I know Thor … plus … well … I don’t want to worry you. OK?”

He grinned and said, “More than OK.”

The morning was a lot rougher than I had anticipated. I wasn’t doing anything that should have made me tired but by the time that we stopped at the St. James Golf Club for lunch I was really whooped. Lucky for me Thor didn’t see because he was too buy shooing people off … in fact everyone was busy trying to keep people from getting too close. St. James was another one of those hubs for people on the move and the animals drew a lot of temptation. There was a little overt aggression but nothing that the crew couldn’t handle. However, rather than overnight in the next town we stopped in this place called the Maramec Spring Park. It didn’t take long for most of the kids and adults to stick a pole of some type in the river to go trout fishing.

The park’s café had been ransacked since it sat right off the entrance but the park store and some of the ranger buildings hadn’t been touched which surprised me. I was doing a little salvaging and mumbling to myself about all the useful stuff just sitting around going bad.

Montgomery who was helping me (or keeping an eye on me for Thor) said, “Opportunistic feeders.”

“Huh?”

He smiled, as tired as everyone else was, “People didn’t get far from the road. The café was what you would call a crime of opportunity rather than a real salvaging effort. I’m surprised no one has taken this place over, it would make a prime location for a fairly good sized group.”

Alfonso walked up at that point. “According to a log I found in one of the offices the café’ incident happened early on. Several of the rangers tried to hang on for a while longer but then when communications couldn’t be re-established they left to go look for their families with the intent of coming back. Only they never did, come back I mean.”

We all knew what that likely meant. I ate dinner that night but not with the same level of enthusiasm as everyone else. I was just too tired to enjoy it. Thor pulled me to my feet and we faded into the dark. “Guess a walk in the moonlight isn’t at the top of your list of things you want to do.”

I looked at him and said, “If you want …”

“Hey … I was kidding. You really are tired. C’mon, let me put you to bed.”

“I’m not a child,” I said irritated.

“Don’t remind me. I’m using super human effort to contain myself.”

I thought for a moment, “Well … you don’t have to try quite that hard.”

He stopped and kissed me in the moonlight. “Don’t tempt me woman. I’m giving you space remember? I really don’t want to go take a dip in that blasted spring. It’s cold.”

I chuckled. “Neither do I but I’m having a hard time not having fun torturing both of us.”

“Both of us?”

“Yeah I …” I got a good look at his face. I realized that maybe, just maybe, I hadn’t been the only one hurting and needing comfort. I put my hand on his cheek, “Yeah, both of us.”

He pulled us over to a bench to the side of the green space we had set up camp in. “Sit with me a minute?”

I nodded but when I went to sit on the wooden seat he pulled me into his lap instead. “I want to ask you something.”

I waited. I’d never seen him so nervous. “I know we’ve got a ways to go. Both in miles and … and in other things as well. I know that … that the Argument put us back quite a few miles in both ways. But …” Then he just sort of petered off while the I could feel his shoulders stiffening up.

“But?”

“I want to ask you something.”

“You said that already.”

“Yeah. Yeah I guess I did.” He cleared his throat. “You remember when I told you I’d talked to Bedros?”

“Yeah,” I answered slowly growing a little leery.

“He said that I was … uh … taking some things for granted.”

“What … what things?”

“What I wanted to ask is if you’d … uh … Now see … I’ve never done this before. Never even come close.” He cleared his throat again. “Well … you see … I was … us … wondering … well …”

“Thor? What exactly did Bedros say? Because … you know … our business is our business. I … don’t want to have to worry that … you know undue outside pressure or influence or …”

He kissed me. “No one is pressuring me into anything and I don’t want to pressure you into anything. OK?”

“OK. But if it isn’t anything bad then why can’t you just spit it out?”

He took my hand and raised it to his lips. “Rochelle, what I want to ask is if … and there’s no pressure here, I know … I know we’re still … working on things. You don’t have to hide it. I’ve felt how you think before you say or do everything lately, how you’re … holding back. And I understand that. I don’t want you to think I don’t. But I would … would really like … want …” He stopped and reached into a zippered pocket on his vest. “It’s not much. Actually it is pretty corny but I wanted it to be something I did, not … not something I just picked up someplace.”

It was a ring. A real ring. “I had this sterling silver wire. Got it up right before we were sent home this last time. Won it in a poker game.” He cleared his throat nervously. “I … uh … braided it … and then flattened it. The … uh … pattern, you can still see it. I made sure the edges weren’t sharp, so you don’t have to worry that it’ll cut you. It won’t turn your finger green either. Like I said, it’s … um … sterling. I know it’s not gold but …”

I interrupted him. “You made this? For me?”

“Yeah. If … if you want it. To wear it I mean.”

I looked at the ring and then at him. I said quietly, so no one else in the world could hear me. “You … you didn’t have to you know. I … I mean … it’s not a ring that … that I’ve been waiting for.” My face was hot. “I mean, I know things aren’t the same as they used to be … and that … that you aren’t like the boys that I’m used to back home. You’re … you’re a man, not a boy. I just … you … I’m not sure … if … if I’m ready for the whole package. At … at least … not … not quite yet.”

That was a huge admission for me. “The ring isn’t about the … whole package. It isn’t to get you to do something you aren’t ready for.” He ran a finger along my jaw line. “I want you to know … I want everybody to know … that I’m committed … to this … to us.”

I slowly turned the ring over and felt the pattern with the pads of my fingers. “This isn’t a trial thing … to see if … to see if you like it?”

“No. No trial, no sampling, no backdoor escape plan.”

I said, “Rings are a big deal.”

“This one is. For me. For you?”

I put it on the tip of my finger on my left hand, looked at it sitting there, looked at him then asked, “Are you sure about this Thor? I … I’m not sure I could handle … I mean …”

“I know I’m sure. If you aren’t I don’t want to rush you or force you.”

“It’s … it’s not that. It’s just … to me … rings …” I stopped and then looked him straight in the eye. “To me rings are forever.”

In a husky voice he said, “I’m not playing Rochelle. I wouldn’t even have started to make the ring if I hadn’t been thinking about forever. When … if … you agree to wear this ring … my ring … that means that all bets are off. No man ever gets another crack at you. And I never look at another woman. I haven’t wanted to since I first figured out you weren’t the boy you were playing at being. I couldn’t think of anyone else. You’ve taken up all the room in my head … and my heart. That won’t change for me. It won’t ever change … with or without the ring.”

I was shaking. Could I do it? I’d known the guy less than a year. I’d “been with him” a lot less than that. We’d just come off this huge, destructive, and for me life-altering fight.

He took my hand and reached for the ring, “Rochelle, you don’t have to. I … I guess it was too soon … I’ll …”

I pushed the ring all the way down onto my finger and just looked at it sitting there. Then I looked up at him. “I won’t regret this moment. I won’t regret making this choice. But I don’t want to regret anything that comes after it. OK?”

I wasn’t sure if he was still breathing until he finally said, “OK. I’m going to kiss you now. Then I’m going to walk you to the tent, watch you get inside and then I’m going to … walk … or something.”

“Why?”

“Because if I don’t … if I don’t there might be a little … more than a little … temptation to … push for more. And I keep my promises. Besides, you’ve got dark circles under your eyes again. You need to rest, not fight me off.”

We didn’t talk on the way back to the tent and it wasn’t until I was inside that I felt safe enough to turn around and tell him, “I wouldn’t fight.”

He moaned, “What do you do to me?”

I just looked at him. “Go to sleep Rochelle, you’ve got moonlight in your eyes.”

It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to go to sleep. The day in the saddle had caught up to me. Sometime later I felt Thor climb in the tent and get into his bedroll. I rolled over and woke up enough to realize he was shivering and that his hair was damp.

“Is it raining again?”

“No.”

“Then why are you damp and cold?”

“The blasted spring is fifty-six freaking degrees.”

“Did you fall in?!” I asked waking all the way up.

“No,” he said and I soon realized the rest of his clothes were dry.

I shook my head. “Gack, you guys are crazy, going swimming at night in a cold spring. You’ll catch the same cold I had. Here, let me warm you up.”

He groaned, “Oh yeah, you do … most definitely.”

It finally clicked and I did something I didn’t even realize I could do. I giggled. I really giggled. That only made him groan again.

“Shhhhh. Someone will hear you and think … well, you know what they’ll think.”

“Oh, don’t worry. Pilbo Doughboy and Tovmas already caught me and are laughing their backsides off. Then Chuckri and Alfonso saw me coming back here.”

I giggled again and he sighed. “Go to sleep Ro-chelle so that I can suffer in peace.” But I could hear the smile in his voice.

We both slept better than we should have and other than being a little sore I was feeling better than I had since before the fight. Thor was walking around with a silly grin on his face and it didn’t leave even when some of the men from the crew or the family ribbed him a little. I took some pieces of wood to put in the barrel that had been tied to the back of the Elder Wagon. As I was brushing my hands off Grandmother Chuckri pointed to my left hand and then held her hand out. I put my hand into hers and she turned it to look at the ring. Then she grinned – a little slyly even – and patted my hand and said something in Armenian that I didn’t understand before walking away.

I had no idea what she said but I could feel a blush creeping up my face. I turned to see Shoushan who was smiling also. “It was a blessing. Kind of like a nice way of saying good luck. I’ll add mine … so long as you are happy?”

I blushed harder and said, “Yes. Yes I am.”

This time she laughed. “Good.”

We both went back to finishing our leaving. Thor came over after I had tied the pack back onto my patient stead and gave me a boost into the saddle. “You OK with the teasing?”

I smiled, “Yeah.”

He smiled back and said, “Good.”

But I noticed that I wasn't the only one with a little bit of extra red in their cheeks and that made me smile even more.

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