As the locomotive reached the train station, I strained so hard to see my folks that my eyes hurt. I looked left and right, but the town was as sleepy as always. It wasn’t as if I had to search for them among throngs— I saw no one but old Clifford Miller across the street, climbing into his wagon with some effort, and Susan Johnson entering her hardware store.
Likely just late, I decided, making my way forward between the seats before we had fully stopped, then climbing down the steep steps to the wooden platform.
“Miss?” asked a man’s voice behind me.
I turned in surprise, holding my hand up to my old hat as I felt a pin slip, and then—embarrassed that I’d forgotten to even look for it—took my valise from the conductor’s hand. “Thank you.”
The railroad man looked beyond me to the vacant platform and street. “Someone comin’ for you, miss?”
I nodded eagerly. “Yes. My parents. They must’ve been delayed. They’ll be along shortly.” A long whistle sounded. Not that there was anyone around to rush aboard. Protocol, I supposed. That whistle, usually heard from three miles distant, was a part of all my childhood years. A warm sense of home filtered through me, making me smile.
The man lifted his brows and nodded back with a curious smile as the train began to chug into motion. “Good day, then.”
“Good day,” I returned, watching as he stepped aboard the steps and disappeared inside the train.
The train station—little more than a water tower, a platform, and a tiny hut of a shelter—was in the center of Main Street, which was all of two blocks long. I shaded my eyes and looked to the massive mountains behind the station, which were a pale blue in the afternoon sun. Dunnigan had once been a gold-rush town, established to supply the miners who had streamed into the mountains, seeking their fortune. But it had seen its heyday come and go. Now the buildings were in need of paint, and half the storefronts were abandoned. These days, it existed solely to supply the local farmers who stubbornly eked out an existence on the prairie in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains’ peaks, farming and ranching.
But oh, did it feel good to see those mountains again. I closed my eyes and lifted my face to feel the cool breeze coming off them, down to us on the eastern plains. The feel of it, the scent of pine and sage and dust…all were of home. I craned my neck again, eagerly looking down the road in the direction Mama and Papa should be coming from. But no one was on the road—and I could see a good mile before it disappeared over a hill.
Mr. Miller, with his balding head, giant, flapping ears, and sagging jowls, pulled up alongside the platform. “Well, if it isn’t Cora Diehl,” he said with a smile. “Welcome home, girl.”
“Thank you, Mr. Miller. I don’t suppose you’ve seen my folks today, have you?” A stab of anxiety shot through me. What if something was wrong?
“No, miss. Drove right by your place on the way in. Didn’t see hide nor hair of ’em. But I can take you out.” He nodded toward the foothills, in the direction of home.
“Oh, that’s all right,” I said. I could walk the three miles faster than Clifford Miller’s old mare could haul us.
“Nonsense, girl. I’ll take you. And if we meet your folks on the road, then that’s less time on the road for them.”
“Oh, Mr. Miller. I don’t wish to burden your mare…”
“Come, come,” he said, waving me forward. “If old Star can haul hay, she can haul a bit of a girl like you. Unless that valise is full of bricks.” Even though his tone was gruff, his watery eyes twinkled.
I smiled. I was hardly a bit of a girl. I was a woman grown, but I supposed my old neighbor would always see me as the five-year-old who would come to call, uninvited, and trail him around his homestead. “As long as you’re certain it’s no imposition.”
“Imposition? Pshaw. Just being neighborly. Did they not teach you that in teacher college?” He reached over across the seat to take my hand as I clambered up.
I met his teasing grin. “No, we didn’t cover that particular subject.”
“Hmph,” he said, flicking the reins.
We moved out, down the road. Mr. Jennings, the saddler, came outside to sweep his front stoop and waved as we went by. “Welcome home, Cora.”
“Thanks, Mr. Jennings! See you soon!”
“Hope so! You stop by and tell me all about that teacher college, all right?”
I didn’t know what was keeping my folks, but it didn’t really matter—I felt welcomed already. The welcome sight of sleepy Main Street; the warm, dry wind as it swept dust across the road; the cheery red barns and tidy fence posts… After the busy bustle and noise of the city, the quiet and normalcy of the long summer stretching before me felt peaceful, like a blanket settling in around my shoulders, urging me into a porch swing.
“So I take it that Normal School over there in Dillon still suits you,” Mr. Miller said.
“It’s wonderful,” I said. “I’ve learned a great deal. Two more years, and I can teach anywhere in the state.”
“Should come home. Settle down with Lorrie Cramer.”
I lifted my brows. “Isn’t Lorrie Cramer seeing Louisa Anderson?” I said politely. Not that I really cared. Lorrie Cramer was a nice boy. Quiet. Hardworking. But all he ever thought about—all he ever wanted to think about—was farming. In the last year, I’d decided I loved learning. It fed me. Expanded me. Shaped me. I’d be eager to return to school, come fall. And I knew I needed a man who longed for the same.
“Ach. He doesn’t care about Louisa. He’s always had an eye for you.” Mr. Miller gave me a sidelong glance, and I smiled. While I couldn’t help but find Lorrie’s attention flattering, I didn’t want him to set his cap for me. Because he and I would never be more than friends. We just weren’t well matched.
Mr. Miller and I chattered on about his rheumatism, the strange, dry winter followed by the dry spring, the shortage of spring lambs, calves, and foals. “Wind started in January,” he said, “and hasn’t let up yet.”
In all my years on the farm, I could only remember one year when my papa was happy with how much rain we’d had—when it came, how it came, how long it lasted. Every other year, it was the common refrain of every farmer I knew—if only the weather… But even in Dillon, we’d noted the uncommonly warm winter, the lack of snow at Christmas. Papa would likely be fretting too.
I squinted my eyes, trying to see the house now that we were over the hill and about a half mile distant. The wind was gathering in strength as we neared the mountains, sending waves of dust across our path. All along, I was certain we’d meet up with my folks, and with each bend in the road, I grew more anxious.
My heartbeat accelerated. Something was wrong. Or was it simply my imagination running wild?
I thought back to the last time I’d heard from my mother—a letter two weeks ago, with the ticket enclosed. Perhaps they never got my reply confirming I’d be on this train, on this day? That was likely it. Everything was fine. Just a misunderstanding.
But the words inside my mind didn’t match the fear gathering in my chest, making me fight for breath.
They’d know I would be on that train. They’d expect me. Today. An hour ago.
As we neared the farm, I could see that the wagon was pulled up to the house—Sugarbeet ready for a run to town. So what had kept them?
Mr. Miller gave me a sidelong glance. He had fallen conspicuously silent. At last, we turned onto our farm’s long lane, and I could bear the slow pace no longer. “Please. Stop the wagon, Mr. Miller. I need to get out.”
“Just a bit farther, Cora. I’ll deliver you to your stoop.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Please.”
When he only frowned, I half stood and jumped to the ground, even as he abruptly pulled back on Star’s reins. I was out and running before he came to a full stop, tearing down the lane as if a mad dog were after me. I lifted my skirts and ran across our yard and into the house. “Mama?” I called, opening the door. “Papa?” The house was quiet.
I turned and saw that Mr. Miller was only halfway up the lane. I ran across the yard to the barn, hesitating at the door. I peered into the dark recesses. “Papa?”
That was when I glimpsed her. My mother. Weeping over my father, who was sprawled over the straw-strewn floor of the barn, his neck and head in her lap. He looked semiconscious, deathly pale.
“C-Cora?” Mama asked, looking up at me, her face red and blotchy. “Oh, Cora. I didn’t know what to do,” she sobbed. She reached out to me, and her expression was so full of raw need and fear, I brought a hand to my chest as I sank to my knees beside Papa.
He was breathing. But his eyes were wide and vacant, and his hand was so cold—
“Cora!” Mama said. “Please, baby. Take Sugarbeet and run for the doctor.”
In a stupor, I ran to unhitch Sugarbeet, then hurried her back into the barn to throw my old saddle over her back. I glanced at Papa again and, with shaking hands, reached under Sugarbeet’s belly for the strap, then cinched it tight. I mounted and trotted past my dazed neighbor, who was frowning up at me in confusion. “Going for the doctor!” I shouted. “Papa’s in trouble. Will you stay with them?”
Mouth agape, Mr. Miller nodded once, and I was off.
I made it to town in a quarter of the time it had taken Mr. Miller to travel the same road home, and Doc Jameson followed behind me on the way back, coming at a good clip in his smart buggy. By the time he reached us, Mama and I’d managed to get Papa on top of a blanket. And once Doc Jameson gave us a nod of approval, together we moved him into the house.
We were fortunate that Papa was a slight man, nothing but lean muscle and bone. I’d met his height before I was thirteen and outgrew him by a couple of inches by the time I’d turned fourteen. “You grow as fast as the weeds in my fields,” he’d teased me. But he also encouraged me to stand straight. “Never stoop, Cora. Nothing finer than a woman as lovely and straight as you, with her head held high. My own Lady Liberty,” he called me. “My elegant girl.”
Please don’t let him die, Lord. Please. Please, please, please, I prayed, as I’d been praying ever since I left the barn to fetch the doctor.
We set Papa on the sagging bed—the same bed he and Mama had bought when they arrived here nineteen years ago. Our house wasn’t much, and it felt smaller than I remembered. But it was as tidy as ever, and I found the sameness of it comforting.
Mama sat beside Papa, holding his hand, as Doc Jameson continued his examination. Mr. Miller went to the front window, gazing out with a sober expression on his face, worrying a handkerchief in his hands. And I stood in the corner, watching the doctor’s expressions as he listened to my father’s heartbeat through his stethoscope and then timed his pulse by pinching his wrist and keeping track on a pocket watch. Papa seemed to be sleeping now, his face relaxing and seeming even more lopsided than it had been when I first arrived.
Doc Jameson looked up at Mama and then over at me. His brows lowered. “Best take a seat, Cora. You look as white as a new snow. Don’t want you keeling over in a faint.”
I obediently sank beside Mama on the bed. Tell us, I urged him silently as he seemed to gather his thoughts. Out with it.
“Alan’s had a stroke,” Doc said with a grimace. “Now, I can give him some medicine, but mostly we simply have to wait it out to see how much he’ll recover. Some folks make a full recovery, go on to live out a long, full life. Others are partially incapacitated. And still others suffer another stroke that takes them.”
I frowned. I couldn’t imagine my papa, so strong, so virile, now so incapacitated. I looked from his slack face to his wet pants, then away, embarrassed for him.
Being stuck in bed or a chair would kill him, even if another stroke didn’t come hunting him. He loved to work hard, day in, day out. With the animals. In the fields. Numbly, I stared at the kitchen table, where we’d shared so many good meals, laughing and talking. I could picture him there, at the head, his eyes crinkled up as he smiled, a big gap between his teeth. The way he pounded the table when he laughed…
Doc Jameson rose, went to the sink, lifted the water pump lever once, and then let the meager trickle partially fill a cup. Then he poured some powder from an envelope into it, swished it around, and moved back to Papa’s bedside. “Help me get him up, Alma,” he said to Mama.
She did as he asked, but she’d said nothing since I’d returned. Only stared with wide, frightened eyes, her thin fingers to her lips, and moved like a wooden puppet, pushing through one task and then the next.
They managed to pour the mixture down Papa’s throat, raising him and thumping on his chest when he choked, coughed, let it dribble down his chin and neck. I wondered how much of the medicine reached his gut. But Doc Jameson seemed unperturbed. Maybe he had figured that a certain amount would be lost and had accommodated for that in what he’d measured. Or maybe giving him medicine at all was a stage act, designed to give me and Mama a measure of peace. Please, Lord. Please, please, please—
“Cora,” Doc said, gesturing me toward the kitchen. I’d known the man all my life, just as I did nearly everyone else in town.
Doc had been in this house the day I was born, had delivered me into the world. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders as we walked to the window, and his touch felt like a comforting uncle’s. Mr. Miller had left, mumbling something about “informing the pastor—back tomorrow.” Even now, his wagon was turning left out of the lane, making the journey back to town behind the old horse that was more than ready to be put out to pasture. But bless Mr. Miller’s soul, he was trying to help. Trying to do something for us.
“Cora, I’m glad you’re home,” Doc said in a whisper, glancing past me, back to my mother. “This has been quite a shock for Alma.”
“You need to be strong for her, Cora. She’ll need you now more than ever.”
I glanced up at him. “But Papa…”
The hope died in me as Doc slowly shook his head, his eyes full of pain and sorrow. “I can only do so much for him, Cora,” he whispered, glancing over my shoulder toward Mama.
I wanted to sink to the wooden floor and weep. I had trouble breathing.
“But he’s only forty-eight,” I gasped out. Plenty of men died young, but not men as strong and virile as my papa.
Doc simply stared back at me with his gray eyes, waiting me out, his lips clamped in a sad line, his eyebrows peaked in the center.
“How long?” I managed.
“A day. Maybe two,” he whispered back.
“Why not tell her?” I asked, finding breath in my fury. Grasping for strength.
“Because she needs to hope. Every family needs hope. And every family needs someone prepared to cope if the worst happens. I’m sorry, Cora,” he said, dropping his arm from my shoulders and turning to face me. “But you have to be that one. I hate to burden you so. But you’re a woman grown now—”
“Yes,” I admitted, suddenly wishing I was eight again. “Yes. Fine. I understand. So we are to simply…wait?”
He took a deep breath and straightened. “I’ll return in the morning. If he survives the night…who knows?” He offered a tentative smile.
I took a breath. “So we need only get him through the night.”
He shook his head slowly, caution in his eyes. “It’s often a mercy if the Lord chooses to take them sooner than later.”
“How can you say that?” I said, my voice rising, sounding for-eign, strangled. I turned toward him. “Get out. Get out!”
He stared at me as if I’d gone mad. “Now, Cora,” he said, glancing toward Mama with concern, waving his hands in an effort to settle me.
I opened the door. “My father is going to make it through the night,” I said. “Come tomorrow and see for yourself.”
He licked his lips and then reached for his hat, tucking it atop his silver hair. He gave me a long, compassionate look. “I’m sorry, Cora.”
I inhaled a stuttering breath, trying to calm myself. “Thank you kindly for coming to see to my papa, Doctor.”
He turned and walked out. I quietly shut the door behind him, resting my head against it. I felt the wave of strength leave me as soon as he was gone, leaving me feeling weak-kneed and empty. Please, Lord. Please, please, please…
“Cora,” Mama said softly. “What did he tell you?”
I turned toward her, holding the cool metal knob of the front door behind me as if it would hold me upright. “We need to pray especially hard for Papa tonight, Mama. If we can get him through the night…” My voice cracked, and I brought my hand around my belly, the other to my mouth. Then I swallowed back the lump in my throat and stood straight. I forced a small smile to my face. “When we see the sun, he’ll be through the worst of it.”
She knew I was lying. At least in part. That I was protecting her. But she didn’t seem to have the strength to do anything but cling to hope. Just as Doc Jameson had predicted.
I paced the floor all through the night. Mama fell asleep after midnight, curled up beside Papa, who was cleaned up and in his pajamas. Over and over she started awake, half rose, and placed a shaking finger beneath his nose, making sure he was still breathing. When I couldn’t bear to watch the scene unfold any longer, I quietly pulled the drapes around their bed, sealing off their room from the rest of the house.
I begged God. For Papa’s life. For a few more days. For a chance to say good-bye. I chafed at the memory of Papa grasping the last dime from his coin purse and handing it to me for the train ride to school. It’d taken everything they had to send me to the Normal School in Dillon. They’d gone without, scraped by…
Was it my fault, this? I glanced toward the threadbare curtain as doubt and fear assailed me. Am I to blame for his stroke, Lord? Make me suffer, then. Take it out on me! Not him, Lord, not him.
In the early morning hours, I stood in front of the east-facing window, taking heart as a faint golden glow appeared on the horizon.
I again padded over to my parents’ room and edged the curtain aside, watching until I saw the shallow rise and fall of my father’s chest. He’s alive. He made it through the night! Then I returned to the window, shivering in the morning cool but warming with hope as the sunrise spread a deep pink across the land.
It was then I noted the scrawny, withered stalks of the winter wheat, stunted and struggling in the dry, lumpy furrows. It should have been harvested weeks ago. Not that it mattered. I’d seen good crops, and I’d seen bad. This was one of the worst.
Concentrate on Papa, Cora, I told myself, my eyes returning to the sunrise. We can cope with the crops later. But could we? I knew my parents had borrowed against the farm to send me to school. What if this crop failed? And how would Papa bring it in? I’ll bring it in. If I have to handpick every measly grain head myself. I will not let them down.
“Cora!” Mama cried.
I turned and stared at the curtain, my chest filling with dread again. I glanced to the sun, which was just peeking over the horizon, too bright now to stare at directly. Please, Lord…
“Coming, Mama,” I managed. I forced myself to walk across the small space between us and edged through the gap in the curtain…
And found my papa sitting up and smiling. It was a lopsided smile, one side of his face desperately sagging, but truly, it was the prettiest sight I’d ever seen.
“Papa!” I cried, rushing to him. He laughed softly and wrapped an arm around my shoulders.
“Cora, honey,” he said, his words slurred.
Mama wiped tears from her face. “It’s a miracle,” she said, shak-ing her head. “A miracle.”
We sat there together for a long while, crying. Thank You, Lord. Thank You, thank You, thank You…
Shortly thereafter, the women of First Lutheran began to arrive. Mr. Miller had succeeded in spreading the word of our situation around the church. I went outside to greet them, wanting Papa to rest, knowing they’d be full of questions and nervous conversation. When Mrs. Ramstad heard he’d made it through the night, she got all teary and fanned her face, even in the chill of morning. “Thank You, Lord,” she said. “My, my.” She handed me a basket of fresh-baked rolls. Mrs. Humphrey brought an egg casserole, patting my hand and telling me to eat “lots of it, honey, because goodness knows, you’re thin as a rail.” Mrs. Kessler brought bread, hugging me so tightly to her ample bosom, I thought I’d suffocate. Mrs. Reinbarger brought a roast and potatoes, seasoned and “ready for the oven by three.”
All promised that their men were coming by to see to our farm as soon as chores were done on their own, and they made me promise to give their love to my mama, who wouldn’t leave Papa’s side for even a moment, and to send for them if I needed a thing. I was saying good-bye to Mrs. Reinbarger when Lorrie rode up the lane, astride a horse, next to Doc Jameson’s buggy.
Lorrie politely waited for the doctor to tie up his reins and approach the porch before he came up. Doc’s eyes met mine. “He made it?” he whispered.
I grinned. “He’s sitting up!” I crowed, wanting him to feel guilty for his gloomy warnings the night before.
His gray eyes widened, and he shook his head in wonder. “I always knew your father was one of the toughest men this side of the Rockies,” he said. “May I?” He gestured toward the door.
“Please,” I said, waving him in. I turned back to Lorrie, who’d paused halfway up the stairs, hat in hand. He was wiry and strong, about my height, with an unruly shock of Swedish-blond hair.
“Cora, welcome home,” he said. “Not quite what you expected.” He lifted his hat toward the house. “Good news, though,” he finished awkwardly.
“The best,” I said, unable to do anything but smile. “Evidence that God can see us through the darkest of nights.”
“Uh, yes.” He glanced nervously over his shoulder, toward the barn. “Can I see to your chores? I imagine your cow is in need of a milking.”
I frowned, ashamed that I was just now hearing her bellowing from the barn. “Oh! Yes, yes. Please. That would be so helpful. And give the horses some fresh water and hay?”
“Done.” He turned and walked down the few steps as I pivoted to head inside.
“Thank you, Lorrie,” I said over my shoulder.
“Not at all,” he mumbled, and rushed off across the yard. I stared after him. He really was a good man, a good neighbor. And even if I couldn’t return his feelings—if he indeed had an interest in me—I was thankful he’d come to help.
The days passed, and Papa rapidly regained his strength, confounding Doc Jameson and frustrating Mama’s efforts to keep him at rest. He’d insisted,since that first day, on getting himself to the outhouse, using only a bor-rowed cane and dragging his left foot along. After a week, he turned Lorrie back before he was even off his horse, insisting we could see to the animals and farm on our own. It tore Mama and me up inside to see him stubbornly carrying on even as his body fought him. Helpless, we could do nothing but pray for the best, for God to finish His healing work in him.
Papa leaned hard on me, and I had willingly picked up the milking, the mucking of stalls, the feeding. Now, sweat poured down my face and back as I pumped water into an irrigation ditch, desperately trying to save at least one portion of Papa’s winter wheat from drying up in the relentless wind.
I wondered how this would end. If Papa would ever be well enough to manage the farm on his own. I paused, panting, and straightened, feeling every aching muscle in my back as I shielded my eyes to see what he was up to. He was in the far corner of the field, hoeing, hacking away at weeds that stole precious nutrients and moisture from the soil—from those stalks of wheat that hadn’t been sliced down by the wind and dry soil.
I bent and studied a stray stalk near the water pump, a seed that had been cast too far to stand a chance in the nearest furrow but still stubbornly soldiered on, struggling to live, though the elements had cut away all of its leaves. I fingered the perilously thin head. Those in the field were faring little better. How many bushels would we salvage if we managed to even get a harvest?
I’d seen Papa staring out at the skies with worried eyes each afternoon. Hoping clouds encircling the mountain peaks would edge our way. His concern over the weather wasn’t anything new, really. But there was a new weariness behind the eyes, a downturn around his mouth,
beyond the effects of the stroke. Did he not have the money set aside to seed another crop? Should we not be plowing, getting ready for the spring wheat in the other fields, as late as it was to plant it?
The rusty old water pump seemed to mock me. Every lift and press was a chore, the resulting squeal like laughter. It came to me then. What was niggling at me, down low in my heart. I was fretting about my future. Wondering how Mama and Papa would do without me when it came time for me to return to school. Wondering how we’d be able to afford it at all if the crops failed…
Selfish, Cora Diehl. You’re being selfish. The Lord has given you the day. This day. With your papa alive—alive! And not only alive—up out of his bed. Moving and working. All that you prayed for. I shook my head, ashamed of myself. Forgive me, Lord. I am thankful. I am.
I bent and grabbed hold of the pump handle, trying to find gratitude in my heart for the miserly spurts of water that emerged from its mouth, filling the trough that slowly flowed outward. It was hopeless, really. Could I water more than forty yards this way? I’d been pumping for a full hour, and the stream had yet to meet the end of the irrigation ditch and begin to spread—that hungry first channel sapping away every drop. So I went inside to get a bucket, deciding that delivering the needed liquid to the farther rows by hand would at least give them a chance at survival. I knew it made Papa feel better. Doing all I could.
I settled into a rhythm in the task, praying in time with each pull and push, then walking the sloshing bucket to the next section. Make a way, Lord. Make a way for this water to sustain this field. And Lord? You know my heart. Learning, Lord. Teaching. I want to teach so badly… Please. Make a way. Make a way for us all. Make a way for this miserable wheat. Coax it back to life. Amen.
We watered. We weeded. We prayed. But in the end, we knew there wouldn’t be anything to harvest. Papa retreated inward, replying to Mama and me in monosyllabic words, blaming himself, even if every other farmer on the eastern slope had suffered the same outcome.
And our fear grew. We had not plowed the north forty. Each morning, he made no move to hook up Sugarbeet to the plow, nor did he head to town for the sacks of seed I knew we needed. He took to walking the east forty for hours, treading the paths where the winter wheat had so utterly failed. Mama baked bread, taking loaves and the extra milk to sell to the mercantile every morning, returning with meager supplies. I fed the horse and chickens and pigs, mucked the stalls, milked, and helped Mama with the garden. But we were each waiting, really, in mute helplessness, unable to do more.
One morning, Mama stood beside me at the east window, and we watched Papa. Dragging his left foot along, bending to pick up a handful of dirt, and then crumbling the clod, watching the dust fly away.
“It’s like he’s visiting a grave,” I muttered. “We have to get the north forty planted, or the bank will be coming to throw us out of the house.” I was guessing, but by the look on Mama’s face, I knew I was right.
“We can’t, Cora.”
She turned to me, so pretty, even in middle age. So strong. “There’s no money for the seed. My bread and the extra milk are bringing in enough to buy the necessities, but no extra. Thank God we have a garden and animals to keep us fed.”
I paced away from her, thinking. Then it came to me, the solution. “I have to go to town.”
“For what?” she asked, her eyes narrowing in suspicion.
I ignored her question and just went to my part of the house, through the drawn curtain, and sat on my bed. Next to my bed was a nightstand with a deep drawer. After a moment’s hesitation, I reached in and pulled out the elegant box, running my fingers over the lid. JASPER’S, the logo read in a fine script. NEW YORK, NEW YORK.
I flipped open the lid and wondered anew over the triple-strand pearl choker with the rhinestone clasp. Out of all the fine birthday gifts I’d received over the years from a nameless benefactor, this one that had arrived on my sixteenth birthday was undoubtedly the finest. Papa had teased me about a secret admirer. But I’d caught the worried glance he and Mama shared, the one they shared every year. I knew they knew something about it, but they wouldn’t tell me, no matter how much I pestered them. And I pestered them plenty that year. They simply gestured toward the crumpled packaging. “No return address, Cora. How are we to know who would send you such a thing?”
It was extravagant. And beautiful. I’d tried it on so many times, lifting my hair, fantasizing about my hair in elaborate curls and a gown to match the necklace. Wondering and wondering about who had sent it to me and never coming to any suitable answers. Most of Mama and Papa’s relatives were dead or distant. And none of them were well-to-do.
It was a treasure. My treasure. But really, where on earth would I wear such a thing? Once I had my teaching credential, I’d likely be out in the country. Even if I managed to find a position in one of Montana’s cities, there would be no ball or society function fancy enough where I could wear a necklace such as this.
“Cora?” Mama asked, hesitating outside my curtain.
“Please, Mama,” I said. “I can’t talk right now.” She’d only try to talk me out of it. But I was inexplicably sad to let it go. I shook the necklace in frustration. It felt foolish to be so attached to a thing. But it’d been such a sweet surprise, such a fun mystery… I’d spent nights dreaming that there was some wealthy, distant relative, and we would be his beneficiaries when he passed on, bestowed with a fine house, fine clothes, fine carriage…
I took a long, deep breath. I was no longer a mindless adolescent, dreaming of escape. I was an adult. Life was good, but harsh and demanding, too. I snapped the hinged box shut and rose. Quickly, I wrapped it in a handkerchief and tucked it under my arm, flinging aside my curtain. Mama was back at the east window, watching Papa. “I’ll be back soon,” I said.
She didn’t turn. She didn’t respond at all. Even though I assumed she knew exactly what I was about to do.
The bell on the mercantile door tinkled as I walked in, and Mr. Donnelly looked over his spectacles at me from across the counter. “Well, if it isn’t the other lovely Diehl. To what pleasure do I owe having both of you come to call in one day?”
I grinned and pretended ignorance. “Papa’s been in already too?”
Mr. Donnelly chuckled. “Now Alan’s a handsome man, but…” He lifted a brow, and then the merriment left his face. “How is he today, Cora?”
“Stubborn as an ox.” I glanced around, making sure we were alone in the store. “But he seems to be stuck in a corral he can’t escape.”
“We need to get our spring wheat in the ground. I’m guessing we can’t do that because Papa hasn’t been able to pay his bill to you.”
The man’s eyes held a weary mix of regret and guilt and frustration. “You know it wouldn’t be right to discuss that with you, Cora,” he said.
“I understand. Then I wondered if I might pay down his bill with this.” I pulled the box from under my arm and unwrapped it on the sleek, shiny wooden counter.
He whistled lowly. “Jasper’s, huh?” He pulled it closer and flipped open the lid. He cocked his head and then turned so the necklace sparkled in the light from the front windows. “My, my,” he mumbled, lifting the pearls to his teeth to test if they were real. “My, my.” He turned back to me. “Where did this beauty come from?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Jasper’s, New York, just as it says on the box. I know nothing more than that. It showed up on my sixteenth birthday, with no return address. I never found out more.”
“Well, it’s a treasure, to be sure. If we lived in Butte or Billings, I’d gladly take it off your hands but—”
“Please, Mr. Donnelly,” I pleaded, desperate now. “It’s our only hope. If we don’t get this crop in the ground, if there’s not another harvest, we’ll lose the farm. I won’t be able to get back to school and finish my credential, to say nothing of Mama and Papa’s struggle. Please.”
He was staring at the necklace, thinking. I knew I’d pushed him into an uncomfortable corner. But I had no choice.
“Please,” I whispered.
He turned miserable eyes up to me. “Cora, honey, there’s not a farmer on this side of the mountains who will turn in a cash crop this year. It’s just been too dry. They’ll all be busting their backs, trying to break even. But your folks…”
He couldn’t say more, but I understood what he meant. They were so behind with the new mortgage on the farm, they didn’t have a prayer of breaking even. It was the farmer’s cycle—go into debt all year, pay it off come fall harvest, begin again. But Papa was in deeper. Because of me and my schooling. Which explained my father’s morose behavior.
“Take it, then,” I begged. “Apply its value to his debt.”
“I can’t.” He lifted the box. “You think I could sell this here? Or even the next county over?” He cocked his head again. “Not likely.”
My eyes went over this meager jewelry case, filled with lockets of fake gold and silver, along with a few hair clips and broaches. “Then hold it for me. Use it as collateral against my own credit line. If we can’t pay you, come harvest, you can sell it for whatever you can get, the next time you go to Billings.”
He raised his eyebrows. “It’s worth far more than the seed you’re after, Cora. Far more.” He lifted the box in my direction, offering it to me.
I paused. “Then sell it, keep twenty percent, and give me the remainder after you take out your costs,” I said. “Or…or lend me the money for the train and I’ll head there tomorrow and come back with the cash to pay you.”
He stared at me in surprise.
My face burned with embarrassment. So forward! So demanding! What had come over me?
Desperation. Desperation to save us all.
“No,” he said resignedly. “If I take it as collateral, you at least have the chance to get it back if this cursed dry streak eases.” He flipped the lid closed and wearily pulled out a ledger. I held my breath. But then he began to write my name at the top. He was going to do it. Coming through for the Diehls yet again.
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Donnelly,” I breathed, sinking into relief.
“Don’t thank me, Cora,” he said grimly, looking at me again as if he wanted to say more and then shaking his head.
“Don’t thank me.”