Sunset Embrace(7)

By: Sandra Brown

"I'll get out of your way as soon as possible." She had no idea where she would go or what she would do, but she couldn't impose on this generous family who had so many mouths to feed already.

"Naw, now, you stop worryin' 'bout that. Git yourself fit and then well work somethin' out."

All the Langstons seemed to reflect that attitude. But Lydia wondered about the other members of the train. Surely there had been speculation on the girl who had been brought in after birthing a stillborn baby in the wilderness with no husband around. Ma had refused to admit even the kindest visitors who came to inquire about "the poor unfortunate girl," saying only that it looked like she was going to pull through and that they would be meeting her soon enough.

Lydia's first encounter with anyone on the wagon train other than a Langston came from a loud knocking on the slats of the wagon in the middle of the night. She sat bolt upright, clutching the sheet to her breasts, certain Clancey had risen from the dead and come after her.

"Easy, Lydia," Ma said, pressing her back down to the pillow.

"Ma Langston!" the impatient masculine voice called. A heavy fist thumped on the tailgate. "Ma, please. Are you in there?"

"Hellfire and damnation, what's all the hollerin' for?" Lydia heard Zeke's grumble from outside the wagon. He and the boys slept in bedrolls beneath it.

"Zeke, Victorias in labor. Could Ma come see to her?" The voice was husky, low, laced with anxiety. "She started feeling bad after supper. Its labor for sure, not just indigestion."

By this time Ma had crawled to the end of the waeon and shoved the canvas flaps aside. "Mr. Coleman? Is that you? You say your wife's in labor? I didn't think she. was due—"

"I didn't either. She's . . ." Lydia heard the stark terror that vibrated in the man's voice. "She's in agony. Will you come?"

"I'm on my way." Ma turned back into the wagon and reached for her boots, pulling them on quickly. "You rest quiet now," she said to Lydia calmly and in contrast to her brisk movements. "Anabeth will be right here. Shell come flying if you need me." She lifted a crocheted shawl over her bulky shoulders. "Seems another babe is 'bout to be born."

Chapter Two

Ma hadn't returned by the time the wagons pulled out the next morning. Word filtered through the camp that Mrs. Coleman was still in labor, and that she had insisted the train not lose a day's travel on account of her. Bubba offered to drive for Mr. Coleman while Zeke drove the Langstons' wagon.

In Ma's absence, Anabeth, as eldest daughter, took over the cooking and care of the younger children. She tended Lydia with the same detached competence that her mother had. Lydia was amazed at the girl's knowledge of the birthing process.

"I'm sorry you have to do this for me," she apologized as Anabeth wadded up one of the soiled pads.

"Shoot, I done it for Ma her last two babies and I been having my monthlies since I was ten. It ain't nothin'."

When the train stopped at noon, Ma came back to inform them sadly that Mrs. Coleman had died only a half hour earlier after giving birth to a son.

"She was such a dainty little ol' thing. 'Course Mr. Colemans acting like a madman, blamin' hisself for bringin' her on this trip. She'd told him she wouldn't be due until September, long after we reach Jefferson. It ain't his fault, but he's not takin' it too well."

"The babe?" Zeke asked around a dried, hard biscuit left over from breakfast.

"Puniest tyke you ever saw. Barely has enough in him to cry. Wouldn't surprise me none if his little soul departed this earth today." She heaved herself up into the wagon to speak to Lydia, who had overheard the family's conversation. "How're you doin', Lydia?"

"Fine, Mrs. Langston."

"Please call me Ma. Anabeth takin' care of you proper? I'm sorry I can't be here, but that little boy is in a bad way."

"Of course," Lydia murmured softly. "I'm fine. As soon as I'm able, I'll be off your hands."

"Not if I have anythin' to say about it. You sure you're feelin' all right? You look a mite flushed." She lay a calloused hand on Lydia's forehead. "Still feverish. I'll tell Anabeth to keep a cool cloth on your head this afternoon."