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The English Lieutenant's Lady

By Evelyn M. Hill

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Chapter 1

Tongue Point, Oregon Territory
October 1845

Geoff heard the click of a rifle being cocked in the bushes behind him, and then a woman’s voice, deadly calm. “Stand up — slowly, now — and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”
He obeyed without question. Several years of service in Her Majesty’s Army had taught him not to argue with people pointing weapons at him. Not at the moment, at least. Once he got his hands on the pistol at his belt, this would be a different conversation.
Her voice came again. “Turn around. Let’s have a look at you.”
Slowly, hands raised, he followed her orders. The sunlight fell through a gap in the trees overhead, almost blinding him. He blinked. As his eyes adjusted to the light, a young, dark-haired woman stepped onto the path. She was a tiny thing, the top of her head almost level with his shoulder. But the eyes that studied him were as steady as the rifle in her hands. The one that she was pointing straight at him.
He cleared his throat. “Good afternoon, madam.” Civility never hurt at times like this.
“Are you calling me a madam?” She tilted her head as though trying to determine if the word was intended as an insult. A loosely bound braid of dark hair shifted to fall over one shoulder of the overlarge man’s coat she was wearing. Her eyes were a truly beautiful gray, the color of woodsmoke before it dissipates in a breeze.
“I meant no offense, ma’am.” He nodded toward the opened pack at his feet. “I was not going to steal anything.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d been on the wrong side of a rifle. He could usually talk his way out of a bad situation. All the same, his heart raced and a tiny thread of sweat trickled down his back. The autumn day was not unusually warm, but he welcomed the breeze that wafted up the hill from the Columbia River.
“So you say.” The woman raised the rifle a bit higher. “If you weren’t bent on thieving, why were you going through my pack?”
“I was looking for some identification, so I could return the pack to its proper owner.” I was looking to see if it had any information that I could use.
Her eyes narrowed, as if what he was thinking showed on his face. He shifted his gaze to focus on her lips, avoiding direct eye contact. “My friend and I are on a tour of the Oregon Territory. Seeing the sights. Scientific exploration of the New World. Sketching scenic vistas. That sort of thing. While my friend was securing the boat at the landing, I decided to come up the hill to, er, see if I could get a view of the surrounding countryside. The leaves changing colors and all that. Charming, don’t you know.”
As he spoke, he relaxed his features into what he hoped she would take to be an expression of amiable fatuousness. “I was merely passing by when I saw the pack on the side of the road.”
If he were being honest—which he mostly wasn’t, considering all the lies he had just told her—“road” wasn’t how he would have described a barely navigable trail through the woods. Still, this looked like one of those times when it would be as well to be diplomatic. The young woman might take exception to any criticism of the area. A local, by the look of her. Surely no female brought up in civilization would ever dress in an ill-fitting man’s shirt and trousers, topped by an oversized coat. She wore the odd clothes with all the self-possession of Queen Victoria herself, though this girl could not have been much above twenty.
She looked as if she had forgotten how to smile. The corners of her lovely mouth seemed fixed in a permanent curve downward, but the charming sprinkle of freckles across her nose made her seem less forbidding, more approachable. Or as approachable as anyone could be while pointing a rifle.
“Do you suppose I could put my arms down? It’s rather tiring to keep them up like this.”
She ignored his question. “Where are you from? Nobody around here’s got an accent like that.”
“I come from Canterbury, in Kent. England, don’t you know.”
He tried that particular smile that he had used when home from school on holiday and trying to persuade Cook to slip him a few biscuits before afternoon tea. That smile had always worked on elderly English servants who had known him since he was born. It didn’t seem half so effective on young American women who had just laid eyes on him. “Might I request that you point that excellent rifle in a different direction?” I don’t want to hurt you.
“Hmph.” The tone was dubious, but she did start to lower the rifle. Thank you, Lord.
Then Bradford, coming up the trail behind her, cracked a twig under his boot. She whirled, raising the gun and backing away to cover both of them. Geoff moved faster still, putting himself between them with his hands stretched out. “No. He’s a friend.” And my superior officer. Bit tricky to have to write a report explaining why he’d been shot.
Geoff took a step toward the woman, just one, and stopped. “I’m not your enemy.” He held her gaze, willing her to believe that lie, the greatest one of all. “Could you perhaps put the rifle down?”
“And do you always wander through the woods with a primed rifle?” Bradford asked from behind Geoff.
The woman answered Bradford’s question while keeping her gaze fixed on Geoff. “I was tracking a bull elk. I nearly had him when you came up the track and scared him off.”
At least she didn’t seem inclined to shoot now. He took a step to the side. Then another. The woman’s eyes flickered between Geoff and Bradford. Yes. Pay attention to him, while I take a step to the side.
As if she had heard Geoff’s thoughts, the rifle shifted to point directly at him again. “You keep trying to creep up on me, we’re going to have a problem here.”
He stopped, spreading his hands out to indicate he was harmless. He wanted her to put the rifle down. He wanted her to trust him. And most of all, he wanted her to stop frowning at him.
“I can prove that we’re on a sketching tour. The drawings are down with our belongings, by the boat.” He looked at Bradford. “Unless you brought your sketchbook with you?”
Bradford raised his eyebrows. “No, I don’t have it with me. I came up here to see how you were getting on with your … er, how you were getting on.”
“Well then, we’ll have to show you back at the camp.” Geoff would probably never see this woman again. It couldn’t hurt to leave her with a good impression of him. Even if the last thing he needed was for her to know who he really was.
***
The tall Englishman give his friend a nod, a barely noticeable inclination of his head. Lia frowned. Something was going on here, and she was missing it. The tall Englishman was dressed like a prosperous trader, in buckskin trousers and frock coat, but he was clean shaven, his brown hair neatly trimmed. He stood with his shoulders back, and his spine was as straight as a soldier on parade.
The man had a face that, if she were feeling polite, she would describe as plain. A better description might be rough hewn. He was weather beaten and somehow indomitable, like a mountain of granite. Yet he’d moved swiftly to come between her and his friend, as surefooted and quick as Lia herself.
She could not pin down exactly what was wrong. Subtle discrepancies nagged at her. The muscles around his mouth were too tense when he smiled, the charm a bit too forced. For all his easy flood of words, his eyes were watchful, gauging her reaction.
He was skillful; she had to give him that. His act would have fooled someone who had not learned from childhood to read people as well as animals by the language their body spoke. Curious to see his reaction, she lowered the gun. His hands fell to his side, but the lines around his mouth did not relax and there was still that tension in the way he stood.
Having a gun pointed at him could make a man nervous. But why was he still so tense after she lowered it? Then, like a puzzle that is just a collection of fragments until the last piece slots into place, something shifted in the back of her mind, and she recognized the look in his eyes. It was the watchful gaze of the outsider. A look she saw every time she faced a mirror.
This man surely had no reason to feel that way. He was male, and he was English. The English ran the Hudson Bay Company, and the Company ran the Territory for hundreds of miles in any direction. He was top of the world as far as the trappers and the natives were concerned. It didn’t make sense. Her initial alarm began to ebb. She didn’t think he was a threat, but she wanted to make sure
Lia took a step back, reaching down one hand to sling the pack over her shoulder while keeping the rifle ready with the other. “All right. You show me these precious sketches, and I’ll take back my calling you a thief.”
She followed the men down the path, walking softly as her father had taught her to do when hunting. The tall man moved like a cat in the woods, but the blond man’s heavy boots clomped down with each step, probably scaring off the game for miles around.
At the bottom of the hill, the land flattened into an isthmus of level ground that connected the wooded peninsula to the land. The river lapped against the shore a few feet away. The men had not made much attempt at setting up camp, just a few packs thrown on the ground with bedrolls next to a campfire laid ready to be lit. A dark-haired young man was crouched down going through one of the packs.
“Here!” The blond man strode forward, outraged. “I say, you, get off out of that!”
The young man—no, a boy, really—looked up, and Lia stopped in surprise as she saw his face. Her nephew’s dark brown eyes showed no alarm as he dropped the pack to the ground next to his own pack. “Hunting men now, Lia?”
“Henri, what are you doing? You were supposed to wait for your uncle down by the creek. Or — did he already come and then go again?” A brief ray of hope lightened her mood. If Henri’s uncle had come and gone, and Henri was still here…
“The question is, what was he doing with my pack.” The handsome blond man had turned pale, and his hand twitched toward the pistol at his belt.
The tall man laid a hand on his friend’s arm. “Perhaps we should put this on a more social level. My name is Geoffrey Montgomery. This gentleman is Phillip Bradford.”
“This is Henri Griggs,” Lia said.
Bradford looked from Lia to Henri. “Is he with you? He’s Indian, isn’t he?”
“My brother is his father,” Lia said coolly. Occasionally, she did encounter people who were surprised to find she and Henri were related. They might not look alike but he was family. If anyone had a problem with him, they would have to deal with her as well.
Mr. Montgomery murmured, “And you’re Lia. That’s a pretty name.”
Still holding the rifle, she made an awkward attempt at a curtsey. “Amelia Elizabeth Griggs.”
Bradford’s blond eyebrows crimped together into a frown. “Someone should have taught you how to curtsey properly. It would help if you were wearing a dress.”
“A very pretty name,” Mr. Montgomery cut in. “I like it.”
“What do my clothes matter? Makes no sense to wear a dress in the woods.”
Mr. Montgomery took a step between them, as if she and Bradford were pointing guns at each other instead of glaring. “You’re right. There’s no need of formal rules of dress and etiquette out here. To return to the point, why was your nephew going through the pack?”
“Stealing, evidently,” Bradford said.
Henri’s fists clenched. “I was looking to see if you had any food, but I was going to borrow it, not steal. I was going to make it up to you later. I can catch Chinook easy this time of year, but it takes time build a fire and cook it. I am hungry now. That don’t make me a thief.” He stood up and tossed the pack at Bradford. It slipped out of Bradford’s grasp, scattering papers all over the muddy ground.
Bradford cursed and bent over to start picking the papers up. He peered at them. “Looks like everything’s here.”
“Better make sure.” Henri said stiffly.
Bradford began shoving the papers back in the pack. He handled them roughly, stuffing them in without care, except for one portfolio, which he opened and rifled through with more respect. He offered a paper to Lia. “Here. One of the better sketches. Cape Disappointment. It’s well named. Someone tried to sell it to us, except he didn’t actually own it himself. Look, there’s one of the volcanoes in the background.”
Lia spared the watercolor a passing glance before returning it to Bradford. She turned back to Henri. “So—no sign of your uncle?”
“He’s late, and I got hungry waiting. I was sure you’d come back with game, so it wasn’t stealing, it was borrowing.” He looked down at Bradford, crouched down collecting papers up from the ground. “And you can see for yourself that I’m not hiding anything that doesn’t belong to me!” He picked up his own pack and turned it over. Various objects rained down around Bradford and onto his papers: a dip net, a Bible, a tinderbox, a spare shirt. Still clutching papers, Bradford raised his hand to shield himself.
Mr. Montgomery moved over to a smaller pack close by where the wood was stacked ready for the evening fire. Extracting a small bundle, he extended it to Henri. “Here. Hunger can put an edge on a man’s temper.”
Henri unrolled the cloth. “Jerky! Thanks, Mister!” He wrenched off a piece and put it in his mouth before crouching down to pick up his belongings and thrust them into his own pack. As usual, he stuffed these items into his pack in a haphazard fashion, without even bothering to roll up his extra shirt or neatly place his other belongings.
He pulled out a stray drawing from under the net and held it out toward Bradford. “That fell out of your pack.” Bradford snatched the paper from him and went back to collecting the scattered papers.
Henri bit off another piece of meat. “This is good jerky. I really can catch salmon for you, if you want. It’s good eating. My uncle showed me how, when I was down here last year. He’s my great uncle, actually, my mother’s uncle. My mother and baby sister died the last time the bad fevers came, and I went to stay with my Pa’s father. He was working up at the trading post near Waiilatpu. And he sent for Lia to come back from school out east to stay with us. He’s dead now. My grandpa, I mean. Pa’s a trader. He sails down to San Francisco and over to Owyhee and all over the place.”
“Henri, there’s no need to tell them all our business.” It was better not to tell people anything about their background. Less chance that they’d get curious and pry.
“I’m going to be a trader too, once I’m old enough,” Henri added.
“Only if your Pa agrees.”
Henri ignored her comment. “My uncle is going to come meet with me down at the mouth of Kekemarque creek up there.” He pointed to the creek that came down just east of the point. “But he’s late and I got hungry. And borrowing ain’t the same as stealing.”
Lia tried not to sigh. When Henri felt defensive, he would refuse to back down, not even an inch. She had never been able to persuade him to let an argument go.
Mr. Montgomery picked up the Bible off the ground and handed it to Henri. “This book has some good advice on ‘borrowing,’ as you put it.”
Henri put the Bible into the pack with more care than he had shown for his other belongings. Head down, he mumbled, “I don’t read so good.”
Lia said, “He’s learning, though. He’ll be reading his Bible perfectly by spring. And at least he wasn’t going through your belongings to see if he could find some form of identification.”
Mr. Montgomery turned his head to meet her gaze. One corner of his mouth quirked up. “Touché.” His eyes were the deep blue of the sky at mid-summer. Then his smile faded, replaced by a more intense expression. A whole new world lurked there in his eyes, waiting for her to explore.
Except, of course, that she had other issues demanding her attention. Such as Henri, who was looking from one of them to the other, a faint frown line between his eyebrows.
Bradford broke the silence. “There. That’s all the papers stowed away.”
Mr. Montgomery blinked. “Oh yes. The papers. All secure? Excellent.” He turned his head sharply, his attention caught by movement behind Lia. He stood up, his hand going to the pistol at his side. Then he relaxed. “Not armed.”
Lia turned and caught sight of a newcomer. The man had halted by the mouth of the creek, some fifty paces away and stood watching them. “That’s Henri’s uncle. We need to talk to him.”
Henri touched Lia’s arm. “I’ll just go talk to him in private first, all right? You won’t mind, will you?”
“Oh. No. I guess not. I mean—of course not.”
Henri patted her arm before going off.
Bradford’s eyes gleamed. “I’ve not seen a native wearing that style of headdress before. A cap made from a fox’s head with the ears remaining! Marvelous.” He reached for the sketchbook. “If I sit by the fire, I can get his profile with the river in the background. I need to make a record of this.” Without another word, he moved a few paces away and settled down, sketching with broad strokes.
Lia frowned. “Why is he drawing a picture of Henri’s uncle?”
“He’s always doing things like this,” Mr. Montgomery told Lia smoothly. “Starts sketching. Stops talking. Stops listening. He becomes lost to the world when he sketches. I remember once…”
Something about this speech didn’t ring true, but she couldn’t concentrate on that puzzle at the moment. The sight of Henri’s uncle had stirred up what felt like a horde of butterflies in her stomach. Or maybe it was angry bees. Something sharp and unsettled. Her future was being discussed, as well as Henri’s. She turned her back on Henri and his uncle and looked out at the river.
Mr. Montgomery stopped babbling, his bright blue eyes intent upon her. “Is something wrong?”
She shook her head automatically. Silence was the safest course.
But… this man was a stranger; she would never see him again. It would do no harm to tell him the truth. Not the secrets buried in her past, just her present dilemma. Surprisingly, she wanted to tell him. She suspected he would make a good listener. “The fact is, I don’t know what to do with that boy.” It was a relief to say the words out loud. “Truly, he did not think of taking your food as stealing. He has a good heart. The problem is, he’s too impetuous. He acts first and then wonders if he did the right thing.”
“He’s a boy trying to figure out how to be a man,” Mr. Montgomery said. “I don’t think you can teach him that, no matter how much schooling he gets. Is he so very wild?”
“He’s a normal thirteen-year-old boy.” Even to her own ears, she sounded defensive.
“So that’s a yes, then.”
Too worried to smile, she looked down at the ground and kicked a stone so that it arced up and splashed down into the river. “He’s growing up so fast. I know it’s selfish, but I want him to stay a child just a little longer.” I want him to stay with me a little longer.
She did not know what she would do with herself if Henri decided to go live with his uncle. Would she be welcome in the native village as well? Though her mother was part native, Lia had never spent much time with her Métis relatives. They were far away, in the Red River settlement. If Henry’s relatives wanted Henri to live with them, but they didn’t want her to stay as well, where would she go? The thought of being on her own was terrifying in its loneliness. She did not know how she would face it.
Lia glanced up to see the tall Englishman watching her closely. She would have supposed that such a rough, weathered face would look forbidding, but she saw nothing but sympathy in his expression. “Did you raise him?” he asked gently.
“Only for the past couple years. When Maman died, Pa sent me off to get educated and he moved out here to live with Pierre. I guess he didn’t think a girl would be useful out west.” It was an old pain, but still surprisingly sharp for all that. There’d been no place for her out here, nothing for her to do. “Pierre goes off for months at a time, trading. Henri’s mother died while Pierre was away, so Pa brought me out here to take care of Henri while he worked for the Hudson Bay Company. And then this past winter, my Pa died. It’s just the two of us, until Pierre gets back.”
“And you need to find a place to stay until then.”
She nodded. “Henri’s uncle sent word that he wanted Henri to stay with him in his village, but he didn’t say anything about there being a place for me. And I promised my Pa that I’d take care of Henri until my brother comes back. I know he’s going to leave me one day,” she added. “Being a trader is all he’s ever wanted to do. But I just want him to stay with me a little while longer.” I want to belong somewhere, with someone.
Mr. Montgomery was silent. It was as if he were listening to the words she had not spoken aloud. Then he said, in his deep voice, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. That’s what the Bible tells me. I should imagine there’s a place waiting for you. If the Lord went to all the trouble of creating a world so beautiful, with so much attention to the smallest details, do you think he would have neglected to pay a little attention to what happens to you?”
“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like such a beautiful world.” She refused to turn around and see Henri discussing his future with his uncle. Deciding her fate. She would not look. Instead, she turned to look up at Mr. Montgomery, this enigmatic man who could quote scripture but who was clearly hiding something from her.
Mr. Montgomery took a few steps down to the water lapping against the shore. He crouched down and plunged his hand into the river. A quick scoop, then he was up again and striding back toward her.
He opened his hand. On his palm lay a collection of pebbles that glittered like jewels: gold-flecked rose quartz tumbled in with carnelian, topaz, and jade-colored stones, all glistening with water and sparkling in the sunlight.
“Beautiful,” she murmured. The tension inside her began to ease. She wasn’t sure why exactly — his obvious concern perhaps, or the warmth in his eyes as he stood there looking at her. There was still something about him that she couldn’t quite figure out. Even so, she felt better.
Hands as large as his should have been bumbling and awkward, but his fingers deftly plucked an arrow-shaped stone, red as a rose, out of the pebbles and handed it to her. “As a memento of our meeting.”
He gave her a bow, like a gentleman from back east. The courtly gesture was so incongruous in this wild land that her lips curved upward.
“Ah, you can smile,” he said softly. “Beautiful indeed.” His gaze flicked behind her. “Your nephew is waving at you. I think he wants you to join his discussion.” He went back to where the campfire was laid, next to the busily sketching Bradford, and set about starting a fire.
***
Henri’s great-uncle, Djaqi’lxida, had the frail-boned look of the very old. But his body was wiry and strong still. The dark eyes that met Lia’s were bright with interest and—could that be pity? She stiffened. Whatever he had come to say, it was not going to be good.
He spoke Kalapuyan laced with the Chinook Wawa, the creole language used by tribes and traders. Henri translated the words she did not understand. “Since the sicknesses came, there are few left in my tribe.”
Lia said, “I can help. I can hunt. Or I can teach the children. I was teaching at the mission school at Waiilatpu, but that wasn’t enough to support me and Henri both. That’s why we have to find a place to live.”
Djaqi’lxida listened as Henri translated her words, but then he shook his head. “It would cause trouble if you came to live with us. You may be Métis, but when the cheechako look at you, they see a woman from their own country.”
Every word he said was true, but it still hurt to hear it. Her mother had been the daughter of a French trapper and a Cree woman. She had come from a Métis village that lay over a thousand miles away. There was no place for Lia among the native tribes here. And she did not fit in with the American settlers either, no matter what she looked like. The only time she ever felt that she was where she belonged was when she was with her family and other trappers. But trapping was dying out as a way of life in the west, and Henri was the only family she had left, until Pierre returned.
The old man went on, serene and implacable. “There is much unrest in this land. The Americans, they say the land belongs to the people from beyond the mountains. The British, they say the Hyas Klootchman Tyee rules over all the people here.”
“I doubt Queen Victoria cares one way or another if I stay with you,” Lia said wryly. “The Hudson Bay Company surely doesn’t care. The whole reason Pa started to work for them was to provide us with a place to live. But once he was gone, they wanted us to leave the trading post. They didn’t care that we had nowhere to go. And the American and British are always squabbling, but it’s never changed anything as far as I can see. Why should we concern ourselves with their quarrels?”
“There is talk of war between them. We do not want to give them cause to make war with us.” Djaqi’lxida put his hand on Henri’s shoulder. “The boy could stay.”
Henri took a step back, shaking his head. “I’m the only family she’s got left. I need to look after her until my Pa gets back in the spring.” Lia started to speak, and he gave a short sigh. “I know. You think I’m a child. But I’m nearly as tall as you now, Lia. I can work.”
“You’re going to get an education no matter where you live,” Lia said firmly. “I promised Pa before he died that I’d see you get some book learning.”
“Then I cannot help you,” Djaqi’lxida said.
As she watched Djaqi’lxida walking away, she should have felt sad. Instead, a sense of relief filled Lia’s heart. She was not going to be left on her own. Henri was going to live with her until her brother Pierre came back from his trading voyage to live with them both.
Now all she had to do was make sure he got some education in him. Her Pa had sent her off to school when Maman died. He hadn’t known what else to do with her. She’d had to put on a dress and act as if like she liked sitting indoors all day. It had been hard to be away from her father and brother, living with strangers who had never tasted the freedom that came from roaming the wilderness.
But it was worth it, now. She could teach Henri herself, if they couldn’t find a school for him. The trouble was, she needed to find a way to put a roof over their heads and food on the table while she was educating him.
There was no work for them in Astoria, a scanty collection of cabins huddled on a little spit of land between the river and the Pacific Ocean, where the wind blew constantly and the seagulls uttered their mournful cries.
“All right. We’ll leave word at Astoria for your Pa so he knows where to find us.” She picked up her pack and heaved it over her shoulder. “In Oregon City.”
***
As he worked to get the campfire going, Geoff kept one eye on Lia talking with her nephew and his uncle. Whatever the meeting had been about, it was soon over. The older man nodded to Lia and Henri, then walked away, heading back up the creek into the hills. Henri and Lia spoke to each other for a moment longer before coming over to Geoff. The campfire was burning well, and the delicious smell of roasting meat drifted over from the cast iron pan.
“Will you stay for a meal? We have some salt pork left over from our stay at Fort Vancouver, and I can make some tea.”
He thought that the young boy, Henri, looked hopeful. But Lia shook her head. “We need to be on our way. Good day to you.”
Geoff got to his feet. “So, have I proved my innocence in the matter of your pack? I am not a thief.”
She tilted her head up to study his expression. “Now that, for some reason, I can believe. I’m not sure what you’re up to, and it’s none of my business, but it’s not robbing. Just as well. They hang thieves in these parts.”
“I will bear that in mind, should I’m ever inclined to go through another pack,” he said solemnly.
Another smile, transforming her sober features into warmth and beauty. Really, she was astonishingly pretty when she wasn’t frowning. He watched as she and Henri made their way downriver. Lia turned her head and gave him one last look before she disappeared into a grove of trees. Then she was gone, and he could not escape the feeling that he had just let an opportunity slip through his fingers.
Which was utterly foolish. He could never pursue any kind of friendship with Amelia Elizabeth Griggs. Especially when he considered her parting words. If that was the way they treated a thief in these parts, he hated to think how they would treat a spy.

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