Cordelia’s Journey, a coming-of-age novel set in Kansas Territory, 1855, traces a thirteen-year-old runaway girl’s 150-mile trip down the Kansas River.
Destination: her aunt in Westport, Missouri.
Goal: To enlist her aunt in returning home with her in an attempt to save her mother’s life.
Fear of discovery and a lack of funds slow her down, even as events on the trail shock her into breaking her word and finding quicker transportation.
Excerpt From Cordelia’s Journey, Chapter 23:”Not Much of a Reward”
Our wagon cast a long shadow as we rolled into the new settlement of Cottonwood Point on the Kaw River. Wagons had already circled near the river. The three buildings Levi had said made a town stood about half a mile away. Levi headed straight to the campground and was hailed by several men as he guided the mules around the edge, looking for a spot to camp for the night.
When he found one, I hopped off the wagon and hurried to the back to help Claire and Daphne make ladylike dismounts while Levi did the same for Mrs. Jacobs. Claire stepped down first, glancing from the roaring fire in the center of the camp to the assortment of men working with animals and coming back from the river, a couple without shirts, their suspenders dangling. She blushed, as was expected of a lady, but I had the feeling it was more for show than embarrassment because she didn’t turn her eyes away. I remembered Lucky’d said she wasn’t so innocent. I was beginning to think he might have been right.
I turned to help Daphne down from the wagon just as Mrs. Jacobs came around the end and saw Claire staring at the naked chest of a man drying his hair.
“This is hardly a place for young ladies,” she said to Levi.
“Well, Liz,” he said, “this is as far as we can go tonight.”
I noticed how he had shortened her name to something easy and familiar.
She raised a hand, shielding eyes from the sun, and scanned the area. “But where will we sleep?”
“The wagon, I reckon. We can use your belongings to section off sleeping areas for you and the girls and me and the boy.”
I swallowed hard at the thought of bunking next to Levi, but I was stuck. I had put myself out as a male, so I had little choice but to sleep in men’s quarters.
Mrs. Jacobs frowned. “What about the town? Don’t they have accommodations?”
Levi took off his hat and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Could be they do, for a price.”
“Come along, girls.” Mrs. Jacobs took the lead, marching up the hill. Daphne and Claire fell in behind her.
Levi shook his head as he watched them climb the slight rise toward the buildings. “Liz better get that oldest girl married off quick. She’s trouble.” He rummaged in a box and pulled out the wanted poster for Max. “While they’re gone, go put this up on that board over yonder.” He nodded toward the side of a wagon with papers all over it propped up between a stand of rocks.
I moseyed over to the board, poster in hand, wondering how I was going to hang it when Levi hadn’t bothered to give me a nail.
Studying the broadsides, I saw not all were for outlaws. One advertised an elixir and a traveling doctor who could cure anything and had a regular route from St. Louis to Santa Fe. I skimmed over rewards for a couple of horse thieves, looking for something to cover that might not be too important, when the sight of my name on the board made me gulp. My chest tightened. Heart pounding, I read the sign.
Sick mother heartbroke
needs to find her
13 yrs old brown hair green eyes
Stole her brothers blue trousers and shirt
$10.00 for her return
To Hiram Pierce, blacksmith
Hidden Springs, Kansas Territory
Ten dollars wasn’t much of a reward. It might not even cover the trouble to get me to Hidden Springs, but I supposed Hiram figured people would bring me home because of sympathy for my “heartbroke” mother. Thinking of Ma almost broke my own heart. What if she died while I was gone and I never saw her again?
But going back without Hannah wouldn’t save her. I had to go on. I thought about tearing the poster down, but then what? If someone saw me with it before I could burn it, they’d know, just reading the description—green eyes, thirteen—and seeing the clothes I stole from Ambrose—clothes I was wearing—that I must be Cordelia. And the name I’d given myself—Cord. How could I have been so stupid? It was a dead giveaway, combined with all the other facts.
Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, I pressed Max’s poster through the nail heads that held mine on the board, covering my information. Would anyone look at what was beneath the handbill for a murderer with a $500 reward on his head? Maybe, but I would be long gone by then. At least, I hoped so.
Then another thought chilled me. There must be more posters, and the person tacking them up was ahead of me on the trail.