Floyd County, Iowa
I won't cry, Inga muttered to herself. Papa had said, "Be brave, head up, like the Vikings," when he signed her over to Mrs. Hobson of the Children's Aid in New York. Papa thought of Vikings, but Sweden and mother were distant memories. There's nobody here worth crying about, she thought. Dusty little town. Old wooden train platform. Not even a decent sidewalk. Bunch of sunburned farmers and their straggly wives walking up and down along the train platform to choose a kid to live with them. They always like the pretty little ones with hair bows. The strong boys were all taken by the time we passed Chicago. It's not such a great thing to be wanted by somebody chewing on straw.
Smoothing her faded blue gingham dress, Inga straightened her shoulders, and placed her worn carpetbag neatly next to her right foot. She stared with her chin up, across the track into the distance.
"Pretty slim pickin's, Lavinia," Henry Duffy remarked to his wife as they walked along the line of children. "Hiram said the train would bring a lot of good strong boys from the cities looking for a place." They walked along the track, past several toddlers who looked scared and a thin boy of five scuffing his shoes in the dust. "All I see is a half dozen leaky--nosed tots. There's just one boy and he can't be more than five years old. Just him and this skinny girl," Mr. Duffy said. They stopped near a tall, thin girl. She had a stern look on her face and hair so light it was almost white. He gestured with his head at Inga.
"A girl might do," Mrs. Duffy said. "She could help me too."
"Help you? I'm the one who needs the help," her husband Henry, the blacksmith, retorted. "A boy could work the bellows to keep up my fire, and hold the horses when I nail on their shoes. You just have the house and the pies."
"We may have to wait for another train then, Henry."
Mr. Duffy chewed on his pipe stem and sighed. Silence.
"All right, Mother." He looked up and down the row of children.
"What about this one?" he asked, turning back and pointing with his pipe toward Inga. "She's old enough to help you with your pies, take some of your load off. Not much use to me though. I'll just have to suffer with my lumbago through another season." He reached out to feel Inga's arm for muscle. "Skinny. What do you think, Mother?"
"She's a child, not a horse. I'm sure she can speak for herself." Lavinia Duffy looked down at Inga, who was blinking back big tears in her light blue eyes. "What can you do, dear?"
"Clean, cook, carry water, wash, sweep." Inga stared straight ahead as she said this.
Henry Duffy looked down at Inga's carpetbag. It was old, but the handle was repaired neatly with wire woven in a herringbone pattern. It was a clever repair, almost like a decoration. "Who fixed your carpetbag, girl?"
The train gave two toots of the horn. "Form up your line, children," Mrs. Hobson called. "We have yet another stop today. Oldest go on ahead to help the little ones. Coming, Inga?"
The children turned and followed Mrs. Hobson toward the train steps, Inga guiding the little ones up the steps. "There goes our chance for a worker," Mrs. Duffy told her husband. Mr. Duffy took his pipe out of his mouth and waved it.
"Wait a minute, girl," he called, lumbering after her. "What else can you do?"
"Fix anything. Papa taught me." She didn't look at him.
"Hold the train," Henry Duffy called. "We'll take this one." He hurried over to Mrs. Hobson. "Where do I sign?"
Mrs. Hobson bent down and pulled out a sheaf of papers from her battered brown carpetbag. She paged through them. "Flournoy, Graham, Hagstrom, Keely, Patterson--aha, that's it----Hagstrom, Inga. Here it is." She put that sheet on top of the bundle and held it for Duffy. "Sign here," she said. "You're responsible for her food, clothing, shelter. Schooling until the age of twelve. Only one more year in her case. Once she is eighteen, she's free to make her own life. She's to write a report to me once a year at the address on top. If she has relatives, I'll pass it along to them. If it is reported that you mistreat her, our representative will remove her from your care and find her another place."
Henry Duffy signed in a scribble. "Come along now, Inga," he said, heading back toward the end of the station.
Mrs. Hobson patted the child on the shoulder. "Take your carpetbag, now. Be a good girl for your sponsors. And good luck to you." She turned and joined the children on the train.
Inga picked up her little carpetbag and followed Mr. and Mrs. Duffy as they headed away from the train station toward the small white house that shared a wall with the blacksmith shop. They passed two boys sitting at the corner of the platform. "Hello, Emmet, Tom," Mrs. Duffy said as they passed. "What mischief are you two up to today?" The boys smiled sheepishly.
"Looks like slaves," Emmet muttered to Tom as the Duffy group went out of earshot.
"Naw. They don't have slaves any more."
"I know that. President Lincoln gave an order that they had to let them go. That was only for the states in secession. Then in 1868 Congress passed an amendment stating..."
"Emmet, for grief's sake leave off. All your knowledge gives me the whim--whams. You know they ain't slaves."
"Well, it looks like. All lined up for people to pick."
Walking along the road, Mrs. Duffy slowed to match Inga's pace. "You will be safe with us here. Mr. Duffy is grumpy but he will not beat you."
But he's not my papa, Inga thought. "What means 'grumpy' "? she asked. "It is bad?"
"His voice," replied Mrs. Duffy. "He shouts. Sometimes he pounds on the table." She paused and looked down at Inga, trying to see the situation through a child's eyes. "I will take care of you," she said. "You will have a good home here."
They walked on for a while, avoiding the mud puddles on the road. Inga noticed how neatly Mrs. Duffy lifted her skirts to avoid the horse droppings. In New York sweepers cleaned the streets every night. The smell of beer and sweaty leather wafted out of the saloon as the swinging doors closed behind a farmer.
They passed a house with wires coming out of the roof. A sign said: Post Office, Floyd, Iowa. Below was the inscription: H. Roche, Telegrapher.
Kelly's General Store had a rail across the front for hitching horses and two little boys were trying to climb up to balance on it. At the corner another dirt street branched off to the left, away from the railroad tracks. A church stood on that corner with a small school building in back. Low wooden houses lined the street, some painted and some plain gray wood. One had a gold--lettered sign on the front, "John Egan, M.D." A picture of a skeleton was mounted on an easel inside the window along with several blue and brown bottles marked Rx.
This is so different, Inga thought. No streetcars, no bricks on the streets. Only the saloon smelled like the city. "Do you have a house?" Inga finally asked. "In New York we lived up five sets of stairs. These houses look short."
"You're out of the city now, Inga. All the houses are short, as you say. Our house is up ahead of us." She pointed up ahead. "There, do you see it? It's the white one with a yellow door. We have a loft, though, where you will sleep. This is the whole town. There is no more."
"What is loft?"
"It is a place on top, over the other room. There is a ladder to climb. You will have your own bed and it is quiet. It will be your own place."
Mr. Duffy turned around and saw them lagging behind. "Get a move on, woman. The day is going fast. Work won't do itself," he grumbled.
"Is that grumpy?" Inga asked.
Mrs. Duffy laughed and called back to him. "I'm well aware of that sad fact, husband. I've yet to see a pie that set itself in the oven, or a dinner that cooks itself. I just want Inga--is that your full name? I never heard it before ---- to feel at home."
"Ingeborg Hagstrom. People call me Inga."
"She'll understand soon enough," Duffy continued, turning his head back toward them. "It's no great mystery. Just come along."
Once past the church, they saw the Duffy house at the end of the street. Its paint was peeling in some spots, but the yellow door gave a cheery look. The two rosebushes near the front door had lost most of their leaves this late in the summer. There was a window next to the door and another one up higher, close to the slightly sagging roof.
A big sliding door stood open to the rough--looking shop. Inside, tools lay scattered on the heavy work table and the dirt floor. Other than the sun shining through the small window and the dark red glow from a charcoal fire, the shop was dark. A man stood inside, loosely holding the bridle of his horse.
"I thought you'd moved to China," Jim Ronan called out over his horse's back. "Belle here has been waiting for a new shoe this past hour."
"We were at the train."
"It seems you have a young visitor. Is she your kin?"
"Nope. She came off the Orphan Train from New York, needing a home and work. She'll be with us and help out the missus until she's eighteen."
"I would have thought Mrs. Duffy was at least twenty, Henry. Though she's pretty as she was at eighteen," Jim teased.
"Aw, Jim," Mrs. Duffy said. "You're always full of the blarney. You know I went to school with your mother. Henry is talking about the girl. Her name is Inga Hagstrom and she's placed with us. Say hello, Inga."
"Hello." Inga peered around Mrs. Duffy to get a better look. She looked past the massive horse and the tall farmer with his mop of blazing red hair, and noticed the tools. What a wonderful place she thought: every kind of tool, and a big place to use them. What grand things could be made in this shop.
"Come inside and see my shop, Inga," Mr. Duffy called. "Horses need shoes. You know that. I make them and nail them on. Come in and I'll show you."
Jim held out a calloused hand to lead her into the blacksmith shop. He handed Inga's bag to Mrs. Duffy standing on the road outside.
"We'll be in to supper shortly," Mr. Duffy called back to his wife. "I'll just take care of Ronan's horse here."
"No hurry, then, Henry. That supper may take some time to make itself." She trudged inside carrying the carpetbag. "Help, my foot," she mumbled. "Another mouth to feed and more washing. I wonder what I've let myself in for. Yet she's a quiet thing and I think she may be intelligent. She noticed the houses in town right off and started trying to understand life here. It's a shame the little lass had to leave her home and come all this way. What could make parents let go of her?"
After seeing Duffy's shop, Inga went into the house. She was surprised to see it was mainly one very big kitchen. Along the back wall stood a big black iron stove. The stove had two ovens, each with its own fuel door. Pieces of wood were stacked neatly at each end ready to feed the fires. Two pots of hot water for washing sat on top. A long heavy work table with pie pans stacked at one end ran down the center of the room. There was a bed in the corner, covered with a bright patchwork quilt. It was separated from the rest of the room only by a thin rose gingham curtain. A wooden chest stood alongside, holding a kerosene lamp and a water pitcher.
Inga's elbow brushed a half--empty sack of flour on the table.
"Careful there," Mrs. Duffy warned. "That will be going into food." Cooking tools lay scattered on the surface. Four fresh pies were lined up neatly in a row at one end.
The sink had a hand pump for water, and a pipe draining down through the floor. Work clothes hung on pegs in the walls and shelves held jars of fruit and other food supplies.
"You cook very much," Inga said. "Your man, he does eat many pies?"
"Call him Mr. Duffy, and he does, but these pies aren't for him. I sell pies, some of the best in town."
Inga looked at the bed again. "Where is my bed?" she asked.
"Oh, goodness me. Let me show you." Mrs. Duffy walked over to pull a ladder out from back of the stove. She lined it up with the square opening in the ceiling. "Here's your place," she smiled, wedging the ladder top into notches in the ceiling. "All to yourself. We keep sacks of flour up there too, but they're no bother. The mice don't get at it as much upstairs. You can cuddle up in your blanket on the straw mattress. The pegs in the wall are for clothes and I'll find you a water pitcher. It will be lovely." She turned back toward the shelves.
"Mice?" asked Inga.
"Just a few. They're very quiet. I just can't keep them away from the flour, you know. I suppose they have a right to live."
"Do they have to live in my room?"
"My, you're pretty persnickety for a person who's just been offered a warm bed and a roof overhead."
Inga labored up the ladder dragging her carpetbag. I guess this is my life, she thought as she plopped down, tired, raising a cloud of straw dust. Two sheets and a blanket lay folded down at the end of the mattress behind some flour bags. A small pillow, tin basin and towel were with them. And sure enough, there were several pegs in the wall for hanging clothes. Maybe she could find a chair someplace--maybe trade for it--and someday a table. A kerosene lamp too, so I can read, she hoped. I'll read my father's letters. I'll write and tell him everything that happens.
"Anything to eat yet?" a voice hollered below. Mr. Duffy was home and hungry.
"Yes, husband, I'm making johnnycakes," Inga heard Mrs. Duffy reply. "I make them for supper every Saturday," she called up through the opening. "Mr. Duffy is partial to them. Just rest yourself a bit. There's cool water down here in the pitcher when you want it. I just pumped it fresh."
Little cooking sounds drifted up the ladder--the tap and scrape of a spoon beating eggs and flour, the fresh sizzle of batter hitting a hot pan, then the wonderful smell of fresh johnnycakes and--could it be? -- apple pie. "Come to supper," Inga heard. "Food's ready." It wasn't a moment too soon for Inga. She had shared her last sandwich on the train with a little boy from the Bronx, so her last meal was yesterday morning. Pie might fill the lonely feeling inside.