Whistler in the Dark

Whistler in the Dark

by Kathleen Ernst

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An Agatha Award nominee for Best Children’s/Young Adult Mystery and a WILLA Award finalist for Best Children’s/Young Adult Book: In 1867, a twelve-year-old girl faces danger and disaster when she moves to the Colorado Territory with her widowed mother, who is hoping to start a newspaper

Emma Henderson’s mother has changed since her father died fighting in the Civil War. First, she starts wearing an embarrassing bloomer costume—trousers under a short skirt. Then, she forces Emma to move to the far-off Colorado Territory so she can be editor of a newspaper! When Emma hears someone whistling her father’s favorite tune as they prepare to leave Chicago, she knows it’s a bad omen.
The hardscrabble mining town of Twin Pines is very different from Emma’s former home in the city. Instead of having a house of their own, she and her mother must live in a boarding house. Worst of all, it’s clear from the moment they step off the stagecoach that someone doesn’t want them there. A troublemaker tries hard to sabotage the newspaper, and Emma continues to hear eerie whistling in the night. Is it the ghost of her father? With the help of her new friend Jeremy, Emma sets out to solve two baffling mysteries.
This ebook includes a historical afterword. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497646650
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 07/08/2014
Series: Mysteries through History , #16
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 167
Sales rank: 837,001
Lexile: 680L (what's this?)
File size: 3 MB
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Kathleen Ernst is a bestselling novelist, historian, and educator who writes for adults and kids. Her books for young readers include fifteen novels for American Girl. She created Caroline Abbott, the company’s newest historical character, and has written seven books about her. Ernst also writes the Chloe Ellefson Mysteries for adults and mature teens. Honors for her work include Edgar and Agatha Award nominations and an Emmy Award in children’s programming. Visit her at www.kathleenernst.com.

Read an Excerpt

Whistler in the Dark

By Kathleen Ernst


Copyright © 2002 Kathleen Ernst
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4665-0


A Bad Omen

"Mother!" Emma called. Holding her painting carefully, she used one hip to shut the front door behind her. Madame Duchene's praise rang in her ears: "For a girl not yet thirteen, Miss Henderson, you show remarkable promise." Emma could hardly wait to show Mother her latest work.

"You're home!" Mother's voice drifted down the stairs. "Wait in the parlor. I have two surprises for you!"

Emma put her package aside. Crackers! What had Mother so excited? The tiny parlor, cluttered with a tea table and horsehair-upholstered chairs and piles of books and magazines, gave no hint. She had sounded … happy, that was it. Emma couldn't remember the last time she'd heard that lilt in Mother's voice. Surely not since Father had been killed two years ago, during the final weeks of the Civil War.

Footsteps creaked on the stairs. "Ready?" called Mother. Then she stepped into the parlor.

Emma sucked in her breath. Mother wore a new dress she'd made from brown plaid cotton. She was a good seamstress, and the dress fit well through the bodice and shoulders. But the skirt stopped at her knees. Emerging beneath the skirt, made of the same fabric, were trousers.

Trousers. Loose-fitting, ankle-length trousers.

Mother turned in a slow circle. "What do you think?"

"Mother!" Emma darted to the front window and pulled the lacy curtains closed. "Someone might see you!"

Mother's smile faded. "I'm aware of that." She folded her arms. "Gracious, Emma! I've been a member of the Dress Reform Association for several years. It's about time I had a Reform Dress of my own."

Emma remembered seeing her mother read a newspaper called The Sibyl, published by a woman who believed that women's fashions symbolized unfair restrictions placed upon them. And she remembered her mother talking about the need for women to be admired for their talents instead of their fashionable, confining clothes. But she also remembered the only time she'd ever seen a woman in public wearing a Reform Dress—or bloomer costume, as some people called it.

Emma and her best friend, Judith Littleton, had been walking home from art class and saw several boys trailing behind a woman in a Reform Dress as she walked briskly down Harkins Street. "Bloomers, bloomers," they chanted. One snatched an egg from an old man's market basket and threw it—splot—against the woman's shoulder. No one had scolded the boys.

The woman ignored them and, with her head high, quickly disappeared around the corner. But Emma was embarrassed for her. "I'm afraid she brought that upon herself," Mrs. Littleton had sighed when Emma and Judith told her about the incident. "It's scandalous. I'll never understand women who wear that ridiculous Reform Dress. Masculine, every one of them. No decent woman would be seen in such a getup."

Emma's cheeks had burned as she hoped desperately that Mrs. Littleton, who had been so kind and loving when Emma's own mother was busy with charity work, would never know that copies of The Sibyl were tucked into the magazine rack at the Hendersons' house. Just as her cheeks burned now. Almost every man and woman in America thought the Reform Dress shocking. She had hoped that her mother would never go beyond reading about dress reform.

"Well?" Mother's chin was up, her shoulders back.

"Mother, please don't wear that outside." The words slid from Emma's mouth as she plopped into a chair. Her skin felt skittery. She'd never complained when Mother spent more time away doing war relief work than home with her only child. But this! This was too much.

Two spots of color appeared on Mother's cheeks. A flash of anger glinted in her eyes. Then she sighed, and the starch left her posture. She perched on the edge of the low velvet chair in the corner and crossed her ankles, studying the effect. A May breeze ruffled the curtains. Somewhere down the street a dog barked, making Emma painfully aware of the awkward silence in the parlor. But she simply couldn't twist her tongue around an apology.

Finally Mother looked at Emma. "I should have known that this would be difficult for you," she said quietly. "But, Emma, I'm doing this for you as well as for me. I want you to grow up in a nation that respects women's abilities. As long as women are hampered by tight corsets and enormous skirts, we won't be anything more than—than ornaments."

Emma didn't want to be an ornament … did she? She wasn't quite sure what that meant. But she did know that she'd die of pure and absolute mortification if her friends ever saw her mother wearing a Reform Dress.

"Women are capable people, Emma," Mother said stoutly. "We proved that during the war. Farm women drove reapers and butchered hogs. Women here in Chicago helped keep the factories running while the men were off fighting. We raised thousands of dollars to provide supplies for the army. Why should we be forced backward now that the war's over?"

Emma shrugged, feeling sadness anchor in her heart. The horrible war caused this! As if her father getting killed wasn't enough! Father had left the newspaper he published to serve as captain of a company in one of the Illinois regiments that clattered off in the train cars to war. That was in 1863, when Emma was only eight. For two long years she and Mother had waited, reading newspaper stories of terrible battles, almost collapsing with relief each time The Chicago Tribune published a list of killed soldiers without Father's name on it. But Father had been wounded in some of the very last fighting, and he died.

Emma looked at the daguerreotype of her father that sat on the parlor table. Her father's gaze, captured on the small piece of glass, seemed to take in the room. Whatever would Father think of Mother's Reform Dress?

Mother stood and walked back and forth across the room. "It's marvelously freeing," she murmured. "Emma, I think you'd like it. It just takes some getting used to. I think I shall make you a Reform Dress, too—"

"I don't want one! What will people think?" Panic began to bubble in Emma's chest. Even if she didn't wear the Reform Dress, Mother was obviously determined to. Great glory, what would Judith say? Would Mrs. Littleton tell Judith not to spend time with Emma anymore? Would the pastor preach against the Hendersons from the pulpit? Would boys throw eggs at her, just for being Mother's daughter? The skin between her shoulder blades tingled, as if the egg had already hit. Splot.

"I'm not interested in what other people think," Mother snapped. "I want you to develop your own thoughts and opinions. What do you want from life?"

Emma squirmed. What she most emphatically did not want was a mother wearing a Reform Dress, with its short skirt and horrid trousers. Not when all of her friends pinned fashion plates of floor-swishing silk dinner dresses from Godey's Ladies' Book to their bedroom walls. Not when all of her friends' mothers—even those who had done war work—were settled back into their former lives, content to be wives and mothers and wear hoop skirts that brushed the tops of their shoes.

"You're old enough to consider these things," Mother said finally. "At your age, I was already earning my keep in the newspaper office. And I was already finding doors closed, just because I was female. I had hoped you'd support my efforts to change that now. But I won't force you."

Good, Emma thought. She struggled to find something to say to break the uncomfortable silence. Suddenly she remembered. "Didn't you say you had two surprises?"

Mother's eyes began to sparkle again as she picked up an envelope from the table. "This arrived today. Emma, it's finally happened! I've been offered a position as newspaper editor!"

Emma's stomach flip-flopped as her mother slid the letter from the envelope. Oh, no. Oh, no …

When the first tide of grief had passed after Father's death, Mother had driven Emma to distraction with talk of making a new start. Mother had answered dozens of advertisements from small towns all over the West, where, she hoped, people might be more "open-minded." Most of her letters had gone unanswered, although a few town representatives wrote to advise her that their job was not open to a woman. As the months passed, Emma had put the whole notion out of her mind. "Where?" she whispered.

"A town called Twin Pines. It's in Colorado Territory."

Twin Pines, Colorado Territory. A strange, wild place far from Chicago. Emma sagged back in her chair.

Mother leaned toward the window and began to read:

Dear Mrs. Henderson:

I have reviewed your long letter and am pleased to offer to you the position of newspaper publisher and editor. Twin Pines is a growing town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It is a service center for the farmers and ranchers in the area, and a staging spot for miners heading up to the goldfields. I humbly introduce myself as town founder. You will be pleased to know that town lots for a church and a school were among the first to be set aside. I designed the business district to grow around a proper town square, with residential neighborhoods beyond. I noted your request for a house on a lot large enough to accommodate a garden, and will provide a print shop rent-free for your printing press. If you are still interested in the position, please commence the trip with all possible speed, for Twin Pines desperately needs a newspaper. I am enclosing the particulars regarding travel arrangements. You may respond with your intentions to this address.

Your most obedient servant,

James M. Spaulding

Please commence the trip with all possible speed. Emma clenched her hands into fists. "But I don't want to move to Colorado Territory! It's—it's a wilderness!"

"It's not a wilderness. Twin Pines sounds like a nice little town." Mother sighed. "Sweetheart, I know it will be a big change. But we've talked about this before! You knew I was looking for a position somewhere in the West."

I didn't think you'd find one, Emma wanted to shout. She pleated her skirt between her fingers, avoiding Mother's gaze.

Mother's voice grew thin. "Emma, try to understand. I … I need to make a new beginning. Here in Chicago, I'll never be anyone but Mrs. Richard Henderson."

And why was that so terrible? Emma fought back tears, missing her father so much that she could hardly breathe. Their little house that leaked around the windows during heavy rains, and never heated properly, and barely held the half-dozen ladies wearing huge hoop skirts who had gathered every Thursday during the war to sew shirts for the soldiers—why, it had never seemed so dear.

And what about her? Would she have good neighbors in Colorado? The kind who brought custardy blanc mange when Emma felt poorly, as Mrs. Beecher had? Would Emma find a friend like Judith Littleton? Judith had been Emma's dearest friend ever since, as five-year-olds, they had been assigned to share a desk on their first day of school. These people, this neighborhood, Chicago—this was home.

Why were Mother's causes always more important than Emma? Mrs. Littleton's scorn rang in her memory: "Scandalous … ridiculous … masculine …" Mrs. Littleton had done war work too, but now she spent her afternoons embroidering monograms on handkerchiefs and teaching Judith and Emma how to tat lace. Only Emma's mother wanted to move to the wild frontier and march through life wearing a Reform Dress, with no regard for her daughter's feelings.

Emma stared at the floor. If they stayed in Chicago, she would be shamed beyond words by her mother's Reform Dress. The only escape was moving to horrible Colorado Territory. She was trapped. It wasn't fair! But as Emma opened her mouth to protest, her father's very last words to her rang through the years: "Be a good, obedient girl for your mother, Emma. She'll need your help. Promise?" Emma had promised. Surely Father hadn't known that Mother would announce a wild plan like this! Still … Emma had promised.

"I think Twin Pines will give us new opportunities," Mother continued. "I'm looking forward to writing articles. Most will be news, of course, but I hope I can make a difference by letting Colorado women know about the reform movement. And I'm counting on your help with the newspaper. Perhaps you can write a special column for young people."

Composition was Emma's least favorite subject in school. "Mother—"

Before Emma could continue, Mother gasped and jerked to her feet. All hint of color drained from her cheeks.

For an instant Emma thought that her lack of enthusiasm had caused Mother such distress. Then, through the open window, Emma caught a snatch of a whistled tune fading into the distance. Maggie by My Side.

The hair on the back of Emma's neck prickled, and goosebumps rose on her skin. "Father used to whistle that tune. Just like that."

"Yes," Mother managed. "Exactly like that."

Emma shivered. "Maybe it was Father's ghost—"

"Don't be ridiculous." But Mother's voice shook—just as it had the day the letter about Father's death arrived. She picked up the daguerreotype and drew a deep breath, staring at the image. "It was your father's favorite song," she said in a faraway tone. "My parents always called me Margaret, but your father called me Maggie. I haven't heard a man whistle Maggie by My Side since your father enlisted in the army."

Emma flew to the window. Twilight shadowed the street. She heard the clip-clop of a team of horses pulling a carriage down the muddy street, and the Beecher boys whooping over a croquet game next door. Nothing more.

"I imagine it was just a worker heading home." Mother pressed the daguerreotype against her heart before replacing it on the table. "We were silly to let it startle us so."

Emma stared at the carpet. She didn't think they'd been silly. The whistled tune echoed in her head, and another shiver scuttled over Emma's skin. Father had been dead for two years. And now they heard his special song, whistled just as Father used to, on the very evening Mother tried on her first Reform Dress? Just as she announced plans to take Emma from their old family home and move to the wilds of Colorado?

If it wasn't Father's ghost, it was an omen. A bad one.


Cold Welcome

Silas banged the stagecoach door open and grinned at his two passengers. "Here we are, ladies!"

Emma took a deep breath. Here we are.

After two weeks of frantic packing, she and Mother had spent endless days rattling west in train cars and, finally, a stagecoach. In eastern Colorado Territory, the lush green of prairies had given way to an arid, sandy brown, sprinkled with prickly pear cactus and tufts of silver sage. This morning, the road had left the flat plains and climbed along what felt like a boulder-strewn path. Now, she and Mother had finally arrived in their new home.

Emma's mouth felt dry. Silas offered his hand to Mother before helping Emma step down to the ground.

Twin Pines was situated along a creek in a long, high meadow. Emma's gaze went first to the rocky hills rising sharply beyond the town. The nearer slopes were marked only with stumps, but pine trees dotted the higher elevations. Emma couldn't remember a bluer sky.

Suddenly, several sharp explosions shattered the afternoon. "Good gracious!" Mother gasped, grabbing Emma's arm. "Was that gunfire?"

"Nothing to fret about!" Silas spat a stream of tobacco juice into the street, aiming away from their skirts. "Somebody's just letting folks know the mail's in."

The stage had stopped in the middle of what appeared to be Twin Pines' single street, and people were already hurrying toward the coach. Silas tossed a leather pouch toward a short, balding man wearing a once-white shirt and limp cravat. The short man stepped up on a mounting block and began pulling envelopes from the mailbag. "Jack Tomkins! Nels Torkelson! Nathaniel Russert! Hang on, there, it's still ten cents a letter!"

Emma's heart sank. Why, she could almost throw a rock from one end of town to the other! Twin Pines boasted fewer than a dozen frame buildings. Some of them, square and proper, were labeled with signs: General Store, Boardinghouse, Land Office, and Hardware and Mining Supplies. A line of horses stamped at the picket pole in front of the largest building in town—a saloon.

The rest of the town faded down the street with a curious, rickety air. Some buildings had been constructed of rough logs. A number of businessmen apparently worked from canvas tents. A collection of odd cabins and shacks sprawled haphazardly on the rolling ground around the town. The street itself was a washboard of ruts and mud, and Emma knew why the men tucked their trousers into their boots. An unfortunate combination of rotting potato parings and ox droppings scented the afternoon.

Dismay settled on Emma's shoulders. Twin Pines looked nothing like the tidy village Mr. Spaulding had described.

He had lied, Emma realized. Thunderation! He had lied!

"Excuse me, is this really Twin Pines?" Mother asked Silas slowly.

"Yes, ma'am." Silas shifted his attention to his assistant, who had clambered to the top of the coach, where supplies and the Hendersons' carpetbags had been lashed down. "Start with the ladies' luggage, Bob."

Mother frowned. "But Mr. Spaulding's letter said …"


Excerpted from Whistler in the Dark by Kathleen Ernst. Copyright © 2002 Kathleen Ernst. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 A Bad Omen,
Chapter 2 Cold Welcome,
Chapter 3 Choices Made,
Chapter 4 Meeting the Boarders,
Chapter 5 Up in Flames,
Chapter 6 Break-In,
Chapter 7 New Resolve,
Chapter 8 The Raven,
Chapter 9 The Whistler,
Chapter 10 A Likely Suspect,
Chapter 11 With a Bird's Eye,
Chapter 12 The Whistler's Story,
Chapter 13 The Box,
Chapter 14 Surprises,
Going Back in Time,
Author's Note,
About The Author,

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