MEET JAMES, a tough Mountie who’s protecting a little baby during the Christmas season, and Maggie, a onetime love who’s determined to help.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Dawson City, Yukon
December 19, 1899
Even from a distance too far to see his face, Maggie Greerson knew who he was, and he was putting himself in danger.
She peered out from her storefront window. Beneath the colorful northern lights that painted the evening sky, Maggie recognized the swivel of the broad shoulders beneath the ten-pound, buffalo-fur coat, and the sheer strength of him as he gripped the lines of his husky dogs and urged his dogsled team to go faster. He was out in a coming storm when everyone else in town was waiting for it to pass. Even the northern lights were getting dimmer as the wind picked up and the storm clouds rolled in.
James Fielder of the North-West Mounted Police.
James was so different from her—he thrived on danger and always sought solitude, while Maggie did everything she could to stay safely inside, and surrounded herself with family and friends.
“Look at that.” Maggie’s nine-year-old niece, Rebecca, pointed out the window of Maggie’s store, the Spice Shop, toward James. The little girl stood on a wooden crate beside Maggie, peeling orange rinds for the citron basket. “It’s Saint Nicholas from the North Pole. He’s bringin’ Christmas gifts.”
“No, darling, it’s much too early for Saint Nicholas. He’ll be here in a few more days.”
That made Rebecca smile wide, revealing a pretty mix of new and missing teeth.
It was near closing time and Maggie rushed to finish. Up until this point, it had been a wonderfully busy day. So busy that Maggie hadn’t had a chance to stop and think about what was lacking in her life. But sooner or later, this time of year always brought out those sentiments.
Behind them, Maggie’s sister, Tamara, their aging mother and four other nieces and nephews were rehearsing for Maggie’s busiest day of the year—December twenty-fourth. The children were laughing and singing, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Maggie was looking forward to the twenty-fourth, when she’d have carolers in her store and mulled wine for the shoppers. They’d all pitch in to make charity boxes filled with food and firewood for the poorer families in the valley.
Maggie hummed along to the children’s voices. Surrounded by customers and the fragrance of cinnamon sticks she was arranging at the front windows, she peered into the snowy horizon. Ice, a quarter-inch thick, glazed the bottom lip of the windowpanes while a crackling fire inside kept everyone warm.
James appeared as a distant blur on the dark, windswept horizon. Moving along the bank of the river, cradled by the hills, he was a lone man racing behind his dogsled team.
Maggie often saw him dashing across the countryside. Now, as the dog team plodded closer and he loomed larger, she could see him pressing a gloved hand beneath a bulge in his fur coat. What was he carrying? Then he disappeared again in the black night, as the clouds obscured the northern lights that were illuminating him.
He’d probably been ice fishing or checking his traps or a dozen other reckless things that could have waited.
Maggie tapped affectionately at one of Rebecca’s blond pigtails and tried to get into the spirit of ten lords a-leaping. “That’s Sergeant Fielder,” Maggie explained.
“I guess he’s going to the outpost.”
“That’s likely right.”
The Spice Shop sat square in the middle of town, nestled between the other stores. Between the buildings across the street, Maggie had a view of the open field and the athletic Mountie. The mounted police dealt with all sorts of problems related to the gold rush, as well as the lumber camps farther north. It would take several more minutes for James to pass the shops on his way to the Mountie outpost.
It was difficult to watch him without thinking about the past, so Maggie went back to rearranging cinnamon sticks. She wiped her hands on her apron and shook the bowl of citron peels.
“Rebecca, you did a wonderful job with this orange peel. Would you please help your mother at the till, wrapping the packages, while I measure peppercorns?”
As slender as a stalk of growing corn, Rebecca gave a wide smile and tore off while James barged back into Maggie’s thoughts. Five years ago when she knew him in Calgary, on an afternoon as windy and stormy as this, he had laughingly sung her this very song, and then unexpectedly at five gold rings and four calling birds, he’d lowered his face and brushed his lips across hers.
It had lasted right through to the partridge in the pear tree.
But at that time she was involved with another man, soon to be engaged, and James had quickly backed away.
After that, he enlisted with the Mounties and trained in Edmonton. He’d only recently made it to the Klondike and had been surprised that she and her family had arrived here two years prior.
He had a nice singing voice, she recalled.
She tingled at the recollection of his kiss. Swallowing firmly, she slowly raised her chin to glance outside. His looks hadn’t changed much these past five years. He was still as dark from the wind and sun, his black hair as thick as it had ever been, his jaw as resolute. He looked taller as he raced along the snow, but maybe it was because of his big boots and his massive proportion to the dogsled.
With a clap to her apron, Maggie walked behind the counter just as Mr. Thornbottom, owner of the rope and broom shop, burst in. His long white ponytail was damp from the blowing snow.
“My wife sent me for coffee beans.” Mr. Thornbottom removed his peak cap and dusted off the snow. “Hope you have some left, Maggie.”
“Right here, Mr. Thornbottom.” She measured out his usual half-a-pound.
He glanced over to Rebecca. “Are you sure you should be letting the little one handle the vegetable peeler, Maggie? It’s sharp.”
“Absolutely.” The aroma of coffee beans filtered through the air as Maggie packed them into a small burlap sack. “Rebecca’s been handling it for a year now. Last year, she was cooking over that fire to help me fill my applesauce orders, and the year before, she could handle a knife to chop walnuts. You know, she’s been with me for the whole two years, and I don’t know what I’d do without my little nugget.”
“But the child…”
“She’s flourished with you here, Maggie. That’s all I meant to say. Merry Christmas to you all.”
The gentle words of praise brought a flush of comfort to Maggie. Mr. Thornbottom tipped his hat, paid at the other counter where Maggie’s mother served him and left the shop. Every year for the busy month of December, Maggie hired her family to help in the store. She loved their company and they loved helping. She smiled as her sister, Tamara—Rebecca’s mother—held up the kissing ball she was making.
It was made with two barrel hoops looped one inside the other and covered with evergreen branches and mistletoe. Tamara had been in charge of mistletoe at dances and get-togethers ever since Maggie could remember, and she was assembling this one for the twenty-fourth. It always caused laughter and excitement in the store, from adolescents to grandparents.
Tamara was also seven months along, her skin as smooth as a ripe plum. She already had five children, so this would be her sixth.
The bell above the door tingled again, and in burst Mr. Thornbottom’s married daughter, Milly, three months along with her pregnancy. Following beside her was her cousin, Evie, and her four-month-old son bundled up in furs. You could tell that Evie and Milly were related by their pretty looks and long, dark hair.
“Oh, he’s growing so quickly,” Maggie said as she smiled at the pink little babe.
Evie beamed. “We’re trying to get home before the storm hits. We closed the dress and hat shop early. I hope Luke did the same with his veterinary office. I’ll have some peppermint leaves and cinnamon cloves, please.”
“Coming right up, Evie. You just missed your father, Milly.”
“Was he in for his favorite coffee beans? Nothing could keep him and my mother from your coffee in the morning.”
Maggie smiled. “It was indeed the beans. Milly, can I get you anything?”
Milly looked pale. “Do you have anything for morning sickness?”
“Oh, is it that bad? I’m afraid I don’t have anything specific. I have some mild herbal tea that might settle your tummy before bed, and let you sleep longer.”
“That would be heavenly. Weston rubs my sore feet before bed and it helps me sleep for a few hours. But honestly, I’m getting up several times a night.”
Maggie cheerfully served her friends and couldn’t help but notice all of the babies around her. The whole world was full of children, but she and Sheldon hadn’t been married long enough to have any. Would she ever be blessed with a baby?
Even though she and Sheldon had been childless, thought Maggie, pushing back the blond hair that had fallen loose from her braid, that was no reason to settle for just any other man to replace him. Her sister and mother kept pressuring her, though.
Maybe Maggie didn’t have children of her own, but she had her sister’s little ones to love, and friends like Milly and Evie who were raising theirs.
“Thanks, Maggie,” said Evie, bundling up her little son again. “Let’s have lunch after the holidays when you’re not too busy. I’d like to serve you for a change.”
“Oh,” said Maggie with a smile. “That would be nice. I’ll get the door for you.” She braced her shoulder to the pine slab. “Fare well through the blizzard.” Maggie opened the door a crack and was nearly propelled backward by the onslaught of wind.
“Who on earth is that?” Evie bundled up her baby and held him firmly to her chest. “Sergeant Fielder?”
“I—I think so.” Maggie heard the huskies barking softly in the distance.
“I wonder what he’s got under his coat,” said Milly. “He keeps checking on it.” Milly wrapped her woolen scarf around her hat and throat. The two cousins left, and Maggie closed the door, but other customers had heard their comments and rushed to the windows.
“Look. He just passed the cutoff for the outpost, which means he’s heading this way instead,” someone said.
Maggie’s breath caught in her throat. She slid to the window to watch, peering over the shorter heads into the dark shadows of the evening. The Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, had shifted again from purple to green and she stood in awe at their beautiful streaks across the sky. The Yukon was deep into the winter, and although the sun never rose at this time of year, the skies made up for it at times with spectacular displays. Although now with the blizzard coming in spurts, the stars and lights would disappear behind the clouds and make it pitch-black outside.
James was still far away. His huskies, ranging in color from pure white to gray and speckled, pulled the sled across an icy patch. He was moving very slowly, as if exhausted.
If he was headed to her store, what could he possibly want? He had all the food he needed at the outpost and never bought from her. The last time they’d spoken had been three months ago when they’d accidentally come across each other on the boardwalk. He had softly offered condolences on her husband’s unexpected death three years earlier. The complete kidney failure had come suddenly, Maggie had told him. Even though Sheldon had been ailing for a year, his death was a shock.
Maggie straightened the button on her lace blouse. “Sergeant Fielder’s probably headed to the tinsmith next door.”
“Maybe he needs something for his sled,” offered one of the boys.
“But what’s he got under his fur coat?” asked one of the girls.
“Maybe he caught a fish.”
“He wouldn’t be carryin’ it under his coat.”
Their mother, Tamara, spoke up. “Come along, it’s five o’clock, children, time to go. Supper needs to be prepared.” She rushed the children to the back hall to don their coats and hats. Their grandmother, Maggie’s dear mother, permanently bent at the waist with old age but still energetic enough to help the little ones, hushed their complaints.
Maggie hugged her mother goodbye. “Careful on the ice, Ma.”
“I’ll hold on to Tamara,” said her mother. She’d been living with Tamara and her husband and children for over ten years now, ever since their father had passed on, and thankfully didn’t have far to travel in this weather because they lived across the street.
Tamara’s two boys raced to Maggie, chasing around her long navy skirt. She laughed, trapped them both and kissed them. “Stay out of trouble.”
Maggie gave away handfuls of sweet raisins to the children as her sister’s husband, Cliff, appeared at the back door. Snow dotted his dark hair and Stetson.
“Maggie, will you be all right without our help for the next hour?” Tamara tugged her coat over her large belly.
“I’ll be fine with the last few customers. The storm has slowed the shoppers.”
An elderly couple, inspecting candles on display, glanced up and nodded from across the room.
“Cliff, I feel much safer now that you’ve arrived.” Maggie adjusted the little girl’s bonnet then wiped another child’s nose. “Please hold on to my sister tightly. We don’t want her to fall in her condition.”
Cliff smiled beneath his damp cowboy hat. “Don’t worry, I won’t let her go. And if the weather’s like this tomorrow, I’ll insist she stay home with me.”
“That’s a mighty fine idea.”
They were about to leave when the front door burst open. The bell above the door jingled rapidly.
With a kick to her heart just as rapid, Maggie wheeled around. There he stood.
Something was terribly wrong. Black soot stained his face. He hadn’t shaved for days. Blazes, he looked as if he hadn’t eaten. His lips were parched. The edges of his coat were streaked with dirt and ashes. And the storm had wet everything, including his fur hat, giving everything a muddy appearance.
Clawing at his coat to undo it, he glanced around. He dominated the room with his massive coat, dark looks and probing brown eyes. His husky voice came in rapid fire. “I didn’t know where else to come. I could try to find the doctor, Elizabeth Hunter, but who knows how much precious time that would take…and your shop’s always full of women and children and your store is so much closer, I thought you’d…you’d know what to do.”
Stricken with fear, Maggie stepped forward. “What is it?”
James pulled hard on his coat and it fell open. Inside, guns were strapped around his lean hips, but above that, strapped to his wide chest in a makeshift harness was a moving bundle.
He pulled at the blankets and rushed the bundle to the counter. “It’s a baby, Maggie. And she’s having trouble breathing.”