Christmas Eve Day
Trey grabbed a blanket from his pallet and wrapped it around Lily and Miss Libby. “There—now you look like a Christmas package. Who do you think might want a little girl and her dolly for Christmas?” He carried her to the living area and sat down in front of the fireplace with her on his lap.
“Would you really give me away?” Lily was sober.
“Never.” He pushed her hair out of her eyes. “How can you see with all that frizzy stuff hanging in your face?”
Lily took his face in her hands and put her mouth to his ear. “Claire don’t know how to do girlses hair very good, but don’t tell her ‘cuz it would make her feel bad.”
“I’ll never tell a soul. It will be our secret.” He whispered back to her. “Are you hungry?”
She yawned. “No, I’m still sleepy. I just got up ‘cuz my feets was cold.” She snuggled against his chest.
He leaned his head against the tall back of James’ chair and puller her close. “Go to sleep, then, punkin, and maybe I will, too.”
Something crawled across Trey’s mouth, and he woke with a start.
Lily giggled. “You was slobberin’, and I just wiped it away with Miss Libby’s apron.”
Adam Covington howled with laughed in the chair next to them. “Had an old dog that slobbered like that. We shot him…thought he was rabid.”
Trey dumped the little girl from his lap unto her feet. He rubbed his eyes then stood and stretched.
“Yeah.” Trey grinned at his pa.
“Tonight’s Christmas Eve, you know. Been thinking it might be nice to celebrate it somehow. Any ideas?” Adam rubbed his bum leg.
“I have an idea,” Lily squealed and clapped her hands.
“Shh, you’re going to wake the whole town.” Trey grabbed her and sat her back on his lap. “Now, tell us your idea but be very quiet.”
“Peter can be Joseph, and Claire will be Mary, and James and Lorna will be the inn keepers and…and Ben will be the shepherd and…”
Trey looked at his pa and nodded.
“And Mr. Covington can read from the Bible and Reverend Bowen can pray and tell everybody to stay for cookies.” She smiled. “What do you think?”
“Do SueAnna and I get to be in your program?” Try wiggled his eyebrows at the little girl.
“Of course, silly. SueAnna can sing and you can be…,” she crossed her arms and thumped her finger against her chin. “I know what! You can be Good Will.”
Adam howled. “So Mr. Martin will be Good Will? Who are you going to be?” He wiped the laugh tears from his eyes.
“Watch.” She climbed off Trey’s lap and onto a chair then scrambled to the top of the table before she could be stopped. She held out her arms. “Glory to the highest, and on my earth there shall be a piece of Good Will.” She plunked down in the middle of the table, cross her legs and pulled her nightdress to cover her feet. “I’ll be the angel who has good news to tell everybody Do you think God will mind if Miss Libby pretends to be baby Jesus?”
Lorna clapped her hands when she heard the plans. “Of course we can do it, Lily. The men can gather cedar branches and us women will hike right over to the church and start cleaning. James, you and Sage can go around and let all the townsfolk know, and Doc—you and Trey and Ben can get the news to the farmers and ranchers around. Then bring branches back with you.”
“Please, let me help. Isn’t there something I could do?” SueAnna begged.
Doc shook his head. “Not at the church, you can’t. Maybe Lorna has something here you could keep busy with. You, too, Claire. No foolishness from either of you or I won’t let you attend the services tonight.”
Lorna nodded to the girls. “You ladies go through the store and gather up enough lamps for every window in the church. We’ll clean the chimneys ’til they sparkle. And we can cut up pieces of red flannel to put in the kerosene, too. That would look pretty, don’t you think? My goodness. We haven’t had a church service since the Bittman’s left.”
Claire scowled. “But who will help Lorna clean the church?”
“Ladies,” Adam bowed, “at your service. Why, lookee here. We’ll fly through this in no time.” He stuck a feather duster under each arm and flapped them like wings.
“But what about my costume? I can’t be a angel without a costume.” Lily’s eyes brimmed with tears.
Lorna took her hand. “You come with me. I’ve got just the thing.”
Ben watched from behind the make-shift curtains. The wire he and Sage hung at the front of the church sagged in the middle with the added weight of Lorna’s quilts, but the manger scene was hidden.
The scent of fresh cedar mixed with the heady fragrances of cinnamon and nutmeg. Greenery adorned each window sill and cradled a lamp. The flames from the lamps danced and reflected from the windows. A steady flow of neighbors streamed into the tiny sanctuary.
“Hey, pal, you make a pretty good shepherd.” Trey stood behind him and gazed out the small opening where the quilts didn’t quite meet. “I can’t believe so many people showed up on such short notice. Have you ever seen the like?”
Ben shook his head. “I never even knew you could pretend to be something in the Bible.” The towel Lorna had fixed for a head covering slipped over one eye, and he straightened it so he could see again.
“You never celebrated Christmas?”
“Have you forgotten where I lived most my life? I remember one time a grocer man gave each of us kids an orange and a snow white peppermint stick. I hid the orange for so long it rotted. Somebody stole my candy.” He shrugged. “Can’t remember ever having anything special but that one time.”
“Did you sing carols or hang stockings?”
“Are there special songs for Christmas? Never heard of hanging a sock. Only ones we had were on our feet, and most of them had holes.”
“Don’t you remember Christmas at the Rawlings’ last year?”
“I never been to Rawlings’ at Christmas. First year it snowed too much. Last year I stayed home with Rusty to ride the calving pasture just to make sure we didn’t lose any early babies.”
There was a tug on Ben’s pant leg. Lily smiled up at him and held the sides of her angle costume around her like a fan.
“Do I look bootiful, Ben?” A bit of silver shiny stuff was braided into her hair, which she wore like a crown. It reflected rainbows of color from the lamps in the windows. Around her shoulders draped one of Lorna’s white tablecloths, and it was tied around her middle with a piece of gold cord.
Ben squatted down to face her. “Lily, I think you’re the most beautiful angel I ever saw.
She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed. “I’m scared, Ben. I never been a angel before. Can you hug the ‘fraid out of me?”
He laughed and scooped her into his arms. “Guess what—I’ve never been a shepherd before. Think you can hug the ‘fraid out of me, too?” Why did this little girl always wrench his heart—and make him want to bawl?
“Where’s Miss Libby?”
“She’s all wrapped in waddling clothes and layin down in some hay.”
“Shh, you two,” Lorna scolded from the sidelines. “We’re about to start.”
Ben wiped his eyes with the edge of Lorna’s towel.
Lorna nodded her head and Adam and Trey drew back the quilts along the wire, revealing a small box filled with hay…and Miss Libby.
Adam stepped to the side and adjust his Bible so there was light from a nearby lamp. “And it came to pass in those days…”
Peter and Claire came to the front of the church and took their places around the make-do manger. One by one the characters entered at the appropriate time.
“And lo, the angle of the Lord came upon them…”
Lily took her place in front of the manger and stood with her hands on her hips in front of Ben the shepherd. A titter tottered across the room.
“Lily—go one, sweetie. You’re the angel, remember?” Lorna whispered louder.
Lily turned to Lorna and cupped her hand. “Mr. Covington said the angle came UP ON them,” she didn’t whisper.
She faced Ben. “You need to put me UP ON you so I can give them a piece of Good Will.”
Ben picked up the little angel and set her on his shoulders, amidst the smiles and murmurs of the audience. From her perch above everyone’s head, she spread her arms and announced—”God has good news for us and we’re ‘posed to tell everybody else. So, now I give you a piece of Good Will.” She motioned for Trey to step forward.
SueAnna stepped to the front. “Silent night. Holy night. All is calm…” Her voice was clear and unwavering. Adam closed his Bible and moved to SueAnna’s side and sang with her. One by one the entire gathering stood and joined them.
At the close of the song, Sage Bowen stepped forward. “There’s nothing I can add to—”
A tapping on a window stopped him. Then a tap on the next window, then a face appeared with a long white beard and on his head was a pointed red cap.
Lily squealed from her bird-like roost on Ben’s shoulders. “It’s Santa Claus. Look Ben, it really, really is Santa Claus.” She wiggled for Ben to set her down.
Children jumped with excitement, and then the doors opened and in came Santa Claus.
Ben roared. James Nelson was the only man for miles around who had a belly that couldn’t be disguised.
“Ho, Ho, Ho.” Santa approached Ben, eyes twinkling. The fringe of hair that was usually slicked down with lard, stuck out like lace around the bottom of the red hat that looked like it had been made from the sleeve of a woman’s dress.
Ben bit the inside of his cheek so he wouldn’t laugh. He didn’t want to spoil the excitement of the children who’d gathered around, wide-eyed with wonder.
“Have you been a good boy?” James peeked from under his busy eyebrows and winked.
“Why, I’ve been as good as can be.” He couldn’t remember every being this eager for anything, and laughed at James’ charade.
“Well, let’s see what I can find in my sack for you.” James dug deep into the pillowcase he had in his hand, and the kids crowded closer, craning their necks in anticipation.
A whoosh of air exploded around the room as Santa revealed a pure white candy stick and handed it with great ceremony to Ben.
He was aware of the shouts of glee from the children and adults as well. But he was most grateful they were too busy receiving their own surprises to see him weep.
Adam stuffed a small package into Lily’s stocking hung on the mantle, put a log on the fire and sank into James’ chair with a moan. The weather must have changed—his leg ached like fury. He bent forward to massage it and a giggle interrupted the quiet of the darkened room.
“I saw you, Mr. Covington.” The little girl was curled up in Lorna’s chair. She sat cross-legged with her feet tucked under her nightdress and Miss libby clutched to her chest.
“Lily, what are you doing out of bed so early? It’s cold out here.”
“I’m not cold but Miss Libby is, so we came to sit by the fire. I saw you put something in my stocking. I bet you were gonna tell me it was from Santa Claus, weren’t you?”
Adam laughed. He had, indeed, planned to tell her that very thing. “It is from Santa, Lily—he just had me deliver it for him.”
“It’s okay to tell me the truth because I don’t really believe in Santa Claus.” She turned sideways in the chair and pulled her knees to her chest, tucking her feet snugly back under her nightdress.
“You don’t? Why, Miss Lily, even I believe in Santa Claus.” He motioned for her to join hims and she hopped onto his lap.
“Will it hurt your leg if I sit here?” Her face scrunched in concern.
“No. In fact, I’ll forget all about that bummy old leg if you sit here with me.” He turned her toward the fire and put his arm around her. “Now, are you comfortable?”
She nodded and turned her doll on her lap so she was facing the warmth of the fire, too.
“Now, why don’t you tell me why you don’t believe in Santa Claus.” Had he spoiled the excitement for her? What would SueAnna tell her?
“Well, I kinda believe in him but mostly I know Christmas is for Jesus. Last year, at the Bittmans, Santa Claus didn’t come but Annie told me it was okay because Jesus was the very best present we could ever have. She said if he don’t bring me anything then some other little girl needed to be surprised more than me.” She snuggled deeper against him and laid her head against his chest.
“Your sister is right, Lily. Jesus is the very best gift, but it’s fun to think about Santa Claus, don’t you think? Wasn’t it fun to surprise everyone at church?”
“Mostly I think it was fun for James ‘cuz he and Lorna never had babies so they like to make all the children happy.”
“You do know that everyone will tell you that Santa Claus came last night, don’t you?”
“I know. Why do you think growed people make up stories?” She reached behind her head to pat his cheek.
Adam chuckled. “I suppose we just want to make little ones happy.”
“But it’s wrong to lie and if you lie then I’m not happy. But I am very happy because Peter and Claire are here. I don’t want them ever to leave again. I like it when we’re all one big family, don’t you?”
Adam was glad the little girl couldn’t see his face. He scrunched his eyes as hard as he could to check the tears. “Yes, little one. I very much like being one big family.
Lily bolted upright on his lap. “Listen,” she whispered and turned to the comfort of his arms. “I hear something and it scares me.”
Adam held his breath to keep from roaring with laughter. Sneaking into the room, seemingly unaware anyone was present, was James. His nightshirt flapped against his bare ankles and he hunched over and tiptoed barefoot toward the one small stocking hung on the fireplace mantle.
‘Shh, punkin. Don’t make a sound,” Adam whispered in Lily’s ear.
James carried a big cloth bag. He sat it down to one side and reached into it and retrieved a hammer. He put a row of nails in his mouth, then spit them out one-by-one as he pounded them along the mantle.
Lily wiggled with excitement and Adam helped her hold her hand over her mouth.
After he had all the nails pounded, James brought out stockings of every size and hung them on the nails. Each one had a large paper tag and were bulging with secrets. The man, whom Adam loved like a father, stepped back to survey his handiwork, then turned toward his chair.
“Merry, Merry Christmas.” Lily squealed as she shinnied off Adam’s lap and threw herself against James’ bare legs. “Please, can I go wake up everybody.”
James took a deep breath and sank into his chair next to Lorna. He must be excited to be so short of air. Seemed lately he had a harder time breathing, but doc told him to expect those symptoms.
“What are you thinking about, Santa Claus?” Lorna squeezed his hand.” You must have raided the store last night to get those stockings so full. But, my, oh my, have you ever seen so much excitement?”
He patted her cheek. He loved this woman. “Never, my dear woman. I don’t think little Lily has stopped talking or bouncing since we let her get everyone out of bed.” How much longer would be able to fool this dear lady? He leaned his head against his chair and willed the dizziness to leave.
“How did you ever figure out what to put in each stocking?”
“I’m Santa Clause. Remember?” He smiled at her. “Look at Ben. He’s as excited as Lily.”
Ben held his stocking like it was a prized treasure, and dug into it like there might be gold in the toe. He withdrew a shiny silver harmonica and his eyes lit up. When he blew into it, everyone stopped talking.
“Can you play us a tune?” Lorna called to him
“How did you know?” He sat on the floor, the Christmas stocking between his long legs that he folded in front of him. He brought the instrument to his mouth and began to play…Amazing grace, how sweet the sound—
“Wait, wait,” Lily scooted close to Ben and put her hand on his shoulder. “I know this song so I will sing and Ben will play. Listen, everybody.”
Lily shut her eyes and began to sing. “I may see grace, how sweet you sound. You save a witch like me. I once was sloshed and now you found me. I was blind but now you see. When I been here ten thous and ears bright and shiny like your Son. We have no less tears to sing your praise than when you first begun.”
She curtsied and kissed Ben on the cheek. “Isn’t this the merriest Christmas ever?”
James closed his eyes. Indeed it was the merriest ever. The only thing that could make it better is if he could celebrate it in the presence of Jesus.
“It’s Doc’s orders, Annie. Just for awhile.” Trey covered his wife with the quilt and leaned to kiss her nose. “I’ll wake you in two hours.”
“But I’m fine, Trey. Really I am. It’s not fair that me and Claire have to miss out on all the fun. I wasn’t crying because I was tired—it was Lily singing and…and this whole Christmas has been so much more than I could have ever dreamed.”
“I know, but if you want Doc to ever agree to you going home, then you’re going to have to do what he says now. He’s concerned about you and Claire, and that’s why he ordered you both to take a nap.”
“Two hours. Promise you’ll wake me in two hours.” She pulled his head down to hers. “But you have to give me a good nap kiss.”
“Annie, if I kiss you now you won’t get any sleep at all. Be a good girl.” He unwound her arms from around his neck and tucked them under the quilt. “Only two hours. I promise.”
He closed the bedroom door behind him and leaned against it. Did the woman have any idea what she did to him? He knew his pa was anxious to get back to the ranch, and likely Ben would go with him. He was torn—he knew he was needed also, but how could he bear to leave his wife?
“Oh, here you are, Son. Everything okay? She’s not sick, is she?” Adam limped toward him.
He smiled. “She’s fine. not very happy about being told she had to take a nap, but she’ll get over it.” He moved away from the door. “How about you, Pa? Your leg is bothering you, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Does this every time the weather changes. Probably something I’ll have to put up with the rest of my life. “He put his arm around Trey’s shoulders. “Got time to have coffee with me and Ben? Guess we better decide what we’re gonna do next.”
Trey nodded. “I figured as such. Guess this is as good a time as any. Things seem strangely quiet.”
Adam snorted. “I think everyone is exhausted. Lily had us all up before daybreak, you know.”
So, where is everyone?”
Adam waved his hand around the large room as they entered. “Well, James and Lorna are fast asleep in their chairs. Sage and Peter have retired to the chairs around the stove in the mercantile, and Lily is having tea with Miss Libby over in the corner with her new little tea set James and Lorna gave her. Don’t know where Doc is.”
Ben was already at the table and Trey pulled a chair next to his. Adam poured coffee in all their cups, then grimaced when he sat down. “Okay, fellas, let’s talk.”
“Is there really a big rush to get back?” Trey asked. “Shouldn’t start calving for another month at least.”
“You’re right about the calving, Trey. But the guys out there haven’t had any contact with us since before Thanksgiving. A lot could have happened—just hope they’re all still there.”
Ben tapped his spoon against his cup and laid it in the saucer. “They’ll be there, boss. Every last one of them knows they got it real good at the KIM. Be plumb stupid to leave.”
“Yeah, I suppose. But you know what they way about the cat being away.”
Trey glanced at Ben and they burst out laughing. “Pa, if you knew how much them rats played while you was right there—it don’t take you being away at all.”
“Really? Want to let me in on it?”
“No sir, I don’t. It’s harmless. Ben’s right—they ain’t going nowhere.”
“And you boys aren’t hankering to get back, is that right?”
Ben took a sip of coffee. “Have you looked out the window, Mr. Covington? I don’t know how long it’s been snowing, but the ground is covered and it’s still coming down.”
“That explains this leg throbbing like a toothache. Figured we were in for some kind of change. Guess that answers how soon we leave.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“How about if I plan to go back as soon as the weather acts like it’s gonna let up. You and Trey can wait ’til the girls are ready to come. I know he doesn’t want to leave SueAnna again.” Ben stood and refilled their cups.
Trey reached for the sugar.”SueAnna made me promise to talk to Doc, but I haven’t done it yet. I’m afraid to take off with her during the winter, but hate to leave her here ’til spring. But I feel like I need to be getting back, too.”
“You’re place is right here with your wife, Trey. And I doubt you’d be able to ride very far with that leg thumping away at you, Mr. Covington.” Ben folded his hands on top of the table. “Just makes more sense for me to go like I said in the first place.”
“Makes sense to me, Adam. Got another cup around here somewhere?” Doc punched Trey’s shoulder.
“Where’d you come from?” Adam motioned to the cupboard. “Cups are where they’ve always been. You’re a big boy, get it yourself.”
Trey chuckled. As gruff as the two sounded, there was obvious love between them.
Doc got his coffee and joined them at the table. “Why aren’t you eating? Enough good stuff around here to keep your mouths full all day.”
Adam laughed. “Lorna gave orders, that’s why. We’ll eat when the girls get rested.”
“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go take a nap myself.” Trey stood and put his cup in the dishpan.
“You go in that bedroom with your wife and I’ll take a whip to you.” Doc peered at him over the top of his glasses.
“Guess that settles that.” Trey retrieved his cup, poured himself more coffee, and sat down again. “Lorna surely wouldn’t miss a cookie, do you think?”
“I counted them before I saw down, Trey Martin. And I’ll count them again. If one is missing, I’ll know who to blame.” Lorna patted his shoulder as she passed by.
“Can I help with anything?” He needed to keep busy.
“You can all get away from the table so I can put a clean cloth on it, then the plates and such can be put on.” She took her apron off the hook by the stove and tied it as she moved about. “And if you wake James up with your clunking around, I’ll spank you all.”
Trey glanced at James. Fat chance anyone would wake him up. He was still slumped in his chair just like the last time he looked.
Sage stretched his legs in front of him and crossed his ankles. “I’d forgotten how special having family was, Peter. Thanks for letting me stay and be a part.”
“No need to thank anyone, Sage. The service at the church last night was a special treat for this little town, I reckon. What’re you plans now? Do you have a home to go back to?”
He shook his head. “Not really. The people around Rawlings’ take turns having me stay with them. But—well, now I got another offer to think about.”
“You gonna keep preaching, or is this something else?”
“After the service last night, several of the men came to me and offered me a job as pastor here. I’ll admit it’s tempting.”
“Pay better, does it?” Peter clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned back in his chair.
“Didn’t talk about the pay. But think about it, friend. Going back and having Trey and Rosie in my congregation would be more than awkward—for them as well. I’d have a home here and plenty of people around to keep me busy. Katie would have loved it here.”
“You know you can’t keep making life decisions because of Katie, don’t you? She would want you to go on with your life, wouldn’t she?”
He nodded. “Yes of course she would. But you know—I watched all of you this morning and couldn’t help but feel sorry for myself. You and Claire…Trey and Rosie…James and Lorna.” He shrugged. “Felt pretty lonely, if you can understand.”
Peter leaned forward, and rested his elbows on his thighs. “Do you have to give them an answer right away? Wouldn’t you have to let the people at Rawlings’ know you might not be back? I don’t understand how that all works.”
“The man here said they’d give me time to let Rawlings’ folks know if I decided to stay. But what about you and Claire? You can’t start back on weather like this, can you?”
“Even if it was good weather, Doc won’t let us go back. Says we have to stay now until Claire has her baby—probably in May. I don’t understand it. Lots of women traveled by wagon across this country and babies were born all along the way.”
“You in a hurry to get back? What can you do on your farm in the winter?”
Peter laughed. “You forget how hard farm work can be in the winter? I do have someone watching after things, though. Right now, Claire and the baby are more important. Plus, you’d never guess, but I’m intrigued with the mercantile. if I didn’t have a farm to go back to, I’d look for a place like James and Lorna’s.”
Sage laughed. “You a storekeeper? You’re right. I’d never have guessed.”
“You’re one to talk, Sage Bowen. I still can’t believe you’re a preacher.”
Lily skipped into the mercantile. “Lorna sent Trey to wake Annie, and Peter you’re ‘posed to get Claire, and Reverend Bowen you’re ‘posed to come pray so we can have Christmas again.” She pulled on their hands until the followed her.
Lorna untied her apron and hung it back on the hooks by the stove. This would be a Christmas she would tuck away in her memory as the most precious gift of a long time. What a blessing to have such dear people in their lives.
“Adam, you better go wake that man of mine so we can get started. I don’t mind telling you all—I don’t want this day to ever end.” She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a lacy handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “You can say grace when James gets here, Sage. I can’t believe the man slept through the whole loud afternoon.”
Adam leaned toward James’ chair and shook his shoulder. “Wake up, James. Lorna says you can eat.”
There was no response.
“James—hey man, we’re gonna eat it away from you if you don’t get on your feet.”
Lorna patted Lily’s head as she waited for Adam and James. Why was it suddenly so quiet? The laughter, the talking—everything had come to a stop. Tt was like the silence of death.
“Doc? Get over here, man.” Adam screamed
Lorna looked at the faces around here. She didn’t have to be told.
James was gone.