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Sara Esch smiled as her young scholars burst out into the autumn sunshine at the end of another school day. Even the best of Amish students couldn't help showing a bit of enthusiasm when freedom arrived at three o'clock each weekday afternoon, especially on Friday.
All except one, it seemed. Seven-year-old Rachel King hung back, her small face solemn, as if reluctant to leave her desk.
Sara tried not to let concern show in her expression as she approached the motherless child. Rachel had been in Sara's one-room school for less than a month, since she and her father arrived in Beaver Creek, coming to Pennsylvania from Indiana. That meant Sara didn't know Rachel as well as she did most of the kinner in her school.
Sara knelt next to the child and spoke softly, knowing her words would be masked by the chatter of the two eighth-grade girls whose turn it was to wash the chalkboards.
"Was ist letz, Rachel?" She asked the question in dialect. She always spoke Englisch in school, but the familiar tongue of home and family might put the child at ease. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." Rachel's round blue eyes grew rounder still, as if she was surprised that her teacher had noticed. "Nothing is wrong, Teacher Sara."
Sara sat back on her heels, studying the small face. Rachel might have been any young Amish girl, with her blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and blond hair. Her plain blue dress and black apron were like those of every other little girl, too. But something was different about Rachel King, of that Sara was certain sure.
She took the child's hands in hers. "You can tell me if anything is troubling you, Rachel. I want you to be happy here in Beaver Creek."
Rachel's lips trembled, as if she were on the verge of speech. Then she looked over Sara's shoulder, and her expression lightened.
"Daed!" She ran to the man who filled the schoolhouse doorway.
So. Sara got slowly to her feet, mindful of Caleb King's gaze on her. His arrival meant she wouldn't hear anything more from Rachel today. But at least she could see that Rachel's problem, whatever it was, wasn't with her father. She would hate to have to deal with such an issue.
She took a step toward Caleb, smiling, and stopped when she encountered an icy glare. His face was set in severe lines above the warm chestnut of his beard, and Caleb's gaze seemed an accusation. Her heart gave an uncomfortable thump.
Caleb patted his daughter's head. "Go out and play on the swings. I need to talk to Teacher Sara."
Sara caught a swift flare of panic in the child's face at the prospect of going outside. She moved toward them.
"Perhaps Rachel could help with washing the boards," she suggested. "We might step out onto the porch to talk."
Caleb's gray-blue eyes grew steely with annoyance, probably at her interference, but he nodded. He stepped back and held the door open like a command.
Sara pushed Rachel gently toward the chalkboard. "Lily and Lovina, you'll like to have Rachel help you for a bit, ain't so?"
Lily looked a tad mulish at the prospect, but gentle Lovina seemed to take the situation in and smiled, holding out her hand to the child.
"Ya, komm, Rachel."
The little girl ran toward her happily enough. Satisfied, Sara stepped through the door, very aware of Caleb's looming presence behind her. He had a complaint, it seemed.
The door clicked shut.
"What has happened at school to bring my child home so upset she could not even eat her supper?" Caleb didn't give Sara time to turn around before he threw the words at her. "And to give her nightmares, as well? I don't expect this at an Amish school."
Stiffening at the implication she was at fault, Sara made an effort to keep her expression calm as she faced the man. "I noticed that Rachel seemed upset today. I was just trying to get her to tell me what was wrong when you came in."
And whatever it is, I am not to blame, she added silently. Nothing was more important to her than her scholarsthey were the only kinner she was ever likely to have.
"You didn't scold her for anything yesterday?" Caleb didn't look mollified. "Or let another child bully her?"
"Certainly not. Bullying is not tolerated in my classroom." She took a deep breath, reminding herself not to let the man's antagonism rouse her temper. Even teachers in Amish schools had to learn to deal with troublesome parents. "I am as puzzled as you are. Maybe together we can figure out how to handle this problem."
She met his gaze steadily, and after what seemed a very long moment, she had the satisfaction of seeing some of his antagonism fade.
"Sorry. I didn't mean Ach, I was worried."
Caleb seemed to realize belatedly that he still wore his black hat. He took it off, revealing hair the same chestnut as his beard. His face was lean and austere close-up, and there were fine lines around his cool eyes. He was a widower, so the rumors ran, his wife having died after a long illness. It was natural that he'd be protective of his only child. But not natural at all that he should immediately assume she was at fault.
Sara gathered her scattered wits to concentrate on the problem at hand. "I thought Rachel seemed a little reluctant to leave school yesterday. That's why I made sure the Miller children walked along with her. She didn't give you any idea of what was troubling her?"
Caleb shook his head, worry deepening the lines in his face. "When I heard her crying in the night, she sounded so afraid. The only thing she said made no sense. She said Der Alte would get her."
"The Old Man?" Relief swept through Sara. "So that's it."
"What's it?" Caleb demanded, his fists clenching. "Who is this old man who frightened my child?"
"Ach, it's not real." She put her hand on his arm in an automatic gesture of reassurance and felt taut muscle beneath the fabric of his coat. She pulled her hand away as if she'd touched something hot, realizing she was probably blushing. She'd treated him as she would one of her three brothers, but he was a stranger, despite being Amish.
"Komm." She moved quickly off the schoolhouse porch, just as glad to turn her back on him. "I'll show you."
The schoolhouse sat in the fertile Beaver Creek Valley. Amish farms stretched out on either side, while in front of the school-house the long lane led to the paved county road that entered the town of Beaver Creek a bit over a mile east.
Sara turned away from the road, heading across the playground behind the school. Here the ground sloped down to the creek for which the valley was named.
On the other side of the creek the wooded ridge went sharply upward, seeming to lean over the valley protectively. No year-round houses had been built there, but the ridge was dotted with hunting cabins that would be busy during deer season.
"Where are you going?" Caleb's long strides kept up with hers. "Are you going to answer me about this old man? Does he live back here?"
"In a way." She raised her arm to point. "See that rocky outcropping? Watch what happens when we move just a little farther."
A few steps took them to the spot where the rocky cliff suddenly took on a different aspect, its sharp edges forming what a child's imagination might see as the profile of an old man.
A quick glance at Caleb's face showed that he understood.
"Der Alte," she said. "The kinner call it that. I forgot that you wouldn't know."
Caleb stared at the rocky profile, frowning. "Ya, I see. But I don't understand what there is about it to frighten her so."
"Nor I." Her voice firmed. "But I mean to find out. If one of the older scholars has been telling scary stories to the young ones, that is not" She broke off, her gaze arrested by something dark at the base of the cliff face. "Look there. That that almost looks like"
"A person." Caleb finished for her. "Someone is lying there."
Caleb's thoughts fled to Rachel. But his little girl was safe enough in the schoolroom, and if someone was lying hurt across the creek, he must go help.
"Go back to the kinner," he said shortly. "I'll see what's happened." He didn't take more than a few steps before realizing that Teacher Sara was right behind him. He swung around, exasperated. "I said"
"If someone is hurt, it's better we both go. Then one can stay with the injured person while the other runs for help."
A look at her stubborn face told him arguing would do no good. Heaven preserve him from a headstrong woman. Not wasting his breath, he ran toward the creek.
"This way," she said, panting a little. "Stepping-stones."
He nodded and veered after her as she headed downstream. No doubt the teacher knew the area better than he did. If the man was injured badly enough to need a stretcher, she'd know the best way for emergency workers to get to him, as well as the closest telephone.
And if it was worse? He didn't have a clear line of sight now, but that dark form had been ominously still. Well, he'd tried to protect Teacher Sara from going. If she saw something bad, it was her own fault.
She was already starting across the stream, jumping lightly from one flat stone to another. He followed, but when they reached the other side, he took the lead again, brushing through the undergrowth toward the base of the cliff.
They broke through into the pebbly scree at the bottom of the cliff. Any hope he'd had that the form was an animal or fallen log vanished.
Sara reached the man first. She dropped to her knees, her skirt pooling around her, and put her fingers on his neck. Caleb could tell her that she wouldn't find a pulse. No one could still be alive when his head looked like that. The poor man didn't have a chance.
Moving quickly to her, Caleb took Sara's arm. "Komm," he said, his voice gruff. "There's nothing you can do."
He helped her up, eyeing her face. If she was going to faint on him. But though her normally pink cheeks were dead white, Teacher Sara seemed to have herself in hand.
"Poor man," she murmured, and he thought she was praying silently, as he was.
"Do you know him?" He drew her back a step or two, keeping his hand on her elbow in case she was unsteady on her feet.
Sara shook her head. "Englisch," she said unnecessarily. If the man had been Amish, she'd certainly have known him. "He looks fairly young." Her tone was pitying.
Young, ya. The fellow wore jeans and boots, like so many young Englischers. Dark hair, with a stubble of beard on his chin. He looked Caleb sought for the right word. He looked tough. That was it. Like someone you might not want to get on the wrong side of.
But they couldn't stand here wondering about him. "It doesn't seem right to leave the poor man alone. If I stay with him, can you see to calling the police?" Amish usually tried to steer clear of entanglement with the law, but their duty was clear in this case.
"Ya." Sara took a step back, away from the support of his hand. "There's an Englisch house not far. They'll have a phone. And then I'll stay with the kinner"
"My Rachel." His gaze met Sara's. "You don't think she could have seen this?" He gestured toward the body, his mind rebelling at the thought of his little girl viewing anything so gruesome.
"No." Sara seemed to push the idea away with both hands. "I don't think Surely he hasn't been lying there since yesterday."
"It's possible." He looked up at the cliff face above them. From this angle it just looked like a jumble of rocks. "If she was standing where we stood " He stopped, looking at Teacher Sara accusingly. "You shouldn't let the kinner go so far from the school."
"It is the edge of the playground," she said, a touch of anger like lightning in her green eyes. "The scholars are never out of my sight when they have recess."
"Sorry," he muttered.
He shouldn't blame Teacher Sara, when the thing that troubled him was his own inability to get his child to confide in him. Rachel had been so distant and solemn since her mother's death, as if all Rachel's laughter had been buried with Barbara.
"I'll go now," Teacher Sara said, turning away stiffly.
He let his gaze linger on her slender figure until the undergrowth hid her from sight. No matter how long this took, he knew instinctively that she would stay with Rachel. She'd attempt to comfort his little girl.
But if Rachel really had seen this man lying dead His thoughts stuttered to a halt as something even worse occurred to him. What if his little girl had seen the man fall?