Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
Rachel held Mattie close, watching as the sky out the widow gradually changed from gray to pink to the palest blue. Rachel had taken to sleeping in the nude, in deference to the oppressive heat that seemed to have settled in to stay. She had tried to convince Mattie to do the same, but the younger woman was more comfortable wearing at least a light nightgown. Rachel smiled at that, at a charming naivetι that made their intimate times all the more special, somehow, especially in those moments when Mattie allowed her desire to show in both her eyes and her response.
It was blazing hot already, even though it was still very early. It was September 7, and by Texas standards, summer was far from over. The usual seaside rain showers had ceased, and nary a drop of rain had fallen in several days, sending islanders and vacationers alike flocking to the bathhouse and the beaches. The town burgeoned with visitors, many of whom had taken advantage of the Labor Day holiday to make a trip to the Gulf shores for blessed relief from the heat wave that gripped much of the country.
Rachel sighed, the slightest whisper of breath from her lips, and felt Mattie tighten her grasp around her waist. "Penny for your thoughts." Mattie patted her hip and snuggled closer.
"Oh, not worth a penny, I'd wager." Rachel smiled and kissed Mattie's forehead. "Just dreading working on the docks. I swear I felt almost nauseated by the end of the day yesterday. Been a long time since I worked hard enough for that."
"You be careful, please? Take a break and drink plenty of water. I hate that you're working so hard while I sit inside knitting booties." Mattie absently rubbed her own belly, her lips curving up as Rachel's hand closed over hers, guiding her. "Maybe you're having sympathy symptoms."
"Maybe." Rachel's hand moved upward, tracing a lazy circle around Mattie's breast. "I had a little talk with Lil. I feel so ignorant. I should have picked up on a few things."
"Such as?" Mattie's breath caught as Rachel brushed a thumb across her nipple. She squirmed, the sensation a combination of pleasure and pain. "Mmmm easy, honey."
"Such as that." Rachel ducked her head and pushed the top of her gown aside, placing the barest of kisses on the other, neglected nipple. "They're much more sensitive than before."
"My bosoms?" Mattie's brows furrowed as she looked down at Rachel's hand, which had dropped lower, softly lifting one breast.
"Uh-huh." She backed off, once again rubbing Mattie's belly. "And your nipples are darker, and your bosoms are fuller than before."
"So soon?" Mattie admitted she had noticed some changes, but had thought perhaps she was gaining weight due to eating more. With Adam out of sight, her constantly-nervous stomach had all but vanished, except for what she now knew had been morning sickness."
"Yes. Things start happening pretty quick, according to Lil." Rachel rolled to her side so she could look at Mattie's face. "You missed your cycle too, or at least you should have had one during the time we've been living here. I hadn't paid attention to it, though."
"Not necessarily." Mattie's own hands wandered, stroking Rachel's arm as she talked. "My cycles were never predictable. I think Adam scared them out of me. And the morning sickness. I used to lose my breakfast pretty often anyway, especially if he was in a truly foul mood."
Rachel's eyes darkened and her lips drew into a thin grim line. She forced the ugly thoughts down. "He's never going to do that to you again, sweetheart. May God have mercy on his soul if he dares to try."
Mattie's words caught in her throat, and then she couldn't remember what she was going to say anyway, so she buried her face into Rachel's chest, feeling strong arms wrap around her and protective hands rub her back. She settled against Rachel with a soft grunt of happiness, allowing the touch to seep into even the remotest crevices of fear, banishing them from her presence.
Gradually, she felt one hand glide along her side, under her gown, and back to her stomach as Rachel lay one possessive palm against her, right below her navel. "Wonder when we'll feel it kick?" Her voice was muffled against Rachel's skin, but she was loath to move.
"Be a while, but I want to be there when it happens." Rachel pressed slightly against Mattie's soft skin. "Never thought I could have someone like you in my life, Mattie, much less a family to call my own. Don't know what I did to deserve all this, but I swear, no matter what happens, in the rest of my life, nothing can compare to the miracle you have been."
"You loved me." Mattie answered, simply. "All you did was show me what love is, Rachel. I would have died back there, and we both know it. This child " She opened her eyes and looked down at Rachel's hand on her. " this child is fortunate beyond measure to have you. I still want to pinch myself sometimes. It all seems like a happy dream. Hey!"
"Heh." Rachel released the slight fold of skin she had pinched on Mattie's backside, and resumed stroking her stomach. "See. No dream." She received a playful slap to her own behind, causing her hips to slide closer to Mattie. "Mmmmmm." She purred, rubbing herself up and down against warm skin, feeling Mattie respond to her. Her hand slipped lower, and Mattie's trembling gasp was all the cue she needed. "That's one more symptom I should've picked up on." She burred into a very pink ear.
"Wh oh .. what?" Mattie felt her passion rising. "I feel so wanton sometimes, with you. Like I can barely control my urges."
"Don't try to." Rachel slid one knee between her legs, grasping Mattie and tugging her nightgown over her head, pulling her forward until they were belly to belly. "That's the symptom. Lil said sometimes when women are with child, their desire increases."
"Umpphh." Thoughts were growing fuzzy. "But I have almost eight more months to go."
"Lucky me." Rachel chuckled, then sucked in a breath, as Mattie's lips found sensitive spots to nibble on. Then her hands and body took over, as they surrendered to a celebration of life.
The heat was almost unbearable, as the sun beat down on the helpless laborers. Rachel had shed her long-sleeved shirt early in the day, working in her thinnest work trousers and ribbed sleeveless undershirt. Sweat ran down the cuts and curves of her shoulders and biceps, and her long braid was drenched, sticking to the back of her neck and upper shoulders. No amount of broad green leaves helped, and she knew she should take a breather.
But pride won out and she stuck to her task. The others were working diligently to load a huge cotton freighter. The heavy bound bales were stacked all along the dock, their fibery woody scent wafting through the shimmering air. Well. It could be worse, Rachel mused. It could have been a cattle boat. She envied the men around her, who were all stripped bare above the waist. She eyed her own torso and its telltale curves with regret, then smiled, realizing just how much at least one person in her life appreciated those curves.
She hadn't thought much about her own body, at least not in terms of its appeal to others. Lillie had given her teasing compliments, to be sure, but no one looked at her the way Mattie did. Mattie took the time to express her love -- with words -- with touch -- with shy gentle glances, and blushes when she was caught looking.
It had happened a few times, before Rachel took the bull by the horns, and gave Mattie verbal permission to look all she wanted to. Mattie had been mortified, until Rachel had sat down with her, and told her all the nice things she appreciated about Mattie's appearance. The ducked head and furious blush she'd received in reward was endearing in the extreme. Then a very shy Mattie had reluctantly, at first, then with growing confidence, shared several things she liked about Rachel's physical appearance.
It made her look in the mirror with new eyes, as she gave a few extra strokes to her hair when she brushed it at night, made her feel her own arm muscles when they flexed, knowing how much Mattie enjoyed being held by them, and made her scowl speculatively at her own skin when naked, studying the odd contrast of milky white skin on her body with the dark brown skin of her arms and face. For some reason, Mattie liked that, puzzling as it was.
"You feel that?" Billy brought her out of her daydreams.
Her head snapped around, looking over a bale of cotton at his pale eyes. "Feel what?" She stood, and felt a ripple of slightly cool air blow over her skin. "Oh." She closed her eyes, drinking in the welcome sensation. Her eyes opened. "Blessed be."
"Indeed." Billy pushed back his hat, allowing the breeze to cool his damp slicked down hair. "What I'd give to be a young lad again, running bum-bare down the road in this wonderful air."
Rachel burst out laughing. "Maybe we can go down to the water during the noon hour. I didn't bring a bathing suit, but we can at least get our feet wet."
"Feet?" Billy turned in a circle, as the breeze continued to blow. Relieved sighs could be heard all along the docks, as the workers paused for a moment to enjoy the refreshing wind. "I'll be diving in, clothes and all."
"In that case, so will I." Rachel set about her work with renewed vigor. Judging from the sun, the noon hour, and her dip in the ocean, was fast approaching. Sure enough, in no time at all, the long whistle blew, signaling dinnertime, and the groans of working men were replaced with low male voices in conversation, and the tin sound of dinner pails being set on the wooden dock and opened. Just as quickly, the voices grew silent as the hungry men ate their meal.
Rachel and Billy practically ran up the dock and around toward the sand. They grabbed up their bicycles and took off at break-neck speed, pedaling southward toward one of the beaches, the strong wind at their backs aiding their progress. The ride back was going to be more difficult against the wind, but Rachel didn't care. She was too busy taking in the pleasure of the wind blowing against her soaked shirt and her bare head. She'd placed her hat in her basket, allowing her hair to dry as they made their short journey.
With a whoop, Billy reached the sand first, leaping off his bicycle and dropping it, the back wheel still spinning as he ran for the water, slicing through the waves and then swimming out toward one of the sand bars with efficient strokes. Rachel was close behind him, her trousers only slightly slowing her progress. They reached the sandbar and stopped, standing in the middle of the water.
"Whoa." Rachel bobbed unsteadily, as water rose up to her arm pits. "Deeper than it usually is." She looked up, noting a trace of feathery white clouds way out to sea. "Think it might rain?"
"Dunno." Billy leaned back, floating in the water, as he studied the mostly-blue sky. "Odd." He squinted. "Clouds are downwind. Guess the rain has passed us by." He closed his eyes again, stretching out his arms and feeling the water rock him back and forth as the waves washed over and around them.
"Very odd." Rachel continued to stand, looking first at the clouds to the south and east, then back toward the north, where the wind seemed to be picking up speed. "Billy, shouldn't the water be shallower than normal, rather than deeper?"
"What?" Billy flipped his hand, splashing salt water at her, hitting her square in the chest. "Are you going to be assisting Mr. Cline, now?"
"Mr. Cline " Her voice trailed off, as she considered the water and the wind. "Billy, it isn't right. I'm going back up to the beach and walk down a ways. You want to join me?"
"Awww, Rachel." He reluctantly rose up, back on his feet, then followed the already-swimming Rachel as she pulled back toward shore. "Go and ruin a perfectly good swim," he muttered. Yet the gentleman in him would not allow her to go alone. He snorted, considering that. Like she couldn't most likely protect me if needed.
"You say something?" Rachel squeezed the water out of her braid, then donned her long-sleeved shirt, leaving it unbuttoned so her undershirt could dry. She enjoyed the rare sensation of chill bumps, as the cooler air hit her wet skin and clothing.
"No. Nothing." He shoved his hands in his pockets, leaving his feet bare to enjoy the sand, as they walked silently near the shoreline. "Anything in particular you're looking for?" He glanced sideways at her.
Rachel's gaze was intent, scanning first the water and then the horizon where the ocean met the sky. Every now and then she looked back over her shoulder to the north. "It doesn't add up." She nibbled her lower lip.
"What doesn't add up?" Billy followed her gaze, which was back on the water.
"Strong wind from the north, yet the tide is higher than usual coming in from the south." She pointed toward the dunes ahead of them. "See those. They aren't usually that close to the water. And that log " She swung her arm around, gesturing toward a large section of dead tree trunk that was below the dunes, the waves breaking around it as they rushed ashore. "That log I've sat on it and eaten dinner many a time, and wasn't near the water."
"Maybe someone dragged it down closer?" Billy hazarded a guess, wishing he were back out at the sand bar.
"No. I don't believe so." Just then, a flock of seagulls flew past them, away from the beach and out of sight toward the mainland. Hmmmm. Even as they walked, the waves seemed to be picking up, roaring ashore with unusual speed, and whitecapping out further away from shore. Yet the wind continued to blow steadily behind them, rippling across the water surface.
Something was very wrong.
"Billy, I'm going back early." She turned around, ducking her head against the increasing wind. "Think I'll go pay Mr. Cline a visit before I go back to the docks."
"Ah. So you are considering a change in profession?" He joked, trotting to keep up with his friend's determined strides.
"No," she almost snapped at him. Something didn't feel right. The odd weather was putting her on edge, and she forced herself to be civil. "I just figure Mr. Cline should come down here and see the tide for himself. He's always studying things like that, reporting them back to Washington. Maybe we're in for a big thunderstorm, or something."
"Wouldn't that be a blessing," Billy mused. "We sure could use it."
Rachel sniffed the air. If she concentrated hard enough, she could almost smell the scent of rain on the wind. Her skin prickled at the thought. "I suppose," she finally answered her friend, before picking up her bicycle and leaving him behind.
Isaac Cline hovered over the telegraph message, moving from the message to a map, plotting a path with a straight edge and pen. A quiet rap at the door startled him, and he brushed against a cup on the desk, spilling his tea on the telegraph paper. "Blast!" He stood, blotting at the paper with the hem of his shirt, which had been untucked since early morning. "Come in." He glanced at the door in annoyance, blowing on the message, hoping the ink wouldn't run. Then he sighed. He'd already received the information he needed. He dropped it on a pile of similar pieces of paper and turned, just as Rachel entered the small office.
"Hello, Mr. Cline." She looked around the chaotic office, peering first at the stacks of paper, then out the second-floor window of the Levy building. A few passers-by chatted on the street below, their conversation drifting up through the mosquito netting tacked over the window frame. "I'm sorry to bother you."
"Oh, no bother," he lied, shuffling around the desk and holding out his hand. "Miss " he paused, trying to place her " Travis?" He was surprised at the rather strong grip that met him, and his eyes roamed up her arm to take in powerful corded wrists, and wet clothing. "How can I help you?"
"What's all of this?" Rachel momentarily forgot her mission, dropping his hand and moving to the map on the wall next to the desk. Her eyes tracked precisely-drawn lines in blue, red, and black ink, each line connected by a pin point of ink, each pin point circled.
"Oh." He pushed a pair of wire spectacles back up his nose until they properly covered his eyes. "I'm plotting a storm out in the Gulf."
Her eyes followed the lines, blinking at the last set, which fanned out in three directions. She had little experience with maps, and she moved closer still, making out words until she found some she recognized. "Galveston." Her finger followed from the island to the nearest line.
"Careful," his voice rose sharply. "I just drew that one. Don't smudge it."
"Sorry." She dropped her hand and turned intelligent eyes on him. "Is it a big storm?"
"I think so, yes." He wished the girl would leave him alone, but good manners precluded him sending her away. "Now." He looked pointedly at her. "What can I do for you?"
"The tide on the south end of the island." Rachel gestured toward the open window and the sliver of ocean beyond. "It's behaving strangely."
"How so?" He looked out the window, suddenly interested in his impromptu visitor.
"It's higher than usual, even though the north wind is blowing against it." She turned back to the map. "Is that why?" She pointed to the odd web of colored lines.
"Perhaps." He picked up his stacks of paper, shuffling them and laying them back on the table. "Tropical cyclone, out in the Gulf. I've been receiving messages on its progress for a few days now."
"A few days?" Rachel's eyes widened. "Oughten't you to warn folks?"
"Pshawwww." He brushed her off. "If it stays its course, it will land well east of here. We've weathered many a storm here, young lady."
"I know." Rachel had been on the island long enough to know what a cyclone was. "But the tides . I've never seen anything like this. Gave me the willies." She crossed her arms, rubbing at goose bumps she could feel beneath her shirt. "Maybe you should at least raise the warning flag, give folks a chance to decide for themselves if they ought to board up their homes."
"The tides." He sat down on the windowsill, dust motes dancing around his face in the sunlight. "How much higher than usual?"
"Oh. Dunno. Three feet or so, best I can guess." She shrugged. "The air feels peculiar."
"Nonsense." He smiled. "The cyclone is a long way from here yet. You couldn't be feeling anything other than this refreshing wind." As he spoke, the breeze picked up, ruffling the curtains and blowing them across his face. He swiped them away and stood, stepping back to his desk. "If it will make you feel better, I'll take a walk in a bit and check out the tides myself. But I assure you, even in the worst of times, all we had to do was take shelter up near Broadway. It's a good eight feet above sea level. The tides have never risen high enough to flood Broadway. We'll be fine."
"If you say so." Rachel casually studied the top telegraph message in the pile on the desk, taking in words and phrases. Her scalp prickled again. She looked up. "This thing sank some ships?" Her voice was incredulous. "Not boats. Ships?" She pointed to the sentence. "Where is Cuba?"
Cline released a frustrated breath. "Over here." He approached the map, pointing to a small island way across the Gulf. He traced a line drawn through some tiny islands at the tip of --
"Florida." Rachel read aloud. "That's pretty far away." She studied tiny notes. "Went through there yesterday? And it's already over here?" She pointed to a spot much closer to Galveston. "That's awfully quick, isn't it?"
"That is a guess as to exactly where it is, based on reports from Washington, and yes, it is moving a bit rapidly," he agreed with her. "But as I said, if it stays on course, we shall get some much-needed rain, and nothing more."
"Well. Guess I should get back to the docks." Somewhat re-assured, she re-buttoned her now-dry shirt, shrugging to settle it over her shoulders. "Sorry for my appearance." She suddenly realized she most likely looked like a sea monster. "I went swimming at the noon hour, and that's when I discovered the tides rising. Had to dry off." She ducked her head in apology. "I hope you do go check the water. Would make me feel a might better to have an expert take a look at it."
"Very well then," he smiled at the ego-stroking. "I shall. Good day, Miss Travis." He showed her to the door, watching as she took the wooden stairs down. He moved back inside and saw her take to the street on a bicycle. "What a most improper young lady." He shook his head. "Curmudgeons. This island attracts them in droves, I do believe."
Still. He checked the silent telegraph and sent out a message of receipt, then stood, donning his jacket and hat. Curmudgeon or not, he had no reason to believe Rachel would make up her tale about the tide. He might as well go see for himself, and put the matter to rest.
Later that evening, as Rachel pedaled home, storm warning flags flew from the pole over the Levy Building, flapping in the stiff breeze.
The Friday night sky was almost clear, with a glowing moon, which illuminated the ground below. The soothing breeze continued to blow, and Rachel and Mattie risked sitting on the swing in the corner of the back porch, hidden in shadows. It was unspeakably delicious to Mattie, to be out in the fresh air, in the moonlight, snuggled up against Rachel, who stroked her hair absently, as they swung in silence.
It was beautiful. Rachel was beautiful, her brooding profile outlined against the navy blue sky beyond the porch. Even in the darkness, her brows were furrowed, and Mattie reached up, smoothing them automatically, watching a slight smile twitch at her lover's lips. "Are you certain we should be worried?" She looked around and up. "It's a lovely night. Loveliest one we've had in weeks. It feels delightful."
"I know." Rachel secured her hold around Mattie's waist, feeling her shift until her lips were within inches of Rachel's ear. She could feel Mattie's breath, pleasantly tickling her skin, and she turned, unable to resist the urge to savor those lips and that breath for a long while.
It was divine, and Mattie whimpered, a happy little sound, and felt both arms close around her, holding her close. Rachel deepened the kiss, and Mattie melted into it, almost, but not quite, wishing they were upstairs in their nice comfortable bed. Still she wasn't going to miss the rare chance to venture outdoors. Her body betrayed her, and she felt Rachel break away with a chuckle.
"Sorry, my love." Rachel pressed her forehead against Mattie's, feeling the smaller body heave in her arms. "I can't resist your charms."
"Nor I yours." Mattie stole another kiss. A thought occurred to her and she touched Rachel's cheek, tilting her face until she could see warm eyes shining back at her. "Those marshals should be here sometime soon, correct?"
"As early as tomorrow, end of next week at latest." Rachel internally berated herself. She'd been so caught up worrying about the weather, she'd quite forgotten about the marshals. "I spoke with the boys this afternoon as well. Seems Adam is staying on the island this weekend. I haven't a clue as to why. It would be the first time in weeks he hasn't gone to Houston."
"End of week?!" Mattie sat upright. "Rachel, tomorrow is Saturday. That means " She grabbed Rachel's shoulders, shaking her in pure happiness. "That means in a few days or so, I'll I'll be free of him for good." She searched the steel blue eyes so close to her own. "Doesn't it?"
"Yes." Rachel lovingly brushed the hair from around Mattie's face. "One way or the other. We live here in peace, or we run. But we've been prepared for that for weeks, haven't we?"
"Yes." Mattie's thoughts turned to the two carpet bags under the bed upstairs. As time passed, those bags had been added to. In addition to a few changes of clothing, some money, and other necessary personal items, they now held a few books, and her beloved paintings and drawings were rolled up carefully inside her bag. Rachel hefted them every now and then, making sure she could still carry both of them at a run if she needed to. "Rachel, if we do decide to leave, will you please let me do my share?"
It was an argument that had arisen as soon as they learned of her pregnancy. Rachel had fretted, thinking up alternate ways of escaping that didn't involve leaving on foot. Mattie was certain, if she could, Rachel would carry her from the house to the train depot.
"I can carry both bags." Rachel stubbornly crossed her arms and looked directly ahead toward the garden and the barn beyond. The wind ruffled through the cucumber and tomato plants, dredging up the scent of sandy loam and a stronger hint of rain. Rachel delicately sniffed the air and shivered, trying to ignore her roiling guts.
"And I can carry one." Mattie patted her leg, leaving her hand there and squeezing it slightly. "I've tested it. I can run up and down the stairs carrying mine with no problem."
Rachel's hand flew to her belly. "When did you do this?" She rubbed the soft cotton skirt. "You could hurt yourself. And the baby."
"Hush." Mattie brushed her hand across Rachel's mouth, feeling her lips nibble at her passing fingers. "A few times, just to make sure. Rachel " she cupped a tanned cheek. "Hopefully we'll sneak away quietly and slowly, if we have to. But if we do literally have to run, we'd both best be able to. You can't carry me and both carpet bags."
Rachel frowned, feeling Mattie's fingers stroke her face. She sighed heavily. "I know. I I love you ..."
"I know you do," Mattie interrupted her.
"And I love this baby." She patted Mattie's stomach, feeling Mattie's hand close over her own. "It's my responsibility now. Both of you are." She bent down, kissing the spot just below Mattie's waist band. Fingers tangled in her hair, raking through it and on down her back, rubbing soft circles against her cotton undershirt.
"And you are mine." Mattie continued to rub her back, as Rachel's cheek rested against her stomach.
"All yours," Rachel mumbled, her face slightly squished, obscuring her words. "We have to take care of each other now, don't we?" She turned, stretching out on the swing on her back, her head pillowed in Mattie's lap. In answer, a possessive arm draped across her hips.
"Forever." Mattie looked down at her, their eyes meeting in the soft muted moonlight. She held up her hand, allowing her ring to sparkle as she turned it up toward the sky.
Rachel grasped it and pulled it down, kissing her palm, then tucking it against her chest. She laughed as Mattie tickled her skin, then gasped as the hand moved lower, cupping her breast through her ribbed shirt. Mattie was pleased she'd managed the distraction, and glad to hear the laughter as it bubbled up at her teasing touch. She watched Rachel's eyes narrow, as she tugged the soft brushed cotton from her waistband, slipping her hand beneath it to continue her quest. Rachel shivered, closing her eyes and giving in to the sensations that rose up faster than she could have imagined. Her body was on fire, and she took deep uneven breaths, allowing her lover to slowly explore her skin, groaning as Mattie tugged at her suspenders, pulling them down and unbuttoning her trousers.
"Out here, on the porch?" Rachel grinned, her shaking voice giving away her desire. "Might not be the safest place, my love."
It was Mattie's turn to gasp, as Rachel sprang up, turning the tables and pinning her against the high slatted back of the porch swing. She kissed her soundly, her own hands wandering, easily locating the tiny pearl buttons at Mattie's throat. "Inside," Rachel mumbled, pulling Mattie up with her. "Now."
"No." Mattie's hands stilled. "I can't."
"Um buh " Rachel tilted her head in question. "I beg to differ. You certainly seem to me like you can." She smiled at the blush on her lover's face.
"I can." Mattie looked down. "That, I mean. I can't walk past Betsy and Angel in the parlor in there, and go up the stairs this early. Would be obvious."
"I think they have a pretty good idea of what we do up there from time to time, Mattie." Rachel tilted her chin up, watching the blush deepen, even in the low light.
She looked back up, her eyes pleading. "I can't. Please? Let's sit for a minute and calm down."
"Or we could go in the barn." Rachel kissed her again for a bit, feeling Mattie drape bonelessly against her. "Just put clean straw down in there this evening. Got that one empty stall down on the end."
"The barn?" Mattie paused, looking up at the sky as she contemplated Rachel's suggestion. She felt the breeze lift her hair, cooling her and settling her racing heart just a bit. "So beautiful out here."
Long arms settled around her waist as they both studied the clear sky. "That it is." Rachel rested her chin on Mattie's head, her own body slowing to a low simmer.
"Can't hardly wait until I can go outside whenever I wish." Mattie smiled, as Rachel nibbled at her ear.
"How 'bout we go on in the barn?" The low voice whispered. It rumbled in her ear, sending pleasant shivers up and down Mattie's spine. "We can open up that big window over that end stall. Watch the stars."
Mattie felt suddenly adventurous, and made up her mind. "You do have the best ideas." She took Rachel's hand, leading her toward their safe haven.
"Would I be correct in assuming there might be a nice soft blanket in here?" Rachel felt a gentle tug at her suspenders, and was dragged into the barn where she stood in the middle watching while Mattie opened a window wide, allowing moonlight to spill inside and over the fragrant piles of hay, providing both soft light and fresh air, which quickly drove away the heat of the day.
"Yes." Mattie pulled said blanket from a rail and fluffed it out, spreading it over a thick pile of hay in the corner stall. She crooked a finger and motioned for Rachel to come closer, smiling as the taller woman took her in her arms. She helped Rachel shrug out of her undershirt, enjoying the play of soft light against exposed skin. "This will be a new experience for me."
"Oh, I believe we've done this a time or two now, haven't we?" Rachel teased her, as she found the tiny pearl buttons at Mattie's back and unfastened them, slipping the gingham dress down until it pooled at Mattie's feet. "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?" She began a thorough exploration of Mattie's neck and shoulders with her lips, groaning softly as Mattie's hands claimed her, finding sensitive places to stroke and touch. The groan became a quiet growl, as their bodies pressed together, the contact achingly pleasurable.
Mattie wasn't sure how they lost the rest of their clothing. All she knew was one minute she was on her feet, and the next she was lying on the blanket with Rachel hovered over her, love shining from her steel blue eyes as she dipped down, tasting, teasing, and touching her, until all she knew was the pleasure and the passion between them. Rachel shifted, nibbling her way down Mattie's torso, stopping to trace her navel before moving lower. "What what are you doing?" She felt tentative kisses at her inner thighs, a part of her thinking she shouldn't like that, and a part of her silently begging Rachel to never stop.
"You said this would be a new experience. Figured I'd show you something else two women can do together." Rachel turned and slid back up, kissing her soundly. Mattie could feel Rachel's heart pounding, and a slight tremor in the lean body. They had shared many things together, but not everything. This was one place Rachel had ached to take them, but had not yet dared. "I need to love you as fully as I possibly can. Trust me, Mattie. Please? I love you. I don't want you to be repulsed by the way I express that to you."
"I'm not repulsed." Mattie gently stroked Rachel's back. "I just never thought of what you were doing it's beyond anything I ever conceived of, is all." She smiled warmly, her body tingling in anticipation. "But it felt wonderful." She cupped Rachel's face and drew her down for another kiss, then whispered in her ear. "Show me more."
Rachel stretched out next to Mattie and curled back around, strong hands sliding down Mattie's torso to her legs. Her lips followed her hands, kissing her lover in a new and intimate way. Her senses were filled with Mattie, her warmth and her scent and her taste, and Mattie's gentle hands stroking her back. Rachel cried out softly, almost overwhelmed by the intensity of it all. "I love you, Mattie." She felt it, the moment when Mattie let go, her body relaxing and tensing against her as Rachel took her up to a new and higher place.
And then she was holding Mattie, rocking her as she shook against her, little kitten-like sounds escaping from her throat as Rachel brought her gently back down. Mattie trembled in her arms, and she felt Mattie's lips against her stomach, and then her chest, before they reached her mouth in a soul-searching kiss that took their breath away all over again. It was a long while before either woman could speak, but words were not needed. Gentle touches and soft nibbles spoke volumes, as they held each other there on the soft blanket in the springy fragrant hay.
Cloud-muted moonlight danced over the sheen of sweat-covered bodies, and a gentle breeze brought blessed coolness to overheated skin. "Are you alright?" Rachel finally spoke, feeling Mattie's body curled against her, and she pulled her even closer, pecking her lightly on the forehead.
"Mmmm." Mattie nuzzled the hollow of her throat. "Very much so."
Rachel laughed lightly. "Glad to hear it." She released a long contented sigh and closed her eyes, pulling the edge of the blanket over them. "Let's just rest a spell before we go back inside the house, shall we?"
Mattie nodded vaguely in agreement, yawning and stretching lazily before she snuggled up in a warm embrace, her hair tickling Rachel's skin, as a calming lassitude crept over both women.
Far off to the south, lightening snaked across the sky, as the water rose, and the clouds rolled ashore.
Rachel stirred in her sleep, swatting at annoying wetness that hit her face, pecking away at her skin and finally waking her. Her eyes eased open, then grew wide, as she tried to remember where she was. A soft blanket was beneath her, springy straw cradling her, and Mattie was curled against her, her naked skin delightful against Rachel's. Another pattering of water made her blink, and she realized rain was falling, hitting them through the open barn window next to them.
They'd fallen asleep, and she had no idea what time it was. She groaned, trying to get up without disturbing her sleeping lover. Carefully rolling from Mattie's grasp, she sat up on her haunches, raking her hands back through her hair and ordering her thoughts. She grinned. The barn had been a truly wonderful idea, and she realized that Mattie had been carefully controlling her reactions in the loft in the house. Probably afraid Betsy and Angel would hear them, she mused silently.
Not that Mattie was all that noisy. Rachel had no experience with such things, but Lillie had told several humorous stories of some of the men in town, who became rather vocal when at the height of passion. It wasn't like that between her and Mattie, but the little noises of pleasure Mattie made when Rachel touched her, it made her love Mattie all the more, and drove her own desire to new heights.
Just then, Mattie's face scrunched up, and a whimper of a different kind escaped her lips. The whimper became a low cry, and Rachel quickly moved closer, stroking her head to soothe her. Another nightmare. It couldn't be helped, not after everything Mattie had been through. It set Rachel's teeth on edge that Adam dared invade her lover's dreams. "He's disturbed her a damned sight enough," she whispered.
Mattie's eyes opened and she sat up, looking around wildly, then flying into Rachel's arms, burying her face into her neck. "It happened again. He was coming after me." She felt Rachel rocking her. "I hate that." Her heart slowly quit pounding, and she frowned again. "We fell asleep, didn't we?"
"Yes." Rachel kissed her head. "I need to get up and close the window there. It's raining." She reluctantly released Mattie and stood, stepping across the thick bed of hay. As she moved closer to the window, she realized a steady heavy rain was falling, the sky now completely covered in clouds, obscuring all light. It was pitch black, save the occasional lightening streak.
"We should get back inside the house." Mattie fretted, feeling around for her clothing, which had been tossed in a corner of the stall. "Guess Betsy and Angel will know what we've been up to after all."
"Guess they're probably asleep by now." Rachel studied the falling rain, watching lightening shatter the darkness. She counted the seconds, then heard the rumble of thunder that followed, off toward the north. North? She expected the tropical cyclone to be coming in from the south, then thought about the stiff north breeze. Ah. Guess it brought us some rain after all. She kept watching, and smiled as a warm body snuggled up behind her and Mattie's head ducked under her arm. She dropped her hand, scratching Mattie's back, and swore she could almost hear a purr of contentment.
"Is it bad out?" Mattie closed her eyes as the pleasant scratches traveled up to her neck and lingered a bit, then traveled back down her back.
"Falling mighty hard." Another flash of lightening crackled across the clouds, and the thunder boomed closer. "You sure you want to go inside, or would you rather bunk down here until morning?"
"Well." Mattie looked around at their comfortable nest, then back out at the menacing rain. "I suppose the damage is done. We'll hear about this at breakfast, one way or the other, eh?"
"Most likely." Rachel kissed her cheek. "It's nice and dry in here. We'll be drenched out there, and have to dry off, and change, and get all woken up."
"That blanket is looking better and better by the minute." Mattie kicked at the corner of the soft clean quilt they'd found in the wagon bed.
"It sure did a few hours ago," Rachel teased her. "Come on." She closed the shutters, blocking the rain. "We've got half the night left. Let's go back to sleep. We can run inside in the morning, and take our bath before we dry off. Not have to go through all of it twice."
"Alright." Mattie yawned, and sank back down on the blanket, reaching up and pulling a surprised Rachel after her. They wrestled for a moment, a happy struggle that caused Mattie to shriek with laughter as she was gently flipped onto her back, Rachel hovering over her on one arm, holding her wrists with the other. Her eyes were used to the darkness, and she could see the smile on Rachel's face, her steel eyes squinting, decided what to do next. Mattie solved the problem by curling a leg up, using it to take out Rachel's braced arm with a firm shove of her foot.
"Oomph." Rachel landed on top of her, nose to nose with Mattie. She burst out laughing in surprise, grabbing Mattie and rolling her into a warm hug. They finally settled down on the blanket, Rachel on her back with Mattie once again curled against her side. "Can I tell you a secret?" Her lips brushed across Mattie's forehead.
"Anything." She lightly rubbed Rachel's bare belly with her fingertips. Something had changed between them yet again, and she realized all hint of formality was gone, replaced by a warm familiarity. There was no more embarrassment between them, and no more fear of vulnerability. Two months earlier, wrestling naked in a barn in the rain with anyone would have been unthinkable. Now, it had come easily, something she had fallen into without the slightest thought at all. "What's your secret?"
"In all my life, I never had as much fun as I've had with you." Rachel smiled as Mattie rose up on her forearm, looking down at her. Hazel eyes shone golden in the darkness, and Mattie's own warm smile bathed her in a loving comfort she craved beyond anything else.
Mattie stroked her face, tracing her eyebrows, then her nose, and then her lips. She memorized the moment, wishing for one brief second she could crawl right inside Rachel's heart, and feel what it must be like in there. She couldn't find words of response, and allowed her touch to speak for her. Slowly, she was pulled back down, Rachel's arms holding her close against her side. She kissed a bare shoulder, and fuzzily realized that she was already there, in a place no one had ever been before. It was the warmest safest place in the world.
The rhythm of the falling rain, and the warm embrace quickly lulled them back into contented sleep. Nearer the beach, a sleepless Isaac Cline stared out the window at the ankle-deep water rising in his back yard.
The trickling sound of water tickled Rachel's ears, and she wrinkled her nose in annoyance, burrowing down further into the blanket. She smiled, feeling Mattie's warmth pressed against her back. Her internal clock told her they really should get up, get dressed, and go back inside the house before Angel came out to feed the horses. She groaned and forced herself to sit up. While she enjoyed the occasional ribald joke with the older woman, she wasn't quite ready to be caught snuggled up with Mattie in nothing but their birthday suits, and Mattie, she was certain, would be mortified at the prospect.
"Mattie." She brushed long red tendrils from Mattie's face. "Time to get up."
"Nooooo." Mattie rolled over away from her, covering her head with one arm.
Rachel grinned. The cute round behind presented to her was much too tempting, and she reached out, giving it a little pinch.
"Youch!" Mattie flew up in outrage. "That wasn't very nice." She turned, a charming full pout gracing her lips.
Rachel leaned in, kissing her, feeling Mattie's arms automatically respond, reaching out and pulling her close for a long minute.
"How about that?" Rachel pecked her on the forehead. "Was that nice enough?"
"Very nice." Mattie smacked her lips and stood up, stretching and stepping gingerly across the springy bed of hay to the window. She cautiously opened the shutter and peered out. "Um. Rachel." She studied the steady heavy downpour. "There's water from here to the back porch."
"Huh?" Rachel joined her at the window, draping an arm across her shoulders. "Good heavens." What appeared to be a good half-foot of water was pooled across the ground as far as she could see. "Better check the barn door and see if it's getting in here." She grabbed up her clothing, tugging it on as she moved past the stalls and the two placid horses. As she pulled up her suspenders, she reached the barn door and lifted the bar, pushing it open just enough to poke her head outside. The roof overhang protected her from the elements, and she looked down.
The barn itself was raised up about a foot above ground, having been built up on a man-made bank of soil in deference to the low-lying island and the occasional seasonal floods. It was barely dawn, as far as she could tell -- time was difficult to judge, due to the cloud-covered sky. Water lapped dangerously at the bottom of the sandy slope down from the doorframe, large raindrops peppering its surface and creating concentric circles all across the yard. Rachel scratched her head in consternation and looked over at the horses, which were munching contentedly from containers of oats, apparently unconcerned that in a few more hours it appeared they might be standing in water.
She looked back at the yard and the pathetically dripping garden, which would most likely be ruined if the heavy rain continued. The wind had picked up considerably and she mentally kicked herself for getting distracted and not noticing it earlier. Now it was clear to her sharp ears, whipping through the palm fronds overhead and blowing the sheets of rain at a decided angle. It whistled beneath the eaves overhead and stirred the tall grasses growing along the picket fence line. As she studied the water-logged expanse of yard, a familiar head peeked out the backdoor.
"Rachel?" Angel's voice carried over the wind. "What in tarnation are you doing out there, and how did I miss you going through the house?"
"Been out here all night!" She shouted back.
Angel stepped out on the back porch, hands on hips, her head tilted in question.
"Never came in from the porch last night." She shrugged and smiled sheepishly as Angel's face registered understanding, flashing her a devilish grin. "Go on back in. I'll take care of the horses while I'm out here." She shooed at the older woman until she disappeared back inside the house.
Behind her she heard Mattie frantically getting dressed, and knew she was in trouble. She turned to face an angrily embarrassed Mattie, who stormed toward her with intensive purpose, and grabbed great handfuls of the front of her shirt. "Did you have to let her know I was out here?" She frowned furiously, and Rachel had to fight a smirk. Mattie was adorable when she was angry.
"Sweetheart." Rachel closed her hands over Mattie's gently removing her already-wrinkled shirt from tightly-clutched fingers. "I didn't actually say as much, but I have a feeling that was going to be obvious as soon as we step through the back door. You know if Angel's up, Betsy's already in the kitchen cooking breakfast. Short of scaling the side of the house and crawling through the third-floor window, I don't think there was going to be any hiding the fact we were out here together."
Mattie's features softened, though she still withheld a forgiving smile. A gentle hand cupped her face and Rachel stroked her cheek with her thumb. "We could've tried to convince them we came out here early this morning to spare Angel having to go out in the rain." She stubbornly held her ground.
"First of all," Rachel smiled, "they know me better than to believe I'd have let you come out here with me in this downpour. Second of all," she mussed Mattie's hair, "we both look like we've been rolling in the hay. Our clothes are completely wrinkled, and I have straw in places I'm pretty sure Mother Nature never intended. It's all in your beautiful hair as well." She plucked a long yellow strand and twirled it in Mattie's face as proof. "Gonna take a good combing to get it all out."
"Ohhh." Mattie relented, burying her face in Rachel's chest. "I have to go in there like this, don't I?"
"Yes." Rachel kissed the top of her head. "Unless you want to stay out here and swim in later. Which is what we'll be doing if this keeps up." She closed the barn door and quickly checked hay and oat levels in the stalls. Mattie busied herself combing down the two mares, and soon the animals were taken care of.
"Ready?" Rachel raised the door bar again. "I've never seen it like this." The water had risen what appeared to be another inch in the time it had taken them to care for the horses. Mattie peered thoughtfully out the door at the dismal scene and audibly swallowed.
"Hey!" Without warning, Rachel swooped her up in her arms. "Rachel!" She playfully pounded a sturdy shoulder. "Put me down. I'm going to get soaked anyway. No way around it."
"I can at least prevent you ruining your shoes in this mess, can't I?" A dark eyebrow edged up in question. "Hold on." She stepped outside and the rain slammed into them in thick sheets. "Whoa!" She kicked the barn door closed and ran for the back door, the cold pelting drops dripping down her face and off her eyelashes, obscuring her vision.
They were greeted with two dry towels. Betsy clicked her tongue at them in admonishment. "You young people today have absolutely no common sense. Go on." She shoved them both toward the staircase. "Angel's drawn you a hot bath. Get up there and get out of these wet clothes before you catch your death of cold. You should know better, both of you." She wrung her hands. "You've got to take care of that baby better than that. I'll have a hot breakfast ready by the time you're through. Land sakes."
Two guilty pairs of eyes glanced in Betsy's direction, before both women trudged solemnly up the stairs. Angel ushered them into the water closet with a much friendlier conspiratorial grin. "Never mind her. She's cranky this morning. Rain's set her bones to aching something fierce. She's been more jittery than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Says she's got a 'feeling' about the weather. I learned a long time ago there's no accounting for her strange notions. Best I can do is say 'yes ma'am' and stay out of her way." She nudged Rachel in the ribs. "Lesson you might do well to learn early yourself."
"Hey!" Mattie's eyes shot sparks in Angel's direction. "I caught that."
Angel and Rachel bit their lips and covered their mouths to keep from laughing. "Here." Rachel nodded toward the water closet door, indicating Angel should leave. "Let me help you with all those buttons, sweetheart." She moved closer, helping her lover out of her clothing. The long skirt and full petticoat were so water-logged they clung to Mattie's legs, making walking a difficult task.
Soon she was divested of the cold soggy fabric, and felt a warm hand against her lower belly. "You feelin' alright this morning?" Warm lips claimed hers, and she melted into a toe-curling kiss. "Mmmmm." Rachel nuzzled her hair, making light circles against her stomach. "Thank you for last night, Mattie."
"I kind of enjoyed it myself." Mattie's cheeks colored. "Come on." She took both of Rachel's hands. "Help me into the tub?" Large capable hands steadied her as she stepped over the thick sides. Just as she hit the warm water, an even warmer body slipped in behind her, pulling her back into a comfortable nest of long arms and legs.
"I never dreamed bath time could be so much fun." Rachel picked up a soft sea sponge and a bar of fragrant store-boughten soap. "Relax." She started at Mattie's neck, carefully scrubbing down and across her shoulders. "Wish I didn't have to go to work today."
"You can't be serious." Mattie peered over her shoulder. "Rachel, it's raining cats and dogs out there. You can't be loading freighters in this weather, the cargo would be ruined."
"No." She lifted an elegant arm from the water and carefully squeezed soapy water across pale freckled skin. "But we can fish in it. Doozy of good weather for that. Fish'll be biting more than usual, and might be nearer the surface with the cooler temperature."
"What about the storm?" Mattie's forehead knitted in worry.
"It's just rainy wind right now. Mr. Cline said it was supposed to blow east of here. I figure it should've hit us by now if it was going to be real bad. It sure did move fast across the Gulf from Florida." She wiggled her feet in appreciation of the warm water, and the soft legs pressed against her own.
"You be careful out there." Mattie swiveled in the water and they switched positions, as she returned the favor, dragging the sponge across a well-muscled back. Impulsively, she leaned forward and peppered the smooth skin with kisses. "I want my Rachel back safe and sound with me tonight."
"And I'll most likely want to share another warm bath with you when I do get home." More kisses were her answer.
By the time they left for the warehouse and the docks, the water was starting to seep under the barn door. Angel fretted over that, and they took time out to move everything they possibly could into the loft. When they were done, only empty stalls filled with hay, and two empty feed troughs remained on the ground level, along with the water troughs, which they left full. "Can't remember when the rain was this bad." She donned a long Macintosh and stepped up into the buggy. "Thank you for driving."
"My pleasure." Rachel had insisted on taking the reins. Angel's eyesight wasn't what it had once been, and the strong winds were bothering them. She hunkered down on the wagon seat and they both ducked their heads against the driving rain. "You still want to board 'em up in the public stables?"
"I think it might be best for a day or two. Ground is a little higher up there. Don't want 'em getting foot rot standing around in the water all night. I figure the barn will be flooded by afternoon at this rate." She turned, her concerned eyes meeting Rachel's. "Ain't never been this bad," she repeated her earlier assessment. "Barn's never been flooded before. The bottom step up to the back door of the house only lacks an inch or two before it's covered. I told Betsy and Mattie to move upstairs if it gets too bad."
"I told them the same thing." They both grew sober. The long porch was a good three feet off the ground, and neither of them dared voice the unthinkable.
"Well, that should be good enough." Angel lightened the mood. "In all the time I've lived there, though cyclones and all kinds of tarnation, the house has never flooded."
"Good enough," Rachel echoed her. They grew silent, lost in their own private troubled thoughts.
Adam Crockett lay in his hotel room, listening to the monotonous sound of rain on the roof overhead, and the annoying whistling wind that had awakened him in the first place. He growled in frustration and stood, his long striped nightshirt falling down to his knees. Scratching his stomach, he shuffled over to the window and drew back the curtains. It was gray and dreary as far as he could see. The street below was obviously sodden, with large pools of standing water dotting the sandy shell surface.
A trolley car rattled past a block away, the damp brakes screeching as it neared its stop. Further away, if he squinted hard enough, he could still see the train sitting at the depot, silent, still, and devoid of passengers. He growled again and pulled off the nightshirt, as he moved to the washbasin and splashed his face. After quickly combing his hair and beard, he donned a lightweight black and gray pinstripe suit, and followed his nose down the stairs to the hotel dining room.
He had been trying to leave for Houston for two days. On Thursday, he'd been held up on business. The night before, he'd gotten caught up in a poker game and ended up taking an unknown whore back to the hotel with him. He'd kicked her out shortly before midnight, despite her protests that it was raining too hard to be walking back to her shanty room a few blocks from the saloon. He'd dismissed her anyway, hoping to make the midnight train.
The last Friday night train did not run, due to some flooding on the mainland over the tracks at the first depot. Since the hotel room was paid up for the night, and since it was only a few blocks from the train station, he'd opted to go back to the hotel, rather than all the way across the island, home, in the driving rainstorm.
Now he was glad, as breakfast was included with the room, and smelled much better than his own meager attempts at fending for himself in Mattie's absence. He was growing irritated at her extended trip, and had sent off a letter a few weeks before, demanding she come home. Now he puzzled over that, as he sat down at a small corner table and accepted a hot cup of black coffee from a harried dining room server. He thanked her gruffly, then turned to the morning newspaper, but his mind kept drifting back to Mattie, wondering if she'd received the letter yet. "I'd best not have to go out to El Paso and fetch her home," he grumbled to the empty chair across from him.
He decided to give her one more week to answer or show up, or he would go out there. He had a contact across the border in Juarez he needed to meet with anyway, so a trip to El Paso was inevitable, eventually. Some of his Mexican sources closer to home were drying up, either caught by the law, or simply running out of fresh cargo. Cargo. He refused to call them humans, or even slaves. His island sources were still fairly strong, but he needed the new contact to keep his Mexican trade flourishing.
He drummed his fingers, waiting for his eggs and ham to arrive. The server delivered fresh hot biscuits and butter in a straw basket, covered with a red and white checkered cloth. He drew out a biscuit, pulling it apart and slathering butter on the flaky fragrant layers. With a contented bite, he mused on his good fortune. Even as he sat there, a freighter was coming in from Cuba, by way of New Orleans, and would arrive due east of Houston, in a private well-hidden cove, sheltered by moss-covered low-hanging trees and protected by a native group of alligators.
On the ship were forty women and children, all of them husbandless or fatherless, and desperate to come to America where their new 'jobs' awaited them. None of them spoke English, yet every last one had signed a contract of indentured servitude. Not that the contracts mattered. Once the slaves were delivered to the remote factories, farms, and ranches that had purchased them, they would be hard-pressed to ever escape. The children would work from dawn until dusk in dark dusty warehouses, with no schooling and no chance for a better future. The women would serve as house slaves if they were lucky, field hands if they were not. Many would become unwilling mistresses to their owners, and some would bear children, more servile help at no cost to their owners.
He gratified what little conscience he possessed by telling himself they were no worse off than they had been where they came from. He didn't bother to take lack of freedom into consideration.
His breakfast arrived, and he was just digging into a pile of fluffy scrambled eggs, when Dr. Mills approached him, his face lined with worry. "Adam?"
"Dr. Mills." Adam rose and shook the doctor's hand. "What brings you to the hotel on this cursed morning? Sit down." He gestured toward the table. "Have some breakfast."
"I wish I had time. Have you been here all night?" His pale eyes darted around the room.
"Yes. Why?" Adam's eyes narrowed, wondering if word was out regarding the whore he'd snuck into his room. "I got caught here when the rain set in," he lied.
"Beach is flooded out by your place. You'd best get home to your wife and get her to higher ground. She's in no condition to be dealing with a flood." He shuffled his black bag from one hand to the other. "I'm headed out that way myself, to see if anyone has been injured or needs help. Mr. Cline has been up since before dawn, riding up and down and warning folks to take shelter further inland."
"My Mattie is safely in El Paso." Adam sat back down, taking a sip of coffee.
"That's good to hear." A server handed the doctor a cup of coffee, telling him it was compliments of the house. "Why thank you." He sat down, adding cream and sugar to the rich dark brew. "She didn't mention a trip home when I saw her a few weeks ago. I'm surprised I haven't heard from her after she passed out at the widows Sanders and McKenzie's house. I assume she's feeling alright?" He looked up, his brows raised in question.
Adam's face was frozen in an unreadable expression, and his fingers gripped the coffee cup so tightly it started to crack before he released it, coffee leaking out onto the table. "When did you say you saw my wife?" His face was dark red, his voice a low controlled rumble.
"Why, a few weeks ago, I believe. I'd have to check her chart for the exact date. As I said, she was visiting and I was called out to see her after she fainted. I assumed she'd told you about " He trailed off. "Oh, my. You do know about the baby by now, surely?"
"Of course I know about the baby," Adam roared. "She told me before she left for El Paso, in mid-July, some seven weeks ago."
"Seven weeks?" Dr. Mills frowned. "If I were a betting man, I'd lay odds I'd seen her only a few weeks ago. Are you certain she left that long ago?"
It was all Adam could do to remind himself the doctor had done no wrong. He restrained himself from flying across the table and choking him. "Exactly where, again, did you say you saw my Mattie?"
"Why, the widows Sanders and McKenzie's house." He gestured out in the general direction of the older neighborhood where their Victorian home was. "Nice place," he mused. "That young Rachel Travis has been boarding with them. Odd girl, but polite enough."
"What?!" Adam rose up, knocking the table to one side, his breakfast and the doctor's coffee flying across the floor. Without another word, he stormed past the gawking patrons and out the front door of the hotel, oblivious to the driving rain, which quickly soaked him to the skin.
The wind increased in velocity two-fold by the time Rachel reached the public stables. Her Macintosh hood continually puffed full of air and blew back off her head, and her braided hair was soaked, along with her shirt collar, where the heavy rain had run down the back of her neck. She dropped Angel off in the shelter of the cotton mills and told her she would take care of boarding the horses. Luckily, she procured the last two available stalls and paid the stable boy on duty a little extra to assure the horses received proper care.
The buggy was left under a covered shelter as well, although the wind blew fiercely enough that the shelter was useless under the circumstances. She turned into the punishing deluge and began the tenuous walk to the docks. The wind swirled around her, pushing at her from all directions, and the rain was surprisingly cold, given the warm temperatures of the previous morning. Her dinner pail was tucked securely inside her coat, and she held it against her body as she trudged, head down, watching streams of water run past her feet from uphill behind her.
As she got closer to the docks, the water level increased, until she was slogging through what amounted to an ankle-deep running river. The water, like the wind, seemed to swirl around her, not coming from any one direction. She frowned, and wondered if the winds were causing the strange flood patterns. She couldn't recall the last time that much rain had fallen on the island in such a short period of time, and it had been years since the dock area was flooded.
Still, given the conditions a few blocks inland, she wasn't surprised to find the docks partially underwater when she arrived, the entire area a mass of chaotic activity as boat and freighter lines were let out to allow for the violent sea swells which rocked the vessels many feet up into the air, before dropping them just as many feet back down. She groaned. There would be no fishing. The day was going to be spent in boat salvage. She recalled a similar day a few years before when a large tropical storm had destroyed several smaller boats that weren't cared for properly.
The water ran calf-deep along an area just above the docks, that the day before had been wide-open sandy beach. She fought the strong currents and wind tugging at her, and found Billy at the end of the docks, helping their friend Mr. Gentry with his fishing boat. "Rachel!" His voice barely met her keen ears and she looked up to see him frantically waving at her. "We could use a hand here if you've no other assignments."
She nodded and looked around. The dock master was nowhere in sight, and she assumed his attentions were probably torn in many directions. Shrugging that work was work, she made her way to the small fishing boat and grabbed a thick rope, swinging up and over the railing, where she landed on a slick surface and almost lost her balance. "Whoa!" She held to the rope until her boots stopped skidding. "Gotta lose those." She eyed the ruined leather work boots, along with the basically useless Macintosh. "And that."
In less than a minute she was down to bare feet, trousers, and her long-sleeved shirt, the waterlogged boots and coat stowed below deck to dry out. Her feet would hold to the slippery wood much more effectively than her boots would have, and the coat would only have restricted her movement. "Have you a plan here?" She sidled up to Billy, pulling on her leather work gloves to protect herself from rope burn.
"We're moving her around to the bay side, away from this wind." He grabbed the railing as a strong swell lifted the bow, almost tossing him overboard. Rachel reached out and steadied him by grabbing a suspender and hauling him back from the edge of the railing.
"Thank you." He shook off a prickling sensation in his scalp. "Let's get moving."
"Gonna be tricky." Rachel began helping him let out line. She glanced along the dock, or more precisely, the water-covered area where the dock was, and realized most of the boat owners were preparing to do the same thing, the ones nearest the end pulling out in orderly fashion, one after the other. The wind tossed the smaller craft mercilessly, and controlling sails was going to require some precise skills. She smiled. Nothing like a challenge.
They let out line as much as the dared, holding the boat to a controlled pitching motion. Finally, their turn arrived, and they cautiously pulled out, keeping the sails trimmed closely. Rachel manned the wheel, controlling the large rudder beneath the boat, while Billy and a partially-sober Mr. Gentry hauled the sheets in and out, catering to the ever-changing wind velocity and direction. "Wind is behaving strangely," the older man commented, as he shuffled past her from one side of the boat to the other, tacking and jibbing as they neared the upper end of the island.
"Too true." Rachel could feel the raging current below them, her arms straining as she fought with Mother Nature to keep the boat on track. The wheel pulled against her, and more than once was almost wrenched from her grasp by sudden current changes which were puzzling. Neither wind nor water were behaving in a predictable manner. As they rounded the northern side of the island, winds pummeled them from both directions and the truth hit home.
They were battling two converging storm fronts.
Other small craft up ahead of them were fighting the bay side of the island just as hard as they had fought the Gulf side. She could see some larger freighters, rocking on the waves as if they were weightless. All the while, the rain and wind beat down on them, blinding sailors and sending some boats into helpless drifting circles as they fought to maintain control.
"This is gonna be no good!" She yelled over the squall, her voice carrying faintly toward Billy, who was busy with the mainsail. "Pull that one back in and we'll run solo off the jib!" She saw him nod and begin the tenuous task of rolling in the heavy water-filled canvas. "Mr. Gentry!" She turned, facing fully into the southeast wind, rain hitting her face so hard, it felt like tiny needles. "We need to get her to shelter pronto. Just anywhere we can tie her down."
As she spoke, a huge swell rocked under them, tilting the boat almost on its side. She grabbed the wheel with both hands, bracing her bare feet on the slick wooden deck, trying to stand upright and steer the teetering craft back in a forward direction.
"We've bigger problems than that, lass!" Mr. Gentry pointed over her shoulder and she looked back in horror, watching as a large freighter bore down on them.
"Billy!" She screamed as loud as she could. "Hold on! We're gonna be rammed!"
She couldn't decide whether to stay on deck or jump, but the freighter made the decision for her, picking up momentum and slamming into the small fishing boat with a sickening crunch of wood against iron. The impact sent her careening through the air, and she flew through space for a timeless moment before hitting the churning waves and going under.
Her mind spoke as the frigid water sent a shockwave through her body. She tried not to tense up, trusting the air in her lungs to help her rise to the surface, although she had no idea which way was up or down. After what seemed an eternity, she felt the wind on her head and opened her eyes, drawing in a lungful of blessed salty rain-filled air. She coughed, the saltwater she had swallowed burning her throat. Her eyes stung and it took a moment to gain her bearings.
She treaded water, fighting billowing waves that continued to obscure her view. At last a particularly large swell raised her up, and she saw the island, maybe fifty yards away.
She began fighting the killer current, managing to lose the constricting shirt, leaving her in her trousers and undershirt. She was so cold her teeth chattered, but she pressed on, her mind focused only on the land ahead of her. Every few strokes she was forced to re-adjust her direction, the current threatening to draw her out of the bay area and back out into the open Gulf. She forced thoughts of Billy and Mr. Gentry out of her mind. Can't help them until I get to land, she reasoned with herself.
At last, exhausted, she crawled through the remaining shallows, practically kissing the packed sandy beach as she scrambled clear of the water. She lay on her back for a long moment, gulping in air and hearing her heartbeat race in her ears. The rain fell down on her but she barely felt it. "Almost didn't make it home for supper tonight, Mattie." Her thoughts went out to her lover and she smiled grimly. "Don't believe I'm ready to leave this life just yet. It just now got interesting."
Slowly she sat up. The waves had carried her far north, and she couldn't see the fishing boat or the freighter that had done it in. She stood and walked at first, then ran down the beach as she spotted the freighter, run aground many yards away. She could make out its frantic crew, scrambling along the deck while others had already climbed overboard and were walking around the vessel trying to figure out what to do.
Her eyes tracked out to the bay and her stomach churned. There was no trace of the fishing boat anywhere, save a few pieces of floating wood she assumed were its remains. "Hey!" She reached the freighter. "Have any of you seen the old man and the younger one who were on that boat you ran over?"
"You were on there?" An incredulous sailor eyed her bedraggled appearance. "It's a miracle you survived."
"My friends. I have to find them," she persisted. "What in blazes happened? Can't your captain control his ship any better than that?" Her heartsick anger surfaced, and she resisted the urge to attack in blind fury.
"Cap'ain was blown overboard." The man found his manners and removed his coat, draping it over her shoulders. "We couldna get to the wheel in time. Current blew us out of control. Sorry about yer boat. Maybe yer friends made it to land, eh?" His voice rose in wan hope.
"Maybe." She watched him wander away and realized he was in shock. "He's no help," she muttered. She shivered, drawing the coat around her body. She felt like a drowned rat, and she was nauseous, she suspected from ingesting sea water. She scanned the water slowly, watching other small boats fighting the gale-force winds, tossed about the waves like toys in a pond. At last her eyes fell on a wet dark-blonde head as it rose out of the water from behind a large piece of driftwood. "Billy!"
She tossed the coat, running down the shoreline, oblivious to the sharp shells and rock crunching beneath her tough bare feet. "Billy!" She saw the wood begin to move with purpose, as her friend kicked vigorously against the rough waters, propelled ashore by the sound of her voice.
She plunged into the bay, jumping waves to get to him, hauling him bodily out of the water across the last few feet. They collapsed on shore and Billy lay there, speechless for a long while, as he recovered from a near-drowning. "I'm going to wale on the captain of that freighter in a minute here." He finally found his voice.
"Too late." Rachel reached over, smoothing plastered bangs out of his eyes. "Captain fell overboard out there. Most likely he's drowned."
"Oh." His face grew sober. "I'd have suffered the same fate, if not for that wood. I saw that freighter and dove overboard right before it hit. I think I passed out for a bit. Found myself hanging onto that board when I came too. Couldn't remember what happened at first." He felt Rachel gently probe at a knot on his forehead.
"You must have hit your head on something." She peered thoughtfully out at the growing storm. "Mr. Gentry "
"No way he survived this one, Rachel." Billy's eyes grew sorrowful. "If it almost did me in him old man half-full of whiskey as he was, I just don't think "
"I know." Rachel's voice was quiet. "Damn." She slammed her fist into the sand. "We should have checked the weather before heading over here."
"Don't go blaming yourself." He sat up more fully, rain water running down his face. "Who would've thought we had two storms?" He shook his head sadly. "Never happened before."
Rachel's thoughts focused inward. No one close to her had died since her mother, and she realized she'd cared about the old man in a gruff grandfatherly sort of way. She stood on shaky legs and after a moment Billy followed her, as they wandered a few hundred yards up and down the shore in either direction of the freighter. No sign of the boat or Mr. Gentry turned up.
The wind was growing stronger, and she was grateful for the excuse for the tears in her eyes. "Damned old man," she mumbled softly. "The one day you had to care what happens to that godforsaken boat of yours."
Finally, shoulders slumped in defeat, she turned to Billy and felt his arm drape around her waist. "Guess we might as well head back into town and send some help out here. Gonna be a lot of stranded boats before this day is over. We tried, Rachel." He ruffled her head, the dark slick hair reminding him vaguely of seal fur. "Nothing more we can do here, not just the two of us."
Her heart hurt, and she looked up at the cloud-covered sky, watching the ominously darker edges to the ones to the east of the island. Thunder rolled overhead, and lightening snaked across the sky out over the bay. The weather matched her mood.
She nodded silently, tears streaming down her face along with the rain drops. Billy gave her a little squeeze, and guided her away from the beach, as they began the long walk back to town.
Adam cursed, the water running over the tops of his boots and filling them, slowing his progress to a crawl. At first he'd thought to go directly to the widows' house, but decided to go first to the boarding house where he last thought Rachel had lived. His men had kept tabs on the tall woman for a while after they had beaten her up, but once he thought she was leaving Mattie alone, he'd called them off. He checked with the boarding house owner, who had confirmed that Rachel had indeed moved out the very day that Mattie had left for El Paso.
Now he was slogging his way back to the train station to see if any records had been kept of passengers boarding and de-boarding the trains in Houston. He knew Mattie had left Galveston. He'd watched her with his own eyes. He also wanted to see if there was any record of her returning to the island, and on what day. And the telegraphs
He thoughtfully chewed on his moustache as he made his way through increasingly deep flood waters. He tried not to think what shape his house might be in. Surely it was flooded, since it was even closer to shore than the train station. He'd deal with that once he figured out where his wife was. He couldn't quite bring himself to believe the deception, and wondered if there were some logical explanation for her presence on the island. Or if the doctor had been merely confused.
He arrived at the train station, grateful for the temporary shelter of the covered platform. He tapped impatiently on the ticket window and a harried clerk opened it. "Ah. Mr. Crockett. No trains today. Still flooded over on the mainland."
"It's flooded here," Adam groused.
"True, sir." The young man grimaced at his bark. "Railroad bridge is dangerously close to flooding. We can't risk running them now, even if the other side were clear."
"I need to see your logs from July." Adam tapped impatient fingertips on the painted wooden shelf just outside the window.
"My what?" The clerk tilted his head in question. "Why?"
"Need to see exactly when my wife left here, and if she's been back." He tilted his hat back, and regretted it, as water ran off the top and down inside his collar. "Eerrgg." He flinched at the unexpected cold shock.
"Your wife?" The young man smiled at him as if he were one of the mentally ill. "Sir, I can assure you she's not been back through here since she left in July."
"How about where she got off the train on the other side?" He ducked lower, looking the clerk in the eyes. "How would I find out exactly when and where she de-boarded the train?"
"You'd have to follow the route and check each station along the way, I'd wager." The young man frowned in confusion. "Have you misplaced her or something?"
"No!" He bellowed. "You don't think I can't keep my own wife under control?" He watched the man cower, despite the thick wood and glass wall that separated them. "Oh, never mind." He stormed away.
"Takes all kinds, my mama used to say." The clerk shook his head and closed the window, warily eyeing the water that was creeping under the door. He shuddered and drew his chair further back, tucking his feet up on the bottom bracer.
Out of options, Adam headed uptown to find out exactly which house the two widows lived in. It had been several months since he'd visited the older section of the island and he was hard-pressed to remember the layout. He passed the hotel and stepped inside to pay for an extra night on his room. The manager studied him suspiciously, given his violent and hasty departure a few hours before. "Everything to your satisfaction, Mr. Crockett?"
"It's raining like hell out there, my wife is missing, and I can't get to my business appointment in Houston. Other than that, everything is just fine." His voice was controlled and even, coming out through gritted teeth.
"Business?" The clerk made change from the large bill Adam had given him in payment. "It's not by chance with some federal marshals, is it?" He watched Adam's hand freeze in mid-motion, as he signed the register.
"Marshals?" He looked up, squeezing the pen. "No. Why?"
"A couple of 'em came in right after you left, looking for you. They stayed in a hotel across town last night. Said they made it in on the last train yesterday. Said they'd heard you were here. I directed them to your house. Just assumed you'd headed over Oopphh." Adam grabbed him by the shirt collar.
"You you . " He twisted the sweat-dampened cotton, crumpling it in his fingers and almost choking the manager. "Assumed!? And did they indicate they were going to my house?"
"Let me down " The manager gasped, and felt himself released. He tugged at his collar and swallowed the lump in his throat. "What's come over you today, anyway?" He stood back out of reach. "I have no idea if they went to your house or not." He put on a dignified air. "One more outburst from you, Mr. Crockett, and you can stay at your house tonight. You've been a good patron over time, but I'll not abide by hey!"
Adam turned in mid-conversation and plowed back out into the flooding street.
"How rude." The manager sniffed in disdain and closed the register book, then went into his office to place the money in his tinderbox.
Halfway home, Rachel felt as if she were in some bizarre nightmare. Her bare feet were killing her, she was freezing, and Mr. Gentry was most likely dead. That death weighed heavily on her shoulders. She played those few seconds out in her head over and over again, between when she saw the freighter and it knocked her overboard, trying to decide if she could have grabbed him, somehow saved him. "No," she mumbled, not realizing she'd spoken aloud. She shook her head sadly and felt Billy pull her closer.
"Rachel." His voice was very gentle. "Cut it out."
"Cut what out?" She looked up, realizing he was just as cold as she was, his lips faintly blue around the edges.
"Blaming yourself." He hugged her. "How can it be so chilly out in September?" He felt the goose bumps on Rachel's bare arms and rubbed the outer one vigorously as they walked. She stumbled and cried out angrily as she stubbed her toe on a rut under the water, and he grabbed her waist, steadying her. "Let's sit for a minute, shall we?" He looked around at the flooding neighborhood just north of the business district. "If we can find a place to sit."
Water was rising as they walked, creeping up almost to the calf-level depth they had experienced on the docks earlier in the day. They had passed the church, the clock indicating it was around 11:00 a.m. Rachel spotted a house with a high covered porch, and several children playing merrily in the yard, splashing through puddles and squealing in delight. "How about that porch over there? Bet they won't mind."
"Alright." He steered her toward the house and what appeared to be an inviting porch swing under cover. "Hello." He nodded toward the children, who ignored them, other than to wave before going back to their games. They sat wearily down in the swing, idly rocking and catching their breath.
"I can't wait to get a hot bath," Rachel moaned, examining her bruised and swollen feet. The skin was puckered and shriveled, making them even more vulnerable to injury, and she noted several cut and cracked places on the soles. "I'll be paying for this walk for a few weeks."
"Want my boots?" Billy held up his sodden foot covering.
Rachel eyed the boots, which appeared to be twice the size of her own feet. "That's very noble, Billy, but I suspect I'd just step right out of them and they'd wash away."
"I could carry you on my back," he half-joked, hoping she didn't accept the offer.
Rachel chuckled. "I'm smaller than you, but not that small. I weigh a darned lot more than I look like I do, Billy." She flexed her biceps, producing an impressively-bulging muscle. "I'm pretty solid."
"That you are." He'd been around her enough to note her nicely-developed form, and had helped her on and off boat decks enough to have a general idea of her bulk.
An older woman stepped out on the porch. "You poor things." She moved in front of them. "Come inside and warm up. This flood is a blessing and curse, isn't it? I've got cookies and hot tea inside."
It was tempting. "Ma'am, we're soaking wet and filthy, but maybe if you could bring us the tea out here, we'd be mighty obliged to you." Rachel plucked at her clinging undershirt, and realized in its soaked state it was practically indecent. She crossed her arms over her chest and smiled in embarrassment.
"I'll do that." The woman stepped inside and reappeared momentarily with a pretty tray, which she set on a table next to the swing. She pulled up a chair to join them, and handed Rachel an over-sized men's shirt. "Here. It's an old one you can keep. You look like you're cold."
Rachel blushed faintly under her tanned skin. "Thank you, ma'am." She donned the warm soft black and blue striped flannel and buttoned it up. "Been a long morning. Our boat was sunk out in the bay and we're walking home."
"Oh, my." The woman poured up two steaming mugs of sweet hot tea and handed them over to the grateful pair. "As I said, this rain is a blessing and a curse. We needed it badly, but my goodness, I've never seen rain water rise so quickly, and flood so badly. My children of course are enjoying it." She smiled at the low din coming from the front lawn. "I wish my husband were home. He would give you a ride home. He works in the mills and left before sunrise this morning."
"We appreciate your hospitality, ma'am." Billy sipped his tea, in between bites of sweet crumbly oatmeal cookies, laden with cinnamon and brown sugar. "These cookies are mighty fine."
"Why, thank you." The woman preened a bit, smoothing her light lawn skirt out over her lap. "Just look at all that water," she fretted. "It's over the bottom step there. I don't think it's ever rained that hard here before. I surely do hope it doesn't flood the house. My James has a store of sandbags in the barn out back, but I can't lift them myself, and I've no idea how to place them to block the water."
Something had been niggling at the back of Rachel's mind, and she stared solemnly at the flooded yard, watching the rain ripple the surface, churning and swirling, drowning the grass beneath it. She peered down the street, squinting in each direction, seeing the same flooding as far as she could in both directions. It was troubling. With the water in the bay rising, and the water in the Gulf flooding as well, the rain certainly had nowhere to run off. The wind continued to blow, gusting so hard at times that it almost lifted the children off the ground as they ran splashing about.
She thought some more about the bay and the Gulf, and the torrential downpour that seemed like it had settled in. As she studied the water in the street, she watched, as it seemed to be streaming from more than one direction. She frowned and suddenly stood up, setting her teacup down and stepping down to the bottom step, stooping down and cupping a handful of water.
"Rachel, what are you doing?" Billy watched in fascination, as his friend willingly left the covered porch.
Rachel ignored him and sniffed at the water. She carefully tasted it with just the tip of a pink tongue, and wrinkled her nose, before moving out to the edge of the yard. She repeated her actions, cupping up some water, smelling it, and this time taking a healthier mouthful. She swirled it around with her eyes closed, then spat it out. "We need to get home, now." She turned, her face lined in worry.
"Why?" Billy stood, hand on hips, their hostess mimicking his pose.
"This isn't just rainwater." She held out her arms at her sides, looking around. "It's got salt water mixed in."
"So?" Billy scratched his head in confusion.
"So, what that means is, the rain isn't causing the flooding, Billy, the sea is rising from both sides. You've seen it yourself. We've got storms blowing at us from both directions." She kicked at the water. "This is the ocean closing in on us from both sides. Much more of this wind and rain, and it will cover this island completely. There might not be an island. Might be deep, might not be. We have no way of knowing. We've got to get to higher ground, just in case."
"My goodness." The woman wrung her hands in her apron. "What should I do?"
Rachel eyed the three-story house. "I'd start by moving my valuables up a floor, Ma'am, but I think I'm going to go home and get my loved ones, and head for the mainland. Come on, Billy." She turned toward the small fenced edge of the yard. "We need to talk."
"Um." Billy bowed slightly to their hostess. "Thank you, ma'am. And good luck. You might ought to find your husband and fetch him home, I'm thinking."
"Maybe I shall." She watched in worry as her two guests abruptly departed.
Further away, across the island, Isaac Cline sent a frantic message to the weather bureau in Washington.
Continued in Chapter 12
Return to the Academy