Bancroft Ranch near Amarillo, Texas, December 1880
Regina and the bevy of girls who volunteered with her at the orphanage spent the morning of the twenty-fourth wrapping gifts for the children. Dan listened to their chatter through the open door of the library as he read the newspaper Hart had brought from town earlier.
For the first time in years, he thought of the tiny baby girl for whom he’d built a crude wooden coffin. He placed her in it himself and carried her to the post cemetery as snow drifted from a somber winter sky. Catherine kept up the grave as long as they were there, but he knew the wooden marker likely had splintered and rotted by now. He pushed away the thought. What one couldn’t change was best let go. Or so he told himself.
At four o’clock, Hart and Cary loaded a mountain of packages into the wagon, and a hand brought around the buggy. “You want to ride with us?” Cary asked Dan.
“I’ll go in the buggy with your mother and Regina.” The gleam of the guns the younger men had strapped on caught his eye. “Are those necessary just to go to the orphanage?”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Cary said. “There’s always a crowd out doing a little too much celebrating. Want me to get you one?”
Dan cut him off with a wave of his hand. “The last time I took off my gun, I swore I’d never put one on again, and I never have.”
“When the war was over?” Cary asked as he checked his cartridges.
“No, afterwards,” Dan answered. He turned to help Olivia into the buggy, signaling an end to that line of conversation.
“We’re going to break ground for a new orphanage in the spring,” Regina told him.
“I’m glad it’s become a reality.”
“You’ll understand when you see what we have now. The men in Jericho try to keep it in repair…if they think about it.”
Apparently they didn’t think about it often, Dan observed. The three-story wooden house with peeling paint and gaping wooden shingles stood stark and grim against the darkening December sky. But lamplight shone from the windows, and a fragrant cedar wreath adorned the door Pastor Gordon threw open.
“Welcome, welcome! Merry Christmas, Olivia. Merry Christmas all.”
The men hung their guns on hooks high on the wall before they began bringing in the gifts.
“We had an early gift this afternoon,” the pastor said, relieving Regina of her wrap as Dan helped Olivia. “A brand-new baby girl.”
“Oh? Where did she come from?” Olivia asked.
“One of Bob Houghten’s hands was out looking for a stray when he passed a line shack and thought he heard a baby crying.” He lowered his voice. “Unfortunately, the mother was dead and had been for a while from all appearances. He brought the baby straight to town.”
“Was the mother from around here?” Regina asked.
“Not that I know of. Poor girl, hardly more than a child herself, I understand. But God was good, and the baby is well. Would you like to see her?”
Dan’s “Yes” was the first one to echo in the hall.
In the back room, Amalia Gordon sat in a rocking chair by the fire. “You heard about our early Christmas present, did you?”
“I hate to think what would have become of her if the hand hadn’t happened by.” Olivia pulled back the blanket. “Oh, Amalia, she’s beautiful.”
Dan peered over Olivia’s shoulder. “She has hair.”
Amalia laughed. “Some babies do.”
“What color would you call it?” he asked.
“Oh, strawberry-blonde. Auburn. It might darken.”
“How old is she?”
“Two days, give or take.”
“She’s very small.”
“Babies are,” Olivia said, amused by her husband’s fascination with the infant. Then she regretted her words. Dan knew how small babies were…how fragile…how transient their lives.
Amalia rose. “Would you like to hold her, Regina? I should go upstairs and be sure the younger children are getting their clothes on in the right order. Little Mary came to breakfast the other morning wearing her petticoat on the outside. She said it was prettier than her dress.”
Regina held the baby for a few minutes before passing her into Olivia’s arms. Olivia watched Dan’s eyes follow the transfer. “Would you like to hold her, Dan?”
“Oh, no. No, thank you, Olivia. I don’t know anything about babies.”
“You don’t have to know anything about babies to hold them,” Regina said. “Sit in the rocking chair if you’d be more comfortable.”
Olivia thought he responded with alacrity. She placed the baby in his arms and then, signaling Regina to follow, left the room.
“Maybe we shouldn’t leave him alone,” Regina whispered.
“Give him a few minutes,” her mother said. “He’s never held a baby before. Not a live one.”
Olivia kept watch through the partially-open door. Dan sat absolutely still, his eyes riveted on the sleeping infant. A slight stirring of the blanket, followed by the appearance of a tiny hand, told her the baby was waking. She started in but stopped as she heard Dan speaking.
“You have green eyes,” he murmured. “And such pink cheeks.” The baby’s hand fastened around his finger. “And you’re so strong. I didn’t know babies could hold on like that.”
Only the sound of the children coming downstairs to gather in the dining room for games, followed by gifts and refreshments, spurred Olivia to enter the room. “It’s time for the party.”
Dan startled. “She’s so small…but she’s perfect.” He stroked the baby’s cheek with his finger. Our baby wasn’t,” he said almost to himself. “The doctor said she’d never be right. He didn’t even want Catherine to see her. He gave her something to make her sleep and told me to bury the baby right away.”
Olivia touched his shoulder. “What was wrong with her?”
“Her mouth…nose…split open. I’ve seen a few other people like that.”
“So have I.”
“She must have had other things wrong, too, things I couldn’t see. She never drew a breath.”
“I’m so sorry, Dan.”
He closed his eyes. “And here is this baby with no one to love her.”
“The sheriff will try to find the girl’s family. If not, it’s likely someone will take her. Babies are very appealing to people.”
“Like a puppy or kitten,” Dan said with an unaccustomed note of bitterness in his usually gentle voice. “She’ll be an extra pair of hands on a farm or ranch someday.”
Olivia knew he was right. Most families who adopted children did so for the sake of adding help on their place. Most often they were good to them, even loved them in a way, but these children would never have what hers had experienced—total love and devotion and a chance to follow their dreams.
Throughout the evening, Olivia caught Dan stealing glances at the baby sleeping in a basket beside the stove. He would have made a good father, she reflected. He had so much love to give. She was in a better position than anyone to know that.
Everyone pronounced the party a success in every way, and the drive home was punctuated by singing and laughter. Though it was only nine o’clock when they arrived, everyone drifted off to their rooms, and within an hour, a peaceful stillness had descended over the house. But in the night, Olivia woke and saw her husband standing beside the window, staring out into the darkness.
On the day after Christmas, Dan rode out with Cary, but he came back alone. In the evening, Cary and Hart played pool and argued about a variety of subjects. Regina, with Olivia’s help began work on a dress for the new baby. Only Dan sat silent and removed from the group.
He excused himself early and went upstairs. Olivia found him staring into the fire. “You’re thinking about the baby, aren’t you?”
“What? Oh, no—no, of course not.”
“Yes, you are. You want her.”
“At my age?”
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Perhaps the sheriff will find her family.” Dan leaned forward a little. “I hope so.”
“I very much doubt it. A girl doesn’t have her baby in a deserted line shack if she has someone to take her in.”
“Or accept a child of questionable parentage.”
“Exactly. I expect the mother was from somewhere around here. A saloon girl, perhaps. It happens more often than we know.”
“That’s not the baby’s fault.”
“But the blame will follow her.”
Dan held out his arms, and Olivia folded herself within their warmth. “You’d have been a good father, Dan.”
“I would have tried.”
“It’s not too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have so much love between us, enough to share. We could take her.”
“Olivia, my love, I’m fifty-five years old, and you’re…”
“I know how old I am.” She took his face in her hands and kissed him.
“It’s only been four months since we married. A baby would change things between us.”
“I’ll admit I don’t want to rise at all hours to tend an infant, but since I’m not necessary to her feeding as I was with the others, we might find a nurse for night duty.”
“You’re really serious.” The eagerness lighting his eyes reminded Olivia of a small boy considering a proffered treat
“Yes, I am.”
“What would your children say?”
“Oh, Cary will rant, Hart will pontificate, and Regina will squeal, but in the end, they’ll fall in with the idea.”
“Have you considered we might not live to raise her?”
“She’d have extended family to love and care for her.”
“I don’t want you to do this for me.”
Olivia laid her face against his. “I may have wanted her before you did.”
“She’s so small, so helpless.”
“She’s a miracle. She should’ve died in that freezing line shack with her mother.”
“You’ve been my miracle, you know. I was only existing, and you made me want to live again.” He lifted her hands to his lips.
“We’ll call her Katherine.”
Dan frowned, but Olivia shook her head. “Katherine with a K. She’ll be part of your good memories. Bancroft will give her a bond with this family.”
“Katherine Bancroft Forrester.” Dan spoke the words as if he were tasting and finding them sweet. “But we’ll call her Kate. That’s a good solid name, don’t you think?”
“Hart can speak to Judge Meredith tomorrow, and you’ll need to telegraph the Vandemeers and ask Anjanette to find us a good nurse.”
“I can hardly believe we’re doing something so foolish.”
“There were those who thought we were foolish when we married after such a brief courtship.”
Dan chuckled. “Cary and Hart.”
“Now you enjoy a good relationship with them.”
“They’re fine men. Regina’s a lovely young lady.”
“And so will our Kate be.”
“Our Kate. Olivia, are you absolutely sure?”
Her tears spilled over unbidden. “Thank you for loving me, Dan.”
His arms tightened around her. “I love you more than I have words to say.” His lips found hers and lingered. “So much love between us,” he murmured.
“Yes. Enough to share.”
Galveston, Texas, January 1881
Olivia, cradling Kate in her arms, stood in the open door watching Dan stride down the walk toward the street. He paused at the gate and lifted his hand in farewell. She extracted a hand to return his wave. “Your Papa’s off for the day, Kate,” she murmured, placing her lips against the baby’s downy head. “And here we are.”
She sat down in the new rocking chair, a piece of furniture she’d never envisioned when she redecorated the parlor of Dan’s house after their marriage. The baby fixed her sea foam green eyes on her mother as if waiting for further conversation.
“We’re his heart, you know, the heart he said was broken and turned to stone. And he’s our heart, too, darling Kate. Someday you’ll understand how blessed we are to be part of his life. I hope one day you’ll look up and see a man like your father crossing the room. He’ll ask you to dance, and you’ll know immediately he’s the one with whom you’ll waltz through life.”
“Mrs. Forrester, would you like for me to take the baby upstairs now?” Elspeth, the new nanny, paused in the doorway.
Olivia smiled. “My daughter and I were just discussing her future husband. I’ll bring her upstairs when we’ve finished our talk.”
Elspeth hurried away.
Olivia smoothed the baby’s soft auburn hair. “No doubt you’ll have many beaus, so you must listen to your heart.”
Kate yawned, her bottom lip quivering pathetically. “Sweet girl,” Olivia murmured, “I listened to my heart about your father and then about you, and now it’s overflowing with pure joy.”
Closing her eyes, she pictured Dan’s face. Then, unhurriedly, she began to rock their daughter.
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A good clean read for Christmas!