After riding for nearly an hour calling for Gabriel, it seemed as though the dark woods had swallowed him whole. Mary rode ahead of him, doing her best to keep her head, but everything he said to try to make her feel better made her snap at him, so he kept his mouth shut.
He was just as afraid as she was.
“Gabriel!” she cried, her shrill voice pitiful and raw.
A groan sounded above the steady hoof beats that pounded the damp forest floor. Jeremy pulled on the reins and held his breath.
“I think I heard something!” he called.
He jumped off his mount and walked through the thick brush.
“Gabriel!” he called. “I am here.”
Mary joined him, panting, but holding her tongue. The unmistakable form of a man lay just ahead of them. They ran to him. He was still alive. It had to mean he would be all right.
Standing over him, Jeremy’s stomach knotted at the sight. His friend’s lower abdomen was torn open. A typical hunting trip had gone very wrong. He knelt next to him, praying for God to have mercy on him. He seemed to be in shock, staring up at the sky one moment and then slipping away at the next.
Jeremy gathered him into his arms and carried Gabriel to his horse, lifting him onto the saddle.
“Take him home,” said Mary. “I will go for the doctor. We’ll be right behind you.”
Jeremy nodded and watched her jump back into her saddle and disappearing into the dark forest within seconds. He sat behind Gabriel in the saddle to steady him as they rode out of the forest. He rode at a gentle pace to not damage his friend further. When they reached the farmhouse, he carried Gabriel to the front door and gently set him down.
“You’re going to be just fine. Mary’s coming soon with the doctor.”
Gabriel moaned something as he leaned against the side of the house. The door was unlocked and Jeremy opened it. Mary likely forgot to lock it when she figured out that Gabriel would not be coming home.
Jeremy helped Gabriel stand and guided him to the bedroom. He stripped the bed of the colourful quilt to prevent it from being soiled and then slowly lowered him to the mattress.
He found a match in the side table drawer and lit a lamp. With the wound in plain sight, Jeremy flinched and quickly looked away. A section of Gabriel’s innards poked out of the gaping wound. He wondered if he was trampled by a sounder of wild boars. It was a miracle that he was not more injured if that were the case.
He took Gabriel’s hand in his.
“We’re not going to let you slip away. You hear me? Don’t give up, Gabriel.”
Gabriel weakly squeezed his hand in reply. His eyelids fluttered, but he seemed to slip back into unconsciousness when they stayed closed. It was by the Lord’s mercy that he was not fully aware of his injury. Men writhed in pain over less brutality.
Shaking, he walked to the window to wait for the doctor to arrive with Mary. He crossed his arms, praying. He had never seen a graver wound in all of his days.
His thoughts wandered to Sally still alone at the house. He wished that she was there with him. He could have used her easy laugh and silly jokes. He hoped that she was all right with him being gone for hours. As nice as those few days of heaven had been, her optimism could switch at the drop of a hat and she would suddenly think the worst of him.
Mary and her horse appeared through the darkness with the doctor riding close behind her. Jeremy’s dread mounted. The terrible night had only just begun.
The door flung open and Mary raced to Gabriel’s side as the doctor dug through his surgical bag. Gabriel muttered something about being trampled by a herd of deer.
Mary softly spoke words of encouragement to her delirious husband. Jeremy shook his head as he watched the young couple speak softly to one another.
“Hold him down,” said the doctor.
Jeremy exchanged a look of horror with Mary before they each took a side and pinned Gabriel down to the bed. As the doctor started to clean the wound, Gabriel cried out and begged for him to stop. Jeremy clenched his teeth as warm tears streamed down his face; he would have taken all of the pain for Gabriel if it were possible. Instead, he and Mary stood there at the mercy of his pained cries.
It drew on – the operating and the begging – for what felt like more than an hour before the doctor finally stopped. On the bed, Gabriel sweat profusely, panting from the torture. Mary held his hand as silent tears streamed down her sun kissed face. The look on her face was the epitome of a woman in love. She would have done anything for him. Fear was nothing to her if it meant fighting for Gabriel.
The doctor tightly wrapped Gabriel’s torso with bandages and then spoke to Mary just outside of the room.
Jeremy pulled up a chair and sat next to Gabriel.
“You’re a trooper, kid. Now you just need to be patient and rest until you heal.”
“I feel so terrible doing this to Mary.”
“This isn’t your fault. Accidents can happen to anyone.”
“I will fight. For Mary.”
The love that they had for one another tugged at his heartstrings and he wondered what it must have been like to feel that way for someone. Love like that didn’t happen every day.
“Fight for her. We’ll have to go on our cattle drive before we both become fathers.”
“As soon as I’m better, we’ll plan it.”
Jeremy stepped outside under the sun to leave the couple alone. Gabriel’s road to recovery would be a long one, but he had Mary’s patience and love to keep him going.
As Jeremy stepped rapidly back for home, it hit him how badly he had hurt Sally the other night. To make matters worse, he left her alone at the house while riding off with Mary, the woman who was the source of her jealousy. He hoped that she had grown mature enough to understand why he had to leave her so quickly. His best friend’s life depended on them finding him in time.
He had a feeling that she might never forgive him for riding off into the night with Mary.
Sally awoke sometime after noon lying on the floor. With a groan, she rolled over and stared at her bed.
He hadn’t come home. He was with Mary while she was attempting to pull herself up from her despair.
Her temples throbbed as she stood and she stretched to relieve her tense muscles. She stared out at the window at the clear blue sky, realizing how alone she was.
Mama belonged to Papa and Papa was a monster. Jeremy didn’t love her; he barely wanted her. Gabriel and Mary only put up with her because they had to. Her girlhood friends disowned her once she got married.
Her sour stomach protested when she ventured into the kitchen. She poured a glass of water and drank it quickly. She went outside.
“I need to be anywhere but here,” she whispered.
She lifted her skirts and ran for the woods. Her tousled hair trailed behind her like a mare’s tail. The terrible ache from last night dulled as her eyes drank in the natural beauty surrounding her. Love or no love, she would always have the forest to run to. She stopped in the midst of the tree maze to catch her breath. Panting, she stared up at the beautiful green leaves and the singing birds, drinking in their happiness.
She walked a little further and smelled the unmistakable scent of a bonfire. Once she would have been afraid at the idea of someone camping close by in the middle of the woods, but her depression had a way of killing her fears. She had nothing to lose.
Curious, she followed the scent. The hunger that she had been robbed of earlier returned as roasting meat’s aroma filled her nostrils. A man arose from the brush and she stopped.
He was tall and dark-skinned. He turned to face her.
“Sally… what are you doing out here?”
His coal eyes were wide with what appeared to be concern.
“I needed to run away for a while,” she said with a shrug.
She took a step closer. His campsite was hidden from the trail and was complete with a tent, a bonfire, and a roasting feral hog.
“Have you been living like this since you were freed from my father?” she blurted.
He cleared his throat.
“Not quite. No.”
Her mind spun with questions. His presence in town caused a terrible fate for Pastor Davis, but being near him did not frighten her. His calm, quiet demeanor put her at an unexpected ease. She could tell just by looking at him that he never meant for any harm to befall anyone.
“Why are you still here? Michael Davis died for helping you.”
She stared into his eyes. They looked sad.
“I ask God to forgive me every day for causing his death… I never meant for anyone to know I was here.”
Sally shook her head.
“Is that why you came right into your former slave owner’s daughter’s house? What were you thinking? Why did you come back?”
“I worked for years in a mine far south of here, but I still couldn’t let myself forget.”
“Forget my Papa? Was he a cruel master?”
“Cruel or not, a human being will never reflect kindly on a man that once owned him.”
Sally averted her eyes to the forest floor. She could never know how it would feel to be someone’s slave. Jeremy would never love her, but he was not the sort of man to order her around. For the most part, she was free. Or, so she thought. She would never be able to imagine what it must have been like to be born a slave.
“Your Papa was a very cruel man,” said Jacob.
“He still is…”
She met Jacob’s gaze again.
“Is everything all right, Sally?”
She threw her hands up in the air.
“Of course it’s not all right! Papa and all of the deacons killed my pastor and friend right before my eyes. He fled to my house and begged me to hide in my room so that I wouldn’t see what my own father was capable of. Even then, he wasn’t even thinking of himself. Oh Jacob, I can only imagine the horrors you endured as my father’s slave!”
“It will be all right. Here, please sit down and eat some of this fresh pork with me. It’s the least I can do for startling you twice now.”
“Well, all right. Thank you.”
She used a fallen log as a seat while he cut off some pieces of meat and put them on a plate for her.
“It smells so good,” she said.
“It’ll taste good, too.”
The hint of a smile brightened his expression as he gave her the plate of steaming food. The tender, salty meat awakened her taste buds and she closed her eyes.
“It is delicious.”
“Glad you like it. I’ve got some coffee brewing, too.”
She licked her fingers when her plate was empty and imagined Mama’s cross look of disapproval if she could see it.
“I am happy to have your company,” she said. “I just wish that I knew why you came back here.”
“It is very complicated.”
“That is what adults tell children and I’m not a child anymore.”
Jacob leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees.
“I will tell you one day, but not now.”
“Well, how long will you be camping out here for?”
“Not much longer.”
“Will you let me know before you go?”
His sad eyes met her. “I will let you know if you want.”
“I can bring you some food from the house tomorrow. My afternoons are usually free and Jeremy doesn’t mind if I go wandering.”
“That boy seems to care a lot about you.”
She flinched as the sting of rejection hit her again. She shook her head. He had no idea.
“He puts up with me, but he has eyes for another woman.”
“Are you sure about that, little Sally? The look in his eyes when spoke to me… he was very adamant that I never return to your property. He was protecting you.”
The dying fire crackled and popped. Sally imagined her once fiery love for Jeremy fading away like the flames before her eyes.
“Well, no one would cook for him or wash his clothes if he didn’t have me. I wouldn’t say that’s love.”
“White men are terrible at talking to their women. They have no idea how to make them feel valued. A man ought to treat his wife like a queen.”
Sally almost laughed, but couldn’t quite bring herself to.
“I can’t argue with that.”
His infectious grin lifted the corners of her mouth.
“I still say he loves you,” said Jacob. “He’s just terrible at showing it. Don’t give up on him yet. You’re both so young.”
The way his eyes lit up as he talked startled her a little. For a stranger, he seemed to care a great deal about her and Jeremy. It was strange even if she enjoyed the idea of someone taking an interest in her.
“Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your meal with me. I am glad that I ran out here and stumbled across you.”
“As am I, little Sally. Just remember that running away isn’t always the answer. Sometimes it’s worth it to stay.”
She shrugged. He didn’t know the whole story of what happened and she didn’t want to burden him with it.
She rose and smiled down at her new unlikely friend.
“I will see you here tomorrow around the same time? I can bring you fresh fruit and vegetables to go with the pork.”
“It’s very kind of you, Sally, but I don’t want you to compromise yourself. I’m always on the move.”
Her heart sank as it hit her that she might never see him again. His shotgun rested against his tent. As she studied the sleek design of the firearm, a sense of longing filled her.
“Jacob, will you please teach me how to hunt?”
He took a step back in surprise. He studied her for a moment before nodding.
“Is that a yes?” she asked.
“I will teach you how to hunt if that is what you want.”
“Then I will.”
Her heart raced. It was really going to happen. She would learn how to hunt. Mary wasn’t going to be the only woman who knew how to shoot a gun and ride like a man.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Make your way to this general vicinity and I will find you.”
She extended her hand. He shook it.
“Good day, Jacob” she said.
“Good day, Sally.”
She left the woods feeling like different person. Never again would she allow Jeremy’s treatment of her to determine her value. It was time that she determined that on her own. With Jacob’s help.