Alanah struggled to keep up as Lydia pushed her way through the crowded streets. To her left, a crowd had formed around an auction block as gentlemen farmers bid on the poor, unfortunate souls just off the ships. All around, the mass of humanity surged and buckled, some shackled and shuffling along, others scurrying about their business.
Shifty-eyed boys wove in and out of the crowd.
She kept her hand firmly on the money pouch, experience teaching her that the boys could filch her hard-earned coins with ease. After being bumped and pushed along the narrow thoroughfare, she had the sudden urge to get out of Natchez, to get back to the peace and quiet of the forest, to home. Home on the bluff above Cypress Creek wasn't much more than a dogtrot cabin and a barn, but it was theirs, hers and Lydia's, now that Betsy—
Suddenly Lydia sidestepped, and Alanah came face-to-face with three of the roughest-looking men she'd encountered in a long time, and she was no stranger to the vilest of sorts.
Of varying heights, the three clung together, the slight one in the middle slumped between his companions. An ebony-hued man with a gold hoop in one earlobe, tall and broad-shouldered enough to overshadow even Lydia's statuesque height, supported the smaller man with ease.
Alanah wrinkled her nose. Drunk, if she didn't miss her guess.
And the sun had yet to climb past midmorning.
She locked gazes with the third man. Dark, piercing midnight eyes rimmed with charcoal lashes captured and held hers. A quick glance at billowing shirtsleeves and worn breeches tucked into scuffed knee-high boots, along with a leather jerkin hanging loose at his trim waist, not to mention the red sash tied around his waist, matching those of his companions, led her to the conclusion that the men were fresh off one of the ships lining the wharf.
Much to her surprise, he shifted out of the way and waited for her to pass through the narrow space between the buildings and stacks of crates lining the cobblestone street.
The slight man centered between the two groaned, then buckled, his legs giving out. The black eyes flickered away as both he and the ebony giant struggled to hold their companion upright. A fourth man, duffels slung over his shoulders, stood behind the others. It was then that it dawned on Alanah the men were not drunk as she supposed, but that the frail young man was ill. From what, she could not tell. But the glazed look of his eyes spoke of fever.
Involuntarily, she made a motion toward the man, but Lydia stepped in front of her, blocking her view of the sick man and his companions. "Mistress Alanah, if you please?"
Reluctantly Alanah nodded. "Yes, of course."
As she passed by, the man with the dark eyes, square jaw, and windswept hair inclined his head ever so slightly, careful to acknowledge her presence without giving the unseemly appearance of accosting a lady. It was all she could do not to smile. Her finery was a ruse only worn as she flitted into Natchez and just as quickly quit the place for the dark, shadowy undergrowth of the cypress swamps.
Impulsively she reached into the basket over her arm and pulled out a pouch of ground magnolia bark. Pressing it into the man's hand, she whispered, "Steep for an hour. It will help the fever."
He clasped her hand, the pouch held fast between them, his dark gaze searching hers. "Bless you, lass."
Her stomach did a slow roll at the unexpected lilt of an Irish brogue.
Clutching the pouch, Caleb watched the golden goddess as she hurried away. What kind of woman paid attention to four pieces of flotsam adrift on the wharf?
He blinked, trying to pinpoint the exact color of the lass's eyes, but all he could think of was the majestic golden lion he'd come face-to-face with on the African savanna. The wide tawny eyes, the light-brown hair shot through with shades of red and gold reminiscent of the woman who'd paused long enough to feel compassion for Reggie's plight.