The smell of grits pulled me out of the dark place to which I had been dragged by the lightening bugs. It was a welcome change from that odor of fear in which I had last bathed. As I opened my eyes, half expecting to see old Mary’s muzzle, instead, I saw only a band of white. It was evident that I lay upon a bed, softness all around me. I gave a start, that terrible notion of being back in Virginia taking hold for an instant.
“She’s awake! Doctor!”
That was Anna’s voice! My sweet, courageous Anna! Then, what I saw was no fevered illusion. It had been her, in the flesh, if only one of her. She had indeed come back for me. I nearly cried with gratitude to the Lord above. She was safe. I was safe. Even old Mary, whom my torpid limbs had endangered, was safe. And warm! It was so blessedly warm here.
Where was here, as a matter of fact? I turned my head gingerly toward the source of those dulcet tones, wary of the pain I’d felt the last time I’d tried to move. Now, I felt no pain at all. I did feel the softest touch, though, upon my face. The warmth of those fingers was as the kiss of the sun on a cold winter’s morn. I tried to reach up, but my arm felt like lead.
“Don’t try to move, honey child.”
That whisper into my ear fed me more than any mana from heaven. I felt my whole body relax, letting go of the fear and tension of the past days. But why were my eyes covered?
“I can’t see you.”
I felt another hand take hold of mine, caressing it tenderly as one would comfort a wounded house cat.
“Shh, shh. Don’t you worry.”
How could I worry? I was too happy to be here, with her by my side. She must have intuited my thoughts, for she gave my hand a gentle squeeze, before continuing,
“Your head is bandaged all the way around, to protect you from moving too much. You took a right good fall from old Mary.”
My happiness turned instantly to sorrow. I felt ashamed of my clumsiness, having again thrown our plans into disarray. My mouth must have turned down, because Anna recognized my shame right away.
“No, no, don’t you even.”
My hand got a slightly sharper squeeze, now. Not painful at all, but enough to know that she felt I was thinking nonsense.
“That fall was all my fault.”
Her fault? But I was the one who’d fallen off of the horse!
She took both of my hands by those long tapered fingers, shifting to sit up, as nearly as I could tell, directly in front of my propped up head.
“Now look, Miss Willow.”
That formal tone got my attention.
“I knew that you had never sat such a saddle before in your life, so it was my responsibility to keep you from falling. I failed. Had old Mary not answered my calls, we might still be out there looking for you.”
Her calls? What calls? Did she mean to say that the cry of that strange bird had been her, all along? I set my head slowly to one side, pondering the possibility until a mild ache reminded me not to move. She must have taken my meaning, for she burst into a laugh so sudden that she let go of both of my hands.
“You mean -do you mean to tell me that you thought my calls to old Mary were some animal out there in the woods? Is that what you were trying to say that made you pass out when I found you?”
I closed my mouth, only just having realized that it was hanging open. What a fool I was.
“Oh, my dear Willow, I forget how little of the outside world you have seen, trapped in that big old house. I am sorry, I do not mean to laugh, it’s just that I never even thought of it!”
Of course, I finally understood. No bird in the woods could be dangerous. Just like the lightening bugs. I’d been delirious. I hung my head just a little. Then I felt warm arms around my shoulders, gently hugging me.
“Well, now, you are not to worry. We’ve arrived safely at our station, and can rest here a few days before going on. You need time to mend.”
She paused, and I felt the bed lighten, as she must have stood up.
“Doctor H. here is going to have a look at your head. Don’t be afraid.”
I felt her pat my hand, before placing my arm at my side. Then the bed tilted again, as a heavier weight sat beside me. A smell of rose water told me that this man was a gentleman of standing.
“Hello, Willow. Welcome to my home. I am the Conductor in this town. My wife is preparing some breakfast, if you can hold a bit of food down, but first I must see to your head.”
He spoke like a white man accustomed to authority, but kind in it’s use. His accent was from Maryland, but if Anna trusted him, then so would I. I opened my mouth to thank him, but he quickly cut me off.
“No, no, don’t try to speak. You have a serious concussion, and need to save your strength.”
I felt the bandages unwinding, my head feeling more light, as if a pressure were lifting away. While the ache grew a bit sharper, the growling of my stomach was beginning to compete quite successfully. After re-wrapping my head, the doctor pronounced me in good recovery, and withdrew from the room, if the sound of his retreating footsteps and the soft click of a door was any judge.
I felt Anna sit back down on the bed beside me and take up my hand.
“I can hear your stomach rumbling, so that makes two of us.”
I smiled, hearing the mischief in her voice.
“Dr. H. and his wife are good white folks. We can rest here, for a while.”
I recalled dimly that Dr. H. had been meant to meet us with a carriage out there, in the woods. From there, ‘Joe’ was to have driven us along the road into town. But that was before we met with the bear, thankfully. I felt a pity for the poor beast, and a guilty gratitude, as well. Had it not been for that terrible sacrifice, we might now be sitting in a slave gaol, rather than this warm refuge. My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I needed to sit up a bit more to eat.
Just then, the door opened again, and a smell hit me that I had never in my life expected to enjoy.