Copyright © 2016 by Derek Catron
From the banks of the flat, broad river, Annabelle Rutledge Holcombe looked east toward everything she had known. The Missouri flowed slow and brown here. She credited the humility of the locals who called it the “Big Muddy.” Closing her eyes, she pictured the harbor and the limitless expanse of ocean that stretched beyond the barrier islands. With water lapping against the dock, she could almost imagine herself home in Charleston. Only the smell wasn’t right. She missed the tangy freshness of salt water. It was cleaner than the reek of offal, butchered beef and whatever else washed downstream from Omaha’s stockyards.
She opened her eyes. Compared with the harbor, the river was hardly any barrier. It would be nothing to swim across. Disappear someplace where no one depended on her, where no one could be disappointed in what she had become. She was a good swimmer. A stream had cut past the fields near her home, isolated enough from both neighbor and slave that no one saw where she went on the rides she took to flee, if only briefly, the dreary days and stifling heat of planting season. After her swim, her dark hair would be wet beneath her riding bonnet, but no one ever noticed, not even her husband.
Perhaps no one cared enough to remark on it.
Annabelle shut her mind to such thoughts. It had only been a few years, yet those days before the war might have been another lifetime. She had dreamed of escape even then, so it made little sense that she should feel wistful now. She should embrace the coming journey, the chance for a fresh start. An opportunity to put memories of the war and her life before at a distance, not only of time but the width of a continent.
Turning at the sound of her father discussing terms with the wholesaler, Annabelle listened with mounting concern. She hesitated to apply the word “negotiate” to such a one-sided exchange. John McCormick was the grocer Annabelle’s father had contacted before they left Charleston to ensure they could get the provisions they needed. Something had changed in the time it took the family to travel by rail to Omaha, and Mr. McCormick sought a better deal.
“I’m afraid that’s the best price I can offer,” McCormick said.
“But that’s not what you stated in your letter.” Annabelle cringed to hear the plaintive note in her father’s voice.
“Prices change, Mr. Rutledge. As a businessman, I’m sure you understand.”
Langdon Rutledge was not yet an old man, but the war had aged him. His once-dark beard turned salt-and-pepper with the war’s start and then, seemingly overnight with the ruin of his import business, went completely white. They had all lost weight during the war, but her father’s new shape suited him poorly. No one trusted a hungry-looking businessman.
Unlike most of the men they knew, her father had not expected a quick and easy end to the war. He had been to Boston and New York. He had seen the Yankees’ factories and warehouses. He had witnessed immigrants pouring off boats, restless with ambition, like ants stirred to a frenzy. Yet he kept his reservations to himself. Such doubts were practically treason when every true son of South Carolina burned with such patriotic zeal they would sizzle if you threw water on them.
Her father had stood by when the boys announced their intention to fight. Annabelle knew he couldn’t stop her headstrong brothers, but she wondered if her mother blamed him for not trying. News of their deaths abandoned her mother to an all-consuming grief. Her father fell numb to it, a reaction even more disturbing to Annabelle. He was the same when the generals seized what they would from his storehouses, compensating him with worthless Confederate graybacks. Whatever spirit had driven him to build a thriving business had flickered out like an oil lamp run dry.
By war’s end, her father was a broken man. Even a year later prospects weren’t good for rebuilding in a South that Annabelle knew would soon be dominated by carpetbaggers and scalawags. She had read in newspapers how miners in Montana pulled out ten million dollars in gold in one year. Men were getting rich with little more than a pan and a pick—tools they had to buy from somebody. Why not her father?
War left Annabelle a wealthy widow, at least until the federal tax collectors figured out how to steal South Carolina’s plantations from their owners. Selling when she did provided the stake for a new start. More than gold, they needed hope, and there was none of that in Charleston.
Planning the journey west rejuvenated her father, at least to a point. Her mother’s spirits were lifted when Annabelle’s aunt, uncle and three young cousins joined them. Since no man would conduct business with a woman, her father and her uncle Luke organized most of the details, recruited a company of fellow travelers, and negotiated specifics over how much each would carry without risking a breakdown of wagons or ox teams. Her father still knew how to cut a deal.
Closing one was another matter.
McCormick was a fat man with a grizzled beard and a bald head that reflected the morning sun when he turned his back to her father, their business concluded. Other customers were gathered outside the dockside warehouse waiting for the wholesaler’s attention. He appeared startled when Annabelle blocked his path, smoothing the folds of her black calico dress as she cleared her throat.
“Mr. McCormick, your new prices are unacceptable. You will fulfill the terms outlined in your letter.” Though still a young woman with little more than a score of years, time as a plantation mistress lent an authority to Annabelle’s voice. The other customers, all men, turned to watch.
Despite his girth, McCormick had to look up to see Annabelle’s face. He appeared puzzled, his features pinched tight as if squinting against the May sun. He turned to her father, the question apparent on his face.
“My daughter,” her father said.
Before he spoke, Annabelle reached out, pinching and twisting the lobe of an ear so that the portly fellow looked at her. “I will not be ignored, sir. I do not know what passes for manners on the frontier, but where I am from a gentleman never turns his back when addressed by a lady.”
McCormick reached for her hand but reconsidered when she tightened her grip. He doubled over at the waist instead, his ear turned toward her to relieve the pressure, mouth agape in a silent scream. He began to nod in agreement but halted at realizing the wisdom of remaining still.
Running a plantation had taught Annabelle that some men responded only to a show of strength, particularly when a woman delivered the orders, yet she recognized this as a rash act. Something about the way McCormick turned from her, leaving her looking at the side of his head, the lobe dangling like some baited hook, set her off. She was tired of seeing her father beaten down by events and men who just a few years earlier would have been groveling to serve him. Aware of the crowd’s attention, she flushed. Swallowing back the doubt that tickled the back of her throat, she pressed forward.
She could not recall ever having held a man’s earlobe, and its softness surprised her, like an overly ripe berry. She wondered if it would burst should she squeeze hard enough. McCormick seemed to have read her mind for his open mouth began to emit a sound.
Annabelle held firm. “In your letter, you stated that you would fulfill our needs at a discounted rate if we purchased the bulk of our provisions from your establishment.”
As she pivoted to face her father, McCormick groaned, his boots making a sharp clacking sound against the wooden dock as he maneuvered to relieve the pressure on his ear. “Father, do you have the list?”
He read: “Flour, two thousand pounds. Bacon, fifteen hundred. One hundred pounds of coffee, two hundred pounds of sugar, one hundred pounds of salt.”
Relaxing her fingers enough so the man could stand upright, Annabelle faced McCormick. She didn’t need to consult the list.
“At three dollars per one hundred pounds of flour, ten cents per pound of bacon, nine cents a pound for sugar, two dollars for a hundred pounds of salt and fifteen dollars for a hundred pounds of coffee, we owe two hundred and forty-five dollars. We will pay you an additional five dollars for sixty pounds of dried fruit, making it an even two hundred and fifty.”
Her fingers tightened, forcing McCormick to bend at the waist again. “And you will throw in forty pounds of jarred pickles, Mr. McCormick, because you value your reputation as an honest tradesman—and because we are paying in gold, not your dubious greenbacks.”
With a final twist of the wrist, she released him. McCormick fell to his knees.
Annabelle looked to her father.
“Do we have an agreement?” he asked McCormick.
The customers’ laughter drowned out the response. Annabelle relented on seeing McCormick nod, his hands cupping his ear. He shrank back as she stepped forward, a hand extended to seal the deal.
“Just pay the boy,” he said with a nod toward a colored man standing wide-eyed at the warehouse door. “He will get what you want.”
Her hand still extended, Annabelle waited a beat longer before turning away.
The colored man loaded their provisions into the buckboard her father had rented for the day. He remained silent while they watched the loading. Perhaps I should have left things to him. He might have rallied if I’d given him a chance.
Looking at the man her father had become, Annabelle knew better. The skin beneath his eyes had sagged and darkened, creating half-rings that appeared like perpetual frowns beneath dull eyes. He’d lost most of his hair, too, and had taken to wearing a hat as if he were a rancher or cowboy. She worried if she had been mistaken to uproot her parents, even if the life they knew was disintegrating around them.
Annabelle smiled at her father, hoping a cheerful face might mask her thoughts. They were committed now. Better they look to the future. They had a meeting that night with the other members of their company. She hoped Caleb, their hired man, had the wagons in order. Her father planned to introduce the guides he believed could lead them on a shortcut to Montana, saving weeks and hundreds of miles. Annabelle struggled to conceal her uneasiness, wondering if she’d been right to leave those affairs to him. The guides he had chosen had been Union officers, one an old colonel, the other a notorious killer with an almost mythic reputation. As if following a pair of Yankees weren’t bad enough, a freed slave rode with them.
“It won’t be so bad,” her father said.
Annabelle didn’t know if he spoke of the journey or the meeting with the guides. She couldn’t see that it made a difference.
“I know, Father.”
He seemed to welcome the lie, and Annabelle permitted him to take her hand and lead her to the wagon.
Caleb Williams pulled at the harnesses leading the oxen. Stupid brutes. They had eaten the grass where he left them the previous day but were reluctant to move on. Beating the larger one with a switch, Caleb directed it and the rest followed.
“Now which one am I?” he muttered. “The dumb bastard getting beat on or the dumber bastard who follows him?”
The ox offered no response as Caleb followed at a walking pace. He couldn’t hurry it. They are strong, but there’s no haste in them. They don’t rush to eat and, with no balls, nature don’t motivate them, either. They just work and chew. If Rutledge and his high-and-mighty daughter thought of Caleb as no different from an ox, well, that was their mistake, Caleb thought.
It had been Caleb who told them to get oxen. Some drivers preferred mules because they were faster. But a mule wants to eat grain—which would be in short supply once they left town. Plus, mules aren’t as strong as oxen, so you need more of them. Rutledge had listened, then showed his shrewdness. Caleb had told him it would take two yoke to pull the wagon, but Rutledge got three pairs so that if any died along the way they would still have enough for the journey. Caleb hadn’t thought of that.
Looking around for the extra hands, Caleb flinched as a gunshot echoed across the flat meadow.
“Missed him. Damn.”
A second shot and Caleb cringed again, a reflex he hadn’t shaken nearly two years since the last time anyone had shot at him.
“Hah. You missed him, too.”
Caleb had sent the Daggett boys to get rope, figuring he needed to send both because they had but a single brain between them. Now he regretted the decision, realizing one brother’s capacity for finding trouble was multiplied by the other.
“What are you idiots doing?”
Willis, older by a year and fatter by half, gestured with his revolver, first at Caleb, then toward the grass just off the path, as if that explained everything. “I saw him first.”
“You missed him first,” said Clifton, the smaller and fairer of the two. He believed himself the smarter one, no great distinction as far as Caleb could tell.
“Watch where you point that thing,” Caleb told Willis, swatting his gun hand. Little more than wastrels from Georgia, the brothers were eager to make their fortune in the gold fields but lacked the funds to get there. Rutledge hired them to drive a pair of his supply wagons, but he left it up to Caleb to make sure they knew how.
Standing beside the brothers, Caleb wondered how long it had been since they bathed. He was probably just as ripe; he just no longer noticed. Then he saw the snake. “It’s a rattler,” Willis said.
“I can see that.” Thing was mad now and coiled for a fight, making it no smarter than its would-be assassins.
“He’s a big one, ain’t he?” Clifton said.
“It’s nothing compared with the moccasins I used to shoot back home,” Caleb said. He drew his Navy Colt and carefully aimed along the beaded sight.
“You missed him, too,” Clifton hooted after the shot sailed high.
A look from Caleb silenced the runt. Damn revolvers. He had taken the gun off a dead officer in Mississippi. Practically only good for hand-to-hand fighting. Adjusting his aim, he fired before either Daggett wagged his tongue again. The snake exploded with the impact.
“Ew!” Willis started toward the carcass, pulling out a knife. “You want the rattle?”
Caleb returned to the job. There would be plenty more snakes to kill on the trail. “I want you boys to help me finish moving the oxen.”
“What’s the hurry?” Clifton asked.
The fool had already forgotten. “The meeting’s tonight. All the wagon drivers are going to be there. I mean to be there, too.”
Like the Daggett boys, Caleb merely worked for Rutledge and hadn’t actually been invited to the meeting. The boot-licker had gone and found himself guides he said knew a shortcut to Montana, but Caleb would be damned if he was going to follow some Yankees and their Sambo. Not without taking their measure.
Rutledge was smart but soft. He had been just a quartermaster, living at home in Charleston, reading his books, balancing his ledgers, climbing into bed with his wife every night and complaining that the “boys” hadn’t won the war already so he could get back to making money. He never crawled through mud while people shot at him. He didn’t march until the shoes disintegrated under his feet. Rutledge lost two sons, Caleb gave him that, but that only made it worse that he would hire bluebells.
The war had been over barely a year. Maybe that was enough time for a man like Rutledge to forget it had been Union soldiers who killed his sons. Maybe that’s what makes rich men the way they are. It wouldn’t occur to Rutledge that Caleb might have an opinion on what the bastards had to say. Or that maybe Caleb, having served honorably in the war himself so far as Rutledge knew, might have something more to offer than his sweat and muscle.
Once reaching fresh grass, the oxen ambled ahead without more encouragement. As long as nothing disturbed them, they wouldn’t wander, but Caleb wanted them watched. Plenty of cattle thieves in the territories. Besides, that’s what Rutledge paid these fools for. Rich men like Rutledge needed others to do their work, and with the Sambos free, Caleb knew who would be toting the wood, fetching the water and driving the wagons.
“Get used to it, boys. You are the new slaves.”
Willis looked bothered. “We ain’t slaves.”
Clifton nodded. “We’re free to go where we want.”
“Then why ain’t you in Montana, already making your fortune?”
Accustomed to dealing with his brother, Clifton had the habit of stating the obvious. “You know as well as us, we got to get there first. We ain’t got no money for that.”
“So you’ll be a slave until we get to Montana. And if you don’t strike it rich, you will be somebody’s slaves so you can eat and sleep under a roof.”
Willis looked confused, but Clifton smiled as if he had it all figured out. “We ain’t slaves because they pay us.”
Caleb laughed. “For the pittance a rich man pays, you are worse off than a slave.” Willis would never understand, so Caleb turned to Clifton. “If you took a woman and had some brats, is a rich man going to pay you any more for the same work just so’s you can feed ’em?”
Caleb knew that answer only too well, though he didn’t like to think on it, much less talk about it. He had watched men die in terrible ways, but no death troubled him like the one he had not been present to see, the one that happened because he had been too poor to give his sweet Laurie everything she deserved.
“At least a slave could have a wife and children, if they weren’t sold somewheres else. Maybe even see a doctor when they get sick. Best you can hope for is to save a dollar or two to buy a poke in a saloon and hope your master will have you buried when you die.”
Clifton’s knitted brows told Caleb the boys still didn’t understand. He was about to let the subject go when the youth smiled slyly and pointed a finger at him. “You ain’t getting paid much better than us. If we’s slaves, you a slave, too.”
Who was dumber—the bastard getting beat on or the bastard who follows him? Throwing his hands in the air, Caleb stormed off. Let the boys think they got the better of him. Let Rutledge think he had the better of him. Caleb didn’t care. He had his own reasons for seeking salvation in the gold fields that no one else need know. He just had to bide his time and be as clever as Rutledge.
When Caleb dreamed of Montana, it wasn’t a pile of gold nuggets he saw. No. Caleb dreamed of the look on the faces of men like Rutledge when they learned just how clever he had been all along.
The wagons in the company Annabelle’s father and her uncle Luke had organized were gathered on the outskirts of Omaha. The sprawling camp had grown since the family’s arrival two weeks earlier.
Annabelle now counted fifteen wagons. She’d lost count of the oxen and cattle gathered around the camp, though her nose always knew they were there. The notion of safety in numbers was especially important to her mother and aunt, who had read too many Beadle books about women taken by marauding Indians. That meant her father and Luke couldn’t afford to be choosy about who joined the wagon train. Southern lawyers and store clerks. Yankee farmers. Would-be miners of undetermined allegiance.
Every man among them believed it was his fate to be rich, either by panning for gold or by selling something to those who did. The gold made them determined, but it didn’t make them confident of driving teams of ox-pulled wagons across unsettled country filled with hostile Indians and who knew what else.
Her father had been delighted to meet men in town who not only had made the trip to Montana but knew how to handle themselves in a tough spot.
It shouldn’t matter that they were Yankee officers who had marched with that devil Sherman, torching cities and homesteads along the way. As her father kept telling everyone, they owed allegiance now only to each other and the shared hope of arriving in Montana quickly and safely. Resentments about the war were best put behind them, he told Yankees and Southerners alike. It was a generous philosophy, but convincing men to buy into it would be another matter.
As they waited for the guides, the men clustered in tight groups split nearly on geographic lines. Luke stood with the rest of the Southerners, mostly bookkeepers, bankers and businessmen who failed to find work after the war. They were only too aware of the limits of their frontier skills, but that didn’t mean they had given up their pride.
Like quarantined patients, the women and children had been left on the other side of camp. Though it chafed her to have to act so, Annabelle took a pot of coffee that had been warming on a stone next to the fire and sidled among the men, smiling prettily so none would be offended at having her privy to their discussions.
“You’re not bothered by all these Yankees?” one of the men asked as she poured coffee into her uncle’s tin cup.
“It’s only for the journey,” he said. “Where we’re going, it’s practically a southern colony. Why do you think they call it Virginia City?”
“That ain’t half of it,” one of the others said. “They wanted to name it Varina, after Jeff Davis’ bride, but some Yankee judge went and changed the paperwork.”
Annabelle noticed her father watching as she circulated. With a nod, she alerted him to a man grousing about the former slave who traveled with the guides.
“I heard they got a Sambo with ’em.”
“A freed slave,” her father corrected.
“His name really Lord Byron?”
Her father shrugged. “They encouraged him to take a free man’s name. As the Colonel tells it, this was the freest-sounding name the man knew. It’s a tale I believe he enjoys telling.”
“I didn’t know Yankees had a sense of humor,” another said.
Annabelle moved to where the northerners were clustered. Most were farmers, drawn by the prospect of homestead land. They hoped to make a good living feeding the burgeoning population around the gold fields. Miners had to eat, and most of their food had to be hauled in from Salt Lake City and other distant parts.
“If it’s a guide we need, why not hire a single man?” one of the Yankees said. He was red-faced with drink and his voice carried above the rest. “Do we need to hire three?”
Annabelle motioned to her father, who hurried to the man’s side. Her father’s voice was barely louder than a whisper, a vain effort to have the red-faced man match his tone. “We’ll be thankful for the extra labor when we must watch the stock at night.”
“I’ll be thankful for the extra guns if we run into trouble,” another man said.
Annabelle drifted toward the third group in their company, the one her father called the bachelor miners because none traveled with families. They were the poorest of the lot, mostly southerners, though none seemed to hold loyalty to any cause but getting rich. That made them the most eager to reach Montana, feeling every day they were in camp was another day somebody else might find the gold they already deemed theirs.
Her ears perked at mention of the gunman who served alongside the Colonel. He had such an outsized reputation even Annabelle heard stories in town.
“What kind of name is Josey Angel?” asked the youngest of the miners, a boy from Indiana.
“It’s not his real name, Nancy-boy.”
The youth ignored the insult. “Well, what is it?”
The older miner looked peeved to be pinned down on something he didn’t know. “It’s Josef something. Something Polish, even harder to speak than Indian.”
Seeing the youngster’s uneasiness, another miner started in. “I heard he killed his own troops ’cause they couldn’t say his name proper.”
“They would have hung him for that,” the boy said. He didn’t look certain.
“I heard he killed the witnesses.”
The man laughed and others joined in, a game to see who could stretch the tale to the most ridiculous lengths. They might have talked all night, swapping opinions like poker chips because that was all they had.
Everyone fell silent when the two riders arrived. Annabelle watched, wondering if everything she had heard was really nothing more than tall tales.
© Derek Catron