Threads of Grace–Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

    “You know how to court a woman, Ben?”
     “Me? I never even been alone with a woman before, unless you count Lily. What’re you thinkin’?”
     Trey plunked to the bottom step of the bunkhouse. “I don’t know what I’m thinking. Everything is all mixed up. I love Claire, but since the preacher came—”
     Ben leaned against a porch post. “Since the preacher came,  you’re jealous. Right? But why? Are you jealous because you’re starting to care for your wife? Now wouldn’t that make news—a husband actually caring about his wife out walking in the moonlight with another man. It can’t be you’re worried someone else might have feelings for her, can it?”
     Trey cupped hi chin in his hands, elbows on his knees. “He calls her Rosie.”
     “Shoot-fire, man. You know what? You remind me of an old dog that hung around the orphanage. Dumbest thing I ever saw. Ugly, too.”
      “Thanks, pal. So now I’m a dog.”
     Ben’s face split into a grin. “Dumb and ugly anyway, but that’s not what I’m getting at. See, this old dog would lie around all day, chasin’ rabbits in his dreams. One hind leg a thumpin’ all the time he was sleepin’. We could have kicked him into the next county and he wouldn’t even change positions. Put his food out for him, and he’d maybe open one eye. Maybe. But you let another animal—wouldn’t matter what kind it were—come close to that dish of food and that old dog would stand up and bristle like a porcupine. He’d be all teeth and growls, then he’d go around the whole area raising his leg and marking off his territory.”
     “That’s disgusting. I’m not…I’m not marking of any territory. I don’t know why bother ever asking you anything.” Trey pushed to a standing position.
     Ben stood and crossed his arms. “I don’t think you know what your territory is, friend. Say it with me. “He pulled Trey’s face toward him and pinched his cheeks so his mouth would pucker. “Say it—SueAnna is my wife and that preacher is trespassing.”
     He pushed Ben’s hand away. “I don’t have a wife, Ben. What I have is a real mess. I have a girl I love somewhere back East—my boss claims to be my long-lost Pa—and then there is SueAnna and her nosey little know-it-all sister.”
     “And right now, SueAnna is out walking arm in arm with another man. Do I need to remind you how good looking this guy is? Besides that, he’s a preacher and a childhood friend. How do  you know she wasn’t his first love? My guess is Sage Bowen would be more than happy to love her like she ought to be loved. He even knows her favorite color. Did you?”
     “They grew up together, Ben.”
    “So, hot-shot—you and Claire grew up together, too. Do you know her favorite color, or if she even liked sugar? You been so busy feeling sorry for yourself you’re willing to throw away what most of us men would give our last dollar to have—a wife and a Pa.”
     “I’m not about to claim that man as my Pa just by his word. Where was he when I was growing up? If he was a real man, or my real Pa, I wouldn’t have to be looking at your dumb rubber face. I—”
     Trey rubbed his hand across his chin. It was bleeding, and Ben was standing over him with his fists doubled ready to strike again. He jumped to his feet and clenched his own fists. “What was that for, you big red-headed—”
     His knees buckled and he went down the second time. His ears rang and he no longer could see out of his left eye. Ben stood over him again, but this time he extended his hand to help him off the ground.
     “It’s time you grew up, Trey Martin. You whine about your pa and how he wasn’t there, and then you whine about how SueAnna because she is here. I’m good and tired of hearing you blame everyone else for your troubles. Buddy, you got a Pa—and right now you’re everything you accuse him of being. The nut didn’t have far to fall.”
     “That’s not how it goes—it’s the apple that fell.”

     “I like my version better—names it for what it is. I just hope I pounded some sense into that thick shell you call a brain.”

###   

     “I’m sorry you had to hear that conversation, Sage. I wanted to tell you in my own way.” The lamps glowing in the kitchen window gave enough light on the porch for SueAnna to see his face. He chewed on his bottom lip, and it reminded her to when they were kids. He always chewed on his lip right before he would laugh at her.
     “You’re not going to laugh, are you? Sage Bowen, it isn’t funny. Are you making fun of me?”
     “You look like Lily. She stuck her chin out just like that when she tried to say you should ask your husband before you agreed to walk with me.” He took her arm as they stepped off the porch. “Is there somewhere we can to go talk—somewhere without fifteen men and a little girl?”
     “Fifteen men is an exaggeration. Aren’t you a man of the cloth?”
     “I’m a man, yes. That’s what makes this all the more difficult.”
     “Walking with me is difficult? Follow me. I do have a secluded place where we can talk.” She led him to the grove of cedars. “You’ll have to duck to get under the branches, but once inside there’s room to…to dance. Of course, preacher’s don’t dance, do they?” She sat down with her back against a tree, and he folded his legs under him to sit across from her.”
     “How did you find this place? You have to be part bird to stay here long. Is it a secret?”
     “It was, until Trey followed me here. This is my sanctuary. I don’t know if you’ll understand. I’m surrounded by people and work most of the time, but yet I’m so very alone. There are days when I long to talk to someone other than Lily. I come here and talk to God.”
     “You mean those men don’t talk to you? Not even Mr. Covington, or Ben or…or your husband?”
     “Oh, yes, they talk to me, but nobody ever really talks with me. I miss Mama something terrible, and Naomi and Lorna. They’re ladies you don’t know but they were like a mother to me—both of them. Then I got married and came out here.”
     “Want to tell me about it, sweet Rose. Why are you and Lily here without Peter?”
    “Why? Oh, Sage—if only you would have come five months earlier.” She picked up a twig and broke it into little pieces as she told him the story then waited for an answer.
    “So, you bound yourself to a pitiful excuse of a man, so you could take on a job that’s twice as big as you are, all because you wanted to keep Lily? Is that what you’re telling me? Wasn’t there anything else you could have done? You were willing to marry without love?”
     “SueAnna felt the ground beneath her skirts for another twig. “I didn’t have time to consider other options. I did what I had to do to keep her. She’s all I have, Sage. I couldn’t bear to lose her.”
     “I’ve only been here four days, but I’m not blind…nor deaf. Your so-called husband retires to the room across from mine every night. And Mrs. Hollings introduced you as Mr. Covington’s housekeeper. Does anyone know the truth?”
     “Lily let the cat out of the bag around the breakfast table soon after we arrived. That’s why Trey sleeps in the house instead of the bunkhouse. They know we’re married, but that’s all they know. They’re loyal, every one of them, so they’d never say or do anything to humiliate either of us.”
     “You can’t go on like this, Rosie. I know you. You’re a free sirit. This isn’t the advice a preacher should be giving, but you could have this marriage annulled. It’s not a real marriage. You won’t survive like this.”
     She was glad she couldn’t see his face. The right words would convince her to do what had been stirring in her mind for a long time. “I have given it some thought. I’ve told Mr. Covington I’ll stay until after Thanksgiving. I came here to help when he was hurt, then Trey got hurt and is was summer and there was so much to do I couldn’t leave. Now fall is here and the men are so busy and—”
     “Does Trey know your plans?”
     “I…yes, I believe so. I haven’t pinned him down to a date to start loving me, if that’s what you’re asking.”
     “And the truth is—you don’t want to leave, do you? Sage stretched his legs out in front of him.
     She sighed. “Under any other circumstances I would never want to leave this place. And I hate to uproot Lily again. I don’t know what to do. I keep hoping that Peter will return. You know the options of a single girl in this country. I have more than myself to consider. Like it or not, Trey is my husband.”
     “In name only. Please tell me it’s in name only.”
     She shook her head. “That’s none of your concern, Sage.”
     He moved to his knees in front of her. “See all these twigs you’ve been breaking? That’s what my heart feels right now, and that’s how your life is going to be. Bits and pieces, Rosie. You deserve more than that.” He stood and pulled her to her feet.
     “I made a choice. Now I will live with that choice. Mr. Covington doesn’t want me to leave. Trey ignores me, for the most part, but he’s not cruel. And the men are all very polite, and they love Lily. For now, it will have to be enough.”
    He pulled her closer. Was he going to kiss her? What was she thinking? She couldn’t allow that to happen. She was married. She pulled free and stumbled away from him.
     “This is wrong. I never should have agreed to walk with you, and certainly should never have brought you out here. If anyone sees us hiding here in the trees they can come to only one conclusion. The Bible says we’re not to even give the appearance of evil. You should know that—you’re the preacher. Although I’m still finding that hard to believe.”
     “And I’m finding it hard to believe that the scrawny SueAnna Rose I used to play hide-and-seek with is now a full grown, beautiful young woman. I’m sorrier than you will ever know I didn’t accept the appointment sooner. I could have saved you from all this.”
     She led the way out of the trees and they walked back to the house in silence. When they reached the porch, Sage turned her to face him. “You say the word, Rosie, and I’ll take you away from her. I…I don’t have to be a preacher. We could—”
     “No,” she clamped her hand over his mouth. “Don’t say another word, please. Be my friend, but don’t make me choose again.”
     He shook his head, the turned and walked away.
     She watched until he disappeared into the darkness, then turned to go in.
     “That was very touching, Mrs. Martin.” Trey blocked the doorway. “Should I be worried that the good Reverend Bowen will steal you away?”
    SueAnna squared her shoulders to face him. “Were you spying on us? Please let me in. I need to see about Lily.” She tried to reach around him for the door, but he grabbed her arm. Could he hear her heart beat? 
     “Not so fast. We need to talk. Do you want to sit here in the swing with me, or take a long walk? Maybe you could take me back to your hideout in the trees.” He squeezed her arm.
     “You’re hurting me. How do you know that’s where we went?”
     “Lily told me me you went to the trees when you wanted to cry. Is that why you took him there…so you could cry your heart out to him?”
     “Stop it. We talked. That’s all.”
     “Then could you take me back there so we could talk? Maybe…maybe if we talk you won’t have to cry so often.” He reached for her hand and twined his fingers around hers. “Please?”
    She didn’t pull away—she didn’t want to pull away. If only he’d take her in his arms like Sage had done. If only he would want her to stay as much as Sage wanted her to leave. Mama would say all the what-ifs and if onlys in the world won’t change the what is’s, Annie Rose.
     ###

     Sage strode into the shadows, then stopped for one last glimpse of SueAnna. He witnessed Trey keep her from entering, and watched as they made their way back to her sanctuary hand-in-hand. He turned on his heel, then went to saddle his horse. It was time to move on. he’d be back in for church in two weeks, but he couldn’t stay here a minute longer.  
     

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