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before the tender rise of dawn

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Her mother dies at the brink of dawn when the sky is full of clouds that are tinted with pinks and reds. Rachel and her father both stay up with her through the night. Rachel reads Little Women by lamplight to her mother, just as the first light of dawn streams through the window. She has one hand on the book and one hand connected with her mother’s. She pauses in her reading when her mother squeezes her hand tightly before her grip goes slack. She’s gone.

They bury her mid-day in the cemetery. The warm sun streams through the shady oak trees, as she listens to the reverend drone on. Half the town is gathered, not counting friends and family. It’s all rather nice, just the way her mother would have wanted it.

Rachel learns over the next two days, that her father sold the house. It’s gonna be better, he promises. And now, as her father drives away from the house she grew up in, it looks, she decides, looking out from her seat in the wagon bed, empty and worst of all lonely.

*

The house her father bought, is a white, one story building. It seems sad, the paint is chipped and fading but most of all there’s an imprint of a previous family. She decided this, as she traces the name of a boy called Andy, carved on the windowsill above her bed. She finds an old school book turned journal under a loose floorboard. She peaks before she can stop herself, and learns that Andy has lost a mother too. She wonders whether Andy and his father packed up and left, just like her and her father did; or if they simply faded away from sadness.

At night when she lays in her bed, and the warm late August breeze floats through the window. She listens to the crickets chirping filling up the silent night and tries to imagine what the other family must've looked like; The image comes up blank, every time.

 

*
Before Rachel really even realizes it, she finds herself settling. And things aren’t as bad as they were before. When she does realize this, it’s September and she starts school. The green rolling hills of the grasslands are littered with yellow and pink wildflowers and the fields of corn are crisp and yellow. Rachel is startled to find how beautiful it all is.

There were few older girls at the school, and so Rachel found herself sitting with the younger, giggling girls at lunch. They gathered around her on the steps and told her of people to stay away from. She thought this was sweet of the younger girls, to want to save her the trouble of finding this all out for herself.

The September afternoon was a warm one, the sun beat down on the boys playing baseball.
You’ll want to stay away from the boys, a girl warned, especially Willie Olsen.

A younger blond girl, Cassandra, giggled, remember what Laura said, she told us he was a brat.

Rachel found herself, smiling softly at the younger girls, at their naivety. And as Miss Plum rang the bell she found herself looking at him, in his white striped button down shirt, black suspenders, and his brushed out curls blowing in the warm breeze. He ran up to the schoolhouse, his shirt billowing, with the other smiling boys. He caught her eye, and she looked away.

*

The warm sunshine turned cold in October, the harvest was in, and the grasslands began to turn yellow and brittle. The wildflowers died, and with it tree leaves turned red, and orange, before too dropping off.

Walnut Grove remained pleasant, even during the changing of seasons. The community continued to thrive, and everyone lends a helping hand. Rachel realized this, on a cold October afternoon, when she talked to Willie Olsen for the first time.

Miss Plum dismissed the students, on that cold October afternoon, as Rachel helps collect papers.
The students cleared out in record time. Rachel shuffled the papers and handed them to Miss Plum who talked softly with Willie Olsen.

With school books in hand, she walked into the blustery wind, and a voice called out from behind her. Rachel paused by a little tree that was positioned directly between the Mercantile and Nellie’s Restaurant and Hotel.

Willie Olsen jogged to catch up with her, You left your book, he said softly handing it to her. Her pale, cold, fingers met his.

She smiled and bit her lip, Thanks,

He smiled at her shyly and looked away. S-so, um, he stammered, you’re um Mr. Brown’s daughter.

Rachel nodded, and an awkward silence fell. She attempted to start up another conversation, What was Miss Plum talking to you about?

Oh, she was just going on about how well I did on that Math test, he smiled and shrugged, She thinks I can continue my education after school, but I don’t know.

You’re not interested? She asked

He shrugged and looked at Nellie’s Restaurant, It’s something my mother wants more than I do, I would enjoy running the Restaurant. Speaking of the Restaurant, I have to get to work.

They smiled shyly at each other,

I’ll talk to you at school tomorrow? Willie suggested

I’d like that, She said softly

They went separate ways, and a giddy feeling bubbled in her stomach. When she finally looked down at the book he gave her, she was halfway home, and the book wasn’t even hers. The paper thin booklet cover reading The West: Stories of Jedediah Smith.

She smiled and pressed the book to her chest. The first thing Rachel knew of Willie Olsen was the kind, almost mischievous look in his eye.

*

October turned November, which in turn blew in December. The Day was Christmas Eve, and the whole town came to the Christmas party held at Nellie’s Restaurant. The smell of roasting turkey wafted from the kitchen into the main room. A long table was set up that held the food, assorted cakes, nuts, fruits, sugar plums, oysters, coffee and wine. Children either played out back behind the kitchen in the snow (where their mothers could keep an eye on them) or sat on the steps talking quietly.

Rachel stood out back, on the steps that lead to the kitchen, watching the children play in the few inches of snow. The light from the kitchen illuminated the back steps, and the heat from the kitchen kept her warm.

The light from the kitchen was shadowed out for a moment as someone joined her the steps. She turned and grinned at Willie Olsen. He smiled back, and his eyes flicked back from the children to her. Why are you out here? He questioned

Her smiled dropped, and her eyes dropped to the ground. It’s my first Christmas without … she trailed off, letting her statement hang in the air.

He nodded solemnly, Sometimes I forget how much I really have, even if my family's a little dysfunctional

He stepped hesitantly closer until their feet were touching. She looked up at him and found that he was startlingly close. Warmth bloomed in her stomach as she looked up into his baby blue eyes, he swallowed and she watched his Adam’s apple bob.

Sometimes he said hesitantly, I also forget how much I take people for granted, he paused, my father just said something to me today … and well

He broke off. Willie was leaning forward, and Rachel met him halfway. They kissed. His lips tasted like cake and wine. They broke apart, the kiss was a short one, but sweet nonetheless. She leaned into his chest and he wrapped his arms around her.

Merry Christmas, She whispered

Merry Christmas, he whispered back

Overhead the moon shone brightly and the stars glittered like gold. It was cold, but in Willie’s embrace, Rachel didn’t really mind.

Mother’s going to freak if she catches us, Willie whispered

Probably, Rachel nodded, But we’ll handle that when it comes

After a while they pulled back, Willie jerked his head toward the door.

Come on, let’s go inside. I think dinner’s almost done

Holding hands they went inside. Dinner, that night, was wonderful thanks to the ladies contribution. The festivities went on into the early hours, for those who stayed late.

It was finally quiet, in the morning hours, when dawn rose tenderly from the sky tinted purple, the fog hung low over the snow covered prairie landscape. Rachel was up early, dozing on the steps. The morning registered in her sleepy mind. She realized as she watched the tender rise of dawn, how glad she was to be in Walnut Grove.