Old Man's Blog

Chapters 33 34 35 Jesse and Malila almost die.




The cold rains of November swept across the plains as Malila and Jesse huddled under a small lean-to near the river Jesse had refused to name.

They had reached the banks that evening. Pruned of its leaves and limbs by death and the wind, an immense cottonwood tree had fallen across the small river that blocked their line of travel.

Malila, without asking, hopped onto the trunk and started walking forward.

“Get back, you fool.”

She turned to look at the old man. Since Bear, Jesse had seemed to shrivel within himself, older now than she could imagine. His eyes became dull, his hands bore livid bruises when he took his gloves off, and he winced with each mouthful of food. He had become vague and indecisive. The only unchanged condition was her bondage. Jesse was still scrupulous in tying her up and watching her movements.

Looking back at Jesse, Malila bounced on the log, taunting him, her long lead sending sine waves back and forth to Jesse. “Losing your nerve, old man? We have a ready-made bridge.”

“A devil’s bridge, more like. Kill you quick enough if you try to cross.”

“It’s a dead tree!” Malila jumped up and down again lightly. “See? Nothing to worry about.”

“Okay, nothing to worry about. I’m not going to cross on it. Any road, we are stoppin’—now. Understand, Prisoner Chiu?”

Malila shrugged and retreated from the trunk to follow Jesse up to the lee side of the river’s bluff. Jesse was getting old before her eyes.

After constructing a shelter, the sound of the roaring water still audible, the old man acted exhausted, stumbling as he collected firewood to store dry, nodding if he sat for even a few seconds, and refusing to answer her questions. After he threw her some jerky, he went to bed, without fire, food, water, or bathing. Falling asleep almost at once, every few minutes Jesse would fret, groan, wake, and reposition himself. Malila was left to consider her hunger and isolation. Clouds scudded over them, extinguishing the stars before the sky even grew dark.

It started to rain within the hour.

Despite her hunger and the dismal weather, Malila slept. The next day Jesse was even sicker. Trapped, Malila was forced to roust the old man whenever she wanted to pee or get water. At last, Jesse, drawing his long knife and brandishing it clumsily, worked the blade between the knot and the small of her back and released her. Jesse collapsed back onto the furs, and Malila skittered away into the dull, sodden landscape.

That day and the next, Jesse lay abed, fretting and moaning. Malila scrounged enough food to keep herself nourished as the rains continued and the river rose. The old man moved only enough to drink and piss. All he ate were the berries from which he made his loathsome tea.

It looked as if he was settling himself for a slide toward a fetid death, like an old picture of a sinking ship. At home, they would have euthanized him by now. It would have been kinder. He stank.

That third night, with nothing to do all day but watch the rain and listen to Jesse die, she could not sleep. She tried pulling Jesse’s arm over her waist to console herself, to warm him. He groaned and rolled away from her, leaving her colder than before.

It had been five weeks since her capture. Jesse had abducted her only to die in his own Sisi way, leaving her in a half-drowned wilderness. The thoughts of what might have been played nightly in her imagination. Every time she drifted off, Jesse groaned and moved.

At dawn, exhausted, Malila arose and dressed, leaving Jesse to his fretful but now less-noisy sleep. It must be getting close to the end. Throwing an oilskin around her shoulders, she left the shelter barefoot, her light footprints filling with water. Once free of the shelter, the roar of the water almost overwhelmed her, and she followed it to the river.

The cottonwood that Jesse had feared to use was still there. The rising river now crested over the massive trunk, generating a monstrous standing wave of dirty water. Malila stood mesmerized. Debris sped along in the peat-colored water before being sucked up and over the aged trunk to disappear into the maelstrom below. Caught in the flood, uprooted trees and swept-up wreckage fountained into the endless cascade.

Upstream a dark object caught Malila’s eye. It moved within the torrent, and she could not tell if it was alive or dead. As it swept into the cataract and over the trunk, she could make out the carcass of a bloated and decaying young bison. It rose high on the wave but caught, for a moment, at the very crest. Malila could see the sodden head of the beast. Short horns protruded above the lolling putrescent tongue, the belly ballooning obscenely, the legs bulging away, as if fearful of its rupture. The bison pivoted in the torrent and was released, plunging over the spume and spinning away downstream.

The cold no longer bothered her. She thought how inexorable would be the plunge. The decision simplified things to a single point. She need no longer be a failure or an embarrassment. A single decision solved it all.

The huge spinning mass of her life swung back and forth over a malevolent darkness. Malila crawled and climbed up the roots to the trunk of the cottonwood and turned toward the river before standing. Through her feet, she felt the thrill of the surging water as she inched forward. A few small steps and she would snip the single corroded fiber that bound her to life. She moved forward. The trunk swayed as the river surged. The brown opaque crest of water overtopping the trunk hypnotized her, her life … squandered … too damaged to cherish.

Glimpsing a dark shadow on the shore, she hurried forward another two steps as if afraid that death might take her uninvited.

Malila, come back!

“Malila, come back!”

The two voices echoed each other inside her head and confused her. The voices were mingled: old and young, without and within. She hesitated.

Jesse swung up to the trunk, and she felt it shudder under their combined weight. She moved forward once more, no longer waiting, afraid to look back at what Jesse might have become. The Unity was already counting her among the dead. The oblivion of the cold rushing water beckoned to her. She stretched forward her bare foot … and felt the cold water close over her head.

She gasped and inhaled some water. Darkness enclosed her as she struggled to the surface to cough, the water burning her lungs.

“Stand up, lass!”

She opened her eyes. The naked scrub trees were turning lazily around her. She put down her feet, and cold, soft mud squished between her toes. Rage flared momentarily within her. Jesse, clothed in just his oilskin, jumped off the trunk, waded in, and disengaged the length of hide rope she found tangled around her neck, arm, and legs. As she dully tried to pick the line away, she recognized it, the thin line weighted with a machine nut to suspend food away from nighttime scavengers. While she had been consoling herself with the idea of her death, the old man had thrown the line to ensnare her. Jesse had pulled her into the backwater of the cottonwood, a quiet spinning pool despite the cataract beside it.

Without a word, the old man was beside her, pulling her up. Standing in thigh-deep water, he hugged her, almost crushing her, and sobbed. Numb and in the throes of her thoughts, Malila, for long seconds, stood with her arms at her sides before starting to beat at Jesse to release her. When he turned her to face him, his face frightened her, rain or tears furrowing down the man’s features before dripping onto his oilskin.

“I’m sae sorry, love. Ah haven’t been keeping ye right. Ah promise ta keek after ye, hereafter, na matter what.”

Malila stared at him.

Jesse retrieved and shouldered the rope before grabbing her by the wrist. Malila allowed herself to be half-pulled and half-led up the bank and along to the shelter. She let the old man strip her, wash her, and maneuver her under the furs, before he kindled a fire with the stored dry wood.

She awoke in what she knew to be a dream. She had returned to the blood lake, the steps, and the sunless, brittle sky. She had not had the dream since her first bleeding. The dream was different this time, even from the beginning. There was a sharp texture to the air. She was grateful for the warmth of the blood as she moved through it. She still dreamed she was climbing the steps to gain the temple porch. When she reached the top, the breeze smelled of the sea. She was wearing a long white gown of some soft, clinging material. Looking out, a forest spread into the distance. She raised her hand to the sky and watched her hand disappear as through a wall of fog. She felt the cold, wet breeze on her hand, dew condensing on her fingers to run down onto her arms. The dewdrops were the color of blood. She awoke with a start.

Jesse hushed her as she rose. “It’s all right, lass. Just your dream.”

He pulled her down to the warmth of their bed and arranged the skins over her again before settling himself. He rested his arm, thick and solid on her waist, and Malila hugged it to herself, letting the old man feel how her heart pounded.

“It will be all right, my friend.”

She sagged into his warmth and was again asleep.

Over the next several days, they scouted south until they found an ancient weir, fouled with debris but sturdy enough to offer them a footpath. They never camped near a large river again.



Crossing of the Ohio, Indiana Territory

Early evening, December 6, 2128

Malila sat tied with her back against the furrowed trunk of a tree, the ground littered with dried pod-like fruit, telegraphing her every motion. Since her attempt at the devil’s bridge, Jesse’s concern for her welfare had been almost endearing, making her ashamed to have ever thought he wanted her merely as a trophy. He kept her under “close arrest,” as he called it. She did not blame him.

In so many other ways, however, the old man was not playing fair.

He was an enemy. He was strange, old, and uncouth. Even so, Jesse had, without her permission, refilled her empty cache of self-esteem. Over the last week, ever since he had pulled her back from the devil’s bridge, it had become clear to her: somehow, the old man reminded her of forgotten childhood images, best forgotten … perhaps.

Regardless, the idea of causing grief to the old man was now somehow distasteful to her. Her own life had a worth because of the old man’s concern, their bondage now mutual. For a while, he had talked to her at every opportunity, expending his grand eloquence around every campfire, holding her close at night in the increasing cold.

But it had not lasted. Over the last few days, Jesse had started the same vague, slow descent into senility. He could no longer eat except by cutting the meat into small bits and swallowing without chewing. Malila had taken over cooking. Jesse forgot things … or no longer cared. The voice that had echoed with Jesse’s, calling her back, had not surfaced again.

She had no illusions. If Jesse died, her own death in this wilderness could not be long delayed, just more gruesome; she would go back to the devil’s bridge.

It had been two days since Jesse had talked to her.

Tonight he’d abandoned her at dusk, bound. She was not sure he could remember where he had left her. Darkness rendered her blind. Her ears picked up every sound: the fall of a leaf, the faint cracking of a branch in the distance, a distant bird crying unanswerable questions. She could see nothing. No doubt her body, producing a plume of scent down the wind stream, attracted any animal or plant with a taste for flesh. In the dark, her imagination invented slavering horrors circling her. Malila felt a breeze on the back of her neck.

Behind her, without a rattle of a pod, a voice whispered, “Get up.”

Jesse retied her hands in front of her. He showed no hesitancy in the gloom of the forest, his gait smoother and more assured, even as Malila found every exposed root to trip over. Eventually, she looked up to see an opening in the blackness. The forest parted to reveal a broad expanse of river. Jesse led her along a bluff and down to the water’s edge. A small skin boat waited for them. Jesse tethered her to a seat in the bow with their packs lashed amidships. The old man settled himself aft and, after groaning effort, pushed them off with a short paddle.

Jesse negotiated rather than paddled the boat across and down the wide river. Washed out by the full moon, the sky showed just the brightest stars as they slipped along between shadowy lines of forest. Within a few minutes, a little break in the tree line on the opposite shore proved to be a juncture with a smaller stream. Water foaming white even in the uncertain light, the old man pointed the bow toward the point and shoved the boat forward. He paddled them close to the port-side shore and continued upstream. Within minutes, a small light appeared, flashing in triplets. Jesse leaned back and turned toward the light before running onto the shingle of a small beach.

“Halloo, the shore!”

A dark form separated itself from the mass of the trees and caught the rope the old man threw into the dark.

“Halloo yourself, you old fool. What took you? I’ve been exposing myself with that damned light for almost an hour.”

“Well, all’s well, Mose. I got our supercargo here. Malila, please meet my friend, Moses P. Stewert. Moses, meet Chiu, Malila E., acting second lieutenant.” Jesse’s apathy was gone, replaced by a brittle brightness, like a shard of mirror in the dark.

“You will pardon me if I don’t curtsy, and stop wasting time, you old coot!” said the voice in the dark.

The two men unloaded the boat onto a beach and lifted it bodily out of the water to walk it up the bank.

Malila heard the occasional soft scrape of a tree branch as they moved. An errant breeze carried a pungent smell that she vaguely remembered. After a great deal of opening and closing of gates and doors, Malila found herself inside a building, the air close and warm. Jesse removed her makeshift hood after tying her to a post. A small fire glowed a sullen red in a river-rock-and-mud hearth but revealed nothing of the space until the man called Moses lit a crude candle.

The dim yellow light revealed a large dirt-floored room. Moses appeared a few years older than she and was tall, with competent hands and a prominent Adam’s apple. His almost somnolent eyes looked at Malila without pleasure. He was clean shaven except for a few days’ growth. In the way of tall men, he walked in a crouch.

As Moses added new fuel to the hearth fire, Malila could see the rest of the room. Alcoves with raised sleeping platforms lined three sides of the long, narrow space. The ceiling was tall enough for Malila to stand and displayed a collection of drying herbs, tools, and food left hanging from the rafters.

“Glad to see you, old man. You were beginning to worry me,” said Moses.

Jesse grinned his grin. “Glad to see you can outrun the bears.”

“I don’t have to outrun the bears, old man … I just got to outrun you!”

The men embraced, hugging each other for long seconds. Amazed, Malila saw a gleam of moisture on the old man’s cheek as they parted.

After a scant pause, the old man said, “Are you gonna let me die of thirst, young man? I know your momma, and she would be ashamed of your manners.”

Moses laughed and, without a word, retreated from the lighted circle, only to return with an earthenware jug of considerable size and an odd shape. Its flank displayed numerous looped handles, and a gray glaze showing the mark of the potter’s hand as its only decoration. He placed it on a makeshift table. Moses poured two portions of clear liquid into metal tins before the two men rattled them together, without a word, and drank. There followed a profound silence before a smacking of lips, inrush of breath, and low hoots of amazement.

“Where did you find this?” Jesse asked in hushed awe.

“Booker Tolliver came by last week. He had orders to take all the animals that I couldn’t use to Lex’ton before winter. His missus sent it along with him as a special present. You know, Jess, I think the lady is sweet on you, you old dried-out stump of a man.”

“Just a delayed payment on services rendered, Mose. And see … no good deed goes unpunished!” Jesse gave a small salute with the tin cup.

Moses laughed for a moment before his face sobered. “The railroad has been cut again. Up near Lou’ville, place called Muddy Fork. Lost a loco and most of the hospital cars. It was on a siding, so some of the docs and nurses got away … and some were with their patients.”

“Anybody I know? Dorothy Partridge used to go on that run as part of her job, but I think she has a practice in Covington now …” Jesse’s voice petered out, and he sipped, his face now in shadow away from Malila’s sight.

Moses had no response but took a knife and carved a slice from what looked like a lump of wood hanging from a low rafter and offered it to Jesse on the tip of the blade.

“Black-bear ham, smoked with some applewood I found.”

Malila’s stomach growled.

Jesse accepted the morsel and ate it in silence. He took another slice, and the two compared notes on wild gastronomy.

“What are you going to do with Miss Anthrope over there?” Moses asked as he cut another piece.

“That is a puzzle, is it not, my friend? I don’t suppose you have more applewood by chance?”

“Tell me again, Jess: Why do we want to compromise the whole mission just to capture a real-live, bone-and-sinew Union butter bar? It don’t make much sense to me if what we get is still kicking and spitting.”

Jesse shrugged.

“We can get a message to the regimental head shed, but without the rail line, I surely don’t care to have to transport her to corps HQ in winter on horseback. But let me see something,” said the old man, turning to Malila, her face barely illuminated in the dim light. “Lieutenant Chiu, answer me a question.”

“Chiu, Malila E., acting second lieutenant, serial number 590261697.”

Jesse sighed and asked anyway, his pale eyes now bright. “Have I told you any lies?” he asked.

His question made Malila uneasy. It almost sounded like a plea.

“You said you were going to eat me.”

The old man sighed and looked down for a second before looking up. “Yes, ma’am. I said I might … and we still ain’t home yet.”

Moses hooted in the background.

“As far as I know, you’ve been truthful,” Malila said in a childish singsong.

Jesse rolled his eyes and went on. “How many times could I ha’ killed you?”

“That’s against the rules of war,” she spat back.

“Well, we savages don’t read no rules. Do we, Mose? I ain’t read no rules of war. What about you?”

“Shucks, Jesse, you know I cain’t hardly read,” Moses replied, grinning mischievously and shaking his head.

“How many times could I have killed you, Lieutenant Chiu?” Jesse repeated.

“Anytime you wanted. Is that the answer you want?”

The old man nodded and continued more slowly, “Tell me the truth, Lieutenant: Do you know how to get back home?”

“No,” she said after a pause.

Jesse turned to Moses and said brightly, “Moses, I have a real hankering for fresh vegetables. Have you got any?”

“Sorry, Jesse, I was eating up the reserve, trying to close up the station. I got some pickles. Would that do?”

“Sure, if you are sure it won’t be any trouble.”

“No trouble at all!” The younger man rose and went outside. Malila could hear him moving around in an adjacent room.

Jesse asked softly, once the outside door had closed, “Are you going to try to kill me again, Lieutenant Chiu?”

When she did not respond immediately, he sighed.

She paused and searched her own character. There was a time when she would have killed Jesse without remorse. She had wanted to hurt him for capturing her, for abandoning her, for making her trust him while he was playing her for a fool, for making it seem that he was concerned for her.

She had gotten used to his peculiarities. No, that was unfair. She missed his confidences. She saw him floating away into senility. He had wanted her but, even then, had rejected her. He should have stayed with her, at the underpass, at the river. Even just the last few days, he had been distancing himself. Every time she’d needed him, he’d vanished. When she tried to analyze the events, the images slid and spiraled away from her.

Jesse was still staring at her.

“No, Jesse. I’m not going to try to kill you.”

“Do you mean it this time?” he asked in a quiet voice. Moses’s rummaging stopped, and Malila could hear him returning.

“Yes, Jesse, I mean it this time. I’ll not try to harm you or Moses.”

“Or yourself?”

“Or myself.”

Moses entered with a glass jar of ancient pickles, held on high, in triumph.

“Then have a drink wi’ us,” said Jesse.




Malila rubbed her wrists, long since chafed and callused from the bindings, as Jesse kicked a box near the ring of light, gesturing to her to sit. Moses shrugged and retrieved a small jar into which he poured a finger of the clear liquid before giving it to Malila. Jesse tried to open the jar of pickles before letting Moses complete the process. Jesse took a bite of a pickle and made a face that nearly made Malila laugh.

A second later however, his face sobered and he raised his cup in salute. “Here’s to Percy! May he swim farthest, swim fastest, see more ladies, and sire more babies than the rest.”

Moses laughed and clicked cups with the old man and with Malila before swallowing with gusto. Malila sniffed at the contents of her jar. A noseful of fumes made her sneeze.

“To Percy.”

She upended the glass, downing the contents to get the absurd toast over with as quickly as possible.

Moses’s smiling face froze, and he nudged Jesse.

Silence reigned.

The fire in her mouth, throat, and lungs, like a body blow, wrung the breath from her. She could breathe neither in nor out. Her vision started to narrow before a paroxysm of coughing threw her off the box and onto her knees. Jesse was at her side, pounding her back as she gasped for a breath through her still-alcohol-saturated mouth. Another frenzy of coughs seized her, tears streaming down her cheeks. She slowly recovered, breathing carefully through her nose.

“Smooth,” she lied.

The men dissolved into relieved laughter. Malila found herself smiling as well. Alcohol in its many forms was available in the Unity. The infinity of names, brands, colors, and adulterants confused her. The DUFS frowned upon its use. Some of her age group had been found drunk and disorderly when she was an E6. They’d received no reprimand, but then again, all had washed out within eighteen months. She’d never seen them again.

She took another sip. This time, negotiating the liquid past her reflexes, she grinned back at the expectant glances of the men. Between sips and slices of pickle and ham, the three of them talked about the eternally safe topic of the weather. Moses told jokes, and Jesse obediently chuckled, before explaining them to her.

She perceived no effect of the drink other than a warming action in her near-empty belly and an improvement in the quality of the humor. Her drinking companions were becoming excellent hosts.

Jesse started to tell his friend of the events of the last six weeks. He gave an account of Malila’s surgery, Percy’s release, and Bear’s attack. The old man improved upon her performance during the bison hunt but mentioned nothing about her attempt on his life, the devil’s bridge, or her bleeding. As the jug passed around each time, Malila’s opinion of the old man as a traveling companion, scholar, and benefactor improved.

The conversation passed on to local news from back home.

“… and Wesley Sanchez just bought the Zimmerman place in Cabot’s Town after Philip was near killed by some bushwhackers … broke his leg,” Moses continued.

“That’s a shame. The association8 doing anything?”

Malila interrupted before Moses could reply. “Tha’d never happen in the Unity. Mus’ be horrible to live in diz country. What I don’ understan’ is why you don’ just join the Unity,” spat Malila, becoming annoyed that her viscous tongue had taken to wandering as she was trying to speak.

“Other than I’d be turned into one of your zombie troopers, you mean?” sniffed Jesse.

Malila dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand.

“Nothing is so law-abiding as a conquered country … peace of the graveyard, is all,” returned Jesse.

“How can you say we’re con … con … beaten? You’re the ones that have to run and hide, old man.” She poked Jesse’s chest for emphasis.

“Oh, I think both of our countries have been beaten, lass. Ours after the Scorching, but yours had already been conquered by that time. The buzzards were the only ones to win that war.”

“We won the las’ war … Glor’ous War of Liberation!”

“I had no idea you were such an authority, my friend. From whom were you liberated then?”

“From the old people who were hoarding all the wealth and, ya know … stuff!”

“And did these wealthy old people have rights?”

“You don’ understand rights.” Again the fluttering hands. “Individuals don’ have rights. It’s the people who have rights. No one has the right to hoard the wealth of the people for their own benefit!”

“So it was not so much that they were old as that they had something valuable? Was that their crime?”

“You can’t understan’! It’s com’licated. That was then, ol’ man. The Unity is based on rights, after all!”

The old man’s grizzled eyebrows went up in mock surprise. “Oh, well now, it’s based on rights. I didn’t know that. Educate me, lass, if you would be so kind.”

“We have the right t’ vote, t’ believe what we want, t’ be free of being offended, t’ say anything we want long as it doesn’t offend anyone else, the right to food, work, housing, transportation, and medical care. After we retire, the Unity takes care of ever’thin’! It’s guaranteed.”

“Do you have the right to be foolish?” He cocked his head to the side, like a fox.

“Of course not. Who wants to be foolish?”

“Who indeed, lass? Everyone should be protected from being foolish. So a question, my wise friend: Is gambling wise or foolish?”

“Only the foolish gamble … so you mus’ like it, Sisi!” She laughed, throwing her head back and nearly falling.

“Mose, when did you start your homestead?”

“Five years ago, Jesse. Is your brain giving out? You were there helping me pull stumps, weren’t you?”

“Yes, now that you mention it, that was you, was it? I musta mistook you for the south end of the northbound mule I was working. Tell me how many times people have tried to homestead that same parcel before you.”

“Two others. Some guy named Fletcher—he was murdered in a Unity raid—and a family of Swedes as come down from Minnesota. They started too late to get a crop in that first winter, and then they lost most of their pigs to some disease. They threw in to go stay in town somewheres. Jesse, you know all this. Why am I telling you?”

“Bear with me, Mose. Why did you think you could succeed where those good folks failed?”

Moses shrugged his shoulders and tipped the box back so that he was leaning against the wall.

“I had done it before … with you. You were staking me, and you said you’d help me if needed. I chose to prove out my section here. Where can you get cheap bottomland anymore?”

“Wasn’t your choice a foolish bet? You put up your money, sweat, and time on the chance you could bring in a harvest to pay your note. You had no guarantee, right?”

Moses laughed. “Some people might think it foolish—Sally’s mother for one. Of course there was no guarantee! I wouldn’t o’ been able afford it, if’n it was to be guaranteed. It was a bet, like most everything! I guess. That’s how someone like me deals with the future. I bet that I could prove out the section, and I have.

He turned slightly, including Malila in his comments now.

“My folks didn’t have nothing to give me by the time I set out, miss. I left with nothing but my clothes, an old rifle from my uncle, my books, and my tools.

“Jesse here hired me to help prove out his farm in Bath County, and I saved some. With that and with what Jesse staked me, I had enough to buy what I needed to homestead. If I hadn’t tried to homestead there, I’d have gone out west. The soil and water are better here, but it is closer to the damned Union, begging your pardon. I suppose it was a gamble, but it was my gamble. I bet the farm … everything I had, but I knew the odds, and I knew the stakes.”

Jesse smiled. “Always make your own bet …”

“… and never take someone else’s bet. Cut the deck when you can, and …” Moses replied.

“… smile when you lose!” they said together before grinning at each other.

“Last question, Mose: Have you paid me back?”

“Well, the note for this year doesn’t come due till New Year, Jess, but we can pay you now if you need it.”

Jesse held up his hand to the younger man and turned back to Malila. “Should we have prevented Mose from being foolish, lass?”

“Tha’s different. Back home the gov’ment makes sure everyone works ’n’ is paid good wages.” She smiled.

Moses gave a short, barky chuckle.

“And if you don’t like your wages, you go to the other government in town … right?” asked Jesse.

Malila gave him an uncomprehending stare before Jesse said, “I think I need some sleep, Mose. Must admit I am tired. It’s been long hours on short rations since you left Sun Prairie, and the liquor has wagged my tongue for me.”

Moses took his cue, adding, “We should start as soon as we can in the morning. Never know how the trail is this time of year.”

Moses collected the cups, and Jesse pointed Malila toward the latrine. She relieved herself without undue disgust, and on her return, an old piece of towel, a cup of soap, and a bucket were laid out next to the rushlight. She leaned over the top of the bucket and was surprised by the warmth wafting up. Several large river rocks bubbled in the bottom when she passed the light above it.

Moses’s voice emerged from a dark alcove. “That hot water is for you, miss. The rocks will keep it warm for a while. You can take the lamp to bed if you want. You’ve got your privacy, Miss Malila. Jesse and I are gent’men.”

She could just make out the younger man in his sleeping furs rolling away from her. She glanced over at another pile of furs that was already breathing heavily.

Since she had left the Unity weeks ago, she had not had the luxury of hot water. Shucking her moccasins, pants, and shirt, Malila indulged. She had forgotten how opulent it felt to bathe in hot water, even standing up on a stone hearth. She shampooed her hair, no longer DUFS short. The wound from Bear had healed well, but it was still a centimeter-long pink streak of tenderness. On an impulse, when she was done, she soaked the old shirt in the lukewarm water and wrung it out before draping it before the banked fireplace. Naked, she located her sleeping place. Blowing out the rushlight on its stand, Malila snuggled into the cold weight of her furs, shivering before she got them warm. It was odd to go to bed without the reassuring warmth of the old man.