The Stranger at the Door (Part II)

When the warm soup slid down Ben’s throat, his senses drooled with pleasure. Whether from deep hunger or the spicy soup, nothing ever tasted quite so good. His eyes roamed around the room for the first time since he’d been pulled from the hard floor. Noticing the kerosene lamp on the table, he presumed electricity had yet to make its way to this rural area. Hence, the woodstove and the small icebox in the corner. Open cupboards lined the walls on each side of the dry sink and an adjoining pantry revealed shelves overflowing with mason jars. It’d been months since he’d feasted his eyes on such abundance.

The gingham curtains at the windows caught his eye. They matched those on the door to the outside and the cloth covering the table. The coordinating napkin he’d placed in his lap seemed out of place, but it spoke of attention to detail not usually found in a remote farmhouse.

In contrast to the quiet peace and order of the room, its owner flitted about nervously as though undecided as to what to do with her unexpected guest. Unbeknownst to her, he’d have been satisfied with a bed of hay in a dry barn before he took a whiff of the delicious soup. But now that he’d tasted it, his stomach screamed to be filled.

Although he would’ve preferred a hot cup of coffee, she insisted he needed the nourishment of milk. When he shivered at the first cold sip, she jerked the glass away, poured it into a pan and set it to warm on the stove. The amount of butter she slathered on his bread made him wonder. He felt a bit like a pig being fattened for slaughter, but he dared not complain. This was his first meal in over a week and it tasted like a banquet to his starving body.

As he forced himself to slowly partake of the food, his mind drifted back over the last few months. Walking from town to town, doing odd jobs for food and a place to lay his head, he’d worked his way east to escape the turmoil surrounding the farm in Western Pennsylvania. The last few days drizzled with cold rain and his body ached all over with fever and chills. Even when hunger gnawed his insides, he refused to steal or beg for food. The last thing he wanted was to sneak a ride with the railroad, but when he couldn’t walk another mile, he hopped a train going south.

The box car appeared deserted as he crawled into a far corner to escape the wind that rushed through the sliding door. Without the energy to close it, he curled into a fetal ball on the bare floor and prayed for death to claim him. He remembered clearly his feeble cry, “God, have mercy on me. Forgive me and give me the grace to forgive. Take me home to heaven to be with Libby.”

After the prayer of surrender, his delirious mind forced him into nightmares filled with the sensation of falling, crawling through brambles, and running from the sounds of wild dogs. His clothes, torn and wet, allowed the cold to seep into every crevice of his being. He struggled to reach the bright light he saw in the distance. When he finally regained full consciousness, he found himself in this very kitchen, surrounded by warmth and comfort, clouded only by his painful memories.

Feeling a sudden loss from the warmth of the stove, Ben looked up from his meal directly into the eyes of the woman. She leaned against the table with her arms crossed over her chest as though assessing him from head to toe. Compared to Libby, she appeared small and weak, but he’d already experienced a hidden strength within that tantalizingly beautiful body. How else could she have assisted him from the floor? Her reassuring smile lit up her face, displaying matching dimples. The dark eyes seemed displaced against the strands of blonde hair managing to escape the tight bun.

Libby was never considered pretty, even by her own father who traded her hand in marriage for the promised title to his farm. But his wife was beautiful inside where it counted most. That’s what drew him to her, made him fall in love and accept her father’s tempting offer. How he longed for the warmth and love of her arms, but she’d died along with his promised farm and any hope for the future.

Remorse filled him when the woman continued to stare. He hadn’t even thanked her for the meal. He attempted to clear his voice several times, but tears draining down the back of his throat rendered him mute. How could a dying man express his gratitude to a savior?

“Is everything okay, sir?”

“I don’t know what to say. You saved my life. Most people would have tossed me out. I don’t even know how I got here.”

The woman seemed to relax as she sat down across from him. Cradling her cup of coffee, she smiled as if she knew something he didn’t. “You’ll figure it out, I’m sure. My name is Abigail Marlowe and I’m happy you found your way to my door.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Marlowe. I’m Ben Larsen and I’m very much in your debt. If you’ll allow me to spend the night in your barn, I won’t trouble you further. I’ll be on my way in the morning.”

At the mention of his leaving, the woman first showed signs of panic, but her distress soon gave way to mischievous twinkling eyes. “You can’t leave before you’re strong enough to travel. Besides, as you mentioned, you have a debt to repay. Why are you in a hurry to leave? Do you have somewhere special you need to be?”

“No, I just thought it would be easier for you, ma’am. Do you have a family?”

Fear and discomfort swept over Mrs. Marlowe’s face as the clock in the other room struck eight times. Without answering his question, she jumped from the table and went into a frenzied rush. “It’s getting late. I think you’d feel better with a bath. The water’s hot on the stove. After I bring in the tub and a change of clothes, do you think you could manage alone? I’ll be out in the barn with my son, Micah, for a while, but I’ll send him in to check on you in a few minutes.”

Mrs. Marlowe didn’t give him a chance to respond, but drug the heavy tub from the pantry to a spot close to the stove, and went about preparing the water for his bath. Feeling as useless as a limp washcloth, he didn’t have the strength to protest. How would he ever get in and out of the tub? Regardless, he felt obligated to at least try. At this point, he was incapable of contradicting anything she might suggest.

As soon as the angel closed the door, Ben worked in slow motion to remove his tattered, filthy clothes. He almost slipped on the wet floor and considered ignoring the tub in favor of a soft place to sleep instead. Not wanting to disappoint the kind woman and realizing his need to wash away the grime, he struggled to step into the oversized tub. When he finally immersed into the warm, soothing water and rubbed the soap over his rough skin, he sensed God’s healing presence. Stillness and contentment washed over him as he felt it cleansing away all the disappointments, hurts and longing from the past. For the first time in months he felt hope rising deep within.  His last thought was a reassuring voice whispering, Trust me.

~~~

Abigail had barely made it out the door, when Micah grabbed her, “What are you doing, Mama? That man is nothing but a hobo and you left him in the house alone. He’ll rob us blind. He could’ve killed you. Daddy wouldn’t like it.”

“Well, Daddy shouldn’t have left us with all this work. That man in there is God’s answer to our prayer. He’s going to help us finish the harvest and if we treat him nice, perhaps he’ll agree to stay on through next year.”

“Mama, you don’t know what kind of person he is.”

“Why would God send us something bad, Micah? Besides, I have a good feeling about this. By Thanksgiving our hearts will overflow with gratitude to God for the timely gift of Mr. Ben Larsen.”

(To be continued.)

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