Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles] (7 page)

BOOK: Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles]
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Max flexed his hands to keep from making a fist. “What I want,” he said in a low voice, “is for you to stay as far away as possible and not be disciplined by the warden for dereliction of duty.” He paused. Swallowed. Cleared his throat. “Miss Jackson may be your
but as long as she is here in this house she is my
and I will not have her privacy violated.” He pointed to the parlor windows. “I need the light, or I’d close the drapes. But I’d better not see you staring in on us again. Is that clear?”

The guard smirked and gave a halfhearted salute. “Crystal clear, Doc.” He ambled over to the far end of the porch and slouched against the railing. “How’s this?”

Whatever the guard said in response to Max’s dressing-down, it wasn’t satisfactory. Jane could see that when Max stepped back inside, his clean-shaven cheeks still red with emotion. He swiped his palm across the sharp angle of one jaw, then marched toward the back of the house to speak to the other guard.

While he was gone out back, Vestal reached for Jane’s hand. “Here comes another one,” she grimaced. “A good one.”

When Max returned, Mrs. McKenna suggested that Georgia stay and help the doctor while she and Jane got the water. She glanced Jane’s way. “If that’s all right with you?”

No one talked to inmates that way. Jane didn’t even answer, just nodded and prepared to follow her through the doorway. It was impossible not to admire the polished wood floors in the hall, the turned spindles on the stair railing, the gleaming kitchen. Jane almost complimented the house, then thought better of it. Making small talk probably wasn’t wise. Anything she said might be taken as her paying entirely too much attention to things that were no concern of hers.

Mrs. McKenna had the luxury of a well right outside the kitchen door. Actually, Georgia probably benefitted more from that pump than anyone. Mrs. McKenna didn’t seem like the kind of woman who hauled water very often. In fact, she’d fit right in among the fashion-plate models for
magazine or
Harper’s Bazaar.

Jane glanced over to where the second guard lounged in the shade of the combination carriage house and barn. Did Mrs. McKenna realize just how closely he was watching her from beneath the brim of his stained hat?

Apparently oblivious, Mrs. McKenna set her pail down and reached for the pump handle. “I’ll pump,” she said and began to do just that. Now that it was just the two of them, the warden’s wife seemed to feel an obligation to fill the silence. “Thank goodness the men didn’t have to go down too far before they struck water,” she said. “The apartment in the central building was lovely, but I’d just gotten the earth turned over for a flower garden back home in Brownville when Mr. McKenna decided—” She broke off. Her cheeks reddened. “I’m sorry.” She reached for another pail. “I didn’t mean—” She gave a nervous little laugh. “I didn’t mean to be so insensitive to your… situation.”

The poor woman was embarrassed. Jane nodded toward the dark square of earth just past the barn. “You’ve a big garden planned.”

Visibly relieved at being handed a topic of conversation, Mrs. McKenna nodded. “My husband thinks it’s ridiculous, what with the trustees raising so much food just across the way, but…” Her voice sounded wistful. “I don’t suppose they’ll be growing okra, now, will they?” She shrugged. “That’s what I was doing when the alarm sounded. Planting okra.” She sighed. “I haven’t any idea whether there’s any hope it’ll grow.”

“It’ll do fine,” Jane said. “One of my neighbors grew a mess of it every year. She used to bring gumbo to our quiltings. It makes my mouth water just to think of it.” The silence that met the statement sent a chill through Jane almost as harsh as if she’d stepped beneath the cold stream of water gushing out of the pump head. Who did she think she was, anyway, discussing gardening as if she were still a lady?

The pails filled, Jane bent to heft the two largest ones, but Mrs. McKenna intervened. “I know I look like I’ll break, but I won’t.” With a soft grunt, she bent and hefted a pail of water, then returned to the topic of gardens. “Do you think I should put a fence up? Georgia wants chickens, but we hear coyotes every night.”

Jane didn’t think the guard, who’d found an excuse to leave the shade by the barn and follow them to the house, needed to hear her making small talk with the warden’s wife. When he offered to take Mrs. McKenna’s pail of water, Jane glanced his way. Again, a warning sounded. Yet another guard who bore watching.

“No thank you,” Mrs. McKenna said. “We’ll be fine. You feel free to go back and lounge in the shade.”

Was it her imagination, or was the comment laced with a touch of sarcasm? Jane ducked her head and bit her lip to hold back a smile. Back inside, Mrs. McKenna filled a pitcher and glasses of water while Jane poured the rest into the huge iron pot atop the oven. “You’re right about the coyotes,” she said as she worked. “It takes a sturdy fence to keep them out. Or a big dog. If you put the chicken yard next to that garden, it’ll make it easy for whoever does it to put up a fence around the whole thing. Your maid will have fat, sassy hens if she lets them feed on Nebraska hoppers. That’ll save your garden.”

Mrs. McKenna gazed through the kitchen window toward the garden space. Jane went on. “The same trustees who built the barn could probably build you a chicken coop. They’d most likely be glad to fence in a yard, too.” She paused. “The time goes slow, sometimes. It helps to have work.” She slid the pot of water back off the burner and stood back. “Ready to heat things up, ma’am.” Seeing the question on Mrs. McKenna’s face, she explained. “I don’t imagine anyone cares to have me building a fire.”

Mrs. McKenna’s face turned red. “Oh… I—I suppose….” She lifted the cover off the stovetop, got the fire going, and then slid the pot in place. Just then Vestal yelled Jane’s name.

Georgia appeared in the doorway.

Mrs. McKenna frowned. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Georgia shook her head. “Baby’s turned wrong. Coming out feet first.” She glanced at Jane. “You squeamish?”

“I don’t know.”

“Guess we’ll find out,” Georgia said. “Follow me.

Sometimes it seemed like the good Lord just wasn’t quite paying attention. Not that Mamie would have said anything quite so heretical out loud, but she couldn’t help but think it, now could she? What else could explain the situation today?

The Lord Himself had said that when a child asked for bread, a father didn’t give him a stone, so why had Mamie been given Pearl Brand to mind, just when Mamie herself had been in the middle of a season of especially faithful, fervent prayer, asking for all kinds of things that were definitely in the realm of bread when it came to the women on the third floor.

She wanted to serve these women. She wanted to show them God’s love. She wanted… so much. And yet, here Mamie was in the middle of a crisis, at the mercy of a new warden, and looking like she hadn’t done her duty.

If that weren’t enough, she had to put up with Martin Underhill again, for it was Martin the warden appointed to “keep Miss Dawson apprised of the situation” while that handsome Mr. Selleck, who could just as easily have been given the task, was sent off to join the search for Pearl Brand.

Perhaps it was just as well, Mamie thought as she remembered the way Mr. Selleck’s golden hair curled around the back of his uniform collar. The man could be a distraction. Still, the entire situation put her ill at ease and out of sorts. So much so that the fourth time in an hour Mr. Underhill showed up at the barred door to the dormitory and called for her, Mamie almost snapped at him in front of her charges. “What is it now, Mr. Underhill?”

Underhill waited for Mamie to come to the door before saying quietly, “Warden McKenna wants to question each of the women. Said to have you decide who’s to go first.” He paused. Swallowed. “Least likely to most likely.”

Mamie frowned. “Least likely to most likely
Mr. Underhill? I am not a mind reader.”

The man blushed. “Least likely to most likely to be in cahoots with the one that’s missing. He said I should escort you over.” Another guard arrived on the third floor and headed their way. “J. B.’s here to mind the ward while we’re gone.”

With a sigh, Mamie turned around and called for petite, half-blind Ivy Cochran, then spoke to the other women. “The rest of you might as well begin your sewing stint while Ivy and I are with the warden.”

“What about breakfast?” Agnes Sweeney called out. “Don’t seem right us getting stuck with cold oatmeal and colder coffee on account of Pearl Brand’s foolishness.”

J. B. scowled as he retorted, “Don’t seem right I should have to stay on duty on account of some fool woman, either, but here I am. So git to doin’ what Miss Dawson said and quit harping. You’ll get lunch soon enough.” Taking up a stance by the door, the guard put his back against one of the walls and folded his arms across his generous stomach, then nodded at Mamie. “Go on now, ma’am. I’ll handle the ladies.”

Muttering her thanks, Mamie waved for Ivy to follow her. Thinking they would be going downstairs to an office, she was surprised when Mr. Underhill led the way across the wide hall to the empty ward.

Mr. Underhill glanced at Ivy and lowered his voice. “He wants the ones he’s talked to kept separate from the others. Guess he figured this would make things easy on you, it being just across the hall and all. They can stay here with you while I shuttle the others over to be questioned. You’ll just have to tell me who to bring next.”

It did make sense, but Mamie hated the idea of half a day or more of this nonsense. It would put everyone in a sour mood, likely for the remainder of the week, and there was no telling how long it would take to reestablish a sense of routine.
If it’s all the same to You, Lord, I’d just as soon You led someone straight to wherever in the world Pearl Brand is hiding. And then let them put her in the hole for a good long while.

It was going to be hard not to resent Pearl after this. On the other hand, that might not be an issue. Did the warden’s questioning each of the women himself mean he had lost confidence in Mamie? Did he believe she’d missed some hint of trouble brewing? Maybe she had. Maybe she’d been wrong to look at the job as a calling. Well, there would be plenty of time to think about all of that.
Don’t borrow tomorrow’s trouble;
wasn’t that what the Good Book said?

Taking a deep breath, Mamie followed Mr. Underhill across the twenty or so feet of hallway separating the two wards that were, essentially, mirrors of each other. Just inside the door, Mr. Underhill jerked sideways and stumbled into Mamie. When he stomped her foot, she cried out, barely managing to keep from crushing Ivy as the two slammed into the wall just to the right of the door. She heard the air go out of the poor child and saw Ivy’s face go white.

With a cry of protest, Mamie whirled about to face Mr. Underhill. Her cheeks blazing, she opened her mouth and said—nothing. For there was Pearl Brand, standing behind a chair in which an unconscious Warden McKenna sat, his legs splayed out in an unnatural pose, a bluish lump showing just at the hairline on one side of his forehead.

Pearl kept the warden in the chair with one thick arm about his neck, even as her free hand held the tapered end of an ominous-looking, homemade weapon against the tanned flesh just beneath the man’s jawline.

“Don’t move,” she said, glaring at Mr. Underhill. “One sound. One word and—“

“I s–see that,” Underhill stammered. “Y–you’re the one in charge here. What do you want me to d–do?” As he spoke, he sidled toward where Mamie and Ivy cowered against the cold stone wall.

Pearl nodded at Mamie and Ivy. “Tie them up. And gag them.” She sneered at Mamie. “Guess it’ll be
prayers today, Dawson.”

Mamie could feel Ivy trembling. She reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.

“And then?” Mr. Underhill said.

“And then we’ll have ourselves a game of checkers,” Pearl snapped. “What do you think, Frankenstein? That’s what they call you behind your back, y’know.
.” She spat on the floor, then tightened her grip on the warden’s neck even as she gestured with the weapon. “Just do what you’re told.”

BOOK: Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles]
10.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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