I had just spotted my mortal enemy, Mrs. Violetta de Baskerville from Carson City.
My head was spinning with questions & my heart was full of exclamation points!!!
But I did not have time to ponder the implications for I suddenly realized what the commotion was at the back of the church.
It was a man in a rose-pink stovepipe hat and droopy gray mustache. He was flanked by two uniformed policemen.
The gray-mustached man was pointing at me with a silver-tipped walking stick.
‘Seize that kid in the brown greatcoat!’ cried the man. ‘He is wanted for theft and possibly murder!’
Everyone turned to look at me, including Mrs. Violetta de Baskerville.
My lightning-quick reflexes made me flip up the collar of my greatcoat & pull my head into it like a turtle in his shell: I did not want her to identify me.
Men were shouting & women were screaming & hands were reaching out to grab me.
I did not hesitate.
I took the only way out I could. I ran forward at a crouch & leapt up onto the stage & nipped between the open-mouthed hymn singer & wide-eyed Rev. Starr King & found a door near the organ at the back. It led into a little back room that Methodists would have called a ‘vestry’. (I do not know what Unitarians called their little back rooms.)
I looked around the small dim space for some means of escape.
Then I spotted it: a door in a corner.
I ran to it & opened it & saw a sunlit churchyard promising Freedom!
But just as I was starting through that door, I was pulled up sharp by a fist grasping the turned up collar of my greatcoat.
‘Got you!’ cried a man’s voice.
I did not wait to see if it was the man in the rose-pink stovepipe hat or one of the policemen or the Reverend Starr King himself.
I writhed out of my greatcoat like that ‘certain young man’ in Mark chapter 14 and verse 52, who left his garment in the hands of the soldiers at Gethsemane.
Bareheaded, and clad only in that danged daffodil-yellow dress and my girly-girl button-up boots, I burst into the brilliant Sunday morning. I whizzed across the green grass of the churchyard & I lifted up my yellow skirts & vaulted a low, wrought-iron fence. Out on the street now, I ran like a boy. My arms were pumping and my knees almost touching my chin as I pelted through the streets of San Francisco. Without even stopping to get my bearings, I swerved south & raced along the sidewalk, then veered west down a shaded alley between two lofty brick buildings.
I modified my run to a fast walk so as not to attract attention.
About a block on, I passed a girl who had removed her pink poke bonnet to fiddle with the ribbon. I am sorry to confess I snatched it from her fumbling fingers. I needed to cover up my short & boyish hair, which was a dead giveaway.
(The glimpse I got of her startled face and round gray eyes has now been imprinted on my memory like an ambrotype.)
‘Sorry!’ I called as I tied the ribbon under my chin & burst into a fresh sprint. Now that I was bonnetted, I tried running like a girl, with my arms clamped to my sides & my hands bent at the wrists with fingers splayed out & palms facing the ground. The green flounces sewn to my waistband were flapping like half a dozen dog tongues.
Tip-tap, tip-tap, tip-tap! went my button-up boots on the sidewalk.
By and by I found myself on a wide & crowded street that cut across the normal grid of city streets. I reckoned it was one of the main thoroughfares of San Francisco.
Once again, I forced myself to walk, not run; I did not want to turn heads and thus draw attention to myself. Straight ahead, I saw the rear end of an omnibus just moving off. There were people inside & also up on top.
I did a fast walk to catch up & was now glad of my tippy-tap boots for they went with my girly outfit. I hopped up onto the back of the omnibus just as it was gathering speed.
A man in a uniform was selling tickets. I had pulled out my medicine bag & was fishing in it for my book of tickets, when the ticket-taker pushed me through the door.
‘Better get inside, Missy,’ he said, patting my pink poke bonnet. ‘Your folks will be wondering where you got to.’
Gratefully, I plunged into the crowded carriage & squished past people in their Sunday Best. The omnibus seemed longer than normal ones and there were stairs to the roof in the middle. When I reached the far end I was surprised to find another carriage hooked to mine!
I took a big step over to the next car & pushed through the throng & went up the stairs of the second omnibus & found more people sitting on the roof. I was astonished to see big puffs of white steam rising up from the black smoke stack.
I was not riding an omnibus.
I was riding a steam-powered railroad car disguised as an omnibus!
As a cloud of steam dispersed, I looked back to see if I was still being pursued.
From my lofty vantage point atop the train, I saw a group of four men standing a few blocks back by the alley from which I had emerged only moments before. They were gesturing & looking around. I was glad of the stolen bonnet, for it hid my face. I could see the man with the rose-pink stovepipe hat & the 2 uniformed policemen. Then I spotted someone else, viz. – a white-faced man in black with little round blue goggles.
My heart jumped like a jackass rabbit. It was Icy Blue, stagecoach conductor for the Overland stage!
As I sat down in the last free seat up there on the top deck of the street train, I thought I saw him turn his little blue goggles in my direction.
Had he spotted me?
I prayed not!
The seats on that street train did not face forward. They faced sideways so you could watch buildings slide by & see right into the upstairs windows. I sat there facing the buildings and not daring to move. By and by the buildings got smaller & sparser & there were more sand dunes and trees. As we went up hill and down, I pondered my revelation and my predicament.
My revelation was this: Mrs. V.F. von Vingschplint was my mortal enemy, Violetta de Baskerville.
My predicament was this: I was a fugitive in black button-up boots, a daffodil-yellow dress & pink poke-bonnet. Most of my money & my bogus pa’s revolver & his Meerschaum pipe & my ledger book & pencil stubs had been in the pockets of my abandoned greatcoat. I feared I would never get them back. Thank goodness I had the medicine bag which I always wear around my neck. I patted myself below the neck and felt the reassuring bulge. It contained my Muff Deringer, 5 spare rimfire cartridges, 3 Lucifers, my original ma’s flint knife, a silk butterfly, a $20 gold coin & my real pa’s Detective Button.
‘You going to see the emeu?’ said the man sitting next to me.
‘Emeu?’ I said.
‘Why, yes!’ he said. It is an exotic bird. It looks like a chicken but is as big as a man.
He recited, ‘Oh, say, have you seen at the Willows so green, so charming and rurally true, A singular bird, with a manner absurd, which they call the Australian Emeu?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I have never seen this Australian Emeu nor even heard of one until today.’
When the steam train disguised as an omnibus reached the end of the line about 10 minutes later, everybody piled off and headed for a gate by a white picket fence with a big sign above it that read:
Although I was intrigued by the prospect of a Giant Australian Chicken, I decided to stay on the street train for its return journey. I needed to get back to the Occidental Hotel & search room 202 for evidence to prove Violetta had plotted against me.
But then I saw a sight that gave me the fantods.
It was an albino man dressed all in black and wearing little round blue goggles. He was riding a big roan gelding up the street.
Had Mr. ‘Icy’ Blue spotted me atop the street train? Or was he just acting on instinct?
Either way, I had to get away from him!
[Don't have a clue what's going on? Start with chapter one.]
Fun facts, research, news & topics linked to the children’s books of Caroline Lawrence: The Roman Mysteries and The Western Mysteries.