Galveston 1900: Swept Away

Copyright 2004 By Texbard

Genre: Original (Beyond Uber) Alt Fiction

Setting: On September 7-8, 1900, the island of Galveston, Texas, was destroyed by a hurricane, or "tropical cyclone," as it was called in those days. This story is a fictional account of two characters who lived there, and their lives during the time of the "great storm."

Sex/Violence/Drugs: Sex - women with women and women with men. There is some domestic abuse, and alcohol use and abuse, though the alcohol is not heavily focused upon. Rated "R."

Angst Factor: High. However my rule continues to apply.

Mailing Lists: Updates plus chat - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Texbard or Updates only - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TexbardUpdates

Website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard; Feedback welcome: texbard@yahoo.com

Special thanks to Gloria for the idea. :-)

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Chapter 1

A shiny black bicycle flew around the corner and down a low-grade hill, bumping precariously over clumps of sandy soil in the middle of the packed dirt street, causing horses at various hitching posts along the way to shy, while others merely whinnied in protest at the disturbance of an otherwise peaceful March morning. The rider, a tall woman with long wavy chestnut hair, steered the vehicle sharply to the right and skidded to a stop in front of the general store. She quickly dismounted and leaned the bicycle against a post before entering the small market.

Her eyes wandered over the tidy interior, glancing wistfully at rich slabs of cheese and barrels of bright-colored hard candy, along with an array of expensive chocolates behind a glass case. She pushed back her straw cowboy hat, which was already askew from the ride, and let it dangle against her shoulder blades from two rawhide ties, before she shook her thick hair into some semblance of order. She hooked her thumbs into a pair of navy blue suspenders and rocked back on her heels, pretending to decide what she wanted.

"Good morning to you, Miss Travis," the shop-keeper nodded at her before turning his attention back to a precisely-lined ledger, his pencil scratching across the surface as he calculated sales for the prior month. "Your tab will be due next week." He glanced back at her. "Just a reminder."

"'Morning, Mr. Williams." She moved closer to a case of meats and breads. "I get paid this evening. I'll settle up with you on Monday if that's alright."

"That will be fine, Rachel." Mrs. Williams, a short plump woman with graying hair and round spectacles entered from a back storage room, offering her a pleasant smile. "Have you decided what you want yet?"

Steel blue eyes gazed longingly at hearty roast beef and ham, and Rachel released a quiet sigh. "Quarter pound of the pre-cooked salt pork and a half dozen plain wheat crackers, please." Deciding what she wanted was merely a diversion, and they all three knew it. Rachel Travis ordered the same thing, day in and day out, five days a week, come rain or come shine. It was all she could afford.

"Tchh." Mrs. Williams shook her head in kind reproach. She wrapped up the order in a brown bag and winked at the younger woman, then tucked in two dill pickles, and several licorice whips, an extra treat at no charge. "Hard-working girl like you needs more than crackers and pork to get you through the day. It's a wonder you don't shrink up and blow away."

"I get two squares a day with my room." Rachel smiled and accepted her dinner. "I get by on that pretty well. This is just a snack to tide me over until supper time." She pulled her hat back up and secured the ties under her chin. "Thank you, ma'am. If you'll add it to my tab, please."

"Have a good day of work, Miss Travis." The shopkeepers watched the proud woman turn, the sunlight burnishing her hair with bright auburn highlights as she made her way back outside.

She hopped back on the bicycle and dropped her bag into a basket on the back, and then she was off. A cool salty breeze blew in from the Gulf and she inhaled in appreciation, feeling the early morning sun on her tanned face. She would be cursing the sun before day's end, but for now, in the first rays after dawn, the warmth was welcomed, as it beat through the light-weight blue-checkered cotton of her long-sleeved shirt and the darker navy material of her denim work trousers.

Four blocks from the pier, her destination, she heard a loud explosion, followed by the rattling of the front tire rim on her bike. "Dammit!" The rubber outer tire was quickly shredding, along with the inner tube. She took a firm grip on the handlebars, trying to control the metal rim, to no avail. The rim stuck in a rut and the frame twisted sideways, throwing her headfirst over the handlebars. She tucked and rolled, tumbling into tall marsh grass at the side of the road.

"Ouch!" She stood, rubbing her elbow, and glanced down at it. Her shirt was ripped and the elbow was scraped and bleeding. "Damn," a more dejected remark than anything else. She bent over, retrieving her now-crushed straw hat, and hobbled back to the bike. A quick self-assessment revealed that her pride was damaged most of all. The bike tire and tube could be replaced, and the dirt on the frame buffed off. Her elbow would heal. She would, however, be late for work.

"Hey!" Several seagulls swooped down, snatching up what she realized were her crackers, which had spilled out of the dinner bag. She ran over and grabbed the salt pork, pickles, and licorice, blowing sand off them, then stuffed them back inside the torn bag. "Perfectly good waste of money," she muttered under her breath, while glaring at the birds, which hovered overhead mocking her, the crackers clutched in their sharp beaks. "Go on! You won't be getting anything else from me." She shooed at the air with a wide sweep of her arm, and watched them fly away toward the water.

It was a long walk, pushing the bicycle the last four blocks, and she could see the burly dock manager standing at the end of the road, hands on hips, waiting for her. Great. Just great. "Travis." His disapproving voice carried across the last half block. "You're fifteen minutes late. Either you work late to make it up, or I take it from your pay this evening. Your choice."

"Sorry I'm late, Mr. Avery. As you can see, I have a flat tire. I'll work the extra minutes tonight." She parked the useless bike against the pier railing. "Where do you need me today? Back on the cotton freighter?"

"Yes. Show some hustle. They need all the hands they can get to load that boat so it can pull out of here at first light tomorrow." He dismissed her with a wave of his hand, stroking his short black beard with the other as he checked her off on his list, the last employee to arrive for the day.

"Yes, sir." She pulled a pair of thick work gloves from her back pocket, donning them as she trotted toward the last boat off the end of the pier, her heavy boots clunking loudly on the wooden planking of the dock. Without a word, she took up a place among a group of workers, nodding a brief greeting at the two men on either side of her. They formed an assembly line of sorts, loading large bales of cotton from the Galveston mill onto a freighter, which would then deliver the cargo to ports all along the Gulf Coast.

The job would last until sunset. Before day's end, the men would be stripped to their bare chests, and Rachel would be down to a sweaty cotton undershirt, which clung to her skin, along with sand and sea salt, forming a fine layer of grime over her arms, neck, and face. She fell into a familiar routine, working alongside her male companions.

She was accepted as one of the boys, and had worked on the docks of Galveston since running away from home at age fifteen, her body changing from that of a girl to a young woman in the eight years that had passed. It was a strong body, lean and carved with muscles, but the body of a woman, nonetheless, a fact not lost on many of her fellow dock workers, especially on days like the one at hand, when she started out with her hair spilling over her shoulders and down her back. By noon it would be braided, or pulled up into a knot against the back of her neck.

Rachel felt the sun growing warmer, and broke from the line long enough to dampen a handkerchief in the water bucket before folding it and tucking it into the brim of her hat, taking a long sip from the dipper while she was there. Working the cotton line wasn't her favorite assignment, but it was honest labor and her wages were fair. She much preferred the days when one of the fishing boats called her aboard, and she could spend the day out on the open water, sharing cigars and whiskey while they trawled for shrimp or moved to deeper seas in search of bigger fish.

At noon she hastily ate her salt pork dinner, then resumed her place in line. The cotton mill was a steady source of income and employment for the island, and Rachel mused that she was glad to be handling the end product outside, under the wide-open sky, rather than inside the sweltering factory with the mill workers. She knew from an early age that she wasn't meant to be cooped up inside for long. Her skin, indeed all her senses, craved the sun, the wind, or the rain -- whatever Mother Nature had to offer in the temperate climate she chose to live in.

When the sun finally began to set, most of the workers scurried away as quickly as possible after the dock master carefully counted out their weeks' wages. It was Friday and most had families to go home and tend to. Others, like Rachel, had evening plans. True to her promise, she took up a long-handled broom and began sweeping the dock area of bits of cotton and baling material, a task often reserved for whoever arrived late for assignment.

"Rachel." A sandy-haired man stopped on his way to the end of the pier. "Will you be joining us for some draw-poker this evening?" He clapped her on the back with one hand, withdrawing a hand-rolled cigar from his shirt pocket with the other.

"Hello, Billy, you have another one of those?" Steel-colored eyes twinkled at him charmingly.

"For you, of course." He retrieved another and reached across, tucking it into Rachel's own front pocket with a cheeky grin.

"I'll be at the saloon, but I'm tending the bar tonight, so I won't be able to play." Her voice was filled with regret. Rachel loved nothing better than a good game of poker, especially on payday. Unknown to the others, she could and did count cards. She didn't do it every game, but sometimes, when she really needed extra income, she wasn't beneath using her secret skill to her own advantage.

"Well, then, I reckon I'll see you later tonight, if not at supper." Billy tipped his hat to her and moved on, making his way across town to the same boarding house where Rachel lived.

"Thank you kindly for the cigar." She waved at him, then quickly finished her work, dumping the sweepings in a large barrel for burning later. After collecting her wages and apologizing again for her tardiness, she began the long walk home, pushing her bicycle along beside her. The store was already closed, so she wouldn't be able to purchase a new tire and tube until the next morning. Her shoulders slumped. There goes more money I wasn't planning on spending. Maybe I can manage to play a few hands of poker and make up the difference.

She reached the boarding house and slipped through the main entry parlor into a long hallway. It was cool and humid inside, a welcome respite from the day's activities. She wearily climbed the stairs and turned, opening the first door to the right, entering her room. She quickly grabbed a change of clothing from an old armoire, along with a towel, and ducked back out, eyeing the community water closet at the far end of the hall. Rachel smiled. The door was open, indicating it was available.

Much later, after a quick bath in the large claw foot tub, and an even quicker supper of ham and baked beans, she rode to the end of the trolley line, then hitched a ride on the back of a buggy to the very edge of town, to a small establishment that was typically filled to the rafters on Friday and Saturday evenings. It was there that Galveston's finest often co-mingled with the seedier members of society. Wealthy bored men came to spend their money on poker and fine liquor. The less-fortunate came to win the spendings of the wealthy, while drinking the cheaper whiskey offered as the house staple.

Many men, both wealthy and poor, came to partake of one of the saloon's less-advertised offerings. The establishment was more than a place to drink and play games, it was also an assignation house, frequented by some of the city's young beautiful ladies of ill repute. Most of the women who practiced their trade at the saloon took their customers elsewhere for their trysts, but a few of them had permanent rooms upstairs. Local authorities turned their heads, for the most part.

Rachel entered the saloon, blinking at the already smoke filled room. Laughter rang out, along with the clinking of glass and the shuffle of cards, while a piano player produced raucous music from an upright instrument in one corner, one foot tapping against the wood-planked floor, while the other worked the piano pedals. "Hi, Lil." She smiled at one of the prostitutes who lived above the saloon. "How's business?"

"We'll see." The blonde woman moved closer, whispering conspiratorially as Rachel took her place behind the bar, automatically grabbing a rag to swipe down the counter. "See that gentleman over there?" Lillie nodded slightly toward an olive-skinned man who was involved in a poker game with some of the town's high rollers.

"Good prospect?" Rachel immediately disliked the man, finding his straight black hair annoying, and his dark eyes too beady. She didn't trust him, and she didn't know why.

"Maybe." Large blue eyes met Rachel's, and Lillie twisted a purple grosgrain hair ribbon around one finger while she talked. "He's been buying me drinks all evening, and he comes over and talks to me during breaks in the game. He seems to have a lot of notes to spend."

"I hope it works out for you," Rachel lied. She did hope good things came her friend's way. A part of her, however, felt protective of Lillie. And, she acknowledged, possessive. Lillie alone knew Rachel's deepest darkest secret, and often indulged it, when not otherwise occupied. Rachel reached out, tugging a long blonde ringlet affectionately. "Looks like his game is finished."

Lillie looked up, just as the man approached the bar. "Shot of whiskey," his voice was flat, his eyes flicking over Rachel before quickly dismissing her. "And a brandy sour for the lady." The last word was drawn out, whether as a compliment or as a sarcastic slight, Rachel couldn't tell. Her dislike deepened.

"So sweet thing," the man turned all his attention on Lillie. "Perhaps you can give me a tour of this fine establishment." His eyes wandered toward the staircase, his intentions obvious as he casually rested one hand on Lillie's rump. Rachel looked away and clenched her fists, twisting them in the bar rag, lest she start a barroom brawl.

"I believe I might be able to do that." Lillie batted her pale lashes playfully, then picked up the brandy glass. "This way, sir." She made her way around the bar, holding out her arm. The man took it and they disappeared up the stairs. Rachel watched as Lillie's long full skirts swirled around the first bend out of sight. That's my favorite skirt, she sighed quietly. It really wasn't. Lillie always looked nice, and her choice of pale lavender was a pretty one, but not any prettier than her other skirts.

The brunette shook her head, clearing it of morose thoughts, then walked around the bar and began working the tables, taking drink orders and filling them quickly and efficiently. It was a full house and more than one patron tucked extra coinage and even a few paper notes into her hands while paying for the libations. In less than an hour she had earned the price of a new tire and tube for her bicycle.

She folded the bills and tucked them into a back pocket of her trousers, carefully buttoning it closed. The coins went into a front pocket of her fresh white shirt, which she also buttoned closed against pickpockets. She smiled at her good fortune, glad she'd earned what she needed so quickly. The smile was cut short by an ear-piercing scream from upstairs.

Rachel turned and ran, taking the steps up to the back rooms two at a time. Lil. She was almost certain her friend was the one who had screamed. Several men followed behind her, some out of curiosity and some bent on helping a damsel in distress. She was halfway down the hallway when she heard a second scream, definitely coming from Lillie's room.

With no further thought, she flung the door open. Lillie was on the bed, face down, her skirts pushed partway up her bare legs. The man was on top of her, holding her down, his features contorted in rage. Rachel's eyes swept over the scene, realizing Lillie's hands were bound and tied to the ornate brass bedpost. "Get off her!" She bodily grabbed the man, hauling him to his feet by his shirt collar. Before he could react she cocked a fist and punched him soundly across his face, breaking his nose.

"You wench!" Blood spurted over his shirt as he swiped at his nose with the back of his hand. He kicked her in the shin and she kicked back, making contact with his groin. He grabbed his private parts and sunk to his knees, an unintelligible groaning sound escaping his lips.

"Get him out of here." Rachel booted him from behind, sending him sprawling on his belly to the floor and eliciting another groan. "I'll take care of Lil."

Three men grabbed hold of the man and hauled him away, leaving the two women alone.

"Are you alright?" Rachel moved to untie her friend, working at the knots in a pair of leather suspenders.

"I think so." Lillie rolled over and sat up, rubbing her wrists where the suspenders had bound them, cutting into her skin enough to leave indentions. "Bastard."

"What happened?" Rachel sat down beside her, hesitantly touching a bruised cheek. "You've got a shiner there, Lil."

"Bastard wanted to kiss me, and you know I don't kiss my gentlemen callers. It's simply not done." She rubbed her face. "We'd already you know one time. And then he started in trying to force me to kiss him. When I refused, he punched me and next thing I knew, he was wrestling me down and tying me up. Said he was going to take me in my arse. I think he would have, too, if you hadn't heard me." She wrinkled her nose in disgust.

"Glad I got here in time." Rachel folded her own hands, pressing them between her knees and looking down.

"Me too." Gentle fingers tilted Rachel's chin up. "It's your lucky night, Miss Rachel. I'm not going back downstairs, and I'm not in the mood to sleep just yet."

Steel blue eyes studied her almost shyly. "I don't have the money tonight, Lil."

"No charge." Lillie smiled. "Consider it my way of showing my gratitude for your heroic actions. Besides " she reached inside her half-open bodice, pulling out a wad of notes. "He paid me up front, so I'm settled up for the evening."

"Are you certain?" Rachel pushed disheveled blonde curls back from her friend's face, smoothing a mussed hair ribbon. "I mean, after what he did, maybe you should just rest."

"Nah." Lillie cuffed her on the arm. "It would take more than that bastard to put me out of commission. Come on. It's been a while anyway. You're a breath of fresh air, Rachel, especially after the steady company of gentlemen for a few weeks. The best medicine for me is to get right back up on that horse and ride. No offense, but you're one of the more gentle horses."

This brought a genuine smile. "Alright." The brunette slowly stood. "Let me go close down my part of the bar tab. It'll be easy enough to tell them you don't want to be alone, and I'm going to sit up with you for a while. They'll leave us alone that way."

"Don't be long." Lillie stretched out on the bed, curling up on her side on the patchwork quilt and propping her head in one hand. She twirled a bodice lace between her fingers and smiled fetchingly at her friend.

"I won't." Rachel slipped out of the room, hurrying quietly down the stairs.

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"Rachel." Lillie gently prodded a bare arm. The brunette was sprawled stomach-down across her, Rachel's long hair spilling over both of them. Her head was cradled against Lillie's shoulder and she had one leg tossed across Lil's thighs. "Sugar, you need to wake up."

The brunette mumbled something unintelligible, and slowly stroked her hand around the curve of Lillie's hip and up her side, cupping her breast while she ground her pelvis against the blonde's leg. "Mmm. I've missed you, Lil." She smiled, her eyes still closed, savoring the memory of their tryst the night before.

"I've missed you too, but you must wake up now." She shoved her friend a little harder. "Sun's already up."

"Eh?" Rachel shot up to a sitting position, groaning and throwing one arm across eyes. She peeked out again and cursed quietly at the pale gray light filtering through the lace curtains hanging over the window. "Dammit!"

Long legs swung over the feather bed and she scrambled into her drawers, then hopped around the room pulling up her trousers while she tucked in a very rumpled shirt, while Lillie giggled quietly at her. She located her stockings under the bed and tugged them on, followed by her boots. "Can you ?"

Lillie grabbed a brush from the top of her armoire and motioned Rachel to sit down while she ran it through tangled brown waves, trying to make some semblance of order. "Stop that!" She swatted a wandering hand away from her bare inner thigh, then grinned affectionately at the blue eyes that batted innocently back at her. "You are going to go to Hell, Miss Travis."

"Guess I'll be in good company, then." Rachel stood as Lillie laid the brush aside. "Thank you, my dear." She took one soft hand in her own and pecked the top of it, the only kiss she was allowed. "For everything." She winked, then turned the doorknob.

"You be careful, Rachel." Lillie untwisted one of the brunette's suspenders, playfully snapping it into proper place. "Don't let anyone see you leaving here."

"I'm always careful." Then she was gone, the door clicking softly closed behind her.

The hallway was blessedly empty, and she crept quietly around the known boards that creaked. She reached a narrow door and pushed it open, coming out on the fire escape. She scanned the alleyway, and satisfied she had no observers, quickly clamored down the rickety stairs and made the last long leap to the ground. Pausing for a moment, she leaned against the back wall of the saloon and waited for her heartbeat to return to a normal pace.

Being with Lillie was dangerous. She wasn't entirely sure she would be prosecuted, but at best, if they were caught together, or if anyone suspected the nature of their relationship, she would be ridiculed publicly. More likely, they might both be run off the island. She kicked the sandy ground savagely and began walking in no particular direction, her boots crunching in the hard-packed loam. Home was across town and it wasn't appealing to her at the moment.

After wandering aimlessly for a while, she wound up on the beach, a place that always soothed her soul, especially early in the morning. It was just past dawn, the pink-tinged sky stretching to meet a silver-hued ocean at the horizon. A gentle steady breeze blew in off the waves, rustling the tall grasses in the sand dunes that formed natural protection for the island from erosion. Seagulls chattered among themselves, dipping into the water to catch tiny fish. Small sand crabs scurried away from her feet as she walked, and she smiled slightly as they disappeared back into the water where they belonged.

She reached a private fishing dock and ambled to the end, sitting down and removing her boots and socks. Rolling up her trouser legs, she dunked her feet into the cold water and wiggled her toes in pleasure, listening to the roar of the waves as they rolled over her feet. She had no idea who owned the house up the beach that the dock went with, but no one had ever complained about her occasional visits there. It was a place she came to when she was feeling out of sorts.

Rachel closed her eyes, ordering her thoughts. She wondered, for the millionth time, why she was so different from any other women she knew. True, she was accepted in Galveston, having lived there for a very long time without causing any real trouble. She had become a fixture, like the docks, the mill, and the grand old homes in the nicer parts of town. She just was, and no one seemed to mind her being there. Most people were polite to her, if not friendly, and she had a handful of people she considered to be friends, more of them male than female.

She knew some of the townspeople whispered about her, when they thought she wasn't listening, knew they found her manner of dress odd, and her choice of work even stranger. She was the only woman who labored on the docks, and the only one on the island who chose to wear trousers and men's shirts. No one had ever directly questioned her about her clothing or her choice of work, and as far as she knew, no one suspected just how different she really was.

Lil. She sighed, then flung a piece of lose planking into the water. Rachel knew who and what Lillie was, and never judged her friend for it. She, of all people, had no right to judge anyone for their sexual behavior. Rachel was at times deeply ashamed of urges she seemed to have no control over. She worked very hard to never let her true nature show, taking extra care not to stare at any of the pretty ladies in town, or to become overly friendly with any of them. Most of her female friends consisted of some of the town's matrons, who tried, unsuccessfully, to take Rachel under their wing, mothering her to the point of becoming smothering if she allowed it.

Lillie had taken Rachel under her wing in a different way. Lillie just somehow knew what she was, and was the one who made the first move, luring Rachel to her room the first time under the guise of giving her a tour of the upstairs portion of the saloon. Rachel had been to that same room off and on over the six years that had passed since that first time, as Lillie's availability and Rachel's resources permitted.

She had no idea why Lillie was willing to allow the things they did together, and had never questioned it. She was simply grateful Lillie was willing, and she insisted on paying, just like everyone else, rarely accepting 'charity' as she had the previous night. Lillie seemed to enjoy her attentions as much as she enjoyed the blonde's, and Lil allowed Rachel to be the aggressor most of the time.

Rachel brought her feet up and hugged her arms around her knees. She didn't understand why she needed to do the things she did with Lillie. She had tried, for a time, to allow some of the young men in Galveston to court her, even going so far as to wear skirts when she wasn't working. More than a few of the eligible bachelors had taken notice, and for a few months, she was wined and dined at some of Galveston's finer establishments. Rachel in a dress, with her hair curled and pinned up, made an elegant picture of femininity.

It didn't last. She had been miserable the entire time, finding the clothing restrictive and the men unattractive. After that, she tried instead to be celibate. She knew her thoughts and the things she wanted to do were sins, mortal ones at that. Raised Catholic, she hadn't been to confession in years. She did try to attend mass each Sunday, but always sat in back and slipped away without taking the communion sacrament. Her soul was too soiled to deserve communion, or to be redeemed by penance.

Celibacy didn't suit her either, and she eventually found herself back at the saloon and in Lillie's bed. She tried after that, to accept things for what they were, and herself for whom she was. If she was going to go to Hell, she might as well enjoy the journey. On mornings like the present one, however, she hated herself and who she was all over again, and she hated having to sneak away from the saloon in shame.

She closed her eyes and tilted her face up toward the sun, which was rising higher in the sky. She enjoyed the sensation of the wind as it whipped through her hair and sniffed delicately, then opened her eyes again, looking down to locate the source of the scent of fresh tobacco. Ah. She spied her cigar. She had transferred it from her torn checkered shirt to the white one the night before, but never got around to smoking it. That could be remedied, later. She drew the cigar out and sniffed it in appreciation, running its length under her nose.

Her nose twitched and she tucked the cigar back into her pocket, instead lifting the collar of her shirt and inhaling the scent of Lillie's Lemon Verbena Toilet Water. Another twitch of her nose singled out another more personal fragrance of Lillie's, and Rachel blushed at her own thoughts. She wrapped her arms around her legs again and rested her forehead on her upraised knees. "Why did you make me like this?" It was an almost silent whispered prayer, something she rarely did anymore, convinced no one was really listening.

Her thoughts were interrupted as something large and soft brushed against her arm and wrapped around it. "Yahh!" Her head popped up and she grabbed the offending object, almost flinging it away. It was a large piece of cream-colored paper and she stopped, noticing some charcoal etchings. "What's this?" She carefully spread it open, studying an etching of the Gulf shoreline, and a dock, and she tilted her head and scrunched up her forehead a woman with long dark hair wearing trousers and sitting on the end of the dock. "That's me," she said to no one at all, tracing the drawing with her fingertip while she held the paper down against the dock with her other hand and one knee.

Slowly, she looked around and down the beach, trying to determine where the etching came from. Another pass located a color amiss among the browns and greens of the dunes, a bit of unnatural blue. Steel-colored eyes squinted as Rachel stood, making out a woman's shoe as well, along with what appeared to be the top of a hat. "Ma'am?" Rachel stood, rolling up the drawing. "Is this yours?" She held it up in her fist, over her head.

The shoe moved and another appeared next to it, then the hat began moving upward, followed by reddish-auburn hair and a pale face. Pale except for the other woman's cheeks, which were blushing nicely, clearly visible even from where Rachel stood. The brunette chuckled and began walking back up the dock to the beach and through the thick loose sand above the packed part closer to the water, until she reached the spot where the shy artist stood, looking down at her feet and shuffling uncertainly from side to side.

"It's very good," Rachel offered.

"Thank you. Both for the compliment and for catching it. The wind blew it out of my hands." Very slowly, the dove-colored bonnet tilted up, and a pair of wide hazel eyes blinked sheepishly back at her. "Please forgive me," a soft melodic voice addressed her. "I didn't mean to intrude on your privacy."

"No need to apologize." Rachel offered the drawing back to the woman, taking in her thick red hair, which was pulled into a twist at the back of her neck. The woman wore a crisp white ruffled blouse, which was tucked into a blue skirt that was fitted at the waist, then flared out , falling to just above her black shoe-tops. Her features were very young. Rachel frowned, as she noted a fading bruise around the woman's left eye, marring an otherwise perfect face, with almost translucent pale skin, which was lightly dusted with freckles across a cute perky nose and high cheekbones. "You're quite an accomplished artist."

"I I am?" Red lashes blinked uncertainly. "I mean thank you." The hazel eyes dropped back down.

"You're welcome, Miss ?" The brunette trailed off, holding out her hand in formal greeting.

"Oh." The woman took her hand, and Rachel felt soft skin against her own calloused palm. "I'm Madeline. Madeline Crockett, but you can call me 'Mattie'. Most folks do."

"Pleased to meet you, Mattie." Rachel reluctantly dropped her hand after briefly shaking it. "My name is Rachel Travis."

"Likewise." Mattie blushed again. "I truly am sorry for drawing your portrait without asking permission. I come out here sometimes, especially early in the morning when the light isn't so harsh. It's easier on my eyes for sketching." She gestured toward the sand at her feet, where a pad of paper and a few charcoal pencils rested. "I often draw whatever I see out here. Sometimes the gulls, sometimes the water itself. Today, I drew you."

"Well, Miss Crockett "

"Mattie."

"Mattie." Rachel smiled charmingly. "You can draw me anytime you want to."

"Maybe I will." Mattie glanced up at the sky. The pink tint was gone, replaced by pale blue patches and fluffy white cumulus clouds. "Oh. It's getting late. I'd better be going. My husband will be up by now and I should get his breakfast. Then I've got to go into town to work at the tailor's on Main."

"I know the place." Rachel shaded her eyes with her hand, having left her hat back at the boarding house before she went to the saloon. "Do you work there regularly?"

"All day long, Monday through Saturday." Mattie smiled. "Maybe you could stop by the house for afternoon tea sometime."

Blue eyes grew wide at the unexpected invitation. Tea? No one ever invites me to do anything besides play poker. She quickly returned the smile. There's a first time for everything. "That would be nice. I'd like that."

"Very well then, Rachel. How does a week from tomorrow sound, around mid-afternoon?" Mattie pointed toward a small cottage a ways down the beach. "That's my house, so you can come by then, if you'd like. We haven't lived here very long. It would be nice to have another woman friend. I work so much, I haven't had much time to get out and socialize with anyone."

"A week from tomorrow would be fine." Rachel stooped down, gathering up Mattie's pencils and sketchpad. She handed them over and found the rolled-up drawing pressed into her empty hand.

"Here. You can keep this, seeing as how it's a picture of you." Mattie blushed again. "I'll see you next Sunday afternoon, Rachel."

"Good-bye." The brunette watched the redhead as she made her way up the beach toward the house. "Thank you for the drawing."

Mattie fluttered a hand in response, then clutched her bonnet to keep it from blowing off, as she disappeared among the tall dune grasses. Rachel watched until she reappeared further down, and went inside the house.

Did I just make a new friend? Rachel pondered their exchange. Most of the respectable women on the island her age paid little notice to her, and she found herself feeling invisible sometimes. Mattie had looked directly into her eyes, and smiled at her, and hadn't seemed to notice at all that she was wearing men's clothing. Maybe not everyone thinks I'm so different after all.

Heartened, she began the long walk home.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mattie crept warily into the house, stepping quietly across the braided-rag rug in the entryway, in case her husband wasn't yet awake. He had come in very late the night before, and slipped into bed while she pretended to be asleep. Prior to coming to bed, he had tinkered around in the water closet for much longer than usual, cursing a few times for some unknown reason. "Adam?" she called out softly.

No answer. She stepped around the corner and into the kitchen, and nearly jumped out of her skin. "Oh."

"Where's my breakfast?" Adam's gruff voice sounded from behind the latest issue of National Geographic. He sat at the head of the table, chair tilted back slightly, his leg crossed over his knee, and his cigar smoke curling up from an ashtray. He didn't bother to look at her as he spoke, rifling idly through the magazine instead.

"There's some fresh-squeezed juice in the ice box," Mattie placed her sketchpad and pencils on the end of the table and hastened to pour up a glass, setting it next to him at arm's length. "Coffee is staying warm on the stove, and I have flap jacks and ham keeping warm in the oven."

"Flap jacks?" his voice gentled and he finally looked up at her turned back. "My favorite."

"I know. That's why I made them." She fetched a plate from the cupboard and opened the oven, releasing the tantalizing scent of the cornmeal cakes and melting butter, along with the rich ham. It wafted through the kitchen, warring with the cigar smoke for dominance. She dished up the meal and placed it in front of him, carefully tucking a cream-colored napkin in his lap before quickly stepping back.

"You been wasting time with those pictures again?" Adam scowled at the pad and tilted his head in scrutiny. A breeze from the open window had flipped open the cover, and a second drawing of Rachel walking along the beach was plainly visible. "Who's that?"

"Oh." Mattie ducked her head into the cupboard, searching for the maple syrup, grateful for the hidden moment to let a rising blush fade. Why she was blushing, she had no idea. "Someone who was walking on the beach. A stranger." For now, she added silently.

"You spend too much time out on that beach." He took a sip of coffee and spluttered, spitting it across the table. "Too damned hot!" He glared at her and she cowered.

"I'm sorry." She grabbed a dishrag and wiped up the coffee. "Here, let me put it in the ice box for a few minutes."

"No. Never mind." Adam swiped his face with his hand.

Mattie really looked at his face for the first time since entering the kitchen, her hazel eyes growing wide. "What happened to your nose? Is it broken?" His entire nose was swollen and red, and the bridge appeared to be slightly crooked.

"None of your business." He laid down the magazine and picked up a fork, savagely stabbing at the ham. "I don't know if it's broken."

"Maybe we should put some ice chips on it." Mattie opened the icebox door again.

"No!" he barked at her. "Just leave me alone and let me eat my breakfast in peace."

Her eyes stung, and a familiar sick sensation twisted in her gut. "Alright. Let me make up a plate for myself and I'll "

"Get out!" He yelled, as he picked up the magazine and hurled it at her.

Mattie ran from the kitchen and felt her charcoal pencils hit her in the back as she fled. She scrambled across the front room, dodging a low table and two parlor chairs.

"Maybe if you'd pay more attention to being my wife, and less attention to daydreaming on the beach, maybe my mouth wouldn't be burned, and maybe I would have come home earlier last night. Maybe then I wouldn't have a broken nose." He stood in the kitchen doorway, glaring at her as she stopped and stood rooted in place.

She didn't know what to do. If she left, she'd go back down to the beach for a while, and that seemed to be what was making him angry. She couldn't stay because he'd just asked her to leave. Slowly, she eased toward the bedroom door. "Adam. I'm sorry. Please go eat your breakfast. I'll go tend to the wash I need to do tomorrow." She didn't dare mention her job at the tailor's shop. He usually drove her into town. She ducked into the bedroom and closed the door.

The adrenalin racing through her system slowed, and she began to shake. "Oh, dear God." Her knees gave out and she sank down onto the plump down mattress, feeling her entire body shudder. The tears came next. She despised herself, and grabbed a handkerchief from the night table, dabbing angrily at her face. Why can't I do anything right?

She waited for a long while, relieved at the silence on the other side of the door. I need to get to work. She was late for work often. Luckily, the tailor seemed to genuinely like her, and had never complained. Weighing her options, she did indeed get up and move to a hamper in the corner, pulling out assorted soiled clothing and stuffing them into a canvas bag which would later be toted into the kitchen and out onto the back porch where she kept the wash tub.

Finally, she heard Adam's heavy boot steps as he walked through the living room. The front door slammed and her entire body relaxed. After a few minutes, she looked out the window and saw Adam climbing into their lightweight buggy. He flicked a small switch and their two bay mares took off, trotting from in front of the stable past the house, and out onto the road. She had no idea where he was going on a Saturday, and she didn't much care, as long as he stayed gone until she could get to work. Of course now, she reflected, she would have to walk up to the main road and catch the trolley.

The mirror in the water closet revealed puffy red eyes. They would look normal again by the time she reached the tailor's shop. She quickly re-did her hair back into a tighter knot, pinning it up securely with a few long ivory hairpins. Twitching the ruffles on her blouse into place, she made one last self-assessment, then left the room.

Before leaving, she went into the kitchen and made sure the fire in the stove was out. The dirty dishes were quickly piled into a dishpan for washing later. She hesitated, debating on washing them right away, but that would make her even later than she already was. She covered the pan with a large kitchen towel and placed it in the deep sink. Maybe Adam wouldn't even notice it there. Or maybe he would. She'd just have to get home before he did, and take care of them. She was certain Mr. Vaughan, the tailor, would allow her to leave early. He was generally lenient, no matter what she asked of him.

As she left the room, her eyes fell on the still-open sketchpad, and the drawing of Rachel. She picked it up, studying it carefully. It was nice, she decided, with her new friend's long hair whipping back in the wind, her hands shoved into her pockets. She had seemed to be deep in thought, and Mattie wondered what went on behind those eyes. She closed her own and concentrated, trying to remember. Steel blue. That's what color they were. A pair of kind eyes, along with a warm sunny smile and a raspy Texas twang. She found herself looking forward to tea the following week. Was Adam still going into Houston on business for the weekend? She frowned. I hope so.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next week flew by in a haze of activity. A few more days were spent loading cotton freighters on the docks until finally, one of the fishing boats requested that Rachel be assigned to work on board for the remainder of the week. She smiled broadly at the news. Life was good.

Friday came, the final day of the fishing assignment, and she arrived at the docks bright and early, parking her now-repaired and shined bicycle and making her way down the dock among a long row of fishing boats until she reached her destination. "Ahoy." She grabbed a thick rope and half-stepped, half swung from the dock onto the boat's deck.

"Ahoy, Rachel." Her friend Billy had also been hired to work on the boat, and together they prepared to untie several lines and shove off. It was a beautiful day, with a hint of a breeze and not a cloud in the sky.

Once they were underway and the sails unfurled, Billy took control of the helm and the rudder, leaving Rachel to set up several fishing poles along the railing. They were fastened firmly into some new-fangled stands that kept them from falling overboard. They didn't have to hold onto them, but could merely walk along, monitoring the lines for signs of activity. She also unrolled a large net and hooked it onto the back of the boat so it could drag along behind. Hopefully they might snare some more fish in that manner.

Satisfied everything was in place, Rachel kicked off her boots and stockings, lit up a cigar, and plopped onto a bench off to one side, where she baited a hook and dropped it into the greenish-brown water. The sea near Galveston was not the beautiful aquamarine she had heard of closer to Florida. Far away as it was, the Mississippi delta was a constant source of sand and all kinds of waste materials, which washed out in all directions from southern Louisiana for hundreds of miles. The waters of her hometown were colored almost a mucky brown at times, as a result.

She loved being out on the water, regardless of its hue, and secretly hoped she might have a boat of her own someday. Hiring out on fishing boats would have to do, for the time being. The current assignment was one of her favorites.

The boat was owned by a long-time acquaintance of hers, David Gentry, a man she had met her very first week in Galveston. He was down below, most likely still asleep. He was a friend of the bottle and had been for years, although he was a harmless drunk. They'd wake him up once they got further out past the island into open water. He had taken her into apprenticeship her first week on the island, and taught her the fine art of deep-sea fishing. It was a lesson well learned, and had kept food in her belly during those early months on the island, when she was still learning her way around.

She'd been such a child back then, she mused, alone and scared. She'd lied about her age for a while. She had to in order to rent a room and find suitable work. Had anyone known she was only fifteen at the time, they might very well have placed her in the orphanage or set her to work at the looms in the cotton mill.

Or worse, one of the bachelors in town might have tried to arrange to marry her. She shuddered at the possibility. It was one of the reasons she had run away from Fort Worth in the first place. She could still hear her father's voice, screaming at her as he towered over her while she sat hunched down in a corner of the bedroom she shared with her two younger sisters.

He'd caught her out in the barn, spooning with Sarah, a girl who had recently moved back to Fort Worth from Europe, France, to be exact. Sarah was an American, but had been away at a fancy French finishing school. Sophisticated and beautiful, she was eighteen, a grown woman, and wise in the ways of the world. The daughter of a wealthy Fort Worth socialite, she'd caught Rachel's eye at the ice cream parlor, and they struck up an immediate, if odd, friendship.

Sarah wore the latest Gibson girl fashions, and kept her long black hair finely-coiffed, piled up in soft curls on top of her head. She was slender and refined, with milky-pale skin and she always smelled nice. It was a stark contrast to Rachel's overalls and work boots, which were often liberally covered in cow manure. Even back then her days were spent in hard labor, working her father's farm as he struggled to feed his large family. Rachel was the oldest of seven children. In addition to the sisters she shared a room with, she had three younger brothers and a baby sister. The baby slept in a cradle in her father's room. Her mother had died giving birth to the baby.

Rachel couldn't remember how it had all started. She and Sarah spent time together whenever they could, but due to the disapproval of Sarah's family, much of it was stolen time, either at the ice cream parlor, or meeting up in a park near Sarah's home. She couldn't remember for sure, but she believed Sarah had made the first move.

It was common for girls to hold hands when they walked together, but when Sarah took her hand, Rachel remembered subtle playing of their fingers and more than a few inquisitive sideways glances. It had felt strange and wonderful. She had never had a beau, and she gradually realized that her feelings for Sarah were probably not normal friendly affection.

One thing led to another, and after a few months, they ended up in her father's barn. It was innocent enough, and they spent several long rainy afternoons passing the time kissing. It never progressed much further until the afternoon they were caught. That afternoon they had shyly removed their tops. She could still remember what it felt like that first time, as her bare body brushed against Sarah's, sending jolts of pure sensation into her gut. Sarah assured her that she had done the same thing many times in France, and she would show Rachel some things that would make her feel very good.

It never happened. Her father came storming into the barn, and she later suspected one of her siblings had seen them first and told him. She had been way too caught up in what she was feeling to pay attention to the sounds outside, which were muted by the falling rain. All she knew was that one minute she was lying down with Sarah in a cushion of clean hay, and the next she was being hauled into the house as she tried to get her shirt back on, the rain pelting her shameful body.

She never knew what happened to Sarah after that, but she never saw her again. After yelling at her for what seemed like hours, she was banished to her room until her father could determine what to do with her. She wasn't allowed to leave the house except to do her chores, and was allowed minimal contact with her brothers and sisters.

Finally, after a week, her father offered her two options. That she was given options at all was surprising, but when she heard what her choices were, her heart sank into utter despair. He had talked to a convent over in Dallas. The nuns were willing to take her in and train her for a life in the service of the church. She thought that option was bad enough, until she heard the other. One of her father's widower friends, a man over twice her age, was willing to marry her, and help cleanse her of her misguided desires.

She packed up one small carpetbag and left that night, slipping out of the bedroom window while her sisters slept. She'd never looked back. She had stopped in a church long enough to confess her sins with Sarah, and to ask for proper penance for stealing the money from the cookie jar in the kitchen. It wasn't much, but it was stealing nonetheless, and part of her felt bad about that.

After that, she began riding the rails, skipping from on train to another in a long journey south. It had taken some stealth, hiding behind train stations and listening to determine where the various trains were headed. The long ride on the rails in lonely boxcars gave her a lot of time to think. She was never going back to Fort Worth. It was no longer her home. She also knew that her increasing desire to have physical contact with other girls must be shoved down, deep inside. It was wrong and it would only get her in trouble, no matter where she went.

At first she had thought to head to Mexico, but she didn't speak Spanish and decided instead to go see the ocean. She'd never been to the beach. Never been past the farmer's market in Dallas. She'd never seen mountains either, but had heard the closest ones were way out in far West Texas, and she wasn't sure how to get to them. A few days later she rode across the long railroad bridge from the mainland to Galveston.

Her first stroll on the beach had been glorious. It was unlike any other experience of her life. The salty breeze smelled so good, and the roar of the crashing waves was like music to her young ears. The sun was so warm and the wet sand felt nice and cool under her bare feet.

As she walked in the surf, her trousers legs rolled up, she felt truly free for the first time in her life. No more farm work. No more long hours taking care of her siblings. She would miss them, but there were plenty of them left to take care of the house and the crops. She half-suspected her father had been ready to get rid of her anyway. She was almost an adult, and was an extra mouth to feed that he most likely didn't need. Maybe he was planning to marry her off anyway, and finding her with Sarah had only hastened a decision he had already made.

That first day in Galveston, she sat on the beach in the early morning light and made some sketchy plans. She would get a job, the best one she could get with her skills. Studying her calloused palms, she ruefully realized that she would probably end up doing some kind of hard labor. It was what she was good at, and she was strong enough to easily lift a fifty-pound grain sack and hoist it over her shoulder. She also needed to find a place to stay. And she needed to keep her nose clean. No more girls and no more stealing.

It was two years before she met Lillie, and finally learned all the great mysterious lessons Sarah was never able to teach her. With Lillie she finally felt safe to indulge her curiosity. No one knew what they did together, and most likely, no one cared enough to think about it. Lillie was a whore and Rachel was an oddity in her own way. Lillie tried to make her feel good about what they did, and Rachel tried very hard to believe it was alright. Deep down inside, she didn't. Lillie's rules applied to Rachel, just like they did to her other customers. Rachel hadn't kissed another woman since that rainy afternoon in the barn with Sarah.

She took whatever Lillie was willing to give, but it sometimes made her feel vaguely dirty. She remembered those soft kisses with Sarah. She missed them badly, and sometimes wished Lillie would make an exception for her. A part of her wondered if kissing would make what they did seem more like love, and less like something cheap and wrong, a purely physical release. It was merely speculation. She would never push for it, for fear Lillie might take away the rest as well. For someone like Rachel, Lillie was the best she could ever hope for, and she wasn't about to risk losing a trust she had worked so hard to gain. She knew that what she shared with Lillie was certainly not love, although they cared for each other deeply as friends.

"Rachel." A strong hand shook her arm and she almost fell off the bench, forgetting where she was. "Rachel!" Billy shook her harder, waving his other hand in front of far-off eyes. "I need some help here, please."

"What?" Her mind came racing back to the present from her musings about the past. "Oh." The fishing pole in the stand next to her was bent almost double, some large fish trying to tug both pole and line into the water. She quickly transferred her cigar to her lips and shoved her own fishing gear aside, jumping to her feet and grabbing hold of the creaking pole, bracing her feet wide against the overpowering strength of the creature she was battling.

Billy also grasped the pole, and they pulled hard, maintaining a fine balance between working the pole and breaking it. The fish on the other end pulled harder and they almost lost their balance. It was a thick pole of flexible wood, with heavy interwoven line, but whatever was on the hook was testing it with all its strength.

After a long slow battle, the fish grew tired and they hauled it on board, dragging it over the railing before cutting the line coming from its mouth. "Will you look at that!" Billy's eyes shone. "Must be a hundred pounds, easy."

"Yes." Rachel was busy holding the flopping marlin down as it tried to slither across the deck and back toward the water. "Club. Come on. Hurry, will ya?"

"Oh. Sorry." Some of the gleam cleared from Billy's green eyes, and he dug into a large box that was bolted to the deck, retrieving a sizeable club. With a swift blow to its head, the fish grew still and Rachel finally sat up, gingerly rubbing her aching biceps and forearms. She grinned and took a puff from the remaining stub of her cigar, which still hung delicately between her lips. A perfect smoke ring curled up and around her head before blowing off the bow and out to sea. "Good job, mate. We've already taken the day's catch and we haven't even woken Mr. Gentry up yet."

"What ever shall we do now?" Billy's smile matched Rachel's, and he rolled up his trousers leg, pulling a flask from inside his boot top. He unbuttoned a shirt pocket and produced two more cigars. "Might as well let the old man sleep for a while longer, eh?"

"Yes." Steel blue eyes danced in merriment. "He probably needs his rest." She plucked a cigar from Billy's fingers and lit it, drawing deeply until the red flame took hold. "May I?" She took the other cigar and lit it off the first one, then handed it back across.

"Thank you, my dear." He located an empty mug and poured up a healthy portion of smooth amber whiskey, and traded it for the cigar. "You are a picture of gallantry and chivalry."

"I do my best, sir." Rachel laughed and clicked her mug against the silver-plated flask. "Cheers."

They enjoyed the cigars in silence, taking in the pleasant breeze and listening to the gentle lap of the waves against the side of the boat. Billy eyed her speculatively, debating a question. Rachel was in a rare good mood. She was always pleasant, but her smiles and laughter were usually reserved for winning poker hands. She was a friend, and he had never thought to take it any further, instinctively knowing attempts at courting her would be rejected. He took a deep breath and another swallow of whiskey. "Rachel, you need to be careful."

The pleasant expression on her face disappeared, along with her good humor. "Careful about what?" Cold blue eyes peered steadily at him, her defenses swiftly in place.

"That man, the one you popped in the face last Friday night " he twirled the cigar between his fingers and flicked some ash over the railing. "He's been asking about you around town."

"Billy, I think you and I both know I can take care of myself." Her words were measured, giving away nothing. "I've been on my own for a very long time, and been in a fair share of fist fights." She had. Survival on the docks and in the gaming houses depended on it.

"That's not what I mean." He took a deep breath and looked right into her eyes, an unspoken truth passing between them. "He's been asking about you. Where you live. Where you come from. He asked about your clothes."

Rachel closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "And?"

"He said some things we were at the saloon a few nights ago " Billy studied his feet, unable to look at her while he spoke. "A couple of us, we tried to defend your honor almost got into a fight. I wanted to re-break his nose, I can tell you that."

"Please, Billy." She reached across, lightly touching his arm. "I don't have much honor and you know it. I smoke. I drink. I gamble. I'm not a society lady and don't pretend to be. You all the boys at the saloon, you're my friends, but I can hardly imagine you would get into a fight over me being accused of things I openly do on a regular basis. Tell me what he said. Please. It's important." Her mind raced and her blood boiled in anger, thinking of Lillie. He goes after her, and I'll kill him.

"He said you were 'unnatural' " The word tasted bitter in his mouth. "We tossed him out on his seat after that."

"Did he say anything else?" She held her breath, an eternity passing before he answered.

"No." He spat onto the deck. "What he said was enough. I thought you should know, in case he's after you for getting him thrown out last weekend."

"Thank you." She squeezed his arm and managed a smile. "I'll be careful, but please, don't worry. I'll be fine."

"You're welcome." He thought to question her further, then decided against it. I don't want to know. "If you need any of us to go pound the bastard, don't hesitate to ask."

"I'll keep that in mind." She smiled, a gesture that reached her lips but not her heart, and sat back, trying to calm her suddenly-jittery nerves. Lillie was the only female friend she could be completely open with. Now she wondered if it would be in Lillie's best interest if she backed way off. The man could easily get Lil in trouble for prostitution, if he wanted to. She mulled that over, and came to the conclusion that he was most likely after her and not Lillie.

When the whiskey was gone and the cigars smoked down to stubs, they finally woke Mr. Gentry. He took one look at the marlin and declared they should head back to shore and take the afternoon off. As an added bonus, they found other fish, including some tuna and small sand sharks on some of the other lines. Back at the docks they spent an hour cleaning fish, working happily despite the overwhelming fishy smell that was amplified by the baking sun. The large catch meant extra income for Mr. Gentry at the fish market, and some bonus wages for Rachel and Billy.

It was Friday. There was poker to play and more whiskey to consume. Now they would have extra funds to play with. And, Rachel considered in the back of her mind, she needed to talk to Lillie anyway. She might as well buy some time with her and make it enjoyable. Her decision justified in her own mind, she set diligently to work. The sooner they finished, the sooner they could get on to more pleasant activities.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Late Saturday afternoon, Mattie folded up a partially-completed shirt and set it on a stack of other garments that were ready for finishing -- sewing on buttons, collars, cuffs, lace, ruffles, and such. They would have to wait until Monday. She had some shopping to do.

"Good evening, Mr. Vaughan." She stood and donned her navy-blue sailor style straw hat, placing it carefully over her hair, which was pulled back in soft red curls and twisted at the base of her neck. She straightened the white ribbon trim, fluffing out the bow, then tied the hat under her chin with matching thinner ribbons. The hat complimented a navy and white pinstriped skirt and shirtwaist she had made for herself during spare moments at the shop. Finally, she picked up a small navy pocket book. It held the wages the tailor had counted out for her during the noon hour.

"Have a pleasant evening, and Sunday as well, Mrs. Crockett." The tailor nodded politely, then resumed the tedious task of hemming an ornate wedding gown for one of Galveston's socialites. The wedding was a week out and the dress was behind schedule. Both Mattie and Mr. Vaughan had taken turns soothing both mother and bride, assuring them that it would be ready a few days before the big event.

Mattie stooped down, picking up a scrap of lace that had fallen to the floor. She waved goodbye again and walked out into the busy street. A hodge-podge of people, some shopping and some getting off work, wandered up and down the board sidewalks, moving in and out of the stores and greeting their friends and neighbors. It was a happy time of the week, Saturday afternoon -- payday for most workers in town. Most laborers had Sunday off, giving them even more reason to be light-hearted.

She studied the lace and twisted the plain gold band on her left ring finger, remembering her own wedding, a simple yet elegant affair that had earned a few lines in the El Paso newspaper's society section. Her family, while not wealthy, was definitely not poor. Adam, however, came from privileged stock and a well-known heritage. He was a distant relative of Davy Crockett, who fought and died a hero at the battle of the Alamo. Adam David Crockett. She shook her head. You sure don't live up to your namesake.

Marriage had not been a choice. It had not even been well thought out. It was expected, though most women didn't marry quite as young as Mattie had. Adam Crockett had paid his first social call to her family when she was thirteen years old. It became obvious that the twenty-eight year old Adam had his sights set on the pretty red-head, while Mattie herself was barely out of pinafores, still a school-girl studying upper-form subjects.

At the tender age of fourteen, she sat in her family's formal parlor and listened to Adam ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was settled, just like that, and in one short June afternoon in the largest Catholic church in El Paso, Mattie was propelled from childhood into womanhood. Many of the town's elite had turned out for the affair, along with the formal supper party the groom's family had hosted afterward at one of the downtown hotels.

She had enjoyed the party, although the man who sat next to her, her husband, was for all practical purposes a stranger. They had not spent one moment alone during their brief courtship, as her mother had insisted on a chaperone at all times. Their first private time alone together was on their wedding night.

It had been more of a nightmare for Mattie. The physical aspect of marriage was not discussed, not even between mother and daughter. She had never been kissed and had no idea what to expect. She truly had thought they were simply going to bed, although she donned a brand new long white lace nightgown, something her mother had insisted she should do. What Adam did to her that night was shocking. And painful. He had brought her pain ever since.

In retrospect, she believed he was not so terribly enamored with her when he came courting, but rather that he needed a wife in order to be socially acceptable. Mattie was attractive, well mannered, and a sharp dresser. She was a fair cook and seamstress, and had always kept her room tidy, and later, her home. They had married just shy of Adam's thirtieth birthday, late for a man to be marrying. He needed her to keep house for him and appear with him at social affairs. Otherwise, he needed her to be quiet, stay busy, obey him, and not ask questions.

She also suspected some money had changed hands prior to their engagement, though whether her father paid off Adam, or Adam paid her father, she could never be sure. Her parents had both explained to her that she was fortunate to have him. Girls of her social standing did not often marry as well as she had. He was a catch and she had landed him, mostly with her fair face, slim figure, and thick shining red hair that fell almost to her waist when it wasn't pinned up. That had always puzzled her. At thirteen, she certainly hadn't set her cap for anyone, nor done anything to try to 'land' Adam. She was doing what she was told to do.

You're a lucky young lady, Madeline. Her mother's stern words echoed in her memory. She had gone home for an afternoon visit the week after the wedding, and hesitantly broached the subject of annulling the marriage. She told her mother, in carefully chosen words, that she wasn't happy, and feared they had made a terrible mistake. Blushing, her mother first asked her in cryptic terms if the marriage had been consummated. When Mattie confirmed it had, her mother said an annulment wasn't possible, that her life's path was set, and the family would not tolerate the scandal of divorce. That was when her mother told her she was lucky. She also told her to never bring up the subject again. If things turned out well for Mattie, perhaps Caroline, her younger sister, might also land a wealthy husband.

The first three years of their marriage were spent living in a large house not too far from her parents' home. Adam had worked regularly in downtown El Paso at the bank, although she never knew exactly what he did there. One night he came home early, and without so much as a word, began packing up their things. Within a few days they had sold their house, said goodbye to her parents and sister, and made the long train-ride to Houston.

She never knew why they left El Paso, and Adam was unapproachable on the subject. They had spent two months in a boarding house in Houston, then made the move across the bay to Galveston. They had lived in their current house for a little over four months. It wasn't nearly as grand as the house they left behind, which was fine with Mattie. The new home was a lot less work to keep up, and she loved living on the beach, so different form the desert hills and mountains she grew up in.

She still didn't know what Adam did in town, but assumed it had something to do with trade and shipping. He frequently went into Houston on business, and came home late more often than not. That also suited Mattie. If she was lucky, she was asleep by the time he got home. The fewer waking hours she spent with him, the better.

Adam had reluctantly agreed to her taking the job at the tailor's shop, and had only given in when she promised it wouldn't interfere with her running of their household. Being alone in the house for long stretches was depressing. She had no real friends and only a handful of acquaintances. Adam forbade her to socialize without him, other than allowing her to attend mass on Sundays, whether he was in town or not. Working at the tailor's gave her the opportunity to at least meet and talk with a variety of the townspeople, and kept her from climbing the walls in loneliness.

Now she had finally, tentatively, reached out to someone. She fervently hoped Rachel would become a real friend. The tall brunette was the first person who had truly seemed to see her, and not look through her. She was a little curious about Rachel's choice in clothing, and fancied the woman must be a free spirit of sorts, something Mattie herself could only dream of being.

The invitation to tea had been quite impetuous and bold. Not normal for Mattie at all. She laughed silently. If Rachel was indeed a free spirit, perhaps the brunette was wearing off on her already.

Now what to buy for her tea party? She stepped off the sidewalk and into the street, looking both ways for buggies and the rare automobile. She was surprised Adam hadn't purchased one of the horseless carriages yet. He had been considering it before they moved, but it hadn't come up since then.

She shrugged and forgot about automobiles, in the excitement of planning her own little party. Adam had left on the train for Houston that morning, and wouldn't be home until Monday afternoon. There would be no worries that he might forbid the party altogether, or worse, come home and embarrass her in some manner in front of her guest.

It was going to be perfect, she just knew it. She had tea, and sugar cubes, and flour. Cream. She mentally ticked off items in her head. I need cream and some of that confectioner's sugar to make those little teacakes. Yes. That should be very nice. A smile made its way from ear to ear, wrinkling her nose. She hadn't had a tea party with a girlfriend since she was twelve, although she had hosted social teas for some of Adam's associates and their wives. This was going to be an adventure.

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Lillie cried out softly and Rachel smiled against her skin, mission accomplished. She kissed a soft inner thigh, then slowly nibbled her way up the blonde's midline, stopping to pay one last round of homage to two enticing breasts. She guiltily enjoyed the salty taste of Lillie's skin, and the sensation of her muscles moving under her touch. Finally, she collapsed down onto the bed, propping her head up on one elbow and watching, waiting for her friend to catch her breath.

Large violet-blue eyes fluttered open and Lillie sighed in contentment. "My sweet lord, but you've gotten good at that."

"I aim to please, ma'am." The brunette trailed a finger down Lillie's midline.

"Well you're the only one, that's for darn sure." The blonde also rolled to her side, facing Rachel and mimicking her posture. "All those old men I entertain none of them give a fig whether I enjoy myself or not, and they sure as heck don't take care of me first, if they take care of me at all."

"Numbskulls." Rachel snorted. "Don't know what they're missing." She blushed slightly. "I kinda like doin' that to you." Her eyes lowered in embarrassment.

"Rachel, Darlin' " Lillie traced a tanned cheek until her friend made eye contact. "You have nothing to be ashamed of. Someday, you're going to make someone a very fine lover, I guarantee it."

"How can you say that?" A profound sadness clouded the steel-blue eyes. "You know I'm not ever getting married. I don't care for men in that way."

"Didn't say you were goin' to marry a man, sugar. I figured someday you'll make a life for yourself with another woman." They had never really talked much about Rachel's future, and Lillie suddenly realized that her friend probably didn't have much of a social life outside of the saloon. "You're not the only one, Rachel. There's others like you."

"Who?" The brunette's interest suddenly piqued and she shifted closer. "Where?"

"You know the widows Sanders and McKenzie, don't you?" She traced Rachel's thigh, which was curved up between them.

"Yes. Two old ladies they're at early mass every Sunday." She frowned before the truth dawned. "You don't mean ? Lil, they're a couple of little old ladies."

"I most certainly do." Lillie smiled. "They've lived together going on thirty-five years now. No one really knows where they lived before Galveston, and no one ever knew their supposedly dead husbands. They sure haven't ever made any effort to find new husbands, and no one has ever known them to entertain any gentlemen. Fact is, my dear, I know a few men whose advances those sweet little ladies have rejected outright. Men that would have been good catches. And I've heard they share a bed, even though they have three bedrooms in their house."

"Alright," the brunette absorbed the new information and conceded. "So there are two other very old women like me. Doesn't bode well if we're the only ones, Lil. Not only are both of them way too old for me, but they're both spoken for."

"Ah, Rachel." Lillie rolled her eyes in frustration. "There has to be more than three of you. I'm certain of it. My point is, you just need to keep your beautiful blue eyes open. There's someone out there for you."

"I don't know." Rachel flopped over onto her back and tossed one arm over her forehead. "It seems like it would be so hard living like those ladies do. They've had to hide what they are from everyone all these years."

"I'll bet if you asked them, they'd tell you it was worth it." She placed a soft kiss to the upper curve of a breast. "I like spending time with you Rachel, I do." She moved lower, drawing a groan from the brunette's gut. "But someday, darlin', I hope you no longer need my services. You're my friend, and I want to see you happy."

"I you're good enough " The blonde's lips and fingers were rapidly making thought and speech optional. "Ah " Lillie moved lower, flicking her tongue across Rachel's stomach and around her navel. "I can't think right now "

"Shhhh." Lillie looked up. "I understand." She drifted still lower, paying Rachel back in kind.

Much later, they lay entwined, listening to the muted sounds of the saloon below, the mixture of music and drunken voices drifting up through the open window. Rachel's head was pillowed on Lillie's stomach, the blonde's fingers making gentle patterns against the skin on her muscular back. "That feels nice." She smiled, snuggling up closer. "Lil, what about you?"

"What do you mean, 'what about me'?" She ruffled the long chestnut hair, mussing it affectionately.

"Are you ever going to move on from here?" The brunette broached the subject delicately, not wanting to offend her friend.

"Maybe someday I will." She smiled. "Find me a wealthy gentleman to take me away from all of this. But I'm not unhappy, Rachel. I know I'm not the most respectable person in town, but I make a lot more doing what I do than I would in the mill, or working in a shop in town. Besides, I'm pretty good at it, from what I've been told."

"Yes ma'am, that you are." Rachel shifted upward, until Lillie was holding her, her head cradled against the blonde's shoulder. "And I find you most respectable, Lil. Don't you go listening to any snooty society ladies. They're probably all afraid you're entertaining their husbands."

"I probably am." Lillie laughed heartily, the sound bouncing off the walls of the room. "Speaking of, you said you needed to talk to me about one of my customers, before we came up here. I think we got distracted."

"Oh." A hint of anger flashed in Rachel's eyes. "Yes. Be careful if that bastard I wailed on last weekend comes back around. I think he has it in for me, and I don't want you to get hurt if he does."

"Rachel, has he come after you?" Lillie looked down at the brown head, but her friend didn't look up at her.

"No." She had looked for him when she first entered the saloon, and had a kept a wary eye out all night, up until she discreetly slipped up to Lillie's room. "But he's been asking about me. At first I thought he might be after you, but I figured he could just turn you into the sheriff for prostitution if that were the case. No " She released a long sigh. "I think I busted more than his nose, and now his pride is out of joint as well."

"You're the one who should be careful, Rachel." Lillie rubbed broad circles against her friend's bare back. "Much as I like you coming around here, maybe you better find something else to do on the weekends, or at least not be in here on the evenings you aren't working the bar."

"I can take care of myself Lil. And I don't know what else I'd do to occupy my time." A thought occurred to her and she abruptly sat partway up. "Lil, what do you take to tea?"

"What?" The blonde's eyebrows shot up at the sudden change of subject. "What are you talking about?"

"I was invited to tea." Rachel smiled hesitantly. "By a society lady, I guess. Leastways, she sure was dressed like one."

"When? By who?" Lillie also sat up, curiosity written all over her face.

"A lady named Mattie. I was walking on the beach and we struck up a conversation." For some reason she felt shy about relaying the part about Mattie's drawing of her. "I've never been to tea, Lil. I don't know what you do at a tea, or what I should bring, or what to talk about. I "

A hand clamped over her mouth. "Whoa, Nellie. Slow down." Lillie grinned. "First of all, it's pretty simple. You drink tea and talk about all kinds of frivolous things."

"Like what?" Rachel scowled. "I'm not good at 'frivolous' and you know it."

"You most certainly are. Fishing cards brands of whiskey cigars kinds of boats " She smiled as the scowl deepened and Rachel opened her mouth to protest. "No no no." Her hand covered the full lips again. "Those are just as frivolous as talking about dresses and babies and the Godey's Ladies Book. When is this tea, anyway?"

"Ahhhhrrggghhh." Rachel groaned, feeling suddenly way out of her league. "Sunday. 'Godey's Ladies Book? ' Lil, what am I going to do?"

"You are going to go to tea and be your charming self." Lillie removed Rachel's hand from her eyes, peering into the steel blue orbs, which bore a faint hint of terror. "And wear your nicest shirt and trousers, unless you have a dress?" Her voice was teasing, and she received a swat to her behind for it. "Ouch. That hurt, missy." She rubbed her offended backside. "Go pick some of those early spring flowers blooming by the church, and take those along as a hostess gift. Or you could splurge on some little trinket for her house."

"Flowers?" Hope appeared in Rachel's eyes. "I can pick flowers."

"Sure you can." Lillie pulled her into a comforting embrace. "Come on, let's get some sleep. You need to be rested up by Sunday."

Rachel cuddled into the warm arms, inhaling Lillie's familiar comfortable scent. She fell asleep, dreaming of flowers and a pair of twinkling hazel eyes.

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Continued in Chapter 2

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