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by Connie Crow
Description: Corinna McGinnis joins an Army column as a laundress to earn the land bonus offered, to have a place of her own. Her world collides with Captain Geoffrey Humbolt, from a very old, aristocratic family, who is smarting from being rejected by a fickle fiancée. Their instant attraction pulls them together against all odds. They overcome class prejudice and betrayal to build a life together, defying the "social rule" that laundresses never marry officers.
eBook Publisher: Awe-Struck E-Books, 2000
eBookwise Release Date: April 2002
20 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [354 KB]
Reading time: 225-316 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
Chapter One Philadelphia, PA, Spring-1819 "O-O-OW!"
Corinna jabbed her scalded finger into her mouth, dropping the iron soup ladle back into the cauldron bubbling in the kitchen fireplace.
"Mercy," she exclaimed, examining the fast-swelling blister, "You'd think I'd learn by now not to grab that ladle with my bare hands, wouldn't you, Elsie?"
"I'd think so." The older woman waddled up to take a better look at the burn. She turned Corinna's hand first one way, then the other, carefully inspecting the damage. "You'd better stick that finger in the water bucket over there. I'll go out to the pantry, and get some of that fresh butter we churned yesterday. That'll fix it right up. Butter's wonderful for burns, you know."
Corinna nodded, sticking her throbbing finger into the cooling water. "Well, I've got to see to this soup. "The master will be down soon. You know how he likes his food on time."
"Aye, he is particular. I'll be right back. We'll just be servin' him tonight. The missus wants a tray upstairs-she's not feeling well."
"Humph!" Corinna snorted, shaking her still-throbbing hand. "I wouldn't feel good either, if I was married to such a shriveled-up, troll of a man. He's just skin and bones-with no heart at all."
Elsie laughed out loud. "Don't be saying that too loud. He might hear you. But you are right; he'd be a real toad to be married to. I'd take more than a few trays by myself, if he crept into my bed every night."
"Oh, ugh!" Corinna shuddered at the thought. She rolled her shoulders trying to physically shake off the unwelcome picture of Master Ohelring, anywhere near her bed. Elsie disappeared down the back hall. Corinna wrapped a kitchen towel around her aching hand. Grabbing the hot handle, she lifted with all her might, to move the kettle to the outer warming hook.
Master Ohelring stepped into the kitchen. A thin, half-smile twisted the ragged corner of his mouth.
"Well, well," the old man muttered, raising a bushy eyebrow, "the kitchen help is looking much better these days."
Corinna stiffened at the sound of his voice coming over her shoulder. She hadn't heard him come into the kitchen. She usually kept a safe distance between them.
"Cook is in the pantry, Master, if you'd like something," she said quickly, to let him know they weren't alone. She had her hands full. Leaning into the cooking fireplace was dangerous. The kettle would tip, if it weren't hung just right.
A vulgar laughed echoed in his throat. "I've seen the cook, my dear. I'd much rather feast my old eyes on you."
Master Ohelring's eyes narrowed into glinty slits, watching Corinna bend into the cavernous fireplace. Hearing his heels click on the tile floor, Corinna knew she had no way out. She couldn't move forward and he blocked her path to the rear. His bony fingers thrust out, gripping through the thin folds of her threadbare skirt. Corinna cringed, feeling his fingers dig into the back of her thigh.
His voice chilled her. "How nice! Just ripe for the picking, I'll wager."
He laughed a cold, expectant laugh, pulling up a handful of skirt. "It's time we got to know one another better, missy. Makes things friendlier, don't you think?"
Corinna bit her lip in silent rage, shivering at the gnarled hand squeezing harder on the back of her leg. She ignored the other hand pulling at her skirt, touching her so rudely. She gritted her teeth and set both feet firmly. The pot settled safely on its hook. With a handful of towel, she grabbed the ladle handle. She swung around toward Ohelring, taking it with her. The ladle and its boiling liquid landed full force on Ohelring's ear.
"A-A-Augh! Damnation! Damn you, girl!"
Stumbling backward, he continued to swear, clawing at the soup chunks sliding off his ear and into his shirt collar. A red lump puffed up on the side of his neck. He ripped open the collar. The soup continued its relentless burn down his neck.
"Well, don't just stand there! Help me! You've scalded me!"
Corinna stayed rooted to her spot, not lifting a finger to help him or ease his pain. He deserved every bit of it.
Elsie's voice echoed in the cavernous kitchen. "Good heavens, Master, what's happened here?"
Elsie stood staring in the hall doorway, butter dish in one hand, its damp covering cloth in the other.
"The girl's mad, I tell you. Turned on me with a soup ladle."
"My goodness. Here, sit down! Let me wipe that," said Elsie. Noticing Corinna adjust her skirt, she threw Corinna a questioning glance over Ohelring's balding head. Jaws clenched, Corinna shook her skirt once more and glared at him in return. Elsie nodded and handed Ohelring the damp towel. Holding it against his throbbing neck, Ohelring thundered in righteous indignation. "You've done your last duty here, girl. Leave my house."
"Yes, sir. I won't work here any more. I won't be manhandled by anyone, not even you."
"Go, then. Now!"
"No sir, not without my week's wages. You owe me that," said Corinna, amazed at her own boldness. Poverty gave her backbone.
"Ha! You think I'll pay you? Not Likely! Ouch! Careful, Cook." He winced. Shock no longer protected him from the burn's searing pain. Elsie tried vainly to dab cool, soothing butter onto the raw flesh, while Ohelring twisted away, still glaring at Corinna.
She glared right back. "Oh, you'll pay me all right! Or I'll go out the front, screamin' all the way. The mistress will come down then. She won't like you fooling with the kitchen girls. No, she won't!"
Corinna stood her ground. Ohelring sat back, staring at her. She was a sight, with her fists clenched, green eyes flashing, red hair billowing around her shoulders. Her errant mobcap lay at her feet.
"Look at her, Cook. She looks like a banshee! I tell you she's insane!"
"We wouldn't want to disturb the missus, Master," said Elsie, quietly, trying to soothe the furious man. "You know she's not feelin' well."
"You know how bad she gets sir, if she's upset!"
Ohelring nodded. "Very well."
He reached into his vest pocket, pulled out several coins and threw them to the floor. "Take that and be damned. Don't let me see you here again."
Corinna snatched up her mobcap and darted across the floor, grabbing the coins he'd thrown her way. The gold pieces were worth far more than her normal pay. She wasn't going to leave any.
"Don't worry," she shouted, grabbing her cloak from the peg rack by the door. "I'll never work here again."
She yanked open the oaken door and stepped outside, swirling the cloak around her. The heavy door slammed, further sounding the finality of the confrontation. Pulling up her hood, she gathered its folds close for shelter from the chilly mist. Bending her head, she plunged into the evening's dusk. The boarding house wasn't far.
She nodded slightly to the lamplighter, who tipped his hat in passing. The soft streetlights twinkled at his touch. She appreciated his efforts. Walking in total darkness didn't appeal to her at all. Philadelphia's streets weren't always safe for a young woman alone. Brigands and ruffians were everywhere these days. Head down, she hurried on, oblivious to those she passed. In her haste, she didn't notice the group coming toward her on the boardwalk.
"Wha ... No!"
Corinna found herself off balance, feet nearly off the ground, locked in a stranger's embrace, staring up into the deepest brown eyes she'd ever seen. His grip sent shivers up her spine. Her heart pounded, while she struggled to be free from this handsome stranger.
A slow, broad smile reached all the way to the corners of his eyes. He gently released her from his grasp.
"I mean you no harm, young miss. You almost bowled me over in your head-long dash."
Her cheeks grew hot. She tore her eyes away from his intense stare. She forced her gaze down to his jacket, festooned with silver buttons and braid. She'd run into a soldier-an officer, from the looks of his uniform. He was handsome, but his tone was too solicitous, almost condescending. She'd have none of that.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir. I'm on my way home. You can't be too careful these days," she said a trifle sharply, gathering her cloak back around her, to escape his appraising looks.
"Yes," he agreed, smiling again. "You should be home. Young ladies shouldn't be about the night streets unescorted."
His tone had changed almost imperceptibly to insolent, teasing, almost laughing at her.
"I'm twenty-two, I'll have you know. More than old enough to be about my own business, if I choose."
Her hair tossed in the rising night breeze. She realized she still had her mobcap in her hands. Ladies never went about in public with uncovered hair. "Oh-What he must think of me..."
She glared at him, to cover the rising warmth still creeping up her neck, ignoring the continued pounding of her heart. She could almost feel his eyes taking in every detail of her face, her hair, everything. Their eyes met again and she shivered again. His gaze drilled deep into her as though he could see into her very soul. She wanted no man to see that much of her.
"If you'll excuse me, I don't generally stand on street corners talking to strangers. By your leave, gentlemen." She nodded her head to the small group of soldiers standing behind the officer she had run into. Yanking her mobcap over her curls, she stalked off into the evening shadows, praying not to hear footfalls behind her.
"Guess she told you, Captain Humbolt," said the sergeant. The men watched the pert redhead disappear into the evening mist. "Quite a feisty, tiny mite, ain't she."
Humbolt laughed out loud. "Yes, Sergeant Thomas, she is-and not impressed with soldiers at all."
"Want me to find out more about her for you, sir? I doubt she'd be hard to find," said Thomas.
"Thank you-no, Sergeant," said Humbolt. "We're not going to be here long. We've got a long march. We need to recruit a few more laundresses to fill in for the ones we couldn't get in Plattsburg. Then we'll be ready to move. Remember, we have to be in Pittsburgh by April 30."
"Very well, sir. Whatever you say. Come along, boys. Back to the public house. Tomorrow will come early enough."
Corinna could hear the soldiers tramping away into the distance. She rushed into the boarding house and breathed a great sigh of relief, once she shut the heavy door behind her.
"Goodness, child. What has happened?" said Mrs. Grady, her landlady, poking her head out of the dining room. "You look as though the devil himself chased you home."
"Oh, it's been a bad evening, ma'am. I'll tell you about it at supper, if I'm not too late."
"Of course not. But hurry, everyone else is here. I'm just layin' food on the table."
"I'll be right back down."
Corinna disappeared up the stairs to her small room to freshen up. Dishes were being passed when she returned to the big dining room. Boarders surrounded the dining tables as usual, but Artie, one of Corinna's closest friends, had saved her a place.
"Hello, dear," called Artie. "Come here. Do sit down, we're having a fine gossip about the soldiers tonight."
"Soldiers?" Corinna asked. Those demanding eyes still burned in her memory.
"The ones that are recruiting for laundresses," said Arabelle, another of Corinna's friends. "It says on the poster the Philadelphia 6th regiment is looking for laundresses to go with the column to the new Louisiana Purchase country. President Monroe wants to send another expedition, like Lewis and Clark. He wants to know what we bought for all that money."
"That must be why there were so many of them on the street tonight," said Corinna. "I ran into one of their officers on my way home. He nearly knocked me down."
"I'm not surprised. The whole regiment will come through sooner or later," said Artie. "They'll be marching west for weeks."
"What a Godforsaken place to go," exclaimed Clarrise, a fourth boarder. "You'd never catch me traveling into that wilderness. Who knows what savages you'd run into."
A shudder shook Clarisse to the bone.
"And there's nothing there," said Matilda, chiming in. "You'd be traveling in wagons and sleeping on the ground. Ugh."
"Oh, traveling with the army isn't all that bad," said Artie, reading the recruiting poster more closely. "I did laundry for the troops in my husband's company, during the last war. It's hard work, but you get paid regular. And if the whole 6th regiment is going, there'll be a fort there soon, you can count on that."
"And think of how many men will be there," exclaimed Arabelle, her eyes shining at the prospect. "Way more men than women. You should have made the acquaintance of some of the soldiers on your way home, Corinna. Our company would be especially prized. We're young and pretty."
She laughed a low, suggestive laugh, patting her hair and shrugging a shapely shoulder. Corinna's eyes widened, catching the meaning of Arabelle's comment.
"My, Arabelle, you do carry on." She couldn't stop the flush she could feel rising in her cheeks while she passed another of the food-laden bowls.
"I'm just saying, you could make much more than just your army pay, if you wanted to. Soldiers get lonely. They'll pay just to talk to you. Even more if you're 'familiar' with them-you know!"
Arabelle laughed again, smoothing the golden ringlets piled high on her head, batting her eyes.
"Arabelle!" Corinna shook her head. All Arabelle ever thought of was men.
"Well, that is true," said Artie, frowning in Arabelle's direction. "But you don't have to do anything more than laundry, if you don't want to. The real prize for doing laundry-if you can stand it-is the land."
Corinna snapped around to face Artie.
"Land? What's land got to do with doing laundry?"
"Why, it says right here. If you sign on, the government will give your own land in the new territory--40 acres a year-200 acres if you stay five years. The longer you stay, the more land you get-anywhere you want out there. It's a bonus for serving."
Arabelle snatched the poster from Artie. "Let me see that."
She peered at the poster, then announced. "And that ain't all. You can get out any time you want. All you have to do is marry one of them soldiers!"
She laughed that throaty laugh again. "Imagine that! I don't think I'd ever want out bad enough to get tied down to just one man. The more men, the more money, I always say."
"Arabelle!" Artie's icy tone cut through. "There are many ways to earn a decent living. You're talented. You could do lots of other things, besides be a 'gentlemen's companion'."
"Oh Artie. Don't be an old stick in the mud. I'm sure I could find other things to do, but they don't pay nearly as well."
Corinna stared down at her food-laden plate, thinking while the others chattered on. "I'm free to go. I have no position here. This may be my chance." She finally spoke up. "Artie, are you seriously considering the poster?"
"I might. I'm barely getting by here. I have no family left. Since Mr. Baxter was killed in the war. I'm just managing. It's not such a bad life. The new territory might be interesting."
"What about you, Arabelle? Would you go?"
Arabelle squinched up her face, curling a pouty lip, considering the question. "I'd have to think about it. According to that poster, you'd have to do laundry for seventeen men every week. I don't know if I'd want to work that hard. It would ruin my hands." She extended a be-ringed hand for all to admire, ignoring the fact it could stand a good scrub in the wash tub.
"We could go together," said Corinna. "We could help one another, then get our land in the same place."
"Why would you want to go, Corinna?" asked Clarisse. "You've got a position with Ohelring's. That's a beautiful home to work in."
"Well, the Master's not so nice. He grabbed my leg in the kitchen this evening. I bopped him with the soup ladle. Nearly scalded his ear off, I think."
"Oh my!" said Matilda. "You're lucky he didn't have you hauled in."
"I threatened to scream and raise a fuss." Corinna smiled at the recollection. "He was more afraid of having his missus find out than he was mad at me."
"Good for you, dear," said Artie.
"Well, you're out for sure, now," said Arabelle. "Once the word gets out, you'll not get work anywhere in that area."
"Well," said Artie, "Let's think about it overnight. We can talk at breakfast. That's a lot of laundry to do for empty frontier land. There's time to sign on tomorrow."
"You'd never catch me going out there," declared Matilda, handing around yet another dinner bowl. "Not ever." * * * * Back in her room, Corinna lifted a tiny key from around her neck. Kneeling down, she unlocked the wooden travel trunk at the foot of her bed. Clutching the key's crimson ribbon, she raised the lid to gaze at the trunk's meager contents. These few things were all she had left of home and family, the few possessions she had left from their life in Ireland and Philadelphia.
She ran her fingers over her mother's bible, and the tiny shirt that once belonged to her little brother. Nothing but a memory remained of her blessed father. She caressed her only prized possession, a nightgown made of delicate Irish linen, carefully embroidered. She and her mother had stitched it, the first piece in her meager dowry. A few other practical things and small piles of well-worn clothing filled the trunk's spaces.
"There's naught but graves to hold me here," she whispered to no one but herself. "Perhaps I've a new life in the new Missouri Territory," she said aloud, rolling the name around, tasting the sound of its newness. "Maybe I will have the home father always dreamed of."
Taking out her everyday nightgown, she closed the trunk gently, locking it again and slipping the ribbon over her head once more. Changing quickly into the coarse, muslin shift, she slid into the cold bed, shivering until the stiff sheets warmed from her own body heat. She drifted off to sleep, dreaming of an Irish sod house, with fresh Irish linen, on beautiful black earth, deep in Louisiana Purchase Territory and of deep brown eyes that pierced her very soul. * * * * Sergeant Thomas stood, fists jammed on his hipbones, surveying the scene. "This ain't gonna be easy, Cap'n. We got lots a company."
Humbolt nodded, staring down the long line of tables beside them. A sea of army blue, gray and green disappeared into the hall's shadowy interior. "You're right, Sgt. Thomas. Looks like every company in the regiment is here today. We all need laundresses. Women must have left in droves after the war."
"Can't say as I blame 'em, sir. We lost a lotta good people in that mess. Nearly lost you, too, sir."
"Don't remind me, Sergeant." Humbolt's hand unconsciously went to his throat, to the thin red line that wrapped from just under his right ear, down, around and into his left collar, "I'm not looking forward to this trip. I don't think Indians have changed that much since 1812. I'll believe Lewis & Clark's stories of peaceful Indians when we see them."
"Here's hopin' we see 'em, sir. It's the ones we don't see I worry about."
"You're right about that. Let's get set up. It's almost time." Humbolt sat down, re-stacking the pile of recruitment papers in front of him. Thomas busied himself, straightening the rest of their allotted space. A loud conversation caught his attention.
"Sir? Ain't that Cap'n Richardson, with S company, down the way?"
Humbolt glanced toward the noisy exchange. "Don't attract his attention! He's already in a mood. He'll give me enough grief as it is, if he finds out we're still recruiting."
"Excuse me, sir. I thought..."
"Yes, Sergeant, he's my friend. But he can be insufferable. Especially since ... I just don't want to talk to him this morning."
"Hmm..." Thomas nodded.
The doors opened and the waiting line surged in. Humbolt straightened in his chair. "Well, Sergeant, look sharp. Here come the ladies." * * * * "If this takes much longer, I'm going home!" Arabelle stamped her foot to punctuate her grumpy comment. "Just look. Now I've kicked dust all over this hem. We haven't even signed up and I'm getting filthy."
"We agreed to do this," said Artie. "You can't quit now. A little dust will brush right off."
"This trip will be interesting, Arabelle." said Corinna. "Look at that fancy gentlemen reading the poster. Even he's interested." The three stared at an elegantly dressed man peering at the poster through his monocle.
"Well, I never," said Arabelle. "He just tore that poster down. Why would he do that?"
"I don't know," said Corinna, "but look! He's stuffed it into his frock coat and look how quickly he's leaving!"
The three watched, fascinated. The gentleman frantically flagged down a passing hansom cab. They could hear him shouting at the driver as soon as he settled himself inside.
"Quickly, driver-to Mayberry's Public House!"
"Aye, sir!" snapped the cabby, whipping the horses to a quick run.
"Whatever do you suppose that's all about?" Arabelle's question hung in the air.
Artie finally answered, "I'm sure we'll never know. And it won't concern us, anyway. Maybe he's an army supplier, looking for business."
"Well it won't matter," said Corinna. "Here, we're headed inside, Arabelle. We're almost to the recruiting tables. We don't want to quit now."
She squirmed to get a better look at what lay ahead of them. Voices rattled through the dimly lit hall. A steady stream of men and women preceded them, being directed to the myriad of tables. To her consternation, she recognized the officer sitting at the table in front of them. "Oh Artie, that's the officer I ran into last night. I hope he doesn't remember me."
"It won't hurt if he does. He needs laundresses or he wouldn't be here."
"But I nearly knocked him over. And he treated me like a child. Said I shouldn't be out by myself at night. Maybe he won't let me sign up."
An icy stab pierced Corinna's heart. What if he wouldn't let her go? What would she do? Earning her own land had become an overpowering dream in the space of 24 hours.
"The two of us will vouch for you," said Arabelle. "If we're going, we're all going together."
"That's right, dear. If we sign up together, it should be all right."
The officer's voice intruded. "Please, ladies. We don't have all day."
He surveyed the three of them, then shook his head. "Are you sure you're laundresses? Have any of you ever been west? This is not a lady's day-outing we're going on."
Artie answered, chin held high, mobcap bouncing, accentuating every word. "I was a laundress for F Company, Philadelphia 6th Infantry in the last war, Captain, for my husband's company. He was killed then. You wouldn't begrudge me a way to earn a living, would you?"
"Of course not, ma'am," Humbolt said, recovering his manners. "It's just that your one friend looks a mite young for a trip with an army unit and the other..."
The Captain's voice trailed off, staring at Arabelle. It was clear from his arched eyebrow and slightly curled lip; he did not like the idea of having someone so obviously not a laundress in his company.
"We'll be just fine," said Corinna. "I'm sure traveling with you won't be much worse than coming across the ocean in a stinking old boat. I managed that. And I've made my own way since my parents died."
"Well, you'll have to do it better than you did last night," he said. A small smile played around the corners of his mouth. "We can't have you crashing about the prairie, running into buffalo."
Red was quickly becoming her permanent face coloring around this man. "That was an accident. I'll be much more careful in the wilderness."
"I hope so. And you?" Again Humbolt raised an eyebrow in Arabelle's direction.
"You'll find I'm very talented, Captain," she said gently, dropping her eyes, letting the phrase roll in his direction.
"That's what I'm afraid of. I won't tolerate any trouble on this trip. I don't want my men fighting over female favors. You understand?"
"What a rude suggestion, Captain," Corinna snapped, irritated at his insinuation. "We're hiring on as laundresses, not companions for your soldiers."
Humbolt stared at Corinna. Arabelle suppressed a smirk. Others didn't usually defend her virtue.
"Where do we sign, Captain?" asked Artie. "You'll find we'll be a help, not a lot of problems."
Humbolt drummed his fingers on the table, considering the prospect of these three on the trail with him. Corinna studied him carefully, watching his hand unconsciously rubbing his jaw line. Looking closely, she saw it-the thin ragged line his fingers traced while thinking. Eyes widening, she moved to get a better look, trying not to stare, or to be too obvious. He massaged his neck, stretching his chin up. Corinna could see the line from ear to collar; his hand didn't cover the whole thing.
"Goodness. Someone had nearly slit his throat! He's lucky to be alive." She glanced at Artie, then back to the Captain. Artie nodded, watching his hand as well.
He finally sighed, shook his head again and said, "Sign right here. Here's a set of papers for each of you. Can you all read what you're signing?"
"Of course we can," said Corinna, "You really don't have to be insulting, Captain."
"I just want to make sure you know what you're getting into. I don't want any complaints the first time you have to slog through the river mud or see an Indian on the hillside."
He watched silently while the three read the papers and wrote their names on the bottom. Taking the papers back, he read aloud, "Artie Baxter, Arabelle Colter, and Corinna McGinnis?"
"And do we get to know your name? Or are you just a nameless Captain?" Corinna spoke crisply, wishing she didn't find this irritating man so attractive.
Humbolt struggled to maintain a straight face. He found her amusing and charming and exasperating all at the same time. "I'm Captain Geoffrey Humbolt, Miss McGinnis, at your service. Only from now on it will be Captain Humbolt, or sir to you." He turned to Artie. "Mrs. Baxter. May I trust you'll explain the details of being a laundress to your companions?"
"Yes, Captain. We'll be ready."
He shook his head again. "Well ladies, we'll be pulling out Wednesday. Get your things together and be here at 7 a.m. sharp. Do any of you know how to drive an oxen team?"
"I guessed as much. I'll have a driver assigned to your wagon. I'm putting you all in one wagon. You can't take any more belongings than that."
They shared looks, then Corinna again spoke up. "One wagon will be fine. We planned to be together."
Humbolt nodded and watched the trio disappear into the crowd. "Corinna McGinnis." He grudgingly admired the spunk with which she spoke up for herself. "What a fiery little one." He shook his head. He had to stop thinking of her as little. She was a grown woman and had some very experienced friends, from the looks of the Colter woman. He'd seen laundresses like her before. Little better than the camp followers who straggled along after every army. More interested in easy money from the men than the work. But Mrs. Baxter would be a help. And he didn't have time to worry about it. He still needed three more laundresses.
"Next!" * * * * "I'm sorry Arabelle, there's just no more room in this wagon!" Corinna looked down into Arabelle's distressed face. "You'll just have to leave that hatbox with Mrs. Grady. Besides, what are you going to do with a Paris hat in the middle of nowhere? There's no one there but Indians to see it!"
Arabelle ran her fingers lovingly around the lid of the shiny hatbox, wiping off the dust being kicked up around them, not wanting to leave anything behind.
"Come on, miss. Please finish," begged Private Jamison, their assigned driver. "Cap'n Humbolt will be mad as a wet hen if we hold up formation."
He glanced over his shoulder down the long line of wagons forming in front and behind them. They would be ready to go any minute.
Arabelle heaved a great sigh, handing the hatbox back to Mrs. Grady. "Take good care of it, Mrs. Grady. There's a mighty fine hat in that box. I wore that hat once in New York City."
"Thank you, Arabelle," said Mrs. Grady, taking the hatbox gingerly, holding the cord with two fingers, as though the box were covered with growing slime. She set it quickly behind the seat. "It will be waiting for you, if you decide to come back. I don't wear such things."
"We won't be back, Mrs. Grady," Corinna said fiercely. "We're going to stay in the new territory and make our fortunes and have our own land, just like you."
"I hope you do, child. I hope you do. But I must go. The rest of the boarders will be wanting breakfast. I'm late already. Good-bye to all of you"
The three waved and called their good-byes. Mrs. Grady expertly wheeled the buckboard around and rapidly disappeared from view. Sharp bugle bleats tore through the morning air. Corinna jumped at the sound.
"Whatever is that?" she demanded of Private Jamison.
"Better get used to the bugle, miss," he said. "You're going to hear a lot of it from now on. We do everything by the bugle-it's a lot louder than a Captain, or even a Sergeant. That's our signal. Please ladies, get in?"
Jamison offered a hand up over the wagon wheel to Artie, then Arabelle, and then Corinna. She settled herself on the wagon seat, alongside him. Arabelle and Artie had fashioned sitting places among their things so no one would have to walk beside the wagon.
The clatter of hooves, coming up from behind, demanded their attention. Captain Humbolt rode by, taking in their state of readiness. He nodded to Jamison and rode on, ignoring everyone else.
"Is he always that abrupt?" asked Corinna.
"Not always, miss. Cap'n Humbolt's one of the good ones, you'll see. Most of us are real glad to serve under him instead of some of the other officers."
"Well, he's certainly been grumpy enough to us."
"He's got a lot on his mind, miss. He's responsible for all of us in R Company," said Jamison, picking up the reins from around the wagon break.
The bugle blared again. He cracked the whip and oxen lumbered forward, in time with the rest of the train. Corinna grabbed the edge of the wooden seat, trying not to fall backward.
"What's your name, private?" she asked. "Do I have to call you sir, too?"
"Oh, no, miss. That's just for officers. Private Jamison will do in public. But here, you can call me Jamie, if you like--my friends do." Pink crept up from the collar of his uniform.
"Thank you, Jamie," Corinna said gently. "And you may call me Corinna. We must be friends, if we're going to go all these miles together."
She smiled quickly at him then looked away, along the wagon train, to see if she could catch another glimpse of the captain. Maybe he wasn't such an old grouch. Jamie seemed to like him.
Arabelle settled back into her seat, leaning against the canvas stave. Artie pulled the edge of the canvas in a little closer and arranged herself behind it to keep out as much trail dust as possible.
Corinna found herself swaying gently as the wagon rocked from side to side. R Company, Philadelphia 6th regiment, stretched out in front of her, as far as she could see, over the next hill, headed overland to Pittsburgh, on the Ohio River. * * * * "Well, done, Suthridge, well done."
"Thank you, sir. I thought this might be important enough to cut my trip short and come immediately back to Toronto."
"Quite right, quite right."
Lord Warington struggled to read the last few lines on the torn poster. Suthridge remained ramrod stiff in front of the massive Hudson Bay Company desk. Warington finally glanced up.
"Oh, do sit down, Reginald. We must talk."
"Thank you, sir," said Suthridge, with a sigh of relief. Tucking his monocle into his waistcoat pocket, he dragged one of the overstuffed leather chairs to in front of the desk.
"Well," demanded Warington, "What's your assessment of this situation?"
"Sir, having the American army in the beaver country can only hurt the Hudson Bay Company. I'm sure they'll favor Astor's men, since they're also American."
"I think you're right, Suthridge," said Warington, pleased with his assistant's reasoning. "What do you suggest?"
"Perhaps they could be stopped. The poster says they're going to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. If they don't make it that far, they won't be able to interfere too much."
"We must be careful," said Warington. "England and America are on friendly terms. We can't do anything to upset that, you understand."
"Of course, sir. But you know as well as I, that the natives can be hostile out there. And supplies are notoriously hard to get. An army can't survive without supplies."
"They're marching overland to Pittsburgh. I think I could intercept them there, even though they've got quite a head start. I can travel much faster than a walking infantry."
"What's happening in Pittsburgh?"
"From what I could find out, they've contracted to have sternwheelers built, to take them down river to St. Louis and from there, up the Missouri River to the Yellowstone Valley. Perhaps we could influence their trip."
"Quite so, quite so," Warington smiled. "Suthridge, I think you need to take a trip-to Pittsburgh, then to St. Louis. To see to our interests out there."
"Yes, sir." Suthridge nodded, watching Warington make out a pay voucher.
"Take this to the bookkeeper. This will get you started. Set up temporary offices as you need them. Buy whatever you need to persuade the natives to help us encourage that army to stay away from the Yellowstone Valley. Keep in touch."
"I will, sir. This may take a while. I may need to move to Pittsburgh and even St. Louis."
"Well, then, move. The more trouble the army encounters, the less likely they are to stay. That's all." Warington dismissed Sutheridge with a wave of his hand.
"Yes, sir." Sutheridge left the office quickly, planning his next move while the bookkeeper converted the voucher to cash.
"I say, do we keep records on the scouts who've worked for us in the beaver country?"
"Yes sir. We keep track of the traders as well as the scouts who've served us."
"Oh good. Do you have those lists?"
"Yes, sir. I issue all their pay."
"Have a list ready for me by tomorrow, will you?" I need to know if we can reach any of them who might be near Pittsburgh--Ohio?"
"Pittsburgh is still in Pennsylvania, sir, just all the way west."
"Wherever!" said Sutheridge, brandishing his monocle. "I'll want to contact some of them for a special assignment."
"Yes, sir. We just know their whereabouts the last time we sent them money. I'll get you what we have."
Suthridge nodded. Stuffing the wad of money into his waistcoat pocket, he headed down the hall. That list of scouts in the colonies was just what he needed. Moving arrangements would come next. As slow as an army traveled, he could take a week to get his affairs settled and still beat the army to Pittsburgh.