Sunset Embrace(8)

By: Sandra Brown

Lydia had a new discomfort, but didn't want to add to Mas burdens, so she didn't mention her swelling, aching breasts. She dozed throughout the day, the train having stopped out of deference to Mr. Coleman. Anabeth fed her a hearty, if hasty, supper. Everyone was to gather after the evening meal to bury Mrs. Coleman.

The camp became quiet. Lydia lay in her bed, staring up at the canvas ceiling. She heard nothing of the gravesite ritual except the singing of "Bock of Ages." Surprising herself, she mouthed the words. How long had it been since she had been to church? Ten, twelve years? Yet she could remember the words to that hymn. That made her glad. She fell asleep smiling and didn't awaken even when the Langston clan trooped somberly back to the wagon.

The next day passed much as the previous one, but Lydia didn't feel as well. Her breasts had ballooned underneath the nightgown, and she tried to hide them whenever Anabeth tended her or brought her food or drink. They throbbed and felt full to bursting. She peeked into the nightgown and was alarmed to see that her nipples looked red and chafed. They were so sensitive, even the weight of the nightgown aggravated them.

Ma was still caring for the Coleman baby and didn't return until long after the children and Zeke had spread their sleeping rolls beneath the wagon. Anabeth, Marynell, and Atlanta were all sleeping soundly on the other side of the wagon. Lydia was awake, restless and aching. She was moaning softly when Ma climbed wearily into the wagon. "Lord have mercy, Lydia, what's wrong? You poorly?" Ma bent over the young woman.

"I'm sorry. I ... my bosom."

Ma wasted no time in opening the buttons of the nightgown and examining Lydia's milk-swollen breasts. "Land o' Goshen. I don't know what I've been thinkin' about. 'Course you got milk and it hurts if there's no babe—" She broke off abruptly and tilted her head to one side with the quick movement of a sparrow who has just sighted a worm.

"Come on, Lydia. You're coming with me."

"Where?" Lydia gasped as Ma pulled the covers off her and hauled her up. Her motions weren't rough, just efficient. "I don't have any clothes."

"It don't matter," Ma said, breathing laboriously as she gripped Lydia under the arms and helped her rise to a crouching position. "You got mothers milk and no babe, and there's a babe that's barely clingin' to life. He needs motherin'."

Ma planned to take her to that baby who had been crying almost ceaselessly for two days. The pitiable mewling sounds could even now be heard throughout the sleeping camp. Ma was taking her to that man with the frantic voice. She didn't want to go. She didn't want anyone gaping at her curiously and wondering why she had birthed her baby In the woods all alone. After knowing the cozy security of the Langstons' wagon, she was afraid to leave it.

But it seemed she had no choice in the matter. Ma slung a shawl over her shoulders and pushed her gently down the steps of the tailgate. "Those shoes of yours aren't much better than bare feet, so you'll just go without for the time being. Careful not to step on a rock."

The jolt when her feet hit the ground for the first time in days caused her to reel. The jostling hurt her breasts, which hung free beneath the nightgown that was her only garment save the crocheted shawl. Her hair hadn't been brushed. She knew it was a tangled, matted mess. Ma had bathed the blood and birth fluid from the insides of her thighs, but Lydia hadn't washed in days. She was so dirty.

Her heels dug into the soft, damp earth in protest. "Please, Ma, I don't want anyone to see me."

"Nonsense," Ma said resolutely, virtually dragging her by the arm toward the only wagon in the camp with a light burning inside it. "You might can save this babe's life. No one's gonna care how you look."

But they would. Lydia knew they would. She had been called white trash before. She knew just how mean people could be.

"Mr. Grayson," Ma called softly when they reached the lighted wagon. She flipped back the canvas hanging over the opening. "Give me some help here." She gave Lydia's backside a forward and upward push and the girl had no choice but to step up into the wagon. the tight skin between her thighs was stretched painfully and she winced. A pair of strong arms in blue shirt-sleeves reached out to help her inside. Ma was right behind her.