Cress in Waterbee is my YA/Historical fiction novel. Cress Steward is a biracial girl who lives in Vermont in the 1880’s. Here is the first half of chapter one:
Romah held a heavy basket. Filled with bottles of cures, the basket dug into her side as she ran down the street. The town of Dunstead slanted with the hill on which it was built, deep in coal mining country.
Although many a house lay hidden, Romah’s mother knew how long she took to finish her paper route. She could just see Mamma: “Did I not say to be home by dark?” she would yell. “You are thirteen years old! You want a madman to cut your throat?” Then Mamma would rave about the evils of working for a newspaper. If Mamma knew where she headed now, Romah would be in far more trouble than she already was.
Sweat and dirt made Romah’s face itch, but the basket needed both hands. She stopped to get the clinking bottles off her last nerve. If it weren’t for Allison, she would have been home by now. Allison was a maid that Romah liked to talk to. She was fourteen and colored, and about the only girl that Romah liked at all.
A month back, Allison had fainted in the marketplace. Romah’s folks forbade her to see Allison after that. But before, Dad used to say ‘That little darkie’s got sense’. Mamma used to give Allison their best linen to wash because Allison was the only laundress who didn’t steal. Now everyone whispered about Allison and ‘her kind’. Romah wasn’t sure what that meant, and Mamma only raved when she asked. She got up to run again.
Romah had gone to Allison’s house that day, taking the higher road so no one saw her. Allison’s boss had flung the door open without a hello.
“Get Hinny.” he said through his teeth. “Get her quick and be quiet about it.”
Romah ran before she could think, up the long dirt road to the colored part of town. She burst into Hinny’s house, only to find the woman next to her bleeding husband. Hinny pressed a basket of cures onto Romah.
“You didn’t see nothin’, hear?” Hinny pushed her through the door. “Take this to Mr. Steward and get home fast. I mean it Miss Romah!”
The August night smothered Romah; her hair fell in limp black strands as she ran. A day’s worth of ink and coffee stained her pinafore. Hinny’s husband looked beaten up, which made no sense because he was a good Negro. He didn’t stir up the colored folks like some others Romah knew, making them want for things they hadn’t a right to. At the end of the street, a group of white men stood in a line. Their rifles froze Romah to the road.
The first man cocked his weapon. “Don’t you be goin’ over there.”
Romah knew him, Mr. Bailey from the saw mill. He worked for Dad. “But Alli—” Romah caught herself “there’s, um, somebody I’m visiting.”
Mr. Washmore, the tinsmith, had a gun too. “We know where you’re headed. Get on home while you can. It’s gonna start any minute now.”
“What’s gonna start?” Romah clutched the basket, her green eyes bright. Allison was fourteen and a maid. A colored maid. And if Allison was sick enough to need Hinny, she wouldn’t have the strength to do anything wicked. Her boss hadn’t turned her out, so whatever happened wasn’t so bad. Mr. Steward was twenty-seven and nobody’s fool. Just about every girl in Dunstead had set her cap at him, but he was too smart for them.
A thought trampled on Romah. It had to do with folks in saloons and other bad places. Men at the paper talked about it when they thought Romah couldn’t hear them, and a few didn’t care if she could. But nobody carried on like that in Dunstead—white men stuck with white women and the coloreds did the same. But with Hinny’s husband beat up, with Mr. Bailey and the others loading their guns, Romah planted her feet in the gravel. “You all cain’t do this! It ain’t right!”
Mr. Bailey grabbed her arm. “Sure a half-mick, half-guinea’s gonna say that, soundin’ like your half-a-man pa.” He shoved her. “Now git!”
Romah held the basket, burning and numb at the same time. These creatures couldn’t be the folks Dad had to supper last week. They came to her house and laughed like all was well. “Y’all beat up Hinny’s husband, didn’t you? And now you’re gonna—what’s Allison ever done? She ain’t hurt a hair on nobody.”
Sounds came from behind. Romah turned to see more men, a dozen or so. They had lanterns and sticks with nails in them. Behind them came another bunch, toting bricks and two-by-fours. Still more poured from their houses to fill the street, specks of light and echoes of shouts; men and women and children younger than Romah. Then they made way for old Dr. Meyer. Romah sank with relief until she saw rope in his scarred, knuckled hands. His hands didn’t look like that in his clinic, not while he set Romah’s wrist after she chased Billy Roy Drefford into the icehouse and tripped on her skirts.
“Dr. Meyer?” Romah could not close her mouth, could not believe the smoke that watered her eyes came from torches held by her neighbors. This didn’t happen in Dunstead, not next door to Pennsylvania! Romah plowed through Mr. Bailey and the men. They lunged for her, but she kicked out of their grasp and ran up the street. She banged on Mr. Steward’s door. “Mr. Steward, let me in! Mr. Steward, hurry! Hurry!”
Upstairs, Allison twisted in pain. Lost in a mound of linen, she pulled at the tangle of sheets. Her hair spread in wooly dark waves across her pillows, catching at her throat and ears. Perspiration beaded her deep brown skin and dampened her nightgown. With wide almond eyes she stared at the flickering dim of the bedroom. A white man sat in a chair beside her, timing her pains with a pocket watch. He wore the vest and trousers of a suit, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow. His thinning hair was trimmed, his mustache clipped.
Romah stumbled in with the basket, and the man took it from her without speaking. Fed up with the sheets, Allison pushed them away. Romah leapt back as she saw that her fears were true. Worse than true.
“Oh Allison you’re,” Romah sat beside her “oh Allison, a baby?”
The man took Romah by the arm. “I’m sorry but you’ll have to go.”
“But they’re comin’!” Romah looked at him, surprised to see he wasn’t much taller than her. “There’s a whole slew of folks outside and they’ll be here any minute.”
The man let her go, frowning. “A mob, is it?”
Romah nodded. “They got guns and a rope and who knows what else!”
“Now,” the man put a hand on her shoulder “panic is not an option. Hopefully the authorities have been notified, but in the meantime we’ve got a young one coming.” He looked down a moment, and Romah stared at his pointed nose. “I can’t imagine it’s safe for you to go outside just now. Since our situation is rather desperate, may I rely on you to help with delivering?”
Romah backed away from him. “Oh, I can’t say that you should, sir.” She looked over at a writhing Allison. “I’ll just get in the way and—”
Allison cried out, her arms around her belly.
“Nuh-uh!” Romah grabbed at the door. “I ain’t about to watch this. Hinny told me to git home fast as I could!”
“Miss Romah,” gasped Allison “please stay and help me. This man here’s a doctor, and he’s gonna need a hand. Dr. Dawson, this here’s Miss Romah Gornan. She’s a good strong girl.”
Romah kept her back to them, as she couldn’t stand Allison’s pleading eyes. Nor was she of a mind to help some weasel-faced man deliver a baby. Never mind Mamma was pitching a fit by now.
But then she remembered Mr. Bailey’s half-a-man remark. Dunstead folks hated the Irish who came from up north; next were the Italians, whom they hated even more. Romah cringed to think what they’d do to her, a half-Irish, half-Italian girl who helped a colored maid deliver a mulatto child. She felt sick at the thought of it—Mr. Steward taking advantage of Allison!
It was Mrs. Steward that Allison had worked for, but Mrs. Steward ran off with some actor not long after they came to Dunstead. Allison said that Mr. Steward loved Mrs. Steward so much he refused to divorce her, even when a whole year went by. Allison didn’t seem afraid of Mr. Steward, and he always treated her kindly. She had her own little room downstairs, and Mr. Steward allowed her to keep it locked. Romah never believed the awful things Mamma said about Allison and Mr. Steward. It just wasn’t like that between them.
Romah slumped against the door. With a scowl she unbuttoned her sleeves. “I don’t see what folks are so mad about. What’s it matter to them?”
Allison managed a smile. “Aw Miss Romah, I knew you’d help.” She fell back into her linen. “After Miss Hinny, I’d have picked you, Miss Romah.”
Romah plopped into a chair next to the bed. She took a cloth and wiped Allison until it got clammy. Soon Romah used four, each with smears of ink from her fingers.
Outside, the mob closed in. They threw stones and Romah started at every thunk. Darts of torchlight pricked the bedroom walls. In spite of the locked doors and windows, the mob’s shouting flooded the house. From every corner it burst over Romah, Allison and the doctor.
Romah looked at the bedroom window, but didn’t dare go near it. “What’re they actin’ up for? All this fuss over a baby?”
Allison and the doctor looked at each other. That was irksome enough when grown folks did it. Why did Allison think she could do it too? Was she going to act like Romah was too young to—well, that might be all right this time.
“Miss Romah,” Allison tried to keep the agony out of her voice “it ain’t about the baby. It’s because—”
“Allison,” interrupted the doctor “I’m not sure it’s wise to go into that.”
Allison looked at Romah, then down at her belly. “Yes, sir.”
Romah swallowed what felt like a fist in her throat. She didn’t like to cry. Dainty little dumb girls cried. She kept drying off Allison. “With the labor strikes up north, you’d think folks wouldn’t have time for this. The whole town’s out there! And everybody’s—”
“Romah,” said the doctor “stop that kind of talk.”
Romah wiped her forehead. “Sorry Mr. Doctor, sir, but I’m scared! My folks must be hurtin’ with fright by now.”
“And that is unfortunate, but we will have to quell their worries tomorrow.” Dr. Dawson moved to the end of Allison’s bed.
His eyes stuck out like marbles, Romah thought. He looked more worried about Romah than the mob, which she didn’t appreciate one bit. And while the heat drenched her and Allison, the doctor hardly perspired.
Allison squeezed Romah’s hands as a pang hit her.
“Doctor!” Romah turned wild eyes to him.
“It’s all right,” said Dr. Dawson. “Just let her hold on to you.”
“But she’s breakin’ my hands!”
Dr. Dawson touched his collar. “We’re almost there, so let’s all carry on.”
Allison dropped into her pillows. “Please, please tell me it’s time. At least let me go before they get to us.”
Windowpanes shattered downstairs.
“They’re gonna torch the house!” cried Romah. “Where’s the police already?”
Allison caught her breath. “Sounds like the parlor window got broke.” She still held Romah’s hands but lessened the grip.
Dr. Dawson went to the washbasin, his shadow on the firelit wall. If Romah had seen him on the street, she would have thought he peddled elixirs. Yet the air about him wasn’t anywhere near that. In fact, he was more like the Pittses’ retriever—calm when the chickens scattered, calm when the children stepped on his tail. Wasn’t he a little bit scared?
When Mr. Steward let Romah in, he said there was a doctor upstairs. Dr. Dawson lived in Pittsburgh, which wasn’t far by train. To think it was only a few hours from West Virginia to Pittsburgh, where folks didn’t do things like this. Romah had watched Mr. Steward as he talked to himself about Canada and England. He had family in England. It hurt Romah to see him look so lost, like a big, helpless boy.
A stone smashed through their window and hit Romah’s chair.
“Yer heads are next!” screamed a voice from below.
“All right, it’s time.” Dr. Dawson looked over at a trembling Romah. “Now’s when I need you, soldier. Try to bear up.”
Romah shrank into herself. “I am, sir, but that rock almost got me.”
Allison pulled Romah’s sleeve. “How ‘bout we trade places? Would that make you feel better? Now quit your whining!”
more to come…