Story Excerpts

The Caretaker

November 1875: Buffalo River, Minnesota

"We can take no chances, Lars. We have to get Nellie into the house!" With the gust of a stormy night whipping up her skirt, Mama stands over our sick cow. She pulls her heavy woolen shawl closer around her large belly.

     Papa strokes Nellie's head, a worrisome look spreading across his face above his full beard. "You want to bring her in the house, Sigrie?"

     "Her calf will be born before morning and it will freeze in this bitter night," says Mama.

     I shift from one foot to another, knowing Mama would never tell Papa what to do, but this is her job in our family. She is the budeie, the caretaker of cattle, and like the other women in our community, she takes it seriously.                                          

     Papa nods in agreement and peers up at the thin layer of slough grass covering the pole shed. The roof started as a thick layer last fall, but our cows have slipped their long, rough tongues between the poles many times for a lick and sometimes come away with mouthfuls.

     "Selma, go put some salt in a pan and bring it here," Mama says. "And be quick about it!" 

     My youngest brother Carl and I run to our small log house, his short legs almost catching up to mine.

     By the time I find the salt and put it in a pan, my oldest brother Jens has unloaded a stack of firewood near the stove. I order him to watch Carl and bolt outside into the whirling snow.

     Papa has a rope around Nellie's neck. Together, the three of us coax her across the yard by holding the salt pan under her nose. Once through the front door, we shove the poor cow into my room and tie her to the bed post. Nellie and my bed fill the small room. Papa can barely get the door shut.  

Snow Angels of San Marcial

     The bus for Socorro rumbles off the gravel onto the highway. Angelina’s mother waves from a foggy window, a small brown face framed in a red woolen scarf. Another long day ahead at the pottery plant and another long ride home at dusk await her.

    Angelina shivers in the chill of a December morning. Every day during her holiday break from school, she has accompanied her mother to the bus stop. The least she can do. This morning before they left the house, she gave her own gloves to her mother so at least her hands would be comforted before the wet pottery clay could take its daily toll.

   Gathering her worn jacket around her, Angelina starts back down the half-mile walk home, her thoughts filled with the misery of the past year. If only her father hadn’t been laid off from the factory the previous winter. He’d fallen into a depression from which he could not escape. Sitting on the lumpy sofa and staring out at the arid desert landscape, drinking at the town bar, wandering about the village was the sad and useless way he’d filled his time. Until his kidneys failed. Stranded in San Marcial with no car and no health insurance, he couldn’t get the right treatment. Her brothers, Juan and Miguel, found him one afternoon in the alley behind the bar, lying amongst the wine bottles and old newspapers. Asleep forever.

    Without much ceremony, they’d buried him in the village cemetery. A visiting priest had given the last sacraments as they laid him to rest near the ancient saguaros he loved. Angelina and her mother had scattered desert flowers across a pine coffin.

    This Christmas would be bleak. No Christmas tree. “It would not show respect for your father,” her mother had said just the other day. “Too much celebration is not a good thing.”

Carpenter’s Crib

    Lauren Goforth closed the car door and settled Skip into his stroller. His chubby fingers grabbed for her loose hair and caught a fistful. "You're cute, tadpole." She smiled, freeing herself from his grasp. "That's what your daddy calls you." Tears pricked her eyelids. "Called you," she corrected herself.

    Her lips pressed together tightly as she looked into The Carpentry Shop window. Your daddy's gone and he's never coming back.

    It had been nine months since Gary's telephone company supervisor called her at the office with the terrible news. Gary had touched a live wire and fallen fifty feet to his death. He’d left her with a special gift: their one-month-old son.

    Skip and her receptionist job at the real estate office had become her only lifelines to sanity.

    Some days, Lauren still couldn’t believe Gary wasn’t in the next room or lying next to her when she awoke. They’d planned to build their dream home right here in this small mountain community.

    "No big city life for my kids," Gary had said when they packed their belongings and headed out of Denver just a year ago. "We'll move up to where the air is clear and you can hear yourself think."

    On the outskirts of town, they rented a small but comfortable house. "Just down the road from all those aspen. That's where we'll buy some land and build our place," Gary had announced with infectious enthusiasm. And hugged her hard after he said it.

    A bell on the top of the screen door jangled as Lauren pushed the stroller inside the shop. The smell of linseed oil and furniture stain greeted her. Various pieces of furniture filled the small interior.

    The owner of the shop, an auburn-haired man of about thirty, came out of the back room wiping his hands on his faded jeans. Flecks of sawdust clung to his shirt and a sprinkling of freckles paraded across his face. She’d seen him several times at Skip’s daycare with his daughter.A spark of recognition brightened his gaze. "Something I can do for you today?"

     "Yes,” she answered. “Can you make a crib for me?"

The Christmas Gift

     December 1883

     Bright brown eyes in a laughing face captured Miriam’s attention. Lips curled upward like a cupid’s bow. “You’re a handsome young man,” she declared above the rumble of train wheels on steel tracks. She held Christopher steady on her lap as he balanced on wobbly legs, trying to look out the window. The world outside of dry winter wheat fields beneath cloudy skies was no doubt a complete mystery to a curious six-month-old baby.

     “Wait ‘til Aunt Serena sees you,” she whispered into the swath of dark wavy hair near Christopher’s ear. Not Aunt Serena. Soon her older married sister would become Christopher’s mother. An immediate rush of excitement filled her. The import of Miriam’s journey overtook her senses as it had this morning when she and the baby first boarded the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe at Hutchinson. She had been designated by her family to deliver Christopher to her sister in Denver where he would begin his life anew. Three brothers would welcome him as their youngest sibling.

     A telegram had arrived, confirming Christopher’s acceptance. The Cole family rejoiced at the first uplifting turn of events since the recent passing of their youngest daughter Beth from a virulent siege of influenza. Christopher’s father was nowhere to be found, rumor having it that he’d up and run off to live the cowboy life in Texas. Since Mrs. Cole, the matriarch of the family, had passed on five years before, the only option for the child was to find a qualified family member to take him in.

      Christmas would take on a most special meaning this year. For Miriam as well. After living all of her twenty-seven years on the farm, except for occasional junkets to visit great aunts and cousins in Topeka, she was venturing for the first time to Denver, a jewel of the western state. The “Queen City of the Plains.” Denver promised scenic and social opportunities nonexistent in Kansas.

     Instead of viewing miles of wheat fields in all directions, from Denver one viewed endless snow-capped mountain peaks, she had heard. Fine restaurants were plentiful, theatrical productions arrived monthly from the East. Not that she could afford to go to such places. She would just like to see their fancy menus and read about them in the newspapers. Perhaps window shop with her sister to see the latest fashions.

     Surveying her traveling dress, a simple forest green wool with high-buttoned collar, Miriam vowed to put her sewing skills to work on a new creation after she arrived in Denver.

     Christopher interrupted her thoughts with a lyrical babble then turned his head to gaze across the aisle. Miriam glanced in that direction, noticing a gentleman dressed in black, absorbed in his newspaper. She recalled he’d boarded in Great Bend. Guessing his age to be a few years over thirty, she admired the fit of his long winter coat beneath a clean shaven jaw, full mustache and long sideburns. Most likely he was a rancher traveling to Colorado on business.

     From the front of the car came a whoosh of cold air as the conductor entered and slid the door closed behind him. The sight of a revolver jutting out from his hip holster sent a little tingle of apprehension down Miriam’s spine.