Ulla's Courage, page 1
Wings ePress, Inc.
Edited by: Jeanne Smith
Executive Editor: Jeanne Smith
Cover Artist: Trisha Fitzgerald
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Wings ePress Books
Copyright © January 2017 by Agnes Alexander
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Newton, KS 67144
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To Aunt Helen Walsh – my most faithful fan.
Love you, Aunt Helen
Two hours after her father’s funeral, Ulla Wingate sat in the study with her Uncle Alton Wingate, his wife, Vida, and their daughter, Claudine, and waited as the solicitor prepared to read the will Grady Wingate had written. The two men who worked at Wingate’s General Store stood in the background.
The solicitor, Shelton Barns, cleared his throat and began to read. To my faithful employee, Wilbur Clark, who has been with me since the store opened, I leave the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars. To my other employee, Scottie Wells, who has been working for me for two years, I leave the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars.
Ulla noticed her Aunt Vida frown and wondered why. Those men deserved even more and she wished she had known about the will. She would have encouraged her father to give the men a larger sum, but it was too late to add anything to the amount now.
Shelton went on. To my brother, Alton Wingate, I leave the management of Wingate’s General Store to be run as he sees fit. He is to draw a salary of fifty dollars a week for the first year and if the store continues to prosper, as it should, he has the right to increase his salary to seventy-five dollars a week the second year. For uprooting his family in Kentucky and moving to Independence to perform this service for me, I also leave him and his family my house and the contents, other than what belongs to my daughter, Ulla. My precious daughter will have the right to reside in the home until she marries and decides to move out on her own.
This surprised Ulla, but she bit her lip and hoped nobody noticed how shocked she was. Without looking at her relatives, she continued to listen. She couldn’t understand why her father would give her home away, but he had to have his reason. Maybe he thought Uncle Alton moving here was reason enough for giving away the house where she was born and grew up. The home she had thought would always be hers.
Again the solicitor’s voice interrupted her thoughts. To my beloved daughter, Ulla, I leave the ownership of Wingate’s General Store, the savings account connected to the store, the continuation of the salary that I’ve paid her each week and the right to do with the store as she sees fit in the future. I do ask that she give my brother, Alton Wingate, the first chance to buy the store in the event she wants to sell it when she marries. Besides the store, she is to receive her mother’s jewelry and any personal possessions she desires in the house.
The short gray-haired solicitor looked over his wire-rimmed glasses at them. “That’s pretty much it. I will give you a copy, Mr. Wingate and you, too, Miss Wingate. There is also a personal letter left here from your father to you.”
Still in shock, Ulla nodded and took the letter the man held out to her. Though her aunt and uncle waited for her to read it aloud, she folded the missive and put it in her pocket. She had no intention of sharing her beloved father’s last words to her with them or anyone else.
~ * ~
A thousand thoughts competed for attention in Ulla’s head as she hurried to the bank with the money from the day’s sales at the general store her father founded and she had helped run since her mother had died. Ulla had been twelve years old at the time. According to her father’s will, she was the sole owner of the store, but for the past year it had been run by her uncle Alton. By name, anyway. Though the public wasn’t aware, she knew for a fact that her Aunt Vida made most of the decisions about what went on in the business. Not only did she work behind the scene at the store, she ran the household and everyone who lived within the walls of the home where they all had lived since the reading of her father’s will.
Because of this, Ulla knew it was her aunt’s idea that the money from the day’s sales at the store be taken to the bank before it closed at five each day, though her uncle had issued the directive. She also knew Aunt Vida insisted the time should be sometime in mid-afternoon and no later than four-thirty. Since Alton didn’t dare disobey his wife, he either took the money himself or assigned Ulla the job.
On her way to the bank, Ulla couldn’t help smiling when she thought of the relationship between the two Wingate brothers. Alton was a nice looking man. He had the same dark brown hair and brown eyes his brother had. But there the resemblance ended. Grady Wingate had been a strong man who was in control of his life and always did the things he thought were right, but Alton was so afraid of his wife, he jumped every time she spoke. When Ulla and her uncle were alone in the store, he never failed to tell her what to do and seemed to enjoy ordering her around, but when they went to the house it was a different story. Vida would open her mouth and Alton was as a small child— afraid to defy her in any way, he always did her bidding.
In the months her uncle’s family had occupied her home, Ulla still hadn’t figured out her cousin, Claudine. At times she seemed as submissive to her mother as her father was. At others she’d fight with Vida just like a tiger cub when it wants its independence.
And then there was Colton Blackwood, the son of one of Vida’s distant cousins. Four months ago, Aunt Vida invited him to visit. A visit that was still in progress and Ulla didn’t understand why. She wasn’t sure how to take Colton. He didn’t add to the household, or didn’t seem to be very interested in anything going on with the family, the store or even others in town. He was pleasant enough, but he was just there. And Ulla couldn’t help noticing he was lazy.
After he’d been in the house a month, Alton assigned him to help Claudine with ordering stock, a job her mother suggested she be assigned earlier. When Claudine and Colton worked up an order, they’d spend some time in the stock room, but Ulla wondered how much ordering had been going on because she often heard them in the back laughing and giggling. Colton would also come into the store to work occasionally, but never helped out for a full day. He always said Vida needed him to do something at the house or Claudine needed an escort into town because her mother didn’t want her going into town alone. Most of the time he hung around with the women of the family and had no interest in spending time with Alton or any of the neighborhood men, who had at first welcomed him to town.
Lost in thought, Ulla didn’t hear anyone behind her; then someone tapped her shoulder. She whirled around, ready to hit the culprit with the money bag in her hand. Then she saw it was Colton.
“I’m sorry I scared you, Ulla, but I was afraid you’d get to the bank before I could stop you.”
Still irritated, Ulla muttered, “So what did you want?”
“Aunt Vida sent me to the sweet shop. I wanted some of their special apple pie for supper. Then I saw you and wondered if you’d join me for an afternoon coffee.”
“I appreciate you asking, but we’re busy. I need to hurry back to the store.”
“Then I’ll come around at seven and walk you home so we can talk. That will be all right, won’t it?”
Ulla didn’t know what they needed to talk about and she could think of a lot of things she’d rather do than be escorted home by Colton Blackwood. But for the life of her, she couldn’t think of any way to get out of it. Finally she muttered, “If you insist.”
He tipped his hat with one hand and started to reach for her hand with the other, but she avoided the kiss on her fingers she knew he planned by grabbing the bank bag with both hands. If he noticed, he didn’t say anything except, “Then I’ll see you at seven.”
Ulla nodded, turned from him and hurried down the street to the bank. For some reason, she was wondering why Colton began so many sentences with the word ‘then.’
Reaching her destination, she pushed all thoughts of Carlton into the back of her mind, took a deep breath and opened the door.
“Good afternoon, Miss Wingate.” Ivy Nettleton started out the door as Ulla stepped inside.
“Hello, Miz Nettleton. How are you?”
Ivy gave her a weak smile. “I’m all right. And you?”
“I’m well, thank you.”
Ivy nodded and hurried away without saying anything else.
Ulla wasn’t surprised. Few people bothered to speak to Ivy Nettleton for several reasons. First of all, the woman dared to have a child out of wedlock. Then she had the nerve to let everyone know her baby’s father was Peter Nettleton, who robbed the gun shop and was sent to prison for five years before he even knew he was going to be a father. When he was released, she openly married the man and for over a year, they’d tried to eke out a living on a small piece of land on the edge of town. Everyone seemed to be waiting for him to resort to robbery or some other crime so they could send him out of town again.
One day when she was in the store, Ivy had confided to Ulla that she and Peter were trying to save enough money to leave town and start a new life somewhere far away. But so far they must not have been able to collect enough because they were still in town.
As soon as Ulla turned around, the bank’s president, Stuart Roberson, spoke to her. “Hello, Miss Ulla Wingate.”
“Hello, Mr. Stuart Roberson.”
He chuckled. “I’m glad you came in. If you have time, would you please step into my office? There’s something I need to discuss with you.”
“Is it necessary we talk now? We’re awfully busy at the store and I’m only here to make the deposit.”
“Yes, Ulla, I think it’s important that we talk. Please come this way.”
Ulla felt she had no choice. She followed him into his office and took the chair he indicated in front of his desk. She didn’t say anything, but waited for him to speak.
He cleared his throat. “Ulla, I’ve known you since you were a little girl. Your father and I were good friends, as were my wife and your mother. In fact, since we never had any children, I almost felt I was your second father.”
“I felt that way, too. You know how much I loved your wife. I’m sorry she died.”
“I know you are, but it has been almost a year now and I’m managing to go on with my life.”
Seeing the sadness in Stuart’s eyes, Ulla changed the subject. “If you remember, I used to call you Uncle Stuart and Aunt Edith.”
He grinned. “I wouldn’t mind if you still called me uncle.”
She smiled back. “I could do that, but I almost want to call you Papa Stuart?”
He gave her a big grin. “I’d love for you to do that.”
“Then what did you have to talk to me about, Papa Stuart?”
Still grinning, he said, “Have a seat and I’ll tell you.”
Ulla took one of the chairs in front of his desk.
He moved behind it and went on. “I brought you in here because I feel I need to ask you something.”
“Of course, Papa Stuart… Or should I call you Mr. Roberson when we discuss business? And whatever it is, I’ll be glad to answer anything you want to ask me.”
“From now on, it’s Papa Stuart, no matter what we’re discussing.”
“That’s fine with me, Papa Stuart. Now, what is your question?”
“I don’t want to stir up trouble with your family or butt in where I have no business, but I’ve been taking care of your personal account and the store’s account for a long time.”
He paused and she said, “I know this. My father trusted you completely and so do I.”
He frowned. “Are you sure?”
She gave him a puzzled look. “Of course I’m sure. What makes you think I don’t?”
“Your cousin and his wife were in here yesterday and he wanted to draw some money out of your account. He said you were unhappy about the way we were handling your money and had asked him to get it out of this bank and put it in another.”
Ulla gasped. “I never did any such thing. I can’t believe this.”
“I assure you, I’m telling you the truth, Ulla.”
“Oh, I’m not doubting you. I just can’t believe Claudine would do such a thing.”
He frowned again. “It wasn’t Claudine Wingate who wanted to get the money. It was Colton Wingate.”
Her mouth fell open and she barely whispered, “I don’t have a cousin named Colton Wingate. The only Colton I know is Colton Blackwood. He’s a distant relative of my aunt and has been visiting in our home for some time.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I had a feeling something wasn’t right, so I told them you’d have to come in if you wanted to draw out your money, or make any changes in your account.”
“I don’t know what’s going on or what to say about it, except what I’ve already told you. I trust you and the way things are done in this bank. I do want to stress that I don’t want you to ever let anyone except me take money from my account. Not my uncle or my aunt and definitely not anyone claiming to be a cousin of mine.”
“You can rest assured that I won’t.” He took a deep breath. “Since you’ve cleared up that situation, I may be speaking out of turn, but I feel I should let you know about something else that’s going on.”
She was puzzled, but nodded. “Please do.”
“You know your uncle comes by here when we open at nine to pick up money you or he have brought to the bank the day before. He says he wants it so he’ll have enough to do business for the day, which I certainly understand. But there’s something that isn’t adding up and I can’t help but find it strange.”
Ulla frowned. “What’s that?”
“Lately, when you bring the money back in the evening, almost the same amount is in the bag that he picked up. When your father was living, the amounts always varied drastically, depending on the day of the week and even more so if there was a wagon train in town buying supplies.”
Ulla frowned. “I don’t understand. We sell a little even on slow days and I know there should always be more money by the end of the day, and of course we add what was hidden in the store at night.”
“Do you count the money you bring in when you deliver it, Ulla?”
“No. If Uncle Alton doesn’t bring it, he always puts it in the bag and gives it to me. I figured he has counted it.” She frowned. “What do you think he’s doing with the money?”
“I don’t know, but there could be several things. He could be taking it home and keeping it himself. He could have opened an account in another bank that you know nothing about. He could
She couldn’t help smiling. “I can’t imagine Uncle Alton with a gambling problem. Aunt Vida would kill him and he probably knows that. He’s afraid of her.”
He smiled. “Then I guess he doesn’t gamble, but whatever he does, he’s making sure there is little profit for you at the end of a month.”
“I’m not just saying that to upset you, but I feel you should know what he’s doing. He’ll have us put thirty or forty dollars in your account, but that’s all. He says things are slow and that is all the profit there is for you. It makes me wonder if he isn’t trying to run you out of the store for some reason.”
This revelation added to the things that were beginning to make Ulla wonder what was happening to her father’s store. “I have a feeling you might be right. At times I wonder if the best thing for me to do is let him have the store. The way he runs things, it is going to start losing money soon.”
“If it does, I’m sure he’ll need more money to stay open. He could come to me for a loan and if I turn him down, he could close the store and start another one here or in another town.” He shook his head. “He could even come to you and want you to put the money your father left you back into the store. He’d probably try to make you feel you should give it to him to save the business your father founded. That way he and his family would be able to get their hands on what your father left you, plus what should be yours in profits.”
“Do you think they’d really do that?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Ulla. You know them better than I do. What do you think?”
She knew he was right, but didn’t want to say so. This confirmed what she’d been suspecting for some time. Her so-called family was trying every trick they knew to legally rob her of everything her father left her.
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