Henley raced through brambles and thickets until he reached the barn at the far end of the property. Gaspar, his ten year old gelding, was in a stall munching on a pile of fresh alfalfa. He looked up when Henley entered and gave a soft whinny. Henley grabbed the saddle pad and threw it over Gaspar’s brushed back. He placed the heavy leather saddle on top, making sure it was set comfortably below the withers before swinging the girth under his belly and synching it down.
“There’s a good boy,” Henley said soothingly, as he mounted the fine horse. “Are you ready for some exercise? Heeya,” he yelled.” The horse took off at a gallop into the warm, early afternoon.
By the time they got to Rosetta’s hut, the sun was high in the sky, the forest cool and damp. Her place looked deserted, which worried Henley, but he dismounted, approached the front door and knocked. For a brief moment he thought he heard the rustle of furniture and what sounded like footsteps, then it became quiet. He knocked a second time, louder, but still no response. Henley walked around to the side of the tree hut to where her bedroom was situated and craned his neck to peer inside. The distinctive smell of freshly baked bread came wafting from a crack in the window, which told him she was not far, but he could see or hear nothing. He climbed down from the stump he had been standing on and circled back to the front door.
“Rosetta,” he called. “Rosetta, please, please, come to the door and let me in. We must talk. I have news. Very interesting news. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.” He waited, but still he could hear nothing, not a whisper of sound. “Rosetta, my darling,” he begged. “I cannot live without you, and you know you feel the same about me.” From behind him came a crunching sound, which startled him. When he turned he saw a deer stepping lightly through the trees just beyond the hut, and behind it, a tiny spotted fawn. The doe ignored him for the most part, nibbling on foliage along the path, but Henley could see she was guarded, watching out for her young one with every move, every noise. He remained still so as not to alarm her as she walked through this part of the forest. After five minutes he began to move about, and was preparing to call out to her again when he heard another sound, a loud thrashing and crashing through the bush. What ever it was, it was large and desperate. Henley braced himself against the doorjamb trying to remain hidden, waiting for the wild beast to appear. Suddenly, out through the darkest thicket of trees fell a tall, rather large man, followed by a second, tumbling in on top of him. The two landed with a thud. At first they looked quite shell-shocked, then they broke into uproarious laughter. Unable to move until they had settled down, Wesley and Dorrington lay on the ground covered in moss and leaves, caked with dry mud. Dorrington was bleeding slightly from the forehead, and his left eye was blue and nearly swollen shut. Wesley’s right hand was swaddled in a crude makeshift bandage, held up by the sleeve of his jacket that was tied around his neck like a sling.
“You two are a sight for sore eyes.” Wesley and Dorrington gasped, ready to flee back into the trees until they saw Henley slowly emerge from hiding.
“Cousin Henley! Oh, what a relief it is to see you.” He slowly rose to a sitting position then, with a bit of a struggle, managed to stand upright. He reached out to Dorrington, still horizontal, and helped him up. Henley couldn’t help notice how intimately Dorrington fell into Wesley’s arms and was held there, in a warm embrace, for much longer than he would have expected.
“So, where is she?”
“Who?” Henley asked. “Rosetta?”
“Of course Rosetta, you halfwit. Who else would we all be visiting way out here in the middle of the forest, wood nymphs?” Dorrington looked startled at Wesley’s curt reply.
“No need for rudeness, mate,” Henley calmly said to his cousin. “I’m looking myself. Not a sign of her anywhere, and I’ve been here for a while.”
“Brave man. I rather doubt she wants to speak with you at the moment, with the rumors flying about.” Wesley winked at Dorrington, who looked away, now truly embarrassed at his friend’s behavior.
“Wesley, if you have something to say to me, just say it, man.” Henley’s calm had turned to agitation as he stepped toward his gloating cousin. Wesley stepped back and looked at the ground, suddenly overcome with shame.
“Henley, I am sorry, truly I am,” said Wesley. “You see,” he paused. “Dorrington and I, well, we’ve had a bit of a go of it.” He looked over at his friend, who had looked up and was now staring fondly back at him.
“Yes, since our return we’ve been all over the countryside seeking safe havens,” added Dorrington. “As you can see, we haven’t had much luck.”
“No, I can see that, but safe havens from what?” asked Henley, clearly miffed. “In all the hubbub, did I miss something?” The two men looked at each other.
“Henley, dear boy,” Wesley began. “Surely you’re aware of what’s happened here? Everyone certainly else is.” Henley continued to stare blankly.
“What he’s trying to say, Henley, is your cousin, Wes, and I are in love,” Dorrington blurted. The two men erupted into fits of giggles, clearly happy, and relieved for saying it aloud. Henley just stared.
“You look surprised, cousin, or is that disappointment I see?”
Henley straightened up, trying to shake off the confusion. What did he mean in love? He had heard of two men or two women becoming lovers, but he had never met anyone who had been, at least he didn’t think he had, and he certainly never expected to personally know anyone who was.
“Don’t rush him, Wes,” Dorrington said. “These things take time. At least he’s not chasing us away with a scythe or a shotgun.” He laughed, although a bit nervously, his face changing from a smile to a frown.
“Is that what’s been happening? You’ve been discovered and have been chased out of the community?” The lightbulb suddenly went on. “Safe havens, I see, I see.”
Rubbing his chin, Henley began to pace back and forth, looking at the ground, looking up at the two men, then back down again. When he stopped, all was quiet except for the gurgling creek in the ravine below, the squawking of jays overhead, and the creaking of hawthorne branches in the reckless wind.
“So now what do we do?” Henley asked.
“What do we do? With all due respect, cousin dearest, you don’t do anything. It’s the two of us here that are in need of doing something.” Dorrington shot Wesley a sharp look, and Wesley conceded. “Sorry ‘bout that, mate,” Wesley countered. “I just get hot under the collar when people pretend to know what we’re going through, that’s all.”
“I don’t pretend to know anything at all, Wes, but I do know that if you are going through a rough patch, temporary or for a lifetime, I’m going to have your back, that’s all. So that makes it a we, understood?” Wesley smiled broadly, threw his arms around his cousin and hugged him. Henley returned the hug, giving Wesley a manly slap on the back. “Okay, so what’s the plan?”
Just then they heard footsteps tiptoeing around inside the hut, and the clack of the large iron latch as the lock lifted out of it’s cradle. A crack appeared in the door, first a sliver, then it opened wider until Rosetta emerged. She looked tired and drawn. Her long, dark curls hung in knotted clumps around her slumped shoulders, making her look much smaller and older than she was. Nevertheless, Henley thought she looked dazzling. He’d spent every moment of every day trying to remember what she looked like, her smell, her voice. Seeing her now brought all of her back to him at once. He could easily see beyond the despair and see her soul shining out at him. His heart lifted. Without a word, but well aware of what was going on, she ushered them all inside, but as Henley tried to pass she grabbed his arm and held him. He looked at her longingly, but she kept her gaze downward, avoiding eye contact. He could feel her body being tugged, not knowing whether to stay or go. Then, loosening her grip, she made a move to follow Wesley and Dorrington indoors, but first she leaned in and whispered something very softly near Henley’s ear. Before he could reply she had disappeared. He stood in the doorway for a moment, taking in the words that passed Rosetta’s sad, downturned lips - I miss you.
...stay tuned...Chapter Sixteen will be posted next Tuesday, April 24th...