When twelve-year-old Charity Bullock’s parents die in Galveston’s yellow fever epidemic in 1853, she and her fifteen year-old sister, Hope, must travel across the Texas frontier by ox wagon to live with their great-uncle, Richard Bullock, whom they have never met. Their only living relative, Great-Uncle Bullock owns a large hotel in Austin, the new capitol of the Republic of Texas, where his incessant swigging from a jug of corn liquor threatens his business and the Bullock sisters’ tenuous security.
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|Middle Grade / Teens|
“I’ve written a letter to your great-uncle,” Mrs. Owens explained to twelve-year-old Charity and her older sister Hope. “I’ll send it with the next teamster headed for Austin, but it will take a while to get there. I’ve asked him to come to Galveston to pick you up. He’s your only living relative. At least that’s what your mama told me before she died. Your parents left a will, and your great-uncle Bullock will be in charge of their money until you reach adulthood. If the sale of your father’s shipping business goes through, you could end up with quite a good sum.”
“Have you ever met Great-Uncle Bullock?” Charity asked.
“Once,” Mrs. Owens replied. “But it was years ago, before he settled in Austin. I understand that he’s doing quite well. He owns a large hotel there.”
“What’s he like?” Charity asked.
Mrs. Owens hesitated a bit too long. “I just remember him as big...and kind of loud. I don’t think he has a family of his own—at least he didn’t when I met him. But that was a long time ago—before you were born. He’ll be pleased to learn that he has two great-nieces. It must be lonely living alone.”
Charity shuddered. Mrs. Owens, the next-door neighbor who had taken in all four Bullock children when Mama and Papa died of yellow fever, never said anything bad about people. She always saw the good in them. It worried her that Mrs. Owens couldn’t think of anything good to say about Great-Uncle Bullock.
* * * *
A knock at the door that afternoon revealed a silver-haired man waiting on the porch. Dressed in a black suit, the man held his hat in his hand and shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
“Is Evelyn Owens at home?” he asked when Charity opened the door.
“I think she’s hanging laundry out back,” Charity said. “I’ll get her.”
“Are you Charity?” the man asked.
“I actually came to see you and your sister. I’m David Scott, your father’s attorney.”
“Oh,” Charity answered. She hadn’t known her father had an attorney.
“If you wouldn’t mind getting your sister and Mrs. Owens, I need to speak with all of you for a few moments.”
As they assembled around the kitchen table, Mr. Scott drew out chairs for each of them in a gentlemanly manner. Then he sat down himself, looked at them and cleared his throat.
“As you know, before your mother succumbed to yellow fever herself, she asked me to find a buyer for your father’s shipping business.”
Charity knew no such thing. The first she had heard of it was earlier this morning when Mrs. Owens mentioned the sale of the business. She glanced at her older sister, Hope, who stared vacantly at the fire in the hearth as though the ordinary business of life interested her not at all.
“I’m not sure anyone has talked to the girls about that,” Mrs. Owens said.
“Ah. Well.” Mr. Scott continued. “Anyway, a buyer has been found, and the money from the business is to be divided equally among Hope, Charity, Aaron and John as each comes of age. Until that time, the funds will be entrusted to the closest adult relative, a Mr. Richard Bullock of Austin, Texas, who is the brother of your paternal grandfather. Do you understand what that means?” Mr. Scott asked, catching Charity’s eye.
“Yes, sir. He is the brother of our Grandfather Bullock who died before I was born. The great-uncle that we have never met.”
“Nor have I,” Mr. Scott said, shifting his weight in his chair and straightening the pile of papers before him. “All the same, this is as it must be. It is entirely too much money to entrust to children. There will be five thousand dollars for each one of you, enough to get you well started in life. I am also arranging a small sum for Mrs. Owens—to help with the expense of raising the boys.”
* * * *
Oppressive summer heat gradually settled over Galveston, and Charity often took Hope and her little brothers to the beach when her chores were done to get away from the sweltering house where Mrs. Owens bent, sweating, over the stove in a never-ending effort to stay ahead of the appetites of her husband and ten children, six of her own and the four Bullock children. The beach was one place where she could forget for a moment that nearly every house in town harbored a heartbreaking story of the yellow fever epidemic.
The epidemic had swept across the Texas coast early that warm, wet spring. At school, Charity and her friends had talked of little else. The doctors tried one treatment after another; castor oil, powdered charcoal, oil of black pepper, Dover’s Powders, extract of dandelion. None of them worked. It seemed that nearly every day a desk sat empty, a child missing. Some returned a few days later, their desperate eyes telling a tale more eloquently than words—a tale of the death of a mother, father, brother or sister, aunt or uncle. A few desks remained empty, their occupants gone forever. In desperation, one doctor tried bloodletting on one of the boys in Charity’s class. The patient died, just as most of them did with all the other treatments.
“You girls go with Mrs. Owens now,” the undertaker had said kindly the day Charity’s mother died. “I’ll take care of everything.”
Charity knew that “take care of everything,” meant loading her mother’s body in a wagon with all the others who had died today and taking them to the mass grave outside of town to be buried without ceremony. Even with the unceasing efforts of the doctors and nurses from the Howard Association, there were more bodies every day. It was impossible for the undertaker to provide a decent burial for each one of them.
* * * *
“Your great-uncle Bullock sent word that he can’t leave his business to come to Galveston for you,” Mrs. Owens explained one stifling morning in late July. Something hard flickered behind her eyes. Was it anger? Regret? “He wants you to ride to Austin with Mr. Bean. Mr. Bean is a freighter who’s picking up a load of supplies that came by ship from New Orleans. Your great-uncle Bullock is paying him to haul the supplies from Galveston to Austin. And he’s been paid to bring you, too. He seems like a nice enough fellow.”
“When is he coming?” Charity asked.
“Oh, he’s already here,” Mrs. Owens replied. “Wants to start on the return journey as soon as the wagons are loaded. They should be loaded by tomorrow morning.”
“You mean we need to be ready to go with him tomorrow morning?” Charity gasped.
“I’m afraid so, dear. Can you explain to Hope and help her get her things packed? I’ll ride across on the ferry with you in the morning and see you off.”
* * * *
“It’s just for a little while,” Charity explained to her two younger brothers as she and Hope waited to board the wagons that would take them to their new home in Austin. “We’ll be coming back for you soon. I promised Mama we would all be together.” She stroked John’s windblown hair. “You be good now, and mind Mrs. Owens. Don’t forget us.”
“We won’t forget you, Chatty,” John promised, his four-year-old chin trembling. Aaron, barely two, clutched Charity’s neck when she bent to hug him, hiding his face in her hair.
“I’ll come for my brothers,” Charity told Mrs. Owens, drawing herself to her full five foot height. “As soon as I’m old enough, I’ll come to get them. Mama wanted us to be together.”
The oxen moved impatiently in their yokes as gulls dipped and cried in the salt air above the wagons.
“I know,” Mrs. Owens replied, touching Charity’s cheek gently. “I really wish Samuel and I could keep all four of you, but we have six children of our own. We just don’t have the room. You know how crowded it’s been since you all come to live with us. And I just cain’t stomach sending the little boys all that way to live with a stranger. Your great-uncle Bullock ain’t likely to know much about raising small children. So until you come back for your brothers I’ll take good care of them for you. Your mama was my best friend. I owe her that.”
“She’d be grateful. We have a lot to thank you for—all of us. It’s just hard to leave them.” Charity felt her own chin begin to tremble.