Prairie Stormby Catherine Palmer
Prairie Storm, by award-winning author Catherine Palmer, is the third book in the series A Town Called Hope. Continuing the saga of the Kansas town, Palmer teaches readers that God's wonderful plan for each of us includes peace and healing, even amidst the storms of life. A must-have for all Palmer fans as well as for anyone whose faith has been challenged/i>
Prairie Storm, by award-winning author Catherine Palmer, is the third book in the series A Town Called Hope. Continuing the saga of the Kansas town, Palmer teaches readers that God's wonderful plan for each of us includes peace and healing, even amidst the storms of life. A must-have for all Palmer fans as well as for anyone whose faith has been challenged by adversity. Tyndale House Publishers
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By Catherine Palmer
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Catherine Palmer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHope, Kansas June 1866
A SUDDEN, high-pitched cry caught Lily Nolan's attention. She sucked in a breath. A baby? Somewhere in the growing darkness, a baby was crying. Lily pushed aside the tent flap and stepped outside, listening. There it came again! Weak but insistent, the wail curled into the marrow of Lily's bones.
Abigail, she thought. Oh, my darling Abby!
No. That wasn't possible, was it? Abby was gone, buried in a little wooden box at the edge of Topeka. But whose baby was crying? Why didn't the mother rock the child?
Lily's body contracted and began to ache in response to the baby's cries. Could the voice be Abby's, calling to her mother from the spirit world? Beatrice had tried to assure Lily that the baby was an angel now, a soul drifting in the great unseen, a messenger who would come to her with hope and comfort from beyond. But this cry sounded so real. And so near.
Lily stepped out into the tall prairie grass. In the distance she could see the town of Hope, Kansas little more than a mercantile, a smithy, a newly built church, and a few shabby soddies. Women wearing homespun dresses, men in tattered trousers, and barefoot children moved down dirt paths toward the main road. Seeking entertainment or hoping for a cure forsome unnamed trouble, they came to the traveling show, just as such people did in every town across the country.
Clutching the velvet cape of her fortune-teller's costume closer about her, Lily concentrated on Beatrice's speech. "Are you sad and blue?" the woman called. "Does your heart ache, your blood race, your liver leap, and your stomach churn? Is your hair limp? Do your feet hurt? Are your fingers stiff? Whatever ails you, come and find the answers to your troubles!"
Lily knew it would be a while before "Madame Zahara" started peddling elixir, and even longer before she would send customers to the tent to have their fortunes told. With the cry of the baby haunting her, Lily gathered up her skirts and set off through the grass. If she could find the child's mother and gain permission to hold the infant for a few moments maybe even kiss the soft cheek or sing a little lullaby perhaps then she could stop aching so for Abby. Maybe she could find reason to go on.
Just a week ago, while the traveling show was camped on the outskirts of Topeka, an epidemic of diphtheria had swept through the city. With it came the nightmare of fever, listlessness, and the panicked struggle for breath. Though diphtheria was known as a childhood illness, the strain that tore through Topeka grew especially virulent and soon began to claim adults. Scores had died, young and old alike.
Lily pressed her knuckles against her lips to hold back a sob. After two days of unbearable suffering, her precious Abigail had slipped away forever. Before long Lily's husband had also succumbed Ted Nolan, the dashing but lazy fellow she had married to escape her sanctimonious and abusive father. Hours after the women had buried Ted, diphtheria claimed the traveling show's manager, Jakov Kasmarzik. In a panic, Beatrice had loaded as much of the show's gear as she could into one of their two wagons and headed west, with Lily barely able to function in her grief. Now the two women were trying to fill all the roles of the traveling show, hoping to earn their way to California. Or at least that was Beatrice's plan. Lily had no intention of going to California, but she didn't think Beatrice needed to know that yet.
"Would you take a look at that gaudy wagon, Caitrin," commented a woman strolling with her three companions just ahead of Lily. She wore her rich brown hair piled on her head, and the bulge beneath her dress gave evidence that soon she would bear a child. "Dr. Kasmarzik's Traveling Show," she read from the sign painted on the wagon where Madame Zahara proclaimed her message. "Fine Theater, Singing, Juggling! Featuring Dr. Kasmarzik's Patented Elixir. Cures Guaranteed!"
"Aye, Rosie," the other woman in the group chimed in, "and my own father was a leprechaun."
With a giggle, the one called Rosie read from the sign Beatrice had put up, its black canvas painted with silver stars: "Madame Zahara Fortunes Told! Palms, Tea Leaves, and Tarot Cards Read! Now that sounds interesting. I've always wanted to visit a traveling show. What do you think, Seth? Could we stop at the show before we go and listen to the preacher?"
Lily frowned at the woman's mention of the traveling preacher who was running a stiff competition for Dr. Kasmarzik's Traveling Show. Who did the fellow think he was, this Reverend Elijah Book, scaring off business and ruining her chances of a good evening's income? Lily could see him, outlined by the golds and pinks of the setting sun, as he raised his hands to beckon the gathering crowd. No wonder the women came, dragging their husbands behind them. The preacher was as good-looking a fellow as Lily had ever seen.
Straight and tall, with deeply tanned skin and piercing blue eyes, he towered over his congregation like a stately cottonwood tree. Rather than a fine silk top hat, the preacher wore a brown Stetson that perched just above his dark brows and straight slash of a nose. In a blue chambray shirt, worn denim trousers, and scuffed leather boots, he looked like he ought to be rounding up strays on a Texas cattle ranch. But there he stood, waving his big black Bible and barking out Scripture like John the Baptist himself.
Lily glared at him. Three or four months more with the traveling show and she would have enough money for a train ticket to Philadelphia. Though she had fled her pious father almost two years before and had vowed never to return, now Lily was determined to journey back to the big brownstone that once had been her home. The consequences would be severe, she knew, but her future with the show held no hope at all.
Lily heard the woman's husband, Seth, give a grunt of disgust. "This little town has had enough troubles without a bunch of ne'er-do-wells looking to skin the locals."
"Aye," the Irishwoman agreed. "These sorts of people wander through Ireland in bright caravans, selling useless potions and swindling innocents of their hard-earned coins. The doctors are bad, and the fortune-tellers are worse. But `tis the actors who cause all the bawdy revelry."
Behind them Lily bristled. It was true that Dr. Kasmarzik's potion, which sold for ten cents a bottle, was nothing more than a mixture of corn syrup, vinegar, peppermint oil, and a dash of turpentine. But her acting had never caused one moment of bawdiness. She performed selections from Shakespeare and the poets of Europe. She played the melodeon and sang arias from the great operas. Educated at the finest school for young ladies in Philadelphia, she brought culture and dignity to Dr. Kasmarzik's show. If customers did sometimes get out of hand, it certainly wasn't due to her performances.
"I've seen whole villages run amok when the traveling caravans passed through," the flame- haired Caitrin continued. "Husbands neglect their chores, and their wives form long lines at the fortune-teller's wagon. Children roam about neglected and hungry. On top of all that, the members of the traveling shows usually manage to steal anything left unattended."
Of all the gall, Lily thought, clenching her teeth. How dare these provincial prairie hens accuse her of thievery! She considered passing around them, but they continued on in the direction of the baby's cries, so she followed.
The preacher had managed to draw a bigger crowd than ~Madame Zahara, Lily realized. At thirty-five, Beatrice Waldowski cast a commanding presence in her flowing robes, long raven hair, crimson lips, and sultry brown eyes outlined in black kohl. Lily was never sure whether it was Madame Zahara's mystic predictions or the intimidating woman herself who struck awe in the hearts of the most rough-hewn customers. Whatever it was brought them back night after night to spend their coins at her table.
But now she had stiff competition. The preacher had spread open his Bible in his big hand and was holding it out toward the people like a plate of tempting hors d'oeuvres. The evening breeze riffled the thin pages, lifting and turning them one at a time, but the preacher didn't seem to notice. He just kept right on talking, reciting the story of Nicodemus's visit to Jesus in the middle of the night.
Lily shook her head. How many times had she heard that sermon? She could probably preach it with as much accuracy as she could recite Jakov Kasmarzik's opening act for the traveling show. Before long the preacher would announce those familiar words, "For God so loved the world."
Ha, Lily thought. If God loved the world so much, why had he allowed her father to beat her black and blue while her mother stood by wringing her hands and doing nothing? Why had God let Ted and Jakov die of diphtheria? Why had he snatched away helpless little Abigail? For that matter, why was God permitting that poor baby in the distance to go on crying unattended? Couldn't any of these pious Crawthumpers hear the child's sobs? To her, the baby's wails sounded as loud and demanding as the clanging bells of a fire wagon.
"Do you suppose Madame Zahara really can tell a person what's going to happen, Caitie?" The woman named Rosie paused to look back at the tent where Lily's table was set up. "Do you think she might know whether I'm bearing a boy or a girl?"
When the two couples halted at the edge of the crowd, Lily tried to move around them, but they were blocking her path. The preacher had packed the people as close around him as oysters in a can. Rooted to the ground, the crowd gaped upward as the man expounded on his text.
"You'll not set foot near that wagon, Rosie," Caitrin said in a loud whisper. "Sure you recall the very words of Scripture about such deviltry."
"I do not. I've been to church all my life, and I don't recall anyone ever saying it was wrong to visit a fortune-teller."
"It's in the middle of Deuteronomy, Rosie," Seth drawled. "I remember reading it that time you made me search for the verse about foundlings."
"I declare," Rosie muttered. "One of these days Deuteronomy is going to do me in."
Lily searched for another way through the crowd as Caitrin pulled a small Bible from her pocket and scanned the pages. "Here `tis. `There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire,'" she read in a low voice, "`or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord.'"
"Well, for Pete's sakey," Rosie whispered. "I had no idea."
Lily pinched her lips and tapped the woman on the shoulder. "Excuse me," she said. "Could you step aside, ma'am? I'm trying to find that crying baby."
Brown eyes focused on Lily, roving from her white blond hair down the purple velvet cape to the tips of her scuffed brown boots. "Oh, have you lost your baby?"
Lily swallowed as the question stabbed through her. "Oh," she breathed. "Yes, I've lost ... lost my baby. My Abigail."
"I can hear her crying," Rosie whispered. "Where did you leave your child?"
"I don't ... don't know where she is." Lily shook her head. That wasn't what she meant to say. She knew Abigail was buried in the little box. The wooden box. "I need my baby. I can't ... I can't stop hearing the cries."
"We'll find your daughter," Rosie said, taking Lily's hand. "Come on, Caitrin. Let's help this poor woman look for her baby. In the crush of people, the dear child could get hurt. Seth, you and Jack stay right here. We'll be back in a minute."
"I hear the wee one now," Caitrin said, in a strong Irish lilt. "`Tis on the other side beyond the Reverend Book. Let's go around the crowd."
Lily tried to force down the tears that welled unexpectedly in her eyes as the two women began to move her toward the sound she had been following. She wanted to tell them it wasn't Abigail, that her baby was dead, that this was some other woman's child. But the preacher's voice rang too loudly, hammering every word into the silence like a nail into a coffin.
"`Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God!'" he thundered. Lily huddled down between Rosie and Caitrin as they pressed her through the throng. "`How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?'"
No, Lily thought. Abby was dead, and she could never be born a second time. Only once would that precious newborn be laid on her mother's exhausted body. Only once would Lily feel the gentle pressure of the baby's weight in her arms, the nuzzle of a pink cheek, the grip of tiny fingers. Abby was lost. Lost forever.
"I've found her!" Rosie cried, dragging Lily toward a leather saddlebag hanging on the side of a horse that had been hobbled near the road. Within the pouch, something pushed, wriggled, and flailed as a cacophony of desperate cries drifted into the evening air. "Here's your baby!"
"Abigail?" Lily whispered, approaching the bag. Her heart faltered as she laid her hand on the soft leather. At her touch, the wailing ceased. But this couldn't be Abby. There must be another mother nearby. Some woman had left her baby in this bag. But why?
"Goodness gracious," Rosie said, "why did you put your daughter into a saddlebag? That's no place for a baby."
"No, I" The baby began to wail again, cutting off her words.
"Why don't you take the poor little thing out and feed her? I grew up in an orphanage, and I've taken care of many a baby. I can almost bet your sweet Abigail is wet and hungry."
Hardly able to make herself breathe, Lily drew open the leather pouch and slipped her hands around the warm, damp little body. Oh, Abigail! The baby felt just like Abby ... only smaller ... newer. She lifted the squirming bundle out of the bag and tucked it against her neck. The child's soft lips immediately began to root hungrily.
"Aw, she's precious!" Rosie cried. "But she looks like she's half starved. You'd better feed her."
"Aye, sit here on this blanket," Caitrin spoke up, guiding Lily to a square of brightly woven wool stripes spread beneath a spindly tree. "Is this your camp? Here, I'll put the pillow behind your back. There now, little Abigail is so hungry she can hardly bear it. Sure she's all wrinkled up like a newborn! How old is she?"
Lily couldn't make herself speak. The kicking baby clung to her, sobbing in anguish as she tucked it beneath the purple cape. Where was the child's mother? She was the one who should be feeding this baby.
"Do you need help with your buttons?" Rosie asked, kneeling on the blanket.
"No, I can ... I can d
Excerpted from Prairie Storm by Catherine Palmer Copyright © 1999 by Catherine Palmer
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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