She found the Kansas City bound train at the platform beneath the gaslights. It was set to depart quite soon. There was a great deal of activity around the resting behemoth, steam pulsing from the vents into the passing crowd. Through the dusty windows, Alexis saw the train was over capacity. Scanning for the rare empty seat, she chose the fourth car from the engine and was helped aboard by a porter who took her one piece of luggage. She declined to hand over the slim case.
She trudged down the aisle, past the bowlers and bonnets, to find an empty seat next to an old, white-haired woman who had a bag of knitting on her knees and was hugging a large smoked leg of ham wrapped in paper.
“May I?” Alexis motioned to the seat beside the woman.
“Why, certainly, dear. You’ll have to excuse the ham shank. My sister is turning seventy tomorrow and she swears they do not smoke their hams in Kansas City near as good as home. I promised her the St. Louis hams were the same ones they retail up there, but she has the Dodson stubborn streak and so here I am traveling with a pig cut that is larger than myself. I was afraid for a moment they might force me to buy an extra ticket for the ham.”
She laughed, for how couldn’t she? Her real focus, however, was the crowd running to catch the train as it rolled out. She craned her neck around old lady Dodson’s high fashion hat. She spied a thick knot of the ball players jogging along the cars behind with the lazy gait of trotting in from a three run homerun.
She was pleased as the train picked up speed and began to clear the platform. The athletes made it aboard easily, albeit loudly. Then to her dismay, she saw a very un-athletic display in the awkward darting figure of Theodore Colson. The man’s face was contorted in a rictus as he launched his bag in between the cars. She saw an outstretched hand reach out from the train as it grasped Theo’s flailing paw. The forearm of the mysterious aide strained and tensed and flung Theo onto the train.
Alexis remained calm, but knew she had little time. There was a free seat next to her and the only other unoccupied one was across the aisle and two rows up. She looked behind her, at the closed door leading to the rear cars. No Theo, but the red-headed baseball star was looking right at her through the window. His emerald eyes shone brightly–even from that distance. His nose was flat and rounded near the nostrils with a crooked bump on the bridge, suggesting it had been broken a few times yet it all made him that much more rugged and handsome.
He entered the car and she boldly held his eye. As he neared her row, he smiled at her, his bright red mustache rising impishly at the corners. She thought him quite dashing, but she knew the rumors about professional ball players—especially the Brown Stockings.
“Ladies.” He nodded to Mrs. Dodson but did not take his eyes from Alexis. “It appears I have no other place to sit. May I join you?” His voice was as deep as the rumbling of the train.
“There is the other seat up yonder,” the Dodson woman said in complaint. “I was hoping I could get this this ham off my lap and set it in the seat next to her . . .”
She smiled apologetically, but the ginger man was quick. “Why don’t you allow me to carry your burden for you, Ma’am?”
He sat down, bumping lightly into Alexis as he reached and held the old woman’s ham with one mighty hand, pulled it toward him and laid it carefully across his strong thighs. “Consider it payment for me enjoying such lovely company. So, ma’am, are you knitting a sweater for this ham?” He said indicating her bag with yarn and needle poking out.
The old lady Dodson giggled, as if she was thirty years younger and it was the wittiest thing she had ever heard. Her pale, wrinkled cheeks even blushed, though it had in all probability been many years since that phenomenon had occurred.
Alexis noted a distant Irish accent in his voice—Dublin, she guessed. It was enough of a lilt to kindle most women’s hearts. She smiled faintly, not wanting his full attention since he had taken the seat. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, perplexed. Donnie usually had a woman swooning with such pleasant banter.
Alexis was glancing back at the doorway every few seconds. Theo banged into a traveller or two as he made his way to Alexis. He stood next to the big Irishman, shifting from foot to foot like a child with an impatient bladder. Even seated, the Gael was near as tall as Theo.
“Excuse me, Sir? I am traveling with this young woman. Would you mind allowing me to sit with her? There is an open seat just up there,” Theo said.
“How, now?” The red headed man asked as he looked over to Theo standing in the aisle swaying to the motions of the train. Theo resembled a seasick traveller. “You are the fellow who had his wallet lifted by that young boy. I heard the commotion— how did you come by the fare if you were pick-pocketed by the whelp?”
Theo saw he needed a new tactic, and softened his sharp address to the man, showing none too small an amount of pride along the way. “I never travel with all my eggs in one basket. I have all my money secreted about my person.”
“My, that sure as aces paints a disturbing portrait, doesn’t it?” the athlete quipped, looking to his seat-mates for approval.
Theo stubbornly sniffed away the comment and pressed on. “Perhaps, but nevertheless, would you mind moving?”
“I sincerely do wish I could accommodate you, but, as you can see, I have been conscripted as the ham bone carrier for this leg of that fine woman’s journey. If your lady friend wishes me to move . . .”
He raised his brow and he and Mrs. Dodson both looked to her for an answer.
Alexis pretended her attention was elsewhere. “I am sorry? Oh, no—though I do know this man, I must confess we are not traveling together. These arrangements are quite good, seeing as how we are all ensconced . . .”
Even sweet Mrs. Dodson was relieved to hear the decision, for she approved of the red-headed fellow and not the bruised up man.
“There you have it, my friend!” The Irishman beamed triumphantly. “That seat farther up is available, but I would hurry if I were you; when my boys bought fares, the ticket agent warned them the train was already over capacity.”
Dejected, Theo gave Alexis the stink eye, then left to snag the seat ahead.
Having secured his rightful place on the throne beside Alexis—with a royal smoked scepter in his lap, no less—the ball player wiped his hand across his lapel and held it out to introduced himself. “The name is Donnie O’Banyon. The fans call me the Belfast Baron. I am on my way to Kansas City to school the boys over there on how to lose gracefully.”
Madam Dodson threw her hand across Alexis, causing the handle of the derringer inside her jacket to dig into her ribs. “Goldia Dodson. So pleased to meet you. You know, I am a grand baseball enthusiast. I saw you make that catch last week against those Wichita scoundrels. Wonderful athleticism, young man! Thrilling!”
“Why, thank you, Ma’am,” he said, still boldly staring at Alexis. “I must say a man is only as good as his team mates and I have a fine bunch of boys surrounding me. How about you, Miss—?”
Alexis took his hand and lightly shook it. “Miss Free, and no, I am not a base ball enthusiast.”
She had lied. Her father and her often slipped away some afternoons to take in the games. She was, in fact, in attendance at the game Goldia Dodson had mentioned, and she too was thrilled by his amazing catch, but she knew it best not to encourage this bigger-than-life fellow any more, especially since she had already manipulated him into blocking out Theo.
“Oh well, there’s always the next game to win over a new fan,” he said as he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out four tickets. “With my compliments, I would like to invite you all to the game tomorrow.”
Goldia snatched two faster than Alexis thought the old woman could move. “Thank you so much, Baron! I knew those rumors about you must be wrong; you’re such a nice young man! My dear sister will be so excited to go to the game on her birthday. What a surprise! Though she may be broken-hearted by the end of the day, when you fellows trounce her precious Cowboys.” She leaned into Alexis and whispered, “You could do a lot worse than this fellow here, young lady . . .”
“Though the Cowboys are not a professional team such as we are, they do have some fine players,” the Baron pretended not to hear Madam Dodson, stating, “one or two, that is—well, one, really.”
He held the tickets for a moment giving Alexis the opportunity to note the admittances were actually hand-written notes with what she assumed was the Baron’s signature.
Alexis wanted to remark on the fact that due to a few player’s involvement in the Louisville Greys game-fixing scandal, The St. Louis Brown Stockings were in fact no longer a professional team, but a rag-tag ghost that played anyone, anywhere, to make a profit. She thought it best for the comfort of the next couple hundred miles to remain silent.
She turned to him and said, “I am so sorry, but I will not be staying in Kansas City. I have plans to travel west as soon as I arrive.”
“Oh, well, that is truly a shame. I would be thrilled to look into the stands and see you there. Perhaps Goldia has some other friends she would like to—”
Before he finished speaking, the tickets were in Goldia’s hands with the others.
Alexis was suddenly preoccupied by one thought: How did Theodore Colson know she was headed off to Kansas City? She knew she had never mentioned her itinerary to him and yet there he was at the station on a train she never told him she would be on.
She remembered then how her father had found one Cecil Rosewater lingering in the hallway of the Liberty offices when she had told her father her plans to leave for Kansas City that night.
When she returned to St. Louis, she was going to make sure she had a word or two with Mister Rosewater. But that little weasel would have to wait his turn.
Donnie O’Banyon tried to recapture her attention. “Perhaps upon your return, Miss Free, we could see to it you get to attend another game. So, if I may be so bold, what exactly sends you off to the West in such a hurry?”
Alexis looked up at the back of Theo’s head and said, “It appears I am on a snipe hunt with a vulture as a companion.”
He had no response to this, which was fine with Alexis.