Independence

In Issue 72 by Richard McPherson

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Photo by rod m on Unsplash

“To William Ivey, Fort Kearney, Platte River Region, May 11, 1849. Sir: I have the sad duty to report that your wife Elizabeth Ivey died yesterday from the cholera. Given your absence, her church will be responsible for the remains and a Christian burial. Yours, Dr. Harold Cartwright, Physician, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.”

Rose stopped reading when she heard Lenny’s high voice. “Rosie? Where are you, wife?” He called out from the porch of the trading post, shouting above the din of gold seekers eager to resupply and push their wagons on toward California. He banged on a large pot. “Hurry up! The Montclair Company needs bags of coffee and sugar.”

Rose put several letters back in a big wooden barrel crudely labeled “Post Office.” She tucked the letter to William Ivey inside her blouse. She would forward the letter, and an earlier one to Ivey announcing that his wife was ill. But there was no hurry; the monthly rider who carried letters west to Fort Kearney wasn’t due for three more days. He would bring more letters to gold rushers from Eastern families who willingly paid twenty-five cents and waited months for a reply. Rose traced the rim of the “Post Office” barrel. The letters let her imagine strolling the streets of St. Louis or Chicago, visiting fine homes in Pittsburgh or Baltimore.

“Rose! Git, woman!” Lenny rushed to gather orders for supplies from a line of wagons arrayed down the rutted trail to the entrance to the River Fork Trading Post. The establishment was three weeks beyond Independence, Missouri, and still two weeks away from Fort Kearney, and the flow of gold rushers was steady. Commerce was increased by backtrackers — people not yet halfway to the gold fields of California, broken by the grueling months across plains, desert, and mountains. They set out with dreams of gold, reportedly scattered in streams, and lying about hillsides, just for the taking. But the trek was filled with death and disease for people and animals, blistering heat, terrifying hailstorms, fights over money, and pleading letters from home. Many dumped their dreams and possessions by the side of the road. They sold their wagons, bought a horse or mule from their partners or commercially minded Indians, and simply turned around. Rose had watched the sad trickle of failure with detached curiosity. But there was one man she knew was too strong to quit and turn back: William Ivey, whose letters were tucked in her blouse. The man she thought about day and night. How could she not?

##

Two weeks earlier

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Ivey. Yes, we can provide your company oxen for all four wagons.” Lenny smiled at the tall man and Rose noticed his straight bearing, not tired or worn-looking like most rushers. “You understand, they’ll need a few days of training. Oxen are vexed by being yoked. But you made a smart choice. Rough trail and the Rockies still ahead of you. Cattle and horses — not even mules — will serve you as well as oxen. Five or six days should educate them to the harness, and you’ll make up the time in the weeks ahead.”

William Ivey nodded and removed his hat in the heat. Rose noticed his thick, black hair and his fine hands, so unlike Lenny’s balding head and bony fingers. “Thank you, Mr. Little. We’ll camp beyond your corral if you’ll have us.”

“Surely. Make yourselves at home. Rose, see that Mr. Ivey and his company are provisioned for a six-day visit.”

Rose and William Ivey smiled at one another. Her gaze lingered more than was proper on his captivating eyes.

##

Each morning Rose brought biscuits to William Ivey’s group, the Lancaster Company, and their eyes seemed to search for each other, their delight obvious when they spoke.

On the fourth day their hands touched when he helped her lift a bag of flour into his wagon. They put the bag down slowly, intertwined their fingers, and both gazed at their hands as if they could explain a new, shared sensation. She noticed the sun-darkened skin on the back of his hand and a muscular forearm covered in a soft cascade of black hair.

##

On his last day she glimpsed him at his wagon, washing before dinner. She watched him strip off his shirt and soap his shoulders and torso. The image disturbed her sleep every night since. It was just as vivid throughout the day.

He left the next morning, and Rose knew she would never see him again. But she was comforted by the certainty that his touch, scent, and the sight of him dripping bare chested, would be with her every day for the rest of her life.

##

A week floated by, then another. Rose began to avoid looking at stooped, scurrying Lenny so she could bask in the memory of a man she knew only briefly. Her chores were lighter, and she went to bed grateful for the darkness, eager for the privacy of her dreams, which had grown unapologetically wanton.

She was drying dishes on an overcast Sunday afternoon and almost dropped a plate when she heard Lenny on the front porch. “William Ivey, I never figured you for a backtracker. You was almost halfway to California, and you threw it in?”

Rose dried her hands and hastened to the porch.

“No point in going on, Mr. Little. My wife died from the cholera. Got the letter at Fort Kearney last month. I sold my share in the company, bought that chestnut mare, and started back.” He and Rose made eye contact, and her heart quickened.

Lenny shook his head. “Cholera? Imagine that. So much cholera on the trail, I hear tell of graves every few miles. And your wife back east gets taken. There’s just no figuring, Mr. Ivey. You backtrackin’ all the way to Pennsylvania?”

“Don’t rightly know. No point in that either. Had no other kin. My brother was killed last year in the war with Mexico.” He sighed. “Mind if I stay a spell? I can pay for a stall.”

##

The next morning Rose made straight for the barn. “I brought you some corn cakes from the kitchen.”

“Much obliged.” He held out his hands.

She placed the small package in his palms, letting her fingers glide along the back of his hand. He returned her gaze and allowed her touch to linger.

##

Two fraught days and fitful nights passed, and Rose simply could not hold out against a rising yearning. Never had her mind, heart, and body been so united into a single unstoppable force.

She found him where she expected to, giving his horse an evening brush in the barn. She went to him without a word and took the brush from him. She took his hand and led him to an empty stall at the end. She unbuttoned his shirt, then her own. His eyes were a question, hers were certain. Distant voices from the grounds faded as they cradled in the sweet, fresh hay, on a blanket Rose had prepared. A horse nickered softly a few feet away.

##

When he hesitated in uncertainty, she wrapped her legs around him and held him tighter, rocking and rocking. He sobbed confusion and need. She whispered as she rocked him, “It’s alright, it’s alright.” He mumbled words she couldn’t make out, maybe his dead wife’s name, then he gasped, fell silent, and rested his head on her breast. She stroked his hair as he began to cry softly.

##

Rose spent the next dreamlike day trying to fathom this feeling. Feeling? That was too timid, too thin and fleeting a word. This was an emotion so all-consuming that it erased everything in her life so far. Passion? She knew the word, but it seemed lurid somehow, not worthy of the purity of the moment. Passion was just another word for desire, and that, Rose knew, was selfish. Last night’s tender fury was far beyond desire, utterly unselfish.

She searched her memories of Lenny for anything that resembled this fevered state. She remembered the early days, after he accepted Rose from her aunt and uncle, bound for California but unable to care any longer for their eighteen-year-old niece. She remembered their marriage at the river, attended by a passing preacher and the Illinois company he accompanied. She remembered her gratitude for Lenny’s pride at a wife twenty years his junior. She remembered Lenny’s timid efforts to woo her. She begged her mind to produce a single memory of a feeling as unrelenting and rich as the one she felt now. Nothing compared. All she remembered was gratitude, which suddenly seemed pale and distant.

She went about her chores, prepared food, fetched supplies, and washed pans, all the while waiting for guilt. But guilt remained just an idea, someone else’s idea. She did admit to regret, for what this would mean to Lenny. This was the end of them.

In the days that followed, the shadow of regret shrank, was like a pulled muscle that nagged but could easily be tolerated. Even as she met William at night, while Lenny played cards with new customers, the regret had already started to fade. Rose was sure it would fade further, one day vanish altogether.

##

Rose stopped in her tracks, almost dropped a bundle of kindling. Lenny was face to face with William, talking without smiles. She fought panic at the thought of her husband’s reaction. She had planned to tell Lenny before the couple was discovered but had put off the confrontation. She approached the men and grasped her apron to prevent her hands shaking.

“I tell you, Ivey, this is your chance to get out.” Lenny’s voice was level but not angry.

William turned to Rose and prevented her speaking. “Mrs. Little, your husband thinks I should join the Indiana Company and continue West.”

Rose was almost faint, could only manage a single word. “Why?”

Lenny nodded in the direction of a group of wagons. “That outfit is run by Digger Malone. His boys worked on the Wabash and Erie Canal back in the states, and they stand a better chance than most to find gold in California.” His smile lacked any hint of threat. “It’s not fit that a strong man like Mr. Ivey waste his time in the wilderness. I been talkin’ to Digger Malone. He lost a man crossing the Big Sandy. Poor devil drowned with his mule. Malone could use another hand. Mr. Ivey would fit right in.”

Rose was dizzy as she looked at William. “Mr. Ivey, will you be joining Mr. Malone and the Indiana company?”

He pursed his lips. “I don’t think so.” He smiled at Lenny. “I’m grateful for the thought, Mr. Little, but I’m not yet sure of my next move.”

##

“Independence, Missouri?” William Ivey whispered in the near darkness.

“Why not? We don’t need to chase our fortune in the gold fields, like these rushers.” She squeezed his hand. “We’re richer than all of them. And you said yourself, there’s no point in going back East. We just need a place to be ourselves.” Even in the dim light, Rose’s eyes shone. “Trade there is brisk, river traffic steady, there’s plenty of work to be found.” He was silent. “But first, I must be honest with my husband.”

“Will he hit you? I should be there with you.”

Rose made a tsk sound. “He’s never raised his voice, much less a hand, to me. I’ve never seen him angry. No, I best tell him myself, with you nowhere to be seen.”

##

“Lenny, I am truly sorry.”

Her husband hadn’t spoken a word since Rose admitted she had fallen in love with William Ivey. Lenny’s eyes narrowed when she announced her plan to leave with him. Finally, he spoke in a rumble. “So, we’re quits? And you’re takin’ up with the backtracker, Ivey?”

“You’re a good man and surely been good to me. I know I’m doing you wrong, but I can’t say no to this.”

Lenny took a cigar from his pocket and studied it, turning it in his fingers. Then he withdrew a match and scratched it roughly on his britches. He lit the cigar, puffing slowly. Rose looked in astonishment. He always carried a cigar to offer a promising customer, to entice them to linger, but considered the long cheroots too dear to ignite for his own pleasure. “And you’re takin’ off in two days’ time?” He blew pungent smoke above Rose’s head, then flicked ashes on the floor she kept spotless. “Why not just skedaddle?”

She looked at her shoes. “I won’t stay in the house, but you got six wagons camped on the trail, waiting to resupply tomorrow. You’ll need the help, and I thought…” Her voice faded out.

Lenny drew on the cigar fiercely, until the tip glowed an angry red. The room was so quiet that Rose could hear a far-off mule wheeze its greeting to a man’s voice. Lenny stood and looked out the window. His hands balled into fists, then relaxed them. He walked right past her and out the front door.

##

Under a crescent moon, a light breeze carried the distant song of two coyotes to Rose and William as they talked into the small hours about making a life in Independence. They whispered pledges, affirmed with their embrace. They touched each other like confident explorers on the verge of an uncharted world.

It was well past sunrise when they got up from the bed of straw, dressed and folded the Indian blanket that had been the only witness to the beginning of their new life. William saddled his horse and made himself scarce. Rose carefully arranged her dress and apron, picked an errant bit of straw from her hair, and made ready to go inside the store. She would face Lenny and whatever rage might await.

##

Rose walked into the kitchen and breathed deeply to summon her courage. Lenny was nowhere to be seen. Everything was as it should be — except for a sheet of paper next to the coffee pot. She picked it up and read the words in disbelief, oblivious to the murmur of gold rushers gathering on the front porch.

“To Rose Little, my so-called wife:

“When you read this, I am gone. I tried to give you a settled life, away from danger. I provided a sturdy house and even built you a back porch for sitting because you often recalled the porch you had when you were a girl. You always favored blue, and I painted the bedroom blue. I kept you safe from that drunken drifter and other evil men. I worked till my bones were tired to make the store prosper. I never laid a hand on you, and only took you when you seemed willing, which, looking back, was not all that often. It is a fact you took care of the place and did not grow sour over time, like many women. You never did me wrong until now.

“I owe you no thanks, but I would be lying if I didn’t say your treachery set me free of this place. I realized I could join one of the gold rush companies and heading to California. So, I hitched up with Digger Malone’s Indiana outfit. I took the box of dollars under the bed to stake me to a business in San Francisco. You and your backtracker beau can run this place to your heart’s content. I won’t be back.

“Your so-called husband, Leonard Little.”

##

One year later

Rose approached the Post Office barrel to drop in a dozen letters the rider had just handed her. Her back ached and her belly was so big she could no longer reach into the barrel and fish out letters to read. She smiled as she leaned on the barrel to catch her breath; the stories from faraway places had lost their allure. Her thoughts were full to overflowing with preparations for the baby and William’s plans to expand the trading post’s blacksmith services and begin buying land across the Platte. She tidied the letters and noticed one on the bottom, addressed to Frederick Little, Lenny’s brother in Ohio. The return address was “L. Little, San Francisco, California.” She opened the letter and read to herself in a whisper.

“Dear Brother Frederick: I do not know the farm’s circumstance, but unless your barn is piled high with money, you must hasten to San Francisco. My hotel is successful beyond my dreams, and I plan to open a dining establishment and another hotel, but I need the help of someone I can trust. The growth here is so rapid it challenges description, and I am at the center of it. Statehood has changed everything, and the gold fields are but one of many routes to riches. As a state free from slavery, men are paid wages and have money to pursue their needs. I enclose a small paper which is distributed at shipping offices and among the better men in business. Make all haste. Your brother, Leonard Little”

Rose looked at the leaflet, an advertisement picturing a handsome two-story building with a fashionable carriage in front. Across the building was a sign: “The Independence — Leonard Little’s Big Hotel.”

She shook her head and allowed a chuckle as she closed the letter and dropped it in the barrel to make its way East.

##

“Rose, I tell you there’s no limit to our future. This’ll be a territory soon, no doubt about it. The Army will handle the Indians, and there’s land on both sides of the Platte for herds of cattle, maybe farming, too. They’ll push the railroad this way, but they’ll never get across the Rockies, so it’ll have to stop near here. We can ship to the Missouri River, the Mississippi. We can feed the East, hell, the South, too.” His smile lit up the room, and Rose felt pure gratitude. “Rose, the future is right here, almost upon us.”

Before she could reply, Rose felt a strong spasm seize her back, just like a rusher wife said to expect when the baby was ready to come. She put her knitting in her lap and reached for his hand. “William, the future is indeed upon us.”

About the Author

Richard McPherson

Richard C McPherson's short stories have appeared in The Write Launch, Black Fox Literary Journal, Unleash Press 2022 Anthology "Conversations," and elsewhere. His first novel, Man Wanted in Cheyenne, has been called "smart, funny and tender," and was released in February, 2023 by Unleash Press.

Read more work by Richard McPherson .