What Frees the Heart Cowbird Creek Book 2 by Karen A. Wyle Genre: Western Historical Romance
Can they set each other free?
Cowbird Creek has its share of troubled souls. For Tom, a farmer’s son, losing his leg felt like losing his future. Jenny, a young prostitute at Madam Mamie’s parlor house, has never thought she had much future to lose.
But the job Tom is able to get leads him to rediscover a long neglected talent. And both Tom and Jenny have a knack for hitting on new possibilities. Can they, together, find a better path?
This novel, second in a series, returns to the small town of Cowbird Creek, Nebraska, in early 1876, a few months after the conclusion of What Heals the Heart. Several favorite characters from Book 1 make return appearances.
"Truly a romantic tale . . . . Wonderful characters, many with hearts of gold, small-minded characters that truly showed their ignorance and dreams that couldn’t be broken . . . from an author who lets her words feed our imaginations." – Tome Tender review
"Magnificent story . . . a remarkable historical romance . . . great chemistry between the characters . . . It is always a joy to read this author's stories." – Amy's Bookshelf Reviews
Tom Barlow leaned against the fence for support and tossed the last sack of fall potatoes into the wagon. He could still load a wagon, at least. Not the first time he tried, or the second — and the way he fell the second time, landing on his arm, had made him even more useless for the next week. But he’d got the hang of it now.
Pa came out of the house, putting on his hat as he walked to the wagon. “Coming with me, son?”
That was a puzzle with no good answer. Tom could use the rail of the fence and a handy stump to climb into the wagon without Pa’s help, but getting back down was more of a trick. He could try it, and maybe fall down for folks to laugh about, or stay perched up on the wagon like a cigar store Indian for passersby to stare at.
“I’ll come.” At least, whatever happened, he’d get to see something different for a change, if only the little bit of difference between the farm and town. It was bad enough being stuck around here before, when he could at least sneak off with one of the horses between chores and ride around a bit.
Sometimes, he could hardly believe he couldn’t just hop onto a horse — or a wagon — the way he used to. Other days, he could hardly believe he’d ever done it at all.
After they dropped off the sacks at the train station, Pa drove to the square and parked in a shady spot near the dry goods store, within reach of the water trough. “Keep an eye on the horse and wagon for me, will you, while I go in?” Pa had been thinking along the same lines as Tom, seemingly. And maybe he didn’t much fancy having the people in town see his son stumbling around like a barely-born colt.
Tom gave Pa a short nod just a hair shy of rude. Pa paused, his eyebrows going lower like he was thinking of fetching a strap, before he shook his head a little and headed toward the general store.
Now Tom had nothing to do but feel conspicuous and look around him. The first thing he noticed was a cardinal, landing in the nearest tree with a twig in its beak, bright red against bare branches. It could fly most anywhere, but here it was in Cowbird Creek. It must feel a whole lot different than he did these days.
Tom saw himself working into an even worse mood, and tried to steer another way. It was sunny, at least, and sunshine always boosted his spirits some. And that tree with the cardinal might be bare still, but right under it was a forsythia bush well along in its blooming, the first of many to come.
Then something moving caught his eye from down the street. He turned to see a girl walking up — no, walking didn’t do justice to it. She sort of bounced along, stepping out strong and lively, her yellow hair bouncing too, bright in the sun under a little nothing of a hat. There was plenty of her, all put together just right, and a pretty face to finish off with — not what you’d call refined, but a straight-ahead honest sort of good-looking.
Why hadn’t he seen her before, at a dance or a church social? Or had she been some little stick of a kid and just lately blossomed out?
He’d already got a nice long look at the front of her, and now she headed into the store and let him enjoy the view from behind. He sighed to see her pass through the door and out of sight.
Coming into town did beat sitting at home watching cows, at that.
Another woman came walking past, older, with a little boy skipping alongside her. Skipping, like any child did, like Tom had often enough. He closed his eyes and waited for the pain to ease. But before he got to opening them, he heard the boy’s voice. “Why’s that man got a wooden leg? Was he a soldier, like Uncle Jake?”
Tom ground his teeth, cussing in his head. What with the way he was growing out of his trousers, and sitting high up on the wagon, anyone could see the wood between his trouser leg and his boot.
Meanwhile, the woman was saying, “No, Johnny. He’s too young. He’d have been maybe your age when the war ended.”
“Then what happened to him, Ma?”
The woman glanced up at Tom, looking embarrassed and sorry, as she grabbed her son’s hand and pulled him along, saying something Tom couldn’t hear. But right behind came two men, the barber and some other fellow, who acted like they’d heard it. Because the barber said to the other man, not troubling to be quiet, as if Tom was deaf along with crippled: “Poor lad. At least a soldier who lost his leg gets a pension, and knows he’s a hero. And an old man with a game leg was a young man with two good legs once.”
And all Tom could do was sit there on the wagon like a log, thinking how the barber was right. No honorable war wound for him, no life full of memories. One clumsy moment, and his life was more or less over before he’d done much of anything with it.
And there, finally, came Pa carrying a big sack of provisions, smiling like someone just told him a joke, taking big steps. But when he reached the wagon and got a look at Tom’s face, he all of a sudden seemed to shrink shorter.
They didn’t talk on the ride home.
* * * * *
Tom remembered the first time Pa said he was big enough to groom the horses. He’d been so proud! and then mortified when that big horse went and kicked him into the straw.
Years later, now, and the horse Tom had named and raised from a colt wouldn’t dream of kicking him, and here he was, sprawled in the straw again.
He crawled over to the side of the stall and pulled himself upright, Cochise nickering at him all the while. The big gelding hadn’t meant it. He’d just been nuzzling. He couldn’t know how easy Tom lost his balance these days.
Tom took the brush down from its hook and set to grooming. Cochise leaned into it, but Tom had seen that coming and braced himself against the wall.
“You like that, don’t you? Enjoy it, then. Got to take your pleasures where you can get ‘em. You and me both. You like me brushing you, and I like your company.”
Cochise, not to be left out, decided it was time to groom Tom right back, licking at his hair. Tom laughed for the first time all day. “Won’t Ma think I look pretty, once you’re done with me!”
But Cochise was getting restless, shifting his weight around from hoof to hoof. “Easy, now. Almost done.”
Maybe Cochise would have liked a different sort of life. Rounding up cattle, say, with a cowboy on his back. “I thought of going for a cowboy, did you know? Sounded mighty fine to me, chasing cattle across the prairie. How’d you like that kind of life? But I’m afraid you aren’t the right kind of horse for it, not hardly.”
Tom’s chest was tightening up again, like it did when he thought too much about things. “No, not the right kind of horse at all. No more’n I’m the right kind of man, any more. You’ll keep on pulling plows and wagons, and I — well, I’ll find something I’m fit for, if I can.” There had to be something.
Which was why he’d be heading to town to talk to Finch.
Not the easiest fellow to talk to. But Doc Gibbs had said Finch might have work for him, work he could do sitting down, mostly. And Tom had stalled as long as he could stand to, telling himself it’d be too tricky to walk into town on days the road had snow or ice, or that he needed to work up to walking that far every day. Now he’d out-stalled winter, and he was more perishing sick of the farm than fretted about dealing with Finch. And today, it wasn’t even raining. So off he’d go.
But first, he’d better comb his hair.
It was a pretty morning for a walk, and warm enough for early spring. And his leg held up better’n he’d feared. Still, he was limping pretty good by the time he passed the Gibbs place, where the widow Blum used to live before she hared off with that medicine show fellow. Mrs. Gibbs, Clara Brook that was, hailed him from the window. “A good morning to you, Tom! Care for some coffee?”
She might be offering so’s he had a reason to rest his leg, but he had managed to work up a thirst. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. I’d like that fine.” He made his way to her front step and eased himself down. She came to sit next to him with two mugs and handed him one.
“Would your errand today be with Mr. Finch?”
He hadn’t slept specially well last night, and coffee would help him gather his wits. He gulped a third of it down before he answered her. “That’s right, ma’am. He said he’d come out to the farm if I . . . if more convenient. Which was good of him, busy as he keeps. But I could hardly work for him if I couldn’t get myself to his shop, so I may as well start out as I’ll need to keep on.”
She nodded and drank her coffee, leaning on one arm, head back to soak in the sun. He snuck a look at her. She’d always been on the skinny side, but she was fattening up some now that she was married. Must be eating plenty of her own cooking.
But then she put her hand on her belly, gentle-like, the way he remembered Ma doing before he’d known he had a sib coming.
She caught him looking at her and flushed a little. “Yes, I’m in the family way. Old for it, but at least I’ve got a doctor handy.”
She’d always had that way of just coming out with things other folks wouldn’t say, or would say roundabout. He found himself blurting out, “Do you think I can work for Finch? Satisfy him? He don’t seem easy to please.”
She sat up straighter and turned toward him, studying on what to say, Tom on tenterhooks. He drank some more coffee, waiting. Finally, she nodded and said, “I think you can. He’s not one to put people down just to make himself feel bigger. And I know you’ll work hard for him, harder than someone with less to prove.”
There she went again, throwing truth at him. But that meant he could trust she meant what she said. Something wound tight inside him eased up. “I surely will.”
He finished the coffee and put down the mug. She watched him haul himself upright, not offering to help. He bowed in the careful way he’d learned to do, and got back on the road.
Finch was taking his ease, leaning against the wall out in front of his shop, when Tom showed up. That wasn’t the best sign — it might mean he wasn’t busy enough to need help after all. But as soon as the cordwainer spotted Tom, he straightened up and called, “Come along in, youngster! I’ve got a job I haven’t been hankering to do, and if you sound like you’ll suit, you can get started on it.”
Finch headed back inside and Tom stumped along after. The smell of leather hit him as soon as he went through the door, a good thick smell that lifted his mood right away. Then a breeze from somewhere shifted carrying a less agreeable stink — the horse piss the hides were soaking in to soften them and make it easier to get the hair out. No matter. You didn’t grow up on a farm and stay prissy about smells.
Finch walked over to a barrel where the piss smell came from. “This hide’s been soaking long enough. Next step is to scrape it. You could use that table to lay it out, and set yourself on the stool, but you’d have to stand up to reach some of it.” He looked Tom up and down. “Seeing as you’re here, and I don’t see a wagon that could’ve brung you, I guess you can manage it.
“I’ll pay you 85 cents a day, Sundays off. Deal?”
85 cents was better than nothing. And it wasn’t as if Tom was all that much help on the farm. But there were times Pa and Billy could use a hand. “When things get busy on the farm, I’d want to take another day now and again. Deal?”
Finch chuckled. “All right, deal for now. If you need more time than I can spare, we’ll see if we can go on with each other somehow, or no. Anyone expecting you at home real soon?”
If they were, they’d know where to come look. “No, sir. I can get to work. You want I should get that hide out?”
Finch took down two aprons from a hook in the wall and tossed one to Tom. The toss could’ve been aimed better, but Tom managed to catch it. “I’ll show you how to lay it out and what tool to use. Then it’s all yours.”
Smell and all.
What Heals the Heart
Cowbird Creek Book 1
Joshua Gibbs survived the Civil War, building on his wartime experiences to become a small town doctor. And if he wakes from nightmares more often than he would like, only his dog Major is there to know it.
Then two newcomers arrive in Cowbird Creek: Clara Brook, a plain-speaking and yet enigmatic farmer’s daughter, and Freida Blum, an elderly Jewish widow from New York. Freida knows just what Joshua needs: a bride. But it shouldn’t be Clara Brook!
Joshua tries everything he can think of to discourage Freida’s efforts, including a wager: if he can find Freida a husband, she’ll stop trying to find him a wife. Will either matchmaker succeed? Or is it Clara, despite her own scars, who can heal the doctor’s troubled heart?
Excerpt from Chapter 2 of What Heals the Heart
“Boot blacking, coffee, cornmeal, flour, soap. Put it on your tab?”
“Thank you kindly.” The suggestion would, in fact, save him some embarrassment. His patients had lately been paying in roast chickens, bacon, cream, potatoes, even horseshoes — all welcome and useful items, but it left him short of coin.
“And you’ve got a letter.”
This would take some juggling. Joshua picked up the envelope first, opening it and extracting the letter, tucking the envelope into his vest and laying the letter on the counter. Next, he grabbed the sack full of supplies in his left hand and picked up the letter in his right. That left him without a way to tip his hat, so he nodded his goodbye and walked out, glancing at the letter as he went. Major, idling in the street, jumped up to follow.
Joshua knew he had not been a satisfactory correspondent. The last letter to his mother in which he had mentioned anything of actual importance had been the letter he sent on his way west, trying to explain why he had felt compelled to leave his family and his home so far behind. Even as he sent that letter on its way, he had known it would fail in its mission. What he had been unable to say to her face, he had been equally unable to put into words on paper. Either would have required that he call to mind, and then stain her memory forever by recounting, the life he had lived as a soldier and a medic. Without that understanding, how could she understand how unreal and hollow the civilized life of Philadelphia had become for him?
His mother still wrote every two weeks, however, and he’d been awaiting her latest for several days. Now he saw what had kept her busy. His middle sister’s baby had come — except it was twins! A boy and a girl. He could imagine his younger and oldest sisters knitting madly to deal with the surprise.
As for his father — what? He was writing a book?
Joshua had been paying just enough attention to where he was going that he didn’t trip on the planks in the street or walk in front of any horses. But not enough, it turned out, to avoid walking smack into someone. He started backward, dropping his sack, and stammered apologies, while Major added to the confusion by circling the scene and barking loudly.
His victim, Joshua realized, was the tall green-eyed woman he had seen in the street the day he first met Mrs. Blum. She had managed to stay on her feet and now stooped to help him retrieve his groceries, whisking them away from Major’s investigative sniffing. Her hands looked strong, with long fingers; it took her almost no time to fill his sack again. She stood up, neither smiling nor frowning, and handed him the sack. “I hope that isn’t bad news in your hand.”
He tried to pull himself together enough to answer her. “Uh, no, not bad news. Just news. Babies. Two of them. That is, my sister just had twins.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “Congratulations to your sister! I’m sure she’ll cope splendidly.”
An interesting way to put it. Was she speaking from experience, and if so, her own or someone else’s?
Manners! What would his mother — or for that matter, Freida Blum — say? “I beg your pardon. I’m Joshua Gibbs.”
The woman tilted her head slightly and nodded in what might, unlikely as it seemed, be approval. “The doctor. I’ve heard of you. People speak well of you.”
Did they? He supposed they might. The comment left him feeling absurdly pleased. With some difficulty, he suppressed a foolish grin.
He was becoming curious about the woman’s identity, but accidental assault was hardly the basis for him to ask about it. She took pity on him and volunteered the information. “My name is Clara Brook. We’re recent arrivals. Our farm is a little over four miles to the southwest.” He was not that good at accents, but thought she might have grown up in or near Kentucky.
Joshua had about an hour before he needed to be back for his afternoon office hours. How much money did he have on him? He’d grabbed a few coins in case he needed them at the general store. It should be enough, at least if he held himself to a single scoop without toppings. “May I buy you an ice cream? As an apology for my inexcusable carelessness?”
Miss Brook looked at him gravely. “Hardly inexcusable. I’ve seen —” She cut off the comment and said instead, “Thank you. That would be very nice.” Not a fan of hyperbole, it seemed, in others or in her own speech. Joshua led the way, in case Miss Brook had not yet learned the ice cream parlor’s location. Major had apparently decided to adopt her, trotting by her side rather than his master’s. When they reached their destination, Miss Brook paused and gestured toward the dog. “Does he accompany us or no?”
Joshua shook his head, having decided previously that ice cream was unlikely to be a good addition to Major’s diet. Miss Brook then startled Joshua by snapping her fingers toward Major and pointing to a position near the window. Major immediately sat.
The clerk at the ice cream parlor looked at Joshua with some surprise as they entered. Joshua asked Miss Brook’s preference, ordered her single scoop of strawberry along with his own vanilla, paid — narrowly escaping the embarrassment of coming up short — and carried both plates to the little table next to the window.
Now what? Well, she knew he had sisters, one of them with new additions to her family. Surely he could ask after similar details, at least indirectly. “How have you and your . . . your family been finding Cowbird Creek? Is it what you hoped, when you decided to settle here?”
Somehow it failed to surprise him when she avoided a conventional response. “I wouldn’t say we know enough, yet, to answer that question. Or perhaps I should say we didn’t have very specific expectations. My parents wanted to buy land, to leave my brother someday, and there was land for purchase here. It’s a deal of work for the four of us, but we’re used to work.”
A brother, but no sisters — at least none still at home. It was unlikely she’d lost sisters in the War of Rebellion, but she might have had more brothers before that long and bloody nightmare. All through his childhood, he had wished he had brothers instead of, or in addition to, three sisters. That wish, too, had died in the war.
It was Joshua’s turn to say something, but nothing came to mind. Miss Brook did not seem to be one of those women who could set a man to talking. Or maybe she chose not to do so. He could think of only one inane question. “What are you growing, or raising?”
Her left eyebrow twitched upward. “The usual, I suppose. Corn, oats. I have some interest in planting winter wheat, but my father has not yet agreed. I have a vegetable garden, though I’m still getting accustomed to the weather and how it affects what I can grow. We raise hogs — and chickens, of course, but mainly for our own eggs and our own pot.”
He might be carrying home some of those eggs, some day. They would be good eggs, he’d wager — he guessed she took good care of the hens.
Before he could come up with some other conversational gambit, she asked him, “What’s the most surprising thing about Cowbird Creek? Something we wouldn’t have had a chance to learn yet?”
There was a question he hadn’t heard before. “Hmm. Let me think.” Madam Mamie’s establishment was tonier than some, but even if that counted as surprising, he could hardly mention it. And the presence of a Jewish widow was unusual, but he doubted Mrs. Blum would appreciate being held up as a local oddity. “Our Chinese laundryman struck it rich — well, maybe not rich, but close — in the California gold fields.”
Miss Brook smiled, the first smile he’d seen from her, but quickly went grave again. “I don’t think I’ll mention it to my brother. He used to hanker after the gold fields himself, and I’d be sorry to remind him.”
She had finished her ice cream, and he needed to be back for any patients needing him. He took a final spoonful of his own and stood up. “Miss Brook, it’s been a pleasure, despite my regrettable way of introducing myself. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again.”
That eyebrow twitched again. “I agree. Though I hope it won’t be in your professional capacity.”
Cursing his clumsy tongue, he bowed and escaped back to territory where he was less likely to put a foot wrong.
Karen A. Wyle was born a Connecticut Yankee, but eventually settled in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. She now considers herself a Hoosier. Wyle's childhood ambition was to be the youngest ever published novelist. While writing her first novel at age 10, she was mortified to learn that some British upstart had beaten her to the goal at age 9.
Wyle is an appellate attorney, photographer, political junkie, and mother of two daughters. Her voice is the product of almost five decades of reading both literary and genre fiction. It is no doubt also influenced, although she hopes not fatally tainted, by her years of law practice. Her personal history has led her to focus on often-intertwined themes of family, communication, the impossibility of controlling events, and the persistence of unfinished business.
Q.Did you plan from the start to write a historical romance series? A. No. I barely had the nerve to write historical romance at all! I’ve read historical fiction for many years, and had thought of attempting it, but the necessary research intimidated me. Within the last few years, I started reading both historical and contemporary romance, but felt even less prepared to tackle that. And yet, as November 2018 loomed and I asked myself what book to write during National Novel Writing Month, I somehow headed in the historical romance direction. The result, after some initial changes in character and backstory, and a significant course correction once my beta readers weighed in, was What Heals the Heart, Book 1 in the Cowbird Creek series.
I was greatly relieved at how well the book was received – and in particular, that readers thought I’d managed to convey the time and place in a convincing manner. That emboldened me to return to Cowbird Creek for another book, and to start planning Book 3 for November 2020.
Q. How does a romance series work? Where do you go from Happily Ever After? A. You move on to another couple from the same setting and give them a HEA of their own! Some romance series go from one to another member of a family, while others, like the Cowbird Creek series, feature different people in the same town.
Q. Who are the main characters in What Frees the Heart? Did they show up in the first book? And will we get to see any other residents of Cowbird Creek this time around?
A.Caution: the answer to this question includes spoilers for Book 1,What Heals the Heart!
Readers of What Heals the Heart have already met Tom and Jenny. Tom is the farm lad whose leg Joshua had to amputate. Jenny is the young prostitute whose arm Joshua bandages, and who reminisces about rolling bandages for soldiers when she was a child.
Joshua and Clara appear frequently in What Frees the Heart, both (especially Joshua) playing a role in the plot. Silas Finch, the cordwainer who married Dolly, is a significant secondary character. We naturally see a good deal more of Madam Mamie, Jenny’s employer. And even though Freida and Jedidiah have left town, they do turn up and play their part in the HEA. (If I’d planned a series from the get-go, I might have found a way to keep them around, as Freida is a favorite of many readers and close to my heart as well.)
Q. What was the most challenging aspect of writing What Frees the Heart? A. There were a few challenges! I had to deal with prostitution without either glamorizing it, or so thoroughly depressing the reader as to overwhelm the romance plot. I had to show Tom’s life as an amputee as realistically as I could, while also showing the spirit that helped him cope with that disability. But the most daunting challenge had to do with character voice. Joshua Gibbs was a well-read scion of an upper-crust Philadelphia family. Tom and Jenny had to think and speak in a very different way. I’d never tackled anything like their points of view before.
Q. What’s next in the series? A. I’d like to keep the key details to myself for a bit longer. One of the reasons: I have an author newsletter, and I try to give my subscribers the first look at covers, excerpts, and other details about upcoming books. The signup link for the newsletter, accessible from my author website’s home page (http://www.KarenAWyle.com), is https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/k9z1m0. (One of these days, I’ll figure out how to customize that unwieldy URL.) I send one newsletter a month, except during release months when I may send two – and I make it easy to unsubscribe.
I will drop this hint: readers already know a fair amount about one of the two main characters. The other character probably doesn’t live in Cowbird Creek full time. And the tentative title is What Shows the Heart.
Q. What’s National Novel Writing Month? A. Pardon me while I tear up – because National Novel Writing Month (also called NaNoWriMo or NaNo) gave me, or gave me back, my writing career.
It was my childhood ambition to be a novelist. In fact, at age 10, I wrote a 200-page novel for which the kindest words would be “disjointed” and “derivative.” (My mother, praised be she, typed up all 200 penciled pages and bound the result so I could feel “published.”) I tried again at age 14 and gave up after 40 pages. And while I wrote poetry in high school and took a disastrous short story seminar in college, I gave up on writing novels, or any fiction longer than a picture book, for several decades.
Then, my oldest daughter tried NaNoWriMo in 2009,during her senior year in high school, and “won” by completing a 50,000 word rough draft – all while visiting colleges and finishing high school. When she told me she was doing NaNo again the following year, I decided to give it a try, figuring I’d probably drop out in a day or two. And here I am, almost ten years later, about to publish my tenth novel.
But to actually answer the question , NaNoWriMo is a group endeavor, organized online, for anyone who wants to write a novel. Each November, people from all over the world sign up and undertake to write at least 50,000 words of a new novel, entirely within that month. The idea is to bull on through, at an average pace of 1,667 words per day, without stopping to self-edit. The goal is a very rough draft, which the writer can then revise and edit to their heart’s content. One can update one’s word count online, track one’s progress, find “buddies” with whom to compete or commiserate, and visit various forums. In the forums, one can ask research questions (which can get very arcane and bizarre), find writing prompts, and vent about the writing process.
Q. What was that about picture books? A. I started writing picture book manuscripts when I was pregnant with my older daughter, the one who later led me to NaNoWriMo. I even had an agent for a while, who never did succeed in snagging the interest of any publishers. Now that self-publishing has evolved to the point where it’s feasible to self-publish a picture book, I’d like to find an illustrator whose vision for one or more of these books matches my own, and who’s interested in collaborating. The titles include Mommy Calls Me “Acorn”; Catching Mommy’s Shadow; Where Do Fireflies Sleep; When It’s Winter; and You Can’t Kiss a Bubble.
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