Authors: Pamela Nowak
By Pamela Nowak
Copyright © 2008 by Pamela Nowak
All rights reserved.
Second Digital Edition 2013
Published by In the Moment Historicals
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
To Tim and Katrina, who daily teach me the meaning of love. Without you, I would not have had the courage to take a chance on following my dream.
Sarah Donovan tapped out the final few dots and dashes of the telegram in her usual rapid tempo. Sharp voices rose in a ruckus outside the bare window of her small office in the Kansas Pacific Railroad Depot, and she spun toward the sound.
Jim Wilson, the wiry stationmaster and ticket agent who shared the tiny cubicle with Sarah, stood at the lone double-pane window. “Sounds like somebody’s havin’ a good time,” he commented dryly. He adjusted his dusty spectacles and peered out the open casement.
“What Denver needs is a few less saloons and a few more policemen,” Sarah observed. “It sounds like a riot out there.”
“You want I should shut the window?”
She tugged at the collar of her shirtwaist and shook her head. “No, Jim, we’d be stifled by the heat. I can’t believe this kind of weather in October.”
“Yep, you got that right.” Jim returned to his stool behind the ticket counter and began sorting through the morning’s ticket stubs.
Sarah pushed the noise from her mind and focused her attention on the stack of telegrams she’d just received. She logged them and stuffed them into envelopes, then marked each for delivery. If deliveryman Frank Bates was any good at his job, he’d be half-way across town with the first of the messages by now. Instead, he was likely standing in front of the depot, watching the doings out on Depot Street.
Sarah stood and gathered the pile of telegrams into a bundle. “Cover the wire for a couple of minutes, Jim?”
The stationmaster nodded and pushed his eyeglasses back up. “I got it, Miss Sarah.”
Crossing the sparse office, Sarah entered the more elaborate passenger waiting room and spotted Bates lounging on one of the leather padded benches.
Bates sat apart, his dark eyes alert under the visor of his cap, his attention riveted on a salesman in a checkered suit and the fashionable woman caught in his spiel.
Sarah crossed the well lit room, her shoes clicking on the polished wooden floor. The sound blended with the pockets of conversation. She paused a few feet away from Bates and brushed her wilting hair from her forehead. “Got a batch to be delivered,” she told him.
Bates looked up with annoyance. “Sure you got the right addresses? Can’t never be too sure with lady folk.” He snatched the parcel of telegrams and rifled through them. “Can’t deliver to Petterman, he ain’t in town.” He stood, tossed the envelope back at her, and stormed out of the depot.
Sarah’s anger roiled. In the two weeks she’d been in her position, Bates had shown nothing but contempt for her. Men like him were the ones who made it so necessary for women to gain the vote. She’d told her friends, Miriam and Lise, the same thing, back in St. Louis. Somehow, though, she sensed they hadn’t quite shared her passion for the cause. Enrolling in Western Union’s telegraph operator training academy had been one way of taking action to prove women capable. She’d taken the position in Denver with high hopes, only to encounter Bates. Slighted that he’d been passed over for promotion, the man was not only skeptical of her abilities, but was openly hostile.
Sarah sighed and unclenched her fingers, knowing she needed to calm down before she returned to her office. Across the depot yard, a crowd had gathered around a stray yellow dog. Bounty hunters, probably, arguing about who had the right to claim the animal.
Among Denver’s many growing problems was an overpopulation of dogs. The city fathers had recently decided to offer a bounty of a quarter for any dog brought in, dead or alive. Sarah moved away from the door in disgust.
On his perch behind the ticket counter, Jim sipped at a cup of steaming coffee. He turned as she entered and smiled, her one unexpected ally in the station. “Wire’s been quiet.”
Sarah settled back at her desk and examined the telegram Bates had tossed at her. It was a body notice. She sat up straight and leaned over to read the note. A body was coming in on the 10:20 for Daniel Petterman, undertaker.
She didn’t have long. The train was due soon. With quick finger taps, she relayed that the message was undeliverable. Rules were strict on bodies in transit: transfer immediately to an undertaker. The last thing Kansas Pacific needed was a deteriorating corpse sitting in baggage claim overnight.
It was the first unusual situation she’d encountered since taking the job, and she was relieved Bates had bothered to inform
her Petterman was gone. So far, her performance record was spotless, and she aimed to keep it that way. A man might be able to weather a few demerits, or “brownies,” as railroaders called them, but she was sure the dispatcher would have his eye on her, the sole female telegrapher in the region.
The Kansas Pacific dispatcher’s response was swift and to the point.
Find another undertaker.
Sarah took the message, recorded it, and glanced at Jim.
“Know any good undertakers?” she asked.
Jim looked up and grinned. “Bates getting to you that much?”
“We’ve got a body coming in on the next train, and no one to claim it.”
“Can’t say I’m too familiar with them, myself. Just send it to Silverman, he’s the closest.”
Sarah shrugged. She’d seen Petterman around. The tall, well-groomed undertaker was known for his professionalism. She wasn’t so sure about Silverman. Sarah marked the telegram with his name anyway, flagged it as urgent, and stuck the message in the delivery pile.
Outside, the arguing voices became louder. Sarah frowned. The clicking of an incoming telegram drew her attention, and she bent to decipher the message. Two gunshots echoed through the air, followed by pained whimpers and a child’s scream.
“Holy mother of God.” Jim jumped from his stool and ran to the door. “That sounded like a kid.”
Sarah forced herself to sit still until the telegram was done. Then, she rushed to join Jim. “What happened?”
“Looks like that gang of boys shot some kid’s dog.”
Across the depot yard, a dark-haired girl had crumpled beside the yellow dog and lay sobbing, her arms clenched around the dog’s neck. An older girl stood above her, dazed and motionless. The dog’s limp body showed no sign of life.
Sarah’s heart lurched for the girls—they couldn’t be more than either side of ten years old. “That’s downright cruel,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “Damn that bounty law and the gang along with it.”
Beyond the train yard, the rotund little German who ran the closest saloon emerged from the darkness of his establishment and slapped a wet towel at the group of boys. Sarah caught a few angry curse words amid the stream of guttural German he tossed at them. The boys laughed in his face.
Sarah’s anger intensified. Nobody deserved to be treated that way, not the saloonkeeper, and especially not those little girls. She sucked in a breath and strode across the yard. Her long skirt swayed and her sensible shoes kicked up dust with each determined step.
As she neared, the gang’s laughter dwindled. Sarah had known it would. She was used to it. No one ever expected such righteous fury from a little thing like her.
She marched up to the boys, noting they were youngsters themselves. The oldest of the five was thirteen-year-old Cyrus Gall, well known for his mistreatment of others. She eyed their single gun, then dismissed it. They were kids. Bullies, not outlaws. With a lightening quick motion, she grabbed Cyrus by the ear and twisted. He squirmed once, yelped, then stilled.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” she demanded. “The bounty is on stray dogs.
. I ought to twist this ear off and feed it to the next dog I see. How dare you shoot someone’s dog for a measly two bits?” Sarah twisted his ear again.
Cyrus spat at her shoe. “Weren’t nobody tendin’ that dog. Makes it fair game, far as the law goes.” He winced and pulled away from Sarah’s grasp, rubbing his ear.
Sarah planted a look of stern reproach on him. “By the time I get done talking to city officials about this, there won’t be a cent paid to any of you. You shoot one more pet, and I’ll see to it you never reap another bounty. Ever.”
Cyrus met her gaze, weighing the situation. The other boys shuffled their feet as they pondered her words, a low murmur of discontent rising from their midst. Sarah stood with her hands on her hips, daring them to voice their complaints to her. Instead, Cyrus spat again, then sauntered away down Depot Street. The other boys stuck out their chins in insult before turning tail and following their leader.
,” Gottlieb praised, his fatty jowls widening into a smile. “It is
you come for the
. Here is for der tears.” He tossed the towel to her and nodded at the smallest girl, still despondent and clinging to the dog. The older girl stared, mouth agape, at Sarah.
“But I’m not—” Sarah stopped in mid-sentence. Gottlieb had already scurried into the saloon, apparently satisfied in his assumption that she was the girls’ mother.
Suddenly unsure, she glanced down at the children.
The older girl swallowed once, hard, and big tears began to flow down her cheeks. “Thank you,” she said in a choked voice.
Sarah peered at her and searched her mind for the right words. “Are you all right?” she finally asked.
The girl nodded gravely. “Those hoodlums ought to be horsewhipped.” She clamped both hands over her mouth, her hazel eyes wide with surprise.
Sarah fought back a smile. “Do you need someone to accompany you home?”
The girl shook her head, brown curls swaying. “No, thank you. We don’t want to trouble anyone. Molly? It’s time to go home. Papa wouldn’t like us making a scene.”
The younger girl stiffened. “Well,
dog isn’t dead. I guess a person can make a scene if their own dog is dead, can’t they, Kate?” She stuck out a petulant lip.
“No, Molly, that’s enough. We need to be dignified now. Biscuit’s dead and no amount of tears will bring him back. Stand up so we can go home.”
Molly pressed her lips against the dog’s head and offered it one last hug, then rose. As she stood, bright red drops of blood dripped from the front of her once-blue dress and splattered the dirt around her feet.
Kate’s gaze froze, her eyes widening again. “Ooooh, Biscuit, they killed our Biscuit.” Her dignified tears erupted into sobs and she threw herself at Sarah.
“I want my mama.” Molly wailed out the words and launched into Sarah’s arms as well.
Sarah glanced back at the depot in desperation. She was good with causes, but children were another story. Jim stood in the entry. He shrugged his shoulders, his hands in a helpless open-palmed gesture, then pointed to his watch. The 10:20. Its whistle sounded in the distance. She was on her own.
Lord, what in the world had she gotten herself into? She should be in the station, minding the wire so Jim could do his own job. She’d get a brownie for sure if anyone realized she’d abandoned her duties.
She patted the girls awkwardly and waited for them to stop crying. “Shhhh,” she said. “Is your mama nearby?”
“Mama died when we were little,” Kate explained in a choked voice.
Molly tightened her hold around Sarah’s upper legs and sobbed louder. Her head bobbed against Sarah’s waist. Kate burrowed her face into Sarah’s bodice, staining it with wet tears.
“Oh.” Sarah frowned. “Well, is your papa around?”
“He’s at work, up Blake Street.”
Sarah sighed. She
on her own. How did one comfort little girls anyway?
Lise’s frequent advice on the value of hugs flashed through Sarah’s mind, and she tightened her arms around the girls, squeezing them as she brushed her hands across their backs.