The Hope is NOW available in paperback and ebook format. You can learn more about the book, including purchase links, by clicking HERE. Enjoy chapter one!
“HOW LONG DOES it take to close a door, Faron?” Ruth Mast pulled her last cookie sheet out of the oven and glanced over her shoulder. Her son wasn’t paying attention.
How many times had she asked him that same question? Hundreds? Maybe more. Ever since he was old enough to reach the doorknob, he had been gazing out the open door for one reason or another. Her throat tightened at the memory of him as a small boy waiting for his friends to arrive so they could walk to school or his father to come in from his evening chores. Now that Faron was growing up, he looked more like his father every day. “Faron?”
“I want to see if Onkel Ernest is on his way yet.”
She assumed that would be his answer. He was eager to get going to the skating party, and his great-uncle Ernest was the only person missing. “He’ll be here when he gets here. You’re letting the cold air in.”
Faron wasn’t a child anymore, but he wasn’t quite an adult. At seventeen he was occasionally oblivious to the needs of others, as only a teenage boy could be. He had come in from hitching up their horse. He might not be cold in his heavy overcoat, boots and flat-topped black Amish hat, but she hadn’t finished dressing for their outdoor trip. The last day of February was sunny but the breeze coming off the snow-covered Kansas fields was still icy as it swirled into the house.
She carried the hot pan to the table and began transferring sugar cookies to a wire rack. The cold draft continued to rush over her bare feet. “Faron, please, close the door and watch for him out the window. My feet are freezing.”
“Sorry.” He shut the door and stepped over to gaze out the window over the sink. “He said he had a surprise for me. I hope he gets here soon.”
Her daughter, Ella, came in from the other room with two large quilts in her arms. She was wearing a dark blue dress with a matching apron and a white kapp identical to the outfit Ruth had on. Ella was Ruth’s oldest child at twenty-one and she was leaving home at the end of the week. “Onkel Ernest will be here the minute those cookies are cool enough to eat. He has some special sense that tells him when Mamm is finished baking.”
Ruth chuckled. It did seem to be true.
Ella’s new husband, Zack Hostetler, followed her into the room holding two pairs of ice skates by the laces and Ella’s coat draped over his arm. Like Faron, he was already dressed for the outdoors in a heavy wool coat and hat. “I’ll test a cookie for your onkel.”
He reached for one, but Ruth batted his hand away. “These are for the party.”
“What difference does it make if I eat one here or one there?” His exaggerated pout almost made her laugh. It was easy to see why her shy, bookish daughter had fallen for the charming fellow.
And now he was taking her little girl away.
Ruth shook her metal turner at him. “The difference is, I won’t smack your hand at the party. Ella, it’s up to you to teach your new husband some manners.”
Ella grinned, her eyes full of love. “I sort of like him just the way he is.”
He took the quilts from her and helped her into her coat. “And I love you just the way you are. I’ll put these in the sleigh for you.”
Ella didn’t take her eyes off her husband. “I’ll help you.” The two walked out the door smiling at each other.
Ella and Zack would soon be starting on their wedding trip. The skating party being held today was a farewell party for them. They would eventually settle in Jamesport, Missouri, with his family, after visiting other relatives and friends in Missouri and Arkansas for several weeks. Ruth hated to think they would be four hours away by hired car but they promised to visit her at Christmas. They had been staying with her for two months, and she knew Ella was eager to have her own home. Only Ruth wasn’t eager to see them go.
She suffered a sharp stab of jealousy. To be young and in love was a wonderful thing. She remembered the joy of starting her own home. The children had been Nathan’s greatest gift to her.
Her husband had been taken from her much too soon. His death four years ago from a farming accident, had rocked her world. She accepted that it was God’s will, but there were times when she was lonely for the companionship and comfort of a spouse. Perhaps it was good that taking care of the farm was a full-time job and left little time to feel sorry for herself.
“I’ll help you put the quilts in the sleigh,” Faron mimicked his sister in a high voice. “As if a grown man couldn’t handle the job. Getting married has turned my sensible sister’s brain to mush. And Zack is no better.”
“You’ll do well to remember that in a few years,” Ernest Mast said as he stepped through the door.
Ruth’s mood immediately brightened. The children’s great-uncle had that effect on everyone. A big jovial man in his mid-fifties, he was a clean-shaven Amish fellow who’d never married. He removed his black flat-topped hat and hung it on a peg by the door. His straight salt-and-pepper hair bore a permanent crease from it around his head. He was everyone’s favorite uncle in Cedar Grove, Kansas—even those he wasn’t related to by blood. Ernest was seldom seen without a fishing pole and always had a funny story to share. Together they were running the farm her husband left her, until Faron was old enough to take over on his own.
What would she have done during the dark days after Nathan’s death without Uncle Ernest’s fatherly advice and cheerful nature? It didn’t bear thinking about.
Faron leaned against the counter with his arms crossed over his chest as he grinned at his great-uncle. “I’m in no hurry to wed. I may take after you and enjoy life as a single fellow. What’s my surprise?”
“Have a little patience, my boy.” Ernest crossed the room, snagged a cookie from the wire rack and bit into it. “Umm, these are goot, Ruth.”
“That is the only one you get,” she said as she finished packing the napkins and paper plates on top of the container of fried chicken in her picnic basket. “Take this one out for me, Faron.
I’ll be ready in a few minutes. Do you have your skates?”
“Already in the sleigh.” He took the basket and opened the door. “Mamm! Cousin Owen is here! Is that your surprise, Onkel? This is great!” He darted outside.
“Surprise,” Ernest whispered as he slipped around her, snagged his hat and went out.
Ruth’s shoulders slumped. She closed her eyes. Why Owen and why now? It was always hard to face her husband’s unreliable cousin without resentment. She prayed for strength to offer him the kindness she knew was expected of her.
“Hello, Ruth. How are you?”
She straightened and faced the man who had disappointed her time and again. He held his black hat in his hands turning it slowly. His thick brown hair had a little gray near his temples. He was only a year older than she was. He had always been good-looking, but his finely chiseled features had improved with age. His steel-gray eyes were as piercing as ever.
She swallowed hard. “I’m fine, Owen.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
“I’m here for one thing. Also, your daughter is leaving home. That girl’s happiness is everything to you. You’ll miss her more than you can say.”
His understanding surprised her.
Ruth nodded and struggled to hold back sudden tears. “I will miss her, but that’s what I get for sending her to stay with my parents for a month each summer. She fell head over heels for the boy who lives next door to Daed and Mamm. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about Faron moving away. When he marries, he’ll live here in Cedar Grove and raise his family on the land his father loved.” She sniffled and wiped her watery eyes. “All right, maybe I’m not fine. Maybe I feel like crying.”
He shook his head. “Not Nathan’s Ruth. She is made of sterner stuff.”
“You give me too much credit.” Blinking back her tears, she raised her chin. “I’m glad you could make it for the send-off party even if you didn’t make it to the wedding.”
He looked down and stopped turning his hat. “I’m sorry about that. Something else came up.”
“That always seems to happen where your family is concerned.” She bit her lower lip. That wasn’t kind. What was it about Owen that brought out the worst in her?
Earnest stepped in the door. “Are you ready? The children are getting restless.”
Owen nodded. “I’m coming.”
Ruth knew she shouldn’t say anything else, but she couldn’t help it. “Ernest, I’m so glad you and your mother are traveling with Ella and Zack to Missouri. It’s a relief to know they have someone they can depend on in an emergency.”
Owen settled his black hat on his head. “You made your point, Ruth. I’ll be outside.” The door banged shut behind him.
“Ruth, Ruth,” Ernest chided as he came to stand beside her. “Let bygones be bygones. The boy has had a rough life.”
“He isn’t a boy anymore. He’s forty-three, and my life hasn’t been easy, either.”
“True, but we do not question the will of Gott.”
“I’m sorry. Forgive me.” She decided to change the subject. “When do you expect to be back from your trip?”
She smiled at him. “Why don’t you take a long vacation. Faron and I can manage your farm and ours for a month or so.”
“Funny you should suggest it. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.” He snagged another cookie.
She playfully elbowed him in the ribs. “We’ll discuss it after the party and quit stealing my treats.”
He rubbed his side, replaced the cookie and glanced down. “Woman, where are your shoes? You’ll catch your death going barefoot in the winter.”
“I was getting ready, but I had to rush downstairs when the timer went off because I didn’t want my cookies to burn. I’m going to finish dressing now.” She started for the stairs but paused.
“Don’t eat any more of those.”
She looked over her shoulder to see him snatch his empty hand away from the cookies and hold it behind him. He tried to look innocent. “I won’t.”
“I can count. I know exactly how many there were in that last batch.”
He grudgingly replaced the one he’d already hidden behind his back. “Where is Meeka when I need to blame something on her?”
“I would hope your big white hund is guarding the farm and keeping the coyotes away from the sheep and chickens, but it’s safe to assume she’s sleeping on your front porch. That’s the only place I’ve ever seen your dog.” Ruth padded up the stairs.
“She makes rounds at night,” he called out.
Ruth wasn’t about to admit that the dog probably did much more than that. They hadn’t lost a single lamb last spring or ewe this winter to predators. The dog was proving to be worth the money Ernest had paid for her.
Ruth sat on the edge of her bed and pulled on her thick gray woolen socks and fleece-lined boots. She rubbed the back of her neck to dispel the first twinges of a headache. Owen’s sudden appearance wasn’t going to ruin her enjoyment this afternoon. She wouldn’t let him. He wouldn’t stay long. He never stayed anywhere for long.
She rose, grabbed her coat, bonnet and scarf off the hooks on the wall, then rushed back downstairs. Ernest was still waiting for her. She cast him a suspicious glance. “Why aren’t you in the sleigh?”
“I was guarding the cookies you left out to cool.” He licked his lips.
She brushed a few crumbs from the front of his coat and glanced at the wire rack. The same number of cookies remained so he must have taken some from the container on the counter.
“Onkel, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
She shook a finger at him. “One of these days that kind of thinking will backfire on you.”
“Maybe, but I pray it won’t be soon. Where are your skates?”
“I’m too old to skate. That’s for the kinder.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m way older than you, and I’m not too old to go skating.”
“That’s because you never grew up.” She transferred the last of the cookies into a plastic container after noticing two cookies were indeed missing and sealed the lid.
“What’s the point in growing up? Have you ever seen an adult having as much fun as the kinder do?”
“Maybe not but old bones don’t heal as quickly as young ones.”
“So true. Do you have everything?”
Pausing with her hands on her hips she surveyed the kitchen. “I think so.”
“Martha is bringing that.”
“She forgot the marshmallows at the last skating party.”
“I packed some just in case.” She pulled on her coat and slowly tied the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her chin. She was stalling. She didn’t want to ride in the sleigh in Owen’s company, but it couldn’t be helped. “I’ve got everything.”
“You are always prepared.” He held open the door for her.
She stepped outside and stopped. Ernest was wrong. She wasn’t prepared to see Owen Mast surrounded by her family chatting happily as if he belonged in their circle. She was the only one who didn’t care for him. Her children loved him—as had her husband.
Owen Mast was her husband’s first cousin. Owen had been thirteen when his parents and all but one of his siblings were killed in a buggy-and-car crash. He and his three-year-old sister, Rebecca, had survived. Rebecca had been sent to live with their mother’s maiden sister, Thelma Troyer, in Ohio while Owen had come to live with Nathan’s family in Kansas. Owen and Nathan became as close as brothers, but Owen never forgot about his little sister. When he was old enough, he had gone looking for her.
She and Owen had been walking out together the summer she turned seventeen, but their relationship had apparently meant more to her than it had to him. He’d left town without a word to her. It was Nathan who’d told her Owen had gone to see his aunt and reunite with his sister. Later she’d learned his aunt had taken his sister and moved away before he arrived. No one knew where they had gone. Owen didn’t show up at the farm again for another two years. Just in time to see her marry Nathan. Then he was gone again.
Nathan had been a man rooted in the earth and happiest on his farm, Owen was just the opposite. He could never stay on the farm for long. Not even when she had needed him the most. Her Amish faith required her to forgive him, but she couldn’t forget the times he had let her down.
She knew Nathan had wanted his wife and his adopted brother to be friends. She owed it to him to try one more time.
She forced a bright smile. “I wish someone had mentioned you were coming, Owen.”
Ruth slanted a glance at Ernest. His amused grin widened. “Slipped my mind.”
She didn’t find it funny.
Faron was beaming as he looked from Owen to Ruth. “Isn’t it great to have Cousin Owen home?”
“Wunderbar,” she said through clenched teeth, hoping Faron didn’t notice her sarcasm but not caring if Owen did. Why was he here now?
“I asked Owen to help out with the farm work while I’m in Missouri,” Ernest said in a jovial tone that didn’t quite ring true
She nodded slightly. “I’m glad Owen was able to come, but Faron and I can handle things here, right, sohn?”
Faron’s eyes shifted away from her as did Ernest’s when she glanced his way. A hint of unease grew in the back of her mind. Something was going on.
“Where did you come from this time, Owen?” Faron asked brightly.
“Shipshewana,” he said as if it were the next town over instead of hundreds of miles away in Indiana.
Faron’s eyes lit up. “Did you see the Great Lakes? I want to hear all about it.”
“Later,” Ruth said with a sour look for Owen. The rare times he came to visit he filled her son’s head with stories of far-off places and it was months before Faron stopped talking about seeing them for himself. Why couldn’t the boy realize the best place in the world was right under his feet on the land his father and grandfather had poured their blood, sweat and tears into?
She was afraid Owen would lure her son away from home and from her with his tales of travel and adventure. She couldn’t let that happen.
“Your mother is right,” Owen said. “We have a skating party to attend. We don’t want the bride and groom to be late.”
Zack and Ella grinned at him as they got in. The sleigh was a black vis-à-vis style with two maroon tufted bench seats that faced each other behind a raised seat for the driver. Faron scrambled up top and took hold of the reins. Ruth’s black buggy horse Licorice stood patiently waiting for the trip to start. Her harness was decked out with brass sleigh bells that jingled with her every move.
Ernest scooted across the front seat to give her room to sit. Owen held out his hand to help her in. She hesitated but had little choice except to place her hand in his. Why did he have to show up today when her emotions were already raw?
The strength of his touch sent her heart thudding wildly and triggered memories of their time together as teenagers. She thought she had been in love with him when she was a foolish seventeen-year-old. Only later did she come to realize it had been an infatuation and not the true, deep love she’d found with Nathan.
She pulled her hand away and slipped on her gloves. Owen could be charming, but he wasn’t dependable, and she wasn’t seventeen anymore.
RUTH WAS NOT happy to see him.
Owen hadn’t expected she would be. That he hadn’t stayed to help with the farm after Nathan’s death had been the final straw in their uneasy relationship. He had returned to Cedar Grove this time at his uncle’s invitation and with the intention of making amends, but Ruth wasn’t going to make it easy for him.
He didn’t agree with the plan Faron and Ernest had concocted between them. Faron intended to accompany Ernest and the newlyweds to Missouri and down into Arkansas. Owen understood that the boy wanted to see more of the country, but springing it on his mother without warning wasn’t the right way to go about it. Owen was happy for the chance to show Ruth she could depend on him to help while the men were gone, but he was pretty sure she was going to blame him for her son’s idea.
Ruth settled beside Ernest. Owen stepped up and sat beside her in the rear-facing seat. She was sandwiched between Ernest and him. She spread a blue-and-white quilt over them. Owen pulled it across his lap making sure she had enough to keep her warm.
Faron urged Licorice to a trot and headed down the snow-covered lane toward the county road.
The sleigh bells jingled merrily as the horse trotted along and the sleigh runners hissed through the snow. Other than the muffled hoofbeats on the snowy road, they were the only sounds in the crisp air.
Within minutes Ruth’s cheeks were red from the cold and wisps of her blond hair escaped from beneath her bonnet to flutter around her face. Her blue eyes sparkled in the sunlight. She looked more like a girl of twenty instead of a woman past forty. It was easy to see why she had captured Nathan’s heart. He pushed aside the thought that she had once owned his heart, too, although he hadn’t realized it until it was too late.
Zack and Ella began whispering with their heads together and their red-and-green quilt pulled up to their chins.
Ernest leaned toward Ruth. “Do you think they would notice if we jumped out and went back to the house?”
Ruth’s lips curled in a small smile. “Only if we took the picnic basket with us. Then I’m sure they would come after us.”
“So would I,” Owen added. “You always were a goot cook.”
She cast a narrowed glance his way. “As seldom as you’ve eaten at my table, I’m surprised you’re any kind of judge.”
He laughed, settled his hat lower on his forehead and folded his arms over his chest. “Always quick with that sharp wit. You haven’t changed a bit, Ruthie.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t imagine you have, either.”
“You might be surprised.”
“You won’t mind if I don’t hold my breath, will you?” she asked sweetly.
“Are you excited about the party?” Ernest asked Ruth, breaking into the tense moment.
“I am,” Faron said before his mother could answer. “All my friends are coming. It should be loads of fun.”
“Loads of fun,” Ruth repeated with a wry smile.
“What are you going to do with all your free time after Zack and I leave?” Ella asked.
Ruth rolled her eyes. “I’m sure I will think of something.”
Ella leaned forward. “You should consider marrying again.”
Her comment caught Owen by complete surprise. He turned to stare at Ruth, waiting for her reply. He never imagined she would remarry, but there was nothing to stop her. She appeared as stunned by Ella’s suggestion as he was.
Ruth shook her head. “Nee, for Gott already blessed me with my soul mate. I don’t look to find another.”
Her answer was what Owen expected. He didn’t believe there was a better man than Nathan for her anywhere or even one half as good.
Ruth smoothed the quilt on her lap. “I won’t be bored if you are worried about that, Ella. I’ll enjoy having some free time. I certainly need to catch up on my letter writing. Besides, the two of you will bring me grandbabies to spoil in due time. Who knows, you may decide to move back to Cedar Grove and raise your family here.”
“Don’t hold your breath for that one, Mamm,” Faron said.
“Why not?” She turned to look up at her son.
Owen rolled his eyes. Faron was about to ruin Ruth’s day.
“Jamesport has a lot more going on than Cedar Grove will ever have. There are Amish-owned furniture factories and a homemade candy store that does a lot of business with the Englisch. Some Amish there give buggy rides to tourists. Others own restaurants or sell baked goods and garden produce from their homes. They embrace the financial benefits that outsiders bring.”
By the look on Ruth’s face, Faron’s obvious admiration for the distant community didn’t sit well with her.
“And how do you know all of this?” she asked with a pointed look at Zack. Her new son-in-law shook his head no.
“Owen told me,” Faron said brightly.
She turned her icy gaze in Owen’s direction. “Owen did? I never would have guessed.”
“He’s done so many things, worked at so many different jobs. You know I like to hear his stories. He’s almost as funny as Onkel Ernest.” Faron looked back at his mother and stopped talking when he realized he’d said more than he should.
Owen was happy to shift the attention from himself. “No one is funnier than Ernest. He’s more entertaining than a barn full of frisky kittens.”
Ella and Zack chuckled. Ruth didn’t appear amused.
Ernest leaned forward. “Speaking of cats, did I ever tell you about the time a mouse ran up my pant leg and a cat tried to follow it?”
“You have.” Ruth turned her glare back on Owen. “Cousin Owen may be skilled at many trades, but farming is the finest profession an Amish man can undertake. To care for the land and animals is to care for Gott’s creations. To grow food for ourselves and for others is part of our Amish heritage,” she said, still looking at Owen. “Don’t you agree?”
It was a warning to stop filling Faron’s head with ideas about seeing new places. “The best profession is the one Gott has planned for a man, the one a man can put his heart into. Don’t you agree?”
Ruth’s lips pressed into a narrow line.
“There are a lot of Amish farmers in the Jamesport area,” Zack said to fill the sudden awkward silence.
“Mostly corn, I imagine,” Ernest said.
“A mix of crops, about like here. Not as much wheat but plenty of soybeans, hay and some cotton.”
“Cotton is a crop I’ve never tried, but ten years ago I wasn’t planting soybeans.” Ernest and Zack discussed crops and land prices for the next ten minutes. Ruth remained stubbornly silent.
The sun shone overhead with only a few gray clouds scuttling across the blue sky. The surrounding fields devoid of crops and blanketed in a foot of snow sparkled and gleamed so brightly it was hard to look at them without squinting. The air was chilly, but the sun felt warm on Owen’s face.
When Zack and Ella began conversing quietly again, Owen leaned toward Ruth. “Gott has blessed us with a beautiful day for a sleigh ride and a skating party.” He leaned closer and whispered,
“Don’t spoil it for everyone by pouting because I’m here.”
Her eyes widened. “I am not pouting,” she whispered back sharply.
“Aren’t you? That’s what I would call it.”
After a minute she relaxed. “It is a pretty day for a sleigh ride. Danki.”
He tipped his head slightly not quite trusting her sudden change of mood. “Thanks for what?”
“For reminding me to be grateful for Gott’s daily blessings. However, I was not pouting. I was simply lost in thought.”
That was another thing that hadn’t changed. Ruth was never wrong.
“My mistake. The forecast is for more snow tonight. I hope it doesn’t start before we get home this evening.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I’ll be glad when spring gets here in spite of the fact that lambing makes it my busiest season.”
The sound of a car approaching caught Owen’s attention. Faron headed the horse toward the shoulder of the road as he muttered, “What is wrong with that fool?”
Owen leaned around to see what he was talking about. He saw a dark green car weaving toward them coming much too fast on the snow-covered road. “Hang on!”
His warning came too late. The car clipped the left rear side of the sleigh. The impact tipped the sleigh over flinging everyone out. He heard Ruth cry out and then silence as he hit the snow.