1) A Letter from Ambrose
I was expecting my weekly letter from Ambrose, so I hovered around the hotel check-in desk, whisking my feather duster over knickknacks, sneaking looks at my sister Cordelia while she sorted the mail. Slowly, methodically, she organized the letters in stacks—the regular boarders’, Grandma’s, Aunt Hannah’s, and business mail addressed to the hotel—and slid them into the row of cubbyholes behind the desk. Cordelia was being her usual spiteful self, making me wait because our brother addressed his letters to me instead of her, the older sister.
She frowned and studied the address on a small, letter-sized package about an inch thick. “For you,” she said, holding out the parcel.
I dropped the duster and grabbed the package from her hand. “It’s from Ambrose!”
My fingernails clawed at the sealed wrapping. When at last I worked through the outer paper, something thudded to the floor. I picked up the hard, flat object and unfolded the paper around it.
“A twenty dollar gold piece!” I scanned the letter. “Pa wants me home. I’m to go on the next stage. This money is for my fare and whatever else I need.” My deepest wish had at last come true. “I’m going home!”
My little sisters, Jennie and Ella, rushed in, their braids bouncing, and looked up at me, their brown eyes shining with excitement.
“What about us?” Ella, the nine-year-old, asked. “Do we get to go home, too?”
“Not now, but Ambrose says if I do a good job and prove I can take care of the house and you, too, Pa will send for you.”
Ella ducked her head and squeezed seven-year-old Jennie’s hand. “We’ll never get to go. Pa thinks we’re too much trouble.”
“That’s not it. He just wants to make sure I can take proper care of the house and you girls.” I smiled and patted Ella’s shoulder. “It won’t take long for me to show Pa how much I’ve learned in the past four years about doing woman’s work.” Unable to contain my excitement, I waved my hands, shooing my little sisters from the room. “You girls go find Aunt Hannah. I have to tell her I’m leaving and start packing.”
“We’ll get her,” Jennie said.
The two girls whirled and ran from the room, shouting, “Aunt Hannah, Aunt Hannah, come hear the news.”
Cordelia’s mouth was a straight line of disapproval as she fiddled with the pen, ink bottle and ledger on the check-in desk. “No need to hurry with the packing. There’s not a stage heading west for two days.”
Irritated by the implied criticism, I snapped, “I’m not a last-minute person. I plan what I do.”
Cordelia was impulsive, changing from one minute to the next, acting on whims without thinking of how she affected others. Running away and leaving me, only nine years old at the time, alone to care for our sick mother was one of those actions I could never forgive. Maybe Ma would have lived if Cordelia hadn’t taken off when she did.
Aunt Hannah’s voice mingled with my little sisters’ as they emerged from the hallway. Stopping in front of me, she tilted her head and frowned, her eyes narrowing. “What’s this about you going home?”
I held up the paper and gold coin. “Ambrose said to come on the next stage. Pa sent twenty dollars to pay my way.” I cast Cordelia a sour look before continuing to speak to Aunt Hannah. “I know you don’t like Pa. He doesn’t like you, either. But he’s my pa, and I’m going, so there’s no sense in you trying to argue me out of it.” I headed for the door. “Ella. Jennie. Want to help me pack?”
My little sisters raced after me as I stamped up the stairs, leaving my sister and my aunt to mull over their misgivings without my presence.
2) What Lucy Doesn’t Remember
Aunt Hannah and I exchanged concerned glances as my little sisters left the room. Lucy’s dream had come true. Hiram, her pa, wanted her to come home. Hiram was my stepfather, the meanest man I’d ever known. He’d treated me like dirt and worse, and he hadn’t been much nicer to his own flesh-and-blood daughters. Why didn’t Lucy remember the countless times he’d yelled at Ma, ranting about how all the boy babies except Ambrose had miscarried or died at birth or shortly after? Over and over, he’d complained he was cursed with girls when he needed sons. What good were daughters who couldn’t carry on his last name? He’d barely said goodbye to my sisters when Aunt Hannah was leaving with us the day of Ma’s funeral.
In spite of all the negative things Lucy must have heard come out of his mouth, she still believed her pa loved her. She blamed me for Ma dying because I ran away to get Aunt Hannah’s help and left Lucy to care for the family. That is what she’d been referring to when she’d said, “I’m not a last-minute person. I plan what I do.” I was spur-of-the-moment to her. It wouldn’t do any good to tell her I’d agonized over whether to run away for a month before I actually did it, and I wouldn’t have gone at all except for the lecherous looks Hiram began giving me—but I’d never told her about those. She wouldn’t have believed me anyway.
I sighed. “Why doesn’t she remember what Hiram is really like, how he considers daughters worthless?”
“I don’t know,” Aunt Hannah said, “but there’s nothing we can say that will change her mind.” She crossed to the window and stared out at the busy street as though she might find answers there. “If we try to tell her what to expect, she’ll just say we’re meddling and be mad at us. We can’t keep her from going, but I don’t want her traveling alone. She’s only thirteen.” She glanced at me, her lips forming a tight smile. “I suppose I’m being overprotective. You made the trip alone at that age. I guess I’ll have to leave the hotel in your hands and take her.”
On impulse, I said, “I can go instead.”
“You? Why would you want to go anywhere near Hiram after the way he treated you?”
“Ever since Mr. O’Rourke came through last week with news of my father maybe being out by Pikes Peak looking for gold, I’ve thought of trying to find him. I keep going back and forth between yes and no, but I need to find out if he ever realized I existed, and if he did, why he didn’t try to see me. I’m being stupid, but I—”
She stepped away from the window and put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s not stupid to wonder, Cordelia.”
“All this talk about my sisters’ father wanting them, even when I’m certain it’s not because he really cares for them, makes me want to learn more about mine.” I bit my lip. “The stage that stops in Hidden Springs leaves immediately for Junction City and meets up with the new Pikes Peak Express that goes on to Denver City. I wouldn’t have to see Hiram at all—or at least not for more than a few minutes—if he meets the stage—and he probably won’t.”
“How do you know so much about the stage routes?”
“I checked after Mr. O’Rourke said my father might be in the Denver area. Then I decided I wouldn’t go. But now, with Lucy needing a chaperone, well, it seems like the right thing to do.” I sighed. “I’d best go talk to her and try to make peace or it will be a long stage ride.”
“Good luck,” Aunt Hannah called after me as I left the lobby.
When I reached Lucy’s room, the door was open. She was tossing dresses onto the foot of her bed. Ella and Jennie were perched at the head, each with a pillow wrapped in her arms.
Ella pointed to a blue calico. “Take that one. You look so pretty in it.”
Jennie asked, “How long before we can come?”
Lucy folded the blue dress neatly. “I don’t know. I’ll ask Pa when I get there.”
I knocked on the open door. “Lucy, may I come in?”
Her back stiffened. “I told you I’m going. There’s nothing you can say to stop me.”
She had not invited me in, so I stayed put. “I just came to tell you Aunt Hannah doesn’t want you traveling alone, so I’m escorting you to Hidden Springs.”
She whirled to face me. “Why? What trouble do you plan to cause?”
I shook my head. “No trouble. I won’t even see your pa or Ambrose unless they meet the stage. I will be continuing on to Denver City.”
She flounced to the dresser and removed another frock from the drawer. "Denver City? What's there?" She held the dress in front of her, shaking out the folds, pressing it to her and looking in the mirror before laying it on the bed.
“I have business there.”
She faced me again, her eyes narrowing. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what your business is?”
“So why are you here?”
I sighed. I was no good at peacemaking. “Only to tell you we’ll be traveling together.”
She straightened, and her chin came up. “Well, now I know.”
Amazing how a younger sister can dismiss an older one.
3) What She Knew
I folded the green, linsey-woolsey frock I had chosen for wearing around the house to do chores in and added it to the pile of clothing to take to Hidden Springs, my mind on Cordelia and the way she was always badmouthing Pa. She hated him so much she probably considered his wanting me home the worst news she’d had in a long time.
When Cordelia had run away, Ma got even sicker than she already was, worrying about her safety and about who would take care of the family with Cordelia gone. I did my best, but I didn’t even know how to make bread, so Ma couldn’t stay in bed like Doc Sloan said she should. Instead, she shuffled to the rocker and guided me through each step. I was too small to take over Cordelia’s laundry job with Mrs. Collins at the boarding house, so we didn’t have that money. Plus, I couldn’t keep up with all the home laundry and gardening chores. Jennie had been three and Ella five, young enough I had to watch out for them besides doing all my chores.
Then Pa got beat up by the slave hunters, his ribs broken and his chest branded with a horseshoe he’d been making. After that, Ambrose taught me to milk the cow so he could work more hours at the blacksmith shop.
Getting to know Ambrose better was the only good part about Cordelia being gone. She always said Ambrose was Pa’s favorite because he was a boy, and Pa didn’t like us because we were girls. Pa sometimes said mean things, mostly to Cordelia because she wasn’t his. We never said anything to anyone outside the family, but at home, we all knew.
I used to look up to my sister. That was when we all called her Delia. I thought she was strong and smart and good. I thought she loved us. But I found out she was jealous. She didn’t have a father, and we did. When she ran away, I had my first chance to spend time with my brother alone and find out he wasn’t the stuck-up, better-than-the-rest-of-you person she always said he was.
“Lucy.” Ella tugged my sleeve. “I’m talking to you, Lucy.”
I straightened and blinked. “I’m sorry. I was thinking.”
“About what?” Jennie asked.
“About the stone house Ambrose built. I finally get to see what it looks like. And when I show Pa how good I am at keeping house, he’s going to send for you, and we’ll all be together again.”
“Except for Cordelia.” Ella’s forehead wrinkled. “Why’s she taking you home when she doesn’t want you to go? And why’s she going to Denver City?”
“She’s not telling,” I said.
But I knew.
Aunt Hannah’s friend, a traveling photographer, had come through a week or so ago and said someone named Miz Wilma had told him Justin Quinn, Cordelia’s real father, might be somewhere near Pikes Peak panning for gold. She hadn’t gone to look for him then, but she was now. She was jealous because I had a father who wanted me, and she didn’t.
The next afternoon, clutching my borrowed copy of Godey’s Lady’s Book, I stood outside a small room at the back of the church where the women’s Bible study group met, waiting for the meeting to break up so I could return the magazine and tell my aunts that Pa had sent for me. Aunt Hilda was the minister’s wife, so she led the study, and Aunt May attended because she was the banker’s wife. Supporting the church was expected of someone with her position in society.
Physically, my aunts had a strong family resemblance. May, Hilda, and Hannah were all tall and blonde with blue eyes. It was their petticoats that set them apart. Aunt Hannah never wore more than four, and her skirts hung embarrassingly straight. Aunt Hilda usually donned six for an acceptable fullness. Aunt May dressed in nine petticoats that rustled and held out her skirts in a fashionable, almost perfect, bell shape, befitting her social position.
At four o’clock, Aunt Hilda led a prayer to close the meeting. After the “amen,” women began drifting toward the door, chatting on their way. I got my first clear view of Aunt May’s new gown as she stood to leave. The dress had no collar, leaving Aunt May’s entire neck exposed, and her skirt was a perfect bell, indicating that she had received the cage crinoline advertised in the issue of Godey’s I held in my hand. Aunt Hilda’s face held a sour look, and I wondered if Aunt May’s choice of neckline for church wear caused it.
Aunt May nodded at Aunt Hilda and came toward the door, so I moved out of the corner. “Aunt May.”
“Lucy, what are you doing here?”
“I came to tell you and Aunt Hilda my news.” I peeked around Aunt May’s shoulder to see Aunt Hilda accompanying Mrs. Baxter to the door. Both women seemed surprised to see me.
Mrs. Baxter nodded and left.
Aunt Hilda tilted her head. “What is it, Lucy?”
“Can we sit?” I pointed at the recently vacated chairs.
“Of course,” Aunt Hilda said.
She stepped back into the room, and I followed with Aunt May. When we were seated, I pulled Ambrose’s letter from my pocket. “I’m going home.”
Aunt May snatched the paper from my hand and unfolded it. After a quick scan of the contents, she said, “Finally, your father has gotten some sense. It’s about time he got you away from Hannah’s influence with all her suffragette talk.”
“She doesn’t want me to go,” I said.
Aunt Hilda, her mouth pursed, grabbed the letter from Aunt May, clearly aggravated that Aunt May had read it first. Aunt Hilda put on the spectacles that hung from a chain around her neck and began reading. When she finished, she folded the letter and handed it to me.
“Regardless of what Hannah wants or says, she has no right to keep you from your father. Remember the Bible commands you to honor your father and mother.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “So I came to tell you I’m leaving on tomorrow’s stage. Cordelia is accompanying me to Hidden Springs.”
Both of my aunts scowled. While they disagreed on many things, their contempt for Cordelia was not one of them.
“Watch out for that one,” Aunt May said.
The next morning, Aunts Hilda and May stood with me and my little sisters on the wood plank walk in front of the stage station. Aunt Hannah and Cordelia huddled off to one side, whispering, probably badmouthing my pa like they always did.
Aunt Hilda threw them a frown. “Never mind their nonsense,” she said. “Your pa needs you.”
Jennie and Ella wrapped their arms around me. Jennie tilted her head back and looked up, brown eyes sad. “We want to go, too. We miss Ambrose. He used to play with us.”
I wondered how much they remembered about our family in Hidden Springs. I touched the locket I wore, the one containing a few strands of Ma’s hair. Aunt Hannah had bought each of us girls one, saying the snippets of Ma’s hair would keep her close to us. But she hadn’t given us anything to keep Pa or Ambrose close. Instead, she’d whisked us girls away as soon as Ma’s funeral was over with barely a chance to say goodbye. I had thought we were visiting for a few weeks, maybe until Pa’s ribs and the burn he’d gotten from being beaten by the border ruffians had healed. But Aunt Hannah had meant to keep us forever—or at least until Pa got around to asking for us.
Now he wanted me, and Aunt Hannah thought I shouldn’t go. But he was my pa, so I didn’t have a choice. Even if I’d had one, I’d still want a home with Pa over life with my aunts in Westport.
The stagecoach rattled down the street and came to a stop.
“Time to leave,” Aunt May said. “You’ll write, of course.” She hugged me. “Have a good trip.”
“Goodbye, Lucy,” Ella said, tears in her eyes.
I received a quick embrace from Aunt Hilda and then bent to hug each of my little sisters. “Goodbye.” It was hard to keep from tearing up. I couldn’t imagine a reason to return to Westport, so I wouldn’t see them again until they came to live in Hidden Springs, something I knew Aunt Hannah would try to prevent.
Aunt Hannah came to say goodbye then, enfolding me in her arms and pressing her lips next to my ear. “If life with your father doesn’t work out the way you imagine, you can always come back.”
“Thank you,” I said, rigid in her arms.
Cordelia and I climbed into the coach. A man and woman occupied the bench seat at the other end, and neither my sister nor I wanted the center seat, so we sat beside each other. The driver cracked his whip and yelled for the horses to get going.
Cordelia leaned in and whispered, “Your pa’s not the person you think he is.”
I boiled over, snapping at her. “What do you know about fathers? Why don’t you want me to be with mine when you’re going off to find a man you’ve never met, who never even wanted you?” I looked up and met our travelling companions’ widened eyes.
Cordelia’s cheeks flushed. She wanted to tell me off, but unlike me, she had good manners. She turned her face to the window, so all I could see was the back of her bonnet, shutting me out the way she did whenever I said something she didn’t like.
Realizing I’d made our travelling companions uncomfortable, I gazed out my own window, imagining what Cordelia would have said if she’d been rude enough to tell me what she thought in front of strangers. She’d say, “Remember how Hiram didn’t even look at you girls when you said goodbye to him. He didn’t care that his daughters were leaving because he still had Ambrose, his only son, the only child who mattered to him.”
She was right about what happened, but not about why. I’d played that scene over in my mind hundreds of times. Pa had just buried Ma and yet another baby. He was in pain from broken ribs and a horrible burn. He’d agreed we should go with Aunt Hannah before Ma died, and he was too full of grief to stop her from taking us.
I closed my eyes and imagined my homecoming. Ambrose would come for me in a wagon and drive me to our new house where Pa would be waiting. His face would light up in a big smile when he saw me, and he’d say how grown up I was and how glad he was to have me home where I belonged. I’d fix us a meal of ham and mashed potatoes and peas, and he’d say I’d become a fine cook and some man would be lucky to marry me someday. I was almost glad my little sisters hadn’t come with me. For a little while, I could shine as the only daughter in Pa’s house.
4) Close Quarters
We spent the night in Lawrence and were up early to board the stage to Topeka. Lucy was still mad at me. Thankfully, Lawrence had been the destination of the passengers she had blurted out my business in front of, so I didn’t have to stare across the coach at them. We arrived at the stage and boarded first. Soon, two miners in a rush to the gold fields and a priest on his way to St. Marys joined us.
The miners clearly considered themselves men although they were boys about my age—somewhere between sixteen and twenty—old enough to shave although they hadn’t, leaving a rough smattering of short stubble on their chins. The odor of last night’s whisky and stale perfume lingered on them.
The first one in lit up at the sight of Lucy and shoved himself onto the bench beside her, squeezing into the small space, his legs brushing hers and his buttocks shoving her over as he settled in.
I leaned forward, looked straight at him, and gave him my best glare, wanting to tell him Lucy was only thirteen, and he needed to leave children alone. I held my tongue because I knew what Lucy’s reaction would be. She thought that because she was a head taller than I, with a full head of shiny black hair and bosoms that strained against the bodice of her dress, she was an adult and had some sense.
The other man frowned as he entered and saw no more room on our bench for him. He settled on the middle seat opposite his companion. The somewhat rotund priest behind him settled on the back seat and folded his arms across his chest, his stomach providing a resting place for his ample arms. He fixed disapproving gray eyes on the man beside Lucy, who still shifted in his seat, ostensibly looking for a comfortable position but actually taking advantage of the excuse to bump against Lucy’s loins.
“’Scuse me,” the squirmer mumbled. He bent forward, looking around Lucy to me. “Would you mind moving down aways?”
Lucy shot me a sideways glance. I thought seriously of moving to the middle seat, but there was nothing but a strap to hold onto to keep me from flying into someone’s lap, something I found repulsive, so I scooted another inch and pressed against my side of the coach. Lucy smashed up against me.
The brazen young man smiled, leaned against the back wall of the coach, and flung an arm behind Lucy. “There now,” he said, “it’s right comfy. Don’t you think so, Miss—?”
“Miss Pierce,” Lucy replied.
He flashed another smile and blinked his long-lashed blue eyes at her. “Bob Sims.” He stuck out his hand, taking hers up right out of her lap. “Pleased to meet you.”
Lucy looked startled, but she didn’t pull away.
Bob must have felt encouraged when she didn’t jerk her hand back. “We’re going all the way to Pikes Peak and the gold fields. My pa’s already staked a claim and bringing in fifty or sixty dollars a day, sometimes more.”
The other man frowned. “We’re not supposed to be spreading that news around, Bob.”
“Damn it, Scott, you’re just jealous because I’m sitting over here by the pretty one.” He glanced at the priest. “’Scuse me, Father.”
The priest’s eyes hooded. “You are not excused until you show proper respect to these young ladies. Let go of the girl’s hand and behave properly in the company of women.”
Bob release Lucy’s hand. “Never meant to offend, Father.” He moved to the side of the coach as far as the small seat would allow.
At that moment, the driver cracked the whip, and the horses took off, leaving all of us bouncing up and thumping down on our bottoms.
We were off.
5) A Sour Sister
Between the priest and Cordelia, it was going to be a boring trip. Of course, I couldn’t blame the priest; he was just doing what priests do. But Cordelia sat there all sour and hateful. No wonder. Bob and Scott had made it clear they thought I was the prettier one. When Cordelia had run away four years ago, she had passed for a boy. She still could. She had practically no bosoms at all.
I could have had a beau by now if my aunts weren’t so strict. Me being too young to keep company with someone was the only thing they agreed on. As for Cordelia, she would probably end up an old maid like Aunt Hannah. Both of them saw men as the enemy and went to all those suffragette meetings, messing in politics, something both Aunt May and Aunt Hilda said was unladylike and beyond a woman’s sphere.
Beside me, Bob’s leg slid over and touched mine. I shifted away as much as I could, glad the six petticoats I wore put some distance between our limbs. I had wanted to wear nine like Aunt May, but Cordelia and Aunt Hannah objected, saying space in a stagecoach was limited.
“So where are you ladies headed?” Bob asked.
“Hidden Springs,” I answered. “But Cordelia’s going on to Denver City.”
Cordelia elbowed my ribs.
Scott’s eyebrows shot up. “What’s in Denver City?”
“A sick friend,” Cordelia said.
“Really?” I asked, the story being new to me. “Who?”
She crossed her arms and stiffened her back. “Miz Wilma, if you must know. She’s laid up with a broken leg.”
The coach hit a bump. Bob fell against me, then brushed a hand across my waist as he straightened. “And Hidden Springs? What’s there?”
“Her father,” Cordelia snapped. “A big, burly blacksmith who will break you in half if you dare come near his daughter. He expects her to marry well, and your life is in danger if you do anything to jeopardize that.”
“Cordelia,” I said, “that’s the first good word you’ve had to say about Pa.”
She looked at me, frowned, and showed me the back of her bonnet again.
We reached Topeka at sunset.
The driver opened the stage door, helped us down, and pointed to a hotel across the street. “Best place for a room if you want one. We’ll be leaving out of here for Junction City at three in the morning. Don’t be late. We got a schedule to keep. We won’t wait.”
Cordelia eyed our two heavy trunks stowed on top of the stage. “Will our trunks be safe if we leave them on the stage? We have our necessaries in my bag.”
“Yes, but like I said, three in the morning.”
“We’ll be here,” she replied.
I followed Cordelia to the hotel. After securing accommodations, we went to the dining room for a meal of beef stew and biscuits. After our meal, Cordelia left word at the desk to rouse us a two o’clock, so we could prepare to meet the stage.
Once in our room, my sister laid aside her bonnet and loosened the bodice of her dress. “You shouldn’t be leading on men like those two miners.”
“What’s the harm in a little flirting? I’m getting off the stage tomorrow.”
“That’s nice for you, but I may have to put up with them all the way to Denver City, and your actions lead them to think they can be familiar.”
Exasperated, I took off all my petticoats and draped them over a chair back. “As sour as you’ve been, I can’t imagine anyone even speaking to you.”
She rolled her eyes.
Wearing our chemises for nightdresses, we got into bed, turned our backs to each other, and didn’t say another word.