THIS IS THE COVER OF MY AWARD-WINNING NEW NOVEL, THE RAIL QUEEN! THIS IS THE FIFTH BOOK IN THE TALES OF STRONG WOMEN SERIES, WHICH BEGAN IN 2004 WITH ANGEL OF THE GOLD RUSH. THE RAIL QUEEN IS AVAILABLE BOTH IN PAPERBACK AND e-BOOK FOR KINDLE.
THE RAIL QUEEN IS:
WINNER, 2015 BEVERLY HILLS BOOK AWARDS, BEST HISTORICAL FICTION
WINNER, BRONZE MEDALLION, WESTERN ROMANCE, 2015 WILL ROGERS MEDALLION AWARDS
FINALIST, 2015 NATIONAL INDIE EXCELLENCE AWARDS, HISTORICAL FICTION
IT IS AVAILABLE FROM THE FOLLOWING SOURCES—
createspace.com/5028104 (note: my preferred source)
or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
BELOW IS A SHORT SYNOPSIS, AND CHAPTER 1
It was a time of vanishing cultures and rising empires. A time when there was much that needed to be done—much that could be done. And in the end it didn’t matter who did it.
Seventeen-year old schoolgirl Ryka Sundstrom dreams of doing what no girl ever has—build a railroad. Fleeing her home and an arranged marriage, pursued across four states by a vengeful father bound by tradition, Ryka unites with a childhood sweetheart in Kansas, only to suffer his later betrayal. Surrounded by people who tell her girls don’t build railroads, Ryka refuses to give up. When near defeat In the face of overwhelming odds, she offers herself to a potential backer. Will her new partner in business be her partner in love as well, or will he too turn against her? The truth will be told when ambition and boldness lead Ryka to a showdown with the feared Empire Builder of the Great Northern Railway—James J. Hill.
Northern Pacific Railway Yards
“Get off this train, girl!”
A small figure in a heavy winter coat flew out the doorway of the freight car and landed with a thump on a pile of dirty snow beside the tracks. The yard bull glared down like an angry bear, teeth flashing behind his thick beard, brow furrowed and barrel chest heaving.
The figure scrambled to her feet and thumbed her nose at him. Then she whirled and ran into the winter darkness.
“I know you!” the bull yelled after her. “You’re that Sundstrom girl. You tell that dumb Swede pa o’ yours I see you here again he’s out of a job!”
The girl ran twenty steps into the cold darkness before she finally slowed to wipe away tears with her long brown braids. The cold night air stung her wet cheeks. Breathing hard, she looked back at the locomotive. Even at rest, the great iron beast seemed to pulsate with life, its big drive wheels glowing softly with reflected light from a trackside lantern. Smoke curled lazily from the locomotive’s stack, a ghost of the energy waiting to be unleashed by a full firebox, sending flame exploding through the stack. The beast pulled at her.
Looking up, she could see the rosy glow from the firebox that suffused the cab. The cozy warmth looked like an island of refuge on the cold winter night. The cab was left untended, and this was where she had been headed, longing to see close-up what made the engine go. The yard bull had chased her in and out of three boxcars before cornering her just behind the coal tender. “I done told you before you don’t belong here,” he snarled. “Don’t you see them ‘No Trespassing’ signs?” Then he had thrown her out of the boxcar onto the snow.
Now Ryka stood, teary-eyed, staring at the locomotive and the stolid figure of the bull, glaring at her. You think I don’t belong there, she thought, defiance swelling within her. But the day will come when no one will throw me off a train ever again. She turned to go, her boots crunching over the two-day old snow toward home.
Ryka’s father did not find out that night where she had been, though he questioned her pointedly about why it took so long to bring back the sack of flour from the small grocery store. But by the next night he knew, courtesy of his boss. He was waiting the moment she came home from school. “So, you vas down at the tracks again, eh?” he said, his face like an approaching thundercloud. His Swedish accent was pronounced when he was angry. “I tell you no, but you t’ink you can do whatever you like. Now my boss is mad at me. Suppose I was to lose my job because of you? How would that be? Well, I tell you, my girl, I will not let that happen.” He reached for the thick leather strap he kept hanging from a support post in the middle of the little shack Ryka and her family called home. Then he sat down on the edge of a bed. “Come here.”
Ryka hesitated. She could still taste in her mind the sting of the last time he had used the strap. But she also knew if she didn’t comply, he would reach for her and pull her to him, and it would go worse. On wooden legs she moved forward.
“Now you learn the lesson this time, girl,” he said, bending her over his knee. “I don’t hear of you down at the yard no more.” The strap smacked hard into Ryka’s bottom. She flinched and bit her lip to keep silent, determined not to cry. He raised the strap to strike once more. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Lars, you hit that girl again and there’s going to be trouble sure.”
Her mother’s voice hung in the sudden silence, like a hammer poised to fall. She had come in from outside. Ryka bit her lip in relief. Though her father, blustery and tough as he was, seemed like the boss in the household, it was her mother, Anna, who wielded the ultimate power, and didn’t hesitate to use it when she thought it was necessary. Since she and Lars had moved west, following the rails, she had threatened to leave him several times. “You listen,” she would say in her Swedish-accented English when she had had enough, “more of this and I go back to Minnesota. I got family there, you know. This trip’s not brought us nothin’. Now you stop this nonsense or I’ll be packin’ my bags sure as I stand here.”
Lars would always glare at her as if he could still win, but he knew when he was beat. The one thing he didn’t want was to be without a wife, and the cushion she provided to pad him from the harsh frontier life.
He held the strap poised over Ryka. His hand trembled for a few seconds, but then he threw the strap across the room. Ryka sprang up and away from him. “I don’t raise a girl to be no boy,” he said, fuming. “Girls don’t belong at the tracks.”
“And where is this written down, Mr. Know-It-All?” Anna retorted. “Show me.”
He rose and waved at her in disgust. “It’s just the way of t’ings, that’s all. In the Old Country—”
“You hush now,” Anna replied. “We’re not in the Old Country no more. Maybe we find a new way of things here.”
“More’s the pity,” Lars said, winding down now. “The old ways was fine.”
Anna let it go. Disgusted as she sometimes was with his pig-headedness, she knew how keenly he felt the loss of the homeland and its familiarity. He seemed to have forgotten the hardships that had driven them to America. Anna had thought that settling into the large Swedish immigrant community in Minnesota would help him adjust. But it had not worked the magic she had hoped for. Lars had worked hard in the New Land, but had very little to show for it, and his only remaining child’s unusual interests were a thorn in his side.
They ate a simple meal in silence. Afterward, Lars stoked the fire and then retired to bed. The winter days, short on sunshine but long on labor, sapped his strength. A good night’s sleep was one of the few blessings he had on the harsh frontier. Anna was wise enough not to begrudge him that.
Ryka helped her mother wash the dishes and silverware. Anna beamed down at her daughter as they stood side by side at the washbasin. “You will alvays be my little svenska flicka,” she said. “But I t’ink sometimes you are a most unusual one.”
Ryka said nothing, drying the plates in silence.
“Don’t you t’ink your father is right, Ryka? It’s not proper for a girl to be playing around those big locomotives.”
“I wasn’t playing,” Ryka said, a strong hint of stubbornness in her voice.
“And what was it then?”
“I wanted to know,” Ryka replied as she polished a dish a bit too hard. “I wanted to know what makes the engine go.”
Anna drew the last plate out of the rinse water and set it down on the counter. She dried her hands, took Ryka’s hands in her own and led her over to the bed, where they sat on the edge. Anna put on her best mother’s smile. “And why would a young girl vant to learn such things, daughter? Almost from the beginning, you vas different. If you vas more like other little girls, we wouldn’t have such headaches as we do. We would know what to expect, how to—to plan t’ings out. Soon you will be interested in boys, you know. They might not like to be around a girl with such strange habits.”
Ryka stuck out her lower lip. “Boys are stupid. They get in my way and tease me.”
Anna sighed. “You vill not t’ink so for much longer. Boys your age are interested in girls now, Ryka, girls that dress like a girl should, girls who are, vell, girls, and not trying to be boys.”
Ryka turned slightly away from her mother and lowered her head.
Anna put a hand under Ryka’s chin and lifted her daughter’s head slightly. “I t’ink you will be a pretty young woman, Ryka. When the time comes, you will have no trouble attracting a fine man for a husband.”
“And so I get married, and then what? I am happy?” Ryka retorted harshly. She could feel her mother stiffen ever so slightly and knew she had said the wrong thing.
Anna sat back, her hands suddenly gripping Ryka’s too hard. For a long moment, she was silent. Then she abruptly withdrew and rose to her feet. “Just t’ink about what I have said,” she replied, weariness evident in her voice.
Ryka remained on the bed as her mother shuffled off to the kitchen area. She could sense the disappointment and regret her mother carried with her always, like an invisible cloak on her shoulders, heavy yet without warmth. In a private moment, Ryka’s mother had once shared her girlhood dream with her daughter. “Do you know, Ryka,” she had said one day as they sat together on a hill looking at the mountains surrounding them, “when I was a girl I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I wanted to write for a big city paper. I wanted to see my name above a fine piece about life in the west.”
“Why didn’t you, Mama?” Ryka inquired.
“I met your father,” she said, the dreamy tone of her voice deflating into a cold distance. With that, she had gotten up and walked away. She never talked of it again.
Anna had met Lars Sundstrom at age 18. Her girlfriends were either already married, or firmly on the marriage trail. He was handsome, and talked of leaving Minnesota and going west in search of adventure. So she had married him, eyes agleam with passion for both him and her dream. They would go west and she would write.
But with marriage came children. First there was Ryka’s older brother Eric, two years her senior. When he suddenly died of pneumonia at age 15 in 1881, Lars had seemed lost for a while, and changed. Then he had gotten on with the Northern Pacific. The job didn’t pay much or lead to anything better, and the adventure westward became a struggle for survival.
For Anna, the duties of a wife and mother demanded nearly all the time she could muster. Sunday afternoons were the only time she had to herself. She would retreat to a quiet spot and write in her diary, quietly pleased to hear the scratch of pen on paper, to take small joy in the elegance of forming her letters. Of her dream, it was all she had left. For somewhere along the way west Anna, the young woman with a dream, had disappeared, and Anna, the wife and mother with too many responsibilities, had taken her place.
* * *
The day after her father had put the strap to Ryka was the last school day of the week. She was up just after dawn as usual, shivering in the kitchen while the morning fire in the Franklin stove took hold. The small shack would finally heat up just as she headed out the door. Finishing her lunch preparation, she turned to help her mother, who was making a hot breakfast for Lars. It was something he would need to get through another cold day in the rail yard.
When they were done, Ryka gave her mother a quick hug and headed for the door.
“Ryka, you stay away from those trains now,” Anna called. “Your father could get into trouble.”
Ryka smiled reassuringly, but said nothing.
The cozy warmth of the schoolhouse was something Ryka looked forward to. She knew her teacher had been there before dawn, stoking the fire in the central stove of the one-room school, so that when her students arrived heat would be abundant and lessons could be concentrated on.
The teacher in the multi-grade schoolhouse was a thirtyish woman named Edna Thayer. Edna was, if not beautiful, a handsome woman with warm eyes, dark hair and a slender figure. Under normal circumstances, she would not lack for suitors. But few circumstances on the western frontier were normal. Widowed on her way west to Seattle when her husband, a brakeman, was crushed between two freight cars, she found herself alone in the barren stretches of Montana, with only a widow’s pension and no direction. She had paused to teach school in Missoula until she could, as she put it, “gather her life”. “You wait and see,” she told Ryka more than once. “I’ll make it to Seattle someday. Just you wait and see if I don’t.”
At that remark, Ryka had once noticed a glint of tears in Edna’s eyes, and wondered if her teacher was trying to convince herself more than her student. But Edna was supportive and encouraging, and Ryka had come to trust her for truthful answers to things that puzzled her.
This day Ryka was distracted and distant in class, occasionally glancing out a window that provided a view of the rail yard, stroking her long brown braids.
Edna noticed, but said nothing.
When classes ended for the day, Ryka stayed behind to sweep the floor around the Franklin stove, as was her task on Fridays. She swung the straw broom forward and back, devoid of the usual small talk she engaged in when alone with her teacher. She had just about finished when Edna called to her from across the room.
“Ryka, Put down the broom. Come to me for a few minutes.”
Ryka leaned the broom against a front-row desk and walked slowly over to her teacher.
Edna patted the bench beside her, and Ryka sat, head down.
Ryka,” Edna said softly, “your mind wasn’t on your lessons today. You seemed somewhere else. Can you tell me why?”
Ryka said nothing for long seconds. Then in a barely audible voice: “My Papa punished me.” She told Edna about the strap, and why he had used it.
“Ah,” Edna said. She put her arm around Ryka. “So much turmoil for a girl so young. This is what you yearn for, then? To stand in a locomotive cab and see what makes it go, flashing over the rails?
Ryka nodded silently.
“Do you think this is unusual for a young girl?”
Ryka flinched, fear sweeping across her face. Would her teacher be devoid of sympathy too? “Papa thinks the ways of the old world are best. He thinks I should be doing girlish things.”
Edna could feel her tense up beneath her arm. “Well, I don’t think you are unusual, Ryka,” she said. “This is a new land, with no rules for women! For instance, there is much that needs doing in Seattle, and few to do it. No one cares if a woman does it, as long as she can.” She put her face down close to Ryka’s. “Do you believe me, Ryka?”
“I want to,” Ryka mumbled, raising her deep blue eyes to look at Edna for a moment. “But —there is Papa.”
“We must respect your father’s beliefs,” Edna said. “Still, perhaps there is a way we can please you both. Let me think on it a bit.” With a warm hug, Edna let her go and stood up. “Now, you must go. It will be dark soon, and your parents will wonder where you are.”
Ryka put on her winter coat and went out without further ado. Edna went to the window and watched her trudge off down the snowy street. “There are great things waiting for me in Seattle, no doubt,” she whispered to herself. “Just you wait and see.”
Edna said nothing on the subject over the next week. She hoped Ryka’s concentration on her studies would return to form, but it did not. Ryka continued to seem distracted at times, and finally Edna caught her doodling in her lesson book when she should have been practicing her cursive writing.
Ryka turned the page as Edna approached. Edna was not fooled, and reached down to gently pick up the lesson book. She turned the page back and looked at Ryka’s work—and her face twisted in surprise.
The page was full of drawings of wheels—locomotive wheels. They were drawn in various sizes. Some seemed to be flying through the air with the aid of small wings, some had vines wrapped around their spokes, yet others were set on tracks, but with no accompanying locomotive. Edna turned another page back, and found more of the same. The drawings were very good. She looked at Ryka with the faintest of smiles and handed the book back to her, then walked away.
During lunchtime Friday, Edna quietly took Ryka aside. “See what you think,” she said. “The yardmaster owes me a favor.” As the widow of a brakeman killed on the job, Edna was certain the railroad owed her all sorts of favors. “I asked him if you might ride in a locomotive cab to the next station and back. I said you could not only learn the controls, but see them in action.”
Ryka was intrigued. “What did he say?” she said tentatively, barely daring to breathe.
“He said ‘No, it is too dangerous in the cab’, imitating the yardmaster’s gruff voice. “‘The railroad does not want to be responsible for your safety.'”
Ryka deflated, her hope dashed as quickly as it had come.
Edna smiled reassuringly. “But I had expected this, so I was prepared. I asked him if instead of you sneaking around the rail yard and maybe getting hurt, could you be escorted up into the cab of one of the locomotives while it sits in the yard with steam up, and could the engineer kindly show you the controls? He said this was a hard decision and he would think on it. Your father would have to approve, of course.”
That would be harder still, Ryka thought.
“What do you say?” Edna said. “Are you willing to talk to your father about this?”
Ryka nodded. “But only if you come with me.”
Edna had met Ryka’s parents before, at the annual open house prior to the start of the school year. She had immediately warmed to Ryka’s mother, but Lars was another matter. He was formal, and seemed distracted, interested only in that Ryka should be taught the traditional things a girl should learn. More did not claim his interest; he paced around the school room for most of the open house time.
Anna took Edna aside toward the end of the evening. “I should explain something,” she said quietly. “Three years ago we lost our first child, Eric, to pneumonia. He was 15, soon to be a man. I was numb for a while, but then I turned to duty; I had a young girl to take care of. For Lars, it seemed he had only work and the empty space where his son should be. So much of his hope had been in Eric. The boy made all the hardships we went through in coming to America seem worthwhile. Lars expected Eric would be the one to make a name for the Sundstrom family in the New World, to grow and prosper in the American way, to become a leader, perhaps, of some great company—and one day, to take care of Lars and myself in our old age. After Eric was born, every hoist of a rail, every swing of a hammer, was for him—and the dream Lars was too old for, but that Eric could achieve.”
Tears were glistening in Edna’s eyes as Anna continued. “When Eric died, Lars was changed forever. He quit work and drank a lot. He seemed to have no direction, no interest in the future. He barely spoke to Ryka.” She paused, voice choking. Fighting back a sob, she continued softly. “When he quit drinking and went back to work, he told me he wanted me to have another child. I felt I was too old to be trying that in this hard life, but he insisted, so I gave in. I had a miscarriage. Then another. After that I said no more trying. So we were left with Ryka. He had barely spoken to her since Eric’s death, and I made sure she was not alone with him as much as I could. He was in such a state I wasn’t sure what he might do with a daughter that was a constant reminder of the son she was not.” Anna paused, looking weary. “And now you know. I will do my best to help with Ryka’s schoolwork. I will be happy to talk with you about her lessons. But do not expect Lars to have any interest, except to make sure Ryka is learning what is proper for girls.”
Edna was moved by Anna’s story, but after the tragedy she had suffered with her husband, it didn’t surprise her. The rapidly-growing country that was America could be capricious to immigrant dreams. In a land where opportunity abounded, some families were struck by the lightning of good fortune, while others were crushed beneath the wheel of an indifferent juggernaut. But it did set her to worry about Ryka. Lars’ dream was a common one: his job was to get the family to America; it would be his son’s to make the family prosperous. And now that son was gone. Edna knew Lars had no vision for Ryka, other than for her to marry well.
These thoughts were on her mind as she walked down the street the next Monday night to the Sundstrom home, her confident stride masking her underlying nervousness. As she approached, she thought that to call it a home was a great generosity. In truth, it was a shack with pretensions, elevated in status only by the fact that it offered room for a family. Out farther west where the rails were still new, rail worker housing was still for single men only; thus rare was the rail worker who had a family, and rarer still one whose family was with him.
Edna knocked on the door and Anna opened it, smiling graciously and beckoning her in. Edna knew Anna would have genuine interest in Ryka’s schoolwork; Lars was the unknown. He got up when Edna entered, but only nodded curtly and sat back down. Anna considered it a privilege to have a personal visit from Ryka’s teacher, and bade Edna take a chair as Ryka sat shyly in a corner.
Edna tried to maintain her best reassuring smile as she went through Ryka’s schoolwork. At last she came to the subject of her visit. “It is clear,” she said, “that Ryka has a talent for art, as you can see by these drawings.” She turned to the page with the locomotive wheels in Ryka’s study book, watching the two carefully. Anna was clearly amazed. Lars said nothing but his eyes took on a steely look and she saw the muscles in his jaw tighten. “This shows real ability,” she continued, “and I thought that if—”
“So,” Lars interrupted, glaring at her. “This is what Ryka spends her time on in school? She draws locomotive wheels, and you praise her? You meddlesome creature!” He rose from the table and began to pace the room. “This is not vat a girl should be learning. I t’ink maybe Ryka should not be in school at all.”
“Please hear me out,” Edna quickly interjected. “I know Ryka has been down in the yards, where it is dangerous to be. But her interest is genuine. I thought that if she could get permission to see a locomotive cab up close, and see how the controls work, she would be satisfied and not go on her own. I have spoken to the yardmaster and he has promised to consider it. Your approval would probably be enough for him.” Edna had spoken in a rush, desperate to get her message out, but still she felt as if she was talking to a brick wall. Lars turned his face to her and she knew she was right.
“So this is what you really came for,” he said, features a steely mask of anger. “To show me how you are helping my daughter to be interested in such boyish things. This is not what I vant!”
Anna broke in, struggling to remain calm. “This is America, Lars. If you hoped for your son to have new paths to follow, why would you not want the same for your daughter?”
Lars froze, breathing heavily. His head was down, but when he raised it Anna was chilled to the core, and would recall later she had never seen him look like that. “My son,” he murmured, then suddenly bolted across the room, nearly tore the front door off its hinges, and stalked out into the snowy darkness.
Frozen in shock, the women inside could hear him yelling into the black night.
“Where is my son?” he shouted. “My son is dead! Where is my dream? It is dead. All has been taken from me in this accursed new world. I have nothing left.” He sank to his knees, his face slowly falling into the snow. “Nothing,” he said to no one, his body shaking with sobs. “I will be forgotten now.”
Anna, shaken by the depth of his sorrow, started to go to him, but he suddenly rose and walked off. She could not find the courage to call to him, and turned back into the shack. “I’m sorry your visit brought about such grief,” she told Edna. “I know you had good intentions. I think you had better go now; I vill talk to you soon about Ryka’s drawings.”
Grim-faced, Edna nodded and hurriedly left.
Lars did not come home that night. Anna roamed the area near the tracks, looking for him and making discreet inquiries that turned up nothing. When she went out early the next morning and then returned home, she found him sitting at the table. He turned to look at her, a malevolent look still on his face. At Anna’s entrance, he got up and stretched out on the bed, his back to her. Thank God Ryka is away at a friend’s house, Anna thought. Her eyes moistened to see the man she had once loved in such a rage, but her patience was gone. She stood in the middle of the room. “You shame your daughter,” she said coldly.
“The girl has too much spirit,” Lars replied in a muffled voice. “She needs to learn her proper place in the world.”
“And you would break her spirit,” Anna shot back. “Who knows what her place will be in this new world? It is for her to decide, not you.” Turning into the kitchen, she retrieved a meat cleaver from a cutting board and strode over to the bed, grabbing Lars’ shoulder hard enough to turn him to her. “Now you listen, you stubborn Swede,” she said, cleaver gripped firmly in her right hand. “Coming to America, I had a dream too. I dreamed that if we had a daughter she would find new things she could be here. Different things than the old country offered—like maid, caretaker, seamstress, or farmer’s wife. New things I could never do. And I have seen these things. If you are not excited about Ryka’s future here, you remember I am.” She raised her fist. “Now I am telling you, listen good! If you ever lay a hand on Ryka again, you vill feel this blade at your neck.” Her voice had risen almost to a shout. She started to turn away but stopped, looking at him coldly. “From now on I sleep with one eye open.” She walked away into the kitchen and tried to busy herself. Tears trickled down her cheeks. She knew their marriage had just ended. They would remain husband and wife, for how long she did not know, but in name only. The spirit of their union was dead.
Ryka was slow to get over the horrible scene she had witnessed at her teacher’s visit to her home. There would be no invitation to climb into a locomotive cab, moving or otherwise. There would be no relaxation of the rules forbidding her from the rail yard. There had been no expression of forgiveness from her father. She did her schoolwork listlessly, and not well. Edna tried to spend extra personal time with her, but found she could not reach the dark corner Ryka had retreated to. Even so, she sensed a hunger in Ryka, a flame as hot as that from a locomotive stack at full throttle.
* * *
By springtime, little had improved in the Sundstrom household. An uneasy truce was underlain with Lars’s continuing disappointment with his daughter, which he sometimes did little to hide. She was not his son, and that was all that mattered to him. Anna maintained a wary peace, but it was a daily struggle.
Ryka had been forbidden to go out after dark. She had kept her promise to stay away from the tracks. But with the improving weather, she could malinger on the way home from school. Sometimes this was near the massive Northern Pacific maintenance building. She had observed from a distance on her path home a hole in the wall she thought she could look through, unseen. It took her several trips past the spot—an opening hidden behind a stack of ties where two bricks were missing—before she dared try it.
Looking in one day, she was alive with curiosity as she watched the huge locomotives, mechanics swarming around them. She stopped a few more times as spring progressed and, as far as she knew, was not observed from within. Whenever she heard footsteps approaching, she beat a hasty retreat to her accustomed path.
But one day, as she watched one of the mechanics working on a big 4-8-2, he paused, and as if sensing her presence, turned from his duties to look in her direction. To her dismay he began to come toward her. Ryka shrank back out of sight and walked quickly away. Daring a look behind her, she broke into a run when she saw he had come to the doorway and was staring at her.
After that, it took two weeks before she had the courage to stop again, during which she suffered her father’s suspicions about what she was doing with her extra time coming home.
* * *
Ryka’s last year of school was drawing to a close, and her opportunities to linger at the maintenance building were diminishing. She stopped one day, seeing the massive roundhouse doors open as she approached, inviting her return. Approaching tentatively and quietly to her hidden observation place, she peered in as her eyes adjusted to the light in the smoky interior. After a few minutes, she thought she spied the mechanic who had approached her the last time. He was polishing the great glass box around a locomotive’s headlight. Her breath caught in her throat as she watched, fearful that he would somehow detect her presence again. But after a few minutes he walked around to the other side of the 4-6-0 he was working on and out of her view.
She watched for a few more minutes then turned to go—and found the mechanic looking at her from five feet away. Surprisingly, he was a boy who appeared not much older than herself. There was an expression of merry amusement on his face. Ryka’s eyes went wide. She gasped and turned to run, stumbled over a railroad tie partially sunk in the ground, and fell flat on her back.
The boy stepped forward and reached out a hand as Ryka scrambled away from him. She was just getting her legs under her when he grabbed her wrist and pulled her up.
She twisted in his grip, frantic to escape, but he held her fast. “Let me go!” she cried, panicky.
“Not yet,” he said, an expression of mirth and curiosity on his face. “Not ’til you tell me your name.”
She struggled, but he held her fast. It was obvious he meant it. “Ryka!” she spat. “Now let me go! It’s dangerous for me to be here.”
“You’re right about that,” he said, grinning. Then he opened his grip.
Ryka jerked her arm away, and fled as fast as her legs would take her, down the path toward home.
If Anna sensed something had happened to Ryka that day, she said nothing. But Ryka detected sideways glances as her mother looked at her with a bemused expression. Ryka kept her head down and offered nothing, keeping to herself.
It was impossible to visit the roundhouse now. She had been detected; one more visit could prove a disaster. She felt she had put the episode—and the annoying boy—behind her.
She was wrong.
For the last couple of weeks of the school year, she took to walking home from school with her best friend Molly, thinking Molly’s presence would help avoid temptation. Ryka took a detour to steer them clear of the roundhouse, but that didn’t stop Molly from asking sensitive questions.
“What is it with you and trains anyway?” Molly said suddenly one day, her brown curls bouncing in the Montana sunshine. “Even getting caught by the yard bull didn’t stop you. And then at the maintenance building you were caught again.”
Ryka rolled her eyes. “Would you believe me if I said I don’t really know?”
“Not good enough.”
Ryka sighed. “I’m not sure where it comes from. I look at my mother’s life and I want more. I hear about a woman’s life in the Old Country and I want more. I want to decide what I become, not have some man tell me. On our journey across America, I met women doing things I couldn’t have imagined before—running hotels and shops, breaking horses, running cattle ranches. And they were doing these things alone.”
“Why the railroad? I can’t put it into words very well. It just seems like so much power, so much freedom to build things, go places, do great things. I just feel like if I could be part of a railroad, I could find exciting things I could do—maybe things that no woman has done.” She was silent for a moment as they walked along the dirt path, shoes crunching on the soil. Then: “And the locomotives—oh, I want to run one so badly, to feel all that power underneath my feet. I want to be in the cab, pulling the levers, feeding the firebox. I want to blow the whistle!”
“Hmm,” Molly mused. “I’m not sure it’s all that romantic. At least, that’s what I hear from the men around here. But anyway, don’t you want to find a good man, have children, make a household somewhere else? Get out of this godforsaken town?” Her eyes took on a dreamy look. “I know I do. “There’s this new boy in school—”
Ryka frowned. “Someday. After I’ve done what I want to do.”
Molly looked sideways at her. “But all those women you met coming out here, playing the bold adventuress, doing it like men do—I’ll bet there weren’t any that were working on a railroad. Bet you don’t find any of those in railroading.”
Ryka didn’t turn to look at her. “Not yet,” she said.
They were nearly home when Ryka saw a boy sitting on a retaining wall to one side of the path, whittling on a piece of wood. As she and Molly drew close, she gasped in dismay and quickened her step.
It was the boy from the maintenance shop. He had a shock of thick brown hair and sparkling brown eyes. He grinned broadly as Ryka and Molly approached. To her horror, he looked right at Ryka. “Hey, don’t I know you?”
Ryka stiffened and did her best to pretend she didn’t hear him.
“Pretty sure I do!” he called to them as they went on by. “Care for a cold drink?”
Ryka kept her head down and trudged ever faster toward home.
Molly could barely keep up. “What was that all about?”
“That was the boy from the maintenance shop,” she said coldly. “The one who caught me looking in.”
“Whoa,” Molly said. “And now you run into him on the way home? Just a coincidence? Or could it be—”
“It’s just a coincidence.”
“Creepy,” Molly said.
Ryka was thankful there were less than two weeks of classes to go, because she didn’t want to encounter the troublesome boy again. But it was not to be. He was there two days later, in the same spot, the same annoying grin on his face. This time he merely waved as Ryka frowned at him.
Molly was amused.
The next day she and Molly tried another route home, hoping to avoid him. So Ryka was dismayed and thoroughly exasperated when they encountered him again, as if he had known their route in advance. This time she stopped in front of him and stamped her foot.
“Will you please stop this!” she said, giving him her best glare. “You’re upsetting us; we can’t walk home in peace.”
The boy didn’t move from his spot above them on a pile of ties. He gave Ryka the slightest of smiles. “I promise I’ll stop—if you’ll talk to me.”
“I have company,” Ryka said, glancing at Molly. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“I was hoping to find you alone one of these days,” the boy replied.
“See you later,” Molly said, rapidly walking away.
“Molly, don’t,” Ryka called after her. “Come back!” But Molly waved over her shoulder and kept going, leaving Ryka standing alone in awkward silence. She frowned at her tormentor. “All right, why are you bugging me like this? Don’t people have a right to walk home undisturbed?”
“It was the only safe way I could meet you,” he said, hopping down from the ties.
“I can’t afford to be seen with you. My father would be very angry if he knew.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean to cause you grief.”
Ryka sensed he meant it. She gave a sigh of exasperation. “All right, what’s your name?”
“Jamie. My real name’s James, but nobody calls me that, ’cept my ma when I was in trouble. Jamie will do fine.”
Ryka looked at him closely and her anger softened. He had pleasing features: a straight nose and strong chin, well-formed lips and thick dark brown eyebrows arched above brown eyes that sparkled with life. The spring sunlight brought out gold flecks in his brown hair. “Okay,” she said, feeling suddenly self-conscious, “you didn’t treat me well at the roundhouse. Why do you want to talk now?”
“I thought you were cute when I first saw you up close.”
“Cute, huh?” She held up a fist. “How would you like a smack on the head?”
He grinned. “Well, that would be more than I’ve gotten from you so far.”
“Aagh! You are so annoying! I’ve got to go. What do you want?”
Jamie moved two steps closer, causing Ryka to back up two. “I thought maybe we could do things together this summer when I’m off work. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Hmph,” Ryka replied. “My father wants me to have nothing to do with the railroad or anything of it. I could get a whipping if I’m seen with you.”
“But I know you have a strong interest in locomotives,” he countered, slyness in his eyes. “I might be able to get you a close-up look at some of them.”
“I have to go,” Ryka said, turning and walking away.
“Just tell me you’ll think about it!” Jamie called after her. She made no reply as he watched her go, hips swaying gracefully under her schoolgirl skirt. He smiled at the thought that although she seemed unreceptive to his proposal, she hadn’t said no.
The final days of the school year idled away, and on the last day Ryka tearfully said goodbye to Edna. “I won’t see you again,” she murmured as they sat together. “I’m done with my schooling now.”
Edna put a hand on her shoulder. “Nonsense. I’ll be around town during the summer.”
“But I thought you might move away,” Ryka said. “To—to Seattle.”
Edna’s eyes took on a sudden gleam. “I am!” she said. “Soon enough, you’ll see. I won’t be here forever.”
Ryka gave Edna a final hug, knowing that this latest boast was unlikely to fulfill its claim, just as the others she had heard over the last three years had not.
Ryka took pains not to encounter Jamie, but he seemed to have some magical power to predict her movements, and popped up along her path too often for luck. She tried at first to ignore him, but his saucy smile sometimes drew her into conversation. She asked him one day how he had noticed her peering in outside the wall of the roundhouse.
“I knew you were there several time before I confronted you,” he said. “You blocked the light coming through a hole I knew was there. The last time, I saw you reflected in the glass of the lantern box I was polishing. I was curious about who was so interested in seeing what was going on inside, but would not dare to come in. When I saw it was a young girl, I was surprised.”
Ryka found it hard to resist his allure after he teased about showing her a locomotive cab up close. She and Jamie went to taking walks on summer evenings out into the country, on the outskirts of Missoula. She knew she was risking her father’s wrath, but a growing sense of desire for independence pushed her on. She became increasingly at ease with Jamie, and he with her. On their sixth walk together, he took her hand in his. She did not resist.
One June evening Jamie finally sweet-talked her into actually going into the maintenance shop. She was reluctant at first, but then nodded her assent. Jamie walked nonchalantly into the maintenance shop and looked around. Satisfied there were only a few mechanics in the building, he silently beckoned Ryka in, and immediately led her behind the nearest locomotive.
Ryka was thrilled to be so close. She peered around the huge machine and could see that there were three other locomotives inside.
“They’re all in for maintenance or repair,” Jamie said quietly. He pointed overhead to a huge crane suspended from equally large iron beams that ran underneath the ceiling of the roundhouse. “Locomotives need constant oiling—and a lot of heavy maintenance,” he said. “That crane can actually lift a locomotive off the floor.” He looked back at her and smiled. “Come with me.” He led her quickly to another locomotive. This one was truly massive; seeming bigger to Ryka than she had yet seen. The wheels were nearly as tall as she was. Without hesitation, Jamie pulled her up a ladder into the locomotive’s cab.
Ryka was breathless with excitement though there was no fire in the firebox. The engine was cold and silent. Nevertheless, Jamie pointed out various controls and instruments, telling her what each one did, and how important it was. She was eager, touching each control or instrument in turn. “What’s this one?” she said, pointing to a vertical glass tube with liquid inside.
“Probably the most important one of all,” he said. “That shows the water level in the boiler. If the boiler goes dry, in short order it will explode—and so will anyone in the cab at the time.”
Ryka shuddered, then turned to face him, a broad smile on her face. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I’ve wanted this for so long.”
Jamie said nothing, moving slowly forward into her, gently pushing her against one wall of the cab. He bent his head and put his lips on hers. She was surprised, but did not resist, savoring the taste of her first kiss. Her eyes widened when Jamie’s left hand slid slowly up her abdomen to caress her right breast.
Ryka froze for a moment, unsure how to react. Then she pushed him away. “I should go home now,” she said, and bolted down the ladder.
Jamie followed and hustled her furtively out the big warehouse door. “Can I see you again?” he said, grinning impishly.
“Yes!” she called back as she sped away, her smile flashing at him through the darkness.
Behind them in the shop, the mechanic who had observed their presence in the cab melted back into the shadows.
The end of classes did not mean Ryka could take her ease. With summer on she assumed some of her mother’s duties in keeping the household running, such as washing clothes and preparing and delivering her father’s lunch. She did not mind preparing, but delivering was another matter. Now that she had finished school, Lars had a keener interest than ever in shaping her future, and never missed a chance for a lecture. On the first Monday after school ended, she took a fresh lunch to her father’s workplace at the rail yard—the only time she was allowed to approach the yard now. She waited dutifully on the sidelines until she heard the lunch whistle blow, then trudged over to where her father was working on this day.
Lars was employed as a track maintenance man and car repairman. It was physical and demanding work, a job for foolish young men. Her father, Ryka thought, was still foolish, but he was no longer young. Sometimes when she looked at him, she wondered how long he could keep it up, though he was still in his thirties. Sometimes she felt sorry for him, trapped in this New World that he had poured so much of his dream into, and now wasn’t sure how to forge his future into what he had imagined.
Lars took the lunch pail from her and nodded approval as he opened the box—pickled herring, sliced fresh tomatoes, and an apple, plus a container of cool well water. He attacked the food without pausing to thank her.
Ryka looked around for a place clean enough to sit, and finally accepting the least grimy spot, gingerly sat down as her father ate.
He looked up from his pickled herring, giving an approving look at her appearance. “You’re a grown girl now, Ryka,” he said. “And pretty too. School is over; it is time to think about finding a husband—someone with promise.”
Ryka hung her head, but remained silent.
Lars barely paused as he worked his way through the sliced tomatoes. “Daughters can carry on the family name almost as well as sons. Your children will not bear the Sundstrom name, but still they will be heirs to my blood.” He paused, growing more serious. “My son is dead, so I depend on you now, Ryka. Have you thought about taking steps to attract such a man as I have described?”
Ryka took a deep breath, screwing up her courage. “Father, you know I respect you,” she said, hoping he would not pick up on her lack of sincerity. “But I don’t wish to marry now. I would like to learn more of what this land has to offer a woman. I would like to see what I can do—”
Lars threw down his lunch pail. “This is not a daughter’s place. Let me tell you somet’ing else. This is a small town and the railroad family even smaller.” A chill settled on his voice. “Word gets around.”
“I have not been back to the rail yards,” Ryka countered quickly.
Lars fixed her with a baleful stare. “This is true. But I have heard you have been seeing a boy from the shop, a mechanic.”
Ryka had no idea how he had found out. “Yes,” Ryka admitted. “He has a good job and seems very kind.”
“You are not to see him again,” Lars said with the finality of a prison gate closing.
Suddenly angry, she said, “Even you said I am a grown-up now. Grown-ups can see whom they please.”
Lars rose from his sitting position, looming over her. “As long as you are under my roof, you will do as I say,” he said, pointing a finger at her. “You will not see him again, and that is the end of it.”
Ryka picked up the lunch pail, trying to ignore the other workers seated nearby who were pretending not to listen, and quickly turned to go, not wanting them to see the tears that were coming.
Ryka’s face was streaked with wetness when she got home.
Anna put down her sewing and rose to embrace her. “What is this?” she said softly, hands on her daughter’s shoulders.
“Father forbids me to be with a boy I have been seeing,” she sobbed, letting go with the sorrow she had suppressed all the way home. “I’m sorry, Mother, I hid it from you.”
Anna sat with her on the edge of the bed, stroking her hair. “I knew, my daughter, I knew. A mother can tell when her daughter’s heart is drawn elsewhere. This boy, do you trust him?”
Ryka drew back slightly, sniffling. “I want to. He has promised to show me things in the shop—no, that is a lie. He took me there three days ago. Oh, Mother, I am sorry for my disobedience!” She started crying again.
Anna wiped away a tear on Ryka’s cheek with her apron. “Then he works for the railroad?” she said, dismayed.
Anna sat back and sighed. “Daughter, there has always been a stubborn streak in you. I have learned that if you are determined to do something, I cannot stop you forever. But you must be careful! Careful of boys you hardly know who promise you things. Who knows what he wants in exchange for such promises?” Her face took on a darker expression. “I do not know what your father might do. And that worries me greatly. I used to know how he would react to things. No more. The burdens of this new life have twisted him. Oh, I wish we had never sailed from Stockholm!”
Ryka found roles suddenly reversed as Anna collapsed into sobs of her own.
“I think every day of leaving him,” Anna murmured, then raised her head, fear in her wet eyes. “Be careful, Ryka!”
Lars came home that night at the usual time and collapsed on the bed, giving perfunctory greetings to Anna and Ryka. Ryka looked at him for long moments as he lay there, mostly ignoring them. She looked at her mother toiling quietly in the kitchen area, and knew she was pretending to ignore the slight.
Ryka had always followed strict house rules that nothing was to be said or done that would impair the harmony of the dinner table. So she remained quiet. But after dinner, she decided it was time to take a stand.
Ryka stood in the middle of the room facing her father, who had returned to the bed, smoking his pipe.
“Father,” she said quietly, “I am seventeen now. Now that I am done with school, I would like to be free to learn more about things that interest me, things I find exciting.”
Lars puffed hard on his pipe and blew smoke into the air. It was sucked out into the evening air through an open window. He looked at her with an expression she could not read. “Like the railroad?” he said.
Ryka bit her lip. “Yes, like the railroad.”
“So, after all I say, you still t’ink such t’ings, do you?” he replied. “And what about the needs of the family? Do you not feel you should consider them?”
Ryka momentarily lost her courage and looked down. “I thought I might find something I could do that would make you and Mama proud.”
Lars was silent for a long time, puffing on the pipe. Finally he spoke. “I know what this is about. You are wanting to see that boy again down at the shop. Well, I tell you it will not happen.”
Ryka stamped her foot in anger. “You cannot keep me away from the railroad forever!”
Lars put down his pipe and started to rise, at which point Anna moved forward. “You have not heard what she is saying at all, Lars. She is grown now, free to go her own way. I am proud of her for having dreams.”
Lars frowned in disgust and waved his arm in a dismissive motion. “Ja, this is what I get now with a house full of women, eh? My own wife takes sides against me.” He turned to Ryka. “You are my daughter. You must marry well and give me a son to root the family in this new land! I did not come here to see the Sundstrom name disappear. I tell you, this railroad boy is not for you. If you see him again, there will be trouble.”
“Is that all you see for me, Papa?” Ryka said angrily. “A daughter to make babies?” She felt a chill settle over her as a new thought bloomed in her mind. “So I can replace Eric for you.”
Lars rose from the bed in a silence taut with fear, glaring at her for a long moment. Then he walked into the kitchen, ignoring Anna, picked up a bottle of Scotch from a shelf, and poured a tall shot. He drained the glass and set it down with a thunk on the kitchen counter. He was breathing heavily; Ryka could see the powerful muscles in his shoulders working underneath his shirt. In her peripheral vision, she could see that her mother had the cleaver clenched in her right fist.
Lars went to the front door. “I go to shop. There I vill find out the truth.” Then he walked out of the house.
Anna collapsed on the bed, sobbing with relief. Ryka went to her, but found herself no better off. “I miss my brother,” she cried tearfully, wrapping her arms around her mother. “But I can’t be him.”
Anna suddenly broke off, eyes full of fear. “Ryka, you must leave! Now, tonight!”
“I mean it.” She reached for a satchel behind the bed and started throwing some of Ryka’s things into it. “You must not be here when he comes back.”
“Mama, I can’t! What about you—”
“Never you mind about me!” Anna said, desperation in her voice. “I must keep you alive.” She thrust the satchel into Ryka’s hand. “Now go. Run!”
Ryka took the satchel and burst into tears. “But where shall I go?”
It took all the strength Anna had left to keep from taking her daughter into her arms. Her face twisted into a mask of anguish with the effort. “Go to your teacher’s house,” she said, voice taut with desperation. She pushed Ryka out the door. “Please! For me.”
Ryka backed away from the open doorway and the light spilling out into the deepening twilight, tears blurring her vision. This was not how she had wanted it to end. The door suddenly slammed shut, leaving her alone. Sobbing uncontrollably, she painfully wrenched herself around and fled down the silent street.
Edna Thayer heard the unexpected knock at her door and peered out through a front window. She was surprised to see Ryka standing on her porch. She opened the door quickly and saw that Ryka was in tears.
“Ryka, come in! What on earth?”
Ryka rushed in the door and stood wiping her face. “I can’t go home anymore.”
Edna quickly bade her sit down and got her a cup of tea. “Explain.”
When she was done, Edna could barely speak. “I suppose I must bear some of the blame for this.”
“No,” Ryka said firmly. “This is all on me.”
“I would not hesitate to offer you a bed, Ryka. But I don’t know that you’re safe here either. It sounds like your father has plans for you.”
“We’ll go to the sheriff in the morning,” Edna said firmly.
They sat in silence for a while before Edna said, “What of this boy, then? Do you have feelings for him?”
Ryka lowered her head, hands in her lap. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never felt this way. I like being with him, but—but it’s all so new. I’m confused.”
Edna patted her hand. “It will seem clearer before long.” She got up to refill their tea cups. In her peripheral vision, through the front window she thought she saw movement in the street outside. Looking directly, she put a hand to her throat.
Lars was walking toward the house, a sledgehammer handle in his hand.
Edna pulled Ryka to her feet and shoved her satchel at her. “It’s your father. The back door! Go!”
Ryka hesitated for a second and then ran, bursting out the rear entrance into the darkness.
Edna paused to tear a scrap of newsprint from a newspaper sitting on a chair side table, then ran outside after her.
“Run, Ryka, for your life!” Edna shouted.
The two women ran through the darkness toward the rail yard. Behind them they saw Lars burst out the rear door of the house, look their way, and set off in pursuit.
In minutes, the two women reached the rail yard, panting. A slow-moving freight was rumbling through. They ran alongside, hoping to get around it and disappear into the darkness. But after a moment, they realized they weren’t going to be able to head it off.
“Ryka, get on the train,” Edna shouted as an open boxcar approached.
“No, I can’t!” Ryka said above the noise of the wheels and pulling locomotive. “Where will I go? What would I do?”
“Just go!” Edna said, shoving the scrap of newsprint into Ryka’s satchel. “Get out of here!”
Ryka stood on wooden legs, paralyzed by indecision.
As the boxcar approached, Edna grabbed Ryka around the waist and threw her up into the open doorway, a supreme effort that sent Edna to the ground.
Ryka looked back through the doorway, her face a mask of pain and confusion as she saw Edna fall. The train was rapidly picking up speed.
Edna staggered to her feet and ran at Lars, who was closing on them. She hurled herself at him, clutching in desperation.
He threw her aside like a rag doll. “You!” he screamed. “You are the cause of this!”
Ryka watched in horror as Lars lashed out at Edna with the axe handle. Her body jerked at the impact and crumpled to the ground. With one last desperate effort, she swung her leg and kicked him in the left hamstring.
Lars bellowed with pain and stumbled forward limping, too slow to catch the train.
Ryka looked at his receding figure, tears blinding her. “Father!” she screamed at him. “I can’t be Eric! I can only be me. Why isn’t that good enough?”
Lars watched the train fade into the distance, unable to reach his daughter now. “Ryka!” he screamed into the darkness. “Rykaaaaaa!”
 Swedish girl
THE RAIL QUEEN weaves through the awakening of the American railroad as it knits together the strands of empire from Atlantic to Pacific—even as every mile of new track speeds the vanishing of the American frontier, and of the brief age when anything was possible—even for a young schoolgirl with an extraordinary dream.
THE RAIL QUEEN is the fifth in a series of historical novels featuring strong women, by award-winning author B J Scott (2011 WILLA Literary Award, Best Original Softcover Fiction); Women Writing the West.