The iron behemoth punctuated the sizzling Kansas skies with a solitary high-pitched whistle as it belched and wheezed into the train yard. With a powerful burp, the locomotive jerked to a quaking stop that heaved the passengers to and fro like rag dolls.
A steely-eyed conductor with an official railroad cap pulled low on his forehead edged his way down the narrow center aisle. "Topeka!" His voice was curt as he enunciated the city's name.
Jarena Harban removed a folded handkerchief from the pocket of her frayed cotton skirt and rubbed the smudged train window. Vestiges of cinder and ash stubbornly clung to the outside of the glass, but she could see well enough to determine there were a multitude of people waiting at the train depot. They were mostly white folks, but she spied a few coloreds among the crowd. She swiped the window again, but to no avail. With a defeated shrug, she tucked the cotton square back into her pocket.
Across the aisle, her sisters giggled and whispered. Apparently, they found her useless ministrations a fine source of humor. Jarena leaned forward, prepared to launch a look of disdain toward the twins, but her worn straw bonnet slid forward to conceal her annoyed expression from everyone except her father.
"Don't pay them no mind. They ain't laughin' at you. They's jest excited to finally be here." Her father's rich bass voice soothed like rippling water.
Smoothing her skirt, Jarena stood and gave her father a tentative smile. "It's obvious they're not aware the train ride from Kentucky to Topeka was the simple portion of our journey."
"Now, don't you go borrowin' worries, gal. Ridin' across the prairie in a wagon is gonna be right excitin'."
Jarena raised her perfectly arched brows. "It's also going to be uncomfortable and much slower than riding in a train," she replied, making certain she spoke loudly enough for her sisters to hear.
Truth Harban locked arms with her twin sister, Grace, and directed a smug grin at her older sister. "There's gonna be plenty to see and do along the way."
"Indeed there will! I plan on you two helping with chores, so don't think you'll be running off to explore every hill and valley when we stop to eat the noonday meal or camp for the night."
"Tell Jarena she's not in charge, Pappy. She's only three years older than us, but she's always tellin' us what to do," Grace complained. She gave her father a bright, encouraging smile.
Ezekiel wiped his brow with the old kerchief that hung loosely around his thick neck and motioned the girls into the aisle with a swipe of his large hand. "Get on now and quit your arguing. I don't think none of us is gonna be taking charge of crossin' this here state. Massa Hill said we's to meet him on the platform, so get to movin'."
"Mister Hill, Pappy. There ain't nobody your master or boss no more--ceptin' maybe Jarena." Truth poked her sister in the side as she spoke. Once again the girls burst into a fit of giggles.
Jarena's father was frowning at the twins. "You two mind your manners," he admonished.
"And your grammar!"
Truth cast a sullen look at her older sister. "Jest 'cause you liked getting all educated don't mean we do."
Jarena sighed in exasperation. She had worked diligently to teach the girls proper grammar. Why they insisted upon ignoring their English lessons was beyond her.
As they stepped off the train, the twins peeked around either side of their father, each one beaming an impish grin in Jarena's direction. They were small for their fifteen years, and Jarena was certain their father often forgot the twins were no longer little girls, especially at times such as this, when they should be speaking proper English and acting like young ladies.
They'd been off the train only a moment when Grace pointed toward a young man standing on the platform and banging a wooden mallet on an oversized brass gong. In between the incessant drumming, he cheerfully encouraged the passengers to partake of the fine food inside the depot dining room.
"You think we could get us somethin' to eat, Pappy?" Grace inquired in a wistful tone.
Their father shook his head and pointed to the basket Jarena had been carrying with her since they departed Kentucky. She had carefully planned what she hoped would be enough food to tide them over until they reached their destination. However, when they neared St. Louis, she had begun to grow uncertain. Fortunately, her father hadn't objected to the rationing Jarena had imposed, and they arrived in Topeka with some victuals to spare.
Grace tilted her head and raised her nose high. "It do smell good, though, don' it, Pappy?"
"That it do, chil'. You girls take your satchels and then stand outta the way." Ezekiel looked around for a moment and then pointed toward one end of the platform. "Go wait over there by that corner. Too many people rushin' around tryin' to get into dat fancy restaurant or find their bags."
Grace peered anxiously at the depot door. "Can't we go inside and see the depot?"
"There's lots more to see out here dan inside that train station. 'Sides, I wanna be able to find all three of you together once Mr. Hill gets all the folks gathered to leave for Nicodemus. Don't want none of you gettin' lost," their father warned.
Jarena strained to see through the crowd, hoping to pick out a familiar face. "There's Nellie and Calvin," she said, waving her handkerchief high in the air. "Nellie! Over here!"
Nellie waved in recognition before herding several other members of their group toward Jarena and the twins.
Calvin glanced about as they drew closer. "Where's your pappy?"
"He went off to find Mr. Hill," Truth replied. "You seen Mr. Hill since gettin' off the train?"
"Nope." With a swipe of his shirtsleeve, Calvin cleared the sweat from his brow. "Ain't seen Hill or Ivan Lovejoy. I thought they was both s'posed to meet us. Sure 'nuff is sweltering, ain't it? Don't recall it ever gettin' this hot in Kentucky."
Miss Hattie, Nellie's outspoken grandmother, stepped toward them and wagged her head back and forth. "That's purely 'cause you ain't old 'nuff to remember. I recall the summer of eighteen and forty--now, that there was one summer. Umm, umm! Why, it was so hot that the flies wouldn't even alight for fear of bein' fried when they come to rest. They'd just circle round and round 'til they dropped dead from the heat." The old woman drew circles in the air with one finger and gave a throaty laugh.
Nellie smiled gently at her grandmother. "Now, Granny, don' get started on dem stories 'bout the old days or we'll never get on our way."
Hattie limped toward a bench alongside the building and plopped down in the shady spot. "I sure is achy from all that sittin'. Don' look like we's goin' anywhere right now, nohow. Where's that Hill feller that's s'posed to be in charge?"
"Pappy's off lookin' for him," Truth repeated.
Hattie thumped the tip of her ancient parasol on the wooden platform. "Ain't deaf, chil', jest got weary bones."
"Perhaps you should raise that parasol to help cool yourself," Jarena suggested kindly. "We may be here for a while yet."
"Don' think so. There's your pappy now. Looks like that Hill feller is with him." Miss Hattie used her umbrella as a pointer while raising one hand to shade her eyes. She put her hand on Jarena's arm and lowered her voice. "Ain't sure I trust that feller. He's got shifty eyes."
Jarena giggled and sat down beside the aging woman. Jarena had always felt close to her friend's grandmother and even more so since her mother had passed away. "You don't trust most folks until you've known them at least five years, Miss Hattie, but I believe you may be right about Mr. Hill."
Miss Hattie nodded knowingly, her head bobbing up and down in time with the footsteps of the men as they drew closer. "Yep--his eyes is shifty and watery--that's a bad combination fer sure. Tell your pappy that man ain't worth his salt."
"It's probably better if you tell him. I said way more about Mr. Hill and this move to Kansas than Pappy wanted to hear before we ever left Kentucky."
The woman gave Jarena a sidelong glance. "Nellie tol' me you was set on stayin' in Kentucky. How come you didn't want to give your ol' pappy a chance to get hisself outta them hemp fields?"
"I wasn't trying to keep him in the hemp fields. I asked him to wait awhile--until after some of the other families from Georgetown came west. So we could hear what things were truly like in Nicodemus before he made a final decision."
"Ain't got no sense of adventure, that it?" she asked with amusement as Mr. Hill approached.
Grace giggled and covered her mouth with one hand. "She didn't wanna leave her beau."
"Now I understand." Miss Hattie nodded as a sly smile curved her thick lips. "Yessuh, I surely do."
Jarena opened her mouth to issue a protest, but Miss Hattie and the other travelers were on their feet, moving toward her father and Mr. Hill. The two men stepped onto the platform and waved the small group forward. The hot summer breeze whipped at Mr. Hill's straggly blond hair, the thin tufts flying in all directions, while her father's wiry black curls remained motionless, totally unruffled by the wind. Mr. Hill straightened his shoulders and gave them a thin-lipped smile. His brown suit jacket and pants held several layers of the powdery dust that was swirling around them as they stood in the afternoon sun.
"Welcome to Kansas," Mr. Hill greeted halfheartedly as he surveyed the group.
Miss Hattie's whisper was a little too loud, and Jarena couldn't help but grin as she squeezed her hand.
Hill glanced in the old woman's direction. "I truly am pleased to see you. If my welcome seemed less than exuberant, it's because I must ask your further indulgence. There are several other folks interested in joining our group, and they're not yet prepared to begin the journey."
When no one else spoke up, Miss Hattie waved her umbrella in the air. "How long you 'spectin' us to sit here in this sun waitin' fer you to finish what oughta already been done? And where's Mr. Lovejoy? Ain't he s'posed to be meetin' us, too?"
"Mr. Lovejoy departed for Nicodemus last week," he replied as he loosened the collar of his once-white shirt. "As for the rest of your question, I should be prepared to leave in an hour or two, but for those of you who might be interested, I could take you into town in the wagon with me. That's where I'm to meet the remainder of our settlers. You could use the time to advantage--purchase any last-minute necessities and take a gander at the capitol building they're constructing. If everybody comes along, we won't be required to return to the train station."
Miss Hattie wagged her head back and forth and leaned toward Jarena. "Ain't fer certain I trust Ivan Lovejoy, neither. He ain't really one of us. He's been livin' out here in Topeka fer nigh onto three years now--least that's what your pappy tol' me."
"But he's from Kentucky," Grace said, "and Pappy says he's a good man."
Miss Hattie shaded her eyes as Ezekiel ambled toward them. "Your pappy don't think bad of no one 'til they prove they's no account."
"Can we go along to town, Pappy?" Grace asked as she danced from foot to foot. "Please say yes."
Truth hurried to her sister's side. "This might be our only opportunity to see the capitol building, Pappy."
Ezekiel scratched the back of his head and then waved the girls onward. "I reckon won't hurt nothin'." When Jarena remained seated beside Miss Hattie, her father waved her forward, too. "You come along with us, Jarena."
"You two ain't foolin' me none at all," Nellie said to her friend and her grandmother. "I bet you's wantin' to go into town and have a looksee fer yourselves."
"Come on, Miss Hattie." Ezekiel walked to the older woman and assisted her up into the bed of Mr. Hill's wagon. "Might git to see something that'll put a sparkle in your eyes."
The old woman gave a disgusted grunt as she dropped down beside Nellie and Jarena. "I seen all the new and excitin' things I wanna see in this here lifetime, but don' look like I got much choice about seein' some more. Appears like all the rest of you is wantin' to ride along and take a look at this here big city of Topekee."
Ezekiel's stern look brought an immediate halt to the twins' giggling.
Jarena watched the girls momentarily squirm and then pivot their gaze upon the older woman. "We're sorry, Miss Hattie."
She nodded her acceptance of their joint apology before turning her attention back to Jarena. "Now let's get back to discussin' that boy you left in Kentucky. I thought I knowed everything goin' on back home. How'd this one get past me?"
"He's not my beau--just a friend." Her cheeks warmed at Miss Hattie's prying question. "The twins tend to exaggerate."
A glint shone in Truth's eyes. "Charles Francis."
"Is that right? Charlie Francis?" Miss Hattie's brow puckered. "I always thought that young man seemed a little bit sour--'specially for a gal with your sweet disposition."
Grace peeked around Nellie with a mischievous grin. "You won't be thinkin' Jarena's so sweet by the time we get to Nicodemus, Miss Hattie. She's got a mean streak...."
"An' she's mighty bossy, too." Truth bobbed her head up and down.
The old woman leaned back against the side of the wagon and guffawed. "I'd say a person would be needin' both of them things to keep the two of you behavin' on a regular basis."
Jarena beamed a self-satisfied grin at the twins as the wagon neared a bridge. "Pappy told Charles he could come callin'," she told Miss Hattie, "but that was about the same time Mr. Hill and Mr. Lovejoy came to Georgetown and got everyone fired up about moving to Kansas. We didn't have enough time to get to know each other very well."
Hattie patted Jarena's fingers with her gnarled, leathery hand. "Don't you be frettin', chil'. His mama tol' me they was comin' out here with the next group from back home. Not that Lula was wantin' to leave. She'd rather stay put in Georgetown, but I think she finally gave up arguin' against the move when Charlie said he was leaving no matter what his mammy and pappy decided."
"Charles said that? I didn't know. Thank you for telling me, Miss Hattie."
The thought of Charles's declaration caused a warm glow to tinge Jarena's cheeks. Even though he'd announced his intentions to travel west on numerous occasions, his words had fallen flat, always lacking the determined enthusiasm she had longed to hear. Now Miss Hattie's words caused her heart to quicken and restored her belief that Charles had been sincere--that he would journey to Kansas.
Miss Hattie grasped Jarena's arm as the wagon slowly rolled onto the narrow bridge that spanned the Kansas River. "This ol' bridge don't appear none too sturdy, and I never did figure out how to swim--ol' Massa never would let us learn. He told us there was a mighty deep river we'd have to cross if we run off, and we'd drown fer sure. Umm, umm. Dat man was a liar on top of being mean as a mad dog. I searched and searched after I got my freedom--never did find no river near thereabouts. Course ol' Massa got what he wanted. We was too afeared to run away."
"Well, you're free now, Miss Hattie, and there's no need to worry about swimming. The bridge is going to hold up, and we're all going to be just fine."
When the wagon finally rolled off the bridge and began to rumble down Kansas Avenue, Jarena gave Miss Hattie a reassuring smile.
The old woman released her death grip on Jarena's arm and looked around. "These here folks in Topekee got themselves a lot of churches. Must have a disagreeable bunch living in this here town."
Truth leaned forward and looked at Miss Hattie. "I ain't seen nobody fightin'. Why you think they're disagreeable?"
"They got a Baptist church on one corner and a Methodist on the opposite corner, and right up the street they got three or four more churches. I figure they get their backs up 'bout something the preacher says and go huffing off to start 'em another church. Likely hopin' they'll get themselves a new preacher that'll say exactly what they're wantin' to hear. Um, hum, dat's what I'm thinkin'." Hattie's ample body swayed back and forth on the wagon seat as she pointed toward the various church buildings.
Mr. Hill glanced over his narrow shoulder and shook his head. "I can attest to the fact that folks aren't disagreeable, Miss Hattie. Topeka's a large city, and it needs more than one or two churches."
She pointed her parasol toward two men staggering out of a saloon. "From the looks of those two, it appears you're right about this town needin' lots of churches."
The twins giggled and turned to watch the drunken men, but when Mr. Hill pulled back on the reins and the wagon slowed, they focused their attention on the noble limestone building looming before them.
Mr. Hill leaned back against the wooden seat and yanked hard on the reins. "Whoa!" The horses came to an immediate halt as the metal bits cut into their mouths.
Jarena cast an angry look in Mr. Hill's direction. "Pappy says animals are like people. They respond to kindness."
"I agree. Animals are like people. Some learn easily but some take a lot more convincing." He jumped down from the wagon.
"What'd I tell you? That man can't be trusted," Miss Hattie whispered to Jarena and Nellie.
"Come on, Granny. I'll help you down." Calvin grasped the old woman's hand, obviously wanting to quiet her.
Mr. Hill nodded toward the imposing building. "Guess you figured out that's the capitol--at least what they've completed so far. And as you can see, there are plenty of stores where you can make your purchases, but don't wait until time for our departure. I'll meet you back here in two hours. Don't be late!"
"Don' you be late," Hattie said, peering from beneath the floppy folds of her ancient parasol. "You's the one holdin' up our travels."
Jarena stifled her desire to giggle. Their small contingent had been required to overcome insuperable odds to make it this far. Miss Hattie was not going to be intimidated by the likes of William R. Hill. Jarena watched Mr. Hill skulk away without further instruction. He appeared to realize Miss Hattie planned to hold him accountable.
Truth and Grace rushed to their father's side, their eyes darting from place to place with an undeniable eagerness. "Can we go and take a closer look at the capitol?"
"And see inside the stores?" Grace added.
Their enthusiasm was contagious and quickly spread among the remaining members of the group. "We should take advantage of this opportunity," Nellie agreed while Miss Hattie dropped down on the wooden bench outside Peltham's Dry Goods Store.
"I'll be waitin' right here when ya'll come back. Too hot to be trekkin' around this here city." Miss Hattie pulled a worn handkerchief from her dress pocket and wiped the perspiration from her face.
Jarena hesitated, thinking Nellie would surely remain behind to watch after her grandmother. But Nellie hooked her arm through Calvin's, and the two of them hastened to gather with the others. Hurrying forward, Jarena stepped alongside Nellie. "Don't you think someone should stay here with Miss Hattie?"
"She's more than able ta fend fer herself. She'll use dat parasol to scare off anyone who comes near her."
"But we're not certain it's safe. This isn't Georgetown, Nellie. Besides, I'd think that given your condition, it might be better for you to remain behind and rest."
Nellie laughed at the remark. "You know it's only da wealthy white women who take to their beds when they's gonna have a baby. Why, I'll be workin' right up to the day I birth this chil'."
"And likely be up workin' the day after, too." Calvin's chest swelled as he gazed down at his wife.
"Why don't you stay and look after Miss Hattie, Calvin?" Jarena encouraged.
"She don' want nobody to stay with her. Now come on, Jarena. You're acting foolish," Nellie chided.
"Miss Hattie, are you sure you're going to be all right?" Jarena asked. "I'll stay with you if you want."
She waved her handkerchief. "You go on, chil'. I'm fine."
Jarena gave a doubtful nod, but she pushed any thoughts of the solitary old woman waiting in front of the store to the back of her mind. The hustle and bustle of the capital city with its throngs of people, variety of businesses, and tall buildings caused a rush of emotion. Topeka was truly amazing! Nothing like the frontier town she'd imagined. Why, this city even boasted two train stations--one for the Kansas Pacific Railroad and another for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. Back home in Georgetown, they'd not yet enticed even one railroad to pass near the town.
Truth began to skip and swing her arms as the group made its way through town. "You think Nicodemus is gonna be anything like Topeka, Jarena?"
"Don't talk nonsense. And quit that skipping--you're kicking up dust. Nicodemus is a newly formed town. It's bound to be even smaller than Georgetown. We'll have a church or two and maybe a general store--perhaps a few little shops, if we're fortunate."
"You don't know fer sure. There may be some fine buildings jest like the ones here in Topeka," Truth declared with a firm nod.
Ezekiel patted Jarena's arm. "Don' discourage the chil'. This here's a fine-lookin' city, and if Nicodemus is only a smidgen as grand, I'll be happy. I know we done the right thing coming here. This here state is the freest and friendliest state for coloreds."
Jarena walked alongside her father, remembering back several months ago when he'd rushed through the front door of their small house clutching a tattered handbill. He waved the paper in front of her and insisted she immediately stop cooking and read the words aloud. The broadside explained that the largest colored town in America was being formed two hundred and fifty miles west of Topeka, Kansas. Her father nearly danced with delight when she read the line stating there were lots for sale--five dollars for a house and seventy-five dollars for a business.
Ezekiel Harban was immediately smitten with the idea of owning his own land. They attended meetings at their local church, where two colored men were introduced as the president and secretary of the Nicodemus Town Company, and William R. Hill was presented as the treasurer and the only white man who would be a member of the town company.
Life hadn't been the same since that day when Mr. Hill had smiled beguilingly at the members of the First Baptist Church and explained the wonders of the great Solomon Valley. He told them of fine acreage and a land that was much like Canaan, flowing with milk and honey for anyone willing to set his hand to the plow. They listened as he told of the rich black soil crying out to be tilled and planted, and of rolling hills that stretched as far as the eye could see. They harkened to his words of abundant wildlife, fine timber, coal deposits, and ample water available from plentiful springs and the south fork of the Solomon River that flowed nearby. And Jarena's father drank up the information like a man dying of thirst.
Her father was one of the first in line to hand over his life savings in exchange for four train tickets and a piece of paper. The paper was a deed declaring that he owned a piece of land in what he constantly reminded her was the freest and friendliest state for coloreds to settle: John Brown's former stomping grounds--Kansas.
Jarena gave her father a sidelong glance. "What are you going to do if Nicodemus isn't everything you expect?"
"You gotta have faith, gal. You's too young to always be lookin' fer the worst in things. Trust the good Lord. We's on the right path."
"We'll see, Pappy. We'll see."
First Dawn (Freedom's Path #1) by Judith Miller
Copyright © 2005; ISBN 0764229974
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.