An Unexpected Blessing
"Oh, come on!" Katie hissed at the old pump stationed next to her kitchen basin. The piece of iron machinery creaked and groaned as she worked its handle up and down vigorously. Still no water. "Don't you dare give out on me now. We can't afford to replace you yet." Katie's husband, Zack, had promised to replace the aged pump -- along with a dozen other things on their farm -- just as soon as they got ahead. The problem was that they never seemed to be able to get ahead; instead, they were always about two steps behind financially. They had bought the little farm as newlyweds a mere four months before the beginning of the Depression. Now, four years later, they were barely able to hold on to the place. Every mortgage payment had to be scraped together by any means possible. This meant there was little left over for anything other than the necessities of life. Still, Katie dreamed of the day when she would have real indoor plumbing, complete with a faucet in the kitchen and a bathroom.
"Finally!" Katie exclaimed as water came trickling down the spout and into the basin. She was not usually this short-tempered, even with the pump; her foul mood that day could be attributed in part to the weather. It was a hot August day, with the kind of humidity that laid over the land like an oppressive blanket. Katie was so hot she had decided she was absolutely not going to work over a blazing cookstove to make supper. It would be a cold meal tonight. Hence the potato salad that was presently chilling in the icebox, which would be served later with ham sandwiches. Some husbands would not have been pleased with the simple fare, but Zack was not the sort to complain. Not that Katie was a prize-winning cook in the first place. There had been more than one supper gone awry for which she had had to apologize to Zack. He would always just smile at her in return and say, "I married you because I love you, Katie, not because you were a great cook. You did your best, so let's give thanks and eat."
Dear Zack. Thinking of him brought a happy expression to her flushed face as she washed the dishes dirtied by her salad preparations. God had certainly blessed her with a good husband. He was a hard-working, kindhearted man who did his best to provide for them. Their farm nestled in the rolling hills of mid-Missouri had done well enough the first three years under his hand. This year, however, things had not gone well, even with his prudent management. First, their small herd of cattle had suffered losses during the harsh winter. Then the crops suffered under the dry summer heat. Even Katie's vegetable garden looked rather pitiful. Katie saw new lines appearing on Zack's sun-darkened face, lines that did not belong on the face of a man not yet thirty. As the time of harvest grew near, they both stood by the fields and earnestly prayed for a better yield than it looked like they were going get.
They desperately needed a decent harvest, and a decent price at the market for that harvest. Even though Zack did not say it, Katie knew they were dangerously close to losing the place. So close, in fact, that she wondered if a good crop would even pull them through. "Well, Lord," she sighed, placing the last item washed in the drainboard, "You know. Please help us. You know how I hate to see Zack looking so careworn."
The dishes done, Katie emptied the basin. She gazed out the kitchen window and noticed a faint breeze stirring the poplars in the yard. Might be a pleasant time to go collect the wash, she determined. Even the slightest movement of the air would be nice right then. Heading out the screen door to the back porch, Katie picked up a large basket there and walked out to the clothesline. After collecting the assortment of shirts, towels, overalls, dresses, and undergarments, she took the basket to the kitchen. She plunked it down by the ironing board for later. It would be a more bearable task after supper.
Katie then took up a sock that needed darning and went out to the front porch of the white-washed farmhouse. Having settled herself on the porch swing, she set to work on the sock. One of her feet kept the swing rocking back and forth with a gentle motion. Katie could hear the sound of the cows lowing in the distance. One of the tabby barn cats joined her on the porch, settling on the railing near the swing. A quiet, listless afternoon it was indeed. The stillness made Katie wish for company. Her green eyes flicked up at the road in a subconscious manner, as if she could will someone to come and sit with her. Her head went all the way up with surprise when she realized there really was someone on the road. She peered curiously into the heat haze, trying to recognize the lone figure treading down the dirt track that swept past the farm.
Katie quickly realized it was no one she had ever seen. The stranger appeared to be an older woman carrying a carpetbag. Katie set aside the sock and got up to go down to the gate. It was a miserable day to be walking down the road like that. She would see if the woman would like to come in and sit a spell.
"Good afternoon," Katie called out as the woman drew nearer to her.
"Good afternoon," the old woman replied, coming over to Katie.
"I saw you out here and thought you might like to come rest for a moment and have some refreshment," Katie offered. "It's an awfully hot day for traveling."
"That it is, dearie. Thank-you for your kindness." The aged stranger entered the gate Katie held open for her.
"I am Mrs. Katie Jennings," Katie introduced herself, sticking out a hand in greeting.
"Mrs. Margaret Thompson." The woman shook Katie's hand with her weathered one. Mrs. Thompson was short and slightly stooped. Her neat, threadbare clothes were dusty from her journey.
"Please come on inside, Mrs. Thompson." Katie led the way into the kitchen. "Have a seat."
Mrs. Thompson complied, settling down into one of the ladder-backed kitchen chairs. She set her carpetbag on the floor beside her feet.
"Would you like some tea? Or if you are too hot for that, I have some buttermilk." Katie fell into the role of hostess.
"As odd as it sounds on a day like this, a cup of tea sounds lovely, thank-you," Mrs. Thompson answered.
"All right, tea it is." Katie picked up the kettle sitting on the back of the iron stove and took it to the sink to fill it. She cringed when the pump gave her its usual trouble. She hardly wanted to be huffing and puffing away with a guest sitting there. Eventually she got enough water out of it to fill the kettle. She stirred up the fire and then set the kettle on the hot plate. She measured tea leaves into the teapot, pulled out two teacups and saucers, put cookies on a plate, and then set everything on the table.
"Seems that poor old pump has about had it," Mrs. Thompson commented when Katie sat down with her while waiting for the water to boil.
"Unfortunately, yes," Katie said, tucking a stray blond hair back behind her ear. "The money to replace it is always needed for other things, however."
"A common problem, especially these days, I know."
"The sooner this Depression ends, the better. My poor husband is going to work himself to death if it goes on too much longer."
"Is he out in the fields right now?"
Katie nodded. "Yes."
"It has been dry this year."
"And our crops show it."
"At least that has not been the case in California." Mrs. Thompson remarked.
"Is that where you are going?"
"Yes, once I reach Clinton I am going to board a train headed west to join my sister's family. I have no one left here, and am tired of living alone."
"Was there not at least a neighbor who could drive you to the station?" Katie inquired, concerned that the lady would wear herself out before reaching Clinton.
"There was, but I wanted to walk through these hills one last time. I grew up around here and the country is so dear to me. I doubt I shall ever see Missouri again." A faraway expression came over Mrs. Thompson's wrinkled face.
"Where was home for you?"
"Back up the road a piece, close to Alberta. "
That explained why Katie had never met her before. Katie and Zack had grown up in and around the nearby town of Clinton, and Katie had rarely gone to the hamlet of Alberta. These musings passed through Katie's mind as she rose to go fetch the tea kettle, which had begun to whistle its readiness to her. She brought it back to the table and poured the steaming water over the leaves in the teapot. Setting the kettle back on the stove, she returned to her seat. "You know, my husband, or even I, could drive you the rest of the way into Clinton. It would certainly be no trouble."
"Oh, no, Mrs. Jennings, I would not ask that of either of you." Mrs. Thompson refused the suggestion with a small wave of her hand. "Besides, I will get to Clinton well before dark. It is not that much further down the road from here. Thank-you very much for offering, though."
"You are welcome."
"Are you from around here, Mrs. Jennings?"
"I grew up in Clinton. My Pa owns a feed store there," Katie answered, pouring tea into Mrs. Thompson's cup, and then hers. "Cream or sugar?"
"Just one lump of sugar, please, thank-you." Mrs. Thompson received the china cup that Katie passed over to her. She also picked up a sugar cookie from the plate on the table and took a bite from it. "My, this is an excellent cookie."
"Thank-you," Katie said, a bit embarrassed. "They're my Ma's recipe. It's about the only thing I can make really well."
"I am sure not."
"It's true. My cooking is just fair most of the time, and occasionally not edible."
"Well, you want to know a little secret?" Mrs. Thompson smiled conspiratorially. "I spent over forty years fixing meals, and never did become a very good cook. So do not worry; you are not the first woman who hasn't mastered the kitchen arts."
Katie gave a small laugh. "That does make me feel better, knowing I am not the only one. I guess everyone always expected me to be able to cook like my Ma can. When I'm under her supervision things always turn out better than when I make them on my own."
"Well, you did seem to master the cookies."
"Yes. They are Zack's favorite kind, so that is part of the reason."
"You are worried about him, aren't you, Mrs. Jennings?"
"About my husband?"
"Why do you ask?"
"A concerned look has come to your face twice when mentioning him. It made me wonder."
Katie was surprised at the old woman's perceptiveness. "I am concerned, to be honest. So many things have gone wrong since we bought the farm, especially this year. I am afraid we are going to lose it, and that would just crush Zack. All his life he has wanted to be a farmer like his pa was."
"Zack's pa died when he was eleven. His ma sold their farm a year later, and took up work as a seamstress in Clinton. Zack never did fancy living in town. When this farm came up for sale right after we were married, he jumped at the chance to buy it."
"But now you wonder if it was the right choice."
Katie fiddled with the handle of her teacup. "I can't help thinking how things might have been easier if he had just stayed there at the feed store. He made decent money working there with Pa and my brother. Even with the Depression Pa's business has still been able to do pretty well."
"Do yo think your husband would have been happier there?"
"No," Katie said in a low voice, "he wouldn't have been. Things have been difficult with the farm, but he loves it. I have even come to love most things about it. In fact, other than some of the more primitive conditions I have had to endure, the only true drawback has been the loneliness of living out here. It's almost too quiet here during the day while Zack is out working in the fields and such. I was glad to see you coming down the road."
"The company was mutually welcome." Mrs. Thompson smiled. "What you really need is a couple of little ones around here to keep you busy."
Katie looked down at the table with a melancholy sigh. Mrs. Thompson quickly realized her error. "Oh, please forgive me, Mrs. Jennings, I have just spoken out of turn."
"An honest mistake. I know there are those of my generation who do not want quite as many children as our parents or grandparents had. That is not the case for me, however; I really do want children. I just have been unable to have any. The only one I did have I lost five months into my pregnancy."
"I am truly sorry, Mrs. Jennings, both for your loss and my careless words," Mrs. Thompson spoke earnestly. "Losing a child is painful; this I know full well."
"Do not worry yourself any more over it -- I am not offended. I just keep praying God will bless Zack and me with a child someday." Katie took a sip of tea. She did not know why she was pouring her heart out to this stranger like this. Maybe it was the understanding that shone in the woman's keen gray eyes, or the fact that Mrs. Thompson reminded Katie of her maternal grandmother, who had passed away several years prior to then. Whatever the case, Katie was thankful to be able to share some the things that had been burdening her heart.
"Well," said Mrs. Thompson, having finished the last of her tea, "I shall be praying for you as I go. And go I must, if I want to make it into Clinton by supper time. Thank-you so much for your hospitality. I feel much refreshed."
"You are most welcome, Mrs. Thompson. I still wish you would let one of us --" Katie began.
"No, no, I am going to walk there, thank-you," Mrs. Thompson broke in before Katie could finish. "Before I go, though..." Her voice trailed off as she picked up her carpet bag and rummaged through it.
Katie looked on curiously, wondering for what the lady was searching.
"Ah, here it is." Mrs. Thompson pulled out a small box. "Mrs. Jennings, I would like to repay you for your kindness to me today. I do not have money to spare, but I do have something I think could help you."
"Oh, Mrs. Thompson, I don't expect anything in return," Katie protested. "It was just tea and cookies."
"I want to give this to you just the same." Mrs. Thompson opened the lid of the box to reveal a delicate gold ring. The ring was crowned with a small emerald encircled by tiny diamonds.
"I can't accept such a thing, Mrs. Thompson. It must be special to you."
"It is, dearie. It was given to me by my first fiancé many years ago. He died two months before we were to marry, and I could never bear to part with it, even after I found love again and married Mr. Thompson. Now that I am old and have had a good life, I find myself able to let it go. And to you is where I want it to go. You can sell it, and use the money to help you keep your farm."
"Surely there is someone in your family who ought to have it. You must have children or grandchildren who would want it."
Mrs. Thompson shook her head. "No, my only two children who lived to adulthood are gone. My daughter died in childbirth five years ago, along with her first baby. My son died somewhere in the fields of France during the Great War. So you see, I have no one to whom I may pass this now. Please take it."
Katie sat, hands folded before her on the table, unable to reach out and accept the box Mrs. Thompson held out to her. Surely Zack would not want her to take such a gift either. "I am sorry, Mrs. Thompson. I simply can't receive something that has been so important to you."
"Very well," Mrs. Thompson said, "though I wish you would." She place the box on the top of the contents of her carpet bag and then attempted to latch the bag shut. "Ah, this old bag. The latch never did work very well. Could I trouble you for a bit of twine, Mrs. Jennings? I think it would be more secure if I tied the handles together."
"Certainly." Katie went out onto the back porch to get the ball of twine she had left out there the other day. Coming back inside, she pulled out some scissors from a kitchen drawer and cut off a length of the twine. "Will this be enough?"
"Just perfect, thank-you." Mrs. Thompson deftly tied the twine around the handles, then stood. "I am most grateful to you. I am sorry I did not meet you sooner, Mrs. Jennings, though it was a pleasure talking to you for this brief time."
"It was a pleasure to meet you, too, Mrs. Thompson. I pray you will have a safe, pleasant journey to California."
Katie walked with Mrs. Thompson out to the front gate. "Good-bye, Mrs. Thompson."
"Farewell, Mrs. Jennings, and God bless," Mrs. Thompson replied, stepping through the gate. She turned back once to wave after she had gotten a short way down the road. Katie, who had remained by the gate, waved in return. Once Mrs. Thompson had disappeared into the distance, Katie went back into the house to clear away the dishes left from their tea.
She put away the uneaten cookies, put the teapot in the basin, and then went back to the table for the cups. She noticed an odd glint in the bottom of Mrs. Thompson's cup as she set it in the basin. "What's this -- ?" Reaching into the cup, Katie pulled out Mrs. Thompson's emerald ring. Katie clicked her tongue in exasperation. The old woman must have slipped it into the cup when Katie had gone to get the twine. Wiping away the tea leaves clinging to the ring with the corner of a kitchen towel, Katie gazed at the ring, trying to decide what to do. She really ought to run after the lady and give it back. Yet, even then Mrs. Thompson would probably refuse to take it. The lady had seemed determined that Katie should have it.
"Is this -- is this the answer to our prayers, Lord?" Katie whispered. A sense of peace flooded her soul. "You'll have to convince Zack of that, Father. He doesn't take well to charity."
Katie put the ring away in the bedroom until Zack came in from the fields a couple of hours later. After supper, Katie casually mentioned she had had a visitor that day and told Zack about Mrs. Thompson. When she got to the part about the ring, Zack said, "Well, I hope you didn't accept it."
Katie took a deep breath. "I didn't, Zack, but I found after she was long gone that she had stuck in her tea cup when I wasn't looking."
"We should ride into town right now and find her." Zack leaned forward as if to stand up from the kitchen chair he was occupying.
"I don't think that would do any good, Zack. She seemed very determined to give to us." Katie bit her lip, trying to decide the best way to proceed. "Can I tell you something?"
"Go ahead." Zack settled back in his chair, drumming his fingers on the table.
"You haven't said much about it, but I know we are on the verge of losing our farm. So here you and I are both praying day and night for God to keep that from happening, believing He will provide for us some way or another. What if this is the answer? What if the way He has decided to help us means us swallowing our pride and receiving help from a stranger? Wouldn't it be wrong to refuse that help?"
Zack moved about restlessly, his internal struggle showing on the chiseled features of his face.
"Can you at least do this: can you pray about it first?" Katie requested softly.
"All right, Katie, I will." He got up from the table. "I'm going to go check the animals."
Katie knew that was code for Zack going off to pray for a while. "Okay."
When Zack reappeared forty minutes later, he had a peaceful look in his eyes. "Can I see the ring, Katie?"
Katie nodded and went to retrieve the ring from their room. She held it, cupped in the palm of her hand, out to Zack. He picked it up gingerly and examined it.
"I don't know how much it's worth, but I could probably get a better price for it in Kansas City," Zack commented.
"So you've decided to accept it?"
Zack nodded. "You were right, Katie. It was my pride that was stung at first when I thought about taking help like this. The Lord showed me that right quick out there in the barn. Once I got past it, I knew it really was Him sending us help. It's true that we don't have money for the mortgage this time around, and the crop was not going to bring in enough money for us to ever catch up on the payments. I've been nearly in despair over what to do."
"I know." Katie put her arm around him and leaned her head against his shoulder. "I saw it. That's why I'm so thankful that the Lord has sent us help. I didn't like seeing you struggle like that."
"I have been putting off a trip to Kansas City anyway. My brother has been wanting me to go up that way with him to look at some stock. I could go into the city one day and sell it to a jeweler."
"When will you go?"
"At the end of the week, if Nate can go that soon."
"I hope he can."
Katie packed Zack a good lunch early Friday morning in anticipation of his trip up to the city. His brother had been able to go that week, and the twosome planned to take a mid-morning train. Zack kissed Katie good-bye at nine a.m., took his lunch, and headed off down the road in their old truck to fetch his brother.
Katie could not wait until they returned on Monday. She didn't like it when Zack was away, because it made the quietness of the farm even more pronounced. She was happy when her mother showed up Saturday morning to keep her company most of the day. Sunday passed quickly for Katie, her morning spent at church in Clinton and the afternoon at her parent's house. Her pa drove her back home in the early evening, and graciously stayed to help her with the chores before heading back to town. Monday morning dawned bright and hopeful for Katie. Zack would be back after lunch, bringing news as to whether the sale of the ring would be enough to cover their bills.
Katie heard the disgruntled sound of the truck's engine just as she was pulling the bread she had been baking out of the oven. Quickly setting the bread on the stove top, she rushed outside to greet Zack.
"Hello, honey," he swept her up with a grin and a kiss. "How is everything?"
"Just fine, dear. Are you hungry?"
"No, I ate at Nate's house." He pulled his bag out of the back of the truck.
Katie noticed a box and some other things in the truck bed. "What's all that?"
"I'll tell you in a minute," he said with a wink. He put an arm around her shoulders. "First, let's go inside so I can tell you about our trip."
Katie went back to the house with Zack. He plunked down at the kitchen table while she poured him a cup of coffee from the pot she had made at lunchtime.
"Well?" she asked, eyes wide with anticipation as he took a drink of the coffee.
"Well, Katie, I am happy to report that not only did the ring bring us enough to pay our mortgage, but also enough to lay some money by in case we have troubles with the crop again."
"Oh, thank-you, Lord!" Katie clasped her hands together with delight.
"And, I even had enough to get you that kitchen faucet you've been needing in here for some time. That was the stuff in the back of the truck. I picked it up in town, and a plumber friend of mine is going to come help me install everything next week."
Katie could hardly contain her excitement. She jumped up and threw her arms around Zack's neck.
"I'm glad to see that makes you so happy," he laughed.
"I wanted to install that bathroom for you also, but decided it would be better to save some of the money instead."
"That's okay, Zack. I think that was a wise decision. I can live for a while longer without the bathroom, especially now that I will have a working kitchen faucet." Katie hugged him again, then went back to her chair.
Zack took her hands and held them on the table between them. "Let's stop and give thanks to the Lord for a minute. He has worked a miracle for us, and I want to praise Him for it."
Katie nodded and joined wholeheartedly in prayer with Zack. She wished she could also thank the elderly lady that had been used to bless them so generously. Though Katie never was able to find out where in California Mrs. Thompson had gone, she asked God to send Mrs. Thompson a special word of thanks on her and Zack's behalf. That chance meeting on the roadside had turned out to be an unexpected blessing that Katie would never forget.