"Please don't go Louise," Theresa implored of her sister, "Someone could come."
"No one's going to come for all of us and even you're starting to get too old," Louise said and knew it was probably the hundredth time she's uttered those words. "You understand, don't you, Jeremiah?"
The boy just shot a venom filled look at her. Louise sighed. Someday they would understand that she did it all for them. Sure, maybe she wished at night when she was alone and sleep wouldn't come that she was born to nice people and she and her sister and brother would live without fear but that just wasn't the life they had. She was old enough now, she felt, to head off and try to make some money. When she had enough, she would collect them and raise them as her own. They might never have much but the clothes on their backs but they would be together and there was nothing more important than that.
For the first few months at the orphanage, Louise hoped for a family to adopt them. She envisioned wonderful, loving people who had everything they could want except the love of a child. Some couples were barren after all. But soon she came to realize that those couples wanted babies, not nearly grown girls like her and not even children like Theresa and Jeremiah. She knew there was a chance that Theresa could still be adopted, she was still very young but then it broke her heart to think of them being separated. She'd promised her mother things as she was on her deathbed. She promised to always look after them and to make sure they were safe and together.
Louise felt the pang of guilt at leaving them because it would mean she wasn't looking after them directly but the sisters were kind and had a soft spot in their hearts for her siblings. They would be cared for and even loved and that would buy Louise some time to get some money and a place to live. The only hard part was getting away and Christmas Eve provided just that opportunity. The children still had to be in bed but the sisters were at special services and not attending directly to the kids. It was Louise's only chance to leave even though it nearly killed her to know she'd be apart from them on Christmas Day.
There wasn't much time but Louise could not leave her sister while the girl was crying. She crawled into the bed with Theresa and held her close and whispered to her.
"I won't be gone forever," she said softly, "I know you'll be sad for a while but before you know it I'll have us a place to live and I'll come for you. We'll be apart this Christmas but once I get us back together, we'll have every one of them to celebrate like we used to with Mama. You'll see. God willing and I'll be back almost before you have a chance to miss me."
"I miss you already, Louise."
Louise fought to keep the tears from flowing at that. She too already missed the children.
"If you get lonely," Louise told the girl, "Look in your heart and close your eyes real tight and you'll be able to feel how much I love you. I'll never stop."
"Should I pray?"
"Yes, sweetheart, you should pray a lot," Louise said, "You pray better than anyone I know. God's sure to hear you."
Louise stopped to plant kisses on the foreheads of her siblings before sneaking off into the darkness.
That had been years ago and Theresa had seen her big sister only once since then. When she had discovered it was Louise who had come to rescue her and Jeremiah it had made her so happy. Theresa thought for sure that God had finally heard her prayers and had sent Louise to take them with her but they only ended up back at the orphanage. She still prayed because Louise told her to and at least God had seen fit to let her know her sister was still alive. Jeremiah was restless and it worried Theresa something awful thinking he would run away too and then she'd be all alone and not even know where to find them.
It was nearing Christmas again and there was no word from Louise. She usually at least sent a note explaining whatever had kept her from coming to get them that year. Jeremiah said that Louise had moved on and didn't need them and was never going to come for them but Theresa could still close her eyes and feel the warmth of her sister's love so she knew that wasn't true. Louise would come for them and they would be together again. They would string berries on a tree and light candles and sing "Silent Night" as they watched the flames flicker just like they had before Mama got sick.
It was getting dark and Theresa knelt next to her bed for her nightly prayers. The next day was Christmas Eve and she knew that Christmas was a time of miracles. Perhaps it was not proper to ask for one but she just had to.
"Please God, I know it's selfish to ask for something for myself. So many others are suffering too and you know every other night of the year I pray for them and for you help them. But tonight I need your help. I always pray for Louise's safety and I know you have answered that because I can still feel her love. I don't have too much in the world and that's alright with me but I have my family even if we're not together. I fear that Jeremiah will leave and we'll never see him again. There's talk of war and I know he thinks he should join in. If Louise doesn't come soon, he'll be gone. I know I am wrong to despair and I know it is so very selfish of me but I am afraid to be alone. Please, please bring my sister to us. Amen."
Theresa stood and climbed into her bed and then closed her eyes tight and looked into her heart to feel her sister's love wash over her. And then, as she did every night, she tried with all of her might to send her own love back out into the darkness to lead Louise back to her or at least to remind her that she was loved.
The next morning Theresa woke to the excited noises of the other children who knew that it was only one more day until Christmas. She could find no joy in the day though. She knew that barring a miracle her brother would leave that night and with him any hope of her family ever being together again. Theresa shuffled along to breakfast and was interrupted by Sister Beatrice.
"Theresa, honey," the older nun said gently, "I need you to come with me."
Theresa panicked at the concern on the woman's face and frantically scanned the room for Jeremiah who was nowhere to be found. Her heart filled with dread that she was being pulled aside to be told her brother was gone and she was alone.
Instead she was lead to an office where her brother already sat staring in wonder at a man with long brown hair and guns belted around him. She looked closer and remembered the man from the last time she had seen Louise. Perhaps he was delivering a note from her. She looked to him when he spoke.
"I guess you two remember me alright. Name's Hickok but you can just call me Jimmy. Everyone does, or at least the people I like best do."
He looked at the black hat in his hands as if trying to figure out what to say next.
"I got a letter from your brother-in-law yesterday. Your sister got herself married a few months back. You met him, his name's Kid. He's real good to her or I wouldn't've let him anywhere near her," he said, "Anyway, I got the letter from Kid and they finally have themselves all set up with a house and a little land. It ain't fancy or nothing but they'll turn it into something special, I suspect. Well, Lou's been sort of down that they hadn't been able to come get the two of you yet and she can't travel right now being as she's in a family way and all. Well, Kid knew I was close by and asked if I'd do him a favor."
"You have Louise's Christmas letter to us?" Theresa asked figuring that Louise would explain that with a new family she just couldn't get them and take care of them.
"No, I can honestly say I don't," Jimmy said, "What I have is a friend asking a favor. Lou didn't figure she'd be able to come get you two until after the baby comes. Kid asked me to come here and bring her the only thing she really wants for Christmas."
Jimmy looked at the two children who just stared back at him with blank, uncomprehending looks.
"Well, if we don't get a move, you won't be there in time to surprise your sister."
Jeremiah looked shocked. He had made his mind to leave that night while the sisters were praying but he hadn't really wanted to leave his little sister behind. It didn't seem right and besides, for all his tough talk of joining the war, he was terrified. Theresa beamed at the man who called himself Jimmy.
It didn't take long to pack, the children really had nothing and soon they were standing next to two horses.
"You can ride, can't you Jeremiah?"
"Of course I can ride," the boy said indignantly.
"Well, then mount up," Jimmy then turned to Theresa, "Do you want to ride with your brother or with me?"
Theresa hadn't been on a horse too many times and while she loved her brother dearly, this man seemed more secure to ride with and she chose to ride behind Jimmy.
The three of them took off and rode as hard as they could safely push the horses. Jimmy watched the sun in the sky and wished for a moment that he was still with the Express and could just switch horses when he needed to.
At one point they slowed a little to let the poor animals catch their breath and Jimmy felt Theresa's grip on him loosen. She'd been nearly crushing his ribs before.
"Are you alright back there?" he asked her.
She nodded against him and then asked, "Are you an angel?"
Jimmy couldn't help his snort of laughter, "Not by a long shot. Why would you ask that?"
"Well, I needed a miracle and I prayed and then there you were and you brought exactly what I prayed for," she explained, "I thought God might have sent you."
"Like I said before it was Kid's letter that sent me," he told her, "I didn't see no burning bush or anything like that. Just a good friend asking a favor to make another good friend happy, that's all. It wasn't no miracle."
Theresa had learned from her earliest days that God was, in fact love and if this man came out of love which is sort of what he said then he was sent by God all the same.
"I think it was a miracle," she said.
Jimmy looked to the sky once more and knew they'd be riding all night.
"Well, if I get the two of you there in time it really will be a miracle."
"Why did we bother to get them presents?" Lou asked.
"Because we'll get them as soon as we can and then they'll have the presents."
"It seems silly," she said, "But I guess it does make the tree look a little less bare underneath."
"Just think what it will look like next Christmas," he said rubbing her back, "We'll have Jeremiah and Theresa and the little one too."
Kid looked out the window at the snowy landscape a prayed that something would come to disturb the stillness of the night before morning came and Lou realized there was no gift under the tree for her from him. All of the money he had to buy her something had been sent to Jimmy to get and transport the children.
He looked back down at Lou and smiled. Even if they came late, he knew they would come. Jimmy would not let them down. A favor was asked and he would come through. If they were late, he'd just have to tell her about it and it wouldn't be a surprise but she would be happy all the same and that was all that mattered to him.
A knock on the door startled him out of his thoughts and he went to answer it hoping against hope that his old friend was on the other side. Then he caught sight of a familiar Palomino outside the window and thought better of answering the door himself.
"Lou, honey," he said, "Why don't you get the door?"
"But you're nearly there already," she said getting up with a sigh and walking to the front door of their little house. "Honestly I wonder about you sometimes, Kid."
She turned the knob and pulled the door open to see the most welcome sight she'd ever known. Jimmy was there and as wonderful as it was to know that Rosemary hadn't gotten him killed yet, it was even more wonderful to see what, or more to the point who, he had brought with him. Her sweet Theresa and Jeremiah on her doorstep for Christmas! She stepped back to let them all in and threw her arms around Jimmy.
"Thank you Jimmy," she said through tears she didn't even try to hold back, "This is the best Christmas present ever."
"I'm glad to deliver it to you, Lou but I didn't arrange it," Jimmy said nodding over to her husband.
"Merry Christmas, Lou," Kid said smiling at her and then at his friend who had just helped to ensure that their first Christmas as a married couple would stand out forever in her mind.
Before settling the children down to sleep, they all sat together and listened while Kid read the story of the nativity from the Bible he'd been given the day he signed up with the Pony Express and then they sang Christmas carols and watched the flames in the fireplace dance. As they sang "Silent Night" Theresa thought of her despair of the day before and how she'd never doubt miracles or the existence of God. For there she sat in a land torn by war having been led back to the heart of her family by a gunman turned Christmas angel and if that wasn't proof of God then she didn't know what could be.
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas - as sung by Judy Garland
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Here we are as in olden days,