1866 ~ Willow Creek, South Carolina
A knot of dread tightened Rachel’s stomach, as she walked through the front door of Murphy’s General Store. She hesitated, took a breath for courage and reminded herself again that she was doing the right thing. The only thing she could do under the circumstances.
Seeing that Mrs. Murphy was busy helping another customer, Rachel walked to the dry goods section and began to look through the dress goods. She thumbed through the pretty cloth, stopping at the beautiful sapphire silk. It reminded her of a cloudless summer day and she knew it would go well with her blue eyes and dark hair.
Sadness gripped her heart. If Charles were there, she knew he’d insist on her getting a dress length of the blue. Poor Charles—her leaving would hurt him, but she wouldn’t change her mind. Turning from the lovely cloth, she approached the counter to give Mrs. Murphy her order, and hoped the woman wouldn’t ask too many questions.
“Good morning, Rachel, it’s a mite chilly out isn’t it?”
“Good morning, yes it is cold. I’d like ten pounds of flour, two pounds of the white sugar, two pounds of coffee, and five tins of peaches, please.”
“Stocking up for your confinement?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Mrs. Murphy busied herself with the order. “Have you heard the news, Rachel?”
“What news is that?”
“Why, the sheriff caught that Yankee drifter that’s been hanging round here. He tried to steal a horse last night from the stables. They’ve got him locked up at the jail.”
Rachel swayed and clutched the counter, as a wave of dizziness swamped her.
“Are you all right, Rachel? You’ve gone pale.”
Rachel straightened and pulled her shawl closer against the woolen dress she wore. “I’m fine, just a little chilled, don’t worry yourself. You were saying?”
“I was telling you about the drifter. They say there’s to be a hanging. Isn’t that just horrible?” From the glee in her voice it was clear she was more excited than horrified at the prospect of a lynching.
“Who says there’s to be a hanging?”
“Why all the men folk, that’s who. Can’t just let a horse thief walk round free. Of course I shouldn’t be telling you all this with you in the family way and all. Are you sure you’re all right, dear?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” Rachel swallowed hard and fought back nausea. Feeling positive Mrs. Murphy hadn’t missed a chance to tell the story to everyone who’d entered the store that morning.
“That’s good then. I’ll help you to your wagon with this.”
Rachel counted out the money for her order and hurried to the door.
Placing the goods in the back of the wagon, she covered them with the canvas so Charles wouldn’t see them. Climbing in, she thanked Mrs. Murphy and drove toward the outskirts of town. When Rachel was sure she wouldn’t be seen, she turned the horses to go around to the back of the jail. Seeing no one about, she rushed to the barred window.
“Thomas! Thomas, are you there?”
“Rachel, what are doing here? Someone could see.”
Rachel’s eyes filled with tears when the beloved face appeared at the window. She clasped his hand through the bars. “There’s nobody about. Thomas, what have you done? There’s talk of a hanging.”
“Oh, Rachel, that’s just talk. Nobody’s going to hang.”
“Why, Thomas? Why did you try to steal a horse?”
“I’m just tired Rachel, tired of walking, tired of everything. I don’t know, maybe I thought these southerners owed me that much.”
“Why didn’t you wait? I told you I’d get the wagon and we’d leave together. Why did you do this?”
“I couldn’t let you do it. I have nothing, Rachel. The war took it all. When I came back and found a stranger living in our house, working our land and you gone, I…” He shook his head. “I needed to find you, see for myself that you were all right.”
“I’m so sorry, Thomas. I received word that you’d been killed and felt my life was over. Then I learned of the baby. I desperately wanted to find a way to make a decent life for our son or daughter. Charles is a good man and doesn’t know the baby isn’t his. I hate to hurt him, but you’re still my husband, the father of this child and we belong together. The three of us.”
“He’ll know when the baby is born early, Rachel. He’ll know it’s not his. Are you afraid he’ll put you out when he knows?”
“No, Charles would understand. He might be disappointed, but he’d not throw us out. It doesn’t matter, Darling. We won’t be here then. The three of us will be together starting a new life far from here.”
“Ah, Rachel, my darling.” Reaching through the bars, Thomas cupped her face with his palm. “I don’t even have a horse. Don’t you see? I have nothing to offer you or the baby. You’re better off here with Charles.”
“No, it’s not right. I’m still married to you. We need to be together.”
The pounding of horse’s hooves on hard earth announced the approach of riders round the front side of the jail. “Someone’s coming. You have to go, Rachel. Go now before someone sees you.”
“I’ll come back tonight and get you out of here. We’ll leave together.”
Sounds of excited talking could be heard as the men dismounted in front. “No, Rachel, don’t come back here. Think of the baby.” The voices became louder. “Hurry! Go on home now. I love you. Never forget that I love you.”
Rachel clung to his fingers when he tried to withdraw. “I love you too, more than life and I promise we’ll be together.” She turned and fled to the wagon, tears wetting her pale cheeks.
When she returned to the cabin, Rachel gathered what money she had in the house and packed a few clothes. Later she’d put a few more supplies in the wagon. She’d get Thomas out of that jail and the three of them would be a family, as it should be. She hid the small satchel under the bed until she could sneak away later that night. Writing the letter to Charles was the hardest thing she’d ever done. Slipping it under his pillow, she prayed he’d understand and forgive her.
When Charles returned from the neighbor’s where he’d gone to help butcher a steer, Rachel began putting supper on the table. He paced the small kitchen mumbling under his breath.
He did this when most upset by something and Rachel clasped her hands to still their slight tremor. “What’s wrong, Charles?”
“It’s a terrible thing when a gang of vigilantes will hang a man that’s just back from war and has lost everything.”
Rachel’s heart skipped a beat and she began to shake. “What are you saying, Charles?”
“They hung that drifter this afternoon. I tried to stop…Rachel!” Charles caught her before she hit the floor. Laying her on the bed, he wet a cloth with cool water and laid it gently across her forehead. She moaned and tossed. Charles noticed the damp pink stain spreading on the sheet and became frantic. He didn’t want to leave Rachel alone, but there was no one else to send. He’d have to go for Mrs. Hansen.
“Rachel, you’re going to be all right, Darlin’.” I’m going for help.
Charles paced the floor and prayed, tears blurring his sight. Rachel’s screaming had stopped, but the mournful moans were worse for him to hear. When he finally heard the weak little wail of the baby being born, he rejoiced. The house became silent and he stopped pacing, rushing to the door when the midwife came out.
“Mrs. Hansen, Rachel and the baby? They’re all right?”
Mrs. Hansen looked into his hopeful face, still damp from tears and it hurt her to tell him. “I’m so sorry for you, Charles. The babe didn’t make it. He was just too weak.”
Charles slumped. “And Rachel—Rachel is okay?” He sounded desperate.
She frowned and shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Rachel!” Running into the bedroom, he fell on his knees beside the bed. Gathering Rachel’s limp form in his arms, he rocked her, his sobs filling the cabin. He stayed that way until the bedroom darkened with the setting sun and Mrs. Hansen came to the door.
“Mr. Donavan, I’m so sorry. Are you going to be all right?”
Charles raised his head, sucking in a great gulp of air. He could collapse later, now he had work to do for Rachel and his son. “Yes, I’m okay.” He stood and gathered the tiny blanket wrapped body of the baby. Gently lifting the blanket away from the baby, his heart broke. Covering the still little face and laying him close to Rachel, he turned to Mrs. Hansen. “I’ll drive you home now.”
“Thank you, Charles. I’ll have one of the boys come back and help.”
He nodded, but said nothing.
“I wanted to give you this. I found it under the pillow.” She passed him the envelope with his name written in Rachel’s hand.
Stuffing the envelope inside his shirt, he went out to harness the wagon. He felt stupid, slow—like just waking from a bad dream. Only he knew he’d never awaken from this nightmare. How would he ever live without his beautiful Rachel?
Excerpt from Winter of the Heart