Read an Excerpt
Saturday, May 22, 2010
The Home Valley, Ohio
"Sarah, you won't believe who just drove in. Passing by, that's what he said. It's Jacob! In a fancy car, too. He's right outside the barn."
At her younger brother's words, Sarah Kauffman's insides lurched. She had once cared for Jacob, but since he'd been shunned, it was verboten for him to be here. No way she wanted to see her former come-calling friend, but someone had to get him away from Gabe and his buddy group. Her family had invited the young people for a barn dance tonight.
"If the kids won't tell him to leave, I will," Sarah said as she circled the long plank table laden with food. "He's a bad influence, and you youngie liet don't need that in your running-around days!"
She hurried outside and down the sloped approach to the barn, her eyes scanning the clusters of boys huddled by their courting buggies or the two cars someone had driven in, and beyond all that, with its headlights still glowing golden, Jacob's red car stood out like a beacon.
No, she thought, the glow was not where headlights should be, but higher, farther off, behind the car and buggies so that they stood out in stark silhouette.
She moved to the side and squinted across the dark distance. The glow was growing, wavering. It was coming not from something on her family's property but from across the newly planted fields that stretched to those of Bishop Esh.
Ignoring Jacob's calling her name, she pointed, stiff-armed, at the distant blaze of color, but Jacob must have thought she was gesturing for him to leave.
"Hey, just came to say hi to all my ol' friends, 'speci'ly you, an' I'm not leavin' till we talk," he slurred, but she hardly heeded him.
What was that strange light? The moon rising low on the horizon? Someone burning trash? No. No! The Esh barn, where she had begun enlarging the quilt square she'd painted there two months before
the Esh barn was on fire!
"Fire!" she screamed. "Fire, over therethe Esh barn! Does anyone have a phone? Call the fire department!"
Sarah lifted her skirts and ran through the scattered boys, past a smooching couple who jumped to their feet. She almost tripped over some beer cans on the grass. Smooching and drinkingnow she knew why their guests hadn't spotted the fire.
She raced past their grossdaadi haus where her younger sister, Martha, was tending to their eighty-year-old grossmamm tonight, past the family garden and into the field.
Laboring through the rich, damp soil, she sank ankle-deep with each lunging step, once falling to her hands and knees, but this was the fastest way to get there, even compared to a buggy or Jacob's car. Schnell! Schnell, hurry, hurry, she urged herself. Human lives, the horses, the stored hay and straw, the old barn itself
and her bold painting of an Amish quilt square. She jumped up from her knees and clambered on, hearing voices behind her of others coming, too.
Out of breath, a stitch in her side, she ran on, to warn the EshesBishop Joseph and his wife, Mattie, almost her second parents because she and their girl Hannah had been so close
. Were they home tonight? Already gone to bed? Their house looked dark, but the glow of kerosene lanterns didn't show sometimes. Didn't they know their livelihood, their future, was on fire? The flames seemed high in the barn, reaching downward as well as up. Maybe the firemen could use her painting ladders to spray water.
It seemed an eternity until she reached their yard, screaming, "Fire! Fire!" She prayed no one would be trapped in the barn, that they could get the work team and buggy horses out if they were in for the night. She knew that barn as well as her own. It was where she, Hannah and Ella had played as children, tended animals, the barn where the bishop had been brave enough after much discussion to let her paint her very first quilt square and then let her enlarge it when he saw how well the others were received.
Exhausted but energized, Sarah stumbled into the Esh backyard, her dress and hands smeared, clods of soil clinging to her shoes. The belching heat slapped her face. What had been a glow in the hayloft was now a red-andorange monster inside the barn trying to get out, licking at the windows, curling its claws around the eaves. Shouting, she beat her fists on the back door of the dark house, but no one came.
Turning back toward the barn, she saw that Jacob, Gabe and several other boys had followed her across the fields. Using someone's jacket to avoid burning their hands, they lifted the bar on the barn door and pulled it open. That only fed the flames, which made a big whooshing sound and drove everyone back. The beast's breath came hotter, orange fires from hell. She could see its fiery fingers reaching for the pattern of the six-foot-square Robbing Peter to Pay Paul quilt square she'd been enlarging from her wooden ladders and scaffolding earlier today. She'd left them leaning against the barn. Maybe they'd been burned up by now.
Her agony was not only to see the barn burn but her quilt square, too. How proud she had been of her work, the beauty of the striking design. Bishop Esh had chosen that repetitive, traditional pattern because he said it would remind folks that Paul and Peter were equal apostlesa Bible lesson, even on a barn.
Sarah watched in awestruck horror as the flaming beast devoured her neat white and gold circles within the bright blue squares. The paint crackled and blistered. Was it her imagination that the colors ran like blood? Was this a sign that she should not have asked to place it on the bishop's barnshouldn't have been so worldly in her pride over it? She'd even felt a bit important when the local newspaper had put this painting and her picturenot of her face, of courseon the front page. But for so long she'd felt different from her Amish sisters and friends
. She stopped herself, knowing her line of thinking was a danger and a sin.
"Their plow team's in the south field!" someone yelled. At least that was a blessing. The six big, blond Percherons that pulled the farm equipment were safe.
"The Eshes must not be home!" Sarah shouted, ignoring Jacob, speaking to her brother and the other boys.
"I called the fire department on my cell," Jacob yelled, coming closer. "They'll be here ASAP."
She wasn't sure what "a sap" meant, but she asked him, "So there are no buggy horses inside, either?"
"Naw or we'd hear them, even over the roar, that's sure!" he shouted as he came closer. She hadn't seen him for months and she couldn't see him well now, only his bulky, black silhouette etched by leaping lights. The fire made a deafening roar. Inside, something heavy fell and little golden lines ran madly between the old, weathered boards. Barn swallows from under the eaves circled madly around the increasing clouds of ash-and-cinder-laden smoke.
It seemed an eternity before the fire engine pumper truck screeched in from the closest town of Homestead with six volunteer firemen, three of them Amish. When Sheriff Freeman's car pulled in with the siren sounding, several other firefighters spilled out to help. They pumped what water they had in the truck through two hoses, then, when that was quickly gone, rigged a hose to draw water from the pond. It was too late to save the barn, so they watered down the roof of the house and outbuildings to keep flying debris from burning them, too.
As word spread or they saw the seething sky, other Home Valley Amish arrived in buggies, some Englische neighbors in their cars. Even before the Eshes raced up the lane in their buggy, back from visiting Mattie Esh's sister on the other side of the valley, even before the local newspaper editor, Peter Clawson, started taking pictures, the big, old barn with Sarah's bright painting on it had burned into oblivion.
Nathan MacKenzie took the call on his cell phone. His digital clock read 3:24 a.m. Something terrible must have happened, and he hoped it wasn't bad news about his foster mother. His heartbeat kicked up. It was his boss, Mark Lincoln, the state fire marshal of Ohio.
"Nate, I need you to check out a big fire in Amish country, pronto. I want you there shortly after dawn."
"Amish country?" he said, raking his fingers through his short hair. "Northeast but south of Cleveland, right? That's Stan Comstock's district."
"Our northeast supervisor's in Hawaii for his daughter's wedding and won't be back for about ten days. It's a barn fire, Nate. Went to the groundno one inside but for them a huge loss. Two volunteer firefighters were slightly injured when a beam fell. They should have been outside at that point, and I'm not sure how much correct protocol was followed. I just got calls from both the county sheriff and the local newspaper editor. I'll input what I know to you online including GPS specs for getting there. It's in a rural area called the Home Valley outside Homestead, Ohio, in Eden County. Real pretty rolling-hill country."
"And it was arson?"
"We won't know until you take VERA up there and get a good look. But the thing is, the newspaper guy says the Amish in Pennsylvania had a rash of hatecrime barn arsons a couple of years ago, and we can't take a chance with this. You'll have to handle things with kid gloves, not go in like gangbusters, even with VERA, you hear?"
"Of course," Nate said, fumbling in the dark for his jeans. VERA was one of the two expensive, state-of-the-art technology-laden vehicles that served the state Fire and Explosion Investigation Bureau, usually called the Arson Bureau. And VERA was Nate's idea of the perfect date to investigate arson on the road.
"You know much about the Amish?" Mark asked.
"Good food, handmade furniture, quilts, buggies, black clothing, no electricity, old traditions. How's that?"
"When you get a chance, research their belief system or find someone Amish you can trust there to translate their ways for you. Whatever you turn up, they're going to tell you this was God's will. They'll rebuild and forgive the arsonistif that's what it was."
After Mark hung up, Nate muttered, "They may forgive, but I won't."
Sarah glanced out the window of the Esh farmhouse again. The beast that had devoured the barn left only a pile of blackened bones. The emergency vehicle carrying the two injured firefightersLevi Miller, Amish, and Mike Getz, Englischeto the regional hospital had pulled away. Both had been struck by debris when a flaming beam fell and temporarily trapped them before they were rescued. Word was that, despite broken bones, both were expected to recover just fine.
Jacob had been asked to go, but other than that, no one had left. It was as if the circle of Home Valley neighbors were mourning a mutual, fallen friend. Since the Amish held worship services in their homes or barns every other week, and it was an off Sunday, many had buggied in. Others had arrived, including Ray-Lynn Logan. The owner of the Dutch Farm Table Restaurant in Homestead had parked next to the sheriff's car and was handing out doughnuts and coffee. Ray-Lynn was Sarah's friend and an outspoken admirer of her painting skills.
Sarah was exhausted and filthy, but to please her devastated hosts, she sat at the Eshes' kitchen table to eat. Mattie Esh and her two oldest daughters, Ida and Ruth, both married and living nearby, were turning out scrambled eggs and bacon to be washed down by hot chocolate. Sarah had been thanked repeatedly for spotting the flames and for rushing here to warn the family. But she still felt as if someone had died, not only the old barn, but the painted square that had meant so much to her.
"Still can't figure a cause," Bishop Esh muttered to his wife. "No kerosene lantern out there, no green hay to smolder in the bays or loft, no lightning storm, and at night."
"God's will," Mattie told him, tears in her eyes. "We may not understand His ways but must learn to accept."
"So who's the preacher now?" her husband said, his voice tired but kind. "We'll rebuild, Lord willing."
Sarah offered to help clear the table, but they wouldn't hear of it, so she went outside again. She wanted to head home to wash up and relieve Martha from taking care of their grandmother, but she just couldn't leave yet. Ifwhenthe Eshes rebuilt, would they want another painted square? It had gone a long way that the bishop had let her put one on his barn, even though it was fairly small at first. What was worrying her most was that some of Gabe's friends at the danze last night had been smoking around her family's barn. It was a fair distance across the field, so surely none of them had sneaked over here to get more privacy for their doings, then carelessly thrown a butt or match down. The Amish never locked their barns, even if, in these modern times, some had begun to lock their homes.
From the back of her van's tailgate, Ray-Lynn, still handing out coffee in paper cups, motioned Sarah over. The Kauffman women, Sarah's mamm and married sister, Lizzie, made the half-moon pies for Ray-Lynn's restaurant, and Sarah delivered them fresh daily in her buggy. Like most everyone else around, she loved to talk to Ray-Lynn. Even in the grief of this morning, she was like a spark of sunlight.
The shapely redhead was about to turn fifty, a widow whose dream had always been to have her own good home-cookin' restaurant in Clevelandthat is, before she'd fallen in love with Amish country. Her husband had suffered a drop-dead heart attack six years ago, just before they were to buy the restaurant, once owned by an Amish family who couldn't keep up with the state's increasingly strict health inspection codes.
But newspaper owner and editor, Peter Clawson, had gone in as Ray-Lynn's partner, and she had made a real go of it, expanding to three rooms and a big menu. The Dutch Farm Table was the most popular place to eat and meet in town for both the local English and Amish, and, of course, tourists. They used to come by the busload, though they'd been in shorter supply lately in the far-reaching American recession.
"Good for you to spot that fire, Sarah," Ray-Lynn said, and gave her a one-armed hug. "Gonna get your name in the paper again."
"It didn't save the barn. Maybe you can tell Mr. Clawson not to overdo it, especially so soon after that article about my barn quilt squares."
"It may be a biweekly paper, but he's putting out a special edition over this. I'll bet we get folks here to gawk at the burned barn, let alone your other paintings. And if the Cleveland or Columbus papers pick this up, especially if it turns out to be foul play"
"Foul play? Did you hear that someone set the fire?"
"The sheriff just wants all the bases covered, so he called the state fire marshal's office," she said with a roll of her snappy brown eyes. "But barn burning's not the way we'd like to get buyers and spenders 'round here, is it? Personally, this painting," she went on, pointing at the patch of empty sky where Sarah's quilt square used to be, "was my favorite so far. Hi, ya'll," she called to someone behind Sarah as she gestured them over. "Coffee here, doughnuts all gone."
Though Ray-Lynn had lived in Cleveland with her husband for years, it was no secret she'd been born and bred in the deep South, so she drew her words out a lot more than most moderns did. She even had a sign in the restaurant over the front door that Sarah had painted. It read Southern Hospitality and Amish CookingYa'll Come Back, Danki. And she was always trying to talk Sarah into painting a huge mural of Amish life on the side wall.
Secretly, Sarah yearned to paint not static quilt patterns but the beauty of quilts flapping on a clothesline, huge horses pulling plows in spring fields, rows of black buggies at church, one-room schoolhouses with the kinder playing red rover or eckball out back, weddings and barn raisings
But all that was verboten. No matter what Ray-Lynn urged, Sarah knew an Amish painter could never be an Amish artist.