|Walking His Way Series:Hands of Love By Mildred Colvin|
He stood by his brother Levi along with what seemed like a million other Union soldiers in the streets for the last and greatest pageant of the War Between the Statesâ€”the Grand Review. The march through the capitol city would be Levi and Williamâ€™s last as members of Shermanâ€™s army.
At sunrise on May 23, the spectators began to gather. Promptly at nine oâ€™clock the signal gun was fired, and General Meade rode out on his garlanded horse at the head of the Army of the Potomac.
William watched an endless ocean of blue. Several men marched abreast, their bayonets glittering in the sun. Yet all he could think of was, Where is Jacob? Why isnâ€™t he here with us?
Massed on stands and housetops, hanging from windows and balconies, the people sang the choruses of the tunes the bands played, â€œTramp, Tramp, Tramp,â€ â€œWhen This Cruel War is Over,â€ and â€œWhen Johnny Comes Marching Home.â€ Showers of flowers rained down on the men, filling the street with their fragrance as they were crushed beneath thousands of marching feet. People wept as the battle flags passed and many rushed into the street to kiss their tattered folds.
Cheers clashed in Williamâ€™s ears, as apple blossoms and rose petals fell on and around him. It meant nothing. Not without Jacob. All he cared aboutâ€”all he could think ofâ€”was getting to the end of this day. Then he would be free to go where he pleased. Only, where did he want to go? West with his comrades, or home to Iowa? The two choices swirled through his brain. His older brother, Levi, was eager to get home, and he wanted William with him.
He would decide today.
The sun slanted out of the west as Shermanâ€™s men dispersed. Many went to the saloons. William had tried whiskey and found it only made the ghosts more vivid. More alive. Nothing erased the horrors of war.
If only he could turn back time. But no one could.
â€œHave you decided, Will?â€ At least Levi no longer called him Willie. â€œAre we going home together?â€
â€œYeah, Iâ€™ll go with you. I owe Mama and Papa that much.â€ Right or wrong, William had made his decision. The two remaining brothers would go home together. One to build a future with Janie Braun. The other to recapture the pastâ€”if he could.
By August, William figured heâ€™d made a mistake in coming home.
He stood beside his older brother in front of their home church and watched Leviâ€™s bride walk the aisle on her fatherâ€™s arm. How much longer could he work on the farm with Papa or keep a smile on his face for Mama after a night of battle-torn dreams had kept him awake? The emptiness in his heart proved the childhood he sought to reclaim no longer existed.
As his brother stepped forward to claim his bride, William looked over the congregation. So many familiar faces, but just as many of the young men were missing. His friend Hugh Ely had fallen at Appomattox. Others in skirmishes and battles across the South. Maybe they were the lucky ones. For them the hurting, the exhaustion, and constant fear was over. His gaze passed over the remainder of his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances to rest on his own family.
The Rohmeiers sat in the first pew, across the aisle from Janieâ€™s parents. Mr. Braun held his wifeâ€™s hand in both of his, their loving gaze trained on their daughter. Mrs. Braunâ€™s complexion cast a faint yellow hue, from the cancer in her body, no doubt. He turned his gaze to the other side of the church where his only sister, Ingrid, now ten years old, sat beside their mother who smiled yet held a handkerchief to her flooding eyes. His father, Gus, had his arm around her. His proud look was trained on Levi while sadness darkened his eyes. It was as if Mama and Papa didnâ€™t know whether to be happy or sad.
Matthew, Williamâ€™s youngest brother, sat with his wife, Emily, beside his parents. Theyâ€™d gotten married almost a year ago after her mother passed away. Some might think because she was so young with no family, Matthew had offered out of pity, but anyone who paid attention would know Matthew loved his wife. Emilyâ€™s big blue eyes were moist. Matthew held her hand tightly in his.
The space between the two couples looked as if theyâ€™d left room for a fifth person. Jacob? No. Jacob would have been standing up with Levi. His two older brothers, so near the same age, had been inseparable. But Jacob was gone. Heâ€™d been hit near the end of the war outside Fayetteville, North Carolina. Theyâ€™d carried him to the injured wagon and continued their march as if his welfare meant nothing. First chance theyâ€™d got, they went to the hospital and been told heâ€™d died. He was gone, buried in an unmarked grave. Such was war.
William shut out the memories and turned his attention to his brotherâ€™s wedding. Janie, her blue-black hair worn in a simple twist on the back of her head, raised her face for Leviâ€™s kiss.
William looked beyond them to Serena, standing beside the bride. Her eyes met his, and she managed a tremulous smile through her tears. As she lifted a dainty, lace-trimmed handkerchief to blot them, prisms of color danced off the ring on her finger. The engagement ring Jacob had given her on that last Christmas theyâ€™d all been home together. She wore it on her right hand now.
A small voice inside his head accused, â€œJacob shouldnâ€™t have died. It shouldâ€™ve been you. You shouldâ€™ve been the one. Jacob was too good. It should have been you.â€
Heâ€™d known better than to come home. Things would never be the same. The past had died with the oldest Rohmeier son.
William trudged through freshly fallen snow to the barn. Why was he still here? Heâ€™d been home six months, and the restless feeling deep inside wouldnâ€™t leave him alone. Nothing was the same. Not without Jacob. Every time he saw Serena at church or in town, memory of the last time heâ€™d seen Jacob lying on the medic wagon returned full force. Blood covered his chest, his pale face, his eyes closed as if he wereâ€” William shook his head, trying to force the vision away. He couldnâ€™t bring his brother back by tormenting himself. He had to find a way to forget.
He stopped outside the barn door as voices within reached his hearing.
â€œJanieâ€™s mother passed this morning.â€ Leviâ€™s words came out clipped as if he held the emotion inside. â€œI came to tell you, but I canâ€™t stay. Janie needs me.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Levi. Yes, go home to Janie. Iâ€™ll tell your mother.â€ Papa cleared his throat. Something he often did when he tried to hide emotion.
William turned away from the door, his stomach twisting. So the cancer had finally killed Astrid Braun. He brushed a hand across his eyes. Astrid and Karl had been more than friends. They were family as long as he could remember. Janie would be devastated. They all would be even though theyâ€™d known this was coming. Why must death take those he loved the most? He swallowed his tears and stomped through the snow several yards before stopping. Papa would need him more than ever the next few days. He didnâ€™t have time to grieve, just like he hadnâ€™t been allowed to grieve for Jacob. He turned back toward the barn, his jaw clenched tight.
The next few days seemed to pass in a blur until William stood in the churchyard and bowed his head as Pastor Erich Altman closed his message beside Astridâ€™s open grave. â€œShall we pray?â€
He waited a moment then said, â€œFather God, thank You for allowing us to know Mrs. Astrid Braun. For sharing her loving care with all she knew and making our lives richer for it. Thank you for her life, and may we each remember and follow her example in Christian service to You. We rejoice in knowing sheâ€™s safe in Your presence right now. Fill us with faith. Guide us with each step to walk as she did in Your way and in no other. Bring each of us home to You when the time is right. In Jesusâ€™ name. Amen.â€
His prayer had no sooner ended than Janie cried out, â€œOh, Papa!â€
William sprang to Karl Braunâ€™s side at the same time Levi did. Together they caught the older man as he crumpled, his hand pressed against his chest. Together they lifted him before he touched the snow-covered ground and carried him to his wagon.
A woman produced a blanket and spread it in the back of the wagon where they gently placed him. Another blanket appeared as someone else covered the prone man and tucked it gently around him.
â€œIt was just too much for him. The poor man.â€ A voice drifted from the side.
Another voice answered in hushed tones. â€œThey was close. Whatâ€™ll he do without her?â€
William looked up into his Mamaâ€™s tear-filled eyes. Sheâ€™d been best friends with Astrid Braun longer than heâ€™d lived. He wanted to go to her, lend what little comfort he could, but Papa slipped his arm around her, and she leaned against his chest. Mama didnâ€™t need him. Papa didnâ€™t either. Maybe for a little farm work, but heâ€™d done fine with Matthewâ€™s help while the war raged in the south.
William watched Levi drive the wagon carrying Karl Braun home while Janie sat in the back, her fatherâ€™s head pillowed in her lap. Janie was expecting her and Leviâ€™s first child. She had no business caring for her father now. Hadnâ€™t she done enough taking care of her mother all these months? How much more could she bear before something happened to her?
He turned away and mounted his horse then followed his familyâ€™s wagon home. Funeral or not, there was always work to be done. Papa and Mama didnâ€™t bother going inside after letting Matthew and Emily climb down. They would go on to the Braunâ€™s and help in any way they could.
That evening after William finished milking he left the milk for Emily to take care of then rode to the Braunâ€™s farm, promising Matthew heâ€™d bring word from the others how Karl was. He recognized the buggy and horse waiting at the back door when he arrived. Doctor Brown from Milen was there. His heart constricted at the thought of what he might find inside.
He didnâ€™t bother knocking but slipped in the back doorway and followed the soft sound of voices to the stairway leading up to the bedrooms. Taking one step at a time, he dreaded what heâ€™d find at the top. If he thought itâ€™d do any good, heâ€™d pray. Instead, he pushed his way upstairs and started down the hall when the doctor stepped out of the room at the end with his parentsâ€™ following him.
â€œPapa, whatâ€™s happened?â€ Instinctively, he knew from the set of his fatherâ€™s shoulders he wouldnâ€™t hear good news. â€œIs he â€¦?â€
â€œHeâ€™s gone, William.â€ Papaâ€™s voice was rough with emotion. â€œDoc says it was his heart. He had another spell after we got here.â€
â€œIt was the strain of burying Astrid.â€ Mama spoke through the tears in her voice and running down her cheeks.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, folks.â€ Doc Brownâ€™s shoulders slumped as if heâ€™d put in a hard dayâ€™s work. â€œI did what I could, but it wasnâ€™t enough. Iâ€™ve been telling him for years to slow down, but he was used to hard work. Folks like that find it near to impossible to take life easy.â€
William looked at the doctor, a man who went out in any kind of weather to tend the sick. He might tell his patients to slow down, but he didnâ€™t appear to be following his own advice. Heâ€™d been doctoring the folks round about for years and wasnâ€™t getting any younger.
Williamâ€™s gaze shifted to his father. If he looked close, he could see white mingling in the blond hair that appeared thinner than it had been before the war. Were those new lines of worry etched across his face or only grief for his long-time friend? And what of Mama? Heâ€™d always thought she was ageless. Had never really thought of her getting older. His parents were in their late forties, not ancient by any means, but not young anymore either. They were close to the same age as Janieâ€™s parents had been. What would he do if he lost them?
He refused to think of the possibility and turned from his thoughts. â€œHowâ€™s Janie holding up? I told Matthew Iâ€™d let him and Emily know.â€
Mama stepped forward and patted his arm. â€œSheâ€™ll be fine. Janieâ€™s stronger than she looks. Weâ€™ll stay awhile to take care of things here. Let them know weâ€™ll be home later.â€
â€œAll right.â€ He hugged his mother then clasped his fatherâ€™s hand. Tears stung his eyes, but he clenched his jaw and pressed his cheek against the top of Mamaâ€™s head. Theyâ€™d just endured one funeral, now they faced another. Life wasnâ€™t fair. The old saying that troubles come by threes had better not be true. Surely, theyâ€™d been through enough already. Maybe Jacobâ€™s death counted and this was the last of it.
William shuffled back outside and mounted his horse. He sure hoped so. Hadnâ€™t they seen enough for a lifetime?
Two days after Karl Braunâ€™s funeral, Papa found William forking hay to the cattle on the snow-covered ground. â€œYou havenâ€™t seen Levi yet today, have you?â€
William shook his head. â€œNo, heâ€™s usually here by now.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what has me worried.â€ Papa glanced toward the house. â€œYour mama got one of her notions. Said there was something wrong over there, but she wasnâ€™t sure what. Iâ€™ve put her off, thinking heâ€™d show up and everything would be fine.â€
A long sigh escaped Papaâ€™s lungs. â€œSheâ€™s getting ready to go over on her own, so Iâ€™m going to take her. Most of these feelings â€¦ well, she isnâ€™t usually wrong.â€
Tension spread, tightening Williamâ€™s chest. Not again. â€œDo you want me to go with you?â€
â€œNo, that wonâ€™t be necessary. You and Matthew take care of things here.â€ The lines across Papaâ€™s forehead deepened. â€œSurely this wonâ€™t take long. Hold us up in prayer.â€
William didnâ€™t respond as his father turned and walked toward the house. He couldnâ€™t remember when heâ€™d last prayed. Maybe after Jacob was shot. One thing was certain, he hadnâ€™t uttered even one word to the Almighty since learning his brother died. Not that he didnâ€™t believe. Just figured it didnâ€™t do much good for him to talk to Someone who wasnâ€™t listening.
He jabbed the pitchfork in the pile of hay in the back of the wagon and tossed it over the fence to the cattle. One thing he could do was work.
When Papa came home that afternoon, he didnâ€™t bring Mama.
William met him at the barn. â€œWhatâ€™s going on?â€
Papa released a weary sigh as Matthew came running from the house with Emily close behind. He ran a hand over his face while they gathered around him. Finally, he looked up. â€œJanie lost her baby today.â€ His eyes sharpened as he sought each of them out. â€œWe almost lost her too. Except for the grace of God â€¦â€
A tear trickled down Emilyâ€™s cheek. â€œWill she be all right?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Mamaâ€™s staying with them until they can get the fever down. Levi went for the doctor. He said thereâ€™s infection causing a fever. She isnâ€™t out of danger yet.â€ His gaze swept the three of them, seeming to linger on William before he held his hands out to each side. â€œChildren, we need to pray.â€
Emily and Matthew immediately joined hands as Matthew took his fatherâ€™s outstretched hand. William hesitated only a second. He wouldnâ€™t defy his family no matter how he felt, and at the moment, it seemed life was determined to kick them again and again. Janie didnâ€™t deserve this, and neither did Levi. Where was God? Why didnâ€™t He step in and do something?
â€œFather God, we give You honor and praise as we ask for Your mercy now. We donâ€™t understand when so much sadness comes to those we love, but You know all things. Janie is Your child, and she needs a miracle â€¦â€
William listened to his fatherâ€™s prayer of entreaty for Janieâ€™s life and even added his own silently. God, help Janie. He tried to add more, but the words wouldnâ€™t come. All he could do was repeat his plea for her life.
One week after another went by while Janie fought the fever that raged through her body then began the slow process of healing. Christmas approached as a bright spot in an otherwise dreary time for the Rohmeier family who had all been to see Janie several times. All except William. As the reports of her healing come in, he decided it was time to see how she was doing for himself.
Gathering his courage, he approached the open bedroom doorway after letting himself into her and Leviâ€™s house. Looking into the room, he saw Janie propped up against the pillows on her bed reading. He tapped on the door facing, and she turned toward him.
â€œWilliam, Iâ€™ve been thinking about you.â€ She held a slender hand out to him. â€œPlease, come in.â€
He walked slowly to the bed and took her hand in his. The delicate bones felt fragile. He held her hand loosely, fearing he might hurt her.
â€œHere, sit down and talk to me. Levi had to go into town, and Iâ€™m lonely.â€ She moved over to make room. Still holding her hand, he eased onto the edge of the bed. Her velvet brown eyes were huge in her face. â€œAre you all right, William?â€
â€œYeah, Iâ€™m fine.â€ Releasing her hand, he picked up the thick, black braid lying across her shoulder and wrapped it around his hand. â€œWhat about you?â€
â€œIâ€™m all right now.â€ Her hand caressed the book lying open on her lap.
As William recognized her Bible, the deep anger that had been simmering ever since Jacobâ€˜s death began to boil. What kind of God would allow this to happen to Janie? He knew the answer. The same kind that would let Jacob die. One who didnâ€™t care. Who didnâ€™t seem trustworthy.
â€œI donâ€™t see how you can still believe in God.â€ He tightened his fingers around her braid. â€œHe took your mother and your father, and now heâ€™s taken your baby from you. What kind of God is that, Janie? Canâ€™t you see He doesnâ€™t care?â€
â€œOh, no, you mustnâ€™t believe that, William.â€ Tears filled her soft brown eyes. â€œThink of all God has given, not what weâ€™ve lost. God gave me Mama and Papa when I needed them the most. True, theyâ€™re gone now, but I have a whole storehouse of beautiful memories, and someday Iâ€™ll see them again. My baby is gone, but I have Levi. Mama and Papa both loved him, and they lived to see us married. It meant so much to them. Knowing I wouldnâ€™t be alone.â€
William dropped his gaze to the thick braid wrapped around his hand and forced himself to relax. â€œI know you find comfort in your Bible, Janie. But you just donâ€™t know ... You canâ€™t even imagine ...â€
She touched his arm in a gesture of comfort. â€œLevi has told me some of what it was like, William. I know it was horrible. But youâ€™re right. I canâ€™t imagine. I know the war hurt you deeply, but we still have so much. We have each other. Thereâ€™s your mother and father. And Matthew and Emily. Most of all we have the Lord. Jesus said His grace was sufficient for us because His strength is made perfect in our weakness. In spite of our faith sometimes weâ€™re very weak, William, but we find strength in His Word.â€
â€œYeah, that sounds all good, Janie, but I donâ€™t think I believe anymore.â€
â€œOh, William, you canâ€™t mean that. You went to the altar when we did. Remember? We all gave our life to the Lord the same evening. Me, Serena, Matthew, Levi, Jacob, and you. It was so wonderful. Donâ€™t you remember how happy we were, William?â€
Janie was beautiful and so dear to him. He couldnâ€™t add to her pain. He should never have told her how he felt. He nodded. â€œYeah, I remember. Itâ€™s getting late.â€ He slowly unwound the shiny black braid. â€œI better go.â€
When he stood, she grabbed his hand. â€œDonâ€™t blame God for my losing the baby, William. It was just one of those things. Emily hasnâ€™t been able to come and visit me. Is she all right?â€
â€œYeah, sheâ€™s fine.â€
â€œGood. I have some baby clothes put away that Iâ€™ll bring to her as soon as Iâ€™m able to be up and around.â€ The smile on her lips couldnâ€™t hide the sadness in her eyes. â€œIt will be nice to have a baby in the family to love.â€
Her words rang in Williamâ€™s head as he walked outside and mounted his horse. A baby to love. Maybe so, if Emilyâ€™s baby lived. She was so smallâ€”and so young â€¦ He turned his horse toward home not wanting to think about it.
A man on horseback rode in from the direction of town as William drew near the house. Who would be coming out this far? Perhaps a stranger who had lost his way. He sat for several moments looking around the farm as if getting his bearings. Papa and Matthew must be away from the house. Jacobâ€™s old dog trotted to the strangerâ€™s horse and stood looking up at him then barked a greeting, his tail wagging furiously. He was obviously too old to be a decent watchdog.
William kicked his horse forward as the man dismounted, arriving before the other man had time to loop the reins around the hitching post. â€œHello, is there anything I can help you with?â€
When the man turned, lifting blue eyes toward him, Williamâ€™s blood drained from his face. He grabbed the saddle horn to keep from falling from his horse. Surely, his eyes were playing tricks.
â€œJacob? Is that you?â€
A wide smile crept across Jacobâ€™s face. â€œWillie, you made it home.â€
â€œWe thoughtâ€”â€ William shook his head. â€œI mean, we were told youâ€™d died. Levi and I went to find you.â€
â€œLeviâ€™s here too?â€ Jacob turned his head as if searching for his brother.
â€œYeah. Well, no, heâ€™s in town right now, but we came back together right after the war.â€ William dismounted on rubbery legs. He held to his horse until he had enough strength to move closer and touch his brother. Lord, donâ€™t let him be a ghost. Surely the vision before him would dissipate if he got too close. He approached with wary steps.
Jacob grabbed and held him in a bear hug the way he used to do when they were kids and he wanted to torment him. They were grown men now. William welcomed the solid feel of his brother.
â€œWhat happened? Where were you?â€ William, all at once, wanted to know everything. â€œOh, man, Mamaâ€™s going to faint. Papa said she knew only two of us were coming home. She didnâ€™t know the whole story.â€
Jacobâ€™s chuckle sounded good. â€œNo, she left off the good part, Iâ€™d reckon.â€
â€œWilliam, whoâ€™s that?â€ The door of the house slammed and Ingrid stood on the porch, an uncertain look on her face. Before he could answer, she screamed and pounded down the steps. â€œJacob, it is you.â€
He scarcely had time to open his arms before she leapt into them. â€œI missed you so much!â€
Jacob staggered with her light weight, and William steadied him with a hand on his back. â€œWhoa there, Ingrid. Letâ€™s give Jacob a chance to come inside and sit down. I imagine heâ€™s pretty tired.â€
The door banged again. â€œMy son.â€ Mamaâ€™s voice was no more than a whisper, but carried such feeling that all three turned toward her. Tears ran down her face as she looked at Jacob, but spoke to William. â€œGo tell your father and Matthew that Jacob has come home.â€
She descended the steps as he started away. â€œWeâ€™ll need to tell Serena too.â€
â€œNot yet, Mama.â€ Jacob grasped the small hitching rail and turned to her. He took a careful step forward. â€œLetâ€™s keep this in the family for now.â€
William paused and watched his strong older brother take slow, careful steps to their mother.
She enfolded him in her arms as he held her close then pulled back. She patted his cheek. â€œLetâ€™s get you inside where itâ€™s warm.â€
â€œIâ€™ll take care of your horse after I find Papa and Matt.â€ William saw Jacobâ€™s nod of thanks before he mounted Golden Boy and headed toward the feedlot on the other side of the barn where he expected to find the men working.
Jacob was home. Even if he wasnâ€™t as strong as heâ€™d once been, he was whole. Thatâ€™s what counted. Mamaâ€™s good cooking would soon have him back to his full strength. Serena would sure be glad to see him. Guess thereâ€™d be another wedding in the family before long. Maybe things were looking up. For the first time in a long time, hope blossomed in Williamâ€™s chest.
â€œPapa! Matt!â€ William called out as soon as he saw them working on the corral fence, strengthening it for the cattle that would be confined there during the cold winter months.
They looked up as he rode close. He didnâ€™t bother getting off his horse. â€œYou need to come to the house.â€ How did he announce to his father that the beloved son he thought dead was alive and well and waiting for an overdue reunion? Blunt and to the point was the only way he knew. â€œWeâ€™ve had news of Jacob. Heâ€™s alive.â€
â€œAlive?â€ Papa stared. â€œWho told you such a thing? Is this some sort of cruel joke?â€
Matthew looked from Papa to William, hope flaring in his eyes.
William shook his head. â€œNo, Papa. Itâ€™s true. Come to the house and see for yourself. Jacob is here. Heâ€™s come home.â€
For the first time ever in Williamâ€™s memory, his father threw down a shovel and strode away leaving it on the dirt. Once out of the corral, he broke into a run as if he couldnâ€™t wait to see his son. Matthew wasnâ€™t far behind.
William waited, allowing them to reach the house ahead of him. He stopped for Jacobâ€™s horse and returned to the barn where he cared for both animals before letting them out into the pasture. Only then did he return to the house.
â€œI wasnâ€™t hurt as bad as they first thought. Had three bullets in me, but the doctor pulled those out.â€
â€œEww!â€ Ingrid, plastered to Jacobâ€™s side on the sofa, looked up at him. â€œThatâ€™s awful.â€
He ruffled her hair and laughed. â€œI was glad to get â€™em out, short stuff. And to learn they hadnâ€™t touched anything I needed really bad. But I couldnâ€™t lay there and wonder if Willie and Levi were dead any longer, so I got up and walked out when no one was looking.â€
Ingridâ€™s eyes grew wide. â€œYou ran away?â€
â€œYeah, I did and got lost because I couldnâ€™t think straight.â€ He chuckled. â€œThen I fell and hurt my leg, so now I canâ€™t run after you like I used to.â€
William watched the emotions playing on Jacobâ€™s face and winced. Oh, he was trying to act as if it were all a big joke, but fear lurked in his eyes. How had he hurt his leg? More important, how badly was he hurt? He had trouble walking, but heâ€™d heal. Surely, he would.
â€œHey,â€ Jacob looked around at the sober faces surrounding him. â€œIâ€™m fine. All I need is some of Mamaâ€™s good cooking and exercise of helping Papa on the farm. Youâ€™ll see. Iâ€™ll soon be back to normal.â€
William looked beyond his brotherâ€™s boastful predictions to the fear he couldnâ€™t hide. Heâ€™d changed. He might act like nothing was wrong, but if that were true, why didnâ€™t he want Serena to know he was home?
Mama stood and bent to kiss Jacobâ€™s forehead. â€œCome, Ingrid, and help me fix dinner.â€
â€œIâ€™ll help too.â€ Emily struggled to stand with Matthewâ€™s help. Her hand rested against her large belly as color crept into her face. â€œIâ€™m getting so fat I canâ€™t even get out of a chair by myself.â€
Mama slipped an arm around Emilyâ€™s shoulders and together they walked toward the kitchen with Ingrid skipping ahead of them.
Papa placed a gentle hand on Jacobâ€™s shoulder. â€œIs there anything I can get you?â€
â€œNo, Papa, Iâ€™m fine. Just tired from the journey. I think I might rest my eyes a moment if no one minds.â€
â€œThatâ€™s probably for the best.â€ Papa patted his shoulder and stepped away. â€œMatthew, maybe we could finish our job.â€
William straightened from where heâ€™d been leaning against the wall. â€œI could help you, Papa, but I wanted to go tell Levi our good news. He should be back from town by now.â€
â€œYes, go, William. We can handle the fence.â€ Papa strode toward the door. â€œLevi must know.â€
Already, Jacob had slumped over against the sofa pillows with his legs stretched out and his eyes closed. His fair skin seemed even paler than normal.
William turned away and went outside. Surely, Jacob would get well. God wouldnâ€™t send him home to die, would He? His heart twisted at the thought. Already, thereâ€™d been too much death. Why wouldnâ€™t it stop?
When he reached Leviâ€™s house, his brother had just rode in and dismounted. â€œBetter leave your saddle on.â€ William called out to him. â€œI expect youâ€™ll want to come to the house. Weâ€™ve had word about Jacob.â€
Leviâ€™s head snapped up and he took a step forward. â€œWhat do you mean?â€
â€œHe didnâ€™t die, Levi. Jacob rode in while ago. Heâ€™s asleep on the sofa now.â€ William leaned forward resting his arm across the saddle horn. â€œHe left the hospital to look for us. Even wounded, he thought he had to take care of us. His legâ€™s in bad shape so he can barely walk, but heâ€™s alive. He doesnâ€™t want Serena to know.â€
â€œWhy not? If he plans to stay, he wonâ€™t be able to keep his presence a secret.â€
William shrugged. â€œI know, but he may not be thinking right.â€
â€œLet me check on Janie then Iâ€™ll be there.â€ Levi ran for the house.
When they got to the house, Jacob was still sleeping. Levi and William stood in the middle of the room looking down at him, marveling that he was really there. â€œHe looks almost as good as ever, doesnâ€™t he?â€
At Williamâ€™s comment, Jacob opened his eyes and grinned at him. â€œLittle brother, looks can be deceiving, and donâ€™t forget that.â€
Levi made a scoffing sound. â€œWhatâ€™s this nonsense of not telling Serena youâ€™re home? Have you decided you donâ€™t want to marry her?â€
Jacob struggled to sit. Both brothers jumped forward to help. When he was again upright, he turned a scowl toward each of them. â€œDid you see how hard that was? What kind of man canâ€™t even sit up without help? You havenâ€™t seen me walk. Mama did, and she cried. Serena is beautiful and whole. She deserves a real man. One who can take care of her, provide for her, and make her happy.â€
â€œGive yourself time to heal.â€ William didnâ€™t understand his brother. Jacob had been the life of the family. Now he acted as if his life was over.
Jacob glared at William before his gaze softened. â€œYou donâ€™t know, Willie. I thank God every day that He kept you two from injury. When I woke up in the hospital, I didnâ€™t know whatâ€™d happened to you. If you were still alive, even. I stayed as long as I could, but I had to know. First chance I got, I took off walking. I couldnâ€™t find my way, but I found trouble from a Reb. Just a kid as young as you, Willie. He shot my leg, and I mustâ€™ve hit my head when I fell. I woke up in a strange bed, in a Quaker familyâ€™s home. They tended my wounds. The bullet had gone through my leg, but must have nicked the bone as it did. Iâ€™ll never be able to walk right. Serena doesnâ€™t need to be saddled with a cripple.â€
â€œSerena loves you, Jacob. Sheâ€™s grieved for you for months.â€
Jacob turned his head away and closed his eyes. When he turned back, resolve shone in them. â€œIâ€™ll go away if I have to, but Iâ€™m not going to ask Serena to keep her promise to marry me. That wouldnâ€™t be right.â€
â€œI agree.â€ Levi gave a brisk nod.
â€œYou do?â€ William shot him a startled look. Serenaâ€™s heart would be broken twice if Jacob turned away from her now he was home. Thatâ€™s what wasnâ€™t right. Life wasnâ€™t fair, just as heâ€™d already decided. Every time Jacob said Serenaâ€™s name with that tender longing in his voice, it was obvious he still loved her. Couldnâ€™t Levi hear it too?
Jacobâ€™s eyes widened and intensified on Levi. â€œGood. Iâ€™m glad itâ€™s settled.â€ He pushed himself off the sofa and stood for a moment as if getting his balance.
When he took a careful step forward, William fought the urge to take his arm. Instinctively, he knew that would be the worst thing he could do.
Jacob laughed. â€œIâ€™m as weak as a new-born kitten. Letâ€™s go in the kitchen and pester Mama and Ingrid.â€
By Saturday, the excitement of Jacobâ€™s return from the dead had about worn off. In fact, William was getting tired of the way his oldest brother acted as if Serena had never meant anything to him. His efforts to keep his presence unknown to anyone other than family seemed to have worked so far, but tomorrow was Sunday. Didnâ€™t he plan to attend services? Heâ€™d already started helping out by driving the team when they needed to use the wagon. He rode horseback when they went out looking for stray cattle to bring in, and already seemed to be steadier on his feet. Not that he worked for long at a time, but it was a start. Surely, his strength would return, and heâ€™d be able to work, if not as before, almost as well.
William made a disgusted sound. Just thinking about his oldest brother made him want to say something he shouldnâ€™t. He led his horse out of the barn, saddled and ready to ride. â€œPapa, Iâ€™m going to see how Janieâ€™s doing.â€
â€œLevi says sheâ€™s getting better every day.â€ Papa waved him on. â€œGo see for yourself, but we have much to be thankful for. Both Jacob and Janie will soon be well.â€
Yeah, maybe in body, but what about inside where you couldnâ€™t see? Would either of them ever heal there?
At his brotherâ€™s house, he tied his horse and started for the door, but Levi stepped from the barn. â€œYou might not want to go in there right now.â€
William spun around and headed toward him. â€œWhy not?â€
â€œSerenaâ€™s here talking with Janie. Want to help repair tack?â€ Levi held up a bridle.
â€œMight as well.â€ William quickened his steps. He didnâ€™t want in the middle of women talk, and he wanted an answer from Levi, anyway. After theyâ€™d worked awhile and neither had spoken for several minutes, he paused and looked at his brother. â€œWhyâ€™d you agree with Jacob when itâ€™s obvious heâ€™s in the wrong?â€
Levi chuckled. â€œI assume weâ€™re talking about Serena now. The truth is, Jacob isnâ€™t in any mood to be reasoned with. Heâ€™s feeling sorry for himself right now and thinks Serena couldnâ€™t love him because he isnâ€™t perfect.â€
â€œHe never was.â€ William scowled at the bridle in his hands. â€œNo oneâ€™s perfect.â€
â€œTrue. But Jacob needs to come to that conclusion on his own.â€ Levi looked up with a grin. â€œI have a feeling once Serena knows whatâ€™s going on, sheâ€™d make Jacob see things better.â€
â€œI hope she does.â€ Sympathy for Jacob warred with anger at his stupidity as William thought about what heâ€™d done to all of them including Serena. Not that heâ€™d done it on purpose, but still â€¦ Once more, the yearning to get away from all the troubles that seemed to plague his family gnawed at him. He went back to work, but after a while he went home without seeing either Janie or Serena.
He stepped out of the barn from caring for his horse and stopped short as Serena stormed into the yard, jumped from her mount, and pounded up the porch steps.
As he watched, Mama opened the door, welcoming her in. William raised his eyebrows and turned toward the wood pile. Heâ€™d split wood until the storm inside settled.
Janie played the music for the closing song of this yearâ€™s Christmas Eve program. â€œAll Hail the Power of Jesusâ€™ Name.â€
William could listen to her play for hours and never grow tired. Sheâ€™d been part of his life for as long as he could remember, his older sister and now his sister-in-law. She seemed to have recovered from losing the baby, but the doctor hadnâ€™t been hopeful sheâ€™d ever have another. For her sake, and for Leviâ€™s, William hoped she would.
â€œTonight, we have a special conclusion to our Christmas Eve service.â€ Pastor Altman stood in front and addressed the congregation. â€œI canâ€™t begin to tell you how much pleasure it gives me to perform the wedding ceremony for Jacob and Serena. You all know weâ€™d been told Captain Jacob Rohmeier had perished near the end of the war. Iâ€™m so glad to tell you, Jacob is here tonight to disprove any nasty rumors of his untimely death. We thank God!â€
As if planned, the congregation stood to their feet and clapped while Jacob walked with a limp and using a cane down the aisle to take his place beside the pastor. Levi followed and stood beside him.
Serena had laid into him that day she stormed into the house and insisted he stop feeling sorry for himself and give her the chance to reject him if she so chose. William hadnâ€™t heard, first hand, what all transpired between them, but by the time Serena finished with Jacob, his attitude had changed drastically. Now, a smile covered his face and didnâ€™t waver.
Janie began the walk up the aisle to take her place across from her husband. Then Serena appeared, dressed in a frilly white dress. Tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks even while her smile matched Jacobâ€™s. She placed her hand in his and stood close as they looked into each otherâ€™s eyes.
How long would their happiness last? Williamâ€™s chest felt tight. He recognized the miracle that had brought Jacob back from the dead. He was happy for them. For Levi and Janie, too. Sure, theyâ€™d lost their baby, but they had each other. So did Matthew and Emily, although they probably shouldâ€™ve waited until they were older to get married. He still didnâ€™t understand why Mama and Papa had let that happen. But they were together. Maybe thatâ€™s what mattered. They had each other even when the bad times came.
Once Papa told him God already had a wife picked out for him. Thatâ€™d been so long ago, heâ€™d almost forgotten. Obviously, God had forgotten too because he was still alone. Alone and empty.
â€œMay I introduce to you, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Rohmeier.â€ Pastor Altmanâ€™s smile stretched across his face almost as wide as the brideâ€™s and groomâ€™s. Jacob and Serena were married now. This was the happiest moment his family had experienced in a long time. But would it last?
Williamâ€™s discontent grew with his familyâ€™s happiness because he kept expecting something bad to happen. He had no purpose here. No reason for him to hang around when his three brothers seemed perfectly happy to stay and work the farm with Papa. He wasnâ€™t needed. His hand brushed against the folded letter in his pocket. Heâ€™d been offered a way out. Maybe after the New Year when the weather warmed. In March, if he still felt this way, he might go.
Emily and Matthewâ€™s baby was born early in February during a raging blizzard, almost a month early. Incredibly tiny and frail, he was a fighter who seemed determined to hang on to the thin thread of life. â€œHis name is David.â€ Emily looked up from the baby in her arms. â€œIt means dearly beloved, and thatâ€™s what he is.â€
Emily, her long curly hair caught back with a ribbon, rocked and sang to her baby for hours at a time. She looked like a little girl holding her favorite doll.
Watching her tore at Williamâ€™s emotions. Seeing the love and fear in Matthewâ€™s eyes when he looked at his wife and child convinced him he had to leave. Whether anyone else could see it or not, little David was growing weaker every day. Already that sick, little baby had wormed his way into all their hearts. He couldnâ€™t stay and watch another loved one die.
He slipped outside and opened the pages from Quinn Clearyâ€™s letter. A quick glance around assured him he was alone and he bent his head to read.
A lot of the fellows is going to Omaha hoping to get a job with the railroad. As soon as the weather breaks, I thought Iâ€™d head that way myself. Why donâ€™t you come, too? They say the pay is good, and they furnish board and eats. Sounds good to me. Meet me in Omaha in March if youâ€™re interested.
William folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. Again he saw Emily and Matthew holding their tiny baby, hoping he would live while day after day he lost strength. Tears stung his eyes, and he brushed them away. Staying here made him weak. He didnâ€™t want to witness his little brotherâ€™s anguish when his and Emilyâ€™s child died. Heâ€™d break down for sure.
Unable to face his family, William waited until the end of February during an unseasonably warm spell, then packed a change of clothes, several sets of underwear and socks into his backpack and made up his bedroll. He wrote a note asking his family not to worry about him and promised to write as soon as he got settled. Almost as an afterthought he picked up the Bible Jacob had given him for his twelfth birthday and slipped it into his backpack.
That night, as soon as he knew everyone slept he pinned the note to his pillow and slipped away into the night like the coward he figured he was.
William set up camp on the outskirts of the booming town of Omaha, Nebraska, in early March. The streets were crowded with menâ€”ex-soldiers from both sides, German and Irish immigrants, freed slaves, drifters, and drunksâ€”all seeking a new beginning.
He spent the next few days talking to the men he met on the streets and the dozens camped around him. On the evening of the third day after his arrival, he finished his supper of beans and cornbread and settled down for a final cup of coffee.
â€œWould ye be savinâ€™ a cup of that poison fer a friend?â€ A familiar voice boomed out of the semi-darkness behind him.
â€œQuinn Cleary.â€ William set his cup down and stood, turning to face his friend. â€œI was beginning to think a jealous husband had shot you.â€
â€œDid ye now?â€ An impish grin crossed the wiry little Irishmanâ€™s good-looking face. His blue eyes twinkled.
William laughed. â€œAre you going to stand there, or will you join me for a cup of the best coffee this side of the Mississippi?â€
â€œWhen ye put it that a-way, how can I be refusing your hospitality?â€ Quinn dropped his bedroll and backpack on the ground and clasped Williamâ€™s hand in a hearty handshake. â€œItâ€™s good to see ye again, Will.â€
â€œItâ€™s good to see you, Quinn. I only have the one cup. Hope you brought one with you.â€
â€œAye. Cup, plate, fork, knife, spoon. Everythinâ€™ a man would be needinâ€™ should his friend invite him to supper.â€
â€œItâ€™s only cornbread and beans, but thereâ€™s plenty left. Help yourself.â€
Quinn soon hunkered across the campfire from William with a full plate of beans and cornbread. As soon as he finished eating, he filled his tin cup with the strong black coffee. â€œHow long have ye been here, Will?â€
William poured himself another cup of coffee before again settling down across from Quinn. â€œThe Union Pacific bigwigs are, for the most part, as crooked as a barrel of snakes. Thomas Durant appointed his buddy, Colonel Silas Seymour, chief engineer in December of â€™64. It was June of â€™65 before his crew laid their first rail. By October they had only completed fifteen miles of track. Thatâ€™s when Durant visited Omaha with General Sherman.â€
â€œGeneral William Tecumseh Sherman?â€
â€œThe one and only. They had a jolly timeâ€”eating and drinking. Between drinks the General suggested Durant replace Seymour with General Grenville Dodge.â€
Quinn pushed his hat to the back of his head and whistled softly. â€œI thought the General was fightinâ€™ the savages out West.â€
â€œHe was. Is. But, not for much longer. Heâ€™s supposed to be here in May to take over the building of the railroad.â€
â€œGeneral Dodge is a good man.â€
William nodded his agreement. â€œThey say the Casement brothers who have the track-laying contract are, too. They started hiring today.â€
â€œYe been in to see â€™em yet?â€
â€œI was waiting for you.â€
Quinn took his hat off and combed his fingers through his thick, curly, black hair. â€œI need to find a place to toss down me bedroll. Want to be fresh as a daisy in the morninâ€™ when we meet the brothers.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve found it. Pick your spot.â€
Although it was early when William and Quinn arrived at the Casement brothersâ€™ headquarters, a long line of job seekers had already formed. It was almost noon before they were finally ushered inside the unpainted building.
â€œIâ€™m John Casement.â€ The man who stood to shake their hands made Quinn, at only five-feet-seven, look tall. William, an inch shy of six feet, towered over the short man.
â€œThis is my brother Daniel.â€ The younger brother couldnâ€™t have been more than five feet. Williamâ€™s first impression was that the Casement brothers could never command enough respect from their men to build anything, but he needed a job and hoped for the best.
â€œMay I introduce you to two of our major stockholders, Mr. Thomas Atwood and Mr. Reed Clark?â€ William had been aware of the two well-dressed gentlemen sitting quietly to one side, but had been so taken aback by the Casement brothersâ€™ diminutive appearance that heâ€™d paid them scant attention. Now the name Reed Clark caught his attention.
The man who stood seemed little different from Williamâ€™s memory of five years ago. Then William saw that Mr. Clarkâ€™s left jacket sleeve hung empty. He quickly averted his gaze as he shook the manâ€™s hand.
A glint of humor touched Clarkâ€™s warm gray eyes. â€œItâ€™s all right, William. The good Lord remembered I was right handed.â€
William felt his face grow warm. Amputation had been part of every battleâ€”the screams of the men as the doctors mutilated their bodies in an attempt to save their lives. The first timeâ€”at Shilohâ€”it had made him sick. By Bentonville, it had become routine, if still distasteful. It hadnâ€™t bothered him so much then, why did it bother him now?
He kept his gaze on Reed Clarkâ€™s face, carefully avoiding the empty sleeve, as he shook his hand. â€œMr. Clark, Iâ€™m surprised you remember me.â€
â€œItâ€™s unlikely I could forget the Rohmeiers or what your parents did for me and my wife. Elaine and I have shared several letters with Gus and Hannah since that night they led us to the Lord.â€ He cleared his throat. â€œWe were sorry to hear about Jacob. He was a fine young man.â€
William smiled. â€œThereâ€™s a happy ending to that story you must not have heard yet. My brotherâ€™s demise was falsely reported. He rode home in time for Christmas and is now happily married to his childhood sweetheart.â€
â€œHow wonderful to hear that! God is so good!â€ Reedâ€™s smile reflected his sincerity as he let Williamâ€™s hand go and turned to his companion. â€œWilliam Rohmeier, I would like you to meet a dear friend of mine. This is Mr. Thomas Atwood, a Christian brother.â€
Thomas Atwood was tall and well built. Although he didnâ€™t look much over thirty years old, he had silver hair and a neatly trimmed silver beard in sharp contrast to his dark brown eyes and youthful face. His handshake was firm. â€œIâ€™m pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Rohmeier. Reed speaks highly of your family and the part they played in his salvation.â€
â€œThank you. Iâ€™m pleased to meet you, too.â€ William murmured his reply then stepped aside while the two men turned their attention to Quinn before turning to the Casement brothers.
â€œYouâ€™ve been at this for hours, Jack.â€ Thomas smiled at the elder brother. â€œIt must be about time to eat. Why donâ€™t we take a break and start again at one or one-thirty?â€
â€œPerhaps we should.â€ The little man stretched. â€œDan and I have some business to attend to. Weâ€™ll meet you back here in an hour.â€
â€œAre you sure you donâ€™t want to join us?â€
â€œAnother time perhaps. Mr. Rohmeier, Mr. Cleary, thank you for coming in.â€ He picked up his hat and joined his younger brother at the door.
William and Quinn exchanged glances. â€œBefore ye leave, Mr. Casement, me friend and me self would like to be knowinâ€™ if we have jobs.â€
â€œMost certainly, Mr. Cleary. Report to me here in two weeks. We will start building as soon as General Dodge arrives.â€ He followed his brother out the door.
â€œA new job calls for a celebration.â€ Reed Clark smiled. â€œWhy donâ€™t you and your friend join us for lunch, William?â€
Before William had a chance to reply, Quinn asked, â€œAnd who would be payinâ€™ for this dinner, Mr. Clark?â€
â€œYou would be my guest, Mr. Cleary.â€
Quinn slapped William on the shoulder. â€œNow, we couldnâ€™t be refusinâ€™ such an offer, could we, Will?â€
William thought of hunkering by the campfire with still another plate of beans. â€œNo, I guess we couldnâ€™t. Mr. Clark, we appreciate your hospitality more than you know.â€
Sitting at a table covered in pristine white linen, William was painfully aware of his appearance. Although he and Quinn were clean, they both wore denim pants, a work shirt, and sturdy high top shoes. The other dinersâ€”mostly men in expensive suitsâ€”appeared to be prosperous business men. He hadnâ€™t expected Reed Clark and his friend to take them to the best restaurant in Omaha.
Quinn, unabashed by his surroundings, studied the menu. Nothing bothered Quinn. Not mud. Or blood. Or dead soldiers lying so thick on the ground after a battle that you could walk across the field without ever putting your feet on the ground. Quinn wasnâ€™t intimidated by a fancy restaurant filled with big wigs, so neither would he be. Putting his discomfort aside, William opened his own menu.
While they waited for their order, Reed asked about his family.
â€œYes, sir, they are all doing fine now. Especially since Jacob returned. Having him home again is a real bright spot in all our lives.â€
He answered as briefly as possible, not wanting to think about Mama and Papa probably missing him by now. Or Levi and Janie, who might never have a family. Or Matthew and Emily. Surely little David was dead. They would be mourning their loss, while at the same time they would be praising God for His goodness and mercy. Heâ€™d never understand them.
The last time he saw Janie, sheâ€™d said God had given her so much. Oh, Janie! He felt a tug at his heart, quickly replaced by anger because of all sheâ€™d lost in such a short time.
â€œWilliam, would you like to say grace?â€ Mr. Atwoodâ€™s request brought William to the realization that a gold-rimmed china plate holding a steaming steak, fried potatoes, and hot biscuits had been placed in front of him.
He lifted his gaze to the man across from him. â€œIf youâ€™d like to pray, please go ahead. You might as well know, you and Mr. Clark both, I donâ€™t hold much store in God anymore.â€
Thomasâ€™s handsome face held no expression except for a momentary flash of pain in his dark eyes. He nodded. â€œI understand. I hope you wonâ€™t be offended when I pray.â€
William bowed his head with the others as Thomas offered a simple prayer of thanksgiving for the food.
He didnâ€™t say much during the meal, but Quinn talked enough for both of them. Later, when they parted company in front of the restaurant, the two men wished William and Quinn well on their new job.
â€œWe both live in New York City, but weâ€™ll be back from time to time,â€ Reed said. â€œWhen you write to your parents, please send them my love.â€
â€œI will,â€ William promised. â€œThank you.â€
That night he wrote to Mama and Papa. He told them where he was, that heâ€™d found Quinn, and the two of them would be starting work on the Union Pacific as soon as General Dodge arrived. He asked them not to worry about him. The last thing before he signed his name, he told them heâ€™d met and had dinner with Reed Clark and Mr. Thomas Atwood, a friend of the Clarks from New York City.
Standing in front of the restaurant, Thomas and Reed watched the two young men walk away. â€œThat young man is running from God,â€ Thomas said.
They didnâ€™t see young Rohmeier or his friend during the remainder of their visit, but Thomas couldnâ€™t put the young man from his mind. On the long trip back to New York City, Reed spoke often of Gus and Hannah Rohmeier and their sons.
He told of how heâ€™d met the family one evening in Iowa City, Iowa. â€œI was eating dinner with Elaine when a family with four boys and one little girl came in. I didnâ€™t pay special attention to them until the father began to pray over their meal.â€ He looked away as if staring into the past. â€œA simple prayer, but so heartfelt as if he were talking to a friend.â€
â€œNo doubt he was.â€ Thomas smiled.
â€œYes,â€ Reed agreed. â€œAt the time I didnâ€™t understand. I only knew he prayed just like my grandfather had. I had to know more. Iâ€™d been discontent since my fatherâ€™s death a few months before. I knew my grandparents were different. Something set them apart from other people. Now here was a family who had the same thing. I had to know what it was.â€
â€œSo, you approached the man?â€ Admiration for his friend warmed Thomasâ€™s heart. Only a brave man would ask a stranger something so personal.
Reed nodded with a smile. â€œI took a chance that Gus would think me a crazy man and have me arrested, but I invited the Rohmeier family to our room for dinner that evening. I was so afraid they wouldnâ€™t come, but they did.â€
â€œAnd led you to the Lord.â€
â€œYes, both Elaine and I knelt in our hotel room and gave our lives to our heavenly Father.â€ A bright smile lit his face. â€œWeâ€™ve lived for Him ever since and weâ€™ve never forgotten the Rohmeiers. Maybe the time has come to return that favor. Maybe God sent William here for a purpose more important than a job.â€
Thomas nodded as he thought of the young man who seemed so bitter. â€œYou may be right.â€
â€œHis mother, Hannah, writes to Elaine. She says Hannah has been concerned about William for some time,â€ Reed told Thomas. â€œShe says he never expressed any grief over Jacobâ€™s death. He refused, in fact, to even speak of his brother. Iâ€™m so thankful the family was given this second chance with their son.â€
â€œYes, what a remarkable thing to have happen.â€ Thomas thought of his wife who had lost most of her family during the potato famine in Ireland. â€œRose says some things are too painful to talk about. Maybe Jacobâ€™s return will help William return to his beliefs.â€
â€œNo doubt that is true,â€ Reed agreed.
As the train rolled on into the night, Reed moved across the aisle and settled down to sleep. Thomas looked out the window until total darkness enveloped the train. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. Tomorrow night he would be home. He smiled to himself as he ran a hand over his beard. Rose didnâ€™t care for the beard. He only let it grow when he was away from her. He would shave in the morning.
He tried to sleep, but couldnâ€™t. Tomorrow at this time heâ€™d be home with his family. At home with his wife. He remembered the first time he saw Rose Oâ€™Brien. It had been on their wedding day nearly fourteen years ago. Heâ€™d loved her then and he loved her more with each passing day.
Rose always said, â€œThe prayer of a righteous man, or woman, availeth much.â€ When everyone else had given up on him, his wifeâ€™s prayers had brought him out of the dark pit of sin. He would tell Rose and his father about William Rohmeier. They would join their prayers to those of the Rohmeiers and the Clarks. Together theyâ€™d pray that young man to his knees. He might as well begin right now. Bowing his head, Thomas offered a fervent prayer for the young man with the cold blue eyes and the empty place in his heart. Then, closing his eyes, he slept.
Late the next evening Thomas let himself into the large house he shared with his wife, their eight children, and his father. Leaving his luggage beside the front door, he crept up the stairs. A narrow strip of light outlined the bedroom door. Thomas put his hand on the knob and pushed the door the rest of the way open. The first thing he saw was Rose sitting in her favorite chair reading her Bible.
He stood inside the door for a moment watching her before she looked up and saw him. Her eyes brightened, as a smile lifted the corners of her full lips. â€œThomas, asthore, youâ€™re home.â€
Beloved. Her special word for him and, as always, he felt unworthy. They met in the middle of the large room He caught her in his arms and carried her back to the chair sheâ€™d just vacated, taking her place, and settling her on his lap. â€œNow Iâ€™m home,â€ he whispered holding her close and kissing her soft, warm lips.
Later, they talked about his trip and about the family. â€œIt all turned out fine,â€ Rose said. â€œBut one rather frightening thing did happen with Patrick while you were gone.â€
Thomas thought of the time their third born fashioned a pair of wings and jumped from the roof of the carriage house. â€œHe didnâ€™t try to fly again, did he?â€
She laughed. â€œNo, Patrick is almost eleven now. He knows he canâ€™t fly. This time he decided to walk a tight rope. He persuaded Tommy and Dennis to help him tie a rope between two trees.â€
â€œHow far off the ground?â€
â€œOnly about ten feet. He wanted it higher, but Tommy refused.â€
Thomas sighed. â€œWhat did he break?â€
â€œHis arm, but donâ€™t worry, asthore. It wasnâ€™t a serious break. The cast comes off tomorrow.â€
â€œPatrick needs more space, Rose. All the boys do. If it wasnâ€™t for Father, Iâ€™d move you all back to Denver.â€
She snuggled against him and he held her close. She smelled like roses.
He breathed deeply. â€œIâ€™ve been gone almost two months. Donâ€™t you think we should go to bed?â€
She drew back and looked at him with a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes. When she shook her hair her copper curls bounced. â€œItâ€™s a wicked man you are, Thomas Josiah Atwood.â€
A slow grin deepened the dimples in his cheeks. â€œYou bring out the beast in me.â€
â€œNo, avourneen. The beast is dead.â€
Her voice was light and no shadow dimmed her sparkling eyes. But for a moment he saw her beautiful face bleeding. His heart ached with the memory. Rose had long ago forgiven him, but he could never forgive himself. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him tight.
â€œYou were worth it all.â€
Tears came to his eyes as he thought of how close he had come to losing her. To losing his family. â€œI want to look in on the children before we go to bed, sweetheart.â€
She slipped from his lap and took his hand in hers. Together they walked into the hall. The room nearest theirs belonged to six-year-old Timothy and four-year-old Sean. â€œRemember how upset Timmy was the first time he saw Sean?â€ Rose whispered. â€œHe wanted us to take him back and get a puppy.â€
Thomas chuckled. â€œHe wouldnâ€™t trade him for a puppy now.â€
He kissed the two small, sleeping boys before they moved away from the bed. When they were in the hall, Rose moved to the next door, and they crept to the first small bed. Seven-year-old Matthew slept light. He stirred slightly when Thomas bent and kissed his smooth cheek. Dennis, the older by eighteen months, slept in the second bed. He always fell asleep instantly, rarely changing positions during the night. Thomas ruffled his dark hair before kissing him. He didnâ€™t move. They tip-toed from the room.
The third bedroom belonged to Patrick and Tommy. Although Patrick was a sound sleeper, he rolled and tossed constantly.
â€œIsnâ€™t he likely to re-injure his arm?â€ Thomas whispered, as Patrick flopped over.
Rose straightened the tangle of bedclothes. â€œThe doctor says not.â€
Twelve-year-old Tommy woke when Thomas put a gentle hand on the mass of black ringlets that covered his well-shaped head. â€œDad youâ€™re home. How was your trip?â€
â€œMy trip was fine, but Iâ€™m glad to be home.â€ Thomas sat on the edge of the bed as Tommy sat up. â€œAre you too old to let your old man hug you?â€
â€œI guess not yet.â€ Tommy grinned a bit sheepishly and leaned into his fatherâ€™s outstretched arms. â€œIâ€™m glad youâ€™re home, Dad. I missed you.â€
Thomas thought of the time when he had despaired of ever winning the love of his first-born son. Then, after his conversion four years ago, as Tommy saw the change in his father, heâ€™d gradually come to trust him. Love had followed.
As he felt Tommyâ€™s arms close around his neck, he looked over the top of his head at Rose and saw the reflection of his happiness in her face. It had been a battle, but through the grace of God they had emerged victorious.
He talked to Tommy for a few minutes before they moved to the girlsâ€™ room. He stood for some time looking down at thirteen-year-old Anne, his eldest.
Caught up in that period between child and young woman, Anne was tall and slender with a wealth of dark brown hair. She had been a laughing little girl until they moved from Denver to Central City. Then everything had changed. He knew if her long-lashed eyes opened he would see pain and distrust lurking in their brown depths. The sins of the father are visited on his children. The thought flashed through his mind, accompanied by a sudden tightness in his throat. His sin had destroyed something very special in Anne.
Rose, knowing his thought, slipped her hand into his. Four years ago in one earth rending explosion, Thomasâ€™s mine, and his life, had come crashing down around his head. Trapped beneath the earthâ€”unable to save himselfâ€”heâ€™d begged God to save his life. A few days after his rescue from the Lucky Seven heâ€™d asked Jesus Christ to save his soul.
Since his conversion, heâ€™d regained the love and trust of his family. Except for Anne. He doubted his only daughter would ever love or trust him again. But Rose didnâ€™t doubt. The first nine years of her life, Anne adored her father. Rose said she was sure she still did.
â€œShe will come back to you someday, asthore.â€ Roseâ€™s whisper broke the heart-breaking stillness.
Thomas stroked the long, thick braid of Anneâ€™s dark hair. â€œHow can she, Rose? How can she ever forgive what I did to you and to her? Itâ€™s impossible.â€
â€œWith God nothing is impossible,â€ Rose murmured.
They moved to the second bed where Colleen, the only child of Thomasâ€™s sister Susannah, and Roseâ€™s brother, Rory, lay sleeping. Only one year older than Anne, sheâ€™d lived with the Atwoods since shortly after her motherâ€™s death eight years ago. Her father, a United States Marshal, had remained in Denver.
â€œShe looks very much as you did the first time I saw you.â€ Thomas laid his hand on the copper ringlets that covered Colleenâ€™s pillow.
â€œExcept sheâ€™s taller,â€ Rose said.
Thomas chuckled. Almost everyone was taller than Rose who had to stretch to pass the five foot mark. He leaned down to kiss Colleen then after one final glance at Anne, they slipped from the room.
â€œFatherâ€™s light is on,â€ Rose observed. â€œHe sometimes has trouble sleeping.â€
Thomas tapped lightly on the door before they entered his fatherâ€™s room. Matthias was propped up in his bed. He looked up and pushed his book to one side. â€œThomas, son, when did you arrive home?â€
â€œAbout half an hour ago.â€ He crossed the room to embrace his father. The old man felt so frail in his arms. â€œHow have you been, Father?â€
â€œI cannot complain.â€ Matthias extended his claw-like hand to Rose. She took it in her small, soft hand. A deep love existed between her and her father-in-law, something that hadnâ€™t always been so. Heâ€™d rejected Thomasâ€™s Irish wife in the beginning, deepening an already wide chasm between himself and his only son. By the grace of God, and through Roseâ€™s prayers, that gulf had been closed.
â€œHow was your trip, son?â€
Thomas sat in the chair while Rose, still holding Matthiasâ€™s hand in hers, perched on the edge of the bed. For several minutes, Thomas talked about Omaha and the railroad. Finally, he said, â€œI do have something else I want to discuss with you and Rose, but I know youâ€™re tired. It can wait until morning.â€
â€œNonsense,â€ Matthias protested. â€œTomorrow I may be with your mother in paradise.â€
Thomas smiled and patted the old manâ€™s bony shoulder. â€œAll right. Iâ€™ll tell you tonight. I met a young man who fought in the war. Heâ€™s not yet twenty years old, but he has experienced things we cannot even imagine. Heâ€™s very bitter.â€ He told Matthias and Rose all he knew of William Rohmeier and his family. â€œReed and Elaine are praying for him, as are his family and probably many others. But I have such a burden for him, Father.â€
â€œAnd you wish us to join you in praying for this boyâ€™s salvation?â€ Matthias reached his hand toward his son. â€œThen, come. We will lift this young man up to our Lord.â€
Rose and Thomas slipped to their knees beside the bed. Rose quoted a verse from Second Peter. â€œâ€™The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some people count slackness; but is longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.â€™â€
Matthiasâ€™s voice rang out as strong and sure as it had all the years heâ€™d stood behind the pulpit. â€œâ€˜And this is the confidence we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us. And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know we have the petitions we desired of him.â€™â€
Thomas claimed a third promise from the book of Romans. â€œâ€™He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.â€
They joined hands, bowed their heads, and offered up the first of the many prayers they promised to send heavenward on behalf of William Rohmeier.
The day before William began work laying track he received a letter from his parents. Little David had died the day after he left home and had been buried in the churchyard beside his grandmother.
We miss his sweet presence, but are finding our Lord sufficient in this time of sorrow.
â€˜For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.â€™
Then he wrote,
Jacob, Levi, Matthew, and me, we have been talking about going to some new place, maybe in the West and making a new start. We pray for you every day, my son. God has given us the assurance that He holds you safely in the palm of His hand.
â€œSafely in the palm of His hand?â€ William echoed Gusâ€™s words with a snort. â€œAs safely as He held little David, Papa? Is that how safely your God holds me?â€
He crumpled the letter and threw it into the fire refusing to cry for the tiny nephew heâ€™d barely met but who had left another hole in his heart.
William woke from a dreamless sleep to the tune of an annoying bell that wouldnâ€™t stop. He shoved from his cot in the sleeping car, picking his way around grumbling men also having been pulled from their rest. He stepped outside the work train, a rolling town pushed by an Iron Horse, consisted of about a dozen cars. One was filled with tools, another outfitted as a blacksmith shop, a third with rough dining tables, kitchen, and commissary. Others housed built-in bunks. At the end were several flatcars loaded with rails, spikes, fishplates, bolts, and other railroad building supplies. It was his home and workplace all rolled into one unit that moved with them down the track they laid each day.
Five thirty in the morning. He might as well be home building fence, riding herd on the cattle, or bringing in hay. Seems a man couldnâ€™t sleep in no matter where he worked. Other men stumbled outside past him.
Theyâ€™d reached the 100th Meridian on October 5th easily winning the race to continue building railroad to California. To celebrate their victory the Union Pacific bigwigs planned a grand excursion to the Nebraska plains. Invitations had already gone out to President Andrew Johnson, various members of his cabinet, all the members of Congress, foreign ambassadors, and numerous wealthy investors. Building a railroad seemed to be a big deal to a lot of people. Already, they were twenty-two miles west of the 100th and moving farther each day.
At the sound of another bell William moved with the rest to crowd into the dining car for breakfast. By 6:30 they finished eating and headed back outside.
The workday began when six-man crews piled lightweight carts with 16 rails plus the proper number of spikes, bolts, and rail couplings called fishplates. Then, in series, the carts were hauled by running horses to the very end of the last pair of rails spiked down.
Except for an hour off at noon for lunch they worked steadily until sundown.
William worked as a spiker. Every day he swung a maul. Three strokes to the spike, ten spikes to the rail, four hundred rails to the mile. They were paid two dollars a day. Three if they could lay a mile and a half. And four dollars if they could advance the track two miles in one day.
The work was hard, but William was no stranger to hard work, and he welcomed the mindless repetition. He hadnâ€™t the energy left to think by dayâ€™s end, and he blanked out the specters of the past while he worked.
Quinn Cleary was an iron man; he helped unload the rails. After the rail was dropped in place the gaugers, with their notched wooden gauges, spaced each pair of rails precisely four feet eight and one half inches apart, and the spike men began swinging their mules.
â€œThe nabobs have arrived,â€ Quinn told William, as he helped unload a cart full of track.
William had heard the train arrive, but paid scant attention to it. He raised his maul and brought it down on the spike. Rich investors didnâ€™t concern him.
â€œSome of the women is easy on the eyes,â€ Quinn announced on his next trip.
William ignored his friend. He wasnâ€™t interested in women. Especially not rich ones. He never missed a stroke as he spiked the rail in place. Some of Durantâ€™s entourage gathered round to watch him work. When he sensed their stares he felt like a freak in a side show, still he never slowed his pace or glanced in their direction. Finally they moved on, but several times during the day they returned to watch him. Each time, he ignored them.
In the middle of the afternoon, work was halted for a few minutes so the big wigs could pose for a photograph. The day ended at dusk. William was returning his maul to the supply car when Jack Casement approached him. â€œRohmeier, Mr. Thomas Atwood has asked you to join him for supper. I believe you met Mr. Atwood when you signed on.â€
â€œYes, I met Mr. Atwood.â€ William placed his maul carefully on the flat car before turning to the little man. â€œTell him thank you, but I prefer to eat with the other men.â€
Casement put his hand on the younger manâ€™s arm. â€œI suggest you accept Mr. Atwoodâ€™s invitation.â€
â€œWilliamâ€™s eyes narrowed. â€œYou suggest, or you order?â€
â€œYou arenâ€™t in the army anymore, Rohmeier. I canâ€™t order you to do anything, however Thomas Atwood is a powerful man and a large investor. It would be in your best interest, as well as the railroadâ€™s, if you joined the Atwoods for the evening.â€ He dropped his hand from Williamâ€™s arm. â€œYou had best get cleaned up. Mr. and Mrs. Atwood are expecting you.â€
William had obeyed orders without question for three years. Suppressing the urge to salute, he looked down at General Casement. â€œYes, sir.â€
Casement smiled. â€œGood! If you play your cards right this evening could prove to be to your advantage.â€
â€œTell me about your family, William.â€
Theyâ€™d just finished a pleasant meal of lamb with green peas, roasted antelope, and Chinese duck in the privacy of the Atwoodâ€™s tent. Despite his resolve not to like them, William felt comfortable with Thomas and Rose and found himself relaxing for the first time in months.
â€œMy family?â€ He didnâ€™t want to talk about his family.
Rose smiled at him. â€œReed and Elaine Clark have told us so much about them. They sound like wonderful people. They must miss you terribly.â€
His hand tightened on his coffee cup. â€œI suppose they do,â€ he murmured.
â€œI understand your father and brothers raise beef?â€ Thomas commented as if trying to help loosen his tongue.
He nodded, but didnâ€™t speak. Thomas didnâ€™t seem to mind as he spoke again. â€œWe used to live in Colorado. Some of the finest cattle country in the nation is located in southeastern Colorado.â€
â€œIs that so?â€ William looked up with a glimmer of interest. He didnâ€™t mind talking about the cattle, and if Mrs. Atwood wanted to know about his family, heâ€™d tell her the story of how his father began raising cattle. â€œWe have almost a thousand head of cattle now, but it wasnâ€™t always that way.â€
When the Atwoods seemed interested, he continued. â€œPapa and Mama lived in a dugout when they first got married. They were young, and they didnâ€™t have much, so Papa went for supplies and brought home three cows, two for beef and one for milk. When the calves were born in the spring, Papa had his start.â€
â€œHow wonderful and such a blessing it must have been to see them prosper.â€ Rose smiled at him. â€œElaine says you have a Christian family. You are very fortunate.â€
William looked at the beautiful, little woman across the corner of the table from him and wondered what she knew about fortunate. She had soft hands, expensive clothing. Everything life had to offer had been given her on a silver platter. Pampered. Adored. Insulated by her husbandâ€™s money. She knew nothing of life. And even less of death.
Before he thought, he spoke, â€œFortunate? How do you define fortunate, Mrs. Atwood? I was taught that the definition is lucky.â€
â€œNo, William.â€ Roseâ€™s gentle smile moved from her full lips to her emerald green eyes. â€œI mean favored by Godâ€™s providence. I should have used the word blessed. You have been blessed with a Christian family. How fortunate you are for that.â€
Before William could erect the protective shield heâ€™d worn around his heart since the war, he saw Janieâ€™s dark, tear-filled eyes. He saw Emily rocking frail, dying little David. Then he saw Jacob struggling to walk across the room. The pain in his chest tore him apart.
Thomas and Rose exchanged glances. Thomas spoke. â€œWilliam, my sister, Susannah, was a radiant Christian. One beautiful March day she came to my office to witness to me of Godâ€™s love. I told her I didnâ€™t need God. That I could handle my own life. Five minutes later my beloved sister lay dead on a dusty street.
â€œShe had everything to live for. A husband who loved her. A little girl who needed her. Another baby due in only two months. Why did Susannah and her baby have to die? I couldnâ€™t answer that question then when I was an unbeliever. And I canâ€™t answer it now when I am a Christian. But I know something I couldnâ€™t even begin to understand when I walked in darkness, although my wife tried to tell me. Rachel won the victory. Death has no power over a believer.â€
A huge lump formed in Williamâ€™s throat. He wanted to get up and leave, but the pain in his chest spread paralyzing his arms and legs. â€œYou donâ€™t understand.â€
Two big tears rolled down Roseâ€™s cheeks. â€œWhat do we not understand, William?â€
William saw the sympathy in Roseâ€™s green eyes, but she couldnâ€™t understand. How could she when sheâ€™d never felt the pain? At first, he didnâ€™t realize heâ€™d started talking until he heard the words heâ€™d never spoken aloud to anyone else. â€œI should have been injured instead of Jacob. Heâ€™s a cripple now. He was too good for this to happen to him. Thinking he was dead almost tore my family up. It wouldâ€™ve been easier for Mama and Papa if it had been me.â€
â€œNo, William, your familyâ€™s grief would have been much deeper had they thought youâ€™d died instead of your brother. He was ready to go home to his heavenly Father. They wouldâ€™ve known theyâ€™d be reunited with Jacob someday. Had you died denying Godâ€™s existence, you wouldâ€™ve been lost.â€ Rose held a handkerchief to her eyes. â€œMy family died lost, William. I will never see them again.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t know.â€ William cried out. â€œYou donâ€™t know the things Iâ€™ve seen.â€
Why didnâ€™t he just get up and leave? What was it about this womanâ€™s soft voice that held him mesmerized in his chair?
â€œDo you think youâ€™re the only one who has seen death and suffering, lad?â€ Roseâ€™s eyes seemed to burn with an inner fire. â€œWhen I was a little girl in Ireland, the potato crop failed and a terrible famine came to my country. More than a million people died of starvation and disease. When families grew too weak to bury their dead the stench of rotting flesh hung heavy over the land.â€
William turned from the horror of Roseâ€™s story even as he sat bound by what she had to say. He didnâ€™t want to know sheâ€™d gone to work in the kitchen of a rich landowner when she was only eleven. Just Ingridâ€™s age. He didnâ€™t want to visualize the picture she painted with her words. He couldnâ€™t bear to walk down a dusty road with her on a beautiful spring day and see the beggars at the side of the road reaching out, begging for the small pack of food she carried to her mother and sisters. He cringed from her voice when she took him inside the small mud hut where her mother and sisters lay dead, rats crawling over them, devouring their flesh. He didnâ€™t want to see the things Rose had seen or feel the agony Rose had felt, yet he couldnâ€™t turn away.
Rose concluded, â€œI felt such guilt because my life had been spared when so many died.â€
He pushed his chair back and stumbled to his feet as soon as her voice stopped. â€œI must go. Thank you for inviting me to supper.â€
Rose reached out to him one more time. â€œWhen I gave my life to Jesus, He took away all my pain and guilt. Heâ€™s standing, knocking at the door of your heart, William. You have only to invite Him in.â€
He looked down at her small hands and saw the scars there. Jesus had nail-scarred hands. He felt strangely drawn toâ€”what? He wasnâ€™t sure. â€œNo, I canâ€™t. I donâ€™t believe anymore.â€
He turned and almost ran out of the tent.
Rose collapsed into Thomasâ€™s arms. â€œI frightened him away, Thomas.â€
â€œNo, Rose, you didnâ€™t frighten him.â€ He stroked her hair. â€œHeâ€™s running from God, sweetheart. Not from you.â€
â€œI shouldnâ€™t have pushed him. I shouldâ€™ve waited. Gone slower. But his eyes were so lonely. So lost. I wanted so badly to reach him.â€
â€œI know, sweetheart.â€ Thomas held Rose while she cried. â€œIâ€™m sorry. I shouldnâ€™t have brought you here. We shouldâ€™ve stayed in New York.â€ He rested his cheek against her shiny auburn curls. â€œI canâ€™t bear to see you hurt.â€
â€œNo.â€ Rose pulled away from her husband. â€œIâ€™m all right. Itâ€™s just, thereâ€™s been so much. Those last weeks before Fatherâ€™s death I questioned God, Thomas. Heâ€™d been a good and faithful servant. I couldnâ€™t understand why he had to suffer so.â€
â€œHow unsearchable are His judgements,â€ Thomas quoted. â€œFather never complained. He never questioned.â€
â€œI know and tonight when you told William about Susannah, I realized that I allow myself to become so bogged down in the earthly that I forget the heavenly. Father was wiser than I, he never took his eyes off his Savior. The cross has always been my beacon, Thomas. When I take my eyes from the sacrifice Christ made there I stumble.â€
Thomas drew her nearer. â€œYou may stumble, my darling, but you never fall.â€
â€œI havenâ€™t yet, but I could, Thomas.â€
â€œIf you do youâ€™ll get up, brush yourself off, and go on. Remember what Jesus said: â€˜My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.â€™ Nothing on this earth can separate you from the love of God, Rose.â€
â€œNot if I donâ€™t let it.â€ Rose remembered the times her love for Thomas had threatened her relationship with her Savior. Prayer, Bible study, and the fellowship of other believers had given her the strength to overcome the snares of her enemy. Faith, like anything else, needed nourishment to keep it strong.
â€œWhat are you thinking, sweetheart?â€
â€œI was thinking how faith can wither and die if it isnâ€™t fed.â€ She snuggled closer. â€œAnd I was thinking how thankful I am to share that thought with you.â€
â€œNo more thankful than I am,â€ Thomas said.
Rose smiled. â€œLet us pray for William then go watch Doctor Durantâ€™s fireworks.â€
William had a restless night, his sleep disturbed by dreams of scarred hands reaching out to him. But the next morning at half past six he was on the job. Later, he caught a glimpse of Rose and Thomas Atwood standing beside the tracks watching him. He didnâ€™t acknowledge their presence, and they moved on. A few minutes later, he breathed a sigh of relief when the excursion train blew its whistle as it moved down the tracks toward Omaha. They were gone.
Late in November, with the blizzard season fast approaching, the Casement brothers ordered their men into winter headquarters 290 miles west of Omaha at the joining of the North and South Platte rivers. They named the place North Platte. When the two thousand man construction crew erected their tent city, the only permanent structure was the railroad station. Because North Platte was the end of the track, it immediately became the staging point for overland traffic to the West.
Within a few weeks a hundred buildings were erectedâ€”hotels, warehouses, saloons, and bordellos. Gamblers, saloonkeepers, con men, pips, and harlots who had preyed on soldiers during the Civil War found them again in North Platte. It was the first of the rip-roaring, godless towns that would follow the tracks westward and give birth to the phrase, â€œHell on Wheels.â€
William shared a tent with Quinn Cleary and two other men. Although they were in winter quarters they continued to lay track when the weather permitted. No matter how bad the weather, come Saturday night Quinn and most of the other men made the rounds of the saloons and brothels. Every Saturday night he urged William to come along.
â€œI know you donâ€™t care for the whiskey, man, but surely you like the ladies.â€
â€œThose women arenâ€™t ladies,â€ William muttered. â€œAnd I donâ€™t care for the pox.â€
â€œIs it the pox ye be worried about, lad, or are ye thinking ye might not be man enough for the job?â€ Quinn had been taking verbal swipes at Williamâ€™s manhood since the first time he refused to accompany him to a brothel.
â€œYou do what you want, Quinn.â€ William settled down on his bunk. â€œIâ€™m going to write some letters.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve turned into a real milksop since the war, Will.â€ Quinnâ€™s voice sounded light, but an angry gleam shone from his eyes. â€œDuring the war youâ€™d have gone with me in a minute if you couldâ€™ve given those two brothers of yours the slip. Well, look around, Will, your nursemaids arenâ€™t here. Youâ€™re supposed to be a man. You can do what you want.â€
There had been a time when William wouldâ€™ve gone to one of those women just to prove he was a man, but those days had ended sometime after Shiloh. â€œYouâ€™re right, Quinn. I am a man. I can do what I want. And I want to write letters. You go ahead. Have fun. Drink and fornicate to your heartâ€™s content. Tomorrow morning when you wake with empty pockets, a splitting head, and no memory of tonight, ask yourself if it was worth it.â€
â€œIf you were a man, youâ€™d be knowing it was worth it. But youâ€™re not a man, Will. Youâ€™re a priggish old maid.â€ Quinn grabbed his coat and stalked out.
A priggish old maid? William laughed. Heâ€™d heard Jacob and Levi called much worse during the war before they won the respect of their fellow soldiers.
He combed his fingers through his hair. A conversation he had with Papa came to his mind. It had been shortly after he began to keep company with Ingrid, a neighbor girl two years older than him. On one of those rare occasions when he worked alone with his father, Gus began talking about the sanctity of marriage.
â€œI know the Bible says a man should be faithful to his wife,â€ William had said. â€œBut, it doesnâ€™t say anything about a man without a wife havingâ€”â€ He felt his face grow warm under Papaâ€™s intense gaze. â€œWell, shoot, you know. Having fun.â€
â€œYou may call it fun, son, but God calls it fornication, and he does warn against it in the Bible. Several times He says fornicators shall not inherit His kingdom. God intended each man to have one wife and remain faithful to her as long as they both lived.â€
â€œIâ€™ll be faithful to my wife when I have one, but I donâ€™t have a wife.â€
Papaâ€™s blue eyes smiled at him. â€œYou do have a wife, William.â€
At first, he thought Papa was teasing, but his smile and eyes showed he was serious. Still, William protested. â€œI havenâ€™t got a wife.â€
â€œJa! You do.â€ Gus put a large hand on his sonâ€™s shoulder. â€œEver since our boys were born your mama and me have prayed for the girls who will become your wives. You may not have met her yet, but God has chosen a wife for you.â€
â€œGod has chosen a wife for me? Where is she? Who is she? When will I meet her? Shoot, what if sheâ€™s ugly?â€
Gus had laughed and held up a restraining hand to stop the flood of questions spilling from his lips. â€œWhen our heavenly Father is ready, you will meet her.â€
Heâ€™d been so excited at the thought of God choosing his future bride. That had been five years ago. At fifteen, he still believed God took a personal interest in his life. After Shiloh heâ€™d known better. Godâ€”if there was a Godâ€”didnâ€™t care.
Quinn didnâ€™t believe in the future. He said God was liable to reach down and smash a man anytime he took a fancy to. Before he was squashed like a bug, he said, he was going to drink as much whiskey and lay with as many women as he could. Quinn lived for today because he didnâ€™t believe there was a tomorrow.
Sometimes William envied his friendâ€™s devil-may-care attitude, but even though he now questioned Godâ€™s existence, the teachings of his Godly parents were too deeply ingrained to allow his acceptance of Quinnâ€™s philosophy.
He recalled the rest of that long-ago conversation with Papa.
â€œWhen you do finally meet this young woman God has chosen for you, you will expect her to have waited for you, is this not so?â€ Gus had asked.
If God had chosen her for him, she would surely wait. Wouldnâ€™t she? He looked at Gus with confused eyes. â€œI donâ€™t understand.â€
â€œYou expect your bride to be a virgin on your wedding night, is this not so?â€
â€œShoot, yes. She better not haveâ€”â€ Again color flooded his face. â€œI mean I wouldnâ€™t want her to have been with another man.â€
â€œMy son, you should require no more of her than you require of yourself. Is that not so?â€
â€œI guess not.â€ William had fallen silent as he thought about the girl God had chosen for him. â€œWhen I meet her will I know her right away, Papa?â€
Gus had smiled at him. â€œPerhaps. Perhaps not. But you will know her in time, William.â€
â€œWhen did you know Mama was the wife God had chosen for you, Papa?â€
Gus laughed and ruffled his sonâ€™s hair. â€œNot long after I first saw your mama, I knew.â€
William closed his mind to that long-ago conversation and reached for a tablet and a pencil. Even though he no longer believed God cared who he marriedâ€”or if he marriedâ€”he would wait a few more years. If his â€œwifeâ€ hadnâ€™t made an appearance by his twenty-third birthday â€¦ Well, heâ€™d cross that bridge when he came to it.
Pulling a pen knife from his pocket he sharpened his pencil and began to write.
Quinn Cleary left the Union Pacific for Nevada to seek his fortune after that first winter in North Platte. Hard telling where his restless spirit might lead him. William only hoped he wouldnâ€™t get into too much trouble.
William saw Thomas Atwood twice a year. Sometimes Reed Clark accompanied him, but more often he came alone. Neither man ever brought their wives with them. The wide-open Hell on Wheels towns that sprang up and followed the railroad were no place for a decent woman.
Always, Thomas and Reed sought William out. Although they never tried to force their beliefs on him, neither did they make any attempt to keep them hidden. One night after supper, as he listened to them talk, William allowed his thoughts to roam to his family. He didnâ€™t usually spend much time thinking of them, but that night in their tent, the two men sitting across from him talking of Godâ€™s goodness, reminding him of his brothers.
During their stay in the army, the other men had sought out Jacob and Levi for spiritual leadership. When there was no chaplain in their company, Jacob and Levi had conducted their own services. Jacob was a born leader who took to preaching with the same authority he led men into battle. His brotherâ€™s last sermon came from where he stood in the shade of a large oak tree beneath a sky of cloudless blue.
â€œIâ€™m going to die.â€ His bright blue eyes scanned the men whoâ€™d gathered to hear him. â€œAnd so are you. For it is appointed unto men once to die, and after death the judgement. Where will you spend eternity, brother? Heaven? Or hell? Itâ€™s your decision.â€
Heâ€™d paused to let his words sink in. William couldnâ€™t shut out the memory. â€œâ€˜For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish.â€™â€ Jacob had looked at each man, his gaze seeming to linger on William. â€œI made the decision to give my life to Jesus Christ years ago, now I have the assurance that when my work on this earth is done, there is a place waiting for me in heaven. Do you have that assurance? Have you made that decision? Have you invited Him into your life and into your heart?â€
Jacob had continued his sermon and given an altar call. At least two dozen men had gone forward. The following Friday Jacob had been injured. William thought heâ€™d died.
Heâ€™d never cried for his brother. Now lost in memories, he heard a soft voice whisper deep inside him, â€œJacobâ€™s work on earth was not finished, William. But if it had been, he would now be enjoying all that heaven has to offer. Someday he will, but for now thereâ€™s more for him to do.â€
Conviction filled Williamâ€™s heart. Heâ€™d turned his back on the very things Jacob lived for. For the first time, he knew God had truly held Jacob in the palm of his hand. In His nail-scarred hands. Even if He had taken him, he would have been in Christâ€™s hands. William felt the tears well up and with a strangled sob, bowed his head while the dam broke.
Thomas slipped from his chair and knelt on one side of William while Reed knelt on the other. With prayers going up in his behalf, William felt the touch of forgiveness in his heart and the tears heâ€™d denied for so long began to flow unashamedly, turning into a cleansing river of repentance.
When he finally looked up, a watery smile lit his face, and the three men rejoiced that a soul had been born into the kingdom of God.
Anne Atwood peered out the window of Durantâ€™s three-car special in an attempt to see something interesting. Today, May 10, 1869, she and her family were guests at a special ceremony celebrating the transcontinental railroadâ€™s birth. As she watched, the screech of brakes and a whistle announced their arrival. Despite the bright midmorning sunshine, from her position, she could barely see the other train facing them as it also came to a stop at the end of the rails.
â€œThank the good Lord weâ€™re finally here.â€ Mama Rose stood and shook out her skirts.
Father put his arm across her shoulders and pulled her close. â€œAdventure keeps you young, Rose.â€
â€œIf thatâ€™s the case I must be sixteen years old, the same as Anne.â€ Mama Rose grumbled, â€œBecause Iâ€™m sure this trip has taken at least twenty years off my life.â€
The Atwoods had come from Denver, where they now made their home, and boarded the Durant train at Cheyenne. Ann had been skeptical theyâ€™d ever get here. She turned to her cousin, Colleen. â€œThat angry mob in Wyoming almost didnâ€™t let us come.â€
â€œI know. That was frightening. Did you know after they switched the car onto a sidetrack, they chained the wheels to the rails?â€
â€œYes, but all they wanted was to be paid. It was only right.â€ Anneâ€™s indignant voice told her feelings.
â€œTrue, but they got their money. And they let us go none the worse.â€ Colleen spoke only loud enough to be heard past the voices of Anneâ€™s brothers and parents.
â€œCome, girls, letâ€™s get off this train.â€ Mama Rose motioned for them.
Colleen was first off with Anne close behind. Mama Rose followed them.
â€œWho is that?â€ Colleen stopped and whispered to Anne.
A muscular young giant in faded work clothes strode their way. He smiled and removed his hat as he approached them and the sun gleamed off his golden hair.
â€œAn angel, I think.â€ Anne didnâ€™t realize sheâ€™d spoken the words aloud until Colleen giggled.
Blushing, she lowered her eyelids, but couldnâ€™t resist peeking from beneath thick lashes at the golden vision who shook her fatherâ€™s hand then turned to speak to her mother. She scarcely listened to her father introduce the young man to her brothers and Colleen so closely did she watch his every move, especially his quick smile.
Then her father drew her forward with an arm around her shoulders. â€œWilliam, this is my daughter, Anne.â€
â€œIâ€™m pleased to meet you, Miss Atwood.â€ William took her hand in his, sending shivers racing up and down her spine. She raised her head and found herself gazing into the brightest blue eyes she had ever seen. Or did they only seem so against the burnished gold of his face? Oh my, but he was a handsome fellow.
Her ears filled with the sound of waves crashing against a stormy shore. Somewhere beyond the roar of the surf she heard Colleen giggle. Jerking her hand from Williamâ€™s grasp, she shrugged her fatherâ€™s arm from her shoulders and stepped back.
â€œFather says you will be traveling with us as far as Denver, Mr. Rohmeier.â€ She remembered her father saying a William Rohmeier would be traveling with them, but she hadnâ€™t expected him to look like this. Warmth flooded her cheeks as she wished she could recall her words.
â€œYes, I will.â€ Williamâ€™s strong, white teeth flashed in a sudden smile. â€œMy family bought a large ranch south of Denver a little over a year ago. Iâ€™m going home.â€
Anne opened her mouth to speak, although she had no idea what to say, which didnâ€™t matter since her thirteen-year-old brother, Patrick, clapped a hand on Williamâ€™s shoulder and pulled him away. â€œYouâ€™ve been working the railway line, is that right?â€
â€œYes, thatâ€™s true. Iâ€™m more than ready to see my Fatherâ€™s ranch now, though. Not to mention my parents, brothers, and little sister. Itâ€™s been a long time.â€ William stepped away, but turned so Ann was able to see his face as he talked.
She didnâ€™t listen but watched when he wasnâ€™t looking her way. The boys were such hogs, taking over Fatherâ€™s friend even though heâ€™d been talking to her. As if they needed to know about the railroad. And why would they be interested in ranching when theyâ€™d probably never get within a hundred yards of a cow? Of course, Patrick would probably like to. But he didnâ€™t have to talk Mr. Rohmeierâ€™s leg off. She turned away with a sniff of disdain for the male species in general.
â€œWe were running about five hundred head in Iowa, but Iâ€™m not sure what they have now theyâ€™ve moved to Colorado.â€ William tried to catch Anneâ€™s eye while he answered Patrickâ€™s question of how many cattle a ranch supported. The kid seemed to have basic knowledge about any subject brought up. If only his sister was more interested in talking to him, but every time he glanced her way she was talking to her cousin or looking somewhere else.
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