THE distant lamplights of Chester were casting a yellow glow into the evening darkness when Josh rode into the stable yard at his Flookersbrook lodgings on the outskirts of the city. He flung himself wearily from the saddle and led the horse stamping and snorting into his stall, their breath and the lathered flanks of the animal steaming in the bitter air.
“No luck again today, Diamond,” he said to the horse. Unsaddling, Josh scooped up a fistful of clean bedding straw, twisted it into a wisp and began to work his mount over.
His mind was troubled. This was the second day of searching for Emma, another fruitless day of sifting through silent countryside locked in the punishing grip of winter. Alehouse, farmstead, humble cottage; no matter where he had enquired, heads had been shaken depressingly. Unspoken on many lips were the words none ventured to voice aloud.
A young woman alone, travelling on foot in the worst blizzard in living memory? She stood not a chance of survival.
“She’s here somewhere. I just know it!” Josh’s vehement tones echoed into the high rafters of the building, and the big black horse turned his head enquiringly before moving forward to inspect the empty manger.
“Patience, lad. I’ll fetch your feed.”
Having dealt with the horse, Josh went into the lodging house to the welcoming ambience of good cooking smells, blazing log fires, lively conversation and laughter.
The plump red face of his landlady appeared round the door to the kitchens.
“There you are, sir. Supper’s ready. Go through and sit you down. Tes beefsteak and kidney pie tonight, with a nice plum duff and sweet custard sauce to follow.”
Josh joined the other travellers at the supper table. The savoury-smelling dish placed before him lifted his spirits. He ate abstractedly and by the end of the meal had reached a decision.
Come Thursday he had to be at Shrewsbury for the horse sale. Before he left he’d seek out Emma’s friend, Alice Courtney, and tell her what had transpired. He might be pushing his luck, but perhaps she could throw some light on where Emma might be.
* * * *
Icy air stung his nostrils as Josh rode across the Dee Bridge, his saddlebags packed for the journey ahead. Here within Chester’s protecting city walls the snowfall had been lighter. What remained was turned to slush by the continued trampling of hooves and the passage of wheels.
Josh recollected having seen the young Courtney miss – a coquette if ever there was one – giving her pet dog an early walk in Grosvenor Park, though whether she would feel fit to risk her dainty footwear in the present conditions was debatable.
He had misjudged Alice, for the striking figure in cherry-red and small fluff of a dog coming towards him were unmistakable.
He dismounted, raising his hat.
“Miss Alice, good morrow to you. I wonder, may I steal a moment of your time?”
Pretty words generally worked with good effect. Josh was gratified to see the startled face take on a simper of pleasure.
“Why, Master Brookfield. Charmed to see you, I’m sure.” She hesitated, apprehensive. “Is there news of Emma?”
“Aye, though not good, I fear. I tried the Tarporley hostelry. She’d just left their employ. I must have missed her by a hair’s breadth.”
“Did they say where she’d gone?”
“No. Apparently she was turned off.”
Grimly Josh revealed what he had learned.
Alice gave a snort of disbelief.
“Emma, flirting with the innkeeper’s son? Nonsense!”
“Those were my feelings and I told the landlord so. The weather at the time wasn’t fit to turn a dog out in, let alone a girl. The point is, where has she got to? I’ve searched every inch of the Whitchurch turnpike and found no trace. It’s thought she has perished in the blizzard and lies hidden in a drift somewhere. I don’t believe that,” he added at the young woman’s strangled gasp of dismay. “Miss Alice –”
“Please. It’s Alice.”
“Alice, I love Emma. I shall go to any lengths to find her. Tell me, have you any idea to where she may have fled?”