Authors: Hake, Cathy Marie;
To Love Mercy ©2006 by Cathy Marie HakeTo Walk Humbly ©2006 by Cathy Marie HakeTo Do Justice© 2006 by Cathy Marie Hake
Ebook Editions:Adobe Digital Edition (.epub) 978-1-63409-824-3Kindle and MobiPocket Edition (.prc) 978-1-63409-825-0
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
Scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual people, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental.
Published by Barbour Books, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 719, Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683,www.barbourbooks.com
Our mission is to publish and distribute inspirational products offering exceptional value and biblical encouragement to the masses.
Printed in the United States of America.
Have you ever read something that sticks in your mind? My freshman year in high school I set out to read the entire Bible. Not just any Bible would do. I chose the Bible my daddy gave me many years previously on the Sunday I accepted Jesus into my heart—a black leather, red-letter, King James Version. Having grown up in a God-fearing, churchgoing home, I knew most of the stories in the Bible. Or so I thought. Then I embarked on an incredible journey for myself.
I was seeking to find what God wanted of me. Books have been written on what God wants. Sermons and songs address the matter. But my journey was to discover on an intensely personal basis what God willed of and for me. Micah 6:8 jumped off the page. “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORDrequire of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Years—okay, decades—have passed, yet that verse still resonates with me. When I was asked to write this book, I prayed about it. In that year, I had three surgeries, a major car accident, and had to put my beloved dog to sleep. Through it all, I’ve clung to the knowledge that this verse isn’t one-sided. God is the final arbiter of justice, even if I do not see the results here and now. He continually covers me with His tender mercies, and I never walk alone because He is with me.
I hope you enjoy reading about the Gregor brothers. Each received a gift and a piece of advice from their father, Micah. Their heavenly Father uses that to open their hearts to some very special Texas brides.
Love,Cathy MarieTable of Contents
To Love Mercy
To Walk Humbly
To Do Justice
EpilogueTo LoveMERCYPrologueApril 3, 1892Aboard theAnchoriain the Atlantic
You’ll stay together?”
Robert Gregor curled his hand around his father’s. “Aye, Da. You’ve my word on it.”
“Dinna be grieving, boy-o. ’Twas my wish to see you to the New World. As for me, my destination’s heaven. God and your mama will welcome me with open arms.”
The ship rolled gently, and sorrow as deep as the Atlantic washed over Robert. It didn’t come as a sudden shock but as a swell, carrying him from the security he’d known and leaving him adrift.Not yet. Please not yet. “We’ll see land in another day.”
“That you will.” His father had a way of putting together words to intensify their meanings. He’d done it now, and Robert felt the tide of life shift in those moments.
“Rob?” Duncan looked down from the upper bunk. His black hair stood up boyishly, making him look only half his age.
“Go fetch Christopher.” Robert knew his eldest brother would be pacing the deck. A restless man, Chris avoided situations where he’d bare his emotions or soul to others. Had it just been the four of them, he’d have stayed, but the ship teemed with hundreds of folks with nothing better to do than mind everyone else’s business. Christopher left the crowded steerage compartment round about midnight, grief ravaging his features.
Lord Almighty, must You take Da yet? Robert knew the answer. As a doctor, he’d witnessed births and deaths aplenty. Powerless to do anything but give comfort, he smoothed back Da’s thinning gray hair. “Save your breath, Da. The others’ll be here soon, and they deserve to hear your love.”
Minutes later, Christopher shouldered past the neighboring berths and knelt by the bunk. Duncan came to a halt behind him and rested a warm, calloused hand on his shoulder. Robert saw the tension in their jaws, the sheen of tears in their eyes. The Gregors were stoic with others, but among themselves, they always loved, laughed, and wept unabashedly—except for now. Time grew short, and Robert knew his brothers’ hearts were breaking, as was his, yet they both stayed strong for Da’s sake. A man ought to slip from this world and into God’s arms with the peace of knowing those he left behind would fare well.
“I’ve been blessed to have ye, lads.” Da drew in another breath. “Stay close to the Almighty so we’ll meet again at heaven’s gate.”
Each of them gave that promise without reservation.
Da squeezed Rob’s hand. “My da’s watch—to Chris.” He stared at his eldest and whispered, “Time is a gift, dinna waste it.”
Christopher nodded solemnly.
“Bible—I’m wanting Duncan to hae it. He’s a man of deep thoughts and quiet truths fit to soothe the soul.”
“I’ll treasure it, Da.” Duncan bent closer. “I’ll have a son and read to him as you read to us. He’ll know the Word of God, and Da—I’ll name him after you.”
A smile chased across Da’s features.Aye, Da’d been right, Robert observed.Duncan just spoke words that gave comfort.
Da then turned his head. “Robert—”
Rob leaned down and looked steadily into his father’s eyes. “You already gave me my gift, Da. I know what you sacrificed for me.” The compensation Da received for the arm he lost while working in the zinc mine had paid for Robert’s medical schooling.
Da smiled. “Mama’s ring. I kept it for ye, Son. Caring for bodies makes a doctor close off his heart so he doesn’t have to feel the pain. Dinna do that. Take a chance at love.”
Within the hour, it was all over. Rob wrapped Da; Christopher pushed everyone away and cradled his lifeless form up to the deck; Duncan carried the Bible. During the voyage, they’d assisted with other burials, but this was different. All three of them stood in a sorrowful knot as Chris prayed.
TheAnchoria’s captain made a motion as he somberly said, “Lord, we commend the body of Micah Gregor to You and commit his mortal body to the deep until the day of Your return.”
It was over. Those who had come up to pay their respects murmured their condolences, then wandered off to leave the brothers some privacy.
Duncan opened the Bible. The ribbon marker was set in the book of Micah. He cleared his throat and read in an unsteady voice made thick with tears, “ ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ ”
Christopher nodded solemnly. “Da did those things.”
Rob wrapped his arms about his brothers’ shoulders. “Aye, and we will, too, in his honor.”Chapter1Ellis Island
The Gregor brothers stood shoulder to shoulder along the ship’s rail as theAnchoriacut through the choppy waters. The copper Statue of Liberty towered over their vessel, but her long-awaited welcome felt empty since Da wasn’t beside them to see the grand sight.
Duncan nudged Rob. “I’m thinking she has the biggest feet I’ve ever seen.”
His joke lightened the tension. All three brothers chuckled. It made sense that Duncan would notice such a detail, him being a cobbler.
All about them, folks craned to see the sight. Mamas clutched their children close, and men stood a bit taller. Freedom. Opportunity. They’d scrimped, saved, sacrificed, and some nearly starved to come to America. Seeing Liberty did something—they’d gotten here…Didn’t that mean other dreams and hopes could come true, too?
“Ellis Island,” a sailor announced through a megaphone. “First-class passengers, please remain aboard. We will assist you with all your needs. Second class and steerage, gather your belongings and prepare to disembark.”
“Remember what I told you,” Robert murmured to his brothers. He shot a meaningful look at a woman coughing into her handkerchief. Americans didn’t want diseased immigrants flooding their land. Processing newcomers through this facility allowed officials to turn back those they determined might be sickly. Robert had known that fact full well, but Da refused to listen. He’d insisted on making the voyage.
“We’re hale as horses,” Chris said as he withstood a hefty bump from someone on his other side. “I’m heartily sick of being crowded. I’m going below to get our gear.”
“I’ll come along.” Duncan shifted sideways.
Robert didn’t say a word. He’d given Da his promise that they’d stick together, and he’d meant it. From here on out, he’d be sure to keep what was left of his family intact. After an overcrowded, noisy voyage, the steerage compartment was eerily empty and silent. They walked down the companionway and wended past bunks to reach the berth they’d shared with so many others.
Chris and Duncan knelt and yanked Duncan’s trunk from beneath the bunk. Filled with a cobbler’s tools, the thing weighed a ton, but Duncan hefted it with relative ease.
Robert turned his hand over and felt under the bunk for a package he’d secured there when they’d first boarded.
“Is it there still?” Chris asked in an undertone.
“Aye.” Rob untied the corners and carefully reclaimed his precious supply of medications and medical instruments. Theft below decks had proven to be a persistent problem, and he’d taken care to protect these things from sticky fingers and shifty souls. “I’ll put this in my bag with the rest of the things now.”
Two battered suitcases, a physician’s bag, and a cobbler’s trunk. The Gregor brothers carried all their worldly possessions off the ship and onto American soil. In short order, workers herded them through lines and into a large wooden building. Workers chalked numbers on the immigrants’ baggage and gave them pasteboard tickets for each piece.
“I’ll have that.” A man tugged at Robert’s valise.
“No.” Robert held fast. “I’m a physician. ’Tis my bag.”
“Why didn’t you just say so?” The man shot him a disgruntled look and went on down the line to the next men.
Duncan folded his arms and looked about. “Aboard the ship, the noise all rolled back on us. Here, I can make out all of the different tongues. How are they ever going to be able to ask us all questions and understand our answers? ’Tis like the Tower of Babel in here.”
“Chris.” Robert elbowed him. Christopher had an uncanny ability to learn languages. “How many do you hear?”
“German. Dutch. French. Russian. Some of it sounds like Latin, so I’d venture that it’s Spanish or Portuguese.” He shrugged. “Probably both. Judging from clothing, there are Slavs aplenty, too.”
Their group spent time in what looked remarkably like a livestock pen. Older folk slumped on wooden benches and toddlers fussed.
Women went one way; the men went the other. Robert watched in silence as each man underwent a cursory examination. Those with light sensitivity or red, runny eyes received marks on their coats. So did the ones whose coughs revealed consumption.
A father and son ahead of them were drawn off to the side; the son’s eyes were diseased—would the father stay in America while his son was shipped back home?
Lord Almighty, what a horrendous situation. Da wouldn’t have made it through this. You took him from us, and that was hard enough—but to have a stranger rip us apart would have been unbearable. I didn’t realize at the time just how merciful You were being.
“Destination?” The tall man at the desk looked at Duncan for an answer.
“Texas,” Christopher answered. He pulled Connant’s letter from his vest pocket and carefully laid it on the desk. Connant had enclosed a note with that letter, warning them that New York teemed with immigrants. Officials would be glad to hear the brothers would leave the area.
“I can see you’re all brothers.” The man gave them a friendly smile. “Black Irish?”
“Scots,” they said in unison.
“Brawny ones at that.” The man scribbled something on a document. Robert wondered how someone in the midst of this madhouse managed to stay cheerful all day. Perhaps the news that they were headed clear off to Texas pleased him.God, thank Ye for Connant’s friendship and sound advice.
“What trades do you boast?”
“Doctor, cobbler, and miner.” Christopher jabbed his thumb at each of them in turn.
“Make yourselves useful, men. America needs men of peace and productivity.” He stamped something and waved them onward.
“Now what?” Duncan frowned. “I’m not liking this business of them keeping our belongings somewhere.”
A lanky man with a fringe of bright orange hair beckoned them. He’d gathered several others around him who all looked to be from the Isles. “Immigrant Society!” he called loudly.
“Connant wrote about them.” Robert headed that way.
“There we are, then.” The man smiled broadly. The lilt in his voice sounded wonderfully familiar. “America’s a wondrous land, and I won’t be sayin’ otherwise, but I need to warn you that many an unscrupulous man waits across the harbor. They’ll make promises and take what little ye’ve left, but ’tis little to no help you’ll get back. The Immigrant Society will help, and ’tis honest. If you ken where ye be headed, we’ll help transport you there at minimal cost and less fuss.”
“Minimal cost and less fuss turned out to be an honest assessment,” Robert said later as he tucked his black leather bag beneath the train bench and took a seat.
Duncan chuckled. “It bewilders me, it does, how you recall every last word a body says. How long’s the trip to Texas?”
“Three days.” Christopher folded his arms across his chest and scanned the others filling the train car.
Robert watched the other passengers, too. Long ago, he’d learned he watched people just as avidly as Chris, but they saw entirely different things. Where from his clinical perspective he saw undertones in complexions, strained breathing, guarded moves, and grimaces from pain, Chris focused on eyes and hands because he’d learned to measure a man’s ability to help or do harm. Together, they would evaluate their fellow travelers and exchange terse comments if something struck them as important.
Duncan, on the other hand, slouched in the seat so he’d be at eye level with a small boy. They’d struck up a conversation, and once the train set in motion, Duncan wrapped his arm about the lad’s shoulder and nudged him to rest his head against Duncan’s ribs. It wasn’t but a few minutes ere the lad fell fast asleep, and the mama gave Duncan a look of sheer gratitude.
“Well?” Robert didn’t even look at Chris when he asked.
“Left of the bald man in the green jacket—man’s armed to the teeth. Behind us three rows are two Poles with more fight in their eyes than brains in their heads.”
“That’s all?” He slanted a glance at Chris and gave him a slow, easy grin.
“Aye.” Chris pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes, folded his arms, and stretched his long legs out before him. “I could whip all three of ’em without breaking a sweat, and you could wash the scratches on my knuckles afterward if you were of a mind to be helpful.” His chin dipped to rest on his chest, he let out a throaty chuckle, and before long he slumbered.
Robert couldn’t sleep. Then again, he’d learned to do with less sleep than most men needed. Relentlessly, the train chugged across the nation, belching clouds of black smoke and covering mile after mile of this huge, strange country. The rhythmicclack-clack-clackas they advanced didn’t make him sleepy—it energized him.
Three days. Three days of stopping here and there. Of changing trains. Of going through big, stately cities that looked newer than anything Scotland boasted, past grand stretches where nothing but forests commanded the land, and past patchwork plots covered by verdant crops. The streets weren’t exactly paved with gold, but from where he sat and what he saw, Robert knew America offered what every man craved most: an opportunity to make something of himself.
Back home, the zinc mine was played out. Christopher would have faced the humiliation of having no way to earn a living. Folks couldn’t spend money on shoes when their bellies were empty, so Duncan had experienced a severe drop in demand for his skills. Even Robert found he’d been paid far less reliably by his patients. This would be a fresh start. They’d have a meager beginning, but that thought didn’t trouble him, or his brothers, one bit. Strong, motivated men could forge a new life. Besides, they had one another, and they had God. In the end, those were what mattered most.
Mercy Ellen Stein clipped the floss, turned over the dish towel, and smiled at the pattern. Violet-blue morning glories trumpeted across the corner, and she closed her eyes for a moment to imagine just how well they’d match the pale blue cabinets in Otto’s house. Otto would be here for supper in less than an hour. Tonight they’d choose which Bible verses and hymns they wanted for the wedding. In preparation for that, Mercy had marked her favorite selections in the hymnal on the piano.
The family Bible always rested in the place of honor—a small oak table. Depending on the season,Grossmuterused to change the little tablecloths. Since her death last year, Mercy had followed the tradition. Fall’s maple and sycamore leaves embroidered on ecru cotton gave way to holly and ivy linen at Christmas. During spring and summer, partly for fun and mostly because dust was so prevalent, a whole variety of scarves decorated with flowers and birds took turns each week. In honor of their wedding plans, Mercy had used the satin one with delicate orange blossoms and airy tatted lace edges.
The hope chest in her room held a plethora of such linens. She didn’t need this dish towel at all, but she enjoyed needlework. The bodice of her wedding gown bore testament to that. She’d spent hour upon hour doing French cut lacework on the white cotton. They couldn’t afford satin, but that didn’t trouble her. Grossmuter had taught her to draw contentment from making ordinary things beautiful—and though it would be brazenly proud to speak the words aloud, Mercy believed her wedding gown to be the most beautiful thing she’d ever created.
Otto’s mother came over yesterday to help her pin up the hem. She’d pronounced the dress exquisite. After Grossmuter died, Otto’s mother had become Mercy’s confidant and mentor. Helpful and kindhearted, Mrs. Kunstler would be a fine mother-in-law.
The back door banged and feet pattered on the new linoleum floor. Jarred out of her musings, Mercy called out, “Walk in the house, Peter.”
Her little brother swung around the corner and half shouted, “Grossvatersaid I can keep one of Freckle’s puppies!”
Setting aside the almost-finished dish towel, Mercy laughed. “I suppose you’ve already decided which one.”
“Why don’t we set the table first?”
“Mercy, I can’t wait. Please come now.”
She couldn’t resist her eight-year-old brother’s pleading brown eyes. “Okay. Let me check the roast first. The puppies aren’t going anywhere.”
Mercy glanced at the pan of green beans she’d cook in a little while, set potatoes on to boil, and peeked under the flour-dusted towel to be sure the dough was rising. The yeasty smell promised tasty rolls.
“You said you’d check the roast.” Peter wriggled with impatience. “You’re looking at everything else.”
“You’ll be glad later when you sit down to a good meal.” She opened the door to the Sunshine stove and pulled out the gray roasting pan. Fragrant steam billowed as she lifted the lid. “Mmm.” Quickly, she clanged the lid back down and pushed the pan back into the oven. No use letting out any moisture. Grossvater and Otto both loved gravy, so she’d want every last ounce of drippings she could get.
“Otto eats a lot,” Peter said as she took his hand and started toward the barn. “That roast better be really big.”
“Men who labor hard work up hearty appetites. Otto works hard, so he eats a lot. So does Grossvater. Someday, you’ll do the same thing when you’re doing a man’s work around here.”
Peter’s lower lip poked out. “I work hard around here.”
“Yes, you do.” She resisted the urge to ruffle his wind-tousled brown curls. She hadn’t meant to hurt his feelings. “Fast as you’re growing, you’ll soon be a man.”
His face brightened. With that issue resolved, he seemed to concentrate on their destination. Peter tugged on her hand, silently urging her to walk faster.
Mercy wished she’d taken time to put on her shoes. Grossvater scolded her whenever she came out to the barn barefooted. It was just that with the oven’s heat and spring sunshine, she’d peeled off her shoes and stockings in the house.
“If I guess which puppy you want,” she teased Peter, “you have to gather eggs this week.”
“Nuh-unh!” Peter yanked away and streaked ahead.
Caught up in his joy, Mercy laughed and ran after him. Early evening sun slanted into the barn, lending a golden glow to everything in sight. A horse whinnied, feet shuffled the straw-covered ground, and Freckle growled.
Mercy’s eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the dim place, but she guessed what was happening. “Peter, be careful. Mamas don’t take kindly to someone handling their babies.”
A muffled sound made her stop and tilt her head. Something wasn’t right. It was then that she saw Grossvater’s legs and boots sticking out from a stall. She cried out in alarm.
Mercy spun to the side. Cold horror washed over her. A stranger stood three feet away. Light glinted off the wicked-looking knife he held to Peter’s throat.Chapter2
What do you think?” Connant Gilchrist swung his arm in a grandiose gesture.
Robert took in the room with nothing short of delight. “It’s perfect. And so modern!”
“Old Doc Neely’s widow didn’t know what to do with it. She sold the house and moved back to Boston to be with her daughter. The office—well, she told the mayor she reckoned the town folks bought most of this when they paid Doc for his services. The city council voted to pass it on to the next qualified physician.”
“It sure pays to have friends in the right place at the right time,” Chris said as he tested the examination table by pressing his palms downward on it.
Sturdy. Robert assessed the table with glee. He’d worked on many a patient who lay on a wobbly dining trestle.Good height, too. I won’t have to hunch over when I perform surgery.
“You came in through the waiting room.” Connant jerked a thumb toward a wide flight of stairs. “Two rooms up there—Doc Neely kept one as a sick room and used the other for himself on nights he needed to stay and keep watch on a patient.”
“Stove there is big enough to cook on when you’re not boiling instruments,” Duncan said. “After being crammed in that ship, even a small bedchamber will feel roomy.”
Connant nodded. “You can ask the bank for a loan or wait till you save up a bit, but the lot here’s plenty big enough. You might want to be building a wee house and a shop for Duncan in the back.”
“So the land is ours?” Robert gave his childhood friend a startled look.
“Aye, and why not? I put a stipulation in the contract, though.” His grin looked smug as could be. “Says you have to stay here five years, else the land and all of the supplies go to the next doctor.”
“That’s more than fair.”
Christopher’s face darkened. “Is there a problem so no one wants to stay here?”
“Flash floods, scorching summers, and occasional tornadoes. Worst of all, the cook at the diner serves charcoal instead of food.” Connant recited those flaws in a gratingly cheerful tone. “As my memory serves me, none of the lot of you ever did more in a kitchen than burn perfectly good food to cinders.”
“True,” Robert groaned. The best he could say about the food in the steerage compartment of theAnchoriawas that it filled a stomach. Then again, the same could be said of anything the Gregor men cooked.
He walked over to the cabinet containing pharmaceuticals and noted a generous bottle of bicarbonate of soda. Good thing, that. More often than not, if they cooked for themselves, the Gregor men ended up needing bicarb to settle their bellies. He continued to scan the bottles and vials. All bore neatly printed labels and sat in alphabetical order. “Atropine. Belladonna. Calomel. Cascara sagrada. Chloroform,” he read aloud. “I take it there’s not a local apothecary since the supply here is so complete?”
“That’s right. I have a key for the file cabinet. Doc kept his patient books locked in there.”
“Good. Good.” Privacy was important, and Robert planned to maintain it. Nonetheless, it would be wise for him to read the records so he’d be familiar with the cases he’d be taking on.
He turned toward the filing cabinet and made note of the fact that both drawers locked.I’ll move some of those bottles and vials into the second drawer. In the years he attended school, he’d seen more than a few patients grow dependent on certain elixirs and compounds. At the earliest opportunity, he’d lock away most of the laudanum, cocaine muriate, and morphine sulfate.
Duncan looked down at his hands and made a face. “Half the soot from that train fell on me. We’d best wash up, even if the food at that diner turns out to be as black as the mess on our shirts.”
Duncan and Christopher stripped off their shirts over at the washstand. “You’re a filthy mess, boy-o,” Duncan teased Chris.
“No more than you.” Chris nudged him to the side. “But the admission galls me. Fill the pitcher again. I’m planning to scrub my head, and you can rinse it. I’ll return the favor.”
“I should go first. You’ve such a big head you’ll use up all of the water!”
Robert let their good-natured horseplay fade as he continued to walk about the office, opening drawers and taking stock of what was on hand.In my wildest dreams I never thought this is what I’d find. Everything I read said how backward the American West is, but this is the best medical setup I’ve ever seen. Holy Father, help me to use these things to Your glory.
“Quit daydreaming and wash up. We’re hungry,” Chris called over to him.
Rob looked at his brothers. “I’m not daydreaming. I was standing here thinkin’ on how proud Da would be to see such a grand arrangement.”
“Aye, he would.” Duncan nodded.
“True.” Chris nodded curtly, then tacked on in a raspy tone, “But he’d not want us to starve half to death whilst you gawked around. Let’s go eat.”
Duncan walked back to the waiting room where their trunks sat. “I’ll get your clean shirt.”
The cool water refreshed Robert. He scrubbed, enjoying the astringent scent of the soap. He moaned aloud at the simple pleasure of Connant pouring a pitcher of water over his head to wash out the dust, soot, and soap.
Dripping wet, shirtless, and with his suspenders hanging down, he wheeled around when someone burst through the door to the building.
“Sheriff!” A strapping man swayed in the doorway. “I killed him.”
“Killed who?” Connant pushed the man into the nearest chair. “Who did you kill, Otto?”
Robert assessed the man quickly. His eyes were wide with shock, his whole frame shook, and he’d been violently sick all over the front of himself. “Are you hurt?”
“Tell me what happened,” Connant rapped out.
“Who?” Connant demanded.
“Mercy.” Otto groaned, then leaned forward and retched.
Robert automatically held out the towel even though nothing came up. He turned toward the luggage to grab his bag.
Duncan had opened the trunk and gotten out shirts. He tossed one to Robert. Christopher’s shirt hung open, but he’d moved on toward the next item of business. He was strapping on his gun.
“The Steins live about three miles out,” Connant said as they all barreled through the door. He grabbed the reins to his own sorrel mare and yanked Robert up behind him. “That’s Otto’s horse,” he told Christopher.
Christopher said nothing. He was swinging up into the saddle as Connant set off.
Robert leaned forward. “How many in the family?”
“Three. Old man and his two grandkids. Girl’s engaged to Otto; the boy’s a mere lad.”
They dismounted and entered the house first. Something was burning in the stove, but the place lay empty. Chris and Duncan had gone toward the barn. “Here!” Chris bellowed.
Duncan exited the barn carrying a schoolboy. Blood dripped from a lump on the boy’s head. Robert determined he was breathing well as Duncan rasped, “Old man’s alive.”
Once inside the barn, Robert paused by the body of a man. Connant had his pistol drawn and shoved Robert ahead. “It’s not Stein.”
“Back here,” Christopher called. He squatted beside an old man and was slicing through his britches with a knife.
The lanky older man lay unconscious. Robert shouldered past Chris and knelt by the man’s chest to quickly assess his condition.Pale. Clammy. Shock. Breathing slow. Pulse thready. An ugly bruise on his jaw proved he’d fought, but the real injury was impossible to miss. The pitchfork in his thigh hadn’t hit an artery, but the extent of the damage couldn’t be determined yet.
A young blond cradled the old man’s head in her lap. She was tenderly smoothing his brow with her shaky hand, but the sight of her made Robert’s stomach lurch. Her dress was torn, and hay clung to the back of her shoulders and hair. Her left eye was starting to swell shut, and other marks at her throat and wrists let him know she, too, had been hurt.
Robert knew he could patch the old man back together. The girl bore wounds no man could heal.
She knew the sheriff. The black-haired men were strangers. The first one—the one with the gun—scared her; the one who knelt closer touched Grossvater with a mixture of confidence and care. He looked her in the eye and spoke in a low tone, “I’ll be able to fix him up. He’ll be fine.”
He sounded reassuring, but Mercy couldn’t respond.
“My brother’s going to take that out of his leg, and I’ll hold a compress on it to keep it from bleeding. We’ll be moving him into the house. Do ye ken what I’m telling you, lass?”
She swallowed and nodded.
Grossvater moaned a little when they did the deed, and she bit back a cry.
“ ’Tis a good sign that he’s feeling his leg, lass. I’m thinking the wound will make a mess of his bed. Is your dining table sturdy?”
She nodded and led them inside.
Another stranger in her kitchen looked much like the other two. He had Peter sitting in a chair and was dabbing at a knot on her brother’s head. Peter jabbered about the puppies.
“This is Dr. Gregor, Mercy,” the sheriff said as he gave the kind-voiced man’s shoulder a quick pat. “He’ll help your granddad.”
She wrapped her arms about her ribs and stepped back.
“I could use some bandages. Do you have any?”
Mercy went to the cabinet where they kept the liniment, Epsom salt, and bandages. She set all of the bandages at the head of the table.
“There’s a fine help.” He pulled out a chair and patted the seat. “You sit here. If your grandda wakes, you’ll be nearby. I’m wanting you to drink this for me, too.” He set down a glass of water.
She slipped around the edge of the room and did as he directed, then watched in silence as he used the things from his black leather bag. Nothing he said seemed real. Most of it was muffled, but the tone and cadence lulled her.
Finally, he finished tending Grossvater. After he knotted the bandage in place, he took Grossvater’s pulse again.
“Well?” one of the other men asked.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. Let’s put him to bed.”
The sheriff and the other man carried Grossvater to his bedroom, and the doctor took a look at the bump on Peter’s head. “Nothing wrong there this won’t cure.” He drew a glass tube from his medical bag and pulled out a sour ball.
“Thanks!” Peter popped the candy into his mouth and regained his usual, cocky grin.
The doctor turned and held out his hand to Mercy. “Let’s go see to things.”
When she stood, her legs felt rubbery. Even so, she didn’t take his hand. They walked across the kitchen, but to her surprise, he murmured, “They’ll put your grandda in a nightshirt for you.”
“Oh. Yes. Thank you.”
He didn’t touch her, yet his nearness made her sidestep. He pushed open the door to her room.
Mercy stared inside.The tub. What is the tub doing in my room? And who put out my nightgown? It’s not bedtime yet.
She jumped at the sound of her name.
“I’ll stay out here and make sure no one bothers you. I thought you might want to bathe. Afterward, I’ll see to your bruises and such.”
Once in her room, Mercy locked the door. She didn’t want to undress with those men here, but she caught sight of herself in her mirror and choked back a sob. Her dress was in tatters and her hair hung in snarls. Those were just the outward things.
I can’t stay like this. Grossvater and Peter need me. Her hands shook so badly, she could scarcely undress. Everything took great effort. It hurt to move. She stepped into the big galvanized tub, then knelt. All of the scrubbing in the world couldn’t make her feel clean.Chapter3
The thin walls of the house didn’t block out the sound of her weeping. Robert and Duncan exchanged a glance.
“Mercy’s crying.” The lad stopped eating the inside bits of the roast Duncan salvaged for him. “Does she need a hug?”
“She’s upset that the bad man hurt you and your grandda.” Duncan tapped the edge of the plate to divert the boy.
Peter wrinkled his nose. “You said Grossvater is going to be fine. I’ll go tell Sis my head doesn’t hurt too much.”
Duncan put a restraining hand on the boy’s arm. “Doctor will tell her. Hearing it from him will be more reassuring.”
“Is she scared that bad man will come back?”
Connant and Chris were out in the barn at this very moment, loading the body onto a buckboard. Duncan shook his head. “I give you my word, lad—he’ll never bother you again. Now you finish eating, then we’ll chop up the crisp bits of that roast and go feed them to your dog. After whelping, a mama dog needs lots of food.”
After they’d left with the body and while Duncan took Peter out to feed the dog, Mercy’s door opened. Instead of putting on her nightwear, she’d donned a rust-colored calico dress. Avoiding looking at Robert or speaking, she sidled into the other bedroom.
Robert stood by the door and watched as she smoothed the quilt over the old man’s chest, then combed back an errant lock of his white hair. Her hand shook.
Though she’d washed her hair, it was too thick to towel dry well. Wisps that didn’t make it into the simple bun started to coil around her wan face and nape, reinforcing a vulnerability that tore at him.
She didn’t seem in a hurry to leave her grandda’s side, and Robert struggled with that fact. If she drew comfort from seeing the old man was all right, that was good. She deserved solace whatever the source. Then again, he needed to examine her and hoped to have it finished before Peter came back into the house.
Hooking his thumbs into his suspenders so he’d appear friendly and casual, Rob said quietly, “He’s resting well. With time and attention, he’ll be up and about.”
She whispered the words so quietly, he almost didn’t hear her. The hoarse quality to her whisper worried him.Is she having trouble breathing? She has marks around her throat. If she screamed… Robert shut down that line of thought immediately. It caused his ire to flare brighter, and she needed him to stay composed. He made the next overture. “Come out to the kitchen. I’ll examine your eye.”
She ducked her head and turned to the side, as if to hide the bruising, swollen eye.
“If we put a cool compress to it, you’ll not look so bruised tomorrow.” He paused. “Your little brother’s out feeding the beasts in the barn.”
She shuddered. “Peter—”
“We’ll talk about him.” Robert tilted his head toward the kitchen table. “Come.”
’Twasn’t an easy span of time, those next minutes. Mercy Stein left her grandfather’s side only to hear about her brother’s condition. Wary as could be, she tried to keep as much distance from Robert as possible.
Robert turned his back on her and took a dishcloth from the rod by the pump. He dampened it, then methodically folded it into a compress. Each move he made was deliberate in an effort to keep from spooking the lass. As he drew close to her, she flinched.
“There, now. This will make a difference.” He extended his hand and offered her the compress.
“I don’t need it. Tell me about Peter.”
The lass has grit. Robert laid the compress on the table easily within her reach and turned back to his bag. “Other than the bump on his noggin, he’s right as rain.”
The corner of her mouth twitched in acknowledgment.
After taking a few items from his bag and closing it, Robert approached her again. This time, he pulled out a chair and sat at an angle from her—close enough to touch, far enough that she wouldn’t feel crowded. “This is witch hazel.”
He opened his other hand. Cotton wadding tumbled free. “I’ll dab this on your temple, throat, and wrists. It’ll lessen the soreness.”
She cringed back into her chair. “Don’t need it.”
“Miss Stein, did you hear Sheriff Gilchrist? You know I’m a doctor.”
“I have witch hazel if I decide to use it.”
“I’m here to help you,” he said gently. He waited a beat, then stated, “Something happened in the stable.”
Her breath caught.
“Women are delicate, easily hurt. It would be wise for me to—”
“Leave me alone!”
He stood and picked up the cotton wadding piece by piece, then took up the Thayer’s witch hazel. “I’m going to take these into your chamber and bring out the tub. You want your privacy, and I’ll honor that. Witch hazel is very safe and mild. A woman can use it anywhere she hurts. Do you understand me?”
He got no response and didn’t wait beyond a heartbeat. His shoes made the only sound in the small wooden home as he went to her chamber. A tidy little place it was. An airy green-and-white quilt covered the iron bedstead, and matching cushions covered both a small chair and a dowry trunk.
A dowry trunk—no doubt filled with all sorts of useful linens she’d prettified as she dreamed of a happy future. Robert winced. The dreams could still come true, but she’d not go to her wedding with the joy of an innocent bride. Otto knew already. At least she’d be spared having to tell him.
Lily of the valley. He inhaled again. The scent from her soap lingered in her room. Robert lifted the tub and carried it through the kitchen to the back door. As he emptied the water into a flower bed, Duncan and little Peter came strolling back. Peter went on inside while Duncan stopped.
“I’ll spend the night here. I want to be sure the old man’s all right when he awakens. The lass isn’t in any condition to do much, and if they needed help, the boy’s too young to fetch it.”
Duncan nodded. “Should I stay?”
“Nae. ’Tis already hard enough on the lass. The last thing she needs is folks hovering.”
Hours later, Robert moved from the old man’s bedside and peered over the trundle to be sure Peter was sleeping well. Mr. Stein had awakened an hour ago. He answered questions appropriately and worried about Mercy and Peter before slipping back to sleep. In a day or two, he’d learn the truth. For now, he slept with the same innocence as his grandson, deaf to the sound of his granddaughter’s sobs.
Where’s Otto? Connant said she and Otto were engaged to be married. If ever a woman needed comfort, now was the time. She deserved all of the solace and reassurance Otto could give.
Robert carried the kerosene lantern with him to the parlor. A photograph of a woman and the old man in his younger days standing in front of a different house was propped beside another photograph of a family of four. The third photograph was of the children with their grandparents. It didn’t take much to deduce that Mercy and her little brother were orphaned and reared by their grandfather.Puir lass hasna had an easy life.
Even if Peter hadn’t knelt and said a bedtime prayer, Robert would have known this was a believer’s home. A well-thumbed hymnal, a much-loved Bible, and little colored picture cards from Sunday school bespoke that these people lived their faith.And their faith was just put to an awful test.
He didn’t want to snoop. Casual observations were fine, but this parlor held too many personal touches. Robert went to the kitchen stove, where he stirred up the coals. Spending the night here was a prudent choice, but it wasn’t a comfortable one.
He wanted to be sure Mr. Stein didn’t brew a fever and hadn’t lost his mental abilities. Between the punctures in the old man’s leg and the bump on the back of his head, either of those complications could occur. So far, neither had materialized. Robert had confidence in his own professional skills, but medical science could only do so much. His faith in the Great Physician’s healing knew no bounds, and he sought wisdom and assistance from the Lord for each case. In regard to Mr. Stein’s welfare, his prayer was being answered.
Robert also stayed for Mercy’s sake. He knew she didn’t want him there, but folks often resented a physician’s presence because it underscored problems they wanted to deny. She might seek care from him still; he’d discovered that in the dark of night, folks sometimes could ask a doctor things they couldn’t speak of in daylight.
He’d set a pot of coffee on to boil after he tucked the boy in for the night. Sickened by the violence these people had suffered, Rob hadn’t bothered to eat. Grumbling in his stomach now made him lift the towel draped over a pan. The yeasty smell drifted up to him as he gazed at the dough that had risen and finally fallen flat. Fried in a dab of bacon grease, such dough still gave an empty belly satisfaction.
The scents of fried bread and coffee filled the house. Robert sat down at the table and ate by the light of that single lantern until a faint creak made him look up.
Still wearing her calico dress and clutching a shawl about her, Mercy slipped out of her own room and directly into the other bedchamber.
Robert walked to the doorway and whispered, “Peter’s been sleeping like a bear. Your grandfather woke about an hour and a half ago. He knew where he was. He’s able to move his leg and wiggle his toes—both excellent signs. I expect him to make a full recovery.”
“I’ll watch over them. You should go.”
“I’ve no doubt you’d hover like a guardian angel if you had the chance, but ’tisn’t necessary. I’m stuck here. I’ve no horse, and even if I did, I couldn’t find my way back to town since I just arrived today. After I change the dressing on his leg in the morning, I’ll leave.”
She pulled the shawl more closely about her shoulders.
“You’ve yet to slumber, and you need your rest. I’ve powders in my bag that will help you fall asleep.”
“No, thank you.”
Robert grudgingly admitted to himself that Mercy shared a trait of his own—she knew her mind and stuck to her plans. Often, that perseverance paid off, but in this case, her stubbornness resulted in needless suffering. He decided it wasn’t worth arguing with her. If anything, she needed to feel she’d regained control—however simple or slight it might be.
“Forgive me, Miss Stein. You’re barefoot and likely catching a chill whilst I natter away the night. I’ll go back to my coffee. If you’d like, I can pour you a cup.”
“I’ll retire.” Though she stated her plan, she made no move to carry it out.
Robert turned and went back to the table. So that was the way of it. She’d refused to brush past him to leave the room. He couldn’t fault her for being skittish; she had just cause to be wary—extremely wary. He’d have to earn her trust, and from this encounter, he reckoned it would take a good long while.
Mercy woke and promised herself it was just a bad dream, but that false hope disappeared the minute she rolled out of bed and hurt all over. Deep purple-black ringed her left eye, and she turned away from the mirror as she pinned her braid into a bun.
The door to Grossvater’s room stood open. A quick peek reassured her that he and Peter still slept soundly. Usually, Grossvater would be stirring, if not up by now. Knowing how he’d chafe at being kept in bed, Mercy hoped he’d sleep late.
She tiptoed past the doctor, too. He’d fallen asleep with his head resting on his folded arms at the dining table. The settee in the parlor was far too short for a man of his height to stretch out on. Just seeing him made her balk. She’d need to speak to him before Grossvater woke up. Would he honor her request to keep what happened from Grossvater?
Otto. Surely Otto wouldn’t tell anyone. He’d shelter her from the humiliation of others knowing the full truth of what had happened. He’d responded to her screams and come—too late to stop the worst—but Otto knew what happened and killed that awful man.I’m glad he’s dead. Glad. He can’t come back to hurt me again.
Steeling herself, she stepped into the barn. Bile rose, and she swallowed it. Just off to her right was wherethat mandied at Otto’s hand. Another few steps and she was near the place where he’d held the knife to her sweet little brother’s neck, then struck him in the head. Her legs shook so badly, she could hardly walk deeper into the barn. Over there, in that straw, he’d…
She stumbled and pressed the back of her hand to her mouth to keep from crying out. Evalina’s lowing jarred her back to what she needed to do.I can go on. I can. I’ll do my chores and make it through the morning. Then I’ll make it through the afternoon.
Mercy rested her cheek against Evalina’s warm side and listened to theshhh-shhh-shhhas the bucket filled with the rhythmic motions of her hands. The smell of milk, hay, and cow were so common. After promising herself that staying busy with tasks would keep her from remembering, Mercy discovered she’d been lying to herself.
How could life ever be ordinary again? Swollen as her left eye had become, she could see only a narrow strip out of it. The cuffs on her sleeves rubbed against the tender bruises on her wrists.
Shame and embarrassment kept her from accepting care from the new doctor. He’d tried to be helpful, but Mercy wanted to forget what happened. The aches in her body, heart, and soul wouldn’t let her forget, though. The doctor said he’d leave this morning. She hoped he’d keep his word—in fact, that he’d sneak in, check on Grossvater’s leg, and be gone by the time she got back to the house. She didn’t want to face him—or anyone—today.
Pouring the milk into the separator strained her wrists. Everything she’d done this morning—combing her hair, washing her face, milking the cow—all of the simple pleasures of life had been tainted by painful reminders. Mercy felt a bolt of hatred. She’d never hated before, but she knew exactly what the emotion was.I’m glad Otto killed him. The thought went through her mind again.Even hell is too good for a wicked man like that.
A roar of pain echoed from the house.Chapter4
Mercy tossed aside the milk pail and ran for the house. She tore through the door and ran full tilt into Grossvater’s bedroom, only to bump smack into a broad back. She shoved the doctor aside and stopped cold. The sheriff stood by the bedside, and anguish contorted Grossvater’s dear face. She’d seen that look only once before—when Grossmuter died.
Grossvater turned his head and looked at her. Tears filled his eyes.
“What have you done?” she cried to the sheriff.
Hands curled around her shoulders from behind. She immediately struggled to free herself.
“You told! You didn’t have to tell him.” Tears she couldn’t hold back broke forth as her knees gave out. Strong hands gently tightened about her—not in binding restraint, but in comfort. The doctor kept her from collapsing.
“There’ll be time to talk later,” the deep baritone said from over her shoulder.
Mercy buried her face in her hands as the doctor turned her and led her from the room. He took her to the kitchen, leaned against the cupboard, and held her as she fell apart. “Why?” She finally looked up at him. “Why didn’t you protect him? You could have spared him.”
“Connant told him, Mercy.” Slowly, he wiped tears from her cheeks.
“He had no business, no right—”
His blue eyes were somber and his face grim. “Peter was already awake. I sent him over to the neighboring farm with a request to borrow some honey. Your grandfather woke, and his first words were about the two of you.”
“You didn’t have to—”
“One look at your face and he would have known, Mercy. No man could mistake the truth.”
She closed her eyes and bowed her head.So everyone who ever looks at me again will know? Lord, how will I ever endure such shame?
He clasped her to his chest and held her there. His heart beat steadily beneath her ear. Quietly he said, “I’m sure Connant wanted to spare you from having to tell him, Mercy. You’re worried about protecting your grandfather; Connant was trying to make this easier on you.”
She pushed away. “Easier? Easier! Nothing about this is easy. It is awful. It is evil.”
“You’re right. What happened was evil.”
Sheriff Gilchrist’s boots shuffled on the plank floor. He cleared his throat. “Mercy? Your grandfather wants you.”
Mercy started to cross the floor, then paused. She didn’t look at the sheriff or the doctor. Clutching her hands together, she murmured, “You men should go now. There is nothing for you to do here.” Her voice caught, then she added, “Too much has already been said and done.”
As she entered Grossvater’s bedroom, she heard the screen door shut.If only I could run over, slam the door, and lock out the world.
“Mercy,” Grossvater said from the bed. He’d wiggled his way up until he sat propped against the headboard. His face was ashen, his eyes haunted. It broke her heart when he silently stretched his arms wide to take her to his breast.
She wanted to fly across the room as she had when she was a small girl and lost her parents. He’d held her tight and provided a secure, loving life. Grossvater and Grossmuter did everything they could to fix her broken world. Grossvater couldn’t fix this, though. She was a woman now, and she’d have to live with this tragedy. Mercy tried hard to control her tumultuous feelings as she walked toward him with measured steps. “How are you feeling? How is your head? Your leg?”
“I’ll heal. But you, sweetheart—”
She sat on the edge of the bed and carefully leaned against him. His arms enfolded her. “Don’t say anything, Grossvater. Please, don’t.”
He bowed his head and kissed her hair.
Mercy stopped abruptly at the sight of the full egg basket by the chicken coop.Who’s been here? Chills raced up her arms. Evalina lowed over in the pasture.I left her in the barn!
Mouth dry and heart pounding, Mercy started to back toward the house.It can’t be that man again. Otto killed him. Otto—he probably came over to help. That’s it. She let out a shaky breath.Sturdy, reliable, devoted Otto. He still loves me!
The grating sound of a shovel indicated someone was in the barn, mucking out the stable. Yes, Otto would have thought of the animals’ welfare. The knot between her shoulders lessened, and she called out, “Otto?”
Footsteps sounded in the barn.
She tried to smile, but doing so pulled the skin. That tightness, teamed with the way she could only see a slice of anything from her left eye, registered.He’ll see my face. I shouldn’t have called to him. Mercy spun toward the side.
A scream ripped from her chest.
“I wasn’t meaning to alarm you, lass.” The doctor’s hands hovered beside her arms, but he didn’t make any contact.
Shuffling backward, Mercy called out, “Otto!”
“Rob?” A man stood in the barn’s doorway.
It’s not Otto. He hasn’t come ever since—
“I startled Miss Stein, Chris. ’Tis all.” The doctor looked at her. “I came by to check on your grandda.”
Mercy made no reply. She led him to the house and stood by while he changed her grandfather’s dressing. As he tied it into place, he said, “Mr. Stein, whilst you’re recovering, you’ll need a strong back and an extra pair of hands about the place. I’ve brothers—either Christopher or Duncan will ride out each morning to help.”
“I could use the help, but I need to be up.”
The doctor nodded. “That you do. Your muscles will weaken if left unused. My brother Duncan made you a walking stick. I’ll allow you to use it ‘round the house, but ’tis all. No taking the steps off the porch for another few days, else you’ll suffer a terrible setback.”
After Grossvater was up in a chair in the parlor, the doctor left. Mercy fussed around in the house all day. Though her hands stayed busy, her mind spiraled into a near panic. Four endless days had passed, but Otto hadn’t yet come over. She took bread from the oven and searched for something—anything—else to do.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the veranda, then someone knocked. “I’ll get it,” Grossvater said.
Though she didn’t know that he ought to be moving around much, Mercy allowed Grossvater to answer the door. She didn’t want anyone to see her.
“Come, Mercy.” For the first time sinceithappened, Grossvater sounded like his old self.
Mercy wiped her hands on the hem of her apron and went to him. As long as she kept her face turned, no one would have to see—
“Otto’s here.” Grossvater’s words stunned her. Otto never knocked. Fully assured of his welcome, he always barged in.
“I killed a man.” Anguish permeated Otto’s stark words. Emotion contorted his features. “With my own hands, I killed him.”
“You did.” Mercy didn’t move an inch.Look at me. No, don’t. But at least draw me into the shelter of your arms.
“It was a bad thing.” Otto’s voice was nothing more than a ragged whisper.
Mercy couldn’t hold back a strangled sound. The man she loved was trying to reassure her and chose his words so as not to shame her. The doubts and worries the past days fostered gave way to relief. She stepped forward, finally free to lean into Otto’s consolation. Her arms barely started to close around him; her bruised cheek scarcely grazed the fabric of his shirt when he jerked away from her.
Mercy’s head snapped back. “Ot—”
“I killed a man!” He stared at her. This wasn’t the Otto she knew. His eyes weren’t sparkling with laughter or lit with gentle love.
Her arms dropped woodenly to her sides.
Grossvater hobbled closer and managed to keep his balance while still wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “You did your best, Otto. You tried to protect those you love.”
Leather creaked loudly in the awkward silence as Otto shifted from one boot to the other.
“With God’s help, we will get beyond this,” Grossvater said.
I don’t know that I’ll ever get beyond it.
Otto cleared his throat. “The wedding.”
Notourwedding? Thewedding? Mercy started to tremble anew.
“It’s thoughtful of you, Otto, to give my granddaughter a little time.”
In that moment, Mercy knew the truth. Otto’s expression told her more than words could. The brutal truth hit her. “There will be no wedding.”
“Mercy—” Grossvater began.
The dainty ring burned as she twisted it off her finger. “I no longer hold you to your promise.”
Although Otto didn’t reach for it, he didn’t make an attempt to try to reassure her that their love could weather this catastrophe.
Tightening his hold on her, Grossvater growled, “There’s no reason to be hasty—”
“I do not blame her,” Otto said thickly. “I cannot live with myself, knowing I have killed a man.”
“There’s nothing wrong,” Grossvater said, “with a man protecting those he loves.”
Mercy trembled—unsure of what to do.Can it be that Otto needs my love and acceptance now, more than ever, just as I need his?
Otto looked at her. Never once had she seen him cry, but tears traced down his sunburned cheeks. “It was not about protection. He’d already done his worst. I sought vengeance.” His hands came up and formed an ever-tightening circle. “I took a man’s life. How am I to know God would not have redeemed him someday? All that was right and pure between us—what he did couldn’t ruin that. What I did—that defiled everything.”
Grossvater took the ring from her nerveless fingers and passed it to Otto.
“Excuse me.” Robert pushed through a gaggle of women at the mercantile and frowned. “Stand back. ’Tis too close in here.” If it weren’t for the cracker barrel behind Mercy and Carmen Rodriguez propping her up, the lass would be flat out on the plank floor.
His inclination was to scoop her up, but Robert quelled that at once. Mercy spooked too easily. If she roused much, she’d likely fall apart as he carried her to his office. He knelt beside her and hoped she couldn’t hear the suppositions the busybodies behind him whispered. When the community heard of Otto killing a man, Otto’s mother sought to defend her son—but at Mercy’s expense. As if the poor lass hadn’t suffered enough, she’d been denied the ability to keep what had happened private.
Miss Rodriguez used her hankie to blot Mercy’s brow. “If you help her over to my house, I can see to her. It’s probably just…constriction.”
Robert slid one hand behind Mercy’s neck and unfastened the uppermost button on her high-collared shirtwaist. Taking her pulse necessitated unfastening the mother-of-pearl buttons on her cuff. Mercy’s lids began to flutter, and he announced, “With that stove roaring, ’tis hotter than Lucifer’s laundry pot in here. Miss Stein? Ah, there we are.” He tilted her wan face toward his. “The heat’s claimed you. Miss Rodriguez here is going to accompany us back to my office.”
“I—I just need a moment.” Mercy’s words sounded every bit as faint as she looked.
“I agree.” He nodded. “A short rest and a nice dipper of water will go a long way toward helping you.”
Miss Rodriguez patted her. “I’ll stay right beside you. The nice doctor is going to help you up now.” She drew closer and whispered, “Mercy, he’s strong. He can carry you.”
The very last vestige of color bled from Mercy’s face.
“She’ll lean on me. We all understand the necessity.” Robert pulled Mercy to her feet and wound his arm around her slender waist.
Back in his office, Robert managed to get Mercy alone in the examination room. She promptly declared, “Truly, I’ve recovered. It was just the heat.”
“I’m not so sure of that.”
Primly buttoning her cuff, she said, “If it’s not the heat, then it must be something I ate.”
Robert pressed a glass of water into her hands in order to keep her seated on his examination table. He asked several questions, purposefully posing them in a rambling fashion so she wouldn’t have a sense of what he needed to ascertain.
“This is unnecessary. It was simply the heat. Just as you said at the mercantile, all I needed was water and a short rest. I’m better.” She looked ready to make a dash for freedom.
Sick to the depths of his soul, Robert rested his hand on her forearm. “No, you’re not. Miss Stein, you’re with child.”Chapter5
Cold dread washed over her. For weeks now, she’d lived in terror of this possibility. Night and day, she’d begged God to spare her this. The last two weeks, her anxiety had mushroomed. Still, she didn’t want to believe it could be so. “I truly must go.” Mercy twisted to the side and slid off the table.
She shook off the doctor’s hand. “Grossvater needs me.” Desperate to get away, she opened the door out into his waiting room.
Carmen Rodriguez hopped to her feet. “Are you feeling better now? You’ve never swooned before.”
“Then I suppose it was my turn. I really must get home.”
“I’m due to pay a call on your grandda.” Dr. Gregor picked up his black leather satchel. “I’ll accompany you.”
“Oh, that’s so kind of you. I’d have worried myself sick if Mercy went home alone.”
“Mercy!” Peter burst into the doctor’s office.
“What are you doing out of school?”
“Teacher sent David to get more chalk from the mercantile. He told me—”
“Tales,” Mercy said flatly. “We do not listen to tales, Peter. Now you march right on back to school.”
The doctor waited until her little brother left, then he chuckled. “And to think I always thought growing up witholderbrothers was difficult!” As Carmen laughed, he smoothly took hold of Mercy’s elbow. “Now that everything is settled, let’s go see your grandda.”
“He’s fine. You saw him yourself at church just yesterday—and the two Sundays before that, as well.”
“Aye, that I did. After six weeks of healing, the time’s come to regain the strength in his limb.”
“Can you do that?” Carmen pressed a hand to her bosom. “It’s nothing short of miraculous how you didn’t have to amputate. No one expected him to ever walk again.”
“God gets credit for all miracles,” the doctor said. “I take responsibility for the more ordinary—like teaching Mr. Stein some movements so his strength returns.”
“And that Mercy rests,” Carmen added. “Good-bye, then. Oh! Mercy, Leonard brought over a pound of coffee. He said that’s what you came to town for.”
Using that as an excuse to break away from the doctor’s hold, Mercy reached out and accepted the bag. “I’ll be sure to thank him when I go get my horse.” She knew the doctor didn’t own a horse, so Mercy figured she’d neatly managed to get rid of him entirely.
She wasn’t that fortunate. Five minutes later, as they rode out of town, he’d finished telling her about how his brother Chris had bought the dappled mare for a pittance because it had been in such sorry shape. Clearly his medical skills extended toward beasts, too.
He cleared his throat. “My apologies for speaking so much, but I assumed you didn’t want anyone asking questions, so I dominated the conversation.”
Surprised by his insight, Mercy still grasped at the opening he’d provided. “Dr. Neely said he’d taken an oath to give patients privacy. Did you take that same vow?”
“Aye. The Hippocratic oath.”
“Good. Then you are not going to tell anyone…” She couldn’t bring herself to even say the words.
Dr. Gregor said nothing.
Terrified that a prompt agreement didn’t spring from his lips, Mercy halted. So did he. Ever sincethat day, she’d hardly looked directly at anyone. Deeply shamed, she couldn’t. But this was too important. “You took the oath. You must uphold it.”
“ ’Tisn’t a secret that can be long kept.”
“It can be kept until Grossvater is strong. Then I can go away.” She tore her gaze away from him and stared off in the distance.
“Lass, your grandda willna be fully recovered for almost four more months. You’ll not be able to hide the truth until autumn.”
“Of course I can.”I have to.
“I canna begin to imagine how difficult this is for you, but I’ll be speaking plainly. Your brother will say something about you fainting. Even if you admonish Peter to remain silent, any one of a half dozen of the people who were in the mercantile will mention the episode to your grandda.”
The reins slithered through her fingers. Everything was slipping through her fingers—her love, her reputation, and now even this.
The doctor leaned forward and collected a rein. Pressing it back into her hand, he murmured, “For your own sake as well as his, don’t you think it would be best if we told him now?”
She gave no answer. They reached the farm shortly thereafter, and the doctor’s brother sauntered in from the nearest field. Either or both of the doctor’s brothers came each day. At first, they’d come into the house to ask Grossvater what needed to be done. As he’d improved, Grossvater made it a point to be out on the porch to meet them.
The doctor dismounted and helped her down. His brother strode over, and the two of them greeted each other as if they’d been separated for a year. The second Duncan turned her way, Mercy dipped her head.
“Your grandda is in the barn, Miss Stein. I brought over some of my tools, and he’s repairing harnesses and the like.”
“That was good of you. I’ll go get lunch.”
Duncan chuckled. “Only for yourself. We found the sandwiches you left and polished them off. Rob, while you’re here, take a look at Freckle’s runt.”
“He’s in the barn?”
“Aye.” Duncan headed back out to the field.
The doctor looked at her. “Would you like to eat first?”
Rage swept through her. “First? The decision is mine to make.”
“Yes, ’tis.” He didn’t pause for a second to frame his reply. “But Freckle isna about to let me near her wee little pup unless you’re there.”
He’d spoken the truth. Freckle didn’t mind anyone playing with the other puppies, but she’d become unaccountably protective of the runt. Heaving a sigh, Mercy walked toward the barn.It’s only Monday. I’ll have a few days as long as I make sure Peter says nothing.
“Schatze!Did you have a nice trip to town?”
Mercy evaded the question. “Grossvater, look at you! I didn’t know we had so many leather things.”
A proud smile lit his face. “These are just the things that needed care. Most were still in working condition, but with a little attention, they’ll last much longer.”
The doctor set down his satchel. “That saddle is a thing of beauty.”
“It was my son’s.” Grossvater gently buffed an edge. “Mercy’s mama gave it to him the year they were married. Peter is about the age where he will treasure it.”
“So you will give it to him for his birthday?” Mercy nodded. “He will be very pleased.”
“If you’re done riding for the day, I’ll unsaddle your horse,” the doctor offered.
“Ja, that is kind of you.” Grossvater smiled. “And then I will ask you to help me hide this saddle.”
Mercy added, “Peter’s birthday is next month—on the fourth of July.”
“There’s a fine date.” The doctor sauntered out to get her horse.
Independence Day…but I’ll never be free again. In the doctor’s absence, Mercy slipped away from Grossvater and leaned over Freckle’s box. She scratched between the mutt’s ears. The whole time the doctor unsaddled her horse, she lavished attention on Freckle and admired each pup. Finally, she lifted the runt. “I’ll bring her right back.”
“Duncan tells me the wee one isna feelin’ so chipper.”
Grossvater let out a deep sigh. “She crept out of the box today and followed Peter. While he was doing the milking, Evalina stepped on the runt’s tail.”
“Let’s see.” The doctor stepped closer. Mercy tried to hand him Dot, but he made a dismissive gesture. “I’ll be better able to assess her tail if both hands are free.”
His breath washed over her wrists, and Mercy longed to pull away. Deft and gentle, he examined the runt. The very last place he touched was its tail, and the pup whimpered.
“Ooch, now, there’s a shame.” The doctor crooked his forefinger and rubbed the runt between her ears, just as Mercy had done to Freckle. “Puir wee pup. Tail’s broken.”
“I feared that.” Grossvater sounded grim. “Freckle’s been licking it, but the skin’s broken, and the runt’ll get gangrene. We’ll put it down before Peter gets home.”
“He’s blaming himself already,” Mercy murmured.
“Now, that’s premature.” The doctor finally took Dot from her and cuddled the pup to the center of his broad chest.
Half an hour later, Mercy put Dot back with Freckle. “She doesn’t have the part of her tail with the spot that we named her for.”
“Stubby.” The doctor’s voice sounded vaguely humored.
Grossvater chortled. “Stubby! Ja, it is a good name.”
Mercy straightened up.
“Mercy.” Grossvater’s voice suddenly sobered. “You do not laugh?Was ist den loss?”
What is the matter? Grossvater sometimes lapsed into German when he was emotional. He looked from her stricken expression to the doctor and back. Then he groaned and rubbed his hand down his face.
Everything in her wanted to scream a denial, to run. But no sound would come out of her mouth, and her feet wouldn’t move.
The doctor pressed something into her hand. Mercy stared down at the handkerchief for a moment before she realized she was crying. Finally, she rasped, “I will go away.”
“Nein!” Grossvater got to his feet and limped with the cane as fast as he could toward her.
“Are you wanting to be alone?” the doctor asked her softly as Grossvater approached.
Mercy nodded. A moment later, she and Grossvater wrapped their arms about one another. He stroked her back. “I won’t let you go. You are not to blame, and neither is the child.”
“But Grossvater—” She couldn’t put into words all she felt.
“No sneaking off to hide.” He held her tighter. “I have worried there might be a child. I have prayed. This child—we will love it, for it is yours.”
The ball in her throat made it hard to speak at all, but she managed a strangled whisper. “I don’t know if I can.”
“We can.” Grossvater’s voice held great determination. “Ja, with God’s help, we can do this.”
Mercy clung to him.With God’s help? Why did He not help me so all of this didn’t happen? Even if just the baby didn’t happen? How am I to trust Him to help me now, when He’s ignored my cries for so long?
Rob halted and looked across the street. “Aye?”
Carmen Rodriguez motioned toward him. He crossed the road and joined her on her veranda. “I’ve been wondering…” she half whispered. Color filled her cheeks. “Mr. Stein is doing whatever you showed him to do, and his recovery is remarkable. I was wondering…”
When her voice trailed off, Rob accepted the glass of sweet tea she extended toward him and sat in a wicker chair. He’d intentionally waited until he knew what she wanted. Ever since Mercy swooned in the mercantile almost a month before, folks tried to get him to speak about her. Some meant well; others were gossipmongers. Either way, he refused to discuss any private matters. Since Miss Rodriguez wished to broach a different topic, he’d listen. “You were wondering?”
“Could I do the movements? Would they help me?”
He made no pretense at ignorance. The lass had a noticeable limp. “You were quite young when you broke your limb, weren’t you?”
She nodded. “Doc Neely wanted to amputate, but Papa wouldn’t consent to it.”
“When you showed interest upon hearing about the therapy, I made the assumption that you were hopeful something might benefit you, as well.” Rob looked her in the eyes. He’d learned early in his career that patients inevitably coped better with bad news when given the dignity of a direct response. “I took the liberty of examining the medical journal Dr. Neely kept. The problem is that your bones knit together in puir alignment. Motion exercises address muscular problems, not skeletal. I’m sorry I canna make a difference for you.”
“I suppose,” she said in a tight voice, “I should be grateful for what I have.”
“I’m sure the Almighty never tires of hearing our gratitude.” He looked out at the garden she tended every afternoon. “What happened? Just yesterday your garden was brimming with blossoms, and most of them are gone now.”
“Ada Meister’s wedding is tomorrow.” She clenched her hands in her lap. “You know what they say—the woman who marries in June is a bride all her life.”
Rob hitched a shoulder. “To my way of thinking, ’Tisn’t when you marry—†tis whom. Even so, it was kind of you to share your flowers with Miss Meister.”
They exchanged a few more pleasantries, then Rob excused himself. As he started down the steps, Otto Kunstler passed him. They exchanged nothing more than a polite nod, but Rob overheard him.
“Hello, Miss Rodriguez. Is your sister home?”
The rest of the afternoon passed with an assortment of cases that demanded the doctor’s attention. His last patients were from two towns over. Suspecting that they, like Carmen Rodriguez, were hoping for a miracle, Rob took additional time with the Heims. In the end, all he could do was tell them the sad truth.
“I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Heim, but you’ll not be having any children.”
Mrs. Heim sobbed quietly, and her husband held her close. He looked just as shattered. “Are you sure?”
“Aye.” Rob explained the details as gently as he could.
Chester Heim heaved a sigh. “We were told the same by the doctor in Austin. We hoped he was wrong. Lena and I—we talked about it. If there is no hope for us to have a child of our own, we would consider adopting.”
“If anything comes up, I’ll keep you in mind.”
Wearily washing his hands, Rob let out a long sigh.Mercy is carrying a babe that was forced upon her; the Heims desperately want a child and cannot have one. It’s not for me to question Your ways, Father, but I have to admit I dinna understand them. Common sense says the solution to everyone’s problem is clear, yet that’s man’s planning and not Your wisdom. Unless, or until, You give me a clear sense that You want me to approach Mercy about relinquishing her babe, I’ll wait in silence.
“Kunstler!” Grossvater’s voice sounded loudly through the open barn door.
Mercy swiftly set Stubby down next to Freckle and headed toward the other exit. Ever since Otto broke their engagement, the only time she’d seen him was at church. Never once had he offered to come help with the chores or crops when Grossvater was unable to work. Not once had his mother thought to bring by food. When gossips whispered about the babe Mercy carried, it hurt. But buried in that hurt was the hope that Mrs. Kunstler would come and speak privately with her, to let her know what to expect, to console her and promise to help with the birth. Those hopes were in vain. Mercy tugged on the barn’s back door.
It was stuck.Chapter6
Otto would come inside and walk the length of the barn so he could inspect the reaper. For a moment, Mercy considered scrambling up into the hayloft.No. This is my home. She sat back down beside Freckle’s box and filled her skirts with puppies. A minute later, Grossvater and Otto came inside.
Otto caught sight of her and averted his gaze. Still, he kept coming. He stood above her and cleared his throat. “Miss Stein, those are fine hounds there.”
Miss Stein? This man who was supposed to have been her husband now greeted her as if she were practically a stranger. Mercy looked down at the wiggly little bundles of fur and nodded. “Ja, they are fine, indeed.”
To her relief, Grossvater leaned against the wall of the stall. “Even the runt is growing to good size.”
“Everyone knows Freckle’s pups all become good hunting dogs.” Otto hunkered down and reached for a solid brown male. “Since the day you promised me a puppy, I’ve looked forward to claiming one.”
Mercy sucked in a pained gasp as memories washed over her.He used seeking a puppy as an excuse to come over, and he asked me to marry him that afternoon. Unable to quell the emotions, she blurted out, “More than one promise was made that day.”
Otto’s head shot up. Finally, he looked at her. “So is that what you want? For the sake of a promise you would marry a man who cannot bear to look at you? Who, every time he sees you, remembers how he slew a man? You would want me to rear the child of the man I killed?”
“What I want?” Her voice shook. “Do you think I want any of what has happened? To bear the pain, the shame, and to carry a child? No! I don’t want any of that. I wanted a man who would love me regardless of what life brought and who would stand beside me in the bad times. You were right to break your promise to wed me, because you are not that kind of man.”
“Mercy,” Grossvater said softly.
Her eyes swam with tears. “I do not know whether my grandfather is calling my name or reminding me to treat you with mercy.”
“This has been very…difficult for both of us,” Otto said.
One by one, she placed the puppies back in the box. “In three weeks, the pups will be weaned. We will reserve that one for you.” She went into the house, opened the bottom drawer of her wardrobe, and pulled out a white bundle. Until now, she’d dared to hope that Otto would overcome his upset and realize his love for her was stronger than what had happened. He wouldn’t.
Slowly, she unfolded the beautiful gown she was to have worn. All of it wouldn’t fit in the stove at once, so she cut it. Piece by piece, she burned it. As the last threads burned, Mercy retied her apron strings. Her waist hadn’t changed a bit. In time, it would expand, but she didn’t know when—and she couldn’t ask anyone. Never had she felt so alone.
“I thought to ask your opinion of this drawing.” Rob laid the floor plan out on her dining table. “It’s a house plan.”
Drying her hands on a dish towel, Mercy said, “I’ve seen many plans inAmerican Woman’s Homeand inLadies’ Home Journal.”
“On the train from New York, everyone shared their books and magazines.Scientific Americancaptured my attention. It featured some of George Barber’s homes.”
Mercy merely nodded.
“My brothers both think I’m daft for mailing away for this, but it seemed to me that since Barber is already well known for his plans, it only makes sense to lean on his experience.”
“Then why do you ask me what I think?”
“Because you’re a woman. Three bachelors are liable to overlook something important when it comes to the practicalities of running a household. When Chris or Duncan marries, it would be a shame to find out we’d forgotten or been ignorant about an essential.”
“What makes you think Mr. Barber has not given thought to such matters?”
“He,” Rob paused and gave her a rascal’s smile, “is a man, too.”
Mercy approached the table hesitantly. Robert didn’t move an inch. Ever since the first time he’d seen her, she’d been jumpy—and understandably so. But over the last few months, he’d made a subtle attempt to show her understanding and make her feel safe.
Manufacturing excuses to be around her was fairly easy. He was passing by the Stein spread while making house calls, he needed to confer with whichever brother happened to be out in the field that day, the Stein mailbox at the mercantile was full…In the churchyard, he’d make sure to compliment her on a dessert she’d sent home with one of his brothers or praise her for having accompanied the choir on the piano. Delivering the babe would be difficult enough—hopefully, he could get her accustomed to his presence so she wouldn’t be overwhelmed when the time came.
“You have two plans,” she said.
“I can see why you’d think so since they both have doors and a veranda. The one to the left is the downstairs. The one to the right is the upstairs. The upstairs veranda can be enclosed later to form another bedchamber.”
“I see.” She leaned a little closer. “This is the kitchen?”
“Aye.” He glanced at how her kitchen was arranged. “I imagine it would be set up similar to yours.”
“No.” She shook her head. “Grossmuter and I often regretted not having a mudroom. Everything gets tracked in.” She pointed toward a room. “What is this here?”
“Duncan’s shop. We don’t need a separate dining room—the kitchen will suffice. He can do his—” Rob watched as she shook her head. “What’s wrong?”
“Do not mistake me. Being a cobbler is an honorable profession, but the leather—much of it together in the same place smells bad. Between the smell and the hammer pounding on it, it would not be pleasant in the house.”
“Good point.” He tapped a pencil on the edge of the blueprint.
“A workshop just a stone’s throw from the house would work. That would free up space for your house to have a mudroom. You could divide that space and make it useful. The pantry you show here, beneath the stairs—it will not work well because you and your brothers are all tall. What if you have a mudroom, washroom, and pantry here?”
“An indoor washroom?” Robert chortled. “That’s very progressive. I like it! Is this a good spot to place the stove?”
She made a few more suggestions, then went over to the stove and stirred a pot. “When will you build the house?”
“Within the next month or so. I’ll telegraph a company in Knoxville, Tennessee. They’ll mill and cut the lumber, then send it by the railroad.”
She dropped the spoon. “You are mail ordering a house?”
“Aye, that I am. It will save considerable time and labor here, and the cost of the kit is actually quite thrifty by comparison.”
Amused at how she echoed the word, Rob chuckled. “Indeed. The notion takes a little getting used to.” He slipped a different page to the top of the stack. “This is the exterior view. When I order it, I’ll tell them not to send all the spindles and such.”
“Gingerbread.” She returned to the table and said, “Grossmuter called all of the lacy scrollwork and wooden fancies gingerbread.”
“Now there’s a grand description.” He shrugged. “But I couldn’t care less about how it looks on the outside. ’Tis the inside that counts.”
“This is too much, but a little would give charm to the house.” Mercy tapped the fanlike piece spanning from the peak of the roof to the eaves on either side. “Can you keep some of it?”
“What do you recommend?” Rob felt a spark of hope. For the first time since the tragedy, Mercy seemed to be coming out of her shell. He’d hoped the sketches might be a good tool for drawing her into a conversation. With a few leading questions, he enticed her into discussing the plan in infinite detail.
After awhile, she went back to the stove. “In a month, the wheat harvest should be done, and the corn harvest won’t quite be ready. That was good planning. The farmers will be able to help you.”
“Speaking of help…” Rob scribbled a note to himself in the corner of the page before rolling it up. “I’d like to hire you to cook for the men who come work.”
She shook her head. “Not one penny have you or your brothers accepted for the care or the help you have given.”
“And you’ve not accepted a single penny for all the delicious meals you’ve sent to us.” He crooked a brow. “Have you ever eaten at the diner?”
“And only once.” He nodded. “That says it all. Indeed, my brothers and I all agree—our cooking is no better than the diner’s. We’ve come out far ahead on the bargain. And since we’re on the subject of food, I’m trying to find a way to invite myself to lunch. Whatever you’re cooking smells delicious.”
“Ham and beans. And you are always welcome at our table.”
“That’s so wonderful to hear!” As Mrs. Kunstler scurried in from the wide open door where she had obviously been eavesdropping, Robert noted that Mercy startled at her interruption. Mrs. Kunstler looked from Mercy to Rob and back again before continuing, “Things work out, don’t they? And now my Otto won’t be worried about hurting your feelings as he courts Ismelda.”
Color rushed to Mercy’s face, then bled away just as rapidly. She shook her head.
Rob took the spoon from her, set it down, and pushed her into a chair. Keeping a hand on Mercy’s shoulder, he looked at Otto’s mother. “Mrs. Kunstler, you misconstrued matters.”
“What was I supposed to think?” Her gaze kept darting from Mercy to him. “You’re alone, together, in the house. Decency—”
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to question Miss Stein’s reputation or impugn my integrity.” He stared at her.
“I—um—it, well, of course I didn’t.” A nervous smile twitched across the woman’s face.
Rob directed his attention toward Mercy. “I’ll get you some water.”
“Oh, I’ll do that.” Mrs. Kunstler pumped water and hastily shoved the glass into his hand. “I didn’t mean to upset her.”
“Drink.” He pressed the glass to Mercy’s mouth. Beneath the hand he kept on her shoulder, he could feel how she shook. Mercy reached up and took the glass from him. For a fleeting second, Rob considered asking if Mercy wished for him to leave. Just as quickly, he dismissed the notion. Distraught as she was, she might still swoon.
He curled his hand around hers and lifted the glass to her mouth again. At the same time, something odd occurred to him. In the three months he’d been in America, he’d been astonished by the Texans’ hospitality. Not only did women always offer refreshments and extend an offer for a meal, but they went so far as to take a gift or food whenever they went calling on someone else.
But Otto’s mother came empty-handed.
“Mrs. Kunstler, since Miss Stein isn’t feeling her best, I’m sure you’ll understand—”
“I—we are still neighbors.” The woman started wringing her hands. Rob took in how fine beads of perspiration dotted her face and she couldn’t maintain eye contact. For her, the situation had to be uncomfortable, but he didn’t consider that even a fraction as important as Mercy’s heartbreak.
“We are still neighbors,” Mercy said in a bleak tone. “Your son was here yesterday. He still plans to borrow Grossvater’s reaper and claims one of Freckle’s pups. But me?” Her voice caught. “He said he cannot bear to look at me.”
“He scarcely sleeps, remembering how he killed that man.”
Mercy took another sip of the water. “ ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.’ That is the verse from Genesis you recited to me the day Otto asked me to marry him.” Mercy set the glass on the table with exacting care. “God does not change, but man does. Otto still needs a helpmate, yet he no longer wants me.” Her head came up and she squared her shoulders. “Was there any other reason you came today?”
Mrs. Kunstler slumped against the table. “We thought it best for you to know before you saw them together. Please, Mercy, be kind to them.”
“You speak to me about kindness?” Mercy shook her head. “You are the one who went about town telling everyone how that awful man shamed me.”
“I didn’t want anyone to think badly of my Otto if you were with child! I did it for you, too.”
Ruthlessly wiping away her tears, Mercy whispered in a raw tone, “Do not tell me this. You did not do it on my behalf. This is the first time since it happened that you have come here. You did not seek to help or comfort me. Today you have not come to ease my burden. What you ask is for me to make things easier on your son. It wasn’t necessary.” Mercy rose. “He is the man I was to have married, and the love I held for him would keep me from wounding him in any way.”
Aching silence filled the house. Robert cupped Mercy’s elbow. “Go lie down, lass. You need to rest.”
“I need to churn butter.” She sidled toward the stove, moved the pot off the heat, and then wiped her hands on her apron. “You will both go now.”
He and Mrs. Kunstler went outside. Stopping by her mare, Robert glowered at Otto’s mother. “Am I to understand that you’ve not sought her out to give her a woman’s advice?”
“The situation is strained. I’m not the right woman to—”
“No,” he agreed abruptly. “No, you’re not.”
“You don’t see—”
“I see all too clearly. I’ll help you onto your horse. You don’t belong here.” Once Mrs. Kunstler left, Rob stared back at the house.Three months. It’s been three months. All this time, I thought she was being comforted and counseled by a woman who could show sensitivity. What kind of doctor am I? I’ve failed a seventeen-year-old lass who’s been facing this all on her own. No more.Chapter7
Her palms were moist. Mercy traded the house plans from one hand to the other so she could slip her hands on the edge of her apron to dry them. Duncan arrived this morning, declaring the doctor needed the plans. Of course, he did that immediately after promising Peter that they’d go fishing once the weeding was done.
Though early in the day, the June heat had begun to build. The door to the doctor’s office was open. Mercy stood at the threshold and decided she ought to knock—after all, the doctor didn’t just work here; he and his brothers lived here, as well.
“Hey, Rob!” Christopher Gregor appeared in the hall and shouted up the staircase as he yanked Mercy inside. “The plans are here!”
Of all the brothers, Christopher was the one who never ceased to startle her. His actions were invariably swift and often unexpected. Mercy barely kept from screaming.
Chris grinned at her, completely unaware of how he’d practically sent her into a panic. “Rob said you think we ought to keep some of the embellishments on the house. You’d better be ready for a fight, because I’m holding out to eliminate every last one.”
“It’s your house.” She managed to scoot away from him.
“That’s what I’m telling them. I’ll do most of the construction. I used to do a lot of the mine construction back home.”
“Good morning, Miss Stein.” The doctor descended the stairs.
“I gave your brother the plans.” She started to turn toward the door to make a quick escape.
“Actually, while you’re here, I’d appreciate some help.”
“No fair askin’ the lass. It’s your own fault.” Chris folded his arms across his chest and growled at Mercy, “He slept through breakfast.”
“I didn’t mean anything about food,” the doctor snapped.
Chris leaned toward her. “Pay no heed to his surly attitude. He gets that way often enough. One night with a few paltry interruptions and he gets cranky.”
“So you need some breakfast?”
“No, I dinna need you minding my belly.” The doctor scowled at his brother. “Go make yourself useful.”
“Nae. ’Tis too much fun staying here for the moment.”
“This is a touchy subject,” the doctor began.
The whole matter seemed far too dubious. Mercy murmured, “Then perhaps you ought to have someone else assist you.”
“I seriously doubt anyone else could help.” The doctor heaved a sigh. “Come out to the back.”
“You go on ahead. I’m not fool enough to chance it,” Christopher announced.
“Coward,” the doc muttered.
Mercy tagged along and tried to ignore the smell of scorched oatmeal as she passed by the stove. She had no idea what she was getting roped into, but the brotherly banter struck her as amusing. Once she reached the back steps, she gave the doctor a confused look.
Features strained, he whispered, “So you dinna know what to do, then, either?”
She blinked. “About what?”
The doctor cringed at the normal volume she’d spoken in and whispered even more softly, “That.” He pointed to a huge pasteboard box.
Mercy leaned forward, looked inside, and started to giggle.
“Now then”—the doctor’s brows puckered—” ’tisna all that funny.”
“Just yesterday, you told me you were going to get a house kit. I didn’t think you meant this kind.” She went down on her knees by the box where a cat was nursing a litter of kittens—but in contrast to all the other marmalade-colored babies, one was black and white.
Doc leaned down and clamped his hands on her upper arms as she reached for the baby skunk. He murmured, “I wasna askin’ you to get rid of the beast—just for some advice. I read about them, and I dinna think it’s wise for you to be so close.”
“He’s a spotted skunk. If he’s ready to do mischief, he’ll stand on his hands.” She didn’t pick up the kit. Instead, she rubbed each of the tiny kittens in the litter. “They’re all about the same age and size—about six weeks.”
“So how do we reunite him with his mother? And how do we get rid of them all?”
Mercy sat back on her heels. “Spotted skunks don’t stay any one place for long. They roam. The mother could be anywhere—in a rotten log or an abandoned burrow. She probably came to the house because you’ve set food out for the cat.”
“So she could return tonight and reclaim her kit?”
“It is possible but not probable. When mothers and their babies are set apart, they don’t come back together again.” She turned to look at the doctor. “What you read told you how stinky a skunk is, but they are shy creatures. They only protect themselves if they feel threatened.”
“Why do you think three grown men are whispering and tiptoeing around?”
Mercy smothered a smile. “He isn’t old enough to be completely weaned.” She paused a moment and decided to tease him. “Spotty. You should name him Spotty.”
“There’s no need to name something when it’s not staying.”
“Hey, Rob,” Christopher’s subtle-as-an-ox whisper drifted out to them. “I’ve never been happier that you’re the doctor.”
“I just read something.” Chris stuck his head out the door. “You can operate and take out the stink glands. Yep. You’re the doc.” Just as quickly, Chris disappeared again.
“There’s no need to be hasty,” the doctor said.
Mercy grimaced. “Actually, after four weeks, they start to practice spraying. By six or eight weeks—”
“We’re not keeping it around that long!”
“If the mother took him out at night, he’s about six weeks.”
Looking thoroughly disgruntled, the doctor announced, “His mother will come get him tonight.”
Suddenly the humor of the situation evaporated. Mercy averted her gaze. “Just because you want something does not make it happen.”
Dr. Gregor sat on the wooden plank veranda beside her. “ ’Tis a harsh truth you just spoke.”
Mercy tried to rise, but he stopped her. “Dinna run, lass. You needn’t speak a word a-tall. I plan to do a bit of talking.” For good measure, he scooped a kitten from the box and tucked it into her hands.
“I have chores to do at home.”
“A woman’s work is ne’er done. Or so my ma always said, God rest her soul.” The corners of his bright blue eyes crinkled. “I canna be certain whether she’s finally resting in heaven, or if she’s still bustling about with a broom, trying to make the streets of gold gleam brighter.”
The image coaxed a twitch of a smile from her.
“I oughtn’t cast stones. My brothers taunt me about my tidy ways.”
“Your patients would develop infections if you were slovenly.”
He inclined his head as an acknowledgment. “Aye. But I also remind them cleanliness is next to godliness.” He glanced over his shoulder, then whispered, “Betwixt thee and me, ’tisna always the case. Times when my soul’s been the most troubled, I’ve tried to busy my hands so as to keep from thinking or praying.”
Her breath caught.
“My da—he passed on to Jesus just a day before we reached America.”
“I still grieve for him, but ’tis only my selfishness that causes me to. He was ailing for a long while, and now he’s whole once again and in heaven. A mining accident took his arm several years back—†twas the guilt money they settled on him that paid for my medical training. He claimed God took a bad situation and used it for good.”
Anger flashed through her.He’d better not tell me it’s all for the good that I’m with child and Otto has abandoned me.
Unaware of her reaction, the doctor kept talking. “But ’twasna until his last hour that Da pointed out something that was right before me for years. I cared for Da—leastways, for the needs of his ailing body. But Duncan—he’s a man with a knack for wrapping quiet comfort like a blanket about others whose hearts and souls are aching. Chris—well, he manages to scowl others into behaving so peace is maintained.”
Mercy concentrated on tracing the soft stripes in the kitten’s fur. The doctor was right: the Gregor men were vastly different in their strengths and personalities.
“None of us is good at everything. We have strengths and weaknesses. God created us that way so we’d rely on Him and on our brothers and sisters.” He reached over, gently stroked the kitten, and said in a somber tone, “You’re a fine woman, Mercy Stein. Aye, you are—but you’re going to have to lean on God and others to help you through all that lies ahead.”
She started to tremble. “I must leave now.”
He took the kitten and gently put it with its littermates. “I’ll walk you out.”
It would be rude to refuse his assistance rising from the veranda. Once she was up, Mercy snatched back her hand. Her plan was to dash down the steps and go around to the front, but the doctor stopped her.
“We obviously have a mama skunk close-by. Go back through to the front.” As she started through the doorway, he added, “Is there anything I should put out to entice that mother to come get the kit?”
Relief flooded her. She could salvage her pride by leaving on a better note. “What did you have out last night?”
Chris must have overheard her, because he started to chortle.
Mercy gave the doctor a questioning look.
His neck and ears went red. “Leftovers.”
“Dinna believe him.” Chris served his brother a wallop on the back that would have felled a smaller man. “Rob tried to bake beans. I’ve chewed on softer bullets.”
It’s my fault. I was rattled yesterday and didn’t send food home with them. She stared at the far wall and said, “Eggs. Skunks like eggs.”
“I’d suppose you have only one female and her litter of kits.”
Doc chuckled. “One’s more than enough. I meant, how many eggs should I put out? Half a dozen?”
“One or two.”
He looked uncertain. “Fried?”
“Raw.” She hastily added, “Still in the shell.”
Christopher seemed to find the whole exchange vastly amusing. Until today, he’d always been so stern. Discovering it was nothing more than bluster made her bold. Mercy walked toward freedom and called back over her shoulder, “Christopher Gregor, you owe me for helping you out. It’s going to cost you.”
“Is that so?”
“Ja.” She turned to the doctor. “I count on you to make sure he pays this debt.”
“You just name it,” Doc said.
“I can hardly wait.” Christopher looked too smug.
She gave the doctor’s brother the same look she used on Peter when he misbehaved. “Gingerbread.”
“Uh…I’m not any better at cooking than my brothers.”
The doctor tried to smother his laughter with a cough.
Mercy cast him a quick glance, then mused, “But you are good at building things?”
“That’s a fact.” All of a sudden, Christopher’s face contorted. “Not my house!”
“Our house,” the doctor corrected. “Miss Stein, what will satisfy the debt?”
“I’m a fair woman.” She ignored Chris’s rude snort and continued. “The fan-styled inset at the apex of the eaves. And if the mother returns and takes away the kit, whichever is cheaper: a spindled veranda or scalloped clapboards for part of the building.”
“If the skunk is gone, you’ll have both, and we’ll be coming out better on the bargain.”
“You’re demented.” Chris shook his head. “Any sane person would want a skunk as far away as possible, and you’re trying to get it to come up on the porch!”
“You suggested I bring a skunk into my office and perform surgery on it!”
Mercy left, surprised she was still smiling at the Gregor brothers’ antics. But she’d ridden no more than five feet before it happened again. Women gave her pitying glances and turned away. The tiny bit of happiness she’d had withered, and misery swamped her.Chapter8
No gingerbread. Not a stick.” Chris stomped into the surgery and half bellowed, “Did you hear me?”
“Half of Texas heard you.” Rob calmly placed a bottle of arnica on the shelf and shut the door to his pharmaceutical cabinet. “I take it we still have the skunk?”
“No, we dinna.Younow have two!” Chris glowered at him. “I’m working at the farm today. You and Duncan can find a way to rid us of those beasts.”
Rob stood chest-to-chest with his brother and glared at him. “You’re not going.”
“And why not?”
“You’ll bellow at the lass. She canna take it. I’ll send off the telegram to order the house, and you can start the foundation.”
“I can’t yet. Connant insists we have a cellar to hide in when there’s a storm. He hounded me until I relented and said I’d dig it.” Chris looked exasperated. “I’m too busy to worry about cowering from a gust of wind.”
“Last day of last month, Bell and Falls counties lost ten men to tornadoes. Connant has yet to steer us wrong about America.”
“Exaggeration. It has to be. These Texans pride themselves in telling tall tales. Connant’s always had a talent for stretching the thinnest thread of truth into a yarn. He’s warmed up to the Texan tradition. Every time he mentions a tornado, it gets more powerful. He started with telling me about the hail that’s the size of a fist. Then he had flying cows. At last telling, brick houses were torn to bits.”
“You gave your word; you’ll dig the shelter.”
Rolling up his sleeves, Chris muttered, “Hot as it’s getting, I’ll probably be striking Lucifer with the shovel—and most likely within the first few inches.”
“Now look who’s spouting Texas-sized tales!” Rob folded a paper up and tucked it into the pocket of his vest. Miserably hot as the summer had proven to be, he felt a spurt of thanks that the men didn’t feel it necessary to wear a coat and hat.
“It’s a crying shame Connant wasn’t stretching the truth when he told us it gets hotter than the hinges to Hades in the summer.”
“Speaking of the devil’s domain…” Rob stared at his eldest brother. “I’ve waited for you to tell the truth about those trips to Thurber.”
Chris shrugged. “I haven’t lied.”
“You’ve not been forthcoming with the real reason you went, either.” Rob knew Chris had spent time in the mines. “Did you think I wouldn’t recognize the cough?”
Chris didn’t look in the least bit unsettled or repentant. “Don’t fault me for doing my trade.”
“We’re relying on your talents with construction. It’s time to build the house. You’re getting irritated about me getting called out in the wee small hours, and Duncan’s snoring is driving me to distraction.”
“Duncan’s busy with all manner of leatherwork, and your practice is booming.”
Rob knew he had to tread lightly. Chris was a proud man. “Aye. I canna deny either of those statements. But we’d have to pay dearly for anyone else to do the construction. We’re relying on your skill.”
“I haven’t done a scrap of work on it yet.”
Rob nodded. “And glad I am that you haven’t. You were where you were most needed. The Steins would be in sorry shape had you not worked their land.”
The tension in Chris’s jaw eased only slightly.
“It’s not just the farming you do that’s vital. You’ve seen how skittish Mercy is.” He saw Chris’s eyes flare. “Having a strong man there lends her a sense of safety.”
Rob knew he’d succeeded in making his point. With Chris, it was better to back off so he felt he’d made the decision. “You’re so big and ugly, there isna man nor dog that’d tangle with you.”
“I’d tell you to look in the mirror, but you’d break it.” Chris stared out the window. “I’m not done in Thurber. I’m going back for two more days.”
“It’s lignite. They’re opening shafts four and five, and some idiot set up shoring in them that’s got exposed nails. You use your knowledge to save lives. This time, I’m using mine. One spark and the whole thing would burn for months.”
“Which is why I don’t want you down there at all.” The railroad desperately needed the soft coal, but Rob didn’t want his brother to continue mining. Mining ruined a man’s lungs, if it didn’t claim life or limb first. “You’re done with that trade.”
“In case you didn’t notice, I didn’t ask what you thought.”
“We pledged Da we’d stay together.”
“I’m still in Texas!”
“Not good enough,” Rob shot back.
Chris banged his fist against the back of a chair. “I’m not about to concede to your whims. Not after you decided our house needs to have more frills than an Easter bonnet.”
“Sore over that, are you?”
“No.” The corner of Chris’s mouth kicked up. “Any gingerbread’s going to go on Duncan’s workshop, and I’ll pound you into the ground if you warn him.”
“You haven’t succeeded in distracting me. I still expect you to put mining behind you after these last two days of consulting.”
“You haven’t distracted me, either. Duncan gets any of the silly frills.”
Rob nodded. “We have a deal.”
“You’ve wasted half the morning. I have a stupid basement to dig in the heat of the day now that you’re done clucking like a hen.”
Rob grabbed his medical satchel and a slip of paper. He’d already composed the order for the house—including all of the “standard” features, which included a plethora of the frills Chris was grousing about. In addition to the house, Rob had estimated enough boards to construct the partitions in the downstairs to create the washroom and Duncan’s workshop. He grinned to himself. Chris agreed to the bargain that Duncan got all of the gingerbread—but Chris didn’t consider one important fact: Duncan could put the gingerbread wherever he wanted to.
“Grossvater is in the cornfield.” Mercy pinned Peter’s shirt to the clothesline.
Doc didn’t stride off. Instead, he announced, “I sent for the house and extra lumber to construct Duncan’s workshop.”
“The men will all want to help, but this kit—will it come with instructions?”
“Aye, and each piece is numbered. ‘Twill require two cars on the train to hold all of the material.”
Mercy kept hanging up clothes. “Two! That much to make a house?”
“It surprised me, too.” Rob reached over and held the hem of the dress she’d taken from the basket.
“You’ll get wet.” She tried to tug it away.
“I’m sweltering, lass. That’s not a threat; ’tis a promise.” After she pinned the calico dress to the line, he pinched the cloth on either side of the waist. “You’ll be needing new frocks soon.”
Mercy pretended she hadn’t seen nor heard him.
“You’ve not asked, and I’m—”
“I’m not asking anything.” She snapped a dishcloth in the air, then savagely pinned it up.
“Between Christmas and New Year’s.” His words came out in a patient tone. “I just thought you might want to know.”
Heat soared from her bodice to her forehead. Rattled, she tried to jam the wrong end of a clothespin onto the line.
“If it’s too hard for you to discuss, I could write down a few things for you.”
“Let me be!” Once she cried out the words, Mercy felt guilty. “I don’t want to be rude. Just please leave me alone.”
“I respect you immensely, Miss Stein, and I’ll respect your wishes.” He didn’t even pause but changed the topic. “Your grandda is healing better than I anticipated, but I’d best not find him working too hard. If he is, I’ll scold him like he’s six instead of sixty.”
“Duncan’s with him.”
“Good, good.” He nodded. “Duncan’s grown quite fond of your grandda and Peter. They didn’t get a single nibble whilst fishing yester noon because the three of them kept trading jokes and made too much noise.”
“Fish don’t have ears.”
“Ah, but they do.” The doctor pulled a pair of britches from the basket and held it to the line so she could hang it. “They have an ear stone and little hairs inside at the back of the head. They sense vibration—much like you feel the vibration of a tuning fork or a bell.”
“Just because we canna see something doesna mean ’tisn’t there.”
Everyone knows that. Why would he say such an odd thing?
“Though I canna see the Almighty, I still know He’s with me because of how He resonates in my heart.”
I used to feel that way. Now I don’t. God hasn’t listened to me or talked to my heart for months now. She glanced at the doctor, and he gave her a quizzical look. Embarrassed at her thoughts, she stammered, “It is odd, you speaking of fish and God in the same discussion.”
His eyes twinkled. “Ooch! Now, lass, many a man will tell you ’tis no place like sittin’ by a stream with a pole in your hand to let your heart go still. ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ Aye, I’m thinkin’ that verse applies to the hours when I fish.”
Eager to veer away from discussing spiritual matters, she pretended to play with a clothespin. “So then, go talk to Grossvater in the cornfield. Maybe he could take you fishing sometime.”
“That I will.”
As the doctor walked off, Mercy hung the last of the laundry and went to the garden. She picked some vegetables and took them inside. The doctor had said he stayed busy when his heart ached. Mercy envied him.No matter how hard I work, nothing fills up the emptiness inside me—nothing but that evil man’s child.Chapter9
No being surly,” Rob warned Chris as they rode to the Stein farm.
“Of course he willna be surly.” Duncan thumbed back his hat. “ ’Tis Peter’s birthday, and Chris wouldna think to spoil it with a dark mood.”
“I’m not surly.” Chris shifted the box on his lap. “I’m impatient.”
Duncan looked at Rob. “Peter’s growin’ a year older today, and I’m thinking Chris is going backward in age.”
“You chose more fireworks than I did.” Chris gave Duncan a mock scowl. “But if you think they’re just a schoolboy’s toy, I’m sure Mercy would let you stay in the kitchen and wash dishes while the rest of us enjoy the lights—don’t you think, Rob?”
“We’ll not light a single one till everyone can enjoy them.”
Chris smirked. “Duncan, you’re my witness. Rob just volunteered to do dishes.”
“Aye, that he did!”
Rob chuckled. “Since when did I mind getting my hands wet? Washing dishes is a far sight easier than sterilizing my instruments.”
“Keep talking about that.” Chris grinned at Rob. “Duncan goes green whene’er he even hears about blood and gore. It means there’ll be more food for us.”
As they approached the farmhouse, Peter ran out to greet them. “We get to have a picnic! Grossvater said we could!”
As they hitched their horses, Peter hopped from one foot to the other. “You got three horses now?”
“Aye, we do.” Chris gave his gelding an affectionate pat.
“Was yours sick, too?”
“Nae. Just bad-tempered. His owner didn’t know how to treat him.”
“There’s not a beast alive Chris couldn’t charm,” Duncan boasted.
Mercy came out onto the veranda. “Except a skunk.”
Rob chortled. “Aye, and that’s the truth. Chris, will you be telling the lass, or do I?”
Mercy’s eyes widened. “The skunk didn’t—”
“No,” Chris snapped. He heaved a sigh. “You were right. The skunk was in that log. While she went to our porch for the eggs, I chopped up the log so she’d move on.”
“And she took every last one of her kits with her,” Duncan added.
Rob gave Mercy a slow smile. “So mayhap you ought to be reminding Chris what gingerbread is to go on the new house.”
“I’ll remind him later.” Mercy pushed a golden strand of hair behind her ear. “I wouldn’t want to spoil his appetite.”
“Mercy made a cake for me. Wanna come see?”
“Later, Peter.” Mercy made a shooing motion. “Go take the blanket and spread it out. Don’t lay it by the redbud tree. There’s an anthill there.”
“And after I do, I getta choose a watermelon.”
“Now, I think I’m going to have to set this box down and help you with that chore. We’ll find the biggest watermelon in the garden.”
Peter went up on tiptoe. “What’s in the box?”
“A surprise.” Chris set the box down on the veranda. “It’ll be the last thing we do today.”
Peter shuffled backward. “It’s not a switch is it?”
“What,” Rob asked, “would make you think of a thing like that?”
“Johann’s father says that when he’s been naughty.”
“I see.” Rob heard the gritty undertone in Chris’s voice.
“Mr. Honig is a firm man, but fair.” In spite of the heat, Mercy wrapped her arms around herself. “It’s a case of his bark being worse than his bite.”
“That’s good to know.” Chris straightened up.
“I think you’d better worry about my bite.” Rob grinned. “I’m smelling fried chicken. While the others go spread out the picnic blanket and choose a melon, I’ll come help with the food.”
“That kind of help will leave the rest of us hungry,” Duncan predicted.
“He wouldn’t do that to us.” Peter looked up at him. “Would you, Doctor?”
“Never. I’d be sure to save out three pieces—one for you, another for your sister, and the last one for your grandda.”
“Does the gizzard count as a piece? It’s awful small.”
“Seeing as it’s your birthday, I’d save that one for you as a treat.”
“Okay, but I like the leg.”
“Hey!” Chris looked at Duncan and half bellowed in outrage, “They’re plotting to leave us out.”
Duncan crooked his finger at Peter. A moment later, he whispered something in the boy’s ear that sent him into a fit of giggles.
“The both of you are up to no good.”
“And what else would you expect of us?” Duncan settled his arm around Peter.
Five minutes later, Rob held a tray with dishes on it. A substantial thump sounded from one of the bedrooms, and an immediateshhh!followed.
“What—” Mercy wheeled around toward that room.
“Else do we need to take out?” Rob cut in as he stepped in front of her. He tilted his head toward the direction of more rustling and winked. “That chicken platter is heavy. Do you want to take it out now”—he shook his head from side to side—“or get it on the next trip?” He nodded.
Mercy took the cue. “Perhaps the next trip. Right now, I could take the potato salad out.”
“Aye. That’s a fair plan. So off we go. How many watermelons are in your garden?”
“I haven’t counted.” Mercy stepped out of the house.
Rob followed and immediately set down the tray and held a finger up to his lips. He shut the door and stomped twice in place, then lightened his footfall to imitate the sound of them walking away. He winked at Mercy.
She carefully set down the bowl she carried and gave him a baffled look.
He held up one hand and crooked one finger at a time to count down five seconds. “Ah-ha!” Rob shouted as he threw open the door.
Peter screamed, and Duncan caught the platter of chicken before it fell. They traded a guilty look.
“What’s wrong?” Chris demanded as he hastened up the steps.
“What’s wrong?” Duncan groused. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong. You didn’t cause sufficient diversion!”
Mercy’s eyes popped wide open. “Christopher, you were a part of this, too?”
“It’s your fault,” Chris retorted.
Pressing her hand to her bosom and sounding completely bewildered, Mercy said, “I am to blame?”
“Aye, ’tis a fact.” Chris nodded.
Rob smiled at her. “You’re a grand cook, and we’re desperately hungry men.”
Mercy laughed. “You are all little boys having your fun. Now, everyone, carry something and we will have supper.”
Duncan held fast to the chicken platter and headed out the door. The look on his face dared anyone to reach for a bite. Mercy slipped to the side and picked up the bowl she’d set down, while Chris rumbled to Rob, “She thinks ’twas all a game.”
Duncan let out a bark of laughter.
Rob couldn’t. He was too focused on Mercy to pay much attention to his brothers. For the first time since he’d met her, Mercy had laughed.
Throughout supper, Rob hoped to hear her laugh again. Chris and Duncan were in rare form, teasing one another and pulling Peter or Mr. Stein into the middle of nonsensical debates. Mercy smiled a time or two, but that was it.
After they’d demolished the supper and decimated the cake, Chris surveyed the scattered collection of plates. “Well, Rob, I’m thinking you willna hae to work too hard, washing the dishes. We practically licked them clean for you already.”
“Speak for yourself,” Duncan said in an affronted tone. “You might hae eaten like a ravening beast, but I didna stoop to that level. Neither did Rob. We sopped up the last morsels wi’ Mercy’s fine bread.”
“That, we did.” Rob grinned. “It was efficient and mannerly. Mercy, you’ll have to excuse Chris. He’s never been one to act civilized.”
The banter continued as they carried everything back to the house. Even as Rob washed the dishes, Duncan dried them, and Mercy put them away, lighthearted teasing kept on.
“Now?” Peter pled. “Now can I see what’s in the box?”
“Sure.” Duncan swung Peter upside down and carried him in that position out onto the porch. “ ’Twill be dark enough to play with these in just a little while.”
“I can’t open the box when I’m hanging like this.”
“Rob,” Chris asked, “did you hear that? Peter’s seven now, and he’s still a weakling. Do you have a tonic to help?”
“Eww!” Peter squirmed. “Tonics taste awful. I don’t want any!”
Duncan flipped him right side up and set him down. “I dinna blame you. Rob’s potions taste e’en worse than his cooking—and that’s saying a lot.”
Peter knelt by the box and pried off the lid. “Grossvater! Look! A giant paper candle!”
“It’s called a Roman candle.” Duncan sat beside Peter. “It’s a firework. They’re beautiful but dangerous.”
Peter accidentally bumped the box. “Mercy! There are two of those Roman paper candle fireworks.”
“Gently lift those off and look deeper in the box,” Rob instructed.
Peter eagerly complied. Three more layers yielded an assortment of fireworks. “Can we set them all on fire now?”
“It would be safest to have a few buckets of water on hand first,” Rob said. “Don’t you think so, Mercy?”
“Ja, that would be wise.”
After Peter fetched the water, Rob insisted that three buckets of sand were also smart. “If something accidentally goes up in flame, we need to be ready.”
Mercy gave Rob a puzzled look as Peter dashed off after one last bucket. “Do you not want him to set off the fireworks?”
“Oh, we will. I was delaying a bit because when it’s darkest, the lights shine more brightly.”
They all enjoyed the showers of light. As the last one burst into a wondrous display, Rob looked at Mercy. He’d hoped to see joy shining in her eyes. Instead, the sadness he saw there made his breath freeze in his lungs. Just as quickly, he tamped down his emotions. Pity would cripple her. The prudent thing to do was to treat her just as if she weren’t tormented by the violence that begot the bairn she carried.If I’m to be able to treat her medically, I must not allow compassion to weaken me. She has friends and family—there are a strong handful of those, but she’ll have but one doctor—me. They can fret o’er her emotions. Me—†tis her health and that of the babe with which I must concern myself. I’ll guard my professional demeanor and keep enough distance that I not lose my objectivity.
Mercy filled a bucket with cool water and grabbed a pair of dish towels. She walked out into the field.
“Danke.” Grossvater dipped the first towel into the water and handed it to Duncan, then wet the other. The men continued to discuss plans for threshing as they cooled down—first with the damp cloths, then by taking huge gulps straight from the edge of the pail.
“Lunch will be ready in an hour.” She headed back toward the house. Duncan and Christopher Gregor had participated in the reaping of the fields, and the wheat had dried. Men in the county pulled together to do the next step—moving from one farm to the next with the big steam threshing machine. Women helped one another feed all those hungry men—at least they always had. This year was different.
Grossvater owned the only reaper in the county, and everyone had borrowed it. Years ago, all of the farmers went together and bought a thresher. Each farm used it in turn, in the same pattern as the reaping went. The Stein farm would be the first to have all the men come for threshing.
But Mercy knew the women wouldn’t all come with big vats of food and fill the day with happy chatter. They barely spoke to her at all, and only when it was unavoidable. Carmen and her sister felt the same way the doctor and his brothers did—that she bore no blame for the child. Asking Carmen and Ismelda to come help cook had been embarrassing, but Mercy had done so to avoid the shame of not being able to feed the men.
She dreaded threshing day. Three days later, as soon as the men began to arrive, Mercy knew her fears had been well founded.Chapter10
My mother—she is not feeling so good today. She sent this.” Otto pushed a large bowl into Ismelda’s hands. “She’s sick?” Ismelda made a sympathetic sound. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Mercy tore herself away from the scene just outside her kitchen door. It all hurt so much—for Otto to be courting another girl so soon, for his mother to have suddenly turned cold and silent, and for the women to all shun her as they did.
Over the next half hour, man after man arrived. A few ventured toward the kitchen with a dish or loaf of bread. Weak excuses accompanied those offerings.
Working feverishly, the three women did all they could. Carmen had come over for the past two days to help make things in advance. Even then, as the men all washed up at the huge tubs of water and Mercy scrambled to put the last dishes on the tables, she worried there wouldn’t be enough to satisfy them.
Texas held many different cultures, but until recently the German community had stayed pretty much to itself. Foods the men expected were on the table—ham, roast beef, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, cucumber salad, coleslaw, pickles, pickled beets, watermelon pickles, green tomato relish—but also now, there were dishes they’d not known. The exotic dishes Carmen and Ismelda made seemed so out of place—yet Mercy pretended the spread was the same as it had traditionally been.
Grossvater raised his hand in the air, and the men went quiet. “I want to thank all my friends and neighbors for their help. Let’s say grace and eat!”
Well-worn straw hats came off.
The food flew off the tables just as quickly. Between filling cups and putting out more food, Mercy had an excuse to dash around and not speak.
In times past, the men spoke little as they ate—mostly just, “Pass me the gravy,” and, “Good chicken, Miss Stein.” This meal, as if to make up for the lack of women calling things to one another, the men tried to fill the silence with hearty jokes or conversation. The awkwardness didn’t keep them from decimating apple pie, raisin pie, blue plumkuchenand cakes. The custard with caramel on it that Carmen called flan seemed to please the men.
When the men went back to work, Carmen surveyed the tables. “I’ve never seen men pounce on food like that!”
“They liked your ta-mals.”
Carmen laughed. “Tamales. I didn’t make them very spicy. If I want, I can season them so your tongue begs for deliverance.”
“I like sweet foods and tangy things—not so much the hot ones.” Mercy stacked the empty pie tins. “I hope a little of your flan is left. The men praised it lavishly.”
“A few grunts are lavish praise?” Ismelda shook her head. “Such a strange custom.”
“Be sure I am very thankful for all your hard work.” After the dishes were all washed, dried, and put away, Mercy pressed a small cloth bag into Carmen’s hand. “Molasses cookies.”
“Oh, you know how I love them!”
Ismelda gave her a hug. “Thank you, Mercy, for letting everyone know that we’re still friends. I know you truly wish Otto and me every happiness.”
“I do.” Mercy stared down at the grimy hem of her apron. “You saw today—the other women didn’t come. I will not blame you if—”
“Nonsense!” Carmen gave her a stormy look. “You’re my friend. Nothing will change that.”
“Exactly.” Ismelda grinned. “Now will you write down the recipe for that cucumber salad?”
Mercy obligingly did so. By late afternoon, the chugging of the M. Rumley steam thresher stopped. Not long after, all the men left. Those whose wives sent food came to the back veranda to fetch the dishes, and Mercy had all of the dishes lined up there for them—each with a small bag of molasses cookies to show her thanks.
There were enough leftovers for her to feed Grossvater and Peter supper. Mercy didn’t have much of an appetite. She went to bed and curled up, feeling horribly alone. Always in the past, threshing was a day of joy—thankfulness to God for a good harvest mingled with the merry visiting of neighbors.But God let that man hurt me, and the women who are my sisters in Christ have turned their backs on me.
Sleep wouldn’t come.
The sky was still violet. Soon, the rooster would be crowing the sun up. Mercy lay in bed and stared at her bedside table. A thin layer of dust covered her Bible. She hadn’t read the Word for weeks now. Setting aside quiet time for devotions was too hard. The minute she ceased doing chores she started drowning in a sea of feelings.
Deciding what to make for breakfast, she shoved off the sheet. It was far too hot to use blankets. Suddenly, she froze. Lying still, she closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing. A few minutes later, it happened again—an infinitesimal fluttering low in her tummy. Light as butterfly wings, the sensation came and left again.
Mercy slid her hand down the soft-from-a-hundred-washings cotton nightgown. Resting her palm where she’d experienced the sensation, she waited. And waited. And waited.
Is that you?
“Hello, Dr. Gregor! Welcome! You’re just in time—the men are coming in for lunch.”
Rob didn’t dismount immediately. “I was concerned about you, Mrs. Kunstler. My brothers said Otto mentioned you were feeling puirly.”
“I’m hale as a horse. I don’t know where—” She halted abruptly as color rushed to her cheeks.
Crossing his hands on the saddle’s pommel, he looked across the table. “Mrs. Grun, I’m glad to see the terrible sprain you had yesterday has healed so swiftly. You’re walking without any difficulty. Mrs. Voran, Mrs. Stucky—I’m gratified to see your children are bounding around so easily. I was made to understand they were ailing yesterday, as well.”
Mrs. Kunstler bustled past him and waved the men over. “Come. Yes, come now. Dinner is ready. There is plenty!”
Chris yelled, “Rob, what are you doing here?”
Rob shrugged. “A whole lot of nothing, much to my surprise. Just yesterday, you said many of the women or children were sick. I’m delighted to report everyone’s in the very pink of health.”
Rob joined the men at the washstands, then ate with them. As he rose, he said, “What a grand meal this was. I’ve never seen men eat half as much. You women—all of you women—worked hard to keep sufficient food on the table.”
“We all help one another,” Jakob Lintz said.
“Ahh. So that’s it.” Rob nodded his head sagely. “None of the ladies went to help at the Stein’s threshing yesterday. I’m supposing ’twas because none of us Gregors thought to pledge that one or two of us would work the threshing on the Stein’s behalf.” He let out a big sigh. “I’m relieved. Aye, I surely am. I should have known better than to worry as I did.”
“Worry?” someone asked.
“Aye. I’m ashamed to confess I worried mayhap something else was behind puir wee Mercy working her fingers to the bone. Now I see ’twasna a case of anyone reviling the lass. Glad I am of it, too. She’s but an innocent lamb, hurt in the verra worst way by a godless beast of a man. She and the babe—I’m glad to know you’ll all be thinkin’ kindly of them and extending Christian charity toward them through the coming months and years.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Rob.” Duncan stood and scanned the young women who stood around the edge of the yard, their hands full of empty pie plates. “I’m betting not a man here hasna given thought to the fact that it could have been his daughter or granddaughter who fell victim to such a tragedy. Connant told us this community was strong in the Lord. ’Twas our fault—the Gregors should have pledged to you all that we’d represent the Steins. From now on, you can count on us.”
“Aye, that you can.” Chris slapped a straw hat on his head. “Now I’m getting back to work ere I yield to the temptation to take a nap after all that food.”
Rob rode over to the Steins’. Mercy was in the garden wielding a hoe. Rob dismounted and chuckled. “I canna help wonderin’ whether you’re merely killin’ that weed or if you’re trying to send it clear down to the devil himself this verra minute!”
“I’d gladly send him and all his brothers.”
“This is a lovely garden patch. You must have quite a fondness for sweet corn.”
“We all do.” Mercy surveyed the long rows of corn. Suddenly her eyes went wide and her hand went to her middle.
“The babe’s bootin’ you, eh?” Rob made a casual gesture. “The timing is right. The next three months, you’ll not be feeling so sleepy. The last three, you’ll be worn out and have your back achin’ fiercely, but that’s all to be expected.”
She’s not cutting me off. I dinna dare push too far, but the lass needs help. Lord, give me the wisdom and words she needs.
“ ‘The barest of flutters.’ ” He smiled. “That’s how the first mother-to-be I doctored many years back described it. Later, she declared that same babe was stompin’ in hobnailed boots inside her.” Hitching his shoulder, Rob admitted, “ ’Twas her eleventh babe. My hands caught him—a fat, squalling boy—but that woman took a mind to tell me half of what I needed to know wasna in my medical texts.”
“She told you this? Your patient?”
“Aye, and right she was.” Rob casually patted his chest pocket. “Now there’s a pity. After each visit I paid her, I wrote notes to myself. Ever see that small red book I carry? I could quote page upon page, but still I carry it with me on the days I’m to see a woman who’s in a motherly way.”
“That book serves as a reminder that ’tisna always the mind that teaches us the important things—ofttimes, ’tis the heart.”
Mercy started hoeing again with a vengeance. “You’re supposing everyone has a heart. You’re wrong, Doctor. Write that down in your book, too.”Chapter11
As soon as the bitter words left her mouth, Mercy regretted them. They were honest—but too stark. Concentrating on a small dirt clod, she beat it into oblivion as she muttered, “I should not have said that.”
“And why not? There’s nothing wrong with speaking the truth as you see it.”
“I’m not a child. You do not need to humor me.”
“I’m not humoring you. As a matter of fact, I think you have plenty of call to question if anyone has a heart. You’ve suffered greatly because of what others have done.”
She stared at the soil. “It was not others about whom I spoke. It is myself.”
“Without a doubt, Miss Stein, you have a heart of gold. You love your brother and grandda. You even pet baby skunks.”
“It does not say much for my character that I care for the young, the old, and the helpless. These days, those are all I do care for.”
“Your heart has been wounded as surely as any other injury you have suffered. To my way of thinking, there’s nothing wrong with you guarding yourself. You need time.”
“Time will not help.” Mercy stared at the earth. If anything, time would only make matters worse. People already shunned her. How much worse would it become when her belly grew huge? And how would they treat her after she had the babe?
How will they treat the baby? The thought made her breath catch. Until this morning, she’d resented the life she carried. All she’d been able to link it to was the horrific act. Only now things seemed different. That life was so very small, so helpless.The gentle-as-raindrop patter I felt inside—how could I have thought I would hate such a thing?
“Time doesn’t cure everything.” The doctor let out a rueful chuckle. “If it did, I’d be out of business. What I’ve found is, as weeks and months go by, we gain wisdom and are better able to make decisions.”
“I have no decisions to make.” Mercy’s head shot up, and she stared at him. “These days, all I do is live with the way things are because of what others have done or thought or believed.”
“I’d be a fool of a man if I said what others think and believe doesna matter. Instead, though, why not give some consideration to what it is that you think and believe?”
Embarrassed that she’d been blurting out thoughts she ought to have kept private, Mercy decided to sidestep his probing question. “What I think is that I have chores to do. All the talk in the world won’t get them done.”
“These cabbages here look ripe and ready. How many are you wantin’ me to pick?”
“I didn’t mean for you to set your hand to my work!”
The doctor squatted down and absently brushed a little dirt from the side of the nearest head of cabbage. “I wasna born with a scalpel in my hand. Some of my most cherished memories are of helpin’ Ma in our garden.” He smiled at Mercy. “I confess, I often took a can along, just in case a worm turned up. Fish and vegetables make a fine meal.”
“Why did you come here today?”
“I had a couple of reasons.” He reached toward her. “Knife.”
“How do you know I have a knife with me?” Ever sincethat day, she’d carried a knife in her apron pocket.
“Any practical woman would when her garden brimmed like this.” He accepted the knife, cut a cabbage, and hefted the head a few times. “Round and heavy and the color’s good.” He tilted his head to the side. “I’ve said the selfsame thing about a few of the babes I’ve delivered.”
I knew not to trust him. She turned away as she said in a flat tone, “You came to talk to me of the child of my shame.”
“Stop right there.” He straightened up and stepped in front of her. “Whatever else you think, Mercy Stein, know this: I have not, and I never will think of you as being shamed. Shame implies you did something that makes you guilty. You did nothing wrong.”
“If I did nothing wrong, then why is God punishing me?” She slapped her hand over her mouth and stepped backward, away from him. Something hit her ankle, and she started to fall.
“Careful.” The doctor’s fingers clamped around her wrist and drew her upright. His strength amazed her. Until now, he’d always been restrained and gentle. His brothers came and did physical labor, so the fact that he was every bit as tall and broad as they hadn’t registered. “The hoe was behind you, lass.”
“You’re strong.” It came out as an accusation.
“That fact needn’t trouble you. I’ve taken an oath to heal, not to harm.”
Mercy stared at him.How did he know I’m afraid? Just as quickly, she resented the fact that he knew of her vulnerability. “You talk too boldly.”
“I’m a plainspoken man. Hiding behind fancy words never suited me. Cutting to the heart of a matter is best. I admire how you’ve been doing that today. The things you’ve said thus far—you’ve shown rare courage for admitting what others would gloss o’er.”
Courage? Mercy shook her head. “How can you tell me not to be troubled by your strength in one minute, only to suggest I’m brave in the next?”
“Because until you’re honest enough to confess your doubts and fears, you canna get beyond them. God created us with physical bodies, but just as surely He filled us with feelings and placed a soul within us. ’Tisna just your body that is changing. Your feelings and faith are, too. You’ve come to the point where you recognize that fact.”
Mercy watched him nod his head as if he’d just solved the problems instead of starkly laying them out. Loneliness swamped her. No one could possibly understand—
“I’ll not insult you by spouting platitudes and saying I know how deep your sorrows flow.” The doctor gave her wrist a tiny squeeze, then loosened his hold and slid his hand down until his fingers laced with hers. “I came today to promise to help you through the weeks and months—aye, and e’en the years ahead. As your doctor, I’ll inform you what to expect.
“If you’d like, I’ll loan you my little red book. I took care not to write the woman’s name in it, and she gave me leave to put down whate’er I wished. You needn’t worry that we’d be prying into her privacy. Think on it and let me know if you’d like that. Since you dinna hae a mother or grandma here to instruct you from a woman’s perspective, it might be nice.”
Mercy couldn’t unknot all of the feelings coiling inside her. His offer was everything she needed but not what she wanted. Why couldn’t one of the ladies from church pay a visit and privately teach her such intimate things? But the women all kept their distance and withheld their counsel—yet the doctor didn’t because he felt she and this babe were blameless.
“You asked why God is punishing you. Terrible things happen, but they are not always His doing.”
“But He lets them happen.”
“There’s no denying that.” He paused. “Hae you e’er noticed that for all the trials that beset Job, God ne’er took His hand off the man? Just as surely as I stand here and hold your hand in mine, He is with you and has not loosened His grip.”
One by one, Mercy uncurled her fingers. She dragged her hand free from the doctor’s hold. “Job’s friends still stayed by his side.”
The doctor snorted. “Some friends. Even Job’s wife told him to ‘Curse God, and die.’ That kind of help is worse than none a-tall. Job held fast to his faith, and that’s why the story has such a grand ending.”
“There’s not a good ending for my story. There can’t be.”
“I disagree. To say that, you give up your faith in God’s love and goodness.”
Mercy closed her eyes. Pain washed over her. The loneliness she felt wasn’t just for friends. In the maelstrom life had become, she’d lost her faith, too.
“Earlier, you asked why God’s punishing you. In the midst of all this, dinna be shy of asking those hard questions.”
“It makes no difference,” she said in a tone that sounded as heavy as her heart felt. “There are no answers.”
“I’ve noticed something. Christians who grow up as believers most often come to a crisis at some point in life. ’Tis then all they were told is stripped away. All they have left is a skeleton of faith. Just as your grandda has had to work to build up his wounded muscles, you have to build up your strength of faith so you can continue on your walk with the Lord. ’Tis by asking the questions, praying, and reading the Word that you will succeed.”
I can’t get past asking the questions. Praying and reading the Bible—I can’t. As soon as she told herself that, something inside shot back,Can’t, or won’t?
“Here is your book.” Mercy’s voice was barely audible as she palmed the tiny leather book to Robert.
He casually tucked it into his pocket and surveyed the huge assortment of crates and dishes in the back of her buckboard. “You brought enough food to feed an army for a year.”
“Everyone is talking about your house kit. I expect a whole army of men to come help. They would come anyway, but their curiosity will have them arrive early and leave late.”
“Hot as it’s been, it makes sense that we start early.” Rob hefted the closest crate. “Do you have any particular order to this?”
“That one can be stored back—it is for late in the day. This one,” she said as she started to lift another, “I will need—”
“Put that down.” Rob’s throat ached with restraint. It took every shred of self-control not to roar the order at her.
“It is not heavy. I—”
He shifted the crate he held to one side and jerked the other from her. “Go open the screen door.”
She scampered ahead. Once inside, Rob set down the crates and turned on her. “You canna be lifting things like this.”
“I’m not weak. I put them all in the wagon myself.”
“Miss Stein, it has nothing to do with strength. Your delicate condition—” The color flooding her cheeks left him feeling crass and mean. He’d made his point, so he changed tactics. “Three men live here. We’re strong of muscle but feeble in the kitchen. Stay here and direct us as to where you want each crate to go.”
“Cabbage and carrots in this one,” Duncan announced as he carried in a bushel basket.
“Go ahead and put those wherever you want,” Chris said as he entered on Duncan’s heels. “I’ve got strudel here. I’m taking it upstairs. If either of you says a word about it, you won’t get a bite.”
Mercy shook her finger. “Christopher Gregor, you behave yourself.”
“I am. I offered to share this with my brothers.”
“You will share it with all of your brothers in Christ tomorrow morning.”
“If any is left, I will.” Chris sounded downright reasonable.
Mercy smiled. “You cannot always have whatever you grab for.”
Chris scowled at Rob. “She’s teasing, right?”
Mercy’s head dipped. “I am not that kind of woman.”
“Hey—I didn’t mean—”
Rob swiped the strudel and set it on the cramped “kitchen” table. “Chris, you’re thinkin’ with your belly instead of your brain. Mercy, you’d think the man’s never eaten a single morsel.”
“Your logic is flawed,” Chris snapped back. “It’s because I’ve eaten Mercy’s strudel that I’m claiming it. She should be flattered by that fine praise.”
“Mercy, Chris is too dense to apologize properly.” Rob tapped the toe of his boot a few times. “But now that Chris has given it consideration, he’s wanting to let you choose another piece of gingerbread for the house.”
“I am not!”
Duncan slapped Chris on the back. “We should have known you’d be in a generous mood, Chris. Mercy, he wants you to choose two.”
Mercy’s head was still bowed. Rob glared at Chris to make him watch his words, then pasted on a smile. Tilting Mercy’s face upward, Rob asked, “So what do you think?”
“I think you Scotsmen are crazy.”
“Not as crazy as my house is going to look,” Chris muttered.
“Ourhouse.” Duncan shoved Chris toward the door.
“I’m going to have the last word,” Chris growled. “Just you wait and see.”
Rob stepped closer to Mercy. Her eyes widened and the pulse at her throat pounded far too fast.I’ve got to teach her she’s safe with me. “I have to tell you something secret.”Chapter12
He nodded and crooked his finger. She hesitated for a moment, then leaned the tiniest bit closer. Rob cupped his hand and leaned toward her ear. “Chris and I have an agreement.”
Her brows puckered.
“He decided to give all of the gingerbread to Duncan, and I agreed—other than all of the pieces he owes you.”
“Duncan does not know this?” Mercy started to pull away.
Rob closed the space and whispered, “Duncan doesna know yet…but the jest is on Chris. He wasna mindful of his words when we came to the pact. Duncan gets all the gingerbread—but Chris didna think to say where Duncan had to put it.”
Mercy’s lips parted in surprise.
“Whatever this is,” Chris declared as he returned with two large pans, “it smells good.”
“It is not for you.” Mercy scooted past Rob and swiped a pan from Chris.
Chris let go, but he got a fierce look on his face and held fast to the second one. “Why not?”
A smile lifted Mercy’s lips. “Because you do not like gingerbread.”
“I’ve never seen such a mess,” Mercy said that noon.
“Ooch, ’tis true.” Rob wiped his brow. “But ’tis an organized mess. Since Chris has gotten everyone working on a specific portion of the kit, the chaos has ceased.”
Mercy heaved a sigh. “You are a man of science, Robert. An intelligent man. How can you stand in the midst of this madness and hold out any hope that such confusion will build your house?”
“I have faith.”
Mercy gave him a dubious look.
Rob motioned toward the lot. “The frame is almost done, and the external walls are coming along. Suddenly, everything will fit together. Wait and see.”
“Two days. It has been two days, and still, it has so far to go. Do you know that these same men who are helping you all get together and put up an entire barn in just one day?”
“By tomorrow, the bulk of the work will be done. The rest, Chris wants to do on his own. He’s gotten excited by the challenge.”
“Excited? Is that what you call it when he complained about the bay window? Or is excited when he stubbed the toe of his boots against the scalloped shingles for the bottom half of the front wall?”
“Nae, lass. Those moments were just mild irritations. Excited was when he bellowed because you’d bested in that bargain you struck.” Rob chortled softly. “I dinna think Chris will e’er eat strudel again without thinking on how he agreed to put that onion top on the turret instead of the plain cone design he planned on.”
Mercy grimaced. “In truth, Rob, I thought that was all a joke. I did not think your brother took me seriously.”
“It served him right. His greed got the better of him.”
“Are you saying that because he ate that whole strudel all by himself?”
The doctor’s mouth kicked up into a rakish smile. “I’m not going to answer. Just you wait, though—after tomorrow, the house will be well on the way. And better still, after that, Chris will be so busy with constructing the rest, he’ll not be restless and underfoot all the time.”
“Perhaps I should make more bargains with him. Was there any special piece of the gingerbread you liked?”
“Let’s see. You have the fan at the apex of the eaves, the onion top on the turret, and the bay window…and there’s the fish scale clapboards in the middle third of the front…and the spindled veranda.”
“Don’t forget the pretty scrolled gingerbread in the upper corners of the windows.”
“I couldn’t forget that.” The doctor’s grin grew wider still. “That was when Chris started moaning that the place was going to wind up looking more like a wedding cake than a house.”
“I think you are enjoying this,” Mercy accused.
“And I think, Mercy Ellen Stein, that you are a very smart young woman.” The doctor walked off, calling, “Chris, Mercy and I were just talking…”
Chris let out a groan that sounded over all the hammering.
“What a pretty new apron!” Carmen greeted from her veranda.
“Thank you.” Good manners demanded Mercy acknowledge the compliment, even though she’d hoped no one would notice her apron. Instead of the bibbed, tie-in-the-back aprons she’d always worn, this one reminded her of a pretzel. The front hung from neck to hem, but the back pieces swooped up to the opposite shoulders. Instead of accentuating a slender waist, this one was meant to hide a tummy that now bulged outward.
“Everything’s ready.” Carmen hobbled down the walkway. “Duncan Gregor brought over canning jars last night.”
“Good.” Relief flooded Mercy. She didn’t want to have to walk down the street and into the mercantile. Ever since the week of threshing, people had changed. The women didn’t avoid or shun her anymore—but they took pains to avoid the topic of childbearing, babies, and child-rearing. That left awkward silences and tense moments whenever Mercy was around.
Her hand slid into her apron pocket. The doctor’s little red book was there. Every couple of weeks, he’d slip it to her. She’d pore over the pages at night in her room. Each time she returned the book, Mercy felt as if she’d lost a friend. Every time the doctor left it in her keeping, solace blanketed her.
“What are you daydreaming about?”
“Oh!” Mercy jumped. A thought flashed through her mind. “I cannot remember if I took the iron off the stove.”
“In this heat, you shouldn’t be ironing anything other than Sunday-best clothes.” Carmen linked arms with her and started dragging her across the street.
“This is the wrong way,” Mercy said in a wry tone.
“I suppose I’d better warn you, we have more to do than we’d planned on.”
“Why is that?”
“The doctor’s been paid for several accounts in the past week.”
Carmen giggled. “Mercy, you’re too nice. Ismelda’s been moaning all morning about it.”
“She decided she liked the pickles we made last time with the cucumbers.”
“But this time, it’s—well, you just have to see this for yourself.” Carmen led her around the side of the doctor’s office to the yard between it and the fancy new house as she whispered, “I didn’t want to miss this.”
Mercy took a look and started to shake.
It would be rude to laugh. Truly, it would. Mercy covered her mouth and pretended to muffle a cough while she marshaled her self-control.
Duncan stopped poking at the armadillo and rapped on it with his knuckles. “ ’Tis like a knight’s armor.”
“There’s got to be a chink in it. Every defense has a weakness,” Chris declared as he rolled the creature over.
The doctor came out of the house with every cutting tool ever invented. “Good morning, Mercy! Have you seen them?”
Mercy bit her lip and nodded.
The doctor laid out an ax, a cleaver, four knives, a saw, a scalpel, and a pair of pruning shears. “ ’Tis a most curious beast. The exoskeleton is osseous—reminiscent of a turtle or a crab, but—”
“Rob,” Chris half growled, “hot as ’tis, the beasts are going to cook in their shells if you muse all the morning long about their scientific merits.”
“I doubt the hide’s usable.” Duncan drummed his fingers on the odd-looking beast.
“My grandmother had a purse made from one,” Carmen said. “She used it to carry all of her healing herbs.”
“Very interesting.” Duncan stared at the armadillo more critically. “So how was the shell cut?”
While Carmen and he spoke, Mercy sidled closer to the doctor. She slid her hand into her pocket and fingered the little book, took a deep breath, and passed it to him. Subtle as could be, he tucked it in his pocket.
“I saw Cletus.” The sheriff sauntered up. “He said he paid you four armadillos. Any of them a hairy screamer?”
“Hairy screamer?” Mercy echoed.
The doctor turned his attention on the sheriff. “Are there different varieties?”
“Don’t be so gullible, Rob.” Chris elbowed him. “Connant’s grinning like a fool. This creature is so odd, God wouldn’t have created more than one type. Even Mercy thought ‘hairy screamer’ was absurd.”
“Chris, you’re such a skeptic,” the sheriff said. His grin didn’t fade in the least. He nodded toward the armadillo on the battered wooden table. “Those are good eating. Taste a lot like—”
“Chicken?” Chris inserted in a disbelieving tone. “Have you noticed how everything is supposed to taste like chicken? Snake, for example.”
The sheriff ignored him. “Pork. Armadillo tastes like a nice, juicy pork roast. Funny things, though. They can swim.”
“Texas tall tale,” Chris muttered.
“Texas tales are an important tradition,” Mercy said. “You are supposed to admire them.”
“That’s right,” the sheriff nodded. “But armadillos’ talents don’t stop at swimming. They can jump hip high when they need to.”
The doctor chortled softly. “Aye, Connant. I’m supposing though they’ve wee, stubby legs and claws made perfect for burrowing, they’d far rather jump o’er fences than skitter below.”
“This one’s got the best-looking hide. Let’s butcher one of the others first.” Duncan dropped it down beside the other three.
With a shriek, one of the others jumped astonishingly high and plopped loudly onto the table.
Instantly, the doctor whisked Mercy behind his back. Duncan shouted, and Carmen screamed. Mercy couldn’t see around the doctor’s broad shoulders, and he kept her against his spine in an unyielding hold. “Check the others,” he ordered someone.
The sheriff’s whooping laugh stopped just long enough to declare, “You wouldn’t have believed me if I said they sometimes play dead.”
“Cletus said they were dead,” Duncan said.
“Well, that one is surely dead now,” Chris asserted.
The doctor’s hold eased. In a lithe move, he turned around and held Mercy by her shoulders. “Are you all right, lass?”
“ ’Twas a shock. Let’s sit you down.”
Carmen let out a nervous giggle. “I told you we had to be here, Mercy.”
The sight on the table made Mercy’s brows rise.
Dr. Gregor pivoted to block her view and tugged on her arm. “Come, now. ’Tisna good for you to see such things.”
Mercy looked into his steady eyes. “I think Christopher has been taking lessons from me—from when I kill chickens. But I just use the ax and behead a chicken. Your brother—he used the ax and a knife and—”
“If,” the doctor interrupted as he tried to divert her from what his brother had done, “your fried armadillo tastes half as good as your fried chicken, ‘twill be fine eating, indeed.”
“Oh no.” Carmen shook her head. “Roasted, barbecued, or in a casserole. That’s how they’re cooked.”
“I told you they don’t taste like chicken,” the sheriff groused.
“When you have them butchered, we’ll cook them.” Carmen looked at the creature. “After all, we don’t want to open the oven and have one hop out of the roasting pan.”
“Are you sure?” The doctor searched Mercy’s face.
She nodded solemnly. “Yes. He’d track the drippings across the floor so we couldn’t make gravy.”Chapter13
When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
Robert followed the soft alto notes of the plaintive hymn and found Mercy in the field. She wore a cloth bag over her left shoulder and was stooping to pick beans. The fullness of that gathering sack couldn’t hide the distinctly maternal shape of her form.
“Hello.” Rob plucked several beans and slid them into the gathering sack. For the first time, Mercy didn’t reflexively flinch or scoot away to avoid any proximity. He hummed a few bars of the hymn, then picked a few more beans. Without looking at her he said, “The hymn you’re singing—†twas a scant week or so after my ma’s death that I heard it for the first time.”
“I’m sorry. Did I make you sad?”
“Does the hymn make you sad?” he countered.
Her brows puckered. “It is not our way to speak of our feelings.”
“Yet you asked me about my feelings.” He held up a hand to keep her from apologizing. “It didn’t offend me, Mercy. It touched me, knowing my reaction mattered to you. You’ve a tender heart. Knowing that as I do, canna you see how I’d care for your feelings just as you’d care for mine?”
“Sunday, the pastor—he said we must live by faith, not by feelings.”
“Dinna ye think the God who gave us those feelings knows us well enough to understand them? And that He walks beside us e’en in the valleys when the shadows are the darkest?”
She shrugged and continued to pick beans.
“The passage in Ecclesiastes comes to my mind. Recall how it speaks of the different seasons in life? On how there’s a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance? ’Tisna that we’re not to have the feelings. We’re to hold fast to God regardless of the moods of our hearts.”
Her hands slowed. In a barely audible voice, she whispered, “I’m reading my Bible again.”
Again. The lass stopped for a time. The revelation didn’t surprise him, but Rob ached for her. “God will honor your diligence. Aye, that He will. Are ye havin’ a rough time talking to Him?”
Mercy’s eyes grew huge, and tears filled them.
Not waiting so she’d feel pressed to give him an answer, Rob took the gathering bag from her shoulder and slid it onto his own. “Mercy, we’re meant to bear one another’s burdens. Just as surely as I can hold this bag, I can hold you up to the Lord. Indeed, I have been all along. I was remiss in not telling you that afore now.”
Her tears spilled over.
Why didna I think to say anything long ago?
“It’s so hard—praying. I don’t have the words to say.”
“You were talking to the Lord when I arrived. Your soul was reaching toward Him in song because your heart was too muddled to put everything into words.”
“Do you think so?” Anguish tainted her thready voice.
“Aye, that I do. He hears our thoughts. He knows the desires of our hearts. Even when we’re so burdened all we can manage is to groan or cry, He understands. God is faithful. He abides with you, Mercy Stein.”
On the ride out to the farm, Rob had thought about presenting the possibility of Mercy relinquishing the babe and having the Heims adopt it. Each evening, he’d prayed over that issue, but God hadn’t directed him to say anything yet. Rob looked at her and knew the truth: the lass couldn’t make a wise decision until her heart was spiritually settled. Until then, it would be cruel to say a word.
A thought occurred to him. “Do you remember Peter’s birthday?”
“The fireworks.” She cleared her throat. “You Gregors brought fireworks. They were beautiful.”
“Do you recall us discussing how there was only a half moon and few stars?”
“A good thing, that—the darker the sky, the brighter the fireworks glow. ’Tisna that the fireworks wouldn’t go off just as well on a full moon’s eve, but the contrast wouldna be the same. So, too, in our journey with God—on fair days, the sunlight is all we need to get by, but in the dark of night, if we seek His light, ’tis a thing of rare beauty. You might want to think on that.”
Mercy nodded slowly. They worked in silence for a short time, then she cleared her throat. “Did your brothers tell you? Something is getting into the last of the melons and our pumpkins.”
He chuckled. “Aye, and you ought to hear my brothers discussing how best to trap an armadillo. They took an immediate liking to that meat.”
“They are hoping in vain, because Grossvater showed the tracks to Peter. He said the pest is either a raccoon or a possum. They have front prints that are much alike, but a possum’s rear print is funny—it is because they have something like a thumb back there to help climb trees.”
“So is it a raccoon or a possum?”
Mercy paused a moment. “I don’t recall!”
“Is either of them edible?”
She wrinkled her nose. “I have heard they are, but I have never prepared them, either.”
“I dinna dare ask Connant. He’d take advantage of my ignorance and weave a tale for the ages. After that crazy armadillo jumped and screamed, I’m liable to believe just about anything he’d concoct about these wild animals in America.”
“You didn’t have any of these animals in Scotland?”
“Skunks, armadillos, and opossums are all American creatures.”
“Was it hard to give up all you’d known and come so far from home?”
“ ’Twas equal parts anticipation and fear. Losing Da on the way near broke my heart—but my brothers…” He tucked more beans in the sack. “We’re here together. That’s what counts.”
“And so now you make a new home.”
Rob winked at her. “And we built one, too. Chris is proud of that house. Dinna e’er take exception to his grumbling. He takes a secret pride in finding ways to complain just so we can admire it aloud all over again. Remember those scalloped shingles for part of the clapboarding? Just last night, he stood in the yard and complained that our house has more scales than a fish.”
Finally, a smile chased across her face and brightened her eyes. “You must tell him something. He isn’t a Scotsman any longer. By telling such a tall tale, he proved he is now a Texan. That means it is not just a house; now it is a home, for this is where you will all stay. Texans never want to leave.”
“So you’re stuck with us forever.” As soon as he spoke the thought, Rob practically dropped the harvesting bag.I almost said “me” instead of “us.” How can it be? Just as quickly, the answer struck him with blinding clarity.Da was right. He warned me I’d close off my feelings so I wouldna feel my patients’ pain. All along, I’ve struggled with keeping my distance from Mercy. More and more, what she needed and wanted mattered to me. The reason—†tis plain as can be. Over these months I’ve lost my heart to the lass, and I didna even know it.
Reluctantly, Mercy shut the hymnal and got up from the piano stool. Ever since the doctor pointed out how she’d been using music to talk to God, she’d found great solace in singing, playing, or even humming. Then, too, the psalms of David suddenly took on a whole new meaning. He’d been sorely troubled often in his life, yet he’d used his psalms and played his harp to tell God how he felt.
The spicy scent of pumpkin permeated the house. Pumpkins with stems would store well for a long while, but those without stems tended to spoil. She’d baked three pies and six loaves of pumpkin bread and had roasted pumpkin seeds. Tomorrow she and Carmen would make pumpkin marmalade and can puree.
Puree. Mercy stared out the window.When do babies start eating food like that?
Peter burst through the door.
Mercy automatically called out, “Wipe your feet!” Stubby scampered past her. She heaved a sigh and swept up the pup. “Peter, you know the rule. You must train—” Her voice died out as Grossvater shouldered past Peter to ease something through the door. He took a few steps into the house, then set the oak piece on the floor. A light push set the cradle into a gentle rock.
“There!” Grossvater nodded approvingly. “It is still as good as it was when I made it to hold your own papa.”
Mercy started to shake as the runners rocked a rhythm of impending doom.
Grossvater wound his arm around her. “The day I finished this and gave it to your grandmother, we put it by our bed. Each morning, we stood beside it and prayed for a healthy child and that we would be good parents. I will stand beside you, Mercy. We will pray those same things.”
I don’t know if I can be a good mother. And Grossvater—he is old. He will not be here all of the years it will take to rear this babe. Panic started to envelop her. Her heart hammered loud in her ears.Gott in Himmel, how will I ever—
“We can do this together,” Grossvater crooned.
Mercy bowed her head. She didn’t want to admit her doubts or confess her worries. Regardless of his assurance, the fears exploded.
“Mr. Stein,” a voice came from the doorway. “Have you—”
The beat got louder and drowned out the man’s words. Boots stepped between her and the cradle—the doctor’s boots. Instinctively, Mercy reached for him as everything started to swirl around her.Chapter14
There now, lass.” Rob blotted Mercy’s colorless face. He wasn’t sure whether he was trying to comfort her or reassure himself. On a medical level, she was fine—but that didn’t take into account her feelings.In the midst of her panic, she reached out to me. That counts for something.
Another mewling sound came from her as her eyes fluttered again. This time they stayed open. Rob fought the urge to scoop her into his arms and murmur all was well. Instead, he leaned over her bed and said in a stern tone, “You canna be wearin’ that whalebone cage any longer.”
As she gasped, Mercy’s hand fumbled beneath the bedsheet.
“I cut it off. An absolute wonder ’tis that you’ve not been swooning thrice a day whilst being constricted so severely.” The whole time he chided her, he tenderly petted back tiny wisps of hair that coiled around her face.
“You cut it?” Her whisper held a squeak of outrage.
“The laces, I did.” He scowled. “Though if you dinna give me your word that you’ll leave it off, I’ll consider cutting some other part to render it unusable.”
Color filled her cheeks as she turned her face away.
Determined to be matter-of-fact so she’d get over her embarrassment, he stated, “You needn’t fret o’er this discussion. ’Tis common sense, a woman not trussing herself up whilst she’s with child—especially in her last months.”
Mercy refused to look back at him. Rob placed his hand on her tummy, and she went as rigid as her stays had been. “The babe—†tis growing fast now and needs to be free to tumble.” As if on cue, the mound beneath his palm squirmed. “In this next month, the freedom you give the babe is vital—†twill allow him to settle his head downward. Trussed in the corset, your body canna yield sufficient room. I’m tryin’ to spare you a breech birthing.”
Still, she said nothing. Until now, Mercy hadn’t ever allowed him to examine her. Other than peppering their private conversations with medical information and providing her with the little red book, Rob hadn’t been in a position of asserting himself.May as well seize this opportunity. He slid one hand over hers and dragged it downward. “Feel this? ’Tis round and hard—the babe’s head. Down here, ’tis round, too—but soft. ’Tis his backside.”
At least she wasn’t jerking away.
“When he’s kicking and pushing, which side do ye feel it on most?”
A few seconds passed, then she feathered her fingers to the left.
“Ah, so that’s the way he’s facin’.” Rob chuckled. “And kickin’! He’s got some strength.”
Mercy pushed away his hands. “I have work to see to.”
“As do I. I’m on my way out to pay a call on the Stuckys.”
“Someone is sick?” Finally, Mercy looked at him.
“Not exactly.” Rob hitched his shoulder. “Their stallion’s got more spirit than sense. He kicked out of his stall. I put stitches in him late last week, and the time’s come to remove them.”
“They don’t have a goat or a mule.” Mercy held the sheet clear up to her nose. “One would help.”
“How would a goat help me remove sutures?”
“A goat or a mule in a stable makes the horses calm down. You could borrow Sadie.”
“Sadie has a knack for chewing my clothes. I’ll have you come along.”
Mercy’s eyes grew huge. “Are you calling me a goat?”
Rob stared at her. “Of course not. How did you—oh.” He gave her an apologetic grin. “I can see how that must have sounded. I meant that if I had you along, you’d make Sadie behave while Sadie made the stallion mind his manners. Somewhere in the midst of that, I lost both my mind and my manners.”
“It was a simple mistake is all.”
He turned toward her wardrobe. “I presume your blue-and-white frock is in here.” Ignoring her splutters, he opened the door and carried on in a conversational tone, “I’m not one to pay much mind to what a woman wears, but this one you’ve stitched for yourself caught my attention.”
“Because it’s the size of a revival tent,” she muttered.
“Nae, not a-tall. My ma—she had a plate she dearly prized. Delft, she called it. This frock, it puts me in mind of that plate. Just seein’ you in it makes my day improve.”
She blinked in surprise.
“I’ll drape it here and wait for you out in the parlor.”
“I need to stay and see to supper. Peter can go with you.”
Rob didn’t argue with her. He left her room, pulled the door shut, and walked over toward the kitchen where Mr. Stein and Peter stood.
“Is fine.” He grinned at Peter. “When your sister grew faint, I’m sure she accidentally put Stubby in the cradle. Best you take him back out to the barn ere she sees him in there.”
Peter snickered and dashed to freedom with the puppy.
Rob cast a glance at the bedroom door. “Mercy’s needing some fresh air. I aim to have her accompany me to the Stu—” Rob halted when Mr. Stein shook his head.
“This is not done.” Mr. Stein’s voice came out in the barest of whispers. “You do not know our ways. For a young man and woman to spend time together, alone—”
“I’ve been in Texas a little over half a year.” Rob stared into the old man’s eyes. In that moment, everything felt so right. “I’m fully aware of the implications. I came here today to declare my intent.”
Mr. Stein shook his head. “I made a mistake once before. Without praying about it, I told Otto he could have my granddaughter as his wife.”
“I’ve not spoken rashly.” Robert tapped his chest. “In my heart and soul, I ken Mercy’s the one for me.”
“Robert Gregor, you’re as fine a man as God’s made, but that doesn’t change my stance. I’ll not lean on my own understanding and let her suffer heartbreak as the result again. Until I’m certain that it is God’s will for her to be yours, you are not to court her. This isn’t about what men think or want. It’s about waiting on the Lord and seeking His wisdom.”
“Fair enough,” Rob said. “Until I spoke with the Almighty o’er this, I kept silent. God doesna change. He’ll be givin’ you the same assurance He gave me.”
Sadness radiated from Mr. Stein’s craggy features. “Only a great work of God will give my Mercy any peace.”
Hearing Mercy’s soft footfall, Rob pointed at the pie and raised his voice ever so slightly. “Give her two pieces. I’m supposing she was so busy baking, she forgot to eat at midday.”
Her door opened and she emerged.
“Mercy, when you brought lunch out to the field, you did not eat.” Her grandfather shook his finger at her. “You must eat for two.”
“If I eat any more, I’ll grow bigger than Evalina!”
“You’re hardly in danger of being even half the size of your milk cow.” Rob rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “If you give me your word that you’ll not skip meals and will have either a glass of Evalina’s fine milk or a slice of cheese between those meals, we’ll not fuss at you about what you eat.”
“You need not fuss. When I’m working in the kitchen, I take tastes.”
“Mercy Stein!” Rob managed to sound scandalized. “You baked today. Are you telling us you licked the bowls?”
A fetching blush tinted her cheeks. “And what do you know about licking bowls, Dr. Gregor?”
“Not nearly enough. ’Tis the drawback of having big brothers.” He gave her a woebegone look. “From now on, I’m going to have to plan a house call on the days you bake. Aye, I am.”
“Is he gone?” Carmen peeked around the door.
“Who?” Mercy pretended not to know what she meant.
“The doctor.” Carmen came in and clomped toward the table. “Duncan mentioned his little brother was coming by here today.”
“It is hard to think of the doctor as being anyone’s little brother.” Mercy finished icing the cake. She fought the urge to look at the bowl over on the counter. The doctor had swiped his finger all along the inside of the bowl and licked the batter off his finger as the cake baked in the oven. Once or twice a week he came by. Though he never stayed long, his visits invariably left Mercy feeling…better.
Carmen leaned against the counter, but she didn’t take off her shawl. “All three of those Gregor men could masquerade as giants.”
“Ja, this is true.” Mercy looked at her friend. “But something is bothering you. Why don’t we have some coffee and cake and talk about it?”
Carmen’s features twisted. “You might not want me to stay.”
“Nonsense.” Mercy put down the butter knife and poured two cups of coffee.
“I don’t know what to say or do.” Carmen flopped onto a chair. Her dark eyes filled with tears. “I love my sister. You know I do.”
“Of course.” Mercy sat beside her.
Carmen snatched her hand and held it tight. “Her good news is our bad news. Mercy, Otto asked her to marry him.”
The news left Mercy feeling strangely old and empty. “You must tell Ismelda I wish her to be happy.”
“But doesn’t it break your heart for Otto—” Carmen pressed her fingers to her mouth. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”
“You didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, and you have not.” Mercy stared through the open doorway to her room and spied the cradle. “Things have changed. Otto is a different man, and I am a different woman. The dreams of my girlhood are long gone.”
Carmen’s hold on her hand tightened. “It’s a good match, but I’m jealous. Isn’t that awful of me? Mercy, no man has ever expressed any interest in me. I’m the older sister. By custom, I’m supposed to marry first—but I’m going to be a crippled old spinster, and Ismelda will have a husband and children.”
Mercy twisted and pulled Carmen’s head down onto her shoulder. Holding her, she whispered, “It is hard when dreams die.”
“What do I do now?”
Mercy finally straightened up and rubbed her back. “All around us, we see girls marry and have babies. We both assumed that would be God’s plan for us, too. Now, instead of telling God what we think, we have to ask Him what He wants.”
“I’m in trouble, then.” Carmen sniffled and tried to smile. “I’m far better at talking than at listening.”
“Me, too. I’ve started to sing hymns and recite Bible verses. I read one a few days ago. It was where David is talking to Solomon. ‘For the Lord searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts: if thou seek him, he will be found of thee.’ So see? God knew our dreams. But it is our job to seek Him instead of what we imagined for ourselves.”
Carmen looked at her for a long while. “You’re right, Mercy. You have changed. Months ago you were a girl with stars in your eyes. Now you are a woman.”
“Life changes us all. I’m trying to change in the ways God wants me to. I have to—not just for myself, but for my baby.”
Carmen didn’t end up staying long. After she left, Mercy added seasonings to the split peas and a ham bone in the simmering soup pot. Finished with other chores, she sat in the rocking chair in the parlor and darned Peter’s socks. Once those were repaired, she stared into her sewing bag. A small ball of yarn and several crochet hooks rested there. Slowly, she took out the yarn and selected a hook.
The first thing her mother taught her to crochet had been a cap for her doll. As Mercy started the hook into motion, she began to sing the hymn her mother had sung that day.Weißt du, wie viel Sternlein stehen…Do you know how many stars…
Rob kneed his mount toward the fence. “Mr. Stein.”
“I have something to ask.”
Rob kicked out of the stirrups and dismounted. “Aye?”
“This baby my granddaughter carries—what do you think?”
“I think he’s going to be healthy enough to bellow down your house.” Rob grinned. “Which is why he should grow up in mine.”
The old man’s weathered face broke into a smile. “So you would allow Mercy to keep this child?”
“ ’Tis borne of the woman I love. That alone will cause me to love him.” Rob tipped back his hat. “If Mercy wishes to keep the babe, ‘twill be ours.”
“Ifshe wishes to keep it?” The old man looked scandalized.
“Aye.” Robert didn’t back down. “You and I love Mercy and will love her child. But Mercy—she was forced. In the end, she must decide whether she can love the babe entirely or if it would be best to give him to a childless couple. It is a choice only she can make.”
“Have you said something to her?”
“Not yet.” Rob squinted toward the house. “I know of a couple, but that doesn’t mean they are meant to have this baby. I’ve held my silence and waited for Mercy and God to show me what’s right.”
“But a woman who could give away her own flesh and blood—”
“Is a woman who is honest with herself and willing to give that baby a better life than she herself could give the child, holding the feelings she may have. I love Mercy. That love willna change regardless of whate’er decision she might make.”
Mr. Stein let out a long sigh. “I was so busy praying about whether you were right for her, I never thought to pray about if I was giving her the right guidance myself.”
“Grossvater!” Peter shouted from the porch. “Supper!”
Mr. Stein slapped Rob on the back. “Come. Stay for supper.”
They stopped at the pump and washed up before entering the house. “I hope you don’t mind—” Rob began.
Mercy turned from the stove. “I’ve said you are always welcome. Peter saw you, so we have a place waiting—see?”
“What have you done?” Mr. Stein’s voice was rich with emotion.
Rob had been so intent on Mercy, he’d not noticed anything else. He looked over his shoulder at Mr. Stein.
Mercy breezed past them and into the parlor. “I’ve been busy.” A shy smile flirted at the corners of her mouth as she started to tuck little bits into her sewing box. “It’s probably well past time that I started making my baby some clothes.”
Never before had he heard her say, “Mybaby.” It was always, “The baby.” It wasn’t just what she said, but how she said it, too. Rob knew then and there that God was going to bless him with a wife and child at the same time.Chapter15
So I learned an important lesson,” Ismelda said as she clipped a thread. She gave Mercy a wry look. “It doesn’t matter how long he’s lived in Texas, a German farmer still doesn’t know what he’s asking for when he says spicy food is okay.”
“I’ve tasted your chili. I know better.” Mercy finished hemming the baby gown.
“We made mild tamales for lunch. You don’t need to worry.” Carmen patted her hand.
“I do love your tamales.” Mercy smiled. “That, and your sweet corn casserole. For Thanksgiving, you might want to make that.”
“Otto won’t need to wash away the taste with a whole pitcher of milk,” Carmen teased. “Ismelda, stop snitching my scissors!”
They continued to chatter and sew. As lunchtime neared, Mrs. Kunstler arrived, and she brought along a gentleman. “Isn’t it lucky you are in town today, Mercy? I’ve been wanting to introduce you to Chester Heim. He’s my cousin’s cousin.”
Mercy stammered what she hoped would pass for a polite greeting as she tried to subtly cover her large tummy with a length of cloth. A woman with a mere month to go before having a child only associated with family and very close friends. It was embarrassing enough for Otto’s mother to have introduced her to this stranger—surely she wasn’t trying to play matchmaker!
Carmen gave Mercy a confused look.
“Ismelda, why don’t I help you set the table?” Mrs. Kunstler bustled away.
Mr. Heim mopped his brow. “Miss Stein, I’ve been eager to meet you. Please understand how much this means to me.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t—”
He sat beside her on the settee and grabbed her hand. “Time is short.”
Mercy snatched her hand away. “Mr. Heim, excuse me.”
“The baby, I want it,” he blurted out.
Carmen bolted out of her chair. “Mr. Heim, you need to leave.”
“My wife and I—we’ll take it!” Mr. Heim clamped his hand around Mercy’s arm. “It’s for the best. I know you’ll agree.”
Mercy stared at him in horror. In a matter of seconds, Mrs. Kunstler was standing beside him, testifying to his character. At the same time, he was pleading on behalf of his wife. Carmen had fled, and Ismelda stood in mute horror.
“You can rid yourself of your shame this way,” Mrs. Kunstler declared.
“You won’t be encumbered,” Mr. Heim asserted. “Someday, maybe another man will come along. You wouldn’t have to confess—”
“That’s enough!” The doctor’s bellow silenced the room. He strode right up to Mercy. “Mr. Heim, you are to leave now.”
“No.” Mr. Heim puffed out his chest. “You knew about this, but you didn’t help us. I’m taking matters into my own hands.” He turned back to Mercy. “Don’t you see? This way you won’t be completely ruined.”
“Mercy was never ruined.” The doctor’s voice came out in a rumble that would make thunder sound like a mere whimper. He knelt beside her. “I’ll let no man slur her.”
“I didn’t mean it to sound badly,” Heim stammered. “You’re alone, Miss Stein. My wife and I—we want children.”
“Miss Stein is not alone. She has family who love her.” The doctor slid his hand over hers. “Aye, and there’s a man who loves her, too.”
Mercy tore her gaze from Mr. Heim and gawked at the doctor.
“ ’Tisna like I’d planned, but I dinna regret making my declaration.” He squeezed her hand.
“He’s the one, Doctor.” Carmen limped back through the front door, her features strained. “He needs to leave.”
“Everyone needs to calm down,” Mrs. Kunstler said.
Mr. Heim tugged on Mercy’s sleeve. “Listen to me. My wife and I would give your baby a good home. If the doctor will take you, the two of you could have your own children.”
“If I’ll take her?” Rob’s voice resonated with outrage. “I’d be blessed if she’d take me!” He stared into Mercy’s eyes. “Your value is far above rubies, Mercy. Whate’er decisions you make, they need to be based on what you know and feel deep down in your soul. Dinna allow anyone to discount how special you are, for you are a daughter of the King of kings.” He rose and helped her to her feet.
The minute she stood, self-consciousness flooded her. Mercy knew just how huge she looked.
The doctor tilted her face up to his. “You’re every bit as beautiful as you are innocent.”
He had her halfway across the street before Mercy could speak. “Are you taking me home?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He took her into the beautiful home that they’d built and seated her on the veranda. “Wait here for a moment.” He left and reappeared in a matter of seconds. Kneeling beside her once again, he pulled a thin gold band from his pocket. “My Da’s last gift to me was Ma’s ring and a piece of advice. He knew caring for bodies makes a doctor close off his heart so he doesn’t have to feel the pain. He warned me not to do so but instead to take a chance at love.”
Mercy stared at the ring.So he’s willing to take a chance and marry me out of pity.
“Clear down to my soul, I love ye, lass. ’Tis been hard, waiting to tell you. I pledged to your grandda I’d not court you without his leave. It’s felt like an eternity, but I finally gained his permission yesternoon. I’m askin’ you to be my wife—and for no other reason than the love God gave me for you cannot be denied.”
Slowly, he tucked the ring in her palm and curled her fingers around it. “You hold my heart in your hand. ’Tis a matter all on its own. I canna expect that you dinna have questions or concerns, so I’ll not mince words.
“The child you carry—I’ll honor your decision whate’er you choose to do. Just as I love you, I’ll cherish this wee one and rear him as my verra own. But if you sense you canna love him without reservation, I’ll understand if you wish to allow others to take him into their hearts and home.”
She swallowed. “So you’re not trying to salvage my honor so the baby is not a—” She couldn’t bring herself to say the vile word.
“Blessing.Eachchild is a blessing.” He looked at her steadily. “You’ve two separate decisions to make, Mercy. On one, I’ve told you I’ll support whate’er you decide. On the other, though…” He lifted her closed hand and kissed it. “I’m going to do everything in my power to sway you into consenting to be my bride. I’ll love you with every breath I ever take, Mercy. Marry me.”
Her hand stayed in his, but she turned it over. “A woman in my condition does not think of finding a man who can love her. I once said I wanted a man who would love me regardless of what life brought and who would stand beside me in the bad times.”
“I’m that man.” The truth sparkled in his eyes.
“But there is another part. That man—I should love him with all that is within me.” She opened her fingers, and the ring fell into his palm. “I care for you—and today, I find I care for you in a way I did not realize. It does not seem possible.”
“With God, all things are possible. This love is from Him, Mercy.”
The last reservation she held crumbled. “I do love you, Robert.”
“Duncan! Go fetch Mr. Stein. Chris, grab the parson. We’re getting married!”
Mercy yanked on his sleeve. “Robert! I cannot get married. Not like this.”
He cupped her face in his hands. “The day I showed you the plans for the house, I told you I couldn’t care less about how it looked on the outside. ’Twas the inside that counted. Well, I meant that then, and at the same time, I’m taking those words back this verra minute. You’re beautiful, and you’re wearing the delft frock I fancy. You couldna be more perfect than you are at this moment. I’m not goin’ to give you a chance to change your mind. Nae, I’m not.”
“There’s no need to rush.”
“Ooch, lass, I’ve been longing to profess my love for you. Now that I have, I dinna want to cross that threshold unless I’m carrying you across it. I’m a reasonable man. I’ll give ye a whole hour.”
He nodded. “Carmen can help ye wi’ some of her posies. She and her sister can fuss wi’ your glorious hair and make themselves pretty so they’ll stand alongside you. Aye, since I’ll be havin’ Duncan and Chris stand wi’ me, it’s fitting your two friends are there. Your grandda and brother—they’re the only others who really matter, aren’t they?”
Mercy thought for a moment, then admitted slowly, “Yes.”
“Good! Then ’tis set.” He gave her an enthusiastic kiss.
One slim hour later, Carmen finished brushing Mercy’s hair and topped it with a flower wreath she’d hastily made. “You’re beautiful!”
“Here. We made this for you.” Ismelda pressed a bouquet into her hands.
Mercy’s lips moved, but no sound came out.
“Ready?” Grossvater asked.
“Yes,” Carmen answered. She and Ismelda rushed to the front pew.
Autumn sunlight poured through the church windows. Mercy wondered how that could be because she felt so cold. Robert wasn’t waiting at the altar for her, and fear welled up. Unaware of her feelings, Grossvater walked her down the aisle. He got her to the front of the church, then patted her hand.
It wasn’t until then that Robert’s brothers entered. Chris came first, and then Duncan. By then, Mercy wasn’t cold at all. She couldn’t be—not after the shocking sight of the men wearing red, green, and white tartans that bared their knees!
“They’re wearingskirts!” Peter blurted out.
“Kilts,” Chris corrected him.
“Highlanders wear their kilts for important occasions,” Mercy declared. She was marrying into Robert’s family, and a wife owed her husband loyalty and allegiance. Not only was Robert marrying her, but his brothers were showing their acceptance of the union by wearing their odd garb. Her chin lifted. “I’m honored.”
Chris and Duncan had already been standing straight and tall, but at her words, their backs nearly snapped from pride.
Robert approached her. He, too, wore his tartan. Having gotten over the original shock of seeing the men in their kilts, Mercy decided then and there that no man had ever looked half so handsome as her groom did in his kilt. His voice was as warm and steady as his hands when he held her close and proclaimed his vows.
Mercy repeated her vows, and each of the promises she made came straight from her heart.
“What God hath joined together, let no one put asunder,” the pastor said at the end. “You may kiss your bride.”
“We Gregors have a special tradition.” Robert smiled as he pulled a length of cloth from the leather tie at his waist. The cloth matched his kilt.
Draping the cloth over her shoulder, he quoted:
“As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear
While the sands o’ life shall run.”
He drew her close, and his kiss promised all the love she could ever dream for.To WalkHUMBLYChapter1
You’ve got to come now!” Duncan Gregor shouted hoarsely as he burst through the door.
Carmen Rodriguez’s gasp of surprise turned into a groan as the flan she’d been tipping out of the pan slithered and slopped into an unsightly mess on the plate. “You’re early. I thought we were having supper at six.”
“Nae, lass. ’Tisna that a-tall!” Duncan slumped against the doorframe, his chest heaving and his blue eyes huge. “Mercy—the babe!”
“Why didn’t you just say so?” Carmen ripped off her apron and put on a fresh one as she hobbled toward the door. “What does Robert say?”
“Rob’s not at home! He’s out somewhere.”
Well, that accounts for why he’s flustered. Carmen gave Duncan a reassuring smile. She fought the urge to smooth the wayward lock of inky hair back from his forehead. “I’ll stay with Mercy while you go fetch him.”
“We canna recall where he went.” The man sounded as though he’d been forced to gargle vinegar before making that confession. His gaze swept the house. “Where’s your sister? We need all the help we can get.”
“Ismelda is at Otto’s, helping his mother. She’ll be back by six for supper.”
“Why can’t everyone stay put? Especially Rob. A man who’s about to become a father has no business gallivanting off.”
“He’s a doctor,” Carmen pointed out.
“Exactly.” Duncan glowered at her. “And just who else is supposed to be helping Mercy through her travail?”
He’d left the door wide open when he barged in, so Carmen stepped out onto the veranda. Cool days like this always made her left leg ache. She’d broken it as a child, and the bones hadn’t healed correctly.It’s nothing—especially in comparison to Mercy’s travail.
Duncan cupped Carmen’s elbow. “I’m worried about her.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” She reached to shut the door.
Duncan muttered, “This is takin’ too long.” He shut the door, swept her into his brawny arms, and carried her across the street to the clinic. Once inside, he roared, “Where’d you put her, Chris?”
Silence met them.
Carmen tried to wiggle so he’d put her down. Bad enough her crippled leg kept her from being able to dash around in an emergency—but for him to cart her any farther rated as complete humiliation. “They’re probably still at home.”
Duncan’s face went colorless. “Oh no.” He kept possession of her, plowing out the back door and across the yard to the house he shared with his brothers and new sister-in-law. “I’m counting on you.”
“I’d do my best, but I’ve never helped at a birth.”
“And you shouldn’t have to.” Under other circumstances, his scandalized reaction would have amused her, but Carmen couldn’t make fun of Duncan. The poor man looked downright sick. “I’m countin’ on you to talk sense into Mercy. Tell her she has to wait awhile to have the babe. And be sure to make her promise to go to the clinic. ’Tis safer there.”
“Aye.” Dark head bobbing emphatically, Duncan declared, “Rob’s got enough medical equipment and drugs there to cure every man, woman, child, and beast in three counties. Whate’er Mercy needs, he’ll have it on hand.” He kicked open the front door and strode in. “Chris! What’s takin’ you so long? You were to have Mercy at the—”
“She’s refusing to budge.” Christopher Gregor looked thoroughly disgruntled.
“Hi, Carmen.” Mercy sat in the rocking chair and patted her tummy. “It looks as if we’re going to have a New Year’s Eve baby.”
“Not if I can help it.” Chris glowered at her. “You could cooperate and wait a day or so.”
“At least go to the clinic,” Duncan tacked on as he let go of Carmen’s legs and slipped her to the floor. The man looked terrified, yet he instinctively handled her with consideration and didn’t turn loose until he was certain she’d become stable on her feet. “Don’t you think that’s a grand notion, Carmen?”
Mercy curled her hands around the chair’s arms and rocked faster. Carmen wasn’t sure who moaned—but it wasn’t Mercy. About a minute later, Mercy relaxed. “I’m having this baby here, Duncan, and you’re not going to change my mind.”
“We’ll see to things.” Upon making that declaration, Duncan nodded to Chris. The brothers bracketed the rocking chair and hefted it.
Mercy let out a surprised yelp.
“What are you men doing?” Carmen stared at the odd scene.
“She wants to be in the rocking chair. We’re humoring the lass.” Chris spoke as if she’d turned into a half-wit.
Duncan jerked his jaw in the direction of the door. “Run on ahead to the clinic, Carmen. Aren’t you supposed to be boiling water or something?”
“The reservoir on the stove is full.” Mercy tapped Duncan and Chris on their shoulders. “And unless you put me down, the roast in the oven is going to burn.”
“Don’t care about the roast. I’m more worried about the wee little bun in your oven.” Duncan ignored her insistent tapping and started to walk. Ostensibly not to be dissuaded from his convictions, Chris followed suit.
“If you men carry me to the clinic, I’m just going to walk right back here.”
“The pangs are addling her mind,” Duncan muttered.
“No, they’re not.” Mercy wheedled, “It’s still early. Robert’s books say labor is likely to last twelve hours, if not twice that long. You can’t expect me to spend my first New Year’s Eve as a married woman anywhere other than in my husband’s wonderful home.”
Carmen secretly admired Mercy’s wiles. She’d obviously come to understand she couldn’t fight both of her brothers-in-law, so she’d divided them by appealing to Christopher’s pride at having built the house. Chris stopped walking, and Carmen suspected as anxious as Duncan had grown, he’d carry Mercy in circles all night if someone didn’t intervene.
“I’m relieved to see you men are trying to protect Mercy from any eventuality.” Carmen smiled at Duncan. “It’s going to grow nippy tonight. Just in case Mercy relents and decides to have the baby in the clinic, you’d better go light a fire in the stove there so she won’t catch a chill.”
“Put water on to boil, too,” Chris demanded.
“I’ll stay right here with her.” Carmen motioned to set down the rocker.
Two hours later, Duncan stared at Carmen and ground out, “Cookie cutters?”
“Of course.” Mercy concentrated on cracking eggs into an earthenware bowl. “When everyone comes to visit the baby, we need to show them hospitality. You don’t want to shame me by making me face them without cookies.”
“Plenty of cookies don’t require cookie cutters.” Chris scowled as he motioned behind his back to make Duncan put away the ironing board. Until Mercy took a mind to bake cookies, she’d ironed every shirt in the house twice.
“But those are everyday cookies.” Mercy dumped two cups of sugar into the mixture. “Guests should receive special cookies.”
“Anyone paying a visit to a house with a new baby ought to be bringing the cookies.” Duncan paced from one end of the kitchen to the other. During his third transit, he tucked away the ironing board. “Aye, no doubt about it; they should be bringing the cookies. I distinctly recall Ma taking food when she went to a home where there’d been sickness or death.”
“I’m neither sick nor dying.” Mercy looked suitably appalled at his comment.
Chris mopped his brow. “But you’re going to be the death of us, trying to have this babe with no help at hand.”
“Don’t you insult my dear friend that way.” Mercy waved a wooden spoon in Carmen’s direction. “She’ll help me. Won’t you, Carmen?”
Though her apprehension far outweighed her confidence, Carmen nodded. After all, her friend needed her, and loyalty demanded she be a staunch ally.
Duncan pulled Carmen from the kitchen. “Some kind of help you are! You were supposed to get her to the clinic, not to the oven!”
“I had a choice to make—either I make you happy or I comfort my friend who happens to be in labor.” Carmen stabbed her finger into the center of his broad chest. “I didn’t think I’d have to listen to a grown man whine—especially when a woman under his roof is in labor and has yet to let out a single cry.”
“I dinna whine!” He looked thoroughly affronted. “I’m reminding you of what’s important. Cookies willna matter a whit if she or the babe dinna get through the ordeal.”
“You need to have more faith,” she whispered. “Now go on over to my house. Ismelda just used the cookie cutters yesterday. They’re in the orange box to the left of the sink.”
“This is it, woman. I’ll not be humoring any more of these ridiculous requests.”
Carmen pretended she didn’t hear him. Truthfully, for the last couple of hours, Carmen had concocted a variety of tasks for Chris and Duncan to accomplish. It kept them from hovering, at least part of the time.
Duncan shook his finger at her. “Dinna feign innocence. You ken full well what I mean.”
“You could cooperate. Staying busy has kept Mercy from panicking about the fact that Robert’s not here.”
“He’d best better hie on home.” Duncan’s brows knit. “Chris sent Connant after him over an hour ago.”
“We have to stay calm. You go get the cookie cutters. I’ll set the table.” Carmen returned to the kitchen. Mercy urgently motioned to her, and Carmen headed her way. With every step, she promised God she’d do any number of good deeds as long as she didn’t have to deliver this baby on her own.
Mercy pulled Carmen close. “I’ve done it now.”Chapter2
Carmen clamped her lips together to hold back a moan.
“I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t just add sugar to the cookies. I added a whole cupful to the mashed potatoes!”
Disbelief forced Carmen to laugh. She tightened her apron strings. “I’ll add a few eggs to make them hold together, then fry slabs.”
“Like potato pan–caaa—” Mercy curled forward and lost the last part of the word. When the pain ended, she fretted, “I wanted this supper to be perfect.”
“You’ve talked the men into wearing their kilts, Chris brought in a log that could burn for a month, and the pewter candlesticks are at least a half inch shorter after you set Duncan to polishing them. It’ll be a supper they remember for a long time.”
Mercy let out a doleful sigh. “I was talking about the food.”
“The roast is big enough to feed everyone for three days.” Carmen cast a quick look at the door. “Duncan and Chris are so worried that I don’t think they’ll taste a single bite they wolf down tonight, anyway.”
“It’s taking Robert a long time.”
“You yourself said it’ll be hours yet.” Carmen hoped with every fiber of her being that her words were true.
“Ja. You work on the potatoes. I’ll start rolling out the cookie dough—oh, and put the apple cider on the back burner. I want to mull some spices in it and serve it with dessert.”
“I think,” Carmen glanced about furtively before continuing, “we ought to have Chris and Duncan take the cookies over to the clinic to bake.”
“They’ll burn half of them.” Mercy grinned.
“Fine. We’ll have to mix up another batch. That’ll keep them occupied a little longer. I’ll hurry and start boiling rice. It’ll go with the roast and gravy.”
Chris and Duncan fought over who got to go bake the cookies. It was then Carmen fully appreciated just how terrified they were that they might have to help with the delivery. She sent both. They’d return to the house only long enough for Mercy to plop the next round of cookies on the sheets, then run off to the clinic oven again.
“That’s the last of them,” Mercy announced as she handed her brothers-in-law the cookie-laden sheets. “Chris, you and Duncan, when you’ve baked them, change into your kilts, and we’ll have supper on the table when you come back.” She waited until they were gone, then pled, “Can you haul me out of this chair? I’m not moving so good.”
“Sure.” Carmen helped her up.
Mercy stood, curled forward, and moaned with the next pang. When it was over, she straightened and said, “The table looks beautiful. I wish my husband were here to see it.”
“I’m sure he’ll get here soon, Mercy.”He’d better. I’m starting to get as nervous as Duncan. Well, I’m not going to let Mercy see that. If she can stay calm, so will I. “The only thing left is for me to make the gravy.”
“I can do that. Will you get some honey from the pantry?”
The door opened, and Ismelda came in. Holding the plate with the destroyed flan, she gave Carmen an uncertain look.
“Oh, flan!” Mercy sounded truly thrilled over the mess. “I love your flan.”
Ismelda asked, “¿Olvidó de traer este?”
“Yes,” Carmen answered her sister in English, “I forgot to bring that. I was excited because Mercy’s in labor.”
“Tell that to Duncan and Chris.” Mercy’s wry smile slid into a grimace.
By the time they sat down to supper, Carmen tried not to fault Chris and Duncan for seating Mercy, then hastening to the chairs farthest from her for themselves. After all, they were gentlemanly enough to pause long enough to seat Ismelda and her on either side of Mercy. Folding his hands, Duncan said, “I’ll ask the blessing.”
Carmen bowed her head. Duncan’s prayers never ceased to touch her. He spoke to the Lord in a way she’d never heard a man pray—with a rich blend of reverence, respect, humility, and love. Tonight’s prayer ought to be particularly special.
“Lord, the food looks good, but the only blessing I’m asking tonight is for You to help our Mercy through and for the babe to be all right. Amen.”
“ ’Men,” Chris chimed in.
While Carmen blinked in astonishment over the prayer, Chris picked up the carving knife and proceeded to hack a picture-perfect roast into an assortment of chunks spanning every possible shape and size. Carmen consoled herself that the irregular hunks would hide how lumpy the gravy was. And the gravy would add moisture to the rice, because it turned out a tad dry. Those paltry facts were lost on the men, who inhaled the food with blinding speed.
Mercy barely picked at her plate.
“What’s wrong?” Chris squinted at her.
“Nothing.” Her lips thinned, and she went silent.
“Nothing?” Chris threw back his head and groaned. “If Rob doesna walk through the door in the next five minutes, I’m goin’ to skin him alive.”
“You will not.” Mercy let out a small sigh and pushed away her plate. “I’m just being choosy tonight. I wanted to save room for dessert.”
“Me, too!” Carmen hopped up. As she and Ismelda cleared the table, Carmen seriously questioned her own sanity. Mercy had accidentally thickened the apple cider instead of the beef broth and drippings to make “gravy.” In order to salvage the situation, Ismelda turned the broth to gravy and Carmen “fixed” the cider.
“What’s for dessert, Mercy?” Chris sounded hopeful. “You said you had something special planned.”
“I’ll bet you’ve never had this before,” Ismelda murmured.
“That’s right. It’s a new recipe.” Carmen slapped the fried, sweetened mashed potato slabs onto plates, added diced apples, spooned blobs of flan atop them, and then topped the whole affair off with a mulled, spicy apple “glaze.”
Mercy attacked hers with gusto.
Chris gave his serving a dubious look. “What is it?”
“Happenstance,” Carmen blurted out as she picked up her fork.
“Probably another Texas dish,” Duncan said. “There’s not been one yet I haven’t liked.”
Duncan’s fork practically created sparks on the plate, he ate so fast. Chris matched him bite for bite.
Carmen exchanged a look with her sister. “Ismelda, why don’t we share mine? I made a plate for Robert, but if Connant comes back with him, we wouldn’t want him to go without.”
“Connant could have Rob’s, and Rob could go hungry,” Chris growled. “ ’Twould serve him right for leaving his kin in a time of great need.”
Duncan nodded as he pushed to his feet. “Food was good. Filling. You ladies worked hard cooking it, so Chris and I’ll do the cleanup.”
“Yeah.” Chris rose. “And since nothing’s keeping you here, Mercy, Carmen and Ismelda can take you over and settle you in the clinic now.”
“I can’t go to the clinic!”
Chris scowled at Mercy. “And suppose you give me a good reason why not?”
“She’s not in her nightdress,” Ismelda replied.
“You can jolly well change once you’re there.” By now, Duncan and Chris bracketed Mercy like a pair of menacing gargoyles.
Suspecting they were about to pick up Mercy’s chair once again, Carmen tapped her fork on the edge of her dessert plate. “Once Ismelda and I finish our…uhh…happenstance, we’ll be happy to help Mercy change. Won’t we, Sister?”
Ismelda looked at the dish, and Carmen had the sinking feeling her sister was going to either use this as an excuse to get out of eating the mess or offer to help Mercy and allow Carmen to eat it all by herself. Alarmed at either possibility, Carmen gave her little sister a behave-yourself look.
“You take a bite, then I’ll take one.”
Relief flooded her. Carmen assessed the dessert and decided the safest thing to do would be to isolate and eat each item independently. She speared an apple and popped the slice into her mouth.
It seemed Ismelda came to the same conclusion. She took a miniscule dab of flan.
“You’ll be here until the Second Coming, eating that slowly.” Chris drummed his fingers on the back of Mercy’s chair.
“My friends are ladies, not field hands.” Mercy’s voice went up in volume, then petered out on the last word.
“Another one? She’s having another one.” Distress tainted Duncan’s voice. “I’m not liking this one bit.”
“What aren’t you liking?” a voice asked from the door. “And why are the lamps on over in my clinic?”
Duncan bellowed at his brother, “ ’Tis far past time you showed up!”
Robert set down his medical satchel. “I’m sorry I’m late for supper. It couldna be helped.”
“You should have had your sorry hide home hours ago,” Chris grated.
Maddeningly casual, Rob crossed the room, pressed a kiss on Mercy’s temple, and said, “Aida and Stuart had a wee little boy tonight. Mother and child are right as rain.”
“What were you doing there?” Chris bristled. “You were supposed to be at the Stuckys’. I sent Connant there to fetch you.”
“I said I was going to Stu Key’s.” Rob hadn’t straightened up. He stayed down close to Mercy and said softly, “I take it you’re planning to make me a father tonight?”
She bit her lip and nodded.
“Now then, that’s a fine piece of news. And ’tis plain to see you’re faring well. Since the day we knew you to be with child, I’ve prayed ‘twould go easy on you. God is faithful.”
Duncan stared at his brother. Clearly, he didn’t understand just how serious this was—either that or he was demented. “Mercy’s been having pangs for hours now,” Duncan intoned, trying to get Rob to comprehend the gravity of the situation.
Rob crooked a brow. “Have you, now?”
“Only since noon.” Mercy’s smile faltered, then disappeared entirely.
“Noon!” Chris roared. “And you didn’t tell us then?”
Rob wheeled around and stood nose to nose with his oldest brother. “Dinna raise your voice at my wife!”
“ ’Tis you I’ll yell at. She needed you, and you were off with another woman!”
“Stop this!” Mercy’s eyes filled with tears.
“Now look what the both of you did.” Duncan swiped the napkin from Mercy’s lap and blotted her face. “Upsettin’ a wee mother-to-be. Shame on ye.”
Carmen rose. “I’m sure you gentlemen will excuse us.”
Now that Rob was home, Duncan’s nerves settled. Asking Carmen to come had been a move of desperation. It wasn’t right to ask an unmarried woman to play midwife. Carmen hadn’t confessed to being worried, but Duncan knew she’d calmed tremendously since Rob arrived. He could tell because her accent grew thicker when she was upset. Suddenly, her tongue’s rich-sounding roll when she pronouncedr’s and the softening of thetsounds weren’t as strong.
“You can’t go!” Chris went right back to yelling.
Clearly not intimidated, Carmen glared at Chris. “I wouldn’t dream of leaving her tonight. The only place I’m going is upstairs to help Mercy change into her nightdress.”
“That’s a fine plan.” Rob’s voice took on his everything’s-under-control flavor. He wound Mercy’s arm about his neck and scooped her out of her seat.
She turned her face into his neck and started to cry.
“There, now. There you are. Aye, lass. You needn’t worry a bit now.” Rob kept a steady stream of reassurances as he carried her up to their bedchamber. Even after they were out of sight, Mercy’s weeping drifted down the stairs.
“I’m thinkin’ you’re right. Mercy might want a woman’s help,” Duncan said quietly to Carmen.
Carmen nodded. Compassion shimmered in her deep brown eyes. He admired the woman. Others in the community hadn’t known how to react to Mercy since her child was conceived by an act of violence. They’d kept their distance; Carmen hadn’t wavered in the least. She’d been a stalwart friend.
He decided to repay her kindness. “Whilst you’re up there with her, I’ll dump out your happenstance. No use in all of us sufferin’ indigestion.”
Carmen’s eyes grew huge.
“Did you think we didna see Mercy put sugar in the mashed potatoes?”
Ismelda squeaked, “Why didn’t you stop her?”
“I couldna bear to rattle the lass.” He pulled out Carmen’s chair. Duncan fought the urge to carry her up the stairs. He’d already dented her pride by carrying her across the street earlier in the day. She did her best to get around and ignore the pitying glances folks gave her. Indeed, she managed life quite nicely. But if he offered her assistance, she’d likely take it the wrong way.
Carmen mounted the stairs methodically. Soon after she disappeared from sight, Rob appeared. Rubbing his hands together, he announced, “I’m hungry as a draft horse.”
“Eat dessert first,” Chris advised as he shoved some of the disastrous dish at Rob.
Duncan swiped the plate right out of Rob’s hand. “We canna have him gettin’ sick. He’s got to deliver the babe.”
“Mercy’s never made anything that didn’t taste grand.” Rob reached for the happenstance again.
Ismelda giggled. “But Mercy’s never been in labor before.”
“How far along is she?” Chris dumped chunks of meat onto a plate. “How much longer?”
“I can’t say for certain.”
“You’re usually able to give a fair estimate,” Duncan said.
“Aye.” Rob shot a look at Ismelda, who’d taken the dessert plates to the back door to rid them of the monstrous concoction. Rob’s voice dropped to a confidential whisper, “But those women have been long married.” He paused a moment to choose his words carefully. “And they dinna suffer crippling modesty.”
Duncan grimaced. He rested his hand on Rob’s shoulder and gave him a powerful squeeze as a sign of his support.Rob told Mercy he’d been praying for her to have an easy delivery. I never gave much thought to how hard this will be for her—and for him, too. Lord, You hae the power to calm them and ease things. Please grant them that.
“You’re in your kilts.” Rob accepted the plate of roast and rice from Chris.
“At your wife’s request.” Chris grinned. “We may well be in Texas, but she’s showing promise. With time, she’ll understand the honor of marrying a Highlander.”
Rob ate quickly and cast a look at the stairs.
“You need to get her o’er to the clinic,” Duncan urged.
“She’s wanting to hae the bairn in our own bed.”
“Make her see reason.” Chris started pacing. He practically mowed over Ismelda. “It’s 1892. Modern women should avail themselves of the best medicine has to offer. Your clinic is the finest there is.”
“I promised my old-fashioned bride a solid half hour of privacy so she could wash up, change, and have Carmen help her with her hair. After that, we’ll see how she is.”
“Half an hour?” Duncan shook his head in disbelief.
“She’s rattled. Carmen has a knack for making Mercy feel better. Just you wait. I’d estimate that right about now, my wee wife’s calming down.”
“I will not!” Mercy shouted from upstairs.
“No, no, no, no.” Mercy’s voice went from a shout to a strangled moan.
“That doesna sound like a woman who’s finding her serenity. Go help her, man!” Chris shoved at him, and he raced upstairs.
Less than a minute later, Mercy’s voice held a shrill edge. “You promised thirty minutes!”
Rob came back downstairs, grinning like a fool. “Things are progressing well.”
“If that’s ‘well,’ you’d best stuff cotton in your ears once you hae her at the clinic. The lass is liable to scream you deaf once she’s in the thick of it.”
“Bein’ a mite temperamental is a fine sign. It indicates a woman’s toward the end.”
“Toward the end of her rope, I’d say,” Chris muttered.
Someone knocked once while opening the front door. Connant stuck his head into the house. “I’m relieved to see Rob’s horse. I’ve ridden all over and couldn’t find him. How’s Mercy?”
They all looked toward the ceiling. As if she’d heard Connant’s question, her stricken voice echoed down the stairs. “No one needs to know!”
Connant’s eyes widened. “I’ll go now.”
“She didna hear you. She’s talking with Carmen.” Rob motioned him in. “Come. Eat.”
The sheriff looked appalled at the notion. “I’ve got things to do.”
“Is that so?” Rob asked. His tone sounded entirely too entertained.
“I’ll help.” Chris rushed toward the door, to freedom.
“No. No. Everything’s under control. Happy New Year.” The sheriff shut the door with obvious alacrity. Chris looked like a man about to be stuffed into a cannibal’s pot.
Half an hour later, Carmen descended the stairs. “Mercy’s asking to go to the washroom.”
Rob shot to his feet.
“Before you go up there,” Carmen’s voice carried a vaguely amused flavor, “I’ve been ordered to warn you men that if you try to take her to the clinic, she’ll avenge herself.”
Chris snorted. “Mercy wouldn’t swat a fly. Her threat’s all bluster.”
Rob scowled over his shoulder. “Don’t vex my wife, Chris.” He went up the stairs and came back down with Mercy in his arms. She was bundled in a heavy flannel nightgown. Instead of wearing her hair up in its usual style, Mercy now had a single, fat braid swinging back and forth with each step Rob took.
From the way Mercy clung to Rob, buried her face against his chest, and moaned, she was embarrassed for them to see her in such a state. Duncan figured the least he could do was be casual about it. As they went past him toward the washroom, Duncan proclaimed, “The lass is whiter than her bedgown, Rob. Talk sense into her.”
Ismelda shoved a soapy dish into the rinse water. “Shhh.”
“Here you are,” Rob said as he turned sideways to carry his wife through the doorway to their modern washroom. Duncan silently gave his brother credit for sounding so calm and remembering to turn so he didn’t knock Mercy’s head or feet against the doorframe.
“Out!” Mercy’s voice took on a shrill edge. “Out this minute, Robert.”
Rob stepped out of the washroom, shut the door, and finally had the good sense to look concerned.
Chris kicked the chair Duncan leaned against. “Don’t just stand there. ’Tis cold out. Rob’ll be wanting to wrap Mercy in a blanket whilst he totes her to the clinic.”
“I hhhheee–aaarrd thaaaaat!” Mercy shouted.
“Now, Mercy,” Rob wheedled.
Silence hung in the air. Rob shifted his weight from one foot to the other a few times, wiped his hands down his thighs, and cleared his throat. “Mercy?”
“Leeeeve meee aaa–looonne!”
Duncan decided it was a good thing Rob told them Mercy might be getting a wee bit testy. She seemed to be embracing the role with zeal.
A mere breath later, Mercy’s voice changed to a bewildered, “Rob?”
“Aye, my sweet?”
She sounded so uncertain, so lost. “I don’t know what to do.”
A tiny wail rent the air. Rob yanked the washroom door straight off the hinges. Duncan collapsed into the chair. Having a baby was far more taxing than he’d expected.Chapter3
How’s little Elspeth today?” Carmen called across the street to Duncan. He sat in the open doorway of his cobbler’s workshop, stitching something.
“Fat and sassy.” He grinned at her. “That garden of yours surely takes a lot of attention.”
Carmen caressed a narcissus. “I hope these and the fern-leaf lavender bloom for the wedding.”
Duncan nodded. “Those pinkish-red things behind you are a sight.”
“The azaleas? I love them, but they’re not easy to put in a wedding arrangement. Same with my crocus. Ismelda didn’t want to wait until March when the whole countryside will be abloom.”
“That tree Mercy calls a redbud is blossoming. Could you use a few branches?”
His offer pleased her. “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.”
He nodded and went back to work. All day long, every day, he’d sit out on the porch attached to his workshop. An eye-popping array of spindles, fans, turnings, and trim should have made the outside of his shop look tacky or garish; instead, it seemed whimsical. Folks would walk down the street, drop in and chat with Duncan, then meander off.
“What are you doing?” Ismelda asked from the corner of their yard.
“Checking on the flowers.” Carmen turned around. “I need to water some of them a little more.”
“Otto’s mother offered to come help me pin up the hem of my gown, but I told her you would.” Ismelda clasped Carmen’s hand as she went up the four steps to their veranda. “I wanted to talk with you about something.”
“You won’t move into the Kunstlers’ with me?”
“No, I won’t.” Carmen shot her sister a stern look. “You and Otto need to be husband and wife. I’d be underfoot and in the way.”
“His mother is there.”
“I know.” Carmen stopped. “You and she get along well, and I know in my heart that it’ll be a happy arrangement. But Mrs. Kunstler and I wouldn’t be happy under the same roof. Besides, I love our home here.”
“But I was wondering about something else.”
Carmen waited for her sister to speak. Try as she might, she couldn’t quite get past the hurt of everyone else finding mates and having babies. Her own sister didn’t even hold out hope that some man might come along and develop affectionate feelings for Carmen. The reality that she was trying to make arrangements for Carmen’s spinster years stung.
“Mr. Stein and Peter—they’re faring decently, but with Mercy in town now, I think he’d be delighted to have a housekeeper. Why don’t you talk with him about it? We’d be neighbors!”
Carmen merely shook her head.
“You already take a dish over there once or twice a week.”
“If that is a reason for me to become someone’s housekeeper, half of our neighbors would already employ me.”
“But maybe it’s time for you to get something in return for all the good deeds you do.”
“I don’t want anything, Ismelda. I’m content. I have a home and friends. Papa left us enough money that I needn’t worry about finances.” Carmen shook her head. “I’d be lying if I told you I would think about it. Go put on your gown. I’ll wash my hands so I don’t smudge it.”
The heavy white satin felt smooth and cool in Carmen’s hands as she pinned the hem. She forced a laugh. “I was just picturing Otto standing at the altar waiting for you.”
“What’s so funny about that?”
“I imagined him in one of the Gregors’ kilts.”
Merry laughter bubbled out of Ismelda. “Never. After church on Sunday, Otto told me if I have any plans to make him wear odd costumes, I’d better forget them.”
“They’re not odd costumes. The Gregors are proud of their heritage. I thought they looked…unified at church on Sunday.” The pastor had called Mercy and Rob to the altar on Sunday to present Elspeth to the congregation and say a blessing over her. Duncan and Chris stood on either side of them. All of the Gregor men wore kilts, and the length of tartan Rob had draped over Mercy’s shoulder for their wedding now served as the infant’s blanket. “And I also think it was very touching how Duncan mentioned they’d named Elspeth after their own mother.”
“It was.” Ismelda sighed romantically. “I told Otto I’m wearing Mama’s bridal mantilla as my something old. In a year or two, maybe I could drape it over our baby, too. Don’t you think that would be a lovely tradition?”
“Mmm.” Though tears filled her eyes, Carmen smiled up at her sister.She’s so sure I’ll never be a bride.
Ismelda pressed her hand to her bosom. “Oh, do I look so beautiful that you’re in tears?”
“Muy hermosa. Very beautiful.”
“You’re such a wonderful sister to make me feel lovely in my gown.”
“Never once forget how beautiful I think you are—inside as well as out.”
“Are you done pinning me up?”
Grateful to break eye contact, Carmen reached for the pincushion. She pulled out another pin. “Just one more. Here.”
“Now that we’ve finished my gown, we need to decide on yours. I don’t care if the gringos here think red is for a loose woman. You look beautiful in red, and—”
“Be practical, Ismelda. I’d never be able to wear it again. If I put work into making a dress, I ought to get some use out of it.”
Her sister made wavelike motions. “What about layers and layers of yellow and orange?”
“Since when did we wear layered skirts? Mama always dressed us in designs featured inGodey’s.”
Ismelda shrugged. “You were talking about heritage. I thought it might be fun to have some of our heritage in my wedding.”
“You could carry our Spanish Bible.”
Eyes alight, Ismelda proclaimed, “You can! I’ll hold a sheaf of flowers from our garden, just as I always dreamed, and you can carry Papa’s Bible. In fact”—Ismelda clapped her hands—“you could read a verse from it.”
“That doesn’t seem right. Otto doesn’t know any Spanish. A groom ought to understand the whole ceremony.”
Ismelda wrinkled her nose. “I guess you’re right. I know she doesn’t mean to be rude, but his mother often speaks German to him in front of me. I’m so determined to understand them I’m having Otto teach me new words all of the time!”
“Chris Gregor rattles off German like he’s one of them, and he’s getting good at Spanish, too.”
“I’m glad.” Ismelda blushed. “He can translate for the doctor now. Duncan—he hasn’t learned much Spanish or German, but everyone understands him, and he understands whatever someone else is trying to say.”
Carmen started to unbutton her sister’s gown. “That stream of people wandering past his shop and visiting with him—it’s that way every day, all day long.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Ismelda let out a trill of laughter. “I love Otto so much that I don’t seem to notice anything else at all.”
Carmen gave no reply. Duncan Gregor was a nice man. A good man—godly and gentle and kind. People couldn’t help responding to his warm and humble personality.He’ll never be lonely, but I will. That thought hit her hard.What does he do that I don’t?
“You look so sad!”
Summoning a smile she was far from feeling, Carmen knew she didn’t dare confess her fears. She wanted her sister to bask in the joy of her marriage, not to fret over things that couldn’t be helped. She softened the truth. “I was thinking how empty the house will be. I’m going to miss you.”
“So you’re reconsidering my suggestion about becoming the Steins’ housekeeper?”
“No.” Carmen didn’t have a hard time looking appalled at the notion. “I’m going to have to find ways to keep busy once you’re not here to pester me.”
“You can come visit me whenever you want.” Ismelda carefully stepped free from her gown. “We still haven’t decided about what you’ll wear for the wedding.”
“Leonard mentioned he’s gotten a shipment of bombazine in at the mercantile.”
“Bombazine is for widows and chaperones. You said you want to be practical—well, then we’ll have your gown be a bright color in a lightweight silk or a challis. That way, you’ll be able to look festive all through the spring and summer.”
“Come spring and summer, I’m going to want lightweight cotton so I can stay cool while helping you with the extra chores that come from being a farmer’s wife.”
“Then we’ll have to be sure to get material for two dresses for you.” Ismelda grinned. “In addition to the fabric for the dress you’ll wear for the wedding.”
Accustomed to her little sister’s stunts, Carmen laughed and nodded. “Yes,querido. One for me and one for you.”And maybe a few more yards of cotton, besides. I could make Mercy’s little Elspeth a couple of gowns, and with old Mrs. Lintz becoming bedridden, I’m sure she’d appreciate a crisp nightdress and soft pillowslips. And Mr. Rundsdorf—it must be so hard for him to find shirts to fit his twisted frame. I’m going to devote myself to the people who need love and might not get it otherwise.
Relieved to have come up with a solution to battling the impending sense of loneliness, Carmen went to fetch her reticule.
“Rob took Mercy and the baby home.” Duncan offered Carmen his arm.
“It was nice of them to come to the wedding.” She slid her hand into the crook of his elbow and walked toward the buggy with him. When she glanced up, her deep brown eyes carried a wealth of emotion. “I know Mercy loves Rob with all her heart, but it was especially nice of her to treat Ismelda so kindly. Some people were still talking about how just a year ago Otto was going to marry Mercy.”
“It’s time everyone let go of the past and embrace the future. It’s plain to see Rob and Mercy love each other. As for Ismelda and Otto—he was a broken man, and her love did wonders for him. Both men are blessed.”
As Carmen allowed him to lift her into the buggy, Duncan noted her new dress. He waited a moment while she gathered up the extra material from her fancy gown. “Your frock’s comely. It puts me of a mind of the heather from back home.”
The buggy swayed as he swung up beside her. For all the fabric in their skirts, it was easy to forget how tiny most of the women were. Carmen was of average height but fine boned. He saw how she tried to drag her left foot out of the way.
“You must be exhausted.”
She bristled. “What makes you say that?”
He flicked the reins. “I’m thinkin’ on how you’ve babied the garden so there were flowers aplenty and that you’ve stitched yourself a pretty frock. You cooked and cooked and cooked. And ooch, those Mexican wedding cookies—you baked hundreds of them. I’m not exaggerating, either, because I ate a good half dozen all on my own. Then you saw to any number of trifling details to make the wedding all your sister e’er dreamed of. Just reciting the list of what you’ve done leaves me weary.”
The tension drained from her shoulders. “I’m afraid now that the wedding is over, I’ll be bored to distraction.”
“You?” Duncan chuckled. “I dinna think the wordleisureis in your vocabulary. Rob tells me you’ve been cheering up old Mrs. Lintz, and I ken you’ve helped o’er at the Rayburns’.”
“Mrs. Rayburn’s splint should come off next week.”
“Aye, but a woman with a broken arm and a passel of children is a sorry sight.”
“They’re dear children—well behaved and affectionate.”
“I’ve not been ‘round them enough to agree or disagree.” Duncan grinned. “You’re a fine woman, and I’m sure they love you on your own merit. That bein’ said, e’en the naughtiest of bairns would toe the mark just to have a taste of yourbunuelosandempan-things.”
“Empanadas.” She smiled. “I’ll be sure you have some the next time I make a batch.”
“I confess, I would hae never thought the Germans and the Mexicans to hold much in common, but the cinnamon-sugar desserts and the polka sort of music are startlingly similar. In the end, ’tis fun to see how much alike we all are.”
She nodded. “I suppose it all boils down to a simple truth—we really all are the same. Young or old, blond or black-haired, we want to belong, to love, and to be loved.”Chapter4
Duncan, did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
Duncan ignored Christopher’s bellow and assisted Mr. Rundsdorf up the single step leading to his workshop’s porch. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I can come back later if this is a bad time.”
“Your timing couldn’t be better.” Duncan grinned. “Chris swears he canna stand all the frills that came wi’ the house kit. Just to keep him on his toes, I’ve been tacking up a piece in or on the house every now and again.”
Mr. Rundsdorf’s gaze roamed the workshop. “Your brother’s far ahead of you in the race.”
“He likes to think so.”
Chris stalked over. “Take it away by noon, Duncan, or I won’t be responsible for what happens next.”
“You gave me all the gingerbread. ’Tis mine to do with as I please.”
“Bad enough we have enough scales to cover ten dragons on the outside of my house. Worse yet, you tacked a bunch of those stupid curlicue things together and hung them in the washroom.”
“I made a shelf for Mercy,” Duncan explained to Mr. Rundsdorf, who nodded in appreciation.
“But my bed?” Chris practically thundered the words.
“What did he do to your bed?” Mr. Rundsdorf asked.
Chris suddenly went ruddy.
“Dinna leave the man wondering.” Duncan nudged his brother. “Tell him.”
“He, uh…tacked something onto a post,” Chris muttered darkly.
“What was it?” Mr. Rundsdorf leaned forward.
Chris gave Duncan a murderous look. Duncan shrugged. “Dinna give me that scowl. You’re the one who decided to bellow. The least you could do is answer the gentleman’s question.”
“I don’t feel like it.” Chris rested his fists on his hips.
“Then I will.” Duncan turned to the old man.
“He stuck a birdhouse on my bedpost!” Chris sounded livid. “Seeing it first thing in the morning was enough to ruin my whole day.”
Duncan happened to glance across the street. Carmen stood in her garden. She held her hand clapped over her mouth, and he knew she’d heard every last word booming out of Chris. “I tell you what, Chris. I’ll let you take down the birdhouse on two conditions: Carmen has to approve of it and you hang it over at her house.”
“Done.” Chris stalked off.
Duncan made a sweeping gesture. “Come on inside, Mr. Rundsdorf. I’ve got the brace all ready for you.” A moment later, he threaded a strap through the device he’d created after conferring with Rob on the design. “The sheepskin ought to keep it from rubbin’ you. If you feel a wider pad would help, dinna hesitate to tell me.”
Mr. Rundsdorf wiggled his twisted torso within its new confines. He let out an appreciative sigh. “I can tell already this is going to work.”
No brace in the world would ever begin to correct the man’s deformity. Duncan didn’t pretend otherwise. “Rob said the support might bring you some comfort.”
“Unh-huh.” Rundsdorf buckled the last strap into place. “Stamina, too—not that I expect this contraption to turn me into a schoolboy. But if I can stay up for two or three hours at a time, it’ll be twice what I can do now.”
Duncan picked up the misshapen shirt and held it for Mr. Rundsdorf to slide into.
“I’m twisted as mesquite.”
“I’d never seen mesquite until I came to America. ’Tis a rare beautiful shrub.”
A rueful bark of a laugh left the man.
Duncan went on to defend it. “Mesquite’s got character. I’ve admired many a piece of furniture or bowl made from the wood. If that’s not enough, the wood burns slow, and the flavor its smoke lends to Texas barbecue—” Duncan waggled his brows.
“I never thought of it that way.”
“God made mesquite, just as He made pines and oak. He took pleasure in His creation and said it was good. If He took pleasure in that, how much more must He love a son who strives to live to serve Him?”
Rundsdorf stopped buttoning his shirt and gawked at him. A slow smile spread across his pain-etched face.
“I’m planning on having to fiddle wi’ the brace so we can get a perfect fit. Dinna be shy about telling me what feels odd or where it puts too much pressure.”
“It’s perfect as it is.”
“Aye, and I’ve heard the selfsame thing from plenty of folks when first they tied on a pair of shoes. ’Tisna just the fit when a body is at rest that matters. Pressure and rubbing are bound to happen—and that’s when you discover the difference between bliss and a blister.”
Fastening the last of his buttons, Mr. Rundsdorf cleared his throat. “You didn’t say how much this cost.”
The man needed to keep his pride, so Duncan gave him the answer he’d already made up. He swept his arm to encompass his workshop. “I used nothing but scraps and wee bits and pieces. They cost me next to nothing.”
“But your time—”
“Has some value. I grant you that. But I wanted to help a brother in Christ, so here’s what I’ve decided. More than a few men have said you’ve a talent with wood. In your spare time, using nothing but scraps, why don’t you make something for my shop?”
“What do you need?”
Duncan let out a shout of a laugh. “That all depends on who you’re listenin’ to. Chris thinks I need ambition. Rob says I suffer from the affliction of clutter and wouldna recognize order if it bit me. My sister-in-law is the most dangerous of all. She’s of the opinion that I need a wife.” Duncan chuckled along with his customer. “Me? I’m content just as I am.”
Rundsdorf looked pensive. “It must be nice to feel that kind of peace.”
“The apostle Paul wrote of it—e’en whilst in jail. ’Tisna the circumstances a man finds himself in that matter. God is present with us and loves us. All we have to do is open our hearts to him.”
“Like Sunday’s hymn, ‘Just as I Am.’ ”
“Aye. And I canna help believing that since He takes us just as we are, then the grace He bestows ought to flow through us—not only to others but to ourselves. As for me, I’ve found when my heart’s in tune with Him, He can fix my flaws.” Duncan let out a diffident chuckle. “I’ve faults aplenty, so I keep the Almighty busy. But I’m content to serve God to the best of my ability.”
“I’m thankful you do.” Rundsdorf smoothed his hand over the front of his shirt. His fingers bumped up and down as they passed over portions of the brace. “Maybe that contentment is contagious.”
Later that afternoon, Duncan worked out on the porch. He looked up and bolted to his feet. In a matter of seconds, he’d crossed the street and yanked a bucket from Carmen’s hand. “What are ye doin’, woman?”
She turned three shades of red.
Duncan reconsidered his question. He’d allowed her no privacy. “I meant to ask, ‘Why are you hauling water up these stairs and into your house?’ ”
“My pump broke.”
“And you didna ask for help?”
“I’ll ask Otto after church tomorrow. I’m sure he’ll be willing to come look at it next week.”
“Nonsense.” Duncan stomped up the last steps and plowed into her house. “Did the pump just suddenly stop working, did it sprout a leak, or what happened?”
Carmen stayed in the doorway. “The handle’s been getting stiff, and suddenly the works just stopped.”
Duncan nodded and thumped the water onto her stove. He paused a second to appreciate her kitchen. Mercy kept their kitchen neat as a pin. The white cupboards and gingham curtains looked cheerful. In contrast, Carmen’s kitchen was an explosion of color and scents. Chili peppers hung in exotic-looking spills from lengths of twine. Garlic did, too. The hutch held a cheerful display of red, yellow, green, and blue dishes that matched the same hues as the brightly striped cloth running down the center of the table. The place felt as vibrant as its owner.
“Thank you for carrying the water.”
Duncan cast a glance at the red pump. “I’ll take a look and see what’s wrong with your pump.”
“That’s not necessary.”
Duncan leveled a stare at her and slowly crooked a brow. “Why is it you can run all over the county, feeding and helping everyone else, but you shy away from accepting any help in return?”
“It’s not that way.”
“Oh? And how does this differ?”
“To begin with, it’s not proper!”
Duncan made an exasperated sound. “I’m going to grab some of my tools. While I’m gone, gather up your sewing or some such thing. Whilst I’m here repairing the pump, you can sit out on the veranda.” From the way she winced, Duncan gathered he’d spoken with more force than diplomacy. He softened his tone into a teasing lilt. “That way, you can admire your new birdhouse.”
As he worked on the pump, Duncan’s mood darkened. Carmen sat out on the veranda sewing a shirt for some little boy. The next-door neighbor called over and suggested that Carmen might think about taking supper to a certain family since the mother was ailing. Yet another woman appeared and dropped off her baby and a cranky toddler so she could go to the mercantile. She’d no more than retrieved her children before another woman dropped off three.
Duncan cleaned up his mess, washed his hands, and dumped his tools back into a box. It wouldn’t be right to speak to Carmen about it in front of anyone. The next time he caught her alone, he was going to say something. Just because she had a big heart and a willing spirit didn’t mean she ought to work herself into an early grave by doing favors for everyone in Texas.I’m going to tell the lass she’s a blessing to all who know her, but she canna let people take advantage of her.
“I made empanadas.” Carmen stood by Duncan’s shop and extended a basket of the sweets to him.
He wiped his hands on a rag, then leaned over and took one. “One of these days, when Elspeth isna wakenin’ Mercy every other hour, you’ll hae to show Mercy how to make these.” He took a bite and closed his eyes with a hum of appreciation.
“You don’t need to wait until then to have more. Any time you’d like empanadas, just ask me.” Carmen set the basket on a nearby table.
Duncan’s eyes popped open. “I’d ne’er do such a thing!”
Stinging from his tone, Carmen stepped back. Her foot landed poorly, and she struggled to keep her balance. Duncan wrapped his hand about her upper arm, stabilizing her. The way he shook his head made her heart plummet. The one thing she couldn’t bear was for people to pity her.
“What kind of man would I be, making demands of you? You’re a friend and neighbor, not a servant.”
“It’s because we’re friends and neighbors.” She pulled away from his touch. “You fixed my pump and gave me a birdhouse. You fixed my roof last week, too. I’m returning a favor because you said you like empanadas.”
Duncan held the other half of the treat up between them. “Dinna mistake me, Carmen. This is a fine mouthful, but on occasion when I come o’er and help out, ’tis without expectation of getting anything in return.”
“I know.” She wasn’t willing to leave the topic. “Just as when I bring your family something, I’m not hoping to talk you into doing a chore for me.”
“Fair enough.” He finished the other bite. Like a small boy who didn’t want to miss the last little taste, Duncan licked the cinnamon sugar from his lips. He was such a man of contrasts—so mature and wise at one moment, only to be delightfully childlike the next instant. Though huge and strong, he exhibited a gentleness that evoked a sense of trust.He’s such a fine man. Handsome, too. The next wedding will probably be his. Any woman would be delighted to have such a husband.
“I’ve been meanin’ to talk with you about something.”
“Would you mind too much if we discussed it later? I need to be over at the Rayburns’ in an hour or so.”
“ ’Twill only take a moment.” He nodded toward a chair. Once she sat down, he folded his arms across his chest. “A man could get dizzy watching you going to and fro all day.”
No man would ever watch me, so that’s a ridiculous statement.
“You canna continue to allow others to take advantage of your kind heart. There’s not another woman around who’s constantly dashing off to lend a hand. You’re going to be worn to a frazzle.”
“I like helping others.”
“And well they know it. Still, dinna feel that every single time someone mentions a need, you’re the one meant to meet it.”
Carmen couldn’t fathom what he was talking about.
Duncan stepped closer. “They’re taking advantage of you, getting you to mind their bairns, bringing them meals, doing all manner of chores…. If you have a hard time telling them no, then we’ll work on that. But—”
“No one’s making me do anything. I offer them my help, Duncan.”
“Let me be sure I’m hearing you right.” He tilted his head to the side, and his brows formed an ominous black V. “You got yourself into this fix, and you keep on volunteering?”
“Fix?” Carmen tried not to laugh. He looked so serious that it warmed her heart. “Duncan, I’m happy to be busy. There’s nothing wrong with me helping our neighbors and church family.”
“I’m going to disagree wi’ you there.” His voice held reservation. “Dinna be so wrapped up in actions that you fail to do as the Bible instructs—to be still and know that He is God.”
“Of course I know He is God.” Carmen rose. “And I know who my brothers and sisters are, because Christ is our Savior. It all fits together. By serving them, I serve Him.”
The grooves along the sides of his mouth deepened. Shaking his head, Duncan said, “You’ve the cart before the horse. ’Tis by serving God that we serve others. When our hearts are in accord with Him, our cups run over and shower blessings on the lives of others. You canna rain showers of blessings forever on your own strength and merit. Your own cup will go dry.”
His words left her feeling unsettled. Carmen resented that.Instead of wallowing in self-pity because I’m crippled and alone, I’m filling my days by helping others. He just doesn’t understand.
“Think on it,” he urged.
“Only if you hurry and eat another of those. I think you need to sweeten your disposition today.” She forced a laugh and hobbled out of his shop and back to her empty house.Chapter5
Things are wrong.” Duncan did his best not to glower at Carmen.
“What’s wrong?” She finished tying a ribbon around the bottom of a little lassie’s plait. “Go ask Nestor to give you a cookie.”
“Miss Carmen, are you telling me to get a cookie?” The lassie shot a jealous look up at Duncan. “Or are you telling him to?”
“I dinna have an appetite for cookies today.” Duncan served Carmen a telling look.
The little lass tugged on Carmen’s sleeve. “Do I getta have his cookie, then?”
“You and Nestor may share it,chica.”
Duncan fought the urge to shoo all of the children back to their homes. His talk with Carmen had made a difference—but the wrong one. If anything, she’d taken on even more responsibilities. The woman looked tired. From clear across the road, he’d noticed how her steps dragged. As a result, he’d closed his shop and come over so she wouldn’t have to mind the rowdy bunch of children who filled her yard all by herself.
Her flower garden wasn’t the wonderland it used to be. Her walkway wasn’t swept, either. Little things—none of them alone said much, but put together, they nearly shouted something was wrong. He’d stay here until every last child left, but then Duncan planned to nudge Carmen into seeing the truth.
“So you mentioned something is wrong?” She gave him an expectant look.
“Aye.” She’d prodded him into the discussion before he’d anticipated, but Duncan decided he might as well get things out in the open. He fisted his hands and rested them on his hips. “Speakin’ as your friend, I’m reminding you that Christ was happier with Mary for sitting at His feet than He was with Martha for dashing about.”
“Miss Rodriguez!” The little girl ran back over with her lower lip poking out and quivering. “Nestor says he already gave away all the cookies.”
“Pobrecita.” Rich with compassion, the word rolled off Carmen’s tongue. She gave the child a hug and murmured, “Next time you come, I’ll make sure you get two.”
“I get two po-citras?”
Shaking her head, Carmen explained, “Pobrecitais a special word in Spanish that means I was feeling sorry for you and I care.”
“Oh.” The child’s eyes brightened with greed. “But I still get two cookies the next time!” She ran off shouting, “Nestor!”
“It actually means ‘poor little girl,’ but it isn’t in regards to money—it’s just a sympathy word.” Carmen absently brushed a smear of something from her skirt.
At times when he’d seen her with Ismelda, Duncan had overheard Carmen speak in Spanish. “Chris is the one who’d have figured that out. I dinna have a talent with words.”
“I disagree. It’s true, Chris learns languages so he can communicate.” Her hands started together and separated outward. “Your gift is in choosing the right words to comfort.” Her hands reversed the action, but she ended by pressing her hands to her bosom.
He’d never thought of it that way. It was a fine compliment, but Duncan refused to be distracted. “My words to you today won’t bring you comfort. I’m aiming to urge you to take stock and make changes.”
“I don’t want to change.”
Stubborn woman. He heaved a long, drawn-out sigh for her benefit. “Busy hands dinna mean a full heart.”
She smoothed her skirts. “ ’Faith without works is dead.’ ”
“Aye, and you’d best be glad you’ve held that faith when you work yourself to death.”
Carmen’s eyes flashed with ire.
He studied her beautiful golden brown skin. The dark circles beneath her big brown eyes alarmed him. Duncan gentled his voice to coax her into reason. “E’en the Lord God Himself took the seventh day to rest.”
“And by keeping these little ones, I’m giving their parents a time of rest.” Carmen lifted a crabby tyke who’d toddled over and now clung to her skirts.
One quick whiff let Duncan know Carmen was going to be doing those parents a bigger favor still.
She laughed. “You’ve turned an interesting shade. With Elspeth—”
“My niece has enough sense to wait until her mother or father is around to do that.”
“Mercy said all of you Gregor men change diapers.”
“We do.” He nodded briskly.
“Elspeth behaves herself for Chris and me.”
The speed with which he made that assertion sent Carmen into giggles. Her laughter floated out to him as she tended the baby inside.
Duncan sat on the steps. Kids were a joy. Why, the three scrambling to sit on his knees and hang around his neck were all full of sunshine and laughter. But their parents were wrong to take advantage of Carmen. Ever since her sister got married, everyone seemed to think the woman didn’t have a thing to do.
“Piggyback!” Nestor pled.
“Sure, and why not?” Duncan was giving the second child a turn about the yard when Carmen came back out with the babe. She sat in a wicker chair and popped a bottle into the toddler’s mouth.
By the time he’d given all the children two rides, their parents came to collect them. As they walked away, Carmen turned to him. “You’ll make a good father someday.”
“I’m looking forward to it. E’en promised Da I’d name my firstborn son after him, but that day’s a long while off. Carmen, I was serious when I said ’tisna right, you doing so much.”
“I’m enjoying myself.”
“You’re wearin’ yourself to a frazzle. You dinna e’en hae time enough to tend to your flowers any longer. The garden’s a sad shadow of itself.”
“But the children have more room to play.”
He yanked the diaper she’d slung over her shoulder as a drool cloth. “They can do that at their own homes.”
Carmen yanked the cloth from him. “Yes, they can. But I like them to come to my house just the same. Our town is friendly. I enjoy spending time with—”
“The old and the sick and the lonely?”
“They are my friends and neighbors.” Her eyes flashed.
“That doesn’t mean you have to be responsible for other people’s children, too. Not a day goes by that you aren’t minding someone else’s bairns.”
The passion he’d seen in her eyes just seconds ago dimmed. The spirit in her voice did, too. “I’ll never have children of my own. Why do you want to deny me the few hours I can enjoy someone else’s?”
Before he could answer, she turned and fled up the steps. Her awkward steps made it difficult, and he could have easily caught up, but Duncan stayed behind. He tried to meet her gaze as she turned to shut her door, but she kept her head bowed. That was bad enough, but her shoulders—the way they lifted and fell wasn’t due to exertion.
I made her cry.
Duncan lumbered up to her door and knocked. He didn’t know what he was going to say, but he couldn’t set a woman into tears and just walk away. When she didn’t answer, he stood there and knocked again—harder and longer.
The door opened a mere crack—just enough for him to catch sight of a tear-streaked cheek.
Suddenly, he knew exactly what to say. He felt badly and wanted her to know he cared. “Pobrecita—”
“I’m not a child, and I don’t want your pity.” The door clicked shut.
“I’m a cobbler,” he said at a pitch he knew would reach her. “I’m good at making shoes, but I’m e’en better at stickin’ my feet in my mouth.” She didn’t respond. After another minute or two, Duncan went back to his shop.
Needing to wear off his frustration, he yanked out a case of metal stamps and a hammer, then started whacking the stamps with notable force to impress a design on a strip of leather. An intricately tooled design emerged.
It’s not half as complicated as that woman. I vowed to Da that I’d hae a son, but I didna think through all that meant. I’m going to look long and hard to find a placid woman. Someone fiery like Carmen would be the death of me.
“She’d be here with you for about four months. Preferably five, if you don’t mind her staying a month to recover.”
Carmen set down her coffee. “Even six months is fine.”
“If you have any reservations at all, it’s okay.” The doctor didn’t so much as blink. “I’ve not mentioned this to a soul, so no one need e’er know if you feel ’tisna right for you.”
“You didn’t even mention it to Mercy?”
Dr. Gregor shook his head. “Nae. My wife honors the way a man of my profession must hold confidences. If you agree to boarding the young woman, you should know part of the usual arrangement is that she’s to help about the house with normal chores. She’s also to attend church.”
Folding her hands in her lap, Carmen sought a polite way to ask how she was supposed to coax a soiled dove to worship. “Is she accustomed to attending church?”
“Not as of late. But when she asked for assistance, she specified she wanted her baby to go to a good Christian home. It’s my hope that during her months here, she might turn her heart toward the Lord.”
“That would be wonderful. How soon can I expect her?”
“Her current situation is undesirable. The sooner, the better.”
Carmen nodded. “I just finished my spring cleaning. Ismelda’s old bedroom is ready. I could take her today if necessary.”
“She’s a full day away by train.”
“Tomorrow, then.” Carmen bit her lip. “Shall I say my cousin is coming?”
Dr. Gregor stood and leaned against the veranda railing. “Carmen, I didna seek you out because of your Mexican heritage. This lass—Jenny—I’ve been told she’s Swedish. I asked you because when Mercy discovered she was with child, your support for her never wavered. You looked past the sad circumstances and poured out Christian love and charity. If Jenny is to turn her heart toward the Lord, I’m thinkin’ you and the Gregors are goin’ to hae to drench her in His love.”
“I’ll expect Jenny tomorrow.”
“No!” Duncan thumped down his coffee mug, and everything on the supper table jumped from the impact. He glowered at Rob as he got to his feet. “Meet me in my workshop.” Without waiting for a response, he stomped out of the house.
Rob sauntered into the shop a few minutes later. “You canna bellow like a wounded bull whene’er you take a mind to, Duncan. You woke Elspeth again.”
“Dinna try to distract me. It willna work.” Duncan glowered at his little brother.
Rob simply stood in the center of the shop and said nothing.
“It willna work, I’m tellin’ you!”
“It must have. You’ve forgotten why you dragged me out here.”
“Are ye daft? Maybe you’re goin’ deaf. I told you, it willna work. You canna expect Carmen to give shelter to that woman.”
“I met with Carmen yesterday, and we settled all of the details. She made Jenny feel right at home today.”
“Aye, Jenny felt fine, but what of Carmen? I’m askin’—what of her?”
“What of her?”
“We’ve been here for a year now. I’ve ne’er once seen a single gentleman pay a call upon that fine lass. She’s married off her kid sister and put on a good face, but she’s hurting deep inside. I didna see the truth till a few days ago. She’s brokenhearted o’er the fact that she’ll ne’er marry and hae bairns of her own—and what did you go do?” Duncan stabbed an awl through the center of a choice piece of leather. “You go and rub her face in it, that’s what you’ve done.”
“I gave her every opportunity to refuse. Instead, she expressed an enthusiasm that convinced me this was the right thing to do.”
“And how was she to refuse? Carmen’s heart is bigger than Texas. Once she learns of someone else’s needs, she puts them ahead of herself.” He shook his head. “ ’Tis a rare day I disagree wi’ you, but that day’s come. I’ve been trying to make the woman stop playing a dangerous game.”
“What game is that?”
Duncan fought the temptation to tell Rob to mind his own business. But if speaking confidentially to him would spare Carmen heartache in the end, it was worth it. “The lass is forever doing something for someone—baking treats, taking a casserole somewhere, minding another woman’s children….”
“And she’s happy as a lark.”
“Nae, Rob. She isna. Just look into her eyes and see the sadness there. That wee little limp of hers has her convinced she’s not worthy of love, so she’s trying to fill up the aching hole by working to earn appreciation. God doesn’t care about the deeds one does—He cares about the soul. I’ve been tryin’ to get her to see that.”
“Have you, now?”
“And you went and ruined it all with this scheme of yours. I canna support this.”
“It’s too late to change things now.”
“No, ’tisna. Move that mother-to-be into one of the bedrooms in the clinic. She can join us Gregors for meals and e’en help out your wife.” Duncan nodded. “Aye, that’s the solution.”
“It’s a foolish plan. Once people figure out that Jenny’s unwed and carrying a child, her reputation will be in tatters. Leaving her alone in the clinic is a sure invitation for disaster.”
Duncan glowered at his brother. “So you’ve asked Carmen to protect Jenny? What man asks that of a woman?”
“There’s a world of difference between sheltering and protecting.”
Duncan let out a loud, derisive snort. “Only in your feeble mind.”
“As I said, it’s too late to change things now. We’ll have to make the best of it.”
“Wipe that smile off your face, Rob, before I do something rash.”
Rob sauntered over, picked up a shoe, and pretended to be fascinated by it. “Just when,” he asked slowly, “did you appoint yourself Carmen’s guardian?”Chapter6
Someone has to look out for her. The woman doesna give a moment’s consideration to her own needs.”
“Hmm.” Rob set the shoe down with exacting care. “And how is it you’ve paid attention to whether men have called on her?”
“Her house is directly across the street,” Duncan snapped. “Take a look—her garden and porch are the view from where I work. I’ve not been skulking or spying on her.”
Rob went over to the window and clasped his hands behind his back. He nodded sagely as he examined the view for himself. “Duncan?”
“I like Carmen.”
“You’ve an odd way of showing it, putting her in this painful predicament.”
“Much as I like Carmen, Mercy loves her even more.”
Duncan let out a low growl of frustration.
Rob turned around and grinned. “We’ll be happy to have her as our sister-in-law.”
Duncan gaped at his brother.
Rob held up a hand to forestall any response. “Dinna deny it. You’ve feelings for the lass. Your reaction tonight shows those feelings run deep.”
“Friendship doesna mean I’m marching down the aisle.”
“Good thing, that. We dinna have any more of our plaid. I’m thinkin’ by the time ’tis ordered and arrived, you’ll be wanting a length to drape o’er your bride’s shoulder.”
The image of Carmen dressed in a bridal gown with the Gregor tartan gathered over her shoulder hit Duncan so hard, he dropped down onto his bench.
Rob grinned like a drunken jester. “You love her.”
“I’m a rough man. Why would a fine lass like her hae anything to do wi’ me?”
“Remember that song the sailor was singing when we were waiting for the train?”
“About America? What does that hae to do with this?”
“You’re in America now. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Rob snickered. “Only if you’re brave, you’ll no longer be free—you’ll be married to a fiery little woman.”
Duncan shot his brother a dark look. “You’re far too amused by this.”
“Aye, that I am. But what you just did is telling.”
“What did I do?”
“Actually, it’s more what you didna do.”
Duncan got up and started pacing. “You’re driving me daft. Will you make up your mind whether it’s something I did or didna do?”
“What you didna do was deny what I said. You love her. If your heart weren’t involved, you’d have challenged me.”
Duncan folded his arms across his chest. In that moment, everything fell into place. His brother spoke the truth, and Duncan couldn’t deny it. He didn’t even want to. “I’ve made up my mind. Aye, I have.”
“I’m going to court the woman. She’s not had a swain, and I’m going to ease her into this slow and sweet. When we’re old and gray, she’ll look back and feel every last tender hope she e’er held in her heart was fulfilled.”
“Women are romantics. If you plan to fulfill every last tender hope, you’ll be old and gray and still not be married to her yet.”
“You’d best watch what you say. I’m still sore at you for sticking that young girl into Carmen’s care.”
“You ought to be thanking me. Now that Carmen’s not alone, you can go over there without raising any questions of propriety.”
“The only thing I’ll thank you to do is keep this conversation confidential.” He stared out the window. “There’s every chance Carmen might not love me back.”
“ ’Tis a bonny day to go fishing,” Duncan announced as he crossed the road with a shovel in his big hands.
Only a few days had passed since Carmen had blurted out the shameful fact that no man would have her and she had to resort to borrowing children. That alone left her wanting to crawl off somewhere. But Duncan had listened to that appallingly personal confession and rumbled “pobrecita” at her as if she needed his pity. Carmen decided she didn’t want to crawl off somewhere after all; she’d rather bake a special batch of empanadas for him and dust them with cayenne and chili instead of cinnamon. She wouldn’t, but just the thought brought a tiny measure of glee.
“Aye, I’m going fishing.”
She pretended not to hear him and stooped down to pick a weed.
The hulking Scotsman kept coming.
Carmen fought the urge to tell him to stop wasting time and go fishing.This is all his fault. I don’t have a hard time minding my manners with anyone else. Duncan—he’s polite and kind to everyone else. Why can’t he just leave me alone and keep his opinions to himself? The man’s an insensitive brute and needs to mind his own business instead of prying into mine. If he says anything—
Boots stopped half a yard from her. Ordinary brown boots. Carmen hadn’t figured out yet why Duncan’s boots were so basic and plain. A cobbler could wear the finest and fanciest, yet he didn’t. She looked up to tell him so.
“I’m going fishing,” he said again as he reached down to assist her up.
Carmen accepted his help, then snatched her hand back and wondered why she’d let him assist her. Scrambling to find something to say, she blurted out, “Most men take a pole fishing, not a spade.”
He chortled softly, and the fine lines crinkling from the corners of his eyes reminded her that he laughed often. “ ’Tis the truth. I’ve some method to my madness, though. This time last year, you were planting flowers. Why dinna I turn the soil for you and swipe a few worms whilst I’m at it?”
Astonishment and relief flooded her. He was acting as if they’d never had that horribly awkward and embarrassing exchange. “That would be nice. Thank you.”And I’m going to bake you some empanadas with cinnamon, not cayenne and chili. “Duncan, I have a friend staying with me for a while.”
“Rob told me.” His voice took on an undertone that she couldn’t interpret.
Carmen called, “Jenny?”
Jenny stepped out of the house. “Ja?”
“Come meet our neighbor.” She waited until Jenny reached her side. “Jenny Sigrids, may I present you to Duncan Gregor. Duncan, my friend Jenny.”
“ ’Tis a pleasure to meet any friend of Carmen’s. Nice to meet you, Mi—”
Realizing the fact that Jenny was unwed would cause for awkward moments, Carmen interrupted. “Oh dear, I should have mentioned that with three Gregor men across the street, it makes for a lot of confusion if we use formal address. Duncan, I hope you don’t mind if Jenny follows my example and calls you by your Christian name.”
“And Jenny, it’s only fair that you reciprocate. There.” Carmen smiled broadly. “Duncan, since you’re turning the soil, maybe Jenny and I can go to the mercantile and choose flower seeds today.”
“You already have a beautiful garden,” Jenny said.
“Actually, it’s a pitiful mess right now. Isn’t it, Duncan?”
“Shameful as ’tis to confess, I did tell you that just a few days back. Last year, the blossoms in your yard rivaled all of God’s flower-strewn fields about us.”
“Oh my.” Jenny sighed. “I never had a garden. It will be so fun to grow something.”
“You know,” Duncan said, stretching, “if you’d like, we could go on a walk. I’ll take a wheelbarrow, and we could transplant some of the wildflowers so you can enjoy them until your seeds sprout and blossom.”
“What about the worms?” Jenny asked.
“I’m sure we’ll happen across a few.” Duncan’s glance skimmed down their gowns. “You’re both wearin’ lovely frocks. Best you go change into ones that willna be spoiled by layers of dust.”
“Though it sounds like a delightful notion, I’m afraid Jenny and I need to do something else today.”
“Perhaps later in the week.” Duncan didn’t ask—he told. When had he become so bossy?
“Oh, that would be so much fun,” Jenny said.
Carmen couldn’t dash Jenny’s enthusiasm. Though Jenny was tall and large boned, she still seemed startlingly childlike in some circumstances. So far, she and Jenny had politely limited their conversations to impersonal things. Carmen wasn’t sure how old her guest was. For now, she would indulge the girl. “We’ll be able to go in a few days. The timing would be better. By buying seeds first, we can transplant the wildflowers to places in the garden where they’ll have the best effect.”
“Best effect?” Jenny wrinkled her nose. “I thought they were just supposed to look pretty.”
“Me, too.” Duncan grinned at Jenny.
He’s impossibly handsome. He’s charming her, just as he charms everyone else. He turned his steady blue gaze back onto Carmen. “Why dinna ye tell us just what kind of effect you are talkin’ about?”
“What I meant was, we don’t want to plant whistly blue behind paintbrush or bluebonnets. They’re tall and would block out the flowers that are low to the ground.”
He nodded. “That makes sense. Good thinking. Back home, Rob always kept an herbal garden so he’d have medicinals on hand. Each plant belonged in a specific location, but I dinna ken whether ’twas so he could tell them apart or because one might taint another if they grew too close.”
“He didn’t put in an herb garden here.” Carmen frowned. “Why not?”
Duncan compressed his lips for a moment and then grimaced. “Chris dug straight through it when he put in the basement. He thought the herbs were weeds. Best you not mention it to either of them unless you’re set to witness a shouting match.”
“You Gregors don’t fight,” Carmen said.
“They don’t?” Jenny sounded completely flummoxed. “Men always fight.”
“Now I suppose that depends on the men.” Duncan shrugged. “I’ve known many a man to lose his temper, but of all the men I’ve known, I admired my da the most. I canna recall a single time when he lost his self-control.”
“He must have been quite a man,” Jenny said softly.
“Humility, meekness, self-control—those are all traits a man of God strives for.” Carmen looked at Duncan. “Your father must have been a godly man.”
“The finest, and I thank you for sayin’ so.”
“Jenny, why don’t we wash up and go to the mercantile?”
“All right.” Jenny shoved her hands into the pocket of her apron. “I hope the fish are biting once you go fishing, Duncan.”
“Now there’s a grand thought.”
Carmen didn’t mention how she’d noticed Jenny’s hands remained fisted deep in the apron pockets. Was she truly excited to go on the walk, or was she just afraid to have to be out and meet people here in town?
They went inside, and Carmen went to the washstand. “It never fails to amaze me how filthy my hands become after just a few minutes in the garden.”
Jenny didn’t respond.
As she dried her hands on a scarlet towel embroidered with big, sunny yellow flowers, Carmen turned to her. “I like to sew. Do you?”
“For my grandmother, I used to sew all of the time. She was a dressmaker.”
Carmen smiled. “Wonderful. My friend Mercy—she’s the doctor’s wife—she recently had a baby. I remember her making special dresses during the time she was—” Carmen caught herself just before she said, “in the family way.” Jenny wasn’t going to keep the baby, so mentioning family would be cruel. Instead, Carmen simply said, “—increasing. I’m sure you’re going to need some roomier clothes, too. Maybe we could drop in on Mercy and ask her for advice before we buy fabric.”
“My other dress is bigger.” Jenny paused a second, then blurted out, “I don’t have much money. I had to run away from the saloon. Bart thought I was going to the doctor to get rid of the baby, so all I have is what he gave me to pay the doctor.”
Jenny hung her head. “I’m sorry. A nice lady like you shouldn’t rub elbows with—”
Carmen stopped her by wrapping Jenny in her arms. “I’m so proud of you. You’re a brave girl. You did the right thing.”
Jenny drew away and looked nonplussed.
“It must have been hard for you to get help and keep everything a secret.”
Jenny bit her lip and nodded.
“But here you are. And we have those three big, strong Gregor men across the street to protect you if that awful Bart finds out where you are.”
“Why would they want to protect me?” Just as quickly as she asked it, Jenny answered the question. “Because of the baby.”
“No. If you’d run away from a bad situation and weren’t with child, they’d still defend you. They’re noble men.” Carmen squeezed Jenny’s hand. “Mercy and I both enjoy sewing and doing embroidery. Won’t it be pleasant to sit together in a shady spot and stitch together?”
A stiff shrug tattled on Jenny’s reservations.
“Tacky as it might be for me to discuss money, you ought to know that on occasion someone chooses to be a secret benefactor to a woman in your situation. I know that’s true in your case. You’ll have an account at the mercantile, so it shouldn’t be a problem for you to purchase fabric and other necessities.”
“Someone would do that for me? A stranger? They didn’t know what kind of woman I am.”
“What that person knows is that you are a woman who is willing to give her child the wonderful gift of a family who will cherish him or her in ways you know you cannot.”
“Don’t you think whoever that is would want me to spend the money to make blankets and clothes and diapers for the baby?”
“Absolutely not!” Carmen released Jenny’s hand. “The couple who receives the baby will take care of those details. Why don’t you freshen up while I jot down a few things?”
While Jenny took a turn at the washstand, Carmen sat at the ornately carved oak secretary her mother once treasured. She didn’t have much time, so she dipped the pen in the inkwell and quickly wrote:
Set up an account for Jenny. Twenty-five dollars. No one—especially Jenny—is to know I’m funding this. Thank you.
She hastily signed only her initials and glanced over at Jenny.
“I’m in no hurry. If you’d like to tame your hair, feel free.”
Carmen took another sheet of paper and hastily started writing down anything she might vaguely need from the mercantile.
“That list must be getting long,” Jenny said as she patted one last strand of hair into place.
“I’ve been doing a lot of baking. One peek into my pantry and you’ll think we’re in danger of starving.” Carmen blotted the list and folded it to hide the note.Chapter7
Duncan yawned and stretched. He’d gone to bed late and gotten up early so he’d have today’s work done by breakfast. That freed him to take Carmen for a nice stroll. Women liked to walk and have a man pick flowers for them. Surely this would be a time she’d remember fondly. It would be a fine start of their courtship.
The thought of taking a picnic lunch along crossed his mind, but Duncan decided he’d use that as another outing. Aye, he’d plan a string of pleasant activities and idyllic afternoons, and he’d make a point to go over to her house more often to handle some minor repairs and do general upkeep.
Small gardening hand tools jostled merrily in the wheelbarrow as he wheeled it across the street. Duncan mentally traced the route they’d take again. He’d wandered the nearby fields to plot out a leisurely walk that wouldn’t tax Carmen. Though she didn’t complain, he knew her leg pained her—and she loathed having anyone notice that ridiculously paltry limp of hers. But because she’d be mortified to be unable to exert herself, Duncan circumvented the difficulty by planning everything in advance.
“Good morning!” Carmen stepped from her house. The morning sun glossed her raven-black hair and made Duncan wish he could yank out the pins and run his hands through her tresses to see how long they were.
“Yeah. Good morning.” Jenny stepped out of the house, too.
“Aye, ’tis. And it just got better, what with a pair of pretty ladies to go on a walk wi’ me.”
They sauntered down the street. Pride squared Duncan’s shoulders. With Carmen by his side, he felt ten feet tall. The moment they reached a fork in the road, he started to veer south.
“Have you ever seen such a sight?” Jenny stared in rapture at the field that went north.
“I don’t know what it is about flowers.” Carmen smiled. “I always think the one I’m looking at is the most beautiful ever.”
Jenny shaded her eyes with one hand and pointed into the distance. “Could we get some of those little blue ones?”
“What a wonderful idea. I’m always charmed by wind-blown.”
Duncan tilted his head to the side. “Aren’t all wildflowers windblown?”
“Most are,” Carmen allowed. “But that particular flower’s name is wind-blown. Jenny, I’ll show you more of them. It’s amazing, but wind-blown comes in a huge array of colors. If you keep watch, you soon see them in everything from a pale blue to a bright pink.”
To Duncan’s consternation, the women headed north toward the wind-blown. He wanted to snatch Carmen back to his side. He told himself it was simply because he wanted her to take the easier route he’d planned. He promptly called himself a liar. He didn’t want her away from his side—and that was the truth of the matter.
“You mentioned whistly blue the other day,” he said to Carmen. “I’ve found several stretches of it, but I’d rather hae them be among the beauty we gather after we gain a collection of taller varieties.”
Carmen smiled. “That’s good planning.”
“I was wondering”—Jenny scanned the field—“can we fill the wheelbarrow today and put the flowers in the garden tomorrow?”
“ ’Tis up to you, Carmen.”
Carmen shook her head. “It’s too dry and warm today to do that. We’d run the risk of losing them. It would be a shame to pluck up a flower, only to make it so it won’t survive.”
Jenny made a wry face.
“You’re unhappy with my decision?” Carmen gave Jenny a surprised look.
“The only thing I’ve ever seen dry out in a wheelbarrow is a man. At the saloon, they’d dump a drunk into the wheelbarrow and push it over by the ditch.”
Carmen’s eyes widened.
“Oh, they did that so when he woke up and puked, no one would have to clean up the mess.”
“They treated a man like that?” Carmen’s voice sounded both sad and outraged.
Jenny shrugged. “A real man can hold his liquor.”
“A real man doesna need liquor a-tall,” Duncan said. “But any man who’s weak enough to drink to that kind of excess still deserves better than to be treated like refuse.”
Jenny’s mouth twisted wryly. “Neither of you have ever had to mop up after a drunken fool.”
“I far prefer having flowers in your wheelbarrow, Duncan.”
Duncan flashed Carmen a smile. She’d bent the conversation away from Jenny’s unfortunate past and back to something pleasant. Admiration for her diplomacy filled him. He nodded. “Flowers and ladies on a beautiful day are definitely to my taste.” He managed to steer them all back toward the route he’d chosen.
At one point, an almost two-foot-wide crack in the ground broke the path. Duncan knew it was there, and he’d intentionally led them toward the rift. It provided an excuse for him to cup Carmen’s waist and lift her.
“You ladies wait a moment whilst I get the wheelbarrow over there. If the edges here take a mind to crumble, I’d rather it not be under your feet.” Proud of that excuse, Duncan made short work of hefting the flower-filled wheelbarrow over to the other side. Straddling the divide, he reached for Jenny first. That way, Carmen wouldn’t feel as if he was making allowances for the insignificant problem she strove so hard to deny.
“You’re so strong!” Jenny cooed at him as he swung the big-boned lass over the divide.
“Compared to the things he hauled when they built their house, you weigh nothing at all.” Carmen smiled as she vouched so casually for his strength.
Her praise meant a lot to him, but the fact that she’d been watching him gave Duncan a glimmer of hope. Maybe the attraction was mutual after all. “I’m ready for you now, Carmen.”And not just to lift you across this. He slowly cupped her waist and made sure he had a secure hold.
Unlike Jenny, who’d rested her hands on his shoulders, Carmen carefully rested her hands on his upper arms. The shyness in her beautiful brown eyes beguiled him. She was normally confident and saucy, so he’d not seen this side of her.Give me time, lass. I’ll show you just how lovely you are and that you can entrust yourself to me entirely.
“Is something wrong?” Embarrassment colored her whisper.
“Not a bit.” Duncan grinned. “I was appreciating your perfume. It’s a tad spicy—like you.”
“I like it,” Jenny said.
“Aye, as do I.” Duncan lifted Carmen. He would be content to stay there the whole day, holding her and inhaling her scent. Instead, he set her down by Jenny and waited a second to be sure she was steady before releasing his hold.
By the time Duncan returned to his workshop that afternoon, he couldn’t stop grinning like a fool. Aye, he’d set his heart on that black-haired, brown-eyed woman, and courting her was going to be pure delight.
“Holes?” Carmen glanced at her windows in consternation. “I didn’t notice any.”
“Aye, a close look at the screens will tell you I’m right.” Duncan clomped across her veranda and pointed at a few spots. “They’re wee small holes yet, but that’s when we need to catch the problem. If they get any larger, you’ll be plagued with flies in the house.”
“Thank you for pointing that out. I think I have a scrap of screening material somewhere.”
“A scrap willna do.”
Carmen gave him a patient look. “I can sew little patches if the holes are tiny.”
“That brings to mind the verse about not putting new wine in old wineskins.”
Carmen noticed Jenny’s perplexed expression and made a mental note to explain the biblical verse to her later. “Wineskins are different. A more accurate analogy would be resoling a pair of boots.” Pleased that she’d countered his assertion with something Duncan would relate to so well, Carmen gave him a smile.
Duncan’s brows rose. “I’d not recommend resoling boots that dinna have enough life left in them to make it worthwhile.”
“How old are your screens?” Jenny poked her finger at the screen door. It went straight through and left a jagged little tear. “Oh, I’m sorry!”
“There you have it.” Duncan nodded. “They’re all wanting replacement.”
Otto was busy on the farm. Carmen knew he couldn’t afford the time to accomplish the job. “I’ll decide which ones are the worst and ask Otto to do one a week.”
“Ooch, lass. And why would you be doing that when I’m willin’ to get the job done now?”
“You’re a busy man, Duncan.”
“Not too busy to help out a neighbor. I’ll do your screen door first, here on your porch, so you’ll still be able to catch a breeze for the rest of the day. Elsewise, your house will be miserable as the inside of an oven.”
“You’ve already done so much, Duncan. You turned the soil for our garden and helped us get the flowers.”
“Dinna forget that I helped myself to some worms to bait my hook and caught several fish. Aye, and I had the joy of your fine company for a stroll the day we gathered flowers.”
“You shared the fish,” Jenny pointed out.