~ Like a River My Love ~

by

Marilyn Gardiner

The water was swift and clear and cool, and only about knee-deep. Suddenly her whole aching body longed to be submerged. She could almost feel the satiny coolness of the water caressing her skin, making her slippery and sleek, carrying away the loneliness, the fear and the aching muscles of the night.

Yet she hesitated. What if an Indian, or wild animal--a bear, God forbid--should happen upon her? Her eyes made a quick circuit of the surrounding forest. Nothing threatening that she could see. She listened. No sound except that of birds high above and the scurrying of squirrels or small critters in the underbrush. Still… But oh, the bliss of being clean again. Clean all over at one time. To wash in water not thick with silt and river debris. The temptation was too much. She stood to slide off her pants and shirt and shift, and stepped into the pebble-bottomed stream.

In a near trance of ecstasy she scrubbed her skin and massaged her legs and flexed her shoulders as the current flowed around her. She couldn’t remember anything, ever, feeling as good. Her aching muscles relaxed. Her nerve endings came to life slowly, tingling and expanding in the icy water. Lowering herself into the stream she felt its hurrying, bubbling force, the chill of smooth rocks shifting beneath her, the tug and pull of the tiny current. In the freshness of the breeze, a hint of night lingered, bringing a rush of goose bumps to rise on her bare skin. Her deep sigh of pure pleasure echoed in the clarity of the early morning.

Verity pulled her hat forward to shut out the light and rested her head against the bank. The mossy smell of decaying leaves wafted up from the earth. A blue jay screamed from the sky. A sun, yellow as butter, cleared the trees and shone full in her face. From the woods the jay screamed again and Verity’s eyes snapped open. The small hair on the back of her neck prickled beneath the crown of her hat. Something had startled the bird. Something unfamiliar. The jay called again, a raucous cry of warning and, swooping low over the creek, fell from view behind a stand of juniper. Slowly Verity stretched out her right arm until her hand closed on the stock of her gun.

The sound of the rushing stream covered her movements as she gathered her legs under her and stood. Water streamed down her arms, her stomach, her legs. Her breath caught in the back of her throat. To her waiting ears, the crack of a twig sounded like canon fire and she swung the gun to her shoulder. She sighted down the barrel, and her finger tightened on the trigger even as she turned into the danger.

Trey stood there his eyes incredulous with surprise. His hands, holding the rifle ready, fell limply to his sides. He looked like a steer that had been poleaxed, one who was dead and didn’t yet know it. "My God," he said, the words coming out in a thick rush of disbelief.

He blinked once and then again. She was still there, looking as fresh and pink as Eve in the Garden, and not a fig leaf in sight. "My God," he said again. He was incapable of coherent thought, let alone speech. It was like seeing lightning dance on a lily leaf. His mind refused to accept what his eyes saw.

A hat. That’s all she had on. A hat. Stupidly, his mind kept repeating the phrase. And a gun.

He had to try twice before his voice worked. "Would you mind pointing that thing the other way?" he asked, striving for an even tone. "I’m partial to being in one piece."

Without taking her eyes from his, she lowered the gun and let it dangle from one hand. Her face suddenly drained of color, leaving her eyes too big, too dark, in the small planes of her face. And then suddenly the color flooded back, burnishing her entire body with bronze. For a moment her eyes glittered dangerously and then she bent to gather her clothes and with a back as straight as a rifle barrel, she stepped behind a clump of sprawling mountain laurel.

Trey’s eyes remained fastened on the place where she’d been. Hang on, boy. Take it easy. You’re thinking things it’s safer not to think. He’d promised her that one day they’d finish what they had started, but he was in a hurry to get down river. This was not the moment. With difficulty he slowed his breathing.

Verity. Here. Bathing.

It wasn’t possible. And yet, the mountain laurel was atremble with movement. Crushed leaves at the water’s edge were still wet with her footprints.

How did she get here? How in hell could she possibly be here, on the Ohio River bank, two nights and a full day from Corn Island? If it had been Homer now--but Verity! Maybe something terrible had happened on the island and Homer had chucked Verity into a canoe and made off. With vivid clarity he remembered his charge to Homer to take care of her. Had Indians… Where was Homer?

She stepped from behind the bushes in the same baggy pants she’d worn that first day he saw her back in Albemarle County. How in thunder could the sight of her in pants so loose she may as well have been draped in a tent, make his blood race as fast as when he’d seen her clothed in nothing but the morning light?

She wore the same pants, the same hat--good Lord, the hat had hidden only her hair--and the same defiant look in her eyes. A fine sheen of sweat broke out on his neck. He felt like a twelve-year-old boy in the grip of something he didn’t understand. He noticed then that her cheeks were a rosy shade of bright pink and in spite of her lifted chin, she was biting the inside of her bottom lip. She was unsure of herself. Embarrassed. He said the first thing that came into his mind.

"What, no goat?"

He could see a rapid pulse beating in her throat. The pink in her cheeks heightened. "I was looking for you," she said in a voice that tried to be big and failed.

"What for?"

"To--to go downriver."

His eyebrows raised. "Alone?"

"Yes." The fingers of one hand picked at a pant leg.

"You don’t really expect me to believe that you somehow got yourself down nearly one hundred miles of river all by yourself?"

"Yes." Her gaze clung to his.

He studied her carefully. There was no evidence of anyone else within earshot and he knew for a fact that she was strong-minded enough to attempt what others would never consider. But still--"

"To be honest," she ventured, "I’m surprised to see you so soon. I’d--"

He laughed, an amused bark that interrupted her, and then thought better of what he was going to say. "An understatement, surely. And, the question is why you’re here at all."

She flinched at the double meaning of his words, but answered calmly. "To go with you, of course. To Kaskaskia."

Kaskaskia! The damn-fool woman was willing to risk her life to get to that Edward-person. After he’d forbidden it about as forcibly as he knew how. He swept off his hat to slap it smartly against his leg.

"I told you--how many times did I tell you?--to wait on Corn Island and I’d send him back. This is madness!" His voice rose to a near shout. "Will you ever learn to listen?"

She ducked her head and was still for so long he found himself waiting on edge for her argument. "Well?" he demanded harshly, waving an aimless arm at the river. "You could have been killed a dozen times, in two-dozen ways, out there. In the dark, and my God, in the daylight. What were you thinking?"

Her voice was soft. He barely heard her. "I couldn’t wait. Please believe me, it wasn’t possible."

"Why couldn’t you wait? Because you had to have your own way!"

She raised her eyes finally and shook her head. "I might not have waited anyway, I wanted to come that bad. But at the last, I couldn’t. I was afraid."

He frowned. "Afraid of what?" And when she didn’t answer, his brows gathered in deeper lines. "You may as well tell me. We aren’t moving until you do."

Her mouth went loose for a brief second, as if she was going to cry, and his gut tightened like a clay brick in the hot sun. Except for that one time, on the Scioto, when she’d been running, he’d never seen her any way except spitting angry fire if she didn’t get her way, or else soft and sweet in his arms. He would have guessed there wasn’t anything much she couldn’t handle.

"Well?"

"Bart."

One whispered word and he knew all there was to know. Bart. Of course.

"That day with your washing?" he asked, and she nodded.

He felt like he was choking. "He did--hurt you, then."

"Not the way you mean. But he wouldn’t stop trying." Her eyes flooded with an unspoken plea and she looked suddenly like a frightened little girl. "That last night, after you left, he--I didn’t know what else to do."

Trey threw back his head and drew a long breath.