The train car lurched, and I slammed against the edge of my seat, grabbing anything I could to avoid a very unladylike tumble onto the dirty floor. I bumped my arm on the iron seat rail and bit my lip to avoid crying out.
“You all right, miss?” The gentleman sitting across from me tried to hide his smile as he acted like he hadn’t seen me almost go shoulders over petticoats.
I nodded and brushed off my arm. “I’m fine.” I wasn’t fine, but I wasn’t going to tell him how much my arm hurt. Tomorrow, I’d have a new bruise to go with all the others I’d gotten on the train ride. First-class, my eye. You’d think we were traveling along a dry creek bed. Sure, the inside of the car was pretty as a parlor, with polished wood and gas lanterns, but the bumps and shudders of the train took away any illusion of being in a fine home.
The man was still gawking at me, so I turned away from him and pretended to straighten my skirts. I was used to men trying to make a mash on me, and I could handle myself one way or another, but the trip had tired me out and I didn’t want to deal with a man with his britches in a knot. And I wasn’t going to give him any satisfaction.
Besides, I’d heard all the warnings about talking to strange men while traveling alone, and he’d been staring at me off and on since he boarded. Didn’t matter he was dressed in his Sunday best and looked like a proper gentleman—sometimes those men were the worst. I didn’t trust any of them.
The train chugged along the rails, smoother than a stagecoach ride, but still rough enough that my stomach churned with every jerk and jolt of the car. Sweet tobacco ripened the coal-smoked air and I sniffed, trying for a breath of fresh air. Not that I didn’t like the smell of tobacco—I did, but some things a woman had to give up when she was getting married.
Tobacco was one of those things.
I peeked to see where the smoke was coming from. The man who’d enjoyed seeing me tossed about the train like a sack of potatoes had a long, fat cigar in his teeth. Of course, it was him. From the smell, it wasn’t a cheap tobacco roll, either. I’d certainly not ever had the opportunity for such a fancy smoke.
“Final stop coming up—Illinois Town!” I heard the conductor coming down the aisle from the back of the car, and when he passed by my seat, he paused and glanced at his gold pocket watch. “Bout forty-five minutes till we pull in.” He scanned the few passengers then tipped his cap to me and ducked under the door curtain into the next car.
I couldn’t wait to get to the station. I was hungry and wanted to feel the steady ground under my feet. I settled back in my seat and watched the world slide by out the window. Though the stove kept the car warm, someone had their window open to the chill air and I crossed my arms to stay warm. A blur of bright green grasses and a blue sky filled my view out the window. The land here was so different from Boston. The fresh garden rows on the small farms we passed were darker brown, not yellowish or orangish.
Springtime was the time for new crops, and I hoped it’d be so for me, even though by most standards, I was no longer a freshly planted daisy. Still, I had the advantage of looking much younger than my years, or so I was told. I could play the part for sure.
The conductor’s voice called out again somewhere forward in the train cars, partly muffled by the sounds of steam and gears forcing the iron horse forward, and the occasional squeal of the tracks. Everyone had to get off the train in Illinois Town and those traveling in the fancy car I was in were already gathering their things. Porters or butlers would get their valises and many of them would look for the comforts of back East in the little town before heading out in stagecoaches or wagon trains to their final destinations. I knew my journey was going to get more complicated, but I had to do what I had to do.
I slipped my gloves on and straightened the soft fabric around my wrists. I’d chosen a deep blue calico dress to wear on the trip since it wasn’t too heavy but still gave me the modesty and comfort I needed. Plus, it had pockets and was easy to wash. I had one silk dress packed in case I needed it, but if I was going to live in the west, I needed to dress like I belonged.
Chicago Alton Railroad made the first leg of my western trip possible from northern Illinois to Illinois Town where I would catch a tug across the wide Mississippi to St. Louis to start the second leg of my long journey. I’d made the trip from Boston to Chicago a couple of times, so I wasn’t really counting that part of the trip as a journey into the unknown.
This part of the trip certainly was new. I’d never seen such a fancy train car before.
My breath caught in my throat and my heartbeat pounded in my neck. I couldn’t help but be excited, although I still didn’t know if I was doing the right thing or completely ruining my life. Leaving Boston and heading to Chicago had felt like closing a door, and boarding a train headed west felt like I was finally forging my own future. A new future.
At least that’s what I told myself.
Before I’d boarded the train, I was sure I was making the right decision, and I’d still been confident when we’d stopped in Bloomington. Doubt hadn’t begun to creep in until the train pulled into Springfield.
An older woman had boarded the train there, her wavy gray hair cinched up in a poor semblance of a bun. Her eyes widened in fright as she came down the aisle, and she kept stealing glances behind her till she got to her seat and sat down. Maybe it was her first train trip. Or maybe she was nervous about being alone.
When a couple of young guns boarded the train and started teasing her with inappropriate comments and donkey laughter, I was again reminded of the dangers of a woman traveling alone.
As if I didn’t know already. My uncle had warned me daily for at least a fortnight before I left. The danger was one of the reasons I was on the train and taking the crazy journey to begin with—so I’d never have to travel alone again.
I’d studied the woman’s demeanor and ducked my head as the young guns passed by. They laughed and continued into another train car, satisfied they’d frightened her or gotten their thrill at making a woman quake. The older woman had huddled in her seat, her shoulders heaving with quiet crying and her delicate handkerchief pressed to her cheeks like a surrender flag.
I wished I could’ve consoled her but calling attention to the situation could easily cause more of a problem. I smiled at her, and she gave me a brief look of connection. We both knew that it didn’t matter if it was a train or a city square, there would always be the men who thought women existed only for their amusement.
Heat crept into my cheeks, and I fumed as I thought about the incident. Men like the smoking man across the aisle really annoyed me. They took up more than their share of space in the world and they pushed women right out of it.
As if to punctuate my annoyance, the train whistle sounded. My car was near the back of the line of cars, being as it was a luxury class seat, but the whistle was clear and mournful for all to hear.
We were almost at the end of the line. There were a few trains west of St. Louis, but they were short distance trains, and apparently, the best place to get a wagon train was right outside St. Louis. I didn’t mind.
I reached into the pocket of my dress and pressed a finger against the newspaper ad originally posted by Mr. Raymond Buchanan in the Boston Herald so many months ago. I’d hardly been able to believe it when I saw it, and if it hadn’t been printed in the paper, I wouldn’t have.
A thousand dollars to any unwed woman who agreed to move to the Utah territory and marry.
A thousand dollars. That was… well, almost more money than I’d ever seen, more than I could imagine. And at forty years old, this was probably my last chance to marry.
Not because I hadn’t been asked. I had.
To this point, I’d chosen to be alone instead of marrying one of the eastern men who weren’t so much men at all. Uncle Silas had pointed out their soft hands, pretty nails, and coiffed hair as an indication that they’d ever done a day of labor in their lives. Most lived to drink, spending all their money on cards, women, and whiskey. Certainly not the type I’d ever been interested in. My parents had been hard-working, and my dad had never turned away from taking care of whatever needed to be done to take care of his family. Though they’d died so long ago, their tenacity and work ethic still lived on in my mind, and I really couldn’t imagine being married to someone who wasn’t strong in values, intellect, and physicality.
I didn’t want to marry a man who was too weak or lazy to plant a garden or help an injured horse or build a fence. I wasn’t impressed by those men in banking or other soft jobs either. Something about a man whose strength was both mental and physical appealed to me and the ones that could also discuss philosophy and science? I could swoon. And I hadn’t found the right combination in any man so far—not even nearly so.
Would this newspaper ad be the turning point?
I pushed the errant strands of hair from my face and leaned toward the window. The monotonous landscape slipped by, changing in color to something…deader. Clouds filled the bright blue sky, turning it into wan swirls of gray and deeper gray. A pall settled over the whole view like someone cast a net of ash over everything. Was it a premonition of what my trip would be like? A chill slithered up my spine and I clenched my jaw.
I didn’t want to think so, but I was on a journey of foolishness if Uncle Silas was to be believed. A journey of insanity. I really think he believed I had finally lost my mind.
But Mr. Buchanan was promising a lot of money for a wife. Up to fifteen hundred dollars for the right person, and I had to figure out how to make that person me. That’s what I did best—I adapted. I didn’t need Uncle Silas’s permission. Not in this case.
He needed my help now, and I was doing this for him—he had done so much for me. Not many single uncles would take on the care and tending of a young niece in her parents’ stead. Uncle Silas, as overprotective as he could sometimes be, was special.
I closed my eyes for a few moments of rest. The trip had been long, and I hadn’t slept much overnight.
One thing I was sure of. No way would I marry for any reason other than to save Silas from losing everything he’d worked for his entire life. And if I had to be married to a man like Buchanan—a man who made his fortunes on the backs of others—then I would do it.
And this Mr. Buchanan, well, he had some serious faith in his cause. A thousand dollars, maybe even fifteen hundred! There were probably more than a few Bostonian women who’d wished they weren’t already married when they saw the ad in the paper, as most of their husbands probably weren’t worth a gold dollar.
The early bird might get the worm, but the evening owl got the fat and juicy caterpillar. I was fine with being the evening owl if I could help my uncle.
The always-leering smoking man in the seat across from me coughed and rustled about in his seat like he might be trying to capture my attention. I didn’t look. We were almost at the station, and no proper lady would make a fuss, so I sat with my hands folded on my lap, my ankles crossed under the layers of my dress.
The letter, the one inviting me to join Mr. Buchanan in Carson City, burned in my pocket. I had a few more letters and his fancy quarter plate daguerreotype in my case. I’d sent him a sixth plate daguerreotype in return because a quarter plate was just too expensive. I would’ve gotten a cheaper tintype made, but Silas thought I should go with the older, but nicer type of image, so I got fancied up and sat for the plate.
Thanks to the new Pony Express, I’d been able to correspond with Mr. Buchanan in ways I couldn’t have through telegraph, and I was grateful not to be going out to meet a complete stranger. The fact he’d spend the five dollars to send a letter, and prepay my responses to him, including the cost of sending the picture, was proof he wasn’t just blowing smoke. Add in first-class train tickets and other perks, and it was easy to believe he was sincere.
He had the money to follow through with payment and as long as he was a decent man, that was all that mattered. Uncle Silas needed the money, and Mr. Buchanan had it. Who said marriage wasn’t transactional? It’s always seemed so to me, even for people who loved each other.
Thanks to those letters, I felt like I knew Mr. Buchanan. Not that I liked him, mind you, but that I knew him.
Mr. Buchanan, with his office job and money, didn’t seem much like Uncle Silas, who’d taught me to rope and ride livestock, shoot, and even play cards. I learned how to drink like a man and know when a man’s had enough to drink. I could shoot the wings off a fly at eighty paces and even now had a silver derringer tucked in my stocking garter.
No man would get one over on me, ever. Husband be damned.
Silas had taught me that, too. He taught me that I had to fend for myself and that I couldn’t always count on other people to rescue me. My parents died when I was eleven, and Silas, my only living relative, had come to care for me.
The man had stood like he was unfolding his long limbs from a black powder keg. He wasn’t old at the time, but also not young like my father, who I hadn’t been able to think of without crying. I swallowed the tears and breathed in deep. This was my Uncle Silas. At least someone had come to care for me.
At eleven, everyone had looked tall, but Silas had been a mountain blocking the sun from my sight, a giant with black hair and a skinny mustache so unlike my father’s clean-shaven face, though they’d been brothers.
I’d held out my hand, ever proper, and bowed my head. “Mr. Lowell.”
He’d chuckled and the sound had rasped before he’d wiped his smile away and took my hand. “Miss Lowell.” He’d returned the bow and walked beside me when I turned. I’d held my parasol rather daintily, and he’d walked beside me, his uneven gait brushing into it on occasion. I remember the swish-swish of my petticoat and the scrape of his boots on the dirt.
Those first few months had been awkward.
He had no idea what to do with me, or I with him, but then I’d caught him outside with a gun and some tin cans set in a row on a log. He’d pulled back the little thumb piece—I hadn’t even known what it was called—and fire had exploded from the barrel.
I’d yelped or jerked or gasped—something utterly ladylike—and he’d turned, his face ashen, mouth slack. “I’m sorry, young miss. I didn’t realize you were yet home from your studies.” His speech had often been uneven as if he’d been trying to sound more refined than he truly was. I’d appreciated the effort even if not the skill.
“What are you doing?” I’d sounded much haughtier than had been appropriate.
“Practicing.” He’d nodded to the gun. “Like to try?”
I glanced at the pearl handle and long barrel and then at the log with four cans still standing.
“May I?” I hadn’t known if there were rules or laws about ladies shooting guns, but without my schooling, I’d been terribly bored. And I wasn’t due to start the new school until the following week. This had looked like quite a good way to pass the time.
Silas had handed me the gun—a revolver, he’d called it—then he’d moved to stand behind me. “Move your feet apart to the width of your shoulders.” He’d put a hand on each of my shoulders and pulled. “Keep these back, strong.”
“Is this good?” I raised the revolver in front of me.
“Yeah. When you’re ready, look straight down the barrel. Line that little sight up with your target. Be as still as you can then shoot.”
I nodded and pulled back the heavy hammer like he’d done, then squeezed the trigger. I closed my eyes. It had happened so quickly. The bullet ricocheted off a trunk somewhere further down the line of trees. Good thing his home place was outside the main part of the city.
He’d only chuckled. “Try again.” But this time, he pressed my arms a few inches lower. “Put that right in the center.”
When I’d fired, the can tinged to the ground and I’d spun around, gun still aimed, but hammer not at the ready. Silas had carefully removed the gun from my hand as I hugged him and squealed with delight. It’d been my first dead aim shot. And our first hug. The first time we bonded. Certainly not the last.
That same night, he’d taught me to play poker. “We call queens the ladies. So, if you have a full boat of queens and fours, you’d say, ‘read ‘em and weep, you bastards, ladies over fours!’” He’d chewed his cigar and slapped his cards on the table. “Then you take your shot of whiskey, and you turn your glass upside down as you take the pot.” His grin had been infectious. I’d wanted to do just as he did, all the time. “Confidence and bluffing. That’s about all poker is.” By the end of the evening, I’d won four of his dollars and his hat.
He’d smiled at me with that endearing grin of his. “You’re going to do fine here, Miss Claire. Just fine.”
It’d been the highest praise I’d ever gotten, and I’d basked in it for a second before the refined woman in me poked out her head. “Thank you, sir.”
He’d shaken his head. “Off to bed with you now. We have work in the morning.”
At the time, I hadn’t known what work was.
Turned out to be another of those things Uncle Silas taught me.