Threads of Grace
“Are you absolutely sure this is what you want?”
SueAnna turned from the mirror to face Naomi Bittman. “It’s not at all what I want, but if this arrangement allows me to keep Lilyd then I’ll make the most of it. Mama would never have allowed you to take Lily away.”
Tears gathered in the other woman’s eyes.
“I”m sorry, Mrs. Bittman. I didn’t mean to sound so harsh. It’s just—”
“You needn’t explain, dear. If it gives you any solace at all, I argued with my husband last night about this decision he’s forced on you. Now we’re leaving, and you’re here to face your brother when he returns. What will he think?”
“I’ve given up on Peter returning a long time ago. We’d have heard from him by now. It was too much for him, what with Papa and Mama both dying so soon after we arrived. He knew the odds of being able to purchase our old farm were against him. He told me so himself.”
The thump, thump, thump of Lily’s familiar footsteps stopped further conversation.
“Annie are you ready? Mr. Bittman says you’re ‘posed to hurry.” Lily grinned from the doorway, her ever present rag doll, Miss Libby, draped over one arm.
“Oh, that man.” Naomi pulled SueAnna into her arms. “So much I want to say…should say, in fact…but—”
“Please, don’t say anything. You’ve been so good to us. But you do understand, don’t you? I couldn’t bear to lose Lily, too. I’ll work hard for Mr. Covington, and Mr. Martin has agreed this marriage will be in name only.” If only she could believe him. But she’d face that situation if or when it presented itself.
She pulled away from the older woman and knelt in front of Lily. “I’m ready, sweetheart. And I must say you look very pretty in your new dress.”
Lily giggled and turned around. “See it has a great big bow in the back. I never had a big bow before. I tried to see it but that cowboy told me if I didn’t quit looking at it I would get a creek in my neck. But he’s lying, isn’t he? I can’t get a creek in my neck, can I? Cuz if I get a creek in my neck I might get drownded and then that would make you sad, wouldn’t it?”
“Mr. Martin told you that?” He must not have much experience with children. Goodness, Lily would change that right fast. She’d have to work on the little girl’s propensity to talk nonstop. At least when he was around.
“No, the other one. Mr. Martin is standing like this,” she used her fingers to pull the corners of her mouth down, then put her hands behind her back. “He looks all mad, but the other one is nice. His name is Ben. I kinda wish you was gonna marry Ben because I think he likes me. Could you maybe ask him if you could marry him? And could you tell him not to let a creek get in my neck cuz I can’t swim, you know.”
SueAnna kissed her sister’s cheek. “It’s crick, not creek, and it means your neck will get sore. And no, you do not have my permission to ask if I can marry Ben.” She gave her a pat on her blue-skirted bottom. “You go down first and I’ll follow you.” She took a deep breath. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
James Nelson met her at the bottom of the stairs and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “You look real nice, Susie.”
Dear James. He’d managed to ease her beating heart without as much as moving his lips. And she doubted anyone else heard. Oh, but she would miss him. She’d miss Lorna, to. But it was James who snuggled her tight against his side when they lowered her Pa into his grave. And it was James who tucked her just as tightly now.
He wrapped his big hand over hers. “Well, preacher. You and me have already had our words about this. It’s only because Susie, here, agreed to it that I’ll give her away. Never liked that term myself. Never made any sense at all why a man would raise a daughter then give her away.”
“James, we aren’t hear to listen to you argue.” Reverend Bittman looked over the top of his glasses. “Peter left me in charge of his sisters, and this is the best way I can see fit to keep them together.”
She laid her head against the older man’s shoulder. The wool of his jacket was rough against her cheek, and he smelled of leather and oil and spices—like everything in the Mercantile. “It will be okay, Mr. Nelson. Really it will.”
The preacher nodded. “There, now could we please get on with this task?”
A slight breeze whispered across the prairie and loosened sparks from the glowing embers of the campfire. Trey followed their path upward until he could see them no more. Someone should have told him SueAnna had a wagon to reckon with. Now the trip would take longer than expected. But she wouldn’t budge when he suggested leaving most of it behind. Stubborn, that’s what. Even more reason for him to make sure this man and wife thing never got beyond the in name only stage.
“What have I done, Ben?”
“You got married. That’s what you done.”
Trey stretched his legs toward the fire and propped himself up on one elbow. “What are we gonna tell Covington?” Even with the shadow on his face, he could tell the big oaf was grinning. “And I don’t need your smirk.
“We ain’t gonna tell him nothing. I warned you, pal. This is your tale and I don’t aim to be in on the tellin’.”
“You didn’t stop me.”
“You won’t admit it, but you didn’t want stopped. Them teethmarks that little gal left on your wrist might as well have been a hook in your mouth.”
“That would hurt, wouldn’t it Mr. Ben? Peter catched a fish once and he couldn’t get the hook out and he had to yank and yank. It got a bloody.”
“Lily, what are you doing out here?” Ben stood and scooped the little girl into his arms. “I thought you were in the wagon with your sister.”
“Annie is crying, and Miss Libby can’t sleep when there is so much noise. Can we just sit out here for awhile?”
“You hear that, Trey? Your wife is crying. That’s not way for a bride to spend her wedding night, is it?”
Ben sat down and folded his long legs. “Here you go little one.” He pulled the girl down onto his lap. “You sit here with me while Trey goes to talk with your sister. How about that?”
“You want her talked to, then you go talk to her. I’m not playing this game.” Trey sat up and hooked his arms around his jack-knifed knees. Ben could play the sucker if he wanted but he’d do it alone.”
Lily held her doll toward Trey. “Miss Libby told me my sister doesn’t want to talk to you either, Mr. Trey. Miss Libby says you’re wude and Annie don’t like wude persons. That’s why she’s crying, cuz you’re not nice. Miss Libby says—”
“Look, your Miss Libby can’t talk and she didn’t tell you anything of the sort. Ben, take her back to the wagon where she belongs. I reckon Miss Morrow is just tired. I’ve seen tired women cry before, and it had nothing to do with me.”
“She ain’t Miss Morrow no longer. Have you forgotten you two done said I do? If you’re any kind of man you’ll go find out why your wife is crying.”
Lily wiggled away from Ben and planted one fist on her hip. “Miss Libby is too real. And I already told you why Annie is crying. You’re wude.” She kicked his shin. “And I don’t like you. I wish she’d listened to me and married Mr. Ben instead.” She ran back toward the wagon, sobbing.
Ben winked. “Well old pal. I’d say you’ve made a fine start. You hired a housekeeper, got married and now have two ladies crying their eyes out all because you’re such a gentleman. Covington will be right proud.”
Trey kicked dirt at him. “Shut up, you red-headed loud mouth. Just…just…shut up.”