Authors: Jody Hedlund
© 2011 by Jody Hedlund
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Cover design by Jennifer Parker
Cover photography by Kevin White Photography, Minneapolis
Author is represented by the literary agency of WordServe Literary Group.
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in published reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.
To my husband
For believing in my dream, for traveling beside me each step of the journey, and for supporting me in every way possible.
Angelica, New York
The sharp call from the back of the sanctuary jolted Priscilla White. She sucked in a breath and twisted in the pew.
“Two of them!” shouted someone else.
Additional cries of alarm erupted around her, and Priscilla strained to see the entrance of the church above the heads of the congregants behind her.
Mary Ann’s fingers bit into her arm.
Priscilla patted her younger sister’s hand and rose from the hard bench just enough to get a glimpse of the wide-open double doors. Sure enough, two Indian boys stalked inside.
“What shall we do?” Mary Ann tugged her. “Should we hide?”
“Oh, shush now.” Priscilla squeezed her sister’s hand and tried to stop the trembling of her own. “They’re just boys.”
The two lean youth started down the aisle with long, confident strides. Their braids dangled with beads and shells that clinked together. The fierce blackness of their eyes captivated her, and she couldn’t look away, even though staring broke the rules of etiquette.
With each step they took, they drew nearer the front pew where she sat with her family, and her heart pattered harder against her chest. Why were they here? What could they possibly want?
Next to her, Mary Ann shrank into the wooden seat as much as her hugely pregnant frame would allow.
The boys’ fringed leggings swished and their breechcloths flapped in cadence.
Priscilla forced herself to sit straighter, to not shrivel like her sister. The taller boy’s dark eyes slid to Priscilla for the briefest instant, and she was sure he could hear the rapid thumping inside her.
The air in their wake carried the scent of melted animal fat and charred meat. She pressed a gloved hand against her nose and drew in a deep breath of the sweet mint that lingered in the satiny material.
When the Indians reached the pulpit, they spun abruptly and faced the congregation. Almost on cue, they splayed their legs and folded their arms across their chests.
A hush descended over the meetinghouse. The babbling of a baby several rows back reverberated through the eerie quietness.
Reverend Lull stood unmoving, like a wood carving, his mouth partly open and his hand raised.
For a long moment, Priscilla held her breath and, like everyone else, stared at the spectacle. There hadn’t been a single Indian in Allegany County during the twenty-six years of her lifetime. Who knew how long before that?
And now there were two. What was Providence planning for them?
The decisive step of boots at the doorway echoed through the silence.
Once again, Priscilla shifted in her pew. This time she took in the tall form of a broad-shouldered man. With the brim of his battered hat pulled low, she could see nothing but the shadowed stubble on his jaw.
A twinge of trepidation wove through her stomach.
His boot heels clunked on the wooden floor, and with each step forward, the thread pulled taut until, finally, when he reached the front and turned to face them, her stomach was as tight as the stitches in her sampler.
With a flick of his finger, he tapped up his hat and gave them a clear view of his face. Blue eyes the color of a winter sky peered at them from a tanned, weathered face. “Forgive me, Reverend, for disrupting your service,” he said, not bothering to look at Reverend Lull. Instead, his gaze swept across the congregation.
There was something intense and passionate in his eyes, something that spoke of adventure and of daring deeds about which Priscilla could only dream.
Mary Ann’s fingers dug through Priscilla’s gloves and pinched her tender skin. Priscilla absently patted her sister’s hand, wishing Mary Ann’s fear didn’t mirror her own.
Standing next to the savage Indians, the man seemed fierce—from the pistol at his waist to the scar that cut a thin white path from the corner of his left eye to his cheek. Who was this man? And what did he want with them?
Priscilla pressed the knot in her middle. Yet even as she tried to still her quivering, she couldn’t keep from trembling with the thrill of the unknown.
“I’m Dr. Eli Ernest, and I’ve just returned from exploring Oregon Country.”
A doctor? Priscilla sat back against the hard bench. This fearsome, rugged man a doctor? She’d met with plenty of doctors over the past several years, and none had looked like this man.
And none of them had been able to offer her any hope. . . .
An ache of emptiness swelled through her middle. She slid her hand away from her barren womb and tucked it in her lap. She forced herself to not think about the pain, about the fact that she’d never be a good and fruitful wife to any man. How many times must she remind herself to embrace God’s plan for her life, even if it never included marriage and children?
“John and Richard”—Dr. Ernest nodded toward the two Indian boys—“agreed to come back with me so I could show everyone just how kind and civil the Indians truly are.”
The boys stared straight ahead, their expressions stoic. In their Indian attire, they looked anything but kind and civilized.
The taller boy’s eyes flickered to her again, and she caught a glimpse of curiosity in their depths before he glanced away.
For an instant, she could almost picture him as one of her students. With a proper haircut and appropriate wearing apparel, perhaps he could grow to be more civilized. With the right teacher, he could quite possibly learn many things.
Her heart quickened. Soon, very soon, she would have the opportunity to change lives for the sake of the gospel. She would get to teach heathens like this boy, only in India, where the need was greater than any other place on earth.
Any day now, for she was long overdue to hear back from the Mission Board.
“They are of the Nez Perce tribe, a peaceful and generous people,” Dr. Ernest continued. “I’ll be traveling back to Oregon Country in a few weeks’ time, returning John and Richard to their home.” His voice had a rugged quality that matched everything about him, from his oil-slicked cloak and faded trousers to his scuffed boots.
“This time I won’t be coming back. The Nez Perce have asked me to set up a mission among them.”
A mission? Her heart skipped forward, each beat tripping over the next, just as it did every time she thought about life on the mission field and the millions of heathen still needing the gospel.
“John and Richard’s father wants to help his people. They’ve seen the benefit of the white man’s medicine and knowledge, so they’ve agreed to let me buy a portion of their land and build a clinic.”
A mission in the far West? Everyone knew the land in the West was unfit for civilized life. It was a place inhabited by fur trappers, wild animals, and Indians. The rugged terrain made it nearly impossible for self-sufficiency.
India, on the other hand, already had established missions and schools. They desperately needed more workers.
“I’ve come today on behalf of the Board of Missions,” Dr. Ernest said, “to ask for your commitment of support. I’ve spent the winter visiting churches, raising funds necessary for our return travel and building of the mission. Now, with your support, I could raise the last of what I need.”
A chorus of whispers broke the stunned silence that had prevailed since the appearance of the two Indian boys.
Reverend Lull finally moved. “Well, welcome, Dr. Ernest. You’ve come to the right place. We certainly are a mission-minded congregation. We already support several missionaries. The women of our congregation have formed a Female Home Missionary Society.” He cleared his throat and directed his attention toward Priscilla, his face aglow with pride. “In fact, we have one of our own, my dear sister-in-law, who is planning to leave us to teach in India.”
Mary Ann beamed at her husband, while Priscilla nodded and straightened her shoulders.
The doctor gave her the briefest of nods, skimming over her with obvious disinterest before turning to survey the rest of the congregation again.
She sat back in surprise and reached for the cameo pinned at her throat. Patting the twisted knot at the back of her head, she fought a strange sense of uncertainty. Had her hair come loose? Did she have something unseemly upon her face?
Dr. Ernest cocked his hat back further on his head, revealing overlong dusty brown hair with sun-bleached streaks. “As I’ve repeatedly told the Board, we Americans willingly pour our money and time into lands and people beyond the seas, but we neglect the need right on our back doorstep.”
Did he think so highly of his
calling that he could dismiss
“The natives of the North American continent need our generosity just as much, if not more, than any other group in the world.” Dr. Ernest rested a hand on the shoulder of the Indian boy closest to him.
“The Nez Perce are a wandering tribe and live only on the food they can hunt or scavenge, and often they go hungry. They’re vulnerable to attacks by the fierce Blackfoot tribe, who kill their people or enslave them. They’re being exposed to the white men’s diseases through the fur trappers but don’t have white men’s medicine to help fight them.”
His words elicited murmurs of sympathy.
He nodded at the Indian boys, and they smiled back at him, as if they knew they were getting the response they wanted.
Indignation shimmied up Priscilla’s spine. Did he think being a missionary to the West was more noble and important than being one to India?
“Perhaps in holding out the hand of friendship to one tribe”—he squeezed the Indian boy’s shoulder—“we’ll begin to repair the damage we’ve done to so many others.”
“Amen,” called several brothers and sisters.
Priscilla pressed her lips together, wanting to speak but forcing herself to raise her hand and wait for recognition.
Dr. Ernest averted his gaze to the other side of the sanctuary.
“Miss White?” Reverend Lull held out a hand to her. “I’m sure we would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.”
She stood and nodded her thanks to the reverend. Then she bestowed her sweetest smile on Dr. Ernest. “What you are telling us is all well and good, Dr. Ernest. But how can we justify focusing our attention on
tribe when there are
six hundred million
heathen throughout foreign lands who are perishing in sin and require our immediate help?”
Mary Ann yanked Priscilla’s dress, and Mother cleared her throat. They only meant to urge her into the silence and submission that behooved a woman of her status. Yet how could she stand back without defending the place and people she would serve until the Lord called her heavenward?
“When those in foreign lands are already receptive and eager,” she continued, “I don’t see how we can do anything but pour our time and money into overseas missions. Especially when others have already tried to share the gospel with the Indians and have failed to see any results.”
“What can we expect from the natives we’ve forced to relocate?” Dr. Ernest said as he slowly pivoted until he faced her. “Of course, the central plains tribes are hostile to the whites and anything they might offer.”
Finally he looked at her. His eyes flickered with irritation, as if he was weary of rebuffing comments like hers. “Thankfully, most of the tribes of the Northwest are still on friendly terms with the whites. And it’s my desire to keep it that way.”
“Yes, but why would we want to gamble on a mission in the West with savages when the Mission Board is desperate for qualified candidates to work in the missions they’ve already established overseas?”
He studied her in calculated measures, starting at the tips of her soft leather boots, moving to the shiny muslin of her meeting dress, until he reached the intricately carved cameo at her throat.
She tried not to squirm under the intensity of his crystal blue eyes. Instead, she forced herself to stand taller.
He met her gaze squarely. “What would such a
lady like you know of the harsh realities of mission life?”
The bold question stole away her ready answer. What did she know? Except what she’d read and heard secondhand? “I may not know everything, but I am quite prepared to give my life in service to the Lord’s work.”
The words of the
echoed in her mind:
A generation of heathen lives no longer than a generation of Christians.
She might be a
lady, but how could she sit back in comfort and ease when so many were heading for the everlasting torments of hell?
Besides, many women of her status and background had already gone. Didn’t the Mission Board continually say the most important qualities were the candidate’s character, piety, and commitment?
She lifted her chin. “Fortunately, the Mission Board is quite adept in choosing their candidates. They use the utmost care to pick only the most qualified. Wouldn’t you agree, Dr. Ernest?” How could he dare to disagree without casting doubt upon himself?
His eyes narrowed, deepening the permanent crinkles at the edges. “The Mission Board needs to reevaluate its list of qualifications for women. They need to have stricter guidelines, especially for ladies like you.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Priscilla Jane White,” Mother whispered, “enough.”
“Every single letter of reference I obtained applauded my spiritual fervor, talent, education, and industriousness.” Irritation gave liberty to her tongue, even though she knew she would suffer Mother’s rebuke later. “I am physically fit, energetic, and young. I’m eager to serve the Lord and save the lost. What more is necessary?”
A shadow fell across Dr. Ernest’s face, and clouds flitted through his eyes. “My friend and fellow medical student, Dr. Newell, applied for a mission in India. He took his young bride—a delicate and refined lady like you. He’d been on the foreign shore less than a month when he had to send his bride back home . . . in a coffin.”
Priscilla’s breath rushed in, echoing the startled gasps of those around her. She stifled a chill that threatened to crawl over her skin and shook her head, unwilling to let this stranger scare her from her calling. “I’ve heard similar tales. The
doesn’t hide the perils of mission life from its readers.”