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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
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.