Author's note: This is a part of the Crossroads series of stories about Kid and Lou traveling the world together after they learn they have contracted syphillis from her encounter with Wicks. However, in this installment written with Nina, the tale centers on their fellow traveler Buck.
Amalie Nilsen walked over to the barn, a bowl of rice porridge in one hand and a jug of beer in the other. It was Christmas Eve and it was time to put food out for the nisse, a way of saying thank you to the small creature that helped her to take care of the animals. Yet another year alone, she thought to herself as she entered the small and cozy barn. Her husband had died ten years ago and her three sons were growing up almost too fast.
Setting the food down in an empty stall, Amalie smiled as the farm's workhorse, Lukas stuck his big head out to say hello.
"Hey there, big fellow," she spoke in a happy voice as she scratched him behind his ears. "You coming to say Merry Christmas?" Pulling a carrot out of her skirt pocket Amalie smiled as Lukas munched the treat. "You get your present now, all right."
The nisse watched the scene from the empty stall as he was drinking the beer that Amalie had set out for him. For over ten years now Amalie had been lonely, a long time for a mortal woman, though but a twinkling of an eye for an ancient, mystical creature like himself who had lived for hundreds of winters and who preferred solitude for the most part, or the company of the gentle creatures to be found in the barn. But the nisse knew it was different for humankind. She needed a new husband - someone to be there for her and to help keep her bed warm at night.
He nodded his wise, red-capped and grey-bearded head to himself, standing on tiptoe beside the jug that was almost as tall as he was to take a draught. Wiping his lips with his sleeve, the nisse reflected that Amalie was always faithful, always left the proper tribute at the proper time every Thursday and a special treat on Christmas Eve. The little deity of the barn remembered as well that Amalie always treated the animals he considered to be under his protection kindly, taking good care of them and teaching her boys to do the same. Settling down in the clean straw, he sat cross-legged before the low milking stool where she always set his porridge and which was the perfect size for a table for a nisse like himself. He took out his wooden spoon from his blue jacket, and dug eagerly into the steaming porridge with a generous lump of butter and cinnamon on top, and resolved, that whatever lay in this old Nisse power to do about pretty, kind Amalie's loneliness, would not go undone, no indeed it wouldn't, he vowed to himself, chuckling merrily.
Amalie turned her head sharply, the tassels on her knitted cap swinging, as she thought she heard a tiny chuckle coming from the empty stall. She glanced over the side, and saw it was empty still except for the bowl of porridge with a little well dug in it, and the beer in the jug a little lower than she remembered it being when she set it down a few minutes before. She smiled briefly to herself and turned back to go back in the house, humming a little Christmas tune about the nisse as she went.
One year later
The passenger crowds in the train station in Kristiania, the beautiful, busy city that was the capital of Norway, were thick, pushing against Lou and Kid as they battled their way to the agreed-on meeting place at the track leading north. "I hear tell they're talking about adding stations and tracks to meet all this demand," Kid shouted over the din to Lou. "Looks like they really need it."
Lou nodded, her eyes searching the crowd until she saw two familiar faces. Her face lit up and she waved madly at them. "Buck! Cody!" she shouted, and the two men turned, working their way through the crowd toward them.
"Look at you, all fancy," Lou said, smiling at Cody in his expensive suit, noting the gentlemanly goatee and moustache.
"You too, I don't hardly recognize my old Express pal Lou," Cody returned gallantly, holding her two hands out to admire her pretty wine-colored coat. "Howdy, Kid," he said, shaking his hand.
"Buck," Lou said softly, giving him a warm hug. Leaning back, she looked into his eyes. He hadn't changed as much as Cody had. His hair still was long and dark and hung down his back, while his eyes were as clear-seeing and piercing, yet gentle all at once.
"You look good, Lou, you both do. You . . . you both feeling all right?" Buck said, gently.
"So far so good," Kid answered, putting one arm around Lou's waist and shaking Buck's hand with the other. They fell silent just a moment, before Lou smiled again, "I can't tell you how great it is to see you two again. It's so lucky we happened to be in Sweden right when you were taking your show to Norway."
"You're going to love the show, Lou. It's a thrill a minute," Cody boasted. He pulled some tickets from his pocket. "I took care of getting your tickets, so you can accompany us to our next engagement. That is, if you're not in a hurry to rush off."
"No hurry," Kid said easily. They took their adventures basically as they found them, and indeed there was no place in particular they had to be. "I've been hearing great things about your show, Cody."
"You'll keep hearing about it, too, as long as Buffalo Bill is around," Buck jibed, playfully punching Cody in the arm.
"I couldn't do it without my players, like Buck here and the other Indian performers, and my little sure-shot, Annie," Cody said modestly. "She reminds me a little of you, Lou. Hey, could I convince the two of you to join the show, put on a little act? I have actors doing a reenactment of the Pony Express, you know. Buck's one of them. How about all of you show 'em how it was really done?"
"We'll see," Lou laughed, as Cody guided them toward the platform where they would catch the train. "It's enough just to see some family at Christmastime," she added, giving Buck's arm an affectionate squeeze. "We've missed you both. Did Kateri come with you, Buck?" she asked, tentatively.
"No, that's over, Lou. Right before we set sail for Europe, I've been so busy with work that I hadn't had time to write you about it."
Lou fell silent. Kid slid his eyes over toward Lou, sighing to himself amusedly. Lou was a born matchmaker, a romantic, and she worried a great deal over Buck and his string of failed love affairs. He had no doubt his wife would set her mind to working on what she saw as a 'problem' of an unattached friend of a certain age, even if they only were spending a week or two together in a foreign land.
The group boarded the train and made their way down the aisle, and Kid watched with a chuckle as she scanned the car, paying careful attention to the women between twenty and forty, and hoped for Buck's sake, Lou would take it easy on his friend.
As they rode out of the train station heading north, they admired the beautiful sunset. Cody glanced at his pocket watch. "Three-fifteen," he remarked, wonderingly. "I can't quite get used to these late sunrises and early sunsets," he said, as they all watched the sun's final rays glistening off the snow-covered hills and lakes on the way out of town.
"It's beautiful here, though," Lou whispered, looking admiringly at the coating of snow that made everything look as if it were frosted with icing and dusted with sparkling sugar. "It looks like a snow-globe. I expect to see Santa Claus flying over any minute in his sleigh."
As they all settled down and gotten comfortable on the train, Lou smiled, her head resting on Kid's shoulder. Occasionally, she cast a glance in Buck's direction. Buck pretended to be dozing off, an open book in his lap. Her friend had had many relationships, one after the other it seemed, and every last one of them had failed. Lou had hoped that she had finally found the right one with Kateri, from Buck's letters she had seemed like such a nice woman, but that had ended. She just wanted her friend to be happy.
Kid squeezed Lou's hand, silently telling her that she should leave Buck's love life alone. He too wanted his friend to find love and be happy, but he also knew that it was something Buck had to figure out on his own.
Lou didn't take Kid's gesture as it was intended and sat up in her seat. "What really happened with Kateri?" she asked, wondering why things had ended.
Buck opened his eyes and looked at Lou. Cody swallowed, not knowing the whole story, but just enough to be sure that Buck had once again been left broken hearted.
"It's not much to talk about really," Buck said under his breath. "It didn't work out - we were too different - so it ended." Closing his eyes for a moment, he envisioned beautiful Kateri's face before him and a sting of pain went through him. Slowly opening his eyes again, Buck smiled. "Right now I'm enjoying the single life."
Buck was glad when Cody created a diversion in talking about the show and all the acts that were already in it and what he was planning to put in later - of course the latter included all of the former express riders present.
Kid and Lou listened with amusement to Cody's excited talk of his famous Wild West Show, but Buck was silent. He had agreed to be in the show as a favor to Cody, and as something to do when his romance with Kateri had run aground. He had really thought that Kateri was the one that he would spend the rest of his life with, but when he had caught her with another man he knew that it wasn't meant to be.
He had always longed to see other parts of the world besides the Midwestern United States, and working for Cody had seemed like a good way to do that. He couldn't complain, really; Cody was a kind boss and meant well, and didn't go out of his way to portray the Indians as complete savages in the show, as some other similar shows did, but rather as courageous warriors seeking to protect their own homeland, as any people would. Cody had created an act showing the Plains Indian home life, complete with a fully appointed tepee. But just the same, the sometimes simplistic "cowboys and Indians" shoot-em-up act felt like silly child's play, and the repetitive schedule and gawking crowds were starting to grate on him. He looked out the window as Cody prattled on, wondering what life truly was like out there in the cold and beautiful land they were hurtling through on their way to yet another performance of the same part for what seemed like the hundredth time.
The former express riders were dozing in their seats when a hideous grinding sound and a violent shaking of the train snapped them awake. The car tipped precariously and amid the shouting of the other passengers, they realized the train had derailed. They waited several tense minutes before the conductor appeared at the far end of the railcar. Holding a small lantern, the conductor walked through the car to the front, and addressed the group of passengers. Not speaking Norwegian, the riders looked at each other helplessly. When the announcement was over, the passengers rose from where they had fallen and made a quick search for their hand-carried bags from overhead, and started to file from the car.
"Why are we getting out here?" Lou whispered. "There's no station or even a town here."
"No idea," Cody said, handing her bag to Kid, and taking down his own. "Let's see if we can get any answers."
Reaching the front of the car, Cody stopped in front of the conductor. "Do you speak English?"
The conductor shook his head and gestured toward the exit. "Dere går med de andre for å finne ly. Med toget i denne tilstanden kommer vi ikke videre," he said impatiently.
A man behind them spoke up. "He's telling you to follow the others," the man said, his accent clipped and precise. "Lt. Commander Niles Harrington of the Royal British Navy at your service," he said, bowing slightly and gesturing to encourage them forward. "I'm here on leave, visiting friends for the holiday. The Norwegians have such charming holiday customs," he explained. "We will have to find shelter among the small towns across that hill."
"What if no one takes us in?" Lou said worriedly, but Lt. Commander Harrington laughed.
"You're in Norway, my dear; no traveler in need will be turned away, particularly at Jul. Christmas," he explained. "I do hope you've brought some warm footwear along."
Soon the band of travelers was trudging along across the hill, the pure white snow crunching under their feet, the way as bright as day from the full moon overhead. The weather was crisp but not bitter, just cold enough to turn their breaths to clouds around their mouths and noses as they made their way up the hill, and looked down the other side.
The conductor guided the passengers over the hill on a long walk, passing a few humans places along the way, small plots of land worked by single families, and sure enough, each small farm accepted as many guests on this holiday night as they could.
The conductor ushered the English-speaking passengers toward a neat, whitewashed and red-roofed farmhouse where the lights were still burning, and Lou tapped on the door. A woman about their age with long white-blonde braids and a crisp embroidered white apron opened it and smiled, the warmth of the room emanating out to the chilled travelers. The conductor rapidly explained the situation and the woman nodded, smiling and beckoning them in.
The farmhouse was warm and bright and clean, smelling of cardamom and cinnamon, with what looked like a half-dozen or more different kinds of fresh-baked cookies cooling on the kitchen table. Three boys were gathered around the fireplace, watching with big, saucer-like blue eyes. The woman took the guests' coats and hung them on pegs by the door, and pointed to herself. "Amalie," she said, and pointed in turn to the boys at the hearth. "Nils," she indicated to the eldest; "Johan" to the middle boy; and "Hans", pointing at the youngest. The boys nodded pleasantly and beckoned the travelers to sit down.
Lt. Commander Harrington undertook the introductions of the group, pointing to Lou, Buck, Kid and Cody in turn and saying their names clearly. When Buck put out his hand to shake Amalie's, a shock went through him as their hands met, a thrill answered by the woman's blush and averted gaze. While on the train he had realized that even though he had had many failed relationships, he wouldn't let the downtrodden feeling that came over him when it ended overtake him. Instead he would just live.
She hustled to the kitchen and returned with a large plateful of all manner of fresh cookies: delicate rosette-shaped ones, lacy and dusted with sugar; thin ones shaped like horns; and several other kinds; and the group passed them around eagerly. Although the Nilsens and the American visitors could not understand one another's language, the holiday cheer from the cookies and Christmas beer took hold, and they all sat singing their own kinds of songs in turn for one another late into the evening, with Buck and Amalie stealing glances at each other the whole time.
Elderly Lt. Commander Harrington fell asleep sitting up in the cozy rocking chair he had been shown to by Amalie, and she covered him with a brightly-colored blanket and let him sleep. Though his translations had helped in the initial period of breaking the ice, the little group managed to communicate with a combination of gestures and simple words even without his help. Finally, Amalie rose to put on her cap and coat to tend the animals for the night, and the boys went out back to chop more wood for the fire.
When Buck got up and put on his coat, Amalie protested, though only slightly, with shaking head; but he smiled and opened the door for her, gently indicating that he insisted on helping. She blushed and nodded, going out in front of him. Kid got up to follow as well, but Lou jabbed him violently with her finger.
"Stay out of it," she hissed, as Kid rubbed his side and looked at her wonderingly.
"I just wanted to help with the stock, which must be where she's going. It's the least we can do," Kid said. Cody was polishing off the last of the cookies on the plate, and he looked at Lou curiously.
Lou let out an exasperated groan. "Like I said, let Buck help her. Can't you see how she and Buck were looking at each other?"
Kid rolled his eyes. "Lou, we're just staying here one night, until the train's fixed. Buck isn't likely to find true love in that amount of time, is he? C'mon."
"You never know," Lou insisted. "But he won't if you're lurking around out there with them. Let them have a little time alone," she said dreamily, looking into the fire a moment before sighing, and picking up the dishes and glasses and taking them to the kitchen, starting to wash them for Amalie as she looked out the window toward the barn where Buck and Amalie were headed. Kid came into the kitchen to dry the washed dishes for her, and smiled affectionately at Lou's romantic notions.
Amalie opened the barn door and the nisse looked down from the rafters where he was hiding. He was surprised to see a man follow Amalie in and help her with the chores. The man was tall and lean, with jet-black hair and deep-set dark brown eyes, and his skin was a golden tan. The nisse watched, at first with suspicion turning to approval when he saw the way the man's hands worked, surely and gently, brushing down Lukas, the nisse's favorites among the animals. The man's language was foreign to the nisse's ears, but through gestures and looks the human pair seemed to communicate well, working together and getting the chores done in well under half the time it took Amalie alone. The nisse made sure that he wouldn't be seen by turning his cap inside out and slid down the rafters. He knew an opportunity when he saw one, and he wouldn't pass this one by.
Scurrying across the floor, he waited until Buck was backing up in the stall near the cow and suddenly slid the milking stool underneath the man's feet, sending him over backwards with a violent thud and a slight crack of bone.
"Buck!" Amalie cried, rushing to his side. A look at the strange position of the man's leg told the tale plainly enough, and she turned worried eyes to Buck's pained ones, and rested her hand on his arm to reassure him that she would make sure he was cared for until his leg healed.
The nisse chortled in satisfaction, and scurried back into the shadows certain that true love would ensue.
Buck placed his own hand over Amalie's, trying to make her understand that everything would be alright. He just needed to get back into the house and sit down. "Amalie," he said, knowing he had said her name wrong. "You have to help me get back inside."
Amalie looked at him not understanding. "Jeg skjønner ikke hva du sier," she tried to explain, but Buck understood as little Norwegian as she did English. Buck pointed out the door and towards the house. "Inside," he said, hoping she would understand.
"Inne," Amalie replied as she slowly helped him stand. Buck winced in pain as he momentarily put weight on the injured leg. "Du må ikke finne på å prøve å gå på egen hånd!" Amalie scolded. Buck didn't understand her words, but the meaning behind them was clear enough. She moved so that he was leaning the better part of his weight on her and slowly the two made their way back towards the house.
Louise looked out the window as she and Kid were cleaning up the remaining dishes. "Buck's hurt," she said and dropped the towel in her hand and rushed outside to meet them. "Buck, what happened?" she asked as she helped to steady him.
"I tripped and broke my leg," Buck explained as the trio walked inside, aided by Kid.
Nils, Johan and Hans rose from their seats and stared as their mother helped the strange man lay down on the sofa.
"Dette kommer til å gjøre vondt," said Amalie as she started to remove Buck's boot. Buck tried his hardest not to scream in pain, but it didn't work and he let out a painful yelp. With the boot safely off, one could already see the swelling in his leg.
"Do you think you'll be able to ride in the show?" asked Cody, gazing at Buck's swollen and bluish ankle.
Buck shook his head and hid his smile. Though he was in pain, this was the best excuse to quit Cody's Wild West show. And glancing over at the lovely, kind Amalie bustling about the farmhouse, he reflected that if he had to break a leg there were worse places he could have done it, by far.
Nils narrowed his eyes at the look this stranger gave his mother; but more troubling still to the youngster were the shy, interested glances his mother was stealing at Buck. The boy had been only five when his father died; he was his father's eldest son and namesake, and the only one of the three sons who truly remembered the kind farmer. In truth, the memories he had of his father were dim and few, but he clung to them desperately, treasuring the tools his father left him and the hand-carved wooden toys that were no longer played with but kept carefully on a shelf in the boys' attic room in remembrance of their lost father. Nils felt it was his duty as a son to keep his father's memory.
Seeing his mother fussing with a blanket over Buck, Nils bit his lip worriedly, but said nothing, turning to his brothers and beckoning them up to their attic room. In the hubbub over the injured man, their exit was barely noticed, with Amalie nodding and smiling at them and wishing them a final God Jul for the holiday as they went. The younger boys chorused a God Jul back, but Nils was quiet, mounting the stairs up to the attic with a pensive look.
Once up in their rooms, Hans and Johan were bubbling over with excitement over the holiday and the visitors. They all knew of cowboys and Indians and America, and Buck in particular held special interest for them. Getting into his nightshirt, Nils looked at the shelf full of toys his father carved, ignoring his brothers' chatter. The younger boys had no idea what it was even like to have a father; his middle brother had been only eighteen months old, and his youngest a newborn, when the accident had happened. They didn't know what they were missing, and in some ways perhaps they were better off not knowing, Nils brooded. And they were too young to understand the electricity in the air between their mother and the dark-haired stranger, only seeing him as an interesting and foreign visitor.
Turning, Nils sharply ordered his brothers to bed, and they wonderingly got into their night clothes and night caps and clambered into the big bed they had to share. Nils turned his back on his brothers and stared out the attic window over the snow-covered hills, at the light of the moon and stars glistening off them, sleeplessly.
The next afternoon, sleighs were sent around the farms to collect the passengers and bring them back to board the train, but the village doctor cautioned that Buck could not be moved, and the pain in his leg would have made the trip in a crowded train unbearable in any event. The doctor left some medication for the patient and the old riding friends gathered around.
"I'll pick you up on the way back to Oslo, Buck. You're likely to be able to travel by then," Cody promised.
"Take your time," Buck replied, lying back against the sofa as Amalie bustled over with a cup of hot black coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. She set the items down on a small table she drew next to the sofa and laid a cloth over his lap. He smiled at her, sending her blushing back to the kitchen.
"You look like you'll be all right here while you recover," Lou said, her eyes dancing. "See you in a month, then?"
"Sounds fine," Buck agreed, contentedly sipping his coffee and listening to the pretty warble of Amalie's humming from the kitchen as she worked.
Normally active, Buck soon enough found sitting on the sofa a little tiresome, and he fiddled with his hands, itching for something to do. His eyes fell on the firewood in the box by the hearth, and he reached over and pointed to it, looking at Amalie. She looked a little confused, and Buck picked up a piece of the wood and took a knife from his jacket pocket, making motions as if whittling above it, and then holding his hands up. She understood that he would like to use the wood for carving to pass the time, and she nodded her assent.
Buck eyed the two younger boys, judging that they were perhaps ten and eleven; the older one had gone out after lunch to tend the animals and looked older, about sixteen. Johan and Hans peered back at him, watching as his hands worked over the wood, shaving away at the surface bit by bit, allowing the scraps and shavings to collect on his napkin from breakfast. They crept close, and Hans exclaimed in wonder when a strange animal took shape under Buck's knife.
Buck held up the carved little creature, with a rounded back and long nose and tail. "Armadillo," he said affably, handing it to Hans, who stared open mouthed at the odd little animal in fascination.
Seeing the middle brother looking at the odd carving, Buck took a second piece of wood and carved away, this time envisioning a different animal. As he carved, he was brought back to a time when he was younger than Johan; waiting with the women for his brother Red Bear and the other warriors to come home from the hunt for this very creature, a big ugly-looking fellow known as the buffalo. Red Bear was gone now, killed in battle years ago . . . and the buffalo were almost gone, hunted into near extinction by those such as his friend 'Buffalo Bill' Cody. He knew Cody now regretted his role in destroying the buffalo, more than could be said for most of the white hunters, but regretting something and undoing it, were two different things. Now Red Bear and the great herds of buffalo roamed the prairies in his memories only. He gazed at the carving, reflecting, regretting . . . I wish I hadn't let you down, brother. Glancing up, he handed the carving of a buffalo to Johan and patted the delighted boy on the head. The boys brought him more pieces of wood and pointed, playfully asking for more animals and Buck good-naturedly complied, as Amalie watched from the corner of her eye with amusement.
As evening fell, Buck started to feel a little bit lonely as there wasn't anybody who could understand him. Sure, he liked spending time with Amalie, but the language barrier made it hard for them to really talk. He wanted to talk to her, tell her what he felt. The fact that her sons didn't seem to like him also complicated things. The two younger boys had been friendly at first, bringing him bits of wood that he carved into different animals for them, but when Nils had come in from midday chores he had spoken sharply to them and they had gotten up with confused faces and followed him out. The rest of the day, they walked past him with averted eyes, and he wondered if he had unknowingly offended them in some way.
Sighing, Buck leaned back, closed his eyes and tried to relax. Concentrating on taking deep breaths, he was soon asleep.
Coming in with an armful of wood for the fireplace, Nils scowled at the older man. He didn't like him at all. Luckily he would only be there for a couple more days and then his friends would come back to pick him up. Then everything would go back to normal. He stacked the wood in the box beside the fireplace, working with extra care so as not to make any noise and wake the stranger and stalked upstairs.
When Amalie came inside, she smiled at the sight of Buck, asleep on the couch. Her boys in bed for the night, Amalie sat down in the rocker and picked up her mending. With three boys in the house there were always enough to do. She lifted her eyes when she heard Buck move and for a few moments the snoring stopped. Rising from her seat, Amalie walked over him and gently brushed a wayward lock of hair away from his face. She had never seen a man with such long, raven-black hair before, and it intrigued her. He squirmed a little at her touch, but he soon settled down.
"God natt," she said in a soft voice and placed a light kiss on his forehead. Buck smiled in his sleep and suddenly he moved his head so that their lips met. Amalie enjoyed the kiss and leaned closer to Buck.
"Mamma," called Nils, both hands covering his mouth. The young man was standing on the stairs, an accusatory look on his face.
Blushing, Amalie went to the foot of the stairs, and gestured upwards, speaking in a low voice, with Nils answering back in a fierce whisper, glowering over her shoulder at Buck before turning to go upstairs. Amalie did not turn around for a moment, but stood looking after her son sadly and twisting her hands in her apron. She felt drawn to the handsome stranger, but her son's angry, jealous words gave her pause. "God natt," she whispered again, and Buck caught her hand as she walked past. "God natt, Amalie," he answered, pressing her hand to his lips with an understanding look in his eyes. Her heart flipping uncertainly in her chest, she nodded tremulously and hurried to bed.
The next morning, as the children got ready to go to school, Nils shot a warning look at Buck as he left. Amalie bustled about the farmhouse cooking and cleaning, smiling warmly at Buck whenever she passed him, and singing her pretty folk tunes with a voice like a wood lark. He relaxed, enjoying the now-familiar sound, and at mid-day she brought him a light lunch on a little table. She pointed to the items in turn, naming them in Norwegian; to her surprise, he parroted the words back quickly and correctly, and gave her the English and Kiowa words in return. She smiled, and bounded up, enjoying the new game, flitting about the room and pointing to objects, astonished at his ability to pick up the language quickly.
She perched finally by his side, handing him a tray of cookies and telling him the word for cookies, "kjeks," and pointing at the little pastries. Watching him, fascinated, she shrugged, her palms up and a questioning look on her face, before pointing at him and then raising the palms again. He understood that she was asking him about himself, and smiled and held out his hands, gesturing as if writing. She leaped up and brought him his journal and a pen. Taking them, he opened to a blank page and drew a picture of a grouping of tepees, and pointed to it. "Kaw-eh-gu," he enunciated slowly, using the Kiowa word for his tribe, and pointing from the picture to himself.
Amalie took a cookie and nibbled it, nodding and watching him intently. He drew another picture of a mission church with a large cross on it. "English," he explained, pointing from the picture to his mouth. She understood, murmuring, "Lærte du et annet språk før norsk?" ("You learned another tongue before, then.")
Buck saw that she understood more from her eyes than her words, but realized how much he liked the burbling, lilting sound of the Norwegian language, particularly when it fell from Amalie's lovely lips. Its cadence was musical, different from any language he had heard before. But then again, English had been very different from Kiowa as well, in both grammar and vocabulary; and yet he had learned English well and quickly. He felt sure he would learn Norwegian just as quickly, with such a sweet and caring teacher.
That teacher smiled prettily at him, popping a cookie into his mouth mischievously and pointing, eyebrows lifted. He bit a piece off, smiling and swallowing, before reciting dutifully, "Kjeks."
They happily passed the bright afternoon together, teacher and pupil, learning not just Norwegian but also about each other's hearts, and the time passed as if but a minute before the boys came in again, stamping their feet and beating their hands together, and crowding to the fireplace. The magic was broken for the moment, and a little light went out of Amalie's eyes when she saw Nils' disapproving face. Her shoulders drooping, she went back to the kitchen to make a late start on the dinner, and Buck's eyes followed her longingly.
Karen Jorstad made up her mind to walk over to her friend Amalie's farmhouse. The word was circulating among the villagers that when the rest of the passengers from the train crash on Jul had moved on, one had remained behind at her friend Amalie's farmhouse. An attractive man from America, no less. Amalie usually dropped by once a week to visit while her boys were in school, and they would do their mending together, but Amalie had not come by this week, and as a result, Karen's curiosity was burning out of control. So Karen took her mending and a batch of cookies in a basket under her arm, and wearing her warm, deep-blue cloak, she tramped over the snow-covered hill toward the Nilsen farm, her pretty face, flushed pink from the cold, peeking out from under a matching knit cap under her hood, and a handmade scarf to match wrapped around her neck. Reaching the cottage, she tapped on the door, impatiently.
Inside, Amalie was curled up on the sofa next to Buck, knitting new mittens for Hans, and Buck was reading a book Cody had left behind, when they heard the rapping on the outer door, and Amalie got up to answer it.
Amalie smiled as she opened the door to her friend, Karen. Buck looked up from his book and smiled in greeting at the new arrival. The two women went into the kitchen and sat down at the kitchen table to drink coffee. Out of the corner of his eye, Buck could see that Amalie was occasionally casting glances in his direction. Pretending to be interested in the book, Buck listened to the conversation between the two of them, catching words here and there, and understanding more of the language.
Karen looked at Buck appreciatively over the rim of her coffee cup. "He isn't like any of the men around here, is he?" she said in a soft voice.
Amalie shook her head and looked at Buck as he studied the book. "He's special, that's for sure."
"You like him, don't you?"
"Well," Amalie stretched the word. "He is handsome, that's for sure and his hair is so soft." Her hand flew to her mouth as she realized the words that had come from her lips.
"So you two are a couple now?" Karen's eyes sparkled with excitement that her friend had, after ten years, found love again.
Amalie swallowed. "I'm not sure. I mean, he's a good kisser and all, but it's complicated, especially with Nils. He's the only one of the kids who still remembers their father." She made a slight impatient movement with her hands. "He is passing through, that's all," Amalie said a little sadly. "There can only be this little time for us."
"Amalie," started Karen before she sighed. "You have needs just like the rest of us and Herr Cross is a handsome man. If there is magic between you even for a short time, don't shut it out. At worst, you will have a beautiful memory; and at the most, maybe more, who knows? I asked you before, and ask again: Do you like him?"
Amalie sneaked a look over at Buck, who was reading his journal on the sofa. "I like him."
To her surprise, Buck's eyes flew up at her words and met hers across the room, as if he understood; and she looked away blushing foolishly and giggling with Karen.
Middle-aged and hefty, Lars Berg hoisted himself up from his table, nodding to his housekeeper and lumbering out to the sitting room of his home to settle before the fire for the evening. He'd heard some disturbing gossip while in the village, and he found himself mulling it over instead of enjoying his pipe and books as usual. The tale was that Amalie Nilson had a strange man living in her farmhouse, recuperating from a broken leg. That part didn't bother Lars, so much as the gossip that was spreading that Amalie and the stranger fancied one another.
Since his dear wife Ingeborg had died two years ago, he had been at loose ends. The cooking and the cleaning could be supplied by hiring a woman, and he had of course done so. But he missed being married, having someone to talk with in the evenings, although if truth be strictly told, Lars did most of the talking and patient Ingeborg had done most of the listening. And though he and Ingeborg had never had children, he had some hopes that even at his age; he might have a chance at fatherhood and an heir for his comfortable farm, someone to look after him in his dotage.
The pretty widow on the neighboring farm, Amalie, was a logical solution to all of this. She was still in her thirties and had three strong boys of her own. There was every reason to believe she could give him more children; Lars never seriously considered the possibility that he, and not Ingeborg, perhaps was the reason for their lack of offspring in twenty years of marriage. Even if Amalie and he had no more children, though, those three boys of hers would be a great help in future years working the farm, which would be twice as large if they combined them. He had been trying to woo Amalie's heart for about six months now, convinced that it made complete sense for the two of them to marry.
However, Amalie had proven a difficult and elusive quarry. Despite the fact that he was a leading citizen, a successful farmer, and recently had become the mayor of their town, she had been merely polite whenever he paid his attentions to her. By dogged persistence alone, he had managed to secure her promise to let him take her to church tomorrow, and he made up his mind that he had better have a good talk with her. She was a sensible woman and should understand if it was explained to her. Particularly at her age, just slightly past her prime in Lars' opinion, it was in her best interest to agree to marry a well-to-do and respected member of their town, himself, and not dally any further with a foreigner who no doubt was simply amusing himself as he passed through. Yes, Lars decided. It was time to stop the cat-and-mouse game and to simply ask Amalie to marry him, and he would do it in the morning when he called for her in his sleigh.
The next morning, Lars pulled his sleigh into Amalie's well-tended barn, and got out, leaving the animals standing in the cold without remembering to place a blanket on them after their run from his farm. He gathered his warm coat and tasselled scarf about himself and went in to fetch Amalie. Sitting in the loft, the nisse glowered down darkly, and slid down the rafter to the shivering horses. He patted them gently, speaking to them in the silent nisse language that all animals understand, telling them that their master would be back soon and not to fear. But his old soul rankled, as the one thing above all that the nisse could not bear was neglect of the farm animals. He did not like this Lars Berg, no indeed, in his fancy clothes, and not a thought for the horses! The fact that Lars intended to be back in a few minutes was of no consequence to the nisse, and he lit his small beady eyes on something in the stalls that would teach the fool a proper lesson, and stroked his long beard and danced with mischief at the thought, scurrying over to ready himself for Lars' return.
Amalie fastened her good Sunday hat on with a pin, sorry she had to leave Buck behind when she brought the boys to church, but he could not be moved as yet. Nils and the boys were heading out the door and she called after them to wait for her. Nils reminded her that she had promised Lars Berg he could drive her to church, and with a triumphant look at Buck, beckoned to the other boys, to drive them to church without his mother. Amalie, aghast, realized her son was right; and indeed, Lars' sleigh was pulling into the barn that very moment. She had forgotten all about having finally given in and agreed to go to church with Lars, in the excitement of having Buck here the last two weeks. Her cheeks were scarlet with the awkwardness of a would-be suitor approaching her door in front of Buck, who had captured her fancy so fully. Before she could explain to Buck, Lars tapped on the door with his cane.
She opened the door with a furtive glance over her shoulder at Buck, and Lars entered the farmhouse. "Hello, Lars," she said unenthusiastically.
"Are you ready, Amalie?" Lars boomed, darting a challenging look at Buck in the corner.
"Yes," she sighed, looking also at Buck, who was sitting up straighter in his seat and staring openly at heavy-set, florid Lars, who was offering her a box of candy with a flourish with one hand. Lars extended his other arm gallantly, ignoring Buck entirely with disdain.
Her shoulders drooping, Amalie said goodbye piteously to Buck and followed Lars out the door, as Buck glared after them jealously.
The nisse was ready and waiting in impish glee when Lars escorted an unenthusiastic Amalie into the barn, spouting to her about his fine farm and his recent election as mayor, leading up to a proposal he didn't see how she could consider refusing. The stuffy, portly fellow went to help Amalie into his sleigh and then went around to climb in ponderously to the other side. The nisse chortled, waiting for it eagerly, and to his triumph Lars' well-shod heel skidded in the manure the nisse had gathered from Lukas' and the cows' stalls, and he landed with a mountain-rattling thud flat on his back with a bellowing shout of surprise. The nisse had been busy, and had generously layered the floor along the driver's side of the sleigh with fresh manure underneath the straw, and as Lars struggled to lift his large frame from the ground, he slipped again, landing on his knees this time.
Finally managing to clamber up into the sleigh, he looked down at himself in dismay; his fine clothes covered in filthy streaks . . . glancing covertly at Amalie, he saw that she was making an effort not to laugh and succeeding only barely. She quickly covered her amusement and asked gravely if he was hurt. His face flushed, Lars shook his head stiffly, and drove the sleigh out of the barn, stopping just outside the house, bidding her farewell with as much dignity as he could muster. The nisse peeked out from the barn, well satisfied as Lars drove off toward his house, alone.
Amalie joyfully went back to the house, relieved beyond words that she was free of Lars, and able to go back to spend some time alone with Buck. When she came in the room, she saw that Buck was sullenly staring into the fire and not even reading his book. She called to him when she came in and took off her pretty Sunday hat, but he did not turn around.
"Forget something?" he said, and she shook her head, not understanding the words, but understanding the tone well enough. She smiled secretly behind his head; dear Buck was jealous, she thought, her heart leaping at the thought. That could only mean he cared, and she crept closer to him, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"Where's Lars?" he asked, trying to sound bitter, but as she sat on the hearth in front of him, a teasing smile on her face, he couldn't manage it. She crept closer, next to him on the couch, and he put a hand alongside her face, stroking her cheek.
"I don't like Lars," she whispered. "I like you, Buck." Buck slid his hand to the heavy knot of hair pinned behind her head, and he boldly loosened the pins, sending her shimmering hair down around her shoulders. He had never seen anything quite that color before, somewhere between the shade of the winter wheat the settlers had planted along the plains back home, and that of the daffodils that grew in the springtime, and that of the shaft of sunlight streaming from the window here in this very cottage. He leaned toward her, and his black hair fell forward, mingling with her pale golden tresses, as their lips touched.
Lying on the couch, Amalie nuzzled her head in the nook between Buck's shoulder and head. He was holding her close and smiled at the feel on her breath on his neck. It felt nice to just being close together like this. Gently finger combing her hair, Buck wished that this moment would never end. The fire had nearly gone out, but neither had cared to get up from the couch to put on more wood. Instead they had wrapped themselves up in a soft, colorful blanket happily clasped together.
When Lars and his mother hadn't shown up at church, Nils started to worry that maybe something had happened to them on the way. He got up from the pew and whispered to his younger brothers that he wanted to check on things and make sure that their mother was alright. The two younger children could catch a ride with Karen, who was sitting with them as she did every Sunday and she nodded at his gestures, understanding she would take the boys home later. Nils secured his coat and hat, and soon the Nilsens' sleigh was whisking its way back to the farm over the brightly lit snow.
All the way home, Nils looked around the scenery, frightened that something had happened to his mother. His greatest fear was that he would lose his mother as well as his father. But there was no sign of them, no tracks or upturned sleigh, all the way back, not until he reached his own barn and saw that the Berg sleigh appeared to have headed back to his farm ... yet there was still smoke coming from the house's chimney. The boy's face tightened. He hated Lars Berg, both for the man himself and even more because Lars dared to think he could take Pappa's place in Mamma's heart; but then Herr Berg was a safe escort for Mamma. Nils knew well enough that she would never marry a pompous windbag like that. Not after being married to his Pappa, no, she never would or could. But this Buck stranger and the effect he was having on Mamma was a different matter, and Nils knew it. It was too late to return to church now, and he had no intention of leaving his mother alone in the house with Buck; so Nils stabled the horse with a heavy heart and heavy hands, before his feet crunched in the snow from the barn to the front door.
Hearing someone move outside the door, Amalie's head rose from the pillow she had made of Buck's chest.
"Mamma," Nils called out.
"They're not supposed to be home this early," she exclaimed as she looked at Buck, the horror of her own son catching her in a compromising position written across her face. Buck placed a light kiss on her nose to calm her, but Amalie could not be calmed as she rose from the couch and pushed Buck's clothes under it. "Pretend to be asleep," she told him, making a sleeping face above folded hands to show him what she meant. He nodded and shut his eyes obediently. She pulled the blanket up over his shoulder before she picked up her own clothes and hurried into her own bedroom to get dressed, escaping just as the living room door opened.
When Nils entered the living room, he scowled at Buck. He didn't like the man, not one bit. He seemed to be getting a bit too comfortable for Nils' liking.
"Mamma, are you in here?" he called, not caring if he woke Buck.
"Will you keep it down," she said in a hushed voice as she came out of the bedroom. Her hair was down and her usually crisp dress wrinkled, but that wasn't the first thing Nils noticed. Running to her, he gave her a big hug. "I was worried something had happened when you didn't show up at church."
"As you can see I'm quite alright," smiled Amalie, happy that she and Buck had gotten away with their not so little secret. "But Buck's not feeling well today so you'll have to keep it down."
Nils scowled at Buck and sighed. There was no way to get rid of the man that he could see, but at least his American friends would be back for him soon, he hoped; and hopefully this interloper would be well enough to get out of his mother's life by then. Nils heard his cat Frøya mewing from under the couch, as she always did when he came home, but he bent to add more wood to the dying fire before picking her up this time. Frøya was used to some attention from Nils whenever she came home, and wanted to show him the treasure she had found under the couch, so she scooted out from under her hiding spot to greet her young master. Buck sat up, clutching the blanket to himself, but trying to reach out to grab something, too late; the cat purred and rubbed herself up against Nils' leg, and the boy bent down to pick her up ... and was shocked by the discovery that he'd made: Frøya was proudly carrying Buck's long johns in her mouth.
Nils' normally cherubic young face darkened ominously as he grabbed the underwear from Frøya and hurled it in Buck's face. "Get dressed," he spat, and took his mother by the arm, pulling her to the doorway of the room.
"Nils," she gasped, shocked, when they reached the kitchen.
"Have you no shame, acting like this in my father's house?" Nils shouted. "Is this the proper way for a woman to act?"
"I . . . I love him, Nils," Amalie faltered, reminded strongly of her lost husband by the young man glaring at her accusingly.
"Love? You don't even know him!"
Amalie twisted her apron in her hands, hanging her head before the onslaught of her son's disapproval. "I love him," she whispered.
Nils fell silent a moment, his face hard and angry. "Then I wish you much happiness with him. I will go, maybe to his land, America, and make a new life for myself. There is no room for my father's son in this house with him here."
The mother's heart ached, and she pulled at his hand as he turned to go up to his room. "Please don't say that, Nils. This is your home."
"I can't be here if you are carrying on with him. I can't, Mamma." He looked at her, silently asking her to make a choice. Seeing her uncertainty, he dealt the final stroke. "I see you've made up your mind," he said, knowing the opposite was true. "I'll be gone tomorrow morning."
"Nils, please, don't make any hasty decisions," she said, crying now and following him through the living room toward the door to the stairs.
"Nils," a voice came from the couch, where Buck had managed to get himself dressed. "Come here," he said, gesturing.
"I have nothing to say to you," Nils challenged him, and the older man looked at him with quiet authority in his eyes. Something made Nils reluctantly come over and sit in the smaller chair across from the couch.
Buck smiled sadly and kindly, looking the boy over; he understood something of this from his own past. His mother Shining Dove had been widowed when he was young left with him and Red Bear to care for. When he was about eleven, another brave took his mother as his wife, and he had been miserable at having to share his mother, until he got to know Soaring Eagle better, and care about the man for himself. Of course both of them had died in a massacre not long after he accepted Soaring Eagle as a father figure, a great loss among many in his life.
He made signs for Amalie to bring him his coat from the corner, and puzzled, she did. He rummaged in the pockets, pulling out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and held it up, pointing to it. It was a line drawing of a beautiful American Indian woman of about thirty, which Ike had drawn from Buck's descriptions years ago. Buck had carried and treasured the drawing, both for the artist and its subject, all these years. "Mei Mamma," he said, pointing to it. He explained in halting, broken Norwegian as best he could, that he had no father as a boy either. That he understood how much Nils loved his mother and wanted to protect her, but that he loved Amalie too and wanted to make her happy. Nils stared back coldly, and Buck sighed, seeing it was no use. He folded up the paper and put it away, and Nils stood up to walk upstairs stiffly.
Amalie was crying in the corner, and Buck's heart went out to her. He put a hand out and gestured to her to come and sit by him. "You have to tell him to stay," he said, gently, pointing toward the attic. "I love you, but he is your son. If he is making you choose, you have to choose him. You will be miserable otherwise all your life."
"You will leave," Amalie said, drearily. She knew Buck was right, but she also knew that she would be miserable either way, without Buck in her life or without her son. But her son was still a boy, and her baby. She put her head against Buck's neck, glad that at least, she had the memory of their time together to treasure, and knew she would love him all her days no matter where he roamed in the world.
"I made you a present," he said, finally. He pulled something out of a drawer in the table next to his couch. Amalie looked at what he held up in wonder.
"A dream catcher," he explained. At her baffled look, he put his head sideways as she had earlier, to indicate sleep and pointed to his head. "Dreams." Amalie nodded, understanding. He continued, "My mother's husband, Soaring Eagle, was half Chippewa, and he taught me to make these."
Holding it up again, he showed her what looked to her a little like a woven snowshoe, only round, with different colored feathers and small beads dangling down from it. "Hang it above your bed, and it keeps out bad dreams, letting only good ones come through."
He handed the beautiful trinket to her, a catch in his throat, and pressed his tanned face against her fair one, "My dream, of finding you, has come true. I'll hold it in my heart forever. I'll leave this here for you, to keep your dreams beautiful."
She had learned enough English, and he enough Norwegian, in the last three weeks, for her to understand, and she whispered back in Norwegian, "They will be now, because they will always be of you."
Buck smiled, but at the same time he bit his lip. It hurt to leave Amalie behind, but her relationship with her son was more important than his relationship with her. Holding the woman he loved close on the couch, the feeling was bittersweet; he loved her and being close like this felt good, but it had to end. Lou, Kid and Cody would be back any day now to pick him up. In the back of his mind he knew that it would never work out. His love affairs up to now had all ended disastrously, after all. He had hoped though, that the two of them would have a chance.
Casting a glance up the stairs, Buck sighed, wishing that Nils would have understood him when he talked about his own family history and how long it had taken him to accept his own stepfather.
As the other two children came home from church, they could immediately sense that something was not quite as it was supposed to be. Their mother and Buck were sitting on the couch, both looking sad and Nils was nowhere to be seen. The two adults hardly even noticed that they had come home. Johan pointed to the stairs, an indication that they should go talk to their brother to fins out what was going on.
"Why are mamma and Buck so sad?" Hans asked. "What happened when we were at church?"
Nils narrowed his eyes and studied his younger brothers. "I'm leaving for America in the morning," he said in a calculated voice.
The younger brothers were surprised, demanding to know why he was suddenly leaving home, and Nils shrugged, explaining that their mother had chosen Buck over them. He continued packing his things into a bag, and appearing in the doorway, Amalie exclaimed in protest. "Nils!" She came over and put a hand on his arm.
Taking the bag from his hands, she pulled the clothes out and put them back in the drawers, snapping the bag shut. Her voice trembling, she told Nils he would have his way; Buck would be leaving in a few days when his friends came back for him, and she would never see him again. Her face was sad and averted from him, and as she quickly retreated from the attic, Nils felt an uncomfortable pang akin to guilt. But she was the one who should feel guilty, he tried to convince himself. Carrying on like that with a total stranger, after all, and at her age. She should be ashamed, not him. His brothers looked doubtfully at him and then went about their business in the attic, forgetting the incident, but Nils sat in the window seat looking out at the snow and brooding.
The tension in the house could be cut with a knife, making Buck feel guilty. He had never intended that his affair with Amalie would break up a family. At the moment Nils was pretending that there were no other people living in the house, and the two younger children were generally confused and had no idea what was going on. Buck and Amalie cast each other occasional glances, both knowing that nothing more could happen between them. In a way Buck didn't want to leave, but at the same time he knew that the small family would be better off with him gone. He sighed, figuring that it figured. His love life up to now had been disaster after disaster, so why should he expect ever to find happiness, he thought moodily.
Trying to fill his days with something to do, he had read his journal from start to finish two times, paying special attention to the drawings he had made to aid Amalie understand where he had come from, and the stories he had written about his brother after he had been killed. Closing his eyes, Buck travelled back in time, six years back. The year was 1874 and it was the second battle at Adobe Walls. Shuddering, Buck knew that this battle was the exact moment when he realized that his people didn't have a chance against the white men. It seemed his life was filled with hopeless causes.
After having buried his brother, Buck left the tribe, feeling like he no longer belonged. For a while he had drifted, until he had taken the job with Cody and his Wild West show, where he acted a pantomime of the life that was gone for him now, of a warrior, a part of a tribe, a Kiowa. He had allowed himself to hope that a new life might be found here with Amalie and her boys, but once again he was adrift.
Amalie came in from taking care of the animals and sighed as she sat down at the kitchen table. The last few days had been miserable. She didn't want Buck to leave, but at the same time she didn't want to lose her son either. She wished there was a way she would be able to keep both. Her husband had been dead for ten years and life moved on for everyone but her. She'd loved him and her heart would always grieve his memory; but a memory is not enough to sustain a young woman through decades of loneliness. But Nils didn't seem to understand that.
"Nils," she said as he came down the stairs with his brothers in tow. "Could you come and sit next to me for a while?"
The young man sighed. He didn't want to be rude to his mother, he knew that Buck would leave; he just wished that it would happen sooner. And of course being a young boy, he wanted it both ways, that is, to get his way and not to have anyone upset with him over it. His mother's eyes told him that she was most definitely still unhappy, because of him, but he couldn't help it. Right was right and he was right. Wasn't he? Without speaking a word, he sat down next to his mother, not looking at her.
"You're special to me," she said and reached out to hug him to her. Nils didn't hug her back. "All of you boys are special to me and all of you remind me of your father." She took a deep breath to gather courage. "But you have to remember that he's been gone for ten years now." Nils opened is mouth, but before he had a chance to speak, Amalie continued. "Just because time moves on, doesn't mean that you forget the people that are no longer there and Buck would never try to replace your father."
Buck looked up at the sound f his name, but judging by the look that Nils was giving him, he quickly looked down again.
"This isn't about that," cried Nils as he rose from his chair. "This is about you carrying on with a man that you hardly even know." With that being said, the young man stormed out the door, passing Karen on the way.
It only took Karen a few moments to assess the situation. Nils running out the door in a hurry, her best friend sitting at the table in tears and Buck about to get off of the couch to go to her side. Helping Buck over to the table, they sat down on each side of her. Buck placed a light kiss on the top of her head - hoping that it would make her feel better. He knew that he had once again come between Amalie and her son, even without doing or saying a thing.
Lou took Kid's outstretched hand as she jumped down from the sleigh. "We'll just be a minute," Cody told the young Norwegian driver they'd hired at the closest train station. The three former riders crunched the snow underfoot as they headed toward the cozy farmhouse, Lou's eyes twinkling in anticipation. "We'll see who won our bet now," she murmured out of the side of her mouth to Kid.
Kid pressed her hand in the crook of her arm. "Lou, don't be disappointed if Buck does want to go with us. We've only been gone a month, that's not a lot of time to decide he's going to settle down."
"Not unless I miss my guess," the determined wife contradicted. "I think there's a spark there and at the least he won't be ready to let go of it just yet." She rapped on the door and a somber-looking Amalie opened it.
"Hello Louise, Kid, and Cody. Come in," she said in musically-accented English. Lou was encouraged slightly that she'd learned some of Buck's language while they were gone but the look on her face confused her. The traces of tears still lingered there.
Buck got up with Cody's help and walked with a crutch toward the group, his face sad as well. "I guess this is goodbye," he said to Amalie, putting a hand up against her cheek. She bit her lip to hold back tears and nodded. Buck leaned to kiss her trembling lips one last time, and she suddenly put her arms around his neck, holding him tight for just this last minute. Buck squeezed around her slender waist with his free hand, pressing her to him as well.
Lou and Kid looked at each other and at Cody, seeing well enough that neither Amalie nor Buck wanted to leave; and looking at sullen Nils in the corner glowering at Buck, they all could guess why.
In the barn, the nisse had heard a strange sleigh pull up and looked out the window of the barn loft. He saw that it was a horse he hadn't met before. Turning himself invisible, he went to investigate. He scurried on small nisse feet toward the horse, telling him hello in his silent language and climbing up on his back to pet him. From his invisible perch, he saw that the stranger, the kind one with the long dark hair, was stumping from the house, a group of humans carrying his bag. The nisse frowned. Where was his friend going? He sat watching the group come forward, and saw Amalie crying and waving from the window of the house.
The strangers got in the sleigh and it started forward; and the nisse looked back with alarm at Amalie's sad face in the window as he rose on the back of the sleigh-horse, the sleigh-bells jingling a false happy song. The little gnome tried to pull the reins to stop the horse, but the driver urged her forward and inexorably, the little farm disappeared from the nisse's sight.
Buck sat next to Lou in the sleigh, his face turned away to hide his tears.
Back at the farm, Nils looked guiltily at his mother, standing at the window weeping, and suddenly the boy ran to the door. As his mother watched, astonished, Nils ran in the knee-deep snow after the sleigh, shouting for the driver to stop and turn round; but it was already disappearing in the distance, and after a few minutes, he stood panting in the snow, realizing it was too late, and his selfishness had ruined his mother's and Buck's happiness. He bent over, trying to catch his breath, and Amalie's footsteps were heard crunching toward him. She was carrying his coat, and she handed it to him silently.
"I'm sorry, Mamma," he said in Norwegian. "It's too late to catch them."
"Never mind that," she said, smiling and looking into the sparkling distance. "Perhaps . . . perhaps we will meet again . . . in fact, I feel sure of it." Putting her arm through her son's, she walked alongside him back to the house.
Author's Note: From Ellie: Thank you for agreeing to write this story with me, Nina. I loved learning about the Christmas nisse and your beautiful country's lovely customs and history. I'm looking forward to the sequel we have planned!