Isabelle's Burden
PART THREE
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***

Isabelle crawled from her comfortable bed, in the guestroom Lavinia had allowed her to recuperate in, somehow sensing the New Zealanders would show up early. She saw them from her window and held herself up against the slightly smudged pane and its sturdy bamboo frame.

Fearful, knowing how this could impact her future, Isabelle leaned forward and watched as the men eyed the brindles, each horse rearing away, jumping as if untamed. The beasts frothed at the mouth and Isabelle could hear them snorting their displeasure.

The gentlemen, escorted by Paiku, were wearing expensive white linen suites with highly glossed cream colored shoes. Their expensive watches, hanging from silver chains at their coat pockets, gleamed in the afternoon sun. The men were grim as they walked to the corral, just outside of the stables.

David Grief and Mauriri came from inside the hold and greeted the men, their hands raised to shake and faces smiling as if unaware of an impending breakdown. Isabelle watched them talk, negotiating with the shoppers, and her heart leapt into her throat as she saw one of her prospective buyers’ arms raise in frustration.

He wanted to know why their acquisitions were so wild and unkempt. “Where is Miss Reed?” he bellowed angrily. “Does she not think we are important enough to meet in person?”

Grief leaned forward, placing a hand on one of the men’s shoulder, speaking calmly and explaining the situation. Isabelle could not hear what was being said but could see it was not going well. She felt her heart beating hard in her chest.

Finally, the disgusted New Zealanders both threw their hands up and backed away, “Accident?!” one man exclaimed, “You sincerely expect us to buy horses from a woman who doesn‘t know enough to …?”

She watched them walk away.

There would be no sell.

“No … no …” Isabelle’s breath was shallow, “Go after them, David. Please …”

Grief looked up, saw her in the window, and shrugged. He tried. He turned away and conversed with Mauriri, not giving the New Zealanders a second look.

She placed the palm of her hand, which belonged to the arm of her injured shoulder, on the warm windowpane and slapped it to regain his attention, “David, don’t let them get away!” she cried but he could not hear her, “Make them stay. I’ll come down and talk …” But it was too late … The men had gone away … Grief shook his head back and forth at the futility of the circumstance and he too walked away as well. Mauriri followed him … Paiku was no where to be seen. “Stop them!” she cried, “Stop them!!”

The brindles bucked in their pen.

Stymied and unnerve, her hand turned into a fist and Isabelle’s pounded the windowpane hard. “DAVID!” she screamed. The glass suddenly shattered, cutting into her fingers and palm.

The pain was nothing compared to her loss.

“It’s okay, Isabelle!” A gentle but firm voice called.

She sat up in bed, awakened from her nightmare, and a hand - the opposite of which had been damaged by the dream windowpane - automatically moved to her shoulder, recognizing an intense and persistent pain.

Five days had passed and the brindle loving New Zealanders had not yet arrived.

Isabelle breathed heavily from pain and the terrible vision she just had. She almost laughed with a mixture of relief and the absurd. Her stables were a quarter mile away from Lavinia’s tavern. She would never be able to see them from the window …

“Would you like something to eat?” Claire asked, leaning forward in her chair, attempting cheerfulness.

Isabelle shook her head negatively and sat up, trying to position herself to lean against her propped pillows. Her wrapped and slung arm was awkward but at least her leg was feeling a little better. She had practiced walking on it last night when no one was around watching her. It hurt like hell and she limped badly but at least she was able to move. It was encouraging.

“You’ve hardly eaten anything since you injury, Isabelle. You are going to be nothing more than skin and bone if you don’t try to get something into your stomach.”

“Claire, I need your help.”

“Of course.”

“I need some clothes.”

“Clothes? Isabelle, you’re not thinking of getting out of bed …”

“Just for a little bit.” Choosing her words carefully, Isabelle said: “I need to get up and move around. Perhaps a walk in the hall outside these four walls. If I stay in bed a moment longer, Claire, it will do me in. Please.”

Claire watched as Isabelle pushed a swath of dark, sun tinge hair away from her bruised left cheek. As so often happens the discoloration had become deeper over the last few days. “I suppose I could help you. It might even be good for you. Physical Therapy they call it in London Hospital. We can walk around the room then ...”

“Clothes, Claire. I don’t want to walk out there in my nightgown.”

“In the hall? Are you sure?” At her nod, “Well … I don’t think anyone will actually see you, Isabelle. And even if they do -- it‘s a very pretty nightgown. Floor length and rather modest ...”

“Claire, sometimes Lavinia’s girls bring men upstairs … I‘m not anxious for them to see me like this.” Isabelle tried another approach, “Remember when we went aground aboard the Rattler last year and I swam after your skirt when you lost it in the water near the coral?”

Embarrassed, recalling how Isabelle’s foot had been wounded because of her foolishness, Claire nodded.

“I know it seems silly but having clothes to wear right now is as important to me as that skirt was to you at that time.”

Claire was silent for a moment, concentrating on what Isabelle said. She wasn't a woman to use a disadvantage to get her own way but it was for Isabelle's own good. “We’ll make a deal.” Claire bartered, attempting to be firm with her patient, “I’m going to bring you up some chicken soup and bread, Isabelle. You do your best to eat it all and I’ll bring you a skirt, blouse, camisole and fresh under drawers. Something light and easy to put on.”

“Yes … good.” Isabelle nodded, smiling.

“I’ll bring them tonight after I close down the presses. We‘ll practice a little in the room first then …” Claire moved to stand.

“No.” Isabelle gulped, a line of perspiration dotting her forehead, “I need to have a word with Paiku. Have him bring the clothes this afternoon. It’s going to take me awhile to get into them. I’ll practice on my own …”

“Isabelle, the doctor said …”

“I’ll be careful!” she insisted with an impatient bark. Then, calmer: “Tonight you can take me out into the hall.” Isabelle looked up at the pretty blonde woman with an expression, she hoped, that looked both soft and sincere, “I’m so grateful for all you’ve done, Claire.” she said and meant it despite a partial deception.

“You promise to eat, right?”

“Promise.”

Once again, Claire stood and moved slowly to the door. She seemed troubled, as if she wasn’t sure this was the wisest thing to do.

Isabelle saw her concern and spoke to encourage, “I’m sure the soup will be excellent. It will give me all the strength I need. Thank you again, Claire. I won’t forget this.”

The young woman, with a somewhat satisfied sigh, smiled and nodded as she made her exit.

When the door closed Isabelle exhaled heavily.

**

Two men, scruffy in appearance, hid behind a large stone and a palm tree.

“Let me see.“ one man insisted of the other, in his native tongue.

He passed the spy glass to his companion, “They are there. Four fine horses. He did not lie.”

Brindles he called them. The Captain will be pleased.”

The two men returned from where they had come.

**

“I am going to be in so much trouble.“ Paiku murmured nervously outside her door, running anxious hands through his black hair, over ruddy cheeks and back to his mouth.

The young stable boy paced back and forth.

She asked him to check for a backdoor when Paiku had come to her, delivering the clothes as requested. Lavinia did have one. ‘An emergency exit’ she had told him once when he had helped her for a couple days, when the Navy had come to town and she was short handed.

“Paiku, come in here!” Isabelle ordered.

She sat upright on the side of her bed, dressed in her rose colored skirt and white blouse.

“You look well.” Paiku said weakly, his words unconvincing. The woman actually appeared very sallow and her movements were shaky. Isabelle Reed was still in pain, her arm in the sling, and she was obviously still badly bruised from head to toe. But at least now she was moving and very much alive. Still, she only looked a little better then when he had found her five mornings ago.

Yes, Paiku could see it but did not know what to say or do. Her determination was sometimes frightening but he respected and possibly feared her enough to do as he was told. Isabelle Reed was the person in charge, his employer, and she had given him a job when so many others would or could not. He owed her a great deal of admiration and a certain amount of obedience.

“I need you to help me with my boots.” Isabelle said. They had been removed when Mauriri brought her into Lavinia’s the day after her accident. Her jodhpurs and blouse were removed, washed and sent back to her house but the boots, most likely forgotten, had remained near her bed. Isabelle had been grateful for that one small stroke of luck. Yet, pulling the boots on by herself was impossible. Her shoulder, still heavily wrapped and her arm in a sling, did not allow for easy movement. Besides that, it still ached her horribly.

“Miss Isabelle, are you sure you should be doing this?” The young man was at her feet, appealing, helping her with the footwear, “If Lavinia, Miss Claire or even Captain Grief found I helped you to …”

“I’ll take full responsibility, Paiku.”

“But Dr. Mosley said you should stay in bed …”

“Hush!” Isabelle commanded. She didn’t want to hear it anymore. “Is the wagon in back waiting for us?”

“Yes.” he replied, unhappily.

“Good boy.” Isabelle reached forward and touched him on the shoulder to take the sting away from her manner, “Now, help me up.”

Standing, taking her uninjured arm, Paiku nodded miserably.

***

They named them after The Four Musketeers. Athos was the thoughtful brindle who seemed to watch Grief and his riders as if he knew something they did not. Aramis was the slightly distracted brindle who appeared far more interested in getting the attention of the mares then learning his paces. Porthos was the fast study with a calm and somewhat superior personality.

Then there was D'Artagnan. He was a temperamental horse and the hardest to be taught. David was sure this was the beast who had nearly killed Isabelle. Mauriri and Paiku took charge of this particular horse because Grief, not to put too fine a point on it, did not like him. Grief had said, as he watched the unconscious and badly battered Isabelle lay before him, that the horse should be shot and meant it. The only reason he did not act on his instincts was because the brindles, all four of them, meant so much to Isabelle.

She needed them healthy and trained and Grief swore he would take care of it for her. They would sell for a big profit if it was the last thing he did.

After they were done here Grief would go to see Isabelle for his latest tutorial. Isabelle had taught him quite a bit the last few days. He had no idea what a ‘Dun Factor’* was, when it came to a horse, before Isabelle’s lessons. She had laughed at his questions and even his comparisons between horse training and the open sea … and how one had absolutely nothing to do with the other. She seemed in better spirits and her smile was warm and earnest, despite the bruising on her bottom lip, eye and cheek.

And he was slowly seeing Isabelle Reed in a whole new light.

She had always been competent, stubborn and lovely but her courage and good sense while she recovered touched him deeply, whether he was willing to admit it or not.

“David,” Riding Athos, Mauriri moved up beside his thoughtful friend in the hold. “They’re doing great!” he announced, sliding off the animal, pleased with himself and their successful endeavors. “Never thought of myself as a horseman but now I think I know what Isabelle sees in it. I’m almost sorry I’ll be leaving.”

“That’s as soon as tomorrow.” David contemplated, “We haven’t heard anything about the Terreur lately. Hope that’s a good sign.”

“I keep telling Lianni that but she’s worried.”

Grief looked at his partner, “It’s not like you haven’t been in danger before. We both have. It’s a part of the business.”

“She’s being very sensitive lately. I told her I was going on this pick up and delivery without you and she nearly lost it in front of the kids.”

“That’s not like her.” Grief appeared concerned.

“Lianni’s mother has been ill. That’s one reason we went to see her. Maybe it’s just taking a toll on my wife.”

“You didn’t tell me her mother was sick.”

“It’s a family matter and, really David, not too grim. The old woman is just getting up in years and can’t walk a mile or two like she used to.” He glanced at Grief, “I know how you feel about wives, kids and husbandly responsibilities, David. If it were more serious I would have told you.”

Grief looked closely at his friend’s profile. There was no condemnation there. Mauriri was sincerely leaving him out of this part of his life because, as far as Mauriri knew, it was not something that interested his partner. And why should his Polynesian pal feel otherwise? Grief had done nothing but make fun of Mauriri and his visit to the other side of the island, visiting his mother in law, since the day he returned from Dira Tinga. He had never stopped to consider there might be more to the stopover than a family obligation.

“Here comes Paiku with Isabelle’s rig.” Mauriri said as the men watched him from a distance.

“Where was he off to today?”

“He said Isabelle needed him to drop a few things off today in town.”

Grief chuckled, “Even from her sickbed she gives commands.” Then, sobering a little, “Isabelle didn’t mention to me that she needed anything to be done around Matavai. I just saw her last night.”

“David it’s not as if you are the only man in her life.” Then, more to the point, “You don't want to be. At least, that's what you've always told me.”

Ignoring him, Grief took the reigns from his friend. “Come on. We still have a lot of work to do before it gets dark.”

**

Laying in the back of the rig, resting on a thin pad filled with hay and cloth, she felt every bump on the path. Isabelle told Paiku to stop far enough away from the brindles so that Mauriri and David would not spot her right away. No chance in that happening she realized, looking over the side panels. Grief and Mauriri, along with Baru and Paskow, were resolutely putting the animals through their exercises.

She was pleased to see that Dante was out as well, being ridden by Paskow, who knew the animal almost as well as Isabelle herself. She watched as her favorite gelding’s head raise and his ears flicker about, as if sensing her presence.

“Help me out of here.” Isabelle said as Paiku pulled down the wagon’s back flap.

He hesitated a moment. Bringing her out here was bad enough but how much trouble would Paiku be in if Captain Grief found he had also allowed her to stand or walk on the worn and uneven ground? What if she were to fall? “Miss Isabelle, please. I beg you …”

“Paiku!”

Her exclamation was like a slap to his face. Immediate the young Polynesian aided Isabelle but hated every moment of it. Still, once she had placed both booted feet on the ground, he could not help but notice how at ease Miss Isabelle was. She was breathing a bit heavily, possibly fighting the pain of her injured leg, but her eyes sparkled and her hair, lightened by the sun and blown gently about in the breeze off their South Seas ocean, was spectacular. He could almost forget her facial bruises as she smiled wide, more pleased than Paiku had seen her in days.

She looked at him, “Take the rig to the other side of the stable, out of sight. I’ll signal you when I want to be picked up.”

“I should not leave you.”

“I’ll be fine.” Isabelle smiled once again, pleased to be outside and looking about her land. “I just want to watch them for awhile.”

Reluctantly, Paiku did as directed. “This is going to end badly. I just know it.” He whispered while mounting and driving away.

Carefully, Isabelle walked forward. She had spied a set of three chairs that were set up right outside the corral where the men were putting the horses through their paces. Considering the matter fastidiously, she intended to sit quietly. If David and Mauriri did see her they might not be as angry if they saw she was, at least, being a little cautious. She limped as she walked, the pain in her leg matching if not exceeding the pain in her arm and shoulder. It wasn’t that far now. Only a few meters …

Isabelle’s attention was diverted when she saw one of the brindles rounding the inside track of the hold. He looked beautiful. David was taking such good care of them, using the proper commands for obedience and correcting Baru, when he said Aramis was fourteen hands.

“No,” Grief had said, “Fifteen point one hands at least.”

Isabelle felt warmed by his comment, the fact he had listened to her, especially since he did not yet know she was there to observe him. She had told the puzzled Captain during one of their tutorials that it was important to a buyer of horseflesh to emphasize the height and girth of a brindle. A lot of the purchasers really did not know as much about the horses as they thought they did. That was part of the fun of selling; to be able to pin point who knew their stuff and who merely pretended to be horse savvy.

It took Isabelle a moment to grasp that she was drifting and unfocused. She really did need to get to a chair.

It wasn’t David or Mauriri who had first noticed Isabelle. It was Dante who became very excited at the appearance of his mistress, rearing back and whinnying with pleasure. Then Paskow, who was riding the curiously rebelling animal, saw her and his eyes grew wide. “Miss Isabelle?”

Mauriri, who was now riding Porthos, and David - sitting on the fence and watching the men - heard Paskow’s question and at once looked to where he was staring.

“Oh, what is she …?” Mauriri began.

The woman appeared very frail as she stood there, a distance away, in the green grass all by herself. Her rose colored skirt and white blouse made the usually sensual and worldly Isabelle appear almost prim and defenseless against the world around her.

“Hell!” Grief could not hide his fury and fear. The woman was maddening! So much for 'good sense', he thought.

Mauriri dismounted quickly and followed the sprinting Grief.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” David called, approaching her. “Trying to do yourself in?”

She stared at him, at the furious expression, calmly. Too calmly. Dazed even …

“David …” Isabelle said as he reached her side. “I think I’m going to faint.”

Mauriri moved first but Grief, standing as close as he was to Isabelle, had her in his arms before her feet left the ground. He swept her up off the grass and merely looked down at her face, at the pain and regret it embodied, before acknowledging Mauriri’s suggestion that he take her to the chairs. A thousand emotions raced through Grief but the most overwhelming, at this point, was his urge to keep her safe.

Grief sat her in the middle chair as he scooted in beside her. Mauriri took the chair on Isabelle’s left and pulled it directly in front of her. They were both pleased to see that she hadn’t quite fainted but appeared pale and weak, her voice dropping a few octaves from its usually healthy and hearty timbre.

“I’m sorry but I had to see for myself …” she murmured, feeling the touch of Mauriri’s hand on her arm and David’s fingers on her chin, pushing it upward so he could look into her eyes.

He could feel a low grade fever when he touched her forehead, brushing back a few soft, straying strands of hair. “Mo, get her some water.”

“Right.” Mauriri stood and moved to the well near the corral.

“I’m sorry, David.” Isabelle said, her tone slightly firmer as she observed the care in his expression and also the disapproval. “I was going crazy in that room, with only those four walls to look at. The medications Dr. Mosley left dulls the pain but also keeps me constantly tired. I needed sunshine and air …’

“And you also wanted to make sure we weren’t making a shambles of your stable.”

She nodded unenthusiastically, “That too.”

"The verdict?"

"Everything looks wonderful. You and Mauriri and the others have done a superb job, David."

He nodded, please by her approval despite himself. Still, something nagged at Grief. “You couldn’t have came all the way here by yourself. Who …?” Then he knew, “Paiku!”

“Don’t be angry with him. I honestly forced the poor boy to bring me. He wanted nothing to do with it.”

“Then why did he?”

“For one thing I fought and bullied him, nearly scared poor Paiku out of five years of his life. But also ..." She gently shrugged, "... I think he understands. He knows what it’s like to be on the bottom, to want something so badly you can nearly taste it, to fight for it then nearly lose it because of some of the choices you‘ve made.”

“He’s loyal to you.” Grief understood in part.

Mauriri approached them with a large dipper of water. As Isabelle drank he said, “We need to take you back.”

She pulled back from the dipper and glanced at Mauriri. She then looked to Grief, “Take me to my home. I‘ll sit out the rest of my recovery there.”

“Isabelle, you need attention. You can’t get it if you’re here and those who are taking care of you are at Lavinia’s.”

“Please don’t make me go back there, David. I need to be here, in my home, with my horses, and on my property …” ‘Because it may not be mine much longer …’ was the unfinished comment. She looked on the verge of tears; a somewhat true emotion bubbling up but, for the most part, it was a performance for the mens benefit.

While David was unsure and teetering Mauriri was completely taken in.

“What if I have Lianni stop in during the day. It’s not that far a walk from my home to here. It will give her something to do while I’m away. And the kids … they love horses. Tahnee and Tevaki will be thrilled and, if they are put to work, will stay out from under foot.”

“Lianni is a great cook.” Isabelle recalled, looking up to the quiet David who still did not appear won over with the idea, “She can make us all lunch. Just think, David, you can work with the horses and actually eat a meal … not just the rations you brought with you from the Rattler.”

“What about the night? Leaving you all alone at night?” he asked.

“I’ll be fine. I can keep everything I need at my bedside, including medications, water, a lamp and good reading material -- and you can lock up tight before you leave, David.”

“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?” he asked, half smiling.

“The curse of having a friend that is an independent woman.” Mauriri pursed his lips and shook his head back forth. Even he noted how quickly Isabelle’s despondent tears had dried.

She smiled, “I’m used to having my way.” Then, before Grief could reply, possibly change his mind, she leaned forward and gently brushed David on the cheek, mindful of her own bruised and discolored lower lip. “It means so much to me. Thank you.” she whispered, tenderly.

Mauriri watched them and looked away a little, crossing his arms and feeling as if he may be spying on a private moment. If nothing else this whole incident added a little extra dimension to their already perplexing relationship, he thought.

Isabelle turned suddenly and gazed at the Polynesian, “And thank you too, Mauriri. Are you sure Lianni won’t mind?”

“I won’t assume to speak for my wife but, knowing how she thinks, Lianni would be insulted if I didn’t suggest her. I’ll leave right after we get you settled in, Isabelle, and have a talk with her.” Mauriri didn’t add that serving Isabelle might help Lianni as well, to keep her mind off her husband’s dangerous journey, but he could see that David had already considered that factor. His friend was looking up at him and responding to the idea.

Carefully Grief stood, bent over slightly and picked Isabelle up again, holding her across his arms as they walked. He was well aware how her body felt against his, how her good arm crossed over his chest, the fingers sliding to his lower neck, to embrace him close, her head gently touching his.

She was secure for the moment and - all things considered - content.

And - for now - so was he.

Isabelle was not out of danger yet. None of them were. There were perils, deep and evil, still on the horizon and little did they know what the fates had in store for each of them.

***

END OF PART THREE.

*Dun Factor: http://members.aol.com/l3l13/brindun.htm