Early May, 1874
Adam Covington propped one foot on the fence and watched while Ben cut three more horses from the herd that milled in the corral. “That ought to about do it for this year, Ben. Let the rest of them go.”
Ben acknowledged with a wave, then opened the gate. When the last horse was out, he rode to the fence. “I love this time of year, boss. Those little ones were sure kickin’ their heels, weren’t they?”
“My favorite, too, Ben. And can I tell you again how good it is to have you down here with the rest of the family?”
“Done me a lot of thinking in that cabin, boss. Was good to remember Mrs. Winthrop again—hadn’t thought about her for awhile because it always hurt. She was the kindest lady, sir. And she’s the only one, out of all those other families, that ever told me there was a God and that He loved me so much He sent His son to die for me. That’s love, and I needed to be reminded.”
“Have you had a chance to talk with Trey? He’s wondered what I said to make you leave like you did.”
Ben laughed. “Hope you told him it wasn’t any of his business.”
Adam nodded. “I did, and he just grinned.” He leaned against the fence and stretched. “Think I’ll ride into Cherokee. Should be getting some word from Peter and Claire one of these days. A little anxious to see what Lorna will decide to do. Sure would like to keep her here but suppose Peter is anxious to get back to his farm.”
“Want me to go in for you? If all you want to do is get the mail, I could save you a trip.”
“No, gonna be a trip either way so doesn’t make much difference who makes it. Besides, I plan to have lunch with Fred Thayer. Haven’t seen him since was here to check on Trey’s ankle. I imagine he think we all up and died out here since he hasn’t been called out for a spell.”
Ben dismounted and brushed the seat of his pants with his hat. “Thought he was coming out to be close to SueAnna.”
“Well, he is. But he says the babe won’t be born until Thanksgiving. Alice Rawlings says by the light of the waning moon in October. If I was a betting man—I’d lay odds on Alice Rawlings.”
Ben stopped at the barn. “If anyone in this part of the country knows anything about babes being born, It’d have to be Alice.”
Lorna pulled her chair to the table and put her napkin in her lap. “Okay, Adam Covington. The food is ready, and there’s apple pie for dessert, but you or nobody else is going to take one bite of anything until you tell us what’s in the letter you’ve carried around ever since you rode in from Cherokee.”
“Amen, sister,” the others chorused.
Adam withdrew the letter in slow motion and waved it in front of Lorna’s nose. “My, my dear lady. You’ve become quite bossy in your old age, haven’t you?”
She nodded. “I’ve earned the right—and you aren’t going to live long enough to see old age if you don’t read that letter. I know in my bones it’s going to tell us Peter and Claire’s babe is here. And it might also say something about what they plan to do next.”
Adam cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses. “Dear Family All: We want you to know that little John Karl Earl morrow arrived safely on April 27. Doc Mercer says to tell you all that he is a ‘strapping’ big boy. According to the scales in Emma’s mercantile, he weighed nine pounds.”
Lorna gasped. “Nine pounds? Did you say nine pounds?”
“That’s what it says. You want me to go on, or is that enough news for one day?” Adam grinned at her. It was like dangling a piece of cheese in front of a mouse.
“You know better than to think something like that. Go on.”
“He has a mop of blonde hair and big blue eyes, but Doc thinks they will get darker when he get a bit older. We could all use a little more sleep, but he’s healthy and we’re thankful for that. Now, we’ll be anxious to hear from you, Trey and SueAnna. Think you can beat this.”
Lorna shook her finger at SueAnna. “Don’t you even try. Only a man would say something like that.”
SueAnna giggled. “I don’t suppose I’ll have much say in it, Lorna.”
Adam slapped the letter against the table. “This next part is about you, Lorna. Think you can keep quiet long enough to hear it?”
“I’ll try, just get on with it.”
“I reckon Lorna is wondering about our plans. We’ve thought long and hard and prayed even harder, and this is the answer we got. I got a letter from the man who has been taking care of the farm while we’re gone. He has given me an offer on the place. We’ve been thinking we’d like to use that money to buy the Mercantile. Don’t worry, Lorna, We’d still call it Nelson’s Mercantile, but we sure would like to stay on if you would let us. I guess you could decide where you want to stay, but you’re always welcome back here. For now, this will be all. Will wait to hear from you, Lorna. Give everyone our love and know we are praying for you all. Your friend and brother, Peter K. Morrow.”
Adam lowered the letter. “Don’t you have anything to say about that piece of news, Mrs. Nelson?”
Lorna wiped her nose with her napkin. “Well, now. I guess this is call for a celebration. How about I serve the pie first? And Adam, you get one of your cowboys to ride to Cherokee tomorrow and send a telegram back to that boy. if it’s okay with you, I just made myself permanent boss of this ranch.”
She pushed away from the table. You hear that, James? I’m going to stay right here and those young folks are going to take over our store. Now isn’t that an answer to prayer? I bet you done some finagling, didn’t you? Well, you keep a good word in for me, and don’t you be looking at any of those other angels up there, you hear?
Mid October, 1874
“Lily, you have to hold your hand real still.” SueAnna held her little sister’s hand on her belly, and the babe kicked.
“What was that?” Lily’s eyes were wide. “Can he do it again?”
“If he doesn’t go to sleep. But you have to hold still, sweetheart. It doesn’t help to knock on my tummy. It’s not a door.”
“When will he come out?” Lily put her hand back on SueAnna’s stomach. “I think he went to sleep.”
“He’ll come out when he’s ready—that’s what Lorna says. Now, while he’s sleeping, why don’t you sleep, too? We’ve had our special time so you can go crawl into your own bed in Lorna’s room. And would you please tell Trey he can come in now?”
Lily perched on the side of the bed. “Does Trey care if we have out quiet time? I miss you.”
“Trey doesn’t mind at all. But Lily,” she put her hands around Lily’s face, “I’m right here. You don’t have to miss me. We’re all a family. We live together, but we don’t all sleep together.”
The little girl’s lower lip trembled. “But when the baby comes, you’ll have another family and I won’t have one all by myself anymore.”
SueAnna pulled her as close as her tummy would allow. “LilyAnna Rose—you will always, always, always have a family of your own. Me and Trey, Peter and Claire, Trey, Lorna, Mr. Covington, Ben. How many more do you want?”
“I want my own Mama and Papa,” she wailed. There was never any doubt—when Lily was sad, the whole world would know it.
SueAnna’s heart wrenched. Lily had never known her mama and couldn’t remember her papa. “I don’t know how to fix that, little one. But you know, Ben doesn’t have a Mama or Papa, either.”
“But Ben is all growed up,” she sniffed. “I told Abe, Jr., if he kissed me he could be in our family. But he didn’t want to, so I told him if he didn’t then I would throw rotten eggs at him so he kissed me on the cheek. I don’t think that counts, does it? If he was in our family then Alice and big Abe could be my ma and pa. See how that works?”
SueAnna shook her sister’s shoulders. “That is no way for a lady to act. You don’t ask boys to kiss you, and you don’t threaten them with bodily harm. A lady is gentle and kind. I haven’t taught you very well, have I?”
“Doesn’t a lady ever holler or anything? I don’t think I want to be a lady if I can’t holler.”
“I never heard our mama raise her voice. I wish I could say I’d always been that kind of lady, but I’m trying very hard. You wouldn’t want Abe to agree to be your husband just so you wouldn’t throw rotten eggs at him, would you?”
Lily giggled. “They weren’t really rotten, but he didn’t know that. I made a nest for them in the haymow, so they’ll probably be rotten next time he comes. He’s afraid of haymows, too, so maybe I won’t throw rotten eggs at him—I’ll just tell him I’ll push him out. That way he wouldn’t be all smelly.”
“You’ll do no such thing. If you do, I’ll have Trey turn you over his knee. Do you hear me?” SueAnna bit the side of her cheek. One little quiver of her face and the girl would know she was about to laugh. A lot of good that would do.
Lily’s face clouded. “Would he do it? You yelled at him once, and he didn’t turn you over his knee.”
“I didn’t yell. We were…we were discussing something and I just raise my voice a bit. I didn’t yell.” Did the girl ever forget anything?
“Yes you did. You stomped your foot at him right after you was married because he didn’t want to bring our wagon. I saw you, and Ben laughed and laughed only you didn’t hear him.”
SueAnna rubbed her forehead. She’d failed. What would Mama say? What would Mama do. Mama would have trained her better in the first place. “Lily, it’s bedtime. Just please do as I asked, and tell Trey he can come in.”
“Are you mad with me?”
She shook her head. “No, sweetheart, I’m not mad. I just realize I haven’t taught you the things I should’ve taught you long before now. We’ll talk again in the morning.
SueAnna turned on her side so she could rest he back against Trey’s broad chest.
He put his arm across her shoulder and drew her close. “I wish you’d quit worrying about it, Annie. You’ve done a great job with Lily. She’s just a youngster and is going to do little girl things. You never had the chance to o that, remember?”
She sniffed. ” But she threatened Abe, Jr., and has hidden eggs so she can pound him a good one if he doesn’t kiss her. And I’m actually afraid she’ll push the poor boy out of the haymow if he doesn’t agree. She’s a ruffian, and it’s my fault.”
His laugh rumbled against her back. “She’s nothing of the kind, and it’s not your fault. She just needs other kids to play with. After our little one gets here, maybe we can make sure she gets to see the Rawlings’ more often. She’s boss here, and evidently thinks that’s how she can manage other people, too. She’ll learn. Kids have a way of teaching one another.”
“I just want her to be a lady.” Why didn’t he understand?
He roared. “You want to know what I thought of you the first time we met? You bloodied my nose and bit me, but you insisted you were a lady.”
“I was a lady. You just didn’t know it, yet. But you know it now, don’t you? Tell me I’m a lady, Trey,” she teased and turned over to reach for him.
“Oh, Annie. You’re more woman than I know what to do with—and if that makes you a lady, then, my dear, you are one fine lady.”
He leaned on one elbow to kiss her, then had the sensation of lying in water.
“Trey,” she whispered. This was no time for him to panic. “Trey, go get Lorna. I think I’m going to have this baby.”
“Now? Are you sure? Now?”
She took a deep breath. Her back pinched something awful. “Now.”
“But it isn’t time. Are you sure”
Her back pinched again, and this time it nearly took her breath away. She leaned up on both elbows. “Trey Martin, you get out of this bed and get Lorna. Now.”
“Now,” she screamed through gritted teeth. “I…said…now!”