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The leaves turned shades of bright orange, red, and yellow, and the squirrels scurried in short swift trips up the rough bark of the trees. Their cheeks were stuffed full of acorns and nuts which they stashed away in a deep, dark, cozy chamber for their winter nourishment.
Lizzie and Stephen walked together on a Sunday afternoon along a creek, kicking the brown leaves and bending their heads to the stiff autumn breeze. Lizzie wrapped her sweater tightly around her chilled body, crossing her arms in front of herself to keep warm.
"I should have worn a scarf!" she said her teeth chattering.
"Hey, Lizzie, I just had a great thought. Thursday evening I'm going archery hunting again. Would you like to come along?" Stephen asked.
"Archery? Bow and arrow? I can't shoot a bow and arrow," Lizzie said.
"No, you don't have to shoot. Just go along and be with me. There's nothing quite like it. Honestly. It is the most exciting, the most intense sport there is. To sit in a tree somewhere, waiting quietly until you hear leaves rustling, or maybe spot a reddishbrown color gliding along through the trees, is an incredible experience. Your heart starts thumping so hard you feel like your head will burst. There's just an unbelievable amount of excitement in all hunting, but archery is my favorite."
That was quite a speech for Stephen, so hunting must be more than a hobby—closer to an obsession, Lizzie thought.
"How can it be so thrilling? Actually, all you do is sit in the woods," Lizzie said, still less than enthused.
"No, that's not true, Lizzie. Come along, and I'll show you."
So that was how Lizzie found herself careening across the mountain at breakneck speed in an old, white work van, driven by a friend of Stephen's. His name was Ryan Gustin, and he was quite a character, speaking the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect as fast as he drove his rattling old van.
Lizzie enjoyed his company, sometimes laughing uncontrollably at his version of a Dutch expression which served to take her mind off the alarming rate of speed he maintained down the winding road. Stephen seemed quite comfortable in the front seat beside him, so Lizzie decided Ryan must be a competent driver if Stephen was so relaxed.
Turning north, they came to a valley between two mountains. Old buildings and beautiful, prosperous farms dotted the scenery, while simple family dwellings sat along the road. The mountains were colored with every brilliant hue imaginable, and Lizzie was content to ride along and enjoy the beauty. She was just starting to become a bit bored and uncomfortable when Stephen yelled for Ryan to stop. This was the place. Ryan stomped on the brakes.
As the van shuddered to a stop, Lizzie peered out of the splattered window at a dilapidated, old, three-story house. Broken shutters hung from single hinges, the porch railing looked as if it had been ripped from its base, and pieces of gray siding lay strewn across the yard. The porch roof gapped where the wind had torn shingles loose.
Lizzie shivered, wondering if the house was haunted at night. She knew there was no such thing, but old, unoccupied houses always gave her the blues. The real, sad blues. Not that she felt depressed. Not the crying blues. Just the kind of blues where the sun was hidden behind a dark cloud in her feelings.
She didn't really want to get out of the van as she looked a bit timidly at the steep, brush-strewn hillside directly behind the creepy old house. The sloping fields led to dense forest, real mountain woods that suddenly looked quite dark and spooky.
Stephen and the driver were already out, unloading their archery gear, still talking and laughing and having the time of their lives as Lizzie pulled her white cotton scarf tighter under her chin. She sniffed nervously, running a hand hastily across her hair to straighten it.
She wished she had worn some heavy material around her legs, because her thin woolen knee socks were not going to be heavy enough to wade through the unkempt woods. She remembered the hillside along the ridge in Jefferson County and the horrible scratches she and her sisters got every day from the long, spiny raspberry bushes that lined the trail.
She sniffed, squinting nervously to see if she could locate any brambles, but then sighed, gave up, and sat back against the old plastic seat. Stephen would take care of her, she decided, so she would relax.
"Ready?" Stephen stuck his head around the door, extending his hand to help her down. Lizzie took it gratefully, searching his eyes for reassurance. Stephen smiled, and her heart melted as she stood beside him. If your boyfriend was so nice to you, it didn't take much to believe you could do anything at all.
Ryan strode off in the opposite direction, and Stephen swung his bow under his arm as he headed out. Lizzie followed, determined to be a good sport. She would certainly not be a hindrance to him or hold him back by telling him she was uncomfortable.
Stephen parted the tall weeds as they started the gradual uphill slope. Lizzie grimaced as heavy seedpods slapped her cheeks, raining prickly, granular seeds down the neckline of her coat. She slapped at the heavy pods, shaking the front of her dress to get rid of the itchy feeling, her mouth pressed in a line of determination. She would not grumble or complain, knowing Stephen would not appreciate a whiny girlfriend tagging along.
Stephen stopped after a short distance and said, "Whoa."
"What?" Lizzie asked, trying to peer around him.
"These brambles are pretty thick here. Think you can make it without getting scratched too badly?"
"I think so," Lizzie answered, with all the false bravado she could muster.
"I'll try and hold them for you," he reassured her.
He must have forgotten about her the minute that statement was out of his mouth. Lizzie found herself in one of the worst situations of her life, trying to hold back a long bramble with one hand, only to rake a thorn across the palm of her hand, while two more long whips with briars intact tore across her thin woolen socks.
Grimly, she untangled herself, putting the injured palm to her mouth as she tried to free her legs by tramping on the briars. As she bent to hold back the brambles, a long vine yanked her hair, pulling horribly as her white scarf slid around her neck. She grabbed quickly to retrieve the scarf and was promptly scratched by another sharp branch.
"Ouch!" she yelled, completely undone by this thorny predicament.
Stephen's instant response was, "Ssshhh!"
"Why? Why can't I holler? These brambles are unbearable!" Lizzie wailed, close to tears.
Suddenly retrieving his manners, Stephen mumbled an apology and came to her rescue, holding aside the long spiny branches until they came to the forest's edge. Lizzie shook her head grimly, smoothing her hair with scratched fingers and adjusting her white head scarf.
"Okay," Stephen whispered, "step as quietly as you can, and when I come to a suitable tree, I'll motion for you to follow."
"F ... f ... follow?" Lizzie whispered back, aghast.
"Yeah. Up the tree. We have to sit in a tree so the deer don't see us."
"I can't climb trees!" Lizzie hissed, her eyes narrowing.
"Pine trees are easy. Now be as quiet as you possibly can."
That was how Lizzie found herself halfway up a scaly pine tree, positioned so that she had the same view Stephen did. The bark was rough and very uncomfortable. She sat on the side of her leg, holding onto a branch beside her. The first five minutes weren't too bad. She rested from the strenuous climb, breathing in the pine tar and admiring Stephen's profile as he stood alert and absolutely motionless in the tree, waiting breathlessly for the sight of a deer.
The wind swayed the branches as Lizzie strained to see through the thick growth. It would definitely be exciting to see a deer with huge antlers come walking across the pine needles, but who knew when that might happen? Deer roamed acre after acre of woods, but having one walk in front of you seemed about as possible as finding a needle in a haystack, so what was the sense of sitting in this tree? The deer were probably all on top of the mountain or in some farmer's cornfield having a bedtime snack.
Her leg ached and her arm became very stiff, so she shifted her weight to her other leg. Instantly, a small branch broke loose, rattling down through the pine boughs with the noise of a shotgun, or so it seemed.
"Sorry!" Lizzie hissed.
Stephen drew his eyebrows down. "Shhh!" he warned, putting a finger to his lips.
Boy, he was serious. All right, she would be more careful. So she sat quietly. And sat. And sat. Her nose itched, her feet hurt, her whole leg was numb, and still she sat. The sun slid behind the opposite mountain, casting long shadows through the thick forest, and still she sat.
This is a lot worse than council meeting or communion or sitting at Emma's wedding, she thought grimly. A hard bench would seem like a recliner if you compared it to this pine tree. Sitting like this for hours in a darkening woods would be a good form of torture if you wanted to force someone to talk. She would gladly say anything to get out of this tree.
She tried shifting her weight to the opposite side as slowly and quietly as she possibly could, loosening some bark in the process. She looked at Stephen beseechingly, but he only frowned seriously. She groaned inwardly. She wished she had never agreed to go hunting with him. It was the most uncomfortable, boring thing she had ever done in her entire life. She hated hunting and was never, ever going to get herself in this predicament again.
Suddenly there was a decided rustling in the underbrush. Stephen's head turned slowly, and he brought his bow up to a more ready position. The rustling continued. Lizzie listened with bated breath, watching carefully in the direction the sounds were coming from. Would they actually see an honest-to-goodness deer? She didn't know if she could stand to see Stephen put an arrow into the poor, innocent animal.
She didn't know if she wanted to be disappointed or relieved when a busy gray squirrel emerged and raced across the thick pine needles.
"There's your deer!" Lizzie mouthed.
"Shh!" Stephen warned.
What was the use of holding so perfectly still? It was getting dark, and there was no possible way he could shoot a deer now. She was getting very tired and impatient, wishing with all her heart that the night would be over. If Stephen didn't soon come down out of this tree, if he kept up this stupidity of sitting in a tree when it was almost dark, she was going to say no if he asked her to marry him.
What about returning to the van? How would they get through those dreaded brambles again?
"Stephen!" she whispered.
This time he was serious. Turning his head slowly, he peered intently into the semidarkness as, much to Lizzie's disbelief, two deer stepped out of the thicket. How could they be so quiet? Lizzie's heart rate increased, but mostly out of fear for the deer's safety. She so definitely did not want them to be killed with arrows stuck into their hearts. They were such beautiful creatures, completely at ease roaming their mountain, so why did anyone have to kill them?
Then as Stephen started to raise his bow to the proper position, they walked just as silently back into the forest. When Stephen finally turned to Lizzie and spoke to her in a normal tone, she knew the whole hunting ordeal was over. Carefully, with aching limbs, she made her way out of the pine tree. Rubbing her back, stretching, and sighing, she regained a sense of normalcy, grateful to be standing on solid ground and able to move at free will.
Lizzie stared at Stephen in disbelief when he turned to her and said cheerily, "That was fun, wasn't it? I bet you really enjoyed it."
"It ... it, yes, well, it was all right. Mmm-hmm." That was the closest thing she could say that was honest and still not hurt his feelings. She couldn't say just how tedious her evening was, but he must have known because he laughed out loud quite suddenly.
"Not exactly a hunter, are you?" he said, smiling mischievously.
"Just get me off this mountain safely, and I'll be fine," Lizzie said.
They took a detour under a barbed wire fence, which Stephen held so Lizzie could easily slip through, before walking across a nicely cropped pasture until they came to the old house. Lizzie stared up at the attic windows in spite of herself, wondering who had built this huge three-story house and why it had been left to rot away, the wind and rain and snow all taking its toll on the sturdy structure. Probably the squirrels and the rats had a grand time gnawing at the lumber that held it together.
Ryan appeared shortly and shared his story with Stephen about having spotted a few deer but too far in the distance to have a decent shot. They stowed their hunting gear in the back of the van before climbing in. Finally, Lizzie was on her way home, away from the pine tree, the dark forest, and the creepy, sad, old house.
They turned into a little restaurant, Ryan saying he was starved because he hadn't eaten anything since lunchtime.
Lizzie was only too happy to sit in the tiny booth, eating French fries with plenty of salt and slathered with ketchup. They were the most fattening, most unhealthy thing, Mam said, but one of the most delicious foods in the world. Lizzie enjoyed every one, and then ate her way down the entire length of a tall chocolate sundae topped with whipped cream and nuts.
"Mmm!" she said, smiling genuinely at Stephen.
"Better than hunting?" Stephen asked.
"Much better," she grinned back at him.
That evening, she decided marriage was probably a lot like hunting. You had to take the good with the bad, because God himself knew circumstances would not always be as pleasant as French fries and sundaes. There would be times of sitting in pine trees, but that was only normal. If the good was balanced with the bad, life could be leveled off into happiness. Maybe a mature, quiet kind of happiness, if you learned to care about each other's feelings enough not to always say exactly what you thought.
If she had told Stephen how horrible her evening really was, he would have been hurt. And if Stephen had been as impatient with her as he seemed to be when she struggled through the briars, she would have been terribly insulted.
So it definitely paid to keep your mouth closed when you would love to air your grievances loud and long. After all, Stephen knew hunting was not her favorite thing to do, but she bet anything he admired her for sitting in that tree so long. She had proven to him that she could keep quiet for a good long time. And that was amazing.CHAPTER 2
Lizzie missed her older sister, Emma, a great deal, mostly because she thought about marriage so much herself. She wished Emma was in her bedroom down the hall, ready to talk whenever Lizzie had important questions that needed answers. But Emma had married Joshua last year and moved to Allen County.
Mam and Dat were all right to talk to about such matters. But they were so old, it seemed that when they talked about being newly wed, it was like they had gotten married in the 1800s. You couldn't really compare things, like homes and furniture or anything like that, because things were so different after their wedding than now.
What really alarmed Lizzie is how Mam would throw her hands in the air and laugh about the fact that they had to borrow 50 dollars to buy a kitchen table for their first house. Dat would join in and relate how old and freezing cold their first rented home was, and they would laugh together, as if it was all one big hilarious joke to be so poor and not care one teeny bit about it.
Lizzie wondered everyday when Stephen would ask her to marry him. She needed to talk to someone who got married in this day and age, like Emma. She had nice furniture that Dat and Mam had provided, things like a new hutch cupboard which held the set of china Joshua had given her before their wedding day. She had a brand-new table you could pull apart and put leaves in until you had a table spread clear across the kitchen, and as many as 18 or 20 people could sit around it at one time. Emma even had a new sofa and rocking chairs and a really pretty bookcase with sliding glass doors.
Excerpted from Big Decisions by Linda Byler. Copyright © 2011 Good Books. Excerpted by permission of Good Books.
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