Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 134

   

She still had the pot of soft yellow lye soap the landlady had given her for laundering; that would take care of it. She plunged the breeks into the water, added a finger’s dollop of the soap, and began to work it into a scummy lather, pressing it through and through the fabric.

The window’s square was lightening. She cast a stealthy glance over her shoulder at her mistress, but Brianna’s breath came slow and steady; good, she wouldn’t wake for a time yet.

She looked back to her work, and froze, feeling a chill colder than those that came with her fevers. The thin suds that covered her hands were dark, and small black eddies spread through the water like the ink stains of a cuttlefish.

She didn’t want to look, but it was too late to pretend she hadn’t seen. She turned back the wet fabric carefully, and there it was; a large, dark blotch, discoloring the cloth just where the seams crossed in the crotch of the breeks.

The rising sun oozed a sullen red through the hazy sky, turning the water in the basin, the air in the room, the whole spinning world, the color of fresh blood.

41

JOURNEY’S END

Brianna thought she might scream. Instead, she patted Lizzie’s back and spoke softly.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be all right. Mr. Viorst says he’ll wait for us. As soon as you feel better, we’ll leave. But for now, don’t worry about anything, just rest.”

Lizzie nodded, but couldn’t answer; her teeth were chattering too hard, in spite of the three blankets over her and the hot brick at her feet.

“I’ll go and get your drink, honey. Just rest,” Brianna repeated, and with a final pat, rose and left the room.

It wasn’t Lizzie’s fault, of course, Brianna thought, but she could scarcely have picked a worse moment to have another attack of fever. Brianna had slept late and restlessly after the dreadful scene with Roger, waking to find her clothes washed and hung to dry, her shoes polished, her stockings folded, the room ruthlessly swept and tidied—and Lizzie collapsed in a shivering heap on the empty hearth.

For the thousandth time, she counted the days. Eight days until Monday. If Lizzie’s attack followed its usual pattern, she might be able to travel the day after tomorrow. Six days. And according to Junior Smoots and Hans Viorst, five to six days to make the trip upriver at this time of year.

She couldn’t miss Jamie Fraser, she couldn’t! She had to be in Cross Creek by Monday, come hell or high water. Who knew how long the trial might take, or whether he would leave as soon as it was over? She would have given anything to be able to go at once.

The burning ache to move, to go, was so intense it obliterated all the other aches and burnings of her body—even the deep heart-burning of Roger’s betrayal—but there was nothing to be done. She could go nowhere until Lizzie was better.

The taproom was full; two new ships had come into the harbor during the day, and now at evening the benches were full of seamen, with a game of cards loud and lively at the table in the corner. Brianna edged through the blue clouds of tobacco smoke, ignoring the whistles and ribald remarks. Roger had wanted her to wear a dress, had he? Damn him. Her breeches normally kept men at a safe distance, but Lizzie had washed them, and they were still too damp to wear.

She gave one man who reached for her buttocks a glare fit to sear his eyebrows. He stopped in mid-grab, startled, and she slid by him, through the door to the kitchen breezeway.

On the way back, with the jug of steaming catmint tea wrapped in a cloth to keep from burning her, she made a detour around the edge of the room to avoid her would-be assailant. If he touched her, she would pour boiling water in his lap. And while that would be no more than he deserved, and some palliative to her own volcanic feelings, it would waste the tea, which Lizzie badly needed.

She stepped carefully sideways, squeezing between the raucous cardplayers and the wall. The table was scattered with coins and other small valuables: silver and gilt and pewter buttons, a snuffbox, a silver penknife, and scribbled scraps of paper—IOUs, she supposed, or the eighteenth-century equivalent. Then one of the men moved, and beyond his shoulder she caught the gleam of gold.

She glanced down, looked away, then looked back, startled. It was a ring, a plain gold band, but wider than most. It wasn’t the gold alone that had caught her eye, though. The ring was no more than a foot away, and while the light in the taproom was more than dim, a candlestick sat on the cardplayers’ table, shedding its light in the inner curve of the golden band.

She couldn’t quite read the letters engraved there, but she knew the pattern so well that the legend sprang into her mind, unbidden.

She laid a hand on the shoulder of the man who had the ring, interrupting him in mid-jest. He turned, half frowning, the frown clearing as he saw who had touched him.

“Aye, sweetheart, and have ye come to change my luck, then?” He was a big man, with a heavy-boned, handsome face, a broad mouth and a broken nose, and a pair of light green eyes that moved over her with quick appraisal.

She forced her lips to smile at him.

“I hope so,” she said. “Shall I give your ring a rub for luck?” Without waiting for permission, she snatched the ring from the table and gave it a brisk rub on her sleeve. Then holding it up to admire the shine, she could see plainly the words written inside.

From F. to C. with love. Always.

Her hand was trembling as she gave it back.

“It’s very pretty,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

He looked startled, then wary, and she hastened to add, “It’s too small for you—won’t your wife be angry if you lose her ring?” How? she thought wildly. How did he get it? And what’s happened to my mother?

The full lips curved in a charming smile.

“And if I had a wife, sweetheart, sure I’d leave her for you.” He looked her over more closely, long lashes dropping to hide his gaze. He touched her waist in a casual gesture of invitation.

“I’m busy just now, sweetheart, but later…eh?”

The jug was burning through the cloth, but her fingers felt cold. Her heart had congealed into a small lump of terror.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “In the daylight.”

He looked at her, startled, then threw his head back and laughed.

“Well, I’ve heard men say I’m not a one to be met in the dark, poppet, but the women seem to prefer it.” He ran a thick finger down her forearm in play; the red-gold hairs rose at his touch.

“In the daylight, then, if ye like. Come to my ship—Gloriana, near the naval yard.”

“Gracious, you vill not how long haf eaten?” Miss Viorst peered at Brianna’s empty bowl with good-willed incredulity. About the same age as Brianna herself, she was a broad-built, placid-tempered Dutchwoman whose motherly manner made her seem a good deal older.

“Day before yesterday, I think.” Brianna gratefully accepted a second helping of dumplings and broth, and yet another thick slab of salt-rising bread slathered with curls of fresh white butter. “Oh, thank you!” The food did something to fill the hollow space that yawned inside her, a small warm comfort around which to center herself.

Lizzie’s fever had come on again, two days upriver. This time the attack was longer and more severe, and Brianna had been seriously afraid that Lizzie would die, right there in the middle of the Cape Fear River.

She had sat in mid-canoe for all of a day and a night, while Viorst and his partner paddled like maniacs, she alternately pouring handfuls of water over Lizzie’s head and wrapping her in all the coats and blankets available, all the time praying to see the girl’s small bosom rise with the next breath.

“If I die, will ye tell my father?” Lizzie had whispered to her in the rushing dark.

“I will, but you won’t, so dinna fash yourself,” Brianna said firmly. It was successful; Lizzie’s frail back quivered with laughter at Brianna’s attempted Scots, and a small bony hand reached up to hers, holding on until sleep loosened its grip and the fleshless fingers slipped free.

Viorst, alarmed at Lizzie’s state, had taken them to the house he shared with his sister a little way below Cross Creek, carrying Lizzie’s blanket-wrapped body up the dusty trail from the river to a small framed cottage. The girl’s stubborn spirit had brought her through once more, but Brianna thought that the fragile flesh might not be equal to many more such demands.

She cut a dumpling in half and ate it slowly, savoring the rich warm juices of chicken and onion. She was grubby, travel-worn, starved, and exhausted, every bone in her body aching. They had made it, though. They were in Cross Creek, and tomorrow was Monday. Somewhere nearby was Jamie Fraser—and God willing, Claire as well.

She touched the leg of her breeches, and the secret pocket sewn into the seam. It was still there, the small round hardness of the talisman. Her mother was still alive. That was all that mattered.

After eating, she went once more to check on Lizzie. Hanneke Viorst was sitting by the bed darning socks. She nodded to Brianna, smiling.

“She is gut.”

Looking down at the wasted, sleeping face, Brianna wouldn’t have said that much. Still, the fever was gone; a hand on Lizzie’s brow came away cool and damp, and a half-empty bowl on the table nearby showed that she had managed a little nourishment.

“You vill rest, too?” Hanneke half rose, gesturing toward the trundle bed pulled out in readiness.

Brianna cast a glance of longing at the clean quilts and puffy bolster, but shook her head.

“Not yet, thank you. What I’d really like is to borrow your mule, if I might.”

There was no telling where Jamie Fraser was now. Viorst had told her that River Run was a good distance from the town; he might be there, or he might be staying somewhere in Cross Creek, for convenience. She couldn’t leave Lizzie long enough to ride all the way to River Run, but she did want to go into town and find the courthouse where the trial would be held tomorrow. She was taking no chance of missing him by not knowing where to go.

The mule was large and elderly, but not averse to ambling along the riverbank road. He walked somewhat slower than she could have done herself, but that didn’t matter; she was in no hurry, now.

Despite her tiredness, she began to feel better as she rode, her bruised, stiff body relaxing into the easy rhythm of the mule’s slow gait. It was a hot, humid day, but the sky was clear and blue, and great elms and hickory trees overhung the road, cool leaves filtering the sun.

Torn between Lizzie’s illness and her own painful memories, she had noticed nothing of the second half of their voyage, taken no notice of change in the countryside they passed. Now it was like being magically transported during sleep, waking up in a different place. She put everything else aside, determined to forget the last few days and everything in them. She was going to find Jamie Fraser.

The sandy roads, scrub-pine forests, and marshy swamps of the coast were gone, replaced by thickets of cool green, by tall, thick-trunked, canopied trees, and a soft orange dirt that darkened to black mold where the dead leaves lay matted at the edge of the road. The shrieks of gulls and terns were gone, replaced by the muted chatter of a jay, and the soft liquid song of a whippoorwill, far back in the forest.

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