The woman in the poster smiled over a basket filled with ripe tomatoes, rosy apples, tasseled corn. Behind her, a field of grain undulated beneath a benevolent sun.
Erling pointed to the words under the picture, fritt land, and slapped Peder on the back. “Look! Free land!”
“And see here,” exclaimed Peder, “there’s an address for getting a job working on the railway. They’re offering free passage.”
Thorvald saw the mounting fervour on both of the younger boys’ faces as they read the poster and advertisement again. “A long way to Canada, brothers.”
“Ah, but, Thorvald, there’s nothing for us here.”
It was true. The country was in recession and jobs were scarce. Crops had failed and bellies were empty. And how could Father divide the small holding between the three older boys, much less the smaller ones coming along behind.
Turning from the window with its inviting poster, Thorvald shouldered the sack of purchases and strode away, and the excited brothers ran after, heads together.
“Tell me more,” directed Father, stabbing a chunk of stringy mutton as the family sat around the supper table later. “Where is this free land?”
“Canada. First, we will work for the Canadian Pacific Railway,” Peder enunciated the name carefully in English, “until we are old enough to buy a homestead.”
“There is a meeting for anyone who is interested, Father, and a place to sign up. And free passage to Canada.”
Mother mashed vegetables and fed the baby, slowly eating her own thin stew, taking small bites of dark bread, and listening to the boys, saying not a word.
“All three of you wish this?” Father inquired. “A new life. One hundred sixty acres?”
Thorvald, Peder, and Erling looked at each other, passion and hope emanating from them like a vaporous force, the desire for adventure contagious and luminous. They grinned.
“Well.” Father went to the wood stove. The coals clinked together as he stirred, then tossed in another chunk of wood, flames flaring, sparks snapping. “Then you must go.”
The boys went to the recruitment meeting and signed up for employment and the journey, found out the departure date. There was naught else to do but wait. They helped with the early spring lambing, mended fences, and cleaned outbuildings.
Yet, as a blush of green tinted the hills, Thorvald felt his vision wane. He watched his father trudge across the farmyard, shoulders stooped. Down by the house, snowy linens sailed in the spring breeze, freshly rinsed and hung by his mother’s hands, the same hands that could deftly weave a flaxen braid, knead bread, or comfort a baby.
“Hei, Thorvald! Are you dreaming?” Peder and Erling pushed a handcart full of firewood down the path from the forest. Thorvald inhaled the rich, resinous fragrance and looked up the slope to the evergreen trees blanketing the hillside.
“Give a hand, brother,” begged Peder, feigning deep weariness, yet sweat did trickle from his temples and rosy cheeks. Laughing, Thorvald pushed him out of the way, and he took a handle of the cart. They added the wood to the stack the boys had already done that day.
“That’ll dry perfectly. Hard to believe we’ll be long gone by then,” observed Erling.
Again, Thorvald felt a prickle of doubt and misgiving. That night and following nights, the suppertime chatter revolved around the pending departure and plans, but Thorvald grew less eager to join in the conversation. He looked at each shining, rapt face around the table, from the baby to his father’s weathered countenance. How could he dream of leaving?
The work on the railroad would be grueling, but he knew from his calloused hands he didn’t fear hard work. His young back was already broad and muscled, accustomed to difficult labour.
And what of the stories of failure he’d heard, only a few, but misfortunes, all the same. Men who’d returned, broken in body and spirit, landless, poor, and shamed. Thorvald prayed he was making the right decision.
“I am staying,” he finally announced to his startled family. He said nothing of Father’s rounded shoulders or the bright tablecloths that tore at his heart. He didn’t mention how precious each fair head had become, but he did touch a braid, tousle a lock.
In April, it was Peder and Erling who waved, then walked into the mist on their way to Kristiania and the waiting ship.
Thorvald had already found his fortune.
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