There was a lone tree near the top of a hill. Behind it a sliver of moon hung in the fading daylight. Joseph walked toward the tree. He needed to continue east. He needed to hurry. He wasn’t certain, but he suspected that someone was after him. He longed to stop beneath the tree, set up his bedroll and fall into the sweet abyss of sleep that he so desperately needed. But he could not. He had to press on, put as much distance between him and whoever was following him. He reached the tree, looked down the other side of the hill into softly sloping valleys, and continued on down the far side of the hill. Soon he was in the trees at the base of the pasture. It would be dark tonight, the moon just a thin claw in the sky and about to set with the sun. If he could get into the depths of a wood, no one would be able to find him. And then he could finally sleep. He pressed on, first between scrub oak, then between larger pines. Soon it was so dark under the canopy of branches and needles he could hardly see. He strained his eyes looking for a place to lay down to rest. Then he found a tree with long, low branches. He crawled beneath them and lay still, listening for a while, the darkness making him more paranoid than before. Finally deeming it safe he rustled about in his pack, drew forth his bedding, burrowed into it and was soon asleep, his long hunting knife clutched in his hand.
The faintest light presaging dawn woke him. He arose at once and set off again through the trees. He had been too tired to eat the night before, but now as he walked he drew some fried food from his pack and began to eat, not bothering to stop. Soon the sun was up and shafts of light were cutting through the canopy of pines. How wonderful it would be to stop, eat the rest of the food, and fall back to sleep under the warm rays of the sun. The night had been cold; he hadn’t slept well. But no, he must press on, not lay out in the open where anyone might stumble upon him. And he must preserve the remaining food. He had been walking down hill through the woods even before the sun rose. Now it was up and shining in his eyes, confirming he was still going the right direction. Was someone really following him? He thought back. He was hungry, thirsty, tired. It was difficult to think, to remember. Yes, several days back he’d seen a shadow moving down the slope opposite him. The slope he had just descended himself before climbing up the other side of the valley. He’d happened to look back after hearing a noise: the sound of the follower kicking rocks down the slope as he himself had done during his descent. The sight had instantly filled his body with dread. Two days had passed and he thought he’d been mistaken. It was another traveler in the woods. But then yesterday some instinct had made him turn around, some time before noon, and peer back through the woods. He could see nothing, hear nothing. But, somehow, he knew. Knew that it was the same person, still following him. He had raced off through the woods at breakneck pace then, continuing on until the tree on the hill, until the woods on the other side and darkness. Why were they following him? He realized he knew this as well, though he still didn’t know who exactly it was in pursuit. Yes, he knew: It was because of the that woman in the last town; because of the way she had looked at him. They had spoken in the store. She had been kind. She had looked at him, and he had looked at her, in that special way folks sometimes do, and others had seen it. When he thought about it, it made no sense. Who would pursue him, try to rob, beat, perhaps even kill him, over just a look, a pleasant conversation. But what else could it be? It couldn’t be just his dark skin. That was no novelty around these parts, not any more. And he didn’t look rich enough to warrant the effort of pursuing him for days, not by a long shot. It must have been that look that they had shared. There had been a number of people in the store. They weren’t going to have some dark-skinned out-of-towner tempting their women. Something foolish like that. But that’s what this place had taught him, time and time again: People were all crazy. Everyone. There was no telling what went through their heads. He grimaced and continued on, filled with a new fear of what such a person might want to do if they manged to catch up with him. He continued throughout the morning, keeping an eye behind him and his ears attentive. A little before noon he crossed a stream and drank deeply from it. He had been so thirsty. In spite of his fears of pursuit he stayed by the stream sitting in the shade, forcing himself to drink as much as he could. He filled his hat with water and dumped it on his head. He filled a canteen as well. Then he continued on his way.
It was evening again. He stopped earlier than before. He was so tired. The hills had levelled out into sparsely treed plains. There was little cover, but what else could he do. He found a tree partially shielded by a boulder and lay his bedding in the space between the two. He was asleep almost at once. Then a sound had awoken him and he opened his eyes at once. It was almost dawn. There was a figure standing a few paces from him, staring down at him. He started up, pulling his knife from the sheath. Then he stopped, dumbfounded. It was the woman. Claire. Yes, that was her name.
"You!" he exclaimed. She looked haggard, exhausted. Worse than he himself must look.
"Me," she smiled sadly.
He could hardly speak. He tried to ask a question and stammered, "How," "Why?"
She answered before he could get the words out. "They drove me from town. Exiled me."
"The lawman, Dan, he’s always had a thing for me. But I’ve always turned him down. Time and again. He never gets the message. Well, this time he said he saw me in the general. He saw me smiling at you. He and the others drove me from the town, before I could calm him down, explain anything."
Joseph couldn’t think of what to say. "That is... just terrible. Crazy in fact." He shook his head in disbelief. He stood up. She stayed where she was, not backing away. For some reason she trusted him. He reached in his pack, drew forth his canteen. She looked thirsty.
"You want some water?"
"Oh yes, thank you!"
How had she made it all this way, and so fast, catching up with him? He eyed her. She had a small sack, evidently no water in it. He wondered if it held any food. He didn’t have enough for the both of them unless they could find herbs, snare an animal, or reach another town soon. She handed the canteen back, having drank greedily from it but leaving a little left.
She seemed to guess his thoughts as he eyed her for she said "I knew I had to catch up with out. I barely have anything to survive. I walked late into the night, but then finally had to stop. When the light came back I looked and realized you were only a hundred yards up the hill from me. I slept down there." She pointed at a few trees farther down, almost to the plain. He nodded. They soon set off down the remainder of the hill, out onto the wide plain.
"There’s another town at the base of those mountains," she told him, pointing. They headed in that direction. That day, or perhaps the next, he told her how he’d thought she’d been a man from the village, someone pursuing him. Someone who meant him harm. How he had been walking swiftly to avoid trouble. They laughed together over it. They eventually reached the town. The first drink of water they had after crossing that wide dry plain tasted like heaven. They ended up staying in that town. This town, as you’ve no doubt guessed. Joseph was a skilled cooper and smith. Clair taught children in a schoolhouse that she and Joseph built with the help of others in the town. And that is the story of how my parents met. They told it to me many times before they passed away, my mother shortly after my father, leaving the house, the schoolhouse, and the smithy to me and my wife. We have told the story to our children as well. It is part of their inheritance along with the house, the schoolhouse, and the smithy.