Virginia City, Utah Territory—late October 1862
Lord, I wish he’d brought the boy last night.
A quick tug in Hannah Rose Stockton’s chest stopped her frustrated pacing on the Pioneer Stagecoach Company’s porch. She shot a glance heavenward. “Forgive me. I have no right to be upset when Dr. Tompkins was attending to a dying patient, but would You please make sure he gets the child here before the stage leaves?”
She sat on a wooden bench and scanned the street, burrowing deeper into her cloak to ward off the pre-dawn chill. The hulking silhouette of the empty Concord stagecoach stood a few feet away and silent buildings lined the street. All was still.
She’d been honored to be chosen by the principal of the California Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind for such an important journey—to pick up their newest student, twelve-year-old Travis Alcott. However, the boy would likely be frightened about leaving his home. She needed time to befriend him, earn some trust before they boarded the stage for the three-day journey to San Francisco.
The door to the dimly lit office opened, and her dour silver-haired traveling companion, Edwina Jamison, leaned out. “Hannah Rose, please come inside. It’s hardly proper for a woman to sit alone outside at this time of day. Besides, they will have our breakfast ready shortly.”
Hannah chafed at Mrs. Jamison’s use of her middle name. Papa had been the only one to call her Hannah Rose, though she’d taken to calling herself that in order to draw on his strength and wisdom. It wasn’t worth correcting the woman. “I’ll be in momentarily. I’d like to pray before the day begins.”
“God can hear you just as well inside as out, child.”
She gritted her teeth. “Yes, ma’am, but I find it easier to pray without the clanging of dishes and the other passengers’ conversations. I promise, I’ll be in momentarily.”
Mrs. Jamison nodded hesitantly. “All right then, but hurry. I wouldn’t want something to happen.”
The door clicked shut, and Hannah rolled her eyes. “I’m thirty years old, Mrs. Jamison. Nothing will happen, and I don’t need a chaperone.” For goodness sake, she’d traveled by wagon train from Illinois to California by herself. She certainly could’ve taken the stage from San Francisco to Virginia City without the opinionated widow’s companionship. However, the principal had insisted, and if Hannah hoped to be considered for a promotion to a teaching position within the school, it was best to do as her employer asked.
Hannah closed her eyes. “Lord, forgive my uncharitable thoughts. It was kind of Mrs. Jamison to come along. Thank You for Your provision, even when I don’t think I need it. Please allow the return leg of the journey to be as uneventful as the ride from San Francisco.”
“Reckon it will be iffen I have anything to say about it.”
Hannah jumped to her feet, heart ratcheting into a gallop at the deep male voice. Near the building’s corner, a tall man’s outline emerged, though she couldn’t distinguish his features due to his hat.
“Couldn’t help hearing you pray.”
Her cheeks burning, she settled a palm against her chest. “I didn’t realize I had company.”
“Didn’t mean to startle you, ma’am. Reckon we had the same thought. Enjoy a quiet moment before the day begins. I’ll find somewhere else to choke down Alice’s coffin varnish—err, coffee.” He hoisted a cup, steam wafting from its lip. He turned toward the alley. “Just so you to know…I’m the jehu on this run. You got my pledge I’ll get you safely where you’re goin’.”
She stifled a chuckle. How was anyone to trust stagecoach drivers when they were called jehus after the Israelite king known for driving furiously? She sat once more. “Thank you for the assurance, sir.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He headed down the alley.
At the far end of the street, a one-horse buggy turned toward her, the clip-clop of hooves echoing between the buildings. Hannah stepped toward the railing, craning her neck to see. A single lantern lit the path and illuminated two passengers, one smaller than the other. A child, perhaps? Her heartbeat quickened at the prospect of meeting her young charge. The buggy stopped, and a suit-clad man swung to the ground.
Hannah stepped closer. “Are you Dr. Tompkins?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He touched the brim of his hat. “You’re Miss Stockton?”
The doctor moved around the conveyance and motioned for a half-grown child to climb down. The boy shot a hollow glance her way, ignoring the man. She smiled and met his eyes, though he looked directly ahead once more.
“This is Travis Alcott, the boy I wrote to you about.” The doctor guided the boy out of the wagon and bent to his level. “Say hello to the lady.” He over-enunciated each word.
Travis scowled and shifted away.
Dr. Tompkins shot her an apologetic glance. “Sorry. Since losing his hearing, he wavers between anger and withdrawal.”
She resisted correcting the man for his exaggerated speech. She’d frown and turn away from such ridiculous behavior too. Hannah smiled at Travis. “We will teach him to communicate again.” She paused. “Has he eaten breakfast?”
“Doubt it. The boy’s ma is long deceased. His pa stays too drunk to care for the boy properly, especially since Travis went deaf.”
Hannah’s eyes stung. How hard the child’s life must have been. Thankfulness for her own loving parents washed over her.
Again, the office door opened, and Mrs. Jamison looked out. “Hannah, dear. The meal is—oh.” Her gaze fell on the newcomers. “Is this the boy?”
“Yes. We were just coming inside.” Hannah stepped toward the door, and Dr. Tompkins guided Travis inside.
After the introductions, Hannah shifted toward Travis. She smiled and gave him a friendly wave. “Hello, Travis. I’m Hannah Stockton.” She pointed to her chest, then finger spelled her name as she spoke.
The boy’s brown eyes flitted between her face and her hand, though before she finished, he looked away and inhaled deeply, seemingly caught by the scents of pancakes and coffee wafting from the next room.
Hannah touched his shoulder, and he whipped around, his mop of dark hair falling in his eyes.
“Do you want to eat?” She signed the question, hoping he’d understand the self-explanatory gestures.
Expressionless, he looked toward the door where the smells originated. Beyond it, the sounds of chairs scooting across the plank floor and the clanking of dishes filled the room.
“Why isn’t he answering her?” Mrs. Jamison asked. “Your letter said he could still speak.”
“He’s capable of speaking, but he rarely does. Illness rendered him profoundly deaf, so he doesn’t understand what’s being said. Also, his father’s neglected him. He’s not used to talking much.”
Hannah’s chest ached as she studied the boy’s hollow cheeks, smudged with grime. His clothes were rumpled and dirty. His coat sleeves were far too short for his growing limbs, and the hems of his pant legs were worn to tatters. One shoe sported a hole in the toe.
Lord, how long since this child’s been properly cared for? How long since he’s been loved?