Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Season of Miracles

A Season of Miracles
Kregel Publications; Reprint edition (August 3, 2010)
by
Rusty Whitener


Chapter 1


I didn’t set out to believe in miracles. Nobody does. That’s what makes them miracles.

The events of 1971 would pick me up in a tornado of changes and set me down in an amazing place of grace. As with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it would be a kind of homecoming, except that I would be coming home for the first time.

Around the middle of March, about the time my hometown of Silas started to escape the gray Alabama winter, Little League baseball would crowd out everything else for my attention.

I wasn’t alone. Those days, Little League in our county was akin to a small-town parade down Main Street. Everybody went, not really expecting to see the remarkable so much as the familiar. Pretty near every boy in town played the game. And most every player’s parents went to watch, clap, groan, and cheer.

Little League is a game played by Charlie Browns and Joe DiMaggios. Most children that age are Charlie Browns, still struggling with how to handle an oversized pencil, let alone how to grip a baseball and hurl it a particular direction. They are likely to throw the ball farther from their target than it was when they retrieved it. They even look like you imagine Charlie Brown would, running in preadolescent distress to recover the ball they just threw in the wrong direction. On the weaker Little League teams, Charlie Browns mosey around the outfield, and DiMaggios man the infield. Players who hit the ball over the infielders’ heads usually have an easy double. Stronger teams have a DiMaggio anchoring center field, or maybe left. If anyone better than Charlie is in right, then either the team is stacked with talent or something magical is going on. Maybe both.

I don’t remember ever not being able to hit the ball into the outfield. I didn’t think much about it, really, except for the basics: relax, breathe, don’t swing so hard, don’t pull your head. Bring the bat to the ball and drive it on a line. I was a little tall for my twelve years, but I also had something much better than size. Confidence. I knew I could hit the ball, and hit it hard. Not every time, but most of the time. And batting over .500 with power will scorch any league.

I was the best hitter I had ever seen. Until 1971.

It was a cool Saturday in mid March. I called my best friend, Donnie White, and he called Batman Boatwright and Jimmy Yarnell. I really didn’t spend a lot of time with Batman and Jimmy throughout the rest of the year. Just spring and early summer. When Little League season came into focus, so did Batman and Jimmy.

I always took the back way to the old field, cutting through woods so thick and dark it was like traveling and hiding at the same time. My wicked cool Sting-Ray, with butterfly handlebars and a fat banana seat covered in leopard spots, gave me an edge in races with the guys. But in woods that thick, I’d just get to pumping the pedals hard before I’d have to dismount and negotiate the bramble bushes and low hanging, cobwebbed pines that duped nature by growing with so little sun.

Sawdust wasn’t real keen on those woods. A hound-collie mix, he had followed me home two summers before and decided I needed him. Through these woods, along the rough path of moss and bracken, he got nervous when I had to stop the bike and walk. He looked back and forth and around, seemingly wary that something might sneak up on us. He barked his approval when we climbed the last ridge and tumbled out of the sun-spun shadows crisscrossing our wooded trek and into the sun’s soaring shine over the ancient baseball field behind Mill Creek Fire Station.

It wasn’t a real baseball diamond anymore, just a big space of worn-down grass. But it was enough of a practice field for us. There was even an outfield fence of sorts, a lot of chain no longer linked. A backstop someone put up years before helped us out. If the ball got by the hitter, it caromed off the chain links and dribbled in the general direction of the pitcher. If it didn’t get a good enough carom to send it close to the mound, the batter picked it up and tossed it back to the pitcher. Who needed a catcher?

Donnie, Batman, and Jimmy were already there, tossing the ball in a triangular game of catch.

“It’s about time, Pardner!” Donnie raised his arms in a “what’s the deal?” gesture. “We’re startin’ to take root here.” He dropped his arms and threw the ball too high in Jimmy’s direction. Jimmy threw his glove after the ball, and then turned to look at Donnie like he couldn’t believe he put up with a friend who threw that poorly.

“Sorry,” said Donnie with a big smile. “Too high, I guess.”

“Zack,” Jimmy said, turning to me, “can you tell this guy about cool?”

“What do I know about cool?” I said, not really asking.

Sawdust barked at Jimmy and Batman, darting between the two. He made quick little circles around Jimmy, like they were old friends. They weren’t.

“Whaddya always have to bring the mutt for?” Jimmy sounded seriously miffed.

“Sawdust likes chasing the balls,” I said.

“I know that,” said Jimmy. “He gets ’em all slimy.”

Batman drawled, “He’s got your glove now, Hoss.”

Jimmy gave a squawk and bounded after Sawdust, who was running in large circles back and forth across the field.

“I’ll make a glove outta you, ya mutt!” Jimmy’s threat broke us up, and I laughed pretty hard until I saw the new kid. At first, I thought something was seriously wrong he was so still. He sat at the base of a tree, his back ramrod straight against the trunk, his legs straight out from his body, arms at his sides. He looked almost unreal, not moving his head, stock-still, eyes frozen. Not moving anything.

“Whatcha looking at, Pardner?” Donnie gave nicknames to people he really liked, and people he struggled to like. Come to think of it, that’s just about everybody. He once told me it was hard to call someone by a good nickname and still not like them. Donnie wanted to like everybody.

“That boy,” I said, “over there.”

“Oh man, he don’t look so good.” Donnie stared. “He even . . . is he alive?”

“What kind of a question is that?” I said, still staring at the kid under the tree, who still had not moved. “Of course he’s alive. I mean . . . don’t you think?”

Batman jogged up to us. “Are we gonna play or what?”

“Look at that kid over there.” Donnie pointed with his gloved hand.

“I see him,” Batman said. “So what?”

“Is he alive?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“I mean he doesn’t look alive.” Donnie said the words slowly, as if he were announcing something important, like the moral at the end of a story.

“Well he’s not dead,” said Batman.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because he sits there like that all the time. I’ve seen him before, when we come here to play.”

“Really?”

“Lots of times,” Batman said. “I think he’s a retard.”

“Come off it.” Donnie looked at Batman and shook his head, like he was disappointed in him.

“It’s the Forrester kid,” Batman said. “Everybody knows he’s touched.” Batman was blowing massive bubbles and struggling to move the gum to the side of his mouth so he could talk. “Don’t tell me ya’ll haven’t seen him at school.”

“I seen him,” said Donnie.

“I don’t think I have,” I said. “How come, you reckon?”

“Maybe ’cause you’re always looking at Rebecca Carson,” Batman joshed. “Anyway, he’s touched.”

“Okay, he’s got some problems . . . ,” Donnie started.

Batman decided to pluck the wad of gum out of his mouth and hold it in his free hand, a rare move he reserved for emergencies. “Serious problems,” said Batman.

“Okay,” said Donnie, “serious problems, but we don’t have to call him—”

“Hey guys,” I said. “Guys, I think he’s coming over here.”

The Forrester kid was on his feet, walking toward us.

“Holy metropolis,” Batman whistled. “Look alert, Batfans.”

Jimmy ran up, holding his glove away from his body, between a thumb and forefinger, the leather shiny with Sawdust drool.

“This is so foul, ya’ll. I can’t play with this nasty thing. Do ya’ll . . . do ya’ll know that fella is coming over here?”

“Yeah Jimmy, we know,” I said.

“Do ya’ll . . . do ya’ll know he’s a retard?”

“He’s not a retard. He has some problems, that’s all,” said Donnie, loudly.

“His problem is he’s a retard—and his dad’s a drunk, ’cording to my folks.”

I really don’t think Jimmy meant to say anything mean. That’s just the way he was. Shoot from the lip and take no prisoners.

“Shut up, Jimmy,” Donnie’s voice was a sharp whisper now. “There’s nothing wrong with his ears.”

Rafer Forrester walked straight up to me, stepping up close, his face no more than a foot from mine. The other kids instinctively took half-steps back, clumsily trying to give me more space. Sawdust sauntered into the picture, sat down razor close to Rafer and put a paw on the boy’s shoe. Without looking, Rafer put his hand on the dog’s head and stroked it.

“Hey,” I said quietly. “How’s it going?”

I guess I hadn’t really expected an answer. But I did expect him to say something. After some long seconds he did.

“Hit.”

“You wanna hit?” I asked.

Silence.
“You wanna hit?” I said again.

“Hit. Rafer hit.” His face was still devoid of expression.

I heard Jimmy’s voice behind me. “I think the fella wants to try to hit the baseball.”

“You mean the ball?” I held it up in front of me, about six inches from his eyes.

“I don’t think he’s blind, Zack-man,” Batman said, his voice joining Jimmy’s in a nervous flutter of laughs.

“All right, guys,” said Donnie. “Hey, Pardner, why don’t you let him try?”

“Oh, come on, Donnie,” Batman said. “Jimmy and me gotta go in about thirty minutes. We don’t have time.”

“Let him try, Pardner. Just a couple of tosses.” Donnie was already walking toward home plate. “I’ll catch so we don’t have to keep fetching the balls.”

I looked right in Rafer’s eyes. “You want to hit the baseball a little?”

“Rafer hit.”

“Okay, Rafer. Do you wanna take the ball yourself”—I pressed the ball gently in his hand—“and just toss it up in the air and hit it?” I figured he could do that. Hitting a pitched ball didn’t seem plausible, no matter how slow I tossed it.

“Rafer hit.” He pushed the ball back at me.

Batman moaned and sat down on the ground. “C’mon guys, we’re wasting time.”

“Okay, I can pitch it,” I said.

Rafer walked slowly toward home plate and picked up the bat. Donnie was already crouched behind the plate calling to me. “Okay, Pardner. Toss it in, and Rafe here is gonna knock the cover off the ball. Here we go, Pardner.”

Rafer stopped in front of Donnie and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Zack pitch. No Pardner.”

Behind me I heard Jimmy’s chuckle. Batman, sitting on the ground behind the pitcher’s mound, laughed so hard his gum started slipping down the back of his throat. “Oh . . . oh, my gosh. I almost swallowed it, ya’ll,” he managed to say.

Donnie just smiled real big at Rafer. “That’s right, Rafer, my buddy. He is Zack.” Then, rocking back and forth in a low catcher’s crouch, he called to me. “Okay, Zack, just toss it in gentle-like.”

So I did. I tossed the ball underhand, as slow as I could, across the plate. As fat a pitch as I could make it.

Rafer didn’t swing. He watched the pitch the whole way and the bat never left his shoulder. Donnie threw the ball back to me, and I tossed it again. Again, no swing.

From his spot now reclining on the ground, his head resting on his glove, Batman’s groans were like a sick boy’s. “Oh, guys. We’re gonna be here all day. And we gotta go home soon.”

“Batman,” said Jimmy, “if we gotta go home soon, then we can’t be here all day.”

Jimmy crashed on the ground next to Batman, resting his head on his glove. Then an odd expression invaded his face. He bolted upright, frantically wiping dog spit from the back of his head. “Oh, that’s stinking! Oh, that’s so raw!”

Batman just groaned again.

Donnie called to me, “Maybe you need to get closer, Pardner . . . I mean Zack. You know, toss it from a shorter distance.”

As I started to step off the mound, Rafer bellowed, “No!”

I froze.

“No!” he said again. “Zack pitch. Rafer hit.”

“Okay, okay.” I got back on the mound. I tossed it again, underhanded, only this time as the ball was crossing home plate, Rafer caught it with his right hand. He dropped the bat. For several seconds he did not move. “Zack pitch,” he said again as he started moving through an elaborate windup, turning his body like Tom Seaver and kicking his leg high like Juan Marichal, coming down with his throwing hand over the top. The ball rocketed from his hand to my glove, which I reflexively raised to protect my face.

Dead silence.

Then Jimmy drawled, “Well, good night, ya’ll.”

Donnie, barely audible, said, “He wants you to pitch it fast, I guess. God help us.” I wasn’t sure what to do. I had a strong arm from playing third base.

“Come on, Zack. Fire it in here.” Donnie was suddenly confident about the situation.

“Can you catch it?” I asked him.

“Oh, come on, of course I can catch it. You’re not that fast, you know.”

That was all my adolescent ears needed to hear. I wound up and released, letting the ball spring naturally out of my grip. The ball crossed the heart of the plate in a white blur.

At least it would have.

Rafer dropped the head of the bat, quick like a cat, just in front of the ball. Coaches tell hitters to focus on getting the barrel of the bat on the ball, and let the pitched ball do all the real work, ricocheting off the bat. That’s what Rafer did. And my perfect strike was now a perfect line drive, streaking into the gap in left center field. It had just started to drop when it banged off the old outfield fence.

“Throw him another one, Pardner!” yelled Donnie.

“He Zack,” said Rafer.

“I know, I know, he Zack! I mean, he’s Zack. Throw him another one, Pardner! And put some real zip on it this time.”

I wound up and put everything I had into the pitch. Again, Rafer swung as if he were simply dropping the bat onto the ball in one quick, measured motion. The ball left his bat and left no doubt. It cleared the fence in left field, disappearing in trees ten or fifteen feet past the fence. We had never seen a ball travel that far off this field. Not even when Jimmy’s brother, a starter on the high school JV team, had tossed a few in the air and socked them as far as he could.

“Don’t throw him any more,” Jimmy hollered, climbing over the fence with Batman after the ball. “These are my brother’s balls, and he’ll kill me if I don’t bring ’em all back.”

Donnie ran out to me at the mound. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? We can get him. I bet he ain’t on a team . . . I bet my silver dollar he ain’t. We can get him.”

I walked up to Rafer, still standing in the batter’s box, expressionless. “Rafer, how old are you?”

“Rafer twelve.”

Donnie went into a silent victory dance, a kind of jump and twirl.

“Do you wanna play on our team, on our Little League team, the Robins?”

“Yeah. I play.”

“Great,” I said, trying to stay calm. “Great, Rafer. We’re going to have tryouts, right across the street, at McInerney Elementary School. I pointed in the direction. Right on that field, this coming Monday after school. Can you be there?”

He didn’t seem to get what I said. Just when I thought he wasn’t going to say any words, he said three.

“Mack . . . and Ernie.”

“Who are they?” said Donnie. “No, no, you tell him we just want him.”

Donnie was standing right next to both of us. I didn’t know why he thought I was Rafer’s interpreter, except that I kind of felt that way too. Like I was a bridge between Rafer and Donnie and whomever.

“Who are Mack and Ernie, Rafer?” I asked.

“Mack and Ernie School.”

“Oh.” I smiled. “I get it. Hey, that’s pretty funny, Rafer.”

Only Rafer wasn’t smiling, and I worried about him not showing up for the tryouts.
“Rafer, can you be here”—I pointed to the ground—“next Saturday?” I figured I could walk across the street with him to the actual tryouts.

“Mack and Ernie,” he said without expression.

Donnie started to laugh and I gave him a sharp look. I was trying to get something important done.

“Rafer, I will meet you right here, next Saturday, by your tree.” I pointed. “Then you and me will go to tryouts . . . I mean, play some baseball together. All right? Saturday morning. Is that okay?”

“Rafer hit.”

“That’s right. Saturday morning, you’ll hit.”

“I hit Saturday.” I probably imagined it, but it looked like his mouth was turning at the corners in a small smile. Then he turned and started to walk. He passed his tree.

Watching Rafer disappear into the woods, I heard Donnie’s anxious voice. “We can’t let the other coaches see him bat. We gotta find a way to make him a Robin without, you know, without the others seeing him bat.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ll think of something.”

From a long ways off we heard Jimmy, sounding like someone you hear hollering when you’re in your house with the windows closed.

“I found it. Hey guys, I… found…it.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lydia's Charm - Prologue and Chapter 1




Lydia's Charm
Barbour Books (September 1, 2010)
by
Wanda E. Brunstetter





Prologue


A sob rose in Lydia King’s throat as she stared at the calendar on her kitchen wall. A year ago today, she’d buried her husband after having been married only five short years. Oh, how she wished she could bring Jeremiah back.

She glanced at her four-year-old son, Josh, who sat at the table, coloring a picture of a yellow cat. The sweet-tempered boy had Lydia’s tawny blond hair and his daddy’s big brown eyes. He was endlessly curious and enjoyed all kinds of animals—two more of his father’s traits.

Lydia blinked to keep her tears from spilling over. Josh needed his father as much as she needed her husband. It wasn’t fair that Jeremiah had been killed in a logging accident, leaving her alone to earn a living and raise their son.

The muscles in the back of her neck tightened. It wasn’t fair that two weeks ago she’d lost her job at the restaurant in Arthur, Illinois, because business was so slow that the restaurant may have to close. She’d looked everywhere for another job, but there were none to be had.

The rent on their small home was coming due in a few days, and with her funds running low, Lydia didn’t know what she should do. She needed to provide for Josh, and without a job, she’d soon be out of money and unable to pay any of her bills. Unlike her English friends who’d also been laid off, Lydia would not rely on unemployment checks because her Amish community believed they should rely on each other and God rather than on insurance.

Lydia had no family living nearby to offer her support. When she and Jeremiah had first moved to Illinois from their home in Wisconsin, they’d made quite a few friends in the local Amish community. Those friends had been quick to help Lydia financially after Jeremiah’s death, but she couldn’t expect them to provide for her and Josh forever. They had families of their own to support, and Lydia wanted to make it on her own.

Oh Lord, please tell me what to do, she prayed. I need some direction.

Her gaze came to rest on the stack of mail lying on the table, unopened. She thumbed through the envelopes, noting several bills that only fueled her frustration.

When she spotted an envelope from her mother, who’d moved to Charm, Ohio, a year ago, she quickly tore it open.

Dear Lydia,
I received your letter the other day and was sorry to hear that you’d lost your job. It’s not good for you to be there with no family, and I think you and Josh should come here to live with your grandfather and me. Since Holmes County has the largest population of Amish in America, a lot of tourists visit here every year. I’m sure it would be easy for you to find a job in the area. I could watch Josh while you’re working, and you’d have a place to stay where you wouldn’t have to worry about paying rent. Please think about this and let me know your decision.
As Always,
Mom

Tears welled in Lydia’s eyes. Things had been strained between her and Mom for a long time. It touched Lydia that Mom cared enough to suggest that she and Josh move to Charm.

Mom had found it hard to leave her home in Wisconsin to take care of Grandpa, who’d suffered a stroke a year after Lydia’s father died. Since Mom was Grandpa’s only daughter, and her two older brothers lived in Missouri, she’d felt obligated to care for him. Lydia had figured her mom would be happy living in Ohio, where she’d been born and raised, but after reading several of her letters, she’d realized that Mom was miserable. Maybe taking care of Grandpa was too much for her. She probably needed some help.

“I’m hungerich. What’s for mattsait, Mama?” Josh asked, breaking into Lydia’s thoughts.

Lydia had no appetite for food, but she couldn’t let her boy go without his supper. She forced a smile and gave his shoulder a gentle pat. “We have some leftover chicken noodle soup in the refrigerator. Does that sound good to you?”

He nodded enthusiastically and grinned.

Lydia glanced at Mom’s letter one more time. Lifting her shoulders and letting them droop with a sigh, she made a decision. She didn’t want to leave their home in Arthur, but she had no other choice. It would be a new beginning for Josh and her, and she was sure that Mom would appreciate some help with Grandpa. Maybe her loss of a job was God’s way of letting her know that it was time for a change.



Chapter 1


The teakettle whistled. Lydia started to rise from her chair, but Mom beat her to it.

“I’m glad you decided to move here,” Mom said, removing the teakettle from the stove. “Your grossdaadi doesn’t talk much these days, and I get terribly lonely sometimes.” Lydia noticed the dark circles under Mom’s pale blue eyes as she poured hot water into their cups. Mom’s flaxen hair was streaked with gray, and the wrinkles in her forehead were more defined. She was only fifty, but she’d aged quite a bit since the last time Lydia had seen her.

“Unless someone comes to stay with Dad, I don’t get out much these days,” Mom explained as she dropped a tea bag into her cup. “Even then, I worry about how he’s doing, so I don’t stay away any longer than necessary.”

Lydia plopped a tea bag into her cup, bounced it up and down a few times, and placed it on her saucer. “Maybe now that I’m here, you can get out a little more.”

“Don’t you want your tea to steep awhile longer? It looks awfully pale in your cup,” Mom said.

“My tea’s fine. I like it weak.” Lydia held her voice in check, determined not to give in to her frustrations. Some things never changed. Mom telling her what to do was one of them.

Maybe I’m being oversensitive, Lydia told herself. I’ve been used to being on my own for the past year and doing things pretty much the way I choose. Hopefully, things will get better after Josh and I have been here awhile. I just need to keep a positive attitude and ignore the things I find irritating.

She glanced around the small kitchen and noticed a pot of primroses sitting on the windowsill. That was something positive—a sign of spring.

Mom reached for the jar of honey sitting on the table and put a spoonful in her cup of tea. She pushed the jar toward Lydia, but Lydia shook her head. She’d always preferred her tea unsweetened and figured Mom should know that. But then, Mom had more important things on her mind these days, so maybe it had slipped her mind.

“If you don’t need me for anything this afternoon, I’d like to take Josh into town to look for a new pair of boots,” Lydia said. “His feet have grown, and his old boots are pinching his toes.”

“Do you have enough money?”

Lydia nodded. Truth was she barely had enough, and she hoped she could find something within her price range.

“That’s fine. I’ll hitch my horse to the buggy for you whenever you’re ready to go.”

Lydia frowned. “I know how to hitch a horse, Mom.” “Yes, but Buttercup’s kind of temperamental. She might not cooperate with you the way she does for me.”

Lydia couldn’t imagine any horse with a name like Buttercup being temperamental. “I’m sure I can manage, but if I have any trouble, I’ll come in and get you.”

The awkward angle of the gas lamp hanging overhead etched Mom’s face in sharp shadows as she pursed her lips and nodded slowly. “You might try Charm Harness and Boot for Josh. If you can’t find the right boots there, you should go to the Wal-Mart in Millersburg.”

“It’ll take too long to go to Millersburg,” Lydia said. “Hopefully we’ll find what we need at the local store. I might stop by Miller’s Dry Goods, too. If there’s anything you need, I’d be happy to pick it up.”

“I can’t think of anything right now,” Mom said. “Since I spend most of my days taking care of your grossdaadi, I’m too busy to do any quilting, so I don’t buy much from the dry goods store these days.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I know how much you like to quilt.” Lydia took a sip of tea and let it roll around on her tongue. She loved the zesty taste of peppermint.

“With the exception of the new store Kiem Lumber built a few years ago, I think you’ll find that things haven’t changed much in Charm,” Mom added.

“It’s nice to know that some things haven’t changed. So many things in our world have.”

Mom nodded. “We do have a couple of new store owners in town.”

“Which ones?”

“The woodshop on the outskirts of town is now owned by a man named Menno Troyer. He and his wife, Sadie, moved here from Pennsylvania about a year ago, but she died six months ago from cancer. That left Menno with four boys to raise on his own.”

“That’s too bad.” As a widow, it was hard enough for Lydia to raise one child on her own; she couldn’t imagine trying to bring up four boys without the help of her husband.

“Oh, and then there’s the general store,” Mom continued. “It’s run by a family of—”

The back door slammed shut, and Mom jumped, nearly spilling her cup of tea.

“Ich hab ken halt draa grict!” Josh hollered as he raced into the kitchen.

“What couldn’t you catch hold of?” Lydia asked.

“Derr katz!” Josh jumped up and down, his dark eyes big as saucers.

Mom put her finger to her lips and frowned. “Be quiet, Josh. You might wake your urgrossvadder.

A gray cat with four white paws zipped into the kitchen and hid under the table, curling its bushy tail around its fluffy body.

Josh dove under the table and grabbed the end of its tail. Meow! The cat let out a screech and raced across the room. Josh tore after it, but his feet tangled in the throw rug in front of the sink, and he dropped to the floor with a grunt. He sat a few seconds, then scrambled to his feet. Dashing across the room, he grabbed for the cat, but it sought refuge under the table again.

“Ich hab ken halt draa grict!” Josh hollered.

“I told you to be quiet!” Mom raised her voice as she pointed to the cat and then to the back door. “Duh die katz naus!”

Josh’s lower lip trembled, and his eyes filled with tears as he gathered up the cat and took it outside, as Mom had asked.

Irritation welled in Lydia’s soul. Josh wasn’t used to his new home or having to be quiet when his great-grandfather was sleeping. What harm could there be in letting him play with the cat in the house? Mom was being too harsh and critical of his behavior. Didn’t she realize the boy was only four years old? Besides, if Josh was supposed to be quiet, then why was it all right for Mom to raise her voice?

Lydia grimaced as she thought about how many times Mom had been critical of her when she was a child. She had never been able to do anything right, and whatever she’d done, Mom had usually ended up redoing.

I need to remember that this isn’t my house and that Mom and Grandpa are doing us a favor by letting us live here, Lydia reminded herself. As long as we’re staying in this house, we’ll need to do things Mom’s way, or there won’t be any peace.

When Josh returned to the kitchen with his head down and shoulders slumped, Lydia gave him a hug and quietly said, “Why don’t you go back outside and play with the katz?”

Josh nodded and scurried out the door.

Mom took a sip of tea and released a lingering sigh. “Der grossdaadi hot net genunk scholof grickt lescht nacht.”

“I’m sorry Grandpa didn’t get enough sleep last night. I’ll make sure that Josh doesn’t disturb him when we get home from shopping this afternoon.”

“I appreciate that. Dad ’s not doing well, and he isn’t used to having little ones in the house running around, making noise.”

Lydia stared into her half-empty cup and blinked back tears. So much for her resolve to remain positive and ignore the things she found irritating. If Josh had to keep quiet all the time, she wasn’t sure how long they could stay here. What Lydia needed most was to find a job so that she and Josh could eventually have a place of their own.



Menno Troyer stepped into the kitchen and groaned. Not only were the cabinets old and in need of repair, but the rest of the kitchen looked messy, as well. A stack of dirty pots and pans from last night’s supper had been piled up in the sink, and the dishes they’d used for breakfast this morning still sat on the table.

He flung open the cupboard door under the sink and grimaced. The garbage can was heaped with even more trash than it had held last night. Since it was late spring and there’d be no school for the next few months, his boys would be home by themselves most of the time while he was at work in his woodshop behind their house.

This morning before Menno had headed to the shop, he’d given the boys a list of chores to do. Here it was almost noon, and they hadn’t completed anything.

Menno moved into the living room. It needed a fresh coat of paint, and the cracked windows had yet to be replaced. He frowned when he saw his two dark-haired boys, five-year-old Kevin and seven-year-old Carl, sleeping on the floor. Nine-year-old Dennis, who had reddish-blond hair like his mother’s, sat in Menno’s recliner with his scruffy-looking mutt, Goldie, draped across his lap. Ike, who’d turned twelve a few weeks ago, was sprawled on the sofa, reading a book. This was ridiculous!

Menno clapped his hands, causing Dennis and Ike to jump, but the two younger boys slept on. “Get yourselves up and be quick about it! I’ll be heading to Kiem Lumber soon, and if you want to go along, then you’d better get with it.”

“You don’t hafta shout, Papa.” Ike sat up and yawned. “We ain’t daab, ya know.”

“I know you’re not deaf, but you sure do act like it sometimes.” Menno pointed to the kitchen door. “Doesn’t look as if you heard a word I said this morning about doing your chores.”

“I fed and watered the horses,” Ike said.

“And I fed Goldie.” Dennis stroked the golden retriever’s ears and offered Menno a freckle-faced grin.

“That’s fine, well, and good, but no one cleared the breakfast table or did last night’s dishes.”

Ike motioned to his sleeping brothers. “That was their job.”

Menno’s patience was beginning to wane. “Who said?”

“Ike said so,” Dennis spoke up before his older brother had a chance to reply. “He thinks he’s the boss when you ain’t home.”

“Ike’s supposed to be in charge when I’m working in the shop.” Menno turned to Ike and snapped his fingers. “Being in charge means you need to see that everyone gets his chores done before I come home from work every day. It doesn’t mean that you get to lie around while your brothers do all the work.”

“But you’re home early today,” Ike said. “So you didn’t give us a chance to get everything done.”

“I’m home early because I’m goin’ to Kiem’s. I told you this morning that if you wanted to go along, you’d need to have your chores done by noon.”

Ike frowned. “Sorry, Papa, but my lazy brothers won’t listen to anything I say.”

Menno felt overcome by a sense of guilt. Ever since Sadie had died, he’d put a lot of responsibility on the boys—especially Ike. It was either that, or he’d have to hire someone to come in and do the household chores, and he really couldn’t afford that right now. He’d just gotten Sadie’s hospital bills paid off and had been trying to put some money away for future needs they might have. With the tourist season starting up again, Menno figured he might sell more furniture and that would help their finances. But he had two employees he needed to pay, not to mention four growing boys who had to be fed and clothed. At the rate things were going, he’d never get this old house fixed up like he’d promised Sadie when they’d first moved to Charm.

Menno glanced at the rocking chair he’d made for Sadie soon after they were married. A wave of sadness washed over him. She’d used that chair to rock each of their sons.

As much as Menno hated to think about it, he really needed a wife—a mother for his boys. But the only widowed women in the area were much older than him. A few younger women weren’t yet married, but they seemed so immature. What Menno needed was someone who’d had experience raising children. The question was, who?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Very Private Grave - Prologue and Chapter 1

A Very Private Grave
Monarch Books (August 1, 2010)
by
Donna Fletcher Crow



Prologue


20 March the year of our Lord 698
The Holy Isle of Lindisfarne

Hands folded, heads bowed, the black-robed brothers gathered in the front of their monastery church. The candles glowed beside the rough stone altar, casting flickering shadows on the hard-tamped earthen floor, marking the spot where their beloved Cuthbert had lain for eleven years.

Now the brothers must perform their solemn task. Eleven years was the prescribed period. Eleven years buried in the earth. Plenty of time for worms, rot and decay to have done their work. Plenty of time for the body of the holy Cuthbert to achieve the end of all mortal flesh. The Prior, presiding in the absence of the Abbot who was on retreat, read out the solemn words, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.”

And the brothers replied, “All flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.”

The Prior strengthened his voice. “The Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. He taketh away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.”

And again the reply, “All flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.”

“All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. The dust shall return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”

“All flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.”

Their brief litany ended, the brothers set about their task, digging in the consecrated ground. A few feet down their shovels hit the lid of the stone sarcophagus. Now they dropped to their knees and did the rest of the digging with their hands, brushing the dirt from the stone until they could grasp the handles on each end and lift the hewn stone box from the soil. Now the precious bones could be washed clean and enshrined above ground in order to be more accessible to the steady stream of pilgrims that made their way to Lindisfarne to pray at the holy man's grave.

The brothers knelt around the coffin while the Prior led a prayer of petition for rest to attend the soul of their dear departed. “May light perpetual shine upon him.”

“And may he rise in glory,” the brotherhood replied. The Prior sprinkled the coffin with holy water and blessed it with incense. Then the two strongest brothers lifted the heavy stone lid.

All held their breath as stone grated on stone. The cloud of incense cleared, and the brotherhood crept forward to view the remains.

One brother fainted. Another shrieked. Several fell back, crossing themselves. The Prior began babbling.

There before them was not the skeleton they had expected. The casket which had been buried in the earth, untouched, beside their own altar for eleven years held a fresh, fully intact body. Cuthbert looked more like a man who had been asleep for eleven hours than one who had been buried for eleven years. Even his vestments were clean and fresh, unstained by water, mud or worms.

One brother kilted his robe to enable him to run to the shore. The tide was in, so he was obliged to shout across the neck of water to the Abbot who was making retreat on tiny Hobthrush Island, just beyond the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. The Abbot paddled over in his coracle and brought order to his astonished, agitated community.

He gave precise orders: dress the uncorrupted body in fresh vestments; place it, along with Cuthbert’s portable altar and other holy objects, in the wooden coffin already prepared; and proceed with the elevation ceremony. God had spoken clearly.

Cuthbert was a saint.



Chapter 1


Felicity flung her history book against the wall. She wasn’t studying for the priesthood to learn about ancient saints. She wanted to bring justice to this screwed-up world. Children were starving in Africa, war was ravaging the Middle East, women everywhere were treated as inferiors. Even here in England—

She stopped her internal rant when she realized the crash of her book had obscured the knock at her door. Reluctantly she picked up the book, noting with satisfaction the smudge it had left on the wall, and went into the hall. Her groan wasn’t entirely internal when she made out the black cassock and grey scapular of her caller through the glass panel of the door. She couldn’t have been in less of a mood to see one of the long-faced monks who ran the College of the Transfiguration which she had chosen to attend in a moment of temporary insanity. She jerked the door open with a bang.

“Father Dominic!” Felicity was immediately sorry for her surly mood. Fr. Dominic was an entirely different matter. She was always happy to see him. “I didn’t realize you were back from your pilgrimage.” She held the door wide for him as he limped down the hall to her living room.

“Just returned, my dear. Just returned.” As he spoke he smiled with a twinkle in his eyes that belied his 85 years, but he couldn’t quite suppress a small sigh as he lowered himself stiffly onto her sofa.

“I’ll put the kettle on.” Felicity turned toward her small kitchen. “I’m so sorry I don’t have any scones.”

“No, no. Just tea today— black.”

She looked at him, puzzled for a moment, then remembered. Oh, yes— today was Ash Wednesday. Solemn fast and all that. Felicity mentally rolled her eyes as she filled the kettle with water and clicked it on.

A few minutes later she filled his cup with a steaming, amber stream of his favorite Yorkshire Gold tea. The Community had a year or two ago started serving a cheaper blend of tea and donating the money saved thereby to the African Children’s Fund Fr. Dominic chaired— a worthy cause, but the tea was dreadful.

He raised his cup, “Oh, who could ask for more? The nectar of the gods.” Still, she knew he was missing her scones for which he sometimes provided little jars of quince jam from the community kitchen. And at Christmas he had brought her favorite— slices of dark, rich fruit cake encased in marzipan an inch thick.

And yet today she wondered if he noticed what he was or wasn’t eating at all, he was so animated with his plans for the major funding drive the Children’s Fund was set to launch. “If one puts together abortion, infant mortality, AIDS and traumatic deaths, South Africa’s daily death toll is appalling. Thousands die in a matter of months. If this were a war, such troop casualties would not be acceptable. The entire future of that nation— the whole continent, really— is at stake. They simply cannot afford to lose so many of their people— especially the children who are the future. If you don’t maintain health and keep order, instability, violence and poverty tear a country apart.”

Felicity nodded vigorously. Yes, this was more like it. This was what she wanted to hear about, not some useless church history nonsense. Fr. Dominic had spent his life working in South Africa, and today his passion made every word strike her heart. “And it isn’t just South Africa, the rest of the continent looks to them— to us— for stability. If South Africa fails, millions of Africans will curse us— we who stand by and let it happen.”

Still, there was hope. Dominic had talked to key people while on pilgrimage and had secured a source of plentiful funding, although he didn't say what that source was. “This will be enough to build a first rate hospital for AIDS babies in Africa and fund a research wing for prevention and cure. There are good leaders in the government. There are people working for justice. If we can just give the people hope to hold on— "

His eyes took on a dreamy look and a little smile played around his mouth. "Hope. That’s what it’s always been about. Through the centuries . . . At last, the treasure to be put to a truly worthy use. . ." He ducked his head and took a quick sip of tea. “Forgive me, I’ve said too much.” He became suddenly thoughtful and lapsed into a most uncharacteristic silence. All Felicity’s best efforts couldn’t coax any more stories from him. Perhaps it was just the solemnity of the day, but Felicity did miss his stories— even the ones she had heard several times.

He drained his cup and set it down. “Ah, thank you, my dear. Always a pleasure to be in your bright company. But now I must be getting back up the hill. Father Superior has asked me to do the ashing at mass, so I must prepare.” He struggled to his feet, his broad-shouldered, once-muscular frame revealing gauntness under the weight of his black woollen cassock, as did the folds of flesh that hung beneath his square jaw.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” He patted the canvas scrip which hung at his side from a strap slung across his chest. “I thought this might interest you.” He held out a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied up with old-fashioned string. His hand shook slightly as Felicity took it from him. The gesture was so endearing: his shyness charming; his eagerness humbling. If the circumstances had been different he could have been a suitor offering jewels to his beloved, or perhaps in an earlier age a troubadour bestowing an ode on his lady. And oddly enough, Felicity had the distinct impression that he hadn’t forgotten at all, but rather that delivering this small package had been the sole object of his visit. One might almost say his mission.

Felicity couldn’t help herself. She stepped forward and kissed him on his cheek. “Thank you, Father.”

Unexpectedly he placed his hands on each side of her forehead. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always.” She felt a warmth from his hands that infused her whole head and radiated toward her body as if she were being bathed in warm oil. She almost fancied a faint scent of spice as he made the sign of the cross over her.

Moving inside a bubble of hushed awe, she held the door for him and he walked out slowly, as if reluctant to leave, stepping carefully to avoid limping. “I’ll see you at mass, Father.”

She shut the door behind him and turned to the window to watch his slow progress down the uneven path, his grey scapular blowing in the wind. Somehow she wanted to call out to him, to cling to the moment, but already it was passing, the normality of the day moving on. Yet even as she turned away from the window, the warmth of his touch remained on her head. She turned back one last time, her hand held out to him, but no one was there. Only a fleeting shadow brushed the corner of her eye. She shivered, but when she blinked the sky was clear.

"Right. Back to the real world." Felicity spoke aloud to make herself focus. She looked longingly at the small brown package in her hand. It felt like a book. A very slim volume. Had Father D. found a publisher for his poetry? Her fingers plucked at the string. No. If this was a collection of her friend’s poetry, perusing it must not be rushed. Reading it would be her treat when she finished the work she had set for herself for the day. Lectures had been cancelled to mark the solemnity, but essays would still be due when they were due. With a sigh she slipped the gift into the large patch pocket of her skirt, and returned to the tome on the Anglo-Saxon church, forcing herself to concentrate on its obscure irrelevancies.

That had been the hardest thing she had found about adjusting to her first year at theological college: the constant pressure of work, and the lack of time to pursue her own interests— even in a monastery. You really would think that living with a bunch of monks and future priests you'd have all the time in the world. Felicity shook her head.

And besides that, there was no margin for error on her part. As one of only four women among the student body of forty-some— and the only American— Felicity felt a double burden to reach the highest standards possible. This was the first year the Anglo-Catholic College of the Transfiguration had accepted women as ordinands, although they were still housed off campus awaiting alterations to the dormitories. Before "the Great Change" a few women enrolled as students, but were not allowed equal status with the male ordinands. Last year, however, the college had submitted to the winds of change and the powers that be, so now the women had full status— and double pressure.

Felicity, however, was never one to let such barriers discourage her. She could rise to any challenge and her determination to succeed in this male-dominated world knew no limits. Anyway, she had few complaints. She had been warmly welcomed— by most. A handful of ordinands and perhaps two or three of the monks and lay teachers were less warm— whether because she was female or because she was American she wasn’t sure.

Two hours later, the insistent ringing of the community bell called her back from her reading. She just had time to fling on a long black cassock over her shetland sweater and dash across the street and up the hill to the Community grounds. Her long legs carried her the distance in under three minutes— she had timed it once. Once inside the high stone wall enclosing the Community she slowed her pace. It never failed. No matter how irritated she became with all the ancient ritual and nonsense of the place, there was something about the storybook quality of it all that got through to her in her quieter moments.

Even the out-datedness of it— or perhaps especially the out-datedness, the sense of being in the midst of a living anachronism. Even if she didn't buy into the whole monastic holy living thing, it was seductive— at times almost enough to make her forget her goal of achieving groundbreaking success. It was just as well that she loved it, since her presence— as well as that of everyone else in the college and community— was required at the service.

The spicy scent of incense met her at the door of the church. She dipped her finger in the bowl of holy water and turned to share it with the brother just behind her. Shy Brother Matthew extended a plump finger without meeting her eyes. They each crossed themselves and slipped into their seats in the choir.

“Miserere mei, Deus. . .” The choir and cantors had practiced for weeks to be able to sing Psalm 51 to the haunting melody composed by Allegri. The words ascended to the vaulted ceiling; the echoes reverberated. Candles flickered in the shadowed corners. She had been here for six months— long enough for the uniqueness of it all to have palled to boredom— but somehow there was still a fascination she couldn't define. “Mystery,” the monks would tell her. And she could do no better.

What was the right term to describe how she was living? Counter-cultural existence? Alternate lifestyle? She pondered for a moment, then smiled. Parallel universe. That was it. She was definitely living in a parallel universe. The rest of the world was out there, going about its everyday life, with no idea that this world existed alongside of it.

It was a wonderful, cozy, secretive feeling as she thought of bankers and shopkeepers rushing home after a busy day, mothers preparing dinner for hungry schoolchildren, farmers milking their cows— all over this little green island the workaday world hummed along to the pace of modern life. And here she was on a verdant hillside in Yorkshire, living a life hardly anyone knew even existed. Harry Potter. It was a very Harry Potter experience.

She forced her attention back to the penitential service with its purple vestments, weighty readings, sombre plainchant responses, and music set in a minor key. Only when they came to the blessing of the ashes did she realize Fr. Dominic wasn’t in his usual place. Her disappointment was sharp. He had definitely said he was to do the imposition of the ashes and she had felt that receiving the ashen cross on her forehead from that dear man would give the ancient ritual added meaning. Instead, Fr. Antony – one of the secular priests who lectured at the college, not even one of the monastic community – stood holding the small pot of palm ashes while Fr. Anselm, the Superior of the Community, blessed them with holy water and incense.

Felicity knelt at the altar rail. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes were cold, a sooty mark of grief, gritty on her forehead.

“Amen,” she responded automatically.

She was back in her seat, turning ahead to the final hymn, “Forty days and forty nights,” when she heard the soft slapping of sandals on the stone floor. Oh, there’s Fr. Dominic. She relaxed at the thought, putting away her worries that he had been taken suddenly ill. But her relief was short-lived when Fr. Clement, the Principal of the college, and Jonathan Breen, a scholar making a retreat at the monastery, slipped to the altar for their ashes.

The final notes of the postlude were still echoing in the high stone vaulting when Felicity rose from her seat and hurried outside. Dinner, a vegetarian Lenten meal, would start in the refectory almost immediately and it wouldn’t do to be late. If she hurried, though, she could just dash back to her flat and pick up a book of Latin poetry for Fr. Dominic. She had a new volume of Horace, and she knew Fr. D loved the Roman's half Stoic, half Epicurean philosophy. He would have time to enjoy what he called his “guilty pleasure” while he recuperated from what must have been a sudden illness.

She bounded up the single flight of stairs, flung open her door and came to a sudden halt. “Oh!” The cry was knocked from her like a punch in the stomach. She couldn’t believe it. She closed her eyes as she backed against the wall, hoping all would right itself when she opened them. It didn’t. The entire flat had been turned upside down.

Felicity stood frozen for perhaps a full minute, trying to take it all in: books pulled from shelves, drawers pulled from her desk, cushions flung from chairs. Hardly breathing, she rushed into her kitchen, bath, bedroom— all chaos— sheets and duvet ripped from her bed, clothes pulled from her wardrobe. She picked her way through scattered papers, dumped files, ripped letters. Dimly she registered that her computer and CD player were still there. Oh, and there was the Horace book still by her bed. She pulled her bag from under a pile of clothes. Empty. But its contents lay nearby. Credit cards and money still there.

Not robbery. So then, what? Why?

Was this an anti-women-clergy thing? Had she underestimated the extent of the resentment? Or was it something political? Had something happened to trigger an anti-American demonstration? Felicity would be the last to know. She never turned on the news.

Well, whatever it was, she would show them. If someone in the college thought they could scare her off by flinging a few books around she’d give them something new to think about. She stormed out, slamming her door hard enough to rattle the glass pane, and strode up the hill at twice the speed she had run down it. Not for nothing her years of rigorous exercise at the ballet barre. When she reached the monastery grounds she keyed in the numbers on the security lock with angry jabs and barely waited for the high black iron gates to swing open before she was speeding up the graveled walk.

Felicity's long blond braid thumped against her back as she charged onward, her mind seething. If those self-righteous prigs who posed as her fellow students thought they could put her off with some sophomoric trick—

She approached the college building, practising the speech she would deliver to all assembled for dinner in the refectory: “Now listen up, you lot! If you think you can push me around just because your skirts are longer than mine. . .”

She punched a clenched-fist gesture toward her imaginary cassock-clad audience, then saw the Horace book still clutched in her hand. Oh, yes. First things first. She would have missed the opening prayer anyway. She would just run by Father D’s room— then she would tell them.

She hurried on up the path beyond the college to the monastery, ran her swipe card through the lock, and was halfway down the hall before the door clicked shut behind her. She had only been to Dominic’s room once before, to collect a poetry book he was anxious to share with her, but she would have had no trouble locating it, even had the door not been standing ajar.

She pushed it wider, preparing to step in. “Father D— ” she stopped at the sight of a man in a black clerical suit standing there. He jerked around at the sound of her voice and she recognized Fr. Antony, her church history lecturer.

She took a step backward when she saw the look of horror on his sheet-white face. “Felicity. Don’t come in.” He held up a hand to stop her and she saw it was covered with blood.

“Father D! Is he haemorrhaging?” She lunged forward, then stopped at the sight before her.

The whole room seemed covered in blood. Bright red splotches on the pristine white walls and bedding, on the open pages of a prayer book, on the statue of Our Lord, forming lurid stigmata on His hands extended in mercy. . .

And in the centre of the floor, in a pool of red, his battered head all but unrecognizable— her beloved Father Dominic. The smell of fresh blood clogged her nostrils. Gorge rose in her throat.

“Felicity— ” Fr. Antony extended his reddened hands to her in a pleading gesture.

“Don't touch me!” She all but screeched, wielding her Latin book as a shield against the blood on his hands, a red haze of shock and horror clouding her vision.

She couldn’t believe Antony's face could get even whiter. “Felicity, stop. Listen to me—”

She dimly registered his words, but the voice in her head shouted with far greater force. No! No, it can’t be. There was some mistake. She was in the wrong room. Must be. She shook her head against the nightmare she had seen but couldn't accept. Her hazy thoughts intertwined with sheer blackness.

She staggered backward into the hall and slumped to the floor as the room spun before her. She closed her eyes against the darkness for a long moment as her mind reeled, groping for a coherent thought. How? What? Why?

Only a few minutes earlier she had been revelling in the peace of this remote and holy place. Where could such violence have come from? How was it possible here? In a place of prayer? To a holy man. Why?

If Fr. Dominic wasn't safe who could be?

And even as the questions tumbled, half-formed through her head, even as her mind denied what her eyes saw, she knew she had to find an explanation. There was no way she could continue studying— believing in— purpose and justice if there were no answers for such senseless irrationality.

Why?

Fr. Antony, still standing dazed in the gore-splattered room looked as though he could collapse in the middle of the pool of blood. Felicity grabbed his arm, jerked him into the corridor, and shoved him against the wall where he stayed, leaning heavily. He held his hands before his face as if unbelieving they were his own. “When he missed mass I came to check on him. . . I felt for a pulse— ”

“We must get help!” Felicity looked wildly around.

“Yes, of course.” Her energy seemed to galvanize Antony. He pushed himself forward unsteadily. “Forgive me, I feel so stupid. I— we must tell the Superior. He’ll call the police.”

“Police? You mean an ambulance.” Felicity started toward the room again. Yes, that was it— how could she have dithered so when they must get help? “He’s lost so much blood, but maybe—”

“No!” Antony grabbed her arm with more strength than she realized he was capable of. “Don’t go in there again, Felicity. It’s useless.”

She knew. She had seen the blood.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Love Finds You Under the Mistletoe -Excerpt

Love Finds You Under the Mistletoe
Summerside Press (September 1, 2010)

by
Irene Brand & Anita Higman


Pages 112-113

David ground his teeth in frustration. As she’d talked, he’d been able to look beyond Julia’s words and see an eager child always waiting for her parents’ affection and never receiving it. Recalling the love he’d received from his parents and Granny, he realized what a void that must have left in Julia’s heart.

“That’s the main reason I enlisted in the WAC. I was still trying to do something to make them proud of me, but when I notified them about my promotions, they didn’t seem impressed.”

“What was in the letter today that upset you so much?”

“Grandmother is better, so Mother and Dad are taking her on a trip to California. Mother said that she was sure I wouldn’t mind looking after Bobby for a few more weeks. She told me I could stay at Mistletoe or go back to Maryland. In other words, it still doesn’t make any difference to them what I do.”

Although sensitive to Julia’s problem, David wondered momentarily about Bobby’s future. If her parents didn’t want the responsibility of Bobby either, what would happen to the child? His paternal grandparents wouldn’t accept him, so he would grow up feeling the same way Julia did.

“You can stay here,” he assured her. “We’ll help you take care of Bobby.”

Julia moved out of his embrace, and he wiped her tears with his handkerchief.

“No, I won’t stay. Nellie has told me that the roads are sometimes impassable for weeks during the winter. It would drive me crazy to be penned up in this hollow. I’ve learned to love Bobby, and I won’t neglect him. Soon after Christmas I’ll take him back to Maryland and give him the kind of love I’ve always wanted.”

David’s heart swelled at her selflessness, her kindness. He took a deep breath. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but I want you to know that I love you, Julia. I’ve loved you from the first moment I lifted you into my arms in Buffalo Creek and carried you to safety. My love has only grown stronger the more I’ve gotten to know you. So whether you’re in Maryland or in Mistletoe, you can always know that someone loves you—even if it is a poor schoolteacher in the mountains of Kentucky. I can’t promise you anything more than that, but I do love you.”

David was amazed by the change in Julia. Joy spread across her face, and in one quick motion, she was in his arms again. His grip tightened around her.

“Oh, David!” Her voice was muffled against his shoulder. “Thank you.” She pulled back to look at him. “Thank you for telling me. It’s wonderful to know no matter where I am or what trouble I’m having, someone cares about me. I can’t change the past, but with God’s help—and your love—I can face the future.”

Softly she touched her lips to his. He knew instinctively that he shouldn’t respond to her, but David’s love overcame his common sense. His lips brushed her brow and her eyes, which had closed when he pulled her into a tight embrace. He kissed the tip of her nose, and then their lips met in a hungry kiss that lingered until Julia pulled away and buried her head on his chest. Although he knew he couldn’t have a future with Julia, David had sealed his love for time and eternity.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Within My Heart - Prologue & Chapter 1

Within My Heart
Bethany House; Original edition (September 1, 2010)

by
Tamera Alexander



Prologue


Dusk, hours following the Battle of Nashville
December 17, 1864


Half hidden beneath the bare-limbed canopy of a dogwood tree, the gravedigger kept a reverent distance, patiently waiting for the last whispered prayers to be uttered and for the final mourner to take her leave. Only then did he step into the fading light, a worn spool of string clutched tight in his gnarled hand. Not much time left. It would be dark soon. And the last grave still needed tending before the pewter skies let loose their winter white.

The distant squeak of wagon wheels and the clomp of horses' hooves faded into the night, leaving only the faint chirrup of crickets to companion the silence. Jessup Collum lifted the lid of the oblong pine box and with painstaking care, his arthritic fingers numb from the cold and marred with time and age, he tied a trailing length of string around the soldier's right wrist. Mindful not to tie the string overtight, he looped the other end through a tiny bell.

He stared for a moment at the soldier's face—the fallen Confederate a mere boy judging from his features—then he glanced around at the freshly covered graves. Deep in his bones he knew what he was doing was right, even if a bit out of the ordinary. There was no malice in his actions, and no sin, most certainly. Nothing that would bring serious offense. Though folks would surely think him a touch senile, if they saw. If they knew ...

So many ways for a man to die, yet only one was needed for the earth to cradle a body back from whence all life had come.

Jessup turned that thought over in his mind as he'd done countless times before, not indifferent to the shadows stealing across the graveyard as the December sun hastened its retreat. Nightfall brought bitter cold, but not a breath of wind stirred, and each snowflake lofted downward from heaven, unhindered in its journey. He worked hurriedly to cover the last grave, mindful of the trailing string.

After the last shovel of dirt, he straightened, slowly, his crooked spine bearing the brunt of forty-two years of tending this hallowed ground—and of the last few hours of burying the bloodied remnants the Federal Army had abandoned following their assault. If the once-valiant Tennessee Army had been crippled in the battle at Franklin two weeks ago, then the past two days of fighting had delivered a mortal wound.

Jessup lit a torch and stared over row after row of mounded earth, the light casting a burnished glow around him. Too many and too young were those who lay here, going before their time. Before their lives had been lived out. He thought again of the young woman earlier who'd been last to take her leave.

Dark-haired with skin pale and smooth as cream, she'd knelt for the longest time at the grave on the far end, one he'd taken care in covering not two hours earlier, as he'd done the one at his feet just now. She'd huddled close by that grave, weeping, arms drawn around herself, looking as if she'd wanted to lay herself down and mark an end to her own life, what little she had left after losing the man buried there—"a decorated lieutenant from the Tennessee regiment, and my only brother," she'd whispered through tears.

The wound on the lieutenant's neck had told Jessup how the man had died, and the sutures and bloodstained bandages told him how hard some doctor had fought to save him. Shame how fast these soldiers were buried. No proper funeral. No time for one— not with the Federal Army bearing down hard, void of mercy, bent on conquering what little was left.

He tugged the worn collar of his coat closer about his neck and begged the Almighty, again, to intervene, to put an end to this war. Surely it couldn't go on much longer.

A heavy mist crept over the rise from the creek, shrouding the stone markers. The fog seemed to deepen the pungent aroma of upturned earth, and a beguiling trace of honeysuckle clung to the cool night air, despite the wild vine not being in bloom. Jessup took a deeper whiff and could almost taste the sweet summer nectar. A smile pushed up his whiskered cheeks. Maybe folks were right. Maybe he was a touch senile after all. These days recent memories skittered off about as quickly as he reached for them, while others that should have been long gathering dust inched closer as the years stretched on.

He sat down against an ancient poplar, borrowing its strength. Still no wind, and the snow had ceased falling. He imagined the boy's face again, able to see it clearly in his mind's eye as he stared at the bell, willing it to move.

Even the slightest bit.

He put his head back, resting his eyes, only for a moment. But the moments lengthened and gathered and pulled taut, coaxing him along on a gentle wave, absent of the throb in his lower back and the ache across his swollen knuckles.

He was a boy again, running through fields knee-high with summer grass, the sun hot on his face, sweat from a humid Tennessee afternoon beading on his forehead and matting his hair to his head. Someone called to him in the distance. A voice so sweet ... A lifetime had passed since he'd heard that voice. Mother ...

He ran, youthful legs pumping hard, trying to reach her, wanting to see her again. But the faster he ran, the farther away her voice seemed to—

Jessup awakened with a start, his breath coming in sharp staggers.

An uncanny sense of presence crowded the darkness around him, and he realized the torch had gone out. He sat straighter, head cocked to one side, and listened, straining to hear his mother's voice again.

But her voice was gone.

He wiped the telling moisture from his cheeks and rose, the joints cracking in his knees. In all his days, he couldn't recall so still a night. So loud a hush over the graves. With a sinking feeling, he looked down at the grave of the young boy. It was late now. Too late.

He prayed the boy was at peace, wherever he was. Same for the decorated lieutenant down the way. He didn't know much about the afterlife—not like folks expected him to—but he reckoned if God was as kind as he believed Him to be that there was some sort of special welcome going on right now for those men who'd laid down their lives in this terrible—

The distant tinkling of a bell brought Jessup upright.

A skitter shimmied up his spine. The air trapped viselike in his lungs. Praying he wasn't still dreaming, he searched the darkness at the end of the row where the woman had knelt earlier, and his skin turned to gooseflesh. If this was what some folks felt when they visited this place late at night, he knew now why they never ventured back.

He also knew why he would never leave.

Chapter 1


Timber Ridge, Colorado, Rocky Mountains
April 12, 1877

Rachel Boyd stood motionless in the main aisle of the general store, knowing she shouldn't eavesdrop. But heaven help her, she couldn't bring herself to move! Half afraid that Ben and Lyda Mullins would hear her if she did try to make a stealthy exit, she gripped the jar of molasses in her hand, unable to stifle a giggle. The only patron in the store, she was grateful for the lull in afternoon traffic and was more than a little amused—and surprised— by the affectionate whispers coming from beyond the curtained doorway.

A soft chuckle. "Ben Mullins, what's gotten into you? Someone could walk in on us."

A deeper laugh. "Who's going to come back here into the storeroom? All I want is a little kiss. Come here, woman, and let me ..."

Rachel couldn't make out the low murmurs that followed, and didn't need to. Her imagination filled in the blanks just fine. Warmth rose to her face. Unbidden, her memory skimmed the past two years, and emotions long buried since Thomas's death, yet never forgotten, slowly reawakened inside her.

With them came bittersweet memories of the tender way her husband used to love her, and desires long dormant began to unfurl. She closed her eyes, recalling what it had felt like to be loved by a man. A shiver stole through her, though not an altogether pleasurable one. Her smile slowly faded.

While this wasn't the first time she'd remembered the intimacy she and Thomas had enjoyed in marriage, it was her first time to feel those intimate stirrings again. The desire for a man's touch, for that relationship. But the desire wasn't welcome. She would not—could not—ever again love a man the way she'd loved Thomas.

Following his passing, there had been moments when she'd questioned whether she would survive. It had taken so long to find her way out of that fog, that deep, dark place where she'd known she needed to start living again, if only for her boys, but couldn't. With the double-edged gift of time's passing, and the persistent encouragement of family and friends, she'd finally found her way back into the sunlight.

But loving someone so completely, giving herself to a man the way she'd done with her husband, it gave them the power to hurt you in a way no one else could, even when it wasn't their intention.

And she never wanted to hurt like that again. Ever.

More than once, she'd been told she needed to consider remarrying, if only for her boys' sake. But just as she wouldn't risk her heart a second time, neither would she risk her sons having to endure the same hurt they'd gone through with their father's passing. Besides, she and Mitchell and Kurt were getting along fine, just the three of them.

A not-so-gentle check tugged at her flagging confidence. She fingered the jar of molasses in her hand. Perhaps fine wasn't the best choice of a word, but the three of them were managing as best they could. She smoothed a hand down the front panel of her skirt and forced down a recurring tide of emotion. With effort, she refocused her thoughts.

School would dismiss within the hour, and she planned on dropping by to visit with the schoolteacher about Kurt. She didn't have an appointment—and it wasn't her first "meeting" with Miss Stafford over her younger son. She just wanted to make sure things were going smoothly and that Kurt hadn't done something else foolish. Again. Like the shenanigan he'd pulled two weeks prior involving the school's outhouse.

He hadn't been the only boy involved, she'd learned, but she had a feeling he'd been the instigator. And she cringed again just thinking about it, putting herself in Miss Stafford's place. Young and inexperienced, Judith Stafford was, from all accounts, being more than patient with Kurt. How embarrassing that must have been. Kurt had written a note of apology, and she'd written Judith Stafford a note too, offering her own expression of regret and thanking the teacher for her understanding. Hopefully a quick visit today would keep things moving in the right direction.

After dealing with that issue, endless chores awaited on the ranch, not to mention the meeting about the overdue loan payment. Mr. Fossey, the bank manager, had been more than lenient, but she sensed his patience waning.

She returned the jar of molasses to the shelf, considering it a luxury these days with funds on the scarce side. In the midst of everything, she was still determined to keep Thomas's dream alive for their two sons. It was what pushed her from bed each morning and what carried her through each day until she fell exhausted back into bed long after dark. That, and the pledge they'd made as a couple to give Mitchell and Kurt a heritage, a better life than the boys would have had if she and Thomas had stayed in Tennessee following the war.

She fingered a callus on her palm. Losing the ranch Thomas had worked so diligently to build wasn't an option, and it hardly defined giving their boys a "better life." She'd stood over her husband's grave and had given her solemn oath that she would see his dream—their dream—come to fruition. And that was a promise she intended to keep. If Mr. Fossey still considered her a worthwhile risk.

The intimate exchange behind the blue-and-yellow gingham curtain grew more ardent, and Rachel felt a blush, regretting not having left at the outset. She made her way to the door, hoping Ben had remembered to oil the squeaky hinge. Guilty as she felt, it was nice to know that after twenty-something years of marriage, Ben and Lyda's feelings for each other were still—

"Ben?"

Hearing the name, and catching the unmistakable alarm in Lyda's tone, Rachel paused, hand on the latch.

"Ben, what's—" A muted gasp sounded from the back storeroom. "Honey, what's wrong? Ben ... are you all—"

A dull thud.

"Ben!"

Rachel raced to the curtain that separated the store from the back part of the building but stopped shy of continuing on. "Lyda, it's Rachel. Is everything all right?" She waited, impatient. "Lyda?"

"No, we're— Ben, can you hear me?" Anxiety constricted Lyda's voice. "Rachel! Something's wrong. I ... I don't think he's breathing!"

Rachel whipped past the curtain and hurried down the hallway, and came to a stilting halt by the storage closet.

Ben lay crumpled on the floor, motionless, his complexion drained of color. Lyda knelt close beside him. Panic lined her features.

Instinct kicked in and Rachel squeezed in beside them into the cramped space. "What happened?" She checked Ben's pulse, first on the underside of his wrist, then on his neck.

Tears rimmed Lyda's eyes. Her hands shook. "We were ..." She looked away and Rachel felt a pinch of guilt. "We were ... kissing, and the next thing I knew Ben was clutching at his arm." Panic thinned her tone. "He acted like he couldn't catch his breath, and then he ..." She bit her lower lip as tears spilled over. "He just went down."

Rachel closed her eyes and concentrated on finding a pulse, wishing she had her father's old stethoscope. "Has anything like this happened to Ben before?"

Lyda shook her head and nudged her husband's shoulder with a trembling hand. "Ben," she whispered, "can you hear me?"

Fingertips pressed against the underside of his wrist, Rachel stilled. There—finally, she felt something. A pulse. Thready and shallow. Too much so. "He needs Dr. Brookston," she whispered, touching Ben's brow to find it cool and clammy. "I'll go find him. You stay here."

Lyda reached for her hand. "You know what's happening ..."

It wasn't a question and Rachel didn't answer. Before Timber Ridge boasted a physician of its own, she'd served as midwife to women in town. She'd also treated wounds and sewn up her share of cuts and gashes. People rarely called on her since the doctor arrived—maybe an expectant mother every now and then—but she had a fairly good idea of what was happening to Ben. Yet she wasn't about to state it aloud. It would only add to Lyda's worry, and her assumption could well be wrong. She wasn't a trained physician, after all. Medical schools were for men, not women.

"The important thing, Lyda, is that Ben is breathing and I can feel a pulse. Whatever you do, don't move him. If he comes to while I'm gone, make sure he doesn't try to get up. That's very important." She reached for a towel on a shelf, rolled it up, and gently slid it beneath Ben's head. "And keep his head elevated until I get back with the doctor." She stood.

Lyda stared up, fresh tears rising. "Is he ... going to be all right?"

Rachel knelt again, on the verge of tears herself. At forty-nine, Ben Mullins was almost twenty years her senior—Lyda was half that. Yet in recent years the older couple had become almost like parents to her. Ben treated her much like a father would and was like an uncle to her sons. Lyda was a trusted friend and filled the role of an indulgent aunt to the boys, which included sneaking them candy in church when they were younger, and occasionally even now. Yet Rachel still couldn't bring herself to answer Lyda's question.

She forced a smile she didn't feel. "Did you hear what I said? About making sure Ben stays still and about keeping his head elevated?"

Shadows of realization darkened Lyda's eyes. "Yes," she choked out, nodding. "I heard. It's just that—" She drew in a ragged breath. "Rachel ... he's all I have now. I can't lose him too."

A horrible, suffocating wave of grief hit Rachel all over again. Only it wasn't from memories of Thomas. She knew that pain only too well. This was different, and it tore at her heart. She reached for Lyda's hand and gripped it tight, remembering a bitter wintry night eight years ago. A night she and Lyda had spoken of only a handful of times since.

Filling her lungs, she worked to steady her voice, the image of Ben and Lyda's children, their expressions so peaceful, so precious, even in death, making that nearly impossible. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the haunting images remained. "I'm going to go find the doctor—he'll know what to do. I won't be long, I promise."

Lyda nodded, her expression communicating what words could not. "Thank you, Rachel. And please ... hurry."

* * *

Rachel ran the short distance to the doctor's clinic and entered without knocking. Angelo Giordano stood at a worktable inside, pestle in hand. "Angelo—" She paused to catch her breath, the chilled mountain air still burning her lungs. "Is Dr. Brookston here?"

The young man shook his head. "The doctor ... he is at—" He lowered his head. "He is away, Mrs. Boyd." Though his Italian accent was thick and his word choices careful, Angelo Giordano's diction was flawless. "But if maybe ... I could be of help—"

"I need Dr. Brookston, Angelo! I think Ben Mullins is having heart failure."

The boy's dark eyes went wide.

Rachel hurried to a bookcase crammed with bottles and metal tins, each neatly labeled. But the shelves were cramped, and numerous tins sat stacked on the plank-wood floor gathering dust. She scanned the labels, finding them a challenge to read in the poor light and with the containers stuffed in as they were. She exhaled. Could Dr. Brookston not afford a proper cabinet for his medicine? "Do you know if the doctor has any foxglove? It's a plant—an herb. It's used with patients who have heart ailments."

"I do not know, ma'am," Angelo said, joining her in the search.

Rachel shoved a tin aside to view another behind it, and a bottle of laudanum slipped off the shelf. She tried to catch it, but the bottle hit the floor with a crack and shattered, splattering laudanum and sending glass shards in all directions. She bit back a harsh word. "I'm sorry, Angelo. I didn't mean to break—"

"Dr. Brookston will not be angry." The boy reached for a rag. "I will clean it."

Her panic mounting, Rachel spotted two wooden crates in the corner, but they held only bottles of lamp oil. Enough to last for an entire year! What did anyone need with that much oil? An unopened box on the examination table drew her attention.

Angelo gestured. "It is new medicine. It came today. That is why I am here. Maybe I should—"

She nodded, anticipating what he might say next. "Yes. Go through that box—quickly please, Angelo—and look for anything that has either of these words on it." She grabbed the fountain pen and a piece of paper from Dr. Brookston's desk and scribbled a note. She already knew firsthand from having assisted Dr. Rand Brookston last fall that he was an exemplary surgeon—she only hoped he was as conscientious about keeping medications ordered and in stock.

She pressed the paper into Angelo's hand. "Now, do you have any idea where the doctor might be? Who he was going to see?"

Angelo blinked, glancing downward.

"Angelo, please! There's little time."

Wincing, the young man reluctantly met her gaze. "He spoke of going to ... to Miss Bailey's."

Rachel frowned, confused. "Miss Bailey's ..."

He nodded once. "The woman, she has a house over on—"

"I know where Miss Bailey's house is."

Angelo swallowed and the sound was audible. "The doctor ... sometimes he sees to the ... boarders who live there."

Rachel felt the furrows in her brow. Boarders wasn't exactly the word she would have chosen to describe the women who lived under Miss Bailey's roof. Regardless, she needed the doctor, and if that's where he was, for whatever reason, then that's where she would go. "As soon as you find either of the items listed on that sheet of paper, bring them as quickly as you can to the mercantile, to the back storeroom. Will you do that, please?"

Angelo nodded, his chest puffing out. "Yes, Mrs. Boyd. If what is on this paper is in this box, I will find it. I will bring it."

She thanked him and took off down the boardwalk at a run.

The April air was brisk, burning her lungs. It held the promise of more snow, and Rachel pulled her winter shawl tighter around her shoulders, wishing she hadn't left her coat at the store. A gust of wind disturbed the layer of fresh-fallen snow lining the rooftops and sent it swirling downward.

Winter wouldn't leave the Rockies for at least another month, maybe two, and she prayed the cold wouldn't cost her more cattle than it already had, or the calves due to drop any day. But especially the calf belonging to Lady. She'd bought Lady a year ago, her first major investment for the ranch, and a good one, for a change.

She turned at the next street. Thankfully, foot traffic on the boardwalk was scarce.

School hadn't dismissed yet but soon would—and she wouldn't be there to meet the boys, or to have that visit with their teacher. When she didn't show, she knew Mitchell and Kurt would walk to James's office and wait there until she arrived. The boys loved their uncle James and never complained about visiting the sheriff 's office, but she worried about what they saw and overheard there. Still, some days it couldn't be helped.

Only last fall had she begun to allow Mitch and Kurt to walk to school on their own again. She still accompanied them in the wagon as far as Ben and Lyda's store each morning, unable to stomach the thought of them walking the distance from the ranch like they once had. Not after what had happened to Thomas, and with the recent reports of cougar sightings.

Winded, she struggled to maintain the hurried pace, her breath puffing white. Winter-shrouded peaks towered high above Timber Ridge and drew her gaze upward as thoughts of Ben pressed close. The rush of her pulse pounded hard in her ears.

If only Ben's heart could beat half as strong ...

If Ben had a history of heart weakness, he'd never mentioned it. Neither had Lyda. And Rachel felt certain they would have, given her closeness to them.

A left at the next intersection led her into a part of town she didn't usually frequent. Saloons and gaming halls lined the thoroughfare. Even midday the smell of liquor was potent. She spotted Miss Bailey's establishment at the end of the street and made a beeline for it, wondering how she knew which building it was. She couldn't recall being told. It was simply one of those places everybody in town knew of, but most folks—at least in her circle—never spoke about.

Two women lazed against the railing of the wraparound porch, talking, dressed in a manner ill-advised for the cold and that might have been shocking had Rachel been na├»ve about their occupation. But she wasn't, and she raced up the porch stairs, the unease over having to visit a place like this paling in comparison to her concern for Ben. She never broke stride. "I've come to get Dr. Brookston. It's an emergen—"

The woman on the left, a blonde, stepped directly into her path, blocking the door.

Rachel stopped short.

"I think you mean Rand, don't you?" the woman said, looking her up and down and smiling, though not in a friendly way. "That's what we all call him." She crossed her arms over her chest and her ample cleavage lifted to threaten the already strained buttons of her thin shirtwaist. "He's inside, visiting with one of the girls. And I don't think he'll take kindly to being interrupted." She gave a throaty laugh. "I know Patricia won't. She's been waitin' for this all week." She tossed a wink at the woman beside her.

"Visiting with one of the girls." Fairly good at reading people, Rachel knew when she was being goaded. She had no qualms about the doctor seeing to the health of these women. Her father had been a physician, and she respected a physician's oath to care for the sick, regardless of person or circumstance. Yet Dr. Brookston's coming here, to this place, and his apparent familiarity with these women ... Such behavior hinted at arrogance. An arrogance with which she was only too familiar when it came to men of his profession.

An arrogance that often led to their downfall.

"Like it or not—" Rachel squared her shoulders, finding boldness when picturing Lyda cradling Ben—"Dr. Brookston's visit here is about to be cut short." She pushed past the woman, yanking her arm free when the blonde grabbed hold. Once inside, she hustled to close the door and flipped the lock into place, knowing it wouldn't buy her much time.

The women pounded on the glass-paned door behind her, yelling obscenities. Surely the building had a back door, so Rachel knew she was only prolonging the inevitable, but she didn't need long.

The sickeningly sweet smell of perfume hit her full in the face. That, and stale liquor. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light.

Laughter drifted down from the second floor, giving hint as to where she should begin her search. She hurried up the spiral staircase. The garish red carpet muted her boot steps. She instinctively reached for the handrail, then held back, thinking better of it.

Oversized oil paintings covered the walls, detailed in their renderings and advertising the services bartered in this place. After her gaze collided with a particularly graphic "portrait," she kept her eyes averted, but couldn't block out the disturbing memories that came with being inside a place like this. Not that she'd ever been inside a brothel before—

But her father had. On numerous occasions. With many women. For many years.

For the thousandth time, she questioned why doctors considered themselves more highly than they ought, more immune to weaknesses in character and less prone to fault—when based on personal experience, with few exceptions, she'd found quite the opposite to be true.

She reached the second-story landing, and the gravel of male voices blended with female laughter to paint a plurality of mental images Rachel tried in vain to block out. She looked down the long hallway. So many doors ... and they were all closed.

The rush of footsteps sounded from downstairs. "She must have gone up there!"

Time running out, Rachel pounded on the first door.