Read an Excerpt
A Seeking Heart
By Kim Vogel Sawyer
Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLCCopyright © 2002 Kim Vogel Sawyer
All rights reserved.
On the outskirts of Mountain Lake, Minnesota, a young girl was seated beneath a gnarled, century-old cottonwood. It was one of the few trees left standing when the farmers cleared the land to plant their Turkey Red wheat some seventy-five years past. But she didn't know that, not yet. She rested her back against the bark, the tree's shade a welcome respite from the stifling August heat. The gentle whisper of the wind through the leaves was as pleasing as a lullaby to the weary traveler.
She was tired. Bone-tired, her Gran would have said. She had come a long distance, sometimes hitching rides in the backs of rattling wagons and once having the luxury of a leather seat in a Model T. But mostly she walked. Her feet carried blisters and calluses representing the many miles covered, and now she pushed them into the soft soil beneath the tree to cool them. Her inner thighs were sore, chafed by the four-sizes-too-large overalls she had donned for her journey, and her wrists were grubby and dirt streaked from constantly rolling up the sleeves of the loose flannel shirt. Her attire was most inappropriate for the heat of the summer, yet she had carefully chosen each item before setting out. Her attempt was to pass as a young farm boy rather than the seventeen-year-old young lady she was. She had her reasons.
The abominable itching of her scalp bothered her more than anything else. She'd tucked her nearly waist-length hair up into a worn brown suede hat discarded by her father years ago. She longed to pull it off, shake out her hair, and scratch her skull until it tingled, but she didn't dare. She might not be able to cram it all back. So she satisfied herself by shifting the hat around on her head. It offered some relief.
Moving her position against the tree, she closed her eyes and released a deep sigh. Her belly rumbled, and she rubbed at her empty midsection. "I know, I know," she mumbled, "I should find something to eat. Soon." She grimaced as her stomach cramped painfully.
It was noon yesterday when she had eaten last, and then only a handful of soda crackers and a wormy apple she'd snitched from the Blue Earth Mercantile's apple barrel when no one was looking. The problem was that her meager cash supply was fearfully low, with her hunger immeasurably high. She crossed her arms over her belly and pressed in, hoping to still the hunger pangs and wondering what she should do.
Truth of the matter was she'd been formulating a plan under her battered suede hat ever since she'd passed a neat farm house about a mile and a half back. The white-washed two-story, its big wrap-around porch and bright marigolds lining the pathways from the house to the dirt road, bespoke of no little wealth. And judging from the number of dungarees, work shirts, and stockings hanging on lines between the barn and outhouse, it also indicated a whole passel of youngsters—too many for one rural farmer in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, to keep track of, the girl reasoned.
Luckily the owner had painted his name on the road side of the barn in neat block letters for all to see: KLAASSEN FARM. It seemed to her as though the man was offering to become her benefactor. She stayed seated, though, pushing the plan back and forth in her mind. Hungry as she was, the thought of stealing rankled. Oh, she'd done her fair share of pilfering, like the crackers and apple, and if you came right down to it, she'd actually stolen the clothes she was wearing from the trunk in the cellar back home. But thievery still didn't set easily on her shoulders. A necessity rather than a choice, she concluded with a sigh.
Another rumbling, this time not from her stomach, brought her bolt upright, prepared for flight. From around the bend came a boxy wagon, its high sides painted celery green and pulled by two large, well-muscled horses, though they also looked like they might be well along in years. Atop the wagon seat, holding loosely onto the reins with elbows resting lazily on his knees, was a figure in a gray plaid shirt, its sleeves rolled above the elbows, faded blue britches, and a fringe of brown hair below the straw hat.
He must have spotted her and nodded a greeting. "Howdy, boy." His smile seemed relaxed, unthreatening.
She gave a barely perceptible nod in return and turned away, heart pounding. The young man clucked to the horses and continued on. She watched around the tree, her heart bumping its apprehension inside her chest, until the wagon disappeared over a gentle rise in the road, headed back the way she had come. When only a cloud of dust remained, she collapsed against the tree trunk.
He thinks I'm a boy.... Knowing her disguise was working gave her the confidence she needed to go ahead with her plan. She waited a few minutes to be certain the wagon and its driver were well ahead of her, then pushed to her feet. She reached for her boots, but couldn't bear the thought of confining her poor feet inside those instruments of torture again. She tied the rawhide laces together and slung them over her shoulder. With a sigh—and another loud growl from her middle—she began following the wagon tracks back toward the town.
* * *
"Whoa, there, Bet, Tick," Adam Klaassen called as he pulled the team up in front of Tucker's Lumber and Hardware Store. With practiced motions he wrapped the reins around the brake and leaped off the wagon, his landing a soft fump in the dirt street. He whipped the straw hat from his head and banged it against his pant leg a time or two to loosen the dust, ran his fingers through his hair, then slapped the hat back on his head.
Three long strides put him on the stoop to Tucker's store, and he squeaked the screen door open. He stood in the doorway a moment, allowing his sight to adjust from the bright sunshine to the gloom of the store's interior. Although the building boasted two large windows, one on either side of the wooden entry door, the owner didn't seem to find time or impetus to clean them. The accumulated dust and grime, whirled up from the street by the near-constant wind, adequately blocked the light from the shop.
Adam stepped a few feet into the building. "Mr. Tucker?" He glanced around at the wild disarray that made up Nip Tucker's stock. Barrels of nails, makeshift shelves holding a variety of tools, and stacks of lumber in various lengths created a mind-boggling maze of disorganization. Adam moved closer to the tall, dusty counter at the rear of the store and called the owner's name again.
Adam cocked an ear at rustling from behind the counter, followed by the squeak of tin upon tin, and finally a resounding burp. He held back a grin as Nip's huge frame straightened from his attempt at concealment. Nip slipped a slim tin canister into the hip pocket of his enormous overalls before leaning beefy hands on the counter. He greeted Adam with a face-splitting smile, revealing a gap from a missing tooth.
No one knew Nip's real name, but his nickname came from his habit of partaking frequently of the tin canister he tried to conceal in his ample pocket. Despite Nip's obvious weakness for the tobacco chew he kept in his mouth, he was an honest businessman and well liked in the community by townspeople and farmers alike.
"Well, howdy-do, Adam." Nip's broad face remained locked in a cheerful grin. The man had more smile lines than anyone else Adam knew. His fuzzy white hair stood in tufts around an oversized head, and with his round belly and red-veined nose, he resembled a jolly, giant carved elf from the Old Country.
"Howdy to you, Mr. Tucker." Adam smiled back and leaned his elbows on the unkempt counter. "Pa sent me in for some two-penny nails and a leather piece, say"—he gestured—"so big."
"That I c'n do, I shorely c'n do it." Nip stuck out his lower lip and scratched at raspy chin whiskers. "Let's see now ... two-penny nails." He ambled around the counter and waddled between aisles of barrels, giving each an inquisitive peek. The man could have done with more room between them, but the store's size and the quantity of stock were realities he couldn't change.
Adam knew the minute Nip found what he was looking for by a happy hiccup. As Nip made his way back to the counter for a paper sack, Adam wondered at the near-miraculous ability of Nip to find anything he wanted. Adam had never been able to spot any kind of organizational system in the cluttered shop. Yet, to his knowledge, Nip had never disappointed a customer.
Nip dropped two huge handfuls of nails in the sack, then carefully weighed them, squinting at the rusty scale with great concentration. "Pound an' a quarter." He peered at Adam over his shoulder. "That enough?"
"Ought 'a be."
"An' a strip o' leather, so big?" Nip held out those large hands.
Adam nodded. "Yep. It's for a hinge on the chicken coop. Pa says the busy rooster just plum wore out the other one."
The men shared a snort of laughter. Nip located a pocketknife in the depths of his overalls and whacked off a four-inch piece of leather from a much longer strip. He dropped it in the sack with the nails and handed the bag to Adam.
"Can you add this to our tab?" Adam rolled down the bag's opening. "Pa will be in at the end of the month to settle with you."
Nip flapped a big paw in agreement. "No problem, Adam. Your pa's always good for it."
"Thanks a lot." Adam headed for the door with his purchase. He pushed at the door, but before he could step outside Nip called to him.
"Adam, hold up a minute, would'ja? Wonder if you'd mind playin' delivery boy for me." He huffed his way around the counter, waving a thick roll of gray mesh with one hand and toting a clanking burlap bag in the other. "Lank Schroeder ordered up a passel o' drawer pulls for them bureaus he's always building, and I got this here screen to replace that what's tore on the back door of your uncle's store. Could'ja run these things over to the furniture place an' the mercantile fer me?"
Adam noted the time and effort it took Nip to pull his big frame around the counter and through the shop to the doorway. It would take the man most of the morning to make the two deliveries. Adam wasn't in a big hurry to return home. He could do this favor. "Don't mind a bit, Nip."
"Thank ya much." Nip gave Adam's shoulder a friendly slap on the back that sent him through the doorway and out into the August heat. Nip followed with the two items, his heaving breaths providing further warmth on the back of Adam's neck. He dropped his little bag over the edge of the wagon bed, then took the two deliveries from Nip's big hands.
"Thanks again, boy," Nip said.
"Sure thing. Have a good day, Mr. Tucker."
It would take more time to get Bet and Tick moving again than to simply hoof it. Adam tossed the burlap bag over his shoulder, tucked the roll of screen beneath his arm, and aimed his feet toward the furniture shop.
* * *
The small figure stood at the north edge of Tenth Street beside a Baptist church and surveyed the area with practiced nonchalance. Her pa had been in the habit of calling her dim-witted, but her brother David said she was as bright as a new penny.
One thing she knew is that she must be very careful, miss nothing of importance to her plan. But there wasn't much to see as she looked around. Mountain Lake was hardly a town at all compared to where she had been born and raised.
While this town was small, she had to admit the businesses appeared to be well-kept and the houses showed neat yards and recent paint jobs. The people living here apparently took pride in their town. For some reason she couldn't understand, it rankled her a bit.
Meandering on still-bare feet past a pool hall, she headed for the small business district. Across the street, the green wagon and horses she'd seen earlier on the road hunkered down in the shade of a large, gray-sided building with "Tucker's Lumber & Hardware" painted on the side in childish letters. The rather shabby store stood in contrast to the neat park with its mowed grass and tall trees on the next block.
She stepped from the dirt road onto a raised walkway, the boards warm and smooth beneath her feet. A cozy little house sat on the corner of Tenth Street and Fourth Avenue, nestled next to a series of businesses from shoe repair to implement sales to a tall bank building made of stone. Her lower lip pulled between her teeth, her gaze whisked over the signs. Where was a mercantile? On the opposite side of the street and down the block, a huge building sported a sign which read "Hiebert & Balzer Store" in fancy painted letters. Hope ignited in her breast.
After a glance right and left, she scurried kitty-corner across Third Avenue and stepped onto another boardwalk running the length of the second block of buildings. She pressed her palm to her rumbling belly as she peeked through the shiny glass window of Hiebert & Balzer's, the words restated in a gold, swirly typeface on the pane. A quick look confirmed it had what she needed. But several wagons waited outside the large store, which meant a number of shoppers would be milling inside. Lots of eyes watching. She held back the impulse to enter the store, do what she'd come to do, and get on her way. Eagerness might lead to carelessness. With a sigh, she moved on.
Scuffing past a drugstore and another general merchandise store which she chose to bypass for the same reasons as the previous, she stopped to scope out the opposite side of the street, scanning the names of the businesses. A hardware store, a tailor shop, a house, another drugstore, and—she let out a little gasp of delight. Between John Schroeder Drug Store and First State Bank stood the Family Mercantile of Mountain Lake.
A narrow, two-story wooden structure with a square, false front painted white and sporting dark green window trim, it took up merely a quarter of the space of the intimidating Hiebert & Balzer Store and was also smaller than A. A. Woodruff's. It displayed the only porch along the length of the boardwalk. Spooled posts decorated with bands of green and yellow held up each corner of the porch roof, giving the mercantile a pleasant, homey appearance. The girl smiled as she examined the shop. Small. Welcoming to families. Not likely to be filled with people.
She trotted across the street and leaned against one of four limestone posts, iron rings embedded in their tops, standing in a precise row in front of the bank. One lazy-looking horse hitched to a fancy, two-seater buggy stood dozing in front of the second post, his tail swishing in slow motion.
Relying on the horse to partially hide her from view, the girl licked her dry lips, her thoughts scrambling. South of the mercantile, Tenth Street intersected with railroad tracks angling their way out of town. She curled her arm around the warm limestone post, planning her best course afterward. Straight south through the stockyard—no one would want to follow her there—then west along the railroad tracks until she'd hit the edge of town.
The escape route chosen, she sucked in a big breath for fortification, pushed off the post, and moved purposefully toward the Family Mercantile of Mountain Lake.CHAPTER 2
The girl paused briefly outside the scrolled screen door to dampen her dirty palms with her tongue and swipe them roughly against the seat of her equally filthy overalls. She peered at her hands in vexation. Still streaked with dirt. But they'd have to do. One last tug on her hat brim brought it comfortingly low around her ears. She assumed a casual pose, hooking her thumbs in the rear pockets of her britches.
Her boots still swung over one shoulder, thumping her chest and back as she moved. With the other shoulder she bumped the door open. A cowbell hanging above the screen door clanged a noisy greeting, startling her out of her attempt at nonchalance. She regained her composure quickly, though, as the shopkeeper lifted his bald head from measuring flour for a young woman with a shopping basket in hand and a straw bonnet on her head. Looking at the woman's flower-sprigged dress and cheerful bonnet, the girl felt more dowdy and disheveled than ever. The desire to turn tail and run smacked her hard.
"Be with you in a minute, son," the shopkeeper called out. Whew! Dirt or not, she was safe for the moment. He was a man small of stature, and he possessed a surprisingly deep voice. Another urge to hightail it out of there pricked hard, but running would look plenty suspicious, so she nodded a silent reply and ambled between two aisles.
Excerpted from A Seeking Heart by Kim Vogel Sawyer. Copyright © 2002 Kim Vogel Sawyer. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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