“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.”
Doc Thayer groaned as he straightened and pulled the covers back over Trey. “I promise you, if I have to bend over one more KIM man and tell him how lucky he is to be alive, I’ll shoot him myself—and tell anyone who cares he just died. What happened out there, anyway?”
Ben shook his head. “He can’t tell us—says he doesn’t remember. All we can figure is that his horse threw him, for some reason, and he tumbled down the bluff. His legs were caught up in some thorny bushes. That’s probably what stopped him from slidin’ down any further. Must have hit his shoulder, and probably his head. He thinks SueAnna is Claire, and she won’t let us tell him otherwise.”
“He’ll come to his senses once he sleeps off the pain medicine. I gave him a hefty dose of laudanum so I could take a look at that shoulder. Nothing broke, just banged up good. The reason he isn’t thinking straight is from being without water for such a long time. If we can get him drinking again, he’ll snap out of it. Any volunteers to sit with him?”
Ben nodded. “I”ll do it. I’ve got a few things to say to him when he opens his eyes again.”
Doc rubbed his lower back. “Don’t be too hard on him, boy. Don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d had that much information dumped on me all in one load. Give him some time. Time heals a lot of things. How did that horse of his get home?”
“Don’t know. Trey says he told the animal to go get Claire. You and me both know that ain’t right.” Ben sat next to Trey’s bed. “You want me to try to get him to drink now and then?”
“Yeah, if he stirs. Just a spoonful at a time, though. Come get me if you need anything. I’ll be stretched out in Adam’s office. G’night.”
He didn’t bother lighting the lamp when he got to Adam’s office, but plunked into the leather chair by the windows. He doubted his eyes could have focused long enough to read, and he could think well enough with his eyes closed. He leaned his head against the chair and stretched his legs out in front of him.
What a day this had been. What would happen when Trey discovered SueAnna was not Claire. Maybe Adam should relent and let the boy go find her. He’d give that some thought. Adam would listen to him. He might not agree, but he’d listen.
But what if he did agree, and for some reason Claire hadn’t waited like she promised? Maybe he should hang his shingle on the gate of the KIM. Probably be a spell before he’d get back go town.
He should have stayed with doctoring mules.
Trey turned his head and something wet dribbled down his neck. He opened his eyes and tried to focus.
“Be still, drat it. Every time I about get some to your mouth you either close it or turn away. Doc says you need this, so open up.”
“That you, Ben?” The voice was his, but all Trey could see was a mouth stretched across an ugly face.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Something metal clanked against Trey’s front tooth.
“If you don’t open that hole in your head, I’ll make a new one right thought your teeth with this spoon.”
Trey opened his mouth and was rewarded with a sip of cool water. He smacked his lips then opened again for more. After several sips he was satisfied and refused the next one, only to have it dripped down his neck. “You did that on purpose, you big galoot.” He tried to lift himself with his elbows but fell back to the bed with a groan.
“Hurts, don’t it? Doc says you banged up your shoulder real good so it will take awhile before you can use it. But you ain’t dead. Guess we can be glad for that.”
“You guess? Thanks a lot, pal. Where’s Claire? Good thing she came along when she did. I could have died, you know.”
“It weren’t Claire who found you. You still ain’t thinkin’ straight.”
“I’m thinking straight enough to know my Claire. It was her face I felt with my own hand, Ben—her eyes, her lips. A fella doesn’t forget those things. I knew she’d come looking for me, and she did.”
Ben leaned across the bed. “And I”m telling you it wasn’t her. It was SueAnna who found you. You just wanted it to be Claire.”
“But…but it was her face. I wiped her tears, and…” He closed his eyes. “Please don’t tell me I was touching all over SueAnna. What was she doing out there, anyway? How did she get there? It was your doing, wasn’t it?”
“We tried to get her to stay at the house, but she wouldn’t listen. She said no matter how you felt, you were still her husband and she was comin’ along. You’re not going to believe this, but she rode your horse.”
Trey fisted his hand and pounded the mattress. “Get this straight, buddy. You can tell me anything you want, but I ain’t believing any of it. No one rides Huck but me, and you know it. And if the girl who found me wasn’t Claire, then I wish I would have died out there. Get out—now.” He tried to raise himself again but there was such pain in his shoulder that he flopped back down onto the pillows. “You’re still here, aren’t you?”
“I”m still here. Not much you can do about it, either. Now, you take a long listen to me for a change. I called you a dope once, and you’re still a dope. Why do you think Claire would come lookin’ for you? You left her two years ago. You think she just suddenly showed up because you got horse-throwed?”
“I don’t want to hear this. I told you to leave.”
“Like it or not, Trey, it was SueAnna who found you. You might have not claim her, but you’re still married to her and she cared enough to come lookin’ for you. She rode that horse as good as you, and he only crow-hopped once. It was her that shinnied down that bluff in the dark because you was hollerin’ for help. She knowed you thought she was Claire and wouldn’t let nobody tell you otherwise. Them were her tears, you dope. And you don’t deserve one of them.”
“Then she was crying for nothing.”
Ben shook his fist at him. “You got that right. You’re about as big a nothin’ as I know right now. This whole gettin’ married thing rested on us, not her. Now you want to blame her for bein’ here. If she ends up leavin’ this place you got every man of us to fight. She ain’t hardly rested since Hilda left. First Mr. Covington. Now you. As far as I’m concerned, you can both jump off the bluff.”
“I said leave. Please.”
Ben swiped his hand through his hair. “Oh, I’m leavin’g alright. But you better think on this, buddy. SueAnna is a much bigger man than you’ll ever be—and believe me, she ain’t no man.”
He moved toward the door, then stopped and turned around, his face filled with a smile. “And guess what, my fine dope of a friend. You’re stripped down to nothin’, you only got one arm and you can’t get up or stand up all by your lonesome. I done spooned enough water in ‘ya durin’ the night that real soon you’re gonna be hollerin’ for help. Only this time you’re on your own.”