“Do sit down, Mama. Here, closer to the stove. It’s dreadfully cold, and you’ve worked so hard.”
Paulina Evans, whose character at eighteen made her a strong supportive adult for the little family, in addition to her parents, was deeply concerned about her mother’s condition. For at least a week Mary’s cough had grown steadily worse, and her stamina and energy had steadily decreased. Sickness was running rampant through the small community of Beech Tree, Nebraska, during this wind-blown month of November, in the Year of Our Lord 1875; it seemed that Mary might be succumbing to the worst of it.
Of course, the winter weather that clawed its sneaky way into the clapboard house, via unsealed gaps around windows and doors, didn’t help matters for anyone. Even wearing long wool skirts, several layers of drawers and petticoats, and heavy stockings and boots, Paulina could feel the draft whisking about. And shivered.
“We all work hard,” agreed Mary, huddling into her shawl with a loving look toward her eldest child. “And you, Lina, are my good right arm. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Paulina, moving briskly back and forth to add more wood to the cook stove fire, to pour a cup of hot coffee for her mother, to begin setting the table for supper, stopped suddenly to bend for an embrace of Mary’s thin shoulders. “Oh, Mama. That goes double for me.”
They shared the hug, the warmth, and a smile.
Then Paulina returned to stir something being heated in a battered pan atop a burner.
“Is there anything we can add to this soup to make it more filling, d’ you think? Right now, we’ll have nothing but watery gruel in our bowls, and the boys will be hungry when they come in.”
“Starving,” her mother agreed, with a chuckle. “Those two are like a horde of locusts, devouring everything in sight. I think there are a few cooked potatoes left over in the pantry, from yesterday. And an ear or two of corn. Let’s cut those up.”
“Oh, I found a couple of turnips, too,” Paulina, rooting about through shelves only meagerly stocked, exulted. She emerged from the narrow cupboard with dark brown hair disarrayed but dark brown eyes alight. “More substantial.”
“That will do fine, then. With that half a loaf of bread, and our last jar of stewed tomatoes… why, that’s almost a feast.”
“Only in your opinion, Mama. I suspect Toby and Chad will think otherwise.”
A sudden burst of wind rattled one of the loose windowpanes and shook the stove pipe so poorly attached to the wall. From inside, not much warmer than outside, it was plain to see that a few flakes of snow had begun to fall from a leaden sky, changing an early dusk to a slightly lighter shade of grayish-white. Not encouraging, though; life in this north central part of the state was hard enough in temperate weather. Once winter really set in, every chore was made more difficult by cold and storm.
“Linny, I can’t figure this’n out. Can you help?”
Paulina, in the process of chopping or slicing the extra vegetables, looked up as her sister, Jessica, youngest of the brood, dragged in from the chilly parlor with pencil and grubby sheet of paper.
“What is it, girl? That pesky old arithmetic again?”
“Uh-huh. I just don’t understand what Miss Rollins teached me.”
“All right, Jess. Just let me finish here first, and then I’ll have a look.”
A half hour later, when the soup had cooked itself into a singular thickness, and the schoolwork was finished, and Mary Evans had rummaged around for something to add to the meal and come up with a chunk of day-old salted pork, the back door flew open with a crash and two boys burst in.
Tobias, age fourteen, and Chaddick, age eleven, looked enough alike, with their curly chestnut hair and clear amber-colored eyes, to pass for twins—other than a couple of inches difference in their heights. Both worked, after school had closed each day, and weekends, for the local general store. Emmet Dohlman had hired the brothers at the beginning of summer, and found them to be, despite their youth, dependable and responsible.
In addition to being paid a small but regular salary, they often came home with unsalable items: a loaf of bakery bread, accidentally crushed while being stocked; a few withered potatoes way past their prime; or a chunk of cheese ringed with faint blue mold. As much as for the money they earned, Mary Evans gave thanks for these blessings, each of which helped keep the family alive and on their feet.
She also gave thanks for a kind-hearted man who was willing to help those who struggled against desperate odds.
Now, they tumbled in like two exuberant puppies, red-faced from the cold. Yanking off hats and coats, both immediately raced for the stove to warm up.
“Holy Gee, Maw, you shoulda seen the load that come in today,” Tobias exclaimed. “A full wagon, all the way from Omaha.”
“Yeah,” agreed Chaddick. “We hadta get all that stuff down and uncrate it. Tomorrow we gotta unpack and get everything out into the store for sale. Move over, Tobe, you’re hoggin’ all the space. I’m freezin’ just as much as you are. More, ’cause I’m younger.”
“Boys, boys, where did you put your mittens?” clucked their mother, gathering up snow-dusted outerwear to hang on wall hooks. “No wonder your hands are like ice.” As if to emphasis her point, she was suddenly taken by a spasm of coughing that had her bent over a chair for support, until an even breath finally returned.
It was a noisy, energetic household, crammed into a space too small and too unfinished. It would have been a happy household, were the financial resources more stable. It was a worrisome thing, trying to scrape together enough money to buy food and wood and necessities every month, when the income was so uncertain., and so often unavailable.
“Wonder when Paw will be back,” commented Tobias at the table a few minutes later, in between ravenous bites of bread stuffed with fried slices of pork.
As the elder son, he considered himself the man of the family while their father was absent. His cool assumption of leadership and authority often came at the price of irritating his younger brother, who sometimes fought to claim that role for himself.
Mary’s expression seemed strained as she looked up to exchange a significant glance with Paulina, some seats away. “Well, I suppose he’ll be here when he gets here.” Her answer was noncommittal, as it must be. “Jessie, dear, have another bowl of soup. It’s nice and hot.”
“I don’t like them carrots in there, Mama. Can’t I have some more bread and meat, instead?”
“Of course you can, sweetheart.” Immediately Paulina took half of her own to hand over to the little girl. “Eat this. Did we get all your schoolwork cleared away?”
“Uh-huh. All ready.” Pleased to have one chore out of the way, she kicked her small boots at the table leg. “Miss Rollins’ll be real happy I done so good.”
Another gust of wind rattled the door, as if seeking entrance, and Mary, wrapping herself more tightly into the shawl, shivered. Immediately Tobias jumped up to drop the bar into place, as further security against the intemperate weather, and scooted one of the rag rugs up against the ill-fitting bottom frame as a barrier to drafts.
“Will you be going in to Miss Lila’s in the morning, Lina?” The coffee was hot; the soup was hot. In between, Mary nibbled on this and that, leaving the bulk of the meal for her growing family. Never mind that, by all accounts, her endurance had been weakened by this nasty cough, and any doctor would have prescribed more of the nutrients for one battling illness. “Last I heard, she had gotten a couple of nice orders for you.”
“Oh, yes, thank goodness. With Christmas coming up next month, our socialites are already planning their parties. I’ve started one dress for the Elkhorns’ daughter—you know, Mama, the one with buck teeth and an unfortunate complexion?—that has every ruffle and flounce known to man.” Finished with her supper, Paulina chuckled while she reminisced. “Guaranteed to be hideous.”
Mary dismissed the very idea. “Those people have no taste, whatsoever. I grew up with her mother, Susan. In fact, we attended school together. Her family was poor as a pack of church mice, but she put on airs every chance she got. It took marriage to a bigwig like Charles to give her the status she always wanted.”
The boys, having gobbled up everything in sight, were still sitting, less than entranced, and eager to move on. “Can we go now, Ma?”
Amused, she gave each of them a glance known as Mary’s Sideways Eye Roll. “You have more important things to do?”
“Well, sure. Chores. And a few games of checkers. Chad still owes me ten matchsticks.”
“No, I don’t, neither,” Chaddick stoutly maintained.
“Aw, please, Ma?”
“Of course you may be excused. You deserve a little time to yourselves. And let your sister play!” This came as a final plea as the three youngest pushed off their chairs and away, into the parlor. A room of much cooler temperatures, which didn’t seem to faze them one bit.
“Toby, you’d better put one more log on that fire if you kids don’t want to freeze to death,” warned Paulina as she rose to begin clearing the table.
“We’re okay, sis,” he called back. “We just got us plentya blankets and such.”
“Seriously, Mama, our supply of wood is low. We have to get more soon to last out the winter.
Not those cheap cuttings, that haven’t been dried out for a year so as to burn better. What little money the boys and I bring in always goes for food and kerosene and candles. Don’t you really know when Papa is due back?”
Embarrassed color rose over her mother’s face as she poured hot water into a big pan, to which she added little curls of shaved-up lye soap for washing dishes.
She sighed. “I don’t really have any idea, honey. He just said he had some sort of business deal to take care of, which meant a trip down south to North Platte.”
“But, Mama, surely—”
“You ought to be aware by now, Lina, of how little he tells me. I’m to tend the house, cook his meals, wash and mend his garments, and…” She broke off, more from bitterness than anything. A hard swallow and a deep steadying breath helped her go on. “It’s always been that way. Whether other husbands are so secretive, so—so closed-up—is anyone’s guess. But mine certainly is.”
To give her mother privacy for this unexpected confession, Paulina had turned her back, putting the slender store of leftovers into a small bowl and collecting the supply of used dinnerware—cheap, chipped, and cracked. It wasn’t until she had picked up a towel to dry what her mother was scrubbing that she responded.
“I’m sorry, Mama. You don’t need to tell me this is a hard life Papa is leading you. And all of us, too. I see it every day. But he could stand to show a little more concern for his hungry children!”
“He was such a handsome young man.” Mary’s movements slowed as she reminisced over the past, with its happier memories. “So tall and strong. It seemed he could conquer the world. I thought I was the luckiest girl ever when he first asked my father for permission to court me.”
Paulina, stacking clean plates to put inside the open cupboard, gave her mother a skeptical look. She had no such friendly experience with her father, whose mood, for as long as she could remember, was often surly, short-tempered, and absent-minded. How could any woman ever have considered joining forces with such an unappealing individual?
Or had he started out being amiable and comely, only to gradually change as life’s problems began to intercede and children had begun to enter the picture, one by one?
It was the financial instability that worried her the most.
Sometimes Paulina feared that, of the three adults in this household, she alone was the single real grownup, trying to tackle whatever came along with maturity and logic, trying to solve troubles before her siblings were adversely affected.
The Evans family had only this poor house, along with scattered and equally poor furnishings, to their name. No bank account, no saving account, nothing put aside for that proverbial rainy day. What Michael Evans even did for a living seemed a mystery. When asked, his answer was always vague and always unsatisfying: Something with investments.
Investments! For others, supposedly, while leaving his own kith and kin to fend for themselves, with pitiably paltry funds?
Once Paulina was old enough to query these vague responses, she wanted to snort with derision. Puh-leeze!
The golden halo her father had worn during the first few years of her life had gradually grown tarnished by reality, then fallen away entirely like little flecks of ash.
Paulina, born with what is known as an old head on her shoulders, had remained as long as possible at the school where Miss Rollins taught. By the age of sixteen, however, Michael was making disgruntled noises about the necessity of his elder daughter contributing to the family coffers. Over Miss Rollins’ indignant protests, he had pulled her from class and set her to work with Miss Lila, who owned a smart ladies’ wear and seamstress shop in Beech Tree.
She enjoyed the work. She enjoyed seeing customers. She especially enjoyed Miss Lila’s interest and supervision.
But she refused to give up on her dream. She wanted more education; she wanted to attend a college of higher learning; she wanted to take up teaching as a profession. But, so far, she was unable to save any of her salary toward that goal. Too many other monthly bills came rolling in to eat up what little money she made.
All the wash-up and clean-up chores were finished, and the women could have a little time to themselves. Since the parlor was currently occupied by giggles, teasing, and an occasional little-girl shriek of protest for whatever her brothers were up to, Mary remained in the kitchen. Her basket of knitting could be easily retrieved from an empty corner, and the boys needed more socks.
With some four inches of height over her mother, Paulina bent a bit to give her a gentle hug. “How about another cup of coffee, Mama? We have enough ground beans to last us a few days, so we might as well take advantage of it.”
“Oh, that would be nice, dear. Get your book, and then turn up the wick on that lantern. Let’s at least have enough light in this dreary room.”
An occasional comment passed between them while Paulina’s pages slowly turned and Mary’s needles flashed through the skein of gray yarn. The children had settled down, with the boys working on some complex invented game, and Jessica changing costumes and stories for her limited collection of paper dolls.
Another draft of wind swept along the floor.
“Oh, I do hate winter so much,” Mary said after a moment, glancing toward the dark windows while she coughed a little. “Funny thing, I find it harder and harder to bear the cold as I grow older.”
“You’re not the only one, Mama. It becomes such a chore to pile on more and more clothing, and to stomp your way through all the ice and drifts of snow. Aren’t there places in this country that are warm year-round?”
“Bugs,” said Mary succinctly.
“They’re all inhabited by giant bugs. Or things that crawl up on land from the sea. Nasty though the weather is, I suppose we’re better off here than anywhere else.”
Paulina spoke with only half a mind attending to conversation. She was still dreaming a little, over the scenes she had just been perusing from Mr. Shakespeare’s works. She was also tired. The cold seemed to sap away all her energy, and all she wanted to do was nap next to a good roaring fire.
During winter, she could never get warm enough; during summer, never cool enough. Surely there must be some place on this earth with a temperate climate not subject to nature’s whims?
They hadn’t yet been able to replenish their wood supply, so the fires must of necessity be burned low and damped early. Probably, they would have to take goods on credit from Mr. Dohlman again, and try to play catch-up with all the bills coming due.
Poor people don’t live very effective or interesting lives, she reflected. Too busy just trying to stay alive, all the while servicing those on the upper rungs of the ladder with the funds to pay them.
Mary was yawning when she decided to call it a night. “Jessica, honey, get ready for bed. Wash up, and put your things together for school tomorrow.”
As the little girl came stumbling drowsily into the kitchen, Paulina rose. “Come on, little one. One last dash to the outhouse.”
“Oh, Linny, it’s so—cooooold—!”
“I know. But we’ll throw on our cloaks and make it quick. Then you can snuggle under all those blankets. I’d rather make our trip now than halfway through the night, wouldn’t you?”
The boys, in response to their mother’s summons, came up with a few dozen excuses as to why they should be able to stay up for another hour or two. Tobias needed to finish a page of homework, although he insisted he “would be quittin’ that goldarn school, first chance I get. I’s almost a man full grown, Ma. I got plans of my own and places to go.”
“A subject to be discussed another day.” Mary’s tone was deliberate, because they’d hashed over the matter several times already. She would keep her son in school as long as possible.
Chaddick was attempting to build something with small pieces of wood and metal, and apparently he was at a crucial point in its development. All of which spurred protests against bedtime.
Finally, with everyone settled in for the night, the doors locked and the windows latched, Mary could make her own trek up the narrow creaking steps to the second floor. One small bedroom held the boys; another held the girls. All huddled under as many bedclothes as could be found, all shivering their way to dreamland.
The slightly larger bedroom belonging to the parents lay waiting, at the end of the hall, for Mary. Empty. Cold. Lonely.
* * * * *
Paulina was surprised, when she came downstairs two days later to shake the fire into reluctant flames and begin breakfast preparations, to find her father sitting in the kitchen.
She had inherited his lithe, tall build and his coloring, though thankfully not his temperament.
For he was, as usual, in a mood best described as surly.
“Papa,” she greeted him warily. “Welcome home.”
“Huh. Think you could fix me some coffee?”
Biting back the words she would like to say in answer, she filled the blue enamel pot with fresh water and added ground beans to brew. “When did you get back?”
“A while ago. Didn’t wanna disturb your maw, so I slept down here. Mighty cold.”
“Yes, we’re trying to ration the wood because we can’t afford to buy much right now.”
“Why’s that? You three kids bring in money to help out, doncha?” Not only surly, but looking beaten. Physically beaten. His face was a blotchy mess of bruises, and he sported a black eye that surely must be quite painful.
She proceeded about her usual morning routine: slicing bits off the small remainder of salt pork to fry in the heavy iron skillet, putting plates on the table and taking a quick glance out the window—where a chill dawn beckoned—to see what the weather might portend.
“Key phrase, Papa, help out. Not completely support. That’s your job, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Immediately he took umbrage at her critical tone.
“Got a real smart mouth on you, young woman,” he sneered, peering up at her as she moved to and fro, assembling ingredients. “Looks t’ me like you didn’t get smacked around enough as a kid, just to let you know who’s boss in this household, and who ain’t.”
“That’s one thing you never did, Papa, and I give you credit for that. You never hit any of us.” Feeling just the tiniest bit more cheerful, Paulina began cracking eggs into the lard already sizzling in the pan. “Though you probably wanted to, a number of times, and Lord knows we deserved it. What happened to you?”
As if just now reminded of his injuries, Michael reached up to gingerly touch one particularly large bruise on his cheekbone. “Took a fall off my horse.”
Paulina sent him a skeptical glance over one shoulder. “Indeed? I suppose, under the weight of someone’s fist—who, no doubt, is in better shape than you are. There’s a cloth in the cupboard drawer. For now, wet it, so you can wash the worst of your wounds. I’ll have a better look when I’m finished here.”
“If that means food, I’m all in for whatever you fix. Haven’t had a good meal in some time.”
That irritated his daughter anew. “Well, get used to the idea, Papa. Most of this is for those hungry children upstairs, and for Mama, who is sick and needs nourishment. I hope you brought back some money from that business trip you took. We need it.”
“Daughter.” As he dived into a pile of scrambled eggs, pork, and chopped potatoes on the plate she had placed before him, Michael’s truculence faded into reproach. “What happened to make you turn out so mean?”
“Life.” She refused to admit it was her own father who could upset her so easily and change her frame of mind from benevolence to dark humor.
At least she was learning to stand up to him when he attempted to bully her, and to give back as good as she got. She would not allow him to manipulate her any further, as he so easily manipulated her rather fragile mother.
About then both her brothers, scenting the aroma of breakfast wafting through the house as if they were bird dogs on the hunt, came hurtling down the stairs, eager for food and eager to talk with their father when they discovered him sitting in the chilly kitchen. They wanted to know all about where he had gone, what he had done, and why he looked so terrible.
“Chased off some fellers tryin’ to steal my horse, boys,” Michael answered, ruffling the hair of each in one of his few parental gestures. “You can see I got the worst of the deal.”
Another story. Paulina, at the stove to fry a slice of bread soaked in beaten egg for her little sister, could barely restrain herself from whacking her father over the head with a skillet. Not that she would ever do it, of course. Violence was not part of her nature. But the consideration of such an insubordinate act offered an outlet for her scorn.
Just then more footsteps could be heard, and Jessica entered the room, followed by her mother.
“Papa!” the girl squealed, and made a dash for his lap.
“Ah, easy there, Jess, darlin’,” he laughed. “Here, you got a big hug for your old man?”
“Michael, what on earth happened to you?” Mary exclaimed with concern as she glided across the room to lay one hand on his shoulder. “You look terrible!”
Paulina couldn’t help feeling both bitterness and contempt for this touching scene. To be repeated, ad infinitum, no doubt. Everyone was gathered around the table, talking at once, while she stood in the background, cooking and plating like some unwanted servant girl.
She was too logical a person, too mature, to fall back onto the excuse that life was unfair.
When wasn’t life unfair?
“All right, children, eat fast.” Leave it to her to be the wet blanket thrown over this sweet reunion. “The clock is ticking away. I’ll walk you to school, and then I need to get to work.”
A chorus of groans greeted this announcement. They’d much rather stay and divide up the fatted calf while listening to their prodigal father’s (made-up) adventures.
As for her hopeful comment about Michael returning home with money in his pocket, well, that was conveniently ignored as well, and any response tossed to the four winds. Naturally.
Attending college, per his parents’ dictates and his own wishes, was turning out to be not all that he had hoped. Or even expected.
Oh, courses at the University of Chicago certainly offered a wide range of subject matter from which to choose, and provided a well-educated faculty to address the needs of the two to five hundred students enrolled each year. Established in 1856, on a ten-acre tract donated by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the school soon ran into financial difficulties, due partly to problems with fundraising, the financial panic of 1857, and over-expansion far beyond its means.
Despite the fact that the place operated on both a collegiate and vocational level, with students enrolled in preparatory, law, and medical studies, its doors would close forever just eleven years later. In 1990, the Board of Trustees would go on to change its name to the Old University of Chicago, as a new Baptist school could then assume the original title.
Nonetheless, Lewis Cameron Green, as a matriculating freshman at this stellar institution, well aware of its past history and curious about its future, was disappointed.
“Well, I just fail to understand what is wrong with you, my friend. You’ve barely given the U of C a chance.” Eric Barnes, neither critical of nor judgmental toward, was merely stating a fact.
“Sure, I have. For one thing, it’s already November, and colder than a—well, cold. Just like always. Anyway, I’ve been here almost three months.”
“Ah. Things just not livin’ up to your expectations, huh?”
The two were walking across campus, scuffing through a drift of multi-colored leaves that crunched underfoot. Most of the elms, oaks, and maples had contributed to the downfall and now stretched semi-bare branches to the leaden sky above. It wasn’t quite glacial enough yet that anyone’s breath was visible in the frosty air, but the temperature was working its way down to that.
Their last class together—economics—had closed down early, so the two had decided to visit the local hang-out to see what was going on and to procure several helpings of whatever happened to be on the menu today. Preferably something hot and steamy.
“I don’t see a lot of serious studying going on,” replied Lewis, untangling the green and navy plaid wool scarf around his collar to re-wrap its folds. “Seems to be quite a frivolous group here at the U. Don’t you think?”
“Hadn’t really considered it. You tellin’ me you don’t like to party and such?”
“Sure. Just as much as the next feller. I just don’t think carousing around should be the end-all be-all of college life, that’s all.”
Eric, a somewhat portly young man identified by a head of wild red hair, eyes of brilliant blue, and a ruddy complexion, laughed and swung one arm around his friend’s shoulder. “Ah, Lewie, Lewie, you do your parents proud. I can just see Master MacKinley Green in his tenth floor Loop law office, pontificatin’ over your future.”
Slightly annoyed, Lewis shrugged free. He stood a few inches taller, his whipcord-lean frame built for speed rather than substance. That, along with his crown of shaggy tawny blonde hair and thoughtful green eyes, attracted the glances of young ladies everywhere, not just the limited few he occasionally saw on campus.
“Yeah,” he grunted in acknowledgement.
“Lewis.” Eric stopped dead near a nice full loblolly pine which effectively blocked a rising wind. “You do plan on joinin’ your paw in the firm, don’t you?”
“Whaddya mean, you don’t know? I thought this was your plan all along. Since babyhood! Finish school, attend U of C, become a lawyer, and carry on the family tradition of prosecutin’ the bad guys, or defendin’ the good guys, or settlin’ complicated estates.”
“Dunno,” said Lewis stubbornly. “The career of any kind of attorney doesn’t seem very appealing anymore.”
His companion’s jaw had dropped. “Does Papa Green know about this change?”
“Uh. Well, uh—no. Not quite yet. Haven’t had a chance to discuss my feelings about the matter.”
“Well, Lordy, Lordy, old son, looks to me like, lawyer or not, you’re gonna be pleadin’ your case right soon. Your paw ain’t gonna be very happy with this decision.”
Lewis shrugged, then proceeded on, leaving Eric no choice but to scramble to catch up.
“This sure came up outa the blue.” Eric was puffing a little against the numbing air. “Look, it’s all right for me—I’m older’n you, done with all I wanna do here, and today was my final class. So I’m headin’ west after my farewell party next week. But, you—! Why, Lewie, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. Why not stay and finish out your work? Another two years, and you can—”
“Nope.” Deep in thought, Lewis slowed his steps, then stopped entirely near one of the halls of learning. “I just fell in with the whole line Pop laid out for my future. He does control the purse strings, as you might’ve guessed. But I just plain don’t like the direction my life is going, Eric, and I don’t like the U. I think it’s time I look elsewhere.”
A frown, then a sigh. Eric scuffed the toe of his boot through a small pile of crinkled leaves while he considered some sympathetic response.
“You’d have a lotta doors open up to you,” he finally offered, “with a lawyer’s shingle to hang out. If you don’t like Chicago, you could go just about anywhere and earn a good livin’.”
They had reached the restaurant. Or at least arrived within a few hundred feet of the place. Even from here, bright lights shone through plate glass windows against the gray afternoon, and it seemed patrons—mostly male, but a few accompanied by young ladies, whose reputations might be questionable—were constantly entering or emerging.
“C’mon, there’s Della’s. Let’s go get some food and talk about this some more.”
The place, known not only for its pressed tin ceiling, wood-framed privacy booths, and marble floor tile, but also its excellent cuisine, was fairly busy, given the time of day—partway between lunch and dinner. Service was offered mostly to its loyal regulars—students and instructors—but also walk-ins off the street.
Quickly Eric snagged one of the cubicles and, just as quickly, snagged the attention of one of the servers. By now, with frequent attendance, both men had practically memorized the menus. So they were able to place an immediate order: a bottle of beer for each, and the same dishes—tomato salad, Syracuse (salt) potatoes in butter, and roast rib of beef. With, possibly, strawberry short cake to follow.
“So,” Eric picked up the thread of the conversation once they were settled. “Do you really hate the grand and glorious Windy City?”
“Hate it?” Lewis choked over a mouthful of beer. “No, of course I don’t hate it. I was born here, my family has been here for generations, and I love living here. Where did you get the impression I hate Chicago?”
Holding up both hands, as if to ward off the flow of indignant protest, Eric shook his head. “Why, you practically told me that, son. You confessed to a strong dislike to the U, so I just figured—”
“Naw, not that at all. It’s only—I’m bored, Ric. You’re finished with your schooling, and you’re heading west. Sounds exciting, all that unknown territory, no everyday routine, something new happening all the time.”
“Well, there’s a lot to be said for routine,” Eric drawled. “It’s safe. It’s steady. It’s secure.”
Lewis, shifting on the hard wooden seat, gave a small twisted laugh. “Sure. It’s also—boring!”
Their orders arrived on gold-rimmed white plates. Each unfolded his spotless napkin and hungrily dived in. Around them, the restaurant began to fill, so that a low rumble of conversation swelled through the long, narrow room. Dishes rattled, tap beer foamed into glasses, and hard boot heels clumped across the floor.
While they worked on their meal, the two discussed Eric’s plans to leave Chicago some time after the holidays—late winter, most likely—to visit his family in the southern part of the state. Then he would make his way to what he called “the wild west,” being enshrined in history on the other side of the Mississippi River. A brief description of a small metropolis in the north central part of Nebraska, at which he would expect to arrive in early spring, depending upon weather, started an avalanche of questions from his companion.
“Yeah, a lot of the state is prairie,” Eric admitted, sprinkling salt on his entrée. “But not flat, like this table top. Rollin’. Real pretty. And you can see for miles. Pioneers on wagon trains passed through this area, years ago.”
“Sounds empty. Lonely.”
“Guess it is. A far cry from this place, with its 300,000 souls squeezed cheek by jowl all together. You’d have to like the openness, and the miles and miles between towns, were you to settle in Beech Tree.”
Lewis, his meal finished but his beer bottle only half-empty, leaned back and draped one long arm over the back of the booth. “Beech Tree. That’s where you’re going?”
“Yup. Lots of timber, plenty of green, and a river called the Fiddleneck. A good central business location for some fifty miles all the way around, so it’s a hub of civilization. Plus, the railroad runs through it.”
“Sounds like you’ve visited there.”
“As a matter of fact, I have.” With a grin, Eric pushed his empty plate aside and, ready to make an evening of it, pulled a cheroot from the inside pocket of his coat. “Got me some kin livin’ in the town, runs a sawmill. Henry tells me I can have a job whenever I wanna come out, so I let him know I’ll soon be on my way.”
The server returned to collect their used crockery, disappeared, returned with portions of dessert, and disappeared again. All discreetly done, all in silence. Della’s was becoming noisier, as the hour grew later and more hail-fellow-well-met groups stopped by. A draft swooping in from the front door, as it was often opened and closed and opened, warred with the heat of the kitchen’s cook stoves and the warmth of glowing gas lights.
“So that’s your grand plan, to work at physical labor?” Lewis was surprised. His friend had a good college education under his belt, receiving a degree aimed at no particular calling but one of widespread, general knowledge. Somehow drudging along at a sawmill seemed several steps down in potential.
Eric shrugged. “Hey, a man labors, whether it’s physical or mental, whatever he does, right? For now, it sounds like a right good deal. Once I got me enough cash saved up, though, I wanna buy a ranch. Always did like the outdoor life, and runnin’ cows seems a good way to make a livin’.”
A moment passed while Lewis drank the last of his beer and considered. “I admit that sounds tempting. Wish I was so clear in reaching out for my own goal as you are.”
“Hey, Lew.” Newly excited, Eric leaned forward to emphasize his prospects. “You finish up with whatever you’re doin’ here, then you c’mon out and visit. You may like the place so much you won’t wanna leave. And it would be great, havin’ my oldest friend right close by.”
Lewis couldn’t hold back a smile for such enthusiasm. Sometimes Eric seemed more like a rumpled, frolicsome puppy than an adult human being hobbled by responsibility.
“Entirely possible. I’d have to see what kind of employment I could find.”
“Well, lemme tell you,” he paused to take a grand sniff of his cigar, inhaling deeply and appreciatively, “from what I’ve seen and heard, there ain’t much law west of the Mississip’. Did you decide practicin’ the profession of an attorney was outa the question, you could maybe try sheriffin’. Most every town everywhere needs a marshal of some kind.”
“Sure. Some places are kinda tame—nothin’ more to do than walk the streets and lock up drunks on Saturday night. But others—man, you got yourself bank robberies and horse thieves to contend with. That might just give you the zest you’re lookin’ for.”
“Maybe.” The would-be sheriff was gazing off into the distance, thinking deep thoughts.
The picture his companion was painting seemed to be an attractive one if he truly were seeking adventure and a change of scene. His parents, MacKinley and Rosetta, were set in their ways (as parents, in his opinion, often ended up as they aged), with an established routine of social engagements and business meetings. Their home was palatial, with every modern amenity; their financial status was substantial and secured; their appearance was one of success and importance.
Which also made both of them just the teensiest bit stuffy.
Lewis often wondered just what the couple found to discuss with their equally prosperous, somewhat pompous circle of friends and hangers-on. The most recent criminal brought to justice by
Green, Saviotte, and Henderson? The latest best stock buy? The highest-class and most expensive Chicago properties in which to invest?
Not the life Lewis wanted. Not the future he sought.
Whatever cast-in-stone goals his father already had planned for him would just not happen if Lewis had anything to say about it.
Fortunately all the grand hopes which MacKinley harbored, that his progeny would carry on the family name and traditions, lay as a burden not on Lewis’s shoulders alone.
Fortunately, Lewis held an ace-in-the hole: two younger brothers and a rather daffy younger sister. If he struck out on his own, at some time in the future, the golden crown of scion-hood could pass on down to the next in line. Edmund. Or Virgil Lee. Although hardly not Amanda. As the daughter of privilege, she was merely expected to marry well, hire competent help, and produce another generation of similar beings. Much more than that was demanded of the boys.
His conservative, strait-laced parents might not be happy with their eldest son’s eventual decisions, but he wasn’t worried about being cut out of the estate and left with nothing. Papa Green was a great believer in the bonds and demands of family; he would not be so petty or narrow-minded as to completely disinherit an independent, absent Lewis.
At least, Lewis didn’t think so.
“Well, didja work things out on that world-wide trip you just took?” Eric, enjoying the flavor of his cigar, finally asked.
Startled, Lewis sat up a little straighter. “Now, how did you know that?”
A sympathetic laugh. “Son, I’ve been just where you were. B’sides, I recognize that look on your handsome face. You weren’t thinkin’ about some beautiful young lady who caught your fancy. Nope. You saw yourself with a silver badge on your vest and a six-shooter on each hip. True?”
“Uh. Partly,” admitted Lewis, with an expression of chagrin. “I like our subject matter, my friend. And I like what you’ve been telling me. You g’wan and get settled at that sawmill in the town of Beech Tree, and stay in touch. One of these days I might just show up at your domicile and invite myself in to stay.”’
“A Hopeful Light in her Path” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Five years ago, Paulina and her family were forced to abandon their hometown after an unexplained fire claimed their house. Now, after the loss of her father, they have decided to return for a chance to rebuild their lives. On the day of their arrival, Paulina meets the town sheriff, Lewis, who immediately offers to help them settle. Her life will soon take a strange turn though after Lewis reveals that he is investigating a series of mysterious fires that took place in the last few years. Determined to find out more about the circumstances behind the fire that burned down her family’s home, she finds a valuable partner in the handsome sheriff. However, her world is shattered when he unexpectedly cancels their arrangement. In the middle of a web of mystery and confusion, Paulina can’t help but wonder… Could Lewis be the salvation she was looking for despite his change of heart?
Lewis Green is a sheriff who truly believes in justice. When his friend informs him about Paulina’s tragedy, he feels obligated to solve the mystery behind the fire that destroyed her home. During his investigation, he will be shocked to discover that a peculiar string of arsons might be connected to Paulina’s case. Lewis may have guarded his heart from any emotion, but the moment he meets Paulina, he immediately finds himself captivated by her even though her feelings for him seem uncertain. In order to protect her, he will be forced to take some distance and any plan to pursue love will be temporarily cut short. However, when a long-buried secret comes to the surface, Lewis will try to warn Paulina but to his surprise, she doesn’t seem overly disheartened. When fate brings another shocking twist that could completely break Paulina’s heart, Lewis will reconsider his plans. Can he find a way to rescue her from danger without ending up hurting her even more?
Caught between past crimes and haunting secrets, Lewis and Paulina must find a way to unfold their complicated feelings. As their paths begin to entwine more than either of them expected, a chance at love may finally be within reach. Can they heal their wounded hearts side by side, in spite of the dangers that threaten their life together?
“A Hopeful Light in her Path” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.