Authors: Jennifer Horsman
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
by Jennifer Horsman
***** PUBLISHED BY
Jennifer Horsman on Smashwords Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Horsman
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The light of a single candle flickered in the small room, casting dark shadows over the neat white page where Joy Claret sat writing. She wore naught but a thin cotton night dress which, taken with her dark unbounded hair falling past the small of her back and the soft light illuminating the delicate features of her face, gave her a deceptively angelic appearance.
Fine blue eyes—eyes perfectly illustrating Shakespeare's observation that this feature was the window to the soul— were presently much absorbed in task; she was lost to the wealth of ideas and feelings that flowed into words as she wrote:
February 18, the year of our Lord, 1818
Dawn awaits, so do our three passengers hidden in the cellar of the infirmary, cloistered like so many before them in the cool holding cell beneath the floor. Oh, my dearest friend! I feel the excitement and fear common to all freedom seekers, and as I write this, my heart pounds and my pulse races at a pace befitting a chased pickpocket!
Chased we shall be! The two male passengers, both young and strong, worth much at the marketplace I think, have a bounty of fifteen hundred between them. The Reverend learned of it yesterday. That sum alone is sure to be of a size attracting the most infernal of bounty hunters.
That is not all dear diary! We also carry a woman passenger this time, and her bounty is an unprecedented one thousand dollars gold! I feel compelled to explain—
The sound of a regretfully familiar cough came from the room down the hall. She stiffened, waiting, knowing exactly how bad the cough must be to wake her ailing guardian, and when it was mild enough to let him keep sleeping. It subsided quickly. The tension left her face.
The sounds of the city drifted in through the open window. She heard the boisterous noise of taverns that never closed: drunken laughter, talk, and music, the sound distant and faint like the echo of a dream upon waking. The brick bell-tower atop the Ursuline Convent sounded thrice. A carriage clamored down the street. The first faint bustles of the marketplace signaled the start of yet another new day. The soft sound of Cory's slumber came from within the walls of her own room.
Time was of the essence, and she returned to her writing.
—this matter at length, my explanation not merited by the incredible sum of the woman's bounty but by the passenger's uncommon circumstances. She goes by the common name of Mary and could be no more than my own seven and ten years, and my, but she is as pretty as a storybook princess. The characteristic most uncommon is her coloring. She is blue-eyed and fair, many generations removed from her Negro blood, and this—even Joshua concedes—will allow her to pass in a cooler climate, thereby providing her with the ultimate ticket to freedom. She was obviously a house servant, her smooth-skinned hands show no signs of arduous toil, and her speech and manners are polite and refined. For what lascivious practice her master put her to use—a practice worth $1000 to him—I dare not contemplate in my blissful innocence.
Danger shadows the day and my apprehension grows as I write, for Mary is also ill and weak. She has passed too much blood, even for a late monthly, and the good doctor's potion did little to ease her discomfort. The Reverend tried to postpone the run, but the receiving end said nay to this—today or the next month following. So I had Cory give Mary extra dowsing strips, and Sammy lined the cart with extra peat moss and hay. This, I pray, will suffice.
I offer to God's ear my traditional prayer for safe deliverance of our three passengers on to the blessed shore of freedom. The bright light of the North Star shines in my heart and I leave you as always, my friend, with the fervent hope for the freedom of all God's children— Cory rose with a start, bolting up in the small feather bed. Dolls lined the shelves of the room, and though each childhood treasure was by light of day familiar and cherished, the masked faces took on a demonic and ghostlike vision in her sleepy haze. Soft brown eyes immediately searched and found Joy Claret at her desk, and relieved, Cory eased her skinny frame back against the pillows.
She always woke like that on the mornings before a run, as though her anxieties and fears built through the night into a crescendo upon waking. She yawned and stretched, throwing back the covers to slip silently from the bed. The floor board gave a small creak as she lifted it to remove the small bundle of clothes hidden there. Holding the bundle, she came around the other side of the bed, and with disapproval in her gaze, she watched Joy Claret close the leather bound book and lock it with the tiny gold key before returning it to the drawer.
"That book's gonna send us all to the grave."
Joy gasped. "Honestly Cory! You move like a savage stalking deer!"
While Cory smiled, she was hardly deferred. "I've half a mind to tell Massa Joshua 'bout it, I
"No, but I should," she said softly. "I know I should. Come on, you need to be dressed by
Cory referred to the two commandments of conducting: never ask a passenger's name, their
former master's name or from where they came, and secondly, never but never keep a written record of the runs.
"Of course, you're right," Joy admitted as she rose and, without token tribute to that coveted virtue of modesty, pulled off her night dress and stood in her bare skin.
Joy paid little mind to her unclad state. Hard work and exercise—far too much for a lady in the clerical class—kept her trim and slender. Nature had done the rest, endowing her with alluring feminine proportions. Of course, those few times she took stock of such things, she found fault with her shoulders. Even when she practiced in front of Cory, her shoulders steadfastly refused even a conscious effort to slope prettily in the fashionable way—a way that made a woman look somewhat whimsical and delicate. As though her dignity were fixed and unalterable, straight narrow lines drew her shoulders and the proud arch of her small straight back. Nature's gifts showed elsewhere; full and rounded breasts tapered to a small waist, while shapely lines drew slender hips and long legs. This was fortunate, for Joy possessed little patience for feminine fussing, and like many other women in hot and humid Louisiana, she could never imagine submitting to an hour long arduous tug of war with stays, huffing and puffing and feeling faint, all to get the slenderness she already had due to the rigors of hard work, the family's worsening means and quite literally not having adequate food stuff.
Presently though, danger and its close companion, excitement, fueled a tangible force in the room, and the tension brought an unnatural silence to the two as Joy stepped into the potato sack breeches, then pulled a red frayed shirt over that. The small, unloaded pistol slipped into her shoulder harness and a worn vest fit over it. Cory worked Joy's hair into long braids, a task made difficult by what she called the jitters.
"Mercy," Cory's whisper finally broke the silence, "I'm as skittish as a fresh born colt. That Mary girl’s given me a might big pause for worry."
Feeling Cory's nervousness as her own, Joy replied with feeling, "We must pray for her safety."
"One thousand dollars gold! Lawd, but it don't do a soul a lick of good to imagine why a man would consider a woman worth such an outrageously high amount."
"No, it doesn't," she agreed as Cory placed the straw like blond wig ingeniously attached to a wide straw hat over the loose crown of her braids. "All I can think is she must have suffered terribly to risk running—"
The horses and cart pulled up outside interrupting Joy mid-sentence, and Cory, already holding an old jar of dirt, hurriedly smeared grime on Joy's pale face, then wiped her hands clean on the boys' breeches. With a quick kiss, they quickly bid each other goodbye.
Joy stopped at the door. "Joshua had a good night. He should be better today."
Cory heard the familiar hope lift in Joy's voice and knew what was being asked. "Don't worry. I'll take special good care of him."
Joy Claret nodded. "The medicine's low again. On the morrow, I'll try to work out another scheme to get the money for the next round."
"You'll think of something, you always do."
The vote of confidence brought a smile and Joy slipped through the door. Cory then blew out the candle and fell inelegantly into the desk chair. Sometimes life seemed filled from one day to the next with naught but worries: worries over medicine and money, worry over Joshua and bounty hunters. "Mercy but there sure is a passel of worries to fret over ...”
Pulled by two matching bays, the rickety looking peddler's cart made slow progress down the well-traveled river road. Piled clumsily atop the cart, the wares jostled in a continuous rattle; there were pots and pans, brooms, horse brushes and mops, a pile of nearly new carpets, along with bonnets and combs for the ladies, work shirts and belts for the men, slop jars and one pair of children's boots. There were Indian artifacts, none of these genuine, and an array of pocket and hunting knives. A whole cabinet full of medicines stood against one side. Inside this were cherry cough lozenges, vegetable tonics, headache and rheumatoid cures, a bottle of Fay's Female Elixir and unnamed potions for whatever ailment the ailing named. A pretty mare pranced in back, but a rain canvas and a tall pile of weightless bundles hid the mare's fine lines, leading the outside observer to think Libertine was naught but an old plow nag.
Seated in the driver's seat with reins in hand, the Reverend was dressed as a peddler. The old Irishman's short, five-foot two frame was clad in black, tattered and moth eaten shanks, frock coat and boots two sizes too large. A frayed, black top hat covered the strings that held an unkempt beard in place.
Thick spectacles hid lively dark eyes, eyes too sharp for the poverty-stricken scoundrel he pretended to be.
Joy smiled, affectionately patting the Reverend's knee as they rode along. If there was any one thing she had learned in her five years as an adventuress, it was that folks rarely bothered to look past the surface of things, and this worked to their favor time and again.
So long as she kept her mouth shut, she could fool everyone. With her eyes lowered beneath her hat in a convincing look of dull apathy common to poor whites and a quick swipe of a dirty sleeve to her nose, she fooled the most observant. No one could ever suspect the dirty peddler's brat of being the good doctor Joshua Reubens's lovely young charge, Joy Claret Reubens.
The river road paralleled the great waterway for hundreds of miles, and one could not pass an hour anywhere on the Mississippi without seeing at least one or more boats passing on their way to New Orleans. Hundreds of back river flatboats cluttered the waterway for miles north of the city and its marketplace. To the south, docked in rank order roughly according to size, rested the larger boats: houseboats, fishing vessels and medium sized cargo flats. The boats grew in size and importance until miles downstream rose the tall masts of the proud ocean-going vessels.
The river road south of New Orleans bustled with activity as these great ships were forever in the process of loading and unloading cargo, setting sail and docking. It was somewhat quieter now in the early morning hours. Taverns and houses—the small farming parcels that forever battled the encroaching claim of the forest—became increasingly rare, at least until Carlisle. The cart's destination lay a few miles past Carlisle, another eight to ten miles down the road where a small ship, the Nirvana, would be waiting. The ship's master and captain, Mr. Fairbanks, was the paid conductor. Although trustworthy, it irked Joy's keen sense of justice to pay Mr. Fairbanks for the passenger's safe deliverance into the good hands of the famed abolitionist Mr. Archibald Cox in Boston.
God's will should be done for honor alone, she thought.
Thinking of money and Joshua's medicine and all, Joy waited as two young boys with fishing poles passed before asking in a whisper, "Can I talk?"
The Reverend normally forbid her to speak. He usually explained to those few people who stopped them that his lad was mute, for Joy's voice quickly identified her sex.
"Clear back here," Sammy called from the pile of carpets where he kept watch on the back
"Go ahead, darlin'."
"I was just wondering how much the good Captain Fairbanks wanted this time?" "Ten dollars a head."