Authors: Lauraine Snelling
Tags: #Willowford, #North Dakota, #fire-ravaged town, #schoolhouse, #schoolmarm, #heart transformation, #bully, #Lauraine Snelling, #early 1900s, #Juke Weinlander, #Rebekka Stenesrude, #rebuilding, #Christian Historical Fiction, #Christian Fiction
Published by eChristian, Inc.
To today’s sons and daughters of the pioneers.
May we always remember those who came before us.
“Ma, how would you like it if I moved back home?” Jude Weinlander dropped a kiss on his mother’s cheek. “I know things ain’t been goin’ good for you. I . . . you . . . ah . . . the farm needs some work done, bad.”
“You would do that?” Tall, iron-stiff Augusta turned from the black iron cookstove and waved a wooden spoon in the air. Shock and heat painted her face bright red.
“Well . . . uh . . . I’m kinda between jobs right now, so’s Melissa, and I could stay around for a time, until you get someone to help you again, that is.” Jude stuttered over the words while raking a hand through the dark blond curls that fell over his forehead in a charming tangle. He leaned his six-foot frame against the kitchen counter. The smile that had broken half of the female hearts west of the Mississippi and north of the Missouri erased the unaccustomed worry lines from his forehead and relit the flame in his clear, sky blue eyes.
Augusta left off stirring her pot of stew on the stove and sank into a chair at the square oak table, scarred and scuffed by years of hard use. She stared across the room at her son, a gleam of moisture evident in her faded blue eyes, eyes that had once matched those of the young man before her. “Have you spoken with Dag?” She pushed a strand of steel gray hair back into the bun at the base of her neck.
“Nah, why should I?” Jude pulled his rear away from the counter, snagged a chair out with his foot, and joined her at the table.
“He has been helping me out some with beans and flour and coffee and such,” she said.
“Don’t you keep the hens and cow no more?”
“Ja, sure, but the ‘hoppers took the garden and I had no one to do the hay, so they got that, too.” Augusta stared out the window. “Not been easy the last couple of years. My hired man quit this spring, you know. Sometime after you left town.” She pushed herself to her feet as if the cares of the world were pounding her into the sod. “You want another cup of coffee?”
Jude nodded. “Things’ll be easier now, Ma. You’ll see.” He accepted the chipped mug she offered him.
“Why?” Her tone sharpened. “You got some new scheme up your sleeve?”
“Not yet. Come on, Ma, I left off the cards and such. I aim to help you put this place back together. Dag ain’t the only one in this family can take care of his ma.” He patted her work-worn hand where it lay on the table. “You’ll see.”
“It’ll be mighty fine having you home again.” She sipped from her cup. “Where’d you leave Melissa?”
“She’s at her ma’s. Said I’d come first and make sure us coming here was all right.”
“Son, this is your home. You’re always welcome here.”
“Not like some other places, huh?”
“You in some kind of trouble?” Augusta peered at him, as if delving behind the smile in his eyes to see if he was fooling her. When Jude employed this smile, the very angels would hand over their halos; its candlepower wasn’t wasted on his mother. “Nah, Ma, come on. I just want to help you, that’s all.”
“I thank you, Son. I most surely do.” Augusta straightened her shoulders. “Well, I’d best be gettin’ at the chores. You want to milk old Betsy while I feed the hens? Then you can dig those spuds that made it through the ‘hoppers.”
“I . . . ah . . . I thought maybe I’d go for Melissa this morning. She don’t take too well to staying with her ma. They don’t get along much.”
“Oh?” Augusta caught herself before her shoulders slumped, but barely.
“Don’t get me wrong, Ma. I’ll milk first.” Jude held up a placating hand. He rose to his feet as if anxious to be at his work. “You still keep the bucket out in the well house?”
After the chores were finished, Jude hitched up the old horse to the ancient wagon and, leaving his saddle horse in the pasture, drove out of the yard. He watched the dust spurt up from beneath the horse’s hooves and caught the caw of a crow, but otherwise the fall day stretched empty before him.
I’ve got to get some money, get some money.
The thoughts kept time with the jangle of the harness and the
of the hooves in the dust. “Ya suppose there’s a game going tonight in Soldahl?” he asked the world at large.
The crow circled overhead and cawed an answer.
“If only I didn’t have to get Mellie. Sometimes women are more trouble than they’re worth.” He shook his head.
And this one ain’t been worth much for some time.
If only the baby had lived. Then he’d been one up on Dag. The first grandson, now that would have made his ma proud. But now that Dag was married, he’d probably have a whole houseful of kids.
Jude groaned and shook his hand at the persistent crow. Another trick on his brother gone sour. What a shock it had been to see the new Dag Weinlander—clean-shaven, neatly trimmed hair, decent clothes. Jude looked down at the new hole in the knee of his trousers. The cloth was so weak, it split when he knelt down to milk the cow this morning.
“It ain’t fair. My brother, the dolt himself, has a thriving business, a beautiful wife, and that grand house of his. It just ain’t fair, I tell ya.” The old bay horse flicked its ears and kept up a nodding trot.
By the time Jude had driven onto the lane to his mother-in-law’s farm, he had worked himself into a temper. The prosperous look of the farm did nothing to improve his mood. The look she gave him when she let him in the house could have curdled milk.
“Get your stuff. We gotta get back so’s I can help Ma.”
“I . . . I’m ready.” Melissa dragged a scruffy carpetbag from another room. The effort made her catch her breath on a sob as she pushed a limp strand of dingy hair back from her face. “You hungry?”
“You got it ready?”
“No, but it’d just take a minute. I could slice you some bread and—”
“All right, just quit jawing and do it.” Jude kept his gaze from wandering to his mother-in-law, but he could feel her glare stabbing him in the back.
Melissa scuttled over to the cupboard and, after slicing the bread and meat, put them together with butter. Then she poured coffee into a canning jar and, after a quick nod in her mother’s direction, went to pick up her satchel. Bread and coffee in her hands, she looked from the carpetbag to her husband and back again.
Jude started for the door. At his mother-in-law’s “Harumph,” he snorted in disgust and whirled back to pick up the carpetbag. The glare he shot at Melissa made her sob again.
The trip home passed without a word. When Jude cast withering glances at Melissa, she studied her hands or the goldenrod nodding in the evening breeze along the side of the dusty road.
That night in bed, Melissa whimpered in her sleep. When she began to cough, Jude jerked the sheet over him and rolled over in bed. “Can’t ya do something about that?” he snarled. “I need my sleep.”
When Melissa returned to the bed, the smell of camphor floated around her like a mist. Jude sat up, glared at her in the moonlight, and, after punching his pillow, flopped on his other side. What he wouldn’t do for a drink.
In the morning, Jude drove his mother and wife into town for church. After dropping them off, he aimed the horse toward the saloon at the other end of town.
He tied the animal to the hitching rack in front of the flat-fronted building and, after checking the locked door, walked around the back.
“Smitty, hey, Smitty. Open up,” Jude called softly as he rapped on the door. The saloon wouldn’t open until noon, but by then he should be back at the church to pick up the womenfolk.
“What now?” A rough voice called down from the flung-open window above.
“Hey, Smitty. How ya doin’?” Jude pushed the hat back on his head and grinned up at his friend.
“Well, well. If it ain’t Jude come back to town. ‘How ya doing’ is right. Where you been?” The bartender leaned his elbows on the windowsill.
“Here and there. How about a bottle? I gotta get back and pick up the womenfolk after church or I’d stay for a game or two. How things been, anyhow?”
“Good, good. But not the same without you around. Sure you can’t stay for a time or so?” A grin split the man’s leathery face. He polished the top of his shiny pate with a cupped hand.
“Not this time, but I ain’t gone for good. I’m helpin’ my ma out some, you know how it is when they gets older. So I’ll be around now and then.” Jude shifted from one foot to the other. “What about that bottle or you gonna jaw all day?”
Smitty pulled his head back so fast he banged his head on the window.
Jude laughed and slapped his knee. “Better be more careful with my bottle. I got a thirst ‘bout as wide as the Red in full flood.” He grinned as he realized it was good to be back in Soldahl. Now, if he could just figure a way to get rid of the womenfolk. His fingers itched for the cards the way his throat did for that first swallow of good, solid whiskey.
The door of the saloon swung open in front of him. “Come on in then, you old buzzard.” Smitty scratched himself and headed for the front of the saloon. “You heard about your brother?” He continued without waiting for an answer. “After he married that pretty little thing you brought over for him, they moved into the house with Mrs. Norgaard. In fact, as I heard it, the old lady deeded them two the house. Jude, you wouldn’t recognize—you seen Dag yet?”
“Now, why would I want to see him? You think I been pining away for the sight of my brother or something?” Jude clapped his hat down on the counter and hung his rear over a bar stool.
“Nah. I just thought I should bring you up to date, so’s you’re not too surprised or something.” Smitty slapped a bottle down on the bar. “That’ll be four bits.”
“Ah . . . I . . . uh . . . how about I pay for this later? I’m kinda short of cash right now.”
Smitty paused for a moment. “You know, I—” He paused. “All right. Just this once. For old-time’s sake.”
Jude swung off the stool. “Thanks. If nothing else, I’ll pay first hand I win.” He raised a hand in farewell and headed out the door.
Once seated in the wagon, he broke the seal of the bottle and, lifting the bottle high, poured a generous slug down his gullet. He sighed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It had been much too long between drinks.
He recapped the bottle and set it down in the back in between the burlap bags on the wagon bed. Now, after a stop at the mercantile for a store of tobacco, he’d head back for the church.
“Jude,” the store owner said, slapping his hands on the counter before him and leaning across it. “If’n you ain’t a sight for sore eyes. Gunna join us for a game tonight? I still gotta get that hunnert dollars back from the last round.”
“Soon, soon. Anything new been happening whilst I been gone?”
“You seen Dag? Man, we sure done him a favor, bringing that pretty little gal over from Norway for him.”
Jude felt a rage begin a slow burn down about his gut. If he heard about his wonderful brother one more time, he’d smash someone for sure. “Cut the jawing. You got any tobacco? And a couple of cigars. Better add some cheese, coffee, and some of those cinnamon twists. My ma always had a hankering for cinnamon twists.” He stared around the well-stocked store as he waited for his order. Cracker and pickle barrels fronted the wooden counter. Boxes of the new dry cereal called cornflakes lined the shelves above the tins of spices. Rakes, hoes, and pitchforks hung from hooks above the boxes of boots and shoes. Kitchenwares filled one aisle and farm implements another.
One of these days, when his ship came in, Jude knew he would come in here and just buy whatever he needed. No more of this putting it on the slip and heming and hawing back and forth over what he could buy. Why, he needed new boots and—he stared down at the split leather on his ancient boots. All he really needed was one good night at the card table. One good night and he’d be back up on top again.
“Here ya go.” Adam set the sack up on the counter. “Need anything else?”
“Not for now. Put that on my mother’s tab for now. I’ll settle up with you later.”
“I don’t know, Jude. Dag, he’s mighty particular what goes on the bill, now that he’s payin’ it.” He glanced up in time to catch the thundercloud racing across Jude’s face. “But I’m sure this time’ll be okay.”
If I hear the name Dag one more time, I’ll . . . I’ll . . .
Jude clamped a lid on his thoughts. He could put up with anything for a time. And what were the chances he’d be seeing his brother anyway? Dag surely didn’t bring that highfalutin’ wife of his out to the farm, and he sure didn’t show up at the saloon to deal a hand or two.
He paused as he swung up into the wagon. Unless Dag had changed in those ways, too. Jude shook his head. Nah, no chance. He dug in the sack for the tobacco and, after stretching open the pouch, dug out a pinch and placed it between his lip and gum. Now that, that was mighty fine. A swallow of good whiskey and a chaw of tobacco. Now, if only he could add a card game to that, the day would be perfect.
He spat a brown gob of tobacco juice into the dirt as he drove the horse and wagon past the Norgaard house. So this is where his brother lived now. He’s come up some since the soddie out on the plain. He spat again. Surely, there must be some way to bother his brother again. Some way that wouldn’t backfire this time.
When he got to the church he ignored his mother’s comments after handing her and Melissa up into the wagon. How could he get even? He jumped when he heard his mother mention Dag and Clara.
“They’re what?” The question popped out before he had time to organize his thoughts.
“Dag and Clara are coming out to visit this afternoon. I told them I’d bake a cake, but she insisted they’d bring supper. Sure will be nice to have a treat again.”
Jude dug down in the sack at his feet. “I got you a treat, something you always liked.” He pulled out the cinnamon twists. “See, I think of you plenty.”
“Why, thank you, you thoughtful boy,” Augusta simpered in a totally uncharacteristic manner. She took a candy stick from the sack and passed the packet back to Melissa, who huddled on the wagon bed.
“No, thank you,” she mumbled.
No, thank you
, Jude mimicked in his mind.
Why can’t I say no, thank you to Dag coming out? Why does he have to show up? All I heard about today was how great Dag is doing. Him and that wonderful wife of his.
Jude could feel the anger stirring again in his gut. The fire flickered and flamed as if doused by kerosene. He snapped the horse’s reins and stamped his foot against the footrest.