LATE APRIL, 1874
SueAnna lowered herself onto the porch swing and gazed at her beloved hills. Pastures were green and calving season was over. Soon they would be moving the mamas and their babies to summer grazing ground.
“Mind if I join you?” Lorna wiped her face with her apron and balanced a cup of coffee in one hand as she sank into the swing with a sigh. “Never in my life saw such pretty country. People say further west this land gets as flat as can be, but these hills are a sight, aren’t they?”
“I think I missed the hills most of all while I was in town. Although it was winter, I longed to see them change. Everything is so green and shiny. It’s like God did spring cleaning.”
Lorna’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t mind telling you, I miss that man of mine. Come spring time every year he’d putter around like an old turkey hen looking for a place to nest. He’d have dearly loved it out here. Just a shame we didn’t come sooner. Adam asked us a long time ago—before he hired Hilda. We were foolish to tell him no.”
“Why did you decide not to come?”
“Stubborn—didn’t want to be beholding to no man. We knew Adam well enough to know he would treat us like company, and we couldn’t stand that. We needed to stay busy.”
“What change Adam’s mind? He certainly lets you work now.” She patted the older woman’s hand.
“Nah, he don’t let me—I just told him I was gonna, like it or not.”
SueAnna giggled. “Would you believe, when Trey asked me to consider this job I asked him what it required. He said,” she lowered her voice to mimic his, “oh, cooking, cleaning, woman stuff. Nothing hard.”
Lorna hooted. “Men don’t think you’ve done hard work unless your sitter is numb from being in a saddle all day. Ever notice how the rear end is out of every pair of under-drawers than comes through to be washed? Have half a notion to sew them up tight some day, but then they’d rub blisters and we’d never hear the end of it.”
“Lorna, you’re naughty. My mama would never even say under-drawers—called them unmentionables.”
“Like you couldn’t figure out what they were.” Lorna laughed. “Times sure have changed over the years—and then again, some things never change.”
SueAnna kept the swing moving slowly with her toe. How good it was to have a woman to talk to. Did she dare ask her the questions she had? But if she didn’t, who else would she ask?
“You’re awful quiet, young lady.” Lorna patted SueAnna’s knee. “Do you have something sitting on those pretty little shoulders of yours?”
She stopped the swing, tucked one leg under her and turned to Lorna. “My mama died when I was twelve. I knew a little bit about becoming a woman, but mostly she taught me about house keeping stuff. I know all about the ways of a man and woman, but…oh, I feel so silly talking like this.”
Lorna nodded. “Sweetheart, us women have been asking these questions for years. Sometimes we get answers, sometimes we just learn by doing. You know who taught me all about what I needed to know?”
“Your girlfriends? How nice that must have been. I’ve never had a close girlfriend. When mama died, I became a mother to Lily and a housekeeper for Papa and Peter. There wasn’t time left for girlfriends.”
Lorna shook her head. “No, not girlfriends—James. I was as dumb as they come—but he wasn’t. I never had the nerve to ask him how he knew so much…decided early on it didn’t make any difference. He was the one who taught me all about loving. The hardest thing for me was I could never give him a child. I would cry, and he would hold me and pat my back, ‘Lorna, honey, I don’t reckon I could love you any more if you was to hatch out a whole flock of them little ones. You’re enough for me.”
SueAnna laughed. “Hatch out a flock? He didn’t really say that.”
“Yes, he did. Silly old man always like to say something he thought would shock me. Sometimes it did, but I didn’t want him to know it.”
“Did you know that Doc Mercer talk to Trey before we left Prairie View?”
Lorna shrugged. “I thought maybe he did. I know he was worried about you. I told him to let God handle it, but I reckon he didn’t listen to me.”
“Lorna—we didn’t…we didn’t wait.” She picked at her fingers to keep from looking at her friend. “But now…well, now I haven’t had a monthly since I can’t remember when, and I’m wondering how do I know if we’re going to have a little one?”
“Well, if you don’t want to talk to Fred Thayer, I suppose time will be your best answer. A few things I might tell you, but I never had a wee one so I can only go by what I heard other women talk about when they came into the mercantile.”
“Well, I’ve noticed that you don’t eat breakfast until late morning. You feel a might queasy, do you?”
“Oh, yes. I can’t stand the smell of anything frying, and even to look at an egg yolk makes me want to gag.”
“How about…well, are you a little tender on top?”
Heat rushed to SueAnna’s face. “More than tender. I plain hurt. Can’t hardly stand to have my clothes touch me.”
The older woman smiled. “How about your moods? Feel like crying one minute and fighting the next?”
She nodded. “Trey says I’m more unpredictable than a first calf heifer.”
“For shame. What a thing to say. Have you told him what you’re thinking?”
“No. it would scare him. And please, don’t you say anything to him. He’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. I’m afraid if I tell him he’ll start sleeping back in his old room.”
Lorna slapped her forehead. “Well, that would certainly be shutting the barn door after the horse got out.”
“Lorna Nelson. That sounded plumb naughty.”
The older woman laughed. “Did it?” She put her hand on SueAnna’s knee and lifted herself from the swing. “Not naughty at all, it’s the truth. But I hope you know Doc Thayer is likely to chaw on him a bit if you are indeed expecting a little one. Now, how about it? You hungry?”
She shook her head. “I can’t eat a thing until almost noon—then I can’t stop eating until bed time. I’ve even been tempted to sneak down to the kitchen at night, but didn’t want Trey to wake up and find me gone.”
Lorna grasped SueAnna’s hand and pulled her to her feet. “I’d like to be a little mouse when he finds out he’s going to be a Papa. Goodness. And what do you suppose Miss Lily will have to say?”
SueAnna straightened her skirt. “I’ve thought about that—a lot. I expect her to be a little jealous. She didn’t take to Trey and me sharing the same bed for quite some time. But I’m not ready to tell her anything yet. Can you imagine what that little girl would do with a piece of news like that? Did I ever tell you how she told the whole crew that Trey and I were married?”
“Adam told me. He got quite a kick out of it, but don’t suppose it was at all funny for the two of you. Do you have any names picked out? Seems like all the ladies who come into the mercantile in a family way have a name long before the babe makes an appearance.”
“Well, I was thinking of starting with the letter B. I can’t wait for you to meet Alice Rawlings and all her A’s.”
“You suppose we might talk Adam into going to church again soon? I’ve missed getting together with other believers.”
SueAnna held the door open for her friend. “You could talk Adam Covington into anything you wanted. I’ve never seen so many shelves in one kitchen.
“Look who’s here to greet us.” Trey smiled at SueAnna.
She smiled back, but held in the laughter she felt. She doubted her husband’s eyes could have widened any more as Alice Rawlings waddled her way toward the wagon. Little A number seven bobbed along on her hip, and by all indications number eight was more than ready to be born. SueAnna patted her own tummy. Could it possibly ever stretch like that?”
“Hello, Alice. It’s so good to see you again.”
“Yeah, well, there’s a whole lot more of me to see than the last time you was here.” Alice chuckled, then shook her finger at Trey. “Young man, you be needin’ church after the bald face lie you told us last time you was here. Miss Morrow—the housekeeper. You should be ashamed.” She looked past Trey’s shoulder. “You leave Ben at home? Never knowed him to miss a Sunday service if he could make it. Been comin’ all this time without the likes of you all.”
Trey jumped from the wagon. “No, nothing wrong. He’s taking Sam’s turn at line four. Been there two months already. Says he’ll come in after this round.”
“You’re sure nothin’s wrong?”
“I”m sure. Had Adam sent him up his Bible and some other books. Says he’s enjoying his time alone. Crazy guy. Don’t know how he survives his own cooking. I had to eat it once, and it was terrible. I threw it to the chickens, and they quit layin’.”
“There you ago again, young man, lying through those pretty white teeth of yours. “Alice laughed and wiped the nose of the babe on her hip. “You’ll have to excuse this one—has a constant drip, it seem.” The little one shrieked and turned his head from side to side, but the hand holding the handkerchief honed in on the drippy nose like a snake slithering toward its prey. She quickly wiped then kissed the child’s red nose. “It wouldn’t take so long if you wouldn’t fight me.”
She tucked the handkerchief down the front of her dress and turned back to Trey. Now, young man—how about introducing that pretty little gal waitin’ for you to help her out of that wagon.”
Trey helped Lorna out of the wagon. “Alice Rawlings, meet Lorna Nelson, the new housekeeper over at the KIM.”
Both Lorna and Alice swung at him, but he ducked out of reach. “Alice—you hitting at me because you don’t think Lorna is pretty?”
He lifted SueAnna out of the wagon and kissed her forehead.”
“You know good and well what I was talkin’ about.” She turned to Lorna. “Welcome to you. I guess you know by now, this young man is a scamp.”
“That I do. I’m so glad to meet you. SueAnna has told me all about you. It was so kind of you to keep Lily for awhile.”
“Pshaw. One more in this house is never a bother. Kids thought it was great fun to call out a name what didn’t start with A. Mixed my Abe all around, though. He called her Anna Lily most of the time. Should have heard her giggle.”
Alice moved to SueAnna’s side and hugged her. “My goodness, child—if I’d knowed the truth when you was here the first time I would never have turned Winnie Hollings loose on you. Guess that singed some feathers, didn’t it?”
“I did, but you meant no harm.” She smiled
“Trey, you go on over with the men where you belong.” She shooed him away with a flick of her wrist. “Abigail, you and Lily run on and play a bit before church time. Get some of the wiggles and giggles out of your system.”
As soon as Trey and the little girls were out of sight, Alice crooked her finger for Lorna and SueAnna to join her in a huddle. “Okay, you can tell me now—when is the little Martin due?”
SueAnna frowned at Lorna.
Lorna shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
Alice cackled. “Oh, don’t you worry your pretty little head. Nobody told your secret. For many a year now, I’ve been able to tell when a woman was expectin’ a babe. Don’t know how—but I don’t miss.”
“I never heard the like.” Lorna smiled at her. “We weren’t even sure, just guessed. If we’re right, should be another little Martin come Thanksgiving or thereabouts.”
“Thereabouts is more like it—I’d say sooner. What’s Trey think of all this?”
SueAnna put her hand on Alice’s shoulder. “Trey doesn’t know. He would worry himself silly, and I wanted to wait for a little while yet to be sure. I’m glad you know, but please don’t say anything to anyone else.”
Alice nodded her head, then shoved the babe on her hip into Lorna’s arms. “My lands—my lands, if that boy don’t know, he’s in big trouble. Abe’s better at predictin’ than I am. Why, he can tell you at a glance when a heifer weighs and when her calf is due. He aims he can tell as good by lookin’ at the Papa-to-be. Never could keep it a secret from when when it was my turn.” She duck-walked toward the group of men.
“A heifer—and when her calf is due?” Lorna hugged the babe with one arm and slapped her knee with her free hand. “Oh, I do like that women, but I do swear I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a body swell up quite like hers.”
SueAnna nudged Lorna in the ribs. “I think Abe must have got to him before Alice. Here comes my husband and it looks like he has a head of steam worked up under that collar.”
Trey didn’t hesitate. He grabbed her by the elbow and propelled them both forward without slowing a step. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He hissed.
“Trey, stop. I can’t keep up with you.” She planted her feet and he landed in the dirt, and she landed on top of him.
She laughed. “Well, seems like we’ve been here before. We really must stop his you know. Look at the crowd you’ve gathered.”
Trey moaned. “This is not one bit funny, Mrs. Martin. How do you think I felt when Abe Rawlings announced that he spied another cute little heifer in the workin’ chute? He was plumb crude, and I was stupid enough to ask him what he meant.”
She laughed until the tears rolled. “Well, it isn’t exactly how I planned to tell you, but Mr. Martin, you are indeed going to be a Papa. Now help me up and let’s see if we can take a walk without an audience and talk about this.”
“I can’t get up, Annie.” He grimaced in pain. “You’re gonna have to get Abe or Adam to help us off the ground.”
“Why? Trey Martin. I’m not that big yet. I’m still just a heifer. Remember? You’re acting like you got sat on by an old cow.” Oh, she was enjoying this.
“Annie, don’t laugh. I think I broke something. Maybe my ankle. I can’t move my foot.”
Fred Thayer finished wrapping Trey’s ankle, then motioned for Adam to help the boy up. “I tell you, my good friend, and this time I mean it—you better be puttin’ up a shack of some sort for me. This boy is going to be down for awhile. Nothing broke, but he sure enough twisted it like a rag and that can be worse than a break to heal. Top that with SueAnna expecting her first babe when she’s just come through her terrible winter ordeal. I think she’ll do fine, but when Frank Mercer finds out he’ll have my hide if I don’t stay close by until her time.”
He hefted Trey up on one side and Adam took the other side. Together they were able to get the doped-up young man to the wagon. “Gave him enough stuff to make him sleep awhile. Hope you got somebody at the ranch to help you get him in the house. I’ll be along shortly. We still gotta have some kind of church service this morning and since Sage isn’t here, they’ll be expecting to hear something from me.”
“Never knew you were a preacher, Fred.” Adam grunted at they lifted Trey into the back of the wagon onto the bed of quilts Alice had given them.
“Not a preacher, but I can share what the Lord’s been laying on my heart as well as anyone.”
“Doc—Doc Thayer! Don’t leave.” Abe Rawlings was hollering and running at the same time.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Abe.” He yelled back. “Just tell all those people to be patient. I’m coming”
“Them people don’t got nothin’ to do with it. It’s Alice. She done started havin’ this babe without ya, but she said could you put a hurry on? She don’t usually need no help, Doc. I’m plumb scared somethin’s wrong. I tell you for sure, it ain’t her time yet.”
Fred leaned against the wagon and wiped his brow. “Lorna—you know anything about havin’ babes?”
“Not a blamed thing, Doc, but you won’t find anybody better than me when it comes to doing what I’m told.” She turned to Adam. “You take this boy on home and Fred can bring me later. SueAnna—you rest, too. Okay, Doc. You tell me how to grind the kraut.”
Adam grinned. “She don’t only know how to take orders, Fred—she’s might handy at giving them, too.”
Doc grasped Lorna’s hand. “Not getting fresh, my lady, but we need to hurry. I don’t mind telling you, this one has me worried.”
“I thought you might be, otherwise you wouldn’t ask me to help. What are you most worried about?”
He gave her a one-sided grin. “Silly, probably, but Abe told me he was thinking this time there was more than one calf in the chute. Crude, but that’s Abe. If Alice does have more than one babe in there ww might have a time. She usually has her little ones before I get here. I’m just glad I was already here.“
“Two babies if your biggest worry—or how Alice will make it through?”
Doc chuckled. “Both—plus what if they run out of A names?”
Lorna punched him on the shoulder. “Shame on you. I’ll think of one and you think of one. That way if Abe stutters we can help him.”
He hesitated outside the door. “Lorna, have I told you how glad I am you’re here?”
“You can tell me later. I can hear poor Alice moaning from her. We’ve got work to do.”
Lorna wrung the water from her cloth and sponged Alice’s face again. “Not much longer, Alice. You’ve been working hard, but it won’t be much longer.”
Alice grabbed her hand. “Lorna, I never had to work hard to have babies before. That’s wrong I can tell Doc is worried.”
“You’re older, Alice. This is your eighth baby and you’re tired. Now, let’s talk about names. You got one picked out?” She glanced at Fred, and he shook his head.
“Lorna Nelson, don’t you be tryin’ to change the subject. Something’s wrong, isn’t it? Where’s Abe? Get Abe. He’ll tell me? She rolled her head from side to side.
“Alice,” Fred bent over the threshing woman. “I can see the head. Now, you’re going to have to do what I will you do you understand? Alice, answer me. Do you understand?”
She strained against his hands, but nodded.
“Okay. Then we can get this done.”
Two hours later, three tiny babes lay bathed and wrapped side-by-side in the basket Abe brought in. Lorna barely had time to get a cover in it when the babes started coming. Tiny, tiny things—but all were breathing and were pink as could be. Lorna had bathed Alice, too, and had her in a clean bed, clean nightdress, and her hair was brushed before they let Abe in.
“If I’d knowed there were three of them little ones in there I would’ve been a mite more careful. Raised my arms above my head this morning to fetch somethin’ off a shelf. It’s a wonder it didn’t do more harm than start ’em on their way before time.” Her voice was weak but her face beamed. Lorna handed her one of the little ones for each arm and laid the third on across her stomach.
“You have names?” Lorna could hardly keep from smiling. She and Doc had come up with some doozies, but they would never tell the Rawlings’.
“The girls are Anna Sue, Annie Lorna, and the boy will be whatever Abe chooses. He gets to name the boys”
Lorna’s eyes watered. “Did you say Annie Lorna?”
“I know we only just this morning said our first howdy’s, but what would I have done without you, Lorna Nelson? Ain’t is just a wonder? Three all at once and they’re all just a pink as new little pigs.”
Lorna laughed out loud. She’d never had a child named after her before, and here she was comparing it to a piglet.
“Ahhem.” Abe cleared his throat.
If that man spits, he’s going right back outside. He’s as feisty as a a bantam rooster. You’d think he did all the work. Come on in, Abe.
He stopped beside Lorna and put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank ya, Mrs. Nelson. My Alice, she means more to me than anything. Reckon I was mighty scared I was gonna lose her. Sure thankin’ the Lord you was here to help.”
So, he has a soft heart after all. Forgive me, Lord. Do you have a name picked for the little fella? Alice told me you got to choose the boys’ names.”
“Sure do,” he puffed out his chest and grinned. “Andrew Fredrick—kinda goes well with Anna and Annie, don’t ya think?”
Doc sniffed. “Goes well with all the A names, Abe—but mighty proud you chose Fredrick. He’ll be a good man one day.