In Heart of the Wilderness, young Kendra Marty goes to live with her grandfather after her parents die in a river accident. But what can a trapper living in the backwoods offer a small child? Will Kendra ever be ready to face the scary and confusing world far from the wilderness she loves?
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For Love of Family
Where is she?" The question seemed to pull from the depths of his anguished soul.
The gray-haired woman opening her door to admit the tall, dark-bearded man standing on her step felt tears form beneath her eyelids.
"Come in, George," she said softly, waving her hand at the simple room behind her. "You look worn out."
With a sigh he nodded his head and moved past her into the room.
She closed the door and turned to him. She had seen him suffer before. Yet she had never seen the strong, manly face so tightly drawn, the broad shoulders so slumped, the clear, dark eyes so filled with pain. Today, this man who had never shown his years looked much older than the fifty she knew him to be.
He was slumped in a chair across the room from her. Head lowered, he brushed at his beard with a large, calloused hand, a habit she recognized.
"She's fine." She answered his question as she moved toward him. "She's in that little home on Park Street."
George's head came up, his eyes darkened. Was he angry? With her?
"I tried to get them to let me keep her here, but they wouldn't allow it. Said that with things like they are and such ..." She paused, shrugged, then hurried on when she saw his eyes burning intensely, though not with accusation. "They said they could do nothing untiluntil they had been in touch with kin. I ... I got word to you in the quickest way I knew. Isn't a very good way of communicating"
"How long has it been?" he cut in.
She stopped for a minute and did some mental calculation. "Almost three weeks since"
"Three weeks? Terribly long timefor a child."
He stood suddenly, his dark eyes shadowing more deeply. "I've got to get on over there, Maggie," he said brusquely.
"You look worn out," she hastened to repeat, wanting to keep him from doing anything rash. "You'd better take the time to eat some breakfastrest a bit. They won't open for another couple of hours anyway."
She was afraid she had lost the argument as he took a step toward the door. Then his hand came up and he began to rub his beard in agitation. At last he retreated and slumped back into the chair and nodded his head solemnly.
"I've traveled day and night since I got your message," he admitted. "I must look a sight."
"Well, I will admit, if I hadn't known you I may not have opened my door." The words were spoken lightly. He managed a bit of a smile.
"You clean up and I'll get us some breakfast," she went on. "Henry will be stirring soon and"
George lifted his head and looked at Maggie, apology replacing the grief and anger in his eyes. "How is Henry?" he asked simply.
Maggie shrugged. There was really very little to say. The days came and went with little difference in Henry's condition.
"About the same, I guess," she said, her shoulders sagging.
"Can I see him?" George asked softly.
She nodded toward the small room off the sitting area. "Go ahead. He's likely still sleeping. But if he is awake, you won't know much difference. He" She stopped, knowing George needed no explanation about Henry. He paid a visit to the sickroom whenever he was in the city.
They had been good friends for years. Both big strong men who knew what it was to put in a good day of hard, back-breaking labor. But since the accident in the lumber mill four years earlier, Henry had been paralyzed, and Maggie had to do for the big man all those things he had at one time done for himself.
George moved toward the door, feeling dread at seeing again his lifelong friend in such a crippled state.
But Henry was still sleeping. George crossed to the foot of the bed and spoke softly to the unhearing man. "I'm here, Henry. Been a long time. Should have come oftener. But I've been so busy" He stopped. Would Henry want to hear of his busyness?
He shut his mouth on the whispered words and studied the thin, useless right hand that lay pale and helpless on the coverlet. George stepped forward and took the thin hand in his own. The scar was still there, more visible than ever against the tissue-like skin.
In spite of his resistance to tears, George felt them gather now. Were the tears for Henry? For himself? He didn't know. He only knew that suddenly his world seemed filled with so much pain. Pain he tried desperately to keep within himself.
He looked back again at the hand he held. That hand had been scarred on his behalf. He remembered the day well. Henry had risked his life to save George. And now Henry lay withering away on his bed, and there wasn't one thing George could do about it.
He placed the hand gently back on the patchwork coverlet and quietly left the room.
"What do you plan to do?" Maggie asked the question as they lingered over another cup of breakfast coffee.
The sigh seemed to begin somewhere deep inside him and gradually make its way through his whole being, ending with a little shudder.
What did he plan to do? The words echoed in the air between them.
"I must see heras quickly as possible," he answered Maggie, but both of them knew that his words did not really address the question.
Maggie nodded and waited for him to go on.
He shook his head, his eyes looking deep and troubled. His left hand stole to his beard again.
"It's so ... so unfair," he almost spit out. "For a child's father and mother to be taken and ... and leave her alone."
Maggie nodded again.
His head jerked up and his eyes filled with anger as he turned to her. "What were they thinking of, Maggie," he demanded, "to leave a child and go off on some ... some helter-skelter expedition into the wilds? Had they no thought of=?"
Maggie reached out and placed her hand gently on his trembling one. "Now," she said softly, "you know better than to think like that. After all, you're the one who taught Mary to love those wilds. They'd made trips like that over and over in the past and nothing had happened. It was an unexpected accident, George. Nothing more. It ... it does happen. It doesn't mean that they were uncaring or ... or irresponsible parents."
"But ... but both of them. Why both of them? The two of them could swim. Why both of them? And why ... why take on rapids that they couldn't handle? Mary knewthey both knew the danger of"
He had to vent his feelings. He had been burying them deep inside ever since he had gotten Maggie's message.
"The Mountie said there was a snag under the water," Maggie explained softly. "A broken treewith a jagged break. The canoe caught it and spun out of control. When they went in ... well, they figure he swam to shore. His heavy boots were found thereon the banktogether. He must have placed them there. But ... Mary. I know she was a good swimmer. But for some reason she got into trouble. Maybe got a bump as they were thrown out.
"But he went back for her." Maggie stopped and sighed. "They went down together. Found their bodies downstream from the rapids. He was still holding her, still had shreds of her clothing clutched in his fingers."
Hearing the story of the death of his daughterhis only daughterand his son-in-law filled George with such pain and sorrow that some of the anger was pushed from his heart. There was simply no room for him to hold all the feelings. He wanted to bury his head on his arms and sob until the hurt went away, but he knew it was not that easy. It would be a long, long time until his heart began to mend and memories of his precious Mary would bring pleasurenot sorrow.
Maggie wiped at the tears that ran down her cheeks. George swallowed, hiding his eyes, brushing with an angry hand at the beard that shadowed his face.
"Where are they buried?" he managed to ask, his voice shaky with emotion.
"Beside their cabinjust at the base of the stand of spruce to the west."
He nodded. It was the place he felt Mary would have chosen.
He stood up quickly, two conflicting desires drawing him. He longed to visit the graves of his daughter and the young man she had learned to love. The man who had given his own life in his unsuccessful effort to save her. Stu Marty. The man George felt he had hardly knownand now would never really know.
And he also wanted to rush to his grandchild, little Kendranow an orphan. His daughter's only child. The child he had not seen since she was little more than a baby. How he chided himself for his error. How he wished that he had taken the long journey, visited his daughter, her husband, and her baby girl more frequently.
"I need to go," he said to Maggie. "I need to" He stopped and licked his lips. He still had not answered her deeper question.
"Sit," she said, nodding her head toward his vacated chair. Only Maggie would have dared to address George in that fashion.
He sat down silently, dutifully.
Maggie waited until he was ready for her to speak.
"Have you made any plans?" she asked again softly.
He shook his head, his left hand working vigorously on his beard.
"Shouldn't you?" she persisted after a pause.
"I don't know. I don't know what to do. I'll need to work it through, figure it out."
Maggie nodded, her expression telling him she knew it was hard to be able to think when he had traveled so many miles in such a short time.
"Where was she when=?" he began, and Maggie guessed his question.
"They had left her with one of Mary's friends. A neighbor. I think she might have wanted to keep her, but she is expecting her first baby. Had to come to the city for delivery."
"She may be willing to take her ... after," Maggie went on.
He brooded over her words. It seemed so ... so difficult to think of trying to arrange for his grandchild. To "place" her. Just as though she were some animal that needed care. He shook his head.
"You know I would have taken herwould still take her," went on Maggie softly. "But ... Henryhe needs so much care." She hesitated, studying her thin hands as she rubbed them together in helpless agitation. "I ... I really don't think that this house is the right place for a child to grow up," she finished lamely. "You understand?"
"My dear Maggie," he said huskily. "I know that you'd help me if you could. I know that you loved Mary almost as much as I did. As Polly did. You couldn't take the child in, with Henry needing you like he does."
Maggie withdrew her hands and blew her nose noisily on a sturdy cotton hankie.
George wiped away his own tears and fought to get himself under control again.
"You still haven't" began Maggie.
"I'll just have to find a good home. I won't leave her where she is. I couldn't. Not in a home."
"They do give them good care," put in Maggie softly. "Mrs. Weatherall is a good woman."
George nodded, glad to hear the words and at the same time rejecting what they implied.
"I can't leave her in a home. She needs family. A sense of belonging to ... someone. It's important to a child."
Maggie nodded her understanding.
"She won't know me," he went on almost absently. "It's been almost two years since I've seen her. She was just a toddler. She won't even know meher own grandfather."
Maggie said nothing.
He stirred restlessly, dreading what lay ahead. Seeing little Kendra in the charge of the matron at the home would be such a final recognition that his Mary was really gone.
Maggie placed a hand on his sleeve, willing him some of her strength for the ordeal. "Come back," she said, compassion coloring her words. "Come back ... whenever. ... Stay with us for a few days, as long as you like."
He nodded and reached for his coat and hat. The mornings were still chilly in spite of the fact that they were moving into spring.
"I'll be back," he said. "Tell Henry. I'll be back."
He moved through the door and closed it softly behind him. Then he lifted his shoulders and braced himself for what lay before him.
I understand you have my granddaughter," he said to the prim young lady who sat behind the wooden desk in the little room that served as reception area and business office.
Her expression did not change. She still wore the smile with which she had greeted him.
"You will want to speak to Matron," she said, the smile tilting her full lips. He did wish she would wipe the silly look from her face. This was not a lighthearted matter.
"Matron?" he repeated.
"Yes, Mrs. Weatherall. You will need to speak with her. She answers all inquiries concerning our wards." She rose from her desk, gave him a brief nod and an even bigger smile, and left the room.
He paced the small space until a tall, full-figured woman with a kind face entered the room followed by the still-smiling younger woman. The matron, he thought, and felt that she indeed looked the part. She moved directly to him and reached out a hand.
"Won't you come into my office," the woman invited. Without a word he followed her.
She indicated a chair, and he took it while she proceeded around her desk and sat down facing him. There was no smile pasted on her lips. He thought he read compassion in her eyes.
"Miss Wilson says that you have a grandchild with us." Her voice was full, yet soft with feeling.
He nodded, finding it hard to come up with words. She waited, seeming to know that he was fighting hard for control.
"A granddaughter," he managed at last.
She nodded patiently, waiting for him to go on.
"They called her" For one moment he choked, thoughts of Mary flooding over him. Mary with her head bent over a new baby girl. Mary with laughter in her voice and love in her eyes. He pushed away the thoughts and tried to speak again. "Kendra," he managed. "Mary named her Kendra."
"Kendra Marty?" asked the woman softly.
He could only nod.
"You must be George McMannus," she went on easily. "Mrs. Miller told us that we could expect youonce you got the word."
He nodded again and swallowed hard. So Maggie had already prepared the way.
"Let me offer my condolences. I am so sorry about your daughter and her husband," the woman said, and George could sense the deep and honest sympathy in her voice. "I will have one of the attendants get little Kendra," she went on as she rose from her chair. "We have a comfortable little room just for such meetings. Or would you rather meet in the garden?"
"The garden," he said quickly. He was pleased he could escape the closeness of the stuffy rooms. He needed air.
"You go ahead. Right through the door at the end of the hall. I'll bring Kendra out to you."
She turned to go but he stopped her quickly. "She won't remember me," he blurted. "She ... I haven't seen her for almost two years. She'll have forgotten by now."
The woman nodded. "Perhaps I will stay nearby for your first meeting," she answered, and he knew she was thinking of the little girl and her many exposures to pain and strangeness in such a short time.
"That would be good," he said simply and left the room for the garden.
He was pacing about, trying to quiet his troubled thoughts and get control of his mixed feelings, when the same gentle voice spoke behind him.
"Grandfather McMannus, Kendra is here to see you."
He stiffened. He wished to wheel around and embrace the child now within his reach. At the same time, he longed to flee. It would be so hard to see Mary's babyalone.
Reason told him that he had to be carefulslow and deliberate and gentle or he would frighten the little one half to death.
He knew that the title "grandfather" had been for the sake of the child. To perhaps stir some memory, make her realize that the stranger before her was somehow connected to her. If only he knew how to approach the small child, to let her know he loved her. If he could only reach across the span of timeand milesand be a real grandfather, let her know what he felt in his heart.
He turned slowly, took a deep breath, and looked first at the woman. She stood silently, seeming to will him her strength. He knew that tears were in his eyes, threatening to spill down his cheeks. Would they alarm the little girl? He mustn't cry. He let his eyes drop to the little person who clung to the matron's hand.
She was such a tiny thing. So vulnerable. She clutched firmly to a worn rag doll. George remembered the doll. Mary had made it. Kendra had toddled about the cabin, dragging the dollDolliebehind her, when he had visited them the last time.
She had grown so much since he had last held her in his arms. Yet she was still so small. He shuddered, fearing that he would not be able to move or speak. And then she lifted large green eyes to his face. They were Mary's eyes. He felt the pain rend his heart. He wanted to sweep this child into his arms, to hold her and weep for what they both had lost. But he could not move. He could not speak.
Kendra broke the silence. But she did not speak to him. She spoke to the matron. Her words were clear, but confusion made the little voice tremble. "Is this my grandfather?" she asked simply.
"Yes," the woman replied in a firm, soft voice. "You have not seen him for some time, so you might not remember him well. But he is your grandfather. Your mama's father. He remembers you when you were a babyand as you grew a little bit bigger."
Kendra's eyes turned back to him again. "Hello, Grandfather," she said, and again her voice trembled.
"Hello, Kendra," he managed. He didn't think he ever remembered speaking such difficult words.
They looked silently at each other.
"I've asked Miss Jane to bring milk and cookies to the garden," the woman said. "We can have them together."
For the first time the large green eyes took on a sparkle. It was clear to him she thought milk and cookies a wonderful treat.
"Shall we sit down?" offered the matron, moving toward a small bench. Kendra did not release her hold on the hand she clutched tightly.
Kendra did not sit. She stood, holding Dollie under one arm, leaning up against the knee of the woman. George could not take his eyes from her little face. She looked so much like his small Mary. Only the shape of her mouth and the color of her hair were like her father's.
George longed to talk to her, but what could he say? How are you, Kendra? He knew how she was. At least he felt he knew. How do you like living here? That didn't seem like a proper question for a little girl who had been taken from a loving home and thrust in with a group of strangers.
He raised his eyes to the face of the woman who sat on the small bench. Her hand rested lightly on Kendra's back, pressing the child up against her knee. There was caring in the touch and in the eyes. If Kendra could not be in her own home, then perhaps the best place for her was here.
George stirred restlessly, brushing away the thoughts. He couldn't leave her here. He knew he couldn't.
A young woman in a stiff, clean uniform arrived with a tray. There was tea for George and the matron, milk for Kendra, and cookies for all to share. He was glad for the distraction. Though he had never cared for tea, he was willing to accept the cup offered to him. At least it would busy his hands.
Kendra seemed to relax, as well. She settled on the bench with her milk and cookies, her too-short legs swinging back and forth as she prepared herself to enjoy the refreshment.
George saw her tilt her head and look up into the branches when the song of a bird lifted against the late morning sky.
Just like Mary, he thought, and the pain stabbed him again.
"Is that a robin?" she asked the matron, interest in her voice.
"That was a chickadee," responded the woman. "I have not seen or heard a robin yet this spring. But they should be coming back soon."
Kendra looked pleased at the fact. Then she said merrily, "Mama and I like the chickadees best anyway. Papa likes the crows, he says. But he's just teasing. He doesn't like the crows. They make an awful squawk." She giggled at her own little joke.
Her words surprised her grandfather. Doesn't she know? Had no one told her? She was speaking of her parents in the present tense. Surely he wasn't expected to be the one to tell this little child that her parents were both gone and that she was alone in the world except for one errant, distant trapper grandfather who came to call so seldom that she didn't even know him.
He lifted his eyes to the woman, accusations deepening his gaze.
But the woman looked unperturbed. She stroked back Kendra's soft curls and repeated the child's words, but in her way. "So your mama used to like the chickadees and your papa used to tease about liking crows," she said, her smile warm and friendly.
Kendra nodded but her eyes became serious. "They used to," she agreed with a solemn nod, her eyes becoming clouded.
"Your mama and papa liked the birds," the woman went on. "They loved everything about the outdoors."
George looked again to the woman. He wondered how she knew so much about his Mary.
"It's nice to be in God's outdoors," went on the woman. "It's nice to enjoy His creation. Perhaps when you are older, you'll love it and know about it like your mama and papa did."
Kendra nodded. She was quiet again.
The woman stirred and lifted her eyes to the man who sat silently staring at his delicate teacup. He looked up.
"Did you tell your grandfather that you will soon be four?" the matron prompted Kendra.
The little face took on a sparkle again. She carefully raised a little hand and tucked her thumb against the palm. "I will be four this summerin August," she informed him.
Yes, it had been August. George remembered it well. Mary had hoped that Kendra would be born on his birthday, but the infant had arrived eight days later. "Your 'almost' birthday present," Mary had teased as she handed the small Kendra to him on his first visit to see them after the baby had been born.
He nodded to the small child. "August seventeenth," he said, keeping his voice as even as he could.
"How did you know?" she asked, both curiosity and excitement edging her voice.
"I'm your grandfather," he reminded her. "I remember when you were born."
"Were you there?" she asked quickly.
"No. But I came as soon as I could."
"Came from where?"
He hesitated. How could he explain to the child? There wasn't even a known name for the wilderness he called home, though the locals referred to the small post and settlement as Bent River Crossing.
"From where I live. From the mountains and the woods and the rivers ... where I live."
To his surprise her eyes widened. Something was going on in the small head.
"Are you that grandfather?" she asked him, the green eyes widening with puzzlement, then with understanding.
He hardly knew how to answer her question. What grandfather? He knew that she had only one in Canada. Her papa's folks were in England.
Before he could answer she spoke again. "My trapper grandfather?"
His heart leaped. They had some connection. Bless Mary! She had linked them in the short time she'd had with her daughterwith his granddaughter.
"Yes. Yes," he answered quickly before the moment was lost. "I'm that grandfather."
Kendra smiled at him. It was the first tentative little smile she had given to him. It stirred his very soul.
Heart of the Wilderness (JANETTE OKE CLASSICS FOR GIRLS) by Janette Oke
Copyright © 2002, Janette Oke
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.