A Home for Christmas
Excerpt from "Christmas Mountain"
Copper Point, Montana Territory
The evergreen left a trail of needles in the snow, and the cold filled August’s lungs, but he didn’t mind. Life outside the four walls of his cabin or clinic brought him great joy. Almost as much happiness as his daughter, Sarah. She trudged alongside him over the mountain, humming “O Christmas Tree” while Crockett, the dog they had rescued three winters ago, sniffed the surrounding trees. Soft flakes floated around them, their path to earth slowing as they passed through or landed on the low-hanging branches of the tall pines.
August caught the scent of smoke from the fire, left burning low at the cabin, and quickened his pace in anticipation of a hot cup of coffee. His daughter’s sweet music stopped filling the air, and the dog raced into the trees, his wild barks alerting August that something was wrong.
Sarah’s eyes opened wide and she ran after Crockett, disappearing behind a boulder that stood half again her size.
“Sarah, wait!” August dropped the rope securing the tree to his shoulder and raced toward his daughter as the dog’s barks quieted. When August caught up with Sarah and the dog, it was the soft form huddled against the rock that drew his attention.
“Stand back.” He knelt on the snow and pulled a thick scarf away from the almost frozen figure’s face. Crockett nudged the stranger’s arm. “Hold onto Crockett.”
“Is she alive?”
August set his hand in front of the woman’s mouth, the faintest hint of warmth released from her lips. “She’s alive, but not for long if we don’t get her inside.” He lifted her carefully into his arms. Movement in the trees brought him around, and Crockett’s low growl stopped as quickly as it had begun.
“A horse, Pa!”
August nodded. “One that had sense to find shelter in the trees. Can you help me and care for the horse?”
“Yes.” His daughter moved with slow and confident steps toward the mare. She stopped almost two feet away, holding out her hand. The horse hesitated but then closed the distance and pressed its nose against Sarah’s hand even as the young girl reached for the reins. She patted the horse, gently smoothing her hand over its mane. Father, daughter, horse, dog, and stranger made their way up the gradual slope to the front porch of the rough-hewn cabin.
“Please get the mare settled into the barn, and take Crockett with you.”
His daughter acknowledged and led the animal away toward the shelter of the large barn. He carefully adjusted the woman in his arms to open the door and kicked it shut behind him. Inside, the embers continued to burn in the stone fireplace, heating the cozy room.
August walked through the main room and into his bedroom where he gently laid the stranger on his bed. After removing his coat and hat, he washed his hands and set about removing her outer clothing.
A soft knock diverted his attention to the doorway where Sarah stood, her apprehension evident.
“Please fetch me some warm water and clean cloths.”
August heard the hall cupboard open and close, but his eyes remained focused on his new patient. Her pale skin, smooth hands, and once fine clothing, gave her away as a lady of some breeding. He couldn’t imagine what would drive anyone like her to his mountain, especially in this weather.
His daughter returned and asked, “Is she going to be all right?”
“I hope so.” Although he didn’t know what he would find once he examined the lady, he predicted it would be a long night. “It will be dark soon, and you have your school assignment to finish before tomorrow.”
“But I want to help.”
“I know you do, my darling, but do you remember what I told you?”
“A doctor must be educated.”
He smiled. “That’s right. Now go and finish your assignment and then we can have our supper.”
“May I help after my schoolwork?”
“You may. Please, heat some broth and put the kettle on for tea. When she wakes, she’ll need something warm inside of her.”
Seemingly content with the compromise, Sarah left the room, closing the door behind her. August turned to the patient, brushing her fallen hair aside. Startled at what was revealed, his stomach clenched. She bore a striking resemblance to someone he once knew. With gentle care, he removed her dress and underclothes, careful to cover her and readjust the blanket as he examined her for any injuries, but he found only scratches and a large bruise on her hip. With her weak pulse and shallow breathing, his greatest concern now was hypothermia.
He washed her face, arms, and lower half of her legs before covering her back up with the heavy quilt—the last quilt his wife had ever made before she died. The woman shifted and moaned softly. August watched her lips try to move, but she couldn’t manage more than a few shivers.
Her hoarse words caused August to stiffen. He reached out and placed his hand flat against her brow. “Can you hear me, miss?”
Her eyelids fluttered and then closed. August thought she might doze off, but then she looked at him, and he stared into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen—a deeper blue than even his wife’s.
“Clara?” Her voice sounded low and hoarse.
“She’s not here.” August brought the quilt up to her chin and pulled a chair closer to the bed. “Do you know what’s happened?” He watched her confusion turn to fear. “I’m not going to hurt you. My daughter and I found you in the woods. You nearly froze.”
She blinked a few times as though to clear her vision and seemed to relax. “May I have some water?”
August filled a glass from the pitcher he kept beside his bed and lifted her head while she slowly took several sips.
“Where am I?”
“You’re in my cabin near the base of Shelter Mountain. Do you remember how you got here?”
She nodded and tried to sit up. August reached forward and helped her until she leaned back against the plump pillows.
“Where are my clothes?”
“They’re here but wet. You were unconscious, and I had to check for injuries.”
She pulled the quilt up until nothing was exposed below her chin. “I’m sore but otherwise feel unharmed.”
“Did you fall? You have a rather large bruise.”
“I wounded my pride more than my body. Yes, I fell off my horse. My sister did not warn me about the steep terrain of your mountain.”
August sat back. “Clara. You’re Clarissa’s sister? Katherine.”
“Yes.” She indicated her pile of clothes. “There’s a letter from her in the pocket of my coat.”
August rummaged through the clothes until he found the letter, folded and damp. He removed the single sheet of paper and stared down at his wife’s delicate lettering. He lowered himself back into the chair and looked at Katherine.
“Clara never told me that she wrote to you.” He glanced back down at the letter. “When did you receive this?”
August stared at her in disbelief. “How is that possible? Clara died four years ago.”
A few tears fell from Katherine’s eyes. “I know, and I am so sorry.”
The gentle knock at the bedroom door reminded August that his daughter was to bring in soup and tea. He opened the door and lifted the tray from her hands before she peeked around him. A child with a natural exuberance for life and people, Sarah walked beside him to the bed, followed closely by the dog.
Sarah smiled, her eyes brightening. “Papa, she looks likes Ma!”
Katherine and Sarah both looked to him. He set the tray beside Katherine on the bed and lifted his daughter onto his lap. “Sarah, I would like to introduce you to your aunt Katherine. She’s your mother’s sister.”
Convincing Sarah to go to bed after she learned that Katherine was her aunt had not been an easy feat. Katherine, despite her weakened state, visited with Sarah, talking a little about Clara. Once she became too weary to continue, she promised Sarah to spend as much time with her as she wanted.
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Excerpt from "Teton Christmas"
Wycliffe, Wyoming Territory
December 22, 1892
The sun shone from the brilliant blue sky, kissing her skin and brightening the freckles scattered across her nose. McKensie Stewart closed her eyes, breathed in the frosty air, and spread her arms wide. She stood on the side of the snow-covered road where the stage coach had dropped them off and relished in the wonderment. They had finally arrived in Wyoming.
For years, all McKensie dreamed of was to venture west and write stories about the beauty of the landscape and the interesting people she’d only heard and read about. Submitting articles about society events in Asheville, North Carolina, to the Weekly Pioneer hadn’t presented much of a challenge. All of that had changed four months ago, and though McKensie wished the circumstances for her final arrival had been more pleasant, she was determined to look ahead instead of mourning what she had left behind.
McKensie spun around in a circle and laughed.
“McKensie! What on earth are you doing?”
She opened her eyes and grinned at her sister. “Is this not magnificent, Maddy? Have you ever seen so much open land or a sky so blue?”
“I can’t say that I have.” Madison joined her sister’s laughter, then settled down and held tightly to her carpetbag. “Aunt Caitlyn should be around here. There she is!”
McKensie clapped her hands in excitement.
She glanced up, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Yes.”
The man jumped down from the wagon and tipped the edge of his worn hat. “I’m Deke. I work for your aunt, Mrs. Marsh.”
“Oh, yes. Aunt Caitlyn has mentioned you in her letters.”
She held out her gloved hand, and with some surprise, Deke accepted it.
“It’s a wonderful pleasure to meet you, Mr. Deke.”
“Just, Deke, miss.”
“Then I must insist you call me McKensie.”
The older man’s gray whiskers and swarthy skin couldn’t mask the faint blush on his cheeks. When Deke asked about their luggage, McKensie pointed toward the two trunks and thanked him for looking after them. She turned at the sound of her sister’s familiar laughter. Her Aunt Caitlyn walked alongside Madison, her tall willowy frame and flaxen hair a welcome sight and a not-so-subtle reminder of her mother. Her aunt held open her arms, and McKensie rushed toward them, enveloping her aunt in a warm embrace.
“It’s been too long, my darling girl.” Caitlyn stepped back and looked at them both. “Far too long.”
Tears welled, but McKensie was determined not to cry or allow the moment to be filled with sadness. She widened her smile and kissed her aunt’s cheek. “Thank you for having us, Aunt Caitlyn.”
“You’ve both grown into beautiful young women. With your stylish good looks and a faint hint of that musical accent, you’ll have more suitors than the hotel has rooms.”
“I’m not looking for a husband, Aunt Caitlyn. Maddy is the romantic in the family.”
Madison swatted her sister’s arm, but the action was accompanied by another grin.
“The trunks are loaded, Mrs. Marsh. I’ll just take them on over to the hotel.”
Caitlyn turned around and watched Deke climb up to the wagon seat. “We’ll dine at the hotel before settling in and touring the town. Why don’t you join us, Deke?”
“I couldn’t be doing that seeing as I’m dust-covered and didn’t wear my good hat. I’ll just go on over and see Miss Patty at the café.” The old man grinned, clucked his tongue a few times, and set the pair of stock horses into a steady walk over the snow.
McKensie smiled at her aunt. “He’s delightful.”
“And loyal. He’s been at the Wycliffe Hotel for more than fifteen years and worked with Phillip’s father at the Marsh Ranch before that. I don’t know what I would have done without him after Phillip passed.” Caitlyn settled one arm around each of her niece’s and guided them toward the hotel. “The Wycliffe Hotel serves the best food in the territory, if I do say so myself, and a coffee cake to rival even your mother’s.”
McKensie and Madison feigned a gasp and Madison said, “I won’t believe that until I’ve tried it.” She leaned back and looked at McKensie. “Can you imagine a coffee cake better than mother’s?”
“I do believe the fine patrons of the Asheville Lady’s Society would faint from the mere thought that mother’s coffee cake could be outdone.”
Caitlyn’s musical laughter joined her nieces, and she pulled them both closer. “Oh, I have missed you both so much.”
McKensie noticed that her aunt looked ready to burst into tears. “Are you all right, Aunt Caitlyn?”
Her aunt nodded and swiped at a few tears on her cheek. “I’m just happy. Come, let’s have lunch, and then I’ll give you the grand tour of Wycliffe.”
McKensie soaked up the holiday atmosphere as they made their way down the road, stopping in front of various storefronts along the way. Despite her aunt’s desire to reach the hotel, neither McKensie nor her sister could help but stop and admire the quaint shops—what few there were—and the rustic garland and ribbons decked over windows and doors. She couldn’t have expected that the hotel would have gone undecorated for Christmas, but she hoped her aunt left something for them to do.
The Wycliffe Hotel stood at the end of the road, a large wood and brick building with gleaming windows and an expansive porch in front. To McKensie’s confusion, the hotel appeared to be the only building in town not decorated with trimmings or even a wreath.
“It’s an absolutely lovely hotel, Aunt Caitlyn, but . . .”
“Yes, lovely,” Madison added.
“Don’t worry, girls.” Caitlyn smiled and wrapped one arm around each of them. “We do things up grand here at the Wycliffe, but I thought perhaps you could help me this year.”
McKensie turned and stared into her aunt’s eyes. The moment had come when she was unable to hold back the tears and a few managed to escape. “Thank you.” She leaned in and embraced her aunt, pressing a kiss on her cheek. “Thank you ever so much.”
Madison interrupted the precious moment, and McKensie turned to see her sister peeking around the side of the building.
“Wherever did you find one of those out here, Aunt Caitlyn?”
McKensie joined her sister at the edge of the front porch and smiled. Before them waited a shiny horse-drawn sleigh.
“It’s not mine, though it does bring a bit of holiday cheer to the place. The sleigh belongs to a guest who will be here over the holiday.” Caitlyn hurried the girls inside and out of the cold. “We’ll warm up and take our meal while you tell me all about the latest news in Asheville.”
Brandon Cutter looked up from his usual table at the Wycliffe Hotel and studied the trio of women who entered the building. The bright winter sun created an ethereal backdrop as they stepped through the glass-paned doors. His own smile grew when he recognized the tall, blond beauty in the center. He then studied the woman’s two companions. So these are the Stewart sisters come from the South to experience life on the great frontier.
Neither of them appeared suited to life in the Wyoming mountains, but he supposed if a woman like Caitlyn Marsh could find a way to adapt, then just about anyone could. He smiled, remembering the first day he had met Caitlyn. She’d arrived as a mail-order bride to Phillip Marsh, hotelier and son of a cattle tycoon. Phillip had been about as big and rough of a man to ever walk Wyoming soil. Brandon hadn’t been much older than twelve when he started working for Marsh’s father at the ranch, and he watched that sweet eastern woman smooth the rough edges of the cattle baron. When the area began to grow, Phillip Marsh built the first and only hotel within 100 miles, and he never looked back. He’d made a fine hotelier before he passed, and his wife had carried on in his stead.
Normally, Brandon would invite her over, but he rather enjoyed watching these women in their reunion. He hadn’t seen Caitlyn this bright and shiny since Phillip died from pneumonia two winters ago, and he didn’t want to interfere with her joy now. It did give him a chance to give a careful study to her nieces. Both beautiful. They looked so much alike, one might mistake them for twins if they weren’t looking closely enough to notice the subtle differences in the shape of their eyes or the fullness of their lips. Caitlyn had described them to him perfectly.
One wore a wool coat the same chestnut color as his favorite Thoroughbred, and moved with an exuberance he rarely saw in young women. She possessed an energy that could not be mistaken or ignored, and Brandon found himself leaning forward to better glimpse her face. Unfortunately, she sat in a chair with her back to him, and his view was now blocked by other patrons.
He finished his meal and thanked the young waitress who had served him at breakfast. Brandon reached for his hat when the niece he had so admired stood, spoke quietly to her aunt, and walked to the lobby area of the hotel.
“Ah, hell.” Brandon swore when he saw the two men walk into the hotel lobby, and with hat in hand, walked around the tables attempting to stand between his friend’s niece and two men who were better suited to the saloon than the respectable hotel. However, he didn’t reach them before they followed the young woman outside.
Brandon stepped out into the cold winter air, only to see the two cowboys closing in quickly. He watched her spin around and slap away one of the men’s hands. Brandon lengthened his stride, stepped around the cowboys, and stood directly behind the young woman, careful not to touch her when he spoke. “I’m a friend of your Aunt Caitlyn’s. Whatever I say or do, please just go along with it.”
Brilliant green eyes the color of his summer pastures narrowed and then opened wide. If Brandon wasn’t mistaken, he’d swear those eyes were flecked with gold dust.
“You ain’t out to spoil our fun, now, are you Cutter?”
Brandon turned around, pushing the woman behind him. “You won’t find your fun here, boys. The lady is under my protection.”
One of the cowboys looked from Brandon to the lady in question, who much to Brandon’s irritation, refused to stay out of sight. “You sure about that, Cutter? I done saw her just step off the stagecoach.” The cowboy reached out and Brandon gripped his wrist, the action costing him little effort and the other man a good deal of pain. “Fine, Cutter. We’re leaving.”
Brandon watched them walk away before turning around. He’d planned to scold her, or at the least instruct her on the dangers of walking around town alone when she didn’t know who was around or where she was going. Her gold-flecked green eyes stared up at him, and he’d swear she wanted to laugh.
“It’s churlish of me to make light of the situation, so instead I will thank you for your chivalry.” She peeked around him once and then straightened again. “But wasn’t that exciting? I’ve never met a cowboy before, although I’ve heard of them and of their behavior. The experience is far better than what one reads in books.”
Brandon’s head spun and he couldn’t decide if she required a good throttle by her aunt or if he wanted to carry her off into the mountains. Since her aunt was one of his dearest friends, and the only family he had on this earth, he opted for neither.
“Exciting isn’t the word for it, Miss Stewart.”
McKensie tilted her head back so she could see the man better from beneath her wool bonnet. Tall, with skin touched repeatedly by the sun and hair falling beneath the type of wide-brimmed hat the men out west seemed to favor.
“What would you call it then, if not exciting?”
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Excerpt from "Lily's Christmas Wish
Cotter’s Gulch, Colorado—December 1868
Dear God. Please help me find a family. Love, Lily. The forged wheels whirred and ground against the iron rails as the small window of the train car opened up to the vast landscape of the American West. Miss Abbott told her the same stories over and over again, promising that a new life waited. She wasn’t sorry to see the dingy city disappear four days ago, and she hoped to never see it again. Those memories she wanted to leave far behind.
Lily believed in her younger years that Miss Abbott had already taught her everything about life, but the teacher promised it would take more than book learning to withstand the laborious life in the West. Lily sat alone on her bench, her eyes absorbing the unfamiliar setting beyond the wooden car. She didn’t need to look to know that the person who sat down beside her was Miss Abbott. The teacher always smelled like roses. Two bushes of red roses grew in the small, unkempt garden of the orphanage. Despite years of neglect, the roses found a way to survive—like Lily.
“We’re almost there.”
Lily slowly nodded and continued to watch as the mountains moved closer and closer. The temperature dropped. Lily shivered and closed the small window. “Are you scared, Miss Abbott?”
“Not even a little scared. This is going to be a better life for everyone.”
“Will you be adopted, too?”
Excerpted from "Christmas Mountain," "Teton Christmas," and "Lily's Christmas Wish," short stories included in the A Home for Christmas collection by MK McClintock. Copyright © by MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.
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