Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
The fishing boat pulled into port late on the second day, and the weary crew de-boarded, each of them taking a share of fresh fish as part of their wages. While on the way back to the island, they had cleaned most of a considerable catch of Marlin, Sailfish, Tuna, and even a few Sharks. The captain thanked each of them as they passed him on the gangplank, and he promised their monetary reward would be forthcoming on Friday.
Rachel and Billy approached their bicycles in silence, sore arm muscles protesting as they lifted the vehicles and mounted them, placing their fish packets in the cargo baskets. They would be able to store the fish in the boarding house's icebox, and would be allowed to use the kitchen in off hours if they wanted to cook the catch for themselves. Otherwise they might be able to beg the cook for a special meal, perhaps on the weekend when she was less busy than during the week.
Rachel split off and rode past the tailor's shop. She knew Mattie wouldn't be there at the late hour, but she couldn't help it. It had become habit. She'd left no more notes since the day before the fishing assignment began, but had ridden by late each night and early each morning, on the off chance Mattie might be there. She shook her head and laughed quietly at herself. "I'm done gone on that girl, I do believe."
She turned the bicycle back toward the boarding house. They could catch up at the noon hour the next day, and she made a mental note to pick some wildflowers before going to the docks the next morning. Mattie always loved getting flowers.
When she arrived back at her room, she made quick use of the tub in the water closet, and sank into bed less than thirty minutes later. She flexed her legs and arms, then relaxed, feeling the day's aches and pains slowly fade away, overcome by the need for sleep. It felt good to be clean, and even better to be off her feet and out of the hot sun and salty air. She was certain her skin was several shades darker than it had been two days before. The open sea and the burning sun were a relentless combination of torture on the human body.
She closed her eyes and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
A rooster crowing in the alley below the window woke her, and she slowly sat up, rubbing both eyes in confusion. The sun was indeed rising, although it seemed as if she had just gone to sleep. She groaned as she swung her legs over the edge of the bed, her muscles stiff after the two days of hard work, hauling in the heavy fish that were bigger than she was. She slowly pulled on her work trousers and shirt, and splashed her face in the washbowl before plodding downstairs, her body slowly coming fully awake.
After a quick breakfast, she was out the door and on her bike, headed for an open field down the road, where she was certain she had spotted some nice pink buttercups and yellow daisies growing beside the road. She smiled as she saw the bright flowers blowing in the gentle morning breeze, and jumped off the bike, grasping the flowers at the base of their stems, and picking them, filling her bicycle basket full. She could already picture the smile on Mattie's face as she handed them to her, and her own face broke into an involuntary grin.
It was still early, and she decided to ride by the tailor's shop and see if Mattie might have gone in early herself. As she approached the shop, she could see that the windows were open, indicating that at least someone was already there. She parked her bicycle and hesitantly stepped into the shop, blinking until her eyes adjusted to the lower light. "Hello, Mr. Vaughan." She stepped forward, and nodded her head in greeting, as the tailor turned from his sewing machine and stood up.
"Miss Travis." He wiped his hands on his apron. "What brings you here this morning so early?"
Rachel frowned. She had become a fixture in the shop, her visits to Mattie as regular as clockwork, work schedules permitting. "I don't suppose Mattie is here yet?" She looked around hopefully, as if she expected her friend to appear from the back room. Instead, Mrs. Vaughan popped out from behind the curtain, her face lined in worry.
"You don't know, then?" She looked first at Rachel and then at her husband. "Tell her, Matthew. I think she needs to know."
"Know what?" Rachel's smile disappeared, and she felt a vague sense of uneasiness settle over her.
"Mrs. Crockett isn't working for us anymore." Mr. Vaughan moved to a side table and poured up a cup of tea, which Rachel took without thinking. "Strangest thing happened two mornings ago. Her husband showed up here first thing and told us she would be staying at home and wouldn't be coming in anymore."
"I think something strange is going on," Mrs. Vaughan cut him off. "Mattie has always been so dependable. We were busy with a rush order for some funeral clothing the day before she quit, and Matthew and I had to work until almost midnight to finish up Mattie's part of the work. It's not like her to shirk her responsibilities."
"Eliza …" Mr. Vaughan's voice took on a warning tone.
"Don't you 'Eliza' me!" She snapped at him. "That man is up to no good. I've seen the bruises these past months. I have eyes, don't I?"
"T'is none of your business …"
"That girl needs a friend, Matthew, and Miss Travis here appears to be one of the few she has." She turned to Rachel, whose boneless fingers quickly set her teacup down lest she drop it.
"You haven't seen her since Monday afternoon?" Her voice shook with fear.
Mrs. Vaughan's eyes rolled upward in thought, then looked directly back at her. "That would be correct."
"Have you seen Mr. Crockett since Tuesday morning?" She was already headed for the door as she spoke.
"No." Mr. Vaughan joined in. "I believe he was headed up to Houston when he came by."
"I've got to go." Rachel opened the door and was gone, the hats on the hat rack fluttering behind her as she closed the door.
She didn't know how she got there so quickly. The town flew by her in a blur and she was on the beach road in no time, the air blowing her long braid back and making tears stream from her eyes, she was riding so fast. The soreness in her legs was forgotten, as they pumped double time, carrying her to Mattie's house with no thought save one -- she had to see Mattie. What if Adam had indeed packed up and taken her away while Rachel was gone? Maybe the federal marshals had come back. Maybe … She gritted her teeth and pedaled even faster, refusing to think the worst.
At last she approached Mattie's house and forced herself to slow down, before she jumped off the bike and propped it under a palm tree a good distance behind the barn. Cautiously, she crept to the barn and slipped around front, spotting no movement through the windows at the back of the house. The barn door was cracked open and she pushed it just wide enough to wriggle inside. A quick glance around revealed the horses and light buggy missing, with only the larger wagon left parked off to one side.
She swallowed hard and gazed back toward the house, as she left the barn and walked warily across the open space between, feeling as exposed and naked as the day she was born. She would have been easy pickings for anyone with a gun, and her ears perked up, listening especially for the crank of a shotgun or the click of a pistol.
She rounded the corner of the house and eyed the porch briefly, a sheen of nervous sweat breaking out across her brow. Her boots sounded much too heavy as she climbed the steps and crossed to the landing. She drew a shaking breath and knocked, softly at first, then waited. She heard nothing and reached up with a trembling fist, knocking louder. She was well-aware of the Bowie knife tucked into her boot, as she mentally prepared herself to reach down and grab it, if need be.
A rustling noise on the other side of the door almost made her leap off the porch, but a soft familiar voice caught her ear, and she moved closer, waiting for the door to open. It remained closed.
"Rachel?" Mattie's voice called out from behind a curtain at the open window beside the door.
"Mattie?" She moved to the window, anxious to see her friend's face. "What's going on? I went by the tailor's shop and they said …"
"You need to go." The front door cracked open just a finger's width, and Mattie's voice sounded louder.
There was a note of utter defeat in Mattie's voice, and Rachel's heart turned over in her chest. "Not until you let me come in." She stepped forward, pressing against the door. A surprisingly strong grip held her at bay, and she eased off, and backed up. "Mattie, it's me, Rachel." She gentled her tone. "You're scaring me something awful here. Please. Let me come in."
"I can't." Her voice became desperate. "Just go away, Rachel. It isn't safe for you here anymore."
"No." She rocked back on her heels, clasping her hands behind her back. She was certain Mattie was watching her from behind the door.
"He'll kill you if he finds you here." Her voice quivered and Rachel thought she heard a sniffle. "He's having me watched. Someone could come by at any time. You have to go. Rachel. Please."
"Is that what you want?" Rachel moved closer, until she was a step away from the door.
"Y … yes." Nonetheless, the door opened just a bit wider, and Rachel saw the hem of a pale green skirt peek out.
"You don't sound too certain of that." She watched the door open wider still, until she could just make out Mattie's bowed head. "You look me in the eye and you tell me you want me to leave, and I will."
She waited and watched, as a pair of slumped shoulders heaved in a silent sigh, and Mattie stood up taller, her face still not turned toward her, but rather facing down and toward the inside of the room. "I can't."
"So you want me to come in?" Her voice grew hopeful and it was all she could do to stand still in place.
"You can't." Mattie began to cry, her head still bowed and turned to the side. "You need to go."
"I love you." Rachel took the last step, reaching out, only to have her hand slapped away.
"Go." Mattie brought one clenched fist up to her own turned face, and an audible sob escaped her lips. "I love you too much to put you in such danger."
"Don't you worry about me." Rachel reached out again, and this time her hand made it to Mattie's shoulder. She felt a shudder and quickly withdrew it. "Mattie, look at me."
"I can't." She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth, looking down at her feet. "You can't look at me," she whispered. She cried harder as she felt gentle fingers probing her chin, and slowly, her face was tilted up until she looked into a pair of steel blue eyes filled at first with sorrow, and then with rage.
"I'll kill him." Rachel spat out. Her eyes flicked over Mattie's face, taking in bruises at both eyes and cheeks, and a painfully swollen upper lip. A close appraisal noted what looked like healing finger-nail shaped puncture wounds at Mattie's wrists, and what appeared to be the bulk of a bandage wrapped around her right forearm beneath her sleeve.
"No. You. Will. Not." Mattie's eyes snapped. "You're all I'm hanging onto right now, Rachel. You do something to get yourself hanged, and I'll walk out into that water out there and drown myself. I swear I will."
"Alright." Rachel stepped closer, cupping Mattie's face against her palm. "Let me in before whoever is watching you comes by."
Mattie looked down and with a trembling sigh, opened the door and stepped back, making room for Rachel to step inside. As soon as the door was closed she cried out, and fell into Rachel's arms, sobbing, her body shaking as three days of horror began to wash away. She felt hesitant arms close loosely around her, and realized Rachel was afraid she might hurt her if she held on tightly. "Just be careful of my ribs," she whispered, and felt Rachel pull her closer.
She buried her face into Rachel's chest, inhaling her bay rum and crying harder as she finally allowed herself to feel a small measure of comfort. "I want to die," she choked out.
"You hang on for me, Mattie." Rachel hesitantly stroked her head with one hand, cradling Mattie against her with the other arm. She held on and simply allowed Mattie to cry for a long while, until tears turned to hiccups and she feared Mattie might become sick. "Shhhhh." She looked down at an ashen face.
"Rachel, I think I'm going to …"
"Hold on." Rachel somehow scooped her up, rushing through the bedroom and depositing her in the water closet just in the nick of time. She held Mattie's forehead as heaves wracked her body, but nothing came up. "You haven't been eating." A statement, rather than a question.
Mattie shook her head negatively, feeling the edges of a damp towel as Rachel dabbed at her lips, then sponged her forehead. "Haven't been hungry," she replied weakly, as Rachel guided her toward the bed. "No." Her eyes grew wide in panic. "Not there. The sofa."
"Bastard." Rachel could only guess at what her friend had suffered, but shoved down her anger as best she could, forcing herself to focus on taking care of Mattie. "What did he do to you?" Her fingers lightly ran over the bruises. "What happened?"
Rachel sat down on the sofa, sitting back and pulling Mattie carefully down with her.
"He found my pessary box." She settled against the familiar warmth, trying to truly believe that Rachel was there, holding her. "You can see the rest." Her eyes darted up, then quickly looked downward in shame. "I … I thought he was going to kill me that first night." She closed her eyes, feeling the shivers come again. "I've wished he had a dozen times since."
Rachel's jaw twitched with the effort of containing her fury. "When does he come home again?"
"Tomorrow night, far as I know." Mattie unconsciously clung tighter, and felt Rachel pull her closer.
"I should go get Dr. Mills," Rachel carefully prodded Mattie's bandaged arm, unbuttoning her cuff and pushing the sleeve up. "This might be broken, for all we know."
"No." Mattie's voice grew panicked. "No doctor. Adam said no one is to come into the house and I'm not to leave it while he's gone. I've seen some of his men ride by. They don't come inside, but still, I can't risk it, Rachel, I …"
"Alright." Rachel unwound the bandage, wincing at the mottled skin and swollen wrist beneath it. "I know you've been through a horrible time, Mattie. Can you let me check out your injuries? We need to know how badly you're hurt."
Hazel eyes looked up at her, the shame evident in their sad depths. She slowly nodded her agreement.
Her voice grew gentle and she stroked Mattie's head as she spoke. "My brave sweetheart." Rachel kissed her head. "Let's go get you a nightgown to change into, before we start. After we finish, you need to eat something and get some rest, and then we have a lot to talk about before tomorrow."
Mattie nibbled her lower lip and nodded again. Rachel rose up and felt a strong grip at her arm. She turned, doing her best not to break down and cry herself, as Mattie's eyes watered up again and she pleaded, "Rachel, don't leave me."
"Never." She carefully helped Mattie up, guiding her toward the armoire in the bedroom.
Rachel sat on the sofa, Mattie's head in her lap. She idly stroked the long red waves, which Mattie had allowed her to wash and comb out. During a tearful examination, they had determined that for the most part, Mattie was bruised up pretty good. Her wrist appeared to be badly sprained, and nothing was broken, not even her nose, although it was extremely tender. Mattie had talked very little, sharing few details of her time with Adam, although it did come out that he had left for Houston Wednesday morning, and not Tuesday morning as Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan had thought.
Mattie was sleeping, after consuming a bowl of clam chowder and several soda crackers. It wasn't much food, but it was a start. Rachel could easily see her ribs during the examination, and could feel them, even through the light nightgown Mattie was wearing. Her eyes were bruised, hiding any dark circles, but her features were drawn and haggard, sure signs she hadn't been sleeping well. She confessed to Rachel that every night, after Adam fell asleep, she had moved to the sofa, unable to sleep in the same bed with him, but that even being in the same house while he was there robbed her of any true rest.
Rachel briefly thought of the docks. She'd not sent word and fervently hoped she would be forgiven for not showing up. It was the first time she had ever just not gone to work without sending word or having prior permission. She was not slated for any particular assignment that day, but there was always something available for her to do. She was a model dockhand compared to many, and tried to console herself on that point.
She was partially reclining, keeping in a position so she could easily duck down should the men who were keeping an eye on Mattie for Adam happen by and actually come up to the door. She was glad her bicycle wasn't in sight. They had drawn the curtains, but at least once Rachel had heard a buggy pull up in the driveway, and heard low male voices muttering for a few minutes before the buggy pulled away. Luckily Mattie had been asleep for that visit. She told Rachel they had come by four times the day before, and at least twice during the night that she was aware of. A few times, she had peeked out and recognized two faces as associates she had met during the Independence Day celebration on the Strand.
Now Rachel's mind was turning, working on a plan. They had discussed the possibility that Adam was involved in slavery, and that surely the Federal marshals would be interested in that news, regardless of whether it was what they wanted him for or not. It was a given that they would wire the marshals and cryptically tell them they needed to come back to Galveston as soon as possible. They weren't sure who they could trust in the telegraph office, so Rachel would be the one to send the message.
Meanwhile, she couldn't figure out what to do to get Mattie out of the house and safely out of Adam's reach. They needed to keep him in Galveston for the marshals to catch up with him. If they ran away, there was the risk that Adam himself would leave town and come after them. Even if Mattie ran away by herself, he would search for her. Mattie seemed certain of it. They couldn't hide Mattie in Rachel's room or anywhere else on the island, because Adam would still think she had run away.
Rachel looked down, her face scrunched up in thought. In sleep, some of Mattie's worry lines had smoothed out, and Rachel could feel her relaxed under the arm that was draped carefully over Mattie's waist. Mattie's hand was wrapped firmly against Rachel's thigh, her body curled up against Rachel's hip. Every now and then she stirred and mumbled in her sleep, but a few shushes from Rachel, and more strokes to her head magically calmed her.
Gradually, thought turned to weariness, and Rachel's eyelids drooped, then closed, and her head lolled back against a sofa cushion.
She awoke an hour later and slowly raised her head, turning a stiff neck from side to side. She felt the change in Mattie's breathing and looked down, studying her face and closed eyes. "You awake?" She whispered softly.
"Oh." Mattie's eyes fluttered open. "Yes. I was just resting a spell. Didn't want to wake you up."
"You can wake me up any time you need to." Rachel shifted, and Mattie slowly turned until she was stretched out on her back, her head still in Rachel's lap. Hazel eyes peered up thoughtfully, then looked down, as Mattie's cheeks turned red.
"Mattie?" Rachel cupped her face. "What's wrong?"
"All my fault." Mattie blinked, one tear escaping. "It's a sin, Rachel, I knew that."
"What's a sin?" Confused blue eyes peered down, willing Mattie to look back up at her.
"The pessaries." Mattie unconsciously grasped Rachel's hand, twining their fingers. She could smell the comforting scent of bay rum and a slightly musky scent that was simply Rachel's own skin, all mixed with the clean cottony smell of Rachel's fresh work trousers. Strong thigh muscles cradled her head, and with her cheek against Rachel's stomach, she could feel the slight sensation of her breathing. She burrowed further into her comfortable nest. She had been half-afraid she might reject Rachel's touch, but found instead she craved her comfort.
"It is not a sin to prevent the birth of children who might live in a miserable existence." Rachel tilted her chin up, studying Mattie's troubled eyes.
"But the church …"
Rachel covered her lips with two fingers. "Do you think what you and I have shared is also a sin?"
Mattie closed her eyes for a long moment. So long that Rachel feared the worst, her heart creeping slowly into her throat as the silence went on. Finally, two vibrant hazel eyes opened, conveying love that needed no words. "No." Mattie nibbled her lower lip. "But the pessaries … I don't know. I should have at least been more careful with them. Now I've ruined everything. We can't run away now. I've lost my freedom. I can't live here, but I can't leave. Rachel …" Mattie sat up, slipping into Rachel's lap. Two sturdy arms wrapped loosely around her and she rested her head on Rachel's shoulder, playing with the buttons on her white shirt as she spoke. "Those marshals … they might not be back for weeks. I can't survive here that long. I'll die. What Adam wants …" Her cheeks flushed again and she looked down. "He's relentless. His touch makes my skin crawl and his kisses sicken me. When he …" She curled up into herself almost as if he were in the room with them and coming toward her. "… I want to die. I can't bear it. I simply can't. Not for several weeks."
"I'm so sorry." Rachel hugged her as closely as she dared, mindful of the many sore spots on the thin body she held.
"Damn you." Mattie beat her fist lightly against Rachel's chest and Rachel jumped in startlement, more so at Mattie's swearing than at her actions. She looked down to see a tear-streaked face, but there was a sad smile on Mattie's lips. "Now I know what love is." She looked up, tracing Rachel's face with gentle fingertips. "Before … I was prepared to just live as I was … live out my life with a man I didn't love and who didn't love me. I didn't know anything better. You came along and showed me everything I had only dreamed of. I don't know whether to kiss you or kick you."
"I'd prefer the kiss," Rachel managed to smile, wiping away a few of Mattie's tears. "But your lips might not be up for it right now."
"Damn them too." Mattie pulled her head down, threading her fingers through chestnut waves, and lightly kissed Rachel's mouth. It was sweet and chaste, and about all her painful lips could take, but she lingered there, allowing a slight pressure for a few moments before she pulled away.
Rachel's fingers lightly traced the bruises on Mattie's face, her thumb leaving the lightest of touches against the injured lips. Her eyes were full of sorrow, and she felt her chin quivering. She shook her head in anger at her own weakness, and drew in a deep breath, feeling the emotions settle. "I'm so sorry this happened to you." She pulled Mattie close, mindful of her injuries.
"What are we going to do?" Mattie lay her head back down on Rachel's shoulder. The comforting embrace, and the steady sound of the waves rolling ashore outside combined to lull her into a much-needed lassitude, tense muscles slowly relaxing after almost three days of constantly frazzled nerves. She burrowed her face into Rachel's neck and felt a kiss at the top of her head.
"I've been thinking on that, but something you said gave me a different idea. Give him what he wants."
"Give … buh … have you gone loco?" Mattie's eyes flew open and she sat up, her hands grasping Rachel's shoulders as she glared at her. "If I have his child, I will be tied to him forever, Rachel. I'll never get away from him."
"No." Rachel laughed lightly. "That's not what I meant. Make him think you're carrying his child. Make him think he's already accomplished that. Then tell him the doctor said further relations until you give birth would be bad for the baby."
"What if he checks with the doctor?" Mattie fretted. "And what do I do several months from now when my stomach is still obviously flat?"
"Shhhh." Rachel kissed her head again. "We'll be long gone by then. We just need to buy some time until those marshals return. And no man I've ever known has willingly gone alone to a doctor to discuss his wife's delicate condition."
"Well." Mattie pursed her lips inward, her brows deeply furrowed. "It might work. I'll have to pretend to make a visit to the doctor. As for the other, he'll probably go to the saloon to satisfy his needs, which is fine with me. Not like he wasn't doing that anyway. But I don't know if …"
"If what?" Rachel watched Mattie's eyes tear up again.
"If I can bear to be with him in this house for very long, even if he doesn't touch me in that way. He flies into a rage over nothing. Or anything. He might not be able to restrain himself, even if he does think I'm carrying his child. Or he might just make sure to hit places besides my stomach. I don't know how many times I've had to wrap up this wrist."
Rachel's guts clenched and she felt her blood boiling, just under the surface. "Maybe they'll find him in a back alley with his throat slit."
"No." Mattie stroked her face, trying to calm her. "I'll manage to survive. We're too close to having what we want, Rachel. I won't have you risk it."
"And what am I supposed to do?" She carefully lifted Mattie, shifting her until she was sitting on the sofa. Then she stood, pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, gesturing with her hands as she talked. "Am I supposed to just go to the docks every day, knowing I might not be able to see you for weeks? Wondering how you're doing? Wondering if he's hitting you … or worse? You not able to get word to me? Me wondering if he doesn't get wind of the marshals and up and take you away? No!" She turned, stamping a booted foot in frustration, her fists clenched at her sides. "I won't have that. I can't."
As her boot hit the floor, Mattie cowered back against the sofa, her eyes wide with fear. Rachel's heart twisted and she lowered her head and relaxed her hands. "I'm sorry." She carefully stepped forward and dropped to one knee in front of Mattie. "I'd never hurt you. You know that, don't you?"
"I … I know." Mattie's voice shook nervously as she tried to smile. "I'm sorry too. It's a reaction. I can't help it sometimes."
"I'm so very sorry." Rachel scooted forward, dropping her forehead against Mattie's lap and lightly hugging her legs. "Here you've been through a horrible thing, and I go and make it worse for you."
"It's horrible for you too." Mattie combed her fingers through Rachel's hair. "You're perfectly right. It wouldn't be fair to you to not know what's happening here, and I'd be terrified if I thought I couldn't communicate with you. Let's think on this a bit more. Between the two of us, surely we can come up with a plan that will work."
"Forgive me?" Penitent blue eyes slowly looked up, and Rachel lifted Mattie's uninjured hand, kissing her knuckles a few times before holding the hand against her cheek. She felt Mattie's fingers, lightly stroking her face.
"Of course I forgive you." Mattie patted the space next to her and a brilliant smile graced Rachel's face as she took the spot, and felt Mattie climb back into her lap. "You're my whole life, Rachel. Don't you know that by now?"
"I …" Rachel stopped. It was as close to a declaration of commitment as Mattie had ever given her, and she dared not spoil it with silly ill-chosen words. She hugged Mattie closer and buried her face in the clean-smelling hair. She rocked back and forth silently, careful not to jar Mattie in the process. "I'll love you forever." The words finally came, muffled as she spoke against Mattie's head. She brushed her lips across Mattie's forehead before resuming her rocking.
Mattie felt Rachel shaking, and realized she was crying. "We are a couple of weeping fools today, aren't we?" Mattie pulled away and carefully wiped Rachel's face with her nightgown sleeve.
"That we are. I'm a fool for you, at any rate." She pressed her forehead against Mattie's. "We've got until tomorrow morning to come up with a plan that will work. What say we go try to eat a little bit more, take another nap, and discuss it some more over a late supper?"
"Truly? But you said last time you were here that you can't sleep in this house …"
"Forget that." Rachel managed a smile. "I'll manage fine even if I have to sleep on the floor while you sleep here on the sofa. I'll sneak out a little before dawn and head for the docks."
Mattie eyed the plush cushions, measuring the space in her head. "I think we can both fit here. We might have to spoon, but I think we can."
"Might work at that. See." Rachel smiled fully. "We're coming up with good plans already."
Pale dawn light filtered through a crack in the curtains, gently dappling Rachel's face in soft rose and golden hues. She blinked grumpily at the offending window, then closed her eyes and snuggled closer to the warm body she was curled against. It was past time for her to leave, but she had heard Adam's goons drive up only an hour before, when it was still dark out.
She'd slept lightly during the afternoon nap, and then through the night, timing their visits, and discovered that since the morning before, they'd been coming by every four hours, on the hour, for a total of six visits a day. She tucked that information aside, making a mental note to have Mattie keep track to see if they kept up that pattern. She'd peeked out the window at them on all but two occasions, and noted that there seemed to be a team of six men switching out shifts, two at a time. She didn't know any of them, and wanted to find out more about who they were and what they did for a living.
Duty got the best of her, and she sighed, stretching just a little bit. She was pressed against the back of the sofa, holding Mattie in the curve of her body and legs, surrounding her almost like a protective cocoon. Her heart was heavy as she studied the still very visible bruises on Mattie's face, and the paleness of the skin that was uninjured. As she silently watched Mattie sleeping, she felt the smaller woman's muscles begin to take on tension, and watched her eyelashes tremble and flutter open, as Mattie yawned and then swallowed, her body slowly coming to life.
"Morning." Mattie yawned bigger and turned, stretching out her legs. Rachel didn't miss the slight wince as she rolled over on her back.
"Your stomach and ribs still hurting?" She gently rubbed Mattie's belly through her light cotton nightgown.
"Some, yes." Mattie reached over, pulling Rachel's arm across her hips, nestling closer to the strong body, her mind spinning at everything that had happened of late, both good and bad. "I'm sore all over. He … he kept on coming after me. He forced me. I … I feel so ashamed … dirty … I can't seem to forget it. I'm sorry, Rachel. I don't know if I'll ever feel like …"
Rachel understood what her lover could not bring herself to say, and leaned up on one forearm, gently cupping Mattie's face with her other hand, closing her eyes as she struggled for just the right words. "You listen to me. You did nothing wrong, and have nothing to be ashamed of." Rachel opened her eyes and brushed her knuckles against Mattie's face, trying to ignore her anger at Adam's abuse. "I'll never ask you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. That hasn't changed any. I love you. We have all the time in the world, Mattie. And if we play our cards right, we're about to buy ourselves a whole lot more of it. We just need to make it through this next difficult bit, and then maybe we can have ourselves some peace for a while."
"Peace." Mattie tasted the word as it rolled off her tongue. Her eyes tilted up, sparkling in the early morning light that burnished her skin and created copper highlights in her hair. "The only peace I've ever known …" She caressed Rachel's face running her hand down across her shoulder and pulling her more tightly against her. "… is in your arms."
"Careful." Rachel let the words wash over her, drinking them in and banishing any lingering fear that what they shared might suddenly vanish. "Don't want to hurt you."
"That would be impossible." Mattie trailed her other hand up a bare arm, tickling across the neckline of a ribbed cotton undershirt, then up and through thick morning-mussed hair. "You could never hurt me."
"I'll do my best not to Mattie, for as long as you'll have me around." She kissed her lover's head and shifted, trying to allow for as much comfort as Mattie could have, given her injuries. They held onto each other for as long as they dared, until the sun was fully up. Rachel watched the soft shadows in Mattie's face slowly wash away, replaced with bright daylight. A few of her bruises were starting to fade, and some of the sparkle was returning to her eyes. "I need to go."
"Are you certain you can get another day off at the docks?" Mattie frowned in worry, her good hand plucking at soft worn cotton.
"Yes." Rachel captured the hand, holding it against her heart. "Billy will cover for me, work a double shift if he has to. Especially given the circumstances."
"Can you get everything done in one day?" Mattie slowly sat up, feeling Rachel move with her, and smiling as she was pulled into a comforting side hug.
"I will get everything done today, and I'll get it done before the evening train comes in." She projected as much confidence into her voice as she could. Truth be told, she had a lot on her plate, but she had no choice. Adam would be home by sundown, and they had to have their plan in motion by the time he arrived home. So she smiled, and watched a hesitant mirror of that smile reflected back at her. "Don't you worry. You just be ready when I send word, one way or the other."
"What if …" Mattie looked down, her chin quivering.
"No 'what ifs'." Rachel tilted her face up. "You be strong for me, Mattie. You're the bravest person I've ever known, you hear me?"
"Alright." Mattie hugged her close. "I'll be waiting."
"I hate leaving you here." Rachel found herself unwilling to get up, despite the ticking clock.
"I'll be fine." Mattie stood, pulling at Rachel's hand.
"I left you alone for three days, and you were not fine." Rachel's face grew red in anger. "I should've checked in on you sooner. Maybe I could've …"
"No 'maybes' either." Mattie cut her off. "This was not your fault, Rachel. There is nothing you could have done to change anything."
"I could've taken you away before now." Rachel dug into the sofa with her free hand, her knuckles turning white.
"Against my will?" Mattie softened her voice to remove any sting to her words. "You're not the kind of person to do that, and even if you were, I wouldn't have stood for it. Until yesterday, I wasn't ready and you know it. You've given me more than I could ever hope or ask for. Don't you forget that and don't you go blaming yourself."
"Can't help it." Rachel slowly looked up, meeting hazel eyes that gently chastised her and loved her completely, all at the same time. "I've felt so helpless for so long, when it comes to you."
"Well you can stop feeling that way right now." Mattie leaned in, kissing her quickly. "Come on. The sooner you get going, the sooner I'll know what I need to do."
Rachel reluctantly stood, taking Mattie's hand and leading her to the door. She pulled her into a long hug, holding on and rocking back and forth for a timeless moment, feeling Mattie lean against her, fitting perfectly into all the right spaces. "I'd best be going." She pecked the top of Mattie's head. "I love you. Be brave."
"I love you too." Mattie peeked out the curtains. "All clear."
Rachel nodded and opened the door, looking around cautiously before dashing around the house and back toward the road and the tree where she'd left her bicycle.
Mattie watched her from a side window for as long as she could, then stood on the back porch and watched until the bicycle disappeared over a rise and behind a sand dune. With a resolute turn, she went back inside and firmly closed the door. For a little while, she simply meandered around, studying all the items that made up their house, occasionally picking up various knick-knacks, as her fingers trailing over her shell collection, remembering the special times with Rachel on the beach. Her house. It was no longer a home. She knew that. Finally, she went into the bedroom and pulled a paisley carpetbag from under the bed, and set about the task of packing it.
Mattie paced nervously back and forth in the parlor, waiting for Adam's arrival. Her bag rested on the floor beside the door, and she already had on her bonnet and her travel clothes. She removed a small note from her skirt pocket and read it quickly before carefully folding it back up and tucking it away again. She had it memorized, having read it at least a dozen times since Rachel had come by and then quickly left again to continue with their preparations. It was a list of instructions in an unfamiliar hand, and she hadn't even thought to ask who had written it, but she assumed it was probably Billy's penmanship, one of the few people they trusted.
Another crisply official-looking letter was folded up on top of the clothing in her carpetbag, in the event she needed it. She had no idea who Rachel had talked to, but somehow she had procured a piece of paper attesting to Mattie being pregnant, complete with Dr. Mills' signature on it. There had been little time for her and Rachel to discuss it, and it had been a surprise, sparing Mattie having to go through the motions of pretending she'd been to the doctor with no proof. She trusted Rachel that someone at the doctor's office was looking out for her in the event Adam decided to see if it was authentic.
Now, if she could only pull off the acting job she was about to attempt.
Buggy wheels crunched across the shell drive, and she heard one of the horses snort, most likely at the tickling breeze. She parted the curtains at the back window and watched Adam jump down from the buggy and lead the horses into the barn. Her hand shook as she dropped the curtain and moved back into the parlor. She sat down on the sofa, then stood again, deciding standing gave her a bit more of a presence than sitting. After what seemed an hour, she heard Adam's boot steps on the porch, and watched the doorknob turn.
He removed his hat and hung it on a peg, then looked up and saw her standing there. "Hello, Mattie." He turned toward the bedroom and spotted the carpetbag, almost tripping over it. He spun back around, his face contorted in anger. "What is the meaning of this?" He gestured toward the bag and stepped closer, his jaw muscles twitching as he spoke.
"I'm going home." Mattie's head felt light and she swallowed, and took a deep breath to calm herself.
"The only place you might be going is the insane asylum, because it is obvious you've lost what little mind you had." He moved closer, his hand already drawn back to strike her.
Mattie sighed and reached in her other skirt pocket, her fingers resting on the handle of her hidden revolver. "Don't you hit me!" She moved backward. "I'm with child, and I'm going home to see my mother."
It took a second for her words to register, and for the first time in a very long time, she actually saw Adam smile, albeit a cautious smile. "You … you're carrying my child?"
"Yes." She was surprised at just how easy the lie was. She had lied to him before, but this was probably the biggest one she'd ever told. "You've gotten your wish already."
"You're certain?" He dropped his hand and stood in place, a profoundly surprised expression on his face.
"Yes. According to Dr. Mills, I am." She didn't move to get the letter, hoping it wouldn't be necessary. "And I want to go home and see my mother. There's a train leaving in an hour that goes through Houston and connects with another to Austin, then another to El Paso. Please, Adam. I'm afraid. I've not been around many babies and don't know much about caring for them. I want to talk to my mother about the baby while I'm still able to travel. In a few more months I might not be able to."
"I don't like the idea of you going all that way alone." He hesitated, though, his face still incredulous at her news.
"I won't be alone. I found out one of the sisters from the church is traveling out there for some missionary work. She'll be with me the entire trip." Mattie could feel the sweat trickle down her back, between her shoulder blades, and hoped it wouldn't break out on her forehead or upper lip.
"Well." He eyed the bag, then looked back up at her. "I suppose there couldn't be anything safer than traveling with a nun. How long do you intend to stay out there?"
"I was hoping maybe five or six weeks, long enough to travel, get rested up, and maybe give mother and I time to sew some clothing for the baby, and order some nursery furniture." She smiled. "I thought a cradle might fit nicely under the front bedroom window. Please, Adam. Every woman wants her mother around when she's expecting. Mine lives so far away. This way she can help me make plans, then when it's time for the baby to be born, she can probably travel out here to be with me for a while."
"Five or six weeks, eh?" He tugged at his beard, weighing his decision. "I suppose if you were in El Paso, I wouldn't have to worry about you being alone here while I travel." Secretly, the idea was growing on him for a very different reason. With Mattie safely in El Paso, he wouldn't have to continue to pay his men to keep an eye on her.
Mattie held her breath and waited, and prayed she wouldn't have to use the gun to press her point. She ran her thumb over the smooth wooden handle. She had loaded it up and took a few practice shots out back earlier that afternoon, then loaded it up again. She was fully prepared to throw a conniption fit and pull the gun on him, if necessary -- pretend to be a crazed pregnant woman hell-bent on going home to see her mother.
Without further discussion, he suddenly bent over and hefted the bag up. "Come on. I'll drive you to the station. Wouldn't want you to miss that train."
"I can go?" Mattie felt almost faint. "Oh, Adam." She forced a gleeful smile, and threw herself at him, hugging him in feigned gratitude, silently wincing at the pain in her ribs. "Thank you. Mother and I are going to sew up the finest set of baby clothing in Galveston. Just you wait and see."
"I've met your mother," Adam mumbled. "I have no doubt of that." He shrugged off the unusual display and ushered her out the door and to the barn, where he re-hitched up the team and helped her into the buggy, dropping the bag behind the seat. In no time at all they were headed across the island to the train station.
On the other side of the house, away from the barn, Rachel breathed a sigh of relief and tucked her Bowie knife back into her boot. She'd carefully listened to the entire exchange from below a side window, hidden behind a scrubby shrub that grew there. She'd done some practice tosses of her own that afternoon, and discovered she could still hit the knot in a tree trunk dead center from thirty paces.
"Billy," she muttered under her breath. "You'd better damned well be at that train station."
Adam spoke very little during the buggy ride, but kept looking over at her with the most pleased expression she could recall. He appeared to be in mute happy shock. It almost made her feel guilty over her ruse. Almost.
When they arrived at the train station, Adam himself purchased her ticket to El Paso, and jotted down her stops and train changes for her, even though there would be plenty of people to help her with that. She looked around carefully and spotted Billy sitting on a far bench at the end of the platform, hidden behind a newspaper. He didn't dare look up at her, but she recognized him all the same. She knew he was there to make sure she got safely on the train without Adam, and made a mental note to bake him a huge batch of cookies just as soon as she had the chance.
Right before time for the train to pull away from the station, a nun appeared on the platform and introduced herself to Adam as Sister Francis. Mattie had met her once before. She didn't know it, but it was the same sister who had observed Rachel helping the boys back into the orphanage the night they had escaped down to the beach after dark. She had a stern face, but Mattie detected the slightest twinkle in her eyes, and knew that Sister Francis knew. And would never tell.
They engaged in safe small talk for a few minutes, then the train whistle blew, and they heard the final boarding call. Mattie stood on the bottom step and endured a quick peck on the lips from Adam. "You take care of my wife," he spoke to Sister Francis. "She's carrying my first child. First of a half dozen, I hope."
Mattie shuddered internally at the prospect, but Sister Francis merely nodded. "Congratulations, Mr. Crockett. I promise Mattie couldn't be in better hands."
"Send me a telegraph when you arrive in El Paso, Mattie, you hear me?" Adam handed her the carpetbag. "I don't want to be worrying about you any."
"I will." She blew him a kiss. "I'll miss you, and I'll be home before you know it with a whole heap of baby clothing." She forced a final false smile, then turned and took a seat next to Sister Francis.
The whistle blew long and loud, and the engine shook with a great puff of smoke, then the wheels screeched as they pulled the heavy train forward, at first slowly, then faster until they were going at the incredible speed of twenty miles an hour, at least from what Mattie had read. She looked out the window until Adam was a tiny spot on the deserted platform, then continued to look out for a while, watching as they began to make their way over the bay to the mainland by way of the railroad bridge.
"How does it feel?" Sister Francis patted her on the leg and she jumped at the touch.
"Oh. Sorry." Mattie turned to face her and folded her hands in her lap. "How does what feel? I don't understand."
"To know he's hit you for the last time?" She clasped Mattie's hands and squeezed them.
Mattie looked up this time, meeting her dark brown eyes and finding nothing but compassion. She knew Rachel would have been forced to tell the sister of her dire situation, in order to get her to go along with their plan. "I … I don't know just yet. I suspect it hasn't sunk in." She bit her lower lip. "I'm free, aren't I?"
"Almost." Sister Francis withdrew her hand and they fell into silence as the train passed over the bridge. Just on the other side was a small station where the train stopped to unload a few supplies and pick up a few passengers.
Mattie looked hesitantly at Sister Francis, then bent down and tugged her carpetbag from under the seat beneath her. "Thank you." She resisted the urge to kiss her cheek, uncertain if that were appropriate behavior with a nun. "You'll be alright for a few weeks until it's safe to be seen in town?"
"I hardly ever leave the orphanage. I'll be fine staying out of sight for a while." She patted Mattie on the leg. "You go now, while they're busy unloading those supplies. If they ask where you are, I'll tell them you went back to the sleeper car to rest. We're to switch trains in Houston, not far from here. I'll pretend to go back to get you, then slip out the back of the train myself. Neither of us will be missed after that. It will be a different train with a different crew on the Houston to Austin route. I'll stay overnight at a convent in Houston, then one of the sisters there will help me get back to Galveston tomorrow night, after dark."
"Thank you." Mattie gave into her urge, and swiftly kissed Sister Francis' cheek. She quickly made her way down the aisle and into the next train car, then out a back door. She peered around the car and as soon as no one was looking, she ran to the back of the station house, and spotted a small wagon parked next to a water pump. "Bless you, Rachel," she spoke quietly to her absent lover.
She cautiously approached the buggy and the lone driver, who looked up as she approached, remaining silent until she was beside the tall front wheel. "Hello, Mattie, I believe we met once, a long while back. I'm Evangeline Sanders, but you may call me Angel. Everyone does who knows me. I apologize my Betsy couldn't come with me. She's back at the house preparing our guest room."
"It's alright." Mattie tossed her bag in the back of the wagon. "I'm ever so grateful to the two of you for taking me in. We promise it will only be for a few months, at the most."
"You listen to me, child." Angel offered her a hand up. "When your Rachel came to me and told me yall's story, I wanted to go whip that rat bastard myself, but she convinced me I could help in a much more constructive way. She's a brave one, she is. Told me only two others on the island know anything about what all is going on between you two."
Mattie grew pale, and looked down at her lap, as the buggy pulled away from the station. "Is it worth it?" She peered up into a leathery face, lined with age. Most of the older folk in Galveston had deeply-etched skin, a result of living life on the sun-baked island. "Your life, I mean. Has hiding your life from everyone been worth it?"
"Do you love her?" Angie clicked to the horses.
"More than anything." Mattie finally smiled. "I'd do anything for her, I think."
"There is your answer, child. And from everything she's done today, it's obvious she would go to the end of the earth for you." Angie pushed her own straw bonnet back and ran her fingers through sweaty bangs before resettling it. "Betsy and I will share our whole story with you. We'll have plenty of time for that, I reckon."
"I'd love to hear it." Mattie frowned, as they approached the bridge. "How are you going to get me through town without anyone seeing me?"
Angie grinned and looked behind them. "In another minute here, you're going to get in the back of the wagon and hide under those horse blankets there, behind those sacks of grain."
"Oh." Mattie relaxed, enjoying the rays of the setting sun as they washed across her face. "I can do that." She smiled and closed her eyes, smelling the ocean nearby, and feeling the soft breeze brush over her skin, lifting her bangs and fluttering the ribbons on her hat. I'm free. She shivered with happiness.
The scratchy wool made her neck and face itch, and it was hot under the rust-colored blankets. She inhaled the scent of salty sea air combined with the chemical smell of dye, and reflected that at least they were clean. She could feel every jolt and jar as the wagon rolled over the railroad bridge and back onto the island, and she shifted, rolling to her side on the blanket beneath her.
It was dark and she was beginning to feel slightly claustrophobic. She dared not talk to Angel for fear someone would hear her. With her shoulders pressed against the front of the wagon beneath the seat, she could hear Angel whistling an unrecognizable tune, the clear clean notes drifting over the slight creak of the wheels as they turned. Every now and then one of the horses snorted, and she could sometimes hear their hooves crunching in the shell and sand roads. Occasionally she heard another wagon pass, and once an automobile tooled past, its engine sputtering loudly in her ears.
She felt numb. So much had happened since the prior evening, she hadn't had time to process it all. She needed to talk to Rachel, to make sure the rest of their plan had fallen into place. She was worried as to who all knew of her situation, and whether or not they could be trusted to keep her confidence. Billy and Lillie, she was certain of, and Angel and Betsy were women just like her and Rachel.
Just like us.
Calling upon them had been a stroke of genius on Rachel's part. Somehow she had just known that the two older women would be willing to help them. It was fortuitous they had a house large enough to accommodate her, and an extra guest room, and she had every intention of helping them out in kind, hoping they would allow her to do most of the housework while she stayed with them.
She was going to have to stay indoors until the marshals returned to deal with Adam. They couldn't risk her so much as standing in an open window for fear someone who knew him would see her. They already had a contingent plan for her to always keep a carpet bag packed with the bare essentials she would need to run at a moment's notice, and they would keep a wad of cash stowed in the bag, enough to purchase two train tickets and meals and hotel lodging for a few days, if necessary.
Exactly where they would run, beyond Houston, had not been decided, and they both hoped the marshals would lock Adam up and they could stay on the island. They'd talked until the wee hours of the morning and both expressed how much they loved Galveston, the friends they had made there, and the sand and the sea. Living so near the ocean made them both feel wondrously alive, especially when the waves pounded against the shore, rushing up and around their feet in frantic foaming swirls. Yet that same water could bring incredible peace, the calm waters lapping into small coves and reflecting the slanted rays of sunrise, the gulls dipping into the water for food, and the playful porpoises that sometimes chattered near the fishing boats.
The wagon rolled to a stop, drawing her out of her musings. She knew to remain still and quiet until Angel gave a clear sign. She could feel her breath against her own face as it pooled between her skin and the blanket. It was almost unbearably hot, and she felt sweaty everywhere. A bath would be heavenly, and she concentrated on that, closing her eyes and imagining tepid water and her lilac soap.
Suddenly, the blanket was drawn back and a face she would have known anywhere, even in the darkness, appeared over her, less than a foot away. She smiled in relief as the fresh air washed over her, and strong arms helped her up. "Rachel?"
"Shhhh." Rachel swung her up and over the side of the wagon. "Let's get you inside. Then we'll talk."
They rushed up what she assumed were the back steps of the house, entering a large airy kitchen that was filled with the scent of bread baking, and a fragrant seafood stew, simmering on the stove. Dried herbs hung in bunches over a large deep sink, and several lamps cast a cheerful glow across hardwood floors and an inviting table, covered with a pretty pale blue table cloth, and set with four settings of fine bone china. Betsy turned from the stove and wiped her hands on a yellow-checkered apron. "Welcome, both of you." She gestured toward a staircase just outside the kitchen doorway. "Why don't you go freshen up. Supper will be ready in about thirty minutes or so."
"Thank you." Mattie's voice was soft and shy, her brain still trying to take in her new circumstances. She felt Rachel's arm wrap around her waist, as the taller woman expressed her own gratitude, before whisking Mattie up the stairs and down a short hallway, toward yet another small staircase which spiraled up into a large open third-floor room. She looked around, turning slowly, and ended up in Rachel's arms, peering up uncertainly into steel blue eyes that sparkled warmly back at her.
"Welcome home, Mattie." Rachel tilted her head and brushed her lips across Mattie's forehead.
"I … you … together?" She spied an open armoire door, and what she recognized as Rachel's clothing hanging inside.
"I moved." Rachel smiled and drew her over to a low sofa that was tucked into a round alcove, surrounded by windows, which were all covered by curtains. Rachel switched off the lamp on the table, leaving the room in temporary twilight, before she pulled the curtains back, revealing the final rays of sunset and the first scattering of twinkling stars overhead. "It's safe to have 'em open at night, as long as we don't have a light on inside here."
"You moved?" Mattie was still taking in the room, and beginning to recognize several of Rachel's possessions, mixed in with the rest of what she assumed were guest room furnishings provided by Angel and Betsy.
"That's my one big surprise in all of this." Rachel snuggled closer, draping an arm across Mattie's shoulders and pulling her close, turning and leaning back so they could look outside while they talked. "I'm paid up on rent through Saturday, so I gave notice for beginning of next week. Angel and Betsy agreed. They said I should save my wages for a while toward a house for just us two. For all outward appearances, it simply looks as if I left the boarding house to rent a room here. No one will be any wiser to us."
"I can't imagine it." Mattie closed her eyes, feeling a hesitant peace begin to settle over her, as Rachel's arms pull her even closer.
"Imagine it." Rachel stroked her head, ruffling her bangs. "We can be together now, sweetheart."
"I feel like I've gone to sleep and am having the nicest dream." Her lids opened halfway and she spied a plump bed against the far wall under another window, the pillows propped invitingly at the head, and a pretty eyelet spread turned halfway down to reveal clean cotton sheets. "I get to share that with you?" She blushed and looked up, watching Rachel's eyes as they tracked across the room to the bed. "I mean, I …"
"Shhh. We have time, remember?" She spoke quietly and stroked Mattie's head in comfort. "I'll hold you as close as you need me to. I want to make your nightmares go away, Mattie."
"I think you already have." She snuggled close, closing her eyes as Rachel's arms circled her.
A rap at the door caused them both to pull apart self-consciously, their eyes wide. "Come in." Rachel called out, as she reached up, smoothing Mattie's slightly mussed hair.
Betsy appeared in the doorway with a tray in her hands. "I know you've both had a very long day. You must be plumb tuckered out." She smiled and Mattie immediately liked her. Her face was tanned and deeply lined, just like Angel's, and her hair was mostly gray, with a few light brown streaks running through it. She was petite, quite a few inches shorter than Mattie, and her build was delicate in contrast to Angel's taller robust frame. "I though you might like to take your supper up here in private. I know you must have a great deal to discuss between you."
"I hate to be rude." Mattie hesitated.
"Pshaw." Betsy waved her off. "There will be many evenings for the four of us to dine together. Take your time, little one. You've been through many trials. It's time to give yourself some breathing room." She set the tray down on a small round table across from the sofa, lifting a cloth from a pretty pink-flowered saucer. "I made you a batch of sugar cookies, and I believe I dipped up enough chowder for both of you." She stood. "Bath is downstairs at the end of the hall, and I left two towels folded up in there for you. Please ask if you need anything. Our home is your home for as long as you need."
"Thank you." They spoke in unison, both women overwhelmed at the kindness of relative strangers.
"Our pleasure." Betsy smiled one more time and slipped out of the room, closing the door softly behind her.
"Mmmm." Rachel stood and crept over to the tray, lifting the lid on the stew pot and sniffing appreciatively at its contents. "Smells wonderful. You want me to pour you up a cup?" She turned, only to see Mattie rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped around her knees and tears streaming down her face. "Mattie?" Her voice rose in alarm and she practically leaped back to the sofa, landing on her knees in front of her lover.
She took surprisingly chilled hands into her own and chaffed them, guessing at Mattie's tears. "You're safe, Mattie. No matter what, he's never going to hurt you again. I'll make certain of it."
"I … I can't believe it," she choked out, her chest so heavy she could barely draw breath. "Just like that," she whispered, her tears turning to hiccups before fresh ones appeared. "I'm afraid I'll wake up tomorrow and be back there, and him … "
Rachel moved up to the sofa, hugging her close and rocking her with one arm, smoothing her hair back with the other hand. "The only place you're going to wake up tomorrow morning is in my arms." She felt Mattie tremble against her, as more audible sobs welled up and she burrowed into Rachel's neck. "Shhhhh." Rachel continued to hold her. "Everything is going to be fine now, Mattie. We're going to be just fine."
Mattie woke up, her heart racing from the edges of a rapidly fading nightmare. She couldn't remember what she had been dreaming, only that she had felt like she couldn't breathe. Her nightgown was damp with sweat and the light covers over her felt stifling. She could feel Rachel curled up behind her, her belly to Mattie's back, and one long arm draped loosely over Mattie's hip.
She smiled and carefully rolled away from her sleeping lover, catching her arm and gently placing her pillow under it. Rachel frowned and mumbled in her sleep, then pulled the pillow close and settled down again. Mattie swung her legs over the edge of the bed, then stood and turned, simply watching Rachel for a long moment. She was beautiful, her strong features bathed in pale moonlight that filtered through the still-open window, and her chestnut hair spilled across the sheet, shining as it caught the odd moonbeam.
She softly blew a kiss in Rachel's direction, then turned and crept to the window, curling up on the sofa her chin resting against her fist as she propped her elbow on the windowsill. The house was several blocks from the beach, on a slight rise, and although it was far away, she could just see the surf way off in the distance over the rooftops, as it rolled ashore. She cocked her head and could barely hear the hiss and roar as the waves broke into rushing foam against the sand.
They'd eaten supper and talked until midnight. Rachel had mailed a letter to Mattie's sister for her. She had asked Carrie to send a telegraph message to Adam as soon as she got the letter, pretending the message was from her. Then Carrie was to burn the letter, and was to be careful to watch the mail each day for any letters from Adam, and intercept them before their mother did, then forward them back to Angel and Betsy in a new envelope so they would look like letters for the two older women, rather than for Mattie.
She'd come partially clean to Carrie in the letter, telling her of Adam's abuse, at least in terms of him hitting and punching her. She mentioned nothing of Rachel, and only described Angel and Betsy as two "widows" who had offered her shelter for a while until she decided what to do next. She'd begged Carrie to keep her confidence, and was certain her sister would honor her wishes. They'd shared too much growing up, and both knew their mother far too well. Carrie had mentioned in her last letter that she was thinking of leaving home someday before their parents married her off, and Mattie half-expected Carrie to show up on her doorstep in the next year or so.
Rachel had fired off a telegraph to the federal marshals in New Orleans, asking them to come back to Galveston as soon as possible for some new information on Adam. She planned to check with the telegraph office each morning and evening for a response. Once they knew when the marshals planned to return, they would be better able to firm up their own plans, whether to stay in Galveston or flee elsewhere.
Mattie shook off thoughts of leaving, and focused for a moment on the simple knowledge that she had done it. She had broken free of Adam's grasp and was never going back to him ever again. It was mind-numbing, and had overshadowed their entire discussion of details and plans, and she had constantly had to force herself to focus on the conversation, until Rachel had finally figured out what was happening, and had suggested they go to sleep and resume their discussion the next evening.
It had been so sweet. Rachel had combed out Mattie's hair for her and braided it, and brought her a glass of water for the night table, and made sure she had a comfortable pillow. Then she'd held her, stroking her head and softly singing to her -- silly little lullabies Mattie hadn't heard since she was a child. It was Rachel whose voice had gradually tapered off first, into heavy even breathing that slowly lulled Mattie to sleep as well. It had been a rare moment of peace, and Mattie had fought to stay awake, lying there in Rachel's arms, wanting to savor it for as long as possible, not quite able to believe that it wasn't going to be snatched away from her.
A giddy shiver worked its way from her head down to her toes and she wiggled in pure happiness, drawing her legs up under her and resting both elbows on the windowsill. She knew there would probably be more nightmares, but for that one moment, she allowed herself to taste the truth of her own freedom. For a long while she sat there, watching the moon shadows on the ground below and the sliver of sea further away, and the odd cloud patterns as they blew slowly across the starry sky.
Finally she got up and made her way back to the bedside, taking a healthy drink of water before she climbed back into bed. Rachel immediately snuggled up to her, drawing her close and kissing her head. "Do you feel alright, sweetheart? Your injuries still hurting you and keeping you awake?"
"I've never felt finer in my life," Mattie whispered, her breath mingling with Rachel's. "And sometimes, life is too wonderful to waste it sleeping." She kissed Rachel tentatively, feeling the sleepy body next to her gradually take on muscle tone and a wiry springy sort of movement, as Rachel woke up, not fully, but enough to have the presence of mind to reach out, reverently cradling Mattie's healing face.
A dark eyebrow quirked in question, as Rachel studied her eyes, her own brow creased with worry. "I wish I could make it so he never laid a hand on you." Her face scrunched up in anguish, and she swallowed hard, stroking Mattie's hair away from her eyes, her fingers lightly trailing along fading bruises.
Slowly, her expression softened, and she smiled sadly at Mattie, and rubbed noses before planting a quick soft kiss on her lips. "It's a miracle, having you here with me." She closed her eyes as Mattie moved closer, nuzzling Rachel's chest and gently pushing her onto her back. Mattie curled up next to her and laid her head down, hearing Rachel's strong heartbeat and the quiet movement of her breathing.
"I kept praying for God to send me an angel to watch over me -- keep me safe -- take me away from ..." Mattie trailed off and kissed the warm skin next to her lips, feeling Rachel shiver. "I'd almost given up. Guess I was wrong."
"Wrong?" Rachel hugged her, tucking Mattie's head under her chin.
"Just when I thought I couldn't go on, along came the angel I'd been praying for all that time." She felt Rachel's hand, rubbing her back in comfort, and she sighed contentedly. "I got more than I ever hoped for when God decided to answer."
Rachel felt a lump in her throat, preventing speech. She blinked hard and drew in a long trembling breath, feeling Mattie settle against her, her eyelashes blinking against Rachel's skin as she fought sleep. Finally, she found her voice, a hoarse rasping sound. "I'm no angel," she stroked Mattie's head, tugging gently at the thick braid that ran down her back. "But I pledge to love you with all that I am, Mattie, for as long as you'll allow me."
"Then you'll be loving me forever." Mattie scooted up, finding Rachel's lips again.
"Forever." Rachel breathed against Mattie's lips as they drew apart. "I think I like the sound of that."
"Together." Mattie closed her eyes and sank back down against Rachel, every fiber of her body relaxing for the first time she could remember. "Forever."
They lay together in silence, save the breeze, which ruffled the curtains and stirred across clean sheets. No more words were needed, as they drifted off into restful dreamless sleep.
Continued in Chapter 10
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