1867 . . . Southern lawyer and Civil War veteran, Reed Jackson, returns to his family’s plantation in a wheelchair. His father deems him unfit, and deeds the Jackson holdings, including his intended bride, to a younger brother. Angry and bitter, Reed moves west to Fenton, Missouri, home to a cousin with a successful business, intending to start over.
Belle Richards, a dirt poor farm girl aching to learn how to read, cleans, cooks and holds together her family’s meager property. A violent brother and a drunken father plot to marry her off, and gain a new horse in the bargain. But Belle’s got other plans, and risks her life to reach them.
Reed is captivated by Belle from their first meeting, but wheelchair bound, is unable to protect her from violence. Bleak times will challenge Reed and Belle’s courage and dreams as they forge a new beginning from the ashes of war and ignorance.
Missouri May 19, 1867
“Need some help, mister?”
“I’ll be fine, thank you,” Reed Jackson said.
The conductor approached through whirls of black smoke and repeated, “Do ya need some help?”
The whistle blew as Reed replied. “I’m a cripple, not deaf, you jackass. I said I’d be fine.”
The conductor squinted through ashed air and hefted himself onto the train’s step. “OK, son,” he shouted.
The train pulled away and Reed struggled to pull his bag on to his lap and wheel himself to the step of the station house. A sign, swinging in the locomotive’s draft, read ‘Fenton, Missouri – Population 6,502.’
“Is there a boy about who can get my trunks to the hotel?” Reed shouted into the dim building. The scrawny station manager shaded his eyes as he stepped into the dirt street.
“Where ya be headin’?” he asked.
“The Ames Hotel,” Reed replied.
Reed contemplated the man who was now rubbing his jaw and eyeing his wheelchair; the last, hopefully, in a long line of nosy, prying half-wits whom Reed had encountered on this tortuous journey. The man knelt down and touched the leather strapping of the wheels.
“Please don’t touch the chair, sir,” Reed said.
He stood, eyes still perusing Reed and his belongings. “In the war?”
“Is there someone able to bring my trunks to the Ames Hotel?” Reed repeated.
“From the sound of that drawl, I’d bet my Helen’s berry pie, you was wearing gray,” the stationmaster added.
The man’s self-righteous smile did nothing to lighten Reed’s mood. He was tired, his leg hurt, and he wanted nothing more than complete and utter silence, followed by a long soak in a tub. But this was to be his new hometown. His fresh start. This imbecile may need his services as an attorney if he killed his pie-making wife, Reed thought.
“I served in the confederacy, sir.”
“Damn. I was right. A Johnny Reb, huh?”
“I consider myself a U.S. citizen,” Reed replied.
“Well, yeah but . . .”
“Excuse me,” Reed said as reached his hands to the wheels of his chair. “I must get to the hotel. I’m expected.”
The stationmaster turned as a man and woman approached. “Reed?” the man called.
“Henry.” Reed recognized his cousin from the remarkable likeness the man had to Reed’s mother. Tall and dark with great smiles marked the Ames family.
Henry clasped Reed’s hand and shook, turning to a petite blond beside him. “Reed, this is my wife, Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen, this is my cousin, Reed Jackson.”
“Pleasure to meet you, sir. How was your trip?” she shouted over the clang, roar and bedlam of the station.
Mary Ellen Ames wore an expensive, up-to-date gown and filled it most attractively, Reed noticed. He smiled his best Southern charm and held her dainty, gloved hand in his. “Dirty, hot and long.”
She laughed and turned to her husband. “Our traveler is weary, Henry. Let’s get him out of the sun and the dust.”
Reed was thankful this woman, his hostess was gracious and mannerly. So unlike the passengers he’d been forced to sit beside and occasionally converse with. He was sick of boorish behavior and basked in the delightful smile Henry’s wife bestowed upon him. Henry must have married as well as he possible could have in this God-forsaken town. His mother had told him that her brother’s son had come west before the war, married and was a successful businessman. She apparently was right.
Reed looked at the stationmaster as he listened in on their conversation. “I was trying to hire someone to bring my trunks to the hotel when you came.”
“Oh, yes siree, sir. Right away, sir.”
“Thank you.” Reed wheeled himself along beside Henry and Mary Ellen as they walked away from the station. As the roar of travel sounds dimmed, Reed turned to his cousin. “So what is life like here in the wild West?”
Henry stopped, looked at Reed’s serious face and leaned back, laughing. “The wild West? Fenton is hardly wild, Reed.”
“Well, we are west of the Mississippi, Henry? I was raised to believe civilization begins in the heart of the South,” Reed said and smiled.
“You’re teasing, Mr. Jackson. Why we have churches, shops, theatres, and even a small hospital. The fine ladies of the Aid Society consider Fenton a bastion of civilization.”
Reed regarded her sincere countenance. “Why, of course, Mrs. Ames. Forgive me.”
“Please call me Mary Ellen. We are related, and I want you to feel comfortable in your new home.”
“I would be honored if you would call me Reed or Jackson, in kind,” he replied.
The streets of Fenton were busy with wagons, horses and people. He watched as he wheeled and found some staring strangely at him, many on their own way, paying him no mind. He dodged horses’ hooves, children running and the hems of calico dresses.
“The sidewalk here in the main part of town runs right in front of the hotel. Let me get you up the first step,” Henry said, taking the handles behind Reed’s chair and turning him around.
It was humiliating to depend so entirely on others. Strangers, Reed didn’t mind, but the thought of a relative helping him merely negotiate the street riled him.
“I’m fine, now. Which way are we headed?” Reed said and caught an embarrassed glance from husband to wife.
Mary Ellen Ames motioned forward.
Reed pardoned himself many times on the narrow sidewalk. He passed the Fenton National Bank and a dreary theatre beside it and waited for Henry to move a pickle barrel a few inches back in front of the general store.
Mary Ellen turned onto a wooden sidewalk lined with flowers. “Here we are.”
The Ames Hotel was indeed grand, yet to Reed’s thoughts, homey. A wide porch held wicker furniture and guests reclined and chatted there. Reed looked up at the large brick building, seeing three floors, curtains blowing softly out of tall windows. White gingerbread trim edged the porch pillars and roof. His gaze fell to six wide wooden steps, their backs white, the footfalls, forest green.
“You’ve done well for yourself, cousin. A very inviting hotel and busy from the looks of things,” Reed said.
Henry put his arm around his wife and looked up to the building. “We’ve been very fortunate.”
The couple’s eyes met, and Reed felt the intensity from feet away. They stared at each other, glowing, and Mary Ellen’s hand raised to her husband’s chest. This must be quite an accomplishment out here in the prairie; they rightly deserved to be proud, Reed thought.
Henry motioned Reed to follow him around the side of the hotel. A swing under two shade trees held a mother reading to a child. Pots of flowers lined the walk until Henry came to a gate. “We use this entrance, Reed. Rarely use the front. I’ve lowered the latch so you can come and go as you please.”
Reed followed his cousin and his wife through the gate. The back of the hotel was a sea of activity. Sheets hung in the breeze near a huge pot. Two women, their hair held back with red kerchiefs, straightening from their stirring, turned and stared. A round man in white carrying dead chickens, emerged from a shed and stopped abruptly. An old man painting a fence halted his brush, mid-stroke. He sat his bucket down, pulled a paint-stained rag from his pocket to wipe his hands and hobbled in Reed’s direction.
“Mr. Ames, Mrs. Ames, I sees your company’s here,” the wizened man said.
“Arlo, this is my cousin, Mr. Jackson,” Henry said.
“Pleased to be meetin’ ya,” the rough, wrinkled man said and held his hand out to shake.
Reed lifted his hand. “Likewise, I’m sure.”
“Looks like yer chair will fit after all.” The man circled Reed, nodding. “I done worried for no use.”
Reed looked at the man quizzically until Henry motioned to a back porch. The wide steps were partially blocked by a series of elevating ramps. Reed stared. He looked up to his cousin with questions. Reed knew that all in the yard listened intently, but it did not stop his comments.
“Your father’s letters implied that I’d have no trouble getting into the hotel. That a back entrance was level.” He struggled to maintain a polite tone but could not.
Henry rushed forward. “You won’t have any trouble, Reed. Arlo and I built this ramp.”
Reed watched his cousin’s nervous face and hurried gestures. He wheeled himself to the base of the ramp while his audience waited.
“Let’s all get back to work, now,” Mary Ellen said to her employees. “We have a full house.”
Reed wheeled himself up the first ramp, stopped and turned on the landing. The next level appeared steeper and Reed pulled the wheel hard to get some momentum. Near the top, he began to roll backwards. Reed caught himself and concentrated on the last ramp. From the corner of his eye, he saw the laundresses and cook slyly watching his progress.
Arlo however could not restrain himself. “I tolds ya, Mr. Ames. We needed another foot to make that second piece not so steep.”
Henry spoke softly. “We couldn’t lengthen the ramp anymore without covering the coal cellar. It’s fine.”
Reed pushed himself up the last ramp and onto the porch.
“Yeeha,” Arlo shouted and threw his hat in the air. “I done told ya it’d work.”
Reed heard Mary Ellen hush the old man and smile approvingly to her husband. She climbed the steps and faced him. “That went well, don’t you think?”
Reed Jackson took a deep breath and nodded cautiously. He had yet to decide if he was insulted or thankful. Reed’s eyes were drawn to a tall Negro woman in the doorway. She wore a black dress with a white scarf at her neck and carried a large, wooden bowl of beans. Their eyes met, and he felt a flash of anger in her stare. The woman looked out over the work in the yard, and Reed noticed a quicker pace from all.
“Beulah, this is my husband’s cousin, Mr. Jackson,” Mary Ellen said.
The woman’s head nodded once, and Reed was surprised when she spoke. A rich cultured baritone met his ears. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Jackson.”
But Reed knew she was anything but pleased. Truthfully, Reed was shocked into silence. He had never imagined his cousin keeping a darkie. His father referred to the Ameses as nigger-loving liberals, Northerners with no sense as to how the southern economy and ways, worked. “Beulah,” Reed said.
“Henry, dear, I saw the guests from San Francisco on the porch. I want to fuss over them a bit,” Mary Ellen said to her husband and turned to Reed. “Do excuse me. Henry will show you your rooms, and I’m sure you two have much to talk about.”
Reed inclined his head. Beulah moved past him, down the steps and into the yard. He heard a laundress reply to her low words. “Yes, Miss Beulah.”
Reed’s eyes and brows rose to his cousin. “Miss Beulah?”
Henry smiled tight-lipped and gestured Reed to follow him into the hotel. He unlocked a door and handed Reed a key. Reed looked around the rooms that were to be his home. The rug was flowered, the walls covered in pale blue paint with two large windows overlooking the side yard that held the porch swing. Reed wheeled himself into the bedroom and the attached bathing room. In the main room a large desk sat between the two windows. Amazingly, someone had remembered to remove the chair. An overstuffed settee faced a small fireplace with flowers gracing the mantle.
“Very nice, Henry,” Reed said as he looked around the room.
“Arlo’s painting book shelves for the corner. I thought you may want to work from here for a while.”
“It seems you’ve thought of everything,” Reed replied. “I thank you.”
Reed watched as his cousin turned away uncomfortably and sat down in the upholstered chair.
“There are some things we need to discuss, Reed.”
“Of course,” Reed said and wheeled closer.
Henry shifted in his seat and leaned his elbows on his knees.
“I fully expect to pay my way, Henry. I wrote your father as much,” Reed said. Perhaps the hotel was not as profitable as his mother claimed. Reed knew that appearances could well be deceiving.
Henry’s hands flew forward, and he grimaced. “The money’s nothing. We’ll come to an agreement.”
Reed waited for the man to continue and wondered what was causing his cousin such distress. Henry and Mary Ellen had offered him a home. If not the money . . .
“It’s about Beulah.”
Reed shrugged, relieved. “Rest assured. I’d never let on to your family that you keep a darkie.”
Henry turned, his eyes glittering. “I don’t keep a ‘darkie,’ Reed. She is an employee.”
Reed sat back in his chair and tilted his head with a smile. “Whatever you want to call it is fine. I understand your reluctance.”
“No, Reed, I don’t think you do. Beulah manages this hotel with Mary Ellen and me. We couldn’t do without her. And she gets paid at the end of each week like the white employees, except more. I know many Southerners came west with their slaves. There are some here in town. Neither seems able to change. Not the white master, nor the Negro slave. And they’ve continued on as before the war, here some two years after. Beulah however is a free woman.”
Reed nodded and lowered his eyes. “I see.”
“Will you, ah . . . will you be comfortable with this?”
Reed wondered whom the man would choose if Reed was, in fact, uncomfortable. The Negress or his own flesh and blood? “It’s a new world, Henry. The choices weren’t mine.”
Henry nodded and sighed. “Damn complicated subject, Reed.”
They sat quietly until Henry stood. “I imagine you’ll want to get settled. I see your trunks being brought around. We eat together at four and feed the guests at five-thirty. Turn left out your door, and you’ll run into our kitchen.”
“Thank you, Henry. And be assured, I don’t plan on being a burden.”
Henry opened the door when someone knocked and motioned the men forward hauling Reed’s luggage. “Yes, bring it right in here.” He turned to Reed with a smile as he stepped through the door. “I can’t imagine you being a burden, Reed. This is your home for as long as you like.”
Reed directed the men carrying his trunks where he wanted them, tipped them and went to the bedroom. Close up to the bed, Reed pulled himself onto the top coverlet. His mangled right leg ached from travel, hoisting himself on and off train cars and in and out of hotel beds. Reed pulled and shifted his leg till it was comfortable. The stub below his left knee followed. His eyes closed, and he listened briefly to the fairy tale the woman read to her child as they sat in the swing near his window. He soon slept.
* * *
Reed’s eyes opened, gritty from sleep and exhaustion. He pulled his gold timepiece from his pocket. Hell’s fire. After four. Reed pulled himself into his chair and went straight to the sink in the bathing room. He washed his hands and face, combed his blond hair and dug through a trunk for a clean shirt. Reed muttered, knowing he was late and cursing these heathens for eating the evening meal in the middle of the day.
Reed struggled to button his jacket and wheeled himself to the kitchen. The sight he beheld stopped him. A large, clean spacious kitchen, humming with aromas from bubbling pots with spices and herbs above, hung to dry on racks. A huge table down the center of the room was covered with a gingham-checked cloth, and every person Reed had seen so far sat around it. Others, he didn’t recognize. Henry sat at one end, Mary Ellen on his right and Beulah at the other end with her back to Reed.
“Apologies for my late arrival,” Reed murmured.
Mary Ellen rose and came to him. “I told Henry I’d bring you a plate tonight. You must be exhausted.”
“I admit I napped. Something smells delicious.”
A young girl, seated beside Beulah, stood. “Mrs. Ames, I got to get home now anyway. Your company can have my seat.”
“Thank you, Constance. Tell your mother I hope she feels better,” Mary Ellen said as she pulled the girl’s chair away. Clean china and a fresh napkin appeared at the now vacant spot.
Reed wheeled himself in and looked around at the curious stares. They employ Negroes, eat in the middle of the day and do so with their employees. He noticed the only person at the table not smiling or eyeing him was the woman to his left. Beulah continued to eat as if he had never entered. Arlo sat on his right and handed Reed a constant flurry of bowls and platters.
“Pickles, Mr. Jackson? Miss Beulah, hand Mr. Jackson the pickles,” the old man said.
She turned to Reed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear Mr. Jackson ask for the pickles.”
“They do look tempting,” Reed said.
Beulah did not move her gaze from her plate. She gently dabbed her mouth as the other diners began to talk again amongst themselves.
Reed looked at her and the plate of dill spears just out of his reach. She nodded regally in conversation to her left.
“Would you pass the pickles?” Reed asked.
“Pardon, Mr. Jackson,” the woman said with a tight smile.
Obviously she had heard. She was less than a foot away from him. Reed smiled and looked down at his plate. He turned to her and spoke clearly, “Miss Beulah, would you please pass the pickles?”
The woman nodded and picked up the plate. “Certainly Mr. Jackson. Do be careful of this dish. It’s one of the good set.”
Reed could not stop a slow smile. Beulah made clear her boundaries over a plate of pickled cucumbers. This adversary may prove a challenge, he thought. “I will be careful, Miss Beulah. My momma says I can be clumsy.” The woman turned back to the laundress on her left.
Reed watched the diners as they stood to leave, one at a time, and carried their dishes and glasses to the wash sink. He laid his napkin down and pushed back from the table, satisfied. His cousin knew how to choose a cook. Reed watched the round man, now fluttering from pot to pan, stirring and shaking.
Arlo stood. “Lets me git that dish for ya, sir.”
“Thank you,” Reed replied, feeling better with a stomach full of food.
It was then he observed his cousin and wife carry their own dirty dishes away. Mary Ellen giggled at something Henry said and Reed saw them smile flirtatiously at each other.
“I’ve got some bookkeeping and such to get done. I’ll bring a brandy by later,” Henry called to him.
“That would be grand,” he replied.
Reed spent the evening filling the chest of drawers and unpacking his things. He placed a picture of his mother and father on the table. Reed stacked books on the huge desk and on the floor beside it. He wrote a short letter to his parents and brother Winston, assuring them he had arrived safely.
Much had been made of his traveling alone, especially as great stretches of the southern tracks were still being repaired. His trip to Missouri had been a tortuous trek with multiple stops and some day or more layovers. His mother was convinced a companion should accompany him, but Winston could not take the time and the plantation’s finances needed no further stretching. He was crippled and he knew he must learn to negotiate his own way without staff or servants. His mother had compromised by making arduous arrangements with hotels and station masters by letter over the course of six months.
“Come in,” he replied to a knock at his door.
“As promised,” Henry said as he came in, bottle and glasses in hand.
“I was hoping you remembered,” Reed said and moved to the small table where Henry was seated and accepted a glass.
“So,” Henry said between sips, “tell me about your family.”
Reed rolled the brandy over his tongue. “What do you want to know?”
“Father said you’d be tight-lipped. Wasn’t trying to be nosy. Just hoping they were in good health and all.” Henry crossed his legs and looked away.
“Forgive me, cousin. Mother and Father are fine. Winston is well and set to marry in the fall.”
“Sounds like things are getting back to normal. The girl Winston will marry, do you know her?”
Reed smiled and raised his brows. “Quite well.”
“Will they be living at the plantation? Father said your family managed to hang onto it.”
Reed wondered how much his cousin knew. “Father made enough in gold running blockades to pay the taxes and begin again. Winston brought his first crop of cotton in without slave labor.”
“I’m glad your family business survived. I am sorry about you brother Franklin. Terrible loss, a sibling.”
“Thank you,” Reed replied.
The two men sat in companionable silence, listening to the hushed chatter of guests as the hotel quieted for the night.
Henry leaned forward and stared at Reed. “I know I shouldn’t ask. Can’t seem to help myself. But if the plantation survived, why didn’t you take it over rather than a younger brother.” Henry looked at Reed’s stern face and hurried to continue. “None of my business,” Henry said, smiling at Reed, “Anyway, why would a successful lawyer want to plow and sow?”
“How is your family, Henry? Your father’s letters to Mother were always interesting. I would like to meet them.”
Henry chuckled. “Quite an assortment there. Mother and Father are fine. My younger sisters drive my father crazy with a varied group of suitors.” Henry poured another brandy from the crystal decanter and sat back. “Funny we never met. Our families I mean. Your mother and my father corresponded regularly. Father loved getting letters from Aunt Lily. Said she was the pride of the South.”
“Pride of the South,” Reed whispered and sipped.
Henry turned the framed daguerreotype around. “Father said my sister Susan was the spitting image of her. He’s right.”
“How is your father’s business?” Reed asked.
“Doing well. Always be a market for coffee, I imagine.”
“Begs the question, why would a coffee wholesaler’s son, move west and leave a prosperous business behind?” Reed asked over the cut edge of his glass.
Henry chuckled. “Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. I tried my hand at Father’s business for a while. Didn’t care for it much. Had a dream of moving west. Wanted to watch this country grow. I love it here. I found a beautiful woman and my life’s work. Oh, I miss my family and what I grew up with, but I know I would’ve never been happy in Boston.”
Envy of a clear-cut longing and the fulfillment of that goal filled Reed’s head. Nothing seemed clear for Reed. He was schooled as an attorney, yes, but had practiced little. Reed certainly missed nothing of his life after the war began. Had the war not come, things may have been different. He would have continued on as the second son to a prosperous cotton farmer and would have managed a great estate’s affairs. But the war had come. Gone were a genteel existence, his older brother, and Reed’s legs.
Henry corked the brandy and stood. “Mary Ellen told me to keep this visit short. That you’d be tired. I fear I’ve worn you out more than you already were.”
“My bed does seem to be calling,” Reed said. “Thank you for the ramp. An ingenious invention.”
“Mary Ellen and I both would like you to be happy. We have no family nearby and want you to make your life here,” Henry said. “I know I’ll never replace your brother, I never had one, of course, but it will be good to know I have someone to lean on. And that you, too, can count me as family.”
The sincere exposition touched Reed in a way that seemed foreign. His thoughts of family were as muddy and murky as the bayou, filled with pride, resentment and the undeniable knowledge that he may have done the same things under the same circumstances. Maybe, just maybe, his mother’s encouragement to begin a new life elsewhere came from the heart. And maybe she was right. He had best try and forget the hurts and the wrongs of the past and make something of himself in a new land. He had told Henry it was a new world, and perhaps this was the place for a new beginning.
Reed watched Henry turn the brass door handle. “My brother’s fiancée was to marry me. Her family’s plantation adjoined ours,” Reed said.
Henry turned back with a confused look. “I’m sorry, Reed.” He stood unmoving and smiled wistfully. “Maybe it was for the best. If she loved your brother, you two wouldn’t have been happy.”
“Had nothing to do with love, Henry,” Reed said. “After Franklin was killed and I returned from the war like this,” Reed said with a sweep of hands to his chair, “Father decided that Winston should inherit. That I was not up to the task. Belinda was part and parcel of the deal.”
Henry’s eyes widened. His mouth opened and closed. “Oh.”
Reed watched the man absorb and tackle that bit of Jackson family chicanery. This was the first time Reed had spoken aloud this tale, and it sounded sordid and cold to his own ears. What must this straight-laced Bostonian think, Reed wondered.
“What shit,” Henry said in awe, finally.
Reed laughed. “Well put, cousin. What I think exactly.”
Henry shook his head again and left Reed in his thoughts.
Reed wheeled himself to the window and listened as human sounds faded and a night orchestra began. Crickets chirped and an owl screeched in the distance over the low hum of a faraway piano. Reed smelled rain in the heavy air. He remembered the shocked look on Henry’s face and relived its source. Betrayal, anger and bitter disappointment filled Reed’s head. But he could not hate his father even though he wanted to. Reed knew that forging a new life in the devastated South would require a man fit in all ways. His father bound and determined to resurrect a lost cause with new rules to follow.
His cousin had proven, against all odds in Reed’s mind, to be a man he could like. There was no doubt of the sincere outrage in his eyes. And the straight talk had freed some of Reed’s anger and cleared a space in his mind to look forward and not back.