“Matthew, you must go get the water now.” Mama’s tired voice barely carried above the wind blowing against his pale cheek. Hunching his neck deeper into his heavy woolen sweater, Matthew looked down at his mother and sisters. Mama had stayed awake the whole night, trying to comfort the seasick girls. Alvina, a slender six-year old, tossed restlessly in her blankets while four-year old Ruth slept fitfully in Mama’s arms.
“Please be careful not to spill it again, Son. We’re only given one bucketful for all of us.” Mama laid a gentle hand on Matthew’s sleeve, then pulled a blanket closer around little Ruth.
Slowly, with cold, reddened hands, Matthew reached for the handle of the heavy wooden bucket resting on top of the box holding Mama’s kitchen supplies. His light blond hair was ruffled by the cold sea breeze. Reluctantly he dragged his feet toward the end of the crowded steamship deck, where people were lining up near the big water casks. Matthew picked his way, careful to step around families sitting among trunks, boxes, and blankets. Babies cried hungrily, children played and shouted, and adults talked and argued. Everyone was bundled in blankets and coats against the early North Atlantic spring gusts.
Never in his ten years had Matthew been among so many people. His home in Finland had been in a small town where there had been plenty of open space in which to run and play. The grass in spring had been bright green, the air crisp and quiet except for the cries of birds. Here, there was constant noise, and the dust and the smell from the ship’s smokestack seemed to soak even into the food they ate.
This was the spring of 1895. Matthew, Mama, Alvina, and Ruth were only one family among many hundreds on the crowded ship bound for the United States. Leaving their homeland and relatives behind, they were all now emigrants headed for the port of New York City.
Matthew wished that Papa could have been with him as he got in line, bumping buckets with an old lady in front of him. But Papa had left for America two years before and had just recently been able to send for the rest of his family. Big, gentle Papa, whose huge hands had made such beautiful furniture in Finland, was felling trees in Michigan in order to earn money to buy land. He had written Mama long letters about life in the big logging camps.
The last letter had come with money for four steamship tickets and the information that friends of Papa’s would meet Mama and the children in New York City. Then the family was to board a train to travel to Michigan. Papa’s letter had also contained a special message for Matthew, written in Papa’s bold handwriting. Feeling very small and alone now, Matthew remembered and tried to gain strength from the words Papa had written: “My son, while on the long voyage, you must be the strong one who helps Mama and protects the little girls. You must be a man on this great adventure.”
When he’d first read the message, Matthew had almost heard Papa’s voice, and he’d felt like a man. But now as an elbow jabbed Matthew in the ribs, he felt very little like a man. He wanted to run away and cry.
Three big boys surrounded Matthew and pushed him. One pushed him so hard that he almost dropped his bucket. Matthew held on, hoping the old lady would say something to stop his tormentors. But the old lady only stared ahead at the slow-moving line.
“Going to share your water with us again, little boy?” The tallest boy leaned his thin face into Matthew’s and roughly whispered the question. Matthew’s face stiffened with fear.
“He always shares his water with us,” a boy in a red woolen cap said, laughing. “He’s a good little boy.” The boy slapped Matthew on the back in an unfriendly way.
Matthew gulped down a sob as he looked at the cruel faces.
The third one, a dark-haired boy, swung a wooden dipper from one hand. He beat it against Matthew’s bucket.
One by one the people in line moved forward to get their water. Then they walked back to their families, careful not to trip on the shifting deck of the boat. Matthew’s turn came, and he numbly watched the cold water fill his bucket. He tried to move away quickly without spilling it. But the three big boys caught up with him and blocked his way.
“My, my, I am so thirsty today,” said the dark-haired boy with his dipper raised. “I could use a drink.” He bent forward to scoop water from Matthew’s bucket. He drank a full dipperful with loud gulps. Matthew’s eyes filled with tears as he watched the boy pass the dipper to the second boy.
Suddenly Matthew straightened up, and his blue eyes flashed. He was still afraid, but Papa’s message—“You must be a man”—had come into his mind again, and he’d asked himself, Would Papa let someone take the water that Mama and poor little Alvina and Ruth needed?
Matthew’s mind had shouted the answer: NO! So as the second boy bent to dip water from the bucket, Matthew quickly moved his bucket behind him, placing it on the deck. He took a deep breath, clenched his fists as he faced the boys, and declared loudly, “I won’t let you take any more of my water!” Then he clamped his feet on either side of the bucket to stop his legs from shaking, and continued in an even louder voice. “My mother and sisters need this water!”
“Why the little rat! He thinks he can stop us! We’ll show him!” The boy in the red cap moved angrily toward Matthew.
“I know I can’t fight you,” continued Matthew, gulping for air. “But I will kick over this bucket rather than let you steal one more drop of my water!”
As people turned to see what the shouting was about, Matthew looked into each boy’s eyes. The boys looked away and began to look embarrassed.
“Oh, come on, let him go. He’s just a little kid,” the tallest boy said as he walked away. Reluctantly, the other two followed, leaving Matthew shivering in the cold. But he also felt a deep warmth, a pride, because he had fulfilled Papa’s faith in him. He picked up the heavy bucket and carefully carried it to Mama and the girls. Whatever the new country had to offer, he felt ready to meet its challenge.