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What Child Is This (Sweet Town Clean Historical Western Romance)

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Published by Salt of the Earth Press

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Christian

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Salt of the Earth Press
W4456 Hwy 63
Springbrook, Wisconsin 54875

www. saltpress.com

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Salt of the Earth Press.

Merry Christmas!

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20

 

 

Heavy darks clouds blended into the distant prairie making it hard to see where one ended and the other began. Winter nights fell early so far north in the Dakota Territory, but this darkness was something else. Lorcan walked with deliberate steps, his snowshoes keeping him atop the two feet or more of white stuff that blanketed everything as far as he could see. He stopped and looked up to gauge how far he had to go to the shack.

At first he saw only white but quickly he adjusted his birch-bark goggles over his eyes and finer details came into focus. Up ahead the shack was a mere lump in the vague grey and white vista. More notably, there was a thin wisp of smoke rising from the metal chimney. It didn’t go far before being caught in a the wind moving in with those dark clouds. Lorcan looked around at the ground while he continued trudging toward the cabin.

“Dag nabbit,” he snarled under his breath, “I hope there’s no one there.”

Faint tracks, mere indentations on the snow, could be seen in a line moving away from the rough building. He hurried his pace, looking forward to the warmth of a pre-heated building.

The door creaked open across the floor where puddles of melt were fresh. The folks must have just left, although Lorcan couldn’t understand why anyone would make the choice to leave this cozy place and venture into what was looking like a blizzard rolling in. He quickly shut the door and made short work of stoking the fire in the pot belly stove.

Icy crystals that had been clinging to his sleeves dripped off onto the hot surface and sizzled. Although he knew he could make it back to Sweet Town before the storm hit, he really had no reason to rush. Christmas was a few days away and his only commitment was to have dinner at the Sheriff’s house. Kit Price was a good fella, but if Lorcan was being honest, and he supposed he was since he was only talking to himself, Kit’s wife was the real reason Lorcan had accepted the invitation. She was nice enough, and easy on the eyes in a foreign sort of way, but for some reason Lorcan felt a kinship with her. He shook his head and grinned at his silly wool gathering as he began the process of taking off the many layers of warm clothes he was wearing.

After peeling down to just a sweater over his long johns he had the knitted neck hole stuck somewhere in the region of his ears, tugging to free it, when he heard something. Just a small sound but not an expected one.

Lorcan stopped, standing completely still, the sweater ridiculously stuck inside out over his head with his arms still in the sleeves. The sound came again. Not a mouse, nor larger rodent, he was sure, and certainly not the sound a wild cat makes. He wrenched the sweater off, nearly taking his ears with it and swirled around looking for the source of the noise.

Every time someone stayed at the shack things changed a little. They might leave something behind or take something away with them. Once, Lorcan found a tin of oysters on the rough wooden shelf above the stove. He left them for the next visitor to enjoy, not having a taste for shellfish. So, as he looked around the room, there were changes from the last time he had been there.

An untidy stack of wood, prairie grass twistings, and cow pies to burn in the stove. The metal cup that usually hung on a peg by the bucket was gone. A dribble of blood across the rough wood floor, more than a nosebleed’s worth but less than a head wound.

The sound came again. Just a little squeak. Lorcan swiveled his head in the direction of the noise and saw nothing except for a pile of bedding on the wooden bunk.

He stepped closer, his stocking feet snagging on the rough wood floor. He paused and looked around for a weapon in case it was a snarling vermin. Grabbing a stick that some previous occupant had used for a fire poker he brandished it above his head with one hand and reached out with the other to pull back the bedding.

One quick swipe and the blanket flew through the air to reveal a baby, swaddled in a woman’s petticoat, judging by the hand crocheted lace adorning it. The child moved slightly and mewed.

Lorcan’s eyes opened wider than they ever had before as he stared unbelievingly at the infant. He whipped around to examine the rest of the small room but saw no one. He remembered those footprints leading away and his guts tangled just as a strong gust of wind reminded him of where he was and that a blizzard was coming.

The baby boy appeared healthy but was fresh-born. The cord was tied off with a length of lace, probably ripped from that same petticoat.

There was no time to lose. The storm would be upon them before he knew it and holing up there at the shack wasn’t an option with a newborn. There was nothing to feed him, for one thing, not to mention that Lorcan knew absolutely nothing about babies.

He struggled back into his clothes, leaving the front of all the layers a little open so that he could tuck the child inside, against his skin, and then closed the longjohns, sweater, jacket and hide coat over the little bundle. His heart lurched in his chest as he put his hand on the door handle. Somehow he would get this kid to town in a blizzard, or die trying.

 

Hairy udder swinging, the goat lashed out at the gentle hands trying to release her milk. A small lean-to type of barn, it shared a wall and window with the kitchen, which allowed for lantern light to filter in without actually bringing a lantern out into the cold and dark.

“Stand still!” Emma didn’t particularly care for goats but they were easier to handle than cows and the money she made from selling milk helped support her and her mother. Finally a tinny ricochet of milk hit the side of the bucket. Finding her rhythm, she finished one goat and went on to the next. In the spring two new kids would be born. Hopefully they would be female, which would increase the amount of milk Emma could sell.

Always worrying about money, Emma’s mother pressured her on a daily basis to find a husband to support them.

“Ha!” she laughed grimly in the predawn cold, a bone rattling chill that made her stomach muscles tense. “Like there are any marrying men around here,” she said to the four goats. They looked at her and continued chewing. “That Lorcan is about the only unmarried fellow even half-way normal but he thinks he’s too good for me. Imagine,” she said to the goat she was milking, “A miner thinking he’s too good for me!”

It took two trips to bring the buckets of steaming milk inside the house. She set them down on the table and held out her cold-burned hands to the fireplace until her blood was warmed and color had returned to her fingers.

After straining the milk through cloth, Emma poured it into quart jars, placed the jars into a wooden crate and the crate outside onto a sled. The wind was finally dying down after a night of blizzard conditions but it had to be well below freezing. She pulled her scarf up over her face and set out down the street toward the store.

Normally Lucy Price, the woman who ran the store, trusted Emma to bring the milk inside, opening the back door with a key she had hidden in a crack behind the door frame. Emma noticed smoke curling out of the chimney and a light on in an upstairs window. She opened the door and hoisted the crate inside, kicking the door shut behind her. “Anyone here?” she called out.

Lucy came down the steep stairs quickly, like she did everything. Petite and lithe, all darkly exotic, she had arrived in town to marry the store’s owner but ended up marrying the man’s brother instead. Another man Emma had lost before she had a chance to attract him. And him a sheriff now, too.

“Good morning, Emma,” Lucy said.

“Did you stay in town last night?”

“Yes, Kit was expecting a telegram and he didn’t want me to stay out on the farm alone in the blizzard.”

“Hopefully the storm’s passed now, but the snow’s quite deep out there.”

They busied themselves putting the jars of milk in a cold box near an outside wall. “I’m excited about the Nativity Scene the church is putting on. Did Ida ask you about borrowing a goat for the display? It would just be for the evening, Christmas Eve.”

“Yes, and I hear Lorcan is going to be the donkey.”

“Oh, Emma,” she laughed, “That’s terrible!”

A loud banging at the front door of the store startled them. They looked at each other with twin expressions of shock and surprise for just one moment before rushing together through the curtain that separated the back room from the mercantile front. A figure could be seen through the iced over windows.

Lucy reached to unlock the door but Emma put out a hand, “Wait. You don’t know who that is.”

“It’s someone cold, I would imagine,” Lucy said as turned the lock.

The door burst open in a great cloud of snow and frosty air.

“Lorcan! We were just talking about you,” Lucy said with a grin. Emma had the grace to look a little uncomfortable and her lips tightened together. “What brings you out so early in such bad weather?”

“Morning lasses, let me thaw my face a moment and I’ll tell you why I’m here.”

They stood patiently by while Lorcan shrugged off his great outer coat shaggy buck skin.

“Did you hurt your arm? You seem to be favoring it.” Emma asked.

He shook his head and continued removing the next layer, a button up shirt, Once that had been removed and tossed over the pickle barrel he put one hand beneath a knit sweater, “Would you give me a hand pulling this sweater over my head?”

Emma gasped and put one hand to her chest in shock. “I will do no such thing!”

Lucy gave the other woman a brief glance and then reached out to haul Lorcan’s sleeve upward over his head, revealing a small bundle he cradled against his chest. He switched arms and she pulled the other sleeve off. “What’s that you have there?”

Curiosity got the better of Emma, and she leaned closer to see what he held so gently in his arms. “It’s a baby! You have no business carrying a baby around inside your filthy clothes in this weather!”

“I had no choice, Miss Brown. I found this baby at the miner’s shack last night. I’ve been walking all night in this storm, half froze, bent over to fight the wind. The poor mite didn’t stand a chance if I hadn’t.”

Lucy held her arms out for the baby. It mewled weakly, and the piece of fabric it was wrapped in was soggy. “I don’t know much about babies. Do you, Emma?”

“Not really.” She stepped closer and reached out one finger to touch the baby’s cheek. Warm, thank goodness. “I do know it can’t be good for the child to be wet and he, or she, must be hungry.” As if the infant understood, it turned it’s head toward her stroking finger and opened a tiny mouth, searching blindly for a breast. “Where is the mother?”

“No sign of her at the shack. Just some footprints heading away and from the looks of them there were two people. Why they didn’t stay put is beyond me.”

“I don’t think we have a single baby in town so no nursing mothers to feed this little one,” Lucy said.

“Why is the baby that color? Did it get that cold?”

“I think it’s a colored baby,” Lorcan said.

Lucy shook her head, “It’s not dark enough to be a colored baby. I’ve seen black people in Chicago and they were much darker.”

“Well I fought in the war and saw plenty of slaves and freedmen. They aren’t all the same color. Look at that hair? That’s not white baby hair.”

All three gazed at the baby’s head, and the cap of fuzzy black hair.

“Be that as it may, this child needs food and clean clothes.” Emma tapped her mouth with one finger as she thought out loud. “You know, I remember a miner telling me that he was orphaned and fed goat’s milk by the people who took him in.” She spun around and went back to the storeroom where she pulled a jar of milk from the cold box. “It’s already cooled down but I can heat it up in a jiffy.” Lucy handed her a tin cup. Emma splashed a small amount of milk inside and sat the cup on the red hot parlor stove. After a couple of minutes she dipped one finger into the warm milk and held it to the baby’s mouth.

“Emma, you might as well hold it while you feed it. You’re getting milk all over my blouse.” She held the sodden bundle out to Emma.

Emma grimaced, but took the baby into her arms. Slowly and patiently she dripped milk into the tiny mouth. Before long the baby was sucking vigorously on her finger.

Lucy tapped her on the shoulder. She hadn’t even noticed Lucy had left the room but here she was with a bit of toweling and a shawl. Emma lay the baby on the store counter and carefully unwrapped the length of fabric. A boy, she noticed as she cleaned the newborn with warm water Lucy brought next and wrapped the baby back up, with the toweling as a diaper.

 

Laying his hands flat on the bar Neal was filled with distaste at the sticky film covering the varnished wood. He pushed away and turned around to see the newcomers entering the building behind him. With one finger he pushed his leather hat back from his forehead so that he could see better. With the hate the settlers had for the Lakota who rightfully belonged in the area, he’d found it smart to keep his face shadowed by a hat brim as much as possible. It seemed anyone with a tan made trigger fingers itchy.

He left the newspaper he’d been reading on the dirty bar. He’d found out what he needed to know. Someone else could have it now, if any of these fools in Deadwood could even read. The marriage announcement had given him some names and a place. He could figure out the rest.

A quick scan of the patrons revealed the usual mix of unclean miners, and beaten down settlers, throwing back shots of amber liquor with abandon. Just inside the door stood a young man dressed in typical trapper gear. A bear coat crusted with snow, the requisite beaver hat on his greasy hair, the glimpse of a beard yellowed from tobacco juice. A woman leaned against him, bent a little at the waist as if she were in pain. Her head was covered with a knitted woolen scarf but what little could be seen of her cheek was deep brown, a few shades darker than his own bronze skin.

The trapper moved further into the room and when the woman was slow to follow he grabbed her arm and yanked her, knocking her off balance almost causing her to fall. He sauntered through the few tables scattered about the room, looking at the poker players with far too close scrutiny.

Neal took a step away from the bar. He wanted to see how this would play out. Why would a young man be with a black woman over a decade after the War Between the States had freed all the slaves? The trapper looked too young to have been a soldier but maybe he was the son of a plantation owner. Neal had heard that there were those who had escaped Reconstruction with a few slaves and moved west. It never much mattered what the law said if a man had power enough to ignore it, after all. His eyes followed every move the pair made as the younger man chose a table and sat, leaving the woman to stand weakly behind his chair.

There was still an open spot at that table and Neal meant to claim in. He moved with stealthy grace before someone else could plunk themselves down, and nodded to the other players as a greeting while he settled into place.

From this vantage point he could see that the woman was obviously in pain. Sweat glistened on her forehead even as shudders wracked her thin shoulders. She leaned down over the trapper and whispered in his ear. “Go sit over there,” he growled as he pushed her in the direction of the bar stools. She stumbled, righted herself and shuffled toward the tall seats, a few feet away.

Neal reminded himself that he couldn’t let anyone know that he wasn’t completely engaged in the card game being dealt. He looked at his cards and pretended to be trying to decide what to do.

The trapper sneered and slapped his cards face down on the table, looking around at the other players, two other men who were older, probably more experienced, and definitely not very cheerful.

“Forgot my drink,” Neal mumbled as he got up and headed toward the bar, where he had been sitting earlier. Passing behind the trapper’s seat, he deliberately knocked the bear skin coat off the back. It landed on the floor at about the same time the man quickly jumped to his feet.

“Hey!”

“Sorry,” Neal said as he picked the coat up and draped it back across the splintery chair. “No hard feelings?” He held out his hand to the younger man, and reluctantly he took it, shaking briefly. Neal patted his shoulder for good measure, distracting the stranger from the cards pushed up his sleeve with Neal’s other hand. As he picked up the heavy bottomed glass of beer he’d left at the bar, he nodded at the woman. She looked at him vacantly, and blinked, but went back to staring at her lap, shoulders hunched over.

The players threw down the cards they didn’t want and the dealer dealt new cards around the table. Neal bent the corners up and looked at his hand. He pushed a stack of coins toward the middle of the table.

The trapper seemed undecided but finally pushed his own money toward the other coins. The man to Neal’s right threw down his cards, “I’m out.” The other fellow looked at Neal and the trapper and then threw his cards down as well.

“Looks like it’s just us,” Neal said quietly.

The trapper slowly turned his cards over but before anyone could see what his hand held, Neal tossed his cards across the table and yelled, “You cheated!”

“What?” The younger man half stood and when he drew his hands back two aces fell from his sleeves.

Immediately the barkeep came over and as the men began shouting at one another, Neal slipped over to where the woman still sat, oblivious to the commotion in her pain.

“Ma’am, you okay?” When he got no response, he continued. “Name’s Neal. We only have a few minutes before your friend is going to get kicked out of here. What’s your name?”

“My name’s Beulah,” she whispered back.

“Now, Beulah, can you tell me if all is well with you? You look like you feel poorly.”

She raised her head and exposed one bruised and swollen cheek. Her eyes were red from crying and her lips trembled. As she told her story Neal shuddered. Anger, no, rage, boiled up inside him. But in the midst of that hot fury, a plan was made and he pressed his room key into the woman’s palm.

“I’ll do my best, Beulah. Are you sure you won’t come with me?”

“I’d never make it. I’d just slow you down and you’d never make it there in time. It might be too late, already.” Her voice trailed off and the ruckus behind them amongst the card players settled down.

“I’ll be back or I’ll send word here to the barkeep. Check back with him in a few days. Get well.” He squeezed her arm through the tattered cloak she still shivered within, then quickly donned his coat and slipped out the door into the raging storm.

 

“I think I’ll have Lucy order a baby nurser for me. It would make feeding Joseph so much easier. Especially in the night.” Emma was comfortably sitting in the big soft chair that had been her father’s. The baby sucked happily at a bit of fabric that was drawing up warm goat milk from a jar.

“Are you ready to make these deliveries?” Mrs. Brown, Emma’s mother, was usually calm and kind but the past day she had seemed nervous. She fiddled with the strings on her black woolen cape.

Emma eyed the older woman, fidgeting in the doorway as though she couldn’t wait to drag the sled out onto the frozen street. “Is something wrong, Mother?”

“No, of course not.” But she answered so quickly Emma had to wonder.

“As soon as the baby is finished eating I’ll swaddle him and we can go.”

“Maybe you should just wait here and I can make the deliveries.”

“I won’t hear of any such thing! It’s cold and slick out there.” Emma stroked the downy black hair. Joseph’s head perfectly fit in the palm of her hand. She let her gaze wander over his face, so content, jaws working to draw up all the milk he could. His eyes were drooping shut now, just open slits really, and soon he would be asleep. She couldn’t help herself and leaned down and kissed his forehead and breathed in the good baby smell of him.

“You know his mother might come for him.”

“What?” Emma looked sharply at her mother. “Why would you say that? His mother is probably dead. He would be, too if it weren’t for Lorcan and me.”

“I hope you’re not setting your sights on Lorcan. That man is beneath our stature. And he appears poor as a church mouse. This baby is going to make it hard for any decent man to be interested in you.”

Emma sighed and lifted the baby to her shoulder for a burp. “Ever since Father died you’ve been after me to get married. In case you haven’t noticed, there are very few marriageable men around these parts. Just toothless old prospectors and criminals and deviants. Haven’t I pulled my weight and yours too in keeping the bank off our backs and food on the table?”

“Yes, of course you have, dear.” Mrs. Brown’s voice softened. “You’ve done admirably. But think how much easier life would be if you had a husband to support us. You shouldn’t waste any more time. At twenty-eight, plenty of men will already think you’re too old to bother with. And watching you with this little orphan, I have to think you’re getting broody.”

Focused on wrapping the baby in a blanket, Emma shook her head. “Broody, Mother? Really? Of course I want my own children someday, but I also want Joseph.”

“Oh, I wish you wouldn’t call him that! It might stick and then none of my grandchildren will be named after their grandfather.”

“His name is Joseph.” Emma looked sharply at her mother. Seeing her obvious distress, she gentled her voice. “Ma, it will be okay. Now, help me on with my coat while I hold the baby against me.”

The women, bundled against the chill, and the baby snug within his warm cocoon, walked out into the cold afternoon to begin the second milking deliveries.

The last two jars clinked together as the sled moved smoothly over the frozen ground. “The last delivery is Mrs. Bjugstad.” Emma pulled the sled with one hand and kept the other on the baby’s behind, under her coat.

The banker’s house wouldn’t be considered much in a big city back east, but in Sweet Town it was the nicest place around. The brick and wood must have cost a fortune to haul in on wagons. Emma looked up at the two story building and imagined a day when the railroad reached the town, everyone could have a nice house. She waited at the bottom of the steps while Mrs. Brown carefully climbed to the porch and knocked.

Mrs. Bjugstad opened the door and her eyes darted from Mrs. Brown to Emma. “I can tell she has that baby under her coat,” she hissed at Mrs. Brown. “Don’t bring it around here again.”

Emma couldn’t hear all of what was said, but she caught the gist from that snippet. Why would anyone object to her bringing the baby with her? Were they worried he would get cold? “He’s quite warm, Mrs. Bjugstad. I have him here, bundled under my coat.” She watched as the woman turned again to Emma’s mother and said something too quiet to hear. Mrs. Brown handed her the jars of milk and collected payment before scurrying down the steps and to Emma’s side.

“What was that all about, Mother?”

“Nothing. Let’s go. Do you still want to stop at the general store?”

Karl’s Mercantile was the place to gather for decent people. The hotel was where those who wanted to drink spirits went, and the sad little sod shack at the end of the street was where others went for unmentionable services. As Emma and her mother came into the warm and cluttered store they saw a group of miners, Lorcan not among them, Lucy behind the tall counter, and her husband Kit, the sheriff of Sweet Town, leaning against the wall.

“Good afternoon Mrs. Brown, Miss Brown,” the sheriff said as he tipped his hat.

Lucy came out from behind the counter. “Do you have the baby with you?” Emma nodded and happily unfastened her coat to reveal her precious cargo. She handed the baby to Lucy, who quickly unwrapped his face. “I think he’s grown already in just two days!”

“He’s eating three ounces of milk at a time now. Do you think you could order one of those baby nursers? It would make it so much easier to feed him.”

Kit stepped forward to look down at the baby. “I’ve sent out a wire to all area law enforcement to try to find the child’s people.”

Emma’s heart skipped a beat and her pulse sped up even as she felt light-headed with fear. She reached out her arms for Joseph, knowing it was irrational but feeling better once he was in her arms again. “He’s fine. I’m taking care of him.”

“I’m sure you are, Miss Brown, but there might be family of his out there who would welcome him back.”

“They must not be too responsible to leave him in a shack during a blizzard!”

“That’s the other part of the mystery, Emma. What happened to his mother? We may be looking at a homicide.”

“Homicide? Like a murder? Oh, my word!” She held the baby tighter.

“Now, listen here, missy,” one of the miners said, sidling up closer to the group by the counter. “A nice girl like you has no business taking in a colored baby.” As he spoke, Emma could see his tobacco stained teeth flash yellow. She shuddered in revulsion. “As far as I’m concerned Lorcan shoulda left it at the shack.”

“He isn’t an ‘it’. He’s Joseph, a little boy.” She wanted to push the man backwards, knock him into a pyramid of jars, kick him in the shins, anything to stop his mean words.

“All I’m saying is he is not one of us. He don’t look like us. He ain’t from any of us. He’s got no business being here.” The miner shook his head at Emma. “It would be better all the way around for that little critter, er, baby, to have frozen to death out there on the prairie.”

Emma wrapped her coat around the baby, tears blinding her eyes, and ran out the door. Mrs. Brown glanced back at the others and then followed her daughter out into the frigid afternoon.

 

Howling winds spread snowy particles through the air to the point a man could barely see. It was just white. And after a while Neal couldn’t tell which way was sky or ground. He struggled to stay upright, leaning into the wind but when it paused to take a breath his forward momentum caused him to fall to his knees more than once. Finally, after a full day of trudging and fighting through the storm, he arrived at the almost invisible shack Beulah had described.

The place was cold, no fire burned in the little round stove in the corner. In fact, as he looked around for something to burn, it might be even colder inside than out, he mused. The windows were crusted over with ice so that darkness seemed to hide the corners and features of the room.

A small pile of wood splinters, twisted prairie grass and a well-dried buffalo patty for good measure took the match, caught and began burning. He left the door open to the firebox to lend a little light so that he could begin his search.

Blankets on the bunk were spread out with nothing hidden within. The door had been latched, the windows were sealed, and it was clear that no animal had entered. Unfortunately, the storm would have hidden any tracks outside, but Neal was certain he wouldn’t be looking for bear or cat or wolf tracks. The last occupant of the crude hovel had been a person, of that he was sure.

Slowly, methodically, he searched the shelves and dark corners. As the stove beat back the cold, he shed some layers of outer clothing. Bundled as he had been it was hard to see that the man was whip thin, muscular, honed, but once down to regular clothes his physique was clear. Every movement was deliberate and controlled. Clean shaven, hair trimmed short, clothes well-tailored, he could pass for anything he needed to be seen as. A banker, a teacher, even a miner. This had served him well in his travels and it would work in his favor as he continued his quest. But first he had to fulfill his promise to Beulah.

On his knees he leaned down to peer under the bunk and saw something, a piece of paper, crumpled and nestled in dust and mouse litter. He had to lay on his belly on the splintery floor but managed to snag it between two fingers. He took it over to the stove, where the light was slightly better. A crude map sketched out in charcoal showed the shack and a town. Sweet Town. Due east. Frustration gnawed at his gut and he rose for the tenth time to peer out the thawing window fruitlessly. It would take some sun to get his bearings and with nothing to do but wait out the storm he began to make himself at home.

 

 

 

Night had fallen, almost before the day had a chance to start so far north. Emma shifted the slight burden in her arms and felt Joseph squirm in response. She couldn’t remember what it had been like when her father was alive and the family had lived in Ohio. She knew they lived in a cozy house and they had a barn where a cow lived as well as a half-wild cat. She remembered stealing kittens from the cat and taming them slowly and gently. Her father had once said, “The surest way to make a good house cat is to give a kitten to a four year old girl.”

Emma smiled at the memory and looked down at the baby where he lay curled against her chest. “Oh, sweet boy,” she whispered, “I hope one day you will have as good memories as I have of my childhood. I want to give you that.” His eyelids twitched in dreaming, and she fancied he had heard and understood.

Mrs. Brown came into the room drying her hands on a dish towel. “Dishes are done and the kitchen is clean,” she said with a groan as she sank onto the sofa.

“Thanks for cleaning up, Mother. I had no idea that babies took so much time.”

Mrs. Brown smiled slightly and Emma notice that worried look on her face again. “A penny for your thoughts.”

“I just don’t want to see you hurt.”

“How would I be hurt?”

“The child. I’m afraid you’re getting too attached.”

Emma squinted at her mother in the darkening room. “Of course, I’m attached. He depends on me for everything.”

“He’s not your baby, Emma.”

That’s not what Emma’s heart said. Her heart told her that he was hers. No one had come forward to claim him and all of Kit’s efforts to find out anything had turned up empty. Why did anyone care if she kept him? She bit her lip to keep from replying.

“Dear, please listen to me.” Mrs. Brown reached out her hand and touched Emma’s shoulder. “People are talking. They’re saying it’s not right for you to be caring for a little black child. They’re saying he doesn’t belong here in Sweet Town.”

“The war is over and the North won. Why is this even an issue? He’s just a baby and he has no one. It shouldn’t matter what color he is.”

“The war may be over in fact, but it’s not over in many folks’ minds. A good portion of the population here fought in that war. Some for the Union and some for the Confederacy. There are those who blame the colored people for that war. They feel that they wouldn’t have lost loved ones, property, years of their lives, if the black man had never existed.”

“That’s absurd! No one asked to be made slaves. They can’t be at fault for a thing.” Emma stood and paced back and forth in the small parlor. When a feeling of hopelessness started to swamp her emotions she fought it back with anger. “I don’t care,” she said defiantly through clenched teeth.

Her mother stood and faced her. “Well, you had better care because that boy is going to bear the brunt of their hatred. And we will, too. They won’t buy our milk and they’ll find other ways to punish us. You could send him to an orphanage or to Deadwood, where I hear tell there are freed slaves living.”

Emma could stand it no longer and left the room, her mother still standing in the center.

 

 

Moonlight shone through the lacy curtains at Emma’s window. The storm must be passing, she thought. Joseph’s face crumpled in sleep and he began to cry.

“Are you hungry, my dear one?” she cooed as she pushed the make-shift nurser into his mouth, and he began to vigorously suck at the warm milk. “I promise you, I won’t let them scare me. I won’t give you up to anyone except your own blood. You will never end up in an orphanage. Never!”

In the morning Emma took the first milking to the store by herself, the baby tucked into her coat. As the sun rose it glittered majestically on the snow, as far as the eye could see, scrubbed smooth by the fierce winds that had blown during the storm.

“Still in town?” she said as Lucy opened the back door of the store.

“Yes, Kit has gone out to look for a fellow who never came home last night. He’s probably frozen but you know Kit. He has to try.”

“Oh dear. I’m so glad Lorcan found Joseph when he did. Can you imagine, he could have died in that storm.”

Lucy rolled her eyes. “Yes, he could have, but he didn’t. Some other poor soul has.”

Emma felt chastised and busied herself putting the jars into the cold box.

“Have you thought any more about loaning the church a goat or two for the nativity scene? Joel Wilkes is bringing a sheep and Hunter Macalaster has two oxen to lend.” The women went through the curtained doorway into the store and naturally gravitated to the radiating warmth of the stove.

“To tell you the truth, I forgot all about it,” Emma admitted as she brought the baby out of her coat.

“Tonight is Christmas Eve. Can you give me an answer now?” Lucy folded her arms and tapped the toe of one petite boot.

Emma felt an itch of irritation. She had things of greater importance to think about. A rattle at the front door interrupted her thoughts and she watched as Lucy let Ida Franklin in.

“You’re up early, Miss Franklin. What can I do for you?”

Ida Franklin was a spinster. Never married, she lived with her sister’s son in rooms over his blacksmith shop. “I’ve been watching for Emma here to go by.” Ida shook off her black woolen cape and hung it over a stack of bags of potatoes. “I was in the bank yesterday and saw Mrs. Bjugstad. Let me just say, she’s making sure everyone hears her opinion about that young one you’re caring for. She’s stirring people up against you. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all get together and insist Kit take him to an orphanage.”

“Why? Who am I hurting by caring for him?”

“Who knows and who cares. Just be warned.”

Emma hugged Joseph closer until he let out a squeak in protest.

“Back to the question of the nativity. Will you bring a goat over to the church tonight at about six?”

“Sure, sure,” Emma said absently, her mind frantically trying to come up with a solution to the problem of her neighbors objection to a helpless child in their midst.

“And while I have you both here, Kit and I would like to invite you to our house for Christmas dinner. We’ll eat about two. I have a lovely big smoked ham.”

Emma nodded, her voice stopped up in a throat tight with fear. Her eyes were open wide and glittering with unshed tears. “I have to go. I’ll see you tonight.” She nearly ran out of the building leaving Lucy and Ida shaking their heads.

 

Bright light magnified through a thousand ice crystals streamed through the tiny windows and beamed warmth onto Neal’s sleeping face. Thank God, he thought, as he jumped up and peered out the glass. Finally, he could travel to Sweet Town, using the sun as his guide according to the crude hand drawn map he’d found. There’d been times enough when he’d had to use the stars for directions while traveling under cover of darkness, but that did little good if the night sky was covered over in clouds.

Several hours later he could see the buildings of a town huddled together in the vast white prairie. He hoped to find out information about Beulah’s tragedy, but it was fortunate that Sweet Town was also the destination of his own quest. He had memorized the newspaper article he’d found in Deadwood and hoped that by the end of the day he would have answers.

Facing east toward town, the first buildings he came to were the sod houses settlers built to live in. Cut from the thick mat of roots of prairie grass, the pieces were stacked like bricks. Most of these huts didn’t even have real windows, but smoke curled lazily from their chimneys in the still winter air. Neal dismissed them as not worthy of his attention. The first real place was a wooden framed, two story general store. The sign out front was freshly painted and said Karl’s Mercantile. In his experience, the local shop was usually a good place to find out information. He stepped up onto the boardwalk and hesitated at the windowed door. Several people were inside talking to one another, but their voices were too low for him to make out. The group inside shifted and what he saw put him instantly on alert. Perhaps his quest would be easier than he thought, but unfortunately he wouldn’t be able to utilize the information to be gleaned within the store.

Affecting a casual air he stepped down from the boardwalk to the trampled street and looked first one direction and then another. Further to the east was a brick bank building and beside it a small sheriff’s office. On the opposite side of the street there was smithy, post office, and the strangest hotel he’d ever seen. It was conglomeration of mismatched parts with bright colors shining from the windows. Heading in that direction he kept his head down lest anyone recognize him.

 

 

Steamy air, cigar smoke, and the low murmur of voices met Neal as he opened the door to the hotel. A pretty girl with long dark hair pulled back with a ribbon smiled at him from across the room. By the time he had settled into a chair at a table she arrived with a small slate. “What can I get for you?”

“Please bring me your best breakfast and coffee.” He smiled and hoped he hadn’t been curt. The girl might have information he could use.

“That would be fried potatoes, a ham steak and a couple pickled eggs. The chickens aren’t laying enough to keep the hotel stocked.”

“That sounds perfect. Thanks.”

When she returned he couldn’t help himself but notice, and appreciate, how her white blouse draped over her curves and how her full lips were turned up in a smile.

“Can I get you anything else?” She set a heaping plate and a steaming cup in front of him.

“I’m considering moving here. What can you tell me about Sweet Town?”

“It’s a funny time of year to be looking for a new home.” Contrary to her words, she didn’t look suspicious at all, and her expression was just as pleasant as before.

“My name’s Neal, uh, Leonard. The timing just worked out this way.”

“I’m Therese Nováková. My parents own this hotel. I hope you’ll come to the live Nativity Scene at the church tonight. You’ll get a good feel for the town and the people that way. There’s probably not anyone in the land office today, it being Christmas Eve and all.”

“That sounds like a good place to start. How about a room?”

While Therese went off to arrange for hotel accommodations for Neal, he slowly ate his breakfast. His back was to the door but when a newcomer entered, the cold air swept over him. He glanced back and saw a tall man, blonde hair, with a big star pinned to his jacket. Neal turned back to his meal and took another bite, trying to look casual and uninterested.

The sheriff sat at a table with several other people just to Neal’s left.

“Hey, Price,” one of the other men said by way of greeting. “Heard anything yet?”

“No, all my inquiries are dead ends.”

“What are you going to do? Emma can’t be allowed to keep it.”

“Right now that’s the best plan. If I find a responsible person to take over for her, I’ll be the first to lay down the law. In the meantime, you should all lay off.”

“Lay off! Not with that one in our midst!”

Grumbling ensued and Neal couldn’t make out much of what was mumbled at the neighboring table. Therese was making her way toward them and called out, “Good afternoon, Kit.”

Neal pulled out a big watch from his pocket and confirmed that it was afternoon. He’d slept late and the walk had taken longer than he’d anticipated.

“Will we see you and Lucy tonight?”

“You sure will. Lucy can’t talk of anything else. I think she’s single-handedly rounded up all the critters for the nativity. She even got Emma to agree to bring a goat.”

Therese laughed in delight and Neal risked a quick glance at the table. Were the sheriff and Therese somehow involved? He made a mental note.

“I’d better get back to work. See you tonight.”

“And we’ll see you tomorrow for dinner, right? Lucy’s got a whole feast planned.”

“I’m planning on it and I’ll be bringing koláče from my grandmother’s recipe.” At Kit’s look of confusion she added, “Don’t worry, they’re very tasty and sweet.”

Shortly after the sheriff left and Neal went up to his hotel room. He stretched out on the bed with his hands behind his head and went over what all he had heard during the day. Maybe he would find out more during the gathering at the church.

 

 

“Look what I found!” Mrs. Brown was holding a small leather traveling case in her hands.

Emma hoped her mother wasn’t going to harp on her any more about Joseph. She was keeping the baby and that was that. Unless his mother turned up, but that wasn’t likely. The poor woman had probably perished in the storm.

“I wasn’t sure I still had these things,” the plump older woman said as she set the case on the sofa and opened it.

Emma leaned over to see better, while still keeping up burping the baby. He seemed to burp and spit up a lot, she worried. Maybe there was something wrong with him. Maybe goat milk wasn’t the best thing, but it was all she had.

“Emma, look, your baby gowns!” Mrs. Brown lifted a tiny dress from the case as though it were spun gold and held it aloft for her daughter to see. “And nappies and socks, it’s all here.”

“That’s wonderful. Can I use it for Joseph?” The baby let out a wet burp onto Emma’s shoulder.

“Yes, you may but when his family comes for him, you can’t send these things along with him. I saved them for when you have children of your own.”

Emma stamped her foot. “Mother, no one is coming for him. I’m keeping him, so you might as well get used to him as mine.”

Mrs. Brown’s round cheeks seemed to cave it as her forehead wrinkled in concern. “Dear, you must prepare yourself. Just in case.”

Emma busied herself cleaning and dressing the child until he was as fine as any baby she had ever seen. Not that she’d see many babies, but she was sure Joseph would compare favorably to any of them. “I’m ready to go whenever you are. It may take us awhile to walk the goat down to the churchyard.”

The area around the church was lit with many lanterns, making it nearly as bright as day. Emma saw Lucy and waved at her, while Mrs. Brown struggled with pulling the anxious goat into the fray. Miss Ida nudged her nephew Hunter and he hurried over to take the rope from the older woman’s mittened hands. “I’ll take over for you.” He was wearing a long robe, dressed to fill the part of Mary’s husband in the Creche, and the fabric swished about his legs as he moved away, pulling the animal with him.

Emma watched as Lucy made her way through the crowd of people. A flowered fabric peeked through the long lavender overcoat she wore to protect her from the chilly air. Lucy always had such flair, Emma thought as she considered her own sedate outfit. A gray coat covered a gray dress and her hat with gray, too. When did I become so dull? I want Joseph to be proud to point me out to his friends and say, “That’s my mother.” She shifted the baby in her arms as Lucy reached out for him.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t come tonight.”

“Why wouldn’t I come? I told you I’d bring the goat.”

“Well, with what people are saying, I thought you might stay at home.” Lucy juggled the baby in her arms and cooed into his face. “Oh, his cheeks are growing fatter by the hour!”

“What do you mean?” Emma looked around suspiciously at the group gathered in the church yard. “What are people saying?”

A hand fell on her shoulder and she jumped, quickly whipping her head around while at the same time her hands reached blindly for Joseph.

“Good evening, Miss Brown!” Pastor Whitney smiled broadly as he patted her shoulder. “I’m so glad you could make it tonight along with this young fella.” He reached out and patted the baby in Lucy’s arms. “Your kind loan of a goat will help round out our Nativity Scene.”

Emma smiled and took a deep breath. She was being silly. What was there to worry about? These were her friends, neighbors and customers. She had never had a problem with them before.

The oxen were stubborn in taking their places, the goat bleated continuously, while the sheep kept wandering off. Pastor Whitney rushed to corral them. Lucy handed Joseph back to Emma and returned to a table where refreshments were available. Ida Franklin had waved her over when a large group of miners arrived wanting hot chocolate. Emma’s mother had left her side also and she stood alone, in the midst of the crowd, rocking the baby.

“It’s a scandal!” The harsh whisper could barely be heard above the noise of the animals. “She has no business keeping that baby.” Emma held her breath, but the sound of her heart beating in panic was all she could hear.

“Someone should take it to Deadwood. It doesn’t belong here.”

Emma held Joseph tighter to her breast and looked around in horror, trying to determine who was speaking. No one met her eyes. She looked further hoping to find a friendly face. Pastor Whitney was talking to Therese, dressed as Mary, and as Emma watched, the young woman threw back her head and laughed. Everyone looked so happy and friendly. How could anyone be harboring such hateful thoughts about her baby?

A trio of miners arrived, each wearing brightly colored robes and crowns of gold paper. The others laughed and pushed at them as they passed through the gathering.

Emma saw the pastor’s head snap up, his face serious and stern, as he leaned toward one of the three Kings and spoke sharply. The people grew silent as they turned to listen to the exchange, until all was quiet and Whitney’s voice clearly rang out.

“All of us, including that baby, the namesake of our own Savior’s step-father, are God’s children. I will hear no more of this talk.”

Emma felt tears well in her eyes, thankful that someone was standing up for her. The chatter of happy voices picked up and she heard no more hateful talk but no one met her eyes or came over to greet her.

After much jostling and shuffling the animals were in place. Therese and Hunter stood in the makeshift stable next to a simple wooden box that would serve as the manger. Someone called out, “Where’s baby Jesus?” to the laughter of those nearest him.

“Emma, could we borrow Joseph to be baby Jesus?” Lucy asked. “He’s the only baby in town.”

Her husband called out, “For now!”

“Oh Kit, you hush,” she said, a blush staining her cheeks. “How about it, Emma? Can we borrow your baby?”

Emma looked around and saw the lips of the women grow tight with disapproval, the men’s jaws clench in barely suppressed anger.

The banker’s wife’s strident voice could be heard clearly. “That’s not her baby.”

“Mrs. Bjugstad, you know what my wife means,” Kit said calmly.

“It’s wrong to put a colored baby in that manger to portray Jesus.”

A chorus of agreement rose from all corners of the crowd. Emma took a step backward, ready to turn and run with Joseph in her arms.

“I’d like to tell you all a story,” Pastor Whitney’s voice called out. Slowly the gathering quieted. “Our Savior, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, which is in the Middle East. As a Galilean Jew, He was probably quite swarthy. But our Bible doesn’t make an issue of the color of His skin and Jesus Himself never made an issue of the color of any man’s skin. If Jesus were here today, and He is if we invite Him in our midst, I am sure He would have no objection to this child playing His holiness in this Nativity Scene.” He looked around at the people gathered in the church yard. “As to this baby’s parentage, Jesus Himself was adopted by Joseph. There is no shame in taking in a foundling. In fact, it would seem that it might be a holy calling in certain circumstances.”

No one spoke for several moments while Lucy escorted Emma to the makeshift stable.

 

The small table was filled to overflowing with every manner of plate and platter. Lucy’s face was flushed from the heat of the stove and she stayed busy on her feet, serving dinner to her friends. Once a large platter of ham was being passed around the table, she finally sat and gave a sigh of pleasure.

Lorcan filled his plate. “This looks grand.”

Emma watched as Lucy and Kit exchanged a private glance and was stabbed with jealousy. Although there was a time when she thought she might be able to attract the sheriff’s interest, she couldn’t imagine any two people more suited to one another than the Prices.

Kit cleared his voice. “Before we begin eating this wonderful meal my wife has prepared, I’d like to take a moment to thank each of you for joining us. Most of us don’t have much blood family around here, but I’d like to think that we are family of a sorts. We’ve had some adventures,” he coughed into his hand with a twinkle in his eye causing the others to laugh, “and we’ve protected each other’s backs.” Gregor Behr, the Postmaster slapped Hunter on the back good-naturedly and the blacksmith had the sense to look a little embarrassed.

“I would like to propose a toast,” Ida said raising her glass of homemade wine. “To good friends and family. Merry Christmas.”

Emma juggled Joseph in her arms as she raised her glass with the others. She would have supper with her mother later, just as Therese would with her family. This midday meal was just for them. They had together been in a gunfight and caught murderers. She could trust every one of the people around the table with her life. “Kit, have you heard anything back from your inquiries about Joseph?”

“I haven’t. I hate to say it but it looks as though his mother may have died in the snowstorm.”

“What I can’t figure is why she would’ve gone back out when it was fit to blizzard. Then there’s the second set of footprints. Who was with her?” Lorcan said to the group.

“Unless someone comes forward, we may never know.”

Emma had to ask, though she was worried about what Kit would say. “Does the law say I can keep him then? If no one ever comes forward to claim him, there shouldn’t be any problem, right?”

“That depends upon what you consider to be a problem,” Ida said sharply. “Last night was a problem. It was pert near a riot.”

“I was so afraid,” Emma said, her voice shaking.

Lucy patted her on the arm. “You did the right thing leaving when you did. Nothing the pastor said did any good. I’m afraid my suggestion to put Joseph in the manger just made it worse.”

“I felt like hounds were on my tail as I ran home.”

Kit shook his head. His disgust with the townspeople evident on his face. “I was watching out for you, but I am concerned. I won’t always be around. As for the what the law says about taking in an orphan, you’d have to talk to a lawyer about that. From my standpoint, I wouldn’t object, though public sentiment may make that decision for you. Unless you decide to leave Sweet Town.”

Emma hadn’t considered such an extreme measure, and truly, where would she go where it would be any better? She was a white woman with a black baby. There was no explanation that would please everyone. Her mother had been right.

“That reminds me,” Kit continued. “I’ve noticed a stranger around town the last couple of days. Therese, that man you rented a room to, did he mention his business in town?”

Therese offered a plate of koláčes to her friends. “His name is Neal Leonard and he said he’s thinking of moving here. He seems nice enough.”

“He was at the church last night and the way he was watching everyone just made me think he was up to something.”

Therese shrugged. “I told him to come. I said he’d get a real sense of our town. I suppose he won’t want to move here now.” She looked at Emma. “Don’t leave your home. The people here will get used to you having Joseph. When my family first came here we were treated like garbage. The miners heard that we were Bohemians and decided we were bad people. But now, we’re accepted and I don’t think anyone gives our heritage a second thought.”

Emma wondered why Lucy’s cheeks grew red and she noticed another private look exchanged between the married couple.

 

 

With his back against the wall, Neal could hear what was being said. He chanced a quick glance inside and saw the group sitting around a cozy kitchen table, the remains of a large meal evident. The tall, thin woman wearing a dull brown dress was holding the baby.

From what was said last night at the Nativity Scene, Neal guessed that the baby was Beulah’s but without seeing for himself, he couldn’t be sure.

The sheriff shared a private look with his wife and Neal could tell they were happy together. His eyes roamed the small room. A rocking chair with a bright fabric cushion on the seat was off in the corner. A few pictures graced the walls and two closed doors led off to what he supposed were bedrooms.

After hearing what the lawman had said, Neal realized he had slipped up and given some reason for suspicion. He’d have to be extra careful now, but this was too good of an opportunity to miss, being able to eavesdrop on the group and find out more. Once he confirmed the baby was Beulah’s, he still had his own quest to finish.

A noise from the other side of the house drew his attention and careful to keep close to the building he sidled along until he could peer out around the corner. A group of people in a sleigh, and on horseback, were approaching.

Was this a lynch mob, as the tall woman had feared? Neal put his hand on the holster of his gun, worn out of sight under his coat. He didn’t much care for violence, but would resort to it if lives were at stake.

Once near, the group climbed out of the sleigh. Neal pulled his gun free and held it in his right hand, on alert for the first sign of danger. He had multiple reasons to protect the inhabitants of the house, not the least being the child.

To his shock, they assembled in front of the porch and the pastor from the church in town walked to the front and raised his hands high. When he brought them down the people began singing.

What child is this, who, laid to rest,

On Mary’s lap is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring Him laud,

The babe, the son of Mary.

Neal quickly glanced in a side window to see what reaction the folks inside would have to this turn of events. For a moment they sat stock still with identical looks of confusion on their faces and then, as one, they rose and rushed to the door. Spilling out onto the porch, the dinner party listened to the carolers in pleasure. The sheriff put his arm around his wife and she leaned into him. The tall mousy woman hugged the baby and then lifted him to her face to kiss one round cheek.

“Well, I’ll be,” Neal whispered to himself, confident he wouldn’t be heard over the singing. The baby was the spitting image of Beulah. He’d found her child.

As the song ended, the loud woman who was so objectionable last night, stepped forward. “I would like to offer my sincere apologies for my behavior toward you, Miss Emma Brown, and your dear charge, Joseph. Pastor Whitney has spent time in prayer with us and we have, at his direction, decided to do as Jesus would do, and not as man would do.” She paused and looked back at the people who had arrived with her. “I’m sorry to say, not everyone came around, but those of us who are here now, pledge to support you and Joseph in any way we can.”

Neal looked at the tall woman on the porch, Miss Emma Brown, her face shining with happiness, her arms holding the baby, and thought to himself, That woman is in for a world of hurt.

 

###

 

I hope you enjoyed this Christmas story about the people of Sweet Town, living in Dakota Territory, during the Gold Rush Days. 
If you would like a recipe similar to Therese Nováková’s traditional Bohemian koláče, visit my web page: http://www.saltpress.com/Sarah_Christian

 

For more information and other books, visit Sarah Christian’s page at http://www.saltpress.com/Sarah_Christian

 


What Child Is This (Sweet Town Clean Historical Western Romance)

Some mothers are created through birth and some are born through an interesting series of events. Days before Christmas as a blizzard hits Sweet Town, Dakota Territory, a baby is found abandoned in a lonely shack. With no nursing mothers in town, the unmarried Emma Brown takes responsibility for him, but not everyone is happy with this act of kindness. Anger and judgment drive the town to turn their backs on Emma and her young charge, leaving her frightened and unsure of who can be trusted. When a handsome stranger with piercing blue eyes arrives, the mystery of the baby's birth deepens. A sweet, short story about charity and the power of love, What Child Is This explores the true meaning of Christmas. In the shadow of wild Deadwood sits quiet Sweet Town. Established in the Dakota Gold Rush of the 1870s, Sweet Town is surrounded by gentle hills and fields of clover. It's a place where anyone can start over and redemption is never out of reach. Sweet Town romances tell the stories of the community as its members fall in love. These inspiring stories explore the power of charity, the nature of good and evil, and all the miracles that can happen when you open your heart.

  • ISBN: 9781311630179
  • Author: saltpress
  • Published: 2015-12-10 21:40:09
  • Words: 10628
What Child Is This (Sweet Town Clean Historical Western Romance) What Child Is This (Sweet Town Clean Historical Western Romance)