BLACK DRESS TRILOGY VOLUME 2
The tree pulled the rope tight and jerked it hard, pulling the nose of the raft below the surface. Molly realized that she would have to let go of the sinking raft and swim for her life. As she swam away, something tugged at her waist. She realized that she was still lashed to the rope, and it was pulling her down. There was never a knot she couldn’t untie, never until now. Water and tension had pulled the knot into a clench of slippery hemp that wouldn’t let loose. Struggling against the knot with all her might, she screamed and stabbed at it with her fingers. The raft jerked hard down into the depths, submerging completely. Pieces of it began to pop up out of the water around her. Then the sea-chest popped up.
She couldn’t see Boots or his horse, only the bushy tree ahead. At the next bend, the tree caught in a massive, tangled jam of logs and debris and rolled beneath it with the violent current. Pieces of the raft and the sea-chest floated with her toward the logjam as the rope continued pulling her down. She strained with the knotted strands, screaming, and finally, sucking in her last breath, she went under.
Down into cold, watery darkness she was drawn, as the current surged around her. She could see nothing. Limbs and roots brushed against her legs and her arms, catching her clothing, spinning her around and then letting go. Her lungs burned and her head felt like it would explode, but she held her breath.
This was the end.
Everything she’d survived until now came to this. She would drown in the murky blackness of the Brazos River. Wanting to cry out, she instead held her burning breath, and a peculiar calm swept over her. Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. She was ready to cross over and be with Emily again, but she didn’t want to leave Amy behind. Slowly she let the burning air escape from her burning lungs and prepared to suck in the cold blackness, which would end it all. She was at peace, and noticed a muted glow had surrounded her with eldritch resplendence.
Before her appeared a strange distant tunnel. In it she could see a bright light, and in the light she could see the form of a person walking toward her, a woman illuminated in the depths of the Brazos with her. The woman wore a radiant white gown, and Molly recognized the beautiful woman in white from the bizarre nightmare she had after the Comancheros captured her. In the beautiful woman’s hand she held a golden chalice, and in her arms she held a child wrapped in a brilliant white blanket. Molly knew that the child she held was Amy.
Around Molly the wind began to blow, whipping the beautiful woman’s white gown and long, black hair into a fountain of flowing ripples behind her.
With a voice like the rushing wind the beautiful woman said, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.”
“Who are you?” Molly asked.
The woman did not answer.
“Are you the Holy Mother?”
The woman remained silent.
“Are you an angel?”
The beautiful woman in white opened her mouth and began to speak saying, “I am the Archangel of the four winds. So it has been since the beginning. With fiery sword I have guarded the Gates of Eden, and in my hands I am given the key to the pit. Over thunder and terror I am appointed the watcher. My name is Usiel and I have been called Uriel, the destroyer of the hosts of Sennacherib, the flame of the Almighty, and the angel of death, escorting souls from this life to the next. Some have called me Santo Muerte.”
Molly fell on her face before her saying, “Then I am dead, for I have seen the face of Santo Muerte, the Saint of Death.”
“Please rise. You must not worship me. You are not dead,” the woman assured Molly. “You are chosen.”
Molly rose before the beautiful woman, and beheld her resplendence. To Molly she held out the chalice and said, “Take this cup and drink.”
With nothing to lose, Molly took the chalice in her hands.
The woman lifted her eyes and said, “The wrath is in your hands. You must drink all of it.”
Molly raised the chalice to her lips and drank the dark red liquid. In her mouth it tasted sweet like wine mixed with honey, but in her stomach it became sour.
From Molly she took the empty cup and then held out to her the child, saying, “Take this child.”
As Molly’s hands touched Amy, the woman became scintillant, too bright for Molly’s eyes, brighter than the sun. She shielded her eyes and a stunning peace came over her, unlike anything she’d ever known. Then upon her shoulder she felt a hand gently lifting her, raising her up to a distant bright light.
* * *
The next morning began with a tap on the door. Molly’s eyes refused to open, but a persistent tap forced them open. “Yes,” she said sleepily.
“I’ve got breakfast ready downstairs.” The door had muffled the older woman’s voice.
“I’ll be down in a moment, Aunt . . . Aunt.”
“Aunt Ruthie. It’s all right, darlin’, y’all can call me that.”
“Obliged, Aunt Ruthie, I’ll be right down,” Molly climbed off the first feather mattress she’d ever slept on and found the yellow dress Aunt Ruthie had left on the vanity for her. Pulling it on she noticed that it was a little tight in the bodice and it hung below her ankles, pretty nice otherwise. Aunt Ruthie might let her hem it up. Her shoes lay in the corner, cracked, rotten, and separated from their soles. Glancing from them to the vanity, she decided to give her hair a quick brushing and go downstairs barefoot. When she stepped from her room into the upstairs hallway she could smell freshly baked bread.
Down the stairs and across the living room, she entered the kitchen. In back she could see a sunroom full of windows overlooking the Trinidad River and Aunt Ruthie standing by one of them sipping a cup of coffee.
The older woman was taller than her, rangy and long of arm and leg. Taking a seat at a long table she smiled at Molly and said, “Coffee’s on the stove, darlin’, and there’s bread on the counter. Help yourself.”
In the morning light Molly had a better look at Aunt Ruthie, her face gaunt and angular. Very old, she looked to be probably in her mid-forties. Her hair was gray, sprinkled with white, and tied into a bun on top of her head. Pieces of hair had fallen astray, floated around her head and jiggled when she talked. The folds under her chin smiled as she smiled at Molly, and her eyes had squinted into happy arches.
Filling a cup with coffee, Molly sliced off a thick piece of bread, slathered it with butter from a wooden dish and took a bite. As she enjoyed the fresh bread, she looked around the kitchen and considered Aunt Ruthie fortunate to have a stove to cook on. She didn’t have to crane pots in and out of a chimney. At the end of the counter Molly noticed a pitcher-pump and basin and smiled at such a modern convenience. She’d never seen such a thing inside a house. Aunt Ruthie could pump water in her kitchen and didn’t have to carry it from outside.
“I can see that this place has been good for you already,” Aunt Ruthie added. “That yellow dress is pretty on you. It don’t look that good on me anymore, not since my hair went gray.” Glancing down at Molly’s feet she asked, “Y’all need shoes, too, don’t you?”
“My shoes fell apart,” Molly explained.
“I’ve got extra shoes,” Aunt Ruthie informed her. “We’ll fix y’all up with something.”
Pulling out one of a dozen chairs surrounding a long, polished oak table, Molly seated herself. Glancing out the windows, she could see across a covered back porch to the river crossing and ferryboat below. A wagon, horses, and passengers were aboard, and Klaus was pulling them across as Molly remarked, “The view from here is spectacular.”
“Klaus can pull folks across in about ten minutes,” Aunt Ruthie explained. “The other hands take twenty minutes or more.”
“You have others working here?” Molly asked.
“Justin and Manuel,” Aunt Ruthie replied. “They live in the bunkhouse out by the barn. There’s more work here than Klaus can keep up with by himself, and they’re both good hands.”
“I wasn’t expecting anything like this.” Molly turned her eyes from the window to Aunt Ruthie. “I haven’t seen glass windows since I was in New Orleans. And look at this door.” Standing, she swept her hand over the door leading out onto the back porch. “I’ve seen panel doors like this in New Orleans, but only in mansions, when me and my sister were working as seamstresses. This is a mansion, isn’t it?”
Aunt Ruthie sipped her coffee and replied, “This house was part of a plantation before Foster got himself killed.”
“My dear husband cleared the fields and built this place. If you want more bread, just help yourself, darlin’. Make yourself at home. You belong here now.”
“I love your bread,” Molly complimented her.
Her smile never left her face, as Aunt Ruthie continued, “I bake it fresh every morning so the smell will get the men hungry, and get them out of bed early so they can be on their way. The sooner they’re out the better I like it. They should be coming down any moment.”
“What men?” Molly asked.
“They’re overnight boarders,” Aunt Ruthie explained. “I rent rooms mostly to teamster drivers when they’re passing through. Fits in good with my ferryboat business, don’t you think? Most are on their way from New Orleans to the lower settlements and back. Right now freight hauling has all but stopped because of the war. Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of settlers passing through. They don’t usually stay long and don’t usually have no money. If they need to spend the night, I let them camp for free in the marshalling area up on top of the hill. Once in a while I get some government dignitaries, they seem to like it here, but I haven’t had any lately. I got the only place in a hundred miles with a hot bath, a feather mattress, and a home cooked meal.”
Molly nodded, and when Aunt Ruthie raised her cup, she noticed her forearms, strong for such a frail looking woman. Sinews and veins stood out on them. Her fingers had a certain grace to them though, long, but callused. This woman is no stranger to hard work, she thought, but neither was Molly. “What can I do to help around here?” she asked.
“I’ve got plenty of help with chores. Klaus and the farm hands do the heavy work, running the ferryboat, and working the fields. I tend the cattle and do the cooking, housekeeping, and gardening.” Aunt Ruthie took a deep breath and sighed.
Molly determined then that she should find ways to help while she was here. Then she asked, “So, what happened, Aunt Ruthie? What happened to Foster?”
“Foster Tuck,” Aunt Ruthie began, “was a good man. They don’t come no better than him. It’s a shame what happened. We built cabins and put up a barn. Then we cleared as much land as we could that first year, put in a garden, too. The second year Foster had about five-hundred acres put into cotton and it was a barn buster. He had lumber shipped down to build this house. Things were going along just fine after that. We put another two -hundred acres under the plow, and Foster wanted to get all the rest into cotton. It would have made us rich.”
“Sounds to me like you were already rich, Aunt Ruthie.”
“Well, let me tell you about rich, darlin’. It ain’t the land, or what we put into it, or what we take out from it that makes us rich, it’s the folks that does the puttin’ and the takin’. They’re the ones that make us rich. I’d give everything I have right now to get my Foster back. He got took away from me, and my heart is still aching for him. When I lost him, I lost everything. You may as well have cut my heart out. Y’all might look at me, and think I’m rich, but inside I’m a pauper, poor as dirt.”
“So, what happened?”
“Well, he wanted to put all that land under the plow. He bought more horses and more equipment for clearing, plowing and planting. Problem was there weren’t enough hands to do everything he wanted to do. He decided that he had to buy slaves. He didn’t want to, but all the other plantations had slaves, and they were expanding faster than him. So, one winter him and some of his friends went off to New Orleans on a buying tour. A couple weeks later they came back and said they had been ambushed and robbed by John A. Murrell himself and his gang of freebooters, and that Foster had been killed.
“Boots was thirteen when that happened, and by the time he was fifteen he didn’t want to farm, didn’t want anything to do with cotton. I sure felt sorry for the dear youngin’, tried to get him to accept things the way they were and move on with his life. Finally, he decided he wanted to become a surveyor. He sold his pa’s land and used the money to go off to the Davidson Academy in Nashville. I sold my land, too, except for the house and a couple hundred acres. Bootsie sold me the landing and ferryboat. Things worked out pretty well after that.”
“When did Boots get married, Aunt Ruthie?”
“What made you think he got married?”
“He said he had a home and a family once. He said everything was gone.”
“I think he was talking about his ma and pa and his little sister. He’s holding a lot of feelings deep inside about what happened. He might have let you get a glimpse of it, but usually he don’t let folks see what’s inside of him.”
“Am I asking too many questions, Aunt Ruthie?”
“Of course not, darlin’. Would y’all like me to take you for a look around? We can talk some more while you get to know the place.”
Pulling on and tying a pair of shoes, Molly toured the outbuildings and the cabin where Klaus and the farmhands lived, and then Aunt Ruthie took her across a mowed lawn overhung with shadow-laden pecan trees. Behind her Molly glanced at Aunt Ruthie’s whitewashed, two story house with rows of double-hung glass windows, a broad and deep front porch, and the bench-like swing that hung from the ceiling, where she’d sat the night before. From there they walked up the lane and across the Atascosito into a rutted marshalling area where wagons had lined up, and where folks waited for their turn on the ferryboat. Alongside the road a bell hung from a post and crossbeam so that folks could call the ferryboat.
Pointing down to the river, Aunt Ruthie said, “Looks like Klaus is bringing folks across with a wagon right now. Looks like a freight hauler. Folks ring the bell when they want to get on the ferryboat, and Klaus has one on board to ring back at them, telling them to come on down and get aboard. We can’t have folks going both ways up and down that hill at the same time. Would y’all like to ride the ferryboat?”
Aunt Ruthie took Molly down the steep grade to the dock and on board with Klaus, the ferryboat operator. Molly noticed that the boat was fitted with a plank deck of oak and side rails, and it was about a third the length of the sternwheelers she had seen in New Orleans. Fore and aft gates were latched while away from the docks. Klaus opened one or the other, allowing passengers to embark and disembark when the boat was secure.
Above the docks on opposite sides of the Trinidad stood oaken beam structures that held large wooden pulleys bigger than wagon wheels and axles. Around the pulleys a hemp rope fed out to the ferryboat. The rope was thick enough to secure a ship, and from the bottoms of the pulleys it attached fore and aft to the ferryboat. From the tops of the pulleys it spanned the river, and threaded through a smaller set of pulleys on the ferryboat railings, allowing the rope to slide across a deck span of about twenty paces, where Klaus could pull or walk with it.
Wanting to give the rope a try, Molly discovered that her hands were too small to close all the way around, but she was able to tow the ferryboat about a quarter-way across before her muscles gave out. The teamster driver aboard was patient with her slow progress, but seemed to be taken up the whole time with gawking at her yellow dress. He offered to help tow the line, but Klaus stepped up and took over.
After the teamster disembarked, a family drove their wagon and a team of horses on board. Klaus closed the gate, and once again Molly attempted to tow the line as the ferryboat drifted away from the dock. Slowing with each tug, she then tried folding her arms over the rope for a better grip and walking with the rope rather than pulling it, but her legs soon gave out as well.
Stepping down from his wagon, a man complained, “I ain’t got all day to get across this here river. Let me pull that rope for y’all.”
Molly gave him a sideways glance and let loose of the rope. Opening her hands, she looked at the blisters that were forming on the pads of her fingers and palms. “You’re right,” she admitted. With the tow rope no longer in her hands, her wrists, shoulders and back began to throb.
Klaus stepped in front of him, and said, “Let mm . . . me do that.”
The man looked at Klaus in an odd way, then he mocked him by asking, “You sure y’all know which way to pull on that there rope?”
Heartily, the man’s youngsters laughed at Klaus.
Then Molly spoke up in his behalf saying, “Why don’t y’all get back in your wagon and mind your own business.”
“Until my rig rolls off the other side,” the man insisted, “this here ferryboat is my business.”
Klaus jerked the rope so hard that the man staggered backwards, fell to a sitting position on the deck planks, and went speechless. His youngsters and his wife held their peace as he jumped to his feet, and scrambled up onto his wagon.
Beneath his beard Klaus smiled. When he saw Molly watching him he bobbed his head, and continued bobbing it until the ferryboat bumped into the dock on the other side. He opened the gate, and the man cracked his whip, driving his family up the hill.
“You handled that very well,” Molly commended Klaus.
“Sometimes the things a man duh . . . does says more than the th . . . things he says.”
“That’s very wise of you, Klaus. Anything else you might have said out there would have just made him get madder.”
His cheeks brightened, and his head continued to bob.
Across the river the bell rang. On top of the hill Molly saw a teamster waving at them, and he seemed anxious to board. Changing direction, Klaus prepared to pull the ferryboat over to pick him up, but Aunt Ruthie took Molly back to the house.
The next morning Molly put on her floppy shirt and trousers and helped Aunt Ruthie with morning chores. During the afternoons she worked on the ferryboat with Klaus. In the evenings she changed into the yellow dress Aunt Ruthie had given her, brushed her hair into a fountain of auburn curls, and socialized on the front porch with the houseguests.
Three months on the ferryboat gave Molly a remarkable hardness she’d never known. Her wrists and arms grew strong. Her back and shoulders felt like they were knitted together with strands of steel. Veins and muscles stood out on her wrists and the backs of her hands. They began to look to her like Aunt Ruthie’s wrists and hands. Turning them over, opening and closing her hands, she admired the progress she was making.
During the evenings, when she was off the ferryboat, she went out behind the barn for shooting practice.
“Would y’all like me to go out shooting with you, darlin’?” Aunt Ruthie asked her on a hot evening in June.
“Of course,” Molly replied, as she thumped down the front porch steps. Behind her belt she’d tucked her repeaters, and over them she’d pulled her floppy shirt to keep them hidden from the houseguests. Behind the barn she stood up blocks of firewood, backed away from them, and said, “You go first, Aunt Ruthie.”
Drawing her pistol, Aunt Ruthie cocked and fired, knocking over a block with a single, fluid motion.
“How can you do that so easy?” Molly asked. “You’re so fast I can’t see what you’re doing. Are you cocking it when you pull it out, or do you leave it cocked all the time?”
“Carry around a cocked pistol?” Aunt Ruthie laughed. “I ain’t got no death wish. I have known a few stupid people who carried around a cocked pistol, but they ain’t around no more. It’s a bad way of dying. Takes days, maybe a week, before you die. Don’t ever do that, darlin’. I only cock it after I pull it out and when I’m ready to shoot. I cock it and pull the trigger at the same time.”
“It’s like lightening, Aunt Ruthie. I still don’t understand.”
Laughing again, Aunt Ruthie added, “That’s the whole idea, but it don’t come natural. It takes time, and lots of practice. In time it will come to you, too. Try it darlin’, and let me watch you so I can see what you’re doing.”
Squaring her shoulders, Molly also spread her feet and drew a repeater. As it came out, the hammer caught under her floppy shirt. Shaking it free, she raised it one-handed, like Aunt Ruthie had raised her pistol. It felt secure, stable, and not as heavy as it did before she started working on the ferryboat with Klaus. Pulling the hammer back with both thumbs, she fired. With strength to control the recoil, she also brought the barrel back on target and fired again. Three more times she fired, and when the smoke cleared she lowered the repeater and asked, “How’d I do, Aunt Ruthie? I couldn’t see where they went.”
“If y’all keep shooting like that, the boys won’t need to plow my field.” She slapped the tops of her thighs and laughed, adding, “And you’re shooting up the alfalfa, too. Don’t worry about it though. The cattle won’t mind a few holes in their alfalfa.”
Stuffing the empty repeater behind her belt, Molly tried to laugh with Aunt Ruthie, but it didn’t come easy. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she said. “I’m holding on to the repeater better when I shoot, but I still can’t hit anything. There must be something wrong with these repeaters.”
“Okay! Okay.” Aunt Ruthie gave Molly a reassuring pat on her shoulder. “Here’s your problem. There ain’t nothing wrong with them repeaters. I was watching you while you were shooting, and it looks like you’re scared to death of them horse-pistols, and that’s understandable. They’re powerful and they make a lot of noise. You need to respect them for what they can do, but don’t let yourself be afraid of them. You’re familiar enough with them. You know what they’re going to do, but you’re not trusting them yet. You have to trust them. You’re closing your eyes every time they go off. You’re blinking, darlin’. You can’t see where the ball is going, because your eyes are shut when you pull the trigger.”
“I’m not blinking. I’d know if I was blinking.”
“Can you see the barrel rise up when it fires? It should look like an upside down hammer for an instant, like you’re holding a hammer head in your hand and the handle is sticking up the wrong way. Do you see that?”
“Can you see the ball flying down range?”
“It’s there, darlin’. It’s flying ahead of the smoke, and you can see it for an instant, just before the barrel jumps up in the way. Try to watch for that next time. It’s just a little streak, and it’s fast, but your eye is faster. By the time that barrel jumps up, it’s over, and the ball already landed out in the alfalfa somewhere. Try it again with that other repeater of yours.”
Drawing her other repeater, it too caught on her shirt. Shaking it free, she held her eyes as wide open as she could, raised the repeater and fired, knocking over a block of firewood. “I did it,” she squealed. The following shots missed, but she said, “I think I saw it once, Aunt Ruthie. That little streak you were talking about.”
“Yes, that’s it, darlin’. When you get so you can see the ball fly every time you shoot, you’ll know where it’s going before you pull the trigger. You won’t even think about it. You’ll just know.”
“Is that what you’re doing when you shoot, Aunt Ruthie?”
“Yes, darlin’, and that’s why I only need one shot. And, that’s why I never miss.”
Then Molly heard a popping sound on the river. Rifles crackled, six or seven of them.
Aunt Ruthie said, “Sounds like someone’s getting impatient. Guess I better go down there and see what’s going on.”
“I’ll go, too,” Molly offered.
Across the yard Molly dashed with Aunt Ruthie, until Manuel emerged from the lane and met them. He gasped, “Men ring bell to cross river. I am towing ferryboat to get them, and I see man. I know this man. He is Comanchero in alley behind mercantile. With him there are many more men. So, I think it is not good for me to take ferryboat to get him and bring more men over here. I take ferryboat back to Klaus. Then one of the men, he climbs on rope and crosses river to take ferryboat away from us, so Klaus he shot him.”
Rifles crackled from the river again as Justin ran in from the fields, raising a cloud of dust as he skidded to a stop. Down the lane Aunt Ruthie dashed toward the road and extended her arm so that Justin, Manuel and Molly would not run ahead of her.
Down the riverbank at the dock Molly could see Klaus hunched behind a piling, and in each of his hands he wielded a dueling pistol. Across the river the Comanchero’s rifles crackled. Their rifle balls splashed into the water next to him, and one splintered the piling he hunched behind. Aunt Ruthie whistled to get his attention and when he turned, she motioned him away from the dock.
When the shooting stopped, he stepped away from the piling, glanced up at Aunt Ruthie and then turned to watch the Comancheros reload their rifles. Aunt Ruthie whistled again, bared her teeth at him and motioned forcefully for him to get away from the dock. Up the hill he bounded, surprisingly agile for such a large man. Molly noticed that another Comanchero had climbed out on the rope, and he was pulling himself, hand over hand, toward Tuck’s Landing.
Aunt Ruthie yanked Klaus out of the road when he reached her. Motioning everyone together she said, “I’m going to stay right here and keep an eye on them. Looks like they’re fixing to commandeer my ferryboat. We have plenty of time before that man gets across the river and takes the ferryboat back to get the rest of them. So, I want y’all to go up to the house and get all the rifles you can find. Bring them here. Hurry, but don’t let them see you. I don’t want them to get any ideas about what we’re up to, okay?”
Searching frantically in every closet and corner when they reached the house, Molly and the others also went out to the barn and gathered up all the rifles they could find. Some of the houseguests loaned their rifles, and two of them wanted to join the fight. One was a chunky man with chubby cheeks and a trim, black beard, who Molly had seen before. Wielding a rifle, she returned with the others to Aunt Ruthie.
The ferryboat was now across the river at the opposite dock, and it was a considerable distance from where Molly stood at the top of the hill. She guessed four or five hundred paces, too far to shoot a rifle, but the distance didn’t prevent her from recognizing the first Comanchero on board. A bead of perspiration trickled down her cheek as she watched him. That face, she thought, she would never forget that face.