PostScripts from Blessing

The official blog of author Lauraine Snelling and the fictional town of Blessing, North Dakota

12-30-1903 The Unexpected Gift

The Unexpected Gift
By Danae Hiltner
Week: 4

The shrieking wind woke Andor early the next morning. He sat up glancing beside him. Ella wasn't there. Had she gotten up earlier than usual? He saw her clothes still draped neatly over the chair. What are her clothes still…? Realization hit him. He dressed in a flash and ran out into the hall.
No, no, no! Please God, please don't let it be…A blast of cold air hit him. Bright whiteness stared through the open front door.
"No!" he shouted without thinking, running to the door. Footprints in the snow attested to Ella's leaving. How long had she been gone? He kicked at the snow drifts, growling in frustration. He looked out, squinting. Snowflakes bit his cheeks and the wind blew his hair back. "Ella!"
"Andor, what happened?" Hanna and Carl raced into the hall.
Shut the door, you fool! Andor's mind screamed at him, barely audible over the wind. Between him and Carl, they both worked until they could shut the door. Andor leaned one hand against the wall, despair dragging him down.
"Son, what happened? Did someone leave?" Carl asked, worry written on his weathered face.
"Ella," Andor's voice cracked, as he shoved his arms into his coat sleeves. "She wandered off into the blizzard!" He pulled the door open again as he crammed his hands into his mittens.
"No!" Carl dragged him back. "You'll be lost before you get to the gate."
"I have to find Ella!"
"Andor," Carl clamped his arm around the younger man. "We can do nothing until dawn."

The blizzard died down as the sun rose. Andor dreaded going out searching, afraid of what he might find. Yet if he didn't, he'd hurt forever not knowing for sure what happened to Ella.
People wandered off in blizzards and were never seen again! Dear Lord, what happened to her? Is she alive? Oh Lord, oh Lord, please… Andor took a deep breath, feeling as if ice particles were embedded in his lungs. "We-we can begin searching now." His voice shook. Cold, he felt so cold! But Ella would be even colder!
"I'm getting some of the other folks in town to help us? The Knutsons, the Bjorklunds, Pastor Solberg. All of them."
"J-ja, of course," Andor shook his head. He couldn't think clearly at all. Dear God, oh dear God, please, please bring Ella home to us. He bowed over, his hands clasped together. Please dear God, heavenly Father. Bring her home. A small sound caused him to look up.
Steven, trailed by Josef and Freja, padded up and stared at him without saying a word. By the looks on their faces they were aware something was wrong. Steven finally spoke up and asked, "What's going on?" He paused, "What happened?" He looked around the room. "Where's Ella?"
"We-we don't know where she is," Andor replied. He knew that much. "We're going to look for her."
Steven looked toward the door, his eyes wide. "Did she…?"
Andor nodded. Steven's face fell. Freja and Josef stared up at their brother, confused.

Hay poked her in the face. In fact, hay poked her everywhere. She was burrowed into the hay, like the cat that snuggled beside her. Ella moaned and opened her eyes. Nothing but blurry images was all she could see.
What happened? I heard crying….But I can't seem to remember what happened. She rubbed her eyes with her cold fingers and became of aware of just how cold she really felt. She clutched her shawl closer, but it wasn't helping. Ella opened her eyes again and stared at the walls of the stall. I'm in the barn! What in the world am I doing in here? She racked her brain trying to think, but she couldn't get her mind to recall anything of the previous night's activities. She remembered the blizzard and gasped. I wandered off! But why? Abe, Abe was crying. She slowly shook her head. Abe was gone—dead and buried months ago. Yes, Abe has gone home to be with Jesus. but I am here. God has kept me alive and now I want to live.
She wanted to stand, but she couldn't move at all. Her teeth chattered. I'm too cold to move! I need to stay warm! She tried to move, but the attempt failed. But I am still alive! Someone will find me…. I am alive. Thank you, God. I am alive. She felt like she had no hands or feet at all. Would she freeze to death in the barn? Dear God, please, send me some help! I don't want to die in the barn!
"Please," she whispered hoarsely. "Please." Andor will be coming to milk the cow.
After what seemed like ages, footsteps broke into her thoughts. Her eyes still closed, Ella took a deep shaky breath. "Hello?" Her voice cracked. "Is anyone there?"
The footsteps stopped a moment then started back up. The person stopped outside the stall door. "Ella!" Steven stood in the doorway. He dashed in and dropped beside her. "Oh Ella, I was so scared! We've been searching and searching because we thought you'd wandered off onto the prairie!" He paused and looked down at her. "Are you ok?"
"Just frozen," Ella croaked, her voice frozen along with the rest of her. She'd never heard Steven say so many words before.
Steven tugged her shawl over her and then leaped to his feet. "I'll get Andor!" The boy turned and dashed back out the door. Ella smiled. I can still smile…and I can still praise you, God! Thank you!

Even wrapped in two quilts, Ella shivered uncontrollably. Andor had carried her inside and then Dr. Elizabeth Bjorklund had arrived and checked Ella over, searching for frostbite. "She has a spot here on her face, but that is all I can find. Are there any on her fingers?" Elizabeth asked her mother-in-law, who had accompanied her.
"Yes, but not bad," Ingeborg checked each of Ella's fingers. She touched the spot on Ella's face. "Can you feel my touch?"
"Y-yes," Ella nodded. It didn't take much effort for that motion.
"Only one spot on her toe," Elizabeth announced.
"Praise God," Ingeborg said softly.
"Amen to that." Andor agreed.
Elizabeth listened to Ella's breathing. "You be sure to rest up most of the day. You sound healthy, so there's another thing to be thankful for." She held a cup of warm tea to Ella's lips.
"Oh I-I am," Ella smiled and spoke around the rim of the mug.
"She's going to be fine!" Freja shouted out the bedroom door. Still clad in her nightgown, the little girl raced up and wrapped her arms around Ella. Steven and Josef joined her.
"We're glad you're back," all of them talked at once. The adults all chuckled.
"I'll b-be warm in no time now," Ella joked and everyone laughed. She hugged the three children. Andor stood with his hands on her shoulders. "Welcome home, El."
"Are you still going to come see me in the Christmas play?" Freja asked, bringing more chuckles.
"If Dr. Bjorklund s-says I may," Ella replied.
"Can she come to the play?" Freja turned to Elizabeth. "Please Dr. Bjo'klund?"
"As long as she rests all day and saves her energy. I'd say she'll be able to make it to the Christmas Eve service tonight just fine." Elizabeth winked at her.
"Christmas Eve?" Ella looked up. "Is it really Christmas Eve?"
"Yes dear," Andor said with a smile. "Is your mind frozen?"
"Ja, but not frozen off," Ella replied slyly between shudders.
"Danke, Dr. Bjo'klund!" Freja hugged Ella tighter. "Now Ella can see me be an angel!"
"I can't wait," Ella told her, stroking the girl's wispy hair.

Watch for the conclusion of The Unexpected Gift next week.

12-23-1903 Week Three The Unexpected Gift

The Unexpected Gift
By Danae Hiltner
Week 3

The Unexpected Gift
By Danae Hiltner
Week: 3

The next morning, when Ella walked out to the barn, music from inside reached her ears. She found Steven in one of the empty horse stalls, playing his violin. The notes to O Christmas Tree rose with each graceful move of the bow. Steven's back was turned to her, so he didn't see her. Did he not hear her, either? The Christmas carol sounded beautiful, as if someone much older played the instrument.
Steven finished, letting the last note linger. His eyes widened when he turned and saw Ella standing in the doorway.
"Steven," Ella's voice was above a whisper. "That sounded magnificent."
Steven mumbled, "Thank you." He knelt and placed the violin in its case with hurried but gentle movements.
Ella then realized he hadn't wanted to be discovered. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right." Steven turned the little screw on the end of the bow to loosen it before he placed it in the case beside the violin. He shut the case and picked it up, rushing past Ella out the door, his boots thumping the hard-packed dirt.
"Steven! Wait!" Ella started to follow him then halted. She would only make him feel more uncomfortable if she asked questions. He has an amazing talent! Does he not want anyone to know of it? The question nagged her all the way back to the house.

They made the trip to church on Sunday and returned home afterwards, beating the blizzard. Ella helped Freja out of her coat. The little girl's eyes took up her entire face.
"I don't like the wind." She gave Ella a sad look.
"Neither do I, but it will go away soon. I'm sure." Ella smiled at the little girl. Freja wrapped her arms around Ella's neck and squeezed. Ella hugged her and patted her back. Dear Lord, please stop the wind! Freja doesn't like it and neither do I!
"My land, this is some nasty weather." Hanna shook her head. "Freja, want to help me bake more cookies?"
Freja smiled and nodded, forgetting her fear. She skipped down the hallway ahead of Hanna, singing O Tannebauam. Steven and Josef were in the living room, their coats hanging near the stove. She could hear them playing with Simeon; the dog's happy yips making them laugh.
Andor pushed the door open, the howling wind fighting to blow it closed again. Snow blew in with him. He slammed the door shut and the flurries dropped around his feet.
"Andor," Ella began unbuttoning his coat. "Heavens, but you were not out there for that long at all!"
"This weather's getting mighty nasty," Carl entered the room. "Need any help, son?"
"I know," Andor agreed. "I think I can manage. Are there any white spots on my face?"
Ella searched his face for white spots which indicated frostbite. "Nein, none."
"Thank you, Lord." Andor took off his hat, his fingers heavy like weights.
"You're frozen all the way through." Ella tugged his gloves off and rubbed his frozen hand between hers. "Come and get warm in the kitchen. Do you need help getting your boots off?"
"Nein," Andor said, shaking his head. "Hope I didn't loose any toes."
"Do your feet have feeling? Does anything hurt?"
"I'm feeling fine, Ella dear," Andor assured her. He reached up and touched his ear. His eyes widened.
"What?" Ella asked, feeling frantic.
"My ear doesn't have any feeling at all!"
"What? Are you sure?" Ella started to check it, but then Andor burst out laughing. She glared at him and squared her jaw. She crossed her arms. "You sir, are not funny."
"You should have seen your face. Why, I bet that…,"
"Thank you, Andor," Ella cut him off. She pointed down the hallway. "Take yourself and your frozen ear to the kitchen, if you please."
"As you wish," He chuckled, running his fingers through his blonde hair, bits of ice crumbling off. Ella couldn't repress her laughter.
"What'd you scream about? What's so funny?" Freja and Josef both asked, bursting into the room.
"Andor teased me about his ear being frozen," Ella explained, "and I believed him."
Steven burst out laughing, as did his brother and sister.
"Ella, I told you not to believe everything he told you," Hanna pretended to scold, shaking her finger at Ella.
"You should have seen her. She screamed so loud! I had her thinking I'd really lost my ear." Andor sipped his coffee after Hanna set it in front of him. Children's giggles met his comment. The look Ella shot him made him cough. "Hot coffee," he lied. His eyes twinkled.
"Like I'll believe that," Ella rolled her eyes. The children giggled again and took bites of their cookies in unison to prevent Ella from asking them questions.
"Did you really climb onto a chair? Were you that scared of a mouse?" Carl asked, his eyes shining like his son's.
Ella glanced at Andor and glared at him, rolling her eyes. She mumbled something into her coffee cup. Andor laughed again, shaking his head.

"Who's this?" Freja asked Ella that afternoon. The blizzard howled on outside, the whistling beginning to grate on Ella's nerves. She shivered. Lord, please calm the wind. She looked up from the letter she was trying to write to her mother. She couldn't concentrate on anything at all. If only the wind would stop blowing!
"Mrs. Bischoff?" Freja called again. Ella came out of her daydream. "What, dear?"
Freja held the picture of Abe in both her hands up. "Who's this?" Freja waited patiently, her eyes searching Ella's face.
Her throat went dry and an ache started in her heart, "That's my baby, Abraham." "Oh. The one you talk about sometimes?" Freja asked.
She means my prayers. Ella realized. She nodded.
"Is he with God, like my momma and papa?" Freja looked down at the picture, then up at Ella.
"Ja, he's with God," Ella nodded.
"He's with the angels like my parents," Freja said. "My momma will take care of him for you. And God will, too."
"Thank you, Freja." Ella gave a wobbly smile.
"Do you miss him? I miss Momma and Papa still, but then I remember God has them. Papa told me that God takes care of everyone."
"I…I miss him," Ella's voice shook. "But like you said, God has him now."
Freja nodded, staring down at the picture in her hands. "You don't have Abe and me'n my brothers don't have parents."
Ella reached out and patted Freja's shoulders. "But we're all together now and having a wonderful time."
"Just like Papa and Momma and Abe in heaven," Freja's solemn voice and serious face made Ella smile. "You're right."
Freja set the photograph down, climbed into Ella's lap and hugged her around the neck. "I love you."
Ella hugged Freja back, shutting her eyes tight as tears filled them. "I love you too, Freja. I'm so glad you and your brothers are with us."
"Me too," Freja squeezed tighter.
Dear Lord, thank you for sending this precious child to me. I needed to hear her tell me 'God has him'. Thank you, dear Father. You deserve to be praised. Thank you, thank, you. She opened her eyes and a tear ran down her cheek. What if I gave these children something special for Christmas?
Freja tugged Ella's handkerchief out of her sleeve. "I saw you pull it out, once." She held it up with a smile.
Ella laughed, hugging the little girl again, kissing her cheek. "Danke, Freja. You're a wonderful little angel."
"I'm an angel for God." Freja said happily.
"That's right." Ella agreed.

The wind howled on into the night.
Ella, on her knees beside Freja's trundle bed, stroked the wisps of hair off the little girl's forehead. Freja had been afraid again, so Ella had stayed with her. Now the child slept peacefully.
She stood, pulling her shawl tighter around herself. She checked on the boys.
"Ella?" The voice was Steven's.
"Yes?" Ella asked.
"I'm sorry I ran away when you found me playing my violin."
Ella smiled softly. "I'm sorry I startled you."
"That's all right," Steven fell silent. Then he spoke up, "My pa played and he taught me. After he died, I was almost too sad to play anymore," he explained. "But I played for Freja and Josef sometimes. It feels like Papa and Momma are alive when I do."
"Your violin playing is wonderful." Ella sank down on the edge of the bed. "Keep on playing your music, Steven."
"Did Abe like any songs?" Steven asked. "Freja told me about him."
"Abe liked any music," Ella smiled at a memory. "He used to dance whenever he heard any."
She could see Steven smile in the dark. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight." Steven turned over. "I'll play more music."
Ella stood up and padded quietly out the door. She rubbed her elbows with her hands, arms crossed. The wind screamed louder, shaking the house. Ella stopped and picked up the photograph of Abe before going to bed. "Go with God," she whispered, staring at the picture. Then she set it down and walked off to bed, while the shrieking wind caused fear to crawl up her spine.

Abe's cry woke her in the night. At least she thought it did but she couldn't tell. Ella opened her eyes, listening again for the sound. She stood up, stepped into her slippers and grabbed her shawl, moving as if she were in slow motion. Abe was crying. He needed her.
Ella left the bedroom, unaware of anything, walking slowly, looking for her son. Hearing the faint cry again, she followed the sound, a dark shadow slinking along with her down the hallway.

12-18-1903 Week Two The Unexpected Gift

The Unexpected Gift
By Danae Hiltner

Week 2:

Ella looked up. "I'll get it," she said to Hanna. She hurried from the room.
"Someone's here," Freja and Josef, followed by Simeon, almost collided with Ella as she hurried into the hall. "Someone knocked, Mrs. Bischoff."
"Thanks for telling me," Ella patted both of their heads, receiving grins in return. Where's Steven? She opened the door and invited the guest in. "Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon," smiled the tall woman, her gray-blue eyes shinning. Strands of graying golden blonde hair peeked from her hat. "I'm Ingeborg Bjorklund and I just wanted to stop by and welcome you and your husband to Blessing." She spotted Freja and Josef peeking shyly behind Ella, "And your children, too."
My children... Ella's heart tightened and she took a deep breath and smiled. "Danke very much. I ah…," she shook her head. "Pardon me. My mind's flying in all directions today."
Ingeborg smiled. "Ja, that happens to us all at times." Her Norwegian accent reminded Ella of home. She forced another smile. "I'm Ella Bischoff and my husband is Andor." She patted the two kid's heads. "And Josef and Freja are hiding behind me."
"Hello," the twins waved shyly. "Our brother Steven is here, too. Mrs. Bischoff is keeping us here," Josef added. Ella could see a confused look in Ingeborg's eyes but the woman didn't ask about it. "We're having an ice-skating party tomorrow afternoon after church and I wondered if you'd all like to come."
Ella felt excitement rise. Ice-skating! She loved ice-skating and still did. The children's shouts of "Ja! Ja!" told her that they agreed it a splendid idea. Ella smiled again, turning her attention back to their neighbor. "Danke Mrs. Bjorklund for your offer. We'd love to join everyone ice skating."
"I'm glad. You'll meet more of the folk around here. And please, call me Ingeborg." The friendly Norwegian woman who stood a few inches shorter than her smiled a motherly smile, her twinkling eyes held a look of love and wisdom. She patted Ella's shoulder. "I'm pleased to have met you and your family. I'm sorry I didn't come to visit sooner."
Her accent reminded Ella further of her parents. It was as if her mother stood there and not Mrs. Bjorklund. Mutti, how I miss you! My family? The thought caught Ella by surprise. Steven entered at that moment, nodding politely and smiling when Ingeborg greeted him.
Ingeborg told her the time to come the next day. "This is such a grand event. I'd hate for you and your family to miss out. It has been forever since we gathered for an ice-skating party."
"Indeed." Ella swallowed. They're not my kids! What do I say? Abe was mine…She swallowed again. "Thank you so much. We'll look forward to being there."

The skating pond already had many skaters twirling and spinning on the ice when they arrived later the next afternoon. Inside the Bjorklund home, people were everywhere, gathered in groups chatting with each other or else outside skating with the children. Where did all of these people come from? Ella thought, amazed. Blessing seemed to be a small town and she had never seen these other people.
From the pond, shouts of laughter and delighted shrieks from children skating made Ella smile. I wonder how Abe would've enjoyed skating? She shook her head. How come memories assailed her to no end?
"You all right?" Andor asked her, concern in his eyes.
"Ja, I am, why?" Ella smiled, hoping he'd not ask anymore questions.
"You looked sad for a moment." He waited for her to say something.
Ella shook her head. "It is nothing. I am fine." At least I think so. Why am I thinking about Abe so much?
Down at the pond, Andor helped Freja and Josef put their borrowed ice skates on. Steven managed just fine without any help and he took off, slipping a bit, then skating as if he'd been doing it for hours already.
"Wow, he is really good," Ella shaded her eyes, watching the boy. She inhaled. Today was such a perfect day. The warm sun shone, the cold wasn't biting, and with all of the laughter around, it felt comfortable.
"Steven's good at lots of things. He can play the violin," Josef said.
"Really?" Andor and Ella both asked.
"Yeah, he plays lots of songs, too." Freja grinned up at her. Ella smiled down at the little girl. "Do you want me to help you walk?"
"Ja, please," Freja took Ella's hand.
Ella watched the brother and sister skate off, wobbling a bit, then falling. A couple of kids their age skated up and helped them stand again before they all skated off together. Steven plays the violin? How remarkable! I wonder why he didn't tell us? Ella and Andor approached the house after some older kids assured them they'd watch the Edelmann's.
"Ella," Ingeborg waved, motioning her inside.
"Hello," Ella smiled, feeling a bit shy. "Isn't this a wonderful day?"
"It surely is. I'm glad we're able to all gather and visit. It's been too long." Ingeborg smiled. Ella introduced Andor to Ingeborg.
"I've heard a lot about Haakan Bjorklund from the other men." Andor said.
"He's over there if you'd like to speak to him," Ingeborg motioned to a group of the men were gathered.
"Danke. I will." Andor nodded. "Good meeting you."
"And you," Ingeborg replied.
After Andor walked off, Ingeborg turned back to Ella. "Would you like to meet some of the other women?"
"Ah…, of course," Ella nodded. By the time the skating party was nearly over, Ella had several new friends. She'd also met Ingeborg and Kaaren's children, too. Kaaren Knutson, Ingeborg's closest friend, made her feel as if she'd been friends with her forever.
"What are your children's names?" Kaaren asked Ella.
Ella hesitated a moment, then replied, "Steven, Josef and Freja. But, they aren't my children. Andor and I met them in town. They got off the train. I…I—er, we just had to help them." Ella folded her hands together.
"I see. Where are they from?" Kaaren asked again.
"Eastern Minnesota. Their parents are dead, and they don't have any other relatives here." Ella watched Steven skate by with another boy. "I just want to give them a happy Christmas."
"You're doing fine," Ingeborg spoke up. "They look as if they're actually your children. I can tell that they're happy."
"Thank you." Ella smiled.
"The church holds a lovely Christmas Eve celebration. Will you and your husband come with the children?"
Ella nodded. "I believe so. Freja and Josef are in the Christmas play. They just told me today and were so happy about it."
"Wonderful," Ingeborg beamed. "The performances are always so magnificent."
"Pastor Solberg told me how Freja kept asking if she could be an angel in the play. When he told her she could be, Freja couldn't quit thanking him," Kaaren added. The three women chuckled, watching out the window. Freja skated by, holding Grace Knutson's hand, giggling and smiling up at the older girl. They chuckled together. "Let's go watch closer," Ingeborg suggested. Coats on, the woman headed out to the pond.
"Abe," A child's shout caused Ella's eyes to widen. She gasped, turned and saw a girl following a boy, obviously her little brother. Not my Abe. I am silly.
"Are you okay, Ella?" Kaaren's gentle voice called her back. "Ja I am. I thought I heard someone call for Abe," Ella turned back to her friends.
"Someone did," Ingeborg studied her. "Are you sure you're fine? You're as white as the snow."
"Ja, I'm fine. Really," Ella smiled her thanks. Ingeborg and Kaaren both smiled, but Ella could feel Ingeborg's gaze on her when she looked away. I'd rather not talk about it. She watched the little boy Abe run by, so bundled up he could do nothing but waddle, mittened hands waving. He stopped and stared up at Ella, a sunny smile on his face, round cheeks bright red.
Pain sliced Ella's heart. She smiled back, but her face suddenly felt frozen. Tears stung her eyes. You will not cry! Do not cry! She blinked and watched the little boy wave at her. She smiled and waved back as he giggled, turned and toddled away, his sister holding his hand. Ella didn't look at Ingeborg or Kaaren, fearing they'd ask what was wrong again. Lord, I miss my baby!

That night at home, Andor lit the Christmas tree. The merry laughter didn't lift Ella's spirit. She watched Freja playing Cat's Cradle with Hanna's husband, Carl, the girl giggling when her fingers got caught. Josef leaned on the other side of the man's chair, head in his hands as he watched the game.
Ella noticed Steven standing with his hands in his pockets, staring into the fire. Forgetting her own sadness, she walked up and rested her hand on his shoulder. The boy looked up at her.
"Are you okay?" Ella asked with a gentle smile. "You're very quite tonight."
"Yeah, I'm all right." Steven shrugged.
"Are you sure?" Ella asked. Steven nodded, his hair bouncing. "Well, if you need anything, just tell me, okay?"
He looked up at her and smiled. "Okay." Then he gave her a hug, surprising her.
Andor spoke up, "How about if I read us a story?"
"Yes please!" Freja ran up to him. "What'll you read us?"
"How about part of the Christmas story?" Andor smiled down at her.
"When Jesus is born?" Freja asked.
"That's right."
"I like that story." Freja hopped a couple of times. A few moments later, Andor sat down with the Bible in his hand. Freja climbed up into his lap, craning her neck to smile up at him. Andor cleared his throat once. Josef climbed up beside him, leaning against his arm. Steven sank down onto the stool at his feet.
They do look like our kids. Ella observed as she picked up her knitting. When Andor read the part of the story when the angel appeared to Mary, Freja spoke up.
"My Momma and Papa are with the angels. I know 'cause I asked Momma before she went to heaven. She told me she'd ask the angels to watch over us."
"You're right, Freja," Andor told her.
"Will my Momma and Papa have a good Christmas, too?" Freja asked.
"Oh I'm sure they will," Andor assured her. "They'll have a wonderful celebration with the angels in heaven."
"Good." Freja snuggled back down.

Later, after all of the children were in bed, Ella picked up the framed photograph of Abe as a baby. She stared hard at the sepia-tone picture. How I miss my baby! Freja didn't even say she wanted her parents back. Andor told her that they'd celebrate with the angels and she was fine with it. Abe is gone, but I cannot stop missing him! Ella set the photo back down on the end table, her head on her hand, covering her eyes. Lord, I want to rejoice in you. I need to move on. Abe isn't coming back. I'll try harder to focus on giving these children a good Christmas. It is so very hard, though.
A small sound made her look up. Freja stood in the doorway, the hem of her white nightgown dragging on the floor. She rubbed her eyes, looking ready to cry.
Ella's heart tightened at the sight of the little girl's sad face. "Freja, what's the matter?"
"I'm scared. I can't sleep. Will you hold me?"
Without another thought, Ella picked the child up and sank into the rocker in front of the fire. When she realized what she was doing, fear gripped her. Freja sighed, her head against Ella's shoulder. Even after the child fell asleep a short while later, Ella kept rocking. A single tear slipping down her cheek.

12-5-1903 Week One The Unexpected Gift

The Unexpected Gift
By Danae Hiltner

Week One

Ella Bischoff and her husband, Andor, descended the snow-covered front steps of the Blessing General Store and crossed to their wagon at the hitching post. The horse nodded his head, his breath rising in a cloud in the cold air.
"Let's hurry home or your mother will be worried," Ella said as Andor grasped her arm and assisted her up the wagon wheel. She sat, settling her skirts around her ankles, tucking a strand of dark golden blond hair back under her shawl hood.
Andor chuckled. "Right you are. Mutti is always taking care of someone. Like an angel she is." He sat down and took the reins.
He'd backed up the horse just as the train whistled into the depot. Ella shaded her blue eyes from the bright sun and stared in the direction. The train shushed to a halt, smoke billowing.
"Is the train early?" Ella asked.
"I think so," Andor rested his boot on the dashboard. He clicked his tongue and gave the leather reins a flick. The horse broke into a jog, bit jangling.
The long trail of boxcars blocked the wooden crossing. "Whoa." Andor pulled back on the reins, stopping the horse again, earning a snort from the animal. "Hope the train isn't stopped for too long."
Ella nodded her agreement, tugging her knitted wool shawl farther over her forehead. She glanced past Andor down at the wooden platform. She watched as a few people stepped off the train and were greeted, and handshakes and hugs of welcome were exchanged. "Welcome, Merry Christmas!"
Will Andor and I have a merry Christmas? A heavy-sounding noise caught her attention. Ella turned to the left, noticing the door to one of the boxcars slowly opening.
"Andor," Ella touched his arm, pointing. He followed her gaze. The young couple watched the door's movement diminish, wondering how it moved.

"How did…?" Ella's voice trailed off as a young boy scooted to the edge of the boxcar and leaped to the ground. He got up and turned to help a smaller boy and girl down, one after the other. All of them wore ragged, torn clothing. The smaller two clutched belongings in their arms. His arms around them, the oldest boy led his siblings off. They dashed behind a building out of sight as if afraid to be seen.
"Andor, we've got to help them!" Ella turned to her husband. "They must be homeless."
"Ja, let's find them," Andor drove the horse up to a lone hitching post. He leaped down, tied the horse then walked around and lifted his wife down. He took her hand and both hurried off, following the shoe prints in the dirty snow. How had the three children gotten away so fast?
"Hello? Is anyone here?" Ella called.
No response.
"Here, they turned here," Andor led the way. Rounding a corner, they came to a halt at the sight. The three children sat huddled against the wall of the abandoned building. The oldest boy leaped to his feet with a growl and attacked Andor.
"You get away from us! You keep away!" he shouted in German, beating his mittened fists against Andor's chest. Long locks of blonde hair fell over his blue eyes from beneath the droopy bill of his torn black cap.
"Wait son, whoa!" Andor, startled, grabbed both of the boy's forearms.
"Let go!" the boy jerked and tried to yank free.
"Hold on, son. I'm not going to hurt you." Andor's voice softened as he reverted to German, his first language. "Please, I only want to talk to you." He straightened his crooked fedora over his blonde hair
Ella glanced at the other two children huddling deeper into their oversized coats in fear. She moved over and knelt down beside them. "Hello." She smiled gently, hoping to reassure them.
Two pairs of wide blue eyes stared up at her through locks of light blonde hair. Ella glanced up at Andor, who held the now-calm boy.

"Who are you? Why are you and your brother and sister alone?" Andor asked.
"I'm not going to tell you anything!" The boy glared up at Andor. "Now let me go!"
"Don't you have parents?" Andor asked. "Please, we want to help you."
The boy studied Andor carefully before answering a few moments later, "No, our parents are dead."
Ella's heart knotted in sympathy. Dead! Their parents are dead…like Abe. She waited for the boy to go on.
"Where are you from?" Andor asked.
"Eastern Minnesota," said the boy. "Now can you let me go? Please don't put us in any orphanage! We want to stay together."
"We won't send you anywhere," Andor knelt down on one knee so he and the boy were eye to eye. "My wife and I want to help you."
"We'll take you home with us," Ella smiled at the boy. "How does that sound?"
The boy studied her. He looked back at Andor, a guarded look in his eyes. "Home? With you?"
"We going with you?" the little boy nestled beside the girl sat up.
"Ja," Ella smiled at him. He smiled shyly. The little girl shoved her boy's cap back up out of her face. "Are you my mutti now?"
Ella's throat tightened.
"Freja," the oldest boy scolded. "Sorry." He gave a sheepish look.
Andor patted the boy's shoulder. "Come on home with us. So your sister is Freja, what are your names?" Andor asked the boys.
"I'm Josef," the little boy waved his hand, a tiny grin on his face. "Freja an' I are twins."
"Steven," the older boy stared down at his shoes. "Steven Edelmann."
"Good to meet you all. I'm Andor Bischoff, and my wife is Ella." Andor motioned to Ella, who smiled.
"That's a pretty name." Freja stood up and walked to Ella, wrapping her little arms around her neck. "Will you carry me?"
"Yes dear," Ella smiled at the little girl. I-I haven't held a child in over a year! "Are those your things?" Ella asked. A carpet bag and a violin case rested on the snowy ground beside Josef.
"Uh-huh. They're our parent's things mostly." Josef explained.
"Here, I'll carry them for you," Andor offered.
Steven reached down and grabbed up the violin case, clutching it tightly. "Danke," he mumbled. Andor picked up the carpet bag. "You're welcome."
Why is Steven so protective of the violin case? Ella thought. She lifted Freja into the wagon bed. She could feel layers of clothing under Freja's coat. Amazing the little girl could walk at all. "There's a robe there for you all to cover yourselves with."
"Okay," Steven unfolded it. Josef clapped his hands and Freja giggled, both tugging the robe over their heads.
"Can you see us?" Josef called.
"Why, they've all disappeared!" Andor acted shocked. Josef and Freja giggled.

"Come in, come in," Hanna, Ella's mother-in-law ushered them. The two Edelmann boys entered, hesitant. Andor carried Freja, the look on her face matching the faces of her brothers.
"Oh, you poor dears! Come and warm yourselves by the fire." Hanna looked up at her son. "Where did you find these children?"
"They got off the train," Andor replied, setting Freja down in a chair. Ella knelt by the girl's seat and began unbuttoning her coat. "Here, let me help you."
"I'll go put the horse away." Andor went out the door again. Ella draped all of Freja's coats and sweaters near the stove with the boy's. The three held their hands out to the heat of the stove, eyes glowing as brightly as the embers, gazes locked on the stove.
The little things we take for granted. Ah, dear God, help these poor children. She studied the ragged coats. I could mend their clothing but Hanna must have hand-me-downs somewhere.
She listened to Hanna speaking to the three silent children, her German words soothing Ella's tight nerves. Am I her mother? What made Freja ask such a question?
Hanna set plates of bread and cheese before the silent little trio. Their murmured "Danke" made Ella wonder if they were shy. She saw Steven make sure Josef and Freja were okay before he relaxed. All of them nibbled mouse-sized bites.
Are they afraid or unsure of how to act? How long have their parents been gone? They behaved well and had good manners. So perhaps not too long ago?
Andor entered the kitchen again, carrying an armload of wood. A black-and-white dog trotted in, his feathery white-tipped tail wagging.
"A dog" Freja exclaimed, delighted. "What's his name?"
"Simeon," Andor ruffled the dog's ears. "He herds the sheep and cows."
"I always wanted a dog!" Josef smiled as Simeon nosed his arm. Ella stood, ignoring the pain that sliced her heart. Abe loved playing with Simeon, too.
Freja smiled at her, the little girl's sunny smile making Ella's heart glow. How she'd missed children being around
Such sweet children. Perhaps we can do something special for them. Christmas is coming, after all….

Watch for Part 2