Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles] (8 page)

BOOK: Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles]
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“I don’t believe I can,” Mr. Underhill said, and before Pearl reacted to the odd comment, he launched himself through the air.


artin’s crossed forearms hit Pearl Brand just above the arm with which she held the homemade weapon to the warden’s throat. The force of the blow knocked the weapon from her hand. She staggered back.

Mamie jumped toward the warden’s slumped body, barely managing to break the man’s fall as he slid out of the chair and onto the floor. She glanced behind her at Ivy and shouted, “Get the guard from the ward!”

Just as Ivy skittered along the wall and out the door, a loud crack sounded from the other side of the room as something made contact with—Martin! Pearl had managed to recover her weapon. Martin rolled away from her, but she still made contact. He got to his feet, the weapon protruding from a spot dangerously close to his heart.

A potent mixture of rage and fear launched Mamie at Pearl. Grabbing Martin’s truncheon from the loop just above his hip, she landed a blow. A crack echoed in the room. Pearl cried out and fell back, clutching her arm, and finally… finally help arrived.

Mamie staggered back, truncheon in hand, as J. B. bent to check on the warden and others rushed into the room, some taking Pearl Brand in hand, others surrounding Martin Underhill.

“I’ll take this now, ma’am.”

Someone was talking to Mamie, but it sounded very far away. “Here, now. Sit down. That’s it, ma’am. Head down for a moment. Breathe now. Just take some deep—“

Mamie shoved the hand away even as she spun about on the chair to look in Martin’s direction as she heard him calling out. “Let me up, do you hear me? Where’s Mamie? I don’t care about that—it’s nothing—is Mamie all right?”

Swallowing, Mamie croaked an answer. “I’m here, Mr. Underhill.” Her voice sounded reed-thin. Weak. She took a deep breath. Grasped the chair back and forced herself to stand. Her knees quaked, but she held firm, and her voice had new strength when she called out to him again. “I’m right here, Mr. Underhill. I’m fine.”

The guards who’d gathered around Martin’s prone body pulled back so he could see her. He lifted his massive, misshapen head, and met her gaze. And then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he fainted dead away.

The sun climbed upward from the horizon and hung high in the sky, and still, even though it was Vestal’s fourth confinement, still, she labored on. Max had long since transformed the gaping wound along the top of her thigh into a neat red line. He’d done the unthinkable, too, grasping the footling and trying to right the baby for a normal delivery, apologizing all the while to Vestal for the pain he was causing her.

The more Jane saw of him, the more she longed for the end of the day. She didn’t want to be drawn to this man—or to anyone else, for that matter. Mrs. McKenna was a good woman. Georgia treated Jane as an equal. And she didn’t want any of it. At least not now. Normal emotions would just make her miss normal life, and that was not wise in light of the years ahead. But as the day wore on and the three people in the house continued to show Vestal compassion, it got increasingly difficult for Jane to stay in her place—the safe place she’d created for herself. The place

Mrs. McKenna seemed especially affected by Vestal’s predicament. Early in the afternoon, she stationed herself at Vestal’s head, whispering encouragement and patting her brow with a cool cloth, while Georgia came and went with the grace and efficiency of a practiced, able nurse.

For her part, Jane sat to one side of the table-turned-examining-table, alternately holding Vestal’s hand and reading to her from a prayer book Mrs. McKenna had produced: “O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of Thy Spirit lift us, we pray Thee, to Thy presence, where we may be still and know that Thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Of course Mrs. McKenna meant well, but as Jane read, she wondered if God had any interest in what was going on in this place at this moment. She wished she could go back to the barred room across the road. It was too hard being in the middle of another woman’s agony over a child. She prepared to read another prayer.

Vestal grasped her hand. Wild-eyed, she said, “Stop reading it…. Oh dear God… please stop. I know you mean well, Jane… but I can’t stand it…. God gave me over a long time ago for what I done…. I only want—” She writhed in pain. “I only want Him….” She tilted her chin up toward the ceiling and cried out. “Please, God! Love my baby! Please don’t punish him for me…. Jesus! God! Please!”

Jane closed the book of prayers and laid it aside with a sense of relief. She didn’t dare look at Mrs. McKenna. Instead, she glanced at Max, hoping to see evidence that Vestal would soon give birth. Instead, she saw concern. When he met her gaze, she couldn’t suppress her own quick intake of a terrified breath.

“What is it?!” Vestal moaned. “Tell me what—“

“It’s time, Mrs. Jackson,” Max said.

“Vestal,” she gasped. “You call me Vestal.”

“All right. You’re doing a good job, Vestal. It’ll be over soon.” He picked up the forceps. Hesitated. Laid them down and said, “I need you to walk.”

Vestal gasped, “I can’t… possibly.”

“We’ll help you.” He directed Georgia and Jane to help Vestal sit up. Once they’d done so, he locked his arms in place below Vestal’s bosom, pulled her off the table, and stood her up. She groaned as Max, Jane, and Georgia propelled her down the hall toward the kitchen and back again. While they walked, Mrs. McKenna wheeled her claw-footed piano stool into the room—atop a sheet she’d spread over her carpet. When Vestal screamed a protest at walking more, they positioned her on the stool. Jane and Georgia held her upright. Vestal writhed and moaned as Max crouched down before her, speaking encouragement in a surprisingly calm voice.

Mrs. McKenna stood to one side, yet another clean sheet draped across her forearms, ready to receive the baby.

“I… can’t….” Vestal groaned.

The poor woman couldn’t even hold her head up. But then her body tensed, and she yelled her way through another contraction. “I cant—cant—cant—”

Max raised his voice. “But you are, Vestal. Do you hear me? You are!”

Time seemed to stop. Vestal bore down, weeping and moaning, Mrs. McKenna leaned forward, Jane glanced at Georgia, and together they leaned forward ever so slightly to help Vestal push… and then… life gushed into the world. Max laughed aloud as he plopped a squirming, screaming infant into Mrs. McKenna’s outstretched arms. His laughter died when he returned his attention to Vestal.

Jane saw the sheet beneath the elegant piano stool turn crimson.

Ellen cuddled Vestal’s impossibly tiny newborn next to her, not caring that doing so would likely ruin her dress. Feeling helpless, she looked on as Dr. Zimmer swept Vestal into his arms and returned her to the feather tick atop the dining-room table.

“Don’t you give up on me, Vestal,” he said. “Do you hear me? You’ve a darling baby girl. She’s tiny, but she’s got a very good chance. You’ve done well by her. Now you must do well by yourself.” As he worked, the doctor kept up a running commentary. “Are you listening to me? Do you hear me? Georgia’s here, and Jane’s right beside you. Mrs. McKenna is just now taking the baby in to get her cleaned up. We’re going to warm some blankets in the oven for her, and she’s going to be just fine. She’ll be back with you very soon.”

While he directed his commentary at Vestal, Dr. Zimmer was obviously telling Ellen and the others what to do. Georgia dealt with the sheet and the piano stool while Ellen headed into the kitchen with the baby, lowering the oven door even as she gathered the sheets around the infant to keep her as warm as possible. Georgia came in and stirred up the fire as Ellen knelt on the floor, holding the baby close to the warmth emanating from the stove.

When Georgia returned from taking another bowl of clean, warm water into the other room, Ellen looked up at her solemn face and said, “Take Jane with you back upstairs. Get some things out of the trunk. The key’s in my jewelry box on the dresser.”

Georgia tilted her head. “You sure?”

The baby in her arms mewled softly, squirming and burrowing close. Ellen blinked back tears. Nodded. “I’m sure.”

Georgia swept out of the room.

Jane had followed Georgia halfway up the front stairs when the doctor called after them. “Do you have any surgical experience, Georgia?”

Jane looked over at the willowy house keeper just as the woman put a hand on the stair railing, seemingly to steady herself. “Some. If you mean stitching.”

“Good. I need extra hands.” He spoke again to Vestal. “Now, Vestal, you stay with us. There’s some repair work here to be done, but it’s nothing I can’t handle and nothing for you to worry over.” He raised his voice and pointed the next words toward the kitchen. “Mrs. McKenna’s just now bringing your little girl back in here. You listen to those baby sounds, you hear?”

Jane glanced toward the kitchen just as Mrs. McKenna appeared in the doorway. Were those tears on her cheeks? All that was visible of Vestal’s baby was a tiny shock of red hair peeking out of the dishcloth Mrs. McKenna had used to swaddle her.

As the doctor worked, Mrs. McKenna held the baby close to Vestal’s cheek. “Feel that?” she murmured. “That’s the very breath of life, Vestal. She’s already punched me with her tiny fists. She’s a fighter. You fight, too, now. You hear?”

As the doctor directed Georgia to position Vestal’s legs so that he could repair the damage done when the baby tore her way into the world, Mrs. McKenna glanced up to where Jane waited. Then scooping the baby up again, she pulled her close and headed up the stairs.

Warden McKenna regained consciousness with a roar that Mamie thought likely to be heard halfway to Lincoln. He blurted out a couple of swear words even as he pushed himself to a sitting position. Scowling, he felt the bump on his head, then the place under his jawline where Pearl’s weapon had pricked the skin. He ordered J. B. to help him into the chair he’d slid out of not long ago and then began to fire questions.

“The prisoner?”

“Captain just took her to solitary. She stabbed Underhill.”

BOOK: Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles]
9.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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