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Trade Paperback
320 pages
Oct 2004
Bethany House

The Prodigal

by Beverly Lewis

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Part One

The entrance of thy words giveth light ...

Psalm 119:130

* * *

Chapter One

Early morning winds pressed a row of saplings nearly flat to the ground, and the stark contrast between a dreary sky and the eerie whiteness of a snow-sleek earth created a peculiar balance of light.

Leah pulled her woolen shawl tightly against her as she made her way back to the house from the barn, where she’d gone to take a tall Thermos of hot coffee to her father and brother-in-law, Gid.

“’Tis terrible cold out,” she told Sadie, making a beeline into the kitchen, eager to warm her chapped hands over the wood stove.

Sadie looked up from Dat’s favorite rocking chair, her needlework in her lap. “’S’pose the men were glad for the coffee, jah?”

Leah nodded. “I like seein’ the smiles on their red faces. Besides, it’s the least I can do for Dat and our new preacher, ya know.” She smiled. Truth was, Dat needed a bit of fussing over, still floundering at times without Mamma. So did Gid, what with Hannah so great with child she could scarcely shuffle to the kitchen to cook a meal for their growing family. Both Lizzie and Sadie had been taking turns carrying hot dishes up to the log house on the edge of the woods, helping out some. “What do ya think Hannah will have this time—girl or boy?” asked Leah.

“I’m sure Gid’s hopin’ for a son, just as Dat did all those years back. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Hannah has another daughter. Girls seem to run in the Ebersol family,” Sadie said.

“Jah, prob’ly so.” Leah didn’t care one way or the other. So far, young Abe was the only male offspring, and a right fine boy he was.

* * *

Hours later, when the time came to call the family together for dinner, Leah headed to the front room, where Lydiann was dusting the corner cupboard. Stopping to watch, Leah was struck by how sweet the girl’s face was. Nearly heart shaped, truly, and pretty blue eyes much like Sadie’s. She sighed, thinking what a handful Lydiann could be, yet at the same time, she brought a wealth of affection to the whole family. Lydiann was especially attentive to young Abe, her only close-in-age sibling.

“Sadie says the stew’s ready,” Leah said softly, so as not to startle her.

Turning, Lydiann smiled. She laid the dust rag on the floor and fell in step with Leah, slipping her arm around her waist. “Our big sister has that certain touch, ain’t so?” Lydiann sniffed the air comically. “I daresay her cookin’ oughta bring her another fine husband someday.”

“Now, Lyddie,” Leah chided her.

“Well, Mamma,” whispered Lydiann, “you know what I mean.”

“S’posin’ I do, and Sadie does have that special something every cook yearns for.” Leah went to the back door and rang the dinner bell while Lydiann washed her hands at the kitchen sink. Quickly Leah pulled the door shut, keenly aware of the bone-chilling cold, the bitter kind that crept up through long skirts and long johns both.

The present cold snap was expected to linger for a while, according to the weather forecast, which wasn’t always so reliable. Dat, however, took both the weatherman and The Farmer’s Almanac quite seriously most days, especially here lately. Leah wondered if her father simply needed something to hang his hat on, but the weather was the last thing a body could count on, as unpredictable as winter was long.

She went to help Sadie carry the food to the table. Along with stew, there were cornmeal muffins, a Waldorf salad, and a tray of carrot sticks, pickles, and olives, with plenty of hot coffee for the adults and fresh cow’s milk for Lydiann and Abe. The children much preferred the taste of the milk when the cows were barn fed instead of pasture fed, so she knew they’d be draining their glasses tonight.

By the time Dat and young Abe dashed indoors, got themselves washed up, and sat down at the table, Dawdi John and Aunt Lizzie had come over from the Dawdi Haus, commenting on the delicious aroma of Sadie’s stew. Lydiann was swinging her legs beneath the long table, clearly restless as Leah slipped in next to her on the wooden bench.

“What’s takin’ everyone so long?” Lydiann whispered to her.

“You must be awful hungry,” Leah replied. “But how ’bout let’s be willin’ to wait, jah?” She bowed her head as Dat motioned for the traditional silent prayer.

After the table blessing, Leah noticed Dat’s gaze lingering a bit longer than usual on Aunt Lizzie, who was smiling right back at him. Well, now, what on earth ... Is it possible? For a moment she contemplated the idea Dat might be taking a shine to Mamma’s younger sister. She couldn’t help wondering how peculiar she’d feel if Dat were actually sweet on her own birth mother.

And what might precious Mamma think?

Sadie dished up generous portions of the stew as each person in turn held a bowl to be filled. Abe’s eyes were bright, apparently pleased at the prospect of his favorite—“plenty of meat and potatoes.” He smacked his lips and dug a spoon deep into his bowl.

“I’ll be takin’ Abe with me to the farm sale come Thursday,” Dat said, glancing at Leah. “Just so ya know.”

“Yippee, no school for me!” Abe exclaimed, his mouth a bit too full.

“Aw, Mamma ...” Lydiann complained, looking at Leah with the most pitiful eyes. “Can’t I—”

“No need askin’.” Lovingly, she leaned against Lydiann.

“But you always went with Dat to farm auctions growin’ up, Mamma,” Abe said, surprising her. “Ain’t so, Dat? You told me as much.”

Their father had to struggle to keep a grin in check, his whiskers wriggling slightly on both sides of his mouth. Truth was, Abe was quite right, and Leah was somewhat taken aback that Dat had told about those days when she had been her father’s substitute son.

“Jah, Leah was quite a tomboy for a gut many years.” Here Dat turned and, for a moment, looked fondly at her. Feeling the warmth in her cheeks, she lowered her head. It had been the longest time since Dat had said such a thing in private, let alone in front of everyone.

“I daresay our Leah has herself a higher callin’ now,” Aunt Lizzie spoke up.

“She’s our sister and our mamma,” Abe said, grinning from ear to ear.

Lydiann muttered something, though just what, Leah cared not to guess. Best not to make an issue of it. No, let Lydiann simmer over having to attend school on the day of the farm sale. She needed not to miss any more school, having recently suffered a long bout with the flu. Even if Lydiann hadn’t missed at all this year, there was no reason for her to go traipsing off to the all-day farm sale with Dat, Abe, and Gid when her place was at school or home.

Mamma must’ve thought that of me, too ... all those years ago.

“You go ’n’ have yourself a fine day of book learnin’ on Thursday, Lydiann,” Dat said just then. “And no lip ’bout it, ya hear?”

Dat must have sensed the rising will in his youngest daughter. He was becoming more in tune with his family’s needs as each year passed, in spite of the grief he carried over him like a shroud.

Lydiann buttered her cornmeal muffin and then asked meekly for some apricot jam. Sadie hopped right up from the table to get it, and Dawdi John smiled broadly at the preserves coming and asked for a second helping of both stew and muffins. “Won’t be a crumb of leftovers.” He patted his slight belly.

This got Abe laughing and leaning forward to look down the table at their grandfather. “Maybe Dawdi oughta be goin’ with us to the sale,” Abe said. “What do ya think of that, Dawdi John?”

Dat murmured his concern. It was anybody’s guess whether or not Dawdi, at his feeble age, could keep up with the menfolk, since a full year had passed since Dawdi had made any attempt at going. In fact, Leah recalled clearly the last time Lizzie’s elderly father had decided to push himself too hard and go down to Ninepoints, where an Amish farmer was selling everything from hayforks to harnesses to the farmhouse itself. Dat had soundly reprimanded Aunt Lizzie for suggesting that her frail father go. Leah knew this because she’d unintentionally overheard them talking in the barn that day. Turned out poor Dawdi had gotten right dizzy at the sale, sick to his stomach, and later that night, he’d suffered with a high fever and the shakes. The illness had put an awful fear in not only Dat, but all of them.

Thankfully Dawdi was now saying no to young Abe’s request, his white beard brushing against the blue of his shirt as he shook his head. “Ach, you and Abram go for the day. Leave me here at home with the women folk.”

Once again Leah felt a warm and welcome relief, and she realized anew how deep in her heart she carried each one of her family members.

* * *

Sadie and Dat hitched up the open sleigh to the horse the next morning, which took far less time than the usual half hour or so when the job was to be accomplished by only one person. With weather this nippy, Sadie couldn’t see letting Leah start out with frozen fingers and toes from having to hitch up and then drive Lydiann and Abe to school, stopping for all the neighborhood children who attended—Amish and English alike. It had been her idea to surprise Leah, getting Dat from the barn so the two of them could prepare the sleigh.

Since returning home in October, she hadn’t found the courage to open her mouth and tell the whole truth to her sister, but she was awful sorry about the part she’d played in keeping Jonas from marrying Leah. The letter from Leah to her beloved, the one Sadie had deliberately and angrily discarded so long ago, continued to haunt her. But she worried that it might cause another rift between herself and her dear sister if she were to confess the wicked deed. Meanwhile, she simply tried to find ways to help lift the domestic burden for Leah—anything to lessen her sense of guilt.

Leah’s face shone with delight when she came out of the house, her pleasure evident at not having to face the chore single-handedly. She rushed to Sadie and hugged her but good while Dat grinned and waved and headed back to the barn. “Ach, Sadie ... and Dat, you didn’t have to do this.”

Sadie rubbed her hands together. “We wanted to.”

Just then Lydiann and Abe came flying out the back door, lunch buckets in hand. “One more day of school till the farm sale,” Abe hollered over his shoulder, beating Lydiann to the sleigh.

Sadie saw Lydiann pull a face. Then both children laughed and hopped up into the sleigh. Turning to face her, they waved as Leah twitched the reins, pulling out and heading down the long lane to the road.

Sadie, aware of the bitter cold, stood there longer than need be, watching the horse’s head rise and fall as the sleigh, soon to be filled with schoolchildren, slipped away from view.

I might’ve had a sleigh full of my own little ones.

Slowly she made her way toward the house, up the sidewalk shoveled clean of new snow. ’Tis nearly Christmas and I ought to be happy.

“Oughta be a lot of things,” she muttered as she reached for the back door and hurried inside. She didn’t move quickly to the wood stove to warm her ice-cold hands and feet. She went and stood at the window, looking out over the side pasture, her gaze drifting all the way to the edge of the woods. Deep in that forest, there were deer hunters probably right now resting and warming themselves in an old, run-down shanty. She wished to goodness the place had fallen down in disrepair, wished Aunt Lizzie might have discovered the flattened shelter on one of her many treks through the woods, its walls of decaying wood lying flat on the snow-glazed ground, just asking to be hauled away.

Sadie recognized anew the one reason she’d ever hesitated to write to Bishop Bontrager telling of her widowhood and of her desire to return home to her father’s house: the sordid memories here of the sin she had allowed herself to get caught up in as a teenager, the wickedness she’d shared with the village doctor’s younger son. Although she had safely passed the Ohio church Proving and eventually married an upstanding young man, Harvey Hochstetler, there were times when thoughts of Derek Schwartz still haunted her. Did he even know she’d given birth to a stillborn son?

Derry ... the boy who’d stolen her virtue. No, that was not true and she knew it. She had willingly given up her innocence to a virtual stranger, a heathen, as Dat often said of Englishers. She had known firsthand that Derry was just that, but he had not been a thief those nights in the hunters’ shack.

Now, though, having heard that Mary Ruth was seeing Derry’s older brother, Robert, Sadie couldn’t help but feel squeamish at the wretched possibility of having to meet him one day. This made her tremble, and she hoped such a meeting might be months, even years away. She just felt so helpless at times, missing Harvey something awful, even more so now that she was safely home again, snug in Dat’s big farmhouse. Yet the knowledge of that horrid shanty, the place where she had conceived her first child, illegitimate at that, caused her to draw her black shawl around her chin as she looked out toward the dark woods.

If the bishop knew my thoughts, he’d surely be displeased. She knew she ought not to dwell on the past. She ought to think on the good years she’d spent with Harvey, the kind and loving husband the Lord God heavenly Father had granted her ... for a time. Still, coming home had stirred everything up again. Sometimes she wondered if the almighty One had withheld His favor even though she had turned from her rebellious ways, with the help of the Ohio ministers to begin with ... and thoughtful Jonas. She had completed her Proving time in Millersburg well before ever meeting Harvey and moving to Nappanee.

All the babies I carried, she thought. All of them lost to me ... to Harvey, too. All the blue-faced wee ones I birthed ...

Silently she questioned if the reckless willfulness of her early sin had made divine judgment most severe. Here she was, all this time after, stuck in a mire of doubt and hopelessness, a woman longing for her dead children and husband. The awareness that Bishop Bontrager had set her up as an example to the young people did not make things any easier.

She had long wished for Dat to have known Harvey, for her sisters to have enjoyed her husband’s hearty laugh and interesting stories told around the hearth. And yet in spite of the congenial and closely knit family she had shared with Harvey, she had often felt she was marking time clear out there in Indiana, far away from home. There had always been a feeling of waiting to undo what had been already done. She had sometimes cried herself to sleep, longing for Mamma’s loving arms and nighttime talks with Leah. All of this unbeknownst to her husband.

I’m home now. Regardless of her initial reservations, she was glad to be living in a big family once again, with Dat and Leah, Aunt Lizzie and Dawdi John, and the eager-faced Lydiann and Abe—finally getting to know her youngest siblings. Most of all, it was fun watching her young sister and brother growing up underfoot, seeing their wide-eyed devotion to Leah. She wouldn’t let herself envy Leah for having what she did not—a close bond with children, the memory of having held Lydiann and Abe ever so near as infants, rocking them to sleep in their tiny cotton gowns, rejoicing over their first toddler steps. Constantly, though, Sadie noticed every young one who was the age her children would have been had they lived ... especially her dead son.

Still, it did seem a bit unfair that Leah was a mother without having given birth, while Sadie had given birth but was not a mother. Yet she wouldn’t allow herself to contemplate that too much, not wishing to usurp Leah’s position in Lydiann’s and Abe’s eyes.

Moving away from the window, she trudged to the utility room just off the kitchen. There, she removed her shawl and hung it on the third wooden peg. The first peg belonged to Dat, of course, and she had noticed right away upon her return home last fall that Leah’s shawl now hung where Mamma’s always had. So, even though there was still a vacant place at the table for Mamma, Leah must have felt no need to leave the wooden peg empty.

Excerpted from:
The Prodigal (Abram's Daughters, Book 4) by Beverly Lewis
Copyright © 2004; ISBN 0764228730, 0764228781, 076422879X, 0764228803
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.