If women could wear trousers like men, this wouldn’t be happening, Caroline thought as the muddy waters of the Mississippi River closed over her head.
Her skirt, getting heavier by the second as the water saturated the closely-woven cotton, dragged her inexorably toward the silted bottom of the river as she struggled against the swift current. Her chest ached with the need for air as she fought her way to the surface. A dull roaring in her ears shut out all other sound.
She saw something, a piece of tree limb or a board, just above her head. She reached for it, using all her mental energy to pull it closer, but it floated off. Either she was too tired or her power didn’t work under water.
Defeated, she let her exhausted body drift in the current. Would dying be so terrible?
Then Nathan’s image appeared in her mind, his face twisted in grief. I will not give up. She renewed her efforts and kicked her feet as best she could against the constricting skirts. The surface loomed above her, so close and yet still out of reach.
Then someone grasped her hair and yanked.
Spluttering, she emerged. The grip on her long, blonde tresses broke. Another hand grasped her arm and hauled her to the safety of the bank where a woman threw a blanket over her shoulders.
“Lucky for you I saw your hair floating on the water,” a gruff voice said.
Caroline struggled to draw air into her lungs. By the time she could form a coherent thought, let alone words, the man was already out of sight.
“Honey, you is all right now. Step up here and catch your bref.”
Caroline obeyed and then went into a paroxysm of coughing, ending by spewing a torrent of the filthy water at the woman’s feet.
“Sorry!” she gasped, gagging.
“Don’t worry yourself none. Sister Colter’s brewed up some good, strong coffee. You come along and have a cup; you’ll be right as rain in no time.” A hand grasped her elbow, urging her forward.
Her new boots squelched in protest as Caroline followed. Another woman thrust a cup in her hands and she drank the steaming, bitter brew. The first woman trudged off to find another survivor.
“So this is coffee,” she murmured, more to herself than to anyone else. She couldn’t decide if she liked it or not. She had heard of it at home in the United States, but they couldn’t buy it there; no trade had been allowed after the borders closed during the Great Plague of 1815. The coffee sent tendrils of warmth through her limbs along with shivers of foreboding. Given the start of this trip, perhaps being the first Americans to leave the safe haven of their country to visit Floriana hadn’t been such a wise idea.
When she finally stopped shivering, she gazed around for Nathan, certain he would be with the circle of passengers, all as wet and disheveled as she.
Would he be furious with her? Of course, the accident was not her fault, but she had insisted on coming with him and had begged to make their journey via the stern-wheeler rather than the railroad Nathan preferred. And, as usual, her insistence on having her own way had landed her in trouble.
When will I learn to trust his judgment? But if I’d listened to him, I’d be sitting home, no doubt darning socks or some other boring task. She shivered again, thinking boring might be preferable.