Leroy Gaskins, a man Celia recognized as the sot fired by William’s father, emerged from the woods. “I don’t think I’d sign that, ya’ll.”
Turner dropped his hand from Celia’s mouth.
After Gaskins wiped his greasy face with a red handkerchief, he tucked the rag into his torn pants-pocket. “Seems I got here just in time.”
Turner’s hand wrapped protectively around Celia’s arm as Gaskins gestured with his gun for William and Mabel to back up closer to Reverend Bachman. “Unlike your gun, Mr. Owens, mine are loaded. Might as well toss yours aside. That was a darned fool idea ya’ll concocted. Makes me wonder what young people get taught these days at university.”
What did he mean? Celia shivered against Turner and he squeezed her arm, reassuring her.
Gaskins’ cheroot glowed as he inhaled on the cigar. “And careless, waggin’ your tongues in an establishment like Poogins. Any waterman on the Ashley or the Cooper rivers could repeat your little plan. Anyone ends up dead here today, they’ll be lookin’ for at least one of your sorry selves—Owens or Cane. Shoulda been called Cane and Abel. Amazin’ to me that your pappy hated your grandpappy Owens so much that he wouldn’t even claim his name, Mr. Cane.”
Celia looked up into Turner’s face, a muscle in his jaw jerking as though in agreement with the filthy man’s words.
Gaskins scratched his scraggly brown beard. Swamp oaks and cypress trees rustled overhead, Spanish moss casting eerie shadows from the torches now planted in the soft swamp earth. Behind them, the freed men shifted weight, seeming to consider their options.
“Once yer daddy got that ring back, me and my Maggie set our plan a’goin’. Invited our niece, Mabel, to Charleston.”
Insects buzzed around them, and tree frogs began their song.
Mabel Holloway backed away, even closer to the minister, bumping into him. The two fell down into the pluff mud, spattering their clothes, and stirring up the sulfurous odor of decomposing saltmarsh.
“Oh! Look what you did. I detest this nasty swamp dirt’s smell.” Her friend’s voice, absent the Southern accent, revealed her Yankee roots. “I never agreed to anything, you horrid man. And I am not your niece!”
Mr. Gaskins tilted his head sideways. “Oh, it’s true all right. ‘Best-looking and most gentlemanly man’ ya’d ever met, were your exact words when I introduced you to William at the store.”
“I said no such thing you addled-brained—!” Mabel kicked her feet from beneath her skirt and blew a tendril of dark red hair out of her eyes.
William assisted Mabel to her feet and brushed some of the mud from her gown. He acted entirely too familiar. Celia would never have allowed her former beau such liberty.
Disappointment coursed through her, sticking in her chest. Her friend had deceived her. “You’re not from Richmond, then, are you? Nor a graduate of Miss Witherspoons’ Academy?”
Mabel laughed but a tic commenced by her right eye. “New York, I’m afraid, but we moved south when Father died. Mother was a maid at Witherspoons’ and I heard a lot. When Aunt Maggie brought us here . . .”
Dizziness threatened to spill Celia into the dank swamp mud, too. So her friend really was this foul man’s relation. Mercy!
Turner released Celia’s arm and gently pressed his fingers against her wrist, his touch as natural as breathing.
Mabel’s eyes bored into William’s, their down-tipped corners pleading forgiveness. “I thought I’d use enough information from those spoiled girls as entree into the right circles when we came to Charleston. But I never asked him to kill anyone. I cannot believe my aunt married this ruffian.”
Nor could Celia.
One corner of Gaskin’s mouth tugged upward. “Seems Miss Mabel didn’t understand another person would inherit part of Mr. Gregory Owens, Jr.’s property. ’Parently neither did Mr. William here, till that ring got returned. His grandpappy set up some stipulations.”
“Is that a Southern tradition?” Mabel held out a fair, ungloved hand toward Celia. “Your cousin told me your own grandfather set up his inheritance so he will inherit all the Sheldon property.” She gestured around and Celia’s breath caught at the movement amongst the swamp oaks’ branches.
Gaskins continued his harping. “Amazin’ how much Owens loved his son. William this and William that. Gets tiresome hearin’ all that prattle ‘bout a spoiled soft-handed man what ain’t done a lick of work in his life.” Wobbling, he raised his gun overhead.
Slithering movement above – must be a snake. Celia shuddered into Turner, his hand circling her wrist—staying her.
William moved a half-step forward. “Seems to me you’ve been imbibin’ a tad too much liquor tonight Mr. Gaskins. Which is why Father released you from your job at our establishment.”
“T’weren’t from my infernal alcohol habit, no sir. T’was from my uncooperative niece.” Gaskins gestured with his pistol toward Mabel.
Celia gasped—as angry as she was with Mabel, she didn’t wish her harm. Turner released his grip.
Mabel wiped back tears then shook her finger at Celia. “Some of this is your fault. If not for your soft Christian heart, befriending me when no one else would, and bringing me around into Charleston society, I’d never have been accepted. All those names and relations I worked so diligently to recall availed little till you took me under your wing, Celia. Except with William. He loved my stories – was so kind to me.”
Celia couldn’t believe William’s broad, affectionate smile for the woman who had deceived them all. “Mabel, darlin’, I don’t mean any disrespect, but I knew all along you weren’t kin to half the people you claimed.”
Her friend tried to step away from him but his hands secured her. “Why not?”
Blue eyes twinkled as he gazed at Celia’s now-former friend. “Because they’re my kinfolk, you silly girl.”
“I am not a girl.”
Celia gave Mabel a hard appraisal. How old was she truly? Behind Turner, something rustled in the undergrowth.
Lord, please, don’t let it be a gator. Those creatures terrified her. She spied some of the greens the slaves’ root doctor liked to gather. Why, she’d never be out in this swamp unless she was with Mama Teensy, looking for special vegetation for healing. Her hands shook and she clasped them together.
“You have to believe me.”
Gaskins rubbed his head, eyes closed tight, face pained. If only someone could knock him aside. He opened his watery eyes and glared at Celia.
Please Lord, send us help!
“I thought it’d be so easy. Mabel’s a true beauty. It had to have been your piety and your fortune, Miss Sheldon, ‘less he prefers those pale washwater looks of your’n.”
Turner bent and whispered in her ear. “The drunken man isn’t able to see well, my beauty.”
“Where’s that ring of your grandpappy’s?” Gaskins lurched forward, toward William. “One wedding means one cousin inherits. I want to be sure it’s the right couple.”
Celia covered her mouth, sure she was going to start screaming any moment now. She swatted at a mosquito. No, she must be calm.
Mabel Holloway’s features hardened. “You could have had any young man in Charleston, Celia Sheldon. But you had to flirt with the one man I fell in love with, didn’t you? How many times had I shared my feelings with you about William?”
Turner squeezed Celia’s hand, his dark hair falling across his forehead as he leaned toward her. “All will be well,” he whispered. “Have faith.”
Mabel’s eyes flashed at Celia. “I hoped you would go after my latest beau. William and I talked about everything. He believed if I accepted Miles’ engagement offer, you were so contrary you’d pursue the one man I had.”
Under no condition would Celia have chased after Miss Holloway’s beau. Heat rose up her neck.
Crossing her arms over her ample chest, Mabel fixed her gaze on William. “Why did you tell me that, then, Mr. Owens, if you intended to marry Miss Sheldon?”
Turner Cane Owens placed a protective arm around Celia. She leaned into his side. The scent of leather, starch, and lemon verbena and the warmth of his hand at her waist, soothed her.
Tears poured down Mabel’s cheeks. “If you had just let things be, Celia. If you’d only ignored him every time we stopped by the shops. If you’d married Jonathan.”
How did she manage to look so pretty even with mud all over her dress, her auburn hair tumbled down, and red splotching her ivory face?
William brought Mabel into his arms and Turner looked down at Celia, his eyebrows raised. The serpent moved lower, closer to its target.
The scent of brackish water strengthened, the tides must be coming in. Soon this area would be ankle deep in water. Celia finally possessed her bearings. The quarters for the outside servants weren’t far from here and they should be coming back from the fields soon. Dear Lord, how could we get there, to protection? She should have been home by now. Surely Daddy would have sent someone looking. Wouldn’t he?
“Well, at least now you’ll cease mangling our Carolina accent, Miss Holloway. Made me wince sometimes.” William laughed then cried out as Mabel brought her foot down hard on his.
Slithering movement resumed in the trees ahead of Celia. Brown variegated pattern against the tan limb suggested a cottonmouth. From behind, whispers soft as a breeze rustled through the cyprus. From the corner of her eye, Celia noted something moving from behind the massive swamp oak.
Turner glanced over her shoulder, eyes widening, before he nodded almost imperceptibly.
Warm wood slid over and forward on her shoulder and rested heavily there. Had Turner not held her, she’d have jerked away. Moving only her eyes to look, first the muzzle then rifle barrel appeared. She took a deep breath inhaling the scent of fatback, lye soap, and coconut oil that only one man she knew rubbed into his dark skin. She exhaled in relief – her prayers had been answered.
Oblivious to the water moccasin dangling above him, Gaskins pulled the cork out of his liquor bottle and took a swig. The freedmen’s eyes grew wide as they stared in Celia’s direction.
“Its ‘Lijah, Missy—don’t you be movin’. You realize you be on your cousins’ land here?” The man’s deep voice was one she’d known all her life.
Celia exhaled in relief.
“This be her swamp, Miss Celia. I got permission to hunt back here. Can shoot nuisance varmints if’n I see ‘em. Sure do see one now—maybe two. Leroy Gaskin be a nuisance and a varmint so I reckon that make him just what I say. But his kin…” The gun lifted from her shoulder. “Cover your ears, Miss Celia, and close your eyes.”
Contributed by Carrie Fancett Pagels, http://CarrieFancettPagels.com
Chapter Six will be hosted by Gina Welborn on www.inkwellinspirations.com,
written by Patty Smith Hall.
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