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Harlan County, Nebraska, 1881
Will scooped up six-year-old Tommy and called to Willy over his shoulder, "It's time to go, son. The wagon is hitched and we need to leave so that we can get to the river before nightfall." Will had left detailed instructions with Jake, his nephew, about the care of the livestock and what Jake should be doing in the next three days. Now everything was ready for them to leaveeverything except his oldest son. Willy had dragged his feet all morning, and Will was quickly losing his patience with his namesake.
"Are we going to go get the new Auntie Shelia?" Tommy asked, his little face full of excitement. His eyes were the same color as Caroline's had beenan expressive hazel that changed hues with her mood. Did the boy actually remember Auntie Shelia? No, that was impossible. Tommy was only three when Auntie Shelia had come to stay with them after her niece Caroline's death. She stayed six months before she declared the West "too dangerous and uncivilized for anyone to hope to raise a respectable family."
"No, Tommy, not another aunt. She's our new housekeeper," Will corrected gently, trying to find the right words to explain. "Miss Stewart is coming to do the cooking and cleaning and help you and your brother with your studies. She will be like a grandmother to you but isn't related to you. She'll be our housekeeper. Do you understand?"
Will glanced out of the window impatiently, aware of the sun rising high in the horizon. It must be close to nine and they had a full day's ride to get to the river before dark. From the river it was only a little more than a two-hour ride and they would be in Twin Oaks with time to get cleaned up well before the train arrived tomorrow at noon.
Miss Stewart was due in on that train and he needed to be there. It wouldn't do to have his new housekeeper step off into the small prairie town and not have the family there to extend their welcome.
Will hadn't been all that set on the idea of bringing in a housekeeper when his mother had suggested it, but after several letters back and forth, he'd become convinced Miss Stewart was the perfect woman for the job. She was only one of a few dozen women who had replied to the ad his mother had placed in the Christian Ladies' Journal who seemed to want the job for the right reasons. Most of the others were only thinly veiled attempts to trap a husband. Miss Stewart wrote that she was ready to move on from her sister's home where she had lived for years, and that she wanted to settle in with a family who loved the Lord and where she could put her education and her gifts of cooking and cleaning to use.
Instead of answering his father, the boy yelled to his brother, leaving Will nearly deaf, "Hurry, we're going to go get our new house."
"Not house, Tommy," Willy snickered, finally sauntering down the stairs. At age nine he felt he knew all there was to know about life and delighted in informing his little brother. "Our new housekeeper. She'll probably take one look at this mess and make Pa take her right back to the train station." He sounded almost hopeful. Willy was right about one thingtheir house wasn't likely to make a good impression. He and the boys would have to do their best to make up for that.
"Hey, that's enough. Now both of you head out to the wagon," Will ordered, setting Tommy back on the ground and glancing around his kitchen. The place had become messier as time went on. He had a bad habit of burning the oatmeal, and two skillets sat soaking in the sink were reminders of his lack in the culinary arts. One more thing Will had included in his instructions to Jakemake the place somewhat presentable before they arrived with the new housekeeper.
Will imagined a woman his mother's age. From what he had read in her letters, her character seemed to be above reproach, and that was his main interestthat, and how well she cooked. Hopefully Miss Stewart could teach his boys some table manners, as well.
Finally, Will and the boys were in the wagon, moving along toward the river. The sky seemed so big and far above the earth and stretched out in all directions without any hindrance. The prairie plants, just having started to grow again after the winter, danced at knee level and waved on the breeze that kept the sun from completely baking both man and beast. Will was grateful for his hat. There were no trees to offer shade on the large expanse of prairie until they came closer to the river.
As he drove, he took in the breathtaking scenery. His thoughts turned to how majestic God was, having formed all this with just a word. Will didn't need to be in church to be awestruck by God. Creation was enough to hold him spellbound and speechless. The boys asked questions and he took advantage of those opportunities to show them God's handiwork.
After a full day's drive and a good night's sleep by the river, Will headed into town, glad to be almost at his destination. He couldn't help but be impressed by the way the small town of Twin Oaks had grown from just five houses in the middle of nothing a few years ago to a small but bustling village. New settlers seemed to be arriving all the time. People were still taking advantage of the Homestead Act that President Lincoln had signed back in 1862. The same law Will and Mathew had taken advantage of ten years ago. Will found a spot in the shade of the train depot and tethered the horses to the hitching post.
Their first stop once they were in town was the barber. He wanted to impress Miss Stewartnot scare her off. The boys had not had a haircut in more than a year. He hadn't been very vigilant about combing out the snarls, either. Once everyone looked civilized again, the barber offered them each a piece of hard candy from a jar on his countertop.
Main Street was crowdedplenty of people waiting for goods and travelers off the incoming train. Back out on the street, he headed the boys toward the mercantile. Glancing at his pocket watch, he assured himself there was still time to pick up supplies before he needed to meet the train. Afterward, he could take the new housekeeper and his boys to lunch at the one and only hotel in Twin Oaks.
Standing in the doorway of the store brought back memories of his father's store back in Philadelphia with all its sights and sounds. His throat tightened and he was surprised as a wave of nostalgia caught him unexpectedly. He took in the sight of wares stacked on wooden shelving and in barrels on the floor. Would his boys ever see his father's store?
Pushing aside his sudden homesickness, he set to work, choosing supplies. Warning Tommy and Willy not to touch anything, he let them wander around to look at the toys and gadgets on display. Meanwhile, he bought some coffee, sugar and a few other cooking items women used to buy at his father's store. He didn't even know how to use most of them but figured maybe Miss Stewart would. He hadn't savored homemade baking since Mathew's wife, MaryAnn, had died. It would be a treat just to have someone who knew their way around a kitchen again. He would ask the new housekeeper if she had ever made raisin bread or bread pudding .
He picked up the small crate of raisins and made his final selections. At the counter, he greeted Josh, the owner.
"Good to see you again," Josh said, tallying up the purchases on a piece of paper and then entering the figure in his ledger. "I haven't seen you since you brought in your wheat last fall."
"Yeah. I like to stock up when I get out. It's more than a day's trip out and I wouldn't risk it in the winter," Will rejoined. He wasn't really in the mood to chat, but he didn't want to seem rude, either. "Town seems to be growing."
"It is. We're getting more people every year. Are you going to be staying in town overnight or are you headed back?"
"We'll be headed back." Will was used to keeping his life to himself, but Tommy had other ideas.
"We gotta take our auntie House back to our farm," the little tyke explained in his mixed-up way. The shopkeeper blinked at Tommy and scratched his head, but Tommy continued on without a break. "She's gonna be a grandma to me and keep the house nice. She's even gonna teach us stuff like how to be gent'men. She's gonna be really nicenot like our other auntie, who was mean and yelled all the time.. "
"Tommy." Will was surprised at the last statement. Tommy couldn't possibly remember his great-aunt. He must have been parroting something he heard from his older brother, or his cousin. But, no, it wasn't likely Jake had said anythingthe teenager wasn't the type to tell tales. If anything, Will wished he was more in the habit of speaking up for himself. Willy, like his brother, had no such problem.
What did Willy remember of his great-aunt? Will had been too busy trying to keep the farm afloat to pay much attention to how the woman treated the children. He was going to have to do a better job this time. He wanted his boys educated but not at the cost of their being mistreated.
Once again, doubts assailed himwas he doing the right thing by letting a total stranger into his home? Maybe he and Jake could handle the boys on their own. But he'd given Miss Stewart his word, and she had packed up her whole life to come out to Nebraska. He had to at least give her a chance. Maybe he could let her stay for a few weeks while he watched how the boys reacted to her. Meanwhile, he'd pray about sending her back or having her stay. She might decide Nebraska wasn't right for her after all. She'd hardly be the first to feel that way. In the meantime, there was no sense in borrowing trouble.
After all, he had been praying for this since last spring. God directed Miss Stewart to answer his ad and she would be arriving within the hour. Obviously God's hand moved in this and had sent her here. Tommy and Willy needed a woman's influence in their upbringing.
With that thought in mind, he prayed for wisdom and headed the boys out of the mercantile and off to the train station. The sound of the locomotive whispered on the wind as it came closer to town. Its whistle announced its approach before it even came into view. In just a few minutes, Miss Stewart would step off the train, and Will would see how right he'd been to bring her to Nebraska.