Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Bride In The Bargain - Chapter 1

A Bride In The Bargain

Bethany House (June 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Seattle, Washington Territory
April 1, 1865

ATTENTION BACHELORS! Due to the efforts of Asa Mercer, you can now secure a bride of good moral character and reputation from the Atlantic States for the sum of $300. All eligible and sincerely desirous bachelors assemble in Delim & Shorey's building on Wednesday evening.

Joe Denton scoffed at the ad and scanned the rest of the page. The lopsided ratio of men to women once again filled the columns of the Seattle Intelligencer.

Glancing at the mantel clock, he shifted on the maroon-andgold sofa, then read the next page. The troops at Hatchers Run now had a series of signal towers along their entire line and almost every movement of the rebels could be observed. If Lee were to fall back in an effort to overwhelm Sherman, he would find Grant thundering close upon his rear.

The door to the parlor opened and the head of a small, brown-haired boy poked around its edge. "I thought that was you I saw coming up the walk. You here to see my pa?"

"I am."

Sprout Rountree stepped inside and hitched up his short pants, revealing scuffed knees. His stiff white shirt was untucked, grassstained, and torn at the elbow.

"Looks like you've had a hard morning," Joe said.

Sprout puffed out his chest. "I've been practicing to be a lumberjack, just like you."

"You have?"

A grin split his freckled face. "I have. I chopped down Mama's tree out back all by myself."

Joe hesitated. "That sapling, you mean? The Chinese pistachio your mother ordered from the Sandwich Islands?"

"I dunno. Just a minute and I'll show you."

He darted out of the room and returned in another minute holding what was left of his mother's pride and joy.

Joe swiped a hand across his mouth. "When did you do that, son?"

"This morning. I used my pa's ax. It sure is heavy. But I got big muscles for a boy my age. Ever'body says so."

"They do?"

"Yep. You wanna see 'em?"

Without waiting for an answer he strode right up between Joe's knees and flexed his little arm. It wasn't much thicker than the sapling he held, but Joe assumed a serious air and scrutinized the boy's arm, squeezed his muscle, then whistled. "Very impressive."

The boy beamed. "Lemme see yours."

"I can't roll up my sleeve right now. I'm waiting to see your pa."

His little shoulders wilted. "Aw, please?"

"Not today, Sprout."

"Could you let me squeeze it, then? You wouldn't have to roll up your sleeves for that."

Joe glanced at the slightly cracked door, then flexed, making his arm bulge.

Sprout's hand couldn't begin to encompass the muscle, but he squeezed what he could, his eyes huge. "Mine are gonna be just like that someday."

Ruffling the boy's hair, Joe chuckled. "I imagine they will. Until then, though, you might not want to chop down any more of your mama's trees. They aren't ready for the lumberyard just yet, and I'm not sure how she'd feel about you handling an ax."

"Then how am I gonna learn lumberjacking?"

"Well, maybe your parents will let you come out to my place sometime and help me."

His face lit up. "Can I go home with you today?"

Joe chuckled again. "No, not today but—"

"Sprout Rountree! Come here this instant!"

Burdensome footsteps followed the strident voice until the door to the parlor swung open. A young woman large with child stood at its threshold, her face pinched with anger.

Sprout eased back into Joe. "What's the matter, Mama?"

"What happened to my ..." Her eyes went from the boy to the sapling he held in his hand. "Oh, nooooo!"

Placing his hand on Sprout's shoulder, Joe stood. "Afternoon, Mrs. Rountree."

She glanced at him. "O.B.'s in his office, Mr. Denton. You can go on in." She turned her attention to Sprout. "What have you done to my pistachio tree?"

The boy shrunk at his mother's tone. "I har-visited it, but I'll put it back if you want."

Joe didn't wait for her response. Instead, he picked up his hat and slipped through a connecting door leading to the library and office of Judge Obadiah B. Rountree.

A cloud of tobacco mixed with traces of lemon oil filled the room. Hooking his hat on a hall tree, he clicked the door shut behind him, cutting off the drama unfolding in the parlor.

The judge, with his back to Joe, scribbled on a piece of parchment while sitting at an ornate mahogany secretary that had come clear around the Horn. His white shirt, entirely too big for his small frame, bunched beneath dark suspenders crisscrossing his back. Short black hair surrounded a perfectly circular bald spot.

Joe ran a hand over his thick, wavy hair, letting out a silent sigh. Blond hair like his wasn't as apt to fall out, or so he'd heard. Perhaps he was safe.

A handsome tan volume of Shakespeare lying on the marbletop table caught his eye. Was it there for ornamentation, or did the judge actually read it? Joe shifted his weight to the other foot.

No more voices came from the parlor. He assumed the missus had taken Sprout to a private place for whatever she had in mind.

A robin with a brick-red breast and white throat landed on the windowsill, warbling a greeting. Joe caught a whiff of fresh air coming from the window. Spring had a distinctive smell and one he always welcomed. No other spot on God's green earth held such mild and equitable climate as did Seattle from April to November.

The bird darted off as quickly as he'd come, and the judge placed his pen in its holder, then blotted his writings.

"You in town to purchase a bride?" he asked, still sitting at his desk.

"I hardly think so," Joe said. "A man would have to be pretty desperate to let Asa Mercer choose his bride for him."

Standing, the judge turned and clasped Joe's hand. "I think it's a grand scheme. I hear he's collected money from almost three hundred men and is hoping to find two hundred more."

"Well, I won't be one of them."

"Have a seat, then, and tell me what I can do for you."

Joe eased his large frame into a dainty armchair. "I have news about my wife's death certificate."

Rountree brightened, settling into the chair facing him. "Excellent. Let me have a look at it and we'll wrap up this whole mess."

"That's just the thing. I wrote to my brother back in Maine asking him to send me the certificate. I received his answer today." Joe removed the letter from his pocket and handed it to the judge. "He says the Kennebec County courthouse burned down and all the records with it."

"What about the doctor? Can the doctor issue another one?"

"Lorraine died ten years ago. Back then, the only doctors they had were itinerant. I'm not even sure they remember his name."

Rountree scanned the piece of parchment. "This complicates things, Joe. Tillney isn't going to settle for a letter from your brother."

Joe stiffened. "Are you questioning my brother's word?"

"Of course not. But those Land Donation Grants were very specific. In order to get the full six hundred forty acres, you had to have a wife."

"I did have a wife."

"You've no proof of that."

"I have a marriage certificate."

"That might have been enough to secure the land temporarily, but in order to keep it she needed to have made an appearance."

"She was going to. It's not my fault she died before she ever made it out here."

"No one's saying it's your fault. What we're saying is the intent of those donations was to encourage settlement. We can't settle unless we multiply. We can't multiply without wives."

"I was married when I signed up for the land. She would have come, Judge. I'd sent for her and everything."

Rountree blew out a huff of air. "There's no question in my mind your intentions were genuine. But the fact remains, it's been ten years and she's never shown up. In the eyes of the law, that makes you a single man, and single men only qualified for three hundred twenty acres, not six hundred forty."

Tightening his hands on the arms of the chair, Joe reined in his exasperation. "She died. I can't do anything about that."

"And if you produce a death certificate, then I'm willing to rule in your favor. But even that is pushing things a bit. I certainly can't award you the land based on a letter written by your brother."

"What if someone from the courthouse writes it?"

"No, Joe. I'm sorry. The only thing the clerk would be able to attest to is that the courthouse burned down. That won't solve the problem of you needing a death certificate."

"The only reason I need one is because you say I need one. You can just as easily say my marriage license is enough."

Sighing, the judge removed the wire spectacles from his nose. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because so many men in the Territory—when their wives wouldn't come west—just divorced them. That constitutes a breach of contract."

"Well, I don't see any of them giving up their acreage."

"Maybe not around here, but rest assured, many a man has been required to produce a bride or risk losing his land. Still, I'm willing to let you keep the land if you present proof of your wife's death. But if you can't do that, then Tillney wins the suit and your three hundred twenty acres."

Joe jumped to his feet. "I've spent the last ten years developing that land. My entire lumber operation depends on it. I need it. Every acre of it."

"I can appreciate that."

"Tillney knows how valuable it is." Joe raked a hand through his curls. "He knows that if he can win it, he'll not only get three hundred twenty acres of land, but he'll get skid roads, log chutes, water access, and enough lumber to last him for years."

The judge made no response.

"Are you making this difficult because Tillney's your wife's cousin?"

Rountree narrowed his eyes. "I'm going to ignore that remark, but our meeting is over." He stood. "Either you produce a death certificate or a wife, or Tillney wins."

"There is no death certificate!"

"Then I suggest you find yourself a wife."

"And how am I supposed to do that?"

"Mercer's holding a meeting tonight. Buy one from him."

Taking a step back, Joe gaped at the judge. "You cannot be serious."

"I don't care what you do. All I care about is upholding the intent of the grant." He shrugged. "Death certificate or wife. Makes no difference to me."

"Well, it makes a difference to me. Besides, it'll take Mercer months to go back east, convince five hundred Civil War widows and orphans to be brides to a bunch of lumberjacks, and then bring them all the way back here."

Rounding the chair, the judge removed Joe's hat from the rack. "He said it'll take him six months, so that's what I'll allot you."

"Six months might be enough for an average fellow, but you know Mercer. It'll take him twice that amount of time. I'll need a year, at least. Probably more."

Rountree pursed his lips, then gave a nod. "One year from today, then. If you don't have a bride or a death certificate by April 1, 1866, then Tillney gets the land." He opened the door. "Good day, Denton."

* * *

It was standing room only at Delim & Shorey's new building, which was dried-in but not yet finished. Men of all shapes, sizes, and occupations crowded the half-finished wagon shop. Most were lumberjacks, but Joe recognized several prominent businessmen from as far away as Olympia.

And right in the center was Asa Mercer, the president of the town's esteemed university, balanced atop a soapbox, lantern light bouncing off his red hair and pale skin. Raising his hands above his head, he shushed the crowd.

Joe leaned against the wall. Several of the men with their backs to him sported an XXX Flour legend on the seat of their pants, having used the empty sacks to repair their worn-out clothing. What were those eastern women going to think when they got a look at this bunch?

"Over three hundred sixty thousand men have lost their lives so far in the conflict between the North and South," Mercer boomed.

The room quieted.

"And though we mourn our lost brothers, the surplus of widows and orphans is becoming an economic problem for our eastern shores."

Joe shifted his position against the wall.

"Yet here in the West, we are lacking the very commodity that they have in overabundance. As a service to both shores, I am volunteering to go east, collect five hundred ladies, and bring them back to you, the fine, upstanding men of the Washington Territory."

A great cheer rose.

"As with any venture, however, there are costs involved. I intend to solicit most of this support from our government, which feels responsible toward these misplaced women. My plan is to appeal to President Lincoln himself, who bounced me on his knee when I was but a lad. There is no question in my mind he will supply us with a discarded warship to transport the brides."

The men murmured to one another.

"To ascertain which of you will have the privilege of receiving these women as their matrimonial prize, however, a deposit of three hundred dollars will be required to defray the cost of your bride's passage."

"Three hundred dollars is an awful lot of money," one of the men hollered.

"In exchange for your deposit, I will give you a signed contract which will clearly state that upon my return, you will receive one eastern bride."

"Who picks the bride? You or me?"

"I will," Mercer answered. "But your contract will include what particulars you are looking for, and I pledge to thoroughly interview each lady and choose only those of sterling character."

Pursing his lips, Joe considered what qualities he'd need in a wife.

Honesty. Practicality. Nothing flighty or fragile like Lorraine. And she'd need to be able to handle cooking for his lumber crew.

His men could put in a full day's work in the wet, cold, and mud so long as they ended at night with a lighted abode fragrant with food. And if that food was prepared by a woman, well, he'd have the happiest crew this side of the Cascade Mountains.

"That's good enough fer me," another shouted. "I got nothin' else to spend my chicken change on. Might as well be a missus. Sign me up!"

The men converged on Mercer, all speaking at once, all anxious to plunk down their money.

Joe slipped a hand in his pocket and clutched the heavy bag weighing down his jacket.

Three hundred dollars. It was a fraction of what his land was worth, but he still hated to part with the coin. If he had time, he'd go east himself. But he couldn't leave. Not now. The weather was warming and in another couple of weeks, he'd be driving logs down Skid Road as fast as his crew could cut them.

"Why, Joe. I thought you'd be staying away from here on principle." J.J. McGilvra, a pioneer lawyer, offered his hand. "Change your mind, or have you come to stare down your nose at the rest of us?"

With a sigh, he pushed himself off the wall and shook with McGilvra. "To be honest with you, J.J., I don't know what I'm doing here."

The lawyer gave him a curious look; then the two of them took their places in the line that wrapped around the room three times.

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