Read Chances Online

Authors: Pamela Nowak

Chances (9 page)

Jim was momentarily silent as she turned to the stove and filled his cup. “Riding double down Broadway Avenue don’t have anything to do with it, then?” he finally asked.

“Of course not,” Sarah snapped.

“Heard you two were whispering together the whole city council meeting, too.”

“We were not.”

“Seem to recall reading’ it in the paper.”

“No!” She turned away from the stove with a audible swoosh. Hot coffee splashed over the edge of the cup and she shook her fingers to cool them. “It wasn’t!”

“Yep, it was.” Jim grinned.

She marched to Jim’s counter and plunked down the coffee cup. “Why, of all the low-down, dirty, rotten little—”

“Bill Byers ain’t above a little juicy gossip.”

“I’ll throttle him,” she announced.

“He make it up?” Jim peered over his glasses.

“No.”

“Then why make a fuss? You raise a stink and I’d wager Bill’ll do it again.”

Sarah sat down on her stool and crossed her arms. “You’re right.” Jim’s grin annoyed her. She leaned forward and waved her finger at him. “But just so it’s clear, I’m not having anything more to do with Petterman than necessary. One or two quick meetings and that’s it.”

“Same go for his girls?”

“What?” What did his girls have to do with anything?

Jim nodded at the window. “His daughters are about halfway across the rail yard, and I doubt they’re looking for me.” He stared pointedly at Sarah. “Third time this week they’ve been here.”

Sarah’s thoughts scattered, as she remembered the last time she’d encountered Kate and Molly and the trouble it had led to. “Oh, Lord. Just what I need.”

She spun back to her counter, wishing that she could somehow fade into her work. Behind her, she heard the light clatter of their footsteps and knew wishing was useless. Putting a sunny smile on her face, she turned toward the door. She’d greet them, exchange pleasantries, and send them on their way.

Molly and Kate stood just inside the threshold.

Kate took the lead, her hazel eyes bright and hopeful. “Miss Sarah, you’re here.”

Not to be outdone, Molly stepped forward. “We almost didn’t come. Mr. Bates was cross with us last time.”

Sarah’s resolve crumbled. What had Bates said? They were only children, after all. “Mr. Bates is cross with everyone,” she sympathized.

The girls nodded wordlessly.

Jim slipped from his stool and crossed into the station’s waiting area.

Sarah stared at the girls, at a loss.

“We’ve come to watch you telegraph again,” Kate supplied.

“Oh, well, it’s mostly just the same thing.”

“Well,
I
think it’s exciting. We don’t know any other ladies who do it.” The eleven-year-old’s facial expression was filled with awe.

“Kate, we don’t know any other ladies. ’Cept for our teachers and Mrs. Winifred, and I’m not sure she counts.”

Sarah looked at the girls questioningly.

“She’s our housekeeper,” Kate explained.

“She’s cross, too.”

“Molly!”

“Well, she is.”

Sarah listened with interest. They’d been more reserved on their last visit. She found their enthusiasm refreshing. Perhaps Daniel hadn’t ruined them yet. Still, she wasn’t quite comfortable being the object of Kate’s adoration. She smiled and decided to try again. “I’m not sure you girls should—”

“Aw, take ‘em in and let them watch a bit,” Jim interjected from across the waiting area. “Long as they don’t interrupt your work, I don’t care.”

Sarah glared at Jim. “But your father—”

“Oh, he’s so busy putting ‘balming fluid in some dead lady that he won’t think of us for hours.”

“Molly,” Kate chastised.

Sarah stifled a giggle at the image and felt herself caving in. “Well, I guess if Jim doesn’t mind, you may sit and watch. I’ll get another stool.” She busied herself with clearing a crate from the extra seat and moving it close to her counter. The girls removed their hats and gloves and climbed onto the stools, chattering all the while.

“So how come you haven’t been here?”

“Molly, please phrase things properly.” Kate stared at her sister with a stern scowl of reproach.

Molly puckered her face into a frown, then continued properly. “
Why
haven’t you been here?”

Sarah fought a grin. “Oh, well, I’ve been working the late shift. I’m here at night when you’re at home sleeping.”

“Except for today.”

She nodded. “Mr. Bates couldn’t be here today so Jim asked me to work an extra shift.”

“Gosh, doesn’t it get lonely at night?” Molly’s brown eyes were wide and curious.

“Yes, Molly, it does indeed.”

“How come—why—do you have to be here at night? Isn’t everyone asleep?”

My, but she was full of questions. Sarah turned and placed her hands in her lap. She might as well forget about getting anything worthwhile done. “There are still the railroad telegraphs,” she explained. “Sometimes, there are two trains that need to use the same track. The telegraphers let each other know so one of the trains can be routed to a siding. Otherwise, the trains would crash.”

“Gosh, I guess you must be the most important person we know, huh, Kate?” Molly slid off her stool and wandered around the office while Kate sat at prim attention.

“I’m going to mosey around the baggage room, see if anyone’s noticed that darned delivery boy,” Jim called, then disappeared through the door at the end of the waiting area.

“What are these, Miss Sarah?”

Sarah glanced over her shoulder. Molly stood in front of a wooden shelf, her gaze focused on Sarah’s stack of personal messages.

“Those?” she queried, wishing Molly would move on.

“Do you need us to fold them up so they can be delivered like you were doing the last time we were here? We could help,” Kate offered politely.

“I’m sure you could. That stack, however, was just for practice.”

Molly reached for the top sheet. “Who’s Lark?”

Sarah sighed and decided she’d better put the messages away before Molly got any nosier. Perhaps, the little girls were a little too enthusiastic this time. “That’s my persona, my sine. All the telegraphers use a special name to identify themselves.”

“Big John sounds sweet on you.”

Sarah strode the last few steps to Molly. “Give me those,” she commanded.

Molly surrendered the papers and gazed up at Sarah. “Are you sweet on him, too?”

Sarah sighed. “I don’t even know who the man is.”

“Then why does Molly think he’s sweet on you?” Kate chimed in.

Sarah stared at her, flustered. “I don’t know. Maybe because he found out that I was a woman and he thinks I have loose morals because I’m a telegrapher.”

“But how come you saved his letters if you aren’t sweet on him?”

“Because I need to go back through them and look for any decoding errors I made.” Sarah tossed the papers into a drawer, slammed it shut, and turned back to the girls. “Are you sure your father isn’t looking for you?”

They shook their heads and Molly clambered back up onto her stool.

“That was a pretty big stack of letters, Miss Sarah,” Kate noted, then paused. “Are those all from beaux?”

“They are not my beaux," Sarah snapped.

“How come they like you so much?”

She looked from one to the other. “Molly, Kate, I am not going to discuss this with you. You are prying into things that don’t concern you.”

They both sobered. Kate’s hazel eyes, so like Daniel’s, blinked solemnly. “I’m sorry, Miss Sarah.”

“Me, too,” Molly added, her voice wavering. “Are you going to tell Papa?”

Guilt drifted through her. She hadn’t meant to make them feel bad. Lord, but talking to children was difficult. She offered reassuring smile. “No, I won’t tell your papa.”

“Is Papa your beau?”

“Molly!”

“Girls, that is enough.” Sarah’s hands flew to her hips. “I don’t have a beau, and I don’t
want
to have a beau. Even if I did, it would not be of concern to either of you. We are no longer going to discuss the topics of my correspondence or my personal relationships,”

The girls’ eyes pooled with tears as Sarah’s words hit home.

A deep “Ahem,” interrupted.

Sarah spun around at Bates’s familiar voice, willing the girls to stay quiet.

 “I think you ought to be discussing both of those things with Jim. Seems a good station manager would want to know what his night telegrapher is doing with her time.”

“Well, the long lost Frank Bates,” she parried. “What brings you to work?”

“I got called away. Had a meeting, you might say.” He curled his lip at her. “Wish I’d a known about all your little affairs before I seen my uncle. Guess that’s the sorta thing that happens when you put a woman on the night shift.”

How long had he been standing there listening? Sarah fought to stay calm. Lord, how it must have sounded.

“Mr. Bates, I can assure you—”

“You ain’t gonna assure me nothin’, missy. Looks to me you got a mess of trouble, kids hangin’ around a place of business, a stack of telegrams that ain’t been delivered, and an even bigger stack of illicit messages.”

Sarah fought against telling him to go to hell. “The children were about to leave,” she announced in a professional tone. She handed them their hats and gloves. “Furthermore, the delivery boy is missing. The ‘stack’ consists of practice messages.”

Bates scowled. “Just what are you practicing here all alone at night?”

“I don’t like your implication, Bates.” She ushered Kate and Molly quickly out the back door, then turned back to Bates.

He raised his eyebrows with a smirk. “And I don’t like what I been hearin’ from the other ops.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Bates. I haven’t done anything to be ashamed of.”

“Word is your ‘favors’ are for sale.”


What
?” Sarah asked, incredulous. “That is the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard. Who told you that?”

“It ain’t a matter of who told me, missy. It’s a matter of who
I’ve
told.”

 

 

Chapter Six

 

The next morning, Sarah stood in front of the beveled oval mirror in Elizabeth Byers’s guest room, tugged at the neckline of the bright lavender gown, and wrinkled her nose.

“Oh, stop it,” Elizabeth chided. “You look fine.”

“I look all trussed up. I’m almost falling out of this thing. My shirtwaist and work skirt are fine.”

Elizabeth dropped her face into her hands, took a deep breath, then lifted her head tiredly. “Your work skirt is not fine. It’s a work skirt.”

“Isn’t it bad enough that you’ve turned the committee into a dinner party? I don’t need to look like a strumpet.” Sarah turned from the mirror and glanced at the mound of satin and faille and crepe de Chine. She didn’t want to do this. She didn’t want to have dinner and she didn’t want to abandon her comfortable, no-nonsense clothing. She pulled at the bodice again and shook her head at the pile. “Ruffles and lace? No, thank you.”

“Fashion is a tool of power.”

Sarah bit her lip, memories clouding her mind. She’d had the same discussions with Miriam and Lise, back in St. Louis. It had never made a difference. Being beautiful and fashionable had netted her mother nothing but heartache. Men, even her father, had complimented her then dismissed her from their discussions as nothing more than what they saw. Sarah crossed her arms and offered Elizabeth a half-hearted smile in lieu of sharing the remembrances. “I’d prefer to rely on my skills.”

Elizabeth plopped onto the bed and raised her eyebrows at Sarah. “Used in the right way, femininity can be an asset, sometimes even a shrewd advantage.”

“Hah. Just
being
female gets me into trouble, let alone being feminine.”

Elizabeth’s face clouded. “Is it the ruffles and lace or is it something else? If you yank that bodice up any higher, you’ll rip the ruffles right off of it. I wouldn’t have thought you a prude, yet here you are trying like the devil to hide your cleavage. What’s going on here, Sarah?”

Sarah sighed and sat down next to her friend. Truth be told, even if she liked low-cut gowns, Frank Bates and his innuendoes begged more modest attire. She suspected Elizabeth would be more satisfied with that explanation, anyway. “The male telegraph operators are speculating about my morals. They can’t believe a woman would be an op unless she were depraved.”

“Oh, dear.”

“They’ve begun wiring suggestive offers and Frank Bates pretty much accused me of selling my favors.”

“Pshaw. That’s so unbelievable that it’s ridiculous. Is Frank Bates that bitter?”

“He thinks I stole his position.”

“Poor Frank. All these years, he’s never amounted to anything. I think he fails worse with every job he takes.” She shook her head. “I imagine it’s easier for him to believe you’re immoral rather than to admit you’re better at your job than he’ll ever be.”

“Unfortunately, most folks won’t find Frank’s ravings that tough to swallow. Will they believe a woman is employed as a telegrapher because she’s good at what she does, or will they nod their heads at the suggestion that I’ve slept with someone important?”

“Perhaps it’s time they learn just how capable you are.”

“Elizabeth, if I put on one of those dresses, I’ll never even have a chance to prove myself. The clothing will just fuel the rumors. People on the committee who don’t know me will assume the worst.” She eyed the pile of gowns. “Look at them. They might be the height of fashion, but they’re far too revealing. I can’t afford to even suggest relaxed morals.

“All right, all right. You do have a point. First things first. What have you done about these innuendos?”

“I went to Jim right away. He took the pile of ‘proposals’ to see if he could isolate whom the comments were coming from. He’s also having a few trusted ops from around the area check into it. He said I should just ignore the messages and not to respond to anything sent by those operators.”

“Good advice.” Elizabeth patted Sarah’s hand and offered a cheery smile. “I say you go forth with your head held high and no one will believe anything that wretched man says. Modesty might indeed be your best bet, though. I’ll be right back.”

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