Late December 1902
Blessing, North Dakota
"Gus Baard, you are the most stubborn brother a girl could ever have." Rebecca
glared, hands clamped on her hips. Since she only had two living brothers, it wasn't much
of a contest, but still, why could he never, ever see her point of view? To keep herself
from launching a full attack, she slammed the kitchen cabinet door. The dishes rattled
"You know we don't have any money for your silly dream, so quit wasting time on it.
Destroying the cattle killed a lot of dreams."
"I know that, but if thinking about my soda shop makes me happy, what's wrong with
a bit of happy?" What else could she slam, other than his head? "Besides, I have
my graduation money." Every year each graduate of the Blessing school received one
hundred dollars from Mr. Gould, a wealthy man in New York who'd been a friend of the
Bjorklunds since the homesteading days.
"Money that should go into the bank to help replace our livestock." Gus shook
his head. "Grow up, Rebecca. What's more important—our farm and keeping our
heads above water or ..."
She glared at him, anything to keep from bursting into tears again. Crying never did any
good. All the tears she'd shed over the destruction of the cows, pigs, and sheep had only
given her a headache. That and all the smoke from the burning carcasses. Hoof-and-mouth
disease had decimated all the cloven-footed animals west of the Mississippi. They had gone
for months without milk, cream, butter, and meat other than chicken, fish, or rabbit,
unless they paid the exorbitant prices for that brought in on the train. With no milk to
sell to Ingeborg Bjorklund's cheese house, they'd had no income until after harvest.
So what was wrong with dreaming? If only she could talk these things over with her
mother, but Agnes Baard had died nine years earlier, leaving a hole in her youngest child's
heart the size of North Dakota.
"You're not going to cry now, are you?"
The tone of his voice set her off again. "Gus Baard, you better get out of my
kitchen before I ... before I ..." She started toward him, no plan in mind, but the
look on her face must have convinced him that even though he was eight inches taller than
she and a lot heavier, retreat was wiser than confrontation. She slammed the door behind
him and collapsed on a kitchen chair. "Lord, I hate winter, I hate the cattle dying,
and I hate all the sorrow around here. I just thought I could bring some people a little
happiness, and look what it gets me. A never-ending fight with my brother. And the sad
thing is, he's probably right. I hate it when he is right!"
At least Knute, the older of the two brothers, didn't try to boss her around all the
time, but then, she didn't live with him, at least not anymore. Besides, he had his wife,
Dorothy, and three little kids to worry about. Gus just had too much time on his hands.
Rebecca shook her head and, realizing her hair was about to tumble about her face,
unpinned it, finger combed the thick mass, and twisted it into a coil to repin at the base
of her skull.
Was she really being selfish, as he'd said many times before, or was keeping a dream
alive important? Maybe she would ask the girls after church, or perhaps Gerald would have
time to talk. It was a good thing she had friends, because it might be a week before Gus
spoke to her after this round.
If only the wind would quit shrieking around the eaves and sneaking through the tiniest
cracks to freeze everything it touched. Her mother had said that when the wind got the
better of her, she would get herself into the Word of God, because only God could order the
wind about. The Bible didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense to Rebecca, at least not
like it had to her mother.
The more she thought of what Gus had said, the madder she got. Did he think she was
lazy? After all, he was the one for whom she'd been cooking and cleaning and washing, doing
all the things that women usually do for husbands and children. Before she graduated last
spring, she went to school and still managed to plant a full-sized garden. Her mor or far
would have been disappointed with the spring housecleaning, however. Overbearing—that
fit her brother. She stared at the table, seeing Gus. It wouldn't take too long for him to
be married. Even if he didn't seem to notice how the girls looked at him.
He'd turned into one handsome young man—broad of shoulder, hovering right about
six feet tall, with hair that nearly matched hers, a warm brown that glinted bits of fire
when the sun hit it just right. Their mother had said the cleft in his chin was the
fingerprint of an angel, put there when he was born. He was two years older than she but
didn't get his full growth until the last few years, so some folks had thought they were
twins when they were younger, a comment that always made their mother laugh. Agnes said she
knew for a fact she'd never carried two babies at a time and thanked God for not sending
them that blessing.
Best she get to the duties for the day. They were out of bread.
Rebecca had the bread dough rising on the warming oven when Gus returned.
"You've gone and ripped the knees out of those pants." She huffed a sigh. The
mending pile was growing again, almost as if clothes were breeding in the basket.
He looked down at his pants, shrugged, and shook his head. "Can't help it. Maybe
next time you can put double patches on 'em right from the beginning."
Amazing. He was talking to her. "You better marry some girl who loves to patch and
mend, that's for certain sure."
After their parents' death, the two of them had stayed at the family home with their
older brother Knute. Since the eldest, Swen, was already married to Dorothy, the couple
helped as substitute parents. But life took another turn for the worse when Swen was killed
by a bull, leaving a pregnant wife. Dorothy named the baby boy Swen, after his father, and
nearly two years later, Knute married his sister-in-law. When Gus and Rebecca grew old
enough to manage on their own, they moved back into their parents' farmhouse.
Gus stared at her until she put a hand to her hair to see if it was falling out of the
rat she'd wound it around that morning. Wearing her hair in a pouf in front made her look
older—at least she thought so.
"What now?" She knew her voice still sounded sharp, but he had started the
"Nothing. I'm going out to work in the machine shed with Knute. If I can't fix that
piece, I'm going to take it in to Sam. He said he thought he could make a new
"Couldn't you just order it?" She thought of the catalog she'd been
daydreaming over, which was what had set him off in the first place. Only instead of
machinery parts, this catalog had round tables with black iron pedestals, chairs with
heart-shaped wire backs, and best of all, pictures of soda dispensers and refrigerated
display cases. How she loved that word display, a place where she would show off
her flavors of ice cream in the summer and scoop it out for everyone to enjoy.
No matter what some people seemed to think, Blessing really needed a place where people
could come and have a good time eating and visiting, and perhaps young people could be
courting there. And just maybe some stranger would walk in and she would fall in love and
live happily ever after. Since she was the youngest child in the family and had always
spent a lot of time alone, she'd always had a good imagination and invented fairy tales of
her own. A shining knight on a white horse was all she wanted. Just liked the stories Mor
used to tell her when she was little.
Onkel Olaf had already said he would build her display shelving and booths with
gingerbread cutouts on the sides and pedestal tables for her soda shop. She'd had to cancel
the order last summer when the great devastation hit. She heaved another sigh.
"You know we'd never spend the money on new parts if we can get it done cheaper
here. Without the milk money, we have to be careful."
He stared at her as if studying the machine part to be fixed, but at least he wasn't
"Do you need anything from town if I should go?" He spit out the need
as if daring her to ask.
"I'll start a list. I sure wish Penny still had the store. That Mr. Jeffers doesn't
carry half the things we need." Besides, the man made her feel extremely uncomfortable
when she went in there, as if he were sizing her up or something. She'd heard he was
looking for a wife, but the thought of even being near him gave her the shudders. There was
something about the man that just wasn't right. I'd rather be a spinster than married
"Well, at least he carries men's pants. I'll get a new pair while I'm
"I thought you weren't going to spend any money."
He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. "I got to have warm pants." He
motioned to the red long johns peeking through the rips. "You're the one who does the
"All right. Help me bring the sewing machine down where it's warm, and I'll do the
mending instead." Instead of what, she wasn't about to say. As he'd said, mooning over
the catalog and lost dreams sure wasn't going to get her anywhere. "If you fill the
woodbox before you go out, I'll bake rabbit pie for dinner."
At least with the weather so cold, they didn't have to worry about what meat they had
spoiling. Gus had shot and smoked a dozen geese, and the two Baard families had gone
together and bought a dressed hog that had been brought in on the train. They were running
snares for rabbits, and now that the river was frozen over, they'd be ice fishing. All
these years they'd had plenty to eat, but with the cattle, sheep, and hogs destroyed, the
larder was pretty slim. Good thing she'd canned jars of chicken when she had so many
roosters this year from the hatchings, along with all the vegetables that filled the
cellar. She led the way upstairs to get the machine.
"Let's set it in the kitchen, where it is warmest." When they did, she went
back to secure the blanket they had nailed over the bottom of the stairway to keep the heat
from going upstairs. They'd also blocked off the heat register over the stove.
The wind tried to tear the door from his hands as Gus went out to bring in wood. Since
the stack on the porch was dwindling, he took the time to haul some up to the porch from
the stack along the side of the house. Even though they'd closed off the upstairs and
Rebecca had shut the doors to the two bedrooms, keeping the downstairs even close to
comfortable took a lot of firewood and coal.
She wrapped her shawl closer around her shoulders and gave the grate in the cookstove a
turn before putting more wood in the firebox to heat the oven. Maybe this was why she was
feeling like an old maid. She had all the responsibilities of caring for a home,
She cut off the thinking there. What was she complaining about? She had food enough to
eat and a comfortable home, and now that winter was here, she even had time to read when
she wanted to. Probably it was just the wind. Her mother had always said that the North
Dakota wind could drive a person crazy if one didn't pray against it. Surely it was the
wind making her morose. The party coming up would be just the thing to get her out of
Maybe the wind was ony part of the problem. She'd found her mother's prayer list, a
small book actually, in some of her things, and reading through it had sent her into the
doldrums. Life had been so much harder back in the early days. Her mother, Agnes, had been
such good friends with Kaaren Knutson and Ingeborg Bjorklund that Rebecca had almost felt
jealous. Here she was, no longer a girl yet not one of the women either. She'd always
dreamed of being a shopkeeper like her cousin Penny, who'd started the general store,
serving all of Blessing and the area around it. She'd read so many notes about Penny in the
little book and about her mother's praying for Penny's husband, Hjelmer, too. She had been
a praying woman; that was for sure. And God had answered those prayers. The answers were
written down too and the dates.
Why did she feel like God didn't answer her prayers? Like for her dream of
having a soda shop? Or saving them all from the hoof-and-mouth epidemic, and most important
of all, keeping her mother and father alive. She slammed the door shut on those thoughts
and measured out the flour for pie crust. It wasn't just a figment of her imagination. God
really didn't answer when she prayed. After all, her loved ones had died and all the
cloven-footed animals had needed to be destroyed and thus her dream. Her dream that began
with Mor's stories. A dream that would keep Mor close to her every day, not just sometimes.
What would she do when Gus married?
She cut the rabbit meat off the bones, added potatoes, onions, and carrots, crumbled up
several leaves of the sage she had dried during the summer, and added part of a jar of
string beans, along with enough flour to thicken the liquid. After rolling the dough
thicker than for a fruit pie, she fitted the crust into a cast-iron frying pan, poured in
the filling, and rolled out the top crust. She sealed the edges of the crusts and slid the
meat pie into the oven, checking the clock on the wall automatically. An hour and a half
She rolled the remaining crust, lined a regular pie pan, crimped the edges, and slid
that into the oven. She would make a chocolate pie tomorrow, using milk from the cow they
shared with Knute and his family, thanks to the Bjorklunds. Gus loved chocolate pie; not
that she didn't, but he was especially partial to that treat. Though why she would want to
make him a special treat when he was acting so grumpy was an excellent question.
"You have your list ready?" Gus asked as he came in a while later.
"Couldn't get it to work?" she asked.
"No! Wish Far were here. He always knew how to fix the machinery."
"Along with everything else." She could feel moisture collecting in her eyes.
One more memory to pile on top of the others nagging at her.
Gus turned from hanging his coat and hat on the pegs on the wall. He hesitated a moment,
then blurted, "Maybe you ought to go with me and visit with somebody. Sophie or
"If I needed to visit, I could go over to Dorothy's." With the snow so frozen,
she could easily walk across the small field to Knute and Dorothy's house. The person she'd
really like to discuss some of these things with was working at the telephone switchboard.
Now, wouldn't that cause a to-do if she strolled in and announced she wanted to talk with
Gerald for a while? Perhaps she would see him on Sunday after church. He was so
level-headed and such a good friend.
Gus's frown made her realize she'd been snappy again. "Maybe I should bring Sarah
over here to play." Sarah was five years old and wishing she could go to school like
her big brother, Swen, who would soon turn seven. She was not partial to staying home and
helping with "the baby," as she called her two-year-old brother, Hans. She didn't
yet realize that another baby was on the way.
"The kids all have colds again." He sat down at the table then, but at her
look, he got up and washed his hands before sitting down again.
Rebecca set the steaming pan in the center of the table, the golden brown top crust
making her mouth water. Shame they hadn't invited Knute over for dinner so that Dorothy
wouldn't have had to cook too. She served both of their plates, then passed the bread and
Two more days until the party with her friends. Surely just thinking about it would perk
up her spirits.
Gus swallowed a mouthful of rabbit pie. "Are you sure you don't want to go
First he yelled at her, and now he was being too nice. Make up your mind.
"No, I need to finish the dress I started for Sarah. She's growing so fast, we can't
keep up with her." Rebecca picked up the pencil she'd kept on the table and added dark
brown thread to the list. "Make sure you check for mail."
Gus rolled his eyes. "You'd think you were waitin' for love letters the way you go
on about the mail."
"Just catalogs." At the look on his face she was glad she'd not mentioned the
round tables and the red-and-white gingham.
"What a waste of time. Patching my pants would be time far better spent."
"Gus Baard, if you have some complaints about the way I take care of this house and
us, you just get yourself a wife now, and I'll move into town and go to work for someone
else." The pay would be better; that's for sure.
"I won't have you spending money we haven't got for a dream that might not work
"Oh sure, you can buy machinery when you need it, but if I try to do something,
then it is only a dream." The ends of her hair sizzled. The nerve of him. Dreaming
never cost a dime. And she wasn't stupid.
Gus glared at her and stabbed a slice of bread off the plate with his fork, daring her
to comment on his lack of manners. "Besides, we haven't bought any machinery
lately." He leaned forward. "Because there is no money." His voice cracked
like a whip. He shoved his chair back, stomped to the stove, and poured himself some more
At the moment he looked so much like their father that Rebecca caught her breath. Back
before Mor died, back when Far had been healthy and ordering his growing sons around. When
there had been love and life and happiness in this house, in spite of occasional temper
spells or blowups. She sipped her coffee and looked around the kitchen, deliberately not
giving her brother the satisfaction of a fight. They'd had arguments before, but right now
this felt more like a battle. Only she wasn't sure who was fighting and over what.
"Make sure you take the kerosene can."
He blew out a sigh. "I will. If a storm comes up and the north looks some black,
I'll stay in town, so don't worry. But I should make it home before then."
"Don't take any chances." People died in blizzards, some just inches from the
barn. He and Knute had strung ropes to the barns and across the field in case the blizzards
were so bad they could get lost between the house and the barn.
Gus bundled back up, picked up her list, and headed toward the door. "I just don't
want to see you hurt again," he said quietly before closing the door carefully behind
him, in spite of the pull of the wind.
Through a film of tears Rebecca set about clearing the table and putting the food away.
Any noise helped keep the wind at bay. But it didn't seem to help calm her thoughts.
Franny, her fluffy gray cat, rose from the box behind the stove, arched her back in a
stretch, and wandered over to the door. "You need to go out?" A flick of her tail
was the answer, so she opened the door. "Don't take too long, all right?"
A few minutes later she checked the door because the howling wind effectively drowned
out any sound. She'd not even heard the jingle of the bells on the horse harnesses as the
sleigh left the yard. Franny stalked in, nose in the air.
"Sorry. I wasn't sure how soon you would be ready to come in." Rebecca pushed
the rolled rug tight against the bottom of the door to keep out the draft. She'd laid
towels along the bottoms of the windows for the same purpose. Leave it to her hardheaded
brother to insist on going to town in weather like this. It could get a lot worse before it
got better, but at least the sun was still shining.
With the dishes done and knowing she had plenty of leftovers to warm up for supper, she
pulled the rocking chair closer to the stove and sat down with her bound accounts book and
a pencil to work on her lists again—in spite of Gus and his dire predictions. She had
everything written down in there. She'd spent hours figuring and planning, putting it all
away, then taking it out again, finding receipts and trying some of them out—her
caramels had been a real hit at Christmas—so why did he think he had to keep
reminding her of things like money? They'd talked it over more times than she could
If only her cousin Penny were here to give her business advice and answer more of her
questions. It was probably about time to gather up her notes and send another letter to
her. She knew she had to wait for the milking herds to build back up; at the moment there
wasn't enough extra to make ice cream. But if she was ready then, she could save time.
After all, no one was looking at her like the girls did at Gus. Would he already be
married if he didn't live with his sister? Even if her dream depended on a white knight,
she could at least open the door for him.
It would help if Penny answered as quickly as she received the letter. Deep inside
Rebecca had an idea Penny wasn't very happy living in Bismarck. But then, who would be
happy at having to give up your business and move away from all your family, friends, and
... well, life? Was marriage always like that? Maybe she was better off single.