Mary Kauffman clutched herself as another contraction ripped through her insides. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes as she somehow kept from screamingâsomehow 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.
?” Sol asked in a testier voice. At seven, he was more acutely aware than Lucy of how their father's death was affecting their familyâand 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 screamâexcept 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
Lucy begin sniffling again. “Can I
let the kitties out toâ”
“No!” Mary snapped more vehemently than she intended. “We'll be at Aunt Miriam's in just a fewâ”
remember seeing those black and white cows before,” Sol remarked tersely. “We need to turn around andâRowdy,
! 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 CafÃ©, 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 cafÃ© was on a blacktop, and she really did need to turn back toâ
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
, 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 driveâ”
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 setâone of many orders he'd already received for pre-Christmas deliveryâwas 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 collieâand 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 itâ
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 youâdon't nip
, you orneryâ” 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 in 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.
! You'd better not die and leave us hereânot like our
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 headâunderstandable, 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 movesâand 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'sâ”
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
. 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. “Hereâyou'd better take this while I see to your
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 thinâyet 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 womanâto 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 toâand 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
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
fella here who's delivered lots of babies. Where were ya goin' when your
The boy frowned. “Our
's in Heaven. This is ourâ”
“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 themâ”
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
glad to be pulling into the lot of the Willow Ridge Clinic. “You've got to corral those cats while I help your
,” 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 shallowâand 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 clinicâbut 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 herâwasn't moving her the wrong wayâbut 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 doorâhurry!” 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 painâher absolute trustâand 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
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 levelâlivestock bearing their young, competently and naturally, and usually without complicationsâbecause 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 andâ
“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.”