Gasthof Village, Indiana Territory
Little Thomas Stoll, Rebekah’s six-year-old brother, rose out of the puddle, his white skivvies having seen their last day of impeccable cleanliness. Rebekah had been looking everywhere for him when she remembered catching sight of the mud puddle behind the barn earlier. Usually, where there was dirtiness and grittiness, that’s where Thomas could be found. Today was no exception.
His white straw hat hung precariously on the leafless branches of a low shrub. A nearby bush held his suspenders—or braces as their father, Samuel, called them—and they dangled alongside a pair of tiny black britches. Carefully laid out above the rest of his clothes, ready to be donned in an instant should he be spotted, hung Thomas’s hand-me-down shirt that had belonged to each of his five older brothers at some point, and would someday belong to his newest baby brother Benjamin, or Beanie Bull as they called him.
Their mother, Elnora, had always impressed the importance of clean clothes upon all eight of the Stoll children. Jeremiah, her eldest little brother at thirteen, always took care to steer clear of any dirt or grime when possible, since he was tasked with helping scrub out any dirty clothes before passing them on to their mother for washing. He did a wonderful job of keeping his little brothers out of the mud and gunk too. Eleven-year-old Matthew and nine-year-old John avoided soiling their clothes, but the eight-year-old twins were a different story. Isaac and Abram went through a phase when they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to become little mud ducks, as Rebekah called them, jumping into whatever puddle, river, or muddy stream they could, clothes and all.
Apparently, a seed of Elnora and Samuel’s wisdom had taken root in little Thomas, even in the enticing presence of a fresh mud puddle. Clean or not, however, it was clear that the young Stoll boy intended to fully utilize the “few minutes for a milk break” their father had mentioned in the barn moments earlier.
Rebekah, the oldest of her siblings at twenty, started toward him. Their milk break was long over and Samuel needed their help in the barn. She drew in a breath to call out to him, but before she could utter a sound, Thomas leaned over and sunk his chubby hands deep into the muck. Rebekah stopped walking and her eyes widened. Of all the Stoll children, every one of them boys except for her, it was little Thomas who could whip up mischief with nothing more than an empty bowl and a broken spoon, as their mother often said.
She sidled behind a bush and tried not to giggle as she waited to see what her impish, freckle-faced brother would do next.
Grinning, Thomas pulled his hands out of the muck with a resounding slurp.
Rebekah tucked the end of her gauzy white covering string into the corner of her mouth, just as she had done as a child. “Oh, Little Brother,” she whispered. “Don’t you do it . . .”
With his lips tilted upward, Thomas slowly brought up the duel handfuls of glistening mud and smashed them onto his head.
Rebekah pressed her fingers deep into her lips and tears streamed down her cheeks as she tried to keep the laughter, that often followed her favorite little brother, from escaping.
As chunks of muck ran down Thomas’s freckled face, Rebekah could hold it in no longer. Letting go a resounding whoop, she doubled over. “Thomas,” she cried, her covering strings flailing wildly. She wanted to ask more, but the laughter that filled her throat allowed no words to pass.
Thomas froze, his hands still on his head.
Ever so slowly, he turned to face his sister.
The sight of him, with streaks of mud painting his guilty face, was too much for Rebekah. She sank to her knees and clutched her middle. “What—what are you—”
The question just wouldn’t form. Rebekah gave up trying to talk and conceded to the laughing fit as Thomas stood before her in all of his muddy glory.
Thomas licked his lips and eased his hands down. His bright blue eyes exuded equal parts innocence and trouble. “Sissy, don’t tell Pa. I was supposed to be getting a drink of milk, not playing in the mud.”
A tiny clod dangled in his eyelashes and his young voice bespoke of more meekness than it ever had before. “But it’s almost time for the snows to come and this mud puddle looked so in-invite—”
Rebekah swiped at a lock of blond hair that had come loose from under her covering. Her chest heaved as she tried to get her breathing back to normal. “You’re going to have quite a time trying to hide the fact that the mud puddle looked so inviting when Pa comes out of the barn.”
Thomas grinned his gap-toothed smile. “Inviting. That’s the word I wanted.”
Having regained her sisterly composure, Rebekah pushed herself up and dusted the Indiana dirt from her pale-blue dress. “Oh, Thomas.” She smiled and shook her head as she strode over to the water pump and plucked the bucket off the handle. “Let’s get you cleaned up, Little Brother.”
Thomas looked longingly over his shoulder at his delightful puddle. He turned back toward Rebekah. His happy demeanor melted away. “Who’s going to clean me off when I get dirty after you marry Joseph Graber?”
A strange note hung in the youngster’s voice as he tried to brush the mud out of his hair. Dark smears streaked across his dark blond head in response.
Rebekah’s heart puttered to a stop. Joseph Graber. Just hearing the name of the dark-haired, lanky man who was to become her husband tied her stomach up in knots. She’d known Joseph her entire life. They’d taken Rumspringa together, and he’d long ago grown to be her best friend. However, something about hearing his name now sent an unprecedented surge of warmth through her veins. Joseph’s handsomely dimpled face appeared so vividly in her mind that Rebekah was powerless to mask the dreamy grin that overtook her lips.
“Pa said at church yesterday that you and Joseph were going to get married.” Thomas paused as the emotion attached to his words permeated the air like wood smoke.
Rebekah’s head swayed in acknowledgement, but the thought of Joseph’s dazzling azure eyes so fresh in her mind made it impossible to form words.
“Hey, why weren’t you at church yesterday?”
Thomas’s cross voice pulled her from her makeshift daydream. “Sissy, I said why weren’t you at church yesterday?”
Joseph’s blue-eyed image fizzled from her mind and icy water sloshed from the overflowing bucket onto her feet. “Oh, church.”
Thomas huffed as he shook clumps of mud from his fingers.
Rebekah hefted the bucket to her hip. “Well, Joseph and I both had to stay home yesterday. We aren’t supposed to be in church when we’re published.”
“That’s what Pa was doing when he announced that Joseph and I were to be married.” Rebekah shifted her weight under the bulk of the bucket. “Ready?”
With his muddy arms crossed tight across his chest, Thomas squeezed his eyes shut. “I hope December third never comes. I’ll miss you too much.”
Rebekah bit her bottom lip. As blessed as she was to have Joseph as her husband-to-be, she couldn’t ignore the fact that God had sincerely smiled upon her when he put little Thomas Stoll in their family.
“Sorry, it’s going to be cold.” Closing her eyes, Rebekah dumped the bucket over Thomas’s head.
“Whreeeeek!” he squealed. “That is icy, Sissy!”
Thomas hopped around and flung his arms. Drops of mud flew everywhere until he realized something. “Hey.” He stomped his bare feet in the fresh layer of mud. “Another mud pud—”
An icy breeze whipped around the barn, cutting Thomas’s realization short. “I’m d-done with mud today.” He shivered and squatted down to hug his knees. “Can you draw me a hot bath, Sissy? P-p-please?”
Rebekah swallowed back a giggle. “Of course. I’ll draw some water to heat now. You go get ready.” She hefted the bucket to her hip again. “I am sorry, Thomas. I didn’t know it’d be that cold.”
“It’s a-a-alright.” He drew his doe eyes up to meet hers. His lower lip trembled. “I s-s-still don’t want you to move away from me.”
Despite the bits of watery mud still clinging to him, Rebekah extended her free arm. Thomas sprang to his feet and pressed against his sister’s side and she wrapped him in a bear hug. “I’ll always be your sister, Thomas. And you can come spend nights with us. We can make rhubarb pie and stay up late. Then, you can ride to church meetings in our buggy . . .”
Our buggy. Rebekah’s thoughts trailed off again. Mine and Joseph’s very own shared buggy.
Thomas wriggled in her grasp. “Thithy, I can’t breef.”
“Oh!” She loosened her hug. Thoughts of Joseph would have to wait until Thomas was taken care of, for sure. “Well now, let’s get you into a nice warm bath.” At once, she began pumping more icy water from the well into the bucket.
Thomas rested a small, dirty hand on her arm, giving her pause. “You’re my best friend, Sissy.”
She stood up and smiled at him as a bead of sweat slid down her nose. “You’re my favorite muddy brother.”
His somber, dirt-streaked face broke into a bright grin. “I love you.”
Rebekah’s heart ached with a sudden, unexplainable emotion.
Is this what it feels like to grow up?
She covered his gritty hand with hers. “I love you too, Thomas. Nothing will ever change that. No matter what house we each live in.”
A splintering crash from the vicinity of the barn shattered the tender moment. Pulling Thomas close, Rebekah knocked over the bucket of water meant for his bath. “What was—?”
Before she could finish, a wail cut her words in half.
“Halp!” The familiar voice sounded eerie and strangely hollow.
A shudder clenched her backbone. “Pa?”
Rebekah and Thomas stared in awestruck horror as Samuel staggered out of the barn, his arms clutched to his chest. Spittle trailed from the corners of his mouth as he sucked hard to make the air follow through to his lungs.
The word tore from Rebekah’s throat with such ferocity that she could taste blood. “Pa!”
She broke free from her brother and dashed toward their father.
One hand stretched desperately out before him, wide-eyed Samuel tumbled to the ground before Rebekah could catch him.
“Jeremiah! The barn’s on fire!” she yelled to nowhere, taking the stairs two and three at a time.
Her brother’s footsteps fell in behind her. “Let’s go!”
The pair hit the door at the same time, flinging it wide open. It cracked against the strain of its hinges. Not bothering to turn around and close it, they raced for the barn. Rebekah hadn’t grabbed a covering and her wet hair streamed out behind her like yellow ribbons from a maypole. It slapped her in the face when the wind whipped from a different direction.
Grinding to a halt at the water pump, Rebekah grabbed Jeremiah by his shoulders.
“You help Pa! I’m going in for the animals!”
Jeremiah ferociously began pumping for Samuel who, before that moment hadn’t even noticed that his two eldest children had joined him.
“Blitzschlag!” Samuel yelled in German. “Lightning struck the barn!”
The inside of their cozy barn was ablaze. Piles of the sweet-smelling hay, where Rebekah had hidden from her brothers on lazy fall afternoons, were engulfed by the roaring, ravenous flames. The yoke her father had hewn by hand as a boy was charred, hanging on a blackened beam. A rafter collapsed, shocking her back to her senses.
Cream and Butter were tied up in their stalls, pulling and rearing at the ropes that had become their enemy. Tiny Buttermilk bleated and mooed helplessly from behind her mother.
Rebekah yanked free the knots that held Cream and Butter at bay. The eyes of her normally-docile cows were wild and terrifying, but Rebekah grasped the lead ropes in her hands anyway and turned to lead them out.
She looked back at the tiny calf, frozen in fear. Their eyes met. “I’ll be back for you,” Rebekah swore.
Turning, she sang the flapjack ingredients song loudly, so as to be heard over the roaring flame, in a futile attempt to keep both her and the frightened cattle calm.
Another flaming beam snapped and fell behind them, spooking Butter. The milk cow bellowed and reared, dancing on her hind legs before jerking free from Rebekah and tearing off into the heart of the storm.
Rebekah stumbled and fell with the force of Butter’s yank, sending her sprawling in the mud. Pushing herself up, she managed to miss being trampled by Cream’s frightened hooves that stomped around her.
“Cream!” she yelled, her voice deep and foreign in her own ears, “Come on!” Ever obedient, Cream, though skittish, walked on to the house with Rebekah.
Tying the nervous cow to the front door, a strong pair of hands fell upon Rebekah’s shoulders, turning her around.
“It’s over,” her Pa yelled, pulling her to his chest in a tight hug. “It’s over, girl. It’s over.” It sounded as though he were trying to convince himself of that fact more than convince her. Over his shoulder, she saw that the fierce fire had overtaken the barn. Angry flames licked skyward from the loft.
Stiffening, a scream tore from her lips. “Buttermilk!”
“The baby’s gone,” her father yelled.
“No!” Struggling against his iron grasp was futile, but after a moment she managed to wean her way from under his elbow.
“Rebekah, stop!” Samuel bellowed. “Stillgestanden!”
Ignoring him, Rebekah dodged Jeremiah’s clutches easily, her eyes and heart already set on the glowing barn.
“Buttermilk, I’m coming,” she screamed again. Her father rasped behind her. Thankfully, he was all tired out from fighting the fire. She sped ahead, leaving him wheezing in the mud outside the barn.
“Rebekah, don’t baby, please.” His weak words sounded as far away as Germany as she raced into the barn.