Delia Eastman returns home from teachers’ college with two goals: find a teaching position and sidestep her mother’s insistence on finding her a husband. But employers don’t care for women who are smarter than they. Neither do suitors. As she struggles to find her place, she discovers her sleepy riverboat town has turned into a powder-keg of rivalry between the steamships and the railroads.
Increasingly violent vandalism on the railroad brings her face-to-face with Endy Webster, a handsome trainmaster whose investigation into the crimes leads him to the door of a prominent steamship owner—Delia’s father.
If she could do it with impunity, Delia Eastman would blow up the entire railroad. Unfortunately, such action would be injudicious, not to mention illegal.
Walking along the platform of the new train station, she glared at the offending conveyance. At least she tried to. She could barely see around the pressed felt bonnet she wore. She loosened the ribbon, pulled the bonnet off, and turned to the vision of fashionable perfection beside her—her younger sister, Samantha. “Don’t say a word. And don’t tell Mama.”
“I won’t have to tell her. Your sunburned nose will do it.” Samantha pointedly adjusted her own hat to better shade her face from the sun.
Delia gave her a withering glance but plunked the bonnet back onto her head. “These things are suffocating.”
“It is rather warm for this time of year. Is this what they mean by Indian summer?”
“Exactly. One would think milliners would recognize the fickle nature of Missouri weather and create hats suitable for more than one season. With that loathsome train between us and the river, I can’t even feel the breeze off the water.”
The train’s steam engine huffed rhythmically, as workers moved crates of goods from flatbed wagons to the cars of the train. Colorfully dressed women sauntered along the station platform, whispering and tittering behind gloved fingers. As Delia viewed the scene, her increasing resentment rose like a flood. The excitement in the air at the arrival of the train used to be present at the docks when the roustabouts unloaded cargo from the steamships.
“Ooh, look, there’s Mr. Broderick.” Samantha’s voice held a teasing lilt. “Do you want to stop and say hello?”
“Heavens, no.” Delia dragged her sister toward the front of the train. “Last night was enough of a disaster. The man’s an idiot.”
“I heard Mama talking to you.” Samantha turned smiling eyes to Delia. “You didn’t laugh, did you?”
“No, but I was close.” She grinned then recalled her mother’s disheartened frustration, and her amusement faded. She covertly watched the young woman at her side wave to a man in a brown suit and waistcoat. The vast differences between her and her sisters baffled the mind.
Samantha, outgoing and charming, made every man she met feel like the hero of his own dime novel. Their elder sister, Melinda, not quite two years Delia’s senior, was married and already with child. Her gentle and quiet nature epitomized godly womanhood, at least according to their mother.
Delia resolved to keep her mouth shut the next time a suitable bachelor came to supper. Even if his remarks were obtuse and dim-witted, she’d suffer in silence. She’d strangle before allowing any acerbic comments to force their way out of her mouth.
She sighed. Holding her tongue wouldn’t be enough to please Mama. Her mother wanted nothing less than for Delia to become a flawless replica of Samantha and Melinda.
“Oh, don’t look so glum.” Samantha gave her a quick hug. “Maybe after last night Mama will give up and let you find your own husband.” She laced her arm through Delia’s, and they walked in silence.
As they passed the engine of the train, a breeze from the river cooled her face and neck. One of Papa’s steamships glided away from the dock to catch the current of the Missouri River. Smoke billowed from the tall smokestacks as the ship built up steam. The odor of fish and smoke mingled in the air—the scent of home.
A question wiggled its way to the front of her mind. “Samantha?”
“What if I never find a husband?” Her face grew hotter than the heat of the day could account for.
“Do you want to find one?”
“Of course I do. I just want a man I can respect. Someone who’s reasonably intelligent. A man with whom I don’t have to hold back. A man with whom…I belong.”
Samantha tsked. “It’ll never happen then. You’re the smartest person I know.”
“I’m serious, Samantha.” The words tumbled out before she could stop them. “I don’t want to grow old alone.”
“Silly goose.” She hugged Delia’s arm. “You won’t. After I get married, you can always come live with me and teach my children. It would be a shame to waste your education. Two years at teacher college is a long time. I missed you while you were away, you know.”
An unexpected lump formed in Delia’s throat. “I missed you too.”
“Besides, you’ll find suitable employment as a teacher, where you’ll fall in love with the rich widower whose child you’ve been teaching. You’ll get married and live happily ever after.” Samantha finished her fairy tale with a flourish of her hand.
“So far I’ve been a colossal failure at finding such a position. It’s more than just a job, you know. It’s quickly becoming a respected profession. I always thought I’d be a good educator.” She caught the whine in her voice and clamped her lips shut.
Samantha smiled. “And you are. Look at everything you’ve taught me. Of course, I’m an incredibly austere student.”
A laugh escaped through Delia’s nose. An indelicate sound at best. Samantha’s comment served to pull her from her doldrums. “I think you mean astute.”
The austere student shrugged. “If you know what I mean, what difference does it make?”
An apt demonstration of the disparity between Samantha and her.
“Oh, look, the Simpson girls and their brother. Come on. Let’s go talk to them.”
Delia followed her gaze. Three young women, all properly bustled, flounced, and gloved, stood outside the station building next to a painfully thin man with wispy blond hair. She grimaced. A conversation with the Simpsons would surely cause her to break her recent resolutions. “You go ahead. I…uh… I want to take a look at the engine compartment of the train.”
“All right. I won’t be long.” Samantha scurried off to join her friends.
Oddly embarrassed, Delia turned and sauntered toward the front of the train. If she could have taken back her words about growing old alone, she would have. Making herself vulnerable hadn’t been her intention.
She stopped by the opening between the tender car and the locomotive. Her statement to Samantha had been merely an excuse, but she was curious about the differences between this engine and the ones aboard Papa’s steamboats.
A man dressed in striped bib-overalls hefted several split logs at a time from the tender car and threw them into the firebox. An instant later, hundreds of small explosions boomed inside.
flew out at the fireman and onto the station platform. Sparks
Cries of alarm went through the cluster of passengers, but they barely registered on Delia’s brain. Tiny black dots marred her dress and, as she batted at the landing sparks, she caught the scent of singed hair.
Endy Webster, trainmaster for this section of the MK&T Railway, surveyed the activity on the station platform. He had turned to supervise the off-loading of the last wagon when dozens of pops, almost like gunshots, pierced the din of the crowded platform. He whipped his head in the direction of the noise. The firebox. He sprinted flat-out to the front of the train. A woman stood at the opening between the tender car and the engine where sparks and cinders settled on her dress and hat.
He raced past the opening, pulling the woman with him.
She stumbled and landed in a heap on the walkway.
The train needed his immediate attention, but so did the potential passenger. The engine continued to chuff unabated. It could wait. Chivalry couldn’t. He reached out to assist the woman. “Are you all right, miss?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine.” Ignoring his hand, the woman lurched awkwardly to her feet. Her hat lay a few feet away. Half her chestnut hair tumbled about her shoulders and down her back. The other half remained firmly pinned.
“You’re sure?” He patted at a spark smoldering on her skirt and turned her to brush down the ruffled back. Just in time, he withdrew his hand. He’d nearly smacked the woman’s backside. Fortunately, there were no live embers there. Warmth crawled up his neck.
She jerked away from him. “I assure you, sir, I’m completely unharmed. What happened?”
“I’m not quite sure, but I intend to find out.” What did happen? Nothing appeared amiss with the engine. An accidental discharge of a rifle? If the train had been moving, a dozen things… He felt a hand on his arm and looked down into the woman’s incredibly large, expressive eyes.
“It sounded like…”
“The Fourth of July.” Puzzlement drew her brows together.
Fireworks? His expression must be a mirror image of hers, but she was right. The miniature explosions had sounded like fireworks.
“Endy, what in thunder is going on here?” The engineer, Heck Brady, jumped off the steps of the locomotive.
Endy drew Heck away from the gathering crowd. He took a quick look behind him. The woman took several steps in his direction. Wonderful. A nosy Nellie. Fortunately, a bevy of young women surrounded her, exclaiming over her and successfully impeding her progress. Good. He had too much on his plate to waste time with an inquisitive female. He turned back to the engineer. “I don’t know, Heck. Is Walter all right?”
“Yeah. Them sparks didn’t burn him any more than what he normally gets. But that poppin’ didn’t come from any green wood.”
“It sounded like firecrackers.”
Heck stroked his clean-shaven chin. “Yeah. It did. But how would firecrackers get mixed in with our wood?”
“Let’s go take a look.” Endy glanced over his shoulder.
The group of women walked toward the station building—one of them rather unwillingly.
Endy nodded with satisfaction. The curious young woman would stay out of his way. He stepped up into the cab. With a grunt of effort, he hoisted himself into the tender car used for carrying fuel for the steam engine. After tossing several split logs aside, he saw a strand of tiny cylinders woven together and wedged in the cracks of one of the logs. “Found something.” He held out the wood. “A prank.”
Heck took it from him. “You sure?”
Endy climbed over the edge of the car and jumped down. “What else could it be? These aren’t exactly dangerous.” He tore loose a string of firecrackers.
“No, but you heard the talk about mischief when they laid the tracks and built the buildings. Stolen lumber. The station broke into. The men would work all day and come in the next to find everything they’d done torn down. Something’s going on, Endy. You mark my words.”
Endy had heard about the malicious mischief on this particular section of the railroad. He tried to read Heck Brady’s expression. The man’s honest, round face revealed nothing but concern. Endy took the log back and handed it to Walter, the fireman. “Check the wood before you put it into the firebox. It’ll slow you down a bit, but we should still be able to stay on schedule.”
Walter shrugged. “You’re the boss.” He picked out the rest of the firecrackers and threw the log back into the tender.
“What’re you going to do about it?” Heck faced him, hands on his hips.
“It’s a prank, Heck. Don’t borrow trouble.”
“I ain’t. Seems like trouble’s come to our door.”
Endy’s shoulders slumped. Heck didn’t know the half of it.
Lora Young has never lived outside the state of
She grew up reading the Little House books and Trixie Belden mysteries, so it
makes sense that her first novel would be an historical mystery set in Missouri . Missouri
Lora lives in rural
with her husband, four cats, and the constant interruption of her children and
grandchildren. She enjoys riding her tadpole recumbent, ballroom dancing, and
making stuff up. Platte County
She is a member of the Kansas City West chapter of American Christian Fiction Writer.
To connect with Lora
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Off to read another great book!
Sandra M. Hart