“I love you, you love me, and we love each other.  Right?”

     “Yes, of course.  What’s that all about?  Go on with you, Al, get to your chores, I got mine to do.  I’ve got the laundry and this afternoon some canning…”

     “Well, Alice, there are more things in this life than work.  I just wanted to tell you how I felt.”

     “It’s five thirty in the morning, Albert, and no time to be fooling…”

     “Woman!  Sometimes you just take the fun out of it all.”

     “Get out of bed, Al.  I can hear the milk cow mooing.” 

     “That’s all we do around here, Alice.  Work, work, work.  One time I’d just like to stay in bed all day.”

     “You dream too much, Al.  And a dreamer never gets any place.  Now we’re both going to get out of bed and I’ll have breakfast ready by the time you’re back from the barn.  That’ll make you feel better.”

     “Sometimes, woman, a man needs a little more than bread and coffee, he needs…”

     “Not in the morning, Albert!  It’s not decent!”

     “No wonder we never had no children.”

     “Al!  Don’t you never bring that up again!  You want me to be nice to you, don’t ever talk about that!”

     “Well, I read in the paper about the orphan train coming through town.  We could…”

     “NO!  I won’t have no half raised orphan from New York City come stealing and upsetting our lives.  We’re doing just fine.”

     “No, Alice, we aren’t and you know it.”

     “Albert, not another word, or you can go to Hades!  Fix your own darn breakfast and see if I care,”

     Alice pulled the sheet up to her eyes as she tried to hide the crying and sniffling.

     “I’m sorry, Alice.  I’m an old fool.  I’ll go milk the cow and take care of the sow and the hosses.  You just forget I said anything.”

     “Too late to apologize now, Al, now that you got me all upset.  Go on, old man, go do your work.  I’ll do mine.”

     There was complete silence as Al got up in the dark, found his shirt and trousers on the chair and pulled them on.  He sat and laced up his boots and tried to leave the bedroom quietly.  In the open room of their little farm house, he tripped over the butter churn and it fell with a terrific crash.  Alice, her head tucked under the sheet, smiled inwardly to herself.  

     He is an old fool, she thought.  But I do love him, despite how riled he gets me.  Maybe tonight I can be nicer.  Take time to bake a good apple pie.  I got those apples the neighbors brought, wouldn’t take long to fix.

     Al went to the barn and lit the lantern.  By single light, he milked the cow.  The silly thing kept moving her feet and pressed against his forehead while he reached for her teats.  Lilly, the cow, sidestepped and pushed Al off the three-legged stool and onto his back.  The bucket, a quarter full of milk, also tipped over and spilled on the ground.

     “Lilly!” shouted Al angrily, getting to his feet.  

     He took the lantern, found a lead rope, tied it to Lilly’s halter and then to a ring on a post for that purpose.  Then he righted the stool and bucket and sat back down and commenced to milk.  The course warm hide of the cow felt comforting to the forehead of the middle-aged rancher, and he continued automatically to perform the task at hand, deftly squeezing and listening to the hiss of the stream of milk as it hit the inside of the bucket.

     I shouldn’t have upset Alice like that, thought Al.  I guess sometimes I just talk before thinking it through.  Just say the first thing that pops into my mind, like the darn dumb fool I am.  I should make it up to her.  There is that bolt of cloth I hid away for her birthday.  I guess I could get it out of the hayloft and give it to her early.  Then I could buy her another present this Saturday, before her birthday comes.  Yes!  That’ll make her feel better!

     Al slopped the hogs and pitched hay to his gelding mustang and to his two draft horses.  Then he climbed the ladder to the loft and back behind the hay was a little hidden cupboard he had built for that purpose.  He pulled it open.  Wrapped in a flour sack was the bolt of cloth.  He took sack and cloth and went outside.  The sun was up and in the early light of the day he slipped the flour sack down and looked at the flowered print pattern of blue cloth.  

     She should like this, thought Al.

     “Alice!” he shouted as he made his way into the house.

     The main room smelled of fresh brewed coffee and ham and eggs.  There was also the fragrance of toasted bread.  Alice never failed to whip up a good breakfast.

     “I’m right here, Al,” she said, standing at the table and setting down the coffee pot on a trivet.

     “Alice,” said her husband, holding the gift behind his back.  “Sometimes I just talk too much.  Here woman, I got you something.”

     “What?” said Alice taking the proffered flour sack.

     She held the gift in one hand and pulled the chair out with the other and sat down.  On a clean bare spot on the table she placed the oblong object.  Then she reached inside and pulled the bolt from the sack.

     “Al!” Alice exclaimed.  “What a beautiful pattern!”

     “I thought it would make a mighty fine Sunday-Go-To-Meeting dress, Alice.”

     “Oh yes!  But how?  You haven’t been to town in two weeks.  Did you have this hidden away?  My birthday…”

     “Your birthday doesn’t have anything to do with it!” lied Al.  “Can’t a man buy his wife a gift any time he feels like it?”

     “Al,” said Alice.  “How sweet!  You haven’t done anything like this since our first year of marriage.”

     “Well, I’m glad you like it.  Let’s eat, I’m hungry.”

     “Mind your manners.  Say grace!”

     Her husband bent his head and quickly blurted out a prayer he learned in childhood and still used.

     “God is grace, God is good, thank you for this food, Amen.”

     Alice watched her man hungrily fill his mouth with food and begin to chew noisily.  

     He IS annoying, but sometimes he just surprises me.  I bet he bought this for my birthday.  Still, he did it in advance.  That must mean he cares.  I wonder what he’ll do now for a gift.  I bet he finds some excuse to get away on Saturday.  Well, I could have done worse.  Too bad about us not having children …was it God’s will or are we being punished?

     “Alice,” said Al.  “Quit daydreaming and eat your food.  It’s getting cold.”

     Why the old fool! thought Alice.  Sometimes he just drives me crazy! 


                                      *                         *                         *


     The fall progressed and Albert and Alice Green worked hard on their two thousand acres. They were fortunate to have plenty of water from the stream that ran through their ranch.  Al harvested wheat and corn in the fields.  He also had a few acres of oats.  Along the river he cut grass and stored it in the barn.  Alice tended the garden and put up vegetables.  Down by the stream she picked apples from trees that she and her husband had planted long ago.  Fenced off, on five hundred acres, was a small herd of steers.  

     There was sadness between the two of them; they both blamed themselves for being childless.  They tried to hide their feelings about it, but when it did come up several times through the year, their arguments became more serious and embittered.  They yearned to have children and to raise a whole houseful of them.  To each one individually it was a great failure, a huge emptiness in their life.  

     Another year passed and spring came.  Al noticed that his wife was going deeper inside herself.  There were fewer smiles, fewer jokes, less bantering between the two of them.  Al went to town and got a catalogue at the general store.  He went out back to a pretty little bench and table that belonged to the owners, and sat down with sarsaparilla, a sandwich, and the catalogue.  Carefully he went through the woman’s section and picked out a hat, shoes, and ready-made dress.  This should cheer Alice up he thought, a Sunday-Go-To-Meeting outfit just for her with no special occasion. Perhaps this would show how much he appreciated her.

     Al waited a whole month, going into town every Saturday and asking secretly for the “Package” which never seemed to come.  When it did, things didn’t go as planned.  He drove up in the buckboard and didn’t go to the barn to unharness the horse or put away the food supplies.  Instead, he jumped off the wagon and ran inside the cabin.

     “Alice!” shouted Al.

     “No need to shout!  I’m standing right here.”

     He went to the kitchen table, pushed some plates noisily to the side, and set down three boxes, which he stacked one on top of the other.

     “What’s that?” asked Alice suspiciously.  “Did you mail order for some foolish doo-dad again without asking me first?  Did you buy some junky thing we don’t need?”

     “Alice,” said Al.  “Is that fair?  I promised I wouldn’t do that no more.  And I keep my promises.”

     “Yeah, until you forget em.”

     “Stop cooking Alice and come sit down and open your presents.”

     “Presents?  What presents?”

     “These, I bought them for you.”

     “It’s not my birthday.”

     “No, it’s not your birthday, it’s not Christmas, but it’s June, and the flowers are growing, the crops are coming up, the grass along the creek bottom will soon be high enough for haying.  Can’t a man buy his WIFE a present when he feels like it?  What’s our money for?”

     “Not for foolishness, Al.  I bet you went and bought stuff I don’t want and don’t need.”

     “Honey!  Don’t argue or insult me.  Look at your gifts!”

     Alice opened the first one with reluctance.  It was a pair of new, brown, soft leather button-up shoes.  She tried them on and they fit.

     “Al,” said Alice.  “The other shoes I have for church are just fine.  I could have…”

     “Dear, they look perfectly grand on you.  Go ahead, open the next package.”

     Alice opened a round hat box and took out a colorful wide brimmed hat covered with artificial flowers.  She held it in her rough red hands and just looked at it.

     “Go on!” exclaimed Al.  “Try it on, try it on!”

     Alice put it on her head and the hat covered her graying hair that was bundled tightly in the back.  The hat transformed her pretty thin face and made her look totally different.  Al told her so.

     “What it makes me look like,” said Alice, rising and going to a mirror hanging on a far wall.  “Is like a darn fool.”

     “It does not!  All those other women at church will be plumb jealous.”

     “You expect me to wear this fancy to church?  Show something off like this at MY age?”

     “I do,” said Al.  “That’s what I bought it for.  Now go on.  Open the other package.”

     Alice looked in the mirror one more time with the hat on, scrunched up her face at her reflection, and took the hat off.  She put it back in its box and closed the lid.  Then she began working at the largest package.  She took a kitchen knife and cut one end open and slid out paper.  She unwrapped layers of white paper and discovered a ready-made long-sleeved print dress with an embroidered bodice.  Alice took it out, stood up, and held it for size against her slim frame. 

     “It should fit,” said Al.  “I went over and over that with Sam’s wife at the general store.  Mrs. Snyder guaranteed it will fit.  Try it on Alice.  Go ahead, try it on.  You’ll be the loveliest lady at church this Sunday.  Those women will be so jealous…”

At this point Alice collapsed back in her kitchen chair and began to sob—great heaving, heavy sobs, of a person deeply hurt and disturbed.  Al stood there looking at his wife, his smile of joy disappearing into a frown of worry.

     “Alice!  Whatever is the matter?”

     She now had her head bent over.  A pin holding her bun in the back let go and long hair fell down across her right shoulder.  Alice raised her head and exposed a bright red face and painful eyes full of tears which ran in ripples down her cheeks.

     “How can I face all those women?” exploded Alice in a voice full of grief.  “What right do I have to wear clothes like these when I haven’t been a proper wife and born you a child?  Don’t you see, Al?  They’ll laugh at me!”

     Despite the pain his wife was suffering, Al realized at thirty eight years of age she was still a very pretty woman, the loveliest of those who crowded the church on Sunday.  When was the last time he had ever told her that?  Had he EVER told her that?  Perhaps he had taken her for granted for too long.

     “Alice!  Don’t talk so foolish!  A pretty woman like you, the prettiest married lady in the ENTIRE County has a right to wear anything she wants.  And her husband who saved his money has the right to buy it for her.  Now Alice, if you feel that strongly about having children, its time we do it.  The orphan train is coming to town next Saturday and WE ARE going!”

     Alice looked at her husband.  For once she did not scream back.  There was a long pause of silence.  Alice still held the lovely print dress in her lap.

     “Al,” she said very quietly, the tears and red face disappearing.  “You really think I am the prettiest married lady in…”

     “You’re darned tootin I do and mighty proud of it too!”

     “Al, you never told me that before.”

     “Well, it’s time I started!”

Alice was wearing her new hat, shoes, and dress at the train depot.  The platform was crowded with town and country folk waiting for the orphan train.  Most were curious bystanders looking for some unusual entertainment on a Saturday afternoon.  But the remainder were there looking for children to adopt.  Many ranchers already had substantial families and were really looking to add to their work force.  Al and Alice Green were the only childless couple.  The orphan children who found themselves in their home would be lucky ones indeed.  What child wouldn’t want to be with one of the most successful farming and ranching couples in the entire county?  And they were church-going folk, too!  The crowd standing there wondered why they had waited so long.

     “Have you come to adopt, Alice?” asked Mrs. Snyder, church organist and wife to Sam the general store owner.

     She was standing up front along with the Greens near the railroad tracks.  Having come early, they were now being pushed and shoved from behind by the crowd.  Mrs. Snyder turned around angrily.  A strong-willed and opinionated woman, she had a firm sense of her place in the community.  She held an umbrella and brandished the long object in the air with her right hand.

     “Quit shoving!” Mrs. Snyder yelled.  “You’ll push us onto the track!  Back up, I say!  Back up!”

     Those young people closest to Mrs. Snyder, now being poked with the tip of the umbrella, backed up.

     “There!” said Mrs. Snyder smiling.  “That’s better.”


                                                  *                         *                    *


     By the time the orphan train arrived, it was late.  Nearly half the crowd of bystanders gave up and went about their weekend activity in town.  The Greens remained.  Al noted that his wife was very nervous and her hazel eyes searched the track impatiently.  

     Perhaps this will be too much of a strain on her, thought Al.  What happens if we don’t find the right children?  Or if we find bad children?  Like the ones Alice kept talking about, children who lied and stole and were incorrigible.  Maybe we should go.

     “Alice,” said Al.  “Maybe we should…”

     “No! You got me here.  We’ll see it through to the end, no matter what happens.”

     “Alright, Alice, if you say so.” 

     They heard the train and finally picked it out, far away down the track.  They remained standing and watched its approach, following the line of smoke, marking the growing body of the train, listening to the occasional blowing steam whistle.

     When the train stopped, tired looking clergymen and their volunteers disembarked first.  They inquired and were informed the First Baptist Church would be their destination.  Children began to come off the train.  Boys came out of one car and lined up. They were coarsely dressed and of all ages and sizes.  Alice studied them intently and so did Al, but he also watched his wife’s face.  Next came the girls; many wore ill-fitting dresses.  This time Al saw his wife’s lips part as she expelled some remark that was lost in the noise of the event.  Alice fell in behind the girls and stepped quickly along.  Al followed.

     At the church, the older boys were lined up first. A little boy ran toward two girls on the other side of the church.  A minister came forward to stop him.  The child, no more than four or five, darted around the darkly clothed man with the white collar.  

     Al was watching Alice closely and he saw that she was paying attention to the little boy.  And when the child reached what must have been his sisters, they hugged him and then protectively joined hands.

     The largest and strongest boys were chosen first.  Other children were not chosen at all.

     “What happens to them?” asked Alice.

     “They will be put back on the train,” said Al.  “They’ll go on to another town to be chosen, or not.”

     “What happens to those not chosen?” 

     “I don’t know.  I suppose they’ll be placed somewhere.”

     By the time the two girls with the little boy came forward, the crowd had nearly dissipated.  Mrs. Snyder was still there.

     “I want the little boy there!”  she said loudly enough for the ministers to hear.

     “And his two sisters?” asked one of the frazzled clergymen.

     “Don’t want them!” said Mrs. Snyder.  “I just want the little boy.”

     “You can’t split us up!” said the older of the two girls still holding the child’s hand.  “He won’t go with you!”

     “Well?” asked Mrs. Snyder.

     “We prefer not to split them up,” said another of the ministers from New York.

     The two girls, one nine or ten, and the other, about eight, were now standing protectively in front of their little brother, effectively hiding the little boy.

     “I am a respectable member of this community,” said Mrs. Snyder.  “My husband and I run the general store.  We are well established.  Do I get the little boy or not?”

     “Ma’am, as you see, the three of them are much attached to each other.”

     “I can provide the most excellent home for that child!” exploded Mrs. Snyder.  “Shouldn’t your organization be more concerned with that?”

     “Madame,” replied an older grey haired minister.  “When placing out the children from New York, we try to keep families together.”

     “You can’t take him!” cried the alarmed girls, blocking their brother from view.  “You just can’t!”

     “Now hush, children!” called the minister.

     Al watched his wife step forward.  She went over to the two girls and bent down.  Kneeling, she spoke softly, but Al and everyone else in the room heard what she asked.

     “What’s your name?” asked Alice.

     “My name is Mary,” said the oldest, hesitantly.  

     Alice turned her head to the other girl.

     “And my name is Roseanne.”

     “And your brother’s name?” asked Alice in a very kind voice.

     “His name is Tommy,” said Mary.  “And we aren’t splitting up!  Ever!”

     “How would all three of you like to go home with me?  My husband and I have a little ranch outside of town.”

     Tommy put up two hands and shoved aside the shoulders of his older sisters.

     “Do you have chickens?” asked Tommy, thrusting his head and body forward.

     “Yes, and a milk cow named Lilly, and pigs, and horses, and…”

     “Would you let me see them?” blurted out the boy.

     “Yes, and talk to them, and feed them if you want.  And you can gather eggs in the morning, and…”

     “Let’s go with her!” said Tommy.

     “Well!” blurted out Mrs. Snyder who turned abruptly around and stomped out of the church, banging the tip of her large umbrella on the floor with each departing step.

The children had no extra clothing, only a few personal items stuffed in a cloth bag that Mary carried.

     “When our parents died of the fever,” said Mary, “they came to our flat and took everything.  I managed to get some family pictures and this bag.  Then they put us in the orphanage.”

     “I see,” said Alice.  “Tomorrow we can go to town and buy a few things.  We can discuss what you will need.  We can buy some bolts of cloth and make dresses, shirts, and pants.  I sew fairly well.”

     “We can sew a little,” said Roseanne.  “Can’t we, Mary?  Mother was teaching us before…”

     “We can’t make dresses, or shirts, but we can stitch a little,” interrupted Mary.

     “Does he speak?” asked Tommy pointing at the husband.

     “Yes, young man,” responded Al.  “And you’ll find I can whistle, play the harmonica, milk a cow, raise steers, plow a straight line, and sit astride a horse.”

     “Gee, Mister, that’s a lot!” said Tommy.  “Will you teach me to ride a horse?”

     “If I see you’re careful and you mind your manners, and do your fair share around the place, and Alice says it’s alright, we might get you a pony some day to ride.”

     “A pony!  Yes, Mister!  We’ll do what you ask.  Won’t we, Mary?  Roseanne?”

     “If they treat us well,” said Mary.

     “Awww shucks,” said Tommy.  “Anybody can see these are nice folks.”

     The buckboard wagon, with Al and Alice Green sitting on a blanketed seat up front, and the three children sprawled in the back box also on wool blankets, bounced along the rutted dirt road back to the Green ranch.  Alice was constantly turning her head and smiling broadly at the three children.  Al, who was watching his wife closely saw the gleam of her eyes and lines of happiness etched across her face.

     “Well?” asked Al, getting his wife’s attention.

     Alice flashed her husband a grand smile.  It lit up her face and made her even more radiant.  She reached a hand over and patted him on the knee.

     “I think it’s going to work out just fine,” said Alice.