Marshall, Texas, March 12, 1890
It was cold outside, but in the depot waiting room, a wood-burning, pot-bellied stove roared and popped and glowed red as it pumped out enough heat to make the waiting room comfortable, if one chose the right place to sit. Too close and it was too hot, too far away and it was too cold.
There were about nine people in the waiting room at the moment, though Rebecca knew that only four of them, including herself, were passengers. Two weeks earlier, Benjamin Conyers, better known as Big Ben, had taken his 21-year-old daughter into Fort Worth to catch the train. Now, after a two-week visit with Big Ben's sister in Marshall, Texas, it was time for Rebecca to return home. Her Aunt Mildred had come to the depot with her to see her off on the evening train.
Everyone agreed that Rebecca Conyers was a beautiful young woman. She had delicate facial bones and a full mouth; she was slender, with long, rich, glowing auburn hair, green eyes, and a slim waist. She was sitting on a bench, the wood polished smooth by the many passengers who had sat in this same place over the last several years. Just outside the depot window, she could see the green glowing lamp of the electric railroad signal.
“Rebecca, I have so enjoyed your visit,” Mildred said. “You simply must come again sometime soon.”
“I would love to,” Rebecca replied. “I enjoyed the visit as well.”
“I wish Ben would come with you sometime. But I know he is busy.”
“Yes,” Rebecca said. “Pa always seems to be busy.”
“Well, he is an important man,” Mildred said. “And important men always seem to be busy.” She laughed. “I don't know if he is busy because he is important, or he is important because he is busy. I imagine it is a little of both.”
“Yes, I would think so as well,” Rebecca said. “Aunt Mildred, did you know my mother?”
“Julia? Of course I know her, dear. Why would you ask such a thing?”
“I don't mean Julia,” Rebecca said. “I mean my real mother. I think her name is Janie.”
Mildred was quiet for a long moment. “Heavens, child, why would you ask such a thing now? The only mother you have ever known is Julia.”
“I know, and she is my mother in every way,” Rebecca said. “But I know too, that she wasn't my birth mother, and I would like to know something more about her.”
Mildred sighed. “Well, I guess that is understandable,” she said.
“Did you know her? Do you remember her?”
“I do remember her, yes,” Rebecca's Aunt Mildred said. “I know that when Ben learned that she was pregnant, he brought her out to the house. You were born right there, on the ranch.”
“Pa is my real father though, isn't he? I mean he is the one who got my real mother pregnant.”
“Oh yes, there was never any question about that,” Mildred replied.
“And yet he never married my mother,” Rebecca said.
“Honey, don't blame Ben for that. He planned to marry her, but shortly after you were born Janie ran off.”
“Janie was my birth mother?”
“What was her last name?”
“Garner, I believe it was. Yes, her name was Janie Garner. But, like I said, she ran off and left you behind. That's when Ben wrote me and asked me to come take care of you until he could find someone else to do it.”
“That's when Mama, that is Julia, the woman I call Mama, came to live with us?”
“She did. You were only two months old when Julia came. She and Ben had known each other before, and everyone was sure they were going to get married. But after the war, Ben seemedâI don't know, restless, I guess you would say. Anyway, it took him a while to settle down, and by that time he had already met your real mother. I'll tell you true, she broke his heart when she left.”
“Why did my real mother leave? Did she run away with another man?”
“Nobody knows for sure. All we know is that she left a note saying she wasn't good enough for you,” Mildred said. “For heaven's sake, child, why are you asking so many questions about her now? Hasn't Julia been a good mother to you?”
“She has been a wonderful mother to me,” Rebecca said. “I couldn't ask for anyone better, and I love her dearly. I've just been a little curious, that's all.”
“You know what they say, honey. Curiosity killed the cat,” Aunt Mildred said.
Hearing the whistle of the approaching train, they stood up and walked out onto the depot platform. It was six o'clock, and the sun was just going down in the west, spreading the clouds with long, glowing streaks of gold and red. To the east they could see the headlamp of the arriving train. It roared into the station, spewing steam and dropping glowing embers from the firebox. The train was so massive and heavy that it made Rebecca's stomach shake as it passed by, first the engine with its huge driver wheels, then the cars with the long lines of lighted windows on each one disclosing the passengers inside, some looking out in curiosity, others reading in jaded indifference to the Marshall depot which represented but one more stop on their trip.
“What time will you get to Fort Worth?” Aunt Mildred asked.
“The schedule says eleven o'clock tonight.”
“Oh, heavens, will Ben have someone there to meet you?”
“No, I'll be staying at a hotel. Papa already has a room booked for me. He'll send someone for me tomorrow.”
“Board!” the conductor called, and Rebecca and her aunt shared a long goodbye hug before she hurried to get on the train.
Inside the first car behind the express car, Tom Whitman studied the passengers who would be boarding. He didn't know what town he was in. In fact, he wasn't even sure what state he was in. It wasn't too long ago that they'd left Shreveport. He knew that Shreveport was in Louisiana, and he knew it wasn't too far from Texas, so he wouldn't be surprised if they were in Texas now.
“We are on the threshold of the twentieth century, Tom,” a friend had told him a couple of months ago. “Do you have any idea what a marvelous time this is? Think of all those people who went by wagon train to California. Their trip was arduous, dangerous, and months long. Today one can go by train, enjoying the luxury of a railroad car that protects them from rain, snow, beating sun, or bitter cold. They can dine sumptuously on meals served in a dining salon that rivals the world's finest restaurants. They can view the passing scenery while relaxing in an easy chair, and they can pass the nights in a comfortable bed with clean sheets.”
At the time of that conversation, Tom had no idea that within a short time he would actually be taking that cross-country trip. Now he was in one more town of an almost countless number of towns he had been in over the last six days and ten states.
This town wasn't that large, and although there were at least ten people standing out on the platform, there were only four people boarding, as far as he could determine. One of those boarding was a very pretty young, auburn-haired woman, and he watched her share a goodbye hug with an older woman, who Tom took to be her mother.
One of the passengers who had just boarded was putting his coat in the overhead rack, just in front of Tom.
“Excuse me,” Tom said to him. “What is the name of this town?”
“Marshall,” the passenger answered.
“Louisiana, or Texas?”
“Texas, Mister. The great state of Texas,” the man replied with inordinate pride.
“Thank you,” Tom said.
“Been traveling long?” the man asked.
“Yes, this is my sixth day.”
“Where are you headed?”
“I don't have any particular destination in mind.”
“Ha, that's funny. I don't know as I've ever met anyone who was travelin' and didn't even know where they was goin'.”
“When I find a place that fits my fancy, I'll stop,” Tom said.
“Well, Mister, I'll tell you true, you ain't goin' to fine any place better than Texas. And any place in Texas you decide to stop is better than any place else.”
“Thank you,” Tom said. “I'll keep that in mind.”
In the week since he had left Boston, Tom had shared the train with hundreds of others, none of whom had continued their journey with him. He had managed to strike up a conversation with some of them, but in every case, they were only brief acquaintances, then they moved on. He thought of the passage from Longfellow.
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a
With a series of jerks as the train took up the slack between the cars, it pulled away from the station, eventually smoothing out and picking up speed. Once the train settled in to its gentle rocking and rhythmic clacking forward progress, Tom leaned his head against the seat back and went to sleep.
Once Rebecca boarded, found her seat, and the train got underway, she reached into her purse to take out the letter. She had picked the letter up at the post office shortly before she left Fort Worth to come visit her Aunt Mildred. The letter, which was addressed to her and not to her father, had come as a complete surprise. Her father knew nothing about it, nor did she show it to her Aunt Mildred. The letter was from her real mother, and it was the first time in Rebecca's life that she had ever heard from her.
Her first instinct had been to tear it up and throw it away, unread. After all, if her mother cared so little about her that she could abandon her when Rebecca was still a baby, why should Rebecca care what she had to say now?
But curiosity got the best of her, so she read the letter. Now, sitting in the train going back home, Rebecca read the letter again.
This letter is going to come as a shock to you, but I am your real mother. I am very sorry that I left you when you were a baby, and I am even more sorry that I have never attempted to contact you. I want you to know, however, that my not contacting you is not because you mean nothing to me. I have kept up with your life as best I can, and I know that you have grown to be a very beautiful and very wonderful young woman.
That is exactly what I expected to happen when I left you with your father. I did that, and I have stayed out of your life because I thought that best. Certainly there was no way I could have given you the kind of life your father has been able to provide for you. But it would fulfill a life-time desire if I could see you just once. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, and to grant this wish, you will find me in Dodge City, Kansas. I am married to the owner of the Lucky Chance Saloon.
Rebecca knew about her mother; she had been told a long time ago that Julia was her stepmother. But she didn't know anything about her real mother, and on the few times she had asked, she had always been given the same answer.
“Your mother was a troubled soul, and things didn't work out for her. I'm sure that she believed, when she left you, that she was doing the right thing,” Big Ben had said.
“Have you ever heard from her again?” Rebecca wanted to know.
“No, I haven't, and I don't expect that I will. To tell you the truth, darlin', I'm not even sure she is still alive.”
That had satisfied Rebecca, and she had asked no more questions until, unexpectedly, she had received this letter.
From the moment Rebecca had received the letter, she had been debating with herself as to whether or not she should go to Dodge. And if so, should she ask her father for permission to go? Or should she just go? She was twenty-one years old, certainly old enough to make her own decision.