Theo sat facing backward on a crate in the ox-wagon, feeling not liberated, as he had expected, but snared within the boundless landscape that receded around him. Scratching his two-month beard, which would be gone blessedly soon now, he tried to appreciate the music of Texas, so different from the flapping of sails and whining of passengers aboard ship. Oxen snorted. Wagon wheels creaked. The drover snapped his whip and bawled curses. Theo supposed they were curses. Herr Gruber’s instruction had concentrated primarily on grammar and the vocabulary required by a clerk in a mercantile establishment.
August reined his horse to walk alongside the wagon. “We’ll soon be there.”
August’s voice, speaking the German of home, was the only unaltered part of him. Yesterday at the wharf, Theo would not have recognized his brother if he had not spoken. A beard bristled in terrifying, reddish-brown fistfuls from his cheeks and chin. His pale eyes stared ghostly out of a bronzed face. His shoulders swelled like a day-laborer’s. During the voyage, Theo had worried how and when to tell August he meant to remain in Texas when August returned to the Westerwald. Now he wondered how long he could bear to stay.
From here to the horizon, dry grass waved over an undergrowth of parched green. They had passed a clump of something shorter than trees and taller than bushes. A scatter of such growths broke the monotony, bone-colored, with smudges of green in their tops. Novels did not mention the heat, so dry it reached under Theo’s skin and sucked the freshness from his blood.
“Hungry?” August asked.
“Franziska will cook us a meal when we get to Spring.”
Spring. It was late May. Back home, the plum trees would be in blossom. Bees would be streaming from their hives. Theo had a sudden memory of August’s wife, her butter-blonde hair bound up in red ribbons that echoed the pink of her cheeks, her bosom confined by the embroidered front of her Sunday vest. August had been supposed to marry another girl, one he had been courting for years. So everyone was surprised when he sent for Franziska. People had marked her out for a spinster because of the sharp tongue in her pretty mouth, like the stinger a bee carried under its nectar-gilded fur.
“Why didn’t you marry Eva?” Theo asked.
“Eva wouldn’t have liked Texas.”
Theo considered this. It was true. “But why Franziska? Isn’t she a terrible shrew?”
“We’re happy enough.” August moved as if to spur his horse forward.
“Do you ever see Indians?” Theo asked quickly.
He had been wondering when he would lay eyes on one of these princes of the prairies, perhaps emerging from the thicket they had just passed, erect, proud, spear in hand. Karl May’s stories of Old Shatterhand and his faithful friend Winnetou had fired his imagination. But he had also read newspaper accounts of white men slaughtered by bands of Comanches, so his thrill was touched with horror. Safe at home, the blend of emotions had been exciting. But on the voyage, it had mingled unpleasantly with his seasickness, and now, with the wagon jolting and bumping beneath him, the seasickness seemed to be returning.
“They come around the shop sometimes,” August said. “Looking for liquor. But I don’t sell to Injuns.” He used the English word. Herr Gruber would have corrected his pronunciation. “Injuns and liquor don’t mix.”
Theo stared after the vanishing thicket, unable to reconcile his image of Winnetou with the image of August refusing to part with a bottle of Schnapps. He wondered when they would come to something that resembled a village, or springtime.
The wagon jolted alongside a pair of shiny rails set over ties so freshly hewn Theo smelled sap when the air stirred. The unfinished railroad was the engine of August’s business; its workers patronized his store. Reading his brother’s letters, Theo had admired his ambition and felt proud to be wanted. He had worked hard over his accounting lessons and believed August would not regret paying his fare. And yet the railroad tracks seemed as misplaced as Theo in this wilderness. He had the feeling they might drift from position, blow away with the first strong wind.
Behind the wagon noise, a rhythm of metallic notes sounded faintly, like exotic birdcalls. The sounds grew louder, until he identified them as sledgehammers punctuated by the grunts and shouts of the men wielding them. He turned to look and saw an island of men and mules, metal and timber, a railroading thicket dominated by rough characters, bearded like August, with dirty clothes and holes in the knees of their trousers.
August raised a hand. The workers shouted, some raising their hammers. It was only a greeting, Theo knew, but the men’s brusqueness held a tone of threat. The wagon passed, the men turned their backs, and there were no more rails, only a raised scar of graveled earth. Theo twisted, impatient to see something better ahead. A few tents appeared, some lean-to sheds of timber and canvas, and a jumble of wooden shacks that canted drunkenly this way and that. The only human lay sleeping beside a shack that seemed at risk of toppling onto him. A town, that was the English word. The wagon slowed in front of a pair of small cabins joined by a single roof and surrounded by piles of lumber. A cow burdened with horns as long as scythes lifted its head as they rolled into the lumberyard. August leaped from his horse. Theo waited until the wagon came to a standstill before he descended.
In the door of the cabin to their left stood a gaunt young woman with swarthy skin and ash-pale hair. “O’Toole was here.”
August frowned. “What did he want?”
“I told him to come back when he was sober.”
Theo was wondering how August could spend money on a servant when the woman added, “You’ll have trouble with him, if you don’t reconsider that bargain.”
“Leave the business to me.” August cocked his head in Theo’s direction. “You remember Theo.”
Franziska wore a shapeless dress of sprigged muslin under a once-white apron. She had pulled her sun-bleached hair into a severe knot. Where were the plump cheeks and rosebud mouth that hid her stinging tongue? Where were the breasts that had strained against her vest?
Theo realized he was gaping. He flushed and grabbed off his hat. The sweat in his hair chilled. “Good day to you, Fräulein Franz… Frau, that is. Franziska.” Mortified by his clumsy greeting, he waited for her to mock him.
She smiled, not very broadly. Her lips were cracked and peeling. “Call me Fritzi. We don’t stand on ceremony here.”
Theo helped August unload the crates. The cramped, windowless room they carried them into seemed more warehouse than store. An open sack of nails glittered alongside a pile of well-used boots. Next to the boots, Theo saw what looked like a bin of sprouting potatoes, and behind the potatoes, in shadow, a pile of what seemed to be rifles.
“How long,” he asked, “before you’ll earn enough for the farm?”
“Two more years, maybe three.”
Then the store had not been the success August’s letters had implied. And Theo would be shackled to it and to August until the money for the beet farm was raised. He looked sidelong at his brother, wondering which troubled him more, the lack of resemblance between this scorched, bristle-bearded man and the August he remembered, or his fiercely disreputable appearance in itself. At home, the most unfortunate beggar would at least cultivate a hangdog look, so as not to frighten away charity.
Outside, the drover cursed at his team, and the wagon rattled away. August nudged the last crate, which he had set atop a stack. It teetered slightly, and the bottles of calomel inside jingled, but he seemed to judge it sufficiently stable, because he left it there. “Don’t talk about the Westerwald to Fritzi.”
Franziska’s voice rose over the noise of the departing wagon. A man’s answered. August reached over the bin of potatoes for a rifle. Theo followed him out. She stood in the breezeway between the cabins, waving a spoon and talking English to a man with a greasy beard and angry, bloodshot eyes.
“O’Toole!” August called, cradling the rifle. In English, he said, “You got a beef, you take it up vit me. Leave da vife out of it.”
Though Theo understood each of these words individually, he could not put them together to make sense. His heart pounded. Was the man selling beef? Buying it? Had he bought an animal from August that he now judged inferior?
“You’re cheaters, the both of you.”
August raised the rifle. “Git.”
The man got.
“Come and eat.” Franziska lifted a pot off the fire and carried it into the house. “Theo, I’ll wager you’ve never tasted venison.”
He had not. At home, venison was forbidden meat to all but titled nobility. Franziska served it in a thick gravy, with mashed potatoes on the side, and for dessert, a berry pie so good, Theo accepted a second slice, though his stomach felt strained to bursting.
“You chose the right wife,” he told August.
By lamplight, it might have been dusk rather than sunburn that darkened her face. Tendrils of hair escaped about her temples, gleaming softly. Theo heard a surprising tenderness in her laugh.
“I hope you will not be too unhappy with us. Will you mind sleeping in the store until Gus finishes the lean-to? Be sure to shake out your shoes before you put them on in the morning.”
He frowned, puzzled.
“For scorpions or centipedes. Gus was bitten last summer and couldn’t walk for a week.”
In the store, on the biggest patch of clear floor, Theo made a pallet from a bolt of canvas. He took off his shoes and was about to take off his stockings and tuck them into his shoes, but reconsidered. He set the shoes on a stack of crates. Leaving the rest of his clothes on, he lay on the canvas, lacing his fingers behind his head.
Moonlight fell through a constellation of gaps in the roof. He knew what August and Franziska must be doing. The thought awakened feelings in his own body. He flexed his freed toes. An ache of exertion had crept into his arms and upper back, but after the idleness of the voyage, this was not unpleasant. Beneath him, the ground seemed to heave and roll, as though he were still aboard ship.
His penis gave a throb. This was vexing, indecent even. He had never lusted for Franziska at home, and Texas had made her ugly. He could not help wondering how far the brown stain extended. Her breasts were probably still as creamy as her face had once been. But he had to stop thinking of her in this way. It was only because there had been no women his age on the ship.
“You got a beef,” he whispered, “you take it up with me.” What could this mean? “Got,” he murmured, recalling Herr Gruber’s precise, nasal voice. “Get. Got. Have gotten.” August’s grammar had been incorrect. You have got a beef, he should have said, or When you get a beef. Theo sighed as though he had resolved every difficulty Texas had presented to him, and fell asleep.
The next morning, he shook out his shoes. Nothing fell out. Watching where he put his feet, he moved through the door onto the top step. He held the openings of his shoes into the light and peered in to be sure nothing with pincers or claws still lurked inside. But the shadow from his head was in the way. “You have got a beef,” he said. Sometime while he slept, the meaning had come clear. Beef must be a colorful word for a difference of opinion, like varmint for vermin, a word of which Herr Gruber disapproved.
“Git, you varmint.” Theo smacked his shoes against the doorframe, then nervously slid his feet inside. When nothing bit him, he tied the laces. On the other side of the railroad bed, men emerged from the shacks and tents and lean-tos, yawned and scratched, then walked south along the stretch of gravel.
Theo was thirsty and had not had a chance to shave. Stepping away from the cabin, he turned and saw a strip of green along the horizon. Feeling more optimistic in the cool of dawn, he fetched his shaving kit and marched down to the spring that had given the town its name. The cow was lolling in it. He made shooing motions and clapped his hands. Laboriously, the beast rose. Water fell back, blooming mud, overflowing into a grassy crevice. The trickle would have gone unnoticed in the Westerwald.
He had meant to take a proper bath, but the water was little more than ankle deep. Determined to remain cheerful, he knelt into a swarm of whining insects, dunked the top of his head, and stepped away to lather it. He was about to rinse it when he realized this must be the town’s only water source. He stood a moment struggling with temptation, and then trudged back to the cabin for a bucket.
A haze of smoke billowed from the breezeway, spilling upward past the roof. Inside the house, a tenor voice, unquestionably August’s, belted out a humorous march, one their father had sung so often, the boys complained he was flogging it to death. “Immer langsam voran…” An ache of homesickness swelled in Theo’s throat. He went into the store and unearthed an iron cooking pot, which he carried back to the spring.
He rinsed his hair. He shaved. He was himself again, as August singing was the true August.
He leaned over the cooking pot, about to rinse his razor, when someone bellowed his family name.
“Hoffman! I know you’re in there! Git out before I drag you out.”
A report split the air. A woman screamed.
Theo ran to the cabin and through the smoky breezeway. Franziska and the greasy man from the day before stood over a slack-jawed, motionless figure wearing August’s beard and shabby clothes. The dead man’s eyes stared into the sky. His arms splayed unnaturally. Blood poured from his chest. It spattered O’Toole’s pants and Franziska’s apron. A revolver dangled from O’Toole’s right hand.
Theo stopped short, stumbling. He clenched his throat against a rush of nausea.
“Vat haff you done?” Franziska was screaming.
“O’Toole reached his free hand toward her, across August.
Theo brandished his foamy razor. “Do not touch her, varmint!” Why had he spoken? O’Toole would shoot them both.
The gun wavered toward him. Theo looked into its mouth, a small, black hole, still smoking.
Franziska leaped over August’s body, smacking the gun from O’Toole’s hand. He clutched at her. Theo slashed at his arm. Blood gushed. O’Toole turned and fled toward the scatter of tents and shacks. Franziska lunged for the fallen gun, shot wildly and missed. Theo gave chase, fury surging in where fear had been.
“Mord!” he cried. His English had deserted him, but there was no one in the town to hear. He ran until he knew he would never catch up. He stood panting and gulping, tears pouring from his eyes and nose. He could hardly say for whom he grieved. There would be no beet farm now, no possibility of a resurrected August, full of the old jokes and plans. Had there ever been? Theo knew it was wrong to mourn over his broken dream of Texas, his fear of being marooned here. The knowledge of his wickedness only added one more unworthy grievance to a host of them. But he could not afford to indulge his sorrows. With August gone, he must take responsibility for both himself and Franziska.
When at last he returned to the cabin, she was kneeling beside her husband and weeping. Theo’s tears had stiffened on his cheeks, making him self-conscious. He cleared his throat. “Franziska. Is there a court of law?”
She keened and swayed, answering “no” between breaths, clutching the shoulders of August’s bloody shirt.
“Where is the nearest church?”
“There’ll be a court there, too. We should take him there. Do you know where I can find the drover who brought us?”
Franziska leaned back on her heels and swiped her hands across her eyes. “Ach, Theo. No one will carry a dead man in his wagon. That is just foolishness. We have to bury him here.” She sighed and gave a last, hiccupping sob. “We can go to Houston later and make a complaint. Such a man has surely killed before. Gus was so stupid. I warned him.” She rubbed her face again. “I have a Bible in the house. Will you say a prayer over him?”
Franziska padlocked the store. Theo took the shovel she gave him and walked with her until she decided on a grave site. Once he broke through the crust, the soil was sandy until, hip-deep, he struck clay. It shamed him to dig no deeper, but his strength gave out. Together, he and Franziska wrapped August’s body in a length of canvas, dragged it from the front of the cabin to the back, and rolled it into the grave.
Franziska put the Bible into Theo’s hands, a heavy book covered in black leather. He fumbled it open and turned pages until he found the twenty-third Psalm. When he finished reading, Franziska took the book and turned more pages. She had put a sunbonnet on, and her face was deep in shadow.
“They that go down to the sea in ships…” Her voice was furious, hissing. She read of the waves, “They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted…” The tilt of her head changed as she shifted her gaze to the next page. “…dry ground into watersprings … sow the fields, and plant vineyards…”
Theo felt dizzy. God had made neither him nor August to be a tamer of wilderness. Franziska finished reading. The sun heated his hair and shimmered on the mounds of sand beside the grave. Franziska tucked the Bible into the crook of her arm. She murmured what must have been a prayer, then bent, took a handful of earth, and cast it in. After an awkward pause, Theo took the shovel and began to fill the hole. The sound of the dirt hitting August’s body made him queasy. It was easier after the canvas was covered. When he finished, they stood for a time with their heads bowed.
Hoofbeats sounded beyond the cabin. “Halloo!” called a voice.
Theo followed Franziska to the front. By the store stood a two-horse carriage. A man with a well-trimmed black beard stepped toward them, avoiding the blood in the grass. He doffed his hat. “I see you’ve had trouble, Miz Hoffman. I’m sorry to bother you at such a time.”
“Ve haff buried my husband.”
He nodded gravely. “A fine man. Please accept my condolences.” He turned from Franziska to shake Theo’s hand. “Alf Scott. I fear I’m in urgent need of lumber and nails. I’ve just learned my wife is on her way here, and I’m sore pressed to build her a house that won’t make her turn tail and head back east.”
“Yes, sir,” Theo said, still absorbing the English. Turn tail and head back—what was that?
Franziska shoved the Bible at him. “Come and look on the lumbers,” she told the man, then called over her shoulder in German, “Bring me the key to the store. It’s in the top drawer of the bureau by the cabin door.”
It was dark in the cabin, almost cool. The little bureau had once stood in his grandmother’s house. Its polished wood was like a caress. Theo slid the drawer open and felt for the key. When he brought it to the store, Franziska was haggling with the man.
“Ve offer seasoned lumbers that will not warp or split. You can use the raw, but after a year, your house will look like those others.”
“I can get planks at the sawmill for a third what you’re asking.”
“Not seasoned. These are three times the value. And if you buy at the mill, you must pay a wagoner to carry it all the miles here.”
The man turned a hopeful look on Theo. “Sir…”
Theo turned his back. He unlocked the door.
After a polite but extended discussion, the man agreed to pay what Franziska asked. She also sold him the sack of nails at what seemed to Theo an unconscionable price. When the man left, she poured the silver dollars into Theo’s hands.
“Gus said you were good at figures. I hope that’s true.”
That night, by lamplight, she showed him the account books. Corrections were scratched in the margins, and there were blank spaces where figures should have been filled in. He took a pencil, holding it gingerly in his blistered hands, and worked his way through the pages. Though he could make only the roughest of calculations, it was clear August had accumulated more debt than profit. But that did not account for the goods in the store. Tomorrow, he would get Franziska to help him fix their value.
Near the bottom of the last page, he found the name Wm. O’Toole, with a blank space beside it.
“What do you know of this?” he asked. “Did O’Toole owe money to my brother?”
“O’Toole traded him a watch for a bottle of Scotch whiskey. After the whiskey was drunk, O’Toole wanted his watch back. Gus said a deal was a deal.”
Theo’s stomach hurt. “It was a bad deal. Wasn’t it?”
“Of course it was. O’Toole was drunk.”
“My brother wasn’t.”
Theo thought about the stiff price Franziska had charged for the lumber and nails. Was it she who had hardened his brother so?
She watched his face. “I did not take advantage of Mr. Scott. He is a construction engineer for the railroad company and can easily pay what I asked. Seasoned lumber is hard to come by.”
“But the price of the nails…”
“Is what anyone else in Texas would charge. Those nails were shipped from Europe, and the custom duties were very high.”
Theo himself had paid shockingly high duties on the contents of his trunk. He nodded and went back to his first question. “Why is no figure entered for the value of O’Toole’s watch?”
Franziska opened the top drawer of the bureau, took something out, and set it on the open pages in front of Theo.
The watch was still ticking. Theo knew silver when he saw it. A hunting scene was engraved on the cover. He picked the watch up and turned it over and over. The cool metal eased his blisters. “This must be more valuable than a whole case of Scotch whiskey, whatever the custom duties. But not worth a life.”
“I told Gus he should charge for the whiskey, but give the watch back. He wouldn’t. He was desperate to raise money for…” Her voice broke.
“I know. For the farm in the Westerwald.” Theo remembered the nights when he and August had lain awake, August talking eagerly, Theo listening, keeping his own dreams hidden. “Land at home is cheap, with so many people selling and coming to America. August wanted to buy several adjoining properties and make them into a single farm. He had an idea he would grow sugar beets, process them himself, and become a man of importance. Bürgermeister, perhaps.”
“Ja.” Her single syllable held a world of emotion, but Theo could not interpret it. Mockery? There was nothing foolish about August’s idea.
He set the watch aside and looked at the splotched pages in front of him. Perhaps even the beet farm would have failed, without both brothers to play their parts. But Theo had not dreamed of a future as the second man on August’s beet farm.
“August was in debt,” he said, “but if I am not mistaken, there should be enough ready cash to pay the passage of one of us back to Germany.” In the closed circle of light within the cabin, it was easy to imagine themselves home, the soft, endlessly green hills of the Westerwald hidden under the night’s darkness. He swallowed. “You should go back, Franziska.”
She pulled a chair next to him and sat down. “No, Theo, you should go. You are not in your element here.”
“I will stay and manage the store until I make enough for my own passage. It will not take so long. August was not a good manager. I can do better.”
“I’m sure you can, but so can I.”
He looked into her steady eyes.
“Franziska! You can’t be in earnest.”
“I am happy here. Yes, you think I must have gone mad to say such a thing, but it’s true. Here I come and go as I please. Say what I think. If you only knew how I dreaded the day he would take me back. Do you know how miserable I was there? The gossip of women can be a hundred times sharper than any mesquite thorn. And the coldness of men…”
Theo bent his head away from her, shamed by the hurt in her eyes. “Then I will stay with you.” The railroad would change Texas. It would not always be a wilderness.
“Don’t argue. My mind is resolved.”
She sighed. “We’ll see.”
That night, they locked the store. Franziska unrolled a grass-stuffed mattress under the table in the cabin for Theo. She climbed a ladder to a narrow loft. He lay awake, ears pricked for the slight rustling noises she made. He would have to marry her, after a suitable interval. He thought wistfully of plump little Ottilie and winsome Jettchen, both of whom had wheedled him to promise he would not marry a Texas girl. He had said nothing of his plans, finding it delicious to tease them. What a child he had been!
He woke very early the next morning, took the key from the bureau, and crept out to inspect his shoes. The sun was barely up; the air held a chill. He wanted to get a start on putting the store in order before Franziska woke. But when he tied his shoes and stood, another figure rose from the steps in front of the store.
It was a man with straight, thick black hair that hung past his shoulders, bare of any shirt. He was, in fact, naked to the waist, and clad in nothing below but a breechclout made of some type of supple leather. Obviously, he was an Indian, though he wore no feathers in his hair. His skin, of which Theo could see a great deal, was dark but not particularly red.
The Indian raised a hand. “How are you.” He spoke slowly and carefully, and his English was extraordinarily clear.
“I am well, thank you. Do you wish to buy something?”
“I wish to trade.” The Indian gestured toward a bundle on the steps. “I have brought skins.”
Theo understood every word, as easily as though Herr Gruber were speaking. He walked nearer. His heart thumped. He did not know whether he could be as firm as his brother or Franziska. What would he do if the Indian wanted liquor? He would tell him they had none in stock. “What would you like to trade for?”
“I like iron pot, for cooking.”
Theo stifled a sigh of relief.
The Indian pulled skins from his bundle. The first was little more than squirrel-sized. A long, ringed tail hung from it. There were several dense, glossy brown furs with dark tips and a coppery undertone. Last, he held up what even Theo recognized as a buffalo robe, though it was smaller than he would have imagined. From a calf, perhaps. He had no idea what the furs were worth. Nor, he realized, what the cooking pot was worth, in Texas. He passed a hand over the buffalo robe, stalling. Franziska would scold him if he made a bad bargain. But what would the Indian do?
Theo nodded in sudden decision and turned the key in the lock. “I can give you a cooking pot for these skins.” He brought out the pot he had used to rinse the soap from his hair.
The Indian laid his skins aside and examined it.
“There are no holes in it,” Theo said. “I used it yesterday to carry water.”
The Indian nodded, then flashed a thrilling smile. “It is good pot. I trade.” He extended his hand.
Theo shook, it, as he would have shaken a white man’s hand. He tried to keep his eyes on the Indian’s face, embarrassed by his own embarrassment at the man’s nakedness. What would it be like to march about in the open air wearing less than a regular person wore to bed?
“Theo?” Franziska called.
The Indian left. Theo gathered up the skins. The buffalo robe was heavier than he expected. A corner flopped over his arm as he staggered back to the house.
Franziska stood at the door, sleepy-eyed, her flax-pale hair tumbled about her face and shoulders. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing foolish, I hope.” He went inside and dropped the skins on the table. Dawn flooded through the door, lighting their subtle, shifting colors. “I traded a cooking pot for them. Was it a fair bargain?”
She stroked her fingers through the brindled fur. “Muskrat. But unusually good quality. And ringtail cat. Those are hard to come by. And this buffalo robe must be from a calf. It’s softer than I…”
He draped it over her shoulders. She laughed and clutched it together at her throat, then grew solemn. The rays of the new sun threw her cheekbones into prominence and lent her skin a warmth Theo had not noticed before. She stood erect and dignified, as always. The shaggy mantle, fuller about her shoulders than down its length, gave her a narrowing silhouette like an illustration in a novel. She looked like Winnetou’s sister, princess of the prairies.
Theo resolved to deserve her.
Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson’s short stories have appeared in Art Times and Sofa Ink Quarterly. Her website HistoricalNovels.info lists over 5,000 historical novels and includes over 600 reviews. She lives in Independence, Oregon, with her husband, visual artist Robert Tomlinson, where they have been involved in founding the Ash Creek Arts Center.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH THE TEXAS WIFE:
Good historical pieces can be difficult to write, but author Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson is clearly in her element with this one. Not only does she give us a strong sense of place, but she does it through the eyes of someone for whom it’s an entirely new experience. That’s a double coup in our book. On top of that, she firmly anchors us in Theo’s head from the beginning. And keeps us there. It’s beautiful writing and a beautiful story with an unexpected twist and a closing paragraph capped with five perfectly chosen words that resonate with the reader: Theo resolved to deserve her.