Later, when he thought back, Milwaukee would wonder why the bishop and ministers had said nothing to him about Tabitha. By ten in the morning when they met with him they would have known, but they did not speak a word concerning the missing girl, even though they must have realized there was a close friendship between Tabitha’s older sister and himself. But no, they had asked him about his Rumspringa habits of the past two years, if he could give up movies and motorbikes, if he was ready to follow Christ as a true believer and be baptized into the Amish faith and settle down in Marietta.
“Esau tells us you are good with the horses and the hooves and the horseshoes, so?” said Bishop Eby.
“I love the work,” Milwaukee replied.
“Of course Esau may never retire. Then what will you do for a job?”
Milwaukee was surprised by the question. “I – I’m not sure. I suppose I would help my father with the dairy herd like my two older brothers. It’s just that I was hoping to do something – a little different – ”
The bishop and pastors had smiled. “We only pull the good leg, eh, Master Bachman,” the bishop said. “When we spoke with Esau about all this he admitted he wanted to slow down and spend more time with his grandchildren.”
“Slow down?” Milwaukee raised his eyebrows. “He said that?”
“Ja, it is surprising. He may even mean it. We think you are all right on that score. But you, the bike, can you put it aside and come back to the horse and buggy?”
Milwaukee shrugged. “I have enjoyed the bike as most Amish have enjoyed the plowshare. But it matters more to me to be among you, to live and die among you, as one of you, not live a life as an outsider.”
“Yes?” challenged one of the pastors, Dorcas Smucker’s father.
“Yes.” Milwaukee responded with some strength.
The bishop ran his stubby fingers through a long gray beard and nodded.
It was Esau who wound up telling him about Tabitha when Milwaukee showed up at his house just before noon once the meeting with the leadership had concluded. He always had lunch with Esau and his wife and after they ate he and Esau usually headed out to the stables. This time the older man paused under a shade tree, took off his black hat, and wiped his forehead with a red bandana.
“It is warm for May.”
“It is,” Milwaukee agreed.
“The flies will drive the horses crazy.” He put his hat back on and looked at the dozen or so mares and geldings in his pasture. “Tabitha Troyer began her Rumspringa yesterday.”
“Yes, I know.”
“So she never came home.”
Milwaukee was surprised. “Not at all? What about Nick Ferley?”
“No. He did not return home either.”
“Nick and Tabitha – they did not call? The Troyers have heard nothing from Tabitha’s English friends?”
Esau took off his hat again as if the news was too solemn to permit him to wear it. “There is no word.” He looked at Milwaukee. “I think you should go to the Troyer home.”
Milwaukee felt the same way, but realistically what could he do except say words that might lighten their hearts for few seconds? “I don’t think I can make much of a difference. What they need is Tabitha back. Someone needs to go out and look for her. The police need to go out and look for her.”
Esau nodded, still gazing at the horses. “There is work in the stables to do. But the Troyers need God’s people now while she is missing. It will not be so important once she has returned to them.” He put his hat back on his head. “Speaking into the Troyers’ hearts is also holy work for a farrier. Did you walk?”
“Come. We’ll hitch my gelding to the buggy.”
It took only ten minutes to reach the Troyer house. As they pulled into the drive the sheriff’s car was just coming down the lane. He gave them a nod and turned onto the main road. Mr. Troyer was still standing in the yard.
“God be with you, Simon,” said Esau. “We have heard about Tabitha and wish to pray with you and your wife.”
“Come into the house, both of you. There is coffee. Rebecca is with a few of the women in the back. We won’t bother them.”
He looked very tired as he turned to walk up the steps to the porch, his legs moving slowly and his hand resting on the railing for support. Halfway up he looked back at Milwaukee. “Perhaps you should talk with Michal. You are friends. Of course there is coffee here at the table for you. But if you would spend a few minutes with her.”
“Of course, Mr. Troyer. Is she in the house?”
Michal’s father jerked his head in the direction of the barn.
She was rubbing down Sprinkles with a brush, slowly and rhythmically. Old Brownie was at her feet and Kitkat was curled up next to the bloodhound’s chest. The horse stood quietly, now and then swinging its head back and biting at a fly that had made its way through the barn door. Michal was wearing a dark blue dress with a black apron and a white prayer Kapp. She kept her back to Milwaukee even though he knew she had heard his footsteps on the boards and straw. He removed his broad-brimmed black hat and held it in his hands. A shaft of sunlight, full of spinning bits of dust, covered Michal’s arms and the small spots on the horse’s back.
“Tabitha did not run away,” she said in a quiet voice that nevertheless made Sprinkles prick up her ears. “People that run do not wait to say goodbye. She could have slipped out at three in the morning. Nick could have met her a quarter mile down the road. No one would have heard a thing. But she let us see her, him, the bike. She kissed all of us, waved to the boys, spent time with Sprinkles. Now I see what she was doing. Not running. But going. Truly going and not coming back.”
Milwaukee stayed where he was. “Have you heard from her at all?”
“Not us. But Sheriff Bueller has. For him she is 16, it is a Rumspringa thing. Unless a law is broken she is an adult and making her own decisions. But to be sure there was nothing of the abduction in her disappearance, the sheriff put out a notice. Police in Virginia pulled them over.”
“They were almost in the Carolinas. The sheriff said they took the 95 south from Philly. State police told him the two were fine and she was obviously happy to be with Nick and on the road. There was no sign of duress or that she was being forced to remain in Nick’s company against her will. Really, there was no reason at all for the state troopers to detain them. They weren’t even speeding and they were riding in compliance with Virginia motorcycle laws. But Tabitha agreed to talk with Sheriff Bueller so they patched her through.”
Michal found some mud on one of Sprinkles’ legs and picked up an oval currycomb in the straw. She began to rub at the gray dirt to loosen it. Milwaukee waited.
“So?” Michal spoke up again. “She tells Bueller it would have been much too difficult to have told us what she planned to do. There would have been tears, perhaps a fight with mother and father. She wanted to leave in peace and love and that was how she did leave. Yes, she knew it would be hard on us once we realized she was gone, and she was half-expecting the police to pull them over before they vanished into the Great Smoky Mountains, but she felt that was still better than a big scene at the house with the boys watching all the anger and pain.”
She put down the currycomb and picked up the brush once more. Dust raced about furiously in the sunlight as she applied it vigorously to the horse’s leg.
“St. Nick had left a note for his parents, hoping to spare them some of the shock, but they never found it until an hour ago. So not so bad a boy, hm? The sheriff told me I was to look under Tabitha’s pillow. Do you see that paperback on the stool near the door?”
Milwaukee picked the book up. It was well thumbed. The cover showed an old man with a dog sitting on a grassy knoll. The title was Travels with Charley, In Search of America. He flipped through the first few pages. At the front was an inscription written in flawless handwriting: Meet me and God in Arizona. Seriously. Love, Tabitha.
Michal finally glanced back at him. “You are looking very plain today.”
“Yes. It is an ‘almost Amish’ day.”
“How did your talk with Bishop Eby go?”
“It went well.”
“So. At least your world is right-side up.”
“Oh!” burst Michal. “Don’t be sorry! Why should you be sorry that your head is screwed on right?” She dropped down in the straw, tears cutting across her face. He stepped toward her, but she quickly put up her hand. “No, no, stay where you are, last night was enough, more than enough. I let things go too far. We have no future together. What is the point? You are Amish, I am not. You belong here, I don’t. But where shall I go?” She sank her head into her hands. “She makes it sound so easy. Arizona might as well be on the moon.”
“It’s not so far, Michal – ”
She snapped her head up and glared at him through her swollen eyes and tears. “So I will also vanish down the highway on the back of someone’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle? And then what? Mother and father have no more daughters. They worry themselves sick and before I return they are dead and buried from grief. How can I go now? How can I head out into this big, beautiful world of yours and find this me, myself and I who is missing or find this God I have lost sight of? Impossible. Truly, it would kill them. I am stuck here.” She put her head down again. “But do not get your hopes up. Not for you to marry and kiss goodnight. I would not wish that on my best friend and you are my best friend, Milwaukee. I would make you miserable – half of me here, half of me there, a bit of me gone east, another bit gone north. I’m the girl who’s all over the map. No, I do not inflict myself on you any further. Get baptized and find a good Amish woman, really, a good one, hardworking, pretty, committed to God, head over heels in love with you, okay? Find her and build a life on the Susquehanna. I’ll stay in this house and be the Amish Jungfer, the spinster, take care of my parents, read postcards from Tabitha who will be in Paris or Barcelona or Rome. Maybe the pieces shall come together for me that way and God bestow his blessing. Who knows? But you go, go now, yes, go.”
Milwaukee was stunned by the turn of events that had completely altered his relationship with Michal from the night before. “I – don’t know what to tell you. I wish we could pick up where we left off last night.”
“Well, we can’t!” she almost shouted.
“I am fond of you, Michal.”
But she did not respond or raise her head.
“I will pray for you,” he murmured, not knowing what else to say.
“Good. Pray all you want. Surely God will listen to you where he will not listen to me. Fast, pray, sing hymns. But just go now. Go, go.”
Milwaukee placed the paperback back on the stool.
Her head came up, the tears still running from her eyes. “Did you see what she did with the cover?”
Milwaukee, who felt like his chest was full of lead, glanced at the book. “No.”
“The title. She crossed out the C in Charley.”
He looked more closely and realized the cover said Travels with Harley, In Search of America. She saw his smile and laughed a little. “Cute?”
He nodded. “Sure, cute.” But inside himself it was still gray and heavy and dark. She saw that too, she knew what it was that came bleakly out of his eyes, but there was nothing she could do about it. Life was what it was that afternoon and she could not mould it into the shape she wished.
Ah, but I have hurt you badly. I am sorry, so sorry, to pass on the pain, but I am filled to the brim and it just spurts out of me. Goodbye, my once upon a time friend.
Milwaukee left the barn, placed his hat on his head, and started down the lane. He had not gone a hundred feet before the door to the house opened and Michal’s father leaned out.
“Master Bachman. Come and have that coffee now.”
“Oh, danke, but I must get on.”
Mr. Troyer beckoned with his hand. “Please, I have a favor to ask of you, a very big favor. Come. Come.”
He waited in the doorway until Milwaukee reached him. “And my daughter is how?”
“Not so good, Mr. Troyer. I’m afraid I was not able to help her much.”
“You don’t know. With Michal, you think it is a no, a day or two later and she is telling you it was always yes, that you misinterpreted her.”
Esau nodded as Milwaukee took off his hat and sat at the kitchen table. Mr. Troyer stood over him.
“So. Coffee? Cold buttermilk? Lemonade?”
“You know, Mr. Troyer, I think a glass of buttermilk.”
He set a glass by Milwaukee’s hand and then brought a ceramic pitcher from the icebox and poured. Milwaukee drank half of it off in one swallow. Mr. Troyer filled his glass a second time.
“Gute?” he asked Milwaukee, pleased at the young man’s thirst.
“Sehr gute. Danke schoen.”
Mr. Troyer sat down. “Such a day to wake up to. This is why we must always surround ourselves with prayer. Only God knows what is coming along the fence line so it is best to remain close by his side.”
Esau murmured amen.
Michal’s father tapped a finger on the tabletop. “So what does the sheriff tell me, young man? Did my daughter explain?”
“But she did not tell you this other because she had already gone off to the barn. Daniel Bueller looks me in the eye and tells me not to think of going and getting Tabitha and bringing her back here. She is an adult he says a hundred times. I bring her back to Marietta against her will and it is abduction. Kidnapping. The law will arrest me. A father tries to rescue his youngest daughter, but this is a crime. How does that sit with you?”
Milwaukee said nothing.
Mr. Troyer continued to tap his finger. “What does he think? I will mount a posse as if I live my life in the middle of a John Wayne western? I, who have no car, no truck, will catch up to her? I, who own no weapons, will put a gun to young Nicholas’ head and order him back to Pennsylvania? I understand the only way in which I can influence my daughter and her boyfriend is to reason with them. Come, let us reason together, saith the Lord. Only this holy reasoning and prayer can turn the two of them around. The prayer can be done from anywhere. I do not need to leave Marietta to pray for my youngest daughter. But the reasoning – how shall this be accomplished? There is no telephone, we have no idea if she will write, and even if she writes, how do we write back to someone who is in Pennsylvania one day and North Carolina the next? What do you think?” He looked at Milwaukee.
Milwaukee was holding his empty glass. “I don’t know, sir.”
“Even while the sheriff is warning me about what I cannot do I am thinking and praying about what is possible. How can I talk to her? How can I reason with her?” He looked at Milwaukee more closely. “So?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Troyer.”
“I cannot. It is simple. I cannot. In her present state of mind she will not reason with me.” The finger tap. “But her sister she will listen to anytime.” He glanced across the room at nothing and nodded. “Michal can reason with Tabitha.” He stared at Esau and then at Milwaukee. Raising his hands he moved them together slowly and deliberately until the fingers were interlaced with one another. “How to bring them together?”
The grandfather clock struck four in the afternoon. Mr. Troyer waited until the final gong was finished, running his hand over his mouth and dark beard. Then he got up, brought glasses for Esau and himself along with the pitcher of cool buttermilk, and poured enough for all three to have a good drink. Then he sat down, sipped at his glass, and leaned back in his chair.
“But,” he began again, “there will of course need to be more prayer to God Almighty, more discussion amongst the people. My wife I must speak with, and Bishop Eby, and Pastor Smucker, and the others in leadership. Your parents must be consulted, Master Bachman, and yourself naturally, as well as the one you are apprenticed to here, Esau. And Michal, I will hear what my eldest has to say, yes, much talk, much prayer, nothing is well that that is done hastily.” He seemed to drift off, staring past Esau and Milwaukee and through the wall on the other side of the kitchen. Then suddenly he learned forward and grasped Milwaukee’s arm, his dark eyes only inches from the young man’s face, fingers digging into skin and bone with a desperate strength.
“But this, this,” he said with an intensity that almost frightened Milwaukee, “it comes to this. For the love of Christ, I ask you not to take your vows this month, not to be baptized, to forego joining the Amish faith. I know it is too much, far too much for you to consider, but it is a father who asks, yes, begs, for this same love of Christ, that you take that motorcycle of yours and go out on the highways and back roads of America, for as long as you must, until you find my daughter. And I ask you to take Michal, my Michal, on what I know can only be a very hard and long road, with you.”
Milwaukee was stunned. “I’m sorry, Mr. Troyer. Am I hearing you right? You cannot be serious, can you?”
Mr. Troyer locked his eyes on Milwaukee’s, his fingers still gripping the young man’s arm. “There are very few things I have been more serious about. I plead with you – go, take your motorbike, and find Tabitha.”