In her small Colorado town Pearl spends the summers helping her mother run the family café and entertaining tourists with the legend of Silverheels, a beautiful dancer who nursed miners through a smallpox epidemic in 1861 and then mysteriously disappeared. According to lore, the miners loved her so much they named their mountain after her.
Pearl believes the tale is true, but she is mocked by her neighbor, Josie, a suffragette campaigning for women’s right to vote. Josie says that Silverheels was a crook, not a savior, and she challenges Pearl to a bet: prove that Silverheels was the kindhearted angel of legend, or help Josie pass out the suffragist pamphlets that Pearl thinks drive away the tourists. Not to mention driving away handsome George Crawford.
As Pearl looks for the truth, darker forces are at work in her small town. The United States’s entry into World War I casts suspicion on German immigrants, and also on anyone who criticizes the president during wartime—including Josie. How do you choose what’s right when it could cost you everything you have?
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Searching for Silverheels
It’s strange how sometimes, even though the whole world is changing around you, everything can feel so much the same. President Wilson had declared war on Germany just two months ago and had called upon every citizen to step up and help out with the war effort. Women were planting victory gardens, and young men were talking of enlisting. My own father had gone up onto the mountain to mine the zinc needed for shell casings. But here in the Silverheels Café, life just moseyed on, same as always. Each morning, the old-timers gathered at their table in the corner and talked at length about nothing in particular. My best friend, Imogene, hovered by the counter, trying to flirt with my big brother, Willie, who only had eyes for his breakfast. And I was spending my days taking orders, hauling plates, and refilling cup after cup of coffee, without anything new or interesting crossing my path.
“Order, Pearl!” Mother called from the kitchen. I went to retrieve the plates of eggs and bacon for the old-timers. Mother fed them nearly every morning, come rain or shine, whether or not they had money to cover their bills. Neighbors do for neighbors, she always said, and it seemed to be true. Those who never had the cash always seemed to find other ways to pay—fresh fish or game for the kitchen, or a load of firewood for the stove.
I stepped from the kitchen back out into the café just as George Crawford and his mother walked through the front door. Imogene glanced at them, then turned a pointed stare at me, her eyebrows bobbing. I tried to ignore her and offer a polite good morning to George and his mother, but I’m sure George noticed the rush of blood that flooded my cheeks.
“Good morning, Pearl,” he said with a smile. George had the most stunning smile in all of Park County. Even girls who had no interest in him said so, not that there were many of those. Possibly the only girl who claimed no interest was Imogene, and that was mainly because she was my best friend and knew how I felt. Besides, she was sweet on Willie.
Mrs. Crawford directed George to the table in the opposite corner from the old-timers and began to peel off her kidskin gloves. Why she bothered to put them on at all mystified me; Crawford’s Mercantile was only just across the street and a block down, but Mrs. Crawford was always a lady. At least, in her appearance.
“Coffee, please, Pearl,” she called, even before she sat down. I carried my load of plates to the old-timers’ table, then I went behind the counter to retrieve the coffeepot from its warmer. Imogene leaned across the counter toward me and whispered, “George is watching you.”
“Shh!” I said.
She sat back and spoke in a voice loud enough for everyone in the café to hear. “We have some tourists at the hotel, Pearl. They came in last night and reserved a room for four nights.”
I paused, waiting for her to go on. This was good news. Tourism was likely to be down this summer with the war on, and that meant less business for our café as well as for Imogene’s family, who ran the hotel.
“They look like the type that might want a tour,” Imogene continued. Most years this would have been good news too. My father and I made a few extra dollars in the summer taking folks on excursions. This year, though, with Father away, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do that, no matter how much I wanted to.
Oblivious to my dilemma, Imogene kept talking. “There are three of them. A fashionable young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Fischer, and a fellow about our age named Frank. Frank is mightily handsome!” She said the last with a hopeful glance at Willie, but he showed no sign of jealousy. Imogene sighed.
“Where’s that coffee, Pearl? And George might want a cinnamon roll, when you are done with your little chat,” said Mrs. Crawford.
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry,” I said, snatching up a cup and the pot and hurrying to her table. George did want a roll, so I cut the very biggest one from the pan, as I always did when it was for George. I don’t know if he ever noticed, but he always gave me that stunning smile when I placed it before him, which was worth more than the biggest cinnamon roll in the world.
I reluctantly turned from George’s smile when the bell on the door clattered. Everyone in the café looked up to see the three tourists step inside.
Imogene was right when she had called them fashionable. The lady’s skin was lily white, her fingers long and delicate, and her corset was cinched so tight that her waist was as thin as a wasp’s. No one in Como had hands so soft, a waist so thin, or clothes so fine, not Mrs. Crawford or even Mrs. Engel who ran the millinery and yard-goods shop. The lady’s hat angled jauntily on her smooth dark hair, the ostrich plume sweeping elegantly behind her. She wore a starched white shirtwaist, all ruffled up the front, and a blue skirt that reached just to the tops of her pearl-buttoned boots, according to the latest fashion. She was exactly what I imagined the ladies in my dime novels looked like. I could easily see her in distress, being rescued by a brave hero.
The man who escorted her, however, struck me as more of a dandy than a brave hero. He wore his hair parted neatly in the center and slicked down tight against his head. From his crisp pin-striped traveling suit and polished leather shoes, I could tell he hadn’t stepped off pavement very often in his life. Nor did he want to, judging from the sneer on his face as he took in the locals in their work clothes and sturdy boots.
The boy Frank tagged along behind the couple. He was close to my age or a little older, perhaps fourteen. Though he looked good natured, Imogene had exaggerated when she called him mightily good-looking. Unlike his companions, he hadn’t bothered much with his clothes and was a little disheveled. His hair needed a cut and a comb. The top button was missing from his shirt, and his collar, where it rubbed his neck, was brown with dirt. He walked with his hands crammed into his pockets and glanced around as if he were eager to see new things. I gave him a warm smile of welcome. Exactly the sort of person who would want a tour, I thought. Surely I could do it on my own if we didn’t go far.
As soon as they were seated, I fetched the coffeepot to their table. The young lady smiled up at me. She was not old enough to be the boy’s mother. She had to be an older sister, or at most, a youthful aunt.
“What smells so good?” she asked.
“My mother’s cinnamon rolls,” I said. “Fresh baked. And there’s hotcakes, eggs with sausage, fatback, or hash. Oh, and oatmeal.”
The gentleman laughed. “That’s the whole menu? No wonder it’s not printed up.”
My face colored. I didn’t have anything against city folks, even if most of them couldn’t tell a pine tree from a horse’s rear end, but I didn’t think they had a right to come to our town and make fun of us. Still, they might want a tour, so I smiled. My politeness paid off, too, because after they ordered, the woman said, “We plan to explore today. Can your kitchen prepare a lunch basket?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “It’s going to be a fine day for a picnic.” I glanced out the window as I said it, only to have my hopes plummet to my toes. Old Josie Gilbert was stumping up the street toward the café. She wore her usual ragged miner’s overalls and bulky men’s boots. Her iron-gray hair was pulled back severely from her tanned and wrinkled face. As usual, she carried a stack of leaflets under her arm and a determined look in her black eyes. She was sure to drive away any visitors in no time if she was campaigning—and that look in her eye told me she was.
“I’ll get your order in right away,” I said hastily. I hurried into the kitchen even as I heard the bell on the door signal Josie’s arrival.
“That’s Josie, and she’s campaigning!” I complained to my mother.
“Mrs. Gilbert,” my mother corrected, without looking up from the eggs she was cracking into the big skillet on the stove. “Remember your manners.”
“She never does,” I grumbled. Mother gave me a sharp look.
“She’s bad for business,” I persisted. “Tell her she can’t hand out her leaflets in here, Mother. Please? She scares away the tourists.”
“You’re exaggerating, Pearl.”
“Well, she makes them uncomfortable.”
“Perline Rose Barnell, she’s your elder and you’ll speak of her with respect. She’s got the same right as anybody to say her piece. Now go serve her politely, and let me get on with my work.”
I gave my mother the new order and returned to the front.
Josie had already swooped in on the tourists, and they were each gazing at a leaflet with polite disinterest.
“Women have had the vote in Colorado since 1893, but that doesn’t mean we can rest. We have to keep up the fight for our sisters across this great nation!”
“Honestly!” said Mrs. Crawford at the corner table. She stood. “Come along, George. I won’t sit here and listen to this.” George rose, and with a polite nod and thanks to me, he followed her out of the café. I watched him go, mortified that Josie had driven them away.
Indifferent to my embarrassment, Josie’s voice was rising in a self-righteous lecture. “The National Women’s Party intends to send a united message to Mr. Wilson in the White House. The fight for liberty isn’t just overseas. It is right here at home, in your kitchens and parlors. Everywhere women are found!”
The city folks set the leaflets down on the table and glanced at each other uncomfortably. Josie barreled on.
“Our forefathers said it best—no taxation without representation. It’s high time that applied to every adult citizen of this country.”
I looked desperately to the old-timers for help. Tom, Harry, and Orv bent over their coffee cups and pretended not to notice my look. Only Russell took pity on me.
“Sit down, Josie, and leave those poor folks alone. You’re curdling the milk in their coffee,” he said.
Josie turned a glare on Russell, and I used the opportunity to slide a chair over to the old-timers’ table and fill an extra cup with coffee for her.
“Thanks a lot, Russell,” Orv muttered.
Russell smiled at Josie and patted the chair I’d pulled up beside him. “Come have something to eat, Josie. Eggs and bacon, perhaps?”
She scowled, but lumbered over. She had a clumsy limp that made her broad frame roll back and forth like a ship in a choppy sea. She plopped down into the chair.
“I’ll have the flapjacks,” she said.
“With plenty of syrup,” added Orv. “Maybe it’ll sweeten her up a little.”
“Sweet,” she grumbled. “Why is it women have to be sweet for fool men like you? Mark my words, Orv. Someday women won’t just vote; we’ll do everything men do, and then we’ll see who’s sweet.”
“In the meantime, you surely do put the sufferin’ in suffragette,” Harry said.
Russell fought down a smile and slid the cup toward her. “Drink your coffee and let’s talk about the weather, like decent folks. I think we’re in for a dry summer.”
I hurried back to the kitchen to see if Mother had breakfast ready for the tourists. I carried their food carefully, smiling as I set each plate before the correct person, hoping to make up for any offense Josie might have caused.
“The man at the hotel said someone here named Pearl could give us good advice about where to go on our outing. Is that your mother?” the lady asked.
“No, ma’am, that’s me,” I said eagerly. I could tell by the way her eyebrows raised that she wasn’t sure about taking advice from a thirteen-year-old kid.
“Annie here would like a picnic,” said the slick man. “And Frank probably wants an adventure, don’t you, Frank.”
The boy shrugged, but I could tell he did.
“I have maps, a penny a piece, that show all the sights in the valley, and I’d be happy to take you to any of them.” If, of course, Mother would let me go without Father.
“Sounds like a penny well spent,” Frank said. “Do you have a penny, Robert?”
Robert pulled a coin out of his vest pocket and handed it to me.
I scurried to the kitchen to retrieve one of my maps. In the winter months, when trains were few and far between and the stationmaster was glad for the company, I traced the old railroad land office map at the depot. Now that the tourist season was starting, I had a good supply of them.
“Let’s see,” Annie said, flattening the map on the table beside her plate. “What do you recommend? We have all day.”
“If you want to try your hand at fishing, I’d recommend the Tarryall,” I said, running my finger along the line of the river leading upstream from town.
“The only way I want to see a trout is sizzling on my plate,” Robert said. Annie giggled and he looked pleased with himself.
“Where’s a good spot for our picnic?” asked Frank.
“Good old Frank, always thinking with his stomach,” Robert said. Frank looked embarrassed and I felt sorry for him, the odd wheel at the table.
“You might try Buckskin Creek,” I said, pointing along another route. “There’s a good buggy track as far as Buckskin Joe, if you like ghost towns.”
“Are there real ghosts?” Frank asked, perking up. I smiled at his enthusiasm.
“It’s what we call the empty mining camps,” I explained. He looked mildly disappointed, so I added, “There is a cemetery at Buckskin Joe, though.”
I was going to tell him more, but Robert interrupted. He was looking at the white-capped peak I’d drawn behind the town, his finger on the label Mount Silverheels.
“So did you name your café after the mountain? Or is this such a fine culinary establishment that they named a whole mountain after your café?” he said with a grin.
Annie smiled at Robert. Frank scowled at him. I liked Frank.
“The mountain is named for the most beautiful woman ever to set foot in Park County. She saved the town of Buckskin Joe, and some say she still walks its cemetery.”
“Really?” Frank said, brightening again. “That sounds promising. Go on.”
So I began.