Chapter Forty-three

“Seth,” Preston softly called as he came up behind his distraught partner. He felt the younger man’s body stiffen when he tried to embrace him. He quickly became aware of the signs that Seth was crying and drew him into his arms regardless of Seth’s struggles to pull away. “I am so sorry, sweetheart. Joker will be sadly missed by both of us,” he murmured, his soothing voice enabling the other man to cry out his sorrow without fear of disparagement.

“It-it’s cause of Galen; he-he’s cursed,” Seth stammered through his tears. “And-and this isn’t the first time he’s jinxed us.”

“Whatever are you talking about, Seth?” Preston looked down at him in astonishment. “What has caused you to think something like that?”

“Well, there was that squall at sea. We were tossed off course and that’s why it took so much longer to get here. We were lucky to make it here alive.” Seth reminded the older man. “Ha, it served the little creep right that it backfired and made him sicker than he already was,” he contemptuously spat out.

“I think the captain being indisposed had a lot to do with the situation being worse than it had to be, Seth. I doubt Galen had any part in getting the man drunk.”

“Oh yeah, but what about us almost capsizing?”

“It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise had such misfortune taken place when considering the condition of that old relic the authorities had taken out of dry-dock for the specific purpose of transporting exiles.”

“Well, you haven’t forgotten the drought, have you? We almost lost our crops; all that hard work would have been for nothing! Oh ya, and the storm last week, don’t forget about that; we’re still picking up the debris.” Seeing a frown of doubt on the older man’s face, Seth plunged on. “What about Brodie getting hurt so often?”

“Brodie would be the first to admit to being accident-prone; and most injuries are due to his own lack of concentration.”

“Okay, then what do you have to say about last week when Spyke fell out of a tree? He and Galen were both climbing and you’ll notice Galen didn’t fall.” Seth stood with his hands on his hips, glaring accusingly at what he already suspected would be some kind of rationalisation on his partner’s part.

“Neither of them should have been scaling trees to begin with and I doubt they’ll do so again anytime soon. Should they be tempted to pull a similar stunt, it is highly likely they’ll be eating their next meal standing up.” Preston couldn’t help chuckling when he saw Seth rolling his eyes upward in exasperation.

“I still say it’s all Galen’s fault. Now our god-damn livestock has been attacked and Joker is dead. What’s next, for shit’s sake?”

“None of what you’ve talked about was any more Galen’s fault than it was yours or mine, love,” Preston quietly contended while mentally scrambling for an explanation capable of setting Seth’s mind at ease and pulling his partner close once again.

“I knew you wouldn’t believe me!” Seth yelled, pushing his way out of Preston’s arms. He stood glaring up at the older man. “That’s why I never said nothing earlier. But I know, oh ya, I know; ‘cause I’ve seen it before.”

“Seen what before?”

“The evil-eye, that’s what! Why do ya think I’ve been avoiding him? It’s cause I didn’t want to accidentally stare at him too long and get a hex or evil spell put on me.”

Preston sat down on the nearest tree stump and watched in amazement as Seth walked in circles, flaying his arms and working himself into a frenzy. He reached out and grabbed the whirlwind as it passed him for the third time. Holding on tight, he sternly admonished, “Stop that! Settle down right now, Slick, before one of us suffers heart failure.”

Seth calmed slightly and turned to face his captor. Gnashing his teeth and glowering, he waited with irritation for the next question, knowing for sure there would be at least one and probably more.

“When, where and how did you get these ideas, Seth?”

The irate young man took a deep breath and as evenly as possible began sharing his reasoning. “When I was a kid, about eight or nine I guess, this group of wanderers came into the town I grew up in. There was this young girl in her very early teens. She was beautiful; tiny and dark like Galen. One of her legs was badly twisted and she couldn’t walk right. Her people said she had been born under a bad sign, that she was cursed and sometime had fits. She also talked strange. They told us not to upset her or get her angry, ‘cause she put hexes on folks if she didn’t like them.”

“Just what kind of hexes were they alluding to?”

“You know; misfortunes like bad luck, crop failure, disease and….” Seth looked around nervously and loudly whispered, “even death.”

“Seth, honey, these beliefs are based on folklore and irrational superstition. I do not think there has ever been true evidence to substantiate any of it.”

“There has so!” Seth insisted. “The town folk were very careful in how they treated her and her people, but even so, old lady Harris suddenly died and some of us got sick. They also discovered things missing after the group of wanderers had gone.”

“What kind of things?”

Seth shrugged his shoulders. “Some chickens, a piglet or two and a sheep I think; oh, and some items from the mercantile. And, we didn’t get rain for weeks.”

“Hmm, I see. By the way, just how old was Mrs. Harris?”

“I’m not sure; maybe around seventy-five or eighty.”

“And no one stopped to think that she might have died of old age; or that while most of you were so caught up in minding your P’s and Q’s, the travellers were pilfering behind your backs; or that the illness had an explainable medical cause; or that there was just very little rain to be had anywhere that summer?” Preston waited patiently for his logic to sink in.

Seth shifted uncomfortably as Preston’s observation began to make sense. “That still doesn’t give reasons for why Galen is so different; why he didn’t grow any bigger and can’t talk or hear properly.” He wasn’t quite ready to let go of feelings he had been harbouring for months. “Nobody wanted to be near him; not in jail or on the voyage over here. I bet the ones that are being nice to him now are doing so because they’re scared of being jinxed too,” he unsuccessfully attempted to validate his rational before muttering, “except they just don’t have the guts to admit it.”

Preston closed his eyes and rubbed his hand across his forehead. “Such is not the case, Seth. Galen is sincerely well-liked by everyone on the island. You are the only one who has had a problem accepting him for who he is.” The big man recognised the look of scepticism in his partner’s face and sighed deeply in frustration, strongly suspecting he was getting in over his head. “As for Galen’s physical afflictions, I do not think I am the one to best enlighten you.”

Setting Seth on his feet, Preston stood up and took the younger man’s hand. “Come with me; we need to talk to someone with a great deal more knowledge in this area than I have.”

“Lakota, may we bend your ear for a few minutes if you’re not too busy?” Preston asked several minutes later as he stuck his head through the entrance to the infirmary. He walked in towing a reluctant Seth behind him.

The doctor smiled at the two men. “Of course gentlemen, please come in and be comfortable.” He pointed to the log-seat by his makeshift desk and took a seat on the small crate next to it. “I was very sorry to hear your pup had been killed in the attack on the animals this morning, Seth. It was a tragic loss.”

“Thank you,” Seth murmured as his eyes filled. He sat down on the indicated log and all but adhered himself to Preston’s right side.

“What can I do for you two?” the doctor enquired.

Having carefully thought over how to word his request so as not to make his partner feel self-conscious about his long-held impressions, Preston wrapped a beefy arm around Seth’s shoulders and calmly introduced the sensitive topic. “Seth and I are trying to understand why some people are somewhat different from others. We thought you’d be the best person from whom to get the information we seek.”

“Can you clarify just what you mean by different?” the doctor questioned.

“Well for instance, what results in a man not growing to what we consider an average height or size? Why do some have speech impediments or hearing problems? Is there any truth behind the legends of certain individuals being born under a curse?”

“I’ll address curses with you first. It is my belief that the only curses there are, are those we bring upon ourselves. I once met a man who had been born with no arms. He had to learn to do everything with his feet that most people do with their hands. Someone asked him if he ever felt God had cursed him being born in such a way, but the man answered ‘No, because God gave me this instead of arms,’ and he opened his mouth and began to sing in a voice I can only believe belonged to God’s most favoured angel. No one could listen to this man sing without being moved by the beauty of his voice. Was this man cursed or blessed, or was he just a man like all of us who simply had some more noticeable differences? I believe that every human being is unique. Why even Wayne and Wesley, though we call them identical twins, are still different from each other, are they not?”

Seth nodded thoughtfully as he perceived the wisdom behind Lakota’s words.

The doctor continued. “When it comes to differences in people such as height, it usually has to do with the height of one’s parents or grandparents. Also some races of people tend to be taller than others. For instance, men from the Mediterranean nations such Italy and Greece tend to be somewhat shorter than those from the more northern European nations such as Germany and Austria. There can also be reasons of childhood illness or birth defects that can stunt a man’s growth. Such illness can also cause hearing loss to varying degrees and when hearing is lost or damaged, the person often doesn’t speak as clearly because they cannot hear their own voice very well.”  Lakota pause to see what effect his words were having. “Am I making sense so far?”

“Yes, you’re beginning to,” Seth softly acknowledged. 

“Also speech impediments such as stuttering can be caused by childhood traumas. Take our Galen for instance; he had an awful time as a child with illnesses, and the treatments he received from doctors were nothing short of barbaric. Though he might not be very tall and will likely always have some speech difficulties, he seems to make up for it with his other talents and his very kind heart.” 

“But what about him writing with only his left hand? Troy tried to get him to use his right but he couldn’t do it. He’s the only one to write like he does.”

“True, being left-handed is uncommon. It is estimated that approximately ten percent of the world’s population use their left as the dominant hand. It is not a sign that something is amiss.” Lakota smiled at the two men before him and asked, “does that answer your questions?”

Preston gently rubbed his hand down Seth’s back and felt him relax as Lakota’s soothing voice slowly but steadily convinced the young man there was nothing to fear from Galen, that he was not cursed nor did he have any malevolent tendencies.

“Yes, thank you for sharing your knowledge with us, Lakota.” Preston spoke sincerely as he got to his feet and offered the good doctor his hand. He nodded to Seth and after a more few words of gratitude the two men exited the tent. They left a satisfied doctor smiling and shaking his head.

“So how do you feel now, love?”

“Better is one way but worse in another.” Seth kept his head down and kicked at the ground. Glancing up, he embarrassingly acknowledged he owed someone a heart-felt apology. He suddenly realised how tired he was of living with the bad feelings and even more so because he was apparently the only one doing so. He just wasn’t sure how to undo all nasty little acts of pettiness he had committed against someone so undeserving of them.  “I’m gonna go find Galen. I hope he’ll let me talk to him.”

“I’m sure he will, sweetheart.” Preston smiled down at the man in front of him. “You’re a proud man, Seth. This will not be easy for you but I know you’ll see it through. I hope you are aware of the pride I take in having you as my partner.” He embraced his young lover and deeply kissed him before sending him on his way with a pat of encouragement on his back.

It was almost mid-morning and the hunting party had just left. Although the sun was beating down at the moment, rain clouds could be seen gathering in the distance.

Seth stood noiselessly observing Galen scoop the last few handfuls of dirt from a second small, rectangular hole he had dug. He knew the younger man was unaware of his presence. Seth was further dismayed by the aura of sorrow that hung over the man he had until but a short time ago considered his enemy.

Fresh tears filled his eyes as Seth watched Galen tenderly pick up the battered body of the small lamb to gently wrap it in an old towel, place it in the first grave and begin filling in the hole. He suspected by the bent head and slightly shaking shoulders that Galen might be crying. Kneeling down beside the other man, Seth’s bigger hands helped smaller ones pack down the soil.

Galen sprang back and wiped his face on his forearm when he realised who was sitting next to him. Alarmed and suddenly nervous, he looked around to see if Thomas was at hand, but his mentor had been called away. He slowly inched away in trepidation as to what Seth planned to say or do to him.

“I mean you no harm, Galen,” Seth tried assuring him, not at all surprised by Galen’s actions. He was pleasantly surprised and greatly relieved when Galen stopped backing off to wait uncertainly for him to continue talking. “I was so very wrong about you, Galen. I know differently now because Preston and Lakota explained things to me. I am truly sorry for the way I’ve been treating you and for the nasty things I’ve said and done.” He held his breath and waited for his words to be taken in and his apology accepted. Large, glistening gray eyes stared back at him, reading his lips and searching for the truth.

Galen tentatively lowered his guard. “I understand, Seth. You are n-not the first one and you will p-probably not b-be the last to feel the w-way you do,” Galen despondently replied.

Taken back at Galen’s quietly spoken statement, Seth experienced an emotion he had never felt before. An overwhelming desire to protect this young man had him silently vowing to see he was never hurt like that again. He recognised for the first time the feelings Snake had harboured for him all those years. Snake had been his best friend, his hero, his protector, his big brother, and Seth suddenly discovered he wanted to be all those things for Galen. He was startled out of his reflection by a hand on his arm and looked up to see Galen expecting an answer to a question he hadn’t heard.

“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said, Galen.”

“I asked if you w-wanted to b-bury Joker now?” Galen handed over the dead pup that he had taken care to wrap in a well-worn shirt. “Kelby got this from Quentin,” he kindly explained.

The deed done, Seth sat back on his haunches and surveyed the row of small graves; four of them, each with a hand-carved marker. “Who’s in those?” he asked, pointing to two grass-covered mounds.

“That’s B-blackie; you know the crow that flew head-first into a tree b-before crashing to the ground. Spyke n-named him,” Galen reminded the other man.

“Oh, yeah. And the last one?”

“Sam, that huge sea turtle that w-washed up on shore last m-month.”

“I remember now. I sure was relieved when Walker didn’t make soup out of it.” Seth shuddered at the memory.

“Hmm, he m-might have considered doing so b-but told us we didn’t know how long the thing had b-been dead or w-what it had died of. He was p-probably right ‘cause it sure stank.” Galen’s grimace caused Seth to laugh for the first time that day and it felt good.

“Ah, you ever play poker, Galen?” Getting a negative shake in response Seth offered, “would you like to learn? Maybe some card trick too?”

Galen smiled and nodded happily. In that moment, a new and lasting friendship was born.

Nathan looked up as Wayne quietly entered his work area. He smiled in greeting and watched as his visitor nervously picked at the articles laid out on the cutting table.

When Wayne still had not spoken several minutes later, the tailor reached out and pulled the young man down to sit on the bench next to him. Wrapping his arm around Wayne’s shoulders, Nathan tried to set his mind at rest. “Samuel is going to be fine, Wayne. They’ll be back before you know it.” He was pleased when Wayne relaxed against him, obviously searching for assurances.

“I know,” Wayne murmured; wanting to believe it would be so. He felt at loose ends and didn’t like it.

The two men sat in a companionable silence, unaware of being observed. Hidden by a partially closed entrance, Wes thinned his lips and shook his head as he moved away from the tent where his partner and brother were softly conversing.

“Well, I’m getting hungry so how about the two of us heading over to the mess hall before Walker rings the dinner bell.” Nathan was anxious to join Wes for their noon meal and talk things over. He encouraged Wayne with a pat on the back and they left the tent. 

In a happier frame of mind, Wayne helped himself to a hearty serving of stew and made his way over to the table where Galen and Seth were sitting.

After picking up his meal, Nathan looked around the large room. He smiled when he spied the one he was on the lookout for. “Mind if I sit here, Minx?” Nathan softly requested and patiently waited for an answer.

“Suit yourself,” Wes mumbled around a mouth full of food as he concentrated on the plate in front of him.

Settling in the vacant seat, Nathan eyed the younger man for a few moments. “What’s wrong, Wes? Why did you take off the way you did earlier?”

“I am sorry,” Wes shrugged. “I guess I just wanted to be alone for a while. Besides you got Wayne to watch out for.”

Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “Exactly what are you so bitter about, Wesley?’ he asked, as he tried once again to explain his take on the situation. “If I were in Samuel’s shoes, I would find it extremely comforting to know someone was watching out for you.”

“Oh yeah? Well maybe Wayne needs coddling but I sure as hell don’t!” Wes exclaimed. He got to his feet and stomped off, leaving a befuddled Nathan behind.

Walker stood surveying the work his assistants had recently completed. “Good; you let the fire die down. We’ll have to get the pit covered before that storm hits. It’s been brewing most the day and shouldn’t hold off much longer.” He quickly scanned the gathering black clouds and began to help Thad and Brodie do his bidding.

“Where’s Jordan?” Thad shouted from the far side of the spit he had been turning to cook the two legs of lamb.

“He and Gille are finishing up the lunch dishes. As soon as we have this taken care of, we’ll be joining the majority of the men in the mess hall to wait out whatever Mother Nature has in store for us. The Council would like to be kept abreast of where we all are should the storm prove worse than expected.”

“Good idea to keep us all together,” Brodie remarked. “Raythe is beginning to fret about his partner being gone so long. Hell, I suppose all of us are. Spyke at least has Larry to keep him calm and Wayne has his brother.”

“Spyke? Calm? Can those two words even be used in the same sentence? And is such a feat even possible?” Thad’s comments had the three men laughing as they finished securing the fire-pit and headed for the main tent.

It was late afternoon when the hunting party finally located their quarry. The animal was crouched in the shadows of a large tree. It would have easily outdistanced them had it not been for a previous injury that had left its hind leg badly crippled. A magnificent creature at one time, its shoulder height looked about thirty-four inches, its weight well over a hundred pounds. The wolf snarled aggressively and its fur bristled as it prepared to attack, but before its feet left the ground, Brock dropped it with an arrow straight to its heart.

“Yer shot ‘tis true, Brock,” Aiden complimented the woodsman and stepped closer to the downed beast. “Aye, and now to get this beastie home.”

“If you gentlemen will find a stout pole, I’ll get this animal tied for transporting,” Brock suggested, squatting to wrap pieces of rope around the wolf’s legs. “This is going to make a fine winter outfit for someone,” he said, running his hand through the thick fur coat.

They were on their way back to camp when the storm hit. And hit hard it did, with a vengeance. Although nowhere near as severe as the tempest of a week ago, it certainly packed a wallop.

Spotting a familiar cave behind a waterfall, Brock tried shouting over the rolls of thunder but settled for pointing before leading his companions towards it.

Ducking behind the falls, they left the wolf next to the cave’s entrance and entered the sanctuary nature provided.

“Aha, dry wood!” Samuel exclaimed, quickly taking in his surroundings. It was his first time here and he was surprised at the cared-for appearance of the place.

“This is what I refer to as Galen’s Cave,” Brock began to explain with a smirk. “He found it the day he thought running away was a good idea.”

“Aye that he did, until Thomas convinced him otherwise. The brave but misguided laddie had cleaned out a bit of a nest for his wee self, he did,” Aiden nodded, squatting down to build a fire.

“Since then I have used it a few times to store supplies. I kept the wood supply replenished,” Brock informed his companions as he handed each a worn blanket. “Don’t let Quentin know I confiscated these,” he joked and laughed when the others with tongue-in-cheek solemnly promised they wouldn’t. Digging through his makeshift larder, he produced a couple of cans of beans, jerky and coffee, along with a few utensils. He soon had a pot of water on the boil.

“Right cozy den you’ve got here,” Samuel complimented Brock. They were settling back with hot mugs in their hands, warming up and getting comfortable.

Their conversation came to an abrupt end when a pained expletive was heard from a recessed area of the cave where Aiden had gone exploring.

Brock made it back in time to see a snake raised and ready to attack. Expertly throwing his knife, he pinned the copperhead to the wall. Aiden was slumped against a jutting rock in a half standing, half leaning position.  Only then did Brock and Samuel discover Aiden had already been bitten – twice.

Together they helped the big Scot over to the fire where Brock disinfected his knife in the flames while Samuel removed Aiden’s boot and sock. Brock next carved two small x’s on Aiden’s left calve. He sucked out as much of the venom as he could and spat it on the ground. There was no way of telling how much remained or how fast it was moving through the man’s system.

“Och, ‘tis sorry I am for getting us into this bind,” Aiden muttered, aware of the predicament the men now found themselves in. “And ‘tis me own fault for not staying put.”

“Nature calls and we answer,” Brock commented and smiled at the self-condemning man while placing a couple of rolled up blankets under his head and shoulders. “As you’d put it, there’s no need to fash yerself o’er it.”

“Samuel, one of us is going to have to go for help,” Brock calmly stated as he gently washed the wounds with warm water and immobilised the leg, keeping it lower than Aiden’s heart. He then covered the area with a cool wet cloth to minimise swelling.

“I’ll go as I believe you have more knowledge of how to care for our friend here than I do,” Samuel quickly volunteered.

“Although the path leading back to camp isn’t clearly marked, try to stick to it as much as possible. It is almost an hour trek one way in good weather and there is need for haste. The bites go deep and Aiden is going to need proper medical help as soon as possible.” As he talked, Brock placed a tourniquet about three inches above the injured man’s knee to hopefully slow the poison’s progress.

“The storm seems to be waning,” Samuel called as he stepped to the entrance of the cave. “Good luck to you both; I’ll return as swiftly as humanly possible.” And with that he was gone.

“Carelessness, pure carelessness,” Aiden continued muttering and shaking his head.

“These things happen, my friend; goes with the territory.” Brock patiently assured him, monitoring the various symptoms as they became apparent. In addition to the bloody discharge from the fang marks, the skin was beginning to swell and burn. Although Aiden had not so much as uttered a groan, Brock knew the man must be experiencing severe localised pain.

Aiden glanced up at his caretaker through glazed-over eyes. His vision was blurred and he was sweating profusely and feeling faint. “Och, I’ve no the strength of a wee bairn,” he complained as the walls spun around him. “And ‘tis a huge thirst I’ve got.”

Brock filled a cup with water and held it to Aiden’s parched lips for him to drink his fill. The big man was running a fever and losing muscle coordination. Covering his friend with another blanket, Brock wondered how long it would be until the convulsions started.

“I’ll no be letting this defeat me,” Aiden defiantly blurted out. “I’ve got me loves to care for. Aye, me two bonnie lads….” he sighed. “Dinna know where I’d be without them.”

“Tell me about them,” Brock requested. He wanted to keep Aiden conversing even if it was merely the ramblings of a restless, slightly incoherent man.

“Hmmm,” Aiden tried to gather his thoughts. “Larry, me oldest….an ex-marine he’d be. Beautiful, kind, sensitive man he is…needs to learn his worth, the lad does. Ebony black hair; eyes like sparkling sapphires, hard worker, honest as the day’s long.” Aiden’s smile widened at the picture in his mind of his handsome partner and he grew silent.

“And your other love?” Brock prompted.

“Aye, me bonnie wee spitfire,” Aiden murmured as another apparition floated before him. “Golden curls, eyes as blue as the sky, and a mouth dirtier than stable muck. A real bit of a scraper, he is. Do ye see, then, what I must put up with? The whelp ‘tis an undisciplined, defiant, disruptive, cheeky wee brat, and I wouldna have him any other way,” he insisted, chuckling at the memory of a past skirmish. 

Suddenly the big man’s body shook uncontrollably and he groaned seconds before bringing up the water he’d recently swallowed.

Brock efficiently cleaned up and resettled his patient. He encouraged the on-going ranting, prompting whenever a lull occurred as he kept his hands occupied by putting together a stretcher on which to carry Aiden home.

The next couple of  hours slowly passed by, a jumble of disjointed sentences mumbled between bouts of semi-consciousness, convulsions and vomiting; Brock never leaving the wounded man’s side as he worked to keep the fever at bay. 

Finally, just as the mountain man was starting to despair over his friend’s chances of survival, help arrived.


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