YA Novel – Cress in Waterbee, Chapter 1, Part 2

The mob tore shutters from their hinges. They fired shots and hammered walls until their panels broke off. Amid the pounding, Elaine Dawson poured oil into a lantern. She set it on the kitchen table, then put her arms around the shoulders of Jake Steward.

Jake bit his nails and stared at the floor, his body hunched in a chair. With a height of six feet and five inches, Jake’s legs did not fit under the table. Instead his knee thumped against it, which rattled the lamp. Fear throttled him, for Donald had said that Allison’s small frame would complicate delivery. She needed an easy birth, to be kept as calm as possible. Her fainting spell in the market was one of several, and Donald had not liked the sound of them. Never mind that a baby took their situation from impossible to excruciating. But once Allison was well enough, she and Jake would leave. Jake told his neighbors that Allison was to work for his sister, and that he had found a job in California. He even paid Hinny’s husband to teach him carpentry. No one suspected a baby, but the fainting spells gave it away.

With fluttering hands Elaine smoothed her hair, the brown wisps that abandoned her bun. Her taffeta suit was utter misery, and rings of sweat darkened her underarms. “Why didn’t you wire us sooner, Jake? We could have gotten you out of here, and now a bunch of animals want your head!”

Jake slowed his thumping knee. “Can’t you think of anything else to say?” He heard Allison cry out again and looked at the ceiling.

Elaine sat at the table. “You’re the one who isn’t thinking. Why don’t you forget all of this? If you hold on to this notion of yours you’ll go to jail.” She felt her temples as the shouts of the mob rained down on them. “If those beasts don’t get to us first!”

Jake’s eyes cut into his sister’s. He stared a long while at her, the lantern’s light on her drawn face. “Whatever happened to you? Weren’t you the one with the Florence Nightingale ideologies? Mother wasn’t pleased when you chose Donald, but you stood by him.”

Elaine gave a laugh. “I suppose Mother disowning you wasn’t enough. You’ve got to die into the bargain? Those fiends will lynch you if they get in here. No colored girl is worth any of this.”

Fists pounded on the walls and doors. The windows muffled the racket until the mob hurled bricks through. Jake and Elaine scrambled to their feet.

“Get upstairs!” cried Jake.

As Elaine ran, three men hacked through the kitchen door with axes. Others threw their lanterns down, and a burst of fire hurtled along the wood floor. The men grabbed Jake and he swung at every face he could see.

Elaine ran back with a blanket, slapping down the fire with all her might. “Get ‘em, Jake! Knock them out!”

But the first three still had their axes. With the blunt ends they pummeled Jake to the ground and dragged him outside. The bigger men held Jake while relentless bludgeons came from all directions at once. Rage flared from every space, punched him in the face, back and stomach. Yet as Dr. Meyer readied a hangman’s noose, as the butcher hocked his chew in Jake’s eyes, police wagons came clanging down the street. Their horses pulled to a stop and men elbowed their way into the mob, wielding rifles and badges, spit flying as they blew their whistles.

“Break this up!” yelled the chief of police, a white man of fifty. “Get goin’, all of you! Break this up!” He fired a shot in the air and his officers shot as well.

Mr. Bailey, Mr. Washmore and the rest backed away from Jake, their shouts falling to grumbles as the police chief pushed into the middle. He grabbed the first person he could, Billy Roy Drefford.
“What’s with the ruckus? Speak up or I’ll lock you behind bars!”

Billy Roy flung his stick away. “He’s a darkie-lover!” He pointed to a semi-conscious Jake.

The chief looked down, then nudged Jake with his rifle. He shook his head. “Is that you, Steward?” He heaved a sigh. “Everybody knew there was something between you and that maid of yours. Did you think you could get away with it?”

Just then a high, howling cry came from the second-story window. The chief looked up, then down again at Jake. “Don’t tell me that’s your child, Steward! Have you gone and brought a Negro in the world?”

Jake coughed and sputtered, wiping blood from his mouth. “Yes, sir. Won’t you let me go and see it?” He held around his ribs. “Can I at least see it?”

The police chief faced the grime-covered mob. “You folks clear out. There’s to be no backwoods justice ‘round here! And if you give us any trouble it’s twenty dollars and a month in jail. Now go on!” He turned back to Jake, who was being helped to his feet by two officers. “You and me’ll have a word, Steward, come tomorrow.”

With eyes swollen and jaw throbbing, Jake managed to nod. But he could still hear, and he only heard that howling, healthy cry.

* * *
“Boy or girl?” Allison watched the little arms that moved about, the five fingers on each hand. Romah gave Allison a drying-off, but Allison saw nothing but the newborn in Dr. Dawson’s arms.

“A girl.” said the doctor. He laid the baby on a scale brought from the kitchen. “She weighs” he squinted at the scale’s needle “nearly six pounds.”

Romah sighed. “Well I wouldn’t have guessed that by her screamin’.”

Dr. Dawson smiled. “Nigh-on drowned out the mob, didn’t she?”

Just then Romah realized that, besides the gurgles of the baby, the night had grown still. Dr. Dawson nodded for Romah to check the window. With the window seat covered in glass, Romah leaned sideways to peek from the curtain.

“Looks like everybody’s leavin’. And the police came, thank the Lord.” Romah turned to Dr. Dawson. “Do you s’pose they’ll arrest Mr. Steward?”

“For his safety, I hope they do.” The doctor laid the baby next to Allison. Yet she did not reach for it.

“Doctor,” muttered Allison “I don’t feel well.”

“A girl,” said Dr. Dawson as he wrote, “born 10:05 p.m., twenty-second of August, 1877.” He looked at Allison. “And how is—” he ran to her bedside. “Romah, fetch some more towels and bandage.”

Romah took the baby and put it in a bassinet next to the bed. Her insides turned as the doctor grabbed Hinny’s basket.

“Hurry Romah!” He waved her out.

Romah rushed downstairs, where Mr. Steward lay on the parlor sofa. Mrs. Dawson dabbed witch hazel to his cuts, and he winced from the medicine. Yet when he saw Romah he tried to sit up.

“How is she, Romah?”

“I’ve gotta fetch for Dr. Dawson.”

Mrs. Dawson rose. “What’s wrong?”

Mr. Steward tried to stand as well, but throbs of pain forced him to lie down again. “What’s wrong, Romah?”

She tore through the pantry of the small kitchen. “I don’t know, exactly. Will Mr. Steward be all right, ma’am?”

Mrs. Dawson leaned over her brother to clean a gash on his cheek. “The mob got to him. Some brutes came in here with lanterns, and the kitchen rugs are burnt through. They would have destroyed the house had the police not arrived.”

“Romah!” cried Dr. Dawson.

“Comin’.” Romah ran up the stairs with supplies.

“Donald,” called Mrs. Dawson “how soon can you come down here? Jake needs you.”

“Elaine, you’ll have to manage a while longer.”

Mrs. Dawson sighed. “But he’s in terrible shape, Donald. You need to come down here.”

“I’ll be down as soon as I can.” Dr. Dawson tried to keep his voice even, but Romah could tell he was annoyed. He took the linen from her with one hand, but held the bedroom door with the other. “Romah, I don’t think you should see this. It’s worse than I figured.”

Romah leaned closer. “How do you mean?” she whispered.

Dr. Dawson looked behind him. “There are complications, and have been from the start. In all honesty,” he lowered his voice “I don’t know if she’s going to make it.”

Romah twisted her fingers. “You mean she’s—”

“Now, I said I don’t know. With her size and the mob and all, she’s had a time delivering. I hope I can trust your silence on this a while. Once I have an accurate prognosis, I’ll tell Jake.” He paused. “You’ve done more than your share, soldier, and I’m indebted to you. Couldn’t have asked for better help, considering the circumstances. But it’s best you go now. See what you can do for Mrs. Dawson.”

Romah wanted to tell him about Mr. Steward but he shut the door, leaving her alone in the stifling hallway. What did ‘prognosis’ mean? Romah couldn’t bring herself to go downstairs, so she sat outside Allison’s room. She didn’t care for the doctor’s wife and her nagging voice. And who’s to say that Mr. Steward didn’t deserve a thrashing, after what he had done to his maid.

* * *
Romah sprang out of sleep. She looked about the room, but couldn’t recall how she got there. Maybe that doctor got tired of stepping over her, for Romah meant to keep watch on the stairs. A quilt lay over her, fluffy and scented with lavender. Allison had pieced and stuffed it, humming as she worked. That had stuck in Romah’s mind because Allison never hummed when she worked. Romah felt the patches of calico, velvet and satin; prints in all shades of purple, blue and indigo. It must have been for the baby.

She put the quilt aside, then made her way to the window. Pulling up the shade, Romah gasped. A golden red sunset filled the sky, made silhouettes of houses on the street above.

“They let me sleep the whole day!” Romah looked for someone to yell at, but only saw herself in a vanity. Unable to tell the dirt on her face from her freckles, she stomped out of the room and down the stairs.

Did that funny-looking doctor decide she needed a nap? Romah could’ve helped, with three years on the Informant to toughen her. She knew more about bar fights and bank robberies than folks thought proper. Granted, Romah only heard tell from reporters, but they rarely left out the details.

Mr. Steward sat on the sofa. His blue-gray eyes shone against the purplish-black around them. The chief and deputy sat across from him, firing question after question in spite of bandages on Mr. Steward’s head, dried blood in the dark of his hair. They hadn’t arrested him yet. Maybe they would let the doctor do what he could for Allison. What if she already—

Romah ran back upstairs. In the larger room, Dr. and Mrs. Dawson stood on either side of the bed, watching a sleeping Allison.

Romah came up to Mrs. Dawson. “You look bone tired, ma’am. Is Allison,” she choked on the word “she isn’t gone, is she?”

Mrs. Dawson turned to Romah, her stray hairs falling again. “I’m afraid it won’t be long, dear.”

Romah’s hands shook as she reached for a chair. “What about the baby?”

Dr. Dawson sighed, looking into the bassinet. “She’ll be fine.”

Mrs. Dawson touched a lacy kerchief to her eyes. “I understand you and Allison are friends, Romah?”

Romah nodded, her face growing pale. “She does washin’ for my mamma, and we visit when I hand out the paper. I don’t care much for females, but she was all right. Next thing I know my folks tell me to stay away. I meant to, but Allison and me was such pals I wanted to see her.” She took Allison’s hand, which felt brittle compared to her grip the night before. “She looks real bad, Doctor sir.”

Dr. Dawson, still without a stain of perspiration, walked to the door. He stopped, his troubled eyes on Allison. “She won’t last another day, so let that quiet these people.” He left the room. Mrs. Dawson stared after her husband, then followed him out.

With the deputy’s echo in the hall, Romah sat in the window. Mrs. Dawson had swept the glass, but a few pieces fell into cracks in the floor. Romah looked out on the street, buildings hobbled together to keep up with the coal mines, families of ten and fifteen packed into houses built for four. Romah’s father was a foreman at the saw mill, and he managed to buy the house of a failed farmer. All the land around it belonged to the saw mill. Romah counted herself blessed, for her family was more respectable than the typical immigrant’s.

Romah recalled stories of how her father and granddad had come to West Virginia to work the mines—how their Irish accent got them into fights. Soon the mills sprang up, work above ground that was slightly less dangerous. Then the Italians arrived, which was how Romah’s folks got together. But even when the War ended and free Negroes came, people stayed decent. With the immigrants in their quarter, the Negroes uphill, and homegrown whites on farms and near the mills, no one tread where he wasn’t welcome. And thanks to her paper route, Romah knew all the gossip there was to know. So how did Allison and Mr. Steward slip past her? One of Dad’s favorite scriptures came to mind, ‘Woe to you who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel.’ Romah wanted to kick herself, because she knew how many bunions Granny Washmore had, but no hunch that her friend had carried a baby.

“Can you shut them curtains?” A whisper startled Romah.

She grabbed at the tie a couple of times before it loosened. “Allison?” Romah came to the bed. “I thought you were asleep.”

Allison slowly raised her eyebrows. “Been sleepin’ all day, and do you know I’m still tired?” She caught her breath. “How you been?”

Romah felt her throat burn. “Aw, who cares how I am? Dr. Dawson told me about you, last night I mean.”

Allison nodded. “Ain’t he somethin’, coming from Pittsburgh just for me?”

Romah sniffed. “Very.”

Allison turned glassy eyes to her. “Miss Romah, could you fetch my little one? Doctor won’t let me leave this bed.”

Romah went to the bassinet, where lay a creamy bundle of baby. The baby’s skin shone with moisture, and tufts of bright red hair covered her head. Romah felt a leap in her heart that eased the strain of the day. She touched the sleeping baby’s cheeks; golden and smooth instead of the wrinkly red she expected. For a moment Romah stared at the baby, wondering how it could sleep at such a time. She picked it up. “Y’know, you cause all this fuss and can’t even stay awake for it. Little hurricane.”

Allison chuckled as Romah laid the baby in her arms. “She gotta have summa me in her.”

Romah watched the baby snuggle into Allison, even though it was still asleep. “Who do you s’pose she’ll take after?”

“No telling.” Allison kissed her baby’s head. “I was scarder than anything when I carried her, but now I fight the Confederate army if they hurt my little one.” Allison’s arms began to quiver. “Miss Romah, you better take her.”

Romah did as told, laying the baby in its bassinet. When she turned to Allison, the distant look in Allison’s eyes had gone. In the few seconds it took Romah to put the baby down, the Allison she knew seemed to dissolve into someone else.

Allison drew a breath, unblinking as she stared at Romah. “Calamity, I’ve got something to confess.”

The heat of the room lifted when Romah heard her nickname. Mr. Steward had given it to her after reading a book about Calamity Jane. Now when the Drefford boys played Outlaws, they had to let Romah play too. But coming from Allison’s dry lips, Romah wondered if she spoke to calamity itself, asking it to leave her be this once. Romah sat facing her. “You didn’t do nothin’ bad, Allison. It’s Mr. Steward. I get sick all over to think what’s happened to you.”

Allison gave a little laugh. “Oh Romah. I can’t go without clearing the air between us.”

Romah scowled. “Don’t you talk about goin’.”

Allison smiled, her almond eyes wistful. “What a friend you have been. That is why I want to confess. Romah, I’m not fourteen. I’m nineteen.”

Romah sat back some. “What?”

Allison nodded. “I am nineteen, and Mr. Steward is twenty. It was my idea to hide our ages when we first came here. And it was my idea to hire a woman to play Jake’s wife. The real Mrs. Steward” she smiled “is me.”

Romah jumped to her feet. “What! How? That ain’t even legal!”

Allison took as deep a breath as she could. “We were married at sea. We only meant to stay a few months, until we had enough to sail to England. I suppose we got careless. People had their suspicions about us, but we paid it no mind so long as they let us be. Of course the baby woke us right up. And somehow, I haven’t any notion how, but they found out we were married. That’s what caused all the trouble.” She looked at the bassinet, and her face softened. “I’ve been listening to the baby’s little mumbles all day. What do you think of Cress for a name?”

Romah stepped back. “Cress? As in, Cress?”

Allison coughed, clutching her stomach until the pain subsided. “I know it’s unusual, but when I looked at her it stuck.” She coughed a bit more. “If the baby were a girl, Jake and I were going to name her Lily. But I can tell she’s none of that.” Allison pushed herself up on her elbow, shuddering from the effort. “Romah, can I make a request of you?”

Romah pressed her lips to keep from doing what dainty girls do. “Sure you can.” She kneeled at the bed.

Allison laid back, her voice falling to nearly a whisper. “I don’t know what plans will be made for Cress, but sit with Jake and learn all you can about me. Write it in a letter and make sure it goes with Cress. And make sure she gets the things I knitted for her, especially the lavender quilt. I patched it from my mother’s quilt.”

A sob jumped out of Romah and she brought a hand over her mouth. “Oh Allison I’m sorry!”

Allison patted her hand. “I only ask one more favor. Make sure Cress knows that she was loved and wanted. And Romah, whatever Jake has to do to put this behind him, do not begrudge him for it. Don’t think he is unkind or that he doesn’t love Cress. You don’t know what he gave up to be with me.”

Moments later, Allison surrendered to sleep. Romah heard her breathing, fits and catches of air. Heated tears burst from Romah and she didn’t care if it was dumb. She hated the dead August air, carrying the smoke of the near-riot, the deputy’s voice as he placed Jake under arrest. Romah cried the more as she thought of all the ugliness Jake had gone through, only to end with a dying wife and mulatto baby. She wanted to do something for him, and not just for Allison’s sake. Both of them were so much braver than she had assumed. Somehow she would make it up to Jake, show that he could count her among his allies. He certainly wasn’t ‘Mr. Steward’ anymore.

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