Love's unending legacy (love comes softly #5)

Love's Unending Legacy (Love Comes Softly #5)

Janette Oke

Dedicated with love to my third sister, Amy June Wilson, who, because of her gentle disposition, made it possible for me to have one sister with whom I didn't fight as a kid. We have shared many good times--often with the help of the old pump organ.

And to my talented brother-in-law, John F. Wilson

JANETTE OKE was born in Champion, Alberta, to a Canadian prairie farmer and his wife, and she grew up in a large family full of laughter and love. She is a graduate of Mountain View Bible College in Alberta, where she met her husband, Edward, and they were married in May of 1957. After pastoring churches in Indiana and Canada, the Okes spent some years in Didsbury and Calgary, where Edward served in several positions on college faculties while Janette continued her writing. She has written over five dozen novels for adults and children, and her book sales total over twenty-two million copies.

The Okes have three sons and one daughter, all married, and are enjoying their dozen grandchildren. Edward and Janette are active in their local church and make their home near Didsbury, Alberta.

Visit Janette Oke's Web site at:www.janetteoke.com.

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Contents

1. Homecoming 9

2. Catching Up 17

3. Taking Stock 26

4. Happenings 34

5. Confessions 40

6. Announcement 47

7. Planning 53

8. A Visit With Ma 60

9. Ben 67

10. Good News 73

11. Ma Graham 83

12. Lane Helps Out 87

13. Marty Makes a Date 96

14. Christmas 103

15. Back to Routine 114

16. Secrets 121

17. Letters 127

18. A Talk With Ellie 137

19. Dark Shadows 143

20. Nandry 152

21. Lane Comes for Supper 164

22. Ma Comes Calling 173

23. Ellie Makes Plans 186

24. Church and Home 190

25. Sharing 203

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26. Family Dinner 212

27. Surprise 217

28. Plans 227

29. The Legacy 235

9

ONEHomecoming

Marty's trembling hand pushed back a wisp of wayward hair from her warm, moistfaceas she peered once more out the window. Why was she shaking so? Was it because they had been bouncing hour after long hour in the seemingly slow-moving stagecoach, or was it her intense excitement at the prospect of once again being home? Marty made an effort to still her hand--and the tumult within her. Her slight movement must have caught Clark's eye. Though busy talking with a fellow passenger about the need for rain, he reached for Marty's hand, and she felt the pressure of his fingers, his unspoken message that he understood--not only her weariness, but her impatient longing to be home again, as well. She returned the squeeze, assuring him that she was all right in spite of her overwhelming desire for the trip to end. Clark gave her a quiet smile, then turned again to the man who was speaking. Marty leaned forward for the umpteenth time to get a better look out the small stagecoach window.

They were in familiar territory now Marty recognized the landmarks, but they only served to make her more distressed with their slow progress. Oh, how she pined to be home again--to see the dear children whom she had not seen for so many months! Though her body was physically exhausted, her eagerness to come to the end of this journey had her sitting on the edge of her seat--every nerve and muscle vibrating with her concentrated energy.Home! I want to get home!She clutched at the door handle as the

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coach lurched through another pothole.

Clark turned from his conversation with the black-suited gentleman and gave her another understanding smile. "Won't be long now," he assured her, looking over her shoulder at the landscape. "Thet's Anderson's Corner just up ahead!"

Marty knew he was right. Still, she told herself, it would seem forever before the stagecoach finally pulled to a dusty stop outside their local livery. She wondered if she would be able to keep herself in check for these last endless miles. In an effort to do so, she set her thoughts to imagining what lay ahead. Who would be there to meet them? Would firstborn Clare be the one driving the family team? Would he have his Kate with him? Or would it be Arnie who would be waiting for them? Would their youngest, Luke, be along?

Marty's thoughts switched to her home. Would it seem strange to her when she walked through the door? Would she feel she was entering the abode of someone else, or would she still have the delightful sense of fully belonging there? Would Ellie have supper waiting, impatient with the fact that the stagecoach was almost an hour overdue and things would be overcooked as the dishes waited on the back of the large, homey kitchen stove?

Marty thought of the farmyard, the garden, her chickens clucking about the pen, the spring, and the woods. She could hardly wait to see them all again.Here I am, a grown woman, actin' like Lukey when he was a little shaver waitin' for an egg to hatch.She smiled to herself.

She stretched her legs in an effort to relieve some of the stiffness from the long ride. Her glancefellon Clark's one booted foot placed firmly on the floor, and she knew his longlegmust be even more cramped than her short ones. She did not look at the other side, the pinned-up leg of his trousers.At least that one isn't complainin' about more room!Clark had showed her how to treat his handicap lightly.But it must ache, too, after this long period of forced

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inactivity,she reasoned and wondered if Clark was suffering any pain with the shortened limb.

Clark must have seen her glance and read her question. He shifted his position and spoke to her. "Really takin' this jostlin' fairly well," he said, patting his thigh. "It will be as glad as the rest of me to be out of this rockin' stage, though. Seems we been shut in here 'most a lifetime."

Marty nodded and tried another smile in spite of the fact that she was hot and dusty and longed to be out in some clean, fresh air. Even the switch to the old farm wagon for those last few miles would be a welcome one.

Marty leaned for another look out the window and discovered they had covered some good distance since her last check. Right up ahead lay the last bend in the road before the small community they calledtheir townwould come into view. A quiver of excitement passed all through her--oh, to be home again! During the long trip home by train and stage, she realized just how much she had missed it--had missed all of them.

Her thoughts returned to Missie and Willie, Nathan and Josiah. How wonderful it had been to spend the time with them. She had learned to love and appreciate the West along with Willie's ranch and the men who lived and worked on it. She wondered how Cookie was doing. Was he progressing in his newly discovered faith? She remembered Wong and his last-minute gift of baking for their train trip home. And there was Scottie, the kind and patient man who needed to allow God to work in his life. She thought of the bitter Smith and hoped that it wasn't just wishful thinking on her part that the man's attitude was beginning to soften. Perhaps one day he would even venture to attend the Sunday services in the new church. Marty's thought of the new church brought all sorts of memories of the many people with whom they had worshiped and grown to love as neighbors and friends. How was Henry doing as he led the little flock in Bible study? Were the Crofts still coming faithfully, and had they found the peace that

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Mrs. Croft especially had so longingly searched for? Did Juan and Maria ...? And then the stagecoach driver was yelling "whoa" to his horses, and the stage was sliding to a halt in a whirl of dust.

Marty's whole insides leaped with such eagerness she felt dizzy with the intensity Clark's hand was supporting her as she struggled to her feet.Which of the family will be here? How long will it be until we see the others? What if they didn't get the message of our coming and no one is here to meet the stage? How can I ever bear the extra hours until we can find some way home?Her thoughts clamored for answers. Dared she look beyond the stagecoach door?

Momentarily she shut her eyes and steadied her jangled nerves with a little prayer. Clark's firm grip on her arm calmed her. She took a deep breath and sat back down to allow the other passengers to leave the coach ahead of her, then waited for Clark to step down so he might help her as she left the coach, now finally stationary. She felt as if she were still moving--swaying slightly with the roll of the stage. Marty steadied herself, reaching for Clark's outstretched hand, and stepped down as gracefully and calmly as she could. And then the air around her seemed to explode in cries and blurred movement as family members swept toward her. Marty was passed from one pair of arms to another, crying and laughing as she held each one close. They were all there. Clare and his Kate; Arnie, Ellie, and Luke; Josh and Nandry and the children. Only Joe and Clae were missing--missing because they were still in the East, with little Esther Sue, where Joe was finishing up his seminary training.

Marty finished the round of hugs and turned to hug them all again. Wiping away tears of joy, she stood back to marvel at how much the grandchildren had grown, how pretty and grown-up Ellie looked, how Luke didn't look like a boy anymore, and how tall and manly her two oldest sons appeared. They had changed, her family. In just one short--and long--year, they had changed so much. Josh was shaking Clark's hand now and telling him how much he had been missed. Marty saw anxious glances at Clark's

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pinned-up pants leg, and she knew that this was a difficult and emotional time for her family. Clark put them all at ease as he expertly maneuvered his crutch and picked up some of their belongings.

"'Member how we left this place? Stuff piled up high till I wondered iffen the poor horses would be able to pull the load. Well, we came back with far less than we left with." He grinned and slapped his short leg. "Even lightenedincup a bit fer the return trip," he quipped.

The boys laughed some, and the tension eased. The menfolk started in on the luggage and soon had it moved to the waiting wagon.

Marty turned again to the girls. "Oh, it's sogoodto be home! It's such a long trip, an' I have so much to talk 'bout I'm fair burstin'." Then she spoke to Ellie. "Thought you'd be home stewin' 'bout the stagecoach being' so slow an' ruinin' yer supper."

"We got together an' decided to just this once be real extravagant," said Ellie, her lovely face and smile warming Marty's heart once more. "We knew you'd be tired after yer long ride, and we thought ya might need a little break before climbin' in the wagon an' headin' on home. 'Sides, we're all anxious fer some talkin' time, so we decided to meet in town an' eat together at the hotel."

Marty was surprised but, after mulling it over quickly in her mind, agreed with their decision. It would be good to just stretch a little and then enjoy a meal with the family. She would simply put off the reunion with her home and its familiar surroundings.

Marty turned to talk with Nandry, but the young woman was standing as though transfixed, watching the men move off toward the waiting wagon. The grown boys appeared to jostle for position beside their father, all talking and laughing at once. It was obvious they shared the joy of having him back. Nandry's Josh, too, walked with them, carrying their youngest, Jane, along with them. Andrew bustled along with the men, hoisting high Marty's prized hatbox. But it was on Clark that Nandry's eyes were fastened, and

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Marty saw deep pain in her face. Marty wanted to assure Nandry that it was all right, that the stump of leg no longer gave Clark dreadful discomfort, that he was still able to do all the things he used to do ... well, almost all the things. He had made the adjustment well, and they had even been able to thank God for the life-changing event in their lives, since so many things had happened for God's glory from the results of the tragedy. But before Marty could even move toward her oldest daughter--this one whom she loved as truly as though hers by birth--Nandry had moved away, the pain in her eyes showing clearly on her troubled face.

It's a shock,thought Martya terrible shock. She needs time to face it an' time to adjust. I didn't bear it very well at first, either.

Ellie was speaking. "Mama, how is Pa? I know thet he seems ... well, he seems his old self. Is he really? Does ... does it bother 'im?"

"Yer pa is fine ... just fine." Marty hoped her voice would carry to Nandry, who stood silently with her back to the group. "Course it was hard on all of us. It's hard on you, too. ... I know thet. 'Specially at first. But ain't nothin' much yer pa puts his mind to thet he can't do. He's a big man, yer pa. A little thing like a missin' leg won't slow 'im down much. You'll--"

But Ellie was weeping. Quiet sobs shook her slight frame as large tears streamed unheeded down her cheeks.

Marty crossed quickly to her and held her close, patting her back and rocking her back and forth until Ellie had cried herself dry.

"It's okay" Marty whispered. "I had me a lot of cryin' time, too. It's all right."

Ellie dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. "Oh, Mama," she apologized, "I thought I was all through with such like. I promised myself. ... But when I saw 'im ... when I realized it was really true, I...."

Marty held her close. "It's just fine," she assured her again.


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"Why, I couldn't begin to tell ya the number of times Missie an' me cried together."

Ellie blew her nose and Kate did, as well. Marty hadn't realized Clare's young wife had also been weeping. She moved to Kate and held her new daughter-in-law for many minutes. Kate clung to her, no doubt sensing the love and strength that were being offered her by this newfound mother-in-law.

Marty turned next to Nandry. Taking the young woman in her arms, Marty could feel a stiffness in her body. No tears flowed. Nandry embraced her in return, but Marty could sense a withholding there.Go ahead. Weep,Marty wished to say.You'll feel better if you do, and we'll all understand.But Nandry was drawing away, dry eyed and silent.

The men were returning. Ellie and Kate made another effort to dab at the tears and turned to face the family.

The walk to the hotel dining room was full of loving commotion. Marty's mind went back to the morning so long ago when they had gathered together to say their good-byes. They had been noisy then, too. In fact, Clark had needed to silence his family in order to get the gathering under control. Just as these thoughts flew through Marty's mind, Clark turned to the chattering throng and held up his free hand. "Hold it," he spoke loudly. "How 'bout we git some order outta this chaos."

Tina, who appeared to have grown many inches, responded as she had a year before. "Oh, Grandpa--"

And Clark finished it for her. "I know ... I know. How can you organize chatter?" He pulled her pigtail and they both laughed. Tina reached up for the hug she knew would be forthcoming.

Marty laughed, too, a tight little laugh that caught in her throat and brought her pain as well as gladness.See,she wanted to say to her gathered family,nothing has changed--not really--at least nothing that really matters.But perhaps they all got the message without her saying anything, for Marty noticed the changing expressions on the

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faces before her--the sorrow, then the acceptance, and finally the relief.

Pa was still Pa. This big man whom they knew and loved was still the same man. His accident had not altered his character. He was still in command. Oh, not of incidents, maybe, but he was in command of himself. He had not allowed something like a missing leg to shape who he was, the person he had become. He was, thankfully, still in control. No, that was not right. Clark had never claimed to be in control. That was the secret. The man who stood before them, the man whom they were blessed enough to call "Pa," the one whom they had loved and respected and learned early to obey, had always assured them that the real secret to life and its true meaning was not to try to take over the controls. The answer to a life of meaning and deep peace was to leave the controls in the hand of the almighty Father. And the fact thatHewas still totally and wisely in control was a fact not a one of them in the close little circle doubted.

Only Nandry, who stood slightly apart with eyes averted from the empty pants leg, seemed to have any doubts at all. Marty watched the expression on her face and knew Nandry was not allowing herself even to recognize any part of the situation. Marty prayed silently for this daughter who had always kept herself rather closed and alone. Nandry would need to deal with this new reality, but she probably couldn't manage it just now.

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TWOCatching Up

When the group reached the hotel dining room, Marty and Clark were pressed on every side by grandchildren who wished to sit as close to them as they could. Only Jane, who had been just a few months old when Clark and Marty left for the West, did not remember them, and she chose to cling to her father, her big blue eyes watching every move of the two strangers. Marty yearned to hold her but held herself in check, wanting to give the child enough time to get acquainted. There would be many days ahead to hold and cuddle her.

Tina, their oldest granddaughter, excitedly told them about her school and gave them a progress report on her schoolwork. Andrew boasted that he, too, was a schoolkid now and insisted on counting to ten to prove it. Mary moved closer against Marty and shyly whispered that she still had to stay home to help her mommy with Janey. Marty put an arm around her and hugged her tight.

"Well," broke in Arnie during a slight lull in the conversation, "let's hear all 'bout the West. Is it really what they claim it to be?"

Marty smiled, and Clark answered Arnie's question. "I have to admit to still preferrin' my spot right here, but the West draws one, fer sure. I can understand why Willie is so fired up 'bout his ranch. People out there are right neighborly, an' the land is wide an' open. Gives ya a feelin' of being' free like."

"Still miles an' miles of country nobody has claimed?" asked Clare.

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"Not much. Once the train tracks arrived, the available land was taken up real quick. Those ranches are so much bigger than the farms here thet one man needs far more land. There doesn't seem to be much acreage left to claim in Willie's area. 'Course, thet still don't mean a great abundance of neighbors, but they do have people all round them now. Ya just ride a ways to reach 'em, thet's all. The town has grown quickly, too. An' now they have their own little church, an' they are startin' school this fall--parttime, anyway, with Melinda teachin'--an', 'course, they have a doctor now, so things are lookin' really good."

Ellie shut her eyes. "Dr. de la Rosa," she said, trying out the unfamiliar-sounding name to herself. "Guess we owe him a lot, huh?"

Clark nodded solemnly. "Yeah," he said. "Guess we do. An' I'm countin' on 'im again, too. Countin' on 'im to safely bring into the world another of my grandchildren."

"Oh yes!" exclaimed Kate. "How is Missie?"

"She's fine. Just wished we could have been there to hold the wee one a bit 'fore headin' on home."

"Well," said Clare, reaching for his wife's hand, "maybe we can help out with thet ... with a wee one, I mean. We thought maybe we'd just...."

"Ya mean...?"

Kate blushed. "Oh, Clare, stop--"

But Clare, not to be deterred, went on. "Not yet," he said to the now-excited group. "We just think it sounds like a real good idea, thet's all. I can't wait to have a son of my own."

Marty sat back in her chair again, feeling a fleeting moment of disappointment. It would be so wonderful to have a grandchild right in her own yard. She wished Clare had actually meant ...

She checked herself. There was no need to be in a hurry. She smiled at the still-blushing Kate. She was anxious to get to know her daughter-in-law better. "Never mind his teasin' none," Marty assured her. "Clare always has been an awful tease. We know him

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well enough to pay 'im no mind."

She could see Kate relax, and Marty decided to turn the attention of the group elsewhere.

"An' what of you, Arnie?" she asked, smiling knowingly at her son who sat across from her, acting as if he had no interest in the previous conversation.

"What of me?" Arnie repeated, as though not understanding Marty's question. But Marty could see the slight color creep into Arnie's face, and she knew he understood her well enough.

Ellie giggled. "Go ahead, Arnie. Tell 'em," she encouraged.

Arnie pretended to ignore the whole group and intently studied the pattern of the tablecloth.

In Arnie's defense, Luke spoke up slowly. "She's nice," he stated. "I don't blame Arnie none at all."

"Nor do I," Ellie added, giggling again.

Marty watched her son squirm and decided now was not the time to discuss the issue at hand.

"I will want to hear all 'bout her," she said, "just as soon as we have us a chance to talk. Right now I guess we should be decidin' what we want fer supper."

With the attention taken from Arnie, Marty turned instead to Luke. "I'm anxious to hear what plans you have, son, an' how things have been goin' with Dr. Watkins."

"Great!" was all Luke said, but he put a lot of meaning in the word. Marty assumed that Luke's plans for doctoring had not changed.

Clark turned to Nandry. "When did you last hear from Clae?" he asked.

Nandry busied herself with brushing Mary's already clean front. "About a week ago," she said without returning Clark's gaze. "Everythin' fine?"

"Seems to be. Joe's almost finished now."

"The last we heard was 'bout a week before we left Missie's," Marty commented. "I was so glad to hear they have the boy

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they've been wantin'. Nice thet he arrived 'fore they have to make their move, too. Clae wrote about Joe takin' a church in the East, though. I hate the thought. Wish they were comin' back here, but I understand how Joe feels 'bout it. It would be a good experience for 'im, and he could git those extra classes at the same time, iffen it all works out fer 'im," she concluded.

Nandry only nodded.

The white-aproned waitress came for their orders then, and by the time the family group had sorted out what they wanted and the poor, confused-looking girl had left their table, the discussion had turned to other things.

Marty glanced out the window and noticed the sun no longer shone down heartily on the world. It had moved far to the west and before too long would be sinking into bed for the night. She longed to be home before dark so she might see their beloved farm, but she realized now they would not make it in time. Part of the last leg of the trip would be made by moonlight, and the men would do the remaining chores by lantern light. The boys no doubt had done all they could before leaving for town. Marty hoped silently that the meal would not take too long. She forcibly turned her attention back to the conversation, listening to the men talk of the crops, the needed rain, and the outlook for the next harvest. Marty pulled Mary up close against her and smiled across at Tina and Andrew, who sat quietly, one on each side of their grandpa. She let her eyes linger over the faces of all the family who shared the large table and inwardly thanked the Lord for bringing them home safely and for keeping the family in their absence.

Looking at Clark sitting across from her with one hand resting on Andrew's shoulder, she saw the same man with whom she had left the long year before. Marty saw the same strength, the same leadership, the same twinkle of humor, the same depth of character, and the same love for his family. These were the things that really mattered, not the stub of a missing leg beneath the table.

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Marty hoped these were the qualities her family saw in the man, too.

Just as Marty had suspected, daylight had been long gone by the time they arrived home. She quietly mourned the fact that she could not look around her beloved farm immediately. Though the night was moonlit and cloudless and the stars twinkled brightly overhead, she knew that to stumble around in the semidarkness would be ridiculous. So from her perch in the farm wagon, she contented herself with simply peering through the gathered night at the shapes of the buildings in the yard. She picked out the barn, the henhouse, the first little log home she and Clark and their growing family had shared, now the home of Clare and Kate. With a sigh, she allowed Clark to help her down and followed him to the house, straining as she looked out toward the garden. She wondered just what Ellie and Kate had planted and in what quantity, but the darkness of the night kept its secrets.

Ellie had already lit a bright lamp, and she watched carefully as her mother looked around at her familiar kitchen. There was Marty's beloved stove, her neatly organized cupboards, the large family table that had graced their home for years. The curtains and the pictures on the walls were just as she remembered them. Even the towel bar with its assortment of dishtowels looked the same, and familiar potholders hung from the pegs near the stove. Only the lone calendar on the wall had been changed, it now being a year later than when Marty had left her home. She sighed and turned to smile her pleasure at Ellie.

There was great relief to find everything just as she had left it. Contentment settled over her like a warm comforter. She put down the things she had been carrying and began her homecoming tour, hurrying from room to room. Yes, Ellie had kept it just as it had been. It looked like home--it felt like home. As Marty's eyes flitted over the furnishings, her mind was noting things

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that needed to be done in the near future. The living room could do with some new wallpaper, and the kitchen woodwork should have some fresh paint. Marty sighed contentedly again; her home still needed her. She must get busy right away and care for it--but not tonight. Suddenly she ached for her own bed. How tired she was! Because of the excitement of getting home, she had not realized her extreme weariness. Well, she knew it now. She secretly wondered if she would find the strength to climb the stairs to her own room.

Clark noticed. His eyes sought hers with an unasked question.

"I'm fine," assured Marty quietly. "Just didn't realize till right this minute how tired I am, I guess. Think I'll just go off to bed and leave the rest of the visitin' fer the morra. Plenty of time to catch up then."

Clark nodded, tucked her cases under one arm, and, with his crutch under the other, expertly maneuvered the stairway.

Marty slowly climbed after him, all her excited energy depleted. She stood at the door of her own bedroom--hers and Clark's. It had been so long since they had slept here. Her eyes lovingly caressed every inch of it. The delicate pattern of the rose wallpaper, the deep, rich look of the polished wood floor, with its thick handmade rugs, the full whiteness of the curtains at the windows, the inviting bed with its quilted coverlet. She loved this room. She wouldn't trade it for any amount of money, even for the rich hotel room where they had stayed on their trip west.

She remembered now that she had forgotten to tell the girls about the hotel room. She hadn't yet told them about her thinking Clark's watch was lost to thieves, or about the night spent with the bedbugs, or the sight of the real western Indians with their furs for sale. There was still so much to talk about, but talk would just have to wait.

Clark had placed her cases in the corner and returned to the family below.

Marty turned at a movement behind her and saw Luke


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approaching with the portable bathtub.

"Thought ya might be wantin' to wash off some trail dust before retirin'," he said simply and placed the tub on one of the large rugs in the middle of the floor. "I'll be right back with a couple of pails of warm water."

Marty gazed at their youngest son with deep love. It was just like Luke to realize she would want to soak in the tub before retiring.

True to his word, he was soon back, and Marty thanked him as he emptied the buckets of water into the tub.

"When yer done just leave it sit," Luke said, "an' I'll take care of it in the mornin'."

Marty nodded and Luke started to go. At the door he stopped and turned to her. "Good to have ya home, Ma," he said softly. "Been awfully lonely around here without ya. I missed ya."

"An' I missedyou,"Marty said with emphasis. "I was so afraid you'd be off fer yer trainin' an' me not here to send ya. I was so thankful when ya decided to wait fer a year. I do hope it ain't caused problems fer ya."

Luke smiled. "Did me lots of good, I'm thinkin'. Doc has been a great teacher. Can't believe what he's taught me over the last year. It did somethin' else fer me, too, Ma. There's not a doubt in my mind but thet I want to be a doctor. Some fellas have a hard time at first knowin' fer sure, Doc said, an' then it's a lot of time an' money wasted."

"An' you have no doubt?"

"Nope, none whatever."

"Then yer Pa and me will give ya our blessin'--even though I hate to think of ya goin' so far away."

Luke smiled. "Thanks, Ma," he said. "I'm ready to go now. I wouldn'ta been last year."

He was gone then, and Marty turned to her bath.

Oh, how good it feels!she thought as she climbed in and sank into its warmth. She let it wash away all of the travel grime and the

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extreme weariness from her aching muscles. A clean, warm nightgown, a few brushstrokes of her hair, and she was ready for her bed.

She had no more crawled in than there was a light tap on her door. After Marty's "Come in," Ellie entered.

"Just had to say good night an' welcome home," she whispered and leaned over to kiss Marty on the cheek. "It's so good to have ya home, Ma. I missed ya."

"An' I missed you. Ellie, I'm proud of the job ya did when I was gone. Everythin' looks so good, so well cared for. Makes me very proud ... an' a little scared, too."

"Scared?"

"Yeah, scared. I have to admit, an' I hate to, thet yer truly able to make some lucky man a good wife. I don't even want to think of thet, Ellie. I hate to lose ya."

Ellie laughed softly.

"Ma, the worrier," she said as she stroked back a lock of stray hair from Marty's forehead. "Don't ya go frettin' none 'bout thet. I'm in no hurry at all to set up housekeepin' on my own."

"Yer not interested in a home of yer own an'--?"

"Now, I didn't say thet. Sure, I want a home of my own ... an' a family of my own. I just haven't found the one I wish to share it with yet, thet's all." Then she leaned and kissed Marty's forehead. "Now, you go to sleep an' sleep as long as ya want in the mornin'. I'll care fer the family's breakfast."

Marty was just closing her eyes when again her bedroom door squeaked and Arnie tiptoed over to her bed. Marty forced her eyes to open.

"'Fraid ya might already be sleepin'," Arnie said softly. "Didn't want to waken ya iffen ya were. Clare an' Kate said to tell ya good night for them. They came over to say it in person an' found thet you'd already come up to bed."

"I shoulda thought to wait--"

But Arnie interrupted, "You've had a long, tiring day. Pa says

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thet yer 'bout beat. He'd chase me outta here right now iffen he knew I was botherin' ya."

Marty smiled.

"I better git," Arnie continued and bent to kiss Marty on the top of her hair. Then he whispered softly, "She's really special, Ma. Yer gonna love her. I'll tell ya all 'bout her tomorra." And Arnie, too, was gone, stepping from her room as quietly as he had come in.

Marty's weary eyes would no longer stay open. Her last thought was of Clark. Where was he? He should be in bed, too. He was just as tired as she was. And then her mind would no longer function, and Marty slipped into a deep and peaceful sleep.

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THREETaking Stock

Clark's side of the bed was empty but still warm when Marty's eyes first opened next morning. She had not slept late. After the rest received in her own bed, she was ready to get reacquainted with her farm home. As soon as she had enjoyed Ellie's breakfast and helped with the dishes, she went out to the garden. Ellie and Kate had indeed planted it well, with more than they would be able to use. Marty smiled as she looked at the quantity and variety of growing things. She had no argument with the types of vegetables the girls had planted, and there no doubt would be neighbors who would be happy to use some of the extras. The garden was already flourishing and productive looking. Though it was still early in the season, Marty could see the potential for a good yield. Here and there she poked a plant upright or patted some extra earth around it or complimented one on its exceptional size for the time of year.

She turned from the vegetable garden to the flowers. The early blooms were already nodding in the morning breeze, dew-sparkled in the sunlight. Marty breathed deeply of their sweet scent as she moved from plant to plant. Honeybees buzzed about the flowers, sipping sweetness from the open petals.

Marty then went out toward the fruit trees. It had been a good spring for the blossoming, and Marty saw that the trees promised a wonderful harvest if the needed rains arrived in time. She prayed they would as she moved on toward the spring.

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The woods were cool and green, and Marty's heart quickened with joy as she inhaled the fresh scent of the trees and the wild flowers beneath them. She hadn't known how deeply she had missed the coolness and the scent of her woods. In Missie's West they had not seen a truly wooded area. Marty stopped and watched a robin as it flew to a nearby limb with a worm in its beak. Soon tiny heads and open beaks appeared and began to chirp in unison to be fed. Marty smiled, but she sympathized with the busy mother.

Down the path she walked until she could hear the soft gurgle of the spring. The stream was down some because of the lack of rain, but the water still ran clear and sparkling. Marty bent to touch its shimmering coolness as it whispered its way across the smooth stones that formed the bottom. How inviting it looked!

Marty reached the spring, lowered herself to the ground, and reached out to trail a hand in the water. It was cold to her touch--so cool, in fact, that it made her fingers cramp. Marty wondered as before at this small miracle. How could waters gurgling forth from this tiny hillside in the woods be so cold? Where did the water come from, and how was it kept so cool in its underground travels? In her mind she could taste the sweetness of the cream and butter as they were lifted from the icy waters, even in midsummer.

She cradled her hand in her apron to restore its warmth and sat still, watching the swiftly flowing water. A woodpecker drilled on a nearby tree. There was a scampering in the grass as a wood mouse scurried past. Marty watched a dragonfly dip and swirl over the creek waters. The woods were teeming with life, much of it out of sight and sound, she knew. She continued her silent vigil, listening and watching for any movement that took place about her.

Marty loved the woods. It was such a refreshing place. Marty needed refreshing. Physically she was still bone weary from the long trip home. Emotionally she was drained from all the excitement of rejoining her family and exploring her beloved home and farm. She'd had many adjustments to make over the last year. She knew

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that life was full of adjustments; to live meant to change. But Marty from the depths of her heart, thanked the Lord for the things that stayed constant in a changing world--even things as simple as a quiet stream and a gurgling spring.

And Clark. She smiled and waved as his familiar figure appeared over the hill. She could tell he was concerned about her as he drew near and searched her face for the signs of extreme fatigue that had been there last night.

"Mornin'," he greeted her as he lowered himself to a spot at her side, using his crutch for support. "Ya didn't sleep very long. How ya feelin' today?"

"I'm feelin' some rested an'soglad to be home, Clark!" Marty slipped her arm through his. "I'll be good as new in just a few days, 'specially iffen I can sit here by the spring a spell."

"So yer aimin' fer a life a' leisure," he teased, his loving squeeze on her hand belying his words. "Ya just go on sittin' here long as ya like," he assured her. "Ellie's got everythin' well in hand, an' she likes being' busy."

"Thanks, Clark," Marty said and kissed him good-bye as he rose.

"I'll be gittin' back to the barn," he said, brushing her cheek with his hand. "Ya can sit here till dinnertime iffen ya want."

Yes, Clark is an unchanging part of my life,Marty thought as she watched his tall figure disappear from sight. "Thank ya, Lord," she whispered.

Eventually Marty lifted herself from the grassy bank and headed back toward the bright sunlight and the house. She looked about her as she walked, understanding better the comments she had been hearing from one person or another ever since they had arrived home. The land needed rain. The fields needed rain. The streams needed rain. Marty's eyes looked out across the neighboring pasture. The grass was short and beginning to turn brown. After coming from the arid West, even these parched meadows looked green. But Marty's memory served to remind her that

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things should be much greener than this in the middle of June. She looked up, but the sun shone with a dazzling light out of a cloudless sky. Then Marty looked toward the horizon. No clouds appeared anywhere over the distant hills. There was no sign of rain in the immediate future.

Marty crossed to the barn and reached a hand over the corral fence to stroke the neck of the big bay. Its teammate sauntered over for her share of the attention, and Marty patted her on the neck, too. She snorted at Marty's outstretched hand, annoyed that it held no piece of apple or lump of sugar, and walked off--heading for the shade to escape the fierceness of the sun.

Marty, too, walked on, past the chicken coop. The hens squawked and squabbled and fought over the watering trough. A big rooster strutted across the enclosure and crowed his challenge to the smaller male members of the flock. Marty noticed a number of hens with good-sized chicks scurrying about them. Ellie had cared well for the flock. There would be a fine supply of chicken for the fall and winter.

Marty slowed as she came to the little log house she had called home for so many years. She still felt nostalgic as she looked at the fluffy curtains blowing in the open kitchen window. Kate was out back hanging some wash on the line. Marty called a good morning, and Kate waved in return.

"I'm almost done. Can ya stop fer coffee?" her daughter-in-law invited.

Marty could and did. She was anxious to see the home that Kate and Clare had made for themselves in the little log house. She followed Kate through the entry and into the tidy kitchen. There had been some changes at Kate's hand--changes for the better, Marty reflected--but much of the cozy room was just as Marty remembered it.

Kate poured the water into the kettle for coffee and measured the grounds. "I was hopin' you'd have time to drop by today. I was achin' to show ya our home. Isn't it just perfect?"

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Marty agreed with a smile. That's how she had always felt about this little home.

After Kate had placed the water on to boil, she offered Marty a tour, and Marty was quick to accept. They entered the family living area, and Marty looked from the fireplace to the bookshelf--familiar things--to the couch and two armchairs, the small table and the grandfather clock--all unfamiliar things. The rugs on the floor and the curtains at the window were new, as well.

They moved through the door to the room that had been Marty's bedroom, the one she had first shared with the young Missie and later with baby Clare and then with her husband Clark. Marty stopped for a moment to remember that first year with Clark and his wonderful patience with her, his gentle caring, which had broken through the walls she had built around her broken heart.

Marty looked about her at Kate's bed covered in a deep, down-filled quilt. The chest against the wall held more drawers than the chest Marty had used. There was a comfortable chair beneath the window, with a cozy cushion embroidered in butterflies. A cedar-lined chest stood in the corner. Marty openly admired the room and Kate looked pleased.

They moved on then to a simply furnished spare bedroom. It contained only a bed, a chair, and a small table with a lamp on it. It was clean and airy, and Marty was sure a guest could feel quite comfortable and at home there.

With a bit of a flush to her cheeks, Kate led her to the next room. A small workbench and a few tools lay scattered about, and Marty looked at several pieces of turned wood stacked neatly in a corner.

"Clare makin' somethin'?" she asked, and Kate flushed a bit deeper.

"A crib," she said. "We still aren't quite sure yet if we'll be needin' it, but we're hopin'. I scolded Clare last night fer speakin' up when we aren't really sure yet ourselves, but he's just so excited,


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an' iffen it's true an' we really are, then--well, we want our two mas to be the first to know. Clare promised I could drive on over to see my ma this afternoon."

Marty put her arms around Kate and gave her a quick hug. "I'm so happy fer ya--fer ya both. I hope with all my heart thet yer right."

"Me too," sighed Kate. "Clare would be so happy. He's been waitin' an' waitin'."

"But ya haven't even been married a year yet," Marty reminded her.

"A year is a long time when yer waitin' fer somethin' ya want so badly." Kate said in frustration and then laughed at herself. Marty laughed with her.

"Well, I guess it really hasn't been so long," Kate went on, "but it has sure seemed long to Clare an' me."

They returned to the kitchen to enjoy their coffee, and Marty listened as Kate talked about their plans for the coming baby--if one was really on the way. As Marty left Kate's kitchen to return to her own, she prayed that Kate was right and that their dream would soon be fulfilled.

Ellie looked up from kneading some bread dough as Marty entered. Marty felt a bit chagrined when she realized what her daughter was doing.

"Oh, Ellie," she said, "I should be doin' thet instead of wanderin' about like a thoughtless schoolgirl."

"Look, Ma, I've been doin' this fer a long time now."

"I know--an' it's time ya had a break. Here I am back again, an' ya still have to do all the work."

Ellie smiled. "The work's not hurtin' me none. Do ya feel a little better now thet you've seen everythin' is as it should be?"

"Guess I do. Not thet I doubted it would be. ... It's just thet I wanted to see iffen my memory served me accurately or if I'd built it all up to some fairy-tale dream."

"An'?"

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"It's just as I remembered it. My memory played no tricks on me."

"Good," said Ellie as she continued to knead the bread dough. "Had coffee with Kate," Marty went on.

"I saw ya go in."

"She has made Clare a nice little home. They do seem happy."

"She's been a perfect wife for Clare. Iffen she isn't in agreement with everythin' he does, I never hear about it. Kate's a dear."

Marty smiled. "It means everythin' to a mother to hear thet her children are happily married to mates who love 'em just the way they are."

Ellie nodded and kept up her rhythm with the bread. "You'll like Arnie's girl, too," she said. "Arnie's a lucky guy."

"Arnie came in to see me last night and said he'd tell me all 'bout her as soon as we find some talkin' time."

"Then I won't spill any of his secrets," assured Ellie as she efficiently placed the kneaded dough in the greased pan together with the rest of the batch. She covered it all with a white cloth and set it near the stove on a tall table built for the purpose.

"I think I'll go on up and unpack an' care fer the things from the trip," Marty said. "I was just too tired to do anythin' with 'em last night."

"Ya still look a mite tired," observed Ellie. "I think this has all been a heap harder on ya than ya will ever admit."

"I'm fine," argued Marty "In a day or two, after I catch up on a bit of sleep, I'll be right as rain."

Ellie looked out at the brightness of the day. "Speakin' of rain," she said, frowning, "we sure are in need of some. I've already been totin' water fer the garden, an' it needs it again. We planted far too big a garden to be waterin' it by the pailful."

"It sure is lookin' fine right now," Marty encouraged. "But yer right, it does need rain."

Ellie must have read Marty's mind as she glanced at the clock.

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"Ya go on with yer unpackin'," she urged. "I'll look after gittin' dinner on."

Marty thanked her and went on up to her room. As she climbed the stairs, she had to admit to herself that shewastired. Why, after dinner she might do an unheard of thing and lie down for a little nap. She wondered at Clark's vigor.He must be just as tired as I am, but he seems to keep goin' with no problem,she chided herself lightly. Marty then excused herself with the promise that after a day or two of adjusting, she would be her old self again.

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FOURHappenings

Marty and Arnie eventually found their talking time. Since Marty still had not felt too perky the next day, Ellie convinced her to sit on the porch with some hand sewing while Ellie herself continued with the duties of the kitchen. Arnie found his mother busy with some mending and sat down to talk to her about his Anne.

Anne came from a family of four and was the daughter of Pastor Norville, who was in charge of the small church congregation in the nearby town. Anne had lost her mother when she was only eleven years old, and, being the only girl in the family, much of the running of the household had fallen upon her at that very young age. Arnie spoke of her with love in his voice, and Marty was more anxious than ever to meet the girl.

"Do ya s'pose ya could bring her to dinner on Sunday?" Marty asked.

"Sure thing. I'll be seem' her tomorra night. I'll ask her then."

"Has she met most of the family?"

"All but you an' Pa."

There was a brief pause.

"Do ya have any plans?" asked Marty quietly.

Arnie colored slightly. "Sure, I got plans--but I haven't spoken of 'em yet. I wanted you an' Pa to meet her first."

"I see," smiled Marty. "Sunday, then."

Arnie, whistling, left for the barn, and Marty watched him go with both pride and a little sorrow. Soon they would all be

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married, her children. How would she ever endure an empty and quiet house?

Zeke LaHaye stopped by that evening. He wanted to hear all about his son Willie, about Missie and his two grandsons, and about the West they loved so much. Marty and Clark welcomed Zeke warmly, and as Marty put on the coffeepot, Zeke and Clark pulled chairs up to the kitchen table and settled in for a long visit.

Clark's enthusiasm was clear in his voice as he spoke of Willie's ranch and described the spread in detail. He told about the herd, the buildings, the cowboys, the neighbors, the small but growing town, and the prosperity that Willie had worked so hard to achieve. When Marty joined them at the table, the talk turned to the family members. They laughed as they told Zeke about the antics of their shared grandchildren. Zeke joined in the laughter, but as he listened, the hungry look in his eyes deepened.

"I think I'm just gonna take me a little trip out there," he announced at length.

"Thet's a mighty fine idea," encouraged Clark. "They'd like nothin' better. One of the last things Willie said was fer us to send ya on out."

Zeke swallowed with difficulty. "Think I'll head on into town tomorrow an' book me a ticket," he said, his head nodding slowly. "I've waited too long already."

It was hard for Marty to wait for Sunday. First of all, it would mean seeing all her friends in the Sunday morning worship service. Marty thought of Ma and Ben, and Wanda and Cameron. Though Ellie had filled her in on news of the community, it wasn't like seeing her neighbors in person.

After the service, the family would be together for Sunday dinner. They had not seen Nandry and Josh and their family since the

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night they had arrived home, and Marty was most anxious for another visit and a chance to get reacquainted with her grandchildren.

She was eager to meet Arnie's Anne, as well. What would she really be like? Marty trusted Arnie's judgment, but was he seeing the girl through star-filled eyes? Ellie and Luke, too, had spoken well of Anne. Marty dared to hope that Anne was all her family had claimed her to be and that God, in His love and goodness, had brought them together. Marty could hardly wait to give her blessing to the two of them.

Sunday was another bright, warm day. Ellie had worked long and hard to prepare the family dinner. Marty tried to help, but she found she still tired far too easily. Surely she wasn'tthattired from her trip from the West! Maybe it was just that she needed to adjust to the climate again, though the weather hadn't seemed to affect Clark one little bit. He was busy every day and managed, with no apparent difficulty even with a crutch, to keep up with his energetic sons.

Marty often felt Clark's eyes upon her, but he seldom made comment except to encourage her now and then to sit for a spell or even to take an occasional nap. Marty fussed inwardly, though she dared not protest too vigorously. In fact, she forced herself to admit that she really had no energy even for argument. She was anxious to be back caring for her family again. But now it was Ellie who had to bear most of the load, though she never mentioned the fact and often asked Marty, "Now, what shall we have?" or "What shall we do?" or even "What would ya like?" so Marty might feel she was in charge.

And now, because of Ellie's capable hands in the kitchen, they were ready for Sunday and the family dinner that would follow the service. Marty wondered, a little guiltily, if she was more excited about being back in her own church and seeing her friends again

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than about the worship service itself. She decided that the Lord understood her feelings and didn't mind that today most of her attention was on her friends. As Marty and Clark entered the churchyard, their friends welcomed them back to the little congregation with happy smiles and warm embraces.

Wanda ran to meet Marty and clung to her; tears dampened the eyes of both women.

"Oh, I've missed you so much. ... so much," she whispered to Marty over and over. "Can you come for a nice, long visit soon, so's you can tell me all about Missie and her family?"

Marty promised she would.

Ma Graham, too, held Marty for a long time. A sob caught in her throat as she spoke of their deep sorrow when they had learned of Clark's accident. She told how, on three occasions during the ordeal, the church members had met for special prayer on his behalf. Marty thanked her sincerely and assured her that God truly had honored their prayers. Ma looked at Clark, busily shaking hands with the neighborhood men, and nodded her head slowly. "Yeah," she affirmed, "I can see thet He did. I don't see one ounce a' bitterness in the face of thet man."

The church bell called them to worship, and Marty and Clark took their familiar places with their family. It was strange not to see Pastor Joe leading the service, but the new young man whom the church had appointed did a fine job. Marty looked across at Josh and his family and realized that Nandry was not with them. She felt a moment of concern. Perhaps Nandry was busy elsewhere, she told herself, but after the service when she inquired, Josh informed her that Nandry just wasn't feeling herself and had decided to stay home. Marty felt a bit anxious, but Josh assured her that Nandry was all right, just not feeling her best. Marty promised herself that she would check on Nandry in a couple of days just to be sure. In the meantime, the family would miss them at the dinner table. Marty had counted so on all of her nearby family being there.

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Anne was all that Arnie had described and more. Marty and Clark both loved her immediately. She was a rather quiet and serious girl, but her spirit was kind and gentle, and when she smiled, her whole face lit up and one could not help but smile in return. She loved Arnie--Marty could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. Just before Arnie left to take Anne back to town, Marty answered the unasked question in Arnie's eyes with a quick smile and an almost undetectable nod of her head. Arnie caught it and grinned. Marty had a feeling that when Arnie returned, he would have some news for the family. As a matter of fact, he did. He shared it with great gusto, and there was lots of back slapping and congratulatory hugs. He couldn't announce a wedding date yet, but he grinned and said it would be soon.

Marty did call on Wanda. They had a long visit and caught up on all of the happenings since they had last been together. Marty could see no change in her son, Rett. Though he lived in the body of a man, he had not really advanced beyond the small-boy stage. He still evidenced his uncanny ability with animals, and his menagerie had grown steadily over the years. Marty wondered how Wanda, who still clung to some of her eastern city-girl ways, managed to put up with the strange assortment of creatures with which she was asked to share her home.Only a mother's love,she decided with a smile as she watched the two of them.

Ma Graham came to call. She came alone now. All her children were married and had homes of their own, though Lou and his wife did live in a small house in the Graham yard and shared the farming duties with Ben. Marty caught up on all of the news of the family members and shared with Ma the latest happenings concerning Missie and her household.

Marty began rather slowly, but eventually she told in detail

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about the trying days following Clark's accident. Ma was the only person to whom Marty felt she could really bare her soul. As they talked and the shared tears fell, Marty felt that maybe Ellie was right. Maybe the whole ordeal had been harder on her than she had dared to admit. Maybe now that she had voiced it all, she would get back some of her old energy.

July came. Still no rain--except for a few scattered showers that didn't really count for much on the thirsty land. Daily, as a family, they prayed that the rain might come. Ellie kept busy with her watering pail trying to keep the plants from wilting. Even her brothers were not above carrying water for the very dry garden. The fields, as well, began to show the effects of the long dry spell. There was no way to bring water to the fields without the help of the Master of wind and rain.

A telegram from Missie set the whole household buzzing. It stated:PA LAHAYE ARRIVED--STOP--SO DID MELISSA JOY,7POUNDS 10 OUNCES--STOP--THANK GOD FOR BOTH--STOP--ALL FINE--STOP

The whole family rejoiced at the news, but Clare's eyes shone the brightest of all.

"Have ya told 'em?" he asked, giving Kate a nudge and a squeeze.

She answered with a shake of her head and a cheery, though embarrassed, smile. "Dr. Watkins said yesterday thet we're gonna be parents, all right."

And so there was more reason for rejoicing. Everyone in the family heartily congratulated Clare, who grinned at each comment, and hugged Kate as she flushed prettily. Marty looked at the girl's shining violet eyes and thought she had never looked prettier.


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FIVEConfessions

The storm moved in from the west with low-hanging clouds and a strong wind. Marty worried that the wind might drive the clouds right on by before the land had a chance to rejuvenate with the much-needed water. Her fears lessened as she stood at the window and watched the wind abate and the clouds hang low and heavy over the countryside. And then for three days, a continual steady rain emptied itself on the thirsty soil. When the sun returned, the growing things lifted high their drooping heads, all strength renewed. Marty felt like shouting praises. In fact, the whole family gathered together for a special thanksgiving prayer.

Kate was experiencing morning sickness. Marty felt sorry for her, but the girl only smiled. "It won't be for long," she insisted, "an' it will be worth it." Clare fussed over her and insisted that she take it easy and care for his "boy."

Already the two of them were busy with preparations for the coming baby--even though that "comin'" was more than seven months into the future. Marty, sharing their joy and enthusiasm, would welcome the wee baby, too. She suggested several home remedies to Kate that might help her over those often difficult early months of a pregnancy.

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Marty continued to feel dragged out--not herself at all. She tried not to let it show, but the harder she tried to keep up with Ellie, the more it was obvious she couldn't. Clark suggested a trip in to see Dr. Watkins, but Marty shook her head. She had a suspicion that her age was showing and it bothered her some. She was an awfully young woman to be going throughthat,she kept telling herself. She did not express her concerns, but she felt her family's eyes upon her, watching with loving care.

"I'll be fine--just fine," she kept assuring them all, and she tried to be--tried with all her might to walk a little brisker, lift her feet a little higher, hold her head a little straighter. But most of the time it just didn't work. She felt tired before the day had hardly begun.

One morning she felt sick to her stomach. She passed it off as a touch of the flu. Then after an hour or two, she felt fine. But the next morning it recurred. She shrugged it off that time, too, but when it happened again on the third morning, even she was a bit worried, though she would not admit it.

"I'm as bad as Kate," she remarked to Ellie with an attempt at a light laugh.

"Well, I don't like it," Ellie said seriously. "Kate has a very good reason."

A wild thought suddenly went racing through Marty's mind, though she did not voice it to Ellie.Ya don't s'pose. ...? No, thet's impossible. Thet's unthinkable.But it nagged away at her all day.

Each time it unwillingly returned, Marty tried to drive it away.I'm past my forty-third birthday,she kept telling herself. But inwardly she knew that really did not preclude this extraordinary possibility.

It's so silly ... so foolish,she reminded herself.Here I am--a grandmother many times over. I would be so embarrassed. ...And Marty's cheeks burned at the very thought of what might be.

The feeling of sickness continued to occur. Marty tried to hide the fact from her family. She made even more of an effort to look perky and carry her end of the household tasks. But even as she

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fought against it, she knew she was really being foolish.

It must be so,she finally admitted to herself and went to her room to have a rest and a good cry.

Whatever will Clark think? Here I am, a woman my age ... and this!

Her thoughts moved on to the rest of her family.What will Ellie think? And Missie? And Kate? Here Kate is expecting a baby of her own, and her mother-in-law, who should be long past such things, is joining her--stealing her thunder!

And Arnie? Here he is planning his wedding, and his own mother will show up at it quite obviously with child. It'll embarrass him nigh to death!

Marty refused to share her worries with any of her family. It was the first time in her years of marriage to Clark that she kept something from him.Maybe I'm mistaken,she kept saying to herself.Maybe I'm all wrong. Or, if I'm right, maybe I'll lose it. Women my age often do.

But deep within, Marty knew she was probably correct and that the day would soon come when she would have to tell Clark. She dreaded it. Dreaded his reaction. Would he laugh? Or would he actually pity her? Marty could not stand that thought.If he should look at me with eyes that say, "You poor thing," I'll be so mad. ... But he just might,Marty decided.He just might. Especially the way I've been feeling.

Marty decided she couldn't tell Clark--not yet. She'd wait awhile until she was absolutely sure.

Kate was now feeling a little better daily. Every time Marty saw Kate or Clare, it seemed they were talking about the coming baby. Never had Marty seen a couple anticipate a new arrival with such longing and joy. She envied them in a way.It must be nice to be looking forward so--

But Marty stopped herself. Hadn't she also looked forward to the arrival of each of her babies?Each of them, but ...She didn't

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allow herself to finish it. She felt guilty about the way she was feeling toward this child. After all, this baby had not asked to be brought into the world.

She wondered what Kate and Clare would think if she suddenly were to announce,Isn't it wonderful? I'm expecting a baby, too, and I think both babies will likely arrive about the same time.

My, would eyes ever pop then!

But there was no way Marty would announce it like that.

Josh and Nandry were joining the family for Sunday dinners again. Marty was so glad to have them back, but she was concerned about Nandry. Something was troubling her. Quiet and withdrawn, she never looked directly at Clark unless he was seated at the table, and then her eyes seemed to slide over him. Was Nandry feeling all right? Was Marty imagining things? Was Clark's new appearance really troubling her in some way? Marty tried not to borrow trouble. At least Nandry and the family were with them, and for that she was thankful! Perhaps with a little time things would be as before.

"I've made an appointment with Dr. Watkins."

Clark made the statement matter-of-factly one night as he and Marty prepared for bed. Marty's head whipped around, concern filling her mind.

"Have ya been feelin' okay? Is yer leg--?"

But Clark interrupted. "Ain't fer me. It's fer you."

"Fer me?" asked Marty. "Whatever fer?"

"I've been worryin 'bout ya, thet's what fer. Thought it might just take a while fer ya to get back on yer feet like, but ya haven't, Marty. Ya still have to push yerself an'--"

Anger colored her voice and face as she cut in. "Wish ya wouldn't have done thet. Nothin' wrong with me, an' there's no

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use troublin' Doc over somethin' thet---I'm fine, an' ya really had no call makin' an appointment without even talkin'--"

Clark reached for her and pulled her to him. Marty seldom responded in such an angry way, and when she did now, she knew he felt even more convinced that something was wrong.

He tried to hold her close, but she stubbornly stiffened her body. He did not speak, only stroked her hair.

She could not resist him for long. She began to relax against him. He went on holding her, gently kissing the top of her head. Suddenly, to his surprise, she crumpled up against him and began to cry.

Clark's grip on her tightened, and Marty knew he now was genuinely worried that something was seriously wrong.

"Please, God, please," she heard him whisper.

Marty did not weep for long. As soon as she had quieted, Clark spoke softly into her hair. "Somethin' is wrong, isn't it?"

Marty nodded her head against him, indicating that, yes, she thought there was.

"Have ya already been to the doc?"

Marty shook her head no.

"Then yer guessin'."

"I ... I ... don't think so," she sniffed.

There were a few minutes of silence.

"An' what are ya expectin' ...?" Clark didn't finish.

Marty waited for only a moment before she spoke through renewed sobs. "A... a... baby."

Clark pushed her back to arm's length, perplexity showing in his face. "A what?"

"A baby!" she cried, her face crumpled with weeping. "Ababy?"

She nodded, wishing she could bury her head against his shoulder again so she wouldn't need to look into his eyes.

"A baby?" Clark repeated with only a shade less shock in his voice.

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Marty just let the tears run down her cheeks. She closed her eyes. She wished to see neither reproach nor pity in his eyes. She stood silent and mute.

"Oh, Marty." Clark said, giving her a little shake.

Marty opened her eyes and looked directly and deeply into the eyes of her husband. There was no worry there. There was no pity. But there was love. Lots of love. Marty answered his look, and then she flung her arms tightly about his neck and wept again, tears of relief.

Clark held her for a long time, then pushed her gently from him. There was the trace of a smile on his lips.

"Thet's a bit of a wonder, ain't it?"

"A wonder?" repeated Marty, puzzled.

"Yeah, a wonder. Here I was a worryin'. Arnie's gittin' married soon an' movin'. Luke is goin' off to become a doctor, an' we both know there's no way we can hang on to Ellie fer long. An' here now, as I was hatin' to lose the last one, God is sendin' us another!"

Marty hadn't been giving God much credit for the whole event. She wasn't sure she liked the idea, even yet. She was a little old to be a mother again, and what in the world would her family and all of the neighbors think?

"I'd still like ya to keep the appointment," Clark was saying. "We wanta be sure thet everythin' is all right."

"Iffen ya want me to," Marty agreed, but she dreaded to face even the kindly doctor. She wished there was some way to keep her news to herself indefinitely.

"All of the family will be relieved," Clark went on. "We've all been worried thet somethin' might be wrong. It'll be a real relief--"

"A real embarrassment, ya mean," Marty interjected.

"What d'ya mean--an embarrassment? Yer simply being' a

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woman the way the good Lord made ya. Nothin' wrong or embarrassin 'bout thet."

Marty argued no further. She knew it would do no good. She also knew she was extremely tired. It was not difficult for her to agree to go to bed at Clark's gentle prompting.

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SIXAnnouncement

Clark pulled the team up before the house and helped Marty into the wagon. He drove to town more slowly than usual. Marty knew it was out of concern for her--and their unborn baby. She could feel her cheeks warm slightly as she wondered what Clark would think if he knew of the many times she had secretly hoped she would lose the child. Clark certainly wouldn't be having any such thoughts, she was sure.

It was a beautiful summer day. A rain shower had freshened their whole world just before dawn, and everything smelled green and growing. Marty pushed back her bonnet so she might get a better look at the familiar countryside. It had been a while since she had made this trip to town.

They passed the Grahams', and Marty waved to Ma, who was out in the garden, hoe in hand. Marty thought again of how very little of the hoeing in this year's garden she had done. Poor Ellie! She certainly had been carrying the load.

When they arrived at the doctor's, Clark helped Marty down over the wheel and gently steadied her on her feet. "I'll be in as soon as I tie the team," he promised.

Marty nodded and moved on to enter the small office. Three others were waiting, and Marty was glad to postpone her visit with the doctor for even a little while.

Clark soon joined her. The time went by too quickly, and before she was emotionally ready, it was her turn to step into the

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inner office. The doc began with a few preliminary questions. Marty prepared herself for the shocked look on his face when she told him what she had concluded, but it did not come. He seemed to feel it was quite the most ordinary thing in the world for a woman of forty-three, with a number of grandchildren, to be sitting in his office chair quietly informing him that she believed another child was on the way.

After the examination, Doc calmly assured Marty that she was right and that everything seemed fine. He made a few suggestions about what she might do to assure proper progress for the baby and renewed energy for herself. Marty solemnly promised to eat right and get plenty of rest.

Doc Watkins then called Clark into the room and offered his congratulations to the father-to-be. Both of the men seemed rather pleased with the fact of the coming baby, and for a moment Marty felt a trace of exasperation with them. She pushed it aside. They were right and she was wrong. There should be joy over the coming of a new life into the world. She must get her thinking into proper perspective.

When the Davises left the office, they did their needed shopping--not really all that much. In fact, it was Ellie who had prepared the list for Clark.

As they left the general store, Clark wouldn't allow Marty to carry even a small bundle. Instead, he insisted on making two trips himself, his crutch beating a rhythm on the wooden sidewalk. Marty waited rather impatiently in the shade until the groceries were carefully stored away.

"Why don't we git ya some tea?" Clark offered, and Marty agreed that it would pick her up a bit.

They headed slowly for the hotel dining room.

"Been wonderin'," Clark said as they walked, "iffen you'd like to git some things fer the new young'un while we're here. Seems to me there couldn't be much left from our previous babies."

Marty looked up at him in shock. She hadn't even thought


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about starting all over with the sewing of baby clothes and the making of diapers! Here Kate was as busy as could be, and their babies were due about the same time--and Marty didn't have one thing. But she took a breath and put a check on her thoughts. She just wasn't ready for that yet.

"There'll be plenty of time." was all she said.

Clark nodded and held the door for her.

All the way home, Marty's head spun. Her family knew she had been to the doctor today and were worried there might be something seriously wrong. They would need to know. She couldn't possibly continue to let them worry when nothing at all was "wrong" with her. It just wouldn't be fair. They would need to know the truth. Marty thought of asking to go to her room to lie down and letting Clark share the preposterous news. That really wasn't fair, she knew, and was the cowardly way out. Oh, how she dreaded it! How did one say it? What did you tell fully grown children? It used to be so easy. One gathered the little ones around and informed them joyfully, "We're gonna git ya a new baby. Only God knows whether it will be a new brother or a sister." And there was great rejoicing, and they would take sides as to who wanted it to be what. It was sort of like casting votes. On the day of the actual arrival, there were always winners and losers--but that was soon forgotten in the excitement of the new baby. After the initial announcement and a viewing of the new little one, everyone realized God had sent just what each one had really wanted.

Only this time,thought Marty,we don't all want this baby. Maybe nobody really does. Oh, I know Clark will accept the new arrival all right, but is this what he really wants? Will the family really want a new baby? I know I don't. Not really.

Marty was ashamed at the direction of her thoughts. But it was true. She hadn't planned on this baby. As much as she had enjoyed raising their family, she didn't want to start all over again with night

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feedings and diapers and round-the-clock care of a little one. It would not be happening had the choice been hers.

She pushed those thoughts aside and concentrated on the lazily drifting clouds overhead. It looked as though they might get a bit more rain. Well, she supposed they could use it. It seemed they never really got too much.

They passed the Grahams' again, and Marty was glad Ma was no longer in her yard. Somehow she felt that even in driving by and waving, her secret would be revealed.Oh, what will Ma think?And then Marty remembered that Ma had been her age when her last child was born.

But that was different,she argued with herself.There wasn't a big gap between children, and she didn't have a whole passel of grandchildren by then, either.

Marty's inner self quickly countered,No, and you don't have a grandchild yet from any of the family you have actually given birth to. Nandry and Clae are both Tina's girls, and Missie is Ellen's girl. True enough now, though, you seem to be running a race with your firstborn son.

In spite of herself, Marty smiled at the humor of it. Itwasrather funny. Why, she and Clare's Kate could well be confined at the same time. Imagine a child sharing a birthday with an aunt or uncle! She was sure there would be plenty of teasing ahead for both the little ones.

All too soon Clark was pulling the team up before the house and hopping down to help Marty. She dreaded it. Would they all storm her with questions the minute she entered the kitchen? She turned to go up the walk alone, but Clark was at her side.

Ellie met them at the door. Her eyes held her questions. She looked right past Marty and sought the eyes of her father.

Clark responded. "Ma's fine," he said with satisfaction, and the look of fear left Ellie's face, though Marty could sense that questions still remained.

Marty was surprised that Clark let it go at that, and she went

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on up to her room and changed into her housedress. Supper was almost ready.

It wasn't until the next morning at family worship that Clark brought up the subject. He had read a portion on the rich promises of God and the thankful response that His children should feel toward His loving-kindness. Each member of the family was invited to share something for which they were especially thankful. Clark stated that he was thankful for each family member that God, in His wisdom and love, had sent into the home, and then he led the family in prayer. After the prayer, he motioned for the little group to remain seated.

"When ya were all little an' we had a special announcement to make, we used to gather ya round us like this and share it together. Now, Luke here has never gotten in on any of those special announcements. Well, we are 'bout to correct thet. Lukey," he said, using the pet name of years gone by "yer ma an' me got somethin' to tell ya. All of ya." Clark stopped to look around the circle. "We're missin' some of the family to be sure, but fer those of us here together, we want ya to know thet yer ma an' me are gonna git ya a new baby. Boy or girl, we not be knowin', but..."

Three pairs of eyes turned in unison to look questioningly at Marty. She felt herself squirm under the intensity of it. Arnie was the first to catch his breath. He gave a whoop and leaped from his chair. Luke was next. "Finally!" was what he shouted. "Finally I git my turn."

Marty couldn't believe her ears. She turned from her grown sons to Ellie, but she was crying. Oh no, did it really bother Ellie that much?

Marty moved toward her in concern, but Ellie met her halfway. "Oh, Mama," she wept, "I was so scared. So scared." And then she began to laugh through her sobs. "An' it's just ababy!'Magine thet. A baby." Then she turned to her brothers. "I hope it's a girl," she stated emphatically.

"A boy!" they shouted in unison.

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"A girl," insisted Ellie. "We already got more boys than girls." "Thet don't matter," said Luke. "I still don't have a baby brother."

Clark held up his hand as a signal for silence. "Hold it," he said into the commotion. "Hold it. What it will be is already determined, an' no 'mount of yellin' on yer part is gonna change it none. I suggest we just wait an' see."

Marty looked around at her incredible family. They didn't seem to mind. They didn't seem to mind one bit. Of course, Arnie had always loved babies, and Ellie had always shown a tendency toward mothering. Luke maintained that he didn't get the fair end of things in not being a big brother tosomeone.

Marty shook her head. She might as well have purchased the materials for the making of the little garments. With a family like she had, there would be no peace until everything was prepared for the little one who was to bless their home.

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SEVENPlanning

Marty and Ellie had been invited over to Kate's for morning coffee. Marty was glad Kate was now feeling well enough to again think of serving them at a midmorning break. As yet, Marty still had no desire to eat until later in the day. She didn't say that to Kate, though. But when Kate began pouring the coffee and cutting the coffee cake, Marty asked for only a part of a cup and then generously poured cream in the cup to soften the bitter taste. Even then she was only able to sip at it. She passed up the dessert, as well. She was glad the girls did not press her.

Kate enthused about her coming baby. She seemed to expect Marty to be every bit as excited about her pregnancy as she was herself. Marty tried to show some enthusiasm. She hoped it came through as sincere. She was able to share in the joy that Kate's face held as she showed them garment after garment she had stitched.

"Clare insists it will be a boy." she laughed. "But I told him it could just as well be a girl."

"Men!" said Ellie. "They scare ya half to death with their knowledge of things to come! I'm glad when it finally does arrive, they are just as pleased with one as the other."

Marty wondered momentarily where Ellie got all her understanding of the subject. Well, she certainly had lived in a community--and a family--where there were lots of babies.

Kate showed them the nursery room, wallpapered in light green. The fluffy curtains at the windows were white, as was the

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painted trim. The yet-unfinished crib was quickly taking shape at the hands of Clare, who spent every available minute working on it. Kate herself was now sewing a crib quilt. To match the wallpaper, it was in a pale green calico print.

"Clare tried to talk me into blue," she laughed, "but I said I was gonna play it safe."

A small chest stood against the wall. As Kate opened the drawers, Marty saw many more already-completed baby items.

My,thought Marty,it is still many months away. Whatever is she gonna do with all the extra time?

Kate seemed to read her thoughts.

"I know we're gittin' ready awfully early, but iffen I get the necessary things outta the way, I can spend the rest of the waitin' time sewin' some 'specially fancy things. I wanna knit up some sweaters, too, an' I'm awfully slow at thet."

"Mama," said Ellie as they walked the short distance back to the big house, "are ya feelin' up to a trip to town?"

"I guess so. Why?"

"I'm a thinkin' it's 'bout time we got busy on this baby of ours. We don't want her comin 'fore we're all ready."

"Baby ofours?"Marty repeated the words under her breath. Yes, she supposed that was the way Ellie thought of it. It would belong to all of the family.

"There's still plenty of time--" began Marty, but Ellie cut her short.

"Sure, there's lots of time, but we want lots of things fer her. I want her to be the best-dressed baby thet ever--"

"Now, hold on," laughed Marty. "She'll be properly cared fer, fer sure, but we ain't gonna go overboard. 'Sides, how any baby could ever have more'n thet little one of Kate an' Clare's is beyond my knowin'."

"Aren't they excited? Never seen a couple so eager fer a baby!

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Kate was an only child, ya know. She wanted a baby of her own from her weddin' day on. She'll make a good mother, too--I know she will."

Marty agreed. Kate seemed to be cut out for motherhood. She rejoiced with everyone who had the joy of a baby. Even the announcement of Marty's coming child had made her almost silly with happiness. Marty was glad. She didn't want the fact that she was also expecting a baby to rob Kate of any of her own anticipation. It hadn't. Kate seemed to bloom enough for them both.

"Well," insisted Ellie, "can we go shoppin'?"

Marty still hedged. She hated going into town and looking for material for baby things. Everyone would know and whisper and ... No, she just didn't want to do that until there was simply no way of hiding it anymore.

"I'll buy it iffen ya want me to," Ellie offered.

"You?" Marty said, shocked. "Now why would I be wantin' folks to think thetyouhad need of such things?"

"Pshaw," responded Ellie. "It might be fer Kate, fer all they need to know. Or we might be sewn' fer Missie or Clae--they've each had a baby recently. An' anyway, Nandry might even--"

"Ya know somethin 'bout Nandry thet I don't know?" asked Marty, half hoping she did. She wished with all of her heart that Nandry's somber withdrawal could be traced to something as simple as a baby on the way although having a baby had never seemed to bother Nandry any before.

"Nope," said Ellie, "but somethin's strange, don't ya think?" "Yeah," replied Marty with a deep sigh. "I've noticed it, too. I was hopin', though, thet I was imaginin' it."

"Yer not imaginin' it," Ellie responded. "It's there, all right. I haven't yet been able to figure out why, though. Iffen it were a baby ..." Ellie let her thoughts hang in the air between them.

They reached the house, and Ellie continued around to the backyard to see if the wash on the line was dry. Marty went into the kitchen for a dry bread crust, in the hope that it might settle

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her queasy stomach. It didn't seem to help, so she went on up to her room to lie down for a spell. She would be so thankful when this dreadful morning sickness had run its course. Why was she having problems with this child, when none of her others had ever bothered her in this way? Well, Kate seemed to be fine now. If she could just hang on, perhaps the day would come when she, too, would feel well again.

Fall had brought with it both blessings and sorrows. Marty did finally feel better. It was so good to actually be hungry again. With the satisfied hunger came added strength. Marty could help more around the house without feeling completely exhausted. It was Ellie now insisting along with Clark that she slow down and not try to tackle everything in a day.

Fall was also the time for Luke to leave. Marty dreaded it. She tried to push the thought of the approaching day to the back of her mind, but it persisted to nag at her.

Again and again she reminded herself that Luke was no longer her baby. He was a young man and well able to care for himself. She had a hard time convincing herself, and as she sewed new shirts or knit new socks for him to take with him, tears often fell upon her work.

Luke was excited about his coming adventure, and it seemed to Marty that he spent far more time with Doc Watkins poring over medical books than he spent at home with his family. The doc was quite convinced that Luke would be the star pupil among the doctors in training and made no bones about telling his eastern colleagues so. Luke was to get special attention as the older doctor's protege. Marty was glad there would be those who would be watching out for him, but it was still difficult to let him go.

She reminded herself often that Luke would be home with them again at Christmastime. Not only would it be Christmas and the family would be together, but it had been chosen as the time


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for Arnie's wedding, as well, so Luke could be the best man. Clark had agreed to pay for his train ticket home. Marty was glad. She would be able to judge for herself if Luke was standing the pressure of the medical training, and if he wasn't, then there surely would be some way to keep him at home.

She comforted herself with these thoughts as she worked the heel of the newly forming sock. She also faced again that it was only a matter of days until Luke and his belongings would board the stage to go meet the eastbound train.

One consolation for Marty was the fact that at the other end of the train trip, Joe and Clae and their family would be waiting. Although there was not room for Luke to be able to board with his eastern family, at least he would be able to visit them from time to time should he get lonely, Marty comforted herself. Luke had no such fears, and if Clark had, he did not voice them. He seemed to understand Marty's feelings, though, and he was gentle and reassuring as he spoke often of the short time until Christmas would be upon them.

All of Arnie's thoughts seemed to be taken with his Anne and the farm to which they would be moving following their wedding. The house that was located on the property needed repairing, and Arnie spent many hours with hammer in hand getting it ready. When other duties freed him, Clark, too, helped his son. On occasion, even Clare had some extra time that he used to help his brother with the task. The house soon began to shape up, and with it, Arnie's impatience seemed to increase.

The hammers and saws had to be laid aside for the harvest. There was a good crop to be taken in, and Luke would be around for very little of the time. Clark did a fair share. He had rigged enough contraptions together to be able to operate almost any of the farm equipment with just his one leg. The boys marveled as they watched him. He could keep up with almost anyone they knew.

All too soon the day of Luke's departure arrived. The whole

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family drove him into town to meet the stagecoach. Doc and his wife were there, too. Luke, near bursting with excitement, endured all kinds of good-natured teasing from his older brothers. The kind doctor had lots of last-minute advice. Marty wondered briefly if she even would get a turn at telling her son good-bye. Just before he was due to leave, he stepped over to her and hugged her close. Marty had to look up now, for her youngest was taller than she by a considerable amount.

"Ya take care, now," Luke whispered for just the two of them. "I don't want anythin' to happen to thet baby brother."

A sob caught in Marty's throat.I'd gladly give up this baby if I could just keep you,she wanted to say. But she didn't. Luke wouldn't want to hear that kind of talk.

Instead she held him close and said motherly things about caring for his health and getting lots of rest. She also assured him that she would be counting the days until Christmas, and he promised in return that he would be doing the same. His luggage was tossed up onto the waiting stagecoach as the restless horses stamped and pulled on the bits. The driver called, and Marty knew she must let him go. She stepped back and attempted a smile, a rather lopsided one. Luke's was broad in return. He let his hand touch her cheek, and then he wheeled and swung himself into the waiting stage. With a shout from the driver and a scattering of dust from the wheels, the coach jerked away. The horses were in a gallop before the driver had firmly settled himself. The lump stayed in Marty's throat, but she refused to allow herself to cry. There would be plenty of time for that later.

Why was life so full of good-byes? She looked over at Arnie. He would be the next one. And he was even more excited about the prospect than Luke had been. Why were they always in such a hurry to leave home?

Before Marty's thoughts could continue in this direction, Ellie was taking her arm and moving her down the street.

"Now you an' me are gonna do some shoppin'," she was

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saying, "an' I'm not gonna be put off any longer."

Marty nodded numbly. It was time. With Luke gone, she would need some kind of sewing to keep her hands busy. Besides, she was beginning to show--just a bit. She supposed that if people were going to talk, they would already be at it. She might as well settle their minds once and for all.

She allowed Ellie to lead her into the general store and over to the yard goods.

Little one,she apologized to the child she carried, if you'rereally there--and I still have a hard time accepting the fact--you'll have to forgive me some. I just can't get excited about you--I didn't plan for you, and--But Marty got no further, for a strange thing happened. With a suddenness that startled even her, the baby within answered with a fluttery movement. It was unmistakable, and with the movement came the clear knowledge that Marty did indeed carry within her another life. At that same instant, a love for the unborn child filled her being. Whoever this baby turned out to be, he or she was special, individual, and hers--hers and Clark's. And even though she hadn't planned it, the fact that this baby was growing, warm and safe, inside her body and would one day snuggle in her arms, impressed itself upon her.

"I hope thet yer a girl," she whispered under her breath as a tear slowly formed in her eyes.

"What'd ya say?" asked Ellie, busy laying out soft flannels and cottons for selection.

"Oh, nothin'," answered Marty, quickly disposing of the telltale tears. "Nothin' much. I'm just on yer side, thet's all. I hope it's a girl, too."

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EIGHTA Visit With Ma

Marty decided she would make a call on Ma Graham. Before word started to circulate throughout the community that the Davises were to be parents again, Marty wanted to tell Ma herself. She asked Clark for the team and bundled up snugly against the brisk fall breeze.

Even before she had the team tied at the Grahams' hitching rail, Ma was on her way across the yard, arms outstretched in welcome.

"How did ya know I've been achin' fer a good visit?" Ma called. "We haven't had us one since just after ya got home."

"I know," responded Marty. "I couldn't wait any longer."

"How ya been?" Ma asked, arm around Marty's waist on the way to the house.

"Fine--just fine."

Ma apparently let the answer go and ushered Marty into her kitchen, hanging up her coat on a peg by the door.

"Sit ya down," she said, "an' I'll put on the pot. Ya carin' fer coffee or tea?"

"Tea, I'm thinkin'."

Ma put another stick of wood in the firebox of the big kitchen stove and shoved forward the kettle. Then she joined Marty at the table.

"Yer lookin' better. Ya had me worried there fer a while. Every

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time I saw ya at church, I'd say to Ben, `Somethin' ain't quite right 'bout Marty."

"Ya said thet?"

Ma nodded.

"My," said Marty, "I didn't have me any idea how many folks I had a worryin'. My family was frettin', too."

"But yer lookin' better."

"Feelin' much better, too." Marty smiled.

"Seen the doc?"

"I did, as a matter of fact."

"He able to tell ya what was wrong?"

Marty nodded in agreement.

"An' he was able to give ya somethin' to get ya over--?" "Not exactly." Marty put in.

Ma's face again showed concern. "But ya said yer feelin' better." "Oh, I am," Marty quickly affirmed.

Ma looked puzzled.

"Ya see," said Marty, "all thet is ... I mean, the only reason I wasn't feelin' my best is thet ... I'm ... I'm in the family way."

Ma's eyes grew large and then her face grew into a broad smile. "Well, I'll be," was what she said. "Now, why in the world didn't I guess thet?" She chuckled and reached across the table for Marty's hand.

"Guess, like me, ya wasn't really expectin' it. I couldn't even believe it myself fer a long time."

"Well, I never," said Ma again, shaking her head with another chuckle.

"I'm showin'," said Marty and stood to her feet so that Ma could see for herself.

"Well, I declare," said Ma. "Ya are, yes, ya are."

Now Marty began to laugh and Ma joined her.

"Isn't thet somethin'?" asked Marty "A woman of my age--an' a grandma?"

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"Ya ain't so old. I had me another young'un after I was older'n you."

Marty quickly nodded.

The teakettle began to steam and Ma pulled herself up to go and prepare the tea.

"An' what does yer family think 'bout it?" she asked over her shoulder as she cut some gingerbread.

Marty shook her head. "Would ya believe thet every one of 'em thinks it's just fine?"

"Clark?" Ma asked as she rejoined her guest at the table.

"I'm afraid he has a hard time keepin' himself from being' downright proud. He only holds hisself in check fer my sake." Ma smiled, poured the tea, and passed Marty her cup. "Well, thet sure beats fussin 'bout it."

Marty knew that Ma was right.

"An' you?" asked Ma, passing Marty the gingerbread.

Marty was slow to answer. "Well, me," she said, "thet's a different story. I wasn't all thet happy 'bout the idea."

"Embarrassed?"

"Embarrassed! Scared! Worried!"

"Being' sick like had ya scared?"

"Not really. I hadn't even figured out what was wrong with me fer a long time. When I did reckon it might be this, I was scared and worried 'bout what folks would think, not 'bout iffen I could make it okay."

"I know the feelin'," said Ma. "I felt thet way with my last one. Then I just got busy an' told myself thet it weren't nobody else's business anyway."

Marty laughed. "People make it their business," she said. But, to her amazement, she found she really didn't care anymore. "Ya feelin' better 'bout it now?"

Marty looked into the teacup before her and watched the wispy steam rise upward. "Yeah," she said at length, raising her eyes to Ma's. "I feel better 'bout it now. After Luke left, there was a big

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emptiness, and then ... well, Ellie insisted on shoppin' in town since we was already there. She's been pesterin' me 'bout gittin' some garments ready fer this here new one--an' a strange thing happened. It was the first time I felt movement. An' suddenly ... well, I just felt a real love, all through me, fer this little stranger. I wanted the baby, Ma. I can't really explain it--I just knew I loved an' wanted this baby."

Ma nodded her understanding. "I know what yer meanin'," she said. "It's powerful hard to keep fightin' it once ya feel 'im really there."

The two women sat silently for a few moments, each deep in her own thoughts.

Finally Ma broke the silence. "Must have been awfully hard to let Luke go."

"It was. It really was. An' he was so excited 'bout it thet he could hardly contain hisself. ... Might have been easier iffen he'd clung to me just a bit," Marty finished, her voice low.

Ma smiled. "Might have made ya feel better fer a minute, but it woulda made ya feel worse in the long run."

"I s'pose. I mighta cried all night iffen I'd felt he was hurtin', too."

"Seems they grow up too fast. Ya just git yer heart set on 'em, an' they're gone."

"It's Ellie thet frightens me."

"Meanin'?"

"Just don't know how I'm gonna stand it when it's Ellie's turn to go. She has been so good, Ma. Takin' over the runnin' of the house an' coaxin' me on. I just don't know how I'll ever manage without her."

"Ellie got a beau?"

"Not yet--but it'll come."

"I know what yer meanin'. Girl like Ellie can't hold off the young fellers fer long."

"She's never really paid thet much attention to the young men

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who've hung around, but one of these days ..."

"I must confess," said Ma, "I been lookin' round me at church tryin' to sort out just which of the neighborhood fellers is good enough fer Ellie."

Marty nodded and admitted that she had been doing the same thing.

Then she prompted Ma, "An' ...?"

"Ain't spotted 'im yet," answered Ma frankly. "Somehow it seems Ellie should have someone special like."

"Guess she'll think he's special when the time comes."

Ma reached for Marty's cup to refill it. "I know I fought it some when my young'uns were gittin' theirselves all matched up with their mates. Kinda glad it's all over now an' settled. They all chose ones I can be proud of, too. Kinda a good feelin' to know it's cared fer. They did a good job of it, too. I can sorta just sit back an' relax--an' enjoy the grandchildren."

"But yer grandkids are all nearby. Me, I've already got 'em scattered from the East to the West. I just don't think I could bear it iffen any more of 'em move so far away from home."

"Must be hard. I'd sure miss mine if they weren't here."

"Nathan an' Josiah are such sweethearts. An' there's the new little Melissa now. Who knows when I'll see her? An' Clae with her two little ones--we haven't seen her baby yet, either. Oh, I wish she could come home--even fer a short visit. It's hard, Ma. Hard to have them scatter. I miss them all so much."

Ma looked searchingly into Marty's face, then brightly and promptly changed the subject.

"An' how are Arnie's weddin' plans comin' along?"

The remainder of the time together was spent in discussing the family members who were close at hand, and Marty's spirits rose as she thought of the coming events and the happiness that was in store for each of them. And for her and Clark.


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Winter settled in, and Marty was glad she had no good reason to be out as she watched the swirling snow and biting wind. Ellie was daily encouraging her on the sewing for the new baby, and it wasn't long until Marty's enthusiasm matched Ellie's.

Kate dropped in often. She obviously found great pleasure in the planning and preparations for the two babies. Clare shared Kate's eagerness, and he, too, was involved on the long winter evenings finishing the bed for the new little one who would make them truly a family.

Clark was finding it difficult to be as active as he had been in the summer and fall. The icy patches were often causing his crutch to slip, and after one or two near falls, he was content to let his grown sons handle most of the chores. He had always been easy to have around, and Marty enjoyed being with him more often.

Daily, Marty's love for her unborn child grew. She wondered how she could have evernotwanted it. The whole family was waiting for this baby with far more interest than they had shown for any of the others.

Most of Arnie's time and attention were given to his upcoming wedding. His little farmhouse was ready now. Anne had even hung the curtains in the windows and scattered a few rugs on the floor. Because Anne had no mother to help her with her preparations, Marty had been pleased to piece quilts and hem dishtowels and assist in any way she could. Already she felt very close to her new daughter-in-law-to-be. She was sure that Arnie and Anne would be very happy.

And so the wintry days and evenings passed, one by one. The house was brightened by friendly chatter, much coming and going, and busy activity shared by the family. Marty felt it was one of the most pleasant times she could remember, in spite of those members who were not with them.

A welcome letter arrived from Luke, and Marty opened it eagerly and read it aloud. He assured them he was fine and enjoying his studies. He stated that Doc Watkins had certainly given him

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advantage over his other classmates; he understood so much that they had never been exposed to. He was boarding with a kindly old couple who fussed over him and pampered him. They had never had children of their own, and the woman was trying to catch up on all the years of missed mothering in just a few short months, Luke wrote.

He missed the family, he said, though he really had very little time even to think about it. He was going to a nearby church and had never seen so many young people gathered together before. Most of them were very kind and friendly. He hadn't seen Clae and her family very often. There just wasn't time for much visiting, but he was to join them for Thanksgiving, Clae insisted. They were all fine. The new baby was really sweet, and "Esther Sue had grown like you wouldn't believe." She had been shy with Luke at first, but she had gotten over that quickly. Joe was enjoying his seminary classes. He wondered how the little church back home had ever put up with his lack of knowledge. He couldn't believe how much there was to learn.

Luke ended his letter with a message for each of them. Marty was admonished to take care of herself and that coming baby. He would be home soon for Arnie's wedding and Christmas, and he wanted everything to be just as he remembered it.

There was a postscript on the bottom addressed to Ma. "I really won't mind if it's a girl," the sentence read, and Marty brushed at unbidden tears as she folded the letter and replaced it in its envelope.

Dear, dear Luke,she thought.Alone and so busy--and lovin' every minute of it.

But Luke was right. Before they knew it, Christmas would be upon them.

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NINEBen

Marty felt like she had just snuggled down and closed her eyes when there was a pounding on the front door. Clark bounded from the bed and was pulling on his clothes while Marty struggled to a sitting position.

"What is it?" she wondered.

"Don't know--but someone seems to want us powerfal bad." Clark left the room, his crutch beating a fast rhythm as he hurried toward the stairs.

"Light the lamp," Marty called after him. "You'll be fallin' in the dark." But Clark was already on his way, no doubt feeling his way through the hallway and down the steps.

Marty left her bed and reached for her wrap. She could see Arnie beyond her door, and he had taken the time to light a lamp.

Ellie called to him from her room. "What is it?" Marty heard her ask.

"Not knowin' yet," answered Arnie. "Pa has gone to see."

He moved on down the stairway, and Marty slipped into her house socks and quickly followed after him.

Arnie turned when he heard her coming. "Ma, ya shoulda stayed in bed," he said.

"I'm all right," she insisted.

"Watch yer step," said Arnie, reaching out a hand to assist her. Lou Graham was in the kitchen talking with Clark when the two entered. Clark looked up, and when he saw them he moved

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to Marty and put an arm around her shoulders. "It's Ben," he said softly.

Marty had many questions, but she could not find voice to ask any of them. Her heart was pounding as she looked from one face to the other. Surely it was serious to bring Lou out in the middle of the night. Ellie joined them, a puzzled frown on her face.

Clark moved a chair toward Marty, and she sat down.

"What happened?" It was Arnie who finally was able to speak.

"His heart," answered Clark.

A moment's silence, and then, softly, "How is he?"

"He's ... he's gone."

"Gone?" It was Marty now.There must be some mistake!Her thoughts whirled. Why, she had seen Ben herself just a short time ago, and he looked perfectly well. He had taken care of the team when she was over to visit Ma and had even given out some good-natured teasing. There must be some mistake. It couldn't be Ben. Not Ben Graham.

Clark was speaking. "It happened just as he was gittin' ready fer bed. I'm goin' over, .Marty"

Marty's stunned mind and emotions were scrambling to sort out what was being said--what was going on.Ben was gone--Ben Graham--their good neighbor of so many years. Ma was a widow again. Clark was going to her.

Marty shook her head and tried to stand. "I'm goin', too," she said quietly yet with insistence. "I'm goin', too."

She could feel their eyes upon her. Each one in the circle seemed to be saying no, even though no one had actually said it. Marty wrapped her robe more closely about her and took a deep breath. She squared her shoulders and looked at them.

"I'm goin', too," she said evenly. "Ma needs me--an' I'll be just fine."

Still no one voiced an argument, and Marty went back to her room to get dressed. Ellie followed her.

"Mama," she said, "be sure ya dress warm. It's cold out there."

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Marty nodded and mechanically went on laying out her clothes.

When she went downstairs again, Clark was waiting. Lou had already gone on to take the sad news to others in the family. Arnie was heating a brick in the fireplace, and Marty knew that it was to keep her feet warm as they traveled. The team was ready, and they stomped and blew impatiently. They did not cotton to the idea of leaving their warm stall on such a night.

Without comment Clark helped Marty in, and Arnie placed the wrapped brick at her feet and tucked a heavy robe securely about her. His feelings showed without words in his extra care for her comfort and safety. Clark picked up the reins, clucked to the team, and they were off.

Marty had never experienced such a silent trip to the Grahams'. All the way there, she attempted to accept the truth that Ben Graham was dead--but it did not seem real. She wondered if Clark was wrestling with it, as well, but she did not ask.

A pale moon was shining, reflecting off the whiteness of the snow-covered fields. A million stars seemed to be blinking off and on overhead. Vaguely she wondered if anyone knew for sure just how many were up there--no, she supposed not. There were too many. Only God himself knew the actual count.

And God himself knows about each one of His children.Marty closed her eyes. He knew what had happened this night. He knew of Ben. Why, He had already welcomed Ben into the courts of heaven. Was He glad. . pleased to have one more child at home? Marty would be. If one of her far-off children were suddenly to walk through her door, she would be celebrating. Maybe God was celebrating--celebrating because Ben was home.

But what about Ma?her thoughts went on. She was alone again now. Did God know that, too? Did He know how empty and lonely Ma would be feeling? What was it that Ma had said to her long ago about losing her first husband, Thornton? Ma had said she had wanted to die, too, that a part of her seemed to be missing

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or numb or something. Well, Ma would be feeling that way again. She had loved Ben so much, had shared with him for so long. Ma would be empty and hurting, and there wouldn't be any way that anyone--anyone in the world, no matter how much they loved her--would be able to help that hurt.

Suddenly Marty was crying--tearing sobs from deep inside.Oh, Ma. Oh, Ma! How ya ever gonna bear it?she mourned inwardly. It was true. It really was true. Ben was gone.

Clark let her cry, though he placed an arm around her and drew her closer to him. He didn't try to hush her. He knew as well as she did that she needed the release of the tears.

By the time they reached the Graham farmyard, Marty had herself under control. Lights shone from each window. Teams and saddle horses milled and stomped in the yard, doors opening and closing quietly as family arrived.

Clark helped Marty down and then moved the team on farther into the yard to tie them at a corral post. Marty waited for him, dreading that first meeting with poor Ma. She didn't want to go in by herself.

When Clark returned to take her arm and lead her to the house, they spoke for the first time.

"Looks like the whole family's here," said Marty softly. "Yeah, Lou said he was lettin 'em know."

"Good thet they're all close by."

"Lem was away--don't know iffen they got in touch with 'im yet."

They reached the house, and without knocking, Clark ushered them in. The big farm kitchen was full of people. Coffee cups sat on the table, but no one seemed to be drinking from them. Tearstained faces were turned toward Ma, who sat before an open Bible and, with a quavering yet confident voice, was reading to her family.

"`... for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

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thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely ...`" Ma's voice broke. She waited a moment and then went on, her voice ringing out stronger than before: "`Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.`"

She placed both hands on the Book and closed her eyes, and everyone in the room knew she was believing its promises and silently making them her own in prayer.

When she opened her eyes again, she saw that Clark and Marty were there. Without a word she held her hands out to them as a fresh collection of tears spilled down her worn cheeks. Marty moved quickly to her and took her in her arms. They clung and cried together. Marty was vaguely aware of voices and movement about her. She knew that Clark was offering his sympathy to other family members. She must speak to them, too, but Ma came first.

After the initial expressions of sorrow, they sat around the kitchen sharing memories of Ben and discussing plans for his funeral service. There wasn't a great deal of preparation to do. The new undertaker in town would prepare the coffin. The young minister had not been called in the dead of the night--Ma insisted that he be allowed to sleep. She had her family and her neighbors, and there was plenty of time to make the arrangements. Besides, she declared, the poor young man had already lost three nights' sleep sitting up with ailing Maude Watley. Her condition seemed to have improved somewhat, and the minister finally had been able to get a night's rest.

The neighborhood men would dig another grave in the little yard beside the church. Clark offered to make sure that was done. Tom thanked him for his kindness. "But," he said, "the boys an' me been talkin', an' we'd kinda like to do it ourselves."

Clark's understanding of their desire was clear as he nodded his agreement.

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Sally Anne was weeping the hardest. Marty found her in Ma's bedroom, Ben's old farm work hat crumpled up against her, the sobs shaking her entire body.

Marty tried to comfort her, but Sally Anne just cried all the harder.

"I'll be all right," she finally gasped out between sobs. "Just please leave me be." So Marty left. Sally Anne was going to need time to sort out her grief.

The day of the burial was cold. But the wind had gone down, for which all were thankful. Still, the sky was gray and the air frigid. Marty clasped her coat about her and prayed for the group of family members who were clinging tightly to one another. It would be a hard day for each of them. And when they scattered again to their various homes, what would become of Ma then?

Marty was glad that Lou and his wife and two children lived near her. At least Ma would have someone close. Still, it would be hard for her--hard to face an empty house, hard to lie alone in a bed that had been shared for so many years, hard to sit at a table where no one used the adjoining chair. Yes, she had many difficult days ahead of her. Marty was glad Ma had a deep faith in God that would help her through the days of intense sorrow. She must remember to pray for her daily. And visit her as she could. Maybe Ma would like to be included in some upcoming family dinners.

But Marty also knew that Ma wasn't likely to sit around and feel sorry for herself. What an example of faith in trying times she was to the whole community.


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TENGood News

Life required that everybody carry on, so even though their hearts were heavy, family and friends of Ben put their minds on living and the everyday tasks that called for their attention.

It was only a few weeks now until Christmas and Arnie's wedding. Marty tried her hardest to keep an atmosphere of anticipation for the sake of her family, even though she could not get out from under the heaviness she felt for Ma and her family. Ma was often in her thoughts and prayers.

Clark returned home from town one day and hurried into the kitchen, his expression telling Marty he had news.

"Yer not gonna believe this. Guess what I just heard."

Marty looked up from the small baby gown in which she was making dainty tucks. "Couldn't guess," she said. "What's goin' on now?"

"Willie's pa has been so impressed with the West thet he's talked the whole family into goin' out fer a look."

"Yer joshin' me," said Marty, laying down her handwork in disbelief.

"Not joshin'."

"Ya mean they'reallmovin' out?"

"Not movin'. Not yet anyway. They're just goin' on out fer a look-see."

"Callie an' the kids, too?"

"Yep."

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"Who's to care fer the farm?"

"Now this yerreallynot gonna believe."

Marty felt her eyes widen, wondering what in the world could be moredifficultto believe than what she had already heard. "Lane," said Clark.

"Lane?"

"Lane."

"Our Lane? I mean Willie's Lane?" Marty was stunned. Clark laughed. "Told ya you'd never believe it."

"I can't imagine--Lane comin' back here! Are ya sure?"

"I'm sure. Zeke LaHaye showed me the letter hisself. Fact is, Lane's s'posed to arrive tomorra so's he can learn all he needs to know 'fore the LaHayes leave next Tuesday."

"Yer right--I can't believe it!" exclaimed Marty, excitement taking hold of her. "Lane comin' here. Isn't thet somethin'?" "Ellie," she said, hurrying to the kitchen, "Ellie, Lane's comin'." Ellie lifted her head from the potatoes she was peeling. "Who's Lane?" she asked.

"Lane. Willie's Lane. We told ya 'bout 'im."

"Lane," repeated Ellie and frowned as she tried to remember. Clark joined them in the kitchen.

"Want some coffee, Pa?" Ellie asked, and Marty was just a trifle irritated that Ellie hadn't responded more enthusiastically to the wonderful news of their friend's arrival.

Without waiting for her father's answer, Ellie moved to reach for two coffee cups, which she placed on the table and filled.

Clark thanked her and sat down, pulling one cup toward him, and Marty took the chair opposite him and accepted the other cup. Ellie had already gone back to peeling potatoes.

"I just can't believe it," Marty said again, not willing to let the matter drop. "Lane comin'."

"How so?" asked Ellie.

"The LaHayes are goin' out to see Willie an' Missie. Gonna be

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there in time fer Christmas and then stay on a spell," Clark explained again.

Finally Ellie's hands stopped their busy paring, and her head bobbed up. "Really? Missie will be so excited she'll near go crazy. 'Magine thet. Havin' all thet family fer Christmas!"

Marty smiled as she pictured Missie's excitement and busy preparations. "And we can send some Christmas presents with them--"

Clark's laugh interrupted her. "Yeah, well, ya better go easy on how much you send--the LaHayes are gonna have enough luggage of their own."

"Who's gonna look after their place?" asked Ellie, and Marty noted silently that the girl hadn't been listening.

"Lane," she answered patiently.

"Oh,thet'swhy Willie's sendin'--what's his name?"

"Lane."

"Lane who?"

Clark began to laugh. "His name's Lane Howard. He's one of Willie's hands. Guess he must know somethin 'bout farmin', or Willie wouldn't be sendin' 'im."

"I see," said Ellie, and her hands began to work on the potatoes again.

"He's such a fine boy." Marty said. "He's the young cowboy who was the first one to come to Willie's services, an' he was the first one to believe."

Ellie nodded her interest in that piece of news.

"He's a mighty fine young man," Clark agreed. He looked off into space as though seeing some events in his memory.

"It was Lane who knelt down beside Jedd Larson and joined me in prayer when Jedd was in such a bad way."

"It was Lane who rode through the cold night to get Doc de la Rosa fer Jedd, too," added Marty.

"Yeah, an' Lane hitched the team and drove back through the night to take Jedd over to Doc's house," Clark continued.

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"He rode with ya, too, when ya went on over on Christmas Day," Marty reminded Clark.

"Yeah, he did, didn't he?" Clark smiled. "I can still see him climbin' down off his horse an', without sayin' a word, takin' his blanket to cover up my stub of a leg. Boy, was it cold! I think thet I'd a froze it fer sure iffen Lane hadn't done thet. An' me--I was too dumb to even think 'bout it needin' coverin'."

Ellie looked back and forth between her parents as they remembered their experiences with Lane out west.

Marty said, her voice low and husky, "Don't know iffen ya even knowed it, but Lane was the one who helped the doc when he took off yer leg. Willie wanted to, but he was afraid he couldn't stand it, so he went fer help--an' it was Lane who volunteered."

"Didn't know thet." Clark shook his head, looking thoughtful. Then he sighed. "Shoulda known it, though, thet Lane would be the one--"

"It'll be so good to see 'im again. When did ya say he's comin'?" Marty asked.

"S'posed to be tomorra."

"We'll have 'im over right away!"

"Now, hold it," laughed Clark. "Willie is sendin 'im out here to look to his family's farm, not to spend his time--"

"I know thet," retorted Marty, "but surely we can have 'im visit now an' then without any harm being' done. He has to eat, now, don't he?"

Clark stood up and ruffled her hair.

"Reckon we can," he said. "I was thinkin' myself thet it'd be awful nice to give 'im an invite fer Christmas."

"I hope we don't need to wait thet long to see him. I'd nigh bust by then."

Clark laughed again. "Got me a feelin'," he said confidently, "thet he'll be lookin' us up."

Marty hoped Clark was right. Lane was almost like family, like

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he'd be bringing a little piece of their beloved Missie's family with him.

"Look at thet sunshine," Ellie commented to Marty "Think I'm gonna go out an' git me a little of it."

Marty followed the girl's eyes to the window. It was a truly glorious winter day.

"I was just thinkin' the same," she said. "Think I just might go on over an' have me a cup a' tea with Kate."

"Good idea. I might even join ya iffen I git my chores done in time, but don't wait on me. I might git to enjoyin' the sun so much I'll decide not to come in."

Marty smiled. Ellie had always loved the out-of-doors. "Go ahead," she said. "It'll do ya good."

"Ya git ready." said Ellie, "an' I'll walk ya on over to Kate's so ya won't slip on the ice."

"Ya fret too much," Marty countered. "Just like yer pa. I've been walkin' on ice fer a good number of years now, an' I don't recall takin' a tumble yet." Ellie shook her head without saying anything further, put on a light coat, and stood waiting, so Marty pulled a warm shawl about her and they started off together. The sun reflected brightly off the snow and made them squint against the glare. It felt warm on their heads in spite of the cool air.

"Hard to believe we're 'bout due fer Christmas. Feels more like spring," observed Marty.

"Doesn't it, though?" answered Ellie. "But I'm so glad it's nice. Makes it better fer Lady and her puppies."

"How are they doin'?"

"Oh, Mama, they're so cute now. 'Specially thet little black-an'-white one. He has the biggest eyes an' the floppiest ears. I hope Pa will let me keep 'im."

"We hardly need another dog around here, I'm thinkin'."

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"But he's so cute."

"Puppies are all cute," reminded Marty "When they grow up they're just another dog."

"Now, ya can't be tellin' me thet ya aren't partial to dogs," Ellie remonstrated, and Marty laughed, knowing Ellie was right. She had always loved dogs, and each time there had been a new batch, she was the one who suffered the most as she watched the puppies going off to new homes.

They reached Kate's house, and Marty was warmly welcomed in, while Ellie went on to care for her chickens.

The young man swung off his horse, tied it to the rail fence, and walked up to the door. Several knocks received no response, so he turned toward the barn, where he saw the door standing open.

After Ellie had finished feeding the chickens, she had gone on to the barn to see the puppies. The day had become so delightfully warm she hadn't gone far before removing her coat.

She had thrown the barn door wide open and let the sun stream into the building. Lady ran to meet her, four pudgy puppies tumbling and stumbling along behind her. Ellie tossed aside her coat and fell down on her knees in the warm, sweet-scented straw.

"Oh," she crooned, picking up her favorite and pressing it against her cheek. "Yer just the sweetest thing."

A small tongue licked haphazardly at her nose, and Ellie kissed the soft fuzzy head and reached for another puppy. A third one began to tug at her skirt, growling and pulling as though tackling something unknown and dangerous. Ellie laughed and playfully pushed at the puppy with her foot. The puppy swung around and attacked her shoe instead. She pulled him into her lap and reached for the last one, a shy little female, the smallest of the litter. "Come here, you," Ellie said, coaxing the little one closer. She settled herself into a sitting position and cuddled the puppies in her lap. Lady

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pressed herself close, taking a lick at Ellie's face, her arm, her hand--wherever she could get one in. Ellie lifted her feisty little favorite again and pressed him close against her cheek. "I must ask Pa iffen I can keep ya," she told him.

Ellie was so busy with the puppies she hadn't seen the shadow that crossed the door; nor did she notice the figure who stood there, looking at the shining golden head bowed over the squirming puppy. He watched silently. She lifted her face to the sun, and it fell across her cheeks, highlighting their glow and the deep blue of her eyes. Still she had not seen him, so enraptured was she with her little friends. She stroked the curly fur gently with slender fingers and caressed the fluffy, drooping ear.

"Yer just the sweetest thing," she went on, lifting him so she could look the puppy in the face. "How could anyone give ya up?"

Lane had not moved. He knew he shouldn't be standing there watching her with her unaware that he was present, but he couldn't bring himself to break the spell of the scene before him. Who was she, this delightful young woman? She was as pretty and wholesome as ... as ... Lane had nothing to compare her to. He had never seen someone like her.

It was the dog who gave away his presence. Lady turned toward him and whined, her tail beginning to wave ever so slightly. Ellie lifted her eyes from the puppy to the door. At the sight of the young stranger, she gave a little gasp and hastened to her feet, scattering the three puppies playing on her skirt into the soft straw.

Lane quickly found his tongue.

"I'm sorry, miss--to startle ya like thet. I wasn't meanin' to. I'm ... I'm lookin' fer the Davises."

"In a barn?" she asked, but her tone held more banter than blame.

"I knocked at the house an' didn't get an answer."

When she didn't say anything, he explained, "I ... I saw the barn door open an' I thought someone might ..." He trailed off. "I'm sorry if I've imposed, miss."

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"No harm done," she said finally and put the puppy back down with its mother.

"Am I at the right farm or--?"

"We're the Davises," said the young woman before him, reaching down to brush straw from her skirt. "Who was it ya wished to see?"

"Missie's folks," he responded. "Clark an' Marty."

Ellie felt her eyes grow wide with shock and some embarrassment, and she took a good look at the young man who stood before her, hat in hand.This must be the Lane Ma and Pa were talking about,she thought as she looked him over.

He was tall and rather thin, though his shoulders were broad. He had a clean-shaven face and deep brown eyes. His jaw was firm set, as though once he had made up his mind it might be hard to change it. He wasn't what Ellie would call handsome--his somewhat crooked nose prevented him from being that--but he had a certain bearing that made you wonder if he wouldn't be a nice person to get to know.

Ellie let her gaze drop, further embarrassed by her bold scrutiny of the stranger.

"Mama is at Kate's right now, an' Pa is about the farm somewhere," she explained quickly.

She moved to lead the way to Kate's house, and he fell into step beside her.

They walked to Kate's without speaking further, and Ellie rapped lightly on the door but didn't wait for Kate's answer before she entered.

"Mama," she said, "there's someone here to see ya," and she stepped aside to let the young man enter.

Marty gave a little cry and sprang up from the table.

"Lane!" she said as she greeted the young man with a motherly embrace.


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Marty turned from hugging the young man to Kate.

"An' this is Kate, Clare's wife," she introduced him warmly. "An' ya already met our Ellie."

Ellie stood rooted to the spot, feeling rather self-conscious and silly under Lane's gaze. He stepped forward.

"Not really." he said. "I sorta found her--but we weren't introduced proper like."

"Ellie," said Marty, "this is Lane, the one we've told ya so much 'bout."

Lane moved closer to acknowledge the introduction.

Ellie held out her hand. "I'm pleased to meet ya," she said softly. "I'm sorry I didn't realize who ya were."

Lane took the hand and looked into Ellie's blue eyes. Neither of them spoke. Ellie was rather surprised and not a little dismayed by her tumbling thoughts. She'd had no shortage of young men who would have stood in line to come calling if she'd given the slightest hint of interest, but none of them had made her feel like this.You only just now met this Lane,she told herself sternly.Now get yourself back in hand,she finished her silent lecture.

Marty insisted that Lane stay for supper. It hadn't been too difficult to persuade him. He said he was anxious for a good, long visit with Clark and Marty. He had news concerning Willie and Missie and their family. He had up-to-date reports on the new little church and its growth since they had left. There were messages from the ranch hands. And then, he said, there was his number-one reason for being in their home that evening--the package from Missie that he was to hand deliver. He reached into his shirt pocket. "Missie sent this, an' she told me not to dare fergit."

Lane withdrew a piece of carefully folded paper.

"Missie sent ya a lock of Baby Melissa's hair." He handed the small packet to Marty. Marty unwrapped it carefully, and a tiny scrap of soft, fluffy baby hair lay snuggled against the paper.

Ellie watched her mother struggle to hold back the tears.

"Far away in the West I've got a little granddaughter," Marty

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whispered as she held up the tiny baby curl. She lifted it up and it wrapped around her finger. There was just a tint of red to the golden lock. Marty held it to her lips and the tears began to fall.

Marty wiped her eyes as she turned to Lane. "Thank ya," she murmured. "She must be beautiful."

"We think so," Lane said. "We all think so."

"What a place fer a little girl to grow up," Clark spoke up. "There on a ranch with a dozen men to spoil her!"

They all laughed.

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ELEVENMa Graham

Marty wanted to see Ma one more time before Christmas, so she asked Clark to hitch up the team for her while there was still a pleasant break in the winter weather. He reluctantly agreed because he knew how important it was to her, but his eyes showed his concern.

"Sure yer not wantin' me to drive ya on over?"

"I'll be fine," Marty assured him. "Really, Clark, I'm feelin' just fine now. Best I been feelin' fer months."

Clark eyed her rounded body. "Well, be extra careful," he cautioned.

But Marty stopped him with a playful toss of her wet dishrag. "I won't be doin' any racin'," she promised with a smile.

Though the wintry sun was shining, the air still held a sharp chill. Marty had not gone far when she was glad for the extra blanket tucked about her at the insistence of her family.

She wondered who might be meeting her in the Graham yard to take the team now that Ben was gone. He had always been so quick to greet her and hurry her off to see Ma while he tended the horses. The thought of Ben not being there made Marty's heart ache once more for the empty place left in their lives.

She thought of Ma and wondered just how she was handling the long days and nights alone. It must be awfully hard on her and even more so with Christmas approaching. Christmas was a

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beautiful time of year but also a very lonely time if a person had recently lost a special loved one.

When Marty turned the team into the Graham yard and alighted from the sleigh, she was soon greeted by Lou, who came from the barn. He welcomed her warmly and sent her on in to see Ma, just as his father had done on so many previous occasions.

Marty did not have time to knock, for Ma had seen her through the window and came to meet her.

"Been so hopin' ya would come!" Ma said. "Been needin' ya somethin' awful."

Marty removed her heavy coat, hugged Ma, and crossed to warm her hands at the kitchen stove.

"I was thinkin' ya might," she said, her own tears close to spilling. "My thoughts are of ya so much, an' I'm prayin' so often ... but thet ... even thet doesn't help much, I'm afraid."

"Oh, it helps. To be sure, it helps," Ma assured her. "I've just been feelin' the prayers of those who are upholdin' me. I have no idea how I'd ever make it without 'em."

They both were silent for a moment.

"It sure does git lonely, though," Ma went on as she motioned Marty toward a chair at the table. "Even with my family nearby--an' they've been so good, always invitin' me fer supper or coffee or just to talk. But I've got to make the adjustment on my own, Marty. At first I was over there 'most every day. Thet was fine fer a while, but I can't keep on like thet. I've just gotta make the adjustment to livin' alone."

Marty sat down, and Ma pulled out a chair across from her. "Ya know, in some ways," Ma went on, "this time is harder than when I lost Thornton."

Marty was surprised.

"What I'm meanin' is this: when I lost Thornton, even though it was terrible hard--'cause I loved him so much an' he was so young, and I was so unprepared--still I had my young'uns, an' I knew thet I couldn't give up--not fer a minute. They sorta kept

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me goin', if ya know what I mean. I scarce had time to think of my own sorrow. Well, this time I'm here all alone. My young'uns are grown now. It seems there just isn't a good reason to keep on a goin' a'tall."

"Oh, but there is," Marty quickly put in.

"I know. I know. I preach myself all those sermons many times a day, but I have a hard time believin' 'em."

"Ya said thet it takes time," Marty reminded Ma. "Remember? Ya haven't had much time yet, Ma." Marty reached across to grasp the work-worn hands folded one on top of the other.

Ma sat with head bowed, and Marty feared Ma would suddenly begin sobbing. Instead she squared her shoulders and looked up with a shaky yet brave smile. "Time?" she said. "It do take time, all right. Time an' God."

Marty toyed with an edge of the table, running a finger back and forth on the wood grain. "Wouldn't hurt none, either, iffen ya tried to look ahead," she said. "Christmas is comin'. Ya got a whole passel of grandchildren. Got their gifts all ready?"

Ma shook her head.

"Best ya git out yer knittin' needles and yer crochet hook, then, 'cause they're all gonna be expectin' Grandma to come up with the usual passel of scarves an' mittens."

"Oh, Marty, I just have no heart fer Christmas!" Ma mourned.

Marty rose and moved around the table to lay her hand on the shoulder of the older woman. "The hardest Christmas I ever faced was the one just after I lost Clem," she stated. "But ya know what? In lookin' back now, I see it as my most meanin'ful Christmas. Never have I felt the true meanin' of Christmas more'n I did thet year.

"I've often wondered why," she went on, sinking into the chair next to Ma, "but I think maybe it was because thet year I decided to use Christmas as a growin' time. I didn't even understand what it was all 'bout at the time, but I knew God had a far deeper meanin' fer Christmas than we usually give it. I wanted it. I wanted

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to find an' understand thet meanin'. At the time, all I knew was thet I wanted to give Missie a special Christmas. She had already lost so much, an' I wanted to help heal some of those painful memories. In givin' to Missie, I got far more myself I kinda think thet's the true meanin' of Christmas. ..." Marty paused and looked into Ma's face.

"Now, ya got a family," she continued after a moment. "A family thet ya love very much." Marty's voice was low but clear. "They are all hurtin' in their own way, but mostly they are feelin' deep sorrow fer you. Christmas isn't gonna mean much to any of 'em--unlessyoucan give it meanin'. They need ya, Ma. They need ya ever' bit as much as they did when they lost their other pa."

Ma was crying softly as Marty spoke. When Marty finished, the older woman blew her nose and wiped her eyes.

"Yer right," she said. "In my sorrow I just haven't seen it. They do need me. All of 'em."

She left the table and went for the boiling coffee.

"My lands!" she exclaimed as she poured two cups and lowered herself wearily back into her chair. "I'm way behind. By this time most years I already had four or five pairs of mittens finished. I'm really gonna have to hustle, ain't I, Marty?"

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TWELVELane Helps Out

The LaHaye family got away on their visit west as planned, and Lane settled in to oversee their farm. There really wasn't all that much to do over the winter months. The stock needed tending, and there were two cows to milk night and morning, but he still wondered if he'd have empty hours hanging over him.

Glad that he had an excuse, he went to see the Davises and explained his predicament to Clare and Arnie. He began with, "What ya usually doin' with the long days of winter when there be no field work?"

"Well, we more'n have our days full with cuttin' the year's wood supply." answered Clare.

"The LaHayes got wood stacked a mile high," Lane informed them. "Told me not to be botherin 'bout gittin' out any more. They gotta use thet up before it goes rotten."

"Then we've got all of the stock to care fer."

"They don't keep much stock. One sow, a few chickens, some milk cows, and a few beef cattle. They don't even have 'em a dog." Arnie laughed. "Hope ya like readin'," he joked.

"Don't mind readin'," answered Lane, "but I sure don't wanna be doin' it all the time. Mind iffen I give ya a hand with yer cuttin'?"

"Yeah, we're gonna be gittin' out a little extra wood this year. Gonna have three fires of our own to keep burnin', what with the folks', mine, an' Arnie's here," said Clare. "'Sides, we kinda

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thought we'd like to add a bit to Ma Graham's woodpile, as well. Sure could use some extry help. Wanta swing an axe fer a few days?"

It was more than Lane had dared to hope for. His days would easily be filled with activity and, in working with the Davis boys, he might even catch a glimpse of Ellie now and then. He promised Clare and Arnie he would be over the next morning as soon as he had finished the farm chores.

The chores took Lane a little longer than he had hoped, and he was concerned about the time as he hurried to the Davis farm, not even stopping for breakfast. He wondered if Clare and Arnie would be waiting or had already left for the woods without him.

He need not have worried, for the hour was still early and the Davis men were busy with the livestock when he arrived.

"Go on in an' say mornin' to Ma," Arnie called to him. "I'll be in shortly fer another cup of coffee an' my lunch. Ya might even be able ta talk the womenfolk into a cup for yerself."

Lunch,thought Lane, disgusted with himself.I never even thought 'bout fixin' myself some lunch.

Ellie opened the door to his knock. Trim and attractive in a dress of blue gingham with white cute and collar, a stiffly starched apron tied around her, Ellie smiled when she saw him, and Lane could feel his heart thumping.

"Won't ya come in?" she welcomed him. "The boys said thet ya had kindly offered to help git out the wood."

Lane entered and flipped his hat onto a peg near the door. "Ma'll be right down," said Ellie. "She just went up to git her knittin'. Care fer some coffee?"

"Theed be powerful nice, ma'am," answered Lane, suddenly realizing just how hungry he was.

Ellie wrinkled a pert nose at him. "An' don't call mema'am,"she teased. "Ya make me feel like an old-maid schoolmarm."

Lane grinned. "Well, ya sure don't look like one," he dared to say and quickly added "miss."

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"Ya needn't say miss, either," retorted Ellie.

At Lane's raised eyebrows, Ellie said, "Just `Ellie` will do."

Lane nodded and Ellie indicated a chair at the table. Lane sat down and wondered what on earth to do with his hands. They seemed too big for his lap and too awkward for anything else. Ellie was no doubt too busy pouring a cup of coffee and selecting some morning muffins to notice.

"Those sure do look good, miss ... Ellie," he said as she set the fresh-baked pastries before him.

"Bet ya didn't even stop fer a decent breakfast," she chided. "I know how my brothers batch. They'd starve to death iffen someone didn't look out fer 'em." And so saying, Ellie went for her frying pan and some eggs and bacon.

Lane was hungry, but he sure didn't want her to go to all the trouble. Still, he wasn't quite sure how to stop her, so he just sat and watched her as she fixed the plate of food.

"There, now," she said as she placed the plate before him. "Iffen yer kind enough to work for the Davises, the least thet we can do is to feed ya." She reached for his cup to refill it but discovered he had not yet touched it.

"Ya don't care fer coffee?" she asked him.

"Oh no. I do. I love coffee. Don't know how I'd ever git by without it. Why, on the ranch--" Lane stumbled to a stop. "I was just too busy to start drinkin'," he finished lamely.

"Busy?"

"Watchin' ya," he said softly. He could feel his face turn red at the boldness of it.

Ellie flushed, too, and turned back to the cupboards. "Best ya eat 'fore it gits cold," she said, sounding a little flustered. "I've got some lunches to make."

Lane busied himself with his plate and soon had cleaned up the bacon and eggs and finished the muffins. He crossed to the stove to refill his own cup. Ellie raised her eyes from her sandwiches. Lane took a sip and then lifted his cup to her.


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"Thet's good coffee," he stated.

"Coffee's always better when it'shot,"she countered, and Lane knew she was teasing him.

Arnie came in then. He tossed his mittens in a corner and moved to the cupboard for a cup.

"Boy, but she's cold out today! Gonna hafta really work to keep the blood circulatin'."

Clare was just behind him. "Thought ya had yer love to keep ya warm," he kidded.

Arnie colored.

"Ellie, got an extra cup of coffee there?" asked Clare.

"Help yerself," Ellie responded. "Ya know where the cups are."

He reached out and messed her hair. "Boy," he said, "yer as sassy as ever. Got no one to keep ya in line since I moved outta the house. What ya need is a good boss--"

But Ellie did not let him finish.

"There," she said, putting the last bundle into a small box. "There's yer lunch. I put in enough fer the three of ya."

Clare hurriedly downed a few swallows of coffee and then set aside the cup.

"I'm gonna run over and say good-bye to Kate. Meet ya at the barn," he said to the men and was gone.

Marty entered the kitchen, her knitting basket on her arm.

"Oh, mornin', Lane," she said. "I didn't know ya had arrived. Heard about yer kind offer to help the boys cut wood. Made Clark feel better. We need a lot of wood this year, and swingin' an axe with just one good leg is a mighty hard job. 'Specially when things are all wet and slippery underfoot. With you helpin' I'm hopin' to be able to keep him at home." She hesitated for a moment. "Did Ellie invite ya to stay fer supper?"

Lane flushed again.

"'Fraid I didn't," said Ellie. "I wasn't thinkin' thet far ahead." "Thank ya, ma'am," Lane said to Marty. "But I don't--"

"No problem," Marty assured him. "Iffen yer gonna be helpin'

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us out, the least we can do is to see thet yer proper fed."

Lane reddened even more. "Miss Ellie already fixed me my breakfast," he confessed, "an' sent along lunch fer my noon meal. I think thet'd be quite enough."

Marty laughed good-naturedly. "I'm glad she took care of ya. Now, ya just pop on in here an' have ya some supper 'fore ya be headin' fer home. We'll have it ready when ya get in from the hills."

Lane thought he should argue further, but he looked over at Ellie. It would be nice to see her just a bit more.

"Much obliged," he said to Marty and moved to follow Arnie out the door.

Ellie had a bad day. Something about Lane upset her. She had never met a young man who affected her that way before. Every time she thought about the way he looked at her, her cheeks felt aglow. He seemed as though he was trying to read her very thoughts--to send her strange messages with no words. It troubled Ellie and excited her, too. Why did he have to come from so far away and upset her neat and orderly world? In a few months' time, he would be heading back to the West, and what then? Would things fall back into the snug and familiar routine as though he had never been? Ellie was afraid not.

"He's nice, isn't he, dear?" Marty interrupted her swirling thoughts, and Ellie jumped.

"What?"

"Lane's a nice boy Willie is so lucky to have him. He's been such a help on the ranch and in the church, too."

"An' then he comes on out here an' offers to go help cut wood--one of the hardest jobs there is. Sure takes a load off a' me where yer father's concerned."

Ellie agreed with her mother without committing herself in any way.

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"Wonder how long he'll stay," Marty mused. "S'pose he's anxious to git on back, but they did say thet the LaHayes are gonna stay beyond Christmas, didn't they?"

"Guess so," murmured Ellie.

"Well, we should be real nice to him while he's here. Don't think he has a family of his own."

Marty went on with her knitting, and Ellie continued her kitchen tasks.

"Would be nice iffen he could go to the social at church next week," Marty speculated out loud. "Nice iffen he could meet some of our young people. Don't s'pose he's been in with fellas his own age fer ever so long. Some of those western cowboys can be a little rough. Would be nice fer him. Why don't ya ask him, Ellie?"

"Me?" Ellie's voice squeaked in astonishment at the very idea.

Marty's head came up, surprise on her face.

"Oh, now look, Ma," said Ellie defensively, "I don't go round askin' fellas to take me--"

"Oh," said Marty thoughtfully. "I wasn't thinkin' of it thet way. No, I guess ya don't. Would sorta sound thet way, I s'pose. I was just thinkin' of Lane as a friend of the family, thet's all. I'll have Arnie--"

"Arnie will be goin' with Anne."

"'Course."

"Well," said Marty, obviously not willing to give up on her idea, "I'll think of somethin'. Wish Luke was gonna be home in time. He could take 'im."

Marty busied herself counting stitches, and Ellie slipped a cake into the oven.

"Who ya goin' with?" Marty asked suddenly, and Ellie shook her head, wondering why her mother hadn't dropped the subject.

"Wasn't sure thet I would be goin'," answered Ellie honestly, thinking of the two boys who had asked her and not really wishing to go with either of them. She shrugged. "Not sure thet I want to," she continued.

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"But ya should," encouraged Marty "Ya need to git out more." Ellie was highly relieved when her mother let it go at that.

Supper was ready when the men came in from the woods. Lane knew he really should go directly home and care for the LaHaye chores before it got too dark, but he couldn't resist spending a little more time in the same kitchen as Ellie. All day long he had thought of her. Her efficiency in the kitchen, her thoughtfulness in fixing his breakfast and sending along his lunch, her sparkling eyes and teasing smile. He couldn't get her off his mind, and he wasn't sure he really wanted to.

She served the meal, and once, when she had to replenish the plate of biscuits, she had bent near him to reach the empty dish. Lane thought surely everyone at the table must have seen how it affected him. He looked around quickly, but in truth, no one seemed to have noticed. No one but Ellie perhaps, and she was not letting on.

Lane left long after he should have and much before he wished to. It wasdarkriding home and a cold night for being out. He still had chores to do and cows to milk. He hoped that nothing on the LaHaye farm had suffered because of his tardiness. He wouldn't do it again, he told himself. He'd tell the Davises that he must go straight home from the wood cutting.

The next morning he was up even earlier than usual. He did the chores thoroughly and promised the milk cows that he would not keep them waiting that night.

He pushed the horse a little faster than normal on the way to the Davis', though still careful not to ask too much of it. If anyone knew how to care for his horse, it was Lane.

Again Ellie met him at the door, and Lane was surprised when he entered the kitchen to see that there was a place set at the table. Ellie pointed to it and asked him to be seated. She then busied herself at the already hot grill on the big kitchen stove, frying up a

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plate of pancakes. The very fragrance of them made Lane's mouth water.

She didn't pour his coffee until she had placed the stack of pancakes before him.

"Ya weren't gonna chance it gittin' cold, huh?" Lane asked softly, teasing in his voice.

If his words surprised Ellie, she chose not to show it. "Eat yer breakfast," she said in mock firmness, her words carrying with them an acknowledgment that she was aware of the strange undercurrent that existed between them.

Ellie went to make the lunches, and Marty soon joined them in the kitchen. They talked of the weather and the soon-approaching Christmas, and Marty extended an invitation to Lane to join them for Christmas Day, which he gratefully accepted.

Clark came in from the barn carrying a pail of fresh milk.

"How ya enjoyin' being' a farmhand?" he joked with Lane."Isit kinda nice to milk 'em rather'n brand 'em?"

Lane grinned. "Guess I'm 'bout the only cowboy who would ever admit he don't mind milkin' a cow."

Clark laughed. "Well, I don't mind admittin' it none. I kinda enjoy it myself. Had me an idea, too," Clark went on. "Since yer out there doin' my work, how 'bout I do a little of yers?"

Lane looked puzzled.

"Well, iffen ya wouldn't have to hurry on home fer the chores, you fellas could chop a few more trees. I thought I'd just ride on over and do up yer evenin' work so's you could stay on to supper here an' not be worryin' none 'bout the time thet ya git home."

"Oh, I couldn't--I was gonna tell ya thet I wouldn't be stayin' on fer supper. I'll just go on home after we finish in the woods. It won't be too late iffen I--"

"Nonsense," said Clark. "Me, I've got all day here with very little to do. I can do up the chores here and still have plenty of time to do yers, too, 'fore it gets dark."

"Oh, but I hate--"

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"Won't have it any other way. Not gonna let ya work in the woods all day an' then go home to git yer own supper and do chores in the dark."

Lane could tell there was no use in arguing. He wondered if Ellie was listening to the conversation and if she was, what she thought about it.

"'Preciate it," Lane said and determined that he'd work doubly hard felling trees.

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THIRTEENMarty Makes a Date

Supper that night was chicken and dumplings, and Lane thought he'd never tasted anything better. Ellie wore her hair pinned up, but tendrils floated loose about her face, and her cheeks were flushed from working over the stove. Arnie was anxious to eat and be off to see his Anne, and Clare had gone directly home to Kate.

After the meal, Ellie tried to shoo everyone into the family sitting room before the big fireplace. Clark and Marty were quick to respond. Lane went, too--rather reluctantly. He chatted with Clark for a few moments, more aware of the activity in the kitchen where Ellie was clearing away the table than in the responses he was attempting to make in the conversation.

When Marty started a new subject with Clark, Lane saw it as his opportunity and slipped back to the kitchen.

"Mind iffen I dry?" he asked quietly, and Ellie looked up in surprise.

"I'd think yer muscles would be tired enough after yer long day," she stated.

"I'm thinkin' thet it might take a different set of muscles to dry a few dishes."

"Then I accept the offer,"Elliesaid and smiled. Lane's heart did a flip.

She handed him a towel and showed him where he could stack

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the dried dishes. She led in the conversation, keeping it light and sticking to general subjects.

They were finished all too soon. Lane hung up the towel. "An' how's yer young pup?" he asked.

Ellie looked surprised and then must have remembered the first time Lane had visited the farm.

"He's growin' like a weed," she said. "Pa has already given away two of the others."

"But not yer favorite?"

"Not yet. But he will. We already have enough dogs. I know thet. Pa's right. We can't keep 'em all. We'd soon be overrun." She moved to stack dishes in the cupboard.

"It bother ya?" asked Lane.

"Guess it does." Ellie's smile looked a little forced. "But I'll git used to it."

"Anybody asked fer 'im yet?"

"I hide 'im," Ellie admitted sheepishly. "Every time someone comes to look at 'em, I hide 'im."

It was like the game of a little girl.

"An' don't ya tell," she quickly admonished, and then they were laughing together.

"How long d'ya think ya can keep doin' thet?" Lane asked when they were serious again.

"Till he's the last one," she said soberly. "Soon as the next one goes, I'm a goner."

"They don't have a dog at the LaHayes'," Lane said quietly. "So ya said. I can't 'magine livin' on a farm without a dog." "I've never had a dog of my own."

"Never?" Ellie's tone said she could scarcely believe that one could live without a dog.

"Never!"

"Don't ya like dogs?"

"Love 'em." Lane handed Ellie another stack of dishes, and she placed them in the proper spot in the cupboard.

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"Specially took to thet little one of yourn out there. I been thinkin', iffen ya have to give it up anyway, would ya mind if I took it?"

Ellie's eyes widened. "Not ... not iffen you'd like 'im." "I'd love 'im--I really would."

"He's an awfully good dog," Ellie enthused. "He's gonna be real smart--you can tell by the brightness of his eyes. An' he's from real good stock an--"

"Hey," cut in Lane, "you don't have to sell me on the pup. I'm already askin' fer 'im."

Ellie smiled. "When d'ya want 'im?" she asked.

"Well, I was wonderin'. With me gone all day, would it be too much to ask ya to keep 'im fer a while? I mean--till I'm done cuttin' logs so's I'll be home with 'im. Seems a shame to take 'im from his ma an' then not have any company fer 'im."

Ellie's grin widened. "I'll tell Pa," she said.

Lane turned to go back into the living room because all the dishes were done and there really didn't seem like any good reason for him to stay around longer. Ellie stopped him midstride by calling his name. "Lane."

He turned quickly, and she spoke softly. "Thank you," she said.

Lane wondered just how late he dared stay without being an unwanted guest. Clark challenged him to a game of checkers, and Lane was surprised that he was able to play as well as he did with Ellie sitting across the room from him, hand stitching a baby blanket. Marty was working on a tiny sweater, but Lane was scarcely aware she was there until she suddenly spoke.

"The young people of the area are havin' a little gatherin' in the church next week," she said. "Would ya be interested in goin' an' gettin' acquainted, seem' yer goin' to be in our area fer a time?"

"It'd be nice," Lane answered absently and moved a checker out of range of Clark's.


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"Arnie an' Anne will be there," went on Marty, "but I don't s'pose you'll be knowin' many of the others."

"Don't s'pose," said Lane.

"Thought maybe ya wouldn't mind takin' Ellie on over. She could show ya the way an' introduce ya to the rest of the young people."

Lane moved a king directly into the path of one of Clark's men and said calmly, "Be obliged."

The game went on. Lane lost soundly. From that move on, his mind was not on the game. He didn't dare look at Ellie. He had heard a little gasp and her shocked whisper, "Mama." He was surprised she hadn't outright refused her mother's suggestion. Would she back out gracefully later? Did she already have a date for the night? Lane feared it might be so. Clark moved to put away the checkerboard, and Marty kept her knitting needlesclick-clickingin a steady rhythm. Lane rose to excuse himself, and after a mild protest on Marty's part, which Lane countered with thanks for the evening but he had to go, Marty suggested that Ellie show him to the door.

Ellie rose obediently and laid her sewing aside.

They walked silently through the room and into the kitchen, and Lane took his heavy jacket from the hook and slipped his arms into it. He pulled his mitts out of his pocket and reached for his hat. Still Ellie had not spoken.

"That wasn't yer idea, was it?" Lane asked softly.

"No," answered Ellie, not meeting his eyes.

"Iffen it's a problem, I understand."

Ellie looked at him then. "Is it a problem fer you?" she asked sincerely.

Lane looked at her steadily. "It's an honor fer me," he stated. "Then it's no problem fer me," said Ellie simply. Lane left with his hat in his hand and his heart singing.

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On the night of the social, Lane was in early from the woods, for Arnie, too, wished to be home in plenty of time to properly get ready before going to pick up Anne. Clare gave them both some good-natured teasing, but Arnie quickly reminded Clare of how he had acted when he was courting Kate.

Lane did not stop for supper, having already informed Marty not to expect him. He hurried on home, thinking of a warm bath and a quick shave. He wasn't too sure that what he had to wear was appropriate, but he would do the best he could with what he had. He couldn't believe his good fortune--that he would actually be escorting Ellie! He still wasn't sure just how it had all come about or why Ellie hadn't turned him down.

Ellie rushed through the supper dishes and hastened to her room.

Marty went up to see what was taking her so long and returned to Clark, shaking her head. "Never seen Ellie fuss so," she said. "She's had herself a bath, and she's put on and taken off more'n one gown."

"Every girl fusses when she's goin' out with a young man," Clark responded.

"Lane?" Marty's head swung around to stare at Clark. "Why, he's just like one of the family."

"And so he is," agreed Clark.

Lane was plenty early, and when he looked at the radiant Ellie, his pulse beat more rapidly. She wasn't just pretty--she was lovely.

They walked out to the sleigh, and he helped her to be seated and tucked her in carefully against the cold of the winter night.

They talked of this and that on the way to the church. When they passed a neighbor's farm, Ellie would tell Lane something of the family who lived there.

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When they arrived at their destination, Lane helped Ellie down and went to tie his horses among the milling, stomping teams of the neighborhood youth. He spotted the team of bays that Arnie drove and gave one a pat on his broad rump as he walked by.

Ellie was standing just inside the door when he entered the church. She showed him where to put his hat and coat and then began the introductions.

The young people were friendly and the games lively. The evening went quickly, and Lane, who was not used to such gatherings, was surprised at the fun they had. After a snack served by the girls, it was time to go home.

Lane felt several pairs of eyes on him as he helped Ellie into her coat. He knew there were a number of neighborhood boys who greatly envied him. He could feel it in their looks and their curt manners. It made him even more conscious of the fact that he was escorting the prettiest girl in the room.

Lane did not push the horses on the way home. If Ellie realized it, she did not say so. Instead, she talked about the party, the people he had met, and his thoughts concerning the evening. He reached to tuck the blanket securely around her, wishing with all his heart that he could leave his arm around her, too. Reluctantly, he withdrew it.

"What do ya think of our country?" asked Ellie, making a real turn in the conversation.

"It's different," he answered her, "but I like it fine."

"Ya miss the West?"

"Not as much as I thought I would," he said honestly. "But you'll be glad to git back?"

Lane thought of the wide-open spaces, the mountains in the distance, the night-crying of the coyotes, and the wind in his face and answered her, "Reckon I will."

"Guess Missie has learned to love it, too," Ellie said, gazing up at the wide, star-studded sky as she spoke.

"I think thet she does," answered Lane.

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"Seems so long since I've seen Missie."

"She speaks of ya often." Lane said and went on to think about the young sister Missie had referred to and wondered what Missie would think if she could see Ellie now.

"I still miss her. She was a wonderful big sister."

"Why don't ya come on out an' see her?"With me,he wanted to add but thought better of it.

Ellie laughed softly. "Sometimes I get the feelin' Mama isn't too anxious fer me to go visitin' out west. I think she's afraid I might not come back."

"Do you think ya could like the West?"

Ellie sighed. "I think I could like anywhere iffen ..." But she did not finish.

"Iffen--?" Lane prompted.

"Well," she said matter-of-factly, "no use thinkin' on it now anyway. Mama needs me at home with the new baby comin' an' all. Maybe Missie will be able to come on home fer a visit 'fore too long. I'd love to see her--an' her babies."

Lane's heart sank a little. Was there a hidden message here? Was she warning him that he had no part in her future? Mama needed her. Lane loved her for her consideration, and she was right. Marty did need her now, but surely she wasn't planning to spend the rest of her life caring for her mama's kitchen and never giving consideration to having one of her own. He wanted to ask her--to tell her--but she pointed out a falling star and began to talk of other things. He clucked to the team. The night suddenly seemed much colder.

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FOURTEENChristmas

Marty, filled with excitement about the nearness of the Christmas season, was also anticipating Arnie's upcoming wedding. But she was absolutely overjoyed by the fact that Luke would soon be home.

Oh, how she had missed him! His letters, which seemed all too infrequent, reminded her of how lonesome she was for their youngest son.

She baked his favorite cakes, fussed over cleaning his room, insisted that his favorite foods be on hand. And even when all this had been accomplished, she still bustled about trying to think of something more to do to make sure of his welcome.

"Why don't ya just sit ya down and relax?" Clark asked her. "Yer gonna be wearin' yerself out. It'syouthe boy is comin' to see, not the house or the pantry."

Marty knew Clark was right, and she tried to hold herself in check. But it was awfully hard.

On the day of Luke's arrival, Marty suffered a disappointment. She had planned all along to travel into town to meet his stage, but the day was bitterly cold with a strong wind blowing. And Clark firmly announced she would best stay home by the fire and let them bring her son to her.

She knew there was no use arguing, but how she chafed and stewed! She finally consented, insisting that Clark and Arnie--the two making the trip to town--promise to hurry home just as fast

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as the team would bring them. Clark agreed and left in time to do any shopping beforehand so they could leave for home as soon as they could load Luke and his luggage.

The day went awfully slowly for Marty. Ellie shook her head at her mother's pacing back and forth to the window. "Yer gonna wear out the floor," she teased, but her tone said she understood.

At last the team was welcomed by the dogs, and Marty ran to open the door for Luke.

At first appearance, Marty felt Luke had not changed much in the few months he had been away. He had really not grown taller, and he was about the same weight. His grin was as broad and his hug still as hearty. It wasn't until they had been together for some time that Marty began to recognize little changes. Luke was no longer her "little boy." He was well on his way to being a responsible man. The knowledge both saddened her and made her proud. She felt that he was seeing her in a different way, too. Luke had always been her compassionate and caring son. Now he looked at her, as well, with the concern and practiced eye of a doctor. Oh, true, Luke had a long way to go before he would be qualified, but he was already seeing the world through a physician's eyes.

The trips to the woods were put off during the busy time of Christmas celebration and Arnie's wedding. Lane hated to think of not having an excuse to visit the Davises for a whole week, but Marty seemed to feel he was a part of the family and always found some reason for him to come over.

Lane helped Ellie set up and decorate the tree in the big family living room. The boys were busy with other things, Marty said, and it was a big job for the girl to do all alone. Lane was happy to assist and enjoyed the evening immensely. Ellie was in a carefree mood, and her light chatter and silvery laugh rather went to Lane's head.What would it be like to share this task with this girl for the many years ahead?he asked himself and readily admitted that he liked the idea.

Christmas Day found the house crowded with family. Children

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ran in and out, laughing and shrieking and exclaiming over Christmas surprises. The menfolk gathered in front of the open fire and roasted fall nuts and told jokes on one another, with much hearty laughing and good-natured backslapping. Women bustled about the kitchen, stirring and tasting and seasoning the huge pots that spilled savory odors throughout the whole house. Lane, who could not remember ever having been a part of such a Christmas before, joyfully absorbed every minute of it. Gifts from the tree were lovingly distributed, and Lane had been thoughtfully included. Marty's warm knit stocking cap would keep his head protected on cold winter days in the woods.

Eventually they were all gathered around the extended table. Chattering children were silenced for a season, joking men became serious, and the busy women laid aside their aprons and sat with hands folded reverently in their laps. Clark lifted down the family Bible and read aloud the Christmas story, as he had done on each of the preceding family Christmases, and then led his household in prayer. He remembered each of the absent ones by name--Willie and Missie and their children, and Clae and Joe and their little ones. He thanked the Lord for bringing Luke back to them for a visit. He prayed for the new family members who were yet unknown and asked that God would bless the mothers who carried them and make the new babies a blessing to many in the years to come. He asked God's blessing on Arnie and Anne as they shared the family table and would soon be establishing a home of their own. He prayed for Josh and Nandry and each one of their children. He thanked the Lord for Lane and his presence in their home and his friendship that meant so much to the family. He remembered the Graham family and this first difficult Christmas without the husband and father of the home. Last, he remembered Marty, his helpmate over the years. He thanked the Lord for her return to good health and asked God to give them both wisdom and direction as they guided the new little life with which He had seen fit to bless them.

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It was a lengthy prayer, spoken sincerely. Even the children sat quietly, for Grandpa was talking to God.

In direct contrast, the meal itself was a noisy affair. Over the steady hum of chatter and loud laughter, one could scarcely hear oneself think. Lane stole a glance at Ellie. Cheeks flushed, golden hair wisping around her face, eyes sparkling with happiness, she answered some teasing coming from Clare. Lane was unable to hear her words, but from the look on Clare's face, he could guess Ellie was able to give as good as she received. After Clare's initial look of surprise at her quick response, he began to laugh and exclaimed loudly, "Well, ya got me there, little sister."

The children were excused to go back to their toys, and the adults settled down with another cup of coffee. The talk was not as boisterous now.

Clark leaned back and looked at his youngest son. "Yer lookin' good, boy. They must be takin' good care of ya."

"The Whistlers? They do all right, that's for sure. Aunt Mindy fusses even more than Ma." Luke looked at his mother with a grin. "An' yer likin' the studies?" Clark went on.

"I love it. Learning something new every day."

"Like?"

"Ya wouldn't believe what they are able to do now--in surgery, for treatment. I'm just getting a glimpse into it, but it's a whole new world out there. In a few years' time, with what they are learning, they'll almost be able to make a man over again if something goes wrong with him."

"Guess I was born a few years too soon," Clark moaned in mock despair and brought laughter around the table.

"No fooling, Pa," said Luke. "You ought to see the artificial limbs they've got on the drawing boards now."

"Ain't no help on a drawin' board," replied Clark, and his sons laughed again.

But it looked like the doctor in Luke was not to be put off with joking. He began to explain the advancements in artificial


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limb design. Before he was finished, he was kneeling before Clark with the pinned-up pant leg containing its stub of a leg unselfconsciously held in his hand. He explained to the gathered family what could soon be done. "You'll forget you even have a leg missing!" he exclaimed. "I told Dr. Bush you were a natural to be one of the first to try it out. I want you to have one, Pa."

Nandry left the table. Marty thought she was going to check on the children. But when the meal was finished and the dishes were being cleared away, Nandry still had not returned.

The afternoon was spent in playing games, toasting nuts, and visiting.

"Remember the Christmas at Missie's when we all joined together in carol singing?" Marty asked Lane.

He nodded his head, remembering it well.

"Henry played his guitar," Marty went on and then interrupted herself. "Ya played your guitar, too."

"You play the guitar?" asked Arnie, immediately interested. "Some," answered Lane.

"I always wanted to play a guitar," continued Arnie.

"Henry taught me. 'Fraid I wasn't too great a pupil, but I learned enough to sorta git a kick outta it."

"Do you have yer guitar with ya?" asked Ellie rather shyly. "At the LaHayes'," he answered.

"I'd like to hear ya play sometime."

Only Lane and Ellie seemed to be conscious of the undercurrent flowing between them. None of the other members of the family seemed to notice that Lane's eyes followed her about the room or that her cheeks flushed when she found him looking at her. Her simple words now were more to him than a statement. They came as a request, and without a spoken word his eyes made a promise.

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Nandry returned--from where, Marty did not know. Perhaps she was not feeling well. Marty hoped she wasn't coming down with something that would keep her from Arnie's wedding. Nandry stayed on the fringe of things, keeping a close eye on the children and even bustling about in the kitchen some.

The day itself was clear and bright, though the air was cold. The children begged to go out to play, but Nandry stated it was far colder than they thought it to be and the outside could just wait.

Lane, too, longed to get out. He ached for an opportunity to be alone with Ellie. He had done some shopping in the nearby town and had purchased a locket, which he had withheld from the Christmas gift exchange. He wanted to give it to her privately. But where and when would he ever find privacy on a day when the family had gathered together? He wished he were daring enough to ask Ellie to go for a walk, but he couldn't gather the courage. The day was swiftly passing, and still he had found no opportunity to speak with her. Ellie herself, perhaps unknowingly, gave him the opportunity he had been longing for.

"I'm gonna take a few goodies to the barn fer Lady and yer pup," she said. "Ya wanna see 'im?"

Lane bounded to his feet. The whole group must have thought he was uncommonly fond of his young dog.

"Better wear yer coat. It's cold out there," Ellie cautioned at the door, for Lane would have left the house in his shirt sleeves, so unthinking was he at the time.

He flushed slightly and pulled on his coat. Ellie was already bundled and ready to go.

"Yer gonna be surprised at how he's grown," Ellie told him as they walked to the barn.

Ellie threw wide the door, and the two little pups pounced upon her, licking and yapping excitedly. Ellie giggled as she tried to get them under control. Lady watched from the sidelines with a mother's pride.

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"My, ya do fuss over a body!" she exclaimed and worked to settle them down so she could give them the pan of turkey meat, gravy, and dressing scraps.

"They love it," she said, watching them wolf it down. "Pa says I spoil 'em."

The pup really had grown. He was still curly haired, and he still had his long, droopy ears, and he still looked awfully good to Lane. In his mind was the picture of a beautiful girl cuddling a small puppy. He reached down and picked it up, holding the wriggling body to his chest as he stroked the soft fur. Ellie stepped closer and touched the puppy, too.

"He doesn't have a name yet," she told him. "Thought of one?"

"How 'bout iffen you name 'im?" asked Lane.

"Me? He's yer dog."

"I'd still like yer name fer 'im," Lane said, looking steadily at her. Ellie stopped stroking the puppy and stepped back.

"I dunno," she said. "I haven't really been thinkin' on it." "What would you have called 'im iffen ya coulda kept 'im? I bet ya had a name all picked out."

Ellie's smile admitted that she had.

"C'mon," said Lane. "Out with it."

"Don't s'pose you'd want my silly name none. It's not a very sensible name fer a man's dog."

"Why? What's a sensible name fer a man's dog?"

"Oh, Butch. Or Pooch. Or Ol' Bob. We used to name our dogs Ol' Bob. We had one Ol' Bob, and when we got a new puppy, Arnie named it Ol' Bob, too. Mama told me 'bout it."

"Don't think I care fer Ol' Bob," said Lane. "Or Butch or Pooch, either. This here's a special dog. He should have a special name."

He looked at her, coaxing her to share the name that she had picked for his dog. She still hesitated.

"C'mon," he said again.

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"You'd laugh."

"Never!"

Ellie began to laugh softly. "Well, ya might not laugh, ya being' so polite, but ya sure wouldwantto."

"A good laugh is good fer a body," replied Lane, and Ellie's laughter sounded like she agreed.

"Okay," she said. "An' have a laugh iffen ya want to. I woulda called 'im Romeo."

"Romeo?" and Lane did laugh.

Elliejoined in. When they had finished chuckling over the name, Ellie said more seriously, "Why don't we just call 'im Rex?"

"Rex. I kinda like thet. Though it sure be a comedown from Romeo."

They laughed again.

"Promise ya won't tease?" asked Ellie.

"Tease?"

"Bout Romeo."

"Promise," said Lane. "I might even call 'im thet myself--once or twice--in private." And he put the puppy back down beside his mother.

Ellie picked up the pan and turned to go, but Lane stopped her.

In response to the question in her eyes, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small package.

"I wondered when I would git to give ya this," he said softly. "I didn't want to put it under the tree with the others. It's my Christmas gift to you."

Still Ellie said nothing. He passed it to her and she took it, looking down at it with confusion in her face.

"Open it," prompted Lane, and Ellie's trembling fingers began to do his bidding.

As she lifted up the delicate locket, her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Lane, it's beautiful," she whispered, and then the tears did spill. "But I can't take it."

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It was Lane's turn to be bewildered. "Ya mean ... what I was hopin' ... was dreamin' ... I didn't see a'tall?"

Ellie just stood mute, the tears continuing to fall and the fingers gently caressing the locket.

"Ya don't care fer me?" asked Lane.

"I never said ..." sobbed Ellie.

"Then there's someone else."

"No," said Ellie emphatically.

"Then I don't understand--"

"It's Mama. She needs me."

"I know," said Lane gently, reaching out to take her hands. "I'll wait. I'm not meanin' to take ya awaynow.It won't be long--"

"But ya don't understand!" cried Ellie. "It would near kill Mama. She misses Clae and Missie so. It would break her heart iffen another of her girls were to move so far away. Can't ya see...?"

"But surely--"

"No," said Ellie, shaking her head again. "I just couldn't do it to Mama. I wouldn't." And she pushed the locket back into Lane's hand and ran from the barn, leaving her pan behind her.

Lane felt a sickness sweep all through him. He loved her. Until that moment of losing her, he had not realized how deeply. He looked at the locket lying in his open hand and longed for the comfort of tears. He did not allow them. Instead he sank down upon the straw and reached for the small dog. He pressed his face against the soft fur and remembered how Ellie had looked with her face against the puppy.

"Oh, Romeo," he groaned. "I just don't know how I'll live without her. Yer a mighty poor substitute, I'm a thinkin'."

It was a long time before Lane felt composed enough to return to the house.

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Arnie's wedding day turned out not to be a fair day weather-wise. The wind was blowing and light snow was swirling as Clark tucked the blanket securely around Marty in the sleigh and headed for the church. All of the others had gone on before, and Marty fretted over last-minute concerns.

"Ellie has everythin' under control," Clark reminded her. "Ya needn't worry yerself none. The weddin' dinner will happen all proper like."

Marty knew that was true. She had worked on the dinner preparations in the kitchen with Ellie as much as her family would allow her, and then her physician-to-be son had gently but firmly shooed her to bed.

"You've been on your feet long enough," Luke insisted. "I'll help Ellie with whatever she needs."

And now the rest of the family were all at the church making the final wedding arrangements and waiting for the preacher to give the signal that the long-awaited hour had come.

Clark let the horses pick their own pace. Because they hated the cold and were in a hurry to get the journey over, they trotted briskly, Marty noted with some relief as she held the blanket up to her cheeks to prevent frostbite.

Other teams belonging to family and friends stood waiting in the churchyard when Clark swung his team in close to the steps and helped Marty alight. Luke was there to assist her in and hang up her coat. She was then seated in a spot reserved for the mother of the groom and had only moments to wait until Clark joined her.

The wedding party began to take their places in the front. Marty had never seen Arnie looking happier nor Anne more radiant. Ellie seemed a bit pale and strained, and Marty chided herself. The girl had been working much too hard. She must see that Ellie got a good rest when all of this excitement was over.

It was a beautiful ceremony. The young pastor was able to give it the proper dignity and warmth of feeling that a wedding service

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should have. Before a caring congregation, the young couple exchanged their vows, looking at each other with expressions that said they meant deeply everything they promised.

Marty swallowed hard and blinked back her tears. Another of their children was establishing a home of his own. Soon there would be none of them left to share the big house that Clark had built for his family. And then a little jab under her ribs reminded Marty that it would be a while yet before the house would be empty, and she smiled through her tears and reached down a hand to touch the spot where her unborn child was making its presence known.

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FIFTEENBack to Routine

Luke now had to board the stage once again and return to school. Marty sighed deeply at the thought of seeing him go, but somehow it seemed easier this time than before.

The household settled back into its routine. Arnie and his new bride took up residence in the little home that he had been so industriously preparing for them. The day Arnie had walked out the door carrying the last of his belongings from his lifelong homestead was very hard for Marty, but the broad smile on his face made her realize the truth: that all was as it should be when Arnie was looking forward to starting out on a life of his own. The thought gave her a measure of peace.

How glad she was to have Ellie as she watched Luke and Arnie leave the home. What a comfort to have at least one of her children still with her. Then Marty looked carefully at Ellie, and her eyes told her that something was not quite right. Ellie still looked pale and overtired. She had been working far too hard, with all the family at home for Christmas and then the added burden of preparing for Arnie's wedding, as well. Marty decided that what Ellie needed was to get away from the kitchen for a while. She had heard some of the neighborhood young people talking about a skating party on Miller's pond. That was what Ellie needed. A chance to be out having fun with young people of her own age.

Marty tucked the information away in her mind, with the intention of doing something about it at her first opportunity.

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Marty was not concerned about who would take Ellie to the skating party. True, the girl no longer had big brothers in the house to escort her to such activities, but that would be no problem. Lane would be happy to take over that role. He was such a nice young man, and he and Ellie seemed to get along just fine. Though she would miss her brothers, Lane would be good company and sort of an "adopted" big brother.

Marty smiled as she concluded these thoughts. She tucked the small sweater that was taking form under her quick needles back into her knitting basket and went to the kitchen. She had heard the dog bark, and that must mean the men were back from the woods. This was their first day back on the job since Arnie's wedding. She hoped Arnie would stop for a brief chat before he went to his new home and waiting bride.

Ellie was busy at the big stove, stirring a pot of wonderfully fragrant stew. Fresh biscuits sat in a pan at the back of the stove, smelling as good as they looked. Marty noticed the table. It was set for four. For a moment, Marty thought Ellie had forgotten that Arnie would no longer be eating with them, and then she remembered Lane. Of course--Lane always ate with them after he spent a day in the woods. It had been a while since the men had all gone out together, and she had forgotten. She smiled again, thinking this would be a good chance for her to tell Lane about the skating party.

Marty was disappointed when Clark came in saying Arnie had been in such a hurry to get home to his Anne that he had sent his mother greetings and excused himself from coming in. He'd see her sometime soon, he promised, and told Clark to give her his love.

Lane did come in, but he seemed edgy somehow. This was the first they had seen him since Arnie's wedding, and Marty had been all prepared for a good chat. Lane, though he politely answered all the questions that were put to him, just didn't seem much in the mood for chatting. Ellie didn't seem to be too talkative, either.


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Perhaps they were both weary after the rush and busyness of Christmas, Marty concluded. Well, things should slow down now.

Lane had been nervous about appearing as usual at the Davis table. He had not really seen Ellie since Christmas Day, except for a few brief glimpses of her on the day of Arnie's wedding. She had been so busy then that there was no opportunity at all for him to speak with her. Lane felt it was important for them to get a chance to have a real talk. He couldn't leave things as they were when he had presented his Christmas gift to her.

Some way he had to make her understand he would never take her from her mother while Marty needed her but would wait as long as was necessary if Ellie would just give the word. But what had Ellie said in her rush of tears?It would kill Mama iffen another of her family was to move so far away.Did Ellie really mean that? Would it really be that hard on Marty? Lane had to know she needed a chance to talk things out. That is, if Ellie cared--if she cared at all about him. Could he have been so wrong? Maybe Ellie didn't even--Lane's thoughts were interrupted by Marty's words. She was asking how the logging was going. Lane answered her. He hoped that what he said in response sounded sensible. He stole a glance at Ellie. She seemed perfectly unaware that he sat across the table from her. She was completely absorbed in cutting a piece of meat into a smaller portion before serving herself.

"Ellie tells me you've laid claim on thet last pup," Clark stated.

Lane looked back to Clark and fumbled some with his fork. "Right," he finally was able to answer. "I always wanted a dog of my own an' never had me a chance."

"Think ya picked a good one," Clark continued. "Those be awful good stock dogs, an' I think thet pup be the pick of the litter. A little trainin' an' he should be 'bout able to read yer mind where stock are concerned."

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Lane could feel his face get warm. What was a cowman to do with a trained stock dog? Sure wouldn't use one to be rounding up the herd. No one seemed to notice, and Lane shuffled his feet some and cleared his throat.

"Yes, sir," he said. "He does look smart, all right."

It was time for Ellie to serve the apple pie. Though Lane's favorite dessert, somehow he had no appetite for it tonight. He did manage to swallow it, washing it down with his second cup of coffee. He stole another glance at Ellie. She still looked cool and aloof.

Clark was pushing back his chair.

"Care fer a game of checkers?"

Lane gathered his scattered wits. "No ... no ... I think not. Not tonight. I need to git me on home--"

"The chores are all done," Clark reminded him. "I been over and took care of everythin'. No need fer ya to--"

But Lane was standing to his feet and excusing himself. "Thanks," he said, "but I think I'd better git on home just the same. Christmas has a way of wearin' one out, an' it's a little hard to git back to work again afterward. Think I'll just go on home an' catch up a bit."

Lane was glad Clark did not argue further as he thanked them all again for the supper and the evening and turned toward his coat hanging on the peg.

"Speakin' of Christmas wearin' one out," Marty said, moving closer to address herself to Lane as he shrugged into his coat, "I been noticin' thet Ellie needs a bit of a change from all her hard work, too, an' I overheard some of the young folks talkin', an' they said this Saturday they're gonna have 'em a skatin' party on Miller's pond. Ellie knows where thet be, iffen you'd be so kind as to drive her on over."

Ellie was pouring hot water into the sink, her back to them. "I'd be most happy to," Lane answered evenly.

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Marty began to smile.

"No," Ellie said sharply without turning. "No."

Marty swung around toward her, a look of concern replacing the smile.

"No," said Ellie again. "I'm not goin'."

"What d'ya mean?" asked Marty, confusion in her tone. "Ya need to git out with the young people more. Why, ya hardly had a chance--"

But Ellie cut in with, "Mama, do you know just howyoungthose young people are? Why, I wouldn't even fit in! All the young girls my age are married an' busy keepin' house. Those young people ... they ... they're justkids.I don't belong with 'em now, an' besides ... I don't want to go ... really I ..." Ellie turned away. "Let's just ferget it, can we?"

Marty looked dumbfounded. She turned back to Lane with a helpless look and a shrug of her shoulders.

"Guess it won't be necessary," she said in a low voice, putting her hand on Lane's arm. "Thanks anyway, though."

Marty turned to the cupboard. "Here," she said. "Take ya home one of these fresh loaves of Ellie's bread." She hastened to wrap a loaf and hand it to Lane.

Lane took one last lingering look at Ellie. Her head was bent over the dishpan. He couldn't tell for sure, but he wondered if it was a tear that lay upon her cheek. He muttered a good-night to all of them and went out the door.

Clark followed Lane to the barn to get his horse. The young man had declared it unnecessary, but Clark insisted. He wanted to check the barn doors anyway, he declared.

As Lane went to mount his horse, he turned to Clark. "Been thinkin'," he said. "S'pose it's time fer me to do my own chorin'. Willie sent me on out here to be takin' care of things, an' I feel a bit guilty not doin' it myself. Tell the boys I'll just meet 'em in the

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mornin'. A bit closer fer me iffen I go straight on over from the LaHaye farm. And then iffen I go right on home at night, I'll have plenty of time to do my own chores."

Clark knew this time that Lane had made up his mind to care for the LaHaye chores himself. He didn't know what it was that had made the younger man decide as he had, but Clark put it aside as none of his business. He was sure Lane had a good reason, whatever it was. No mention was made of the meal that was always waiting at the Davis household.

"Sure," Clark said, "iffen thet's what ya want. Come anytime ya can. We're always most happy to have ya."

Lane said his good-night and urged his horse forward.

Clark returned to the warmth of the kitchen. Ellie was busy scrubbing at an awkward pan, and Marty was placing dried, clean dishes on the cupboard shelf.

Clark leaned his crutch against the wall and steadied himself on his one foot while he pulled out of his heavy coat.

"Lane won't be here fer breakfast tomorra," he said to the two women.

Two heads came up and two pairs of eyes held his. Only Marty voiced a question.

"Why?" she said simply. "What might keep Lane from breakfasting with us?"

"He thinks he should care fer the LaHaye chores hisself."

"Maybe," said Marty in a puzzled tone, "though I really don't think it matters much to Willie as long as they're taken care of." Marty paused long enough to place some cups on hangers. "Maybe he's not feelin' well," she wondered. "I noticed he didn't eat well tonight. Perhaps a few days off from cuttin' will do 'im good."

"Oh, he's still cuttin'," Clark explained. "He's just goin' straight from the LaHaye farm, thet's all."

Marty looked at him, her eyes holding more questions. Then she turned back to the cupboard. "Well, we'll see 'im tomorrow night. Maybe he'll--"

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"'Fraid not," Clark said. "He told me he would be goin' straight home from the cuttin' from now on, so he won't be takin' supper with us anymore."

Marty put down the plates she was holding and placed her hand on her hip, her frown deepening. "I wonder--" she began, but Clark stopped her.

"He was sent to care fer the LaHaye farm, not to cut the Davis' logs. Guess he feels a bit bad 'bout how things been goin', thet's all. I like a fella who looks after his own responsibility."

Marty still frowned but turned back to the plates. "I'm not arguin' thet," she said. Then she continued, "But it was so nice havin 'im round, 'specially with Arnie an' Luke both leavin'. It was like havin' another son--an' it was gonna be 'specially nice fer Ellie to still have a big brother."

Ellie swung around, her eyes large and tear filled. "Mama, please," she begged, and then she was crying in earnest.

"What--?" began Marty, her utter bewilderment evident in tone and expression as she started toward her daughter.

"I'm ... I'm sorry," stammered Ellie, backing away. "I didn't mean ... I never meant ..." She brushed roughly at her tears with a corner of her apron. "I don't need ... I don't need another big brother." And saying the words, Ellie almost ran from the kitchen.

Marty's eyes were filled with concern. "I'm worried 'bout her, Clark," she said, slowly lowering her round body to a kitchen chair. "I've never seen Ellie with all the sparkle gone from her so. I just never dreamed it would be so hard fer her to say good-bye to both Arnie and Luke."

Clark had no explanation.

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SIXTEENSecrets

In the days that followed, Marty kept a close eye on Ellie. She still looked pale and seemed listless, but she attacked each of her many household duties with the same determination and energy she'd had before. There just didn't seem to be the joy that had previously marked her character. Marty was hoping it would return when Ellie got accustomed to being the only child left at home.

Ellie seemed to yearn to be outside. It appeared to Marty that she used every excuse possible to leave the confines of the kitchen. She was always taking food and water to the chickens. She even insisted on hauling water from the outside well--a chore Clark had never expected of his womenfolk. Mostly, though, she spent time with the young pup. The dog was of training age now, and Ellie seemed to get what little pleasure was left to her in teaching him the basics in obedience.

Whenever Marty inquired about how things were going with the dog training, Ellie's answers contained a measure of enthusiasm. Marty felt these were the only times that the heaviness lifted for Ellie--her times with that small dog. Maybe even an animal could make one forget just how much one missed an individual, Marty concluded.It must be Arnie thet Ellie misses so much,she continued,because I didn't notice this 'bout her 'fore Christmas, and Luke was gone then, too.Marty hoped for a chance to talk to Arnie. Perhaps he could just pop in a bit oftener and say a few words to his sister. That might help her in her adjustment period.

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They saw very little of Lane. He seemed to make out fine as a bachelor. Marty heard via the country grapevine that many of the neighbors--especially those with marriageable daughters--were inviting him in for meals. The only time the Davises saw Lane was at the Sunday services, and then it seemed he always had somewhere else to go. Marty did notice, though, that he was looking a bit thinner than when he had first come to their area.

"I wonder iffen Lane is missin' his West?" she said to Clark one night as they sat before the fire, Clark with a book and Marty with some sewing.

Clark lifted his head.

"Why do ya think thet?" he asked.

"Well, he don't seem as jolly--an' he looks to be losin' some weight. An' ... an' we never see him anymore," she finished lamely.

"The fact thet we don't see 'im anymore could prove he feels more at home here--not less," Clark responded. "From what I'm hearin', he's gittin' round real good."

"Well, he still don't look happy to me," insisted Marty.

"I would love to argue with ya," said Clark slowly, "but I been thinkin' the same thoughts. Iffen it's just thet he's anxious to git on home, thet will soon care fer itself. I hear the LaHayes will be back in a couple weeks or so. Thet won't be long fer 'im to wait."

There was a soft stirring as Ellie quietly left the room. Marty could hear her in the kitchen. By the sounds that came to her, Marty knew Ellie was lighting a lantern and putting on outside wraps.

"Where ya goin', dear?" Marty called. "It's cold out tonight." "Just gonna go check on Lady an' Ro--Rex."

"I made sure they was all shut up warm an' dry in the barn," Clark called to Ellie. "Even gave 'em some extra milk tonight."

If they expected Ellie to sigh with relief and return her coat to its peg, they were disappointed. "Still gonna go out an' see 'em," she answered, and the door opened and closed.

123

"She sure is powerful concerned 'bout those dogs of hers," Marty said to Clark. "'Magine goin' out this time of night just to check on 'em."

Clark picked up the book he had laid in his lap, but his eyes didn't return immediately to the open page. Instead, he sat thinking, the frown lightly creasing his forehead. Something was amiss here, but as yet Clark wasn't sure just what it was.

Ellie walked quickly to the barn, her swinging lantern making streaks of light and shadows on the snow-covered farmyard. Her heart was heavy, and she felt the tears stinging her eyelids. The truth was, she had learned to love Lane. Maybe it had been unwise, but it had been impossible for her to stop herself. She was sure he had cared for her, too. She could feel it in the way he looked at her, the unspoken and the spoken messages he had passed to her. And the locket? A man like Lane would mean a gift like that as a promise of his love--and Lane would not hold love lightly. They could have been so happy together--if only ...

But what was the use of ifonlys?Her mother needed her. Not just for now before the baby came but in the future, too. Marty had suffered as each of her children moved away from the family home. First, it had been Missie, and she had gone so very far away. When she had left, Marty had not even been sure she would ever see her again, would ever hold the children that would bless her home, or sit in her kitchen sharing thoughts and feelings along with cups of tea. Then Clae had gone and taken with her one grandchild and a well-loved son-in-law. Now Clae had another baby, one Marty had yet to see. Ellie knew Marty ached to see Clae and Joe and the little ones. Then Clare had married and moved out on his own. True, he was close by, and Marty could share in his life in lots of ways. Why, Marty was as anxious for that new baby of Clare and Kate's as they were themselves. Ellie checked her thoughts.Well, not quite,she corrected herself and even

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