Excerpted First Chapter of A BABY BLUE CHRISTMAS
The Magic of Christmas Anthology
READ CHAPTER ONE
November, Ruby Creek, Colorado
There was always at least one rude traveler for the duration of a stage ride, and this time it was an overweight and cloyingly perfumed woman in a bright green traveling suit. She’d slept nearly the entire trip since Salt Lake City, snoring in snorts and whistles that punctuated every tedious, bone-jolting inch of the way.
Gabrielle couldn’t complain.
She was exceedingly grateful it was Snore Lady beside her and not Whiskey Breath. From his seat directly across from her, the man with the bristly brown-stained beard gave her sidelong looks that made her skin crawl. The one time she’d erroneously met his gaze, he’d smiled. His teeth were brown and decayed. One of the rules of etiquette required that he offer to share the bottle, and he’d done so begrudgingly. Only one passenger had accepted his invitation. Gabby wouldn’t have touched her lips to that bottle if she’d been dying of thirst.
Gabby had taken only short trips with the Wells Fargo Overland in the past. Heat and dust were definitely worse during summer months, so late November was marginally better for a hasty and ill-planned trip. Being packed in like sardines was an advantage this time of year and in this unfamiliar part of the country.
The coach hit another rut and her teeth jarred yet again. Snore Lady gasped in her sleep and then lapsed back into vigorous and prolonged inhaling and exhaling.
The driver struck the side of the coach to gain their attention, and a gentleman in a gray wool suit opened the flap to listen to his message. A flurry of snow filtered in and dusted the buffalo robes.
Gabby stared at the flakes glistening on the dark fur. She was from the Steptoe Valley in eastern Nevada and had only seen snow in stereoscope slides. Having been forewarned about winter, she’d bought a warmer coat at a layover in Utah.
“Last bend before Ruby Creek,” the gentleman traveler conveyed.
Having been delayed most of the afternoon for wheel repair, they were finally reaching her destination in darkness. Gabby prayed the hotel would check her in at this late hour. To hurry her travel, she’d brought only one small satchel. All she needed was a place to lay her head for the night.
She’d been following her cousin for weeks, traveling by any means available and inquiring from town to town. She had learned that Willow had come to Ruby Creek only a day or two ago. This was the closest Gabby had come to finding her since starting out a month ago. She didn’t let herself think about what could happen if she was too late. Willow always landed on her feet, but the baby she was about to give birth to was defenseless.
With a final lurch, the stagecoach slowed, turned a new direction and came to a halt with a screech of springs.
Snore Lady roused. “Where are we?”
“Ruby Creek,” Whiskey Breath replied.
The obese woman raised the flap and peered out into darkness. “It’s late! Nearly bedtime.”
Gabby exchanged a glance with the man in the gray suit.
The coach rocked as the driver and a passenger climbed down from the top seat. The door opened outward, a bitter cold draft and more fascinating white flakes swept inside.
“Ruby Creek!” the driver called. “Those goin’ on will have to find a room for the night on Well’s Fargo’s tab. We’re half a day behind, but we cain’t go no farther in the dark. Too dangerous for the horses.”
The reflection of the moon and stars on the snow lit the night with an odd silent brightness. Gabby stepped down into the freezing inch-thick blanket of white. Her thin-soled shoes made a squeaking sound with each step. Drat. She’d bought the coat, but hadn’t thought of warmer footwear.
Eager to be on the road, Gabby had been the first passenger aboard the coach that morning; her bag was buried between crates and trunks. Waiting impatiently as the driver and a man from the freight line unloaded, she turned to cast a look at the town.
Four gas lamps burning at uneven intervals lit Ruby Creek’s Main Street. She made out hanging signs for the hotel, a livery, mercantile and pawnshop. Other signs painted on windows were indistinguishable in the dark. Dissipating smoke curled from half a dozen chimneys.
Within minutes, the cold seeped through her shoes and chilled her toes. Beneath her coat and dress, frigid air encased her legs. Within seconds numbness set into her thighs.
By the time the men uncovered her satchel, she was the only one left standing at the station. She took her bag with a weary thank you and pointed herself toward the sign that read Friberger Hotel. The frosty layer that had settled on the boardwalk made her final steps treacherous. She slipped and slid and finally grabbed the doorknob as a lifeline. The door opened and she slid into a chilly lobby, relived to at last be indoors.
“Full up!” A wiry man with hair standing in pewter-colored tufts around his ears called to her as soon as she closed the door behind her.
Now what would she do? Her whole body ached, and she was so tired, she could have fallen asleep standing there.
Carrying a no vacancy sign, the proprietor limped toward the front door. The crown of his head was bald and pink. “Just let the very last room.”
He hung the sign in the front window.
Gabby set down her bag. “I need a place to stay.” Refusing to give in to desperation, she thought quickly. “I’ll share a room with someone and pay the entire cost.”
The man obviously wanted to get back to his bed, but he sighed and obliged her by plodding up the stairs. He was gone a long time, so Gabby looked around for a chair. There was only a long narrow bench beside the door. She remained standing.
At last he returned. “Won’t nobody share. The new arrivals ain’t payin’ their own way, so they don’t care.”
With her hopes in shreds, she closed her eyes against the discouragement crushing in. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Sometimes Miz Sims takes a border overnight. How long ya stayin’?”
She only wished she knew when she’d find Willow and be able to head home. When she’d made up her mind to do whatever she could to get to her in time, Gabby’d had no choice but to come on this trip alone. There was no other family besides her parents. Besides the fact that they’d given up on Willow, they had a business to run. “I’m not sure.”
“Other’n that, maybe the reverend. No, come t’ think of it, he’s a widow man and don’t take in no females on account of propriety. Sometimes Turner over t’ the livery lets a fella stay the night with his horse. ‘Specially in poor weather. Ya might ask ‘im.”
Tired, hungry, supremely frustrated, Gabby picked up her bag and tugged her collar around her neck. She forced herself to thank the man politely. In the morning half the travelers would move on and, if she hadn’t found Willow, she’d still be in need of a room by tomorrow night.
Long about three o’clock, Ruby Creek and the day closed in on Turner Price. He tended the horses as usual, did chores and ate simple meals, but come nightfall and the locked silence of the businesses along Main Street, he saddled his gelding and rode out, staying away from the hills and the creeks and finding clear moonlit trails.
Often, no matter the weather, he dismounted and walked, his Mexican spurs jangling and silencing night creatures as he passed.
This snowy November night made for a bitter cold ride and a colder walk, but he was accustomed to the elements and had dressed warm. With the stars spread overhead and the frigid air biting his lungs, it was easier to keep his thinking focused on the present.
Snow glistened in the moonlight and brightened the landscape. His horse didn’t care what Turner said or didn’t say, didn’t have an opinion or feel pity. Comanche just plodded along at his side with an occasional snort or soft whinny for companionship. Comanche didn’t demand Turner talk or feel or change, and Turner liked their relationship just fine.
Judging by the stars, it was time to head home. He mounted and urged the Appaloosa toward the livery. He reached the door, dismounted, and rolled the wood sideways to lead the gelding inside.
One of the other horses nickered from its stall and Comanche responded with a soft snort and a shake of his head.
Turner hung his coat and hat, unsaddled Comanche and picked up a blanket to dry him. “Hold on, I’ll get you dry and warm and you can settle in for the night.”
He was brushing the animal’s withers when a sound arrested his attention. His hand fell still. A cat? A pair of cats? Not impossible that felines had sought lodging in the warmth and safety of the building for the night. But why in tarnation were they making so much racket?
The sound registering more clearly, Turner rolled around additional possibilities. He was either losing his mind or….
Lying down the brush, he gave his horse a pat on the shoulder and grabbed a lantern that hung from a nail on a beam. His spurs jangled a beat as he strode down the long row of stalls.
The horses were agitated, stamping and moving restlessly. A bay he was boarding for a traveler pinned his ears back and rolled his eyes, a distinct reaction to a disturbing smell. More than Turner’s late return was exciting these horses. Something--or someone--had disturbed them.
The high-pitched sound had grown louder and was definitely coming from the back of the barn. These end stalls were always the last rented.
Turner’s gut clenched at the sound he now recognized as a baby’s cry. And not just one slender reedy trill--two.
The stall gate was unlatched, and he swung it outward to enter. Two impossibly tiny infants wrapped in bright-colored cloth lay on a mound of hay, their tiny fists flailing in the chill air.
For a full minute, he couldn’t make sense of what his eyes told him. He stopped breathing to simply stare and absorb.
Just looking at them hurt.
He’d been gone only a couple of hours at the longest. How could this be? Hesitant, but unerringly drawn, he stepped forward and knelt. Their eyes were squinched shut, their faces red with agitation. Turner touched one finger to the nearest infant’s matted damp scalp. Like newborn colts, these babies still bore evidence of their recent birth. They were mere minutes old, barely over an hour at the most.
An unsettling sense of trouble clawed at his nerves. Where was their mother? Unwilling to leave them alone, he glanced around as if their parent would appear or he’d find the answer in the wooden enclosure.
Both infants’ stiffly held arms trembled as they screamed. They kicked at the cloth covering their legs until the material pushed aside. Boys, both of them. Hungry, frightened, tiny boys.
Stricken by the unexpected sight and the tormenting effect on his mind and heart, Turner acted instinctively.
Shrugging out of his heavy flannel shirt, he knelt and--one at a time--gingerly placed the babies against the warm fabric and tucked the bulky garment around them. He folded back the excess, careful not to bury their faces.
He lifted the bundle gently and held it against his chest, his mind racing. Turning on his heel, he inspected the stall, the space leading to it, and each of the surrounding pens. Twelve contained restless horses. Eight were empty.
None hid a woman.
He checked the tack room and even walked back to his quarters. The room held everything he needed for his sparse existence: A bed, a small coal burner, a table and one chair.
Warmth and motion soothed the babies. Nestled against each other in the soft bundle of his shirt and against his heart, they grew silent.
He studied their miniature features, and a torturous ache weighted his chest. He didn’t want to look at them, didn’t want to add to his misery, but he couldn’t keep his gaze away. The child with the most hair had a hand splayed against his cheek, and his fingers were unbelievably tiny with perfect little nails. The other opened his heart-shaped mouth and turned his seeking face against the flannel. Turner couldn’t catch his breath for seconds. His head swam.
Tiny and helpless and alone. The fact that someone had abandoned them chafed Turner’s temper. The act was inconceivable.
And now what in blazes was he to do with them? They wouldn’t survive a day without milk and proper care. He stirred the ashes in the coal burner and added fuel to get the room warm.
The bell outside the entrance clanged once, then silenced abruptly as though someone had placed a hand on it. It was rare that anyone came for his mount or to leave a horse this late. He’d heard the stage earlier, though, and occasionally, if the small stable behind the freight station was full, the drivers boarded animals here overnight.
He placed the babies on his bed, making sure they were bundled snugly before he strode through the building. He hadn’t tethered Comanche. His horse had wandered to the other side of the open area and stood with his head lowered. “I’ll get you bedded down in a shake, boy.”
Two lanterns still burned on either side of the entrance. Turner opened the door and peered out.
A feminine form in a dark coat and fur-lined hat moved into the glow of the lantern. “Pardon me for disturbing you so late.”
So here she was. He looked her over, suspicion sending a warning signal to his senses. Her hat was pulled low so that it almost hid her eyes, and her nose was red. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Gabrielle Rawlins. I need a place to stay. The hotel’s full, you see. The man there told me--.”
“What were you tryin’ to pull?”
“Takin’ off like that?”
She glanced over her shoulder and repeated, “Pardon me?”
“Looks like a mighty warm coat you’re wearin’ there.”
“It’s sufficient. What I need is--.”
At that moment, a thin wail rose from the back of the building and echoed through to the front. It was immediately joined by a second.
The young woman’s eyes widened and she stared at Turner.
“Had somewhere important to go?” he asked, narrowing his gaze.
“I told you, I--.”
“Tell me anything you like, but what kind of woman leaves two spankin’ new babies alone in a horse stall?”
The squall was unmistakable. Her shocked gaze traveled past his shoulder. Eyes a rich tawny color like dark honey widened.
“Yeah, I found ‘em. What did you think would happen?”
So quickly that he didn’t have time to stop her, she slipped past him and ran toward the source of the pathetic cries.
Taking note of her bag sitting in the snow, he moved it inside before he bolted the door and followed.