Time for the next installment of Out of Her Element!
Start at the beginning HERE.
As Mira put her coat on so she could take Bill’s phone out to him, James came downstairs carrying a duffel bag. He set it beside her stuff and pulled on his coat.
“Why don’t you go ahead and bring your things out? We’ll pack them into Bill’s truck.”
She slung her pack over her shoulder, picked up her sleeping bag, grabbed her walking stick, and followed him outside. The dogs were tied to the tailgate of a new pickup truck with a cap. Their gazes locked on Mira, and they began to whine and wag from the tips of their noses to the tips of their tails. Nothing like a happy dog to make a girl feel loved, even if it was only because she’d been bribing them. She set her things on the porch and retrieved a deerskin pouch from her coat pocket. Smiling, she joined the dogs and pulled several small pieces of jerky from the pouch.
“I know what you guys want,” she told the excited canines with a laugh.
The dogs crowded around her and devoured the treats she offered. After returning the pouch to her coat pocket, she knelt and petted the dogs while they licked her and tried to get the jerky out of her pocket.
Mira laughed again as she shoved away a cold wet nose. “Yeah, it’s good, isn’t it?”
She scratched behind a few more ears and stood. The three men stared at her while the dogs continued to act as if she were a long lost friend. Were they angry that she’d fed their dogs without permission? She knew some people could be picky about their dogs’ diets. Then Bill shook his head and smiled.
“I wondered why the dogs didn’t bark when you were staying in the shed. Usually old Dan is loud enough to wake the dead when confronted by a stranger.”
“I guess it’s true that bribery gets you everywhere.” Richard chuckled.
Mira grinned, thankful they didn’t mind her giving their dogs treats. “I don’t know about that, but jerky’s great for getting a dog to like you.”
“What kind of jerky is that?” James asked. “The dogs are crazy about it.”
She moved away from the animals in question and retrieved the pouch. “Deer jerky. Want some?”
The men exchanged glances and shrugged.
“Sure, why not?” James said and pulled a small piece from the soft leather pouch.
The other two followed suit, and Mira pulled out a slightly larger piece. She enjoyed the impressed expressions on the men’s faces as they tasted the smoky flavor of the jerky she’d made.
“This is really good,” James said.
“Thank you.” A smile spread across her face despite her best efforts to keep her emotions hidden. Compliments weren’t common for her in this part of the world, especially not in the last several months.
Richard lifted an eyebrow. “Dare I ask how you killed the deer?”
“Sure.” She walked over to the porch and picked up her walking stick.
“You beat it with a stick?”
She smothered a laugh and shook her head as she twisted the top of the stick and removed it to reveal a smaller stick with a piece of antler on the end.
“I used this,” she said, pulling out an unstrung bow about five feet long.
She strung the bow and retrieved a small drawstring pouch from one of the deerskin bags on the porch. As she removed a small metal arrowhead from the pouch, Bill spoke.
“You’re a bowhunter?”
“I guess so.” She held up the arrowhead. “This is what actually killed the deer.”
Richard turned from studying the hollow, thin-walled walking stick. “This is ingenious. Did you make it?”
“No, Harley made it and the bow for me.”
“He must have been a talented man.”
“He was.” A pang of sadness hit as she ran her fingers across the silky wood of the bow.
She unstrung it and returned it to its case. Now was not the time to think of the cousins who had treated her as their own child. She could do that later, when she was alone. Too bad the sense of loss often hit at inopportune times and wasn’t so easily shaken.
Richard went back to cleaning the shed, and James went with him. Bill joined Mira as she returned the arrowheads to the bag she had retrieved them from.
“Did you talk to Della?” he asked.
“Yes, sir.” She pulled the cell phone from her pocket and handed it to him. “She says I’m supposed to call you Bill.”
“That’s right.” He studied her small pile of belongings. “Let’s load this in the truck.”
“Okay.” She pushed back the lingering grief and focused on gathering her meager possessions.
They carried everything to the other vehicle parked beside the cabin, a newer SUV. Bill opened the back, and they packed everything in beside a large cage. Mira studied the cage. Was it for one or more of the dogs?
Bill tapped it with a smile. “This is where Dan rides.”
She handed him the last bag and looked toward the dogs. “Which one is Dan?”
“That large, long-legged mutt with hound ears.”
“He curled up against me at night to keep me warm.” Her heart lifted. Maybe she could spend time with him while she was at the Montaignes’ house.
“Dan’s a big softy.” Bill closed the hatch as Richard and James came around the side of the shed. “I do believe it’s time for lunch.”
Mira followed as he led the way into the cabin. They gathered around the table to enjoy the thick stew that had been filling the cabin with a delicious aroma for the last couple of hours. Hope and doubts whirled through Mira’s mind in a tornado of thoughts that distracted her from the conversation. Was she making a mistake by going with Bill? How much better would her life be living in the Montaigne house? Did she have the strength to carry through with the plan?
As soon as she finished eating, she pushed back her chair and stood. She needed time alone to reconsider her decision to live with Bill and Della.
“I’m going outside.”
Before the men could object, she put on her coat and went out the door. The dogs rose expectantly the moment she stepped onto the porch.
“Sorry, I don’t have anything for you,” she said as she joined them and sat on the frozen ground.
Dan padded over and sat beside her. When he leaned against her shoulder as if giving her a hug, tears flooded her eyes, and she wrapped her arms around the big dog.
“Am I doing the right thing?” She spoke softly in Arabic. Even though she knew the dog didn’t understand a word she said, it helped to think he was listening to her thoughts. “I can’t stay here. It’s too cold to live outside, and I have nowhere else to live. Harley and Marnie always told me I could trust the Montaignes, that they’re good people, but I barely know them.”
Dan licked her nose, and she gave him a bit of a smile as she dried her eyes.
“Yeah, they’ve always been nice enough, and Bill and Della both seem concerned about me, but living with them? I don’t even know where they live.” She sighed and shifted so that only one arm draped across her canine companion. “What am I thinking, going to live with near strangers? I know it’s better than being homeless and risking freezing to death, but still. I must be crazy. I mean, what do I really know about these people?”
Dan whimpered and licked her again. Mira gave the dog another small smile.
“I know that Bill likes dogs and you’re a sweetie. Della doesn’t seem to mind people what don’t know English very well. I don’t know much about Josh, but Tabby and I always got along pretty well. I guess the main thing is that I know nothing about their way of life. I’m about to leave everything familiar behind for who knows what. I don’t know if I want to do that again. It was hard enough when I first came to America.”
The door of the cabin opened, and she glanced over her shoulder to see James standing in the open doorway.
“What do you want me to do with these rabbit skins?”
Mira stood, patted Dan one last time, and walked toward the cabin. “I’ll take care of them.”
Someone had cleaned up the kitchen. The only things left on the counter were the two rabbit skins. Mira reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the black plastic bag that had kept her provisions dry. Under the watchful gazes of the men, she wrapped the skins in it and did her best to ensure the fur would stay clean during the short trip to her friends’ store. Once the plastic-wrapped bundle was ready, she turned to James.
“What did you do with the brains?”
The men’s eyes widened. Why were they so shocked? They were all hunters and had surely cured hides before. James glanced at the bag of trash waiting to be tied and hauled to the nearest dumpster.
“I assume they were in the skulls when I threw them away. Why?”
“You need the brains to cure the hide.” Okay, so maybe they didn’t tan the hides of anything they killed. She walked over to the trashcan and peered in. Sure enough, two rabbit skulls sat on top. “Do you have something I can wrap these in?”
Bill reached into a drawer and pulled out a plastic bag. Mira retrieved the skulls from the trash, relieved to find the brains intact. She placed them in the plastic bag and set it with the well-wrapped skins. Then she washed her hands while James scrubbed the counter.
Richard glanced at the plastic-shrouded bundles and grimaced. “That’s disgusting.”
“It’s perfectly natural,” Mira said. “As Harley always told me, ‘Every animal has enough brains to tan its own hide.’”
Bill stared at her. “Are you bringing that stuff with you?”
She grinned at his worried tone. Apparently, he wasn’t as much of a country boy as she’d thought. “No, Della said I could give the hides to my friends.”
“Are they going to want those?” Richard pointed toward the bundles on the counter.
“Sure. They know how to tan a hide, same as me.”
“Okay, I think we’re ready to go,” James said, tying the trash bag closed.
Mira collected the rabbit hides and skulls while the men pulled on their coats. They headed outside, and Bill locked up as Richard and James untied the dogs and loaded them into their cages. Dan was the only dog that went into the SUV. Bill and Mira climbed into the SUV, and James and Richard got into the pickup. Following her directions, Bill soon pulled into the parking lot of a small general store. She hopped out and retrieved the pelts, both cured and uncured, from the back of the vehicle before heading inside. The older woman behind the counter offered a friendly smile.
“Hey, Mira!” Sally Miller said. “I was wondering how you were surviving this cold snap.”
“I’m surviving.” She held up the pelts. “I brought you some furs, although two of them still need to be cured.”
“That’s fine. My oldest boys get a kick out of tanning hides. Do you need to borrow the washing machine or the shower today?”
“No.” She hesitated, knowing this was her last chance to stay in West Virginia. But, it wasn’t fair to put her welfare on Sally’s family. Not when she’d already been offered a place to live. “Actually, I came to pick up my stuff. The Montaignes are giving me a place to stay.”
“The Montaignes?” Sally’s eyebrows rose. “Aren’t they those rich folk what own the cabin down the road from your old place?”
“That’s them. When they heard about my situation, they asked me to come live with them. They were good friends of Harley and Marnie.”
“That’s right.” Sally nodded. “Well, it’s good you have a place to live. You want some help carrying your stuff?”
“No, I’m just taking my clothes and books. You and your family can have the food.” Sally’s family needed her provisions more than the Montaignes. As her friend had pointed out, the Montaignes were rich. Sally’s family was just as poor as everyone else around Selma.
“Thank you.” Appreciation shone bright in her eyes. “I’ll go get your bag.”
She disappeared into the back room and returned a moment later carrying a large canvas duffel. Mira accepted it and a hug.
“You be sure to let me know how you’re doing from time to time,” Sally said, handing her a slip of paper with her name, address, and phone number.
“I will.” She shoved the paper in her coat pocket. “Give everyone a hug for me.”
“Okay, Mira. You take care now.”
She stowed her duffel in the backseat of the SUV and climbed in beside Bill. He faced her as she fastened her seatbelt.
“Ready to go?”
She scanned the familiar scenery and sighed. She was going to miss this place, tiny and not always friendly to her as it was. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Bill pulled onto the empty road with James and Richard following. “I think you’re going to like your new home. We have about ten acres of woods and fifteen acres of pastures and meadows.”
“What about crops?”
“We don’t grow any. We do have several horses, though.”
“Do you have cows, sheep, or hogs?”
“No, the only livestock we have are the horses.”
“Y’all don’t even have any goats or chickens?” The thought of so much land and no crops or farm animals amazed her. What kind of life did these people live?
“No, just the horses and Dan. We also have a cat named Frank. He lives in the house with us. Frank is a purebred Ragamuffin and very friendly.”
She loved cats, but she’d never owned a purebred anything. “What does a Ragamuffin look like?”
“Well, it has long hair and is kind of fluffy-looking. Its face looks a kitten’s. Frank is a blue mink Ragamuffin, which means he’s a gray color.”
“So, Frank’s a friendly, fluffy, gray cat?”
Bill laughed. “That about describes him, except you forgot to say huge. He weighs eighteen pounds.”
“That’s almost twice as big as my last cat. She only weighed ten pounds.”
Mira stared out the window, watching the forest and farmland pass by. Even the familiar things in the Montaignes’ lives were unfamiliar. Who ever heard of a cat that big? And a purebred cat to boot. Every cat she’d ever met was much smaller and of the stray or barn cat variety.
After a couple of hours of driving down back roads and state highways, they got on the interstate heading west. Mira finally worked up the courage to ask the question that had been plaguing her for most of the trip.
“Where is your house?”
“It’s just outside Dayton.”
“Where’s that?” She’d never heard of it.
Bill glanced at her. “It’s in southwestern Ohio, about forty miles north of Cincinnati.”
She wasn’t sure where Cincinnati was, but at least she’d heard of it. After the surprised look he gave her when she asked about Dayton, she didn’t want to make it any more obvious her geography skills stunk.
“It takes about seven hours to get there from the cabin.” He must have figured out she didn’t have a good grasp on where places were in the United States.
Seven hours from all that was familiar? Mira’s heart threatened to beat right out of her chest. “That’s a long way. Harley took me to Ohio once to see about some hogs, but that was only three hours away.”
“Ohio is a big state. We should get home around eight or eight-thirty. We’ll stop somewhere later and get some dinner.”
She faced the window and tried not to worry about what she would find at the Montaigne estate.