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By Nancy Jo Jenkins
David C. CookCopyright © 2006 Nancy Jo Jenkins
All rights reserved.
Coldwater, Texas 1933
Three weeks before I was to marry Gavin O'Donnell, I set my feet upon the beaten path leading to Two-Toe Creek. What I had to offer Gavin in marriage—my whole heart, or just a part—depended on the decision I would make today.
As my feet tracked the dusty pathway they stirred loose soil to the air. My heart stirred as well, for the guilt I had buried in its depths smoldered as though my brother had just died, and not five years earlier. In the shadowed days following the tragedy, my disgrace had glared like a packet of shiny new buttons. I'd not thought to hide it at the time. In truth, I'd thought of little, other than how to survive. But at some point during that time of sorrowful existence, when my days and nights strung together like endless telegraph wires, I dug a trench around my heart and buried my shame.
From that day until this, I deeded myself the actor's role, closing the curtain on my stain of bitter memories, hiding my sorrow behind a veil of pretense. But that old deceiver, Time, had neither softened my guilt nor put it to rest; only allowed it ample pause to fester like deadly gangrene. Now, as the day of my wedding drew near, my heart cried out for healing. It was, you see, far wiser than my head. My heart understood its need for restoration—before I exchanged wedding vows with Gavin. For this reason, I now walked the trail to Two-Toe Creek. To revisit my failures of yesteryear and reclaim the peace that had slipped past the portals of my childhood. Perhaps then I could give Gavin the entirety of my heart.CHAPTER 2
The trail to the creek was strewn with autumn clutter and the fragrance of days gone by. I longed to pluck a memory or two from this path of ripe remembrances. Maybe chew on them a while. But then I recalled that life was a sea of tangled memories—both good and bad. Barren was the possibility of unraveling one from the other. And so I prompted my feet down the path, not halting until I reached Two-Toe Creek.
The creek tumbled along at a spirited pace, seeming ever in a hurry to inhabit new quarters. I'd been but a bare-toed sprite, no taller than a stump, the first time the creek crooked a liquid finger and beckoned me to take a closer look at its seamless movement. Despite Elo's warnings, I'd chased after it.
"You pea-brained idiot," my older brother had berated. I can see it still, that fire streaking Elo's eyes. "You only got one good leg. You couldn't swim out if your life depended on it."
Elo's scruffy paw had yanked me from the stream that day, but only because of Papa's hands. They held persuasive sway, and had captured my brother's liveliest respect. Left to himself, Elo would have let the water carry me away.
I swept the memory aside with a smile and turned my feet to a lesser trail, rendered grassless by deer and small game. The footpath ascended a knoll and ended at a slab of granite, sandpapered smooth by centuries of east Texas winds. An ancient oak grew nearby, shading the ledge like a tombstone. I had used the shelf as a stage in years past, spewing legions of homespun tales from its center. After dusting it with my handkerchief, I sat down.
Audiences had been difficult to snare back then, so I entertained the occasional sparrow or springboard cricket that wandered near, though they poked the earth and bounded from sight without once uncorking deaf ears. When Elo, or my younger brother, Nathan, strayed within shouting distance, I recited my stories for them. They never tarried long. While I spouted my heart sentiments across the narrows, Elo hooted and howled like the wild coyote he was. But his rudeness had backfired, for it served only to flex the muscles of my stubborn pride.
I shifted position on the ledge, viewing the sky through chiseled treetops. Gray overcast of an hour ago had given way to a shellacking of sunlight and flocks of portly clouds. As the sun began its descent into western sky, a chill filled the air. Even so, my palms dampened with perspiration. Would this journey into the past heal my heart? I wondered. Or splinter it into a thousand pieces? Uncertainty crowded my mind, yet here I sat, poised on the moment. Did I have the courage to cross over the bridge? To return to the place where grief had cast its first shadow?
Father, I'm afraid. I don't know if I can go through it again. I swiped at my tears with shaky fingers. You said the truth would set me free. Free me from the past, Lord ...
Trust me, child.
My heart quickened, for surely I heard the Father's voice; not aloud, for the woods to witness, but deep within where I lacked boldness and strength.
Lord, heal me ... please.
For a moment, the universe stood still. Then a rush of wind blew past, setting The Wheel of Time in motion. As it drew me to its wake, I gathered my cloak of faith more tightly about my shoulders and prayed for a gentle journey.
Please, God. Let me see sunshine and sparkles first.
* * *
We sat around the kitchen table—all ten members of the Falin clan—our Irish laughter lifting the ceiling in celebration of my twelfth birthday. As the jubilance wound down, my three older sisters, whom I called The Ollys, cleared dirty dishes from the plank-board table, even as Mama scoured it to death.
"Tell us stories, Papa," Caleb pleaded. Micah—his matching bookend—gave his head a vigorous nod, setting brown curls to bobbing. Rare were the times my five-year-old brothers disagreed on anything.
"Seems like only yesterday I was telling Emma Grace's story," Papa said, his deep voice hiding a smile. "Has it been a year already?"
Pride being a sin, it grieves me to admit the self-importance I felt when Papa told my story. While he packed his pipe, I sat tall in my chair and stretched my troublesome leg a mite straighter. Most likely, even the man in the moon could detect the grin on my face.
Papa cleared his throat, spilling a hush over the room. As the twins permuted into pillars of salt, I caught a whiff of Papa's pipe and shifted my gaze upward. Wobbly smoke rings sputtered near the ceiling, and then thinned to nothingness, clearing a way for Papa's story.
"Twelve years ago, it was," Papa began. "Mama and the little ones were picking cotton in Mr. Peavy's north section while I tramped down a wagonload across the field. When I heard your mama scream, I jumped off the wagon and vaulted those cotton rows like I had ol' Pegasus's wings growing out of my back. You remember the story I told you about the flying horse?" Heads around the table nodded. "'Twas one of my papa's favorite tales. He read it to me on the trip over from Ireland when I was just a lad." Papa turned his gaze on The Ollys, who sat at the table like ducks in a row. Love fairly flowed from his bluebonnet eyes as he studied Holly, seventeen, Molly, sixteen, and Polly, fifteen. "Papa sure liked to read stories to his children." He pointed his finger toward the parlor. "A lot of those books are from his collection."
I grinned and nodded at Papa, proud that Nathan and I had inherited his love of reading.
Papa's cheeks dented as he took a lengthy draw, sparking life into his pipe bowl. "But—back to Emma Grace's story. When I finally got to your mama, she was lying on her cotton sack, but with all the caterwauling going on, I couldn't hear a word she said. I feared she'd been snakebit or hit with heatstroke."
"Tell the part about me," Elo commanded, proving true Mama's claim that Impatience was my fourteen-year-old brother's middle name.
"Well, Son, you sat atop your mama's skirts, bawling your eyes out. Though how you managed with a fat thumb rooted to your mouth, I'll never know."
We laughed at this familiar part of the story.
As Papa painted word pictures on the parchments of our memories, he pointed his pipe toward his eldest son. "Mama pinned a cord to your overalls so you wouldn't crawl off and find some nasty worms to chew on."
While The Ollys squirmed with squeamishness, I asked, "What happened then?" mostly because I cherished this part of the story.
"My heart almost stopped when your mama told me the baby was coming. I knew it was too early. Way too early. I handed Elo to Holly and sent you all to Mr. Peavy's house for help.
"Ten minutes later little Emma Grace slid into my hands. She was the tiniest thing I'd ever seen. But I couldn't get her to breathe. Tried everything. My big ol' thumb would've crushed her chest if I'd pushed on it, so I just stroked her back like you'd rub a puppy behind the ears. Massaged her little arms and legs ... held her close. Wasn't much else I could do but pray. Mama was wailing for Emma Grace, so I cleaned her up with my handkerchief, best I could, delaying the time I had to hand her over. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her little finger twitch, and then she hiccupped. I tell you, that little gasp she took swelled my heart up like Mr. Johannson's bellows." Papa turned his gaze on Mama, grilling her with a questioning look. "Didn't believe me when I told you our baby was breathing, did you, sweetheart?"
"Of course I believed you. I knew my baby girl would make it."
Eight heads pivoted toward Mama. This was a new twist. Her eyes usually misted over about now, recalling how she had almost lost me.
Papa gave us a broad grin. "Why, sure you did, honey. Sure you did." He shared his conspirator's wink and resumed the story. "I wrapped Emma Grace in my shirt and handed her to Mama. You wouldn't believe how tiny she was ... could hold her in one hand with room to spare." Papa formed his fingers into a tight circle and looked at me. "Your face was no bigger than this, 'bout the size of a silver dollar. Hate to tell you, sweetie, but with your face all scrunched up like that, you looked like a little shriveled-up monkey. 'Course, we thought you were the prettiest thing God ever created.
"Mr. Peavy took us back to our farm in his truck. Your mama cried all the way 'cause she thought every breath would be your last. We lined an old boot box with a blanket, but the second we laid Emma Grace down, she started turning blue. Seems she needed a human heart to keep her own heart ticking, so Mama made a sling and carried our baby next to her heart all day long. I'll tell you one thing," Papa said, zeroing his gaze in on me again, "you kept us on our toes night and day."
"Mama used to let me hold you, Emma Grace, and I was only six years old." Holly tilted her head as she talked, her eyes casting radiance about the room. "I rocked you like a dolly and cried when Mama took you away."
I looked into Holly's startling blue eyes and something scrambled my heart. The Ollys were like second mamas to me, and I loved them with fierceness. But love hadn't hindered me from coveting their corn-silk hair and rare beauty.
"We kept the boot box between us on the bed at night," Papa said. "Took turns keeping a hand on Emma Grace's chest so we'd know if she stopped breathing. Many's the time my hand fell asleep from hanging over the edge of the box." He laughed. "She was too weak to nurse, so we fed her with an eyedropper. Every couple of hours we gave her milk from Mr. Peavy's goats."
"Guess that explains the pack of wool you've got growing out of your scalp," Elo snickered.
Ten-year-old Nathan cleared his throat. My ears perked up, being that I was bright enough to pay attention when the genius of our family rationed out a portion of his knowledge. "Actually," Nathan began, "goat hair is quite distinct from lamb's wool. The wool fat in sheep fleece produces lanolin—"
"We get the picture, professor," Elo interrupted, jostling Nathan in the ribs.
Nathan retaliated with a Herculean jab to Elo's shoulder, grins splitting both lads' faces. Papa stayed the match with one stern look.
"Couldn't afford a doctor," Papa said, "but we got one anyway. Scrounged up some canned goods so ol' Doc Horton would come out. He took one look at Emma Grace and said she'd be gone in a week. Didn't give us a bit of hope or a single idea about caring for such a tiny baby. That roused my anger just a tad. I grabbed him up by the belt loops and shoved him out the door. Told him I'd greet him with a shotgun if he ever showed his ugly face at my house again. Had Holly run some beets and tomatoes out to his buggy. Didn't trust myself to go near the doddering old fool again."
Papa's countenance grew angry in the telling, Irish blood pounding his temples, blotching his face to the redness of our ancestors. We watched like walleyed perch as his ire climbed to the boiling point, and we spoke not a word until it simmered down to fine bubbles. A grin reshaped his features, his chest rumbling a bit as laughter spewed forth like a belching volcano. We joined in. Even Mama had happy tears flowing into the wrinkles on her face.
"Guess I did get a mite carried away," Papa admitted, his countenance reverting from warm red to sandy brown. "Emma Grace's first year was a scary one, let me tell you. She stopped breathing a number of times ... flickered and sputtered like a candle in the wind." Papa sent me a long, narrow-eyed look, as though peering into the days of my infancy. "We watched you like hawks, sweetie, but one night I startled awake and saw that you weren't breathing. 'Lord, help us,' I cried. Your mama went to pieces, beating the bed with her fists ... near hysterical. Didn't know if it would do any good, but I told her to share some of her breath with you."
"I stood in the doorway and saw Mama crying and kissing Emma Grace good-bye." Softness feathered Holly's voice as she spoke. "I ran to the bed and begged Papa not to let my dolly go away. Mama shushed me, said she wasn't telling Emma Grace good-bye, she was helping her find her breath."
Papa's voice softened to a whisper. "I pushed on Emmy's chest, trying to jump-start her heart, but she just laid there like a stillborn calf ... her lips as blue as Nathan's eyes. Didn't move so much as an eyelash. I thought she was ... gone. But I couldn't let her go. Just couldn't. Loved her too much."
It seemed like a quagmire sucked Papa's words right out his throat and swallowed them whole. Elo and I exchanged glances as Papa dragged a handkerchief across his eyes. Like a finely wound clock, Papa had welled up right on schedule.
He blew his nose into his handkerchief and said, "It felt like an hour passed before I had any hope Emma Grace would make it. Finally, one little eyelid fluttered, soft as a moth's wing. Then she opened her mouth and sucked in a breath, letting out the weakest, most pitiful cry we'd ever heard. It sounded like angels singing to Mama and me. We grabbed up Holly and danced around, laughing and thanking God for our miracle. Didn't sleep a wink the rest of the night." Papa beamed a steady look on Molly and Polly. "You two beauties slept through the whole thing. As did Elo."
All gazes converged on my being then, once-overs inspecting my face, my bramble-brown hair, the shirtwaist Mama had stitched from store-bought fabric. I squirmed in my chair as the twins darted glances at the quilted cusp of my crutch, lying against the table. Being the center of attention was a thing I often sought with unflinching immodesty. But seeing the perplexed looks on my family's faces now, as though questioning why God had bothered with so ordinary a child, was another matter, indeed. Perhaps, like me, they simply were in awe of the miracle our family received on that extraordinary night, almost twelve years earlier.CHAPTER 3
"Well, I'll be. Says here that ash wood is real light, but strong and springy, too." Papa shoved the advertisement under Mama's nose. "I'm gonna write this Minnesota company tonight and order a box load."
"But, sweetheart, do we have enough money?"
"I don't care how much it costs. If I have to—I'll sell the mule. Emma Grace is gonna have the best crutch her papa can whittle out."
"Oh, Roan, you know we don't own a mule."
Of course, I wasn't there to hear this conversation firsthand, but learned of it through a story bantered about our house. The tale pricked my attention and stilled my busyness the first time it rolled over my ears. With a bum leg like mine, I'd often wondered how I'd become such a gadabout at the early age of fourteen months.
From the mind's eyes of my childhood, I recalled a tiny wooden crutch—one of many Papa carved in my growing-up years. When I parted company with crawling and attempted to walk at twelve months of age, my leg—which appeared normal in every way but length—toppled me over every time I took a step. After declaring I needed a "second leg," Papa squirreled away the necessary coinage, ordered a box load of wood, and whittled a crutch to fit my runt-sized body. Mama padded the arm basin with soft cotton and bound my arm and leg to the crutch with cloth strips. As the story goes, from that point on the wee colleen with a less-than-perfect leg scooted about the house like the queen of pixie land.
Excerpted from Coldwater Revival by Nancy Jo Jenkins. Copyright © 2006 Nancy Jo Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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