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Connor's Falls, Missouri
December 18, 1887
It was snowing again. Joy stood at the window and looked out, her hopes of having a Christmas tree fading as she considered the white landscape that seemed unending. October had brought the first snowfall of the year and it had continued, inch by inch, and now lay several feet deep in the drifts by the porch. The tree she'd had her eye on for almost three months was at the edge of the woods, but it might as well be in St. Louis for all the good it did her today. She was tough by her own estimation, but hauling the sled through three feet of snow was an impossibility, even to her hopeful eyes. In all her twenty years, she'd never gone without a Christmas tree. But even though she told herself it wasn't necessary for celebrating the sacred holiday, she'd still hauled out the decorations from the attic, just in case the snow stopped falling and she could shovel a path to the barn and then make her way from there across the meadow. She turned back to the stove and stirred the sausage gravy she was making for Grandpa's breakfast. From the sounds of it, Grandpa was moving about in his bedroom directly overhead, where the register caught the early-morning heat from the wood-burning stove she cooked on. He called to her from the top of the staircase and she walked down the short hallway to answer his summons.
"Joy, I can smell sausage cooking up here. Did you make biscuits to go with it?" he asked hopefully as he made his way down the stairs. It was slow going, for he'd passed his eightieth birthday just months ago and he was becoming more frail by the day. In this weather, he had to stay inside, off the porch; in fact, for the most part, he was limited to walking back and forth between his bedroom, the kitchen and the parlor. She reached for his hand just as he touched the floor in the hallway and bent to press a kiss against her cheek.
"You're a pretty sight to behold this morning," he said with a chuckle, leaning on her a bit as they made their way back to the kitchen.
She settled him in his chair at the table and poured a cup of coffee, placing it before him as she waved at the nearby window.
"Just look out there, Grandpa. More snow falling this morning. I don't think I'm going to be able to drag my tree home for Christmas, do you?"
He shook his head. "Not a chance, child. Neither of us is fit to go stomping through the snowbanks out there. Thought sure we'd had our share of the white stuff, but you can't argue with Mother Nature. The good Lord must have thought we needed an extra helping for Christmas. You can't argue with the depth of that drift out there. Must be four feet already, and the cow will be anxious for you to make your way to the barn."
"I know," Joy said with a sigh. "I'm going to bundle up good and try to shovel off the porch as soon as I get you settled with your biscuits and gravy. I'll eat mine later, for poor old Daisy will be miserable if I wait much longer."
"You'll need my high-top boots, girl," Grandpa said with a laugh. "Stuff 'em with some socks so they'll stay on you. And don't forget to put your shawl over your head. I don't want you getting another case of the quinsy."
Joy took two biscuits from the warming oven atop the stove and split them with a fork, then ladled a good helping of sausage gravy over them before she placed them before her grandfather. She brought him a knife and fork and dropped a quick kiss on his head as she headed for the rack by the backdoor. She took down her winter coat and shawl, then tied the shawl over her head as Grandpa had instructed. Her mittens were in her coat pocket, and she slid them on her hands and picked up Grandpa's boots.
She laughed as she looked up from her task of stuffing his boots with a pair of socks she'd brought out for the purpose, for she'd surely not make it through the snow in her own shoes. The boots slid onto her feet with ease and she was ready. She reached for her broom and the broad shovel she used on the snow and opened the door just far enough to ease through to the porch.
The wind caught her unaware, taking her breath, and she ducked her head, covering her mouth with a fold of the shawl. Propping her broom against the house, she bent with a will to the chore of shoveling the snow that lay over a foot deep on the porch. She'd need only a narrow path to the steps and then, between her broom and the shovel, she'd be able to clear a path to the ground.
The sound of a man's voice coming from nearby startled her. She brushed snow from her face as she turned in the direction of the sound and saw a stranger approaching through the deep snow.
"Hello, there," he called, and lifted a hand to wave at her. "I don't mean any harm, ma'am, but I need some help, I fear."
He was huge, tall and broad shouldered, and in his arms he carried a child, from the looks of things. "Come on up on the porch," Joy answered him, immediately worrying that no child should be out in this cold weather. "I was just going out to milk the cow, but I'll take you inside first. My grandfather is eating breakfast and there's more than enough for us to share with you."
Hunched over the child in his arms, the man made his way to the steps and lifted his head to meet Joy's gaze. "My son is about frozen, I fear," he said quietly. "I don't know how long I've been walking through the snow. More than an hour, I think. My wagon slewed off the road back a ways and the horse fell and broke his leg. I had to shoot him and that left us without transport. I'm much obliged for your help, ma'am."
Joy held out her arms for the child he carried and took him quickly to her bosom, turning back to the door to carry him inside. The stranger was behind her as she went back into the kitchen, and her grandfather looked up from his breakfast, a forkful of biscuit halfway to his mouth.
"We have company for breakfast, Grandpa," Joy said, sitting down on the chair near the door with the child on her lap. "This young'un could do with some warm food in his stomach, I'll warrant, and so could his father."
"I can't thank you enough, ma'am," the stranger said as he quickly removed his coat and hung it on a spare hook by the door. He took the boy from her and sat on a chair, working at the buttons of his coat, and then shook his head in frustration.
Having taken off her coat and shawl and hung them up, Joy now recognized that her help was needed once more. "I fear my fingers won't work well enough to undo him," the boy's father said, standing once more to deliver the child to Joy's arms so she could work at his coat herself. He couldn't be more than three or four, judging from his height. She pulled the scarf from his face and looked down into eyes so blue they were almost purple. His mouth was tight shut and as he looked up at Joy, he opened it. Before he could cry aloud, as she was certain he was about to do, she bent close and whispered words of comfort.
"Hush, sweetheart. I'm only trying to undo you so I can get you warm and feed you some breakfast. Are you hungry?"
He brightened at her words and nodded slowly, as if he was unsure of himself here in this strange place. And well he might be, she thought. The best thing was to slide him from his coat and drop it to the floor, then scoop him from his bundling and settle him near the warm stove.
"There you go," she said brightly, rising to lift him in her arms. "Look what I have for you here." She carried him closer to the warmth, his shivers telling her his cold body welcomed the heat. She bent her head to the skillet of sausage gravy still simmering on the stove. "See, there's your breakfast. Shall I put you on the chair so you can have a plate full of biscuits with gravy on top?"
The boy nodded against her chest, and she felt warmth spread throughout her body from the movement. It seemed that his trust in her would extend as far as breakfast. She backed to the table and placed him on a chair, then found a bowl in the dresser and placed half a biscuit from the warming oven on his dish, cutting it into small pieces before she covered it with sausage gravy and put it before him. He bent his head to inhale the fragrance. It must have been a long time since his father had been able to feed the child, Joy mused, and the tall stranger's words confirmed her silent thoughts.
"We haven't eaten since yesterday noontime," the man said in a hushed tone. "I fear I set off from the farm where we stayed last night without knowledge of the nearest town. I wanted to get an early start, but by the time the snow had covered all the tracks on the road, I was thoroughly lost and had no way of cooking something for us to eat. Then we landed in a ditch and spent the hours till dawn huddled together beneath the overturned wagon."
"Well, I'll guarantee you could use something to eat, too, sir," Joy said, waving at the chair across from the boy's seat. She handed the boy a spoon from the spoon jar in the center of the table. "Eat up, sweetheart," she said cheerfully. "It'll warm your tummy."
"Let me shovel off your porch first," the stranger said. "Then I'll come in and eat while you tell me what else I can do to help you."
"I'd be much obliged, sir, but I'd feel better about things if you'd eat first. I'd set out to shovel when I heard you calling. I have to milk the cow before much longer, but I'll feed you first and then you can help me make a path to the barn."
The man stood hesitantly and walked to the sink. "Then I'll just wash up a bit first, ma'am, if that's all right with you."
Grandpa pushed his chair back a bit, then bent to the lad who sat a foot or so from him and whispered to him in his husky voice, "You're a fine-looking boy, sure enough. I'll bet you can eat another biscuit when that one's gone. Joy made lots this morning. Musta known we'd have company."
The child looked up at the old man and lifted his small hand to touch Grandpa's beard. "Is that what it looks like when you haven't shaved for a long time?" he asked.
Grandpa chuckled. "Sure enough, boy."
The stranger bent over the sink basin and splashed his hands and face with water from the pump. Joy handed him the jar of soap from beneath the sink and he nodded his thanks as he poured a bit into his hands and scrubbed them together to form a mountain of suds that soon turned dark from the dirt he washed off. She poured a bit more soap on him, and he again rubbed it into suds, which he used to wash his face. She pumped the water again and he rinsed off with the clean flow.
"Come sit down, sir," she said, taking two biscuits from the warming oven and placing them on the plate that had been before her own chair. "Split these and I'll dish up some gravy for you."
He did as she'd told him and watched as she poured a good helping for him. "I'm sure enough thankful for this, ma'am. I fear I've not even introduced myself to you and your father."
"He's my grandpa, for my parents are both dead and buried," Joy said quietly.
"Well, I'm Gideon Burnley, and this is my son, Joseph. We're without my wife, for I lost her when Joseph was born and she's buried this side of St. Louis, where we had a home."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Joy Watson."
"How do you happen to be in this neck of the woods?" Grandpa asked, settling back into his chair.
"I decided to head west and look for a bit of land, for we lived in the city and I'd been raised on a farm. I'd been thinking that a new start might work well for us, so I set out with my boy and all the cash I got for our furniture and such to find a place for us to settle. The weather was fine when we started out and I wasn't expecting the snow to start falling right away, figured we would have a month or so of decent weather to travel first."
"It's been a hard winter thus far," Joy said. "We haven't had any relief from the snow and ice since October."
Gideon Burnley took the knife and fork Joy had given him and cut up the food before him. His son, Joseph, spoke up quietly. "Daddy, we forgot to bless our food."
"So we did, boy. Why don't you do that now. The good Lord will excuse you from eating first."
Joseph bent his head and spoke simple words of thanksgiving for the food and then looked up at his father, as if seeking his approval. Gideon nodded his head and smiled. "Go ahead and eat, Joseph."
Joy found a bowl and fixed herself a biscuit, deciding the cow could wait for another ten minutes, for she was beyond hungry herself. Pouring a cup of coffee, she set it before Gideon and received his thanks. She then filled a glass from the pitcher of milk and offered it to Joseph. He reached for it and drank eagerly, as if it had been a long time since he'd had a glass of milk in his hands.