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Authors: Lisa Wingate

Tags: #FIC042000, #FIC042040, #FIC027020, #Missing persons—Fiction

Wildwood Creek (5 page)

BOOK: Wildwood Creek
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“I’m not sure who sent you down here, but the costume shop isn’t operational, and won’t be for a while yet. They haven’t even come on staff. My boss will be back later today if you want to wait. . . .”

The sentence was still dangling half finished when he turned on his heel, slipped on an invoice, then caught his balance and retreated up the hall as fast as he could go.

“Wait a minute!” I called after him, but he just disappeared around the corner without looking back.

I was left with no choice but to put his strange delivery on Tova’s desk and hope she didn’t blame me for it. Since I knew she probably would, I hurried upstairs, found the guys with the dollies, and went to work frantically trying to make some headway with the pileup Stevie had left behind.

Hours later, when Tova reemerged from her meeting across town, I had managed what felt like impressive progress on both the loading area and the costuming rooms, considering the monumental nature of the task. I’d been so busy, I hadn’t even realized it was almost eight o’clock again. Given Tova’s devotion to duty and the fact that casting had been working nearly around the clock, I didn’t suppose that would impress anybody all that much.

Tova stopped at the costuming room door. “Why do I still see things in the hallway, Allison?” Her hands settled on her hips, her elbows jutting out sharply.

I motioned to the piles of fabrics, rented costumes, notions, trims, and accessories presumably ordered by the yet-to-arrive designers. “We’ve had so many deliveries today, especially for costuming.”

Her lips squeezed together. “And this is taking so long because . . .”

“I’ve been routing all the deliveries
and
trying to work in here. You told me to—”

“It is not your job to route the deliveries. I asked you to assist Stevie and then ensure that these rooms are fully organized so that when
qualified
persons
finally
arrive, they can go to work promptly. Their time is valuable. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, ma’am, of course. But Stevie . . .”

“Don’t
think
, Allison. Just do your job. And do not call me
ma’am
. Ma’am is for hillbillies and bellhops. I would assume you are neither one. You may call me Ms. Kask.”

She was studying the room now, her eyes acute. “What have you done in here?” The question was flat, no undertone giving indications as to her meaning. I chose to assume that she was pleased with what she saw and quickly began showing off my organizational system, beginning with the cardboard barrels I had found near the loading dock, dusted off, and stacked on their sides with the openings facing out, creating fairly convenient, and rather fantastically funky, shelving that worked well for fabrics on rolls. After that, I moved to a thread rack made from a strange multipronged rake-like thing I had found languishing in a closet. It was rusty and old, and just the kind of treasure I loved to repurpose. It gave the room a feeling of history and held forty-eight spools of thread.

Considering that I had little more to work with than the old industrial shelving that was built into the room, the place was practically a masterpiece. Thanks to all those years of
helping Grandma Rita, I knew how to arrange an efficient workshop for garment alteration and production. I couldn’t remember the last time I had labored so hard physically and mentally for this many hours all at one time—on anything.

Tova didn’t comment immediately. Dared I hope that she was . . . impressed to the point of speechlessness? “And you’ve been finding these . . . shelves and whatnot where?”

“In the warehouse by the loading dock.”

“And how did you bring these things up here, might I ask?”

“I just . . . carried them.” I sensed a sudden darkness, a cloud slipping over the sun, chilling the air.

“Where are the bolt racks and the role racks, the spool holders and the adjustable shelving?”

“The . . . what?” I stammered. Maybe those things were in some box somewhere, and I had failed to locate and unpack them, thereby creating a bunch of unnecessary work.

Uh-oh . . .

“Is it not your job to arrange and outfit these rooms?”

“Yes, it is my job.”

“Then why have you not ordered the necessary hardware to do so?”

“What? I didn’t . . . realize I . . .”

“I was under the
impression
that you knew how to do this job. I think you gave me the impression yourself, as a matter of fact, when I interviewed you.” Her hands found her hips again, her fingernails sinking into the fabric of her skirt. “This is
not
university theater, the community playhouse, or the kindergarten Christmas spectacular, Allison. This is a production with a multi-million-dollar budget. Do you really think we drag supplies out of the trash heap to organize ourselves?”

“Well, no, of course not. I . . .”

“Then if you needed equipment, why did you not send in a requisition for it?”

Because asking you anything is like conferencing with Attila the Hun, and by the way, Stevie quit.
I wanted to say it so bad, I could almost taste the words . . . almost. Instead, I tasted the salty sting of tears. I had worked so hard in these rooms, and all I’d managed to do was screw up again. I could hear my stepfather in my head:
For heaven’s sake, Allie, don’t you ever think?
“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize, Allison. Just take care of it. Rent or buy what is needed to properly equip the room before the costuming crew arrives. We will also need pressers, steamers, and so forth. With your experience in dry cleaning, I assume you know about these things.”

“Yes. No problem.”

“Any other questions?”

“No. None. I can handle it.” I swallowed the beach ball in my throat. “Stevie quit this morning.”

She didn’t even flinch. “There are twenty more waiting for the opportunity. He’ll be replaced by tomorrow.” She wagged one perfectly manicured red fingernail toward my repurposed thread holder. “Leave that. I like it.”

And then she was gone.

I scurried to the computer table to grab a piece of printer paper and begin making a list of the supplies and equipment I was supposed to requisition. There was so much to do.

I’d barely had time to start before she was headed my way again. When she turned the corner, she was holding the yellow paper with the cowboy’s measurements on it, and she did not look happy.

“What, might I ask, is
this
?”

Chapter 6

B
ONNIE
R
OSE
M
ARCH
1861

I
n sleeping, I travel back. I’m drifting, same as the dead leaves on the river passin’ along the white hull of the
New
Ila
. The leaves turn in the foam of her stern wheel, trapped before they’re spit out to drift down the river, not knowing where they’re headed.

My dreams churn as well. I see Ma and Da. They’re tilling the garden, and Ma, she’s looking up and smilin’ at me. Then she turns away, and it’s the baby she hears. She’s left him in the house, no doubt. Then, she’s gone back to working as if she didn’t hear the wee one at all.

I walk then, and it’s the Indian camp all around me. I hear the cries, and I’m wondering if it’s my babe, the tiny girl torn from my body and taken from me in this cursed place. There’s not a soul will tell what’s been done with her.

I find only emptiness in lodge after lodge. And then I spy a babe inside one, hanging in her cradleboard, all wrapped up safe and warm. I want to take her down and loose the rawhide ties to see if there’s a strawberry mark on her leg. It’s all I know of her, the birthmark.

A loud sound comes then, and I’m pulled awake. The sun shines in my eye. I hear the chuggin’ of the
New Ila
’s engine,
and the breeze dances by, carrying the smoke of her stacks. All around, the crew is scramblin’. They’ve brought us up to a landing to take on cordwood again. It’s cut and stacked by farmers along the riverbank, always left at the ready.

The landing is on the opposite side of the boat, and I don’t go to watch it. The takin’ on and dischargin’ of cargo and wood is a troublesome matter. Done by Negro roustabouts, it’s difficult and burdensome work. The first mate is a disagreeable man, with the temperament to strike the slaves as they struggle at navigating the gangplank bearing their heavy loads. I’ve not been party to much of slave owning and its ills in my years, but here there’s no avoiding it. With this conflict growing between the states, there will soon enough be no avoidin’ it in any place, I fear.

It’s all the talk among the passengers—the owning and working of slaves. There’ve been troubles in the dining room over it, those having first-class passage on the boat bein’ on both sides of the slavery question. Upon the deck, the immigrant folk fare not much better than the slaves on this river journey, but they can be cruel as all the rest.

For my part, I can’t be watchin’ it. When I do, the scars burn against my skin. I know what it is to be deprived of my liberty, to be beaten and shamed and made less than human.

Maggie May hangs over the railing on the river side of the boat. She’s down the way near a stack of grain sacks piled under a canvas. The
New Ila
is traveling heavy-laden, carrying almost four hundred tons, her captain, James Engle, tells us. The deck is packed with household goods and supplies for farming, as well as immigrant folk themselves. They haven’t staterooms, such as the one Maggie May and I have been kindly given. It’s surprisin’ to me, this fine treatment of us, but I’m grateful for it. I’ve even managed to gain a little pot of soil in which to root Ma’s roses.

I’ve kept up our clothes as best I can, and I’m thankful that no one seems to know us here, but the confinement on the boat is a struggle for Maggie May. I hurry down the rail to her now.

“Mind your skirt, Maggie May!” I say. She’s bent so far over the rail, her dress has blown up and under her petticoats her pantalets show. She’s kicked off the shoes that are too small and pulled off her stockings, and hooked her feet over the rail to climb higher. It’s a spectacle the fine ladies in the dining room would be turning their noses at, if they saw it, though they seldom come on the low deck when the ship is landin’.

Thank the Lord they cannot see my young sister this minute. “Maggie May! Down from there this instant. Are you hearing me?” I glimpse the captain up in the captain’s house then, and I am reminded of my elocution lessons with the good reverend’s wife. I must be certain I’m speaking properly at all times.

“Horses!” Maggie points, and I run to her and grab her skirt to be sure she doesn’t tumble off into the water.

“Come down now,” I say, but her mind has fled to the riverbank. There’s a herd of horses come down to water. Wild ones, from the look of them. They’ve hidden in the thicket. They snort and paw, wide-eyed, wishing to return to the water. Along the shore, one of their young lies mired in the mud. A little bay with a stripe on its face. It calls to its ma.

I feel a sickening inside me. The foal has struggled for some time. Its slick brown coat lies streaked with mud, sweat, and foam. “There’s naught we can do for it now,” I whisper to Maggie and wrap my arms around to pull her down. “Come and put your stockin’s on. What if Mrs. Harrington were to see?”

Mrs. Harrington watches us in the dining room at night. Asks questions. She’s wondering about Maggie and me. She’s
wondering how the likes of us can go first class, for one thing. She’s wondering also at the captain’s constant attention to us. I’d be wonderin’ myself, but this ship and the slaves and much of what’s carried on board belongs to the selfsame man who has hired me to Wildwood. Mr. Delevan’s riches are beyond my imagining. I’ve no way of knowin’ what to make of our treatment so far.

Maggie May fights to wiggle free as I bring her down to cover her legs. She’d rather let them go bare. There’s a wildness in the girl, like the horses on shore, and I fear it will never be gone from her.

“You’ll be stopping this now, Maggie May! Do you hear me?” I drop the stockings and grab her shoulders, shaking her hard. “You’ll not be behaving this way.” My voice comes in a hiss. So much venom, it surprises me. The days are difficult on board
New Ila
, as she labors her way upstream with the shoals rubbing her belly, her hull scarce able to move around logjams that could split her open and sink us all. The evenings are no easier, trapped in the dining room with the fine folk and the captain. Given my choice, I’d have traveled with my own kind. But even they are no longer my kind. The immigrant folk look at me as if I’m a creature crawled from beneath the boat, pretending to be the queen.

I have no
kind
here, but for my sister. And even a bit of her lives in another place.

“Is there trouble, Miss Rose?” The captain stands over my shoulder now. I feel the blocking of the sun before I turn to look his way. And there I am, standing with Maggie’s bare foot in my hands.

“No, sir,” I say and roughly pull stockings over her skin. I give her a wicked look. I’ve had enough, and I want her to know it. “She’s spied the horses on shore. There’s a foal bogged in the mud. She loves animals, this one. Horses especially.”

Maggie shakes her head as I’m saying it, her eyes wide. She doesn’t want the captain to take notice of the animal. Twice, we’ve come along stray cattle mired down and left behind by drovers. The boat paused long enough for the men to put the animals out of their misery and bring back fresh meat for our tables.

“Maggie, it will only suffer,” I say to her. She can’t be making a spectacle with the captain so near. We mustn’t take the chance, much as my heart hurts for the poor bogged creature. I love the horses as my da did, but there’s nothing to be done for this one.

The captain moves to the railing, braces his hands, and looks over. I manage to secure Maggie May’s shoes before I free her.

I turn, and the captain cuts a fine figure there. He is a bull of a man—Norwegian, with broad shoulders and a thick head of straw-colored hair. He seems a decent type, which gives me hope for my eventual destination and the man who employs the captain as well as myself. Would a good riverman devote his life to the employ of one who’s unworthy?

Maggie finds the rail again, her boots slipping on the wooden rungs, the breeze lifting her skirt. She leans too far once again, and the captain clamps a big hand over her arm.

“Be easy there, Maggie May Rose.” He has greater patience with Maggie than I can muster these days. But life on this boat is normal to him. He has no secrets to keep. “Will you dive in there and rescue him yourself?”

“Don’t shoot him,” she pleads.

“Maggie May!” I scold. “The captain has a boat and passengers to see to. He cannot be worrying about . . .”

The captain turns to me then, his eyes the bright blue of the sky behind him. “It is one of God’s creations, Miss Rose.”
He searches me, but for what I cannot say. “And a helpless one, at that. We are to aid the helpless, are we not?”

I sense that he may be talking, instead, about me. I wonder what he would say if he knew all of my story, but I won’t be telling it. “Yes, of course that is so.”

He lifts my sister down then and sets her at my feet in the gentlest of ways. “Mind you, stay away from the railing, though. Or we’ll be rescuing you
and
the foal.” Then he strides away, and in short order three slaves have been removed from their duties loading cordwood and sent off in a skiff to see after the foal.

Of those in the skiff, one of the slaves is the man called Big Nebenezer. In size and strength, he is equal to two men. I imagine that the first mate, Mr. Grazide, isn’t pleased to have Big Neb and the others gone from their task. I’m hoping he won’t learn that Maggie was the cause of it. The first mate is a rough fellow. He dislikes the look of Maggie May and me, and he loathes the captain’s attentions to us, that is plain enough. It matters none that it’s not my doing. If it were my way, we’d have no attentions here at all. I want only to be left alone to scratch out whatever life we can manage. I know that no respectable man will look my way with any decent sort of intention, not once he learns of my shame.

No sense in fighting what is,
Bonnie Rose
, Da told me in Ireland when the horses were gone and the house was taken, and there was nothing left to do but go.
Best is to accept your lot, then get walkin’ forward.

The captain returns to the railing down the way now, but the first mate has come up, and there’s an argument brewing. The first mate pulls his pocket watch up by its chain, and points to the time.

The captain puts the first mate in his place quickly enough. I can tell it without hearing the words. The first mate grips
his fists behind his back, like he’s wishing he could go to fisticuffs, but the captain stands a good head taller, and he is the authority on this boat. Such an act by the mate would be mutiny, and Mr. Grazide knows it. Finally, he turns away, but as he does, he gives a narrow look at me and then at Maggie May. He has discerned what’s happened.

Fear creeps over me again.

Meeting my eyes, he adds a quick jerk of his chin, as if in his mind he’s casting Maggie May off into the water. I know I can’t be leaving her to wander the deck alone again. No more sleeping with both eyes closed. Whatever it may take, I must see us safely all the way to Wildwood.

Down below on the bank, the men have brought up the skiff near the mired foal. The horses skitter off into the trees, but a mare runs to and fro, nickering and stomping. She wants to fight for her babe, but she cannot do it.

One of the men tosses a rope over the foal’s head from a bit away, as Big Neb wades in through the mud and water. He moves under the backside of the foal, bracing his shoulder down low. The men pull and Big Neb strains hard, letting out a cry that rents the air. Almost single-handedly, he pushes the foal out of the mud as the rest of them pull, and when it’s over, the man, his clothes, and the horse are all the same color.

There’s a cheer from the deck overhead, and I see that some of the passengers have come out to watch.

“Lovely! Just delightful!” A woman applauds as the foal trots off to its ma.

“Hear, hear!” seconds one of the gentlemen.

They’ve had a good afternoon’s entertainment, courtesy of Captain Engle. A little cheer for brightening up this slow, overburdened trip upriver.

The passengers are still glowing over it that evening at dinner, the ladies in their gowns and the gentlemen in their silk
jackets and high starched collars. Amid all the color, Maggie May and I appear like poor relations.

Tonight much talk is given to the captain’s kindness, but not a thing is said of Big Neb, whose strength and labor freed the foal.

“And what do you think, Miss Rose?” Mrs. Harrington addresses me now, calling attention my way, no doubt because she knows I do not want it.

Mrs. Harrington’s grown son, Jeffrey, turns with an interested eye. There’s not another young lady on the trip unescorted, and I fear he finds me of slight fascination. It is a fortunate thing his mother keeps him within an arm’s length. I can only imagine the trouble it would be if he were to make advances. “Yes, tell us what you think, Miss Rose. Is it worth the time and the risk of three slaves to save the life of one scrappy wild pony? The stallion could have come out of the brush at any time and gone after the men.”

It’s surprising sometimes what the fine folk don’t know about horses. Da was right—there’s many a gentleman hasn’t a thimbleful of sense about what pulls his carriage or stands beneath his saddle. “I’ll wager the stud wouldn’t go near the bog, sir. He’s survived a good long while by knowing better.”

Mrs. Harrington pats her collar and turns away at the mention of the stud. Such a word wouldn’t be coming from her gentle mouth, I suppose. I turn my eyes to my plate, since I’ve given an answer.

But young Jeffrey hasn’t finished with me yet. “So it is your opinion that it was worth the trouble to rescue the little scrapper from the mud?”

I fold my hands in my lap, hold them tight. “It is not my decision, sir.”

“But if it
were
?”

I wonder what the talk was this afternoon among the gentlefolk—perhaps a debate as to the captain’s wisdom regarding the foal. Doubtless, they saw the argument with the first mate. Tempers on the
New Ila
run high at this point.

The first mate has spoken not a word all through supper, but he’s lookin’ at me now. I feel that something has tumbled from bad to worse. We’ve an enemy here, and now this has rubbed him crossways.

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