Chapter One

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November 1889

Gasthof Village, Indiana Territory

Little Thomas Stoll, Rebekah's six-year-old brother, rose out of the puddle, his white skivvies having seen their last day of impeccable cleanliness. Rebekah had been looking everywhere for him when she remembered catching sight of the mud puddle behind the barn earlier. Usually, where there was dirtiness and grittiness, that's where Thomas could be found. Today was no exception.

His white straw hat hung precariously on the leafless branches of a low shrub. A nearby bush held his suspenders—or braces as their father, Samuel, called them—and they dangled alongside a pair of tiny black britches. Carefully laid out above the rest of his clothes, ready to be donned in an instant should he be spotted, hung Thomas's hand-me-down shirt that had belonged to each of his five older brothers at some point, and would someday belong to his newest baby brother Benjamin, or Beanie Bull as they called him.

Their mother, Elnora, had always impressed the importance of clean clothes upon all eight of the Stoll children. Jeremiah, her eldest little brother at thirteen, always took care to steer clear of any dirt or grime when possible, since he was tasked with helping scrub out any dirty clothes before passing them on to their mother for washing. He did a wonderful job of keeping his little brothers out of the mud and gunk too. Eleven-year-old Matthew and nine-year-old John avoided soiling their clothes, but the eight-year-old twins were a different story. Isaac and Abram went through a phase when they couldn't pass up the opportunity to become little mud ducks, as Rebekah called them, jumping into whatever puddle, river, or muddy stream they could, clothes and all.

Apparently, a seed of Elnora and Samuel's wisdom had taken root in little Thomas, even in the enticing presence of a fresh mud puddle. Clean or not, however, it was clear that the young Stoll boy intended to fully utilize the "few minutes for a milk break" their father had mentioned in the barn moments earlier.

Rebekah, the oldest of her siblings at twenty, started toward him. Their milk break was long over and Samuel needed their help in the barn. She drew in a breath to call out to him, but before she could utter a sound, Thomas leaned over and sunk his chubby hands deep into the muck. Rebekah stopped walking and her eyes widened. Of all the Stoll children, every one of them boys except for her, it was little Thomas who could whip up mischief with nothing more than an empty bowl and a broken spoon, as their mother often said.

She sidled behind a bush and tried not to giggle as she waited to see what her impish, freckle-faced brother would do next.

Grinning, Thomas pulled his hands out of the muck with a resounding slurp.

Rebekah tucked the end of her gauzy white covering string into the corner of her mouth, just as she had done as a child. "Oh, Little Brother," she whispered. "Don't you do it . . ."

With his lips tilted upward, Thomas slowly brought up the duel handfuls of glistening mud and smashed them onto his head.

Rebekah pressed her fingers deep into her lips and tears streamed down her cheeks as she tried to keep the laughter, that often followed her favorite little brother, from escaping.

As chunks of muck ran down Thomas's freckled face, Rebekah could hold it in no longer. Letting go a resounding whoop, she doubled over. "Thomas," she cried, her covering strings flailing wildly. She wanted to ask more, but the laughter that filled her throat allowed no words to pass.

Thomas froze, his hands still on his head.

Ever so slowly, he turned to face his sister.

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