***Special thanks to Karri | Marketing Assistant | Harvest House Publishers for sending me a review copy.***
Kansas,1881—On a trip to visit relatives, Emma Switzer’s Amish family is robbed of all their possessions, leaving them destitute and stranded on the prairie. Walking into the nearest trading settlement, they pray to the Lord for someone to help. When a man lands in the dust at her feet, Emma looks down at him and thinks, The Lord might have cleaned him up first.
Luke Carson, heading up his first cattle drive, is not planning on being the answer to anyone’s prayers, but it looks as though God has something else in mind for this kind and gentle man. Plain and rugged—do the two mix? And what happens when a dedicated Amish woman and a stubborn trail boss prove to be each other’s match?
Apple Grove, Kansas
Nearly the entire Amish district of Apple Grove had turned out to help this morning, all twenty families. Or perhaps they were here merely to wish Emma Switzer well as she set off for her new home in Troyer, fifty miles away.
From her vantage point on the porch of the house, Emma’s grandmother kept watch over the loading of the gigantic buffet hutch onto the specially reinforced wagon. Her sharp voice sliced through the peaceful morning air.
“Forty years I’ve had that hutch from my dearly departed husband and not a scratch on it. Jonas, see that you use care!”
If Maummi’s expression weren’t so fierce, Emma would have laughed at the long-suffering look Papa turned toward his mother. But the force with which Maummi’s fingers dug into the flesh on Emma’s arm warned that a chuckle would be most ill-suited at the moment. Besides, the men straining to heft the heavy hutch from the front porch of their home into the wagon didn’t need further distractions. Their faces strained bright red above their beards, and more than one drop of sweat trickled from beneath the broad brim of their identical straw hats.
Emma glanced at the watchers lined up like sparrows on a fence post. She caught sight of her best friend, Katie Beachy, amid the sea of dark dresses and white kapps. Katie smiled and smoothed her skirt with a shy gesture. The black fabric looked a little darker and crisper than that of those standing around her, which meant she’d worn her new dress to bid Emma farewell, an honor usually reserved for singings or services or weddings. The garment looked well on her. Emma had helped sew the seams at their last frolic. Of course, Katie’s early morning appearance in a new dress probably had less to do with honoring Emma than with the presence of Samuel Miller, the handsome son of the district bishop. With a glance toward Samuel, whose arms bulged against the weight of holding up one end of the hutch, she returned Katie’s smile with a conspiratorial wink.
Emma’s gaze slid over other faces in the crowd and snagged on a pair of eyes fixed on her. Amos Beiler didn’t bother to turn away but kept his gaze boldly on her face. Nor did he bother to hide his expression, one of longing and lingering hurt. He held infant Joseph in his arms, and a young daughter clutched each of his trouser-clad legs. A wave of guilt washed through Emma, and she hastily turned back toward the wagon.
From his vantage point up in the wagon bed, Papa held one end of a thick rope looped around the top of the hutch, the other end held by John Yoder. The front edge of the heavy heirloom had been lifted into the wagon with much grunting and groaning, while the rear still rested on the smooth wooden planks of the porch. Two men steadied the oxen heads, and the rest, like Samuel, had gathered around the back end of the hutch. A protective layer of thick quilts lined the wagon bed.
Papa gave the word. “Lift!”
The men moved in silent unity. Bending their knees, their hands grasped for purchase around the bottom edges. As one they drew in a breath, and at Papa’s nod raised in unison. Emma’s own breath caught in her chest, her muscles straining in silent sympathy with the men. The hutch rose until its rear end was level with its front, and the men stepped forward. The thick quilts dangling beneath scooted onto the wagon as planned, a protective barrier from damage caused by wood against wood.
The hutch suddenly dipped and slid swiftly to the front. Emma gasped. Apparently the speed caught Papa and John Yoder by surprise too, for the rope around the top went slack. Papa lunged to reach for the nearest corner, and his foot slipped. The wagon creaked and sank lower on its wheels as the hutch settled into place. At the same moment Papa went down on one knee with a loud, “Ummph.”
“Ach! ” Maummi pulled away from Emma and rushed forward. Her heart pounding against her rib cage, Emma followed. Men were already checking on Papa, but Maummi leaped into the wagon bed with a jump that belied her sixty years, the strings of her kapp flying behind her. She applied bony elbows to push her way around the hutch to her son’s side.
She came to a halt above him, hands on her hips, and looked down. “Are you hurt?”
Emma reached the side of the wagon in time to see Papa wince and shake his head. “No. A bruise is all.”
“Good.” She left him lying there and turned worried eyes toward her beloved hutch. With a gentle touch, she ran loving fingers over the smooth surface and knelt to investigate the corners.
A mock-stern voice behind Emma held the hint of a chuckle. “Trappings only, Marta Switzer. Care you more for a scratch on wood than an injury to your son?”
Emma turned to see Bishop Miller approach. He spared a smile for her as he drew near enough to lean his arms across the wooden side of the wagon and watch the activity inside. Samuel helped Papa to his feet and handed him the broad-brimmed hat that had fallen off. Emma breathed a sigh of relief when he took a ginger step to try out his leg and smiled at the absence of pain.
“My son is fine.” Maummi waved a hand in his direction, as though in proof. “And so is my hutch. Though my heart may not say the same, such a fright I’ve had.” She placed the hand lightly on her chest, drew a shuddering breath, and wavered on her feet.
Concern for her grandmother propelled Emma toward the back of the wagon. As she climbed up, she called into the house, “Rebecca, bring a cool cloth for Maummi’s head.”
The men backed away while Katie and several other women converged on the wagon to help Emma lift Maummi down and over to the rocking chair that rested in the shade of the porch, ready to be loaded when the time came. Maummi allowed herself to be lowered onto the chair, and then she wilted against the back, her head lolling sideways and arms dangling. A disapproving buzz rumbled among the watching women, but Emma ignored them. Though she knew full well that most of the weakness was feigned for the sake of the bishop and other onlookers, she also knew Maummi’s heart tended to beat unevenly in her chest whenever she exerted herself. It was yet another reason why she ought to stay behind in Apple Grove, but Maummi insisted her place was with Emma, her oldest granddaughter. What she really meant was that she intended to inspect every eligible young Amish man in Troyer and handpick her future grandson-in-law.
Aunt Gerda had written to say she anticipated that her only daughter would marry soon, and she would appreciate having Emma come to help her around the house. She’d also mentioned the abundance of marriageable young men in Troyer, with a suggestion that twenty-year-old Emma was of an age that the news might be welcome. Rebecca had immediately volunteered to go in Emma’s place. Though Papa appeared to consider the idea, he decided to send Emma because she was the oldest and therefore would be in need of a husband soonest. Maummi insisted on going along in order to “Keep an eye on this hoard of men Gerda will parade before our Emma.”
As far as Emma was concerned, they should just send Maummi on alone and leave her in Apple Grove to wait for her future husband to be delivered to her doorstep.
Rebecca appeared from inside the house with a dripping cloth in hand. A strand of wavy dark hair had escaped its pins and fluttered freely beside the strings of her kapp. At barely thirteen, her rosy cheeks and smooth, high forehead reminded Emma so sharply of their mother that at times her heart ached.
Rebecca looked at Maummi’s dramatic posture and rolled her eyes. She had little patience with Maummi’s feigned heart episodes, and she was young enough that she had yet to learn proper restraint in concealing her emotions. Emma awarded her sister with a stern look and held out a hand for the cloth.
With a contrite bob of her head, Rebecca handed it over and dropped to her knees beside the rocking chair. “Are you all right, Maummi?”
“Ach, I’m fine. I don’t think it’s my time. Yet.”
Emma wrung the excess water from the cloth before draping it across the back of Maummi’s neck.
“Danki.” The elderly woman realized that the men had stopped working in order to watch her, and she waved her hand in a shooing motion. “Place those quilts over my hutch before you load anything else! Mind, Jonas, no scratches.”
Papa shook his head, though a smile tugged at his lips. “Ja, I remember.”
The gray head turned toward Emma. “Granddaughter, see they take proper care.”
“I will, Maummi.”
Katie joined Emma to oversee the wrapping of the hutch. When Samuel Miller offered a strong arm to help Katie up into the wagon, Emma hid a smile. No doubt she would receive a letter at her new home soon, informing her that a wedding date had been published. Because Samuel was the bishop’s son, there was no fear he would not receive the Zeungis, the letter of good standing. Rebecca would be thrilled at the news of a proper wedding in tiny Apple Grove.
But Emma would be far away in Troyer, and she would miss her friend’s big day.
Why must I live there when everything I love is here?
She draped a thick quilt over her end of the hutch and sidled away while Papa secured a rope around it. The faces of her friends and family looked on. They filled the area between the house and the barn. She loved every one in her own way. Yes, even Amos Beiler. She sought him out among the crowd and smiled at the two little girls who hovered near his side. Poor, lonely Amos. He was a good father to his motherless family. No doubt he’d make a fine husband, and if she married him she wouldn’t have to move to Troyer. The thought tempted her once again, as it often had over the past several weeks since Papa announced his decision that she would live with Aunt Gerda for a while.
But she knew that if she agreed to become Amos’s wife that she would be settling. True, she would gain a prosperous farm and a nice house and a trio of well-behaved children, with the promise of more to come. But the fact remained that though there was much to respect about Amos, she didn’t love him. The thought of seeing that moon-shaped face and slightly cross-eyed stare over the table for breakfast, dinner, and supper sent a shiver rippling across her shoulders. Not to mention sharing a marriage bed with him. It was enough to make her throw her apron over her face and run screaming across Papa’s cornfield.
He deserves a wife who loves him, she told herself for the hundredth time. Her conscience thus soothed, Emma turned away from his mournful stare.
“That trunk goes in the front,” Maummi shouted from her chair on the porch. “Emma, show them where.”
Emma shrank against the gigantic hutch to give the men room to settle the trunk containing all of her belongings. An oiled canvas tarp had been secured over the top to repel any rain they might meet over the next week. Inside, resting on her dresses, aprons, bonnets, and kapps, was a bundle more precious to her than anything else in the wagon: a quilt, expertly and lovingly stitched, nestled within a heavy canvas pouch. Mama had made it with her own hands for Emma’s hope chest. The last stitch was bitten off just hours before she closed her eyes and stepped into the arms of her Lord.
Oh, Mama, if you were here you could convince Papa to let me stay home. I know you could. And now, without you, what will happen to me?
Yet, even in the midst of the dreary thought, a spark of hope flickered in the darkness in Emma’s heart. The future yawned before her like the endless Kansas prairie. Wasn’t there beauty to be found in the tall, blowing grasses of the open plain? Weren’t there cool streams and shady trees to offer respite from the heat of the day? Maybe Troyer would turn out to be an oasis.
Maummi’s sharp tone cut through her musing. She jerked upright. Her grandmother appeared to have recovered from her heart episode. From the vantage point of her chair, she oversaw every movement with a critical eye.
“Mind what I said about that loading, girl. The food carton goes on last. We won’t want to search for provisions when we stop at night on the trail.”
An approving murmur rose from the women at the wisdom of an organized wagon.
“Yes, ma’am.” Emma exchanged a quick grin with Katie and then directed the man carrying a carton of canned goods and trail provisions to set his burden aside for now.
A little while later, after everything had been loaded and secured under an oiled canvas, the men stood around to admire their handiwork. Samuel even crawled beneath the wagon to check the support struts, and he pronounced everything to be “in apple-pie order.”
Emma felt a pluck on her arm. She turned to find Katie at her elbow.
“This is a gift for you.” Her friend pushed a small package into her hands. “It’s only a soft cloth and some fancy-colored threads. I was fixing to stitch you a design, but you’re so much better at fine sewing than I am that I figured you could make something prettier by yourself.” She ducked her head. “Think kindly of me when you do.”
Warmed by her friend’s gesture, Emma pulled her into an embrace. “I will. And I expect a letter from you soon.” She let Katie see her glance slide over to Samuel and back with a grin. “Especially when you have something exciting to report.”
A becoming blush colored the girl’s cheeks. “I will.”
Emma was still going down the line, awarding each woman a farewell hug, when Bishop Miller stepped up to the front of the wagon and motioned for attention.
“It’s time now to bid Jonas Switzer Godspeed and fair weather for his travels.” A kind smile curved his lips when he looked to Maummi and then to Emma. “And our prayers go with our sisters Marta and Emma as they make a new home in Troyer.”
He bowed his head and closed his eyes, a sign for everyone in the Apple Grove district to follow suit. Emma obeyed, fixing her thoughts on the blue skies overhead and the Almighty’s throne beyond. Silence descended, interrupted only by the snorts of oxen and a happy bird in the tall, leafy tree that gave shade to the porch.
What will I find in Troyer? A new home, as the bishop says? A fine Amish husband, as Papa wishes? I pray it be so. And I pray he will be the second son of his father so that he will come home with me to Apple Grove and take over Papa’s farm when the time comes.
A female sniffled behind her. Not Katie, but Rebecca. A twist inside Emma’s rib cage nearly sent tears to her eyes. Oh, how she would miss her sister when Rebecca left Troyer to return home with Papa. She vowed to make the most of their time together on the trail between here and there.
Bishop Miller ended the prayer with a blessing in High German, his hand on the head of the closest oxen. When the last word fell on the quiet crowd, Maummi’s voice sliced through the cool morning air. “Now that we’re seen off proper, someone help me up. We’ll be gone before the sun moves another inch across the sky.”
Though she’d proved earlier that she could make the leap herself at need, Maummi allowed Papa and the bishop to lift her into the wagon. She took her seat in her rocking chair, which was wedged between the covered hutch and one high side of the wagon bed. With a protective pat on the hutch, she settled her sewing basket at her feet and pulled a piece of mending onto her lap. No idle hands for Maummi. By the time they made Troyer, she’d have all the mending done, and the darning too, and a good start on a new quilt.
Emma spared one more embrace for Katie, steadfastly ignored Amos’s mournful stare, and allowed the bishop to help her up onto the bench seat. She scooted over to the far end to make room for Papa, and then Rebecca was lifted up to sit on the other side of him. A snug fit, but they would be okay for the six-day journey to Troyer. Emma settled her black dress and smoothed her apron.
“Now, Jonas, mind you what I said.” Maummi’s voice from behind their heads sounded a bit shrill in the quiet morning. “You cut a wide path around Hays. I’ll not have my granddaughters witness the ufrooish of those wild Englischers.”
On the other side of Papa, Rebecca heaved a loud sigh. Emma hid her grin. No doubt Rebecca would love to witness the rowdy riots of wild cowboy Englischers in the infamous railroad town of Hays.
Papa mumbled something under his breath that sounded like “This will be the longest journey of my life,” but aloud he said, “Ja, Mader.”
With a flick of the rope, he urged the oxen forward. The wagon creaked and pitched as it rolled on its gigantic wheels. Emma grabbed the side of the bench with one hand and lifted her other hand in a final farewell as her home fell away behind her.