We received many good submissions, but this one caught our hearts with the budding wonder and curiosity that would develop into a woman of such grit and determination as Nellie Bly. Congratulations to Rie Sheridan Rose, winner of our contest and an ebook copy of The Weird Wild West!

 Chance Encounter

Rie Sheridan Rose

Elizabeth was bored. She leaned back against the porch post of the mercantile, arms crossed, toes scuffing the dirt—the perfect picture of a pouting child. She didn’t know why Ma insisted on bringing her if she wasn’t even allowed in the store!

“Ella! Where have you gotten to now?” cried a female voice she didn’t recognize. It was enough to roust her from her funk a bit. There weren’t many people she didn’t recognize in this town.

She craned her neck looking for the speaker.

“Alistair, I told you not to turn your back on her!” the voice continued.

Around the corner of the next building came a pair of oddly-dressed adults. Well, he wasn’t so terribly odd—though he wore a long coat and a pair of goggles pushed back onto his forehead. She wore trousers like a man! Her own goggles swung around her neck.

“Excuse me,” the gentleman said, peering through a pair of spectacles at Elizabeth, “but have you seen a young girl about…so high?” He held his hand about three feet off the ground.

Elizabeth shook her head. She wished she had seen another child in town. It would have made things less tedious.

“Could you help us look?” asked the lady, not quite wringing her hands, but obviously distressed.

Elizabeth glanced back at the door to the mercantile. Ma hadn’t been shopping for more than ten minutes in reality, and a trip like this usually took at least an hour…besides, it sounded like an adventure. Elizabeth liked adventure!

“Sure.” She pushed away from the porch. “What does she look like?”

“She’s about four foot tall,” the lady said, with a sideways look at her companion. “She has long straight red hair, and she’s wearing a sailor suit.”

“She a baby?” Elizabeth asked. “Nobody wears a sailor suit past six.”

The woman flushed. “No. She’s probably about your age…maybe a little younger. I’m Jo Mann, by the way,” she said, sticking out her hand. “This is Alistair Conn. You are…?”

“Elizabeth Cochran,” she answered, dropping a sketched curtsey. She did have manners—when she remembered to use them.

“Great. Now, Beth—may I call you Beth?—where might a ten-year-old go in this town for a little excitement?”

Elizabeth thought it over. “There ain—isn’t—much exciting happens in this town. There’s the creek…Ma don’t let me go there alone, but it’s interesting.”

Jo held out her hand again, and this time Elizabeth took it. “Do you need to tell your mother you’re leaving?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Nah. She’d just say no.”

Jo exchanged a rather strained look with Alistair. She was obviously torn. But the urgency of finding the little girl apparently won out.

“We’ll hurry,” she announced with a decisive nod of her head. “Show us where the creek is, Beth.”

Elizabeth liked the thought that she was important to the expedition. She always felt underappreciated at home, where there were lots of siblings over and underfoot. “What are you doing in Cochran’s Mills?” she asked. “It’s not a place people come on purpose…”

Alistair grimaced. “Well, we had a bit of trouble with our transportation.”

Jo raised an eyebrow. “I told you we needed a bigger reservoir on the steam engine.”

“Yes. Yes, you did, Josephine. You’re right—as usual.”

Elizabeth sensed a long-running argument. She got enough of that at home. “There’s the creek,” she cried, pointing. The distraction worked.

“Ella!” Jo called. “Ella, are you here?”

“Miss Jo…” answered a wavering voice. “I fell down, and I can’t get up.”

The three searchers exchanged glances and then ran toward the sound of the voice. There was a drop of several feet to the creek bed. At one point, the dirt had crumbled away, and a small figure lay huddled at the base of the bank. The girl looked up at them with tear-stained cheeks. Her clothes were muddy and torn, and one leg was buckled beneath her.

“How can we get her up, Alistair?” Jo’s voice was quivering almost as much as the little girl’s. “This’s all my fault. I should’ve been watching.”

They began arguing about the best way to raise the child from the creek bed.

“There’s a low spot that way,” Elizabeth said, pointing.

Alistair had pulled a notebook out of his coat and was drawing something on it while Jo peeked over his arm and suggested changes.

Elizabeth shook her head and sighed.

Then she stepped to the edge of the bank and looked down at Ella. “Is your leg broken, or just sprained?”

“Who are you?”

“They call me ‘Pink’ at home.” She gestured to her pinafore. “Ma really likes the color. But my name is Elizabeth. You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m not sure. It hurts.”

“See if you can stand up,” Elizabeth advised. “If you can, there’s a place a little ways down where the bank gets lower. I’ll come and get you, and we can climb it easy if it isn’t broken.”

The other girl nodded. She rose cautiously to her feet and took a tentative step. “I don’t think it’s broken.”

“Wait there, I’ll come help.”

Elizabeth opened her mouth to call the adults, but they were still arguing, so she shrugged and ran down the creek to the place where the bank sunk to the level of the bed. It wasn’t far.

When she reached the place where Ella stood leaning against the cliff to keep her weight off her foot, she could hear the adults still arguing on the bank above them.

“Are they always like that?” Elizabeth asked Ella as they made their way slowly down the creek.

“Usually,” the smaller girl replied.

“Are they your parents?”

“Professor Alistair and Miss Jo? No. They’re just my friends. They’re minding me while my mother’s on her wedding trip.”

“Do you live near here?”

Ella shook her head. “We’re from New York.”

Elizabeth stopped dead in her tracks. “Really? You came all this way?”

“Yes. In Professor Alistair’s flying machine. He’s testing a new engine.”

“How exciting! I’ve never been anywhere.”

They had reached the low point of the cliff. “Little step up,” Elizabeth encouraged Ella. She helped the other girl to the top of the bank. They could see Jo and Alistair standing at the top of the cliff looking for Ella.

“Here we are!” Elizabeth called.

The adults ran over to meet them. Alistair swept Ella up in his arms. “That’s enough of that, young lady. Your mother will have our heads if we bring you home limping.”

“Don’t you go running off like that again, Ella!” Jo scolded. “Terrible things can happen.”

“You weren’t paying any attention to me, so I went exploring.”

Jo flushed as red as her hair. “I’m sorry about that, Ella. I promise it won’t happen again.”

“That’s okay, Miss Jo. I’ll try not to get bored.”

Elizabeth started back at hearing Ella say what she had been thinking herself that morning. She sure wasn’t bored now. This was the most exciting day of her life so far.

“Let us give you ride back to the store,” Alistair said. “Your mother will be frantic by now.”

Elizabeth’s heart sank. “Oh no! You’re right. She’ll be furious.”

“This way,” Jo said, gesturing to a little copse of trees nearby. “This is where we left the airship.”

Elizabeth followed her new acquaintances to the trees. There stood a complex machine that was part hot air balloon like they sometimes had at the fairs, and part carriage with wings and a tail attached.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” she asked dubiously.

“I assure you—” began the professor.

Jo interrupted him. “It’s fine. The only trouble right now is the distance it can go on one tank of water.”

Alistair deposited Ella in the basket of the contraption. Then he turned to Elizabeth. “Your turn.”

Elizabeth’s heart was beating wildly as he lifted her up and set her into the basket. This was definitely the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her.

As soon as Jo and Alistair were settled in the airship, Alistair loosed the mooring lines, and the vehicle rose into the air.

Elizabeth gasped. It was amazing!

They climbed just above the treetops, and headed into town. Elizabeth leaned over the edge of the basket, studying the ground below.

“There’s my house!”

She felt a sense of loss as they came down in the street outside the mercantile. She wished that sense of adventure could last forever.

“Elizabeth Jane Cochran! Where have you been?” Mrs. Cochran was standing on the porch, and she was livid.

“I apologize, ma’am,” Jo began. “We borrowed your daughter to help us find our ward. Elizabeth may have saved Ella’s life.” She turned to Elizabeth with a wink.

Mrs. Cochran blinked. “I see.”

Elizabeth clambered out of the basket. “Ma, I flew!”

“Well, we must be going,” Alistair said. “Thank you again, Elizabeth.”

As the airship rose into the air, Elizabeth waved, vowing she would never be bored again…


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