The creek itself was boiling past, uprooted saplings, rocks and drowned branches bubbling briefly to the surface.
Tommy Mueller peered at the torrent, shoulders hunched nearly to the brim of the slouch hat he wore pulled down over his ears. I could see doubt etched in every line of his body, and bent close to shout in his ear.
“Stay here!” I bellowed, pitching my voice below the shriek of the wind.
He shook his head, mouthing something at me, but I couldn’t hear. I shook my own head vigorously, and pointed up the bank; the muddy soil was crumbly here; I could see small chunks of the black dirt melt away even as I watched.
“Get back!” I shouted.
He pointed emphatically himself—back in the direction of the farmhouse—and reached for my reins. Clearly he thought it was too dangerous; he wanted me to come back to the house, to wait out the storm.
He definitely had a point. On the other hand, I could see the stream widening, even as I watched, the ravenous water eating away the soft bank in gobbets and chunks. Wait much longer, and no one could cross—neither would it be safe for days after; floods like this kept the water high for as long as a week, as the rains from higher up the mountain trickled down to feed the torrents.
The thought of being cooped up in a four-room house for a week with all ten Muellers was enough to spur me to recklessness. Pulling the reins from Tommy’s grasp, I wheeled about, the horse tossing its head against the rain, stepping carefully on the slick mud.
We reached the upper slopes of the bank, where a layer of thick dead leaves gave better footing. I turned the horse, motioned Tommy back out of the way, and leaned forward like a steeplechaser, elbows digging into the bag of barley bound over the saddle in front of me—my payment for services rendered.
The shift of my weight was enough; the horse was no more anxious to hang about here than I was. I felt the sudden thrust as the hindquarters dropped and bunched, and then we were flying down the slope like a runaway toboggan. A jolt and a moment of giddy freefall, then a resounding splash, and I was up past my thighs in freezing water.
My hands were so cold, they might as well have been welded to the reins, but I had nothing useful to offer in terms of guidance. I let my arms go slack, giving the horse his head. I could feel huge muscles moving rhythmically under my legs as it swam, and the even more powerful shove of the water rushing past us. It dragged at my skirts, threatening to pull me off into the surge.
Then came the jar and scrabble of hooves against the stream bottom, and we were out, pouring water like a colander. I turned in the saddle, to see Tommy Mueller on the other side, his jaw hanging open under his hat. I couldn’t let go of the reins to wave, but bowed toward him ceremoniously, then nudged the horse with my heels and turned toward home.
The hood of my cloak had fallen back when we jumped, but it made no great difference; I couldn’t get much wetter. I knuckled a wet strand of hair out of my eyes and turned the horse’s head toward the upland trail, relieved to be headed home, rain or no.
I had been at the Muellers’ cabin for three days, seeing eighteen-year-old Petronella through her first labor. It would be her last, too, according to Petronella. Her seventeen-year-old husband, peeking tentatively into the room in the middle of the second day, had received a burst of German invective from Petronella that sent him stumping back to the men’s refuge in the barn, ears bright red with mortification.
Still, a few hours later, I had seen Freddy—looking much younger than seventeen—kneel tentatively by his wife’s bedside, face whiter than her shift as he reached a hesitant, scrubbed finger to push aside the blanket covering his daughter.
He stared dumbly at the round head, furred with soft black, then looked at his wife, as though in need of prompting.
“Ist sie nicht wunderschön?” Petronella said softly.
He nodded, slowly, then laid his head on her lap and began to cry. The women had all smiled kindly, and gone back to fixing dinner.
It had been a good dinner, too; the food was one of the benefits of house calls to the Muellers. Even now, my stomach was comfortably distended with dumplings and fried Blutwurst, and the lingering taste of buttered eggs in my mouth provided some small distraction from the general discomfort of my present situation.
I hoped that Jamie and Ian had managed something adequate to eat in my absence. This being the end of summer but not yet harvest time, the pantry shelves were nowhere near the height of what I hoped would be their autumn bounty, but still there were cheeses on the shelf, a huge stoneware crock of salted fish on the floor, and sacks of flour, corn, rice, beans, barley, and oatmeal.
Jamie could in fact cook—at least so far as dressing game and roasting it over a fire—and I had done my best to initiate Ian into the mysteries of making oatmeal parritch, but, they being men, I suspected that they hadn’t bothered, choosing instead to survive on raw onions and dried meat.
I couldn’t tell whether it was simply that after a day spent in the manly pursuits of chopping down trees, plowing fields, and carrying deer carcasses over mountains, they honestly were too exhausted to think of assembling a proper meal, or whether they did it on purpose, so that I would feel necessary.
The wind had dropped, now that I was in the shelter of the ridge, but the rain was still pelting down, and the footing was treacherous, as the mud of the trail had liquified, leaving a layer of fallen leaves floating on top, deceptive as quicksand. I could feel the horse’s discomfort as its hooves slipped with each step.
“Good boy,” I said soothingly. “Keep it up, that’s a good fellow.” The horse’s ears pricked slightly, but he kept his head down, stepping carefully.
“Slewfoot?” I said. “How’s that?”
The horse had no name at the moment—or rather he did, but I didn’t know what it was. The man from whom Jamie had bought him had called him by a German word that Jamie said was not at all suitable for a lady’s horse. When I had asked him to translate the word, he had merely compressed his lips and looked Scottish, from which I deduced that it must be pretty bad. I had meant to ask old Mrs. Mueller what it meant, but had forgotten, in the haste of leaving.
In any case, Jamie’s theory was that the horse would reveal his true—or at least speakable—name in the course of time, and so we were all watching the animal, in hopes of discerning its character. On the basis of a trial ride, Ian had suggested Coney, but Jamie had merely shaken his head and said, no, that wasn’t it.
“Twinkletoes?” I suggested. “Lightfoot? Damn!”
The horse had come to a full stop, for obvious reasons. A small freshet gurgled merrily down the hill, bounding from rock to rock with g*y abandon. It was beautiful, the rushing water clear as crystal over dark rock and green leaves. Unfortunately, it was also bounding over the remains of the trail, which, unequal to the force of events, had slithered off the face of the hill into the valley below.
I sat still, dripping. There wasn’t any way around. The hill rose nearly perpendicularly on my right, shrubs and saplings poking out of a cracked rock face, and declined so precipitously to the left that going down would have amounted to suicide. Swearing under my breath, I backed the nameless horse and turned around.
If it hadn’t been for the flooded creek, I would have gone back to the Muellers and let Jamie and Ian fend for themselves a bit longer. As it was, I had no choice; it was find another way home or stay here and drown.
Wearily, we retraced our slogging steps. Less than a quarter-mile from the washout, though, I found a spot where the hillside fell away into a small saddle, a depression between two “horns” of granite. Such formations were common; there was a big one on a nearby mountain, which had gained it the name of Devil’s Peak. If I could cross the saddle to the other side of the hill, and pick my way along it, I would in time come back to the trail where it crossed the ridge to the south.
From the saddle I had a momentary clear view of the foothills, and the blue hollow of the valley beyond. On the other side, though, clouds hid the tops of the mountains, black with rain, suffused with an occasional flicker of hidden lightning.
The wind had dropped, now that the leading edge of the storm had passed. The rain was coming down even more heavily, if such a thing was possible, and I stopped long enough to pry my cold fingers off the reins and put up the hood of my cloak.
The footing on this side of the hill was fair, the ground being rocky but not too steep. We picked our way through small groves of red-berried mountain ash and larger stands of oak. I noted the location of a huge blackberry bramble for future reference, but didn’t stop. I would be lucky to get home by dark as it was.
To distract myself from the cold trickles running down my neck, I began an mental inventory of the pantry. What could I make for dinner, once I arrived?
Something quick, I thought, shivering, and something hot. Stew would take too long; so would soup. If there was squirrel or rabbit, we might have it fried, rolled in egg and cornmeal batter. Or if not that, perhaps brose with a little bacon for flavoring, and a couple of scrambled eggs with green onions.
I ducked, wincing. Despite the hood and the thickness of my hair, the raindrops were beating on my scalp like hail pellets.
Then I realized that they were hail pellets. Tiny white spheres pinged off the horse’s back, and rattled through the oak leaves. Within seconds, the pellets were bigger, the size of marbles, and the hail had grown heavy enough that its popping sounded like machine-gun fire on the wet mats of leaves in the clearings.
The horse flung up its head, shaking its mane vigorously in an effort to escape the stinging pellets. Hastily, I reined in and guided it into the semi-shelter of a huge chestnut tree. Underneath, it was noisy, but the hail slid off the thick canopy of leaves, leaving us protected.
“Right,” I said. With some difficulty, I pried one hand off the reins and gave the horse a reassuring pat. “Easy, then. We’ll be all right, as long as we don’t get struck by lightning.”
Evidently this statement had jogged someone’s memory; a silent fork of dazzling light split the black sky beyond Roan Mountain. A few moments later, the dull rumble of thunder came booming up the hollow, drowning out the rasp of hail on the leaves overhead.
Sheet lightning shimmered far away, across the mountains. Then more bolts, sizzling across the sky, each succeeded by a louder roll of thunder. The hailstorm passed, and the rain resumed, pelting down as hard as ever. The valley below disappeared in cloud and mist, but the lightning lit the stark mountain ridges like bones on an X ray.
“One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, three hippopotamus, four hippopot—” BWOOOM! The horse jerked its head and stamped nervously.
“I know just how you feel,” I told it, peering down the valley. “Steady, though, steady.” There it went again, a flash that lit the dark ridge and left the silhouette of the horse’s pricked ears imprinted on my retinas.
“One hippopotamus, two hippo—” I could have sworn the ground shook. The horse let out a high-pitched scream and reared against my pull on the reins, hooves thrashing in the leaves. The air reeked of ozone.