And so they set off; he bent low over the horse’s reins, elbows to knees, expression grim, his attention focused on the road ahead. She, sitting straight-backed, her body jarring with each lurch of the wagon; wrapped in a thick, ugly, blanket that smelled of horse and hay, and God knew what else!
They rode in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. He, wondering about this little woman who came willingly to live with a man she did not know; and she, wondering about the big man, who seemed so sullen and unfriendly for one so young.
“Martha and her family are all fine,” Emilie blurted, causing him to startle in his seat.
“That’s good,” he recovered and answered without removing his eyes from the road.
What does he see out there that is so interesting, she wondered? All she could see was endless barren white fields broken occasionally by clumps of trees?
“Martha sent some clothes for the children and some material so I could make them things that they might need,” she kept her eyes trained on the road ahead.
“She sent some new blankets for all of you . . .”
Tired of trying to make conversation with the mulish man, Emilie clamped her jaw shut and left it that way. If he was going to be mute, then so would she. She shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden seat and wondered just how long this ride to her new home was going to take.
As they rode along the deeply rutted road, the color of the sky darkened to indigo, leaving the rest of the landscape almost silver-white in contrast. It was both eerie and beautiful at the same time. Emilie felt like she and her traveling companion were the last people remaining on earth. Not a thing save them moved across the cold baron landscape; no light shone out a warm welcome, for they passed no homes along their quiet ride. The darker it became, the colder it seemed. She shivered and pulled the blanket closer to her body, burrowing down into its protection, thankful for its warmth and comfort regardless of the offensive odor that met her nostrils every time she took a deep breath.
Her stomach gave a loud growl of hungry protest and she flushed furiously in embarrassment as Karl’s gaze touched on her for a moment. Though it was now dark, she could have sworn she saw a smile lingering on his face.
“You are hungry?”
There; the smile was in his voice too, she thought as she tried to hide any further loud protests from her stomach by stomping her feet on the wooden floorboards of the wagon.
“I’m fine,” she said in a tight-lipped manner, not wanting to admit to the stiff-faced man sitting beside her that she had given the food that Martha had packed for her journey, to a large family of children who had been traveling on the train with her and the other passengers. The children, who had been traveling with an elderly woman, had looked tired, scared, and hungry. When she had opened her food and seen the longing on their faces, she realized that they probably needed the food more than she; so she had handed it all over to them without another thought.
“Mrs. Barnes will have supper ready for us when we get there,” he said, as if she should know who Mrs. Barnes was or where “there” would be.
“I thought we would be going straight to your home,” Emilie despaired aloud; horribly disappointed that she would be forced to prolong the end of her long trip, even further.
“We must pick up the children first!” His voice rose in irritation at her ignorance.
“So, Mrs. Barnes has die Kinder?”
“Yes . . . Kinder . . .children. I was wondering what you had done with them,” she replied back to him, with more than a little bite to her own words. Her nervousness had caused her to revert to her native tongue which embarrassed her, but his tone of voice was making her angry with him.
“I suppose you thought I was so poor a father, that I left a five year old boy and his little sister at home alone by themselves!”
“I never thought that at all,” Emilie answered him quietly, realizing that this poor man had probably had many occasions since his wife’s death to defend his parenting skills to those in the community who would be quick to judge his actions.
He made no further comment, but it seemed to Emilie that he had relaxed somewhat at her words.
“I’m sorry for all you have been through Karl,” Emilie spoke softly to him, without turning her head even once in his direction. “You may not yet know it, but I too have suffered losses, and believe it or not, I know what it feels like to hurt. I would like to help you and the children, if you need my help; but I won’t fight with you.”
Karl listened to her softly spoken words and felt both guilt - for the way he had spoken to her, and respect - for her having the spunk to stand up to him. Few women in his life had ever taken the time to put him in his place; the fact that this one had, somehow pleased him in an odd sort of a way. He made no comment because he didn’t know what he should say to her. Anyway, she didn’t look like she was expecting a reply to her words, so he concentrated once again on the road ahead of them. He could just make out a tiny light from the next bush up ahead. He was thankful that they would soon be pulling into his neighbors’ yard. Once there, he could relax and not worry about having to talk to the young stranger. She would be too busy getting to know his children and his very good friends, Anna and Fredrick Barnes.