The first strike of the whip across her back forced Cody to her knees. If pain had a color, this was glowing red—like grabbing a hot poker from the coals with your bare hand. And then a second strike came, and a third in rapid succession.
Her father’s breathing was labored. During these fits, which had become more frequent, he looked as if he were fighting some demon she couldn’t see. Or maybe he was enraged that he’d been pulled out of his alcohol-induced haze and forced to acknowledge his sad life for a few minutes. Or possibly he was trying to strike a blow at God almighty. It was anyone’s guess, ’cause he sure never talked about what had turned him against his own kin.
Cody rose up just enough to let her younger sister, Ellen, crawl out from under the cover her body provided. She ran for the barn. By the fifth strike Cody was rigid with rage. There was a point when enough was enough. Every time he’d taken his riding crop to her she’d said to herself it was for the last time, but then she’d get scared to leave. She also didn’t want to leave her sister behind, and then she’d get lulled into thinking it wouldn’t happen again because he’d promise such things. She’d feel sorry for him, so she’d stay.
But it did always happen again.
Meanness had become her father’s stock-in-trade the past few years. She could no longer remember the man he used to be. And the liquor just made it worse.
She’d seen him go to the rocking chair on the porch with his pint jar of corn whiskey a few hours earlier. She’d watched from across the skinned, hardened clay of the yard as Ellen had run out the door and knocked the jar over by accident. That was all it took to send him into a rabid frenzy, like a mad dog. Ellen made it only twenty feet from the porch before he was on her. He kicked her to the ground with a boot to her backside, ready to lay into her with his riding whip.
Cody put herself between the old man and Ellen—like she’d done so many times before. He didn’t seem to care who was taking his licks. He’d probably already forgotten who kicked the jar over in the first place.
As she felt the sting of the whip across her shoulders, something inside Cody snapped.
This wasn’t the first time she’d thought of killing him.
More than one night, she’d lain on her thin cot, looked up at the unfinished plank ceiling, and conjured plans for his demise. She’d considered slipping into his room and smothering him with his own pillow. She thought of sneaking up behind him with a shovel and bashing his head in. The solid thump of the steel meeting his thick skull was satisfying to imagine.
She’d even considered letting loose a copperhead in his room at night, knowing the snake would likely seek out the warmth of his body. But she’d done none of it, and she wasn’t even sure why. Maybe because he was her father and the Good Book said to honor thy father. Maybe it was as simple and misguided as that, because she knew she didn’t love him, not in the way a daughter should love her father.
Cody could see his shadowed silhouette on the ground. When he recoiled for another blow, with his arm high above his head, she lunged at him and caught him right in the gut with her shoulder. He fell backward and Cody with him. She’d hit him under his ribcage knocking the wind out of him as they hit the hard-packed dirt with a thump.
She scrambled off him and started across the yard, but he didn’t follow as she’d expected. Cody turned and considered going back to check on him as he lay motionless, the braided rawhide whip dangling loosely from his limp hand.
Ellen peeked out from one of the barn stalls, from behind the rough sided buckboard, but Cody signaled for her to stay back. Slowly, Cody approached her father, ready at any moment to take flight, but he was out cold. He’d fallen back and struck his head on a rock. She could see the red smear across the stone from three feet away. She watched him long enough to see his chest rise and fall as he took a breath. He wasn’t dead.
Cody stood frozen and considered what to do next. She surveyed the place she’d called home. She knew it was now anything but.
Her father had seen her mother laid into an early grave. He’d run off her two older brothers in a fit of angry shouts, leaving only Cody and Ellen. Cody had only stayed because of her sister.
The unpainted plank boards of the three-room frame house hung slack and ashy, the vertical struts visible in the dark gaps between the wood siding. The worn porch boards rose and fell unevenly from long exposure to weather. The area around the house was mostly bare clay. The grass beat back from the decrepit building as if the earth itself had been scorched.
The barn looked as sad and run-down as the house. Cody rotated as her father’s horse, Shadow, stomped in the heat, sending up a small dust cloud. Shadow was as tight against the railing of the enclosure as he could be, trying to wedge himself into the small bit of shade afforded by an overhanging oak just outside the fence.
Cody decided right then to leave. There’d been a flyer on the corkboard outside the mercantile in Batesville advertising for wagon trains heading west from Missouri. Free land. That’s where her brothers, Adam and James, had headed off to, and she should’ve probably gone with them.
They’d talked of traveling to California for months out of their father’s earshot before they actually left. There was lots of work there, plenty to go around, or so their letter said. They’d ended up with a timber outfit north of San Francisco. Northeast Arkansas in 1856 had nothing to offer her. There’d have to be more opportunities in the West for women like her than there were here, women who’d rather ride and hunt than cook and clean. She could pass for a fella if she needed to, if safety called for it. She had no curves to speak of, and she was tall, at the high end of five feet. She’d always kept her hair short too, which had sorely disappointed her mother, God rest her soul.
Her brothers had ridden west two years ago, and every other day she regretted her decision to stay. But she had Ellen to think of, and at the time, Cody had been only sixteen. She was eighteen now and figured she could take care of herself.
She motioned for Ellen to follow her to the house. Ellen rushed to Cody and clung to her, glancing sideways to where their father lay.
“Is he dead?”
“No, he isn’t dead. He’s just sleepin’. Get your things. We’re going to Aunt Hannah’s.” Cody hustled Ellen toward the house. “Hurry.”
“For how long?”
“Forever. We’re not coming back here.” Beside her, Ellen let out a whimper.
“No, not ever. There’s nothing for us here. Now hurry, before he wakes up.” Cody pulled a worn flour sack from under her narrow bunk and shoved a few things into it, while Ellen piled her things on the bed on the other side of the small room.
“Bring your stuff over here.” Cody spread a blanket on the bed, and when Ellen settled her things in the middle of it, Cody tied the four corners to bundle everything inside. Including Ellen’s threadbare rag doll.
She reached for the pistol and belt that hung on a wooden peg next to the door. She’d already put a small box of ammunition from her daddy’s nightstand into the sack with her clothes and some dried meat and yesterday’s cornbread. She bent to lift the loose board inside his closet. There was a wooden box that contained money, letters, and other small family heirloom bits. She took two-thirds of the money from the box: a third for her and a third to leave with Aunt Hannah for Ellen. Twelve dollars split three ways wasn’t much, but it was all the inheritance she was ever going to get, so she was taking it now.
She considered other items in the box. A silver brush that had belonged to her mother and her mother’s wedding ring—a simple gold band with a small ruby stone set into it. Cody held the ring in the palm of her hand for a minute then tucked it into her pocket. Then she reached for the letter from her brothers. If she made it to California, this would be her only chance of finding them. She got to her feet, leaving the board upturned so that he’d know what she’d done.
They cut a wide path around her father as they went to the barn. Cody saddled Shadow while Ellen nervously fidgeted. She hung the gun belt over the saddle horn and was just about to climb up on Shadow, but there was one more thing she wanted to do.
With tentative steps, she approached her father. He didn’t move, even when she nudged his leg with the dusty toe of her boot. Satisfied that he was still out, she reached over and took the whip from his hand.
Shadow shook his mane as Cody settled into the saddle. She reached down and pulled Ellen up behind her. She tugged the reins, and Shadow turned and headed north toward the Missouri border.
Lillie Winston Ellis folded the quilt around the framed photo of her parents so that it would be protected from jostling inside the trunk. She’d had to be judicious with her packing, limiting herself to only two trunks and then two small suitcases. She turned slowly in the center of the room. Had she forgotten any items that she’d regret leaving behind when she reached Kansas? She assumed small reminders of her childhood would likely bring her great comfort once she was out west, far from home and family.
As she shut the hinged lid of the velvet lined trunk, she heard a soft knock.
“Come in.” Her cousin Caroline was just two years younger than Lillie and looked enough like her to pass for a sister. They both had auburn hair with hints of red when lit by the sun, and both had brown eyes. Lillie was a bit more slender than Caroline but probably only because she was a couple of inches taller. Caroline’s dress brushed the floor lightly as she crossed the room; the crinoline underneath caused the skirt to sweep in front of her as she moved.
“You’ve been up here packing for hours. Let’s go for a walk in the park.” Caroline leaned against the high foot post of Lillie’s bed. She fingered the fabric draped around the polished mahogany bed frame. The drape reached from the canopy to the floor at all four corners of the bed.
“It’s not easy to pack one’s entire life into two small trunks.”
“You could always just come stay with me in Philadelphia instead. That would require a lot less preparation and would no doubt be much more fun.” Caroline smiled.
“You are probably right, cousin. But where is your sense of adventure?”
“My sense of adventure extends as far as a stroll through the park to the pond to feed the ducks. And maybe a stop for lemonade. Yes, my sense of adventure definitely involves lemonade.”
Lillie laughed. “Okay, I suppose I do need a break. My brain is tired and I feel as if I’m forgetting something important. I can probably use a rest.”
“Come on, we can run through what you’ve packed as we walk.”
Caroline followed Lillie down the wide staircase to the foyer on the first floor. Lillie reached for a small parasol from the pedestal near the front door. One of the household maids watched from the adjacent room. She suspected the staff was all atwitter about the drama that had unfolded in the Ellis family ever since news of Lillie’s departure was met with the pleas from her mother for her to stay.
“Mary, if Mother asks, tell her Caroline and I went for a turn in the park.”
“Yes, Miss Lillie.” Mary stood in the small sitting room with a duster poised midair. Her white apron was smudged all across the front. Lillie’s mother would likely have a comment about that. Mrs. Ellis was a stern matron of the house when it came to cleanliness and appearance, and she was an equally strong advocate for her three daughters when the need called for it.
Lillie’s younger sisters, Emily and Sarah, were no doubt driving their mother to distraction at this very moment. They’d gone dress shopping as soon as the shops had opened. Lillie and Caroline would likely return from the park to find her mother propped up with tea and cake in an attempt to recover from the outing.
Lillie pulled Caroline along by the hand down the front steps. They waited for a carriage to pass and then crossed the street from the stately row of brownstones into the grassy green haven of the park.
Women in spring dresses with light shawls around their shoulders spoke softly to one another. They walked arm-in-arm as they crossed the manicured lawns between the brick paths swept clean of leaves or other debris. A gentleman clad in a dark suit tipped his hat as Lillie and Caroline passed.
The park was awash in the bright yellow-green of spring, and flowers were just beginning to bloom. Clusters of daffodils lined the walkway. Lillie wondered if such lush sanctuaries existed in Kansas or if the frontier was nothing more than a dry straw grass prairie. She couldn’t quite picture it, although she’d read every newspaper story she could get her hands on about frontier settlements to the west. Ever since the moment she found out her uncle had deeded her his homestead.
Her mother had been furious when the news of her inheritance arrived at their home in New York. Lillie’s uncle Winston, her mother’s brother, had for many years been maligned by his more conservative family as a reckless wanderer and dreamer. Winston Gage had taken the government at their word when they offered homesteads to settlers in Kansas and territories to the west. He’d left in search of destiny and a fortune on the frontier.
Maybe it was that Lillie Winston Ellis was named after him, or maybe because she shared his love of adventure, but Winston obviously felt Lillie was a kindred spirit. So when he met with an untimely death from pneumonia he’d left his small Kansas homestead to Lillie.
Even while she mourned the loss of her older brother, Lillie’s mother had cursed him for tempting Lillie away. Lillie’s father owned a shipping company and was currently detained in a port somewhere along the Virginia coast. He would not return for another three weeks. Lillie didn’t think it would be prudent to wait that long to leave. Everything she’d read cautioned against traveling across the prairies too late in the year. She’d penned a very long letter to her father, hoping that since they shared some of the same yearning for travel that he would understand her need to depart before his return.
Lillie’s father had allowed her to nurture a spirit of independence not often granted to young women. He may even have encouraged it. As a man living in a house with four women, maybe he secretly enjoyed that Lillie sometimes shared his interest in travel, politics, and geography.
Having turned twenty-one just three months prior to her uncle’s death, Lillie was of the age to make her own decisions. And against her mother’s persuasive arguments, she’d chosen to travel to the Kansas frontier.
“Are you afraid?”
“What?” Lillie had been lost in thought.
“Afraid? Are you at all afraid to travel so far alone?” Caroline squeezed her arm and leaned into the shade of the parasol that Lillie carried. They neared the pond and took a bench seat to watch the ducks paddle about.
“Maybe I should be more apprehensive, but the truth is I’m excited.”
“I’ve read there are lots of eligible young men on the frontier. The odds will be in your favor.” Caroline smiled mischievously. She was utterly distracted by the opposite sex. She attended every dance she was invited to, and her youthful beauty and grace assured that her dance card was always filled.
Lillie didn’t want to dampen Caroline’s search for romance, but a husband was the last thing on Lillie’s mind. She could think of nothing worse than a man to tend to or make choices for her.
In 1856, the sphere allotted to women was defined by the activities and functions that men thought appropriate for them. Those roles were typically subordinate to men. A young woman had few options in the East that didn’t revolve around marriage and motherhood, and at the moment, Lillie, much to her mother’s exasperation, was interested in neither.
But maybe she’d find men on the frontier more intriguing. The eligible young men in New York seemed occupied only with the acquisition of money, and Lillie found all the bragging about their business acumen boring at best. Never did a young man ask what she planned to do with her life. Either they had no interest in finding out or they assumed she had no aspirations beyond wifedom and motherhood.
“If the men are as dashing and roguishly handsome as I imagine then you must write to me straightaway and I’ll come join you.”
“I think you’ve clearly been reading too many western novellas.” Pulp stories populated newsstands everywhere, but Lillie assumed that most of them were embellished for narrative effect.
“And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see your name on the cover of one. Lillie Winston Ellis and the tales of the wild frontier.” Caroline swept her hand through the air as if she were envisioning the title on a playbill poster.
“I’ll be sure and keep a diary in case the opportunity to publish my memoir presents itself.”
“You’d better.” Caroline bumped her shoulder lightly. “And don’t forget to write me and describe all the handsome men you meet along the way.”
Cody stoked the campfire and sparks rose into the night sky like fireflies. Beside her, Ellen nibbled a wedge of cornbread and pulled the blanket more tightly around her narrow shoulders. Ellen’s face was smudged from dirt mixed with tears. Cody sank back against the saddle, propped on one elbow.
It was only about twenty miles to Aunt Hannah’s place near Davidson, but they’d started late in the day and only made it about eight miles before dark overtook them.
“Do you think Papa is gonna be mad when he wakes up?” Ellen sounded small and far away even though she was sitting right next to Cody.
“I suppose so.” Cody stared at the fire.
“Will he whip us?”
“No, he’s not gonna whip you any more.”
“’Cause we aren’t goin’ back there. And if we aren’t there, we can’t get no whippin’.”
“Do you think Aunt Hannah’s farm is still nice?”
“How long will we stay there?”
“Not sure yet. We’ll have to wait and see.” Cody was trying to say as little as possible to Ellen.
Ellen looked waifish and downright forlorn with her smudged face and hollowed cheeks highlighted by the firelight. Her ragged dress hung loose around her tiny frame, and the sleeves drooped over her stick slim arms. Ellen had cried off and on all afternoon so Cody was trying to get her to settle down and not be afraid.
A child ought not be afraid of her own father.
Fathers should protect their children, raise them up, and cherish them.
“Come here.” Cody motioned for Ellen to curl up next to her.
The saddle was at her back, and she’d used her linen sack of clothing as a pillow. Cody was still feeling the licks her father had given her with the lash so she was gingerly settled onto her side, allowing the painful welts on her back to cool. Ellen sidled over and spooned in front of Cody, facing the ebbing fire. Cody pulled her close and kissed her hair.
“Did you have enough to eat?”
Ellen nodded and pressed her tiny body tightly against Cody’s. She let Ellen keep the blanket. The night was cool but pleasant, and Ellen’s body heat would keep her warm enough.
Cody lay quietly. Ellen’s breathing slowed as she drifted asleep. Cody watched the pulsing coals of the near-dead fire.
Where was she going?
West was a vague notion, and she wasn’t completely sure exactly what a journey to California would involve. Her only thought so far had been to get herself to St. Louis and then find passage upriver to Independence. Her brother had told her that was the jumping off spot for trails heading west. Her older brother, Adam, had been to St. Louis and back once, so she had an idea of how far that was. It would take at least seven or eight days of steady riding. She’d need more food to make that trip.
She’d stolen her father’s horse, which he’d be plenty sore about, probably angrier than he would be about their leaving. Cody’s early childhood had been a happy one. How had things gone so wrong? She could see now that her mother was what kept everything together. Her mother was the thing that mattered most. Not money or schooling or religion, but maternal love had been the thing that had truly created a family.
She’d never been so inconsolable as the night her mother had passed. Cody was eleven, and she remembered the night as if it were yesterday: the temperature of the room, the candle flickering at the bedside, her brothers standing at the foot of the bed, the whimpering cries from Ellen, the aching hole in her chest, and the gaunt, empty expression on her father’s tear-stained face.
At first, it was probably grief that overtook him, and Cody didn’t fault him for it. She’d granted him months to come to terms with it, waiting for the man she’d known as her father to return, but he never did. The grief turned to depression and the depression turned to anger, a deep insatiable rage that nothing could temper except whiskey. And even that was only temporary.
Cody had been grieving too, but there was no time for it because she’d been the only one left to care for Ellen. Maybe that’s what saved her. Ellen was only four at the time of her mother’s death and mostly immune to the sadness that overshadowed the house like the dark cloud that precedes a tornado. Her father’s cloud of angry sadness was just as dangerous as a twister; it just took longer to feel the destructive effects of it.
A tear trailed down Cody’s cheek, and she squeezed her eyes shut against it. She was free and could plot her own course now. She hoped the ghost of her father’s sadness wouldn’t follow her west.
Lillie leaned back in her chair as plates from the evening meal were cleared and tea served. Her mother had hardly taken a breath during dinner as she’d used every opportunity to dissuade Lillie from tomorrow’s early morning departure.
“How can you torture your mother in this way?” Her mother patted at her lips with her cloth napkin as a floral print china teacup was settled onto a saucer in front of her. With her father away, her mother sat at the head of the table and held court over Lillie, her sisters, and her cousin. Her mother’s face was more round than Lillie’s more delicate features. She resembled her father, while her sisters took more after her mother’s side of the family.
“Mother, I don’t wish to torment you, but I will not change my mind. No matter how persuasive your argument.” Lillie rested her hands in her lap. “Please, let’s just have a pleasant evening. It’s Caroline’s last night in New York.” Caroline would be taking the train with Lillie the next morning as far as Philadelphia.
“I wish your father were here. He’d talk some sense into your prideful head.”
“Don’t be fresh with me, young lady.”
“Yes, Mother. Sorry.”
A delicate lemon layered cake was served, and the table fell quiet under its sweet frosted spell. Then Lillie’s youngest sister broke the silence. At sixteen, Emily was easily spooked by anything residing farther than a block from their house. In her mind, dastardly villains lurked around every corner in the city that surrounded their brownstone.
“Do you suppose you’ll see Indians?”
“I suppose I might.” Lillie sipped her tea. She attempted to sound calm so as not to incite her sister’s active imagination further.
“Will you take Father’s pistol along just in case you do?”
“Heavens no! She will do no such thing. No daughter of mine is going to carry a pistol.” Emily sheepishly glanced in her mother’s direction.
Actually, Lillie had thought of taking a pistol, but she knew her mother wouldn’t even discuss it, and she wouldn’t take one of her father’s guns without his permission. But she assumed that once she reached the edge of civilized society a gun might be a very necessary thing to have. She’d have a certain amount of cash from her uncle’s estate for the procurement of supplies once she reached Missouri. Lillie had decided to deal with the gun question once she arrived in Independence.
“I think Lillie would look just grand with a holster strapped to her hip like some lady outlaw.” Lillie frowned at Sarah, who at eighteen wasn’t afraid of anything. She knew Sarah was just joking to get more of a rise out of her mother, and it was working. Her mother swooned in the chair, the dark fabric of her long skirt spread out around her, and she fanned her plump red face with her napkin. She looked as if she might faint.
“Will you be sure and keep a diary of sketches and send us a drawing of the first frontier savage you meet?” A grin spread across Sarah’s face as she watched her mother’s reaction to the request.
“Oh Lord in heaven, deliver me!” Her mother howled, and Lillie was afraid she might actually slip from her chair as she slouched lower. Lillie stood quickly and stroked her mother’s wrist with her napkin that she’d just dipped in cool water.
“Now, Mother, you must calm down. Sarah is only teasing.” Lillie glared at Sarah while her mother’s eyes were closed. “I’m sure I’ll keep a sketch diary of all the beautiful summer flowers on the prairie and no doubt the many lovely birds I’ll encounter.” She attempted to paint a much less frightening mental image for her excitable mother.
Lillie loved to draw and paint. By age ten, she had decided to become an artist, and her father had arranged for her to receive private art instruction from a local watercolorist.
Washington Square and Greenwich Village were the hubs of cultural life in New York City. Many of the artists of the Hudson River School had settled around Washington Square, and one of them, John Weathers, had been hired as Lillie’s painting tutor.
The Hudson River School was an art movement, a group of landscape painters influenced by romanticism in Europe. The subjects for most of the paintings for which the movement was named depicted the Hudson River Valley and surrounding areas, including the Catskill, Adirondack, and the White Mountains.
Initially, Lillie had been a diligent and ambitious student, but she’d abandoned the idea of pursuing a career as an artist several months earlier in frustration. She felt she could never distinguish herself as an artist within this derivative tradition that had formed the foundation of her art training. As a woman, she feared she would never be taken seriously as a painter and especially not doing work she considered unoriginal. She was willing to forsake the high-minded art scene in New York for room to breathe.
Lillie reasoned that it was no wonder her work felt imitative. She’d never really been anywhere on her own. She’d never done anything that could be considered bold or courageous. Polite society fervently discouraged such behavior in young women.
Well-meaning critics had referred to her paintings as girlish and pretty. That description haunted her. On the frontier, might she find the opportunity to be both pretty and fearless? She hoped so.
She’d carefully packed pigment and paper in the hopes that the western landscape would help her find her artistic voice.
“Why don’t we move to the study and Sarah can read something?” Lillie was grateful to Caroline for the distraction.
“Come along, Mother. We’ll get you settled in a more comfortable chair.”
Cody saw a thin thread of smoke rising above the treetops before she actually laid eyes on Aunt Hannah’s cabin.
They rode along the rutted dirt road for another half mile before the cabin came into view. The rustic structure was nestled in a grassy clearing, bordered on one side by thick woods and a small fenced enclosure on the other, between the dwelling and the barn.
The cabin was built from oak logs and was about sixteen to eighteen feet square, its size likely being limited by the length of the log that could be carried by two men. The roof was made of split shingles, and pieces of shingle had been used to chink the spaces between the logs. A stone chimney was located at one of the gable ends, and a centered door stood at right angles to the ridgepole.
There was a small animal enclosure that opened into the barn, a corncrib, and a smokehouse. But the thin trail of smoke Cody had seen was from the cabin’s chimney.
Cody hadn’t seen her aunt since her cousin’s funeral, which had been nearly two years now. Cody’s cousin Charlie, who was born only three months ahead of her, had been taken with the fever. He was only sixteen when he passed.
“Hello in the house,” Cody called from the saddle, keeping a respectable distance from the narrow, long porch.
After a few minutes, the rough wooden door opened and Hannah peered out. “Who you be?”
“Aunt Hannah, it’s Cody and Ellen.” Cody held onto Ellen’s hand as she slid down from the saddle and then Cody dismounted.
“Well, I’ll be! I didn’t recognize you.” Hannah walked toward them. “Why Lord, child, you’re thin as a rail.” Hannah touched Ellen’s hair. “And, Ellen, how you’ve grown. You must be twelve by now.”
Ellen nodded shyly.
Cody was hungry, that was for sure. And something was on her aunt’s cook fire. The scent of fried meat wafted from the open door. Cody held Shadow’s reins loosely and awkwardly shifted her weight from foot to foot under her aunt’s inquisitive gaze. She thought Hannah looked thin and pale also. She seemed to have aged ten years during the two years since Cody had seen her last. She figured losing your only son took a lot of life out of a person.
“Well, come on in. I was just fixin’ dinner and I’ve got enough for y’all. Lord knows it looks as if a stiff wind could blow you over.” Hannah motioned for them to follow her. “Your uncle Eli should be back tomorrow. He went to see about a calf.”
Cody tied Shadow to a post at the front of the house and followed Hannah into the dark interior. Ellen clung to Cody.
“Don’t be shy. This is your aunt Hannah. You know her.” Cody tried to pry Ellen off, but Ellen only clung more tightly.
“Come here, surgah, let me have a look at you.” Hannah took a seat at the table and held out her arms. “Come on now. I’m not gonna bite.”
Ellen eased over and allowed herself to be examined. Hannah brushed Ellen’s long blond hair off her face and smoothed at the front of her crumpled dress.
“We were hoping we could stay for the night.” Cody didn’t want to say everything just now, not in front of Ellen. Her aunt gave her a questioning look.
“Well, of course you’ll stay the night. Now let me put another bit of pork in the skillet.” She stood but kept her hand affectionately at Ellen’s back. “You want to help me with supper while Cody sees to the horse?”
Ellen nodded and smiled up at Hannah.
Cody’s stomach tightened. Not from hunger this time, but for Ellen’s loss. She’d never gotten the chance to grow up knowing the comfort of their mother, and she could see now how great a depravation that was. Ellen’s face seemed to brighten at the suggestion that she could help in some way.
Dinner consisted of bits of pork fried in lard and biscuits. It was the best meal Cody had eaten in days.
The rustic cabin was warm and clean and cozy, with flooring made from split logs, rounded side down. Candlelight from the lantern that hung over the center of the wide plank table cast the room in a soft golden hue. A breeze from the window brought with it a scent of grass and the sounds of night approaching. Tree frogs and cicadas serenaded them as Cody wiped the last remnant of pork from her plate with a biscuit.
Cody worried that she was poor dinner company as she’d hardly looked up from her plate. Hannah had asked Ellen questions while they ate, and Cody realized that she wasn’t much of a talker herself. It was clear by the sparkle in her eye and the way she hung on Hannah’s every word that Ellen was starved for motherly female attention.
“Ellen, why don’t I get you settled in for the night?”
Cody had questions she’d been holding for her aunt. She didn’t want to ask them in front of Ellen. She knew she wouldn’t have to wait long to talk more openly with her aunt because Ellen’s eyes had gotten progressively more heavy lidded during dinner. A hot meal and two days in the open had taken a toll. Ellen looked as if she was about to fall asleep right in her chair.
Cody sipped coffee and watched Hannah settle Ellen in a low bed along the back corner of the open room, which was divided by handmade quilts strung along lines from side to side.
Hannah was her mother’s older sister. They resembled each other in both looks and manner. During supper, Cody couldn’t help watching Hannah’s hands. Hannah’s movements were so similar to her mother’s. However, unlike the way she remembered her mother, Hannah’s hands and face were creased and weathered from age. Her gray hair was pulled tightly into a knot at the back of her head, and her gingham cotton dress was clean but worn so thin in spots that the fabric had lost its color.
Hannah said something softly to Ellen that Cody couldn’t hear and then kissed her on the cheek. She pulled the quilt across the space beside the table to block the light so Ellen could sleep and then returned to the table.
“I think she was asleep before her head hit the pillow.” Hannah poured more coffee for both of them and then took a seat across from Cody.
Her aunt didn’t say anything right away. She was probably waiting for Cody to volunteer some clue as to why she and Ellen had shown up out of the blue and asked to spend the night.
“We can’t go back home.” Cody hadn’t really sorted out exactly what she was going to say to Hannah, and rather than ease into the conversation, she just blurted out the words. She tried to speak quietly so that Ellen wouldn’t hear.
“Did something happen to your daddy? Is he sick?” Cody couldn’t quite figure out the tone of Hannah’s voice, but she was fairly sure it wasn’t concern or empathy.
“He’s sick, but not in the way you mean.”
“I see.” Hannah pursed her lips into a thin line. She held the cup aloft with both hands and studied Cody. She took a sip of her coffee. “Is he drinkin’ then?”
“I shoulda gone sooner to see about you girls. I shoulda done that for sure.” She looked away from Cody as if she was studying something in the coals on the hearth. “I owed my sister that much.”
“It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is.” Cody didn’t want Hannah to feel bad for something that she couldn’t have known. Cody figured it was more her fault for not leaving sooner. She was old enough to know better, but she’d been afraid to leave until now. But she wasn’t going to be afraid any more. Fear wasn’t ever going to run her life again.
“Well, you girls will stay here with us. That’s all there is to it. Eli will want you to stay.”
“Hannah, I’m moving on.” Cody tried to sound more confident than she felt.
“California.” Cody took a long swallow of coffee, leaned forward, and rested her elbows on the edge of the plank table. “I was thinking I’d ride as far as St. Louis, find some work, and then, well, work my way west and meet up with Adam and James. They were headed to San Francisco.”
Hannah sat silent. Her eyes bored into Cody from across the table in the low light. Cody thought Hannah might be formulating an argument for why she should stay, but the argument never came.
“You could have Charlie’s clothes if you like, and his other things.” Hannah spoke softly, almost as if she was conspiring about something and was afraid someone would overhear.
The offer surprised Cody, and it probably showed on her face.
“Us women folk are handicapped by our sex,” said Hannah.
Truer words were never spoken, and she’d already thought the same thing on more than one occasion. There were logical and pragmatic reasons for a woman to dress like a man. Putting on men’s clothing, a woman might enjoy increased freedoms and the opportunities to find work that paid.
“Women are usually bound down by domestic chores, but you aren’t.” Hannah placed her hand lightly over Cody’s.
“I had considered dressing like a boy. Dressed like I am now I’d almost pass for one.” Cody couldn’t believe Hannah was also suggesting she disguise herself as male. The fact that Hannah readily suggested it made Cody almost believe she could pull it off.
“I daresay putting on a jacket and trousers is a quicker way to achieve equal suffrage than waiting for the vote.”
Cody and Hannah both laughed.
She’d had no idea Hannah was such a rebel. Maybe her mother had been the same, but she’d never known her when she was old enough to understand such things.
“You would need to walk and talk and swear like a man. You think you could do that?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Cody tipped back in her chair, with her thumbs in the waist of her trousers. “What I meant to say was, hell yes.”
Cody tipped forward and ran her fingers through her hair. She felt a bit bashful under Hannah’s perusal.
“You’ve got no curves to speak of, and I could cut your hair a bit for you.” Hannah motioned for Cody to stand up and then turned her about. “You’re tall enough and you’ve got broad shoulders. You’re thin, but that will only help you pass.” Hannah slowly circled her. “You’ve got no beard, but folks would likely just chalk that up to youth.”
Cody thought she could pass, and it seemed like Hannah did too. Her arms were lean but strong. She could fight as good as any man her size. She’d taken her older brothers down a notch or two from time to time. Of course, they’d put her on her butt, too.
If other places were like Arkansas, remote and restless, then no one would likely look too closely or ask too many questions. It seemed people liked to keep to themselves about personal matters. Cody found most people to be so walled off that they hardly knew each other at all, unless they were close kin, and sometimes even that couldn’t bridge the remoteness.
“You get some rest and we’ll see about Charlie’s things in the morning.” Hannah tenderly laid her hand on Cody’s cheek.
“What if Papa comes looking for Ellen?” Cody knew she couldn’t leave until she felt sure Ellen would be protected.
“Don’t you worry about Ellen. We’ll keep her safe. Eli and me will be glad to have a child on the place. Don’t you worry.”
Lillie clung to Caroline longer than was necessary. She wondered if Caroline sensed her reluctance to release her. Because once she did, Lillie knew she would truly be on her own. And she knew once she was alone her mind would fill with thoughts of what challenges lay ahead of her. Some she probably couldn’t even imagine.
“You can always change your mind and stay here with me for a while. Philadelphia is beautiful in the springtime.”
“Don’t tempt me.” Lillie stepped back and fussed with the front of her dress. “I think it’s all just becoming real. I’m traveling to the edge of civilization.” She paused. “I own a homestead in Kansas.”
“When you say it that way, even I feel nervous.”
Caroline hugged her again. “You take care of yourself, Lillie.”
“And write me lots of letters about your adventures.”
Caroline held her at arm’s length. “And find yourself a dashing frontiersman while you’re at it.”
Lillie shook her head. “I should be so lucky.”
“Mark my words, Lillie Ellis. You’re a catch. You’ll be turning down offers left and right before you even reach St. Louis.”
“Okay, now I know you’ve been standing in the sun too long.” Lillie climbed up the first two steps to the train compartment. Steam drifted past and brakes released loudly a few cars ahead of where they were. Then the cars lurched forward, slowed, and edged forward again. Lillie waved to Caroline from the open door. “Wish me luck!”
“You won’t need it!” Caroline blew her a kiss.
Cody knelt down and hugged Ellen tight, then held her with outstretched arms so she could look at her face.
“You look different in Charlie’s clothes.”
“Do I?” Cody removed her hat and ran her fingers through her hair. Hannah had given her a good trim right after breakfast. “I needed to borrow these things for my trip. Charlie’s jacket is much warmer than mine.”
“You look good.”
“Thank you.” She held Ellen’s face in her hands. “You mind Aunt Hannah.”
Ellen nodded and looked as if she was about to cry.
“Don’t you be sad, Ellen. Things are gonna be better for us now, you’ll see.”
“But I want to go with you.” Ellen pleaded softly.
“I’ll come back and see you, okay? And in the meantime, I’ll write. But for now you can’t go with me because I don’t know where I’m going to end up.” Cody brushed a wisp of hair behind Ellen’s ear. “Listen, Aunt Hannah needs you. Do you think you could stay and help her and Uncle Eli out for a while?”
Ellen nodded. Tears were gathering at her lashes, and Cody didn’t think she could hold hers in check if Ellen truly broke down and clung to her. Luckily, Hannah edged closer and put her hands affectionately on Ellen’s shoulders.
“We’re going to make Ellen a new dress, first thing. Would you like that, Ellen?”
Ellen’s expression brightened as she looked up at Hannah.
“I’ve got some fabric I’ve been saving for something special, and I think this is the time to pull it out.” Hannah looked at Cody. “You don’t worry about us girls. We’re gonna be just fine.”
Cody swallowed down the knot in her throat. She never thought she’d be the sort of person to leave her sister with anyone else, but she really had no choice. She could hardly look after herself, and there was no way they could stay one more day with their father. No, she’d made the right decision. And once she made a place for herself out West, she’d send for Ellen.
“You should get going. You’ve got a long ride ahead of you.” Hannah handed Cody a linen sack of dried beef jerky and the leftover biscuits from their breakfast.
Charlie’s gear was already stowed behind the saddle in two leather bags. There was a bedroll, and Hannah had given her Charlie’s bowie knife along with two cans of beans that she could spare.
Cody pulled her hat low enough to shadow her eyes and nodded one last time before she climbed into the saddle. She pointed Shadow toward the rutted road.
“You take care of yourself, Cody Walsh,” Hannah called out to her. “You remember that you are your mother’s daughter. You hold your head high.”
She waved back at them and then turned away so that Ellen wouldn’t see her cry. She couldn’t help herself now. The mention of her beloved mother had brought the knot to her throat again that she’d tried her best to choke down. She let the tears come. It felt good to let go.
Shadow snorted. She patted his neck and spoke softly as much to herself as to him. “We’re going to be okay, boy. We’re going to be okay.”
Lillie found travel by train exhilarating.
The wooden seat was hard, and every so often she’d have to stand up and walk the length of the car to stretch her back, but still, her spirits were high. This was an adventure and she planned to relish every minute of it.
She’d sketched and made notes in her diary all along the way. Each segment of her journey presented a landscape unfamiliar to her, as she’d previously never traveled farther west than Philadelphia. Other passengers were as foreign and unknown as the landscape, and when they were unaware, she sketched their faces and clothing; she even jotted down bits of conversation.
As a woman traveling alone, she was ever aware of her surroundings and cautious with strangers, especially men. But she didn’t feel afraid. Somehow she felt empowered by her newfound freedom in the world.
She had accepted a post as a schoolteacher to at least partially support her westward move. She wasn’t so naïve that she didn’t realize she knew next to nothing about owning or maintaining a farm. She hoped teaching would provide a certain amount of income until she figured things out. It seemed frontier communities were hard-pressed for teachers so her application had been readily accepted.
Her plan was to travel by train to St. Louis and then by steamboat up the Missouri River to Independence, where she would meet with her uncle’s estate attorney. He’d been the one to arrange the teaching position for her. He’d been extremely helpful in every way during their correspondence. If she looked at the trip all at once she’d have been overwhelmed by it, so she reasoned she would only focus on each small section of the journey as it unfolded.
First she’d focus on getting to St. Louis. Then she’d book passage by steamship up the Missouri. Once she arrived in Independence, she’d meet with her uncle’s attorney and finalize details for the last leg of her trip. How hard could that be?
Lillie had slowly walked the length of the car twice and settled back into her seat to look out the window. Don’t let the details overwhelm you. She coached herself as she watched the landscape sweep past.
“Did you do that drawing?” A female voice pulled Lillie’s attention away from the window. It took her a moment to realize why the girl was asking. Then she looked down to see that her diary had fallen open. The loose sketch paper had slipped to one side and was visible on the seat next to her. “Yes, those are my sketches.”
“Sorry, miss, my daughter is too inquisitive sometimes.” A man walked up behind the teen, placing a hand on each of her shoulders.
“It’s no problem. Are you interested in art?” asked Lillie.
The young woman sat on the bench seat across from her. “Yes, very much. But I don’t draw as well as you. I’m Anna.”
“My name is Lillie.”
“This is my father. We’re traveling to Columbus and then taking the stage west.” Anna’s father took the seat next to her.
Lillie wondered if they’d just gotten on the train in Pittsburgh. If they’d been in her compartment for very long she was sure she’d have noticed Anna, who had a mane of red hair that hung almost to her waist. Her fingers were slender and delicate, and her neck was thin and elegant. She was strikingly beautiful.
“My daughter saw you sketching shortly after we got on the train. Sorry for the intrusion. I’m James McElvy.” He tipped his dark felt hat to Lillie.
“Lillie Ellis. Pleased to meet you both.”
“May I look at your drawings?” Anna asked. Lillie hadn’t really been inclined to share the sketches, but Anna’s sweet open expression won her over.
“Of course.” She handed the small book to Anna, who held it reverently with both hands, then slowly began to leaf through the pages, pausing to study each one.
“Are you meeting family in Columbus?” Lillie watched Mr. McElvy as he looked at his daughter. It was obvious that he doted on her.
“My wife will be joining us in a few months. She had to stay back with her sister, who isn’t well.” He fingered the brim of his hat in his lap. “We’re planning to homestead in Oklahoma. Anna and I will go on ahead by wagon to stake the claim.”
“And you? Are you traveling to Columbus also?”
“I’m taking the train as far as St. Louis. And then on to Kansas.”
“Well, then, maybe our wagons will pass on the prairie.” He smiled broadly.
“Perhaps they will.”
It was another twenty miles from Hannah’s place to the Missouri border and then another day’s ride to Greenville. Cody decided to stop and get a few more supplies. In another day she’d have run through everything Hannah had given her.
This would be her first encounter with anyone who wasn’t family. The first time she presented herself as a man. Nerves gathered in her gut like a clenched fist as she eased Shadow past the livery and then the blacksmith’s shop. She dismounted in front of the only mercantile along the main thoroughfare and tied Shadow to the hitch out front.
Cody pretended to adjust some tie near the saddlebag, but really she was just taking a moment to settle. She took a few deep breaths and then climbed the plank steps up to the long covered porch.
The one-story building was a combination of split logs and hewed timber. The hinges squeaked and the door banged shut behind her. A gray haired man talking with a customer looked in her direction but then turned back to his conversation at the counter.
It took Cody several minutes of feeling like every eye in the place was on her to realize no one was looking at her. One man muttered howdy as he stepped past her to exit. She’d simply nodded a greeting as he passed.
The wall behind the counter was covered with shelving, full of canned goods, flour, and other sundries. Cody studied the goods doing the math in her head to figure out what she could afford.
“Can I help you with something, sir?” A young woman stood nearby, on the other side of the counter. Cody felt the woman’s eyes on her and heat rose to her neck. She tugged her hat lower over her eyes and tried to act natural. At this point, what did that even mean?
Just relax; she doesn’t even know you. Cody cleared her throat and shifted her stance so that she took a step away from the counter.
“I can get whatever you need. Just let me know when you’re ready.”
“Could I get three cans of beans, a pound of cornmeal, and a half pound of coffee?” Cody tried to look at the objects on the wall, rather than make eye contact with the clerk.
“Do you need the coffee ground?”
“Yes, please.” Cody’s heart rate began to slow to normal. The woman hadn’t given her a second glance. Cody willed herself to relax. She sank her hands in her pockets and looked around the store. It seemed no one was watching her. She’d felt as if she were under a bright light, as if everyone were staring at her, as if she were on a stage, when the reality was all anyone saw were breeches and boots. No one seemed to really look at her.
Maybe she’d looked like a boy all along. Maybe even more than she’d realized. Kids had teased her back home. Even her brothers had taunted her saying she’d secretly wanted to be a boy every time she picked a fight with them. Had they been right? Did she want to be boy? Not really. Cody liked herself, but she realized the moment she tossed her dress aside for trousers, that it was the clothes that had been the problem. Pants definitely made Cody feel more like herself than dresses, which had never felt natural.
“Do you need anything else?” The woman placed the items on the worn wooden counter.
“No, that’s it.” Cody fished in her pocket for coins and handed them to the woman. Her fingers brushed lightly against the woman’s hand and she smiled at Cody.
“Have a nice day.”
“Thanks.” Cody gathered the cans, coffee, and meal and once outside, packed them into the saddlebag.
Cody had passed the first test. It had hardly even been a test. The tension across her neck and shoulders began to ease, and she relaxed into the saddle as Shadow ambled up the dusty road.
There was a horse trail winding northeast from the edge of town. She’d follow it as it cut across the hills from Greenville to the main trail heading north all the way to St. Louis.
She rode on until dusk and then made camp.