Chapter 98

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September 1871

We both collapse by the bank of the river filthy, thirsty, and exhausted. We've walked for two days now, the first in the pouring rain and the second in the scorching heat.

"Do you want to keep going? Continue to look for the cabin? We're close. Or do you want to rest here for a bit?"

I look up at Jackson through my greasy, matted hair and attempt to blow it out of my face. It doesn't move; it's stuck to me, planted against my sweaty face.

"Rest," I confess, feeling the need to take off my shoes and let my feet breathe and the blisters heal. I curse myself again for leaving all of my things at the Akenbrand's.

Jackson nods, dumps his pack, and goes to work gathering wood while I find a clearing a ways from the water to set up camp. Stripping myself of my shoes and stockings, I practically have to peel them from my feet. I wiggle my toes out in front of me, stretching them out, before I get to work.

Taking the small kettle from Jackson's bag, I go down to the river to fill it. I idly walk along the water's edge, stopping when I notice the river open up and the lake it pours into cut out beneath a cliff of jagged rocks. Glistening in the sun, like my own personal patch of paradise was just stumbled upon; I call out for Jackson in excitement. Two seconds later he's behind me letting out a low whistle in amazement.

"It's beautiful," he whispers in my ear, "and even better it's all ours!"

Before I know what's happening, he's tossing off his shirt and throwing it down on the sandy bank. I take in his muscular chest, glistening with sweat and blush. Dropping the pot with a thud, I immediately turn my back on him.

"Jackson! What are you doing?"

He laughs at my bashfulness, but I don't believe he stops undressing for a second. I keep my back turned on him just in case.

"Ellie, it's been two days. Two days of walking in filth. If this isn't a sign for a bath, I don't know what is," he laughs.

His boots gets tossed beside me onto the ground, then I hear a great big splash followed by a groan of relief. My skin begins to prickle underneath the dirt caked onto my body. A bath would be nice. I take a chance and peek over my shoulder. Jackson's all but covered by the water; he's in so deep.

My eyes scan the lake, hoping to find a more private spot, but there isn't one. I watch him with jealously as I absentmindedly scratch at my elbow. Sitting down on a boulder by the shore, I gingerly dab each foot into the cool water watching as a cloud of dirt puffs up around each of them under the surface. Reaching down, I carefully begin to rub them clean, minding the blisters I've gotten. When I get to my legs I stop. There's now a visible line drawn in my flesh separating the tiny part of me that's clean and the rest of my body. I sigh in frustration and look up at Jackson splashing around deep in the lake.

"Jackson, if I asked you to turn around, would you?"

He shoots a lopsided smile in my direction and shoots up a stream of water through his hands.

"On my honor," he laughs.

"Good. Turn around," I command with a smile.

He makes a big show of it but I don't make a single move until I'm convinced he can't see anything. Quickly, I rip off my dress and strip down to my shift. Without thinking too much about the fact that it's a lake and not a tub, I slowly ease my way in until I'm about waist deep. I squat down, making sure that the water's covering most of my body, before tipping my head back and wetting my hair. Running my hands through it, I attempt to rinse out the drift and grime. I splash my face with water scrubbing it clean before I call out to him.

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