Le Chaume, Mid January 1634
The torches were starting to gutter out as the sun rose, but the fires were still being stoked as the villagers gathered, their packing and loading finished. Their day had started long before the dawn as the entire Huguenot population of Le Chaume prepared to leave for the New World. The deadline for reporting to La Rochelle was tomorrow. A few final carts were being piled high with cherished possessions that just couldn't be left and farewells were being said to those who were remaining. Off to one side, a discussion was heating up as Pierre Marion tried to reach a deal with Giscard Berthaud, a farmer from the next village south. Pierre had an extra hay cart and donkey that exceeded his cargo allowance and Giscard saw a chance to get them for a song. They had been haggling for half an hour already and Pierre was getting exasperated. Elie Marion stood by patiently, holding the reins for his father, who needed both hands to make his points. Giscard was a notorious skinflint and had waited until Pierre was ready to leave before making his offer. Elie smiled at his father's colorful description of Giscard's ancestry. When Giscard tried to break in on the tirade to ask who else would buy the cart and donkey, Pierre suddenly turned to Elie and told him to get in the cart. He then walked back to Giscard and spit on the ground. "That is what I think of your offer. I would rather sink the cart in the harbor and have the donkey for dinner than sell to a thief like you!" Giscard just stood there sputtering as Pierre stomped back to Elie. "We'll take it with us to La Rochelle." Giscard reached over and pulled on Pierre's sleeve to try to continue the haggling. Pierre shoved him away. "I can get more for it as a dung cart than what you want to pay. Get out before I do something you'll regret!" Giscard hurried off to try and find a more willing patsy.
Pierre grabbed Elie by the shoulder and pointed him toward a group gathering at the north end of the village. "Go see Pastor Bigeault. I'm sure an extra cart will come in handy somewhere today." Pierre turned and went to help his wife do one last check of their house for anything they might have missed. Elie sat there for a second until his father's words finally sank in. He could ride to La Rochelle! The prospect of the long walk he had been dreading disappeared. He reached under the seat and found the whip they used to coax the donkey. He prodded the beast and headed it toward the north end of the village. As the donkey ambled along, Elie searched the groups as they finished loading their carts. In the waning moonlight, he finally spotted the figure he was looking for. His betrothed, Paulette Bannion, was trying to stuff a small rabbit cage onto her family's already overloaded cart. Elie pulled up beside her.
"Would Mademoiselle like to hire a carriage for herself and her companions for her journey?" He managed to bow from the cart seat without falling out.
Paulette turned in surprise. "Where did you get an empty cart? I thought they were all spoken for." As she stepped around to put the cage in the back, she got a better view from the light of a warming fire. "Isn't this is the hay cart where we . . . ?"
"Shhh! Not so loud! Your father might hear you!"
"He doesn't care now that we're betrothed."
"You still don't need to announce it to the whole village." To change the subject, Elie motioned toward the cage. "Make sure it's stowed securely in the back. We'll probably need all the space we can manage once I see the pastor. Father told me to help him." He winked at her. " I think I'll have to have you sit next to me here in front." Paulette climbed up and snuggled up next to Elie to stay warm. He shook the reins and the donkey started out again. The day was definitely looking up. No matter what Pastor Bigeault might have him doing, having Paulette for company on a long ride was worth it.
Pastor Bigeault was surrounded by a milling group of villagers. The adults were clamoring for answers to their questions and the youngsters that were running errands for him. Elie pulled up and waved to get the pastor's attention.
Bigeault yelled over the questions being thrown at him. "What can I do for you, Elie? I'm rather busy here. I've got too many problems and not enough answers." One of the youngsters kept tugging at his sleeve to get his attention.
Elie yelled back, "Maybe I can help you! I've got an extra empty cart if you need one."
Bigeault's face lit up. "A prayer answered! I need someone to follow at the end of the column and help anyone who's unable to complete the trip on foot. I've got a number of older folks that don't have a cart and still think they're tougher than anyone and can walk all the way to La Rochelle. I just know we'll have a fair number needing help eventually. I don't want to lose any stragglers. I'm sure you'll be overloaded by the time we finish. Can you do that?"
"My pleasure! If I need assistance, Paulette can help," Elie volunteered without asking her. The exasperated look he got from her promised another session on male manners.
Eight hours later, the pastor's prediction had come true. The cart was full to overflowing. It had filled up gradually. Some folks had started with brief rests before resuming walking. Now, all of the oldsters that Bigeault had feared might wear out were squeezed in, sleeping. The day was still cold, even with the sun shining. No one complained about the extra body heat. The only space left was on the seat next to Paulette. Elie had insisted that the space be kept clear so they would be able to get in and out to help anyone who needed a boost. The head of the column was probably getting close to La Rochelle but Elie and Paulette were quite a ways farther back. Elie was tired and started to daydream about the farm he planned to start in the New World. Plans slowly formed and evolved. A stout house and a large dairy barn, with fields full of cows. He smiled at the scene. Slowly, the fields somehow changed to a pen full of hogs. Suddenly a shout broke his reverie.
"Watch where you're going!"
Elie jerked awake. He had almost run down Jean Barceur and his ten pigs. He pulled back on the reins and brought the cart back to the middle of the road. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. At least it explained where the hog farm came from. He wanted to be a dairy farmer. He hated pigs!
He checked his passengers and they were all right. When he turned to Paulette, she broke down laughing. "Did you fall asleep? Or were you trying to get even for the time Jean dosed you with slops for teasing his prize sow?"
Remembering the incident, Elie let out a loud guffaw. That woke up some of the sleeping passengers and they started asking, "Are we there yet?" He turned around and answered, "We're close. I'm not sure how far." No sooner had he said that than they cleared the woods they had been riding through and the harbor towers of La Rochelle shown in the afternoon sun. He pointed to the north. "The tallest one, that's the Tour St. Nicholas. It's less than an hour until we stop."
Up ahead the road crossed over a wide stream on a stone bridge. The storms over the past month had left the road heavily rutted, with a washout on the far right hand side of the bridge. Spotting the trouble in time, Elie swung to the left. Concentrating on the road, he missed the remains of a broken wheel lying in the washout. As they reached the far side, Paulette tugged at his sleeve and pointed toward the bushes on the stream's bank. "What's that in the bushes?" A pair of wiggling shoes and the accompanying pants legs were just visible disappearing into the brush. A muffled voice could barely be heard, "Here, boy. Hold still!"
When Elie just stared, Paulette grabbed the reins from him and jerked the donkey to a halt. "That's Francois, Madame Vasseau's youngest. What's he doing in there?" She pushed Elie to get down and check. "Go get him! His mother is probably frantic!"