"How much farther, Daed?"
Gideon Fischer kept his eyes on his team's ears rather than answering his daughter immediately. At eight years old, Roseanna had taken on a burden much too heavy for her fragile shoulders, but hearing him admit that he wasn't sure where they were wouldn't help ease her mind. Clearing his throat, hoping a bit of cheer would be conveyed through his voice, he turned and smiled at the children.
"It can't be too far now." His smile faltered when he saw Lovinia lying on her cot in the back of the wagon, her face pale. If he didn't find a safe place for his family soon, his wife might not survive this illness. He forced the smile to return. "The folks at the store back there said that we'd find quite a few Amish families up ahead, along Weaver's Creek."
Three- year- old Ezra stepped over his sisters in the wagon bed to join Gideon on the seat. Grasping his son's trousers, Gideon helped him climb up. He smiled at six- year- old Sophia as Ezra's bare feet narrowly missed kicking her. She worried more than the others about her mother's illness. While Roseanna cared for the baby, Sophia had kept Ezra occupied on the long journey from Maryland. But her little face showed the strain of the last few months, with a pinching tension around her mouth that made her look much older than her years.
As Gideon urged the horses toward the crossroad ahead, he tucked Ezra close to his side. That must be the road the Englisch woman at the store in Farmerstown had spoken of. The ford through the wide, shallow creek was just as she had described, and the road on the other side would take them to their destination. After crossing the ford and making the turn onto the smaller road, Gideon halted the exhausted horses.
"Just resting Samson and Delilah for a few minutes," Gideon told the children.
"Down?" Ezra asked, peering up at him.
At the same time, Sophia stood and plucked his sleeve. "There are flowers in the meadow, Daed. Can we pick some?"
Gideon wrapped the reins around the brake handle. "Ja, for sure. All of you should get out and run for a little. I'll stay with Mamm and the baby."
While the children ran through the meadow, Gideon sat next to Lovinia in the wagon bed, eight- month- old Daniel on his lap. His dear wife smiled at him and patted his arm.
"We're almost there?" Her voice was nearly a whisper.
When he clasped her hand, it was hot and dry. "I hope so. The woman who gave me the directions wasn't very clear about exactly where the Amish community is."
"Once we stop traveling..." She coughed, turning on her side as he supported her.
When the coughing spell ended, he finished her sentence. "We'll find a place to stay and good food to eat. And then you'll get better."
The children's laughter made Lovinia smile. "You'll make a new home for us, husband."
He touched her cheek with the back of his hand. It was still hot. "We'll make a new home together, far from the war."
As Lovinia's eyes closed, Gideon stroked her cheek. How long could she go on like this, with every bit of her strength consumed by fever? Daniel fussed, rubbing his eyes. He was hungry again. They were all hungry.
Gideon faltered. The words wouldn't come. What could he pray that he hadn't already said?
During the weeks he had been held captive by the army, forced to transport their supplies in his wagon, he had worried about the family and the church he had left at home. Then when the company he had been with was defeated in their last battle and the few survivors taken captive by the opposing force, their commander had released him.
When he returned home, he found that his family had fared worse than he had imagined. While their neighbors had moved on, away from the constant presence of the armies and their insatiable appetites, Lovinia had stayed on the farm, unwilling to leave until she knew what had happened to him. But with only a few supplies overlooked by the hungry soldiers, she had succumbed to worry and illness. By the time he had arrived home after six weeks away, there was nothing to hold them there, even if the scavenging soldiers had overlooked something they could survive on. All that was left was the worn- out team and his wagon.
Even his flock had scattered, leaving him a minister without a church. The young Amish community he had worked for ten years to help establish was gone.