Rose gripped the. edge of her chair seat to steady herself. The train had only just begun chuffing away from the depot, so there wasn't any rocking of the car to make her dizzy. It was only her mind spinning.
Moments before, she had left behind the life she'd known as long as she could remember. She'd just had her last glimpse of her short plump mother, standing on the brick platform below the train window.
Mama's gentle face had craned up from under her hat. Her cheeks had shone with tears in the morning light. Her shimmering eyes had searched the windows to blow one more kiss. Her hand had held up her handkerchief, ready for one last wave.
Rose fought back a fresh wave of tears. A painful lump lodged in her throat. The pitifully yearning look on Mama's face broke her heart. Rose hadn't gotten to the window fast enough for Mama to see her one last time. Mama had looked for her, but Rose wasn't there.
Rose turned her face to the dust-streaked window and held her own handkerchief tight against her eyes. She was sixteen years old, a young lady and too old to be carrying on in public. A silent sob wracked her body so hard that she could feel the eyelets on her corset jabbing into her back.
She managed a few deep breaths, mopped her face, and slumped down in the plush chair seat, hoping no one had noticed her.
After two months of waiting for this day to come, suddenly nothing made sense. She fought a strong urge to run down the aisle and jump off the train before it got to moving too fast. She caught a final glimpse of the backyard of her house as the train pulled away from town. There was poor old Fido, asleep on his favorite patch of cool earth under the oak tree. A pair of Papa's overalls hung drying on the clothesline. The place looked so forlorn and lonely from the train. And then it was gone, and the telegraph poles whizzed past her window faster and faster.
Oh, how could she leave Mama and Papa alone like that, with boarders to feed and keep house for? How could she leave them to run the farm? Who would fetch the water? Who would milk the cow? Who would bring in the stove wood?
She had pestered Mama and Papa every day of the last two months, badgering them with questions and doubts.
"If you miss the work while you're away, we'll be pleased to hold it all for you until you get back," Papa had joked.
"Don't you worry about any of it," Mama had said. "It is only 'til next summer. Why, You'll be back home before you know it. We'll manage."
But these were the very first moments of the biggest adventure of Rose's life. Nine months stretched before her as vast as the sea. She must cross it alone, without Mama and Papa, far from all things familiar. The thought both terrified and exhilarated her.
The train lurched and picked up more speed. The car began to rock. Rose blinked away her tears and tidied her dress. It was a simple dark-blue figured gingham with a lace collar and cuffs. Rose had complained, and begged to wear her favorite white lawn, but Mama insisted she wear the blue one. Mama had said it was extravagant to wear white on a long train journey: "It soils so easily. Blue is more practical. It'll stay looking fresh 'til you get there."
Rose wrinkled her nose against the sharp smell of coal smoke drifting back from the locomotive. Maybe Mama was right, she thought, as she watched the gray tail of smoke writhing away across the fields. Through the soles of her new shoes she felt the rhythm of the wheels clattering over the rail joints.
For nine years--ever since her family had moved to Mansfield, Missouri, from De Smet, South Dakota--she had heard that sound. She heard it no matter where she was, or what she was doing. Many trains passed through Mansfield, and she could even tell from the sound when a train was an express and when it was a local.
The railroad had a language of its own: the clattering of wheels, the whistles, the thunder of steam escaping when the locomotive had stopped at the depot in town.
These sounds came to Rose at her desk at school while she listened to the droning of the teacher; in the henhouse as she fed the chickens their mash; in her bed at night as she drifted off to sleep. The steady drumming of the wheels against the rail joints was the heartbeat of her daily life.
For nine years the mournful whistle had called to her. Sometimes she imagined she was the only one to have heard it. She would often stop in the middle of hoeing the garden to listen to it echo through the hollows of the Ozark Mountains. The trains had sparked Rose's dreams about the great world beyond, the world the trains came from, and the places to which they rushed. The whistle beckoned to her, telling of bustling cities, of buildings tall enough to touch the clouds, of streets filled with laughter and parades and sophistications Rose could only imagine.
Now, finally, her day had come. She didn't have to wonder who was on the trains, and where they were going. She was one of those passengers herself. And she knew where she was going.
The sudden shriek of the locomotive's whistle made Rose flinch.
"Your first time on a train?" The conductor was smiling down at her from under his blue cap. He held her carpetbag in his hand.
"Oh!" Rose cried out. "I forgot!" In the confusion of departing, she had set her bag down on the vestibule floor and left it there.(Continues...)