Shamish sat bolt upright, his shoulders going rigid, but he didn’t look in the direction of the woman. Instead he tilted his tankard of hard cider back and took a long pull. We were seated on benches at a butcher block table in a back corner of a plank-walled building. The well-stocked trading post and tavern was near the confluence of Cayuga Creek and Buffalo Creek. It was a ramshackle joint—a place Shamish referred to as Creekside Junction, but that name wasn’t on any signs or maps that I’d seen.
I’d discerned that my ridge-runner friend had a yen for putting tags on sites or locations whether anyone else knew what he meant or not. The Rolling Thunder of Niagara Falls was just a short hike to the north.
“Shamish McCleary!” she repeated, glowering at him. He still hadn’t turned to see her. She was across the crowded room, which had been a hive of activity, but now, all transactions were suspended as scrutiny leaned toward the obviously angry woman filling the doorway.
“Shamish. . .” I started, but he hushed me with a steely stare and an abrupt gesture.
I watched the woman carefully. She had a distinctly pretty face, round and a little bit chunky in the cheeks, with oval, expressive eyes that just now were dark and smoldering. She was a wintertime woman who likely generated a lot of heat.
A quirky shadow chased over her lips, and then she moved with a flourish toward the stone fireplace. She picked up a rod-iron poker, and wielded it like a sword in her right hand as she approached us. In her left arm, cradled and easily balanced on the curved ledge of her hip, a roly-poly toddler squirmed, eyes bright and wide.
Earthy & Private
Late afternoon summer sunlight trickled through a half-shuttered window, which spread a faint yellowish hue across the cavern-like room. The air was thick and heavy.
Tension swirled into eddies as patrons and would-be customers scattered clear of what for all appearances was to be a bigtime donnybrook. Dust devils danced and turned circles in the big-boned woman’s wake.
The expression creasing her face was a mask difficult to read. She stopped directly behind my lean and lanky partner, raised the poker to a menacing angle, and then finally, as a collective gasp encompassed the onlookers, Shamish responded. He looked over a shoulder at her and offered a lame grin, revealing a toothy display of tobacco stains.
Her right arm twitched once, and then sudden-like, she visibly softened. She moistened her lips and released a hiss of frail laughter as dimpled laugh-lines eased her mouth into a look that was pure vulnerability.
A surge of emotion charged between them—it was so intense that it made me uncomfortable. She dropped the rod-iron to the well-swept dirt floor.
“Jedediah, here’s my Bernadette.”
“Listen to him,” she snapped, flashing me a withering look. “Been gone for over two years and he’s got the gall to call me his Bernadette.”
Shamish flinched. “I warned you I was a wandering fool.”
“Not anymore you’re not,” she said, shifting to plop the child on his lap. “Meet your son, Tineek. You weren’t to be found to pick your old-country brain, so I called him same as my grandfather.”
Shamish grunted approval. “I didn’t know, lass. I swear.”
“Save it,” she replied flatly. “I wasn’t sure until after you were gone.”
“Itchy feet, Bernadette.”
“They stop itching now, Shamish.”
“Aye.” He moved the boy to a knee, and began rocking him side to side. A surprising tenderness overcame the vagabond trapper as he held the tiny hands and examined the boy from head to toes. The youngster had his mother’s swarthy olive complexion, and was moon-faced, with a thick swath of coal-black hair. “He’s a fine lad. You done good Bernadette.”
“We done good,” she corrected, giving him a suggestive nudge. “As I recall I had some help at the beginning stages.”
“Aye, ‘twas indeed sweet,” he answered, studying the lines of her face. She cupped his chin in the hand that had recently held a threatening weapon, and her fingers stroked and twisted his thatch of grizzly whiskers. What passed between them was earthy and private.
I looked away, and surveyed the room. It was then I realized that our table had an audience—though everyone had returned to their business, many were still giving sideway glances at the reunited couple.
I picked an abstract spot in the middle distance, and bided my time focused on it. There was an outbreak of snickering coughs that passed from one to another. I suppressed a broad smile.
Who Are You?
The moment ended unexpectedly. Bernadette tangled up a fistful of his beard to give his head a shake, and then cuffed him a good one upside his head—message sent and received.
“We just got here,” Shamish protested, rubbing the ear where the blow had landed. “I was coming to find you as soon as we had a drink and grub.”
She adjusted her bead decorated buckskin skirt, and then settled on the bench beside him. “Don’t give me your sugary malarkey.”
“He’s telling the truth. . .”
She cut me off with a chopping motion, which ended with a finger being jabbed under my nose. “Don’t be taking this old skunk’s side—not if you want to be friends with me, Mister Jedediah.”
“There’s no mister,” I told her, pushing her hand away. “It’s Jedediah Jodat.”
A blush of color darkened her brow. “I’m just plain Bernadette.”
“I’ll be making it Bernadette McCleary,” Shamish said with a nod.
“Will you now?” she cajoled, eyes lively and mock-furious.
“Aye is right. Otherwise I’d slice your gizzard out.” She tossed back her shiny raven hair as a giggle that originated deep in her throat escaped—it became loud and contagious between us. When the laughter died of its own volition, she riveted her attention on me. “Who are you?”
I sloughed it off with a dismissive shrug. “Just a friend passing through.”
Bernadette shook her head. “No.” The firm resolve with which she delivered that one word unleashed an unusual sensation of anxiety that ripened as a weighted lump in my stomach. She regarded me for a long spell, looking straight into me with a probing severity that made me want to avert my eyes, but instead, I held her gaze and attempted to stare her down.
“Don’t,” Shamish said tensely. There was an undercurrent of warning in his stern rasp. “My Bernadette’s pa was a Frenchman from Montreal, but her ma was a medicine woman.”
“Her mama before her too,” Bernadette explained in a matter-of-fact manner, without blinking or breaking her study of me. “And as far back as the stories go. The gift is in my blood.”
“Who are you?” I managed, voice thin and whispery.
“I am Iroquois,” she answered quietly. “Who are you?”
The question dangled—it developed a life of its own as it spun mistrust to a thoroughly unacceptable level. We were locked in on each other, with neither surrendering an inch.
I summoned the brute force of my personality and pushed it at her in an authoritative tone. “A friend.”
Bernadette remained unconvinced. She brooded on it—while doing so her hands flexed into tightly clenched fists. “Mayhap, yes. Mayhap, no,” she declared flatly. “Something’s crooked, Shamish.”
“Ah, lass,” Shamish soothed softly. He cuddled his son as he eyeballed me. “He’s my friend. That be the end of it. We’ve bin traveling together a full month or more.”
Bernadette ignored him, and spoke at him, not to him. “There’s a strange woman camped alone east of here. No one figures her doing, but she’s up to no good, I say. She came from nowhere. She has the same look as this one.” She turned flinty eyes back on me. “You don’t belong here. This ain’t your place or time.”
My heart jumped. I couldn’t argue the point—the less said the better. I endeavored to divert the conversation. My first effort failed miserably, but I persisted until I pealed back a corner of the old skunk’s fancy, and he began regaling me with tales of bold as a bear Bernadette. I listened, amazed by the buoyant give and take of their relationship, but a piece of me was faraway and drifting. Curiosity had me in its grip.
There was a mystery here requiring my interventionist skills, but for now I intended to enjoy the company. How long it’d be before I’d venture forth to explore the parameters of all I’d just learned, I couldn’t say. What was clearly in my mind was this—I was entirely intrigued by a strange woman who reportedly had my look, whatever that meant.