It made Maelle wonder if he had anything to do with the timely invitation for her father to pastor a new congregation in that town. Had he pulled strings? It surely wasn't just a coincidence now that he mentioned his business there. She would have to ask her father later.
As she entered the kitchen with Levi holding the door open for her, she hid her limp. The stove was radiating heat in waves. Her mother was dealing with the move by busily canning, putting up as much as possible before they left town. This past week Maelle had picked everything that she could salvage from the garden which she had hoed, planted, and weeded. The majority of the fruit of her labor would be left to others. Her mother had canned cherries, beans and tomatoes almost frantically.
"Thank you, Mr. Houston for bringing in the peaches for Maelle," her mother turned a heat- flushed face to smile at him.
"Certainly. Well, you seem pretty busy so I'll leave you to it before you rope me in to peel peaches." He said it as he winked at Maelle. "I'll go put the book I borrowed back in your husband's
"Do you need me to peel peaches now, Mama?" Maelle held her breath hoping to be able to escape the heat of the kitchen instead.
"You might as well sit on the back stoop in the shade while you do it where you could catch a bit of a breeze."
"I'll gladly do that." Normally she'd work around the kitchen table, but instead just grabbed her mother's largest bowl and carried it outside then lugged the bushel of peaches out after. This would give her more quiet to try to reign in her thundering thoughts.
She wished she would have asked Mr. Houston what it was like in Campbell, their new home. Was it in a valley or up in the hills? Was it larger or smaller than the town they lived in now? What was the parsonage like? Did they even have a parsonage or would they have to find a house to rent?
Then the man himself showed up on his way to the stable to get his horse. He paused beside her.
"Mind if I eat one of those?"
"Help yourself, sir."
"Sir? I thought we were a little better acquainted than that. You may call me Levi if I'm allowed to call you Maelle, or would you prefer me to say, "Miss Scott?"
She blushed and said, "Maelle is fine." Then her hands stilled as she observed his neat skinning of the juicy fruit with one practiced swirl of peel cut with his pocketknife.
"Umm. Nothing better than a just-picked peach," he said as he wiped juice off his chin with the back of his hand. When done, he tossed the pit far across the yard and washed his hands and face in the washpan by the door beside her. She watched the water dripping down and catching in his eyelashes. When he caught her looking, she got busy with her hands again.
She began chattering in her nervousness. "It's a good thing my mother put up plenty of cherries earlier since I don't have any idea if we will have any peach or cherry trees where we're going." Maelle couldn't help feeling downcast.
"I think you'll like it there. There's lots of blackberry bushes, but I can't guarantee you'll find mature fruit trees on the property. I'm sure you can find some friendly farmer who'll let you pick all you want, if not."
She nodded with her head back down. "So is there a parsonage or will we be finding a house to rent, do you know?" If they had to rent, it would surely be a very small place due to the meager salary a pastor received, one which couldn't afford much at all. At least they weren't a very large family with only her and her three brothers. Once they'd lived in a two bedroom house where she'd had to sleep up in the rafters where it was either too cold or too hot while her brothers crammed into a small bedroom with three to a bed. She hadn't realized that she had sighed until he spoke.
"I know that moving is hard, Maelle, but I sincerely think you will be happy there. I know it's my favorite place among all my travels and am always glad when I get back home."
She looked up into the warm concern showing in his eyes. "I'll honestly try. The last thing I want is to burden my parents with my discouraging attitude." She tried to use the back of her hand to sweep away the hair that was plastered against her cheek, but was unable as her fingers were sticky with juice. Then she froze as Levi gently freed it and tucked it back behind her ear.
"There." He stepped back and used his own arm to wipe his damp brow while looking around as if he couldn't find his horse. "I'd better go, but I'll be back soon enough to help your family load up and move. Please remember that it might be a pleasant surprise where you are going."
She shivered in the heat from his gentle touch when he swept back her hair. Her eyes followed him as he led his horse out of the small corral and mounted. He tipped his hat as he rode away. Maelle stared after him until the cottonwoods along the road hid him from sight. Her breath finally became more even after being caught in her chest. At least they would know someone in their new town, someone who liked her father very much. She felt a laugh bubble up at the thought that Levi enjoyed her mother's cooking so much that he probably had orchestrated the move so that he could connive more invitations around their table.
Her mother stuck her head out. "Are you almost done, sweetheart? At least let me have the ones you've already peeled. I'll bring back the bowl."
Maelle found herself staring off lost in thought. Her friend Elizabeth would make much of Levi's willingness to help her family. She'd miss her, but since her friend was soon to be married, their relationship would have changed any way. It was hard to imagine her young friend in wedded bliss, but was sure that her intended was a good man. Soon Elizabeth would change from being a town girl to being a farmer's wife. She shook her head at the thought of the unknown state of matrimony. Maelle was suddenly hit with the realization that when she married, she would most likely stay behind while her family moved away. Pastors always moved. Well, marriage was far from her plans. She picked up the bowl full of peeled peaches and took them to her mother.
"You can clear off the table and set it for supper. I have a roast and potatoes in the oven and stirred up a mess of turnip greens there in that skillet for our last supper here. There's a loaf of bread in the box you can slice as well. You might as well slice some of those peaches too. I'm running out of canning jars anyway."
"Yes, ma'am." They bumped into each other as they hurried to finish their tasks.
"Phew, I finished that batch just in time. I hear your father coming in."
Soon her two younger brothers feet could be heard running in an off cadence to her father's heavy, steady step. Her older brother Tom was slower in coming.
"Smells good! And don't those jars of peaches make a pretty picture lined up there. You've been busy today." Her father always tried staying positive with his words, especially to their mother who could find worry in every wrinkle of his brow.
"Mr. Houston dropped by and left that book he'd borrowed. He wanted to make sure it got packed with the rest of your library. It sure is decent of him to drive us all the way to Campbell, isn't it." Her mother responded.
"Yes, well, that is where he lives most of the time."
After prayer, Maelle got up her nerve to ask her father, "Did Mr. Houston have anything to do with you being invited to the new church?"
She kept her eyes down on the meat she was cutting.
"He did let me know about the opening about a month ago. Your mother and I had been in prayer about it. Then in light of recent events, I thought it timely to answer their call. I'm sure he gave me a good recommendation. The man also has taken it upon himself to arrange our housing since the church does not have a parsonage. He has been a good friend."
Maelle had a hard time swallowing and took a drink of water. They were in his debt for all he had done for them. She had no idea why unless he was so fond of her father's preaching and friendship.
"He told me once that after all the wrangling in court cases, he finds it peaceful here in our home, not to mention that your mother's cooking has been appreciated by the bachelor." Her father nodded at her mother who beamed.
"Speaking of a young man, perhaps Maelle will find her future husband in this new place. Heaven knows there weren't any decent men here who weren't already taken, certainly not Henry Crenshaw."
Maelle felt her cheeks burning. "Mother!"
"Well, it is time someone thinks about it since you show no interest. You can't let this time slip by and turn into a spinster."
"Dear," her father patted his wife's hand, "I'm sure there is no chance of that. I'm glad that our lovely daughter has shown sense enough not to rush into any undesirable relationship. I would be broken hearted if we were leaving her behind at this juncture of our lives."
Her little brothers were giggling and kicking her under the table while her older brother Tom was scowling and slouched down in his seat with his arms crossed against his chest. It did not go unnoticed by her father.
"Tom, I understand that you hold Miss Crenshaw in high esteem. This could be a proving time cementing your relationship while you either learn a trade or further your education. Your mother and I kept our romance growing by correspondence when I went off to seminary, and you may as well after this move."
Logic or a reminder of what he deemed to be ancient history of their parents romance was not enough to change his sour attitude. He got up and stormed off, probably to go to Sarah Crenshaw's house. If she knew Sarah, she'd probably made his favorite pie for him anyway.
"How well I remember those days as a smitten young man. However, he is still young, too young to have his attitude bridled it seems. I will speak to him later, dear , about his bad manners quitting your fine table."
Her mother returned a weak smile to her husband. "We'll manage. The change has us all on edge."
Maelle, would not say it, but Sarah's father Mr. Crenshaw's leading part in the ramrodding of the pastor might have been motivated in an effort to run off his daughter's suitor. It perhaps was easier to run off the whole family than to wrest his daughter's infatuation away from the preacher's son. People were not always moved by just or righteous motivations.
She wished she could assure her parents that Tom would get over it, but he might not. In fact, she wouldn't be surprised if he suddenly found an apprenticeship here to be near his precious Sarah. Maelle had seen him coming out of the printer's shop just last week. He was clever enough to learn such a trade. Tom in fact was much like their father in his ability to read and craft a good essay and had always been at the head of his class. She supposed they would soon find out since they were to leave in just one more day.
She washed dishes while her mother finished her last batch of canned peaches. Nothing made the woman happier than row upon row of canned produce. As for Maelle, nothing made her happier than being lost in a good book, preferably a novel; however, in certain moods a book of poetry would suffice. She caught herself sighing again. Instead of reading, she had promised to attend to more packing. Empty wooden crates were stacked in the hallway waiting to be filled. Most of the furniture had been provided in the parsonage and would be left behind, but certain pieces were things passed down from both her father 's as well as her mother's families.
One of Maelle's favorite pieces was the small bird's-eye maple Federal desk in her bedroom. It had been her paternal great grandmother's. Her mother did not care for its light finish so she was able to conscript it into her own use. The first thing she packed were her private papers from the shallow desk drawer, her writings. These went into the bottom of her carpetbag. She had only a small trunk with which to take her books and other things while her clothing was to be wrapped in her sheets like a mummy and penned. Once her room was readied for the move as much as possible, she went down to start packing the parlor.
She made a nest of a crocheted throw and laid the mantel clock down carefully wrapping the pendulum with a quilting scrap. Time had stopped. If only life could be stopped as easily. And so she kept busy while her little brothers were out climbing the peach trees. They might be sick tomorrow by enjoying more of the fruit, but tonight their laughter rang out as the fireflies bejeweled the dusk.
Her father was packing his own library of books in his study. It wasn't a chore he was willing to consign to another, not even her. She stood in his doorway taking in the empty shelves that left her with a shudder.
"Is there anything I can help you with, father?"
He straightened holding his back. "Just keep your good attitude. I do appreciate it and realize this is not easy for you. I was just thinking of Psalm 101 where it says, "I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way. I will walk within my house with a perfect heart." Whatever man may say, God knows our hearts.
Her cheeks heated. She only shrugged rather than open her mouth and either say a lie or confess what she had overheard at the church meeting. That knowledge would break his heart. What he couldn't realize is that what made the move so hard for her, was that very meeting and the hardness of heart of those who were supposed to be fine Christian examples. Of course, he would rather shoulder all the problems by himself than share them with his family. Maelle was sure her mother did not even know the whole truth of it. She swallowed back another sigh.
"Well, if there's nothing else, I think I'll go to bed. Good night, father."
"Good night dear. Say your prayers. We're going to need all our prayers through the transition ahead."
Instead there was a jarring knock on the door.
"Maelle, it's for you," her mother called. "It's Henry."
"Tell him I'm going to bed, that I'm too tired to talk."
"Maelle!" Her mother did not approve of the young man, but could not begin to know how much heartache he had caused her daughter. Still her mother was always careful not to offend. Maelle knew she was showing deplorable manners even to such a rat.
"Good night," Maelle called back over her shoulders and clomped heavily up the stairs ignoring her mother's sputterings.
For the first time in her life, Amelle doubted her prayers. Did the God who allowed such people to rule the church really care for her godly father and their family? Did He really care about the slander that Henry's carelessness with her reputation caused? She knew such doubts were more from her weariness than from a true shaking of her faith. Maelle rubbed the tightness in her shoulders and determined that no matter what, she would say with Job, "My heart shall not reproach me so long as I live." She felt herself shift from a young girl to a young woman as if it clicked in place in her very being.
The early morning of the move arrived, and Levi Houston was there at the kitchen stoop. She let him in before he could knock. They were the only two up yet. His hair was more on end than laying down, and he wore common work clothes. She stared at him as he likewise took her measure in another threadbare cotton dress and a braid that had not yet been brushed and redone.
"I haven't met a cinnamon roll I didn't like yet. Thank you." He accepted the mug of coffee in one hand and the cinnamon roll in the other. Her father was just pulling up his suspenders as he walked into the kitchen snapping them in place.
"I smelled the coffee. Thank you, Maelle for getting up early and making it. Your mother will be down in a minute."
He offered his hand to shake Levi's then chuckled. "No, no, I can see your hands are full. I'll go and do likewise."
"These are delicious sweet rolls, Maelle," Levi said with his mouth full.
She blushed even more when her father declared, "She's quite a baker. Her future husband will have to guard his girth."
She turned away and busied herself with what little there was left to do, embarrassed. When the men went to hitch up the wagon to pull it up by the door, she ran upstairs to retrieve her carpet bag. Earlier she had penned her clothes into her sheet. It looked like a corpse laying across her striped bed. Her quilt was neatly folded on top of her desk. Her father had promised to wrap it around her little desk to protect the mirror from cracking and the wood from scratches. Coming back down, she knocked on her brothers' doors calling to wake them. The little boys came shuffling out yawning.
"Tom, time to get up." She knocked again. "Tom?" She opened his door and found the bed neatly made. "Where's Tom?" Had he slipped out downstairs while she was momentarily in her room? Her heart sank. She doubted he was anywhere around. On second look, his clothes were gone; none were hanging from the pegs. It was true. He wasn't planning on moving with them after all.
Out in the yard she pulled her father aside once he finished loading his enormous desk onto the back of the wagon with the help of Mr. Houston.
"Father, Tom's not here," she whispered.
"What do you mean he's not here?" he asked loudly.
"He's not in the house. I think he might have something else planned other than moving with us. His clothes are gone along with the few books that he treasures."
Her father looked wild-eyed around then back at her face. "Did you know about this?"
"No, I just suspected he was thinking about this. He might have gone to stay at the printer's or somewhere else, I don't know. I'm sure Sarah's father would not welcome him to stay with them."
Her father looked sharply at her. She hung her head. She did not want him to know what she'd heard at that meeting. He took a deep breath then called to his wife.
"Martha! Have you seen Tom? He's missing."
Her mother came running, "What do you mean missing?"
"Maelle thinks he might have gone off to stay with one of the tradesman, perhaps the newspaper shop. She thinks that he plans on staying."
Her mother covered her mouth with the back of her hand, but couldn't hide the tears in her eyes.
"Take my horse, sir, if you want to ride to find him. He's still saddled," Levi offered kindly.
It was embarrassing to have him hear about their family drama. Her heart was breaking. It was Sarah's father's doing that they were leaving, and yet her brother was staying. She gritted her teeth to keep from saying something she'd be sorry about.
Levi put a warm hand on her back, and commiserated, "I'm sorry. This is hard. I left home at his age to strike out on my own. Sometimes the independent streak of a young man rules his thinking. But I'd like to think I turned out alright in spite of myself," he smiled with a reassuring look."
She didn't dare answer in case she would begin crying, and so only nodded. Her little brothers were oblivious as they sat happily eating their sweet rolls and licking their fingers.
Eventually her father came walking back leading Levi's horse with Tom beside him.
"Do you think he went to tell Sarah goodbye?" her mother whispered to her.
"I would guess that he has decided to stay," she said quietly.
Her mother squeezed her apron into a ball between her hands. "Oh, dear Lord, I hope not."
Her father marched him up in front of their mother and told him, "Say your piece, son. Say it to your mother just like you did to me."
He looked between both his parents then his gaze landed on Maelle. That's when she saw his pain. "Ma, I've decided to stay here. Mr. Stoffer has offered me an apprenticeship at the newspaper and a room over the business. I think it is something I'd really like to do. He promised that someday I could even begin to write some stories." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry if I hurt you. I'm sorry I did not discuss this with you both ahead of time. I love you and appreciate all you've ever done for me as good and godly parents. However, this is the path I've chosen." The clench in his jaw said it all.
"If he changes his mind, I've assured him that he will be welcome to join us in Campbell. If he is happy here though, it is not so far that he cannot come for a visit, maybe Thanksgiving or Christmas," her father's words did not match the sorrow in his face.
Maelle was proud of her mother. She kept her chin up and allowed him to be the man-child he wanted to be. "We will miss you dreadfully, son. I can't pretend otherwise, but that we wish you were going with us. I would say to give to Sarah a kiss for us, but that wouldn't be a'tall proper would it?" and she winked at him.
Maelle was all astonishment at her mother's words.
To his credit, Tom's face turned a lovely shade of pink at his mother's unexpected teasing. "I might just do that, mother," he tossed back to her.
"Her father would run you right out of town, son. You be wise," her father warned. "All we ask is that you love and serve God."
Her father patted Tom on the shoulder. He's kindly offered to help us pack and see us off." Then he went and put Levi's horse back in the corral. Elizabeth kept busy carrying crate after crate out to the wagon avoiding looking at her brother quite yet.
Her mother came out with the quilt she had made him neatly folded and held to her chest. "Here, son. I want you to take this. It is yours. I hope it will always remind you how much you are loved."
To his credit, he put his arm around their mother's shoulder and said, "I don't need a quilt to remind me of that, but I will treasure it."
Maelle found herself wiping away a tear, but it was Levi's eyes on her, not her brother's that caught her. She went back in for more loads but realized they were already in the wagon. Instead she walked through the empty house. The settee, chairs, bedsteads and dressers remained like bare bones. The rest of their life was once again piled on the back of a wagon. She couldn't wait to shake the dust off her sandals like the disciples were instructed to do in the New Testament. That thought gave her sly encouragement knowing that they had at one time felt just as she did.
She was just finished sweeping the kitchen for the last time when upon hearing horses hooves, she went to the kitchen door. Sarah's father Mr. Crenshaw and another deacon dismounted and shouldered past her. Henry Crenshaw was with them. "We just want to make sure you aren't making off with anything that belongs to the church," Mr. Crenshaw announced loudly.
She saw her mother sputter, but her father shushed her. "Please, do a walk through, gentlemen."
"Where's that desk that was in the office?" Mr. Crenshaw glowered.
"It's on the wagon. It was my wife's grandfather's desk."
The man had the nerve to stare down her father as if he were a liar and a thief. "We'll ask around. If anyone thinks differently, you'll be hearing from us."
"Then you'd be hearing from me next, gentlemen, if you press unfounded charges." Maelle had never seen this side of the lawyer with such a stare as Levi gave the men. "If you are done, these good people are about ready to depart. Perhaps a prayer for them would be more appropriate."
The other deacon stumbled through a quick prayer, then they beat a hasty retreat. Only Henry hung around wringing his hat.
"Maelle, I'm sure we could work it out. If only you'd stay or promise to write and tell me when you're ready, and then I'd marry you faster than a rattlesnake's strike."
"Perhaps that's an apt illustration," Levi muttered walking past her with a quick wink.
"What don't you understand? I will not marry you, Henry. Not now, not ever. Goodbye."
"But you know the talk, Maelle. It will follow you wherever you go, but I'm still willing. I'll to right by you."
His words made her cheeks flame as if she'd done something awful. "Then let them talk."
She held her head high, but she saw her brother glare at him while her parents exchanged worried glances. But it was the fierce anger on Levi's face that surprised her the most.
"If you have accusations against this young woman, than speak with her father now. Otherwise keep your peace rather than slander her good name. There are laws against that, you know. Duels have been fought for less."
Henry sneered, "Duels have been outlawed, which you know as well as I do."
"When a lady's honor is at stake, I am not aware of a single case where it has been prosecuted."
"Henry?" Her father cleared his throat and looked squarely at her accuser. The Good Book says in Psalm 101, "whoso privily slandereth, I wilt cut off." I've heard it said that slander is a serpent with three tongues striking the one who the slander is against, the one who hears it as well as the one who says it.
"It's nothing, sir. Only hearsay. Rumors, you know." He had the sense to at least hang his head.
Tom shoved him on the shoulder. "Leave her alone, Henry. She's refused you. You know as well as I do, what this is all about. Don't make your problem, her problem."
Henry stalked off angrily.
Maelle's stomach cinched tighter. She wanted to hide her face in her apron, but held her head high instead.
Her father muttered, "Some people you will miss more than others, while others you won't miss at all. But I'm sure I don't know what all that dust up was about." He shook his head.
But her mother was in a huff and stomped her foot. "First the deacons practically accuse us of stealing then that...that toad tried to insinuate I don't know what against our daughter! Good riddance of the whole bunch." She opened her mouth to say more, but her father caught her eye and so she shut her mouth.
Tom was spitting bullets. "Now do you see why Sarah can't wait until we are old enough so she can leave home and marry me," he seethed quietly to Maelle.
"Be careful, Tom. Her father can be dangerous. I can't imagine he'll be happy when he finds out you've stayed behind. He'll be breathing down your neck and might accuse you of all manner of evil. I didn't tell you, but he almost single-handedly got rid of our father forcing us to move. I hid in the storage room and listened in to the meeting. Father doesn't know that I heard it all."
Her brother looked at her with his eyes wide and his mouth dropped open. "Well, I'll be! Now that takes me by surprise even more than if that man grew horns. But I know what you are saying. I'll be careful. I truly do want to learn to be a printer though and am excited about that."
"I'll miss you, Tom."
"I'll miss you too, sis," and he hugged her.
Levi had returned with his team and buggy and helped her up first, then her mother. She couldn't fail to notice that she was sitting in the middle close beside him. His arm brushed hers whenever he adjusted the reigns.
Her father suggested, "You go on ahead. When your trail of dust settles then the boys and I will follow. Bye son. May God be with you."
Her mother waved her bonnet before putting it on so the brim could hide the tears falling freely. She tried to cry quietly, but a few sobs escaped now and then. The last thing Maelle could hear were her little brothers shrill voices wondering, "Where's Tom? Why isn't Tom coming with us?"
Elizabeth was standing outside her father's store waiting for her. She saw her friend's eyes go round when she saw who she was sitting by and hoped she wouldn't embarrass her. She purposefully had not told her that Mr. Houston would be driving her and her mother because she didn't want to hear her speculations.
"Do you mind waiting for a moment. I need to return a book to Elizabeth."
But her friend had hurried across the street and took the book from Mr. Houston that Maelle had passed to him.
"I'll miss you, Maelle. I hope you like your new church."
"Thank you, and I hope you and Edgar find happiness together."
After Elizabeth left, Levi asked, "Is it George Smith? He's a good man."
"Yes, she's marrying him next week. I'll just miss it."
She waved once and then was content to let the rest of the town go out of sight.
She clicked her heels together once as if to shake the dust off her laced up boots and smiled.
When her mother finally took a deep breath, she poked Maelle in the ribs. "What on earth was the cad talking about back there? What rumor was he accusing you of?"
Maelle felt Levi's muscles tense in his arm as it brushed up against hers.
"Not now, mother," she whispered. "I swear, it was nothing. You know how people talk. Of course I did nothing improper, I promise. Henry was just a pest, that's all, cut from the same cloth as his father." Maelle gritted her teeth as she thought of Mr. Crenshaw.
"So I take it that he had asked to marry you? And you turned him down? Good. But I can't believe he did this without even speaking to your father first? How dare he!"
Maelle would never tell her mother how Henry had tricked her into following him into a barn at the Fourth of July town celebration, how he had tried to kiss her, but how she had managed to push him away and run out, how his friends had seen them and the rumors he'd prompted them to spread in order to try and force her into marriage, a marriage she was not the least in favor of. Now she loathed the man. Just the thought of his kisses made her wipe her lips off involuntarily. Her head spun just thinking about what Sarah had confided, that Henry had gotten a rancher's daughter in the family way in the next county over and was trying to force the marriage to Maelle so he wouldn't have to marry the other unfortunate young woman. She heaved a disgusted sigh.
She knew Levi looked at her, but ignored him and her mother's sputterings. Instead, she changed the subject.
"How long will it take to reach Campbell from here?"
"It's a good four hour drive by buggy, but only three hours by horseback. It'll take your father longer since a buggy can travel faster than a heavily loaded wagon. That will give you two time to assess the house and decide where you want things."
Just then the buggy hit a rut and he reached his hand protectively in front of her while she found herself grabbing onto his arm.
"Excuse me." she said red-faced.
"Quite alright. Maybe you should hold on a little longer until we get past this rough section."
When she dared to glance at him his eyes were twinkling with mischief, but she dropped his arm as if it were a burning log. Still his heat radiated against her, and she could not move away. Her mother seemed oblivious beside her.
She felt a headache starting. It traveled up between her aching shoulder blades, past her neck stiff from holding her head up high so long, until the tension began building in her temples. She rubbed her neck.
He kept looking at her. "Do you need to stop and take a break? Like I said, we'll get there a lot sooner than your father."
"No thank you." What was worse than a headache was avoiding his solicitousness, and from wanting to lean her weary head up against his shoulder.
"Ma'am, how about you. Are you doing alright?"
"Yes, thank you, sir. I'm just anxious to get there. How many bedrooms did you say the house had?"
"There are four bedrooms upstairs and my bedroom downstairs. Then there is a small study off the parlor. It will be available for your husband since I have no need for it as my office is downtown."
Maelle was shocked. She felt wooden sitting beside him. How had no one thought to mention this before? They were moving into his home? How awkward was that?
"And you say there is some furniture there already?"
"Yes, bedsteads, a wardrobe or dresser in each room, and a table and chairs in the dining room. The parlor is nicely furnished."
"A dining room, you say. Not just a table in the kitchen?"
"There's a small table in the kitchen, but yes ma'am, there is a dining room also."
Maelle forced herself to breath, then asked, "Is it in town, or out in the country?"
"It's on the edge of town, far enough for the houses not to block the grand view. I think you'll like it."
Maelle wondered. He kept saying that.
"And the church?" she asked.
"It is more in the center of town, but not too far a walk for your father. He could come home for the noon meal every day if he liked," was his answer.
"How long have they been without a pastor, and did the last pastor leave on good terms with the congregation?" She was being bold, but wanted to know. Her mother kept quiet wanting to know just as badly.
He looked down and caught her eyes. He calmly answered as if trying to soothe her fears, "The last pastor's health broke. He was dearly loved, was offered a small place to retire there, but chose instead to go live with his son and daughter-in-law in another district. You'll find it's a loving congregation."
It was all Maelle could do not to snort. She was yet to see such a thing. Even if there were good people aplenty, they usually acquiesced to the stronger, more controlling personalities. Meek and mild they may be, but every flock had its wolf just lurking. It only took one or two to devastate them. And the good shepherd laid down his life for his sheep, at a great cost to his family she might add. It was enough to make her grind her teeth.
However, a welcoming committee was waiting when they arrived. The house was sparkling clean, and the church had surprised them with a food pounding. Groceries were laid out in piles all over the kitchen counter and in bags mounded up on the floor. They were certainly generous. And the house! Maelle looked around. They had never lived in a finer place. She especially liked the wrap around porch that offered shade.
Her mother soon turned into a soldier and had everything put away in its place in the kitchen and was ready for the wagon to arrive. It wasn't long after that it could be seen pulled by plodding horses in the distance. Her little brothers were bouncing on the seat.
When Levi walked by Maelle and placed his hand on her back as he bent over to answer a question, she thought the woman would shoot her dead if she'd had a weapon handy. No doubt, they were swore enemies even though they'd hardly been introduced. It was all Maelle could do not to grab onto Levi's other arm just to witness the fit of apoplexy that it would cause. It made her laugh just thinking of it.
"What's so funny?" Levi asked.
Maelle blushed a hundred shades of pink. "Just people. People can be funny sometimes, wouldn't you agree?"
He let a smile grow. I'm glad you are in a better humor now and not allowing the past to cloud a bright future."
"What past? Is there something we should know about Miss Scott?" It was Miss Swanhurst.
He shouldered a box and walked toward the kitchen. "Just that she left people she held dear behind." Then he whispered as he walked past Maelle again, "And some not so dear." Her ear was warm with his breath.
So many kind women had hugged her and her mother that she felt squeezed like a sack of flour ready to burst. When her father had pulled in with the wagon, the horses were unhitched for him and led away to be tended. Their things were soon unloaded with many hands making light work. The women of the congregation in the meanwhile had a spread waiting for them, something between a late dinner and an early supper.
So Maelle set an extra plate. It was such a strange feeling to know he lived here as well, that this was his house. No wonder Miss Swanhurst was jealous. However, he traveled so often on his circuit that he would be gone much of the time. No wonder it made sense to share his home.
There may not have been fruit trees on the place, but there was a nice stream with plenty of shade trees growing along side it not far away. Sometime she would take her brothers out from underfoot so they could fish. But it would not be long before she would seek out her own favorite place to hide up in a spread of branches, a place where she could read or just think.
Indeed, they were all pleased at their new church. The boys seemed to adjust to the new school, and Maelle saw how quickly her mother seamlessly fit in. She might not have found a friend like Elizabeth yet, but people were friendly enough. Her father had never been happier. She helped her mother with chores every morning, but had a couple of hours in the early afternoon to herself every day. It was hard to believe how quickly the weeks passed turning into months.
When Levi was in town, he fit in nicely around the table and afterwards in either in the study for discussions with her father or in the parlor enjoying a game of checkers with the boys. The awkwardness she'd worried about never happened. She even enjoyed discussions on books with him. He offered some for her to read opening up her world a little more with each one.
A few weeks later, Maelle had taking a book up into a tree where she liked to read in its deep shade. Autumn had not cooled the temperatures yet, so she found relief in the cool breeze that blew through the trees. However, on this day she heard men's voices. It was too late to climb down without being discovered in such an unlady-like position so she tucked her skirts up around her ankles and kept still. It was Levi and his law partner. At first she was afraid they had come to fish and that she would be stuck up in the tree for hours. But it was a relief to find them just on a stroll away from the office.
"I've never seen you this moonstruck, Levi. Does she know?"
"I'm not sure. I'm thinking about asking her father for the privilege of courting her soon though."
"She's younger than you, I couldn't help notice, but quite lovely."
"Yes, I find her exceedingly beautiful..."
The men walked out of her hearing.
It grieved her to admit that Miss Swanhurst was exceedingly beautiful. Her hair was the prettiest Maelle had ever seen, like spun gold in comparison to her dirt-colored locks. She flashed back to a memory of when her brother Tom had once teased her that her braids looked like the furrows of a plowed field. He'd said that her hair was the same color as the rich dirt, and that if he stuck his fingers in there, he was sure he could fight nice fat fishing worms for his hook. Her little brothers had begun hooting and sticking their grubby fingers in pulling her neat braid apart. When she'd begun to cry, Tom felt bad and said, "Ahh, I was just kidding, Maelle. Your hair is pretty." But she knew better.
Of course, Levi would court someone like Miss Swanhurst. She would be an ornament on his arm, exactly like he deserved. After courting came marriage, and then her family would be displaced.
Maelle sighed then climbed down.
The day got worse. When she walked in the door, she found her mother wringing her apron while her father was reading a letter to her with a grim look.
"Here, Maelle, you need to read your brother's letter. " Her father handed it to her.
"I feel so terrible for him," her mother said sorrowfully.
Maelle took it with a trembling hand.
I am rather enjoying learning to use the printing press. My hands will be perpetually ink-stained. However, I am writing to let you know that Sarah has run off. After her father refused to let her see me any more, with veiled as well as outright physical threats to me as you can imagine, she was distraught. As humbling as it is to admit, it evidently was not so much about wanting to be with me, but desperation to get out from under her father. When the threshing crew came the next week, she took up with one of the men from another county south of here. When the crew left, she disappeared to go with them. She is married now. Oh well. My heart will catch up with my head one of these days when I think about her. Right now I am furious with her father. If only... But thanks for the warning, father. I will be careful around Mr. Crenshaw. He's still out for blood, and who knows who his target will be."
Well, I hope this finds you happily settled into a better church situation than you had here."
With all my love and ink stained fingers,
Your son, Tom
Maelle covered her mouth hoping to keep a cry from escaping. Behind every one of his words, she felt his pain. Her poor, poor brother. How unworthy Sarah was of him. She felt that stone in her heart rubbing again with a hard, heavy ache.
"He's all alone," was all she could say. A plan was forming in her mind. She would go see him, stay with him until she was sure he was alright.
The very next morning, she packed her small carpet bag and left a note. Maelle was glad she had managed to save the egg money her mother had allowed her to keep. It was enough for a ticket on the stage. If she would ask permission, her parents would surely not allow such a trip, a woman alone.
Standing on the boardwalk waiting for the stage, she was on edge hoping not to be discovered before she could leave. However as she waited, she watched a golden haired woman prance down the boardwalk with a covered plate in her hand going into the lawyer's office. Miss Swanhurst certainly was up early trying to be the bird that caught the worm. Maelle knew it was mean-spirited, but she hoped Levi would choke on whatever was on that woman's plate. After all, the man certainly had enjoyed her sweet rolls this morning, eating two of them in fact.
The ride in the stage was so very much more unpleasant than the journey had been in Levi's buggy. The arms she now brushed up against kept her stiff and uneasy. The dust blew in, but the slight breeze was better than the stifling, smelly heat trapped inside the carriage. Good manners aside, she covered her nose with her lavender scented hankie for most of the way. Surprisingly, she found herself a bit queasy with motion sickness, either that or overcome by the stench around her.
It was a great relief to finally arrive. The men burst out ahead of her before she could climb down.
Maelle took a deep breath of fresh air standing on shaky legs and looked around her. She spied Elizabeth's new husband coming out from the mercantile so she greeted him.
"Maelle!" He certainly was eager to see her. "I can't believe you're here right when Elizabeth needs you so badly."
"What? What is wrong with Elizabeth?"
"She's so sick while..." he coughed to hide his indelicate confession, but went on in a whisper, "being with child, that the poor thing can't get out of bed. I'm worried about her. She hasn't been able to keep anything down. I have to work in the field, but the doctor said I needed to find someone to stay with her until she's better. Can you come? I haven't been able to get anyone else to come help. Not even her own mother can come until later."
"Certainly, Edgar. My brother Tom doesn't even know I'm here, so I can go right now, at least for a few days. I've come to see him, but that can wait if Elizabeth truly needs me."
Edgar grabbed her carpet bag and walked in long hurried strides to his wagon. Maelle could hardly keep up. It wasn't long before she was out of town and at Elizabeth's bedside. Her friend indeed did look pale. Edgar called out, "I've left your bag inside the door, but I have to get back to work while there's still daylight."
"I didn't know it would be like this." Her friend was almost crying.
"I'm here now and can stay a few days. Edgar said that your mother will be here after that. Let me go see if I can find you something to eat. Does anything sound tempting at all?"
"One of your sweet rolls sounds good, but by the time they are baked, I might have changed my mind. Henry has kept a broth warm on the back of the stove. I detest it right now, but the doctor said I must try to drink a little at a time to keep up my strength. I get so nauseated and light headed when I get up that I keep to this bed most of the time. Oh, and the smell of his dirty clothes is overwhelming, not to mention the smell of frying bacon. Just the thought..." Elizabeth bent over the pail beside her and retched. "See what I mean?"
"I'm so sorry, Elizabeth. This is terrible indeed. Here let me take care of that. Will you need it again soon or can I go empty it for you?"
"Please take it away." She lay back groaning with her eyes closed.
When Maelle returned, she opened the windows and the door to air out the house from the bacon smell. Then she took a ladle of broth and poured it into a cup to take to her friend, but Elizabeth was sound asleep.
There were chores aplenty. Maelle followed the stench and soon discovered a pile of dirty clothes behind the bedroom door and began boiling water for a wash. While she waited, she attacked the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. It took many trips from the well to haul in enough water. She was exhausted when she realized that Edgar would be probably be back soon to eat a lunch of some kind. She looked in the cupboards, then went out to the springhouse. There she found a ham that she could slice lunchmeat off and bake for dinner. In fact, outside there was an old clay and stone oven left from the earlier homesteaders that she could build a fire in. That way the house would stay cooler and the smells would not permeate the inside She carried the ham inside to slice some for their lunch, then went back out to build a small fire in the oven that would slowly heat the rest of the ham.
She was coming in from hanging the laundry when Elizabeth called her. Maelle hurriedly took a fresh cup of broth in one hand and a saucer of crackers in the other.
"I think I was able to sleep so soundly just knowing you were here, Maelle. This means the world to me to have your help." Tears were dropping from her friends eyes. "Don't worry about me crying. Women get more emotional, my mother told me, when carrying a child. It's just how it is."
She tried to smile at her friend who took the crackers rather than the broth. "These settle my stomach so that I might be able to keep down some of that..." she said as she wrinkled her nose.
Elizabeth lay back against her pillow. "Give me just a minute before I take the cup."
Her friend looked wan but still beautiful with her hair splayed against the bedding. Elizabeth's eyes popped open when Edgar's boots could be heard entering the small house.
"Edgar, we're in here," Elizabeth called.
He came in, kissed her on the lips without hesitation and took his wife's small hand in his own. Elizabeth's eyes lit up in return with a trembling smile. It was enough to make Maelle turn her head as if intruding upon their private moment so full of love that it pricked a longing deep inside that she didn't even know was there. Someday. Someday love will come, she thought. She thought of the vow they'd exchanged, "In sickness and in health..."
Then Edgar turned as if just noticing her there. "I saw the laundry on the line. Thanks. I also noticed the outside oven going. That's a good idea. The smell of cooking in here really bothers her. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. We've never used it. The thing was here when I bought the place. Thanks for everything, Maelle. You are a lifesaver."
Maelle worked so hard to get their house in order and to help her friend keep something in her stomach that it was a great relief when Elizabeth's mother finally arrived in a buggy a few days later. Clean sheets were on the line and a potato and ham chowder was simmering in the outside oven.
"Mother! I'm so glad to see you. But Maelle has been a godsend."
Elizabeth's mother kissed her daughter on the cheek then turned and gave Maelle a warm hug. "Thank you, dear. What a blessing you have been. We had something come up at the mercantile that required my attention, and I couldn't get away sooner. I was so surprised to hear you were back in town."
"I've come to see my brother," she said.
"Ahh, yes. How unfortunate he was to fall for a Crenshaw, and then the girl has the audacity to run off with who knows who. That family! But I best not say more or I might lose my Christian graces."
"I am a bit worried about how he has taken it. Maybe Edgar can give me a ride back to town when he gets home from the fieldwork this evening, after he eats his supper of course," but she thought to herself, that is if he gets in before dark which isn't likely."
It was even better than that when the man offered to take her after the midday meal. It took no time at all to stuff her things back into her bag. With a hug to her friend and a wave to Elizabeth's mother, she climbed unassisted onto the wagon seat.
"Thank you for this ride, Edgar. I know you are busy."
"Elizabeth wants more crackers. She can really go through a barrel of them it seems. It's about the only thing she likes right now except for a nibble of your sweet rolls. At least she leaves most of them for me, which I don't mind a bit. They certainly have been a treat." He smiled down at her.
Edgar was a big man, huge, in fact. It always put a laugh inside her that little Elizabeth fell for a giant, big bushy beard and all. Her mind instantly pictured a different man, almost as tall but much leaner, hair and face always trimmed. She thought of his slender hands holding the reigns instead of Edgar's sausage-fingers. She sighed and wondered what treat Miss Swanhurst had brought him that morning a few days ago and if he liked it as much as her sweet rolls.
The farmer pulled up to the newspaper office as Levi himself was coming out.
"Maelle!" He swung her down from the wagon seat. "No one knows where you've been. We were all so worried about you. I've just come from asking your brother again if he'd heard from you and was going to send your parents another telegram. The sheriff was getting ready to put together a search party..." Levi tugged her around the corner of the building out of sight and pulled her into a tight embrace.
"Don't ever worry me again like this." He actually had tears in his eyes. "I thought I'd lost you."
Maelle lifted her face trying to take his concern in, it was all so confusing.
"Edgar found me as soon as I stepped off the stage. Elizabeth has been so sick, and he was desperate for me to come help. I thought it was no harm done since Tom didn't even know I was coming..."
Then he kissed her. Her eyes went round in shock before they closed to surrender melting into his arms. For her first kiss, it was a worthy of a blue ribbon! He whispered her name again and tightened his embrace before letting her go. Suddenly she came to her senses and shoved him away.
"How dare you!"
"What, I'm sorry, but you can't imagine my concern..."
"That kiss had nothing to do with any concern over me. You are just taking advantage of my innocence, Mr. Houston. I happen to know that you are courting Miss Swanhurst, and I won't have you kissing me here in this town while she is waiting for you back in Campbell!" she hissed.
Maelle didn't even know she was crying until he wiped the tears off her cheeks.
"Whatever gave you the idea that I'm courting Esther? She's the last person I would consider."
"I overheard you talking with your partner down by the river one day and you distinctly said you were going to ask permission to court her and were speaking of how beautiful she was..."
Suddenly he laughed. "Oh, Maelle, I was talking about you. How could you think I would be interested in anyone else. Don't you know how I care about you?"
Maelle blinked and then blinked again. She shook her head a little as if to force the foreign thought into her mind. "What?"
"It's you, Maelle. I love only you." Then he kissed her again with a tenderness that swept away any other thought.
"You do?" she squeaked when he released her. Her knees were like jelly so she clung to him with her fists in his shirt. But his eyes spoke the truth of his words.
"You do." She let the it settle deep in her heart. Somehow some of the bitterness had disappeared to make room for the love he declared.
His eyes sought hers. "Do I have any place in your affections, Maelle. Can I hope as much?"
"I've been pretty busy tapping down a distinct dislike for a certain lady because I assumed she had what I wanted. If jealousy is any hint that you have had my hidden affection, then yes. I do care deeply for you, Levi. I still can't believe you would care for me though."
"I suppose it would be wicked to keep you here any longer before telling your brother you are safely found, but..." He managed one more kiss before taking her hand and leading her out of the alleyway and back onto the board sidewalk.
Maelle's cheeks were blooming roses, but she didn't care at the moment. When she stepped inside the noisy press room, it took a moment before her brother noticed her. He stopped the presses and hurried over to her squeezing her with a hug of relief. "Where were you? You can't imagine how worried we all were, especially this guy," and he grinned at Levi.
"Hey, I'll admit it. No one is happier than I am to have found her. All this time she was just helping Elizabeth who was sick."
"What's wrong with Elizabeth? Is it contagious. Is there a chance you will come down with it?" Her brother had picked up another worry and ran away with it.
She giggled, "Hardly. She's with child and has had a terrible bout of morning sickness and is confined to her bed."
Then the men burst out laughing as well. "I don't think you or I could catch it either, Levi," her brother poked him in the ribs."
They still were laughing when Mr. Stoffer his boss came out of the office and huffed, "What's the meaning of this? Why has the press stopped. We are up against a deadline, young man."
"I'm afraid it is my fault, sir," Levi interceded. "We have just now found his lost sister."
"Well, we'll have to take that article out of the next edition about the missing preacher's daughter then. Bother!" he snarled. Then he pointed to Tom, "Get busy." Then he took his wiry frame back into his office where he slammed the door. Just as suddenly he reappeared and barked, "Oh, and by the way, Mr. Houston, I'd like a word with you in private, not here though. I'll meet you in your law office in half an hour."
"Certainly." After the man retreated, Levi asked, "What's eating him, Tom? I've never seen him like this. He's always been so congenial."
Tom scratched his head and spoke in a low voice. "I don't know. He's been this way ever since Mr. Crenshaw came to see him a few days ago. But I'd better get back to work." He kissed his sister on the cheek and said, "Go ahead and put your bag up in my room. The door is always open."
Levi followed her out, picked up her bag where Edgar had dropped it, and led her up the outside stairs to her brother's room. "I'd better leave you here though I wish I could come inside and kiss you some more," He stepped inside with the door wide open for one more quick kiss then left to go send a telegram to her parents that she was found safe.
Maelle, looked around impressed by her brother's neatness. At home his room had usually been messy. Here his mother's quilt was smoothed over the bed and his clothes were all hung up on pegs. He'd rigged a short clothesline where a few items were hanging to dry. A small Franklin stove was across the room, and there was a single cupboard with a three foot counter on which to prepare food. So she got busy trying to make something to eat from what she found. There wasn't much, but she had hardly anything left of her own money to go buy more groceries. When the noise of the press shut down for the evening, there was but a momentary lull when a different commotion rose to her ears striking fear in the pit of her stomach worse than any she had ever known.
Her brother was yelling. She could hear the fear in his voice as she took to the stairs flying. Her heart was beating wildly in her chest. Men's deep voices were drowning him out and it sounded like a struggle was ensuing. Elizabeth burst in the door only to find her brother in handcuffs behind his back. The sheriff was dragging him out as he protested his innocence. Maelle barred the door.
"Move out of the way, miss. This is none of your affair," the sheriff ordered.
"It is my affair. He is my brother. He couldn't have done anything to deserve this!"
Then she heard him. It was Mr. Crenshaw's laugh from the pit. "You're wrong about that. We caught him red-handed."
The sheriff was physically moving her aside. But she clung to her brother's arm as he was led through the street. A crowd gathered to gawk and whisper, "The preacher's son..."
"Go back, Maelle. Send a message to Pa and ask him to come. Hurry, please!" his eyes pleaded with her with a pain that broke her heart. "Don't worry, it will all turn out alright. We have the Lord on our side. I'm sure this is all Mr. Crenshaw's doing."
She was suddenly on the outside of the jail with a door and bars keeping her from her brother.
Maelle went back to his room and found her money, enough she hoped for a wire home. Then she dashed off to the post office from where it could be sent.
"Tom.STOP.jail.STOP.Hurry.STOP." It was all the message she could afford.
Once that was done she stood on the sidewalk as if in a daze. "Levi," she whispered. "He can help us." So she walked as fast as she could to his office, past people who didn't bother to keep their rude comments from her ears. She grabbed the doorknob, but it was locked. Maelle shook it, but it did not yield and no one came.
Mr.Crenshaw came up behind her and a chill went through her. "It's mighty handy that a judge happens to be slated to come through tomorrow morning. Your brother will hardly have time to meet with his court appointed lawyer before he faces the bench. Fortunately, Mr. Stoffer has the best lawyer in town, Mr. Houston." The man leered at her. "He has agreed to take his case. Your brother will at best be locked up in prison for years, or more likely, he'll be swinging by sundown tomorrow."
Maelle was going to be sick. She ran around the corner just in time before her stomach heaved. She hoped Levi stepped in it on his way up to his quarters above his office. Hugging herself she made her way up to her brother's room feeling as horrible as could possibly be. Her heart thudded within her, and her head pounded. Her knees were so weak she didn't know how she had even climbed the stairs. Maelle sank onto the floor as soon as she was inside and began sobbing and crying out to God, "Why?"
Levi had dared to open her heart just hours earlier, what, so he could crush it? Her brother...she was going to be sick again, but nothing was left in her stomach. "Oh, God," was all she could manage.
Tom. Did they bother to feed him supper? The soup she made wasn't much, but she could make biscuits quickly and then take them to the jail. Surely they would allow her to feed her brother. She checked his cupboards didn't find hardly any ingredients, not even to make biscuits. So while the soup heated, she counted out her pennies and a nickel. It wouldn't be enough, but perhaps Elizabeth's father would extend her credit. Her father could pay him back when he arrived, hopefully in time for Tom's hearing in the morning.
Maelle practically ran to the mercantile and briefed Elizabeth's father in whispers before other customers could gather. He told her to take whatever she needed, no charge. What a kind man.
"Crenshaw's behind this, I'm sure," he gritted his teeth.
All the pain in her heart was turning into hardness now filling it up where for a fleeting moment she thought love might grow. Now it threatened to turn into pure unadulterated hatred. But she couldn't yield to it or God might not hear her prayers.
As soon as the biscuits were baked, she slathered them in the butter and peach jam she'd picked up at the store and put them in a basket. Then she wrapped the the hot handle of the soup pan with a towel and began her walk over to the jail. She pounded on the door.
"This is for Tom Scott. I'm his sister. Open up, please."
She kept telling herself that she'd catch more flies with honey and was practically begging the man to open the door. When he did, she almost fell through, but he stopped her with his hand catching her shoulder. It was a deputy, not the sheriff.
"I don't care how much you eat after you give him his fill, but I beg of you, please allow him to eat this." She didn't care that she was crying. Maybe it would stir his sympathies.
"I remember you, Miss Scott. My wife always spoke highly of your family. I can't say how sorry I am about all this. Here, let me help you in the office for a moment." He looked around before shutting the door.
"I don't even know the charges, just that Mr. Crenshaw said he might..." a sob broke out. "hang." She could barely breathe the word.
The deputy rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't suppose there's any harm in telling you the charges. Mr. Stoffer swears your brother embezzled a lot of money from him. It turns out Mr. Crenshaw is a silent partner and has joined him in bringing the charges."
"Of course. I always knew he'd try to harm Tom, just for being sweet on his daughter. In fact, I warned him to be careful. The man is evil."
"There's more than a few in town who would agree with that assessment, missy. Just you be careful yourself. I only wish your brother had a better lawyer. Unfortunately, Mr. Stoffer got the only good one, and your brother is stuck with old Joe. He's more drunk than lawyer these days. So, since you're a praying woman, I guess you'd best get to it. I'll stand watch outside the door and make sure you make it safely--where you going?"
"To my brother's apartment above the printer's."
"Make sure you lock that door."
She had never felt so alone.
"Open up, Maelle. It's your father."
She tried to jump up, but her legs were asleep, so she crawled over to the door and reached up to unlock it. She was still in a heap on the floor when her father came charging in."
Her father looked around before he saw where she had crumpled in the dark room. He sank and held her as she let go of her grief and worry that could only be spoken in tears. When it subsided, he asked her, "What on earth happened, Maelle?"
"If only I had come here before I went to Elizabeth's. Maybe I could have stopped it, but I don't know what I could have done except maybe have kept them from planting evidence in his room to frame him. It's Mr. Crenshaw, Pa! He's out to get him. He's evil!"
"He's certainly proven to be a wolf in sheep's clothing. But what are the accusations?"
When she explained it, he looked as sick as she felt. "Have you asked Levi to represent him?"
She jumped up and began pacing. "That's just it. He's representing Mr. Stoffer and Mr. Crenshaw. He's as awful as they are. Just to think, I'd almost believed him. He told me he loved me just minutes before all this happened. I tried his office, but it was locked up tightly, and he wasn't there."
Maelle had never seen her father like this, as anguished as she felt. Fear and betrayal.
"I had no idea it was this terrible. I wouldn't let your mother come so I could leave sooner and get here faster by horseback. I don't know how I'll ever tell her."
"He might hang, Pa. The trial is in the morning. It might be tomorrow."
They wept together for an eternity.
"Lay down and at least rest before daylight comes, Pa. I've already slept a little." Maelle was ashamed of herself to be like the disciples who could not stay awake when Jesus had asked them to pray in the garden. How could she have fallen asleep when her brother had to be counting on her?
When Levi walked in with confidence in his step, he did not see them sitting there. Maelle didn't know she had risen until she stopped him jerking back on his arm. He turned and smiled.
"How dare you!" and she slapped him as hard as she could. It was then her heart finished its shattering. There was nothing left where her heart had been. Not even jagged pieces to cause her pain. It was just a deep, black hole.
Laughter sounded around them, but she never heard it. Levi stared at her in shock, but her father pulled her back to her seat. "Not now. This is not the place. You can only feed the ugliness of their desire for gossip."
As soon as her father saw who her brother's lawyer was, he groaned bending over putting his head in his hands. Though whispered, his prayers banged on the doors of heaven.
When the sheriff brought Tom in handcuffed and shoved him down in front of them, her father put his hand on his son's shoulder. Tom turned to look at them beseechingly. Behind the tears pooled in his eyes was sheer terror. Maelle heard her father groan. She glanced away unable to watch his face any longer and caught sight of Levi. He was standing, as pale as they were. Somehow, she knew he was as shocked as them. How could he not have known it was Tom?
Then she saw him make his way up to the judge and whisper. The man struck his gavel that made her jump.
"Court is recessed until 1:00."
The sheriff jerked her brother away before they could say anything to him.
"I'm going to the jail. They have to let me see him."
Most of his former parishioners acted like they had the plague and stepped back unable to meet their eyes. Once again, Maelle held her head high. She could do that to show that her brother was innocent, even when Henry snickered behind her. She ignored Levi's quiet plea to wait. She had nothing to say to him.
Levi had not ever felt this overwhelmed. Now he realized he had been duped by Mr. Crenshaw. Somehow he had to get to the bottom of it. A young man's life hung in the balance, and his life as well. If Tom was convicted, Maelle would never forgive him. Today he would have to play the prosecutor while actually being the defense. Tom's lawyer was nothing but a sot and a stooge for Crenshaw. But the clock was ticking. He wanted nothing more than to follow Maelle and her father out the door to try to get them to believe that he didn't know the case involved Tom. But that would have to wait if he was to find evidence that could free the young man. First he met with Mr. Stoffer.
"Why didn't you say that Tom was the accused? What makes you think Tom did the embezzling?"
Mr. Stoffer sniffed. "I wondered how my ledger never showed a profit. Crenshaw finally pointed it out to me. He is my silent partner and does the books."
"How much exactly is missing?"
"The last two months of people's payment for the paper, about ninety dollars."
"I need to know exactly how much."
Mr. Stoffer scratched his head. "Let's see, Crenshaw said it was a eighty-seven dollars." Every time I get behind, I have to give him another I.O.U. Now he will own the controlling majority unless we can find that money that's missing. I never would have suspected that Scott kid. He's been a good worker, always polite."
"Tom didn't do it," Levi whispered. "I'm sure of it. This has the marks of Crenshaw all over it. He keeps the books, discovered it, told you about it, and I'll bet he was the first to accuse Tom of the crime. He's the one who profits if the money isn't found." Maybe it's sitting in his own bank account, Levi thought.
"As a matter of fact he did suggest it was Tom." Stoffer sat up straighter. "Then he took me up to the boy's room when the printer was going so he couldn't hear us, and we found some money stuffed under his mattress."
"Since he's the one who profits if he gets the controlling interest in the paper, he could even sell it out from under you. Maybe the money's sitting in his own bank account. I think I'll pay the bank a little visit. But don't say anything to Crenshaw. By the way, how much money did you find under the young man's mattress?"
"Where's the rest of the money? He hasn't left town or made any big purchases like a horse or something lately, has he?"
"He hasn't hardly left his room since that Crenshaw girl ran off and broke his heart."
"Stay where I can find you at the paper before court begins this afternoon. I want to come look over those books myself."
"I sure hope that Tom hasn't been framed. I always did like that kid and was sick when Crenshaw pointed out his guilt. I'd hate to have his hanging on my conscience if we were wrong."
"And Stoffer, pray. Pray for justice, for the truth to come out."
Levi entered the tomb-like quiet of the bank as soon as it opened. He made a small deposit to make it look like he had regular business there, then asked to see the bank president. He was a friend, someone he respected and breathed a sigh of relief to find the man in his office.
"I know I can't see another man's deposits, but I need you to look into it for me. A young man's life is depending on it or I wouldn't ask you to do this. I need to know if Mr. Crenshaw has made a deposit of around eighty dollars recently. If you find it, I'll get a judge's search warrant for evidence."
"Crenshaw could ruin me if he found out, but I don't like the way that man does business in this town. It's time he was stopped one way or the other. Just keep it quiet for my sake."
Levi shook his hand. "For both of our sakes. I have to go look over Stoffer's ledgers, but I'll be back before lunch to see what you found. Just give me a sealed note and leave it with the same teller. And please pray for me and for the boy who is accused of embezzlement."
"Of course. In fact, let me pray right now." The Christian man put his hand on Levi's shoulder and said a beautiful prayer, quiet but powerful. Levi felt a little of the burden lift from his shoulders.
Back at the printer's, Levi studied the books, but they did not make much sense. No wonder Stoffer couldn't read them. Crenshaw had so many illegible entries that it would be easier to read a crow's scratches in dirt. However, he had clearly marked a balance of eighty-seven dollars. But it never showed in the deposit column meaning it never made it to the bank, at least not as a newspaper deposit.
"I might need this for evidence, Stoffer. Alright?"
"Sure. I think I am starting to smell a skunk, and it's not coming from no jail cell."
"I think you're right. Say, if things don't go the way I hope, would you allow me to make a temporary deposit in the newspaper's account for now? I think I have enough in my savings to do that. That way, we could say that the money has been found in the bank after all, and Crenshaw can't come after you for a bigger chunk of the newspaper's holdings. Then you could drop charges against Tom. If it comes to that, I'll consider it a worthy investment in a young man's life and you can keep the money if the other is not accounted for."
"That's right nice of you, Levi. I'd not do this except Crenshaw is breathing down my neck to get his hands on my newspaper."
Levi walked back to the bank. The teller slipped him a sealed envelope as they had arranged so he would not be seen with the bank president again. The letter burned in his pocket as he hurried to his office and locked the door. His hand was shaking as he opened it up. A deposit had been made a week ago of that exact amount. Counting the five dollars planted as evidence under Tom's mattress, all the money was accounted for. He finally was able to take a deep breath. He felt like he'd been holding it all morning. Now he needed to find the judge to get a warrant to produce Crenshaw's bank deposit records.
The judge wasn't in the town's café, but he found him eating with Crenshaw himself and Tom's lawyer in the saloon. He wanted to call out the judge on the impropriety in meeting with the men like this, but he needed to stay on his good side. Not only that, he wanted an audience with the man himself. So he merely asked to speak with him in his office in five minutes.
He prayed the man would come. So when someone knocked on his door, he jumped up to answer. Once the judge was seated, he locked the door.
"This better be important."
"It is your honor. A young man's life is at stake. You've met his lawyer, and he'll be no help at all."
The judge sighed, "You're right about that, Houston. But you are the prosecutor. So how is this your problem?"
"Justice. I'd hate to see the young man hang for a crime he did not commit. I'd like a warrant to search Mr. Crenshaw's bank deposit records in case the money might have been deposited in his own account."
The judge looked at him from behind hooded eyes. weighing his decision so Levi trudged on. "Mr. Stoffer is also supportive of this investigation. My client only wants to find justice. If he doesn't come up with that missing money, the newspaper's practically handed over to Mr. Crenshaw. He's been taking a piece of the paper's holdings one month at a time. He's been doing the books, and somehow they always come up short of enough to make his payment. If that boy is framed, Crenshaw will hold the majority interest in it. Here, let me show you the ledger."
He pulled it out from his desk and opened it to the past month's accounting.
The judge studied it for only a minute before asking for a pen and paper. "I'll sign a search warrant right now. Is the bank open or is it closed for lunch? If it's closed for lunch, I'll stall on the trial until you get there. This may be one of the more interesting cases I've seen in a long time. The prosecution defending the accused doesn't happen ever day. Be careful that you make it appear you are serving in Mr. Stoffer's interest."
Now Levi practically ran over to the bank. Mr. Crenshaw tried to stop him as he came out of the saloon, but he waved him off in his hurry. He went to the window and told the clerk that the bank president was waiting for this letter and he handed over the search warrant. Just then Crenshaw came and stood in line behind him. When the clerk came back Levi handed him the note about taking money out of his savings to deposit in the newspaper's account. He had written confidential on the outside of the folded paper. The man did it quietly without a word and soon returned with his receipt. He also handed him a satchel which Levi had to assume held the papers requested by the search warrant, Mr. Crenshaw's account.
Crenshaw glared at him as he went by, but Levi tried to act non-pulsed He had only enough time to grab the newspaper's ledger from his locked desk and walk swiftly back to the courtroom. He tried to be aware of his surroundings. The last thing he wanted was to be robbed of his evidence, and a man facing embezzlement charges might be just that desperate even here in broad daylight.
No sooner had he those thoughts as if a warning, than a man came riding up from behind acting as if his animal was out of control. Levi stepped slightly into a doorway just in time. The man made a swipe, but missed. Levi ran the rest of the way to the courthouse with his evidence tucked tightly under his arm.
He didn't try to look at Maelle or her father. He couldn't be distracted now. He had to be careful in the manner he presented the evidence to make it look like he was trying to protect his client, not Tom. He handed over both ledgers, the newspaper's and Crenshaw's bank statements as evidence as soon as the trial resumed. The judge looked over the new evidence and frowned. Then he hit his gavel with a little more gravity causing many to jump.
Does the prosecution have any witnesses?
"Yes, your honor, I'd like to call Mr. Thomas Scott to the front."
After he was sworn in, Tom looked more like a scared little boy than a man. With his back to the courtroom, Levi gave him a slow wink.
"Do you understand the charges brought against you?"
"Yes, sir." He barely spoke above a whisper.
"Speak up young man. It is important that I hear you," the judge growled.
Tom turned his white face to the judge and said more loudly, "Yes sir."
The judge wiped his hand down his face. It was hard to see Tom's tortured countenance.
Levi continued, "Did you take the money as accused?"
"No, sir. I'm a Christian I would not break God's law, the eighth commandment."
"I see, well if you had taken the money, where would you have put it, in the bank, under your mattress, or have you made any big purchases lately, say like a horse?"
"No sir. I haven't bought anything besides groceries at the mercantile. I do treat myself to a piece of pie on payday, that's all." Some in the courtroom chuckled. "And I couldn't have put it in the bank because I don't hardly have enough money yet to open an account. I've just given my money over to Mr. Eldridge at the mercantile so it will be there so I can buy what I need. You can ask him. He's right over there." Tom pointed into the packed room. I keep some money in my wallet, but not much. You can ask the deputy. He is holding my wallet for me. And if I had put any money under my mattress as accused, I suppose you'd think they'd find more than five dollars. That's a lot to me, but not considering the amount I'm accused of taking."
Levi was impressed by Levi's answers. He could feel the power of prayer right here in the courthouse. Do you have a girl friend, someone you might have given the money to?"
Tom hung his head and Levi felt like a heel asking him this, but it was important. "No sir. The only girl I was ever sweet on was Sarah Crenshaw, but she ran off with somebody else a month and twenty-two days ago long before any money is said to be missing. "
Levi bit the inside of his lip not to smile at Tom's innocent accounting of the days since Sarah had broken his heart. "Is it true that you never lock the door to your room?"
"Yes sir. I never did lock the door because Mr. Stoffer had lost the key. I didn't want to be locked out of my own room."
"I see. If someone were to go into your room, say while you were at the printing press, would you be able to hear them moving about above your head?'
"No, sir. It makes too much racket to hear much of anything."
"Yes. That's my job."
"Not a chance."
"I don't know how we can ever thank you," Maelle choked up saying it.
"What if you kiss me and make me forget everything but you?" Levi drew her closer.