A Child's Christmas Wish(2)

By: Erica Vetsch



The heat was intense, smoke billowed toward them, stinging eyes and lungs. Grossvater led the team farther from the fire, and Kate guided Grossmutter back to stand beside the wagon.

“Oh, Katie, dear.” Mrs. Hale bustled over. The proprietress of the only mercantile in town, along with her soft-spoken husband, Mrs. Hale had her finger in every possible piece of gossip pie. “So terrible.” She fluttered and patted Kate’s arm, an “isn’t it awful” delight in her eyes. No doubt she’d be giving firsthand accounts to everyone who came into the store for the next week.

Kate nodded, unable to speak.

“We saw the flames clear from town and just had to come to see if we could help. Your poor house. God’s blessing no one was inside.” Mrs. Hale’s hat, festooned with flowers and feathers, bobbed in the orange glow. “Did you leave a candle lit? Or a fire in the fireplace? That’s how these things start, you know. I’m always so careful. I never leave the house without checking that I’ve put out all the lamps. Imagine how difficult it would be for us, and for the whole town, really, if we lost our house and the store. Hale’s Mercantile is so vital to the town, after all. Why, folks would have to go clear to Mantorville for their purchases.” She leaned in. “Are you sure you put out all the lamps?” Casting a glance Grossmutter’s way, she whispered, “Old folks can be so forgetful, can’t they?”

Anger burned in Kate’s chest, hot as the house fire. Mrs. Hale was such a busybody that by tomorrow she would have it spread around that the Amakers had no one to blame but themselves for the fire, since they were so careless. “How it started isn’t important, and I’m sure it had nothing to do with my family’s age. Accidents happen, fires happen, and assigning blame or starting rumors won’t help.”

Mrs. Hale’s brows, carefully plucked and arched, rose. Her lips puckered, and she put on her most long-suffering look. “You’re distraught, Katie, dear. No doubt that’s the reason for your harsh tone.”

“Kate.”

“Excuse me?”

“My name is Kate, not Katie. Kate or Mrs. Amaker.” She eased Mrs. Hale’s hand off her arm.

“Well.” Mrs. Hale straightened, her chin going up. “I see Mrs. Quilling over there. I’ll just go ask about her lumbago. She appreciates my concern.” She lifted her hem and strode away, and Kate’s heart fell. Why had she risen to Mrs. Hale’s bait when she knew from experience that it did no good?

She tucked her hands into her coat pockets, pressing her palms against her stomach, feeling the hard roundness and the reassuring kick of her unborn baby.

The baby that now had no place to lay its head when it arrived.

It was all gone. Their clothes and food stores, books, blankets, furniture. All gone.

What were they going to do now?

* * *

The Amaker place was a total loss.

Oscar Rabb turned away from the blaze and went to his wagon to check on his daughter, Liesl. The four-year-old lay wrapped in a quilt, sleeping in the wagon box on a mound of straw. Rolf, his Bernese mountain dog, lay beside her. When Oscar drew near the wagon, the big animal raised his black-and-white head, his tail swishing the straw. Seeing that his daughter was safe, Oscar leaned against the wagon box to watch the fire. Rolf rose, shook himself and sidled over to put his head on Oscar’s arm, begging to be petted.

The poor Amakers. The old couple and the young woman. He hadn’t had much to do with them for a while. Then again, he hadn’t had much to do with anyone but Liesl for the past two years. To his knowledge, he’d never met the younger woman, though he’d seen her from time to time. Pretty enough, he supposed, in a wholesome way. He remembered hearing that Johann Amaker had gotten hitched, but at the time Oscar had been too deep in his own grief to want to celebrate someone else’s marriage.

But tonight, when he’d looked out his front window and seen the orange glow, he had scooped Liesl out of her bed, wrapped her in a blanket and raced out to hitch up his team. All the way to the neighboring farm, he’d feared that the Amakers were trapped by the fire. When he’d arrived at the blazing house at almost the same time as Martin’s wagon had raced into the farmyard, he’d been weakened with relief. A house could be rebuilt, but a life lost was gone forever. Seeing them safe, he’d almost turned around and gone home, but something had made him stay.

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