Plans and Provisions
They tethered their new horses outside the same mercantile they’d visited yesterday, a gray-weathered structure on the main street. Port Bath boasted several other shops, but David had seen a few items he wanted at the place called “Sam’s”—and he’d also noticed Gregory admiring an Indian-made neckpiece. The handsome pendant was just a thin leather thong hung with several long claws that shone in the dull light, reminders of the wilderness, and of people like his own fath—like the trappers who sold them. Like the Indians who’d once fashioned them and had worn them with pride.
David selected flour, beans, rice, jerked venison—enough to almost fill the saddlebags. Keeping his eyes averted and his fair hair tucked in the neckerchief, he gladly let Gregory speak to the shop keeper.
“How many days to Philadelphia?”
The man gaped at him. “Just point yer boots north, mister, an walk fer a month o’ Mondays.”
Gregory grinned. “Meaning—”
“Meaning if yer walking, don’t. If yer atop a horse, give yerself a week. Ten days mebbe. Depending on the outlaws and wolves and other regular folk who bide up thaur.”
David was astounded. A week? My own country is a crazy quilt of unknowns. I never dreamed my old home would be so far from here.
He quietly added another sack of corn and six large potatoes to their heap of purchases. And last, a bottle of something that promised to be “Scotch Whisky.” He hated the stuff, but he’d drink it in sips, to keep his mate company.
Gregory, seeming unconcerned by the shop keeper’s warning, sauntered to the shelf where the neckpiece lay among piles of trade items.
The man shrugged. “How much ye got?”
“No’ muckle, mister.”
“All ye Cohees talk like idjits. Ye can have it for ten half-pennies. No less.”
Gregory sought his eyes, and David agreed with a faint smile and a slight lift of his brows.
“I’ll take it. And I’ve changed my mind about heading north. How far to the frontier?”
“That’s better. Just walk into the setting sun. When the water stops running into the ocean and into somewhaur else, yer at the frontier. That’s what the law says.”
David stopped listening. He found the counter where the shop keeper had stacked sewing supplies, no doubt for the ladies of Port Bath. He selected four needles of different sizes and lengths, and several spools of silk thread. He fingered a small pair of scissors and put his own large fingers inside the handle. The tool fit his hands. Last, he cut a long piece of red-and-green plaid muslin with the scissors and tucked it under his arm, along with the other items.
He murmured to his companion, “I need laudanum and household alcohol. Um, like a cleaning agent. Will you ask this man?”
Gregory looked surprised but complied.
They paid with a small part of the money Captain Bart had given him. It was the first and last time David had exacted a price for his forced imprisonment and the captain’s habit of keeping him numb with narcotics.
Back outside, David wrapped his special purchases in the cotton cloth and tucked the bundle into the bottom of one saddlebag.
My first black box.
Five minutes later, after stowing the rest of their provisions in leather saddlebags, they were urging their horses west, into the thick cover of trees.
After several minutes of a hard gallop, Gregory reined his horse and David drew alongside.
“Safe at last, lad.”
He couldn’t help smiling. “From what…or from whom?”
“Snakes and wolves, at least for now. Let’s change direction and ride north until our stomachs cry out for a morning meal.”
They rode for…David thought it must have been two hours, judging by the sun’s position he could see through the tree cover. He reckoned it must be around ten of the morning when he heard Gregory shout from a small distance.
“Here’s a clearing. And a burn. Time to eat.”
He smiled and and caught up with the Scot, thinking about the first time they each rode a fine horse, seeking a place called Alyth, the Highlander’s boyhood home.
Three short months ago. We’ve come so far in such a short time…
They‘d traveled not just the vast distance between Scotland and North Carolina. David thought their entire teacher-student relationship had morphed into something complex. Something gut-churning and groin-tingling. Dangerous, and exhilarating.
They tethered their handsome horses near a small creek, where the animals could browse the long grass. Sitting cross-legged on the water’s edge, they ate jerked venison again and drank sweet water from tin cups.
“Why did you want the neck piece, Gregory?”
His companion raised a dark brow. “I like it.”
“It reminds me of home. I mean the monadh, the high moor. Home of badgers, ospreys, all the clawed and taloned creatures that keep it wild.”
“That makes sense. And the piece is made by a strong hand. I can see that. Like your black knife.”
The sgian dubh, the Highlander’s bone-handled black knife, was one of his mate’s small secrets, among many. He’d fashioned it from flint and had showed his truculent student how to make one too.
“So then, lad. Tell me why ye long tae be a mender of cloth.”
He looked up into a set of dancing dark eyes and stopped eating.
“Like a sail-mender, my friend. If I can learn to sew a piece of cotton, I can sew a man’s skin.”
“Like our second mate Mister Clawd, aye?”
“Exactly like that. Or like you, climbing the lanyard to fix a rip in a piece of sailcloth. Or fashioning a pair of britches from animal hide. Practice makes perfect. And maybe it can save a life.” He shrugged and resumed chewing the tough meat.
“So…the largest bottle of alcohol isnae for drinking?”
David laughed outright. “Drink it, and I can roll you into an early grave. ’Tis for cleaning wounds, making sure they don’t fester or worse.”
“How d’ye know?
“Because…while you lay stricken, I had some long talks with Claude, the ship’s surgeon you call Clawd. And because I saw what lies inside his black box. And because I watched him stitch you back together.”
Gregory visibly winced. “And because you already had a certain knowledge of the drug. Am I right?”
“Yes. And now you do too, Gregory. Laudanum is an opiate, a dream-inducer, a bringer of relief to some. And misery to others.”
Gregory leaned back and looked into the tree-tops. “I remember. Dreaming I was chained to a rock like Cu Chulainn, my eyes pecked out by ravens, while my thigh sang of grief and grave stones. A song to the Deil himself.”
“So you can understand why I was such a…a bairn when you first met me. My dreams were nightmares, and my waking hours were full of memory loss and terror. Same drug, from the opium poppy. But it does give relief of pain to a wounded man.”
“I never once thought of ye as a bairn.”
Gregory’s smile betrayed a certain irony. “Ye’ll be a fine surgeon, David.”
“Maybe. But I need to find books. And more supplies.” He shrugged again. “It will happen. I’ll look for more when we get to Philadelphia. I have time, and no doubt I’ll find endless patients in the years to come.”
“Patience.” Gregory laughed and rolled onto his stomach. “What I dinnae have so much of.”
David walked to him and sat a few inches from his leather-clad legs. Reaching out, he touched the top of his boot, where he could see the menacing tip of Gregory’s new dirk.
“Twelve years is the soul of patience. So I disagree with my teacher.”
Gregory MacGregor had hidden from the law and perceived enemies, carrying a broken dirk and a shattered spirit, for a dozen grief-filled years. But the mending had begun. The Scot was still all growls and scowls at times. But he was a different man from the sorrow-filled “Grier Black” David had first met.
“Truth is, David, we’re both students. And teachers too. The way I love it.”
“The way you planned it, you scamp.”
Gregory reached for him. “Nae. Ye surprise me every moment. I cannae plan a thing.”
“And you love that? Liar.” Somehow he was speaking into Gregory’s hot mouth, before his words became a suckling of tongue, a touching of soft beards, a moaning…
Gregory began to unknot the kerchief.
“I need to touch this spun gold, sift it through my fingers, let it kiss my… thighs.”
David could feel the man’s heart throbbing against his chest, and the heft of his large cock wedged into his own willing groin. And then—suddenly-nimble fingers found the thong laced across his fly.
“We need to get going.”
“No walls here, David.”
“Still, too close to civilization.”
“We’re more alone than ever before.”
“Not alone enough, my Highlander. We’ll know the place when we see it.”
Gregory sat up, frowning and smiling at the same time.
“Ye make me crazy.”
“You just called yourself a radge walloper.”
Gregory leaned close and kissed his ear. “Exactly. Time to ride. I’ll look for that special place along the way. If ye see it first, dinnae hesitate to share the tidings.”
They rode north into a waning afternoon, until their horses’ breathing began to betray their fatigue. David had learned months ago, while training with the Highlander, that a horse was much more than something to ride. It was an extension of the rider himself. A tired horse could stumble and break a leg. Its normally sharp senses could begin to fade and fail. It was no different, Gregory had said, for the warrior who rode him. David remembered every word the man had ever told him.
“Rest. Water. Food. When the two of ye have those simple things, David, ye’ve two warriors ready for anything.”
They encamped on the banks of one of the small mountain streams the southern colonists called “creeks,” named after the natives who lived there before being pushed westward. It was a phenomenon that had always bothered him. Why did the colonists push the original inhabitants farther away, or outright kill them, while adopting their place names? Was it a kind of self-forgiveness?
Only Christ can forgive the death of a man, the loss of his home.
When he and his mate left Philadelphia in the weeks to come, they’d be traveling to the former home of those same people—his country’s first settlers. The thought sat in his mind, festering. But so early in their journey, he hated to bring it up. They needed to get to his old home first. They could plan for what the mysterious “frontier” might hold for them—and the uprooted Indians—when they turned south and west to the true wilderness.
Gregory, who saw enemies behind every tree, would not build even a small campfire.
With no other source of heat, he sat close to his mate, pretending to drink whisky. One more meal of dried venison tomorrow, or one more tin cup filled with grain and stream water, were choices he refused to confront.
David fell asleep on the man’s broad shoulder, feeling a strange blaze in unthinkable places, dreaming about the fire inside.
Have I mentioned that these sneak-preview chapters begin on this blog, here: https://bit.ly/2tUmVWw
And did I ever tell you where to find the first two in this series, “The Renegade and the Runaway”? They’re right here: https://amzn.to/2JXjDcv