Threads of Grace–chapter 12, continued

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—
     

     
     

Friday Fiction

Threads of Grace
Chapter Six

August, 1873

     SueAnna hung the last sheet over the rope she’d managed to string from the corner of the house to the fence surrounding the yard. It sagged in the middle, but was better than having her laundry spread across the bushes and anything else that might hold a wet garment. Why hadn’t Hilda insisted on a clothesline? 
     It was still early, and a blue haze hung over the hills behind the ranch. She loved this time of morning. Later in the day the sky would be void of color from the heat and even the birds would stop their chattering. But mornings on the KIM had become a time of worship for her, and a small grove of trees close to the house her sanctuary.
    She balanced her laundry basket on her hip and side-stepped through the open kitchen door. The dough she’d set earlier was ready to be punched down, and if she hurried she’d still have at least thirty minutes to spend with the Lord, if Lily didn’t find her first. The dough folded around her fist and she smiled with satisfaction. Fresh bread was not only a staple, it was therapy. Long minutes of kneading not only removed a lot of frustration from her mind, but also made for light-as-a-feather bread. 
     One last punch, turn the dough, cover the big blue crock one last time and she was ready. She grabbed her Bible and sang to herself as she went down the steps of the wide front porch.
     

        ### 

     “You in here, SueAnna?” Trey knew she couldn’t be far—there was dough rising and the laundry basket was on the floor by the table. A small breeze fluttered the curtains at the kitchen window and the fragrance of breakfast still lingered. He poured himself a cup of coffee and stepped onto the porch.
     “SueAnna, where are you?” Why did no answer from her bother him? She didn’t need to report to him. But ever since she mentioned going back to the Nelson’s, his chest got tight when she wasn’t where he thought she should be.
     He walked down the steps and looked up just in time to see a flash of yellow disappear into the grove of cedars nestled against the hill north of the house. If that was SueAnna she either didn’t hear him or wasn’t going to answer. Well, he’d just have to find out for himself. 
     He bent to wind his way through the low hanging branches. Once inside the trees he stopped. He knew it was wrong to spy, but what did she do out here? The smell of damp cedar mixed with the fragrance of rose petals as he followed her trail deeper into the trees. He followed until a small clearing came in view, then hid behind a tree so he could observe her without being seen.
     She sat with her back against the low fork of a tree, her legs stretched out in front of her. She look like a doll someone plunked down and forgot about. 
     “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow…” Her voice was soft but it filled the small clearing she occupied. “Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost…Amen.”
     He stepped into the clearing and she looked up but showed no surprise. “Care to join me, Trey?”
     “I didn’t mean to spy on you.” Liar, you followed her here with every intention of spyin. “Mr. Covington wanted me to let you know there would be four less for supper—he’s keeping them out on the lines. Ben’s found a couple of dead cows of late. Looks like something’s been feasting on them. Boss wants to catch the critter if he can. Why didn’t you answer me when I called for you?”
He moved closer to her. “Did you know I was following you? You don’t act surprised.”
     She smiled. “You made more noise than Papa’s mules charging through the trees. I didn’t know it was you, but I did know I was being followed.”
     “And it didn’t alarm you.” What was wrong with this girl? “Don’t you know someone could sneak up on you out here and…and do you bodily harm? From now on, don’t come out here unless you tell someone.”
     “Exactly what are you saying? I can’t have some quiet time to myself without checking in with someone? Just who made you my body guard, anyway?” She pushed herself to her feet and clamped her hands on her hips. “If I’m not mistaken, you hid away in stand of trees once yourself. Why should it be any different for  me?”
     “Because, I’m  you hus…just because. You don’t have any business crawling through the brush by yourself. You never can tell what kind of animal might be in here.”
    Her eyes shone with unshed tears. “You started to tell me I couldn’t come here because you were my husband, didn’t you?” She swiped at her eyes.
    “It slipped.” He hung his head. Why couldn’t he admit his attraction to her? Because he didn’t want it to be her that he loved. That’s why. So if he didn’t want to love her, why did being so close to her make his heart trip? He forced his eyes away from her and Claire’s face rushed to his memory then disappeared with the breeze.
     “You’re thinking of Claire, aren’t you?” She stepped closer to him but he refused to look at her. “You’ll never see me as anyone but the invader—the one that spoiled your chance of happiness with the girl you really love. Go find her, Trey. Go find her and bring her back here. I’ll be gone, and you won’t ever have to tell her about me.”
     He took her arm but she pulled away.
     “I come here because I need this time with the Lord. I need someone to talk with besides a four-year-old girl. I come here because here, in my sanctuary, God wraps his arms around me and I feel necessary. I feel wanted, not because I can cook and wash clothes and clean house, but because I…I’m loved. It makes me forget I’m only an obstacle.”
     “SueAnna, please. Let me say something.” He tried to pull her to him but she twisted free.
     “You are not my husband, Trey Martin. Not in any sense of the word are we married. I am Miss Morrow to you…and the hired help. I will continue to come here when I so desire, and I will leave this ranch when the Fall work is done. I’m not staying to please you. I’m staying because Mr. Covington still needs my help. Now please…”
     This time he would not let her escape. He grabbed both shoulders and pulled her to him. She fought at first, then relaxed against him. He’d never held her before. She was so small. Claire was nearly at tall as he. Claire again. Will she always be here between us?
     “I’m not her, am I?” SueAnna pulled away and their eyes met. “I feel different to you, don’t I? Tell Mr. Covington I appreciate the message. I need to go back. Lily will be up and wonder where I am.”
     He leaned against a tree in the clearing for a long time after she left. Was it possible to love two people at the same time? When he closed his eyes he could still smell her, and feel her against him. Then Claire would peek around a memory again, like she was teasing.
     It was well after supper before he went back to the house. By then all was dark. But when he lit a lamp in the kitchen, a plate was set and beside it a fresh loaf of bread.
~~~~
Early October, 1873

     SueAnna made one last trip to the root cellar. She was proud of the gleaming jars of beans and beets on the shelves. Potatoes had been sorted and spread so they wouldn’t rot. Onions, their tops braided into ropes, hung from the wood ceiling rafters. The pumpkins would be brought in later, along with carrots and turnips. She had worked hard. Mama would have been proud.
     The house was clean, too. Windows sparkled, framed by freshly ironed curtains. Walls were scrubbed and floors polished. And Ben promised to help turn the mattresses.
    Her time at the KIM was coming to an end, and she could hardly bear to think of it. She loved this ranch, but she was no longer needed. Mr. Covington was up and getting along fine. He still hobbled on his crutch, but was able to ride again. As soon as Fall gathering was over she’d be free to go.
     The door to Mr. Covington’s study was open and she took a deep breath before daring a tentative knock. He was never anything but kind to her, but his mere presence still made her nervous. “Are you busy, sir?” She stepped inside. 
     He stood at the windows, his hands behind his back, but turned to address her. “I’m never too busy for you, SueAnna. Come stand here a bit with me. I was just watching the evening get settled for the night. Have you ever seen they sky painted as beautiful as Kansas does it.” He put his arm around her shoulders and they turned back to the windows. 
     “I’m going to miss this view.” She smiled at him. “And I’ll miss you.”
     “What are you talking about, my dear? You don’t  plan to go anywhere do you?” He moved to his desk and motioned for her to sit across from him. “Now, tell me what this is all about.” He crossed his arms on the desk and leaned her direction. 
     “This…this isn’t going to work—me and Trey being married. I told him when the Fall work was done I would take Lily back to the Nelsons and get the marriage annulled. The Bittmans made arrangements with Lorna and James that I could return at any time. And I no longer have the fear of losing Lily.”
     “Did Trey agrees to this? Did he ask you to leave?” A scowl settled deep between his eyes.
     “He didn’t ask me to leave—but neither has he asked me to stay. Trey will never love me was a wife. He still loves Claire, and I can’t compete with a ghost.” She tried to smile but her cheeks wouldn’t move. 
     “How do you know this? Has he told you he’s still in love with another woman?”
     She shook her head. “He doesn’t have to tell me. I know about Claire, so the other woman is no surprise. He can’t look at me without thinking of her. What kind of  marriage would that be?”
     “And what about you, SueAnna? Do you love him?”
     She shrugged. “I went from being never courted, to being married all at the same time. I don’t know how to know if I love him. But I don’t want him to settle for less than what he wants—and I don’t want to be the one who is less. Can you understand?”
     He nodded. “Perhaps all too well. But running away isn’t the answer, you know. Give him a chance, SueAnna. Give me time to talk with him. Perhaps I can help.” He stood and paced between the windows and his desk.
     “I don’t want him forced to be my husband. It has to be a decision he makes without interference. And it might mean he will need to go find Claire. Could you agree to that?” 
     She joined him where he stood looking across the acres and acres of range. The setting sun cast a golden glow across the hills of native grasses that reddened with the autumn.
     He clasped his hands behind his back. “Look at the sky. One minute it’s full of every color you can imagine, the next the colors have faded and it looks dark and lonely. But we know it’s just resting, and in the morning it will awaken just as riotous as it was tonight. Tomorrow is a new day. I will do what I have to do to work through this with you, even if it means allowing Trey to find Claire. But will you give him another chance? One last chance?” He pleaded.
     “I”ll stay until after Thanksgiving, then I would very much like to know I would be free to go if things haven’t changed. I love it here, Mr. Covington, but I can’t continue to live like this.”
     He put his arms around her shoulders. “Until after Thanksgiving. For now I have a little surprise. How would you like to get all dressed up and go to church tomorrow? My silly pride didn’t want to hobble in, but I think it’s time for the KIM to be seen again. And—there’s a picnic to boot. 
     She wanted to shout. Church. People. Singing. Oh, she could hardly wait. And wouldn’t Lily be tickled to wear her pretty dress again.
     Mr. Covington was right—tomorrow would be a new day.



    
     

    
   


  

Thursday’s Thread of Grace

     SueAnna knelt on the floor in front of the trunk Ben and the men had moved to her room. It was over two years ago that she helped Pa pack their wagon and head west.
     The trunk in front of her held the blankets and quilts and a few pretties her ma didn’t want broken. As she lifted each item from its hiding place, memories crept from between the folds and she swallowed against the lump in her throat. The quilts her mother made still smelled like the rose petals she insisted they save to tuck into little sachets. 
     Footsteps, then a knock on the door sent her heart skipping. This day had been full of tension and she wasn’t ready to face anyone, or field any more questions. She untangled her skirts to get to her feet, and prayed whoever was out there wouldn’t waken Lily.
     “Miss SueAnna? Could I talk with you, please?”
     Ben stood in the hallway, hat in hand. “I’m sorry to bother you at night like this.”
     “What is it, Ben? Is Mr. Covington worse?”
      “No ma’am. It ain’t the boss.” He turned the hat in his hands.
     “Then what is it? It must be important or you wouldn’t have come up here so late.” 
     “It’s Trey, ma’am. His horse came back a couple hours ago. The saddle was hangin’ sideways but Trey weren’t on him. Us men went looking for him. We thought maybe somethin’ spooked the horse and he fell off. But we can’t find him.”
     “Nowhere?” She folded her hands to stop the shaking. “Did you look in the trees? Lily said she saw him hiding in the trees. Do you know what trees she’s talking about?”
     He nodded. “That’s the last place I saw him, too, but he weren’t there. We had lanterns and we hollered but he didn’t answer. We was hopin’…well, ma’am’, what we was hopin’ is that he was here…with you.”
     She leaned against the wall. Her face was hot enough to glow, but with luck the darkened hallway would hide the evidence of her embarrassment. 
     “I bet I know where he is.” Lily’s bare feet must have muffled her approach. But here she was, Miss Libby draped over one arm, and her apron over her nightdress. 
     Oh, Lord. Would it have been so hard to keep her asleep? “Ben has already look in the trees, honey. You go back to bed, please. And please take off your apron. Since when do you sleep with an apron over your nightclothes?”
     “Since I found this.” She retrieved her shiny prize from the pocket of her apron and handed it to SueAnna. 
     “Do you mind stepping into my room so we have the light from the lantern?” 
     “No, ma’am. Just don’t want to make things look worse is all.”
     She smiled. “I doubt anyone will see us unless the men are hiding somewhere.” She stepped closer to the light and gazed at the object in her hand. “Where did you get this, Lily? Did Mr. Martin give it to you?”
     “No. I saw it all shiny in the sun and Mr. Ben said I could go see what it was and I did and I thought it was pretty and put it in my pocket. Am I in trouble?”
     “It’s Trey’s. I recognize it.” Ben scooped Lily into his arms. “Did you show this to Mr. Martin?” 
     Lily shook her head. “No. He was all cranky and I told him he couldn’t see it.”
     “There’s nothing in it but the clamps look like they’ve been pried open.” SueAnna handed it to Ben. “You say you recognize it? Was there ever a picture in it?”
     Ben sat Lily on the bed. “It was a picture of his ma. And…well, ma’am. She looked an awful lot like you.”
     “He got real mad at Ben and Ben went like this,” Lily doubled her fist and punched the side of her face. “And then Mr. Martin said he wasn’t ever going to—”
     Ben covered the girl’s mouth with his hand. “That’s enough. I thought we agreed you weren’t going to say anything.”
     Lily hung her head. “I forgotted.”
     “I don’t think she could repeat anything that would surprise me, Ben. But that’s a small problem compared to his not returning. Have you told Mr. Covington?”
     “Not yet. I was gonna check here first. I never busted in on a married couple before, but I prayed this would be the first time. Trey’s a lunk-head, that’s for sure, but I love him like a brother.”
     She laid Lily against the pillows. “You stay right here, do you hear me? You can sleep with me tonight, but I don’t want you to move from this bed.”
     Lily’s face clouded.
     “No, no crying. I don’t have time to wipe your tears. Ben and I need to go talk with Mr. Covington.”
     “But I stuck my tongue out at him  cuz he said mean things about you. He said it was your fault he couldn’t love nobody and he wasn’t ever going to sleep with you and he was all mad and I wanted him to feel bad so I went like this,” she stuck out her tongue, then clamped her hand over her mouth. “I forgotted again, didn’t I?”
     “It’s okay, little-one.” Ben pulled the covers up to her shoulders. “But you behave and stay here like your sister told you.”
     “Annie, is Mr. Martin in trouble?”
      Was he? How could she answer that? She didn’t want him hurt…or worse…if that’s the trouble she had in mind. But yes, if they found him safe they would have a lot to talk about. And no doubt, there would be trouble.
 ###
     “Where did you get this?” Ben stood on one side of his bed, SueAnna on the other and Fred Thayer at the foot. Adam was surrounded…or trapped. He didn’t know which.
     “Lily found it.” Ben retold the happenings of the day.
     “But when you left him, he was okay?” 
     Ben shrugged. “I slugged him on the chin, but other than that he was fine. Just mad.”
     “I think you all better sit down. I’ve got a very long story to tell you. You have to know this so you can understand why you can’t find Trey. I don’t think anything happened to him. I think he’s chosen to disappear for awhile.”
     SueAnna’s face was wet with tears when he finished. “I’m so sorry I came here. It’s my fault he will never get to see Claire—”
     “Nonsense. Trey knew about Claire when he agreed to Bittman’s conditions. You haven’t done anything wrong no matter how ugly he’s gotten with you. He’s really angry with me, you know. You’re just the one he can hurt the most right now.”
     “Do you think he took off to find her anyway? Even if you told him he couldn’t?” 
     “That’s exactly what I would think if his horse hadn’t come back. You say you supplied line four today, Ben? Did you recheck he cabin there?”
     “I didn’t, but Slim did. Only thing there was Dan and Jake’s stuff. They’re ridin’ that line right now.”
     “I know of one spot, but it’s a long shot. You say he was in the grove of cedars above the ranch—the ones on the bluff?”
     Ben nodded. “I shouldn’t have hit him, sir. He was good and mad.”
     “Or maybe you should have hit him harder.” He smiled at the red-headed cowboy. “Don’t feel guilty. Trey’s made his own choices all the way through this situation. I’d just hope he’d be man enough to take the responsibility for them. Doc, you mind getting me a pencil and some paper? If he’s where I think he is, you’ll need a map. And pull me up a bit so I can see what I’m doing.”
     Doc handed him the paper and Ben pulled him higher onto his pillows. “Okay, now gather around so you all can see this. If you go into the grove from the north and go all the way through you will come to a series of rocks that look like steps.” He glanced at Ben. “You know where this is?”
     Ben nodded.
     Good. Follow those rocks below the bluff to the bottom. But watch your step. It’s steep, and rattlers love the rocks. Now, when you get to the bottom you’ll need to turn around and face the north again. About fifteen to twenty feet above your head there will be a small cave opening. You’ll have to look closely.”
    “But could he get there after the sun went down? Ben said it was dark when his horse came back.” SueAnna’s eyes were full of fear.
     “Yeah, but it was around noon when I saw him last,” Ben said. “He would have had plenty of time to snoop around if he was wantin’ to hide.”
     “Did he say anything when you saw him, Ben?”
     “He said plenty, that’s why I punched him. I called him a dope for the way he was talkin’ about SueAnna.”
     “A dope he is, but we’ve still got to find him. You’ll have to scramble up some rocks to get to the opening”
     “Couldn’t we find this place on the way down? Seems like a lot of trouble to go all the way to the bottom then up again.”
     “Maybe, if you ever have to find it again. But it’s near impossible to see it from the top side. Just do what I say this first time, and hope there won’t be a second. Once you’re in the cave there’s two paths. The one to the left leads to a larger room and inside there you will find a lantern, matches, cot, bedding and whatever a person would need to hole up for awhile. Should even be some canned food.”
     “You’ve been there before, I take it.” 
     “Lots of times, Ben. I never wanted anyone else to know about it, but this  might be our only chance of finding him.”
    “What happens if he’s in there but went to the right?”
     “If you go to the right you can become lost real fast. It’s like a maze. I followed it once and thought I might never see daylight again. Get the men and some lanterns—and your guns. Better take a wagon as far as the grove, too, just in case he’s hurt and can’t ride out. If he’s hurt, take him to line four and send someone back for Doc.”
     “It’d save time if I went with them now, Adam.”
     “No, I need you here, Fred. Someone has to keep me from going crazy.”
    Ben walked to the door and SueAnna followed.
    “You best stay here, SueAnna. This is no job for a lady.”
    She shook her head. “I know this sounds silly, but no matter how it looks, or what has been said, Trey Martin is my husband.”
    “But we’ll be riding…fast.” Ben joined the opposition.
    “I can ride and I can keep up.”
     Adam raised himself on one elbow. “Is his horse still tacked?”
     “No, but he’s in the barn. Only he don’t like nobody riding him but Trey. She’ll never stay on top of him.”
    “I told you Ben—I can ride and I’ll keep up.” She stomped in front of him.
    Adam chuckled. “Stubborn isn’t she, boy? Best follow her or she’ll beat you out there.”
    As soon as they left, he fell back to the pillow. “I can’t lose him, Fred. I just found him.
 ###
     
     

Wednesday Full Of Words

This story will never get finished if I don’t add a day now and then.

Threads of Grace

Chapter Four

     Doc slapped his forehead. “You told him? You told that boy you might be the Pa he was looking for? Why? Why would you tell him before you were certain? Can’t stand to be miserable alone, can you?”
     Adam propped himself on his elbows. “I had no intention of saying anything, Fred. Not a word. But the boy came in without knocking. Said he’d thought it over and even if it cost him his job he was going to go look for this Claire-girl. I couldn’t just let him leave. Not with him being—”
     “Married? And yes, I know. Sometimes I think the only smart one on this ranch is Lily. She might as well have set off a keg of dynamite with her announcement. I left a bunch of shamed-face cowboys pushing away from the table before they got their fill of breakfast.”
     “Lily told?” He shook his head. “Lots of truth in that old adage, isn’t there?”
     “What old adage would that be?”
     “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
     Doc nodded. “What baffles me the most is why there was deception in the first place. I’ll admit the boy plunged into something he wasn’t at all ready for, but you’ll have to take part of the blame for that. Don’t need to tell you what a mess it is now.”
     “And I don’t know how to clean it up. I thought by telling Trey the truth it would help.”
     Doc stood and fluffed the pillow behind Adam’s head. “You were wrong. In the first place, you don’t know if it is the truth. Now this young man has a whole pile of muck on his shoulders just because you wanted your own barn cleaned.”
     “What’s that supposed to mean?”
     Doc pointed his finger at him. “You’ve been fretting about the way you two look alike for a long time, haven’t you? And now, because one little girl happened to mention it, you jumped way ahead and decided it was time to come clean. I may be a doctor, but I’ve had my share of muck throwing in my day. Cleaned many a barn before I decided I’d rather heal people than fling flop.”
     Adam closed his eyes. He had no idea where this was going, but for sure the man wouldn’t shut up until he let him have his say. But he didn’t want to hear it.
     “One thing I learned early. You clean out stalls every day and nothing can pile up. Spread it around and it can even help things grow. You wait and unload it all at once it begins to heat up, then it smokes, and first thing you know it’s killed everything underneath it. I don’t know what all you told that young man, but I’ve an idea it went on pretty hot. You’ll be lucky if the kid doesn’t run. You shattered all sorts of dreams all with one loaded tongue.”
     “Was he at breakfast?”
     “Until Lily made her little proclamation. He left in a hurry once those men got to asking questions and giving him thunder.”
     “Where is he now?”
     Doc shrugged. “Have no idea.”
     Adam wiped his hand across his eyes. He hadn’t meant to hurt the boy. Just the opposite, in fact. Why had he thought Trey might even be glad to know he could be his pa? Isn’t what what he wanted? Hadn’t a quirk of fate brought him to the KIM? 
     “And SueAnna? Did she leave, too?”
     “SueAnna left the room, not the ranch. Where would you expect her to go, Adam?” He turned at the door. “I think you’d better have some time alone to think this through. I’ll be downstairs. Ring the bell by the bed if you need anything.”
     How long had it been since he allowed tears? Images of Kathleen, her black hair shining in the sun like a raven’s wing, her arms stretching toward him as her wagon careened away. “I’ll find you, I promise. I won’t ever stop looking. Be Strong. I’m coming.”
   All the promises he’d made. All the promises broken. One letter. He’d allowed one piece of communication from the man who hated him stop his pursuit for his one true love. He’d never sought love again. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t. 
     But what about Trey? He’d given those young ranch hands an assignment. Stupid assignment, it was. And now, because Trey followed through, he was kept from ever knowing if his girl was still waiting. Trey said his mother never stopped expecting him to come for her. Was Claire waiting for his son? 
     His leg throbbed, and he welcomed the pain. He needed to hurt. He’d lost his lover. Possibly lost the son he’d hoped he’d found. He might as well lose his leg, too.

###
     Trey dropped the horse’s reins and stumbled to the stand of red cedars on the bluff above the main house. He wound his way among the trees until he came to a small clearing then sat down with his back against an old stump. He’d found this place one afternoon when he was looking for stray cows. It was hot, and the trees gave the only shade for miles around. He visited it often since then. The ground stayed damp beneath the trees and when his boots crushed the dead-fall branches and needles the smell of fresh cedar filled his nostrils. 
     He crossed his legs at the ankles and stared at the picture in the gold locket clutched in his hand. His hands shook as he pried the picture from the clamps holding it in place, then threw the locket as far as he could. So, Adam Covington thought he might be his pa? Oh, Ma. I’m so glad you aren’t alive. He hated him, and it would break her heart to see him so angry, but he didn’t want anything that reminded him of the man who’d deserted her, and left him fatherless in the doing. How could a man just stop looking? So he had a letter saying they were dead. Wouldn’t he want to know for himself? 
    All these years of watching his ma patch everything she wore because there wasn’t enough money to buy fabric to make new. She even cut down some of her old dresses to make his shirts, and the boys at school laughed at him until he got big enough to fight. 
     Not one penny had ever been sent from this so-called grandfather. Covington was probably lying about that, too. His ma never once mentioned her pa. Only his. And how he would be so proud when he found them.
     Every morning since he could remember he was up early to help Mr. Hudson with the chores. Even though he was the preacher, Hudson had a small farm of his own and was willing to help him and Ma with theirs. When he came home from school in the evenings, Mr. Hudson would be waiting for him with more chores. Only the occasional outings with Claire and the Hudson family broke the monotony of hot, sticky summer days of labor. 
    He ran down the lane in a thunderstorm once, no shoes or jacket to protect him against the pelting rain, because Ma was sure she’d seen his pa waving for her. Only when he got to the end, it was just an old limb that had split partway off a bush and was wagging in the wind. 
     And all this time, Covington was rich. He had land, cattle and the finest house you could want. He paid men to work for him, while he and Ma didn’t have money enough for groceries most of the time. 
     If only he hadn’t tried to find him. And now, just because his name was Martin, and someone thought they looked alike,  Covington’s conscience got the best of him. He’d taken love away from Ma, and now he took it away from him and Claire, too. And to top it all off—the men knew about him and SueAnna.
     He clenched his jaw. SueAnna. It was all because of her he could never call Claire his wife. He would never know how it felt to kiss her lips or hold her close to him again. All this time they’d waited to be married—now it would never happen and it was Adam Covington and SueAnna’s doing. 
     What was done was done, he supposed. If he tried to back out now he wouldn’t be any better than Covington—and he hated his boss. So he might be married. Okay, so he was for sure married. But nobody could ever make him love her—nobody.
     He rose to his feet and shook his fist toward heaven, then screamed until he had no voice left. Exhausted, he slid to the ground and sat with his knees drawn up against him. His head hurt and his chest was so tight he couldn’t take a deep breath. This isn’t how he thought it would be if he ever found his pa. He flopped to his stomach, buried his head in his arms and wept great gulping sobs. 
     “Are you hiding, Mr. Martin?” 
      Trey lifted his head and stared into two blue eyes as big as saucers. 
     “When I hide my face I pretend no one can see me. Is that what you’re doing?” Lily was on her knees beside him.
     “No, that isn’t what I’m doing. What are you doing here, anyway? Did you follow me?” He sat up and brushed at his face. If there were tears remaining she would most likely blab about it the next time everyone was at the table.
     “I’m helping Ben deliver supplies.”
     “If you’re helping him, what are you doing here? Anyone else come along with you?”
     “When we was riding by the trees I saw something shiny and Ben said I could see what it was.” She patted the pocket of her apron. “I got it in here, but I’m not going to show you because you’re cranky.”
    “I don’t even want to see it, so there.” Well, Trey. That sounded grown-up. He stood and dusted the cedar needles from his pants. 
     “Where’s Ben, anyway? He should know better than to let you wander around here by yourself. What if a bear comes along and eats you?”
     “A bear wouldn’t eat me. There’s no bears here. Is there?” She sidled closer to him. 
     “No, there ain’t bears here, Lily. Mr. Martin is just tryin’ to scare you.”
     Trey jumped at Ben’s voice.
     “And lookee there. Did you see him jump? He done scared himself.” Ben laughed and grasped Lily’s hand. “Come on, Little Miss, we better be heading back. Be lunch time soon and we don’t want SueAnna to worry where you are.”
     “You can tell Miss Morrow I won’t be eating lunch…or supper.”
     Ben shook his head. “No, Trey. If you want her to know somethin’, then you talk to her. Ain’t anyone around here what’s goin’ to be a party to you actin’ like she’s the hired girl. Not since they know the truth.”
    “There isn’t one of them that knows the truth. I was forced into this, but I don’t have to like it…or her.”
     “The truth is, Trey…nobody forced you into this and  you know it. I shoulda listened to Lily, here, and married her myself. At least I’d treat her right.”
     Trey sneered. “Be my guest, Mister.”
     Ben widened his stance. “You don’t mean that the way it sounds, do you? Somebody needs to take a whip to your backside. I don’t know what took place between you and Mr. Covington, but whatever it was ain’t SueAnna’s fault. You always got to be the biggest, don’t you? Only you ain’t bigger than Covington so you’ll take it out on your wife.” He walked away, pulling Lily with him.
     “What did she tell you, anyway?” Trey screamed after them. “That I’m an ogre? You heard Lily this morning. My dear little wife says I cant sleep with her until we get babies. Now that was news for the fellas, wasn’t it? I imagine they got a real kick out of that one. Well, you tell them this—I have no intention of sleeping with her, now or ever.”
     Ben dropped Lily’s hand and took two long strides toward Trey. “Don’t flatter yourself, pal. You ain’t the one them boys is thinking about. Not one of them understands why you’d want to keep our marriage to someone as sweet as SueAnna a secret. You’re a dope, Trey Martin. You don’t deserve her.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
     Trey followed and grabbed Ben’s shoulders to turn him face to face. “I don’t deserve her? I suppose you do. What I don’t deserve is spending the rest of my life being hooked up with somebody I don’t even like while my true love, my only love, is waiting for me to come for her. You think you’re big enough to call me a dope? You might be taller, but you ain’t bigger.”
     Ben shrugged Trey’s hand away. “Big isn’t what’s on the outside, Trey. I could be seven feet tall, weigh three hundred pounds and pound you to a pulp with one hand but that wouldn’t make be big. Big is what you are on the inside. Big is who you are when nobody else is lookin’. Big is taking responsibility for your own actions and not blamin’ everyone else when you act like a…like a first class dope. And you can spell that in capital letters if you know how.
    Trey jumped in front of Ben before he could walk off again. He clenched his fists. “You don’t know what it’s like—”
     Ben’s fist connected with Trey’s jaw. “I’ve heard it once, and I ain’t listenin’ again. Now you put this in your stupid head to think about. SueAnna and Lily are orphans. Just like me. Their Ma and Pa ain’t never comin’ back and they don’t know where their brother might be. You stay out here and feel sorry for yourself, but it don’t hold no water with me. I’d hit you again but it ain’t worth the skinned knuckles.”
     Trey blinked as the two walked away. The tall redheaded cowboy stooped to the hold the little girl’s hand while she skipped along beside him.
    And when they got to the edge of the clearing, Lily turned around and stuck her tongue out at him.
### 

     
       

     
     
     
     

Threads of Grace

Threads of Grace
Continued

    Doc leaned closer to Adam and took a deep sniff. “Nope that isn’t it.”
     “That isn’t what? What kind of doctor are you going around sniffing people like you were some kind of dog?”
     “Trying to figure out how you got that little girl to sneak you a jug of apple jack. Thought you must be drunk.”
     “How long have we known one another, Abe?”
     “Too long. And don’t ask me what kind of first impression you made. If I recall, Abe Rawlings had you bent over a table while he pulled cactus thorns out of your bony rear end. You howled like a banshee when Adam poured rum over your behind so you wouldn’t get infection.”
     Adam smiled. “And Alice screamed in the background because she was saving it for her Christmas cakes. Yeah, I remember. But you know I don’t drink, so stop your sniffing.”
     Doc plunked into the nearest chair and braced his foot against the side of the bed. “Tell me this whopper of a tale one more time. If it matches, then I’ll know you’re telling the truth.”
     “It’s no whopper. I named this ranch after the only woman I’ll ever love—Kathleen Isabella Martin—KIM—and now that little Lily-girl voiced a question I’ve had since the day I first laid eyes on and heard the name Trey Martin.”
     “The name is a coincidence. Surely you know that. Didn’t you say you had a letter from this woman’s pa that said both she and your child died? You best leave her in her grave, Adam.”
     He attempted to turn to his side but pain restricted him. Doc was the best friend he had. Couldn’t he understand how difficult it was to confess his long-unspoken questions? Did he see the resemblance and not want to admit it?
     “Fred, what if he lied. Kathleen’s pa was determined to keep us apart. Wouldn’t he be even more determined to keep me from our child? What if Trey Martin is my son, and I’m treating him like a hired hand? What if Kathleen is still alive?”
    “That’s a lot of what-ifs, my good friend. Trey isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so you’ve time to address this whole mess later. For now, you need to rest. I’m not cutting you any quarter, Adam. You want to keep that leg, your behave yourself.” He walked to the door.
     “Wait.”
     “No more, Adam. I don’t want to hear any more until I’ve chewed and swallowed this piece of news.”
     “But—”
     The click of the door announced the departure of his audience. If that was how he wanted it, then fine. He’d just have to find out the hard way that Trey and SueAnna were married. Likely Miss Lily would announce it soon enough.

   ###  
    Dawn’s pink fingers had just punched a hole in the morning mist that lay over the hills when SueAnna made her way down the stairs and into the still-dark kitchen. What would this day bring? Was it her imagination, or had Trey become more withdrawn each day? She didn’t expect him to love her. But now he seemed angry, and was very short tempered with Lily. She didn’t want him to get the wrong idea, but she would try harder to please him. And she’d instructed Lily to stay out of his way.
    She rushed to get everything done in time and when she rang the bell for breakfast the sun had just peeked its full face over the hills. Trey was the last one to the table. If his neck were any stiffer he could use it for a flag pole. She bit her tongue to keep from smiling. How many ways could one man manage to ignore a woman? Wouldn’t the men be—
     “Annie, I needs help.”
     One by one the men stopped talking and all heads turned to the doorway. There stood Lily. She wore the blue dress Naomi Bittman had given her, her hair piled on top of her head, though SueAnna could not imagine what held it up there. And she was barefoot.
     “Oh, Lily,” SueAnna groaned.
     “Why, Miss Lily.” Ben scooted his chair away from the table and stood. “Won’t you come and join us?” He motioned to the empty chair beside him.
     “I can’t come in.” She twisted from side to side
     “Lily, please come in a sit down.” SueAnna trembled. Ben grinned, but Trey had a scowl deep enough to get stuck.
     “I can’t because I couldn’t reach the buttons and my skin shows.”
     Rough hands covered grins.
     SueAnna moved to the girl, buttoned the dress, tied the sash and gave her a pat on her bottom. “Now sit and behave yourself,” she whispered.
     Lily didn’t flinch but walked with her head held high to be seated next to Ben.
     “That surely is a pretty dress you have on today, Miss Lily. You goin’ somewhere special?” Ben winked at her as he tucked a napkin around her neck.
     Lily giggled.”You seed this before, Ben. This is the dress I wore when Annie and Mr. Martin got married. Don’t you remember?”
     SueAnna dared to look at Trey. His eyes shot arrows are her, and she would bet they were poisoned.
     “Hey, Trey. You been holding out on us?”
     “When were you going to tell us, boy?”
     “Does Covington know?”
     “Why are you still sleeping in the bunkhouse. Don’t you know that’s no way to treat a wife?”
     Lily pushed loose hair from her face and an ivory comb fell and landed in her plate. “Annie says Mr. Martin can’t sleep with her ’til they get babies. Can I have a biscuit please.”
     Forks stopped mid-air and eyes roved between Trey and SueAnna. 
     She covered her face with her hands and raced from the dining room. She took the steps two at a time and flung herself on the bed. She couldn’t be mad at Lily. She was just a little girl. But would Trey ever believe she didn’t put her up to such an announcement?She burrowed her head into her pillow and sobbed.
     “Miss SueAnna. It ain’t fittin’ for me to come in your room, so would you step out here in the hallway so we could talk?”
     Ben’s voice startled her. Had he heard her crying? She dried her eyes and stepped out of her room. “Did Trey send you?” She wrapped her arms around her middle.
     “No, ma’am. I done sent myself. I…well, you know Lily didn’t mean no harm.”
     “I do know that, Ben. But what must those men think of me? And what about Trey? I can’t go back down there and face them.”
     “You don’t have to face nobody. Trey, he lit out like the prairie was on fire. And the men…well, them men is just as worried about seein’ you as you are them. They done left and went about their business.”
     “Where’s Lily?”
    “Lily, she’s finishin’ her breakfast. Then if you don’t mind, I’ll take her with me. I got supplies to deliver to line four and she can ride along in the wagon. Probably should change her clothes, though.” He winked. “A girl shouldn’t be ridin’ a dirty ole’ wagon in her weddin’ dress. Got a fence to fix around the corral, too. I’ll watch her.”
    “Lots of fences need mending around here, don’t they Ben?”
    He sighed. “Yeah, I reckon so. But you gotta find all the places that are broke before you can fix ’em. Fix just one hole and it still leaves more for the critters to crawl through.”
    SueAnna mulled this over. Ben was right. You had to know where the holes were before you could mend them. 
     Right now there was a great big hole in her heart. And nobody seemed to care.
     
     
     

     
     
     

Thread of Grace

Chapter Three
continued

     “Boo!”
     Adam jumped, and coffee sloshed over the sides of his cup. “Lily, where are you?”
     Eyes as black as the buttons on Miss Libby’s face peeked over the side of the bed. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I? I just wanted to see if Miss Libby was ready to come play with me is all. I sorry. Are you going to tattle-tale on me?”
     He sat his cup on the tray beside him and patted the bed. “Can you come up here so I don’t have to twist my neck to see you? I won’t tell. Promise.” 
     She hoisted herself over the edge of the mattress and plopped beside him. It hurt like thunder when his leg bounced against the pillow propping it up, but it was a small price to pay for such attention. 
     “I thought you would be eating. Does your sister know where you are?”
     One chubby finger covered his lips. “I’m ‘posed to be staying out of the way.”
    He moved her finger. “You can stay out of the way in here with me. Now, are you going to take Miss Libby away, or can the three of us have a nice visit?”
     She hunched her shoulders and giggled. “I’m not ‘posed to say so many words, or ask questions, or,” she gagged, “do like that when I have bad words. So I need to ask Miss Libby what to do so bad words don’t run out of my mouth and I can’t get smart ‘cuz I can’t ask questions. That’s why I need Miss Libby. But if you won’t tattle-tale, then I can ask you questions, can’t I?”
     “Let’s make a deal.”
     She hung her head. “That’s what Annie told me. I don’t like deals so I’ll just take Miss Libby with me to talk about it.”
     “Will you come back and see me?”
     “If Annie tells me to stay out of the way, I’ll come here. But Miss Libby will want to come and play again, I think. Is that okay?”
     He patted her cheek. “That would be very okay. But now, why do you have such a frown? That makes your forehead all wrinkled, you know. What if it froze like that?”
     She rubbed her forehead. “It wrinkles up when I’m thinking.”
     “You must be thinking very, very hard.”
     She nodded. “Want to know what I’m thinking?”
     “Do you want to tell me?”
     “It’s a question.”
     He put his finger over his lips. “I won’t tell.”
     “Why do you and Mr. Martin both have a blue circle around your black eyes? And when you smile there’s a little hole that gets in your cheek, just like his. Only he don’t smile very much. Ben smiles a lot but he don’t look like you when he smiles. My brother, Peter, he use to do things what made him look like my papa, only now Papa is dead and I think Peter got all deaded, too. Why do boys look like their papas? Are you Mr. Martin’s Papa? Only you gots a different name, don’t you? If Annie and Mr. Martin ever get babies will they have different names, too?”
     Was it the questions, or the answers they begged to reveal that caused his chest to tighten. It hurt to breathe.”
     “Oh, and you know what else? I sawed a picture of a pretty lady in Annie’s room, and she looks like Annie, don’t she? And she looks like Mr. Martin, too. Well, kind of she looks like Mr. Martin only he’s a boy.” She giggled through her fingers she clamped over her mouth. “Boys don’t look like girls do they?”
     Please, Lord. I need help.
     There was a knock on door, and  Lily climbed over him and wiggled herself under the covers as close as she could get. “Don’t tell.”
     “Come in, whoever you are.” It took more energy than he had to yell the invitation.
     SueAnna stepped into the room and stopped at the foot of his bed. “It’s me, Mr. Covington. I’m so sorry to bother you but have you by any chance seen Lily?” She folded her hands across her stomach. 
     How he wished he could tell her no. If only he had told the little girl to leave before he allowed her to stay. Had others seen the likeness between him and Trey? Had they noticed but been too polite to remark. Had Hilda seen the resemblance? He’d never known her to withhold any opinion.
     And then there was SueAnna herself. Standing in front of him, her dark eyes wide with question, her hands folded as though they were protecting something deep inside her. But Trey said they had never—
     “Mr. Covington? Are you okay? Should I get Hilda?”
     He nodded. “Please.” Then turned his head toward the small lump squished against his side. He couldn’t trust himself to utter one word, but prayed she’d understand. 
     “Lily? I see you, sweetheart. I think it’s time for you to say goodnight and come with me. We’ll tell Hilda that Mr. Covington would like to see her.”
     “Is you mad?”
     Adam shook his head and willed SueAnna to understand his unspoken meaning.
     “No, I’m not mad. But you and I will do dishes for Miss Hilda.”
     He mouthed his thank you, then closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief when the click of the door announced their departure. He needed Doc, and Hilda would summon him without a lot of questions. 
     How could this be happening? He chest tightened again and pain shot to his jaw. What was keeping Hilda? He swung his legs over the side of the bed, and groaned in the doing. If only he could get to the door he could yell for help. Had they forgotten him?
     Oh, God. Please don’t let me die until I talk to Doc Thayer. Please.

### 
     “You do know you’re too ornery to die, don’t you?”
     Adam blinked as he tried to focus on the blurry image bending over him. “That you, Fred? Wish you’d stop moving so I could get a good look.”
     “You keeping company with another doctor I don’t know about? Fickle, that’s what.”
     “Believe me, if there was anyone else in the country I’d have sent for them. You need a shave.”
     Doc rubbed his chin. “And I suppose my having whiskers is the reason you decided you could pick up your bed and walk?”
     “Is that what happened? It wasn’t my heart? You sure?” He tried to prop himself on his elbows but fell back with a moan. “I hurt everywhere.”
     “Course you do. You falling on that broken leg drove them bones clear through your skin. You could still die, you know?”
     “May be for the best if I did, Fred.” He clenched his teeth but even that made his head pound. 
     “Want me to take behind the barn and shoot you?”
     “I suppose you think this is funny. How would you like to lay in this bed day after day. The most entertainment I’ve had is talking to a rag doll.”
     Thayer leaned back in his chair and took off his glasses. “No, it isn’t funny. Wasn’t funny. And going to get worse.” He wiped his glasses with his bandana. “Want to know what your silly idea of walking is going to cost you?”
     “More than you’re worth, I’ll guarantee you that.”
     “Your life, if you’re not careful.”
     “My what? And who will take the blame for that? You aim to tell people I killed myself if I up and die on you?”
     Doc hooked his glasses behind his ears. “No, I intend to tell them that you were too hard-headed, decided to do what you’d been warned not to do, and you dying was the result. Then I’d let them each throw a handful of dirt on you and walk away.”
     “You wouldn’t no more walk away than I can walk away.”
     Fred squeezed his shoulder. “You’re right, my friend. But I’m going to say this only once because it’s more than I ever wanted to utter your direction. You ready to listen?”
     Adam shrugged. “I have a choice?”
     “Look at me. I’m telling you this straight. You’ve ruined any chance of you walking on that leg any time in the near future.”
     “You mean you didn’t fix it?”
     “Best I could. But, Adam, your may never walk on it again. You now have open wounds from the bones that pierced your skin. I’ve done everything I can. Now we pray you won’t get infection, or—”
     “Or…what? Spit it out.”
     “You get infection in that leg, and we may have to amputate.” He wiped his hands across his face.
     “Cut my leg off? All because I tried to get help?”
     “All because you weren’t patient enough to wait for help. So far you haven’t run fever, and that’s a good thing.”
     “What do you mean so far?” 
     “Adam Covington, you’ve been laying here moaning and groaning for three days, that’s what I mean by so far. At least while you were unconscious, you were quiet. I’m telling you now, the only way we’ll save that leg is for you to do absolutely everything you’re told to do. You follow orders…to the letter. For now, we wait. Healing takes time, my good friend. And right now it’s obvious you have more time than good sense. Time, Adam. Only time will tell.”
     He turned his head away from Doc and closed his eyes. “Go away. Leave me alone for awhile. Have Hilda make you some coffee or go for a walk…anything. Just leave me alone.”
     “Hilda’s gone. But that little SueAnna gal is doing a right fine job. Ain’t a—”
     “Then have her do it, but just leave. Now. I need to be alone.”
     He waited until Doc’s footsteps echoed down the hall before he opened his eyes. This had to be a dream, or a nightmare. But no, everything was in place like it should be. The head of the bed on the east wall, flanked by two floor-to-ceiling windows. The familiar dark leather chair with its matching ottoman positioned in front of the fireplace on the north wall…
     The door clicked open and soft footsteps approached the bed.
     He closed his eyes again. “I thought I told you to leave me alone, Doc. Please.”
     “I’m not Doc. Shh. Don’t tell.”
     “Lily was so close her breath was hot against his ear.” Miss Libby and I talked it over and she said we needed to come and make you feel better. But you can’t see me ’til you open your eyes. Are you hiding? Sometimes when I want to hide, I close my eyes and pretend no one can see me.” Lily giggled “Miss Libby knows a lot of stuff. Do you want to hear what she knows?”
     “Do you think she could tell me why I tried to get out of this bed when I had a bum leg?”
     Lily held the doll close to her ear for a bit, then sat her on the pillow beside Adam’s head. “She says you got out of bed because you weren’t ‘bedient and…” she put the doll to her ear again “And she says you are hard-headed but she didn’t really say it. She heard Doc Thayer tell Mr. Martin but she thought you should know.”
     Adam grinned but when footsteps and voices approached he put his fingers over his lips and Lily wiggled underneath the bed
     Doc Thayer entered the room, followed by SueAnna and Trey. “Are you in pain? We heard you talking—”
     “I though I told you to leave.” He waved his finger between SueAnna and Trey. “I suppose he has you outside the door just to spy.”
     SueAnna plunked her hands on her hips. “I was looking for my little sister and thought she might have managed to sneak in here. That’s why I heard you talking and summoned for help. I understand you think we were too slow the last time.”
     Well, this one had spunk. And he thought Hilda was the one to be reckoned with. “No, I haven’t seen your little sister. And for your information, I talk to myself when I need good company. Now would you all please leave me alone.”
     SueAnna bit her bottom lip. “Of course, I don’t think she would want to bother you. She knows better, you know. Why, Lily wouldn’t even think of not being obedient. But just in case you do see her, would you please tell her that she has bread and butter waiting for her in the kitchen.” She turned to leave. “Oh, and you might tell her that Miss Libby is missing.”
     The doll. Why hadn’t he thought of the doll. “Lily, you can come out now. They’re gone. But I’m afraid they saw Miss Libby. You better go to the kitchen.”
     Lily took her doll and draped her over one arm. “Want to know what else Trey said?”
     Yes, he did. But he wouldn’t ask this little one to reveal one more piece of information. 
     “No, I think you best not tell me any more right now. I’m very tired. But when you get to the kitchen, would you tell Doc Thayer to come see me in about half-an-hour?”
     She stopped at the door. “I will. But I don’t really think you are trying to hide something. There wasn’t anything under the bed.”
###

     
     
     
   
     
     

     
     
     
   
     
 

     

     

Threads of Grace

Chapter Three


   Trey sat his box of belongings on the floor outside Mr. Covington’s room. He’d risk the tongue lashing he’d likely get from Hilda so he could make one last effort to get himself out of this mess. Though it was unlikely his boss had ever loved a woman, he’d surely understand his need to at least try to make things right with Claire. And since he and SueAnna never…well, it wouldn’t be like she was a used woman. She’d not have trouble finding another husband to care for her and Lily. 
     “Who’s out there? That you, Miss Lily? You may come in, you know.”
     Trey peeked into the room. “It’s me, Sir. Wonder if I might talk with you.”
     “Come on in. How long you been standing there? You spying on me?”
     “No, Mr. Covington.” He stepped into the room and bit the side of his cheek. This was going to be much more difficult than he’d imagined. In the first place, how serious could a conversation be with a rag doll layin’ on his boss’s chest? No wonder he was worried about somebody spyin’ on him.
     “You must have something on your mind. Spit it out.”
     The more he tried to explain his need to return to Claire, the more the muscle in Covington’s jaw rippled. The man was likely to grind his teeth plumb out of his mouth before he’d get an answer. 
     “Why did you marry this girl if you knew you had another one waiting for you?” He pounded both his fists against the mattress and the doll on his chest jiggled to one side but was quickly righted and given a pat on her back. 
     Did this big man realize what he’d just done? It would please Lily, but it sure looked silly. It was hard to keep a straight face but for certain this was no time to be smilin’.
      “Why didn’t Ben marry her? Or is this Claire-girl someone you just decided would make a handy excuse?”
     “No excuse, Mr. Covington—a reason.”
      “Uh-huh. A reason. So let me get this straight. You can’t be a husband to SueAnna because you maybe have another lady waiting somewhere. And in the meantime, you want me to give you permission to go riding off into the sunset while SueAnna takes on Hilda’s responsibilities. And, of course if you don’t find this Miss Hudson, then you’ll come riding right back here and take up with the girl you’ve married as though nothing has happened. 
     “If I leave, Mr. Covington, I’ll not come back…even if I don’t find Claire waiting for me.”
     “And if you stay, you have no intention of being a husband to SueAnna.”
     He nodded. “We ain’t really married. Me and SueAnna never…we never…we didn’t…” His face burned and the words wanted to stick in his throat. His ma would be ashamed he uttered such private things. 
     “I don’t care to hear what you did or didn’t do, young man. You stood before a preacher and took a vow, did you not?”
     He hung his head. “Yes, Sir, except—”
     “Except, nothing, Trey. I can’t keep you from riding out of here. But I promise you this—you will regret every minute you waste chasing after a maybe when you have the real thing within your grasp. While I can’t keep you here, I would hope you’d at least be man enough to tell your wife—and yes, she is your wife—why you’re leaving. Now go away and let me rest. Oh, and by the way, you best let Hilda know your plans. And good luck with that one.”
     Trey straightened. “You’ve been more than good to me, Mr. Covington. I’ll stay—for now—but I aim to sleep in the bunkhouse.”
     “Where you sleep is up to you and SueAnna. I don’t care to be informed if and when you change you mind.”
     He shrugged. “Guess I hadn’t planned to announce nothin’.”
    
~~ 

     “Then you understand why I need to stay in the bunkhouse? It has…well, it isn’t you, Miss Morrow. I just wouldn’t want to…well, to bother you at all. You know, up early, in late—” It sounded lame even to his ears.  
     “Actually, Mr. Martin, I’m quite relieved that you have no intention of sharing my bed. How you explain it to others will be your business. I feel no need to make our decisions public.”
     “Yeah, well what about Lily?”
     “What about Lily? You knew before you ever agreed to Mr. Bittman’s proposition that Lily would be a part of the arrangement.”
     “But she talks all the time. What’re you going to do if she announces our business.”
     “I will talk with her if the need arises. Can you even begin to understand what Lily has had to face in her four short years? I was eleven-years-old when Lily was born, and my mother never left her bed after that. I was 12 when she died. I’m the only Ma Lily has ever known. Then Pa died, and that left my brother Peter and I did our best to be both Ma and Pa.”
     “Lorna mentioned a brother. Where is he?”
     “I wish I could answer that question. When he left Elmwood, he was going to go back to Illinois to try to find work and purchase a place so we’d all have a home of our own again. That was three months ago.”
     “And you’ve heard nothing? Maybe he’s not planning to come back.”
     She crossed her arms across her middle. “You think I haven’t thought of that very thing? Peter is four years older than me. To be 20 and have the responsibility of two younger sisters, when he’s ready to take a wife, is a bit much, wouldn’t you agree?”
     “Did he have a girl?”
     “Not that he ever talked about. It’s just that he was old enough to be on his own without the the burden of caring for us. What about you?”
     His heart plunged. Was she asking whether he had a girl? He had no intention of telling her about Claire. There was no need. He wasn’t leaving. He just wanted her to know he wouldn’t be—
     “Was that question too difficult?” She cocked her head to one side.
     “What about me?”
     “You asked what I was going to do should Lily choose an inopportune time to announce you were not sharing my room. I’m asking you…what are you going to do?”
     “Same as you, I reckon. Cross that bridge when we get to the water.”

###
     
     Lily bounced on the side of the bed. “And I have a big bed, and it has a pink quilt, and Hilda says maybe Mr. Martin will build a bed for Miss Libby, only I’m not going to ask him. I’ll ask Ben. And there’s a big chest with drawers that can hold my things, only I told Hilda I don’t got many things, but she said that will change now that we’re living with Mr. Covington and you have a husband. And you know why I get a bed all to myself? Because Hilda says when a man and woman marry they sleep together, and there isn’t room in your bed for me so now you don’t have to sleep with me no more. Do you like that?” She gave another bounce. “Only I told Hilda I wished it was Ben you was sleeping with.”
     SueAnna stilled the bouncing and sat beside her little sister. “My, it sounds like you and Hilda had quite a conversation. Did she really tell you all that, or did you ask questions?”
     Lily grinned. “One time, a long time ago, like clear last Sunday, I told Mr. Nelson he was a smart man and my pa was a smart man and how did they get so smart, and he said it was because smart peoples aren’t scared to ask questions. So I ask a lot of questions and then one day I’ll be smart.” 
     She squirmed around and took SueAnna’s chin in her pudgy hands. “Will you and Mr. Martin get babies?”
     SueAnna took a deep breath. As much as she wanted this little girl with her, it wasn’t going to be easy to be a mother before she was a wife. “Honey, look. For now, Mr. Martin is going to keep sleeping in the bunkhouse because…well, because this is a busy time of year and…and he might be out late and needs to get up early, and he doesn’t want to bother me. So I will be the only one sleeping in here.”
     “So when Mr. Martin does sleep in here, then you’ll get babies? I want a girl one, if you don’t mind. And I’ll name her…let’s see,” she tapped one finger against her chin. “I’ll name her Kathleen AnnaRose. Would Mama like that if I named her AnnaRose like our names? Only I would call her Kathy. I like that name, don’t you? Only when you get a boy baby, then you can name him Peter so we won’t forget about our brother Peter. Do you think Peter got deaded somewhere? He’s been gone a long time. I asked Hilda but she didn’t know. Why are you crying? Is you mad with me?”
     “Oh, child.” She tapped her finger against Lily’s little snip of a nose. “I could never be angry with you. But it is not good manners for you to talk non-stop. And about asking questions—how about if we make a deal?”
     “What’s a deal?”
     “It’s when we both agree to something. This is my deal. When you are with me you may ask all the questions you want. But when you are around other people you mustn’t bother them with your questions—or do all the talking. Is that a deal?”
     She shrugged. “I guess. But how will I get smart if I can’t ask questions? And what should I do with all them words what want to come out? They’re nice words, Annie. I don’t let bad words come out.”
     SueAnna squeezed her. “Even nice words don’t need to be said all at the same time. Okay?”
     “Okay, but now I get to make a deal. Can I?”
     “May I?”
     “That’s not fair. You already did.”
     She laughed. No, I meant that when you are asking permission you should said may instead of can.”
     “Oh, well here’s my deal. My mouth isn’t big enough to hold all the nice words and the bad ones, too. So to make more room, when a bad word wants to come out I’ll just do this,” she bent forward, gagged then stomped her foot. “See, I let it out then stepped on it so it wouldn’t say nothin’.”
     Well, SueAnna, you got yourself into that one, now how are you going to get out? It’s good that you want to stomp on those bad words, but gagging is not at all polite. Is there perhaps another way you could manage to let them escape without being quite so obvious?”
     Lily pursed her lips, wrinkled her forehead and tapped her chin. “I think I need to talk with Miss Libby first. Oh, I forgot. Hilda sent me in here to tell you we should come eat.”
     “What?” She jumped to her feet. “Lily, that’s been a long time ago. Please don’t tell me they’ve had to wait all this time for us to come to supper.”
     “Okay.”
     “Okay, what?”
     “Okay, I won’t tell you they had to wait. But I’m hungry, aren’t  you?”
     She gripped Lily’s hand. “We’ll have to hurry, and I expect you to tell Hilda that you didn’t do what she asked of you.”
     “You tell her for me, okay?” Lily jumped with both feet at the same time down each step.
     SueAnna yanked on her hand. “No, it’s your responsibility to tell her why we’re late. And you will ask her to forgive you for not obeying her. Now, walk like a lady and don’t forget our deal.”
    Lily held up four fingers. “See, I gots these many things to remember, just as many as me. Don’t hop down the stairs. Don’t talk so much. Tell Hilda I’m sorry and…and, I forgotted this one.” With each reminder she’d pulled down one finger and now had only one pudgy digit tapping her chin.
     They’d reached the dining room, and SueAnna took a deep breath. Chairs scraped against the floor as the men gathered around the table stood as she entered.  
     “You sit down, sweetheart, so those men will.” Hilda called from the kitchen. 
     “I should be helping you.” She took a bowl of mashed turnips from Hilda’s hands. 
     “Nonsense, not this your first evening here. You’ll have plenty of time to try to teach this cowboys a thing or two, but for tonight you just relax.”
     Lily took the bowl of turnips from SueAnna. “Ooh, now I remember my other finger,” she pulled down her index finger. “Don’t gag.”
     SueAnna didn’t risk a glance at Trey.
###
     
           

Thursday’s Teaser

Threads of Grace
Chapter 2, continued

     Ben reined the horses to a stop in front of the house. “You go on in, Trey. I”ll take care of this wagon.”
     “No way, fella. We’re in this together, remember?” He reached for SueAnna’s hand. 
     She ignored his offer of help and climbed out of the wagon on her own, then lifted Lily to the ground. “Perhaps it would save you both trouble if I were to introduce myself.” She gripped Lily’s hand. “And you let me do the talking, little sister.”
     Trey shrugged. “There isn’t any need for you to go it alone, ma’am. I got us in this mess, likely it’ll be up to me to get us out.”
     She pulled Lily in front of her and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “This mess, as you call it, was a wedding, sir. And as much as I didn’t like the idea then and like it even less now, I took a vow that I’ve promised to keep. And I expect you to keep yours…in name only. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to meet Mr. Covington.” She swallowed and prayed she sounded more confident than she felt. Truth was, her legs were so weak she’d likely fall if she were to loosen her hold on Lily. 
     Ben winked at her, and one side of his mouth slid into a grin. “I reckon we best all go in at once.” He squatted in front of Lily. “How ’bout you and me walkin’ in together seein’ as how I’d be all alone now that Mr. Martin, here, has gone and got himself a Mrs.”
     Lily giggled. “Can I, Annie? Cuz that would be polite, wouldn’t it? And remember, you told me to mind my manners.”
     SueAnna met Trey’s gaze. “Is it okay if Lily comes along, or would you prefer I keep her away from your boss?”
     He nodded. “No need to keep her away. It isn’t like you can hide her for long. Keeping her hid would be like trying to keep the leaves from twisting on a windy day.”
     Lily stepped away from SueAnna and took Ben’s hand. “I wish you was my sister’s mister instead of him. He don’t like us, does he?”
     Ben laughed. “You want to know a secret? You listen too, Mrs. Martin. Trey’s a real slow learner. Took him near a week to like me, and I never met a soul that didn’t take to me right off. Don’t you worry none. He growls and pouts and says stupid stuff all because he thinks it makes him more like a man. But he won’t hurt ya none.”
     SueAnna sighed. Could a man understand how many ways a lady could be hurt? 

###   
     “You did what?” Adam Covington scooted himself higher against the headboard.
     “Hush,” Hilda pulled him forward and gave the pillows a fluff then shoved him back against them. “If you’re going to yell, then you do it when that little lady isn’t present. You sent them two to bring you back a housekeeper and that’s what they’ve done.”
     He glared at her. “I’m not yelling.”
     “That’s telling a lie, Mister. Sister says if you tell a lie you’ll get a blister on your tongue. And they hurt. I know. I tried it once.”
     Before he could stop it, his tongue gave an involuntary swab against the sides of his mouth. It was bad enough his cowboys came home with one girl instead of a grown woman, but to add a miniature one with a strong opinion was more than he bargained for. 
     Hilda handed him a glass of water. “If I had soap handy I’d make you take a big chew of it before you swallowed a drop of this nice cold water. The little girl’s right, you were yelling.”
     He took a long, deep breath. “Okay, I’ll not raise my voice again. But young man,” he pointed to Trey, “you best start explaining exactly what it is you’ve done. And Ben, you can wipe that smirk off your face. I sent the two of you to do a job so the two of you can either take the blame, or receive my thanks. I’m reserving both until I know the whole story.”
     Awkward silence filled the room when Trey finished his explanation. Adam glanced at his housekeeper. Wasn’t she going to get him out of this? She’d be most kind if she’d choose to put a pillow over his face and hold it there until he quit breathing. 
     “You satisfied, now?” Hilda hissed. “SueAnna, my dear, you come along with me and I’ll get you settled in. And if we’re lucky, these three will chew one another into tiny pieces and we can sweep them up and toss them to the wind before nightfall.”
     “You mean I’m to stay?” 
     He could only nod. He closed his eyes against the image of another woman, at another time, that near tore his heart to pieces. And he clamped his teeth onto his tongue to keep from calling her name. 
     Kathleen had stood like this—back ramrod straight, too proud to lower her head, her eyes so full of pain he couldn’t breathe. Even with her pa’s shotgun against his chest, he vowed he’d never stop loving her. He’d not stop looking until he found her…no one would ever be able to keep them apart…he’d die first. 
     Only he was the one still alive. To this day he didn’t know how her pa knew where to find him. But the letter said she’d died before their bastard child was born. And it ended with a promise to kill him if ever saw his face again.
     “Mister?”
      Something hit his chest and he opened his eyes. A rag doll. Really? Brown yarn hair hung in long braids that matched the little imp of a girl who peeked over the top of the tall mattress.”
     “I kinda don’t like you much, but Miss Libby likes you. She can stay with you if you’re sad. She knows kind words and happy words.”
     “Adam Covington. The young lady asked if you agree to her staying and you’ve not answered. I think that doll has more manners than you.” Hilda threw him a glare that would make an onion cry.
     “I nodded.”
     “Annie says I’m to speak when spoken to. That means I can’t just shake my head or shrug or look at my feet.” She demonstrated each move. The rag doll hopped on its bottom closer to his face, then one grubby rounded arm rubbed against his face. “Libby says you need a shave. Whiskers hurt her when she gives hugs.”
     Hilda rolled her lips and he didn’t chance a glance at the two cowboys. Okay, he could play this game. He took the doll and held her in a standing position on his chest. “Well, Miss Libby. How about if you stay here with me while your mama and her sister get settled in.” 
     He smiled at SueAnna. “Yes, you are to stay. My obvious angst is not against you at all. This broken leg has kept me abed too long, I’m afraid, and I’ve grown old and cranky in the meantime.”
     “Pffft. You were old and cranky before that leg ever thought of getting broke.” Hilda put her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Crank is the only thing that man knows. You’ll learn soon enough how to handle him. Come with me, now. I’ll put you in the best room of the house.”
   “Wait. That’s my room, Hilda.”
    “Not any more it isn’t. It’s now for Mr. and Mrs. Martin.”
    Adam didn’t miss the look of panic that passed between Trey and SueAnna. It shouldn’t have…but it gave him the most pleasure he’d had in quite some time.
###  
     SueAnn held her breath. She’d never seen anything this nice. Especially nothing that you only slept in. A bank of windows covered the east wall. The lace curtains that puddled against the floor matched the curtains around the high canopied bed situated across from them. This didn’t look like a man’s room at all. 
     Large marble-topped tables flanked either side of the bed, and both were topped with ruby glass lamps. The dark walnut floor shone even in the midday light, and was topped with a red, gold and peacock blue rug so plush her feet sank into its depth. 
     The fireplace on the north wall was surrounded by walnut book cases and a peacock blue settee faced the hearth. On one side of the settee sat a large, red leather chair—the one masculine accent—and on the other side was a smaller red tapestry chair with a small matching footstool. 
     Hilda bustled around the room. “I’ll make sure all of Adam’s clothing is moved to a different room. Don’t you let him hang guilt around that pretty little neck of yours, you hear? I’m sure you’ve noticed by now this little sanctuary of his has the hint of a woman.”
     “I did notice. Was there a Mrs. Covington?”
     “Don’t ask me any questions, and don’t ask him, either. But I’ll tell you this much—if you take a good long look at the woman in the painting above the  mantle you’ll see an amazing resemblance. I think he took one look at you and thought he’d seen a ghost. SueAnna, my dear, you’ve managed to win him over better than my apple pie, and he’s sworn he’d die for my apple pie.” 
     She pulled open the curtains. “Most beautiful sight in the whole of Kansas, waking up every morning to the sun topping those hills. Adam’s an early riser, and I used to stand here after I got his room all tidied up just gazing across that prairie. In the spring those little calves romp around, their little white faces bobbing like daisies amongst the tall grass. And in the autumn, them hills look like big loaves of bread, all brown and shiny on top like they’d just been buttered. And oh, the winter. Why old man winter just takes him a great big old spreading knife and ices everything in site. 
     She patted SueAnna’s cheek. “You’re going to love it here, sweetheart. Now, Lily honey, you come with me. We got us a room here just specially for you.”
     “Oh, but she can—”
     “My dear, you take a good long look at me. I’ve never married, but I’m not dumb to the ways. I know you want to look out after this little one, but mark my word, that young cowboy you spoke your I do with isn’t gonna be nearly so ready to share the bed with the two of you.” 
     She winked. “No, siree. I just changed my mind and I’m not leaving for one more week. Gonna make sure you all get settled in and know the way around this place before I leave you here. Newly married is hard enough. Keeping house for Adam Covington and cooking for twelve hungry cowboys is no small job. You’ll do fine, but first you need a chance to get used to being a Mrs. Come on, Lily. I gave your sister the best room in the house, now let’s you and me go find the prettiest for you and Miss Libby.”
     SueAnna waited until the door clicked shut behind them, the laid across the bed and wept. Lily would love a room of her own. But how in the world was she going to escape sharing a room, and a bed, with the likes of Trey Martin?  
     

   
    

Thursday’s Teaser

Threads of Grace

     Trey leaned one hip against the counter. “So you know her, Lorna? You think she’d be willing to work as a housekeeper for Mr. Covington?”
     The older woman’s forehead wrinkled. “You’ve not given this much thought, have you?”
     He shrugged. “What’s to think about. Boss said to bring someone home and you said yourself you didn’t know of anyone else here in Prairie Grove. It isn’t like it’s a hard job or anything.”
     Lorna finished tying a string around one of the packages. “You two pull up something to sit on and let me give you a quick lesson on one Miss SueAnna Morrow.”
     Ben winked. “Something wrong with her, is there? Trey had so many stars in his eyes I don’t think he could’ve seen wrong if the little gal had it branded on her forehead.”
     Trey doubled his fist, but Lorna grabbed his arm before he could send a punch to the redhead’s gut. 
     “You two stop it and get yourself parked before I take a willow switch to both our behinds. First off, Trey. SueAnna is not alone in this world.”
     He gulped. “She’s married?” Just his luck. Not that he intended to marry anytime soon, but she was a looker.
     “No, she’s not married. But she does have a little sister. Right now they are living with the preacher, the Bittmans. But they’re leaving before the week is out—moving to be closer to Mrs. Bittman’s parents—and plan to take the little sister with them.”
     Trey winced. “You mean they’re taking the little one and leaving SueAnna? Why?” It brought back memories too painful to think on for now. 
     “SueAnna is to stay with us. But to answer your question, yes they were taking the little one with them. That’s why so many packages flew every direction when you collided. SueAnna spent every penny she could possibly spare to get LilyAnna ready to leave. And it’s breaking her heart.”
     “But that’s perfect, Lorna. If she’d come to work for Mr. Covington she could bring her sister with her, couldn’t she? I mean, what would one more person hurt.”
     Ben stood and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’m even smart enough to know the answer to that one. She’s a pretty little thing, buddy. What’re you gonna do when twelve other men start fightin’ for her attention? You figure that out, have ya?”
     “She won’t have to be around the men. She’ll stay at the main house. Mr. Covington won’t hurt her none.”
     Ben shook his head. “Think on it, partner. She supposed to feed them men through a hole in a box? Of course she’ll be around them. We all eat at the main house. Remember? And how do you think they’re gonna take to her washing all their clothes. I’ll bet that pretty little gal never seen a pair of men’s underdrawers.”
     “Nobody ever seemed to worry about Hilda being alone, or washing our underwear.”
     Ben slapped his forehead. “You ain’t got the brains of a fly, Trey. Hilda’s old. She’s at least forty. Besides, she could’ve turned any one of us over her knee and whupped us good. Even Mr. Covington didn’t cross her.”
     “So you think forty is old, do you?” Lorna laughed and pinched Ben’s cheek. “Ben does has a point, Trey. But so do you. I hate the idea of the girls being separated, and perhaps the Bittman’s would agree to let Lily stay if there was some way SueAnn could provide for her. It might be worth a try to at least go talk with the Reverend. And it’d probably be best if only one of you go, seeing that the two of you can’t be in the same room without a tussle.” She grinned and patted Ben’s cheek. 
     “I ain’t gonna be the one to go. You don’t know nothin’ about this girl, Trey. And I don’t aim to answer all them questions the boss is sure to ask.” Ben crossed his arms across his chest. “And you’re gonna be the one who has to come up with the answers.”
     Trey shrugged. “Don’t know why you think that’ll be a problem, buddy. It isn’t like I’m bringing home a wife and kid.”

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Thursday’s Teaser

Okay!!  I’m starting something new. Someone suggested I write a story I can put on this page a chapter at a time, instead of hit and miss like I’ve been doing.  SO–here it is. This has actually been written, submitted and turned down and right now I don’t plan to re-submit it. But will, instead, edit and make changes as I post. Don’t want to lose my readers!!  🙂

Threads of Grace
ONE
June 14, 1873
Prairie Grove, Kansas

If Trey Martin had been a gamblin’ man, he’d have bet his last dollar he’d never lay eyes on his boss layin’ in bed clad only in a nightshirt, and that pulled up higher than was decent. He didn’t dare look at his partner, Ben Penwell. If the big rubber-faced redhead as much as twitched a muscle they’d both be in more trouble than they bargained for.
“Hilda said you want to talk to us sir?” Where did a fella look at a time like this? He moved closer to the head of the bed. “She sounded serious.”
Adam Covington frowned. “It is serious. Now you listen up. I’m going to say this once. Hilda’s leaving—”
“Leaving? Where? Why?” He loved her The old housekeeper reminded him of his ma. Why would she leave now of all times?
“Well, if you’d shut that mouth of yours for the next two minutes, I might be able to answer your questions.” Mr. Covington used his arms to push himself further up on his pillows. “Hilda’s sister is sick, and she’s going to go take care of her. I can’t and won’t tell her she can’t go. That’s where you two boys fit into the plan.”
Ben grinned. “Trey, here—he can cook real good if you was thinkin’—”
A ghost of a smile crossed Covington’s face. “Sorry, Ben. Trey’s cooking isn’t my first thought. I’m sending the two of you to town to find us a housekeeper.”
“Today? Bring somebody back today?” Trey hated the way his voice squawked. Sounded like a schoolboy.
“I don’t know how long it’ll take. Hilda’s agreed to stay until we find someone, but she’s most anxious to get to her sister.”
“I’ve never shopped for a housekeeper. How’re we supposed to know if she’ll be good or not? Can’t check her teeth or legs like buyin’ a horse.”
The boss closed his eyes. “Look fellas, we don’t have a lot of time here. Go to Nelson’s Mercantile. Lorna knows every woman in Prairie Grove. She’ll have some ideas. But I’ll promise you this—you come home before you’ve found someone, one of you will be wearing an apron from now on.”
Trey was careful not to slam the door on his way out of the room. How hard could it be? Find a widow woman and bring her back to Covington’s ranch. Everyone for miles around knew the K/M was one of the finest ranches around. And his boss had the reputation of being one of the most God-following men in this part of Kansas. So it shouldn’t be that difficult to find someone who wanted to work for him. Should it?
Once off the porch, Ben grabbed his arm. “What’re you gonna do, Trey?”
“What am I going to do? Listen buddy, you’re in on this, too. You were listening, weren’t you?”
He shrugged. “Sure, I was listenin’, but since when do I have an opinion? You was the one who said ‘come on, Ben. This looks to be as good a place as any to work for awhile. Now one of us is gonna end up bein’ the inside help, and I got me a real bad feelin’ it won’t be you.”
Trey pulled him to a stop. “It has been a good place to work, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah.”
“When we met we were both dirty, hungry and broke. At least you were all of that. I was only hungry and broke.”
Ben gave him shove with his shoulder. “Ya just think you didn’t stink. My horse even shied away from ya.”
Trey laughed. “Your horse didn’t shy away, you were fixing to turn and run.”
“So used to runnin’ it just came natural-like. Never had me a friend, you know. Didn’t know I could trust a body what smelled so bad.” His grin stretched across his face. “Been good, hasn’t it pal?” He flung his arm around Trey’s shoulders.
“Sure has. That’s one reason we’re gonna do what boss asked. Mr. Covington has been nothing but fair, honest and right-down good to us. He’s asked no questions, took us in like we belonged, and this is the first time he’s asked us to do anything different than any of the other men. What say we find him a housekeeper. Come on, I’ll race you to the barn. The loser has to buy supper, and I like my steak rare.”
Ben grabbed his arm. “Wait.” He pointed back to the house. “Look.”
Trey turned, and Ben gave him a shove. “I like mine well done.” He took off on a dead run.
He’d never had a brother. But he sure loved that grinnin’ redhead.

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