Authors: Kim Vogel Sawyer
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General
He shook his head and scurried toward the horses, which shuffled within their traces. He grabbed a bridle, sending a hurt look over his shoulder. “Don’t
wanna talk right now.” He gave the bridle a yank, and the horses obediently stepped forward.
Christina started after him, intending to ask him to be patient and to give her a chance to work things out, but his stiff shoulders and the firm clomp of his boots against the hay-strewn ground dissuaded her. When Wes was upset, he couldn’t reason—she’d learned that from working with him over the past years. She should give him an opportunity to calm down. Time with the horses always soothed him. She’d come back later when he’d be more cooperative.
In the meantime she had an important errand. Tugging the collar of her coat more snugly around her chin, she half walked, half trotted across the street to Creeger Mercantile. The brass cowbell hanging above the screen door clanged a raucous greeting as she entered the store, and Mrs. Creeger bustled from behind the counter, hands outstretched.
“Good afternoon, Miss Willems! Come over by the stove—warm yourself. You look chilled clear through despite that nice new coat.”
Christina allowed the gregarious woman to escort her to the stove in the center of the store. She held her palms to the heat, offering Mrs. Creeger a smile. “This feels wonderful. The air is so cold. It makes me eager for spring.”
Mrs. Creeger laughed, her eyes crinkling with merriment. “Jay says we’re sure to have another snow before we bid good-bye to winter. In case he’s right, we should find you a scarf and some gloves. We can’t have you freezing your nose or fingers!”
Christina clapped her hands to her cheeks, abashed. “Oh, Mrs. Creeger, I am so sorry. I met with representatives from the mission board today, but we only discussed the house. I forgot to ask when to expect funds to cover the bill here at the mercantile.”
“Now, don’t you worry about that.” Mrs. Creeger dismissed Christina’s concerns with a flippant shrug and bright smile. “We won’t send out notices until the end of the month, so you’ve got a good week and a half yet to get things settled with the mission board. Besides, Jay and me admire how you’re
trying so hard to take care of everybody, and you with not even a roof to call your own. We’ve been praying for you.”
Christina blinked, tears stinging. “You … you have?”
“We surely have.” Mrs. Creeger slung her arm around Christina’s shoulders and squeezed. “And we’ll keep on praying, every day, for you and all those folks who’ve been scattered to the winds because of that awful fire.”
“That’s so kind of you, Mrs. Creeger. Thank you.”
The woman gave Christina another squeeze, then dropped her arm. “You’re welcome. But please call me Mary Ann. Jay and me, being new in town, haven’t made many friends yet. It’d be nice if a woman close to my age called me by my given name.”
Mary Ann Creeger radiated as much warmth as her wood stove. Christina couldn’t help but smile. Had she ever had a friend? Not someone dependent on her, not someone looking to her to lead and guide, but a friend with whom to chat and laugh and even pray? No, never—not even during her boarding school years, when her serious nature held her aloof from the other girls. She’d just been offered a precious gift. “I’d like that, too. And you may call me Christina.”
Mary Ann’s face lit up. “What a lovely name! Well,”—she looped her arm through Christina’s—“Christina, you come right over here and choose a scarf and a pair of gloves.”
“No arguing! Jay will tell you there’s no sense arguing with me because you’ll never win.”
Christina laughed at her new friend’s mock scowl. “Very well. Thank you. And while I’m choosing things, might I add writing paper and envelopes to my account? I need to send some missives as quickly as possible.”
“Why, of course. I’ll get those for you while you choose your gloves.” Mary Ann scurried off, her floral skirts swinging.
Christina lifted a pair of dark-green knitted gloves from the box and
cradled them between her palms. Papa had always liked green—he called it the color of new growth. She hugged the gloves to her chest and closed her eyes, sending up a silent prayer.
Lord, the poor farm needs new growth. Help me find the words to convince the mission board to rebuild. And please … please …
One tear slipped from beneath her closed lid and formed a warm trail to her chin.
Please let me continue to serve
“Mr. Jonnson. There’s a wagon comin’.”
Levi set aside his chisel at Tommy’s announcement and crossed to the window. His breath steamed the pane, and he swept it clean with the cuff of his flannel shirt, then peered out. Sure enough, the same horse and wagon that had deposited Tommy on his doorstep nine days ago was rumbling up the lane. On the driver’s seat, with a green scarf knotted beneath her chin, perched Miss Willems.
A grin tugged at Levi’s cheeks. Even from this distance and with a sheen of steam hindering his view, he recognized the determined tilt of the woman’s chin. His mother would have called her
—plucky. And Mor would’ve been right.
He flicked a baffled glance at Tommy. “I don’t know how you heard it already—it’s not quite halfway up the lane—but you were right. Miss Willems is coming.” Tommy’s face broke into a wide smile, but he didn’t leap to his feet. Levi headed toward the little enclosure of sawhorses he’d erected to keep Tommy from stumbling into any of the mill’s equipment. “Want to go greet her? You can follow the rope from the mill to the house and take yourself.”
Tommy shook his head, the motion awkward. “Wanna stay right here. Want her to see how I’m workin’.”
The pride emanating from the boy put a lump in Levi’s throat. Without a word of complaint, Tommy had spent the bulk of the day twisting together pieces of hemp rope that Levi had sliced into four-foot lengths and nailed to a board. Although the ropes didn’t yet form an intricate pattern, they held together. With practice and time, the boy would figure it out.
Earlier, Levi had laid aside his tools and watched Tommy work, entranced not only by the fingers, as busy as a spider spinning a web, but by the boy’s
intense concentration. But after only a minute or two of Levi’s observation, Tommy’s hands had paused, his gaze bouncing erratically around the mill. “M-Mr. Jonnson?”
“Right here, Tommy. What’s wrong?”
The boy sagged in obvious relief. “Didn’t hear nothin’. Thought you’d left me.”
Levi had assured Tommy he wouldn’t leave without telling him, then had returned to his work. He’d made sure to keep his hands as busy as Tommy’s so the boy wouldn’t have cause to worry. Amazing how much the boy perceived by using his ears.
The grind of wooden wheels against hard-packed earth now reached Levi’s ears. Miss Willems had stopped the wagon at the edge of the porch. Before she could alight, Levi swung the mill door open and called, “We’re in here.”
Without a word she released the brake, gave the reins a flick, and drew the horse to a halt near the mill doors. He stepped to the edge of the wagon and held out his hands, a silent offer to help her down. Why he’d decided to be gentlemanly, he couldn’t say—she’d never needed his assistance before. But somehow it seemed the right thing to do. Her gaze lit on his waiting hands, and she drew back for a moment, her brow puckering as if uncertain. But then she placed her gloved hands in his and allowed him to assist her.
The moment the soles of her scuffed black boots reached the ground, she pulled free of his light grasp and gave him a disapproving frown. “Did you say ‘we’ are in the mill, meaning Tommy, too?”
Levi slipped his fingertips into his trouser pockets. He allowed a wry grin to climb his cheek. “Good afternoon, Miss Willems. How are you today?”
Her cold-reddened cheeks blazed to a deeper hue, and she pursed her rosy lips as if she’d tasted something sour. The bodice of her wool coat expanded with a deep breath. As she released the air in a steamy little cloud, her expression softened, and a weak curve replaced the stern line of her lips. “Please forgive me. I’ve had a rather trying afternoon, and I’m afraid my manners are
lacking.” She clutched her elbows, a slight shiver shuddering her frame. “Did you say Tommy is inside the mill?”
“That’s what I said.” Levi ambled toward the wide-open door, aware of the patter of feet behind him. “We’ve spent the whole day out here.” He gestured for her to come in, then gave the door a yank, sealing them inside. He watched her release the buttons on her coat one by one while searching the dimly lit room. Her eyes seemed to take in every minute detail. When her gaze landed on Tommy’s corner, those blue eyes flew wide open, and she slapped one hand over her mouth.
Tommy shifted to one knee, his face crunching in concern. “Miss Willems, is that you?”
The woman flung a brief, venomous look at Levi, which took him so by surprise he staggered backward two steps. Then she darted to the corner, pushed aside one of the sawhorses, and threw her arms around Tommy. She cradled the boy’s head against her shoulder and pressed her cheek to his hair while she murmured to him.
Tommy remained stiff within her arms, his eyes blinking so slowly Levi could count the blinks. Then she bolted upright. One hand remained on Tommy’s shoulder, but the other balled into a fist and landed on her hip. Her eyes blazed fire as she glowered at Levi. “
Jonnson, would you kindly explain yourself?”
He stifled a chuckle. Yep, modig. With her narrowed eyes and the way she hissed his name, she reminded him of a cornered snake. Except he’d never seen a snake so pretty. He shuffled forward a few steps but kept a good distance between them. A cornered snake might strike. “Sure. If you’ll tell me what you need explained.”
“You’ve placed Tommy in a—in a cage!” She gestured at the circle of sawhorses. “He’s a boy, not an animal or a criminal in need of confinement! Is this your idea of proper treatment?”
Levi’s amusement fled, and his hackles rose. “Ma’am, I—”
“And look at him!” She caught Tommy by the elbow and hefted him to his feet. A man’s silver watch, suspended on a chain, swung back and forth across her chest with her jerky movements. “Sawdust in his hair.” She fluffed the strands. A shower of tiny wood bits flew around her hand. “And on his clothes!” She smacked at the boy’s knees, dispelling more bits. “Fingertips raw and bleeding …” Holding the boy’s hands aloft, she cringed.
Levi did, too. He hadn’t realized how much the bristly hemp had cut into Tommy’s flesh. He should’ve chosen something else for the boy to use for practice. Before he could offer an apology, she rushed on.
“And don’t think all the ropes strung from building to building out there escaped my notice. Why, it’s a veritable maze! Placed, no doubt, to save you the trouble of escorting Tommy.”
Tommy patted the air near Miss Willems’s shoulder. “Miss Willems? Miss Willems?”
She ignored the boy and stomped toward Levi, fists on her hips and eyes sparking. “Have you simply confined him and gone about your business as if a boy in need of care was never placed in your keeping?”
Levi growled under his breath. Maybe she was a little too modig. He aimed his finger at her face and matched her scowl with one of his own. “I told you I wouldn’t mollycoddle him. I told you I’ve got a business to run and I don’t have time to play nursemaid. And you still left him here, so don’t turn all high and mighty and act like I’ve done something wrong. I’ve done exactly what I said I’d do—I let that boy fend for himself.”
She stared at him in open-mouthed amazement. While she was quiet, for once, he took advantage.
“And let me tell you something else, Miss Willems.” Levi lowered his hand and gentled his voice. “He’s done just fine.” Levi tipped sideways slightly to look at Tommy, who stood, arms rigid at his sides, right where Miss Willems had left him. “He takes himself to the outhouse, thanks to the guiding rope. He dresses himself and feeds himself and washes his face. Even combs his own
hair.” Behind Miss Willems, Tommy’s tense stance relaxed. Levi decided to tease a little, hoping to earn a smile from the boy. “Of course, he can’t get his cowlick to lie down.” He aimed a smirk at Miss Willems. “But then, I’d wager you couldn’t either.”
Tommy snickered, but Miss Willems’s stern expression remained the same. She yanked her scarf from her head, mussing her hair. Light brown strands—the color of stained oak—framed her flushed cheeks. “But confining him. Placing him in what amounts to a cage …”
Levi resisted rolling his eyes. “Miss Willems, I didn’t do that out of meanness. I’ve got dangerous equipment out here. As you’ve pointed out, Tommy can’t see. I didn’t want him getting hurt. So I built the barrier to protect him.”
She shifted slightly and peered over her shoulder at Tommy. The anger seemed to slowly drain from her stiff frame. “Oh …” She swallowed. “Well, he does look as though he’s been well fed. And except for the sawdust, he’s clean.”
Levi bit his tongue to hold back a snide remark.
Then she spun on him again. “But his poor fingers, all torn and bleeding. Why were you forcing him to tie knots?”
Levi opened his mouth to instruct her to address Tommy. The boy had a tongue, and she should encourage him to use it. But before he could form the words, Tommy interrupted.
“He wasn’t makin’ me do it.” Tommy inched in their direction, his hands outstretched. Miss Willems met him halfway. The boy clung to her, his expression pleading. “I wanted to. It wasn’t Mr. Jonnson’s doing at all.”
to tangle together pieces of rough rope?”
Levi grimaced. Did the woman know how disparaging she sounded? He cleared his throat. “He’s not tangling ropes, ma’am. He’s weaving. Trying to learn how to cane.”
Miss Willems crinkled her nose. The gesture carved years from her appearance. “Trying to learn to … what?”
“Cane,” Tommy said. Excitement made the boy’s voice shoot high like a
saw blade humming at full throttle. “So I can fix Mr. Jonnson’s chair. A mouse chewed the seat, an’—”
“Tommy, slow down.” Miss Willems shook her head. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”