One week before Christmas, 1873
Ben stood in her kitchen while Alice Rawlings read the telegram from Mr. Taylor that instructed him to take Lily to the Nelson’s for Christmas.
‘The man has lost his mind, Ben. I can’t let you take this itty bitty gal all the way to Prairie View ridin’ horseback. This is Kansas, for cryin’ in the mop water. Don’t he know how fast the weather can change?” She slapped the telegram down on the table.
He shrugged. “He knows, Alice. Probably knows better than any of us, but I’m followin’ orders. You know how homesick for her sister Lily has been. I reckon SueAnna is feelin’ the same. Maybe it would help her get well faster if they was together.”
Alice wiped the hem of her apron across her face. “I know. Poor little thing has cried herself to sleep the last two nights. It first it weren’t so bad, but I wonder if she thinks she’s been left for good? I’ll get her and you can tell her what’s gonna happen while I pack her things.”
“Pack light, Alice. I don’t want to take the chance of getting caught in a winter storm with two horses to worry about. I’ll put Lily on with me and stuff the saddlebags full. Might make sure she’s wearin’ extra clothes to begin with.”
Lily squealed with delight when she saw Ben. She was stuffed into so many layers she looked like a little duckling as she waddled toward him with her arms outstretched. He laughed at her obvious excitement as she threw her arms around his neck. “Are we really going to see Annie? I prayed to Jesus last night ’cause I wanted to see her for Christmas.”
Ben hugged her then held her at arms length. “Well, see there. Jesus done answered your prayer.”
A frown flitted between her big eyes. “What if she doesn’t remember me? Is Mr. Martin there? But what if Santa Claus can’t find me? Do you think they have snow in town? I like the snow, don’t you? We played in it, all except for April. She’s too little and Arnold couldn’t go outside either ’cause he has a drippy nose. We ate it too, except Abigail said we shouldn’t eat it because old Arf had been rolling in it. Arf is the dog. Isn’t it funny? Even the dog has an A name.”
Alice chortled. “I can’t tell you how much we’re gonna miss this little gal.” She bent down to give Lily a squeeze. “Look Missy Prissy. I done wrapped Miss Libby so she won’t get cold.” She handed a pink flannel bundle to the little girl. “You mind Mister Ben, now. And tell your sister we all miss her. Okay?” She stood and wiped her eyes.
Ben waited while Lily kissed all the kids goodbye. We gotta go, Sugar Miss.” He turned to the older woman and pulled her to him. ” What a fine woman you are, Alice Rawlings. You got so much room in her heart. SueAnna will never forget the kindness you done for her.” He kissed her cheek, and she pulled him closer to whisper in his ear.
“Tell SueAnna if this next one is a girl I’m gonna call her Anna Sue. Don’t have a boy’s name yet. Abe takes care of that.”
Ben settled Lily in front of him and threw Alice a kiss as he rode away. That Abe—he sure enough took care of that.
Two days later
Ben snuggled Lily deeper into her cocoon of blankets. “You warm enough, Sugar Miss?”
“I’m nice and warm,” she answered, her voice muffled by the scarf around her nose and mouth.
Only another half day and they would be there. the moon was lurking in the western sky, but the winter sun was peeping over the hills turning the morning sky pink and coral. So far the weather had held. It was bitter cold, but there was no moisture and even the Kansas wind had been kind to them.
“Can you see, Lily?” She sat with her back against his chest, Miss Libby clutched securely in the saddle in front of her. She nodded her head in reply.
“Let’s see which one can spot the first…oh, let’s say the first bird.”
“Is this another game? I like your games but I don’t want to play right now.”
“And why would that be? You’re not gettin’ sick, are you?” Please Lord, don’t let her get sick out here on the prairie.
“I’m not sick, but my tummy is all fluttery like it has wings in it. And my eyes feel like crying.”
Ben stopped the horse and lifted the blanket-pudgy girl so he could see her face. “Now, you want to tell me why your eyes feel like crying?” He pushed back her bonnet so he could see the bright blue orbs that talked even when she didn’t. “Don’t you know if you cry, you’ll have icicles on your face.?” He lifted her chin and rubbed his nose against hers.
“But I don’t want to cry. Annie says my mama used to say there were sad tears and happy tears. Do boys have all them tears inside of them, too?”
Ben swallowed an unexpected lump. “They sure do, Lily.” He hugged her close. “I reckon God made us all with extra water inside and sometimes it just has to bubble out. And you know what?”
“What? Is this another game?”
“A very nice lady told me one time that when you cry, God catches all them tears and puts them in a bottle for us because he loves us so much.”
Lily laid her head against Ben’s chest and her shoulders trembled with sobs. Then as quickly as the tears came, they stopped. She sat up, wiped her eyes with her mittened hands, and gave him a heartwarming smile. “There’s I’m all done. I didn’t know if God had a big bottle ready so I just let out a few. I’ll save the rest for another time. I have a game to play. Do you want to play it with me?”
He laughed. “You beat all, LilyAnna Rose Morrow. You sure do. Yes, I’ll play the game with you but you have to tell me the rules.”
She cocked her head to one side. “Well, you know how the Rawlings all have names that start with A? I think that’s because Abigail’s papa’s name starts with A. Well, since I’m going to marry you when I get all growed up, I want to play a game and name all my babies with B. B makes a ‘buh’ sound, doesn’t it I’ll start first—the first boy will be Buh…Benjamin. Now it’s your turn. You name the girls and I’ll name the boys. Won’t this be a fun game?”
He didn’t answer. Couldn’t until the lump in his throat went down. He looked at the little red-nosed fairy in front of him. How much fun it would have been to have a little sister like this. He didn’t even know if he had siblings. How did one go about finding out those things?
Lily pinched his nose. “You aren’t playing, and you said you would.”
“Okay. Bethany rose. How’s that?”
“You like roses just the same as my papa. That makes me very happy.”
Lily had fallen asleep by the time they topped the ridge to start down into the small valley that nestled the town of Prairie View. Ben’s stomach growled and he chuckled in anticipation—Lorna always had food ready.
He stopped at the hitching post in front of Nelson’s and shook Lily’s shoulders. “We’re here, punkin. Are you ready to surprise your sister?” He dismounted and lifted her down. When he reached for her hand, she pulled away.
“No, I’m not ready. Just look at me. I must freshen up a bit—that’s what SueAnna would say. You haven’t even combed my hair once this whole time.” She stood with her hands on her hips, a miniature image of her big sister. Were all females like this? She was only six-years-old. They sure started young wanting things their way.
“Well, I don’t know nothin’ about comin’ a girl’s hair. But we can’t do nothin’ standin’ out here in the cold like this. Let’s get you in where it’s warm enough to unwind you from all your bundles.”
He managed to get her inside, but not without her constant reminder that she wasn’t going anywhere until her hair was combed.
“Could I help? I probably know more about a woman’s hair than you do.” Ben’s eyes made contact with a very pretty lady. This must be Peter’s wife.
“I really want to help this little girl surprise her sister. We’ve all been waiting.”
Lily’s face was a picture of confusion. “Who are you? Where’s my sister?”
“Lily, this is your Aunt Claire, your brother Peter’s wife.” He smiled. “Where’s Peter? I’m sure he must be anxious to see this little gal.” He put Lily’s blankets and coats on a chair.
“He’s keeping SueAnna company so she won’t suspect anything. She’s been begging Doc to let her get up and move around. Peter’s trying to keep her in her room until someone signals him to bring her in here.”
“Is Trey here?” He wasn’t sure he should even mention his friend’s name.
“He’s back in the living quarters with everyone else, waiting for you. I don’t know how Mr. Covington knew you’d be in today, but he’s had everyone corralled in there for the last hour. It’s a good thing you came. Lorna is about to burst with excitement.”
“You sure you’re okay with Lily?” He hated leaving the little i mp. He never knew what might spill out of her mouth.
Clair smiled and put her arm around the little girl. “We’ll be fine. You go on and we’ll come shortly. Lorna picked out a new dress for Lily. I’ll bring her back just as soon as I get her all ready.”