SueAnna knelt on the floor in front of the trunk Ben and the men had moved to her room. It was over two years ago that she helped Pa pack their wagon and head west.
The trunk in front of her held the blankets and quilts and a few pretties her ma didn’t want broken. As she lifted each item from its hiding place, memories crept from between the folds and she swallowed against the lump in her throat. The quilts her mother made still smelled like the rose petals she insisted they save to tuck into little sachets.
Footsteps, then a knock on the door sent her heart skipping. This day had been full of tension and she wasn’t ready to face anyone, or field any more questions. She untangled her skirts to get to her feet, and prayed whoever was out there wouldn’t waken Lily.
“Miss SueAnna? Could I talk with you, please?”
Ben stood in the hallway, hat in hand. “I’m sorry to bother you at night like this.”
“What is it, Ben? Is Mr. Covington worse?”
“No ma’am. It ain’t the boss.” He turned the hat in his hands.
“Then what is it? It must be important or you wouldn’t have come up here so late.”
“It’s Trey, ma’am. His horse came back a couple hours ago. The saddle was hangin’ sideways but Trey weren’t on him. Us men went looking for him. We thought maybe somethin’ spooked the horse and he fell off. But we can’t find him.”
“Nowhere?” She folded her hands to stop the shaking. “Did you look in the trees? Lily said she saw him hiding in the trees. Do you know what trees she’s talking about?”
He nodded. “That’s the last place I saw him, too, but he weren’t there. We had lanterns and we hollered but he didn’t answer. We was hopin’…well, ma’am’, what we was hopin’ is that he was here…with you.”
She leaned against the wall. Her face was hot enough to glow, but with luck the darkened hallway would hide the evidence of her embarrassment.
“I bet I know where he is.” Lily’s bare feet must have muffled her approach. But here she was, Miss Libby draped over one arm, and her apron over her nightdress.
Oh, Lord. Would it have been so hard to keep her asleep? “Ben has already look in the trees, honey. You go back to bed, please. And please take off your apron. Since when do you sleep with an apron over your nightclothes?”
“Since I found this.” She retrieved her shiny prize from the pocket of her apron and handed it to SueAnna.
“Do you mind stepping into my room so we have the light from the lantern?”
“No, ma’am. Just don’t want to make things look worse is all.”
She smiled. “I doubt anyone will see us unless the men are hiding somewhere.” She stepped closer to the light and gazed at the object in her hand. “Where did you get this, Lily? Did Mr. Martin give it to you?”
“No. I saw it all shiny in the sun and Mr. Ben said I could go see what it was and I did and I thought it was pretty and put it in my pocket. Am I in trouble?”
“It’s Trey’s. I recognize it.” Ben scooped Lily into his arms. “Did you show this to Mr. Martin?”
Lily shook her head. “No. He was all cranky and I told him he couldn’t see it.”
“There’s nothing in it but the clamps look like they’ve been pried open.” SueAnna handed it to Ben. “You say you recognize it? Was there ever a picture in it?”
Ben sat Lily on the bed. “It was a picture of his ma. And…well, ma’am. She looked an awful lot like you.”
“He got real mad at Ben and Ben went like this,” Lily doubled her fist and punched the side of her face. “And then Mr. Martin said he wasn’t ever going to—”
Ben covered the girl’s mouth with his hand. “That’s enough. I thought we agreed you weren’t going to say anything.”
Lily hung her head. “I forgotted.”
“I don’t think she could repeat anything that would surprise me, Ben. But that’s a small problem compared to his not returning. Have you told Mr. Covington?”
“Not yet. I was gonna check here first. I never busted in on a married couple before, but I prayed this would be the first time. Trey’s a lunk-head, that’s for sure, but I love him like a brother.”
She laid Lily against the pillows. “You stay right here, do you hear me? You can sleep with me tonight, but I don’t want you to move from this bed.”
Lily’s face clouded.
“No, no crying. I don’t have time to wipe your tears. Ben and I need to go talk with Mr. Covington.”
“But I stuck my tongue out at him cuz he said mean things about you. He said it was your fault he couldn’t love nobody and he wasn’t ever going to sleep with you and he was all mad and I wanted him to feel bad so I went like this,” she stuck out her tongue, then clamped her hand over her mouth. “I forgotted again, didn’t I?”
“It’s okay, little-one.” Ben pulled the covers up to her shoulders. “But you behave and stay here like your sister told you.”
“Annie, is Mr. Martin in trouble?”
Was he? How could she answer that? She didn’t want him hurt…or worse…if that’s the trouble she had in mind. But yes, if they found him safe they would have a lot to talk about. And no doubt, there would be trouble.
“Where did you get this?” Ben stood on one side of his bed, SueAnna on the other and Fred Thayer at the foot. Adam was surrounded…or trapped. He didn’t know which.
“Lily found it.” Ben retold the happenings of the day.
“But when you left him, he was okay?”
Ben shrugged. “I slugged him on the chin, but other than that he was fine. Just mad.”
“I think you all better sit down. I’ve got a very long story to tell you. You have to know this so you can understand why you can’t find Trey. I don’t think anything happened to him. I think he’s chosen to disappear for awhile.”
SueAnna’s face was wet with tears when he finished. “I’m so sorry I came here. It’s my fault he will never get to see Claire—”
“Nonsense. Trey knew about Claire when he agreed to Bittman’s conditions. You haven’t done anything wrong no matter how ugly he’s gotten with you. He’s really angry with me, you know. You’re just the one he can hurt the most right now.”
“Do you think he took off to find her anyway? Even if you told him he couldn’t?”
“That’s exactly what I would think if his horse hadn’t come back. You say you supplied line four today, Ben? Did you recheck he cabin there?”
“I didn’t, but Slim did. Only thing there was Dan and Jake’s stuff. They’re ridin’ that line right now.”
“I know of one spot, but it’s a long shot. You say he was in the grove of cedars above the ranch—the ones on the bluff?”
Ben nodded. “I shouldn’t have hit him, sir. He was good and mad.”
“Or maybe you should have hit him harder.” He smiled at the red-headed cowboy. “Don’t feel guilty. Trey’s made his own choices all the way through this situation. I’d just hope he’d be man enough to take the responsibility for them. Doc, you mind getting me a pencil and some paper? If he’s where I think he is, you’ll need a map. And pull me up a bit so I can see what I’m doing.”
Doc handed him the paper and Ben pulled him higher onto his pillows. “Okay, now gather around so you all can see this. If you go into the grove from the north and go all the way through you will come to a series of rocks that look like steps.” He glanced at Ben. “You know where this is?”
Good. Follow those rocks below the bluff to the bottom. But watch your step. It’s steep, and rattlers love the rocks. Now, when you get to the bottom you’ll need to turn around and face the north again. About fifteen to twenty feet above your head there will be a small cave opening. You’ll have to look closely.”
“But could he get there after the sun went down? Ben said it was dark when his horse came back.” SueAnna’s eyes were full of fear.
“Yeah, but it was around noon when I saw him last,” Ben said. “He would have had plenty of time to snoop around if he was wantin’ to hide.”
“Did he say anything when you saw him, Ben?”
“He said plenty, that’s why I punched him. I called him a dope for the way he was talkin’ about SueAnna.”
“A dope he is, but we’ve still got to find him. You’ll have to scramble up some rocks to get to the opening”
“Couldn’t we find this place on the way down? Seems like a lot of trouble to go all the way to the bottom then up again.”
“Maybe, if you ever have to find it again. But it’s near impossible to see it from the top side. Just do what I say this first time, and hope there won’t be a second. Once you’re in the cave there’s two paths. The one to the left leads to a larger room and inside there you will find a lantern, matches, cot, bedding and whatever a person would need to hole up for awhile. Should even be some canned food.”
“You’ve been there before, I take it.”
“Lots of times, Ben. I never wanted anyone else to know about it, but this might be our only chance of finding him.”
“What happens if he’s in there but went to the right?”
“If you go to the right you can become lost real fast. It’s like a maze. I followed it once and thought I might never see daylight again. Get the men and some lanterns—and your guns. Better take a wagon as far as the grove, too, just in case he’s hurt and can’t ride out. If he’s hurt, take him to line four and send someone back for Doc.”
“It’d save time if I went with them now, Adam.”
“No, I need you here, Fred. Someone has to keep me from going crazy.”
Ben walked to the door and SueAnna followed.
“You best stay here, SueAnna. This is no job for a lady.”
She shook her head. “I know this sounds silly, but no matter how it looks, or what has been said, Trey Martin is my husband.”
“But we’ll be riding…fast.” Ben joined the opposition.
“I can ride and I can keep up.”
Adam raised himself on one elbow. “Is his horse still tacked?”
“No, but he’s in the barn. Only he don’t like nobody riding him but Trey. She’ll never stay on top of him.”
“I told you Ben—I can ride and I’ll keep up.” She stomped in front of him.
Adam chuckled. “Stubborn isn’t she, boy? Best follow her or she’ll beat you out there.”
As soon as they left, he fell back to the pillow. “I can’t lose him, Fred. I just found him.