Day One Hundred Fourteen
The children didn’t know.
“Well, do you have friends or family in area—someone you could stay with? We’ll leave a note for your father, and—“
“Daddy doesn’t read.”
“Are you sure about that?” I looked around the room. There were no books, so I supposed it was possible.
“We’re staying here,” Tristan said. “He’ll come back and he’ll be mad we didn’t do as he said and look after the house and the gardens. He’ll be mad we left Mom.”
I rubbed my forehead, even though I didn’t have a headache. Who needed a headache when there were stubborn children to deal with? “Okay,” I said. “But you do know another family around here, right? Who are they and where can I find them?”
It took a bit of coaxing, but I finally determined that there was an “Uncle Zach” somewhere within a day’s ride. Tristan’s directions were confusing and contradictory, but he gave me a good description of the place, and I figured I had a decent chance at finding it.
So as much as I hated to do it, I made plans to leave. I gave the children all my food, except for what I would need to get to Uncle Zach’s farm. I thought about staying an extra day to teach Tristan a few basics about snares and dressing game, but with the food supply already limited and no guarantee he would be a quick study, it was best to go for help right away. I would have to make sure I found Uncle Zach’s place, no matter what.
What a thoroughly maddening day! I set out marking trees and building cairns as I went, and was glad I took the precaution. Trails broadened, narrowed, looped around and veered off in unexpected directions. I got lost more than once as a trail I thought for sure was the one I needed instead vanished into impenetrable forest.
By afternoon I thought I would lose my mind with frustration. At one point, faced with yet another dead-end, I yanked on Flecha’s reins, looked all around and shouted, “God, Mother Goddess, whoever is out there—come on! You know I’m not doing this for me!”
I don’t know if my irreverent appeal helped, or if it was just dumb luck, but a couple of hours later, tired, and on the point of losing all hope, I found myself on a trail that dipped and twisted and led almost without warning to a clearing. Right ahead of me, as obvious as the coming night, was a stone wall and a barn.
This couldn’t be it, could it? It matched Tristan’s description, but then, a lot of farms probably did. Still, even if it was the wrong place, maybe I could get directions. Since there was no one in the fields or barn, I went around to the farmhouse and knocked.
A slight, wiry man opened the door and examined me with a cautious eye. He gave a me a lopsided smile. “Did you bring a present?”
Another man, a little younger and with such pale gray eyes that they were almost white, looked at me over the first man’s shoulder. “She’s definitely not on the guest list.”
The first man nodded. “That’s what I thought.”
This was more than I was able to deal with. I hadn’t come all this way on such a serious errand, only to be mocked. “I’m looking for Zachary Dean,” I said. “Are either of you him? Or do you know where I can find him?”
The men grinned at each other, then the one with the pale eyes asked, “Why are you looking for him? If he’s in trouble with the law, we don’t know him. But if there’s an inheritance. . .”
“There might be,” I said in exasperation. “Because I just left two kids this morning, after helping bury their mother last night.”
Both men grew still. “I’m Zach Dean,” the pale-eyed one said. “Maybe you should come inside.”
We sat down in the neatly furnished front room, and I told them the whole story. They weren’t joking now, although the thin one, whose name was Howard, slipped out of the room for a few minutes and then returned, saying to no one in particular, “I’ve moved all the food into the warmer.”
By now Zach was leaning forward, elbows on his thighs, staring at the braided rug as if it might hold important clues. “Ron wouldn’t abandon those kids,” he said. “I know my brother. And he wouldn’t abandon his wife, either.”
“Well, something happened,” I said. “Those children can’t stay there alone, and I couldn’t convince them to come with me.”
Howard put a hand on Zach’s shoulder. “We can go get them in the morning.”
Zach nodded. “Are they okay for tonight?”
“I don’t see why not,” I said. “I left them all the food I had, and they’d been taking pretty good care of themselves until I got there. One more night shouldn’t hurt them.”
“They’re good kids,” he said. “And I’ll replenish your supplies. We have plenty of food here.”
“Speaking of. . .” Howard said. “We all gotta eat, you know.”
I could tell dinner was the last thing on Zach’s mind, but he got to his feet and the men showed me into a nook off the kitchen, where a table had been set with a blue cloth, china, glass, and wax candles in brass holders. It seemed pretty elegant for a farmhouse supper. Then Howard told me, “Today is Zach’s birthday.” Zach sat down while Howard set out a place setting for me and began taking food out of the oven’s warming reservoir.
It was at about this point that I realized I was witnessing something a little out of the ordinary. I knew a few lesbians in Unitas, but not any men who admitted to liking other men. Homosexuals were spoken of only obliquely or as a joke. But as Howard set out potatoes, early peas, bread and butter, and a roasted chicken, I didn’t see anything in the way he and Zach interacted that seemed much different from how a man and woman would have behaved. They were polite people, decent, and seemed anxious to give a good impression. There was wine to drink, Howard filled my plate, and when I was through, he insisted I have second helpings. And Zach made an effort to engage me in conversation, even though I could tell by the far-off look in his eyes that his mind was on other things.
After the meal, Howard brought out a cake, decorated with raisins, nuts and redbud blossoms. It was almost too lovely to eat. But conversation was strained, and soon drifted into speculation about the children and what might’ve happened to Zach’s brother. I felt bad I had no more information to offer. “Maybe there were things the children weren’t telling me,” I said, trying to sound hopeful. “They don’t know me, so it would be natural for them to be cautious.”
Zach gave a small smile. “Tristan will tell anything to anyone. No boundaries at all, that one.” He sighed and pushed his half-eaten slice of cake away. “It’s delicious,” he told Howard. “But I’m full.”
“We’ll save the rest for the children,” Howard offered, and this seemed to be the right thing to say, because Zach nodded and looked grateful.
The men set me up in their guest room for tonight. It’s neat and simple, but comfortable, and I feel lucky to be here, lucky to have found this place. It’s good to know that by tomorrow night, those two children will be with adults who can provide for them. They’ll make a strange family, but in my own experience, most families are pretty strange.
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