Orphaned in New York City in the middle of the 19th century, Gerta Scholler finds new family and survives tragedy on a Kansas homestead.
EXCERPT: The Beamy Courage of Gerta Scholler
The Mancinos sat on the bench across from Gerta. Mr. Mancino had his arms around one leg that was cocked up on the other. His wife sat with her hat and hands in her lap. Shortly before, Betty and Mary had nervously left the car together and walked onto the platform at a rural stop near Warrensburg. Two sets of parents greeted them.
Betty’s new father and mother were a man and woman dressed like farmers. He had a beard, smoked a pipe, and wore baggy fitting pants. She had on a shapeless dress cut from rough cloth. When the man bent slightly to shake Betty’s hand, it looked like Betty wrinkled her nose at the smell of the tobacco. The woman was all smiles and cheerfulness, though, and hugged Betty without hesitation. As they talked, Betty appeared happy with her new family.
Mary’s new mother and father were an older, better-dressed couple. A girl taller than Mary stood shyly behind the woman as Mary approached them. Mrs. Mancino had introduced everyone and stood with an arm around Mary as she did so. The woman seemed about to cry even though she was smiling. The man looked grim, but nothing in his manner seemed threatening to Gerta. She didn’t quite know what to make of it.
“Do you think Mary will be all right in her new place?” she asked Mr. Mancino as the train rolled away.
“I believe so,” he said, and waggled the foot on his propped-up leg. “I say that because Mary’s new sister looked cared for. That’s a sign they will do the same for Mary. And the girls were already talking like friends when they walked away. I think Mary is well-placed.”
“I agree, Royal,” Mrs. Mancino added. “Betty and Mary are going to have happy new lives. I’m sure of it. And they’ll be able to see one another because they are living just a few miles apart. The families even are in the same parish. They’ll be fine.”
“Good,” Gerta said to the Mancinos. What she didn’t say was, How about me? Will I be fine?
The train rumbled into Kansas City before dark, the end of the line for the Pacific Railroad. It felt odd for just the three of them to exit the railroad car. Were Jerry Wayne standing on the platform with her at that moment, she knew he would be stretching like a monkey. She missed it.
After chatting and getting their bearings, the Mancinos and Gerta walked off on a wood sidewalk covered by awnings that was a foot higher than the dirt street and was covered by awnings. They walked past two-story wood-frame buildings—a furniture store, a dry goods store, a dress shop and on and on. Wagons with horses tethered to wagon tongues moved up and down the hilly street beside the walkway. Drivers shouted and shook their reins at the horses.
After several blocks, the trio came to two boarding houses, one across the street from the other. They entered the “Jones House” on their side of the street. Their upstairs room had two beds, a wide one and a narrow one, and the Mancinos and Gerta sighed contentedly as they dropped their belongings on the floor and lay across the bedspreads. “I bet I’m going to sleep well tonight,” Mrs. Mancino said with a laugh.
A few minutes later, they pushed themselves up from the beds and returned to the sidewalk to look for a place to eat. Mr. Mancino said he hadn’t enjoyed a square meal since leaving New York and they were going to do something about that. So they walked up the street past a grocer and the Main Street Brewery and a hat shop and came to “Merryweather Cafe.” Mr. Mancino opened the door, ushered in his wife and Gerta, and led them to a table by a front window.
“I’m hungry,” he announced to the room. They ordered hot chicken soup and Gerta thought it wonderful to sit at a table again and spoon hot soup into her mouth from a bowl. They each ate a slice of apple pie that Gerta believed was every bit as tasty as the pies Beatrice baked. When they finished, Gerta felt full and content.
Tomorrow, Mr. Mancino told them, they would arise early and ride an omnibus across the Kansas River to the train station on the other side.
“Is the Kansas River as wide as the Missippi?” Gerta asked.
“The Mississippi,” said Mr. Mancino. “No, I think it’s much narrower. The Mississippi is about the biggest river there is. Kansas City actually has two rivers, the Missouri and the Kansas—sometimes called the Kaw. When we cross the Kaw River, we’ll be in Kansas. You’re almost home, young lady.”
Gerta wasn’t sure she was ready for it.
~ * ~
The morning brought rain that streamed down the bedroom window before they were out of their beds. Outside, they walked in rain. Each time they crossed side streets, they had to jump over puddled water. A few blocks after they left the boarding house, their shoes were muddy, the hems of their skirts and pants were muddy, and Gerta’s bag was muddy where she had dropped it during a dash across a street. Mrs. Mancino declared the day to be “awful” and Gerta loudly agreed.
“Here we are,” Mr. Mancino said, finally. A horse-drawn omnibus waited in front of a barn-like building. Passengers stood in the building’s entranceway, some of them smoking, all of them looking out the stable door at the rain splashing in puddles. Mr. Mancino led them through the standing crowd to a table where a man sat selling tickets. Gerta stood nearby.
“Looks like your bag’s wet, little gal,” a bearded man said, thumbs hooked under a wide leather belt with a holster hanging from it. The butt of a revolver poked from the top of the holster. He leaned to one side and spat into the dirt. “In fact, you look kinda wet yourself.”
Gerta looked up at Mrs. Mancino. “She is a little wet, isn’t she,” Mrs. Mancino said to the man. “We would have preferred to walk here in the sunshine, but I suppose we’ll survive being a little wet.”
“Yep,” the man said, and spat again.
The omnibus filled with passengers as a man climbed up the outside to sit on the driver’s seat. Covered by a rain slicker, he snapped the reins and started the team moving. Mrs. Mancino sat by a window and Gerta was scrunched between her and Mr. Mancino. The passengers jostled against one another as the wheels under the omnibus bounced through puddles and across rocky places in the street.
The vehicle slowly descended a long hill with a view across a small valley to houses and stores on the opposite hillside. To their right, a paddlewheeler on a river churned its way upstream. It moved more smoothly on the water than the omnibus did on the muddy road.
At the bottom of the hill, the bus rattled across a bridge over the Kaw, which was a piddling thing compared to the Mississippi, Gerta thought. When they reached the other side, the rain stopped. In a few moments, sunlight peaked through clouds. Mr. Mancino smiled down at Gerta. “You alight in Kansas and the sun starts shining. I’d call that a pretty good sign.”
“I hope so,” Gerta said. “I’d like to meet my parents on a sunny day.” Mr. Mancino and his wife exchanged glances across the top of Gerta’s head and Mrs. Mancino patted Gerta’s hand.
1860s orphan, orphan train, Gerta Scholler, Kansas pioneer life
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