A Feather for a Fan (excerpt) by Karla Stover

Chapter 1

Fog rolled down from Canada and pressed against the smoke from a Northern Pacific engine, obliterating the view of old growth timber on one side of the tracks and Commencement Bay on the other. Inside the stuffy passenger car, Verdie Bacom sighed and waited for her two oldest children, Mathilda, eleven and Reuben, ten, to start whining. It was the view that had kept them entertained for the past several hours. Instead, they pressed their noses against the glass trying to penetrate the murky haze. Next to her, Verdie’s husband, Ira, gave a deep hacking cough and immediately covered his mouth with his handkerchief. At Verdie’s sideways glance, he said, “Don’t worry so much, V, it’s just a cough.”

Farther back in the passenger car where a group of miners and loggers sat, one said, “It’s sure and certain he won’t make old bones.”

Hearing the remark, Verdie stiffened in her seat. She hadn’t left family and friends in Johnstown and come this far just for her husband to die. Away from the coal mines Ira would get well. He had to.

“How much longer, Papa?” Reuben asked.

Ira pulled out a gold watch, looked at it and said, “Not long now.”

“Where will we go when we get there?” Mathilda wanted to know

“Why, this train is going to stop right next to a great big old hotel and we’ll just walk in and demand their best room.”

Ira coughed again, though not so deeply, and Verdie said, “why don’t you look at your book. We’ll be there before you know it.”

“I’ve already read it.” The girl began but her mother held up a hand and said, “Hush, Hildy or you’ll wake Dovie.”

The baby, Dovie, slept on the seat snuggled down between her parents, oblivious to the dimming light, the smells, and the nauseous motion of the train. Hildy leaned back and closed her eyes. She wondered how she could be tired when all they’d done since before dawn that morning was sit. She had a dozen questions about why they had had to leave home and where, exactly, Washington Territory was, would there be a school, a library and some little girls her age to play with. But she knew better than to ask right now. Mama had that pinched look she got when she was tired and getting a sick headache. When they left home, Mama said that she was going to have to grow up quick and be a help. Mama looked sad when she said that, and Hildy hugged her and said she could already bake bread and change Dovie. But sometimes she wanted to be a little girl again and sit on her mother’s lap and feel her breath as she read fairy stories. Next to her, Reuben fell asleep, his head dropping on Hildy’s shoulder. Verdie smiled at her daughter making the little girl feel grownup.

The train chugged on. Some of the men slept and snored, and darkness fell. Dovie woke hungry and Verdie put the baby to her breast. And then she felt a change in the train’s rhythm.

“I think we’re about there,” said Ira.

Verdie pulled the laces of her corset cover and quickly tied them. “Rueben, Hildy, wake up,” she said leaning forward. “We’re here.”

Reuben woke immediately but Hildy opened her eyes slowly. “Where are we?” she asked.

“You know. We’re at the Blackwell Hotel, or almost. I expect we’ll have to get off the train and walk inside.” Verdie smiled at Mathilda. She was aware of her daughter’s unhappiness at leaving their old home and traveling to a place she knew only by a mark on a map. Of her three children, Hildy gave her the most concern. Rueben was outgoing and adaptable, like his father, he would take to their new life. And Dovie was too young to remember anything about Johnstown. Hildy, though, when Hildy became attached to something she put down deep roots. Every change, every loss that pulled on those roots ripped at her heart. She would recover—heal, but there would be scars.

The train’s speed gradually slowed to a stop. The loggers and miners woke, grunting and stretching. Ira helped his wife up and herded his children down the aisle to where a man was opening a door and pulling down a set of steps. Verdita handed Dovie to Rueben, gathered her skirts and stepped down. As soon as she took the baby back, he hurried down after her and ran a few yards ahead.

“Where’s the water?” he asked.

A tall, well-built and well-dressed man standing nearby laughed. “A few more feet, there young fellow and you’ll know where it is,” he said.

“It smells,” Rueben said as he wrinkled his nose.

“Why, that’s just good saltwater and tide. Take a deep breath and tap your chest,” the man followed his own instructions and breathed out with a large gust. Reuben did the same and laughed.

“I can feel it all the way to my stomach,” he said.

“Well now, I bet that’s just because it’s empty and we can take care of that in a jiffy.” The man turned to Ira. “You folks must be the Bacom family. We got your telegram. Ma’am,” he said, addressing Verdita, “William Blackwell at your service. I’m here to escort you to the finest hotel in Tacoma, Washington Territory.”

“And the only one, I’ll bet.” Reuben piped up.

“Reuben.” Ira said. “Mind your manners.” He stepped forward and extended his hand. “Ira Bacom, Mr. Blackwell, my wife, Verdita, Reuben, you’ve already met, and this is Hildy and the baby is Dovie.”

“It’s a pleasure, and if you’d like to come this way, we’ll get you all settled.”

He offered his arm to Verdita and as they turned toward a large building several hundred yards away, Dovie woke up and began to cry. Well, she’d been good all day, Verdita thought. But, oh dear, what a sight we must present.

“I’ll hold her, Mama,” said Hildy. “Sometimes she’s gets quiet for me.”

“Thank you, Hildy.” Verdita handed the baby over, took Mr. Blackwell’s arm again, and the two followed Reuben and the bobbing lanterns of the engineer and brakeman.

Hildy jiggled the baby and managed to lag behind. In the water to her right the outlines of ships barely penetrated the fog. Hildy heard them pull and strain on their rope restraints. Water slapped slapped against wooden pilings interrupting men’s voices. On her left were corrals with a few cattle and horses. Somewhere, too, was a chicken coop. Hildy smelled it. Suddenly, a large bird swooped out of the darkness and grabbed something off the ground. It screeched in pain as the bird lifted and disappeared. Hildy’s started cry was lost in Reuben’s excited exclamation.

“Jehosaphat! What was that?” he asked.

“An owl after a wharf rat,” said Mr. Blackwell. “We have a lot of them.”

“Owls or rats?’ asked Ira and Mr. Blackwell gave a great laugh.

“Both Mr, Bacom, both. Now,” he gestured toward a lighted door, “there’s Alice come to greet you. She’ll be mighty glad to have a nice young family here. Tacoma’s a little short on them, right now.”

*Karla Stover was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, and graduated from the University of Washington with honors in history. She has been writing for more than twenty years. Her credits include the News Tribune, the Tacoma Reporter , the Tacoma Weekly, and the Puget Sound Business Journal. Nationally, she has published in Ruralite and Birds and Blooms. Internationally, she was a regulator contributor to the European Crown and the Imperial Russian Journal. She writes a monthly column for Country Pleasures magazine. In 2008, she won the Chistell Prize for a short story entitled, “One Day at Appomattox.” Weekly, she talks about local history on KLAY AM 1180. Her book, Let’s Go Walk About in Tacoma came out in August 2009, Hidden History of Tacoma: Little-Known Tales from the City of Destiny in 2012, A Line to Murder in 2013, and A Feather for a Fan is coming out December 2014.