Just in time for christm.., p.1
Just in Time for Christmas, page 1
Just In Time For Christmas
Gail L. Jenner
Just In Time For Christmas by Gail L. Jenner
Copyright© 2014 Gail L. Jenner
Cover Design Livia Reasoner
Prairie Rose Publications
All rights reserved.
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Love can transform a broken heart—whether it is the heart of an abused and neglected eight-year old or the heart of man determined to avoid love at any cost. And when it comes at Christmastime, it can be the most profound gift of all.
Mrs. Kerrigan stepped forward when she noticed the man at Della’s front gate. “Mrs. Wagner’s not home.” She wiped her hands off on her apron and studied him critically. “I suppose you’re lookin’ for a place to light for a day or two?” She waved him over to her garden gate. He’s a nice-enough lookin’ fella, she thought. Strong hands and shoulders. Just what Della needs—maybe.
“The storekeep said Mrs. Wagner puts up boarders.”
“She do,” returned Mrs. Kerrigan. “She’s a widow. Fine cook, too, and kind-hearted. Sometimes, too kind-hearted for her own good,” she added, half to herself.
The stranger said nothing.
She looked him over again. A little broody, maybe? No, he had a good face—probably seen his share of pain, but clear-eyed. Course, every trail’s got its potholes, she mused.
“She’s probably down at the schoolyard,” she volunteered. “She’s always lookin’ after some poor waif or other.”
The man nodded. “Thank you.”
Mrs. Kerrigan moved closer. “Now, you head on down there. It’s on the other side of the church. See the steeple?” She pointed.
The man followed her gaze.
Mrs. Kerrigan put her hand out. “I’m Esther Kerrigan, the preacher’s widow.”
He extended his own. “James McMurray.”
He has a good grip. She smiled. “Well, Mr. McMurray, welcome to Miner’s Creek. Not much of a name. But not much of a town, neither.”
McMurray shrugged. “I heard Miner’s Creek is in need of a blacksmith. Is that true?”
Mrs. Kerrigan nodded. “We are indeed, praise God. We ain’t had a blacksmith for nearly a year. Sampson —that’s what ev’rybody called him—dropped dead last fall. Just like that. Nailed the last shoe onto Ole Man Rainey’s buggy horse and keeled over. The horse never moved a muscle, just stood over poor dead Sampson ’til someone stopped by and found him. We buried him over there in the churchyard.”
It was clear that Mrs. Kerrigan, albeit the preacher’s widow, was also the town gossip. She apparently knew everything—and everyone—in town. He tipped his hat. “I’ll make my way to the school then. Thank you, uh, Mrs. Kerrigan.”
She inclined her head and smiled once more. “We’ll be neighbors then…”
He followed the rocky path back toward town. It was only a short distance to the mercantile where he’d tied up his saddle horse. From there he would see if he could secure lodging with Mrs. Wagner, a widow-woman, cook, and—saint?
The word stuck in his throat. Or, more like his craw—
McMurray reached the mercantile just as the storekeep stepped out onto the boardwalk, hands tucked under the well-worn apron that hung like a dress over his britches and grimy boots. He smiled a toothy grin. “The missus took the mare ’round back. Gave her some oats. Fine looking saddle horse,” he added. “She for sale?”
McMurray frowned. “No. She’s not. How much do I owe you for the oats?”
“Nickel,” returned the storekeep. “It weren’t much.”
McMurray pulled out a thin leather sack and removed a nickel. He handed it to the storekeep and headed round to the back of the clapboard building where barrels sat one on top of the other and rucksacks hung from pegs on the wall.
He found his horse tied to a hitching post. He looked the mare over carefully, but all seemed well and good. He tightened the cinch before mounting and heading back down Main Street.
He kept his eye on the steeple that rose up from the small vale to the south. If you didn’t look for it, he thought, you’d almost miss it. It wasn’t even a steeple, but merely a small brown cross nailed to a poorly framed widow’s walk. Not much to boast about.
But the remoteness of the small mining town was a perfect resting spot. He needed a place where he could start over, apart from the bustling life of Marysville, Sacramento, or San Francisco.
Too many memories attached to those places.
Della Wagner picked up the broom and handed it to the small boy. “Carson,” she said, “you have just about played me one time too many.” Although she smiled, she knew the eight-year old had to be disciplined. “The schoolroom is not a barn.”
“But he started it. He picked up that horse turd—”
“Carson,” interrupted Della. “The point is, this is a schoolhouse and we have to take care of it. So,” she added, smiling again, “sweep up the mess you made here. I’m going to tell Miss Niblack that she can bring the rest of the children in in five minutes. She will have something more for you and Nolan to do, I wouldn’t wonder. Perhaps you’ll have lines to write or more clean up to do. I expect you’ll obey her without argument. And no more of this.”
Carson took the broom. He furrowed his brows and frowned.
Della waited until he began sweeping up the scattered droppings that the two boys had thrown at each other while running pell-mell through the schoolhouse. She watched him and sighed. If only she could do more to help Carson. Poorly clothed and obviously poorly fed, he had no one to tend to him while his father was off mining, and living with his drunken grandfather Leroy Baines had not improved his situation much.
She closed the door softly behind her. Miss Niblack, the middle-aged teacher who had replaced Mr. Morris, was speaking to Nolan. The woman had only arrived three days earlier. Della hoped she would stay.
Miss Niblack approached her, exasperation stretched across her lean face. “I suspect Carson’s a bit of a scoundrel,” she said. “I don’t doubt that he started the game.”
Della was not so sure Carson was the instigator, but she left the conversation for another time. “I know they’re all going to try you, but I believe the children will respond in a few days. They’ve been running amok for several weeks now.”
Miss Niblack raised her dark brows. “I only hope they’ll come around eventually. We’ll see. I do have an invitation to teach elsewhere,” she added.
“Well, I’m glad you called on me,” returned Della, trying to ignore Miss Niblack’s insinuation that things would have to improve if she were to stay. “I’m always available in the mornings, and washing or baking can always wait for another day, if need be.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wagner. I know you take a keen interest in these children. I’m grateful there are only six in the class.”
“With the energy of at least a dozen more—”
Miss Niblack smiled, but it was a rather terse smile, thought Della.
“Well, I’ll take my leave. I think Carson is nearly finished with the clean up, but I warned him that there could be more consequences to follow.”
As Della headed down the lane toward the church, she noticed a man on horseback. Tall, rugged, but not too poorly dressed, he rode toward her. She did not recognize him, but his glance was on her. Perhaps he was eyeing her as critically as she was eyeing him.
He pulled his horse to a stop along the edge of the rocky lane and waited for her to approach.
“Mrs. Wagner?” His hat was angled in such a way that Della couldn’t see his eyes, but she sensed a cool detached air in the way he sat his horse. She also noticed that it was a beautiful roan mare.
She looked up. “Yes, I’m Mrs. Wagner.”
He nodded. “I understand you take in boarders? I’m looking for lodging.”
“Indeed. I have only one room available at present. Miss Niblack, our new schoolteacher, has the second and another has been secured by Mr. Whitehouse, although he is gone frequently.”
“I’ll take it.”
“You haven’t asked the price.”
“I’ll pay whatever it is.”
She smiled tentatively. She welcomed the business, even if this man’s looming presence made her slightly uncomfortable. “Then, I will see you at the house. I live—”
“I know,” he said brusquely. “Mrs. Kerrigan directed me to you here.”
“Ah,” she said. She picked up the edge of her skirt and started once more toward home. “Mrs. Kerrigan knows everything that goes on in Miner’s Creek.”
He turned his mare around and followed at a slight distance. “So I supposed.”
Mrs. Wagner pointed upstairs, indicating the second door. “I serve breakfast at six a.m.—promptly—and supper at seven. Noon dinner is left to you, sir.”
“Fine,” McMurray said. He raised his saddlebags to his shoulder and picked up the satchel he’d set down after entering the house. He had already noticed the fine furnishings that filled the parlor—a glass domed oil lamp and a velvet settee—and wondered if these had been gifts from Mrs. Wagner’s husband or whether they had been hers. Sheer lace curtains hung in the small bay window across from the settee, and a single rocker was placed next to one of the glass-panes.
The sight of the mahogany rocker reminded him of another place in time. He quickly adjusted his saddlebags. “You have a lovely home.”
Mrs. Wagner nodded. “Thank you.” She glanced around the room. “My husband came west with the furniture. He once owned a large home in Boston. I never visited, but apparently it was a large, lavish affair. My own beginnings were much more humble.”
McMurray nodded. “Your husband—he was a miner?”
Mrs. Wagner shook her head. “No, an engineer. He was coming home from one of the mines when he was thrown. He broke his back. And never recovered.”
McMurray frowned. “I am sorry.”
“It will be four years this Christmas,” she said as she removed her bonnet and shook out the ribbons. She looked up at him, her eyes the color of the cornflowers that grew wild back home. He’d already noted the red-brown curls that had escaped the bun gathered at her neck.
His attention returned to the bright blue eyes that seemed to be regarding him thoughtfully. Her glance triggered something deep inside. Something he wouldn’t allow himself to feel—
He started up the stairs. “Well, if you’ll excuse me—”
“Of course,” she said, stepping away from the stairway. “Supper is at seven.”
Della donned a clean white apron, lost in her thoughts. The day had been a long one already and for some strange reason, she felt flustered. Mr. McMurray’s almost irritated dismissal of her had raised her hackles. Coupled with the long morning trying to help Miss Niblack settle in with her half-dozen headstrong charges had left her feeling at odds with the world.
She pulled out the bread dough that she had set aside early that morning. It felt good to shape it into loaves, feeling the smooth, even texture as she carefully set it to rise again before baking. She then retrieved the small shank of venison that Felix Freshour had brought her two days earlier.
She was grateful to the eager young man for his assistance, in spite of the fact that he seemed intent on courting her. “You’re howling at the wrong moon,” she told him just two days ago when he insisted she marry him.
He had not been dissuaded. “I don’t plan to give up anytime soon.”
She had responded firmly, “You would do well to give up, Felix. Truly. I have no intention of falling in love with anyone—for a very, very long time. If ever. Besides, how could I replace Jonathon?”
“Yes, he was a fine man,” Felix had returned soberly. “He loaned me the money to buy my first rifle. Every time I pick it up, I think of him.”
She knew Felix thought a lot of Jonathon and meant no disrespect by his amorous attention, but he was more boy than man. Certainly no one she could take seriously. She was relieved when he finally announced that he was heading up to the northern mines and wouldn’t return until winter.
“But I’ll be back, Mizz Wagner,” he promised, “just in time for Christmas.”
She smiled and wished him well. “You would do well to find yourself another Christmas bride, Felix. I’m not changing my mind.”
That had been on Tuesday and now, as she cut off several thick steaks and floured them for Thursday’s supper, she reflected on the simple order of her present life. She had grown comfortable and, more importantly, she simply had no intention of falling in love again. Jonathon had been one of those rare men—reserved but kind, hardworking and faithful. Not the kind of man you found often in Miner’s Creek. It was pointless to go looking, she thought.
McMurray entered the dining room promptly at seven. The room was pleasant, even in its simplicity. He removed his hat and took a seat across from Mr. Whitehouse. He introduced himself.
Mr. Whitehouse and Miss Niblack were already seated at the table side by side. Mr. Whitehouse sat with a napkin tucked into his high starched collar and both his moustache and hair were slicked back with pomade. Miss Niblack, also dressed in a high-necked gray striped dress, sat primly, though her attention was clearly on Mr. Whitehouse.
“Welcome to Miner’s Creek,” said Mr. Whitehouse. “A rough town,” he added, “if you want to call it a town. I’m Franklin Whitehouse.” He inclined his head toward Miss Niblack. “Miss Niblack is the town’s newest schoolteacher.”
Miss Niblack flashed Mr. Whitehouse a smile before turning to McMurray. “And you are from—”
McMurray inclined his head. “Nowhere—and everywhere. Most recently, Sacramento.”
“Oh,” returned Miss Niblack. “Sacramento is such a dirty city, isn’t it?”
“It’s a city,” quipped McMurray.
“Now, Denver,” Mr. Whitehouse chimed in, “that’s a city. Booming, it is. Lots of speculators and new buildings. Amazing.” He glanced up at Mrs. Wagner who had entered the room carrying a platter of venison steaks and a bowl of roasted potatoes. “It’s a city any woman would enjoy.”
Miss Niblack crooned, “Oh, to see Denver—”
Mr. Whitehouse smiled. “Yes, a fashionable center, full of lively people.”
Mrs. Wagner shrugged. “I’ve never been to Denver, Mr. Whitehouse, but frankly, I have no desire to travel there. Too many people, to my mind. Or, perhaps just too many pretentious people,” she added before exiting.
Silenced, both Mr. Whitehouse and Miss Niblack busied themselves with the food. Mrs. Wagner reappeared, carrying bread and a bowl of pickles.
McMurray noted a hint of triumph in her demeanor and it surprised him. Didn’t every woman croon for the opportunity to sashay down city streets, with dusted face and lips, donned in the newest fashions, with layers of silk and satin, kid gloves, and lavish hats festooned with ribbons and bows and pearls?
He frowned, refusing to finish the thought. Instead he reached for the platter of
Miss Niblack frowned, while Mrs. Wagner’s finely arched brows rose in candid response. Her blue eyes burned into his. “There are potatoes and pickles for the stabbing, if you’re so inclined, Mr. McMurray. And there’s an Apple Betty for dessert you’ll certainly be able to dig into.” Flushed and frowning, she turned on her heels and disappeared into the kitchen.
Mr. Whitehouse, ignoring McMurray’s insolent treatment of the steak and Mrs. Wagner’s retort, turned to Miss Niblack, his thin moustache curling up to nearly tickle his nose. “Well, now, it’s not often we get a Betty for dessert.”
Miss Niblack smiled. “Indeed.”
After supper, McMurray stepped out onto the front porch. The October heat had cooled with the setting sun, but it still hovered, like a thin blanket, over the wild landscape. But it was far cooler here than down in the valley, he thought. Even October nights were stifling in Sacramento and Marysville.
He rolled a cigarette and took a slow drag, his attention drawn to the silhouette of trees on the nearby hillside; they stood like eerie standards, black against the dappled sky. This was the time of day he loved most, he thought. It gave a man an opportunity to relax and let the dust and disorder of the day settle where it would.
Tomorrow, he decided, he’d go into town and see what was available. Had Sampson’s shop been torn down or sold out? He’d need tools, for certain, and an anvil. If an anvil weren’t available, he’d have to make do—at least for the time being.
He took the last drag of his cigarette before getting up. A single lamp now burned in the parlor. No doubt Mrs. Wagner was waiting for him to come inside so she could put out the light. He wondered if she were still irritated by his poor show of manners at dinner.
He stepped into the house and immediately regretted his earlier behavior. Mrs. Wagner was seated in the rocker beside an open window, sewing. With her auburn head bent over her handiwork, she appeared almost ethereal in the slanting ray of moonlight coming through the pane. “Ma’am.” He tipped his hat. “I lost track of time.”
by Gail L. Jenner have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes