Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
Morning slowly segued into afternoon, as Rachel searched the mill and factory area, looking for the two older women who had come to mean so much in a very short period of time. Each place she looked brought more heartbreak and shock, as she was constantly drawn away from her task to help in one way or another. Makeshift shelters were being set up out on the beach, along with a temporary clinic for the injured, and there were many -- broken bones from falls, cuts from flying debris, and some more gruesome ones -- severed limbs and those who were so addled by the storm that they didn't seem to have full use of their minds.
Then there were the dead.
There were so many, that those who had taken it upon themselves to take care of the dead were finding it difficult to keep the task organized. It seemed horrid to think that some of them might not be properly identified or mourned or even get a funeral, before being disposed of, but disposal was paramount. On a humid subtropical island, in the summer, with pools of stagnant water everywhere, there was fear of disease at worst, and unbearable stench at best.
As she made her way from the mills into the more central part of the remains of town, she found places where the dead were being reverently gathered for transport to a large barge that would serve to carry the bodies to a somewhat dignified burial at sea. She was heartsick, as she carefully looked at each one, trying to determine if any of them might be Betsy or Angel, or anyone else she knew, for that matter. Most were strangers, while a few, she recognized by face but not by name. The children were the worst, although the children she knew best of all were, thankfully, alive and well, and hopefully eating dinner back at the house.
She thought about the house, and the deed Betsy had entrusted Mattie with before she left in search of Angel. It was a good, sturdy house, obviously, having weathered the storm better than most, although it did have some leaks and missing roof tiles. It also needed some serious clean-up inside, especially the first floor, which was liberally covered in seaweed and sandy mud. Her nose wrinkled at the thought of the stinky seaweed, and she hoped Billy and Lillie were busy getting rid of that first of all. She hoped Mattie was in bed resting.
When Mattie had the cramping contractions and she had feared she might lose the baby, it had hit home to Rachel just how much the baby had come to mean to her. She barely thought of it as Adam's, only Mattie's, and, she admitted with a wry smile, she had come to think of it as hers too. Hers to provide for and with Mattie's blessing, to love as it if were here own. She chuckled quietly, thinking of taking the little tyke out on a boat and teaching him or her to fish, or out in the water to give swimming lessons. Maybe she would even learn to read well enough to help the child in that area as well.
"Take care of that baby, my love," she whispered. "And take care of yourself too." The urge to go home was becoming almost unbearable, but the suffering all around her kept her moving, along with the need to go home with some sort of news of their friends, be it good or bad. While searching for Angel and Betsy, she found herself helping move debris, and assisting folks to the clinic area, and giving advice on fishing to some of the ones without food. Everyone seemed lost, wandering about a place that no longer resembled home, as they had known it.
A few of the churches were organizing food and clothing drives, and those who had lost their houses were beginning to flock to them for both meals and shelter. Rachel politely accepted a cup of thick chowder, which was pressed into her hands by a nun, along with a square of cornbread. She didn't realize how hungry she was until she smelled the tomato broth and the steaming chunks of vegetables and fish floating there. She tore into the bread first, dipping a corner of it into the soup and chewing and swallowing it with pleasure. She hadn't eaten since the apple turnover the night before, and a few bites of bread at the convent that morning, and now she tried not to gobble down her meal.
The food gave her renewed energy, and she pressed on, methodically checking every standing building, every pile of bodies, and every group of the living, looking for and inquiring of Betsy and Angel. Finally, she came upon a group gathered outside the remains of St. Peter's cathedral. Families and couples sat around, sharing a noon meal in the shelter of whatever shade could be found.
She quietly went from group to group, describing her friends and asking if anyone had seen them. Guardedly, a few people seemed to recognize the women by her description, and thought they had seen them in the church. Unfortunately, none of them could tell her what had become of them, only that they thought they had taken shelter in the church.
As she walked away, a woman approached her and timidly tugged on her shirt sleeve. Rachel turned to see large weary brown eyes framed by long thick dark hair. The woman had a young tot balanced on one hip, and two more little girls clutching at her skirts. "Excuse me, did you say your name is 'Rachel'?" The woman's face was bleak and tear-stained, not unlike many faces Rachel had seen that day. "I'm Gracie, and I think I know where your friends are."
"Are they ?" Rachel's voice trailed off, seeing the answer to her question written plainly in the woman's eyes. "Where are they?" Her shoulders slumped.
"I had them leave them on one of the pews inside, away from the others. They asked us to find you if . if anything happened to them." She led a numb Rachel inside the dark, damp-smelling building. It was cool in there, the strong scent of salt water still clinging to the walls and floors. The lower floor was in shambles, save for a few pews pulled together in one corner.
"Oh." Rachel choked off a sob, kneeling down next to Betsy's still form. She was resting on a long bench, head to head with Angel, who was also laid out, her arms crossed over her chest. They looked peaceful, as if they were asleep. She stroked Betsy's long gray hair, her vision blurred by tears. Gracie stood a polite distance away. She'd left her three little ones just outside the door, to spare them the sight of yet more death. "How how did it end for them?" She looked up, sniffling and dragging her shirt cuff across her eyes. "Do you know?"
"They gave up their lives for me and my family." The woman's voice also quivered as fresh tears tracked down her cheeks. "My husband, he's gone down to the beachfront to secure us some shelter. Our house is gone. But thanks to your friends, we have our lives."
"What happened?" Rachel gently kissed first Angel's forehead, and then Betsy's, then stood, deliberately turning her back to the gut-wrenching scene. Her heart felt as if it were about to squeeze out of her chest, and she found it difficult to breathe.
"The storm was beating down on us something fierce." Gracie took Rachel's arm, guiding her back out into the sunlight and away from the two women. "The waters were rising inside and my family, we were down on the first floor, trying to stay up on our pew and out of the water all around us. Your friends they had a spot in the balcony and came down and insisted we take it."
"Why didn't they stay up there too?" Rachel's eyes were dark with anger.
"There was positively no room." Gracie closed her eyes, remembering the horror of the drowning people below them -- the shrieks of those who were about to die, and the cries of children. "My husband -- Jack -- was going to stay below and let them take his space, but your friends would have none of it. They said we would need him, and we do. He's feeling less a man today for listening to them. I think it will be a long time before he comes to terms with the gift they gave us."
Rachel was weeping now, silent tears, as her body convulsed in her grief. "Damned old fools." She wrapped her arms around herself and looked down. "No offense intended, ma'am. I just wish they could've found a place too."
"They died heroes." Gracie sensed any hug or physical contact would be unwelcome, so she drew a handkerchief out of her skirt pocket, handing it over to Rachel, who accepted it with a gracious nod, and wiped her face. "My family and I my girls we wouldn't be here if not for them. No one else was giving up their spots up there. Just your friends. They died together. Would that be what they wanted?" She had somehow known the older women shared a special bond that went beyond that of friends or sisters.
Rachel looked up, her eyes full of sorrow. A sad smile briefly appeared on her face, and she took a deep resigned breath. "Yes." Her voice was solidly adamant. "It's exactly what they would have wanted. What I would want," she trailed off.
"Excuse me?" The woman frowned in confusion.
"Nothing." Rachel reached out and clasped the woman's shoulder. The little girls had carefully moved back behind their mother, and all three of them peeked out from behind her, wide eyes studying the strange crying woman who was dressed like their Pa. Rachel crouched down, crooking one finger to the girls, who looked up at their mother in question.
"Go on." Gracie stood back. "It's alright."
The girls shuffled forward, the oldest one keeping herself between her sisters and Rachel's commanding presence. "You girls grow up to make your parents proud, you hear me?" Three solemn pairs of eyes looked back at her, as the girls all nodded in agreement. She briefly ran her hand across each small head, then stood back up. "Ma'am, if you'll keep watch, I'll go fetch a cart to take them home. They deserve a proper funeral by folks who loved them, not a group one at sea."
"My husband and I would very much like to be there, if you can wait a day or so." Gracie glanced back over her shoulder at the open church door. "I know there's a rush to take care of the dead, but "
"Tomorrow evening, at sunset." Rachel was already fishing for a stub of pencil to give the woman directions.
"No need." Gracie finally reached out, touching Rachel's hand. "They told me where you live. We'll be there."
"Alright. Until tomorrow, then. I I'd like to meet your husband." Rachel tipped her hat and turned, forcing her feet away from the church and turning toward home at last.
It was near dusk when a lone figure trudged slowly through a break in the large pile of rubble in front of the house. It was obvious progress had been made, both on clean-up and repair of the structure, as evidenced by a new collection of trash that sat on the ground toward one end of the long porch. The porch itself was in remarkably better condition than it had been that morning. A support pillar that was hanging askew had been put back in place, and the slats on the porch's surface had been scrubbed clean of its earlier coat of mud and seaweed.
Rachel sniffed, her nose detecting the scent of something cooking -- bread, and possibly some sort of fish. She stumbled up the steps and quietly opened the door, stopping and standing, leaning against the sturdy door frame for a long moment, as she observed the now somewhat-clean entryway and parlor to the old Victorian home. Back in the kitchen, through the parlor doorway, she could hear a rattle of pans and Lillie's voice talking to someone.
"Hands off that leftover bread, now. I warmed it up, and it's still piping hot. You'll burn your tongues." A young voice answered her in indiscernible protest and Rachel smiled wearily. She'd almost forgotten the boys were there. It was nice to remember that through all the death she'd seen that day, that three very young ones had been spared, and handed a second chance at growing up.
There was no sign of Mattie, and Rachel finally pushed off the door frame, noting that it had also been cleaned of grubby fingerprints. She moved through the parlor, which had been stripped of the large rug that normally occupied the hard wooden floor. The floor was freshly-scrubbed, and all the furniture was pushed back against the walls.
With leaden feet, she paused at the kitchen entry, now seeing three tousled dark heads sitting around the kitchen table, where a pan covered with a yellow and white checkered cloth sat cooling. "Howdy." She cleared her throat as four heads quickly turned at the sound of her voice.
"Rachel." Lillie's eyes lit up. "Did you ?" She saw the pain in the steel blue eyes and stopped, glancing at her three charges. "Oh." Lillie wiped her hands on her apron and shuffled around the table, debating on hugging her friend or keeping her distance. As she closed the distance, she compromised, wrapping an arm around Rachel's waist and giving her a quick squeeze. "They're gone, aren't they?"
Rachel nodded, looking down at the floor and studying her scuffed-up boots. "Where is everybody?"
"Billy is upstairs, making up some pallets for these young'uns, and your Mattie is up in the loft, resting, just like you told her to." She clicked her tongue. "Stubborn one, that one is."
"Tell me about it." Rachel found a true smile, her eyes clearing of some of the sorrow she felt in her heart. "Please tell me she didn't help with any of this." Rachel gestured around the room behind them. "Not that I'm not grateful that y'all have been working so hard."
"She didn't do anything too strenuous." Lillie patted Rachel's side and let go of her. "Once we got the stove lighted, I delegated cooking to her. She started in on some chowder, after Billy went down to the shore and caught a few fish for us. But I didn't let her mop floors or scrub walls, no."
"Thank you." Rachel's eyes trailed toward the staircase. "I think I'll oh." She grinned as Lillie gave her a shove toward the first step.
"Go on," Lillie urged. "She's been asking about you most every hour since mass was over. I only got her to stay up there when I promised to send you up to wake her as soon as you got home. So wake her. She's been out for a couple hours, so it won't hurt any."
"Alright." Rachel hurried, her boots stomping on the stairs, and she grabbed the banister, practically swinging herself up to the second floor and doubling her speed toward the next set of steps. She almost collided with Billy, who came out of one of the bedrooms just as she passed it.
"Whoa, Nellie." Billy reached out, grabbing her shoulders before she smashed full-on into him. "So?" He searched her eyes warily, watching them water up. "I'm sorry, Rachel." He hugged her, hearing slight sniffle.
"Gotta go tell Mattie." She took a deep breath and re-gained her composure. "Not looking forward to that."
"I think Mattie knows, Rachel." He shrugged at her puzzled expression. "She just seems to. Kept muttering all day about how much she wanted to be with you to comfort you."
"Despite her size, I do believe that woman is truly the stronger of the two of us," Rachel marveled, shaking her head and smiling sadly.
"Make that three." Billy wiped a tear from her cheek and stepped back. "Boys have beds on the floor in there, when they're done with their supper. This floor still needs work, but we at least got downstairs a little cleaned up today. Lillie and I will bunk downstairs and give you and Mattie your loft back.
"Billy, thank you so much for yall's hard work today. I can't say how much it means. I feel like I've been a sloth in my duties, out gallivanting around while y'all did all the work." She lowered her eyes, then looked back up as he touched her arm.
"No, my friend, we merely labored today. You've done the hardest work of all." He gave her arm a little rub. "This floor can wait until tomorrow, as can the back porch. I think we all need a warm meal in our bellies and a solid night's sleep before we do anything further."
"Agreed." She smiled. "I'll carry my share of the load tomorrow, maybe finish patching up the holes we knocked in the floor." She glanced at the gaping opening a few feet behind Billy, then wrinkled her nose. "Glad we can leave the windows open up here. Place still smells of fish and damp wood."
"True." Billy also sniffed the air. "Get up there, Rachel. She's been waiting all day."
"Alright." Rachel nodded then scooted on up the next staircase. Slowing at the landing and peering through the open doorway. Just as she spied the bed, Mattie rolled toward her and opened her eyes.
"Oh. You're home." She sat up, holding out both arms. "Come here, my love."
Rachel suddenly felt weary, and stumbled across the floor, sitting roughly down next to her lover, as slender but sturdy arms engulfed her. As Mattie rubbed her back, Rachel simply buried her face into her neck, feeling soft skin and silken hair against her cheek. She closed her eyes, surprised as the tears rose up and she heard a sob, before she realized it was her own.
"Shhhhh." Mattie crooned softly into her ear, feeling Rachel shake as the emotion of the day finally came crashing down on her. "I know." Mattie kissed her cheek and continued with a slight rocking motion, meant to soothe her lover. "They're gone, aren't they?"
"Yes," Rachel choked out. "Damned old fools."
"You mustn't talk about them like that," Mattie's words were gentle, with no hint of true admonition. "They're together now, and we both know this day would be even harder if Betsy hadn't gone to her. It's time to honor them, love, not curse them."
"I know." Rachel's voice was muffled against the soft cotton of Mattie's simple house dress. "I just wish I could've done something to make things turn out different. Maybe if ."
"No." Mattie gripped her arm for a moment to emphasize her words. "Don't you go second-guessing yourself. You showed up here in the nick of time. Me and the baby owe you our lives for that, I'm thinking."
"Oh, that reminds me." Rachel sat up, smiling as Mattie swiped at her face with her fingertips. "Ran into those federal marshals on the way back home. They're on a manhunt for Adam. Seems they were unfortunate enough to make it here just as the storm was rolling in. I told them where we last saw him and they swear they will drag the bay hunting for his body, if it doesn't turn up among the dead. They have orders to bring him back to Washington on slavery charges.
"My goodness." Mattie's hand stilled for a moment, before she raked it back through Rachel's now mostly-loose hair. "Do you think there's even a chance he could have survived?"
"Not much of one, no. Even if he did, I suspect he high-tailed it for the mainland and is long gone by now." She saw relief flood Mattie's face. "Not much of a chance he'll turn back up here, not with him knowing the marshals were after him."
"I hope not." Mattie bit her lower lip and felt a return hug, sighing as Rachel drew her close and kissed the top of her head.
They clung together in silence, absorbing the comforting warmth of their joined bodies, as they each felt the other's breathing and heartbeat, further soothing frazzled nerves. Mattie felt as if she could fall asleep there, sitting up, propped against Rachel's solid warmth, with only the sound of her breathing to lull her into slumber. She felt a hand come to rest against her stomach, caressing it, and she smiled, tilting her head back up and quickly kissing Rachel's lips.
"I love you," Rachel breathed against her skin.
Mattie laid her head on Rachel's shoulder. "I missed you so much today."
"And I debated a hundred times on turning around before I found them." She cupped Mattie's face with both hands, cradling it as she looked into warm hazel eyes. "You are what kept me going today. Every time I saw more death and destruction, I said a prayer of thanksgiving that you were spared, that we were given the chance to go on and live. We have a lot to talk about."
"Billy filled me in on the plans for rebuilding the town." Mattie placed her hands over Rachel's, brushing them with her thumbs. "Where you go, I go too. Oh, I almost forgot. I have a surprise for you." She slowly stood, drawing Rachel up with her. "Come outside, in the back."
Intrigued, Rachel allowed herself to be led back through the house, and out the back door. It was full dark now, and she blinked, as her eyes adjusted to the blue-black evening. A tarp was stretched between two tall trees, and under it, two large shadows loomed, moving in the darkness. "Is that ?"
"The horses, yes." Mattie was quivering with happiness at the delighted awe in Rachel's voice. It was one small gift she could give back to her lover in the face of all she knew she had seen that day. "They came wandering up mid-day, dirty as all get-out but none the worse for wear. No telling where they were holed up during the cyclone, but here they are. Billy said he'll help build a better shelter for them tomorrow."
"What a miracle." Rachel wandered down the steps, leaving Mattie standing happily under the porch roof. She gave the horses a cursory examination, whistling under her breath at their remarkable good health. They were munching on hay in a barrel, and one of the nickered in welcome, lipping her hand as she held it out to stroke a velvet nose. "We'll be needing horses in the days to come. Lots of hauling to be done around here."
She finally turned back, joining Mattie on the porch, sitting down on the top step. Mattie snuggled up and pressed something into her hand. She rolled it in her fingers, then drew it under her nose, sniffing. "Cigar!" She laughed. "Where on earth did you find a dry one?"
"Had a few stowed in my carpetbag for a while now." She produced a match, striking it against the wooden porch support and holding it up as Rachel cupped her hand around the cigar, sucking at it and drawing in air as it lit up. Fragrant smoke curled up around them, and Rachel sat back, draping an arm across Mattie's shoulders and smiling with satisfaction as Mattie leaned against her.
"You are an angel." She drew heavily on the cigar, releasing a smoke ring, pleased when Mattie smiled. The smile gave way to giggles, as Rachel's stomach growled.
"Oh." Mattie patted her belly. "I think we can remedy that. I believe supper should be just about ready for us, judging from the smell coming through that window there. "You interested in some corn bread and chowder? I believe the boys have been fed. I heard Lillie shooing them up to bed while you were checking on the horses, so we should have some peace and quiet while we eat."
Rachel smoked in silence a minute more, then dropped the stub to the ground, rubbing it out with the toe of her boot. "Seems strange to be doing something so normal as eating a meal cooked in that kitchen, when last night I was swimming in it."
"Let's be thankful for the little bits of normal we get, love. I have a feeling they may be few and far between for a while." Mattie rubbed Rachel's leg, feeling the muscles flex under her fingers as the taller woman stood, holding out her hand to help Mattie up.
They drew together in another long hug, before leaving the darkness of the porch for the cheery lantern-lit kitchen.
A light breeze fluttered through the few palm trees in the back yard that remained standing after the storm. A solemn figure sat on the edge of the steps, hazel eyes gazing out at two mounds of relatively fresh soil at the back edge of the yard. They had buried Angel and Betsy in temporary graves two weeks before. The cemetery had been decimated and in the chaos of disposing of the dead from the storm, they had decided it best to lay their friends to rest nearby until order could be restored to the rest of the island. They would be moved to proper graves with proper headstones once everything settled down.
Trolley cars were once again running, as were the trains, bringing in much-needed food stores and building supplies for the industrious town-folk. All day long the sound of hammering and sawing could be heard across the island, especially in the downtown area, as merchants worked from dawn until dark to re-build what they had lost. The federal government had pledged support, both monetary and in the form of manpower, and organized labor groups were already at work picking up the pieces. The downtown area was full of building equipment and supplies, and often men could be seen walking the sidewalks, discussing the bigger plan for making the island cyclone-proof.
Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan had miraculously survived, and Mattie had quietly gone calling on them, filling them in on most of the details since her 'disappearance' from their employ over two months before. She didn't tell of her relationship with Rachel, but did share of her impending motherhood, a little of her abuse at Adam's hands, and his assumed demise. They had quickly asked her to come back to work for them, as many people had lost all their clothing, and several had put in large orders at the tailor's shop for replacement wardrobe pieces. She had accepted.
It had been a difficult two weeks, one fraught with heartsick emotion and bone-tiring work. One by one, they had learned of the fate of many they knew, while many others were still unaccounted for. Those still missing were presumed dead, and it saddened them. It was estimated 6,0000 - 10,0000 people had perished in a 24-hour period. Isaac Cline was at once hailed as a hero and cursed as the devil himself. His warning flags and personal cries to seek shelter had saved many, but others held him responsible for not acting sooner. He himself had lost dear family members, and Mattie felt sorry for him.
Their house, at least for the time being, was fairly back in order inside, and Billy and Rachel had taken care of all necessary exterior repairs. There was still a fair amount of cosmetic work to be done on the house -- repainting, most of all, but both Billy and Rachel needed to get back to the business of earning real wages. Many of the dockworkers had drowned in the storm, some on the very boats they owned and worked on. Mr. Avery, Rachel's boss, was gone, along with several of her and Billy's comrades.
Mattie drew her knees up closer to her body and wrapped her arms around her lower legs, resting her chin on one kneecap. Her belly was full of a tasty supper, and Rachel was inside taking her turn at scrubbing the dishes. Mattie was home from her first day at the tailor's shop, and was pleasantly tired, her fingers dry from work they were now unaccustomed to. She had a few needle pricks to show for her efforts, but overall, it had been a good day. Good to see life going on around her, and people managing to persevere despite loss and depression, and in some cases, sudden homelessness and poverty.
She counted herself lucky in that regard. She had a sturdy home and roof over her head, while many were living in platform tents in long rows down on the beach. It would take a long time to re-build homes and clear away all the wreckage the storm had left behind. Her own home, she still thought of as Betsy and Angel's house. Billy and Lillie had taken up residence in one of the second-floor bedrooms, and the three boys still occupied the other, while Mattie and Rachel remained in their beloved loft. For the time being, it was home to all of them, and an arrangement that worked.
Lillie stayed home with the boys and took care of the household chores while Billy, Rachel, and Mattie went off to work each morning. It was good to come home to supper on the table each evening, and clean sheets on the beds, and freshly bathed children. The boys were back in school, which had opened late for the fall term, but was in session. So many children were lost in the storm, as were teachers, and Rachel took the boys under her wing each evening and went over lessons with them. Ostensibly it was to help them, but Mattie knew that Rachel herself was soaking up lessons in history, geography, mathematics, grammar, spelling, and reading -- lessons she had missed out on growing up. Each evening she came to their room full of questions, her eyes wide with wonder at all she was learning.
It did Mattie's heart good to see it, and to hear the childlike joy in her voice as she discussed the subjects she read about, and to see how good she was with the boys as well. They had discussed the boys' future, whether to take them in permanently or send them back to the orphanage when it was re-built. They loved them dearly, but felt ill-equipped to support them financially, and Mattie was unsure if she was ready to be the mother of four all at once. Billy and Lillie had also discussed taking them in. Lillie was fairly certain she was unable to have children, and Mattie halfway suspected once Lillie and Billy were in a place of their own, the boys would go with them.
"Seems unreal, doesn't it?" A warm voice burred at her back as strong hands came to rest on her shoulders. Rachel leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, before sliding in next to her and sitting down. "You going to sit out here all night, or come back in and keep me company?"
"It does seem unreal." Mattie turned, gazing thoughtfully at her lover. "Sometimes I can't believe they're gone, just like that. It must have been horrible." Her forehead wrinkled. "That man and his family that came for the funeral -- Jack -- he made me a bit angry."
"How so?" Rachel reached across, smoothing away the frown.
"He seemed aloof, maybe ungrateful -- almost like their sacrifice was nothing to him." She peered earnestly at Rachel. "It didn't anger you? He just stood off over to the side, and hardly said anything. Seemed like he just wanted to get away."
"Sweetheart," Rachel clasped Mattie's knee, squeezing it. "He was very conflicted, because he acted as a husband during that storm, but I think he feels he didn't act as a man."
"I don't understand."
"I think he probably feels that he should have died and let Angel and Betsy have his spot in that balcony."
"No one blames him, Rachel. Gracie said Angel and Betsy told him to go with his family." Her voice rose slightly, her ire still piqued. "Least he could've done was mourn them with the rest of us."
"Oh, Mattie." Rachel kissed her cheek again. "I think he was mourning them, and will most likely mourn them for the rest of his life. They gave him a second chance at being with his wife, and at seeing his girls grow up." And you know you would've done the same thing in his shoes, she chided herself. "He wasn't being disrespectful, sweetheart, he was simply ashamed. He saw our pain at losing them, and knew if not for him, they would maybe still be with us."
"Oh." Mattie thought about that. "I guess I can forgive him then. It's just that they gave so much to us, you know?"
"Yes, they did, more than we could ever have repaid them." Rachel draped an arm around Mattie's waist, hooking a thumb inside the waistband of her skirt. "They began their life together in the middle of a tragedy, and ended it together in the middle of another. In between they squeezed in a whole lot of happiness. Think we can follow their example?"
"I'd like to think we can." Mattie snuggled up closer, inhaling the scent of salt water and bay rum. She decided it was a scent she would like to end every day with. "How was your day?"
"More bodies washed ashore today." Rachel's voice was distant, her nose crinkling up in memory of the smell. "We should've thought twice about dumping them at sea. Mother ocean doesn't seem to want all our dead. She keeps sending them back."
"So you had to burn more?" Mattie's heart hurt for the families who still had not accounted for their missing loved ones. To the horror of the islanders, after the dead were given a massive funeral on the beach and burial at sea, bodies had began washing back ashore, and the decision was made to burn them at large funeral pyres. It was the only solution, given the number of bodies to deal with, and the limited amount of cemetery space.
"I am learning to loathe the smell of burning flesh, yes." Rachel grimaced. "But it has to be done if we are going to keep the dock area clear for rebuilding, and for boat traffic."
"I'm sorry, my love," Mattie crooned softly. "I can't imagine dealing with that. I'll be glad when you can concentrate on work you enjoy." She sniffed reflectively, twirling a finger in a lock of Rachel's hair. "Speaking of work that you love, how was your talk today, with the bank? Did you have time to go see them?"
Rachel's eyes remained fixed forward, her throat working as she swallowed. Her eyes twinkled in the low dusky light, but a slight twitch in her jaw gave away her uncertainty. "They said if I want a loan to build or buy a boat, I can have it, on the condition I open an account with them. Government is offering subsidies to help folks get back on their feet, so I might not have to pay all of it back, or any of it back, depending on what they offer."
"And Billy?" Mattie dropped one arm from around her own legs, squeezing Rachel's thigh.
"He's talking to Lillie right now." She swallowed again, watching as two seagulls flew past, over the newly-built barn and out toward the Gulf. A few stars were starting to appear in the night sky, and she heard crickets chirping in the grass that had started to grow back in the ill-tended garden. They had lost their vegetable plants, and it was late in the year to try to replace them, so they had chosen to let it go until spring.
"And what about you?" Mattie nudged her lover.
"I'm talking to you right now." A smile played at Rachel's lips. "Billy or no Billy, I'm in this if you are, Mattie. If you're not, I'm just as much of a mind to do something else or go somewhere else."
"I think I would like to be a fisherman's wife." She sighed happily, feeling Rachel's cheek come to rest against the top of her head. They had talked about it for two weeks. Rachel's heart was with the sea and Mattie's spirit soared most freely walking along the shoreline. They'd discussed all kinds of other options -- the mountains out west, the woods to the east, and the lure of gold and riches to be found in California. It always came back to two things -- Galveston felt like home, and Galveston had brought them together.
"What about that little house on the beach?" Rachel nuzzled her hair, enjoying a clean washed fragrance with just a hint of lilac.
"I think I'd like that, too, eventually, but this one is good for now. There's so much to think about, with the baby on the way, and the boys, and Lillie and Billy have been such a help to us. I think we should think of them too, and see what their plans are." She closed her eyes as Rachel's exploration moved lower, giving an experimental lick to her earlobe and a tickling nibble to her neck.
"I think our loft is a very good place right now." Rachel's voice was right in her ear, sending a thrill through her body. They had not come together since before the storm, but Dr. Mills had given Mattie a check-up, and given his blessing for her return to work and her regular activities. Of course he had no idea about all her regular activities, but she felt good, and the doctor had assured her the baby was fine.
"Our loft would be a very good place right now. Oh " she laughed as Rachel somehow got her arms beneath her, lifting Mattie like a child and walking back up the steps. "Please, Rachel. If Billy and Lillie "
"Went for a walk." Rachel kissed her soundly. "Wished me a good evening before they left."
"The boys?" Her body was quickly losing interest in anything but Rachel's kisses, and the teasing fingers tickling the back of her thigh where Rachel held her.
"Already tucked in for the night." She kicked the screen door open, holding it with her toe as she backed in, then eased it closed so that it wouldn't slam and wake the boys.
It was amazing how easy it suddenly was to navigate the two flights of stairs after a hard day's work, despite Mattie's added weight, although she was lighter than a bail of cotton or some of the larger fish they'd caught. Rachel laughingly bounced Mattie in her arms as she crossed the bedroom threshold. She dropped her bundle on the bed, pulling her own clothing off before she crawled up, hovering over Mattie, her eyes shining as she delicately worked at the buttons on Mattie's blouse.
Mattie sat up, as Rachel slid the ruffled blouse off her shoulders, and pushed down her chemise underneath. As Rachel worked her way down, removing the rest of Mattie's clothing, she paused, kissing all around her belly, which was just starting to show a rounding fullness. Just as slowly, she worked her way back up, until she hovered over Mattie, her weight braced on her forearms.
Mattie could feel the power over her, Rachel's entire being vibrating with life. She reached up, squeezing both bulging biceps. She loved Rachel's body -- it's puzzle of almost-masculine muscles, covered in a layer of smooth soft very feminine skin. She traced a line with her fingertip, brushing over a broad tanned shoulder and down to a creamy white cleavage, before she teasingly circled Rachel's breast, smiling as large blue eyes slammed shut and Rachel trembled slightly at her touch.
The steel blue eyes fluttered open, and Rachel smiled at her, then bit her own lower lip as Mattie continued to explore. This time she kept her eyes open, conveying wordless emotions to Mattie as the younger woman's fingertips danced over sensitive spots, while her other hand came up, cupping Rachel's face. Mattie had read so much about passion in books, but never fully understood the powerful feelings in those stories until she met Rachel. Rachel was wide open to her, her love for Mattie clearly visible in her eyes, and her desire unmistakable in her touch.
"You're beautiful," Mattie whispered, feeling the heat in her own flushed cheeks, and the rising craving in her body -- a need to merge with her lover and celebrate the simple joy of survival.
Rachel turned her head, nibbling at Mattie's palm. Delicate fingers traced her lips and she kissed each finger in turn, feeling the delicious sensation as Mattie's touch seemed to reach her everywhere. "I need you so much," she spoke softly, turning back toward Mattie, her eyes alight with desire.
Slowly, Mattie pulled Rachel down on top of her, hearing the groan of pleasure as their bodies came into contact. Rachel ducked her head, finding Mattie's lips and kissing her slowly and thoroughly, as she lifted up just enough to brush her own skin full against Mattie's, groaning again as Mattie slipped a knee between her legs. She felt Mattie's hands come to rest on her hips, guiding her as they moved together. "Show me life, Mattie."
Mattie reached up with one hand, grasping the back of her neck and pulling her face back down. "This is life, Rachel. Being with you like this." She kissed her passionately. "I love you."
"I love you too," Rachel gasped out, then abandoned herself to Mattie's gentle touch.
Much later, Mattie lay propped up slightly against two pillows, with Rachel resting in her embrace, a departure from their usual sleeping arrangement. Her head rested just above Mattie's stomach, where she was idly tracing circles with her fingertips. Her other arm was beneath Mattie's leg, her hand curled up and around an inner thigh, resting softly against warm soft skin. She felt Mattie's fingers, combing through her hair, which she had slowly unbraided while they made love.
It was comforting there, with her face so close to their unborn child, her hand so close to the source of Mattie's passion, and feeling Mattie's hands, the one playing with her hair and the other rubbing her back. "I want to stay right here forever."
"Oh, most certainly, right up until you smell cookies coming out of the oven downstairs, or you hear the fish are biting out in the Gulf," Mattie teased her. She felt Rachel laughing silently, and she lightly trailed her fingernails along the back of Rachel's neck, watching in fascination as goose bumps rose up in her wake, and across the broad tanned shoulders. "Does that feel nice?" She bent over, kissing a path behind her fingers, and heard a quiet mewling sound.
"Much more of that and I'm going to roll you over and ravish you again." Rachel rolled over onto her back, her head pillowed in Mattie's lap. She looked up, smiling as Mattie's hand dropped to her stomach, tracing the same random circles on Rachel's stomach she had just been tracing on Mattie's. "Every time you touch me, it feels nice." Long dark lashes blinked slowly over large vulnerable eyes. "More than nice."
"Truly?" Mattie was pleased, given away by a slight lilt in her voice. "I'm ever so glad, because I don't have words for how your touch makes me feel. I only know I could get lost in it and never wish to be found."
"Sounds like words to me," Rachel chuckled, then nuzzled Mattie's skin. "Remember when I towed that boat home?"
"I don't care to remember that, thank you." Mattie's heart skipped a beat just thinking about it. "When you went under that water, I thought I I would have jumped in after you if you hadn't come up when you did."
"Shhhh." Rachel nuzzled her again, and kissed her just above her navel. "All that way, two things kept me going -- you and this little one you're carrying. I've always been a survivor, Mattie. Always figured a way out of bad situations, like when my father was going to send me to that convent or else marry me off to that friend of his. But I was doing just that -- surviving. I never had a reason to live, really, before you. But out in that storm, with that current doing it's dead-level best to pull me under, and the rain beating me until I thought it would strip my skin off, and the wind, pushing me back, all I could think about is that I wanted to live -- wanted to see this baby be born, and grow up, and then I want to sit on the porch swing with you somewhere when we're old, and rock and sip our tea while we watch the sun rise."
"Bet you'll still be sipping your whiskey then, and not tea," Mattie aimed for a light-hearted response, but her words quivered as they caught in her throat.
"Not at sunrise," Rachel smiled up at her, seeing Mattie's eyes shining with unshed tears. "I've come to enjoy hot tea, thanks to you."
"And where do you want that swing to be?"
A tear escaped and Rachel caught it, studying it on the end of her finger as she spoke. "I guess we can't see the sunrise from here, can we?"
"Not easily, no." She gazed out the window, where pale moonlight shone across the sky, much lighter than usual. "It's nice and all here, but I don't know. Makes me kind of sad sometimes, thinking of Angel and Betsy. Sometimes I wish "
"Me too." Rachel read her thoughts. "You want to come live with me in that little house on the beach?"
"I'd live with you in a boxcar on the railroad tracks, if you asked me to." Mattie smiled, her tears subsiding.
"Nah. I've lived in one of those for a while on the way down here. Too drafty." Rachel sat up, leaning in nose to nose with her lover, her weight braced on one arm. "What do you say, Mattie? I'll buy that fishing boat and we'll build us a house down on the Gulf side. I'll come home every night and we'll eat supper, and then me and you and Horace, and this little one can go for a walk on the beach. Then we'll put her to bed and we'll sit on our porch and spoon until the moon rises."
"It sounds like a dream." Mattie kissed her lightly. It was too tempting, with Rachel's lips so close.
"I'll make it come true for you, Mattie. As best I can, I'll try to make all your dreams come true." She cradled the back of Mattie's neck, slipping her other arm around her waist and across her back.
"You already have." The room suddenly tilted, and Mattie found herself on her back, as Rachel's hands began to wander over her skin. "What are you doing?"
Rachel smiled at her, her touch becoming much more insistent. "Helping you get lost."
Christmas Eve 1900
The scent of gingerbread wafted outward from the kitchen, mingling with the strong scent of fresh-cut pine that drifted around the parlor. Mattie stood on a step-stool, tying bright red velvet bows on the ends of the Christmas tree branches. Beneath the tree were several cheerfully-wrapped boxes in various sizes. She'd tried shaking them, but Rachel had wrapped them well enough that not the slightest rattle could be heard.
"That looks nice, don't you think?" She eyed Horace, who lay on the floor nearby, watching the festivities. He thumped his tail and barked in approval, flashing her the equivalent of a canine grin. "Thank you. I thought so too." She smiled and shifted, keeping in mind her ever-changing balance, and looked way up at the top of the tree. Even if she stretched as tall as she possibly could, she still couldn't reach the top to place a lovely silver angel there. Sighing, she went back to cutting and tying ribbon, smiling as she heard a familiar pair of boots clunking up the front steps of the house.
The door swung open, and a figure that vaguely resembled Rachel entered the room, blown in on a light salty breeze. At least Mattie assumed Rachel was behind the large pile of yet more packages that hid the individual from view. "I'm home!" Rachel swiped her boots on the entryway throw rug, then peered around her bundle, dodging Horace, who was dancing happily about her feet. "Hey!" She quickly set the packages down on the floor next to the sofa. "You shouldn't be up there."
"I'm fine," Mattie protested, placing both hands on her hips as Rachel practically sprung across the room, grasping her around her waist and gently lifting her up and then down to the floor. "Rachel " Mattie's voice rose in irritation. "I'm not going to break, I promise you."
"Don't want you falling off that stool," Rachel frowned at her, placing a hand on Mattie's belly. The gesture had become automatic -- an almost daily occurrence any time Rachel was near her and thinking or talking about the baby. There was no longer any hiding her condition, and Mattie had finally, grudgingly, given up her fitted skirts and trim shirt waists for more blouson dresses and tops, along with skirts that were designed to button up and above her growing stomach.
"I was only a few feet off the ground," Mattie groused. "I wanted to make the tree pretty before you got home." Her lower lip protruded, and she peered up at Rachel from wide soulful eyes.
The picture was too perfect, and Rachel leaned in, stealing a kiss and pulling Mattie close, her hand still resting on her rounded belly. She grinned against her lips and increased the contact, as Mattie's arms slipped up and around her neck, and the roll of fuzzy ribbon dropped to the floor and rolled halfway to the front door, leaving a trail of velvet behind. Horace leaped out from behind the sofa, chasing the bright red toy, and barking in happy excitement. The tantalizing scents coming from the kitchen had been too much for him, and he had managed to coax several slices of ham from Mattie as she worked to prepare their Christmas Eve supper. It had been a most wonderful day, in canine terms.
"Oh." Rachel laughed, as the baby gave her hand a few swift kicks. "Has she been that active all day?" They'd taken to referring to the baby as female most of the time, and Mattie seemed firmly convinced the child was a girl. When asked why, all she could say was that she just knew. Rachel rubbed her hand around in a circle, feeling more movement, and something that felt suspiciously like a tiny backside pressing back against her palm.
"Heavens, yes." Mattie covered Rachel's hand with her own. "I think she's learning to swim before birth -- she's been kicking and churning around in there like a little fish. She sure didn't get that trait from me. You don't have gills behind those ears, do you?" She lifted up a long thick lock of hair, inspecting her lover's neck and hairline, stopping when Rachel grew very still. "Oh my goodness." She dropped the hair and stepped back, dropping her eyes and wringing her hands. "I don't know what I was thinking. I'm sorry."
With an unreadable expression on her face, Rachel closed the distance again, hugging Mattie close to her and cupping the back of her head, urging her to rest against her shoulder. They rocked in silence for a moment, and Rachel tucked her chin on top of Mattie's head. "Shhhhhhh." She kissed Mattie's head, her smile returning as the baby took the opportunity to kick her some more while they stood stomach to stomach. "I don't mind when you forget I didn't help create this child, Mattie. I I love it, actually."
"Truly?" Mattie mumbled against a soft flannel shirt, wincing as the baby chose that moment to land a particularly swift kick to her ribs.
"Truly." She drew Mattie over to the sofa, sitting her down.
"I think of it as yours all the time," Mattie smiled, reaching across and brushing her fingertips across Rachel's high cheekbone. "I picture her with your looks, actually. All tall and strong. She must have some powerful legs, at any rate. I think I shall have internal bruises by the time she's born."
"And I keep picturing a cute little red-headed girl with her mother's pretty face." A charming blush flushed Mattie's skin, and she peered up, blinking shyly at Rachel.
"I'm as big as a cow," Mattie protested mildly.
"You're more beautiful than ever," Rachel dropped to the floor, kneeling in a familiar ritual as she spoke directly to Mattie's stomach. "Isn't she?" She cooed in a voice pitched higher than normal. "Your mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, and you and I are lucky to have her in our lives, little one." She bent forward and lifted Mattie's blouse, kissing her belly and nuzzling it. "Lucky to be loved by her, we are."
She felt Mattie's fingers thread through her hair and she closed her eyes, resting her cheek against her stomach, marveling at another series of kicks, as she concentrated on the pleasant sensation of Mattie playing with her hair. She'd left it down on purpose, knowing Mattie loved it long and hanging free, and wanting to look appealing to her lover for the special day. "Hey." She finally rose up from a half-asleep haze. "I have a surprise for the tree."
Mattie perked up, watching as Rachel rummaged around in one of her parcels. She withdrew a handful of candy canes, all tied together with gold satin ribbon. "Oh, how pretty!" she exclaimed, examining the sweet hard candy.
"They have those new-fangled red stripes on them. Figured you might like them better than the plain old white ones." She glanced at the tree. "Thought they might look nice with the ribbon there.
"Oh, yes," Mattie untied them, choosing one stick, which she promptly popped into her mouth. She crunched down, enjoying the strong peppermint explosion on her tongue. "The baby wants to eat one of them, though."
"The baby does?" Rachel chuckled, opening her mouth as Mattie offered her the bitten end of the cane. She took her own turn, nibbling at the candy, grinning as Mattie placed a sticky kiss on her lips. "You want to hang those while I got pop some popcorn to string up?"
"Yes." Mattie stood up, clutching the candy canes possessively. "Then you can put the angel on top of the tree."
"I can put it there now, if you'd like." She picked up the silvery gilded ornament, which Mattie had set down on a low table.
"No. It has to be the last thing on the tree." Mattie batted her hand away. "First we finish the ribbons and hang the candy canes and the popcorn. Unless you've relented and will let me put candles on."
"Absolutely not," Rachel's voice was gently firm. "This island has already burned halfway down several years ago, and then damned near blew away a few months back. I have no desire to catch it on fire and add to it. We can put some candles in the windows, as long as we remember to blow them out before we go to bed."
"Oh, alright," Mattie gave in. "I have that box of pine cones to add to the decorations, too.
"I bought some of that tinsel you were eyeing in the store window the other day," Rachel's eyes twinkled as she held up the package.
Mattie's face lit up. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you?" She quickly pecked Rachel on the cheek. "Thank you. I want it to be pretty when Billy and Lillie come by tonight." She looked around the room. "I miss them."
"They've only been moved into the new house for two weeks," Rachel teased. "I imagine the newly-weds are enjoying having a little privacy. I know I am, at least on days like this, when the boys are out playing, or in school."
Billy and Lillie had married the first Sunday afternoon in December, with only Mattie and Rachel as their witnesses. Mattie had stood up for Lillie and Rachel for Billy, in a simple but sweet ceremony performed by the local Justice of the Peace. They had gone up to Houston for a week of honeymooning, then come back to Galveston and bought a small house down on the beach near where Mattie's old house had been located. Lillie still stopped by every few days to check in on Mattie, and promised to stay close by as the baby's birth drew closer.
The boys were still living with Mattie and Rachel, as the orphanage had yet to be re-built, given that most of the orphans had drowned. While it was true the storm had produced a new crop of orphans, it seemed that most children without families had been taken in by one home or another. Mattie and Rachel had decided to keep the boys with them for the time being, since their house was larger than Billy and Lillie's, and to give the newlyweds time to get their home in order. No definite decision had been made, but Billy had told Rachel he thought their spare bedroom would be big enough for all three boys, and he planned to build triple bunks along one wall for them.
It had become a lot less crowded when they moved out, yet at the same time, Mattie found herself wandering around during the day quite alone. She was working only half-days in deference to her delicate condition, and with the boys in school and Lillie across the island, she often wished for someone to talk to as she cooked and cleaned. She'd taken up her painting and charcoals again, and evidence of her efforts had begun to show up, hanging on the walls around the house, replacing artwork lost to the storm. Although she managed to keep busy, she missed Lillie's companionship over her afternoon cup of tea, and the woman's talk that sometimes seemed to fly right over Rachel's head.
"Still, I miss having them around," Mattie grumbled. "But I'm glad they decided not to move away."
"Me too." Rachel slipped the rest of her mysterious packages under the tree. "I'm glad Billy's here to partner with me on the fishing boat. I've already had a few of the hotels request we keep them supplied in fresh fish, and we've also talked to some of the freighters that ship fish to other parts of the country. I think we'll stay busy, and busy is good -- means I can keep you and this baby in food and clothing."
"I'm so proud of you." Mattie beamed at her. The island was still in shambles in many places, and there were still people living in platform tents, yet slowly but surely, people were re-building, and there were long-term plans to build a protective seawall along the gulf side of the town. There had even been quiet speculation as to the feasibility of raising the entire island up to further guard against massive flooding in the future.
The fishing business was coming together. Rachel had bought a fine boat, larger than the one she'd worked on with Mr. Gentry. In addition to outfitting it with all the latest in fishing equipment, she had made sure below deck was actually a livable space -- a place they could sleep overnight if need be, with two separate berths, one for Rachel and one for Billy. Both berths were big enough for two, and Rachel was determined to someday re-create their romantic first time together, this time with a decent place to sleep afterward, rather than having to return to shore.
"You're my inspiration, sweetheart." Rachel winked at her. "I'll go put the popcorn on, and heat up some of that apple cider in that jug the Vaughans gave you. I can put some clove buds and cinnamon sticks in it to spice it up.
"Sounds delicious." Mattie turned toward the tree, as Rachel disappeared into the kitchen. She heard metal pans banging around, and the rattle of popcorn seed as Rachel shook the sack it was stored in. Above the cooking noises, she heard Rachel humming a Christmas carol, and she joined in quietly, singing almost under her breath as she hung up the candy canes, stepping back every now and then to study her handiwork.
As she finished with the canes, she next picked up the box of pine cones, digging through it for the nicer ones with no broken bits. She heard the sizzle of lard coming from the kitchen, along with the first few popping noises as the corn heated up. Someone knocked at the door and she set down the box, swiping her hands on her skirt as she went to answer it. She picked up a plate of cookies she kept sitting next to the door, thinking it was more Christmas carolers. Small groups had been coming by from time to time, since right after dinner, and now it was close to dusk.
The knocking sounded again as she turned the brass door knob. She looked up into the face of the local sheriff. "Oh. Hello. Merry Christmas, Sheriff. Come on in and have some cookies."
"Thank you, ma'am, but I can't stay long." He tipped his hat and remained standing politely on the porch. It wasn't cold, so there was no need to close the door. "Ma'am " He fished around in his pocket, withdrawing a plain gold ring. "Some boys were playing over by the bay side earlier today, and came upon a body, most likely been there since the storm. It was a man -- he was lying in that tall grassy marsh area over there. This ring was on his finger. I've been asking all over town and the tailors, they said to bring it to you."
He held it out and Mattie slowly took it, examining it carefully. It had been cleaned up, but not polished, and it gleamed dully in the low parlor lighting. Her heart beat double-time as she held it up to the light, pursing her lips inward and squinting, as she read the engraving there on the inside of the band. She read it twice, turning the ring in her fingers a few times, the metal warming up to her touch. She grew very still, as an almost liquid numbness washed over her. "I where did you ? Excuse me, I think I need to sit down." She recognized the tale-tell buzzing in her ears for what it was, and the rush as the blood left her head, and just made it to the sofa before her knees gave out.
"Mattie, popcorn's ready. Do you have needle and thread to string it with?" Rachel drifted in from the kitchen. The noise of the popping corn had drowned out both the knocking at the door, and the conversation. "I can go up and get some if Oh. Howdy, Sheriff. What brings you here on Christmas Eve? Come on in, and have a seat." She gestured toward the sofa, her eyes falling on her lover, whose face was an ashen white and her lips an odd shade of pale blue. "Mattie?" She rushed around the sofa, setting the bowl of popcorn down on the floor. "Mattie, what's wrong?" She knelt down in front of her, and clasped a suddenly very cold hand, which was clutched into a tight fist.
Mattie slowly uncurled her fingers to reveal the ring. Her hand shook as she held it toward Rachel. "R read it. Please. Just want to make sure I'm not mistaken."
"Alright." Aware of the sheriff's presence, she resisted several instinctive urges, barely keeping herself from taking Mattie into her arms. Instead, she took the ring, giving the trembling hand a light squeeze. She stood and moved toward the lamp on an end table, holding the ring directly under the light. "M.E.B. & A.D.C. 27 Jun 96?" She turned, raising an eyebrow in question. "Is this is it what I think it is?"
"Madeleine Elizabeth Burnet and Adam David Crockett, twenty-seventh of June, 1896. Yes," she whispered. "It is exactly what you think it is. His wedding ring."
"My deepest condolences, Ma'am." The sheriff finally stepped into the room and closed the front door, and took a seat on a plump chair directly across from Mattie. "I know it's not the best news to bring you on Christmas Eve, but after talking with the tailors, they assured me you would want to know. Otherwise I would have waited until after tomorrow. I hope I didn't receive ill advice."
"No." Mattie felt the warmth returning to her fingers. "No, they were correct. I'm glad you didn't wait. You you're positive he's . dead?"
"I'm afraid so, Ma'am." He shifted in his chair, eyeing the plate of cookies Mattie had set on the table when she sat down.
"And this ring, you did find him wearing it?" Rachel chimed in. "It was on his finger?"
The sheriff nodded. "It was. I'd ask you to come identify him, Ma'am, but I'm afraid it would be a gruesome sight."
"Tell me, please." Mattie looked up, her eyes full of determination, and a strange hope she did her best to hide. "How did he die? How did you find him? I I just need to know everything you can tell me. Please." She dredged up her best grieving widow expression. "It would put my mind at ease to hear it. Not knowing for so long and all " That much, at least, was the truth.
"Certainly." He leaned over, snagging two cookies and biting down thoughtfully on one, chewing as he prepared to tell his story. "His body was already decomposing, but his upper body was still in reasonable condition, compared to his legs. Was hard to tell, but we figure when he died, there was water there, with the flooding and all during the storm. Then of course afterward it went back down, leaving that whole marsh area mostly in mud with a few puddles here and there. The grass is so tall there, and thick, it's a wonder he was found. Most folks don't go wandering through that area, but leave it to some boys to be playing in there. Ma'am, we think snakes got him. He might have drowned first. It's difficult to tell, but the bloating we saw, and the holes in his clothing -- looked like a nest of moccasins, maybe, got to him."
Mattie gasped in true horror, and felt Rachel slide in next to her, sitting close enough that their legs were touching. A long arm curled around her shoulders and Rachel gave her a platonic squeeze. "How terrible." Despite her feelings for Adam, she wouldn't wish such a death on anyone.
Rachel's mind was spinning, overwhelmed with the information, and a thought occurred to her. "Mattie, anything they could positively identify him by? Other than the ring? With all the looting and body-thieving that went on after the storm, someone could've found that somewhere, or stolen it from another body. I hate to think like that but "
"No. It's alright. He had some gold teeth -- three in the back on top on his left side." She chewed her lower lip. "I don't suppose "
"It was definitely him then, ma'am. I've seen the gold teeth. Some folks like to have them extracted from their deceased loved ones, to sell back the gold." He fidgeted in his chair, dropping cookie crumbs on the rug around him, which Horace quietly crept up and cleaned up, doing his best to be helpful. "It was mentioned when we were examining his body, that we needed to note them for his family if they were found."
"He's truly gone?" Her voice was vacant, and her eyes were incredulous. "I mean, I assumed he was, but to know for certain." She stood and almost fell over, having completely forgotten her pregnancy and her altered sense of balance, for a moment. She felt Rachel's hand on her arm, steadying her, and she briefly patted it before she moved to the window, staring out at the lengthening shadows of early evening. Her breathing was still shallow, and she suspected it had nothing to do with the baby pressing against her ribcage.
"I suppose I should go now, and leave you ladies to your Christmas preparations." The sheriff finished off his cookies and also stood, brushing more crumbs from his lap for a hopeful Horace to gobble up. "I'm sorry for your loss, Ma'am. If there's anything I can do for you "
"No." Mattie turned, her eyes glistening with tears, adding all the more to what the sheriff assumed was the grief of a young pregnant widow. "No, I don't have to wonder anymore, Sheriff, and I thank you for that."
"Sheriff " Rachel saw him to the door. "Is there any way I can come down day after tomorrow and identify him? And we'll have to make arrangements for his burial, of course."
"Certainly." The sheriff adjusted his hat. "You ladies try to have a merry Christmas."
"Oh, we will, sheriff. We will. You have a merry Christmas too." She waved at him and closed the door, and turned to face Mattie.
"Rachel." She gazed idly down at the brightly-wrapped presents under the tree, then looked back up. "I "
Rachel was at her side in a heartbeat, holding her close, as the tears welled up and spilled over. She cried for a long while, standing there in the warmth of an embrace that she realized she was finally, fully and freely able to enjoy, without the fear that Adam would somehow, some way, turn back up and try to lay claim to her or the baby. The tears turned to laughter as the baby kicked her several times, making its presence known.
"What a gift," she finally whispered. "I feel as if I've had my life handed back to me. Oh, my goodness." She laughed giddily. "I feel light as a feather. He's gone and he's never coming back." She reached up, cupping Rachel's face in one hand, and placing Rachel's hand on her belly with the other. "This little one is all yours, now. Not that she wasn't before, but now no one is going to ever take her or me away from you. I promise you that."
Rachel's lips trembled and she kissed Mattie's hand against her cheek, then bent over, kissing her forehead. "The gift of your love is the greatest gift I've ever been given. To know that you're safe from him, that this baby will never be threatened by him, to know that we've been given our lives to live fully as we choose, that is beyond all I could ever have hoped for."
"I'm yours forever." Mattie smiled and brushed her fingers back through the long chestnut locks. "I love you with all my heart." She sniffled as the last of her tears subsided.
"I love you too. More than I ever dreamed I could love anyone." Rachel kissed her tenderly, making the contact last and feeling the tension drain from Mattie's body. At last, she drew back, pressing her forehead against Mattie's and rubbing noses, watching a smile that matched her own light up Mattie's face.
"It's our first Christmas together, isn't it?" Mattie's voice was full of wonder.
"It sure is. The first of many more to come." She nuzzled Mattie's hair, feeling an indescribable peace descend over both of them. "Merry Christmas, Mattie."
Continued in the Epilogue
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