Wishing Star of Harmony Creek

Chapter 1
It's Christmas time in Harmony Creek, and Sadie Bergstrom has a Christmas wish she doubts will ever come true, even though she wants it more than anything in the world. Her family's hired hand, Lucas O'Brien, has an impossible wish of his own. 

Can wishing on the Christmas star make their dreams come true?  

Chapter 1: Midnight, Mid-October, 1870

Harmony Creek, Minnesota

“Sadie! Sadie! Wake up.” 

The voice whispering in her ear pulled Sadie Bergstrom up out of a deep sleep. She pried her eyes open and saw her father bending over her, holding a candle in one hand. The flickering flame cast weird shadows behind him on the wall and ceiling, and made his long, thin face and unruly blond hair look like a ghost’s. 

“What’s the matter—?” she began, but he pressed a finger against his lips and gestured for her to meet him in the hall outside the bedroom. 

Sadie got out of bed as quietly as she could so as not to wake her little sister Jenny, who was huddled under the covers on the other half of the bed. She slipped her feet into her scuffed house shoes and wrapped a wool shawl around her nightgown, then tiptoed out to the hall, closing the bedroom door quietly behind her. Trying to avoid the creakiest steps she followed her father down the dark stairs to the kitchen. 

The fire in the cast-iron stove had been banked last night before the family went to bed, and the room was cold. She shivered and pulled the shawl tighter around herself, then glanced out the window and saw a bright river of stars curving across the black sky. It must still be the middle of the night. No wonder she felt so tired. She stifled a yawn and made herself focus on what her father was saying to her in an urgent  half-whisper. 

“I’ve been called out to the Borstads. The hired boy just got here and seems that they’re all down hard with the grippe. Lucas is out getting the buggy ready, but I need you to check my medical bag and fix some food for us to take with us. I don’t want to wake your mother. She’s been up with the baby half the night and they just went to sleep.” 

Sadie nodded. Her mind flew to what she knew about the symptoms and treatments for the grippe, also known as influenza, and the lung complaints that came with it. People in Harmony Creek came down with the grippe every winter, and every year she and her mother nursed some of her younger siblings through it, so Sadie had read everything she could find on it in her father’s medical books. 

It was frustrating that nothing she’d come across was of much use. No one knew how to cure the grippe, or why people got it more in the winter than the summer, or why it made some people deathly sick, while others shook it off as easily as the sniffles. She only knew she was one of the lucky few who never seemed to get ill even when everyone around her was sick. She knew she didn’t look strong. She was small and thin and light boned. But what she lacked in physical strength, she made up for with a strong constitution. 

“Father,” she said, trying not to sound too eager, “Could I come with you? If they’re all sick, you might need help.” 

His eyebrows rushed together into a scowl. “For the love of God, Sadie, stop pestering me. How many times do I have to tell you that your mother needs you to help her here at home? Just do as I say and get my bag ready.” 

“Yes, Father.” Sadie sighed to herself. She knew the whole lecture by heart: God intended girls to become wives and mothers, not doctors. When she was married and properly settled, she would be far too busy with husband, home and family to waste her time wanting to do something as unfeminine as dealing with strangers and their illnesses. Soon the day would come when she would look back on this childish ambition of hers and laugh. 

But Sadie didn’t think so. Whatever her parents thought, she knew she wouldn’t grow out of her desire to be a doctor. She doubted she’d ever find it funny at all. 

She lit the lantern her mother kept on the kitchen table and carried it to her father’s surgery off the parlor to make sure his medical bag was stocked with everything he would need to take on a house call, especially laudanum for pain, and ipecac and mustard plasters to encourage coughing if the grippe had settled in the lungs. 

She couldn’t recall exactly how many Borstads there were, since the family lived far from town and only came to church a couple of times a year, but she knew there were quite a few of them, so she filled the bag until she had to struggle to snap the clasp closed, then lugged it back to the kitchen in both hands. 

Her father’s helper Lucas O’Brien had lit the fire in the stove and was hunkered down in front of the fire box, feeding kindling into the flames. He came to his feet when he saw Sadie and gave her a nod which she returned with a bare minimum of politeness.

She felt a burning jealousy every time Lucas hitched up the buggy to drive out with her father on his far-flung rounds. It just wasn’t fair that Lucas got to go visit patients while she had to stay home. How she wished she could go out on a case with Father, just once. She wanted to be the one to hand him the instruments while he performed a surgery, or drive back home to fetch the right medicine while he sat with a desperately ill patient. But going out with him was impossible, when her mother needed her at home to help with the housework and the babies who just kept coming! 

She knew it was wrong for her to dislike Lucas just because he had the thing she wanted so badly, but couldn’t have. He didn’t even seem all that excited about being her father’s helper. There were probably lots of other things he’d rather do than fetch and carry for a country doctor, although she’d never asked him what they were. It was too hard for her to be pleasant to him, so she tried to keep him at a distance. Usually that wasn’t too difficult. He wasn’t the talkative sort. 

The fatigue on his face tonight made her feel sorry for him in spite of herself. No doubt it was exhausting to wake up in the middle of the night and drive for miles through the cold and dark to visit a sick family. His blue eyes were shadowed, looking almost black in the dim kitchen. She’d always thought his eyes were unusually beautiful for a man. They were large and deep blue, rimmed with long dark lashes, “blue eyes put in with a sooty finger,” as she’d once heard an admiring lady say. Now she couldn’t help noticing the dark circles under them and the growth of stubble on his square jaw. His black hair was usually neatly combed, but tonight it stood up in spikes, as if he had raked his fingers through it to try to wake himself up. His clothes weren’t any better. He had on a red flannel pajama shirt over a pair of crumpled trousers that looked as if he had picked them up off the floor and put them on. His disheveled state made her feel a strange desire to laugh, but she knew that wouldn’t do. She probably looked just as bedraggled and bleary-eyed as he did. She looked away and shifted her grip on the heavy medical bag.

He held out his hand. “Here, Miss Sadie, let me take that.” 

Sadie gave him the bag. She felt another jealous twinge when she saw how easily he hefted the weight she had struggled to carry. Really, being born a girl had so many disadvantages! 

It was a relief when he left the kitchen and she had the room to herself. She filled the coffee pot with water and set it on the stove top to boil, then ground coffee beans and dumped them into the pot along with some crushed eggshells to make the brew less bitter. While the coffee was heating, she opened the pie safe and took out the squash pie and one of the loaves of bread she and Mother had baked yesterday. She cut thick slices of the bread and buttered them lavishly, then put them and large wedges of pie on tin plates, wrapped the plates in cloth napkins, and put the food in the willow basket her father carried with him in the buggy. When the coffee boiled, she poured it out into two enamel mugs, one for her father and one for John. Her father drank his coffee black, but Lucas had a sweet tooth, so she added milk and sugar to his cup. 

Then she waited in the chilly kitchen, clutching the shawl tightly around herself and breathing in the perfume of hot coffee while the steam curled up from the waiting mugs, until her father stumped down the stairs in the black frock coat he always wore to make house calls and Lucas O’Brien came in from hitching up the horse. 

The two men gulped down their coffee, put on their hats, and went out. A moment later, Sadie heard the horse’s hooves thudding and the buggy rolling out of the drive behind their house and down Harmony Creek’s main street. 

They were gone. 

She fetched a deep sigh. In the dark she felt all alone, worlds away from her father and from her mother and brothers and sisters, all still sleeping upstairs. She was seventeen, old enough that her mother had started hinting that it was time for her to think of getting married, but she wasn’t sure she would ever want to marry anyone. Being a doctor was what she wanted, really the only thing she had ever wanted. 

Why had God made her like this—wishing for something with all her heart that everyone around her thought was foolish and unwomanly, even immoral? However many times she grappled with that problem, she had never found a good answer. Why, oh why hadn’t she been born a boy? But no amount of wishing was going to make her anything but a girl. 

A huge yawn overtook her, and made her realize that she was standing in the cold in just her nightgown and house slippers. Should she go back up to bed and try to get a little more sleep? She looked out the window and saw that the river of twinkling stars had disappeared. The eastern sky was suffused with a pale pink, fading to a deep blue at the highest point she could see, with one bright star shining just above the horizon. Morning was almost here. 

Sadie worried her lower lip between her teeth, considering. It wouldn’t be long before Mother was up. She’d be worn out after being awake in the night with the baby, and today was Monday, wash day, always a day of extra-hard labor. It would be a pleasant surprise for Mother to get up and find breakfast already made. 

She set more water to boil on the stove and started mixing batter for pancakes. 


Lucas O’Brien held the reins loosely between his fingers while the horse jogged through the darkness out to the Borstads’ homestead. A light wind rustled the grass along the track and the buggy’s kerosene lanterns shed a weak light over the dim prairie that unrolled slowly in front of them. He listened with only half an ear to Doc Bergstrom giving his opinion of people who waited until the middle of the night to decide they were at death’s door and needed a doctor right away. Doc was always grouchy when he had to get up for night calls, but Lucas knew he would never refuse to go. 

He only started paying real attention to Doc’s grumbling when he heard Sadie’s name. 

“She asked me again tonight if she could come along.” Doc shook his head. “When is that girl going to stop plaguing me with her crazy notions? Her mother says it’s time for her to get married. Says she’ll settle down once she has a couple of babies to keep her busy. But I’m not so sure that’s a good idea quite yet. If Sadie goes, who would help out with all the work at home?” 

A knot twisted tight around John’s heart. No wonder Sadie had looked so discouraged when he saw her in the kitchen. He thought the world of Doc and Mrs. Bergstrom, but it made him burn that the only thing they seemed to value about their eldest daughter was the cooking and cleaning she did around the house. 

But Lucas saw much more in Sadie. He saw how she quietly collected Doc’s leftover medical supplies and used them to treat her family’s minor hurts and illnesses when Doc was away on patient calls. Often he saw her with a feather duster in her hand, hovering in the parlor just outside the surgery door to listen in while Doc talked to a patient. One day, when he was taking the trash out to burn in the ash pile behind the house, he found an envelope with a diagram of the bones of the hands sketched on the back. Each bone was labeled in Sadie’s small looping scrawl. 

He admired the dogged way she kept trying to learn about doctoring, even though her parents plainly didn’t like it. He wished he could ask her why it meant so much to her, but held back. He and Sadie weren’t really friends. In fact, she hardly seemed to notice his existence. She was polite enough to him, but never more than that. That was no surprise. As the oldest child in the Bergstrom family, with four younger brothers and a baby sister, she was busy from dawn till dark. She probably just saw him as yet another person she had to cook and clean for. So he kept his distance from her, too. It was best that way. 

Two years ago, everything changed. He’d been chopping logs in the back yard one day when a chunk of wood flew up and hit him hard in the forehead. Doc had been away, so it was Sadie who saw the accident from the kitchen window and hurried out of the house to stanch the bleeding and bandage his head. 

He lay on his back on the ground with his eyes closed and a dizzy, whirling feeling in his head while her hands gently felt the lump on his forehead and pressed something soft against the wound. She talked to him calmly while she worked, but the meaning of her words washed over him. He only really heard the sound of her voice. 

When the whirling eased a little, he opened his eyes and saw her bending over him, looking down at him with a concerned expression. Her face was so close that every feature looked blurry and larger than normal. He took in the golden eyebrows slightly knit in concern, the dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks, the slightly parted lips, and most of all the eyes which gazed down at him searchingly, their clear blue irises rimmed in darker blue. He felt utterly transfixed by her gaze. 

“Can you see me?” she asked.

He nodded, still dazed. When had she become so grown up? Why hadn’t he ever noticed that her lips were heart shaped? Or that there were little shadowed indentations at the corners of her mouth that made her seem to be hiding a secret smile? He almost forgot the blow to his head and started feeling dizzy in an entirely different manner.

“Does your head ache?”

“Some.” It was hard to separate the throbbing in his forehead from the pulse pounding in his ears. “Not too bad,” he added, wanting not to worry her. 

“The bleeding’s stopped.” Gently but firmly, she helped him to sit up. “I don’t think it’s too serious, but you have quite a lump there. You’d better lie down for the rest of the day. Hugo, can you take him to his room? I have to help Mother get supper on. Father will come look in on you when he gets home later.” She smiled at John, a smile that dismissed him, then turned away and went back to the kitchen. 

Hugo, the oldest Bergstrom boy, was suddenly there, holding out a hand to help Lucas get up. Slowly Lucas stood up and found that all the younger Bergstrom children had crowded around the interesting sight of their hired hand lying stretched out full length on the ground. Now that he was on his feet again, the excitement was over. They followed Sadie back to the house. 

Lucas still felt dazed that it was over so quickly. He could have spent all day looking up into Sadie’s eyes. He knew then that he would do anything for her. 

In the two years since then, his feelings had only grown stronger. It got harder for him to keep silent when he watched Sadie struggle and heard her parents talking about marrying her off to force her to give up her dreams. But he had to keep his feelings to himself. 

He knew he wasn’t near good enough for Sadie. He was a nobody, an orphan Doc had brought home years ago when he found him lying half-dead in the road back in Wisconsin. With no schooling past the fourth grade and no future prospects, he didn’t stand a chance of winning either her heart or her parents’ approval. But that didn’t stop him from wishing. Sadie was the most wonderful girl in the world, and it made him ache to see her unhappy. 

He sighed and flexed his fingers on the reins. There were still miles to go to the Borstads’. It was going to be a long night. 


Later that day, Sadie and her mother were out in the yard behind their house, doing the family laundry in two big metal tubs filled with steaming soapy water. Mrs. Bergstrom stirred dirty trousers with a tall wooden paddle in one tub, while Sadie scrubbed shirts on a corrugated washboard in the other tub. It was a beautiful, crisp October day. The sky was a lovely blue and the cool air gave just a hint of colder days to come. 

Sadie wrung out the shirt she’d been scrubbing and laid it in the basket of clean shirts waiting to be rinsed. She sat back on her heels, flexed her hands, and eased her stiff back for a moment. The gray work dress she wore was splotched with white spots where the lye soap they used had bleached the color from the fabric. She took a few deep breaths of the fresh cold air. It had been a milder autumn than expected so far, with only a few snow flurries and frosts. 

She picked up another shirt and was about to plunge it into the soapy water when she heard her father’s buggy rattling into the yard. She and her mother both watched in surprise as the driver reined in the horse and swung down to the ground. 

It was Lucas, and he was alone. 

Anxious creases appeared on Mrs. Bergstrom’s forehead. “Where’s Doc? Still at the Borstads?” 

“I had to take him straight on to a gunshot case in Ennis, ma’am.” Lucas took off his flat-brimmed hat and held it in front of him with both hands, as if he were asking a stranger for a favor. He had lived with the family for eight years, since he was fourteen, but had never relaxed his shy formality in front of Mrs. Bergstrom. “Doc wants me to take Sadie out to the Borstads to help take care of them tonight.”

Mrs. Bergstrom stared at him in dismay. “But—if they’re all sick, that means the air out there must be very unhealthy. I’m not so sure Sadie should go.” 

Sadie clasped her hands in front of her heart. “Please, Mother? You know I never get sick.” 

Lucas looked down at his feet. “They’re in bad shape out there. The grippe has settled in on Mrs. Borstad’s lungs. She’s been too weak to get up and cook, and there ain’t any food in the house for the weans.” 

“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Bergstrom abandoned her paddle and wiped her hands on her apron, then stood indecisive, looking off into space with pursed lips. 

Sadie held her breath and said nothing. Lucas also stood still, waiting. 

Finally her mother gave a reluctant nod. “I guess you’d better go. And you might as well take the chicken soup and the last of yesterday’s bread with you. I’ll put some potatoes on for our supper instead.” She started toward the kitchen door, then stopped and threw up her hands. “But how am I going to finish all this washing?”

Sadie looked at the mounds of half-finished and still-dirty laundry and a wave of guilt came over her. Laundry was an endless job for Sadie and her mother. Dirty clothes never stopped piling up, with ten people in the family, including a three-month-old baby in diapers, four active boys, a grown woman and two girls old enough to wear all the many layers of undergarments without which no woman could call herself a lady. Add to that Lucas O’Brien, whose clothes were always filthy from the heavy stable work, and the soiled linens and bandages from Father’s medical practice. 

“Maybe Hugo could help you?” she suggested. “Or Andreas?” At fifteen and fourteen, Hugo and Andreas were the oldest of Sadie’s four younger brothers. When she was their age, she’d been helping her mother cook and clean for years. 

Her mother snorted. “It will be easier to do it myself than to try to teach those two what to do. Even Jenny would be more help.” 

That was true. The Bergstrom boys had never done laundry, because washing clothes was women’s work. Sadie’s seven-year-old sister Jenny was the next-oldest girl in the family. Sadie wished she had another sister who was old enough to take on some of the housework. 

Mrs. Bergstrom sighed and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes with the back of one hand. “It’s just our luck that all our neighbors only have boys.” 

A fitful wail came from inside the house and she sighed again. “The baby’s awake. I was hoping she’d take a longer nap, but I think she might be starting to teeth early.”

Sadie stood silently, soapy water dripping from her hands, waiting for her mother to make up her mind. From past experience she knew if she spoke, made any suggestion, it would just prolong her mother’s wavering. Lucas knew her mother’s ways too, and stood by the horse’s head, quieting him. Mrs. Begstrom chewed her lip for a moment, the thready wail of the baby the only sound to be heard. “Alright, I’ll get the baby. You’d better go get ready, Sadie. I don’t know what I’ll do about the laundry, but I know your father wouldn’t ask you to go if it wasn’t an emergency.”

“Yes, Mother.” Sadie bit her own lip and looked at the ground to hide a sudden nervous shiver. Going out on a medical call!  It was the very thing she’d begged for a few hours ago, but now it felt scary because she knew Father wouldn’t be there. Who would tell her what to do? Lucas O’Brien hardly counted. He never seemed to have anything to say for himself. Well, she’d just do her best and try to remember all the information she’d read over the years and picked up by listening to her father talk about cases at the supper table. She wiped her hands on her apron and followed her mother into the house.

Less than an hour later the buggy set off on its rescue mission. Sadie felt distinctly crowded inside. Lucas was taller and more heavily built than any of the Bergstroms. Even though he tried to leave room for her, he couldn’t help taking up more than half of the seat. She had to share the remaining space with a bundle of firewood under her feet, a couple of loaves of bread, a pot of chicken soup, and a pile of clean linens. It promised to be an uncomfortable ride, but she was so excited and scared, she hardly noticed. 

Mother had insisted that Sadie wear her sunbonnet to prevent her from getting even more of the freckles that marred her otherwise clear complexion. Sadie loathed the way the bonnet blocked her view to the sides and behind her—just like a blinkered horse, she thought—but she wore it obediently while Lucas O’Brien drove down Harmony Creek’s muddy main street, past the newspaper office, the new community church, the livery stable, the general store, and the half-finished boarding house, to the end of town where the road turned north and ran for miles through open prairie and low, wooded hills. 

(To be continued…)

Read Chapter 2 of The Wishing Star

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