To My Faithful Readers

I’m traveling today (Thursday, my usual posting day for Threads of Grace) and have meetings Friday and Saturday, so I won’t post this week. However, I fully intend to make up for it next week with several entries. Hopefully I will finish Threads of Grace.
Where I’ll go from there remains to be seen. 

Hang in there with me–for a bit longer!!

julane

Threads of Grace–Chapter 23

Chapter 23

LATE APRIL, 1874     

     SueAnna lowered herself onto the porch swing and gazed at her beloved hills. Pastures were green and calving season was over. Soon they would be moving the mamas and their babies to summer grazing ground. 
     “Mind if I join you?” Lorna wiped her face with her apron and balanced a cup of coffee in one hand as she sank into the swing with a sigh. “Never in my life saw such pretty country. People say further west this land gets as flat as can be, but these hills are a sight, aren’t they?”
     “I think I missed the hills most of all while I was in town. Although it was winter, I longed to see them change. Everything is so green and shiny. It’s like God did spring cleaning.”
     Lorna’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t mind telling you, I miss that man of mine. Come spring time every year he’d putter around like an old turkey hen looking for a place to nest. He’d have dearly loved it out here. Just a shame we didn’t come sooner. Adam asked us a long time ago—before he hired Hilda. We were foolish to tell him no.”
     “Why did you decide not to come?”
     “Stubborn—didn’t want to be beholding to no man. We knew Adam well enough to know he would treat us like company, and we couldn’t stand that. We needed to stay busy.”
     “What change Adam’s mind? He certainly lets you work now.” She patted the older woman’s hand.
     “Nah, he don’t let me—I just told him I was gonna, like it or not.”
     SueAnna giggled. “Would you believe, when Trey asked me to consider this job I asked him what it required. He said,” she lowered her voice to mimic his, “oh, cooking, cleaning, woman stuff.  Nothing hard.”
     Lorna hooted. “Men don’t think you’ve done hard work unless your sitter is numb from being in a saddle all day. Ever notice how the rear end is out of every pair of under-drawers than comes through to be washed? Have half a notion to sew them up tight some day, but then they’d rub blisters and we’d never hear the end of it.”
     “Lorna, you’re naughty. My mama would never even say under-drawers—called them unmentionables.”
     “Like you couldn’t figure out what they were.” Lorna laughed. “Times sure have changed over the years—and then again, some things never change.”
     SueAnna kept the swing moving slowly with her toe. How good it was to have a woman to talk to. Did she dare ask her the questions she had? But if she didn’t, who else would she ask?
     “You’re awful quiet, young lady.” Lorna patted SueAnna’s knee. “Do you have something sitting on those pretty little shoulders of yours?”
    She stopped the swing, tucked one leg under her and turned to Lorna. “My mama died when I was twelve. I knew a little bit about becoming a woman, but mostly she taught me about house keeping stuff.  I know all about the ways of a man and woman, but…oh, I feel so silly talking like this.”
     Lorna nodded. “Sweetheart, us women have been asking these questions for years. Sometimes we get answers, sometimes we just learn by doing. You know who taught me all about what I needed to know?”
     “Your girlfriends? How nice that must have been. I’ve never had a close girlfriend. When mama died, I became a mother to Lily and a housekeeper for Papa and Peter. There wasn’t time left for girlfriends.”
     Lorna shook her head. “No, not girlfriends—James. I was as dumb as they come—but he wasn’t. I never had the nerve to ask him how he knew so much…decided early on it didn’t make any difference. He was the one who taught me all about loving. The hardest thing for  me was I could never give him a child. I would cry, and he would hold me and pat my back, ‘Lorna, honey, I don’t reckon I could love you any  more if  you was to hatch out a whole flock of them little ones. You’re enough for me.”
     SueAnna laughed. “Hatch out a flock? He didn’t really say that.”
     “Yes, he did. Silly old man always like to say something he thought would shock me. Sometimes it did, but I didn’t want him to know it.”
     “Did you know that Doc Mercer talk to Trey before we left Prairie View?”
     Lorna shrugged. “I thought maybe he did. I know he was worried about you. I told him to let God handle it, but I reckon he didn’t listen to me.”
    “Lorna—we didn’t…we didn’t wait.” She picked at her fingers to keep from looking at her friend. “But now…well, now I haven’t had a monthly since I can’t remember when, and I’m wondering how do I know if we’re going to have a little one?”
     “Well, if you don’t want to talk to Fred Thayer, I suppose time will be your best answer. A few things I might tell you, but I never had a wee one so I can only go by what I heard other women talk about when they came into the mercantile.”
     “Like what?”
     “Well, I’ve noticed that you don’t eat breakfast until late morning.  You feel a might queasy, do you?”
     “Oh, yes. I can’t stand the smell of anything frying, and even to look at an egg yolk makes me want to gag.”
     “How about…well, are you a little tender on top?”
     Heat rushed to SueAnna’s face. “More than tender. I plain hurt. Can’t hardly stand to have my clothes touch me.”
      The older woman smiled. “How about your moods? Feel like crying one minute and fighting the next?”
     She nodded. “Trey says I’m more unpredictable than a first calf heifer.”
     “For shame. What a thing to say. Have you told him what you’re thinking?”
     “No. it would scare him. And please, don’t you say anything to him. He’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. I’m afraid if I tell him he’ll start sleeping back in his old room.”
     Lorna slapped her forehead. “Well, that would certainly be shutting the barn door after the horse got out.”
     “Lorna Nelson. That sounded plumb naughty.”
     The older woman laughed. “Did it?” She put her hand on SueAnna’s knee and lifted herself from the swing. “Not naughty at all, it’s the truth. But I hope you know Doc Thayer is likely to chaw on him a bit if you are indeed expecting a little one. Now, how about it? You hungry?”
     She shook her head. “I can’t eat a thing until almost noon—then I can’t stop eating  until bed time. I’ve even been tempted to sneak down to the kitchen at night, but didn’t want Trey to wake up and find me gone.”
    Lorna grasped SueAnna’s hand and pulled her to her feet. “I’d like to be a little mouse when he finds out he’s going to be a Papa. Goodness. And what do you suppose Miss Lily will have to say?”
     SueAnna straightened her skirt. “I’ve thought about that—a lot. I expect her to be a little jealous. She didn’t take to Trey and me sharing the same bed for quite some time. But I’m not ready to tell her anything yet. Can you imagine what that little girl would do with a piece of news like that? Did I ever tell you how she told the whole crew that Trey and I were married?”
    “Adam told me. He got quite a kick out of it, but don’t suppose it was at all funny for the two of you. Do you have any names picked out? Seems like all the ladies who come into the mercantile in a family way have a name long before the babe makes an appearance.”
     “Well, I was thinking of starting with the letter B. I can’t wait for you to meet Alice Rawlings and all her A’s.”
     “You suppose we might talk Adam into going to church again soon? I’ve missed getting together with other believers.”
     SueAnna held the door open for her friend. “You could talk Adam Covington into anything you wanted. I’ve never seen so many shelves in one kitchen. 

###  

     “Look who’s here to greet us.” Trey smiled at SueAnna. 
     She smiled back, but held in the laughter she felt. She doubted her husband’s eyes could have widened any more as Alice Rawlings waddled her way toward the wagon. Little A number seven bobbed along on her hip, and by all indications number eight was more than ready to be born. SueAnna patted her own tummy. Could it possibly ever stretch like that?”
    “Hello, Alice. It’s so good to see you again.”
     “Yeah, well, there’s a whole lot more of me to see than the last time you was here.” Alice chuckled, then shook her finger at Trey. “Young man, you be needin’ church after the bald face lie you told us last time you was here. Miss Morrow—the housekeeper. You should be ashamed.” She looked past Trey’s shoulder. “You leave Ben at home? Never knowed him to miss a Sunday service if he could make it. Been comin’ all this time without the likes of you all.”
     Trey jumped from the wagon. “No, nothing wrong. He’s taking Sam’s turn at line four. Been there two months already. Says he’ll come in after this round.”
    “You’re sure nothin’s wrong?”
     “I”m sure. Had Adam sent  him up his Bible and some other books. Says he’s enjoying his time alone. Crazy guy. Don’t know how he survives his own cooking. I had to eat it once, and it was terrible. I threw it to the chickens, and they quit layin’.”
     “There you ago again, young man, lying through those pretty white teeth of yours. “Alice laughed and wiped the nose of the babe on her hip. “You’ll have to excuse this one—has a constant drip, it seem.” The little one shrieked and turned his head from side to side, but the hand holding the handkerchief honed in on the drippy nose like a snake slithering toward its prey. She quickly wiped then kissed the child’s red nose. “It wouldn’t take so long if you wouldn’t fight me.”
    She tucked the handkerchief down the front of her dress and turned back to Trey. Now, young man—how about introducing that pretty little gal waitin’ for you to help her out of that wagon.”
     Trey helped Lorna out of the wagon. “Alice Rawlings, meet Lorna Nelson, the new housekeeper over at the KIM.” 
    Both Lorna and Alice swung at him, but he ducked out of reach. “Alice—you hitting at me because you don’t think Lorna is pretty?”
     He lifted SueAnna out of the wagon and kissed her forehead.”
     “You know good and well what I was talkin’ about.” She turned to Lorna. “Welcome to you. I guess you know by now, this young man is a scamp.”
     “That I do. I’m so glad to meet you. SueAnna has told me all about you. It was so kind of you to keep Lily for awhile.”
     “Pshaw. One more in this house is never a bother. Kids thought it was great fun to call out a name what didn’t start with A. Mixed my Abe all around, though. He called her Anna Lily  most of the time. Should have heard her giggle.”
     Alice moved to SueAnna’s side and hugged her. “My goodness, child—if I’d knowed the truth when you was here the first time I would never have turned Winnie Hollings loose on you. Guess that singed some feathers, didn’t it?”
     “I did, but you meant no harm.” She smiled
     “Trey, you go on over with the men where you belong.” She shooed him away with a flick of her wrist. “Abigail, you and Lily run on and play a bit before church time. Get some of the wiggles and giggles out of your system.”
     As soon as Trey and the little girls were out of sight, Alice crooked her finger for Lorna and SueAnna to join her in a huddle. “Okay, you can tell me now—when is the little Martin due?”
     SueAnna frowned at Lorna.
     Lorna shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
     Alice cackled. “Oh, don’t you worry your pretty little head. Nobody told your secret. For many a year now, I’ve been able to tell when a woman was expectin’ a babe. Don’t know how—but I don’t miss.”
     “I never heard the like.” Lorna smiled at her. “We weren’t even sure, just guessed. If we’re right, should be another little Martin come Thanksgiving or thereabouts.”
     “Thereabouts is more like it—I’d say sooner. What’s Trey think of all this?”
     SueAnna put her hand on Alice’s shoulder. “Trey doesn’t know. He would worry himself silly, and I wanted to wait for a little while yet to be sure. I’m glad you know, but please don’t say anything to anyone else.”
     Alice nodded her head, then shoved the babe on her hip into Lorna’s arms. “My lands—my lands, if that boy don’t know, he’s in big trouble. Abe’s better at predictin’ than I am. Why, he can tell you at a glance when a heifer weighs and when her calf is due. He aims he can tell as good by lookin’ at the Papa-to-be. Never could keep it a secret from when when it was my turn.” She duck-walked toward the group of men. 
     “A heifer—and when her calf is due?” Lorna hugged the babe with one arm and slapped her knee with her free hand. “Oh, I do like that women, but I do swear I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a body swell up quite like hers.”
     SueAnna nudged Lorna in the ribs. “I think Abe must have got to him before Alice. Here comes my husband and it looks like he has a head of steam worked up under that collar.”
     Trey didn’t hesitate. He grabbed her by the elbow and propelled them both forward without slowing a step. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He hissed.
     “Trey, stop. I can’t keep up with you.” She planted her feet and he landed in the dirt, and she landed on top of him.
     She laughed. “Well, seems like we’ve been here before. We really must stop his you know. Look at the crowd you’ve gathered.”
     Trey moaned. “This is not one bit funny, Mrs. Martin. How do you think I felt when Abe Rawlings announced that he spied another cute little heifer in the workin’ chute? He was plumb crude, and I was stupid enough to ask him what he meant.”
     She laughed until the tears rolled. “Well, it isn’t exactly how I planned to tell you, but Mr. Martin, you are indeed going to be a Papa. Now help me up and let’s see if we can take a walk without an audience and talk about this.”
     “I can’t get up, Annie.” He grimaced in pain. “You’re gonna have to get Abe or Adam to help us off the ground.”
     “Why? Trey Martin. I’m not that big yet. I’m still just a heifer. Remember? You’re acting like you got sat on by an old cow.” Oh, she was enjoying this.
     “Annie, don’t laugh. I think I broke something. Maybe my ankle. I can’t move my foot.”
###  

     Fred Thayer finished wrapping Trey’s ankle, then motioned for Adam to help the boy up. “I tell you, my good friend, and this time I mean it—you better be puttin’ up a shack of some sort for me. This boy is going to be down for awhile. Nothing broke, but he sure enough twisted it like a rag and that can be worse than a break to heal. Top that with SueAnna expecting her first babe when she’s just come through her terrible winter ordeal. I think she’ll do fine, but when Frank Mercer finds out he’ll have my hide if I don’t stay close by until her time.”
     He hefted Trey up on one side and Adam took the other side. Together they were able to get the doped-up young man to the wagon. “Gave him enough stuff to make him sleep awhile. Hope you got somebody at the ranch to help you get him in the house. I’ll be along shortly. We still gotta have some kind of church service this morning and since Sage isn’t here, they’ll be expecting to hear something from me.”
   “Never knew you were a preacher, Fred.” Adam grunted at they lifted Trey into the back of the wagon onto the bed of quilts Alice had given them.
    “Not a preacher, but I can share what the Lord’s been laying on my heart as well as anyone.”
     “Doc—Doc Thayer! Don’t leave.” Abe Rawlings was hollering and running at the same time.”
     “I’m not going anywhere, Abe.” He yelled back. “Just tell all those people to be patient. I’m coming”
     “Them people don’t got nothin’ to do with it. It’s Alice. She done started havin’ this babe without ya, but she said could you put a hurry on? She don’t usually need no help, Doc. I’m plumb scared somethin’s wrong. I tell you for sure, it ain’t her time yet.”
     Fred leaned against the wagon and wiped his brow. “Lorna—you know anything about havin’ babes?”
    “Not a blamed thing, Doc, but you won’t find anybody better than me when it comes to doing what I’m told.” She turned to Adam. “You take this boy on home and Fred can bring me later. SueAnna—you rest, too. Okay, Doc. You tell me how to grind the kraut.”
     Adam grinned. “She don’t only know how to take orders, Fred—she’s might handy at giving them, too.”
     Doc grasped Lorna’s hand. “Not getting fresh, my lady, but we need to hurry. I don’t mind telling you, this one has me worried.”
     “I thought you might be, otherwise you wouldn’t ask me to help. What are you most worried about?”
     He gave her a one-sided grin. “Silly, probably, but Abe told me he was thinking this time there was more than one calf in the chute. Crude, but that’s Abe. If Alice does have more than one babe in there ww might have a time. She usually has her little ones before I get here. I’m just glad I was already here.
     “Two babies if your biggest worry—or how Alice will make it through?”
     Doc chuckled. “Both—plus what if they run out of A names?”
     Lorna punched him on the shoulder. “Shame on you. I’ll think of one and you think of one. That way if Abe stutters we can help him.”
     He hesitated outside the door. “Lorna, have I told you how glad I am you’re here?”
     “You can tell me later. I can hear poor Alice moaning from her. We’ve got work to do.”
**
     Lorna wrung the water from her cloth and sponged Alice’s face again. “Not much longer, Alice. You’ve been working hard, but it won’t be much longer.”
     Alice grabbed her hand. “Lorna, I never had to work hard to have babies before. That’s wrong I can tell Doc is worried.”
     “You’re older, Alice. This is your eighth baby and you’re tired.  Now, let’s talk about names. You got one picked out?” She glanced at Fred, and he shook his head.
     “Lorna Nelson, don’t you be tryin’ to change the subject. Something’s wrong, isn’t it? Where’s Abe? Get Abe. He’ll tell me? She rolled her head from side to side.
     “Alice,” Fred bent over the threshing woman. “I can see the head. Now, you’re going to have to do what I will you do you understand? Alice, answer me. Do you understand?”
    She strained against his hands, but nodded.
     “Okay. Then we can get this done.”
    Two hours later, three tiny babes lay bathed and wrapped side-by-side in the basket Abe brought in. Lorna barely had time to get a cover in it when the babes started coming. Tiny, tiny things—but all were breathing and were pink as could be. Lorna had bathed Alice, too, and had her in a clean bed, clean nightdress, and her hair was brushed before they let Abe in.
     “If I’d knowed there were three of them little ones in there I would’ve been a mite more careful. Raised my arms above my head this morning to fetch somethin’ off a shelf. It’s a wonder it didn’t do more harm than start ’em on their way before time.” Her voice was weak but her face beamed. Lorna handed her one of the little ones for each arm and laid the third on across her stomach.
     “You have names?” Lorna could hardly keep from smiling. She and Doc had come up with some doozies, but they would never tell the Rawlings’.
    “The girls are Anna Sue, Annie Lorna, and the boy will be whatever Abe chooses. He gets to name the boys”
     Lorna’s eyes watered. “Did you say Annie Lorna?”
     “I know we only just this morning said our first howdy’s, but what would I have done without you, Lorna Nelson? Ain’t is just a wonder? Three all at once and they’re all just a pink as new little pigs.”
    Lorna laughed out loud. She’d never had a child named after her before, and here she was comparing it to a piglet.
    “Ahhem.” Abe cleared his throat.
    If that man spits, he’s going right back outside. He’s as feisty as a a bantam rooster. You’d think he did all the work. Come on in, Abe. 
     He stopped beside Lorna and put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank ya, Mrs. Nelson. My Alice, she  means more to me than anything. Reckon I was mighty scared I was gonna lose her. Sure thankin’ the Lord you was here to help.”
     So, he has a soft heart after all. Forgive me, Lord. Do you have a name picked for the little fella? Alice told me you got to choose the boys’ names.”
     “Sure do,” he puffed out his chest and grinned. “Andrew Fredrick—kinda goes well with Anna and Annie, don’t ya think?”
    Doc sniffed. “Goes well with all the A names, Abe—but mighty proud you chose Fredrick. He’ll be a good man one day.
     
     

     
     
     


Threads of Grace–chapter twenty-two

Threads of Grace
Chapter Twenty-two

     “Lily, is SueAnna awake yet?” Trey patted the girl on the head. “Looks like Lorna put you to work this morning.”
     “She’s up. She and Lorna were gonna talk about something private so Lorna made me set the dishes on the table.”
     “Private huh?” Trey laughed. “How do you know for sure it was private?”
     “Cause big people always give you something to do so you will leave when they don’t want you to hear what they’re saying. SueAnna said she was tired, but she got up and dressed all pretty and everything. She was crying when she went back upstairs, but she don’t know I saw her.”
     Trey took the stairs two at a time. He didn’t knock, but went directly into SueAnna’s room. She was lying on the bed fully dressed, her hands clenched at her sides.
     “Are you okay, sweetheart?” He sat on the edge of the bed beside her. 
    “I’m fine, just a little tired. Please go back down. I’ll be okay.” Her voice was flat and she swiped angrily at tears that slid off her face.
     “You’re not fine, Annie. What’s wrong?” He wiped her face with his thumb. “Want to tell me about it?”
     “No. Please—just leave me alone. I guess maybe I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was to come home again.”
     “Is this about last night?”
      She turned her head to one side. “Trey, I won’t ever leave you again, but neither will I share you. You’re going to have to decide who it is you want to love—me, or a wisp of air full of memories.”
     His heart plunged. “Annie, Annie—you have to trust me. I love you and you alone. There is no wisp of air—not anymore. It’s only you I see when I close my eyes. You have to believe me because there’s no way I can prove it.”
     “Maybe there would be, but you don’t want me. I’ll never be enough for you, will I?”
     Trey groaned and got to his feet. Blast Frank Mercer. “You’re all and more than I could ever want, Annie Rose—but…but you have to be patient with me a while longer. Please trust me.” He bent and gently brushed her lips with his. She didn’t respond, and he closed the door as he left.
     He leaned against the wall outside her room. He wanted to pound on the walls and kick and scream. This was doing nothing but destroying what it had taken weeks to build. Weeks of declaring his love and promising her they could have a real marriage. He went into his own room and sank down onto the bed. What good had it done to pray last night?”
     “You in there, Trey? Open up—I think we need to talk.”
     Fred Thayer. All he needed was another doctor telling him what he could and couldn’t do.
     “Trey? You gonna let me in or do I have to get your pa?” Fred laughed at his own threat.
     “It’s not locked. You can come in.” He motioned for the older man to have a chair as he entered the room.
     “Lorna whispered to me that she thought you and SueAnna might be having problems. If you got her upset again, I’m gonna whip you myself, son. She just isn’t strong enough to through another spell like she’s had.”
     Trey punched the wall. “You think I don’t know that? You think I’m trying to hurt my wife? Listen to this, friend. I’m following Doc Mercer’s orders, and it’s hurting her more than I can tell you—isn’t doing me a lick of good, either.”
    “Want to tell me what orders he gave you? I’m a doctor too, you know—wouldn’t be a breach of privacy. Besides, if it involves you and that pretty little gal I better know what’s going on.”
     Trey hung his head. He hated this kind of talk about him and his wife. Didn’t seem at all proper, and he was no prude. But he was able to tell Fred what Doc Mercer had said, and waited now for some kind of reply.
     “Whew! And you haven’t told your wife any of this? Why?”
     “Look Doc—I waited almost too long to let her know I loved her. Now you want me to tell her I love her, but we can’t be husband and wife? We just left Peter and Claire. Don’t you think she might worry that the real reason is because of Claire? In fact, she hinted at that very thing just awhile ago.”
     “Are you dumb enough to think that not telling her will ease her mind about Claire? I tell you one thing, Trey Martin—you sure enough take after your pa. For lands sake, boy—tell her. Tell her everything  you ever wanted to say to her—how much you love her—how much want her—but because you love her you have to wait. Let her help you with that decision. Let her know why you have to keep apart so that when you finally come together it’s without anyone or anything between you.”
     Trey smiled at the family friend. “You ever been married, Doc?”
     “Almost—almost. But she died.”
     “They teach  you so much about wedded folks in med school?”
     Fred laughed and slapped Trey’s knee. “No son—got most my learning from cleaning out horse stalls. Found out the longer you let the stuff build up, the harder it is to pitch. Clean a stall every day and your wheelbarrow never gets overloaded. Understand what I’m saying?”
     Trey nodded. “I think so. Kind of like not letting the sun go down on your wrath.”
     “Exactly. Exactly, my boy.” He stood. “Now, if you have any smarts at all you’ll talk this over with that gals of yours before bedtime tonight. I’ll just say this one thing—I would never cross another doctor’s advise. I think Frank’s intentions were good—but Trey, she’s your wife and this is something  you have to decide together.”
     “Frank had a reason for telling me without SueAnna knowing.”
     “I know all about that, Trey. We went to med school together—was one of the friends who helped him bury his wife and child. He blames himself and nobody has ever been able to get him to understand that Liddy wanted his loving and that child more than she wanted her own life. She knew she was dying—and she knew the babe was dead. She tried and tried to get that man to understand it wasn’t his fault. She begged him to forgive himself. She told him over and over that he had given her the gift of his love and she was taking their child with her.” Fred wiped his eyes.  
     “I was there son. But if SueAnna were my wife—well, I’d make sure she understood what was going on so she would have to fight that ghost one more minute.” 
     He groaned as he sat back down opposite Trey. “I don’t do this often enough, but I’m not leaving this room until we pray. I’m a doctor, but I’m not God. He’s the Great Physician. Don’t you ever forget it.
     They knelt together and Fred put his arm around Trey’s shoulders. “You’ve been listening to us, Father. Not a word said was a surprise to you, so you already know all about these two young people and all they’ve been through. Now I’m asking you to bless them. Get through the thick skull of this young man that he just needs to come to You when he’s hurting and not hole up somewhere thinking he has to figure everything out for himself. You do some surgery on them, God. Cut out all the stuff that has caused them so much pain, then you take that big old needle of Your love and start stitching them back together again. I’ll praise you for it, and so will they, Lord. I pray in Your Son’s name. Amen.”
     “Now—you get back in that room with your wife and don’t you come down until tomorrow.  I”ll take care of Adam, and I’ll make sure Lily stays with Lorna.” He whistled as he descended the steps.

###  

     Trey tiptoed back into SueAnna’s room. “Annie…can we talk?”
     She nodded, but her eyes were closed.
     He climbed onto the bed beside her. “You’re going to have to look at me. I’m not leaving this room until I know you’ve heard me.”
     “I don’t hear with my eyes, Trey. My head hurts and it helps to keep my eyes shut. You talk all you want.”
     He sighed. This was going nowhere real fast. “Remember before we left Prairie View, Doc Mercer asked me to come talk with him?”
     She nodded.
     “Well, he made me promise something, and you need to know what it was and why I agreed. Annie, please look at me.”
    She sat up and pushed loose hair away from her face. “Okay, Mr. Martin. I’m sitting up—talk.”
     Trey cupped her face in his hands and looked into her eyes. “Before I say a word, you need to know that I love you so much it hurts sometimes. Now, hear me out.”
     He stumbled through all Doc Mercer had told him. Did she understand what he was trying to say? It would have been easier to tell Ben. He didn’t know all the right words to say to a woman, especially one he loved.
     “Do you understand? Please say something.”
     She slid off the bed and pulled the pins from her hair. “Frank Mercer isn’t here, Trey.”

###

     Ben bit the side of his cheek to keep from laughing when he sat down for breakfast the next morning. Lily occupied the chair next to his, had her napkin tucked in around her neck and her hands folded in her lap.
     “Good morning, Mister Ben, and how are you this morning?” She nodded like a grand lady.
     “Why, I’m just find and dandy, Miss Lily. And how are you this fine sunshiny day?”
     “I’m very unhappy and it isn’t a sunshiny day at all.” Her bottom lip quivered.
     “Want to tell me about it?” He put his arm around the back of her chair.
     Adam scowled. “If you two would quit talking, we could pray and get on with this meal. Looks like snow out there and we have a lot to do.”
     Ben bowed his head and peeked at Lily out of the corner of his eye. One fat tear made its way down her face, and she wiped it away with her napkin. Now what in the world had her so upset.
    “Amen. Okay,you two. You’re free to carry on your conversation unless, of course, it’s private.” Mr. Covington winked at Lily.
     “Does anyone here want to know why I’m crying?” She sniffed.
     Ben patted her shoulder. “Of course we want to know why our sweet LilyAnna is feeling sad this morning, don’t we boys?”
     There was general confusion of conversation as each one assured Lily they cared.
     She took a drink of milk, then wiped her mouth. “Well, if you must know. I have to sleep with Lorna now because Mr. Martin is a yahoot and is sleeping in my bed. Could you please pass me the bacon?”
     As if on cue, all mouths were covered with at least one hand.
     Adam coughed, took a drink of coffee, and choked again.
     Fred Thayer slapped his knee and passed Lily the bacon.
     Lily turned to Ben and giggled. “You look funny, Ben. Your cheeks are all sucked in so tight your mouth looks like a fish mouth.”
     Ben was glad when conversation resumed and attention was once more on breakfast. Why did he feel like he’d been punched in the gut? And Mr. Covington was looking at him like a hawk eyed a mouse in the field. Why?”
     He scooted his chair from the table and stood. “Uh…if you all don’t mind—you too, Miss Lily—I believe I’ll have my coffee in the bunk house this morning. Looks like we need to be keeping the fires going.”
     A splatter of cold rain hit his face as he stepped off the porch. He welcomed the sting and prayed it would cover the tears he couldn’t avoid. What was happening? Why did that one little announcement cause him such pain?”
     Footsteps behind him interrupted his thoughts, and he turned to see Adam Covington following him. He ducked his head against the moisture and waited for his boss to catch up. He might as well—this meeting would come sooner or later.
     “Ben son. You’re obviously upset about Lily’s little production in there. Want to talk about it?”
     They’d reached the bunkhouse and Ben held the door open for his boss and motioned for him to have a seat. He pushed another log into the belly of the stove, then sat down with Mr. Covington.
     Covington leaned back and stretched his legs toward the warmth of the stove. “What’s this all about, Ben?”
     He shook his head. “I honestly can’t say, sir. I…for some reason, when Lily said Trey was sleeping with SueAnna …I can’t explain it.”
     The older man’s forehead wrinkled and he ran his hand through his hair. “Ben, have you had a secret admiration for SueAnna? Are you perhaps jealous?”
    Ben’s head jerked like he’d been slapped. “No, sir. I love SueAnna, but I’m not in love with her. I would do most anything to protect her—and have wanted to punch that son of yours more than once before he finally came to his senses.” He leaned his elbows on his knees and clasped and unclasped his hands. “Truth is, sir. I am jealous, but not of their love for one another. I’m jealous because…because now I feel more alone than I ever have. I’ve never known a home for very long at a time. People passed me around like a bowl of grits at a hungry man’s breakfast table. The last home I was in was an orphanage run by a single lady—Mrs. Winthrop. She was more like a Ma to me than I’d ever known.”
     “You don’t have a family? Anywhere?”
     “No, sir, not that I ever heard about. That’s why this place has been so special. I was downright jealous when I found out you was Trey’s Pa, but then you didn’t treat me any different than him so it was okay.”
    “But now, Ben—what’s different now?”
     “Trey and me rode in here just alike—smart aleck youngsters who thought the world was lucky to have us. We were buddies, friends, and I never had a lot of friends. Always moved around too much to get acquainted. But now, he has a family—you, SueAnna, little Lily. And he won’t be needing me no more.” He shrugged. “I’m an awful big baby, ain’t I? But it hurt clear down to my toes.”
     Adam laid his hand on Ben’s knee. “You do know that I’d never ask you to leave, don’t you? And Trey wouldn’t know what to do without you. I expect you two are about as close to brothers as you could ever be—without being blood, anyway.”
     “Yeah, I know that. It’s just that—”
     “Let me ask you this,” Adam leaned back in his chair. “What do you know about your parents. All those different families you stayed with—did anyone ever tell you anything?”
     “No, sir. I asked at one place—probably when I was about ten-years-old—and the mister slapped me so hard my slobber hit the wall. But that night, his missus sneaked into my room and handed me something. She whispered that I should never let him know, and that it would be best if I would hide it.”
     “Did you hide it?”
     “I was so scared of that man, I’d do anything to keep from gettin’ in trouble. I didn’t stay there much longer—that’s when Mrs. Winthrop’s oldest orphan got too old to stay there any longer and she needed a strong boy to carry in wood and things like that.”
     “So you still have this…this, I guess I don’t know what it is. You didn’t say.”
     Ben moved to the box at the end of the bed. He opened it and brought out a small piece of fabric that was rolled and tied with a white satin ribbon edged in gold. He handed the object to his boss.
     “You want me to open this?”
    “It’s the only thing I have of my ma—if she was my ma. I showed it to Mrs. Winthrop once. I knew she wouldn’t beat me for having it. She said she could remember a young girl coming to town all alone about the time it would’ve been right for me to be born. Said the preacher and his wife took her in, and the talk was she had a baby, but nobody ever saw her or the babe after that. She said she didn’t think on it much after that, til I showed her what you’ll see in there. I like to think it’s my ma’s picture, cuz she’s real pretty and all.”
     Adam unrolled the fabric and opened the small heart-shape locket that slipped from the folds. He studied the picture inside for a bit, then raised his eyes. “I’d say you resemble her, Ben. Is this Mrs. Winthrop still alive?”
     “No, sir. That’s how I come to find this place. After she died I didn’t have no place else to go but head further west. I was too old for people to keep me, and too young for anybody to hire me, ’til you hired me an Trey”
     “This is your home now, Ben. You can stay as long as you want. You’ll probably be here long past me. Look at me.”
     Ben met the man’s gaze. “Nobody can make you leave. You understand? No one.”
    He sniffed and pinched the tears off the end of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “Can’t tell you how much that means, sir. Don’t reckon I have any place else I’d rather be.”



     

Threads of Grace–Chapter Twenty

Threads of Grade–Chapter Twenty

     Adam turned the key in the door as the last neighbor left the mercantile. “They all mean well, Lorna. They loved James, too.”
     She sighed. “I know that fine and good. Been to many a funeral and done the same thing. Shook hands. Said all the right words— What a good man. How he’d be missed—just never realized how it could drain a body.”
     He took her hand. “I know you’re tired. Let’s go back in with the family so you can sit with your feet up for a spell. You’ve been standing all afternoon.”
    Lorna shook her head. “Not yet, Adam. First I’d like to talk with you…alone. We can sit right here by the stove, if you don’t mind.” She sat and patted a chair next to her. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Guess I want to pass this by you and see what you have to say.”
     “You don’t have to make any decisions so soon. Take your time so you won’t regret anything down the road.”
      She patted his hands. “This isn’t a sudden decision. I’ve known for a long time James wasn’t well. He and Doc thought they could keep it from me. But I lived with that man too long for him to hide anything. I been wondering what I would do when the day came he left me behind.” She wiped her eyes.
     “You ever talk it over with him?”
     “I never mentioned a thing. His secret died with him. I wouldn’t have wanted him to worry about me knowing. Not a thing either one of us could’ve done to make anything any different.”
     Adam took her hands in his. “I’ll miss him Lorna…something terrible.”
     She smiled. “I know you will. So will I. But life does have a way of going on, doesn’t it?”
     “It does at that.” He patted her cheek. “Now what is it you want to talk to me about?”
     “This is just the thinking of an old woman, so you don’t have to humor me. I’ll tell you like I think it ought to be, and you can tell me to go fly if you want. But I do want you to hear me out.”
     Adam peered at the woman beside him. Her spine ramrod straight, hands still clasped in his, a picture of strength even though they’d just buried her soulmate. “Lorna Nelson—I would never tell you to go fly. Now you have me real curious.”
     She squeezed his hands. “Peter and Claire can’t go home ’til after their baby is born. Trey and SueAnna are gonna need some time to know what it’s like to be husband and wife, and it will be awhile before she’s strong enough to tackle all you men again. I’m thinking this might be a good time for me to see what living on a ranch is like. I could take SueAnna’s place, Peter could run the mercantile, and we’ll let spring take care of itself. By then a lot of things could change. Would you be willing to have me tag along with you when you go home?”
     Did this woman have any idea what a burden she’d just lifted from his shoulders? At a time when she was ladened down with her own grief, she managed to lift his. He squeezed her shoulders. “How did you know things would turn out like this—I mean with Peter and Claire and Trey and SueAnna?”
     Lorna laid one hand across her heart. “I didn’t know anything, but I know the One who knows all things. Now, you haven’t answered my question.
     He turned her to face him. “Mrs. Nelson, I would like nothing better in the whole world than you to be a part of the KIM.”
     “Well, then. I’ll go tell Peter he’ll be running the mercantile, and let SueAnna know I’ll be running the ranch. And Adam, thank you for addressing me as Mrs. and not Widow Nelson.”
     He pulled the tall woman to her feet and kissed her cheek. “You beat all, you know that? But I love you for it.”

###  

February, 1874

     “I’ll be back Annie. Doc asked me to come over and see him before we leave. The wagons are loaded and ready to go. I’ll go see what he has on his mind.” Trey kissed her cheek and stepped out into the brisk winter morning.
     What could the man want to talk to him about so secret he had to come to his office? He knocked on the door and waited. Home—they were going home. He was taking his wife home. He knocked again.
     “Come in boy. Door isn’t locked and I’m too comfortable to get up.”
     Trey laughed as he shook hands with Doc. “How’d you know it was me? You could’ve been inviting anyone in.”
     “People who need me don’t bother to knock. And you’re the only one I asked to come here, so I put two and two together. Wasn’t hard.” He motioned for Trey to take a seat across from his desk.
     Trey’s heart thumped. “Are you going to tell me I can’t take Annie home?”
     “No. As anxious as she is to get back to the ranch, it would do her more harm than good to stay here—especially if you’re going to leave. But, I do intend to give you some advice.”
    Trey leaned forward and placed his hands on the desk. “Sounds mighty serious. She is well enough, isn’t she?”
     Doc nodded. “She’s better than I would’ve ever thought possible the first time I saw her. But I aim to keep her that way. I’ve already sent a telegram off to Fred Thayer to check up on her. Now, I’m going to tell you how the skunk ate the cabbage.”
     “Does Annie know you’re talking to me about her?” 
     “No son, she doesn’t. And it’ll be up to you to keep it that way. You didn’t tell her, did you?”
     Trey’s chest tightened. “I told her you wanted to talk to me, but I didn’t say you asked me to come without her. I don’t like having to keep secrets from her, but I’ll hear you out.”
     Doc leaned back in his chair and took off his glasses. “You’ll hear me out, and you’ll do what I say or that little gal will be right back in bed and I’m not sure she would have the strength to go through all this again.”
     Trey tried to take a deep breath but his chest was too tight. “That serious? You’re scaring me, Doc.”
     “I want to scare you—and yes, it’s that serious. I been up all night trying to think of a nice way to say this. I couldn’t come up with anything—that’s why I asked to talk with you alone. Your wife is fragile, Trey. Very fragile. But I’m thinking she won’t always be that way. She’s got spunk and she’s young. And there’s nothing really wrong with her except she was just plain overworked and under-loved.”
     Trey hung his head. He was guilty on both counts and it pained him to hear it.
     “You have to wait awhile before you take her as your wife. Do you understand what I’m saying? It’d be different if  you’d done your part in the first place, but now—well, she’s not strong enough yet to carry a babe. Just can’t take the chance.”
     Not take her for his wife? Did the man have any idea what he was asking? As far as he knew, Doc Mercer had never been married. Now he was an expert on what he could and couldn’t do? How would he ever be able to explain to Annie why he couldn’t share her bed? This was crazy. The man was asking the impossible…wasn’t he?
     “Did you hear me young man? Trey—have you heard a word I said.”
    Trey’s head jerked Why was Doc slapping him?”
     “Wha—?”
     “I said—have you heard a word? Thought for a minute there you passed out on me.”
     He shook his head. “No sir, I didn’t pass out and I heard every word. Just isn’t at all what I was expecting, and I—do you have any idea what you’re asking? How would you know if she’s strong enough to…to—” He jumped to his feet. “Don’t you think that’s something me and Annie need to decide for ourselves?”
     Doc stood and shuffled to the window. He clasped his hands behind his back and peered through the glass.
     Was there more? What was he looking at? Trey sat back down and waited for the man to do something…say something. 
     “You think I’m just an old man who doesn’t know what it’s like to be young and in love, don’t you? I was once, you know…young and in love. And yes, I suppose to you I’m also old. What you don’t know, young Mr. Martin, is that I had a wife…years ago. Her name was Liddy. She wasn’t overworked, and she was loved more than life itself. But I was warned and thought I knew better.” Doc turned to face Trey.
    “She died giving birth to the child I couldn’t wait to conceive. I lost the two things in life worth living for because I was  young and thought I knew better. I was a doctor. I should have known. But we…we agreed we couldn’t wait.” He sank back into his chair. “By rights, I should’ve been tried for murder.” He put his elbows on the desk and covered his face with his hand. 
     “I’m sorry, Doc. I…”
    Doc swiped his hands down his face. “Go on now. Take her home and love her with all your heart, but…be patient.”
     “How long? How long are you suggesting?”
      He shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t give you a specific date, but you’ll know. I think I put enough fear in you for awhile to make you think. Watch her. Listen to her. Love her. You’ll know.” He stood. “Now, you put on a different face and take that little gal of yours home. You look like I just made you walk on your bottom lip. I hate to see you go, but I pray I’ll never have to see you in my capacity as doctor again. Fred Thayer is a good man. Glad he’ll be close to you.”

###

     Lorna touched the cross that marked James’ final rest place, then stood and turned into Adam’s arms and wept.
     “You know you don’t have to leave here, Lorna. I’ll come back for you in the spring if you’re not ready.”
     She raised her head and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I’m ready. I’m just going to miss that shiny head of his every day for the rest of my life.”
    “Me too.”
     She pulled away from him and straightened her shoulders. “I keep seeing him with that silly red dress sleeve on his head. He crawled into bed that night the happiest man. ‘Lorna, woman,’ he patted  my old skinny hip and declared, proud as could be, “don’t you ever let anyone tell you there ain’t a Santa Claus’.”
     “Couldn’t figure out where he got that sleeve ’til I started packing up to leave. It was one of the dresses I brought with me when we came out here all those years ago. I wore that dress when I danced with him the first time I ever saw him. That’s why I kept it with me. Kinda special to remember he wore a piece of it the last time to make all them little ones so happy. Never will come another Christmas without me thinking on it.”
     She gave the cross a pat then put her hand in the crook of Adam’s elbow. “Take me home, Adam Covington. I’m not leaving that old man behind…just his bones.” She put her hand on her heart. “He’s right here tucked away and there he’ll stay. Now—I want to see the KIM.”

###  

   “SueAnna turned on the wagon seat and waved to the small gathering standing on the porch of the mercantile. Peter stood with his arm around Claire’s bulging waist. Even Doc Mercer was there to see them off, and stepped into the street behind them. Did she really see him throw a kiss? Was it just a goodbye gesture? Why did Lorna chuckle?”
     They traveled in silence for awhile. Ben and Adam rode ahead on horseback. Sage and Trey drove the loaded wagons. She was on the wagon seat beside her husband, and Lorna and Lily had climbed into the back and snuggled into the pile of quits Lorna was taking with her. 
     “It’s okay if you cry, Annie. But we’ll see them again, I promise.” Trey put his arms around her and puller her close. “Are you warm enough?”
     She laughed. “Trey Martin, you’ve asked me that same question three times and we can still see Prairie View. You’re a worry wart.” She peeked in the wagon bed behind her. “Are you two warm enough back there?”
     Lorna howled. “SueAnna, you’ve asked us at least three times and I can still see Prairie View. I promise to tell you if we get cold.”
    “See, I’m not the only worry wart, am I?” Trey gave her a shove with his shoulder. 
     “I still can’t believe we’re going home. I’ve prayed and prayed for this day to come. I just don’t want anything to go wrong.”
     “Now what could possibly go wrong? Only a blizzard, or hungry wolves, or a stray Indian, or—”
     “Stop it—that’s not funny and you know it.”
     “I wasn’t trying to be funny, Annie. I just want you to trust me, but I can’t control what we might encounter in the future—either on this journey, or on our own journey as husband and wife.”
     She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I know. Forgive me. I’m so anxious to see the ranch again. I want to see the mist on the hills and listen to the night sounds. But—” She swiped at tears with the back of her hand.
     “But…what? You’re not telling me everything are you?”
     She shook her head. “I’m so scared,” she whispered. “When we were still in Prairie View everything seemed okay and I felt safe. But what will I do when we get home again and you find out Claire came with us?”
     Trey stopped the wagon and gathered her into his arms. “Annie, the only thing I can promise you is my love. You’re all I want—the only one I want—you’re my heart and soul and reason for living. But you have to trust me.”
     “I know…I…and I do but could you hold me just a bit longer? I’m cold.”


Chapter Twenty-One

     The last two miles of the trip home seemed the longest. The teams pulling the wagons wanted to run, and Trey’s arms were sore from holding his horses back. The wagon was rough riding at its best but add a jarring trout and it was nigh onto unbearable.
     The sun had disappeared shortly after noon, and the sky was gray and threatening. Now he was the worry wart. He didn’t even want to think about being caught in a storm. 
     He stood and yelled for Adam. If the man’s leg hurt, it would confirm his dread.
     The big buckskin gelding Adam rode was skittish and he ran him in circles a couple of times to calm him down and get close enough to the wagon to be heard. “I think the animals smell a storm, and by the looks of the sky they’re right.” Adam called over his shoulder as he turned the horse again. “Should be able to stay ahead of it, though, if we don’t have any trouble. Did you need something, Trey?”
    “You pretty well answered my question.  Was wondering if  you leg was predicting bad weather.” He grinned as his pa rubbed his leg in response.
     “Sometimes I think Fred Thayer put something in that open wound just to torment me.” He laughed. “You gals all keep covered and we’ll keep moving right along.”
     Trey put his around around SueAnna’s shoulders and pulled her close. “About home, Annie. Can you hang on?” He kissed her on the forehead.
     “I can hang on as long as you’re here for me to hang onto, Trey Martin. I am tired, though. But it’s been a good trip and I can’t wait to see my grove of tress again. The next time I go into my sanctuary, I want you to go with me.”
     She smiled at him, and her eyes held a promise that made his heart ache. How would he ever be able to keep his word to Doc?
**
     It was dusk when they stopped in front of the gate of the main house. The wind had picked up and moisture was beginning to fall. It was too dark to see, but Lily squealed at the prospect of snow.
     Doc Thayer met them at the door. “Thought  you might be coming in yet tonight. Got a telegram from that old horse doctor in Prairie View ordering me to be here when SueAnna arrived to make sure you yahoos hadn’t done something to her again.”
     “What’s a yahoot, Trey?”
     He groaned. Whenever Lily heard  new word she used it for everything.
     The doctor chortled. “Just take a look around, Miss Lily—almost every men you can see is a yahoo. Jut a silly name you call someone who is dumber than a rock and meaner than a snake.”
     “Don’t egg her on, Fred.” Trey lifted Lily out of of the wagon while Adam came to Emma’s rescue.
     “Where is everybody going to sleep tonight?  Miss Libby needs to go to bed.”
     “You and your sister will have your regular room, and Lorna will take Hilda’s, how will that be?” Trey reach for SueAnna.
     “What do you mean, me and Lily in our regular room—where are you going to be?” SueAnna whispered in his ear as he helped her down. “Surely you can come up with something better than that.” She gave him a sly smile.
     “You’re tired Annie. It’s best this way.” It was best for her but torture for him. He would talk with Fred in the morning.  Maybe he would have a different opinion than Frank—or at least come up with a way to help him explain to his wife why he would not share her bed.
    “One night, Trey Martin. One night I will sleep alone—well, alone meaning without you. But you will come up with a better solution, won’t you?” Her hands were on her hips, a sign he recognized as her pre-war stance.
     “Annie, we’re not going to stand out here in the cold and wet and discuss, for the entire KIM to hear, our sleeping arrangements. ” He chucked her under the chin and kissed her on the nose. “You behave or I’ll sic Doc Thayer and Lorna on you.”
     SueAnna’s forehead scrunched and her bottom lip quivered. “Trey, please don’t tease me. It scares me. I need to know that you’ll be with me.”
     “For tonight, Annie, you’re going to go straight to bed and sleep. We’ll talk more in the morning.” He couldn’t face her.
     “Doc Thayer—I think Trey is a yahoot cause my sister is crying again.” Lily huffed.
     “Come on, missy. Time for your own bedtime.” Ben took the girl’s hand. “You owe me, pal,” he mouthed to Trey as he slung the little girl onto his shoulder and marched into the house singing “Lily Doddle went to bed, riding on Ben’s shoulders…”

###

     SueAnna slipped out of bed. Her bare feet hit the floor and she shivered. Even with the rug it was cold, and she wrapped her pink wrapper around her as she made her way to the door in the dark.
     The door clicked shut behind her and she held her breath. The last thing she wanted right now was to wake Lily. When the little girl didn’t come busting through the door, she relaxed. There was a light under the door of Trey’s room and she slid her hand along the wall while she made her way down the hallway.
     What was she doing? It was obvious that  Trey was avoiding the issue of sleeping in her room. Now here she was, trying to sneak into his. Naomi Bittman would have the vapors if she knew what she was about to do. But they were married, after all. What could it hurt just to talk to him…in his bedroom…alone…late at night? She giggled. Oh, how wicked she’d become.
     She checked for the light under the door one more time and it snuffed into darkness as she watched. She took a deep breath and knocked softly, then put her ear to the door to listen. Nothing. She furtively glanced toward her own room. It would be just like Lily to be observing this whole thing than announce it to everyone at the breakfast table. Lily was nowhere to be seen, so she knocked again.
     “Who is it? Ben…if it’s you, go back to bed.”
     She held her hand over her mouth to keep from giggling, and knocked again. She wasn’t going to identify herself for everyone else to hear. Let him find out himself—all he had to do was open the door.
     “Doggone it Ben. The door isn’t locked and I’m not leaving this bed. Just got my feet warm.”
     That was an invitation wasn’t it? She turned the knob and entered. She stood still for a minute, then slowly inched her way towards the sound of Trey’s breathing. She put he knee on the side of the bed and was ready to roll in when two strong arms encircled her.
     “Annie Rose Morrow—what are you doing here?”
     He was angry. Trey was angry with her, and she arched her back to pull away from him. “I couldn’t sleep, Trey. You’ve been on the floor beside me for so long that I…I couldn’t go to sleep so I just wanted to come to you.”
     “Well, it was a dumb thing to do in the middle of the night. It’s late. It’s cold. And you need to be in your own bed, asleep.” He picked her up and carried her back to her room.
     She didn’t resist. he didn’t want her in his bed, nor even in the same room. Why? All those words of love. All the time he hinted he couldn’t wait to make her his wife. What changed? When did it change?
     He laid her down and drew the quilt up around her chin. “Stay put, Annie.” He kissed her on the forehead and left without another word. The door clicked shut behind him, and she buried her head in her pillow to keep from waking Lily with her sobs.
     Where are you Claire? I know you’re in this house somewhere? Were you in the room with my husband? Were you in bed with my husband?
     She turned to her back and clenched her fists at her sides. How could she ever fight Claire? She loved her as Peter’s wife—and hated her as the ghost of Trey’s past. 

###  

     Trey lit the lap and sat down on the edge of the bed. What had he just done? She needed his attention and assurance and he hauled her back to her room like a naughty child. But he couldn’t let her stay. She had no idea what affect she had on him. He was too weak to turn her away, yet he’d done that very thing. He knelt on the floor and laid his head on the bed. 
     Father God—help me. I want to be all she needs me to be, and all You want me to be. Oh, Father. I’m so weak—weak in faith and weak in the flesh. I can’t do this. I can’t keep myself from her—nor can I take the chance of hurting her. Oh, God—help me.

###

     SueAnna faced the morning with new resolve. She would fight Claire’s ghost with all her might, and she would win. Trey was her husband. 
     “Ninety eight…ninety nine…one hundered.” She laid her brush on the dressing table and quickly wound her heavy hair into a coil low on her neck. She pulled two tendrils loose and let them hang softly around her face. 
     “You look pretty, SueAnna.” Lily rubbed her eyes and yawned.
     “Thank you, Lily. Did you and Miss Libby have a good night’s rest?” She opened the doors of the carved walnut wardrobe and retrieved a gray and blue plaid wool dress and pulled it carefully over her head.
     “Can I get dressed, too?” Lily slid out of bed on her tummy. Her nightgown hiked above her knees and she giggled. “My nightdress don’t want to get out of bed. See?”
     SueAnna chuckled and gave her little sister a tap on her bottom. “Your nightgown is flannel and it wants to stick. It’s okay for us to talk about it, but you needn’t tell everyone at breakfast.” She rubbed Lily’s nose with her own.
    “I know. Abigail Rawlings told me a lady doesn’t mention things like that when men are around because her mama said so. She said there was some things ladies didn’t talk about and nightclothes was one of them. Don’t men wear nightdresses? I saw Mr. Nelson in a long, long shirt at Christmas time and he look funny. Do you think he wears clothes in heaven?”
     “Oh, Lily. You make me tired with your nonstop talking. We’re going to have to work on slowing you down a bit, sweetie.”
     She finished dressing the little girl then took one quick peek at herself in the mirror. She was pale, and she pinched her cheeks so they would look pink and healthy. She tucked her ever-present sachet of rose petals into the bodice of her dress and descended the stairs with Lily in tow.
     Lorna was already in the kitchen, bustling around, opening doors, peeking behind curtains and humming to herself. “Well good morning, fine ladies.” She spoke but continued to work.
     “We need more shelves in this kitchen, SueAnna. Don’t know how you managed to cook for so many at one time with everything closed up behind doors and curtains. Think we could get someone to tack is up some shelving.” She flipped a flapjack, put it on a platter in the warming over, and went back to investigating the kitchen.
     ” I suppose you could get Adam Covington to agree to anything you want done in this house.” She went to the cupboard and pulled a cup off the hook and turned to pour herself a cup of coffee.  “You had coffee yet, Lorna?”
      “Had a cup with Trey and Adam before they went out to chore. Snow didn’t amount to much, but sure is cold out there. You stay warm, did you?” Lorna winked at SueAnna. “That husband of yours looked mighty pleased with himself this morning—was even whistling a tune as he came down the stairs. Sure good to se you two lovebirds in your own little nest.”
     SueAnna scrunched her brow and nodded in Lily’s direction. She didn’t want to talk about their own little nest—especially in front of Lily.
      “Lily, kitten—why don’t you take these plates and go set them on the table for me, could you do that?” Lorna handed the girl a stack of dishes then turned back to SueAnna.
     “I’m as sorry as I can be, honey. Never gave a thought to how big that little gal’s ears are and how fast what she hears runs right out of her mouth.” 
     She peeked into the dining room. “When you get the plates on, you come back here for the forks and knives.” 
     “That should keep her busy for a bit—now, you best learn to tell me everything because I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.” She poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down opposite SueAnna. “Suppose it won’t hurt to have another cup.”
     “Lorna, she’s still here.” She swiped at the tears with the back of her hand. 
     “Who’s still here, sweet girl?”
    “Claire. I think she spent the night with Trey—in his mind, that is—that’s why he was whistling this morning. It wasn’t because he was in our own love nest. He didn’t even sleep in my room.”
     “You…oh, SueAnna. You don’t think Trey has stopped loving her? What in the world makes you have such thoughts? She’s Peter’s wife. She’s going to have Peter’s child. Trey wouldn’t think on another woman like that.”
     “I want to believe that, Lorna. I really do. But I even…I even sneaked into his room last night and he wouldn’t let me stay. He carried me back to my room and told me to stay put. And he didn’t even kiss me, except on the forehead.”
     Lorna reached across the table. “There’s more to this than either you or I know. But I can almost assure you it isn’t because Trey doesn’t love you.”
     SueAnna did her best to stop the tears but they rolled unabated. “I don’t know what to think or how to feel. I’m hurt and angry and scared and…and I don’t want to be crying when the men come in for breakfast. ” She pushed away from the table. “Tell Lily I…tell I needed to rest and see if you can keep her down here. I’ll come down later but I don’t want to let Trey see me when I’m such a mess. I can’t win this war with tears.”
     She didn’t wait for Lorna to answer, but turned and fled just as the men came in the door.


     
     


      
     

Threads of Grace–chapter eighteen

Chapter Eighteen

     Christmas Eve Day

     Trey grabbed a blanket from his pallet and wrapped it around Lily and Miss Libby. “There—now you look like a Christmas package. Who do you think might want a little girl and her dolly for Christmas?” He carried her to the living area and sat down in front of the fireplace with her on his lap.
     “Would you really give me away?” Lily was sober.
     “Never.” He pushed her hair out of her eyes. “How can you see with all that frizzy stuff hanging in your face?” 
     Lily took his face in her hands and put her mouth to his ear. “Claire don’t know how to do girlses hair very good, but don’t tell her ‘cuz it would make her feel bad.”
    “I’ll never tell a soul. It will be our secret.” He whispered back to her. “Are you hungry?”
     She yawned. “No, I’m still sleepy. I just got up ‘cuz my feets was cold.” She snuggled against his chest.
     He leaned his head against the tall back of James’ chair and puller her close. “Go to sleep, then, punkin, and maybe I will, too.”


###
   
     Something crawled across Trey’s mouth, and he woke with a start.
     Lily giggled. “You was slobberin’, and I just wiped it away with Miss Libby’s apron.”
     Adam Covington howled with laughed in the chair next to them. “Had an old dog that slobbered like that. We shot him…thought he was rabid.”
     Trey dumped the little girl from his lap unto her feet. He rubbed his eyes then stood and stretched.
     “Short night?”
     “Yeah.” Trey grinned at his pa.
     “Tonight’s Christmas Eve, you know. Been thinking it might be nice to celebrate it somehow. Any ideas?” Adam rubbed his bum leg.
    “I have an idea,” Lily squealed and clapped her hands.
     “Shh, you’re going to wake the whole town.” Trey grabbed her and sat her back on his lap. “Now, tell us your idea but be very quiet.”
     “Peter can be Joseph, and Claire will be Mary, and James and Lorna will be the inn keepers and…and Ben will be the shepherd and…”
     Trey looked at his pa and nodded.
     “And Mr. Covington can read from the Bible and Reverend Bowen can pray and tell everybody to stay for cookies.” She smiled. “What do you think?”
     “Do SueAnna and I get to be in your program?” Try wiggled his eyebrows at the little girl.
     “Of course, silly. SueAnna can sing and you can be…,” she crossed her arms and thumped her finger against her chin. “I know what! You can be Good Will.”
     Adam howled. “So Mr. Martin will be Good Will? Who are you going to be?” He wiped the laugh tears from his eyes.
     “Watch.” She climbed off Trey’s lap and onto a chair then scrambled to the top of the table before she could be stopped. She held out her arms. “Glory to the highest, and on my earth there shall be a piece of Good Will.” She plunked down in the middle of the table, cross her legs and pulled her nightdress to cover her feet. “I’ll be the angel who has good news to tell everybody Do you think God will mind if Miss Libby pretends to be baby Jesus?”

###
  
     Lorna clapped her hands when she heard the plans. “Of course we can do it, Lily. The men can gather cedar branches and us women will hike right over to the church and start cleaning.  James, you and Sage can go around and let all the townsfolk know, and Doc—you and Trey and Ben can get the news to the farmers and ranchers around. Then bring branches back with you.”
     “Please, let me help. Isn’t there something I could do?” SueAnna begged.
     Doc shook his head. “Not at the church, you can’t. Maybe Lorna has something here you could keep busy with. You, too, Claire. No foolishness from either of you or I won’t let you attend the services tonight.”
     Lorna nodded to the girls. “You ladies go through the store and gather up enough lamps for every window in the church. We’ll clean the chimneys ’til they sparkle. And we can cut up pieces of red flannel to put in the kerosene, too. That would look pretty, don’t you think? My goodness. We haven’t had a church service since the Bittman’s left.”
     Claire scowled. “But who will help Lorna clean the church?”
     “Ladies,” Adam bowed, “at your service. Why, lookee here. We’ll fly through this in no time.” He stuck a feather duster under each arm and flapped them like wings. 
     “But what about my costume? I can’t be a angel without a costume.” Lily’s eyes brimmed with tears.
     Lorna took her hand. “You come with me. I’ve got just the thing.”
###  
     Christmas Eve

     Ben watched from behind the make-shift curtains. The wire he and Sage hung at the front of the church sagged in the middle with the added weight of Lorna’s quilts, but the manger scene was hidden.
     The scent of fresh cedar mixed with the heady fragrances of cinnamon and nutmeg. Greenery adorned each window sill and cradled a lamp. The flames from the lamps danced and reflected from the windows. A steady flow of neighbors streamed into the tiny sanctuary.
     “Hey, pal, you make a pretty good shepherd.” Trey stood behind him and gazed out the small opening where the quilts didn’t quite meet. “I can’t believe so many people showed up on such short notice. Have you ever seen the like?”
     Ben shook his head. “I never even knew you could pretend to be something in the Bible.” The towel Lorna had fixed for a head covering slipped over one eye, and he straightened it so he could see again.
     “You never celebrated Christmas?”
     “Have you forgotten where I lived most my life? I remember one time a grocer man gave each of us kids an orange and a snow white peppermint stick. I hid the orange for so long it rotted. Somebody stole my candy.” He shrugged. “Can’t remember ever having anything special but that one time.”
     “Did you sing carols or hang stockings?”
     “Are there special songs for Christmas? Never heard of hanging a sock. Only ones we had were on our feet, and most of them had holes.”
     “Don’t you remember Christmas at the Rawlings’ last year?”
     “I never been to Rawlings’ at Christmas. First year it snowed too much. Last year I stayed home with Rusty to ride the calving pasture just to make sure we didn’t lose any early babies.”
     There was a tug on Ben’s pant leg. Lily smiled up at him and held the sides of her angle costume around her like a fan.
     “Do I look bootiful, Ben?” A bit of silver shiny stuff was braided into her hair, which she wore like a crown. It reflected rainbows of color from the lamps in the windows. Around her shoulders draped one of Lorna’s white tablecloths, and it was tied around her middle with a piece of gold cord.
    Ben squatted down to face her. “Lily, I think you’re the most beautiful angel I ever saw.
    She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed. “I’m scared, Ben. I never been a angel before. Can you hug the ‘fraid out of me?”
     He laughed and scooped her into his arms. “Guess what—I’ve never been a shepherd before. Think you can hug the ‘fraid out of me, too?” Why did this little girl always wrench his heart—and make him want to bawl?
     “Where’s Miss Libby?”
     “She’s all wrapped in waddling clothes and layin down in some hay.”
    “Shh, you two,” Lorna scolded from the sidelines. “We’re about to start.”
     Ben wiped his eyes with the edge of Lorna’s towel.
     Lorna nodded her head and Adam and Trey drew back the quilts along the wire, revealing a small box filled with hay…and Miss Libby.
     Adam stepped to the side and adjust his Bible so there was light from a nearby lamp. “And it came to pass in those days…”
    Peter and Claire came to the front of the church and took their places around the make-do manger. One by one the characters entered at the appropriate time.
     “And lo, the angle of the Lord came upon them…”
     Lily took her place in front of the manger and stood with her hands on her hips in front of Ben the shepherd. A titter tottered across the room.
     “Lily—go one, sweetie. You’re the angel, remember?” Lorna whispered louder.
     Lily turned to Lorna and cupped her hand. “Mr. Covington said the angle came UP ON them,” she didn’t whisper.
     She faced Ben. “You need to put me UP ON you so I can give them a piece of Good Will.”
    Ben picked up the little angel and set her on his shoulders, amidst the smiles and murmurs of the audience. From her perch above everyone’s head, she spread her arms and announced—”God has good news for us and we’re ‘posed to tell everybody else. So, now I give you a piece of Good Will.” She motioned for Trey to step forward.
     SueAnna stepped to the front. “Silent night. Holy night. All is calm…” Her voice was clear and unwavering. Adam closed his Bible and moved to SueAnna’s side and sang with her. One by one the entire gathering stood and joined them.
     At the close of the song, Sage Bowen stepped forward. “There’s nothing I can add to—”
     A tapping on a window stopped him. Then a tap on the next window, then a face appeared with a long white beard and on his head was a pointed red cap.
     Lily squealed from her bird-like roost on Ben’s shoulders. “It’s Santa Claus. Look Ben, it really, really is Santa Claus.” She wiggled for Ben to set her down.
    Children jumped with excitement, and then the doors opened and in came Santa Claus.
     Ben roared. James Nelson was the only man for miles around who had a belly that couldn’t be disguised.
     “Ho, Ho, Ho.” Santa approached Ben, eyes twinkling. The fringe of hair that was usually slicked down with lard, stuck out like lace around the bottom of the red hat that looked like it had been made from the sleeve of a woman’s dress.
     Ben bit the inside of his cheek so he wouldn’t laugh. He didn’t want to spoil the excitement of the children who’d gathered around, wide-eyed with wonder.
     “Have you been a good boy?” James peeked from under his busy eyebrows and winked.
     “Why, I’ve been as good as can be.” He couldn’t remember every being this eager for anything, and laughed at James’ charade.
      “Well, let’s see what I can find in my sack for you.” James dug deep into the pillowcase he had in his hand, and the kids crowded closer, craning their necks in anticipation.
    A whoosh of air exploded around the room as Santa revealed a pure white candy stick and handed it with great ceremony to Ben.
     He was aware of the shouts of glee from the children and adults as well. But he was most grateful they were too busy receiving their own surprises to see him weep.
### 
Chapter nineteen

     Christmas Day

     Adam stuffed a small package into Lily’s stocking hung on the mantle, put a log on the fire and sank into James’ chair with a moan. The weather must have changed—his leg ached like fury. He bent forward to massage it and a giggle interrupted the quiet of the darkened room.
    “I saw you, Mr. Covington.” The little girl was curled up in Lorna’s chair. She sat cross-legged with her feet tucked under her nightdress and Miss libby clutched to her chest.
     “Lily, what are you doing out of bed so early? It’s cold out here.”
     “I’m not cold but Miss Libby is, so we came to sit by the fire. I saw you put something in my stocking. I bet you were gonna tell me it was from Santa Claus, weren’t you?”
    Adam laughed. He had, indeed, planned to tell her that very thing. “It is from Santa, Lily—he just had me deliver it for him.”
     “It’s okay to tell me the truth because I don’t really believe in Santa Claus.” She turned sideways in the chair and pulled her knees to her chest, tucking her feet snugly back under her nightdress.
     “You don’t? Why, Miss Lily, even I believe in Santa Claus.” He motioned for her to join hims and she hopped onto his lap. 
     “Will it hurt your leg if I sit here?” Her face scrunched in concern.
     “No. In fact, I’ll forget all about that bummy old leg if you sit here with me.” He turned her toward the fire and put his arm around her. “Now, are you comfortable?”
     She nodded and turned her doll on her lap so she was facing the warmth of the fire, too.
     “Now, why don’t you tell me why you don’t believe in Santa Claus.” Had he spoiled the excitement for her? What would SueAnna tell her?
      “Well, I kinda believe in him but mostly I know Christmas is for Jesus. Last year, at the Bittmans, Santa Claus didn’t come but Annie told me it was okay because Jesus was the very best present we could ever have. She said if he don’t bring me anything then some other little girl needed to be surprised more than me.” She snuggled deeper against him and laid her head against his chest.
     “Your sister is right, Lily. Jesus is the very best gift, but it’s fun to think about Santa Claus, don’t you think? Wasn’t it fun to surprise everyone at church?”
     “Mostly I think it was fun for James ‘cuz he and Lorna never had babies so they like to make all the children happy.”
     “You do know that everyone will tell you that Santa Claus came last night, don’t you?”
     “I know. Why do you think growed people make up stories?” She reached behind her head to pat his cheek.
     Adam chuckled. “I suppose we just want to make little ones happy.” 
     “But it’s wrong to lie and if you lie then I’m not happy. But I am very happy because Peter and Claire are here. I don’t want them ever to leave again. I like it when we’re all one big family, don’t you?”
     Adam was glad the little girl couldn’t see his face. He scrunched his eyes as hard as he could to check the tears. “Yes, little one. I very much like being one big family.
     Lily bolted upright on his lap. “Listen,” she whispered and turned to the comfort of his arms. “I hear something and it scares me.”
     Adam held his breath to keep from roaring with laughter. Sneaking into the room, seemingly unaware anyone was present, was James. His nightshirt flapped against his bare ankles and he hunched over and tiptoed barefoot toward the one small stocking hung on the fireplace mantle.
     ‘Shh, punkin. Don’t make a sound,” Adam whispered in Lily’s ear.
      James carried a big cloth bag. He sat it down to one side and reached into it and retrieved a hammer. He put a row of nails in his mouth, then spit them out one-by-one as he pounded them along the mantle.
    Lily wiggled with excitement and Adam helped her hold her hand over her mouth.
     After he had all the nails pounded, James brought out stockings of every size and hung them on the nails. Each one had a large paper tag and were bulging with secrets. The man, whom Adam loved like a father, stepped back to survey his handiwork, then turned toward his chair. 
     “Merry, Merry Christmas.” Lily squealed as she shinnied off Adam’s lap and threw herself against James’ bare legs. “Please, can I go wake up everybody.”
###  
     James took a deep breath and sank into his chair next to Lorna. He must be excited to be so short of air. Seemed lately he had a harder time breathing, but doc told him to expect those symptoms.
     “What are you thinking about, Santa Claus?” Lorna squeezed his hand.” You must have raided the store last night to get those stockings so full. But, my, oh my, have you ever seen so much excitement?”
     He patted her cheek. He loved this woman. “Never, my dear woman. I don’t think little Lily has stopped talking or bouncing since we let her get everyone out of bed.” How much longer would be able to fool this dear lady? He leaned his head against his chair and willed the dizziness to leave.
     “How did you ever figure out what to put in each stocking?”
     “I’m Santa Clause. Remember?” He smiled at her. “Look at Ben. He’s as excited as Lily.”
     Ben held his stocking like it was a prized treasure, and dug into it like there might be gold in the toe. He withdrew a shiny silver harmonica and his eyes lit up. When he blew into it, everyone stopped talking. 
     “Can you play us a tune?” Lorna called to him
     “How did you know?” He sat on the floor, the Christmas stocking between his long legs that he folded in front of him. He brought the instrument to his mouth and began to play…Amazing grace, how sweet the sound—
     “Wait, wait,” Lily scooted close to Ben and put her hand on his shoulder. “I know this song so I will sing and Ben will play. Listen, everybody.”
     Lily shut her eyes and began to sing. “I may see grace, how sweet you sound. You save a witch like me. I once was sloshed and now you found me. I was blind but now you see. When I been here ten thous and ears bright and shiny like your Son. We have no less tears to sing your praise than when you first begun.”
     She curtsied and kissed Ben on the cheek. “Isn’t this the merriest Christmas ever?”
     James closed his eyes. Indeed it was the merriest ever. The only thing that could make it better is if he could celebrate it in the presence of Jesus.
###
  
     “It’s Doc’s orders, Annie. Just for awhile.” Trey covered his wife with the quilt and leaned to kiss her nose. “I’ll wake you in two hours.”
     “But I’m fine, Trey. Really I am. It’s not fair that me and Claire have to miss out on all the fun. I wasn’t crying because I was tired—it was Lily singing and…and this whole Christmas has been so much more than I could have ever dreamed.”
     “I know, but if you want Doc to ever agree to you going home, then you’re going to have to do what he says now. He’s concerned about you and Claire, and that’s why he ordered you both to take a nap.”
     “Two hours. Promise you’ll wake me in two hours.” She pulled his head down to hers. “But you have to give me a good nap kiss.”
     “Annie, if I kiss you now you won’t get any sleep at all. Be a good girl.” He unwound her arms from around his neck and tucked them under the quilt. “Only two hours. I promise.”
     He closed the bedroom door behind him and leaned against it. Did the woman have any idea what she did to him? He knew his pa was anxious to get back to the ranch, and likely Ben would go with him. He was torn—he knew he was needed also, but how could he bear to leave his wife?
     “Oh, here you are, Son. Everything okay? She’s not sick, is she?” Adam limped toward him.
     He smiled. “She’s fine. not very happy about being told she had to take a nap, but she’ll get over it.” He moved away from the door. “How about you, Pa? Your leg is bothering  you, isn’t it?”
     He nodded. “Does this every time the weather changes. Probably something I’ll have to put up with the rest of my life. “He put his arm around Trey’s shoulders. “Got time to have coffee with me and Ben? Guess we better decide what we’re gonna do next.”
     Trey nodded. “I figured as such. Guess this is as good a time as any. Things seem strangely quiet.”
     Adam snorted. “I think everyone is exhausted. Lily had us all up before daybreak, you know.”
     So, where is everyone?”
     Adam waved his hand around the large room as they entered. “Well, James and Lorna are fast asleep in their chairs. Sage and Peter have retired to the chairs around the stove in the mercantile, and Lily is having tea with Miss Libby over in the corner with her new little tea set James and Lorna gave her. Don’t know where Doc is.”
      Ben was already at the table and Trey pulled a chair next to his. Adam poured coffee in all their cups, then grimaced when he sat down. “Okay, fellas, let’s talk.”
     “Is there really a big rush to get back?” Trey asked. “Shouldn’t start calving for another month at least.”
     “You’re right about the calving, Trey. But the guys out there haven’t had any contact with us since before Thanksgiving. A lot could have happened—just hope they’re all still there.”
     Ben tapped his spoon against his cup and laid it in the saucer. “They’ll be there, boss. Every last one of them knows they got it real good at the KIM. Be plumb stupid to leave.”
     “Yeah, I suppose. But you know what they way about the cat being away.”
     Trey glanced at Ben and they burst out laughing. “Pa, if you knew how much them rats played while you was right there—it don’t take you being away at all.”
     “Really? Want to let me in on it?”
      “No sir, I don’t. It’s harmless. Ben’s right—they ain’t going nowhere.”
     “And you boys aren’t hankering to get back, is that right?”
     Ben took a sip of coffee. “Have you looked out the window, Mr. Covington? I don’t know how long it’s been snowing, but the ground is covered and it’s still coming down.”
     “That explains this leg throbbing like a toothache. Figured we were in for some kind of change. Guess that answers how soon we leave.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.
     “How about if I plan to go back as soon as the weather acts like it’s gonna let up. You and Trey can wait ’til the girls are ready to come. I know he doesn’t want to leave SueAnna again.” Ben stood and refilled their cups.
      Trey reached for the sugar.”SueAnna made me promise to talk to Doc, but I haven’t done it yet. I’m afraid to take off with her during the winter, but hate to leave her here ’til spring. But I feel like I need to be getting back, too.”
     “You’re place is right here with your wife, Trey. And I doubt you’d be able to ride very far with that leg thumping away at you, Mr. Covington.” Ben folded his hands on top of the table. “Just makes more sense for me to go like I said in the first place.”
     “Makes sense to me, Adam. Got another cup around here somewhere?” Doc punched Trey’s shoulder. 
     “Where’d you come from?” Adam motioned to the cupboard. “Cups are where they’ve always been. You’re a big boy, get it yourself.”
     Trey chuckled. As gruff as the two sounded, there was obvious love between them. 
     Doc got his coffee and joined them at the table. “Why aren’t you eating? Enough good stuff around here to keep your mouths full all day.”
     Adam laughed. “Lorna gave orders, that’s why. We’ll eat when the girls get rested.”
     “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go take a nap myself.” Trey stood and put his cup in the dishpan.
     “You go in that bedroom with your wife and I’ll take a whip to you.” Doc peered at him over the top of his glasses. 
     “Guess that settles that.” Trey retrieved his cup, poured himself more coffee, and sat down again. “Lorna surely wouldn’t miss a cookie, do you think?”
     “I counted them before I saw down, Trey Martin. And I’ll count them again. If one is missing, I’ll know who to blame.” Lorna patted his shoulder as she passed by.
     “Can I help with anything?” He needed to keep busy.
     “You can all get away from the table so I can put a clean cloth on it, then the plates and such can be put on.” She took her apron off the hook by the stove and tied it as she moved about. “And if you wake James up with your clunking around, I’ll spank you all.”
     Trey glanced at James. Fat chance anyone would wake him up. He was still slumped in his chair just like the last time he looked.
###
     Sage stretched his legs in front of him and crossed his ankles. “I’d forgotten how special having family was, Peter. Thanks for letting me stay and be a part.”
     “No need to thank anyone, Sage. The service at the church last night was a special treat for this little town, I reckon. What’re you plans now? Do you have a home to go back to?”
     He shook his head. “Not really. The people around Rawlings’ take turns having me stay with them. But—well, now I got another offer to think about.”
     “You gonna keep preaching, or is this something else?”
     “After the service last night, several of the men came to me and offered me a job as pastor here. I’ll admit it’s tempting.”
     “Pay better, does it?” Peter clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned back in his chair.
     “Didn’t talk about the pay. But think about it, friend. Going back and having Trey and Rosie in my congregation would be more than awkward—for them as well. I’d have a home here and plenty of people around to keep me busy. Katie would have loved it here.”
     “You know you can’t keep making life decisions because of Katie, don’t you? She would want you to go on with your life, wouldn’t she?”
     He nodded. “Yes of course she would. But you know—I watched all of you this morning and couldn’t help but feel sorry for myself. You and Claire…Trey and Rosie…James and Lorna.” He shrugged. “Felt pretty lonely, if you can understand.”
     Peter leaned forward, and rested his elbows on his thighs. “Do you have to give them an answer right away? Wouldn’t you have to let the people at Rawlings’ know you might not be back? I don’t understand how that all works.”
    “The man here said they’d give me time to let Rawlings’ folks know if I decided to stay. But what about you and Claire? You can’t start back on weather like this, can you?”
     “Even if it was good weather, Doc won’t let us go back. Says we have to stay now until Claire has her baby—probably in May. I don’t understand it. Lots of women traveled by wagon across this country and babies were born all along the way.”
     “You in a hurry to get back? What can you do on your farm in the winter?”
     Peter laughed. “You forget how hard farm work can be in the winter? I do have someone watching after things, though. Right now, Claire and the baby are more important. Plus, you’d never guess, but I’m intrigued with the mercantile. if I didn’t have a farm to go back to, I’d look for a place like James and Lorna’s.”
     Sage laughed. “You a storekeeper? You’re right. I’d never have guessed.”
     “You’re one to talk, Sage Bowen. I still can’t believe you’re a preacher.”
      Lily skipped into the mercantile. “Lorna sent Trey to wake Annie, and Peter you’re ‘posed to get Claire, and Reverend Bowen you’re ‘posed to come pray so we can have Christmas again.” She pulled on their hands until the followed her.

###
     Lorna untied her apron and hung it back on the hooks by the stove. This would be a Christmas she would tuck away in her memory as the most precious gift of a long time. What a blessing to have such dear people in their lives.
     “Adam, you better go wake that man of mine so we can get started. I don’t mind telling you all—I don’t want this day to ever end.” She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a lacy handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “You can say grace when James gets here, Sage. I can’t believe the man slept through the whole loud afternoon.”
     Adam leaned toward James’ chair and shook his shoulder. “Wake up, James. Lorna says you can eat.”
     There was no response.
     “James—hey man, we’re gonna eat it away from you if you don’t get on your feet.”
     Lorna patted Lily’s head as she waited for Adam and James. Why was it suddenly so quiet? The laughter, the talking—everything had come to a stop. Tt was like the silence of death.
     “Doc? Get over here, man.” Adam screamed
     Lorna looked at the faces around here.  She didn’t have to be told.
     James was gone.



    
    
     

REMNANTS

Grandma’s cry over the silliest things. This morning it was a red balloon and a piece of blue string. Remnants. Left over from a water balloon fight and a party popper from the Fourth of July.

I stood in the yard and cried. Not because the yard was littered with such reminders, but that it was no longer filled with the chatter and giggles that accompanied the debris. 

Silly grandma!!

Chapter 17, Threads of Grace

Chapter Seventeen

     Sage Bowen sat back in his chair and propped his feet on a nail keg. “You don’t think anyone will come looking for us in here?”
     “It’s not like we’re hiding. Just need a place to talk. It’s good to see you, friend. It’s been way too long.” Peter pushed another log into the wood stove in the middle of the mercantile and leaned back against his chair. “What more could we ask for—warm room, coffee pot full of fresh coffee, and a long night stretched ahead of us.” He laughed.
     “Sorry to keep you from the warmth of your wife’s bed,” Sage teased. “She’s beautiful, Peter. Congratulations.”
     “She is beautiful, and thank you. I almost lost her, though.”
     “Trey Martin?” Sage didn’t try to keep the sarcasm from his voice as he spit out the name.
     “Not at all. I thought it was. It was my own stupidity, actually. I was jealous and wouldn’t give either of them time to explain.”
     “How do you feel about Rosie and Martin?” 
     “Why do you want to know? She’s married, Sage. They got off to a rough start. From what I understand, you showed up about the time it was at its worst. But I like the guy. He’s had a lot of stuff thrown at him over the last few months. Can’t say I would have been any different.”
     “Do you think she loves him?”
     “I’ll answer that myself, Sage.” SueAnna strode to stand beside Peter.
     Peter stood and offered her his chair. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll leave you two alone for awhile. I don’t need to be in on this conversation.”
     Sage shook his head. “No, you can stay. The three of us have known one another too long for there to be any big secrets.”
     Peter shrugged his shoulders and pulled up another chair. “Okay, but just remember I offered.”
     “How did you know where to find us?” Sage asked. Was Trey lurking in the shadows?
     SueAnna snickered. “Not too many places you can go in the living quarters where you wouldn’t be heard by everyone. I knew you and my brother would want to go over old times. I just followed my instincts.”
     “I’m still waiting for your answer.” Sage was pushing and he knew it. Why was he so eager to have his heart broken?
     She put her hand on his arm. “I love him,” she smiled.
     Was that it? She loved him? What had he expected—a blow-by-blow description of her heart?
     “Does he love you, Rosie. Does he love you like you deserve to be loved?”
     “Yes, Sage. He loves me.”
     He stood and walked to the window. Now he wished he had allowed Peter to leave. “How do you know he won’t change his mind? How’s he going to explain to everyone back at Rawlings’—all those people who heard him introduce you as the housekeeper?”
    SueAnna rose and moved to stand next to him. ” I choose to believe he won’t change his mind. And the truth is—when he introduced me as the housekeeper that’s all I was. But that has changed. I am now his wife.”
     He spun and caught her by the shoulders. “Are you telling me, Rosie Morrow, that as ill as you have been he…he…how can you make such a statement?”
    Peter jumped to his feet. “That’s none—”
    “Stop it, Sage. You have absolutely no business to question me like this. The nature of our relationship is strictly between Trey and myself. I owe you no explanation, or apology for that matter.” She shrugged off his hands and turned to go.
     His arms hung loose. “Don’t go, Rosie. I’m so, so sorry I put you through this. You’re right—you owe me nothing. I’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
     “Do you  mean to tell me you rode all the way here just hoping I would no longer be married? Tell me this—were you looking for me the day Winnie Hollings introduced us? You were just as surprised to see me as I was you. You  haven’t been pining away for me all these years. Why the sudden interest?” 
     Her hands were on her hips, and one toe tapped a cadence of warning he remembered. He cowered with his hands over his head. “I know the stance. You’re gonna hit me aren’t you?”
     She squealed with laughter. “If I thought for one minute it would do any good, I would take one of Lorna’s skillets to your thick skull.”
     He took her hands in his. “Can you ever forgive me? I’ve made a real fool of myself, haven’t I?”
     “I will always love you for the friends we have been and for the friends we will always be. I know you were only trying to save me from a situation that seemed impossible. But you, Mr. Preacher Man, are forgetting something you should have learned in seminary—we have a big God and with Him all things are possible.”
     “Then you forgive me? Is that what you’re saying?” He smiled but his heart was breaking. She was right about one thing—he hadn’t been looking for her. But once he found her, he didn’t want to let her go.
    She stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. “I forgive you. Now, I’ll go back to my box, like the good little puppy Doc insists I be, and let the two of you catch up with the past five years.” She kissed Peter, then left, but the fragrance of roses lingered.
     He pulled his chair up to the stove and propped his feet on the nail keg again. “You say one word and I’ll deck you.” He smirked at Peter.
     Peter shrugged. “Wouldn’t think of it, pal. But I’m curious. Tell me how is it that we now call you Reverend Bowen? This has got to be interesting.” Peter poured them each another cup of coffee and sat back down, his hands clasped behind his head. “I’m ready any time you are.”
     “A girl.” Sage looked at his friend out of the corner of his eye.
     “A girl? Okay, a girl. So?” Peter sat up and leaned his elbows on his knees.
     “I’m a preacher because of a girl. You wanted to know, and I’m telling you.” He was enjoying this.
     “There’s more to it than that, you clown. Spit it out.”
     “Do you remember the Price family? They lived on the Morgan ranch south of you. A real rundown place.”
     Peter scratched his head. “Yeah, I think so. But I don’t remember there were any girls. Only Price I remember was Reuben. He was a tall skinny kid with curly yellow hair and freckles.”
     “That’s the family. There weren’t any girls, until Reuben went off and got married.”
     “If you fell for his wife, I don’t want to hear it.” Peter leaned back in his chair again.
    “No, I didn’t fall for his wife. But she had a whole passel of sisters. Reuben didn’t know they all came with the bargain. First thing you know, there he was—grinning like a schoolboy and carrying a wagon full of females everywhere he went.”
     “So which one did you fall for?” Peter punched his friend in the shoulder.
     Sage swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Kathryn—they called her Katie,” he whispered. There was a long silence as he fought a silent war with the demons of the past. 
     Peter laid his hand on Sage’s knee. “You don’t have to tell me more, you know.”
     “I know. Haven’t thought about it in awhile and guess it isn’t as easy to explain as I hoped it would be.” He took a deep breath. “I was planning to ask her to marry  me.”
     “Why didn’t you?”
      “Early one morning, Reuben came driving into the yard with his wagon empty. I knew something had to be terrible wrong. And I was right. Reuben was hollering like a wild man and all I could make out was “Katie…Katie.” 
     “Was she sick?”
     He shook his head. “No. She’d fallen from the haymow. You know, Peter. There wasn’t a mark on her. No blood. No nothing. She was laying on that bed looking like she was…was just asleep. She was so pretty. I thought at first it was a joke. I swear I could see her breathing.” He covered his face with his hands. The memories were too real—too difficult.
    “I tried to pick her up. I still thought she was teasing. But she felt…she was in my arms, still warm—but she wasn’t there.”
     Peter put his arms around him. “Are you sure you want to go on with this? I’ve heard enough.”
     “No, you haven’t heard the half of it.” He pulled away from his friend and wiped his eyes. “After her funeral, Reuben brought me a book—a red book tied with a white ribbon. On the front it said My Memory Book in gold letters, and her name was inside, Kathryn Rebecca Lowry, age sixteen.”
     “How old was she when you met her?”
     “She’d just turned sixteen. I was nineteen. The book was a gift for her birthday.”
     “Did you read what was inside?”
     Sage nodded. “It was all about us…me and her. She even drew pictures of me. They looked funny but they made me bawl.” He sniffed. “The last entry was the day before she fell…and died.”
     “This is tearing you apart, man. Please, you don’t have to tell me one more word.”
    “Yes, Peter. I do. Her last entry was what decided me to be a preacher. She wrote—I love Sage, but I can’t marry him and I think he’s going to ask me. He’s a good man, but he hasn’t ever asked You to be his Savior. We talked about it, but he thinks he hasn’t done anything so bad You wouldn’t let him into heaven. You died for us both, Lord. Now I would be willing to die to Sage would believe and want to be in heaven with me someday. I hope he will understand how much You and me love him.” 
     He smiled. “Now I want as many people as I know to love Jesus and go to heaven to keep my Katie company.”
     “Didn’t you question God, Sage? Weren’t you mad at Him?”
    “I had lots of questions. And I was mad at everyone for a long time. Did some things during that time I’m too ashamed to talk about now, even to you, Peter.”
     “But how could you get through it? What changed?”
      “Katie helped me through it. I didn’t tell you all she wrote in her last entry. I didn’t even see it myself at first. One day, when I was at my worst, I sat in a horse tall in the barn and opened her memory book again. On the next page she’d written—The only thing better than being in heaven today, is knowing I will be there one day.”
     Peter frowned. “That changed you? How?”
     “I had no idea what she meant. How could she know, even before she died, that she was going to be in heaven? I didn’t think anyone could know ahead of time. I just always hoped that when the time came I would have done enough good things to make it. But she added a scripture at the bottom, and I looked it up.”
     “For God so loved the world?”
     “No—’For by grace are you saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”
     “And that means…?”
     “I had to ask a preacher that same question, but it changed my life. I could never earn what God had already given to me as a free gift. Heaven is a choice, Peter—not a chance. Just believe. That all I had to do. He already did everything else for me when He died on the cross.”
     Sage wound his arm around Peter’s neck and rubbed his head with his knuckles. “Think you can ever get that through this thick skull of yours?”
     Peter unwound Sage’s arms. “Tell me this, my friend. Could you have ever loved my sister like you did Katie? Would she have been just a substitute?”
     “Nobody ever takes the place of another person. I love SueAnna for who she is. She isn’t Katie. My love for your sister is because she’s just…just my Rosie.”
     “Well, you best get past the my Rosie part, Sage. She’s not yours.”
     “I know that now. But just between you and me, it’ll take awhile.”
     They finished their coffee in silence, then Peter stood and give Sage a hug. “I’m glad you’re here, my good friend. See you in the morning.”
     Sage was grateful for the privacy. The perfume of rose petals haunted him.

***  
     Trey leaned up on one elbow, from his pallet on the floor, when SueAnna entered the bedroom. “You find them?” he whispered. Lily was in the bed and he didn’t want to wake her. The child went to sleep talking and woke up talking. The silence while she slept was welcome.
    “Yes. They were in the store huddled around the stove.”
     He sat up and crossed his legs. “Come here,” he caught her hand and pulled her onto his lap. “There, Mrs. Martin. Now we can talk, and with luck your little sister will stay asleep.” He kissed her on the forehead.
     She put her finger across her lips “Your whisper is like a trumpet, my dear.” She put her mouth against his ear.
     He swatted at her. “That tickles and then I’ll laugh. Quit, or you’ll be in bigger trouble than you can handle.”
     She nibbled on his ear then giggled when he pushed her away. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
    “Go to bed, woman. This isn’t working.” He laughed. “By the way—did the Reverend try to persuade you to take him up on his offer to come to your rescue?”
     SueAnna pushed her nose against his. “Yes…as a matter of fact he did…it’s still under consideration.” She punctuated each statement with a kiss. “When you come up with a better offer…then I’ll consider yours.”
     He took her in his arms and caressed her face with one hand. His fingers brushed her lips as he kissed her eyes, her throat, then gently found her mouth. She relaxed against him and he kissed her over and over again. When he finally drew away he smiled at her. “There—you get a better offer and I’ll shoot the rascal.”
     She snuggled her head against his chest. “Take me home, Trey. I want to go back to the KIM.”
    He kissed the top of her head. “Oh, Annie—you aren’t strong enough to travel yet. We couldn’t take the chance of being caught in a storm.”
     “But you’ll have to go back after Christmas, won’t you? I don’t want you to leave me here. If I promise to do everything Doc says between now and then, will you take me with you when you go?”
     He sighed. It wouldn’t be up to him. How strong would she be? would Doc allow her to leave before spring? Who would be there to help her when they got home? There was no way she could just begin where she left off—taking care of all those men plus the house.
     “Annie, I can’t promise you. I wish I could, but I can’t. But I will talk with Doc and see what he suggests. Will that be good enough for now?”
     Her head shook against his chest. “Not, but I won’t make a fuss.”
    She moved off his lap, and he stood and lifted her in his arms and laid her in bed next to Lily. “Go to sleep, Annie—so I can.”
   When her breathing settled into a steady rhythm, he lay back on his pallet with his hands clasped behind his head. He was still awake when Lily climbed out of bed and stood next to him. She nudged him with her bare foot.
     “My feet are cold.” She giggled.

To be continued