Published on Thursday, February 7, 2013
A Bath for Sarah
By Ken Staley
As he watched his team plod through the tall grass, following the trail he'd blazed himself just before sunset the night before, Jeremiah Wilson stewed over and over the same questions.
I wonder why she didn't say she was tall? Almost a head taller than he was. Not that it really bother her, being tall and all. Being tall was no hindrance on the prairie.
I wonder why she didn't say she was so skinny? Didn't they feed her in Boston?
"Just a summer thunder storm," he explained. "They can be real drenchers if you get caught in one. Still, we should be home before it cuts loose. Like to have everything tied down and tucked away, 'specially us. They can be real soakers. Chances are it'll miss us by a couple miles though."
He shut up. Every time he spoke aloud he feared he'd scare her, or that he'd talk to much, or say the wrong thing.
Her pictures was prettier, he thought.
As soon as the first fat drops reached them Jeremiah knew the heart of the storm was upon them.
"Can we stop, Mr. Wilson?" Sarah asked in a soft voice that startled Jeremiah. He jerked back on the reigns and his horses tossed their heads at the sudden, rough treatment.
"Yes, Mr. Wilson," Sarah said as she looked down to her lap, twisting an already mangled handkerchief. "I'd like to get my umbrella from my trunk, if you'd be so kind."
"We can stop if you want," he answered but nodded at the building clouds just as tongues of lighting danced across the face of the storm, turning angry purple clouds instantly snow white, then gone just as quickly. "But that storm there ain't gunna stop. I wanna be across Wilson Creek before she fills."
He voiced his biggest concern, that the creek might already be too full to cross safely with a wagon, even one as lightly packed as theirs.
"Please," she asked softly. "This is my best dress."
Jeremiah set the brake and handed her the traces. He grunted when she almost dropped them, unfamiliar with their function as much as their weight. He climbed into the bed of the wagon and unlashed her trunk. Her umbrella rested on the very top of her things, all neatly arranged and organized if this quick glance was any indication. He refastened the trunk and quickly resumed his seat, slapping the horses with the traces.
"Get on there Betty," he called to the mare. "Hey Big Boy... move smartly. That storm ain't waitin'."
No sooner had Sarah opened her umbrella than the rain started proper. Try as she might to make herself small enough to fit under its small shelter, within ten minutes her dress was soaked to her knees and she shivered as the wind picked up around them.
Jeremiah drove on in sullen silence, glad that the storm barked thunder and spit lightning at him now and then. He pulled his hat down sharply across his eyes, protecting them from the driving water as best possible. Problem was, this left his back exposed and the rain ran freely down his back, soaking him.
The ruts through the prairie sod deepened as he neared his favorite place to ford Wilson Creek.
"Just over that small hump," he raised his voice to be heard above the wind and nodded his head. Water splashed from his hat to the foot board. "Another mile and a half and we'll be home."
"Will it take long?" Sarah asked, more a plea than a question. A sudden gust of wind snatched her umbrella and before either of them could turn, it danced into the high grass, swallowed by curtains of driving rain. She shivered against the sudden full exposure and almost before he thought of it, she was completely soaked to the skin. She sneezed twice and hugged herself, trying to maintain some modesty as the water running down her left her blouse clinging to her.
Sarah's hair strung out in wispy threads from the tight bun at the back of her head. Snake-like tendrils ran down her forehead and she absently brushed them aside, her once white gloves now completely ruined by the ride and water. For almost the first time since they pulled away from the railroad station earlier that morning, Jeremiah smiled. Her black hair was just a shade longer than his own. He tried to remember how long ago it was that he'd seen a barber. He planned on getting a haircut and a shave before meeting his mail order bride, but the only barber in town was down with the chicken pox and wouldn't see anyone.
Absently, he reached out to brush away one of those straying locks. She jerked back at his approach, then froze at his soft touch, smiled, and lowered her eyes into her lap, blushing.
"Thank you, Mr. Wilson," she managed a whisper just loud enough to be heard over the storm.
Wondered when she'll call me Jeremiah, he thought. She didn't seem to have that problem in her last letters.
He snapped the butts of his team as thoughts of those letters, so filled with loneliness and passion filled him. Perhaps there would be time later to explore those questions. Perhaps someone else had written the letters for her. His clumsy writing and poor spelling would dispel any doubt that someone had written his letters for him.
"Dear God," she gasped as they came over the rise. Two other creeks before this had been little more than a string of muddy buffalo wallows. Wilson Creek roared through its channel.
"She's up, sure enough," Jeremiah said as he brought his team to a halt.
He walked to the edge of the stream. Normally, he'd take refuge in the willows up the bank a bit until the storm passed. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw a shaking stranger in his wagon who might not last the storm out if he didn't try. He walked to the very edge of the stream. Its rush was on, sure enough, but not so bad, he decided.
"We'll try," he said. "You got to sit here and hold the traces. I'll lead the horses across."
She shivered, nodded, and slid into his seat.
"Spread your legs a bit and brace yourself," he instructed. "This'll be bumpy as hell!" Then he stammered, "I'm sorry... I didn't mean..." She nodded and held the reigns in a firmer grip.
Good! Jeremiah thought. She's paid attention some.
Before the water reached the top of his boots, Jeremiah knew they were in trouble. Big Boy fought against his lead, trying to shake free and back away. Solid Betty steadied the stallion. He would go nowhere as long as she remained, but she had her ears laid back as well and walked slowly into the creek.
Jeremiah began to relax just as the front hooves of his team reached the far bank. A sudden gush raced downstream and snatched the wagon from its footing in the gravel bottom, upending it and terrifying his team. He turned just in time to see Sarah fly into the creek, clear of the wagon, which tumbled and rattled in the sudden flood.
Without thinking he dove head long into the mess struggling down stream to catch his less-than-a-day bride. His head bobbed above the water and he heard her panicked screams now and again. Those moments he thought he might be near he could hear her screams of terror. Time seemed to drag on and there were times he was certain that each scream was her last.
Finally, with one huge kick against the water pushing him, Jeremiah found cloth and pulled. He tugged, dragging his wife up the bank and out of the water, both hands filled with her clothing. He'd managed to wrap both hands around her long skirt, tearing it in several places, exposing her long legs and thighs in several places. Gone, too, was the cravat around her throat, the broach that held it in place dangled from a collar like a petrified tear. Her blouse fared only slightly better than her skirt, exposing her under shirt, wet and clinging to her breasts.
He put his head against her chest and found her still breathing. He stripped his own shirt and covered her with it, then stood to find his team. Big Boy and Betty, terror driven when the buckboard overturned, managed to climb the bank, but the tongue of the wagon caught on the rocks, prohibiting further escape. Wild eyed and ready to bolt, Jeremiah spent a few minutes talking gently to them before leading his team back to his wife. He loaded her onto Betty's back and tied her in place. Climbing aboard Big Boy, he set them off at a fast trot to his sod cabin a mile in the distance.
Jeremiah carried his semi conscious new bride across the threshold and hesitated. She would sleep better and get warmer if he removed her clothes. He blushed at the very thought. He'd never seen a naked woman. True, this was his wife. He managed to sit her on the side of the bed and stood, holding her gently in place with one hand. He blushed again. Although Wilson Creek tore great gashes and rends in her clothes, as he pondered her close, for the very first time, he realized he had no idea how to get her out of any of it.
He gritted his teeth and removed his own shirt from her shoulders, tossing it on one of the two new cane willow chairs near the fire. First her boots, he thought, those should be easy enough. More difficult than he possibly imagined. Surely some sort of magic, or at the very least, a hook of some sort. He managed to get most of the buttons undone and slipped each off, moving them closer to the fireplace.
Then he hesitated and felt himself blushing furiously behind his beard. Where does one start? A dizzying array of hooks and buttons and snaps faced him. He reached for her blouse, it was closest after all, then paused. The light material of her blouse seemed drier than the heavy wool of her sodden skirt. He leaned her forward, looking for a place to start. Finding nothing in the back, he searched until he found a series of buttons up both sides, beginning at the top of the hip. Those were easy, in spite of their small, delicate nature and his large, work roughened hands. Rocking her from one side to the other, Jeremiah managed to wrestle the heavy cloth away, exposing bloomers, which he almost recognized, and her once-white stockings, tied above her knee with soft pink ribbons. With little effort, those joined the pile on the chair.
Blushing furiously, he snatched the blanket from under her and wrapped her bare legs. Now frilly white lace sleeves and matching panels of her corset challenged him. He examined the garment closely as he undid its laces, whale-bone stays belied the gentle pattern of the lace and bit into her in several spots.
"No wonder she looks so skinny," he said as he tossed the corset into the pile. That left only her blouse. The storm made a mess, so he took extra care. He did not know yet whether there would be much left of her trunk after its rush down stream in the flash flood. What was left joined the growing pile near the fireplace.
Underneath, a simple, white, sleeveless shift. Blushing furiously, he laid her back into the bed and covered her with their only blanket. He turned and reached for a cured buffalo hide at the foot of the bed. Standing, he turned back, trying to straighten the pelt to cover her.
Sometime during his wrestling match getting her undressed, her hair came completely loose from its tight bun and flowed in rich black curls across her shoulders and down her back. With her hair down, such a sharp contrast to her so very white skin, Jeremiah felt himself blush again as other thoughts rushed forward. When he looked up, he saw her soft brown eyes looking at him, filled with tears and those thoughts went away quicker than they came.
"You gimme quite a scare, Sarah Miller," he said as he knelt to the floor, bringing the hide to the bed and covering her with it as well. "You just rest and sleep now. It's been a long day for both of us. I'll build up the fire and get some hot water ready for you. We'll get you warm enough right soon."
She brought the blanket close to her chin.
"You . . . you," she didn't seem to know where to start or what to say. "You did this? You saw?"
Jeremiah could do little more than nod and stare at the floor.
"Not the way I'd have chosen, mind," he said quietly. "I had other things planned out... all planned out."
She looked around the room and saw a small pitcher filled with wild flowers of every color. Tallow candles grace the table along with what table settings he had. A neat pile of wood waited near the short hearth of the fireplace on, she noted, a damp, dirt floor.
"Let me get that goin'," Jeremiah said, using any excuse to be busy, someplace else. He put a large kettle on, towards the inner side of the fire to quicken it's boiling "Won't take long for your clothes to dry. I'll get enough water for you to clean some."
He brought the fire up and spread her clothes across the chairs and table before turning back to her.
"You sleep some," said softly as he emptied the second kettle into a large copper tub he brought from under the bed. He waited for a third, then a forth before he excused himself. She lay in bed, warming, he decided, when a bare shoulder crept from under the covers. He wondered why she didn't talk, hardly a word at all the entire day. Finally, when he could take the silence no longer, he stood away from the fire after replacing the kettle.
"Yer clothes'll be dry right smartly. That storm's passed now. I'll just... see to the horses and let you be."
Jeremiah slogged through the mud to his corral, glad to have something familiar to do. Horses he understood. The storm hurried south, coughing distant thunder almost as a laugh, mocking his attempts to beat the elements. He hobbled his horses in their crude corral, brushed the mud away from them and spread fresh fodder. As he returned to the sod cabin, pulling up short of the front door rather than go in and wake his new bride. Squatting on his hams, he watched as a setting sun lashed streaks across the departing clouds. Behind him, the leather hinges on the door creaked.
She stood there, wrapped in a blanket that didn't quite cover her. She held it closed across her breast, her white shoulders, like freshly carved marble, contrasted against her black hair. The blanket fell almost to her knees. Gone were her stockings and her under shift. Jeremiah stood and snatched his hat from his head, trying not to stare.
"I'm sorry, Jeremiah," she said, her voice firm now. "I'm afraid I've treated you - poorly. I didn't know what to say to you. This is all quite different. My father and brothers, all so well dressed and refined, never a hair out of place, never a button undone..."
Jeremiah ran his hand through his long, shaggy hair then across a two month growth of beard. He felt ashamed.
"I tried to see the barber, but..." he started. She reached out and placed her hand on his lips. Startled, he stepped back, and then smiled sheepishly.
"You never have to apologize to me for your looks, Jeremiah Wilson," she chided gently. "You saved my life this afternoon, sacrificed everything for me."
She paced by him, her bare feet leaving small tracks in the swiftly drying mud. Magenta and gold streaked the evening sky. Gentle clouds drifted lazily buy, bleached gold and purple in the dying sun. A chorus of frogs and crickets filled the air.
"There's water yet, Jeremiah," she said without turning. "Perhaps you'd like to bathe before bedtime."
Now she had him tongue tied. He nodded to her back and turned inside. She'd managed to feed the fire. He found her clothes almost completely dry to the touch and turned to the door, wondering again about his new mail order bride. She could have covered herself. She could have dressed.
Slowly he managed to slip out of his clothes and made short work of his own bath. When he stood, he discovered he had nothing to dry himself but the fire. Shivering slightly, he turned and held out his hands. Part of his shaking came from nerves, from the fresh terrors of the day that finally caught up with him. He was unaware of how long he stood close to the fire, but it's flames faded to bright embers when her heard her voice behind him.
"Come, Jeremiah," she said softly from the bed. When he turned, she was under the thin blanket, the buffalo hide back to its place at the foot of the bed. She lifted the blanket and he saw, again. "It's time for bed."
He blew out the lantern and joined her.
Ken Staley lives and writes in the lower end of the Yakima Valley in Washington state. When not writing or working on stained glass, he can be found sampling the new fruits of the local vineyards and wineries that are nearby.