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Rorey's Secret



October 15, 1938

I had chicken to fry, lots of chicken, because it was Willy Hammond's birthday and all the Hammonds would be over for supper.

Lard was sputtering in the skillet, and I was flouring the chicken pieces when I heard the crash behind me.

"Oh! Mama, I'm sorry!" little Emma Grace wailed.

She was the youngest Hammond, too young to remember her own mama, and she'd been calling me that ever since she could talk. Now she was looking at me with her big brown eyes all teary. All I could do was sigh as broken glass and globs of home-cooked applesauce spread in a lumpy puddle across the floor.

"Oh, Emmie."

"I didn't means to, Mama. I'll clean it up." She jumped down from the chair, not quite missing the mess. She was always willing to help. And she was seven and a half already, though she still seemed far younger.

"You'd better let me get it, honey. The broken glass could cut your fingers." I handed her a dish towel. "Step back, okay? And wipe your shoe."

She smeared the applesauce around on her toe a bit and watched me scoop most of the mess into the dustpan. "We got more applesauce?"

"Yes, we've got more," I assured her. But we didn't have another bowl like that pretty one. It was simple enough, nothing that would have cost much, but it had been Emma Graham's, little Emmie's namesake. Everything that was Emma Graham's was precious to me, and it hurt just a little every time another piece of her was lost. But the broken bowl had been an accident, and I wasn't about to say anything more.

"Can I frost the cake?" she asked me, grabbing another bowl off the counter without waiting for my response.

"You can help with that in a little while," I said quickly and set the butter frosting back on the counter carefully. Then I noticed that the tears in her eyes hadn't faded away.

"Am I a dummy?" she asked, her little lip quivering into a pout.

"Oh, Emmie, no. You're not a dummy. Accidents can happen to anyone. It's all right."

"But Teddy Willis says I'm a dummy. Like Franky."

Teddy Willis was only six and a little big for his britches, but this news bothered me just the same. I already knew how much teasing Emmie's brother Franky endured. At fifteen, he still could hardly read, but he kept on trying valiantly. He was tough skinned enough to endure even the taunts of younger children. But Emmie was a tiny thing, and far from tough. Elvira Post, her teacher, had already told us that she wasn't catching on to much of anything. I hated to think of little Teddy, or any others, picking at her over something she couldn't help. It didn't roll off her the way it did Franky.

"Emmie, you know Franky's no dummy. He made that chair you were just standing on and quite a few other things around here, he and Samuel. He's already working, and working harder than some grown men. He's good at a very lot of things, and so are you. You don't have to worry about what anybody says."

"But I can't read, and Teddy can! He read three whole sentences today, an' Mrs. Post said he was comin' along swell! She don't never say that 'bout me." She looked down at her shoes. "She said I might be like Franky."

"Well. Both of you are kindhearted and helpful. You're alike in that, which is more important than a lot of things I could name. Would you mind counting out the silverware for me?"

She scrunched up her face. "How many?"

"All of you are coming for supper, except Joe, of course. Even Lizbeth and Ben will be here, and Sam and Thelma and little Georgie. You lay out enough for everybody and tell me how many." I knew she could do it. Because just like with Franky, for Emmie, numbers weren't a problem. Unless they were written down. Both Franky and Emmie could cipher in their heads and remember what someone had read to them. But Mrs. Post had long ago despaired of Franky ever reading a line on his own and had asked us to school him at home so she could concentrate on the other pupils in her one-room school. And now she was wondering about Emmie too.

I could hear the thundering footsteps of one of the boys running across the porch. Ten-year-old Bert came bursting in the back door with two tiny kittens in the crook of his arm. "Look, Mom!"

Bert was second youngest and the only other Hammond child who didn't call me Mrs. Wortham most of the time.

"Cute," I told him. "But where's their mother? She won't be too pleased with them disappearing, now will she?"

He didn't pay the slightest attention to my question. "Why wasn't they born in the spring, huh? Like calves an' pigs? How come cats'll have kits any old time? Seems foolish, them birthin' 'em whenever they do, even when it's gonna get cold! At least these'll have a month or two 'fore the snow comes."

"God will take care of the kittens, Berty. They always seem to manage just fine. Take them outside, please, so I can finish dinner."

"Harry's started the milkin'," he told me, still standing there petting those teeny kittens.

"Well, good. That much less for Mr. Wortham to do when he gets home."

Behind Bert, Sarah came in the back door, carrying a basket of freshly dried clothes. She eyed Emma and the dustpan still in my hand and the chicken needing attention on the stove. She smiled. "Need some help, Mom?"

"Please. Or Lizbeth'll come breezing in here thinking we've had our feet up all day."

Emmie laughed. "Why would we put our feet up?"

Sarah put the clothes down by the sitting room doorway and turned her attention to the chicken. She looked so tall for thirteen. Taller than me already, but I thought maybe she'd stop growing like I did at her age. She had my straight brown hair, and people in town said she looked like me. But Sarah was going to be more of a beauty, I could tell. She was turning heads already, which was enough to make my Samuel nervous.

I was just about to dump the mess from my dustpan when a car horn made me jump. Who in the world would come honking? Sarah and I both craned our necks, looking out the window to see who was pulling in.

"Sam!" Berty yelled.

Indeed, the oldest Hammond brother and his family were coming up the drive in their rattletrap Model A. But something wasn't right. Sam wasn't one for any sort of noise that would call attention to himself. And that made me a little squeamish inside, thinking about his wife and the baby to come. I dried my hands and hurried outside.

Berty and Emma Grace had run out of the house before me. Katie looked up from where she'd been pulling turnips in the garden and started walking our way. Harry came rushing out of the barn with the milk pail swinging. Almost I said something to him about being more careful, but I didn't. Hammond children helped with the chores when they came over, same as we were always helping at their house. Like we were all one. No sense doing any criticizing.

When Sam Hammond stopped in the drive I knew before he got out that all was not well. Two-year-old Georgie was bouncing up and down on his seat as usual. But Thelma, his mother, was not looking so good. I wished they'd gone honking into Belle Rive for the doctor instead of to my house.

"Good evening, Mrs. Wortham," Sam called. "Thelma's not been feeling the best. Sorry to trouble you with the horn, but I sure appreciate you coming out."

Thelma shoved the car door open before Sam got around to her side. She was heavy with child, and even sitting forward took some obvious effort.

"Stay there a minute, Thelma," I told her. "I'll come to you."

"Oh, Mrs. Wortham, I just want to come in and put my feet up. I'll be all right."

"Are you feeling any pains?" I questioned, needing to know but hating to ask in front of the younger children.

"Not so much. I been nauseous more than anything."

"And weak," Sam added. "She's been weak."

I wondered again if I might persuade them to visit the doctor in town or even go into the hospital at Mcleansboro, but we'd been over all that before. Young Sam wasn't as bad as his father when it came to doctors. But he and Thelma had already told me that a pregnancy wasn't the same as some disease. They didn't really want a doctor, and especially not a hospital stay. Sam and Thelma wanted me and Thelma's mother, Delores Pratt, to be the ones delivering their children.

I'd missed out on the first one, having the influenza at the time, and Delores had managed just fine with the help of a neighbor. But here they were now, making me pretty nervous. They were confident in me, because I'd helped dear old Emma bring little Emmie Grace into this world. But that had been necessity and my only experience. I'd never meant it to be the start of any midwifery of my own.

Standing beside the car, I could see Thelma's bulging abdomen churn and wiggle in front of me.

"Oh my," she said.

"Baby kicking?"

"Seems like she's ready to come clear out the side," she said with a laugh. "But I believe I'm feeling some better."

Sam wasn't so sure, and neither was I. Thelma was perspiring heavily, though it was becoming noticeably cooler with the clouds moving in. Georgie climbed up on his mother before anybody could tell him otherwise, and she winced.

"Are you still feeling faint?" Sam asked her. "Mrs. Wortham, she was feelin' faint. Is that a normal thing? She don't rest enough, that's what it is. She can't rest when I'm off to work, with Georgie runnin' around. I come home, and she looked like a shallow breeze could just knock her plumb over. I carried her to the car, and we come right over. Can we get her inside?"

"No, no," I wanted to say. But I knew there wasn't much sense in sending her out on those bumpy roads again. If she wasn't in labor now, that would surely bring it on. Straight to bed for a while; maybe that would help. And if the labor started, I'd chase Sam Hammond out the door in a hurry to fetch me the doctor, like it or not.

Thelma wanted to walk in, but Sam picked up his once-dainty bride and carried her, which I heartily approved of. She was supposed to have a couple more weeks to go, at least we thought. No sense in too much activity hurrying things.

"Me! Me!" Georgie yelled. "Carry me!"

His father didn't seem to hear him, so I swooped up the little tike and started for the house.

"I wa' appasauce!" he told me, and I remembered the mess I'd not quite finished cleaning up. Maybe Sarah had gotten it. She'd stayed inside, and she was always extra good help. Which made me think of Rorey. The oldest Hammond girl still at home, she was supposed to be around here somewhere, but lately she was doing just as little as she could.

As if reading my mind, Harry yelled, "Hey, Rorey!"

I looked but couldn't see her anywhere.

"Whatcha doin' up a tree?" Harry laughed and then bounded on into the house with the milk pail, not too full, obviously, or it would be spilling all the way. Twelve years old and he still could hardly walk for running every-where he went. He'd been a pill when he was younger, that was for sure.

"Looky! Looky!" Georgie screamed in my ear. Thanks to his pointing, I finally saw Rorey sitting two stories up in our sweet gum tree, a book across her lap. Her diary, almost surely. And she was writing in it, scarcely looking our way for all that was going on.

"Supper before long, Lord willing!" I called to her.

"Oh," she said, barely loud enough for me to hear. "I'll be down pretty soon."

"I hope so." I shook my head. A thirteen-year-old up a tree and paying the rest of us no mind. She'd better get down before her father arrived or she'd catch the dickens from him. But I didn't feel like warning her.

Thelma was doing some moaning when I entered the house. More of the baby kicking, I hoped. Sam had moved pretty quick and gotten her clear into the sitting room, out of sight. Hurrying to catch up, I completely forgot about the floor. I got as far as the table with Georgie wiggling in my arms, but before I knew what was happening, my feet flew out from under me, and I landed hard on fresh-mopped floor. I was stunned speechless for a moment, wondering if falling with a toddler in my arms might have hurt the poor child. Sarah ran over to my side.

"Oh! Oh, Mom! I didn't know it'd be so slick!"

She tried to take Georgie from me, but he would have none of that. At first he looked as stunned as I was. Then he burst out laughing.

"Do again! Do again!"

I'd have laughed with him if it hadn't hurt so bad. Thank God, though, that it wasn't Sam and Thelma falling down in a heap.

"Are you all right, Mom?"

"Oh yes," I assured my daughter, and Harry, who by now was staring at us from across the room. "I'm fine."

"Do again!" Georgie squealed some more. "Fun! Fun!"

"No," I told him simply. "Not fun for me. Harry, come and take Georgie so I can get up."

I felt a little stiff. I could imagine what a sight I was, going in to see to Thelma after drying the floor with my backside. But I went anyway, feeling a little better as I walked. And I made Sam get Thelma to my bed instead of the rocking chair where she'd wanted to be.

"Really, Mrs. Wortham," she tried to tell me. "I'll be just fine. I just need to sit a spell."

"That's wonderful. And I'm not disagreeing with you. I just don't want to be taking any chances. Sam's probably right. You need to get off your feet more. Might be a good idea to ask Dr. Howell --- "

"Mama's comin' out next week," she assured me. "I'll be just fine till then."

"Well enough," I agreed. "But while you're here, you stay in bed, just to be sure. We'll take care of Georgie for you."

"Thank you, Mrs. Wortham." She smiled and mopped at her brow. "Goodness. Still pretty warm, isn't it? And already October."

I didn't bother telling her that I'd been feeling autumn's chill in the air for days now. Not strange at all for her to be warm. I'd been warmer when I was with child too. Back when I was carrying Robert, I'd nearly frozen Samuel by kicking covers off the bed all that winter.

Thelma plopped her shoes at the foot of the bed and said she didn't want anything but a little sheet tucked in over her. "I oughta be up helpin' you cook supper," she told me. "And here we come bringin' nothin' at all but more for you to do."

Before I could answer we heard the awfullest clatter from the kitchen. Sam just turned his head, but Thelma knew her little boy pretty well, and she clucked her tongue. "Georgie, I'd just about wager. So sorry, Mrs. Wortham, for whatever he's done."

His little child voice was laughing plain enough for us all to hear. "Boomie! Boomie!"

I left Sam reaching for Thelma's hand and ran to see what Georgie had gotten into this time. I should've known. A whole stack of baking pans lay littered across the floor, and Georgie was plopped down in the middle of them looking delighted with himself. I should've tied that cupboard shut when I knew he was coming. He'd done the very same thing the last time he was here.

Harry was just standing there helpless. "He didn't want to be held," he explained. "I didn't think it'd hurt to let him walk around a little."

"It's all right. Just better to take him in the sitting room so he doesn't get too close to anything hot, all right?" I did my best shoving all the pans back into the cupboard with little Georgie standing at my side, merrily enjoying all the noise I was making at it.

"Boomie!" he chuckled again. "Boomie!"

Sarah was pulling the hot rolls out of the oven to put on the warming shelf, and Harry didn't move an inch toward taking Georgie into the next room.

Emma Grace strolled back inside, and I was glad to see her. She was always obliging. "Emmie, please help Harry entertain little Georgie a while. Can you find that rag ball we made?"

Having a job to do made Emmie smile, but Harry immediately protested.

"Ah, if Emmie's gonna play with him, why do I have to?"

"Just keep an eye on them for me," I insisted. "Till we have supper ready."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Why me?"

"Because Sam is with Thelma, Berty's outside, Katie's in the garden, and Samuel and your father and the other boys aren't in from the field yet. But they'll be here any minute, and it'd do well for you to be found at something helpful."

"Oh, all right," he said. "Oughta be Rorey doin' it, though."

I couldn't argue there. She was the one who owed us a bit of helpfulness, to be certain. But she was off in her own world again. If I hadn't needed Sarah's help so much right then, I might've sent her out to see about Rorey. Maybe then they would've gotten to giggling and talking the way they'd been doing since they were six, and come in together ready to set their hands to business.

With Georgie occupied and Thelma resting, I turned my attention back to the chicken, hoping I could get the meal further along before everybody else showed up ravenously hungry. Kate came in with fresh-washed turnips and started peeling them for me. Lizbeth should be here any minute. She'd be bringing food and her helpful hands, and I was looking forward to her visit.

Georgie squealed from the next room, and I ignored his cries to make sure all the chicken was frying. But then Thelma gave a holler, and I couldn't ignore that.

"I'll watch the chicken, Mom," Sarah said, looking a little white.

I ran to the bedroom to see what in the world was wrong. "Baby kicking again?" I asked hopefully.

"No," Thelma said weakly. "I --- I don't think so, Mrs. Wortham."

"It's the pains started, then?" I was feeling a little weak myself.

"I don't know!" Thelma cried. "It weren't the same kind of feeling I had before."

She tried to get up, though I don't know why. She was straining, pulling herself toward the edge of the bed, when her water broke. She looked up at me with fear plain in her face.

"Lay back down," I told her. "And don't you worry about the mess. I'll get everything cleaned up right around you." I turned my eyes to young Sam. He was looking pretty scared himself. "I wish I could say for you to take her to the hospital," I started to say. "But --- "

"No, Mrs. Wortham," he interrupted me. "We can't pay a hospital. Besides, Thelma don't want that."

"We might not ought to move her now, anyway. But I think you should go and find Dr. Howell --- "

"No!" Thelma protested. "Don't send Sammy. Please! I want him here with me."

She grasped at her husband's hand like it was some kind of life rope. I thought she was probably right, that he ought to stay. At least she was having no complaint about me wanting the doctor brought in.

"George and Samuel will be back any minute," I told them, trying to sound calm. "Lizbeth and Ben will be here before long too. I'll send whoever gets here first. And I expect they'd better stop and see about picking up your mother too?"

Thelma nodded, reaching her free hand for the quilt I'd scrunched up out of her way. "So cold in here all of a sudden," she said. "How'd that happen?"

"Oh, honey, you're wet, that's what it is." I yelled into the next room. "Sarah! Will you bring me some towels?"

I had no easy time of it, stripping the bedsheets with Thelma still on them, but I didn't want her getting up. Sam helped her off with her wet clothes, and I got her one of Samuel's nightshirts, knowing anything of mine would be too small. I made up the bed again with two sturdy old tablecloths underneath the bottom sheet. Sarah briefly stood in the doorway to hand over an armload of towels, but she didn't linger long enough to ask a single question.

"You tell me," I said as she was leaving, "just as soon as your father gets here."

Tucking the quilt around Thelma, I thought, Why in the world couldn't Samuel just have stayed home working in the woodshop today? I knew he and Franky had a few orders to fill. Sure, there was harvesting to be done, poor as the crop would be after all the dry weather, but I would have far preferred him to be here. As it was, there was nobody but Sam and me who could drive, and we were both pretty obligated to stay.

Where were Lizbeth and her husband, Ben Porter? They were never very late getting anywhere. If they were here, I could send Ben right back to town and have Lizbeth help me till the doctor came.

Lord, help us! How hard it'd been for Lizbeth watching her siblings being born, especially Emmie Grace. Wilametta Hammond had felt something "different" at that birth, and I felt almost faint thinking about it. The baby had been breech. Emma Graham had been there to do the midwifing, and she had her trouble bringing them through, but she did it with more strength than I could muster. How I wished I had dear old Emma with me now.

"I'm awful trouble to you, ain't I?" Thelma asked.

"No." I sniffed. "I was just wishing I had Emma here, that's all."

"Right here in her old room." Thelma nodded. "I never did figure I'd have me a baby right here in my old Sunday school teacher's room. I wish she was here too." She scrunched up her face and tried hard not to holler, but I knew pretty plainly what she was feeling. Sam did too.

"Maybe I oughta check the field and send Pa or Kirk on into town for your mother," he suggested. "Wouldn't take me long. I'd be right back."

God must've favored keeping Thelma's husband at her side, because she didn't even have time to protest the idea.

"Mom!" Sarah called from the kitchen. "I can see them coming!"

I didn't know for sure who she meant, but I didn't wait a minute wondering. I ran straight on out, clear out the back door. And I could see Samuel coming across the field with four more, all of them looking like men. I knew which one was our Robert, and I could tell George Hammond by his hat. The other two, William and Kirk, were so easily the tallest. I didn't take the time to consider where Franky could be. I just went running out to meet them with my apron flapping in the breeze.

"Juli, honey, what's the matter?" Samuel called as soon as we were close enough. It wasn't every day I came out of the house running, that was for sure.

"I need you to hurry to town," I told him between puffs of breath. "Thelma's water broke. She's about to have that baby, and I don't want to be without some help. She wants her mother, but I think we need Dr. Howell too." I stopped and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I don't have the supper ready yet."

Samuel smiled. "I couldn't expect you to be cooking. I'll go. Now try and relax."

As I hurried back toward the house I could see Rorey scurrying down out of that tree. George hadn't seen her. I knew he hadn't. But I didn't say anything about it.

Berty came running out of the barn with the old gray mother cat in his arms. "Mom! Mom! Looks like she's been in a fight or somethin'!"

"Tarnation, boy!" George exclaimed at his son. "Let the cat take care of herself. You's about to be an uncle again."

Bert set Ladycat in the dust and stared at us. "Really? Already?"

"Lizbeth's comin'," Kirk told us quickly, and I turned my head to see their little car coming down the road.

"Thank the Lord," I whispered.

"Send Ben," George suggested. "Be good for him to get hisself involved."

It was a departure for George to be so obliging about calling for a doctor, I knew. But George had changed some since his wife died.

Lizbeth was clearly surprised to see so many of us outside. She grew a little pale when I told her what was going on. "You go with Mr. Wortham, will you please?" she asked her husband. He answered with a nod.

Robert and I helped Lizbeth carry their covered dishes. Unlike Thelma and Sam, they had the time and energy, and the means, to share their cooking. And no little ones running around yet.

"Go ahead and take our car," Lizbeth ordered. Ben stayed in the driver's seat, and Samuel leaned and kissed me before piling in.

But Lizbeth didn't say another word to Ben, and he backed out the drive in silence. They'd been so close in their two years of marriage that even at a moment like this I noticed the quiet between them as something strange. But I couldn't say anything.

"Might rain tonight," Berty told us. "Look at them clouds. It ain't rained in a long time."

Lizbeth glanced his way. "I hope it does. But with a baby comin', it's not somethin' I'll be dwellin' on."

When she walked in the kitchen, she took a quick look around. Sarah was at the stove, Katie was still cutting turnips, and Rorey had come in and started setting plates on the table.

"Oh, Mrs. Wortham," Lizbeth said with a sigh. "Here you are again, right in the middle of helpin' us out."

"I was just thinking how glad I am that you're here to help me."

She went with me straight in to see Thelma and gave her older brother a hug before sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Lizbeth," Thelma said, trying to sound casual. "How's the teaching comin'?"

"No complaints." Lizbeth smiled. "But I hear you're fixin' to make Pa a granddaddy again, and on Willy's birthday too."

"Yeah. Somebody should tell him I'm sorry for spoilin' the party."

"Won't bother him any. He'd rather be fishin', anyway."

Thelma laughed. "He oughta take Georgie and all the boys."

"You feelin' all right?"

Thelma didn't respond to that. "Where's Ben?"

"Gone with Mr. Wortham to fetch your mother and the doctor."

I couldn't quite discern the look in Thelma's eyes, but she forced a smile. "I'm glad you sent 'em 'fore they could come in an' see me in this nightshirt. You keep all them boys outta here, will you?"

She was trying to make light of everything, but just as she finished talking, she squeezed at the quilt with one hand and at Sam's hand with the other.

"Pretty good already, huh?" Lizbeth asked. "How far apart?"

"We don't know," Sam told her.

"Haven't timed them," I admitted, wondering where my head had been. But maybe it didn't matter if we knew that or not.

Georgie came bursting in the room with Emmie Grace right behind him. "Auntie Lizbef!" he called. "Auntie Lizbef!"

Lizbeth scooped up the little boy and planted a kiss on his forehead.

"Look at you," Thelma told her after a big breath. "You oughta be a mama. Been thinkin' 'long those lines?"

"No." Lizbeth shook her head emphatically. "I'll leave you the pleasure."

"Auntie Lizbef p'ay wif me?" Georgie was asking.

"In a little while, sugar," she told him. "I want to sit with your mama a minute first."

"Is Thelma sick?" little Emmie whispered to me, understandably surprised that Thelma had come over and gone straight to bed.

"No, honey. She just needs to rest because the baby's due."

"Oh." Emmie looked at us with a very serious expression. "Does that mean it's time to get borned?"

"Yes," I told her. "But not quite yet. Not for a few hours, so far as we expect."

"Oh. That's a while." She turned on her heels and ran for the kitchen. "I want to frost the cake!"

I could hear George Hammond and the big boys coming into the kitchen, and they were surely hungry. "I'd better feed this crew," I told Lizbeth. "Wish I'd had the food done in time to send something along with Samuel and Ben."

"Oh, don't worry about it. We'll save them somethin' hot. You need anythin', Thelma? Cup a' tea or anythin'?"

"No. Nothin', please. Sammy, you go ahead though, if you want."

"I'll take a plate when the time comes," he said. "Everybody else here?"

Of course he knew their brother Joe was away with the army at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. It was a bit of a worry to all of us, but just a part of life, seeing boys become men.

"I haven't seen Franky yet," I told him. "Maybe he stopped at your father's place to finish up some chores." I wondered on that a little. Franky had been working field with the rest, and I would've thought they'd manage chores at the other farm together before any of them came back here. But maybe Franky had offered to finish up so the others could come on.

George stepped in the doorway with a smile for his eldest son. "What you s'pose you got there?" he asked with a chuckle. "Twins?"

"Lordy, I hope not!" Thelma exclaimed. "One's enough work."

Young Sam disagreed. "Mama used to say that if one takes up all your time, then ten can't be any harder."

Thelma squeezed Sam's hand again as another pain swept over her. But it would surely be a while yet, and Lizbeth was with her, so I started for the kitchen. George followed me, looking a little anxious. "These times," he said, "they never was easy. Don't you think Sam oughta step outta there? It's gonna be a womanly situation, 'fore long."

Most people felt that way, I knew. But I figured it ought to be up to the mother. "He can stay just as long as Thelma wants him to stay."

"Ain't it bad luck?"

"Why would it be? God made him the head of his house. I see no reason he shouldn't be watching over them."

"I always used to be pacin' around outside. Even the ones that was born in the winter. Wilametta shooed me out. Blamed me for ever' one a' them babies."

I had nothing to say to that. I didn't remember him arriving at all until after Emma Grace was already born, but there was no telling about the other nine.

Sarah was mashing the potatoes, and Rorey was standing right next to her, stirring Lizbeth's pot of green beans. Funny how she could make herself look like she'd been working all along. Emma Grace stood on a chair, anxiously holding the frosting bowl.

"Just a minute, Emmie," Sarah was telling her. "I've got my hands full."

Indeed she did, making gravy, tending the chicken, and mashing those potatoes, practically at the same time. Bless her.

"You want me to help with the cake?" Katie asked, setting two kinds of pickles and a jar of rhubarb jam from the pantry next to her generous dish of raw turnip slices in the middle of the table. Bless her too.

"I want to frost it! Please!" Emmie begged.

"You're gonna need a hand," Katie told her. "That's a big job."

Emmie nodded her agreement, and I waved them on. Sometimes I didn't know what I'd do without Sarah and Kate. They were my best helpers. Katie was not yet thirteen, a relative we'd taken in about six years ago, and she seemed to make our family complete.

I moved to the stove, offering to take over with the chicken.

"Are you sure?" Sarah asked me. "Doesn't Thelma need you?"

"She will. In a little while. I think I can feed the rest of you first."

I'd husked a pot of sweet corn earlier, and the girls had moved it to the back burner to get some heat. Wouldn't need much. Most of the kids would eat corn on the cob raw, they loved it so well. I lifted the lid, just to see if the water was bubbling.

"Reckon Franky'll be here in time for dessert?" It was Robert asking from the doorway.

"We can very well wait for him, Robert John, as you ought to know. Is he doing the milking at home?"

"We did the milking over there, Mom. He went to find Mrs. Post. Said he was going to get another book from her."

I nodded. Just yesterday, I'd finished reading a Dickens novel to him. He'd be anxious to have something new in the house, even if he couldn't read it for himself. And besides, it was Friday. He always went to see the schoolteacher on Fridays, begging a book or a map or something for me to go over with him at home. I should have remembered that. Franky was always hungry for something more.

William sneered. "Why's he bother?"

Willy had always hated school and didn't go anymore unless his father made him, which was far too seldom. Today none of the older boys had gone. Like most of the teenagers in the district, they were helping with harvest.

"Franky likes books," I told them. "You boys should read, or at least listen, more often."

Robert and William both frowned. Somehow they'd gotten the notion that it was babyish to be read to and sissy to be caught with a book on your own. From Willy, such an attitude wasn't any real surprise. But my own son? He'd always been such a good student.

Rorey sided with them. "I don't know how Franky can stand that stuff you read to him. It's dead dull, if you ask me."

"And stupid," Willy added. "Franky just don't want to admit he's stupid."

Even from the corner of my eye I could see little Emmie Grace turning her face toward me. Her father, Franky's father, had come in and was standing right beside me, taking a whiff of that chicken, and he didn't say anything. But I couldn't let it go.

"I don't want to hear another such word in my house," I told them. "There's not one of you stupid nor even close to it, and I don't want to hear of it again! You know Franky. You know he's got a special talent, and he's sharp as a tack --- "

"I sure have appreciated you and Samuel feelin' that way," George finally decided to break in. "Don't know what Franky'd ever a' had otherwise, if you know what I mean."

I was suddenly so mad I could have hit him with the pot holder I had in my hand. How could he be so blind? Instead of standing up for his precious son and rebuking William's cruelty, he was practically endorsing the unkind words! Didn't know what Franky would've had? Indeed! I happened to know that George didn't read any better than his son, though he claimed it was because he'd never been to school.

"Way I see it, your Samuel give Franky a future," George continued. "Folks is startin' to know his work now."

"The whole business was Franky's idea," I reminded him. "WH Hardwoods might never have happened --- "

"Do you want walnuts sprinkled on the cake?" Katie suddenly asked.

"Sure," William told her. "Do what you want."

I looked at both of them and back over at George and decided to let it drop about Franky for now. There were other things to think about, and it wasn't helping anyone to have me arguing with George Hammond.

I started wondering just exactly how long ago Ben and Samuel had left and when they could possibly be getting back. They had about ten miles to the doctor, and maybe a stop for Mrs. Pratt. It'd be a while, unfortunately.

We set out all the food buffet style, since there wasn't room for everyone at the table. Folks could sit wherever they wanted to. Kirk and William were itching to get started and pretty upset at Franky for the delay. He should've been here long ago, they thought, since he'd left to find the schoolteacher way before they started for home.

Oh, well, I thought. He's surely on the way. Their house wasn't very far. And Elvira Post wouldn't keep him long, with her ailing husband wanting supper. She seemed uncomfortable around Franky most of the time anyway, though she freely supplied him with books. He couldn't be much longer.

I went in to check on Thelma while we waited. She was sweating again, but the labor pains seemed no worse. William and Robert impatiently started a game of checkers. Rorey traipsed around the kitchen a few times, trying to look useful, and then went out and sat on the back porch. Finally, after quite a while, she hollered, "He's here!"

She must have meant Franky, of course, but she didn't say so. I glanced out the window and was immediately glad I did. Franky's limp looked far worse than usual. He was hurt, I could tell.

I rushed out the door, thinking that surely George was right behind me. But when I got to Franky, it was Kirk speaking up at my side, and I saw that George hadn't even come outside.

"Fight! You was in a fight!"

Franky didn't say anything in reply to his brother, didn't even look his way. Instead, I saw his gaze resting on Rorey, who hadn't moved from the back porch step.

He was banged up a little, with one eye going purplish and a cut on his lip.

"What happened, Frank?" I asked him. "Goodness, are you all right?"

"I'm all right."

Kirk smiled hugely. "Fought back this time, didn't you, Franky? Finally had enough?"

I knew how some of the other boys in the area treated Franky, teasing him mercilessly when they got the chance. But how had he encountered anyone today? School was let out already, and I wouldn't have expected anyone to be between here and the Posts' farm. Neither Elvira's husband nor her brother-in-law would have let such a thing go on anyway, if they'd seen it.

"Who was it?" Kirk persisted. "Bobby Mueller? Or the Everly twins? I heard they was doin' some work on Mueller's farrowing house."

"Be quiet, Kirk," I commanded. "Franky, can we help you to the house?"

"I don't need help. Better wash up, though, 'fore Pa sees me."

"Ah, he won't mind much," said Harry, who'd suddenly come up alongside us. "If somebody fights at you, you got a right to fight back. He knows that. Looks like you got whupped, though, Franky. Did you get whupped?"

Franky looked from one brother to the other but didn't say a word, and I didn't feel like pressing him for any explanations. Maybe I could talk to him about it later. Maybe. When no one else was around to be enjoying the story.

Franky handed me the book in his hand. "Sorry if it got mussed. I might have to make it up to Mrs. Post. She didn't really want me to take it, anyway. Didn't think I'd understand it."

I looked down at the volume and smiled. Silas Marner by George Eliot. Why was it so hard for others to see the searching mind that made Franky want to reach out for books like this? I knew he'd sit just as long as I'd let him, soaking up every word the way he'd done with all the other books I'd read.

"Ugh!" Kirk said quickly. "What do you want with that book, Franky? No wonder people tease you. You're just plain odd."

That didn't deserve a reply, and Franky knew it. I tried to take his arm, but he wouldn't let me. He limped the rest of the way to the house all on his own, pulled off his shirt on the porch, and washed up best he could. I tried to help, but he'd barely let me touch him. He looked in Rorey's direction just once more, and she went back inside without saying anything. I wondered what was going on between them.

Franky wasn't hurt badly, but his eye was getting blacker, and the cut lip made him look pretty awful. The knuckles on one hand were banged up too, leading me to think that maybe Kirk had been right about him fighting back, as out of character as that seemed. I wasn't sure why his limp was worse, but somebody had lit into him pretty frightfully, and I really would have liked an explanation.

"Kirk," I commanded, "get me some warm water from the kettle on the stove. And Harry, run and get one of Robert's shirts for me, will you?"

When they were both gone, I tried to dab at Franky's eye. "Will you tell me who did this?"

He smiled just a little. "You're a real good mom, Mrs. Wortham. But don't fuss on me, okay?"

George stepped out the back door, and I hoped he'd be gracious. Seven years had gone by since his wife had died, and he'd relied on Samuel and me for so much. Most of the time, he'd tried to do his best for his children. Surely he could find a way for Franky now.

"What's this you've got yourself into?" he started immediately, much to my dismay. "Here we are, all waitin' while you go galavantin' after some book, and then fightin' on top a' that! It's your brother's birthday. I shoulda knowed to refuse lettin' you go over there. What's the use you gettin' books anyhow, Franky?"

I opened my mouth to say something, but George didn't give me a chance.

"And now you're tyin' up Mrs. Wortham out here when she needs to be in there with Thelma. They's havin' that baby, maybe tonight, and you ain't been no help at all!"

"Will you go gather up the kids," I told George, trying to be calm. "Say a prayer and start them eating. I'll be in in a minute."

George didn't budge. "I'll see to my son, if you please, Mrs. Wortham. You go on in and be with Thelma, 'fore she gets to frettin' 'bout you not bein' there for her."

I hated to go, I truly did. But as if on cue, Thelma gave another yell, and I scarcely had a choice. Franky was tough, after all. And he'd told me he was all right.

Jesus, help us, I prayed on the way to the bedroom. What's happening today? Thelma's baby to deal with. Franky in a fight. Lizbeth and Ben and Rorey and little Emmie Grace. And even Robert. Seeming not so happy, nor so wise, as I thought we all were.

Thelma was sitting up when I got there, looking pretty worn.

When she scrunched up her face again, Sam about jumped out of his skin. "Ain't there somethin' we can do 'bout the pain?"

"The doctor might know something," I told him. "But there's not much I can do right now but wait it out, the same as you. And pray. I can do that."

He nodded, but as soon as I was done with a prayer, he stood up and started pacing. I wondered if he might not be more comfortable outside like his father had said. But I didn't say so. It wasn't my place or George's to decide something like that.

"You need you a baby too," Thelma told Lizbeth between puffs of breath, but Lizbeth just shook her head.

In a little while, I was aware of the big boys eating in the next room, little Georgie fussing for his mother, and Sarah gradually settling him down. Thelma tried to drink a little tea but couldn't manage much. She tossed about on the bed, trying to find a comfortable position. Then, strangely enough, the pains seemed to just stop. When we were expecting another contraction, it didn't come.

"I better rest while I can," she said.

She curled up with her head on the pillow, and within a few minutes she was asleep.

"Is that normal, Mrs. Wortham?" Lizbeth asked me.

"I don't know," I had to say. "I hope so. We did pray for her to have less pain."

Sam got himself a plate but scarcely ate a bite. I couldn't eat either and kept watching out the windows, thinking that Samuel and Ben ought to be coming before long. Surely they'd had plenty of time to get to Belle Rive and back.

I started pacing worse than Sam and George put together. There wasn't much talking going on in the house. Not even between Rorey and Sarah, who were sitting together but silent. George cut the birthday cake, and most of it disappeared without any comment. Hammonds were never ones to give birthday presents, but when I offered to start reading Franky's book, George said it was Willy's right to decide what he wanted to do. Willy chose a radio show, which pleased almost everybody. But Franky went and sat outside.

"We'll jus' stay till Samuel gets back," George assured me. "Be bad luck all a' us in your hair any longer than that."

For a long time it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to have Hammonds in my living room and Hammonds such a big part of my life. But that night it suddenly felt strange again, like the first time, and I hardly knew what to do.

Excerpted from ROREY'S SECRET © Copyright 2005 by Leisha Kelly. Reprinted with permission by Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.

Rorey's Secret
by by Leisha Kelly