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Clutching the railing of the riverboat, Miss Ellen Thurston ached as if she'd been beaten. Now she truly understood the word heartbroken. Images of her sister in her pale blue wedding dress insistently flashed through her mind. As if she could wipe them away, she passed a hand over her eyes. The trip north had been both brief and endless.
She forced herself back to the present. She was here to start her new life.
The sunlight glittering on the Mississippi River nearly blinded her. The brim of her stylish hat fell short and she shaded her eyes, scanning the jumble of dusty, rustic buildings, seeking her cousin, Ophelia, and Ophelia's husband. But only a few strangers had gathered to watch the boat dock. Loneliness nearly choked her. Ophelia, please be here. I need you.
The riverboat men called to each other as the captain guided the boat to the wharf. With a bump, the boat docked and the men began to wrestle thick ropes to harness the boat to the pier.
As she watched the rough ropes being rasped back and forth, she felt the same sensation as she relived her recent struggle. Leaving home had been more difficult than she could have anticipated. But staying had been impossible. Why had she gone against her better judgment and let her heart take a chance?
The black porter who had assisted her during her trip appeared beside her. "Miss, I will see to your trunk and boxes, never fear."
She smiled at him and offered her hand. "You've been so kind. Thank you."
Looking surprised, he shook her hand. "It's been my pleasure to serve you, miss. Yes, indeed it has."
His courtesy helped her take a deep breath. She merely had to hold herself together till she was safely at Ophelia's. There, with her cousinwho was closer than her sistershe could mourn her loss privately, inwardly.
Soon she was standing on dry land with her luggage piled around her. She handed the porter a generous tip and he bowed his thanks and left her. Ellen glanced around, looking for her cousin in vain. Could something have happened to her? Even as this fear struck, she pushed it from her mind. Ophelia was probably just a bit late. Still, standing here alone made her painfully conspicuous.
A furtive movement across the way caught her attention. A thin, blond lad who looked to be in his midteens was sneakingyes, definitely sneakingaround the back of a store. She wondered what he was up to. But she didn't know much about this town, and she shouldn't poke her nose into someone else's business. Besides, what wrong could a lad that age be doing?
She turned her mind back to her own dilemma. Who could she go to for assistance? Who would know the possible reason why Ophelia wasn't here to meet her? Searching her mind, she recalled someone she'd met on her one visit here a year ago. She picked up her skirts and walked to Ashford's General Store.
The bell jingled as she entered, and two men turned to see who had come in. One she recognized as the proprietor, Mr. Ashford, and one was a strangera very handsome strangerwith wavy blond hair.
Holton had the same kind of hair. The likeness stabbed her.
Then she noticed a young girl about fourteen slipping down the stairs at the rear of the store. She eased the back door open and through the gap, Ellen glimpsed the young lad. Ah, calf love.
Ellen held her polite mask in place, turning her attention to the older of the two men. "Good day, Mr. Ashford. I don't know if you remember me"
"Miss Thurston!" the storekeeper exclaimed and hurried around the counter. "We didn't expect you for another few days."
This brought her up sharply. "I wrote my cousin almost two weeks ago that I'd be arriving today."
The storekeeper frowned. "I thought Mrs. Steward said you'd be arriving later this week."
"Oh, dear." Ellen voiced her sinking dismay as she turned toward the windows facing the street. Her mound of boxes and valises sat forlornly on her trunk at the head of the dock. How was she going to get to Ophelia? Her grip on her polite facade was slipping. "I could walk to the Steward's but my things "
"We'll get some boys to bring them here"
The stranger in the store interrupted, clearing his throat, and bowed. "Mr. Ashford, please to introduce me. I may help, perhaps?" The man spoke with a thick German accent.
The man also unfortunately had blue eyes. Again, his likeness to Holton, who had misled her, churned within. She wanted to turn her back to him.
Mr. Ashford hesitated, then nodded. "A good idea." He turned to Ellen. "Miss Ellen Thurston, may I introduce you to another newcomer in our little town, Mr. Kurt Lang, a Dutchman?"
Ellen recognized that Mr. Ashford was using the ethnic slur, "Dutch," a corruption of Deutsche, the correct term for German immigrants. Hiding her acute discomfort with the insult, Ellen extended her gloved hand and curtsied as politeness demanded.
Mr. Lang approached swiftly and bowed over her hand, murmuring something that sounded more like French than German.
Ellen withdrew her hand and tried not to look the man full in the face, but she failed. She found that not only did he have blond hair with a natural wave and blue eyes that reminded her of Holton, but his face was altogether too handsome. And the worst was that his smile was too kind. Her facade began slipping even more as tears hovered just behind her eyes.
"I live near the Stewards, Miss Thurston," the stranger said, sounding polite but stiff. "I drive you."
Ellen looked to Mr. Ashford a bit desperately. Young ladies of quality observed a strict code of conduct, especially those who became schoolteachers. Should she ride alone with this man?
Mr. Ashford also seemed a bit uncomfortable. "Mr.
Lang has been living here for over six months and is a respectable person. Very respectable." The man lowered his voice and added, "Even if he is a foreigner."
Ellen stiffened at this second slur from Mr. Ashford.
Mr. Lang himself looked mortified but said nothing in return.
With effort, Ellen swallowed her discomfort. The man couldn't help reminding her of someone she didn't want to be reminded of. More important, she would not let him think that she embraced the popular prejudice against anyone not born in America.
"We are a nation of immigrants, Mr. Ashford," she said with a smile to lighten the scold. She turned to Mr. Lang. "Thank you, Mr. Lang, I am ready whenever you are."
Mr. Lang's gaze met hers in sudden connection. He bowed again. "I finish and take you."
She heard in these words a hidden thank-you for her comment.
A few moments later, she stood on the shady porch of the store, watching the man load her trunk, two boxes of books and her valises onto the back of his wagon along with his goods. She noticed it was easy for himhe was quite strong. She also noticed he made no effort to gain her attention or show off. He just did what he'd said he'd do. That definitely differed from Holton, the consummate actor.
This man's neat appearance reminded her that she must look somewhat disheveled from her trip, increasing her feelings of awkwardness at being alone with the stranger. She'd often felt that same way with Holton, too. His Eastern polish should have warned her awayif her own instincts hadn't.
At his curt nod, she met Mr. Lang at the wagon side and he helped her up the steps. His touch warmed her skin, catching her off guard. Rattled, she sat rigidly straight on the high bench, warning him away.
Just then, the storekeeper's wife hurried out the door. "Miss Thurston! Ned just called upstairs that you'd arrived." The flustered woman hurried over and reached up to shake hands with Ellen. "We didn't expect you so soon."
"Yes, Mr. Ashford said as much. I'd told my cousin when I was arriving, but perhaps she didn't receive my letter."
"The school isn't quite ready, you know." Mrs. Ash-ford looked down and obviously realized that she'd rushed outside without taking off her smeared kitchen apron. She snatched it off.
"That's fine. My cousin wanted me to come for a visit, anyway." Ophelia's invitation to visit before the teaching job began had come months before. Ellen suffered a twinge, hoping this was all just a minor misunderstanding. Then she thought of Ophelia's little boy. Little ones were so at risk for illness. Perhaps something had happened?
She scolded herself for jumping to conclusions. After a few more parting remarks were exchanged, Mr. Lang slapped the reins, and the team started down the dusty road toward the track that Ellen recognized from her earlier visit to Pepin.
The two of them sat in a polite silence. As they left the town behind them, Ellen tried to accustom herself to the forest that crowded in on them like a brooding presence. The atmosphere did not raise her spirits. And it was taking every ounce of composure she had left to sit beside this stranger.
Then, when the silence had become unbearable, Mr. Lang asked gruffly, "You come far?"
"Just from Galena." Then she realized a newcomer might not know where Galena was. "It's south of here in Illinois, about a five-day trip. You may have heard of it. President Grant's home is there."
"Your president, he comes from your town?"
She nodded and didn't add that her hometown had a bad case of self-importance over this. They'd all forgotten how many of them had previously scorned Ulysses S. Grant. "Before the war, he and his father owned a leather shop." She hadn't meant to say this, but speaking her mind to someone at last on the topic presented an opportunity too attractive to be missed. She found President Grant's story extraordinary, though not everyone did.
"A leather shop?" The man sounded disbelieving.
"Yes." She stopped herself from saying more in case Mr. Lang thought that she was disparaging their president. The wagon rocked over a ridge in the road. Why couldn't it move more quickly?
"This land is different. In Germany, no tradesman would be general or president."
Ellen couldn't miss the deep emotion with which Mr. Lang spoke these few words. She tilted her face so she could see him around the brim of her hat, then regretted it. The man had expressive eyebrows and thick brown lashes, another resemblance to Holton. Unhappy thoughts of home bombarded her.
As another conversational lull blossomed, crows filled the silence, squawking as if irritated by the human intrusion. She felt the same discontent. She wanted only to be with dear Ophelia, and she wasn't sure she could stand much more time alone with this disturbing stranger.
She sought another way to put distance between them. "I am going to be the schoolteacher here. Do you have children?" Ellen hoped he'd say that he and his wife had none, and hence she would not come in contact with this man much in the future.
"I am not married. But I have two students."
"I'm sorry, I don't understand," Ellen said, clutching the side of the wagon as they drove over another rough patch, her stomach lurching.
"My brother, Gunther, and my nephew, Johann. They will come to school."
This man had responsibilities she hadn't guessed. Yet his tone had been grim, as if his charges were a sore subject.
"How old are they?" Do they speak English? she wanted to ask. She sincerely hoped so.
"Gunther is sixteen and Johann is seven." Then he answered her unspoken question. "We speak English some at home. But is hard for them."
She nodded out of politeness but she couldn't help voicing an immediate concern. "Isn't your brother a bit old to attend school? Most students only go to the eighth gradeI mean, until about thirteen years old."
"Gunther needs to learn much about this country. He will go to school."
The man's tone brooked no dispute. So she offered none, straightening her back and wishing the horse would go faster.
Yes, your brother will attend, but will he try to learn? And in consequence, will he make my job harder?
The oppressive silence surged back again and Ellen began to imagine all sorts of dreadful reasons for her cousin not meeting her on the appointed day. Ellen searched her mind for some topic of conversation. She did not want to dwell on her own worry and misery. "Are you homesteading?"
"Ja. Yes. I claim land." His voice changed then, his harsh tone disappearing. "Only in America is land free. Land just free."
In spite of herself, the wonder in his voice made her proud to be an American. "Well, we have a lot of land and not many people," she said after a pause. If she felt more comfortable at being alone with him, she would have asked him to tell her about Europe, a place she wished to see but probably never would.
"Still, government could make money from selling land, yes?"
She took a deep, steadying breath. "It's better not to look a gift horse in the mouth."
More unwelcome silence. She stole another glance at him. The man appeared in deep thought.
"Oh," he said, his face lifting. "Not look gift horse to see if healthy."
"Exactly," she said. She hadn't thought about the phrase as being an idiom. How difficult it must be to live away from home, where you don't even know the everyday expressions. Homesickness stabbed her suddenly. Her heart clenched. Perhaps they did have something in common. "It must have been hard to leave home and travel so far."
He seemed to close in on himself. Then he shrugged slightly. "War will come soon to Germany. I need to keep safe, to raise Johann."
"You might have been drafted?" she asked more sharply than she'd planned. During the Civil War, many men had bought their way out of the draft. Not something she approved of.
"Jayesbut war in Germany is to win land for princes, not for people. No democracy in Germany."
"That's unfortunate." No doubt not having any say in what the government did would make being drafted feel different. Ellen fell silent, exhausted from the effort of making conversation with this man who reminded her so much of Holton. She knotted her hands together in her lap, as if that would contain her composure. Would this ride never end?
"Wethe menwe build the school more on Saturday," he said haltingly.
This pleased her. She wanted to get her life here started, get busy so she could put the past in the past. "How much longer do you think it will take?"
"Depends. Some men harvest corn. If rain comes " He shrugged again, seeming unable to express the uncertainty.
"I see. Well, I'll just have faith that it will all come together in the next few weeks. Besides, the delay gives me more time to prepare lessons."
At that moment, Mr. Lang turned the wagon down a track and ahead lay the Steward cabin. Ellen's heart leaped when she saw her cousin, carrying her baby, hurry out to greet her.
"Ophelia!" she called.
Mr. Lang drew up his team. "Wait," he insisted. "Please, I help." He secured the brake.
But Ellen couldn't wait. She jumped down and ran to Ophelia, the emotions she'd been working so hard to keep at bay finally overtaking her. She buried her face in Ophelia's shoulder and burst into tears. Her feelings strangled her voice.