Hilda Van Brunt was five years old when her New York family set out for Texas. Her mother had spent the last of her inherited fortune to purchase a ranch, after her husband had used most of her money on “dissipation” – a polite way of saying he drank and gambled away any money he could get his hands on. Mrs. Van Brunt had been sure she could make the far-off land into a proper home, but she’d died during the railroad part of the journey, and when Hank Pearsall, manager of the Three Sorrows Ranch, traveled sixty miles to the stage station of Mesquite he was not impressed with the adults who got off the stagecoach.
Charles Van Brunt was a weak but elegantly dressed man, who seemed unused to holding his infant son, Burchie. Aunt Valeria Van Brunt wore expensive clothes and didn’t seem to be familiar with any type of work. But the little girl with dark eyes and curly hair looked around with interest, and seemed pleased with what she saw.
Mr. Pearsall settled the adults and baby into the back of a horse-drawn ambulance (readers are told that was a common vehicle for traveling in those parts) then he swung young Hilda up onto the drivers seat, and told her the two of them wouldn’t mind a bit of jouncing. Hilda immediately began confiding in the fifty-year-old manager.
She said they’d come West with a nurse who couldn’t stand such flat country, and had gone back to New York, so Papa sent for Aunt Val, who’d come to help out, even though she didn’t like children. Hilda asked Mr. Pearsall if he liked children, and was told he didn’t have any, so she said she could be his little girl as well as Papa’s. Mr. Pearsal said he’d be her Uncle Hank.
Hilda loved telling everything to Uncle Hank, and he heard all about her hero, The Boy On The Train. When Mother got sick on the train the Boy and his family helped care for her, and delayed their own travel plans to stay with the Van Brunts until after the funeral, and the coming of Aunt Val. Hilda had quite an imagination, and most of her imagined adventures had The Boy On The Train in them.
After arriving at Three Sorrows Ranch (the original owner had three daughters who met with tragedies) Hank Pearsall told Mr. Van Brunt he would soon be leaving for a new job, and tried to teach the new owner about the financial side of ranching. Hilda’s Papa made no effort to learn about profits and expenses, and asked the manager to stay on. Pearsall had no interest in working for Mr. Van Brunt, but when Hilda told Uncle Hank he was her only friend the ranch manager couldn’t bring himself to leave the girl who’d adopted him as a relative.
Uncle Hank took on the nearly impossible task of finding a way to pay the ranch hands and the Chinese cook, and to support the Van Brunts, while Charles Van Brunt took much of the cattle-selling profits for weeks-long “business trips” that involved plenty of poker games. Van Brunt sold off land, and mortgaged what remained, but Hank did the work of two men to help make ends meet. His only pleasure was his nightly talks with Hilda, who told him about her day.
Hilda loved the ranch. She loved horse riding, and learning how to grow up to be a knowledgable ranch woman. Money was found to send for a school teacher for Hilda and the few other children in the area. And there was time for playing, and making up stories that usually involved the wonderful Boy On The Train.
One spring, after years of wasting money, Charles Van Brunt attempted to mend his ways, and insisted on helping with the roundup of unbranded calves. Hilda’s inexperienced Papa had an encounter with a rogue steer, and received fatal wounds. His dying moments were spent lamenting that he was leaving his children nothing but debts. Uncle Hank promised he would care for the children and pay off the ranch mortgages.
Money was tight, ranch work was done by fewer hands than were needed, and everyone did without. Well, everyone except Aunt Val, who decided Hilda’s little brother was in poor health, and had to go to Dallas for medical treatment. And of course she had to stay in the big city to care for him. Aunt Val had always hated the ranch, so no one believed there was anything wrong with young Burchie, but Uncle Hank found the money to pay for them to stay in Dallas. Hilda was the only Van Brunt to remain on Three Sorrows.
When the girl wasn’t at school she had no one to talk to until the ranch hands came home at night. There was the Chinese cook, but he wasn’t too talkative, even when he saw things Uncle Hank wouldn’t approve of. Hilda kept herself busy, exploring the ranch and using her imagination. One day she was down in the basement, moved some empty boxes away from a wall, and found a door leading to an abandoned storm cellar no one else knew about. She crawled through a tunnel and found a room, complete with a little window hidden by some woodbine in front of the house.
She didn’t tell Uncle Hank about her find, but brought down castoff furniture and favorite belongings to make herself a private room for reading and daydreaming. Years went by, and one day, when she was fifteen, she opened the covering to her hidden room’s window and discovered a young man hiding between the house and the woodbine. It was her hero, The Boy On The Train, who was wanted for a murder he didn’t commit, and had come looking for Hilda, for he remembered where the Van Brunts’ ranch was located. Hilda hid him in the secret room. That required going through the kitchen, but the Chinese cook didn’t do much talking, especially if Hilda asked him for a favor.
Other wanted men had been hidden at the ranch, if one of the workers knew the fugitive and believed in his innocence. Hilda told The Boy On The Train, who’s name was Pearse, that she could tell Uncle Hank Pearsall about him, for he would better know how to help the young man. But her long-time hero said he knew the man, did not like him, and wouldn’t have come if he’d known who the ranch manager was.
How could there be anyone who didn’t like kind and honest Uncle Hank? And how could she keep such an important secret from the man who’d been more of a father to her than her own Papa had ever been?
Hilda did keep the fugitive’s whereabouts a secret. She brought him food, had long talks with him, and learned his adopted parents had died, and his step siblings were keeping his inheritance from him. Hilda helped Pearse escape, but felt guilt over not telling Uncle Hank about the matter. The sheriff later learned someone else had committed the murder.
After many a hard year Uncle Hank was able to pay off the Three Sorrows Ranch debt. That brought on the new problem of Hilda becoming a beautiful young woman who was half-owner of a valuable ranch. Young men were interested in her, but Hilda was still infatuated with her Boy On The Train – the man who was perfect except for not liking her beloved Uncle Hank.
The novel was published in 1924 and may not have been marketed as a children’s book, but I chose it because of Hilda’s age during the beginning chapters. I won’t give away the ending, but will say the main characters live happily ever after, once a major misunderstanding is cleared up. I enjoyed learning about Hilda, Uncle Hank, and The Boy On The Train. And though I never learned much about him, the few scenes with the Chinese cook were fun. The tension and challenges came across as believable, and I found the ending a bit melodramatic, but satisfying.
If you’d like to read A Girl of the Plains Country it can be downloaded free of charge at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/63044.