Book I. The Shimerdas
I FIRST HEARD OF Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey
across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had
lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were
sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care
of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the `hands' on my father's old farm
under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather.
Jake's experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never
been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our
fortunes in a new world.
We went all the way in day-coaches, becoming more sticky and grimy with each
stage of the journey. Jake bought everything the newsboys offered him: candy,
oranges, brass collar buttons, a watch-charm, and for me a `Life of Jesse
James,' which I remember as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever
read. Beyond Chicago we were under the protection of a friendly passenger
conductor, who knew all about the country to which we were going and gave us a
great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence. He seemed to us an
experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his
conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant states and cities. He wore
the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged.
Even his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more
inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk.
Once when he sat down to chat, he told us that in the immigrant car ahead there
was a family from `across the water' whose destination was the same as ours.
`They can't any of them speak English, except one little girl, and all she can say
is "We go Black Hawk, Nebraska." She's not much older than you, twelve or
thirteen, maybe, and she's as bright as a new dollar. Don't you want to go ahead
and see her, Jimmy? She's got the pretty brown eyes, too!'
This last remark made me bashful, and I shook my head and settled down to
`Jesse James.' Jake nodded at me approvingly and said you were likely to get
diseases from foreigners.
I do not remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day's
journey through Nebraska. Probably by that time I had crossed so many rivers
that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it
was still, all day long, Nebraska.
I had been sleeping, curled up in a red plush seat, for a long while when we
reached Black Hawk. Jake roused me and took me by the hand. We stumbled
down from the train to a wooden siding, where men were running about with
lanterns. I couldn't see any town, or even distant lights; we were surrounded by
utter darkness. The engine was panting heavily after its long run. In the red glow
from the fire-box, a group of people stood huddled together on the platform,
encumbered by bundles and boxes. I knew this must be the immigrant family the
conductor had told us about. The woman wore a fringed shawl tied over her