Threads of Grace
“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?”
“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.”