Book two in a historically rooted series that's The Boxcar Children for a new era!
When the town sheriff discovers the exact location of “Wanderville,” the orphans who live thereJack, Frances, Harold, Alexander, and their new friendsmust flee their home in the woods. They take to the rails and, after nearly being caught, are rescued by a seemingly kind reverend and his wife. The pair brings the children to their home, telling them that if they help the sharecroppers who run their farm, they will eventually be adopted. But Frances can’t stop thinking about a mysterious treasure mentioned to her by a hobo they met during their travels, and when a young African-American sharecropper is blamed for stealing a fiddle her brother Harold actually nabbed, the citizens of Wanderville will have to decide whether their community is heading in the right direction or whether they need to get their “town” back on track.
About the Author
Wendy McClure (WendyMcClure.net) is the author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost of World of Little House on the Prairie and several other books for adults and children. She is a senior editor at Albert Whitman and Company, where her recent projects include books in the Boxcar Children series. She received an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has been a contributor to the New York Times Magazine and This American Life. She lives in Chicago with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
They were going to miss the train. Jack was sure of it.
“Where’d Alexander go?” Frances whispered.
She was right next to Jack, but the boys’ cap she was wearing was shoved down so low on her forehead that Jack wondered how she could see at all. Somehow, though, she and her kid brother, Harold, had managed to stay close behind Jack as they dashed through town from one backyard to another. Now the three of them pressed themselves against the wall of a shed just off Third Street, hoping the narrow strip of shade under the eaves would be enough to conceal them. It was a good thing the other kids were waiting in the empty stable a block awaythey would never all fit in this spot.
Compared with the Lower East Side of New York, where Jack was from, Whitmore, Kansas, was just a sleepy hamlet. Yet nothing Jack had ever experienced in the dim and teeming alleys of Manhattannot even at nightcould match the panic he felt now, in the brightest noon daylight, in this tiny town just five blocks long. There was nowhere to hide in a place like thisand certainly nowhereten runaways could hide. Except, that is, on the next train west. Alexander had said it was their only chance.
Jack’s mind flashed back to that morning, when Sheriff Routh had found the clearing in the woods where they’d been livingthe place they called Wanderville. It had been the only real home they’d known since leaving New York. They’d been on an orphan train, which took poor kids out of the cities and sent them west. But rather than live with strangers, Jack, Frances, and Harold had escaped. Wanderville wasn’t just a home, but a town all their own, a safe place. They’d also rescued other orphan train kids, who’d been forced to work at the Pratcherd ranch nearby. Just that morning, in fact, one more had come to Wanderville: Quentin.
But then the sheriff had shown up, too. The kids had gotten away before he could round them up, but if they didn’t get out of town on the next train, he would catch up to them. And this time he would have the Pratcherds with him, because it was clear he was on theirside now.
“Do you see Alexander?” Frances asked again.
“Not yet,” Jack whispered. “Just wait. He’ll give the signal soon.”
Where was Alexander? he wondered. Alexander, who had been one of the first ones to come out here on an orphan train, knew the area better than anyone, so he’d run ahead to make sure all was clear by the train tracks. He was supposed to come by the corner of the livery barn and signal that it was safe to make a run for it. But he hadn’t shown up so far, and time was running out.
“I can hear the train” Harold began, his voice too loud, but Frances clapped a hand over his mouth to hush him.
The kid was right: The train had come in, and it was waiting up by the depot, just out of sight, beyond the buildings on Front Street. They could hear it chuffing and hissing, standing idlefor the moment at least.
“Come on,” Jack heard Frances mutter under her breath. She, too, was staring hard at the spot where their friend was supposed to appear. They could see past the livery barn to the train tracks glinting in the sun.
If they waited any longer, Jack knew, they’d soon see the train passing by, and with it their best chance of getting out of town fast. He didn’t even want to get on that train, but they couldn’t go back into the woods. By now, Jack was sure, the sheriff and the Pratcherds were storming into Wanderville on horseback. Sheriff Routh himself was probably tearing down the hammocks they’d slept in, kicking aside the rocks around the fireplace, destroying everything they’d built. . . .
But Jack couldn’t let himself think about that now. “We should get the others,” he said. “They’re waiting over in the stable, right?”
“Yes, but” Frances suddenly stopped. She pushed her hat back, and Jack could see her eyes were wide.
Then he heard them, too: footsteps. Slow ones, as if they were sneaking up, coming around the side of the lean-to.
He mouthed the words to Frances: The sheriff.
Frances nodded and mouthed back: Let’s go. She grabbed Harold’s arm.
Then someone grabbed Jack’s arm.
“Hey!” he yelped.
“Hey yourself!” a familiar voice whispered.
It wasn’t the sheriff, though it was someone tallLorenzo, who had crept over with Sarah from the stable.
“We need to go!” Lorenzo insisted. He and Sarah had come out to Kansas on the same orphan train as Jack and Frances. They hadn’t worked long at the Pratcherd ranch, but like the rest of them, they never wanted to go back thereJack could tell from their anxious faces.
“We can hear the train!” Sarah sounded frantic, and she kept trying to tuck her braids up inside her hat.
After they left Wanderville that morning, some of the kids had tried to disguise themselves in case they ran into the Pratcherds in town. The boys shook dust into their hair to dull their hair colorfor Harold, who had bright red hair, this was especially necessaryand the girls hid their hair under caps and hats. Frances even donned an old pair of breeches so that she’d be taken for a boy.
But none of these measures would do them a lick of good if Sheriff Routh caught them.
There was no more time to wait. “Let’s go!” Jack said, his voice suddenly hoarse. “Lorenzo, get the others and then follow me. The rest of you”he looked over at Frances and Harold and Sarah“run for the tracks. Now!”
Sarah dashed out first, and then Frances raced across Front Street with Harold, the wind roaring in her ears. Don’t look back, she thought. If anyone had spotted them and was giving chase, she didn’t want to know. She held on tight to Harold’s hand, and together they darted around the corner of the livery barn.
There was the train, stopped just a little ways down the tracks. And then, over the noise of the wind, the train’s whistle, long and mournful. It was about to leave.
She and Harold ran faster, catching up with Sarah, their shoes kicking up gravel and cinders. They were just reaching the train’s caboose when she saw Alexander, waving his arms wildly. He was leaning out the doorway of one of the freight cars near the back. He motioned frantically to Frances and Harold and Sarah: Over here!
“Get in first,” she whispered to Harold as she helped him climb up into the empty boxcar and wriggle inside. He was just seven but strangely heavy all of a sudden. Then she gave Sarah a hand; and soon Lorenzo came with Anka and little Georgetwo more kids they’d rescued from the Pratcherdsand she helped them crawl in, too.
The next thing she knew, the train’s whistle was blowing again, right over their heads, and Jack was there with Nicky and Quentin, all of them clambering up the ladder rails and heaving themselves over the threshold of the freight car. She looked behind herwas anyone else coming?
But there was only the dusty end of Front Street, looking remarkably still under the noontime glare. Even the depot was empty. She felt an odd swooning sensation. No, it was the train, starting to move, and she was still on the ground, standing beside it.
“Frances! Grab the ladder!” Nicky was calling to her. “Get on the ladder!” He meant the ladder that went up the side of the car next to the door. Frances grabbed the highest rung she could and hauled her feet up. But she didn’t know how she’d get across to reach the door. It had looked easy when the other kids climbed into the car, but the train hadn’t been moving then. She tried to swing. . . .
Suddenly, an arm reached out and grabbed her by the belt of her breeches. A big arm, like a tree branch, and she was yanked inside.
“Almost missed the train, kid,” spoke a low and gravelly voice. It was dim inside the freight car, and she couldn’t make out the face of her rescuer. Whoever he was, he sounded a thousand years old.
As her eyes adjusted, Frances could see the other children sitting on the floor nearby. Her legs felt weak, and when she plopped down beside Sarah and Harold, a wave of relief washed over her.
“Th-thank you,” she said.
“You’re quite welcome,” the thousand-year-old voice replied. Frances could see that the man had a long coat and a bundle tied to one shoulder. A hobo! she realized. She’d heard stories about the hoboes, or bindle stiffsthe tramps who rode the rails. But she hadn’t known whether they were real or just a legend. Now she knew.
The hobo tipped his hat to the children and smileda kind smile, though with teeth the color of tenement bricks. “Where might you and your smallish companions be headed?” he asked Frances.
She was still too stunned to speak.
But Harold answered for her. “California!”
The train was picking up speed. The freight car bumped and swayed in a way the passenger cars never had on the trip from New York. Frances recalled that during that ride her stomach had felt all twisted up, too, though for much different reasons.
“If you will excuse me,” said the hobo, “much as I enjoy conversating about California, I got a reserved seat over thataways.”
Frances and Harold watched as he shuffled over to the far end of the car without ever losing his balance, even as everything jostled and bucked around him. I’d like to see Miss DeHaven try that, Frances thought, remembering the mean, elegantly dressed orphan train chaperone who’d clearly despised them, and how she could stand perfectly motionless in the train aisle like a dreadful apparition.
Frances shook off the memory. Now she watched as the hobo plunked down next to a pile of dusty clothing, which, on second glance, appeared to be another fellow, curled up, asleep. Then the first hobo leaned back against the side of the car and began to doze off, too.
She looked around the dim car. Besides the children, the only other passengers were the two vagabonds. No cargo at all, just some scattered straw and a few odds and ends that rattled over the scuffed floorthe lid of a tobacco tin, an old shoe. Miss DeHaven would hate this place even more than she did children, Frances realized with some satisfaction.
She turned to tell Jack. But he was in the corner with Alexander, and the two were having an intense discussion, their voices low. No, not a discussionan argument.
“You were supposed to give the signal!” Jack hissed.
“And you were supposed to wait,” Alexander shot back. “But you didn’t!”
“Wait until when? The train was leaving!”
“I knew what I was doing, Jack! I had to make sure the sheriff wasn’t around.”
“Look, leaving town was your idea, not mine, but I wasn’t going to wait around until we all got caught. . . .”
Frances had to bite her lip to keep from yelling at them both. Had they even noticed how a hobo had saved her from falling off the side of the train and breaking her neck? But there was no use in making a scene in front of everyone else. She crept over to the boys.
“Hey.” She nudged Jack, who fell quiet. So did Alexander. “Shouldn’t we do a head count? Make sure everyone’s here?”
“Good idea,” Alexander said.
“Better than ones you’ve had,” Jack muttered under his breath.
Frances pretended not to hear him as she began to count. “There’s the three of us, and then Harold, which makes four. And then Lorenzo . . .” She nodded at the dark-haired tall boy. “And Sarah and Anka.” The two girls looked up at the sound of their names. Sarah was smoothing her braids, and shy blond Anka, who spoke only a little English, had taken off her hat. “That makes seven,” Frances continued. “Plus Nicky and George, right?”
“And Quentin,” Jack pointed out. “Quentin makes ten of us now. Don’t forget him.”
Quentin had joined them shortly before they left Wanderville. Now he sat by himself near the center of the car, fidgeting idly with some straw he’d picked up.
Frances counted him, too. How could she have overlooked Quentin? He was the reason they were on this train.
Quentin hung his head as he fidgeted, and Jack could see that he felt bad about all that had happened.
Jack’s mind went back to the past couple of weeks. Alexander, Frances, Harold, and Jack had been the first citizens of Wanderville, the town they’d created in a wooded ravine as a place where kids could be safeespecially kids who’d come west on the orphan trains like they had and who’d decided to run away rather than be sent off with strangers who would force them to work like dogs.
They’d set up hammocks for sleeping, and a place to cook, and there was a little creek that ran through the ravine where they could get water. Sometimes they’d sneak into Whitmore to find foodAlexander was especially good at “liberating” tinned goods from the mercantile and eggs from the henhousesand before long they had enough supplies to live very well on their own.
Eventually, Jack and his friends helped five more escape from the Pratcherd ranch: Nicky, Lorenzo, George, Anka, and Sarah. But there were still more than a dozen orphan train children toiling as farmhands there. Quentin was one of them, and Jack was determined to go back to the ranch to free him.
In fact, Jack wanted to rescue every kid he could, and only his closest friends, Frances and Alexander, knew the deep-down reason why. It was because of Daniel. Daniel, his brother, who had died in a factory fire back in New York, and who Jack hadn’t been able to save.
So they all began to carry out their plan to bring the rest of the children to Wanderville. At first, everything went smoothly:
Sarah and Lorenzo crept through a field to the edge of the ranch and discovered a hole in the far fence.
Then Anka, who had an excellent sense of direction, drew a map that showed how to escape through the fence hole and get to Wanderville.
Jack added a set of instructions for Quentin and the other farmhands to follow. Wait until Friday, then go out after midnight. Cross the last field on the map, and we will meet you by the lone tree.
From their spying they’d figured out that Mr. Pratcherd left town on supply runs on Friday and came back Saturday afternoon, leaving only Mrs. Pratcherd and her son, Rutherford. They were bad enough, but at least there’d be one less Pratcherd to worry about.
Finally, Jack and Alexander sneaked over to Whitmore, where they found Rutherford Pratcherd’s shiny buggy parked outside the gun shop. Jack kept watch while Alexander slipped out and tied the note and map to a spoke on one of the rear wheels. They were going off advice from Nicky, who had remembered how Rutherford would make the farmhands wash the buggy wheels every day to keep them “clean as china plates.” Quentin had to do chores for Rutherford all the time, so Jack hoped that he would be the one to find the note.
“Fingers crossed,” Alexander said as they watched the buggy drive off. “Now we wait until Friday.”
But they didn’t make it to Friday. The very next morning, just after dawn, Jack and the others were awakened by the sound of dogs barking.
“They sound like they’re chasing someone!” Frances said.
Then came the patter of footsteps. One person, running, then crashing through the bushes near the top of the ravine and stumbling down into the woods.
Alexander was already on his feet, holding out his hatchet for defense. “Who’s there?” he called.
“It’s me!” gasped the intruder. “Quentin!”
Quentin was still struggling to catch his breath. Though Quentin’s crooked front lip always made him look like he was sneering, Jack could tell he’d had quite a scare. The others gathered around, full of questions.
“Where are the rest of the kids?” Alexander demanded. “Did they escape with you?”
“N-no,” Quentin panted. “Just me . . .”
“What?” Alexander was furious. “You just left on your own?”
“You did the same thing when you escaped from the ranch,” Jack reminded him.
“No! Listen to me!” Quentin insisted. “I was just trying”
“Trying to put us all in danger?” Frances interrupted. “What about those dogs out there?”
“I didn’t know there’d be guard dogs!” Quentin cried. “But, I mean, I think I outran ’em.”
Jack shook his head. “Those dogs probably woke up half the town of Whitmore, Quentin! What if it’s not only the dogs that are chasing you? What if it’s the Pratcherds, or . . .”
“Or the sheriff,” Alexander said, his voice suddenly a whisper. His face had gone pale at the sight of something at the top of the ravine. Jack and the others turned to follow his gaze.
There, at the edge of the woods, was a man on horseback: Sheriff Routh. Jack could see the glint of his badge.
“So this is where you brats have been keeping yourselves,” the sheriff said, smirking as he looked all around.
Nobody moved or spoke, but then Frances stepped in front of her little brother, Harold, as if to protect him. “It’s better than the bunker at that wretched ranch!” she called out. “Better than being forced to dig all day in those fields. Why don’t you let us be?”
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed at Frances. “I don’t care anymore how rough you had it out there. You little worms tried to make a monkey of me the day you stole that wagon from the Pratcherds,” he said. “And they will be very interested to know where you are now.” He pointed at Alexander. “Especially you.”
Alexander was still pale, but he squared his shoulders. He had been the first one to escape from the Pratcherds, and it had been his idea to start Wanderville.
“Is that so?” Alexander said. Jack could hear a slight tremble in his words. But then Alexander took a breath and raised his voice. “I’d like to see you try to arrest all ten of us right now!”
“Yeah!” Frances called. “Just try it!”
The boys joined in as well. “Go ahead!” Quentin jeered.
But Jack held his tongue. The sheriff had a look about him that was different today: He glared at them all fiercely. The man seemed to be boiling inside, and suddenly Jack understood that this wasn’t about breaking the law anymore. This was about revenge. They’d made the sheriff look foolish in the town of Whitmore.
“You think you’re safe because there’s a whole crowd of you kids now? I’ll just come back with a few of my deputies,” Sheriff Routh declared. “And the Pratcherds, too. Don’t bother trying to hide.” The sheriff turned his horse around, kicking up dirt and scattering the pile of kindling that the little kids had been collecting. Suddenly, Jack wanted to yell somethinganythingat the man, but the words wouldn’t come. He stood there, furious and silent, as the horse and rider dashed up the ravine and rode off.
No one spoke for a moment after the sheriff left.
“Good riddance,” Nicky said. “He can’t threaten us.”
Alexander took a deep breath. “No, he’s serious. Did you see his face?” He turned to Jack and Frances. “He’ll be back.”
Jack could only nod. He wasn’t going to forget that face anytime soon.
Frances’s eyes were wild. “We can’t just sit here and wait for him to return!”
“So we’ll fight back?” Lorenzo asked, picking up a rock.
“No,” said Alexander as he yanked down one of the hammocks. “We have to get out of here, and fast!” He tied the hammock into a bundle and began to fill it with the bread that they’d taken from town. After a moment, the others began to gather their things as well.
Frances crouched down to check the buttons on her little brother’s shoes. Jack heard Harold ask, “Mrs. Routh isn’t going to help us, is she? She was nice to us on the train.”
Frances shook her head. “She has to obey the sheriff. He’s her husband. We have to figure this out ourselves. . . .”
“No time to talk. Come on!” Alexander shouted.
Everyone began to move faster, except for Jack, whose feet had somehow turned heavy as he realized what was happeningwhat Alexander had just decided.
Just leave? he thought. That was the solution?
“Jack!” Quentin was standing in front of him now, looking anxious. “Hey, Jack, I . . .”
“In a minute,” Jack said.
“But I have to tell you something . . .”
“It’s all right, Quentin. No need to apologize.” Jack knew it wasn’t Quentin’s fault that the sheriff had followed him to Wanderville, even if the other kids didn’t believe him. There were more urgent things to deal with right now, like this crazy plan of Alexander’s.
He stepped around Quentin and followed Alexander over to the old suitcase where they kept their provisions. “What do you mean, ‘get out of here,’ Alex?” Jack demanded. “Just ditch everything? What about the kids who are still at the Pratcherds’? Are we just going to run off and give up on them?”
Frances, who was nearby helping Harold with his coat, looked up, too. “Jack’s right!” she said. “We can’t just leave them.”
Alexander turned and faced Jack. “It’s too late for that. The sheriff found us. There’s only one place we can go now.”
“Where’s that?” Frances asked.
“California,” Alexander answered. Harold’s eyes widened.
“There’s a twelve o’clock train going west,” Alexander continued, slinging a bundle over his shoulder. “We’ll take the creek path and go into Whitmore. That will buy us some time because the sheriff will look for us here first.”
Jack was shaking his head. “No! I still think we should stay and try to rescue the others at the ranch”
“Jack,” Alexander broke in. “We won’t be any help to them if we all get caught!”
That was all Harold needed to hear. “I don’t want the sheriff to catch us!” he cried.
“We’re not going to get caught,” Frances told her little brother. She looked up at Jack and Alexander. “We’re going to do something, right?”
Alexander’s eyes met Jack’s. “That train’s our only chance, and that’s that.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for On Track for Treasure:
"This historical fiction series is full of excitement and suspense. Readers will root for the brave residents of Wanderville." School Library Journal
"This work of historical fiction tells the story of events that most children will not learn about in history class, and it does so in a way that will leave them wanting more." Booklist
Praise for the Wanderville series:
“… A page-turner that will have readers eagerly waiting for the next installment. For those who want more background, the book includes a brief explanation of the Orphan Train Movement. Readers may wonder how children can survive on their own. Here, the strong characters make it plausible.” —Booklist
“McClure celebrates bravery, ingenuity, and the bonds of family and friendship in this old-fashioned story of children fending for themselves, building a community, and eluding the adults who seek them… Readers should enjoy vicariously participating in the children’s independence and will appreciate their hard-earned triumphs.”—Publishers Weekly
“Readers will be swept away by the bravery of the young heroes… Readers of series fiction who enjoy learning about the past will gravitate toward this accessible novel and will be impatient for the sequel.”—School Library Journal
"A thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced adventure." —Caroline Starr Rose, author of May B
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Synopsis- Set in the early 1900’s, Wanderville is a traveling “town” that was created by orphans in the first Wanderville book. The town is set up so that, wherever they are, it can come with them, they are kind of like gypsies. The town now has 10 new residents but they all must leave immediately. The evil sheriff had found them and he is determined to round the kids up and send them to the work farms they escaped from. They hop a train, and find a home with a reverend and his wife. But the kids soon find out it may all be too good to be true. What I Liked- Ms. McClure has written another great historical fiction story! The characters in the book are very real. They act and talk like kids – kids who are on the run and who are trying to find a home. The story is really interesting. I was very intrigued because there really were orphan trains and I found the 1900’s setting very fun to read about. The interesting plot twist is *DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT A SPOILER* The reverend and his wife do good, but they aren’t necessarily good. *OKAY YOU CAN READ AGAIN* The plot kept me reading and lost in the story. The length and language in the book makes it great for kids 8+ but older kids will enjoy the story a lot too. I love the covers in this series. I am looking forward to the next book in the series! *NOTE* I got a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review