A crash of thunder pulled Trey from a fitful sleep. His arm was numb from holding SueAnna, but he didn’t want to do anything to disturb her. Had she even moved the entire night? Had he?
Another crack of thunder rattled the windows and was soon accompanied by the banging of the bedroom door against the wall.
“Miss Libby is really, really scared.” Lily pattered across the room in her bare feet and made a leap to get onto the bed. When she couldn’t make it she flung the doll onto Trey’s belly and grabbed his shirt of pull herself up, then hurdled over both of them and sat cross-legged beside SueAnna, Miss Libby clutched tight against her chest.
“Lily, be careful.” He wanted to scold but couldn’t keep the smile from his face. It was a very loud crash of thunder.
“I’s sorry, but I had to run fast. Wait! Oh, oh—
The near constant flashes of lightning lit the room enough to reveal Lily’s wide eyes.
“Why are you in bed with us?”
“I’d like to know the same thing.”
It wasn’t much more than a whisper but Trey’s heart thumped against his chest. She was awake. She could talk. But he couldn’t squeak out a sound.
“Are we gonna get a baby now?”
A knock against the open door broke the awkward silence that followed her question. “Sorry Trey, this isn’t exactly the time you need company, is it?” Ben lifted Lily from the bed. “Come ‘on, punkin’. You can eat breakfast with me. How about that?” He winked at Trey, and closed the door behind them.
“You didn’t answer me.” SueAnna tried to wiggle away from him. “Why are you here?”
“Don’t move, please. You hit your head and it was my fault. I’ll leave if my being here bothers you.” He tried to slide his arm from under her head, but she moaned with the movement. “I’m so sorry. All I’ve done since you’ve been here is cause you pain.”
“Why does my head hurt?”
Thunder boomed again and she scowled. “Lily will be scared. I need to get up.”
“She’s with Ben. He’ll make sure she’s taken care of for the day. But you need to stay right where you are.”
“It hurts to move. Why am I here? Why are you here?”
Before he could answer she closed her eyes and appeared to drift off again. While he longed for her to stay awake long enough to ask her forgiveness, he was grateful that he had more time to hold her. Once she remembered all that took place, he’d doubted he’d be welcome to linger.
Intermittently, over the next hours, she awakened, asked the same questions then drifted off again. He allowed himself to relax and must have dozed because the next time he opened his eyes, they met hers.
“Hey.” He touched her face and she didn’t recoil. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? “How long you been awake?”
“Long enough to know you need a shave.” She smiled
“Can I move my arm, or at least try?” She nodded, and he gently lifted her head from his shoulder. “Will you be okay for a bit? I’ll let the others know you’re awake. Lily will be glad.” He stood and moved to loosen the kinks.
“Please don’t leave me. Everyone else has left me and they never come back.”
He sat on the edge of the bed and leaned to wipe her tears. “I’m not leaving forever, SueAnna. I’ll be back. I promise. I…I just really need to…to go outside for a minute.”
She turned her head from him. “You won’t come back. Nobody ever comes back. Nobody…” She drifted off again.
Trey dropped to his knees beside the bed. “Oh Lord, I have to leave but somehow let her know I’m not leaving her. I can’t ever make up for all the pain I’ve cause her, but please, please, Lord…show me how to love her and—”
“Trey!” Ben hollered. “Hurry, man! Abe Rawlings just rode in hollerin’ fire is headin’ this way. It just missed his place, but it chased him all the way here. We gotta get it stopped before it gets to the buildings.”
Trey took the steps two at a time and met Ben on the run as they headed for the barn. “What about the girls? Will they be safe here?” They opened stalls as they ran through the barn, allowing the horses to run from danger.
“Grab the sacks and buckets, anything you can find. Adam already got the shovels and stuff and is headed out with the wagon. Abe’s with him.”
Trey grabbed Ben’s arm. “Wait, you didn’t answer me—what about the girls? He was torn. They had to get the fire stopped. Prairie fires could sweep across open range faster than a horse could run. It would destroy everything in its path, including people. He’d only experienced it once since coming to the KIM. He never wanted to face anything like it again.
“If we can get it stopped, they’ll be okay. That’s why we gotta hurry. You better be prayin’.”
The wind was blowing gale force and the stench of smoked filled the air. The prairie was dry, and it would take a miracle to stop the inferno. He could see the flames licking at the horizon as he ran, and he prayed the men out on line would find safety. Maybe they made it to the river. What was happening? Hadn’t God heard him? Had he been too late to ask for forgiveness—like he was too late to tell SueAnna he loved her?
“I can’t leave them, Ben. SueAnna is too weak to get away by her self. And Lily…” He couldn’t finish. The thought of them being caught in the fire tore at his heart. “I gotta go back.”
“You can’t. Use your head. If we don’t get this thing stopped they’ll die for sure. At least now we might be able to give them a chance.”
They were now so close to the fire, the roar of the wind and the crackled of the dry grass as it succumbed to the flames made it impossible to hear. They ran to the wagon and dipped their sacks into the barrel of water then beat at the forward line of fire. Four men against the devastating forced of nature. What could they possibly accomplish. Is this what Hell is like? Oh God, we need a miracle. Please send rain or a change of wind. Don’t let the girls die in this. Don’t let any of us die, Lord.
Time and time again he returned to the barrel to wet his sack. His didn’t think he could swing his arms one more time, or make his leg run for water again, when five of the KIM riders topped the ridge and galloped toward them. God had just doubled their strength, and with a vengeance the men continued to fight the demon that insisted on gnawing it’s ugly red head toward them. Adam had to keep moving the wagon to stay out of range of the fire. He covered the horses’ faces with sacks so they couldn’t see the flames, but the smoke swirled around them and they fought to run.
Trey was exhausted. They would beat it down then the wind would send embers in a sweep around them and it wold start all over again. He straightened to wipe the soot from his face and as he swept his sleeve across his eyes, he witnessed his boss fall to his knees.
“Covington’s down. He needs help.” Trey raced to his side and fell to his knees beside him. “What can I do, sir? Let’s get you out of this smoke.” The man’s face was blackened from the soot. Two white lines down his face revealed a trail of tears and he was sobbing.
“Do? What can you do for me? You can forgive me, Trey. Forgive me for giving up on your ma. Forgive me for not addressing my suspicions sooner.” He swung his arm in an arc. “This is all my fault. God is punishing me. Can’t you see? This is my reaping. He’s going to take it all.”
Trey put his arm around the big man and yelled into his ear. “No! No! That’s not how God works. Lightning started this fire, but we can’t stay here on our knees. We have to stop it before it gets to the buildings. Lily and SueAnna are alone in the house and SueAnna is too weak to help either one of them escape. Please, sir. We have to keep fighting.”
“I can’t go on. The only strength I have left is to stay on my knees and cry out for mercy. Forgive me, Trey. Forgive me.” He covered his face with his hands.
Trey grabbed his arms and pulled him to his feet. “Look at me, sir. Look at me.” He pounded on his chest. “Don’t you dare give up. Pa—please don’t give up. We need you. The girls need you. I…I need you. I need you as my pa, not just my boss. You pray. You keep on praying. But don’t you give up. You hear me, Pa? I need you.” His voice was hoarse from yelling and from the smoke.
He put his arms around Adam and rocked him as a father would rock a small child. Back and forth he swayed. “God forgave me, Pa. He forgave me yesterday for the way I’ve treated you and SueAnna. You’re my Pa, and I need your forgiveness. But even if you can’t forgive me, I’m not going to let you give up. We might burn standing here, but we’ll burn together. Do you hear me? I need you, Pa. I want to learn how to love and you’re the only one I know who can teach me.”
A stillness surrounded them. Was this peace? No roar of flames. Only his pa’s sobbing—then a whoop and holler from the men on the fire line.
Rain! Cold, wet torrents of rain fell driven by a changing wind mingled with their tears and they stood and held one another even though they were soaked.
Ben had to persuade them to get into the wagon for the ride home.
Home. No longer was he going back to the KIM.
Today he was keeping a promise to return.
Today he would return home…to his wife.