River debated whether to go with Rebecca Boone back to her cabin or not. In the end she had decided against it. It was inevitable that the man she was now tracking would run into the Doctor eventually. After all, that was how everything had gone to pot in the first place. So, she had waited a few minutes and then sent off in pursuit of the handsome Cherokee, following him into the virgin forest that surrounded Boonesborough. A torrent of emotions ran through the blonde woman as she did so. Anger. Frustration. Guilt. But mostly, exasperation. Then, again, when wasn’t she exasperated when she became involved with the Doctor? There were times, she swore – oh, there were times when she had been tempted to go back in time to stop the Time Lord from stealing the Tardis – pardon me, she thought with a snort, from borrowing it – in the first place. The Doctor detested the word ‘steal’ almost as much as ‘meddle’, but both were the truth. That’s what he was – a man who meddled in, or rather sometimes muddled with time. River shook her long spiraling blonde curls back and sighed. But he did it so brilliantly. How many wars, how many galactic disasters had the Doctor’s decision to defy the Time Lords and interfere prevented? How many civilizations had he rescued? How many million – no, make that billion lives had his choice, his presence in so many different time streams saved?
As many as it had cost, cold hard reality whispered in her ear. River shivered and drew her cloak tightly about her neck. This time, this last time…he had been wrong. And she had been sent here to prevent it from happening – authorized, indeed ordained to do whatever it took to make right what had gone wrong.
And that meant either Mingo or the Time Lord had to die.
Shaking off the chill, but not entirely overcoming it, River began to move again. To sharpen her skills, she had resisted using any technology and chosen to follow her quarry by employing only her wits and whatever natural means were available to her – such as sight and sound. The man was good. Mingo moved like a wraith through the trees, leaving very little evidence of his passage. No broken branches. Barely a footprint. And he always managed to stay just out of view. But he had made one mistake. One very big mistake.
He liked to sing.
The sound of the tune drifting back warmed River, dispelling the icy breath of necessity that breathed down her neck. She halted, and for just a minute allowed herself the luxury of closing her eyes and listening. Mingo’s voice was honey warmed over a fire. Dark chocolate melting on the tongue. A thick woolen wrap on a cold wintry night pulled closely about bare shoulders. The man belonged in one of the great halls of London or New York.
Not in the grave.
Or in the wilds of Kentucky, River thought with mild disgust, as she barely avoided stepping into a steaming puddle of bear poo. She looked both ways for its owner, and then continued on. He intrigued her, this Caramingo of the Tsalagi, who was also the son of John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunsmore. Before this matter was resolved – one way or the other – she was determined to figure him out. So long as he and the Doctor had had no contact, there was no rush. The disappearance of the Boone’s son was a part of it but not the whole, and while there was still time – if she was very, very clever – there was still a chance that she just might avert the disaster that loomed over the universes and find a way to save both men.
After all, she was River Song.
Abruptly, River became aware that the singing had stopped. For a moment she wondered if she had been discovered, but then she heard a shout followed by the sounds of a scuffle. Hitching her canary yellow skirt high above her knees, revealing the black leggings and mud-flecked thigh-high boots she wore beneath, River began to run recklessly through the forest. As she plunged headlong into danger, the irony of her actions struck her like a proctor’s rod – she seemed hell-bent to save the life of the one man in all the universes she should wish dead. But then, her years of running with both the past and future Doctor had obviously changed her. Some might argue not for the best. Life had become more precious to her. All life. Any life. Even the life of the one man who threatened to destroy her chance at future happiness.
“Damn you, Doctor,” River growled as she topped a ridge
and looked down into a natural bowl that held both a stream and five struggling
men. “No one dies today.”
The ragged man blinked several times. He sniffed, and then sniffed again – long and slowly – drawing in the exquisite scent of the cup of tea Rebecca Boone had placed before him. He wrapped trembling fingers about it, relishing the warmth as it permeated his skin, but made no move to drink. Instead, he lifted his eyes and fixed his gaze on the weary and worried looking woman sitting directly across the rough wooden table from him. She was a beauty – neither too young nor too old – with wide blue eyes, perfect skin pale as ivory, and a lustrous mane of ginger hair orange as the scattered remains of her precious Saffron spice. But it didn’t stop there. Rebecca Boone shone with an inner beauty as well. Here he was a complete stranger found in the midst of the wreck of her home covered in blood, with her son missing, and what had she done? Had she drilled him with questions as to his intentions? Had she demanded an answer when he remained silent? Had she shot him as she had every right to?
No, she had fixed him a cup of tea.
He sniffed again and as casually as he could, reached up and wiped a tear away from his eye. “Sorry about the saffron,” he mumbled without looking up.
“For someone who seemed desperate for a cup of tea, you are awfully slow about drinking it. Too hot? Or too cold?” she asked.
He shook his head. The words were very quiet. “Too kind.”
Rebecca Boone sighed. Then she shifted back in her chair. He could feel her eyes on him, inspecting him, searching him. “How old are you?”
How old? His mouth opened, but there was no reply. A shudder ran through him. The only answer that came to mind was absurd. In the end, he simply said, “I don’t know.”
“Don’t know, or don’t remember?”
He shrugged. “Both.”
She took another moment to size him up. “Well, you look to be in your twenties. And from the look of you, I would say you were a scholar, or maybe a preacher or schoolmaster.”
That brought his head up. “Why?”
Rebecca reached out and touched his hand. “No calluses. And you are white as bone! You can’t have spent any time in the field, working or hunting.” She smiled gently. “Besides, you have that look.”
“Like a man who dreams.” Her smile lasted only a fleeting instant. “The frontier isn’t kind to men who dream.” Rebecca paused before the smile returned. “Are you ever going to drink your tea?”
He wasn’t certain. It seemed like such a precious thing – almost too precious to consume. He hadn’t realized how much he had been affected by the strain of hiding from General Stone and his men. Israel Boone’s mother had moved into the cabin, palmed the rifle, raised it menacingly and pointed the glistening metal barrel at him. For some reason, the thought of dying had not frightened him – not half as much as the idea of becoming Stone’s prisoner – and so he had done nothing to protect himself. Instead, he simply sat on the floor. The action puzzled Rebecca Boone. The rifle had wavered, been lowered, and then leaned against the wall in order that she might come to him. Placing her hand on his forehead she had made a disapproving sound. As she noted the blood that covered his face and clothes, the sound became an exclamation of alarm. Then, seeing the crimson liquid was still trailing down; trickling from a wound buried somewhere deep in the mountains of his dark brown hair, she had fallen under the compulsion of the strongest force in the universe.
The maternal instinct.
Somewhere between the floor and the chair he now occupied, he had mentioned the fact that he meant her and her family no harm, and that all he had come to the cabin for was a cup of tea. After that, he had closed his eyes and simply been. Sometime later, a gentle touch on his arm made him start, and he realized he had fallen asleep.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring at a cup of tea.
Rebecca Boone leaned forward, resting her chin on one white hand. “You know,” she began, indicating the small canister filled with loose tea sitting by his elbow with a nod. “I had to go down into the root cellar and dig up a crock that I had buried in the corner under several sacks of flour to get that.” Leaning in closer and lowering her voice, she whispered conspiratorially, “This is just between you and me. Dan told me to throw it out. If he knew I still had British tea in the cabin…. Well, as Israel would put it, he’d tan my backside….”
As she spoke her voice faltered. He had told her what he had heard. Her son had been taken by her husband’s enemies – by men who looked and sounded like him. “I’m sorry about Israel,” he said. “There was nothing I could do. I….”
She reached out and touched his hand once again. Then she nodded. When she spoke, there was no doubt in her tone. “His father will find him. Dan will bring him home. Now, drink your tea while I make you something to eat. You are nothing but skin and bones! And then, we need to see to that wound….” Rebecca rose from her chair and headed for the hearth, adding, after making another tsking sound, “I suppose you don’t have a woman to look after you.”
He had lifted the cup to his lips, but paused again to breathe in the reviving scent. Gazing at the handsome woman over the rim of the cup, he almost saw the other one – the younger one called ‘Amy’. “There was someone,” he replied, chagrinned. “But I lost her.”
“Oh!” Rebecca whirled back to look at him. “I’m sorry. You mean she died?”
The ragged man shook his dark head. “No. I don’t think so. I think I mean I lost her.”
“Well.” Her full lips pursed with surprise. “Then we’d best get you healed so you can go find her.”
He nodded. “Maybe your husband can look for her too.”
The redhead’s tone softened, “I’m sure he can. Now, please, drink your tea.”
As she moved toward the rekindled fire, the ragged man closed his eyes and took another deep breath. It was a funny thing, and something he would never have tried to explain it to a woman who already thought him barmy, but instinctively he knew that it was the scent of the tea and not the tea itself he required. It was bracing. With each inhalation his mind seemed to grow just a bit clearer. He still couldn’t remember who he was, or where he was, or what it was he felt so compelled to do, but he began to be aware of himself – of the man he had been and the fact that someone somewhere, very nasty and very, very dangerous, had purposefully attempted, not to kill him, but to obliterate his capacity for conscious thought.
A series of images flashed across his mind’s eye, bringing renewed pain – the ginger girl being held, threatened. Him, raising his hands in surrender. Her shout. A warning.
“Are you all right?” Rebecca Boone’s concerned voice inquired as her hand came down on his shoulder, calling him back.
The ragged man was breathing hard. The surface of the wooden table was stained with tea, as was the front of his shirt. “No,” he replied honestly, ‘but I will be.” Then, raising the near-empty cup, he asked her, “Can I have another cup of tea?”
It had taken five…no…River Song glanced at her chronometer…four point three minutes to subdue the riffraff that had waylaid Mingo. She had charged down the hill and taken out two herself before standing back and simply admiring the man’s skill as he subdued the other three with fists, feet, and a very expertly wielded bullwhip. The mountain men lay in a ring about them, unconscious. They were the same ones who had accosted them in the tavern – with the exception of the man she had kissed. He was missing. River smirked. Due to the influence of the hallucinogens, he was probably still hip deep in the water trying to wash away the stink.
As the handsome native finished coiling his whip and anchored it on his belt, he turned toward her and raised one very black eyebrow. “Would you care to explain yourself, Madame Song?” Mingo asked as politely as if he had just inquired whether or not she would like to take a spin around the dance floor.
She shrugged. “What is there to explain? You were in trouble. I thought you could use a hand.”
River fought down an amused smile as he pursed his lips in response. She could sense the wheels turning behind those dark eyes. A female as sure of herself and physically assertive as she was must have seemed quite mystifying to an eighteenth century man – even an educated one such as Mingo. He undoubtedly subscribed to the current ‘science’ that labeled females as ‘inferior’ and thought them incapable of rational thought, as well as given to hysteria and fainting spells.
He shook his head and announced, “You, Madame Song, are a lie.”
That was rather perceptive. “How so?” she asked.
“One does not expect such a lady,” he indicated her elegant garb, now soiled by the hunt, “to be, in fact, a war woman.”
The term was not unknown to her but, as she knew it, did not apply to this century. “War woman?”
“Among my people, there are many meanings. For some women it shows the office they hold, say, of peace chief for the tribe. Other war women have the honor of preparing the food and drink for their men who go to battle.” He paused, and it was only then she noted just how keen the light was behind those black eyes. “But for you, I think your man has been taken or is dead, and you seek to save or to avenge him.”
“Well,” she answered jocundly, to cover her surprise, “I never was much of a cook.” River paused, and then added with a broad grin, “That’s right. You’re Cherokee. Your society is matriarchal, isn’t it? So it doesn’t bother you if a woman wears the pants.”
He blinked. “I beg your pardon.”
“Oh, don’t bother. I never give it.” River undid the clasp on her cloak and let it drop to the leaf and bracken covered floor. Then she turned around and lifted her hair, revealing her back. Glancing coyly over her shoulder, she indicated the lacings holding her mantelet or woman’s waistcoat closed with a nod. “Can you give a girl a hand?”
“Madame, that would hardly be deemed appropriate behavior for –”
“For a lady?” she challenged as she dropped her hair and began to undo the fastenings that held the skirt to the mantelet. “Don’t worry. I’m not.”
“For a gentleman to whom the lady in question does not…belong.”
“Oh.” River thought a moment. “How about for a friend?” She glanced up and winked. “Just think of me as one of the boys.”
Mingo shook his head. “That, Madame, would take more imagination than I am capable of.”
“You are too sweet!” She dropped the skirt to the ground and stepped forward wearing only her black leggings and boots, along with the yellow blouse and waistcoat. Around her hips she wore a belt kitted out with just as many weapons as the native carried, only hers were far more deadly. “I guess this will have to do then. Now, where are we going?”
The native scowled. “I beg your par….”
“Ah, ah….” She wagged her finger.
“We aren’t going anywhere. I was heading for Yadkin’s cabin. I thought it might be wise to speak to him about what happened in the tavern before seeking Daniel and beginning the search for Israel. Though I do not believe it is so, one might be connected to the other.”
“Yadkin?” River thought a moment. “Oh, you mean the mud man?”
He clued in instantly. “Knowing Daniel, a quick dip in the river remedied that.”
“That’s right. I walked into the middle of a brawl between your friend and the British soldiers, and prevented another one between you and these men who, just now, tried to kill you.” She eyed the still comatose ring of riffraff and then turned back to him. “Is it always like this, or did I just come on a bad day?”
She turned away as she lifted the scanner from her belt and opened it, using her body to shield the futuristic technology from her companion while she used it to check for signs of waking life. “Call me River, please.” She spun and glanced at him, frowning, “I’m not quite old enough to be your mother, and we have already established that you have no interest in undressing me.” At his protest, she held up a hand. “Wait a minute. We’re not alone.”
“You mean these men….”
“No, someone else.” There was a blip, directly behind them. River closed the scanner and hung it on the belt even as she turned to look. “Someone is coming.” She drew a breath and held it, not knowing what to expect. The scanner was set now for body heat, so the only difference between a Time Lord and an ordinary human being would be the slightly cooler hues the Doctor’s Gallifreyan’s body gave off, due to its lower temperature. The curious thing was, whoever was on their way, was both hot and cold.
Mingo’s hand was on his bull whip. She reached for her blaster. Just before she released the catch, the tall grasses parted and a man stepped into view. He said nothing but stood some ten feet away, looking for all the world as if he was waiting for his marching orders.
Which, in a way, he was.
River rolled her eyes. “The only thing worse than a humdrum hack,” she sighed as she began to move toward the newcomer, “is a humdrum hack dressed in soaked buckskins.” The scent of barely washed sweat and grease coupled with wet deer hide turned her stomach. It was only as it did that River realized it had been a full half day since she had eaten. So much had happened since Father Octavian had contacted her, there had been no time to gather her thoughts, let along forage for food. She had been released from the Stormcage Containment Facility, apprised of her mission and dressed accordingly, bundled off in a military transport to an unnamed place in the middle of the desert, and then shoved into a ring of sparking circuits that she recognized as a primitive attempt to build a time machine. Before she could question him further, Octavian had saluted her and thrown the switch, sending her hurtling back through time to this place. The only question she had had time to ask was, how was she going to get back? The cleric’s answer had been chilling. If she succeeded, she could hitch a ride with the Doctor. If she failed, well then….
The Tardis would need a new pilot.
The blonde woman halted directly in front of the mountain man. Now that he was clean, he wasn’t half bad-looking. He was slightly taller than her with light brown hair and a rather strong face, though he had a cruel mouth, and there was something rather unnerving about his eyes. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Excuse me?” she laughed. “Is that a name or a description?”
“Well, Jacob….” She pulled his buckskin jacket back, noting with disgust several blotchy patches of skin on his chest that seemed to be peeling off. “It seems we might have stayed in the bath a little too long.”
Abruptly, Mingo spoke, calling her name. “River.”
She glanced back at him. He was shaking his head. “Yes?”
“I don’t think that is wise,” he finished.
“What’s he going to do?” she laughed, releasing the man’s jacket. “Drown me on dry land?”
“No,” Jacob said, his voice taking on a tone of menace. “Not drown….”
River reacted as his hand shot out and caught her wrist, but not fast enough. She followed the mountain man’s gaze down to her feet where a puddle of clear liquid had formed, and then looked back up to meet his eyes. They sparked as an electric aura surrounded him and ran from his head to his toes. There was a flash, like lightning.
And everything went dark.
“You need a name,” Becky Boone mused as she inspected her handiwork.
The ragged young man glanced from his image in the mirror to her and back. He tugged on his shirt collar and shifted his neck. “I need a tailor.”
“Now, that’s one of Dan’s best outfits!” she chided as her lips crinkled with barely concealed amusement. The stranger was only a few inches shorter than Dan, but he was lighter by a good fifty pounds. Even though she had taken a tuck here and there, her husband’s red flannel shirt still billowed like a tent on the man’s spare form. A pair of suspenders kept Dan’s altered brown pants in place. The stranger had retained his own boots, but the overall impression was that of a little boy dressed up in his father’s clothes.
A little boy. Where was her little boy?
“Mrs. Boone? Are you all right?”
“Becky,” she smiled as she folded the remains of his torn and bloodied shirt and tucked it in to the basket she kept for rags. His brown pants had ended up there too. “I told you that before. Call me Becky.” She turned toward him, noting with satisfaction that the linen bandage she had placed on his head remained white as snow. “Now, we need to decide on a name.” Becky cocked her head and looked him up and down, frowning. “James? David?” When he shook his head, she tried again. “William, maybe? How about Matthew?” As he shrugged his shoulders, she asked, “You really have no idea? About your name or who you are?”
“I think maybe….” He paused as if bracing himself. “Maybe I was a…physician.”
She had noticed he had a twitch that only surfaced when he tried to remember something personal. It reminded her of the way a little boy would screw up his face before the schoolmaster brought a switch down on his fingers, because he knew he was about to feel pain.
“A physician? Well, that would explain things. You are obviously English and well-educated. Maybe you attended Oxford? If that’s so, then you might know a friend of ours. Kerr Murray? Mingo?” She paused. “No. Well…. Your pallor could come from being inside most of the time, so you might well be a physician. But why would you be in Boonesborough? Visiting someone, perhaps?” She shook her head, answering her own question. “No, if someone had a son who was a physician coming to the fort; we would all have known about it.” At his quizzical look, she added, “When you live in a settlement, everyone knows everyone else’s business before they do.”
He turned away from the mirror as if what he found there had been too hard a puzzle to unravel. “I don’t think I am anyone’s son,” he said as he moved into the room.
“Oh, don’t be silly. Every man is somebody’s son. You have a family somewhere that is missing you. We have to figure out what happened and get you back to them.” Becky paused again as worry for her own family intruded. Dan was still out searching for Israel. Now, she didn’t know if either one of them was safe. Seeking to hide the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes, she turned away from her unexpected guest and began to tidy the cabin. As her eyes fell on her Bible, she recalled what she had been reading the night before. “What about John?” she asked suddenly.
The young man’s long, lean figure was silhouetted by the now blazing fire. He had one hand on the mantle and was staring into the flames. For a moment it seemed as if he had not heard her, then he stirred and turned toward her, a slight smile lifting the edge of one lip. “Yes. John. I’ve been called ‘John’, I think.”
“Well, that’s something!” she exclaimed. “You’ve remembered something. That’s good.”
“No. No, not remembered. Invented. Conceived.” He raised his hands and began to hammer his fingers against his forehead. “Why can’t I think? Why can’t I remember? Why…. Smith.” The pounding stopped. He laughed and grinned at her. “Smith. John Smith. That’s a good old name. John…Smith….Doctor John…Smith….” A shadow passed over his face, like an errant storm cloud on a sunny day. His jaw tightened and his chest began to rise and fall rapidly. “I am Doctor John Smith. I am the –” The sentence broke off abruptly as he fell to his knees, wracked with pain.
Becky hurried over to him. She knelt beside him and caught his trembling form in her arms. “Shh. Don’t try so. Don’t –”
His fingers gripped her arm so hard she felt the flesh bruise. “I have to…try. Have to do…more than try. I have to say it,” he finished with a gasp. “Have to…say….” He stopped abruptly and looked up to meet her concerned stare. “I say, can I have more tea?”
John’s green eyes pleaded with her. “In a minute. Can I have another cup of tea?”
She laughed. “Yes. Yes, you can have all the tea you want.”
“Good. That’s good, because, in a minute I have a feeling that I am going to very much be in need of a great big, bracing cup of tea.” Pushing off of her, John climbed to his feet. For a second he steadied himself on a nearby chair and then stood independently, swaying like a sapling in a strong breeze. A moment later, spreading his arms wide, he threw his head back and shouted at the top of his lungs.
Becky was already running for the kettle by the time he hit the floor.