Authors: Lisa Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Romance
“Sorry?” She stopped, choking back the stream of tears that threatened to flow. “Is that all you have to say? You scared me, Koby! If anything ever happened to you—”
“What do you want me to say?”
Lidia squeezed her eyes closed.
I don’t know what to do anymore, God
Continuing her prayer for wisdom, she ran to catch up with him. His hands were stuffed in his pockets, and his head hung low. She’d heard him threaten numerous times to leave the strict confines of the mill, but she had always believed he realized the foolishness of such an act. Apparently, she’d been wrong. Still, part of her couldn’t blame him. A boy his age ought to be out fishing with friends after school, but instead his lot was ten hours of manual labor every day.
Lidia paused at a fork in the road. Darkness hung over them, with only the glowing light of the full moon to lead their way. She didn’t know the outlying areas, and it was obvious they were lost. At some point they had veered off the main road. The chilling howl of a dog broke through the night air, enveloping her in a cloak of fear. The snow had begun to fall, and she knew she’d never find her way back to the mill in these conditions. She had to find shelter.
Ten minutes later, with the snow flurries increasing, she caught sight of the silhouette of a cabin a couple hundred feet ahead of them. On a cold evening like tonight, smoke should be billowing from the chimney, but there wasn’t even a hint of light shining though the windows. If no one was home, at least they could use it as a temporary shelter. It wasn’t worth walking in circles all night trying to find their way back to the mill. They could freeze to death before morning.
She motioned to her brother, who solemnly followed her. As they came closer to the house, she noticed the dozens of buckets set up in the surrounding sugar brush, ready to collect the year’s harvest of sap. For years, her father had spent the final weeks of winter working for various sugarhouses helping with the gathering of the sap. It was one of her favorite memories of her family. After the maple crop had been harvested, they gathered together for the sugaring off, where the children had been allowed to eat as much of the sweet syrup as they’d wanted.
Her foot struck something solid in the middle of the path, and she nearly stumbled.
Koby caught her, then knelt in the snow. “It’s a man, Lidia.”
She stopped, gazing down at the crumpled figure. More than likely the cad was drunk, but this man had made the unfortunate mistake of choosing the wrong place to consume his spirits.
Lidia bent to see if he was breathing then jerked back in surprise. Even in the darkening shadows of night, she recognized Adam. He was alive, and there was no smell of alcohol on his breath. After ripping off her gloves, she touched his forehead with the back of her hand. Fever raged through his body.
“Quick, Koby. Help me carry him into the house.”
Grunting his disdain, her brother leaned over to grab
Adam’s shoulders. Lidia struggled under the weight of his limp body. Somehow they managed to move him past the slick steps and into the only bedroom of the cabin.
They laid him on the wool blanket that covered the bed, then, after lighting a lantern, she instructed her brother to get a fire going. The first thing she had to do was determine the severity of the head wound, then warm him up. Searching the confines of the small cabin for fresh water and a cloth, she was surprised at how orderly the room was. While simply furnished, each piece was solid and well built. All it needed were a few extra touches that only a woman could provide. Curtains to grace the windows, colorful rugs to adorn the floor, and perhaps a handmade quilt to cover the bed …
And you foolishly dare to imagine that you could ever be that woman?
Frowning at the unwanted thought, she took the wet cloth and sat beside Adam, carefully wiping the wet blood from his forehead. He groaned and opened his eyelids.
“Li … Lidia?” He smiled at her, but his voice was unsteady. “I was dreaming about you.” Clearly he was delirious.
“Be still. You’re burning with fever, and I need to clean your wound.”
“No, I’m not, it’s just …” He struggled to get up.
She eased him back down on the bed and finished washing away the blood. While he was going to have quite a lump, it didn’t look too serious. More worrisome were his fever and the fact that he had likely spent several hours lying on the cold ground. If they hadn’t come along when they had …
“You don’t understand.” This time Adam fought harder to sit up. “I have to check the buckets. It’s time for the sap to run.”
From the pale light of the lantern, she could see splotches of red across his face from the cold. He was in no condition to get out of bed, let alone work. She laid him back against the pillow. Thankfully, he was too weak to resist her any longer.
“Don’t worry about your sap collection.” She wrung the cloth into a bowl. “You’re not getting out of this bed.”
It was a choice between her employment and the livelihood of this man, but as soon as she’d spoken, Lidia knew she’d already made her decision. With weather conditions the way they were, she didn’t dare try to go for help. And that left her with one option.
She knew how grueling the process was. Harvesting the sap was only the beginning of the timely process. Once collected, the fresh sap had to be boiled immediately into syrup. Winter would not wait for Adam to recover. She and Koby would have to harvest the sap.
Lidia ran her finger down the rough bark of the maple tree then across the tip of the spout where a clear liquid dripped into the bucket below. The bulge of an icicle remained on the tap, confirming that the conditions for the harvest of the sweet sap were perfect. At first, Adam had tried to fight her decision to begin the gathering in the maple grove, insisting he was well enough to do the work himself. She watched as he stumbled across the room in search of his boots, until he finally conceded that he wasn’t well enough to get up, let alone work out in the chilly March afternoon. In his feverish state, he’d been forced to lie back down and, within minutes, had fallen into a restless sleep against his thick feather pillow.
Now the wind whipped through the grove, leaving a stinging sensation in Lidia’s cheeks. The snow glistened beneath the pale sun, shimmering like tiny crystals through the maple grove. It wasn’t cold enough to freeze the sap, but it was cold enough for the wind to make its way through the threads of her thin coat.
Balancing the half-full bucket between both hands, she tromped through the crusty snow toward the next tree. By nightfall, the buckets would be heavy with sap. How Adam had ever thought he could collect then boil the sap while keeping the fires going by himself, she had no idea.
In the short time she’d been around him, he’d reminded her of her father. Stubborn, yet enthusiastic at the same time. Her father had possessed a passion for freedom. This deep emotion had sustained him through difficult times in his native country, through the long crossing of the Atlantic with their family, and to the new life they started together in America. She wasn’t sure what drove Adam. Part of her wanted to know what lay behind those dark eyes. Another part of her wanted to run.
Koby labored without complaint, a feat considering his normal attitude at the mill and the work that still lay ahead of them. Once they collected the sap and transferred it into the large vats at the sugarhouse, the liquid would have to be constantly stirred as it boiled, making sure it didn’t run over or form a skin on the surface. With the furnace burning strong, the entire process would have to be repeated tomorrow and the next day—as long as Adam needed them or until the weather cleared enough for one of them to go for help.
Lidia was used to hard work. She hung an empty bucket, swapping it for the fuller one. For a moment, Mrs. Moore’s birdlike nose and thin, wrinkled face flashed before her. While the woman who ran the factory where they worked wasn’t as stern as many of the overseers she’d heard about, Lidia knew she wouldn’t tolerate their absence. But neither could Lidia ignore the fact that Adam needed her. A good run of sap wouldn’t wait for the deep snow to melt from the roads or for Adam to regain his strength.
Her brother struggled beside her as he strained to lift the wooden sap yoke that carried the two buckets across his shoulders. “Do you remember the last sugaring off we went to?”
“I remember how you ate so many sour pickles we all thought you’d turn green.” Lidia laid the bucket down then leaned against one of the sturdy trees, smiling at the memories.
The pickles were said to cut the sweetness of the sugar so one could eat plenty. Koby had never had any problem eating a generous amount of the waxy, taffylike treat that had been boiled then cooled into strips on the snow and eaten with a fork.
She wrapped her arms around herself and let out a slow sigh. “We had some good times together as a family, didn’t we?”
Her brother kicked one of the buckets with the tip of his foot. “I miss them.”
“I miss them, too, Koby.”
Her brother’s pained expression sifted though the recesses of her heart.
What do I say to make things better for him, God?
She longed for her mourning to turn into joyful dancing, as David once wrote in the Old Testament. Longed to see a carefree smile cross her brother’s lips. But it was something she hadn’t seen for months. Or felt in her own life.
“Do you ever think what life might be like if they hadn’t died?”
Lidia cleared her throat at her brother’s question, unable to stop the sudden flood of emotions that overtook her and brought the sting of tears to her eyes. “You know thinking like that won’t bring them back. All we can do is make the best of what we have.”
Koby folded his arms across his chest, his chin set in fierce determination. “You could always marry someone like the mister inside. He might not be rich, but he’s got all this land. Maybe he wouldn’t mind having a boy like me around if I was extra good. I’d work hard so he wouldn’t have any reason to send me away. It would almost be like having a family again—”
“What’s wrong with my dreaming about having something gooder?”
“Something better.” Lidia frowned. She couldn’t blame him for wishing things were different. It was something she did, as well. But in reality, sometimes life handed you a plate of sour pickles instead of a huge iron vat of sweet maple syrup. No gallant hero was going to sprint from the pages of a legend and into her life to change her situation. She had to pull them through herself—that was what
“What about you?” Koby took a step forward. “Don’t you want more out of life than working ten hours a day for some overseer who doesn’t care anything about us, except that we can get the work done so they can make more money?”
“Well, it’s true, ain’t it?”
“Isn’t it?” Lidia shut her mouth at the attempt to correct her brother’s grammar. Perfect speech and fine manners would never really change who they were. She’d found that out firsthand. Their parents had worked for a dozen years to establish themselves as hardworking American citizens who could provide for their family in ways they never could have in the old country. And they had achieved much of what they’d dreamed.
She’d seen the look of pride in her father’s eyes when he returned from work with a piece of penny candy for each of his children. Her mother would scold him for spoiling them, but her eyes couldn’t hide her own feelings of thankfulness for the blessings God had showered upon them. Life had been good.
But all that had changed. It had only taken the dreaded cholera a matter of days to rob her parents of life and in turn change Koby and Lidia’s future forever. With the loss of her father’s income, she and her brother had become nothing more than immigrant factory workers. It was useless to spend her life dreaming about things changing. Someone like Adam would never choose a girl like her. Fairy tales like that didn’t happen in real life.
“It’s time to get back to work, Koby.” Swallowing the lump in the back of her throat, Lidia picked up her bucket, stiffened her shoulders, and resolved to forget the past and concentrate only on the matter at hand. Saving Adam Johnson’s maple crop.
Adam rolled over onto his side then winced at the sharp pain that splintered behind his eyes. Reaching up to feel the throbbing knot on his head, he struggled against someone’s hand pressing down on his shoulder.
“Please. Lie back, and I’ll get you some broth to drink.”
He opened his eyes and let them adjust to the fading shadows in the room. Something simmered on the stove, making his mouth water. How long had it been since he’d eaten? He focused on the figure leaning over him. The final rays of the evening sun filtered into the room, bathing Lidia’s face in the soft light and causing him to wonder if he was simply dreaming about the fairylike girl who fluttered in and out of his dreams.
Adam pushed his elbows against the bed and tried to sit up again. The pain that seared through him confirmed he was awake.