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A Christmas Gift of Love

By Darlene Mindrup


Chapter 1

Rose Johnson clutched the edges of the rough plank table and stared out the window at the bleak November landscape. A brisk, chill rain was pelting rhythmically against the glass pane that was the kitchen's sole source of light. Perhaps she should light the lantern on the table and dispel some of the gloom, but her lethargy wouldn't allow even that much effort.
Sighing, she allowed her thoughts free rein as they pushed insistently against the forced shield of her mind. For the first time in days, the tears came as relentlessly as the precipitation outside.
Papa was gone, and she was alone in the world. What was she to do now? She had nowhere to go, no one to care. If she had any relatives, she didn't know about them. For the last twenty years, it had been just Papa and she; and before that there was Mama.
She smiled as she remembered her mother's gentle' face. Mama had died when Rose was just fifteen, and Rose had thought the pain would never go away. But it did. Slowly. Inevitably. Just as this pain would pass, too; but from experience Rose knew it would take time. Lots of time.
She could see her own reflection in the darkness of the glass. Her wide blue eyes were her only good feature. Her brown hair looked almost black against the darkness of the pane. Papa had named her Rose, but she bore no resemblance to the beautiful flower. She had never had a beau, and she knew now that she never would. At thirty-five years of age, she was well past her prime here on the prairie of the Dakota Territory.
She could hear conversation reverberating from the other room and knew that she would have to return soon. But not just yet. She needed time to herself Time to grieve.
Since tomorrow was Thanksgiving Day, Rose had decided to forego the more formal wake that would last all night. It was well past four o'clock already and several of the others were preparing to leave, to return to their homes and their lives celebrating a national holiday established in 1863, less than six years ago, by the then president, Abraham Lincoln.
She thought about this Thanksgiving, so different from the past few years that she had spent with her father, and more recently with Ward Taylor, a good friend of her father's. This year there would be no cooked venison with savory stuffing, no wild berry pies, no celebrating of thanks to the Lord.
Well, that was not entirely true. Although Papa was gone, she knew that she still had much to be thankful for. God had given her thirty-five wonderful years with the best papa a girl could have. Now, he was with her mother and she was truly thankful for that. The future without them she refused to consider, for it seemed terribly bleak.
Last night she had lain down to sleep wishing that she could join her parents during the night, but she had awakened this morning before the sun was up, as usual, and knew it was a fruitless wish. God must still have a purpose for her, but right now she couldn't even begin to know what it might be. Her tired mind refused to function properly, and concern for her future continually twisted her mind with worry.
She could hear Ward's deep voice rumbling in the outer room. Rose was always uncomfortable in his presence, even though he and her father had been friends for several years. When he came to visit she usually found an excuse to absent herself 17hat he knew it was obvious. Still, he hadn't let it affect his friendship with Papa.
Frowning, she tried to think what it was that stirred that sense of panic she felt whenever he was near. He had been only kind to her. Perhaps it was the fact that he was such a large man, and when he spoke she felt he would surely rattle the walls of the small shanty where she lived. He seemed such a powerful man, such a contrast to the other men she had known. Men like her quiet, gentle papa.
And Ward's eyes were the most incredible color of green that she had ever seen, like the shifting prairie grass in the spring, yet they seemed so vacant of any emotion. Almost cold. At least it had always seemed that way to her, but when she mentioned it to Papa, he had vehemently disagreed with her.
She shook her head slightly and tried to banish thoughts of the man from her mind. Going to the cupboard in the comer, she tried to reach the extra mugs she kept stored on the top shelf Papa usually fetched them for her, but Papa was not here to do so now. Well, at least his body was, but not his spirit. That had been freed from the pain of the last several days.
She closed her eyes against the anguish of that memory. Papa's twisted, broken body that had been brought to her after his horse had spooked and he had been thrown from it. He had lived for three days in excruciating pain before his spirit had finally been put to rest.
She shuddered as she thought of her present company keeping watch on the now cold body of her beloved father. She had always hated the custom of wakes. Why couldn't they just have buried him yesterday and have done with it? If they thought he was merely unconscious and might waken at any moment, she could tell them otherwise.
A small moan escaped her and she leaned her head against the cupboard. She had heard the stories before of people being buried alive, thence the custom of wakes, but nothing would bring her papa back again, no matter how much she might wish it. If only it could be so, she would gladly let the others keep watch forever.
"Here, let me get that for you."
Rose tensed at Ward's voice, the timber of it sending little chills skittering down her spine. He reached around her, pushing against her back as he stretched to the top shelf. Rose stiffened against him, turning slowly when he moved away.
Quietly, he handed her the tray of mugs, his eyes never leaving her face. Rose felt the color spread across her cheeks and unconsciously she lifted a hand to her hair to make sure her bun was still in place. Drawn back from her face so tightly, her hair only added to her wan appearance, but of this she was unaware.
Rose turned away from him and began readying the coffee, pouring the steaming brew from the blue-speckled pot she kept on the back burner of her woodstove. She pulled some sugar cookies from the jar on the counter and added them to the tray.
Feeling his eyes on her, she grew suddenly clumsy, her fingers failing to do what she required of them. When she snapped a cookie in two, she sighed with exasperation.
"Sugar cookies are my favorite," he told her, his kindness twinkling in those green eyes. A small sound escaped from her throat before she could stop it.
Ward reached to take the tray from her, and set it on the table. When he puffed her gently into his arms she stiffened, and then suddenly she collapsed against him, her tears releasing her of the past hours of stored up grief He drew her closer still as he murmured soothing words of comfort.

Rose acknowledged to herself the warmth and security she felt in Ward's arms as he rocked her gently back and forth, and while she longed to remain just where she was, a part of her told her it was not a very good idea. Finally, Rose pulled away, rubbing angrily at the wetness on her cheeks. She refused to look at Ward. "They were Papa's favorite, too," she told him, as though that explained everything. Lifting the coffee tray from the table, she hurried from the kitchen, Ward following close on her heels.
The shanty, though small, still boasted four separate rooms: kitchen, living area, and two bedrooms. For many of the people living here on the prairie, this house would seem palatial. To Rose, it was just home. Other neighbors were seated in the main living area, while Papa was laid out in his own bedroom, awaiting burial the next day.
Rose handed mugs of coffee to those present, passing the cookies among them. When she sat down, she found herself across from Ward. His veiled eyes seemed to be watching every move she made.
Shifting uncomfortably, she dropped her eyes to the black band around his forearm. Every person in the room was wearing such a band, their symbol of respect to her deceased father. Except for a sprinkling of grey throughout his tresses, the color of the band was as dark as the hair on Ward's head. At forty years of age, he was still a striking man where looks were concerned. He had the lean fitness of a man who spent many hours out-of-doors.
Thankfully her attention, and his, was diverted by several people rising to leave. Rose handed them their coats and thanked them for coming. Soon there were only herself, Ward, and Emily Haskins left.
Closing the door against the fast-approaching night, Rose turned to the elderly woman and almost choked at the soft look of sympathy she saw reflected in the older woman's gentle brown eyes.
"I'm not leaving you alone here tonight, Rose. Ward has agreed to stay and take me home after the funeral in the morning."
"That's really not necessary," Rose told her, her own voice tinged with dismay.
Ward gave her a sharp glance. "It's no trouble," he answered her. "Emily and I would be traveling back in the morning anyway, so with the weather being like it is, we thought we would just as well stay." His green eyes roved her features slowly before being caught by the troubled look in her own blue eyes.
Rose was relieved when Ward released her from his mesmerizing gaze and turned instead to Emily. "I am at your command," he told her, his face splitting into a grin.
Emily had a penchant for organizing things, and Rose had no doubt that she was about to do that very thing now. It was quite possible that Ward had suggested it, thinking that Rose would be in no fit state to do much of anything.
Rolling up her sleeves, Emily headed to the kitchen. "Bring me some more wood from the lean-to, and don't forget to feed the livestock. Oh, and Rose, help me find the flour so that I can bake you some bread. I'll not leave you here without the basic necessities."
Rose found Ward smiling at her and couldn't help but smile in return. Shaking her head, she followed Emily into the kitchen. Already the older woman was bustling about finding the items she needed to concoct her famous honey wheat bread.
Rose's eyes fastened on the jar with the honeycomb smothered in honey. A small smile touched her lips as she thought of Papa and her finding the hive this summer. Together they had managed to smoke the bees and retrieve the sweet liquid, though she had received three stings for her effort and had ached for days. Papa, on the other hand, had not been stung at all. He had laughingly told her that the bees knew she was afraid of them.
"It's amazin' how we women tend to think so much alike."
Rose shifted her wayward thoughts and focused on the woman before her. "What did you say~"
"I said it's arnazin' how much women tend to think alike. I could find just about everything in your kitchen )cause its pretty much in the same place as mine."
Rose pinched the bridge of her nose, closing her tired eyes. She appreciated Emily's concern, and Ward's, but she would much rather be alone. Papa's body might be lying in the next room, but there was nothing about that to frighten her. If anything, it offered her a slight measure of comfort.
Pulling out a chair at the table, Rose slowly lowered herself into it. She watched Emily working the dough and realized that the older woman had been right. Rose was so tired, she would never have bothered to fix anything for herself to eat.
Ward brought the wood in and dumped it in the bin by the stove. Taking off his dripping sheepskin
jacket, he hung it on the hook behind the door. He stretched his muscles tiredly, his grey flannel shirt rippling across his broad shoulders with the movement.
Rose swallowed hard and quickly turned her eyes away. "What else?" He spoke to Emily, but his eyes were once again centered on Rose.
"The animals taken care of?" Emily asked him.
"I did that earlier." His look swung again to Rose. "You look just about done in. Why don't you get some sleep? Emily and I will see to things here."
Rose was already shaking her head. "I couldn't do that."
Hands placed firmly on her rounded hips, Emily scrutinized Rose with a knowing eye. "Why ever not? You're not much good to us like you are. You're already half asleep on your feet. Good Book says to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Now, if the shoe were on the other foot, what would you say?"
Rose blinked tired eyes up at the elderly woman standing before her. Truth to tell, having someone take charge was a blessing for which she should be thankful. She glanced at Ward and found his lips twitching with amusement. Emily Haskins had always had the last word about anything for as long as Rose could remember. She couldn't think of a time when the spry woman hadn't gotten her own way.
"All right," she relented, rising to her feet. "You've convinced me. I'll go to bed."
Emily's face broke into a broad smile. "I knew you were a woman of good sense."
Ward followed Rose from the kitchen. "I'll. just see that the fire in the fireplace is still going strong, then I'll go back and help Emily."
Rose only half-heard Ward placing another log on the still-crackling fire as she sluggishly made her way across the room to her bedroom door. She had her hand on the latch, but stopped just short of lifting it.
When she turned to go to the other door, Ward barely made it there before her. He placed his hand over hers as she was about to pull the latch.
Startled, she jerked her hand back and lifted her face to his in question.
"Don't," he told her softly. "Not tonight. You're too tired. Wait until the morning."
She wanted to argue, but she knew he was right. Still, something about him made her want to do everything opposite to what he suggested. Could it be because everything he said always came out sounding like an order?
As though he could read her mind, he touched her face gently with a curled finger. Please."
His touch set off an explosion of feelings she had no hope of interpreting. Ward could see the trepidation return to her eyes as she quickly moved away from him. "You're probably right," she told him breathlessly. "I only wanted to see him one more time before the others come again tomorrow. One more time, just he and I alone."
Ward said nothing, merely watching as she quickly crossed to the other door and let herself into her own bedroom.
Closing the door behind her, Rose leaned back against it, pressing a hand to her heart. Never in her life had she been so unsettled by a man's touch. It sent feelings twisting through her that she had never experienced before, made her want things she had long ago considered impossible.
Brows puckering in confusion, she made her way across to her bed and began to disrobe in the dark. The chill temperatures had her hurrying, and quickly climbing beneath the quilts on her bed she curled herself into a ball, shivering against the cold sheets.
How could a man affect her in such a way. A man she barely liked. And now, of all times, with her father lying mere feet away, lost to her for the rest of this lifetime. She was overly tired. That had to be it, for no other explanation offered itself to her fatigued mind.
Huddling beneath the covers, she felt the chill lessen and her eyes grew drowsy. As she drifted off to sleep, she resolved to free herself of Ward's unwanted presence at the earliest opportunity.

"Does she know about the farm yet?"
Ward lifted tired eyes to the woman before him. Slowly, he shook his head. "I didn't want to burden her with that tonight. She'll know soon enough."
Emily pulled out a chair and joined him at the kitchen table. "I agree, of course. It just amazes me that Gabel kept such a thing to himself "
Ward nodded. "He was that kind of man. Willing to help others in any way he could, but not willing to let others do the same for him."
"A lot like someone else I know, Ward Taylor. Maybe that's why you two got along so well."

Grinning, Ward didn't deny it. He lifted the steaming mug to his lips and blew softly. Actually, he hated coffee; but he wouldn't for the world let Emily know that, because to Emily, coffee was a panacea for all kinds of evils. Grimacing when her back was turned, he reached for the sugar bowl and ladled a heavy spoonful into the dark, aromatic brew.
"So what will you do now?"
One dark eyebrow winged its way upwards. "What makes you think I will do anything?"
A very unladylike snort followed his question. "Ward Taylor, you gotta do somethin'. That little girl in there can't take care of herself, you know. She needs a good strong man to look out for her."
Ward had to smile at Emily's reference to a woman of thirty-five years of age being a "little girl." The smile disappeared quickly when he realized what she had said. "Why, you old matchmaker, you! You can just get that notion out of your mind, real quick."
Innocent brown eyes didn't fool Ward for one minute. He knew he had to do something to help Rose, and he didn't need anyone like Emily pointing it out to him. But she was suggesting-no, that couldn't be what she was suggesting. Surely he was being paranoid.
When he looked at her again, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What did you have in mind?"
"Well. . ." she drawled. "You could use a good wife and Rose could use a good husband." He rose quickly to his feet, but Emily continued undaunted. "If you had a wife, you wouldn't need to pay me to do your baking, and Maudie to do your laundry, and---~'
"Okay, okay," he told her in exasperation, lifting a hand as though to stem the flow of words. "I get the picture. But I thought you enjoyed the extra money, and if it doesn't bother me, why should it bother you.
"Now don't get ornery," she huffed. "I do like the extra money, but I think you could put yours to better use."
Ward was shaking his head. "Emily, you never cease to amaze me."
"Did you know Rose ain't got no place to go?"
He collapsed back into the chair. "I know."
"Well?"
Ward stared at Emily several minutes before he realized that he was actually considering what she had suggested. Gritting his teeth, he jumped to his feet, grabbing his coat from the hook on the back of the kitchen door.
"I'll just go check on the animals," he told her.
She gave him a "you don't fool me" look, but she remained quiet as he escaped through the door.
As Ward made his way to the barn he stole a glance at the sky. Clouds blocked out the cold night moon and he knew there would be more rain come morning. What a miserable day for a funeral it was going to be, not that any day was a good one.
Throwing some more hay in the manger, he patted the old milk cow's neck and checked once again to make sure everything was all right. There was very little hay left, but he doubted Rose was even aware of it. He sighed. If only these torrential rains had come this past summer when the farmers needed it instead of now. He hadn't realized just how badly Gabel had been affected by the drought.
Making his way back to the cabin, he made sure he entered through the front door instead of the kitchen. He could hear Emily moving around, humming faintly to herself
Leaving his muddy boots beside the door, he made his way quietly to Rose's door and pressed an ear against the portal. No sound came from within, so he assumed she was fast asleep. What would she say when he told her everything tomorrow? What would she do? Where would she go? The questions kept circling round and round in his mind. One thing was for certain, Emily's idea was positively out of the question.

Chapter 2

Ward's prediction of rain hadn't materialized as of the time set for the funeral, and he knew Rose was thankful. Hovering clouds to the north spoke of a winter storm approaching and everyone knew that with that storm, winter would set in with a vengeance.
The minister hurried the ceremony, and surrounding neighbors quickly made their way back to their horses and wagons. It wouldn't do to be caught out in a blizzard.
Out of necessity, Gabel's body was buried close to the shanty on the land that he loved. Ward walked beside Rose back to the house, wondering how he could broach the subject of Rose's future. He was relieved of that obligation when Rose spoke first.
"I want to thank you for everything you've done." She glanced at him, but quickly turned away. "Both now and in the past. Papa ... Papa was grateful for your friendship."
There was a catch in her voice as she said the last and Ward knew she was struggling with tears held tightly in check. He took a deep breath, but before he could say anything she continued.
"It was nice of Pastor Hoover to offer to take Emily home."
He gave her a quick glance, but made no comment.
"I know you must be anxious to get home yourself, but would you like a cup of coffee before you go?"
Ward wrinkled his nose slightly. "That would be nice," he lied.
When they reached the shanty, Rose disappeared into the kitchen to fetch them each a cup of coffee. Ward followed her, watching her without appearing to do so.
He seated himself at the table and Rose pushed a cup in front of him. She sat down across from him and hastily lowered her eyes.
Ward noticed the traces of Rose's tears and felt suddenly very protective towards her. Both she and her father had been good friends to him over the past several years, though he knew that with Rose it was a somewhat reserved friendship. For some reason he seemed to alarm her, but as yet he hadn't found the cause. It had never bothered him overmuch, seeing as how it was her pa he came to see. She had always seemed to just melt into the background whenever he was around.
He had been unfailingly courteous to her whenever they came in contact, but each time he could sense the wall she erected between them. He had never felt as free with her as he had with Gabel, her father. Now, suddenly, he wished it had been different. Then he might know what to say to her now, what comfort he could offer, though from experience he knew there was really nothing you could say to a person who had just lost someone held dearer than life itself And now he had to give her more bad news.
"Rose, there's something I need to tell you."
When she looked at him with those innocent blue eyes, Ward found himself momentarily rattled. How was he ever going to manage this? It was hard to think straight when confronted by such liquid pools of misery.
Yes?"
Ward pushed his cup away, rubbing at his face in agitation. "This house-I mean this land---"
"I know what you're going to say. A woman alone cain't take care of the land and the crops. I've heard it all before. But other women have staked claims and worked to prove 'em up. I can too."
Pursing his lips, Ward began to draw circles With his finger on the table. He didn't look at her when he said, "There's no claim to prove up."
She frowned across at him. "What's that supposed to mean? Papa has had this claim for over six years now. It's his, free and clear. It was tough, but we did it. We even stayed through the Santee Indian uprisings when most other folks left. This is our land."
When Ward captured her look, his eyes were serious. "Your pa mortgaged this land to buy seed for crops. This land isn't yours. It belongs to the Yankton Bank."
Rose's already pale face became even paler. "I don't believe you."
"It's true," he told her. "What's more, I think you know it."
Rose sagged back against her chair. "You're right. I've known something was wrong for a long time now. When the rains failed to come this past spring Papa was more worried than I can ever remember seeing him." Her eyes met his. "Why didn't he tell me?"
"He was hoping to recoup his losses by selling a piece of his land, but-"
"But he died before he could do it," she finished for him tonelessly.
"Yes."
For the first time, Ward noticed a spark of interest in her eyes. "Then I could do the same. Sell some of the land, I mean." The sudden, irrelevant thought occurred to him that her eyes were the very color of a summer sky.
He shook his head slowly. "It's already too late. The bank intends to foreclose by the end of this week."
She rose quickly to her feet. "Then I haven't time to lose. I'll saddle Baron and leave straightway. I should be able to make it to Yankton in two days."
Ward stared up at her in open-mouthed amazement. He rose to his own feet, his six-foot-six height towering over her by a good nine inches. "Of all the stupid - don't be ridiculous! For one thing, you'd never outrun that storm." He motioned towards the kitchen window where the morning light already resembled dusk.
"I could try!"
"And for another thing," he went on, "the bank already has a buyer for this property at twice the rate of your father's mortgage. There's no way they're going to give you more time, and especially not to sell off part of the land which would detract from its value."
Rose slowly sank back to her chair. She buried her face in her hands. "There has to be a way," she muttered. "I have to keep this property. I have nowhere else to go."
Ward knelt beside her, pulling her hands away from her face. The abject misery in her visage reminded him of a wounded fawn he had come across this past spring.
"There is a way," he told her softly.
Hope brightened her features, and she smiled at him with a smile that seemed to dispel some of the gloom from the darkened interior. "There is?"
Her childish faith disturbed him. He swallowed twice before he could get the words out. "You could marry me.
Her smile disappeared and such a look of horror crossed her face that Ward was momentarily offended.
Rose couldn't have looked more surprised if the floor had opened up beneath her. She stared at Ward with a look that surely doubted his sanity. Neither one spoke for a long moment.
'Just listen to me a minute," he urged. "I'm not suggesting a regular marriage. I know you don't love me, and I don't ... well, I don't love you either. But we need each other."
If she could have gotten past him, Ward had no doubt Rose would have left him kneeling there. She really had no option but to listen to everything he had to say.
"I can't promise you love. All of that died in me seven years ago. But I can promise you that I will care for you. All I ask in return is someone to meet my needs. I know you're a fine cook, and you have a knack of making even the roughest dwelling seem like home."
The anger seemed to drain from her face as she considered his proposal.
I need time to think, Ward. Time to sort things through!'
"I can't give you that time," he declared roughly. "The minister only stayed for your father's funeral and he intends to leave within the next hour. He's going to try to reach Mitchell before the snow flies, so he would have to marry us now. I can give you five minutes to decide."
With that, he got up and left the room.
Rose sat there, her mind totally blank. Five minutes to decide her future. Of all the nerve! Of course she would decline his offer. In fact she would take perverse delight in doing so. But what would she do with her future?
Her mind wandered round and round in circles until Rose thought she would scream, but no matter which way her thoughts turned, she always came back to the same conclusion. She had nowhere to go. Marrying Ward offered her a solution, but what kind of woman would she be if she accepted such an arrangement?
Of course, others before her had accepted such a proposal, but that certainly didn't justify Rose's doing the same. Still, Ward had said that he needed her. A man alone on the prairie was about as useless as a woman alone on the prairie.
For the first time Rose considered the sacrifice Ward was willing to make for her. After several moments of such reasoning, Rose finally convinced herself that she would be doing Ward just as big a favor as he was doing her.
Not willing to be found waiting for him, Rose got up and went in search of Ward. He was kneeling next to the fire slowly stirring the hot coals with the fire iron. His brow was fin-rowed in thought and from that distance he seemed quite unapproachable. Rose had to take her courage firmly in hand before she could get her feet to move.
He glanced up as she stopped beside him. Green eyes studied her thoughtfully, their look inscrutable.
"Why?"
He didn't pretend to misunderstand her. "I owe you and your father a lot. It's the least I could do."
Rose blew out through tightly clenched lips. "We owe you just as much, if not more."
He stood and crossed the room, returning the iron to its Place by the fire. When he turned back to Rose his expression was carefully veiled. He took her by the shoulders, studying her face carefully. "I need a wife. You need a husband. It's as simple as that. Dodt look for something more when there is nothing more."
Rose struggled with the desire to say no, but she held herself in check She needed more time to decide what to do, but her time was rapidly running out. It was clear Ward expected an answer.
'What do you want from me?" she asked in an unsteady voice.
"Only what you're willing to give."
"If I say yes ... will you ... do you want... ?" Her tongue tripped over the words.
I expect nothing from you except to care for my home, cook my meals, and possibly help with the land. In time ... in time, maybe we could learn to care for each other. I don't know. As I said, my heart died a long time ago. I don't know if I have any heart left to give."
Rose lay a hand against his grey flannel sleeve. "You have a heart, Ward. You proved that just now."
She walked away from him and went to the window. Rose knew putting in glass panes was an extravagance, but Papa had wanted it so much for Rose. He had tried to make everything easier for her.
Ward cleared his throat. "Rose, there's something else you need to know."
She glanced over her shoulder, waiting for him to continue.
"My place is nothing like this." He motioned with his hand, indicating the shanty's interior. I had no need to fix my place up special since ... since I had no woman to care."
Rose saw the brief look of grief that crossed his features. Ward had lost his wife on the trip out to the Dakota Territory, that much she knew. Something to do with fever. How he must have loved her to feel the pain of loss even after seven years.
"Please don't tell me you live in a soddie," she whispered.
Surprised, he blinked at her before breaking into a soft chuckle, his eyes suddenly alive with devilment. "Nothing like that. I just want you to know that I only have a one-room cabin with a dirt floor. If you decide to marry me, I will immediately begin to change that."
"Only one room?" If anything, her voice was fainter than before.
He nodded. "After the storm passes I can begin to bring logs from the river to add on. It'll take time, but I have nothing else pressing since winter has set in."
Rose turned back to study the outside and saw the first soft flakes begin to fall against the panes. Snow!
Ward noticed too. He came to stand beside her, his attention focused outside. "You have to give me your answer now, Rose."
It seemed an eternity before Rose could bring herself to answer him. She sent up a quick prayer for the Almighty's blessings on this seemingly unholy contract She couldn't get the words past the lump in her throat, so she settled for nodding her head.
She felt more than saw Ward relax. "You'll have to get your coat and come with me to the Haskins'. Pastor Hoover is waiting for us there."
"You were so sure Id say yes?" she asked quietly.
"Let's just say I hoped the answer would be yes," he answered just as quietly.

Ward watched Rose cross the shanty to her room. When she disappeared from sight his shoulders slumped, and he let out a long breath. What on earth had he gotten himself into now? Of all the stupid notions, this had to top them all. When Emily had first suggested he marry Rose, he had thought it ludicrous, but after a fitful night with no sleep and images of Rose's less than rosy future, the idea had seemed not only possible, but necessary.
Rose returned and Ward helped her into her coat. He took the blanket she handed him and followed her outside to his waiting wagon. A fine layer of white covered the horses from head to tail.
After tucking the blanket securely around her, Ward climbed into the wagon beside her and taking up the reins clucked to the horses. The silence hung between them, almost deafening in its completeness.
Emily was waiting for them when they arrived. Although the trip was only two miles, snow now covered the ground to a depth of several inches. If the wind should pick up, it would become a full-out blizzard.
Pastor Hoover hurriedly performed the service, smiling at them both when he gave his blessing. In a short time Ward and Rose found themselves on their way back to Rose's shanty. Emily had wanted them to stay for a celebration supper, but prudence dictated otherwise. There were animals to attend to. Besides, neither Ward nor Rose felt that there was anything much to celebrate.

Rose climbed down from the wagon and hurried inside while Ward took the horses to the barn. Her hands were shaking so badly she could hardly undo the buttons on her coat.
She threw the coat on the hook behind the front door and slowly made her way into the kitchen. She went to the window and looked out, not even bothering to light the lamp. Anguished blue eyes reflected back to her from the darkened panes. Oh Papa! What now? Would you have wanted this?
There was no answer, only the keening howl of the wind as it began its trip across the prairie.

Chapter 3

The morning dawned bright and clear, almost as though the previous night's storm had never been. It had left behind a reminder, however, and the flat prairie was covered in white for as far as the eye could see.
For Rose, the past twenty-four hours had seemed like a surrealistic dream or, depending on one's opinion, a nightmare. She twisted the gold band Ward had placed on her left hand only last night. Where he had obtained it she had no idea, nor was she about to ask. She had this horrible feeling that it might have belonged to his first wife, Elise, and that he had carried it around with him for the past seven years. Such morbid thoughts made her shiver with distaste.
Now Ward was hitching his team of horses to the wagon in preparation for returning to his own cabin. She could see the frown furrowing his brow and realized that he was concerned for his livestock since he had been unable to make it back last night, the storm having effectively stranded them here. Her own milk cow and Papa's horse were tied securely to the back of the wagon.
She drifted to the front door, opening it and leaning against the jamb. Ward glanced up briefly but continued with what he was doing. The winter landscape shone so brightly it stung the eyes just to look at it. The wind had scattered the snow, piling it up against small obstructions until there were little hills all around.
"I'll be back by sundown. It would help if you had the place cleaned out and your things ready to be moved." He retraced his steps to the other side of the team and began tightening the harness on Big Ben, Old Blue's team mate. "You can leave the bedding since it will be too late to make it back to my .. our place this evening. We'll stay the night here again."
.Would she ever feel comfortable around this man? She certainly didn't feel married, though never having experienced that state before, she wasn't quite sure what "feeling married" entailed. "I'll ... I'll have supper ready when you get back."
Nodding his head, Ward climbed into the wagon. He gave Rose a long, searching look before lifting the reins and clucking to the team. As the wagon moved forward, Rose heard the cackling of the chickens that Ward had crated up to take back with him. They seemed as unhappy with the situation as she was.
Closing the door, she began wandering from room to room, lifting a pot here, moving a blanket there. She stood in Papa's room a long time before shaking her head, and finally pulling herself together. This was getting her nowhere. She knew what she had to do, so it was best to pull herself out of the doldrums and get the job done.
Since she had no crates or barrels, she used her clothes and blankets to pile dishes and supplies into, leaving only those blankets and sheets necessary for their sojourn here tonight. She gathered her breakables next to her storage chest beside her bed and lifting the cover peered inside.
Her heart seemed to lodge somewhere in her throat when she spotted the colorful quilt to one side. She had forgotten. Now, she carefully lifted it out, spreading it across her lap. Tears began to pool in her eyes as she moved her hand softly over the covering.
This quilt had been a labor of love, worked on for months now. She had taken materials left over from worn-out clothes belonging to Papa and Mama, and even her own, and fashioned them into this beautiful spread.
That blue piece was from a shirt she had made for Papa when she was but fifteen, shortly after Mama had died. Mama had taught her to sew, but the shirt had proven trickier than she had expected and somehow she could not get the sleeves to set right. Still, Papa had worn it proudly.
There were pieces from the dresses her mother had made for her as a child. There was even a beautiful piece of faded white satin from Mama's wedding gown.
Rose had been saving these pieces for ages, and it was the one thing Papa had not left behind them when they had come west. Most people would have considered a crate of material pieces a foolish waste of space, but not Papa. He had known just how much they meant to her.
It had only been this past summer that the thought of making a special quilt for him had occurred to her. She had created her own intricate pattern and worked long hours to complete it in time for Christmas. The tiny, even stitches spoke well of Rose's ability with a needle and she felt a little thrill of pride in herself and her mother who had taken such pains to teach her the finer art of quilting.
Since she had finished the quilt before Thanksgiving, she had put it away until later to give to Papa. It had been all she could do to keep it from him until Christmas. Now, it was too late. He would never see it.
Tears crowded close in her throat and she gently lay the covering back in the chest, arranging her breakables among its soft folds. She shut the lid firmly.
Well, the quilt was hers now. All that was left of Papa and Mama. Even the farm was no longer hers, but no one could take away her memory quilt, especially not some greedy bank. Let them have the land, the shanty, and even the livestock if they so desired, but the quilt belonged to her, and her alone.
It didn't take long for her to empty the shanty of their few possessions. She hadn't realized just how much trifles added to the warmth of a home, but now, with the barrenness, the shanty seemed less friendly somehow. Again she experienced that feeling of living in a dream. She moved listlessly about, unable to set her mind to anything.
Finally, she made her way into the kitchen and checked on the stew she had started earlier. Thanks to Emily, there was bread to go with it, but little else. Still, it would have to do.
The day seemed to drag, and although she was unaware of it, Rose sighed with relief when she heard the returning wagon.
Ward opened the door, stopping on the threshold to scrape off the mud and ice caked to his boots. He glanced briefly at Rose before closing the door behind him and hanging his coat on the peg behind it.
"How were your animals?" she asked him, busying herself with setting the table so that she wouldn't have to look at him. Every time she was in his presence, she felt such acute shyness that it was hard for her to form a coherent thought.
"Our animals were fine," he told her, deliberately stressing the pronoun. "Hungry, but none the worse for their unexpected fast."
He joined her at the table, breathing into his cupped hands to free them of their cramping cold. "Smells good," he told her, his nose twitching appreciatively.
Rose ladled him a bowl of stew, adding a buttered slice of bread. She kept wracking her brain trying to think of something to say. Ward seemed equally as uncomfortable.
After fixing her own bowl, she slid into the seat across from him. Giving him a brief look she bowed her head and asked him to say grace.
There was a long silence in the room, and just as she was about to look up to see what the problem was, she heard Ward clear his throat and hesitantly offer thanks for the food.
Rose frowned. Hadn't Papa told her once that Ward was a man of God? If that were so, then why such hesitation over a simple grace?
She kept her gaze focused on her own plate and decided not to worry about it. Let the Good Lord handle Mr. Ward Taylor; she had enough troubles of her own.
After supper, it didn't take Rose long to wash the few dishes and pack them away in one of the crates Ward had brought back with him. She made one more check through the house to assure herself that nothing had been left behind. Ward had told her that the furniture could be stored in the barn temporarily, but otherwise there was no room for it right now in his-their cabin. She was beginning to really fret about this cabin that was soon to be her new home.
When she closed her eyes that night, Rose tried hard to pray and leave things in God's hands, but no clear thoughts would come. Her mind seemed to have gone blank. Finally, she allowed her musings to roam in a wordless appeal that she knew the Lord would be able to untangle and set right. Only He could possibly have any idea of what she was really trying to say. She only knew one thing. God had been with her all of her life, and she was sure He wouldn't abandon her now.

Conversation was nonexistent for the first two miles of the trek to Ward's cabin. Both he and Rose were busy with their own thoughts, both trying to adjust themselves to their sudden change of circumstances.
Rose wondered just how far the cabin was. She couldn't remember ever discussing it with Papa, but it must be quite a distance since it took the better part of a day for him to reach their place. She really wanted to know, but she was too nervous to ask and draw his attention to her.
"Our place is about ten more miles that way," he told her, motioning to the northeast. His look swung briefly her way. `Are you sure you're warm enough?"
She nodded. Now was the time to strike up a conversation and relieve them both of this tense situation, but her tongue was simply too tied.
As though he read her thoughts, Ward began a rambling monologue of the countryside around, how he thought it was going to be a long hard winter, and what to expect when they reached his place. Rose was trying to prepare herself for the worst.
About half-way to their destination, they rounded a bend in the road which was little more than dug-in wagon tracks. Rose assumed that most of them must have come from Ward and his frequent trips to her cabin.
There was a house nestled back from the road, if one could call it a house. In actuality, it was nothing but a small soddie. Probably the occupants were either too lazy to haul logs from the Missouri River close by, or they had been here too short a time to make other arrangements.
She was surprised when a man hurried out to intercept them on the road. He had a short, neatly clipped beard and although his clothes were little more than patched rags, he was dean.
Ward pulled the wagon to a stop, setting the brake. He reached down to the man, a smile lighting his features.
"Howdy, Adam. I'd like you to meet my wife, Rose." Ward nodded towards the other man. "The Comptons are our nearest neighbors."
Brown eyes sparkled with friendliness as the man reached out a hand. "Howdy, ma'am."
Rose returned his smile. "Mr. Compton."
"How's the family~" Ward asked him.
"See for yourself "
Over his shoulder, Rose could see a woman and two children hurrying their way. The woman stopped beside the wagon and shyly handed Rose a bundle. "For you. A wedding present."
Rose was stunned. She knew that news here on the prairie traveled as fast as a wildfire, so she shouldn't have been surprised. But she was.
Taking the bundle, Rose unwrapped it, revealing a small loaf of bread. She could feel Ward's eyes on her. When she looked his way, there was something indefinable in his eyes.
"Thank you." She acknowledged the woman's friendliness with a smile that brought a quick one in return.
"This here's Alice," Adam told her, the pride evident in his voice. "She's my missus. And this here's Alicia and Andrew. Twins." He ruffled the boy's hair good-naturedly, but Andrew pulled away.
"Aw, Pa!"
Adam grinned at his son. "Thinks he's too growed up, now that he's turned six."
Rose smiled at the play between father and son. It was obvious that this was a very close and loving family. Her gaze settled on little Alicia, a perfect replica of her mother. Blond ringlets cascaded down the child's back in abundance, and her periwinkle blue eyes smiled timidly at Rose.
"Won't you come in and have a bite to eat? You must be hungry after traveling so far."
Rose was about to answer the woman when she felt a sudden pressure on her knee. Turning startled eyes on Ward, she found his hand gripping her knee but his look was fixed on Alice.
"We can't today, Alice. We still have a long way to go. Besides, Rose fixed us something to eat for the trip."
That was certainly true, Rose thought, but Ward was being unneighborly to say the least. Everyone on the prairie shared with each other, helped each other and looked forward to each other's company.
She opened her mouth to disagree with his statement, but he suddenly fixed her with a steely eye. She snapped her lips together, turning back to Alice and smiling with regret.
Ward made as if to leave, but suddenly stopped as though he had just thought of something. He turned to Adam.
"Adam, I was wondering if you might be willing to help me gather some logs from the river. My cabin is much too small now that I'm a married man." Both men exchanged amused glances. "I thought since it was winter and all, you might have some free time to help me. If so, I thought since we would be cutting and hauling logs for my cabin, we might just as well do so for you, too. Now, I can't pay you, but I figured if you helped me, I could help you and we could call it even."
A sudden light entered Adam's eyes and he straightened his shoulders. When Rose looked at Alice she saw the same shine reflected in her eyes.
"I reckon that'd be a fair trade," Adam agreed. "When do you want to start?"
"Is tomorrow too soon?"
Adam grinned. "I'll be there at first light."
Nodding, Ward lifted the reins again and clucked to the horses. They hadn't traveled far when Rose rounded on Ward.
"I can speak for myself, you know. It would have been nice to share a meal with the Comptons."
Ward's lips lifted slightly in an amused smirk. "I wondered how long it would take before you launched your attack."
"I'm not attacking," she huffed, "but you weren't being very neighborly."
When he turned her way, his green eyes were serious. "You're right. I wasn't being very neighborly, but for good reason." He motioned to the loaf of bread that Alice Compton had handed her. "That bread was probably their allotment for the week. Since the drought this past summer and the grasshoppers the year before, Adam hasn't fared very well. He still has three years left to prove up, and if things don't change, he'll lose his claim. You saw the condition of their clothes. They can barely afford to feed themselves, much less clothe themselves. But they're a very proud family. Adam feels if he can't make things work, then they just weren't meant to be. He won't accept 'Charity.'"
Rose considered the loaf of bread in her lap. What a sacrifice! "Why didn't you say something? I wouldn't have accepted this."
He turned away from her, studying the white prairie around them. Puffs of frost billowed out of his mouth and nostrils and he pulled his hat lower on his head to ward off the cold. "I wouldn't hurt Alice for the world. I'll find a way to make it up to them."
He remained quiet after that, and Rose observed him silently. Ward, it would seem, had a far larger heart than he gave himself credit for. Her first thought had been to condemn. She dropped her chin and stared at her fingers. If the Lord had wanted to teach her humility, He had certainly found an effective way of doing it.
She had never known hunger herself Papa had brought money with him when he first settled here on the prairie, so when the crops were scarce, the money had been there. It only now occurred to her that he must have been using that money little by little to make her life more comfortable. She felt ashamed of herself for not seeing it sooner.
She wrapped the loaf of bread gently, as though it were some great treasure, as in a sense, it was.

Chapter 4

Adam showed up as he said he would, at first light. Ward had been awake for hours and had already taken care of the chores and fed the livestock.
The cabin itself hadn't been nearly as unsatisfactory as Rose was expecting, but it was only one large room with very little in the way of furniture. The fact that there was only one bed had caused her serious qualms until Ward began making himself a pallet on the floor next to the fireplace.
Feeling guilty, but relieved nonetheless, Rose had prepared an elaborate supper to make amends. The whole evening had been an ordeal in itself, but one lighthearted moment had occurred at supper time that had relieved Rose of much of her dread of her husband, though at the time it had caused her a moment of panic.
She had poured him his third cup of coffee and was just turning away when he cleared his throat. Turning back, one eyebrow raised in question, she noticed Ward's nervousness. Suddenly, she began to feel rather nervous herself
"Rose, there's something I need ... I have to ... well, we're going to be married a long time, God willing, and you just gotta know."
When he stopped, Rose waited expectantly, not realizing that she was holding her breath.
His chin lifted in determination, his eyes intent. "I'm sorry, Rose, but I just caiA abide coffee."
Her breath rushed out of her in a gasp. Is that what this was all about? And here she had been expecting... what? She wasn't quite sure, but suddenly her relief lent a sparkle to her eyes, and she grinned at him.
"I'm not offended, Ward," she told him lightly. "Fact is, I can't stand the stuff myself."
His shoulders relaxed, and his mouth curled slowly into a heart-stopping smile. "The way you continually fed me the stuff, I never would have guessed." He shook his head, grinning. "Well, we should save a good deal of money on that commodity, then," he finally told her.
Rose shook her own head as she began clearing the table. "And all this time you've been forcing yourself to drink it whenever you came to our place. You should have told me. I thought all men drank coffee. Papa certainly loved it."
His smile was sheepish. "My pa taught me to never say anything against a woman's cookin'."
Rose shook her head again, just thinking about it now as she watched Ward hitching the team to the wagon. With Adam's wagon, they would be able to haul twice as much wood and wouldn't have to make as many return trips. It should save time all around, and the sooner the other rooms were added, the better it would be in her opinion. She hated the fact that Ward had to sleep on the cold, dirt floor.
Ward returned to the cabin to retrieve his leather gloves. He paused beside Rose on his way back out the door. "You sure you're gonna be all right here by yourself'
She nodded. "I'll just unpack some of my things, if that's okay with you."
He lifted a hand and pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. His voice was so soft, it sent shivers of awareness throughout her entire being. "This is your place now, too. Remember?" When he bent and kissed her cheek softly, Rose thought her heart would surely come to a standstill. "Make it into a home," he continued. "I haven't had a real one in a long while, and I know you have the knack."
With that, he left her standing there gaping at his retreating back.

By the time Ward had returned, Rose had unpacked most of her possessions, though there was little room in the small cabin to accommodate them. On the mantle above his fireplace, she placed her parents' anniversary clock, surrounding it with her own pair of silver candlesticks that Papa had bought for her twentieth birthday.
She had thought of adding her memory quilt to Ward's spartan bed, not only for the warmth but to add some cheerful color to this otherwise drab cabin. In the end, she had thought better of it. Perhaps there would be a time when she could look at the coverlet without feeling so much pain, but now was not that time. So she had carefully folded the quilt and returned it to her chest.
Over the next few days, Ward and Rose grew accustomed to each other's presence. Their conversation became less stilted, more natural, and before long they were conversing together as though they had been friends a long time, as indeed they really had, though they had not considered it so at the time.
In the evenings when Rose would pull out her Bible for her daily devotions, Ward would continue with his own work- He would dean the halters and oil them against the weather, or sharpen the tools he would need come planting time. Eventually he asked her to read aloud, and though she was surprised, she nonetheless readily agreed. It became an evening ritual that Rose looked forward to.
Ward still slept on his pallet by the fire, and Rose felt guiltier and guiltier about making him do so, especially when he spent such long, hard hours felling trees and she did so little. But when she had suggested switching beds, she had been met with such a cold look of outrage that she didn't dare suggest it again.
It was now a week into December, and suddenly Christmas loomed largely on Rose's horizon. The holiday didn't strike the same chord of joy that it usually did, however, and she wondered just how she and Ward should spend it. It was the day set aside to remember Christ's birth, but Rose didn't think her Lord would really mind if she didn't celebrate just this once. After fretting about it several more days, she decided that she would just ignore Christmas this year. She was fairly certain Ward would agree with her.
In this she was wrong. When she suggested it to him, Ward told her that he had already invited the Comptons to spend Christmas with them. "I'm sorry," he told her, although he didn't look it. "I didn't know you felt that way."
Peeved, Rose told herself that he had no way of knowing bow she felt since he was never around to talk about such things. She stopped in her tracks, realizing just how much she had been missing him when he was away. Of course, that was logical. It was lonely out here on the prairie, she reasoned, ignoring her heart when it tried to presume otherwise.
As she was preparing for bed that night, she happened to catch Ward's regard fixed intently on her as she brushed her long hair her usual one hundred strokes. Her fingers grew clumsy as they always did when he looked at her in such a way, and she dropped the brush.
Cheeks filling with color, she lifted it from the dirt and shook it out. Reluctantly, she looked at her husband again only to find him stirring the logs in the fire in preparation for the night. She curled down among her covers and tried to get her heart to steady into its normal rhythm. It was a long time before sleep found her.

The cold breeze from the cabin door closing roused Rose in the middle of the night. Sitting up, she tried to rub the sleep from her eyes, wondering what time it was and what had disturbed her.
She could barely make out the hands on the anniversary dock in the dying light from the fire. Twelve twenty. Ward's covers were thrown back and his bed was empty. Heart jumping in alarm, she hastily climbed from her own warm cocoon and slid into her robe.
Opening the door, she scanned the area to see where Ward could have gone. A light glimmered faintly from the barn, and closing the door behind her, Rose headed in that direction.
By the time she reached the barn she was shivering with cold. She opened the door, swiftly closing it behind her. When she turned around she found Ward staring at her in surprise.
"What are you doing out here? Get back to the house! You'll freeze in that getup."
Ignoring him, she moved forward to where he was kneeling. I thought something might be wrong."
He shifted his position next to his mare, Beauty, who was lying on her side, her flanks heaving. Rose's eyes widened in surprise. 1s she foaling?"
The look Ward focused on the mare was grim. "Yes," he told her shortly. "Now go back to the house."
"Is something wrong with her?"
"She's breech," he told her through gritted teeth. "Now, for heaveds sake, get out of here."
Rose looked from the heaving mare back to Ward. She could sense his desperation. Not only was the foal valuable, Ward truly cared for his animals.
"No," she answered him firmly, moving closer to his side. "I want to help. Just tell me what to do."
He looked as though he were about to argue when Beauty whinnied in pain. Giving Rose brief instructions, he turned his full attention back to the mare.
They worked together, side by side, until the first fingers of dawn were spreading across the sky. Just when she thought all hope was lost, Ward managed to turn the foal slightly, enough to allow it to pass through the birth canal.
Only moments later, a wet and bloody but triumphant colt struggled to get to his feet.
"It's a boy!" Rose exulted. "A beautiful baby boy!"
Ward shook his head slightly as he wiped his hands on a rag, his lips turning up into a reluctant smile.
Now that the excitement was over, Rose found herself trembling with the below-freezing temperatures. Although the barn was relatively warm compared to the great outdoors, it was much too cold for someone standing in her nightgown and robe.
Ward noticed her shivering and came quickly to her side. Pulling his own sheepskin jacket from the stall where he had left it, he wrapped it securely around her. His eyes found hers and held. "Thanks for your help. I couldn't have done it without you," he told her softly.
Rose swallowed hard against his fingers where they clutched his jacket together at her throat. Her eyes were drawn to his as they darkened in response to hers. He leaned forward and lifting her chin with his thumbs he pressed his lips warmly against hers.
Rose went from freezing to feeling as though her entire being were on fire. When Ward wrapped his strong arms around her, she leaned her full weight against him, knowing that her own legs would be useless as support.
She thought the moment would never end, in fact hoped that it wouldn't, but Ward pulled away when he heard Adam's wagon entering their yard.
He dropped his arms, stepping back from her, something undefined in his eyes. Rose shivered against the returning cold, her mind filled with a mixture of wonder and confusion, and turning, she fled back to the cabin.

For the next several days Ward took pains to avoid being alone with Rose as much as possible. She jumped whenever he entered a room, and she sensed he knew it had to do with that moment in the barn. The friendly rapport they had established had vanished, but she realized that what was done couldn't be undone. She would have to do something to make him comfortable again.
Ward was clearly surprised when Rose followed him out to the wagon the next day.
"Do you think I can ride with you to Alice's today?'
Since he and Adam had accumulated enough logs to build a cabin, Ward had insisted that Adam have first priority. Pride battled stubbornness, and stubbornness had won out. Rose had had no doubt of the outcome. Ward had a tendency to have his own way, one way or another.
The two men working together should have most of the cabin raised by that evening, barring unforeseen circumstances. Alice would be ecstatic.
Ward studied Rose a moment as she quietly awaited his answer. Her coat was buttoned tightly against the bitter cold and she was clutching a bundle in her arms.
He hesitated, but she knew he really had no reason to refuse her.
"Sure. Climb up."
He helped her into the wagon, reaching into the back to grab the blanket he kept there. He dropped it over her knees, fitting it snugly against her sides. When his eyes met hers, Rose felt there was a moment when it seemed as if the entire earth held its breath.
Turning quickly away, Ward picked up the reins and snapped them against the horses' flanks.
When they reached the Comptons' soddie, Alice met them outside, her face wreathed in smiles of welcome.
"Howdy! I'm so glad you came," she told Rose, her voice filled with pleased expectation. Little Alicia stood shyly watching from the doorway, but her brother Andrew pushed his way forward to stand beside the wagon.
Climbing down from her seat beside Ward, Rose followed Alice inside while Ward went to find Adam.
Alice's soddie was small as it was, but when Rose's presence was added along with the two children it became quite cramped. How could she stand it? The claustrophobic feeling such a tight space engendered would make even the sturdiest soul run mad.
"Can I go outside and help Pa, Ma?" little Andrew whined.
Alice glanced quickly at Rose, her face filling with color. "It's too cold son, and you haven't a warm enough coat," she told him quietly. Sighing in disgust, Andrew flung himself down next to his sister and began playing with the wooden blocks their father had made for them.
Surveying the room, Rose noticed only one bed in the soddie and wondered where the children slept. Her question must have been reflected on her face because Alice hastily assured Rose that they all slept together since it was warmer that way. There was only one thin, faded quilt on the bed and Rose's heart went out to this family. They tried so hard to give the impression that all was well. No wonder Ward had invited them for Christmas.
Settling her pack on the table, Rose addressed Alice. "I hope you don't mind, Alice, but I brought some things to add for lunch. I so wanted to have some company today, but it hardly seemed fair for me to just wish myself on you and your family without bringing something along to feed that giant of mine."
Tears came to Alice's eyes as Rose unloaded her pack. "I fixed too much chicken last night, 'cause Ward found a bunch of prairie chickens and brought them home for me to cook. I guess he forgets there's just the two of us."
Alice didn't bother to suggest that Rose could have put them in her cooler pit and frozen them, and Rose was certainly not about to mention it herself
"I also tried a new recipe for cookies that Emily Haskins gave me, but I don't think they turned out as well as Emily's, so I think I'll try again. Do you think Alicia and Andrew might like some?"
Rose wore such a woebegone look, her voice tinged with just the right shade of anxiety, that Alice hastened to assure her that Andrew and Alicia would be pleased to try some. As for the children, although their manners kept them from saying much, their eyes spoke volumes.
When the men came in for lunch, they both stopped short at sight of the heavily laden table. Besides the chicken and cookies, Rose had brought potatoes, squash, and bread. If Ward was surprised by the great quantity of food, he didn't say so. His eyes rested thoughtfully on his wife, and when she chanced a look at him he smiled at her. Her cheeks filled with guilty color and his smile widened into a full grin.
Adam said nothing, but there was a suspicious sheen in his solemn brown eyes. When he said grace, Rose felt a lump rise in her throat at his fervent thanks.
When they were on their way home that evening Ward was unusually silent. He stopped the wagon suddenly and turned to Rose. Circles of frost puffed around his face almost hiding him from view.
"That was a wonderfull thing you done. I'm right proud of you for thinking of it." He landed a kiss on her surprised mouth, and lifting the reins, clucked to the horses.
Rose's astonishment turned to a pleased feeling of accomplishment. She felt warm all over, but of course that had nothing to do with Ward's kiss. Nothing at all.

Chapter 5

That's a mighty fine woman you got there, Ward."
Ward glanced up from notching the log between his feet and smiled at Adam. "That she is, Adam." He thought again of how Rose had come with him again, bringing an old coat of hers for Andrew. She had made it sound like Alice would do her a favor by taking it since it was too small for her, and could Alice manage to use it? Yes, Rose was a manipulator all right, but she always did it in such a nice way.
"How'd someone as ornery and cantankerous as you get such a fine woman out here so far from civilization, anyway," Adam teased.
Ward lifted the log, motioning for Adam to take the other end. "Same way a pigheaded old coot like you managed to get someone like Alice, I reckon."
Adam laughed, lifting his end of the log. They moved as one, hoisting it and dropping it into place. Adam stepped back, brushing his hands together. He nodded his head in satisfaction.
"Looks like one more should do," he told Ward. They moved towards the logs still piled a few feet away. Lifting one away from the others, each man began to notch his own end.
"Truth to tell," Adam continued, "I think it must have been the Good Lord looking out for me. Seems He's been lookin' out for me right well."
Ward stopped chopping, resting the head of the axe against the ground and leaning on its handle. "You can say that after all that's gone wrong the past two summers? You may lose your claim."
Adam snorted. "Pshaw, that ain't nothin'. I still have my family, and good friends like you. Didn't God send you to me just when I was about at the end of my rope? Now I won't have to worry about my family this winter. They'll be snug as a bug in a rug."
Smiling, Ward continued notching the log. "Adam, you've given me something to think about."
Yes, he did have something to think about. It was amazing how much had happened in so little time. It was almost as though the Almighty had allowed Gabel Johnson to die so that Ward could step in to take care of Rose, so that Rose could in turn help the Comptons. Of course it was foolish to suppose that one knew the mind of God, but sometimes it was simple to see how things might have been arranged.
He knew Rose, though sad, had no worries about her father's death. She was absolutely certain where he would be in his afterlife.
And what about Ward, himself? He hadn't had nearly as strong a faith as Rose, because when Elise had died he had turned his back on God. Before her death, he and Elise had talked often about the possibility of one of them being taken from this life. Elise had showed him in the book of Hebrews that Satan had the power of death. He knew that to be so, then why had he blamed God?
Because God was stronger than Satan; he knew that, too. Yet he was angry with God for allowing his beloved Elise to die. Thinking back on it now, he realized that it had been his idea to move to Dakota Territory. Elise was one of those women who would follow her man anywhere, but he knew she would never have survived for long on the prairie. The solitude alone would have killed her. Guilt over his own selfishness shuddered through him. A thought crossed his mind that deepened his guilt. Where would Rose be now if Elise hadn't died?
To shake away such gruesome thoughts, he threw himself into his work so that by the end of the day, the Comptons' cabin was finished except for the caulking that Adam could do on his own.
The women came out to admire the men's work and the children ran excitedly in and out of the open space that would be used as the door. The structure stood solidly against the ever-present prairie wind.
"Oh, Adam." It was all Alice could say as tears pooled in her eyes. They worked so hard trying to make a home out of this inhospitable territory. For Alice to have lived in a soddie as long as she had gave credence to the woman's remarkable ability to adapt. Ward knew it came from the great love Alice had for Adam, wanting nothing but to assure her man's happiness, just as Elise had for him. And now Rose was doing her best to adapt to his harsh life.
As Ward began gathering his supplies together, Adam came up and slapped him on the back. "We can start on your place tomorrow."
"If you don't mind," Ward told him, keeping his face averted, "Id just as soon wait a day. I need to figure where I want to build, and how many logs it'll take. Why don't you go ahead and chink your cabin and make your door?" He lifted his head enough to catch Rose's eye and give her a wink.
Dawning comprehension brought a quick smile to her lips. "What a great idea! That means I can have you all to myself for one whole day."
Ward's heart jumped at this pronouncement. If he didn't know better, he'd think she actually meant it.
Alice and Adam exchanged knowing smiles.
"Well, if you're sure," Adam told Ward. He turned to his wife. "Then, woman, you should be snug in your own house by tomorrow evening."

On the ride home, Rose suddenly turned to Ward. "Ward, how come you haven't been affected by the drought and the grasshoppers?" She had seen the barn and knew that it was full of supplies for both the animals and himself.
He glanced at her briefly. He took a long time answering, almost as though he had to choose his words with care. "When I lived back East I had a good paying job, a nice home and a pretty good nest egg in the bank. After we decided to come out here, I sold the house for a fair price and added to my nest egg. Elise and I decided not to bring too much with us. We figured that since it was easy enough for boats to travel up the Missouri, it should be easy enough to get goods from the East by way of Yankton."
He stopped, his thoughts obviously far away. "I still have most of that money. After Elise ... after Elise died, I didn't need much for myself I've tried to use some of my money to help others, but it's hard. These are a proud people."
His look returned to her, one dark eyebrow lifting high. He nodded to her hand. "Even your ring."
Rose felt her heart drop. "My ring?"
"Didn't you ever wonder where I got it?"
Her face turned so red, Ward's other eyebrow rose to match its counterpart. He grinned, but turned his attention back to the road. "Someday, you'll have to tell me just exactly what you did think. I got it from Emily. The Haskins have had almost as hard a time as everyone else. Emily mentioned to me a long time ago that she had her grandmother's wedding ring, and if she could find a way she'd sell it. I remembered."
Rose wasn't exactly sure how she felt about this revelation, but it made her glad that Ward had been able to help the Haskins. Secretly, she was also relieved that the ring hadn~t belonged to Elise, though why it should matter so much she wasn't sure.
They rode the rest of the way in thoughtful silence.

It was just two weeks until Christmas and Rose began to fret about what to serve for Christmas dinner. She was growing more excited just thinking about sharing with the Comptons. It had been so much fun to make them happy with just the little she and Ward had done. The Bible was right. It was more blessed to give than to receive.
Ward had absented himself from the house in the evenings, not coming in till long after dark. It bothered her that he spent all day chopping logs for their cabin and then spent so much time doing she knew not what out in the cold barn.
It was below freezing tonight and still he hadn't come in except for a quick bite to eat. Lips setting into a firm line, she pulled on her coat and went in search of him.
When she first opened the barn door, she couldn't see Ward anywhere. Thinking he might be someplace else, she was about to close the door when she heard a faint scraping in the corner. Following the direction of the sound, she found Ward in the end stall surrounded by shavings of wood. He glanced up in surprise.
"What on earth are you doing?" she asked warily.
Ward went back to carving on the piece of wood he held in his hand. Rose could see the beginnings of a rifle barrel forming from the wood he was shaving.
"I'm making a toy for Andrew. For Christmas."
Her mouth dropped open. "A toy~"
Rose's eyes went beyond Ward to the corner of the stall and she could see something covered with a burlap sack.
"What's that?"
"Something for Alicia."
Rose pushed past him and lifted the cover, gasping in surprise. Color came to Ward's cheeks, but he didn't stop his work.
"Oh, Ward! It's beautiful!" Rose stroked her hand softly over the toy cradle, sliding a finger gently around the intricate design carved into the headboard. "How did you do it?"
He shrugged, lifting the rifle for inspection. Closing one eye, he pulled the toy to his shoulder to check that the barrel was forming in a straight line.
"I used to be a carpenter."
Amazed, Rose could only stare at him. She hadn't known that about him! Of course there was very little about her husband she did know. She watched him work several more moments. Periodically he would stop, blowing into his hands to relieve them of the cold.
"You should come inside. It's much too cold out here," she told him.
He shook his head. "Can't. Gotta get this done by Christmas."
She frowned at him. "Well, bring it inside then. It's warmer by the fire."
He glanced up at her in astonishment. "It would make too much of a mess. Elise hated having wood shavings all over the house."
Rose felt a slight pang at mention of his first wife. "Well, I'M sure she didn't have a dirt floor either. How's a few shavings of wood going to hurt that? Besides," she reasoned. "You can always sweep them up."
He studied her pensively. "You sure?"
She nodded. "Course I'm sure. Come inside now."

It was two days later as she watched Ward whittling away at the wood that she came up with an idea. From what she could see, Alicia had no doff to play with. Being a man, Ward had probably never considered that fact.
After supper, she hesitantly approached him. "Ward, do you think Alicia would like a new doll to go with her cradle?"
His eyes brightened at the suggestion. "Why, I think that'd be a great idea. I never thought about a doll." Rose hid a smile.
"Do you have the stuff to do it?"
"I still have some scraps left ... left from before. I think I have enough for a doll and a small quilt."
'Well, if you don't, give me a list. I plan on going into Yankton tomorrow." He went back to his whittling. Surprised, Rose continued to stare at his down-bent head.
"But, that will take you four days!"
He scrutinized her tense face, his eyes unfathomable. "You scared to stay alone?"
She pressed her lips tightly together. "Course not, but this isdn't exactly the time of year to be making such trips. What if you get caught in a blizzard?"
He rose to his feet, placing his hands on her shoulders and staring solemnly into her worried eyes. "There's settlers between here and there. If I have to, I can take shelter."
Hearing the determination in his voice, Rose knew it would do no good to argue. When Ward made up his mind to do something, nothing could sway him from his purpose.
Sighing, Rose turned away. "I'll make the list."

Ward studied the sky along the northern horizon. This didn't look good. He was caught on the open prairie and a storm was rapidly approaching. He knew it had been foolish to try and make the trip to Yankton at such a time, but he wanted to pick up something special for Rose as a Christmas present.
He knew how much she loved to read, and her own books were already dog-eared from use. Probably she could recite the books verbatim.
He glanced at the crate behind the wagon seat. It had been unwise perhaps, but it was something he had been determined to do.
As a man, he had a lot to occupy his time. There were barely enough hours in the day to get all his work done, even in the winter. But for a woman, it was different.
Course, he knew women weren't idle. Far from it. They filled their hours with hard work and all the little details that made a house a home. But women felt the solitude more. To Rose, reading was like visiting with a neighbor.
She had been so patient with him, waiting for all the things that would make his cabin more the home she was used to, and never complaining. In fact, she had encouraged him to put the Comptons first.
He shook his head. She was nothing like his Elise. Elise had been like a beautiful fairy, flitting through her life with gay abandon. Rose, now she was different. Rose was more like the wild prairie rose that her name brought to mind. Sturdy, dependable, a spot of beauty in a rugged landscape.
He frowned. Just exactly when had he started thinking of Rose as beautiful? The frown deepened as he tried to reason it out. Maybe when she had first sat cross-legged on the bed combing her long, dark hair with the fire reflecting off of it in shimmering particles of light.
He had wanted to go to her then. It had taken all of his willpower to turn away. Had love been creeping up on him unawares, only he hadn't recognized it as such? Could she tell? Probably if she knew his thoughts and feelings, she would freeze him out as she had after that first kiss in the barn. The cold December landscape had been nothing in comparison.
As the wind picked up and feathery flakes of snow began to fall, he wondered if he would ever have the chance to find out.

Rose watched the huge snowflakes as they drifted to the icy ground. This was the day Ward was supposed to have returned home. She went back inside, praying that the wind would hold off and that this would just be another snowstorm instead of the blizzard the howling wind could make it.
For the first time, she felt frustrated at the dark interior of the cabin. In her own shanty, Papa had placed purchased glass for windows. Ward had not, and now with the shutters closed the dim interior seemed full of foreboding as she heard the soft breath of wind turn into a whirling gale.
So much for prayers. She switched her petitions to asking for Ward's safekeeping. If anything should happen to him, she didn't know what she would do.
Sitting down hard on the chair next to their eating table, Rose put her face in her hands. How, God? How had this happened? How could I possibly be in love with my husband? When bad it even started?
She had always been a little afraid of him, but not because she thought he would hurt her. No, it had more to do with the way he made her feel. Had she been falling in love all along only hadn't realized it?
She picked up the small sticks lying on the table and began to tie them together with cord. Ward had given her several carved figures: Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, several wise men, and several shepherds. There were even tiny sheep, cattle, and a donkey. He had been whittling them over the past several years. His ability to carve such intricate, beautiful things still filled her with awe. What an incredible gift God had given him. Did he recognize it as such?
Her part was in making the cr6che where they would sit. Funny, she and Ward seemed to complement each other well as they worked together.
As she worked, she tried to ignore the ever-rising wail of the wind. Placing cut pieces of hay among the cr6che, her petitions to the Lord grew more fervent. What would she do if something happened to Ward? To have finally found love and then to have it snatched away so suddenly was incomprehensible. Surely God could not mean for such a thing to happen. She needed time to make Ward love her in return.
Setting Mary next to Joseph, she allowed her thoughts to wander. Did Joseph love Mary, or had Mary had to contend with a marriage such as Rose's? Joseph was a good man, that was evidenced by the fact that he wanted to put Mary away quietly instead of making her face her shame. But did he love her?
Restlessly, she got up from the table and opened the door to look out. The portal was flung back against the interior cabin wall with the force of the wind. It took everything Rose could muster to be able to close it again. She leaned back against it, her breathing ragged.
What would happen to the animals? They were safe in the barn, but Ward had forbidden her to go to them if there were a storm. Not that she was crazy enough to do so anyway.
She wandered restlessly around the cabin, not able to settle to doing anything. Even little Alicia's doll that she had started lay forgotten on the bed.
When darkness came, Ward still had not returned. It seemed the hands of the clock on the mantle ticked slowly by, dragging each hour to its fulllest.
Supper sat untouched on the table. It had been something to occupy her time, and at least she had the hope that Ward would be home soon and hungry. But he hadn't come.
Finally, Rose could take the strain no longer and flinging herself to her knees beside the bed she began to pray loudly, trying to block out the sound of the wind. Before long, her voice turned hoarse with the exertion and trying to suppress her tears. Giving in to the inevitable, she allowed the tears to come. Great, wracking sobs tore at her body.
Suddenly, the door flung open and Rose sat staring at what seemed like a huge, hulking polar bear.
Rose came quickly to her feet and was across the room, flinging herself into her husband's arms.

Chapter 6

Rose glanced periodically at her husband thawing in front of the fire as she walked over to get him dry clothes and a blanket. Steam rose from his wet clothes as he tried to huddle closer for warmth, a hot cup of tea clutched in his shaking hands. She had been so glad to see him, so relieved that he was alive, that she had thrown herself into his arms.
She worried about that now. Had she given away her feelings with that action? She certainly hoped not, because although she may have discovered her own love for him, he had shown nothing that would give her hope that he felt the same. Hadn't he told her that his heart was dead?
"How did you ever manage to get home in this blizzard?"
He looked at her briefly, his teeth still chattering as he took off his wet outer clothes. I just decided to let the horses have their head. Animals have a pretty keen sense of direction, even in a storm. I was hoping they would find their way home, and they did."
Bless Old Blue and Big Ben. She would give them an extra portion of oats to show her appreciation.
Rose handed Ward his nightclothes. TPut these on and get into bed," she scolded. 'We'll be doing good if you don't catch pneumonia."
She turned her back as he fumbled out of his heavy, wet clothes and into his dry night things.
"Where's the blankets for my pallet?"
Not looking at him, Rose began laying his wet clothes over the chair to dry. "You're not sleeping on the floor. I'll not have you catching a chill."
The room grew so silent, she could hear the logs pop in the fireplace. When she finally turned his way, he was staring at her somberly. "Just what are you saying, Rose? 'Cause I'll have you know that I won't allow you to sleep on the floor."
She continued to flit about the cabin, straightening things here, fixing things there. Her face was the color of a ripe apple when she told him, "I figured as much. I'm willing to share the bed."
Although she couldn't see him, Rose could feel his eyes upon her back. His stillness reminded her of a cougar she had seen once, just before it had lunged at his prey.
Ward hesitated. Fatigue and confusion crossed his face. Without saying anything, he finally climbed into the bed. "Are you coming?"
Shaking her head, Rose picked up Alicia's doll. "No, not yet. I think I'll work on this for a while."
She wasn't fooling him and she knew it, but there was no way she could crawl into that bed next to him right now. The way she was feeling...

Sighing, Ward cuddled down under the covers. He appreciated Rose's concern, but this was a volatile situation. Could they ever go back to the way things had been after sleeping together? Even if nothing happened, it was still sure to change things. Still, things couldn't continue the way they had been, either. He thought he could sense a subtle change in Rose's attitude towards him, but his mind was too foggy with fatigue that he couldn't even begin to figure it out now.
There were many times in the last couple of days that he had longed to be in this bed, but he hadn't imagined it being this way. In his dreams he had imagined himself telling Rose of his love for her and her throwing her arms around him and telling him she felt the same way.
Well, she had certainly thrown her arms around him, but dealing with her sobs was not part of his fantasy. Nor was having her order him to bed as though he were a child. If he were a betting man, he'd wager she'd sit up all night in that chair by the fire just so she wouldn't have to share his bed.
He considered going to her now and telling her how he felt, but his eyes were already becoming heavy, his body succumbing to its ordeal. Besides, she had offered to share the bed with him, nothing more.

Before long, Rose could hear Ward's soft snores. The poor man was exhausted. The doll lay forgotten on her lap as she watched him sleep.
Getting up, she crossed to his side and stood observing him, her eyes tender with the love she felt. Reaching out, she pushed the dark hair from his forehead, bending and placing a kiss there.
He was definitely out. Nothing, including an earthquake, would wake him now. Feeling safe, she changed into her own nightclothes and blowing out the lamp, crawled into bed next to him.
For a long time she lay tense, listening to him breathe. Finally, she was able to relax and turning, she curled herself against his side, determined to share with him her body heat. The fear of pneumonia was never far from her mind.
Eventually, with an exhausted sigh, she too succumbed to sleep.

A thumping on the door brought them both wide awake. Ward tried to scramble across Rose just as she was trying to get out of the bed. They wound up in a tangle of arms and legs. Ward propped himself up with his arms and gazed down into Rose's still sleep-laden eyes. A smile tugged at his lips and before they knew it, both were filled with paroxysms of mirth.
He quickly kissed her lips before climbing from the bed and opening the door a crack.
"Morning, Ward." Adam's voice sounded loud and clear in the bright morning sunlight slitting through the opened door. "Sorry I'm late, but there are some pretty big drifts out here."
Surprised, Ward hastened to assure him. I'll be right with you."
Rose hustled out of bed once the door was closed.
"You can't go out today! You need to rest. Stay in bed." Sitting on the chair pulling on his boots, he threw her a wicked grin. "What are you suggesting, Mrs. Taylor?"
Her face colored hotly and she began stammering in her confusion. "I ... I didn't mean -"
Taking pity on her, he stood up and crossed to her side. "I was only teasing. I'll be back later. This should be our last load of logs and then we can start on the bedrooms."
The look he gave her was searching in its intensity, but Rose was too distraught to notice. Was he that anxious to have the bedrooms done that he would be willing to risk his health? Surely Adam would understand if he knew the situation. She lifted a hand to her temple, rubbing against a fast-approaching headache.
Bundling into his coat, Ward strode to the door. "See you later. I'll take care of the animals before I leave."
The door closed behind him.
For the next several hours Rose gave herself a good talking to. As she embroidered tiny even stitches to make the doll's mouth, she lectured herself on being a fool. When she began sewing scraps together to make a small quilt for the cradle, she admonished herself to be more careful to hide her feelings in the future.
It was only as she was sewing together some old pieces of leather for a musket case for Andrew that she stopped to think about that brief kiss this morning. She felt warmth creeping into her cheeks as she wondered what would have happened if Adam had not come this morning and they would have awakened on their own.
Was it possible that Ward might harbor some slight feeling for her? As impossible as it seemed, that little bud of hope refused to die. Such thoughts had her feeling as prickly as her pincushion by the time Ward was due home.
When Ward came in that evening, he carried a small tree he had brought from the river. "How's this for a Christmas tree?"
Rose's eyes lit up, and forgotten were those moments from this morning that had caused her such worry all day long. "Oh, Ward. What a great idea!"
He grinned back at her, tired lines radiating from his eyes. "It's the reason I insisted on going today. I wasn't sure when Id get another chance."
Rose frowned as she looked about the room. Although the room was large enough, there really was very little furniture and the tree was so small it would need to be situated on a table. If they used the table in the kitchen area, they would have no place to eat.
"I was thinking," Ward suggested, "that maybe I could bring in that table of yours from the barn. Since it's larger than this one, we could move this one to the corner for the tree and then use yours for eating. It will give us more eating room when the Comptons come for Christmas."
Gripping her hands together, Rose placed the nails from her two index fingers against her teeth. Squinting her eyes, she tried to "see" how things would look in her mind's eye. "That'll work."
They shifted the table to the corner and Rose f6und a bowl for the tree. Laying the tree on the floor, Ward took the bowl and headed for the door. "I'll get some dirt from the barn. Outside's too frozen. It would take me all day just to chip out enough dirt to fill this bowl."
When he came back, Rose helped him move the table and fix the small tree. They found themselves giggling like children when the determined thing tipped first one way and then another.
Finally, Ward leaned back sighing. "We need something to wrap around the base for support."
They both searched the cabin with their eyes. When Ward lifted an eyebrow at Rose, she just shrugged. "I don't know. What do you suggest?"
"I have some burlap in the barn. We could use that."
Rose wrinkled her nose. "I don't think so. The whole cabin would soon smell like the barn." She thought a minute and then her eyes lit up. "I know. Look in my trunk there by the bed. There's an old white blanket. We could use that, then it would look Eke snow."
Ward rummaged through the chest while Rose held the tree steady. It was a moment before Rose realized just how quiet the room had become. Turning to see where the problem lay, she found Ward holding her memory quilt across his lap. His eyes went to hers.
"This is beautiful. Why don't you use it?"
The color that had drained from her face now came rushing back. She opened her mouth to explain, but no words would come.
Ward crossed the room to her side, the white blanket clutched in his hands. He handed it to her without comment. Together they wrapped it securely around the base of the little tree.
"That should hold it," Ward told her.
She agreed, and though it was nothing like the pine trees back home, still it would do. She stepped back to get the full effect, smiling her pleasure. Ward was such a thoughtful man. Why had she never seen that before?
"It looks great. I'll decorate it tomorrow."
Smiling, Ward told her, "I'll help."
Rose turned to him in surprise. "That's right, you're finished chopping trees. Aredt you and Adam going to start building tomorrow?"
The look he settled on her was disturbing in its intensity. "I'm in no hurry," he told her quietly.
Unsure what to make of his attitude, Rose decided to leave him to his own thoughts and go fix supper. Ward's fingers closed softly but inexorably around her wrist when she turned away. "Tell me about the quilt," he commanded softly. "It upset you to see it. Why?"
Rose's eyes met his and she found herself unable to look away. She began to tell him of the quilt without quite realizing what she was saying. His nearness was doing funny things to her insides.
When he suddenly released her, she felt curiously bereft. He returned to the chest and pulled the quilt from it. Laying it across the bed, he motioned for Rose to come to him. Reluctantly, she moved to his side.
Ward motioned to the spread. "Tell me about the material."
Uncertain as to his reasons for wanting to know, Rose still found herself telling him little stories about the various pieces. He laughed with her over her tales, and grew somber when she told him of the piece that was from the last dress her mother wore before she died.
He gently folded the covering and replaced it in its position in the chest. When he looked her way, his face was solemn. "Perhaps you will use it one day, perhaps not, but it's great that you have so many memories. What a unique way of making sure that those memories are around for a long time."
Ward was silent throughout supper, his thoughts far away. Rose assumed that in sharing her own memories, she had resurrected his own recollections of Elise. She picked at her own meal, pushing the stew around on her plate.
After washing the dishes, Rose decided to search through her things and see what she could use to decorate the tree. She hadn't much, but she had a lot of ingenuity.
Ward settled himself beside the fire to put the finishing touches to Andrew's gun. Although it wouldn't actually shoot, Rose knew the boy would be thrilled with it.
Taking out some scraps of material, Rose held them against the tree. Their bright colors added a bit of cheer to the drab interior. Yes, she would tie various colors of bows to the branches. That would be a start.
"Ward?"
"Hmm?"
Rose watched as he expertly smoothed the gun barrel with a piece of sandpaper.
"We don't have a gift for Alice and Adam."
He looked up at her then. "I'm sure they won't expect one." He went back to sanding. "If I'd thought about it, I would have picked up something in Yankton."
"Why did you go to Yankton?"
Without looking up he answered her. "I needed some supplies."
Rose had no idea what he could have possibly needed, but then she knew very little about the running of his farm. Shrugging, she sat down to cut some of her scraps into small enough strips to use as bows.
Although Ward said nothing, Rose could see the tired droop of his shoulders. He had battled a blizzard half the night and then rose at first light to go finish chopping logs for their cabin. It was obviously catching up with him, but for some reason he seemed reluctant to go to bed.
Rose put her things away and began to prepare herself for bed. After brushing her hair its required one hundred strokes, she crawled beneath the covers. Ward still sat next to the fire working on the gun.
"Aren't you coming?" Rose asked him.
She could see him swallow hard before shaking his head. "Not just yet. I'm almost finished here."
Rose lifted herself on one elbow. "Andrew will love that. And Alicia will love her cradle. You do beautiful work, Ward."
"Thanks."
The one clipped syllable brought a frown to Rose's face. Ward seemed almost like a stranger tonight. Cold. Aloof. Like he had been before their marriage.
Sliding back under the covers, Rose turned her back on him, feeling unreasonably hurt.
It was some time later before Ward banked the fire and prepared himself for bed. Rose pretended to be asleep, waiting to see if he would take up his pallet on the floor again. She thought she would die if he did, thinking that he would be rejecting what she had so shyly offered.
Ward blew out the lantern and Rose held her breath until suddenly she felt the bed dip as Ward climbed in beside her. He lay staring up at the ceiling for a long time before finally he rolled towards Rose's back.
Wrapping one strong arm around her waist, Ward pulled her back against his chest. He made no move to do anything else and Rose sighed with relief when after several moments she heard his even breathing. Feeling safe for the night, she allowed herself to relax back against his body and even in his sleep, he cuddled her close.
Goodness only knew how they were going to handle this situation in the morning.

Chapter 7

The morning light didn't penetrate the dingy interior of the cabin, so it was late when Rose opened her eyes. Sometime in the night she had curled herself into Ward's arms and now felt her face flame with color.
She made a move to get up, only to find herself pulled back and Ward's handsome face grinning down into her own.
"Where you going?"
"I ... I have to fix breakfast."
He shook his head slowly and a lone curl dropped tantalizingly down across his forehead. "Not yet. There's something we need to discuss."
Feeling her heart begin to pound, Rose swallowed hard. "What?"
Ward stared down into her blue eyes as he traced a finger across Rose's flaming cheek, his eyes dark and serious. "Rose, I think I'm in love with you."
He waited for her reaction, and a long moment passed as Rose tried to believe her ears.
"What ... what did you just say?" Her voice came out as little more than a croak.
"I said that I think I'm in love with you. I guess I have been for some time, only I didn't realize it."
Rose could only stare up at him, stunned into a lack of speech. Ward frowned.
"Well, say something."
I ... I think I love you, too."
The frown eased from his features. "You're not sure?"
"You're not, either?"
Ward hesitated. "I've only had one experience with love, Rose, and it was nothing like this. I'm beginning to believe there are different kinds of loving between a man and a woman."
Rose could only nod.
I want to be with you," he continued. "And when I'm not I find myself thinking about you. You're kind and loving, stubborn and proud. You make me feel ... strong."
Rose knew he was having trouble putting his thoughts into words. For Ward, actions would speak more loudly than any words he could ever hope to utter. She smiled in understanding and he kissed her softly on her lips.
The moment his lips touched hers, Rose felt all her doubts vanish. She would gladly give her life for this man, and she knew without any more uncertainties that she loved him with her entire being.
Wrapping her arms around his neck, she tried to show him of her love in the oldest way known to women.

Christmas day dawned bright and clear. Much of the snow had disappeared from the area, blown by the ever-present winds.
There was a spring in Rose's step as she set about making the cabin ready for their guests. She and Ward had spent the last several days getting to know one another better, and her love for him grew daily. She didn't think it was possible to love a man as much as she loved Ward. As they went about their duties, they found themselves eager to be together, to touch.
Ward had been hunting and had brought home a deer for their Christmas dinner. Now it roasted over the open fire as Rose prepared the vegetables.
Ward came in the door, his eyes searching for and quickly finding Rose. Setting down the crate that he carried, he smiled and held out his hand to her and she quickly went to him. He wrapped his arms about her and kissed her lightly on her nose.
"Before company gets here, I have something for you. A Christmas present."
Surprised, Rose could only stammer. "You shouldn't have. Oh, Ward, I didn't get you anything."
"You've given me the greatest gift a man could ask for. Your love."
Rose wrapped her arms around his neck and smiled. "You say the nicest things."
His return smile was wry. "Not always."
Rose's eyes began to glow. "What do you have for me~'
"You mean besides me?"
"Ward!"
He grinned, turning her loose so that he could lift the crate and carry it to the table. Using his hammer, he pried the top from the box and then moved aside so Rose could see what was inside.
Pushing back the paper, Rose found the crate filled with books. Her eyes grew wide with excitement. "Oh, Ward!"
She pulled out the first book and turned it gently in her hands. "Charles Dickens. I love Dickens! How did you know?"
"I think you can just about recite A Christmas Carol. I thought you might like something else."
"I've never read The Cricket on the Hearth, though I have heard of it." She rummaged in the crate again. "Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. You should like that," she told him.
"I will if you read it to me."
Rose wrinkled her nose at him, but her attention was more on the jewels she was uncovering in the crate. Not since her move from the city had she seen so many books. She pulled the last one from the box and set it with the others. "I heard about Louisa May Alcott before we left Boston. I don't know where you were able to find all of these books, but I thank you with all of my heart."
Ward wrapped her back in his arms. "You're welcome. Now thank me properly."
Grinning, Rose reached up and kissed his chin.
Ward shook his head. "Nope, that won't do it."
Reaching up again, Rose kissed his cheek.
He shook his head again. "Nope. Wrong again. I guess I'll just have to take the books back."
Rose tried to push away. "Never!"
One dark eyebrow Winged its way upward. "I'm waiting, then."
Rose sighed. "Well, if I must," she teased.
She would have given him a peck on the lips, but Ward captured her lips with his own and suddenly, all humor fled for Rose. She kissed him back with abandon, wondering at herself and her ability to lose her restraint with a man that just a few short weeks ago she hadn't even thought she liked.
Ward finally pulled away, his voice husky. "Enjoy your present, Rose. I'm glad it pleases you."
He took the now empty crate and made his way back outside to break it into kindling for the fire.
Rose picked up the copy of Little Women and hugged it to her, her eyes sparkling. What a wonderful gift. If only she had something as nice to give Alice.
She went to her chest and rummaged through it, sighing when she found nothing suitable to give as a gift. Her eyes lighted on the quilt, and she rubbed the cover softly, thinking how happy her papa and mama would be for her.
With a determined sparkle in her eye, Rose quickly pulled the quilt from the trunk holding it up to the light. Firmly, she blanked her mind and refused the memories access as they tried to rush upon her.
She took the paper that the books had been wrapped in and some string, and quickly wrapped the quilt and placed it with the other gifts under the tree.
If only she had something she could give Ward. Remembering how he said he was happy with her love brought a flush to her face. Next year, maybe she could give Ward a son. The thought pleased her.
The Comptons arrived shortly thereafter. The children oohed and aahed over the tree, their eyes growing large at the sight of the presents under it.
Rose exclaimed over Alicia and Andrew's coats. Alice's face flooded with color. "I hope you don't mind, Rose," she stated quietly. "The coat you brought for Andrew was too big for him, so I took it and made it into two, one for Andrew and one for Alicia."
"What a good idea. And you've done it so beautifully. You must be a wonderful seamstress."
Alice shrugged, her head ducked shyly.
After everyone was in the cabin it suddenly seemed a lot smaller, but no one seemed to mind. Children and adults alike were willing to overlook the cramped confines of the small structure just for the joy of being together.
It was a happy time for everyone. The roast deer was devoured and pronounced a success. Squash, potatoes, corn cakes, boiled eggs, cake, and pie were consumed until everyone declared they hadn't feasted so well in years.
Ward announced that it was time for everyone to open their gifts, and Rose could see how relieved Alice was that she had been able to contribute. She handed Rose a small package wrapped in brown wrap.
"Oh, Alice. You shouldn't have."
Alice's face filled with color and she dipped her head shyly. "It's not much."
Rose exclaimed over the beauty of the fine stitching Alice had used to turn an old sheet into a beautiful tablecloth.
Ward handed the twins their presents and with a small smile watched them rip them open.
Alicia squealed with delight. "A baby! A baby, Mommy! Look!"
Adam's eyes found Rose's and in their shimmering brown depths she read his thanks.
"Wow!" Andrew pealed. "A gun! My very own gun!"
"I hope it's all right?" Ward questioned Alice.
She only nodded, her own eyes glimmering with unshed tears.
Finally, Rose handed her package to Alice. "For you and Adam."
Ward glanced at Rose in surprise., watching as Alice unwrapped her gift. Alice sucked in her breath, her eyes going wide. She pulled the quilt from its wrap and Ward quickly rose to his feet, his protest checked on his lips.
The tears in Rose's eyes matched those of the other woman as both embraced. "Oh, thank you, Rose. It's beautiful. Thank you so much."
The rest of the day was pleasant and Rose watched the Comptons climb into their wagon with a warm feeling of having done what was right. Papa would have wanted her to do just what she had done.
After their guests drove away, Ward followed Rose into the cabin. He pulled her gently into his arms. "Why did you do it?"
She sniffled into his chest. "Papa would have wanted it. The quilt was doing no one any good sitting in that chest. The Comptons needed it."
Ward rested his chin on her head, staring at the ceiling. "But your memories."
"I'll always have my memories," she told him. "And with you, I'll start to make new memories."
Ward sighed and Rose finally pulled away.
"Can we read the Christmas story now? That was always my favorite part of Christmas with Papa, when he would read the Christmas story from the Bible."
She handed Ward her Bible and waited while he settled himself in his chair. She curled at his feet prepared to listen.
At first, Ward's voice came out hesitantly, but as the story progressed it grew stronger with the feelings the story inspired. Rose wiped the tears from her eyes when he finished.
"I never get tired of hearing it. How God sent His only Son to die for people who openly mocked and ridiculed Him."
Ward was quiet for a long while. "He did it for the same reasons you gave the Comptons your special quilt. They needed it, and He loved them enough to sacrifice that which was most precious to Him. That's what makes a true sacrifice."
Rose climbed up onto Ward's lap, laying her head on his shoulder.
Ward's voice was husky when he nuzzled her car. "Just like you gave me a gift of your love, so God gave us a gift of His love. I've forgotten that. I've lived my life the last several years without Him, but not anymore."
He pulled her face back so he could look into her eyes. "When I saw the sacrifice you were willing to make, knowing how much that quilt meant to you, I wanted so much to say something. To take it back. But it wasn't mine to deny."
"Just like sometimes I wish I could take back God's sacrifice. Make it never have happened. But then, the world would have been condemned to an eternity without God. I can't imagine a life without God," Rose told him.
"I can't imagine a life without you," Ward answered back.
Rose sighed. "I am so thankful that God brought you into my life."
"That makes two of us, because if not for your unshakable faith, I don't know if I would have ever realized just how much I needed God. How much I needed you. I've been selfish."
He kissed her with all of the love stored in his heart and Rose returned the kiss in kind. For a long time the only sound in the cabin was the soft murmuring of words of love.
Later, Rose went with Ward to feed the animals. A million shimmering lights glimmered from the dark sky above. As they watched, hand in hand, a shooting star left a fiery path across the sky and disappeared in an instant.
Just like that star so long ago had led the wise men to the Savior, so God had led Ward and Rose to each other.
Rose continued to stare at the night sky. She had found unexpected happiness after adversity. She had lost one precious man, and found another. She smiled slowly and Ward had to bend dose to hear her say, "Thank You, Father. Thank you, Papa."