Near South Bend, Indiana, 1850
A small geyser of dust shot up between two floor boards of the stagecoach. The geyser became a small cloud and then slowly settled to the floor as another plume of dust appeared in the crack. Samantha Vickers absentmindedly stirred the layer of dust on the floor with the toe of her shoe. She made a lazy swirling pattern and drew back her foot just as another plume of dust rose from the floor and settled again nearly obscuring the pattern she had just made. Just as the dust obscured the curlicues she had made with her toe so too had the many miles she had been traveling been obscured by the memories of sitting at her mother’s bedside as she slowly wasted away.
It seemed like an eternity to Samantha since the chain of events that found her in this stagecoach first began. She remembered vividly how her father looked the day he set off for the newly discovered gold fields in California. Even though Edward Vickers made a good living in the dry goods business he couldn’t resist the allure of a place where it was rumored that all you needed to do was bend over and pick of the first rock you found and it was most likely gold. Corrine Vickers tried to persuade her husband of what a foolish venture it was to blindly go to California and leave his business behind. She should have known better than to waste her breath. It was Edward’s impulsive nature that had first brought the family to Thunder Bay on the shores of Lake Huron in northern Michigan. Corrine had been very content living near her sister in South Bend, Indiana. Edward had managed the hardware store owned by his father-in-law and was showing a real aptitude as a businessman. Yet the wanderlust that flowed through his veins flared up and the family found themselves in Thunder Bay. Samantha was only five at the time but she still readily recalled how displeased her mother had been with the move.
The family had been fortunate that Corrine’s parents were generous people. While they couldn’t understand Edward’s desire to leave the comforts of South Bend, they did support him however they could. The money they gave to the Vickers family helped make the down payment on a small house and buy a half share in a dry goods store. Samantha always had felt a warm glow when she saw her family’s name on the storefront, Hammond and Vickers Dry Goods and Sundries, T.L. Hammond and E. Vickers Proprietors. Mr. Hammond was a kind man and became something of an extra uncle to Samantha. He always made sure that he always had peppermints on hand when Samantha was a child. As Samantha began to bloom into a lovely young lady it was Uncle Thaddeus who hand-picked beautiful bolts of gingham on his buying trips so that Samantha could have beautiful dresses.
In late November of 1847, just before Samantha’s seventeenth birthday, Uncle Thaddeus took ill with pneumonia and by early December he was dead. Thaddeus left his half of the business to Edward. This also meant Edward would have to act as purchasing agent for the store. To assist with the duties of the store Edward hired on Henry Matthews. Henry was a middle-aged man who had owned a livery stable in town but had lost it in a poker game. In February of 1848 Edward was on one of his buying trips when he heard the news, gold had been found in California. Corrine and Samantha both knew that Edward wouldn’t soon forget the gold. By early spring their worst fears were realized when Edward announced he was joining the burgeoning gold rush. Promising to return when he had made his fortune Edward Vickers set off for the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
At first the letters from Edward arrived almost weekly in Thunder Bay, but by September the letters stopped coming altogether. In mid-October a brief letter arrived from California with a piece of newspaper that told of the death of Edward Vickers, killed in a claim dispute. Corrine had taken over her husband’s responsibilities at the store and Samantha could see the toll it took on her mother even before news of her father’s death arrived. About a week after learning she was a widow Corrine suffered a crippling stroke and became confined to bed. Samantha spent her time tending to her ailing mother and taking care of the bookkeeping for the store. By Christmas Corrine’s condition became more stable though she was still bedridden. This was the life Samantha led for the next year.
Shortly before Samantha’s nineteenth birthday Corrine showed the first signs of truly recovering from her stroke. In early November she had regained most of her mobility and with the aid of a crutch she could get around the house under her own power. Samantha felt greatly relieved and spent a little more of her time at the dry goods store going through business records and checking accounts. Christmas was a time of joyous celebration for the two Vickers women and the New Year promised additional prosperity. Corrine was feeling well enough to consider traveling to South Bend to visit her mother whose health had been failing in recent months. Corrine’s crutch was finding less work and a cane was proving to be more helpful.
On a bright January morning Samantha escorted her mother to the dry goods store. Corrine had been making the trip for a week now and was feeling stronger each time. While they were still some distance from the store Samantha sensed there was something wrong ahead. People were running down the street towards the store and she saw a tower of smoke rising from the buildings. Samantha felt a hand gently push her from behind.
“Go girl,” her mother said softly, “go see what is happening. I’ll be along.”
Samantha glanced back at her mother and then lifted her dress slightly to avoid tripping and ran down the street. Her soft, long brown hair flowed lightly behind her as she hurried towards the activity. The sign over the dry goods store was still intact though flames danced around it as they ripped through the wooden structure. The store was fully engulfed in flames and there was little hope in saving it. The major flurry of action centered on preventing the neighboring buildings from suffering the same fate. Samantha stopped running and just stared at the burning store as flames flickered around the names on the sign and soon made them unreadable. The flames were reflected in her dark brown eyes that were even more brilliant in the light of the fire. Once the name Vickers disappeared from view she began scanning the group of people gathered to stop the spread of the fire. She could not see Henry Matthews anywhere. Concerned for their employee’s life she began asking everyone she met if they had seen him. No one had seen him since the night before.
Samantha saw the local sheriff sitting across the street on the edge of a porch and she approached him for answers. She could see he was covered with sweat and soot and she realized he must have been one of the first people at the fire.
“Samantha!” he said still coughing from the smoke. “You are all right. And your mother?”
“She is fine. She is right down the street. What about Henry?” she asked.
“I couldn’t find anyone inside. I was afraid that you or your mother might be trapped in there but I couldn’t find you. I’m so glad you weren’t in there. It was so strange.”
“The door was locked and the store should have already been open. And then inside…”
“What about the inside?” Samantha quickly asked.
“It seemed so empty. A lot of the merchandise seemed to be missing. You don’t suppose you was robbed do you?”
“I would hate to think that. Robbed and burned in the same day.”
“That was something else that was strange. It smelled like kerosene all over the place in there. I think the fire was set.”
“That would cover up a robbery pretty well wouldn’t it.” Samantha said knowingly.
“It sure would,” the sheriff added. “It might also explain why we can’t find Henry. Why don’t you take your mother back home. We’ll take care of this mess and I will be by to see you this evening with what I find.”
With a quick thank you Samantha threaded her way through the growing throng of people to find her mother. Corrine sat on a pickle barrel a short distance from the bucket brigade that was feverishly working to soak the building next to the charred dry goods store. Every other bucket of water she jabbed her cane at a spot for the men to douse and she would mutter something about how slow they were moving. Samantha had a hard time persuading Corrine to return home, but at last she prevailed and escorted her mother home.
True to his word the sheriff came around the Vickers house and gave the women the bad news. The fire appeared to have been purposefully set. In addition much of the merchandise that should have been in the store had been removed before the fire. Word had also come that Henry Matthews was spotted headed north and it was assumed that he probably had an accomplice in clearing out much of the merchandise. The sheriff had little hope that Matthews might be apprehended since there were countless places where a boat could be waiting to take him quickly across the lake and he could be in Canada before he was spotted again. Samantha and Corrine took the news stoically and thanked their old friend for his help.
Samantha walked the sheriff to his wagon just as the sun was setting in the West. At first she was quietly reflective and then she spoke.
“I didn’t want mother to hear this, but after we got home this morning I went through the books and looked for irregularities in Henry’s accounting. What I had originally thought were simple mathematical errors of my father’s and Henry’s are apparently Henry’s attempt to alter the books. I think he has been stealing money from the store since my father left for California.” She said softly.
“I was afraid of that,” the sheriff said, “in fact I took the liberty of asking Mr. Walker at the bank about the store’s account there. I hope you will forgive the intrusion.”
“I’m glad you did, I was planning on doing that tomorrow myself. I assume what Mr. Walker told you was not surprising.” Samantha said with a slight wavering in her voice.
“I’m afraid you are right. Mr. Walker will have the exact numbers for you, but apparently Matthews has withdrawn most of the account over the last week claiming he was preparing to go on a buying trip for the store.”
The next day Samantha went into town to speak with Mr. Walker. The news he had for her was mixed. The store’s bank account was nearly depleted. Matthews had made three withdrawals during the last week, each with a different bank employee so no one thought twice about releasing the money to him. He had made the same type of withdrawals before each of his buying trips. Mr. Walker apologized for his employees not questioning the dates of the withdrawals when putting them in the bank’s ledgers. The remainder of the store’s account had been transferred to the Vickers’s family account after the sheriff had been in the day before. Samantha thanked him for his help in these matters.
Mr. Walker added one more piece of news before Samantha left the bank. The town doctor had been in that morning. The Vickers family had arranged with the doctor that their mounting medical bills for Corrine would be paid off over time with direct withdrawals handled through their bank. The doctor had met with Mr. Walker that morning and stated that the account was paid in full. Tears welled in the corners of Samantha’s beautiful eyes as she heard about the selfless kindness the doctor had shown to her family. Samantha tried to plead with the graying banker that her family wanted to pay the debt they owed and one way or another they would. He wouldn’t hear of it and said that the doctor had been insistent. Again Samantha thanked Mr. Walker and she walked home with her head held high and her step not quite as heavy as it was when she went into town just a few hours before.
Samantha found her mother warming herself in front of the fire rocking slowly in her chair. She had never seen her mother looking so old and tired. Even when she had first had her stroke she had maintained a sense of serene beauty and youthfulness. Now she looked old to Samantha, far older than her thirty-eight years. Her mother motioned her to sit at her feet. Samantha sat at her mother’s feet and rested her head on her mother’s lap as she had done so many times as a young girl.
“How much did Henry take?” Corrine asked.
“How did you know?” Samantha responded.
“I knew for sure when you started going through the books yesterday after the fire. How bad is it?”
“He took almost everything.”
The Vickers women sat in silence for a long time as Corrine gently stroked Samantha’s long mane of hair. Samantha knew her mother was crying but she didn’t have the heart to look up at her. She must be the strong one, her mother was still too weak from the stroke to handle all the business worries.
“We’ll make it through,” Corrine finally said breaking the silence.
“We always do,” Samantha said trying to ease her mother’s worry. “I think I can get a job at the dress shop. Or perhaps Mr. Walker will need some help in the bank.”
“Shush now child. Work can wait, we must get things in order around here. Time waits for no one.”
Samantha tried to ask what her mother meant but she was silenced. The two remained in front of the fire until it was time to prepare supper. Samantha found it hard to sleep that night as her mind tried to make sense of what her mother meant by getting things in order, and the comment about time. The next morning her mother sent her to town with a letter to be mailed to Samantha’s grandmother in South Bend. Samantha figured her mother must be sending an invitation to her grandmother to visit them in Thunder Bay. Her concentration returned after sending the letter off and Samantha’s spirits picked up. It had been a long time since she had seen her grandmother and she was looking forward to a visit.
In late February a reply to Corrine’s letter arrived from South Bend. Samantha hurried home and gave it to her mother. Samantha stood by expecting her mother to immediately open the letter and read it aloud. Instead her other put it in the pocket of her apron and shuffled into her bedroom shutting the door behind her. Two hours later her mother finally appeared with a slight smile on her face.
“Is grandma coming to Thunder Bay soon?” Samantha eagerly asked.
“You will be seeing her soon my dear, very soon.”
“Good, I have missed her. I haven’t seen her since Pompa died.”
“It has been far too long and I should have done this much sooner.”
“Will she be staying long? When does she arrive? Is anyone else coming with her?” Samantha said excitedly.
“All in good time my dear. Your questions will all be answered soon.”
The following morning Samantha awoke refreshed and eager to start the day. She slipped silently into the kitchen and began to prepare breakfast for herself and her mother. She was looking forward to having her grandmother there to prepare for as well. She served the eggs and bacon up on the chipped plates and set them on the table. Trying not to startle her mother she silently entered her room and gave her a gentle shake on the shoulder to wake her as she had done so many times as a young child. There was no response. She tried again with no more reaction than before. Her eyes began filling with tears as she leaned close to her mother and listened for sounds of life.
The funeral was a simple one. Although Samantha had little to spend on the coffin the carpenter had displayed his appreciation for the Vickers family by doing some of his nicest work on it. Most of the town filled the small church and people came from miles around to pay their respects to the lady with the ever present smile that so many called Cory.
The letter from South Bend revealed to Samantha that her mother had not invited her grandmother to visit them in Thunder Bay. Rather it had been a request that her grandmother and aunt look after Samantha when Corrine died. For some unknown reason Corrine had sensed she was not on this earth for much longer and wanted her daughter to have family to go to. The letter contained a ticket for the stage line that would take Samantha to South Bend. The Vickers house was sold to pay the remaining family debt. Samantha hated to leave the friends who had been so kind to her in Thunder Bay, but she also knew that without father, mother or Uncle Thaddeus there was no reason for her to stay there. By mid-March all the loose ends had been tied up in Thunder Bay and Samantha was packed and ready to travel to South Bend.
Another small geyser of dust shot up between two floor boards of the stagecoach. As all the other dust geysers had done before this geyser became a small cloud and then slowly settled to the floor as another plume of dust appeared in the crack. Samantha looked up from her design in the dust and looked out the window. She was just in time to see a sign that stated that South Bend was just 10 miles away. She looked back at the floor just as the dust obscured the curlicues she had made with her toe. The nervous flutter in her stomach was not so much from the lurching of the stagecoach as it was the life she was leaving behind her, and the uncertainty of what was before her.