It's the summer of 1856, and sixteen-year old Korina Fischer's predictable farm life takes an unexpected turn when she witnesses the arrival of the US Camel Corp near her Texas Hill Country farm.
Already discontent with the looming certainty of becoming a farmer's wife, the camels' arrival sets off a chain of events that change her life forever. When she and a friend are kidnapped, Korina not only learns the depth of her own strength, she also learns how to survive the dangerous Texas frontier.
Korina had just arrived in the yard, carefully holding chicken feed between the folded corners of her apron, when she heard her mother call.
“Korina! Guck mal!” she shouted in German. Look at this!
"Coming!" she called back. As she began to hurriedly toss big handfuls of grain, the ladies danced around her feet in anticipation of breakfast, clucking and pecking furiously at the baked dirt. Red, orange, and black feathers flashed as the chickens scurried and dipped their necks to their feed. Pieter, the rooster, clucked and fussed over his harem as she left them to their meal.
Korina dusted her hands on her apron and sprinted for the stone and wood house. Her mother waited on the covered porch.
"Da drüben,” her mother said. Then, remembering to practice her English, she repeated “Over there," as she pointed to the north. Since their house perched on a gentle rise, they had a generous view of the Texas hill country, which was now dressed in its summer finery. Korina looked in the direction her mother pointed. Expecting to see the usual gentle hills and scrub trees, and perhaps an approaching visitor, Korina paused and waited for her brain to interpret exactly what her eyes were seeing.
Moving in an undulating line was a parade of soldiers, Arab men, horses, and, could it really be?
They were heading west, most likely toward Camp Verde, a military post established to protect the frontier.
"Jesus, Maria, und Josef!" Her mother exclaimed. The foreign shapes threw odd shadows across the knee-high grass in the fields. Her mother made a sign of the cross with her work-worn hand. Korina wasn't sure what upset her mother more, the sight of the foreigners or the shapes of the indolent beasts, traveling so slowly their shadows seemed not to move. A few of the men did not wear uniforms or carry weapons, but instead wore drab, foreign garbs and brandished sinister, leather whips. One lone figure on the back of a tall camel, a young man she thought, stood out from them all. His head was turned away from them, and he wore a wrapped head covering and white flowing robes. An Arab. Korina's heartbeat pounded in her ears, and if her mother said more, she did not hear.
Without asking her mother's permission, she was 16 after all, Korina turned and raced from the house. She felt driven to get a better view of the spectacle. Since the long journey she and her family had made from Germany to Texas nine years ago, little else of great interest had happened in her life, so Korina was determined to make the most of this moment. And she found herself drawn to see more of this man whose clothes flowed around him like a sail blowing in the wind.
When she had gotten as close as she dared, she hid behind a scrawny tree about fifty feet away from the traveling men and animals. The thin, leafy branches barely concealed her and her full, long skirts. She didn't feel quite brave enough to reveal her curiosity in front of a cavalry, but she was close enough now to see his face if only he'd turn around. She willed for him to face her way, and to her amazement, he did. Without realizing it, Korina held her breath.
She could see that only his hands and face were visible. Brown against the white robes, his long-fingered hands rested on his thighs as if he was merely going for a short, leisurely ride, but his eyes belied that look of calm, because even from here, she thought his eyes seemed alert and appraising. At that very moment, he saw her as she peeked around the tree. Korina saw his dark eyebrows raise above his deep-set eyes, and she saw his lips lift with a knowing smile. She tried to suppress a gasp. It was as if he somehow knew that he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. She hadn't even known that a man could be beautiful.
The spell was broken when she heard the distant clap of the screen door slamming shut. She turned and saw that Lupe, their hired help, had joined her mother on the porch. Lupe looked so tiny standing next to her tall, thin mother. For a moment, from this vantage point, it seemed that they were the ones out of place here, not this beautiful man and his strange company.
As if to reassure Lupe, or perhaps herself, her mother had laid a hand on Lupe's shoulder. Korina needed reassurance too, reassurance that her heart would soon return to its normal cadence, but she suspected that like her heart, her life, would have a new rhythm now. When she turned back, the man had switched his attention to a cavalryman on horseback and did not look her way again. She studied his back and found herself feeling empty without his warm gaze on her face. Korina watched the strange, disjointed shuffle of the camels and thought to herself that this must be a dream. Camels! And that man. She was reminded of the illustrations in their family bible and of the ones in Peter Parley's book about Asia she had studied at school. They were about as expected as a plague of locust or a burning bush.
Once again, her mother called for her.
"Jetzt, back to work you go!" her mother shouted, her hands cupped around her mouth.
Korina slowly made her way to the house, kicking stones as she went. She could see that Lupe had promptly returned to the kitchen where she and Korina's sister, Marie, were tending the wash. She mounted the white-washed porch steps and slowly followed Lupe into the house. As usual, Lupe's readiness to work made her feel ashamed of her own corresponding apathy. After all, Korina was working for her own family's well-being, whereas Lupe was getting paid to help, although after four years of employment, she was considered family by all of the Fischers. Camels or not, it was time to fetch the wash ready for hanging, but Korina was reluctant to return to her chores. Before she went through the door, she looked once again over her shoulder and saw that the camels had disappeared from sight and that a few straggling horses and foot soldiers were the only part of the parade that remained. She withheld a sigh as she walked through the doorway and, out of habit, extended her arm behind her to keep the door from slamming shut.
In the kitchen, Korina discovered Marie, rosy-cheeked and glistening with sweat, in front of the wood stove. She was stirring their clothes in a huge boiling pot. She had her sleeves rolled up to the middle of her forearms and a few white-blond curls had escaped the bun she had neatly constructed hours earlier. Like Korina, Maria's features were even and delicate, but to Korina's disgust, Marie's complexion was completely freckle free. Korina was the sole member of an otherwise blonde family who not only had a light sprinkling of freckles, but also had red hair. Marie often reassured her that her hair was beautiful, with its shining strands of copper red and gold. And many times her father had joked that he wished her hair was made of real gold, and then he would be a rich man. Despite her family’s best intentions, her childhood had sometimes been painful since the other children responded to her hair the way a bull does to a red cape; for good or evil, her hair had always gained her a lot of attention.
"Was ist los?" Marie asked. What is going on? Marie was now 18, but she had been 9 when they first arrived in Texas, and English did not come as easily to her. Unlike her sister, Korina had been just young enough to adapt more quickly to their new country.
"English, mein schatz, English!" Korina reminded her. Marie reached out to pinch her, but Korina was too fast. She laughed.
"It was just a parade of tigers, elephants, and alligators," Korina teased.
Marie growled "Du Dummkopf! Help me catch her, Lupe!" and tried to pinch her again. She almost dropped the dolly stick and water dripped all over the floor. Lupe laughed from the other, safer, side of the room. Marie was usually slow to anger and accustomed to affectionate teasing, but in this heat, Marie's good nature had its limits.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Korina said with a merry voice. "It's almost as unbelievable. It was the soldiers, they are back, but this time, they've brought camels! And an Arab! We saw them as they were marching to Camp Verde."
"Really? That's what Lupe said, but I thought she was crazy, too." Marie wiped again at her forehead with her sleeve. "Papa and the boys will have seen them."
"Oh, that's right, they are in the northwest field. I bet they were really close!" Korina said.
"Mmm," said Marie, as she tore off a piece of bread from a loaf of brown bread on the table. Meals were a rushed affair on wash day. Korina did the same, chewing slowly as she thought.
Korina was sure that her father and two brothers had seen the parade. In a few hours, it would be time to take them lunch. Korina decided at that moment that she would volunteer, so that she could talk about it with Lukas. And to find out if he had seen more of their strange visitors. She was certain he had gotten a closer look at the Arab than she had. Her skin itched with curiosity. She took a deep breath. Laundry first, quizzing second.
When Korina finished her piece of bread, Marie told her that the laundry basket was ready for hanging, and she returned to her stirring. She seemed to have already forgotten about the camels. She was probably dreaming about dull Jonas Mann and the church picnic this coming Sunday.
Korina picked up the basket filled with damp clothes that smelled of lye and lavender. The back door led to the family garden, and beyond that, down a grassy path, was the clothesline. The clothesline was hung between two mesquite trees and surrounded by sumac and juniper, which gave the area a much-needed sense of solitude, as well as a heady fragrance. If Korina had to hang the laundry, at least it was in this secluded spot. In a household of six, plus Lupe, privacy was a rare commodity.
She began to hang the laundry using the wooden clothespins that had come from the old country. Korina moved mechanically as if in a dream. It seemed a lifetime ago that she had woken early to start the stove fire, cook the oats, and wash the dishes. There was now a line drawn between her normal life of farm and house work and this new world where it was possible for camels and their trainers to parade past their little farm.
She thought, too, of the Arab. She was sure he was young--his frame was lithe and strong and he had ridden the awkward, swaying beast with an adept elasticity. The memory of his rhythmic swaying made her flush once again. He had reminded her of a young Comanche brave she had once seen pass through town many years ago. She had been only ten at the time, but it was one of her most vivid childhood memories.
When the Comanche brave had ridden through their tiny community--at that time it was only a store and a few small houses--he had studied them, the whole family Fischer, crowded together on the steps of the store. She thought he was as taken by their general paleness and identical blue eyes as much as they were by the abundance of his black hair neatly parted down the middle, the fringe on his shoulders, and the beads at his neck. A German boy a few farms over had been kidnapped by a Comanche party the previous winter, and she remembered thinking of that boy while she watched the man pass. She imagined what it would be like to be grabbed by her hair and swept onto the back of the massive horse as it sped across the countryside. She stared, made immobile by the twinned feelings of terror and excitement. And , undeniable even then, she had felt envious of his freedom. As he had stared impassively at them, his eyes had lingered on her and her vivid hair, and she felt for a moment that it might happen. But his horse's footsteps never slowed, and he was soon on his way. The moment he was gone, her mother interrupted Korina's reverie and hurried the children inside the general store. Her mother had stood guard at the window until she was sure the brave was gone.
Korina shook her head to rid herself of the memory. But it was no use. Korina found that her dreams did not center upon the boy next door. Marie might be crazy about a farmer's son, but Korina wanted nothing to do with farmers and their sons. She thought of her own mother, whom she was told, once liked to dance and could outrun her six brothers. Now, she was care-worn and looked much older than her 40 years. No, she didn't want to be captured, but she did want to travel, to see the Alamo and stand where Bowie had fallen; to cross the water to Mustang island and run barefoot in the sand. Maybe even see her family's homeland. What she would do after she visited the Alamo, the island, and the old land, she didn't know. Her dreams were vague and not well-chartered. She was sure of one thing: that by next year, Maria would be wed, and she would be next in line. She would have to find adventure now before it was too late. Korina shivered in the warm shade.
"Korina!" She heard her mother call once again. It must be time to take the noon meal to her father and brothers. She hadn’t had to volunteer after all.
Korina picked up the now-empty woven wash basket and balanced it on her hip. Her brown skirts rustled around her boot-clad ankles and made a pleasant swishing sound. This was the only thing pleasant about them. In this summer heat, their heavy layers were a curse.
From the other side of the house, she could hear the goat in the pen bleating mournfully, and the murmurings of her mother and sister fill the warm summer air. She anticipated her brothers' and father's happiness to see her--or, rather, their happiness to see her with the basket heavy with bread, a jar of sauerkraut, pastries, and käs spaetzle with bacon. Lupe would carry a milk pail filled with water that had been cooling in the creek. As soon as she could, Korina would trade food for talk, and this was talk she couldn't wait to hear.
Lupe waited by the cloth-covered basket and the pail of water by her feet. When she saw Korina, she smiled, and then bent at the waist, her long braid brushing the ground. With difficulty, Lupe picked up the heavy pail. The basket wasn't any lighter for Korina, so the two girls were silent as they walked up and down a few green hills until they could soon see the menfolk sprawled under the shade of a tree.
Korina found Lupe's silence companionable. She was usually quiet, but had a sly sense of humor that would occasionally take them all by surprise. Earlier in the summer, Lupe had managed to hide a green garden snake in the laundry basket. Korina was the one to find it, of course, since hanging the laundry was her usual task, and she had screamed, but only from surprise. Korina didn't really mind snakes. She had taken it out of the basket, found Lupe hiding behind a nearby shrub, and chased her around the yard with the poor thing until they had both collapsed on the ground laughing. Afterward, they let the snake go, and it had readily slithered away in the grass.
Once they made it to the field, Korina's youngest brother, Max, leaped from his place in the shade to help carry the basket. Lukas assisted Lupe with the pail, touching her hand shyly for a moment. Korina had long suspected that her brother was smitten with their servant, but she had decided to keep that notion to herself. Lukas watched as Lupe walked to the stream to refill the pail. Korina took a peek at her brother, and when she saw his wistful expression, felt sorry for him. Without a doubt, any union between them would be universally rejected. In the short history of German presence in Texas, it was assumed that the Germans married the Germans and the Mexicans married the Mexicans. This unspoken rule was as resolute and unbending as any written law could be. Korina doubted that German-Arab relations were even considered feasible.
Her father sat silently under the tree, his long arms draped over each bent knee. Like her mother, her father was tall and bony, but still, he managed to appear dignified in this pastoral setting. Korina took out the plates and filled each one and passed them around. Her father silently and slowly ate, then took deep, gulping drinks from the ladle he dipped into the pail.
"Güt. Vielen Danken," my father said with a solemn voice. He was much older than his wife. His gray hair only thinly covered his oblong head. His face was long and serious, and his eyes were large and overshadowed by wild, caterpillar-like eyebrows. The purple-blueness of his eyes made him less severe, though and were a mirror of Korina's own.
Max returned to the field with their father to unhook the mules and to take them to the stream. Their departure left Korina alone with Lukas. As she repacked the basket, her hands began to shake and make the plates clatter. It was now or never.
"So tell me, Bruder, did you see the soldiers? Did you see what they brought?" Korina asked.
Lukas' eyes sparkled.
"Did I ever! Papa let us stop work to watch--the camels were amazing! And hairy! I never thought they'd be so big. They made the horses look tiny," he said, then gulped down the last bite of his third pastry. Lukas was always hungry, and he ate like each meal might be his last.
"The white men looked nervous, but who could blame them, especially with that Arab looking on." He tried reaching in the basket for another pastry, but Korina swatted at his hand. Then she remembered she wanted something, so she gave him another pastry after all.
"Arab? What do you mean?"Korina tried to be more circumspect. Interest in camels was one thing, Arab men, another.
"Don't tell me you didn't notice him! He sat as erect as a general on one of those shaggy camels. If he hadn't been wearing those robes, I would've thought he was an Indian" Lukas said.
"But you are sure it was a man?" Korina asked.
"Oh, ja, no doubt there. He had some whiskers on his face," he said, rubbing his own smooth chin. Lukas was 15 and longed for his own proper whiskers like Papa's.
"Oh, then not a young man, I take it," Korina asked indifferently as she wrapped the cutlery in a napkin.
"Bout your age, I'd reckon. Maybe a bit older." Lukas studied her down-turned face, as realization dawned on his own.
"Ah, I'm starting to understand why you're so curious," he grinned and poked her ribs with a bony elbow. Korina stiffened. She liked to keep her feelings to herself. So help her, if he said another word she'd tease him about Lupe. He didn't. He only let his mirth show in his eyes.
Korina laughed a little. "I am curious, Bruder." She paused. A plan was shaping in her mind. It would be a big risk, but the need to see the Arab again was urgent. Korina took a deep breath.
"I want you to take me to see the camels." The Arab. "Please? We could go during the picnic on Sunday. No one would notice if we slip off then."
"But, it's a half mile to Camp Verde from the church," her brother said.
"Half a mile! What's half a mile!" Korina nudged him with her shoulder. "We can run that in five minutes, I'm sure! Come on, let's do it." She gave Lukas her sweetest smile. She knew that he could never resist her.
"It's a big risk," he said, rubbing again at his smooth chin, contemplating the possibility of adventure. When he got that look of mischief on his face, he looked both like his former child-self and the striking man he would most likely become. Even if he was her brother, she had to admit he was a handsome boy. The squareness of his jaw was relieved by a deep cleft in his chin and his ready smile. After some thought, he finally answered.
"If we must."
"Danke, danke, danke!" Korina hugged him tight. "I'll make you cherry strudel for dinner tonight!"
"You better," he answered with mock solemnity. Korina knew that he was just as curious as she was. He had always been a willing accomplice to her derring-do.