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They're not going to chase me away!" Laurina Dalen stood alone on the edge of the bluff, silhouetted against the vast pearl gray sky of early morning, and flung her declaration into the air with bright determination. "For fourteen years I've waited to return to this beautiful wild prairie, and I'm not going to let some grasshoppers chase me away now."
Her brown cotton skirt billowed out behind her in the wind that rose with the sun each day on the prairie. The deep brown of the wool shawl clutched about her to ward off the chill in the morning air was drab beneath the rich chestnut curls cascading about her slender shoulders.
But Laurina's mind wasn't on the cold nor on the wind that playfully tugged at her hair. Her thoughts followed the gaze of her large brown eyes to the covered wagons in the cottonwood grove of the village below.
The bellows of oxen, the voices of men shouting orders, and the creak of wagon wheels were carried up the bluff by the wind and sounded loud to Laurina compared to the usual silence of the plateau. Beneath the waving, empty branches of the cottonwoods, men scurried about loading last minute supplies, and women hugged friends and neighbors farewell. The stripped branches, more typical of the branches in December than the last week in July, were a grim reminder of the grasshoppers that were forcing these people from the fertile lands of western Minnesota.
The voracious green creatures were gone now. They had left over a week ago in one large, dark cloud. But they were still chasing away her friends-the strong, vital people she had come to know this past year. The wagons were heading farther west, some to the goldfields of the Black Hills, some beyond to the Pacific. The people would find new lands, build new homes, dream new dreams.
But Laurina's dream was here in Chippewa City. In spite of the grasshoppers, the drought, and the hailstorm that had combined to wreak havoc with the crops, she had never been so gloriously happy. Just living with her father again after fourteen years was cause enough for joy.
And there was Matthew-Matthew Strong, the only doctor in Chippewa County.
"Thank You, Lord. Thank You that Matthew isn't leaving," she breathed softly. Her smile deepened as she pictured his hair that shimmered like soft gold when the sun shown on it, his wide face with its lively eyes the blue of Minnesota's lakes on a sunny summer day, and his cheeks that were always ruddy from the sun and wind.
She hadn't seen him for five days, but it wasn't uncommon for Matthew Strong to spend days out on the prairie of southwestern Minnesota visiting patients. His office was here in Chippewa City, but he felt such a responsibility for the scattered settlers that he visited the more distant settlements at least once every few weeks.
Laurina knew that Matthew tried to see as many patients as possible on each trip so the hours he spent bouncing across the lonely prairie on a hard buggy seat would not be wasted. The prairie grapevine, still amazing to Lamina after her many years in the East, preceded him as he came near their homesteads. As she looked out over the valley, Laurina smiled to herself. What was it about Matthew that caught her heart when she had been immune to the young men who had courted her back east? Was it his sense of responsibility, his dedication to helping people, that kept him here on the prairies of western Minnesota where his patients often couldn't afford to pay for his services?
Or was it the way Matthew rejoiced in just living? Despite the heavy responsibilities he carried on his broad shoulders, he had the most joyous spirit of any man she knew. Perhaps, above all else, it was his love of life that drew her to him. When she was with him, she felt like a carefree schoolgirl rather than an aging spinster of twenty.
How she loved him! But Matthew, the only man who filled her waking and sleeping hours with dreams of a future together, had never spoken of love or marriage, had never kissed her. Instead of flirting with her, he normally spent any time they were together teasing her. Sometimes when the teasing in his voice and eyes turned to tenderness, she let herself hope he might return her love. A thousand times she had imagined being swept into his muscular arms, his voice husky with emotion as he confessed his love for her, his eyes-
"Morning, Miss Boston."
Laurina jumped as the voice that had been playing in her mind spoke from behind her, and she whirled around to look up at the young giant. If he only knew what she, a minister's daughter, had been thinking, he wouldn't call her by that proper nickname! As usual his flashing smile and sparkling blue eyes caused her heart to skip a beat. She tripped over her simple words of greeting.
"M-Matthew! I mean, Dr. Strong. I-I didn't hear you come up."
Matthew pushed the broad-brimmed black hat back on his head, exposing his blond hair to the morning's rays, and warmly smiled down at her. "Thought the 'hoppers stripped the prairie of flowers, but I can see now I was wrong."
Confused but pleased at his words, Laurina lowered her lashes over flushed cheeks. She hugged her shawl more closely about her shoulders in an effort to muffle the beat of her runaway heart. Unsuccessfully, she struggled to think of an appropriate answer.
"Not going down to say good-bye to anyone, Boston?"
She brushed back tendrils of coppery hair the wind was whipping into her face and shook her head. "No, I've said my good-byes."
She turned back to the scene in the valley-it was easier to keep her thoughts together when she wasn't trying to meet those captivating eyes. Such a thing to worry about when our friends are leaving their homes, she reprimanded herself silently as she watched the bustling people below. "I feel sorry for them, Dr. Strong. It must be hard to leave. They all had so many dreams when they came here."
"They'll make new dreams, Boston. They're a tough lot, for the most part."
"Father is down there. Some of the people asked if he'd pray with them before they left. I thought ...," she hesitated, then continued with a rush, "I thought I'd pray for them from up here. Somehow, it seemed appropriate, as though the blessing would float down and settle over the tops of the wagons." She glanced up at him. "I guess that seems silly."
The blue eyes she loved looked down at her. "Doesn't sound silly to me. Expect they can use those prayers. Mind if I join you?"
Laurina stared at him in surprise as he bowed his head. They had never prayed together before.
They stood next to each other, etched against the slowly bluing sky, as Matthew brought their request before God. "Lord, we lift our departing friends before Thee. We ask that Thou keep them safe as they journey and supply their daily needs. Guide each family to the place Thou hast reserved for them alone and refresh their spirits with hope. We leave them in Thy arms, Lord. Amen."
"Amen," Laurina repeated softly. We haven't even touched, yet I've never felt so close to him.
"The wagons look like loaf after loaf of frosted bread, don't they?" she said, breaking the comfortable silence.
"Might wish we had some bread here before the winter's up, frosted or not. Looks as though only one field in the county survived the 'hoppers. Won't be half enough flour to go around this winter." His tone was matter-of-fact, with no hint of bitterness.
As she contemplated his comment, Laurina's fingers played idly with the edge of her shawl. Last year the grasshoppers had turned their ravenous appetites on the waving fields of wheat in Chippewa County and approximately half the crops had been lost. This year was far worse-even the gardens of Chippewa City had been invaded. There were no vegetables to be had anywhere, at any cost.
The people who remained spoke of a brighter future. Laurina was fiercely proud of the way they held to their hope in the midst of poverty, in the face of the stagnation of the young community. She was glad to be one of them.
She lifted her pointed chin a trifle, and determination glinted in her usually soft eyes. "Well, a few green pests aren't going to chase me away!"
Matthew's laugh rang out on the morning breeze. "A few green pests? You know, you make a pretty good prairie woman for a lady from Boston."
Laurina drew herself up to her full five feet, squared her shoulders, and looked up indignantly at him. "I was living on the Minnesota prairie long before you."
"Until you were six years old. Hardly counts as pioneering," he chided playfully.
"You can't look down your nose at me too much, Dr. Strong. After all, since no one lived here ten years ago, everyone in Chippewa City is a transplant. Some of them even come from Boston."
"Ah, yes," he agreed amiably, disciplining the smile on his lips though not succeeding with the laughter in his eyes. "But there's a mighty difference in the transplanting of a farmer or a blacksmith and the transplanting of a proper Boston maiden. Yet, I admit I'm fairly impressed with your progress." As he looked at her, he rocked back on the heels of his dusty boots, lifted his eyebrows, and tilted his head.
Was that a hint of admiration she saw lurking behind the laughter in his eyes? "I'm going to pretend you meant that as a compliment and change the subject." She turned her back on him primly and looked out over the valley again as he chuckled.
Below them, simple log and frame buildings straggled bravely alongside the dusty main street at the bottom of the bluff. Her eyes roamed past the river that bordered the town and the stripped cottonwood grove with its band of wagons to the far bluff and beyond where the prairie resumed its unending flat expanse.
"I'm glad Father's cabin is built up here where the view goes on forever, rather than down in the valley. It seems impossible that there will ever be more buildings up here on the bluff, what with so many people leaving."
"But the town fathers have plans for this village, Boston. It's not going to stay trapped down there forever." Matthew swung around, taking in the plateau behind them with the sweep of his arms. "They don't see just a one-room schoolhouse and a half-dozen log homes up here like there are now. They see rows and rows of tall, fine houses, with churches there, and there, and there." His broad index finger stabbed the air. "And maybe over there a university, a large brick university standing solid and majestic against the prairie winds. With a library beside it, filled with the knowledge and literature of the world. And trees, trees everywhere-elms and oaks and maples and cottonwoods-stretching their limbs out over wide streets, sheltering fine carriages pulled by matched mares." With a wink and a grin, he looked over his shoulder at her. "Carriages filled with beautiful women." He rested his hands on his slender hips, his eyes shining over the barren plateau. "It's going to be a fine town, Boston."
Laurina smiled at his enthusiasm. "I can almost see it growing before my eyes when you talk about it like that." This is what I love most about him, she thought. The eager way he approaches life.
"It's the most up-and-coming town on the prairie, Boston. Even the St. Paul Pioneer Press says so."
"Those statements were made before the grasshoppers came, Dr. Strong."
He brushed her argument aside with a wave of his hand. "The 'hoppers are gone now, and the most reliable reports say they won't be back next year."
"The people are leaving, also," she reminded gently, nodding toward the crowd bustling about the wagons in the valley below, "and not only the farmers. The probate judge has already left, and one of the owners of the mill And now the sheriff, the tinsmith, and the farm implement salesman are leaving."
"Merchants from the East and immigrant farmers poured into the area before the 'hoppers came, and they will again, you'll see."
Before she arrived last year, Laurina thought the destruction of the crops affected only the farmers. She hadn't realized that the entire economy of a new town on the edge of the frontier was dependent on the farmers for survival. Chippewa City was less than ten years old and hadn't the capital to withstand the economic blow dealt by the grasshoppers.
Wind-tangled curls brushed her shoulders as she shook her head. "You are an eternal optimist."
His beautiful smile flashed. "So are you, or weren't you just telling me a few minutes ago that the 'hoppers weren't going to chase you out?"
"Well ..." A grin tugged at the comers of her mouth, and she bent her head, studying the ground to hide the laughter in her eyes.
"So here we are, two optimists in the middle of a county entirely destroyed by 'hoppers. And what's wrong with that?" He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Remember the verse your father preached on Last Sunday?"
Laurina stared at him in surprise. First he prayed with her, and now he was talking about Scripture?
"You remember, Boston, the verses from Joel 2," he urged.
"I remember, it's just-" She swallowed her astonishment. "I remember. `And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpiller, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you. And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed.'"
Matthew nodded emphatically. "That's the one. `I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten.' I believe that. Besides, looking on the dark side of things never solved any problems. Sure never built any dries! And Chippewa City will be a fine city one day, Boston. You'll see."
I can see a lot of things I haven't seen before, Lamina thought, and I like what I see. "If everyone else did leave this town, I declare you'd build it yourself, Dr. Strong."
"Wouldn't have to build it all by myself, Boston, since you're determined to stay put." The look he gave her sent chills scurrying all the way down to her toes.
Laurina's gaze seemed glued to his. She tried to swallow the lump growing in her throat. Unsuccessful in the attempt, she forced her voice past the maddening obstruction. "S-sounds like building that town you described is more your vision than it is the town fathers'."
"That's only a piece of my vision." Matthew turned back to the broad, empty plateau, his hands on his hips, a distant look gentling his face. "I want a hospital here, Boston. A place where people can come when they're sick, instead of lying in dirty sod huts and cold log cabins scattered across the prairie where I can't reach them in the middle of a blizzard."
Excerpted from Minnesota by JoAnn A. Grote Copyright © 2003 by JoAnn A. Grote
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.