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The Northwoods

By Jane Hoppen

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Jane Hoppen

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The Northwoods

In 1853 Wisconsin, Evelyn Bauer’s husband dies and, to support her children and their farm, she must disguise herself as him and work the logging camp for the winter. Sarah Bell has lost her partner, Abigail, to pneumonia. When she’s offered a job as a cook's helper at the logging camp, she has little choice but to go. The two women secretly forge a friendship as they struggle to survive the harsh environment.

As Evelyn’s and Sarah’s feelings grow, tension silently builds and their unspoken passion will either force them apart or bind them together forever.

The Northwoods

© 2018 By Jane Hoppen. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-144-0


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: March 2018


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design by Tammy Seidick

By the Author

In Between


The Man Who Was Not


The Northwoods

Acknowledgments

Thank you to my editor, Cindy Cresap.

To Sharon Morrison

Chapter One

Evelyn Bauer was as ready as she ever would be to transform into a man. She laid out the logging clothes that had belonged to her husband, George, on the bed. As the bitter, brutal Wisconsin winter required, the clothes were mainly made of wool. Evelyn fingered a large checkered coarse shirt, brightly colored with rust, pine green, and brown. The woolen pants that she would pack were cut off at the knees for easier movement. She set aside two wool caps, a pair of mittens and gloves, and a deep red mackinaw, and she put a pair of rawhide shoepacks on the floor near the bed. They would serve as her boots and were made large enough so that several pairs of wool socks could be worn. These were the clothes that Evelyn would don for the good of her family.

Two months earlier, near the end of a very dismal harvest season, Evelyn went to the cornfield on the farm’s northern section to fetch George for dinner. He hadn’t responded to the dinner bell when she rang it, and she didn’t mind the stroll. The evening was just edging into dusk, the sky’s burnt orange melting into a soft violet blue. After calling and calling for George and getting no answer, Evelyn finally found him in the far end of the field. He had collapsed in the dirt, surrounded by leftover stubble—bent stalks and discarded husks. She was unable to revive him, and the doctor had said that the cause of death was a heart attack.

The burial was a simple affair, attended only by Evelyn; their three children; Evelyn’s sister, Helen; and George’s brother, Will. A minister from the small church down the road spoke a few words, and Will and one of his farmhands buried George beneath a birch tree that stood behind the house. During the days that followed, Evelyn mourned the loss of George, the loss of his kinship. They had grown up on neighboring farms and became fast friends in youth; their families often gathered together for summer picnics and visited during the winter to break up the long, monotonous stretches of icy cold. Their marriage had been a given, a matter of necessity dictated by nature. Evelyn’s father died when she was only seventeen, and her mother had passed away three years earlier. Her sister was already settled in town as a teacher, and with little discussion, Evelyn and George married soon after her father’s death. George joined Evelyn in the running of her parents’ farm, and his brother took over the Bauer family farm.

Evelyn fingered the mackinaw that George had once worn. A tear slid down her cheek. I never thought I’d be without you this soon, George. He had been such a key in the fabric of their daily living that, even two months later, she would find herself calling out his name. Evelyn had always been grateful for George’s kindness and his companionship, though their relationship had not been one of great passion. Evelyn had little understanding of the concept.

George had been a good-natured man, though not a man of many words, and when it came to the sensibilities of affection, he had always been at a loss—reserved and awkward. The marriage was a means of survival, a partnership built to withstand the hardships of the land. To Evelyn, George was more like a brother figure, and with the daily work on the farm being so strenuous, their sexual encounters were always fumbling and rushed affairs. By the time the act was over, George quaking into an orgasm, Evelyn was just beginning to feel some stirring. George would pass out beside her, exhausted, and all she would feel was frustration, lying beside him, awake in the night. Some nights after George had fallen into deep sleep, snoring beside her, Evelyn had let her hand slide past her belly, between her legs, where her fingers provided the release she desired. Any sexual pleasure that Evelyn had had in life, she had given to herself. Evelyn and George did have their three children, though—Peter, Karl, and Louise—and together they had maintained a substantial farm, with the usual ups and downs, the precariousness of farming always close at hand.

That year had been a hard one for the Bauers, and their crops had suffered greatly. Weeks of heavy rain in the spring had caused the Wisconsin River to overflow just after planting, flooding the potato fields on the south end of the farm and rendering the land useless. The income from the few crops that remained, the corn and the wheat, was barely enough to survive on throughout the long winter months. When Evelyn surfaced from the shock of George’s sudden death, she realized that with a farm to manage and three children to feed, she had to do what he had done during the winter months after a bad harvest—head north to work in the logging camp. Evelyn lifted the heavy mackinaw and held it before her. She would take George’s place—as George.

As Evelyn began to put on the clothes, she wasn’t surprised at how well they fit. She was a big woman, of German stock, and she and George had the same tall, sturdy build, though George had lacked her breasts and full curves. The outfit wasn’t really that foreign to Evelyn. She found dungarees more suitable to her work on the farm and, unlike her sister, Helen, who lived in town and taught in the one-room schoolhouse, she wore a dress only a few times a year, which wasn’t unusual. Many women from her territory were as masculine as the men and were used to toiling as much as any man. Some of the farm wives wore long prairie dresses, but many others, like Evelyn, found them a nuisance. One day, Evelyn had stopped by the mercantile store in town and the owner had shown her a newspaper that touted the latest styles some women on the East Coast were wearing.

Evelyn had grunted at the picture and said, “They must be ladies of leisure. No work would ever get done in a getup such as that.”

Evelyn gazed at the clothes she had laid out. Next to them she added a pile of rags and the pocket watch that had belonged to George. She knew she would be the only logger packing those items, but she would also be the only one who was menstruating. She would need the watch so she could be sure to wake before the others when she needed to change and hide the soiled rags that she would pin to her undergarments when necessary. Evelyn pulled on a pair of long johns and the heavy woolen pants. Before she put on the shirt, she removed her stays and grabbed an old bedsheet from a trunk. She tore off one wide long panel and folded it lengthwise. She would have to bind her breasts if she was going to pass as George. Slowly, she wound the cloth over her chest in smooth layers, not so tight as to restrict movement or breathing, but tight enough to adequately flatten her breasts. She adjusted the bandage, striving for maximum comfort, as she knew that the binding would need to remain in place for the duration of her time at the camp. Because of the frigid conditions and the lack of water, none of the loggers bathed—ever. Evelyn shook her head as she tried to imagine the stench that must accumulate in the bunkhouse as the months passed. She fastened the binding with two large pins and put on the shirt.

With the stink of the bunkhouse in mind, she went to the dresser that had belonged to George and opened the top drawer. She removed his pipe and a pouch of tobacco. She fingered the pipe. She wasn’t really a smoker, had taken only an occasional puff whenever George had his nighttime smoke, but she thought the pipe might give her an excuse to escape the bunkhouse for a few moments in the evenings. Evelyn put the pipe and tobacco in the canvas pack that would hold all her belongings for the winter months. She also took George’s straightedge razor off his dresser. She would need it so she could at least go through the motions of shaving. Just as she was shoving it into the pack, the door to the bedroom creaked open and her sister stepped in. She had been staying with Evelyn since George’s death, helping to prepare the farm for winter and to care for the children.

“Are you sure this is necessary?” Helen asked as Evelyn pulled on a pair of thick wool socks.

Evelyn looked at her sister, three years her senior. She was more petite than Evelyn, with dark brunette hair that fell only to her shoulders. In town, Evelyn had heard folks refer to Helen, thirty years old and unmarried, as a spinster. She knew Helen wouldn’t care what they called her, and in some ways Evelyn envied her status, so untethered. She lived with another woman, Jess Moore, who helped her run the school. Evelyn had always suspected that their relationship was more than a friendship, that perhaps they had a more intimate connection, something she sensed in the way they sometimes gazed at each other, but she never asked. Such matters were not discussed.

She did walk in on them one day, though. She had traveled to town for supplies and stopped by their home. As was the custom, she had rapped on the front door and entered. She followed the scent of baking bread into the kitchen, and when she stepped into the room, she found Helen and Jess in an embrace that was a bit more than casual. When they realized she was in their presence, they released one another and stood looking at her unabashedly.

“Bread smells wonderful,” was all Evelyn had said.

She’d had no idea what else to say. Two women comforting one another, hugging, was not an uncommon scene, but this embrace seemed different. Evelyn hadn’t wanted to cause discomfort by asking questions, nor did she want to seem naive. She didn’t even know what questions she would ask. Helen had moved over to her side nonchalantly and lightly kissed her on the cheek.

“Hello, sister.”

Nothing more was said, and they sat down to indulge in warm slices of bread and cups of hot coffee.

“Don’t see any way around it,” Evelyn said. “If I don’t go, we won’t have any way to get the provisions that we need come springtime. I won’t have the money to buy seed or hire hands. The farm would be a disaster.”

“I worry about the kids,” Helen said. “George has been in the ground only two months now.”

Evelyn worried about the children, too. Their father had been a good man, a mild man, and the children were fond of him and loved him dearly. She could sense the ache of their loss, the echo of his absence. Peter, the eldest at age ten, had always tried to emulate George, trudging out to the barn and fields with him before the break of dawn and joining him by the lake in the late summer afternoons to try to snag some trout or walleyes.

He had grown sullen since George’s passing. The younger boy, Karl, was seven. He had also insisted on being in close proximity to George whenever possible, angling for a place on his lap when they sat outside on the porch in the summer, or inside near the woodstove on dark winter nights. Every morning since George’s death, when Karl came down to find his father absent from the breakfast table, he burst into tears. Even little Louise, who was four, had always vied for a place near her father’s side. She didn’t understand that her father’s absence would be permanent and often asked, “Papa? Where’s Papa?” The void of George’s presence would not be easy to fill.

“I’m doing this because of the children,” Evelyn told Helen. “If we’d had a better harvest, I wouldn’t even think about it. But all the rain early in the season took its toll. Most of the fields were waterlogged, and the root cellar’s only three-quarters full. I can’t take a chance.”

“I worry about your safety,” Helen said. “The work at those camps can be deadly, and what do you think will happen if the other loggers figure out that you’re not George?”

Evelyn shrugged.

“Guess they’ll send me home. Guess it’s up to me to make sure that doesn’t happen. Let me finish dressing and you can tell me what you think.”

“All right,” Helen said. “I’ll go down and tend to the stew.”

Evelyn glanced out the window.

“If you don’t see the children heading back from the barn yet, ring the dinner bell,” she said. “It’ll be getting dark soon.”

“Will do,” Helen said as she left the room.

As Evelyn finished dressing, she wondered how George had fared at the logging camp. He wasn’t much of a complainer, and when he returned home in the spring, the logs having been delivered downriver, he wanted to hear more about her winter with the children, the happenings on the farm and about town, than he wanted to recount the long, laborious days and nights at the camp. Whenever Evelyn had asked George about the camp, his reply was always simple.

“There’s not much to tell,” he’d say. “Every day was the same day, and every day was a long one.”

She knew he had disliked going to the camp, but he took it all in stride, just as she would. She, however, would have the constant worry of being discovered. George did mention to Evelyn once that some of the men called him Quiet George because he never participated in the nightly singing and storytelling. George stayed mostly to himself when at the logging camp, and for that Evelyn was grateful. That would make her taking his place that much easier. George wasn’t a regular at the camp either, like many of the other men. He’d gone to work there only twice since Peter was born. No one would be able to remember George Bauer well enough to call her into question.

Just as Evelyn finished putting on the clothes, she heard the children entering the house, and the scent of the stew she had prepared earlier in the day wafted up through the wooden rafters. She stood before the dusty, dim mirror in her new clothes. They were bulky, awkward. She put on a cap; wrapped a sheath of her long, wavy hair around one hand; and tucked it under the cap. She would ask Helen to cut her hair for her that night after dinner. She stepped away from the mirror and spoke, pushing her voice down as low as possible.

“George Bauer,” she said. “I’m George Bauer from Maple Grove.”

Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat and tried again.

“Well, this winter I will be a woman of few words,” she finally said after a few attempts, displeased with her performance. “Quiet George it is.”

The chattering of the children below rose to the bedroom, and Evelyn took one last glimpse of herself and went downstairs to join them. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, the children turned their attention to her. Evelyn settled her eyes on them. Peter was tall and lanky, growing into himself, with a mop of reddish-brown hair and a band of freckles across his nose. Being the eldest, he took things seriously and had a somewhat stern personality. Karl was about a foot shorter, with a stocky build, blond hair, and light blue eyes. He was more easygoing and lighthearted than his brother. Louise was a pudgy little girl, with wavy brown hair and hazel eyes, and she was generally joyous. Peter was the first to stammer any words.

“Ma, why are you wearing Pa’s clothes?”

“I’ve got to go north for the winter,” Evelyn told the children. “I’m taking your father’s place at the logging camp. Aunt Helen is going to stay here with you, and I’ll be back as soon as I make enough money to keep the farm going and food in our bellies.”

Karl ran over to her from the other side of the room and clung to one of her legs as she ran a hand through his hair. Little Louise turned her face into the folds of Helen’s dress. Peter’s eyes filled with tears.

“I want to go with you,” he said, his voice pleading.

“The camp’s no place for a child,” Evelyn said. “And I need you here, to help your aunt with your brother and sister, and the farm. You know how this farm runs better than anyone. You know how to tend to the animals, keep the barn clean. Your father taught you well.”

“But, Ma…”

“This is how it has to be, Peter,” Evelyn said. “We need to make your father proud. Now, get out the bowls and spoons while I bring the food to the table.”

“All right,” Peter mumbled, as tears began to stream down his cheeks.

Evelyn went to his side and wrapped her arms around him.

“It’ll be okay,” she assured him. “It’s only for the winter, this one winter. You know I wouldn’t go if I didn’t need to. Your uncle will help you with the farm. Just listen to him and your aunt and you’ll be fine.”

Peter sighed and shuddered against her. Evelyn released him and went to gather the food for their meal. Peter slumped away to prepare the table. Evelyn took a loaf of bread she had baked the day before and carved thick slices. She moved the pot of stew to the table and began to ladle it into bowls. The silence in the room was palpable, and as everyone gathered around the table, a mood of dark grimness seemed to join them. Peter’s lips trembled.

“When do you leave?” he finally asked.

“I’m not sure,” Evelyn said. “Your uncle’s stopping by tonight so we can decide. He’ll be taking me up to the camp in his wagon. We’ll have to leave before the first snow.”

Karl pushed his bowl away, only a few small nibbles gone, and started to cry. Helen gently rested a hand on his shoulder and tried to lighten the mood.

“Your mother will have some grand tales to tell you when she returns home,” she said. “Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe—they’re always up to something.”

Only Louise, who didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation in any way, giggled and merrily swung her legs back and forth beneath the table.

Just as they finished their dinner, silent except for occasional sniffles from Peter and Karl, there was a knock on the door and Will entered. He resembled George in many ways, with his thick mop of brown hair and matching brown eyes, but he didn’t have George’s girth. Will was tall and lean, his arms dangling by his sides. As he stepped into the house, his eyes landed on Evelyn, and he turned pale. Evelyn had sent word of her plan to him by way of Helen. He shook his head.

“You’re almost the spitting image of him with all that gear on,” he said. “If I didn’t know better…”

“Think I’ll pass?” Evelyn asked.

“As long as you can keep up with the work,” Will said. “I think so.”

“George was a sawyer, and you know I’m no stranger to the ax. I reckon I can take down a tree as well as any man.”

The boys sat silently while Louise played with a doll in a corner near the stove. Helen cleared the table and put things back in place.

“When do we go?” Evelyn asked.

“Weather’s taking a change,” Will said. “Cold’s setting in, and it’s already mid-November. First freeze was two nights ago, so the first snow’s not far behind. Can you be ready in three days’ time?”

Evelyn looked at Helen, who nodded. She then looked at the children. Peter and Karl gazed at her with dread. She knew that leaving sooner would give her children less time to fret over what was to be.

“I’ll be ready,” she said.

“I’ll be by at the break of dawn,” Will said. “It’ll be a full day’s travel.”

“Coffee, Will?” Helen offered. “Still have some warm on the stove.”

“Sounds good.”

He pulled a chair up near the stove, and the children gathered around him. He turned to Peter.

“You going to help me keep this farm in good shape, son?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Peter said glumly.

Will placed a hand on Peter’s shoulder. He had the same kindness that George had harbored.

“We’ll just make sure we keep things running smoothly so your mother doesn’t come home to any surprises,” he said.

Helen handed him a cup of steaming coffee, and Will settled in his chair.

“Who’s up for a story?” he asked the children.

Louise and Karl clapped their hands in excitement, and even Peter smiled slightly. Evelyn sighed with relief, seeing him relax for the first time since she told him she would be leaving.

“Did I tell you the one about the night I was driving the horse and wagon down a dark road and came upon a barn dance?”

“No,” the children said in unison.

“Well, one cold rainy night I was traveling down a road that didn’t seem to end,” Will said. “I drove and drove, and then suddenly, I saw a dimly lit barn off the side of the road, not too far away, in a field. I headed toward the barn and heard music. Ah, I said to myself, they must be having a dance. When I reached the barn and went inside, I came upon the strangest barn dance I’ve ever seen.”

Evelyn sat beside Helen at the table and listened as Will’s voice blanketed the room, the wind outside rising to a shrill whistle. She looked about the home that she had lived in all her life—as a child, and now as a mother. The house was simple—two stories, with two bedrooms and a small fireplace in the upper loft. The kitchen, which housed the woodstove, a small baker, and a dining table, was downstairs, as was the sitting area, the rooms separated by a large brick fireplace. In the sitting area were a wide bench and two wooden chairs. A small hallway off the kitchen led first to the pantry and then out to the backyard and the outhouse. The root cellar was under the kitchen floor, accessible by a trapdoor, which opened to steep, slanting steps.

Like most farm homes of the time, the structure was modest, but it had all the basic comforts and necessities, and Evelyn’s stomach churned when she thought about the conditions she would be living in that winter at the logging camp. She stood and went to look out the window near the woodstove. The trees had been stripped down to gaunt figures, bent and gnarled, and fallen leaves drifted back and forth in the winds, like the tide, ebbing and flowing. She felt the coldness of the wind on the other side of the window. The winter would be a frigid one.

* * *

After Will left and Evelyn settled the children into their beds, she went to her bedroom to get a pair of scissors. She examined herself in the mirror again. The next time she did so the hair that reached midway down her back would be gone. That was the last element of herself that she could change, physically. Mentally, she had no idea how to prepare for her venture. She was entering a grisly world, and the one thing she knew was that she could show no weaknesses, harbor no vulnerabilities. She turned from the mirror and went downstairs. Helen glanced at her and Evelyn handed her the scissors.

“I need you to cut my hair,” she said.

“Ah, the final step of your transformation,” Helen said.

“Make it as short as you can,” Evelyn told her.

They laid an old sheet on the floor, and Evelyn set a chair on it and sat. She released a jagged sigh as Helen gathered the thick tresses of hair in one hand and slowly began to cut. Chunks of hair fell to the floor. Neither of them spoke, almost as if that act signified a time of great change for both of them. Helen finally cleared her throat and broke the silence.

“Have you thought about how different your life will be now, without George?” she asked.

Evelyn glanced down at the hair gathering on the sheet below.

“Beyond this?” she said. “Not really. Despite the obvious. All the responsibility is mine now—the children, the farm.”

“Perhaps you’ll marry again at some point in the future,” Helen said.

“Can’t imagine being with any man but George,” Evelyn said. “Even that marriage, as you know, was born more of circumstance. Until now I never wondered what I might have done if George hadn’t been waiting for me on the sidelines after Mother and Father passed away.”

“Maybe you would have tried to manage the farm on your own,” Helen said. “Or you could have met another man.”

“That doesn’t seem likely,” Evelyn said. “What about you? Have you never met a man who…?”

She fell silent. She knew better.

“I’m perfectly content with my life,” Helen said.

“With Jess?” Evelyn asked.

She had never broached the subject before.

“Well, yes,” Helen said. “She is my best friend, my confidante.”

“But what about…?”

“Intimacy?” Helen asked. “Love?”

Evelyn felt herself blushing. She nodded.

“We share the same bed,” Helen said. “I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now. We share everything. I would be devastated without her.”

“I have often wondered about the breadth of your relationship,” Evelyn said. “Even after I walked in on you two that one day…I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know what to think. Why didn’t you ever tell me before?”

“That day you saw me and Jess I thought you were embarrassed, uncomfortable,” Helen said. “I thought you might be against it.”

“I was just caught a bit off guard,” Evelyn said. “I would never judge you. I just didn’t know what to say. We have taken such different paths. You never did consider staying on the farm, did you?”

Having been born into a farm family with only daughters, Evelyn and Helen had helped their father with the bulk of the farm work. Helen did so begrudgingly, but Evelyn embraced it wholeheartedly. She loved the connection to the land—putting her hands in the soil, tending to the crops, reaping the fruits of the harvest. The rhythms of the different seasons drew her in and drove her.

“Not really,” Helen said. “I didn’t dislike the farm, but you know I always took more of a liking to town, and to books. I wanted something different, and I realized in my teen years that my attraction was toward women. Do you remember Emma May?”

“Of course,” Evelyn said. “Her folks had the apple orchard we always went to.”

“She was my first crush,” Helen said. “We had a few occasions of exploration in the barn on the days when we would visit, but we never did see each other enough to pursue it.”

“I never knew,” said Evelyn.

“You know, you don’t have to be with a man again, marry,” Helen said. “This time the choice is yours. You can raise the children and run the farm on your own. Jess and I will always be here to help you.”

That thought had never before entered Evelyn’s mind. No other words were said, but she found herself harboring an ache, deep down, as she wondered if she could ever have what Helen had—a relationship that was anchored by more than survival and necessity.

When Helen finished cutting Evelyn’s hair, she held a hand mirror up before Evelyn so she could see. Evelyn studied her new self.

Evelyn had been trying to put up a strong front since her decision to go to the camp, but alone with Helen, she spoke frankly.

“I’m afraid of what I might encounter up in those woods,” she said. “My only reference to men, really, is George and our father.”

“Both well-mannered men,” Helen said. “Father had such a good sense of humor.”

“He did. I know the men I am about to be surrounded by will be nothing like him. I’m guessing they will be a rather brutal lot.”

“I wish you didn’t have to go,” Helen said.

“So do I,” Evelyn admitted. “I don’t know of any other way, though. I have to save this. This is all I have—my children, the farm.”

“I know,” Helen said. “I know.”

Evelyn gathered up the sheet from the floor and took it outside to release the hair to the winds. She returned inside to sweep up any leftover remnants. She looked at Helen.

“I wish George had told me more about the camp, but I realize now he was probably sparing me his misery, which makes me worry even more. I have no idea what to expect.”

“Then expect the unexpected,” Helen told her.

“I will,” Evelyn said before turning away and heading up the stairs.

“Good night, sister,” Helen said.

“Sleep tight,” Evelyn replied.

In her room, Evelyn stood before the mirror once again. If she didn’t know better, she could see herself as a man. She didn’t mind what she saw in the mirror, as she had never been one to home in on her femininity. She looked at herself and pondered her life. A husband and children had always seemed to be a given, only because there were no other apparent options. Unlike Helen, Evelyn had seen no path other than marriage. But now… Besides her trepidation, she felt a small burst of excitement travel through her. A part of her was thrilled to embark on the first real solo journey of her life, though she was also intrigued and overwhelmed by the thought that she would be making that journey disguised as a man. Either way, she was ready to take George’s place.

* * *

Evelyn’s last meal with her children and sister the night before she left for the logging camp was a somber one. Few words were spoken and the winds outside howled, reminding everyone of the long winter that was about to descend upon them. Evelyn sat with Louise in her lap and tried to console Karl and Peter. Helen sat silently with a solemn look on her face, and Evelyn knew she was worried.

“You boys know I’ll return as soon as I make enough money to help us out here,” Evelyn said.

“Before spring?” Peter asked.

“I hope so,” Evelyn said. “I’ll definitely be back for planting time. You just stick to your chores and take care of your brother and sister, and winter will be over before you know it.”

“I guess,” Peter said.

“I’ll help,” Karl chimed in, slinging an arm around Peter.

“I want you boys to go out to the shed now and get me your father’s ax,” Evelyn said as Louise shifted in her lap.

Evelyn watched them as they pulled on coats and hats and headed outside. Helen rose to clean off the table, and Evelyn hummed to Louise as she rocked her back and forth. Louise’s eyelids slowly fluttered and closed. With Louise finally sleeping calmly in her lap, Evelyn bent over and lightly kissed her forehead as her own eyes filled with tears. The children didn’t know that she dreaded her journey as much as they did. Never before had she spent even a day away from them, and her heart sank as she thought of them being absent from her life for so long.

She heard stomping outside the door, the boys cleaning off their boots before entering. When they walked in, Evelyn gestured for them to be quiet as she stood with Louise in her arms and took her upstairs to put her to bed. When she returned downstairs and joined the boys, Peter handed her the ax. Evelyn examined it. George had always taken meticulous care of his tools, and the ax was no exception. The bit was sharpened and the head was oiled and securely fastened to the handle. She checked the handle for any cracks or splits and smiled when she saw the initials that George had carved into the bottom of the handle—GB. She set the ax down. She pulled the boys close to her and hugged them tightly.

“Don’t know how I’m going to make it without seeing you boys every day,” she said.

Peter looked up as tears traced down her cheeks, and he tightly wrapped his arms around her waist.

“It’ll be all right, Ma,” he said. “Me and Karl will do whatever Uncle Will and Aunt Helen say, and we’ll take good care of Louise.”

“Yep,” Karl said.

“I know that,” Evelyn said. “Your pa and I couldn’t have raised better boys. But I’m going to miss you every day. You head upstairs now and I’ll come tuck you in.”

The boys hugged Helen good night and went upstairs. When Evelyn stood to join them, Helen handed her a tiny booklet tied together with string and a stub of a pencil.

“I made you this so you can track the time,” she said.

Evelyn fingered the hand-fashioned calendar and flipped through the pages.

“You went all the way to May,” she said.

“Well, we’ve had many an Easter snow,” Helen said.

Evelyn grunted.

“Let’s hope that’s not the case this season.”

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” Helen said. “Either way, when you return it will be a new year.”

“I reckon just returning home will make 1853 one of my best years ever,” Evelyn said.

They looked at each other steadily and then silently embraced.

* * *

That night as Evelyn lay in bed listening to the wailing of the winds outside, she ran a hand over the empty space in the bed beside her and thought of George. She knew he would think she was doing the right thing. She missed the sense of him, his partnership, the comfort of his presence, even his arms, sturdy around her. The prairie was a difficult place to stand alone. She felt an ache in the pit of her belly, a gnawing loneliness, and she thought that, if nothing else, she would be too busy at the camp, too exhausted, to dwell on her loss and the newness of her life.

Before turning off the kerosene lamp that dimly lit her room, Evelyn fingered the book lying on her nightstand—Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Evelyn had borrowed the book from Helen, the source of all her reading materials. She had already read the book three times, marveling each time at the passion and turmoil between Jane and Mr. Rochester. She had had plenty of turmoil and hardship in her life, but she didn’t even know if she would be able to identify passion, which made her even more curious. She thought about her conversation with Helen. She had always known that relationships between two women or two men existed, and she had always assumed they entailed all the same facets as a relationship between a woman and a man, but she sensed that Helen and Jess’s relationship was more rooted in passion. Evelyn couldn’t even imagine a circumstance where that might occur for her. As soon as she returned home from the camp, she would be back to running the farm, and that would be a solitary existence, except for the children. She ran her hand over the cover of Jane Eyre, feeling as if she would probably never experience the romance within those pages.

Chapter Two

As the horse-drawn wagon traveled slowly over the dirt road, Sarah Bell sat solemnly beside Sam Hardy, the older brother of Abigail Hardy, Sarah’s lover for six years, the woman they had buried that day. Abigail had died of pneumonia at the early age of thirty. Sarah was numb and stunned, and she rode with Sam in a daze.

Sarah had been orphaned at the age of eight, when her parents died of typhoid fever. She was raised in the orphanage outside a little town called Pine Creek, and at the age of seventeen, she was taken in by the local seamstress, Abigail Hardy, to help her with her business. Abigail, seven years her senior, gave Sarah a room to stay in and full rein of the house, and they soon became close friends, spending nearly all their waking hours together.

Six months after settling into the Hardy house, Sarah realized that she was not only fond of Abigail, but she was also attracted to her. Abigail was a slender, pale woman with long blond hair and freckles that spread across the bridge of her nose and cheeks, and one could easily get caught in the sea of her moss green eyes. Neither her feelings for Abigail nor her attraction to her were foreign to Sarah, as she had harbored a secret crush on another girl at the orphanage, Molly, ever since she was thirteen. When they were caught kissing in the bathroom by a member of the staff, they were quickly separated, and their budding romance was squelched.

As Sarah and Abigail spent more time together, Sarah would steal glimpses of Abigail whenever she wasn’t looking, tracing the lines of her body with her eyes. She waited for those moments when their fingers would brush against each other or when their bodies briefly touched. She never suspected that Abigail might feel the same way that she did.

When the house that Abigail and Sarah had shared came into view, Sarah remembered the first time that she and Abigail had made love. Abigail was tailoring a pair of trousers for a young, small-built man who lived in town. He couldn’t make it by the shop for a fitting, and since they were approximately the same size, Abigail had Sarah step in for him. Abigail first fitted the waist and then moved on to the inseam of the pants. She ran her hand along the inside of one of Sarah’s legs, and as she moved her hand toward the crotch area, Sarah trembled and caught her breath. She felt herself moistening between her legs. Her knees nearly buckled as Abigail spoke.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” Sarah said. “I simply…”

As Abigail continued to adjust the pants, Sarah shuddered and spoke again.

“Please,” she said.

Before Sarah knew what she was doing, she found herself pressing against Abigail, seeking out her lips with her own. They kissed, long and hard, tongues twisting. Abigail led Sarah to her bedroom and closed the door behind them.

* * *

The wagon finally lurched to a stop in front of a small, quaint house, the only home Sarah had known since she left the orphanage. Sam climbed out of the wagon, walked over to Sarah’s side, and helped her down. For a moment, they both stood in silence, staring at the house.

“I want you to know that you can keep the house,” Sam said. “As you know, it belonged to our parents, and I have the farm and my own home to look after. I’ve got no need for another house, and Abigail would want it this way. From the day you arrived, she wanted this to be your home as much as hers.”

“Thank you,” Sarah said. “You have no idea how much your kindness means to me.”

She was, indeed, relieved. She had spent the three days since Abigail’s death in a state of both mourning and fear, sometimes edging on hysteria. Where will I go? What will I do? How will I handle life on my own?

Without saying anything else, Sam left her side and climbed back up into the wagon.

“I’ll check in on you in a week or so to see how you’re doing,” he said. “I have no idea what my sister’s and your financial situation is, but you might need some additional income now that Abigail is gone. You can let me know.”

“I will,” Sarah said.

She stood in front of the house and watched him turn the wagon around and head back down the dirt road. When the wagon became a distant dot, Sarah finally entered the house, closed the door behind her, and began to aimlessly wander from room to room. When she reached the bedroom, she sat in a rocking chair near a window and gazed out at the pale gray clouds and the barren trees. At twenty-three, she was again alone in life, with no anchor, nothing to hold on to, except for the house that Abigail had shared with her—home. She gulped in a deep breath and started to sob. She lay down, pulled a blanket over her, and closed her eyes to darkness.

* * *

The next morning, Sarah woke early; the sun was slanting through the bedroom curtains. She rose, somberly prepared herself for the day, and went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. When it was done, she poured herself a cup and went into the parlor, where she sat at Abigail’s desk. She ran her hands over the smooth, polished wood. She then methodically began to go through the drawers, trying to find the bank records and ledgers that Abigail had kept. She spread them out on the desk and began the process of laboriously going through them. Abigail had always managed their finances, and Sarah had never thought to inquire into their situation. She had taken so much for granted.

As Sarah paged through the ledgers, gazing at Abigail’s handwriting, she remembered watching Abigail, perched at the desk, penciling in numbers in the various books. Abigail was a meticulous record keeper, maintaining one ledger for the tailoring business and another for the household. The business ledger revealed that the income from the tailoring was barely sufficient after monies were deducted for sewing supplies and the household expenses. Sarah knew her situation could be worse, much worse, but she realized how frugal Abigail had been while providing a most comfortable life. Now Sarah would have to do the same, but she would be making money from her work only. She perused the bank records, which showed a small amount of savings.

By the time Sarah took a break to make some lunch, she realized that her financial outlook was rather grim. With Abigail gone, she would definitely need another way to make money. She would never draw in as much income as they had together. She pushed the chair away from the desk and began to pace around the house, wringing her hands. She had no idea how she would manage in the future, standing on her own. Her and Abigail’s few friends were as strapped as she was, if not more, each struggling in her own way. She and Abigail had felt fortunate. Now she knew she would need to speak to Sam, though she had no idea what he might be able to do to help her.

* * *

Nine days after Abigail’s burial, Sarah was outside preparing the yard for winter, the cold November wind creeping up her dress, when she heard the clatter of a wagon and turned to see Sam drawing near. He pulled up in front of the house.

“Sarah,” he said as he climbed out of the wagon.

“Good morning, Sam,” Sarah said.

She was relieved to see him, as each day she was growing more worried and anxious about her situation. She’d had no customers since Abigail passed away, and though she thought some folks might be allowing her time for grieving, she didn’t know what to expect in the future.

“How are you faring?” Sam asked.

“The days are difficult,” Sarah said. “Perhaps things will improve over time.”

An awkward silence settled between them. Sarah didn’t really know Sam that well. He had never been a frequent visitor, with his farm to tend to, and he was away during the winter months.

“Is there anything you need?” Sam finally asked.

Sarah hesitated for a moment and then spoke.

“I’ve gone through all the financial records, as you suggested,” she said. “I’m unsure of how prosperous the tailoring will be in the future, with Abigail gone. I’ll most likely need to supplement my income somehow.”

She watched Sam as he shifted from foot to foot. He scratched his head and cleared his throat.

“I wish I had the means to help you, but I’m a bit strapped myself,” he said. “You could come to the logging camp with me this winter and work in the cook shanty until you figure things out. I lost one of my flunkies last year, so I’m a few arms short. The money will be enough to sustain you here for the next year.”

Sarah gulped hard, feeling as if her breath was stuck in her throat, anxiety coursing through her. She had heard tales about the logging camps—long hours of endless work, cramped quarters, freezing conditions, lice, months without bathing. The logging camps were all grit and no glamour. Sam had been the head cook at the Hodag Camp for years.

“What would I be doing?” she asked.

“Cooking, cleaning up the shanty,” Sam said. “I won’t try to deceive you. The days are long and hard.”

“How long would I be there?” Sarah asked.

“At least until April, maybe longer. Everything depends on the weather, what kind of winter we have.”

A part of Sarah thought that going away for a while might help her overcome her grief and loneliness.

“When would we leave?” she asked.

“Two weeks,” Sam said.

Sarah looked at the huge, strapping man, his arms as thick as logs, and his hair a curly, brownish-blond mane. His face was pocked, and he had a beard that fell to the middle of his chest. Sarah knew that at the camp they called him Mighty Man Sam. He was a man of few words, and he and Abigail hadn’t been that close, with a number of years between them. Abigail had told Sarah that Sam had rather drifted off, become more isolated, after their parents had passed away.

“I guess my predicament leaves me little choice,” she said as knots tightened in her stomach.

She felt as if she might be sick.

“Pack your warmest clothes,” Sam said. “Other than that, bring only what you absolutely need. There will be a younger girl at the camp this year, my helper’s daughter. They’ll stay with me in the cook shanty. You can stay in a small shack near the shanty. There’s a cot in there and a small stove. I’m thinking you’ll need some privacy.”

Sarah felt only slightly relieved.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

“I’ll check on you in a week to make sure everything’s in order,” Sam said.

“I’ll start to get ready, then,” Sarah said begrudgingly.

“Good enough,” Sam said.

He returned to the wagon, climbed in, and grabbed hold of the reins.

“See you next week,” he said as he pulled away.

“Bye, Sam,” Sarah said.

Nausea nudged its way into her belly. She couldn’t move. My God, a winter in a logging camp. I’ll be surrounded by men. She knew some of them would be decent, like Sam, but the others…She didn’t dislike men, but she felt no attraction to them or their ways, wanted no dependency upon them. During her years living with Abigail, Sarah had been approached by a few of the town’s men, asking for courtship. Sarah always felt that those men, even those with more timid and mild personalities, saw her only as a vessel for sex and motherhood. Even if she did desire to be with one, no man would ever see her as an equal partner.

When she finally went back into the house, she wandered to the kitchen. With trembling hands, she picked up an empty cup, and in a surge of both defeat and rage, she hurled the cup against a wall and it shattered into splinters.

“Why did you leave me, Abigail?” she wailed. “This isn’t how life was meant to be.”

She sank into a chair and sobbed.

Sarah spent the days that followed Sam’s visit sorting through her clothing, selecting only the heaviest garments, anything that might protect her from the harshness of the Northwoods in wintertime. She grimaced at the thought of being surrounded by the burliest and rowdiest of men for the long, drawn-out winter—from November until the end of March or April. The only other female in the camp would be the other flunky. She, at least, would have the companionship of her father. But Sarah…She would be on her own. She tried to push that thought away. If she thought about it too much, Abigail’s absence became too agonizing, and she could feel herself plunging into darkness.

* * *

Two weeks after Abigail’s funeral, Sarah and Sam headed to the logging camp. They needed to arrive ahead of the others so they could prepare the cook shanty before the throngs of hungry loggers were upon them. Everyone knew that a camp was only as successful as the cook shanty was good. If the men weren’t fed decent food, in rather copious amounts, they wouldn’t survive the rigors of the forest or logging.

Sam and Sarah spoke little on their day-long trek to the camp. The wind bitterly blew around them the entire trip, and Sarah kept herself covered beneath a big wool blanket, exposing only her eyes. As they entered the Northwoods, the land so different from that surrounding Pine Creek, Sarah was both mesmerized and frightened. The dark pine trees towered above them, scenting the air in evergreen, and the winds traveling through them sounded like muted voices and muffled screams.

When they finally reached the camp, Sarah panicked at the sight of the primitive, drab scene—her home for the coming winter months. She and Sam climbed out of the wagon, and as Sam unharnessed the horses, he explained the layout to Sarah.

“The longest building you see there is the bunkhouse, where the loggers stay. They don’t spend much time in there, only nights and Sundays.”

Sarah gazed at the building, long and low, constructed of logs laid lengthwise. The bark was still on the logs and the chinks were filled with moss. She saw only two tiny windows, and she couldn’t imagine how fifty or more jacks could squeeze into those quarters.

“The smaller building right on the left side of the bunkhouse is the cook shanty. That’s where we’ll be spending our time, us and the other two. My helper’s name is Mack, and his daughter’s name is Annie. You’ll be staying in that tiny shed over there.”

He led the way to the shed and Sarah followed, carrying the satchel with her belongings. When they reached it, he pushed the door open. The shed had one tiny square of a window, a cot, a little table and chair, a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling, and a small woodstove. Sarah swallowed hard. The air in the shed was stagnant, and she felt as if she might suffocate. She had no idea how she would be able to sleep there, though she knew it would be better than bunking in the cook shanty with Sam and the others. She set her satchel on the cot. I’m never going to survive this. What was I thinking? She and Sam went back outside, and Sam continued describing the logging camp.

“The building to the right of the bunkhouse is the stable for the horses. The shed next to that is used for shoeing the horses. That’s where the teamsters and the foreman sleep. The outhouses are in the back, between the bunkhouse and the cook shanty. There’s a stream a short walk beyond them. That’s where we’ll be getting our water.”

“This is it?” Sarah asked. “This is the entire camp?”

“That’s right. Our supplies start coming in tomorrow. Tonight we can settle in, and tomorrow we’ll start to prepare the shanty. We need to scrub it down good with boiling water, try to get rid of the lice, though they’re bound to come back.”

Lice. Sarah nearly gagged at the thought. She followed Sam as he took the horses to the stable and put out some feed for them. He then guided her toward the bunkhouse, opened the door, and gestured for her to step in. Even though it hadn’t been used since the previous winter, the wall of odor that hit her as she entered was rancid—a vile mix of tobacco, dirty socks, and stale sweat. Sarah nearly choked on the smell.

“You’ll probably never need to come in here, but you might as well take a look at where the loggers will be living,” Sam said.

Kerosene lamps hung from ropes that ran across the room from the ceiling’s rafters. Sam struck a match to one and it dimly lit the room. Sarah scanned the quarters. The bunks were built along the two longer sides of the room in two-deck style, and each bunk had a bale of hay and a blanket on it. There weren’t any chairs. Instead, a bench made of a wide board that projected from the lower tier of bunks provided sitting room.

“Besides the bunks, that’s the only place the jacks have to sit,” Sam said. “We call it the deacon’s seat. The jacks gather there for cards, music, and storytelling. That’s about the only entertainment we’ve got up here. No drinking or gambling. Over there’s where the jacks wash up and sharpen their axes and tools, repair their equipment.”

He pointed to a corner where a washbasin, water pail, and grindstone were in place. Sarah’s eyes traveled from the corner to the center of the room, where a huge potbellied cast iron stove stood.

“That stove provides the only heat,” Sam said. “At night, the jacks hang their wet socks and mittens on the stringers above and beside it so they can dry by morning time. That’s a smell that’ll nearly knock you out.”

He chuckled to himself. Sarah almost became ill with the sight and scent of the quarters. What kind of men could live in these conditions, she wondered, knowing that she was soon to find out. Sam put an arm over her shoulders, a bit too comfortably, and pulled her close to him.

“You let me know if any of the jacks give you a hard time,” he said. “I’ll put an end to that.” Without removing his arm, he led her to the door. “We should move on to the cook shanty now.”

Sarah was uncomfortable with Sam’s closeness, but she didn’t want to say anything. She would need him in the upcoming months. She just hoped that she would find him trustworthy, and she then remembered an incident that had happened so long ago that she had almost forgotten.

About six months after Abigail and Sarah became intimately involved, Abigail had noted a change in Sam.

“My brother seems to be intruding on my territory a bit lately,” she said. “He’s been coming around more than usual. I think he might sense that there is something more between us now.”

“Wouldn’t he say something?” Sarah asked. “Do you think he would care?”

“Only if he’s taken a liking to you,” Abigail said. She wrapped her arms around Sarah, nibbled on her ear, and whispered, “Which wouldn’t be hard to understand.”

“Should we be worried?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t think so, though I will be keeping an eye on him in the future,” Abigail said. “I don’t particularly like him lurking around, and I do believe I’ve seen him taking rather longing glimpses of you.”

“Maybe you should tell him about us,” Sarah said.

“Our business is our own,” Abigail said. “Besides, as you know, Sam and I aren’t that close. We have ten years between us, and he was always working in the fields with Father when we were young. My mother kept me close to her side, teaching me how to cook and sew. Sam never was very talkative. He’s always been rather ornery, gruff in his own way, but he is my brother.”


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