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Thomas Wilkie, ship's surgeon on the long-defunct Splendid, folded his father's three-year-old letter and slipped it underneath the velvet covering to his capital knives. He glanced out of the window and sighed. Although the view was splendid, he wished the fort of San Diego had been built closer to the magnificent harbor. The ocean never failed to soothe him and he could use a little soothing. How many Christmases had to pass before he saw his parents again?
Years had come and gone since he had received his father's letter. Thomas wasn't surprised that Cora had decided to marry; he only wished it hadn't been to his older brother, who would probably take every opportunity to rub it in, provided Thomas ever found his way back to Dumfries.
Odd that the matter should bother him more now than when he had received the letter. Or maybe it was not so odd, considering the chain of events that had happened in short order after his Majesty's frigate Amaryllis had handed off supplies and a mail sack to the frigate Splendid, which blundered into a typhoon a week later. Dismasted and in tatters, the Splendid had been easy pickings for a French man o' war, cruising off the coast of Alta California.
They had been towed into the beautiful harbor of San Diego de Alcalÿ, then left there as a prize with the Spanish, who had been allies of France at the time. Dumped in the dungeons of the fort, the issue of staying alive had trumped any woolgathering about Cora McClean. Others had griped and complained, but Thomas had a lively mind. The food was poor, true, but the possibilities of the place had quickly made themselves obvious to him, who knew he had a skill in demand.
The Splendid's captain and most of his officersthose who had survived the typhoon and the mauling by the Frenchpreferred to maintain themselves as British to the core, making no effort to learn Spanishit was beneath themor engage in any way with their captors. This was war, after all, and war had rules dear to the heart of the English.
It wasn't so with Thomas. When he announced, in very poor Spanish, his medical skills, he became a man in demand. The garrison's only physician had died two years earlier. In the village, native healers practiced a level of quackery that would have made him laugh out loudif the results of their medical practices hadn't left so many dead.
Although the medical well-being of Spaniards interested him not at all, Captain Walcott of the Splendid had been quick to understand his surgeon's value as a bargaining chip for better food, more bedding and such comfort as San Diego could afford his surviving crew.
Thomas was needed and he was busy, tending first to his seamen, second to the Spaniards of both fort and town, and third to the Indians in the nearby mission. Learning Spanish took his mind off any mooning about Cora McClean. He quickly discovered a facility for Spanish. It gave him some satisfaction now to dream in Spanish, as the language became second nature.
So it went. In 1810, when word came from distant Mexico City that Napoleon had invaded Spain in 1808 and they were no longer allies, the Spanish garrison had risen and killed the few French among them. This turn of events perked up the men of the Splendid for a brief moment, until it became obvious that nothing much had changed: they were still isolated on the far side of the world, with no rescue in sight.
So the matter had rested for several years. Captain Walcott had been kind enough to die of a fever that had defeated all of Thomas's efforts to keep him alive. Though they mourned him, the result was the unleashing of Lieutenant Ludlow, a man of ambition and innovation, unlike his late captain. Using Thomas's skill with Spanish, the lieutenant had coaxed a coasting vessel out of the fort's captain.
This would have been a foolish effortno coasting vessel could cross the Pacific or survive a trip around Cape Hornexcept for news of an American fort trading in furs that had recently been established north in Oregon country. The Americans were neutral. If a small ship could coast north, the Englishmen would eventually find a way home.
Thomas hitched himself into the window frame and dangled his long legs over the edge, breathing deeply of the perfume of the flowers that flourished in Alta California. Now he had become a bargaining chip again. In order to acquire the coasting vessel, tools and supplies needed to make it seaworthy, Lieutenant Ludlow had bargained him away to the Spanish.
"You'll stay here, Thomas, in return for their help," Ludlow had informed him. "I give you my word we will extricate you. Some time. Do it for King George."
I am the wrong person for your appeal, Thomas had thought at the time. I am a Scot before I am British. Georgie's your king.
But he had a greater reason for staying behind. "Mr Ludlow, I couldn't leave anyway. Two of our crew are too sick to be put to the mercy of the ocean. The pharmacist's mate will sail with you. Duty, honor, Hippocrates and his oath compel me to remain behind."
So there, he had thought sourly. Take your old tub and sail north. No sense in divulging to anyone how desperately he wanted to loose the cables himself and sail north in the hope of leaning on the goodwill of Americans. He was as homesick as the next crew member.
Thomas's reverie was interrupted by a small tap on the door. He smiled, his self-pity forgotten for a moment. It must be Laura; no one else in his man's world had such a light touch.
Laura Maria Ortiz de la Garza had the run of the presidio because her father was San Diego's royal accountant. Laura had tried to explain his full title to Thomas once, but she had given up in disgust at his poor Spanish.
That had been three years ago. His Spanish was far better now, but Laura Ortiz didn't seem to be a person to suffer fools gladly. More likely, she had been advised by her father, a man of minor nobility, that a mere surgeon wasn't worth her time or lineage. No matterLaura Ortiz's black-colored hair, dark eyes and olive skin hadn't held a candle to Cora McClean's blue-eyed, red-haired Scottish buxomness.
He had known Laura for four years now, from her awkward, all-elbows phase to her most recent blossoming into a young woman of some dignity, with a face perhaps more earnest than beautiful. She had an almost disconcerting gaze that someone with a guilty conscience would find unnerving. Because Thomas had no designs on Laura Maria Ortiz beyond admiring the graceful way she had matured, his heart was pure.
"Well, senorita, to what do I owe this visit?" he asked in his most polite Spanish, happy to think of something besides having been abandoned on the far side of the globe.
She put her hands to her throat. "Tumores glandu-losos del cuello," she said. She enunciated loudly and distinctly, as though he were an idiot.
Aha, I know that one, Miss Smarty, he thought. "Mumps, eh? That's what we call them in English. And where is this victim of the mumps?"
She extended one finger and motioned to the door. "Follow me."
He did as she said, after taking up his worn remedy bag, thinking to himself that no British Isles lass would ever have used such an imperious gesture. The Spanish were different, especially those a little high in the instep. He wondered, as he had on numerous other occasions, if Father Hilario had told Laura that the navy surgeon was the son of a mere surgeon, who had begun his career as a barber.
It was a beautiful day in November, one of many beautiful days he had become accustomed to in Alta California. As he walked along, a few sedate paces behind Miss High and Mighty, Thomas Wilkie reminded himself that he might miss this climate, if he ever got home to Scotland.
With Laura's imperious nod and Thomas's smile to the guard, a man whose son he had saved from diphtheria, they left the presidio and walked down the hill to San Diego's pueblo, a small town of some two hundred souls. He began his usual tease with Laura, striding at her side, which was no difficulty considering his long legs. She usually tried to walk in front, as a lady would. To his surprise, she let him walk beside her.
Wonders never cease, he thought in amusement. Maybe I am more charming than I thought.
But no. She was slowing down because they had already reached their destination, a hovel that was home to a soldier and his ragtag family: a gaggle of children and a woman not many generations removed from Kumeyaay Indian. Thomas ducked inside the doorway, stood a moment to accustom his eyes to the smoky din and saw his little patient.
"Poor thing," he murmured in Spanish, as he knelt by the large-eyed girl; he saw tears gathering on her bottom lids while her hands grasped her throat. Gently he tugged away her hands and expertly touched her parotid glands. "Mumps, it is," he said in English.
"Mumps," Laura Maria repeated. "Mumps. Parodi- tis."
The poor wife of a soldior, the little girl's Kumeyaay mother hovered like all mothers. Thomas figured she must be illiterate, so he knew she would listen carefully to his simple directions involving a paste made of ginger root, which he produced from his satchel, because he knew she could not afford to buy it. Whistling softly to himself, he ground the root, added water and flour, and scraped it onto a narrow bandage, which he wrapped loosely around the girl's throat. When she whimpered, he kissed her forehead.
For no particular reason, Thomas glanced at Laura, a little surprised that she had remained in the hovel with him. The royal accountant's daughter stood with her hands clasped in front of her, her intense gaze fixed on the child, much as his had been. She seemed to be assessing what he was doing, so he explained it, much as he would have explained to a novice pharmacist's mate.
"It helps the swelling," he said, "but mostly I depend on her youth and general good health to get her through the most trying time. It isn't much of a medical arsenal, is it?"
She looked at him, startled, and her gaze softened. "But you do your best, don't you?" she asked.
"Always." He rocked back on his heels to observe her better. "Whether she be pauper or Spanish princess."
Laura nodded. When she spoke, she sounded almost deferential. "Would you have me return in the morning to renew the dressing?"
He knew she could take care of the matter competently, but he wanted to be there, too. "Let us both return." It was his turn to be deferential. "If you are interested, come a bit early to my laboratory" such a dignified name for a closet under the stairs! "and I will show you how to make a paste of aloe, with a little turmeric, in case the ginger doesn't work."
She nodded and gave him a rare smile. It surprised him to see how pretty her face became. Or maybe she had always been pretty and he had only just noticed. Or maybe the smoke in the room was softening his vision.