Mary Kauffman clutched herself as another contraction ripped through her insides. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes as she somehow kept from screaming—somehow kept the lines in her hand while the horse and buggy continued down the unfamiliar road. Was she anywhere near Willow Ridge and Aunt Miriam’s? How much longer could she possibly keep driving, now that her water had broken?
“Are we there yet?” five-year-old Lucy whined from the back seat.
“Are we lost?” Sol asked in a testier voice. At seven, he was more acutely aware than Lucy of how their father’s death was affecting their family—and more critical of Mary, as well. “I’m pretty sure we should’ve turned left onto that last blacktop we crossed.”
Oh, but Mary wanted to scream—except Sol might be right. She was so frightened and in such excruciating pain, it was entirely possible that she’d forgotten which county road passed through Willow Ridge . . . because you’ve always been riding to Aunt Miriam’s rather than driving . . . always depended upon Dat or Elmer to get you where you needed to go.
Lucy’s two cats scuffled in the cardboard box on the seat beside Mary, and then a ginger paw poked through a breathing hole in the top of the makeshift carrier. When one of them yowled, Rowdy, their Border collie, let out a disciplinary woof.
Lucy begin sniffling again. “Can I please let the kitties out to—”
“No!” Mary snapped more vehemently than she intended. “We’ll be at Aunt Miriam’s in just a few—”
“I don’t ever remember seeing those black and white cows before,” Sol remarked tersely. “We need to turn around and—Rowdy, no! You can’t get out and chase those cows!”
Mary’s head pounded as the dog began to jump and lunge, barking frantically out the buggy’s back window. Again she peered down the gravel road, looking for signs of the Sweet Seasons Bakery Café, which belonged to her aunt. It was an unfortunate fact that most Plain houses were tall and white with additions on them, and that they sat back from gravel roads that looked so much alike. Or maybe the café was on a blacktop, and she really did need to turn back to—
Another hard contraction hit Mary so suddenly she cried out before she could catch herself. All this way, she’d been so careful not to frighten the kids, not to let on that she’d gone into labor during the night, because she was determined to see them safely to Aunt Miriam’s before the baby came. When they’d left Bowling Green in the wee hours this morning, Mary had bypassed her parents’ place, sensing her mother would’ve made her stay. And maybe that was just one in a long line of stupid mistakes she’d made.
“Are you gonna have the baby now, Mamma?” Lucy wailed.
“She can’t have it while we’re out here on the road, silly! She’s gotta be in a bed, like Mamm was when you were born,” her brother replied. “I think I’d better drive—”
Again Mary clutched herself as a keening cry rose from her throat. Somehow she steered the horse to the shoulder of the road and stopped it, even as her head began to spin and her mind filled with odd, rapid-fire images. She slumped against the wall of the buggy, caving in to another ripping pain as the blackness began closing in. Was she out of her head, or had Rowdy just jumped out the window? The kids’ strident voices seemed so distant now . . .
Seth Brenneman propped open the door to his wood shop, allowing fresh air inside now that the final coat of varnish on his walnut table had dried. This dining room set—one of many orders he’d already received for pre-Christmas delivery—was complete, with its china hutch, ten chairs, and leaves for the table. He smiled as the natural light shimmered richly on the tabletop. It was only September 28, months ahead of Christmas, but already the holiday season promised to be the most profitable ever for the woodworking and construction business he and his two brothers ran. When Micah and Aaron returned from an installation, they would deliver this set to its new owners in Bloomingdale, so Seth began piling furniture pads near the door.
Loud, strident barking made him stick his head outside. The racket came from a black and white Border collie—and when it caught sight of Seth, it bounded toward him, barking even more insistently. Nobody around Willow Ridge owned a dog like this; he wondered if someone had dumped it on the roadside. The last thing he needed was a noisy, bothersome dog to feed, so he removed the chunk of wood from beneath the door to close it—
But the dog shot toward him, fixing him with an intense brown-eyed gaze that refused to be ignored. It charged at him, nipping his pant leg, still barking frantically as it pivoted to dash back toward the road. When the dog saw that Seth wasn’t following, it came at him again, barking even louder and faster as it circled him.
“Hey! What’re you—don’t nip me, you ornery—” As Seth dodged the dog’s next attack, he noticed a surrey on the road with a small horse trailer behind it. At first sight he thought nothing of it, because in Willow Ridge, Missouri, double-sized buggies were an everyday thing. But when the Border collie headed that direction again, barking at him over its shoulder, Seth noticed the surrey wasn’t moving. As he loped toward the road, he heard a little girl crying her heart out. Then another young voice rose over the caterwauling.
“Wake up! You better not die and leave us here—not like our real mamm did!”
Seth broke into a run, his thoughts racing. The dog was circling the rig and the Belgian hitched to it began to toss its head nervously. A shrill whinny came from the trailer. Before his visions of a runaway buggy could become reality, Seth took hold of the harness. “Whoa, now,” he crooned to the draft horse. “No need to rush off, fella.”
The horse stomped its massive front hoof and shook its head—understandable, considering the racket the dog was making.
“You! Enough!” Seth commanded, pointing at the Border collie. “Sit!”
The dog obeyed, planting itself close enough to lunge at him if he made any threatening moves—and Seth respected the Border collie’s protective instincts. He slowly opened the front door of the double rig and peered inside. “What’s the trouble? My name’s—”
Words left him. A young woman dressed in black slumped against the opposite side of the rig, her face pallid and slack beneath her black kapp. Beside her, a cardboard box shifted on the seat as mewling noises came from inside it. When he lifted the box, the little girl and boy in the back seat grabbed each other and gaped fearfully at him. Worn suitcases and taped boxes were piled around them, leaving just enough room for the dog to ride on the floor between the two back bench seats.
When the woman moaned, Seth thrust the thumping box toward the kids. “Here—you’d better take this while I see to your mamm.”
After the little girl snatched the box, clutching it in her lap, he got a better look at the young woman who’d been driving. She appeared to be still in her teens, awfully thin—yet her arm was curved around a bulging belly. Whether or not she seemed old enough or strong enough, her baby was trying to be born. When she writhed in pain again, Seth hopped into the rig.
“We’ve got a clinic just up the road,” he explained to the kids as he grabbed the lines. “Hang on. We’ll be there in a few.”
The Belgian surged forward and the Border collie again began to circle and bark, but Seth barely noticed the racket. He wanted to rouse the young woman—to stroke the strawberry blond hair back from her pale, sweaty face and tell her where he was taking her. But he thought better of it, considering how scared of him the kids looked.
What have I gotten myself into? Why would this girl be on the road when her baby is so close to—and where’s the man of this family? Why does everyone look so . . . pinched?
It struck him then that perhaps the young woman wore a black kapp because she was in mourning . . . even more of a hardship for the kids, if their birth mother had apparently died, as well. As the Belgian stepped briskly down the road, Seth glanced into the back seat, where the towheaded brother and sister still clung to each other.
“It’ll be all right,” he assured them, touched by the way their eyes filled their faces. “We’ve got a real gut fella here who’s delivered lots of babies. Where were ya goin’ when your mamm passed out?”
The boy frowned. “Our mamm’s in Heaven. This is our—”
“Take us to Aunt Miriam’s,” the little girl interrupted in a tiny voice.
Seth approached the intersection, watching for oncoming traffic. “Miriam Lantz? And her name’s Miriam Hooley now?” he asked as he steered the Belgian onto the county blacktop. Countless Plain women were named Miriam, after all.
The girl’s face went blank. Either she didn’t know Miriam’s last name or she was too scared to recall it. “I want to see if my kitties are okay,” she whined.
“No!” her brother said as he grabbed for the box in her lap. “You can’t let them—”
When the box shifted with the kids’ scuffle, a ginger-colored cat sprang out of the loose top, followed by a striped one. As the kids tried to catch them, squealing, and the cats scrambled around the boxes to avoid being caught, Seth was very glad to be pulling into the lot of the Willow Ridge Clinic. “You’ve got to corral those cats while I help your mamm,” Seth told them more brusquely than he intended to. “Don’t run out into the road! Get them back in their box and then come inside!”
Pandemonium had erupted in the back seat. Seth suspected both kids were getting clawed as they tried to grab the cats, but his main concern was the young woman slumped against the opposite side of the buggy. Her loosened hair clung damply to a face that resembled white candle wax. Her breathing was ragged and shallow—and when he grasped her shoulder, she didn’t respond.
Out cold. Only one thing to do, he thought as he opened his door. “I’m taking her inside,” he told the kids, “so you’ll have to look after yourselves until I get back. Better yet, come into the clinic—but not with the cats!”
Scooping the petite woman into his arms, Seth eased her across the seat and then stepped to the ground. Even in her advanced pregnancy, he doubted she weighed a hundred pounds. As her head lolled against his shoulder and her mouth dropped open, Seth hoped he wasn’t hurting her—wasn’t moving her the wrong way—but he didn’t know what else to do. He hurried to the clinic door and then kicked repeatedly on it.
“Open up!” he called out. The girl was dead weight in his arms, limp and helpless with her distended belly. While Seth wasn’t a man who prayed over every little thing, he found himself petitioning for this young mother’s welfare. “Open the door—hurry!” he cried, desperately hoping their local nurse, Andy Leitner, or his assistant, Rebecca, was at the front desk.
Lord, please help us along here. Please don’t let her lose this baby on account of how I don’t know what I’m doing.
She stirred in his arms and for a few seconds her eyes opened . . . deep green eyes, like an evergreen windbreak, they were. When she met his gaze, Seth’s heartbeat stilled. He saw her need, her yearning, her pain—her absolute trust—and it scared him half to death. He was so drawn in, unable to look away, that he was only vaguely aware of the clinic door opening.
“Oh, my! Come in, Seth,” Rebecca said breathlessly. “Andy’s with a patient, but I’ll get him right away! Put her on the table in there.”
With utmost care, Seth entered the small exam room and eased the woman onto the padded table. “It’s going to be all right,” he murmured, hoping he was correct. “You’re in gut hands here—”
The young woman’s eyes rolled back as her belly and hips undulated with a powerful contraction. Seth reminded himself that he’d assisted several mares and cows with birthings over the years. He tried to keep his thoughts on this level—livestock bearing their young, competently and naturally, and usually without complications—because the thought of being present when this woman’s baby came out made him gaze anxiously toward the hallway. Delivery was another matter altogether when a woman was involved, because every now and again they didn’t survive the ordeal. This girl looked so fragile and—
“Who do we have here?” Andy Leitner asked as he stepped into the room. His dark eyes never left the young woman as he washed his hands at the sink.
“I don’t have any idea,” Seth replied, “but I’m mighty glad you’re with her. She’s got a couple of little kids out in a buggy, along with two cats that got loose and some sort of horse in a trailer, and a Border collie whipping them all into a frenzy.” He paused . . . didn’t hear the dog barking anymore. “I’d better go check on them. It seems awfully quiet out there.”
And what’ll you do with them? Probably not a gut idea for them to sit in the waiting room while their mamm cries out with her contractions. And if the cats jumped out of the buggy and ran off—
Seth stepped outside and stopped in his tracks. Despite not being tied, the Belgian stood obediently at the hitching post. No distressed whinnies came from the trailer. At one side of the surrey the boy and his sister were gazing at him, each of them holding a cat, under the watchful eye of the black and white dog. He’d heard Border collies were herders and organizers, and he was now a believer. A very grateful believer.
He smiled at the kids, stooping to their level. “Does the Aunt Miriam you know own a bakery?” he asked on a hunch.
Their eyes lit up. “Jah!” the little girl said with a squeal. “I want a snickerdoodle!”
“And she makes really gut chocolate pie, too—that’s what I had at her wedding,” the boy replied. Then his brow furrowed. “Is this Willow Ridge?”
Bingo! Thank You, Lord! Seth thought as his smile widened. “It is, and Miriam’s café is right down the road. Shall we go there, so she’ll know you and your mamm are in town?”
“She’s not our—”
“Button it up, Sol!” his sister blurted as she scrambled back into the buggy. “You didn’t even know we was in the right town! And I’m too starvin’ to care!”
After the kids put the cats back into their box, Seth slipped into the driver’s seat. He was relieved to be delivering these kids to someone who’d know who they were . . . and what to do with them. Sol coaxed the dog into the back, and as they rolled onto the blacktop, the clip-clop, clip-clop of the Belgian’s sturdy hooves steadied Seth’s pulse. He could settle the kids at a table, let Miriam fuss over them—leave money for their lunch—and then be on his way back to the shop. By now Aaron and Micah were probably wondering where he was and why he’d left the shop door wide open.
Seth soon realized his plan wasn’t going to work out that way. When the kids burst through the door of the Sweet Seasons and spotted Miriam pouring coffee, they were oblivious to the lunch crowd.
“Aunt Miriam!” the little girl cried as she rushed between the tables.
When Miriam looked up, her eyes widened. “Lucy and Sol! I wasn’t expectin’ you kids so soon—and where’s your mamm?” She set down her carafe and slipped her arms around them.
Seth squeezed between the tables as quickly as he could, nodding at the folks he knew as they ate their dinner. “She’s at the clinic, havin’ her baby,” he said in a low voice. “I found their buggy stopped alongside the road and—”
“Well, I’d better get myself right down there! Will ya drive me?” Miriam bustled toward the counter to set down her order pad. “Naomi, I’m off to help my niece from Bowling Green—Mose’s girl, the one I told ya was comin’?”
From the cookstove in the kitchen, Seth’s mother waved her off. “We’ll be just fine, dearie. You go see to her—and you’re takin’ her, son?”
There was no way out of it now, was there? “Jah, tell Aaron and Micah that’s where I am if they come in askin’,” Seth replied.
“But I want pie!” Sol piped up. “Chocolate pie!”
“I’m starvin’! “ Lucy joined in as both kids gazed up at Miriam. “We left so early we didn’t hardly have nothin’ to eat.”
Seth smiled. Miriam Hooley considered it her mission to feed everyone she met, and her expression said she wasn’t about to ignore these pleading children.
“Truth be told, it might be best if you kids had your lunch while I see how that baby’s comin’ along,” Miriam responded as she glanced at Seth over their heads.
He nodded, even as he suspected what was coming next.
“Let’s sit ya right here at this table,” she said, leading them toward an empty one near the kitchen doorway. “Seth can have his lunch with ya, and then ya can find Ben and get settled in at our place. By then I’m thinkin’ you’ll have a baby sister or brother.”
“Please, not another girl,” Sol said with a roll of his eyes.
Seth chuckled as he pulled out a chair for Lucy. “I felt the same way when my little sister Hannah was born,” he said. “We had three boys who were getting along just fine, and then everything changed with a sister. But she turned out to be the best sister ever,” he added as he smiled at Lucy.
Sol considered what Seth had said, but didn’t comment as he took his place at the table. Instead, the boy looked at Miriam. “So, how long do we have to stay here with him?” he asked as he pointed at Seth. “We’ve got our cats and Rowdy in the rig, and our miniature pony Clarabelle in the trailer.”
“Jah, we couldn’t leave ‘em at the farm all by theirselves,” Lucy said with an emphatic nod.
Seth took his seat. He wasn’t sure how to respond to Sol, who had a chip on his shoulder about the size of his head. When Miriam glanced at Seth, as though asking if there was a problem she hadn’t yet heard about, he shrugged. “I think Rowdy’ll keep watch over the cats while we eat, and the horses’ll be fine,” he replied as he reached for a laminated menu.
“You’ll have to ask Ben about makin’ a place in the barn for the pets,” Miriam said, as though she hadn’t expected such a menagerie to arrive with this family. “I’ll go check on your mamm now, and when I get back—”
“She’s not our mamm,” Sol muttered. “I wish people would stop—”
Before Sol could utter another word, Miriam clapped her hands on either side of his face. The boy had no choice but to look her in the eye.
“You, young fella, had better change your tune,” Miriam said in a low, no-nonsense tone. “I know ya miss your dat, and I know you’ve been missin’ your mamm even longer. But God’s made sure ya had another parent to take care of ya—not to mention bringin’ Seth to your rig to look after ya today,” she added with a rise of her eyebrows. “You’re gonna be stayin’ with Ben and me, and at our house we have an attitude of gratitude. I’ll be askin’ Seth how ya behaved while I was gone, and I’ll hear a gut report, ain’t so?”
Sol nodded reluctantly. When Miriam released him, he looked down at his lap.
“Order anything ya want for lunch,” Miriam said in a lighter tone, smiling gently at Lucy. “You kids’ve had a long trip today. Ya must be real tired. I’ll see ya at the house—and before I go to the clinic, I’ll tell Ben you’re here.”
The kids watched Miriam stop in the kitchen to talk with Naomi for a moment before she went out the back kitchen door. When they looked at Seth again, he smiled and pointed to the menu. “They make really gut hamburgers here, or ya could have grilled cheese—or we can see what’s on the buffet,” he said, pointing toward the steam table.
Sol and Lucy seemed frozen in place, looking at him as though they’d forgotten how to talk. It was the same expression they’d worn in the rig when he’d first gotten in. Was he really so scary? Or were these kids just tired and shy?
Takes ya back a few years, doesn’t it? At their age, you were too bashful to say boo to a stranger, too. So now what’ll you do?
Seth hoped Ben Hooley would come sooner rather than later, or he and these two kids might be sitting here for a long, long while. Miriam’s daughter, Rhoda, was waiting tables and seemed to sense his desperation—and by the time she’d coaxed the kids’ orders from them, Ben showed up. He was a fellow who could talk to anybody, and as he engaged Lucy and Sol in chatter about their animals, relief washed over Seth. He really should be getting back to the shop . . .
And yet, something compelled him to stop by the clinic on his way back to work. Perhaps it was the memory of the young woman’s dead weight in his arms, her utter helplessness as she slumped unconscious in the rig while her kids and their pets had no idea where they were or what to do. When he entered the clinic, Seth was glad no one was sitting in the lobby, for the heart-rending cries coming from the exam room made the hairs on his neck prickle. How could one slender, weak body endure such wrenching pain?
He didn’t realize he was staring at the doorway when Miriam peeked out of it. “Seth!” she said in an urgent whisper. “Come hold her shoulders—”
Before he could refuse, Miriam was gripping his hand, leading him into the little room.
“Mary’s havin’ trouble—too weak to push much. If you’ll prop her up from behind, I think we can get this wee one born.”
Seth’s objections and fear stuck in his throat. It was highly improper for him, an unmarried man, to be in this room while someone else’s wife was having a baby, but when Andy Leitner tented a sheet over the girl’s bent knees, he didn’t argue.
“Wash your hands, and then if you’ll sit behind her—hold her at a better angle,” Andy instructed, “maybe we won’t have to use forceps or do a C-section. This is Mary’s first child, and she’s awfully small.”
Mary. Her name is Mary and she’s having her first child.
Seth quickly did as he was told. He mounted the table so he could straddle it, and when the young woman was settled against his chest he again wondered what he’d gotten himself into. Mary was conscious but weak, exhausted from the stress of the day’s drive, so the least he could do was sit behind her and put his height and bulk to use. She felt so tiny, like his sister Hannah when she’d been a kid—
Jah, keep it on that level, like she’s a sister and not some other fella’s widow.
Mary sucked in her breath, seeming to gather herself for another effort. Her shoulders fit easily between Seth’s and with her head angled to one side, she seemed to be offering up her neck for him to kiss it, or—
Oh, don’t go there!
“Give a good push now, Mary,” Andy instructed in a calm voice. “The baby’s head’s right here and—”
“Jah, we’re waitin’ to catch this wee one,” Miriam encouraged her. “Give us a gut, big push—harder now—”
Seth found himself mentally pushing with Mary, gently grasping her forearms as her body tensed with an effort he could only imagine. It was a good thing God had made childbearing a female function, because he was quite certain he couldn’t endure what this waif was going through.
With a gasp, Mary strained and pushed back against his chest. Andy and Miriam were intent on whatever was happening on their side of the sheet, and then a startled little wail filled the room.
“And here he is, a beautiful little boy!” Andy exclaimed. “While Miriam bathes him, I’ll stitch you up, Mary, and then you can hold him. You did a fine job.”
But Mary had gone limp in Seth’s arms. Considering the size of the blood-smeared infant Miriam was carrying to the countertop, he wondered how the baby had made its way through such a slender young woman. Until now he hadn’t realized what a harrowing experience giving birth must be—especially for a first-time mother.
Seth sat patiently, silently coaxing Mary to breathe with him . . . holding her while Andy repaired the damage done to her body. But who would fix the other things that had obviously gone wrong in this poor woman’s life? If Lucy and Sol’s dat had died, how was Mary going to support this little family?
Don’t go there. Just let those thoughts roll on by like the water down at the mill—
“What do you think?” Miriam asked as she walked up beside him. “He looks to be a fine, healthy little fella, and there’s no doubt he’s Elmer Kauffman’s boy. Got his dat’s long face and square chin.”
Seth’s breath caught. The baby was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen, with a wrinkled face and red skin—but that’s all right, because he’s Elmer Kauffman’s boy. Nobody you have to be concerned about.
And yet Seth’s heart thumped in his chest. “He looks fat and sassy. A lot better than his poor mamm does.” His voice sounded funny and tight, and he couldn’t seem to look away from the little balled fists and the tiny rosebud mouth that opened and shut.
“Mary’ll come around,” Miriam said softly. “She’s my brother Mose’s daughter, from Bowling Green. Lost her Elmer to a fire in his sawmill a month ago, and was wantin’ a change of scenery plus folks to help when the baby came,” she explained. “Her parents weren’t wild about Mary leavin’ town, in her condition—just like they weren’t wild about her hitchin’ up with Elmer and his two kids so soon after Elmer’s wife passed.”
“Ah. Family squabbles,” Seth murmured.
“Jah, you said it. Mose bein’ a preacher, he gets a little overbearin’ when other folks don’t do things the way he wants. Especially after those things don’t go quite right.” Miriam touched the tip of the baby’s nose with her finger, grinning. “But it’s all turnin’ out just fine now. God got Mary on the road with the kids somehow, and when they ran into trouble He convinced you to check on her, Seth. Denki for that.”
Seth chuckled. “Their Border collie was mighty insistent.”
“But Rowdy did what needed to be done. That’s all the Lord asks of anybody.”
Seth tried not to read too much into what Miriam had said. She—and his mother, Naomi, her partner at the Sweet Seasons—dropped plenty of hints about him being twenty-four and single. He’d joined the church, and he’d established a successful woodworking business with his brothers. With several of his buddies getting married recently, that made him one of Willow Ridge’s most eligible bachelors.
Not that he was in a hurry to change his status. Because he and his youngest brother Aaron still lived at home, they could handle the livestock chores and other work their wheelchair-bound father wasn’t up to, so it seemed a comfortable arrangement. Nothing worth changing for any of the girls he’d ever dated, anyway.
And witnessing this baby’s birth didn’t make him feel any more inclined to get romantically involved, either.
So when Andy told him he could let Mary rest on the exam table, Seth eased out from under her, said his goodbyes, and returned to the shop. It was a sunny September day, and he had satisfying work awaiting him. Mary and her kids were in good hands and a welcoming home. He’d simply helped her the way any fellow would’ve done, and he could return to his routine without a backward glance or a second thought.