Threads of Grace—Chapter 12 Continued

Chapter 12, continued

     Peter lifted SueAnna from the floor and followed Lorna to the room she’d prepared. What happened? One minute he was like a child—too excited to keep his presence hidden—the next he witnessed his wife fall into the arms of a man he didn’t know. Why was his sister in the company of this person? Where was Lily? This was not at all the homecoming he’d envisioned. 
     “I’m sorry, Peter.” Lorna touched his shoulder. “I’m not eager to send you back out there, but I do need some privacy to get this girl settled. I’ll let you know as soon as Doc Thayer is through examining her.”
     “Mrs. Nelson, who—”
     She flicked her wrist toward him. “Later, Peter. Tell Doc he can come in any time. And you tell that young man where he can find his wife.”
     “Wife? SueAnna is married? To that—”
     “Later, I said. There will be plenty of time later to try to make sense out of what’s happened. For now, it’s SueAnna we need to worry about.”
     Doc moved away from the wall when Peter left the room. “She ready for me in there?”
     He nodded. “Anything she needs, Doc. I’ll take care of anything she needs. Just help her.”
     “I’ve a feeling what she needs is standing in the middle of the mercantile holding your wife. Don’t envy you none, son. But reckon you’re man enough to take care of it.”
     The man was right. The scene hadn’t changed. Claire was still in the arms of the stranger, and they seemed oblivious to their surroundings. It seemed like an eternity before Claire lifted her head from the man’s chest and looked his direction.
     “I’m sorry, Peter. I…this is…this is an old friend I never expected to see again.” She didn’t move from the man’s arms while she spoke.
     He would take this up with his wife later. For now he hoped he could get a message to the man without causing a scene. “The doctor just went in to tend to your wife, sir. I’d think you’d want to do the same.”

     SueAnna’s questions roared through Trey’s mind with a vengeance. What would you do if you were to find Claire again? Where would that leave us? Where would that leave me?
     His arms were around Claire, and it was like she’d always been there. She was as beautiful as the day he rode away from her. But she was Peter’s wife—SueAnna’s brother’s wife. 
     What was he doing? Where was SueAnna? She was standing right here. Oh, dear God. Did he say Doc was with his wife? He pulled from Claire’s arms. “Where is she? Where did they take her?”
     “You brought her in here cold, wet and so ill she could hardly stand on her own. That was fifteen minutes ago, and you just now ask her whereabouts?”
     “Don’t shush me, Claire. Not now.”
     Trey fisted his hands. “Never mind. I’ll find her myself.” He deserved the man’s anger—deserved a good thrashing—but for now he needed to find SueAnna. 
     “Yes, you do that. But if that girl dies, so help me—”
     Die? He stumbled through the curtain and followed the voices he heard until he found the room. He gasped. Even from the doorway he could hear SueAnna’s labored breathing. Her face was flushed, and she clawed at the air with, oh, dear Lord, the palms of her hands were raw and bloody. Experience told him they were rope burns. What had he done? She’d hadn’t complained. Not one word during that cold, wet ride into Prairie View. “Will…is she—”
     Doc shook his head. “Will she live? Is that what you want to know?” He shrugged. “I’m a doctor, Trey. Not God. Don’t know what ever possessed you to bring her here in the first place, as fragile as she’s been.”
     “I…she insisted. Said she needed to talk to another woman. I didn’t know—”
     Lorna gripped SueAnna’s wrists and brought her hands to the bed, palms-up.”
    “You let her stand there, Trey Martin—wet, cold and sick. Your arms were full of Claire when this sweet girl fell to the floor, and even then you didn’t notice. It was Peter who had to pick her up and bring her in here—while you were holding his wife.”
    “Lorna, please. Let me explain.”
     “You needn’t explain to me, young man, but you will certainly need to do some fancy talking to Peter. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get a chance to make things right with the young woman lying here fighting for her life. For now, I don’t care what kind of storm you have to ride through, and I don’t care if you have to walk, but you hightail it back to the KIM and let Adam know what’s happened.” She pointed toward the door with her chin, her hands still gripping SueAnna’s wrists. “Get”
     Trey stepped to the bed and brushed his lips across SueAnna’s forehead. “I know I’ll have to prove this, but I love you.”  


Threads of Grace–chapter 12, continued


     Each bone-jarring lurch of the wagon sent pain to parts of SueAnna’s body she didn’t know existed. Trey had tried to talk her out of making this trip, but she’d insisted. Now she was sorry, but they were too far away from the ranch to turn back and still had so many miles to go. The sunshine that had welcomed the morning had long ago disappeared, and they now faced a growing bank of wind-driven roiling dark clouds. 
     “I don’t like the looks of those clouds. That wind is already getting colder and the open prairie is no place to get caught in an early winter storm. I should never have agreed to this.” Trey reined the horses to a stop. “I’d feel better if you’d let me fix you a bed in the back. We’ve got to move faster and you’ll bounce to pieces on this seat.” 
     “I’ll bounce back there, too, won’t I?” She ached even with the thought, but she didn’t want to cause more trouble.
     Trey climbed into the back of the wagon. “I’ll rig a rope down low for you to grab if it gets too rough. At least it might keep you from jostling so much.” He spread blankets for a bed. “Can you climb over? I’ll put more padding over you once we get you situated.”
     She climbed into the back and settled onto the pile of blankets while he piled the extras on top of her, then handed her the rope. 
     “I’m going to let the horses run, and it’s going to be a rough ride. Curl up as tight as you can and grab the rope if you get to bouncing too much. If we’re lucky we’ll make it to Prairie View before the storm hits.”
     Without being able to see, she had no idea how far they’d gone when the first drops of rain pelted her cheeks. She burrowed deeper into the blankets, but with the rain came wind and it whistled around her.
     “Grab the rope, SueAnna,” Trey’s voice carried with the wind. “It’s going to get bad.” 
     The wagon lurched, and she gripped the rope as she was thrown to and fro. The blankets covering her were torn away and cold rain soaked through her clothing. Her hands burned from the friction of the rope but she was too frightened to let go.”
     “Trey? Trey help me. I can’t hold on much longer.”
      “Just a few more miles. Hang on for a few more miles.”

     Trey braced his feet against the front of the wagon and pulled until he thought his arms would break. This wasn’t going to work. The wagon was too slow, the storm too fierce. His only hope of getting SueAnna to safety was to unhitch the wagon and go the rest of the way on horseback. Even that wouldn’t be as fast as he liked. The team horses were big and sturdy and good for long hauls, but they weren’t as fast as his big gelding. 
     Her wet clothing clung to her but there was no other choice. He wrapped her as well as he could in the wet blankets that she’d been lying on, and was able to finally get both of them atop the larger of the team horses. He’d let the other one go. Without the cumbersome harness it would be able to fend for itself. For now, he had to get his wife to Nelson’s.
     She slumped against him as they trudged through the strengthening storm. The rain had now become pellets of ice, and it didn’t take long for a thin layer of slush to cover the ground. Even though the layers of blanket around her, he could feel her shiver against him. 
     This was his fault. Had he told her right from the start what he longed to say now, she’d never have left. If only he could have promised her that Claire would never again come between them. Was it too late? When they reached Nelson’s, would she let him hold her as he was holding her now? Would she give him the chance to tell her what was in his heart? What kept him from it now? Why was it so easy to think the words but so difficult to say them? Ben was right—he was a dope.
     SueAnna moaned and he pulled her closer. “We’re almost there.  Can you hear me? We’re almost there.” Dusk wrapped the darkened skies around them before he was able to make out pin-points of light coming from the windows of the mercantile. That was unusual. There’d been no time to let them know they were coming? Were they expecting someone else? 
     “Hello…hello. Can anyone hear me?”
     Before he reached the hitching rail, light from inside spilled onto the porch of the mercantile. “That you, Trey Martin? We thought we heard someone hollering. How did you know—”
     Doc Thayer shoved past Mr. Nelson. “What in the world are you doing out on a night like tonight? Please don’t tell me that’s—”
     “Save your lecture. This wasn’t my idea, but right now we’ve got to get my wife out of this storm.”
     Doc lifted her from Trey’s arms. “Can you stand, little one? Here, boy, you climb off that horse and help me get her inside. James, you holler for Lorna to get a bed ready for this young lady. And we’ll need anything warm she can find. She’s soaked plumb to the skin.”
     Trey slipped his arm around SueAnna’s waist. The quilt had slipped to the ground and he could feel heat of her body even through her wet clothing. She must have terrible fever. She swayed against him and he pulled her closer. 
     “Lorna, you got that bed ready? Get her on in here, Trey.”
     They stepped into the mercantile just as Lorna came from their living quarters. She was followed close behind by a young couple.
     SueAnn had never seen such a beautiful girl. She became acutely aware of how wet and bedraggled she must look. Her knees trembled and the room spun around her. Voices seemed to come from all corners, but she recognized the voice of her brother and held out her arms. She didn’t have the strength to move, but the girl stepped toward her. 
     “You must be SueAnna. Peter has talked of his little sister so much I expected someone much younger.” The girl embraced her then stepped back with a gasp. Her face drained of all color and her hands shook as she clasped them in front of her. 
     Trey’s arm dropped from her waist, and he stepped away as her brother took her hand. 
     “My dear little sister, SueAnna Rose.” Peter brushed his lips against her cheek. “That fine lady who just about squeezed the life out of you is my wife…Claire.”
     The girl breathed Trey’s name, and he moved from SueAnna’s side. 
     “Claire. Is that…is that really you, Claire?” He reached for Peter’s wife, and with a sob she fell into his embrace.

To be continued—


Threads of Grace

Chapter Nine

     Trey waited until SueAnna was settled, her skirts spread around her and her back against the fork of the tree. He sat opposite of her, drawing his knees to his chest. Just enough moonlight filtered through the canopy to see her face. She didn’t look anything like Claire—but why was he constantly comparing?
     Her gaze met his. “You’re thinking about Claire, aren’t you? Is that why you want to talk…to tell me you’re leaving to find her?” She lowered her eyes and picked at her skirt.
    “Covington won’t let me go until after Thanksgiving.”
     “But you want to, don’t you?”
     He leaned closer and took her hands in his. “Look, I…I don’t really know what I want. That’s why we need to talk. I know I’ve been a real no-good kind of guy, and I couldn’t blame you if…if you went away like Sage Bowen suggested.”
    She lifted her head and her eyes glistened with unshed tears. “We’re married, Trey, and I’ll honor those vows, but you have to decide whether you want to continue this charade or go after the woman you really love. I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life resenting me. Neither do I want to be constantly compared to someone I’ve never met. I can’t compete with a ghost.”
     “Do you love Sage Bowen?” He dropped her hands.
     “Love him? Is that why we’re having this conversation, Trey? Maybe we need to leave Sage and Claire out of this and try to figure out why, after four months, you suddenly decide we need to talk.”
     He folded his arms across his bent knees and rest his forehead on them. Why, indeed? If only he’d not reacted like a jealous husband when the truth was he’d never cared to acknowledge her as his wife. He took a deep breath and faced her again. “I don’t know what I’m feeling. I thought I loved Claire, but when I saw you leave tonight and go out in the dark with Sage, I…I wanted to hit him and then I wanted to scream at you and remind you we were married.” He swiped his hand across his mouth. “Sorry. I know we were gonna leave them out of this.”
     “Why didn’t you?”
     “Why didn’t I what? Leave them out of this like you suggested?”
     “No. Why didn’t you scream and remind me of our vows?”  
     He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve been asking myself that same thing.”
     She smiled. “You remind me of Lily. She absolutely hates turnips, but if she ever saw little Abigail Rawlings eat them, and Ben was anywhere near, she would eat them if it made her sick.”
     “I don’t hate you, SueAnna.”
     “No. But you’ve told me you’ll never love me. It feels a whole lot the same.”
     “But that’s what I’m trying to say.” He moved to his knees. “I don’t know why seeing you with the preacher made me so jealous. I never felt that way before with Claire.”
     “You didn’t have to, Trey. You and Claire grew up together, just like me and Sage. You felt safe. You knew she would always be there, and I suppose that’s how I feel with Sage. Maybe that’s love. I don’t know.”
     “You don’t love me, do you.” He got to his feet but forgot to duck and a branch slapped him across his face. He crouched to his knees again.
     “Why does it matter” Why is it that you care about my loving you when you’ve admitted being in love with someone else?”
     “I don’t know why it matters—but it does. It matters a whole lot.”
     SueAnna pushed herself to her feet and crossed her arms. “I’ll be forever grateful for what you did so I could keep Lily. But I don’t want to be blamed for every past hurt you’ve suffered, or for every disappointment that may come into your life because of it.” She moved away. “It’s late. I’m cold and I need to check on Lily.”
    Trey grabbed her arms and pulled her back to him. “Ben is taking care of Lily.” He shrugged out of his jacked and put it around her shoulders. “Now, no more arguments. We aren’t finished.”
    Even in the shadows, he saw her brow furrow. 
     “Finished? Did we ever really start?” She backed against the tree and slid to the ground. He lowered himself next to her and took her hands again.
     “I want to start—I really do. But I never courted a woman before. Claire was always just…there. I don’t how to begin. I asked Ben, and he just knocked me down and compared me to an old ugly, dumb dog he once knew.”
     SueAnna giggled. But it wasn’t a silly girl kind of twitter, and it sent shivers down his spine.
     “I’ve never been courted, either. But I do recall you knocked me off my feet once.”
     He chuckled. “So now what? Could we try?”
     She gripped his hands and leaned closer. “What about Claire? What if, for some reason, you would see her again.” What then? What would happen to us? Maybe you should go looking for her first before we decide.” She pulled away and got to her feet. “Look at me, Trey. Can you honestly tell me she isn’t here in this hideaway with us right now?”
     Could he? He didn’t know. How could he answer her? For longer than he could determine, her eyes locked with his—until he could no longer stand to see the questions they held. He looked away, and with that choice she fled from him.
     Though the needle-covered floor of the grove cushioned her footsteps, it was as though his heart hammered in rhythm…and it hurt. “SueAnna, wait! Please!” He had to make her understand.


     She kept running, though her eyes were clouded with tears and it was too dark to see the path. Sticker laden branches tore at her arms. She could hear him calling for her, but her heart wouldn’t let her stop. So close. They were so close to starting a life together. But then the awful truth. He couldn’t give up Claire.
     She had to get into the house before he caught up with her. She didn’t want him to know she was crying. Never again did she want him to see her tears. She would take Lily and go back to Nelson’s, then have the marriage annulled. If only she could talk to Sage before he left.
     Her breath came in gasps, but she made it. The lamp hanging on the porch wall illuminated the steps. Just a little more and she would be in the house.
   She lunged, and her foot caught on the bottom step. Her arms flailed as she tried to regain her balance. Then there was searing hot pain.