Dawn on a Distant Shore Page 32

"What's this?" the old lady sputtered. "Who is this Lingo? A friend of yours, Elizabeth?"

"No, Aunt," Elizabeth said hoarsely. She touched the base of her throat where a silver chain disappeared into her bodice. "No friend of mine."

General Schuyler coughed softly. "He was just an old courier du bois, Lady Crofton."

"A Frenchman?" asked Aunt Merriweather, in the same tone she might have said heathen.

The general inclined his head. "I believe he was French born, yes. But more important, he was a thief, and a scoundrel of the highest order. It is not a tale for polite company."

"Hmmpf!" commented the captain around a forkful of ham. His eyes flashed in Elizabeth's direction, but he swallowed down his curiosity.

"I think the travelers are more concerned about the condition of the portages," said Mrs. Schuyler, neatly cutting off the aunt's response.

"Yes," said Elizabeth, more calmly. "I had been wondering about the portages."

The captain swallowed, the mustache twitching with a life of its own. "There's only one thing to do when you've got to cross those carries in April," he said, reaching for the potatoes.

Aunt Merriweather put down her glass with a thump. "Well, man, what is to be done then? Speak up!"

"Pray for a frost, missus," said the captain, meeting her glare with perfect Yorker calm. "Pray mighty hard."

Late in the evening, much later than she would have wished, Elizabeth found her way to her room. Hannah was already deeply asleep on a camp bed near the banked hearth, the twins in their cot within her reach. Elizabeth knew that Hannah would wake at the twins' first stirring, and that they might even settle at the sound of her voice. She had a sure and loving touch far beyond her years.

Elizabeth reached down to smooth a strand of hair away from the little girl's brow. Such a serious child, and so dear. She should have left her behind at Lake in the Clouds where she would be safe, but she had given in. As a girl, her own curiosity about the world had been thwarted so often; she could not do the same to Hannah, not with so much at stake. She was young, and still there was so much of Nathaniel in her.

With a last check on the twins, Elizabeth went to the window to look beyond the winter-barren trees to the river. A rustling below her window, and a woman's shape moved away from the house, a long cape sweeping out behind her in a dark arc against the moonlit snow. Her hood fell away and Elizabeth saw blond hair. One of the daughters, then. And slipping away in the night, perhaps to meet a lover.

Elizabeth rubbed her eyes, and tried to focus. What she knew was very simple: Nathaniel and Hawkeye and Robbie slept in a cold gaol far to the north; without intervention they might well hang. There was no time to waste and no energy to spare, and certainly she could let this young woman go on her way. She was forsaking a warm bed and risking the favor of friends and family to go to her lover; Elizabeth could not chide her for that. It seemed not so very long ago that she had gone to Nathaniel in the dead of night. Of her own free will she had gone to him, a backwoodsman in buckskin with an eagle feather in his hair, a man with nothing to recommend him to the world but his honesty, his skill with a rifle, and an affinity for the wilderness. A widower with a dark-skinned daughter. Anything but a gentleman. She had married him on the run, turning her back on her family, their view of the proper order of things, and their expectations, and she regretted none of it.

8

Elizabeth woke on a spring morning to find herself alone in the small cabin of Grievous Mudge's schooner, the Washington. Beside her was an empty makeshift cradle and a pile of neatly folded blankets. Blinking in the shifting sunlight, Elizabeth lay for a moment and listened to the steady beat of waves on the hull, the familiar rhythm of men's voices as they called to each other, a hiccup of a cry, and Curiosity's comforting hush in response. With a yawn, Elizabeth walked the two steps to push back the shutters that opened onto the main deck.

Pale blue sky, cloudless and mild. One of the crew whistled by, his shirtsleeves rolled high. How strange, to dread warm weather. But she managed a smile for Curiosity, who sat on a coil of rope rocking the babies in the cradle of her skirt.

"We was just about to come callin'," said Curiosity, catching sight of her. With a practiced dip, she passed a wriggling Daniel down and through the window. Lily followed in short order, and Elizabeth settled back down on the narrow bunk to see to their needs. She longed to get out of the cabin, which smelled of tobacco and sweat and wet winding cloths; she might have nursed the babies in the sunshine with a shawl draped over herself and no one would have been the wiser, but she feared offending the sailors. The dozen who manned this schooner seemed to be good sorts, but like all seamen they were full of superstitions about women, and she would do nothing to jeopardize their progress toward Montréal.

In short order Curiosity was at the door with a plate of corn bread and venison stew. Somewhat better fare than they might have expected on a schooner stripped down to the bone for the short-run, fast transport of high-value goods, but then the captain was fond of his food.

"Mighty pretty morning," she announced, holding out a tin cup of weak tea. "Nothing like a clear day on the water with the mountains all around."

"Yes," Elizabeth agreed, reaching for the cup over the pillow that supported the babies. "It is pretty here. Where is Hannah?"

"Talking to Mudge."

From the corner of her eye, Elizabeth observed Curiosity's pinched expression. "Captain Mudge has a few stories to tell."

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