Undeniable - Book One: The Oregon Trail SeriesLaura Stapleton
By Laura L. Stapleton
Text Copyright © 2015 Laura L Stapleton
Cover Image Copyright © 2015 Laura L Stapleton
All Rights Reserved
Names, characters, and incidences are imaginary. The places are real, though some are difficult to find. No animals were harmed in the writing of this book, although some were cuddled and given treats.
Lieutenant Jon Stiles was a real person who gave his life in the Second Gulf War. I was asked and am honored to name a character after him.
To my Mom for getting me started, to my Husband and Child who keep me going. You three are first, last, and always.
Table of Contents
Other books by Laura Stapleton
About the Author
Beth Ann Bartlett walked behind her husband, unable to breathe. So many people milled around her in the town. She resented Daggart for forcing her to come here. He knew she preferred the quiet and clean air of the family farm. She didn’t need to come along on his visit to the saloon. Beth sneezed, stopping only for a second before hurrying to catch up to him as he continued. If the dust hanging heavy in the air didn’t kill her, being pushed around by the inhabitants with their wagons and horses would. She clung to Daggart’s back in hopes that his bulk might deter anyone from running over her. After she accidently clipped the heel of his boot with her toe for the second time, he stopped cold.
He whirled to face her. “Lizzie Lou, what have I said about kicking me like that?”
She gritted her teeth in disgust at the name he now used for her. Her stomach churned a little, sick over how this must look to bystanders. Beth stared down at her feet. She hoped a quick apology might diffuse his anger. “I’m sorry.”
Gripping her upper arm, he shook Beth a little. “I don’t care that you’re sorry, woman. Quit doing it or there’ll be hell to pay.” Daggart leaned in, their noses almost touching, to drive home his point. “Understand?”
“I understand.” Once he faced ahead of them again, Beth rubbed where he had held her. Her pride hurt more than her arm did. She bit her lip while following, concentrating on not touching him.
As they neared a dressmaker’s store full of lovely fabrics and wools, Beth resisted irritating Daggart by tapping his shoulder and suggesting they go inside. Her pace slowed. Stealing a glance at her husband, she wanted to linger at the store window, browsing the lovely colors and newest textiles stacked inside. Even as they passed, she kept her eyes on the goods. With such choices, she wondered how anyone made a purchase without regret. She walked at the slowest possible pace, lost in thought over the store’s contents. So engrossed, Beth bumped into Daggart when he halted without warning. Their collision pulled her from imagining new dresses from the latest fabrics, and she gawked at him.
“Wait here.” His eyes narrowed. “You look simpleminded. Try to stay in one place for a while. I have some farm business.”
Shaking her head as if just waking up, Beth saw the tavern doors a couple of businesses down the walkway. “In the saloon, Dag?” she blurted out at him.
He stood toe to toe with her, his hot breath fluttering her eyelashes. The angry slits his eyes had become foretold the probability of punishment once home. She broke their stare first, knowing the battle was lost without a word said between them. Daggart turned and strode into the saloon.
Last time he had “farm business” to attend to, Dag didn’t leave until well after dark. Beth took a deep breath to sigh, then tasted the dust in the air from a passing cart and regretted doing so. The first time he’d made her wait while he drank and gambled away the night, she’d not remained by the swinging doors where he’d left her. Instead, Beth had waited in the hotel parlor across the street. She’d kept watch through the window on the saloon doors for him.
Beth glanced at the empty bench between the saloon and boot shop. Even though she wanted to revisit the hotel lobby, his harsh reaction that day still sent shudders through her. Lost in thought, she stared into the saloon. Her reflection stared back at her. She didn’t like being taller than fashionable and frowned when seeing her hair. Smoothing the tendrils escaped from her neat bun, she knew the action futile in the humid air. A saloon girl waving at her startled Beth out of her preening, and she turned away with an embarrassed smile.
She went up the steps and sat. An unfinished stocking waited in the small cloth bag she’d thought to bring on the trip to town. Beth took out the sock and arranged the pins. After every few stitches she made, some new activity nearby distracted her. Studying the various people strolling or riding past interested her far more than needlework.
As she watched, people of all types, rich and poor, country and city, paraded by her. Independence, Missouri was one of the towns everyone traveled through to go west. Since ’49, the roads choked with men and sometimes their families. Gold or land fever afflicted all of them. Ladies and girls in sunbonnets passed by on prairie schooners, the men driving the oxen. Buggies with the wealthier citizens, one of them spiriting the mayor himself away to some destination, rolled past, along with cruder wagons carrying supplies to the various farms.
A couple of men on horseback caught her attention when they trotted up to the hitching post in front. The two seemed as different from each other as rocks and feathers. One wore the clothes of a foreigner, shirt starched stiff, shiny boots, and a new hat. He nodded at her, his clear blue eyes twinkling and his face clean-shaven. “Ma’am.” Beth smiled at him, feeling shy at being addressed by a gentleman. She wondered if she should stand and curtsey.
The other man took a longer time in tying off his horse. She looked at him too, as he checked first his own and then the other man’s knots. While pretending to sort out her knit pins, Beth saw him retie his cohort’s horse. Crude patches covered the man’s knees, and his beard and hair’s length rivaled the longest she’d ever seen. His hair was much darker than the other man’s, black, with the sun catching slight glints of silver. Her bag carried a small pair of scissors. If the man didn’t trust barbers, she could gladly give him a trim herself, Beth thought.
Stifling a wry grin at her small blades attacking such a mess of hair, she glanced up when the boards vibrated from his steps. The mirth faded inside her when she saw his eyes. This man squinted, much as Dag had earlier. Where her husband’s look threatened, the stranger seemed to examine her thoughts. The steel blue of his eyes felt as if they sized up her character in the brief instant he held her gaze. Breaking the stare and with a tip of his hat, he entered the saloon. The breeze as he passed smelled bad, as if he’d not touched a bar of soap in a while.
Beth nearly gasped for fresh air once he’d entered the door. Still his stench lingered, as if the odor was a living thing. He’d had such lovely eyes and a strong stride. Very pleasing though he smelled a lot like her husband, she admitted to herself with a bit of guilt.
She stabbed each stitch of her stocking as she worked, oddly frustrated. Why should it bother her that the only clean men in the world were foppish city boys? The Grahamites too, she had to admit, considered cleanliness the only path to Godliness. Beth liked
when a person of that faith walked upwind of her. She sighed. Dag had never been the type to bathe, either. He smelled worse than their chickens most of the time, and only somewhat bad the rest. The gentleman she’d just seen reeked as if he stored small, dead animals in his pockets. At least Dag only smelled of his own body instead of an entire barnyard. She sneezed when a buggy passed by kicking up dust. The horses in front of Beth glanced up at her noise. She didn’t want to think about Dag for too long. If she were lucky, he’d drink himself to a stupor, stumble home, and fall asleep before finding a reason to become angry yet again.
She stared past her knitting. Since entering the bustling city, her thoughts felt scrambled and distracted. Town gave her a nervous condition Beth didn’t know she could have. Better to make up a tale for the scruffy man she still smelled as a mental escape from all the ruckus. Shutting out the noise, she created a new life for the stranger, imagining him a recluse who came to town when his booze bottle at home ran dry. Too obvious and common, she decided and reconsidered the fiction. Maybe he lived in a nearby campground, but not too close, thus avoiding any soap and water.
After finishing five more inches of knitting, she’d concocted an entire life of him as an orphan. The boy, scrubbed so much by the personnel running the orphanage, now as a man rebelled against anything unsoiled. Except for friends, considering the fine company she’d already seen him keep. He allowed his friends to wash. Beth glanced at his horse. Animals, too, he didn’t seem to dislike being clean since his mount’s livery gleamed in the afternoon sun.
Lost in her imagination, she sewed the toe of her stocking closed. Dag and the two men exited the saloon, startling Beth when her husband nudged her with his knee. They continued to amble past the boot store and the dressmaker’s shop. She stood and pushed her needlework into her sewing bag, unsure of whether or not to go behind them.
Dag motioned to Beth. “C’mon, woman. We don’t have all day to waste on you. Keep up or walk home,” he snapped.
The gentlemen turned to her. The dandy spoke first, “Why, Daggart, you didn’t tell us this fine lady is your wife.” He took off his hat and bowed. “I’m Samuel Granville, at your service.” Samuel held out his hand, which she took, still stunned from his elegant manners. He lifted her hand, stopping just short of kissing it, and released it with a smile. “This uncouth hooligan with me is my brother, Nicholas.”
Nicholas wiped his palm on his pants before extending it to her. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
She took Nicholas’s hand as she had his brother’s, ignoring his grubby appearance. “I’m pleased to meet both of you as well.”
Dag interrupted, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “That’s good. Are we done, yet? I have a couple of oxen and a wagon to buy.” He didn’t wait, leading the men down the sidewalk and turning into the general store.
Both men flanking her husband watched while waiting for her to follow. Beth’s cheeks began to burn at Daggart’s dismissal. She clenched her hands, unable to even peek at the men. Embarrassment felt like a lump in her stomach.
She hurried into the coolness of the building, thrilled with the familiar smell of spices and grains for animals. The general store was her favorite shop in town. The place sold everything she needed for the home and farm. Seeds, chicken feed, fabric and sewing sundries, wool, and the list of other items in the place made her want to spend hours there. The flour bags caught her attention, the bright colors cheering her. Their contents helped convince Dag to let her buy them as necessary. As pretty as the fabric was, flour sacks didn’t compare to the bolts of cloth and locally woven tweeds.
Beth glanced at her husband and his friends chatting with the store owner. She rather liked Henry. He always had time for her and seemed glad to see her when she shopped there. Her husband held a paper, checking off or adding to items on the page. His actions and furtive glances in her direction bothered Beth. He was up to something, but she knew she lacked any power to stop him. Instead, she went to the fabrics.
She tilted her favorite bolt of cloth towards the sunlight to admire. The crisp white background enhanced the small, multi-colored flowers. The pale color was impractical for farm work. Plus, the several stepped dying processes put the fabric out of financial reach. Still, this one remained her favorite and she admired it every chance possible. She ran her fingertips down the length of the bolt, enjoying the softness of the cotton. This was certainly too fine for her to ever wear. Beth slid the fabric back into place and glanced at her husband. If he left and she didn’t tag along, he’d not be bothered to wait. She’d have a long, painful walk home. Wiggling her toes against the confining shoe leather, she winced and glanced at the scruffy man. How long had he been staring? Beth bit her lip and walked over to the trio.
Henry scribbled on a bill of sale. “I have everything but five pounds of the coffee. That’s not arrived from St. Louis, yet.”
Dag shifted from one foot to the other. “When does the rest get here?”
Checking the chart on the wall, he answered, “Day after tomorrow.”
She stood there, a little in shock. He wanted five pounds of coffee when they had a pound at home? Why? She wondered. Were these two men making him buy supplies for them? Had her husband lost a lot of money in a card game? Thinking of how much he possibly owed caused her heart to race. They’d been lucky, in a way. His gambling and drinking sometimes spent every penny between them. Yet, the crops, milk, and farm eggs had all kept them fed. Beth swallowed the lump of tears forming in her throat, unable to follow their continuing conversation. A fierce winter had kept Dag home and away from using cards to distribute money to other gamblers. She’d dared hope this fall would be their best harvest since Pa died.
Henry cut into her musing. “Hello, Mrs. Bartlett. How are you this fine day?”
Beth opened her mouth to reply as Dag interrupted, “I’ll settle up here.” He reached into his pocket.
Scribbling a total at the bottom of the paper, Henry replied, “Fine, Mr. Bartlett,” with a forced smile.
Her head started pounding, and Beth couldn’t move as the men headed for the door. All the hints he’d dropped, the ones she ignored, special editions of newspapers he’d brought home. Why he never wanted to plan next year’s crops. She looked at Henry and then at the bill of sale, certain she knew Dag’s plans. “Daggart Bartlett, are you going to California?”
Chest puffed with pride, he replied, “Yep, sure am and you’re going with me.”
She stepped back, putting a hand to her mouth. Suspecting and knowing were two different things. Beth swallowed down the rising bile in her throat. Nothing else of her family remained except their land. She could not let this happen. “No, I am not. You promised Pa you’d take care of the farm and me, and I’m holding you to that.”
“I’m still bein’ responsible for you.” Preoccupied by the exiting men, he looked from them to her, adding, “You’re goin’ with me tomorrow.”
Beth crossed her arms. This one time, she refused to uphold the vow she’d made to Pa. He couldn’t expect her to do such a thing, not even if Daggart ordered her. She frowned in an attempt to keep tears at bay. “No. I’m going nowhere because someone must stay with the farm.”
“We don’t have no more farm.” He waved a paper in front of her face. “I sold it and everything else to the highest bidder. New owners might let you live in the barn while you do chores for them.” Dag grinned and went off, following the Granvilles.
Shock from his bargain held her in place. Her farm? All she had left from her family? Beth wanted to scream but couldn’t. His turning to leave, smirking, drove her into action. Before he could step from the boardwalk, she grabbed his arm, turning him to face her. “I cannot let you do this. You are not selling my family’s farm. You will go get our money, and buy back our land this instant!”