New York City
The heels of her shoes tick-tockedagainst the cobblestone, steady as a clock’s pendulum, despite having to wend between vendors’ carts, groups of begging urchins, and the endless throngs of milling humanity. Odors—fish, rotting vegetables, bodies too long unbathed—assaulted her nose, stirred by the damp breeze whisking from the bay. Her cloak slipped from her shoulder and its tail slapped the leg of a man leaning negligently on a rickety stair railing. She jerked the fabric back into place but not before the man sent a leering grin that traveled from her unraveling braid to the scuffed toes of her well-worn boots. Tarsie hugged the leather pouch containing her herbal cures to her bodice and shivered, but not from cold.
How she wanted out of this city! Mary did, too. Oh, Lord, please . . .
The prayer, a helpless plea, winged from her heart as more than a dozen others had since she’d found the tattered copy of James Redpath’s Handbook of Kansasin an alley a week ago. Although her deepest yearnings found no utterance, she trusted that the Lord she loved and served could read the wordless groanings of her heart and would answer in a way perfect for Mary. But so much rested on Mary’s husband, Joss, and what he would say. And Joss had no use for the Lord.
The first cool raindrops plopped onto the dirt-crusted cobblestone as Tarsie reached the brick tenement that housed Mary’s family. She darted inside, grateful to have escaped a dousing. Her wool-and-cotton cloak was far too heavy for balmy springtime. But Tarsie owned no other covering, so she wore the cloak year-round. It helped hide the sad dress beneath it.
Tarsie made her way up the narrow concrete stairway littered with food scraps, crumpled paper, and animal droppings. Somewhere in the building, a baby’s weak cry tore at Tarsie’s heart. Such suffering. Wasn’t there a better life waiting elsewhere? Her fingers curled around the booklet in her pocket. Yes, a better life awaited . . . in Kansas. Somehow she must convince Joss of that truth.
The door to the Brubachers’ apartment stood open, inviting Tarsie’s entrance as it always did on Wednesdays. The children, Emmy and Nathaniel, dashed to greet her the moment she stepped over the threshold. Tarsie gave the towheaded pair a hug, then glanced around the sparsely furnished but clean room. “Where’s your mama?” Tarsie hoped her friend hadn’t ventured out for shopping. The rain would surely bring on another cold, and Mary’s weakened lungs couldn’t abide one more illness. Tarsie marveled that the woman had survived the winter.
“Sweepin’,” Nathaniel said, tucking a finger into his mouth.
Five-year-old Emmy wrinkled her nose at her little brother. “Sull-eeping.” She squared her skinny shoulders and beamed at Tarsie. “I fixed biscuits an’ jam for Nattie an’ me. Mama said I’m her best helper.”
Tarsie gave the little girl’s tangled hair a pat and managed a smile, but inwardly she quaked. If Mary still lay in bed, something was amiss. With trembling hands, she draped her cloak over the single chair in the room. “You two stay out here and play quietly. I’ll be seein’ to your mama.” She pinched the precious pouch between her elbow and ribs and scurried into the sleeping room beyond the living quarters, certain the children would obey. They were bonny youngsters—in all the months Tarsie had visited, she’d rarely found a need to scold them.
As the children had indicated, Mary lay on the lumpy bed that filled the corner of the small room, eyes closed and lips slightly parted. The pale pallor of her skin concerned Tarsie, as did the sheen of perspiration on her brow. Another fever? Tarsie sat on the edge of the bed, causing the springs to creak. Mary’s eyes fluttered open as Tarsie placed the back of her hand gently against the woman’s moist forehead.
The heat from Mary’s skin seared Tarsie’s flesh. Her heart tripped in worry, but she clicked her tongue on her teeth and shook her head, assuming a teasing tone. “Look at you now, sound asleep in the middle of the mornin’. Such a lazy one you are.”
The corners of Mary’s mouth twitched upward in a feeble smile. “So you don’t agree I’ve earned a rest after doing laundry yesterday for my own family plus four others?” A sigh heaved, carried on a wheezing breath. “I have two more loads to do today, though, so I should rise.”
“And why are you still takin’ in laundry?” Tarsie scowled, all pretense at teasing forgotten. “Didn’t I tell you the lye fumes an’ plungin’ your hands again an’ again into water isn’t good for you? If you’re wantin’ to get better for good, you cannot—”
Mary struggled to prop herself up with her elbows. “I have to work, Tarsie. I’ve told you so.” Her arms gave way, and she collapsed against the soiled pillows.
“Well, you won’t be doin’ any laundry today.” Tarsie flopped her age-worn pouch open. Her most valuable possession, she always kept her great-aunt’s medicinal pouch with her. She never knew when the cures inside might offer comfort and healing to some poor soul. The cures had been used for Mary more than anyone else. If only something in the leather pouch would heal Mary for good.
Tarsie’s fingers sought the small packet of holy basil. The herb had effectively reduced Mary’s fever in the past. “I’m thinkin’ this new illness ought to tell you leanin’ over a washtub does you no good.”
“It wasn’t doing the wash that caused my sickness,” Mary said.
Tarsie whisked a glance around the room and noted the window opened at least six inches. She pointed. “Did Joss leave the windows open all night again? I’ve told you, the night air . . .” Tarsie shook her head, too frustrated to continue. She stomped to the window and gave it a push that settled the frame against the sill with a thump. Sometimes she wondered if Joss had no interest in keeping his wife healthy. He stubbornly refused to follow any of her directions. Hands on hips, she faced Mary. “I’ll be havin’ a chat with him, an’—”
“No.” Mary’s voice, although weak, sounded firm. “He works so hard during the day. He needs his rest, and he sleeps better with a little cool air in his face.”
Tears pricked Tarsie’s eyes. Mary was the most giving, unselfish person she’d ever known. Why couldn’t Joss pander to Mary the way she pandered to him? She moved to the bed and seated herself again. “But what of you? Is your sleep not important?”
“I’ll be all right.” Mary’s chapped lips curved into a weary smile. “You’ll make me well again, as you always do.”
Oh, how Tarsie prayed Mary’s words proved true. She loved this dear woman—had ever since their very first meeting across the apple vendor’s cart on the street not quite a year ago. God had orchestrated the crossing of their paths days after she’d laid her great-aunt to rest, just at the time Tarsie desperately needed a friend. Her eyes slipped closed. Help me get Mary out of this city, Lord—away from its damp breezes that bother her lungs an’ from the vermin that crawl through her bed at night. Help me send her to a better place . . . even if it means I never see her again.
She rose, holding the little drawstring bag of crushed holy basil in her fist. “Then I better be brewin’ you some tea that’ll rid you of the fever, hmm?”
Mary’s hand snaked out and curled around Tarsie’s wrist. “And something for my strength? So I can work this afternoon?”
Tarsie frowned. “You can’t be up workin’—not when you’re sick. The people can wait for their wash.”
“But they won’t wait.” Desperation colored Mary’s voice. “They’ll find someone else to do their washing, and I’ll lose the money.”
“Joss earns a decent wage at the docks. You shouldn’t need to be worryin’ about money.”
Mary pursed her lips and turned her face away, falling silent. Rain splatted against the closed window, and the children’s muffled voices carried from the other room. Tarsie hated hurting her friend, but she knew Joss squandered a fair amount of his wage in the drinking and gambling saloons that lined the docks. If he used his money for his family instead, they could live in a better apartment and Mary would have no need to bring in extra funds.
The booklet in her pocket pressed against her thigh, reminding her of Kansas and fresh opportunities. Away from New York and the immoral businesses that tempted coins from a man’s purse, would Joss finally become the kind of husband and father Mary and the children needed? She ought to brew the tea, but she sank back down on the mattress and took Mary’s hand. The hot, dry skin with its calluses and broken, brittle nails pained Tarsie. A gentle soul like Mary deserved so much better than she presently received.
“Mary, I know you’re wantin’ to leave this city—you’ve told me often how you pray more than dirty streets an’ a lifetime of living near the docks for your wee ones.”
Mary shifted her face to meet Tarsie’s gaze. Longing glimmered in her blue eyes, the wordless beseeching creating an ache in the center of Tarsie’s chest.
Tarsie pulled the yellowed Handbook of Kansas from her pocket and opened it. “Listen . . .” She began to read. “‘Drayton Valley, it is admitted by everyone, has the best rock-bound landing, and is the best town site on the Missouri River. We say to the emigrant, come to Drayton Valley; believe as we do, that it is destined to be the great emporium of the upper Missouri.’”
Mary plucked the booklet from Tarsie’s hands and squinted at the cover. Her brows crunched low. “Kansas?”
“To be sure.” Tarsie’s heart pounded, hope swelling. She jabbed her finger at a paragraph farther down the page. “See there? It speaks of the busy steamboat trade. Joss knows dock work, so he’d surely find a job. A town of two thousand, Mary, instead of this crowded, dirty city. Wouldn’t it be a fine place for you an’ for Emmy an’ wee Nathaniel? And maybe . . . maybe . . .” She swallowed. How she hated to remind Mary of Joss’s shortcomings, but her Bible taught her to always speak truth. “Far from here, maybe Joss’ll lose his taste for frequenting the saloons.”
Mary sucked in her lower lip. A single tear trickled down her wan cheek.
Tarsie squeezed her friend’s hand. “It’d be a healin’ place for you. For all of you. I feel it in the very center of my soul.”
Mary pulled her hand free and rolled to her side, taking the booklet with her. “Brew my tea, please, Tarsie.”
With a sigh, Tarsie scuffed to the main room, where the children played in the middle of the floor with a simple doll made of rags and a tumble of discarded chunks of wood. She paused long enough to praise them for being so good, then tossed a scoop of coal into the stove’s belly and poured the remaining water from a bucket beside the stove into a pan. While the water heated, she hurried to the rain barrels behind the building to refill the bucket.
To her relief, all four barrels were half full. With the morning’s steady rainfall, they’d easily overflow by midafternoon, guaranteeing more than enough water for her to fill a tub and do the laundry Mary had promised to customers. Trudging up the three flights of stairs with the full bucket gripped in both hands, she wondered how Mary in her weakened state had managed to make this trek so many times. Why didn’t Joss insist she rest?
Back in the apartment, Tarsie steeped the tea and carried a mugful of the strong-smelling brew to Mary. Expecting to find her sleeping, she gave a jolt when she spotted Mary propped against the pillows, the Handbook of Kansas open beneath her palms.
Mary looked up at Tarsie and released a sigh. “I’ve been reading. And praying.” Tears flooded her eyes. “Tarsie, this place . . . the town called Drayton Valley . . . it seems to be everything I want for my family. So far from here . . .” Her gaze drifted to the window, where raindrops chased each other down the cracked pane.
Tarsie scooted to the edge of the bed and pressed the mug into Mary’s hands. “Drink.” She waited until Mary took a hesitant sip of the steaming liquid, hiding a smile at her friend’s grimace. The tea tasted dreadful, but it worked, and that was what mattered. Retrieving the booklet from the rumpled bed cover, Tarsie held it tight between her fingers. “After I found this book lying in an alley last week, the pages wavin’ in the wind as if beckonin’ to me, I did some checking at the railroad station. A man there told me groups leave New York on the iron horse every week to join up with wagon trains headin’ for Kansas towns. I wrote his name in the back of the book, see?” She indicated the back cover, where her pencil smudgings spelled the name Charles Driscoll. “He can tell Joss everything that needs knowin’ about joinin’ one of the wagon trains that’d take you to Drayton Valley.”
“It’ll cost so dear,” Mary whispered.
Tarsie swallowed. She’d done little else but think of how to help Mary since she’d found the book. She prayed her friend would be able to set aside her fierce pride and accept Tarsie’s help. Slipping to her knees beside the bed, she cradled the booklet beneath her chin and offered her most imploring look. “I’ve been savin’ up the money from my sewing. I want you to take it, to use it to help pay for—”
Mary’s eyes flew wide. “No!”
Tarsie ignored the fierce objection. “—whatever your family needs to get established in a better place. I’m all alone. I have no need for more’n what I already have.”
Images of the filthy street, the leering men, the hopelessness that permeated the tenements flooded Tarsie’s mind, but she pushed them resolutely aside. Mary had offered friendship when no one else extended so much as a kind glance in her direction. As much as Tarsie longed for escape, Mary needed escape. The city would kill Mary one day.
Tarsie gulped down her own desire to flee this vile place and gazed fervently into her friend’s tear-filled eyes. “Don’t rob me of the blessin’ of helping one who’s so dear to me.” Behind her, the patter of little feet signaled that Emmy and Nathaniel had tired of being left alone. They charged into the room and flung themselves onto the foot of the bed, giggling and wrestling like a pair of puppies. Tarsie flicked a smile in their direction before looking at Mary again. “Let me help send you an’ these precious wee ones to a place where happiness dwells.”
Mary’s warm gaze embraced her children. The stubborn lines around her mouth softened, and she released a deep sigh. “Oh, Tarsie, how would I have managed this past year without you?” She stretched out one hand and cupped Tarsie’s jaw. “My angel . . . that’s what you’ve been.” Her hand fell away. “I feel a tug toward Drayton Valley, I won’t deny it. But I can’t take your hard-earned money.”
Mary shook her head, her forehead pinching. “There’s no use hoping, Tarsie. Joss . . .” She sighed. “He’ll never leave New York City.”
Tarsie pushed to her feet and strode stiffly from the room, leaving Mary and the children alone. She crossed to the window and stood before the rain-speckled glass, peering into the narrow alleyway between the buildings. A sad view. An empty view. So different from the green fields and wide, sunshiny sky of her native Ireland. So many years had passed, she barely remembered the place of her birth or the ones who had birthed her. She’d planned to save enough money to get her and Great-Aunt Vangie back to Ireland one day, but for what purpose?
Ma and Da had passed when Tarsie was but a small child. Aunt Vangie now lay in a pauper’s grave. No whitewashed cottage with thatched roof awaited her return no matter how many times Tarsie tried to imagine it. Her life was here now. She was young and strong and could make the most of it. But Mary needed more.
Giggles carried from the sleeping room, followed by Mary’s soft reprimand. She sounded tired. Would she last through another damp New York spring? Tarsie’s heart caught.
The apartment door banged open, and Mary’s husband stepped into the room. Tall and raw-boned, Joss Brubacher filled the doorway. Whipping off his hat, he sent water droplets across the clean floor. In two wide strides, he reached the stove and peered into the pot. Then he sent a scowl in Tarsie’s direction. “No lunch ready? Where’s Mary?” He started toward the sleeping room, but Tarsie darted across the floor and blocked his progress.
Although he frowned at her, silently demanding she move aside, she held her ground. Looking into his sunburnt, irritated face, she said, “Sit down, Joss. I have need of talkin’ to you.”