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Authors: Adele Dueck

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BOOK: Racing Home
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The homestead coming up was another one of those where Erik couldn’t see a house. He knew there had to be one. Clothes hung on a line and children played nearby.

Smoke rose from a chimney pipe on one of the low buildings. A woman stepped through the door. She waved her arm in greeting, then strode across the yard, a metal pail in one hand.

Erik could hardly believe what he was seeing.

“That house is made of dirt!” he exclaimed. “There’s grass growing on the roof!”

“A sod house,” said Rolf, nodding. He laid the whip across his legs and took off his hat, running his hands through his red hair till it stood on end. “We’ll probably build one of those.” He shoved the hat back on his head.

“A dirt house!” said Erik, horrified. “Ma doesn’t want to live in a dirt house.”

“Your mother knows that things are different here. You need to know that, too.”

Erik bit the inside of his lip, choking back an angry reply.

Dirt houses, slow oxen, no trees. What kind of a land had they come to?

He watched the oxen for a moment. He could walk as fast as they could. Or faster. Without a word, he stood up and jumped off the wagon, landing in the dusty grass by the trail.

Behind the wagon, Erik glared at Rolf. He’d never known anyone so hard to talk to.

Rolf called out to the oxen, tapping Black lightly on a shoulder to steer around water lying on the trail. Erik admitted to himself that Rolf seemed to know how to handle the oxen all right. He’d bought them from the farmer he’d worked for during their three months in Minnesota, so they were used to each other.

The farmer had told Rolf that oxen were stronger than horses for breaking sod and could work on poorer feed. From what Erik could see, Saskatchewan had lots of both. Sod and poor feed.

The whole country looked flat – flat like a plate. He missed the mountains, the green. It was green here, but a duller green. The homesteads were dull, too, with few painted buildings.

It had been cool when they left Hanley, but it grew hotter each hour. Tired and sweaty, Erik swung back onto the moving wagon. Moments later Rolf handed him the whip and jumped down.

The sun was high overhead and Erik’s stomach was grumbling by the time they reached a shallow creek. The oxen refused to enter the water till Rolf walked beside them. The water splashed the wagon and the oxen moved even more slowly, searching for traction beneath their feet. Erik felt useless, sitting on the wagon. Rolf had the whip so he couldn’t even pretend he was helping. Once on dry land, Rolf, his trousers dripping, put his boots back on. Erik dug out the meal Mrs. Haugen had packed in a red lard pail. While the cattle grazed, they ate the soft white bread, slices of cooked beef and rhubarb turnovers.

There were more of the little pies in the wagon, Erik knew. He pictured them in his mind, counting how many there were and how many meals they would have before they arrived at Lars’s place. He hoped his mother learned how to make them while she stayed with the Haugens.

When they finished eating, Rolf stretched out on the ground, his cap covering his face. Erik led Tess and the oxen to the creek to drink, then brought water to the chickens. The moment he was done, Rolf stood up.

Erik rode for the first stretch while the June sun beat down on his head, hotter than anything he remembered in Norway.

As the afternoon progressed they saw fewer homesteads and more undisturbed prairie. To keep himself from falling asleep, Erik jumped down and walked again. The day seemed as long as three days.

A small brown animal popped out of a hole on his left and ran down the trail toward him. It stopped suddenly and sat up on its hind legs, looking around.

It made Erik think of a squirrel with most of its tail missing.

He took a step toward the animal. It whistled sharply, then dropped back on four feet and ran into the grass. Stopping beside a small mound of dirt, it whistled again, then disappeared into the ground. Erik ran toward the hole, but when he got there, the animal was gone.

Looking up, he couldn’t see the wagon.

Erik ran along the trail, feeling the upward slope as he ran, surprised to discover the land wasn’t as flat as it looked. He hoped Rolf hadn’t noticed how far behind he was. As he crested the slight hill, he saw the wagon. The breeze cooled his face as he ran, lifting his hat and tossing it into the grass.

At sundown, Rolf stopped the wagon by a pond, frightening ducks into the reeds. Green-headed ducks, just like the ones at home in Norway.

Erik thought about roasted duck as he filled the coffee pot with water. He’d never shot a gun, but in this new country he hoped to learn.

Later, rolled into a quilt, Erik gazed sleepily at the stars until a cloud of whining insects surrounded him, stinging his face. He slapped them away, then pulled the blanket over his head. It was stuffy and hot under the scratchy blanket, but at least he wasn’t being bitten.

It was still dark when Rolf’s hand, heavy on Erik’s shoulder, shook him awake.

“Get under the wagon,” Rolf ordered, a flash of lightning illuminating his bearded face. “I’m going to check the cover.” Startled, Erik realized his hair, sticking out from under the blanket, was damp. Wind tore at his bedding and whipped the canvas on the wagon.

Thunder rolled.

Erik jumped to his feet and grabbed his quilts. Slithering under the wagon, he spread them out. Finding Rolf’s bedding behind a wheel, he spread it too. Rolf joined Erik under the wagon a minute later.

“Takk,”
he said gruffly.

A streak of lightning revealed the wooden crate near the pond.

“The chickens!” exclaimed Erik. “We need to bring them under the wagon, too.”

“I’m not sleeping with chickens,” said Rolf. “They’ll be fine.”

“The cattle will be fine,” said Erik. “The chickens need to be out of the rain.”

Rolf didn’t reply.

Good, thought Erik. If Rolf didn’t care, why should he? Rolf was in charge.

But Erik’s mother always put the chickens in the henhouse when it rained.

Another flash of lightning was followed almost immediately by a deafening clap of thunder. The rain pelted down harder.

Erik pushed his blanket back and crawled out from under the wagon.

Wind drove the rain against him, drenching his hair, soaking through his shirt. Norway had thunderstorms, but Erik had never seen any this wild.

A bolt of lightning sliced the sky. He ran toward the crate, sliding on the rain-slicked ground. The wagon seemed further away on the return trip, and Erik prayed for lightning to guide his way.

He received more than he wanted, with bolts of lightning on every side and an almost simultaneous crack of thunder that seemed to go on forever.

Hurriedly Erik slipped the crate of drenched birds under the end of the wagon closest to Rolf’s feet. A moment later he slid underneath himself. Cold and wet, he wrapped himself in his quilt.

The lightning was so close. What if it hit one of the oxen? Or the wagon?

At least he didn’t need to worry about the wet chickens bothering Rolf. In a break between claps of thunder, Erik heard him snore.

How could Rolf sleep through the noise?

Erik closed his eyes. And opened them again.

Shivering, he listened to the storm. Watched the lightning flash. Were his dreams of being a farmer going to end now, underneath the wagon?

He’d always wanted to farm, helping with the goats since he was small, with field work as he grew older. His grandfather said Erik would make a fine farmer. But Grandfather’s farm would be Uncle Svend’s one day. Around them were mountains and more farmers with more sons. Norway didn’t have enough land for all the men who wanted to farm.

After Svend married, Inga told Erik and Elsa that she was marrying Rolf. “He’s a good man,” she’d said. “He’ll give us a home in the village and take care of us.”

But he hadn’t. He’d brought them here. To be wet and cold under a wagon while a storm raged all around.

The wind blew rain under the wagon, soaking through the blankets, his jacket, his shirt. Erik couldn’t remember when he’d been so cold, or felt so lonely.

Morning was cloudy and much cooler than the day before. Erik spread his bedding over the canvas on the wagon and hoped it would dry as they travelled.

Rolf struggled to light a fire, finally boiling some coffee. Erik led the cattle to the pond, then pulled the crate of chickens from under the wagon. Their feathers clung to their skinny bodies, but they pecked eagerly at the grain he gave them.

Rolf handed Erik his coffee. “I see the rain ran under your side of the wagon.”

Erik wrapped his hands around the warm tin cup.

“Could be,” he replied, wondering if Rolf had noticed he’d moved the chickens.

“You’ll dry once we get going.” Rolf cocked an eye at the clouds. “I expect it’ll clear up soon.”

“Ja,”
said Erik, wishing that Rolf would offer him dry clothes, knowing it was too much trouble to find them in the tightly packed wagon.

Rolf steered the oxen away from the muddy trail and onto the grass where the pulling was a little easier.

Erik walked behind, cold in the wind. After a while he climbed up beside Rolf. He was tired of walking, tired of the oxen, tired of travelling.

He’d hated the ocean voyage. He’d thought the ship too small to cross anything as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. He and his mother had been seasick most of the way, leaving Elsa and Rolf to explore the ship and watch the sea.

Erik’s father had been a fisherman, making his living on the ocean. When Erik was three, his father died in a storm at sea. Every day of their crossing, Erik had prayed that it wouldn’t storm, that the ship would make it safely to America.

If he hadn’t wanted to be a farmer, he would have fought against leaving Norway. He would have fought against getting on that ship. He’d only come because he knew that in America he could be a farmer.

In the afternoon they met a wagon pulled by a team of four horses. Rolf stopped the oxen.

The approaching wagon stopped as well. Erik thought the red-haired driver looked only a few years older than him. The young man looked from Rolf to Erik and back to Rolf.

“Good day,” said Rolf in English. “We seek Lars Hanson.”

The young man didn’t answer right away, staring at Rolf, his eyes cold. Though Rolf had spoken English, he answered in Norwegian. “Two miles ahead and one mile west. You’ll know it by the piles of lumber.” He slapped the reins against the horses and started moving.

“Takk,”
said Rolf. “Thank you.” But the empty wagon had already rattled past.

“How did he know we understood Norwegian?” Erik said, surprised.

Rolf twisted on the seat, watching the retreating wagon.

After a long moment, he shook his head slightly. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

He called out to the oxen and they plodded forward.

Erik felt almost lightheaded with relief, knowing their long journey was nearly over.

Rolf, on the other hand, didn’t seem happy at all. Glancing at his hand holding the whip, Erik saw it was shaking.

CHAPTER FOUR

Lefsa

A man stacking lumber turned as they drove into the yard. Big, broad-shouldered and red-bearded, he could have been Rolf’s twin. As the wagon drew closer, his face split into a grin.

“It’s about time, little brother.”

Rolf was barely down from the wagon when his brother had his hands on his arms, pulling him into a hug.

“Lars,” said Rolf, his voice sounding weak. “You are here.”

“Of course I’m here.” Lars laughed, a deep booming sound, and hugged Rolf again. “What is amazing is that you are here. I hoped you would come, but when you didn’t answer my letter and then we moved –”

“And moved again,” interrupted Rolf.

“Ja, ja,
you are right,” said Lars, still laughing. “I moved again, but always I left a trail for you to follow, did I not? And look, you’re here.” He suddenly sobered. “But you’ve missed Olaf. He left a short while ago to get another load of lumber from Hanley.”

Rolf went still.

Lars stepped back, his smile suddenly looked forced. “But Kirsten is inside. Come in, come in. She’ll be glad to see you.” His eyes settled on Erik. “And who is this young man, and why haven’t you introduced us?”

Rolf swung around, seeming surprised to see Erik standing by the wagon.

“Erik,” he said stiffly. “This is Erik Brekke.”

“Erik!” exclaimed Lars, coming around the oxen toward him, arms outstretched. Erik stepped back instinctively, but instead of hugging him, Lars took one hand in both of his, pumping it up and down. “Come in, come in. We’ll have coffee and
lefsa
and you can tell me how you come to be with this brother of mine. With that name, you must be from the homeland, too?”

At Erik’s nod, he smiled broadly. “Welcome, welcome!”

Lars turned back to Rolf and half-led, half-pushed him toward the house, his arm across Rolf’s back.

BOOK: Racing Home
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