Doc Thayer kneaded his lower back with his fists as he straightened from SueAnna’s bedside. “I don’t know what it is about this place, but seems like there’s one emergency after another out here. Adam, I could sure use a cup of coffee—very strong and black. Ben woke me from a good night’s rest and wouldn’t give me time for a wake-up cup.”
Trey was still on his knees beside SueAnna where he’d been since bringing her in and laying her on the bed. “Is she going to live, Doc?”
“That depends, Trey.” Doc removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “She took a mighty hard blow to the head when she fell. But she’s young and healthy. That’s in her favor. The rest is up to SueAnna and the Lord. I can’t make any promises. She’d rest a whole lot better if you’d get her into her night clothes, that’s for sure.”
“I…I can’t do that, sir.”
“What do you mean you can’t do it? You never help her undress before?”
“No, sir. We…we never—”
Fred Thayer looked at Adam, then back at Trey. “Are you telling me, son, that after all this time you haven’t claimed her for your wife? Get out of here, then. I don’t suppose she’d take lightly to waking up and finding out you were the one that put her in her nightgown.”
“Good! I’m glad you turned red. At least you got sense enough to feel stupid about it. Now get, I’ll open the door when you can come back in. I don’t reckon you can even tell me where I might find the clothes she needs?”
“No, but I can ask Lily.” Trey moved to the door.
‘Yeah, well you do that, then hoof it back up here and tell me. In the meantime, I’d appreciate that cup of coffee.”
When he left, Fred faced Adam. “What’s wrong with that boy?”
“I’m afraid he takes after me. From what little he told me, he tried to talk with her about a fresh start. She knows about Claire, and he couldn’t promise not to think about her. Guess she was running back to the house and stumbled on the step.”
Doc slumped into the nearest chair. “This is a hard thing to say, Adam, and maybe a harder thing to hear…but the reaping definitely comes in a different season, doesn’t it?”
Adam sat on the settee beside his friend. “Truth is often hard to hear, Fred. Thanks for being faithful enough to spout it right out. Does the reaping ever stop?”
“Not for me to say, my friend. Guess it depends on how much you sowed in the first place. And how long you keep on sowing.”
Trey was back with the coffee. “Lily won’t tell me where SueAnna keeps her gowns—says she’s mad at me—but Miss Libby told me to look in the top drawer.”
Was this young man for real? “For the love of…I can’t believe we’re taking orders from a rag doll. Get on out of here, and I’ll find stuff I need myself.”
Trey didn’t move.
“Get, I said.” Doc gave him a shove toward the door. “I’ll come down and talk with you when I get this little lady comfortable.” He shut the door behind them and shuffled to the tall chest.
Later he sat with the two men around the kitchen table. Ben had sensed the seriousness of Doc’s findings, and offered to take Lily with him for a ride. Adam poured fresh coffee into Fred’s cup, then filled his own and Trey’s.
“How bad is she hurt?” Trey’s voice shook. “Why won’t she wake up? I sat with her the whole time Ben was riding to fetch you, and she never moved. Shouldn’t she be waking up? It’s been all night.”
Fred ran his fingers around the edge of the gold-rimmed cup. How he hated conversations such as this. No answers to give, nothing on which to pin hope. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any way of looking inside a body. From what I can tell from the outside, it was just a bump on the head. That shouldn’t be causing her to stay asleep so long. The swelling has already started to go down, and there is very little bruising.” He spooned sugar into his coffee.
“What are you saying? What’s wrong with her then?” Trey peered at him through bloodshot eyes.
“What goes on in a person’s head is a question that may never be answered. And I can almost assure you that when what goes on in a woman’s head will never be answered. I’ve only seen a couple of cases that even remotely come close to this—one lived, and the other didn’t.”
Adam pounded the table. “Would you please stop chasing the monkey around this table, Fred, and spit it out?”
“Okay, you want my opinion? I think the head injury has nothing to do with why she’s still not awake. I don’t think the bump on her head is the problem at all. I think it’s her heart.”
“You mean her hear stopped?” Trey shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“No, not stopped. But I do think the poor girl’s heart is nearly broke in two. Have any of you hard-headed men around here ever stopped to think what this little gal has been through? I think she just doesn’t care anymore if she lives or dies.”
He raised his hand to stop Adam from speaking. “I’ve got the floor, if you don’t mind. Now, you don’t have to believe me, and only time will tell, but if she wakes up somebody around here better be ready to give this lady the love and attention she needs—or make sure she gets somewhere where she will get it. I hear tell the new preacher knows her from childhood. Maybe he’s the one who can help.”
Trey slammed his hand against the wall. “She don’t need the preacher’s help. She’s my wife,” he shouted.
“And she knows how you feel, does she?” He stood and faced Trey. “You’ve told her over and over again, right? And she’s been able to count on your attention every minute, is that correct? Tell me, Trey. Just what do you know about this girl? When’s her birthday? What’s her biggest fear? Does she have a dream?”
Trey leaned toward him. “I don’t know anything about her…but I will. By the time she wakes up I will know how many hairs are on her head. And by all that’s holy, Fred Thayer, I will know the answer to any question you could ever think up before she gets out of that bed and walks again.” He spun around the strode to the door.
“And just where do you think you’re going, young man?” Fred yelled.
“I’m going to my wife, Doctor. Does that meet with your approval?”
“Only if you can promise her, if and when she wakes up, that you are through letting this Claire gal interfere with that thing you call a brain. If you can’t do that, then you stay away from her. You hear me?”
“Loud and clear. Now may I be excused.”
Doc didn’t have a chance to answer. He shook his finger at Adam. “That boy better be telling the truth or there will be thunder to pay, and I’ll make sure he pays it, Adam. So far I’ve been able to fix what body parts you two have managed to booger up, and I can’t fix a broken heart.”
He took one last swig of his coffee. “I’ll be back in a couple of days. Lydia Jensen is about due to have her sixth baby and though she probably doesn’t need my help, Hank does. Never saw a body so useless when it comes to have a wife in labor as that man. Seems to make them just fine, but can’t get them here without passing out. Any big change in SueAnna, you send Ben running to fetch me.”
Trey knelt by SueAnna’s bed and took her hand in his. He’d never seen a girl in bed before—other than his ma, when she was dying. This was his wife, but he’d never really taken a good long look at her. Her hair was spread out on the pillow and framed her face. The bump on her forehead was still there, but smaller than her remembered when he carried her in. Her eyes were closed, but the dark circles under them seemed stark against her colorless face. The long sleeves of a pale pink nightgown covered her arms. Her hands lay open, palms up, revealing calluses. The gown tied with a satin ribbon high on her neck. How could Doc manage such a tiny bow with his fat fingers.
Her breathing was slow and unlabored, and from time to time a small scowl flitted between her eyes. Was she having a bad dream? Was she thinking of him? Did she hurt somewhere?
He traced her forehead with his forefinger, in an attempt to smooth away the frown. She moaned and turned her head ever so slightly, but her eyes remained closed. He squeezed her hand, but there is no response.
“Son?” Adam tiptoed to the bed. “You better eat something. It won’t do her any good if she wakes up and you’re puny from not eating. Has she even opened her eyes?” He put his hand on Trey’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze.
“No, sir. She doesn’t even move except she frowns now and then. You think she might be hurting and can’t tell us?” He smoothed her brow again.
“I suppose it’s like Fred said—there’s no way to know what goest on inside a person. Waiting is might hard, isn’t it?”
“I”ll wait. I just wish I knew if she was gonna wake up and be okay again. I’m not hungry. Guess I’d rather stay right here.”
“I’ll have Ben bring you something anyway, at least a slice of bread and some coffee. You can eat that while you sit here.” He gave Trey’s shoulder another squeeze, then left.
It didn’t take long for Ben to return. He carried a tray with the bread and coffee, and had Miss Libby tucked under one arm. “We came to visit.” He had a silly whole-face grin.
“Didn’t interrupt your playtime, did I?” Trey smiled at his good friend. “Thanks, anyway. The coffee will be good.”
Ben sat the tray on the table by the settee, then squatted down beside Trey. “Lily is out in the hall. She didn’t want to come in until Miss Libby talked to you first. “He handed the doll to Trey.
Trey took the doll, then whispered to Ben. “What am I supposed to say? This is nuts. I haven’t got time for this. SueAnna is hurt bad. This isn’t a game.” He pushed the rag doll toward Ben. “You take her.”
Ben shook his head. “Look, it ain’t gonna hurt you one little bit to make that little girl out there happy. She’s scared to death. Think about it Trey—SueAnna is the only Ma she knows. Just go along with it. I do it all the time and it ain’t so bad.” He poked him in the side with his elbow. “I won’t tell the boys in the bunkhouse if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“Well, could you at least leave? I don’t want to sit here and talk to a rag doll with you right beside me. Doesn’t seem normal at all.” Trey took the doll and held her on the edge of the bed.
“Can Lily come in? She’s afraid of you.” Ben was no longer smiling. “She just a little girl, Trey. Try to understand for once.”
“Afraid of me? I’ve never hurt her.” Trey’s insides churned. Why couldn’t they all just leave him alone—him and SueAnna?
“There’s more than one way to hurt someone, my friend. Words can cut real deep, you know. You’ve never been anything but cranky with her. Cranky stings.”
Trey’s shoulders drooped. “Send her in Ben, and if it will make you feel any better you can stay, too.”
Trey was still holding Miss Libby on the edge of the bed when Lily came in. She had one finger over her lips, a sign for Trey to be quiet, then plunked herself down in front of him, crossed her legs and straightened her skirts around her.
“Annie says a lady does’t show her limbs to people.” She hunched her shoulders and look at him out of the corner of her eyes. “I’m not a tree but I still got limbs. That’s funny isn’t it?” She picked at her skirt. “Have you talked with Miss Libby, yet?”
Trey turned to see if Ben was still in the room. He was—leaning against the wall with his long legs crossed at the ankles.
“Well, I was hoping you could tell me what to say, Lily. I’ve never talked with a doll before.” He stifled a groan. If Ben ever let this out he’d beat the redhead to a pulp.
“She’s not a doll, Mr. Martin. She’s my very best friend. Friends always talk, but if you’re just an old doll you don’t talk. Why don’t you like her?” Lily sat with her small her hands in her lap. She didn’t look at the bed where SueAnna still lay sleeping.
“Oh, I like her. I’m just sad that your sister is hurt. Sometimes us men don’t know how to act when we’re sad, so it makes us sound cranky.”
Lily scrambled to her knees and put her arms around Trey’s neck. “I’m sorry I stuck my tongue out at you, and I’m sorry I wouldn’t tell you where to find Annie’s clothes, and I’m sorry I told Ben I didn’t like you, and I’m sorry you’re sad.”
She squeezed his neck so hard he could hardly breathe, but he wasn’t going to let her know. Those little arms around his neck felt better than anything he’d experienced in a long time. He patted her back and hugged her close to him. Her shoulders shook, and his neck was wet from her tears.
“Is it my fault Annie don’t wake up?” She squeaked. “I told God I was sorry, but she still don’t wake up. I don’t want her to go away to a new home in heaven.” Lily squeezed even harder and Trey thought his heart would break.
“Oh, Lily—you’re not the reason she doesn’t wake up. She fell down and hurt her head. And she fell because—”
Ben cleared his throat. Trey had forgotten he was even in the room, but was relieved that he interrupted the conversation. How could he make a little girl understand what happened, when he couldn’t make sense of it all himself.
“I like you now, Trey Martin. But Miss Libby still wants you to talk with her.” She unwound her arms, smiled, kissed him on the cheek and climbed all the way into his heart.
“I like you too, LilyAnna rose Morrow. Now, do you suppose Miss Libby and I could talk in private?”
Lily retrieved her doll from the bed and held it to her ear. From time to time she would nod her head. Surely the two weren’t actually conversing?
The little girl sighed. “I’m sorry, but Miss Libby has changed her mind. She says she will talk with you later, but right now she thinks you need to talk with Jesus because she doesn’t think you ever ‘vited him in like I told you and that makes her sad and she don’t like to cry in front of men so we will leave now so you talk to Him.” She pushed herself up, bottom first, then straightened her skirts and tucked Miss Libby under one arm.
“You can take me downstairs now, Ben, and we shall have tea. Miss Libby says you have work to do so we’ll have tea by ourselves.”
Ben left holding Lily’s hand and looking like the cat that just licked cream off the saucer of milk.
It was dusk before Trey stood and lit the lamp on the table by the settee. His legs were stiff and he needed the necessary but didn’t want to be gone if SueAnna awakened. He stooped and kissed her closed yes. Her hair smelled like roses and tears came to his eyes.
Oh, God. Don’t let her die. She doesn’t know I love her. I didn’t even know it ’til…
He squeezed his eyes shut, but it didn’t help. Claire’s face was there again. She was swinging and her long black hair was flowing behind her. She was smiling and calling out to him as he rode away —”you come back to me, Trey Martin…”
Was he going crazy? Perspiration dripped from his chin, and he was ice cold. He felt like puking, and his head hurt. He couldn’t go on like this. Was love supposed to be so hard? Or was it love? How could he know.
What I think you need is to love Jesus. Lily’s admonition haunted him. could God help him sort this out? Could God show him how to love? He can come live in our heart, but you have to ‘vite him in.
He laid his head on the bed beside SueAnna’s hand. “God, I don’t know how to do this and I don’t know why you would even want me to try. I’ve done so many wrong things and treated people so bad. But Lily says if I invite you in, you can live in my heart. I don’t know what that means. But I’ve messed things up real good, and now this girl might want to live because of me. I’m so mixed up I don’t even know what love is. I want to love SueAnna, but Claire keeps coming back. How do I tell Claire to stay away? And how do I let SueAnna know I love her? She doesn’t have any reason to believe me, and she’s not awake for me to show her. But God, could you teach me how? And could you teach me how to love my pa? I got real bad feeling about Mr. Covington, and I know it’s wrong. it would make Ma real said if she knew how I felt and how I’ve acted. Could you come live in my heart, like Lily says. Can you forgive me for all the bad things I’ve done. And could you let me know if you hear me?”
He stayed on his knees for a long time, and when he finally got to his feet it was like a warm breeze caressed his soul.
He kicked off his boots and blew out the lamp. Then he climbed into the bed beside SueAnna, fully clothed.
He gathered her in his arms, buried his face in her hair, and told her over and over how much he loved her.
And he knew God had heard.