In 1927, a girl travels by train to live with her aunt. Could there be trouble?
|The train whistle sounded in the far distance, the engine a speck down the tracks. The sun glinted off the silver grillwork, the ground and platform rumbled as it neared. People gathered around nine-year-old Martha and her mother in the 1927 dusty Nebraska afternoon.
“Martha, your sister Lucy and I will join you in Oregon as soon as I save a little more money.” As she had for two days, her mother Betty went over not taking candy from strangers, not letting strangers get too close. Martha looked up, wondering how many times this would be repeated. She knew she was going to live with Aunt Gertrude.
“And,” her mother continued, “you are not to go with anyone except Aunt Gertrude. You have her picture, right?”
“Yes, Mother. Please don't worry; I'll be fine.” Her mother looked altogether too worried as it was. Martha finally got details, such as they were, three days before with, “Your father left us and I can't afford to take care of both of you.”
She now stood on the platform awaiting the train, her mother's floral print dress billowing in her face, her plaid jumper made from who knew how many other dresses, hanging loosely over a white blouse. The shoes were new, the only new clothing Martha could remember having. She once complained about having to wear other kid's old clothes or ones her mother remade. One day she asked and heard sharply her father thought other things more important than clothes for children. Martha did not understand but did not ask again.
“Excuse me, madam.” The stranger was well dressed and polite. “I couldn't help but overhear. I'm Albert Green and I happen to be going to Portland. Is that where Martha is going?”
“Why, yes,” Betty eyed the man with suspicion. Men were not her favorite subject of late.
“Would you like me to keep an eye on this young lady for you?” He seemed nice to Martha, but not to her mother.
“No thank-you. She'll be with the conductor.”
He smiled and turned away, talking to a woman and boy.
Mother knelt beside Martha, “And one more thing. Your Aunt Gertrude is a little strange. Her house is a mess, she never married, she has two dogs, she works as a secretary and I'm afraid she may have a boyfriend. I want you to keep alert and not pick up any bad habits” Martha looked at her and considered asking if any of these items were related and why they should make bad habits, but settled for “I know, Mother, I'll be careful.”
Talking ceased as the train drew to the platform. Martha had seen trains in the distance, but never realized how big and loud they were. The rumbling, the screeching, the clanging; she half expected the whole thing to fall apart on the spot. People began coming off and a man in black trousers, black vest, white shirt and black cap walked up to them.
“Mr. Sawyer?” her mother smiled.
“It's a pleasure, Mrs. Collins. I take it this is Martha?” Martha looked up, fascinated by his uniform and his handlebar moustache. She smiled and he smiled, both somehow realizing this was not the perfect match, but they would make the best of it.
“Mr. Sawyer will be taking care of you on the trip to Portland and help you find Aunt Gertrude when you get there, OK? Now, do you have everything? Here is your favorite doll.” Martha took the doll, knowing this was not the time to object. She was not one to play with dolls, but it gave her mother comfort to give it to her.
“Let's go and get you settled, young lady,” Mr. Sawyer tipped his hat to Betty. She grabbed Martha in a big hug, then stood, eyes watering, “She's a good girl and will do what you tell her, won't you Martha?” Martha nodded, hoping this would soon end as she was beginning to think maybe she should stay and help her mother clean houses to “make ends meet,” whatever that meant.
Mr. Sawyer took her bag and up the train steps they went. He put her in a bench facing forward, looking at an opposing empty bench. “This will be a good seat to see from. I have to help people get on board, but I'll be back to check on you.”
Martha looked out the window, saw her mother and waved. Her mother waved back, then turned and walked away. Martha watched her drop her head and bring her hands to her face. When she turned a corner, Martha stared ahead wondering if she should get off the train. No. This is what her mother wanted; she would stay.
She began to inspect her surroundings. The cracked leather bench pinched her thighs. She solved this by crossing her legs Indian style, something she knew her mother would object to as unladylike. The rack overhead held her beat up suitcase and other people were putting theirs up there. Dust pervaded the Nebraska summer. The floor, rarely swept, had a thin covering of dirt. It was hot and Martha wondered how the window opened. People jostled around mixing the air with smells of perfume, sweat, dust and old leather. Within minutes, a woman and her boy, about Martha's age, sat opposite. Martha uncrossed her legs and crossed her ankles as her mother taught her a lady does.
The woman smiled. “Hello. I'm Mrs. Green and this is my son Edgar. Would you like some candy we bought at the station?” Martha eyed Mrs. Green carefully. She definitely fell into the “stranger” category. Her mother would call her “fancy-dressed.” She smelled wonderful with a soft face and a nice smile.
“Honey, you are so pretty and I love that short haircut on you. Who is your special doll? And what is your name?”
Martha responded carefully. “Thank-you, no ma'am, my mother doesn't allow candy. My name is Martha and I don't like dolls, but my mother wanted me to take this one.”
“Well,” Mrs. Green replied, “what a delightful child you are and so well spoken. I wish I had one just like you.”
“Yeh, well, you got me!” Edgar injected himself in the conversation. “Maybe we could trade parents, her and me.”
“Edgar!” Mrs. Green scowled at him then looked at Martha turning her hands to inspect the nails. “We lost our son last year and Edgar's taking some time to adjust to being adopted.”
“That's OK.” Martha wished the two of them would move, but the train was filling up. Mr. Sawyer came by to check on her and Mrs. Green assured him they were all getting along quite well. Martha studied Edgar more closely. He was mad, that much was obvious. He frowned and stared at the floor, although she couldn't see at what. Well dressed, she decided he led a life of privilege.
The train lurched forward. Mr. Sawyer walked through calling, “Tickets, tickets, please have your tickets ready.”
Martha looked up in panic. “I don't have a ticket!”
“I have your ticket, Martha,” he smiled at her. He introduced himself properly to Mrs. Green and gave her some details of Martha's situation. She reassured him she would keep an eye on the girl and he looked relieved.
Martha curled up by the window and stared out. This part of Nebraska looked like her part of Nebraska. The plains whirring by and the drone of the rails drummed in her ears until she dozed off.
She started awake when someone shook her shoulder. “Martha? Lunchtime.” Mr. Sawyer was standing by her.
“She can go with us, Mr. Sawyer. We'll be happy to take her, won't we Edgar?” Mrs. Green was smiling. Edgar was not.
“Oh, that would be very kind of you. Is that all right with you Martha?”
Martha looked at him and wondered if it mattered what she said. “OK.”
He handed Mrs. Green a voucher. “This will cover her lunch.”
They made their way to the dining car. Whatever misgivings Martha had had about lunch vanished in the fascination of walking through the cars. Edgar showed her how to push the button to open the door and maneuver over the sliding sheets of metal covering the couplings. He pouted when she insisted on opening the third set of doors. She considered escaping the two later by walking the length of the train over and over all the way to Portland.
Mrs. Green watched Martha inspect her sandwich.
“This bread is too squishy, my mother's is much better.” The cookie cracked in her mouth so hard, she gave the rest to Edgar. Didn't these people know cookies were supposed to be soft and warm? Mrs. Green was smiling at her again. She wondered if she had milk on her face and wiped it.
When they finished, Mrs. Green herded them back to their seats, saying they would be getting off at the next stop.
Mr. Sawyer came by. “Everything OK with Martha?”
“Oh yes, she's a delight. I want her to meet my husband, Albert. He loves little girls. Do you think it would be OK if I took her off the train for just a minute when we arrive? I promise to have her right back on.”
Mr. Sawyer looked down the aisle, holding onto the back of the seat as the train slowed. Two people yelled over a suitcase, each claiming it for their own. “Well, I guess, OK. Just be sure she gets back on. Look, I've got to go do something down there - can't have a fight.” He walked down the aisle.
“Come on Edgar. Martha, you too.” She took down her bag.
“But I'm not getting off here,” Martha protested. “I'm only to get off in Portland.”
“Well, of course dear. You'll be getting back on. See? I've left your luggage here. Mr. Sawyer said it would be OK for you to meet my husband.”
“Well, all right.” Martha was not convinced. She looked at Mr. Sawyer settling the argument over luggage and followed Mrs. Green and Edgar to the opposite end of the car.
The train screeched to a halt and the three of them clambered down the steps. Martha held Mrs. Green's hand and found herself looking up at a well-dressed man who looked vaguely familiar. Edgar stood behind a few feet and she wondered why. When she saw her father, she always ran up and hugged him.
“Martha, this is Mr. Green.”
“Hello, Martha. What a charmer you are.”
Martha frowned at him, not sure what a “charmer” was. “Thank-you, sir.”
“Albert, she's been put on this train to God-knows-where. You were right, we simply have to save her. There's no one to care for her.” She led the four of them to the station. Once inside, she paused, “Oh, I left the candy on the train. I'll be right back.”
They watched her dash back to the train and speak to Mr. Sawyer. Martha watched him tip his hat to her and climb on the train. The train sounded its whistle and began to move.
Mr. Green gripped her hand as she tried to take it away and run out the station door. “The train! The train is leaving! I have to get on the train!”
Mr. Green bent down, “Martha, you'll be better off with us, I'm sure. Let's go home.”
“My bag! Where is my bag?!”
Mrs. Green walked up. “Martha, we'll go shopping tomorrow and get you all new clothes. Won't that be nice?”
Martha looked at Edgar who was silent. He shrugged.
Martha's heart hammered in her skinny chest. This was not right; something was just not right. She followed them to a dusty car. “Barely got here in time to meet you,” he laughed. She looked at him again. The man who talked to her mother back in Nebraska?
They drove to a house Martha saw only in pictures. Three stories high with dormers, soft yellow siding, white trim and a wraparound porch, the Victorian graced the small green hill like a queen.
Edgar ran ahead asking which was to be her room. Her room? She shared the living room couch with her sister. Only her parents had a room. She followed Edgar up the path, then up the stairs, the Greens chatting behind them. They arrived in a powder blue room, the high ceiling supported a fan circling in a lazy breeze. Two large windows overlooked the side yard, an oak trunk climbing by.
Mrs. Green shooed Edgar and her husband out, closed the door and invited Martha to sit on the bed. She sat next to her.
“We'll paint this pink for you and put in white curtains. Maybe get you some nice white furniture.”
“I really have to get going.” Martha listened to her heartbeat between her ears and swallowed the lump in her throat. “My Aunt Gertrude will be waiting for me and she'll be worried.”
“Oh, we have that all taken care of. Albert is calling her and telling her we'll have you for awhile,” she smiled.
Martha jumped up. “NO! Mother told me not to go with anyone but Aunt Gertrude and you are not her.” She flung open the door and charged down the stairs with no idea where she was going, but definitely out the front door. She almost made it. Albert picked her up by the arm like a rag doll; she beat his chest with everything she had. He laughed and carried her back upstairs.
Mrs. Green sat on the bed as if nothing happened. “It will be OK Martha. You'll see. You'll be very happy here.” She got up and walked out locking the door behind her.
Martha sat on the bed dumbfounded. A mirror on the dresser reflected the afternoon sun. She gazed in it hoping to see another little girl who was having a bad dream. Nope. It was her. She looked around the room for escape when the oak outside the window caught her attention. Her mother said she was part monkey the way she climbed trees, but this oak was well beyond the window and she was already on the second floor. A branch brushed the window. She looked up and down. They weren't big branches. Could they support her? She looked beyond and remembered driving by other houses. They were in a town; the train station sat out there somewhere.
She returned to the bed to think. Maybe best to let them think she would go along with this for a while. She laid back and watched the ceiling fan go round and round.
Mrs. Green opened the door some time later. She held up a pink dress, “I just had to go to town and get you something today. Here. Put it on.”
Martha hesitated, then took off her jumper and blouse, studying the dress for clues to how to get into it. Mrs. Green helped, buttoned up the front and smiled her biggest smile yet. “You are just beautiful.” She stood.
“There are some books to read in the dresser. I'll be back in a bit to get you for dinner.” The door closed behind her and Martha heard the lock turn.
The dress was misery; it scratched with every move. Martha took it off, put on her blouse and jumper and walked over to the window to study the tree. She tried the window; it opened easily. She looked down to a branch; she could land there if it didn't break. Not now, she thought, not in daylight when they were coming to get her any minute. She rubbed her hands on the jumper remembering other clothes sacrificed to make it for her. Her eyes watered as she hugged herself, pretending her mother was there.
Dishes clanged and Martha knew dinner was due. She changed back into the dress, sat on the bed and waited, her gangling legs hanging out over the edge like toothpicks.
Edgar sat across from her at a dining room table crammed with roast beef, potatoes and green beans, corn and tomatoes. Martha's stomach growled at the aroma. This much food for four people? Her mother could make a week's worth of meals out of the roast beef alone.
Edgar made a couple of rude remarks about being a country bumpkin. Mr. Green shushed him. Martha made it worse by being on her absolute best behavior.
Despite their reduced circumstances, Betty taught her girls proper manners. Martha's laid her left hand in her lap, she sipped her soup with her elbow off the table and spilled not a drop. She cut two pieces of meat at a time before placing one in her mouth. She chewed ten times and sipped delicately at the ice tea. She considered it all a great strain as she'd never managed it all at the same time before, but it was paying off.
“My,” she is even better than I thought.” Martha began to hate Mrs. Green's smile.
“Yes, she is more than we could have dreamed for,” her husband agreed.
Dessert was peach cobbler, delivered by a Negro woman. “Martha, this is Maddie. She cooks and cleans house for us.”
“I'm pleased to meet you Maddie.” Martha wondered where these words came from, but there they were. She looked up at the plump woman with skin the color of coffee and smiled. Maddie's eyes widened.
“Well, child, I'm pleased to meet you too. Let me know how you like the pie.” Maddie exited at a glance from Mrs. Green.
Martha put her fork into her pie slice, studying the crust. Not quite as delicate as her mother's but not bad. She finished the pie and asked to be excused, saying she'd been reading a book she found and would like to finish it before bed.
Edgar smiled at her and mimicked her words. The Greens told both children they would be up in an hour to tuck them in.
Martha arrived in her room to find yellow pajamas on the bed. She got herself out of the dress and slipped them on. The cotton was cool and comfy. She dug through the drawers until she found some adventure books for children, propped up a pillow, flopped on the bed and stared at the words. Her mind flitted from reaching the ground from the tree to how dark it was to whether the train station would be open.
A small knock at the door startled her and Mrs. Green stepped in. “Is everything OK, Martha? I see you found your pajamas.”
“Yes ma'am, thank-you.”
“It's time for bed. I'll turn the light out and see you in the morning.” She kissed Martha on her forehead and closed the door behind her.
Martha sat in the dark staring at the light under her door until it went out. She counted to one thousand and waited to hear any noise. Nothing.
In the closet, she searched for her jumper and blouse. The moonlight revealed nothing but the frilly dress. Her heart ached for Mother; the jumper was the last thing she had of her. She stared at the oak tree. It was her only chance.
She slid the window open. The ground was vague in the sliver of moonlight, but the branch below the window presented itself as her eyes adjusted. She crawled up on the sill. She paused; maybe she should wait.
She jumped. Her foot slipped on the bark and she landed on her tailbone straddling the branch. She grabbed it to balance and froze in hope it held. It did. She crawled to the trunk, halfway getting her arms around it. The bark bit into the skin on her whole body as she shimmied down, branch to branch.
A white cat meowed up at her. The ground was one jump away and the tree trunk too big to hold now. She hung from the last branch and let go. With a thump she landed and ran behind the trunk.
“Hi” Martha jumped at the sound of Edgar's voice.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered.
“Slid down the drain pipe. I was afraid to go by myself, but with two of us, maybe we can get out of here.”
Martha stared at him.
“You were kidnapped. Me too. Figured you'd climb down that tree. I know where the train station is. But we have to go now, before anyone knows we're gone.”
Lights were coming on in the house. Maddie came out on the porch, “Edgar, Martha, you come back here right now!”
Edgar grabbed her hand, “C'mon, this way. They crouched down and ran. Edgar dashed between trees to the back yard rimmed with a hedge. He got on his hands and knees and crawled through a hole. Martha followed.
The sound of a siren was coming closer. “C'mon, we've got to run this way to the train station.”
“Wait,” Martha hesitated. Sirens were rare and always associated with the police. The police could help them.
“Martha, we can't wait. The train station closes soon.”
“But the police; the police can help us!”
Edgar paused. “No they can't. They won't believe you, honest! The road's that way if you want to catch them, but I'm going to the train station.” He trotted off to her right.
Martha went in the direction he pointed for the road and soon saw a gap in the trees. Headlights and the siren were coming. She ran down the embankment. It was steeper than it looked and she couldn't stop running. The headlights were brighter, the siren louder. All she could see was white light. She couldn't stop. A horn blasted and she tripped, skittering across the gravel on knees and elbows. When she opened her eyes, the police car was an arm's length away.
“My God, child. What do you think you're doing?” The officer got out of his car. “I could have killed you.”
Martha swallowed and looked around for Edgar. She didn't see him. “Um, I think I've been kidnapped. There's two of us; I don't know where Edgar went.”
“The Green's told me they adopted him. Ran away before. You wouldn't happen to be Martha, would you?”
“No, no! She's lying. They adopted her too and now she wants to run away!” Edgar panted to a stop in from of the police officer.
“No!” shouted Martha. “I'm supposed to be in Oregon with my Aunt Gertrude. My name is Martha Collins and I'm from Nebraska. You have to believe me.” She looked at Edgar. “What are you doing?”
Edgar stared at his hands. “It won't work, Martha. The police won't believe you. I got locked in my room for days last time.”
Martha looked at the officer. He looked back. "What is your name, girl?"
"Martha Collins, sir."
"And where are you from, Martha?"
"Woodriver, Nebraska, sir."
"And what is your mother's name?"
"Betty Collins, sir."
"In the car, both of you.”
They climbed in and sped off. At the Green's seconds later, he took their hands and walked them up to the porch where the couple waited.
“These the two you called in about Mr. Green?” he nodded to the children. “This is the second time for Edgar, isn't it?”
“Oh, thank goodness you found them,” Mrs. Green put her arms around her husband and buried her face in his chest.
Martha looked at Edgar and he wouldn't look back. Visions of being chained to the bed, the windows nailed shut came to her. A car pulled up out on the road. A car door slammed. Would they get food?
“Martha?” She turned to see Mr. Sawyer. He kneeled down and opened his arms. She pulled her hand away and ran into them.
The police officer turned back to the couple. “You think losing your own child gives you the right to steal other people's just because they don't have your money?”
“They'll be so much better off with us,” Mrs. Green wailed. “Please let us keep them.”
The police officer shook his head. He wished he could put Mary Green in the same room with Betty Collins. The latter left little doubt of his duty in finding her daughter when she called from the Nebraska police station. She would claw this woman's eyes out.
“Go pack a small bag, folks. You're under arrest for kidnapping.”
The Greens looked at each other in confusion. "But, the children have no family; they'd be better off here."
"Right. Well, the family they don't have is in a real big hurry to get them back. Go. Pack. Now."
“Martha? You OK?” Mr. Sawyer voice was soft, concerned. He was no longer the stern conductor. She looked up. “Yes, why did you leave me?”
“I didn't know I left you. Mrs. Green said you were on the train, that you liked to go between the cars. I tore the thing apart looking for you. I couldn't call in until we got to Cheyenne. Oh, thank goodness, you're OK. Come on. We have to call your mother. She's waiting at the police station back home in Nebraska.
“What about Edgar?” The boy sat on the front steps, his head on folded arms staring at the ground.
“Well, son,” he looked down at Edgar, “What did the officer tell you?”
“He said to wait here.” Edgar's voice was so low, Martha could barely hear him.
Mr. Sawyer walked up the steps and in the house where the police officer waited in the living room for the Greens. “Mind if I take the boy with me to the station? Might be good to keep them together.”
“Sure. Not much doubt Martha knows you. Good thing you remembered the stop where you last saw the girl, huh?”
“Oh yeah, thank goodness.”
The three climbed in Mr. Sawyer's car bearing the railroad insignia and drove to the station. The Sergeant inside put through a call to the Woodriver Police Department.
“Betty Collins? Someone here would like to talk to you.” He handed the phone to Martha.
“Martha? Martha, is that you?” Her mother's voice choked over the phone.
“Yes, Mother. I'm just fine. I was kidnapped. Did you know?" Martha looked at the phone. "Mother, are you there?"
Betty took a deep breath and struggled to find her voice. "Yes, honey, oh yes, I'm here. And I'm never letting you go again."