Authors: Derek Catron
A part of Gale, Cengage Learning
Copyright Â© 2016 by Derek Catron
Five Starâ¢ Publishing, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.
No part of this work covered by the copyright herein may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, except as permitted U.S. copyright law, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Names: Catron, Derek, author.
Title: Trail angel / Derek Catron.
Description: Waterville, Maine : Five Star, a part of Cengage Learning, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016003814 (print) | LCCN 2016015636 (ebook) | ISBN 9781432832803 (hardcover) | ISBN 1432832808 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781432832735 (ebook) | ISBN 1432832735 (ebook) 9781432833794 (ebook) | ISBN 1432833790 (ebook)
eISBN-13: 978-1-4328-3379-4 eISBN-10: 1-43283379-0
Subjects: LCSH: WidowsâFiction. | SoldiersâFiction. | Wagon TrainsâFiction. | Bozeman TrailâFiction. | Brigands and RobbersâFiction. | Nebraskaâ Fiction. | MontanaâFiction. | GSAFD: Western stories. | Love stories.
Classification: LCC PS3603.A89776 T73 2016 (print) | LCC PS3603.A89776 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6âdc23
LC record available at
First Edition. First Printing: August 2016
This title is available as an e-book.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4328-3379-4 ISBN-10: 1-43283379-0
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To Lori, whose unflagging encouragementâand patienceâgave me the strength to pursue a dream.
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 pickâtools 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 tradesmanâand because we are paying in gold, not your dubious greenbacks.”