Rawlings Stage Stop
SueAnna clutched Lily’s hand as a bony, friendly-faced woman came toward them. She had one child on her hip, a second one by the hand and three more following like ducklings in a row.
“My sakes, I was thinking you was never going to bring this girl over for us to meet, Trey Martin. Course, I knowed Adam has been laid up for a spell, and my Abe told me you got horse-throwed into a hole so I can’t blame you for being a backslider.”
Trey’s eyes twinkled. “Why Alice, I’m no backslider. Heard you was having a picnic today, so decided we best get over here and take part.” He winked at the lady.
She flicker her wrist at him and smiled at SueAnna. “I’m Alice Rawlings. This one on my hip is Arnold, and the one a clingin’ to my hand like dirt is Aaron. The three following are Abigail, Alice May and Alice June. Abe Junior is over jawing with the big boys, and April is sleeping in the wagon. Sure is nice to have a young lady around for a change. Girls your age are right scarce around here.”
SueAnna smiled at each timid face. “I’m so glad to meet you. I hope I can remember the names of your all your little ones.”
“Oh, won’t be hard. They all start with the letter A. Thought that would make it simpler. Abe—he wanted to name them with the letters of the alphabet, but I knew where that was headed so made him promise to stop with A.” She laughed heartily, and the other women gathered around them laughed with her.
Alice leaned down and touched Lily’s cheek. “And you got yourself a little one, too, I see. Don’t guess I know your names. Trey Martin, where’s your manners?”
Trey took SueAnna’s elbow and pushed her forward. “Why, Alice, you’ve been talking so much I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. This is Miss SueAnna Morrow, and the little one is her sister, Lily. Miss Morrow is uh…the housekeeper Mr. Covington hired when he was still laid abed.”
Alice shook her youngster’s hand loose and gripped Lily’s fingers “Hello Lily. You must be about my Abigail’s age. My, you do have on a pretty dress.”
Lily curtsied. “Thank you. This is the dress I wore when—”
SueAnna clapped her hand over her sister’s mouth. “Lily, honey, why don’t you and Abigail run over by that tree and play. You can introduce her to Miss Libby.” The little girls grabbed hands and ran off giggling.
Thank you, Lord.
“You say she’s the housekeeper? Goodness! Your look too young to be having the chore of keeping up with all them men on the KIM. But looks like you did right well for yourself. At least Adam and Trey, here, are up and around again.”
Alice pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her dress and wiped the nose of the babe on her hip. “Excuse me. This one seems to have a drip most days.”
SueAnna didn’t reply, but stepped backwards and hoped it was Trey’s boots she countered. Miss Morrow—the housekeeper. Okay, if that was the game he was going to play, she could play right along with him. Only she would win.
“Get off my foot,” he hissed in her ear.
She shifted her weight and gave her heel a twist. “Lily will be so excited to have a friend her age. She’s been alone so much I think she’s almost forgotten she’s a child.” She smiled at the ladies.
A plump woman with a bright red bonnet stepped forward. Her black dress and white apron made her look all the world like a woodpecker, and SueAnna smiled at the thought.
“My name is Winifred Hollings. Alice has a hard time getting past the A’s so the rest of us just have to chime in when we have a chance. You couldn’t have picked a better day to come, Miss Morrow.” She turned to Alice. “Can I tell her the news?” Her head bobbed as she talked. Maybe she was a woodpecker.
“My goodness. Plumb forgot about the big news, Winnie. You go ahead and spill the beans. It’s a surprise to the others around here, too.”
Winifred motioned for them to gather around her, and positioned herself in the middle. “Well, we’re getting a new preacher today. Never had one before, just took turns sharing whatever the good Lord laid on our hearts. But now we got us a real preacher. Going to be here every-other Sunday.” She straightened and grasped SueAnna’s hand. “And girl—he isn’t married. Young, they say—about twenty-three. Those who’ve seen him say he’s a real looker. You are a believer, aren’t you?”
SueAnna loved this game. She put her hand on her cheek, in a mock display of pleasure, and smiled at the women who were jabbing elbows and winking at her. “Oh, my, yes. I’m a believer. Lily and I lived with a preacher after our papa died. That was before Mr. Covington hired me for a housekeeper, of course. Where will he be staying on the weeks he’s here? Do you have a parsonage?”
“Oh, no. And the Rawlings’ don’t have room, so we’ll be taking turns. Maybe you would like to have him first, Trey.”
“Trey pulled his foot from under SueAnna’s heel. “No, I…I think that would be a little too much for Miss Morrow. Like you said, she has a full time job keeping up with all of us.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind at all.” She stepped backwards, surprised he hadn’t moved his foot out of range. “In fact, Mr. Covington is on his way over here now. Let’s ask him.” She gave her heel another twist.
Mr. Covington hitched his way toward them on is crutches. “Ah, good, Alice. I was hoping you’d have a chance to meet Trey’s—”
“Oh, my yes. Trey told us all about her. How fortunate for you to find someone so young and able to keep house for the KIM. Hilda left some big shoes to fill but looks like she’s being doing a fine job.”
“We was a telling this fine little gal that she came at just the right time, Adam.” Winifred inched her way toward him. “Wait ’til you see the new preacher man. And he’s needing a place to stay for a few days. Miss Morrow—bless her heart—says perhaps you all would have room at your ranch.”
SueAnna smiled and winked at her boss. Please get the message and play along with this game. “I didn’t think you’d mind, Mr. Covington. We do have plenty of room and one more mouth to feed won’t add to my work load—that much.”
“What do you mean, your work load?” Trey growled in her ear.
“Well, my goodness, Alice. Miss a couple months of church and they go hire and a preacher. That’s good news. That’s very good news. Of course we have room. And I’m sure Trey would be glad to assist SueAnna with anything she needs.”
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Covington. I promise I won’t shirk any of my duties.” She ground her heel one more time.
Winifred grabbed SueAnna’s hand. “Then you come with me. I’ll see you get a seat right down front. You run along Trey. We’ll take good care of your little housekeeper here.”
“Leave it to you, Winnie,” Alice chuckled. “You think your lot in life is to find every eligible young woman—or man—the perfect mate. You run along, Miss Morrow. I’ll make sure Lily stays with us and we’ll find you again after the service. Good to see you again, Adam. We’ll talk at the picnic after church.”
As soon as the ladies were out of hearing range, Adam turned to Trey. “Want to tell me what’s going on here? Why did Alice just refer to SueAnna as Miss Morrow.”
Trey shrugged. “Nothing. I just introduced SueAnna to the ladies. That’s all.”
“And how did you introduce her, Trey—as your wife, or as the maid?”
Trey clenched his jaw. “She is the housekeeper, isn’t she? And you saw how eager she was to meet the new preacher. Don’t seem to me she thinks we’re married any more than I do.”
“If you had introduced her as the wife she is, Trey, all the rest could have been avoided. Why is it you’d rather blame her than claim her? Have you ever taken a good long look at that fine young lady? Not only is she a beauty, but she already can handle more than many a woman older than she. Have your ever heard her grumble? Has she ever once complained when we all come in late and she’s had to keep food warm half the night?”
“She’s just doing what she’s hired to do, isn’t she?” Trey turned on his heel and took a step to move past Covington, but the man’s fist caught his chin and he fell to the ground.
“What the…?” He rubbed his hand across his chin. It was bleeding.
“I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do, Son. And I should have done it a long time ago. You need to learn some manners.”
“Yeah, Well maybe if you’d been around while I was growing up you could’ve have taught me. A little late now, don’t you think?”
“It’s never too late to learn how to be a man. The day you can tell me you’re never done anything wrong, you can punch me. But until then, you pick yourself up and wipe the blood off your chin. Then you make tracks as fast as you can and get to that girl before the new preacher does. You hear me?”
Trey got to his feet. “Oh, I hear you real good, Pa. Do as I say and now how I did. Right? I’ll go find her, and I’ll sit with her and try to keep the big mean preacher away. But remember this—it was you who said he could come stay with us. You planning on me staying in the house the whole time he’s there just so’s he won’t woo my so-called wife away from me? I’ll play this game, but you can’t make me love her and she can’t make me forget Claire—ever.”
Adam brushed at his knuckled as Trey strode away. What was he thinking, trying to slug it out with a kid half his age…while on crutches, to boot. Maybe he at least got his son’s attention. But it wasn’t his attention he wanted. He wanted his…his love. And forgiveness.
SueAnna regretted her actions as soon as she found herself being propelled away. She wasn’t free. She was a married woman…by law, if not by love. If only she’d controlled her anger. She only wanted to make Trey sorry he’d not acknowledged her as more than the housekeeper. But in reality, that’s all she was. She prayed the new preacher would be less than expected by the fine ladies she’d just met.
Winifred huffed beside her. “Oh, my dear. I just can’t believe how good the Lord is—bringing you here of all days. Now wouldn’t Adam Covington be in a frenzy if you and the preacher would hit it off and he’d steal you away from him?” She squeezed SueAnna’s hand.
“Oh, my, you’re all a twitter, aren’t you? Well, can’t say I blame you much.” She pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of her apron. “Here, dear. Wipe those hands. wouldn’t do for you to be in a lather when you’re introduced. I hear fine ladies don’t perspire.” She leaned her had back and laughed. “My goodness, what some of them fine ladies need to do is come out to Kansas for awhile. Everybody sweats in Kansas.”
SueAnna wished they could change the subject away from bodily functions. Mama would scold if she heard her use such language. But she couldn’t deny the truth.As jittery as she was, she’d be perspiring even if the snow were blowing.
A line had formed beside Rawlings’ station, each one waiting to shake the preacher’s hand. She tried not to look but it was hard to miss the top of his head as he bent to greet the child in front of her, and it was…well, it was downright lovely. Mahogany, she would call the color of his hair. Thick and wavy. She wiped her upper lips with Winifred handkerchief. She was sweating.
Winnie bounced on her heels when it was their turn to greet the new preacher. “Oh, Pastor Bowen. It’s just so good to have you with us. Now, I want you to be meeting this fine little lady. She’s the housekeeper for Adam Covington over at the KIM ranch, and they’ve agreed to put you up for the next week. This is SueAnna…SueAnna…I’m sorry dear, I plumb forgot your name.”
SueAnna raised her eyes and her heart did a flip-flip. “Bowen? Sage Bowen?”
“Rosie? SueAnna Rose Morrow? My lands, girl! the last time I saw you…well, your certainly didn’t look like this.” He grabbed her hand in both of his.
“You two know one another?” Winnie’s arms fluttered like she was going to fly away.
He winked at SueAnna and turned to the lady beside her. “We grew up together. I was a year older than her brother, Peter, and we lived on neighboring farms. The three of us grew up jumping out of hay mows, eating green apples and—” he looked past SueAnna’s shoulders. “Where is Peter, anyway? I heard your folks sold the place and were headed to Kansas.”
“It’s a long story. We can talk about it later. I can’t believe you’re a preacher. We stole those apples. Remember?”
Sage leaned toward her. “We’re causing a scene, dear Rosie. I must let go of your hand. You go on in. I understand there’s a picnic after church and you better save me a place beside you. We’ve a lot of catching up to do.”
He released her hand, and SueAnna followed Winifred into the tiny house that was home, stage-stop and church.
Winnie’s face matched her bonnet. “Oh, wait until Adam Covington finds you were kids together. And I wish I could see Alice Rawlings’ face.”
Even though it was October, the small room was stuffy with the numerous people crowded in. A few chairs and several benches made up the seating. Everyone else stood leaning against the wall.
Mrs. Hollings led SueAnna to the only remaining bench at the very front of the room. As they sat down, Winnie flapped her elbows a couple of times then spread her skirts around her. “I find, dear, if you spread your skirts what air there is has someplace to go besides your ankles.”
SueAnna giggled. She was sure this sweet lady was going to up and fly away with excitement. She started to spread her own skirts but stopped when someone slid onto the same bunch and nudged her to make room.
“Why, Mr. Martin.” There was so much confusion and chatter it was hard to make herself heard. “You think it proper to be seen sitting with the hired help?”
“Look, I’m sorry about that. I just thought it would save a whole lot of questions.”
“Questions for me to answer, or for you—husband?”
“Stop it. Being nasty isn’t going to help anything.”
“Me? Nasty?” She turned and looked at him one finger in the cleft of her chin. “Why is there blood on your face? Been out there falling for all the girls, have you?”
A young lady with pink cheeks stopped beside Trey. She twirled her parasol and fluttered her eyes at him before swaying her hips and excusing herself to wiggle between Winifred and SueAnna.
“And who is this little…” Heat rushed to her face. Mrs. Hollings was right. Everybody perspired in Kansas.
Trey glared. “Jealous? Why look at you blush. It’s very becoming, my dear.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Can’t you at least be civil? After all, I am your—”
SueAnna jumped as Sage Bowen took his place behind the small table that served as a pulpit. Silence permeated the gathering. Oh, dear Lord. How long has it been this quiet? Did everyone hear us arguing?
“You’re blushing again, dear.” Trey’s whisper was like a bugle, but no one seemed to notice as all eyes focused on the new preacher. She’s been twelve the last time saw him, and he was a grown man of eighteen. Had the past four years made as much difference in her appearance as it had for him? Always tall, he seemed to fill the room, She would never have guessed he’d become a preacher. The ladies were right—he was a looker—and she hadn’t heard a word he said.
“Now in closing, I’l like to say this before we pray.”
Trey elbowed her. “You can quit daydreaming now. He’s about done.”
“When I was told I was assigned to Kansas as my first pastorate—not in an actual church but a small stage-stop—I confess I was a bit disappointed. But little did I know that the Lord had a most wonderful surprise waiting for me here. You see this young lady sitting here in front? Miss SueAnna Rose Morrow?
His eyes found hers and SueAnna reached for Winifred’s handkerchief to wipe her perspiring hands.
“Rose and I grew up on neighboring farms, back in Ohio. Her brother, Peter, and I were best friends, and she always tagged right along with us.” We winked at her and a soft murmur filled the room.
“Why, I know this girl so well I could tell you her favorite color, her favorite food, and if you don’t already know—she puts sugar on everything.” Now laughter and whistles drowned out the murmur.
“And fellas, don’t you leave your horse untied because I’m here to tell you she can ride anything she can throw her legs over. I know, because she rode my rode my horse in a race—and won—and my horse never let anybody but me ride him. Now, I haven’t seen this fair lady since she was twelve-years-old, and I don’t need to remind you young gentlemen present—she doesn’t look anything like she did the last time I saw her. I’ve asked her to save me a seat for the picnic, so you’ll have to stand in line gents. Now, let’s bow our heads for the benediction.”
“Isn’t that just too sweet.” Trey’s hands were clenched tighter than his jaw. “My wife saving a place for the new preacher. Guess you must have a whole lot to catch up on—right Rosie? Seen you throw your legs, too? That’s not even a proper thing for a man to voice in public, and you should be ashamed he did. Really, my dear. He seems to know an awful lot about his friend’s little sister. I never saw you put sugar on anything.”
“Jealous? Why look how red your face is, husband.”
SueAnna stood and was immediately surrounded by the ladies she’d met earlier. Amidst the giggles and whispers she saw Trey leave.
She’s expected him to stomp away. Was even hoping he would. Instead, he ducked his head and shouldered his way through the crowd without speaking to anyone.
This was not the victory she wanted.