Spring of 1860, Burnsfield Lumber Office
Reagan sat near his father’s desk, hat in one hand and papers in the other. Outside the office door, the whine of saw wheels kept a constant vibration beneath their feet. “According to these reports, there’s enough unclaimed tracts along the Cattaraugus River for several camps. If we get someone up there, we could begin harvesting this fall,” said Reagan.
“Send Bradley,” Thomas said to his son. “He’s quick, but thorough.”
“I’ll do that.” Reagan stood. He put on his hat, but instead of leaving, shuffled his papers, glancing from them to his father.
“It’s been five years since I’ve taken over logging operations,” he blurted. “You said once I had that experience, we’d become partners.”
“Now isn’t a good time,” Thomas said, frowning. “As you know, we had to use our own lumber to rebuild after the mill burned down. We broke contracts in order to use that lumber, and it put us behind. I need to concentrate my efforts on finding clients.”
“That’s why it’s time I became partner. I’d like to begin soliciting contracts, as well.”
Reagan saw Thomas pursing his lips, something he often did when agitated. He almost knew beforehand, what Thomas’s words would be.
“Right now, I need your efforts put into cutting timber. There’ll be time for that once we’ve got enough tracts to keep the mill running for more than a summer.” He then opened a ledger and began scribbling. “We’ll talk about this next year when things have calmed down.”
“That’s what you said last year.”
“That was before the fire,” Thomas said. “We lost a lot of revenue. Now that we’re up and running, I’m trying to regain what we lost.”
“Why not let me take time from logging to see if I can help?”
Thomas opened a drawer, his eyes sweeping its contents. “Because, Reagan, it’s not that easy. We’ve discussed this before. When I think you know enough, I’ll let you give it a try.”
When I think you know enough, I’ll let you give it a try.
As those words echoed in his ears, it was as if a curtain parted, revealing a play of Reagan’s past. He suddenly realized his father had used those words often, usually when he tried doing something other than what Thomas wanted.
He had always viewed his father as a shrewd businessman, cautious but wise and so accepted his caution without question. It occurred to him, he now looked at a man who for years had no equal, who found he liked it that way and so kept Reagan busy, never progressing beyond Thomas’s restrictions.
He recalled the time he tried overstepping his father’s rules while at a logging camp. At fifteen and nearing his father’s height, he chafed at being kept from working as a chopper. His mind became set on felling his first tree. Telling no one, he had taken an axe and walked the woods, picking a pine away from the track being harvested. He worked swiftly, envisioning his father’s pleasure at his newest skill. He didn’t see Hank approach with a gang of swampers as he drove a wedge into the back cut after chopping an angle to direct the tree’s fall.
Cupping his mouth, Reagan called his warning a second before Hank came into view.
The man looked up when a rifle-like crack pierced the air. Twisting in a slow pirouette, the pine broke free, followed by a whoosh that scattered swampers back into the woods.
Reagan had slammed into Hank and together they tumbled to safety as the tree crashed, hard. Someone yelled for help while men rushed to lift Hank to his feet and had him dusted off by the time Thomas reached his son. By his tightened jaw, Reagan knew he had made a mistake.
“What the hell were you doing?” he said, yanking him upright. “That was foolish and you know it.”
Reagan’s ears reddened and he slapped away his father’s hand. “Why? I just felled a tree. Can’t you see I’m ready?”
“You’re not ready until I say you’re ready. What you did just proves my point.” Thomas scooped up Reagan’s hat and slapped it on his head. “Every man here knows you don’t chop alone.”
“You started younger than me,” Reagan said stubbornly. “When do I get to chop trees?”
Thomas sighed before resting a hand on Reagan’s shoulder. “Listen, son. Lumbering is dangerous. I have a lot to teach you. When I think you know enough, I’ll let you give it a try.”
* * *
Reagan said nothing as he turned and left Thomas’s office. The desire to prove himself formed like a lump in his gut. It grew larger and harder with every step until it near choked his craw. He would show his father he knew damn well, enough. Not only would he make a contract, it’d be the biggest contract ever. He knew of a broker. He’d contact him and set up a meeting before leaving for New York. After that, Thomas could no longer say he wasn’t ready to be his partner.
Summer of 1860, Cantonsville, Ohio
Reagan sat slanted across the carriage seat, his arm flung against the windowsill. His fingers drummed in cadence to the rhythmic hoof beats as the coach traveled the rutted dirt road. Though his destination was less than a mile away, his stiff collar and merciless heat made the trip difficult to bear.
Reaching inside the pocket of his gray frock coat, he withdrew a small white envelope. Another wasted evening, he thought, staring at the invitation. He sighed and placed the envelope back into his pocket. Having just returned from the forests of New York, he would’ve preferred working at the lumber mill. The company’s dwindling list of business deals pressed a more urgent need for finding clients than attending a debutante’s ball. Yet obligations between the family business and the Bruester Bank and Trust made his attendance necessary. Ever inventive, Reagan had formulated a clever plan of escape. He would act properly attentive and fulfill his duty before making a swift departure after dinner.
As the coach neared Cantonsville, Reagan pondered several solutions to his problem. His earlier contact with a broker had proven useful when he had been informed the Marine Dock Company needed lumber. Anxious to demonstrate his ability to generate sales, he solicited a contract on his own and foolishly told Thomas the deal was done before the contract was signed. Initially furious, Thomas yielded by granting Reagan limited authority on obtaining future contracts that carried both their signatures. Reagan agreed, and the mill ran for weeks, piling lumber on the warehouse dock before the client declined the offer. Reagan had gambled new contracts would arise to cover his error. They had not and he grew worried. He could tell his father of the lost contract, which if not replaced, could jeopardize the business. He could say nothing and ask for an extension of funds from the bank. Or, he could find another contract before Thomas found out Reagan had invested nearly all his own money for this latest land deal. No matter his choice, he was sure to experience his father’s displeasure at this turn of events.
Reagan ran a hand through his recently clipped hair. He recalled his mother’s mortified reaction to his appearance when he arrived home earlier that day. With feigned protests, he had tolerated her relieving him of his shaggy condition. Combined with his clean shave and perfectly pressed suit, he now looked more the aristocrat and less a lumberman. Reagan sat up and straightened his coat. He would work on his problems later. Now, he had to get through the evening.
The carriage came to a shaded drive and joined a line of surreys unloading guests in front of the Bruester mansion. The three-story manor, built of stone and covered in English Ivy, harbored the oldest family in Cantonsville; something the resident matriarch took pride in.
Reagan alighted before approaching the open doorway where George and Emily Bruester were greeting their guests. The childhood ditty “Jack Spratt” sprang to mind as he viewed the oddly paired couple. In her youth, Emily had been quite beautiful, but little beauty remained as her once trim figure now strained her gown. Her raven hair streaked with gray was arranged in a pompadour designed to diminish her considerable size. Wearing an immaculate white suit, George appeared almost diminutive next to his wife. His fringed, balding pate glistened as his eyes fell on their newest guest. He held out his hand, smiling widely.
“Reagan, we’re so pleased you came. Emily feared you wouldn’t be attending.”
With amazing alacrity, Emily flicked open her fan to cool the flush creeping up her neck. “Having received no response, I assumed you were still traveling.”
Reagan grinned, handing her the envelope. “My error completely. I overlooked posting the reply in time. I wanted to keep this engagement, especially since I’ve neglected making your daughter’s acquaintance.” Reagan decided it best to twist the truth for propriety’s sake. Despite having reached the age of thirty-two, he felt no hurry to marry and had never been interested in attending the balls for the daughters of his business associates. Instead, he preferred seasoned balls where he could portray the gentle suitor, enjoying the challenge of pursuit.
“You remember me telling you about Amanda, don’t you?” George continued. “Since her return, we’ve been desirous of our daughter rekindling friendships as well as making new ones.”
Reagan smiled. “I’m sure she’s delightful. I’m looking forward to us forming a friendship of our own.” For some time he had been aware of the animosity Emily harbored toward the Burnsfield name. Though beyond his understanding, Reagan sensed the dislike lay rooted in a long-ago slight. His invitation had been the result of a chance meeting between the Burnsfields and the Bruesters at the theater where conversation turned to Amanda’s return from a Baltimore college. George had insisted the Burnsfield son should be invited to her coming-out ball.
With as much grace as he could muster, Reagan disengaged himself from the Bruesters to mingle with other guests.
“Lumberjack!” Emily said, sniffing.