Dakota Territory, spring 1886
As Sam Andrews rode toward home, he watched a buggy roll up to his house. The last thing he needed was company. He was wet, muddy, and tired clear through. He’d had enough trouble in this one day to last him the rest of the spring. A water hole was blocked and had to be cleaned out so the cattle could get water. A dozen cows were missing and needed to be found and returned to the herd. Harry was gone and not planning to come back.
The buggy deposited a woman and child at his doorstep, unloaded a trunk and valise, and left.
He closed his eyes. Planning-to-stay company. The worst kind under the present circumstances.
He looked longingly at the barn, wanting nothing more than to rub down his horse and then head for a tub of hot water. But manners overcame need and he went directly to the house and dismounted.
“Ma’am, may I help you?” Her hair was as blond as spun gold. Her eyes as blue as a summer sky.
The boy beside her hung his head, so Sam couldn’t really say what he looked like except for a mop of pale brown hair. He wasn’t very big. Still a stay-with-mama size.
“Are you Harry Ortwell?” the woman asked.
He knew that accent, the vowels round and musical. There were other Norwegians in the area.
“No, ma’am. I’m Sam Andrews.”
She fixed her blue gaze on him in a way that made him feel he’d somehow failed her. “I need to speak to Mr. Harry Ortwell.”
“’Fraid that’s impossible. Harry left for parts unknown two weeks ago.”
Her mouth fell open. She blinked her eyes rapidly and then closed her mouth with a click. Her lips pulled into a hard line.
The truth hit him like the fists of a giant. “You’re the woman Harry’s been writing to.”
“Miss Elin Hansen. The woman he promised to marry.” Her accent deepened so “woman” sounded like “voman.”
Sam sighed. That would explain Harry’s sudden departure. Harry was notorious for making promises and breaking them with absolutely no regard for the consequences. Sam should have known when he saw Harry stuff his latest letter into his pocket that something like this had sent him running.
“I didn’t know you had a boy.”
“He is Harry’s. His name is Joey.”
Sam stared. “How can that be? You and Harry have corresponded by mail only.” No way had that led to a child.
Her cheeks glowed sunset pink. “He is not mine. A man put him on the train at Grassy Plains. Told the conductor to take him to his father, Harry Ortwell, address Buffalo Hollow, Dakota Territory.” Her eyes narrowed. “Same address as the Harry Ortwell who promised to marry me.”
“Oh, Harry, what have you done?” His partner had gotten himself in quite a squeeze this time.
“May we go indoors?” she asked.
Sam’s weary legs threatened to shake. “Inside? My house?”
She fixed him with another hard look. “I came in good faith. I brought his son. I will wait for him here.”
“He’s not coming back. He was very clear on that.”
“I will wait.” She took a step toward the door.
“Now just a minute.”
Gus opened the door. Where had the old man been all this time? One look at the rumpled white hair and the way Gus yawned, and Sam knew he had only just wakened from one of his naps. Gus spied Elin and the boy and grinned. “Company. Good. Come on in and set a spell.”
Sam introduced Gus to the pair. “Gus is an old friend. He looks after the house for me.”
“What he means is I’m too crippled up to be of any use so I sit around the house.” Gus signaled the pair forward.
Elin took another step.
Sam planted himself in her way. “No.”
“No?” How did she make that little word sound like a big challenge?
He stepped aside. “You can refresh yourself and then I’ll arrange for someone to take you back to town.” Except all the cowhands were sorting out cows and water holes. That left Sam, who was still muddy, wet, and cold. And mad at his missing partner. He was thoroughly sick and tired of cleaning up Harry’s messes.
Miss Elin took another step toward the house, seemed to remember the boy. “Come along, young Joey.”
Joey didn’t move at first then eased forward, his gaze fixed on the ground at his feet.
Gus stood back and waved them inside.
Sam followed, trying to decide how to handle this.
Gus’s bushy eyebrows rose as Sam reached the threshold. “Don’t bring that mud inside.” The door closed firmly against him.
Sam groaned. He wanted only to clean up and have a hot meal and a warm bed. Instead, he was stuck with a woman and child to deal with.
The door opened and Gus threw out a pair of jeans and a shirt. “Come back when yer decent.”
Sam scooped up the garments and headed for the barn. He tended his horse first. Filled a bucket with water. A cold wash hardly provided the comfort he’d been thinking of the past hour. But a few minutes later, considerably cleaner, his clothes rinsed in cold water and hung to dry, he strode toward the house.
His stomach rumbled. It had been hours since he’d eaten. Neither he nor Gus were good cooks and it was too far to town to go for a meal. But right now, he’d settle for hard biscuits and fried eggs.
He broke stride. The trunk no longer sat by the gate. His insides twisted with something more than hunger. She could not move in like she owned the place. The last thing he needed was more complications in his life. He continued on his way and stepped into the house.
Gus sat at the table with the woman and child. There was no sign of the trunk.
Sam’s stomach pinched his backbone.
The boy looked at him and Sam swallowed hard. He had Harry’s eyes and mouth. No denying he was Harry’s son. Not that he was surprised. Typical of Harry to have no regard for how his actions might impact others.
Gus nodded at him. “Sit down and stop staring.”
Sam pulled out the chair across from Elin. “I’ll take you back to town.”
“I’m staying,” she said. “I will wait for Harry to come and keep his promise to me.”
“She’s staying,” Gus affirmed.
“Can’t count on Harry getting back any time soon.” Sam shook his head. “I don’t have time for a woman and child.” He described his day to Gus, hoping the old codger would see the necessity of taking the pair back.
Gus leaned forward. “Whadd’ya mean there’s twenty head missing? They wander off?”
“I thought so at first but I followed their tracks. Didn’t take me long to see a horse had been with them. Someone took them.”
Gus let out an explosive noise. “Rustlers.”
“I followed the trail until they crossed the river. Lost the tracks in the rocks.”
“Likely long gone by now.” Gus sounded as morose as Sam felt.
“I’m going to have to keep a close eye on the rest of the herd. So you see—“ He turned to the woman. “I don’t have time to entertain.”
* * *
“I have no wish to be entertained.” Elin was not about to take no for an answer. “I left Norway, crossed the vast ocean, rode a train across most of America, all on the promise of a marriage.” She swallowed hard, hoping no one would guess at the fearful way her heart raced. The shock of discovering Joey was Harry’s son was more than she thought she could endure. The ride to Buffalo Hollow had allowed her time to come to acceptance that her marriage would include a child, but then to learn that Harry was gone and she was left to figure things out on her own filled her with a mixture of fear and determination. “I have come here expecting a home, and I will have it.”
Sam Andrews stared. She stared right back. He had sandy-blond hair, gray-blue eyes, and a mouth that showed no mercy.
She pressed onward, pursuing the only option available to her. “Joey belongs here. He has no other home. I will stay and help you take care of him.”
Sam blinked. “You expect me to keep the boy?”
“You’re all the family Harry has. It seems that makes you Joey’s family.”
Gus nodded. “Sounds right to me.”
Sam gave the old man a look rife with disbelief. Seemed he thought Gus should be more supportive of Sam’s opinion.
But at least she had one person on her side. “You surely don’t plan to turn the boy out,” she said.
Sam dropped his gaze to the boy. “Another of Harry’s misadventures.”
Elin bristled. “Don’t talk like he is a problem. He’s a child.” Bad enough that Harry had abandoned her and that Sam made it plain he didn’t welcome her. She would not tolerate Joey being treated with the same disregard. She knew too well how it felt to be thought of as nothing but trouble.
Sam’s shoulders rose and fell. “This whole situation is a problem for me. You heard me telling Gus that I’ve got enough work to keep two men busy. Harry should be here. And not just for you and the boy. But he isn’t.” He brought his probing gaze back to her. “Don’t you have family in the area? Seems to me Harry said something about a cousin.”
“My cousin Anker lives near Grassy Plains.” She didn’t add that her brother had also come west with her. And Anker’s sister. “I will not thrust myself into his life.” She had visited them for two weeks upon her arrival and felt as underfoot as a dirty rug. She’d had enough of being a problem to everyone. She crossed her arms and did her best to look determined. “I will stay here. You need someone to help look after the boy.”
“She’s right,” Gus said.
Gus had already welcomed her and helped her carry her trunk into one of the bedrooms. He spoke again. “The house is plenty big enough for all of us.”
Bigger and better than she had prepared herself for. Three bedrooms side by side. A large kitchen with table and chairs enough for half a dozen people. A sitting area to one side. But only one stuffed chair. She might have to ask for a couple more so they could enjoy evenings together.
The one thing she hadn’t prepared herself for was that Harry would abandon her. He’d written such nice letters, filled with hope and promise.
Gus spoke again. “It’s too late to go back to town tonight. Everyone’s tired. Let’s sleep on things. They’ll look better in the morning.”
“That is fine.” Elin got to her feet. “I will prepare the supper.”
Sam pushed his chair back, the scraping causing Elin to wince.
“Tonight only,” he said.
Elin refrained from arguing. Sometimes the best way to win an argument was with action.
She went to the cupboards, opened them, hoping to find something for the meal.
Gus limped over and showed her the bin of vegetables and the jars of canned meat.
Joey slipped from his chair and stood beside the cupboard.
“Poor liten gutt,” she murmured.
“What was that?” Gus asked.
She’d spoken Norwegian. She must remember to stick to English. “I say poor little boy. He must feel lost and afraid.” She bent, cupped the child’s face in her hands, and turned him to look at her. His wide, fear-filled eyes deepened her resolve. “You are safe here, little one. I promise you.” She lifted her gaze to Sam’s and saw a protest.
She straightened, still looking at Sam but speaking to Joey. “I promise you.” She would give Sam challenge for challenge. But she would not leave. Joey needed a home. She needed a home. A place where she would find some bit of acceptance. Importance even.
Too bad Sam Andrews had to be so argumentative about it.
* * *
Sam sat down and watched Elin Hansen and Gus poking through the supplies. He tried to remember what Harry had said about this woman. “You’re what? Twenty-one? Twenty-two?”
“Ja. Twenty-two.” She examined a bottle of meat he and Harry had paid one of the town ladies to prepare for them and didn’t bother to look his way.
“Seems to me you could find yourself a husband easily enough. There’s lots of young fellas wishing they could find a pretty gal for a wife.”
She pried open the jar and smelled the contents, nodding with satisfaction. She turned to him. “You like stew?”
“I like stew fine.” His rumbling stomach announced he would be grateful for any kind of a meal. He forced his thoughts back to trying to come up with a solution for his current problem. “Did you hear what I said?”
“I have agreed to marry Harry. He has agreed to marry me.” She spoke as if the matter was settled as she found a saucepan in the cupboard and shook the contents of the jar into it.
“The problem being, Harry is missing.”
She slowly turned to face him. “But I am here.” She held his gaze with such force he couldn’t blink.
“Joey, boy. You wanna carry these potatoes to Miss Elin?” Gus’s voice drew Sam’s attention and he watched the old man and the little boy. Gus waited patiently for Joey to decide if he wanted to respond to Gus’s question then he hurried forward, snatched the basin of potatoes, and carefully carried it to Elin. She thanked him as he backed away, his gaze darting from one adult to the other.
Sam’s throat constricted at the fear widening the boy’s eyes. “How old is Joey?”
“The man who delivered him to the train had a note. Wait. I will get it.” Elin went to the big armchair in the corner by the window and pulled an envelope from a small cloth bag. She handed it to Sam and stood with her hands folded at her waist. “I did not read it as it was addressed to Harry.”
“Harry’s not here and as you said, I am.” He unfolded the paper and read aloud.
Harry, you scoundrel.
Sam grinned. Seems Harry wasn’t a favorite with the letter writer.
You came to visit my daughter, Josephine Scarrot, four years ago in Grassy Plains. That would make the boy around three-years old. You might remember the occasion, seeing as you hung about for a month or more, making my Josey think your intentions were honorable. Then you up and left without once checking on my girl. You left her with more than a broken heart. You left her in the family way. She died when Joey was a baby and I raised him ever since. Now my final days are upon me. Your son needs a home. God forgive me, I wish I could offer him better than the likes of you, but you are his father. See you treat him right. Kiss him for me. I love him.
Sam looked at Joey. Silvery tears glistened in his eyes. “Boy, I’m sorry about your ma and grandma.” He glanced at Elin. “Seems a lot for one youngster to deal with.”
She dabbed at her eyes.
Joey sniffled. “I want G’ma.”
Elin reached out to him.
He put three feet distance between them.
“I remember losing my own parents.” Sam sighed with the heaviness of the memory. “I was five when my ma died and ten when Pa died. It isn’t easy.” Sam had Harry’s father to raise him. Joey had no one. “The kid needs a home and parents.”
Elin shifted her attention back to Sam. “He will have a home here. You can be his papa until Harry returns. I will help take care of him.”
Sam rocked his head back and forth. “I don’t expect Harry to come back.”
“I will make the meal.” She returned to the cupboard and began to peel potatoes as if the matter was settled.
It was far from settled in Sam’s mind, and Gus offered no help. His solution was to sleep on it. Sam knew sleep would not make Elin and Joey disappear. He didn’t see what option he had but to take them to town.
He ignored the questions hammering at the back of his brain.
Where would they live in town? Who would see they were safe and taken care of?