We were on day four of traveling south to Mobile, Eleanor’s hometown, and we weren’t making much progress with the horses. I knew Pie by herself would be faster than this, but Holiday was a bit older and we had a wagon full of our provisions to boot. And it seemed like every new mile was hotter and stickier. I was driving this portion, not a cloud in the sky to get between us and the sun, and the reins were tacky in my hands, leaving some of the tanning dye on my palms.
“This is gross,” I said to Lucas, who kept nodding off. How dare he try to get out of any of this.
“Mm? What’s gross?”
“This,” I said, waving one arm around in a big circle to mean: everything, dude.
“I think it’s pretty,” he said, and he closed his eyes and hunched himself up against the corner of the seat. As a final screw off to my comment, he pushed his black cowboy hat over his face.
I tried to appreciate the surroundings. Even though there was only one state between Eleanor’s state and ours, the landscape was pretty different. Here the trees were covered in thick green moss on one side, many of them tangled up in some kind of vine. The bird calls were different, too—I didn’t hear any morning doves, but I did spot a few woodpeckers. I was pretty sure we wouldn’t have any run-ins with wolves or coyotes, because all of the big predators seemed to have fled a while ago.
Pie suddenly went lame and stopped walking, snorting instead in a way that made me think he was in real pain. I tapped Lucas on his knee and hopped down to look at the horse.
“What, what? Why have we stopped?” he asked, lifting his hat and looking around.
“It’s Pie,” I said, lifting each of her hooves. Then I found it—the shoe on her right rear hoof had come partially off and the spike had started rubbing the frog—the soft part of her foot. Lucas bent down and pressed gently on her to see how deep the wound went.
“She must have been walking like this for a while,” I said. “Oh, Pie.”
Another snuffle from the horse, and then she bent down to eat some grass.
“She’s one tough horse,” he said. He stood up, dusted off his knees, and trotted to the back of the wagon. I meant to tell him not to wake little Nate, but then the baby cried. Oh well.
He toddled out to me, smiling to see me, and then losing his fat grin when he saw Pie’s hurt foot.
“Ouchy?” He asked, pointing.
“Yes, very ouchy.” I nodded and scooped him up. I brought him to Pie’s face, and they pushed their heads together. Lucas came back with some old pliers and pulled the shoe off of Pie’s foot, and he wrapped a white rag around her injury to keep the dirt out of it. I unhitched her from the wagon knowing that Holiday probably didn’t want to pull the whole thing by herself, but whatever.
“Time to step up, Holiday,” I said, giving her a little pat. She whinnied at me and I told myself not to read into what she was trying to communicate to me.
Around the curve ahead a car rattled toward us—a very well used Model T, probably twenty years old at least, front hand crank bouncing between the tires. As the car came closer I could see the driver wore goggles and leather riding gloves that went up to her elbows, and some kind of Great War uniform for men.
She’s just like me—uh, just like Jacqueline.
I smiled and waved, trying to flag her down. She gave us a nod, and the Ford ground to a sudden halt, kicking up brown dirt clouds. Holiday gave a little jump but Pie wasn’t feeling well enough to protest.
She cut the engine and set the brake, then jumped down, lifting her goggles off.
“It ain’t often I see a vehicle on the road older than mine. You folks moving to town? I’m Miranda.” She stuck out her hand and Lucas shook it.
“Passing through on our way to Mobile,” he said, sounding casual in a way that Lucas never sounded in real life. I had to give him some credit.
“Oh, well that’s a ways away,” she said, noticing Pie’s ginger foot. “Horse come up lame?”
“Her shoe is giving her trouble,” I said. “Do you know a blacksmith around here, or a farrier?”
Miranda raised one eyebrow. I tried to look all regular but she burned into me, like she was examining me and my family.
“’Round these parts, them’s one and the same, ma’am.”
“Beg pardon, I’m Lucas Van Doren and this is my wife, Jacqueline, and our son, Nathaniel.”
“You have a lovely family, Mr. Van Doren. Can your horse walk at all?”
“Yes, but she’s slow going right now.”
“Well, if you like I can take your wife and child into town with me and let the smith know you’re out here and he can help your horse right here.”
“That sounds great,” said Lucas.
That doesn’t sound great, what are you talking about?
“Dear, may I have a quick word?” I asked, attempting to be nonchalant.
“All right,” he said slowly, like he was unsure. I took his hand, still holding Nate in my other arm.
When we were at the back of the wagon, I whispered to Lucas.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to split up.”
“She’s merely offering help, Jackie.”
“We don’t know her, we don’t know anyone around here. What if she’s working for Elizabeth?”
“You are truly paranoid,” said Lucas, and the baby began to fuss, probably from our arguing. “We are so far from home, how would anyone know us out here?”
It made sense when I listened to him, but I still wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure of anything in all of this mess. But I couldn’t find a way to argue with him—he was right, I sounded paranoid.
“Okay. You’re just going to wait here for this woman’s friend to come help Pie, once we’ve gotten into town.”
“I’m not exactly defenseless,” he said, holding up his arms in a way that made him look, in fact, pretty defenseless.
“Okay, Captain America,” I said.
“Forget it,” I said, shaking my head. I handed him Nate to hold for a moment so I could put a few things in a bag. I didn’t see why we couldn’t all wait with the horses but then the baby started to squirm, so maybe this would be a fun distraction for him. I took Nate by his tiny hand and we climbed into Miranda’s car, both of us in the front seat, with my arms clamped around him. It’ll only be another forty years before seat belts, I thought, but at least Model Ts didn’t go very fast. Or uphill on a low gas tank.
“Okay, allons-y!” said Miranda as she lowered her goggles over her eyes before she cranked the engine. I noticed she was using the wrong grip on the hand crank and could really have hurt her thumb if the engine kicked back, but I didn’t say anything.
Please don’t be an axe murderer, I thought.
“Have you been married long?” she asked me.
I raised an eyebrow, wondering how to answer. For one, I had a hard time ever knowing how long it had been since event x or y, because I jumped around so much. Time is a blur, lady!
“I mean, I guess a few years at least,” Miranda mumbled, looking at Nathaniel.
“We married in ’27,” I said, thankful to remember at least the year of the wedding.
“He looks to be a kind man.”
“He is very kind.” And hot, so you better step off, okay?
“We don’t get travelers around these parts often,” she said, and I tried to cover up my flinch at the word traveler. But of course she didn’t mean time traveler, right?
I nodded, and tried to give off an air of nonchalance, or disinterest, or anything that would get her to stop talking. Nate babbled about all of the things we saw on the ride, which was so bumpy I had a hard time holding him on my lap.
“Sorry, these roads are a little rough today. We had a bad storm last week and now there are loads of sinkholes. Did you get rain where you were? Where are you from again? I don’t mean to pry.”
“Then don’t, please. The bumps are fine.”
Now I felt bad for getting snippy.
“I do really thank you for your help.”
She flashed a quick smile, and nodded as we drove past a farm on the right. The house looked abandoned but the fields were in use. Peas, maybe.
Miranda noticed my interest.
“Alabama isn’t without its problems, of course,” she said, picking up a little speed. Model Ts didn’t have accelerator pedals—instead the driver used a hand control to set the engine firing to change speed. I concentrated on not dropping the baby. Maybe she was reconsidering her offer to take us into town.
“Every town has its issues,” I said, thinking of Dr. Traver and the chaos in Marion, Kentucky, where I’d first landed as Jacqueline when she was still a girl.
She nodded again, not saying any more about it, only now I wanted to hear the story. I was not good at interacting with people today, apparently. Nate leaned his head on me, and I remembered that we’d interrupted his nap. So now I was uncommunicative and a terrible parent. Terrific.
We hit the outskirts of Huntsville, where Lucas and I had passed at least an hour ago, but which took half the time in the car. There wasn’t much to the city—broad, dusty streets, proper looking storefronts on one block, and then large swatches of unused land. It wouldn’t be long before the Great Depression would happen, and from the look of it, this city wouldn’t be ready for a downturn. But there was a streetcar just ahead of us packed with people. And then I noticed that all of them were white. Right.
Miranda skidded the car around a corner and rolled up to a towering brick warehouse. Three pickup trucks sat outside, one filled with hay, one with watermelons, and one empty.
“Here’s the foundry, where the smith works,” she said, getting cheery again.
The streetcar’s bell chimed loudly behind us as we walked into the large room, even bigger than Erica’s uncle’s carpet warehouse. Long black metal tools hung from the far wall, blocking some of the windows, and a furnace large enough to hold a grown man stood in the middle of the room as two men hammered away on an anvil, the smoldering metal glowing red-orange and resisting their blows even as it succumbed to whatever design they had for it. Nathaniel and I were immediately fascinated. Each clang as their hammers crashed down rang in my ears. Nate seemed particularly interested in their enormous silver gloves. He pointed four, five, six times.
The taller of the smiths, wearing a long black beard and a curled moustache stood up straight and set his tool aside, plucking off his gloved arm to reveal a chapped hand. At least six feet tall he still seemed swallowed up in his heavy leather apron. He said hello to Miranda and rolled down his shirt sleeve while he walked over to us.
“Well, I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance before, ma’am.”
“Walter, this is Jacqueline Von…”
“Van Doren. Pleased to meet you,” I said, smiling. I’d learned not to thrust out my hand for a shake, because that was too forward. Ridiculous rules in these times. “My husband and I have a lame horse south of town.”
“Oh, uh-huh,” he said, a little disinterested. Maybe I was taking the wrong approach. Why would he travel all the way down to help us? Would he want a lot of money?
Miranda jumped in to save our dying conversation.
“One of the nails in their mare’s shoe came partway out and started cutting the poor thing’s foot,” she said. I did a doubletake as she batted her eyelashes at him.
“Well, I s’pose your husband doesn’t drive around with a spare set of nails and shoes now,” he said, and I stifled a giggle thinking about what Lucas would make of this Lincoln lookalike. “I can get down there in a couple of hours.”
Whoa. A couple of hours? Seriously? I knew I couldn’t explain the urgency to him or Miranda, but holy crap, we had the unraveling of the time continuum to deal with here.
“Well now, that’s all right, Wayne, and thank you for your effort in advance. We will just take a little tour of town and I’m sure her husband will be happy to have your assistance.”
“Indeed,” I said, figuring less is more. I tried to seem more feminine by dropping my left hip. And then I threw up in my mouth a little bit, and Nate looked at me as if to ask what was wrong with me.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, shuffling back to the anvil. The other smith never even looked at us during the whole conversation and I realized I’d become very uncomfortable.
“Have a nice tour, ladies. And Miranda tell your father I’ll see him at the lodge tonight.”
I shouldn’t have thought of that as ominous, but that’s how it felt. The faster we got out of Huntsville, the better.
Miranda and I sat on a bench at the end of a small park while Nate played with the end of a see saw, the lone piece of playground equipment, and the first play area I’d seen in these times. He really didn’t know what to make of it.
“I know some people in Mobile,” Miranda was saying. I kept trying to shake my sense of uneasiness. I didn’t even know how long we’d been here, but the sun had dropped low in the sky and everything had taken on an orange-pink tinge.
“Who do you know down there?” she asked me.
It was a fair question. And I didn’t have an answer, but under no circumstances should I have told her who we were looking for.
So of course that’s the name I blurted out.
“Eleanor Fitzgerald,” I said, immediately wanting to vacuum up my words. But hey, Mobile was a big city, and Fitzgerald was like, a common Southern name, right?
“All right. You need to tell me who you really are,” she said, leaning in to me and clamping down on my wrist. “If you love that child, you need to come clean right now. How do you know Eleanor Fitzgerald? Are you a Guardian?”
Two thoughts flashed through my brain—she knows about Travelers and Guardians. But more importantly, she is capable of hurting my kid. Shit.