Close to Home – Chapter 20

“Caleb!” Mary could hardly breathe for the smoke and stench of burning rubber. She could see the big pickup resting upside down on the far side of the ten-foot drainage ditch.

“You looking for the Aim-ish man?”

Mary nodded, too frightened for words.

“He’s in there!” A woman gestured with a big flashlight toward the expanse of muddy water.

In the distance, Mary heard a siren. “He’s all right?” she begged. “The Amish man?”

“Miss. You’ll have to move back.”

Mary ignored the trooper, her attention riveted by a dark shape moving out of the shadows. “Caleb?” she screamed and ran toward him.

Hatless, covered in mud, Caleb trudged toward her. In his arms, he carried a limp body. Caleb lowered him facedown onto the ground and pushed hard on his back. The man, hardly more than a scrawny boy, began to cough and then to choke up muddy water. Caleb gave him one more good push, and the youth began to cry. Satisfied he was not seriously injured, Caleb left him to the policeman.

“Caleb.” Mary threw herself into his arms and covered his face with kisses. “I thought you were dead,” she said, now sobbing with joy and relief.

“The truck hit my back wheel then cut in front of the horse and flipped. The driver was thrown into the water. I knew I had to get him out before he drowned.”

“When I couldn’t find you… I… I…”

Caleb’s strong arms went around her and he led her into the shadows. “Did you see my horse?” he asked. “Is he all right?”

She nodded. “Walking on all four legs, shook up, but sound enough. Oh, Caleb, I’m so sorry for the way I acted back at the house.”

“Keep explaining,” he murmured. “It’s going good so far.”

And then he kissed her so sweetly that she didn’t mind the mud or the sand or his wet clothes soaking hers. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said. “And I know now that I don’t ever want to lose you.” She looked into his eyes. “I was afraid I couldn’t trust you, but I was wrong. You just risked your life to save a stranger.” She felt tears on her cheeks. “You’re the one man I can trust, Caleb.”

“Does this mean I can court you?”

She gazed into his eyes in the darkness. “It means I’ll be your wife…if you still want me.”

“We’d best marry soon, I think.” He threaded his lean fingers through her long hair. “You seem to have lost your bonnet.”

“Oh.” Her hand flew to her head. Not only had she lost her kapp, but her hair was hanging down around her shoulders like some Jezebel.

“These English will see us kissing and there’ll be a scandal in their papers,” he teased. “But we’ll be far away in Oregon.”

“Oregon?” She looked at him again. “I thought your farm was in Virginia.”

“What made you think that? It’s my other grandfather who’s offered his farm. My mother’s father, Moses. He lives just across the valley from your family.”

Tears shone in her eyes. “We’re going home to Blessing Creek?”

“Ya, my darling. Sometimes you search the world for what’s missing, only to find it close to home all along.”

THE END

Close to Home – Chapter 19

“Did your young man leave so quickly?” Aunt Viola asked as Mary hurried past her and up the staircase.

“Ya, he did,” Mary answered. “And I don’t think he will be back.” It was all she could do to keep from bursting into tears. She hadn’t wanted to hurt Caleb, and she had. She shouldn’t have closed the door on him like that and now she didn’t know how to make it right.

“A pity,” her aunt called after her. “Such a nice-looking boy. Good manners, and…the promise of a prosperous farm.”

Mary pretended she hadn’t heard and continued to climb the steps, past the second floor landing, up to the third floor attic and to her room. Eyes stinging, she went to the window and watched as Caleb’s buggy turned onto the main road. She couldn’t see the horse because of the darkness, but the blue carriage lights blinked brightly.

What had she done? What if she never found anyone she cared for as much as she cared for him? What if she ended up an old maid living in a relative’s house or married to someone like Zebediah Swartzentruber? Shouldn’t she have been happy that she and Caleb could have their own land to go to, rather than skimping and saving for years to buy a farm? So what if she would have to live in Virginia? There was a large Amish community there. They would become her family.

All her arguments, they were just excuses. Irrational fears that had no truth behind them.

She pressed her palm against the window screen and blinked back tears. I love him, she thought. I’ve always loved him. But now, because of her stubborn pride, it might be too late.

Unless… Maybe if she went to him and—

Mary instinctively leaned closer to the window as the lights of a speeding truck came up the road behind Caleb’s buggy. A police car with flashing blue lights and a wailing siren followed the truck. The truck started to pass the buggy, but then must have spotted the oncoming car. A silent scream caught in Mary’s throat as she heard the squeal of brakes and saw the truck strike something and then roll with a terrible shriek of grinding metal.

Caleb! Where was Caleb? The blue lights of the buggy were gone. In their place were flames and the headlights of a vehicle.

“Caleb!” Mary raced down the stairs, her heart pounding. “There’s been an accident!” she shouted to her uncle. “Caleb’s buggy’s been hit by a truck.”

“Wait!” her uncle said. “I’ll hitch up the cart.”

“It’s quicker if I go across the field!” She ran out the back door and through the garden. Her kapp blew off, but she didn’t stop to retrieve it. All she could think of was Caleb.

Mary’s breath came in ragged gulps and her side ached, but she kept running. She had to get to Caleb—had to know if he was safe. “Please, God,” she kept repeating.

A loose horse trailing a harness stumbled past her in the darkness—Caleb’s gelding.

A state trooper strode through the blinking lights, ordering onlookers to step back, but there was no sign of Caleb, only a shattered buggy, half sunk in the deep ditch.

Close to Home – Chapter 18

Please, Caleb, I need time,” Mary said softly, putting down the coffeepot and walking to the kitchen door.

He studied her face, looking for a sign that there was hope. “I understand. Just promise me that you really will consider it,” he said, his hand on the doorknob.

“This is all happening so fast. I don’t know how I feel about you, Caleb.”

He stepped out onto the porch and she followed him. “Is it because I kissed you?” he asked, afraid he had pushed her too far.

She shook her head, trying to figure out how to put her emotions into words. “It’s about trust. I have to be able to trust you, Caleb. I just don’t know if I can.”

“I meant what I said. You’re the only one for me.”

“The trouble is, I’m not sure you’re the one for me.” She closed the heavy door, leaving him alone on the porch.

Confused and hurt, Caleb returned to his buggy, untied his horse and drove out of the yard.

He felt stunned, almost numb. He wasn’t sure what had gone wrong in there, but something had. Mary had welcomed his kiss. That much he knew. She’d kissed him with as much passion as he felt.

He supposed he should have been up front about his grandfather’s offer, but explaining why he had to have a wife immediately would have been awkward. Caleb wasn’t clear himself why his grandfather had stipulated he must marry at once. Perhaps he loved his farm and thought that a married man would have more reason to work hard.

Caleb had never been close to his mother’s father. But his grandfather had written that he regretted what had happened between them all. He said that he realized that the fault was his, and he asked for forgiveness. Caleb’s mother had loved her father, despite the breach between them, and Caleb didn’t have it in his heart to hold a grudge against his grandfather.

Most young women would have been glad that the man they were marrying owned land. Surely Mary wouldn’t believe he would marry her just to get the land? Would she?

The sound of a motor vehicle coming fast behind him jerked Caleb from his thoughts. He looked in the mirror and saw a pair of headlights bearing down on him and the flash of blue police lights behind it. The speeding car started to move into the left lane to pass the buggy, but there was another vehicle coming, head-on.

Caleb would have pulled the horse off the road, but on his right was a deep drainage ditch. There was nowhere to go.

Brakes squealed and his horse reared in the traces. The horse whinnied in fear and fell back, tilting the carriage dangerously. Mary’s image rose in his mind just before he felt the crash and the sound of shattering wood deafened him.

Close to Home – Chapter 17

For just a moment, Mary savored the warmth and texture of his lips. Caleb’s kiss was tender, and it softened her anger and stole the breath from her throat. He’d surprised her, but she seemed to know exactly how to tilt her head, as though they’d done it a hundred times. His breath was fresh, and he tasted of mint. She couldn’t understand how their lips came together so perfectly, almost as though they were two parts of a single whole.

“Oh, Mary.”

Caleb embraced her and she had to make herself pull away. “Ne. We’re not to the kissing part yet. I’ve not even agreed to let you court me,” she protested, rising to her feet and going to the far side of the table.

“I want you for my wife. I’m not playing games.” He shook his head. “We don’t have to go slow.”

She went to the stove and picked up the coffeepot, needing something to do, needing to reason this out. She could still taste him, still feel the imprint of his mouth on hers.

What must he think of her? That he could drive her home from a singing and she’d allow him to do what was proper only for a betrothed or a husband? Did he think that she was so desperate to marry anyone that she’d allow him to take liberties? And suppose her aunt or uncle had returned to the kitchen and seen them kissing? Her reputation would have been destroyed.

“I don’t know about the girls in Virginia,” she said. “But I was raised modestly. You’re too fast by far, Caleb.”

He stood up and she thought again how handsome he was. Far too good a catch for the likes of her…

“I won’t apologize for kissing you,” he said. “It’s true that we’ve only just met after so long apart. But if you’ll take a chance on me, I promise I’ll never let you down again. I love you, Mary. I think I’ve loved you since you were seven years old. And I can’t imagine having another woman in my kitchen, in my bed or bearing my children.”

She chewed on her lower lip. This was all too much. How could he expect her to seriously consider marriage? Most Amish couples dated for a year or more before they announced their intentions to wed. And to move to Virginia? To never see her family and friends again?

And then there was the question of whether or not she really could trust him. He’d told her he had changed, that he wasn’t the boy who had cheated on the spelling bee and lied to her. But he was the man who had failed to tell her that he needed a wife in the next month.

“Go home, Caleb,” she said, her conflicted emotions bubbling up again. “Give me time to think and pray on this. I won’t be rushed into marriage. You’re asking me to commit my whole life to you. It’s not rational to do that without careful thought and prayer.”

He crossed the kitchen to the door and then turned back. “It is,” he said. “It’s the most rational decision I’ve ever made.”

Close to Home – Chapter 16

Caleb glanced at Mary, worried. Her tight little smile didn’t fool him for an instant. One look at those beautiful brown eyes told him all he needed to know.

She thought his sudden interest was all because of the inheritance.

He had to talk to her alone—to explain, before she slammed the door in his face forever. He gulped the hot coffee without cream or sugar and bolted down the cinnamon bun. When Mary’s aunt offered second helpings, he refused. “Mary and I wanted to sit and talk awhile,” he said. “With your permission.”

Both Viola and Harvey grinned and nodded, and before Mary could protest, they hurried off, leaving them alone in the well-lit kitchen. It was Mary who broke the silence between them.

“So none of this was about your feelings for me. You just needed a wife to get this farm you were telling me about?”

He reached out to touch her hand, but she snatched her arm back as if she’d been burned.

“I do need a wife,” he said. “That’s true, but I wasn’t asking to court you just because of that.”

She didn’t look like she believed him.

He came around the table and sat next to her. “It’s the truth, Mary. When I saw you at the barn raising, I realized there was no other woman for me. Never has been.”

“You would have married Susan.”

“Ya. But it would have been a mistake. She did me a favor by running off. She wasn’t happy in the Plain life, and I couldn’t be happy out of it.”

“I don’t like being your second choice. I’d never know, would I? Whether you picked me to get the farm or because you really wanted me to be your wife.”

“To get the farm from my grandfather, I do need a wife. But my feelings for you have nothing to do with the farm.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? Were you going to hide the truth until I’d agreed to be courted? Or longer than that?”

Her cheeks were rosy red, and her eyes caught the light of the oil lamp. Dear God, if I can just make this woman my wife, he thought, I’ll never ask for anything again. He took her hand. It was as cool as her gaze. “I would have told you.”

“Who else have you asked to be your wife? How many others?”

“No one but Susan, and she married someone else.”

“So no girl here would agree to let you court her?”

“Lots would.”

“Oh? Like who?”

He thought for a second. “Miriam Yoder, maybe.”

“No way. She’s already got two boys after her.”

“Her sister Anna, then. She’s a good cook.”

Mary nodded, gazing into his eyes. “Anna? Maybe. Who else?”

“Dorcas for certain. But I didn’t ask any of them. I only want you.” He leaned close and kissed her soft mouth.

Close to Home – Chapter 15

The words were out of her mouth before Mary realized what she was saying. What she was implying…which was that she was interested in having him court her.

“Are you sure you want me to come in?” he asked. “I won’t keep apologizing, Mary. If we’re to explore how we feel, we have to put the past behind us. The bad parts, I mean.”

“Ya,” she agreed. And she realized that she needed to put her own insecurities aside, too. If she was going to give him a chance—them a chance—she had to be brave. As brave as he was to have brought them this far.

“You’re right. We need to put it all behind us and start again.”

Riding home from the singing with Caleb in his buggy was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. It was what she’d always imagined when she thought about courting a boy…almost. She’d just never pictured Caleb in her mind.

But the reality was so much better. So much…scarier. Unconsciously, she gripped the dashboard of the buggy.

Caleb was with her again and asking to court her. It was almost too much to take in. The thought of marrying him and moving to Virginia overwhelmed her. She’d be so far from home in Virginia.

No, it would never work, no matter how much she cared for him.

But the moment the thought went through her mind, she was reminded of the accusations her family and friends had made. They said she was always too picky when it came to suitors, that she never gave boys a fair chance and was always coming up with excuses why a match was unsuitable. Were they right? Was that what she was doing now, too?

He helped her down from the buggy.

This was it. This was her opportunity to give Caleb a chance. To believe him when he said he cared for her. This was her opportunity to get past the doubts she had about herself. This was her chance at happiness. “I want you to come in,” she said.

“So I’m truly forgiven?”

“Ya, Caleb.” She smiled at him, suddenly excited about the thought of having him in, sitting down and talking with him. They had so much catching up to do. “You’re forgiven.” Mary was reaching for the kitchen doorknob when the door swung open.

“Mary!” her aunt said. “And Caleb…Stutzman, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “Evening.”

“I’ve asked him in for coffee,” Mary explained.

“Singing over early?” Aunt Viola peered past them at Caleb’s buggy. “Caleb drove you home, did he?” She beamed. “Come in, both of you. Coffee’s on the back of the stove. And cinnamon buns.”

Caleb followed them into the kitchen. “I’d love a cinnamon bun.”

“Young men are always hungry.” Aunt Viola waved them toward the long kitchen table.

Her uncle wandered into the kitchen. “Did I hear something about coffee and cinnamon buns?” He offered a hearty greeting to Caleb. “Stutzman, ain’t it?”

Caleb nodded and shook Uncle Harvey’s hand.

“Heard you’ve come into good fortune,” Aunt Viola said as she poured mugs of coffee. “Promised a farm, isn’t that right?” She stared pointedly at Mary.

Caleb nodded again and looked uncomfortable.

Mary felt her cheeks growing hot. “It’s not… We’re not…” She tried again. “Caleb and I were friends when we were children.”

“A good start to walking out with a girl.” Uncle Harvey tugged on his beard, sizing up Caleb.

“Particularly since you’re in a hurry to find a wife.” Aunt Viola turned to Mary. “Martha heard from Elizabeth that Caleb’s grandfather wants to give him the farm, but only if he’s married. If he doesn’t bring home a wife within the month, the land goes to a cousin. What a blessing that he found you, Mary.”

Close to Home – Chapter 14

“Let me show you how much I could love you.”

His words hung in the air, but when Mary didn’t answer, Caleb finally said, “At least let me drive you home. If you go back to your aunt’s without Miriam, she’ll want to know why. Everyone saw me follow you out of the singing.”

“I suppose that would be all right.”

Her voice sounded throaty, as though she were about to cry. He couldn’t stand it if she cried. “Am I so bad that you’re afraid to ride in my buggy?”

“Ne.” She sighed, clutching her hands. “I’m sorry for my behavior. I accept your apology and I will ride with you.”

A tingle of hope ran down his spine. “And you’ll let me court you?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” She managed a little laugh. “Let’s see if we can mend our friendship first.”

Caleb hurried back to untie his horse and brought the buggy down the road at a fast pace. He was afraid that when he got back to where he’d left her, Mary would have vanished. But she was there, waiting for him, and he felt a glimmer of hope. He reined in his gelding and got out to help her into the buggy.

Mary sat on the far side of the bench seat, leaving a space between them.

“I have something to offer a wife,” he said, when they’d gone half the distance from the Kings’ farm to her aunt and uncle’s home. Mary didn’t answer. The only sounds were the steady sound of the horse’s hooves striking the blacktop, the chirp of crickets and the creaking of the buggy wheels.

“I’ve promise of a fine farm. Farming is all I’ve ever wanted to do. My father wanted me to learn wheelwrighting from my uncle and grandfather, but I never really took to it. I like the smell of new-turned ground in the spring and watching crops grow from seed to harvest.”

He tried to think of what might be important to a woman, some argument that would convince her, as he directed the buggy into the driveway.

“There’s a fine house, too—two-story brick, a solid building with room for a big family.”

She still said nothing and his hopes sagged. Maybe it was too late to mend the breach between them. Maybe Mary’s anger over what he’d done had made her bitter. But he wasn’t ready to give up yet.

“Mary, if you’ve forgiven me, why aren’t you talking to me?” The horse came to a stop beside the hitching rail. “Mary?”

She turned to look at him and the moonlight lit her face. “Would you stop talking long enough for me to invite you in for a cup of coffee?”