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April 9, 1871
Would the baby live? He'd survived the night, thanks be to God. But would he finally keep liquids down today? The dark-skinned baby in Jessie's arms drew a deep, wonderful breath. She'd bathed the fevered child all night long. Trembling with fatigue, she wilted onto the old rocker.
Across from her in the gray glow of near dawn, she glanced at the outline of the baby's mother and father. They lay side by side on their narrow rope-bed in mutual exhaustion. Earlier, the mother, unwell herself, had nearly fainted and Jessie had forced her to lie down. Now, the way the black couple lay so close, so intimate, made her throat tighten. She looked away as if she'd intruded. She took a deep breath, steadying herself.
The grim dread that had oppressed her all night turned to cautious gratitude. But I must get home now. "Ruth," she called softly to the sleeping mother.
The young woman stirred and moaned, "My baby?"
"I think his fever may have broken."
Ruth stumbled to Jessie's side, lifting the child. With the inside of her wrist, Ruth tested her son's forehead. "You have the bestest way with sickness."
Aching, Jessie shuffled the few steps to the door and retrieved her black cape and bonnet from a nail. "Ruth, he's not out of danger yet." She fumbled with the ribbons of her black bonnet.
"Please, my husband will walk you home."
Jessie knew she must hurry home before her gossipy neighbors saw that she, a young widow, had spent a night away from home. And if a black man were seen accompanying her? Even worse. She shook her head."Ruth, please don't give your baby anything but mother's milk. It's important. Promise me."
Cradling her baby son close, Ruth nodded. "God bless you, Mrs. Wagstaff."
After one last reminder to Ruth to heed her warning, Jessie shut the flimsy door behind her. She hurried north along the railroad tracks and then crossed them. Like the Continental Divide, the parallel black metal lines divided the freed slaves on one side of the railway from the Irish immigrants opposite them. Though the gray-brown shanties, thrown together from used lumber and tin, looked like heads bent in sadness, leaning close to each other as though sharing their sorrows, the two sides, both equally needy, never mixed. The scene always depressed her.
Jessie's long black skirt and petticoats swirled around her ankles, their weight growing with every step, slowing her down. Over the thud of her heels on the wooden Randolph Street Bridge, she heard the jingle of the harness bells and clattering hooves of the first morning bob-tail trolley. A stitch in her side, she hurried to the corner, flagging it down thankfully.
Lifting her skirts discreetly, she climbed up the steps. While she looked for a seat among the day-maids and workmen, the trolley jerked to a start. She stumbled, sat down abruptly, then moved to accommodate her modest bustle.
She would make it home now well before the gossips were up and snooping. Sighing, she closed her eyes, letting herself sway with the trolley's curious rhythm of going forward while rocking side to side. She snapped her eyes wide open. If she missed her stop, then needed to ride back, it would cost another penny and minutes she couldn't afford.
Blinking to keep her watering eyes open, she glimpsed the skyline of downtown. Dawn had come. The rising sun cast a rosy glow over the squared, ornate parapets of the limestone hotels. Her Will had called them imitation castles. Will's face surfaced in her memory, smiling as always, blond and blue-eyed. He whispered to her, "Come here, princess." He drew her into strong arms and his warm lips touched—
Ring! Startled awake, Jessie sat up straighter. With eyes now wide open, Jessie noted each northward street sign. At Ontario Street, she yanked the bell cord. Relief left her feeling hollow as she stepped down at the corner. Her pace quickened down the alleys so near home now, murky puddles wetting her shoes and cotton stockings.
Around the familiar, white frame houses, the lowing of a few cows and the clatter of a milk pail told her some people had already risen. She walked into heavy mist close to Lake Michigan; it concealed her.
Almost there. She began to breathe easier. From her alley shed, she heard the tut-tut of her hens. At last, through the grayness, she approached her back steps, an island in the surrounding fog.
Like a rag doll moved by unseen hands, she listened to the crunch-crunch rhythm of her shoes on the coal-cinder path. Longing for her first cup of coffee, she hurried to the first step.
"Jessie?" a sleep-filled voice muttered out of the mist.
A man's voice. A cold needle of shock jabbed her. She yelped.
"Jessie, Jessie Wagstaff?" the same voice asked.
Her eyes found the man, looming above her on the porch. But the slender stranger with dark hair and eyes, dressed in a well-cut black suit, did not appear threatening to her. Indeed, his startled reaction must have mirrored her own. "Who . . . are you?" she stammered.
"Smith. I'm Lee Smith."
Heat flooded her. All her hurry and worry were for naught. Every neighborhood gossip must have heard her shout. She turned her aggravation on him full force. "Why are you on my porch at this hour?"
The man just gawked at her.
The door behind him hit the outside wall with a crack like a gunshot. Susan bolted toward the stranger, brandishing a broom. Outrage twisted her dark features. "Get! Get! You leave Mrs. Wagstaff alone!"
The man ducked just in time to avoid the swat aimed for his head.
Frozen with shock, Jessie merely watched as the man stumbled down the few steps to her side. "Susan!" Jessie finally shouted over her friend's stream of threats and captured the end of the broom, grabbing it away from Susan. "Stop! Please! I'm unharmed!" Blessed Assurance. Copyright © by Lyn Cote. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.