By Helen Hinckley Jones
The Story So Far: Prudy writes a composition about Uncle Angus, who, angered at his sisters, has promised never to see nor speak to them again. She says that she believes that if she went to California she could find him and bring him to Ogden. Sister Freiber, who is on her way to California, hears the composition read and offers to take Prudy with her. John plans to accompany Prudy, but the cattleman who was to have provided his transportation forgets all about it and Prudy leaves for Sacramento without John.
Prudy wiped her eyes on her clean handkerchief, folded it, and put it back into the new little drawstring bag that Minnie had given her for a going-away present. Looking at the bag made her think of Minnie, of Minnie’s club, of the other children on West Twelfth Street whom she had learned to like. the tears started again and she reopened the beautiful bag. It was of bright roman-striped ribbon gathered at the bottom around a clear mirror that reflected her wide gray eyes and shining brown hair whenever she looked into the bag.
She bounced once or twice on the green plush train seat to make sure that it was real. It still didn’t seem right that she should be starting on an adventure without John. Up to the last minutes he had expected to see him climb on the train. But he hadn’t, and now she was on her way to Sacramento with Sister Freiber and Sister Freiber’s four children.
Suddenly she thought of her obligation to Sister Freiber. “May I do something for you, Sister Freiber?” she asked. Sister Freiber’s brown eyes were bloodshot. The journey had just begun but already she looked worn out.
“I am under the weather today,” Sister Freiber answered. She took a handkerchief from her own bag.”Here, damp this for me, will you?”
Prudy went to the end of the car and turned a tiny stream of water over the folded handkerchief. When she brought it back Sister Freiber took it. “Hold the baby, will you? I’ll just lie back with this cold rag over my eyes and see if I can get some rest.”
Prudy took the baby. It gave her a warm, comfortable feeling and reminded her of the twins she had tended so often in Arizona. Elwood, Sister Freiber’s oldest boy, moved over on the seat to give Prudy more room. “She’s Maudie,” he said. He pointed to the two children on the opposite seat. “They’re Alice – we call her Allie – and David. I’m nine, Allie is seven, David is three, and Maudie will be one the day after Christmas.”
Prudy smiled at each of the children and gave Maudie a bounce or two on her knees. The bounce was a mistake. When Prudy stopped it, Maudie kept on bouncing. Finding she couldn’t do it well without Prudy’s help, she set up a scream that made Sister Freiber move restlessly. “Can’t you keep her quiet, Prudy? It seems like a body ought to be able to get some rest,” she complained.
Obligingly Prudy bounced until her legs ached, then she offered the baby to Elwood. “You jiggle her for a while,” she invited.
Elwood shook his head. “Ma don’t allow me,” he said.
It seemed hours before Sister Freiber awakened and took the baby. Prudy stood up to stretch her legs. “I want to drink, too,”Allie ordered. Prudy took Allie and David to the end of the car and got each a drink. When she returned she took her little New Testament from her bag. It was hardly two inches square and the print was very, very little, but Prudy longed to read it. Father had given it to her just before the train pulled out.
Elwood took a piece of paper from his pocket and a stub of pencil from his mother’s bag. “Let’s play tit-tat-toe, three in a row,” he suggested.
“But I want to read,”Prudy answered.
“Play with the boy,” Sister Freiber said. “Your book’ll keep.” So Prudy played tit-tat-toe until David wanted another drink. And after the drink it was time to relieve Sister Freiber with Maudie again.
“I wish I hadn’t come,” Prudy said to herself, and then she shook her head to get rid of the thought. Sometime all the Freiber children would go to sleep at once and she’d walk down the aisle as she and John had done when they first came to Utah.
It seemed almost as if Sister Freiber could read her mind. As she opened the lunch box she said, “After lunch we’ll all take a nap. If you don’t want to sleep, Prudy, you can have a little time with your book.” She raised her tired eyes to Prudy’s face and her brows wrinkled down. “But while I’m asleep don’t get into any mischief. Don’t speak to any strangers.”
Prudy’s heart sank. There were sure to be folks on the train that would know about California, about the Sacramento River, about the bridges which Uncle Angus might be building.
At first Prudy enjoyed just looking out of the window, because there were new sights to be seen from the window of the train. Miles and miles of salt land spread out from each side of the tracks but the salt was of a grayish color, not sparkling like table salt. It looked like a great frosted cake on which the frosting was a mite dirty. Tired of looking at the salt, she could turn to the testament and read her favorite stories. It would be fine if the Freibers would sleep all the time, like Sleeping Beauty, Prudy thought. She wouldn’t kiss them awake until the train pulled into Sacramento.
When the family awakened she cheerfully took charge again. The trip wouldn’t be at all bad as long as it was broken by Freiber naps
It wasn’t until they had eaten supper from the lunch box and the family had settled down to sleep that Prudy was again reminded of her promise. Sister Freiber had found a vacant seat for David to sleep on. She and Elwood sat facing front and Prudy and Allie sat facing backwards. Sister Freiber fed Maudie, then handed her to Prudy. “Make her as comfortable as you can while I get a bit of rest,” she told her.
It seemed only a few minutes before the Freibers were all asleep, Maudie’s head warm and heavy against Prudy’s shoulder. Prudy had begun to doze when a man’s voice behind her brought her to attention. “Yes,” the man was saying, “I’m a native son. I was born in California, up Shasta way.”
“That’s up the Sacramento River, isn’t it?” another voice asked.
“Yes, a long ways up. Another hundred miles or so and I’d have been born in Oregon.”
“Wild country?” the second voice asked.
“Well, so-so. There’s still lion and cats to be shot up there, to say nothing of the bear.”
“What about highwaymen??
“We’ve had plenty of those in our day, too. I was born in fifty-one.” The man chuckled. “There’s been some change in that part of the country since then.”
Prudy shifted the baby and looked back over her shoulder at the two men who were talking. They were nice-looking men, clean and well kept. It wouldn’t hurt at all if she spoke to them. Mother and Father wouldn’t mind, she knew. But –
“I’m on my way back,” the same man said. “Been back East for a time. Lots of bridge work being done back there. But California’s my home. Might as well work where I’m the happiest.”
“Bridge building,” Prudy said to herself. Mother had said she thought Uncle Angus might be building bridges. Perhaps this man could tell her where bridges were in progress. Maybe he’d even know Uncle Angus if she asked. Suddenly she decided to speak to them. These men didn’t look like strangers, and anyway what she wanted to ask was important.
She moved to the end of her seat and spread her jacket and one of Maudie’s blankets for the baby to lie on. Carefully she put the sleeping baby on the improvised bed. She shook Elwood until he was partially awake. “Watch that Maudie doesn’t roll off,” she told him. “I’ve got something I’ve got to do.”
“Can’t it wait until Ma wakes up?” Elwood whined sleepily. But he stirred and put his leg along the outside of the seat so that Maudie could not roll off.
Prudy had been so busy getting Maudie settled and deciding in her mind just what she would ask the gentleman who knew all about the Sacramento River, that she hadn’t noticed that the voices behind her had stopped. When she turned to speak to the men they were gone. Their backs were just disappearing through the door of the train. She didn’t dare follow them to another car. Disconsolately she sat down in the seat they had vacated, deciding to wait until they returned.
She told herself that she would have more time to plan a conversation with them, but instead the motion of the train and the sleeplessness of the night before she left on the journey, combined to put her to sleep. Perhaps the men returned and finding her sleeping in their seat, found another place in the train rather than disturb her. At least they didn’t come back, and Prudy’s questions about the River were unanswered.
For a while she was unhappy about it, but as the train started through the Sierras she forgot to worry. The scenery was beautiful; she was rested after her sleep; she was starting on a new adventure. Even now she was in California and once she got to Sacramento anything was apt to happen.
But after she arrived in Sacramento nothing happened. Brother Freiber met them at the train and took them at once to a brown wood house with dingy red trimmings that he had found for them. Sister Freiber wasn’t satisfied with the house and Prudy wasn’t satisfied with the condition it was in. They cleaned for four days before the place seemed livable; and then one morning Brother Freiber went to his print shop late and took Prudy, Elwood, and Allie to the district school.
It was a wonderful new school with a classroom for each grade. Here there was no seat work while the little folks recited. All day long there were things to be learned, things to be recited. Prudy had learned at Broom’s Bench School how to get along with a new class. She listened until she was certain that she could excel, then she offered to recite. In a very few days the teacher commended her.
Ordinarily she would have been happy, but in the back of her mind all the time was the feeling that time was going by and she had as yet done nothing to find Uncle Angus. But what could she do?
All day she was in school; after school she was expected to hurry home and do a day’s work at Sister Freiber’s. “I might as well be a prisoner,” she complained to herself. But she didn’t complain to Sister Freiber.
“You’re a good child,” Sister Freiber told her. “I don’t know how I ever got along without you.” She looked closely at Prudy. “You’re not having much of a life here, are you, Prudy?”
Prudy smiled. “It’s all right, but I’m not seeing much Sacramento.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Sister Freiber offered.”Every Saturday afternoon you can have three hours for yourself. You can do anything you want to with the time. But –” and her voice took on a worried note – “but don’t do anything foolish. No adventuring, mind.”
The first Saturday afternoon Prudy walked downtown, intending to spend the afternoon looking in the stores, but she gravitated almost at once to the river. The Sacramento was still summer size, and she looked with interest at the high water marks left by the river when the water was at its highest. A grand sight, the river would be, after the winter rains had swollen it. By that time he would probably be back in Ogden. even more interesting than the water were the boats moored along its course. For a long time she watched the crafts. After a time she saw an old man with a flowing white beard and a cane made of a piece of gnarled oak sitting on a piece of a packing box, spinning stories of the old river days.
Prudy drew as close as she dared and listened to his tales of the days when the river boats carried all the passengers and all the freight up and down the river – the fabulous river days of before the railroad. He said that he himself had been riding on a boat called the Washoe when it ran its steam up to125 pounds of pressure, blew out its boiler and scalded all of its passengers. He told of the 125 passengers who jumped into the cold river waters to avoid the steam and drowned, of those who stayed on the burning ship to be scorched and killed, of the fisherman who came on board with flour and oil to dress the wounded. The old days came before Prudy as if she were living them herself, and at first she wondered why the men and boys around the old story teller seemed to drift and change constantly. Then she understood. The old man told the same story over and over again. Perhaps he had been an officer on the doomed Washoe. Prudy wanted to ask, but Mrs. Freiber’s words of caution stayed in her mind.
It would be fine if she could come down to the waterfront every day. But once a week was better than nothing. The next Saturday she didn’t waste time in the town, but went straight to the river. She had decided to look up the old man and hear his story from the beginning.
First she allowed herself the luxury of ten minutes on the bridge watching the water flow under her. It was fun to think of the water pouring on into the Pacific Ocean and turning up some distant day in China, maybe. Suddenly two hands were placed over her eyes. For a moment she thought it might be Elwood, but he wasn’t tall enough to reach her eyes like that. Perhaps it was Brother Freiber, but he worked Saturday afternoon and besides his hands always smelled of printers’ ink. Maybe – and a little tingle of fright ran down her back – maybe it was one of the strangers Sister Freiber always was warning against.
Then there was a low chuckle and she wheeled around. “John, John,” she cried. And there was so much joy in her voice that people stopped to smile and wonder. “John, how did you get here?” She gave him no time to answer, but caught him in a bear hug. “And how did you know where to find me? Did you go to Sister Freiber’s?”
John chuckled again and swept the hair out of his eyes with a swift motion of his hand. “It’s a long story, Prudy. First –”
“But how did you know where to find me?”
“I went to Brother Freiber’s print shop the minute I got in and he said I’d find you here. I didn’t go to Sister Freiber’s because I didn’t want her telling me not to adventure.”
Prudy laughed ruefully. “And I had such big plans. I haven’t got anywhere with them yet.” She gave him another quick hug. “But we will now. With the two of us, we will. How long are you going to be in town?”
“Until tomorrow morning.”
“Well, you see I’ve got to go back to Ogden before too long. Father said I could stay a few weeks at the most. Jess’s Uncle Dan sent me down here to help take care of a load of blooded stock that he was sending for a stock show. Before you left I thought that I’d fixed it so I could come down with you, but Uncle Dave – that is, Jess’s Uncle Dave – forget all about me.” He laughed and pulled at his ear. “I didn’t let him forget the second time. I was too eager to get down here.”
“But where are you going tomorrow?” Prudy asked, still puzzled.
“This is the way I’ve got it figured out. If you stay here and keep your eyes open, you’re bound to happen on Uncle Angus if he’s in this town. I’m going up the river. The boats still go up as far as Red Bluff. I might even get farther north than that. If I don’t get any wind of him going up the Sacramento, I’ll spend the next week going down it – down to San Francisco, and see what luck I have.”
Prudy’s eyes sparkled. “May I go with you, John?”
John laughed as he shook his head. “Of course not, silly. If you were a boy you could as well as not. I found it wasn’t a bit hard to get a temporary job helping to load and unload freight – but you’re a girl. I’m afraid you’ll have to stay in Sacramento and tend to your knitting.”
“If I were a boy! Why do I always have to run up against that, I wonder!”
Prudy’s voice was so rueful that John sobered. “I’m sorry, Prudy, but that’s the way it is. I wish you could go along, too.”
Then, locking his arm through Prudy’s, “Let’s not waste this afternoon. It will be our only time together. My boat takes off at six in the morning.”
Together they walked along the wharves; together they listened to the old man’s tale of Old River Days; together they accepted an invitation to go onboard a houseboat called “The Shanty.” It was a wonderful afternoon, but it didn’t last half long enough. When the sun was out of sight John said, “Better go back to Sister Freiber’s, Prudy. Brother Freiber says I can sleep in his print shop tonight. Come along with me and you can walk home with Brother Freiber.”
“The boat takes off at six o’clock,” Prudy thought over and over as she walked along with John and later with Brother Freiber, but it wasn’t until she had been in bed for more than an hour that she decided to do something about it.
At five-thirty the next morning as John emerged from Brother Freiber’s print shop, rubbing his eyes and stretching his arms above his head to limber up after having slept on a table, he felt that somebody was walking along behind him. Following at a distance of about thirty feet was a boy about the size of Prudy, wearing clothing a little too small for him and a cap pulled far down over his face. Suddenly John laughed. “Why the play acting?”
The strange boy doubled his speed and caught up with John. “You’re mean,” he said, taking off his cap and shaking down a mop of golden-brown ringlets.”You’re mean to recognize me. I would have gone straight to the boat and asked for a job by myself, but I didn’t even know the name of the boat, nor where she was moored.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t, Prudy,” John said. “Why, anybody would know you were a girl.”
“I borrowed some of Elwood’s clothes. He has some larger than these but he’s wearing them. Maybe with larger clothes–”
John laughed. “Your hair would give you away any time.”
“I know it,” Prudy agreed. “That’s why I brought these.” She drew a pair of scissors out of her shirt front. Shaking her curls free, she handed John the scissors. “Cut ’em off,” she ordered.
John took the scissors and opened and closed them slowly. “I couldn’t do it, Prudy. Besides, it isn’t the right thing to do. Even if you made everybody think you were a boy, it would not be right.”
Prudy stood looking at her feet encased in a pair of worn out boy’s shoes. “I want to go with you,” she insisted. She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. “You’ll go off up the real one and you’ll find Uncle Angus and – and everything!”
“Walk a ways with me,” John invited.”I’ve got to hurry. Listen, Prudy, don’t feel so bad. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you were the first one to see Uncle Angus. Really, I wouldn’t.”
Prudy walked along by his side, not saying a word. Finally she said, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair for boys to have everything and girls have to stay home and mind children – and everything. I won’t do it. I’m sick – of everything. I’m going home, that’s what I’m going to do.”
John pulled at his ear. “Listen, Prudy, whatever you do, you stay here in Sacramento until I get back. I feel it in my bones that you’ll be the one to find Uncle Angus. Anyway, when I get back there’ll be the two of us together, and with two of us we can’t fail.”
“Good-by, John,” Prudy said, stopping suddenly. “I’m going back now before they miss me.”
“Promise me you’ll wait here in Sacramento for me. Promise me.”
Prudy held out her hand. Though her lips still trembled suspiciously, she said, “I promise. I’ll be here when you get back. Shake.”