Sultry Summer 1882
girl's body flew through the air.
Moments earlier, she’d been riding her black stallion down the beach.
Conscious only of thoughts of her job at the local newspaper, the girl
languishing on her horse’s back gave no response to the urgent cry, “This way!
Ride this way!” Nor did she hear the distant shouts, sharp whistle or even the
pop of gunfire that followed - though her animal perked his ears at the faint
When the growl of her own hunger invaded her
contemplation, the girl realized the hour had grown late. More importantly, the
wind was beginning to swirl. She was alert now to her surroundings and noticed
the sea birds struggling against invisible air currents. She listened hard for
the usual humming of native insects as strands of her hair tangled in the
blustery breeze, but all she heard was the ever increasing whine of wind and
pounding surf. Overhead, low-running clouds in a queer yellow domed sky shrouded
a heavy sun dropping in the west.
Noir’s unexpected whinny stunned her, and she nearly toppled from the
saddle. He reared up, forelegs scraping the air as he sought imaginary rescue.
His sleek black hide glistened and the ebony animal bolted forward, taking his
mistress with him. The horse was uncontrollable with fear and the girl could
smell his terror despite the churn of the atmosphere. As his eyes ballooned with
dread and frothy panic dripped from his mouth, his rider called to him, “What’s
the matter, boy? You should be used to a little wind and rain. It's Florida,
after all." She patted his powerful neck in useless reassurance only to be
interrupted by a thunderous roar of nature's authority.
Then the girl's head snapped to the right as her eyes took in the ghastly
sight of three white waterspouts sprinting just above the ocean’s boiling
surface. Lightning charged the sky as pricking needles of rain began drilling
the rough sea. The girl rallied all her strength. Winding the reins around her
gloved hands, she held tight, flattening herself along Noir's length as he galloped full-fury, trying to out distance death. She
refused to look again at the monstrous funnels gaining on them. She knew their
purpose - to take them as partners in a pirouette of extinction.
The girl gamely chose to spend her last breath in prayer, "Dear Lord,
Then everything stilled as she was struck from behind and cast to the
In the tiny southern town of Fernandina, Florida on Amelia Island, little Marie pleaded, "I want my tiptoes to touch the roof,
Daddy. Please push me a little harder." Pale pigtails flew back from the
three-year-old’s sweet face. While the ropes of the swing creaked, she strained
to reach the ceiling to add her personal scuff marks to the scarred planks, the
same as her older brother and sisters had done over the years.
Her father, Carroll Michael Dunnigan, had built a
chair swing in the barn for his youngsters so they could actively play, even
when it rained. He rarely refused his children anything if he felt it would not
harm them and if it was within his power to give. "To my mind," he told his
wife, Ella, "There's no such thing as spoiling a child. That's why they're put
on this earth."
Miss Ella found she was married to the most intractable
husband created when it came to his four offspring. She'd discovered why Michael
was so indulgent by listening to infrequent stories of his childhood. Over the
years, he'd revealed pieces of himself in dribs and drabs. His parents, she'd learned, had said, "No," more often than not to nearly all
his wants, big or small. Their reasons were most probably economic, considering
the times and the size of their family, but those denials had permanently marked
Michael. His reaction was irrational generosity. Whatever the reason, it was
difficult to fault a man for such a characteristic. Unless, that is, you were
the mother of his children.
"Now, Michael," always Miss Ella’s reply, "If the children receive all they ask
for, how will they contend with life when things don't run their way? They’ve
never known real hardship or consequence."
"Nonsense! Would you wish on them what we've been through? With the war
behind us, we’re finally all living in hog heaven. Now stop your fretting.
They’ll cope. Dunnigans always do."
Miss Ella hoped she had instilled a sense of the practical in each child
despite the fairytale life provided by their adoring father.
Turning to leave the barn she asked, "How did you happen to come home so
early today? It's just now five o'clock. Are things going well in the world of
He knows our evening meal is always served at six, she
thought, unless there's a potluck supper at church or some other social
event. Then again, it could be that his already bulging belly demands an earlier
"What's the use of being the boss, Miss Ella, if I can't play a little
hooky with my baby here?" His tone was short. This was certainly one of his
hungry moods coming on.
"I'll see if I can't hurry up your dinner, Michael."
"What? You mean it'll be a while?"
"Yes, darling," she responded in as sarcastic a voice as his question
deserved. "If you'd listen to your wife occasionally, you'd hear her say she has
a few things to do besides following the timetable of her husband's stomach."
He reacted with a snort.
"Today, as substitute choir mistress, I was called
upon to make last minute changes in this Sunday's schedule of hymns because Miss
Bayer is out of town visiting her grandfather and Mrs. Lingenfelter is having
Her husband grumbled in disgust. Unable to stay cross with him for long, she
offered, "If you'll give me ten minutes, I'll pull some cornbread from the oven
and slather it with apple butter for you to nibble on. That should tide you over for a bit
until I'm sure the soup is done."
"You know how I hate it if the beans are the least bit hard," he cautioned.
"We only hate the devil," Marie announced.
"Yes, baby girl. That's right. See there, Michael. It's true what they say
about little pitchers having big ears and our little pitcher hears everything.
Don't think she doesn't."
Michael replaced his grimace with a smile and kissed
his youngest child on the cheek.
Miss Ella shook her head at her sometimes moody, but very wonderful
husband, thinking how lucky she was to have him. Back inside the aromatic
kitchen, she checked the steeping jelly kettle of peaches, stirred the pot of
salt pork and bean soup, and cleared a spot for the hot cornbread among the
fresh radishes and onions. It had been such a peaceful afternoon. Too peaceful,
Where was Jack Patrick? Her only son, age eight, was usually so noisy she
knew his whereabouts every minute. She left the kitchen, went down the long hall
past the stairs, and entered the front parlor to find her mother, Hettie Eckert,
known to all as Grammy. Grammy was swaying in her rocker, intently working on a braided rag rug, and there was
Jack Patrick, sneaking up from behind, scissors in hand, about to cut the soft
wild-hair wispies from his sainted grandmother's head!
"Jack Patrick!" yelped his mother.
Calmly placing the shears back in the sewing basket, he stated, "Mama, I
hope lightning flies through the window and kills the cat. I'm innocent!"
She knew exactly how innocent he was. She allowed the boy to dash out the
front door before he caught her laughing. Fortunately, since her hearing was not
quite as keen as it once was, Grammy was oblivious to her grandson's near
attack, figuring only that his mother was yet again reprimanding the boy for his
Leaning against the wall, Miss Ella thought back to
yesterday, remembering her middle daughter, eighteen-year-old Breelan, as she’d
mimicked Grammy in the construction of her own rug. Over the last few weeks,
Breelan had torn three-inch strips of cloth, folded their frayed edges inward
and sewn the long thin tails, one to another. She had arrived at the final
step of braiding and stitching the tails into a flat oval rug, when her mother
had overheard her say, "This will be my scrap mine of colorful memories. I've
made it from the worn dresses and torn trousers we've saved, Gram, just like you
taught me. When I have my little girl, I want you to show her how to make your
rugs, same as you've shown me."
Miss Ella hoped her mother would still be around in the time it took Breelan to have
a child old enough to learn the art of rug making. And interestingly enough,
Breelan seemed certain her child would be a girl.
"Whenever I look at my rug, I'll think of this pretty
dress." Breelan pointed to the tail made from green plaid taffeta. "I couldn't
wait for Carolena to outgrow it so it would be mine. Its lace petticoat was
edged in red satin ribbon. I'll tell you a secret, if you promise not to tell
"I promise, honey," Grammy had conspired.
Miss Ella knew she should have left the parlor, but so loved to witness the
closeness of the two that her heart had frozen her feet in place.
"When I was twelve, I had a teacher named Mr. Gregor. Until him, all my
instructors had been old. He seemed much too young and handsome to hold such a
post. Hoping he'd fall in love with me, I strategically sat at my desk,
adjusting my skirt just a tish, so the edge of my beautiful petticoat peaked
out. If he noticed, he never said a thing. But I think now that was my first
real attempt at flirtation. I was thrilled by the possibilities that might
develop, even at such a young age as that. Pretty shameful, huh?"
The sound of Marie's chattering had interrupted Miss
Ella's eavesdropping and she never did hear Grammy's answer. Whatever the
response had been, Miss Ella was certain it was given with wisdom.
Her thoughts back in the present, Miss Ella frowned at the idea of her children
growing up. Once Carolena, the oldest, was born, she and Michael waited to have
more babies until after the terrible fighting of the War Between the States was
over. They were successful due to Michael's absence during the conflict and a
bit of his Irish luck, to be sure. Today, she had two lovely young ladies all
grown. She didn't want to lose her daughters, have men take them away, yet that
was what had happened to her when she left Pennsylvania to live with Michael in
Fernandina. And she was glad of it. When you had love, no matter if that love
was peaceful or chaotic, you had the world.
Lighting the lamp hanging above the large enamel sink, she moved quickly to
light another over the eight-foot pine worktable, trying to fire them both with
the same match. Miss Ella was a creature of habit so she filled the crystal
pitcher with cold well water from the red hand pump on the drain board, despite
the recently installed indoor water faucet. As she rinsed the radishes, she
decided it was time to have the children wash up for supper.
Carolena, twenty-one, was upstairs reading a book she'd
borrowed from the lending library. Her mother had watched her maneuver up the
steps to her bedroom, arms loaded with books. Miss Ella sometimes questioned
whether a professor could read all that literature - let alone a young woman -
in the two-week period allotted. Her daughter had never failed to complete the
she checked the simmering soup, Miss Ella felt a burst of pride as she recalled
how Carolena had recently graduated from Florida Women's College in Tallahassee.
Living back at home and wondering what to do with her life, this daughter had
considered the usual teaching positions available, but hadn't the patience.
She'd thought of nursing, but hadn't the stomach. Currently, to the delight of
her father, she was fascinated with architecture and design. Between the public
library and the Dunnigan private library, there certainly were enough books on
those subjects to keep her interest fueled.
What opposites Carolena and Breelan are, their mother
mused. Carolena Michele. I’m glad we named our first-born after her father since
she has his golden coloring. Her honeyed hair and moss green eyes fit with her
delicate emotions and serious, studious ways, but we don't see her straight,
white smile often enough to suit me. Breelan Jane's ivory skin and dark brown
hair are more like mine, and she's so easy going, she never gives us a bit of
worry. If only she cared more for her studies, but it's writing stories that
appeals to her.
Picking up a water glass and polishing off the fingerprints, Miss Ella was
reminded of how many times her girls had fought over whose turn it was to set
the table. Too often their frequent bickering turned nasty. They went from
jamming freshly ironed clothes beneath one another's blankets to putting old
horse teeth in mashed potatoes. Miss Ella hoped they'd soon outgrow all of the
perceived infractions of sibling statutes and childish laws before they wore
their parents plum out.
Miss Ella caught sight of Jack Patrick and Marie in the back yard intently
observing their mongrel dog, Blackie-White-Spots. Leaning over the sink, she
looked out the window, likewise fascinated by the animal stalking his own shadow
in a slow motion kind of movement.
The calm was short-lived. "Mama! Mama!" hollered Marie running into the
kitchen to hide in her mother's skirts. "Jack Patrick's gonna make me eat
"What's wrong with that, child?" her mother puzzled. "You love cheese."
"No ma'am, I don't. Not no more. It's made from buffalo
tongues! Jack Patrick told me so!" she whined, wrinkling her nose and sticking
out her tongue.
Miss Ella peered through the screen door to see her
son retrieve a cube of cheese from his pocket. Picking off dirt or lint or both
before inserting it into his mouth, he puffed his cheeks and grinned widely to
proclaimed his triumph at having snagged the last piece of cheddar by telling
tales to his little sister. But this was nothing new.
After her mother explained the origin of cheese to her, Marie was clearly
relieved. She crawled into the cupboard under the sink, much involved in a
mysterious conversation of baby talk and gibberish.
"All my children have loved that hidey-hole of yours,
"Wanna play, Mama?"
"I’d love to, dear, but I have to finish supper."
Miss Ella washed the last of the mixing bowls and watched her
husband loosen his tie. Michael got down to talk to his son, now playing in the
sand. She dried her brow with the corner of her apron, thinking how oppressively
still the outside air seemed and how muggy it felt.
"Now where has Breelan gone off to, Marie? She knows
it's her turn to finish setting the table. At least I think it is."
Abruptly, the rustle of the wind picked up. "Stay in your special spot for
Mama, baby girl. I'll be right back." Miss Ella dashed to the front welcome
hall and threw open the screen door. Standing on the eastern side of the wraparound
veranda, she wanted to deny what she saw and feared most. The leaves on the
trees were turned upside down and the daylight was sheathed in an unnatural
saffron color. "Sweet Jesus! Where's my Breelan?"
Water splattered Breelan Dunnigan's face. She gasped for air, but was unable to
fill her lungs. Was she drowning? She tried to paddle her way to the surface,
when she realized she couldn't move her arms. Was she pinned beneath some
massive tree? Fluttering leaves were teasing her lips unmercifully. But there
were no trees on Amelia Beach. Completely confused, she panted for breath.
Slowly raising the lashes of her sapphire eyes, she tried to blink away the
rain that continued to pelt her skin. The broad shoulders of a man lying on top
of her were blocking her line of sight. "What are you doing? Get off me! Get
off!" she sputtered, insulted and frightened, all the while trying to flail any
part of her that was free. "Oh! When I tell my people ..."
Her words were choked off as a huge hand came down across her mouth. The
palm was callused and smelled masculine. The hand was powerful and could easily
hurt her if that were the intent of this stranger. Alarm spun harrowing
possibilities of her fate. After being nearly flattened, was she to be robbed
and murdered? What had she done in her short life to justify such a finish?