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"You can't be serious." Lizzie Barkman gaped at her older sister, Clara, in shock.
Seated on the edge of the bed in the room the four Bark-man sisters shared, Clara kept her eyes downcast. "It's not such a bad thing."
Lizzie fell to her knees beside Clara and took hold of her icy hands. "It's not a bad thing. It's a horrible thing. You can't marry Rufus Kuhns. He's put two wives in the ground already. Besides, he's thirty years older than you are."
"Onkel wishes this."
"Then our uncle is crazy!"
Clara glanced fearfully at the door. "Hush. Do not earn a beating for my sake, sister."
Lizzie wasn't eager to feel the sting of their uncle's wooden rod across her back, but it was outrageous to imagine lovely, meek Clara paired with such an odious man. "Tell Onkel Morris you won't do it."
"He won't go against Rufus's wishes. He's too scared of losing our jobs and this house."
It was true. Their uncle wouldn't oppose Rufus. He didn't have the courage. Rufus Kuhns was a wealthy member of their small Plain community in northern Indiana. He owned the dairy farm where they all worked for the paltry wages he paid. He claimed that letting them live in the run-down house on his property more than made up for their low salaries. The house was little more than a hovel, although the girls tried their best to make it a home.
"Onkel says it is his duty to see us all wed. I'm twenty-five with no prospects. I'm afraid he is right about that."
The single women in their isolated Amish community outnumbered the single men three to one. Lizzie was twenty-three with no prospects in sight, either. Who would her uncle decide she should marry?
"Being single isn't such a bad thing, Clara. Look at my friend Mary Miller, the schoolteacher. She is happy enough."
Clara managed a smile. "It's all right, Lizzie. At least this way I have the hope of children of my own. If God wills it."
It hurt to see Clara so ready to accept her fate. Lizzie wouldn't give up so easily. "Rufus had no children with his previous wives. You don't have to do this. We can move away and support ourselves by making cheese to sell to the tourists. We'll grow old together and take care of each other."
Clara cupped Lizzie's cheek. "You are such a dreamer. What will happen to our little sisters if we do that?"
Greta and Betsy were outside finishing the evening milking. At seventeen, Betsy was the youngest. Greta was nearly twenty. They all worked hard on the dairy farm. With twenty-five cows to be milked by hand twice a day, there was more than enough work to go around. Without Clara and Lizzie to carry their share of the load, the burden on their sisters would double, for their uncle wouldn't pick up the slack.
Morris Barkman hadn't been blessed with children. He and his ailing wife took in his four nieces when their parents died in a buggy accident ten years before. He made no secret of the fact that his nieces were his burden to bear. He made sure everyone knew how generous he was and how difficult his life had been since his wife's passing.
Lizzie couldn't count the number of times she had been forced to hold her tongue when he shamed her in front of others for her laziness and ingratitude. Her uncle claimed to be a devout member of the Amish faith, but in her eyes, he was no better than the Pharisees in the Bible stories the bishop preached about during the church services.
She rose and paced the small room in frustration. There had to be a way out of this. "We can all move away and get a house together. Greta and Betsy, too."
"If we left without our uncle's permission, we would be shunned by everyone in our church. I could not bear that." Clara's voice fell to a whisper. "Besides, if I won't wed Rufus Betsy is his second choice."
Lizzie gasped. "She's barely seventeen."
"You see now why I have to go through with it. Promise me you won't tell her she's the reason I'm doing this."
"I know you've been thinking about leaving us, Lizzie. I'm not as strong as you are. I can't do it, but you should go. Go now while you have the chance. I can bear anything if I know you are safe."
Lizzie didn't deny it. She had been thinking about leaving for years. She had even squirreled away a small amount of money for the day. Only the thought of never seeing her sisters again kept her from taking such a drastic step. She loved them dearly.
The bedroom door opened and the two younger Barkman girls came in. Greta was limping. Clara immediately went to her. "What happened?"
"She got kicked by that bad-tempered cow we all hate," Betsy said.
"She's not bad-tempered. She doesn't hear well. I startled her. It was my own fault. It's going to leave a bruise, but nothing is broken." Greta sat on the edge of the bed she shared with Betsy.
Clara insisted on inspecting her leg. It was already swollen and purple just above the knee. "Oh, that must hurt. I'll get some witch hazel for it."
As Clara left, Lizzie turned to her sisters. "Onkel is making Clara marry Rufus Kuhns."
"Are you joking? He's ancient." Greta looked as shocked as Lizzie was.
"It's better than being an old maedel," Betsy said. "We're never going to find husbands if we aren't allowed to attend singings and barn parties in other Amish communities."
Would she feel the same if she knew how easily she could trade places with Clara? Lizzie kept silent. She had given Clara her word. Betsy began to get ready for the night.
Greta did the same. "Rufus is a mean fellow."
Lizzie turned her back to give her sisters some privacy. "He's cruel to his horses and his cattle. I can't bear to think of Clara living with him."
"His last wife came to church with a bruised face more than once. She claimed she was accident-prone, but it makes a person wonder." Greta pulled on her nightgown.
"Shame on you, Greta. It's a sin to think evil thoughts about the man." Betsy climbed into bed, took off her black kapp and started to unwind her long brown hair.
Greta and Lizzie shared a speaking glance but kept silent. Neither of them wanted their oldest sister to find out if their suspicions were true. They remembered only too well the bruises their mother bore in silence when their father's temper flared.
Clara returned with a bottle of witch hazel and a cloth. "This will help with the pain."
Greta took the bottle from her. They had all used the remedy on bruises inflicted by their uncle over the years. He wouldn't stand up to Rufus, but he didn't have any qualms about taking his anger and frustration out on someone weaker. "You can't do it, Clara. You should go away."
"And never see you again? How could I do that? Besides, where would I go? We have no family besides each other."
Lizzie met Greta's eyes. Greta gave a slight nod. After all, they were desperate. Lizzie said, "We have a grandfather."
"We do?" It was Betsy's turn to look shocked as she sat up in bed.
Clara shook her head. "Nee. He is dead to us."
"He is dead to Uncle Morris, not to me." Lizzie's mind began to whirl. Would their daadi help? They hadn't heard from him in years. Not since the death of their parents.
Greta rubbed the witch hazel on her knee. "We were told never to mention him."
"Mention who?" Betsy almost shouted.
They all hushed her. None of the sisters wished to stir their uncle's wrath. "Our mother's father lives in Hope Springs, Ohio."
Clara began getting ready for bed, too. "You think he does. He could be dead for all we know."
"We really have a grandfather? Why haven't I met him?" Betsy looked as if she might burst into tears.
Lizzie removed the straight pins that held her faded green dress closed down the front. "We moved away from Hope Springs when you were just a baby."
Clara slipped under the covers. "Papa and Grandfather Shetler had a terrible falling out when I was ten. Mama, Papa, Uncle Morris and his wife all moved away and eventually settled here."
"Grandfather raised sheep." Lizzie smiled at the memory of white lambs leaping for the sheer joy of it in green spring pastures. She hated it when her father made them move to this dreary place. She hung her dress beside her sisters' on the pegs that lined the wall and slipped into her nightgown.
"Do we have a grandmother, too?" Betsy asked.
Lizzie shook her head. "She died when our mother was a baby. I'm ready to put out the lamp. You know how Onkel hates it when we waste kerosene.
"Grandfather had a big white dog named Joker," Greta added wistfully. "I'm sure he's gone by now. Dogs don't live that long."
"But men do. I will write to him first thing in the morning and beg him to take you in, Clara." Lizzie sat down on her side of the bed and blew out the kerosene lamp, plunging the small bedroom into darkness.
Clara sighed. "This is crazy talk. Our uncle will forbid such a letter, Lizzie. You know that. Besides, I'm not going anywhere without my sisters."
Lizzie waited until Clara was settled under the covers with her. Quietly, she said, "You will go to Rufus Kuhns's home without us."
"I.know. I miss Mama so much at times like this."
Lizzie heard the painful catch in her sister's voice. She reached across to pull Clara close. "I do, too. I refuse to believe she made your beautiful star quilt for this sham of a marriage. She made your quilt to be her gift to you on a happy wedding day."
Their mother had lovingly stitched wedding quilts for each of her daughters. They lay packed away in the cedar chest in the corner. The quilts were different colors and personalized for each one of them. They were cherished by the girls as reminders of their mother's love.
Lizzie hardened her resolve. "We'll think of something. It's only the middle of March. We have until the wedding time in autumn. You'll see. We'll think of something before then."
"Nee. My wedding will take place the first week of May so I may help with spring planting."
Greta slipped into bed behind Lizzie. "That's not right. We can't prepare for a wedding in such a short time."
"Rufus doesn't want a big wedding. It will be only the bishop, Uncle Morris, you girls and Rufus."
Such a tiny, uncelebrated affair wasn't the wedding dream of any young woman. Lizzie felt the bed sag again and knew Betsy had joined them on the other side of Clara.
"I don't want you to leave us." Betsy's voice trembled as she spoke.
"I won't be far away. Why, you'll all be able to come for a visit whenever you want."
A visit. That was it! A plan began to form in Lizzie's mind. She was almost certain she had enough money saved to travel to Ohio on the bus. Their grandfather might ignore a letter, but if she went to see him in person, she could make him understand how dire the situation was.
It was an outrageous plan, but what choice did she have? None.
Clara couldn't marry Rufus. He would crush her gentle spirit and leave her an empty shell. Or worse.
Lizzie bit her bottom lip. She couldn't let that happen.
Nor could she tell her sisters what she intended to do. She didn't want them to lie or cover for her. As much as it hurt, she would have to let them think she had run away.
Her younger sisters soon returned to their own bed. Before long, their even breathing told Lizzie they were asleep. Clara turned over and went to sleep, too.
Lizzie lay wide-awake.
If she went through with her plan, the only person she dared tell was Mary Miller. There was no love lost between the schoolteacher and their uncle. Besides, it wasn't as if Lizzie was leaving the Amish. She was simply traveling to another Amish community. If she wrote to her friend from Ohio, she was certain that Mary would relay messages to the girls. If their grandfather proved willing to take them in, Mary would help them leave.
Lizzie pressed her hand to her mouth. Would it work? Could she do it?
If she went, it would have to be tonight while the others were asleep. Before she lost her nerve. She closed her eyes and folded her hands.
Please, Lord, let this plan be Your will. Give me the strength to see it through.
She waited until it was well after midnight before she slipped from beneath the covers. The full moon outside cast a band of pale light across the floor. It gave her enough light to see by. She carefully withdrew an envelope with her money from beneath the mattress and pulled an old suitcase from under the bed. It took only five minutes to gather her few belongings. Then she moved to the cedar chest.
Kneeling in front of it, she lifted the lid. Clara's rose-and-mauve star quilt lay on top. Lizzie set it aside and pulled out the quilt in shades of blue and green that was to be her wedding quilt. Should she take it with her?
If she did, it would convince everyone she wasn't returning. If she left it, her sisters would know she was coming back.
Suddenly, Lizzie knew she couldn't venture out into the unknown without something tangible of her family to bring her comfort. She replaced Clara's quilt and softly closed the lid of the cedar chest.
Holding her shoes, her suitcase and her quilt, Lizzie tiptoed to the door of their room. She opened it with a trembling hand and glanced back at her sisters sleeping quietly in the darkness. Could she really go through with this?
Carl King scraped most of the mud off his boots and walked up to the front door of his boss's home. Joe Shetler had gone to purchase straw from a neighbor, but he would be back soon. After an exhausting morning spent struggling to pen and doctor one ornery and stubborn ewe, Carl had rounded up half the remaining sheep and moved them closer to the barns with the help of his dog, Duncan.
Tired, with his tongue lolling, the black-and-white English shepherd walked beside Carl toward the house. Carl reached down to pat his head. "You did good work this morning, fella. We'll start shearing them soon if the weather holds."
The sheep needed to spend at least one night inside the barn to make sure their wool was dry before being sheared. Damp wool would rot. There wasn't enough room in the barn for all two hundred head at once. The operation would take three to four days if all went well.
It was important to shear the ewes before they gave birth. If the weather turned bad during the lambing season, many of the shorn ewes would seek shelter in the sheds and barn rather than have their lambs out in the open where the wet and cold could kill the newborns. Having a good lamb crop was important, but Carl knew things rarely went off without a hitch.
Duncan ambled toward his water dish. At the moment, all Carl wanted was a hot cup of coffee. Joe always left a pot on the back of the stove so Carl could help himself.
He opened the front door and stopped dead in his tracks. An Amish woman stood at the kitchen sink. She had her back to him as she rummaged for something. She hadn't heard him come in.
He resisted the intense impulse to rush back outside. He didn't like being shut inside with anyone. He fought his growing discomfort. This was Joe's home. This woman didn't belong here.
"What are you doing?" he demanded. Joe didn't like anyone besides Carl in his house.
She shrieked and jumped a foot as she whirled around to face him. She pressed a hand to her heaving chest, leaving a patch of white soapsuds on her faded green dress. "You scared the life out of me."
He clenched his fists and stared at his feet. "I didn't mean to frighten you. Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"Who are you? You're not Joseph Shetler. I was told this was Joseph's house."
He glanced up and saw the defiant jut of her jaw. He folded his arms over his chest and pressed his lips into a tight line. He didn't say a word as he glared at her.