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Kent County, Delaware
Johanna kissed her sister's newborn and inhaled the infant's sweet baby scent before gently placing her into the antique walnut cradle. It was midafternoon, and Johanna, Anna, Rebecca and Grossmama were gathered on the screened-in back porch of the Mast farmhouse, enjoying cold lemonade and hulling a bounty of end-of-the-season strawberries to make jam.
Johanna stood over the cradle, gazing down at the baby's long thick lashes, her chubby, pink cheeks and the riot of red-gold curls peeping out from under her antique, white-lace bonnet. Tiny Rose sighed in her sleep, opened one perfect hand, pursed her perfectly formed lips and melted Johanna's heart. Tears blurred her vision. She's so precious.
It wasn't that she coveted Anna and Samuel's gift from God. She didn't. But it seemed so long since her own children had been newborns. Jonah, at five, was now old enough to be a real help in the garden and barnyard. And, as he reminded her at least three times a day, he'd be starting school in the fall. Even her chatterbox, Katy, now three, had outgrown her baby smocks and become independent overnight. She was always eager to sweep the kitchen floor with her miniature broom, gather eggs and pick strawberries in the wake of the bigger children.
I want another baby, Johanna admitted to herself. My arms ache for another child, but having one means marrying again. And after her unhappy marriage to Wilmer Detweiler, and the tragedy of his suicide, she wasn't certain she had the strength to face that yet.
She knew that the children she had, especially Jonah, needed a father. She and Jonah had always been close, but there were so many things that only a man could teach himhow to plow and trim a horse's hooves, when to cut hay, how to mend a broken windmill. And while Wilmer had been kind to Katy, he'd shown only stern disapproval and constant criticism of Jonah. For all his energy and warm heart, Jonah desperately needed a loving father's guidance. Without it, Johanna feared that Jonah would never fully understand how to grow into a man. And she wasn't the only one who had come to that conclusion. It had been two years since Wilmer's death, and members of the community and her family had been hinting that it was time she remarry. Johanna prayed every night that she would know when the time was right and that God would bring a good man into her life.
"She's adorable, Anna." Beautiful, she thought, but she didn't say the word out loud. Physical beauty wasn't something the Old Order Amish were supposed to dwell on. Better a child or an adult have grace and a pure spirit within than a pleasing face.
"And such an easy baby," Grossmama said. "Like my Jonas. A gut baby." She capped a large crimson strawberry and popped it in her mouth. Closing her eyes, she chewed contentedly, savoring the sweet flavor.
Anna looked up from the earthenware bowl in her lap and smiled with barely contained pride. "Rose is a good baby, isn't she? Poor Samuel can't believe it. He keeps getting out of bed at night to make certain she's still breathing."
Grossmama's eyes snapped open, and she nodded so hard her bonnet strings bounced. "Happy mudder, happy kinner. And such a quick delivery. Pray that Martha has such an easy birth when her time comes."
"It's Ruth who's expecting," Rebecca gently reminded her grandmother. "Not Aunt Martha. Our sister Ruth."
Johanna tried not to smile at the thought of Aunt Martha, older than her mother, having a new baby. Gross-mama's physical health had been good, and she seemed happier since coming to live with Anna, but her memory continued to fail. Not only was she convinced that Anna's husband, Samuel, was her dead son, Jonas, but she mixed up names and people so often that one had to constantly think twice when one had a conversation with her. Only yesterday, Grossmama had been certain that Bishop Atlee was her new beau, come to take her to a frolic. Johanna couldn't help wondering what the English at the senior center, where Grossmama taught rug making several days a week, thought of their grandmother.
"Are these the last of them?" Rebecca asked. Two brimming dishpans of ripe strawberries stood on the table, waiting to be washed and crushed before being added to the bubbling kettles on the stove.
"No," Johanna said. "I think there's one more flat. I'll go" She broke off as the pounding of a horse's hooves on the dirt lane caught her attention. "It's Irwin!"
She snatched open the screen door and hurried down the wooden steps, wondering why he was in such a hurry.
Blackie galloped into the yard with Irwin, hatless and white-faced, clinging to his bare back. Chickens squawked and flew in all directions as the teenager yanked the gelding up so hard that the horse began to buck, and Irwin nearly tumbled off.
"What's wrong?" Johanna cried. Irwin, the teen who Johanna's mother had adopted, never moved faster than molasses in January. "Ruth's not"
"Not Ruth! It's Roland's J.J."
Roland. For an instant, Johanna felt paralyzed. If Roland was in danger, she No, she told herself, not Roland. J.J., Roland's little boy. The moment passed and she regained her self-control. "What is it?" she demanded.
Irwin half slid, half jumped to the ground, letting the reins slip through his hands. Blackie made one more leap and blew flecks of foam from his mouth and nose. Neck and tail arched, the spirited horse trotted onto the lawn, where, after a few more antics, he began to snatch up mouthfuls of grass.
"You've got to come! Schnell!" Irwin steadied himself and ran toward Johanna. "Bees! A swarm! In Roland's tree. They're crawling all over J.J.! Roland says they could sting him to death!"
"Bees?" Johanna asked. "Roland doesn't keep bees." If J.J. was in danger, she had to go, but how could she go? After everything that lay between them, knowing how she felt, how could Roland ask it of her? "Are you certain they're honeybees?"
Irwin nodded. "H honeybees!"
Johanna grabbed him by his thin shoulders and shook him. "Calm down!" she ordered. "Has J.J. been stung?"
"Ne." Irwin shook his head. "Roland doesn't know what to do. He says you have to come. You know bees."
"All right," Johanna agreed. J.J.'s little face, the image of his father, flashed through her thoughts, and she swallowed, trying to keep her voice from showing what she really felt. "You run to our farm," she instructed Irwin calmly. "Get my smoker and my bee suit and an empty nuc box and bring them to Roland's."
He knitted his eyebrows. "What kind of box?"
"A used hive body. A deep one. And don't forget my lemongrass oil. It's on the shelf beside my gloves. Bring them to Roland's." She took a deep breath and pressed her hands to her sides to keep anyone from seeing them tremble. "Can you remember all that?"
"Good. Now run, as quickly as you can!"
Anna and Rebecca had followed her into the yard. "What's happened?" Rebecca asked.
"Irwin says that there's a swarm of bees at Roland's."
"In the tree! By the pond. And and J.J.'s up in the tree with them," Irwin said. For all his fourteen years, he looked as though he was about to burst into tears. Red patches stood out on his blotchy complexion, and his hay-thatch hair stuck up in tufts. Somewhere, he'd lost his hat, and one suspender sagged.
"Go now," Johanna told Irwin. "And don't stop for anything!"
Irwin took off.
"I've got to go see what I can do," Johanna said to Rebecca and Anna, taking care not to show how flustered she really was. She'd been an apiarist long enough to know that it was important to remain calm with bees. They seemed to be able to sense a person's mood and the best way to calm a hiveor a swarmwas to stay calm herself. As if that's possible, the warning voice in her head whispered, when you have to go to Roland's house and pretend you're only friends.
"Take one of our buggies," Anna offered. "We'll help you hitch"
"Ne." Johanna glanced from her sisters to where the horse grazed on the lawn. "There's no time. I'll ride Blackie."
"Bareback?" Anna's eyes widened. "Are you sure?
"Headstrong. Skittish. I know." Johanna grimaced. "It isn't as if we didn't get thrown off worse when we were kids." How could she tell Anna that she was afraid? Not of Blackie or of being thrown, but of Roland ofthe past she' d thought she' d put behind her years ago?
"You're going to ride astride, like a man?" Rebecca shook her head. "It's against the Ordnung. Not fitting for women. Bishop Atlee will"
"J.J.'s life might be in danger. The bishop will understand that this is an emergency," Johanna answered with more confidence than she felt. Her heart raced as she bent and ripped up a handful of grass and walked slowly toward Blackie. The animal rolled his eyes and backed up a few steps, ears pricked and muscles tensed.
"Easy," Johanna soothed. "Good boy. Just a little closer." She inched forward and grabbed a trailing rein. "Give me a boost up," she said to her sisters.
Rebecca shook her head. "You're going to be in sooo much trouble."
Ignoring Rebecca, Anna moved to Blackie's side and cupped her hands. Johanna thrust a bare foot into the makeshift stirrup and swung up onto the horse's back.
"Was is?" Grossmama shouted. "Baremlich!"
But Johanna had already pulled Blackie's head around, grabbed a handful of mane and dug her heels into the animal's sides. Blackie broke into a trot, and they galloped away.
Roland Byler's stomach did a flip-flop as he stood by the pond and stared up at his only child. J.J. had climbed into the branches of a Granny Smith apple tree and sat with his back against the trunk and his legs swinging down on either side of a branch. He was at least eight feet off the ground, but the distance ordinarily wouldn't have worried Roland too much. Although J.J. was only four, he was strong and agile, and climbed like a squirrel. He'd been scrambling up ladders and into trees almost since he'd learned to walk. What terrified Roland today was that his son was surrounded by thousands of honeybees.
"Please, God, protect him," Roland murmured under his breath. And louder, to J.J., he called, "Sit still, don't move. Don't do anything to startle them."
J.J. giggled. "Don't be scared, Dat. They won't hurt me. They like me." Bees surrounded him, walking on his bare feet, his arms and fingers. They buzzed around his head and face and crawled in his hair. And only inches from J.J.'s head, a wriggling cluster of the winged insects, thicker than the boy's body, swayed on a slender branch.
"Don't make any noise," Roland warned as J.J. began to hum the tune to an old hymn. Roland's heart thudded against his ribs, his skin was clammy-cold and his chest felt so tight that it was hard to breathe. "Do as I say!" he ordered.
When Roland was ten, he'd had a cousin in the Kishacoquillas Valley who'd attempted to rob a honey tree and had been stung to death. Roland shuddered, trying to shut out the memory of the dead boy's swollen and disfigured face as he lay in his coffin.
He couldn't dwell on his poor cousin or his grieving family. The bishop who'd delivered the sermon at his funeral had assured them that the boy was safe with God. Roland knew that was what the Bible taught. This world wasn't important. It was only a preparation for the next, but Roland's faith wasn't always as strong as he would like. His cousin's parents had had six living children remaining when they lost their son. J.J. was all he had. Roland had survived the death of his wife, Pauline, and the unborn babies she'd been carrying, but if he lost this precious son, his own life would be over.
"They tickle." J.J. giggled again. "Climb up, Dat, and see how nice they are."
"Hush. I told you not to move." All sorts of wild ideas surfaced in Roland's head. Maybe he could cut down the tree and J.J. could jump free. Or he could tell J.J. to jump into his arms. He'd leap into the pondwashing the bees off them both before they could sting them. But Roland knew that was foolishness. Neither of them could move fast enough. The bees were already crawling all over J.J.
Besides, if Roland startled the swarm, they might all attack both of them. He didn't care about himself, but his son was so small. The child could be stung hundreds of times in just a minute. Roland's only hope was prayer and the belief that Irwin would return soon with Johanna. She was a beekeeper. She worked with bees every day. If anyone could tell him what to do to save his child, it would be Johanna.
"Dat!" J.J. waved a bee-covered hand and pointed toward the meadow that bordered the road.
Roland looked up to see the Yoders' black horse coming fast across the pasture. But there was no gate along that fence line. Irwin would have to backtrack around by the farmyard to get to the pond. But the boy was galloping straight on toward
Roland's stomach pitched. That wasn't Irwin on Blackie! The rider wore a blue dress and a white Kapp. A girl? It couldn't be. "Johanna?" Roland backed away from the tree and ran toward the fence waving his arms. Was she blind? Couldn't she see there was no opening? Why hadn't she reined in the horse? Surely, she couldn't mean to "No!" he bellowed. "Don't try to jump that"
But as the words came out of his mouth, Roland saw that it was too late. Blackie soared over the three-rail fence and came thundering down, Johanna clinging stubbornly to his back. She yanked back on the reins, but the horse had the bit between his teeth and didn't slacken his pace. When the gelding didn't respond, she pulled hard on one rein, forcing him to circle left. He dug in his front legs, then tried to rear, but she fought him to a trot and finally to a walk. Johanna pulled up ten feet from Roland and slid down off the horse's sweat-streaked back.
Johanna landed barefoot in the grass and straightened her Kapp as she hurried toward him. "Is J.J. all right?" she asked.
Speechless, Roland stared gape-mouthed at her. She was breathing hard but otherwise seemed no worse for her wild careen across the field. All he could think was that she had come. Johanna had come, and she'd find a way to save his son. But what he said was, "Are you crazy? You? A grown woman with two children? To ride that horse bareback like some madcap boy?"
Johanna the woman who might have been his who might have been J.J.'s mother if not for one stupid night of foolishness.
"Are you finished?" she asked, scolding him as if he was the one who'd just done something outrageous. Her chin went up and tiny lines of disapproval creased the corners of her beautiful eyeseyes so piercingly blue and direct that for an instant, he didn't see a delicate woman standing there. In a flash, he saw, instead, Johanna's father, Jonas Yoder, as strong a man in faith and courage as Roland had ever known.