Copyright 2004 By Texbard email@example.com
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
"I'm going to go fetch Angel home." Betsy crossed her arms stubbornly over her chest, her parasol clutched tightly in one hand.
"It's not safe." Mattie tried to pull her back into the parlor and away from the front door. On the other side, the wind whipped in a fury, battering the door and blowing so hard the tall thick palm trees in the front yard were bending over as if they were twigs.
"I know that hateful man who runs the cotton mills. He won't let them go. Well, I'm going to go get her, I don't care if I have to beat him over the head with my parasol." She tilted her chin up in defiance, daring Mattie to stop her. She seemed much taller than her scant five feet one inch of height, and Mattie backed off, her eyes beseeching her friend to reconsider going out in the storm.
"Please. This house is going to be flooded soon, but at least we've got two more stories to work with." Mattie gestured toward the back door, where water was starting to seep underneath, pooling near the icebox and soaking the rag rug. "Out there …" she cocked her head, listening to the wind as it whistled past the house and under the deep eaves, making her skin crawl with the eerie high-pitched sound. "You might not make it back before …"
"Listen, child." Betsy moved closer, cupping Mattie's cheek. "Tell me, if your Rachel weren't out on a boat where you can't get to her, what would you do?"
Mattie sighed, knowing the truth in her heart. "No storm in the world would keep me from trying to get her safely home." Mattie sat down on the sofa, her eyes watering and blurring her vision. "Truth be told, I think that's why I'm on edge. I've half-considered going to the docks myself. I want her home. Now. And I feel helpless. What if …"
"Oh, Mattie." Betsy moved in next to her, patting her on the leg. "Nothing is going to keep that girl from coming home to you, even if she has to dive overboard and swim." She smiled sadly. "Angel … she's inside a large room with no windows. They might not even know how bad it is out. And she's just mule-stubborn enough to work until she finishes her quota of whatever they've given her to do today. She always did seem to think she was invincible."
"But what if something happens?" Mattie looked up, swiping the back of her hand across her eyes. "You've become such wonderful friends to us. I don't want to see y'all get hurt or anything."
Betsy closed her eyes. It was lunacy, and she knew it. In all her years on the island, the house had never flooded. Now water was almost three feet deep in the back yard. The barn was starting to lean, the last time she'd gone out on the back porch, and she was grateful they had no animals in there to worry about. The man down the street who traded milk and bread with them had already come by twice, warning them to move up to the second floor. They had hastily moved nearly all their valuables up to the third floor loft, leaving only the furniture to whatever lay ahead. She could only imagine how bad the flooding was nearer the beaches and the cotton mill.
"Hear me out, child. She's not come home, so I have to go to her." Betsy stroked Mattie's hair. "There are a lot of things worth living for, but very few worth dying for. I must go to her, because I'd rather die by her side, than live without her. I know that probably sounds foolish."
"No." Mattie felt the words to her very core. "No." Her voice softened. "I've known Rachel for eight months. I wouldn't trade those eight months with her for eight years without her. I understand." She stood, drawing Betsy up and into a hug. "I wish Rachel were here. We'd go fetch her for you."
Betsy snorted. "No you wouldn't, because I'd be damned if I'd stay here alone. I'd be going with you."
"Maybe I should go with you and …"
"No." Betsy squeezed her shoulder. "You have to be here when your Rachel comes home. You'd drive her insane with worry if you up and took off in this mess. Don't you fret over me. I'll be fine."
"You be careful." Mattie bit her lower lip in worry.
"I will be." Betsy paused and turned back, making her way to a small writing desk tucked into a corner. She opened up a drawer and withdrew a yellowed folded document. "This is the deed to this house." She placed it back in the drawer. "If anything should happen to me. To us -- this place belongs to you and Rachel. We have no family, so I don't think you'd have to put up a fight as long as you have the deed. Take it up to the third floor where it's safe. If we don't come home …"
"Stop it." Mattie began to cry. "Don't talk like that."
"It's only a precaution, Mattie." Betsy hugged her again, feeling her tremble as she sobbed even louder. "Silly of me to think of it. I shouldn't have upset you so. You've got that baby to think about."
"Rachel and I were discussing names, just the other night." Mattie smiled through her tears and sniffled. "If it's a girl, we're going to call her 'Rebecca Evangeline'."
"That's very kind of you two." Betsy smiled sadly. "I don't know that we deserve that …"
"Yes. You do." Mattie drew in a deep calming breath. "You gave us shelter when we had no where else to turn to. Took in relative strangers and showed us a great kindness."
"Ah, child." Betsy drew her cloak more closely around herself, preparing to go out in the growing cyclone. "And you gave hope for the future to two old ladies who had never known others like ourselves." She stood on tiptoes, giving Mattie a kiss on each cheek. "You've become like daughters to us. Family." She turned to the door. "Watch over our house until we return, you hear? And you make sure Rachel knows, every day, how much she's loved. She needs the reassurance. She's so like my Angel in that way -- so tough and brave on the outside, and so very vulnerable and sensitive on the inside. They don't let many folks see that. Only us. It's why I have to go to her. I can't let her come home in this storm alone. Her eyesight …" She straightened up. "Well. I'd best get going before it gets any worse out there." She hugged Mattie one last time. "You take care of her. She'd be lost without you."
"Yes." Mattie felt the tears rising again, and she swallowed a lump in her throat. "I know." She resisted the urge to bolt out the door after Betsy. She closed the door behind her with a loud click of the latch, and peered out the window to watch her go, but the rain was so heavy, she could no longer see past the front porch. "Be safe," she whispered, then turned back to the kitchen and the large pot of hot tea that sat on the stove. She poured up a cup, her hand shaking as she lifted it and dropped in two sugar cubes.
She sat down in a large rocking chair, facing the back door, and watched in fascination as the water puddle grew, covering much of the kitchen floor. When it reached the edge of the parlor rug, she calmly got up and moved to the stairs, sitting halfway up. She'd been isolated from the world for so long, and now she felt completely alone. She shivered and sipped at the warm tea. She'd changed into the men's clothing she wore for their beach outing. She wasn't sure why she felt the need to do that, only that she moved more freely in the trousers, and she felt comforted wearing Rachel's old soft undershirt beneath the long-sleeved blouse that was tucked into her waistband. If she concentrated, she could smell Rachel's bay rum on her clothing, and just a hint of the salty air. And she was definitely cooler in the trousers than she would have been in her skirt and petticoats.
"Rachel, where are you?" She dared not think about her lover out on a fishing boat in a cyclone. Surely they had come ashore by now, and Rachel was on her way home. Maybe she'd bring Angel and Betsy back with her. Maybe … her thoughts trailed off and she watched the floor below, as water now trickled slowly to the bottom of the stairs. It would be a while before it would cover the bottom step. It would have to fill the entire first floor, and she thought that might take a while. The house shook with a particularly strong gust of wind, and she thought she heard a tree fall in the yard outside, as a loud cracking sound drifted through the walls, followed by a tremendous splash.
It was near noon, the last time she'd checked the hallway clock. Her stomach rumbled and she chuckled at the absurdity of it all. "Life goes on," she mumbled, and patted her belly. "I must get you fed, no matter what's happening outside." She removed her boots and stockings, rolling up her trousers legs before she traipsed back downstairs and waded through the kitchen to make herself a sandwich. She flipped the switch on a table lamp but nothing happened. Betsy and Angel had the entire house wired with the new-fangled electricity, but apparently it wasn't working. She could see well enough, and quickly made herself a roast beef sandwich, and poured up a tall glass of cold milk.
She heard a knock at the front door and smiled. "Come on in, sweetheart, it's open." Her whole body wiggled with joy. There was no more need to worry. She heard the doorknob turn and a much-too heavy bootstep splash through the rising water in the entryway.
"Rachel?" She turned and her heart leaped into her throat.
"No," a deep male voice resounded. "Guess again."
She dropped the glass and saucer, barely noticing as they shattered around her in the water, her sandwich sinking onto the soggy waterlogged floor. Adam's presence filled the parlor and she bolted, just making the stairs as he lunged for her and slipped in the water, falling to his knees and almost bumping his chin on the bottom step.
"You lying whore!" He jumped to his feet, tearing after her. "I can't wait to beat the fear of God into you. You're going to burn in Hell, Madeline."
She ran, rounding the second-floor banister and rushing toward the third-floor staircase. She heard his boots on the stairs below and re-doubled her efforts, taking the next set of stairs two at a time, half-stumbling, half-crawling, as she looked over her shoulder and saw him following her up the spiraling stairs. She dove into their room and grabbed at the door, intent on slamming and bolting it. She got it closed and struggled with the latch, which they had never used in all their time there. She cursed, realizing it was bent and didn't quite fit as it should.
Then he was at the door, fighting with her, her muscles straining as she wedged her foot into the corner for leverage, pressing all of her body against the heavy wood. His greater strength quickly overpowered her as he shoved the door open, knocking her on her back. She looked up as he lunged for her, and she rolled, crawling on her hands and knees across the floor toward the bed, and feeling his fingers around her ankle, pulling her back. She reached the rough wooden bedpost and grabbed it, wrapping one arm around it as she fished inside the carpetbag stowed beneath the bed, searching by feel alone. "Let go! You're hurting me!" She tried to kick with her other foot and felt him stomp down on her ankle. "Ouch!" She drew her injured leg up, curling it under her as they continued to struggle.
"You're coming with me, you little whore!" He dug into her leg, his nails drawing blood, and pulled harder, almost dislocating her ankle. "When I find Rachel, I swear I am going to kill her, and no one is this town is going to convict me of anything."
She screamed in pain and found what she was looking for, her fingers closing thankfully around cool metal and warm wood. In a split second she swung around, aiming the pistol with deadly accuracy. The sound exploded in her ear and she watched as a bullet took the hat off his head, sending it flying against the far wall as his eyes flew open wide.
"Wha ….?" He let go in surprise, the smell of gunpowder strong around his face, making him cough.
She took advantage of the situation and scrambled backward, until she was pressed against the sofa under the window, sitting on her haunches, still holding the gun up, her whole arm shaking. "Get out!" she hissed through clenched teeth, as she forced her body to be calm, blocking out everything save the need to live, and the gun that was going to keep him from her.
She almost smiled, a tiny twitch of her lips, and leveled the pistol, aiming at his face. With her free hand, she pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and waited, watching him, determined to maintain control. Her ankle throbbed in pain and she wondered if it was broken. She looked down and saw a large bruise already forming around the protruding bone on the outside of her foot.
"Didn't know I could do that, did you?" She shifted, standing and hopping back against the wall next to the sofa, bearing her weight on her good leg. "I always knew this day would come. First time you hit me, I went out and bought this." She jiggled the pistol and watched in satisfaction as he ducked. "Took me a long time, but I learned. All those whiskey bottles you left on the kitchen table in the evenings made damned fine targets on the fence post back home in El Paso."
"You wouldn't dare." He laughed, regaining his composure. A second bullet grazed his shoulder and one of his suspenders fell away. "I'll kill you!" He moved closer and a third bullet whizzed an inch past his ear. He stopped and stood still.
"Not if I kill you first." Her heart was beating so fast she thought she would faint, and she grasped the sofa back with one hand. "Don't make me have to."
"She's poisoned you, that disgusting harlot." He didn't move, choosing to fight with words for a while instead. "Look at you in men's clothing, Madeleine. What's happened to you?"
"I learned that I don't have to stand for being hit." Her eyes stung and she rubbed them carefully in turn, never taking her sight off him. "And I finally learned what love is."
"Love? I could have both of you hung for your 'love'." He laughed mockingly. "You're coming with me, Madeleine. We're leaving here and I'm going to be a proper father to our child, and you are going to be a proper lady, no matter what I have to do."
"Proper father?" She shook her head sadly. "You're not even a man."
"Why, I oughta …" he stepped forward, forgetting the gun, and felt the hot air as a fourth bullet shot past him, and his other suspender fell. "Dammit, Madeline!" He stopped, making sure his trousers weren't going to fall. "I am your husband and you are my wife, and you are carrying our child."
"Are you insane?" She edged further back into the corner. "Have you looked outside? I think we both have bigger things to worry about right now, like surviving this storm. What are you planning to do, knock me over the head like a caveman and drag me out into the flood? How far do you think you could carry me in this mess, Adam?"
"Come with me," he pleaded. "We can leave here, start a new life."
"I've already started a new life." She glanced briefly at one of her paintings of her and Rachel, which was framed and hanging over the bed, then leveled her gaze on him. "I'm happy now, Adam. I'm in love. I've found the place I was meant to be, and it doesn't include you anymore."
"I love you." He edged just a little closer, mindful of the pistol still aimed at his head.
"You love me?" She laughed bitterly. "You have a strange way of showing it." She could still feel her ankle, the blood pounding, and knew it was swelling up. "How many times have you twisted my arm? Slapped my face? Punched me in the stomach? Or the times you threw me across the room. There were the couple of times you knocked me out, back home. Do you remember that, Adam? How about the time you broke my ribs, or the time you cracked my back tooth?" Her anger grew and she felt the rage building up. "No more!" She roared, clenching the pistol and holding her ground. "Don't you ever … ever … touch … me … again. Or I swear, I will kill you."
Her voice shook and her aim was off slightly, and he gambled, kicking out unexpectedly, wrenching the gun from her hand. It hit the floor and went off, a bullet ricocheting against the bed table, shattering a lamp. He grabbed her and pinned her against the wall. "One bullet left, by my count." He grinned evilly, his breath warm and foul in her face. "If you could get to it, you'd have to make sure you kill me with it." He twisted her arm and she screamed. "You think you can do that? Are you certain you have that in you, Madeleine?"
He raised one arm, intent on landing a solid punch to her face, and a searing pain lanced through his hand. He let go of her, dropping to the ground in agony. A large Bowie knife was driven all the way from the back of his hand through the palm, a wicked blade protruding about four inches out. Blood spurted from his hand as he grasped the hilt, trying to pull it out. "Aaaggghhhhh!" A heavy weight landed solidly on top of him and jerked the knife from his hand as he screamed again. He felt a nick of metal at his throat and tried to be still, his arm twitching in pain.
"Don't know about her, but I sure could." Rachel pressed the sharp side of the blade against his throat, her knees and one elbow holding him in place. "Fight me." Her eyes glinted wickedly, sweat pouring down her face. "I so do want you to fight me, and give me a reason to kill you right now, you sorry piece of pig dung. And that's an insult to pigs everywhere."
"Rachel." Mattie hobbled cautiously closer, but out of his reach. "Don't." She dropped down behind her lover, resting one hand on her back. "You can't kill him."
"But I so want to." Rachel's hand twitched and she felt a pressure, as Mattie squeezed her shoulder. "Oh, alright." She pulled the knife back, then suddenly and viciously elbowed him in the face, knocking him out cold. "Need to buy us some time," she apologized to her lover, and stood up.
Mattie fell into her arms. "I was so frightened." She buried her face into Rachel's wet clothing. "I was afraid you weren't going to make it home. Then he … when I lost my gun, I thought my life was over, and I wasn't going to get to see you again …"
"Hey." Rachel drew her over to the sofa. "Did he hurt you? Let me take a look at you."
"Is he going to bleed to death?" Mattie watched the blood pouring from his open hand, staining the rug an ugly dark crimson.
"No." Rachel grabbed a dirty shirt from the back of a chair and made a tourniquet around his wrist. She then bound his arms and legs with an old pair of suspenders. "There. That should hold him." She turned back to Mattie. "Your ankles," she growled. "I should have killed him." One of Mattie's ankles was visibly swollen, while the other bore a distinct set of bleeding fingernail sized puncture wounds. Mattie was gingerly rubbing her wrist, which was red with fingerprints.
She probed Mattie's ankle, feeling her lover wince at her touch. "Not broken," she grunted, but it sure looks like it hurts." She moved to the other ankle, examining the tiny wounds there, and felt Mattie's fingers comb back through her hair.
"You look like you've been dragged behind a horse, Rachel." She plucked at the soft flannel material covering Rachel's shoulders. "And where did you get this shirt? And where are your shoes? Rachel." She tilted Rachel's face up with a gentle nudge of her hand. "Your feet are bleeding."
"Long story." Rachel tore another piece of material from the ruined shirt she'd used on Adam, and snuggly bound Mattie's ankle. "If I put your boots on, do you think you can walk?"
"Don't know." Mattie flexed her toes. "Why?"
"We need to get off this island." Rachel took Mattie's hand, stroking it with her thumb as she spoke. "We're covered in water from the Bay to the Gulf, Mattie. There is no island. We are underwater now, and might as well be part of the ocean floor. Just a bunch of buildings sticking up out of the sea. I saw a trolley car run off the track earlier. Most of the power is out, at least for the houses and shops that had electricity. Billy has gone to find Lillie, and will try to meet us back here, but he told me to just go if it takes them more than an hour."
"Did you go past the mill on your way home?" Mattie suddenly remembered Betsy and Angel.
"No. We were on the Bay side. Out boat was taken out by a runaway freighter. I think …" she swallowed and looked down. "I think Mr. Gentry's dead. I fell overboard. Billy almost drowned."
"Rachel. I'm so sorry about Mr. Gentry." Mattie forced eye contact again, feeling herself shake inside. "What about you?" She touched an ugly bruise that peeked out from Rachel's shirt collar.
"I'm alive," she brushed off the subject. "Where's Betsy?"
"That's why I asked about the mill. Betsy went to get her." Mattie's eyes watered up again. "I tried to stop her, but she said she had to go to her. She talked to me about you, some. After that, I couldn't make her stay. I … I would've done the same thing." She grew quiet, unable to bring herself to share the entire conversation.
"Damn." Rachel looked over at a small clock on the bedside table. "We have to go, Mattie. Water's rising so fast." She reached across, touching Mattie's stomach. "I want us both to be around when this little one comes into this world, and I swear I am going to see to it that we all survive this thing."
"Is it that bad out there?" Mattie covered Rachel's hand with her own.
"I think there are some more dead out in the water by now, yes." She pursed her lips inward. "Wind is blowing something fierce. I think I saw a man taken down by a piece of flying roof. Folks are walking toward the bridges in droves, carrying their things on their backs and heads. But the water …." She looked over at the carpetbags under the bed. "We should take almost nothing with us."
"But …" Rachel brushed a finger across her lips.
"We need to be able to swim some, if we have to." She saw the fear in Mattie's eyes. "I can help you, sweetheart, if it comes to that, but we can't be loaded down with things."
"All that matters to me is that we both make it through this." Mattie leaned in and quickly kissed her. "What do we need to do?"
"We both need to put some boots and stockings on, and hightail it out of here while we can." She got up and moved to the armoire, withdrawing two pairs of clean dry stockings. "Wish these would repel water."
"What about Adam?" Mattie stole a quick glance at her still-slumbering husband. "We can't just leave him here, can we?"
Rachel groaned. "Sure we can." She saw the disapproval in Mattie's eyes. "Alright, if we can get him to come around, he walks in front of us. But I'm going to have my knife ready. He so much as looks at you the wrong way, and I'll use it. This is serious, Mattie. Once we get off the island, he's on his own. Whichever way we go, he'd best go the other."
"I just don't think I could live with myself if we left him here." Mattie got up and limped over to her lover, wrapping her arms around her from behind. "But I agree with you. We owe him nothing other than the chance to survive." She kissed Rachel's neck. "I love you, Rachel. I was so frightened today after Betsy left. I didn't know where you were and I wanted so badly to come find you. Then he came in and I thought it was you at first. I … I need to tell you about my talk with Betsy, but we probably don't have time right now. Just … know that you are the most important person in the world to me."
Rachel turned, and wrapped her in a wordless embrace, rocking her gently back and forth and allowing the words to settle over her very tired body and frazzled nerves. "We've both had a very hard morning." She nuzzled Mattie's hair. "We still have a very long afternoon ahead of us." The wind whipped into a frenzy outside, rattling the roof, emphasizing her point. "When we get out there, we need to be covered so our skin isn't exposed to flying stuff in the air. Need to tie our hats down and wear long sleeves. And we need to stick close together. The wind is so strong, it almost took me off my feet a couple times, and the flood -- in some places the currents are strong enough to wash you away, if you lose your footing. Don't let go of me, no matter what."
"Never." Mattie kissed her quickly, then set about the task of dressing to go out. "Next time I pray that I'll be able to go outside soon, I'm going to be a bit more specific about the circumstances." She smiled wryly and felt Rachel ruffle her head as she stepped past her and studied the clock.
"Billy should've been back by now." She squared her shoulders. "We … we have to go. No more time. If we don't hurry, the water might get too deep for us to get to the bridge. Of all the things," she spoke quietly. "To have to leave without our friends and take his sorry carcass with us."
Mattie shot her a look of quiet sympathy, and walked around the bed to stand next to her. She reached up, lightly scratching her neck. "Would you expect them to wait for you in a life and death situation?"
"Of course not," Rachel groused.
"Then I would hope they would forgive us for doing the same." She took Rachel's hand. "Come on. Let's wake him up and get moving."
Rachel nodded in grim silence. Outside, the wind howled, as the sea continued to rise, slowly swallowing up the island.
A sullen figure trudged through knee-deep water, ducking his head into the driving wind and cold pelting rain. Each time he looked over his shoulder, Rachel all but snarled in response, her Bowie knife clutched in one fist in plain sight. His hand throbbed, and he could feel blood seeping through the bandages wrapped around the knife wound. Somehow, some way, he intended to make Rachel pay for it, and of course, for stealing his wife. It sickened him. He had heard tales of women doing disgusting things together, and seeing Mattie with Rachel only strengthened his resolve to kill the taller woman the first chance he got.
Rachel watched him, biding her own time. She had one goal -- to get her and Mattie across the bridge to the mainland and safety. If he tried anything -- anything at all -- she was ready. Her fingers twitched around the smooth hilt of her knife, daring him to make a wrong move. They had left Mattie's pistol behind in the third floor loft of the house. She'd convinced Mattie that the wind was too strong to hold an accurate aim.
As they crossed Broadway the water level was lower, but nonetheless, she noted the floods running through the street, the rivulets pooling and gathering, mingling with rivers flowing toward the street from both directions. The tides have never risen high enough to flood Broadway. Isaac Cline's words echoed in her head and she shivered. "You alright?" She turned her attentions to Mattie, who was much too silent at her side.
Mattie nodded solemnly. She knew if she talked her voice would give away the pain she felt each time her weight came down on her injured ankle. She walked next to Rachel, one arm wrapped snuggly around her waist, with Rachel supporting her in kind. It was agony. The ankle was swollen so badly that her leather boot felt like a vise around it. She'd thought to take it off but Rachel convinced her she needed the support, and that the boot might help keep some swelling at bay. So she pressed forward. She had no other choice.
She felt dizzy, both from the pain and from hunger. In their haste to be on their way, she had quite forgotten about her ruined sandwich. Now her stomach felt hollow, growling angrily at her from lack of food. She tried not to think about it, or about the unborn baby that was depending on her to provide it nourishment. It was surreal, walking through the raging water, the wind battering her from all sides, with Adam only a few feet in front of them.
She should be terrified, she acknowledged, but other than her physical discomfort, she felt a little numb, and under that, a layer of peace based in the calm assurance that Rachel would take care of her. All around her, people and animals were panicking, women weeping in fear, horses bolting, dumping their riders and taking off without them. Men struggled along, carrying trunks and carpetbags, their harried wives and children trotting along behind. Some of the younger children danced through the water with glee, oblivious to the coming storm.
She could feel it at her back, and if she glanced back toward the Gulf, she could see the rolling dark clouds, and the gray sheets of heavy rain pouring across the horizon for as far as she could see. Greater than the cold wet rain or the bothersome wind, or even her pain and hunger, was the solid warm presence at her side. Rachel had said little about her morning, but Mattie sensed she'd almost lost her. She swallowed hard, renewing her hold, slipping her thumb inside the waistband of Rachel's trousers and idly rubbing warm skin. She felt Rachel's breath catch just a little, then even out, as Rachel's own grip tightened around her, practically lifting her and helping ease the weight on her aching leg.
"You certain you're alright?" Rachel's voice burred right in her ear, in an effort to be heard over the wind.
She nodded again, giving her lover a little squeeze of reassurance. She thought of Billy and Lillie, and Angel and Betsy, and even of the little house she and Adam had lived in on the beach. Judging from what she'd seen on the long walk to the bridge, she was sure the house was a loss, along with all the furniture and things she'd left behind there.
It was selfish and absurd, to think of such a thing in their dire circumstances, but she couldn't help it. The less that remained to bind her to Adam, the better. A rueful smiled graced her lips as she thought again of the child she carried. There is that, she acknowledged. She shifted, turning more fully into Rachel's hold, and buried her face inside the edge of Rachel's Macintosh, trusting her lover to guide both of them as they plodded forward. She felt Rachel's hand trail up her back and brush briefly across her head, before it settled once again at her hip.
"Almost there, sweetheart." Rachel's lips were at her ear again and she let it soothe her. She was weary to the bone, and the bridge was a long one. She could feel the crowd around them growing bigger, as more and more people poured off the side streets, joining the desperate throng as it flowed toward the bay bridge and the promise of solid land. Somewhere behind her a baby cried fitfully, and next to them a horse whinnied and snorted, dancing sideways in the rising flood.
"I … I'm cold," Mattie finally spluttered out. She was soaked to the skin. They both were and there was nothing they could do about it.
"I know." Rachel hugged her tightly. "Hang on Mattie, just a little ways further and one bridge, and we'll go find a warm dry place to ride this out."
It hurt, to see Mattie cold and in pain. Rachel felt the subtle roll of her weight as she shifted from her good ankle to her bad one, felt her body stiffen with every other step, and felt the slight uptake of her ribs as she drew in each sharp breath. Occasionally she felt a cold shiver work its way through Mattie's body, and the clutch of her hand at her side as she sought support in her struggle to simply walk.
The rain dripped down her back beneath her collar, and pounded against her face, and the wind almost pushed them along at times. Overhead the thunder rolled and lightening flashed across the dark roiling sky. Flying debris constantly pelted them, and more than once she'd fended off larger bits -- shingles and such -- as they hurled perilously close to their heads.
And the waters rose.
They neared the last few blocks before the Bay, and the water was back up around their knees, making walking a chore. She felt unknown objects brush against her legs under the water, and watched in numb shock as a small dog paddled past her, its eyes rolling in frantic fear as it searched for footing and found none. Without a thought she quickly pocketed her knife and scooped the animal up.
"Oh." Mattie looked up from her warm nest as the grateful creature alternated between licking at her face and Rachel's face. "Where's its owner?"
Rachel looked around and shrugged. "Don't see anyone looking for -- it." It was too difficult to check and see if the animal was male or female. It was a Sheltie -- its brown and white coat soaked and heavy with water. She managed to tuck it inside her coat and felt Mattie's free arm wrap around beneath the animal, helping hold it against her body.
"Looks like we got ourselves a dog, for the time being at any rate." She smiled as Mattie smiled back up at her. It surprised her just how much better Mattie's smile made her feel, and she looked around before quickly ducking her head and giving Mattie a swift peck on the lips.
She looked back up to see Adam seething back at them as he practically stopped in his tracks. "You sick whore."
Rachel touched Mattie on the arm, silently handing off the dog. "Stay put for a minute." She doubled her stride, grasping his shirt collar and spinning him around, the water sloshing around their legs. She lifted him a little and drew the Bowie knife, brandishing it in his face. "Not another word. You ever hurt her again, and I will see to it that you regret it." She flicked the blade dangerously close to his throat. "Mine." She roared in his ear, causing his hair to stand on end. "Do I make myself clear?"
Cold steel eyes bore through him, the sparks almost visibly flashing from them. There was no doubt as to her meaning, and he nodded meekly. Her lips twitched in rage before she dropped him. He almost lost his footing as curious onlookers walked past them. Glaring at her one last time, he turned, facing the bridge area, feeling her eyes at his back.
The wind blew fiercely, and Mattie had heard only one word of their exchange, but it was the only one that mattered. She clutched the dog to her chest and smiled as Rachel returned to her side and they re-arranged themselves and their new charge for the rest of the short walk. "Mine." She patted Rachel's side, knowing Rachel heard her as the taller woman kissed the top of her head.
At last they reached the Bay and stopped, staring at the churning water and the wreckage of boats bobbing in the whitecaps. More importantly, their eyes fixed on the arches of the bridge, and the waters below them.
"Rachel?" Mattie looked up uncertainly at her lover, then out at the Bay. "Now what are we going to do?"
Rachel remained silent for a long moment. The bridge was covered in a shallow layer of water. Its surface was still visible, but it was submerged. She heard the forlorn muttering of the people around them. "Dunno. Maybe the other bridge, or the railroad bride."
"Don't bother," a man heard her and moved closer. "We've already been to both of 'em and they're covered too."
"Well, then." Rachel forced down the rising panic in her gut. "We can't risk it, Mattie. We can't see how deep it is out in the middle, but I'm pretty sure I see the water flowing freely out there. Tough to make it out from here, but I don't think it's safe."
"So we … we're going to die?" Mattie's throat tightened. "Is that what you're telling me?"
"No." Rachel hugged her, holding the dog between them. "We'll find another way."
"Fools." Adam practically spat at them. "There is no other way. Stay here if you want to, but I'm crossing this bridge and getting off this island. Mattie, come with me. You stay here with her, and you will die."
Mattie's eyes flicked sadly across his hopeful face. "No." She looked up at Rachel. "You do what you think you have to, but I know where I belong now."
"But the baby." Adam dared move closer, well-aware of the powerful figure standing next to his wife. "What about our baby?"
"Our baby." Rachel enunciated the words carefully.
"Now wait just a minute." Adam moved closer still, talking over the wind as his hands balled into fists. The rain dripped off the brim of his hat, obscuring his view.
"No." Mattie stepped between them. "It ends here, Adam. This is not your child and you are not my husband. Cross the bridge or go on your way, whatever you choose, but you're not a part of my life anymore."
"Out of my way!" he roared, shoving past her and barreling headlong toward Rachel. She merely met his head-butt, grasping his body and rolling with it, lifting him and dumping him on his back in the water.
With a yell of rage he rose back up, coming at her again. She turned, cocking her fist back and then swung forward, landing a solid upper cut to his jaw and sending him to his back again. She stood and watched, as he got up yet again, rubbing his aching jaw as he circled her.
"Stand down, Adam." She took on a defensive stance, waiting for him to make a move. "I've got to get her and that baby to safety, and I'm not letting you or anyone else get in my way."
"My baby," he growled, and came blindly at her again, intent on using his body weight to knock her down. She suddenly shifted her stance, simply plowing into him and sending him to his back a third time, as she landed on top of him, holding his head down under the water for a brief second before she grabbed a handful of his shirt and hauled him back up. He spluttered and coughed, spitting out cold salt water.
"My baby." She slugged him again with her free hand. "My wife!" Another blow and she let him fall back, as she rocked back on her heels and then stood back up.
He slowly stood, shaking his head to clear his ears of water and a faint ringing sound from Rachel's blows. He looked first at Rachel, and then at Mattie, who instinctively moved next to Rachel and felt a protective arm drop around her shoulders. She stood up tall, despite the pain in her ankle, holding the dog close and jutting her chin out, seeing Rachel in her peripheral vision, her dark head held high and proud. "Goodbye, Adam." Her words were soft but certain, and he growled one more time, then turned and headed toward the bridge.
Mattie clung to Rachel, feeling her ribs rise and fall with labored breathing. "Did he hurt you?"
"He didn't touch me, actually, but my hand hurts from hitting him." She flexed her fingers and watched as Mattie took her hand and kissed the throbbing knuckles.
"Do you think he will be able to cross?" They both watched his progress as he made the first tentative step onto the bridge, the water washing over his legs at mid-calf. He clung to the railing on one side, taking one slow step at a time, careful to never completely let go of the railing.
"I suppose we'll know soon enough." Rachel blinked water out of her eyes, and felt the dog struggling against her, trying to burrow deeper inside her coat. The wind battered tiny raindrops against her cool skin, and blew her Mackintosh coat tails back. She snorted. The coat was useless, actually. A crowd was gathered at the bridge, and a few others bravely began to follow Adam on his trek across the Bay. "If he does make it, we should try too."
"Surely the floods won't rise high enough that we can't take shelter on the second floor of the house." Mattie looked worriedly up at her, watching Rachel's jaw work as she swallowed, then spoke.
"It's a cyclone, Mattie. We've got rain and wind to worry about. Powerful wind. Mr. Cline said Broadway has never flooded, but you saw it back there. This is the worst it's ever been. I … I believe our best chance of survival is going to be to get off the island."
"And if we can't?" She continued watching Adam's painfully slow steps.
"Then we find another place to go. I think the house is sturdy enough -- sturdy as most other homes here, at any rate. There's a few larger buildings downtown we might try to reach. I don't know. This flooding, the storm -- they aren't predictable. They can leave little houses standing and destroy larger ones, with no apparent rhyme or reason." She pitched her voice high enough to carry over the wind, and realized the people around her were listening.
A glance around revealed terror, mostly. Women held onto babies and men shouldered bags and various other possessions. The children, who had been playing in the water earlier, now clung to their parents, their eyes solemn with fear. A few wagons were off to the side of the standing crowd, nervous horses snorting and sidestepping in the rising water. Down on the beach, huge waves slammed ashore, swirling and foaming as they spread out, mingling with the floodwaters that crept ever higher toward the center of the island. Whitecaps churned out in the bay, and a few small boats bobbed helplessly in the mayhem.
The handful of people on the bridge halted and appeared to be studying the path ahead with some trepidation. Only Adam plowed forward, the water well up to his waist. One by one, the others turned back, plucking their way toward their onlookers. "Damned fool," Rachel muttered, as Adam wobbled a bit, a large wave washing over him and covering him to shoulder level. He stopped for a long moment, then ducked his head and used the railing to pull himself forward. Finally, in a desperate move, he appeared to be climbing onto the railing, and began inching slowly forward, using both his arms and his legs.
Suddenly, a large tidal surge swept across the Bay, capsizing a boat out in the middle, before washing over the bridge. Adam looked up and saw a wall of angry debris-filled seawater bearing down on him. There was no place to run and no time to escape, as it covered him in cold darkness, tearing him effortlessly from the bridge and washing him out into the Bay.
"Damn!" Rachel saw it, and handed the dog over to Mattie, tearing her Mackintosh off.
"What are you doing?" Mattie's eyes grew wide as Rachel next removed her long-sleeved shirt, leaving her in her trousers and undershirt.
"He's going to drown." Rachel gestured toward the dark head bobbing in the water, then looked around at the horrified crowd, which stood rooted in place. "No one else seems inclined to help him."
"No one else is foolish enough," Mattie tucked the dog under one arm, freeing up one hand. She grasped a suspender and tugged Rachel toward her. "Besides, I thought you wanted him dead."
"And I thought you wanted him to live!" Rachel snapped at her, her anger rising. She knew it was irrational. Mattie was a kind-hearted soul, but she felt it anyway, the boiling anger mixed with a jealousy she realized she'd harbored for a very long time. She watched, as Mattie's hand moved up, cupping her face.
"Not at the risk of losing you." She blinked, warm salty tears joining cold rainwater.
"And what if he dies?" Rachel looked down, crossing her arms over her chest. "Will you blame me for that later?" Hesitantly, steel eyes glanced upward, dark lashes blinking uncertainly over them. "More importantly, will you be able to forgive me for not trying to save him?"
Rachel might as well have slapped her, and she drew back a step. It wasn't the time or place to discuss the complicated emotions she knew lay beneath the argument. "Can you forgive yourself?" She stepped forward again, laying a hand against a cotton-clad stomach, feeling Rachel's heartbeat strong against her fingers.
"I can't let you down, Mattie." She pursed her lips inward. "And I've never killed anyone. I know I've expressed that particular desire in his regard, but truth is, I've never stood by and let someone die before my eyes, not if I could help them."
"No!" Mattie tugged at her hard, hooking her fingers inside her waistband. "Let me down?!" She was furious and felt her blood rising, driving away all hint of the chill in the air. "What do you think will happen if you go out there, Rachel? Do you honestly think you won't drown too? Look at it. We just watched a boat roll over and disappear. Are you stronger than that? Are you?!" She pushed at her, shoving her backward a step.
Rachel's own eyes grew wide and she remained silent as the words rained down over her. She shook her head negatively in answer and looked down. "No," she finally whispered. "I just …"
"No!" Mattie yelled again. "I am with child, Rachel. If you go out there and don't make it, I am alone, do you hear me? I have no folks here. I don't know how to survive a storm like this -- I've never seen anything like it. None of our friends are with us. And if I do survive, I don't want to raise this child alone. The most heroic thing you can do right now is live, Rachel, for me and for this baby." She stopped, drawing a heavy breath, feeling her chest tight and her eyes stinging. "I need you." She moved closer. "I love you." Long arms wrapped around her, pulling her close, the confused dog tucked snuggly between them.
"Shhhhh." It was the easiest choice in the world. "I'm not going." She kissed Mattie's head, oblivious to their curious neighbors, who were half torn between Adam's plight and the unusual exchange between the two women. "It was ignorant of me to consider it."
"It was very brave." Mattie sniffled and looked up at her. "I don't want him to die, Rachel, because I can't wish that on anyone, no matter what they've done. But I won't lose you, even if it means leaving him to fend for himself. He made the choice to go out there. Sometimes we have to live with the choices we make." She cupped Rachel's face again. "And he might die for that choice, but I won't risk you. Letting you go out there -- that is a choice I could not live with."
All the anger and the jealousy dissipated and Rachel closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of their joined bodies. "I choose you too, Mattie."
They continued to stand there in the rain and wind, locked in the hug, not caring if anyone saw or what they thought about it. Mattie turned and rested her cheek against Rachel's chest and they watched Adam's dark head as it bobbed out in the water. He made no sound that they could hear, and they were uncertain if he was dead or alive. Slowly, the waters carried him southward, well away from shore, tossing him back and forth until he finally disappeared around a bend and out of sight.
"Do you think …?" Mattie stopped. "We need to find another place to go, don't we?"
"Yes." Rachel's eyes were still fastened on the spot where Adam washed out of her vision. "How is your ankle?"
"Doesn't matter." Mattie's lips were a thin grim line. "I'll walk on it wherever we need to go."
Rachel nodded, her eyes taking on a faraway look as she made a decision. "Let's go home."
Mattie shifted and they turned their back on the Bay, as they began wading back toward town.
Sister Francis peered out the window of the girl's dormitory. Heavy sheets of rain lashed the window, and she could see no further than a few feet past the porch, which was already under water. Great creaking noises carried on the wicked howling wind, and she jumped as a large slate roof tile was hurled through the window, shattering the glass, which landed in shards at her feet. The rain poured in and she carefully stood back, stepping through the glass as she brushed off her habit. Her finger caught on a small sliver of glass and she looked down in odd fascination at the single drop of blood that appeared on her fingertip.
"Sister Francis?" Albert tugged at her skirt and she looked down. "You need to move back some more." He pointed at the rapidly growing puddle of water at her feet.
"Yes, Albert." She drew her finger to her mouth for a second, then turned to face a crowd of terrified children, and followed their gaze to another puddle of water, which trickled in under the door, pooling on the wooden floor and soaking a large rug in the entry area. They were all in the girl's dormitory, even the boys, as the boys' dormitory was already flooded on the first floor. "Perhaps we should all move to the second floor. Come along." She managed a smile, and herded her charges up a narrow wooden staircase.
The noise of the storm was much louder up there, and it seemed as if God himself were reaching down with an angry fist, pounding at the dormitory, slowly scrubbing away at the building in a fury of rain, wind, and hail. The boards creaked as strong gusts battered the structure, and they could feel the entire building shake as a large wave rolled upward from the sea, breaking against the lower story. One of the younger girls began to cry, and several others quickly joined her. Water dripped steadily down in one corner of the room, from a leak where several tiles had been torn from the roof.
"Now, now." Sister Francis moved around among the children, urging them to sit down and huddle together for comfort as much as for warmth. Soon a few other nuns joined her from the first floor, and they led the children in singing hymns, and in reciting the rosary, and in petitions to the Blessed Virgin Mary to spare them. Small brave voices piped up, pitched high to carry over the chaos outside, and Albert scooted closer to Frank and their friend William, taking their hands. The boys were too frightened for their usual show of bravery, and meekly clung to each other as they tried to concentrate on the songs.
Another tile flew through a window on the far side of the room, and all the children screamed. Sister Francis rose, picking up a blanket from one of the beds, and making her way to the window, intent on somehow covering it up. She paused in horror at the sight below. Despite the cold and the rain, she moved closer, peering out at a blackened sky, streaked through with lightening. Thunder rumbled over the angry Gulf, which was indistinguishable from the yard below. There was no more yard, nor any sign of the beach; only water as far as she could see, and a few lonely buildings peeking up above the roiling waves. She watched a small storage shed break apart, rended by the sea as if it were nothing more than a thin reed, the boards quickly spreading out in all directions as they were carried away.
"Sister Francis!" Frank's voice finally broke through to her. She was soaked to the skin, and water dripped down into her face. She wiped a hand across her eyes and took a deep breath, hoping to hide the hopeless fear that gripped her heart. "Children, let's all gather closely together, shall we, way over there." She pointed toward the corner furthest away from the outer walls.
The wide-eyed children obeyed without question, meekly scooting back until they were all piled into the corner. Most were openly crying, even the older boys, and the girls clung to one another, sobbing uncontrollably. Sister Francis left them briefly, returning minutes later with a large coil of clothesline.
"We're going to play a game." She unwound the rope, laying it out around them. "Each of you should take your turn, starting at the end, and see who can loop this rope around your waist, and tie the most secure knot."
"Why?" Albert piped up, his eyes on the rain pattering freely through the shattered window. One of the younger nuns quickly stood, taking the blanket Sister Francis had left behind. She raised the remains of the window frame, and managed to tuck the blanket in, partially blocking the growing storm.
"Because it will be fun." Sister Francis smiled at him, patting him on the head. "Come on, now." She moved to the far end of the group, helping a very young girl get the rope around her. The children began to chatter among themselves, some from increased fear, and some from the excitement of the new diversion.
"Frankie, Willie, come on," Albert moved to the opposite end of the group from the sisters. "Don't tie up too tight."
"Why?" Frank scooted up next to him, quickly followed by William.
"Yeah," William chimed in. "Sister Francis said to see who can tie the tightest knot."
"Just don't." Albert's sight turned inward. "It seems like it might be a bad thing to be tied to all of them, if we end up having to swim or something."
"You think?" Frank whispered, as Sister Francis drew ever closer to their end of the group.
"I'm not sure," Albert patted him on the leg. "It just don't feel right is all."
"I'm with you, Albert," Frank looked up as the boy next to him finished tying off, and handed him the next section of rope.
Despite their protests, Sister Francis tied them in tightly, before she moved away from them and sat down next to the younger girls. The other nuns were tied in among the children, situated next to the very smallest ones, including a few who were barely old enough to walk. As they commenced with singing and prayers, three little boys stole furtive glances as they stealthily untied themselves, merely looping the rope around their waists.
It was dusk-like, although sunset was several hours away. Mattie bleakly surveyed the dark turmoil overhead. There was no sign of the sun or even of the sky itself. Dark billowing clouds covered them, the rain growing colder and stronger with each step they took. She took one last glance, then hunkered back down in a protective fold of Rachel's coat. A pink tongue reached out, swiping her face, accompanied by a canine whimper. She sneezed in surprise, which earned her a squeeze from the long arm supporting her.
"You alright?" Rachel's voice burred down the back of her neck, and the dog licked her again.
"Eep!" She spluttered, looking up. "I just got kissed by a dog." She brushed her hand across her lips. "Bleckk."
Rachel smiled briefly, then suddenly they were both lying face down in water that covered them. A loud crash splattered next to them, sending ripples of floodwater over their heads. Before she had time to think, Mattie felt herself hauled up as Rachel clung to her. "Sorry." She pushed plastered hair from Mattie's face. "Near miss." She indicated a palm tree, which lay next to them, ripped from the ground by its roots. "Had to shove you out of the way."
"Oh." Mattie felt shaky, and suddenly her stomach twisted inside. Her face felt hot, in odd contrast to the cold deluge of rain against her skin.
"Mattie!" Rachel patted her cheek gently. "You're kind of green. Or gray, maybe." She tilted her head in question, as the confused dog scrambled between them and curled up against Rachel.
"I don't feel well," Mattie swallowed as her stomach protested. She felt like vomiting, except … "I missed dinner." She felt a warm hand cover her belly. At some point she'd lost a few buttons, and Rachel's touch slid against her skin, taking advantage of the gap in the material.
"We need to get some food in you." Rachel's brow furrowed and she looked around. They were in a residential area, with no sign of a store in sight. "Can you stand?"
Mattie nodded and gritted her teeth as Rachel helped her up. Her ankle hurt so badly, she wanted to cry, and her insides were doing something akin to a hoedown. Her jaw clenched with another wave of nausea, and she swallowed several times. "Baby's angry with me." She stumbled as she tried to bear her own weight, and sat down in the water again.
"Hold on a minute." Rachel removed her coat, tying it up until it formed a sack of sorts. She scooped up the dog and tucked it into the makeshift basket, then looped the tied-up arms over her head, slipping one arm through it so that her back and one shoulder bore the weight. "Now." She stooped down, helping Mattie up again, this time supporting her with both arms. "I'll carry you if you need me to."
"No." Mattie shifted, taking advantage of the extra support. "Just having both your arms around me makes a big difference."
Rachel grinned, just for a moment. " I can think of much better places to have both my arms around you." She pulled Mattie close. "Let's get you home so we can feed you." She felt Mattie nod against her, and they continued on. Mattie shivered constantly, her teeth chattering at times, but Rachel made no comment. There was nothing that could be done. Their heavy wet clothing protected them from bits of flying debris, but otherwise they might as well have been naked. The cold rain was almost unbearable, and stung every inch of exposed skin it hit. Her own arms were an angry blotched red from the continued abuse, and her eyes hurt from constantly squinting to see ahead of them.
The floodwaters were rising, and as they reached a lower area, it rose above knee level, almost up to Mattie's hips. The slow pace against the strong current was exhausting, and she felt Mattie's labored breathing as she tried to walk and keep her weight off her injury. After nearly an hour, she knew Mattie was crying, although the noise of the storm drowned out her sobs.
"Mattie." Rachel stopped, pulling her lover over to a house and up onto a high porch that was still above flood level. The dog whimpered, licking Rachel's neck, and then wriggled, trying to get to Mattie. "Be still," Rachel admonished, and the animal peered at her sadly, but complied, seeming to understand the gravity of the situation. "Mattie, talk to me." She patted a cold cheek.
"I can't go on." Mattie's muffled voice sounded against Rachel's shirt. "I can't."
"You have to." Rachel's voice rose to near panic. "We're still too close to the Bay. We have to get further inland, even if we don't make it home."
"Maybe … maybe the church." Mattie looked up hopefully. "It's halfway between here and home, isn't it? It's a nice big safe building, don't you think?"
"Maybe." Rachel nibbled her lower lip. "But we have to get to the church, and to do that, I need you to get up, Mattie."
Two hazel eyes peered mournfully up at her, then Mattie drew in a long breath, releasing it slowly as she hobbled back up to her feet. "Alright." She wrapped one arm around Rachel's waist. "Let's get moving."
"That's my girl." Rachel kissed her on the head, and helped her down the steps and back into the free-flowing street. Others were out and about, moving in all directions, as people scrambled for any place that might provide shelter and safety. The wind picked up, and heavier debris began to pound at them. Rachel used one arm to continually bat at objects that flew toward them. She winced as a sliver of wood lashed against her forearm, leaving an angry gash. Mattie had not noticed, so Rachel said nothing, feeling warm blood mingle with the cold rain trickling down her arm.
At last they reached St. Mary's Cathedral. The water was running waist-deep in the streets, and a horse galloped past in panic, its rider long-gone. They heard a great ripping crunching sound, and a beam flew through the air, killing the horse instantly. It dropped into the water near them, and Mattie screamed, clutching at Rachel. They could no longer hear each other talk without shouting, and the wind blew so hard that each step was agony.
Rachel held onto her lover, and heard the dog whimpering, its face pressed against the back of her neck. She studied the cathedral, noting its obvious swaying. A good portion of the roof tiles were gone, and she could just make out the faces of frightened occupants, who had taken shelter inside the large building. The bell in the tower overhead clanged constantly as the wind whipped around it, and she could hear the entire structure creaking, even above the roar of the storm.
"We need to move on," she shouted. "This is no good."
"Home?" Mattie yelled back at her.
"If you can make it that far," Rachel cradled her head, forcing eye contact. Two determined eyes met her. "It's closer to the center of the island, Mattie. I just have a feeling this isn't a good place."
"I trust you." Mattie yelled, almost in her ear, then quickly pecked Rachel's cheek. "Take me home."
Rachel gathered her strength and led onward. She had been doing her best to practically carry Mattie, lifting her up as much as she could. As they passed the church, she noticed a small rowboat, tied to a tool shed behind the church. Without a word she turned away from the street area, fighting the current until they reached the boat. "I'm giving you a ride home." She removed the surprised dog, dumping it carefully into the boat. The animal made no protest, glad beyond measure to be standing on something relatively solid. It shook its coat vigorously, then sat back on its haunches and watched its new friends.
"You next." She scooped Mattie up, setting her carefully into the boat as Mattie squawked in outrage.
"You can't row against this current!" She lifted a long wooden oar that rested in the bottom of the boat.
"No, but I can pull it." She began untying the boat, affixing the thick rope around her own waist. She turned, facing Mattie. "Let me do this," she pleaded. "It will be easier than what we were doing before, believe me."
"If you're certain." Mattie's doubtful eyes appraised her.
"I am more than certain." She leaned in, stealing a quick kiss. Mattie's face was already losing the pinched pained expression it had bore for the past two hours. "Rest, my love. Sleep, if you can."
Mattie snorted, an unexpected bubbling laughter. "I don't believe sleep will be possible until I'm under a dry roof, but my ankle already thanks you."
"Alright, then. Home we go." Rachel stepped carefully back toward the more open street area. In some ways it was easier, as she had both arms free for balance, and she no longer had Mattie's weight and the dog's weight pulling at her from opposite directions. True, the current was strong, and she had to fight it to move forward, but she was moving faster than they had been before. Every fiber of her body told her they had to get home. She watched lightening streak across the sky, striking far enough away that she couldn't tell what the target was.
Back in the boat, Mattie settled against one of the benches, feeling safer sitting in the bottom of the small craft. She stretched out her legs, and smiled as the dog rolled over, belly-up, its head against her hip. "Oh, so you're a boy, are you?" She scratched the proffered belly, and sighed with relief. The rain still punished her face mercilessly, but being off her ankle made a world of difference. She slowly felt a small measure of tension drain from her body, although she was a long way from being relaxed.
She watched Rachel moving ahead of her, her head bent against the wind, her long arms idly moving next to her sides, her fingertips grazing the floodwaters around them. Rachel had left her coat in the boat, and Mattie was using it as a cushion to sit on. She could clearly see Rachel's strong back muscles, shifting and moving against the white shirt plastered against her skin. Her braid was almost completely undone, and her long hair whipped back behind her. She looked like a wild thing, and Mattie found the sight to be irrationally appealing, there, in the middle of a storm that threatened to kill them both.
Her insides settled slightly, and she looked down, resting a hand against her stomach. "She's going to take care of both of us." She glanced at the dog. "All of us," she hastily amended. She found herself humming an old lullaby, and smiled for a moment, trying to imagine what it would be like when they were a family.
Halfway between the church and the house, she heard a series of sounds like gunshot, and jumped. Both women turned and watched as the bell tower of St. Mary's wobbled precariously in the wind. The iron bands that held the tower in place had snapped, and the structure threatened to give way at any minute. Suddenly, a smaller tower collapsed inward, smashing the roof of the church. The larger bell tower quickly followed, missing the church itself.
Mattie's eyes grew wide, remembering the people inside the church. She turned back around, sharing a grim look with Rachel, who shook her head sadly, then turned away, increasing her stride with a new motivation to get them home. They passed fewer and fewer people, as group by group, the islanders chose their places to wait out the storm. Most of them had been through their share of cyclones, but no one could remember anything like the one they were facing.
A few blocks from home, the wind picked up considerably, carrying a constant high-pitched shriek. As they rounded the corner on their own street, a large piece of slate tile came flying through the air, crashing against Rachel's back and sending her stumbling into the water. She lost her footing and felt the boat dragging her backward. In a blind panic, she reached around for the rope, trying to grab hold and pull herself back above the water.
Mattie watched and screamed as the dark head disappeared below the surface. They could no longer hear each other, even at a shout. She scrambled to the front of the boat, lying on her stomach so as not to fall overboard. Grasping the rope, she began desperately pulling at it, knowing that Rachel was hopefully still tied to the other end.
Bracing her feet against one of the bolted benches, she tugged with all her might. The dog scampered up front with her and clamped its teeth around the rope, trying to help. It would have been cute under any other circumstances, but she found no time to smile. "Rachel!" She cried out, in spite of the wind, feeling the heaviness that pulled back against her, indicating Rachel was working just as hard as she was.
At last Rachel spluttered to the surface, her feet finding the ground again. She coughed violently, digging in with her heels so as not to lose her grip. "Dammit!" Her face contorted in anger. Mattie's pale face stared back at her and she softened her expression. "I'm fine." She coughed again and spit out some water. "Truly. I am." She moved to the side of the boat and felt her faced cupped between a pair of cold, but gentle hands.
"You could have drowned." Mattie stroked her cheek. "You scared the living daylights out of me."
"Sorry." She closed her eyes for a moment, drawing up reserves of strength. "Look." She gestured down the street. "If it wasn't raining, we could see the house."
"Can you make it?" Mattie's fingertips brushed across her face again.
"You bet I can." Rachel flashed her a smile and ducked her head into the wind once more. Three blocks away were warm blankets and dry clothing, and hopefully a few morsels of food.
Betsy stood in knee-deep water, watching as workers came out of the warehouses. She searched each face, blinking away the rain blowing in from the Gulf and pelting her face with icy-fine drops. She had long since discarded her useless parasol, and was drenched from head to foot. Her height wasn't helping any, as the throng of much-taller people slogged past her, intent on getting to higher ground.
At last, a beloved lined face appeared in the warehouse doorway across from where she stood. "Angel!" She waved frantically, her voice lost on the wind. She began pushing her way through the crowd, practically launching herself into Angel's arms as she approached her. "I feared I would never find you."
"What are you doing here?" Angel squinted, trying to focus in the windy wet gloom.
"I came to lead you home." Betsy took her hand and began tugging her away from the buildings and back toward town. "Or at least that was my intention."
Angel stood her ground, unaccustomed to the rare public display of affection. "Why?" She grumbled. "I can get home on my own -- been finding my way home for over thirty years now."
Betsy looked down, recognizing the chastisement for what it was, and allowing it to wash over her. She swallowed and looked back up. "Your eyesight." She reached up, her hand trembling as she pushed a lock of hair away from Angel's face. "I worry about you sometimes."
"I can see just fine," Angel groused.
"Is that why you allowed Rachel to drive the buggy this morning?" Betsy's gentle smile removed the sting from her words.
"Oh, alright, so I might need to get some spectacles." She peered into the driving rain. "We need to get the horses and get home. I suspect I will have to drive, seeing as Rachel didn't see fit to come with you."
"Angel …" Betsy took both hands in her own, chaffing them with her thumbs. "Rachel and Mattie are headed toward the Bay Bridge and the mainland by now. This storm -- it's bad. I imagine the house is flooding. We can't get to the stables from here."
"What do you mean 'we can't get to the stables from here'?" She started in the direction of the stables, and felt a hard tug to her arm. "What!?" she shouted over the howling wind.
"Please, just follow me?" Betsy's eyes pleaded, and she had to stand on tiptoe, cupping her hand around Angel's ear and shouting her request, as Angel stooped down to hear her.
Angel frowned and nodded, placing a hand at the small of Betsy's back, even as Betsy urged her forward. They walked in mute silence, sloshing through the flood and dodging people and animals headed in all directions. The rain lashed at them from the back, quickly soaking Angel's Macintosh and hat. Betsy led her up a few blocks and over, turning away from the direction of home, and toward more of the business district. At last they reached St. Peter's and Betsy pushed the heavy wooden door open, leading Angel inside and up the stairs to the balcony area.
A crowd had gathered in the cathedral, claiming pews and spots along the walls, hunkering down to wait out the storm. Babies fussed and the occasional dog whimpered, as mothers fretted over their children, and the men stood around in small pockets, talking and gravely listening to the din outside. Some water had seeped inside, but the building was solid enough that it was holding much of the floodwaters at bay.
Betsy drew Angel to a soft old blanket, which was folded over and tucked next to the back pew of the balcony, and covered a small area of the hard wood floor. The pews were all occupied, and the balcony walls were lined with even more people than the first floor.
"Would you tell me what in tarnation is going on here, so we can get home?" Angel crossed her arms and blew out a disgruntled breath of air, watching as Betsy removed her own coat and laid it across the back of the pew. "The water's only knee-deep out there, the horses can make it through this."
"The stables are underwater." Betsy pursed her lips inward, watching Angel frown. "I tried to go get the horses before I came over here. Ran into the stable hands. They had to let all the horses go, or else let them drown. They're gone. Rachel and Mattie are gone. I told Mattie they should go without us, if they were to have any chance of getting off the island. This … spot …" she indicated the blanket and the corner. "I had to fight to claim it. It was the last place left on the second floor, and this kindly gentleman promised to hold it for me until we could get here. Thank you, sir."
An older man smiled. "You're more than welcome, ma'am." He had several children with him, and a younger woman who resembled him enough to be his daughter. She was hunched down behind the pew back in front of her, trying to discreetly nurse a baby.
Both Betsy and Angel turned, giving her a measure of privacy. "I want to go home." Angel looked around the tall room and up at the vaulted ceilings in confusion.
"We can't." Betsy made a move to unbutton her Macintosh, and hesitated until she realized Angel was going to allow the assistance. With a gentle hand, she stroked a tanned cheek, just once. "We can't, because the flooding is such that we would have to walk for miles out of the way. The direct route is no longer passable. I asked." She worked first one button and then the next, watching Angel's face as she processed the information. Her lover shrugged out of the waterlogged canvas, grateful that at least her shirt was still dry. "This storm, it's here, and we would not make it home in time."
"We've never had to run from a cyclone before," Angel looked around, trying comprehend what she was hearing, refusing to believe her world had changed so much in a few short hours. "Is it truly that bad?"
"It is." Betsy reached up with both hands, straightening an errant shirt collar. "Most folks who could go have already headed toward the bridges. I think the entire island is flooded now."
"You should have gone with them." Angel felt Betsy's hands stop, going still for a long moment, as her head dropped down and she rocked slightly from one foot to the other. Finally, she looked back up, her fiery brown eyes sparkling with amber flecks. Slowly, they filled with tears and she blinked, once, drawing in a shaky breath as Angel caught the tears with her fingertips, then ran those fingers back through her damp hair. It mattered not who might be watching. Some things were too important to be left unsaid. "I'd have wanted you to be safe, rather than coming after me."
"I couldn't have." Her lips trembled in a smile. "Because I made you a promise, a long time ago, in the woods outside Atlanta." Betsy closed her eyes, remembering a quiet time of commitment, just the two of them, beneath a tall pine tree under a blanket of bright twinkling stars. Swallowing hard, she quoted a familiar verse from memory: "Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.*" She looked up, watching the tears pool in Angel's eyes, matching her own. "I don't break my promises."
Angel gasped, grasping the gravity of the situation. Without further thought, she pulled Betsy into a tight hug, kissing her on the cheek and nuzzling her hair. "My beautiful brave lady. How could I ever love you more?" She quickly brushed Betsy's lips with her own, not caring where they were. "My home has always been with you. Let's get some rest, and make the best of this, shall we?"
Betsy clung to her, absorbing the hug and the shared body heat. She felt herself lifted up slightly, before Angel released her. "Good, because I am weary from walking here. After I learned the horses were gone, I wasn't sure I would be able to walk all the way back home, even if we could."
The settled down on the blanket, and Angel rested with her back against the wall, holding Betsy close in an effort to help her fight off the chills from her wet skirt and shirtwaist. After a while a nun came along, passing out dry clothing and extra blankets, which had been taken from a dry goods store near the church. The women took turns holding up a blanket, using it as a makeshift changing screen.
"How does this look?" Betsy laughed, holding out her arms, which were encased in a man's shirt twice as big as her. Her hands were hidden, and the shirt tail came down to her knees. Beneath the shirt she wore a plain skirt, which fit a bit better than the shirt, and she wiggled her toes in pleasure at the sensation of clean dry stockings.
"You're beautiful." Angel held out a hand. "Come here and let me comb out your hair and re-braid it." She sighed as the smaller woman did her bidding, landing lightly on the blanket next to her. They suffered a few curious glances from those around them, but most people were too busy tending to their own families. A hush had fallen over the room, as one by one, children and babies managed to drift off for afternoon naps, despite the roar of the storm which beat down on the building outside.
"It feels divine to be dry again." Betsy's scalp prickled pleasantly as Angel worked a wide-toothed comb through her hair.
"That it does." Angel tugged carefully at a snarl, and began separating the long strands of mostly gray hair into sections for braiding.
"I think I'll leave it down for a while," Betsy glanced shyly over her shoulder. She knew Angel loved it when she left her hair unbraided. "It needs to dry some more."
"Very well, then." Angel set the comb aside and settled back against the wall, half sitting and half reclining. Betsy scooted over, fitting herself under one arm and curling up with her head resting against a strong shoulder. Under her ear, she could hear Angel's heart, beating as strongly as it had the first time she'd ever heard it so close.
Angel idly stroked Betsy's head, feeling her breathing deepen and even out, and watched as her eyelids slowly drooped shut. Warm breaths brushed across the skin exposed above her top button, and Betsy's hand rested flat against her stomach. She lay her own hand over it and kissed the top of Betsy's head. "How did I ever manage to find you, Rebecca McKenzie, 'cause it's for darn sure I didn't do anything to deserve you."
Outside, the flood waters rose, and way out in the Gulf the waves began to gain speed, as the storm continued to batter the island. Inside, two women rested taking shelter in a love that had weathered the greatest storm of all, life.
Continued in Chapter 13
*The Book of Ruth, chapter 1, verses 16-17, King James Bible.
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