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1 February, 1794
On the edge of the New-York wilderness
In the middle of a blizzard in the second half of the hardest, snowiest winter anyone in Paradise could remember, Elizabeth Middleton Bonner, sweat soaked, naked, and adrift in burning pain, wondered if she might just die of the heat.
Once again she grabbed the leather straps tied to the bed frame to haul herself forward, and bore down with all her considerable strength.
"Come, little one," sang the girl who crouched, waiting, at the foot of the bed. Her ten-year-old face was alight with excitement and fierce concentration, her bloodied hands outstretched, beckoning.
From a basket before the warmth of the hearth came the high, keen wail of Elizabeth's firstborn: a daughter, just twenty minutes old.
"Come, child," crooned Hannah. "We are waiting for you."
We are all waiting for you.
In the grip of a contraction that threatened to set her on fire, Elizabeth bore down again and was rewarded with the blessed sight of a crowning head. With shaking fingers she touched the slick, wet curls and her own flesh, stretched drumtight: her body on the brink of splitting itself in two.
One last time, one last time, one last time. She strained, feeling the child flex and turn, feeling its will, as strong as her own. Elizabeth blinked the sweat from her eyes and looked up to find Hannah's gaze fixed on her.
"Let him come," the girl said in Kahnyen'keh^ka. "It is his time."
Elizabeth pushed. In a rush of fluid her son, blue-white and already howling, slid out into her stepdaughter's waiting hands. With a groan of relief and thanksgiving, Elizabeth collapsed backward.
For one sweet moment, the wailing of the newborns was louder than the scream of the blizzard rampaging through the Endless Forests. Their father was out there, trying to make his way home to them. With her arms crossed over the warm, squirming bundles Hannah laid against her skin, Elizabeth muttered a prayer for Nathaniel Bonner's safe delivery from the storm.
As Elizabeth labored, the small handful of farmers and trappers with the good sense to be stranded by the blizzard in Paradise's only tavern sat huddled over cards and ale, waiting out the weather. While the winds worked the rafters like starving wolves at a carcass, they told stories in easy, slurred voices, but they watched their cards and tankards and the long, straight back of the man who stood, motionless, at the window.
"Strung as tight as my fiddle," muttered one of the card players. "Say something to him, Axel."
Axel Metzler shrugged a shoulder in frustration, but he turned toward the window. "Set down, Nathaniel, and have a drink. I broke out my best ale, here. And the storm won't be letting up for you staring at it."
"Women will have babies at the worst times," announced the youngest of the men solemnly.
"Now, what would you know about it, Charlie? You got a wife hid away somewhere?"
"A man don't need a wife of his own to see that it's damn hard luck to have run into this weather."
The storm raised its voice as if to argue. The roof groaned in response, and a fine sifting of dust settled over the room and the uncovered tankards.
Axel plucked the pipe from his mouth in disgust and pointed his tattered white beard toward the heavens, exposing a long neck much like that of a plucked turkey. "Shut up, you old Teufel! Quiet!"
The winds howled once more, let out a longish whine, and fell silent. For a moment the men stared at each other and then Axel tucked his pipe back in the corner of his mouth with a satisfied grunt.
A woman appeared at the door from the living quarters just as the man at the window turned. The light of the fire threw his face into relief: half shadow, all worry, his high brow furrowed and his mouth pressed hard. In his hand was a crumpled sheet of paper, which he tucked into his shirt with one hand while he reached for his mantle with the other.
"Curiosity?" he asked, his voice hoarse with disuse.
"I'm right here, Nathaniel." Long and wiry, straight backed in spite of her near sixty years, Curiosity Freeman moved briskly through the room, her skirts snapping and swirling. The hands adjusting the turban that towered above her head were deep brown against the sprigged fabric. She turned to a boy who sat near the fire, big boned, ginger haired, and pale with sleeplessness. "You there, Liam Kirby. Look lively, now. You fetch me my snowshoes, will you?"
He sprang up, rubbing his eyes. "Yes'm."
Axel stood and stretched. "Good luck, Nathaniel! Give Miz Elizabeth our best!"
Nathaniel raised a hand in acknowledgment. "Thank you, Axel. Jed, I was supposed to send Martha Southern word, would you take care of that for me?"
"I will. Tomorrow we'll wet the child's head, proper like."
"We'll do that, God willing." Liam had gone out onto the porch, but the older woman hung back to put a hand on Nathaniel's arm. "Elizabeth's strong, and Hannah's with her. That girl of yours has got the touch, you know that."
She's only ten years old.
Nathaniel could see that thought sitting there in the troubled lines that bracketed Curiosity's mouth. "Elizabeth asked for you. She wanted you." And me. I should be there.
Curiosity squinted at him. Never the kind to offer false comfort, she nodded, and followed him outside.
Strung out in single file with Nathaniel leading and Liam bringing up the rear, they left the village on snowshoes. They carried tin lanterns that cast dancing pinpricks of light over the new snow: a scattering of golden stars to match the fiery ones overhead. The night sky had been scrubbed clean; the moon was knife edged and cold, as cold as the air that stung the throat and nose.
Nathaniel glanced over his shoulder now and then to gauge Curiosity's pace. Thus far she showed no signs of tiring, in spite of the late hour and interrupted sleep. Frontier women, his father often said. When one of their own is in need, they can set creation on its ear.
He had set out to fetch her almost twenty-four hours ago. She was his father-in-law's housekeeper, but Curiosity Freeman was more than that: Elizabeth's friend, and his own, the clearest head in the village and the closest thing Paradise had to a doctor since Richard Todd had decided to spend the winter in Johnstown; she had always been a better midwife, anyway. With a midwife's sense of timing, she had been ready for him, her basket packed. She wiped the flour from her hands and arms and passed the kneading over to her daughter, calling out to her husband, Galileo, that she was on her way. Judge Middleton was still abed, and they left without disturbing him.
"Let him sleep," she had said, strapping on her snowshoes. "Ain't nothing a man can do to ease a daughter in labor anyways, and my Polly will see to his breakfast. Did you send Anna word? I'd be glad of her help, with the rest of your womenfolk away."
"Liam's gone to fetch her."
"Let's get moving, then. First children ain't usually in a hurry, but you never know."