The ride back to the KIM was grueling. Though the big horse never seemed to tire, each stride pounded like a hammer through Trey’s tired body. While he dreaded the confrontation with his boss, he breathed a sigh of relief when the barn came into view.
Adam Covington scowled as Trey approached. “You lose the wagon, Son?”
Trey slid to the ground, then leaned against the horse to steady himself. “It’s a long story, sir.”
“Well, take care of this horse then come to the house. You both look like you’ve been through some kind of storm.”
The silence, after he finished recounting the events, was deafening. But it was the disappointment he saw in his pa’s eyes that shouted the loudest. How long would the man go without speaking?
It seemed an eternity before Adam swiped both hands down his face. “You say Lorna sent you here? Why? And why did you even agree to come. Why weren’t you man enough to admit what you did was wrong, ask for forgiveness and refuse to leave your wife’s bedside? How do you know she’ll even be alive when you return?”
She wouldn’t die, would she? Not before he had a chance to explain. Why had he left? Covington was right. He wasn’t man enough to admit his failure—his failure to return for Claire as he’d promised, and his failure to acknowledge his love for SueAnna. He had to get back as soon as possible. He stood. He’d saddle his horse and ride back tonight. If he rode hard he could reach Nelson’s by noon tomorrow.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Covington motioned for him to sit. “If you have some crazy notion about riding back there tonight you can forget it. You’re in no shape to go anywhere until you’ve had a good night’s rest. I bet you can’t even remember the last time you had something to eat.”
Pa was right. he couldn’t remember. But he didn’t feel like eating and it wouldn’t do to prolong his return. “I’m not hungry. If you don’t mind, I’ll saddle a fresh horse and be on my way. I’m not sure why Lorna wanted you to know, but now I’ve told you so I’d better be gettin’ back.”
“You can stop the martyr act. Riding yourself to death won’t keep SueAnna alive. I’ll send Ben to let Lorna know you and me will get there as soon as you’re rested. In the meantime I suggest you do some serious thinking about what you’re going to do when you see that Claire-person again. You can’t have both, you know. And if you can’t love SueAnna with your whole heart, then you might as well stay right here. I’ll not have you hurting her again. Do you understand?”
He nodded. “Understood. But, Sir, you say I wasn’t man enough to stay with her when Lorna sent me to tell you what happened. Well, I’ll prove you wrong. You can disown me, send me packing, or whatever you please, but I’m going back to my wife and I’m going back as soon as I saddle another horse. You want to keep me here,” he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, “then just try it.” He met Covington’s glare. If the man was going to punch him, he wanted to see it coming.
A slow grin spread across his Pa’s face. “You have no idea how badly I wanted to hear you say that. I’ll saddle our horses. You finish your coffee. There’s bread in the pantry and butter in the well. Grab whatever you can hold and we’ll ride. I’ll leave a note for Ben. He can keep things going here while I’m gone.”
“A note? Where is he? Are you sure he can read?”
“He went to Rawlings’s to check on Lily. He may get back before we leave, but I’ll leave a note just in case. And yes, he can read.”
Covington was right. By the time they were ready to leave, Ben had returned and heard the reason for their hasty departure. “You sure do know how to get yourself in deep muck, pal. Hope that little gal wakes up so you can make things right.”
Trey shivered. Did Ben think she’d die, too? She was sick, he was aware of that. More aware then they could imagine. But was she sick enough to die? ” He leaned from his saddle and gripped Ben’s hand. “How was Lily? SueAnna will want to know.”
Ben laughed. “Oh, that little girl is something. She announced I was to call her AnnaLily so her name would start with A like all the rest of them. I’d say she was doin’ just fine.” He slapped the horse’s rump. “Now get. Covington’s already halfway there.”
Doc Thayer put his hand against Trey’s chest. “He’s breathing, that’s a good sign.”
Adam grunted. “You think I didn’t know that? Is there somewhere we can stretch him out and let him sleep?”
“Here,” Doc lifted the boy’s leg onto a footstool, “he’s so worn out he won’t know if he’s in a chair or a bed. Cover him up and he’ll be good for the rest of the day. What were you trying to do, anyway? You think pushing him so hard would make up for his foolishness?”
“Was it foolishness, Fred?” Adam pulled a blanket over Trey’s shoulders. “I might have another name for it.”
Doc lowered himself onto the nearest chair. “Look me in the eye and tell me what you would have done had you been that boy? What if you walked into a room and saw your Kathleen? You going to stand there, looking so proud, and tell me you wouldn’t have done what Trey did?”
“It’s not the same, and you know it.” Adam paced. “I don’t have another woman.”
“But what if you saw her with another man. Are you telling me your arms wouldn’t itch the minute you laid eyes on her even though there was someone in the background?”
“And I’d expect that man to punch me then ask questions.”
“In retrospect, that’s exactly what I should have done. I assume you are Mr. Covington. Lorna told me you she’d sent for you.”
Adam gazed at the tall, good-looking young man who crossed the room. “And you must be Peter.” He gripped his extended hand. “Why, didn’t you?”
Peter frowned. “Why didn’t I hit him? I wouldn’t have been able to punch him without also striking my wife. And by the time he seemed to regain his senses he fled to my sister’s room, then he was gone.”
Adam pointed to the chair. “He’s back, but to make it fair I’d suggest waiting until he awakened.” He smiled. “How is your sister, by the way?”
“Uh,” he wiped his cheeks. “forgive me. This has been a very emotional ride and I’m not sure how to answer that. Doc, what do you say? How is my sister?”
Doc laid his glasses on the table. “We’ve been here before, Adam. Only this time she’s battling lung fever, too. She’s young, but she’s very weak. And frankly, I’m not sure she has enough fight left to win this round.” He nodded his head toward Trey. “It’s my bet victory rests on him.”
“Is Lorna in with her?”
“Has been ever since Trey brought her. She’s going to wear herself to a frazzle. Maybe you can convince her to rest.” Doc stood. “Follow me, maybe the two of us together will help her decide.”
Adam folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the door. Lorna seemed oblivious to their presence and continued to dip the cloth in water, wring it out, wipe SueAnna’s face and repeat, all the while talking in a soft voice. If SueAnna heard, there was no response.
“Lorna, let me take your place, please.”
“When she wakes up. Then you can. But for now I’m not leaving.” She didn’t raise her eyes, or her voice.
Adam moved to her side. “No, ma’am. I’m pulling rank. You’re going to rest while I do this. No arguing.”
She turned to him, the dark circles under her eyes telling him more than her words. “I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to this little girl. I should never have agreed to the sham of a marriage. No matter what the preacher said, I should never have agreed.”
He pulled her up, then wrapped his arms around her. “Lorna, Lorna. No one, not even Trey, meant harm to fall on this young woman. Guilt rides on the back of pride and they’re both bent on destruction. You know that. At least you’ve preached it to me enough times.”
She raised her head from his chest. “And you listened?” She punched his arm. “I suppose you’ve just been waiting for a chance to give me a mouthful of my own words.” She smiled. “Okay, you win. I’ll rest. But only if you promise to call me if there is even the smallest change.”
“For better or for worse?”
She nodded. “For better or for worse.”
Adam waited until she left, then took his place beside SueAnna.
He soon lost count of how many times he refreshed the water, or applied the cool cloth to her head. And he quit breathing in rhythm with her when it was so erratic it made him dizzy. Her lips were pale and dry, and the palms of here hands were crusty with dried blood. He dabbed at the wounds with a damp cloth, and she winced. That was good, wasn’t it? She could feel pain. She was in there. Could she hear? Lorna talked to her? Did the older woman know she could hear? And if she heard, would she remember?
Trey. She needed to hear Trey’s voice. He was the one to urge her to fight. He needed to beg her not to leave. Doc was right. Victory for this battle lay with Trey. But what if he was too busy fighting his own war? What if he didn’t care enough. What if Claire walked into this very room? He needed to talk to his son.
He stood and bumped into Trey’s chest. “Why didn’t you say something? Have you been standing there long? I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I didn’t want to disturb you. Lorna told me you needed to rest. Something about guilt and pride. She said you’d understand.”
“Yeah, I understand. Do you know what to do? I’ll stay with you, if you want. Have you talked to Peter? And what about Claire? I mean, Trey I think you—”
Trey shook his head. “I know you mean well, Pa. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone with my wife. I’ll take care of everything else later. For now, SueAnna is all that matters.”
“You’re sure of that? You can’t just say it and not mean it. Talk to her, Trey. But don’t tell her you love her if you think seeing Claire again will change things. Don’t—”
“Pa. Please leave. I know I’ve not earned the right to ask you, but trust me. Please. Trust me.”
Doc put his fingers across his lips and motioned for Adam. “Sh, just thought you should see this.”
Adam peered into SueAnna’s room. Only the dim light of a candle lit the scene, but it was enough to cause his heart to swell.
Trey lay on the bed, one arm cradled his wife’s head, the other wrapped around her. His eyes were closed, but even from the doorway he could hear his murmuring, though he couldn’t distinguish the words.
Doc moved away. “Let them be. By morning we’ll know who won this round.”
to be continued—