What We Leave Behind

June 20, 1896
Sarah Waters

“It is for the best.” Sam had said.

I did not believe him at the time. I guess I was not quite ready for the truth of it. Life is like that though. Just when you think you have things figured out, all the rules get changed. After a couple of days I realized moving to Denver was not the ending I had felt initially. Quite the opposite, Denver will be a new beginning.

Packing took me very little time. Mother on the other hand struggled over every item. I sympathized from afar. It could not be easy when even the apparent garbage held some memory of father to her. I would have told her, hugged her, even cried with her, but she wants nothing from me, least of all my mere presence. Whatever the sheriff had told her that day, whatever lies he had whispered, they were all she can hear when she looks at me.

Sam thinks it will pass in time. She is in mourning and only when the grief passes will she be able to see her way through the darkness around her. I hope he is right, but I fear the darkness is there to stay. Maybe it is because we have always had a small rift between us, but I think some roads once traveled, offer no way back.

It was yesterday afternoon, when mother began wailing over a dirty sock found beneath her bed. Sam took her gently from the room and comforted her with tea in her garden. He left me the assignment to go through our father’s belongings and choose what to put in boxes and what to throw away. For mother this was an impossible task, for me it was a difficult one.

I was nearly finished when I realized what was missing. I looked everywhere, twice, just to be sure I had not overlooked it. I sat down at father’s small desk and wondered briefly if my mother had all ready stashed it someplace. Then I remembered the end of that awful day when father died. Billy and two of his men had come out of the house when the sheriff had been shot. At the time, it had hardly registered, but now I suddenly wondered what they had been doing in the house. I marched into the garden.

“Where is father’s journal?” I demanded.

Sam and mother turned to me. Sam looked from me to mother and back again with concern on his face. They both remained silent.

“Where is it?” I demanded again, raising my voice.

“Sarah, calm down.” Sam said.

“I only want the truth.” I said stepping closer to them.

“Why do you care?” Mother spoke at last.

“I know you are hurting mother but how dare you act like I don’t care.” I replied.

“How dare I? How dare you come in here and start throwing accusations around!” She yelled at me.

“I’ve made no accusations. I asked you a simple question. Where is father’s journal?” I demanded again.

Sam looked between us, uncertain what he should do or say if anything at all. He chose nothing. Mother stared hard at me for a moment before suddenly looking away from me and waving her hand in dismissal of me.

“That man you was cavorting with took it.” She said.

I felt cold.

“You mean Billy?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I was never cavorting with him, Mother.”

She laughed but there was no humor in it.

“And yet you call him so informally.”

I mentally kicked myself for the slip. William Howe has certainly left his mark on me. I decided it was best to end the conversation before it spiraled into darker territory. I re-entered the house and closed the door behind me. I think Sam might have enquired as to where I was going but I ignored him.

As soon as I entered the house I could hear someone knocking on the front door. I rushed to open it and just in time. Mr. Stone was about to walk away.

“Ah, Sarah. I though I had missed you.” He said turning back around to face me.

“I was in the garden.” I replied.

He nodded as if that explained everything.

“I wondered if I might have a word with you and your brother?” He asked.

“My brother is somewhat occupied at the moment but you may trust I will pass anything along to him.”

He nodded his head again. I gestured for him to enter house and we sat down around the dining table.

“Can I offer you anything?” I asked playing my part as hostess.

“Nothing, thank you.”

“What did you want to discuss?”

“Your education, Sarah.”

It was my turn to nod.

“I can’t see how I’ll ever make it to college now.”

“You may not approve but I have sent away for your diploma.”

“But I didn’t finish.”

“No, and I would be remiss if I didn’t insist you did before I give it to you.”

“We are leaving for Denver tomorrow. I am afraid there is no time.”

“I expected you would be moving there soon enough. With you and your brother’s permission I will visit you there and help you complete your studies over the summer.”

“I would appreciate that. I can’t see why Sam would object but I’ll ask him just the same.”

“Good. Primrose College is an opportunity of a lifetime, Sarah.”

“I know. I want to go, really I do, but it just isn’t possible.”

“It is possible. The tuition is covered, you have been accepted on your merits, the only thing left is for you to accept. They need confirmation you are going within the month.”

I shook my head.

“I appreciated what you are trying to do. It means a lot to me, but how can I leave with everything that has happened?”

“What will staying prove?” Sam said from behind me.

I nearly jumped out of my chair, surprised by his presence.

“Sam! How long have you been there?”

“Long enough. If the opportunity is still available to you, you are going.” He said.

“But--” I began.

“Father wanted you to go so bad he was willing to mortgage the house to the bank. It’s in my power to send you and you are going. That is final.” Sam replied.

I turned to look at him. His face was serious and commanding and for just a moment it was not Sam standing there but father. Tears welled up in my eyes and I tried to blink them away.

“I didn’t know that.” I said.

“Well you do now!” Mother said in an angry voice.

She walked up from behind Sam and threw her teacup at me. I ducked to the side just in time and it shattered on the table.

“He loved you more than anything, more than me! You repay him by, by, by…MURDERER!” She screamed.

Mother fell to her knees in sobs and Sam grabbed hold of her. He hugged her to him until she pushed him away. With Sam off balance she got up and ran to her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

Sam and I looked at Mr. Stone in embarrassment. He shook his head.

“I understand this is a difficult time. If things weren’t so pressing I would wait.”

“Quite all right, Mr. Stone. I was planning on having this discussion with you tomorrow in any case.” Sam said.

Mr. Stone opened his satchel and pulled out a bundle of papers.

“Primrose College requires a letter confirming your intention to attend. In addition they require proof of a diploma, which I can supply and they will need the tuition and dormitory fees paid.”

“I though the fees were covered under a scholarship?” Sam asked.

“They are, but they require confirmation of Sarah’s diploma and acceptance into Primrose College. I can take care of the papers with only a few signatures from you and Sarah.”

Sam nodded. I sat there in disbelief. My head was spinning and I felt numb. Mr. Stone brushed some shards of mother’s teacup away and pushed a page in front of me. I noticed he had cut his finger and it stirred me from my bewilderment.

“Let me clean this up.” I said and stood up.

Mr. Stone and Sam watched me in silence as I used a whiskbroom to catch the broken pieces into a dustpan. Were my thoughts not preoccupied with the sudden turn of events they might have made me nervous and self conscious. Instead I found myself having to control the urge to smile and whistle. All things considered it just would not have been appropriate.

Mr. Stone went through the papers quickly. Sam stopped and questioned him on a few pages, but it all went rather smoothly. No more than a half hour later and Mr. Stone had repacked his satchel and left with the promise to arrange weekly visits to Denver so I could complete my Diploma requirements before the end of the summer and the start of my first term at Primrose College.

Sam and I sat in silence at the table, just looking at each other. I wanted to say a lot of things to him right then but I did not know where or how to begin. I think he understood. There was pride in his eyes and even though we wore somber expressions I think in the moment we were both happier than we had been in weeks.

Then I remembered father’s journal.

“What would Mr. Howe want with father’s journal?” I asked Sam.

“I’m not sure.”

“But you have an idea?”

Sam gave me a half smile.

“Yes, I have a thought or two on it.” He said.

“Tell me.”

“You probably don’t remember, you were pretty young at the time, but a few years back father made a trip to Virginia. There was a lot of trouble with the mine then, a bunch of men had died because of some air problems and to make matters worse there was a dispute with the railroad over who was to load the trains with the coal.”

“I remember the trip but none of the details. What do that have to do with his journal?”

“Father went to Virginia to negotiate with some very important people. I don’t know all the particulars but he had to have met with some politicians as well as the owners of the mine and the railroad. Those names, especially the politicians might be something of a secret and if father recorded them in his journal, well maybe someone didn’t want to risk the names falling into the wrong hands.”

“Are you saying there was something underhanded that went on?”

“I think there might have been. I wasn’t really old enough to understand it all at the time but I remember father saying he was pleased with the results but not the way they were achieved.”

“That doesn’t seem a very likely motivation to me.”

“You don’t know how politics work.”

“True enough but who would remember something that long ago and have any reason to suspect father’s journal would be evidence?”

“I can’t think much else though unless it is just they wanted it to make sure his demands for changes at the mine never surfaced. They could have just as easily ripped out the last few pages though rather than take the whole thing.”

Light dawned on me.

“Now that does make sense. The army is in charge of getting things back on track at the mine and if they were to see father’s demands and how reasonable they were, they might just enforce the changes as a morale booster.” I said.

“Whatever the reason, it’s gone.”

An idea started to form in my head. I think I might have actually started to smile in fact. Sam looked at me with a wary expression on his face.

“What are you thinking?” He asked.

“I think father can make one last difference in this town.” I replied.

“Sarah?”

“Those changes Sam, we can make it happen.”

“How? The journal is gone or have you forgotten it all ready?”

“Who knows it is gone? You, me, mother and William Howe. None of us are going to tell.”

“What are you proposing?”

“You write out the changes father wanted in your journal and we’ll rip out the pages and deliver them to General Williams. He may not make them all come true but even if just a couple are made it will be worth the effort.”

Sam stared at me for a moment. I could tell he was thinking about arguing with me but in the end he decided not to and just surrendered.

It took us about an hour to write them all out and other than one I was not even certain they were actually things father wanted;

  • A graduated pay scale with longer term miners making more money than beginners.

  • Shorter work shifts with no one working in the mine more than fourteen hours per day.

  • Ten minute fresh air breaks every two hours.

  • Standardized work shifts of eight hours with higher wages for extra hours worked on a shift.

  • Lifetime pensions for widows of workers killed while working inside the mine.

  • Regular weekly inspections of supports for the tunnels.

  • An alternative exit/entrance and emergency supplies in each tunnel.

It was too late to travel to the camp when we finished so I left first thing this morning for the camp on Jasper. I was met immediately with drawn guns and orders to dismount. I laughed but I did as they instructed.

“What’s your business here?” A young man asked.

“I need to see General Williams.”

“No one sees the General unless he wants to see them.”

“He’ll want to see me. Tell him Miss Waters is here.”

The soldier looked aggravated. Fortunately for him General Williams stepped out of a nearby tent and saw me.

“Miss Waters, what brings you here?” He asked.

The soldiers snapped to attention and made way for the General. The one who had been questioning me looked embarrassed. I smiled at him before turning to the General.

“I have something for you. I am leaving town today, my brother is taking me to stay with him in Denver.”

“I see. You need not give me anything, Miss Waters. I am truly sorry for all you have been through.”

“It’s not really from me. It is from my father.” I said and pulled out the folded pages.

The General took them from my hand and began reading them.

“I don’t understand.”

“This is what the strike was all about. This is the reason my father is dead and countless others. They were not asking for much, just to be treated like men.”

“I still don’t know what you expect me to do with this.”

“I thought you were in charge here.”

“I am.”

“Then make something good come of this.”

“I can’t do this. I’m sorry.” He held the pages up to me.

“Keep them, they mean nothing if they don‘t matter to you. I thought you might have been a person that cared, I guess I was wrong.”

“I do care, Miss Waters. There are matters involved here which you cannot comprehend. Much as I would like to help, I just can’t.”

“If you were in charge you could help, but I guess you never really were. It’s okay, I didn’t think you were from the start.”

I turned and walked away feeling defeated. I tried and failed and while I did not expect much, the failure felt like salt in an open wound and I wondered why I had bothered.

“Things are not as black and white as you want them to be, Miss Waters.” The General said.

“It’s not what I want. My father spent his life working in that mine and when he could he made a positive difference for the people in this town. That’s the last thing he tried to do for them and it’s in your hands now.”

He sighed.

“I’ll try.” He said.

“It’s all any of us can do.” I said finally having mounted Jasper.

“Take care of yourself, Miss Waters.”

“Take care of the people of this town. They are as American as the man who owns that mine.” I said and rode back home.

A few hours later we were on the platform waiting to board the train to Denver. Mother was quiet and sad. Sam was ready to go home. I looked around for one last time. There were a few familiar faces about. On the other side of the street was Laura.

She had a veil over her face but I knew it was her. Her eyes were still full of hate and she was staring at me. I should have perhaps gone and offered her an apology but while I wish her no evil, I do not feel I owe her anything. The train whistle blew and it was time to board.

Laura just stood there watching until the train pulled out of the station.

“Good riddance, Sarah Waters!” I heard her yell just barely over the noise of the train.

“Goodbye.” I whispered looking out the window, not at Laura but at the only home I have ever known.

2 comments:

Jen said...

I hope things will be looking up for Sarah for a while now.

Perhaps a few encounters with Mr. Stone to keep it interesting? lol.

Paul said...

Melanie, thank you, it's hard when your mother accuses you of murder.
Warm hugs,
Paul.