Post-Civil War America is a fascinating period in our history. The rough and tumble decade after the war’s end yielded significant economic growth as the South was rebuilt and the country moved forward. More nuanced was the reuniting of cultures, ideas and peoples that divided us. It would take generations to heal the rifts. Reconstructing Jackson is the story of a man, a Confederate officer, who loses a leg and an older brother in the war. At war’s end, his family’s plantation is in chaos and his father deems him unfit to solve its problems from a wheelchair, and deeds the property and Reed’s intended bride to a younger brother. Reed moves west, to begin again, at the home of a cousin, a prosperous hotelier in Missouri. Little does he know that he will find a woman, who is also battered and broken by circumstances, but fights on for her dreams with a courage he admires and grows to love.
“Need some help, mister?”
“I’ll be fine, thank you,” Reed Jackson said.
The conductor approached through whirls of black smoke and repeated, “Do ya need some help?”
The whistle blew as Reed replied. “I’m a cripple, not deaf, you jackass. I said I’d be fine.”
The conductor squinted through ashed air and hefted himself onto the train’s step. “OK, son,” he shouted.
The train pulled away and Reed struggled to pull his bag on to his lap and wheel himself to the step of the station house. A sign, swinging in the locomotive’s draft, read ‘Fenton, Missouri – Population 6,502.’
“Is there a boy about who can get my trunks to the hotel?” Reed shouted into the dim building. The scrawny station manager shaded his eyes as he stepped into the dirt street.
“Where ya be headin’?” he asked.
“The Ames Hotel,” Reed replied.
Reed contemplated the man who was now rubbing his jaw and eyeing his wheelchair; the last, hopefully, in a long line of nosy, prying half-wits whom Reed had encountered on this tortuous journey. The man knelt down and touched the leather strapping of the wheels.
“Please don’t touch the chair, sir,” Reed said.
He stood, eyes still perusing Reed and his belongings. “In the war?”
“Is there someone able to bring my trunks to the Ames Hotel?” Reed repeated.
“From the sound of that drawl, I’d bet my Helen’s berry pie, you was wearing gray,” the stationmaster added.
The man’s self-righteous smile did nothing to lighten Reed’s mood. He was tired, his leg hurt, and he wanted nothing more than complete and utter silence, followed by a long soak in a tub. But this was to be his new hometown. His fresh start. This imbecile may need his services as an attorney if he killed his pie-making wife, Reed thought.
“I served in the confederacy, sir.”
“Damn. I was right. A Johnny Reb, huh?”
“I consider myself a U.S. citizen,” Reed replied.
“Well, yeah but . . .”
“Excuse me,” Reed said as reached his hands to the wheels of his chair. “I must get to the hotel. I’m expected.”
The stationmaster turned as a man and woman approached. “Reed?” the man called.
“Henry.” Reed recognized his cousin from the remarkable likeness the man had to Reed’s mother. Tall and dark with great smiles marked the Ames family.
Henry clasped Reed’s hand and shook, turning to a petite blond beside him. “Reed, this is my wife, Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen, this is my cousin, Reed Jackson.”
“Pleasure to meet you, sir. How was your trip?” she shouted over the clang, roar and bedlam of the station.
Mary Ellen Ames wore an expensive, up-to-date gown and filled it most attractively, Reed noticed. He smiled his best Southern charm and held her dainty, gloved hand in his. “Dirty, hot and long.”
She laughed and turned to her husband. “Our traveler is weary, Henry. Let’s get him out of the sun and the dust.”
Reed was thankful this woman, his hostess was gracious and mannerly. So unlike the passengers he’d been forced to sit beside and occasionally converse with. He was sick of boorish behavior and basked in the delightful smile Henry’s wife bestowed upon him. Henry must have married as well as he possible could have in this God-forsaken town. His mother had told him that her brother’s son had come west before the war, married and was a successful businessman. She apparently was right.
Reed looked at the stationmaster as he listened in on their conversation. “I was trying to hire someone to bring my trunks to the hotel when you came.”
“Oh, yes siree, sir. Right away, sir.”
“Thank you.” Reed wheeled himself along beside Henry and Mary Ellen as they walked away from the station. As the roar of travel sounds dimmed, Reed turned to his cousin. “So what is life like here in the wild West?”
Henry stopped, looked at Reed’s serious face and leaned back, laughing. “The wild West? Fenton is hardly wild, Reed.”
“Well, we are west of the Mississippi, Henry? I was raised to believe civilization begins in the heart of the South,” Reed said and smiled.
“You’re teasing, Mr. Jackson. Why we have churches, shops, theatres, and even a small hospital. The fine ladies of the Aid Society consider Fenton a bastion of civilization.”
Reed regarded her sincere countenance. “Why, of course, Mrs. Ames. Forgive me.”
“Please call me Mary Ellen. We are related, and I want you to feel comfortable in your new home.”
“I would be honored if you would call me Reed or Jackson, in kind,” he replied.
The streets of Fenton were busy with wagons, horses and people. He watched as he wheeled and found some staring strangely at him, many on their own way, paying him no mind. He dodged horses’ hooves, children running and the hems of calico dresses.
“The sidewalk here in the main part of town runs right in front of the hotel. Let me get you up the first step,” Henry said, taking the handles behind Reed’s chair and turning him around.
It was humiliating to depend so entirely on others. Strangers, Reed didn’t mind, but the thought of a relative helping him merely negotiate the street riled him.
“I’m fine, now. Which way are we headed?” Reed said and caught an embarrassed glance from husband to wife.
Mary Ellen Ames motioned forward.
Reed pardoned himself many times on the narrow sidewalk. He passed the Fenton National Bank and a dreary theatre beside it and waited for Henry to move a pickle barrel a few inches back in front of the general store.
Mary Ellen turned onto a wooden sidewalk lined with flowers. “Here we are.”
The Ames Hotel was indeed grand, yet to Reed’s thoughts, homey. A wide porch held wicker furniture and guests reclined and chatted there. Reed looked up at the large brick building, seeing three floors, curtains blowing softly out of tall windows. White gingerbread trim edged the porch pillars and roof. His gaze fell to six wide wooden steps, their backs white, the footfalls, forest green.
“You’ve done well for yourself, cousin. A very inviting hotel and busy from the looks of things,” Reed said.
Henry put his arm around his wife and looked up to the building. “We’ve been very fortunate.”
The couple’s eyes met, and Reed felt the intensity from feet away. They stared at each other, glowing, and Mary Ellen’s hand raised to her husband’s chest. This must be quite an accomplishment out here in the prairie; they rightly deserved to be proud, Reed thought.