The Northwoods By Jane Hoppen

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.
The Northwoods
The Northwoods By Jane Hoppen
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.”

“Has he ever courted any of the women in town?” Sarah asked.

“A few, though that has never seemed to last long,” Abigail said. “I think he might be a bit of a brute with the ladies. He started to drink heavily after our mother and father were both gone, and whiskey can make even the kindest man turn wicked.”

Two months after that conversation, on a warm summer morning, Sarah had been in the garden tending to the flowers, watering and weeding, when she heard a wagon approach and turned to see Sam. He pulled up beside the house and tied the horse to a post. She expected him to go directly to the house and was surprised when he headed her way.

“Good morning, Sam,” she said.

“Za-rah,” he said, his voice sounding sluggish and slurred.

Sarah then noticed an awkward staggering in his step. When he finally was in front of her, she could smell the stench of whiskey.

“Came by to ask you to the Harmons’ barn dance tonight,” he said.

Sarah felt herself reddening as she stood before him, speechless. She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t say yes. No part of her wanted to say yes, but she also didn’t want to offend him, for he was Abigail’s brother.

“Cat got your tongue, there?” Sam asked, as he nearly stumbled into her. He reached out and rested a heavy hand on her shoulder. “I think we’d make a fine pair on the dance floor.”

Sarah had tried to back away, but Sam had a firm grip on her. Just then, she heard the front door creak open and slam shut.

“What’s on your mind, Sam?” Abigail asked as she approached him and Sarah.

Sam removed his hand from Sarah and swung around, nearly losing his balance.

“Thought I’d invite Sarah to a dance,” he said. “I bet she’s a helluva dancer.”

“You’ve been drinking, Sam,” Abigail said. “You already smell like a saloon and it’s still morning.”

“Just a little hair of the dog,” Sam said, a sloppy smile spreading over his face. “Got a little carried away last night.”

“I’m sure tonight won’t be any different,” Abigail said. “And you’re too old to be taking Sarah to a dance. You’re more than ten years her senior.”

The smile vanished from Sam’s face, and he turned away from Abigail and twisted about to face Sarah again. She dropped her eyes to the ground. Just as Sam reached out to her, Abigail snagged one of his arms and pulled him back.

“That’s enough, Sam,” she said sternly. “You need to go home, have some coffee, and sober up. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

Sam grunted loudly and Abigail steered him toward his wagon. Sarah watched, relieved. Abigail waited until Sam’s wagon was well down the road before returning to her side. She looped an arm around Sarah’s waist.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “Has he ever approached you before?”

“Never,” Sarah said. “I was so startled I didn’t know what to say. You came out just in time.”

“I saw him through the kitchen window,” Abigail said. “I guess I was right. He’s probably had you on his mind for some time.”

She had kissed Sarah on the cheek, and they went to the garden together to finish their tasks. Sam never did approach Sarah again, and she had simply regarded the incident as a one-time occurrence, fueled by the liquor. Now that she was sequestered with him at the logging camp, she hoped she was right.

* * *

When they reached the wagon, Sam finally released her and started to unload his bag and a few other supplies he had brought with him. They then went to the cook shanty and Sam pushed the door open.

“After you.”

Sarah stepped into the small building that was just as crude as the bunkhouse. Two long tables made of rough pine boards flanked with benches were on each side of the shanty and ran nearly the length of the building. In the back were a large woodstove and a small fireplace. Above them, stringers ran crosswise over the cook’s and flunkies’ stations, from which hung kettles, frying pans, baking dishes, cleavers, meat saws, ladles, and big spoons. Next to the stove was a large baker where the pies and biscuits were prepared. To the right of that was a table where the food was prepped, and to the left of the table was an area with a large basin that was used to wash the dishes, utensils, cups, pots, and pans.

“There’s no talking during meals,” Sam said. “The men need to eat quickly, and if they were all in here talking, the sound would be deafening. As it is, you can hardly hear yourself think. If they want more food or a refill, they’ll gesture to you.”

“What are my duties?” Sarah asked as she tried to imagine maneuvering around that small structure filled with men.

“You and Annie will wake an hour before me and Mack to carry in the wood; build the fires in the fireplace, the woodstove, and baker; fetch the water we’ll need for the first half of the day; put on the coffee; and begin peeling potatoes.” Sam pointed to a door in the rear of the shanty before continuing. “That door goes out back, where you’ll find the ice house, root cellar, and woodpile.”

Sarah looked around the shanty.

“Where do we keep the water?” she asked.

“In that barrel there,” Sam said. “It should always be at least half full.”

“Okay,” Sarah said.

“When you’re done with those duties, you’ll wake the teamsters before everyone else. Just pound on their door. They need to feed, water, and harness the horses before chow so they’re ready to go as soon as the jacks finish eating. You ring the triangle that’s hanging outside the door at four thirty to wake the rest of the jacks, and again fifteen minutes later to let them know breakfast is on.”

“Is that it?” Sarah asked naively.

Sam let out a loud laugh.

“That’s just the beginning. You and Annie will wait on the tables during breakfast and dinnertime. Just keep the plates filled with food and the mugs topped off with coffee. As soon as breakfast ends, you’ll clean off the tables and wash the dishes, pots, and pans. You’ll spend the mornings preparing food for the next day’s lunch buckets, slicing bread, making sandwiches, and wrapping pie, cake, and fruit. Mack and Annie will deliver the buckets to the loggers in the woods each day. While they’re doing that, you’ll prepare for dinnertime in the afternoon, whatever needs to be done.”

Sarah looked around at the bare bones of the shanty.

“What do the loggers eat?” she asked.

“Your basic fare,” Sam said. “Only what can keep in these conditions—salt pork fried with potatoes, beans, biscuits, dried fruits, shoepack pie. The pie is nothing but sugar, vinegar, water, and cornstarch. I’ve got a good recipe for bean hole baked beans that I’ll be showing you. They’re easy enough to fix, and they stick to the ribs. They’re usually made outside in a hole dug into the ground and filled with embers, but up here the ground’s too frozen for digging, so we use the fireplace instead. You just put your beans and molasses in a heavy pot or earthen jar, bury it in the fireplace, and bank it with coals before you go to bed. They’ll be ready by morning.”

He pointed to two bunks against the opposite wall.

“That’s where Mack and I will be sleeping,” he said.

He walked over to a door on one side of the room and opened it.

“Mack’s daughter can bed down in here.”

Sarah took a deep breath and stepped into the room, barely big enough for the crude cot, wooden chair, and tiny table that it held.

“That’s it,” Sam said. “This is the camp. You might as well settle into the shed for the night. It’s been a long day, and the days to follow will only get longer. You can wash up in the basin by the dishwashing station if you want. Tomorrow, I’ll give you a few more things for the shed to make it more convenient for you. This has enough grub in it to hold you for the night.”

He handed her a brown paper parcel.

“Thank you,” Sarah said. “For everything.”

“With all these men rolling in, you’ll be a sight for sore eyes,” Sam said.

His eyes settled on Sarah long enough to make her feel uneasy.

“Good night, Sam,” she said as she exited the shanty.

* * *

Her first night at the logging camp, in the tiny shed, Sarah felt a sudden surge of fear when she ventured out in the dark to use the outhouse and realized how vulnerable she was in that arena. She didn’t really fear the animals that roamed the woods at night—the bears were already hibernating—but any one of the men who would be in that camp could easily take her down. She had no protection. She had never felt so alone and isolated. The first thing she did when she returned to the shed, before lying down that night, was wedge the chair beneath the shed’s doorknob. That was her only way of deterring a stray jack from entering. She knew it wouldn’t keep him out, but it would give her warning. She would secure one of the pots from the shanty the next day to keep in the shed so she could avoid going out into the night to use the outhouse. Soon she would be surrounded by a sea of unruly men, and she could think of no other way to protect herself.

After she built a fire in the woodstove, she yawned and finally removed her boots and outer layer of clothing and stretched out on the cot. She pulled the thick wool blanket tightly over her. As tired as she was from the day of travel, she couldn’t sleep. The winds whipped and whistled, while tree branches snapped. Every sound outside seemed to be amplified, the creaking of the trees and the occasional calls from night birds. The cot was uncomfortable, hard and unyielding, and though she welcomed the glow from the small woodstove, it barely kept the shed warm enough. She knew that as the temperatures dropped, it would be almost unbearable. She closed her eyes and thought of Abigail, wishing her life could be as it once had been, with Abigail’s body warm against hers, soft arms around her, holding her close. Tears traced down her cheeks.

* * *

The first week that Sarah and Sam were at the camp, they spent the time from sunup to sundown unpacking and storing the supplies that were delivered on the second day and thoroughly cleaning the shanty, scrubbing down the floors, tables, and benches with boiling water to try to eradicate the lice that had nestled in during the warmer months and to wash away the dust that had settled over everything. Sarah cringed the entire time.

Sam began to stockpile firewood, and Sarah scrubbed the pots and pans, plates and cups, and utensils. The work was so constant that there was little idle time, which relieved Sarah. She didn’t need to worry about conversation and everyday courtesies, and she was even more relieved when the cook’s helper and his daughter arrived the first day of the second week. Sarah had just returned from getting a bucket of water when their wagon pulled up. She watched as they got out of the wagon and gathered their belongings. The man, Mack, was a compact, rather stout man, with a shock of red hair and a short bush of a beard. His daughter, Annie, was a small, mousy-looking girl with shoulder-length, curly strawberry-blond hair. With Sam nowhere in sight, Sarah greeted them.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Sarah, the other flunky.”

“Mack,” the man said. He thrust out his hand and firmly shook Sarah’s. “Mack McGee, and this is my daughter, Annie.”

Sarah smiled at the girl.

“We’ll be spending a lot of time together the next few months,” Sarah said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

She felt relief to no longer be the only person in the camp with Sam.

“Where’s Sam?” Mack asked as he surveyed the camp.

“He’s out beyond the river chopping some firewood,” Sarah said. “He told me you two would be bunking in the cook shanty with him. He cleared out the small room in the back for your daughter. I’ll be staying in that little shed there.”

She pointed to the structure.

“Well, then, let’s put our gear in the shanty and get cracking,” Mack said to Annie.

They gathered their belongings and took them into the shanty and immediately came back out.

“I’m going to track down, Sam,” Mack said. “Annie can join you in the shanty so you can show her the ropes.”

Sarah picked the bucket of water back up and looked at Annie.

“Will do,” she said. “Follow me.”

Mack took off into the woods, whistling a cheerful tune that filtered through the trees. Sarah headed into the cook shanty with Annie trailing her.

“We spent the last week cleaning the place so it’s not half bad,” Sarah said as they stepped inside.

“It’s so…simple,” Annie said.

“It is rather crude,” Sarah agreed. “I have to admit that I spent my first two days here in a near state of shock.”

“I can see why,” Annie said.

The look on her face was grim.

“Sam said the loggers will start to arrive toward the end of the week, so you’re here just in time,” Sarah said. “I’ll show you where the supplies are and go over our duties. Our days will be long ones.”

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m dreading this,” Annie said.

“You seem so young,” Sarah said. “Have you been here before?”

Annie sighed.

“This is my first winter,” she said. “I’m fourteen now. Father says he needs me here, but my mother doesn’t take kindly to him pulling me out of school. I’m hoping that when he’s old enough, my brother Jacob will take my place.”

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Sarah asked.

“Two brothers and one sister,” Annie said with a tinge of sadness in her voice. “I’m the oldest. As much as I argue with my brothers, I’ll miss them both, and my mother and sister. I’m going to be so lonely up here. Father already forbade me from talking to any of the loggers.”

“That’s probably wise,” Sarah said. “I imagine they’re going to be a rather rogue gang of men.”

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” Annie said meekly.

“As the only two females here, we’ll have to look out for each other,” Sarah said.

Even as she spoke those words, Sarah knew that Annie would be far less alone than she would. She, at least, would have her father by her side.

Chapter Three

When Evelyn arrived at the logging camp, the air was bitter cold and the ground was already frozen, rock hard. A thin layer of snow dusted the trees and earth, and the sky was bright and clear, a solid aqua. Monstrous, hundred-year-old trees, many of them pines, seemed to span into forever, like an endless ocean of dark green. The grandeur of the land gave Evelyn comfort, solace, and she took a deep breath of the fresh, chilled air. She climbed out of the wagon, and Will tossed her the canvas pack. Their eyes locked for a moment.

“Watch your back,” Will said.

Evelyn nodded.

“Watch my children,” she told him.

“They’ll be fine,” Will said. “We’ll all be fine.”

Evelyn watched as he turned the wagon around and headed back the way they had come. When the wagon finally vanished from sight, she yearned to run after it, but she stood in place. She gazed at the small army of men that surrounded her, roaming about the camp grounds, their booming voices resounding through the woods, and she felt a sharp twinge of panic burrow into the pit of her stomach. She felt intimidated. She knew many of the men were long-term lumberjacks. Others, like her, were just trying to make a living for their families. Evelyn had never seen so many men gathered in one place, and she realized in that moment how isolated and sheltered she had been in life. She had spent nearly all her time on the farm with George and the children, seeing outsiders only when they had gone to town for supplies or visited a nearby neighbor. No part of her could have envisioned the realm she was entering.

“You check in yet?” asked a man with a jet-black handlebar mustache that curled into two question marks at each end.

“Just got here,” Evelyn said, so conscious of her voice that her palms instantly became sweaty. “Name’s George Bauer.”

“Been here before?”

“Two times. Last time was three years back.”

The man riffled through his papers.

“Here you are,” he said. “You’re a sawyer?”

“Sure am,” Evelyn said.

“I’m the foreman, Johnny Jones. You know how things work around here. No gambling, no booze, and we’ll get along just fine. Some of the jacks are still arriving, but we’ve already had a crew in the woods for a week now. You’ll be starting tomorrow. Dinner’s in about an hour. You can find yourself a bunk to settle in until then.”

Johnny pointed to the long, low bunkhouse. Evelyn took it in. No part of her believed the structure could withstand a wicked storm or provide sufficient warmth for the winter. Just as she was about to head to the building, a young boy, he didn’t look older than fourteen or fifteen, bare-cheeked except for the peach fuzz that feathered his face, rode into camp on a horse that was definitely nothing to brag about—more like a haggard plow horse. The horse’s nostrils emitted puffs of white and its body steamed from exertion in the wintry air. As the boy was about to dismount, Johnny Jones yelled out.

“Whoa, now! You stay right where you’re at, boy. What’re you doing here?”

“I came for work,” the boy said.

“We don’t allow jacks to bring their own horses up here, boy. Unless you’re a teamster. You a teamster?”

“No, sir,” the boy answered.

“Well, we don’t need any distractions, and we definitely don’t need another mouth to feed,” Johnny said.

By then some of the other jacks had gathered around the boy and his horse. One jack, with long, curly brown hair that fell like a drape past his shoulders and a thick beard that resembled snakes coiling down his chest, bellowed loudly, a sound that rose to the treetops.

“Can’t believe that old mare actually made it up here,” he said. “You might have to carry her halfway back.”

The other jacks laughed and the boy reddened.

“Where you from, greenhorn?” Johnny asked.

“From outside Baxter,” the boy answered quietly.

“Better head back that way, boy,” Johnny said.

“My pa’s dead,” the boy pleaded. “The horse was my only way up here. I need the work. It’s only my ma and my brothers and sisters now.”

“What’s your name, kid?” Johnny asked.

“Henry,” the boy said. “Henry Jankowski.”

“A Pole and a greenhorn, huh?” Johnny said.

The boy lowered his head.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Johnny hesitated a moment and then nodded.

“All right,” he said. “Don’t make me regret this. Greenhorns only get one chance.”

The jacks who had gathered around laughed and hooted as the boy got off the horse.

“Horse shed is that way,” Johnny said. “Don’t take all day.”

The other jacks laughed again. As the boy headed to the shed, with the horse plodding behind, Evelyn grabbed her pack and trudged toward the bunkhouse thinking this was a land of little empathy. As a mother, she wanted to protect the boy, defend him, but she moved on. When she reached the bunkhouse, she paused, took a deep breath, and tried to steady herself. For the first time, she felt fear. She pushed the door open, and as soon as she entered the bunkhouse, the stench that rose around her almost made her double over. Men were squeezed into every corner of the small space, and their voices droned on like cicadas, a constant scratching sound.

Evelyn scanned the room and spotted a vacant lower bunk. She walked over to it and put down her pack. This will be my home for the next few months, she thought with trepidation. Before she could think another thought, she turned and quickly headed toward the door. She bolted into the woods, and when she was out of sight, she bent over, her hands on her knees, and vomited, bile pushing past her lips. Evelyn felt tears well up in her eyes, and she straightened herself and gulped in air to settle her nerves.

“You can do this,” she said to herself. “You have no choice.”

The rush of the winds high in the trees sounded like a plummeting waterfall, almost deafening. She looked up at the trees, swaying side to side, and felt a sense of calmness. She turned from the woods and headed back to the bunkhouse.

* * *

Evelyn went to the bunk she had selected, the top one now occupied by a man with his legs dangling over the side. He was a tall, rather skinny, long-limbed logger, who appeared to be nearly seven feet tall. He had a mane of stringy dirty blond hair and his beard, not thick, but wispy, hung over his chest.

“I was wondering who my new bunkmate was,” he said as Evelyn sat. “I’m Jack. Folks here call me Whiskey Jack, though the whiskey part doesn’t account for much in these parts. Not a drop in sight.”

Evelyn reached out and firmly shook his hand.

“Keep an eye on that one,” the man in the bunk to the left of Evelyn’s said. “Word is that if you get in a fight with Whiskey Jack, he’ll wrap himself around you like a boa constrictor and squeeze the life right out of you.”

Whiskey Jack reached down with one long arm and smacked the man on the back of the head.

“Hey,” the man growled.

“Don’t pay him any mind,” Whiskey Jack said. “We call him Gabbie. He’ll talk your head off if you let him, but he does tell a damn good story.”

Gabbie was a stocky man with wavy dark brown hair, a scrubby bush of a beard that was trimmed to just below his chin, and a slanted grin. Evelyn glanced from one man to the other, trying to discern how serious they were. She had heard stories about the fights at the camps.

“I’m George Bauer,” she said.

She focused on keeping her voice low and steady.

“Where do you hale from, George?” Whiskey Jack asked.

“Farm outside Maple Grove.”

“Maple Grove, eh? It’s nice in those parts. I’m from Munson, but I spend most of my time up this way. You snore much, George?”

“Only when I sleep,” Evelyn answered.

Whiskey Jack laughed and fell back into his bunk. He sat up again only when the clanging of the triangle signaled dinner time and the loggers rushed to the door and out of the bunkhouse in a stream, like a line of ants heading toward their hill.

* * *

Once inside the cook shanty, with the scent of food rising from the stove and tables, Evelyn realized how hungry she was and took the first available seat that she saw. The men surrounding her nodded at her in greeting, and she nodded back. She quickly glanced around the room. The men were crammed around the tables, elbow to elbow, and the tables could barely be seen, every inch of them covered with bowls, platters, plates, and cups. The sea of loggers was a menagerie of burly look-alikes, all wool and suspenders. Most of the men had short hair accompanied by mustaches or beards, and distinguishing one logger from another was not an easy task. Some of the men obviously knew each other. Others, like Evelyn, sat surrounded by strangers.

Despite the no talking during meals rule, the sound was deafening—an endless drone. As emptied bowls and platters were replaced with full ones, the shanty was an avalanche of noise, with flatware clanking and cups clapping down on tables. Even with three children and George, Evelyn’s home in Maple Grove had always been moderately quiet. But with this assembly of men, she didn’t think silence ever took root. The smell of the food made Evelyn’s stomach growl, and like the others, she began to fill her plate—baked beans, biscuits, salt pork, dried apples and prunes, and pies. She appreciated the simplicity of the food—solid, stick-to-your-ribs winter fare.

As Evelyn gobbled down her food, she surveyed the room, and when her eyes settled on the flunky who was rushing from table to table with food and a pot of coffee, she felt a sense of relief settle in her—another woman. A rather nondescript girl was also working the tables. She looked extremely young, perhaps in her early teens. She was tiny and pale, with a mop of strawberry-blond curls. The older woman was extremely attractive and seemed dreadfully out of place in that rigorous world of men. Her dark auburn hair was kept in a tightly wrapped bun on the back of her head, and her fair skin made her look almost fragile. She had a slender build, and though she wore a long, heavy dress and an apron, Evelyn could tell she was well-endowed.

Evelyn watched the woman. She seemed to float around the cook shanty like a ghost, trying to go unseen as she skirted her way around the men. She spoke only rarely to the cook, his helper, and the other flunky, and she almost always avoided eye contact. Evelyn wondered what her story was, how she had ended up at the camp. Every aspect of her seemed to stick out amidst the mass of men, but her very presence at the camp somehow gave Evelyn comfort. Even though she was disguised as a man, the presence of two other females made her feel less alone, not so outnumbered.

Evelyn held up her cup just as she had seen the others do to signal for more coffee, and the older woman quickly strode over with a pot. Evelyn found herself taking in the woman’s hands as she poured the steaming coffee. They were delicate, unblemished, with long fingers. She’s not accustomed to hard labor, Evelyn thought. Her own hands were more manly—wide, with thick fingers, and calluses here and there from the drudgeries of farm work. As the woman went to fill another jack’s cup, Evelyn watched her move across the room. She was at least a foot shorter than Evelyn, and Evelyn wondered if the flunky feared for her safety, engulfed by so many men. She knew more than one of these men would take advantage of the woman if they had the opportunity. Though she didn’t know her, Evelyn admired her tenacity, whatever her circumstances—being willing to be surrounded by so many gregarious men. She didn’t seem to be the woman for the part. She carried herself with a certain refinement, and Evelyn couldn’t help but wonder if this was her first time at the camp, also. Realizing that her eyes were lingering on the woman longer than was appropriate, she quickly dropped them to her plate.

* * *

Evelyn’s first night in the bunkhouse was worse than any nightmare she ever could have imagined. The noise was boisterous, nonstop, and the tension was thick, with the men tightly wedged into the too-small space. Evelyn sat on the edge of her bunk and listened to the barrage of sound around her. The men seemed to have a penchant for badgering each other. The bantering was constant, oftentimes good-natured, but she knew it would take only one wrong look or word for it to escalate beyond that into a brawl. Whiskey Jack pointed out some of the jacks to Evelyn.

“The biggest fellow in the house is that jack over there,” he said.

Evelyn easily spotted the man. He was, indeed, a humongous man, about three jacks in one.

“He’s been coming up here for two years now,” Whiskey Jack said. “We’re still waiting for the day when a bigger jack shows up, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s like our own Paul Bunyan. He’s not the quickest man, but he can practically move a mountain if you need him to. We call him Windy because he blows more farts than the rest of us put together. The nights that we have bean hole beans are especially fragrant.”

Evelyn felt doomed.

“Good to know,” she said.

Whiskey Jack identified a jack named Poker Pete as one of the biggest troublemakers in the camp. He had a head of bushy brown hair and a shortly cropped beard. His most distinct feature was a rather large, very crooked nose, which Evelyn assumed might have been broken more than once in a fistfight or brawl. As Whiskey Jack continued to point out men, Poker Pete yelled out to the man Whiskey Jack had said was their finest fiddler.

“Hey, Tommy, who’s your wife going to be warming up to this winter?”

“That’s nothing I need to worry about,” Tommy answered good-naturedly, not about to let Poker Pete ruffle his feathers. “We’ve already got so many kids that she won’t even let me sidle up to her anymore.”

The jacks sitting with Poker Pete laughed. Whiskey Jack had told Evelyn that Tommy Tune boasted eight children. Evelyn pitied the woman who was home alone in the winter with that many children. She glanced about at the other men. Some of them hunkered down near the grinding stone to sharpen axes, repair equipment, or mend socks and mittens. Others tossed conversations back and forth, and she began to attach names to faces. Tommy Tune and Big Mike moved to a corner and began playing their fiddles. The dry, whining tones filled the room as a few of the jacks sang along in gruff voices. Other men played cards; the shuffling of the decks sounded like flags flapping in the wind. Two men hovered over a crude checkerboard that they had set up on a small section of the deacon’s seat. Gabbie, staying true to his name, held command in a far corner of the room as he told the story of a river walker named Billy Jonas.

“Billy Jonas was one of the best known rivermen in all the Northwoods, the cowboy of the mighty Wisconsin River. One season after Billy finished a long run down river, he went to Milwaukee and bought a secondhand suit. He boarded the train, but he drank and gambled away all his money, so they threw him off the train in Portage. From there he started to walk to his original destination, Black Rapids, but it began to rain and his suit started to shrink. By the time he reached Ashland, his pants were nearly up to his knees, and his jacket sleeves were up to his elbows. The rain continued to fall, and Billy kept on walking. By the time he was within miles of Black Rapids, the suit had shrunk so much that he couldn’t wear it anymore, and by the time he entered town, he was completely naked. The sheriff had no choice but to throw him in jail. And that was the last time Billy Jonas ever took a train.”

* * *


Post a Comment

Read free eBooks, English Fiction, English Erotic Story

Delicious Digg Facebook Favorites More Stumbleupon Twitter