Karl and his soldiering during the Great Civil War. Legal shenanigans in the Wildbach family.
While fighting the Great War, a boy surviving among rough and desperate men, Karl had learned some of life's hardest lessons. When he'd fallen seriously ill just as the war ended, his father had taken him from a crowded military hospital, and brought him home.
Karl had been grateful. After hearing from army friends that postwar service mainly consisted of killing Indians, he wanted no more of the army. He’d done enough killing, witnessed enough death and dying. So, after getting his health back, instead of resuming military life, he'd resigned. He ended as a Captain, no small feat for one who'd gone in as a friendless, penniless boy.
He had accepted his father's offer to manage the mill. It was noisy and dirty there, nothing that either Papa or George wanted to deal with. Karl had been thankful to keep life simple while he got well and sorted out his mind about what he had seen--and done--during the long agony of that terrible war.
While recovering, he developed a vague notion of earning a stake, and heading west. He had heard inspiring stories about Oregon, and thought he might like to go there.
Now, three years since he’d risen from his death bed, Karl Joseph could neither bear himself nor German Mills. He was at his father's beck and call, his nose rubbed in the same dreck that had driven him away in the first place.
Judge Markham, watery eyes twinkling over his spectacles as he read, was very much enjoying his role as Theodore's earthly surrogate. As a matter of fact, the antagonism Karl felt for Markham went way back, to the days when Markham had tried to teach him Latin. The task was finally abandoned, but only after being loudly and repeatedly declared "as impossible as teaching speech to a donkey."
As a boy, Karl would much rather ride, fish and hunt with the wild McNally boys and chase after their pretty sister, Dawnie. His childhood had been spent rebelling, getting whipped, and then rebelling again. Meanwhile, George was groomed to do what Karl saw as the easy job—inherit!
"George is obedient. George is hard working. George is serious and studious." Finally, it boiled down to "George is good. Karl is bad."
The truth, as far as Karl was concerned, was that George was a sneak and a bully. His brother was also many years older, and so had always been able to enforce his will with words and blows. Blows which George, (being George), was careful his father never saw.
It had been something of a shock to meet his brother after a decade of absence. The tyrant was now balding, and he remained at the beck and call of their overbearing father. George was chained until all hours to “Wildbach's Hardware & Grocery” over in Newville.
No longer did it seem enviable to be oldest. Nowadays, George did all the work while Papa played in his rose garden, stopping in at the store only to "criticize and upset everything," (His sister-in-law’s exact words.) Karl often thanked God that Papa had mostly lost interest in the mill and the vagaries of weather and farmers.
As Judge Markham plodded through an apparently endless list of small bequests, Karl's attention shifted to Sophie. Her glossy dark brunette was now hidden under an old-country black bonnet. She was covered, neck to ankle, in a black dress, but this did not disguise the curve of her waist or the swell of her breasts, the proud rise he’d glimpsed through the delicate nightgown. Even the shock of finding his father stretched out so still and cold had not been great enough to obliterate his memory of that high firmness.
In the hallway, trying to find words, her cheeks had flooded with rose. Karl found himself wondering what she'd look like with her long dark hair loose, lying back upon pillows, the curtains blowing in a warm summer wind, the scent of her skin, of roses and fresh linen mingling with …
Good God! Swiftly, he reined himself in. Just that much of a fantasy was enough to make the heart of a man far younger than Papa's race almost to bursting. Prudently, Karl looked away. It was hard to be warm-blooded and in his twenties and stuck in German's Mill. During the war there had been free women, women who had appreciated Karl's happy-go-lucky smile and muscular self.
Lately, however, he'd begun to believe he knew what life was like inside a monastery. There was a house on the Harrisburg Turnpike above Letort Springs, but he feared that someone from German Mills would find out if he so much as put a foot over that legendary doorsill.
Perhaps this was why the widowed bride looked so good, in spite of knowing that she must be either avaricious, numb as a stump, a born martyr, or some combination of the three. There could be no other reason she would have agreed to an arranged marriage with a man old enough to be her father.
Karl comforted himself with the idea that every time she opened her mouth and German came out, all his-below-the-belt agitation would end. About as exciting as dairy cows, German girls, even if Papa probably died on top of this one.
The last thought made Karl shift uncomfortably. Still, he mused, stealing another look at Sophie, he’d seen plenty worse ways--and places--to die!
Meanwhile, Markham droned on, reading that long list of small bequests. Along with each gift came a lecture: for each grandchild, for servants, even a lecture for one of the aged grocery clerks. Theodore had made sure he would have the last word.
"So. Will you be staying?" George asked. It was, Karl thought, one of his few virtues. He rarely beat around the bush.
"For a while, but I will start looking for a mill master. There's nothing to stop me going West now."
"You can't go anywhere until the harvest's over." Sally spoke up immediately. She was a thin woman and her once white-blonde hair had faded. She had been pretty in a sharp way, but it seemed to Karl that as years passed, her abiding passions, greed and meddling, had left a mark. In his mind’s eye, Sally was a ferret, sharp nose and bright eyes, poking into everything, always looking for something--or someone--to devour.
"Didn't say anything about leaving right away, Ma'am. However, don’t count on me after next year."
Maybe they couldn't imagine it, but Karl knew he could survive outside German Mills. He'd sell out for whatever George or someone else offered, collect his $600, and go west. After all, he'd landed on his feet when he'd run away to war with only the coat on his back.
"Perhaps you'd have preferred the store." Sally glared and then pinched her thin nose with her handkerchief, as if a bug had just crawled up it.
The store was reliably more profitable than the mill. George, for all his drawbacks as a human being, was an excellent manager, a close student of every modern method. They had the Newville post office, too, and that was a sure fire method for getting the entire population through the door regularly.
"No. Karl was firm. "I have faith, dear sister, that with or without me, you and George will soon acquire most of the County."
His brother began, but Karl cut him off. "Papa didn't own me, and you and Sally sure as hell don't."
Without a by-your-leave or goodbye, he strode out of the heavily curtained chamber. "Damn this place and everybody in it!" At the door he grabbed his hat and clapped it on his head before tramping out to the porch and away down the stairs.
Judge Markham sat at his desk. George Wildbach faced him across the mahogany surface. A bottle stood between them. It was the finest Kentucky bourbon, meant for sipping.
The Judge poured. Then, ceremoniously, the two men raised their glasses.
"A good day's work, son." It was not just a figure of speech. George's wife had been born Sally Markham. The union had made kin of the two sharpest dealers in the county.
"I don't know how I can thank you, sir."
"Just doing the right thing, m'boy." The Judge's spectacles were misty with emotion. "You've been a fine husband to my little Sally, and now there's Teddy and the girls. They come first."
"To think! Just because Papa died so sudden, Ilga Bullmaster and her niece would have waltzed off with $5,000 next week, skimmed right off the top."
"Well, with both wills in my file and the witnesses in my pocket, it was easy enough."
"A damned handsome girl," George took a meditative sip. Oddly, he felt a little sorry for Sophie. She seemed quite innocent, although Heaven knew that conniving Ilga was not.
"Forgive me for being candid, George, but nothing less than handsome would have suited your father. He was a man of the most informed taste. Ilga had the good sense to offer him a rose as perfect as any in his garden."
The Judge paused to splash more whiskey into George's glass. "It's just good business," he declared, "not to let money get away from the family. Real family, that is."
George drank the second shot neat and then shook his head in an attempt to clear it. He wasn't accustomed to drinking so early in the day, nor was he accustomed to downright felony. Theft which could be performed under cover of law, like foreclosing a couple of years back on that shiftless Washington McNally, was one thing. To "lose" a signed and witnessed codicil was something else.
The Judge held up his glass, admiring the way light filtered through the amber whiskey. He had a vested interest in George, but had decided not to share Theodore's last little whim with his son-in-law. At least, not until he'd had a chance to have a nice private chat with Karl Joseph.
Judge Markham had been genuinely fond of Theodore Wildbach, an excellent businessman and poker player, one whose company he and his cronies would miss. For old times’ sake, he'd give one last, discreet lecture to that bullheaded Karl.
To turn up his nose at the mill, just because it had a few unusual strings attached, would be a prime piece of foolery, a mistake George would never make! Nevertheless, once he'd told Karl about the other conditions Theodore had laid upon his inheritance, Markham was certain he would run. That would leave the entire fortune to the malleable George and his very own Sally, just in time for next year's federal elections. With Wildbach money behind him, too, he was certain to take the seat left vacant by the death of Congressman Cox. Yes, keeping it a secret was for the best.
Markham knew his target well. Back Karl into a corner, and he would run. You could count on it.