(This months’ installment of the current work in progress: Isobel and her maid, Jane, have arrived at the Becker ranch, near Comfort, in the Hill Country of Texas. But Jane fell ill with malaria, and could not go with Isobel and Dolph to establish a new RB ranch in the Panhandle region, which with the end of the Indian Wars, is now open to ambitious and hardworking cattlemen. What will Jane do? Sam Becker has a plan…)
The dreams tormented Jane, although in her moments of waking she could not remember what it was that terrified her so, other than an oppressive sense of being watched and pursued by her stepfather down the endless halls and staircases of Acton. She dreamed also of Lady Caroline dancing in the ballroom; her person and her gown curiously transformed into glass and shattering into a thousand animated pieces on the hard floor, while Jane herself attempted to sweep up every particle, chasing the moving pieces of Lady Caroline with a broom and dustpan, and Auntie Lydia looked down at her from an enormous height and scolded her, saying, “Oh, dear – that will never do, child. You must try harder if you want to advance in service.” At other times, she dreamed that she was buried in snow, shivering so violently that she thought her own bones would break with the force of it – and then she was hot, and so thirsty … but the water often tasted so bitter that she thought it must be poison and wanted to spit it out, but someone made her to drink it.
At the end of that interminable period of torment and fever, the nightmares dissolved, like the ice melting at the end of winter. One early morning, Jane opened her eyes and looked up at the ceiling over her head, in a room that she didn’t recognize. Not the servant’s quarters at Acton Hall, or her parent’s tiny village house house … or any of the various small rooms she had slept in since her ladyship married. The last coherent memory she had was of her lady, and Mr. Becker and their party leaving San Antonio. Ah, she thought. This must be their house in the hills … but how long have I been here? Where was her ladyship? Surely, they would not have gone on without me? How would her ladyship manage without me? Suddenly apprehensive, Jane levered herself to sit up, pushing the bedcovers from her. Her head spun, and she held still until it steadied. She swung her feet to the floor, and sat for a moment on the edge of the bedstead to catch her breath. There was her own little trunk at the foot of the bed, her carpetbag sitting on top of it. Someone had thought to hang two or three of her dresses from the pegs in a little niche beside the tall window which served as a wardrobe, so that the wrinkles would not be so marked. And she was even wearing her own nightgown.
She should get dressed, and find her ladyship and Mr. Becker’s room; it was past dawn and the sky outside the window slowed clear and blue, unmasked by any cloud or fog. Jane set her bare feet to the floor – there was a rug at the bedside, made of braided cloth scraps sewn together to make a circular matt. She felt a little faint for a moment, but it passed. The long rest – how long had she been ill – must have done her good. She did feel weak, but well again. Before she could move any farther from the bed, there was a rattle of the doorknob, and a short, dark woman in her middle years came in, bearing a cloth-covered tray in her hands. When she caught sight of Jane, she exclaimed,
“Por dios! Qué estás haciendo? Vuelve a la cama!” She set the tray down on the bedside table, and pushed Jane back towards the bed. Jane sat down on it abruptly, and the woman shouted, “Actualmente! Senora Becker, ven pronto!” Mumbling under her breath, the woman lifted Jane’s feet from the floor, tucking them forcefully back underneath the covers. Jane’s new strength could not withstand against such masterful determination – it was easier to submit.
“What is it, Leticia?” Mrs. Becker appeared in the open doorway, as neat as always, but her dress was a plain one, gone rusty with age and unfashionable, without any bustle under it. Leticia – for that must be the woman’s name – answered in a flood of Spanish, of which Mrs. Becker apparently divined enough of her meaning, for she gently chided Jane. “Miss Goodacre … you should not be venturing from your bed just yet.” She felt Jane’s forehead with her wrist, just as she had before. “You have no fever at present … which is good, but you should not over-exert yourself.”
“Where is Lady Isobel?” Jane asked, as Leticia – still grumbling under her breath – placed two or three pillows at her back so that she might sit up in bed. Mrs. Becker placed the tray on her knees and answered,
“She and my son, and young Bertrand departed for the north a fortnight ago. They could not delay their departure. I am sorry, Miss Goodacre … my son’s wife was most distraught that you could not accompany them. She … took it very badly. She sat with you many evenings, and begged my son to wait upon your return to health. But the business of the ranches could not be put off. I fear that my son’s reasons for doing things are often matters which he does not care to share with anyone, even his mother, or his wife.”
Leticia’s eyes were on Jane’s face as Mrs. Becker relayed this news; Jane felt as if she had been struck breathless, as if she had been hit by a runaway carriage, and left crumpled on the pavement, gasping for breath and hardly able to move. Lady Isobel had abandoned her in this foreign country and gone off with her husband – that was all she could take in. Leticia instantly began upbraiding Mrs. Becker in emphatic Spanish.
“What will happen to me now?” To her own ears, Jane’s voice came out in a pathetic squeak. “What will I do?”
“You will get better,” Mrs. Becker answered, as if it were a perfectly natural question. “Then you do what you wish. Your wages are paid until the end of the year. The Palo Duro ranch will be established by then; we will meet with my son and his wife again at Christmas, and all will go on then as it has before. Of a certainty, she said she would always need you. For now … this is Leticia’s best beef tea, which you will drink. Perhaps she will make you some bread and milk, too – since you are awake.” She patted Jane’s shoulder, comfortingly. “Miss Goodacre, there is no need for tears, not so? I will write a letter, to tell your lady that you are recovering, and send it with a messenger. Drink your beef tea. For the moment, consider this your home.”
Still dazed with weakness and a lingering sense of having been betrayed by a friend, Jane obeyed. The beef tea was hot and good, and Leticia watched her drink it, beaming approval and took away the cup when she was finished. Later, she brought up a dish of bread and milk, the eating of which so exhausted Jane that she lay back and fell asleep almost as soon as Leticia took away the empty tray.
Within a few days, she felt strong enough to dress herself and put up her hair – but then was confronted with what to do with the long hours of the day. The tall stone house was an oasis of quiet, at the center of a hub of activity, even if most of the hands and nearly all the horses were gone north. Everyone – even Lottie and Mrs. Becker seemed to have work enough, and if Sam was not in the office, he was out on horseback, among the pastures of the property which sprawled the length of the valley along the river as far as she could see, and to the hills on either side. She wrote a long letter to Auntie Lydia, enclosing another, singularly brief and unspecific single-page letter for her mother and brothers. Then Jane busied herself with unpacking those trunks of Lady Isobel’s clothes that she had left behind, in the large bedroom which was obviously the one that she had shared with Mr. Becker, setting their contents to air, before laying them away in the large wardrobe which took up almost all of one wall. After spinning out that for as long as possible, she attempted to make herself useful to Lottie and Mrs. Becker, by offering her services as a seamstress and ladies’ maid. Lottie pealed with laughter,
“But we have hardly any use for that here! If it would amuse you, you can play at putting my hair in fancy rolls, and I am certain Mama can find some mending … if she can wrest it away from Tia Leticia!” Lottie’s face sobered, “But really, what I would like best would be if you just kept us company. There are so very few women, you know. And it is very lonely here, especially after last year! Our nearest neighbor is crazy old Mr. Berg. Leticia has the house to keep, of course – but Mama has the garden, and the orchard … and the bees, of course. We would love to have your company … would it be untoward if I just called you Jane, and you called me Lottie?”
“Not at all,” Jane answered, a little nonplussed at the informality of it all, even if she and Lottie were the same age. But everything here was so very different, less rigidly bound by proper courtesies and formality. It was ridiculous to expect to carry on as if this were anything like Acton Hall – but she was taken back at finding out that she would take meals at the same table with Mrs. Becker, Lottie and Sam.
“Of course you will,” Lottie said briskly, when Jane protested. “Otherwise, you’d be in the kitchen with Leticia and the girls … and you don’t understand Spanish, and they would think that you were imposing on them. Jane – you aren’t in England any more!”
“Apparently not,” Jane answered, still very shaken at the prospect. What would Lady Caroline, Mr. Spencer, and Aunt Lydia think of all that? Mr. Spencer, she was certain, would expire in a fit of spectacular apoplexy, and Lady Caroline … Jane suddenly recollected her dream of trying to sweep up animated glass fragments of Lady Caroline and stifled a giggle.
She might have felt much more awkward about it, but everyone else seemed to accept her dining with them quite matter-of-factly, although it was at least a week before she could bring herself to do anything more than answer a direct question. On that particular evening, Sam Becker lay down his knife and fork.
“Miss Jane,” he ventured, as if he had given the question a great deal of care. “Have you ever given thought to teaching school?”
Jane, utterly floored, simply stared at him for a few moments before shaking her head.
“No … I have not. It’s not suitable – I only went to the village school until I was twelve or so, and then I had to help my mother in the store.”
“But you can read, and write, and do sums?” Sam persisted, and Jane answered, “Of course I can. And I won a school prize for geography when I was ten, and another for history, the next year. I had very high marks – if I had been a boy and they didn’t need me to work in the store, they said I might have gone to the university on scholarship.”
“If you can do all that,” Sam answered, “Then you can teach someone else from what you know – especially since you know more than they do.” He sat a little forward in his chair, and leaned on his elbows as he fixed Jane with a look of willful intensity. Jane thought, in the back of her mind, that his brother might be the tall and handsome gentleman, but Sam … Sam had a special quality about him. Sam made anyone whom he fixed his attention on to believe themselves the most fascinating person in the world.
“Elbows off the table, Samuel,” Mrs. Becker chided him, and Lottie demanded, “You’re not looking to open a school, are you?”
“I am,” Sam answered. “Here at the ranch … oh, I know there is a perfectly good schoolhouse in Comfort … but you see, that’s miles away, and it’s all German. See …” he addressed his mother and sister, as well as Jane. “Bill Inman – that’s our foreman at this ranch, Jane – he just this last year married himself a widow-woman from someplace near Huntsville, a widow-woman with four little children, and brought them up here to live…”
“As is right,” Mrs. Becker said, and Sam continued, his attention focused most particularly on Jane.
“She don’t much like it – because she wants her children to go to school, and there isn’t a proper school any closer than Comfort. She and her kinder don’t speak German, so that’s a problem right there. Bill doesn’t earn enough to send them all to boarding school in San Antonio, and she wouldn’t have that, anyway. She’s not happy, and so Bill’s not happy – and we’d not like to lose him as foreman here – so as I see it, the best way is to start a school right here, on the ranch, with Miss Jane here teaching it.”
“But I can’t teach…” Jane protested, and Sam replied with great assurance,
“Yes you can, Miss Jane – I listened to you, that afternoon when you were amusing Cuz Peter’s and Cousin Anna’s little sprats … on the train. You had them together in the parlor, and you were teaching them their letters an’ telling them all about Madagascar or some such place, just to pass the time. They were listening to you! Harry and Christian don’t commonly pay attention to anybody, outside of Peter and Anna, an’ maybe Mama. They’re willful, all right – but they were listening to you. I know you can do it, Miss Jane.” His blue-grey eyes fixed upon Jane’s, filled with confidence. “If you can make those two little imps pay mind, you sure can make Bill Inman’s. Say that you will, Miss Jane. We have that little cabin between the bunkhouse and the stable that used to be for storing hay and corn. It’s not much – but we can move in some tables and benches. We can get some McGuffrey’s Readers, an’ Lottie has her school-books … an’ we have a bunch of our Opa’s old books in English, so that you can study ahead. They’re only children; and they don’t know nothin’ at all. All you need do is teach them what you know. Say you will do it, Miss Jane – it will give you something to do, you’ll be giving Bill Inman’s children a little schooling and helping us keep a good foreman. And we can rustle up two dollars a week for you, as long as you’re teaching. What do you say, Miss Jane? Will you do it?”
“I think I will,” Jane answered, with a tremor in her voice that she couldn’t quite conceal, but also a sense of a grand and glorious opportunity opening in front of her. And besides, it would be something to do, something to take the sting away from knowing that her ladyship had left her … and there was otherwise nothing else for her to fill in the next six long months.
The following morning, she and Lottie went down to the little cabin – a windowless little shed made of inexpertly fitted logs. So much of the clay chinking between the logs had fallen out, there was as much light and air within as if there had been windows. The floor – for there was a rough plank floor – was scattered with the detritus of it’s former function; wisps of dried grass, husks and grains of yellow maize. The place was dusty, yet otherwise clean, and pleasantly imbued with the lingering odor of it’s previous use. Lottie was ecstatic, like a child given a new dollhouse.
“Oh, it’s perfect!” she cried, “You should have your desk here, of course – and a blackboard behind it. And a globe – you should have a globe. Opa had a splendid one that Onkel Johann sent from Germany. I am sure Mama will let you make use of it. I do not think Sam will approve the expense of proper schoolroom desks, but surely Mr. Inman can make some simple tables and benches. Let’s go find Mr. Inman, and tell him what we need … I am certain that he will be most helpful. When shall we tell them that school can begin?”
“A week?” Jane ventured, and Lottie agreed. Before Jane had a moment to reconsider the whole project, Lottie had spun like a whirlwind, back to the house, trailing Jane in her wake.
“Mama is going to Comfort tomorrow, to oversee inventory in the store,” Lottie assured her. “Make a list, for whatever we do not have here … you may go with her and bring back on account. Chalk! You need chalk! I daresay the Inman children will have their own slates, but they may not. A set of McGuffrey Readers, of course… do you know McGuffrey Readers, Jane? It is, I think, what they will expect to be taught from. Our Opa had many books … and those in English might be of use to you, also.”
Sam Becker was run to ground in the shed which housed the smithy. Apparently pleased by Lottie’s enthusiasm for the project at least as much as he was by Jane’s acquiescence – agreed to contribute the globe to the nascent school, as well as a small table to serve as a teacher’s desk, and a plain wooden chair. That very afternoon, the sound of a saw and hammer being vigorously wielded within, drifted through the windows of the office, where Jane sat on her heels before the twin bookcases. It was not a splendid library – not like the grand, book-lined shelves at the Hall, a room as large as this entire house, and the shelves so tall that one needed a tall ladder to reach the topmost shelves, and grand paintings of improbable goddesses and historical men and women lining the upper walls above the shelves – but it was a very satisfactory one, and much larger than Jane had expected. There were a great many books in foreign languages, some of them filled also with the most wonderfully delicate illustrations of plants and animals. She was supposed to be setting aside a handful of books which would be of use to her in teaching Mr. Inman’s children, but she was distracted by a thin volume – a pamphlet, really – crudely stitched together of what looked like letter-paper folded in half, and bound in in a roughly-cut square of cured plain rawhide leather. The pages were filled with lively pen and water-color and pencil sketches; Indians in brilliantly-colored blankets and feathers, soldiers clad in improbably ornate and detailed uniforms. There were landscapes and portraits of people scattered among them, of animals and more soldiers on horseback. Jane turned a page; here was a sketch of a house which looked like this one even to the shape of the hills behind it, but smaller; only the one l-shaped wing, and she frowned, briefly puzzled. Why did it appear as if it were on fire? She turned to the first page, and there was the answer, written in childish square letters: Samuel Houston Becker –1862– This is my book so keep out – This means YOU Elias!
Jane hastily folded the little book together and replaced it on the shelf where she had found it, reminded with a pang of her little brothers. Just so they had marked their own dearest belongings. This little book must be the property of Sam Becker, and if she recalled Lady Isobel’s quizzings on board the Wieland about the complicated family of her lady’s husband, one of the cattle baron’s many sons was named Elias. And if she remembered aright, Mr. Becker had mentioned something to her ladyship about his brother wishing to be an artist. Even if done by a child, the drawings were very fine, drawn with verve and an eye for detail. Jane continued with searching the books, distracted yet again and again, until the moment when the clock in the next room chimed the 5 o’clock hour and she realized that the entire day had passed, and the late afternoon sun was painting the room in pale golden light. Where had the time gone, so sweetly had it passed?
Some minutes after this realization, the outside door to the office from the deep verandah swung open, and there was Samuel Houston Becker himself, although after some weeks, Jane’s first impulse was to call him Sam, as if he were one of her own kin and she were very fond of him. There was not that deep gulf that society demanded between those served and the servant, which utterly baffled Jane at first. She thought that there ought to be, when it came to the older Mrs. Becker, and Lottie and Sam. But there wasn’t, no matter how firmly she tried to draw that understanding. She ate at the table with them, and such a line was becoming increasingly harder to hold onto; especially when Sam beamed upon her cheerfully and remarked,
“Miss Jane – have you selected your books? Bill is nearly done with outfitting your school. Will you walk down with me, and have a look?”
“Of course I will,” Jane replied, and he answered, “Then take your books, and I have my contribution – I think we shall have a very nice little school.” He added, in a confining tone of voice, “I might just very well keep it up, you know. You will have several more pupils besides Bill’s step-children before next Monday, Miss Jane.”
“I will?” Jane replied, in complete bafflement, as Sam took down a large framed map in pastels and sepia colors, which hung upon the wall of the office – a map of Texas and the territories surrounding. “But – won’t you need that? And it leaves an empty space on the wall…”
“I think your pupils will need it more, Miss Jane,” he answered. “I already know this silly ol’ map very well – but they will not. In the long run, won’t it be more use in a school-room?”
With his other hand, he took her elbow, and they walked down to the little hay-barn. To Jane’s utter amazement, it was transformed. Now there was a window cut in the space opposite the doorway; although there was no glass in it, there was already a set of shutters hinged within the frame. All had been swept clean; a large kerosene lantern hung from the center beam, just above head-height. At the gable end of the small barn, a blackboard had been hung; three or four boards cunningly smoothed and fitted together, painted with black paint which was still shiny and damp. The small table and chair had been placed before the blackboard with care for symmetry – and there, in the main part of the barn were two rows of rough-hewn plank benches with tables set before them to serve in the office of student desks.
“There is a shelf for those books,” Sam pointed out the narrow plank, resting upon long pegs set into the wall below the new window. “With space for more, as soon as Bill finishes it; he even worked up a school bell for you – not much for looks, but it makes a noise.” By that, Jane assumed that he meant the metal barrel hoop, hanging from the edge of the roof by the door, and the length of metal rod attached to it with a length of twine. There was already a nail pounded into the wall on either side of the new blackboard. Sam hung the Texas map from one of them, and stood back to admire the look. “Bill, he says that his wife’s children they all have school slates …but his oldest boy doesn’t, and neither do Tia Leticia’s granddaughters. Did I tell you that she wants Conchita and Adeliza to come to school too? Young Bill, he’s eleven or so, and never went to school. And there’s one of the hands, too. He told me that he wants to learn to write his name proper, so I said he could come to school in the mornings.” Sam allowed all this, with an air of perfect confidence and good cheer, and Jane stared at him in horror, her heart sinking.
“A school of eight pupils,” she stammered. “I don’t believe that I can teach as many as eight. I thought it was just to be the four children…”
“Well, it was at first,” Sam agreed. “But the more I talked about it with Mama, and Bill, and Tia Leticia, the better idea they thought it was. Mama, especially – she thinks it is awful that children are left to grow up without any schooling at all. Me, I think that something ought to be done here and now. Sometimes, Miss Jane … just what you can do, even if you think it isn’t very much – is still the best thing that you could ever do. I know you can teach, Miss Jane – if you can school Harry and Christian, you can teach. This very day, we have a school, right here on the RB ranch homeplace, where we never had one before. And that’s something to boast about, Miss Jane; having you spend the day teaching those children is lot more important to us than having you spend that very same day fiddle about with Sister Isobel’s wardrobe, so don’t you dare lose heart and think you can’t do it. If you think you can’t, and never try, then you are beaten before you ever try.”
“I’ll try my best,” Jane answered, with a small sigh, “But I think sometimes that you and my Auntie Lydia have more faith in me than I do.”
“You’ll do fine, Miss Jane.” Sam took her elbow, to assist her down the two steps from the doorway, and she thought again how very comforting was his assurance and belief in her. He was not like his older brother; who for all his handsome looks Jane found to be rather forbidding. The heretical thought – that it might be very pleasant, to be courted by Sam Becker – arrived unbidden, and was just as swiftly banished from Jane’s mind, although for the moment, she lost track of what Sam was saying.
“Mama is going to take the trap and spend the day in Comfort, at the store,” he said. “And we thought you should go with her to keep her company, and to see what there is in Comfort that you might use for the school. Mama can charge it to the ranch account.”
“That is very generous,” Jane said, but Sam only shrugged.
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”
After an early breakfast the next morning, Mrs. Becker and Jane set off in the light two-horse trap for what Jane understood was the nearest town of any substance – some seven or eight miles distant. At the last minute, Lottie declared that she must come also, so the three women squeezed together on the single seat. Lottie brought out her parasol, for the day was very warm and the shade of the parasol was welcome. The lane between the RB ranch and the main road was shaded by a row of young trees, planted on either side. When Jane remarked on it, Mrs. Becker nodded.
“My son’s idea,” she said. “It was the wish of my husband to make this a show-place, but Dolphchen thought of searching out young trees, and transplanting them to line the road.” The lane dropped down from the low eminence on which the ranch buildings sprawled, with the crown of it being the tall stone main house, passing meadows and pastures, some of them randomly dotted with more trees. At the bottom of the lane, where it opened to the road which paralleled the river, the entrance to the ranch was marked by a pair of gateposts make from blocks of roughly-squared limestone which had weathered to the same dark ivory color as the house.
“When I first came this way, nearly thirty years ago,” Mrs. Becker remarked, deftly twitching the reins, “There was no road … only a track in the grass. And my husband’s men marked the way to our house with a bull-skull hung in a tree. Our nearest neighbors were three or four miles distant – there was no town, only a place where the Indians camped among the trees. In those days, three women would not dare travel alone on this road, because of the Comanche … or the worst kind of banditry. But now we may go about our business without fear.”
“I am glad of that,” Jane answered, with a shiver; for such things were almost too awful to contemplate on a spring morning with fields of wildflowers unfurling on either side of the river – a dark green torrent between steep banks. Tall trees with feathery green and pine-like foliage lined the banks, and now and again the scent of fresh water wafted up towards them. It was as green as England, Jane thought – but there was a difference in the feel of the air, the look of the sky, even the very untamed look of the land. How terrifying it must have been, for those who came here, all those years ago. And then Lottie laughed, and the parasol bobbed.
“This is the first time you have seen the Hills, Jane – for you were so very sick when we came this way before. Comfort is a dear, sweet little place. Everyone there is related to everyone else, and everyone knows us. We could spend the day, making calls and still would not meet every one of our friends!”
“It sounds very like Didcot,” Jane said, stuck by a feeling of nostalgia. “Where I was born – my father kept the village shop there and my mother kept on when he died. I was raised in a shop. We knew everyone there, too.”
“You see?” Lottie promised extravagantly. “You will feel quite at home!”
Curiously enough, Jane did – although the general store on Comfort’s High Street did not have very much in common from the outside to the cramped little shop premise which had been her home until Auntie Lydia brought her to the Hall … had that been only little more than a year ago? This store had two fine windows on either side of the door, whereas the shop in Didcot had only the one tiny bow window, displaying a selection of goods to the passersby on Station Street, but inside … oh that caught at her heart and memory. Dim, in the further recesses of the shop and far from the windows, it smelled so very much like that early home. Jane closed her eyes and drank in the familiar commingled scent of ripening cheeses, the dusty milled-grain odor of flour, of sugar still retaining the lingering richness of that molasses that it had been refined from, of camphor and kerosene and a hundred other commodities; fine perfumed soap, bolts of calico fabric with the odor of the dye-vats still clinging faintly to it, the medicinal smell of whiskey and herbal medicines, of salt-cod and crackers. All those goods, piled on shelves reaching nearly to the ceiling, lent each of their own peculiarity to the atmosphere. Jane felt herself nearly overcome with nostalgia and sorrow. She had loved helping in the shop from her earliest girlhood; she had learned her numbers from her father’s account-ledgers even before she learned them from the village schoolmistress. Of all the places she had seen in America, this was the single one which caught at her heart and memory, the one in which she felt instantly at home.
She followed Mrs. Becker and Lottie to the back, where they were greeted warmly by the proprietor, a stout and broad-shouldered man in his thirties, who was introduced to her as Cousin George Richter – of course, yet another one of the cattle baron’s sons. George Richter was what the baron would have looked like at that age, Jane thought. He conversed with them in lively German, offered them all coffee and some tasty little pastries adorned with a dollop of jam and slivered almonds. Then Mrs. Becker removed her bonnet and gloves, put on an all-enveloping apron which she took from her ever-present valise, and she and George set to work.
“This store does very well,” Lottie explained to Jane. “Onkel Hansi always said that the family businesses were like a three-legged stool; the stores, the freighting concern, and the cattle – All of his sons and his son-in-law have a part in it. When I marry Seb – then he will have a part in it, also, through the new ranch in the Palo Duro. You will never imagine how it all began, though.”
“Tell me,” Jane asked. She and Lottie were perched on tall stools at the back. She and Lottie had been deputized to assist George Richter’s single young store clerk with customers, although Jane was hampered somewhat in not knowing any German, the language of this region.. Still, she reveled in the very familiarity of it, the careful order of merchandise on the shelves, the tidy ordering of drawers neatly labeled with the small things they contained, the way that the little bell on a spring on the front door chimed whenever anyone came and went.
“It started with two wagons of goods,” Lottie explained. “Onkel Hansi and Cousin Jacob did not want to serve in the Confederate Army, so they were made to be teamsters instead, working for the Commissariat. We were all for the Union, you know. When word came that the war was over, and the Confederates had surrendered, Onkel Hansi and Jacob were at Galveston when the news arrived, waiting to take two wagonloads of goods from the Army warehouses. Onkel Hansi said that a mob of ordinary people began to storm the warehouses and loot the goods within them, so he and Jacob came away at once, with their wagons all full.”
“But wasn’t that like looting as well?” Jane asked. Lottie frowned, admitting,
“I suppose it was, a little. But you see … during the war, the Confederates took ever so much from us; all of Papa’s cattle, and wagons and the food that Papa and Mama had stored up. They took all of Onkel Hansi’s horses and the wagon that he had out at his farm at Live Oak, too. For the war effort, you see. They even came and confiscated Papa’s land – they said he was a traitor. We had to live with Opa in Fredericksburg – we were very poor, then. I don’t remember much of that, at all – I was just a baby. But Sam recalls it very well. And what Onkel Hansi said to us, those two wagons and the goods in them were a fair repayment for what they had taken from us, and we had a perfect right to keep them. So, he and Mama used the goods to set up a general store in the place where Opa had his clock-making shop, and the wagons and horses to begin freighting goods for it.” Lottie waved her hand around at the shop. “All of this … came from that. And when the Federal Army came back and we had a Reconstruction government again … they returned Papa’s land to us … so we had that to raise cattle on, once more.”
“It sounds like a story,” Jane said, “Like Dick Whittington and his cat … from rags to splendid riches and Lord Mayor of London.”
“I suppose it does,” Lottie answered, carelessly. “And it was very fortunate for Onkel Hansi, being in Galveston right at that very moment, with the wagons having just been loaded … but if he had found quite a different opportunity, I am sure that he would have taken advantage of it just as readily.”
At that moment, Mrs. Becker called from the office – a matter of numbers in the inventory not agreeing with that had been consigned to the storeroom or to the shelves – and Lottie obediently hopped down from the stool and threaded her way across the room to count up the bolts of calico cloth neatly stacked on an upper shelf. Jane considered what she had just been told, and recollecting the splendors of the cattle baron’s parlor car. This was a new thought to her; that great riches such as the parlor car represented had not always been there, as permanent and enduring as the foursquare edifice of the Hall. They had, in fact, come from two wagons of goods rescued from the wreck of a failed rebellion, parlayed by a stubborn and far-seeing man into a not inconsiderable fortune. This was something for Jane to consider, a great and serious matter … Plain poor Dick Whittington had parlayed a cat into a fortune, and Hansi Richter had wrung an eventual fortune from goods that chance had placed in his hand. Jane was aware of a breathless sense of hope and possibility. Alf Trotter had thought the streets of New York were paved in gold; which wasn’t true, Jane knew very well. But maybe the streets of America were paved with something better; opportunity.