Gael leaned on his hoe, and watched as the wagon slowly approached him. Typical of a lout like Sproule, he thought, to save himself half an hour on the road by going across one of his neighbor's fields, and trampling the newly sprouted plantings. Well, maybe this would be good riddance. From the looks of the pile of goods and pens in the back of the wagon, Sproule had probably decided that he'd run his brother's farm down as far as he could, and was moving on.
"Good day, brother Gael," Sproule called out.
Gael felt a flare of irritation at being addressed so familiarly by someone he hardly knew, and especially by someone with such a poor reputation, but he saw no point in giving Sproule any reason to make an even worse mess of things on his way out, so he held his temper and answered as evenly as he could.
Sproule favored the older man with a deprecatory smile. "Still trying to make a living out of this miserable piece of land?"
Gael nodded, as he used the hoe to remove a weed. "Some of us feel there's value in work," he casually observed.
For just a moment, an evil look flashed across Sproule's face, and Gael thought the fellow was going to say something vile, but for some reason, the look faded as fast as it appeared, and a strangely beatific look, which seemed quite out of place on Sproule, replaced it.
"Now, there's no reason to chide a man just because he doesn't happen to have his heart in farming," Sproule noted, in a seemingly reasonable and conciliatory way.
Gael removed another weed, and nodded. "No. Farming's hard work, and not everyone's cut out for it."
"Now you, Gael, are a farming fool, if ever I've seen one. You like it. You like the dirt and the muck, and the hard work, and the long, lonely hours in the fields. But I'm more of a city fellow, and I like the pleasures that come from the company of others."
Gael didn't feel that such an obvious statement really deserved any reply, but it did remind him of the question that had been on his mind.
"I suppose you're off to the city for good, then?"
Sproule nodded. "Aye. Going to Donton. A nice place, Donton, with lots of things to keep a man occupied, whatever his pleasure."
Gael had been to Donton, once, and he didn't think it a nice place at all. It was a place where idlers like Sproule went to prey on those who were down on their luck, and to profit from their misery. It wasn't a place where anyone who wanted a fit life for a man or a woman would ever go.
"I'm sure you'll fit right in," he said, quite sure that the insult would pass completely over Sproule's head.
Sproule nodded. "I'm sure I will. Be far happier than I have been, stuck in this dull place, that's for sure."
Gael motioned toward the wagon. "You going to take all this to Donton? I wouldn't think there'd be much call for it there."
Sproule shook his head. "Nope. Going to sell it in town, on my way out. I don't suppose you'd want to see if anything is to your liking. Seems like I ought to offer it to neighbors first, and strangers second."
Gael was sure that he meant to someone who was foolish enough to buy dear first, and to those who had better sense with their money second, and declined Sproule's offer.
"No, thanks. I have all that I need."
Sproule looked a bit disappointed, but nodded. "Guess I'd best be getting on, then." He chucked the oxen reins, and the beasts pulling the wagon slowly began to move.
As the wagon started up, Gael noticed, for the first time, that there was a girl walking just behind the wagon, on the other side. She was a skinny thing, clad practically in rags, her hair dirty and matted, and her face drawn and gaunt. Somehow, he felt that he ought to know who she was, but she certainly didn't look like anyone he'd ever seen.
"Sproule," he said, uncertainly.
Sproule stopped the wagon. "Yes, brother Gael?"
"Who's the girl?"
Sproule looked at the girl, then at Gael, a sly look transforming his face in a very unpleasant way.
"She's m' niece. My brother's whelp."
Gael remembered, now. There had been a girl, left orphaned when her parents died, and Sproule descended on his brother's property. It had been a very long time since he'd mixed with his neighbors, and he didn't recall what she looked like, or even whether he'd ever seen her, but the appalling state she was in spoke volumes about how much Sproule had neglected everything that he inherited.
"She going to Donton with you?"
Sproule nodded. "If I can't sell her off somewhere else, first. She don't look like much, but she's a good worker. Make someone a nice maid or some such, once she's cleaned up a bit."
Gael was taken aback by the crass simplicity of the statement. The girl was his brother's child, for god's sake, and all the villain cared about was whether he could wring some coin out of her. He wouldn't even put it past him to take her all the way to Donton, and sell her into prostitution. Not that it was any of his business what people did with their things, or their relatives, but it pained him to see a young girl face such a future. A sudden impulse overcame him, and he casually nodded toward the girl.
"What do you want for her?"
Sproule's face broke into what was undoubtedly the broadest grin the fellow was capable of. "Ah, so I do have something you want."
"I didn't say I necessarily wanted her. But if you're selling her, I could use a hand around here."
Sproule got down from the wagon, went over to the girl, and led her over to Gael, so he could show her off better.
"She's a lot stronger than she looks. Not much meat on her, but big boned."
Gael looked her over. The girl was as skinny as a rail. Even though a bit over five feet tall, he doubted that she weighed much over six stone.
"She looks like she's been starved."
Sproule spread his hands, and shrugged. "She's not been feeling well, and she's lost some weight. I'm sure that now she's better, she'll be fit in no time."
Gael turned back to the girl, who had been standing, apparently oblivious to their conversation, with her face staring down into the dirt beneath her bare feet. He put one hand under her chin, and raised it, so he could look at her eyes. He was surprised to see that they were nice eyes, dark eyes, with a certain fire in them, despite the downtrodden look of the rest of her, and that instead of lightly letting him look into them, she turned them away from him.
"I'll give you a pig and a chicken for her," he said, dubiously.
"Four pigs and two chickens," Sproule replied. "She's got skills, she has. She can cook, and sew, and she'd be a good bedmate, if you want one."
Gael's nostrils flared at the fellow's effrontery. He was an old man, nearly forty-two, and this girl couldn't possibly be more than fifteen or sixteen. She might be of marriageable age, but the idea that he would force such a young thing into his bed was not only disgusting, but an insult to him, and all humanity. Still, if he was to save her, it was best not to upset Sproule, so he suppressed his feelings and continued to examine her.
Pulling her dress taut against her, he was hardly surprised, but still more than a bit distressed, to see how little there was of her inside it, and he noted that.
"She's awfully small-breasted. If I were to take her, she'd not be likely to have enough milk for any children she bore."
"Well, you can always use goat's milk to help a babe along," Sproule said, smoothly. "And as I said, she's been sick. You feed her good for a little while, and I'm sure she'll fill right out. And she's a good age. Just sixteen. Old enough to marry, but young enough to know her place."
The girl started slightly at that, and Gael decided that Sproule must be exaggerating her age to try to make the sale, not that it made any difference to him.
"Two pigs, and a chicken. If I have to fatten her up, I can't afford to pay much more."
"Three pigs and two chickens," Sproule replied. "She'll be a big help to you, and you'll make back far more than her cost in a season."
"Two pigs and a chicken, and you can pick the pigs," Gael responded. "As sick as you say she's been, I can't count on her lasting a full season."
"Throw in a week's feed for the pigs, and she's yours," Sproule countered.
Gael looked at the girl, and sighed. It was undoubtedly a foolish thing he was doing, and one he would long regret, but he couldn't let Sproule take her to Donton, no matter what it entailed.
"All right. Bring her and her things to the house, and we can pick out your animals."
Sproule shook his head. "She ain't got no things. Just what she's wearing."
"What?" Gael sputtered, barely containing his anger. "I thought she was your brother's child. Didn't she inherit anything from him?"
Sproule shrugged. "I'm afraid my brother didn't have much of a mind for finances. He didn't leave a will, and so everything came to me."
Damn and blast the villain, Gael thought. It wasn't just cheapness, it was meanness, to deny the girl even a change of clothing. Still, if the rest of her things were as wretched as what she was wearing, they'd all have to be burnt, anyway. Might as well forget it, and get the bastard on his way.
"All right, then. I guess I'll take her as she is, and hope that she's as good a worker as you claim. Bring your wagon round to the pens, and I'll help you catch your pigs." Turning away from Sproule, he motioned for the girl to follow him, and headed toward home.
“Wait here,” Gael said, motioning toward the steps. “I’ll be back for you as soon as I’m done with your uncle.”
Aramie nodded, and watched dully as he went around the corner of the house and disappeared from view. She didn’t much care where she waited. Her life had become such a misery that her only remaining desire was to die, and the sooner she did so, and could join her parents, the better. Where she waited out her last few weeks was of no interest to her at all.
Still, it was more comfortable to sit here, in the shade of the porch that ran across the front of the house, than to trail behind the wagon for hours and hours. Her uncle had wandered from one farm to another in a previously fruitless effort to sell their possessions, and this was the seventh place that they had been to since dawn. In some ways, if she weren’t feeling so completely defeated, she would have found it quite funny that she was the only sale that he had made, as all the other farmers had made it quite clear that they were rather particular about who they did business with. It was nice to see that her feelings about her uncle were so universally shared. She couldn’t help but wonder why this one hadn’t been quite so particular as the others, and a shiver passed through her as she thought of how he had examined her. She had learned to endure a lot, but she wasn’t sure that she could endure that.
For a moment, she wondered whether she should try to run for it. If she were lucky, she might get a ways before he realized that she was gone. Then she thought of how badly her uncle had beaten her the last time that she tried to run away, and shuddered. Not that. She couldn’t bear that. Not again. And for that matter, even if she did get away, where would she go? As her uncle had been so kind to point out while he was beating her, a girl with no money, and no possessions, and no one to protect her, would be easy prey for unscrupulous villains. No, as bad as it was likely to be here, it probably wouldn’t be any worse than anywhere else. At least the man was old. Maybe she’d be lucky, and he wouldn’t force himself on her too often before she died. After all, it shouldn’t take more than another month or two of starving herself to finish the job...
Gael reappeared, and came over to her. “Wipe your feet,” he said, and motioned toward the doorway. She rose, waited while he took off his boots and laid them on the porch, then followed him inside.
She was a little surprised by the house. It wasn’t even half the size of her father’s place — in fact, no more than one or two rooms, from the looks of it — but she had learned, since her uncle took to running things, that it wasn’t just a nice home that mattered. You also needed someone to take proper care of it. In less than two years her uncle had, through idleness and stupidity, let both house and farm slide into wrack and ruin, and now neither were of much use to anyone. This place was small, but it was well kept, and she had no doubt that the man who lived here was, at least in some ways, not at all like her uncle.
“I expect you’d like something to eat,” Gael said, as he motioned for her to sit at the small table that sat in the middle of the room. She had very little desire to eat, but she didn’t want to upset him, so she sat where she was told, and continued to look around.
It was a cozy little place. A bit cluttered perhaps, but nicely decorated, with curtains on the windows, and geraniums in the window boxes, and rose bushes along the porch, out front. All in all, it felt like a home that had been lived in, and loved. It had been a long time since she’d been in a place like that, and it felt surprisingly pleasant to just sit and enjoy the feel of it. For the first time in a very long while, she felt a lightening of the depression that had enveloped her, and despite herself, began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, she could actually enjoy being here.
Gael came back to the table with a large loaf of bread and a couple of mugs filled with some dark foamy stuff which she presumed was beer. He tore off a piece of the bread, lifted his mug, and motioned for her to do the same.
She was a little surprised by how quickly he finished his bread, and reached for some more. Not that his manners were all that bad, but he did seem to have quite an appetite. Of course, she might have expected that, just from looking at him. He was a huge fellow, more than six feet tall, with the broadest shoulders she had ever seen, and his girth was almost as impressive as his build, for he couldn’t possibly weigh less than eighteen stone. Someone who presumably worked hard all day would have to eat an awful lot to get that big, even given the large number of years he must have had to achieve such a size.
“Come on, eat up,” he said, nodding toward the bread. “I won’t have you wasting away before my eyes. You’re already far too skinny for my taste.”
Although reluctant to eat, she was thirsty after her long walk in the sun, so she nodded obediently, hesitantly lifted the mug, then coughed and spluttered as its fiery contents burned down her throat.
“Take it easy,” he cautioned. “It’s a mite strong.”
“I... I see...” she said, weakly.
“Try some of the bread. Made it fresh last night, and it ain’t half bad, if I do say so, myself.”
Aramie sighed, broke off a small piece, broke that in half, and took a small bite.
“Don’t need to be so sparing,” he noted. “Plenty there.”
“I... I shall take more... if I need it.”
He shook his head, and took another large bite of his own portion. No wonder the girl was so thin. She must still be sick, if that was all the appetite she had. He certainly hoped she wasn’t going to die on him.
The bread was far better than Aramie expected. It was indeed quite fresh, and it had a faint hint of something — she wasn’t sure what — which gave it a very interesting aroma and taste. Before she knew it, she had finished what she had taken and, much to Gael’s satisfaction, removed another portion from the loaf.
“This is very good,” she observed.
“Glad you like it.”
She sniffed it, and took another bite. “It has a... an aroma that I can’t quite place.”
“That would be the cinnamon, I expect,” he said, seemingly quite pleased by her comment.
She looked at the bread, and then at him. “Cinnamon? I’ve heard of it, but I don’t think that I’ve ever had any.”
“Nor had I, until recently. Got it from a peddler who came by a few weeks ago. Smelled nice, and I like good food, as I expect you can tell, so I bought all I could afford. Good stuff, although a bit dear. You should have been here last night, when I was baking. Made the whole place smell right nice.”
She took another bite, and nodded. “I suppose it would have.”
“Been thinkin’ I should try to get some seed, if I can. Might be a good profit in growing it.”
She could certainly agree with that. As good as this... cinnamon... tasted and smelled, he could probably sell all that he could...
It suddenly occurred to her that for the first time in more than a year, she was just sitting and talking about perfectly ordinary things, in a perfectly ordinary way, and actually taking an interest in them. As her uncle had become more and more morose, she had come to expect that the next word out of her mouth might earn her a slap across the face, but for some reason, she didn’t expect that from this man. In fact, although she was more than a little nervous about his reason for buying her, just sitting here, visiting with him, felt surprisingly pleasant. She wondered what it was that made being with him feel so different from being with her uncle, and began to study him while they ate.
He was an old man. Just how old, it was hard to say, but he was definitely older than her parents, and of course anyone older than your parents seemed positively ancient. He must be well past forty, and fifty wasn’t out of the question. Of course, she wouldn’t dare ask if that was a reasonable guess. Old people were notoriously testy about their ages, and she wouldn’t want to upset him. Not yet, at least.
He had a pleasant smile, which was accentuated by the fine lines that crinkled around his eyes, and it certainly didn’t hurt that his face was framed by the most beautiful head of hair that she had ever seen on a man, young or old — thick, soft curls of a deep golden color, tinged with more than a hint of red, that many a girl would have yearned to have for her own. He had probably been quite a handsome man, she thought, when he was young, even if it was hard to imagine him ever being young.
Perhaps, she decided, it was the two things together. Being so old, and looking so pleasant, he seemed almost, well, fatherly, and although there were many things that her uncle might have been called, that certainly wasn’t one of them...
“So, what do you think?” Gael asked.
She realized that he must have been talking about something, but she had been so distracted that she had no idea what it was. Rather than admit that she hadn’t been paying attention, she decided to change the subject.
“You paid too much, you know.”
That surprised him a bit. Paid too much for what? He rubbed his chin in puzzlement, and looked at her a bit uncertainly.
“What makes you think that?”
“Well, for one thing, I’m not sixteen. I’ll be eighteen, the end of next month. And I’m not nearly as compliant as my uncle implied.”
As he realized what she was talking about, Gael’s face was filled with an astonishment which quickly turned to amusement.
“I see,” he chuckled. “A right feisty sort, eh?”
She nodded. “I shall be a sore trial for you, I’m sure. My uncle never failed to remind me what a trial I was for him.”
Gael’s nostrils flared, but he said nothing, lest he say more than he should. What he thought of a man who would sell his own niece into bondage wasn’t fit for fair ears.
“And I probably can’t have children, so you needn’t worry about whether I’ll have enough milk for them.”
He spluttered and coughed, and stared at her. “And what makes you think you can’t have children?”
“I... I had an accident,” she lied, “a few months ago. And since then... well... I haven’t been quite the same.”
Gael took a hard look at her. “An ‘accident’. I don’t suppose that accident had anything to do with your uncle.”
She colored slightly, realizing that she had said more than she should have. “I... I shouldn’t say. It wouldn’t be proper.”
Gael took one of her hands, and squeezed it gently. “You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to. I want you to feel at home here, and not to worry about what you ought to say, or ought not to say.”
Aramie flushed, and pulled her hand away, not being at all anxious to have any physical contact with him. Given his conversation with her uncle, she was almost certain that that would come, and she knew that if it did, there would be nothing that she could do to stop it, but at least for the moment, she wanted to try to ignore what might happen later.
“It’s all right,” she said, shaking her head. “It happened some time ago, and there’s nothing that can be done about it now. He’s gone, and there’s no point in speaking ill of him.”
“You have a rather forgiving attitude toward someone who I am sure would have been quite happy to sell you into prostitution.”
She colored, and bent her head, shaking a bit as she thought of the fate that she had probably escaped. Still, what difference did it make whether she was forced to bed many men, or just one man? Wasn’t it all the same, either way? And in any event, she’d have been dead soon enough, and then it wouldn’t have mattered.
“I suppose... yes... but I have you to thank for saving me from all that, don’t I?”
He was a little surprised by the bitterness which filled her reply, but given the sad situation that he had rescued her from, he supposed she had a right to be bitter, so he let it slide, and tried to find a happier topic.
“He said that you can cook and sew. Is that true?”
She nodded. “My mama taught me, before... before she died...”
“That’s good. You’ll be able to fix something for yourself. I’m pretty handy with a needle, myself, but I’ve no experience with women’s clothes.”
She looked at him with astonishment. “Something for me?”
He nodded. “Of course. You certainly can’t wear these rags, and in any event, you should have a change of clothes, if only so that you have something to wear while you’re washing the rest of your things.”
“Something to wear,” she murmured, as if the idea were almost completely foreign to her. “It has been a long time since I thought of having something...”
“Wait here,” he said, and rose from the table. She watched as he went through the curtain that divided the main room from what she presumed must be the bedroom. There were sounds of something being opened and closed, and then he returned, holding a pale peach-colored gown which was delicately embroidered with a profusion of small flowers. He casually tossed it on the table, next to her, and took his seat again.
“This was my wife’s. You’re a bit shorter than she was, and quite a bit smaller, in your present state, so you’ll have to alter it a bit, but at least there will be more than enough fabric.”
Aramie gently ran one hand over the dress. It was a rather ordinary muslin, of fairly ordinary construction, and it had a faint odor which suggested that it had been in storage for quite some time, but to her eyes, between the color, and the flowers, and the fact that it looked practically new, it seemed incredibly pretty, and tears began to run down her cheeks.
“I... I don’t know what to say...”
“I suppose you could thank me, but if I’m going to keep you, it’s only fair that I provide you with clothes, so if you want to be churlish enough to withhold your thanks, I’ll overlook it for now.”
“I do thank you,” she said, looking at him gratefully. “It’s just that... I’ve not been used to receiving such... such nice things... and it took me aback...”
He leaned forward and took her hand again, and this time, not wanting to offend him after such a wonderful gift, she reluctantly allowed him to hold it.
“You should have lots of nice things,” he said, in a gentle tone which, combined with the touch of his hand and the warmth of his gaze, felt disturbingly intimate. “I don’t know how much I can offer you, but I’ll try to make you comfortable here.”
She found herself desperately wanting him to let go of her, and wondered how upset he would be if she pulled her hand away, but fortunately, he suddenly released her hand, and picked up his mug. Quickly downing the rest of his drink, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then nodded toward her new gown.
“I expect you should wash up a bit before you put that on. There’s a tub out back, and a well nearby. I have some things I need to do in the barn. When you’re presentable, come see me, and we’ll discuss your duties.”
With what had just happened, she had very little doubt as to what those duties might involve, and, unable to face him, she looked at the table, and nodded so slightly that he could hardly tell that she had done so.
“You got any questions before I go?”
She started to shake her head, and then stopped. It was a bit embarrassing to admit, but she had been too depressed and disinterested to pay any attention when her uncle addressed him, so she had no idea what his name was.
“I suppose... just one. What should I call you?”
“You can call me Gael. That’s my name.”
“Gael,” she said, slowly rolling it over her tongue. “It’s a nice name.”
“Glad you like it. I’m sort of used to it. Had it a long time. A mighty long time.”
Despite her fears, she couldn’t help but smile at such an obvious jest, and she hesitantly offered her own name in return.
“Mine is... Aramie...”
“I know. Your uncle told me, while we were getting his pigs. Seems like too much of a name for such a slip of a girl, though. If you don’t mind, I’ll call you Mia. More your size.”
She blinked, and slowly nodded. “I suppose... if that is what you want to call me.”
“I think that’s all for now, then,” he said, as he rose. “Take care of what you need to do, and come to the barn when you’re done.”
He started for the door, then turned, and looked back at her. “Mia...”
“You shouldn’t value yourself too lightly. I’d have been willing to pay more for you. Far more. I just didn’t want to give your uncle the satisfaction of driving a hard bargain.”
Then, while she stared at him with astonishment, he turned, and went through the door.
Sproule chuckled as the wagon lumbered along. Success, at last. And just when he’d least expected it. He could hardly believe his good fortune.
For nearly two years he’d suffered with his burden, and been frustrated by her at every turn. And now, when he’d practically given up on his plans, the old fool had taken her off his hands, and even paid him for doing it. Paid him, for the one thing he’d most wanted all along! How could he help but laugh at such delicious irony?
Or, for that matter, at the trouble that Gael had bought for himself. As thankful as he was for the favor the farmer had done him, he ought to hope the fellow would have better luck with the girl than he’d had, but as stubborn as she was, he didn’t think it very likely, and in any event, what she did or didn’t do wasn’t any of his concern any longer. With any luck he’d never have to see the miserable chit again. Or this miserable backwater.
Well, he wouldn’t have to endure even that for much longer, now. Just a short stop in town to get rid of this junk and catch the stage, and within a day or two he’d be happily wallowing in the pleasure pits of Donton.
He grinned broadly as he considered the contents of his pouch, and as the wagon rumbled onto the main road he chucked the reins and began to whistle a happy tune. He could hardly wait to get to Donton, and get what was coming to him.
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