1879—Fannin County, TX
“Don’t lose heart, children. We have several strong families lined up in Bonham. I’m sure we’ll find good homes for each of you.”
Four-year-old Evangeline Pearson smiled at the sponsor from the Children’s Aid Society as the lady made her way down the train car aisle, bracing her hand for balance against one empty seat after another. Seats that had been filled with children when they’d left New York.
Miss Woodson always made Evie feel better. Even after seven . . . eight. . . . Evie scrunched her nose and unfolded her fingers one at a time as she tried to count. How many stops had they made? When she ran out of fingers, she gave up, huffed out a breath, and flopped back against the wooden bench seat. It didn’t matter. No one had wanted her at any of them. But Miss Woodson had promised to find her and Hamilton a home, and Evie believed her. She was such a nice person, after all. Nothing like the lizard lady sitting stiff and straight at the front of the train car.
“Don’t let her scare you,” Hamilton whispered as he gently lifted his arm and wrapped it around her. At nine, Hamilton was ever so much bigger and stronger, and not afraid of anything. Even when Mama and Papa died. Or when Children’s Haven had decided the Pearson siblings would be riding the orphan train west. Never once did he cry or fret. He just hugged her tight and promised that everything would be all right. He was the bravest boy who ever lived.
“She doesn’t like me.” Evie snuck a peek at the lizard lady, found her still scowling at her, and burrowed deeper into her brother’s side. “It’s ’cause of my eyes, isn’t it?”
Hamilton slid his hands under her arms and lifted her onto his lap. He tipped her chin up and looked straight into her face. “There is nothing wrong with your eyes, Evie. They’re beautiful. God’s gift. Remember what Mama used to say?”
Evie’s chin trembled slightly. Thinking of Mama always made her sad. Made her wish everything would go back to the way it had been. Mama holding her in the rocking chair and singing lullabies. Papa swinging her high into the air and laughing with that deep belly laugh that always made her giggle. Her room with rose paper on the wall. Her bed with the pink quilt and soft pillow. But it was gone. They were gone. Forever.
“What did Mama say?” Hamilton insisted.
“That only special little girls get eyes with two colors,” Evie mumbled. She wanted to believe it was true. She really did. But if having two different eyes made her so special, why did no one want her?
Hamilton nodded. “That’s right. And you know what?”
Evie glanced at her brother, envying his normal, matching brown eyes. “What?”
“As mine?” Evie leaned back, her forehead wrinkling. “Why? Then no one would want you, either.”
Hamilton smiled and bopped a finger on the tip of her nose. “Every time you look in a mirror, you see both Mama and Papa looking back at you. Mama from your blue eye, and Papa from your brown one. And you know how much they both loved you. It’s kind of like getting one of those hugs where they sandwiched us between them. Remember those?”
Evie nodded slowly. Oh yes, she remembered. So warm. So safe. Her in her nightdress in Mama’s arms, her legs wrapped around Mama’s middle. Mama smelling sweet, her long braid tickling Evie’s bare toes. Papa growling like a hungry bear, saying he needed an Evie sandwich, before he grabbed Mama and squished Evie between them. Their three heads jostled together. And their eyes . . . Mama’s bright blue ones to Evie’s left and Papa’s twinkling brown ones on her right. Just like hers!
A smile broke out across Evie’s face. “Oh, Ham-ton, you’re right! I have the bestest eyes ever!”
He folded her into a hug—not quite as bearish as Papa’s, but still warm and safe and full of love. “Don’t ever forget it,” he said as he squeezed her tight.
As Evie rested in her brother’s arms, voices drifted to her from the front of the railcar.
“Bonham’s the last stop,” Lizard Lady grumbled as Miss Woodson slid into the seat next to her, “though I don’t know why we should bother with it. No one’s going to take these misfits. Zacharias scares the women and angers the men with his hostile, defiant manner. Seth is so sickly, most families assume he’ll not make it through the winter. And Evangeline. She behaves well enough, but those unnatural eyes of hers unsettle decent folk. Heavens. They unsettle me.”
“Lower your voice, Delphinia,” Miss Woodson urged. “The children can hear you.” She twisted in her seat to smile an apology at Evie. The smile didn’t take away the sting of Lizard Lady’s mean comment, but it gave Evie just enough gumption to ignore it while considering for the first time what the other leftover children must be feeling.
Evie straightened away from her brother and turned around in her seat to look at the two boys behind her. Three rows back sat a boy close to Hamilton’s age. He looked nothing like her brother, though. He was so pale and skinny. The new coat the Children’s Aid Society had given him hung on him like it would a scarecrow. He stared out the window, his shoulders slumped, chest caved. And every time a puff of soot found its way into the railcar, he coughed.
The other boy sat in the very back of the car on the opposite side. His back was pressed sideways into the corner, one long leg drawn up onto the bench, his hat pulled low on his face. Not so low she couldn’t see his eyes, though. They were dark, just like the rest of him. Dark clothes. Dark hair. Darkly tanned skin. He even had dark whiskers growing on his cheeks. But those dark blue eyes made her shiver. Especially when he stared straight at her. Like he was doing now.
She didn’t think Zach had any friends. He was always by himself, even when the train had been filled with children. She had Hamilton. Zach didn’t have anyone. That was sad. Everyone needed a friend.
Evie smiled and wiggled her fingers in a timid wave.
Zach glared at her and showed his teeth like a growling dog.
Evie snatched her fingers back and spun around in her seat. Maybe some people didn’t need friends after all.
“I’ve had great success placing children in Bonham before,” Miss Woodson said. “I’m sure everything will work out.”
Separate her from Hamilton? Evie’s heart pattered so hard it felt like it might break out of her chest. She grabbed her brother’s hand and held on for all she was worth.
“But it’s so hard on the children when we split them up,” Miss Woodson protested.
“It’ll be harder on them if they end up on the streets in New York. If we can save one, I say we do it. Sometimes the hard decisions are the right ones.” Mrs. Dougal tossed a quick look over her shoulder at Evie and Hamilton before sniffing and turning back to Miss Woodson. “There’s no reason to kill the boy’s chance at a promising future just to stave off a few tears. They’ll recover.”
Evie stared hard at Miss Woodson, begging inside her head for her champion to tell Lizard Lady she was wrong. But she didn’t. Instead, Miss Woodson bit her lip and nodded.
“You can’t let them split us up, Ham-ton!” Evie wailed in a desperate undertone, careful not to let Lizard Lady hear. “You can’t!”
Hamilton squeezed her hand, his chin jutting out. “Don’t worry. I won’t.” Keeping hold of her hand, he slid off the seat and made his way into the aisle. “Come on. I need to talk to Zach.”
The scary boy in the back of the railcar who’d just snarled at her? Evie dragged her heels. “I don’t wanna—”
Hamilton huffed out a breath and gave her one of his don’t-be-such-a-baby looks. “He’s just a kid like the rest of us, Evie. And he can help.”
He was most certainly not like the rest of them. She wasn’t even fully convinced Zach was a kid. Not with whiskers and legs nearly as long as Papa’s had been. But she wasn’t about to let her brother think she was scared, so she pressed her lips together and let Hamilton drag her along.
“What d’ya want?” Zach lowered his leg from the bench to sprawl across the opening between his seat and the rear-facing one across the way, barring Hamilton from getting close.
But that didn’t stop her brother. He just climbed over the barrier and sat in the seat facing the other boy, leaving Evie to clamber up beside him.
“I need advice,” Hamilton said, his voice firm like Papa’s used to be whenever he was instructing them on proper behavior. “The sponsors think to split us up at the next stop, and I can’t let that happen. So I need to know how you get people not to claim you.”
Slowly, Zach sat up and leaned across the open space between the two seats. His dark blue eyes narrowed, and the edge of his mouth lifted in a smile that looked downright scary. Evie’s stomach clenched.
“I tell them that I’ll kill them in their sleep.”
Evie gasped. How could someone say such a terrible thing? Surely he didn’t mean it. Did he?
Zach smirked at her. Evie whimpered.
Hamilton, on the other hand, nodded. “Right. Threaten to kill them. Got it.”
What? Evie’s gaze jerked to her brother. He couldn’t!
Zach must have thought the idea outrageous as well, because he shook his head and sighed. “Look, kid, just because it works for me doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. You got one of them angel faces. No one will believe you capable of murder.”
“Maybe he can cough, like me.” Seth wandered down the aisle, a sudden hacking making everyone turn to look at him. “Act”—he coughed into the handkerchief the sponsors insisted he carry—“sick.”
Zach shook his head. “Nah. He looks too healthy. They’ll assume he’ll get better.” The older boy lifted his hat and scratched at a spot on his head, the meanness leaking away from his face. “We gotta find something else.”
Evie looked from one boy to the next. Was Zach actually helping them? Maybe Hamilton was right. Maybe he just pretended to be awful. Though why someone would want everyone to hate him, Evie couldn’t understand, not when she tried so hard to get people to like her.
Zach eyed Hamilton up and down, then crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his seat. “Spoiled rich kid. That’s your angle.”
Hamilton frowned. “But I’m not rich. All I have are one spare set of clothes and the cardboard suitcase the Children’s Aid Society gave me. Same as everyone else.”
Zach unfolded his arms, a devious light twinkling in his dark blue eyes. “Yeah, but with names like Hamilton and Evangeline, it’d be easy as pie to get people to think you come from money. Farm folk resent rich folk. Think they’re spoiled and have no work ethic.”
Evie had no idea what a work ethic was, so she probably didn’t have one. Maybe that was why no one wanted to take her home. Hamilton must have one, though, since people liked him. He’d have to find a way to hide it.
“Start throwing demands around. Then throw a fit. Yell. Scream. Flail around.” Zach was grinning now. A smile that actually looked happy instead of scary.
“And if all else fails, bite ’em.” Seth offered that bit of advice once his cough settled. “Whenever I wanted the nurses to leave me alone, I bit ’em. They stayed away for a good long while after that.”
Evie laughed, too, even though she didn’t think biting was particularly funny. A kitten had bitten her finger once, and it hurt for two days afterward. But if biting would keep her and Hamilton together, she’d bite someone, too.
“Get back to your seats, children,” Miss Woodson called from the front of the car. “We’re almost to Bonham. You’ll need to gather your belongings.”
Evie shared a look with Hamilton, then climbed off the seat and headed back to where they’d been sitting. Her tummy twisted and pinched at the thought of what might happen when the train stopped, but she remembered what Mama had always told her to do when she felt afraid.
Once in her seat, she folded her hands in her lap, bowed her head, and closed her eyes.
Don’t let them take Hamilton away from me. Please. I need somebody down here who loves me.
An hour later, Evie stood on a raised platform in the local courthouse with Hamilton, Seth, and Zach, waiting for the families to come in and look them over.
“Stand tall, don’t fidget, and speak only when spoken to.” Miss Woodson gave the same instructions she did at every stop as she walked the line to inspect them one last time. She paused to tug Seth’s coat sleeves down over his wrists, then ran a smoothing hand over Evie’s hair. When she moved toward Zach, he gave her such a mean look that she backed away without touching him. “Smile,” she said as she shot a chiding look at the boy slouching in the corner, “and mind your manners.”
She did everything Miss Woodson had told her. She didn’t fidget. Stood tall as she could manage. Smiled. All while hiding her eyes. She kept her face downcast, watching feet instead of faces move through the courthouse lobby.
Hamilton stood a few feet away, talking with a man and his wife.
“We really only want a boy, one who can help in the fields,” the man was saying.
“Remember the agreement you signed, Mr. Potter.” Miss Woodson joined the group. “Any child you receive must be treated as a member of your family. And if you expect a farmhand’s labor from him, you must offer a farmhand’s wages.”
“I know. But he’s talkin’ about me takin’ on his sister as well. She’s too young to be much help on the farm, and if I’m payin’ wages, I won’t have the funds to feed and clothe another child.”
“Let’s just look at her, John. Please? She’s got the same reddish-brown hair Nellie did. Maybe if I had another girl around the kitchen, I wouldn’t miss our daughter so.” A gray skirt swished in Evie’s direction.
Evie smiled as wide as she could stretch her lips. Please want me. Please want me.
The lady in gray stopped in front of Evie, then hunkered down. Determined to hide her eyes, Evie kept her gaze focused on the lady’s skirt.
“What’s your name, child?”
Evie swung back and forth, then remembered she wasn’t supposed to fidget and stopped. “Evangeline.”
“That’s a pretty name. You remind me of my daughter, Nellie. She’s grown now. Married a man from two counties over, so I don’t get to see her very often. I miss having a little girl around. I could teach you how to cook and sew. Would you like that?”
Evie nodded, her excitement building. “Yes, ma’am.”
A pair of rough boots plodded up beside the gray skirt. “Look at a person when you speak to them, girl.” The hard, manly voice made Evie jump.
What should she do? If she showed her eyes, they might not want her anymore. But if she didn’t look up, they’d think her defiant.
“Maybe she’s just shy, John,” the gray lady said. Her hand came up to cup Evie’s chin. “My Nellie had such lovely brown eyes. Are your eyes brown?”
Evie nodded. It wasn’t a lie. She did have a brown eye.
“Let me see.” The lady pushed Evie’s chin up.
Maybe she could just show one eye. Evie tried to open her right eye while squeezing her left eye shut, screwing up her mouth in concentration.
“Quit making faces, girl,” the man barked.
The sharp tone startled Evie, and she forgot to keep her left eye shut.
The lady gasped and pulled her hand away. “Her . . . eyes. Miss Woodson, what’s wrong with her eyes?”
Evie immediately shuttered her gaze, blinking back the tears that rose.
“Nothing’s wrong with her eyes!” Hamilton rushed to Evie’s side and grabbed her hand. “She can see just fine. That’s all that matters, isn’t it? That they work. My sister’s smart, cheerful, and strong for her size. You’d be getting a deal if you take us both on. You wouldn’t even have to pay me any wages. I’ll work for free if you take Evie, too.”
“So her eyes won’t ever . . . fix themselves?” The lady in gray stood, backed up a step, then rubbed her arms against a shudder.
“But those eyes are so . . . peculiar.” The woman backed away another step. “They give me the shivers.”
“That decides it,” Mr. Potter said. “We’ll take the boy. Not the girl. One extra mouth to feed is all I can afford anyway.”
“Very well.” Miss Woodson sighed. “Mrs. Dougal can assist you with the paper—”
“No!” Hamilton stomped his foot. “I’ll not go without my sister.”
Evie stared at him. That fierce voice didn’t sound anything like the kind brother she knew.
“Don’t sass your betters, boy.” The man pointed a finger in Hamilton’s face.
“You’re not my better!” Hamilton shoved his nose in the air. “I’m a Pearson. My papa used to hire people like you to work in his factory. People too stupid to do anything more than simple tasks, like planting seeds and watching them grow.”
“Hamilton!” Miss Woodson’s shocked voice echoed Evie’s disbelief.
The man glowered, his face turning bright red. “You better watch your mouth, boy.”
“Or what?” Hamilton challenged. “You’ll whip me? Beat me? Chain me up in your barn? I’d expect nothing less from a man who probably can’t even read.”
Mr. Potter shook with rage, and Evie worried that her brother had gone too far.
“He doesn’t mean it.” Miss Woodson placed her hands on Hamilton’s shoulders and pulled him away from the man, who looked like he was about to strike. “He’s just afraid of being separated from his sister.”
“I do too mean it.” Hamilton jerked away from Miss Woodson’s grip and stepped straight up to the farmer and his wife. “And it’s not just him who’s ignorant. His wife is, too. Why else would she be scared of something as trifling as eyes that are two different colors?”
The man’s hand fisted.
Evie lunged for her brother and wrapped her arms around his middle. “Stop, Ham-ton. Stop!”
“He’s a child, John.” The lady in gray had stepped in front of her husband as well and stared up into his face as she placed a staying hand on his arm.
“I’ll not tolerate anyone speaking about you that way, Georgia. No matter his age.” He set his wife aside and jabbed his finger into Hamilton’s face. “If you ever speak ill of my wife again, I’ll—”
Hamilton lurched forward and bit down on the man’s pointed finger.
The farmer howled, then cuffed Hamilton across the head with his other hand. Hamilton toppled. Evie fell with him. Women screeched. Men yelled. And all Evie could do was hang on to her brother and pray that everything else would go away.
“Well, that was a disaster.” Lizard Lady’s pronouncement bounced around the interior of the railcar as it rattled down the tracks, taking them back the way they had come. There’d be no more stops. No more chances at finding families.
“That weren’t no disaster,” Zach said with a grin as he punched Hamilton lightly in the shoulder. “That was brilliant! Well done, Ham-bone. I’m impressed.”
Hamilton grinned as if he’d just been named king of the mountain. The boys had all chosen to sit together in the back of the railcar, Zach actually making room for Seth on the seat next to him as Hamilton and Evie sat in the rear-facing seat in front of them.
Evie thought them all crazy to be so proud of themselves for such awful behavior, but she and Hamilton were still together, so she wouldn’t scold them. Lizard Lady had done that enough already.
The boys recounted the event over and over until Evie grew bored. And sleepy. Being scared wore a girl out, and she’d been more scared today than any day she could remember. The rocking of the train made her eyelids heavy, and her head started to loll toward her chest.
“Here, Evie.” Hamilton set his back against the window like Zach had done earlier and made room for her to nestle up against his chest.
She curled up against her big brother and slept until a harsh jolt tossed her onto the floor. Her head bumped against someone’s bony knee, and she cried out as the terrifying sound of braking train wheels screeching against the rails pierced the air.
Luggage fell from the overhead racks. The sponsors screamed. Hamilton called Evie’s name before he dropped down over her and wrapped his body around hers.
“Crawl under the seat, Evie, and hold on to the chair legs.”
She did what he said, hugging the ornate iron leg that connected the bench to the floor with all her might. Then the train slammed into something. Hard. So hard, the force tore Hamilton away from her.
A loud groan rumbled, and the railcar started to tip. Evie wailed her brother’s name.
“Hold on, Evie! Don’t let go!”
She did. Until the railcar tipped on its side, throwing her against one of the windowpanes. Metal ripped. Glass shattered. The train tore itself apart as it slid sideways down an embankment. Evie cried, trying to find something to hold on to. The train slid over a rock, the jagged surface knocking out the glass of the window next to Evie’s and bouncing her into the air. Something hard stabbed against her side. She whimpered but grabbed for the hat hook, her little fingers clinging desperately to the metal hanger.
It seemed to take days for the train to stop its slide. When it did, Evie called for her brother and waited for him to come for her.
He didn’t come.
“Ham-ton!” Where was he? Was he hurt? Evie started to cry. He couldn’t be hurt. She needed him. “Ham-ton!”
Letting go of the hat hook, she got to her hands and knees, then slowly pushed to her feet. “Ham-ton!” She took one step. Then another. Broken glass crunched beneath her shoes. Her legs shook. Her head ached where she’d banged it against the luggage rack. Her eyes searched through tears that wouldn’t stop flowing.
Suddenly a pair of arms wrapped around her.
She turned, ready to hug her brother tight. Only it wasn’t Hamilton. It was Seth. His chest made a funny noise as he breathed, almost like it was squeaking.
“You’re hurt.” Evie touched his head where blood matted his hair.
“It’s all right,” Seth said, holding her close. “Stay here . . . with me . . . Evangeline.” His chest heaved as he gasped between words.
“I have to find Ham-ton.” She tried to pull away. His skinny arms were surprisingly strong, though, and he held her fast.
“Not yet. You . . . need to wait.”
Evie struggled. “Ham-ton! I want Ham-ton!”
She stomped Seth’s toes and broke free. She stumbled forward, tripping on a window frame, but grabbed the edge of a sideways bench to keep from falling. Everything was sideways. Crumpled. Broken.
She spotted Zach hunched over, a giant plate of glass in his hands that he yanked upward and tossed aside.
She was going to ask if he knew where Hamilton was, but when he turned to look at her, his face made her forget her words. He didn’t look mean or tough now. He looked . . . lost.
“He saved my life,” he mumbled, his stare blank. “Pushed me out of the way and saved my life.” Zach blinked, then seemed to recognize her. He jumped to his feet and tore at his coat as if it had suddenly caught fire. Finally, he flung it from his back and tossed it on top of a pile of something behind him.
Seth joined them. “We need to get . . . her out. Shouldn’t . . . see this.”
Shouldn’t see what? Evie looked from one boy to the other. What were they hiding from her, and where was her brother?
“She needs to say good-bye,” Zach argued.
Say good-bye? To who?
“Evie?” A weak voice cut through the argument, stilling everyone.
Evie pushed past Zach and found her brother at last. He lay on his back, not moving. Zach’s coat covered him up. She stumbled up to where his head lay and wrapped her arms around his neck. But he didn’t hug her back. Didn’t rub her hair and tell her everything would be all right. He just lay there. Still. Too still.
“Ham-ton? You gotta get up.” She grabbed his shoulder and tried to pull him into a sitting position. “Get up, Ham-ton!”
“Easy, princess. You don’t want to hurt him.” Zach crouched beside her and patted her back. It felt awkward and stiff, but it was warm, too. And Evie felt so cold, as if her heart had turned to ice.
“Zach’s gonna . . . take care of you now,” Hamilton said, struggling to open his eyes. “He made me a promise, and I trust him . . . to keep it. You can trust him . . . too.”
“I don’t want Zach to take care of me. I want you, Ham-ton!”
Her brother smiled, or tried to. “I know, Evie, but I can’t stay. I have to . . . go see Mama . . . and Papa.” He coughed, and something red came out of his mouth.
Terror seized Evie, shaking her from top to bottom. Hamilton couldn’t leave her. He couldn’t!
Zach helped Hamilton turn his head and wiped away the blood, the tenderness so strange from the rough boy. Once he was done, Hamilton looked at Evie again.
“I love you, sis. Always . . . and forever.”
“Don’t leave me, Ham-ton.” Her voice broke as she collapsed on his chest and cried out her heartache. “Don’t leave me.”
Something gurgled in his lungs; she could hear it beneath the coat. But she also heard voices. Seth and Zach arguing.
“They’ll never let you stay with her,” Seth was saying. “As soon as we get back to New York, they’ll divide us up again.”
“That’s why we’re not going to New York.”
“We’re making a run for it.”
“But we’re just kids. How can we—?”
“If you don’t want to come, don’t come. But I made the kid a promise, and I never go back on my word. I’m gettin’ the girl out of here. If I can survive on the streets of New York, I can survive in Texas. We’ll make do.”
“But they’ll search for us.”
“So we change our names. Become our own family with our own name.”
The boys quieted, leaving nothing but the shallow gurgles of her brother’s chest to echo around Evie. Then even that stopped. “Ham-ton,” she moaned, knowing he’d left her.
“Hamilton’s a good name,” Seth said.
“Yeah,” Zach answered. “Hamilton it is.”