Copyright 2004 By Texbard email@example.com
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
It seemed like hours, but they finally reached the house. The water was up to Rachel's armpits, and threatened to take her off her feet and carry both of them away. She half-dragged and half-swam the boat around back of the house, and tied it off to a porch column. Making her way onto the water-covered porch, she tugged mightily at the back door, but it was held shut by a rushing current of water, which even Rachel's well-toned muscles were useless against.
Back in the boat, Mattie shivered, and tried not to pay attention to her stomach, which gnawed at her with hunger, and her head, which had started to spin with dizziness. She no longer even bothered swiping water away from her eyes, allowing the deluge to pour over her unhindered. It felt as if she would never be warm again. She realized some of the spots before her eyes were not raindrops, and swallowed as a wave of nausea rose up, bitter on the back of her tongue. "Rachel?" Her voice was weak and the howling wind carried it away, unheard. A wet furry body wriggled close to her, as their new-found canine friend curled into her lap, worriedly licking at her hands and face.
Meanwhile, Rachel methodically tested the four windows off the back porch, all of which were kept locked against the vagrants that made their way to the island, riding the boxcars that arrived daily from the mainland. "Dammit all!" She yanked with all her strength, to no avail. The rain hindered her grip, and her fingers kept slipping. Finally, she sloshed back down the steps and swam over to the boat, intent on getting an oar to smash one of the windows. She clung to the side of the boat, well aware the water was rising. "Can you hand me that oar, sweetheart?"
Bloodshot hazel eyes blinked at her, as Mattie struggled to both concentrate and hear her. "Mattie?" She hoisted herself up as much as she could without tipping the boat over. "Mattie!" The combination of pale skin and blue lips did not bode well, and with no further thought, she tilted the boat, grabbing an oar and catching Mattie at the same time, as the smaller woman slid into her arms. "Hold on, just give me a minute and I'll be back," she admonished the dog, who whimpered but seemed to understand, and plopped down sullenly in the bottom of the boat as she released it.
She dragged her passenger and the oar up the steps, getting Mattie situated on the seat of the porch swing, which hung only a few inches above water. "Stay there, please." She stroked a chilled cheek, then moved to the window furthest from the swing, hoisting the oar back and landing a hard blow to the middle of the window, shattering the glass and cracking the cross-pieces of the frame.
Working frantically, she cleared the window of stray shards and splinters, until there was only a large gaping hole. Just as she finished, the water rose perceptibly, and began flowing over the sill and into the house. "Mattie, let's get you inside, alright?"
Mattie nodded vacantly and gripped weakly at Rachel's waist, as she felt her lover guide her to the window, picking her up gently and lifting her up and inside the kitchen. Rachel quickly followed, picking Mattie up again and carrying her to the stairs. A pleading bark sounded at the window, alerting her the dog had decided not to wait. Grateful, she slogged back through the kitchen and lifted the wet wriggling body into the room and released him at the bottom of the stairs. "Mattie, can you make it up there?" She sat down next to her lover, practically cradling her in her lap. "Come on, talk to me, will ya?"
"Baby needs some food," Mattie mumbled softly, patting her belly. Wide blue eyes signaled Rachel's worry, and Mattie managed a smile. "We're home, for better or for worse. Maybe there's something salvageable in the kitchen?"
"Oh. Right." Rachel practically leaped from the stairs to the rapidly filling room below. The first four steps were already covered, and she wasn't hopeful any food had been spared from the water that now covered the cupboard door halfway to the ceiling. The electricity was long gone too, meaning food in the icebox was most likely beginning to spoil. They'd watched the poles snapped and felled all along the way, and had to dodge dangerous wires several times during the long journey home. Rumor on the streets was that they no longer had electricity or telegraph connections. With no bridges, the island was effectively cut off from the rest of the world.
She rummaged through the cupboard, which to her puzzlement, was bare. "I know this was full this morning," she groused, her brows knitting as she moved to the icebox, which was also empty. Her heart sank as the truth hit home. They were trapped inside a house with no food, and a cyclone bearing down from outside. They had no cows or chickens, and going outside again was out of the question. Wasn't it? Alright, she acknowledged to herself. Going back out was out of the question for Mattie. Rachel, on the other hand, was going to have to go out, or risk Mattie becoming terribly ill, or worse. She swallowed and made her way back to the stairs.
"Mattie," she gently cupped her lover's face. "Let's get you upstairs and then I'll get you some food, alright?"
Mattie nodded agreeably, understanding that Rachel's search had been fruitless. "Won't have you going out there again," she argued, even as Rachel practically carried her up to the second floor.
"And I won't have you and our baby survive this storm only to starve to death." Her tone was no-nonsense, daring Mattie to argue further. "I'll only go down a few houses and try to find something, I promise."
"Alright, but only for the baby." A stubborn lower lip poked out, and Mattie found a sudden surge of strength, as they rounded the banister and headed for the stairs up to their third-floor loft. A quiet whimper made them turn around to see the sheltie standing uncertainly at the top of the stairs behind them. "Come on boy," Mattie cooed softly, and the dog bolted toward them, tail wagging and body quivering with happiness at being included with his newfound humans. He stopped a polite distance from them and shook himself soundly, sending water droplets spraying in all directions. Pink tongue lolling to one side of his mouth, he trotted toward them and sat down at Rachel's feet, waiting expectantly for their next move.
"I think we have ourselves a dog," Rachel looked soberly from Mattie to the dog and back again. "No telling where his owner is by now."
"A dog and a baby," Mattie teased, "sounds like we're going to be a family real soon, Miz Travis." Despite her tiredness, and the cold, and the hunger, she could feel the warm affection radiating from her lover, as Rachel's beaming face easily reflected her feelings.
"I need to get my family up to a place that's warm and dry." She hoisted Mattie into her arms and started up the stairs. As she reached the door, it swung open and she almost fell inside, sidestepping madly to maintain her balance and not drop her bundle of cold wet lover.
"Rachel?!" A familiar masculine voice washed over them.
"Billy?" She looked up, then across the room. "Lillie!"
"Rachel, sugar, we thought y'all were long gone to the mainland by now." Lillie rose, bringing a blanket with her.
"No luck." Rachel eased Mattie down to the floor. "We need a minute here, Billy, alright?"
"Oh. Certainly." Billy blushed and made his way to an alcove on the far side of the room, intently studying the storm outside and giving them some privacy.
Rachel helped Mattie out of her clothing and grabbed a towel from where she had flung it over a chair, vigorously drying her off before she dug through their drawers and located a warm flannel nightgown. "How's this?" She pulled it over Mattie's head. "Nice and soft."
"Perfect." Mattie sighed as some of the chill began to dissipate. "You too." She gestured toward the bureau.
"I know." Rachel quickly shed her own clothing and dried off, then donned a flannel shirt and a pair of heavy work trousers and thick warm stockings. Her nose twitched and she looked around. "I smell food."
"We rescued most of your food when we arrived." Billy indicated a large box sitting in the corner, along with a washtub full of ice. "I put the perishables on ice, for as long as it might keep them. I … hey … whoa!"
Rachel flung herself at him, hugging him tightly. "Thank you." She kissed him on the cheek. "You just don't know …"
"I think I get the idea." He grinned and peered over her shoulder, where a suddenly alert Mattie had lunged for the box, grabbing a loaf of bread and a chunk of cheese. "Knife," she mumbled around a mouthful of bread. "Neef um knuff."
"Slow down," Lillie knelt down next to her, helping her cut a healthy slice of cheese which Mattie slapped onto the bread, taking a satisfied bite. She chewed and swallowed. "Milk?" Her eyes were wide in hopefulness as she eyed the washtub.
Rachel chuckled in utter relief, watching the color already returning to Mattie's cheeks. "I reckon there's milk in there, right?"
"Right." Billy located a mug and soon Mattie was seated on the sofa with two sandwiches and a tall cold mug. Billy watched in fascination as Mattie methodically attacked the first sandwich, then attacked the second, taking large gulps of milk in between bites. "I'd best take me some notes here," he grinned.
"So right," Rachel sat next to her lover, one arm draped casually around her shoulders. "Never stand between a pregnant woman and her next meal." She snuck tidbits of cheese and bread to the dog, who had curled up at their feet.
"Where'd he come from?" Billy knelt down and scratched him behind the ears.
"Sugar, that is a nasty gash on your arm," Lillie interrupted them, lifting Rachel's blood-encrusted shirt sleeve, gingerly pushing it back.
"Ouch, forgot about that." Rachel winced, as Lillie found a wet rag and cleaned up her arm, then bound it in a fresh strip of clean cloth. Mattie watched in interest, as she finished off her milk, and as Lillie tied off the bandage, Mattie lifted the arm and kissed it softly, before she snuggled up to Rachel and closing her eyes, just glad to be out of the storm, warm and dry.
Rachel idly stroked her damp head while she talked. "The dog -- he swam by while we were trying to get to the bridge." Her sight turned inward for a long moment, remembering the vision of Adam's head bobbing away and out of her view. "Lot's happened since I saw you this morning." She looked back up.
Outside, the wind picked up, and they could hear water pouring in on the first floor, even from where they sat on the third. "Reckon we have a while to listen, if you're a mind to share." Billy eased back, taking Lillie's hand and guiding her to a pair of chairs opposite the sofa.
"Yeah." Rachel watched as sheets of rain lashed the windows. As she watched, a few small pellets of hail pecked at the glass. "I reckon we do."
All he could see was water. Indeed, it was all he could feel and taste -- the icy cold waves whipping him around as if he were a doll floating in the current. Stinging salt filled his nose and eyes, and he had swallowed enough of it that his stomach was starting to rebel. A particularly strong wave washed over him, lifting him high in the air. Just as quickly the wave dropped from under him and he fell back into the bay, his body slapping hard against the churning foam after the twelve-foot drop.
Swimming was not an option, and he had never learned anyway, other than an awkward dog paddle in the shallows of a calm pond back in El Paso. This was no pond and El Paso was 800 miles away. Adam had never missed home more. He spluttered, trying to get his bearings. Each time he got a glimpse of land another wave pulled him under, or spun him around, and he was lost all over again.
So this was it. He was going to drown. A curious calm came over him, as hypothermia began to set in. He had wondered, from time to time, how it would all end. Drowning had never been an option. Given his activities both in El Paso and Houston, he rather suspected someone would just up and shoot him in the back someday, most likely in a back alley in the dark.
As the rain, wind, and waves buffeted him, he thought of Mattie and wondered how things had gone so wrong. How had she managed to keep so much from him? The revolver was shocking enough, let alone her relationship with that unnatural she-demon, Rachel. He thought of the taller woman, and her claim to his child. His wife. His upper lip curled into a snarl. He vowed then and there, if he survived, he would kill her himself. No hired guns this time around.
The cold settled into his bones, and he simply drifted with the water, floating on its surface as best he could. An air pocket had gathered between his coat and his body, and that served to help keep him afloat. Suddenly, a powerful tidal surge picked him up, propelling him rapidly toward the island. He could see it now, and hope was renewed. Among the floodwaters, it was difficult to determine exactly where land was, other than by trees and other vegetation, and the occasional beach house.
After a quick ride in which he spun over the top of the cresting wave, it spit him out, up and through the air, tossing him into what had been a cove, thick with rushes and overhanging trees. He still couldn't stand. The water was too deep, but it was a lot calmer there, the green shoots and leaves forming a natural barrier against the strong wind. He paddled toward a tree branch, which was only a half-foot above the water.
With his last bit of strength he simply clung to it, wrapping an arm around it and gasping for air and spitting out salt water. The waves continued to wash up into the cove, breaking in the rushes in a hiss of white foam. The rain pummeled the cove and the tender leaves, many of them stripped from the trees and floating in the murky water. A small freshwater stream appeared to feed into the cove, although with the rising floods, it was difficult to determine where the stream ended and the salty cove began.
He kicked a little bit, scooting around the tree to the other side, where more branches hung low in the thicker marshy area. It was more sheltered there, heavy with reeds and a large weeping willow tree whose branches dipped down into the water. The wind made the willow's branches sway back and forth, almost like a woman's skirt, the tiny leaves peppering the water as the wind plucked them away.
Despite his tiredness, and the cold, and his queasy stomach, he laughed out loud. Maybe drowning wasn't in the offing after all. He thought of Mattie again, and the bridge he had tried to cross. There was no way, he knew, that anyone would have attempted to cross it after he was washed off it. He made a mental note of the location of the widows' house where he had found Mattie. As soon as he could get back to town, he was headed there, determined to check every church and store between the bridge and the house in the event Mattie and Rachel had sought shelter elsewhere. Wherever Mattie was, he was going to claim what was rightfully his.
He tested the depth and found he still could not touch bottom. It was freezing and his fingers felt numb as they gripped at the rough tree bark. His teeth began to chatter, and he looked around, trying to determine where he had landed. It was no use. The foliage around him was too thick. All he could see were leaves and clouds overhead, the tall rushes behind him, and the gray waves out beyond the cove. The water out there was covered in angry whitecaps, and the rain was falling in heavy sheets.
Adam thought about the swift current that had carried him away from the bridge. He knew it had taken him south, but how far south, he had no way of knowing. He thought about that some more and realized he had no idea where he was, other than he was still on the island side of the bay. Or at least he was fairly certain he was on the island side. Something bumped his arm and he looked down but saw nothing. Another bump hit his back and he spun around, keeping a careful hold on the tree trunk.
At first the source of the bump evaded him, but slowly, two tiny beady eyes appeared above the water surface. Several other pairs of eyes quickly followed it, and he found himself face to face with a half dozen baby alligators -- tiny hatchlings, all less than a foot long. His hackles rose. Even a baby gator could do some damage if it decided to bite. He slowly backed away from the tree, paddling into the marsh. The babies stayed near the tree and he breathed a sigh of relief. Their tiny scaled bodies bobbed on the water's surface and they swam around aimlessly in the space he had so recently occupied.
To Adam's relief, he discovered that just inside the rushes, he could stand up, with water only up to his arm pits. He cautiously stepped further back into their shelter, and away from the baby gators. His eyes grew wide and his heart leaped into his throat, as a much larger pair of hooded eyes popped above the surface on the side of the tree opposite of him. The mother gator seemed not to pay attention to him, instead focusing on her hatchlings, and herding them into a more tightly-knit group.
He continued to back away, ever so slowly, never taking his eyes off the mother, who appeared to be some eight feet long. She growled, nipping at her young and finally managed to school them all together, and began nudging them into the marsh away from Adam's direction. They glided away, the wake of their bodies trailing behind them as they slipped into the tall rushes. He released a long breath and continued inching away from the cove. His eyes strained as he studied the part of the marsh where the mother gator and her babies had disappeared, but the rain obscured his vision.
He had two choices, go back to the cove and climb the tree, or continue to wade through the marsh. Island marshes were never all that wide, he realized. Not like the vast swampy areas of Louisiana. Galveston itself wasn't that wide. The gators had swum away from the cove, but he had no way of knowing how far away from it. Going back to the cove meant risking another encounter with them. He decided mucking his way through the rushes was the better choice.
He turned his back on the cove and ducked his head, trudging forward and feeling the gloopy mud suck at his boots beneath the surface. Even there in the thickness of the marsh, the heavy rains reached him, pelting his neck and making him blink each time he tried to look up.
He lost a boot and stopped, holding his breath and ducking under the water, trying to retrieve it. He felt around for it, and something stung sharply at his hand. With a gasp of pain, he rose up out of the water, shaking it vigorously. It felt like a dagger cut, and as he examined it, a curious burning sensation traveled up his arm. Two small puncture wounds went clean through the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger.
Something slithered up his trousers leg, and he felt another cut on his lower leg. His hand was starting to swell, and his eyes bulged as something else brushed lightly against his stomach. He watched as the water around him came to life, churning with teeming long scaly bodies, and angry white mouths hissed at him, long fangs striking out at him from all directions. He screamed in agony as another one found its way up his other trousers leg and yet another made its way inside his shirt.
His body was on fire now, and he managed to shrug out of his coat, twisting it and beating at the snake nest with it. It only served to anger the moccasins more, and they attacked with renewed fury, one managing to climb up his back, striking his neck and then his face. With one last blood-curdling scream, Adam Crockett's body slowly slid down below the surface, sinking into the marshy depths.
It was dusk-like out the window, although it was only mid-afternoon. Rachel sat on the sofa, staring idly out the window, watching the rain sheeting down the thick glass. The wind whistled beneath the eves and at times they felt the entire house shake, as swift gusts buffeted the island, snapping tree trunks and effortlessly pulling tiles and boards from buildings. From time to time hail pelted the roof and they heard a window break on the floor below them.
Mattie was asleep, stretched out on the sofa with her head in Rachel's lap. Lillie had snuck over and tucked a warm old quilt around her, getting a mouthed "thank you" from Rachel. Given the circumstances, all pretense of common public behavior was off, as both couples clung to each other, lost in private thoughts. Billy and Lillie, who were curled up together, sitting against a pile of pillows on the bed, occasionally engaged in whispered conversation, in deference to Mattie's much-needed nap.
Rachel absently stroked Mattie's hair, lifting it and letting it sift slowly through her fingers. After they ate, they took turns combing storm-induced snarls from each other's hair. Rachel's was back in a tidy braid, but Mattie had been so exhausted, she could barely sit up, and Rachel had gently eased her down into her current position. She lay on her side, one hand tucked under her chin, the other curled around Rachel's knee. Her long red hair fanned out over Rachel's lap and part of the sofa, the clean silky waves shining in the lantern light.
Mattie's brow furrowed and she mumbled restlessly in her sleep, her tone distressed and forlorn. Rachel grazed her fingertips across her lover's forehead and around the curve of a soft downy cheek, willing away the bad dreams. She studied the sprinkle of freckles on Mattie's nose, and the bow of her upper lip, and found herself falling in love all over again.
She was worried about Mattie. No one should go through the stress they had suffered in one short morning, much less a pregnant woman. She ticked off the events in her head. First, she, Rachel, had gone off to work in a cyclone, despite the fact that the barn was flooding and the house was very close to it at the time. That alone had worried Mattie, she knew. Then Adam had shown up and almost managed to kill Mattie. Then they'd suffered the long tedious walk to the bridge where they had watched Adam assumedly drown. Then another long walk back home, in which Rachel had almost drowned. Through all of that Mattie had been starving and terribly cold.
That Mattie was able to sleep through the noise and chaos of the storm was testament to just how exhausted she was. Rachel watched Mattie's hand fly to her stomach, as she cried out in distress. She almost woke her up, thinking she was in pain, but then Mattie settled down and she realized it must have been more of the apparent dreams torturing her lover. "Shhhhhh." She rubbed Mattie's back and bent over, brushing her lips against Mattie's cheek. She looked up and blushed, realizing Lillie had been watching the entire time.
"Poor little darlin' must be plumb tuckered out." Lillie piped up softly. Billy was also dozing, his head resting against Lillie's shoulder. "So's he." She nodded downward at Billy's blonde waves. "We had a terrible time getting here. And when he found me at the boarding house, most everyone was in a panic. He had to help a few of the older ladies get down the fire escape. The main porch had washed away and the whole building was pretty near to collapsing. I imagine it's gone now. 'Twern't ever very sturdy in the first place. Lord knows where all of 'em went off to. We told 'em to follow us but none of 'em wanted to walk this far." She stroked Billy's head once. "Not him. He said this was one of the best-built houses on the island and we needed to get here. We heard about the bridges, but hoped y'all had made it across before they were flooded over."
"No such luck." Rachel shifted slightly, careful not to jostle Mattie in the process. "Adam's dead, least-wise I think he is." She watched Lillie's cornflower blue eyes grow wide. "He showed up here." She paused, closing her eyes. "If I hadn't gotten here when I did." She stopped again, both hearing and feeling the catch in her throat. "He was … " She swallowed. "Anyway, bastard ended up going with us to the bridge."
"What in blazes …?" Lillie's face grew red with rage.
"I know." Rachel held up a hand to forestall the tirade. "Believe me, I know. Now." She shook her head. "I might as well've killed him here. He slowed us down as it was. Damned fool tried to cross that flooded bay bridge. Big ol' wave washed him off. Bay was churning. I reckon he's dead by now. Can't imagine anyone being able to survive that."
"I hear you survived it," Lillie commented quietly.
"I …" Rachel looked down, making sure Mattie was sound asleep. "Billy told you?"
"Said both of y'all 'bout near drowned this morning. He told me you swam a long way through some pretty high waves." She cleared her throat. "Made me realize how close I came to losing someone I love."
"Made me realize just how much I'm looking forward to having a family." Rachel rested one hand against Mattie's stomach. "I was so damned angry when I thought I might not make it, and miss out on that." She looked out the window. "And this …" She gestured toward the blowing storm. "I'll be damned if this is going to win either. We've been through too much. Worked too had to be together to have it all just … swept away."
"Billy said the same thing when we finally got here." She smiled. "He was the one who thought to bring the food up here. Oh." Her face grew alarmed. "He also said something about knocking some holes in the floor if the flooding gets too bad. He said it would relieve pressure on the house. He also said we might want to open the windows on the floor … or floors … that are flooded anyway. Wonder if I should wake him up?"
"I'll go do it." Rachel carefully eased out from under Mattie, replacing her lap with a throw pillow. Mattie fretted in her sleep, and Rachel knelt down next to the sofa, watching her for a long moment. "She looks like an angel when she sleeps," she murmured, not realizing Lillie could hear her. "I'll be back quick as I can, sweetheart." She softly kissed Mattie's lips, then rose and made her way out of the door and down the stairs.
With the dog at her heels, she traversed the first set of stairs. She felt the house shaking in the wind, and heard the steady flow of water from the first floor. She rounded the banister and stopped at the top of the second staircase, gasping at the water, which was halfway up the stairs. She sat down at the top, thinking. Near as she could tell, the water was only about a foot from the top of the ceiling on the first floor. Knocking holes in the floor was going to be difficult at best. "Guess I can dive under there and break some more windows."
She stood and trotted back through the second floor of the house, intent on finding something suitable for breaking windows. She wasn't all that familiar with the second floor, other than the water closet. Most of her tenure in the house had been spent in the kitchen and sitting room, and the third floor loft. She quickly scanned Angel and Betsy's bedroom, stopping to study some small framed photos on a bedside table. They were black and white shots of the women from much younger days, and two fresh-faced girls looked back at her from one photograph, peering stoically at the camera, standing ramrod straight and a polite distance from each other. Another photo was of Betsy sitting by herself, dressed in her Sunday best. She was smiling coyly and Rachel could only guess that perhaps Angel was behind the camera. She smiled back at the photos. "Be safe, my friends, wherever you are."
She slipped out of the room, and stepped across the hallway into one of the guest rooms. A fireplace graced one wall, and over the mantle two civil-war era swords were mounted and crossed, hanging from shiny brass pegs. "One of those will do." She carefully removed one of the swords, hefting it in her hand and noting the comfortable fit of the hilt as her fingers curled around it. The blade was a polished silver curve and the hilt was a combination of brass, wood, and mother of pearl inlay. She flashed the sword in a forward arc, then swept it backward, testing her ability to shatter glass with the hilt. "Might be a little tougher to do underwater."
She nodded her head once and trotted back to the top of the stairs, where she stopped again, considering her options. Without further thought, she shucked all her clothing and descended the stairs, gritting her teeth as the icy water slowly covered her body. It was dark and she paused just as she reached the point where only her head was above water.
The dog barked at her, dancing from paw to paw, whimpering as he tried to decide if he should follow or not.
"You stay put." She shook a finger at him. "And get help if I don't come back soon." She grimaced at the cold. "Here goes." She tentatively paddled across the sitting room, her head grazing the ceiling, ignoring the canine protests from the staircase.
It was numbing and she tried to think of something, anything warm, to take her mind off the chill. She thought of Mattie, and the big featherbed on the third floor, and the soft old blankets that covered it. She thought of Mattie's flannel nightgown, which led to thoughts of warm soft skin. She suddenly realized just how tired she was, and how much she wanted to go back upstairs and join Mattie in her nap, and pretend there was no deadly cyclone outside.
She reached the wall and took a deep breath, plunging below the water. It was murky and a salty sting burned her eyes as she opened them. She spied the two chairs that sat near the front windows, and dove down, pushing past them and holding onto one to keep herself from floating to the top. Her muscle mass was doing a fair job of keeping her below the surface, but the soft layer of feminine padding that covered the muscle was just enough to make her buoyant.
Grasping the sword hilt, she pushed the limp curtains aside and swung back hard, slamming it into the glass, which promptly broke, the pieces slowly floating down to the floor below her. Careful not to step in it, she moved to the other window and repeated her actions, then surfaced for air, gasping as her head broke the surface with a splash of water.
Drawing in great lungfuls of air, she glided over to the kitchen area and dove under again. She could see the window that was already broken, and swam over toward one across from it, quickly breaking it. She shoved backward in surprise as a fairly large grouper swam past the window outside, tiny bubbles following behind it. It studied her with a large questioning eye, then moved on. That's not a good sign, she pondered, before breaking the surface again.
"Rachel?" Lillie's frightened voice coming from the area of the staircase, followed by a resounding bark of concern.
"Over here." She paddled over and stopped short of going up the stairs when she realized both Lillie and Billy were sitting at the top. "Had to take care of the house." Her teeth chattered. "Um. I'm naked under here." She blushed despite the cold. "Billy, can you …?"
"Oh. Certainly." He ducked around the corner and Lillie quickly followed him. Rachel laughed as a large towel was lofted up and over the banister, landing in a draped fashion over her head.
"Thought you might need that, sugar." Lillie's voice carried over the roar of the storm outside.
"Thank you." Rachel rose out of the water, walking up the stairs and laying the sword down on the top step. She dried off vigorously with the thick towel, and quickly put her clothes back on, grateful for the warmth of the cotton as it hugged her chilled skin. She heard a whimper from the loft and took off, realizing that Mattie was alone up there.
"Mattie?" She entered the room behind the dog, catching her breath from running upstairs. "Mattie, are you alright?"
"I woke up and you were gone. I got confused for a minute, thinking about earlier today, when you got washed under pulling the boat." She nibbled her lower lip. "It was a bit like having a nightmare."
"I'm sorry, sweetheart." Rachel sat down on the edge of the sofa and slipped her arms around Mattie in a comforting hug. "Billy had a good idea. I went down to the first floor to knock some holes in the walls -- keep the pressure from the flood from collapsing the house. I think we might ought to knock some holes in the second floor. Won't be long before the water's up here at the rate it's moving." She heard the sound of breaking wood from below them and smiled. "Sounds like Billy is ahead of me in that regard."
"Is Lillie with him?" Mattie rested quietly in Rachel's arms. "I'm glad they're here, safe with us." She peered out the window in thought.
"Yes. I believe she took the axe down to him." Rachel heard another loud splintering noise, coming from the guest room. "I wish …" She trailed off, not wanting to upset Mattie with thoughts of Angel and Betsy.
Sad hazel eyes met blue, as Mattie read her thoughts anyway. "I said a prayer for them earlier," Mattie spoke quietly. "Prayed for their safety, and that they're together, wherever they are." Her eyes teared up and she closed them, sending moisture trickling down her cheeks. She felt Rachel brush it away and sniffled, burrowing into another warm hug.
"I know. I know," Rachel repeated. And she did. The conversation Mattie had relayed to her, it mirrored her own feelings exactly. What Betsy did, she knew she or Mattie would have done the same thing in a heartbeat. Now that she knew what love was, she couldn't imagine life without Mattie in it. So yes, she would have picked up and hiked through whatever nature had to offer, if it meant going through it with Mattie, rather than being apart from her. She felt the tears gradually subside, and continued to hold Mattie close. "You've had a hard day, sweetheart. Let's move over to the bed. You need to get some more rest."
"So do you," Mattie mumbled against her chest. She sniffled and shifted in Rachel's arms, and gasped in pain as her body twisted. "Oh." She doubled over, wrapping her arms around her middle as a sharp cramping sensation coursed through her lower abdomen. "Rachel?" She looked up in terror.
"Bed. Now." Rachel herded her toward the bed, practically picking her up and placing her in it. "That the first time that's happened?" Her voice was stern, yet laced with loving concern, as she felt her own heart race in fear.
"No." Mattie drew in a deep breath as the pain subsided. "Little twinges on and off since we were halfway back from the bridge. But that was the first big one," she added quickly.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Rachel smoothed a hand across Mattie's head.
"No use." Mattie grasped the hand, holding it to her heart. "Nothing much you could've done and we had to get home. Didn't want to worry you. Figured you had enough to worry about taking care of both of us." She watched a trembling half-smile grace Rachel's lips, along with tears dancing in her blue-gray eyes.
"You've been through too much today, Mattie." Rachel lifted her legs, placing a pillow under Mattie's knees and pulling a blanket over her. "I think that's the baby telling you to take it easy."
"Was kind of hard to do out there," Mattie feebly protested. "I was good as soon as we got home, wasn't I?"
"Yes you were." Rachel sat down on the edge of the bed, doing her best to hide her worry, as she noted the pain evident in Mattie's expression.
"I was so afraid earlier." Mattie felt another cramp and began to cry again. Rachel reached across, smoothing the hair from her eyes. "Today, when you fell out there and went under, I thought I'd lost you. Then when I woke up and you weren't in here …"
"Hey." She felt helpless. "Don't cry, Mattie. We're here and we're together. Everything is going to be just fine, you hear?"
"It hurts, Rachel." Her eyes flooded with fear. "I don't want to lose my baby," Mattie wailed, curling onto her side and wrapping an arm across Rachel's thigh. "And I don't want to lose you." She hiccupped and then gasped again, as another cramp twisted, low in her stomach. "Rachel, I'm afraid," she panted out through the pain.
"Hold on. I'll be right back. You keep an eye on her." She scolded the dog, who immediately jumped up on the bed, resting his head near Mattie's feet. Rachel nodded her approval and ran out of the room, yelling down the stairs. "Lillie!" She realized the storm was drowning out her words, and tore down the stairs, taking them two at a time. "Lillie!" She almost collided with the woman, as Lillie came bolting out of the master bedroom, followed by Billy, who still had the axe slung over his shoulder.
"What's wrong?" Lillie reached out and grabbed her by both shoulders to forestall a crash.
"The baby. Something's wrong. Mattie's having some terrible pains." Rachel dragged her by the hand into the water closet. "They have a bunch of herbs and medicine in here. I figured with you being around all the ladies at the saloon, you might know what to do."
"Is she bleeding?" Lillie opened a cabinet, rummaging through a vast array of bottles and vials, selecting several as she spoke.
"I don't know." Rachel grew white as a sheet at the thought. "The pains seem pretty bad."
"Can I help?" Billy peered anxiously at them from the doorway.
"Go sit with her," Rachel pleaded. "Maybe get her to drink some water if you can."
"I can do that." He disappeared, his boots thudding loudly on the stairs and across the floor over their heads.
"Alright." Lillie finished gathering the medicines. "You get yourself together, Rachel, you hear me? It might just be some regular pains, or it might be that she's going to lose it."
"She can't." Rachel's wrapped her fingers tightly around Lillie's arm. "She can't, Lillie. It would be too much."
"I can't help that, sugar. All I can do is give her a few things and you need to get her to sleep." She looked down pointedly at Rachel's hand.
"Oh." Rachel let go of her. "Sorry. Lillie, please."
"Her poor little body has been pushed to its limit today, Rachel." She motioned toward her taller friend as she hastened to the third floor. "A woman in her condition should be home, sitting with her feet propped up, not fording through a freezing cold flood and going without food all day."
"My fault." Rachel mumbled, and received a gentle but pointed slap to her face.
"Don't you start that bullmullarky, Rachel." Lillie patted her face to take the sting out of her words. "She needs you to be there for her, no matter what's happening, and she needs you strong and supporting her, not wallowing in self-pity or second-guessing yourself. What's done is done. You tried to get he to a safer place today. You had no choice but to try. It didn't work and now you're back here. Pull yourself together and deal with the here and now."
"You're right." Rachel's eyes dropped. "Let's go take care of her."
"That's more like it." Lillie finished the climb and rushed into the room to find Mattie crying uncontrollably, and Billy trying unsuccessfully to calm her. "Move over, darlin'." Lillie nudged him aside and scooted into his spot, as she cupped Mattie's face.
"It hurts," Mattie whimpered, her arms still wrapped around her middle. She rocked from side to side and had her knees drawn up under the covers.
"I know." Lillie gently tugged Mattie's arms away from her body. "And you're not helping it. I need you to take a bunch of deep breaths. Can you do that for me?"
Mattie nodded and complied, feeling some of the tension ease up, along with her tears. "My baby?"
"We're gonna check on that, sugar." Lillie smiled as Billy moved across the room without being asked. "Thank you, darlin'."
Billy glanced at her, their eyes locked in grim understanding. "Been around womenfolk enough to know when I need to give 'em some space." He occupied his time studying the rising flood outside, and flexing his hands after his harried chopping job downstairs. It was all they could do, now, just wait it out, and try to take care of Mattie, whatever was happening to her. He hated not knowing what to do, and busied himself straightening up the food storage boxes.
Rachel moved to the other side of the bed anxiously waiting to help out. "What can I do?"
"Check her for bleeding." Lillie turned back the covers and looked away as Mattie's cheeks colored.
"Alright, sweetheart." Rachel worked at the hem of Mattie's nightgown, slowly pulling it up, and then lifting her hips just enough to get her drawers down. She pursed her lips for a moment. "No bleeding." Her shoulders relaxed from their previously-tense posture, as she carefully re-buttoned Mattie's bloomers.
"That's good, isn't it?" Mattie looked first at Rachel, then at Lillie, her features drawn with worry.
"That's very good," Lillie re-assured her. "We're going to keep an eye on that. You feel anything at all, you let us know right away. Now, I'm going to give you a nasty-tasting concoction, and I need you to drink it all down, alright?" She looked over from the bedside table, where she had been mixing some of the herbs and medicines into a cup.
"Alright." Mattie winced as Lillie placed a foul-smelling cup full of liquid to her lips. She swallowed a few sips, making a face as the bitterness washed over her tongue. "You sure this is good for me?"
"I put some stuff in there to relax your stomach muscles, some others to ease your head a little, and others to help you sleep." Lillie pressed the cup back against her lips. "So finish it off, and then we'll get Miss Rachel over here to curl up with you, if that would help."
"Please?" Mattie's eyes begged her lover, before she wrinkled her nose and finished off the medicine. As she took the last sip, she felt a light lethargy ease through her body, and the cramps began to fade back down to small twinges of pain instead of stabbing waves.
"Of course." Rachel watched her, as her eyelids began to grow droopy. "Let me talk to Lillie for a minute, then I'll be right back over here." She nodded toward the far corner and got up, with Lillie close on her heels.
Without a word, Billy moved back to the bedside and sat down, smiling as Mattie reached out, grasping his hand. "Little Bit, you need to quit worrying us like that, you hear me?"
"Sorry," Mattie laughed feebly. "I'm feeling better already."
Rachel glanced at them. "Thank you, Billy." She turned to Lillie. "Lil, what's going on? She going to be alright?"
"I think this was just a scare," Lillie talked low so Mattie couldn't hear them, although the wind outside was doing a good job of masking her words. "Although I think if she had pushed herself anymore today, there's a very good chance she would have lost the baby. Those pains -- they appeared to be the same pains a woman has when she's about to give birth."
"But she's going to be alright now, isn't she?" Rachel felt her knees go weak, and grabbed the sofa back for support.
"Easy." Lillie patted her arm. "Too early to tell, although she's looking much better already. She has to rest." She glanced out the window. "No matter what's happening out there. The sleeping medicine I gave her should help with that, but she needs to stay in bed and be still. No more pushing her body or skipping meals. One of the other herbs -- it's used to stop a woman's labor, so that should make the cramping go away."
"Thank you." Rachel hugged her briefly. "Guess I need to go do my share of the work now." She moved back to the bedside and removed her boots and her suspenders. "Mattie. How about I take a nap with you?" She sat down opposite Billy and he stood, squeezing Mattie's hand as he released it.
"A nap wounds wonderful." Mattie was already fighting to keep her eyes open. She sighed with relief as Rachel crawled under the covers with her. Mattie scooted up next to her, rolling to her side and draping an arm across Rachel's body, laying her head on a sturdy shoulder. "Do you love my baby?" She asked sleepily.
"Our baby," Rachel corrected her. "And yes, I love the baby almost as much as I love you." She kissed Mattie's head. "Sleep now, Mattie. The baby needs you to rest."
"Alright." Rachel yawned, relaxing fully as the last remnants of pain subsided. "I love you."
"Love you too, Mattie," Rachel whispered. She stared up at the ceiling, feeling Mattie slump bonelessly against her, and hearing her breathing as it slowed, warm breaths tickling her neck as Mattie fell asleep. She thought about her mother, and her baby sister, and a wave of fear gripped her briefly, before she pushed it aside. "Don't you go leaving me, Mattie," she whispered again. Despite her best efforts, Rachel finally gave in to her own exhaustion, joining Mattie in some much-needed rest. The dog sighed, and curled up at the very foot of the bed, keeping watch.
Over in the corner, Billy guided Lillie to the sofa, patting the space next to him as she sat down and joined him, leaning into his embrace. "You are an amazing lady, Lillie." He stroked her hair.
"I am no such thing." She patted his chest and shook her head in disagreement.
"To me, you are." He waited until she looked up, drawing her in with his eyes. "I am the most fortunate man on earth, to have found you."
It happened so fast she had no time to stop it, as happy tears welled up in her eyes. "My turn to cry, now." She swiped at her eyes, then tilted her head, as Billy kissed her lips briefly, then kissed away the tears. "Why me?" She searched his face. "You could have had any woman on this island, you know."
"You're the one I wanted." He kissed her again. "The one I want to be with for the rest of my life, Lillie." A question formed in her eyes and he smiled. "This isn't the time or the place, is it?" The question grew bigger, and more alarmed, as her eyes widened. "When this is storm is over, would you honor me by becoming my wife?"
She stared at him dumbly, as he fished in his pocket, drawing out a small velvet box. He lifted the lid and she felt a cool smooth piece of metal slide over her left ring finger. "Do you like it?"
She stared down at the ring, a bright yellow gold band with a sapphire stone set in the middle, surrounded by tiny chip diamonds. "I love it." She looked back up. "And I love you, Billy."
"Does that mean you'll have me?" He teased her gently, brushing a blonde ringlet away from her face.
"Yes," she breathed, snuggling up into a tight hug. It was like a dream -- one she didn't ever want to wake up from. Go on away, you big ol' storm, she mentally admonished the cyclone. I've got me a life to start living. She looked back up and chuckled. "Guess we have some big news for those two sleepy-heads when they wake up, don't we?"
"That we do." His face grew sober. "She going to be alright?"
Lillie studied the three figures over on the bed. "I think so." She smiled. "They're both fighters. I think she's going to be just fine."
Wicked winds whistled around the orphanage walls, while rushing water battered at its foundation, causing the entire building to slowly lean to one side. Once on a secluded section of beach, it was now a small worn island in the middle of a raging flood. They were too remote from the main part of town to hope for any rescue, and it was far too late to try to leave and go to higher ground.
Sister Francis had untied herself from the children, and walked among them, doing her best to comfort the terrified, and tuck blankets around the ones who were cold. Half the roof was gone, though thankfully the room they were sheltered in was still mostly covered. She passed out slices of bread and orange halves, the only food she was able to salvage from the flooded kitchen on the first floor. She had no idea what time it was, but her rumbling stomach told her it was near suppertime. The children nibbled listlessly at the scant meal, most of them having neither interest nor appetite.
Sister Francis cocked her head to one side, listening to the fury outside. It was as if hell itself had descended upon them, and the devil was laughing in the undertones of the storm. The wind rose and fell, sounding like a booming off-key symphony, mixed with a burlap bag full of angry fighting cats. She moved closer to the window and gasped as an entire palm tree flew past, roots first, smashing into the room next to them with a loud crack of wood and glass.
All the children screamed, trying to scramble away from the wall that separated them from the next room. Despite the barrier, they could hear the wind and rain beating inside the building now, pounding at the thin wall with a deafening thunder. They watched in horror as the wall began to buckle and crack, then the entire room began to cave in, as the wall fell inward toward them with a mournful creak, and the ceiling started to sink down toward the floor.
Chaos reigned, as the children and nuns became hopelessly tangled together in their frenzied crawl away from the falling roof. A loud whipping gust blasted inside, ripping the roof from above their heads, carrying it away effortlessly, as the freezing rain poured in. Most of the children were crying uncontrollably, as they were quickly soaked to the skin, and yelps of pain rang out as debris whirled into the room, pelting them with sand, shells, wood splinters, glass shards, and larger bits of roof tiles.
"Children!" Sister Francis yelled over the din, trying to bring order to the scene. Her voice was carried away and she watched as the outer wall began to bend outward under the strain of the circling wind inside. She realized, too late, that tying the children together was a mistake. There was no way they could move in mass to the other side of the building. Some were frantically trying to untie themselves, but the wet ropes were almost impossible to work with.
The outer wall slowly collapsed with a great groaning sound, leaving them sitting on a rain-slicked floor with only one inner wall left. It was a useless bit of shelter. Now they felt the true fury of the storm, as 100 mile per hour winds pummeled them, tearing at their clothing, whipping through their hair, and pushing impossibly high waves up and into the room with a thundering crash of water against wood. The children continued to cry as they were slowly sucked out into the cyclone and the rising flood.
"Albert!" Frank cried, clutching at his friend as his feet gave way and he fell down, sliding across the floor.
"Hang on, Frank!" Albert took William's hand. "Stop blubbering!" He smacked William across the face, which fortunately had its intended effect. William gasped in anger, but clarity returned to his features. "All for one and one for all!" Albert cried out. "Hang on to each other."
A whirlpool of water washed into the room, swirling around and sweeping the three boys away from the building and out into the vast expanse of churning waves. Albert snagged a large piece of wood, holding on with all his might with one arm, while he managed to haul his companions around so they could also grab hold. They were quickly swept away from the orphanage and toward the center of the island.
Albert looked up through the lashing rain, and saw a frantic Sister Francis as she cried out after them. He watched helplessly as she dove into the water. "Shouldn't 'ave done that, lady," he mumbled under his breath. He quickly lost sight of her bobbing gray head, her head covering long since blown away. Behind her he could see the children and the rest of the nuns, clamoring to stay on the demolished second floor of the building. He closed his eyes, realizing that they were losing their battle, as one by one, they fell away into the sea surrounding the building. The ropes acted as a chain, pulling one after the other toward what would surely be their death. As they tried to swim, the building itself was caving in, claimed by the sea and the storm.
"Albert?" Frank clung to the board with both arms, blinking as the wind and rain pounded at his face. "Are we gonna die?"
Albert slowly opened his eyes, determination and something akin to anger written across his face. "No." He pronounced the word loudly, but succinctly. "We are not." He looked forward, in the direction the waves carried them. Already, what was left of the orphanage was a small speck behind them. There was nothing he could do to help the others. They were most likely already dead. But the two with him … his eyes blazed with the challenge.
It was hard to make out anything through the heavy choking rain. Odd shadows loomed in the distance, possibly buildings, or maybe just more of the tall waves that dipped up and down all around them. Albert gritted his teeth. "Look for something we can kick toward."
"Like what?" William found his voice. He imagined his face still stung from the slap, and he tried to maintain an indignant air. "I can't see a thing, and I can't hardly feel my fingers." He carefully tightened his grip on the splintered wood.
"A building …" Albert scanned the horizon, squinting into the torrent. "… or a tree …" His voice rose as he spied a tall thick trunk several yards ahead of them. "Like that." He gestured toward the tree with a tilt of his head. "Come on. Kick!"
The other two wiggled around until they were all on the same side of the board. Salt burned their skin and their stomachs heaved from the constant rise and fall of the waves, but now they had something to focus on. With deep frowns and powerful kicks of their young legs, they forced their small life preserver ever closer toward the large tree. They could see it now, its thick sturdy branches hanging proudly out over the floodwaters, defying the wind and rain to make it budge so much as an inch.
"That will do," Albert mumbled. "Kick harder!" He turned toward Frank, who was crying but kicking mightily, sniffling as he tried not to think about the friends they'd left behind.
The wind served as master for a brief span of time, helping to propel them toward their goal. At last they reached the tree, almost kicking past it as a large swell carried them to one side. Both Albert and Frank reached out, grabbing hold of the thick trunk as they held on to William with their other hands. Amid groans and grumbles, they scrambled into the thick sheltering branches, climbing up a safe distance from the whitecaps below.
The rain still pounded at them, and the wind threatened to blow them away if they dared let go, but there, sitting on wide rough-barked limbs, all three boys gasped for air, feeling their heartbeats slowly return to normal. Speeding winds rattled the branches, and they swayed back and forth, but the trunk itself held firm, standing tall and unbending. It was still cold, and there was no fresh water or food to be found, but for the time being, they had a safe harbor. Albert looked up, nodding with satisfaction at the plethora of sturdy branches over their heads. If the water rose, they could climb.
"Now what do we do?" William carefully inched into hearing range, wrapping his legs around both sides of his chosen branch, as he clung to the center trunk with both arms. Frank imitated him on a branch across from him, inclining his head so he could hear his friends talk.
Albert leaned in, until all three boys were touching foreheads. "We hang on, that's what." Three pairs of wide eyes peered at each other from very close range. The storm pounded at their backs, but suddenly, within their small circle, a tiny warm spark of hope ignited.
It was full dark and the storm could barely be seen. Rachel lay quietly in bed, gazing solemnly at the window. She could see the rain still streaming down the glass panes, but beyond that was an ominous inkiness. She could hear the constant howl of the wind, battering at the wall behind the bed, and the rattling of rain and hail against the roof over her head. The house shook continually, tiny shivers as the storm beat down upon it. At times the wind rose to a fevered pitch, and sounded like a train rushing by, complete with a noise akin to a whistle.
A lone lantern burned on the table next to the sofa, where Lillie and Billy dozed fitfully. They had doused all other candles and lanterns, for fear that any extra strong jolts to the house might knock them to the floor and start a fire. She rolled her eyes. It was absurd that they were in a flooding house and had to worry about it burning down.
Lillie shifted and something sparkled off her left hand, catching the low yellow flickering glow of the lantern. Rachel squinted, studying her friend more closely. Then she smiled. Finally got up the courage, eh, Billy? She chuckled to herself. Good luck to both of you, my friends. Hope you're as happy as I am.
She glanced over at Mattie's thick red waves. Mattie had slept soundly, for the most part, save a bit of normal tossing and turning. Now she lay with her head on the pillow, curled on her side, one hand resting flat against Rachel's stomach. It was Mattie's left hand, and Rachel took a moment to study that ring as well. It fit Mattie, beautiful and dainty, yet sturdy.
Mattie's flannel gown draped fluidly over her lithe body, making her appear even smaller than she was. There was no sign yet of the life growing within her, at least none that anyone had seen, except Rachel and Mattie. Her bosoms were definitely fuller and the nipples darker, and if Rachel cupped her stomach, she could feel the beginnings of a roundness that would soon be much more pronounced.
She thought about her mother some more. It seemed like her mother had been pregnant more often than not during Rachel's childhood. Babies and caring for them was something she was all too familiar with, although this one, she acknowledged would be different. It was Mattie's baby. And hers too. Her responsibility to make a living for all three of them. That weighed on her, just a little.
The docks provided steady income, enough for one person to live on, and even two if they were careful. But a family. She nibbled her lower lip and her brow furrowed as she considered her options. Then she caught herself, just before she almost burst out in ironic laughter. There were no options. The docks were gone, along with most of the boats, she suspected. All the warehouses and the mill were surely underwater, along with most of the rest of the island.
There she was, taking shelter in a house that was flooded, on an island that was underwater, in a town that was most likely destroyed. She knew, logically, that a lot of work lay ahead of all of them once the storm was over. Just cleaning up the house would take weeks, if it were salvageable at all. She'd seen floods before, but nothing like this one. She'd even watched part of the island burn a few years before, but the town had risen to the challenge, re-building as if there were no fire at all.
Galvestonians were sturdy folk. A few would pack and leave after this, no doubt. But the majority, she knew, would stay and tough it out, re-building homes and businesses, and helping there neighbors as best they could. Still, the question of how she would earn a living was a real concern, at least for the foreseeable future. She had a wad of cash in the carpetbag under the bed, and another sizeable stash was tucked under the mattress.
They had enough to leave and start over somewhere else. It was something they had made provision for all along, just in case. But would they want to leave? The wind picked up even more and she heard something crash against the house outside. She grimaced. Would they have a choice?
Mattie turned and stretched at the noise, and patted Rachel's belly, as her eyes fluttered open. She glanced at the checkered flannel material at close range and absently tugged at one of the buttons. Her hand was captured in a large, scarred-knuckled one, and she looked over and smiled.
"How are you feeling?" Rachel's hand wandered down, resting against Mattie's lower abdomen. "Any more twinges?"
"A few tiny ones, but nothing like the pain I was having earlier." Mattie took a deep breath and released it slowly, waiting for pain that didn't come. "Nothing like I felt before." She cocked her head to one side, listening. "Storm is worse."
"Yes it is." Rachel rose up, resting on her elbows. "Time to give you another dose of that medicine."
"That was most foul." Mattie wrinkled her nose, shuddering as she remembered the bitter taste on the back of her tongue. "But it made me feel better, so go ahead."
Rachel leaned over and kissed her briefly, then swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up, flipping her long braid back over her shoulder. She grinned as it was gently pulled, and she turned back around, to find hazel eyes shining warmly back up at her, as Mattie reached out, pulling her in for a much longer kiss. "Mmmmm." Rachel licked her lips. "You are feeling better."
"I am." Mattie patted her cheek, then pushed at her shoulder. "Go on. We need to take care of this baby."
"What do you think it is?" Rachel slipped around the end of the bed, followed by the dog, who had rested quietly under the bed during most of their ordeal. He had hungrily consumed a sandwich, and lapped up a half bowl of fresh water. Billy and Lillie had both worked furiously at the kitchen sink when they first arrived at the house, pumping several pitchers of fresh water before it had slowly begun to taste of salt.
"Think 'what' is?" Mattie's voice held a trace of sleep-induced huskiness.
"Boy or girl?" Rachel felt the dog brush against her leg, before he sat down next to the bedside table, ears cocked as a whimper escaped. "Hello there, boy." Rachel finished mixing up the potion, having watched Lillie and received exact instructions during a brief time when both of them were awake.
"You think it's a boy?" Mattie questioned her.
"Oh." Rachel sat down next to her. "I was talking to the dog. What do you think we should name him?"
"The dog, or the baby?" Mattie eyed the cup with trepidation.
"The dog. Thought we already agreed on baby names." Rachel laughed as the animal nuzzled the bottom of her foot, tickling it through her stocking.
"Hopefully we can agree on a dog name as easily as we agree on baby names." Mattie smiled at her. "I think this baby is a girl, though."
Their eyes met as they thought again of their friends. "Rebecca Evangeline," Rachel spoke softly. "We can call her 'Becky' for short, give her an identity of her own."
"Becky." Mattie tested the name. "Becky Travis." She smiled at Rachel's shocked reaction. "I like it."
"We can't call her that," Rachel protested. "It would be an outrage."
"I don't care," Mattie poked out her lower lip defiantly. "I'm not giving her his name, Rachel. I don't care if he is dead. I don't even want his name." She peered shyly at her lover. "I like 'Travis.' Madeleine Travis. Has a nice sound, don't you agree?"
"Here." Rachel held the cup to Mattie's lips, helping her sit up part way. She watched Mattie's nostrils flair at the smell, then her lips gingerly curled around the rim of the cup, her throat working as she swallowed, almost gagging once at the truly horrible taste.
"Ugh." Mattie swiped the back of her hand across her mouth as she finished the mixture. "The taste alone would frighten the illness out of someone, most likely."
"Do you truly want to call yourself by my name?" Rachel questioned gently, as she set the cup aside. "I don't know that folks in town are going to cotton to it, Mattie. You've been Mrs. Crockett to them ever since you moved here, and the implications could cause trouble for us."
"Can I please be 'Mattie Travis' when it is just the two of us together?" Mattie's eyes misted over. "And our baby. I truly want her to be a Travis, not a Crockett."
"Alright." Rachel leaned over, and kissed her forehead. "I'm not so certain, though, sweetheart, that the law is going to allow us to put that name on a birth certificate."
"I could start calling myself 'Mattie Burnet' again," Mattie twisted her ring around on her finger as she spoke. "But I suppose putting 'Burnet' on a birth certificate might bastardize her, and I don't want that. I so wish that we could all have the same name." She looked wistfully up at Rachel, who studied her with wide sad blue eyes.
"We could legally change your name, Mattie, if it means that much to you." She covered Mattie's hand with her own. "One of the lawyers in town will draw up the papers for you. We can always say it is for the baby's protection. That since your husband is dead, you want me to take care of her if anything ever happens to you." Her voice faltered as she realized what she had said. "That is, if you would want that." She looked down uncertainly, plucking nervously at a lace flounce on the hem of Mattie's nightgown.
Mattie sat partway up, cupping Rachel's face with both hands. "Of course that is what I would want." She stroked Rachel's cheek, catching a tear as it tracked downward. "This is our child. Ours. This ring, it means forever to me, Rachel. I know we have to put on airs out in public, but in our home," she looked around warily, "wherever our home may be, we are a family."
Too overcome with emotion to speak, Rachel simply pulled her into a hug, careful not to squeeze too hard. "I love you," she whispered softly into Mattie's ear.
"And I want to be Madeleine Travis." Mattie pecked her on the cheek before releasing her. She sat back and turned white, as a thought occurred to her. "We don't know that he's dead."
"We …" Rachel stopped . Damn. We don't. "We'll know, if he doesn't turn up after this is over. I don't see how anyone could have survived those waves out there, though, Mattie. It was capsizing small boats, probably larger ones by now."
"I want to quit living nightmares, and start sharing a life with you." Mattie shifted, rolling to her side and curling an arm across Rachel's legs. "Me, you, our baby, and the dog." She peered over the side of the bed, where the dog patiently sat, his eyes begging to be included with the rest of the pack. "Horace." Mattie grinned.
"Horace?" Rachel tilted her head to one side. "Alright," she drawled. "Any particular reason you want to call him 'Horace'?"
"There was this boy, back in El Paso. Horace." Mattie smiled. "He sat across from me at school, and spent most of his time drawing on his slate instead of studying. He usually went barefoot, and at the noon hour he would sneak behind the school and smoke a pipe. Sometimes I would go talk to him and he always had big adventures, climbing trees, fishing, going up in the hills outside town." She patted Rachel's leg. "I never took a shine to him as anything more than a friend, but I envied him and his freedom. I always had to dress properly, and walk directly home from school, and study and sew and do all manner of womanly things. No playing outdoors for me."
"'Horace' it is, then." Rachel stroked Mattie's head, enjoying the silky texture of her hair. "When this is over, and we find a place to live, we'll go play on the beach as often as we can, Mattie, I promise. Me, you, Horace, and little Becky."
"Sounds lovely." Mattie kissed her knee through her canvas work trousers. "Come up here, Horace." She patted the mattress.
"Roowwfff." Horace wagged his tail, dancing in a happy circle before he leaped up onto the mattress, nuzzling first Rachel's side and then Mattie's leg. He turned three more circles, then plopped down in his quilted nest, dropping his chin down on his crossed paws, big eyes looking up at them with as much canine gratitude as he could muster.
"I think someone's happy he was fished out of that flood," Mattie reached over, scratching his head.
"Hey." Billy stood up from the sofa, stretching and yawning, before he stumbled toward them, followed by a still-sleepy Lillie. "Looks like someone is feeling a might better."
"I am, thank you." Mattie patted the other side of the bed, and their friends sat down, smiling at each other as Billy captured Lillie's hand.
"Congratulations," Rachel looked pointedly at Lillie's ring.
"Oh, you!" Lillie fretted, fluttering her hand so they could see. "You don't miss a thing, do you?"
"Oh, what a beautiful ring." Mattie turned, taking Lillie's hand and peering at the ring closely. "It's lovely."
"Thank you." Lillie patted Billy's leg. "He sure surprised me. I had no idea he'd done gone and bought such a thing."
"I did." Rachel grinned at her. "Billy and I went shopping together a while back. We were too afraid to go alone, but together, we spurred each other on."
"You both did well." Mattie fluttered her own hand, flexing her fingers before she curled it back around Rachel's knee. "If not for that horrible storm out there, this could be downright fun, like a tea party." She gestured around the room.
At that moment, a great roaring rushing sound grew, overtaking the howls of the wind and the constant lash of the rain. It increased in volume, and Rachel automatically stood, leaping across the floor to the window in a couple of steps, pressing her nose against it, trying to see outside. "What on earth?"
"Rachel, be careful." Mattie sat up all the way, intent on trying to join her. "Whoa!"
Something hit the house with great force and Rachel lost her balance, teetering until she landed on the sofa. A rushing, swirling, watery sound surrounded them on all sides, and the house shook as if it were coming off its foundation. It passed by them quickly, followed by a trickling sound from downstairs that gradually became a steady flow.
"That doesn't sound good." Billy stood and made his way to the door. "I'll go see what happened."
"Let me go with you." Rachel started to follow him and felt a tug at her suspenders.
"Stay," Mattie pleaded. "Otherwise I'm going to have to go with you, and you told me I have to take it easy."
"But." Rachel stopped, reading the fear in her lover's eyes. "Alright. For now. But if Billy needs me to help with anything, I need to go." She reluctantly joined Mattie, and perched on the edge of the bed, her body twitching with the need to see what was happening outside the room.
Mattie nodded and they watched as Billy left, hearing his boot steps on the stairs. "Sweet mother of …" His voice trailed up after him, and they waited until his head appeared in the doorway. "Second floor is flooding fast, bottom step between here and there is already covered. I figure it's coming in those windows we left open. Good thing we did. The force of whatever hit us, I think it might've torn the house down with the pressure, otherwise. Near as I can tell, it must've been a large wall of water."
"Anything we can do?" Rachel sat up straight, taking Mattie's hand.
"Far as I can tell, no." Billy sat down in the doorway. "I can see the stairs from here. Water's still rising."
Rachel got up. "I'm just going as far as the door," she looked at Mattie.
"Me too." Lillie got up from the bed and trotted behind them, followed by Horace. He glanced at Mattie and then turned, automatically assuming the job of watching over her in Rachel's absence. He whimpered just the same. If most of the pack was moving, he thought they should both move with them.
Soon three bodies sat near the top of the stairs. Rachel took up sentry duty on the top step, while Billy and Lillie sat further back in the doorway. They watched the narrow staircase, hearing the rush of water pouring in from below them. It slowly crept up the steps, one at a time, threatening their last dry floor.
"Think we can get to the roof if we have to?" Billy eyed the ceiling, looking for panels.
"We'd be blown away in that wind," Rachel answered. They watched for a while, until the water reached halfway up the stairs.
A low rumble reached Rachel's ears and she crept down a few steps, bracing herself between the walls. "Something else is happening out there."
"Rachel, get back up here!" Lillie called after her, as the rumble grew, shaking the house. Rachel waited it out, sticking to her spot as she felt the stairs vibrating under her feet.
The rumble went on for what seemed like forever, growing closer and closer. Then it was right outside, a great splintering cracking sound coming in the window below, along with the constant flow of water. A sound like firecrackers rang out, then suddenly, the rumble stilled, and the water quit flowing. They could still hear the wind howling, and the rain falling, but it seemed as if the flooding had ended. Rachel held her breath, pulling out a pocket watch. It was 7:30 p.m. She watched the hands for ten minutes, with no change in the water level on the staircase.
"I think the water's quit rising." She re-pocketed the watch. "Let's get back inside the room where it's warmer."
"Rachel, what was all of that?" Mattie tucked a hand in the crook of her elbow as Rachel joined her back on the bed.
"I haven't the slightest idea." She eyed the food box hopefully and got up, digging around and finding a leftover apple turnover. She nibbled at it and swallowed. "Well, I do have an idea, but no way to tell until sunup," she amended. "Sounds like the house next door took a beating." She dragged the box across the room and re-joined her lover.
"That's what I was thinking." Billy chimed in, as he and Lillie joined them, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Outside, the wind rose even higher, becoming a constant loud roar. Rachel listened for a moment, feeling the house shake harder. She turned and rooted around in the box for a moment, coming up with a covered platter. "Turnover, anyone?"
Continued in Chapter 14
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