A Patchwork Family

Angels of Mercy, Book 1

Meet Mercy Malloy. No matter what she does, God’s love fills her life. So when two orphaned children appear on her doorstep, she hesitates only a moment before opening her heart and her home to them. Perhaps this is the Lord’s way of sending her and Judd the babies they’ve prayed for. Out on the Kansas plains the years bring hardship and heartache—Indian attacks, a runaway daughter, an abandoned baby in a basket—but also precious new life and the unlooked for joy of a surprise love. Through it all, Mercy’s faith holds her family together, creating a patchwork of strength and beauty.

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Montlake Romance
June 21, 2005
ISBN-13: 9781477806197
ISBN-10: 1477806199

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Chapter One

“Stagecoach a-comin’! Stagecoach a-comin’!”

At the sound of Asa’s spirited cry, Mercedes Monroe stepped out of her steamy kitchen to witness the event that never ceased to amaze her. In the distance, a cloud of dust hovered above the Kansas prairie, creeping closer, until she could just make out the boxy shape of the coach and the rumbling of the horses’ hooves. The driver, Mike Malloy, had a flair for showmanship, so he always urged his team into a final dash before he brought his passengers to a spectacular stop at their door.

Mercy had no more time to watch him, however. In minutes, her front room would be filled with peevish, ravenous passengers jostling for seats around the long trestle table set for their dinner.

She rolled her calico sleeves higher above her elbows and dished up food from pots on her cookstove. Today she was serving sausages, which had split their casings to season fresh cabbage wedges floating in fragrant broth. Three prairie chickens, browned to perfection, fell quickly into serving pieces as she wielded her knife. As Mercy carried these platters to the table, she heard her husband Judd instructing the two colored hands.
“Be quick about trading those teams, now—but check the wagon axles and harness leather, too! If stages break down, or word gets out that we provide poor horseflesh, we’re out of business.”

Mercy smiled. Judd’s warning was more to inspire Nathaniel and Asa than to express real concern: his reputation on the Holladay stage route remained solid because he raised the sturdy Morgans the drivers depended upon—and because his wife served up the best meals between Atchison and Denver. Mr. Holladay had told her so himself.

She checked the sideboard, where five apple pies waited alongside baskets of fresh cornbread. Coffeepots and pitchers of lemonade sat on the table, with butter and peach preserves she’d made last fall. They collected a dollar and a half for each meal–more, when well-heeled passengers were favorably impressed—so Mercy proudly presented her morning’s efforts as her part in supporting Judd’s ranch.

As she carried out bowls of corn pudding and gravy, the stage pulled to a halt out front. Malloy’s jubilant cry of, “Whoa, there! Easy does it, now! Everybody out!” rang around the yard, and as the dust settled, Asa rushed to open the stage door. Three stalwart young men who’d ridden atop the coach clambered down like monkeys, but passengers who’d been cramped inside for the past few hours accepted Judd’s help.

“The basins and privies are that way,” he announced, gesturing toward the side of the house. “And if the aroma’s any indication, my wife’s cooked up a fine spread. Please hand her your money as you go inside.”

Mercy opened the door, smiling at the assortment of humanity headed toward the wash basins. The young bachelors would each devour enough for three people—probably westward bound, to seek their fortunes in California. Two enormous matrons, apparently sisters, would criticize every bite, yet slip the last of the cornbread into their skirt pockets if they saw the chance.

Others walked stiffly to the privies, and then Mercy’s gaze riveted on the last two to disembark, a girl of perhaps twelve and her younger brother. Both sported flame-red hair and dusty, worried faces. Malloy spoke to them with a kind smile, pointing toward the basins. Then he took Judd aside.

Mercy frowned. Something was amiss with these children. Passengers were now greeting her, however, so she welcomed them and took their money. When one of the young men speared a sausage before his backside had even met the bench, she cleared her throat.

“Excuse me, sir!” she called out, “but in this house, we wait for everyone to be seated and the food to be blessed. Otherwise, the women and children wouldn’t have a fair chance at it, would they?”

His dark eyes challenged hers, but he dropped the meat fork.

“Thank you,” she replied graciously. “And I’d be obliged if you gentlemen would pour the coffee and lemonade. Those who arrive first must be the servants of all, you see.”

The young man gaped at her, until his cohorts snickered and reached for the pitchers. The other passengers had washed and were urging those in front of them to be seated quickly, so they could maintain the coach’s schedule. Again her eyes were drawn to the two children, who fidgeted in front of Mike Malloy as though they would rather have remained in the coach.

“I hope you like chicken and cornbread and apple pie,” Mercy said to entice them. She longed for the day when children of her own would sit around their table, so she always greeted young travelers with enthusiasm.

This pair, however, seemed anything but happy to be here. The girl turned her slender face away as though she were tongue-tied, while her brother glanced doubtfully up at Mike and Judd.

“Eat up, kids,” their driver encouraged. “Those two places on the end’ll be fine, and I’ll cover your tab. Mr. and Mrs. Monroe wouldn’t let anybody go hungry, believe me.”

Mercy shot her husband a questioning glance as Mike guided the two redheads to the table. Judd brushed his black hair back from blue eyes that caught hers in a serious gaze. “After grace, Malloy wants to talk. I’m not sure what it’s about, but by the looks of his two charges, we’d better be ready for anything.”

What on earth did he mean by that? Her heart lurched in her chest, and the brief caress of his calloused hand did nothing to quell the uproar inside her.

Mercy stole another look at the waifs who perched nervously on the wooden bench. Like the others, they were caked with the grit that drifted though the coach windows onto their sweaty clothes. The girl’s dress was taffeta, but a size too small. The boy’s shirt was patched, and the seat of his britches shone slick from wear.

“Shall we return thanks?” Judd invited in his low, steady voice. He stood with his hands clasped at the end of the table. “Dear Lord, for the privilege and opportunity of another day, we thank Thee—”

Mercy peered through the slits of her eyelids. The children sat with their heads bowed, as though accustomed to prayer at home. The boy kicked his legs back and forth, a sign that he was never still.

“—ask Your blessing upon those around this table, who journey to new horizons and—”

Where were these two bound? And why did they appear to be running from something, instead of to the new opportunities Judd mentioned in his prayers? Mercy shifted, eager for the blessing to be over so she could hear Mike’s answers to the questions whirling in her head.

“—for we ask these things in the name of Your Son, the giver of life and salvation. Amen.”

The clatter of forks filled the room as passengers stabbed the biggest pieces of meat before passing the platters. It had taken most of her morning to prepare this food, so it seemed a pity these folks had to eat so fast. In about ten minutes, she would be left with only crumbs and grease and a mountain of dirty dishes.
Malloy nodded toward the door and the three of them stepped outside. The hot breeze offered relief from the close quarters of the front room, yet Mercy felt herself growing warmer, bursting with curiosity.

Ordinarily, Michael Malloy was an outgoing young man who swaggered in with their mail—because Judd was the postmaster for these parts—and news from around Dickinson County. Today, however, his hazel eyes carried a much more serious message. He stroked his sandy mustache as they stopped a few yards from the house.

“This is a mighty big favor to ask,” he began, looking from Mercy to her husband, “and a tough decision to make in a matter of minutes. Those kids were abandoned by their ma, back in Leavenworth. Billy says she rode off in a surrey, with a man in a checkered suit, while he and Christine used the privy.”

“How could a mother do that?” Mercy blurted.

Draping his arm around her shoulders, Judd leaned into the conversation. “And how could they have come this far west without her? Why were they even allowed to board the stage after she left?”

“That was my question.” Malloy slapped his dusty hat against his thigh in disgust. “They say the driver was taking on mail and loading luggage, so he didn’t notice anything unusual. Billy caught sight of the surrey as it was hurrying down a side street, and by the time Christine came out of the privy, their ma was long gone.

“I’m thinking Mrs. Bristol arranged all this beforehand,” he continued in a low voice. “Folks in Missouri are desperate these days, but not even a destitute woman would disappear with a total stranger. The father died in a skirmish with a group called the Border Ruffians, after the War. They have no kin left in Richmond, and the kids’ fares are paid through to Denver.’

“Maybe she plans to meet them there,’ Mercy piped up.

Judd looked doubtful. “Sounds to me like the man in the suit paid their fares to get rid of them. They’d be excess baggage to the sort who’d meet a woman on the sly.”

“That’s my guess,” the wiry driver agreed, “and I’m betting he paid that express office manager—and maybe the driver—to look the other way. Any man with a conscience would’ve chased that surrey down or kept the kids himself, until their ma was found. But the War’s changed things.”

Judd pondered the story for a moment, glancing toward the house. “So they’ve ridden nearly two hundred miles, and nobody’s taken them in?’

“I—I was hoping you folks would,” Michael said urgently. “The Barstows don’t have the room, but since you were kind enough to take Asa and Nathaniel under your wing, I thought maybe—”

“I don’t believe what I’m hearing.” Sweat dribbled down Mercy’s spine, but the summer heat was nothing, compared to the apprehension that made her cheeks prickle. The story was so sketchy. So many questions would probably never be answered about these children and their wayward mother. “Judd and I really need to talk about this. We—”

“Of course you do,” Malloy said. “I’m hoping it’ll be a temporary situation. When the next driver out of Leavenworth heard about this, he sent word along the stage line, and to the authorities there, hoping somebody might catch sight of Mrs. Bristol and her gentleman friend.”

“But if they don’t leave town, or if they go east, they’re not likely to be found,” Judd speculated.

The driver nodded. “I also sent a message back to Richmond, to see if any neighbors might take the kids. Might be a few days before we hear back, though.”

“If you do,” Mercy mumbled. She glanced over her shoulder, hoping the adults were seeing that the children ate enough. Mike’s story explained their worn clothing and haunted expressions, but how could she and Judd assume such a responsibility on such short notice?

“You folks talk it over,” Malloy suggested quietly. “Don’t mean to rush you, but those two old biddies’ve been pestering me about meeting their connecting stage in Denver. So the sooner I eat and leave, the sooner another driver gets the pleasure of their company!”

A smile withered on Mercy’s lips as he hurried toward the house and whatever scraps might be left. As though sensing they’d be heard from the front window, Judd steered her toward the back of the house. The two hired men were now leading a fresh team of Morgans toward the stagecoach, but the animals’ beauty was lost on her.

“How can he expect us to—it’s one thing to take on two colored hands who keep the ranch running—no matter how the neighbors object,” Mercy muttered. “But two children! What if their mother never comes for them?”

“That’s a distinct possibility,” her husband said with a sigh. “But where else can Billy and Christine go? What a horrible sight it must’ve been for that boy, to watch his mother take off. To realize she’d planned to leave them.”

Mercedes swallowed hard. Judd was calling them by name, worrying about them, as though he sincerely cared about their welfare. She did, too, of course. But a man never considered the extra cooking, the laundry and sewing, the emotional investment these poor vagabonds would require. It was work she would take on in addition to picking and preserving their vegetables, and preparing for the stage passengers, and—

“They could be a big help, you know,’ Judd said quietly. “The girl’s old enough to assume duties in the kitchen, or—”

“Or to make more work, if she’s mad at her mother. What if they don’t want to stay? They’ll be nothing but trouble!”

Judd frowned. “It’s not like you to be so uncharitable, Mercy. They’re casualties of the War, and if solid folks like us don’t open our homes, how far will they have to go? The streets of Denver are no place for them to end up.”

“So you’ve already decided? What about our children, Judd?”

He rested his hands on her shoulders, sensing the real issue had surfaced now. Tendrils of Mercy’s chestnut hair had worked loose and were clinging to the sides of her damp face; her huge brown eyes shone with unshed tears as she gazed up with a challenging yet tremulous expression. Six years of an otherwise satisfying marriage had brought them no babies, and the subject was becoming difficult to discuss. She wanted children so badly. And he understood why a woman would prefer to raise her own, rather than taking another mother’s cast-offs.

But there was no time to repeat the reassurances he comforted her with when she lay awake at night, wondering why God hadn’t granted her fondest wish. The stage left in five minutes. He had to make her see reason without upsetting her further, or those two kids would ride on to more rejections instead of finding the home he felt so compelled to give them.

Judd brushed her cheek with a kiss. “What does the Lord require of us, Mercedes?” he whispered.

She focused on the top button of his shirt. The verse from Micah was as familiar as her own home, for she’d stitched it into a sampler that hung in the front room. Still, her husband was evading the issue! Quoting Scripture, rather than caring how she felt about a decision that would alter their lives so suddenly. So drastically.

“To seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God,” he replied softly. He pulled her closer so she couldn’t wiggle out of this conversation. “Now—I already love Mercy more than life itself, more than I ever dreamed possible when I married her. And Lord knows you’ve had to walk humbly, since you left your family to homestead out here, for me.

“But where’s the justice for these children, if we don’t help them? Malloy’s done all he can to find their mother. Maybe God’s chosen us to be their caretakers, knowing what a very special, loving woman you are. Knowing that we feed the hungry and clothe the naked—like we did Nathaniel and Asa—rather than just giving lip service to our faith.”

Why did Judd have to be so eloquent, and so absolutely right? Why did her own selfish wishes—her already busy life—seem more important than the welfare of children who’d done nothing to deserve abandonment?

Still, there was only so much time and love to go around. Wasn’t there?

The scraping of benches against the floor signaled the end of the meal. Mercy’s heart pounded, torn between what she wanted and what she ought to do. She turned toward the open back door to see a taffeta flounce and a dusty red braid disappear into the kitchen.

“That little—she was eavesdropping!”

“In her situation, wouldn’t you?” Judd teased.

He knew not to press for an answer, knew his wife needed a few moments to make this difficult decision. As the wind whipped her faded blue dress around her slender frame, Judd wondered if Mercy ever regretted marrying him, and he wished he could provide the comforts she’d been accustomed to in Philadelphia. Life on the plains was difficult, and he prayed he hadn’t asked more of his loyal, compassionate woman than she could agree to this time.

He entered the kitchen a few steps behind her, hoping the wrong words or gestures wouldn’t dissuade her. Judd had felt responsible for Billy and Christine the moment he heard their story—and so had his wife. Yet she wavered for very human, very understandable reasons.

And if Mercedes said no, he wouldn’t argue. A man was the head of his household, but out here where the endless days of drudgery made a wife an equal partner, Judd knew not to push too far. He couldn’t possibly manage this ranch and the way station alone.

He heard voices heading out the front door, eager to press on now that appetites were satisfied. When a small, red-headed figure appeared in the kitchen doorway, Judd held his breath. The boy’s question was written all over his face. So young he was, to beg for the home and affection that should’ve been his birthright.

Mercy stood near the stove, looking down at the dusty, bedraggled stranger. Her back remained gracefully straight, but the loose knot of hair at her nape quivered with her indecision. Judd wanted to smile at the boy from over her shoulder, to say something encouraging. But this moment and this choice belonged to the woman he loved.

Billy Bristol glanced at the departing passengers behind him, curling the brim of his hat in his hands. His sister lingered in the front room, pretending to study the stitched samplers on the wall. The house was so quiet that when the boy cleared his throat, the sound filled the little kitchen, amplifying the tensions he’d caused a dozen times in the past two hundred miles.

“I—that was the best dang pie, Mrs. Monroe! And since there ain’t but two pieces left, I was wonderin’ if I could wrap ‘em up for me and my sister,” he said in a tumble of words. “We don’t know how far it might be before—before we set down to another feed like you fixed us.”

Mercy stifled a sob. What a brave young man, to think ahead and provide for his sister! She crouched to get a better look at him, realizing that he might be small for his age. Billy focused eyes the color of cornflowers on her, eyes that blazed with his determination not to cry. His gritty face, lined with a telltale track on each cheek, gave only a hint of the agony he must’ve felt since he saw that surrey whisking his mother away.

“Judd and the hands and I haven’t eaten our dinner yet,’ she said in a tight voice. “So maybe—”

“Oh.’ He let out a forlorn sigh. “Guess you’ll be needin’ that pie, then. We better be gettin’ back onto the—”

“So maybe you can sit and talk to us while we eat,’ she heard herself continue. Her hands went to his shoulders, and for this boy her heart found the words she couldn’t give to Judd. “I always save our share back…and the pie on this windowsill is peach. So if you and your sister want to stay with us awhile, there’ll be plenty to go around, Billy.”

His mouth dropped open. “You mean it?”

She nodded, blinking rapidly, feeling Judd’s strength and approval as he stepped up beside her.

“We’ve got tickets to keep going—clear to Denver,” Christine challenged from the other room. “So it’s not like we have to stay.

“No, but we’d like you to,” Judd replied firmly. He smiled at her, respecting the fear behind her defiant pride. “If you’d rather ride another four hundred miles with those two old ladies, though…I bet they snore something awful, and take up an entire seat.”

Christine giggled nervously. And when she realized her arduous ride could be over, she ran through the door, hollering. “Mr. Malloy, wait! We need our trunks!”

“I gotta go help!” Billy rasped. He wiggled out of Mercy’s grasp, his voice joining his sister’s outside.

“You certainly have a way with women, Judd Monroe.”

Mercy rose on shaky legs. Her husband’s arm steadied her, and his lingering kiss spoke of a love come down from God, a love she would have to trust more completely in the days ahead. Not since she’d left her family and friends out East had she made a decision that scared her this way.

In the time it took to eat a meal, their four lives had changed forever.

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