Her confusion led me to think Carty was a woman of advanced years-the more so since she'd purportedly been a crack poet more than 40 years ago. I was wrong. In a later email, Carty explained she had been a "child prodigy, born on Albert Einstein's birthday," with an I.Q. of 137 and that she could read and write by age four. Now 47, she claims she penned "Footprints" in 1963-a year before Powers-when she was six.

Carty composed "Footprints," she says, as she grieved the death of her grandfather. Her inspirations were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John F. Kennedy.

Lloyd Kelly, a friend of Powers' family, firmly believes that Powers wrote "Footprints." It was Kelly who urged Powers to write her book for Harper Collins, where he is a vice president. "Margaret is a very sweet, very good person," Kelly told me. "I'd known her and her family for a long time, and I knew that she had written a lot of good poetry. She didn't need to convince me." (Powers' self-published 1986 collection, "From Heart to Heart: Poems and Poetry," includes "Footprints.")

"I told her she should take legal action against all these people taking credit," Kelly says. "But she kept saying no, that it wasn't in the spirit of the poem to do such a thing. She was far more concerned that the poem remain in the marketplace because it was inspiring people all over the world." Finally, Kelly convinced Powers to write a book, "to make things as right as possible by telling your story."

"We got more than 50 letters right away from people insisting that they had written 'Footprints,'" Kelly told me. "One was from a minister's wife who'd been telling her church for years that she was the author. It must have been embarrassing when Margaret's book came out." More than a decade later, the letters are still coming. "I think most of these people really are convinced that they actually wrote 'Footprints'," says Kelly.

More cynical minds would suspect that many are out to stake out some fame and make a buck. Still, it's hard to know what to think about comments like this one on Powers' Amazon page: "Margaret Fishback Powers did not write 'Footprints in the Sand.' It was written by Floyd Keaton of Red Oak, Iowa during WWII.. Please contact the Montgomery County Historical Society in Red Oak for more information."

An assistant at the historical society told me that Keaton claimed he wrote "Footprints" in June 1944, after he fought at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He copyrighted the poem in 1997, she said, though I couldn't find it in copyright records.

One thing Carty, Stevenson, and Powers share is tragedy. Margaret Powers' 106-page memoir begins with her daughter Paula falling into a whirlpool and over a 68-foot waterfall, landing in a 40-foot-deep glacier pool. At the same moment, Powers' husband, Paul, collapsed with a heart attack. Twice a year, Paul got pneumonia and once tripped and broke his leg "like a yard stick cracking." (To their amazement, God, answering the family's prayers, instantaneously healed the broken bones.)

In 1963, Powers, then a teacher, was leading a class when a bolt of lightning flashed through an open window and struck her. Sparks "flew from the ends of my fingers," she wrote, and she was thrown to the ground. She got up, dusted herself off, and continued teaching. She has been hit by a truck, her heart stopped during child delivery, and a bee sting almost killed her. A close friend, a composer who was planning to set "Footprints" to music as a wedding gift to Margaret and Paul, was "fatally injured in an inner-city accident" before their 1965 nuptials. Paula was nearly killed when a Harley Davidson fell on her.

Powers draws spiritual assurance from these events. Contemplating whether she was spending too much time on the road with her Christian ministry, she says God "got my attention" with a sudden tornado. "Animals were being blown away," she writes, "and we watched, horror-stricken, as a van we'd been following, loaded with nuns, was blown right off the hill." Shaken, Powers turned this tragedy into a poem about Jesus called, "Letter from a Friend," in which the Lord says, "Then I shouted to you in a tornado.I have a special task for you. I hope you will talk to me soon."

It's tempting to say that "Footprints" was the task the Lord had in mind. But the poem had been written years before, when she and Paul had become engaged and she was steeling herself to tell her family. As he recounted in his own book, "Too Tough to Cry," Paul had a troubled past, beginning with the early death of his mother, a violently drunken father whose prostitute companion turned tricks in the house, and Paul's arrest for murder at age 12. Converted to Christianity while on release from prison, he met Margaret in the bookstore where he worked.

As the couple strolled the beach discussing their bleak prospects for marriage, Powers writes, they noticed their footprints. After a moment of silence, Paul said: "Margie, when the most troublesome times come, that neither one of us can handle, that's when the Lord will carry us both." Powers made a poetic connection between their footprints in the sand and Paul's comment about trusting in God.