Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 127

   

She would sell the horses and find a boat to take them up the river. Even if the fever came back, she could take care of Lizzie as well on a boat as she could in this hot, smelly little room—and they would still be traveling toward their goal.

She got up and splashed a little water on her face, twisting her sweat-soaked hair up out of the way. She loosened the crumpled breeches and stepped out of them, making plans in a dreamy, disconnected sort of way.

A boat, on the river. Surely it would be cooler on the river. No more riding; her thigh muscles ached from four days in the saddle. They would sail to Cross Creek, find Jocasta MacKenzie.

“Aunt,” she murmured, swaying slightly as she reached for the oil-dip lamp. “Great-aunt Jocasta.” She imagined a kindly white-haired old lady who would greet her with the same joy she had found at Lallybroch. Family. It would be so good to have family again. Roger drifted into her thoughts, as he did so often. She resolutely pushed him out again; time enough to think of him when her mission was accomplished.

A tiny cloud of gnats hovered over the flame, and the wall nearby was spattered with the arrowed shapes of moths and lacewings, taking respite from their quest. She pinched out the flame, scarcely hotter than the air in the room, and pulled the shirt off over her head in darkness.

Jocasta would know exactly where Jamie Fraser and her mother were—would help her get to them. For the first time since stepping through the stones, she thought of Jamie Fraser with neither curiosity nor trepidation. Nothing mattered but finding her mother. Her mother would know what to do for Lizzie; her mother would know how to take care of everything.

She spread a folded quilt on the floor and lay down nak*d on it. She was asleep in moments, dreaming of the mountains, and clean white snow.

By the next evening, things looked better. The fever had broken, just as before, leaving Lizzie spent and weak, but clearheaded, and as cool as the climate allowed. Restored by a night’s rest, Brianna had washed her hair and sponge-bathed in the basin, then had paid the landlady to keep an eye on Lizzie while she, dressed in breeches and coat, went about her business.

It had taken most of the day—and the suffering of a good many widened eyes and gaping mouths as men realized her sex—to sell the horses at what she hoped was an honest price. She had heard of a man named Viorst, who took passengers between Wilmington and Cross Creek in his canoe for a price. She hadn’t found Viorst before dark, though—and wasn’t about to hang around the docks at night, breeches or no breeches. Morning would be time enough.

Still more heartening, Lizzie had been downstairs when she returned to the inn toward sunset, being cosseted by the landlady and fed morsels of corn pudding and chicken fricassee.

“You’re better!” Brianna exclaimed. Lizzie nodded, beaming, and gulped her mouthful.

“I am, so,” she said. “I feel quite myself again, and Mrs. Smoots has been so kind as to let me wash all of our things. Oh, it’s so nice to feel clean again!” she said fervently, laying a pale hand on her kerchief, which looked freshly ironed.

“You shouldn’t be washing and ironing,” Brianna scolded, sliding into the bench beside her maid. “You’ll wear yourself out, and get sick again.”

Lizzie looked down her thin nose, a prim smile perched at the corners of her mouth.

“Well, I didna think ye’d be wanting to meet your Da in clothes all spotted wi’ filth. Not but what even a clarty gown would be better than what ye’ve got on.” The little maid’s eyes passed reprovingly over Brianna’s breeches; she didn’t approve at all of her mistress’s penchant for male costume.

“Meet my Da? What do you—Lizzie, have you heard something?” A flare of hope shot up inside her, a sudden bright puff like the lighting of a gas stove.

Lizzie looked smug.

“I have that. And ’twas all because of the washin’, too—my Da did always say as how virtue brings its reward.”

“I’m sure it does,” Brianna said dryly. “What did you find out, and how?”

“Well, I was just after hanging out your petticoat—the nice one, aye, wi’ the lace about the hem—”

Brianna picked up a small jug of milk, and held it menacingly over her maid’s head. Lizzie squeaked and ducked away, giggling.

“All right! I’m telling! I’m telling!”

In the middle of her washing, one of the tavern’s patrons had come out into the yard to smoke a pipe, the day being fine. He had admired Lizzie’s domestic skills and taken up a pleasant conversation, in the course of which it was revealed that this gentleman—one Andrew MacNeill by name— had not only heard of James Fraser but was well acquainted with him.

“He is? What did he say? Is this MacNeill still here?”

Lizzie put out a hand and made small quelling motions.

“I’m sayin’ it as quick as I can. No, he’s not here; I did try to make him stay, but he was bound for New Bern by the packet boat, and couldna bide.” She was nearly as excited as Brianna; her cheeks were still pale and sallow, but the tip of her nose had gone pink.

“Mr. MacNeill knows your Da, and your great-auntie Cameron as well—she’s a great lady, he says, verra rich, with a tremendous great house, and lots of slaves, and—”

“Never mind about that now, what did he say about my father? Did he mention my mother?”

“Claire,” Lizzie said triumphantly. “Ye did say that was your Mam’s name? I asked, and he said yes, Mrs. Fraser’s name was Claire. And he said she was a most amazing healer—did ye not say as your mother was a fine physician? He said as he had seen her do a desperate operation on a man, laid him smack in the middle of the dinner table and cut off his ballocks and then stitched them back on, right there on the spot, wi’ all the dinner party lookin’ on!”

“That’s my mother, all right.” There were tears of what might have been laughter in the corners of her eyes. “Are they well? Had he seen them lately?”

“Och, that’s the best of it!” Lizzie leaned forward, eyes big with the importance of her news. “He’s in Cross Creek—your Da, Mr. Fraser! A man he knows is on trial there for assault, and your Da’s come down to be witness for him.” She patted her handkerchief against her temple, mopping up tiny beads of sweat.

“Mr. MacNeill says the court willna sit again till Monday week because the judge fell ill, and another is coming from Edenton, and the trial canna go on until he arrives.”

Brianna brushed back a lock of hair and blew out her breath, hardly daring to believe their luck.

“A week from Monday…and it’s Saturday now. God, I wonder how long it will take to get upriver?”

Lizzie crossed herself hastily in atonement for her mistress’s casual blasphemy, but shared in her excitement.

“I dinna ken, but Mrs. Smoots did say as her son’s made the trip once before—we could ask him.”

Brianna swung round on her bench, looking over the room. Men and boys had begun coming in as darkness fell, stopping for a drink or a supper on their way from work to bed, and now there were fifteen or twenty people crammed into the small space.

“Which one is Junior Smoots?” Brianna asked, craning her neck to see through the press of bodies.

“Yonder—the laddie wi’ the sweet brown eyes. I’ll fetch him to ye, shall I?” Emboldened by excitement, Lizzie slipped out of her seat and pushed her way into the throng.

Brianna was still holding the jug of milk, but made no move to pour it into her cup. Her throat was too choked with excitement to swallow. Little more than a week!

Wilmington was a small town, Roger thought. How many places could she be? If she was here at all. He thought there was a good chance of it; inquiries in the dockside taverns in New Bern had given him the valuable information that the Phillip Alonzo had reached Charleston safely—and only ten days before the Gloriana had docked in Edenton.

It might have taken Brianna anything from two days to two weeks to make her way from Charleston to Wilmington—assuming that she was indeed headed there.

“She’s here,” he muttered. “Damn it, I know she’s here!” Whether this conviction was the result of deduction, intuition, hope, or merely stubbornness, he clung to it like a drowning sailor to a spar.

He had managed the journey from Edenton to Wilmington with a fair amount of ease, himself. Put to work unloading cargo from the Gloriana’s hold, he had carried a chest of tea into a warehouse, set it down, walked back to the door, and busied himself in retying the sweat-soaked kerchief round his head. As soon as the next man had passed him, he stepped out onto the dock, turned right instead of left, and within seconds was headed up the narrow cobbled lane that led from docks to town. By the next morning he’d found a berth as loader on a small cargo boat, transporting naval stores from Edenton to the main depot at Wilmington, there to be transferred to a larger ship for transport to England.

He jumped ship again in Wilmington, without a moment’s compunction. He hadn’t time to waste; there was Brianna to be found.

He knew she was here. Fraser’s Ridge was in the mountains; she’d need a guide, and Wilmington was the most likely port in which to find one. And if she was here, someone would have noticed her; he’d bet money on that. He could only hope the wrong sort of person hadn’t noticed her already.

A quick reconnoiter of the main street and the harbor gave him a count of twenty-three taverns. Christ, these people drank like fish! There was the chance she’d taken a room in a private house, but the taverns were the place to start.

By evening he’d covered ten of the taverns, slowed by the necessity of avoiding any of his erstwhile shipmates. Being in the presence of so much drink, and he without an extra penny to spend, had given him a raging thirst. He hadn’t eaten all day, either, which didn’t help matters.

At the same time, he scarcely noticed the physical discomfort. A man in the fifth tavern had seen her, so had a woman in the seventh. “A tall man wi’ red hair,” the man had said, but “A great huge girl, dressed in men’s breeches,” the woman had said, clicking her tongue in shock. “Walkin’ down the street, plain as you please, with her coat over her arm and her backside in view of everyone!”

Let Roger get that particular backside in his view, he thought with some grimness, and he’d know what to do with it. He begged a cup of water from a kindhearted landlady, and set off with renewed determination.

By the time it was full dark, he had covered another five taverns. The taprooms were full now, and he discovered that the tall redheaded girl in men’s clothing had been causing public comment for nearly a week. The quality of some of this comment caused the blood to throb in his cheeks with outrage, and only the fear of being arrested kept him from outright assault.

As it was, he left the fifteenth tavern after an ugly exchange of words with two drunkards, boiling with fury. Christ, had the woman no sense at all? Did she have no notion what men were capable of?

He stopped in the street and wiped a sleeve across his sweating face. He breathed heavily, wondering what to do next. Keep on, he supposed, though if he didn’t find something to eat soon, he was going to fall flat on his face in the road.

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