OCFF#32: There is no such thing as monsters under the bed. They're not that obvious.
He had spent months just outside of Boston – drilling, marching, training – and, yet, there had been no opportunity to return to Juniper Hall even if just on a short furlough. The ride to and from the countryside estate would have taken less than a day, but the holidays had passed without leave, and he was still battling the unpredictable and unreliable colonial postal service, waiting not so patiently for word from home.
Gideon seemed unfazed, though, oddly enough, so Ryan wallowed alone, worrying and brooding over the one woman and the one young girl the two of them had left behind so many months ago. What had been intended to be a short trip to Philadelphia to attend a conference had turned into almost a year's time in the army, and the worst thing was that little had been accomplished. To say that the war between King George and the thirteen colonies was unproductive would be a grievous underestimation of futility.
It wasn't that he didn't believe in the cause anymore, but he was sick and tired of simply standing still, waiting for something to happen instead of going out and making it. A fight, especially one of such magnitude, in the former coachman's estimation, should not have been so passive, but that's exactly what it was. Days bled into weeks, and, without notice, weeks turned into months, but, still, the army sat unmoving, preparing for something that, at that point, he had little faith of actually occurring. Ryan knew that he would have been of more service out of the military and at home, but he had forfeited that option when he agreed to stand by his employer's side, and he only hoped that their next move was one to incite reaction by the British.
The short, dreary days of winter had turned into the longer yet still equally dreary days of spring. Instead of snow, he trudged through rain, and, instead of waking up in the morning so cold it felt as if his joints were actually frozen solid, his joints now ached with the moisture that was constantly present. It was a different sort of wetness, though, than what he was used to in London. It was more chilling, and fog was a rarity. The waters of the sea didn't calm the raging weather and keep it under control; rather, it encouraged Mother Nature's fastidious attitude, rolling and churning and slamming into the coves of shoreline along the Massachusetts coast in an unforgiving manner, and he doubted that the harbor in New York would be any different than Boston's.
However, the chance to move and actually do something was too tempting to completely deteriorate the valet's mood. Although they would be further away from his adopted home, he was pleased that General Washington felt it pertinent to take a stand. After the canons were placed in Dorchester Heights by Major Knox, the British had fled the strategic city, sailing, it was commonly assumed, to their naval base in Nova Scotia. That left the roads
out of town open, free for passage, without the threat of enemy fire, and the Continental Army's commander was taking advantage of the situation by moving his troops south to New York City in an effort to fortify the important trading post. They were moving out the very next day, despite the abysmal weather, and, with the start of the march, Ryan would be leaving behind any chance he had of returning quickly to Juniper Hall.
Despite the fact that he had just received a letter from the woman he was pretending to be married to a few short weeks before, the missive was still months old and provided him with little pertinent information. He knew that Marissa was keeping things from him, saving him from the direst news she could report and, instead, offering in her notes a rather cheerful spin on her existence in order to lighten the load she knew he carried so heavily upon his strong, capable shoulders. But he didn't want her to do that; he didn't want her to take on more of the burden upon herself. He would have been more at ease knowing the truth, however harsh and alarming it was, because, at least, that way, he was fully prepared for whatever may be waiting for him at home whenever he did get to return.
Not that he felt he would be leaving the army anytime soon…
The resolution between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies was nowhere in sight, and, with both sides playing it cautious, making the contest a veritable waiting game, he wasn't foolish enough to believe the year 1776 would end in peace. No, he was more practical than that, so he realized that the road ahead would be long and winding, dangerous, and filled with more stops and starts than he wished to contemplate. Blowing out the candle beside his cot, he laid back and closed his eyes, hoping that the woman so often on his mind was feeling far less pessimistic that evening than he was.
She couldn't sleep. Wrapping the warmest coat she owned even tighter around her slender frame, Marissa shivered, willing her body to generate its own heat. After all, there certainly was a shortage of it inside of the great house, and, outside, she was well aware of the fact that she wouldn't find a reprieve from the cold. No matter what she and Dolley had attempted to do, it was impossible for them to master the task of splitting wood. They simply weren't physically attuned to such manual labor, and the insignificant amount of kindling that they managed to cut everyday had to be used to cook with, leaving them perpetually cold and always one particularly hostile chill away from sickness. It was no way to live, and she hated her inabilities to survive without the aid of a man.
To stay alive, the two of them now shared a single bed. If she was being completely honest with herself, the pretty blonde would have to admit that she preferred staying in Dolley's room with her young friend. It helped curb her lonesomeness, and it kept her mind off of a taboo topic she had forbidden it from considering. But in the dead of night, unable to truly stop herself from worrying despite the fact that she was physically exhausted, mentally weary, and emotionally drained, the memories that taunted her returned, and she couldn't help but recall what it had been like at Juniper Hall before the war had started.
She would remember the comfort and the warmth.
The wealth, the ease of living, the prosperity.
But, most importantly, she would recall the companionship – not that from the other servants or even from Gideon, her employer, but Ryan's. She missed him more than she liked to admit, and that realization was never more apparent than when she was alone, at night, in the room she had once shared with him.
However, winter had changed everything. With the ushering in of bad weather and her and Dolley's failed attempts at splitting wood, they had decided to share a bed, hoping the close proximity of another human form would help warm them even during the chilliest of nights. They were still alive, so, evidently, the altered sleeping arrangements had done, at least, a modicum of good, but Marissa knew that spring would be arriving soon, and, with it, relief from the bitter New England winter would mean a return to her own sleeping chambers.
Not that she could ever truly rest. Oh, she somehow managed to doze off for a couple of hours every night, her body finding a way to recuperate enough in order to function the next day, but there were too many things weighing down upon her mind in order for her to truly relax. There was her concern for the man she was purporting to be married to, her curiosity about the war, seeing as how Ryan's letter diminished in count more and more as the months went along, not from a lack of writing, she assumed, but from the general state of disorganization the colonies permanently operated under, and, also, the unknown of the future waiting for her to tackle its mysteries.
With spring would come planting, something she knew absolutely nothing of, and it didn't matter that she had spent all her free time during the last few months going over every book on agriculture in the Johnson family library. Without real, hands on experience, she had little hope of actually sowing a successful crop. With spring would come new animals, the cows and horses and goats and sheep all preparing to welcome into the world their latest calves and foals and kids and lambs. If she managed to somehow retain half of the livestock currently residing at Juniper Hall, it would be quite an accomplishment. And, with spring, would come the year anniversary of living at the estate alone with just a now fifteen year old girl who was even more inexperienced when it came to the world and life in general than she was.
And that was saying something.
Sighing, Marissa stepped carefully, her midnight walk guided by the moon's ever present light through the gardens and out towards the barns and stables. On top of everything else, she had a sixth sense that something was wrong, and she feared that, between the evening feeding and the point where she had sat up in bed wide awake just ten minutes before, something had gone wrong with one of the animals. Either they were sick or in labor, and, with all the local men off fighting in the war, it was her responsibility to offer whatever care she could… even if it wasn't much.
They kept a lantern in the each of the out buildings, so the first thing she did when she
stepped into the barn containing all the milking cows, Jerseys according to the books she had read, was strike a match to light the illumination source, casting the high beamed shelter into dancing gloom. The animals, though, were all safe and content – some sleeping… as she should have been, and some simply chewing their cud, idly, disinterestedly, routinely. She was just about to extinguish the lantern in order to head to the stables next door when she noticed movement in the hayloft, causing her to pause in panic.
The first time she had seen a mouse, she had been startled, and the first time she had seen a rat, she had been disgusted, but the movement above her was not due to any marauding wildlife. The animals that could climb or fly their way up into the loft were all too small to cause such a ruckus, so that left her with only one option. It wasn't a something hiding in the barn but, rather a someone, and, unthinkingly, she had gone out to inspect everything unarmed. Despite the fact that she didn't really know how to shoot a weapon, she still sometimes carried around one of Gideon's guns, hoping the threat of injury would scare off anything dangerous that she or Dolley might stumble upon accidentally. But this stumbling was not accidental; it had simply been foolish.
However, she was too stubborn to allow anyone to take advantage of the estate's quickly diminishing resources, and she was too incensed that someone had attempted to do so to think rationally, so she didn't return to the house like any sane woman would. Instead, she looked for the closest threatening thing within her grasp, tightening her work roughened hands around the time bleached handle of the pitchfork, jabbing it menacingly towards the loft.
"Show yourself," she demanded, yelling in order to mask her fear. When there was no response, she took a step closer and raised her voice. "I said, you coward, show yourself!"
The next few moments seemed to pass by in a blur. With the light of the lantern to prevent the uppermost corners of the barn from existing completely in the dark, she noticed a figure bleed out from the shadows, slowly approaching the main circle of light she herself was standing in, but the man's approach was awkward and unsteady, and any former sense of distress she had been feeling for her own safety was transferred onto the stranger.
The clattering sound of the pitchfork falling to the ground masked some of her anguish as the blonde twenty year old sprang into action, gasping aloud in sympathy. "Oh my… you're hurt!" Quickly climbing the ladder that led to the loft as quickly as the billowing skirts of her nightdress, robe, and coat would allow, she moved to the trespasser's side, wrapping her arms around him and easing him back down to a sitting position as carefully as she could. It didn't matter that he was filthy and getting blood all over her own pristinely clean bedclothes, and it didn't matter that he was a stranger. The boy or, rather, the young man was injured, and, like any decent person in her situation, all Marissa was concerned with was helping him.
"What happened to you?"
"Shot," the intruder answered in a rasping, weak voice. "Running away… caught me… made it home, but… no one…"
"Please, don't talk," she insisted, helping him further by coaxing him to lie back down. "It doesn't matter right now. You can tell me what happened after we get you feeling better, but, first, I need to clean your wound. Alright?" Standing up, she moved towards the ladder. "I'll be right back, but I need to go and get some supplies, a few blankets, and I think I better bring you some food, too. You feel extremely thin."
"Thank you, Miss."
Not aware of the title he had given her and the connotation behind it, the beautiful blonde smiled reassuringly. "It's Marissa, Marissa Atwood."
"Will," the young man returned, grimacing at the effort it took to reply. "Just Will."