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A Heart For Home
By Lauraine Snelling
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2011 Lauraine Snelling
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJuly 1904 Rosebud Indian Reservation South Dakota
How can people live like this? Far takes better care of his animals.
"Doctor, we will get someone to clean this tepee." Thomas Moore, the Indian agent, stood beside her. "I will find help."
So why haven't you done so before this? Dr. Astrid Bjorklund clutched the handle of her black leather bag, the universal accoutrement carried by all in her profession. She felt like lancing him with recriminations but knew that would not help. At least he was trying to help now. Better late than never. The stench was the worst she had ever smelled, other than gangrene. "Let's take the two women and the child into the building we've already cleaned. We will bathe them first in the other tepee and leave their clothing to be washed."
"They most likely have nothing else to wear."
"Then we will cover them with the halves of sheets. When they are better, they can have their clothing back all clean." Astrid knelt beside the elder of the women, listened to her lungs, and checked her eyes. She was barely responsive. The younger woman looked to be halfway through her pregnancy. The small child's bones poked up through the blanket. All were hot to the touch.
It was all she could do not to break into tears. Even the tenements of Chicago had not been this terrible.
"How many more do I have yet to see?"
"I'd say you are half done." Mr. Moore had not come into the tepee but spoke from the entrance.
Astrid and her helpers had arrived three days earlier to a warm reception on the young agent's part but a decidedly cool one from the Indians. After the Chief, Dark Cloud, had greeted them, he had ignored her and talked instead, in his very broken English, with her father, Haakan Bjorklund, and Pastor Solberg. It was only because of her acquaintance with Dr. Red Hawk, whom she'd befriended during her training at the hospital in Chicago, that the chief was willing to accept their assistance.
The group had spent the first two days scrubbing the single building that had a stove and windows, a roof and a floor. Or rather the men had cleaned while she had started checking on the ill. They had moved the supplies, which had been donated by the people of Blessing, into the building and were doling those out. Haakan had a huge iron kettle of soup cooking on a tripod over a fire outside so they could feed broth to those too weak to eat solid food. They'd not accosted the Indian agent yet as to why the people were starving. Where were the promised government supplies?
"How many have died?" Astrid asked Mr. Moore.
"I ... I'm not sure. They don't always tell me."
She swallowed her "Why did you not ask?" and stepped out of the tepee and into the sunshine, relief at breathing clean air almost making her giddy. God, these are your children too. Why are they suffering like this? How do we make a difference here? Give me wisdom and guidance.
Two of the steers they'd brought from home had been slaughtered and the meat passed out to the families, along with flour and beans. They kept a guard on the chickens and hogs that were in side-by-side pens so that no one would steal them. Granted, it would be some time before there were hogs ready to slaughter, but getting breeding stock going was imperative. The eggs were being kept for those too sick to eat meat. Samuel Knutson, along with a young Indian boy, was weaving a roof of willow branches to keep the hawks from claiming the chickens.
Haakan and an Indian brave moved the older woman to a litter and, after settling her in the tepee for washing, came back for the younger woman and the child. An old Indian woman, who had not succumbed to the disease, would then bathe them with soap and warm water.
Astrid looked into the next tepee. Empty. Did that mean everyone had died, or were some people hiding from them? Red Hawk, you didn't begin to tell me how bad this was. Or didn't you know? This evening she would be having supper with the Indian agent and his wife. Perhaps some of her raging questions would be answered then.
In the next tepee she found a corpse, along with an old man who was so close to death, she checked him twice to be sure he was breathing. Should she try to help him or go on to someone she could possibly save? She brushed a lock of blond hair, which had escaped from her chignon, out of her eyes with the back of her hand. As far as she could see, all the tepees should be torched or at least taken down and scrubbed to rid them of the germs from secondary infections. She adjusted the man's position to help ease his breathing, but a moment later he breathed his last, and Astrid left for the next place, reminding herself to send Pastor Solberg back here to remove the bodies and maybe say a short prayer.
Haakan found her and took her by the arm. "You are coming to eat now." His gentle but firm voice almost broke the dam she kept in place to keep the tears from flowing.
As she had done as a little girl growing up in Blessing, she followed her father's instructions, knowing that she had to protect her own health too. After she got a plate of food, she sat on a rock in the sunshine, grateful for the cleansing breeze and sun on her back. Who could they get to start a garden and till a field for the wheat? Or, was it too late to do either this year? Would it be better to feed them the seed wheat—either grind it for flour or maybe just boil it to make gruel.
"How is the bathing going?" Astrid asked as she blew on a spoonful of hot rice.
"You now have ten clean patients," Haakan answered. "They are lying on pallets in the building. I should have brought wire for a clothesline. The washed clothing would dry more quickly. A couple of the children are responding already. I think the milk and egg drink with honey helps faster than anything, if they can keep it down. Thank God we brought the milk cow too."
"Have you asked the agent about the government supplies?"
"Not yet. He's been here only a month, and I think he is following that trail, trying to discover what happened to them."
"What about the agent before him? Didn't Hjelmer talk with that man?"
"A scoundrel from the sounds of it. He was selling the beef back to the fort as having been raised by the Indians and ready to sell."
Astrid closed her eyes. "What a scheme."
"The tribe has eaten all their horses, and the game is long gone. If they leave the reservation to hunt, they are thrown in jail—if they make it back to the jail."
"You mean some have been killed?"
Haakan hesitated a moment. "I believe so. Just quoting what I pieced together from the chief's explanation."
"Wish we had brought more of our young men along. They could have gone hunting. Are the Indians running snare lines for rabbits?"
"I think they've eaten everything that moves or can be dug up."
"I was thinking of the seed corn and wheat. Would it be better to feed that to them now, since there is no ground worked up for gardens and fields?"
"No. As soon as we've been through all the tepees, I am going to take a few of the stronger women and show them how to plant the seeds."
"What about the men?"
"Gardening is beneath them. They are hunters and warriors."
Astrid heaved a sigh. "Mor said Metiz had a garden and Baptiste helped her." Metiz was an Indian woman who had befriended the Bjorklunds when they arrived to homestead the land. Baptiste was her grandson, who lived with her.
Haakan nodded. "We'll put the children who aren't sick to work too."
Astrid tipped her head back and from side to side. "Thank you for making me eat. I feel much better."
"Some sleep would help too."
"I know. But please, Far, don't worry about me. I will be sensible." Astrid headed for the building she was now calling the infirmary to check on her patients there. She understood his trying to care for her. After all, she wasn't always entirely sensible as she forced herself to keep going.
Stepping into the shadowed room, she glanced around the rows of pallets full of sick Indians. She had one of the healthy people laying wet cloths on the skin of those with high fevers and changing the cloths as they dried. One person could handle three or four people that way. Another helper was assigned the task of feeding those that could accept nourishment, spooning broth into mouths. Astrid had wanted a clean spoon for each person, but that was beyond reality. So she had the utensils boiled as often as possible.
She knelt beside an older girl and received a shy smile. "You look like you're feeling better."
The girl's fever had broken and she was starting to regain her strength. This would be one of their success stories. In a couple of days she would be up and helping with the others. Astrid moved on when her eyes drifted closed.
The breeze from the open windows helped to cool some of the sufferers. And the two faithful women, who did exactly as Astrid told them, were forcing death to turn around and flee out the door. Had they only had screens on the windows, one more plague, the flies, would be ousted also.
By late afternoon when Astrid entered the last tepee for the day, she found a young brave delirious and burning with fever. The rash of measles that covered his body told the tale. A young woman lay dead beside him, her dead baby at her breast.
Astrid turned and left the tent. This was too much. Why had no one checked on them? It appeared that the woman had not been dead for long, but the baby was only a bundle of bones covered by skin. Astrid closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun. Lord God, this is too much. I cannot do this any longer. She paced around the outside of the tepee and fought with herself to open the flap to reenter.
"What is it?" Pastor Solberg asked as he stopped beside her. Astrid gestured to the inside, blinking hard to keep from crying. Dr. Elizabeth had struggled to have children and then, when she finally conceived, nearly died trying to birth one. These babies and children were left to die, to starve to death. Lord, this is not fair. She knew that was not the answer, but right now, had God been standing in front of her, she felt like shaking her fist in His face. Did He not care for all of His children? Or, as some believed, were these not His children after all?
"Astrid." After peering inside the tent, Solberg touched her arm. "Astrid, do you want us to take him to the infirmary?"
She shook her head, forcing herself to return to the present. "How do you trust God when you see things like this?" The words burst forth, breaking the dam. "I believe His Word, but when I see this horror, I am furious."
"As rightly you should be. There is no excuse for this. But to blame God?" He shook his head. "Think it through, my dear."
"But He has the power to take care of all of His people. Are these not His children too? We have so much, and they are here dying of hunger and disease. When we get sick at home, it is serious, yes, but not to the point of most everyone dying."
"But this is a white man's disease. And our diseases slaughter the Africans and the Indians alike. Someday we will know why and how, but for now, whose fault is it that these people have no food? Who is it that forced them to live on a reservation instead of wandering free, as they did for centuries? Why are they being forced to accept a new way of living, of farming rather than hunting?"
"I've read of other tribes that farm. The Navajo raise sheep and goats and plant gardens. Some other Sioux do too. But you are saying that our government is at fault."
"Yes, and who is our government?"
"The men in Washington."
"Many of whom hate Indians."
Like Joshua does. Astrid's mind flitted back to Blessing, where the man she had thought she was falling in love with had argued with her about her going to help the Indians. "But God is bigger than our government."
"He is that, but He expects us to take care of each other on this earth. He says to love everyone and do good to those who hurt you."
"Always back to that." Astrid heaved a sigh. "Let's get this man moved, and the others can take care of their dead."
"Judging by the symbols on the hides of this tepee, he appears to be an important young man. You would do well to help him recover."
"As if that were in my hands. Where's the litter?"
She assessed the brave again when he was clean and lying on a clean pallet. He reminded her of Red Hawk. The same build, the same nose and wide brow. Could this be a relative? She told the women to keep changing the cloths to bring his fever down and to get some broth into him. Mixing several of her mother's simples, she poured hot water over them to steep them and told the women to give him a few spoonfuls of the tea every hour or so, then pointed out several other patients who needed the same.
"If you mix some honey with it for the children, it will taste better."
One of the older women smiled at her, dark eyes flashing. Astrid nodded. Maybe things were turning around, even a tiny bit. Get women working together and everyone was helped. If only she could talk with them, find out if anyone in the tribe knew of the healing plants. Seeing their dark-skinned faces made her wish for Metiz. Her mother would tell stories about all those years ago when the Norwegians first homesteaded the land, how the old woman had shared her knowledge of things natural with Ingeborg and thusly all the people of Blessing. Perhaps one of the reasons I am here is because of Metiz. Maybe this is my turn to return the gifts she shared with my family so long ago. Astrid knew her mother thought that way. It was one reason she was so willing for Haakan to come along.
* * *
That night at supper at Thomas Moore's house, Astrid listened more than taking part in the conversation. Pastor Solberg and her father were doing just fine without her. Her mind flitted off to the outside, where she would rather have been. The agent's house was a hundred yards or more from what they were calling the infirmary, where government supplies had been stored at one time. The only supplies in it now were what they had brought from Blessing. The tepees were about the same distance down the creek, and Haakan had insisted they park their wagons upstream from the settlement, establishing the fourth corner of a square, with the fires for cooking and cleaning near the center.
The porches on both the front and the back of the agent's house made it look larger than it was, huddling into the ground as if seeking refuge. An American flag flew from a pole on the northeastern corner of the front porch. With no plants around it, the house looked more military than welcoming.
"Would you care for more dessert?" Mrs. Moore asked Astrid softly.
She brought herself back to the present. "No, thank you. The meal was delicious."
"Then shall we retire to my ladies' parlor and leave the gentlemen to their discussion?"
Astrid almost said, "You go, and I'll stay here, where the discussion is interesting," but she knew her far would not approve. He was as much a stickler for manners as Mor was, and he'd heard the invitation. So she followed the lead of her young hostess, excused herself, and stepped through a curtained doorway into another room.
Glancing around the parlor, she wondered where the money had come from. Walnut furniture, wallpaper, heavy curtains. How many wagon trains had it taken to bring all that finery those last miles? "Your home is lovely," she commented.
"Thank you. So many of these things are my mother's. I couldn't bear to leave them behind, and once we arrived here and saw the desolation, I was even more grateful to have a nice home for Mr. Moore to return to. He works so hard for the Indians, but they don't show much appreciation for what he is doing."
Maybe they don't see this as better. Astrid tried to think of something polite to say. "Have you been trying to set up a school or education for them?"
"No, I don't mingle with the natives. Just with Ann, who comes in to help me. Training her has been difficult beyond belief. Even such simple things as washing her hands."
"And you pay her for working for you?"
"Yes, at least I think so. Thomas takes care of all our financial affairs."
"Have you planted a garden? That was one of the first things my mother did when she arrived in North Dakota. Fresh food is so important."
"Thomas did, but it is not doing well. The lack of rain, you know."
So why don't you carry water to it? "I take it you don't go outside much?"
"Thomas says it is too dangerous out there for me. And besides, this sun is so hot that it beams right through my parasol."
Excerpted from A Heart For Home by Lauraine Snelling Copyright © 2011 by Lauraine Snelling. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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