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Liberia, Africa, 1918
William Mayweather placed his worn leather Bible on the table beside him and stepped out on the deep, shaded porch of the Newaka Mission Station. His evening devotions would have to wait if what he was hearing was any indication of what was to come. The smooth, hand-hewn rail transmitted the day's heat through his hand while he listened for confirmation of his hopes from the dense Liberian jungle.
There it was. His ears hadn't deceived him. The escalating cries of monkeys in the treetops telegraphed a clear message over and above the noise of the busy mission compound. Someone was coming. Finally.
The two-week delay here at the base mission station had seemed like forever despite the hospitality of his hosts, Hannah and Karl Jansen. William chafed to get back to the Kru people and begin his work anew. He didn't even mind the amount of physical labor that would be needed to restore his former mission at Nynabo after a year of unfettered jungle reclamation.
He looked past the rectangular compound lined with tin-roofed wooden buildings to the welcoming arch at the entrance of the mission. No one yet.
The Newaka mission had long ago brought in tin from the beach to roof their home, the school and the dormitories. The other outbuildings were thatched just like his in the interior at Nynabo wereif they still stood. He squinted, as though his vision could possibly penetrate the dense jungle vegetation that lay a few feet past the mission entrance. Perhaps it was only a supply run, but given the dangers of travel in the bush, the regular caravan would have welcomed additional support and waited for the two new volunteers promised him by the Mission Board.
His pulse elevated with anticipation. Reviving the compound at Nynabo was back within his reach. Doubts it would ever come to pass had fled at hearing of the unexpected providence of God. God who had supplied not one, but two men now en route to join him in spreading the Gospel, and one a doctor no less. It spoke volumes about the character and dedication of these new volunteers that they dared see past the mission's deadly history and heed the call to evangelize the unreached peoples of the remote jungle interior. Now if they would just get here.
With his free hand he warded off the glare of the low-hanging sun. Behind him, the door opened and he turned to see a flour-dusted Hannah stepping onto the porch.
"Has the first runner come yet, William?"
"Not yet, Hannah. But the monkeys are in full chorus, so he should arrive any minute."
"Good. I don't want to miss greeting our new brothers." Hannah glanced down at the porch floor, a tight crease popped up between her brows and her Dutch cleanliness came out in full force. "Oh, dear. Company arriving and I haven't swept out here since morning."
William's chuckle escaped despite his efforts to suppress his amusement. Hannah's fight against common household dirt was legendary in the African bush. She would be scandalized if a guest caught her unawares. "The porch is fine. The only thing you might want to do is brush the flour off yourself."
Hannah's hands went straight to her apron to remedy the problem. "Fine for you maybe, but one of our guests is a doctor. He's bound to have high standards. We don't want to run off the first doctor the Board has ever sent us."
She removed her apron and gave her voluminous blue skirts a good shake. Her hands nervously smoothed her graying hair in anticipation of company.
"You look fine, Hannah. I'm sure once they get a whiff of your fresh-baked bread and realize they're in time for dinner, it will be a distraction from all else." William pointed to the birds rising and calling out in frightened flight.
"Dinner is only a simple affair. I didn't think they'd arrive so soon or I'd have done more."
"They are going to be glad to be out of the neverending jungle. And I know your idea of a simple meal. You're going to spoil them, Hannah. Unless one of these men can cook, we're not going to be eating to your standards once we get to Nynabo."
"All the more reason for a good meal or two before you set off. I worry about you out there with no wife to take care of you."
Grief broke through his protective walls at the unexpected reminder of his loss. He schooled his face carefully into smooth lines to hide the effect of her casual words. "I think God already spoke on that subject."
"God doesn't expect you to grieve forever. It's been a year since malaria took your Alice."
"I am trying, Hannah. But grief or no grief, I could never in good conscience take another wife into the interior. This is not a life for women. You, my dear, are the exception to the rule."
"Nonsense. How many women pioneered missions in this area before you were even born?"
Hannah's direct gaze left him at a loss for words. Grief had no logic at hand to argue with her.
His lack of an answer hung between them, dangling unsupported, until movement in the compound distracted her. She turned to her husband as he emerged from the schoolhouse across the way, his straight posture commanding attention and belying his advancing years.
Obviously aware of the jungle's message too, Karl Jansen nodded at the two of them and turned to greet the approaching caravan. Three shiny black torsos covered in little more than sweat and grass cloth entered the compound through the open arch. As the three unburdened themselves of the canvas-wrapped packs secured on their heads, the first of the hammock-chair bearers came into view. A single pole atop the circular corn-husk pad balanced on the porter's head, his counterpart in united step behind. Between them, a hammock swayed with the weight of the occupant they carried.
Karl moved to greet the new arrival, whose face was blocked from William's sight by the bearer standing at attention while his passenger disembarked. Karl turned and flashed a quick, unreadable look to William before giving his attention back to the occupant of the hammock chair.
As William approached to greet the travelers, Karl's liver-spotted hand reached out to help their guest alight. William's stomach registered the first knot of impending doom when a stout, stocking-clad leg came out of the chair. It was attached to a smiling, barrel-shaped matron in a newfangled split skirt and white shirtwaist. Her pith helmet was removed to reveal a neat, brown bun secured in the back.
A shock ran clear down William's spine. The Mission Board sent him a woman? A sturdy-looking woman of about forty years, but a woman nonetheless. What were they thinking? Had his last venture into the interior not proven Nynabo unsafe for the fairer sex? And matronly or not, a woman alone with two men deep in the bush would be compromised. Before his hopes of a quick return to Nynabo sank slowly into a bog of despair, a spark of hope and understanding hit.
They've sent me a married couple. Of course! The Board would never send a single, unchaperoned woman to serve with a man.
He shook off the worry and quickened his stride as the second set of bearers rounded the corner. He reached the hammock chair just as a slim, trousered leg complete with protective panniers and an impossibly small boot emerged. Fiery red hair peeked out from under the pith helmet and topped a porcelain complexion reddened by the heat. Intense and very feminine green eyes stared up at him. Karl nudged him and William's manners took over. He automatically offered his hand and let go of the breath he held.
Obviously these were no missionaries. Not two white women alone in the interior. Whatever sort of tourist trek these ladies were on, they must be hopelessly confused to have ended up here. He'd heard of the new travel fad of wealthy women, women who ran from the natural state of marriage to travel to exotic locales. But wasn't it confined to Arabia? Liberia didn't boast the excitement of ancient, lost civilizations that drew these types of sensation seekers. Yet here they were.
Disappointment at what would be a longer wait pulsed through him and he struggled to mask his irritation at receiving two adventuresses instead of two mission workers. Yet the hand he held, delicate in form, put him mind of his Alice. He'd not held a woman's hand since hers as she lay dying. He was saved from grief's hold by a hand that responded with a surprisingly sturdy grip.
"Thank you." Her voice was melodic. "I was beginning to think I would never get out of that contraption."
Despite his misgivings, William stood transfixed by the petite beauty as she emerged from the chair. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder. It was not until her eyes crinkled in a puzzled look that he realized he was staring. He felt a gentle tug and released the hand he'd held a little longer than was polite.
"Forgive me, ma'am. Pastor William Mayweather at your service."
"Excellent. Just the man I was looking for."
"Me? I do not understand."
"I'm Dr. O'Hara. I was told you would be expecting me."
Dr. Mary O'Hara lifted her chin and stared up past a broad chest covered in a white cotton shirt minus the traditional attached collar to find rich, mahogany eyes. Eyes that made her forget that every known muscle in her body ached, plus a few muscles she'd forgotten existed. Three days on the trail had taken their toll. Yet somehow the sight of this tall, rugged man took her mind off her mundane pains.
This was the pastor she was supposed to meet? If she hadn't heard his name from his own lips, she wouldn't have believed it. When she pictured herself working at a bush station with a missionary, she'd imagined a wizened, older man, glasses perched on the end of his nose and maybe even slightly stoop-shouldered from bending over his Bible. Nothing prepared her for this magnificent, broad-shouldered, six-foot man without a stooped shoulder in sight. She certainly wasn't expecting the warmth that radiated from his hand or the spark of awareness igniting. She tugged her hand back just to recover her ability to think straight.
Piercing eyes stared at her in frank amazement, probably doubting she could handle living in the jungle. Quite understandable. Men often looked at her like that when they first heard she was a doctor, underestimating her. The inevitable banter would follow while they tried to get her to admit she was joking. Last would be a final look of disgust or horror when they realized a member of the fairer sex had overstepped the bounds of propriety and actually studied human anatomy in detail.
She'd thought she'd hardened herself to the inevitable path that first encounter took. But for the first time in a long while, she regretted the disappointment she would soon see. Might as well get on with it.
She squared her shoulders and tilted her chin higher than her five foot four inches normally allowed her to see. "The Mission Board sent letters. Weren't you informed of the impending arrival of Mrs. Smith and myself?"
His eyes flashed disbelief and despite his polite tone, she could see the resolve of his answer in the set of his jaw. "I was indeed informed of the arrival of two new mission workers, Miss O'Hara, one a physician. I just did not expect the Board to send women, because of the deadly history of the jungle interior. I'm afraid you've been sent to the wrong place. I simply cannot take someone so delicate and unsuitable for the dangers to the compound at Nynabo."
Unsuitable? She wanted to laugh at the irony of being found lacking after having just left a frontline mobile field hospital for this man's dangerous jungle. She took a deep breath to steady her voice. It wouldn't do to sound shrill and create a negative opinion of herself. She needed this position; was, in fact, desperate for it.
"Obviously, Pastor Mayweather, we are both surprised to find someone whom we did not expect. But I assure you that while your opinion is no different than most other men in society, ones who do not carry Bibles at their ready, it is entirely unwarranted."
Mary could only imagine what her dear mother would say if she could hear her now. She'd managed to keep a polite tone but still broken her mother's cardinal ruledon't challenge a man in charge. Her own loving mother had never found herself able to hold an opinion that wasn't first that of her husband, Mary's father.
Pastor Mayweather's eyebrows raised and his mouth opened, drawing in breath for the next volley. Before he could launch it, a matronly older woman put her hand on his arm and pushed herself forward. Mary couldn't help but catch the disapproving frown the woman gave him before smiling at her visitors.
"Welcome to Newaka." Thick arms enveloped Mary in a hug and squeezed the breath right out of her. "I am Hannah Jansen. My husband Karl and I serve here at this station."
Hannah Jansen was as plump and well-rounded as her husband was spare. Mary resisted the urge to check her ribs when the apple-cheeked matron stepped back. "I'm Dr. O'Hara. But you may call me Mary." She telegraphed the stuffy Pastor Mayweather a look over Hannah's shoulder that she hoped said, "And you may not."
"Hannah, this is my friend and travel companion, Mrs. Clara Smith."
Clara stepped toward them and smiled. "We introduced ourselves while you were meeting Pastor Mayweather, Dr. Mary."
"Yes," Hannah said. "Dr. Mary, this is my husband, Karl." She pointed to the tall gentleman who had helped Clara from her hammock chair.
Karl stepped up and took one of her hands between his bony pair and pressed gently. His eyes twinkled with good humor that carried in his voice. "We are so pleased to have you, Dr. Mary. I can't tell you how happy we are to finally be assigned a physician in our area."
"Why thank you, Pastor Jansen. It's very polite of you to say so." Mary avoided looking at William. "Most men are less accepting of a female doctor."
"We just didn't expect such a beautiful young woman." Karl chuckled and offered Mary his arm. "Let me show you and Mrs. Smith to our home. Someone will bring your bags in a moment."
Mary swung around and forced a civil smile in spite of William Mayweather's serious countenance. "Yes?"
"Please don't unpack more than the essentials. I plan on sending you back when the porters are ready to return. Or, if the Jansens don't mind, you can wait here for a more suitable posting at one of the safer coastal stations. While I'm sure your skills are more than adequate, regrettably I cannot take you and your companion into the interior with me."