~ 3 ~
K realized that returning to reassure Tove had clouded her thinking. “We could have used that boat,” she admitted.
The blind woman tilted her head. “But, how are you here? Did you not sail or row?” Tove had eventually composed herself after her brief lapse of emotion.
K looked at her and admitted that the young woman’s beauty and blindness had conspired against her. Her golden hair, blue eyes and heart shaped face, dirty but pock-free, along with her fully matured body must have cost the Pratt brothers a hefty sum. Her loose, ill-fitting and filthy clothing could not hide her obvious allure.
“I have a canoe, but I am not alone. In fact…” Kasmira rose and coaxed the woman, leading her to the front door of the cabin. “I assume you know your way from here. I’ll send the twins. We must secure that boat.”
Tove pushed open the door that Josh had left swinging. “Twins? What twins? Are they older? Should I fear them?”
“They are young girls. Capable, I think. You’ll be safe with them.”
K returned to the children on the hidden beach and explained the situation.
“Help me unpack the canoe. We need speed to catch the boat–”
“What boat? What happened? Where’s the–” they all seemed to ask at once.
“Not now. Help me first, then you two can help the woman. The bad men are no longer a worry.”
The children joined in to unload all of K’s belongings; even the two large trunks of books were wrestled from the belly of the aluminum craft. Once all the parcels were stacked high on the beach, K explained that the woman waited for them in the cabin; that no one else occupied the island, and to wait for her there, while she and Deus tried to fetch the boat that had drifted away.
The girls wore their boots, shoes were a luxury few could afford, and carried their still wet clothing up through the pines to the cabin.
“Sit yourself on the seat, young one,” K said to Deus. “The spare paddle rests there along the slats on the bottom.” She placed her Cherokee fashioned bow, still strung, and the case of arrows on the wooden boards, as insurance.
Now empty, K powered the canoe down the sand — the returning tide was still hours from its peak — hopped in and navigated her way between the reaching limbs of the flooded forest. She instructed the boy to paddle as best he could, switching sides as he tired. She would steer around his strokes.
As they went, she cautiously offered as little information about the events at the cabin, not wanting the boy to think her the callous murderer she found that accurately described her deeds. A sullied salvation delivered by the point of an arrow.
“The men are dead. One ran to a boat. He died but the boat drifted away. We will need it if we want to bring the woman with us.”
Deus, as if aware of the test, paddled steadily, only pausing to turn to ask questions. “Did’ ju shoot ‘em?”
“The world is such a place. And I am sorry for it. Yes, I shot them both.”
“Kin’ I learn ta’ shoot like you?”
It had been only a day and the boy had somehow adopted himself onto her. Kindness and strength; K had experienced the attraction herself, and had been the target for such attachment, more than once.
“You must have kin someplace. They must wonder about you.” She suspected the opposite, but couldn’t take full responsibility unless she explored all the possibilities.
He turned back to the front and paddled a time before replying. “I be run’ away from da home I be livin’ at. Be no one lookin’ fo me.”
They paddled up the long wide bay. To the west, five or more miles, the mainland poured fingers of creeks and rivers into the brackish water. To the east, the peninsula continued to pace them, its dark line a quill scratched north to south, as far as the eye could see. The southern wind had died as the temperature climbed, but K figured the boat they tracked was still a mile or two further north. Fortunately, the sea remained smooth and within a few songs the boy, his odd grey hawk-eyes peering out over the green and silvered waters, caught sight and gave a whoop. Their chase had no doubt given him a sense of camaraderie, something K was sure he’d rarely felt.
“We’ll pull along side, but I want you to look away at what might be inside.”
The boy nodded, but couldn’t help but steal a glance. K watched him and when the black smear of dried blood that spread across the back bench and the pale face of the dead man showed, he quickly looked away.
“I’ll just be a short time. You hold onto the side of the skiff while I take care of this.”
Deus grabbed the front of the small sailboat, a lap-planked affair with a lateen rigged sail, while Kasmira crawled over the side, next to the big man who’d bled out within a minute of his injury.
K rifled his pockets, finding some Before coin, a good antler-handled knife, and three red patches of cloth to match the yellow ones on the girl’s hooded shrouds. Relieved of his personables she sat his corpse up and pushed him head first over the edge. He’d just started to become rigored and she had to balance and heave, careful not to throw herself off the opposite side. Deus remained clutching the bow and the canoe’s stern swung away from the sailboat a bit when Josh Pratt’s legs finally lifted like a sinking log and slid with barely a bubble into the murky waters of the bay.
Before he’d slipped over the edge, K had made sure the boy’s eyes remained averted, and with the man’s knife, slit his belly up and down. She didn’t expect the body to remain sunken, but this would give it a day or three, she figured, before it surfaced, gassing up; having buried a few dozen such bodies, she knew the mechanics of watery decay.
“You have a choice, now. You can get towed in the canoe. Or you can come aboard, sit in the bow and learn a thing about sailing.”
Deus looked back at the woman. She sat in the stern, the tiller in her hand, dried black blood staining half the bench. To her back, the boom lay the length of the boat; tied to it was a grimy brown sail, that, K hoped, remained viable, at least to get them the five miles back to the island. In the bow was another bench which seemed to suit him.
“I can sit der’, if dat’ be alright.”
“Good. Swing the canoe back so I can hold it and climb on up there.”
The boy, smiling with the adventure, scrambled over and forward. K tied the canoe’s nose-ring rope to a cleat on the sailboat’s transom and proceeded to raise the boat’s filthy sail. Leaves and dirt and the nest of some creature tumbled from it as its folds unfurled. It filled well enough, and with the scant breeze still from the south, K tacked as well as she could, back and forth across a mile’s worth of bay, the canoe following in its light, easy manner.
It took them nearly three hands of the sun, but they eventually returned the sailboat to the timber skids where K spotted a winch used to haul out the boat. However, the thick hemp rope fouled, and K had to leave the craft only half drawn up. She and the boy took the canoe and paddled to their original beach, secured the craft, and with some hesitation, walked to the cabin.
K thought she smelled an odd scent in the wood smoke that lingered in the air at the heart of the island. As she and Deus approached the back of the timbered dwelling, she could see the remnants of a bonfire smoldering in the clearing. A few stub-ended logs ringed the blackened circle, which gave off an odd stench. The back door stood open and now that she had time, she noticed that a set of hinged board-flaps, that served as window shutters, had been lifted around each side of the cabin. From inside, animated conversation spilled through the doorway.
“Tove? Girls?” K probed, her short but strong bow still in her hand, her case of arrows closed, but carried beneath her arm.
Nita and Jessa emerged from the dark cabin, its shadowed insides obscured by the brightness of the sun shining on the wood shingled roof and the glare from wood chips around the backyard. The girls wore their rough pants, which had dried in the warmth of the cabin, and had kept the K’s blue and green shirts. K determined, from then on, to separate the girls by color.
Nita, in blue, spoke up. “Miss K! You came back.”
Deus went to the girls and they reached out to touch his arms, hesitantly affectionate. Tove then appeared in the doorway. She’d cleaned her face and now wore a colorful shirt instead of the drab thing she’d had on before.
K pointed to the large ring of fire. “House cleaning?” she asked.
“Jessa and Nita helped me be rid of everything the brothers owned that wouldn’t be useful. We kept tools and stuffs that might be sold, someday. I wanted to burn up the cabin, but thought better of it. These two helped me.” The blind woman reached out her hands and both girls grabbed one each, guiding her out into the sunshine. The woman lifted her glowing face to the warmth.
The cleansing fire creaked behind them, cooling. K realized that the one brother’s body had vanished. “Where’s the first brother?” she said looking more closely at the fire’s ashes.
“We dragged him over to the midden, ‘n left him. Didn’t know to bury him or burn him or…” said Nita.
Jessa deferred, and as K watch, the girl looked away from them, focusing on the sky and the pine trees. After a moment of silence the girl in green spoke for them all, “We could stay here a while, couldn’t we? But not if that man is here. Even dead.”
Kasmira looked into the vacant eyes of the blonde woman, and then into those of Jessa who, she knew, sensed the world on a different level than the rest of them.
“Alright. I’ll take the man off the island; he can join his brother. But the Newains may show up. I don’t think they’re done with us yet. We’ll set some rules. Find our feet. But only if Tove is good with stayin’. I know a thing about her mind and wouldn’t think to force her to remain in such a place.”
Tove walked tentatively toward K’s strong voice, her right hand extended. K switched the bow to her other hand and reached out to grasp Tove’s extended fingers. The blind woman then held K’s hand in both of hers and kissed it, and held it to her cheek. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me. I’ll do whatever you think best,” she said, her head bent in deference to the older stocky woman.
K handed the bow and arrow case to Deus and hugged the woman. “We can be safe here, I believe. You’ll be safe with us. We’ll keep each other safe.”
The children stood in awkward silence while the women exchanged their unspoken vow.
“There is one of us, I believe, I have not met,” Tove said, breaking away. “The girls told me of a friend, and I have yet to hear his voice.”
Deus, naturally shy, K thought, figuring he’d seen the woman in a way that confounded his sensibilities, surprised her. “I be Deus ma’am. I ken do most tings a man ken do, and some tings dey cain’t. I like’n to stay here with Miss K and Nita and Jessa and you, if’n you like.”
“Deus,” the woman replied, her face radiant with new found hope. “I am pleased to meet you.” She held out her hand and with his free one, Deus hesitantly reached out his own to grasp hers. She gave it a squeeze and then said, “We have stores inside. Enough to feed us for a while. Are you hungry, Deus?”