Tuesday, August 14, 1883, Evening
Bewildered as I was by Roe’s presence, I saddled my horse, Staffa. We’d been together a long while, Staffa and I, since he was a three-year-old colt. Twelve years. A red chestnut, he’s a knowing, brave creature who’s sweet for peppermint and clover.
I’d never seen him skittish of another horse, but my boy took one look at Master Angus, threw his head, and froze like he’d seen a ghost. It took some coaxing, but soon we were following Roe out of town.
The earlier vision had faded. I’d managed to convince myself that it was me being lonesome and enthralled by a handsome smile. It happens to all of us from time to time.
The talk between us turned easy as soon as we rode over the Fall’s Avenue Bridge and left the main streets of Corwen behind. Though my own reputation was beyond reproach, one wrong look, or rumor, and I’d be running for my life.
Swinging north, we took Hodge Road to the border of town where the farmland began. The soil was fertile along the Branwen River. The road meanders beside her, starting where her mouth opens wide to take in water from Branwen Bay and weaving through farmland to Corwen and beyond.
I snuck glances at Roe when I could, watching the way the reins sat in his large hands. He’d given Master Angus his head, and it looked like his mount was as familiar with the road as he was with his feeding trough.
We chatted about the weather and places the circus had been before coming to this side of the mountains. Roe was funny in a way that sets all folks at ease. He found his laughter in the world around him and the peculiarities of others without making them feel sore for being noticed.
The circus caravan had stopped by a field Farmer Belton had left fallow for the season. The man himself was jawing with one of the roustabouts. Master Angus whinnied as we approached, and the two looked our way. The fellow chatting with Farmer Belton was high-browed and robust. He bellowed a hello and came loping toward us, long legs eating up the distance in a few strides.
“Good evening Master Angus and Mr. Roe, sir. This gentleman says he’ll rent us this field ’til Sunday. Long as we leave her as we found her, she’s ours for $10 a day.”
Roe jumped from his saddle and stroked Master Angus’ nose, “What do you say old friend?” he asked the horse.
The horse whickered, and Roe nodded, explaining the farmer’s proposition in a strange tongue. A silent conversation followed like they were somehow dickering over the price Belton had quoted mind-to-mind.
Jedidiah Belton’s eyebrows climbed to his hairline, no easy fete with the lack of hair on his head. I considered stepping in as a distraction, but Roe turned to Farmer Belton and said, “We’ve come on you unannounced and in need of a place until Saturday. We want to give our folks a day’s rest until we open for the town–”
The farmer grimaced. A stoic and kind man, he interrupted to spare Roe the humiliation of asking for a lesser price, “Well, I guess I could let her go for $8 a day if some of your bigger fella’s would be willing to help haul some hay on Thursday.”
Roe, who it appeared was always in good humor, clapped Jedidiah Belton on the shoulder, “No, my fine new friend, you misunderstand me. The Master and I would be obliged if you’d take $20 a day and accept our help on Thursday to put paid to your troubles.”
If I hadn’t been there to see it, I wouldn’t have believed the look of undisguised wonder on old farmer’s face, “Young man, I’ve never been one to take advantage, but I feel I’d be a fool to talk you down.”
The two shook hands on the deal, and Farmer Belton walked away, scratching his head over the $120 he’d been given in advance without having to ask.
“Your horse is the generous type,” I said and drew another laugh from my new-found companion. The sound lit my blood like the sweet fire of Kentucky Bourbon.
“He is at that,” his tongue darted out to wet his lips, and I wondered how the plump slickness would feel against my tongue. He looked at me like he knew my thoughts and I ducked, shifting my bag from one hand to the other.
“Shall we see to your Mistress,” I said.
Roe bent, making sure I met his eyes, “She’s no Mistress of mine, Doc. I’ve one heart beating in this old breast, and that’s taken.”
I shook my head, overwhelmed by the strange series of interactions between us. It was not unlike being tossed about on a boat, then stepping on to land and finding the stillness more disconcerting than the rocking.
“I feel the need to ask again: Do we know each other?” Impossible as it may have been, I was struck with the feeling I had known him the whole of my life.
He studied me, searching for something. Far away, I heard the crashing of waves, though the late afternoon was calm, and Branwen Bay was miles from where we stood. His hand rose to touch my cheek, but he hesitated, and clasped them behind his back.
“It’s not time yet, Thomas. Soon, I promise.”
The ache in his voice appeased me. It was inexplicable. I knew nothing of this man, and yet I accepted his words as if he’d spoken them to me hundreds of times.
I found I trusted him. And so, we walked through the throng of workers scurrying here and there, hammers clanging on the heads of steel spikes. He led me to Mistress Murdina.
She was a slight thing, thin as a rake and younger than I imagined. Her features crowded together in the center of her face, gathered near each other like chicks in a windstorm.
“Good afternoon, Miss. I’m Doctor O’Dell. Mr.-” I stopped, looking to Roe, realizing amid the odd turns in our brief acquaintance I’d never learned his full name.
“Grell,” he said with a small bow, “Professor Monroe Grell, at your service.” His lips quirked into a wry smirk. My heart clenched. I yearned to understand the history shared between us that his expressions implied.
“Professor Grell tells me you’ve had a fall.”
“Good Afternoon, Doc,” she sighed. “I tripped over a tent tie. My head is always full of music, it’s how I see.”
“Oh,” I said, confused. “This music, it distracts you?”
“In a way, I’m driven to transcribe notes, even as I walk,” she plucked up a leather-bound book and clutched it to her breast. “The ones who send me their songs demand the whole of my attention. Ridiculous as it sounds, they’ve no clue what it’s like to have feet, much less clumsy ones.” Voice chiming like the tinkling of a bell, she laughed. The sound was exotic, enticing. Had my affections not been directed toward men, I think it would have been easy to love her.
Upon examination, it turned out Mistress Murdina may not have had the luck of foresight when it came to injury, but she’d earned some goodwill somewhere. Her foot wasn’t broken, just a sprain that would heal with rest.
We left her reclining on a chaise, fanning herself and singing a mournful tune in her high, sweet soprano. My eyes pricked with heat.
Roe was staring toward the setting sun, eyes reflecting golden in the dying light. I gasped at a depth of sadness and love reflected in his expression.
“Will you walk with me a bit before you ride back to town?” He asked, holding his hand out.
I hesitated, trembling like I was rushing toward a precipice with no heed to the length of my fall or the sharpness of the rocks on which I’d land.
“Please,” he said, and I placed my hand in his.