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Hattie big sky, p.1
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       Hattie Big Sky, p.1

           Kirby Larson
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Hattie Big Sky

  Published by Delacorte Press an imprint of Random House Children’s Books a division of Random House, Inc. New York

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text Copyright © 2006 by Kirby Larson

  Cover art copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Barkat

  All rights reserved.

  Delacorte Press and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Visit us on the Web!

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition of this work as follows: Larson, Kirby.

  Hattie Big Sky / Kirby Larson.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references.

  Summary: After inheriting her uncle’s homesteading claim in Montana, sixteen-year-old orphan Hattie Brooks travels from Iowa in 1917 to make a home for herself and encounters some unexpected problems related to the war being fought in Europe.

  [1. Self-reliance—Fiction. 2. Frontier and pioneer life—Fiction. 3. Orphans—Fiction. 4. Montana—History—20th century—Fiction. 5. World War, 1914–1918—United States—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.L32394Hat 2006

  [Fic]—dc22 2005035039

  eISBN: 978-0-375-84641-0






































  For Neil, who has never doubted


  My journeys through Montana, literally and in my imagination, were aided by wonderful and generous people. It always amazes me that people will go out of their way for a complete stranger poking around in the past.

  I won the editor lottery with Michelle Poploff, Hattie’s godmother and biggest fan. Thank you, Michelle. Thanks also to Karen Lampe, the Louise to my Thelma—Billings born and bred and always ready for a road trip; to first readers of this manuscript: Maria Bennett, Kathryn Galbraith, Tricia Gardella, Brenda Guiberson, Sylvie Hossack, Mary Nethery, Dave Patneaude, Ann Whitford Paul, Vivian Sathre, Rhonda Schlafer, and Shelley Seeley; to my mother-in-law, Kelly Larson, for sharing her father’s World War I letters; to Marvin Presser, for photos and Wolf Point history; to Mrs. Alma Hall, for opening the Wolf Point Museum just for me; to Nancy Long, who introduced me to the extended Nefzger family through Dick’s memoir, Homesteading in Montana; to Dea Nefzger Hostetler, who not only answered my endless questions but played chauffeur and gracious hostess during my stay in Wolf Point; to the good folks at the Montana Historical Society Library, especially Dave Walter and Rich Aarstad; to Dale Robbins, genealogist extraordinaire, who provided a window into Hattie’s life; to Tricia and Jack Gardella of Montezuma Angus, who answered a city girl’s ranching questions; to Ellen, John, and Dick Baumann and Harold Lyman, who answered a city girl’s wheat farming questions; to the Blake family of Blake Nursery in Big Timber, Montana, for answers to wildflower questions; to Marcie Garrity for help with the German translations; to Chris Kiehl for the recording of “The Last Roll Call” to Janice Hughes of the Selective Service System, who helped me understand the World War I draft process; to Lindsey Korst for Great Northern Railway routes and ideas about Hattie’s train journey; to all the homesteaders who took time to write down their reminiscences; and to all the court clerks and librarians who patiently helped me find answers to my many, many questions. Any errors within are my fault alone.

  I owe a debt of gratitude to my maternal grandmother, Lois Thomas Wright Brown, for giving me the seed of this story. And I salute the real Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, my step-great-grandmother, and all the men and women like her who tried to carve out places of their own on the Montana prairie and, in doing so, forever carved a place in our hearts and memory.


  December 19, 1917

  Arlington, Iowa

  Dear Charlie,

  Miss Simpson starts every day with a reminder to pray for you—and all the other boys who enlisted. Well, I say we should pray for the Kaiser—he’s going to need those prayers once he meets you!

  I ran into your mother today at Uncle Holt’s store. She said word is you are heading for England soon, France after that. I won’t hardly be able to look at the map behind Miss Simpson’s desk now; it will only remind me of how far you are from Arlington.

  Mr. Whiskers says to tell you he’s doing fine. It’s been so cold, I’ve been letting him sleep in my bedroom. If Aunt Ivy knew, she’d pitch a fit. Thank goodness she finally decided I was too big to switch or my legs would be striped for certain.

  You should see Aunt Ivy. She’s made herself a cunning white envelope of a hat with a bright red cross stitched on the edge. She wears it to all the Red Cross meetings. Guess she wants to make sure everybody knows she’s a paid-up member. She’s been acting odd lately; even asked me this morning how was I feeling. First time in years she’s inquired about my health. Peculiar. Maybe this Red Cross work has softened her heart.

  Mildred Powell’s knitting her fifth pair of socks; they’re not all for you, so don’t get swell-headed. She’s knitting them for the Red Cross. All the girls at school are. But I suspect the nicest pair she knits will be for you.

  You must cut quite the figure in your uniform. A figure eight! (Ha, ha.) Seriously, I am certain you are going to make us all proud.

  Aunt Ivy’s home from her meeting and calling for me. I’ll sign off now but will write again soon.

  Your school friend,

  Hattie Inez Brooks

  I blotted the letter and slipped it in an envelope. Aunt Ivy wouldn’t think twice about reading anything she found lying around, even if it was in my own room, on my own desk.

  “Hattie,” Aunt Ivy called again. “Come down here!”

  To be on the safe side, I slipped the envelope under my pillow, still damp from my good cry last night. Not that I was like Mildred Powell, who hadn’t stopped boo-hooing since Charlie left. Only Mr. Whiskers and my pillow knew about my tears in the dark over Charlie. I did fret over his safety, but it was pure and sinful selfishness that wet my eyes at night.

  In all my sixteen years, Charlie Hawley was one of the nicest things to happen to me. It was him who’d stuck up for me when I first came to live with Aunt Ivy and Uncle Holt, so shy I couldn’t get my own name out. He’d walked me to school that very first day and every day after. Charlie was the one who’d brought me Mr. Whiskers, a sorry-looking tomcat who purred his way into my heart. The one who’d taught me how to pitch, and me a southpaw. So maybe I did spend a night now and then dreaming silly girl dreams about him, even though everyone k
new he was sweet on Mildred. My bounce-around life had taught me that dreams were dangerous things—they look solid in your mind, but you just try to reach for them. It’s like gathering clouds.

  The class had voted to see Charlie off at the station. Mildred clung to his arm. His father clapped him on the back so often, I was certain he’d end up bruised. Miss Simpson made a dull speech as she presented Charlie with a gift from the school: a wool stocking cap and some stationery.

  “Time to get aboard, son,” the conductor called.

  Something shifted in my heart as Charlie swung his foot up onto the train steps. I had told myself to hang back—didn’t want to be lumped in with someone like Mildred—but I found myself running up to him and slipping something in his hand. “For luck!” I said. He glanced at the object and smiled. With a final wave, he boarded the train.

  “Oh, Charlie!” Mildred leaned on Mrs. Hawley and sobbed.

  “There, there.” Charlie’s mother patted Mildred’s back.

  Mr. Hawley took a bandanna from his pocket and made a big show of wiping his forehead. I pretended not to notice that he dabbed at his eyes, too.

  The others made their way slowly down the platform, back to their cars. I stood watching the train a bit longer, picturing Charlie patting the pocket where he’d placed the wishing stone I’d given him. He was the one who’d taught me about those, too. “Look for the black ones,” he’d told me. “With the white ring around the middle. If you throw them over your left shoulder and make a wish, it’s sure to come true.” He threw his wishing rocks with abandon and laughed at me for not tossing even one. My wish wasn’t the kind that could be granted by wishing rocks.

  And now two months had passed since Charlie stepped on that train. With him gone, life was like a batch of biscuits without the baking powder: flat, flat, flat.

  “Hattie!” Aunt Ivy’s voice was a warning.

  “Yes, ma’am!” I scurried down the stairs.

  She was holding court in her brown leather chair. Uncle Holt was settled into the hickory rocker, a stack of newspapers on his lap.

  I slipped into the parlor and picked up my project, a pathetic pair of socks I’d started back in October when Charlie enlisted. If the war lasted five more years, they might actually get finished. I held them up, peering through a filigree of dropped stitches. Not even a good chum like Charlie could be expected to wear these.

  “I had a lovely visit with Iantha Wells today.” Aunt Ivy unpinned her Red Cross hat. “You remember Iantha, don’t you, Holt?”

  “Hmmm.” Uncle Holt shook the newspaper into shape.

  “I told her what a fine help you were around here, Hattie.”

  I dropped another stitch. To hear her tell it most days, there was no end to my flaws in the domesticity department.

  “I myself never finished high school. Not any sense in it for some girls.”

  Uncle Holt lowered one corner of the paper. I dropped another stitch. Something was up.

  “No sense at all. Not when there’s folks like Iantha Wells needing help at her boardinghouse.”

  There. It was out. Now I knew why she had been so kind to me lately. She’d found a way to get rid of me.

  She smoothed her skirt again. “God moves in mysterious ways. We should not question this bounty from Iantha.” Though her comments directly affected me, I knew better than to say anything. Yet.

  Uncle Holt tamped the Prince Albert tobacco down in his pipe. “There are only a few months left of the school year.” He lit it and took a puff before continuing. “Seems to me it makes more sense for Hattie to finish.” This wasn’t the first time Uncle Holt had taken my side; I resolved to polish his shoes for him that very night in thanks for it.

  Aunt Ivy glided on, as if Uncle Holt hadn’t spoken. “It was agreed that Hattie would go where she was needed. And she is needed at Iantha’s.”

  And not wanted here, I added. To myself, of course.

  Uncle Holt squinted at me through curlicues of cherry-scented smoke. “Do you want to finish school?”

  I set my knitting on my lap and considered my answer. For all I loved books, school was a chore. Especially without the diversions Charlie provided. But compared to working for Iantha Wells…

  “She knows too much already,” snapped Aunt Ivy. “Or thinks she does!” This with a glower in my direction. “It’s Hattie’s soul we must think of. Helping Iantha would foster a spirit of charity in the child, charity and—” Here Aunt Ivy stumbled, as if even she couldn’t imagine what working in a boardinghouse could possibly teach someone like me. “And other womanly skills. It’s quite the opportunity for a hardworking girl.”

  Two bright red spots glowed on her cheeks. Not much doubt that she was peeved. And not much doubt as to why. It galled her that Uncle Holt would ask my opinion about anything, let alone my own future. I was simply Hattie Here-and-There, with no right to an opinion.

  I’d been orphaned before I’d lost my baby teeth. Pa’s story was a familiar one to any miner’s family: the coal dust ate up his lungs. I was just two or three when he passed. Aunt Seah took me in when I was five, after Mama died. The doctor said it was pneumonia that took her, but Aunt Seah claimed it was a broken heart. The kindest of my many stops along the way, she gave me the gift of certainty that my parents had loved one another. After Aunt Seah got too old to keep me, I was shuffled from one relative to another—some of them pretty far down on the shirttail. I’d stay to help out with this sick person or that until I’d run out of folks who needed help and didn’t mind an extra mouth to feed to get it.

  I was thirteen when Aunt Ivy took me in. She’s really no aunt at all; Uncle Holt’s a distant cousin. She couldn’t resist the opportunity to do her Christian duty. Nor could she resist the opportunity to remind me every single day that I had nothing and no one. I should count my blessings, she lectured. Well, I did count them. The first blessing I counted every day was that she and I weren’t related by blood.

  The room grew so quiet I could hear Uncle Holt’s pipe click against his teeth. He blew out a puff of sweet smoke and then spoke. “I suggest we all sleep on it.”

  Aunt Ivy wouldn’t cross Uncle Holt, not in front of me. She flounced in her chair. “Whatever you say, Holt.”

  He fussed with his pipe and then with the papers on the pipe stand next to his chair. “Where did I put that?”

  “Put what, Holt dear?” Aunt Ivy’s voice could shatter glass.

  “Letter. Came for Hattie today.” A pile of newspapers cascaded to the floor. For a general-store clerk, Uncle Holt read more than any human being I knew. I was crazy about reading myself, but my taste ran to novels. Uncle Holt favored newspapers. He was the one who’d first warned about war in Europe. Said any fool could see it coming if he paid attention. Me, I hadn’t paid attention until Charlie up and enlisted. Guess I know what category that puts me in.

  “A letter!” I said. Maybe from Charlie!

  “For Hattie?” asked Aunt Ivy.

  Uncle Holt ignored her outstretched hand and delivered the envelope directly to me.

  “Whoever is it from?” Aunt Ivy demanded.

  “Someone in Montana.” Uncle Holt disappeared behind the Arlington News, his signal that he was done with conversation for the evening.

  I opened the envelope. There were two letters inside. The first was dated November 11, 1917.

  Your uncle axed that I get the enclosed to you when he passed. It’s the least I could do to repay him for his many kindnesses. If you decide yes, me and my husband Karl will help all we can.

  Most sincerely yours, Perilee Johnson Mueller

  Decide yes about what? I unfolded the second letter.

  My dear Hattie,

  You will no doubt have forgotten me. I am your mother’s only brother. Had I married and led a proper life, I would have sent for you long ago. I will not sugarcoat things: I have been a scoundrel. But here in Montana, I’ve made a new life. Wouldn’t you know that as soon as I got a claim staked and a place built,
the doc here would tell me this cough was going to kill me. You and I have something in common, besides the Wright blood. Neither one of us had a proper home of our own growing up—you orphaned and me leaving home after sixth grade. You will think I have never thought of the niece in Iowa. But this letter will show you I have. If you come out here to Vida, you will find my claim. I trust you’ve enough of your mother’s backbone to meet the remaining requirements. If you do—and you have one year to do it—320 Montana acres are yours.

  “Oh!” I grabbed the arm of the settee.

  “What is it? Bad news?” Aunt Ivy was at my side, eagerly peering over my shoulder. With a slight stutter, I read aloud the last paragraph of the letter:

  Being of sound mind, I do hereby leave to Hattie Inez Brooks my claim and the house and its contents, as well as one steadfast horse named Plug and a contemptible cow known as Violet.

  Signed, Chester Hubert Wright,

  Uncle to Hattie Inez Brooks

  Postscript: H—Bring warm clothes and a cat.

  Aunt Ivy snatched the letters from my hand. I was too stunned to react. Three hundred twenty acres! A home of my own! Montana!

  “It’s ridiculous,” she pronounced. “Besides, I’ve promised Iantha you will work for her.”

  “Seems like quite an opportunity for a hardworking young girl.” There was a whisper of a wink in Uncle Holt’s voice.

  “It’s insanity!” sputtered Aunt Ivy. “Holt, not another word. Hattie—”

  “As you say, Aunt Ivy, God moves in mysterious ways.” I took the letters back from her, folded them, and put them in the pocket of my skirt. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to write.”

  Perilee’s letter was answered with one line: “I will come.” Telling Charlie took a mite longer. I didn’t want him worrying about me while he was over there in France. I believe I struck the right tone in my postscript, after only a dozen tries. Think of how much more interesting my letters to you will be! I wrote.

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