Threads of Grace
SueAnna hung the last sheet over the rope she’d managed to string from the corner of the house to the fence surrounding the yard. It sagged in the middle, but was better than having her laundry spread across the bushes and anything else that might hold a wet garment. Why hadn’t Hilda insisted on a clothesline?
It was still early, and a blue haze hung over the hills behind the ranch. She loved this time of morning. Later in the day the sky would be void of color from the heat and even the birds would stop their chattering. But mornings on the KIM had become a time of worship for her, and a small grove of trees close to the house her sanctuary.
She balanced her laundry basket on her hip and side-stepped through the open kitchen door. The dough she’d set earlier was ready to be punched down, and if she hurried she’d still have at least thirty minutes to spend with the Lord, if Lily didn’t find her first. The dough folded around her fist and she smiled with satisfaction. Fresh bread was not only a staple, it was therapy. Long minutes of kneading not only removed a lot of frustration from her mind, but also made for light-as-a-feather bread.
One last punch, turn the dough, cover the big blue crock one last time and she was ready. She grabbed her Bible and sang to herself as she went down the steps of the wide front porch.
“You in here, SueAnna?” Trey knew she couldn’t be far—there was dough rising and the laundry basket was on the floor by the table. A small breeze fluttered the curtains at the kitchen window and the fragrance of breakfast still lingered. He poured himself a cup of coffee and stepped onto the porch.
“SueAnna, where are you?” Why did no answer from her bother him? She didn’t need to report to him. But ever since she mentioned going back to the Nelson’s, his chest got tight when she wasn’t where he thought she should be.
He walked down the steps and looked up just in time to see a flash of yellow disappear into the grove of cedars nestled against the hill north of the house. If that was SueAnna she either didn’t hear him or wasn’t going to answer. Well, he’d just have to find out for himself.
He bent to wind his way through the low hanging branches. Once inside the trees he stopped. He knew it was wrong to spy, but what did she do out here? The smell of damp cedar mixed with the fragrance of rose petals as he followed her trail deeper into the trees. He followed until a small clearing came in view, then hid behind a tree so he could observe her without being seen.
She sat with her back against the low fork of a tree, her legs stretched out in front of her. She look like a doll someone plunked down and forgot about.
“Praise God from Whom all blessings flow…” Her voice was soft but it filled the small clearing she occupied. “Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost…Amen.”
He stepped into the clearing and she looked up but showed no surprise. “Care to join me, Trey?”
“I didn’t mean to spy on you.” Liar, you followed her here with every intention of spyin. “Mr. Covington wanted me to let you know there would be four less for supper—he’s keeping them out on the lines. Ben’s found a couple of dead cows of late. Looks like something’s been feasting on them. Boss wants to catch the critter if he can. Why didn’t you answer me when I called for you?”
He moved closer to her. “Did you know I was following you? You don’t act surprised.”
She smiled. “You made more noise than Papa’s mules charging through the trees. I didn’t know it was you, but I did know I was being followed.”
“And it didn’t alarm you.” What was wrong with this girl? “Don’t you know someone could sneak up on you out here and…and do you bodily harm? From now on, don’t come out here unless you tell someone.”
“Exactly what are you saying? I can’t have some quiet time to myself without checking in with someone? Just who made you my body guard, anyway?” She pushed herself to her feet and clamped her hands on her hips. “If I’m not mistaken, you hid away in stand of trees once yourself. Why should it be any different for me?”
“Because, I’m you hus…just because. You don’t have any business crawling through the brush by yourself. You never can tell what kind of animal might be in here.”
Her eyes shone with unshed tears. “You started to tell me I couldn’t come here because you were my husband, didn’t you?” She swiped at her eyes.
“It slipped.” He hung his head. Why couldn’t he admit his attraction to her? Because he didn’t want it to be her that he loved. That’s why. So if he didn’t want to love her, why did being so close to her make his heart trip? He forced his eyes away from her and Claire’s face rushed to his memory then disappeared with the breeze.
“You’re thinking of Claire, aren’t you?” She stepped closer to him but he refused to look at her. “You’ll never see me as anyone but the invader—the one that spoiled your chance of happiness with the girl you really love. Go find her, Trey. Go find her and bring her back here. I’ll be gone, and you won’t ever have to tell her about me.”
He took her arm but she pulled away.
“I come here because I need this time with the Lord. I need someone to talk with besides a four-year-old girl. I come here because here, in my sanctuary, God wraps his arms around me and I feel necessary. I feel wanted, not because I can cook and wash clothes and clean house, but because I…I’m loved. It makes me forget I’m only an obstacle.”
“SueAnna, please. Let me say something.” He tried to pull her to him but she twisted free.
“You are not my husband, Trey Martin. Not in any sense of the word are we married. I am Miss Morrow to you…and the hired help. I will continue to come here when I so desire, and I will leave this ranch when the Fall work is done. I’m not staying to please you. I’m staying because Mr. Covington still needs my help. Now please…”
This time he would not let her escape. He grabbed both shoulders and pulled her to him. She fought at first, then relaxed against him. He’d never held her before. She was so small. Claire was nearly at tall as he. Claire again. Will she always be here between us?
“I’m not her, am I?” SueAnna pulled away and their eyes met. “I feel different to you, don’t I? Tell Mr. Covington I appreciate the message. I need to go back. Lily will be up and wonder where I am.”
He leaned against a tree in the clearing for a long time after she left. Was it possible to love two people at the same time? When he closed his eyes he could still smell her, and feel her against him. Then Claire would peek around a memory again, like she was teasing.
It was well after supper before he went back to the house. By then all was dark. But when he lit a lamp in the kitchen, a plate was set and beside it a fresh loaf of bread.
Early October, 1873
SueAnna made one last trip to the root cellar. She was proud of the gleaming jars of beans and beets on the shelves. Potatoes had been sorted and spread so they wouldn’t rot. Onions, their tops braided into ropes, hung from the wood ceiling rafters. The pumpkins would be brought in later, along with carrots and turnips. She had worked hard. Mama would have been proud.
The house was clean, too. Windows sparkled, framed by freshly ironed curtains. Walls were scrubbed and floors polished. And Ben promised to help turn the mattresses.
Her time at the KIM was coming to an end, and she could hardly bear to think of it. She loved this ranch, but she was no longer needed. Mr. Covington was up and getting along fine. He still hobbled on his crutch, but was able to ride again. As soon as Fall gathering was over she’d be free to go.
The door to Mr. Covington’s study was open and she took a deep breath before daring a tentative knock. He was never anything but kind to her, but his mere presence still made her nervous. “Are you busy, sir?” She stepped inside.
He stood at the windows, his hands behind his back, but turned to address her. “I’m never too busy for you, SueAnna. Come stand here a bit with me. I was just watching the evening get settled for the night. Have you ever seen they sky painted as beautiful as Kansas does it.” He put his arm around her shoulders and they turned back to the windows.
“I’m going to miss this view.” She smiled at him. “And I’ll miss you.”
“What are you talking about, my dear? You don’t plan to go anywhere do you?” He moved to his desk and motioned for her to sit across from him. “Now, tell me what this is all about.” He crossed his arms on the desk and leaned her direction.
“This…this isn’t going to work—me and Trey being married. I told him when the Fall work was done I would take Lily back to the Nelsons and get the marriage annulled. The Bittmans made arrangements with Lorna and James that I could return at any time. And I no longer have the fear of losing Lily.”
“Did Trey agrees to this? Did he ask you to leave?” A scowl settled deep between his eyes.
“He didn’t ask me to leave—but neither has he asked me to stay. Trey will never love me was a wife. He still loves Claire, and I can’t compete with a ghost.” She tried to smile but her cheeks wouldn’t move.
“How do you know this? Has he told you he’s still in love with another woman?”
She shook her head. “He doesn’t have to tell me. I know about Claire, so the other woman is no surprise. He can’t look at me without thinking of her. What kind of marriage would that be?”
“And what about you, SueAnna? Do you love him?”
She shrugged. “I went from being never courted, to being married all at the same time. I don’t know how to know if I love him. But I don’t want him to settle for less than what he wants—and I don’t want to be the one who is less. Can you understand?”
He nodded. “Perhaps all too well. But running away isn’t the answer, you know. Give him a chance, SueAnna. Give me time to talk with him. Perhaps I can help.” He stood and paced between the windows and his desk.
“I don’t want him forced to be my husband. It has to be a decision he makes without interference. And it might mean he will need to go find Claire. Could you agree to that?”
She joined him where he stood looking across the acres and acres of range. The setting sun cast a golden glow across the hills of native grasses that reddened with the autumn.
He clasped his hands behind his back. “Look at the sky. One minute it’s full of every color you can imagine, the next the colors have faded and it looks dark and lonely. But we know it’s just resting, and in the morning it will awaken just as riotous as it was tonight. Tomorrow is a new day. I will do what I have to do to work through this with you, even if it means allowing Trey to find Claire. But will you give him another chance? One last chance?” He pleaded.
“I”ll stay until after Thanksgiving, then I would very much like to know I would be free to go if things haven’t changed. I love it here, Mr. Covington, but I can’t continue to live like this.”
He put his arms around her shoulders. “Until after Thanksgiving. For now I have a little surprise. How would you like to get all dressed up and go to church tomorrow? My silly pride didn’t want to hobble in, but I think it’s time for the KIM to be seen again. And—there’s a picnic to boot.
She wanted to shout. Church. People. Singing. Oh, she could hardly wait. And wouldn’t Lily be tickled to wear her pretty dress again.
Mr. Covington was right—tomorrow would be a new day.