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A strange, shrill voice dragged Abigail from deep sleep. No, it was two voices, one low-pitched, one high. She huddled under her sheet and quilt, then thrashed against them. Dreams had haunted her againof a couple running through a cornfield, whooping in delight, with Ben leading the way. Ben laughing, knocking over the stalks running in crazy circles Had she been dreaming of Ben and Liddy? No. The voices were real. She could hear them right now.
Clutching the covers, Abby sat bolt upright. At least the people weren't outside her house. Maybe down by the creek, or on the covered bridge. That often funneled sounds her way. Probably rumspringa kids, maybe some she knew. Drinking beer, staying out late, just as she had during her running-around time. Or maybe it was outsiders telling ghost tales on the old bridge where, if you shouted loud enough, your voice echoed. Ja, scaring someone about the Amish girl and Englische boy who hanged themselves there years ago because their love was forbidden.
Despite the fact she was sweating, Abby shivered. She didn't believe in ghosts but she knew the story: the Amish girl had argued with her lover, saying it was wrong to take a life, but he had convinced her to put the noose around her neck and jump with him into the darkness .
Abby stopped breathing and strained to listen to the high-pitched voice again. Ja, it was a woman's, strong and strident. Land sakes, couldn't they quiet down and let a body sleep?
Trying to keep calm, Abby fumbled on her bedside table for her flashlight, clicked it on and shot its beam toward her battery-run clock. It was 4:14 a.m.! Now she'd never get back to sleep. She had to get up before dawn to make more mushroom chutney and relish for the saturday farmers' market. And she wanted to take a loaf of friendship bread over to her new neighbors across the creek, plus harvest more mushrooms.
Her feet hit the rag rug on the floor, and she found her slippers by feel. Though her place was six miles out of town, and the nearest Amish farm was two miles away, she'd lived here for years, first with both grandparents and then just with Grossmamm. She'd never felt afraid here, she told herself, and she didn't now. She knew Wild Run Woods behind the house, Killibuck Creekreally a riverand the old bridge better than anyone. And people had better learn to be quiet at night!
As she wrapped a shawl around her flannel nightgown, another thought hit her. Maybe the folks who had taken over the old Hostetler house across the creek had gone down to the bridge and were arguing. If she were the woman who had just moved into that run-down place, she might be shouting, too.
By now her curiosity was as awake as she was. In the front room, she knelt by the window she'd left cracked in the crisp September air, and raised the sash a bit higher. The woman's voice wasn't Amish in tone or rhythm. Abby couldn't be sure, but the man must be a modern, too. This part of Eden County had folks who weren't Amish, but they all had the good sense not to be disturbing the peace this time of night.
A light shone from one of the windows on the bridge everyone called "the Hanging Bridge," partly because it was suspended from the rocks above the rapids but also because of the double suicide that had happened there. She couldn't imagine taking one's own life for love. Sad that two young folks couldn't see there was so much to live for, even apart. Why, she'd turned down Elam garber's proposal a few months ago, and she felt she had plenty to live for.
It wasn't that she didn't sympathize about true love, Abby told herself. She'd seen her older sister, Liddy, as well as friends and cousins, fall in love and get married. But she'd given up on passion and desire ever since she'd been silly and stupid enough to have a huge crush on Liddy's eighteen-year-old come-calling friend, their neighbor Ben Kline. That had been about ten years ago, when she was a mere kid of fourteen. Thanks to Ben messing up his life, he hadn't married Liddy, and had left here for good, jumped the Amish fence to the big city of Cincinnati. Until she found someone who swayed her head and heart like he had, she was content to run her business and her life, Amish to the core and yet a bit on her own, too.
"You're an idiot!" she heard the woman screech, followed by something she couldn't catch. Despite the constant rustle of white water over rocks below the bridge, the female voice carried.
That's all she could take, Abby decided. She was going to go out, shine a light their way, then hustle back here and lock herself in.
She hurried into her kitchen, banging her shin on a log plugged with oyster mushroom spawn, and got her big flashlight. She'd needed both lights to gather the mushrooms after dark last night, then pack and store them in the cellar for sale at the market. She went out the back door, which faced her mushroom beds and the forest beyond, then hurried around the side of the house onto the river path. She knew each step in the dark, so she'd wait to use the large flashlight until she was on the old, now-deserted road that led to the bridge.
Once she was there, she aimed at the black throat of the bridge and turned on the big beam.
Ach! Even pointed away, the brilliance almost blinded her. The shaft of light illuminated a woman dressed in black and wearing an Amish prayer kapp, so it must be one of her people. The figure turned toward the light, threw up a hand to shield her eyes and hissed, "Someone's coming. Get down!"
The voice was Englische!
And get down from what? Surely someone wasn't drunk enough to jump out a window into the rapids, even though the river was up with all the rain. They'd be smashed on the rocks below, maybe drowned.
Abby heard something clatter, then a man's low voice. Not wanting a confrontation, she clicked off her flashlight, turned and fled, losing one slipper, but not turning back. In the house, she locked the door and peered out the kitchen window. Nothing now. No light, no sound. About ten minutes later she saw red taillights on the far side of the bridge disappear, as if a wild animal were backing away into the blackness.
After breakfast, Abby searched hard for her lost slipper and couldn't find it. So she fed her buggy horse, Fern, let her out to graze in the small meadow, then had a hearty breakfast of a honey mushroom frittata and herbal tea before going to work.
Her wood ear mushrooms"They are listening!" Grossmamm always used to say since they looked like human earsseemed perfect as she used her sharpest harvesting knife to cut them from the stacked logs she'd inoculated with their spawn last year. After she finished, she'd take that loaf of bread over to the new couple she'd caught a glimpse of moving in. She couldn't see them that well through the autumn trees, but she could tell they were Englische.
Abby prayed they would be good neighbors, as she intended to be. A shame they were moderns, but she didn't mind her half-hour buggy rides into town for market and church on her own. Unlike most Amish maidals with many siblings, Abigail Baughman had only one sister, who now lived in Pennsylvania. A baby brother born too early in a bad birth had taken their mother with him. Because her parents were forty when she was born, and Liddy seemed so much older, more like a second mother, Abby had always felt like an only child. She had lots of friends from her school days, and many cousins, but she had to admit she'd become a bit of a loner, especially after her mamm died and daad still traveled so much with his construction team.
Many Amish girls were married by twenty-four, Ab-by's age. She knew she'd find the right Amish man one day and rear her own family. But he'd have to live out here where she could pursue the wildcrafting, gathering and overseeing of the mushroom crops that were, as Grossmamm also used to say, "our bread and butter."
About ten o'clock, after making a kettle of mushroom chutney, left on the stove to cool, Abby changed her work apron and shoes, donned her bonnet over her prayer kapp and packed up the loaf of friendship bread. It wasn't quite hunting season yet for deer or wild turkey, only for squirrel, but she locked the door behind her. Last year two Englische hunters had scared her to death. She'd come back from gathering precious morels in the woods and walked into her kitchen to find them getting drinks of water.
As she set out, still skimming her gaze across the ground for her lost slipper, she jerked to a stop. Two sets of tracksand hersmarred the mud by the path where she'd watered her ever-thirsty shaggy mane mushrooms yesterday. One print was smaller than the other, but they could have belonged to either sex. The mud was so wet that only the shape of the shoe was there, not tread marks.
Abby followed the footprints toward her house and around the edge of the bed of wood chips that boasted her big parasol mushrooms, then lost them where the sawdust trail began. In the meadow behind the fence, Fern was cropping grass. The gentle mare looked up at Abby as if to ask, "What? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Abby answered, and headed down the path toward the bridge again. Just someone passing through? Squirrel hunters? She'd heard some distant rifle shots yesterday. Had Elam come to pester her again, maybe with Ruth Yutzy, the new girlfriend he'd been showing off? Or maybe the tracks belonged to the people who had been on the bridge? But she hadn't seen or heard anyone follow her last night. Keeping an eye on the woods, she continued down the path.
Several covered bridges in this area drew occasional visitors, but none were used much anymore. The Hanging Bridge, once called the Homestead Bridge after the nearby town, had been built of white oak in the 1870s. It was wearing well, partly because its roof and some support beams had been restored about a decade ago. The foundations were planted firmly in the bedrock ledges above Killibuck Creek, and a web of trusses supported the plank flooring and roof. Six square openings were cut into each side of the 140-foot span to let in light, but they weren't big enough that horses could see out and get spooked by the rushing water beneath.
A weight limit on motor vehicles was posted at each entrance. Once painted red, the weathered boards had now faded to a soft, pinkish gray. Years ago when Mamm and Daad used to bring her and Liddy out to help Grossmamm harvest her crops, Abby had thought the bridge looked like a big old barn hung right over the river. It must also look like that to the barn swallows that flew in and out and suspended their cup-shaped, mud pellet nests from the beams and rafters.
As she passed the point on the bridge where she'd seen the woman last night, she noted nothing unusual. At least whoever it was hadn't made a campfire, like some careless kids last year. The char marks from the flames that could have caught the entire bridge on fire still showed. Abby pictured again how the woman's white kapp had glowed and her white palm caught the light when she'd thrown her hand up. Of course she could not have been wearing a prayer kapp, Abby realized now, because something had glittered on her wrist.
No Amish woman ever wore gold or jewels, not even a wedding band.
Abby breathed in the clear, crisp air as she headed down the path on the other side of the river. The neighbors' house was not directly across from hers, but almost. When the leaves dropped, she'd be able to see in their windows, as they would hers. Then it hit her: could the new couple have been walking around her house after they'd argued on the bridge last night? It was obvious she was the one who had shone the light on them. Maybe they'd picked up her slipper But it would be rude and unkind to ask.
She shook her head to clear it, and sent up a silent prayer for peace of spirit and good relations with her new neighbors. Besides, this close, the long-abandoned house didn't look as forbidding. A curl of sweet-smelling smoke wafted from the chimney. A well-kept black truck with large pieces of wood stacked neatly in its bed sat in the gravel driveway. The windows she'd seen the woman washing yesterday gleamed in the sun. If it wasn't farm market day tomorrow, Abby would volunteer to help her get settled. Maybe she would later.
She walked up on the porch, which creaked, but a new-looking swing for two, painted a fresh white, was hanging from two shiny chains. She noted that from the swing the couple could see her house and mushroom patches through the yellow and orange leaves.
Before she could knock, the door opened. Abby stumbled back a step and drew in a sharp breath. Her heartbeat kicked up and her pulse began to pound. A tall man stood there, broad-shouldered, blond with intense eyes as green as grass. He was dressed modern, in jeans and a bright blue flannel shirt, but she knew instantly who he was. Though he'd been gone ten years, he was still under the bann, ostracized by and forbidden to the Amish.
Before her stood the man of her girlhood dreams, who now tormented her in nightmares. Ben Kline, her sister's come-calling friend. A man Abby had once silently, sinfully adored.