Also by Sandi Toksvig

A Slice of the Moon

Hitler’s Canary

Girls Are Best

For younger readers:

The Littlest Viking

The Troublesome Tooth Fairy

Supersaver Mouse

Supersaver Mouse to the Rescue

Sandi Toksvig’s Guide to France

Sandi Toksvig’s Guide to Spain


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First published by Doubleday 2017
This ebook published 2017

Text copyright © Sandi Toksvig, 2017

Cover artwork © David Dean, 2017

The moral right of the author and illustrator has been asserted

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978–1–448–12151–9

All correspondence to:

RHCP Digital

Penguin Random House Children’s

80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL

To Deej, my travel companion

I have been to the end of the earth,

I have been to the end of the waters,

I have been to the end of the sky.

I have been to the end of the mountains,

I have found none that are not my friends.

Navajo proverb

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SOMETIMES YOU REMEMBER a moment so clearly it is as if you have a painting of it. I was sitting with an Indian man. Actually, that’s not right at all. I have a big tale to tell you and I don’t want to start by making a mistake. He wasn’t just any Indian man. He was a Choctaw, and that matters. It’s wrong to think all people are the same even if at first glance you think they look alike. My little brother Toby thought all the Indians in America would be scary but that certainly wasn’t true. There were lots of kinds of Indians, just as there are lots of kinds of all sorts of people everywhere you go, and you need to pay attention to detail. Da taught me that.

‘The Choctaw are a great people who have fought to keep their identity.’ That’s what my friend Louise told me. I don’t really know what that means except that they had a tough time, just like we Irish did.

It was early morning, a bright morning, and I was waiting outside Weston’s Wagon Shop in the town of Independence, Missouri. I suppose I should paint a bit more of a picture for you. I mean, I know everything that happened but you’re just catching up. Well, it was spring, 1848, and I was thirteen years old. My big brother, Henry, and my friend Jack were inside the shop buying us a wagon. It was a particular one called a Weston Wagon, which the advertisers said would ‘never wear out’. That was good! We had a long trip ahead of us.

I wanted to go into the shop too, but Henry was older than me and he had started trying to boss me about. ‘If Jack’s coming in, then someone has to stay outside to keep an eye on the cart. You stay put.’

I don’t know why I listened to him. No one seemed at all interested in our old farm cart. It had come all the way from Ireland and was quite battered by now, but I stayed beside it just the same. I think the fight had gone out of me. I’m not sure I cared about anything.

‘What you got there, girl?’ A large woman in a bonnet the size of a barn stood in front of me. Her huge hat came between me and the sun and the world went dark.


She pointed to the cart and the giant piece of metal which stood on it. ‘What the heck you got there? Some kind of monster?’

‘It’s a printing press. It makes newspapers and … posters and books. My Da made it, and my Uncle Aedan. Uncle Aedan’s a blacksmith. In Ireland.’

I realized I still felt excited about the press. It was a wonderful thing, but instead of being impressed the woman scowled at me.

‘You Irish?’

I nodded.

She shook her head. ‘Damned Irish get everywhere these days.’ She turned to leave and I heard myself shout after her:

‘It’s the printing press which will help bring democracy to the United States! You wait and see!’

And for the first time in ages I grinned. It’s what Da would have shouted, I was sure.

Then it hit me again. Da was no longer with us. There was just us Hannigan kids now, and we had no idea really what we were doing, or what lay ahead.

I don’t know why I remember that particular morning so well. Maybe it was the small book I was holding. Jack and I had just finished printing it. Writing made me feel better somehow, so I had put down the story of how we came to be in America.

‘But it’s not finished!’ I protested to Jack, my gentle giant of a friend, when he said we should print it.

‘I know,’ he said, ‘but it’s a start.’

It was a start, but I couldn’t imagine the tale ever being finished. There were too many things I didn’t know – like what had happened to Da. He was missing and I could hardly understand how the whole world was just carrying on anyway. And not just carrying on but doing it with such energy.

It seemed to me then that if I could have flown into the sky and looked down, I would have seen that Weston’s on that day was the busiest place on the planet. That spring, hundreds of people were getting ready to head out to the prairie. Have you heard of the prairie? It was once the wildest bit of land. Thousands of miles with nothing on it, but you had to walk across it if you wanted to seek your fortune in the wild west of America. Customers from every land in the world were coming and going as they got ready for their trip. From inside the wagon shop you could hear the steady bang of the blacksmith’s hammer. Wagons were being built, and horses and oxen were having their metal shoes put on. It was a sound which made me homesick because it reminded me of my Uncle Aedan’s forge back in Ireland. I wanted to cry, but I think I was running out of tears. I was such a long way from home.

I was sitting on a hay bale abandoned at the side of the road on the corner of streets called Liberty and Kansas. Perhaps the hay had fallen off some passing wagon. I was so busy thinking that I didn’t even notice the old Indian man arrive.

‘You are young,’ he said, looking at me, ‘yet your face is old.’

I don’t think I replied. I thought he was probably right. I was just a kid but I felt old. I carried on sitting, but so too did the man. Indeed, he sat so still that after a while it caused me to look up in case something had happened. Under a wide-brimmed black hat, his eyes smiled at me in silence. He had grey hair and a lined face of deep brown. I knew he was an Indian. Back then people told terrible tales about them, but he seemed nice. To be honest I was too tired to feel frightened. I think I thought that all the worst things in life had already happened to me. After a moment though, I felt I ought to say something.

‘My brother Henry … and my friend Jack, they’re buying a wagon so we can carry on. Jack’s done drawings of what is wanted,’ I explained.

The man nodded. ‘You go west,’ he said as if he were simply stating a fact.

He was right. We were about to head west in a covered wagon, just like the hundreds, maybe thousands of others in the town. My unexpected companion sat looking at our cart and its heavy load for a long time without saying a word. I think it made me uncomfortable.

‘It’s a printing press.’ I felt I ought to explain. ‘You use it to …’

He smiled as if he didn’t need my explanation. ‘Yes.’

I carried on anyway: ‘… tell stories. Make books and newspapers. We’re going to make a newspaper. In a place called “Oregon”.’

The old man sat so still and silent that I felt I needed to say something else. In my family there were so many of us that I wasn’t used to such quiet.

‘My Da made the press himself with my Uncle Aedan back in Ireland.’

‘Ireland,’ he repeated as if he liked the sound of it. ‘You wear funny boy’s trousers,’ he added.

I looked down at my trouser legs. They were funny, I suppose. Not just that I was a girl wearing trousers but that I was Irish and my clothes were silk with Chinese patterns. Such a lot had happened.

Now I nodded. ‘We’re going to Oregon, and I’m hoping I’ll have a horse. If I have a horse, I will need to wear trousers, although maybe not these ones.’

This seemed sensible to the Indian gentleman, who said no more about it.

I’m not sure how an old Indian man and I ended up washed against each other in the sea of people streaming through the town of Independence that morning. You would have supposed there were no quiet corners where a conversation might even have taken place. Certainly no one else seemed to have time for a chat. Noise erupted from every living thing, and everyone was busy being, well, busy. Bearded men in boots and long coats with hoods hurried past, jingling coins in their pockets, while Mexican fellows in bright colours called out in a strange tongue as they herded dozens of braying mules. Their unbelievably wide straw hats hid their faces as they pushed along the noisy animals. Smoke spilled out from the men puffing on foul-smelling cigarettes rolled in what looked like the husks of corn.

Giant wooden wagons – some carrying sacks of wool or the hides of animals, others filled with people of every age and size – were trundling along everywhere. They creaked and groaned with the weight of their burdens as whooping riders on ponies galloped between them, racing through the mud to get a drink at Colonel Noland’s tavern. There they leaped down to drink cheap, strong whiskey called 40 Rod, slapping each other on the back and calling out, ‘Are ye for Oregon or California?’ Herds of cattle lowed in the distance, and every minute, it seemed, new people were arriving from the east, excited by the promise of a new and better life.

I looked at the passing crowds. We had been travelling for a long time and I already knew you could tell something about a person just from their clothes. The Germans looked smarter than the Irish. The men wore neat felt hats and the women had embroidered aprons over their skirts. We Irish usually looked poorer, wearing whatever we had rather than what we actually wanted. The Choctaw man had leggings which were like trousers made from buckskin except there was a separate piece for each leg. They had fringes down the outside and were tied onto a belt, over which hung a long flap of deerskin. The flap fell down in front and behind. On top he wore a plain rough shirt and round his neck a bright red piece of cloth. Like me, he had no shoes. I looked down at our two pairs of bare feet – his brown, long and thin, mine short and stubby but brown too from the dirt in the street. You couldn’t tell who we were from our feet, I thought.

‘What will you call your newspaper?’ he asked.

I had thought a lot about this. ‘I like the name “Chronicle”,’ I answered immediately. ‘We had a paper before … in New York … that was called Éire Nuacht, which means “Irish News”, but I’m thinking we should try and sell to more people by making news for everyone.’

‘“Chronicle”,’ repeated my new friend as if the word pleased him. ‘And your name?’ he asked.

‘My name is Slim Hannigan,’ I said. ‘And you?’

‘I am Nashobanowa,’ he replied quietly.

‘Nashobanowa,’ I repeated, enjoying the sound of his name as much he had liked the word ‘Chronicle’. I nodded. ‘Does it mean anything?’

‘Mean?’ repeated Nashobanowa.

‘My Da says it matters what words mean.’

He smiled. ‘Nashobanowa is “walking wolf”, but I am old. I don’t walk so much any more.’

‘Slim just means “slim”,’ I said.

He pointed to the small book I was holding. ‘You have a story.’

‘Yes,’ I mumbled, embarrassed that the story wasn’t finished.

As we sat there, a tall man walked past having a debate with his friend about which wagon train to join. It was something almost everyone in the town talked about. This man had a drawling way of speaking which I was learning came from one of the American states down to the south.

‘But I don’t want to join a train with a bunch of suckers,’ he was protesting.

‘What the heck are suckers?’ demanded his friend.

‘You know, people from Illinois. Suckers – like the bit of a tobacco plant you don’t want.’

‘Better than going with pukes.’

‘What are pukes?’

‘People from Missouri.’

‘Why pukes?’

‘You been to Missouri, right?’

They walked on still discussing who they might travel with.

I sat for a minute thinking about the adventure that lay ahead. I thought about Ma and Da and how much I missed them. All I wanted was to travel with them.

Still my new friend sat just waiting.

‘May I see?’ asked Nashobanowa, pointing to my printed pages.

‘It’s not finished,’ I explained.

He shrugged and smiled at me. ‘The end of a story is always hard to find.’

I handed him what I had written so far.


A Tale by Slim Hannigan

Printed by Slim Hannigan and her friend Jack on a printing press made by Patrick & Aedan Hannigan

It’s hard to know where to begin. I mean, I know perfectly well that a story ought to begin at the beginning. It’s the obvious place, but it’s often hard to know exactly where that might be. There’s always a bit that happened before the beginning and a bit that happens after the tale is told, which might just add something to the end. It’s like a journey. There is the moment when you set off on a trip, but the part where you get ready to go is important too.

Perhaps my tale is no stranger than any of the thousands of stories of those who made a new life for themselves in America in the 1840s. My name is Slim Hannigan and I come from a small town in Ireland called Ballysmaragaid. It’s a tiny place which we Hannigans called home until the great famine came. That was in 1845. That was the year everything changed.

There were six of us then – Ma; Da; my big sister, Bea, who was sixteen and thought herself quite the lady; my older brother, Henry, who was fourteen and liked to settle things with his fists; then me, eleven, and finally my little brother, Toby, who was eight.

We didn’t have much but we had enough land to grow potatoes. No one in our village had much money so everyone pretty much lived on potatoes, but that year the crop in all the fields got a terrible disease. It was dreadful because suddenly there was no food. You can’t imagine a famine till you’ve lived through one. We had absolutely nothing to eat from our fields and nothing even to sell to buy food. We were so poor we didn’t even own our own land. Our neighbours were the same. In our village almost everyone we knew rented their land from a landlord who didn’t live in Ireland. The landlords were English, and ours was called Lord Cardswell. He lived in London, but he also had a grand house in Ballysmaragaid called Cardswell Manor. When the potatoes failed and we had nothing to eat, it wasn’t long before we had to do something desperate.

Now you’ll think it strange, I’m sure, but my little brother Toby had a pet pig called Hamlet who he loved very much. When things got very bad Da took the poor creature to market. No one was happy about it and I remember Ma waiting at home for Da to return with some money so they could get some food and pay the rent, but Da, well, he never does things quite like other people. Instead of getting us something to eat and a few coins he came back with a big box of silver letters. He’d bought them with the money from the pig. He told us he had met a printer who was going out of business. Da said it was as though he’d had a ‘date with destiny’.

We had no food, but Da was always cheerful. He said the box of letters was going to ‘change the world’. He explained that he was going to make something called a printing press and start a newspaper which would spread the word about how awful everything was. He believed that a newspaper would help the starving Irish by giving people information. If the world knew how bad it was, then someone would help us.

My big brother, Henry, wanted to change the world too, but not like that. He didn’t want to use words. He wanted to fight. He thought Da was foolish and gradually he became more and more angry.

Our landlord, Lord Cardswell, didn’t help us even though we were starving. Instead he carried on asking for our rent once a week, but he didn’t do it in person. He sent a terrible man called Parker Crossingham to do it. Parker Crossingham was what they called an ‘agent’. He worked for the landlord and he didn’t much care how he got his money or what state we were all in. When we were all weak with hunger, he still came banging on the door demanding that we pay, but of course we had no money on account of Da getting the silver letters for the pig instead of cash.

Da refused to give up and began making a printing press for his letters with my Uncle Aedan. Everyone was in a dreadful state in Ireland, but Da was certain it would help. Henry had had enough. He was furious with Da, saying that no writing would ever be enough to make a difference. For Henry there was nothing to do but fight, so he joined a gang of boys and men called the Ribbonmen, who were battling the English landlords. It all turned very ugly. Parker Crossingham was so angry he tore down our house, and Henry got into so much trouble that in the end we had to run away from Ireland and head for America. We had no choice. Henry was going to be arrested and sent to Australia as a convict. If we hadn’t run away, we would never have seen him again.

We decided to go to a place in America called Portland, Oregon, because Da’s other brother, Niall, already lived there. It is as far west in America as you can go without falling in the ocean. Uncle Niall had written and said it was wonderful.

Leaving your home causes quite an uproar and I have found out all sorts of surprising things. It turned out that Ma wasn’t Irish at all but English, and that her father was none other than our own landlord. Ma and I went to Cardswell Manor to ask for help, but the only person who was kind was Esther, Ma’s sister, who I hadn’t even known existed. It seemed that years ago Ma had fallen in love with Da, but he was very poor and Ma was very rich. Ma’s family didn’t approve, but she loved Da so much she refused to give him up. This made her father cross and he wouldn’t see her after she married Da. They hadn’t spoken for years, so when Ma and I went to get help it didn’t go well. Lord Cardswell still wanted Ma to come home and not be with Da, but she loved Da too much for that. I thought we would end up with nothing, but Esther secretly gave us a small bag of money and some food, and with that we set off to Dublin to find a boat to America.

We sailed away on a terrible old sailing ship called the Pegasus. It was a shockingly bad thing and an awful journey. It took weeks to get across the sea to America. Lots of people died. So many, in fact, that they called the boat a ‘coffin ship’. The woman in the next bunk to us, Kate Kavanagh – her tiny baby passed away and was buried at sea. A lad of seventeen called Liam Byrne lost both his brothers. Others got very sick, including my big sister, Bea, and a lovely sailor who I became friends with called Jack. I hadn’t realized when we left home that Ma was having a baby. I think she must have been awfully weak from all those months of not eating properly because when the baby, my little sister Hero, came along, Ma didn’t survive. She died at sea and never saw America at all.

It was the worst thing that ever happened to me, well, all of us. Da missed Ma so much that he went to pieces and stopped speaking. He was so sad and it made life very difficult. Da had carefully hidden the bag of money we got from Esther. Now we couldn’t get him to tell us where it was, and we couldn’t find it. We found ourselves in New York City with no money, a baby to feed and no parent to tell us what to do. My sailor friend Jack and I had become good friends. I think he fancied an adventure because now he left the boat and came with us. Jack was very strong, so he pushed the heavy cart with the printing press. Thank goodness. Without him we would have had to leave it behind and it was all we had. Liam Byrne, the boy from the boat who had lost his brothers, lent us a little money, and slowly we began to make a life. We had never intended to stay in New York City, but we had no money to travel on to join Uncle Niall in Portland, which was thousands of miles away.

We needed to make some money so, with the help of some new American friends, Jack and I got to work with the box of letters. We started a newspaper called Éire Nuacht, which means ‘Irish News’, using Da’s press. We printed news about people who had just arrived; there was a column to help people find family members who were missing, and advice about how to manage in the big city. It was good and people wanted to buy it. A few cents at a time we made a start on gathering the money for our trip west.

Meanwhile we lived in a dreadful room in a place called the Old Brewery – me, Bea, Hero, Toby, Henry, Da and poor Kate Kavanagh from the boat who I bumped into by chance one day. A man who had been with us on the Pegasus had sold her a ticket to take her all the way to her sister in California. It had cost Kate all her money, but when she tried to travel the ticket turned out to be a fake. So she stayed with us too and looked after my little sister.

I think we started to get used to life in the city. Da slowly got better. He began talking again. He made friends with Kate, and I know that helped. One day Toby found a pig in the street, He was sure it was his old friend Hamlet. He taught the new pig to do tricks and they were both so happy. Bea also loved it in New York, and we might have stayed if it weren’t for Henry getting us into trouble once more. Da says my big brother is like ‘a moth to a flame’ when it comes to getting into a scrape. I know Henry wanted to help, but he chose a funny way of doing it. He began stealing to get us money and was arrested for it. We got him out of prison and back to the Old Brewery – only to find that the Dead Rabbit gang were after him and the Byrne boy, Liam. Henry and Liam had thought they could make money by gambling but it hadn’t worked out. Now they both owed lots of money to the rough gang who were chasing after them to get it back. It was terrifying. Henry was in so much trouble. Even more than he had been in Ireland. Now it wasn’t about him being arrested; it was that he might be killed.

A Chinese neighbour called Mr Liu helped us escape through a tunnel dressed in Chinese silk trousers and tops. He thought the men who were after us would be looking for an Irish family and not a Chinese one. We managed to get to the dockside on the Hudson River in the dead of night where we caught a ferry heading south – me, Da, Kate, baby Hero, Bea, Henry, Toby (and the pig, of course), Liam, and Jack with the cart holding our precious printing press. We loved New York but once more we had to leave our home in a hurry and set sail.

The ferry was very wide and had a huge iron chimney. Steam billowed out as the two great paddle wheels began to turn to take us away. We were tired and frightened and it was hard not to be suspicious of everyone else on board. Why were they leaving the city so early in the morning? What did they make of the large and odd-looking Chinese family who huddled together against the cold? Most of the passengers were men. A lot of them were chewing tobacco and spitting the juice on the deck, where it lay in great brown puddles. We had read about travelling to Oregon in Uncle Niall’s letters, but he had written about a trip made with wagons pulled by oxen. He had told us about the prairie and about herds of buffalo and dangerous Indians but never mentioned steamships. I knew things were bad that day as we left New York, but somehow I thought it would all work out. I had my family. Da was back to his old self. We had Kate to look after the baby and I had my friend Jack. I thought it would be all right. Even with all our trouble I felt safe. How wrong I was—

Nashobanowa finished reading what I had written. He put the printed pages down on his lap. He didn’t speak, but instead picked up a piece of straw off the bale and began sucking on it.

‘I don’t think all Indians are dangerous any more,’ I explained hurriedly. ‘It was what we were told.’

He nodded.

Just then Henry came out of Weston’s. He was frowning and seemed in an awful rush. ‘Come on, Slim. We’ve to hurry.’

I stood up. ‘Henry, this is Nashobanowa. He’s a—’

‘Choctaw. I am Choctaw,’ said Nashobanowa, putting out his hand.

‘It’s a tribe of Indians,’ I explained.

Henry quickly shook hands with him and then said, ‘Yes, well, we haven’t the time now. We must hurry. Come on, Slim!’

‘Where’s Jack?’ I asked. I wanted Nashobanowa to meet my friend, who had helped me do the printing.

Henry grabbed a handle of the cart and indicated I should take the other. He began pushing almost before I was ready.

‘Jack has to finish in the wagon shop,’ he muttered.

I waved goodbye to Nashobanowa and ran to help my brother.

‘I have your story!’ shouted the old man, waving the pages in the air behind me. But there was no time to go back. Henry was rushing along as best he could, considering how heavy the cart was, and I had to keep up.

‘What’s the hurry, Henry?’ I panted.

‘We have to get organized. We have to leave before the snow comes.’

I looked at the bright blue spring sky and was confused. ‘What snow? It’s spring.’

‘In the mountains.’

‘What mountains?’

Henry was exasperated with me. ‘You don’t know anything, Slim, so just do as I say. We have to leave Independence within the week and we’re nowhere near ready.’

I stopped pushing and stood still in the mud street. ‘We can’t leave, Henry. We need to wait here for Da.’

Henry was blind in his right eye and he was on the wrong side of the cart to be able to see me. Now he turned and looked straight at me.

‘Slim,’ he said quietly, ‘you have to stop this. Da is dead.’

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SHOWING NASHOBANOWA WHAT I had written so far made me realize how much of the story I had left out …

I could still the feel the cool planks of the wooden deck on the ferry as we waved goodbye to New York for ever. I remember Bea was crying. For someone who had never wanted to leave Ireland she had grown very fond of the big city. Henry and Liam Byrne had sat together on a narrow bench huddled against the wind. They didn’t look up as we left. We wouldn’t have had to leave if it weren’t for them and they knew they were in deep trouble. Da stood with Kate. He was holding baby Hero and they were talking quietly. Jack had already gone up to the top deck. He loved boats, and nothing would stop him finding out how this one worked.

The ferry took us through narrow straits past the places in New York called Staten Island and Brooklyn, which we had first seen from the bow of the Pegasus all those months ago. Now we were out on open water as we steamed across Raritan Bay to a different state entirely. I had learned that there were thirty states and that this one was called New Jersey. We landed somewhere called South Amboy, and there we saw something amazing – a monster steam machine standing on a set of metal rails. I think I was both startled and afraid. The machine was huge! So long, and with great shining iron wheels taller than me. The wheels were joined together by vast beams of metal. The main body of the engine was made of gleaming wood like a giant barrel to which all manner of brass pipes and equipment were attached. At the front of the whole thing was a vast triangular piece of metal sticking out across the rails. We none of us dared go near it.

‘What is that?’ whispered Henry, backing up a little.

‘I think that’s a … what do you call it … a “railway train”,’ suggested Kate uncertainly.

A train! I had never seen one before; well, none of us had. I’d only heard of them. You have to understand that there were no trains at all in Ireland, and hardly any in America.

‘A railway train!’ I repeated. ‘Did you ever?’

Da gave a great sigh of delight. ‘That is not just a railway train. That is the beast of wonder that is to take us west.’

‘We’re going to get on that?’ I whispered, terrified and excited at the same time.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Liam, who in no time had gone from a tough guy to a fellow who couldn’t stop shaking.

‘I think’ – Da looked at the monster machine carefully – ‘that we go in there!’ He pointed to a carriage pulled behind the huge engine, then shook his head in amazement. ‘Did you ever think you would live to see such a thing?’

Toby said nothing. His mouth hung open in amazement, while even Hamlet the pig, who never noticed much except food, came to a halt by his side.

‘What do you do?’ I asked in disbelief at the size of the thing.

‘You climb aboard, I imagine,’ answered Da. He was the first one of us who dared to move closer.

‘I think it looks like something designed to kill you, not take you anywhere,’ whispered Henry.

Even Da took a moment to catch his breath before saying, ‘Come on now, everyone, you’ve Hannigans in your party. We can do this! Why, given enough steel and a furnace, we might have built our own train!’ Da moved towards the giant thing with a determined expression. Toby and Hamlet followed slowly behind him.

Even Toby, who has the loudest voice on the planet, had gone quiet. ‘Will this go all the way to Oregon, Da?’ he whispered, as if afraid the thing might hear.

Just then a man wearing a uniform of black trousers and waistcoat with a white shirt and black string tie called out, ‘Tickets for Philadelphia! Tickets for Philadelphia!’

Da introduced himself to the fellow, who said he was the ‘conductor’ for the train and could sell us tickets.

‘We’ll be wanting to go to Oregon,’ said Da, ‘but you don’t go that far, do you?’

‘Nowhere near,’ replied the man. ‘No trains which go that far. Can’t imagine there ever will be.’ He took his cap off to scratch his head. ‘Long way to Oregon. I reckon you’d need to get to Pittsburgh first. I think you can get there by the canal. Furthest we travel is to the great city of Philadelphia – though why anyone would want to travel on from there is a mystery to me. Philadelphia is where the Founding Fathers of these United States signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It is the very birthplace of America and the future of this great nation. Who wouldn’t want to live there?’

‘Do you live there?’ asked Da.

‘I do indeed,’ said the man with pride.

Da bought the tickets. When we first arrived in New York we had borrowed money from Liam. Now he had nothing and it was us who lent him his fare. I felt sorry for him. He was not having a good time. Everyone was cross with him, but Bea was especially furious. She wouldn’t speak to him or even look at his face. She blamed him entirely for making Henry misbehave again and us having to leave the big city.

‘Here’s your ticket, Jack,’ said Da, but Jack had other ideas.

‘I’m not going on that thing,’ he declared, setting down the handles of the cart on which he pushed our printing press. He spread his legs wide like I’d seen him do when he had to steady himself on the big sailing ship in a storm. He looked as though he would never move again.

‘Well, if Jack doesn’t want to …’ began Liam, clearly delighted that someone else was afraid.

I laughed. ‘Liam Byrne, you’re scared!’

‘I’m not!’ he declared.

Suddenly I knew how to get him moving. I pointed to somewhere behind him. ‘Look!’ I called. ‘There’s a member of the Dead Rabbit gang!’

Liam shrieked and tried to hide behind Jack.

It was only when I laughed that he realized he was being teased.

My baby sister began to cry and Kate tried to comfort her.

‘You shouldn’t joke, Slim,’ said Kate as she rocked the baby. ‘We shouldn’t laugh about it. Those men might still be after us.’

The conductor looked at us suspiciously when he heard this, obviously hoping we weren’t going to cause trouble. ‘Why you folks dressed as Chinese?’ he asked. ‘You don’t look Chinese up close.’

‘Patrick!’ whispered Kate, afraid.

‘Why!’ declared Da as if there was the simplest explanation. ‘We work … we work …’ I could see he was trying to think of a good story. His face lit up as he announced, ‘We work in the circus! And such a circus as you’ll never have seen before. It may be, Mr Conductor, that you have seen horses do great tricks! Perhaps even an elephant! But where in all your born days have you ever seen a pig who can do such marvels?! It’s all based on Chinese magic, which we learned many years ago while travelling the Orient in these very clothes! Look and marvel!’

Da winked at Toby, who immediately got Hamlet to walk on his back legs. The two of them had quite an act worked out by now. Toby was amazing with animals and he had taught Hamlet all sorts of tricks. My little brother got a ball out of his pocket and chucked it in the air for Hamlet to catch on his nose and throw back. Then Toby knelt down on one knee and the pig jumped over it before sliding to a halt on his bottom. The conductor was impressed but I don’t think he had noticed Hamlet before, and now he started discussing how much it would cost to take a pig on the train.

‘It’s three dollars each to take you to Philadelphia, but we’ve never had a pig before. Plus you’ve that huge metal thing on the cart. No one has ever asked to take such a thing with them on a train before. Maybe the pig is all right, but I think your cart and whatnot on it are too heavy,’ declared the man.

It was a terrible moment. We had come too far to leave our printing press behind.

I couldn’t stop myself from speaking. ‘But this – this machine – this printing press is just like … Philadelphia. It is the future of our great nation! We are going there to make newspapers and books! To bring … what do you call it …?’

‘Literacy to the poor,’ Da chipped in.

‘I thought you were going to Oregon?’ said the conductor.

I laughed. ‘Until we heard about Philadelphia. Right, everyone?’

I turned to my family and glared at them to agree with me.

Suddenly an unmistakable New York voice boomed out from behind us, declaring, ‘What a thing!’ A very tall, very thin man, carrying more bags than you might think one person could own, was rushing along the platform. ‘What a thing!’ he repeated, dropping one of his bags and promptly tripping over it. He fell forward, and only our handcart stopped him landing flat on his face. Jack reached out to steady him and the man looked up, grinning.

The fellow then held one hand up in the air with the thumb of the other tucked into his waistcoat pocket and tried to stand still as if he were about to have his portrait painted but he was too excited and kept fidgeting.

Bea took a loud breath of annoyance, and I don’t blame her. He was quite the dandy, and a bit too pleased with himself. He wore a beautiful dark suit with a fine white shirt, a black-and-grey-checked tie with a great fat knot at his neck and the most luxurious emerald-green tartan silk waistcoat I had ever seen. It was like a field of Ireland round his middle. His brown hair was parted at the side but it was so curly that it refused to lie down. He kept order on his face by having the neatest of beards, which was permitted only to grow beneath his jawline. He had a pair of wire spectacles, and a fine silver chain hung around his neck, disappearing in a great curve into a waistcoat pocket.

He tried to calm himself as he stood there, but he was almost breathless with excitement. ‘A printing press and now this!’ He gestured to the train. ‘Well, I … Who could imagine such a thing! I mean, I’ve tried. I’ve read about them, you see.’ He turned to Da to explain. ‘But you have to actually stand here and see the size of it to—’

Suddenly he turned as if we were all at a public meeting and he was making a speech. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, and indeed boys and girls, who …’ He took a second look at us. ‘Well, who appear to be from the Chinese community …’ He looked more closely at Bea. ‘And yet the red hair makes this unlikely … Be that as it may, I wonder how many of you are aware that in this very moment you’ – he appeared to look each one of us in the eye before continuing – ‘you are in the presence of the future?’

‘What’s he talking about?’ whispered Toby.

‘The train!’ breathed Da, delighted by this turn of events.

The man began to march up and down alongside the giant engine. ‘I suspect not even our fine conductor here, a man clearly equipped for this job of supreme importance …’

The conductor was delighted with this compliment and beamed at everyone.

‘… not even our fine conductor can truly appreciate the glories of this wondrous machine. This is the John Bull, and this is the machine which will change the face of America for ever. Why, one day we shall barrel across the Great American Desert on tracks laid as far as the eye can see. We shall be powered by such steam that we might arrive in California in weeks – yes, weeks, not months! Can you imagine such a thing? And here’s a story which will convince you of the power of the human mind. I read about this in a book’ – he waved his arm towards our machine – ‘obviously printed on a fine printing press such as this … I read that every piece of this glorious invention …’ The man patted the side of the train just as the driver tested her head of steam and a very satisfying belch of smoke made the train itself seem pleased with his praise. ‘… every piece was built in England. She came over here all broken up into hundreds of parts, and no one thought to send any instructions. Anyway, we had good old American know-how. The man who put her together had never even seen a train, but he built this beauty in just eleven days.’

Da nodded. ‘Just shows what you can do if you make your mind up. I should have liked to meet such a fellow.’

Now a porter appeared with more bags and cases. A large wooden box slid towards the floor and our excitable new friend leaped forward to save it.

‘No! No, no, no! Lenses, my dear fellow! Yes! Mind the lenses!’

The man’s name was Cornelius Stringer and he was, he told us, ‘a scientist, an inventor and a man of the future! New York City born I may be, but I am westward bound. I have come to help found a great nation!’

‘We had the same thought,’ enthused Da, ‘hence the printing press.’

‘But the conductor man doesn’t want to let us take it with us,’ I explained.

Cornelius looked as though he might faint. He put his hand to his chest and took a deep breath as if even the thought of the press being left behind made him unwell. He turned to the conductor and seemed barely able to whisper, ‘Why ever not?’

The conductor gave a sort of sucking sound as if it were all very difficult.

‘Never seen such a thing. Don’t know the price of it. I am only the conductor.’

Cornelius’ eyes widened in shock. ‘Only the conductor! Only the conductor! My dear fellow, you are in America, the land where we hold certain truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain – what is it? No! Yes …! Unalienable Rights, that amongst these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ – he clapped the man on the shoulder – ‘and the right for you to run your train as you please! You, sir, are not a conductor; you are the very cornerstone on which these United States have been built!’

Kate smiled and whispered to Da. ‘I think, Patrick, that you may have some competition here for being the King of the Blarney.’

‘What does that mean?’ whispered Toby.

‘That Da can tell a tall tale when he wants to,’ I replied.

Blarney or not, it worked, and without further discussion the conductor, who now saw his job in quite a different light, helped Jack load our precious machine onto the train. No one wanted to ‘stand in the way of progress’ when Cornelius was around. Now, not only was the heavy press coming with us, we were not going to have to pay for it.

‘Come on, Jack!’ I called.

Jack helped heave the cart aboard and was so busy with it I don’t think he noticed he was now on the train himself. A sudden look of panic crossed his face. ‘No, wait!’ he cried.

I was busy trying to get Jack to sit down, which meant I almost missed the laughter that came when everyone noticed Hamlet the pig snorting with delight as he stepped onto the train on his forelegs.

Henry shook his head. ‘It’s like having another little brother,’ he said crossly.

‘What time do we leave?’ Kate couldn’t get enough miles between us and our New York troubles.

The conductor tipped his hat to her. ‘Eleven a.m. sharp, ma’am. Eleven a.m. every other day, come rain or shine, and eleven a.m. back the next day. We pride ourselves on punctuality on the Camden and South Amboy Railway.’

There were two passenger cars. They were a bit like the inside of a New York omnibus but bigger. Each one could hold about forty people, and the seats, instead of stretching from end to end, were placed across the carriage with an aisle up the middle. There was a door at each end and we piled on with excitement. Each place held two people, but everyone, including Hamlet, wanted to sit by the window to look out.

The driver, with a peaked cap pulled low over his face, stood behind the engine, ready to begin our journey. Jack sat in a corner with his hands over his eyes. I think he was sure he would pass away on this giant boiler.

‘It’s not natural,’ he kept repeating.

The driver had a helper who was already on board, standing by a great pile of wood, which he kept feeding into the furnace, making the flames hotter and hotter. The driver pulled on a cord and a dreadful shriek sounded from the steam whistle, making all of us jump. Even Henry gave a little yelp, which we teased him about. There was a great deal of jolting and the sound of metal forcing itself to move was so loud that no one could speak. Slowly the wheels of the John Bull began to turn. There was no hurry at first and you could feel the engine really strain. I held my breath – I think we all did.

It was very slow to begin with, but once we were under way we began to pick up speed. I was terrified and held on for dear life, but Cornelius Stringer had no fear. He put his head right out of the window into the wind. Hamlet was next, shoving his little pink face into the breeze and letting the wind flap his ears up so high he appeared to be flying.

‘Give it a go!’ Cornelius shouted, helping me towards the open air. Suddenly I could feel the tremendous excitement of our adventure. I gripped the side of the window and slowly dared to put my head out. The air flung itself at me and my heart pounded, but it was wonderful to go so fast through the countryside.

The only person who didn’t like it at all was Jack. He looked ashen-faced and kept saying things like, ‘It’s too fast! Surely we’ll all die!’

But we were fine as the train clattered across the wooden timber that held the metal tracks in place. Every now and then there would be another blast from the steam whistle as the driver warned anyone in the way that we were coming. I’m not sure anyone could have missed us. The noise was amazing and sparks of fire fluttered around the top of the chimney like fireflies dancing. Soon our clothes were covered in fine ash and we had smoke-filled eyes, but nobody minded. As we dashed past trees and fields, heading south, none of us could speak. I couldn’t believe how quickly we were travelling. The conductor called out place names as we went. ‘Cranberry!’ ‘Windsor!’ ‘Florence!’ ‘Fish Town!’ But none of them were for us. In an astonishing seven hours we travelled seventy-five miles to the town of Camden, which lay in the state of New Jersey.

‘Seventy-five miles in seven hours!’ exclaimed Cornelius. ‘It would take days on foot or by horse! I can hardly get my breath from going so fast. I must make a note! A note!’ He took a small black leather book and a silver pencil from his pocket and began scribbling. I watched him writing and knew I should do the same. I got out my notebook from Nashobanowa’s daughter Emily and began writing too, but the rattling of the train made most of my notes unreadable.

We were all still shaking when we got off. The conductor helped us unload. Cornelius’ many bags and boxes were carried to a waiting wagon. There were so many the wagon wheels sank into the dirt under the weight. Cornelius shook each of us firmly by the hand and Hamlet by his front leg.

‘A pleasure! A true pleasure!’ he kept repeating. ‘And where to now, Hannigans?’ he enquired.

‘We’re for Oregon,’ I said proudly.

Cornelius smiled. ‘Well, of course you are. You are a forward-thinking family, anyone can see that, and Oregon … Why, Oregon is the very future of this great country. For myself, I’ve to stay here in Camden for a while. There’s a physician called Isaac Mulford in town whom I am keen to meet. I’ve one or two thoughts about ether which he might like to discuss, but then – on! I too shall venture forth. It’s been a pleasure. A memory to cherish, my friends!’

Cornelius bowed low, then kissed both Bea’s and Kate’s hands before hopping up next to the driver of his wagon and yelling, ‘Forward to the future!’ Even as he drove away, we could hear him exclaiming with delight to the driver about something or other. For a moment we stood in our little group, watching him leave in silence. Bea gave a small sigh.

At last Toby spoke. ‘Is Oregon far now, Da? How do we get there?’

No one was sure, but we knew we needed to find out. Despite what the conductor had said there was no time to stop and admire Philadelphia, which lay just across the waters of the Delaware River.

‘If we can get here so quickly, then so too could those ruffians from the Dead Rabbit gang if they really wanted to,’ Kate whispered to Da. ‘We should keep going.’

‘I’m sorry,’ muttered Henry for the hundredth time while Liam looked away and said nothing. Henry hung his head in shame.

It wasn’t just Kate who wanted to put as many miles between us and New York as possible.

Da cuddled Hero, who was half wrapped in his Chinese jacket. ‘We must keep moving,’ he agreed.

Jack was so relieved to get off the train that he hurried to find someone to help us.

‘We have to get to a place called Pittsburgh,’ he explained to a black man with a large cart and two horses who had been delivering beer. ‘Can you take us?’

The man was suspicious at first.

‘Where you people from?’ he asked.

‘Patrick!’ warned Kate – she could see that Da was about to explain about the circus again.

‘It’s a long story,’ muttered Da from under his little silk hat. He gave the man some money and we all climbed aboard while Jack walked alongside with the cart.

The man was called Joseph. I sat squeezed in between him and Kate at the front. Joseph liked to talk.

‘Great city, Philadelphia,’ he told us. ‘A black man can even own a business and make something of himself. I met a man called James Forten once. He’s gone now, but he made sails for a living and was richer than most white folks.’

I couldn’t understand why he told us this.

‘Can’t anyone own a business?’ I asked. I had had a business in New York and I was only a child.

‘Not if you’re a slave,’ he explained.

‘Are you a slave?’

He shook his head and smiled. ‘I was, but now I’m a free man making my own way.’

‘What’s a slave?’ asked Toby.

Joseph laughed. ‘Every child ought to have no idea what the word “slave” means.’

‘It’s when a man is owned by another man,’ explained Da behind me.

‘Can anyone own anyone in America?’ I asked. ‘Could someone own me?’

Da laughed. ‘As if anyone could own you, Slim.’

Joseph shook his head. ‘It’s only black people who can be owned by white people, and then only in some of the states here in America. Where we are now is called a “free” state, and every man, black or white, may do as he pleases, but there are places where no black person, man, woman or child, is free.’

‘That’s terrible,’ I said.

‘Yes it is,’ agreed Joseph firmly.

Despite being in trouble Henry couldn’t help saying, ‘Lord Cardswell owned us.’

‘You know nothing about him, Henry,’ said Da sharply, and Henry knew enough to be quiet. But I was desperate to know more about the old man I had met up at the big house with Ma.

‘Tell us, Da,’ I pleaded, ‘about Lord Cardswell. He was Ma’s father, wasn’t he? So he’s my grandfather, but if he was, then why did we never meet him? And what about Esther? She was Ma’s sister, but how come …?’

I had so many questions I wanted to ask Da, but my head was getting too foggy to think. My voice trailed off.

‘You’re tired, Slim. Rest now,’ said Da softly.

The lack of sleep from the night before, the worry over Henry while we were in New York, and the excitement of the ferry and the train had all been too much.

The small wagon jogged along and my head began to droop. Without thinking I rested my cheek on Kate’s shoulder.