Who’s ready for the second installment of Out of Her Element? If you missed the first chapter, you can find it HERE.
Mira sat in the thick straw covering the shed’s floor, desperate for a chance to think. The big, gangly hound flopped across her lap, and she stroked his head. Although she’d met Bill several times since she moved in with Harley and Marnie, she hadn’t seen him or his family in the last few years. According to Marnie, their annual vacation to the cabin had fallen by the wayside as their busy lives got in the way. She had missed seeing the Montaigne family every summer, but she’d adjusted and let them fade from memory. Now, however, she needed to remember as much as possible if she wanted to relax until Bill took her to Sally and Jack’s store.
Bill owned a big company of some kind. Something to do with electronics, maybe? She wasn’t sure, but the industry didn’t matter as much as his personality. He’d always been friendly toward everyone, even the most uneducated people in the area. His wife, Della, was a small woman with a big heart. She had treated Mira kindly. Even when Mira first met the Montaignes and didn’t know much English yet, Della had been courteous.
They had a son, Josh, two or three years older than Mira. He had always been interested in the plants in the forest and their uses. And then there was Tabby, the baby of the Montaigne family. She would be nineteen or twenty now, about a year younger than Mira. Tabby’s interests had changed every time Mira saw her, but the younger girl remained consistent in her love of people.
Did they remember her? Bill had, but she didn’t know how much he remembered of those vacations in years past. She’d spent more time with his kids than with him. Thinking about Josh and Tabby now made her miss them with an intensity she hadn’t felt in a while. They had been almost like siblings to her when they stayed in their cabin, and she missed their friendship.
Unable to find a reason to stall any longer, Mira gave the hound in her lap one last scratch. “Sorry, buddy. I have to grab my stuff and go back inside. Maybe I’ll see you again later.”
She gave him a gentle shove, and he rolled off her with a groan. Despite all three dogs begging for attention, or maybe jerky, she collected her pack and sleeping bag and returned to the cabin. She stole a peek at the room while she set her things on the floor by the door and hung her coat on the empty peg. Richard still sat at the table, but James stood at the counter, knife in hand, with the rabbits in front of him. Bill was conspicuously absent.
The way Richard kept assessing her made her nervous, so she joined James.
“What are you making?”
“I was thinking about rabbit stew.” He glanced at her. “If I put it on now, it should be perfect by lunch.”
Maybe she could help him out to repay him for breakfast. “You want me to skin and cut up the rabbits for you?”
“If you’d like.”
He handed her the knife and joined Richard at the table. Mira quickly skinned both rabbits and set the pelts aside. She could trade them at the store after she cured them, unless one of the men wanted to keep them. Working with practiced fingers, she soon had one rabbit boned and cut into bite-sized pieces. Bill came into the kitchen as she started on the second.
“Hey, Mira, I have a proposition for you.”
“What is it?” If he wanted to offer her a job, she would give it serious consideration.
“How would you like to come live with my wife and me?”
She almost cut herself. He wanted her to live with them? Stilling her hands for a moment, she took a breath to compose herself. Her mind raced faster than her pulse. Moving into his house was a far cry from working for him. She went back to work on the rabbit. “Is Mrs. Montaigne okay with this idea?”
“She’s hoping you’ll say yes. I just got off the phone with her, and she made me promise to call her back just as soon as I have your answer.”
Mira finished butchering the rabbit while she thought. Why did they want her to live with them? Did she even want to live there? Unlike Sally and Jack at the store, the Montaignes could afford to take her in. They had more money than she could imagine, but they never acted like it when they came to their cabin. Would the same be true in their home?
Her thoughts whirled, giving her no answers. Finally, she faced Bill. “Why do y’all want me?”
“Why?” His eyebrows shot up toward his graying hair. “Because we care about you and hate to think of you sleeping in a storeroom.”
His answer was too generic. She would give him one more chance to convince her that they truly cared and didn’t have some self-serving reason to take her in.
“Mira, Della and I were good friends with Harley and Marnie,” he said, moving closer. “If we had known sooner that you needed a place to stay, we would have been down here immediately to pick you up.”
The sincerity in his voice and the compassion in his eyes softened her skepticism.
“I know that if the situation was reversed and something had happened to Della and me, Harley and Marnie would have taken in Josh and Tabby. We want to do the same for you, if you’ll let us.”
The mention of Harley and Marnie’s kindness did in her last bit of resistance. At least with the Montaignes she wouldn’t have to worry about freezing to death, and she knew they wouldn’t let her starve. She dropped the chunks of rabbit meat into the pot James had placed nearby.
“Okay. I’ll go with you.” She washed her hands and placed the pot on the stove. “I have to go collect my traps and provisions.”
“Why don’t you take James along with you? He can help you carry whatever you have.”
Take James? Mira cast a doubtful glance at the man who had tackled her. Even though he’d been kind since then, she wasn’t sure she trusted him alone in the woods. However, she couldn’t risk offending Bill by refusing to take him along. She needed somewhere warm to stay through the winter. “I guess that would be okay.”
James added the rest of the stew ingredients to the pot, and then he and Mira bundled up and headed outside. According to the thermometer on one of the porch posts, the air temperature had warmed to just above twenty degrees. They didn’t speak as they walked through the woods. The quiet soothed Mira’s nerves, giving her the strength she needed to carry through with collecting her possessions in preparation for leaving.
They arrived in a clearing, and Mira walked to a stick curving down into the tall yellow grass. She held it down as she released the trigger stick held in place by two more pounded into the ground. She’d learned the hard way how much it hurt to accidentally set off a spring snare trap in her face. After removing the wires from the trigger stick and the tall one she’d used for the spring, she pulled up the remaining sticks and tossed them all aside. She placed the wire in her pocket and crossed the meadow to repeat the process with another spring snare trap.
As they headed into the trees again, she noticed that James seemed almost as comfortable in their current surroundings as she was. Did he spend a lot of time in the wilderness? She doubted he’d ever been forced to live in the woods, but maybe he liked camping.
She led him to another large clearing, this one containing the remnants of her garden. After dismantling another trap, she walked past the cultivated ground and stopped just inside the line of trees. A good-sized lean-to thatched with long meadow grass stood against the hillside, sheltered from the wind by the ground’s slope and several berry bushes that had long since quit producing fruit for the year.
“Welcome to my home,” Mira said as she crawled into the sturdy structure.
Few belongings sat inside. She’d never had much, but getting kicked out of her home had forced her to whittle her possessions down even further. She emerged carrying a thick, hollow walking stick containing one of her most prized possessions; a small bundle of pelts; and two deerskin bags. Close by, a large black garbage bag dangled at the end of a rope draped over a tree branch and tied to the trunk. She set the items from the lean-to on the ground and tried to untie the rope. It was no use. The sudden weather change and the snow had frozen the knot. She retrieved the hunting knife from her coat pocket and cut the rope with the sharp blade. After lowering the bag to the ground, she pulled out deerskin bags of varying sizes. James watched her with a curious gaze, and she waved a hand at the growing pile on the ground.
He ran an appraising gaze over her food supply. “That doesn’t look like it would have lasted through the winter.”
“It wouldn’t.” She folded the trash bag and shoved it in her pocket. “This would have lasted for a week or two. My friends are holding the rest of my provisions until I need them.”
They divided up the bags to carry back. James carried the bundle of furs, and Mira picked up her walking stick. As they hiked through yet another section of forest on their way back to the cabin, James indicated the food pouches he carried.
“This stuff doesn’t weigh much at all.”
“That’s because it’s all dried.” She dismantled another snare, tossing the sticks aside and pocketing the wires as they started off again. “Drying the food not only makes it lighter, but it keeps longer and takes up less room.”
“What kind of things do you have in these bags?”
“Meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts. There’s also herbs of all kinds in one of them.”
“Herbs? Do you cook with them?”
“Some of them. Others are for healing, some for teas.” The conversation reminded her of Josh. Did he still live with Bill and Della? He was old enough to have his own place, assuming he’d been able to get a job. So many people around Selma had struggled with finding jobs. Then again, it was such a small town in a rural area that employment opportunities were rare.
“It sounds like you know a lot about living off the land.”
“I guess so.” She’d never given it much thought. “Harley and Marnie did a good job of teaching me.”
“Why didn’t you live with your friends?”
His sudden change of topic threw her off for a second, but then her thoughts shifted to the kind family who had apologized profusely for their inability to take her in. “There was no room. They had some kinfolk what fell on hard times and needed a place to stay.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” James said, his tone sympathetic.
They fell silent for the rest of the hike back to the cabin. They left her possessions on the back porch, except for the walking stick which she carried inside. Now that she had the option to take it somewhere warm, she couldn’t bear to leave it in the cold a moment longer. The contents were irreplaceable, and she didn’t want to risk damage from the winter weather if she could avoid it. Richard and Bill looked up from their seats at the table.
“Did you get everything?” Bill asked.
“Everything that’s here.”
The men exchanged puzzled glances.
“I left most of my food stores with my friends,” Mira said. “They’re also keeping some things safe for me.”
“If you give me directions when we head out of here,” Bill said, “we can stop and pick up your things.”
She removed her coat as James checked on the rabbit stew. Richard got up and poured two cups of coffee, handing one to Mira and the other to James. They joined Bill at the table, and Mira listened to the men discuss the preparations for leaving. Her time in the only home she’d known in the United States grew shorter with each passing moment—a thought that would cause anxiety if she allowed it, but she didn’t have that luxury. She had to go with Bill. If she stayed there, freezing to death was a very real possibility.
After a while, James set aside his empty cup and stood. “I’d better go pack up.”
Richard rose as well. “I need to tie out the dogs and clean the shed.”
“I’ll be out to help you in a few minutes,” Bill said.
“Don’t wait too long or you’ll miss all the fun.” Richard chuckled as he pulled on his coat.
After his friends left the kitchen, Bill focused on Mira. “Della asked me to have you call her.”
Nerves attacked like a swarm of butterflies. “I guess I can call her if you have a phone I can borrow.”
“Sure.” He did something with his cell phone, and then handed it to her. “It’s already set to dial my home number. Just press the green button.”
“Okay.” Mira studied the phone for a moment. She’d never held one before. She looked up at him again. Did he have any idea how little exposure she’d had to modern technology since moving in with Harley and Marnie?
He stood and offered an encouraging smile. “You go ahead and call Della. I’m going to help Richard with the dogs.”
She watched him leave and turned her attention the phone. A green square with the silhouette of a telephone receiver sat in the center at the bottom of the screen. She pressed it and raised the device to her ear.
“Hello,” a woman answered. “Montaigne residence.”
“Can I speak with Mrs. Montaigne, please?” Nerves thickened her accent. Would the woman understand her, or would she have to try again?
“And whom shall I say is calling?”
“Miranda Hassan.” Intimidated by the woman’s formal tone, she gave her full name.
“One moment, please.”
She took a deep breath while she waited for Bill’s wife to take the call. Did she really want to do this? Did she have a choice?
Della’s voice came over the line, full of friendliness and excitement. “Hello, Mira! I’m so glad you called.”
“Hello, Mrs. Montaigne.” A sudden attack of shyness hit.
“Please, call me Della. And call my husband Bill, if he hasn’t told you already.”
“Okay, Della.” What should she say now? Ask the woman if she actually wanted her moving in?
“Bill tells me you’ve been living in the woods since April.”
“Yes, ma’am, I have.” Pride filled her, making it easier to converse. “And I’ve been surviving just fine.”
“I’m glad, dear.” The smile in Della’s voice soothed a few of Mira’s nerves. “Bill also told me you worked hard to prepare enough food for the winter.”
“Yes, ma’am. Since you’re taking me in, I’ll give you what provisions I have to help out.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to.” How could she explain that she didn’t want to burden them in anyway without insulting their generosity? Giving them food was the only way she could prevent it. Plus, Harley and Marnie and her parents before them had taught her to help out where she could. Giving the Montaignes her provisions was her only option at the moment since she didn’t have any money to pay rent.
“Well, that’s fine. You’re so thoughtful.”
Mira stayed quiet, not sure how to respond.
“Is there anything you need, dear?” Della asked. “Do you have enough clothes?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Maybe a compliment would keep the conversation moving. “Although nothing so nice as I remember you wearing.”
“Why, thank you! Is there anything you might need before tomorrow?”
“Just a shower.” Honesty might be embarrassing, but she’d been taught from birth to always tell the truth. “I’ve been sleeping with dogs for the last couple of days, so I’m sure I don’t smell very good.”
“You can take as long a shower as you want when you get here.”
“Thank you.” Could she say anything that surprised this woman? “I have some rabbit pelts, if you want them. Two are fresh and still have to be scraped and cured, but the others are ready to use.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line, and then Della spoke with a cautious tone. “I appreciate the offer, but I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Would your friends with the store like them?”
“Most likely. I’ve given them all of the others.” How had the woman kept her composure so well? If she remembered right, Della had never been much of an outdoorswoman.
“Well, you have Bill take you there so you can drop them off.”
“I look forward to seeing you again,” Della said, and Mira breathed a little easier now that the conversation seemed to be winding up. “I’ll make sure there is a room prepared for you when you arrive.”
“Thank you.” Why were these people she only knew from the vacations they spent in Selma being so kind?
“I’ll see you this evening, Mira.”
“Okay.” She waited for Della to hang up before pressing the red button and hoping it disconnected the call. Even though their generosity in taking her in filled her with gratitude, she wasn’t sure how she would adapt to living with rich people. Without a doubt, they were used to an easier life than the one she’d led so far. Would they expect her to live the same easy life? Although not having to worry about going without sounded wonderful, she had a hard time imagining herself doing anything other than working hard every single day.