“This moving novel will captivate you.”—Buzzfeed.com
All Samantha wanted was to move back to New York and pursue her music, which was difficult enough being a Chinese girl in Missouri, 1849. Then her fate takes a turn for the worse after a tragic accident leaves her with nothing and she breaks the law in self-defense. With help from Annamae, a runaway slave she met at the scene of her crime, the two flee town for the unknown frontier.
But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls. Disguised as Sammy and Andy, two boys heading for the California gold rush, each search for a link to their past and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. Until they merge paths with a band of cowboys turned allies, and Samantha can’t stop herself from falling for one. But the law is closing in on them and new setbacks come each day, and the girls will quickly learn there are not many places one can hide on the open trail.
Winner of the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award
An ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Pick
An Amelia Bloomer Book
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
THEY SAY DEATH AIMS ONLY ONCE AND NEVER misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike with a scrubbing brush. Now his face wears the mask of surprise that sometimes accompanies death: his eyes bulge, carp-like, and his mouth curves around a profanity.
Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder? For me, it probably does. The law in Missouri in this year of our Lord 1849 does not sympathize with a Chinaman’s daughter.
I shake out my hand but can’t let go of the scrubbing brush. Not until I see the blood speckling my arm. Gasping, I drop the brush. It clatters on the cold, wet tile beside the dead man’s head. An owl cries outside, and a clock chimes nine times.
My mind wheels back to twelve hours ago, before the world turned on its head . . .
• • •
Nine o’clock this morning: I strapped on the Lady Tin-Yin’s violin case and glared at my father, who was holding a conch shell to his ear. I thought it was pretty when I bought it from the curiosity shop back in New York. But ever since he began listening to it every morning and every evening, just to hear the ocean, I’ve wanted to smash it.
He put the shell down on the cutting table, then unfolded a bolt of calico. Our store, the Whistle, was already open but no one was clamoring for dry goods just yet.
The floor creaked as I swept by the sacks of coffee stamped with the word Whistle and headed straight for the candy. Father was cutting the fabric in the measured way he did everything. Snip. Snip.
Noisily, I stuffed a tin of peppermints into my case for the children’s lessons, then proceeded to the door. Unlike Father, I kept my promises. If a student played his scales correctly, I rewarded him with a peppermint. Never would I snatch the sweet out of his mouth and replace it with, say, cod-liver oil. Never.
My feet slowed at my name.
“Don’t forget your shawl.” Snip.
I considered leaving without it so I wouldn’t ruin my exit. But then people would stare even more than they usually did. I returned to our cramped living quarters in the back of the store and snatched the woolen bundle from a basket. Underneath my shawl, Father had hidden a plate of don tot for me to find, covered by a thin layer of parchment. I lifted off the parchment. Five custard tarts like miniature sunflowers shone up at me. He must have woken extra early to make them because he knew I’d still be mad.
I took the plate and the shawl and returned to the front of the shop. “You said we’d move back to New York, not two thousand miles the other way.” New York had culture. With luck, I might even make a living as a musician there.
His scissors paused. When he finally looked up at me, I raised my gaze by a fraction. His neatly combed hair had more white than I remembered.
“I said one day,” he returned evenly. “One day.” Then his tone lightened. “They say the Pacific Ocean’s so calm, you could mistake it for the sky. We’d see so many new animals. Dolphins, whales longer than a city block, maybe even a mermaid.” His eyes twinkled.
“I’m not a child anymore.” Only two months from sixteen.
“Just so.” He frowned and returned to his cutting. Then he cleared his throat. “I have great plans for us. Mr. Trask and I—”
Mr. Trask again. I set the plate down on the cutting table, and one of the fragile custards broke. Father lifted an eyebrow.
“Only men who want to pound rocks go to California,” I snapped. “It’s rocks and nothing.”
“California’s not the moon.”
“It is to me.” Though I knew I shouldn’t claim the last word, I couldn’t help it. I was born in the Year of the Snake after all, 1833. Father looked at me with sad but forgiving eyes. My anger slipped a fraction. With a sigh, I carefully scooped the broken tart off the plate and left the shop.
• • •
Five o’clock: Keeping my chin tucked in, I hurried down the road, kicking up dust around my skirts. The smell of smoke was especially robust tonight. Maybe the smokehouse had burned the meats again. The boys who worked there were not particularly gifted, plus they were mean. I already knew they would overcharge us for the salt pork we’d need for the trek west, and Father would have no choice but to pay.
I marched past uneven blocks of mismatched buildings, longing for the orderly streets of New York City. There were actual sidewalks there, and the air always smelled like sea brine and hot bread, unlike St. Joe, which reeked of garbage and smoke and—
I lifted my head. The sky had thickened to a hazy gray, textured with particles . . . like ash? Something sour rose in my throat.
It was not the smokehouse meat that was burning.
I ran, my violin bouncing against my back.
Oh please, God, no.
I flew past empty streets and turned onto Main, where suddenly there were too many people, some standing like cattle, others clutching squirming children to them. Noise assaulted me from all sides, people yelling, animals braying, and my own ragged breath.
The Whistle was a charred heap, an ugly inkblot against the dusky sky. The heat made the air look wavy, but the bitter reek in my nose told me the scene was no mirage. Ashes fluttered like black snowflakes all around.
“Father!” I pounded toward the remains, scanning the area for his distinctive figure. His dark hair and small build. The worn jacket with the patches on the elbows that he wouldn’t replace because he was saving for my future. Maybe he had shed it, for surely he was hauling water along with the rest of the men.
Smoke filled my lungs, and burned my eyes as I rubbed my grimy fingers into them.
“Out of the way!” yelled a man carrying buckets. Water sloshed onto my skirt.
I trotted beside him as he carried the buckets to another man who threw them onto the smoldering ruins. “My father—”
The man barely glanced at me. “He’s gone.”
I uttered a hoarse cry. Gone?
“Lucky you weren’t there yourself or you’d have been trapped, too. Now move!” He trod on my foot as he shoved by, but I hardly felt it.
My God, I didn’t—I should have . . .
“How?” I asked no one in particular. Was it an accident? Father was the most careful person I knew. He always doused the stove after we used it, and strictly enforced our NO SMOKING PERMITTED signage. No, if it was an accident, it couldn’t have been Father’s.
Whoever was responsible, may he pay for it in a thousand ways, go blind in both eyes, deaf in both ears. Better yet, may he perish in hell.
I choked back a sob and tried to make sense of the fuming mess in front of me. There was nothing but jagged piles of charred fragments. I could make out a heap of ash in the spot where we kept our wooden safe. Though Mother’s bracelet was no longer inside, it had held other irreplaceable treasures. A photo of Mother. Father’s immigration papers.
A wall of heat stopped me from going closer than fifteen feet from our front door, or where it used to be. My eyes burned as I strained to find my father, still not quite believing the horror was real. But as the heat began to cook my skin, I knew as sure as the Kingdom hadn’t come that he was gone. My father burned alive.
I shuddered and then my chest began to rack so hard I could scarcely draw a breath. Smoke engulfed me, thick and unyielding, but the awful truth rooted me to the spot: after I’d given my last lesson of the day, I’d dawdled along the banks of the dirty Missouri, throwing stones instead of coming home directly. I should have been with him.
Oh, Father, I’m sorry I argued with you. I’m sorry I left with my nose in the air. Were you remembering that when the smoke robbed you of your last breath? You always said, Have patience in one moment of anger, and you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow. My temper has cost me a lifetime of sorrow. And now, I will never be able to ask your forgiveness, or see your kind face again.
Another man carrying buckets barreled toward me. “Move back, girl, you’re in the way!”
I stumbled toward an elm tree, and there I stood, even after the glowing hot spots had ceased to burn, and buckets were no longer emptied.
Still the black snow fell, bits of my life flaking down on me.
“SHE’S BEEN STANDING THERE OVER AN HOUR,” a man muttered to another as they passed by.
“Place just lit up,” said a woman from behind. “Everything burned, even the Chinaman.”
“They sold the Whistle to a Chinaman?” asked another woman.
My face flushed at her commenting on this rather than on Father’s death. We were never welcome here. Why should I expect people to care now, just because Father had died? I turned to glare at the two women, only now noticing the crowd that had gathered. The thick soup of smoke had thinned to a veil of black.
“Six months ago. Where you been? Well, that’s the chance you take when you operate a dry goods. Places like that are tinderboxes.” This first woman finally noticed me, my lips clamped tight and my eyes swollen. She elbowed her friend, then they hurried away.
Fly, you crows. My father was not a spectacle. He was the greatest man I ever knew. He was my everything.
I clutched at the elm tree before I fell over.
A child born in the Year of the Snake was lucky. But every so often, a Snake was born unlucky. Mother died in childbirth, a clear indication that my life would be unlucky. To counteract my misfortune, a blind fortune-teller told Father never to cut my hair, or bad luck would return. In addition, she said I should resist my Snake weaknesses, such as crying easily and needing to have the last word.
“’Tis a shame about your daddy,” said a familiar voice. Our landlord, Ty Yorkshire, shook his head. His puffed skin made him look older than my father, though they were both in their forties.
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
“My best building, too,” he said in his rapid speech that caused his jowls to shake. His left eye winked, the lashes fluttering like moth wings. “Sometimes you roll snake eyes.”
I gasped. He knew my Chinese lunar sign? It took me a moment to realize he was talking about gambling, not me.
“I gotta meet with some company men. You need a place to stay, wash that black off you. La Belle Hotel is one of mine. Betsy will get you a nice room.” He tipped the edge of his hat, then hailed two men.
I blinked at his departing back. Despite his kind offer, the man always made me uneasy. Maybe it was the way his black suits hung over his too-wide hips, reminding me of a spade. Father said spades represented greed, because the first Chinese coins bore that shape.
One of the onlookers covered her mouth and recoiled when she saw me. A man put a protective arm around her shoulders, like I was a wounded animal that might bite. I couldn’t blame him. I was unsure of my own reactions. The anger and horror poisoning my insides made every nerve sing in pain, made me want to scream, and weep. I was my violin bow, bent to the breaking point and on the verge of snapping in two.
But I did not snap. Instead, I shuffled toward Main, not even sure where I was going as I picked my way around horse pies.
Did he suffocate before the flames—?
I shook my head. I couldn’t bear to think of it.
My adopted French grandfather called Father his scholar. Father could predict the weather by listening to birdsong. Knew which plants healed and which poisoned. Spoke six languages. Tipped his hat to everyone, even Mrs. Whitecomb, who regularly pinched buttons from us.
The moist evening air licked at my face and bare arms. Somewhere I had lost my shawl.
To my right, a line of wagons led down to the Missouri River. The town of St. Joe squatted at the edge of the civilized world. Folks came here to jump into the great unknown, starting with a ferry ride across the dirty Missouri.
Into the great unknown was where the grocer Mr. Trask took Mother’s jade bracelet after Father inexplicably gave it to him. Now, nothing remained.
I pressed my violin case into my gut and stared at the river. The shimmering surface beckoned to me. I could be with Father, instead of in this unjust world, which never threw us more than a cold glance. With the strong undertow, death would be quick.
But Father would not want that.
Dazed, I stumbled away. My boot caught on a sandbag and this time I did fall, sending my case skittering in front of me.
“Look sharp!” yelled a young man from atop a horse. I covered my head with my arms. His sorrel stamped its print just inches from my head. White markings extended past its fetlocks like socks. The rider slowed.
“You okay, miss?” he asked in a soft but clear voice.
I nodded but didn’t look back. Father always said, He who gets up more than he falls, succeeds. I scrambled to collect my violin before another horse came along and trampled it. The rider moved on.
I found myself staring up at La Belle Hotel, whose pink walls set it apart from its drab neighbors. Up close, I noticed the dirt overlaying the paint. Father and I avoided this street because he said the uneven surface brought bad energy. But I had nowhere else to go.
I swung open the heavy door. Behind an elaborately carved walnut counter, a woman in bright taffeta lifted her shriveled face to me. “Yes?”
“Good evening, ma’am,” I said in a shaky voice. “I’m Samantha Young. Mr. Yorkshire said I might find accommodation here.”
“Good Lord,” she muttered, thin nose twitching like a mouse’s.
Her cane dragged along the floor as she hobbled toward me, shhh, tap, shhh, tap. She raked a contemptuous eye across my face and down to my worn boots. After an eternal pause, she said, “Annamae, bring Miss Young up to room 2A and scrub her down.”
A girl my age appeared in the doorway behind the staircase, skin the shade of pecans. She didn’t wear chains, but the brand on her forearm gave her away: a square with six dots, raised like icing piped onto her skin. If it was possible to feel any sicker, I did. Negroes walked tall and free in New York. I wished for the hundredth time we’d never left.
“Miss Betsy, ma’am?” said Annamae in a quiet voice.
The old woman squinted, as if the sight of Annamae talking displeased her.
“Thought you wanted me to pick up the linens from the launderer tonight, like I always do. I was just on my way.” Annamae pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders and slanted her heart-shaped face toward the main door.
“Well, I’ve changed my mind, and how dare you question me.” Miss Betsy’s voice sliced through the air. “Now do as I ask, and don’t be slow about it.” She threw a hand at the girl as if to strike her, but Annamae was just out of reach.
Annamae regarded me with her deeply inset eyes. Chinese people believe that eyes like those indicate an analytical, practical mind. The look she gave me was not unkind, but there was a spark of something there—anger?—that compounded the guilt I was already feeling. With a last glance at the door, Annamae bowed her head and placed her hand on the banister. One by one, she ascended the stairs, as if every step were a labor. I plodded after her uniformed figure, keeping my eyes fixed on the cheerful pink bow of her apron.
Room 2A was grander than I thought could exist in St. Joe, with a slipper tub set at the foot of a feather bed. But the opulence sat like raw chicory on my tongue. I wanted to be back with Father, picking apart the Paganini concerto. Taking nature walks with our copy of Fowler’s Flora.
Annamae filled the tub. A thick-handled brush and a cake of soap waited on a side table. The brush looked big enough to scrub a horse. Annamae finished pouring the water while I stuck to the wall and hugged myself.
“You’s grimy. Get in,” she said. A moment later, the door closed. She was gone.
Maybe I wouldn’t be scrubbed down. I peeled off my dress with the tiny flowers, washed so many times the color had disappeared. It was sticky with sweat and reeked of smoke.
I stepped into the water, lowering myself carefully. The bath smelled of lavender. This was the first tub I’d sat in since coming to St. Joe, but all I could think about was whether it was deep enough to drown in.
Oh, Father! How could you leave me behind? I could not even bury you like you deserved. What a disgrace of a daughter. I’m sorry.I should’ve been there, shouldn’t have taken the last word.
I submerged my head and counted . . . Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight . . .
SOMEONE PULLED ME UP BY THE BACK OF MY NECK.
Annamae peered down at me as I sucked in air. “You can’t kill you’self like that. It don’t work. I tried.”
I gaped at her. Ignoring me, she stretched her lean body over mine to unwind the two buns on top of my head. Her own hair was cropped short, accenting the swan-like curve of her neck.
She wiggled her fingers to loosen my tresses. I wanted to tell her not to scrub me down, but when she started kneading my scalp, I forgot.
“God makes our bodies want to live, no matter what our minds want to do,” she stated in a quiet, deep voice. Her face was more handsome than beautiful, with strong cheekbones, a narrow chin, and clear eyes that didn’t wander. She must have been born in the Year of the Dragon, since she looked about a year older than me and held herself with a certain quiet dignity. Father said you could spot Dragons a mile away because all heads turned their way.
Annamae poured the rinse water over my hair, then picked up the wooden brush. The bristles scratched my skin, but she didn’t scrub hard.
“Now why you want to kill you’self?” Her sympathy broke me.
“I got home too late,” I sobbed. “The place was ashes. My father died. He was everything to me.”
The brush stopped for a moment. “I’m real sorry about that. I know the hurt you’s feeling. Like you want to disappear into the nearest rabbit hole and never come out.” She took my hand and gently ran the bristles under my fingernails. “He the one gave you that fiddle?” She nodded at the Lady Tin-Yin.
“That means he believed in you. Only men play the fiddle.”
I stared at her. It was true that most folks considered the violin too difficult for a woman to master, but, as with teaching me the Classics, Father never gave it a second thought.
She helped me out of the tub and handed me a robe. “I’ll fetch some tea.” Out she breezed, taking my soiled dress with her.
Not two minutes later, the door opened again. I thought it was Annamae, and jumped when our landlord Ty Yorkshire appeared in the door frame. Though he stood just a few inches taller than my five-foot-three height, his presence filled the room like the scent of bitter almonds.
“I’m not dressed,” I cried, pulling the robe more snugly around me.
“Had a good chat with the sheriff.” Slowly, he rubbed his thick hands together.
He stepped closer and I backed away. My skin broke out in gooseflesh.
“No point in filing charges for negligence against a dead man.” He turned to hang his hat on one of the wall hooks.
“Negligence?” If there was negligence, it wasn’t ours.
“’Course, fires are expensive. Someone’s gotta ante up. Not easy to insure a wood building like that, but I can be very convincing.” He waved at the bed. “Let’s sit down.” The bed groaned as he made himself comfortable.
“It’s not proper for you to be here. I’m not decent.”
“Doesn’t bother me.” He patted the spot beside him, his manner friendly and almost cheerful. “I really should get some chairs in here.”
When I still didn’t sit, he added, “All I want to do is talk a little business with you. It troubles me to see your poor situation, and I would like to help. But we can’t do business if we don’t trust each other, can we?”
I may not have liked him, but he did lease us the Whistle, even installed a new window when we complained about the draft. But what could he want from me, I wondered. Not violin lessons.
I perched on one corner of the bed, keeping my distance.
To my surprise, he stood and took two steps back to the wall hooks. I thought he was going to take his hat and leave, but instead, he unstrapped his gun belt and hung it next to his hat. “Wearing a piece when talking to a lady is just disrespectful.” Then he shrugged off his black coat, spun of the finest wool, and hung it as well. “You got any family around? Anyone to look after you?”
I shook my head.
The bed sank as he reseated himself. An oily smile spread across his face. “That’s what I thought.”
His moth eye started winking again, picking up speed with every beat. It might have flown right out of his head. “So here’s what I propose. Out of respect for your dearly departed father, I would like to offer you room and board here. In exchange, you will provide services.”
I stiffened. “Services?”
“Silken hair, ivory skin, eyes like a cat. Eyes that tell a man to come in and shut the door,” he hissed out of the spaces between his teeth. His bulbous nose twitched as he sniffed once, twice.
Dear God, what now? I stood abruptly, casting around for a way out. There was only the door and the window.
He stood, too, blocking the path to the door. “Men will pay dearly for the pleasure of a woman’s company. I already got a Spaniard, an Injun, and two Negresses. An exotic number like yourself could augment my fine stable. The Lily of the East, we’d call you. Bet you’d fetch more than the lot of them, maybe five dollars an evening. You can wear pretty dresses, take baths. You’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you, Sammy?”
Only Father called me Sammy. My face burned at the unwelcome familiarity.
A too-warm breeze blew through the open window and rumpled the back of my hair. I could end things right now. Step out the window like Ophelia, who fell out of a willow tree after Hamlet killed her father. Two stories was about the height of a willow.
I kept him talking. “Why would I do that?”
He shrugged. “You got no choice. No money, nobody to look after you. You think the pittance you earn from those violin lessons will keep you? This way, the only thing you’d have to lift is your, well . . . ” His eyes skipped to my lower half. “It’ll help pay your debts.”
“What debts?” I tried to still the tremor in my voice.
“A fire like that could’ve been started by that stove you kept, against building code for a dry goods.” His voice oozed like ointment.
I stepped to one side, wishing to squeeze past him and the tub to reach the door. He shifted as well, blocking me again. “A glimpse of a lady’s ankle is like the first sip of wine. Makes you thirsty for the whole bottle. Now before we make any formal agreement, I’d like to test the goods.”
“Stay away from—” I began, but quick as a striking adder, he clamped one hand over my mouth and the other on the back of my head. I clawed at him, trying to scream, but he squeezed harder, smashing my lips into my teeth . I tasted blood.
“Scream all you want. Ain’t no one here going to rescue you. I pay handsomely, see.”
He shoved me backward onto the bed. My head recoiled off the mattress when I landed. Looking wildly around for salvation, I spotted the scrubbing brush on the side table. When he looked down to undo his trousers, I reached over and closed my fingers around the handle.
Scrambling up, I swung it hard against the side of his head. My leverage was not good, but he yelped and grabbed my throat.
“Whore!” he spat.
Wasting no time, I brought the brush up again and clubbed him in the face, causing blood to spurt from his nostrils. He jerked back to avoid another blow, but the movement threw him off balance and he slipped. His arms flailed, but his feet couldn’t get purchase on the wet floor.
Backward he fell. With a sickening crack, his head banged against the edge of the tub.
And as Ty Yorkshire crashed to the floor, his fall sent out ripples I feared would chase me no matter which way I ran.
I dropped the brush. It clattered on the cold, wet tile beside the dead man’s head. An owl cried outside, and a clock chimed nine times.
• • •
Moments after the last chime, the door opens again. Annamae enters, bearing a tray.
“Oh, Lord,” she gasps, eyes doubling in size.
“I think he’s dead,” I whisper. “He was trying to—to—”
Annamae shuts the door and sets down the tray. She paces for a moment. Then she straightens the waist of her dress. “Move him to the bed before the blood soaks to the first floor,” she orders.
The hysterics gather in my chest, making it hard to breathe, let alone move.
She appraises my trembling self. Then, to my surprise, she hugs me. “Pull it together.”
The warmth of her touch quells some of my panic. “I . . . I’m going to hell.”
She pushes me away from her, and bends down so our faces are even. Her determined expression stirs me to mimic it. “Only if we don’t do something about him.”
She’s right. I can’t come undone yet. She grips Ty Yorkshire’s arms, and I take his legs—one leg anyway. The man must weigh two hundred pounds. Together, we haul him onto the bed. Our efforts leave a trail of blood, more than I’ve ever seen at once. No one loses this much blood and lives.
When we finish, I’m heaving with exhaustion.
“How old are you?” she asks.
I catch my breath. “Fifteen.”
“Old enough for the noose. You’ll get your death wish, then.”
I wipe my eyes at this sobering thought. My father is dead, my home destroyed, and I just killed a man—at least, that’s what they will believe. I have no business aboveground. Yet suddenly, I don’t want to die.
I could return to New York. It would be dangerous, a wanted criminal traveling through populated areas. But without Father, New York would just be another faceless city, worse now because living there would constantly remind me of my disrespect.
No, there is no going back.
Father said he had great plans for us, and I owe it to him to find out what they were. Mr. Trask was Father’s best friend, and now he is my only real connection to the living. I could catch him. He only left a few weeks ago. After all, there’s only one road west.
“Annamae, I’m going to California.”
ANNAMAE’S DARK PUPILS WIDEN A FRACTION, AND she begins to knead her scar with her thumb. “It’s a long way to California.”
“A friend of my father’s is headed that way,” I say. “I’ve got business with him.”
She begins to pace again, but only goes back and forth once before stopping in front of me. Her gaze comes to rest on a bloodstain on my robe. “If we’re going, we best get you something to wear.”
“I’m going with you. I should’ve left two hours ago to meet my Moses wagon. It’s probably long gone now.” Her mouth sets into a grim line.
She was planning to escape? While I never heard of a “Moses” wagon, Father told me wagons were used as part of the Underground Railroad movement to free the slaves. “But they hang runaways.”
“Then we’ll swing side by side. I asked God to send me the right wagon, and now I think you’s it. Alone, people will think I’m a runaway. But with you, maybe I can fool ’em.”
“It won’t be easy. I just killed a man, and they will come after us.” My throat goes dry at the notion. “And I don’t know the way, exactly.”
“Don’t want safety, only freedom.”
Before I can answer, she says, “Be right back. Have a sandwich.” She closes the door behind her.
The tray holds two thick wedges and a pot of tea. If I tried to send anything down the hatch, my stomach would throw it back up again.
Blood oozes out of Yorkshire’s nostrils like two earthworms. By now, the entire pillow beneath his head is soaked with blood, the same blood that covers my arms. I bend over the tub and scour it from my body, trying not to look at the red stain on the lip.
Pressing a washcloth to my face, I steam out my grimace.
No one will believe that Ty Yorkshire’s death was an accident. Six months here, and people still refused to shake Father’s yellow hand. They will send men after us. With luck, the sheriff won’t discover my crime until morning. Leaving now will give us a good seven or eight hours before they sound the alarm. By then, God willing, we will be on the Oregon Trail, though first we need to cross the Missouri River.
Annamae returns, holding a basket of clothes and a saddlebag. She sets the basket on the floor.
“Two girls on the run. Not ideal,” I mutter, jamming my feet into a skirt.
“I can’t decide what sticks out more, you’s yella face or my black one.” She stuffs a sandwich into her mouth.
I shake out a blue flannel shirt. Too big. I throw it back into the basket. Then a thought wiggles into my head. I press a pair of trousers to my waist.
“What if we weren’t two girls, but two young men, off to make our fortunes in the gold fields?”
Annamae puts her fists on her hips and frowns at the basket.
Then she unbuttons her dress.
We layer up for warmth and to give ourselves some manly bulk. I don’t have much going on upstairs. Thank God for small favors. Annamae, though, has bigger problems. She takes a knife from her saddlebag and cuts the two pink ties off her apron. The ties are trimmed with a bit of cream-colored lace. Yorkshire spared no expense in his unseemly operation. Jamming one of the ties and the knife back into the bag, she uses the other tie to bind her bosom. “Always thought these would be the end of me. There’s been talk of Mr. Yorkshire replacing Ginny, his older Negress. She’s already thirty-three.”
I shudder at the thought of being conscripted into Yorkshire’s stable, an employment that would be worse than death. Plucking the gun from Yorkshire’s holster, I place it on the floor. It’s a Colt Dragoon pistol, a handsome five-shot firearm with a sharp nose. Mr. Trask kept one just like it in a cigar box by his cash register.
“You know how to shoot that?” asks Annamae, buttoning her third shirt.
“Only how not to shoot my foot,” I answer.
Even on its tightest setting, Yorkshire’s belt drops off my hips. It needs another hole. I set it on the floor, then position the prong of the belt a few inches past the last eyelet. The black book on the bedside table might do the trick. “Could you get me that Bible?”
She fetches it and kneels down next to me. “Which verse you want?”
“God helps those who help themselves,” I say, though I doubt that one’s in the book. “Quickly, use the book and help me knock in a hole.”
She clasps the Bible to her chest. “You want me to be struck down?”
“Oh, sorry. Here, hold the pointy part against the strap, like this.” I show her. Putting down the Bible, she takes the belt, and pokes the prong into the leather where I want it.
I take up the Good Book myself, then in one swift movement whack it down over the metal prong, driving it into the leather. I pray that nobody heard.
“Sweet Jesus!” Annamae cries out. Her mouth opens in horror.
“Thank you, Lord,” I whisper piously. My heart pounds hard enough to knock some of its own holes through my chest.
The belt still slings low across my hips, but maybe it will give me a boyish swagger. I reholster the gun, hoping I will never need to use it, especially since I don’t know how to load it.
Annamae pats down Yorkshire’s pockets. She recovers a few dollars and a powder horn, then pulls two gold rings off his pinkie fingers. Shoving them into her saddlebag, she stands back to examine me. Her eyes land on my wet hair. “We need hats.”
“He doesn’t need his anymore.” I unhook Yorkshire’s black hat and hand it to her. “Wide brim, it’ll hide your face.”
“There’s more downstairs. Miss Betsy probably still watching the front so we’ll go out the back. But hush, mind you. She got rabbit ears.”
Annamae stuffs the last sandwich into her saddlebag, while I sling on my violin case, pulling the strap extra-tight. All the layers slow my movement, and the gun hangs heavy against my thigh, but I might as well get used to it. No longer am I Samantha Young, the curious-looking miss from Bowery Lane in New York City. I am a desperado.
I wipe my palms on my trousers and try to stop breathing so loudly. Slowly, Annamae opens the door.
After dropping the key into the laundry chute in the hallway, Annamae leads the way to the back of the hotel. Shadows thrown by sconces along the burgundy walls give the illusion that the hallway’s on fire. I stick close to Annamae and try not to think about Father in the Whistle.
We tiptoe downstairs and through another burning corridor leading to the back entryway. A rack of antlers yields an assortment of hats and coats. Annamae slips into a wool frock coat, while I cram my hair into the plainest hat I can find, appalled at the ease with which I’ve gone from law-abiding citizen to wanton criminal. Father, you raised me better, but I’m out of choices right now.
I reach for a coat, but the shhh, tap of a scraping cane freezes my hand. Annamae grabs my wrist and pulls me to the door. She yanks it open. As soon as we both clear the doorway, she pauses for a heart-stopping moment to ease it shut without making a sound. Then we dash away toward St. Francis Street.
After half a block, my legs shake like a newborn foal’s. Annamae is not even breathing hard. The fabric of her frock coat swishes rhythmically as she pumps her arms up and down. She has slipped into her disguise as easily as if she’s been wearing men’s clothes all her life, her shoulders forming solid bumps even under the many layers.
By contrast, my garments feel like they’re wearing me, not the other way around. “I can’t,” I wheeze, pausing to catch my breath.
She grabs a fistful of my shirt and hauls me forward. “Oh yes you can.”
The uneven roadway and my oversized trousers vie for who can trip me first, but I manage to make it to the street corner.
Annamae glances back toward La Belle Hotel. No one is following us.
On St. Francis Street, a line of covered wagons stretches as far as I can see, and then all the way back to St. Louis, three hundred miles away. People from as far away as Maine journey to St. Joe, the step-off point into the Wild West, which lies on the other side of the Missouri. Teams of four to twenty oxen or mules fidget and snort, rocking their “prairie schooners,” as they are called. We hurry by men hunched over their cigarettes or sleeping on their wagon benches as they wait for their turn on the ferry.
We also pass men on horseback, most between the ages of fifteen and forty. Like the Greek heroes who quested after the golden fleece, these “Argonauts” seek gold, following the Oregon Trail until it diverges south to California. They aim not to homestead, but to strike it rich before the gold runs out. Plenty of them stopped by the Whistle, on the hunt for last-minute necessities like rolling paper for their tobacco. Argonauts are not women.
Moving silently as fog, we reach the wagon closest to the water and duck behind a pile of sandbags, out of view. My breath comes in gulps, and I collapse into an ungainly heap on the ground. I know the distance between La Belle Hotel and the riverfront to be less than half a mile, but it feels as if I have run clear back to New York.
Annamae hauls me up with one hand. “Look.” She points over the sandbags. To our right, the first wagon jostles about, its team skittish and alert. On our left, the wagon second in line seems to have shut down for the night, its driver slumped back in his seat, and his oxen still.
The shoreline lies ahead of the first wagon by ten yards. There, several men warm their hands around a bonfire, including the ferry master, a man in a naval cap. The flames burn bright enough to light the adjacent ferry building, which is little more than a shack with a counter and a clock.
The ferry’s last run is at ten thirty. I hiss in my breath when I note the time: a whisker past ten.
“We need to be on the next ferry,” I whisper, just as a bell clangs to signal the ferry’s return journey. River current drives the ferry, which is really just a wooden platform, held on course by a cable running from one shore to the other. I’ve only seen it carry one wagon at a time.
“We better pray no one’s inside,” says Annamae, nodding to the first wagon. “I’ll go see.”
The bonfire crackles and spews out a few embers.
“Wait, hand me the powder horn,” I say. “If we’re going to stow away, we’ll need a distraction.”
Annamae rummages through her saddlebag, while I pull a handkerchief from my violin case. She leaves me the horn, then sneaks off. With her dark coat and black hat, the night swallows her in moments. I sprinkle gunpowder into my handkerchief, then knot it into a bundle.
Annamae hurries back to me. “Something blocking the back, so I couldn’t see much. But I didn’t hear no sounds.”
I grimace. “It’s either that one or wait until morning.”
She shakes her head.
“Meet you at the back of the wagon in a few seconds,” I say. Then I inhale some courage and walk toward the bonfire. All present peer out at the oncoming ferry, whose oil lanterns illuminate its inky path. Every inch of me wants to flee. I force my feet to a stroll, like I have not a care in the world.
When I get to the bonfire, a few of the ten or so men turn their heads but none of their gazes linger on me. I fake interest in the oncoming ferry, hoping the dark obscures my features. When no one’s looking, I drop the bundle at the fire’s edge.
Then I head back toward Annamae, taking long strides. After a few seconds, the packet explodes.
I sprint. Men grab their hats and hit the ground. Animals scream, rearing up and trying to break out of their yokes. Whips and curses fly as their owners scramble to bring their teams back under control.
I reach our wagon, still heaving as its oxen try to flee. Annamae jams our gear through the back opening, then hauls herself in after it, squeezing by a large wooden object. I suck in my stomach and wedge in after her. Please, God, let us be the only ones aboard.
I spy farm equipment and feed, but nothing with a pulse. The wooden object that blocks the back opening is a clock as tall as the canvas ceiling. I exhale in sweet relief.
Our ruse seems to work. Annamae and I stretch out on top of feed sacks as the driver calms his team. His stout form shows through the front arch of the canvas that opens to the wagon seat.
“Settle down, boys and girls, settle down,” our driver calls to his oxen. “Our turn’s next.”
My heart pounds like a tom-tom. Surely the beat will give us away. I slip my clammy hand into Annamae’s warm one and feel her squeeze.
“Mr. Calloway, is it? You’re up,” the ferry master bellows. “Bring ’em down easy. Jackson will lead your team. Once you’re on the other side, wait ’til the line’s secure before you lead ’em off. Good luck.”
“Thank you, sir,” responds Mr. Calloway, before barking, “Giddap!”
Oxen bellow and the wagon rolls forward. A sharp farming tool falls painfully against my thigh, but I don’t dare push it off. A lever squeaks, followed by the rush of water.
As the ferry lifts us up and over each wave toward freedom, the contents of the wagon shift and settle. My stomach turns at the motion. The water chills the air around us and I hug my feed-sack cushion to keep from shivering. I smell alfalfa.
“Jackson, did a green wagon pass by recently?” asks Mr. Calloway.
Green? That’s new. Most people don’t waste paint on a wagon.
“Driver had a red beard? Train of twelve to follow, suh?”
“That’s the one.”
“Saw ’em two nights ago. Hard not to see ’em. You trying to catch ’em, suh?”
“Family’s with them. We had twin calves born the same night, so I sent my wife and girls ahead.”
“I see. If you travel day and night, you should catch ’em just after the Little Blue.”
The Little Blue is the first river we’ll hit, two or three days from here. I remember that much from our pioneer customers.
“That’s fine. Thank you,” says Mr. Calloway. He tips Jackson, I gather, from Jackson’s grateful murmur.
The wait to get to the other side seems to go on for days, years. I count watermelons in my head—Father taught me this trick to stave off the imps of tedium that drive one mad. One watermelon. Two watermelons. I bite my lip to keep from screaming. Three watermelons . . .
When I reach seven hundred and one watermelons, the ferry finally bumps against the shore, and after more leverings and jolts, our chariot heaves forward. We slide back a few inches as the oxen lug us up a bumpy incline. After several head-banging minutes, the road levels out, only jolting us now and then when we hit a pothole.
I begin to pull myself up, when a thought occurs to me. Mr. Calloway intends to travel through the night. We might save our feet some trouble. If he does stop, it’s dark enough that we could slip away, unnoticed. “Let’s stay awhile,” I whisper in Annamae’s ear.
We cover ourselves with canvas sheets, and I find comfort in the rocking of the wagon.
Father, can you hear me? I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have argued with you. I should have shown you the respect you deserved, and listened to your plans.
The burlap sack of alfalfa catches my tears.
ANNAMAE SHAKES MY SHOULDER. MY EYES SNAP open to the gray light of morning. The lines on one side of Annamae’s face tell me she also fell into the sleep trap.
I poke my head up. The rumbling of the wagon as we roll along the gravelly path is giving me a headache. Mr. Calloway is no longer in his seat. I peer through the gap between the wagon’s bonnet and the sideboards, and stifle a gasp. His red-checkered shirt walks alongside us, to the left of the wagon, not three feet away.
We better leave before he stops his team for breakfast and finds us.
“Let’s go,” I whisper.
But the sudden clatter of horse hoofbeats freezes us in place. I dive back under the canvas sheet and peek through the crack again. A man on a spotted horse slows to walk beside us.
“Mr. Calloway?” he barks, causing his droopy mustache to flap.
Mr. Calloway doesn’t break his pace. “Morning. Do I know you?”
“Deputy Granger.” He tips his hat. Its domed shape is the only round part of him. Sharp elbows, hooked nose, and an Adam’s apple that could rip holes in his bandanna. “I understand you took the quarter-past-ten passage aboard the Whitsand last night?”
“Yes, sir, I did. There a problem?”
“Seen any girls pass this way?”
I bite my tongue so hard I draw blood. The image of a noose dangles before my eyes.
“Girls? No. Why?” Mr. Calloway removes his straw hat and wipes his bald spot with his arm. An angry sunburn stains his cheeks and nose.
“A Chinese girl bashed in a man’s head last night and ran off.You seen her?”
I cringe. Annamae blinks her hooked eyelashes once at me and grabs my hand. It’s a simple gesture, but it’s enough to keep me from fleeing in a hot panic.
“No, sir. The only Chinese person I’ve seen since Virginia was that fellow who owns the Whistle. Bought my canvas from him yesterday.”
“She’s his offspring. The whole place burned down last night, the Chinaman with it. People like that are careless.” The deputy’s voice drips with scorn.
Mr. Calloway pauses before answering. “Didn’t seem careless to me, Deputy. Mr. Young was his name? He spotted a crack in one of my wheels and helped me fix it. Seems more a tragedy than anything.” He replaces his hat and shifts his gaze to the front wagon wheel.
“Well, we ain’t talking about the father, we’re talking about his girl taking out one of St. Joe’s finest. And what I say is, a body don’t run unless the body is guilty.” His black eyes seem to zero in on me, and I stop breathing. Then they roam the rest of the wagon.
“A slave girl ran away last night, too,” the deputy continues. “Don’t know if they’re in league.”
Mr. Calloway shakes his head. “Well, I haven’t seen anyone, Deputy. Anyway, I can’t see girls running in this direction. This is rough country. Without a mule, supplies, they wouldn’t last three days. You’re better off searching St. Louis.”
“They sent out a group this morning. Believe me, I have better things to do than comb the weeds for a snake.”
“Good day, then,” says Mr. Calloway, reverting his attention to his grunting oxen.
I pray the man will leave now, and when he falls back, I unhook my fingernails from my palms. Then, the wagon hits a rock, and the clock belches out a chime.
Annamae hisses in her breath, then clamps a hand over her mouth.
The spotted pony brings Deputy Granger and his probing eyes even with us again.
“I’m going to need to search you. You’re the only wagon on which they coulda hid. Might as well be thorough before I go home.”
Mr. Calloway’s shoulders slump, like he might be sighing. Then he calls, “Whoa, boys and girls, whoa now!”
I cast about for an escape, fear wringing my insides into a wet knot. The slivered openings on either side of the wagon reveal nothing but wide-open prairie.
I lean over and speak into Annamae’s ear, so low that I cannot even hear myself. “I will turn myself in. Pull the sheet over you and hide.” I squeeze her palm.
Our chariot, now our prison, staggers to a halt. Annamae pulls me back down as I start to rise, pointing to the crack on her side of the wagon. A weeping willow, one of spring’s first bloomers, drips down its branches not ten feet away.
The deputy’s boots thud on the grass as he dismounts.
“Going to take a moment to move my clock,” says Mr. Calloway.
We don’t hesitate. While Mr. Calloway pushes aside the heavy timepiece we scoot to the front of the wagon box.
“I’ll go around to the head,” says the deputy.
I nearly push Annamae out of the wagon in my haste.
“No need, sir. Here we are,” says Mr. Calloway.
I drop from the driver’s seat right after Annamae. In five tiptoes, we cover the distance to the shaggy green haystack. Its verdant curtain swallows us up.
Neither of us dares to breathe as we listen.
“Just doing my job, sir, thank you. Good luck to you,” says the deputy.
“And you,” says Mr. Calloway. “Giddap, boys and girls, giddap!”
His oxen moo in reply. The wagon groans as it pitches forward. Deputy Granger’s horse snorts, then pounds away, easily bypassing Mr. Calloway. Only then do I resume breathing.
After a few minutes, we peek through the branches. The trail is empty now. Beyond the trees, a rolling carpet of knee-high grass spreads out before us, but neither Annamae nor I want to venture into the open yet.
“May that be the last we see of the deputy,” I say.
“Amen.” Annamae stares up at the dome of green. The leaves rattle shhh as the wind stirs them. “God planted this tree right here for us.”
“Maybe it’s better to think of it as fate.”
She jerks back, as if I sneezed on her. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, sometimes I wonder why God would grant a favor if trouble’s just waiting around the corner? It feels disingenuous. If it’s fate, then it’s written in the stars, and we can’t do much to avoid it.”
Her lips split apart, and I can see her opinion of me begin to plummet.
“I don’t mean any offense. I just mean, if God is benevolent—”
“God is benevolent, and it ain’t Christian to believe in fate, because He’s in charge of the stars, too.” She raises her eyes to the canopy and mutters, “Be merciful on the poor wretch’s soul. She’s going through a rough spell.” With that, she rummages through her saddlebag.
I drop the matter, for I don’t want her to think I’m a heathen. Though Father’s knowledge of Chinese beliefs was limited—he was brought to the states when he was only thirteen—he was just as adamant about passing them on to me as his Christian ideology, which he got from Pépère, my French grandfather. If they were important to Father, they were important to me, too, despite their inconsistencies.
Annamae offers me a canteen from her saddlebag, which I gratefully accept, though I refuse half a leftover sandwich. My stomach is still too wrung out to accept food. “You got a chamber pot in there? Because I could use one.”
She frowns. Here I thought her opinion of me could go no lower. Tilting her head to one side, she taps a worn fingernail against her chin. Whatever she’s going to say, I pray she says it soon since the river threatens to burst the dam soon.
Her frown fades into resignation. “I’ll show you a trick that’s cleaner than squatting. Pull down you’s trousers.”
I do it.
“Now, take my hands, and make like you’s gonna sit.” She pulls back, counterbalancing me, and in this position, I relieve myself without sloshing my boots.
“My turn,” she says.
When done, we find another spot under the willow and hunker down. Christening the ground seems to diffuse some of her annoyance at me, and her manner becomes easy again.
Excerpted from "Under a Painted Sky"
Copyright © 2016 Stacey Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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