Chapter 13.

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Sister Anne reinstated my privilege to walk around the grounds in the evening. Though I have little taste for solitude with my thoughts, I need to speak to John Quill. I need to know what’s happened to Iris. 

I take a moment to neaten the braids secured beneath my bonnet before I set out. I hate that I want to look pretty, that I even care about my appearance at all while my friend is missing, presumably tortured with grief. But I have always been a vain creature, and a leopard can’t change his spots, as the saying goes. My sinful pride is the one constant in my life, at the moment.

I find Quill working on a fence in the field. Where we are, I can see only the tops of the buildings, and I am certain we won’t be observed by the others in the commune, unless they walk through the pasture by chance.

Before I speak and alert him to my presence, he knows I’m there. He doesn’t even look up from his hammering. “What do you want?”

“I want to know where Iris is.” I won’t let him chase me off or make me feel foolish, not over this.

He drops the hammer and turns, wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm. “I was going to ask you about her.”

 “She hasn’t come back to our room.” I pause, and looked at the length of wire he picks up in his gloved hand. “What is that?”

He opens his palm, showing me the sharp metal teeth, like nails, wrapped around the wire. “To protect against the mountain lion. We wanted it before, but it was too damned expensive… your Elder finally consented after we examined that horse that killed Ross.”

It wasn’t the horse that killed him. I killed him, by being so wicked. I fear he will see the guilt in my eyes, so I look down at my shoes. My voice is barely a whisper as I force my words out. “Was it bitten, like the milk cows?”

“It was.” When I raise my eyes again, Quill is looking at me with the closest thing to a kind expression I’ve ever seen him display. “You’re scared. And you’re right to be scared, Evie.”

He remembers my name? That stutters my heartbeat. “Tell me what you know. About what happened to Ross.”

It takes him a moment to answer me, and through it, I can’t keep his gaze. I’m certain he’ll see what a wicked girl I am. I don’t know if that will make him like me or hate me. I’m not sure which I should hope for.

Finally, he says, “They were going to leave that night. After supper, she was going to come to him, and we were going to see them safe to the stage.”

“Why would you have to see them safe?” The road isn’t particularly dangerous, and Sister Anne travelled it alone to collect me.

He turns back to the fence and half-heartedly drives another nail.

“That fence isn’t to keep out a mountain lion, is it?” I ask, since he won’t say the horrible truth himself. I’m terribly good at wild imaginings, and, every moment that my mind strays from Iris, I torment myself with visions of monsters I can’t quite make out. “Tell me, please.”

He looks up. “I don’t want to frighten you.”

“You don’t frighten me.” It’s a lie, possibly the largest one I’ve ever told. Quill terrifies me beyond all reason. Not because I think he might harm me, but because to me, he represents dark feelings and longings I don’t wish to examine. But I have to know. I have to. “Tell me.”

“We chased some strangers off. From the stable, the day Ross died. They weren’t well. They were dirty, confused. We didn’t get a good look at them, because they ran. But one of them bit the horse. That’s what spooked it. That’s the reason Ross died.”

My chest aches, and I long to tell him that it was my fault that Ross is dead, but I don’t know what I expect from him. He’ll either give me some platitude meant to comfort me, but which only makes him feel better, or he’ll tell me I’m stupid for believing my thoughts caused this. I want both reactions at once, and none at all.

“We think it’s a sickness,” Quill goes on. A breeze stirs his brown curls. For the briefest moment, he looks at me not with contempt or derisive amusement, but as though he considers me an equal. “Maybe they’re rabid. No one can say for sure. The doctor in town is gone. Packed his bags and left when people started to get sick, the coward.”

“Will it come here?” How can he give me an assurance either way? I ask too much of him, but I’m alone, without Iris, without my father. I need someone to tell me what will happen to me, and it has to be someone I can believe. 

I don’t know much about John Quill, but I know I can believe him.

He frowns and tugs at the wire, and I follow him as he uncoils it, stretching it to the next post. “Can’t say. But the other hired men aren’t coming back. We thought it would be better if they stayed with their families, and didn’t spread the disease here from town.”

“My cousin knows it’s not a mountain lion.”

It’s plain from Quill’s expression exactly how he feels about Benjamin. “It might be more comforting to think that it is. Sometimes, when people don’t want to believe something, they’ll find a way to deny it, even if it’s plain as the nose on their face.”

There is nothing more to say, but I don’t want to leave. It’s the first time we’ve spoken that I don’t feel uneasy, and he’s as close to a friend as I have at the moment. Even if Iris does return, things won’t be the same. Only Quill is the same as he’s ever been.

His gaze meets mine, catches me and holds me with a certainty that chills my bones. “You’re not going to come to any harm. I’ll see to it that you don’t.”

“All right,” I whisper, my fingers fisting in the folds of my skirt. There’s a dread to his words that frightens me, but more frightening is the realization that Quill seems as eager to cling to me as I am to him. My heart beats itself against my ribs. What will happen now? Will he embrace me? Kiss me? Or am I imagining it all? That’s a terrifying thought, that I dreamed up this exhilarating connection, and he feels none of it.

He takes a step toward me, and I take an unconscious half-step back. He takes another, and this time, I stand my ground. He catches my hands in his, his thick leather gloves swallowing my fingers. I hold my breath, my entire body trembling. 

“You should go,” he says gently. “Stay in after dark. And don’t take any more walks. Understand?”

I don’t trust my voice, so I nod, and he squeezes my hands before he lets them go. “Go on.”

I do as he says, running at first, then slowing when I come into sight of the buildings. I can’t fathom what just happened, what it could possibly mean. There’s a bond between us, and I am not imagining it. But what does he feel for me? Is it just pity that makes him offer me comfort? I feel ill and giddy, and all I want is to run to my bed and sleep. But the bell tolls for supper, and I follow my brothers and sisters into the dining hall. As we file in, I catch sight of pale golden hair; Iris is sitting in her place.

At once, my strange interaction with Quill is forgotten. I rush to her side, knowing I’ll be scolded for causing a scene. I don’t care. Iris is back, and I’ve never been more relieved to see anyone as I am to see her.

“Iris, how I’ve missed you!” I exclaim. I throw my arms around her and hug her tightly.

Her arms come up, but stiffly, and she does not return my embrace. I think she might be embarrassed, so I quickly let her go, to look into her face. “I am so sorry.”

Her normally pale skin is even whiter, and glows with a waxy sheen of perspiration. Her eyes are black hollows, and she stares at me as though she doesn’t know me. Then, the ghost of a smile crosses her lips, and she shrugs as though things are entirely normal.

“It’s all right,” she says to me. “Ross will come for me, and all will be well.”

My heart sinks. Iris has gone mad with grief; that much is apparent. “Iris, Ross is dead.”

She shakes her head, a secretive smile flitting to her lips. “That’s what they say. But I saw him last night. Ross is alive, and he will come for me.”

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