Sour Springs, Texas, 1870
Martha had an iron rod where most people had a backbone.
Grant smiled as he pulled his team to a stop in front of the train station in Sour Springs, Texas.
She also had a heart of gold—even if the old bat wouldn’t admit it. She was going to be thrilled to see him and scold him the whole time.
“It’s time to get back on the train.” Martha Norris, ever the disciplinarian, had a voice that could back down a starving Texas wildcat, let alone a bunch of orphaned kids. It carried all the way across the street as Grant jumped from his wagon and trotted toward the depot. He’d almost missed them. He could see the worry on Martha’s face.
Wound up tight from rushing to town, Grant knew he was late. But now that he was here, he relaxed. It took all of his willpower not to laugh at Martha, the old softy.
He hurried toward them. If it had only been Martha he would have laughed, but there was nothing funny about the two children with her. They were leftovers.
A little girl, shivering in the biting cold, her thin shoulders hunched against the wind, turned back toward the train. Martha, her shoulders slumped with sadness at what lay ahead for these children, rested one of her competent hands on the child’s back.
Grant noticed the girl limping. That explained why she hadn’t been adopted. No one wanted a handicapped child. As if limping put a child so far outside of normal she didn’t need love and a home. Controlling the slow burn in his gut, Grant saw the engineer top off the train’s water tank. They’d be pulling out of the station in a matter of minutes.
“Isn’t this the last stop, Mrs. Norris?” A blond-headed boy stood, stony-faced, angry, scared.
“Yes, Charlie, it is.”
His new son’s name was Charlie. Grant picked up his pace.
Martha sighed. “We don’t have any more meetings planned.”
“So, we have to go back to New York?” Charlie, shivering and thin but hardy compared to the girl, scowled as he stood on the snow-covered platform, six feet of wood separating the train from the station house.
Grant had never heard such a defeated question.
The little girl’s chin dropped and her shoulders trembled.
What was he thinking? He heard defeat from unwanted children all the time.
Charlie slipped his threadbare coat off his shoulders even though the wind cut like a knife through Grant’s worn-out buckskin jacket.
Grant’s throat threatened to swell shut with tears as he watched that boy sacrifice the bit of warmth he got from that old coat.
Stepping behind Martha, Charlie wrapped his coat around the girl. She shuddered and practically burrowed into the coat as if it held the heat of a fireplace, even as she shook her head and frowned at Charlie.
“Just take the stupid thing.” Charlie glared at the girl.
After studying him a long moment, the little girl, her eyes wide and sad, kept the coat.
Mrs. Norris stayed his hands. “That’s very generous, Charlie, but you can’t go without a coat.”
“I don’t want it. I’m gonna throw it under the train if she don’t take it.” The boy’s voice was sharp and combative. A bad attitude. That could keep a boy from finding a home.
Grant hurried faster across the frozen ruts of Sour Springs Main Street toward the train platform and almost made it. A tight grip on his arm stopped him. Surprised, he turned and saw that irksome woman who’d been hounding him ever since she’d moved to town. What was her name? Grant’d made of point of not paying attention to her. She usually yammered about having his shirts sewn in her shop.
“Grant, it’s so nice to see you.”
It took all his considerable patience to not jerk free. Shirt Lady was unusually tall, slender, and no one could deny she was pretty, but she had a grip like a mule skinner, and Grant was afraid he’d have a fight on his hands to get his arm back.
Grant touched the brim of his battered Stetson with his free hand. “Howdy, Miss. I’m afraid I’m in a hurry today.”
A movement caught his eye, and he turned to look at his wagon across the street. Through the whipping wind he could see little, but Grant was sure someone had come alongside his wagon. He wished it were true so he could palm this persistent pest off on an unsuspecting neighbor.
Shirt Lady’s grip tightened until it almost hurt through his coat. She leaned close, far closer than was proper to Grant’s way of thinking.
“Why don’t you come over to my place and warm yourself before you head back to the ranch. I’ve made pie, and it’s a lonely kind of day.” She fluttered her lashes until Grant worried she’d gotten dirt in her eye. He considered sending her to Doc Morgan for medical care.
The train chugged and reminded Grant he was almost out of time. “Can’t stop now, Miss.” What was her name? How many times had she spoken to him? A dozen if it was three. “There are some orphans left on the platform, and they need a home. I’ve got to see to ’em.”
Something flashed in her eyes for a second before she controlled it. He knew that look. She didn’t like orphans. Well, then what was she doing talking to him? He came with a passel of ’em. Grant shook himself free.
“We’ll talk another time then.”
Sorely afraid they would, Grant tugged on his hat brim again and ran. His boots echoed on the depot stairs. He reached the top step just as Martha turned to the sound of his clomping. She was listening for him even when she shouldn’t be.
Grant couldn’t stand the sight of the boy’s thin shoulders covered only by the coarse fabric of his dirty, brown shirt. He pulled his gloves off, noticing as he did that the tips of his fingers showed through holes in all ten fingers.
“I’ll take ’em, Martha.” How was he supposed to live with himself if he didn’t? Grant’s spurs clinked as he came forward. He realized in his dash to get to town he’d worn his spurs even though he brought the buckboard. Filthy from working the cattle all morning, most of his hair had fallen loose from the thong he used to tie it back. More than likely he smelled like his horse. A razor hadn’t touched his face since last Sunday morning.
Never one to spend money on himself when his young’uns had needs—or might at any time—his coat hung in tatters, and his woolen union suit showed through a rip in his knee.
Martha ran her eyes up and down him and shook her head, suppressing a smile. “Grant, you look a fright.”
A slender young woman rose to her feet from where she sat at the depot. Her movements drew Grant’s eyes away from the forlorn children. From the look of the snow piling up on the young woman’s head, she’d been sitting here in the cold ever since the train had pulled in, which would have been the better part of an hour ago. She must have expected someone to meet her, but no one had.
When she stepped toward him, Grant spared her a longer glance because she was a pretty little thing, even though her dark brown hair hung in bedraggled strings from beneath her black bonnet and twisted into tangled curls around her chin. Her face was so dirty the blue of her eyes shined almost like the heart of a flame in a sooty lantern.
Grant stared at her for a moment. He recognized something in her eyes. If she’d been a child and looked at him with those eyes, he’d have taken her home and raised her.
Then the children drew his attention away from the tired, young lady.
Martha Norris shook her head. “You can’t handle any more, Grant. We’ll find someone, I promise. I won’t quit until I do.”
“I know that’s the honest truth.” Grant knew Martha had to protest; good sense dictated it. But she’d hand the young’uns over. “And God bless you for it. But this is the end of the line for the orphan train. You can’t do anything until you get back to New York. I’m not going to let these children take that ride.”
“Actually, Libby joined us after we’d left New York. It was a little irregular, but it’s obvious the child needs a home.” Martha kept looking at him shaking her head.
“Irregular how?” He tucked his tattered gloves behind his belt buckle.
“She stowed away.” Martha glanced at Libby. “It was the strangest thing. I never go back to the baggage car, but one of the children tore a hole in his pants. My sewing kit is always in the satchel I carry with me. I was sure I had it, but it was nowhere to be found. So I knew I’d most likely left it with my baggage. I went back to fetch it so I could mend the seam and found her hiding in amongst the trunks.”
Grant was reaching for the buttons on his coat, but he froze. “Are you sure she isn’t running away from home?” His stomach twisted when he thought of a couple of his children who had run off over the years. He’d been in a panic until he’d found them. “She might have parents somewhere, worried to death about her.”
“She had a note in her pocket explaining everything. I feel certain she’s an orphan. And I don’t know how long she was back there. She could have been riding with us across several states. I sent telegraphs to every station immediately, and I’m planning on leaving a note at each stop on my way back, but I hold out no hope that a family is searching for her.” Martha sighed as if she wanted to fall asleep on her feet.
Grant realized it wasn’t just the children who had a long ride ahead of them. One corner of Grant’s lips turned up. “Quit looking at me like that, Martha, or I’ll be thinking I have to adopt you so you don’t have to face the trip.”
Martha, fifty if she was a day, laughed. “I ought to take you up on that. You need someone to come out there and take your ranch in hand. Without a wife, who’s going to cook for all these children?”
“You’ve been out. You know how we run things. Everybody chips in.” The snow was getting heavier, and the wind blew a large helping of it down Grant’s neck. Grant ignored the cold in the manner of men who fought the elements for their living and won. He went back to unbuttoning his coat, then shrugged it off and dropped it on the boy’s shoulders. It hung most of the way to the ground.
Charlie tried to give the coat back. “I don’t want your coat, mister.”
Taking a long look at Charlie’s defiant expression, Grant fairly growled. “Keep it.”
Charlie held his gaze for a moment before he looked away. “Thank you.”
Grant gave his Stetson a quick tug to salute the boy’s manners. Snow sprang into the air as the brim of his hat snapped down and up. He watched it be swept up and around by the whipping wind then filter down around his face, becoming part of the blizzard that was getting stronger and meaner every moment.
Martha nodded. “If they limited the number of children one man could take, you’d be over it for sure.”
Grant controlled a shudder of cold as he pulled on his gloves. “Well, thank heavens there’s no limit. The oldest boy and the two older girls are just a year or so away from being out on their own. One of them’s even got a beau. I really need three more to take their places, but I’ll settle for two.”
Martha looked from one exhausted, filthy child to the other then looked back at Grant. “The ride back would be terribly hard on them.”
Grant crouched down in front of the children, sorry for the clink of his spurs which had a harsh sound and might frighten the little girl. Hoping his smile softened his grizzled appearance enough to keep the little girl from running scared, he said, “Well, what kind of man would I be if I stood by watching while something was terribly hard on you two? How’d you like to come out and live on my ranch? I’ve got other kids there, and you’ll fit right in to our family.”
“They’re not going to fit, Grant,” Martha pointed out through chattering teeth. “Your house is overflowing now.”
Grant had to admit she was right. “What difference does it make if we’re a little crowded, Martha? We’ll find room.”
The engineer swung out on the top step of the nearest car, hanging onto a handle in the open door of the huffing locomotive. “All aboard!”
The little girl looked fearfully between the train and Grant.
Looking at the way the little girl clung to Martha’s hand, Grant knew she didn’t want to go off with a strange man almost as much as she didn’t want to get back on that train.
“I’ll go with you.” The little boy narrowed his eyes as he moved to stand like a cranky guardian angel beside the girl.
Grant saw no hesitation in the scowling little boy, only concern for the girl. No fear. No second thoughts. He didn’t even look tired compared to the girl and Martha. He had intelligent blue eyes with the slyness a lot of orphans had. Not every child he’d adopted had made the adjustment without trouble. A lot of them took all of Grant’s prayers and patience. Grant smiled to himself. He had an unlimited supply of prayers, and the prayers helped him hang onto the patience.
Grant shivered under the lash of the blowing snow.
The boy shrugged out of the coat. “Take your coat back. The cold don’t bother me none.”
Grant stood upright and gently tugged the huge garment back around the boy’s neck and began buttoning it. “The cold don’t bother me none, neither. You’ll make a good cowboy, son. We learn to keep going no matter what the weather.” He wished he had another coat because the girl still looked miserable. Truth be told, he wouldn’t have minded one for himself.
Martha leaned close to Grant’s ear on the side away from the children. “Grant, you need to know that Libby hasn’t spoken a word since we found her. There was a note in her pocket that said she’s mute. She’s got a limp, too. It looks to me like she had a badly broken ankle some years ago that didn’t heal right. I’ll understand if you—”
Grant pulled away from Martha’s whispers as his eyebrows slammed together. Martha fell silent and gave him a faintly alarmed look. He tried to calm down before he spoke, matching her whisper. “You’re not going to insult me by suggesting I’d leave a child behind because she has a few problems, are you?”
Martha studied him then her expression relaxed. Once more she whispered, “No Grant. But you did need to be told. The only reason I know her name is because it was on the note. Libby pulled it out of her coat pocket as if she’d done it a thousand times, so chances are this isn’t a new problem, which probably means it’s permanent.”
Grant nodded his head with one taut jerk. “Obliged for the information then. Sorry I got testy.” Grant did his best to make it sound sincere, but it hurt, cut him right to the quick, for Martha to say such a thing to him after all these years.
“No, I’m sorry I doubted you.” Martha rested one hand on his upper arm. “I shouldn’t have, not even for a second.”
Martha eased back and spoke normally again. “We think Libby’s around six.” She swung Libby’s little hand back and forth, giving the girl an encouraging smile.
All Grant’s temper melted away as he looked at the child. “Hello, Libby.” Crouching back down to the little girl’s eye level, he gave the shivering tyke all of his attention.
Too tiny for six and too thin for any age, she had long dark hair caught in a single bedraggled braid and blue eyes awash in fear and wishes. Her nose and cheeks were chapped and red. Her lips trembled. Grant hoped it was from the cold and not from looking at the nasty man who wanted to take her away.
“I think you’ll like living on my ranch. I’ve got the biggest backyard to play in you ever saw. Why, the Rocking C has a mountain rising right up out of the back door. You can collect eggs from the chickens. I’ve got some other kids and they’ll be your brothers and sisters, and we’ve got horses you can ride.”
Libby’s eyes widened with interest, but she never spoke. Well, he’d had ’em shy before.
“I can see you’ll like that. I’ll start giving you riding lessons as soon as the snow lets up.” Grant ran his hand over his grizzled face. “I should have shaved and made myself more presentable for you young’uns. I reckon I’m a scary sight. But the cattle were acting up this morning. There’s a storm coming, and it makes ’em skittish. By the time I could get away, I was afraid I’d miss the train.”
Grant took Libby’s little hand, careful not to move suddenly and frighten her, and rubbed her fingers on his whiskery face.
She snatched her hand away, but she grinned.
The smile transformed Libby’s face. She had eyes that had seen too much and square shoulders that had borne a lifetime of trouble. Grant vowed to himself that he’d devote himself to making her smile.
“I’ll shave it off before I give you your first good night kiss.”
The smile faded, and Libby looked at him with such longing Grant’s heart turned over with a father’s love for his new daughter. She’d gotten to him even faster than they usually did.
Martha reached past Libby to rest her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “And Charlie is eleven.”
Grant pivoted a bit on his toes and looked at Charlie again. A good-looking boy, but so skinny he looked like he’d blow over in a hard wind. Grant could fix that. The boy had flyaway blond hair that needed a wash and a trim. It was the hostility in his eyes that explained why he hadn’t found a home. Grant had seen that look before many times, including in a mirror.
As if he spoke to another man, Grant said, “Charlie, welcome to the family.”
Charlie shrugged as if being adopted meant nothing to him. “Are we supposed to call you pa?”
“That’d be just fine.” Grant looked back at the little girl. “Does that suit you, Libby?”
Libby didn’t take her lonesome eyes off Grant, but she pressed herself against Martha’s leg as if she wanted to disappear into Martha’s long wool coat.
The engineer shouted, “All aboard!” The train whistle sounded. A blast of steam shot across the platform a few feet ahead of them.
Libby jumped and let out a little squeak of surprise. Grant noted that the little girl’s voice worked, so most likely she didn’t talk for reasons of her own, not because of an injury. He wondered if she’d seen something so terrible she couldn’t bear to speak of it.
The boy reached his hand out for Libby. “We’ve been together for a long time, Libby. We can go together to the ranch. I’ll take care of you.”
Libby looked at Charlie as if he were a knight in shining armor. After some hesitation, she released her death grip on Martha and caught Charlie’s hand with both of hers.
“Did I hear you correctly?” A sharp voice asked from over Grant’s shoulder. “Are you allowing this man to adopt these children?”
Startled, Grant stood, turned, and bumped against a soft, cranky woman. He almost knocked her onto her backside—the lady who’d been waiting at the depot. He grabbed her or she’d have fallen on the slippery wood. Grant steadied her, warm and alive in his hands.