Abigail crept to the open bedroom door. Mommy was sitting on the bed, Daddy's arm was around her shoulders and both their heads were bowed. Tears fell from their eyes. Abby could see the wet spots on Mommy's blue dress and Daddy's dress pants. Watching them made her want to cry, but she didn't make a sound.
"Why, Michael? Why?" Elizabeth Maxwell asked, her eyes downcast. "I know we're not supposed to question the Lord's doing, but I gotta ask."
"I don't know, Lizzy," Michael Maxwell said, squeezing his wife's hand. "I know the Lord will work it all for good. He said He would and we just gotta trust Him."
"I know, but it's so hard," Lizzy wailed. "I waited so long for him, then to have him fall into a trough and drown." Elizabeth Maxwell’s words were choked in heaving sobs.
Hoping Mommy and Daddy wouldn't see her, Abigail took a giant step across the doorway. In the parlor, she pushed the footstool up to the tiny casket, climbed onto it and looked down at her little brother. "I'm sorry, Buddy," she whispered as tears ran down her cheeks. "I should have let you come with me."
The four-year-old boy appeared to be sleeping. Abby reached out a hand to wake him as she did most mornings. She drew back her fingers as they touched his cold flesh.
Yesterday she had been annoyed with him. He kept following her around. She wanted to go see her new pony in the barn, but the snow was too deep for Buddy's short legs.
"Buddy, you stay here, I'll be back in a little while."
"I wanna see the new horsey," Buddy, whose given name was Adam, said. His mouth turned down and his eyes began to glisten.
"You can't this time," Abby said impatiently.
"But I wanna come with you!" he bawled.
"Well, you can't," his sister snapped. Then softening, she said, "When I get back we'll make a snowman."
"Promise? Can we put Daddy's old hat on him?" Buddy said, smiling through his tears.
"Sure," Abby said absently. Turning, she chugged through the crusty snow across the barn lot, leaving her brother on the porch. In his stall, she patted and rubbed the pony. She still couldn't believe Daddy actually bought him for her.
Yesterday morning he and Mother took her to the barn. Daddy led her by the hand while Mommy carried Buddy. They made her keep her eyes closed.
"You can open them now." Mommy said. Abby squealed with delight as she looked up at the beautiful brown and white pinto. The pony whinnied and tossed its mane as Daddy offered it a carrot.
"We thought you would like an early Christmas present," Daddy said, smiling.
The little girl beamed. "I'll call him Champ, because he looks like a champion to me." That night, she begged to be allowed to sleep in the barn. Her parents laughingly refused.
Now she lingered in the barn, feeding lumps of sugar and apples to the Shetland pony. The minutes passed quickly.
Waiting on the porch, Buddy was getting impatient. He played with his wooden soldiers until the cold penetrated his jacket and gloves and he started to shiver. He wanted to go inside where it was warm, but what if Abby came back and he wasn't there? She might build the snowman by herself. Buddy strained to see the entrance to the barn. He didn't want to miss seeing her.
If he only had something to climb on to make himself taller. There was the horse trough. It was a foot higher than the floor of the porch. Buddy climbed onto the edge. Balancing on the narrow boards with his feet spread wide, he swayed. He felt himself slipping and reached out for something to grab onto, but there was nothing. The ice-cold water took his breath away.
Currying the pony, Abigail heard a bone-chilling scream. Buddy! Had something happened to her little brother? She ran out of the barn, her heart racing. He wasn't on the porch. She ran around the house, but he was nowhere to be seen. Then she saw something in the horse trough. It was Buddy, floating face down. She screamed and banged on the kitchen door, bringing Mommy on the run.
"Bud... Buddy... in the trough," she sobbed, finding it hard to breathe. Horrified, her mother leaped off the porch. Plunging her arms into the icy water, she dragged out her drowned child. Shivering in her soaked clothing, Elizabeth carried Buddy's icy body into the house. Laying him on the kitchen floor, she stripped him down to his underwear. Jumping to her feet, she stoked the stove to a cherry red. Then, pulling off her drenched dress, she hugged Buddy against her breast.
"Run, Abigail, run and get your father!" her mother shouted, tears covering her pale face. Struggling through the deep snow, Abigail came to where her father was cutting fire wood. Out of breath and sobbing, it took her precious seconds to relay her tragic message.
Daddy's face turned white and he raced across the pasture, slipping, falling and getting up to run on. Abigail followed, fresh tears freezing on her cheeks. It was too late. Buddy was gone.
Tomorrow they would bury Buddy beside Grandma’s and Grandpa's graves in the cemetery behind the church. Standing on the stool beside his casket, Abby reached out with trembling hands and smoothed Buddy's one and only suit. Just last week, she overheard Mommy telling Daddy that Buddy was growing so fast he was outgrowing all his clothes. Daddy jokingly called him his little weed. Buddy just grinned. Now Buddy wouldn't need a new suit or anything else. New tears moistened Abigail's eyes. Her little brother would never be any older than four.
Last Saturday evening, they had decorated the tree Daddy cut and brought in from the south pasture. Mommy made hot chocolate and they sang Christmas carols. Buddy sang so loud he almost drowned out Mommy as she played Silent Night on the piano.
A fantastic thought suddenly came to Abigail. Last month, Pastor Thompson preached about Hinds’ Feet on High Places. He said it was on the mountains where God answered our prayers. Abby’s heart sank. There were no mountains here, just the flat prairie. But now she remembered Shadow Ridge. It wasn't a mountain, but maybe God would overlook that and answer her prayer. She remembered how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. If He could do it for Lazarus, He could do it for Buddy.
Buddy looked like he was just sleeping, waiting for Abby to wake him up. She touched her brother on the shoulder. "Sleep, little Buddy. When Jesus wakes you up, we'll make a hundred snowmen."
Stepping down from the stool, she went to the front window. Daddy stood on the porch with Pastor Thompson and two neighbor men, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Miller. Their heads were bowed and she could see the preacher's lips moving. She got her coat from the closet, went to the door and quietly opened it. A blast of cold air hit her in the face. She stepped onto the porch and tiptoed past the men. If Daddy or Mommy knew her plan, they would stop her. It was her fault Buddy died, and that made her insides hurt. She had to go.
Reaching the barn, she saddled Champ the way Daddy had showed her. She led the pony to the back door so she wouldn’t be seen from the house. She opened the door and slipped out into the gathering night. Dark clouds covered the setting sun. The looks of them scared her and she almost turned back. No, if she could just make it to Shadow Ridge, Buddy would live again. At the corral fence, she climbed the rails and scrambled onto Champ's back. Urging him forward, she headed into the setting sun and the approaching blizzard.
For the next half hour, Abigail's absence went unnoticed as the people of the church prepared for Buddy's wake. Carrying a platter of ham into the dining room, Elizabeth stopped in mid-stride. A fearful look crossed her face. “Michael, have you seen Abigail?"
"No, I thought she was in the kitchen with you."
A quick check of the house came up empty. "Don't panic. Maybe she's in the barn," Michael said unconvincingly.
"Oh, Michael, you know she won't go near the barn since Buddy died," Elizabeth said as tears misted her eyes. In her mind, she pictured two coffins in the parlor.
"I'm going to check anyway," Michael said, hurrying out into the night. He was back in minutes. "She's not there and─"
"And what, Michael? What is it?" Elizabeth’s voice was shrill.
Looking his wife in the eye, Michael said, "The pony is gone, and so is the saddle." Gasping, Elizabeth covered her mouth. Michael took her in his arms.
"She blames herself for Buddy's death," she said with new tears on her cheeks.
"I know, I know," he murmured into his wife's hair.
Pastor Thompson spoke up. "Now don't you folks worry. We got enough men here to find her before the storm hits."
After a short prayer, the men rushed to unharness their horses from their buckboards and wagons. With no time to return home for saddles, they would ride bareback. The women packed food and comforted Elizabeth. No one wanted to say it, but they all knew a blizzard on the prairie was deadly. With prayers on their lips and fear in their hearts, the men started the search.
Abby was confused. She was halfway to Shadow Ridge when dusk settled. Now she couldn't see a thing. She hadn't expected the night to be so dark. Each time she thought of turning back, she remembered Buddy laughing and playing. She was so cold and her fingers were numb. She tried putting them in her coat pocket, but every time he felt the reins slacken, Champ turned back toward home. Fresh snow began falling. At first, it was just a few flakes. Then it came faster and faster until the air was swirling with white. Abby's heart thumped in her chest.
Every year in winter, Daddy would stretch a rope between the house and the barn. The first time he did, Abby thought it strange. Then one day a blizzard swept across the plains. The blowing snow was so thick she couldn't see the edge of the porch. When Daddy went to feed the horses and cows in the barn, he held tightly to the rope. Each time he went to the barn, Mommy waited at the door with the shotgun. She told Abby if Daddy didn't return in a half hour she would shoot into the air and the noise would guide Daddy back to the house. Abby kept a tense watch on the porch steps until she saw his snow-covered figure appear through the wall of white.
Now she saw a wall of snow coming at her. It frightened her so badly she jumped off Champ. Free at last, the pony turned and trotted for home. Calling his name, Abby tried to run after him, but her legs quickly tired and she fell face down in the deep snow. Fresh tears came to her eyes. She knew she had failed. She would never make it to Shadow Ridge. Jesus wouldn't answer her prayer and Buddy would stay dead. The wall of snow enveloped her. She was so tired. She lay in the snow, just to rest for a few minutes. An unnatural warmth spread over her as she closed her eyes.
The snow was falling at an inch every ten minutes. They struggled on, five men praying with each lumbering step of the horses. If they didn't find her soon, they would have no choice but to turn back. Michael couldn't risk the lives of these men. If need be, he would continue the search alone.
"Look there," Reverend Thompson called, pointing to a glow off to their left.
Reining his horse up beside the pastor, Michael Maxwell squinted in the direction he indicated. "Can't be a fire," he said as the other men came alongside. "Come on." Digging his heels into the horse's side, he urged it forward.
Some say what they saw next is legend. Others swear it’s fact. Until their dying day, every man searching with Michael that night insisted it was true.
Two huge men in shining garments hovered over the prone body of Abigail Maxwell. In their hands were jeweled swords and the enormous wings on their backs covered the sleeping girl. With flaming eyes, they watched the men on horseback draw near. A strange sense of peace flowed into each man's heart. In the next instant, the shining men vanished.
Swinging down from the saddle, Michael ran to his sleeping child. Scooping her up in his arms, he noticed an uncanny phenomenon. Although snow was piling up all around them, there was none where Abigail had lain. Inside the circle, the air was warm and pleasant. Handing the little girl to Pastor Thompson, Michael climbed back on his horse. Then, taking his daughter in his arms, he led the way home. They found Champ a mile away trotting in the direction of the barn. Amazingly, Abigail didn’t awake until she was carried onto the porch. As the men approached the front door, screams broke out inside.
Too troubled to rest, Elisabeth had been in the kitchen reheating the mulligan stew on the wood cook stove. Realizing she wanted to be by herself, the women stayed in the parlor. The soup had just started to bubble when she heard loud gasps and then screams coming from the front room. Her heart leaped to her throat. Looking out the window, she saw lanterns bobbing in the yard. Fearing the worst, she hurried on stumbling feet to the front hallway. What she saw almost caused her to faint. Buddy was sitting up in his coffin. Her husband, daughter and the search party were standing in the doorway to the parlor, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
"I smell stew. I hungry, Mamma," Buddy said, smiling and holding out his arms.
Abigail was the first to break out of the trance. Running to her little brother, she hugged him. "Jesus did it! He answered my prayer. Even though I didn't make it to Shadow Ridge, He did it."
Some will deny it was a miracle, that God never raised the little boy from the dead. Buddy had probably hit his head and been knocked unconscious. The water drove his temperature down. Maybe, but I think not. However, the real miracle that night took place in the heart of a 10-year-old girl. That night on the Kansas prairie, Abigail gave the greatest gift of all, risking her life for the one she loved.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.