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Ferndale, California 1900+ Darkness and smoke worked hand-in-hand to conceal her vision. The pungent smell of alcohol clinging to the sweaty skin of drunken old men assaulted her nostrils, and the thunderous sound of winners and losers on the gambling table, threatened to pull the roof of the old, wooden building down. Several thoughts raced through her mind as her vision fought to adjust to the dim light, and her nose, to the smell; she shouldn't be here. Being here not only posed a danger to her reputation, it posed a danger to her wellbeing if she was caught. She shook her head, refusing to be frightened by her thoughts. She had already battled with fear the entire day, and throughout her walk to the tavern. She had come this far and couldn't turn back now. She couldn't turn back, not even when common sense told her it was the right thing to do. Hunching further down to aid her disguise of an old, unattractive woman who was undeserving of the attention of these men, she forced one foot after the other forward, the path of smoke giving way to her body. Her vision began to adjust to the dim light, making it easier to distinguish the furniture from the drunken men. Her eyes swept the room as she walked, bodies pressed against bodies as men drank and gambled, and women offered themselves up like nothing more than a piece of bone to hungry dogs -some of which were now nibbling on the necks of their bones.3 Sharon could barely keep a frown from creasing her face as she maneuvered her way through the tavern, her eyes searching for the familiar circular parting of gray hair in the center of her father's head. She looked out for his dirty, blue shirt with the rip on his left sleeve that she had been meaning to mend, but had been unable to get to due to all the other pressing matters she had to attend to; matters such as putting -and keeping- food on their table, keeping the dust off of what was left of the furniture he hadn't gambled away yet, working in the town's supply shop, and most recently, making certain that her father returned home safe every evening.3 Her eyes settled on the tear in his shirt in that second, and while his head rested on the table before him, she was certain she had found her father. Heaving a breath, she readjusted the scarf over her nose in a bid to keep her face hidden. She took measured steps forward, the sound of the heels of her old, worn boots pounding against the wooden floors, ringing in her ears. The closer her legs took her to him, the louder her heart pounded, until she was standing behind him. She ignored the people around the table, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Pa." She whispered, leaning down and nudging him. "Pa-" "Knocked out cold," A gruff voice drew her attention to the man seated before her father. He was a raggedy thing, with several days' worth of stubble on his face and dirty, dark brown matted hair seated on his head like a rag's doll. The first four buttons of his worn-out green shirt was left undone, leaving his malnourished chest with equally brown hair on display.1 Sharon swallowed, tearing her eyes off of him long enough to shake her father -harder this time. He jerked upright, a snore emanating from him.1 "Pa." She shook him again, only releasing his shoulder once he turned to her with red, watery eyes. "Elle?" He said, recognition lighting up his face. Sharon shook her head; she was not Elle, her mother. But she could tell just by looking at her father, that he would much rather have his beloved, deceased wife here, than he would her. "We must go now." "Ah, but not so fast, you still owe me a thousand dollars, remember?" The man across the table called, forcing her to turn briefly to him, before turning back to her father, annoyed; there was barely a soul in all of Ferndale her father was not indebted to. He was fool enough to gamble everything they were worth away, and fool enough to try to gain them back by gambling things they did not even have, away. He had even fallen as low having to steal from her.1 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Her hand instinctively shot up to her bare neck, now devoid of the simple gold pendant that once laid comfortably between her collar bones. She was still bitter about losing her mother's pendant, but a part of her understood her father's grief, his deep feeling of helplessness, his anger...2 She took hold of his arms and helped him to his feet with great difficulty. Once he was on his wobbly feet, she draped his arm over her shoulders. His arm settled on the edge of her scarf, pulling it down to her shoulders, and leaving her face exposed. Dread immediately settled on her inside. "My, what do we have here?" Wood scrapped against wood, and Sharon looked up to find the man pushing his chair back, and rising to his feet.1 She shuddered, but held on to her father's arm that was around her shoulder. She placed her free arm around his rounded waist, and began stirring him in the direction of the door. His weight was a burden on her frail form, making it almost impossible to raise her head up. Keeping her gaze on the floorboards, she began maneuvering her way through the crowded tavern. The door came into view, a soft sigh of relief drifting from her lips as she hastened to get to it and out of the dreadful building.1 "Why are you in such a hurry?" The voice directly behind her sent a cold shiver down her spine, weakening her knees and slowing her down briefly.2 Readjusting her hold on her father, she made to take another step forward only to be forced to a halt by the pair of dirty boots that appeared in her path. "This man owes me money, and neither of you will leave this place until I am paid."2 The weight on her shoulders was suddenly lightened. Gasping, she raised her eyes just in time to watch the stranger release his hold on her father's collar and shove him to the wooden floors. Horrified, she fell to her knees beside her father. "Pa?!" She examined his head, wincing the second her eyes caught a glimpse of the red substance staining his gray hair.1 "I will pay you, you bastard!" He cursed, rubbing his bleeding head. "Now! Right now!" "How am I supposed to get a bleeding thousand dollars, Jenkins?!" "Figure it out, George! Neither you, nor her, will leave this place without paying your debt." Upset, Sharon rose to her feet. Didn't the idiot know her father was worth nothing, before agreeing to gamble with him?! Surely the entire town already knew! It was nobody's fault he was fool enough to be dragged into her father's scheming ways. "Will you hold us prisoner here in a bar until we, by some stroke of idiocy, start vomiting dollar bills?!" She spat, folding her arms.2 He quirked a brow, "pretty," his eyes slowly ran down the length of her, from her head to her ugly gray dress, to her old boots, before coming to settle on her face again. She saw lust settle in his eyes, and instinctively pulled the scarf around her shoulders. "With a big mouth," he took a step that brought him face to face with her. Struggling to keep her feet from stepping back and her limbs from trembling, she arched her back and straightened. "I do not believe in your ability to spit out dollar bills, dolly," he touched her cheek. Swatting his hand off, she glared into his brown eyes.2 "At least the good Lord was gracious enough to compensate your lack of good looks with actual common sense." A smile tugged on the edges of his cracked lips as he inched in closer, the stench of his skin assaulting her nostrils. In that second, Sharon decided she would kick him in the shin if he tried to kiss her. "Really, really big mouth," he whispered, his stinky breath washing over her face. "George!" The sound of his boot connecting with her father's body, reached her. She glanced down in time to find her father groaning and recoiling in pain. "Get up, fool!" He reached down and jerked her father upright.1 STORY CONTINUES BELOW George barely managed to maintain his footing, but he didn't seem keen on displeasing the younger man before him. He was most likely in his mid thirties, she thought, even if the state of his clothes and body said otherwise; he was certainly younger than he appeared. "How about I cancel your debt, huh? Act like none of this happened?" He spoke to her father, but his eyes drifted to her. "Y-yo-you would do that?" He asked. The stranger nodded, a smile she decided she hated, curving his lips. "I would."1 Sharon didn't think she could trust him, but she decided they were without a choice; if he was willing to cancel the debt, so be it. Perhaps she had succeeded in scaring him into surrendering and giving up on his threats? Perhaps he saw the foolishness of holding a broke man to a debt he could never, in a million years, pay?1 She forced a smile to her own face in appreciation of the devil himself. "Thank you, kind sir." Turning to her father who stood beside her with a frown on his sweaty face, she nodded. "Let's go." She had barely taken a step past him when his next words stopped her; "Oh, not you dolly, you are coming with me."1 Sharon felt the blood drain from her face. Turning around so she could stare the monster in the eyes, she said, "What did you say?" "I am taking you, in exchange for the thousand dollars your father owes me. Fair trade, don't you think?"5 Sharon's heart must have stopped pounding, the world must have stopped spinning and time must have stopped ticking, as his words settled in the depths of her soul.1 She shook her head in a failed attempt to wake herself up from this nightmare, for surely she was dreaming! Surely there was nobody on earth foolish enough to think it was possible to exchange a human being for money! She was not a mere piece of furniture; she could not be tossed over to the next idiot -could she? She shook her head yet again; she couldn't! It did not matter how much her father owed the lunatic, he couldn't give her to him! He could not! He did not have the power to! Still, Sharon knew she was at her father's mercy. She was only a little over seventeen and was still under his roof and authority. He could easily pass her over in marriage...2 No -she shook her head. Never! She could never marry the drunk who stood before her! She would die before she marries him. And her father, surely he wouldn't force her!1 She turned to him then, her lips falling open at the look in his eyes; helplessness. "You are not without a choice, Pa." She whispered, taking his hand in hers. "You cannot let him do this." "Sharon," he shook his head, his gaze falling to the floor boards. "No!" She released his hand and stepped back. "Never!" "Sharon," "You cannot do this, you cannot gamble me away! You cannot lose me like you have lost everything we ever had!" Fear clouded her mind even as she spoke. She knew her father had done exactly that; he had lost her in a bet. But what was even worse -she thought, turning around in a failed attempt to run away as strong hands took hold of her shoulders, pulling her back against his chest- was the realization that there was nothing she could do about it.The thin cord that kept Sharon's hands tied behind her back dug deeper into her flesh with every jolt of the wagon on the dirt road. She moaned, the sock that had been stuffed into her mouth by the animal that held her captive against her will, muffling her cry.4 After her father had conceded to the condition for the cancellation of his debt, she had been hefted -kicking and screaming- like a bag of sack on the man's shoulder, and kicking and thrown into the back of the wagon. But that wasn't enough to keep Sharon still or quiet. And so, in order to restrain and silence her, she had been gagged, and her hands had been tied behind her back.1 He was most likely taking her to his home where she would be held captive until the next morning before dragging her to the court house, where they would be pronounced man and wife.1 Groaning in frustration, she hit her forehead against the wagon. It would be over her dead body before she is forced to marry him, she thought, slamming her forehead yet again on the wagon. She ignored the pain that reverberated in her skull and kept hitting the wagon until tears blurred her vision, and darkness threatened her body. She would die before she is married to him! She would be buried alive before she is made the wife of a drunken bastard.1 "Hey, stop that in there!" He hit the wagon from his position in front.1 Ignoring his command, she slammed her head against the wagon yet again -harder this time. The sound of her skin tearing filled her ears as blood began to trickle down her eyes. "Stop it!" The sound of a whip slicing through the air was immediately followed by the wagon slowing down, before it was pulled to a halt.2 She heard him jump down the side of the wagon, his boots crushing rocks underneath as he made his way to the back of the wagon where she laid, barely conscious. He pushed the curtains that covered the wagon aside, and hissed -most likely at the sight of the blood on her face. "Little whore!"4 He reached for her, but she leaned back instead. Begging for death to claim her, before she is claimed by him, she turned to the metal part of the wagon -just as he was about to grab her- and in a show of utter desperation, pulled her eyelids shut, and slammed her head against it.2 The last thing she remembered was the sound of her skull cracking, and his angry cursing, before the darkness finally claimed her.1 ~*~ Matthew frowned, his eyes scanning his father's missive once more. He clenched his teeth once he had finished reading it, and tried not to slam his fist against the table, or any other furniture for that matter. Surely his father was joking, for that was the only explanation for his silly demands; marriage! In exchange for his share in his grandfather's property, his grandfather had provided in his will that Matthew be married. But Matthew found that part of his grandfather's will quite hard to believe; his grandfather had not been one to give conditions for anything. His father however, was the one who was known to toy with people; to manipulate them into doing what pleased him.1 Matthew clamped down on his bottom lip, afraid he'd curse in frustration. His father was toying with him; he was using whatever means possible to withhold Matthew's inheritance, simply because he wanted to maintain control of Matthew. It was a slap to his father's over-the-top ego that he would decide he wanted nothing to do with the family's dairy factory. It was upsetting to his father to think that his son would choose life on a farm, far away from home.1 But Matthew needed to leave San Francisco. He needed to leave the home of his controlling father, and to start his own life with the woman of his dreams. He had chosen to leave all of that wealth behind, and to ask the love of his life to marry him, and move to Ferndale with him. Only, the love of his life had wanted his money more than she wanted him. And, knowing she wouldn't be getting the life of luxury she had expected due to his decision to walk away from his father, she had turned down his proposal.1 Rising to his feet, Matthew ran his fingers through his hair. He did not want to dwell on thoughts of Gretchen, or his father. For all he knew, Gretchen was now happily married somewhere. Perhaps she found a wealthy business man to be with? It was certainly better than being with a nearly bankrupt farmer.1 Matthew knew he could plead with his father for some money, but he also knew that was exactly what his father wanted; his father wanted him to crawl back to San Francisco on his hands and knees and beg. It was either that, or conceding to his grandfather's request of finding a wife before coming into his inheritance. Unfortunately for him however, he had just one week to get the money. He owed his farmhands hundreds of dollars in wages and fearing they would desert him, had promised to pay them within a week. He had only been foolish enough to make such a promise because at the time, he believed he could fall back on his inheritance. The unfortunate turn of events meant that he had only a week to find a wife.1 He was stuck between the devil -his controlling father- and the deep, fiery sea -his grandfather's will.1 Still, as he considered it, he thought the fiery sea held more hope of his escape. If he gave in to his grandfather's request and found a wife in a week, perhaps he would actually learn to love his new bride? Going on his knees and begging his father for help was not an option Matthew was willing to consider. Yet, he could not afford to lose his farmhands; the farm was on the verge of death, and they had already lost the entire harvest the year before to pests. He needed the money for the new planting season, and he needed the extra help as well.1 Deciding to marry, Matthew slumped back on the chair in his study, and ran his hands down his face, knowing full well that he had no idea where he was going to find a woman willing to marry a near broke farmer before the end of the week. Sharon spat in the eyes of her captor —whose name she now knew was Jenkins— as he leaned forward that evening, and tried to reach for her.3 He fell back growling, his hand rubbing furiously at his most likely stinging eyes. She scampered back, until her body hit the solid wall behind her. Having stayed in his house for what she assumed was three days, she had used every weapon within her reach to keep him from defiling her; a chair, a lamp, a portrait, a spoon, a plate, everything! She had inflicted several injuries on him, and considering the fact that he was drunk half the time, he was always too weak to fight back. He had however, emptied the room of its furniture until she was left with no other weapon to use against him... nothing but her saliva.1 “You wench!” He roared, brown eyes fixed on her like a shot gun.1 It was the early hours of the morning and unlike the last two days when he had practically tried to rape her while drunk, she could tell just by looking at him, that the effects of the alcohol from the evening before had worn off.1 She squared her jaw, hoping he would hit her. She had been hoping he would hit her —and eventually kill her— after she had failed to kill herself on the evening she was captured; after hitting her head consistently on the wagon, the only thing she had ended up with was a bruised forehead and a headache. Not a concussion, not a terrible illness, and certainly not death. She had woken up disappointed the next morning. He had cleaned her wounds, and had told her of his decision to have them wed once she was completely healed of her injury. He couldn't have the court thinking he was abusing her —he had smiled, displaying his crooked teeth, seemingly delighted by his own presumed wisdom.1 Perhaps that was the reason he did not hit her? Perhaps it was why, no matter how much she provoked him, he did not give in to his anger? Still, while he was willing to wait for her injuries to heal before taking her down to the courthouse and forcing her to say her vows, he was unwilling to wait for their accursed union, before trying to force himself on her. Sharon did not know for how long she could continue fighting him. She was exhausted from clawing at him, and her head still ached from hitting it against the wagon that evening. He began making his way to her, fear clawing at her heart as she watched him approach. While she hoped he would finally give in to his anger and hurt her, she had to admit —she thought, her eyes drifting to his massive hands that swung back and forth as he approached— that she was afraid of how much it would hurt.1 He lowered himself before her, and instinctively, she recoiled back against the wall. He reached out suddenly, his fingers entangling themselves in her hair. He jerked her hair forward, the movement threatening to rip her head off of her neck. With a loud cry, her body fell forward. He grabbed her chin, his mouth smashing hard against hers. He kissed her, the stench of alcohol clinging to his skin and mouth, causing her stomach to churn in disgust. She tried to back away, but his hold on her hair and jaw tightened, holding her captive until he had gotten his fill of her. The kiss ended as suddenly as it had begun, and with it, a sting to her cheek. Letting out yet another cry in agony, she placed her palm on her stinging cheek, somewhat stunned that he had slapped her. STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Lucky for you, I have work to do.” He gritted his teeth, releasing his hold on her. “But I will be home early, and I will drag you to that courthouse whether you like it or not, dolly.”1 “I will die before I am married to you!” She screeched after his retreating back. He paused and turned around slowly, with his eyes twinkling. “I know that, dolly. Which is why, if you refuse to marry me by this afternoon, then I will have no problem going over to your father's little cottage, and setting the entire building on fire... with your father inside.”5 Sharon's body swayed, whether by weakness or fear, she was uncertain. “You woul—” “Oh, but I would! I will! Maybe I have misled you into thinking you have a say in any of this. I have pampered you for too many days, and have tolerated your abuse. But I can assure you, dolly, that my patience has run dry. I will walk out of those doors, and when I return, you will either be prepared to go down willingly to the courthouse with me and agree to be my wife, or... Well, I do not have to repeat my threat now dolly, do I?” He raised a bushy brow in question.1 Unable to speak, Sharon simply stared numbly at him. She was fully aware that he was capable of carrying out his threat of harming her father. She was aware there was very little she could do to stop the impending marriage. She was aware her life was over, and all that was left of the years ahead was misery accompanied by an unhappy marriage to a drunken gambler, as well as rearing of that drunk's children. But so much more than that, she was aware that her miserable life was connected to the continued existence of her father. And while she loathed him completely, she could not bear the thought of watching him die. She would marry the monster; she had no choice. ~*~ “Do not dwell on it,” Nana Lois touched Matthew's back in the compassionate manner he was accustomed to since he was a little boy. She had been with him throughout his life, and had transitioned from being his nanny, to being his housekeeper, hence the name, Nana Lois; Nana being his childhood mispronunciation of the word ‘Nanny’. And as the years went by, the name stuck with every member of his family. He turned around to give the older woman a forced smile, even if he knew she would be able to tell it wasn’t genuine, and shook his head. “I will try.” She settled on the dining chair beside him and took his hand that was on the table. “Do not dwell too much on it, child. I know things will work out.” He squeezed her hand. “My father is just waiting for me to fail.” “And you will disappoint him.” A small smile curved her lips. “What if I do meet his expectations by actually failing?” “I have been around since you were nothing but a tiny seed in your Ma's tummy, and I stuck around to watch you become a grown man. In all of those twenty three years, Matthew Christopher Steiner, I do not recall you ever failing at anything.” “That is not true, Nana!” He laughed, somewhat surprised by his ability to laugh considering the state of his mind. “I failed a lot in school.” Her smile warmed his heart. “You did. Your Pa was so disappointed you did so poorly in mathematics.” She reached out and touched his hair affectionately. “But you know, you've never failed because you never let anything actually beat you. You just kept at it until you got it. Sure doesn't sound like a failure to me.” She shrugged, and rose to her feet. He watched her pour some coffee into a mug, and turn to him. She placed the coffee on the table before him. STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Thanks, Nana.” He muttered. Matthew spent the rest of the day —after inspecting the work of his farmhands— in his study, studying the account books. He was nearly penniless, and the farm records brought no comfort. It was frustrating to think that a farm he had started a little over a year ago, had failed. Commotion coming from outside drifted to him through the window in that second, but he ignored it, thinking his farmhands were arguing again, or fighting. And there was no doubt in his mind that Jenkins was at the center of everything1 Jenkins was the farmhand that came to work hung-over, and often times than not, in a sour mood. He got into arguments and fights with the rest of the men, and Matthew was certainly tired of having him around as an employee. But with no means of paying them, Matthew did not think himself worthy of dismissing anyone; he just could not afford that kind of luxury.1 Let them fight it out, he thought, his attention returning to the farm records. If they fought, and somebody eventually emerged the winner, perhaps it would deter the others from challenging that person? Perhaps it would afford him a little peace on his farm... If indeed he would have a farm by the end of the week. “Matthew!” Nana Lois barged into the room, flour staining her green dress and the white apron that was tied around her waist. No doubt she had been whipping up a snack. “You need to come outside.” “I am unwilling to be forced into separating a fight, Nana.” “Not a fight, but if you do not come out here right this instance, you might have a dead body on your hands.” Her words forced him to his feet. “What, whose?” He began making his way to where she stood by the door. “Jenkins!”1 It was a few minutes before Matthew was outside, and a few more minutes before he was filled in on the issue at hand; Jenkins had been caught stealing money from Matthew's safe. A few of the liquor on Matthew's shelf, as well as some bags of grains, had also been found in Jenkins's wagon.1 Matthew's eyes ran down the length of Jenkins who was now on his knees in the mud, begging. “Please, don't hand me over to the Sheriff.” He clasped his hands before him. “I didn't mean to steal from you, Mr. Steiner.” The only problem with that was the fact that Matthew knew quite well that Jenkins was lying.1 “Say the word, sir, and we will ensure this thieving bastard gets what is coming.” Stanley growled, visibly upset. Stanley, more than anybody else on the farm despised Jenkins. They had gotten in more fights with each other than Matthew could count. “How much was he found with?” Matthew asked. “About a hundred.” Someone answered. It was half of what was left of Matthew's savings. He was surprised Jenkins tried to steal from him, and even more surprised he knew the combinations of his safe. “It's for a marriage certificate. I was going to get married this noon.”1 Matthew's frown deepened. Married? Who in their right mind would agree to be married to Jenkins? STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Don't believe him Mr. Steiner, Jenkins is nothing but a bloody liar. The only women willing to pay him half a mind —and this for a dime— are the ones in the whorehouse.” “Shut up, fool!” Jenkins turned his wrath on Stanley. “I ain't marrying no whore, I found myself a lovely damsel willing to marry me.”1 “Do you mean George's daughter?” Stanley laughed. “The innocent girl you're forcing to marry you in exchange for the cancellation of her father's debts?” Matthew would not have thought Stanley's words held any truth in them, if Jenkins's face did not reflect some remorse. “Is this true?!” Matthew was disgusted. He suddenly pitied the woman who would be forced to endure a lifetime with Jenkins. “You are going to force a woman to marry you in order to cancel her father's debts?!” “It was mutually agreed upon by her father and me.”1 Disgusted, his frown deepened. “And did the woman in question have any say in all of this?!” He yelled. Jenkins shrank back. “We did not think she needed to have a say. The old bastard owes me a thousand dollars. Won that money fair and square playing cards.” For a second, Matthew considered punching Jenkins in the face and taking pleasure in watching him bleed. He imagined the drunken fool forcing the poor girl into marriage with him. No doubt Jenkins would be abusive toward her as well once they were married. He suddenly felt sorry for her. Whoever she was, she did not deserve a husband like Jenkins, or a father willing to hand her over to a man like Jenkins. He wished he could help her. He wished he could pay her debts, and hand her over to her father. He would most likely give her over to another vile man in order to settle some more debts. No, he shook his head. Even if he could help her, he could not give her back to her father and run the risk of the same thing reoccurring. Perhaps there was another way? Marry her.4 A slight frown claimed his face as the thought entered into his mind. It seemed like a good idea; he could marry her, thereby saving her from her father, and Jenkins. Marrying her would also solve the problem of trying to find a wife. It would force his father to hand his inheritance over to him.5 Still, he knew nothing about her. He couldn't marry a complete stranger, could he? Sighing, his frown deepened. He knew he had less than a week to get married which also meant that he didn't have the luxury of time to court the woman he would marry. His plan seemed like a good idea, except for the very glaring issue of Jenkins. Would Jenkins hand his intended bride over to Matthew just like that? “All of you,” he raised his voice so that the gathering of men on the field could hear him. “Get back to work.” Surprised gasps followed his words, but the men eventually began to break from the circle, and walk away. When Jenkins rose to his feet and made to leave, Matthew stopped him. “A word,” Jenkins's countenance fell, but he nodded solemnly. “I will forgive your crime against me,” Matthew began once he was standing on the field alone with Jenkins. “In exchange for the woman you intend to marry.”

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