Each bone-jarring lurch of the wagon sent pain to parts of SueAnna’s body she didn’t know existed. Trey had tried to talk her out of making this trip, but she’d insisted. Now she was sorry, but they were too far away from the ranch to turn back and still had so many miles to go. The sunshine that had welcomed the morning had long ago disappeared, and they now faced a growing bank of wind-driven roiling dark clouds.
“I don’t like the looks of those clouds. That wind is already getting colder and the open prairie is no place to get caught in an early winter storm. I should never have agreed to this.” Trey reined the horses to a stop. “I’d feel better if you’d let me fix you a bed in the back. We’ve got to move faster and you’ll bounce to pieces on this seat.”
“I’ll bounce back there, too, won’t I?” She ached even with the thought, but she didn’t want to cause more trouble.
Trey climbed into the back of the wagon. “I’ll rig a rope down low for you to grab if it gets too rough. At least it might keep you from jostling so much.” He spread blankets for a bed. “Can you climb over? I’ll put more padding over you once we get you situated.”
She climbed into the back and settled onto the pile of blankets while he piled the extras on top of her, then handed her the rope.
“I’m going to let the horses run, and it’s going to be a rough ride. Curl up as tight as you can and grab the rope if you get to bouncing too much. If we’re lucky we’ll make it to Prairie View before the storm hits.”
Without being able to see, she had no idea how far they’d gone when the first drops of rain pelted her cheeks. She burrowed deeper into the blankets, but with the rain came wind and it whistled around her.
“Grab the rope, SueAnna,” Trey’s voice carried with the wind. “It’s going to get bad.”
The wagon lurched, and she gripped the rope as she was thrown to and fro. The blankets covering her were torn away and cold rain soaked through her clothing. Her hands burned from the friction of the rope but she was too frightened to let go.”
“Trey? Trey help me. I can’t hold on much longer.”
“Just a few more miles. Hang on for a few more miles.”
Trey braced his feet against the front of the wagon and pulled until he thought his arms would break. This wasn’t going to work. The wagon was too slow, the storm too fierce. His only hope of getting SueAnna to safety was to unhitch the wagon and go the rest of the way on horseback. Even that wouldn’t be as fast as he liked. The team horses were big and sturdy and good for long hauls, but they weren’t as fast as his big gelding.
Her wet clothing clung to her but there was no other choice. He wrapped her as well as he could in the wet blankets that she’d been lying on, and was able to finally get both of them atop the larger of the team horses. He’d let the other one go. Without the cumbersome harness it would be able to fend for itself. For now, he had to get his wife to Nelson’s.
She slumped against him as they trudged through the strengthening storm. The rain had now become pellets of ice, and it didn’t take long for a thin layer of slush to cover the ground. Even though the layers of blanket around her, he could feel her shiver against him.
This was his fault. Had he told her right from the start what he longed to say now, she’d never have left. If only he could have promised her that Claire would never again come between them. Was it too late? When they reached Nelson’s, would she let him hold her as he was holding her now? Would she give him the chance to tell her what was in his heart? What kept him from it now? Why was it so easy to think the words but so difficult to say them? Ben was right—he was a dope.
SueAnna moaned and he pulled her closer. “We’re almost there. Can you hear me? We’re almost there.” Dusk wrapped the darkened skies around them before he was able to make out pin-points of light coming from the windows of the mercantile. That was unusual. There’d been no time to let them know they were coming? Were they expecting someone else?
“Hello…hello. Can anyone hear me?”
Before he reached the hitching rail, light from inside spilled onto the porch of the mercantile. “That you, Trey Martin? We thought we heard someone hollering. How did you know—”
Doc Thayer shoved past Mr. Nelson. “What in the world are you doing out on a night like tonight? Please don’t tell me that’s—”
“Save your lecture. This wasn’t my idea, but right now we’ve got to get my wife out of this storm.”
Doc lifted her from Trey’s arms. “Can you stand, little one? Here, boy, you climb off that horse and help me get her inside. James, you holler for Lorna to get a bed ready for this young lady. And we’ll need anything warm she can find. She’s soaked plumb to the skin.”
Trey slipped his arm around SueAnna’s waist. The quilt had slipped to the ground and he could feel heat of her body even through her wet clothing. She must have terrible fever. She swayed against him and he pulled her closer.
“Lorna, you got that bed ready? Get her on in here, Trey.”
They stepped into the mercantile just as Lorna came from their living quarters. She was followed close behind by a young couple.
SueAnn had never seen such a beautiful girl. She became acutely aware of how wet and bedraggled she must look. Her knees trembled and the room spun around her. Voices seemed to come from all corners, but she recognized the voice of her brother and held out her arms. She didn’t have the strength to move, but the girl stepped toward her.
“You must be SueAnna. Peter has talked of his little sister so much I expected someone much younger.” The girl embraced her then stepped back with a gasp. Her face drained of all color and her hands shook as she clasped them in front of her.
Trey’s arm dropped from her waist, and he stepped away as her brother took her hand.
“My dear little sister, SueAnna Rose.” Peter brushed his lips against her cheek. “That fine lady who just about squeezed the life out of you is my wife…Claire.”
The girl breathed Trey’s name, and he moved from SueAnna’s side.
“Claire. Is that…is that really you, Claire?” He reached for Peter’s wife, and with a sob she fell into his embrace.
To be continued—