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Authors: Stacy Henrie

A Christmas Hope (10 page)

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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Livy glanced up at the stars scattered across the black sky. “I suppose.” She began gnawing at her cheek again, wishing she had the courage to tell her parents about Robert, but she kept her lips clamped together. Robert’s continued trouble with alcohol embarrassed her. Why couldn’t he lean on her instead?

“Something on your mind?”

“Just thinking I feel old.”
And tired.
She linked her arm through his as he laughed softly. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

“Sure thing, sugar. I’m sorry Robert wasn’t able to make it. Did you have a nice time anyway?”

“Yes,” Livy answered and she meant it. She thought of her “birthday rescuer” and a real smile lifted her lips. Once she’d stopped waiting around for Robert and actually danced, she’d felt much better.

Maybe that’s what I need to do from now on.
She was tired of waiting—waiting for her life to start again now that she’d left college, waiting for her brothers’ safe return, waiting for Robert to give up alcohol, waiting for a proposal.

Robert had mentioned marriage for the first time about a month ago—the same day he’d received word a buddy from his squad had been killed. Livy doubted he could remember much of their conversation, even when his hangover had ended. If she did marry him, how many more nights would she find him that way? How many times would she have to drag his unconscious body into the house and nurse him back to awareness?

The possibility brought a prickle of cold fear creeping over her. She didn’t think she could live that way. She wanted a marriage like her parents had—one full of love and warmth.

A feeling of being trapped grabbed hold of her, squeezing at her throat and lungs. Was there nothing she could do to change her life, her circumstances? The conversation she’d had with the kind young man about the teacher position repeated itself through her mind. This could be her chance to pursue her dream and give her and Robert some needed space, too. It might be a long shot, but surely one worth taking. Even considering the idea resurrected Livy’s earlier hope and excitement. The sensation of claustrophobia faded in the wake of her enthusiasm.

“Daddy, what would you say if I were to get a job?” No matter how badly she wanted this, she wouldn’t do it without his and her mother’s blessing.

“What sort of job?”

“A teaching one. I heard about an opening at one of the township schools, north of here, near Hilden. I’m hoping they’ll take a teacher with only one year of college behind her.”

“Is that so?” He glanced at her, and though she couldn’t see his expression from the shadow of his hat, she sensed he was studying her face. “Would that make you happy, sugar? I know leaving school wasn’t what you planned to do.”

“It’s more than that.” She fiddled with one of the buttons on her coat, anxious to have him understand but not sure how much to share. “Things have been a little strained with Robert, and I think some distance would be good, for both of us.”

“So there’s more to it than him missing out on your birthday tonight?”

“Yes.” Livy feared he’d ask more questions, ones she didn’t want to answer. Tonight needed to be about hope and the possibility of new beginnings, not uncertainty and past frustrations.

His answer nearly made her fall off the wagon seat. “Then I think you ought to give the teaching job a try.”

“Really?” she squealed. She twisted on the seat to face him straight on. “Are you sure? What about needing me here, to help around the farm?”

“You’ve done a great job of that already, Livy.” Josiah pushed up the brim of his hat and smiled at her. “We would’ve been hard-pressed to run the farm this last year, without Joel and Tom around, if you hadn’t come home. But your younger brothers are growing and learning more responsibility now. I think we’ll be just fine.”

“You could use some of the money I earn to hire one of Allen’s friends to help out, if I do get the job.”

His head dipped in a thoughtful nod. “That’s an idea.”

“I can apply then?” She already knew the answer, but she couldn’t quite believe the gift he’d just presented her. Not something material, like the new mirror and powder compact he and her mother had given her earlier that day, but something infinitely more important—a promise of better days ahead.

Josiah shifted the reins to his left hand and put his arm around her shoulders. “If that’s what you want to do—need to do—sugar, then you do it. The kids up there would be lucky to have you as a teacher. We’ll be all right here. Don’t you worry.”

“Thank you, Daddy!” Livy kissed his cheek. His confidence and approval were worth more to her than a night full of fox-trots. “Could you drive a little faster?”

He chuckled at her impatience. “Anxious to get a slice of your birthday cake?”

“Nope.” Though the thought of her mother’s chocolate cake did make her mouth water. “I’ve got a write a letter to the school superintendent in Hilden.”

“Well, in that case, I suppose we’d better hurry.”

Livy laughed and gripped the wagon seat as he urged the horses to pick up their pace. With any luck, this birthday would mark the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

*  *  *

Friedrick stepped silently through the front door and eased it shut. The smell of the family’s bread, sausage, and cheese supper still hung in the air. Murmurs of conversation and the clatter of dishes came from the kitchen, where his stepmother and half siblings were cleaning up. He quietly removed his dirty boots, a grin on his face. He was going to win their little game tonight.

He crept down the hall toward the parlor. A glance over his shoulder assured him he was near victory, until he brought his weight down on the squeaky floorboard. The loud
creak
that erupted brought squeals of protest from the next room.

“It’s Friedrick,” Harlan shouted. “Hurry!”

In his stocking feet, Friedrick skidded into the parlor, the sound of footfalls close behind him. He dove for the sofa, but not before Harlan’s small frame slid past him. The two ended up in a laughing heap among the cushions.

“Boys, boys,” Elsa Wagner scolded in German from the doorway, her hands on her hips.

Friedrick had been nine when his father had remarried, but in no time at all, Elsa had quietly and easily filled the absence his own mother’s death had left in his life. She and Friedrick’s father spoke little English, and never in their own home, though they’d made certain their American-born children had learned the language.

“The sofa is for sitting, not wrestling.” She shook her finger at them.

“I won, I won,” Harlan said, ignoring his mother and bouncing up and down on the sofa.

“Not so fast.” Friedrick sat up and pulled the boy into a sitting position beside him. “Greta isn’t here yet.”

Harlan’s brows scrunched in irritation at his little sister. “Aw, Greta,” he hollered. “You made us lose.”

Greta came into the room, a miniature version of blond, blue-eyed Elsa, down to the hands resting on her waist. “I had to finish drying the plates, Harlan.” She sauntered to the sofa and snuggled in beside Friedrick.

“In that case,” Friedrick said, playfully tugging one of Greta’s long braids, “we should give one point for thoroughness to Greta and one point to me for being done with evening chores first.”

“What about me?” Harlan protested.

Friedrick tousled his hair. “You get a point for speed.”

“Then we all won tonight,” Greta said, beaming.

“Good, good.” Elsa picked up her sewing basket and went to sit in her rocker by the fire. “Now get the Bible, Harlan. The English one.”

“I’ll go get Papa.” Friedrick stood as Harlan hopped up and retrieved the Bible from a corner table.

Elsa shook her head, the lines around her eyes appearing deeper in the light from the fire. “He said he is too tired this evening.”

Friedrick frowned as he accepted the Bible his brother handed him and sat down again. He missed having their father join them in their ritual of reading each night. Perhaps once the warmer weather arrived, Heinrich Wagner’s health would improve.

Opening the book, Friedrick removed the frayed piece of silk from the third chapter of Proverbs and began reading out loud.

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not onto thine own understanding.

In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

Harlan shifted restlessly next to him. “What does that mean?”

“Well.” Friedrick searched for the right words to help his nine-year-old brother understand. “It means doing what God wants us to do, even though it might not make sense to us at the time. God’s saying if we trust Him enough to guide us, things will work out much better in the end.”

“Like you not having to fight in the war, Friedrick.” Greta smiled up at him. “We prayed you wouldn’t have to and then you got that de…de-fer…”

“Deferment,” he finished.

“That’s it.”

His sister’s grateful tone did nothing to ease the regret and unanswered questions any reference to the war dredged up inside him. If it was God’s will Friedrick stay home and run the farm, then why did he still feel so guilt-ridden every time he saw a war poster or passed a wounded soldier in town? Did God really have a purpose for keeping him here, or did He simply have little use for a twenty-six-year-old farmer in rural Iowa?

His own doubts didn’t make answering others’ questions about why he wasn’t fighting in the war any easier either. He typically didn’t evade the question, though, at least not until last night.

When the pretty girl with the large green eyes had asked him at the dance hall why he wasn’t fighting overseas, he’d decided not to answer. She struck him as sweet but spirited, too, and he hadn’t wanted to ruin their short time together by revealing he had a farm deferment because his German father was dying.

Thankfully she dropped the subject and hadn’t pressed him for his name either. Inwardly he smiled at the memory of how she’d beaten him at his own game by not revealing her name either.

“Children,” Elsa said, glancing up from her mending. “Let Friedrick read, please.” The creak of the rocker punctuated her words.

Friedrick settled back against the sofa and continued reading to the family. They’d nearly reached the end of the chapter when a loud knock at the front door interrupted him.

“Who’s that?” Harlan scrambled to a standing position and peered out the curtains.

Friedrick glanced at the carved cuckoo clock hanging above the mantel.
Must be a neighbor with an emergency
, he thought as he stood,
to come over after eight o’clock
.

“Harlan, get down.” Elsa continued to sew.

“Uh…Mama.” Harlan’s frightened voice stopped Friedrick on his way out of the parlor. He crossed to the window, and Elsa did the same.

Through the slit in the handmade curtains, Friedrick saw at least a dozen men gathered in the yard, torches in hand. The lights stood out brightly against the heavy dark clouds above them. Friedrick recognized most of them as folks he’d seen around Hilden, but several were strangers. A few of them held rifles at their sides, but it was the man with the coil of rope that made cold fear run down Friedrick’s spine.

“Stay here. Out of sight,” he said to the children. They nodded quickly, their faces pinched and pale. “You, too, Mother.”

“Merciful God.” She collapsed into her rocker. Harlan and Greta scurried to her and she put an arm around each of them. “What do you think they want?”

“I’ll find out.” Friedrick exhaled slowly, offering a silent prayer for God to be with him, and walked to the door. He slipped his boots back on and tucked in his shirt before reaching for the handle.

Another weighty knock sounded. Cold air rushed in around him as Friedrick opened the door. If this took longer than a few minutes, he was going to wish he’d grabbed his coat. He pulled the door shut behind him.

“Good evening,” he called out with forced politeness to those on the porch, grateful he didn’t have an accent. With America fighting Germany, it was better to appear as un-German as possible these days.

The harsh smell of smoke from the closest torch stung Friedrick’s nose and momentarily made his eyes water. He blinked back the moisture. “What can I do for you,
gentlemen
?”

“We need to see Heinrich Wagner,” a stranger near the door demanded. Murmurs of approval swept through the group.

“My father is ill. But you may address any questions to me. I’m in charge of this farm now.”

“Are you?” the man holding the noose said as he stepped forward. “Well, then we’ve got some business to conduct with you, son.”

“That’s right, Joe. You tell ’im,” another man hollered. Friedrick recognized him as a store owner from town.

Friedrick straightened to his full height of six feet, two inches and crossed his arms over his chest. He relished the fact that he stood at least half a foot taller than Joe. “What seems to be the trouble?”

Joe looked him up and down and smiled, but his expression looked warped in the torchlight. It reminded Friedrick of a wolf, like those in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale book he liked to read aloud to Harlan and Greta.

“No real trouble. Just out doing our patriotic duty as Hilden’s vigilance committee.” Joe strolled up the porch steps as though he belonged there. He twisted the rope into a tighter coil in his hands. A distant crack of thunder added emphasis to the sinister gesture. “You see, the schoolteacher, Miss Lehmann…Do you know Miss Lehmann, son?”

Friedrick sensed a trap. Miss Lehmann had been Harlan and Greta’s schoolteacher before she’d been fired. She also attended the same church as the Wagners, which meant Friedrick would have to answer with care. “I’m familiar with who Miss Lehmann is.”

“Did you hear she’s been speakin’ German in our school?” Joe added. “And that’s against the law.”

The reminder had Friedrick fisting his hands. The governor had recently issued a statewide proclamation prohibiting the use of any foreign language in public. No more speaking German in the schools or on the telephone or in public places.

“She’s also been prayin’ for the Kaiser’s safety in front of the children.” Joe sent a stream of tobacco-laced saliva toward the porch. Friedrick didn’t flinch or back away as the dark liquid sprayed his boots.

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
7.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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