I ENCOUNTER A HERNIA
I hate boats,” Jamie said through clenched teeth. “I loathe boats. I view boats with the most profound abhorrence.”
Jamie’s uncle, Hector Cameron, lived on a plantation called River Run, just above Cross Creek. Cross Creek in turn lay some way upriver from Wilmington; some two hundred miles, in fact. At this time of year, we were told, the trip might take four days to a week by boat, depending on wind. If we chose rather to travel overland, the journey could take two weeks or more, depending on such things as washed-out roads, mud, and broken axles.
“Rivers do not have waves,” I said. “And I view the notion of trudging on foot for two hundred miles through the mud with a lot more than abhorrrrence.” Ian grinned broadly, but quickly exchanged the grin for an expression of bland detachment as Jamie’s glare moved in his direction.
“Besides,” I said to Jamie, “if you get seasick, I still have my needles.” I patted the pocket where my tiny set of gold acupuncture needles rested in their ivory case.
Jamie exhaled strongly through his nose, but said no more. That little matter settled, the major problem remaining was to manage the boat-fare.
We were not rich, but did have a little money, as the result of a spot of good fortune on the road. Gypsying our way north from Charleston, and camping well off the road at night, we had discovered an abandoned homestead in the wood, its clearing nearly obliterated by new growth.
Cottonwood saplings shot like spears through the beams of the fallen roof, and a hollybush sprouted through a large crack in the hearthstone. The walls were half collapsed, black with rot and furred with green moss and rusty fungus. There was no telling how long the place had been abandoned, but it was clear that both cabin and clearing would be swallowed by the wilderness within a few years, nothing left to mark its existence save a tumbled cairn of chimney stones.
However, flourishing incongruously among the invading trees were the remains of a small peach orchard, the fruit of it burstingly ripe and swarming with bees. We had eaten as much as we could, slept in the shelter of the ruins, then risen before dawn and loaded the wagon with heaping mounds of smooth gold fruit, all juice and velvet.
We had sold it as we went, and consequently had arrived in Wilmington with sticky hands, a bag of coins—mostly pennies—and a pervasive scent of fermentation that clung to hair, clothes, and skin, as though we had all been dipped in peach brandy.
“You take this,” Jamie advised me, handing me the small leather sack containing our fortune. “Buy what ye can for provisions—dinna buy any peaches, aye?—and perhaps a few bits and pieces so we dinna look quite such beggars when we come to my kinsman. A needle and thread, maybe?” He raised a brow and nodded at the large rent in Fergus’s coat, incurred while falling out of a peach tree.
“Duncan and I will go about and see can we sell the wagon and horses, and inquire for a boat. And if there’s such a thing as a goldsmith here, I’ll maybe see what he’d offer for one of the stones.”
“Be careful, Uncle,” Ian advised, frowning at the motley crew of humanity coming and going from the harbor nearby. “Ye dinna want to be taken advantage of, nor yet be robbed in the street.”
Jamie, gravely straight-faced, assured his nephew that he would take due precaution.
“Take Rollo,” Ian urged him. “He’ll protect ye.”
Jamie glanced down at Rollo, who was surveying the passing crowds with a look of panting alertness that suggested not so much social interest as barely restrained appetite.
“Oh, aye,” he said. “Come along then, wee dog.” He glanced at me as he turned to go. “Perhaps ye’d best buy a few dried fish, as well.”
Wilmington was a small town, but because of its fortuitous situation as a seaport at the mouth of a navigable river, it boasted not only a farmer’s market and a shipping dock, but several shops that stocked imported luxuries from Europe, as well as the homegrown necessities of daily life.
“Beans, all right,” Fergus said. “I like beans, even in large quantities.” He shifted the burlap sack on his shoulder, balancing its unwieldy weight. “And bread, of course we must have bread—and flour and salt and lard. Salt beef, dried cherries, fresh apples, all well and good. Fish, to be sure. Needles and thread I see also are certainly necessary. Even the hairbrush,” he added, with a sidelong glance at my hair, which, inspired by the humidity, was making mad efforts to escape the confinement of my broad-brimmed hat. “And the medicines from the apothecary, naturally. But lace?”
“Lace,” I said firmly. I tucked the small paper packet containing three yards of Brussels lace into the large basket he was carrying. “Likewise ribbons. One yard each of wide silk ribbon,” I told the perspiring young girl behind the counter. “Red—that’s yours, Fergus, so don’t complain—green for Ian, yellow for Duncan, and the very dark blue for Jamie. And no, it isn’t an extravagance; Jamie doesn’t want us to look like ragamuffins when we meet his uncle and aunt.”
“What about you, Auntie?” Ian said, grinning. “Surely ye willna let us men be dandies, and you go plain as a sparrow?”
Fergus blew air between his lips, in mingled exasperation and amusement.
“That one,” he said, pointing to a wide roll of dark pink.
“That’s a color for a young girl,” I protested.
“Women are never too old to wear pink,” Fergus replied firmly. “I have heard les mesdames say so, many times.” I had heard les mesdames’ opinions before; Fergus’s early life had been spent in a brothel, and judging from his reminiscences, not a little of his later life, too. I rather hoped that he could overcome the habit now that he was married to Jamie’s stepdaughter, but with Marsali still in Jamaica awaiting the birth of their first child, I had my doubts. Fergus was a Frenchman born, after all.
“I suppose the Madams would know,” I said. “All right, the pink, too.”
Burdened with baskets and bags of provisions, we made our way out into the street. It was hot and thickly humid, but there was a breeze from the river, and after the stifling confines of the shop, the air seemed sweet and refreshing. I glanced toward the harbor, where the masts of several small ships poked up, swaying gently to the rocking of the current, and saw Jamie’s tall figure stride out between two buildings, Rollo pacing close behind.
Ian hallooed and waved, and Rollo came bounding down the street, tail wagging madly at sight of his master. There were few people out at this time of day; those with business in the narrow street prudently flattened themselves against the nearest wall to avoid the rapturous reunion.
“My Gawd,” said a drawling voice somewhere above me. “That’ll be the biggest dawg I believe I’ve ever seen.” I turned to see a gentleman detach himself from the front of a tavern, and lift his hat politely to me. “Your servant, ma’am. He ain’t partial to human flesh, I do sincerely hope?”
I looked up at the man addressing me—and up. I refrained from expressing the opinion that he, of all people, could scarcely find Rollo a threat.
My interlocutor was one of the tallest men I’d ever seen; taller by several inches even than Jamie. Lanky and rawboned with it, his huge hands dangled at the level of my elbows, and the ornately beaded leather belt about his midriff came to my chest. I could have pressed my nose into his navel, had the urge struck me, which fortunately it didn’t.
“No, he eats fish,” I assured my new acquaintance. Seeing me craning my neck, he courteously dropped to his haunches, his knee joints popping like rifle shots as he did so. His face thus coming into view, I found his features still obscured by a bushy black beard. An incongruous snub nose poked out of the undergrowth, surmounted by a pair of wide and gentle hazel eyes.
“Well, I’m surely obliged to hear that. Wouldn’t care to have a chunk taken out my leg, so early in the day.” He removed a disreputable slouch hat with a ragged turkey feather thrust through the brim, and bowed to me, loose snaky black locks falling forward on his shoulders. “John Quincy Myers, your servant, ma’am.”
“Claire Fraser,” I said, offering him a hand in fascination. He squinted at it a moment, brought my fingers to his nose and sniffed them, then looked up and broke into a broad smile, nonetheless charming for missing half its teeth.
“Why, you’ll maybe be a yarb-woman, won’t you?”
He turned my hand gently over, tracing the chlorophyll stains around my cuticles.
“A green-fingered lady might just be tendin’ her roses, but a lady whose hands smell of sassafras root and Jesuit bark is like to know more than how to make flowers bloom. Don’t you reckon that’s so?” he asked, turning a friendly gaze on Ian, who was viewing Mr. Myers with unconcealed interest.
“Oh, aye,” Ian assured him. “Auntie Claire’s a famous healer. A wise-woman!” He glanced proudly at me.
“That so, boy? Well, now.” Mr. Myers’s eyes went round with interest, and swiveled back to focus on me. “Smite me if this ain’t Lucifer’s own luck! And me thinkin’ I’d have to wait till I come to the mountains and find me a shaman to take care of it.”
“Are you ill, Mr. Myers?” I asked. He didn’t look it, but it was hard to tell, what with the beard, the hair, and a thin layer of greasy brown dirt that seemed to cover everything not concealed by his ragged buckskins. The sole exception was his forehead; normally protected from the sun by the black felt hat, it was now exposed to view, a wide flat slab of purest white.
“Not to say ill, I don’t reckon,” he replied. He suddenly stood up, and began to fumble up the tail of his buckskin shirt. “It ain’t the clap or the French pox, anyhow, ’cause I seen those before.” What I had thought were trousers were in fact long buckskin leggings, surmounted by a breechclout. Still talking, Mr. Myers had hold of the leather thong holding up this latter garment, and was fumbling with the knot.
“Damnedest thing, though; all of a sudden this great big swelling come up just along behind of my balls. Purely inconvenient, as you may imagine, though it don’t hurt me none to speak of, save on horseback. Might be you could take a peep and tell me what I best do for it, hm?”
“Ah.…” I said, with a frantic glance at Fergus, who merely shifted his sack of beans and looked amused, blast him.
“Would I have the pleasure to make the acquaintance of Mr. John Myers?” said a polite Scottish voice over my shoulder.
Mr. Myers ceased fumbling with his breechclout and glanced up inquiringly.
“Can’t say whether it’s a pleasure to you or not, sir,” he replied courteously. “But be you lookin’ for Myers, you’ve found him.”
Jamie stepped up beside me, tactfully inserting his body between me and Mr. Myers’s breechclout. He bowed formally, hat under his arm.
“James Fraser, your servant, sir. I was told to offer the name of Mr. Hector Cameron by way of introduction.”