His room was still dark, with only the faintest dawn light invading when he heard his door close. Then he heard his mother's voice from the hall. "Is he in there?"
"Yes. It's not him. Now, stay up here, Helen, until I check it out. It's probably just one of the other kids."
"Oh, be careful."
Nat got out of bed and pulled on his robe. He met his mother in the hall. "What's up?"
"Someone's in the house. It's only five thirty."
"What's going on?" Nat heard his father ask someone downstairs. "Where's Ryan?"
"Libby!" Nat rushed down the stairs before his mother. His eyes adjusted quickly to the light of the dim living room lamp. Libby stood facing them. Two suitcases were by her, as well as the box of kittens. Asia stood guard beside them.
"I... if... maybe Nat will...." She ran to him, putting her head on his shoulder.
Nat led her to the couch and sat beside her, letting her cry against him.
"Is Ryan hurt? What happened?" his father insisted.
"He kicked me out," she sobbed against Nat's shoulder.
"What? Did you understand her, Nat."
Nat nodded. "Ryan's okay. He's just a jerk. I'll talk to him, Libby."
She sat up. "No, no. He hates me. He said... he said... oh, Nat, it was awful." She fell against him again to cry.
"Maybe some coffee and breakfast will help," said their mother, leaving for the kitchen.
"Now wait a minute, Libby. He can't just kick you out." Lloyd sat in the armchair near them. "You're his wife. He has no grounds to do any such thing. I told him...." His father stopped. "He can't divorce you. You haven't done anything wrong."
Libby just continued to cry, but his father's words told Nat that Ryan had already considered divorce before and vocally.
Lloyd stood. "I'm going to go talk to that man." He headed up the stairs to dress.
Libby slowly gained control as they sat alone. "Can I come live with you?"
Helen spoke from behind them. "If Ryan is really going to push this, you can come home, Libby."
"You... you don't like pets in the house."
Helen went to look at the kittens, crouching down to rub her finger along one little head. Then she stood and turned. "And you can raise those little baby cats here. They're not the same as those flea infested scrawny things you used to bring inside. It's only us... and Nat."
Libby looked up at Nat. "Will you stay here?"
Their father returned. "Have some breakfast first, Lloyd."
"No. I want to get this straightened out. If I have to call our lawyer I want to know now, and I want to know what kind of pathetic excuse he could possibly have for renouncing his vows."
Libby began trembling. "It's not your fault, Libby," Nat whispered.
"But you know...."
"It's not grounds for divorce."
"He says it is."
"What is?" Lloyd sat in the chair again. "Tell me what to expect. I can't help you if you don't." His voice was rough, but tender.
Libby closed her eyes and began crying as if he'd shouted. Lloyd shook his head in frustration. "Nat, what's going on."
Nat stroked Libby's hair. "You know Ryan will tell him now, Libby. You know I'm here for you. Remember what we talked about. You're forgiven." He looked at his father as he said this, hoping he'd get the hint and not explode in condemnation. "Remember we prayed about it. You're clean before God."
Libby became motionless. Then she sat up and looked at her father. "I know you won't love me anymore. I messed up."
"You had an affair?" he asked, clearly shocked.
"No!" Libby closed her eyes, and Nat rubbed her back. "In high school...."
Lloyd stood. "Way back then? He's divorcing you because he found out about something that happened before you were married?"
"Nat's right. He can't do that." He went toward the kitchen. Then the back door slammed.
Nat jumped up and ran to the back door and outside. He realized something was wrong as his bare feet touched the damp gravel, cutting into them. He reached the truck as his father began pulling away, pounding on the passenger window. The truck stopped, and the door unlocked. Nat pulled it open. "Can I come? I've got to get dressed first."
Lloyd nodded, and Nat ran inside and upstairs. He changed quickly without showering or attending the small cuts on his feet. He went downstairs.
"Don't worry, Lib. I'll straighten things out." He rushed out before she could question him further and jumped into the truck.
Lloyd did not look his way. He pulled out onto the road silently. The rising sun revealed the hardness of his features. Anger. They passed the far edge of their farm.
"Pull over. We need to talk before we get there."
His father pulled over and shifted to face him, waiting. He still seemed angry, and Nat hoped the anger was not at Libby.
"Dad, she was young and taken in by a seasonal harvest worker probably ten years her senior. If any of us had known...."
"That's what it's called, but she thought she was in love. She's carried the guilt a long time. It's part of the depression... that and the botched abortion."
Lloyd stared at him, and then he clutched the steering wheel and lowered his head to it as the anger drained away from him.
Nat couldn't determine what his father was thinking or feeling now. Tentatively he reached out to touch his back and felt him quiver. A muscle spasm? "She... she's lived with guilt and fear all these years... and the miscarriages. She knows it was wrong. Carried the pain all alone. I... Dad, I think now she finally understands what Christ did. Just this week we talked and prayed. Dad?"
Lloyd moved his head back and forth but didn't lift it.
"She needs to feel loved unconditionally right now. I don't think Ryan showed a lot of love for her... at least not recently."
Lloyd reached out a hand, and Nat took it, feeling his father's fingers wrap around his in a tight grip. They sat in silence for a few more minutes before Lloyd lifted his head, reached into his pocket, and then wiped his handkerchief across his face, all with his left hand. His right still clutched Nat's.
The sun sent a bright shaft of light into the truck, highlighting the silver in his father's hair. The creases around his eyes and on his cheeks from years of working in the wind and elements seemed more pronounced. He appeared much older and worn. "I love you, Dad," Nat said quietly.
Lloyd gave a slight nod and squeezed Nat's hand before releasing it to start the truck again.
They continued silently to Ryan's house. He met them at the door. "Here for the rest of her stuff?"
"The rest of her stuff includes half this house," Lloyd said in an even voice.
"She didn't tell you, did she? Your little girl is no angel, Lloyd Morris." Ryan pointed his finger almost into Lloyd's face. "She killed her own child, and now I've suffered the death of four of mine. I'm not putting up with her trash any more."
"My lawyer will make sure Libby gets her fair share of the property."
"Then everyone will know what she did. Wouldn't you rather keep this quiet? A private settlement."
Nat shook his head. "I don't even know you, Ryan. When my friend's wife suggested you might not be showing enough understanding, I stuck up for you. I couldn't believe you'd not love her as Christ loved the church. Didn't you once even think of being a missionary?"
Ryan's finger jerked to point at Nat. "You have no right to even say a word. You don't know what's been happening here. Your sister is a royal witch to live with."
"And I'm sure you're perfect," he said, pushing the finger out of his face.
"No, that's your job. I'm not taking her back, so you just better decide how much you care about your holy position in the community. Your decision. A quiet divorce and I'll send over her stuff, or a big fight, your name smeared, and no guarantee of getting a penny. Now get out."
Lloyd turned and left. Nat followed, and they got back into the truck. Lloyd shook his head as he pulled away and started down the road. "I know divorce is wrong, but God couldn't possibly want her to stay with that bastard, could He?"
Nat leaned back. His gut impulse was no. But he'd heard no reports of adultery, desertion, or abuse, and right now words were being thrown around in anger. He'd even said a few. He decided not to answer yet. It didn't look as if Libby had much of a choice in the matter anyway.
They pulled into the driveway, and Lloyd took his arm to stop Nat from leaving the truck. "Can you stay a few more days until this is settled?"
Nat hesitated and then remembered Libby begging to come with him. That would have to be resolved first. "A couple days. I have a sermon on Sunday."
In the house his mother and Libby sat at the breakfast table. His mother stood and brought them both coffee as they sat down. Libby looked nervously from one to the other. Lloyd glanced at Nat and then he reached for Libby's hand, resting on the table. "It'll be all right, Libby. You can live here with us."
Libby looked at Nat. "Didn't... didn't he say...."
"Yes, Libby," Lloyd said in a weary voice. "I know what happened all those years ago. I'm sorry you were too afraid to come to us. You're wrong. I'll always love my little girl."
Libby's tears began falling again. Lloyd reached for her and hugged her awkwardly. He moved his chair closer to her and ran his hand down her hair and back. Helen completed their breakfast, and Libby pulled away when she set the men's plate's before them. Then she sat down.
"Ryan insists on divorce?" Helen asked. "Won't he owe Libby quite a bit? They've been married almost twelve years."
"Laws are changing," Lloyd said, not meeting his wife's eyes. "I'm not sure. Libby will always have a place with us." He glanced at Nat, and Nat wondered if he had decided to keep it all a secret. Was his pride that important? Or was it that the money was unimportant, and silence would be best for Libby? He realized no matter how his father decided, there were good reasons for both approaches.
They lingered at the table, no one speaking much. A knock sounded, and then Jordan came in the back door. He hesitated. "I'm here to drive Nat back to Topeka."
"He's not going," Lloyd said.
"Really?" Jordan glanced around the table. "What's wrong then?"
Lloyd stood. "Let's go out to the office. You, too, Nat."
Nat gave Libby a quick hug and then followed them out.
"I started him in the far east today."
Lloyd held his hand to shade his eyes as he searched for the tractor. Nat saw it moving slowly in the distance. "Ryan's divorcing Libby. We can fight it or settle quietly."
"He has no grounds," Jordan pointed out.
"No. But Libby has a secret he'll smear her with if she fights it."
They reached the accessories barn, and Jordan leaned against it. "Which is?"
"She had an abortion when she was sixteen."
Jordan glanced from Lloyd to Nat. "I don't remember that. I was here."
"No one remembers it," Lloyd said in irritation. "She hid it from everyone, except maybe Nat."
"I didn't know until Monday. Seems Ryan's been looking for an excuse to do this, and her confession made it easy."
Lloyd agreed. "I've gotten after him a couple times." He looked toward the east. "Aaron hasn't said anything about Ryan breaking his vows -- anything we can use?"
"There's no hope of reconciliation?" Jordan looked at Nat. "Isn't there something you tell people?"
"When they listen to me. Ryan won't listen. Does he listen to Mike?"
"He hardly ever comes to church since his dad died."
"Then that's your answer. Libby can fight it and pray he changes, but that's about it."
"If she fights it, he'll tell the whole community," Lloyd protested.
Nat looked at his father. "True. But maybe we should let Libby make that decision. If we don't fight for her, she may think we don't really believe she's forgiven. This is a real hard thing for her. And you don't know what Ryan will say after it's all settled legally anyway. It'll eventually come out," Nat predicted.
"So we should take him for as much money as Libby can get? I thought you weren't in it for the money."
"I don't care beans for the money. My opinion is we let Libby know the options, and then support her decision."
"But Nat, they'll talk about her. Maybe there are so many abortions in the city, no one cares about one more, more or less...." Lloyd closed his eyes and then opened them. "It wasn't just another abortion, it was my grandchild."
"I know," Nat said quietly. "Libby knows that. It was her child." Nat led his father over to the picnic table in Jordan's yard. "I've dealt with this more than I care to. Our church supports a clinic to offer abortion alternatives, and I used to fill in once in a while as a counselor before the church grew too large." They sat at the table, Nat next to his father, and Jordan across from them. "Dad, most of those girls come in so scared they don't know up from down, and they think they have no other choice."
"Look, Nat, I already forgave her. You saw."
"I saw," he said softly. "But you're still hurting. So is she. Unfortunately I have also had to counsel many women, grandparents, fathers, even, who suffer from the guilt and pain following abortion."
"Fathers and Grandparents?" Jordan asked. "It's not their fault. They shouldn't have any guilt."
"It was that bastard's fault who raped Libby," Lloyd said. "Did she tell you his name?"
"She was raped?"
Nat barely glanced his way. "Seduced is a more accurate term. No, she didn't, but she said she hadn't seen him since. Dad, blame won't help right now. And yes, Jordan. Many times it's the father that takes the girl into the clinic, talks her into it. I'm not sure how Libby got to the clinic. She didn't go into details. I got the impression he'd already disappeared by that time."
Lloyd's elbows rested on the table, and he had his head in his hands.
Nat put his hand on his back. "There's a lot of guilt floating around with these things," Nat said, pretending to be addressing Jordan, but wanting his father to hear also. "The girl's parents feel guilty she couldn't come to them, or they said something they shouldn't have. Sometimes the baby's father, if he doesn't actively persuade the girl into an abortion, afraid of the responsibility doesn't offer the help the girl will need. There's a lot of guilt, a lot of anger, and a lot of pain, and the truth is there's nothing that can be done afterward, but trust the forgiveness we have in Christ. Dad, Libby's suffered four miscarriages. All of them your grandchildren just the same. All her children. Treat this abortion with the same grief. We can't change the past. Libby knows she was wrong, and she's paid for it. Now she has to know she's forgiven. Only we can reassure her by our actions of what God has declared to be true."
Lloyd took a deep breath. "We... we should pray."
Nat smiled. "Yes, Dad. You're right." Where else had he learned it. They joined hands and prayed for Libby, and that they might respond with wisdom to Ryan's challenge and with love to Libby's pain. And then Lloyd prayed for his wife.
Then they went to the house. Nat and Jordan took Libby to the office, while Lloyd stayed to talk to his wife. Nat sat with Libby on the couch, and Jordan took the chair behind his desk. Then Nat told her what Ryan had said. "Think about it, Libby. Whatever you want to do, that's what we'll do, but I have a feeling that you won't be able to trust Ryan to keep quiet after the settlement."
Libby stood. "I'm sure Dad would rather keep this all quiet."
"He doesn't want you hurt," Jordan said.
"He doesn't want to ruin his reputation. Ryan was right."
"Wait a minute," Jordan said. "This has nothing to do with reputation. If you want to make it public, then lets do it."
"You're ashamed of me! Dad's ashamed of me. He hates it that Nat likes a girl that just had a kid out of wedlock. I killed the kid, damn it. You all hate me."
Nat stood and held her. "We don't hate you. Remember Dad said he loves you. Remember? I know it's hard. We'll stand beside you no matter what you decide to do."
Libby pulled away. "No you won't. You're leaving."
Nat stared at her. Slowly he nodded. "But you can come visit, or call whenever you need to."
"If you loved me, you'd stay."
"If you loved me, you wouldn't ask me to. You know I have commitments."
"And no commitments here. Leave me alone. You make me sick." She ran from the office.
Nat plopped down on the couch, deciding to let her cool down before he talked to her again.
"Thought you were staying."
"Do you people never stop! I postponed my departure by a few days. Which reminds me...." Nat stood and took his ticket from his wallet. He called the airline, and arranged to take a Thursday flight. Then he called the church. "Hi, Lynette?"
"Oh, Nat. Where are you?"
"Still in Kansas. Looks like a delay. Is Paul there?"
"Just a minute." She put him on hold.
"Nat? You're still in Kansas? You're supposed to be in a jet crossing the Mississippi."
"Yeah, I know. I've got to stay a few more days. This thing with Libby just exploded. Her husband's divorcing her, and it looks like it's going to be messy."
"That could take months -- years."
"I know. I'm not staying that long. I'll be home for Sunday."
"Wish you'd called a few minutes earlier. A little girl just checked in here on her lunch hour and was bursting with joy that you'll be here instead of me tomorrow."
"Ah, no. Paul, what can I do? I can't catch that flight now, and Libby thinks I hate her because I won't move back here." He glanced at Jordan, not trying to hide his interest. "And Jordan just wants to manipulate me into staying also. Offered me a co-pastorship on a scant hundred member church."
"What? You mean I get your job full time? Look, Nat. I'm retired, remember? And I can't run as fast as you can."
Nat almost suggested wheels, but then knew Paul was too sensitive to take the joke any further than he'd already done. "Don't even think about taking my job, Colonel. I'm not getting stuck out here to twiddle my thumbs."
Paul laughed. "Is that what you've been doing? Maybe I should go take the co-pastorate if they're looking."
Nat looked at Jordan. "Paul would take the co-pastorate, but I won't let him. As his pastor, I'm ordering him to stay put and keep my chair warm."
Paul laughed. "Yes, Sir. Let me talk to your brother."
Nat handed the phone to Jordan who looked at it suspiciously before putting it to his ear and saying a tentative hello. Then he listened. "Yes." "Maybe." "Yes." Jordan smiled. "He said you were sneaky. Let me know." He handed the phone back to Nat.
"Okay, Paul, fess up. What are you up to?"
"Me? I'm trying to figure out how to reassure your little girl you still love her. Make sure you call her tonight. I've got to make a few more phone calls."
"Check on Nicole tonight after I call. I'll call at eight."
"Sure, Nat. Talk to you later." The line went dead, and Nat replaced the phone.
"Well, I better go look for Libby."
"And I better check on Barb."
As Nat walked toward the big house, he glanced back, but didn't see Jordan. Did he always check on his wife in the middle of the day when he normally would be plowing in a distant field?
Libby was in her new room when he came in. His mother's eyes were red, and Nat decided everyone needed their space. He went up to take a nap.
Dinner was a quiet affair, and at seven Nat called Nicole's. The phone rang -- three, four, five. Where was she? She was always waiting. After ten rings, he hung up and tried again in case he'd dialed the wrong number. Then he tried Paul's number. He answered on the second ring. "Something's wrong, Paul. No one's at Nicole's."
"Calm down. I'm sure everything is fine."
"Will you check it out, please? I should have called Nicole earlier. You don't think they're hanging around looking for me." His father, mother, and Libby all watched him now.
"Relax, Nat. I'm sure she wouldn't do that. I talked to her. Everything's fine. Call me back in an hour."
"Paul! Oh... yeah, it'll take you that long to drive over there and back -- longer, won't it?"
"Nat. Just relax. Trust me."
"Trust you! What do you know about this? You... you do know something, you rat. What's going on? Just say it."
"She had something she had to do. She's probably just a little late getting in, that's all. Keep trying."
"Keep trying. You're the comedian. You're only forty miles away not a thousand."
"Sounds like a man in love."
Paul's tone finally registered. He was too cheerful. He was up to something. "Okay, Mr. Secret Spy. I'll trust you. Is this something that will help Rachel not be so disappointed with my delay?"
"Exactly. And I believe it worked great. Just remember that. She's very happy about this -- although Nicole's quite nervous. She doesn't trust me like you do."
There was movement from the back of the house. Lloyd stood and moved toward the kitchen. "Who's back there?"
"Just me, Dad," called Jordan. "And a couple friends." He came around the corner into the living room.
"There's Asia!" came a familiar little voice.
"Paul, I will kill you later," Nat mumbled.
"Good, they arrived safely. I'll let you visit."
The phone went dead as Rachel hurled herself toward him. "Daddy!"
Nat set the phone down in time to catch Rachel as she jumped on him. "Rachel!"
She adjusted herself to sit on his lap. "Paul said you were sad you couldn't come, so he said we could surprise you. Are you surprised?"
"Extremely. I didn't suspect a thing."
Nicole shifted nervously in the doorway. "I... I didn't think we should presume, but Paul said... he paid... I never would have...." She glanced around the room at the others staring at her.
Nat lifted Rachel and went to Nicole. "It's fine. I'm sure. After all, it looks like my big brother was in on it, so you've got the family's approval," he said, casting a quick look at his parents.
"Yes," Jordan said. "They'll stay in my guest room."
"Where's the kittens? Asia's here."
Libby smiled and joined them. "They're up in my room, Rachel. It's nice to meet you, Nicole. My brother mentions you often."
"He... he does?"
Nat would have jabbed Libby with his elbow if she were closer, but instead he reached out to give her a little pinch.
She grinned, undeterred. "Let me show you all around tomorrow. You'll love it here. We have a quaint little church that would give Nat plenty of family time."
"Libby! Nicole, please excuse her."
"Nicole can come see the kittens also, Nat. Don't be so rude."
Helen came to them, then. "It is good to meet you, Nicole. Perhaps Libby's right. You may like it here. Consider yourself at home." Lloyd stood behind her and seconded his wife's greeting.
Libby started up the stairs. Rachel began to follow, but then stopped and looked at Nat. "Where were you hurt, Daddy?"
Nat walked over and showed her his hand, and then pointed to the small scab in his hair. "I've got a few more small sores on my chest, and a big one right here." He pointed to his shirt which hid the wound that had given him a slight twinge of pain when Rachel jumped, although it was healing well now. "Maybe tomorrow I'll show you what I ran into, unless it's out in the field."
"Yes, your Daddy's not a farmer," Jordan said. "He doesn't know enough not to play on the equipment. But you know that rule, don't you?"
"He wasn't playing. He fell because he loved me and didn't want to be late. Paul told me." Rachel turned and continued up the stairs.
"You're right about Paul," Jordan said. "He is sneaky."
"Yeah, and you're taking lessons. Want to look at the kittens, Nicole?"
She shrugged, completely unsure of her welcome or acceptance, in spite of their words. He longed to reassure her, but couldn't. Instead he led her up the stairs to Libby's room.