Lord, if this rain’s gonna cause another flood like ya sent Noah, I hope You’ll give me a sign to get to higher ground. Can’t have my bakery blowin’ off the face of the earth in this wind, either, as we’re countin’ on these pies and cakes for the big party tomorrow!
Miriam Lantz slammed the whistling window shut. When was the last time they’d seen such a fierce wind? Rain pelted the roof of the Sweet Seasons Bakery Café, not quite drowning out the troubling thoughts that had wakened her in the wee hours.
Too often these past weeks she’d dwelled upon Bishop Knepp’s vow to somehow get her out of this business and into his home. Ordinarily it wasn’t her way to fret so, but Hiram Knepp could stir up more trouble than a nest of ornery hornets, if he had a mind to. It hadn’t made him one bit happy, when an English fellow had outbid him to buy this building a month ago.
Miriam sighed. It wasn’t her way to start the day’s baking at one in the morning, either, but lately she’d felt so restless . . . as unsettled as the weather they’d had all during September. Now that she and her partner Naomi Brenneman wouldn’t lose their building—or their booming business—she should be focused on her daughter Rachel’s wedding, set for October twentieth. Such a happy time, because Naomi’s son Micah was the perfect match for her daughter! But even kneading the fragrant, warm dough for the cornmeal rolls on today’s lunch menu didn’t settle her.
Miriam pushed the grainy dough with the heels of her hands, then folded it over itself and repeated the process time had so deeply ingrained in her . . . sprinkled more cornmeal and flour on the countertop, and then rolled the sleeves of her dress another fold higher. “Awful warm in here,” she murmured.
The oven alarm buzzed, and she pulled out six thick pumpkin pies. As she replaced them with the large pans of apple crisp on today’s menu, Miriam paused. Was that a horse’s whinny she’d heard outside?
Not at this hour, in this storm. Who’d be fool enough to risk life and limb—not to mention his horse—traveling the dark county blacktop that runs through Willow Ridge?
She inhaled the spicy aromas of cinnamon and cloves, imagining the smiles on folks’ faces after tomorrow’s preaching service at Henry and Lydia Zook’s, when they surprised the bishop by celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday. These pies, made from her sister Leah’s fresh pumpkins, would be the first to go—but their hostess, Lydia, had also ordered a layer cake and sheet cakes from the Sweet Seasons for the occasion.
And if Hiram gets the notion I baked all these things especially to impress HIM, he’d better just find somebody else to court. And to raise his kids, too!
Miriam chuckled in spite of her misgivings. If anyone could think of a way to dodge the bishop’s romantic intentions, it would be her and her girls! It was no secret around Willow Ridge that Hiram’s young wife, Linda, who’d died of birthing complications, had borne more than just the burden of being married to their moral and community leader. While Miriam believed she could live the more upright life required of a bishop’s wife, serving as an example to their Old Order Amish community, she had no illusions about sharing the same house with Hiram and his rambunctious kids—not to mention his daughter, Annie Mae, who was in the throes of a rumspringa no stepmother wanted to deal with!
A loud crash out in the dining room made Miriam jump. Glass tinkled over the tables and a sudden gust of wind howled through a jagged hole in the window before the power went out.
The bakery grew eerily quiet, what with the freezers and the dishwasher shutting off. This storm was a reminder of how her gas appliances at home had an advantage over the electric ones required by the health department and installed by the Schrocks, the Mennonite quilters she shared her building with. Miriam was no stranger to the darkness, as she started her baking at three every morning, but this storm had set her on edge. And when had she ever seen a huge tree limb on the table closest to the road?
“Lord a-mercy, what’s next?” she murmured as she warily made her way through the darkness, between the café’s tables. “Better have Naomi’s boys clean this up before folks come in for the breakfast—”
Again a horse neighed, right outside the window this time.
“Whoa, fella! Easy now!” a male voice coaxed.
A bolt of lightning shot across the sky, to backlight a frightening silhouette of a huge percheron rearing up, frantically pawing the air. The horse’s handler stood near the damaged tree, struggling with the reins, still talking as calmly as he could while dodging those deadly hooves. “Pharaoh, take it easy, fella! We’ll wait out the storm right here, so—”
But another ominous flash filled the sky and in his frenzy, the horse tipped forward to buck with his powerful back legs.
Miriam heard a sickening thud as those hooves connected to a human body, and then a cry of pain and another thud when the fellow struck the café’s outside wall. The huge percheron galloped off, whinnying in terror, its reins flapping behind it.
Things got very quiet. Only the patter of the rain and some rapidly retreating hoof beats punctuated the darkness. Miriam rushed to unlock the café’s main door, afraid of what she might find: her husband, Jesse, had been trampled to death by a huge stallion that spooked while Jesse was shoeing him, so frightening images rushed through her mind as she stepped outside.
The poor man lay sprawled against the foundation of her building. She considered herself a fairly stalwart woman, able to heft fifty-pound bags of flour and such, but for sure and for certain she wouldn’t be moving this stranger—
Best not to shift him around anyway, she reasoned, noting that his head was up out of the puddles. Should she find something to cover him, and then call for help? Or hurry straight to the phone shanty in the back? Best to call 911 and then . . . but what if he got kicked in the head? What if he’s not gonna come around?
Miriam hesitated but a moment. If the fellow was unconscious, at least he wasn’t in pain, and if he was already gone, well, the paramedics had better come to make sure of that. She started back inside but before she reached the door, the man groaned loudly.
“Don’t try to stand up! Ya got kicked mighty hard, by the sound of it.” Miriam sensed that he, like most injured fellows, would ignore a woman’s instructions, so she hunkered down beside him. The cold rain soaked through her kapp and the back of her dress, but that was a minor discomfort compared to what her visitor must be feeling. “Where’d he kick ya? A horse that big—and that scared—could’ve killed ya, easy.”
The fellow winced, shifting. “I should’ve known better than . . . just wanted to get one town farther along, ya know?” he rasped. “Should’ve just stayed with my wagon instead of thinkin’ Pharaoh would get over bein’ spooked by this lightning. Smarter than I am, that horse is.”
Miriam looked all around. She moved closer, under the eaves, where she wouldn’t get quite so wet. “What kind of wagon are we talkin’ about?” she asked. Maybe this man was half out of his head after being kicked so hard. He had the nicest voice, though. And even if he was in horrible-bad pain, he was thinking of his horse’s welfare.
“Smithy wagon. I’m a travelin’ farrier.” He looked at her then, gingerly rubbing his chest. “Lookin’ to find some reasonable land for a mill, so’s I can settle down. I came to these parts on account of the rapids I heard about on the river.”
Miriam’s heart played hopscotch in her chest. “A travelin’ blacksmith?” she asked in a thin voice. “We’ve got an empty smithy right behind the café building here. Belonged to my Jesse, but he’s passed now, and . . .”
Had she said too much? It wasn’t her way to speak of her widowed state to strangers, yet this fellow seemed willing to reveal his own hopes and dreams to her. So what could it hurt?
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.” He inhaled, testing the pain in his chest. “Ya know, I think I if I could sit up against the building—”
“Here, let me help ya!”
“—and draw a few gut, deep breaths to clear my head—”
“Don’t try to stand up just yet!” Miriam knew she sounded like a mother hen clucking instructions, but she didn’t want him falling over, did she? “If ya can wait here, I’ll call the ambulance and—”
“You’ll do no such thing!” He grabbed her arm, and then managed a tentative smile despite the rain that soaked him. His other hand remained on his chest, massaging where the horse must’ve kicked him. “A fella in my line of work gets some sense knocked into him every now and again. Probably a gut thing.”
Oh, but that smile and his touch set the butterflies to fluttering inside her! Miriam drew back, and he released her arm. She chuckled nervously and he joined her, a happy sound, even if the thunder still rumbled around them. “All right then, since you’re a man and you’ll do as ya please anyway, can I at least bring ya out a chair to pull yourself up with?” she asked. “Better than sittin’ in this puddle, ain’t so?”
“Right nice of ya to look after me this way.”
Miriam scurried inside and grabbed a sturdy chair from the nearest table. Part of her wanted call the Brenneman boys—her Rachel’s fiancé Micah would be here in two shakes of a tail—yet she craved some time with this stranger. She told herself she was giving him a chance to recover before anyone else saw him in this sorry state—
“If ya don’t mind my drippin’ on your floor, I’ll just rest here for a few.”
Miriam jumped. Why wasn’t she surprised that the man had already stood himself up and come in without her help? He eased into the chair she’d pulled out.
“I’d ask what ya were doin’ here at this crazy hour, in the pitch dark,” he murmured as he looked around, “but I guess that’s none of my business. I’ve got to tell ya, though, it smells so gut I must’ve passed through the pearly gates and into heaven.”
Miriam laughed again in spite of her agitated state. “I’m bakin’ pies and decoratin’ cakes for the bishop’s surprise party tomorrow. Getting the day’s breakfast and lunch started, too,” she replied. “Welcome to the Sweet Seasons Bakery Café. Can I get ya some coffee, or—”
“Seems Pharaoh knew more about where to drop me off than I gave him credit for.” Her visitor leaned toward her, smoothing the wet hair back from his face. “I’m Ben Hooley, by the way, originally from out around Lancaster County. I appreciate your takin’ a chance on a wayfarin’ stranger.”
“And I’m Miriam Lantz. So I guess we’re not strangers now, ain’t so?”
And where had such boldness come from? Here they were in the dark without another soul around, chatting like longtime friends. At three in the morning, no less!
Oh, the bishop’s not gonna like this! Not one little bit!
The fellow extended his hand, and as Miriam shook it the kitchen lights flashed on. The refrigerators hummed, and for a moment she could believe it was the little spark of electricity passing from his hand to hers that had restored the building’s power.
Ben’s laugh filled the empty dining room. “Well, now. What do ya think about that?” He looked around, smiling. “The Lord’s watchin’ over me for sure and for certain, bringin’ me here to your place on such a nasty night. A port in a storm. Just what I’ve been needin’ for a while.”
Miriam smiled at that . . . at the sound of his mellow male voice and the way it seemed to make itself at home in her little café. Then she blinked, remembering the reality of this situation: she knew nothing about this Hooley fellow, except that his clothes and speech announced he was Plain and that he’d been kicked by his horse. But now that he was recovering, and the power was back on in her kitchen—
“If you’ll point me toward a broom, I’ll clean up this mess and get that branch back outside where it belongs,” he offered. “It’s the least I can do, seein’s how ya got me in out of the rain.”
She’d been so busy following the lines of his clean-shaven face when he talked, she’d made a fool of herself: there was a huge section of maple tree covering two of her tables and she’d all but forgotten it. “Oh, but ya surely must be too sore to be heftin’—I can get a couple of our fellas—”
“Comes a time when I can’t move that tree limb or push a broom, ya better just bury me.” Ben scooted to the edge of his chair and slowly stood up, testing his balance. “See there? I’m gut as new. A little soggy but movin’ around’s the cure for that, and a way to keep from getting stiff, too.”
Miriam didn’t know what to say . . . didn’t think it proper to examine his chest, even if he probably had a huge, hoof-shaped bruise where his horse had kicked him. It was the first time she’d been alone with a man since Jesse had passed—except for Bishop Knepp, and she’d ducked out of his embrace—so she felt acutely aware of Ben’s broad shoulders and how his wet shirt clung to them. He was a slender fellow but muscular—
And what business do ya have gawkin’ at him? He can’t be thirty yet. More Rhoda’s age than yours!
Thoughts of her grown daughters—how they’d be here with Naomi in a couple of hours to prepare for the breakfast shift—steadied her resolve. She smiled at Ben but she stepped back, too. It wasn’t proper for an Amish woman to behave this way even when no one was watching—except God, of course. “If you’re up to that sort of work, I’d be grateful, as I’ve got my bakin’ to get back to,” she replied. “But if ya feel woozy or short of breath, like ya need a doctor—”
“Your kindness has already worked a miracle cure, Miriam. Right nice of ya to set aside a few of the Old Ways to help me out.”
Had he read her mind? Or did he just know the right things to say? A traveling blacksmith surely knew all sorts of ins and outs when it came to making deals for what he needed . . .
And what sort of fellow, in a trade every Old Order Amish family relied upon, didn’t settle in one community? And if Ben knew about the rapids in the river, what else had he checked up on? What if he was making up this story as he went along, to gain some advantage over her—or whomever he met up with—in Willow Ridge?
And what if you’re spinning all this stuff out like a spider, about to catch yourself in a web of assumptions? Just because he’s got a nice smile—
He did have a nice smile, didn’t he? Miriam quickly fetched a broom and dustpan from the closet, relieved that Ben had already stepped outside to see about pulling the big tree branch from her window. She set the tools where he would find them and then returned to her kitchen, where the lights were brighter and the serving window served as a barrier between this good-looking stranger and her work space.
Jah, he is gut-lookin’. And that’s not his fault, is it?
Miriam laughed at herself. No, Ben Hooley’s looks and manner were gifts from God, same as the way Rachel, Rhoda, and Rebecca favored their handsome dat.
“And what do ya think of all this, Jesse?” she whispered. Every now and again she asked her late husband’s opinion, or thought about how he would have handled situations she found herself in, even though her confidence had increased a lot during these past months of successfully running her business.
Miriam stood quietly at her flour-dusted work table . . . just letting the hum of the appliances and the aroma of spicy pumpkin pies kept her company.
Wait for the promise of the Father.
She blinked. Was that still, small voice she relied upon for guidance—be it Jesse’s or God’s—implying the heavenly Father might have made a promise to her? And that He was about to keep it? As glass tinkled onto the cafe floor and that tree branch disappeared out the gaping hole in the window, she wondered if this had been a providential morning.
Meant to be, for both her and Ben.
For sure and for certain, this stranger was giving her a lot to think about.