A Creed Country Christmas
Celebrate the holidays with the Creed forefathers—Montana men who built the family homestead and established a legacy of love…
In the unforgiving Montana wilderness of 1910, widowed rancher Lincoln Creed is up against more than rustlers, wolves and the coming winter storms. His young daughter has needs beyond the beans and bacon he can barely cook. Lincoln must find little Gracie a governess, a lady who can teach and cook—yet won’t set her sights on him.
Disowned for her refusal to marry, twenty-five-year-old Juliana Mitchell shares the love in her heart with her young students at the underfunded Indian school. When she meets Lincoln and Gracie, her response to the handsome rancher makes her realize she’s not against marriage after all.
She longs to help, yet the two orphaned brothers in her care need her. But in the season for miracles, Providence just might find a way to bring Juliana, the boys and the Creed family together for Christmas Eve….
Stillwater Springs, Montana
December 20, 1910
The interior of Willand’s Mercantile, redolent of saddle leather and wood smoke, seemed to recede as Juliana Mitchell stood at the counter, holding her breath.
The letter had finally arrived.
The letter Juliana had waited for, prayed for, repeatedly inquired after—at considerable cost to her pride—and, paradoxically, dreaded.
Her heart hitched painfully as she accepted the envelope from the storekeeper’s outstretched hand; the handwriting, a slanted scrawl penned in black ink, was definitely her brother Clay’s. The postmark read Denver.
In the distance, the snow-muffled shrill of a train whistle announced the imminent arrival of the four o’clock from Missoula, which passed through town only once a week, bound for points south.
Juliana was keenly aware of the four children still in her charge, waiting just inside the door of a place where they knew they were patently unwelcome. She turned away from the counter—and the storekeeper’s disapproving gaze—to fumble with the circle of red wax bearing Clay’s imposing seal.
Please, God, she prayed silently. Please.
After drawing a deep breath and releasing it slowly, Juliana bit her lower lip, took out the single sheet folded inside.
Her heart, heretofore wedged into her throat, plummeted to the soles of her practical shoes. Her vision blurred.
Her brother hadn’t enclosed the desperately needed funds she’d asked for—money that was rightfully her own, a part of the legacy her grandmother had left her. She could not purchase train tickets for herself and her charges, and the Indian School, their home and hers for the past two years, was no longer government property. The small but sturdy building had been sold to a neighboring farmer, and he planned to stable cows inside it.
Now the plank floor seemed to buckle slightly under Juliana’s feet. The heat from the potbellied stove in the center of the store, so welcome only a few minutes before when she and the children had come in out of the blustery cold, all of them dappled with fat flakes of snow, threatened to smother Juliana now.
The little bell over the door jingled, indicating the arrival of another customer, but Juliana did not look up from the page in her hand. The words swam before her, making no more sense to her fitful mind than ancient Hebrew would have done.
A brief, frenzied hope stirred within Juliana. Perhaps all was not lost, perhaps Clay, not trusting the postal service, had wired the money she needed. It might be waiting for her, at that very moment, just down the street at the telegraph office.
Her eyes stung with the swift and sobering realization that she was grasping at straws. She blinked and forced herself to read what her older brother and legal guardian had written.
My Dear Sister,
I trust this letter will find you well.
Nora, the children and I are all in robust health. Your niece and nephew constantly inquire as to your whereabouts, as do certain other parties.
I regret that I cannot in good conscience remit the funds you have requested, for reasons that should be obvious to you…
Juliana crumpled the sheet of expensive vellum, nearly ill with disappointment and the helpless frustration that generally resulted from any dealings with her brother, direct or indirect.
“Are you all right, miss?” a male voice asked, strong and quiet.
Startled, Juliana looked up, saw a tall man standing directly in front of her. His eyes and hair were dark, the round brim of his hat and the shoulders of his long coat dusted with snow.
Waiting politely for her answer, he took off his hat. Hung it from the post of a wooden chair, smiled.
“I’m Lincoln Creed,” he said, gruffly kind, pulling off a leather glove before extending his hand.
Juliana hesitated, offered her own hand in return. She knew the name, of course—the Creeds owned the largest cattle ranch in that part of the state, and the Stillwater Springs Courier, too. Although Juliana had had encounters with Weston, the brother who ran the newspaper, and briefly met the Widow Creed, the matriarch of the family, she’d never crossed paths with Lincoln.
“Juliana Mitchell,” she said, with the proper balance of reticence and politeness. She’d been gently raised, after all. A hundred years ago—a thousand—she’d called one of the finest mansions in Denver home. She’d worn imported silks and velvets and fashionable hats, ridden in carriages with liveried drivers and even footmen.
Remembering made her faintly ashamed.
All that, of course, had been before her fall from social grace.
Before Clay, as administrator of their grandmother’s estate, had all but disinherited her.
Mr. Creed dropped his gaze to the letter. “Bad news?” he asked, with an unsettling note of discernment. He might have had Indian blood himself, with his high cheekbones and raven-black hair.
The train whistle gave another triumphant squeal. It had pulled into the rickety little depot at the edge of town, right on schedule. Passengers would alight, others would board. Mail and freight would be loaded and unloaded. And then the engine would chug out of the station, the line of cars rattling behind it.
A full week would pass before another train came through.
In the meantime, Juliana and the children would have no choice but to throw themselves upon the uncertain mercies of the townspeople. In a larger community, she might have turned to a church for assistance, but there weren’t any in Stillwater Springs. The faithful met sporadically, in the one-room schoolhouse where only white students were allowed when the circuit preacher came through.
Juliana swallowed, wanting to cry, and determined that she wouldn’t. “I’m afraid it is bad news,” she admitted in belated answer to Mr. Creed’s question.
He took a gentle hold on her elbow, escorted her to one of the empty wooden chairs over by the potbellied stove. Sat her down. “Did somebody die?” he asked.
Numb with distraction, Juliana shook her head.
What in the world was she going to do now? Without money, she could not purchase train tickets for herself and the children, or even arrange for temporary lodgings of some sort.
Mr. Creed inclined his head toward the children lined up in front of the display window, with its spindly but glittering Christmas tree. They’d turned their backs now, to look at the decorations and the elaborate toys tucked into the branches and arranged attractively underneath.
“I guess you must be the teacher from out at the Indian School,” he said.
Mr. Willand, the mercantile’s proprietor, interrupted with a harrumph sound.
Juliana ached as she watched the children. The storekeeper was keeping a close eye on them, too. Like so many people, he reasoned that simply because they were Indians, they were sure to steal, afforded the slightest opportunity. “Yes,” she replied, practiced at ignoring such attitudes, if not resigned to them. “Or, at least, I was. The school is closed now.”
Lincoln Creed nodded after skewering Mr. Willand with a glare. “I was sorry to hear it,” he told her.
“No letters came since you were in here last week, Lincoln,” Willand broke in, with some satisfaction. The very atmosphere of that store, overheated and close, seemed to bristle with mutual dislike. “Reckon you can wait around and see if there were any on today’s train, but my guess is you wasted your money, putting all those advertisements in all them newspapers.”
“Everyone is sorry, Mr. Creed,” Juliana said quietly. “But no one seems inclined to help.”
Momentarily distracted by Mr. Willand’s remark, Lincoln didn’t respond immediately. When he did, his voice was nearly drowned out by the scream of the train whistle.
Juliana stood up, remembered anew that her situation was hopeless, and sat down again, hard, all the strength gone from her knees. Perhaps she’d used it up, walking the two miles into town from the school, with every one of her worldly possessions tucked into a single worn-out satchel. Each of the children had carried a small bundle, too, leaving them on the sidewalk outside the door of the mercantile with Juliana’s bag.
“There’s a storm coming, Miss—er—Mitchell,” Lincoln Creed said. “It’s cold and getting colder, and it’ll be dark soon. I didn’t see a rig outside, so I figure you must have walked to town. I’ve got my team and buck-board outside, and I’d be glad to give you and those kids a ride to wherever you’re headed.”
Tears welled in Juliana’s eyes, shaming her, and her throat tightened painfully. Wherever she was headed? Nowhere was where she was headed.
Stillwater Springs had a hotel and several boarding houses, but even if she’d had the wherewithal to pay for a room and meals, most likely none of them would have accepted the children, anyway.
They’d hurried so, trying to get to Stillwater Springs before the train left, Juliana desperately counting on the funds from Clay even against her better judgment, but there had been delays. Little Daisy falling and skinning one knee, a huge band of sheep crossing the road and blocking their way, the limp that plagued twelve-year-old Theresa, with her twisted foot.
Lincoln broke into her thoughts. “Miss Mitchell?” he prompted.
Mr. Willand slammed something down hard on the counter, causing Juliana to start. “Don’t you touch none of that merchandise!” he shouted, and Joseph, the eldest of Juliana’s pupils at fourteen, pulled his hand back from the display window. “Damn thievin’ Injuns—”
Poor Joseph looked crestfallen. Theresa, his sister, trembled, while the two littlest children, Billy-Moses, who was four, and Daisy, three, rushed to Juliana and clung to her skirts in fear.
“The boy wasn’t doing any harm, Fred,” Lincoln told the storekeeper evenly, rising slowly out of his chair. “No need to raise your voice, or accuse him, either.”
Mr. Willand reddened. “You have a grocery order?” he asked, glowering at Lincoln Creed.
“Just came by to see if I had mail,” Lincoln said, with a shake of his head. “Couldn’t get here before now, what with the hard weather coming on.” He paused, turned to Juliana. “Best we get you to wherever it is you’re going,” he said.
“We don’t have anyplace to go, mister,” Joseph said, still standing near the display window, but careful to keep his hands visible at his sides. Since he rarely spoke, especially to strangers, Juliana was startled.
And as desperate as she was, the words chafed her pride.
Lincoln frowned, obviously confused. “What?”
“They might take us in over at the Diamond Buckle Saloon,” Theresa said, lifting her chin. “If we work for our keep.”
Lincoln stared at the girl, confounded. “The Diamond Buckle… ?”
Juliana didn’t trust herself to speak without breaking down completely. If she did not remain strong, the children would have no hope at all.
“Mr. Weston Creed said he’d teach me to set type,” Joseph reminded Juliana. “Bet I could sleep in the back room at the newspaper, and I don’t need much to eat. You wouldn’t have to fret about me, Miss Mitchell.” He glanced worriedly at his sister, swallowed hard. He was old enough to understand the dangers a place like the Diamond Buckle might harbor for a young girl, even if Theresa wasn’t.
Lincoln raised both hands, palms out, in a bid for silence.
Everyone stared at him, including Juliana, who had pulled little Daisy onto her lap.
“All of you,” Lincoln said, addressing the children, “gather up whatever things you’ve got and get into the back of my buckboard. You’ll find some blankets there—wrap up warm, because it’s three miles to the ranch house and there’s an icy wind blowing in from the northwest.”
Juliana stood, gently displacing Daisy, careful to keep the child close against her side. “Mr. Creed, we couldn’t accept…” Her voice fell away, and mortification burned in her cheeks.
“Seems to me,” Lincoln said, “you don’t have much of a choice. I’m offering you and these children a place to stay, Miss Mitchell. Just till you can figure out what to do next.”
“You’d let these savages set foot under the same roof with your little Gracie?” Mr. Willand blustered, incensed. He’d crossed the otherwise-empty store, shouldered Joseph aside to peer into the display window and make sure nothing was missing.
The air pulsed again.
Lincoln took a step toward the storekeeper.
By instinct, Juliana grasped Mr. Creed’s arm to stop him. Even through the heavy fabric of his coat, she could feel that his muscles were steely with tension—he was barely containing his temper. “The children are used to remarks like that,” she said quietly, anxious to keep the peace. “They know they aren’t savages.”
“Get into the wagon,” Lincoln said. He didn’t pull free of Juliana’s touch, nor did he look away from Mr. Willand’s crimson face. “All of you.”
The children looked to Juliana, their dark, luminous eyes liquid with wary question.
She nodded, silently giving her permission.
Almost as one, they scrambled out the door, causing the bell to clamor merrily overhead. Even Daisy, clinging until a moment before, peeled away from Juliana’s side.
After pulling her cloak more closely around her and raising her hood against the cold, Juliana followed.
Lincoln watched them go. He’d hung his hat on one of the spindle-backed wooden chairs next to the stove earlier, and he reached for it. “There’s enough grief and sorrow in this world,” he told the storekeeper, “without folks like you adding to it.”
Willand was undaunted, though Lincoln noticed he stayed well behind the counter, within bolting distance of the back door. “We’ll see what Mrs. Creed says, when you turn up on her doorstep with a tribe of Injuns—”
Lincoln shoved his hat down on top of his head with a little more force than the effort required. His wife, Beth, had died two years before, of a fever, so Willand was referring to his mother. Cora Creed would indeed have been surprised to find five extra people seated around her supper table that night—if Lincoln hadn’t left her with enough bags to fill a freight car at the train depot before stopping by the mercantile. She was headed for Phoenix, where she liked to winter with her kinfolks, the Dawsons.
“I’ll be back tomorrow if I get the chance,” he said, starting for the door. With that storm coming and cattle to feed, he couldn’t be sure. “To see if any letters came in on today’s train.”
Willand glanced at the big regulator clock on the wall behind him. “My boy’s gone to the depot, like always, and he’ll be here with the mail bag any minute now,” he said grudgingly. “Might as well wait.”
Lincoln went to the window, looked past his own reflection in the darkening glass—God, he hated the shortness of winter days—to see Miss Mitchell settling her unlikely brood in the bed of his wagon. Something warmed inside him, shifted. The slightest smile tilted one corner of his mouth.
He’d been advertising for a governess for his seven-year-old daughter, Gracie, and a housekeeper for the both of them for nearly a year; failing either of those, he’d settle for a wife, and because he knew he’d never love another woman the way he’d loved Beth, he wasn’t too choosey in his requirements.
Juliana Mitchell, with her womanly figure, indigo-blue eyes and those tendrils of coppery hair peeking out from under her worn bonnet, was clearly dedicated to her profession, since she’d stayed to look after those children even now that the Indian School had closed down. A lot of schoolmarms wouldn’t have done that.
This spoke well for her character, and when it came to looks, she was a better bargain than any one all those advertisements might have scared up.
Glancing down at the display, with all the toys Willand was hoping to sell before Christmas, Lincoln’s gaze fell on the corner of a metal box, tucked at an odd angle under the bunting beneath the tree. He reached for the item, drew it out, saw that it was a set of watercolor paints, similar to one Gracie had at home.
Was this what the boy had been looking at when Willand pitched a fit?
For reasons he couldn’t have explained, Lincoln was sure it was.
He held the long, flat tin up for Willand to see, before tucking it into the inside pocket of his coat. “Put this on my bill,” he said.
Willand grumbled, but a sale was a sale. He finally nodded.
Lincoln raised his collar against the cold and left the mercantile for the wooden sidewalk beyond.
The kids were settled in the back of the wagon, all but the oldest boy snuggled in the rough woolen blankets Lincoln always carried in winter. Juliana Mitchell waited primly on the seat, straight-spined, chin high, trying not to shiver in that thin cloak of hers.
Buttoning his coat as he left the store, Lincoln unbuttoned it again before climbing up into the box beside her. Snowflakes drifted slowly from a gray sky as he took up the reins, released the brake lever. The streets of the town were nearly deserted—folks were getting ready for the storm, feeling its approach in their bones, just as Lincoln did.
Knowing her pride would make her balk if he took off his coat and put it around her, he pulled his right arm out of the sleeve and drew her to his side instead, closing the garment around her.
She stiffened, then went still, in what he guessed was resignation.
It bruised something inside Lincoln, realizing how many things Juliana Mitchell had probably had to resign herself to over the course of her life.
He set the team in motion, kept his gaze on the snowy road ahead, winding toward home. By the time they reached the ranch, it would be dark out, but the horses knew their way.
Meanwhile, Juliana Mitchell felt warm and soft against him. He’d forgotten what it was like to protect a woman, shield her against his side, and the remembrance was painful, like frostbitten flesh beginning to thaw.
Beth had been gone awhile, and though he wasn’t proud of it, in the last six months or so he’d turned to loose women for comfort a time or two, over in Choteau or in Missoula.
The quickening he felt now was different, of course. Though anybody could see she was down on her luck, it was equally obvious that Juliana Mitchell was a lady. Breeding was a thing even shabby clothes couldn’t hide—especially from a rancher used to raising fine cattle and horses.
Minutes later, as they jostled over the road in the buckboard, Juliana relaxed against Lincoln, and it came to him, with a flash of amusement, that she was asleep. Plainly, she was exhausted. From the way her face had fallen as she’d read that letter, which she’d finally wadded up and stuffed into the pocket of her cloak with an expression of heartbroken disgust in her eyes, she’d suffered some bitter disappointment.
All he knew for sure was that nobody had died, since he’d asked her that right off.
Lincoln tried to imagine what kind of news might have thrown her like that, even though he knew it was none of his business.
Maybe she’d planned to marry the man who’d written that letter, and he’d spurned her for another.
Lincoln frowned, aware of the woman’s softness and warmth in every part of his lonesome body. What kind of damned fool would do that?
His shoulder began to ache, since his arm was curved around Juliana at a somewhat awkward angle, but he didn’t care. He’d have driven right past the ranch, just so she could go on resting against him like that for a little while longer, if he hadn’t been a practical man.
The wind picked up, and the snow came down harder and faster, and when he looked back at the kids, they were sitting stoically in their places, bundled in their blankets.
The best part of an hour had passed when the lights of the ranch house finally came into view, glowing dim and golden in the snow-swept darkness.
Lincoln’s heartbeat picked up a little, the way it always did when he rounded that last bend in the road and saw home waiting up ahead.
He’d been born in the rambling, one-story log house, with its stone chimneys, the third son of Josiah and Cora Creed. Micah, the firstborn, had long since left the ranch, started a place of his own down in Colorado. Weston, the next in line, lived in town, in rooms above the Diamond Buckle Saloon, and published the Courier—when he was sober enough to run the presses.
Two years younger than Wes, Lincoln had left home only to attend college in Boston and apprentice himself to a lawyer—Beth’s father. As soon as he was qualified to practice, Lincoln had married Beth, brought her home to Stillwater Springs Ranch and loved her with all the passion a man could feel for a woman.
She’d taken to life on a remote Montana ranch with amazing acuity for a city girl, and if she’d missed Boston, she’d never once let on. She’d given him Gracie, and they’d been happy.
Now she rested in the small, sad cemetery beyond the apple orchard, like Josiah, and the fourth Creed brother, Dawson.
Dawson. Sometimes it was harder to think about him and the way he’d died, than to recall Beth succumbing to that fever.
Juliana straightened against Lincoln’s side, yawned. If the darkness hadn’t hidden her face, the brim of her bonnet would have, but he sensed that she was embarrassed by the lapse.
“We’re almost home,” he said, just loudly enough for her to hear.
She didn’t answer, but sat up a little straighter, wanting to pull away, but confined by his arm and the cloth of his coat.
When they reached the gate with its overarching sign, Lincoln moved to get down, but the Indian boy, Joseph, was faster. He worked the latch, swung the gate wide, and Lincoln drove the buckboard through. His father and Tom Dancingstar had cut and planed the timber for that sign, chiseled the letters into it, and then laboriously deepened them with pokers heated in the homemade forge they’d used for horseshoeing.
Lincoln never saw the words without a feeling of quiet gratification and pride.
Stillwater Springs Ranch.
He held the team while the boy shut the gate, then scrambled back into the wagon. The horses were eager to get to the barn, where hay and water and warm stalls awaited them.
Tom was there to help unhitch the team when Lincoln drove through the wide doorway and under the sturdy barn roof. Part Lakota Sioux, part Cherokee and part devil by his own accounting, Tom had worked on the ranch from the beginning. He’d named himself, claiming no white tongue could manage the handle he’d been given at birth.
He smiled when he saw Juliana, and she smiled back.
Clearly, they were acquainted.
Was he, Lincoln wondered, the only yahoo in the countryside who’d never met the teacher from the Indian School?
“Take the kids inside the house,” Lincoln told Juliana, and it struck him that rather than the strangers they were, they might have been married for years, the two of them, all these children their own. “Tom and I will be in as soon as we’ve finished here.”
He paused to lift the two smaller children out of the wagon; sleepy-eyed, still wrapped in their blankets, they stumbled a little, befuddled to find themselves in a barn lit by lanterns, surrounded by horses and Jenny Lind, the milk cow.
“I’ll tend to the horses,” Tom told him. “There’s a kettle of stew warming on the stove, and Gracie’s been watching the road for you since sunset.”
Thinking of his gold-haired, blue-eyed daughter, Lincoln smiled. Smarter than three judges and as many juries put together, Gracie tended toward fretfulness. Losing her mother when she was only five caused her to worry about him whenever he was out of her sight.
With a ranch the size of his to run, he was away from the house a lot, accustomed to leaving the child in the care of his now-absent mother, or Rose-of-Sharon Gainer, the cumbersomely pregnant young wife of one of the ranch hands.
The older boy’s gaze had fastened on Tom.
“Can I stay here and help?” he asked.
“May I,” Juliana corrected with a smile. “Yes, Joseph, you may.”
With that, she leaned down, weary as she was, and lifted the littlest girl into her arms. Lincoln bent to hoist up the smaller boy.
“This is Daisy,” Juliana told him. “That’s Billy-Moses you’re holding.” The girl who’d spoken of working for her keep at the Diamond Buckle ducked her head shyly, stood a little closer to her teacher. “And this is Theresa,” she finished.
Leaving Tom and Joseph to put the team up for the night, Lincoln shed his coat at the entrance to the barn, draped it over Juliana’s shoulders. It dragged on the snowy ground, and she smiled wanly at that, hiking the garment up with her free arm, closing it around both herself and Daisy.
They entered the house by the side door, stepping into the warmth, the aroma of Tom’s venison stew and the light of several lanterns. Gracie, rocking in the chair near the cookstove and pretending she hadn’t been waiting impatiently for Lincoln’s return, went absolutely still when she saw that he wasn’t alone.
Her cornflower-blue eyes widened, and her mouth made a perfect 0.
Daisy and Billy-Moses stared back at her, probably as amazed as she was.
“Gracie,” Lincoln said unnecessarily. “We have company.”
Gracie had recovered by then; she fairly leaped out of the rocking chair. Looking up at Juliana, she asked, “Did you answer one of my papa’s advertisements? Are you going to be a governess, a housekeeper or a wife?”
Understandably, Juliana seemed taken aback. Like Gracie, though, she turned out to be pretty resilient. The only sign that the child’s question had caught her off guard was the faint tinge of pink beneath her cheekbones, and that might have been from the cold.
“I’m Miss Mitchell,” she said kindly. “These are my pupils—Daisy, Billy-Moses and Theresa. There’s Joseph, as well—he’s out in the barn helping Mr. Dancingstar look after the horses.”
“Then you’re a governess! ” Gracie cried jubilantly. Young as she was, she could already read, and because Lincoln wouldn’t allow her to travel back and forth to school in Stillwater Springs, she was convinced that lifelong ignorance would be her lot.
“Gracie,” Lincoln said, setting Billy-Moses on his feet. “Miss Mitchell is a guest. She didn’t answer any advertisements.”
Gracie looked profoundly disappointed, but only for a moment. Like most Creeds, when she set her mind on something, she did not give up easily.
For the next little while, they were all busy with supper.
Tom and Joseph came in from the barn, pumped water at the sink to wash up and joined them at the table, while Gracie, who had already eaten, rushed about fetching bread and butter and ladling milk from the big covered crock stored on the back step.
His daughter wanted to make Miss Mitchell feel welcome, Lincoln thought with a smile, so she’d stay and teach her all she wanted to know—and that was considerable. She hadn’t asked for a doll for Christmas, or a spinning top, like a lot of little girls would have done.
Oh, no. Gracie wanted a dictionary.
Wes often joked that by the time his niece was old enough to make the trip to town on her own, she’d be half again too smart for school and ready to take over the Courier so he could spend the rest of his life smoking cigars and playing poker.
As far as Lincoln could tell, his brother did little else but smoke cigars and play poker—not counting, of course, the whiskey-swilling and his long-standing and wholly scandalous love affair with Kate Winthrop, who happened to own the Diamond Buckle.
Gracie adored her Uncle Weston—and Kate.
Casting a surreptitious glance in Juliana’s direction whenever he could during supper, Lincoln saw that she could barely keep her eyes open. As soon as the meal was over, he showed her to his mother’s spacious room. She and Daisy and Billy-Moses could share the big feather bed.
Joseph bunked in with Tom, who slept in a small chamber behind the kitchen stove, having given up his cabin out by the bunkhouse to Ben Gainer and his wife. Theresa was to sleep with Gracie.
Lincoln’s young daughter, however, was not in bed. Wide-awake, she sat at the table with Lincoln, watching as he drank lukewarm coffee, left over from earlier in the day.
“Go to bed, Gracie,” he told her.
Tom lingered by the stove, also drinking coffee. He smiled when Gracie didn’t move.
“I couldn’t possibly sleep,” she said seriously. “I am entirely too excited.”
Lincoln sighed. She was knee-high to a fence post, but sometimes she talked like someone her grandmother’s age. “It’s still five days until Christmas,” he reminded her. “Too soon to be all het up over presents and such.”
“I’m not excited about Christmas,” Gracie said, with the exaggerated patience she might have shown the village idiot. Stillwater Springs boasted its share of those. “You’re going to marry Miss Mitchell, and I’ll have Billy-Moses and Daisy to play with—”
Tom chuckled into his coffee cup.
Lincoln sighed again and settled back in his chair. Although he’d thought about hitching up with the schoolteacher, he’d probably been hasty. “Gracie, Miss Mitchell isn’t here to marry me. She was stranded in town because the Indian School closed down, so I brought her and the kids home—”
“Will I still have to call her ‘Miss Mitchell’ after you get married to her? She’d be ‘Mrs. Creed’ then, wouldn’t she? It would be really silly for me to go around saying ‘Mrs. Creed’ all the time—”
“Go to bed.”
“I told you, I’m too excited.”
“And I told you to go to bed.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Gracie protested, disgruntled. But she got out of her chair at the table, said good-night to Tom and stood on tiptoe to kiss Lincoln on the cheek.
His heart melted like a honeycomb under a hot sun when she did that. Her blue eyes, so like Beth’s, sparkled as she looked up at him, then turned solemn.
“Be nice to Miss Mitchell, Papa,” she instructed solemnly. “Stand up when she comes into a room, and pull her chair back for her. We want her to like it here and stay.”
Lincoln’s throat constricted, and his eyes burned. He couldn’t have answered to save his hide from a hot brand.
“You’ll come and hear my prayers?” Gracie asked, the way she did every night.
The prayers varied slightly, but certain parts were always the same.
Please keep my papa safe, and Tom, too. I’d like a dog of my very own, one that will fetch, and I want to go to school, so I don’t grow up to be stupid…
Lincoln nodded his assent. Though it was a request he never refused, Gracie always asked.
Once she left the room, Tom set his cup in the sink, folded his arms. “According to young Joseph,” he said, “he and his sister have folks in North Dakota—an aunt and a grandfather. Soon as he can save enough money, he means to head for home and take Theresa with him.”
Lincoln felt a lot older than his thirty-five years as he raised himself from his chair, began turning down lamp wicks, one by one. Tom, in the meantime, banked the fire in the cookstove.
They were usual, these long gaps in their conversations. Right or wrong, Lincoln had always been closer to Tom than to his own father—Josiah Creed had been a hard man in many ways. Neither Lincoln nor Wes had mourned him overmuch—they left that to Micah, the eldest, and their mother.
“Did the boy happen to say how he and the girl wound up in a school outside of Stillwater Springs, Montana?”
Tom straightened, his profile grim in the last of the lantern light. “The government decided he and his sister would be better off if they learned white ways,” he said. “Took them off the reservation in North Dakota a couple of years ago, and they were in several different ‘institutions’ before their luck changed. They haven’t seen their people since the day they left Dakota, though Juliana helped him write a letter to them six months back, and they got an answer.” Tom paused, swallowed visibly. His voice sounded hoarse. “The folks at home want them back, Lincoln.”
Lincoln stood in the relative darkness for a few moments, reflecting. “I’ll send them, then,” he said after a long time. “Put them on the train when it comes through next week.”
Tom didn’t answer immediately, and when he did, the whole Trail of Tears echoed in his voice. “They’re just kids. They oughtn’t to make a trip like that alone.”
Another lengthy silence rested comfortably between the two men. Then Lincoln said, “You want to go with them.”
“Somebody ought to,” Torn replied. “Make sure they get there all right. Might be that things have changed since that letter came.”
Lincoln absorbed that, finally nodded. “What about the little ones?” he asked without looking at his friend. “Daisy and Billy-Moses?”
“They’re orphans,” Torn said, and sadness settled over the darkened room like a weight. “Reckon Miss Mitchell planned on keeping them until she could find them a home.”
Lincoln sighed inwardly. Until she could find them a home. As if those near-babies were stray puppies or kittens.
With another nod, this one sorrowful, he turned away.
It was time to turn in; morning would come early.
But damned if he’d sleep a wink between the plight of four innocent children and the knowledge that Juliana Mitchell was lying on the other side of the wall.