The Week Before—
Silence settled around Trey like lead. He didn’t want to think, but the events of the last couple of days kept slithering in and out like a rattler among rocks. So Mr. Taylor might be his pa. He hated the possibility—and the man. He was married—but he didn’t love his wife. How could he? How could he love the woman who now stood in the way of any chance to reclaim Claire?
The click of the door opening broke the silence.
“I said leave, Ben, and I meant it.”
“I’m not Ben. I’m Lily and I brought Miss Libby because she feels bad I stuck my tongue at you. She says I should ‘pologize, but I’m not the one sorry because you said mean things about Annie . But I am sorry you got hurted, so I decided to come see you and let Miss Libby tell you whatever she wants. She has a mind of her own, you know.”
He turned his head and Lily jumped when their noses clashed. “You’re still in your nightgown. Does your sister know where you are?”
“No, because she would say I shouldn’t bother you, but I don’t always do what she says because sometimes Miss Libby has other things for me to do instead.”
“Don’t you know you shouldn’t be in a man’s bedroom by yourself? Go on back to you sister and take your raggedy doll with you.”
Lily put her elbows on the bed. “Why are you always so cranky? Why can’t you be nice like Ben? I don’t like you as much as I do Ben because you always grumble and say naughty things about people. Miss Libby says you need to learn manners, but you know what I think?”
“I don’t suppose it would matter to you if I didn’t care to know, would it? Okay, let’s have it, then you get out of here and leave me alone.”
The mattress dipped as she replanted her elbows closer to him. “Well, I talked with Miss Libby about this. I think what you really need is to love Jesus. Do you know who He is? I don’t know how He does it, but He can come live in you heart if you ‘vite Him in. You can’t see Him, but if He’s in there then it makes Him sad when you’re mean and He tells you only you don’t really hear Him talking. You just can think the things He tells you and SueAnna says that is the Holy…that’s the …I can’t remember what she says only it’s Holy.”
Did this child ever take a breath? “You mean the Holy Ghost?”
She giggled. “No, silly. Ghostes aren’t holy. Ghostes aren’t even real, are they?” Her eyes got big and she inched even closer.
She jumped and two fat tears ran down her face. “See! You’re mean. I know Jesus is living in my heart cuz I ‘vited Him, but I don’t feel very nice for you. I wanted to help you feel better but now I’m glad I stuck my tongue at you. And I don’t know what the Holy thing is, but if it tells me I have to say sorry again I’m not going to do it because you aren’t nice.”
Lily walked to the door, then stopped and came back and shook her finger at him. “Ben said I should ask you if you needed anything necessary. But even if you do, I’m not going to tell him because then you will know how it feels to have somebody be mean to you.”
The door clicked behind her, but to Willie it sounded like a jail door slamming shut. Was he really mean? Ma’s heart would break if she knew what he’d become.
“Ben. Beenn,” please let someone hear me.
He closed his eyes and continued to yell. When footsteps approached the bed he breathed a sigh of relief—until he opened his eyes and saw it was SueAnna.
“I was hollering for Ben.”
“Yes, I could hear you. But Ben went out. I guess you forgot there was a bell beside your bed so you needn’t yell.”
She moved to the window and he caught a whiff of rose petals as she passed.
“Maybe a little sunshine will make you feel better.” She pushed the curtains to one side. “Would you like more water? Doc Thayer says you can eat something if you feel like it. What would you like?”
He scrunched his eyes closed. “I’d like for Ben to get in here. And no, I don’t need any more water.” Did she leave? Why doesn’t she say something? How hard would it be to let him know she’d call for Ben?”
“You still here? I told you I want Ben.”
“And I told you he wasn’t in the house.”
He opened his eyes and met hers, rimmed with dark circles and full of tears.
“I don’t know why my presence continues to make you so angry. No matter what you think of me, I’m not the husband-hungry female you seem to believe I am. And it’s not my fault I’m not the woman you wish were here. As soon as Mr. Covington is able to be up and around on his own, I’ll take Lily and go back to the Nelsons. Under the circumstances, I’m sure there will be no problem having this marriage annulled. In the meantime, couldn’t we at least be civil to one another? Now, what can I do to help you? That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? Hired help?”
Well, at least he knew Lily got her long windedness honestly. “I don’t want your help. I need Ben.” Why did he scream at her when she’d never raised her voice?”
“Then you’ll have to wait until I can find Ben. Do you wish to have breakfast?” She removed the pillow from behind his head.
“I told you I didn’t want anything from you. Why did you let me think you was Claire? Did you enjoy letting me make a fool of myself?” The words sounded cruel even to him.
She plumped the pillow and put it back behind him, then wound her hands in her skirt. “I wasn’t trying to be dishonest, Trey. You wanted it to be Claire, and I didn’t think it would hurt. Thinking about her is probably what kept you from giving up.”
“You could have told me who you were instead of letting me touch you all over.”
She smiled at him. “You didn’t touch me all over. You touched my face and convinced yourself I was who you wanted me to be. I couldn’t just leave you there. I never intended for you to find out it was me. I suppose I have Ben to thank for that.”
He turned away from her. Why didn’t she snap at him like he did at her? Claire would have. Claire wouldn’t have let him get by with his rudeness. He would get mad and ride off in a huff then come back the next day for more. But SueAnna—
“You love her, don’t you?”
“Love who?” The question cut into his thoughts of SueAnna.
“Claire. You still love Claire Hudson.” She lowered her eyes
“Are you going to go after her? Doc told me he was thinking about asking Mr. Covington to allow you to go.”
“And what good would that do? I already have a wife.”
Her eyes watered, but she didn’t look away. “I think you should go. I’ve already told you, I’ll take Lily and go back to the Nelsons. We both know this marriage is a sham. It’s not like I’d be asking for a divorce.”
“You want me to leave? Just like that?” Why was she so eager? Isn’t that what he wanted to hear?
“Oh, I get it. I leave and Ben stays. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Ben has nothing to do with this conversation. I don’t want to be the one who stands in the way of your happiness, that’s all. What good would it do if we were to stay married if you love someone else? We don’t even know one another, Trey. We don’t know if we would have ever loved one another if things had been different. But unless you go looking for her, you’ll never know. Will you?”
“And what would become of you? How would you make enough money at Nelsons to care for you and Lily? Where did that thought come from? You’ve never cared before.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’d send my name into one of those mail order bride places. I’m sure there’d be somebody out there who would like a housekeeper–and her little sister.”
“You wouldn’t do that. I…that would be a dumb thing to do. It would be dangerous. You could get some guy who wouldn’t even—”
“Wouldn’t love me? And that would be different than what, Trey?” She swiped at a tear. “I’m sorry. That was unnecessary.”
“I deserved it.”
She got to her feet and the fragrance of rose petals engulfed him again.
“Thank you for finding me.”
She shrugged. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
“But you wouldn’t have had to help hunt for me.”
“And what kind of wife would that make me? I”ll get Ben.”
“Thank you…for everything.”
She smiled. “You’re welcome.”
Her presence lingered even after she left the room and it bothered him. He’d seen her smile before, but why did it cause his chest to tighten today?
And why did the smell of rose petals send his senses into a whirl?
“He’s over here, but you have to be careful. It’s steep and the rocks want to scatter ahead of you.” SueAnna held Ben’s lantern above her head and plunged ahead of the other men.
“We know it’s steep. We were ahead of you, remember? How in the world did we get past him?”
She reached for Ben’s hand as they started down the incline. “I was far enough behind to hear him, I guess. But wait—” She stopped and put her hand against his chest. “Ben, he thinks I’m Claire. I think he might be hurt bad.”
“Could you see him at all?”
“Not really. I think he could only use one arm, and he said he couldn’t move his legs. I couldn’t see them, though.” She lowered herself to the ground and used her feet to gauge the path ahead of her. “Be careful, this is where it gets steep. I had to slide down before.”
“Wait.” He gripped her hand. “Don’t go any further until I’ve let the others know.” He turned and cupped his hands to his mouth. “Can you hear me, fellas?”
“We hear you. You find him?”
“SueAnna found him. Bring the wagon around to the east side of the grove. I’ll need a couple of you to bring ropes and blankets. You shoot a couple of times when you get there and I”ll holler to lead you down to us.”
“We hear you. Be careful, Ben.”
SueAnna pulled Ben along with her as they inched toward Trey. “Don’t tell him I’m not Claire, okay? Right now I think that’s what’s kept him going. He’ll find out soon enough.” Fresh tears fell and she was glad it was too dark for Ben to see them.
“He’s still a dope, but for your sake I won’t tell him. But if we get him out of here I’ll have plenty to say to him in a day or two.”
Trey’s horse gave a crow-hop when SueAnna put her foot in the stirrup, but she wasn’t going to let that deter her. She grabbed his mane and pulled herself into the saddle. She was not going to be left behind, and she would stay on top of this animal.
“You gonna be okay?” Ben blocked her path. “We won’t have time to come back for you if you get lost.”
“Just find Trey and quit worrying about me.” She gave the horse a nudge and edged past him. They rode single file when they got to the cedars, and when the trees became too thick to navigate on horseback, they dismounted.
“You wait here, SueAnna. Please.” Ben handed her his horse’s reins. “You’ll help most by staying with the horses and out of our way. You have no business climbing around these rocks after dark.”
“I will not stay here, Ben. She clenched her hands and crossed her arms. “These horses are broke to ground-tie and you know it. “
“Yeah. Well, that didn’t keep Trey’s horse from heading for the ranch, did it?”
“Did you ever think that maybe Trey sent him back?”
“Like a dog? Hardly, but be stubborn if you insist. If these horses spook and leave us afoot, you get to explain to Mr. Covington you were too stubborn to take orders.” He walked away and joined the other men as they headed further into the grove of trees.
She followed, and prayed the horses wouldn’t run.
She had no lantern but the arcs of light ahead of her, and the voices of the men as they yelled for Trey helped her to know she was on the right path. Once they cleared the grove of trees the terrain changed to a sharp slope. She had to move with caution to keep from tumbling forward as she picked her way across the rocky ground. It was though the foliage along the way was alive, as limbs loaded with stickers grabbed and pulled at her skirts. But she wouldn’t ask the men to stop. And before long she was alone, with only her resolve to find Trey to keep her going. She dropped to her knees to make her way. She’d crawl if need be. But she’d find him.
Claire. It was Clair, and she was calling his name.
This story will never get finished if I don’t add a day now and then.
Threads of Grace
Doc slapped his forehead. “You told him? You told that boy you might be the Pa he was looking for? Why? Why would you tell him before you were certain? Can’t stand to be miserable alone, can you?”
Adam propped himself on his elbows. “I had no intention of saying anything, Fred. Not a word. But the boy came in without knocking. Said he’d thought it over and even if it cost him his job he was going to go look for this Claire-girl. I couldn’t just let him leave. Not with him being—”
“Married? And yes, I know. Sometimes I think the only smart one on this ranch is Lily. She might as well have set off a keg of dynamite with her announcement. I left a bunch of shamed-face cowboys pushing away from the table before they got their fill of breakfast.”
“Lily told?” He shook his head. “Lots of truth in that old adage, isn’t there?”
“What old adage would that be?”
“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
Doc nodded. “What baffles me the most is why there was deception in the first place. I’ll admit the boy plunged into something he wasn’t at all ready for, but you’ll have to take part of the blame for that. Don’t need to tell you what a mess it is now.”
“And I don’t know how to clean it up. I thought by telling Trey the truth it would help.”
Doc stood and fluffed the pillow behind Adam’s head. “You were wrong. In the first place, you don’t know if it is the truth. Now this young man has a whole pile of muck on his shoulders just because you wanted your own barn cleaned.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Doc pointed his finger at him. “You’ve been fretting about the way you two look alike for a long time, haven’t you? And now, because one little girl happened to mention it, you jumped way ahead and decided it was time to come clean. I may be a doctor, but I’ve had my share of muck throwing in my day. Cleaned many a barn before I decided I’d rather heal people than fling flop.”
Adam closed his eyes. He had no idea where this was going, but for sure the man wouldn’t shut up until he let him have his say. But he didn’t want to hear it.
“One thing I learned early. You clean out stalls every day and nothing can pile up. Spread it around and it can even help things grow. You wait and unload it all at once it begins to heat up, then it smokes, and first thing you know it’s killed everything underneath it. I don’t know what all you told that young man, but I’ve an idea it went on pretty hot. You’ll be lucky if the kid doesn’t run. You shattered all sorts of dreams all with one loaded tongue.”
“Was he at breakfast?”
“Until Lily made her little proclamation. He left in a hurry once those men got to asking questions and giving him thunder.”
“Where is he now?”
Doc shrugged. “Have no idea.”
Adam wiped his hand across his eyes. He hadn’t meant to hurt the boy. Just the opposite, in fact. Why had he thought Trey might even be glad to know he could be his pa? Isn’t what what he wanted? Hadn’t a quirk of fate brought him to the KIM?
“And SueAnna? Did she leave, too?”
“SueAnna left the room, not the ranch. Where would you expect her to go, Adam?” He turned at the door. “I think you’d better have some time alone to think this through. I’ll be downstairs. Ring the bell by the bed if you need anything.”
How long had it been since he allowed tears? Images of Kathleen, her black hair shining in the sun like a raven’s wing, her arms stretching toward him as her wagon careened away. “I’ll find you, I promise. I won’t ever stop looking. Be Strong. I’m coming.”
All the promises he’d made. All the promises broken. One letter. He’d allowed one piece of communication from the man who hated him stop his pursuit for his one true love. He’d never sought love again. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t.
But what about Trey? He’d given those young ranch hands an assignment. Stupid assignment, it was. And now, because Trey followed through, he was kept from ever knowing if his girl was still waiting. Trey said his mother never stopped expecting him to come for her. Was Claire waiting for his son?
His leg throbbed, and he welcomed the pain. He needed to hurt. He’d lost his lover. Possibly lost the son he’d hoped he’d found. He might as well lose his leg, too.
Springtime In The Hills
You Can’t Put A Price Tag On…
220 miles round trip
X four days
16 basketball games
Hearing granddaughter’s name announced
Watching granddaughter’s team
REPEAT STATE WIN!!
Threads of Grace
Doc leaned closer to Adam and took a deep sniff. “Nope that isn’t it.”
“That isn’t what? What kind of doctor are you going around sniffing people like you were some kind of dog?”
“Trying to figure out how you got that little girl to sneak you a jug of apple jack. Thought you must be drunk.”
“How long have we known one another, Abe?”
“Too long. And don’t ask me what kind of first impression you made. If I recall, Abe Rawlings had you bent over a table while he pulled cactus thorns out of your bony rear end. You howled like a banshee when Adam poured rum over your behind so you wouldn’t get infection.”
Adam smiled. “And Alice screamed in the background because she was saving it for her Christmas cakes. Yeah, I remember. But you know I don’t drink, so stop your sniffing.”
Doc plunked into the nearest chair and braced his foot against the side of the bed. “Tell me this whopper of a tale one more time. If it matches, then I’ll know you’re telling the truth.”
“It’s no whopper. I named this ranch after the only woman I’ll ever love—Kathleen Isabella Martin—KIM—and now that little Lily-girl voiced a question I’ve had since the day I first laid eyes on and heard the name Trey Martin.”
“The name is a coincidence. Surely you know that. Didn’t you say you had a letter from this woman’s pa that said both she and your child died? You best leave her in her grave, Adam.”
He attempted to turn to his side but pain restricted him. Doc was the best friend he had. Couldn’t he understand how difficult it was to confess his long-unspoken questions? Did he see the resemblance and not want to admit it?
“Fred, what if he lied. Kathleen’s pa was determined to keep us apart. Wouldn’t he be even more determined to keep me from our child? What if Trey Martin is my son, and I’m treating him like a hired hand? What if Kathleen is still alive?”
“That’s a lot of what-ifs, my good friend. Trey isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so you’ve time to address this whole mess later. For now, you need to rest. I’m not cutting you any quarter, Adam. You want to keep that leg, your behave yourself.” He walked to the door.
“No more, Adam. I don’t want to hear any more until I’ve chewed and swallowed this piece of news.”
The click of the door announced the departure of his audience. If that was how he wanted it, then fine. He’d just have to find out the hard way that Trey and SueAnna were married. Likely Miss Lily would announce it soon enough.
She rushed to get everything done in time and when she rang the bell for breakfast the sun had just peeked its full face over the hills. Trey was the last one to the table. If his neck were any stiffer he could use it for a flag pole. She bit her tongue to keep from smiling. How many ways could one man manage to ignore a woman? Wouldn’t the men be—
“Annie, I needs help.”
One by one the men stopped talking and all heads turned to the doorway. There stood Lily. She wore the blue dress Naomi Bittman had given her, her hair piled on top of her head, though SueAnna could not imagine what held it up there. And she was barefoot.
“Oh, Lily,” SueAnna groaned.
“Why, Miss Lily.” Ben scooted his chair away from the table and stood. “Won’t you come and join us?” He motioned to the empty chair beside him.
“I can’t come in.” She twisted from side to side
“Lily, please come in a sit down.” SueAnna trembled. Ben grinned, but Trey had a scowl deep enough to get stuck.
“I can’t because I couldn’t reach the buttons and my skin shows.”
Rough hands covered grins.
SueAnna moved to the girl, buttoned the dress, tied the sash and gave her a pat on her bottom. “Now sit and behave yourself,” she whispered.
Lily didn’t flinch but walked with her head held high to be seated next to Ben.
“That surely is a pretty dress you have on today, Miss Lily. You goin’ somewhere special?” Ben winked at her as he tucked a napkin around her neck.
Lily giggled.”You seed this before, Ben. This is the dress I wore when Annie and Mr. Martin got married. Don’t you remember?”
SueAnna dared to look at Trey. His eyes shot arrows are her, and she would bet they were poisoned.
“Hey, Trey. You been holding out on us?”
“When were you going to tell us, boy?”
“Does Covington know?”
“Why are you still sleeping in the bunkhouse. Don’t you know that’s no way to treat a wife?”
Lily pushed loose hair from her face and an ivory comb fell and landed in her plate. “Annie says Mr. Martin can’t sleep with her ’til they get babies. Can I have a biscuit please.”
Forks stopped mid-air and eyes roved between Trey and SueAnna.
She covered her face with her hands and raced from the dining room. She took the steps two at a time and flung herself on the bed. She couldn’t be mad at Lily. She was just a little girl. But would Trey ever believe she didn’t put her up to such an announcement?She burrowed her head into her pillow and sobbed.
“Miss SueAnna. It ain’t fittin’ for me to come in your room, so would you step out here in the hallway so we could talk?”
Ben’s voice startled her. Had he heard her crying? She dried her eyes and stepped out of her room. “Did Trey send you?” She wrapped her arms around her middle.
“No, ma’am. I done sent myself. I…well, you know Lily didn’t mean no harm.”
“I do know that, Ben. But what must those men think of me? And what about Trey? I can’t go back down there and face them.”
“You don’t have to face nobody. Trey, he lit out like the prairie was on fire. And the men…well, them men is just as worried about seein’ you as you are them. They done left and went about their business.”
“Lily, she’s finishin’ her breakfast. Then if you don’t mind, I’ll take her with me. I got supplies to deliver to line four and she can ride along in the wagon. Probably should change her clothes, though.” He winked. “A girl shouldn’t be ridin’ a dirty ole’ wagon in her weddin’ dress. Got a fence to fix around the corral, too. I’ll watch her.”
“Lots of fences need mending around here, don’t they Ben?”
He sighed. “Yeah, I reckon so. But you gotta find all the places that are broke before you can fix ’em. Fix just one hole and it still leaves more for the critters to crawl through.”
SueAnna mulled this over. Ben was right. You had to know where the holes were before you could mend them.
Right now there was a great big hole in her heart. And nobody seemed to care.