Hope and love blossom on the untamed prairie as a young woman searching for a place to call home happens upon a Kansas homestead during the 1860s . . .
A Town Called Hope, the inspiring series set in post Civil War Kansas, is the creation of best-selling romance writer Catherine Palmer. In the fast-paced Prairie Rose, impulsive nineteen-year-old Rosie Mills takes a job caring for the young son of widowed homesteader Seth Hunter in order to escape the orphanage in which she was raised. Rosie's naive view of love and her understanding of what it means to have a Father in heaven are quickly put to the test. Afraid of being wounded again, Seth struggles to freely open his heartto his hurting son, to a woman's love, and to a Father who will not abandon him. Together Rosie and Seth must face the harsh uncertainties of prairie lifeand the one man who threatens to destroy their happiness.
Praire Rose launches a series sure to satisfy readers who expect solid biblical values in a wholesome, exhilarating romance.
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By Catherine Palmer
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1997 Catherine Palmer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKansas City, Missouri May, 1865
Talking to God from the outstretched limb of a towering white oak tree had its advantages. For one thing, it meant that Rosie Mills could see beyond the confining walls of the Christian Home for Orphans and Foundlings, where she had lived all nineteen years of her life. For another, she had always felt as if she were closer to God up in the old tree. That was kind of silly, Rosie knew. God had lived in her heart ever since she gave it to him one night at a tent preaching service, just before the War Between the States. But the best thing about praying in the oak tree was the constantly changing scene that unfolded below.
Take these two men coming her way. The first-a dark-haired fellow in a chambray shirt and black suspenders-minded his own business as he drove his wagon down the dusty street. He had a little boy beside him on the seat and a load of seed in the wagon bed. The other man followed on a black horse. All the time Rosie had been praying, she had been watching the second fellow edge closer and closer, until finally he was right behind the wagon.
"Seth Hunter!" the horseman shouted, pulling a double- barreled shotgun from the scabbard on his saddle. "Stop your mules and put your hands in the air."
The command was soloud and the gun so unexpected that Rosie nearly lost her precarious perch on the old limb. The milkman across the street straightened up and stared. Down the way, the vegetable seller and his son halted in their tracks.
"I said stop your team!" the horseman bellowed.
The man on the wagon swung around and eyed his challenger. "Jack Cornwall," he spat. "I might have known."
He gave the reins a sharp snap to set his mules racing lickety-split down the road. Jack Cornwall cocked his shotgun, lifted it to his shoulder, aimed it at the fleeing wagon, and fired. At the blast, Rosie gave a strangled scream. A puff of pungent gray smoke blossomed in the air. A hundred tiny lead pellets smashed into the seed barrels on the back of the wagon. Wood splintered. Seeds spilled across the road. The mules brayed and faltered, jerking the wagon from side to side.
"Whoa, whoa!" the driver of the wagon shouted. "Cornwall, what in thunder do you think you're doing?"
"Give me the boy, or I'll shoot again!" Cornwall hollered back.
"He's my son."
"You stole him!"
"He's mine by rights." The wagon rolled to a halt directly beneath the oak tree where Rosie perched. "I aim to take him to my homestead, and neither you nor anybody else is going to stop me, hear?"
"What do you want him for-slave labor?"
"You forgetting I'm a Union man, Cornwall? We don't trade in human flesh like you Rebs."
"And we don't go stealing children out from under the noses of the grandparents who took care of them since the day they were born."
"My wife took care of Chipper-"
"Wife?" the man exploded. He edged his horse forward, once again leveling his shotgun at Hunter. "You claiming my sister would marry some good-for-nothing farmhand?"
Rosie gripped the oak branch. The two men were barely three feet beneath her, and she could almost feel the heat of their hatred. This was terrible. The little boy the men were arguing about was hunkered down in the wagon, terrified. He couldn't have been more than five or six years old, and as he peered over the wooden seat his big blue eyes filled with tears.
Rosie didn't know which of the men was in the right, but she wasn't about to let this Jack Cornwall fellow shoot someone. She spotted a stout stick caught in a fork of the tree. Maybe she could use it to distract the men, she thought as she shinnied toward the slender end of her branch.
"Your sister married me, whether you believe it or not," Seth Hunter snarled. "I'm this boy's father, and I mean to take him with me."
"I didn't track your worthless hide all the way to Kansas City to let you just ride off to the prairie with my nephew. No sir, Chipper's going south with me. My pappy's not about to let you work his grandson to the bone on your sorry excuse for a farm."
"I told you I don't plan on working him. In fact, I'm headed for this orphanage right now to hire me a hand."
"Hire you a hand," Jack scoffed. He spat a long stream of brown tobacco juice onto the dirt road. "What're you aiming to pay him with-grasshoppers? That's all you're going to be growing on your homestead, Hunter. Grasshoppers, potato bugs, and boll weevils."
"I've got a house and a barn, Jack. That's more than a lot of folks can say, including you. And any young'un would gladly trade that orphanage for a home."
I would, Rosie thought. She was beginning to side with Seth Hunter, even if he had stolen the little boy. The other man was big, rawboned, and mean-tempered. For all she knew he planned to shoot Seth dead with his shotgun. And right in front of the child!
The branch she was straddling bobbed a little from her weight as she inched along it toward the stick. Truth to tell, it was the boy who stirred her heart the most. Neither man had even bothered to ask the child what he wanted to do. And where on earth was the poor little fellow's mother?
"A house and a barn," Jack said, his voice dripping with disdain. "What you've got is dust, wind, and prairie fires. That's no place to bring up a boy. Now let me have him peaceful-like, and I won't be obliged to blow your Yankee head off."
"You're not taking my son." Seth stood up on the wagon. His shoulders were square and solid inside his homespun chambray shirt, and his arms were roped with hard muscle and thick veins. Badly in want of cutting, his hair hung heavy and black. His thick neck was as brown as a nut. With such a formidable stature, Rosie thought, he should have the face of the bare-knuckle fighters she had seen on posters.
He didn't. His blue eyes set off a straight nose, a pair of flat, masculine lips, and a notched chin. It was a striking face. A handsome face. Unarmed, Hunter faced Jack. "I already lost Mary, and I'm not-"
"You never had Mary!"
"She was my wife."
"Mary denied you till the day she died."
"Liar!" Seth stepped over the wagon seat and started across the bed. "If your pappy hadn't tried to kill me-"
"You ran off to join the army! We never saw hide nor hair of you for more than five years till you came sneaking back and stole Chipper."
"I wrote Mary-"
"She burned every letter."
"Mary loved me, and none of your lies will make me doubt it. We'd have been happy together if your pappy would have left us alone. He ran me off with a shotgun. I was too young and scared back then to stand up to him, but I'll be switched if I let him do it again. Or you, either."
"I'll do more than that, Hunter." Jack steadied the gun. "Now give me the boy."
"Over my dead body."
"You asked for it."
He pulled back on the hammer to set the gun at half cock. Rosie held her breath.
No. He wouldn't really do it. Would he? She reached out and grabbed onto the stick.
"Give me the boy," Jack repeated.
"If you shoot me, they'll hang you for murder."
"Hang me? Ha! You ever hear of Charlie Quantrell, Jesse James, Bob Ford? They're heroes to me. I've joined up with a bunch down south to avenge wrongs done in the name of Yankee justice. Nobody messes with us, Hunter. And nobody hangs us for murder. Besides, I'm just protecting my kin." He pulled the hammer all the way back.
Seth stood his ground. "People are watching every move you make, Jack," he said. "They know who you are. Don't do this."
"Chipper, come here, boy."
"Stay down, Chipper."
"Hunter, you Yankee dog. I'll get you if it's the last thing I do."
Jack lifted the shotgun's stock to his shoulder. As his finger tensed on the trigger, Rosie gritted her teeth and swung her club like a pendulum. It smashed into the side of Jack Cornwall's head and knocked him sideways. The shotgun went off with a deafening roar. Like a hundred angry hornets, pellets sprayed into the street.
At the end of the limb, Rosie swayed down, lurched up, and swung down again. Acrid, sulfurous-smelling smoke seared her nostrils. As screams filled the air, she heard the branch she was clinging to crack. She lost her balance, tumbled through the smoke, and landed smack-dab on Seth Hunter. The impact knocked them both to the wagon bed, and her head cracked against the wooden bench seat. A pair of startled blue eyes was the last thing she saw.
* * *
"Glory be to God, she's awake at last! Jimmy, come here quick and have a look at her."
"Aye, she's awake, that she is."
The two pairs of eyes that stared down at Rosie could not have been more alike-nor the faces that went with them more different. The woman had bright green eyes, brilliant orange-red hair, and the ruddiest cheeks Rosie had ever seen. The man's green eyes glowed like twin emeralds from a gaunt face with suntanned skin stretched over sharp, pointy bones. He sucked on a corncob pipe and nodded solemnly.
"Seth Hunter, the lass has come round," he said. "Better see to her. She's a frainey, all right. She's so puny she'll keel over if she tries to stand up."
Her head pounding in pain, Rosie was attempting to decipher the lilting words her two observers had spoken when Seth Hunter's blue eyes-now solemn-appeared above her for a second time that day. He stroked a hand across her forehead. His hand was big and warm, his fingers gently probing.
"I don't feel right about us leaving her here, Jimmy," he said. "She's still bleeding pretty bad from that gash on the back of her head. But if we don't take off soon, I reckon Jack Cornwall will be back on my tail. I've got to get Chipper out of town. I want him home and settled as quick as possible."
"Sure, the wagon's loaded down with our tools and seed we came for," Jimmy said. "The brablins have their peppermints, and they'll be eager to start licking on them. If we set out now, we'll be home not a day later than planned."
"I know, but I just ..." Seth touched Rosie's forehead again with his fingertips. "Ma'am, can you hear me? I want to thank you for what you did. I never expected such a thing. I owe you, that's for sure. If I had any money, I'd give you a reward, but-"
"Home," Rosie said. She didn't know where the word had come from. She'd never had a home, not from the very moment she was born.
"We'll see you get home, ma'am," Seth said. "The delivery boy for the mercantile here said he recognized you. He's gone to fetch your mother."
Mother? Rosie studied the rows of canned goods, bolts of fabric, and sacks of produce that lined the floor-to-ceiling shelves in the mercantile. She knew the place well. She had been here many times, shopping for the orphanage's kitchen. She gradually recalled how she must have come to be lying on the sawdust-covered floor with her head throbbing like a marching band. She even knew the name of the man bending over her. But how could the delivery boy be fetching her mother?
"I don't have a mother," she said.
"No mother!" The ruddy-cheeked woman leaned into view and clucked in sympathy. She placed a clean folded cloth over Rosie's gash. "Can such a thing be true? Aye, lass, you're cruel wounded in the head, so you are. Perhaps you've lost your wits a bit. Sure, we wouldn't want you turnin' into a googeen now. Can you recall your name at all?"
"Rosenbloom Cotton Mills."
"She's disremembered the sound of her own name, so she has!"
"No really, that's who I am. Rosie Mills." She struggled to sit up, and the woman slipped a supporting arm around her shoulders. "My mother ... you see ... she put my name on a piece of paper."
"But you just told us you didn't have a mother."
"I don't. Not one I ever met, anyway. The piece of paper with my name on it was inside the stocking with me when I was discovered."
"You were discovered in a stocking?"
"I was a baby at the time. Newborn."
"A baby! Ullilu, Jimmy, did you hear the wee thing? She was left in a stocking."
Jimmy pronounced the word Rosie had despised from the moment she learned its connotations. For nineteen years she had worn that label, and it had barred her from adoption, from marriage, from all hope of a family and a home. Taking no notice of the expressions on their faces, she pulled her pouch from the bodice of her dress.
"I keep the paper in here in this little bag I made from the toe of my stocking," she said. "As you can see, my name is written out very clearly: Rosenbloom Cotton Mills."
She unfolded the tiny scrap that was her only treasure. Everyone gathered around. As it turned out, there were many red-haired, green-eyed visitors at the mercantile that day, and most of them weren't more than three feet tall. Clutching red-and-white-striped peppermint sticks, they elbowed each other for a better look.
"Appears to be a stocking tag from that mill over on the river in Illinois," Jimmy said. "You remember, Sheena? We passed it on our way west, so we did."
"Whisht, Jimmy. If the lass says it's her name, who are you to start a clamper over it?" Sheena gave Rosie a broad smile that showed pretty white teeth. "Now then, we're to set out on our way home to Kansas in the wagon-Jimmy O'Toole and me, our five children, and our good neighbor, Seth Hunter. We're most grateful to you for the whack you gave that sherral Jack Cornwall. We never met a man as fine as our Seth, God save him, and we won't see him come to harm. So, if you think you'll be all right now, we'll-"
"Rosie? Rosie Mills?" A woman who had just entered the mercantile spotted the injured girl and clapped her hands to her cheeks. She glanced at Sheena O'Toole. "I'm Iva Jameson, the director of the Christian Home for Orphans and Foundlings. What on earth has happened to Rosie?"
"I ... I was up in the oak tree," Rosie said meekly, dabbing at her wound with the cloth, "and then along came Mr. Hunter's wagon ... and I-"
"You should have outgrown tree climbing long ago."
"But it's where I pray, ma'am."
"Rosie, shame on you for such tomfoolery-and at your age!"
"Maybe I should explain, ma'am." Seth stepped forward. "What happened was mainly my fault. I'm Seth Hunter, and I was on my way to your orphanage with my son this morning when things took a wrong turn."
"I see, Mr. Hunter." Mrs. Jameson eyed the little boy standing forlornly beside him. "Would this young man be your son?"
"Yes. This is Christopher. They call him Chipper."
"Chipper. Now, that's a fine name for such a strong, handsome lad." The director knelt to the floor. "And how old are you, young Chipper?"
"He's five," Seth said. "Listen, ma'am, we don't have much time here. The O'Toole family and I-we've got homesteads waiting for us over in Kansas, and we need to get on the trail."
"Are you a widower, sir?"
There was a moment of silence. "Well, yes," Seth said f
Excerpted from Prairie Rose by Catherine Palmer Copyright © 1997 by Catherine Palmer
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.