The Long Road Home
Time & Location: Wadi's Well, Kalispell Trail, Montana
Tags & OOCs: After Dinner, Early July 1875
It took Harriet two trips up the trail to the well because of having to carry the lantern to light her way. Each time, the men had tried to insist they at least help her carry the pots, pans, and dishes. At least the cast-iron skillets had been wiped clean and rubbed with lard to keep them conditioned. Those were packed away in the carriage. She had finally acquiesced enough to ask Jess to carry back the two coffee pots full of water for fresh coffee and tea which she prepared before returning to the pool to do the washing up. Harriet knew she would need a cup of tea once she had the dishes done. She figured she was one of the few women that found doing dishes a pleasant chore especially the metal ones that she did not have to be concerned about breaking.
Harriet carefully wedged the lantern between a couple of rocks before placing the dinner things into the hot spring to soak. Rolling her sleeves up, she pulled a bar of soap out of a small satchel and used her pen knife to shave slivers of it into a cup. Next, she pulled a small cloth from the bag, rolled it in the soap slivers and then added a little sand to the first plate. She hummed an old Welsh lullaby that she'd learned from her nanny as a child, before her mother's death. The soft hoot of an owl startled her causing her to peer up into the branches of a tree that slanted precariously over the small pool.
The owl blinked at her but seemed totally unconcerned about Harriet's presence. "You are not white, my friend, but you are still another legend come to life." The same nanny that had taught her the lullaby had regaled the young Harriet with tales of her homeland. One of those had been about the gwenhyvar, the white owl. It was said they were ill omens or harbingers of death. She shook the rag at the bird which did not disturb it in the least, "Shoo! Death has already walked this meadow. There is no place for you right now."
It wasn't often, very rarely in fact, that Jo saw this side of Harriet. The domestic side. They had servants back home in San Francisco that took care of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. She stood quietly behind Harriet for a few long moments, simply watching her older sister. Seeing her like this made her seem just a little bit more human. Harriet wasn't a monster, far from it and she'd never been outright cruel to Jo, just cold, distant and aloof much of the time. Sometimes, though, she just didn't know how to relate to her.
At the moment, however, there was something on Jo's mind that weighed quite heavily, and it needed to be discussed. Hearing Harriet's comment to the owl in the leaves overhead, Jo stepped forward, announcing her presence. "He's only looking for his own dinner. It's no different than Mr. Harper hunting down what we put in our own bellies tonight," she stated quietly as she looked up at the owl for a moment, those bright yellow eyes almost eerie. "Do you need some help?"
Harriet glanced up from the pan she had been scrubbing with her soap and sand solution. She had heard Josephine's soft footfalls coming up the trail. One of the many things she had learned from Fang was how to listen on several levels, to distinguish the sounds of nature from the sounds of man. Still, it wasn't like her sister made much noise. In fact, Harriet often envied her grace and natural beauty.
"If you don't mind, I would appreciate the help. Perhaps you could start with the cups? I am already elbow-deep on the pots," Harriet said and smiled. She nodded her dark head toward the tree with its watching owl, "I do not begrudge him his hunt, but would prefer he take it elsewhere. It is an old superstition, to be sure. One learned from my nanny when I was a small child. Despite the fact the gwynhyvar is an ill-omen in Welsh and Cornish lore, I admire their grace and beauty."
"Sure," Josephine replied, stepping closer to where the dishes were piled up neatly on the natural stone wall of the well. Lifting her eyes upward to the tree looming above them, Jo smiled softly at the owl. "He's probably curious about why we are here, seeing as we are in his home territory after all." Turning her attention back to the dishes, she picked up Harriet's satchel and small pen knife to slice off a small bit of soap for her own use, mimicking her sister in wrapping it in a clean rag before taking it to the cups they'd used at supper.
Her questions were right there at the tip of her tongue. Before Jo knew how to ask them, her mouth opened, and words came out. "Harriet... yesterday, during the attack." She didn't look at her sister as her hands were kept busy, but green eyes did shift in Harriet's direction at her side. "The way you threw that knife, and the accuracy. You've done it before. You were trained, weren't you?" She asked quietly. "Was it by Fang?"
Harriet sat back on her heels and blew at a tendril of hair that had escaped from its braid. She knew this was going to come up with Josephine and expected to be asked for an explanation by her clients as well. "When I was a child, Fang took pity on me because of the horrid teasing I received for being so awkward, clumsy, and singularly unattractive. He began teaching me some of his Oriental fighting styles to help with balance and focus. Later, he discovered my ability to calculate angles and trajectories when I corrected him when he was practicing throwing his kill-stars."
"So, yes, I had practiced with the knives I carry, but I had never used them as I did yesterday morning," Harriet said, turning her twilight gray eyes on her sister. "I needed to protect you and did not wish to see either Mr. Cantrell or Mr. Harper shot in the back. I am proud of the skill, but not of the use I had to put it to."
Jo was quiet for a moment as she worked, letting her sister's words sink in. For as long as she could remember, Fang had been Harriet's constant companion so it made sense that he would have been Harriet's teacher. The Mercer ladies had definitely had very different upbringings to a degree and Jo couldn't imagine herself performing as Harriet had on the previous day.
"Yesterday was," Jo started, then shook her head. "I can not think of a time where I was more scared. Thank you." The words came out in little more than a whisper as she glanced over at her sister.
Harriet turned her pale gray eyes on Josephine and regarded her steadily for a few moments. She shook her head, "You do not need to thank me. Don't you know that I would protect you with my life if need be?"
Her hands paused in their work, Jo didn't look at her sister right away. There had been so many times over the years that she'd been living with Harriet that she'd felt nothing more than an obligation, taken in only because she had nowhere else to go. Her uncle hadn't wanted her, in fact, he'd been quite happy to sign over her care to her older half-sister. Perhaps that was part of the reason she wished to fall in love with a good man and start a family of her own.
When she finally did look at Harriet, there was a shimmer of faint tears in her green eyes, illuminated by the moonlight. "No, I don't know that."
Harriet had no idea how to respond to Josephine. What could she say when her younger sister was right. How could she have known of Harriet's mixture of jealousy, resentment, envy, and devotion? The first two emotions had been motivated by Frank Mercer's cruelty, making it clear to Harriet that he far preferred his younger daughter as he lavished affection and gifts on Josephine. The envy was again the result of Frank's cruelty, but also came from Harriet's longing to be as petite and pretty as the younger Mercer sister. On the rare times that Frank left Harriet in Evelyn Mercer's care, her gentle and gracious stepmother, she was lavished with the same affection shown to Evelyn's own daughter. The harsher emotions had given way to a quiet devotion, but her sire's cruelty had left her incapable of expressing it to either Evelyn or Josephine. She had still been finding herself, establishing her sense of self-worth, and making sure she did not starve when she found herself having to take guardianship of her younger sister and see that she never wanted for anything.
Finishing the last of the dishes, she dried them and stacked them neatly in a pile. Harriet then took the cups from Josephine and quickly dealt with them too. After washing her hands in the hot pool, she dried them with a clean towel and pushed her hair back from her face again. Settling back on one of the larger rocks that bordered the pool, she turned her full attention to her sister.
"Josephine," Harriet said quietly, but with soft emphasis, "I will always and forever protect you and see you taken care of although my ultimate goal is to make sure you can take care of yourself. When you receive your full inheritance, I want you to know how to manage it so that you are never at someone else's mercy. I need to find a way to teach you to recognize those that sincerely care for you from those with ulterior motives. I want you happy, healthy and fulfilled. Most of all, I want you safe and secure. I do not know how to express these things on a day-to-day basis or in the way that other sisters show affection to one another. That is alien to me and, honestly, it is frightening."
Harriet leaned back, supporting herself on the boulder with one hand behind her. She felt drained from the surge of emotion and the short speech. No doubt, if not for the hot spring next to her, she would also be chilled to the bone. She regarded Josephine for several moments, then said, "Remind me to loan you a pair of pants, shirt, and boots. You will be cooler and far more comfortable."
Jo barely recognized the woman standing next to her. Was this really Harriet, telling her things she'd not once heard in her time on this Earth. There was a tightness in her chest, and she closed her eyes, her hands resting on the spring's wall, the stones cool beneath her fingers. "All I have ever wanted was for us to be proper sisters." She finally spoke, her voice soft. "And I thought that meant we needed to be close, share the more personal parts of our lives. Maybe that's not meant for us, I don't know." Jo looked over at Harriet, sitting over on a boulder. "But you truly are my sister, and I thank God for that."
For once, Harriet decided to allow someone else the last word.