Prairie View, Kansas
Lorna Nelson ran her feather duster over the top of her husband’s head. “Move that mail sack, James, so I can finish dusting these shelves before Martha Jean Larson comes in.”
James sneezed. “Martha Jean never has dust? And slow that thing down. You got more dust stirred up than what was there in the first place.” He sneezed again.
She smacked him on the head with her duster.
“Quit—now my head will be dirty and what will Martha Jean have to say about that?”
Lorna laughed. “It was shining in my eyes. I swan, I do believe you used lard again this morning. I bet that fringe around your ears couldn’t move even if a Kansas whirlwind came storming through.”
“You go ahead and laugh, woman. I know you like my shiny head.” He pinched her cheek. “Here,” he handed her a letter, “see who might be writing a letter to the mercantile.”
Lorna sat down on a cracker box by the stove. “Wonder why they addressed it to Nelson’s Mercantile? Hmm.” She took the missive from the envelope and leaned against a stack of flour sacks. “Well…my, oh my…well, what do you think about that…who would have thought—”
“I’ll never understand why you read snippets and make comments aloud before you let me know what it’s saying. Now, does that letter say anything I should be hearing, too?”
“Why yes, it does. And you’ll never believe…come sit down and listen to this.”
James wiggled himself into a chair next to her. “Okay, read. I’m listening.”
“Dear James and Lorna Nelson: You might not remember me, but you helped me and my sisters after our pa died. I know I promised to come back for the girls, but I found a job in Illinois before I made it all the way back to Ohio. I’ve been feeling real bad about not keeping my promise to them and was wondering if it might be okay if me and my wife came for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If we could stay with you, it would be much appreciated. We’d surely like for it to be a surprise and was hoping you might think of a way we could get the Bittman’s to bring the girls to your place. We’ll be glad to pay for anything that is needed if you would be so kind as to make me a ticket. I do thank you and will be there for Thanksgiving unless we hear we aren’t welcome.
Peter K. Morrow
James scratched his head. “Well, what do you make of that, Lorna?”
“What I make of it is we better get busy. Thanksgiving is next week. There’s not time to get a note back even if it weren’t okay. And he doesn’t know the Bittmans have left, or that SueAnn is married and has Lily out on the ranch. Guess more than one person will be surprised, won’t they? But how’re we going to get the girls in here? They won’t just come without a reason, will they?”
He shrugged. “If we could get a note to Adam, and let him in on this surprise, I reckon he might consider bringing them here for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“And how are we going to do that. Trey and SueAnna took supplies for the winter with them when they left. I doubt we’ll see anyone from the KIM until spring.”
James plucked a feather from her duster. “Suppose we could hook a note on one of these and hope the wind would carry it.”
“Pfft. I think that lard has soaked into your brain. We’d have a whole lot better chance of them getting a message if we was to pray.”
SueAnna laid her head against the back of the settee and stretched her feet to the warmth of the fireplace. Sage had returned for another church service, but she’d been too weak to attend and he’d not come to the ranch.
Trey was attentive and loving, but could she trust him? She was afraid to trust herself. Everyone she’d ever loved, except for Lily, had left her. Ma and Pa couldn’t help it. But Peter. Where was the brother who promised to return? Even now, every time Trey left the ranch her chest tightened and her head hurt until she’d hear him ride in again. Was it love or fear? If only she could talk to another woman. Someone who could tell her what to do, or explain how she felt. She wanted to go back to Nelson’s. She needed Lorna.
The tell-tale click of Trey’s boots in the hallway broke her reverie. She sat up and smoothed her skirt.
“Mind if I come in?”
She smiled to herself. He would come in whether she answered or not.
He knelt beside her. “Hey, are you okay? Feel like coming down for awhile? I’ll help you?” He rubbed his thumb across her forehead. “Why the frown? Have I done something wrong? Do you hurt? I’ll do anything you ask. Just…just please be happy.”
“Anything I ask? It’s not that I’m not happy, Trey. But—”
“I want to go back to the Nelson’s.” His face fell, and guilt looped around her shoulders.
She shook her head. “No, at least I don’t think so. I…oh, Trey, I’m just so tired and mixed up. I think it would help if I could talk with Lorna. Please understand. I need to talk to Lorna.”
He got to his feet. “I thought…was I wrong to think we could make this work?”
She caught his hand. “I’m not saying we can’t. But I don’t think we can while I’m here. I know you want me to trust you…to love you. But I’m so afraid.”
He plunked to the settee beside her. “Afraid of me? Why? I’d never hurt you.”
“There are a lot of ways to hurt someone. I’m afraid you’re only feeling sorry for me. You’ve been so kind and loving to me now, but I know how quickly your mood can change. I’m afraid that Claire is still lurking in your heart, and I don’t have the strength to fight her. I can’t live knowing she might show up again, if only in your thoughts.” She pulled her hand from his. “I can’t compete with what I can’t see.”
“But I’ve told you, over and over again, it’s you I love.”
“Because I’m here. Don’t you see? You think you love me because I’m here. But what would you do if you saw Claire again? Where would that leave us? Could you make a choice? And would that choice be me? You said you loved her, too, but you never went back for her. Not until we were married did you make any effort to find her, then you blamed me when Mr. Covington wouldn’t allow you to leave. I need to know that I can go to the Nelson’s and you’ll ride across the prairie to come for me because you can’t stand for us to be apart. And you need to know that you would meet me walking toward you because I couldn’t wait for you to get there.”
“And would you do that, SueAnna? Would you walk to meet me?” He kissed her fingers.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s what we need to find out. We don’t even know one another. I only know how you like your eggs because you threw them away when I didn’t do it right. I need to know that…that you would be proud to introduce me as your wife and not the housekeeper.”
“What about Lily?”
She patted his hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll not leave her for you to watch. I’ve been thinking. I don’t want to leave her, but I can’t have her around while I’m trying to work through all this. I’ve never been away from her since our ma died. She was one-year-old, and I was twelve. I know more about being a mama than I do about being a girl. I was thinking maybe Alice Rawlings would let her come there for awhile.”
“How long is awhile?”
“Only until after Christmas. Perhaps you could bring Lily to the Nelson’s for Christmas. That will give me time to think. I want to know what it feels like to get all dressed up and wait for a beau to come calling. Will he think I’m pretty? Will he whisper sweet words to me? Will he tell me he can’t sleep at night because he’s thinking of me?”
Trey stood with his back against the stone wall surrounding the fireplace. “I haven’t given you any of that, have I? Here we are married, and I never even knew how much you needed to know them things. Are you saying you would go out with just any beau? Do you want to be free to do that?”
She shook her head. “As long as we are still legally married, I would never consider going out with another man. But what if it’s you who decides you want to be free? What if you decide to go back for Claire and ask for our marriage to be annulled? What if you decide that riding across the prairie to me is too much…that I’m not worth it?”
Trey turned his head away from her.
“You can’t answer that, can you? Don’t you see, Trey…that’s why I have to leave for awhile. You can’t see Claire, but she’s still there. What place will I occupy in your life when I’m no longer visible on a daily basis? This marriage should never have been. I know it, and you know it. In truth it has never been a marriage at all. I’ll thank you until my dying day that you helped me keep Lily. But I’ll be sorry ’til my dying day that you had to do it the way you did. It was wrong.”
He rubbed his forehead. “When would you go?”
“As soon as we can make arrangements for Lily. I already have my bags packed. I’ll walk if I have to.”
He shouldered away from the wall. “I’ll go talk to Alice this afternoon. You know she’ll have questions. What do I tell her?”
“You’ve never had trouble explaining me before. I’m confident you will be able to come up with something. Maybe you should consider the truth. I don’t know Alice all that well, but I can’t imagine her being a gossip.”
He dropped to his knees. “I’m afraid to let you go. I’m afraid you won’t come back.” He squeezed her hands.
“I’m not really leaving you. My being here hasn’t meant we’re together. Staying here won’t change anything. We need time apart to know if we can spend the rest of our lives together.”
His shoulders heaved with a sigh. “Okay, until Christmas.” He kissed her forehead then stood. “But only until Christmas.”
She leaned back against the settee after he left. Her head hurt and she was so very, very tired.
To be continued—