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The horse she'd borrowed from her neighbor was less than perfect, but sometime in the past her mother had dutifully told her something about beggars not being choosy about what they got, and Marianne smiled at the memory. The old mare was swaybacked, had but one gait beyond walking, and that jolting trot was less than comfortable to the young woman's sore bottom. She'd been riding for long hours, appreciative of the loan of the horse, but weary to her soul as she considered the future lying before her.
Mrs. Baker had written out instructions to her sister's home in the small town of Walnut Grove, Missouri, and sent Marianne on her way, the baby, Joshua, wrapped tightly in flannel blankets and with a small supply of diapers and wrappers for the child. Enough to last until Marianne could find work and a place to live. Her sister was Sarah, a woman with four children, but surely with enough goodness of heart to help a young girl on her own, Mrs. Baker had said.
December seemed to be an unforgiving sort of month, with snow on the ground and more in the air, causing dark clouds to hang heavily over the land, hiding the sun. Marianne had ridden for a day and most of a night already, stopping only to rest in an empty barn in the middle of a field. The house was gone, only stones and burned upright boards remaining to mark where once a family had lived. The barn had been warmat least warmer than the windswept fieldsand, huddled in a stack of moldy hay, Marianne had kept herself and her baby brother warm.
The prospect of meeting Mrs. Baker's sister, perhaps even today, kept her going, even as she ate the last of the biscuits and bits of cheese Mrs. Baker had sent along. The baby had drunk from his bottle, the milk not warmed but nourishing, and yet even that was coming to an end, for the bottle now held the last of the supply she'd carried with her.
Ahead of her lay a small town, the main street lined with shops and buildings on both sides, houses lined up neatly as she approached, a sign beside the road designating it as Walnut Grove. Children ran to and fro, not caring that the snow threatened, calling out to each other, playing in the road. They all had homes to go to, Marianne suspected, warm coats to wear and mothers to tend to their needs.
For the first time in a week, her loss seemed overwhelming. The planning and working to accomplish this trek had taken her mind from the perils she would facea woman alone, a newborn child to care for and but enough cash to buy a meal or two.
The map in her pocket was clear. If she would but turn her horse to a side street, down this alley and then turn right, she would arrive at the home of Sarah Nelson, Mrs. Baker's sister. A kindly lady, she'd been told. And yet as she rode the mare close to the front porch, she heard a thundering roar from a man who erupted from the front door, fast on the heels of a young boy. Snatching up the child, the man delivered several hard swats of his palm against the boy's backside and tossed him back into the house, then turned and looked at Marianne.
"You lookin' for somebody, lady? Or just enjoying the scenery?"
Marianne froze atop the mare and shivered. "I was told that Sarah Nelson lives here," she said quietly, to which the man snorted, then opened the door and shouted words that echoed back from the hallway.
"Sarah. Somebody here wants to see you."
A small, skinny soul who bore but a slight resemblance to the sturdy form of Mrs. Baker came to the door, and a tentative smile lit her face. There was a resemblance after all, Marianne decided, there in that fleeting smile.
"I'mor rather I wasa neighbor of your sister's, ma'am," Marianne began. "She told me I might find you here."
"I'm here, all right" was the harsh reply. "What do you want?"
"A place to get my little brother changed and warm and some milk to give him in his bottle."
The woman's face softened a bit and then she looked up at the man who towered over her. "Ain't got no room for anybody else in this house, girl. I'll give you a cup of milk for the baby, but that's the best I can do."
Marianne's heart sank. Mrs. Baker had been so sure
so certain that her sister would welcome the travelers. She watched as the skinny woman closed the door and waited until her return, just minutes later. Carrying a cup in her hand, she approached the horse, peering up at Marianne with a look of sorrow.
"Sorry I can't be more hospitable, but my man don't hold with givin' away the food he buys. I couldn't give you this, but I'm the one milks the cow and makes the butter and I told him it was mine to keep or give and I chose to give it to the babe."
"I thank you," Marianne said, well aware that there was no welcome here for her, hoping that Mrs. Baker would never find out how desperate her sister's situation was.
"Head on into town. You might be able to get some help at the general store."
Without awaiting a goodbye, the woman went back into the house, the door closing with a solid thud behind her. Marianne turned the mare and rode back down the drive and onto the road. The lights of several storefronts were still ablaze and she halted before the general store, sliding from the mare's back in a quick motion, holding her small brother to her breast.
The store was warm, redolent with the scents of leather and pickles and smoke from the potbellied stove that reigned in one corner. Behind the counter a woman watched her approach and bent a smile in her direction. "Hello there, young lady. You just arrive in town?"
"Yes," Marianne said quietly, shifting the burden of her brother to rest him against her shoulder.
"You got you a young'un there. Looks pretty much like a newborn, don't he?"
"He's three weeks old now. My brother, Joshua." Marianne pulled back the blanket and displayed the dark-haired child she held, his flawless skin pink and healthy looking.
"Sure is a good-lookin' young'un," the storekeeper said. "Where you heading, honey?"
"Nowhere, just looking for a place to stay for a bit. I had instructions to find a friend's sister, but she apparently doesn't have room for me, so I rode on."
"Who did you say you saw in town?"
"Sarah Nelson is the sister of my old neighbor. She sent me here, but Mr. Nelson didn't seem too hospitable."
"Hospitable! Hah, that's one word you couldn't apply to Henry Nelson. He's a mean one, gives poor Sarah a hard time of it. Treats those young'uns like slaves."
"Well, anyway, I won't be staying there, and I was wondering if you knew of anybody who needed help, maybe in the house or with their children. I'm a good hand with cooking and cleaning and such."
"Not around here, girl. Things are pretty tight in town, and with Christmas here, everybody's pretty well taken up with their own business. Them with kids is doing their best to make it a good holiday, baking and cooking and knitting up mittens and such. It's a poor town, sure enough, and barely enough to go around. I don't know of anybody who'd be needing help. At least, not help they'd be willing to pay for."
Marianne's heart sank. She'd expected no more, but her hope had been that she would find a place to rest her body and keep the baby warm. Even that seemed to be a dream, for there was no help to be found here.
"Tell you what, girl," the storekeeper said quickly. "I'll let you sleep in the storeroom for the night if you like. There's a kettle on the stove and tea in a tin out there and I can scrape up a loaf of bread and some milk for the baby if you like."
"I'd be ever so grateful," Marianne said, her heart beating rapidly as she recognized that she had a place for the night, and something warm to put into her stomach. "My name's Marianne. Can I do anything to pay for the room? Sweep your floors or something?"
"You just get yourself into that back room and lie down on the cot and we' ll find some fresh milk for that baby, and you can sleep a bit." The woman was kindly, Marianne thought, bustling back and forth through the store, locking up the front door and leading the way to a warm, dusty room where a small potbellied stove held the cold at bay, and offered a warm place to sleep.
A kettle atop the stove indeed held hot water, and a cup appeared with tea in the bottom of it, the leaves floating on the hot water that splashed into its depths. The water turned color as Marianne watched, and the scent of tea arose to tempt her nostrils.
"I haven't had a cup of tea since my mama died," she said, fighting back the tears that begged to be shed.
"Well, this one oughta make you feel some better, then. There's milk and sugar to put in it if you like, and a piece of fresh bread and some cheese to eat with it. I'll just wash out that baby's bottle and fill it up with milk for him."
The woman hummed beneath her breath as she pumped water and rinsed the bottle, then refilled it with milk and snapped the nipple in place. "That oughta be enough for him to last till morning."
"He doesn't drink a whole lot yet, about half a bottle at a time," Marianne said. "This is just fine. He'll have enough for his breakfast."
"I'll be back in the morning," the woman told her. "My name's Janet. Me and the mister live next door and we open up right early. Tomorrow's gonna be busy, being the day before Christmas, so I'll be back at dawn."
By the light of a candle and the glow from the stove, Marianne watched the woman leave from the back door, heard the click of the lock as she was safely left inside and settled down to feed Joshua and drink her tea. The bread was good fresh and still soft. The cheese was nourishing and the milk seemed to agree with Joshua, for he drank his fill and then burped, loud and long, before he snuggled against Marianne's bosom and closed his eyes.
She lay down on the narrow cot, thankful for the warmth surrounding her. Her heart rose as she considered the generous spirit of the woman she'd just met, thankful she'd been given a bed to sleep in and food to eat. With no questions asked.
Joshua slept the whole night through and when the back door opened in the dim light of morning, Marianne sat up and rubbed her eyes, peering at the man who entered the back room of the store.
"You still here?" he asked roughly. "I told the missus you'd probably be off with everything you could carry before we opened up this morning, but she was sure you were a good girl. Guess she won this bet." He moved on through the room, leaving Marianne stunned as she sat up on the cot, watching his progress through the doorway into the store.
She rose and brushed her hair back, wrapping Joshua more securely in his blanket before she placed him on the cot and followed the man into his store.
"Sir, I want to thank you for a place to sleep last night. I appreciated the warm bed and the milk for Joshua."
"My wife's a soft touch," he said, turning to watch Marianne with narrowed eyes, his gaze covering her slim form quickly. "She said to tell you she'll let you stay here another night if you want to, but we can't do much more than that. She sent over some oatmeal she cooked for breakfast and a cup of milk for you and the baby. There's still tea in the tin for you to use if you want it."
The man's welcome was not warm, but Marianne was pleased at his offering of food, especially that of milk for Joshua's bottle. She rinsed out the dregs from the night before and filled it again, placing it beside the bed for when he would wake and be hungry. The bowl of oatmeal she held in her lap, sitting again on the cot and eating it quickly. Warm and nourishing, it filled her stomach and she was thankful.
She rinsed the bowl in the sink, washed her face and hands and brushed her hair back, dampening the sides to hold it in place.
From behind her, the gentleman spoke. "My Janet said to tell you to come on over to the house and tend the baby if you want to. She's got hot water and soap and such you can use."
"Thank you ever so much," Marianne said. "Just point me in the right direction and I'll be on my way."
In minutes she was rapping on the back door of a two-story house behind the general store. Janet opened the door for her. "Come on in, girl. I'll warrant that baby needs a good washing up and some clean clothes to wear, don't he?"
"I'd surely appreciate a washcloth and a bar of soap for him," Marianne said quietly. "He hasn't had a bath in two days. And my mama always said a baby should be washed up every morning."
"Your mama was right, and your little one there looks pretty healthy. You musta been taking good care of him."
"I've tried my best," Marianne said stoutly. "He's doing pretty well, putting on a little weight and sleeping pretty well."
"You're a good mama to him, girl. Just go on over there and use that basin and towel and clean him up a little."
Marianne washed Joshua and put a clean diaper on his bottom. Janet came up with a used but clean small kimono she said she had no use for.
"My Robbie is three years old, and he hasn't worn this for a year or better. You might as well have it for your young'un," she said kindly.
"I'll wash out Joshua's other two gowns and hang them up to dry if I can," Marianne said softly. "His diapers need to be washed, too."
"Use the bath water if you want to," Janet told her. "You can hang them behind the stove. They'll dry there real quick."