Copyright 2004 By Texbard email@example.com
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
Epilogue - April 1901
A hint of rain rode the wind as it blew in briskly off the Gulf, fluffing sails as the waves washed ashore, making boats bob like toys as they drifted in and out of port. The clouds were tall and billowing skyward like great white and gray puffy towers with no end, and the sea birds made haste to get to the shelter of land, calling across the beaches as they flapped their wings and dipped back and forth on the invisible currents that carried them away from the pending storm.
Rachel and Billy's boat sat a hundred yards off shore, rocking up and down as they carefully checked fishing lines and nets, hauling in catches that were more plentiful than usual. Rachel's braid was slowly working loose, and she had shed her shirt, which was tied around her waist in a tight double knot by the sleeves, leaving her in an undershirt and tan work trousers, held up by an old pair of leather suspenders. She tugged at a set of nets off the bow of the boat, drawing up a half dozen fish.
"Whoo-hooo!" She clamped down on a cigar with her lips, whistling her approval of the catch out of the corner of her mouth. "Billy, hope your knife is good and sharp!"
"More?" He yelled from the stern deck, where he was busily cleaning a catch that was to go directly to one of the hotels when they returned to the docks.
"Yes, and I have a feeling the day is far from over. Storm's driving 'em closer to the surface and closer to shore." She knelt down, untangling the fish from the net, and stringing them up before she carried them back to Billy, to add to his pile. She trod carefully over the smooth wooden deck, stepping over slippery areas of scales and fish gut, her nose wrinkling at the smell.
"Glad you took this job today." She dropped the stringer next to him, and eyed the bucket of cleaned fish curiously. "'Nother cigar?" She drew one out of her back pocket and lit it before handing it down to him, placing it in his mouth since his hands were occupied.
"Thanks," he drew at the offering and released a long trail of spicy fragrant smoke. "Time for whiskey yet?" He peered up at the cloud-covered sky, which gave no clue of the time.
"Of course. We're on a boat in the water for a good day of fishing," Rachel bent over, pulling up her trousers leg as she dug a flask from the top of her work boot and uncapped it, removing the cigar from her own mouth long enough to take a healthy swig of the fiery liquid. She smacked her lips and grinned. "You want me to help you with this too?"
"Nah." He stood and swiped his hands off on a wet rag, taking the thin silver container from her. "Have to draw the line somewhere. Besides …" he took a few swallows. "… back's got a kink in it. Need to stand for a few minutes anyway." He re-capped the flask and handed it back over. "Hmmmm." A large smile etched his face. "I do believe your day of fishing is going to end early, my dear."
"What?" Rachel turned, following his gaze toward shore, where a small figure stood on the end of the dock, frantically waving a large bright purple flag. "Oh my goodness." She bolted for the back of the boat, and felt a hand on her shoulder just as she reached a ladder that led down to a small rowboat that was tied to the back of the larger fishing boat.
"You want me to come with you?" Billy held her back for a long moment.
"No." Rachel shrugged him off. "This is women's business." She frowned at his amused expression. "I know, I know. I'm not your average woman. Still … Mattie said she doesn't want a houseful of people, so you come by tonight after you finish up here, and meet your new god-child."
"You think it will be here by then?" Billy watched her as she began to climb down the ladder, and he carefully untied it once she'd landed safely in the rowboat and taken up the oars.
"Some babies come fast, and some come slow," she shrugged. "If this one has half of Mattie's determination, it will be here in no time."
"Good luck to you," Billy called out, as Rachel began a frantic row for shore.
Her mind raced ahead of her, thinking about the hours to come, and Mattie's labor. They'd come up with the flag signal a few months before, and it was kept in the corner behind the front door of the house. She knew one of the three boys was waving it, and she smiled as she drew closer, spotting Albert's wide-eyed face as he finally put the flag down and began jumping up and down on the dock. "Come on, Miss Rachel! Baby is on the way, Miss Lillie says. Hurry!"
"Whoa there." Rachel pulled up alongside the dock and hopped out of the boat, tying off the small vessel at the end of the slip where their fishing boat was housed. "No need to get too excited just yet. It may be a while."
"Miss Lillie said to tell you to hurry." Albert's lips were tense with worry.
"Why?" Rachel's heart skipped a beat and she spat out her cigar, stomping it carefully out with the toe of her boot. "Is anything wrong? Mattie seemed fine this morning."
"No, she didn't say anything like that, just said to tell you to hurry." He motioned toward her.
"Oh, alright, then I'm going to take my bicycle if you don't mind, Albert, so you come on back to the house soon as you can." She patted him on the head.
"Oh, no, Miss Rachel. Miss Lillie already sent Frank and William to the tailor's shop. Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan are going to watch us tonight, until Billy comes back to shore and can take us home. Miss Lillie told us to stay away from your house."
"In that case, I will see you sometime tomorrow." She smiled. "Thank you for coming and waving the flag for us."
"You're welcome, Miss Rachel." He waved at her as she ran up the dock to her bicycle, and took off, peddling at break-neck speed.
She was glad she'd chosen the bicycle over the wagon that morning, as it would have taken extra time to go to the livery stables and hitch up the horses. As her legs worked furiously, her mind ran even faster ahead of her, wondering how Mattie was doing and what she might be able to do to help out in the coming hours. She blinked as a spattering of rain hit her face.
The fat heavy drops fell slowly for a few minutes, then picked up speed, and suddenly the sky split open with a loud crack of thunder, and the heavens poured down on her, quickly soaking the streets and forming puddles she dodged between as she made her way ever closer to the house. The rain was refreshing at first, washing away the last traces of fish from her skin and clothing, but soon she was shivering, her teeth chattering as the temperature dropped ten degrees in rapid time. She was grateful when she finally turned the corner and made her way to a small house on stilts on the beach.
She smiled at the cheery cottage, which was built a few months after the cyclone, along with several other similar small homes that dotted the beach, all of them perched on thick heavy columns that were pounded deep into the ground. Billy and Lillie's house was a short buggy-ride away, and the friendship between the two couples continued to flourish. Rachel and Mattie had bought the house and moved into it only a few months before, after selling Angel and Betsy's house for a tidy sum that left them with money in the bank, even after purchasing the new home.
Neither woman had realized the old house was making them glum until they left it. Although their life together had started there, the ghosts of friends were around every corner, and the memories were sometimes too painful to bear. Besides, both women felt it was much too big a house for either of them to want to take care of. In the new house, on the beach and away from the ongoing saga of rebuilding in town, a measure of good humor had returned to both women, and Mattie's last few months of her pregnancy had been full of peaceful contentment, as she happily prepared the nursery next to their bedroom.
Rachel jumped off the bicycle and stowed it under the house. She made a quick run back to the barn to check on the horses, then trotted toward the house, taking the long set of stairs up to the front deck two at a time. Horace raced up from the beach to greet her, following close behind, whimpering as she sternly told him to stay out on the covered deck. She flung the door open, and heard two female voices drifting in from the cozy back bedroom.
"Mattie?" She poked her head around the doorframe, spotting her lover propped up against a pile of pillows on the bed. A sheen of sweat shone on her forehead, and her hair was plastered back off her face. Lillie sat in a chair next to the bed, sponging up cool water she dabbed about Mattie's face and neck.
"Come on in, sugar, and take over here, while I go get Dr. Mills." She stood, only to feel a hard tug at her skirt.
"No Dr. Mills." Mattie's voice was hoarse, and she grimaced as another contraction rolled through her body. "Ouch." Her eyes scrunched closed for a moment before she opened them and drew in a deep breath. "That one was bad."
"Sugar, I thought you wanted the doctor here." Lillie placed her hands on her hips, fretting as she moved aside to allow Rachel to sit down.
"Hello, sweetheart." She took Mattie's hand, squeezing it gently. "I have a feeling you were already in labor when I left for the dock this morning, weren't you?"
"Yes," Mattie smiled sheepishly. "Figured there was no sense in worrying you when it might be hours. The pains actually started up right after we went to bed last night."
"That long?" Rachel frowned. "That's been over twelve hours, Mattie. You must be getting pretty close to having this baby."
"She is," Lillie interjected. "That's why we need to go get Dr. Mills now, before it's too late."
"No," Mattie reiterated. "You've both delivered babies. You told me so. I don't want him here. You two can do this. I know you can. Oh …" she hissed, as another contraction made her rise up from the pillows a bit, her body contorting from the pain.
"Why?" Rachel waited for the pain to pass, then bent over, kissing a damp forehead.
"I don't want to have to hide how I feel about you, when this baby gets here." Mattie's eyes glistened with tears. "I want to share this with you as your wife, not as your friend."
"Oh." Rachel felt warm all over, as her lover's words soaked in. She glanced at Lillie. "What do you think?"
"I think I'd best go boil some water, and make sure we have a sharp knife for the chord." She winked at Rachel. "I'm willing to do this together, if you are."
"Alright." Rachel smiled back at Mattie. "What can I do?"
"Get some towels under her," Lillie tossed a pile of them in her direction. "And get her out of all her clothing, except her nightgown. That skirt and petticoat have got to go. I'll be back." She disappeared from the room, and Rachel heard the sound of water running into a metal pan.
"Mattie, let's get you settled here, shall we, sweetheart?" She bit her lower lip as Mattie gripped a handful of blanket, while she rode out another contraction.
"I think it's pretty close, Rachel." She glanced down as Rachel pulled the covers back and carefully tucked the towels under her, before she moved further up and began unbuttoning Mattie's blouse. "You're all wet," Mattie smiled. "I heard the rain when it started. Sounds pretty heavy now." She looked at the window, where sheets of rain lashed at the glass, driven by a whistling wind.
"It is." Rachel helped her sit up enough to wriggle out of her blouse and skirt, along with her petticoat and chemise. Her drawers were already off, as she had removed them when her water broke. "Wish you would've said something this morning, Mattie. I would have stayed here and not gone out today."
"Was it a good day of fishing?" Mattie's jaw clamped down as pain gripped at her body.
"Yes, it was." Rachel found a large comfy nightgown in a dresser drawer and moved toward the bed, intent on helping Mattie put it on.
"No." Mattie almost growled. "I'm hot. The air feels good on my skin. Just … pull the sheet over me, please. I don't think I could bear clothing right now."
"Whatever makes you comfortable, sweetheart." Rachel complied, pulling the soft white cotton over Mattie's flushed body, before she sat down on the chair, unconsciously swiping wet bangs off her face.
"I'm glad you had a good day of fishing, and weren't here worrying all morning." Mattie reached across, tracing a rather sensitive spot, smiling as Rachel jumped at the unexpected touch. "Besides, seeing you all wet in that see-through undershirt takes my mind off the pain."
"Oh." Rachel blushed and looked down, finally noticing the translucent cotton plastered against her chest. Goose bumps danced across her skin and Mattie's fingers traced a pattern up her forearm.
"You're cold, though. Maybe you should change." She lifted Rachel's hand and brought it to her lips, kissing it. "I'm glad you're here now."
"Me too." Rachel stood. "You sure about changing? Wouldn't want to take away your entertainment." She flashed a cheeky grin.
"I'll live," Mattie grunted, trying to ignore another shot of pain through her lower back and legs.
Rachel quickly located dry clothing, and made her way back to the bedside. "Mattie, I need to check you, see how things are going down there. I remember that much from my mother all those times. Is it alright if I …"
"Go on." Mattie lifted the sheet. "I seem to have lost all modesty in the past few hours."
Rachel kissed her forehead again, then gingerly pulled the sheet the rest of the way down, studying Mattie's condition in the light of the lamp on the bedside table. "Oh." Her eyes grew wide. "I think I see the top of its head here, just a little bit." She glanced up at Mattie's incredulous face. "You're hiding some of the pain, aren't you?"
"Best I can," Mattie gritted her teeth and then gasped. "Getting difficult, though."
"Let it out, Mattie. Scream if you need to. It's just me and Lillie, and lord knows we've heard women give birth before. You're one of the most cheerful women I've ever been around in your condition." She put the sheet back down. "My mother used to call my father names not fit for young ears. Let me just go tell Lillie about seeing the head, and I'll be right back."
Mattie nodded, her face contorted in pain. Rachel frowned and slipped out of the bedroom, ducking around the corner into a small but functional kitchen. She stopped, smiling for a moment. "Aren't you a picture of domesticity?" She teased Lillie.
"Oh, sugar, my life has turned upside down this past year." She turned and wiped her hands on a ruffled apron. "Cooking for Billy and the boys. Doing their laundry. Cleaning house. Darning their stockings. Do you know I was invited to join a sewing circle last week? Me? Lillie the whore."
"You're no whore," Rachel closed the distance and briefly hugged her. "You're the best friend I ever had, besides Mattie, of course."
"Of course," Lillie looked down and blushed at the unexpected compliment. She took a breath and looked back up. "The feeling is mutual, Miz Rachel. Next thing you know those ladies in town are going to think I'm respectable or some such silly notion."
"You are respectable," Rachel clasped her shoulder and looked intently into the cornflower blue eyes. "In my eyes and Mattie's eyes, and I'll thrash anyone who says otherwise about you."
"Thank you, Rachel," Lillie blinked away a few tears.
"Rachel!" Mattie's voice called from the bedroom. "When are you coming back in here?"
"Oh." Rachel darted for the door. "I can see the head. That's what I came in here for."
"Oh my goodness." Lillie stopped her. "Check to make sure it's face down. You know what you have to do, don't you?"
Rachel nodded. "She's pretty close, I think."
"She is," Lillie agreed with her. "If the baby's face down, you go ahead and call me in there after it gets here."
"But .." Rachel's mouth flew open in protest.
"Rachel," Lillie patted her on the arm. "This time is for you and Mattie. She's been fine so far. Go on in there and deliver your child. I'll be right here if you need me."
The rain beat down overhead and time stood still for a long moment. Rachel looked up at the ceiling and pursed her lips, gathering her courage. She thought about her mother and her youngest sister, and her mother's cries of agony as the baby ripped through her body. She shivered, then pushed the fear aside as a low groan from the bedroom brought her back to the present. Mattie was in pain, but showed no signs of the extreme distress her mother had suffered. If anything, Mattie seemed to be almost on a lark, her pain minimal compared to what Rachel had seen in the past. "Alright." She nodded meekly. "Have that water and knife ready, Lillie."
She slipped around the corner and back into the bedroom, where Mattie had flung off the sheet and had her heels dug into the mattress, her breathing coming in short puffs of air as she suffered the largest contraction yet. "Hurts," she cried out, as she dropped back against the pillows. "It hurts, Rachel."
"I know," Rachel cooed at her. "I need to do something that is going to make it hurt a little bit more for a minute."
"What?" Mattie's eyes snapped in painful anger, and she dug her nails into Rachel's arm. "I had no idea you were a sadist."
Rachel suppressed a smile. "I'm not. I need to make sure this baby is in the right direction."
"It's coming out. There is no other direction," Mattie moaned, as she saw stars from yet more pain.
This time a chuckle escaped, and Rachel managed to turn it into a cough. "It has to be face down, just let me …" she sat down, warily approaching Mattie's female parts. She slipped a finger inside and underneath the baby's head, carefully sliding in until she located what felt to be a nose.
"Ohhhh. Rachel. Please." Mattie sobbed. "Nothing else can fit in there right now. Trust me."
"I know." Rachel withdrew her finger. "This baby is in perfect position. All you have to do now is push down each time you feel the pains, Mattie."
"Easy for you to say," she drew her knees up and arched upward, pushing hard as the next contraction hit. "Oh. It's tearing me up. I can feel it."
"Shhhh." Rachel looked carefully at Mattie's body and smiled. "No tearing yet, sweetheart. But we do have most of the top of a head. Come on, push hard. It will be over soon."
"Ohhhhhhhhh!" Mattie's voice rang out across the room, as she pushed hard again. "Rachel. It hurts so much."
Rachel sat on the edge of the bed now, next to Mattie, where she could see what was happening and still make eye contact with her lover. "Oh." She smiled. "We have the head. Just a few more pushes. Come on." She placed a supportive hand under the baby's head, while she felt Mattie grab her other one, squeezing it with all her might. She squeezed back, watching in fascination as Mattie's body came almost all the way off the bed.
"Raaachellllll!" Mattie screamed, as thunder rolled across the island, rattling the roof overhead. Lightening crashed out over the water, and the rain poured down. She felt a great ripping and tearing, and she pushed with all her might, screaming again as the baby slipped out of her, landing in Rachel's arms.
"Oh!" Rachel cradled the small body, tearing carefully at the sac over its face. Two tiny fists curled up, and a small mouth opened, releasing a wail so loud, it startled her. "Whoa." Her eyebrows shot up. "Healthy lungs, most certainly."
"Rachel!?" Mattie's voice was weak but insistent. "What is it?"
Rachel looked carefully at the small bundle of warm wet wriggling baby, and smiled, leaning over and placing the baby on Mattie's chest. "She's a girl, just like you said she would be."
"A girl?" Mattie smiled through her tears. "We have a girl. Oh." She gasped in pain as the afterbirth left her. "Oh, that felt queer. I forgot about that part." She focused on the baby, counting ten fingers and ten tiny toes. "Happy birthday, Rebecca Evangeline Travis."
"Ladies, may I cut that chord now?" Lillie tiptoed into the room and made quick work of her task. "May I?" She gently picked up the baby, wiping her down with some warm wet towels, then wrapped her up in a small fluffy blanket, before handing her over to Rachel. "Here's your daughter, Rachel Travis."
Rachel studied the baby in wonder, noting a cap of bright red hair on its head. "She's got your hair," she smiled, sitting down on the bed next to Mattie, who had hitched herself up to a halfway sitting position. Lillie quietly removed the soiled towels and helped Mattie get cleaned up. "No tearing, Mattie. You did real good, sugar, especially for your first baby." She helped Mattie put on a nightgown, leaving the laces undone. "You might want to see if she's hungry. I'll leave you two be, for a while, and go clean up the kitchen."
"Thank you, Lillie," Mattie called after her. She pulled her nightgown aside and eased the baby over, offering it one of her breasts. The baby didn't need any further prompting, as it latched onto a nipple and suckled vigorously, its little cheeks visibly moving as it took in Mattie's ample supply of nourishment. "Oh." Mattie winced. "Someone else is starved too, aren't you little one?"
A small eye blinked open, and then another, as Rebecca took in her first sight of the world. She continued to nurse, blinking in the low light of the weather-darkened room. "How about that?" Rachel had joined her lover, sitting next to her as the baby fed. "She's got nice dark blue eyes, doesn't she?"
"Yes, she does." Mattie swallowed. She looked up, cupping Rachel's face with her free hand. "Just like yours."
Rachel looked down, saying nothing. She felt gentle fingertips trace her cheeks. "No one in my family or Adam's has blue eyes, Rachel. My family is all browns and hazels, and his was all dark brown, almost black." She felt Rachel quit breathing for a moment, before the steel eyes hesitantly looked back at her. "It's a gift, Rachel. She has your eyes."
"Mine?" Rachel watched as those small eyes tried to focus on her. "Hello there, Rebecca." She smiled. "I'm your other mother." She held out her hand, as a small fist curled around her finger. "What a grip you have, little one." Fresh tears tracked down her cheeks, and her lips quivered, as Mattie's fingers swiped them away.
"How are you, my love?" She stroked Mattie's still-damp head. "You did such a good job."
"I feel fine." Mattie patted the space next to her. "Tired and very sore, but fine. I think I need a little nap. Rest here, with us?"
Rachel shucked her trousers, crawling under the cover clad in her undershirt and drawers. She stretched out next to Mattie, smiling as Mattie curled up against her, with the nursing baby resting between them. "She's perfect, isn't she?"
"Yes, she is." Mattie felt the baby finally release her breast, hiccupping a few bubbles as she fussed, until Mattie turned her over and rubbed her back until she let out a healthy burp. "That's our girl." Mattie shifted, until Rebecca was once again resting against their joined bodies. Mattie's eyes blinked sleepily, matched by small blue ones, and soon both mother and baby were sound asleep, wrapped in Rachel's protective embrace.
Rachel looked down, gently kissing Rebecca's cheek, and then Mattie's, feeling both of them stir slightly at her touch. Mattie's lips curled into a sleepy smile and she nestled closer to Rachel. Steel eyes looked up overhead, then out at the rain, which was no longer raging, but had trickled down to a light sprinkle. "Seems we'll always be facing storms," she mused. "But out of the storms, we're always given a blessing." She settled back to rest, but not to sleep. Life was much too exciting at present to miss a single minute. "My family." She held Mattie and Rebecca close, feeling both warm bodies breathing against her. "A year ago I could never have conceived of so great a gift."
Outside, the sun broke through the clouds, and a full rainbow arched across the sky out over the Gulf. The bright colors dazzled Rachel's eyes, as she looked out the window for a long while. With a smile, she turned away from it, gazing back down, keeping watch over her family as they slept.
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