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Runaway Fever
BLACK DRESS TRILOGY VOLUME 1

Molly McCracken couldn’t see who it was. Horses had been clopping up the road all night, and in the darkness of a moonless, starless night the horses all sounded the same. Concluding her diary entry by firelight, she blew the ink dry, and closed the cover on the worst day of her life. Her husband was dead. She, her sister, her little niece, and the entire town of Gonzales were running for their lives. Her heart wouldn’t stop fluttering, and her tears came in uncontrollable bursts. Wrapping her diary in a patch of leather, she nervously tied it, climbed up into their farm wagon, and tucked it into the family sea-chest.

The clopping Molly heard pulled up by the campfire. To her relief it was Innis, her brother-in-law. Hastily he dismounted and ran to Molly’s sister, Emily, his wife, who threw her arms around him, and cried, “I was afraid you had been killed.”

“I came as soon as I heard,” Innis explained. “I came to take you some place safe. Then I’ll go back.”

“You’re going back?”

“We can’t let them kick us off our land,” he insisted. Turning to Molly, he said, “I need to talk to you about Emmet.”

“You’re going to tell me he’s dead, aren’t you?”

“There’s things you don’t know yet, Molly. Things he didn’t want to tell you.”

Climbing down from the wagon, Molly warmed herself by the fire, as Emily pulled Innis over to a skillet of salt-pork, sizzling on a bed of coals. “Sit here,” she urged him. “Let me get you something to eat, and you can tell us everything that happened.”

“Where’s Amy?” he asked.

“She’s asleep in the wagon.”

Tendrils of bacon-like smoke filled the air, as Innis sat cross-legged by the campfire, and took a deep breath. From the sea-chest Emily fetched a tin plate, spooned up a serving of salt pork, and added a helping of steamy cornbread from another pan. Presenting to him the plate, she said, “Now tell us what happened at the Alamo. It must have been horrible.”

“Let me eat first,” he replied, and proceeded to devour his meal.

Spooning another helping onto his plate, Emily asked, “You haven’t eaten today, have you?”

“Been two days,” he mumbled.

“Doesn’t the army feed you?”

“Not exactly. It’s every man for himself. Everyone carries their own food.”

“I don’t understand,” Emily continued. “I’ve heard that the Alamo was well supplied.”

Chewing as he watched Emily, he did not respond, and Molly thought it odd that he wouldn’t answer such a simple question. Normally he was a fountain of information. Then Molly added, “That’s what I heard, too. I heard the Alamo was stocked up for a siege.”

“That’s right,” Innis finally replied.

Lifting her palms, Emily shrugged and asked, “Then why do you have to carry your own food?”

Again he did not answer.

Emily persisted. “I’m glad that some of you could get away from the Alamo. How did you get away?”

“Everyone at the Alamo was killed,” he said. “Nobody got away. I didn’t get away, because I wasn’t there.” Rocking back on his elbows, he kicked his feet out in front of him, and crossed his ankles.

Molly’s heart leapt with joy, and she clasped her hands together. “If you weren’t there, then that means Emmet wasn’t there either. That means he wasn’t killed at the Alamo? Is he still alive?”

Her sister, Emily, knelt to embrace her husband, and said, “I’m glad you weren’t there, Innis. I’m glad y’all weren’t killed with the others, but I don’t understand.”

“Did y’all see that?” someone yelled from the darkness behind them.

Turning his head, Innis hollered, “Who’s there?”

“It’s me. It’s Henry Hort.” Out of the shadows an elderly man stepped, halting and bent, and spitting mosquitoes. Beneath his bushy white beard he seemed somber, as he said, “Did y’all see them flashes over yonder?”

Lifting her eyes to the western horizon, Molly noticed the flashes right away, and also saw traces of bright orange along the edges of distant storm clouds, like sunset, though it was far past sunset. Moments later, rumblings shook the air. “I think there’s a storm coming,” she speculated. “And we don’t have any shelter tonight.”

“It’s not a thunderstorm,” Innis contended.

Peering into the darkness behind her, Molly could yet see campfires flickering through a stand of shadow-laden Post oak, the campfires of the town folks who had fled with her and Emily throughout the night. From the trees echoed yet the puling and wailing of women and youngsters, wives and mothers, who grieved the loss of their loved ones at the Alamo.

“Is that you Innis Carrigan?” Henry Hort lifted his bushy white eyebrows. “Sakes alive, I didn’t know y’all was here with us? Didn’t I see you leave with the other boys on their way to the Alamo? I thought you went with them to join the fight.”

“I just rode in,” Innis replied. “I come back to get my family to someplace safe.”

Slapping the back of his neck, and then scratching, Henry Hort asked, “Y’all came back from the Alamo? How’d you do that? I heard everyone there was killed.” Henry pointed toward the western horizon, and said, “There’s them flashes again. There’s a storm a coming.”

“It’s a storm alright,” Innis agreed. “But, it ain’t a thunderstorm. There’s a fight going on back in Gonzales. It looks to me like the whole town’s on fire. That glow rising up on those clouds yonder is a big old fire, and that’s right about where Gonzales would be. That thunder you’re hearing ain’t thunder. It’s cannon.”

Prickles rose on the back of Molly’s neck. Bolting around to gaze again at the glow on the horizon, the truth became obvious to her. Gonzales was burning. That meant her homestead was burning, and next door, Emily’s homestead was burning, also.

Emily dropped her face into her hands, and whimpered, “That means we’ve lost everything. What will we do now? Where will we go? We have nowhere to go.”

Reaching around Emily’s shoulders, Molly held her sister tight, and said, “We’re here, aren’t we? We’re not there, thank goodness.”

From Emily, Molly’s gaze fell into the campfire, and into the skillet, where it sizzled for a moment with the salt pork. As she watched the skillet, the wind picked up and blew white-hot the coals underneath, lifting embers into the darkness. Drifting up through bare tree branches, the embers rose into a black sky, where they burned out. They also drifted over into the winter-dead grass beyond the campfire and flared into raging flames. In those flames Molly imagined her house blazing up, and imagined Emily’s house blazing up next to hers, as Innis and Henry jumped into the flames.

Like demons dancing in hell, Innis and Henry commenced stomping out the grassfire, much as Santa Anna’s cannon had commenced stomping out their homes in Gonzales, sending a firestorm of white-hot embers into the sky. Molly could yet hear the rumblings from Gonzales, could feel them in the air around her.

Tightening her embrace on Emily, Molly led her sister away from the flames. Fire was no friend of a woman’s cotton dress. Shaking her head, she whispered to Emily, “I don’t know where we’ll go from here.”

“Maybe we should go back to New Orleans,” Emily suggested.

Innis spun around to face his wife. The grassfire was out, but flared yet in his dark blue eyes. “Balderdash,” he grumbled. “We ain’t going back to New Orleans. I’m taking you someplace safe for now, and when the fight is over, we’ll rebuild our homesteads and barns, and plow our fields again. This is where we put our roots down, Emily, right here in Texas, just like we all agreed before we came here. Remember when we agreed to come here and put down our roots?”

“I remember,” Emily acceded.

Stomping the charred grass, Innis flailed his arms and kicked his feet a little more than necessary, even though the fire was out.

“Just leave him be,” Molly suggested, and pulled Emily back another step further away from him. “He’s angry. Can’t you see he’s angry?”

“Yes.”

From the north the wind stiffened, howling through the bare Post oak. Cold drizzle and falling temperatures drove Henry Hort back to his camp, and a chill sank into Molly’s bones. Crossing her arms, she rubbed them with her hands, and said, “I knew it was going to rain. At least it’s driving the mosquitoes away.”

Emily wrapped her toddler, Amy, papoose style in a dry blanket, leaving a flap that would cover her face, and to Molly she said, “We can sleep under the wagon tonight. I don’t know what else to do.”

Molly could remember yet the moment Amy was born, the first breath she drew, and the first sound she made. Recalling the contentment on Emily’s face, she also recalled her longing to have her own children, but couldn’t love Amy any more, even if she had been her own. As Amy’s deep blue, smiling eyes peeked up at Molly from inside the wooly cocoon, Molly said, “I love you, Amy.”

“Lub you, Aunt Lolly,” the three-year-old replied.

Under the wagon Molly crawled with Emily and Amy to escape the rain, and knocked down the winter-dead grass by laying a quilt over it, which helped insulate them from the ground. The wind continued to whip a cold mist under the wagon, so Molly cast a quilt over them, and sidled next to Emily, pulling the quilt over her head. Innis crawled in as well and spread his bedroll over all of them. Next to Emily he lay opposite from Molly.

“Innis?” Molly asked, as she pulled the blankets down from her face, and rolled up onto her elbow. “What were you going to tell me about Emmet? You said that you didn’t go to the Alamo. Does that mean he’s alive?”

“Well, Molly,” he sighed. “Now that Henry ain’t listening, I can tell you. Emmet heard that General Houston ordered the Alamo abandoned, and he decided he didn’t want to go there with the others from Gonzales. He didn’t want you or the other folks to think he was a coward either, so we went looking for General Houston. We wanted to sign up with his reinforcements instead. Problem is we couldn’t find him. Emmet is still out there looking for him right now. When we heard the Alamo had fallen, we agreed that one of us should come back and get you womenfolk where it’s safe. So, we flipped a coin, and it was me. I came to Gonzales and run straight into Houston and his reinforcements. They told me y’all were heading for Louisiana, and from there you know the rest.”

Molly rolled onto her back and said, “Then we don’t know where he is?”

“Not just yet,” Innis replied.

Pulling the blankets again over her head, Molly didn’t think she could ever fall asleep under these conditions, especially on the lumpy, hard ground. But, nestled under the blankets with her loved ones, she began to warm up and relax, and listen to the pattering rain on the wagon above her. A day filled with hasty packing and a long, bumpy ride in a wagon began to take its toll. Overtaken by fatigue, she drifted off.

Drifting deeper, she began to dream. She dreamed that she was back in New Orleans. Working together as seamstresses again, she and Emily were on a plantation. Emily was showing her a new twisting stitch that she used for making tatted buttons out of thread.

“Molly McCracken.”

Molly thought that she heard her name whispered, like it came from the next room, or maybe through the open window next to her in the mansion, where she was working.

“Molly McCracken.”

Again she heard her name, and it stabbed fear into her veins, for she heard it clearly. Her heart pounded her dream into full consciousness, and she opened her eyes. Emily was asleep next to her with Amy, and beyond them Innis snored. Molly drew a deep, sleepy breath, and closed her eyes again. It was a dream, just a bad dream.

“Molly McCracken.”

This time she heard it plain, like the wind speaking her name. It came from her side of the wagon. Pulling the quilts down from her face, she tried to see who had spoken to her.

Searching the darkness beyond the smoldering campfire, she could see a light. Looking again, she suspected that it could be the campfire of a neighbor, or maybe, she was seeing a star. The night was overcast and rainy. It couldn’t be a star. As she watched, the light grew in intensity. Against it she shielded her eyes, and she began to perceive in the brightness a radiant figure, like a beautiful woman, wearing a flowing white gown, and standing in the midst of the winter-dead grass.

Wind whipped under and over the wagon, heaving up waves of dead grass around the beautiful woman, lifting them like flames, and twirling them around her, as if protecting her, but not consuming her. Away from Molly she’d turned her face, but what Molly could see shone with the brilliance of the sun. Though the wind suddenly died down, the woman’s long, black hair and her brilliant white gown rippled into the darkness behind her, like water flowing into the night.

In her arms the woman held a child wrapped in a radiant white blanket, and in her hand she held a cup, which looked like a golden chalice. When she turned her eyes to Molly, her gaze pierced Molly’s heart, separated her thoughts from her fears, childhood from adulthood, and past from present and future. Molly gasped, and wanted to turn away, but the woman had power to hold her, as she probed her secrets. Approaching the wagon, the woman knelt and held out to Molly the chalice and with a voice like the wind she said, “Take this cup.”

Twigs snapped out in the darkness somewhere and footsteps ran straight at the wagon, startling Molly awake. Someone shouted. Opening her eyes, she jolted up and knocked her head on the wagon’s floorboards, giving herself a wave of dizziness and white flashes. Then onto her back she dropped, rubbing her head with one hand and propping herself with the other. She noticed that the Post oak around their camp had taken on an eerie green glow. Night had given way to morning drizzle, which leaked between the floorboards, soaking her blankets, and robbing her warmth.

“Houston’s moving out!” a soldier shouted, as he ran past the wagon, snapping twigs, and stomping off toward the next camp.

Innis sat up, and struck his head on the floorboards the same way Molly had moments before. “Ouch,” he hollered. Plopping onto his back, he rubbed his head. Rolling out from under the wagon and into the rain, he stood, slapped his hat on his head, and informed them, “I’ll get the wagon hitched. You better get yourselves ready.”

“Do you think that bump on the head knocked any sense into him?” Emily asked, as she crawled out with Amy into the rain.

“It would take something a lot harder to do that,” Molly replied.

“I heard that,” Innis mumbled as he dropped the kingpin into the wagon’s hitch.

Climbing out from under the wagon, Molly climbed up next to Emily and Amy and stood shivering in the wind, her dress slapping against her calves like wet washrags. “I didn’t think it was going to be like this,” she declared. “I wasn’t expecting this cold rain.” Against the wind she tightened her bonnet.

“Would you like your cloak back?” Emily asked.

“No. You and Amy keep it. You need it more than I do,” Molly replied.

“Things will get better, Molly. I know they will.”

“I’ll look for your cloak again,” Molly explained. “Maybe I can find it now that its daylight.” Colder and wetter than she’d ever been, Molly climbed over the backboard to search for Emily’s cloak. Opening the sea-chest, she looked but couldn’t find it.

“Come on, Molly. We have to go,” Innis, grumbled.

Tucking her tresses into her bonnet, she noticed the soggy quilt that Amy had slept in before they put her under the wagon last night. Wringing it out, she draped it around her shoulders, and decided that it would have to do. Seating herself next to Emily, she shivered as Innis lifted the reins, cracked them against the backs of the horses and yelled, “Haw!”

The horses heaved the wagon into motion, clattering east toward the Lavaca River in line with hundreds of other refugees. Hooves and wheels churned the rain-soaked road into a slush of ankle deep mud and dung. Innis drove the horses until froth appeared on their shoulders and drizzled down their sides in the rain. Molly knew they would not last the day, because of the load they were drawing. Innis climbed down first, and drove the horses, as he walked alongside the wagon in the mud. Molly and Emily left Amy bundled under the seat-board and climbed down the opposite side of the wagon from Innis. Holding the hems of their dresses, they also waded in the mud.

“Would you go to New Orleans if you could?” Emily asked.

“I can’t go anywhere until I know where Emmet is,” Molly replied.

“If Emmet was here, do you think he would go?”

“I don’t think you could keep him away, Emily. I don’t think he’s cut out for farming. He misses the life, but even if he wanted to go, you’d never get Innis to agree.”

“I can get Innis to do anything I want.”

“I don’t see how.”

“I’ll find a way to outsmart him.”

“That’s not that easy to do, Emily.”

“I can do it. I outsmarted him at the Mardi Gras, didn’t I?”

“You were seventeen. Things are different now. You weren’t married to him them. That’s when you met him, isn’t it? Didn’t you say it was Fat Tuesday? You told me about that, but you never told me you outsmarted him.”

“Okay, Molly, it was like this. I was wearing that white gown you helped me make. Do you remember?”

“Yes.”

“When Innis saw me in that white gown, he came up wearing a robber’s disguise and a black mask that he held over his eyes on a stick. He pulled a neckerchief up over his nose and mouth and said he wanted to steal my heart.”

“I can see why,” Molly added. “You always were a pretty girl, prettier than me, and he’s a handsome man. But, I don’t see how that outsmarted him.”

“You’re pretty, too, Molly. You’re taller than me and you have those high cheekbones, like a princess.”

Molly laughed. “A princess in rags, you mean?”

Emily continued, “I told him I was saving my heart for someone else and I would not dance with him. That’s how I outsmarted him. So, he decided he wanted to be first to find the little baby in the king cake. The Padre said the boy who finds it would get special dance privileges. He could choose any girl he wanted to dance with. You should have seen Innis gobble that king cake, Molly. He pulled off that neckerchief, and ate king cake faster than his cheeks could hold it. Everyone was laughing at him and at the others, too. There were other boys who wanted to dance with me. Then he ran up with that little porcelain baby and chose me for the dance.”

Molly understood that Emily hadn’t actually outsmarted Innis. She had played ‘hard to get.’ Nevertheless, she agreed with her little sister’s puerile reasoning, and said, “Yes, Emily, you outsmarted him, and I’m proud of you. If I remember right, he gave you a real baby a couple years after that. I think he might be the one who outsmarted you.”

“Baby Amy,” Emily agreed.

“Knowing what you know now,” Molly asked, “would you do anything different? That is, if you could do things over?”

“Well,” Emily mused. “There was that boy wearing the harlequin costume. He was the one standing behind Innis.”

“I can hear you,” Innis called to them from the other side of the wagon.

Emily smiled and clapped her hands over her mouth.

Lowering her gaze to her shoes, Molly watched mud splash over the tops and onto her legs and pantalets. Her feet squished inside. The mud never seemed to end and deepened where rivulets washed over the road. Her clothes began to dry, and she warmed up when the sun finally came out. Glancing over at Emily, she said, “You were upset about losing your homestead last night. I know I’m upset about losing mine. But, you don’t seem so upset today.”

“I was last night, Molly, but not anymore. When we first came here I was excited about owning our farm, but now I’m just looking forward to whatever comes next, waiting to see what’s ahead. I believe this is all happening for a reason. I know that whatever is coming will be better. I can’t see the answer right now, but I will in time.” Emily swung her mud clogged hem back and forth, saying, “I will in time.”

“I wish I could see things the way you do,” Molly sighed. “The only thing I see ahead is someone waiting to knock me down every time I pick myself up. Sometimes I think I’d be better off if I just stayed down. There’d be a lot less disappointment that way.”

Well past sunset Innis continued to drive the wagon, the way illuminated by twilight until Molly could see the road no more. Flickering ahead she could see the campfires of other refugees. Unable to travel any further in the dark, Innis turned off the road.

Emily slapped her cheek, then her neck, and said, “Now the mosquitoes are after us.”

“Is Amy covered up?” Molly asked.

“Yes, she’s asleep under the seat-board. I wrapped her in a quilt. Can you help me clear a place for a fire?”

When the fire was built they hung a pot of corn over it, and Innis added wood to drive the mosquitoes away from their camp. “We might as well get some rest while we can,” he suggested, “and leave at first light.”

Hounds ululated from the nearby camps and a gunshot startled Molly. The popping gunshot was followed by another loud, echoing pop. Emily screamed, “Santa Anna is attacking us. What do we do?”

In the direction of the shots Molly spun and looked into the darkness. She could see shadowy figures among a stand of trees by a campfire. One of them was hunched over a body. “I think I know who that is,” she said.

Grabbing up his rifle, Innis bounded past her, running straight for the campfire where the shadows lurked. Into the darkness he faded. Molly heard him crashing through the brush.

“Los caballos! Prisa!” someone shouted.

The crashing stopped. Molly assumed that Innis had paused, unseen, and she feared that he was in grave danger. A flash illuminated the stand of barren trees, and the crack of a rifle startled her. A man screamed, expelling a frightening sound that raised goose hairs on Molly’s forearms.

“Te me disparó, hijo de cerdo!” the man yelled.

Horses crashed through the brush straight at her and Emily. When Innis leapt from the brush, she breathed a sigh of relief, for it was Innis crashing toward her, and not horses.

“I need to reload. I got one of them,” he said.

“Sí, you got one of them, Señor Carrigan,” Xavier agreed, as he dropped an armload of firewood next to the wagon, “I hear him. I think he say, ‘You shot me, you son of a pig.” Xavier smoothed his mustache with his forefinger and thumb, and added, “I think you got him pretty good.”

“Who were they?” Molly asked.

“Don’t know for sure,” Innis replied, “robbers or looters, I think.” His hands and his voice shook. Dropping his powder horn, he mumbled, “Darn it,” and felt around in the weeds until finding it again.

Emily glanced over at the wagon, and said, “I should check on Amy.” Climbing up, she looked under the seat-board and screamed, “Innis! Come over here! Please! Come quickly!”

 

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