By: Chris Marcotte
“Yeah, they’re still asleep,” a man said.
The sound of a voice right in front of us had awakened me. It took me a moment to remember I was on the train with Mama and to realize that more passengers had boarded. Apparently, I had dozed off while reading my favorite book, A Little Princess. I was at the part where Sara learned that because of her father’s death, she would no longer be a student at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School for Girls, but instead, the school’s scullery maid.
“In fact,” the man added, “The older one’s sawing logs.”
Another man laughed. “A dame snoring? Rudy, that’s disgusting.”
I peeked at my mama and realized they were talking about us. Mama wouldn’t admit it, but she did snore. I grinned and closed my eyes again. This had been a glorious twelfth birthday, and I didn’t want it to end. Lincoln Park in Duluth had been crowded mostly with women gathered to hear Carrie Nation speak, and I felt part of something important. Mama and I believed, as Nation did, that drunkenness was the cause of so much evil. Her crusade for temperance was inspiring. I was proud to be there.
After the speech, Mama and I took the streetcar to the Astoria Hotel for dinner. She insisted I order my own meal with the reminder that if I spoke slowly and enunciated my words, I wouldn’t stutter so much. I hated that I stuttered and most of all I hated talking to someone I didn’t know. Mama said we could even share a fancy dessert if I ordered it for us. The French chocolate cake was filled with a delicate custard and was delicious.
“Hey Leo, did you say the boss wants her taken care of by Sunday?” Rudy asked.
“Yep,” Leo said. “Though I’m not sure how we’ll do it.”
Listening to a conversation can be like reading a book. Mama encouraged me to think of what might happen next before I turned the page. Were they farmers? Maybe they were going to put an animal down that was injured, like my pony when she slipped and broke her leg.
“I’ve got the morphine the boss gave us,” Rudy said.
“And I have my pistol.”
Rudy chuckled. “Unless you’re a crack shot, maybe drugging her is best.”
They couldn’t mean a person, could they? I bet they knew I wasn’t asleep and were pulling my leg. Goodness, how silly of me. I felt my face flush.
A moment later, I heard something hit the floor. My heart raced, and I held back a gasp when I saw a small brown bottle roll back and forth under the seats in front of us. They really could have morphine.
These were bad men. I had to get Mama and myself away from here. Maybe I should wake her and pretend to be sick. We could go to the next car where the bathroom was.
“Geez, you better hope that didn’t break,” Leo said.
Rudy sighed. “Don’t worry, it’s fine.”
“Where in Crookston is Nation staying? Is there a restaurant in the hotel?”
“The Grand. And yeah, they serve food.”
“Take a walk,” Leo said. “I’ve got to figure this out, but I think you’ll soon be working in the hotel kitchen.”
When they moved about the smell of whiskey was strong, and I gagged. Did these men plan to kill Carrie Nation?
They were the reason she spoke today. Alcohol encouraged evil intentions. Her message saved thousands of lives. Mama had just joined the Temperance Union. She gave me the postcard of Carrie Nation that she’d been given for her contribution. I had already added July 28, 1910, to the bottom and planned to put it in my diary. I recalled that her next stop was indeed Crookston. I had to rescue her. She needed to save thousands more.
I thought of Sara, and her resourcefulness when faced with a dilemma at Miss Minchin’s boarding school and decided my own plan to get help. I’d “wake up” and leave the car for the bathroom but find the conductor instead. Then I’d get back to Mama as soon as I could.
When I opened my eyes, I cautiously looked around. I didn’t see the man I thought was Rudy, but Leo was still sitting directly in front of me. In my pocketbook I found a stub of a pencil and the postcard. Without hesitation, I turned over the stoic image of Carrie Nation. I’d write a note to the conductor in case my stuttering was too much.
I wrote, “The two men sitting in front of my mother and me are planning to kill Carrie Nation when she is in Crookston. I overheard them mention a gun and drugging her. I also saw a small glass bottle they have. My name is Lucy Johansen. I live in Deer River with my parents.”
Mama was still asleep when I slipped out of my seat. As I walked past Leo, I was relieved to see his eyes were shut. I had just entered the next car when someone grabbed me. I gulped. It was Rudy.
“Hey little girl, you didn’t hear us talking, did ya?”
I shook my head.
His fingers dug into my shoulder. “Answer me.”
I stumbled when Rudy let go.
Now, I really did need the bathroom and was glad to find it at the end of the car. I felt safe for the moment and did not want to venture back into the train. What if Rudy decided I wasn’t truthful? He could be waiting for me right outside the door. He could throw me from the train.
I looked in the mirror and saw my fear. On the verge of tears, I recalled how Sara needed to put on a brave face despite Miss Minchin’s treatment of her. I straightened the bow in my hair and stood tall. Lives were at stake. I needed to find the conductor.
He was in the next car.
“Pl-pl-please,” I whispered and started to cry.
“I’m Conductor Schwartz,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
I covered my face with my hands. I wasn’t as brave as my idol, Sara.
The conductor gave me a handkerchief and patted the seat beside him. “Sit. Whatever it is, I’ll try to help.”
I sat down and blew my nose. I hadn’t meant to cry, but Rudy scared me. “H-h-here.” I handed him the postcard.
His eyes widened as he read. “This better not be a hoax.”
He stared at me, and I cried even harder. How could I make him believe me? "Enunciate." I heard my mother’s voice.
I wiped my tears and took a deep breath. “It’s. True. Please. Get. Help.”
He looked at his watch. “Our next stop’s in about three minutes. I’ll telegraph the Sheriff. If you’re lying though, you’ll be in big trouble.”
“Alright. Get off the train when we stop, and board again where your mother is. Then both of you should move to the car closest to the engine.”
He touched my arm. “Keep the handkerchief. We’ll stop them. I’ll come and find you once the train is underway.”
Rudy was again seated next to Leo. I was grateful neither paid me any attention. Mama seemed to have just woken when I returned to our car. “Lucy, dear, I wondered where you had gone. I only drifted off for a few minutes, yet I’ve got wrinkles on my cheek from being scrunched against the window.”
“Hi Mama.” I seldom stuttered when I spoke to my mother. I kissed her unwrinkled cheek and grinned. “You slept longer than a few minutes. I saw a friend a few cars up. I told her we’d come and visit.”
We gathered our belongings and within minutes we were in the front car. I explained everything to Mama who was quite amazed before the conductor joined us.
“Mrs. Johansen, your daughter is a remarkable young woman,” the conductor said.
“Of course she is.” Mama nodded and smiled.
“With her help, a plan to murder Carrie Nation will soon be stopped. I have men watching the criminals now. I believe that with Lucy’s note and my explanation the sheriff will have the evidence he needs to arrest them.”
When the train pulled into the Grand Rapids Depot an hour later, I watched as both men were handcuffed. I was disappointed that my postcard of Carrie Nation had been kept as evidence but was delighted that she would live on. She would continue to share her temperance message and save lives.
A few weeks later Mama said I’d received mail. She grinned and handed me a postcard like the one the sheriff kept as evidence. I smiled and whirled around after I read, “Lucy ~ Together we save lives, Carrie Nation.”
About the author
Chris Marcotte is an award-winning writer who pulls threads from history and weaves them into the lives of her characters. Her writing is inspired by archival newspapers, family stories, diaries, and letters. She collects oral histories of Minnesota pioneers, visits rural cemeteries, and explores abandoned ruins.
Find her work in the Talking Stick, Lake Country Journal, Lakeland Public Television, and the Grand Rapids Herald-Review. Chris is a grateful recipient of several Minnesota Legacy grants and artists-in-residence programs. Her current project was inspired by an 1897 axe murder in her own family. She writes from her grandmother’s rocking chair in northern Minnesota and occasionally “witches” for buried bodies. Blog: https://chrismarcottewrites.com