Debby K's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman Fan Fiction



Alights on the Cloud


by Debby K

Click here to read Chapter 10



Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Alights on the Cloud
by Debby K

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Chapter 1
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Michaela completed her ascent of the mountain, Sully's special mountain. When they had begun courting, he had told her this was where he always came to find his way. She, too, found inspiration and solace here.

Michaela could see her breath before her as she exhaled into the cold, crisp December air. Christmas was just days away. Sully and the children had ventured out to find a tree. While they had gone about their task, Michaela had come here to think. No, she had come here to grieve.... again.

She rubbed her gloved hands together, then folded her arms tightly against her chest. The sun's rays were fading as clouds began to drift in. She knew it would snow by evening.

Looking down, Michaela felt herself faltering. She had come here to find her way.... to sort through her feelings with the approach of the holiday season. She was fighting the melancholia. It was a common side effect of the procedure she had gone through several months earlier.... the procedure which had taken her baby... her fourth miscarriage....

She shook her head ruefully. "No, it wasn't a miscarriage. I let them take my baby so that my life could be saved."

A voice came from behind her, "That is not true, Dr. Mike."

It was her Cheyenne mentor.

"Cloud Dancing?" She was surprised.

He stepped closer. "The Spirits told me to find you."

Her lower lip trembled as she attempted to maintain her composure. "The Spirits always seem to know, don't they?"

He nodded silently.

She was puzzled. "Did they tell you where to find me?"

"That, I did on my own," he added wryly. He noticed her demeanor. "I will build a fire for us. Then we can talk."

Michaela helped him to gather the wood. As the twigs started to burn and ignite the larger pieces, he kept a watchful eye on her.

At times, she looked to the sky. Then she would shake her head and stare at the ground.

Finally, the medicine man invited, "Come closer. Warm yourself."

Soon they both sat and warmed their hands near the flames.

There was a long silence before Michaela spoke. "I'm so tired."

"You are not sleeping?" he assumed.

"No, I'm sleeping well enough," she amended. "I'm tired of.... feeling so sad. Does that sound selfish?"

He eyed her closely, "Not to me. You have lost part of yourself."

She sighed. "Sometimes I think.... "

When her voice trailed off, Cloud Dancing wondered, "What do you think, Dr. Mike?"

She had qualms about voicing her thoughts. "Never mind."

He gently probed, "When you speak the words out loud, it will help."

A single tear trickled down her cheek. "I wonder if Sully would have been better off without me. Perhaps a younger woman would have been better suited to carry his babies to full term."

He nodded in understanding. "Do you think Sully feels that way?"

"He would never say such things," she confided. "He tells me he married just whom he wanted."

"Do you believe him?" the medicine man questioned.

She replied, "I believe he loves me with all of his heart, but I can't help feeling that I've let him down."

Cloud Dancing posed the question, "Is it possible that Sully does not speak of such things because it is not how he feels?"

Michaela paused to analyze his statement. "You think I'm wrong to feel this way?"

"You know your husband better than anyone," he explained. "Your spirits are one. If you think that is what he believes, who am I to question that?"

"You're his best friend," she affirmed.

The medicine man gestured around them. "Why did you come here?"

Without revealing the specialness of the location, she simply stated, "I came to find my way."

He nodded solemnly. "This is a good place for that. You can see all of the faces of Mother Earth."

She began to feel warm.

Cloud Dancing offered, "And have you found your way?"

She stared into the flames. "Not really."

"May I share a story with you?" he requested.

She agreed, "Of course."

He began, "Once there was a man who had lost everything.... First his land was taken. Then his neighbors left. Next his family was gone. Finally, all that remained were his memories. His head wanted to hate. His heart wanted to die."

"How terrible," she sympathized. "How did he go on?"

"He went on because of Sully and you," the medicine man uttered.

She suddenly realized, "The man was you?"

"Yes," he nodded. "Sully and you never gave up on me. I lost my wife, my children and my people. But you would not let me lose my spirit."

Michaela lowered her head. "It makes me feel ashamed of my feelings, after all you have been through."

"Dr. Mike, there are three worlds," he offered. "You did not get to know your lost children in this world, but there is also the world of the Great Creator up above us. Death is merely going from one world into another. You will see them when you get there."

She was curious, "What about the third world?"

He smiled, "That is the world below. You do not want to go there."

She turned up the corner of her lips. "That makes me feel better."

"I am glad," he grinned.

"Thank you, Cloud Dancing," she acknowledged.

He rose to his feet. "I will leave you to finish your thinking. The fire will last long enough."

Michaela was puzzled. "Long enough?"

The medicine man grinned and repeated, "Long enough for what you need. Good-bye."

"Good-bye," she returned.

Michaela felt a sense of peace on the mountain. But she also felt guilty. Her feelings and emotions had centered around herself.... her losses, her fears, her wants. The events of this past year had begun to close in on her. What must Sully have felt when he was alone in that small cell at Andersonville? How it must have affected him, not knowing if he would ever see his family again?

As she absently poked a burning log with a stick, her mind drifted back to the time Katie had been kidnapped and taken to Mexico. When she and Sully had thought that their daughter had died, it had put a terrible strain on their marriage. They had begun to drift apart. Then, when Sully had suggested that they go to Denver to get away for a while, she had snapped at him and blamed him for the death of her daughter.

Sully had expressed with a hurt voice, "Ya know, you're not the only one who lost a daughter. I've been through this before."

His words had stung, but he was right. He had lost Abigail and their baby Hannah. Michaela remembered seeing the photograph of the stillborn child. Sully's baby girl had been perfect. My God, how could he have gone on without them? He had no one left.

Suddenly, Michaela felt awash in her love for her husband. She still had Sully through all of her grief and loss. They had each other. And they had five beautiful, healthy children.

Guilt began to overwhelm her. "Sully has done all of the comforting. I have offered nothing to console him for how he must feel about this past year. He had nearly died. He had lost his fifth child. Dear Lord, I've been so selfish."

Michaela lowered her head in prayer, "Oh, God, please forgive me for being so selfish. I offer my thanks to you for my husband and children. Though we have had a year of struggles and loss, we have come through it. By your divine grace, we have grown even stronger in our love. I ask that one day, when it is your will, that Sully and I might see our lost babies. Amen."

She started to rise, but suddenly stopped and returned to her prayer, "Dear Lord, I give thanks to you that Brian will be home for Christmas. Please give him safe travels. Amen."

Gazing into the amber flames again, she felt herself relaxing. In fact, she was perspiring from the warmth it generated. The peace of this place.... speaking her thoughts out loud.... Cloud Dancing's presence.... they were almost medicinal, salve to her saddened soul.

She took off her gloves, loosened her coat and stretched out beside the warmth of the fire. Soon, she began to drift off.

A cloud slowly descended on the mountain top. Its billowy white presence enveloped her and began to transport Michaela higher and higher. Opening her eyes, she was not afraid. She knew she was moving, but it was so soft and comfortable, the journey was pleasing.

Finally, she felt herself gently descend to the ground. The cloud began to lift, and all around her, it was summer. The flowers atop the mountain were in bloom. Instantly, Michaela became aware of the warmth and wonderful fragrances around her. She noticed, too, that her attire was different. She was clad totally in white.

Rising from her bed of soft grass, she smiled. How beautiful it was up here.

Suddenly, she heard a voice. "Mike, I'm glad you came to visit."

"Father?" she pivoted to see him. "Father, where are you?"

"Right here," his voice beckoned from beside a patch of columbine.

He was dressed in white, as well. His face radiated youth and vigor, exactly as Michaela recalled in her childhood.

She rushed to him. "Father!"

He embraced her, then cupped his hand tenderly to the back of her head. "You've grown into such a beautiful woman. You look exactly as your mother did the day I married her."

Michaela's eyes widened. "Is Mother here, as well?"

"We'll see her soon." He clasped her hand and began to stroll amid the flowers. "Tell me how you've been since I last spoke with you."

Thinking back to the dream she had of her father earlier this year, she recalled, "When I thought I was pregnant?"

"Yes," he uttered. "I know what happened. I'm so sorry, Michaela."

She took a short breath. "I.... I've not handled it well."

He stopped and turned to look at her.

Holding her shoulders, he kissed her cheek. "How does anyone handle such things? It was such a shock."

She peered into the compassionate eyes of her father, "You know about the procedure?"

He clasped her hand and began to guide her along again. "I've had to perform it a few times. It's never easy. Did you know that Dr. Bernard cried after your surgery?"

Michaela had not even thought about how her physician might have felt when he performed the ovariectomy on her. "No, I didn't."

Josef slid his arm around her shoulder. "Many shared your grief, my dear. You were never alone."

When they approached a bend in the path, the sound of children's laughter could be heard.

He smiled, "Ah, that would be your mother."

"Mother?" She was surprised. "It sounds like a school yard."

He chuckled, "Well, with your mother, every conversation is like being in school."

Michaela covered her mouth with her hand to conceal her smile.

Then he gestured, "She's just up ahead."

"You know, I haven't seen Mother and you together for quite a long time," she observed.

"We get along much better now," he retorted. "My hours are more predictable."

Michaela paused when she spotted her mother, donning a white gown. The older woman was encircled by a group of children bedecked similarly. Elizabeth was holding an infant, while the other young ones darted back and forth playing a game.

Michaela observed with a smile, "Who are the children?"

Josef directed her to approach them. "I believe they would prefer to introduce themselves."

The lively children stopped their game when they saw the two coming near.

Quickly, the oldest, a boy with blonde hair, rushed to them excitedly exclaiming, "You're here!"

Michaela smiled, "Hello."

The lad spoke up, "I'm Carlton."

Michaela looked to her father, "Carlton? Uncle Teddy's son?"

Josef informed her, "He is named after your cousin."

Michaela leaned closer. "Carlton, it's very nice to meet you. I once knew someone by that name. How old are you?"

His blue eyes shown with affection for her. "I've met your cousin. He was a brave man. I would be nine years old."

She touched his cheek. "You're very handsome."

"Thanks," he grinned. "I'm told I look like my father."

Their conversation was interrupted by a younger boy. "I wanna meet you, too."

Michaela mused, "Of course. And who are you?"

"They call me Sammy," he grinned. "Wanna play with my bunny?"

It was then that Michaela noticed the brown stuffed and worn rabbit in his hand. She accepted the toy, sensing something familiar about it.

"Thank you," she accepted. "What its name?"

"Jus' Bunny," he shrugged.

"Where did you get him?" Michaela inquired.

The little boy noted, "From my brother."

She wondered, "Is Carlton your brother?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he reached for the stuffed toy. "May I have him back?"

"Certainly." She tenderly set it in his hand. "How old are you, Sammy?"

He held up his right hand, extending all of his fingers. "Five."

Lurking nearby listening was a little girl with rosy cheeks and auburn hair.

Michaela sat down in the grass and beckoned, "Won't you come to see me?"

The little girl broke into a grin and toddled toward her. When she reached Michaela, the child threw her arms around her neck.

"My goodness!" Michaela's eyes widened. "Aren't you a sweetheart."

Josef folded his arms. "That she is, Mike."

Michaela glanced into the little girl's brown eyes. "What's your name, Sweetheart?"

"B'torwy," the child revealed.

Michaela was confused. "B'torwy?"

Josef chimed in. "That's what she calls herself. Her formal name is Victoria. At two and a half, she comes up with the funniest things."

Michaela's eyes widened as she looked at the little girl. "Victoria! That's a lovely name."

Josef explained, "She was named after her father's grandmother."

"I see." Michaela marveled at the beauty of the children. "They're quite special."

"Yes, they are." Elizabeth approached, holding a baby.

"Mother!" Michaela rose to her feet to embraced her. "I'm sorry I didn't speak to you earlier."

"That's all right, my dear," the older woman allowed. "You were quite busy."

Michaela queried, "I haven't seen you since...."

"Yes, yes," Elizabeth cut her off. "No need to dwell on that unpleasantness. As you can see, I'm perfectly fine now."

She kissed her mother's cheek. "You are indeed. It's wonderful to see you and Father with...."

The baby cradled in Elizabeth's arms began to fuss.

Elizabeth extended her arms tenderly offering the baby. "Well, aren't you going to take him?"

She accepted, "Certainly. I'd love to hold him."

Instantly, the baby calmed. The other children gathered closer. Michaela warmed at their sincere affection for her and for the little one in her arms.

She cooed and made faces until the infant smiled broadly. "He's so tiny."

Carlton informed her. "We just got him a little while ago."

Michaela confessed, "I.... I feel as if I've always known you children."

Josef assured, "You have, Mike."

"They're so loving and sweet," she added. "To whom do they belong?"

Carlton volunteered, "We're yours, Mama."

************
Chapter 2
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Michaela was stunned. "Mine .... but...." Suddenly realizing it was true, she lifted the infant and kissed his cheek. "Cole?"

Sammy touched her arm. "Yep."

Michaela slowly sank to the grass, the baby still in her arms. The children joined her, each hoping to be closer to her.

Michaela sensed, "This is the second world that Cloud Dancing spoke of."

Elizabeth frowned, "It's called heaven, Michaela."

Michaela softly kissed the baby's sweet smelling blond hair, then closed her eyes and began to weep.

Carlton embraced her. "Don't cry, Mama. We want you to be happy. That's why we came to visit you."

Sammy added, "Gran'ma and Gran'pa asked for 'mission."

"Mission?" Michaela was uncertain.

Elizabeth clarified, "Permission."

Michaela composed herself and took a closer look at the little boy beside her. "Samuel Charles.... We named you for my dear friends Sam Lindsay and Charlotte Cooper."

"I know," he beamed. "And Josef gave me my bunny."

Michaela was overwhelmed. "I don't know what to say. I.... Wait. I DO know what to say. It's something I always hoped to tell you. Your Papa and I wanted you.... loved you all so much."

Carlton touched her hair. "We know that. We knew it from the time we got here."

She caressed Victoria's cheek. "Look at you, my beautiful, beautiful darlings." Then Michaela recalled what Sammy had said. Lifting her head, she looked at her parents. "You asked for permission?"

Elizabeth explained, "You've been so lost, Michaela. Your father and I thought it might help if you saw that they're all right. We'll watch over them until you can truly be with them for eternity."

Michaela acknowledged, "I can't thank you enough."

Elizabeth added, "We're not the ones you need to thank. It was... God's doing."

Josef contributed, "Cloud Dancing calls him the Great Creator."

Michaela pledged, "I'll give thanks to him for the rest of my life for letting me see my babies. But.... What about Sully? Is there a way for him to see his children?"

Carlton smiled. "We did see Papa. When he was at that bad place.... Andersonville. God let us visit him."

"But.... he never said anything to me about it," Michaela stated.

Josef said, "Perhaps when you mention your time with us, he'll recall it."

Michaela smiled and inhaled deeply, "I don't want this to end. I wish...."

Her father spoke softly, "That day will come but not just yet. You have much to live for in your world."

Fearing that her visit would soon conclude, Michaela studied Carlton's handsome features, the image of Sully's. "Carlton, I was so heartsick without Papa when I lost you.... but we..... Oh, I'm so sorry I...."

The little boy assured, "You never lost me, Mama. It wasn't your fault that any of us came here. Grandpa's been with us all the time. Then Grandma came to help."

Josef knelt down to touch his daughter's cheek. "You've given us nine beautiful grandchildren. It's been our pleasure getting to know these four, and one day, we'll all be together."

Michaela felt the heaviness in her heart begin to lift. "Father.... Mother.... I don't know how to thank you."

Elizabeth informed her, "Carlton has something for you."

The boy reached into his pocket. "It's something Mrs. Cooper told us you might like."

Michaela's eyes widened. "Charlotte Cooper?"

Carlton nodded. "Uh huh."

When he handed his mother a four leaf clover, Michaela smiled. "Thank you. Is this for luck?"

The boy answered, "It's to remind you that we're okay an' that we love you."

"Oh, my sweethearts, I love you, too.... so very much," she cried.

They embraced her.

Elizabeth cleared her throat, "I'm afraid your visit is nearly over, my dear."

"Just a few more moments," Michaela pleaded as she clung to her children. Then she gazed up at Josef Quinn. "Father, do you think I might see...."

He raised his hand to silence her, then gestured to her right. There stood Abigail and Hannah. She recognized Sully's first wife and daughter. Hannah was as tall as her mother, and just as beautiful.

Slowly, Michaela stood, and they walked toward her.

Abigail spoke softly, "Please tell Sully we're fine. I'm glad he found happiness. I... I never could have stood it for him to be alone for the rest of his life."

"He's never stopped loving you both." Michaela clasped Hannah's hand. "You're so beautiful."

Hannah smiled, "Thank you. And thank you for my brothers and sister."

Then Carlton stood. Sammy and Victoria followed. Elizabeth gently lifted Cole from her daughter's arms. The cloud which had brought Michaela to this place began to envelop her again, lifting her higher and higher.

Her family began to fade from sight, but Josef's voice still spoke to her. "Don't be afraid to be happy, Mike. Be happy."

Michaela tried to absorb all that she had seen. At that moment, she felt a chill. She started to alight from the cloud. Finally, opening her eyes, she found herself lying near the dying embers of the fire. She was still atop the special mountain. A feeling of serenity filled her. It was the most pleasant dream she could ever recall having.

She sat up to look at her watch. To her surprise, she discovered something in the palm of her hand. It was.... a four leaf clover.

************

Glancing out the window of the locomotion as it lumbered west, Dell Pearson was lulled by the back and forth movement of the train. The young man reminisced about one summer in his boyhood, spent with his grandfather's people, the Cheyenne. So much had happened to them and to him in the interim. Now he was returning to the land of his forefathers.


Dell pivoted his head slightly and caught the reflection of his own face in the glass. His blue eyes gave no hint of his Indian roots. Though he had no features that would identify him as an Indian, the blood of his ancestors coursed through his veins. His father was white, but his mother's father had been a Cheyenne dog soldier. The older man had even given his grandson the Cheyenne name, Vaiveahtoish, "Alights on the Cloud." Then he had told the boy, "Always remember your people."

He recalled the tales that his grandfather had told about being a warrior who had escaped the fate of his people at Sand Creek. Dell shuddered slightly recalling the descriptions he had heard of that fateful morning in November 1864. The soldier-preacher Colonel John Chivington's men had killed Cheyenne women and children, plundered their lodges, stolen their horses and scalped many of the dead. One of the soldiers had used a Cheyenne child for target practice. Many of the women, children and infants had been scalped. Soldiers and even Chivington himself had dressed their weapons, hats and saddles with scalps, fetuses and genitalia of the Indians. They had put some of these on display in Denver's Apollo Theater.

His jaw clenched, wondering how anyone could do such things. Born in 1851, the year of the Fort Laramie Treaty, Dell remembered hearing his grandfather's criticisms of any piece of paper that took away the Cheyenne's land. When Dell was almost 10, Cheyenne chief Black Kettle had signed the Treaty of Fort Wise, ceding even more land to the whites as a result of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. It had all come to a head at Sand Creek where a small band of his people waited for promised supplies from Fort Lyon. Dell recalled his grandfather's words, "They should have called it Fort Lyin'."

It had been impossible for the boy to forget those stories. Had it not been for the path chosen by his parents, Dell thought he might have joined the Cheyenne as a dog soldier himself. He might be white in appearance, but his heart beats the drum of his people, the Cheyenne.

"Dell," his father had told him. "You are a Christian. There are other peaceful ways for you to serve people."

The boy's eyes had watered with emotion, "How, Father? I don't think I can do what you and Mother do."

Adam Pearson had nodded, "I know, son. As missionaries, your mother and I have not given you a very stable life..."

"No, that's not what I mean," Dell had interrupted. "I know that Mother and you love me."

Adam had rested his hands on his son's shoulders. "That's why we're sending you back East. You'll get a fine education."

"But I want to stay with you," Dell had protested.

Adam had responded, "We believe it will be better for you with my parents. They'll see that you attend the best schools. Then you can decide your path."

Dell had eventually gone to the best schools. His father's advice about finding a peaceful way to help people inspired him to study medicine. Through the efforts of his paternal grandparents, he had gone to Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School. Now, thanks to the invitation of a friend, he was returning to his ancestral roots. He finally felt ready to help his people.

"Dell?" Brian noticed his friend's pensive expression. "You all right?"

The young man yawned and stretched his arms. "Just anxious to see everything again."

Brian grinned, "I did warn you, since the Cheyenne were put on reservations, there's not a lot of them around. Except for Cloud Dancing, that is."

Dell nodded, "Yes, I recall your telling me about him, the medicine man who taught your mother about Cheyenne medicine."

"Right, and now he runs a school for Indian children." Brian's eyes lit up, "I can't wait for you to meet my family. Ma's going to be so surprised."

Dell chuckled, "Surprised that you invited a friend for Christmas?"

"No," he retorted. "Surprised that I'm coming home early."

Dell sat up straighter and recounted, "So, let me see if I have this right. Your mother is Dr. Michaela Quinn, and your father is Sully."

"Right," he nodded.

Dell tilted his head. "And remind me why your last name is Cooper."

"Dr. Mike took in my brother, sister and me when our real Ma died from a snake bite," he explained.

Dell smiled, "Dr. Quinn sounds like a special woman."

"Oh, she is," Brian agreed.

Dell continued to recite what Brian had told him. "You have seven brothers and sisters."

He grinned. "Can you name them?"

Dell chuckled. "Older brother Matthew, older sister Colleen..."

Brian interrupted, "They're the lawyer and doctor."

"Right," he resumed, "Then the younger ones.... uh.... Katie, Josef, Annie, Noah and...."

Brian encouraged, "Starts with an H."

"Hannah?" Dell guessed.

Brian's face paled. "No, that was Sully's daughter by his first wife."

He immediately apologized, "I'm sorry. Yes, that's the baby that Sully's wife lost in childbirth."

Brian added, "He lost his wife, too. Abigail was her name."

"Mr. Quinn must appreciate all of you even more after such a loss," Dell added.

Brian smiled "He's not Mr. Quinn. He's Mr. Sully."

Dell made a face, "I thought Sully was his first name."

He explained, "Sully hates his first name, so everyone just calls him by his last name."

Dell inquired, "And what's his first name?

"Byron," he replied.

The friend shrugged. "It doesn't seem like such a bad name. Oh, well, I hope I can recall the baby's name.... Hope! Yes, that it."

Brian nodded. "Well done."

Dell probed, "I do have a question about your mother."

"What?" he anticipated.

"Why isn't her last name Sully?" Dell wondered.

"Well...." Brian hesitated. "Ma was the youngest of five daughters. All of her sisters got married and took on their husbands' names. So, Ma wanted to preserve her maiden name as a kind of remembrance of her father. That's how Josef got his name, too."

Dell pondered, "And Sully didn't mind?"

He described, "Oh, he minded when she told him that's what she wanted to do, but he came around to the notion. Sort of a compromise."

"Compromise?" Dell questioned.

Brian stated, "Ma wanted Sully to wear a wedding ring. So they agreed she could keep her maiden name, and he wouldn't wear a ring."

Dell laughed. "They sound like quite an interesting couple. I look forward to meeting your entire family."

"They're going to love you." Brian smiled broadly.

************

Sully positioned the glittering gold angel atop the Christmas tree.

Michaela assessed its position on the tall pine. "It's tilted to the left."

Balancing on his ladder, Sully adjusted it. "Better?

She shook her head. "Now it's too far to the right."

Sully sighed, then patiently corrected the decoration's inclination. "Okay now?"

Michaela smiled. "Perfect."

He stepped down and sweetly kissed his wife. "Good."

Ornament in hand, Josef stepped toward the ladder. "Better watch out, Papa. I gotta put this one by the angel."

Michaela worried, "Josef, I'd rather you didn't...."

Sully interrupted, "Let me help ya, Joe. Steady now."

Michaela cringed as she feared her son would fall, but Sully carefully watched while his son put the decoration in place.

With a grin of accomplishment, the little boy turned to his mother. "How's this, Mama?"

"Perfect," she praised.

Josef's face beamed, "Thanks. Want me t' put anymore up here while I'm at it?"

Michaela handed him another ornament. "This one. Careful, now."

Sully assisted Josef as he hooked the decoration on the tip of a branch. "Good job, son."

Katie diligently put several carved pieces that her father had made on branches at her eye level. "Poppy, I don't think we ever had a tree this big. Will we have enough decorations?"

Sully winked, "Your Ma an' me wanted a tree as big as our blessin's. We got plenty t' fill it."

Michaela slid her arm around her husband's waist. "We are blessed indeed."

Ornament in hand, Noah approached his father. "Up, Papa."

While still watching Josef, Sully lifted his youngest son. "Put it right there, No-bo."

Bridget sat with Hope on one of the wing back chairs observing the scene. "Sure, 'tis the most beautiful tree I ever did see."

Annie skipped over to the nanny and smiled. "Hold me, Miss Bridet."

Michaela turned, "Don't you want to help with the tree, Sweetheart?"

"I tired." The child climbed up on Bridget's lap and situated herself beside Hope.

Bridget noted, "These two have become thick as thieves lately."

Michaela reasoned, "I believe Annie has discovered that she likes being a big sister."

Katie smiled, "I like it, too."

Josef spoke up, "You're everybody's big sister."

Katie put her hands on her hips. "No, Joey. Colleen is."

Josef climbed down the ladder and approached Bridget. "I'm glad ya stayed with us for Christmas, Miss Bridget."

She grinned. "I am, too, lad."

Michaela confided, "Well, I must confess that when Sully and I offered to purchase a ticket for you to return to Boston for the Holiday, I secretly hoped that you would stay."

Bridget nodded, "It was most generous of ya, Dr. Mike. But.... Colorado Springs is my home now. An' I consider all of you my family."

Michaela's eyes moistened. "And that's precisely how we think of you."

Sully stepped back to admire the tree. "Looks real pretty."

His close proximity prompted Hope to reach for him. "Hol', Papa."

His heart melted. "Ya want me t' hold ya?"

At 20 months old, the youngest Sully child was walking and talking up a storm, to the delight of her parents.

Sully reached for her and kissed her cheek. Hope tilted her head against his shoulder, much the way Katie used to do at the same age.

Sully rubbed the toddler's back. "I think we got a sleepy baby here."

Annie agreed, "We go t' bed."

Michaela was surprised. "What's this? It's only 6 o'clock. We haven't even had supper yet."

Annie thought for a moment. "We take napped."

Sully grinned and kissed the top of Hope's head. "An' where'd ya like t' take that nap, Annie?"

"My room," she replied.

Sully glanced at the others, "Anyone else up for a nap?"

Katie shook her head. "I'm too excited to sleep."

Josef frowned disapprovingly. "You kids got work t' do. Ya can't be sleepin'."

Michaela took Annie's hand. "I suspect there won't be much sleeping anyway. Come on, Papa. Let's settle these two down for a nap."

Josef called after them, "Who's gonna finish this decoratin'?"

Katie spoke to her brother. "We will."

Bridget stood and warned them. "An' there'll be no climbin' the ladder 'til your folks come back. I best get dinner on the table."

"Darn!" Noah frowned.

Katie'e eyes widened. "Noah Sully! That's a bad word."

The little boy's cheeks reddened. "Sorry."

Josef put his hand on his little brother's shoulder. "I made that mistake one time. Ya gotta watch what ya say around girls. Papa says that makes us gentlemen."

************

Michaela and Sully settled their daughters into Annie's bed. The girls giggled when their parents departed. Michaela left their door slightly ajar.

Then she turned to her husband. "How long do you suppose they'll sleep?"

He chuckled. "I don't suppose they'll sleep at all."

Michaela paused to listen. "Do you think Katie will be upset that they're becoming so close?"

Sully shrugged. "No reason to. They both idolize her."

She sighed, "Katie is becoming so grown up."


He put his arm around her. "That's a good thing, ain't it? She's gettin' good grades in school, studyin' her art an' piano, ridin' Ajax real good.... fact is, I don't think there's anythin' Katherine Elizabeth Sully can't do when she puts her mind to it. Kinda reminds me of someone else I know."

Michaela turned up the corner of her lips. "Her father?"

Sully kissed her sweetly. "Nope. She's just the way I picture you as a little girl. Smart, talented an' beautiful. Fact is, you made perfect babies."

He had spoken those last words before thinking of her pregnancy earlier this year. "I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean t' remind ya of...."

Michaela assured, "I know, Sully. It's all right."

He looked down remorsefully. Michaela clasped his hand and raised it to her lips.

He lifted his head and peered into her eyes. "I wasn't thinkin'."

Michaela assured, "Truly, it's all right. I want to tell you about something that happened to me earlier today. I can scarcely believe it myself, but ...."

He smiled slightly, "Does it have somethin' t' do with you sneakin' away this afternoon while the kids an' me were gettin' the tree?"

"I didn't sneak away," she countered.

"Bridget said ya took off on Flash," he retorted. "You seein' someone I oughta be jealous about, or was it an emergency at the hospital?"

Suddenly, the scream of a crying child shattered their moment.

************
Chapter 3
************

Grace sat at her kitchen table, editing her list of things to do.

Robert E joined her with two cups of coffee in hand. "Thought ya might need this."

She did not look up. "Thanks. "Is the baby asleep?"

"Yep," he grinned. "That's what happens when I sing t' him. He prefers his Mama's voice."

Her thoughts were still on the list. "That's nice."

He sat down. "Think maybe ya took on too much this Christmas?"

"Took on too much?" She set the pencil down, finally focused on what he had said.

Robert E pointed out, "Grace, ya must have close t' a hundred guests for that Christmas social."

"An' that's a good thing for business, ain't it?" she returned.

He took a sip of the hot brew. "Seems t' me it's just as important t' enjoy the season."

Grace became defensive, "Look, Robert E, this restaurant's been my dream since I opened the Café. It'll work out perfect. The school's play is just after noon, the social at my place is in late afternoon, then it's on t' church for the Christmas Eve service."

He held up his hands in defeat. "All right. All right. Have it your way. Maybe I'm just feelin' sorry for myself."

She was surprised. "Sorry for yourself?"

"I don't wanna come second t' a restaurant," he retorted.

Grace set her pencil on the table, then leaned closer to kiss her husband. "Better?"

He smiled and shook his head. "I think I'll need some more convincin'."

************

Sully bounded down the steps and reached his crying son Noah first. The child was seated on Bridget's lap. His face was red, and he clutched his arm.

Katie and Josef had gathered around the sobbing boy.

Sully knelt down. "What happened?

At that moment, Michaela reached them.

Josef explained, "He climbed the ladder an' fell ont' his arm."

Noah leaned forward, reaching for his mother.

Michaela gently examined the limb. "Sweetheart, Mama needs to check your arm."

Noah began to quiet.

Sully guided Josef and Katie to stand back a few steps so that their mother could examine Noah.

She tenderly felt for any sign of a break or bump. "It doesn't appear to be broken."

Sully was relieved. "That's good."

Michaela requested of her husband, 'Could you please go outside and get some snow, pack it together tightly, then wrap it with a dish towel?"

"Sure." He departed immediately.

Michaela dabbed Noah's tears with her handkerchief. "The ice will make your arm feel better, my darling, and it will reduce the swelling."

Josef spoke up. "I think Papa needs t' give him a good talkin' to. He didn' listen t' Miss Bridget about climbin' that ladder."

When Michaela lifted Noah to embrace him, Bridget rose from the chair. "Come on, you two. I need some help settin' the table."

Josef began to speak, but Katie put her arm around his shoulder and guided him toward the kitchen. "You heard Miss Bridget, Joey."

The boy frowned. "Well, I sure would've got a good talkin' to."

Sully reentered the house with the packed snow and grabbed a towel on his way into the living room. "Here ya go, Michaela."

Now seated with Noah on a wing back chair, she accepted it and placed it against her son's arm. At first, Noah resisted, but eventually, the sore spot began to numb.

Michaela glanced up at her husband. Her look said that their son's injury was not serious.

Sully stepped toward the fireplace to warm himself.

Michaela began, "Papa, Noah disobeyed Miss Bridget's instructions to not climb the ladder."

She felt her son tense.

Sully, folded his arms. "That right, No-bo?"

Silently, Noah nodded in the affirmative.

The concerned father shook his head. "Seems like you didn't think before actin' again."

"I gettin' better," the little boy pointed out.

Michaela added, "Your arm might not agree with that."

Noah took a deep breath and sighed. "Josef climb up."

Sully stepped closer. "He had my help, Noah. You're still too young t' climb up high like that by yourself."

Michaela voiced her support, "That's right. Do you understand what Papa means?"

The little boy frowned. "No gifts from Santa?"

Sully touched his son's knee. "No-bo, do you know what a promise is?"

He pondered for a moment. "Doin' somethin'?"

"Kinda," Sully acknowledged. "It's doin' somethin' that ya say you're gonna do. It means you're true t' your word."

"I say twrue words," Noah replied.

Sully continued, "You need t' promise that ya won't climb up on the ladder or anythin' else high unless a grownup helps ya."

"I gotta do it?" he hesitated.

Michaela contributed, "Don't you expect us to keep our promises?"

"Uh-huh." Noah pointed to the ice pack on his arm. "How long I gotta be cold, Mama?"

She assured, "Not long. Now, are you going to promise to do what Papa said?"

"I weckon," he pledged. "Ya think Santa will forget 'bout me?"

Michaela stated, "I think that most people will forgive us when we say we're sorry."

His eyes widened, "Oh, I'm sowwy. An' I pwromise I won't climb no more."

Sully eyed him seriously. "A promise is your word now. An' a Sully's gotta be a man of his word, not just on account o' Santa, but because it's the right thing."

"'Kay." The child began to squirm. "Can I go now?"

Michaela removed the ice. "You may go."

With that, Noah slid from her lap and raced toward the kitchen.

She shook her head. "It's a wonder he didn't break his arm."

"Maybe he's got better luck than me," Sully quipped. "I've broken just about every bone in my body. Good thing I know a good doctor who can patch me back t'gether."

************

With the children tucked in for the night, and the warmth of their fireplace so inviting, Michaela and Sully sat on the rug near the hearth sipping cups of warm apple cider.

Michaela seemed mesmerized by the red and gold flickers from the fire.

Sully leaned closer to kiss her cheek. "What ya thinkin' about?"

She snuggled into him. "I was thinking of how I've acted over the years."

He queried, "How you've acted?"

Her pensive mood continued. "Through most of our marriage."

Sully leaned closer to kiss the lobe of her ear. "You mean you been actin'?"

Michaela tapped his arm playfully. "Not acting about us. It's just.... I want to tell you about something incredible that happened. I had a dream today, Sully."

Sully turned to face her. "What kinda dream?"

She settled closer to him and took a sip from the steaming cup of cider. "When the children and you were getting the tree, I did slip away."

"Ah-ha," he reacted with raised eyebrows.

She smiled at his teasing. "Not for a liaison with another man."

Sully quipped, "So I don't have t' fight a duel?"

"No. My honor is intact." she assured with a gleam in her eye.

Sully took the cup from her and set it on the floor beside them. Then he lifted her hand to his lips. His burning gaze suggested that he was not at all interested in her story.

She smiled alluringly. "Will you indulge me a while longer while I tell you what happened?"


He realized that she was serious. "Okay. Tell me."

"I went to our mountain," she revealed.

Sully's expression became more serious. "Why didn't ya tell me? I'd have come with ya."

Michaela replied, "I needed some time to think.... alone."

He grew concerned, but did not respond, anticipating that she would eventually share her reason.

She went on, "I've been so sad this year.... sometimes feeling nearly paralyzed with melancholia...."

Knowing how she had grappled with the tragedies that had befallen them, his heart ached for her. "Michaela...."

With reddened eyes, she went on, "Oh, Sully. I didn't want to worry you, but there were times when I felt as if I couldn't go on."

He sympathized, "Ya been through a lot.... thinkin' I was dead, then Annie bein' shot, an'.... losin' the baby. Any woman would feel that way."

She linked her fingers in his. "Any woman? No. I have something they lack. I have had you to help me through it."

Sully kissed her fingertips. "So, ya needed t' do some thinkin' on our mountain."

"Yes," she glanced down. "I was thinking about the baby.... no, all of the babies that we've lost."

Sully felt as if his heart would break. "Michaela, I...."

She interrupted, "Cloud Dancing came."

"What?" Sully was surprised. "Came t' the mountain?"

"I don't know how he found me," she added.

Sully smiled slightly. "He has a way of knowin' when we need him."

Michaela continued, "He said that the Spirits had told him to come. He had overheard me just as I was speaking aloud to myself in anguish."

Sully felt his heart ache. "Anguish? I should'a been there with ya. I could've...."

"Had you been with me," she hesitated for a moment. "Well, I'm not certain that I would have had the experience I did."

"What kind o' experience?" he probed.

She took a deep breath, then related, "Cloud Dancing built a fire, and we talked."

Sully peered into her eyes, allowing her time to compose her thoughts.

She turned her head to gaze into the fire. "We talked about death, sadness.... you."

"Me?" He pointed to himself.

She linked her fingers in his. "Yes. I've been so afraid that I've disappointed you."

He began to protest. "Michaela, you didn't...."

"Please let me finish," she cut in. "I didn't want to have these feelings, and you've never, ever been anything but supportive. It's because of the babies I've lost.... the ones I couldn't give you.... give us. I've felt like such a failure, and I've acted so selfishly."

Sully shook his head, then sighed.

She explained, "Cloud Dancing told me about the Cheyenne belief in three worlds. He said that one day, we would go to the world where our children are."

He nodded knowingly. "Then we'll see our babies."

Michaela affirmed, "I've already seen them."

He spoke softly in a concerned tone, "Michaela...."

"They're so beautiful, Sully," she stated.

She began to describe her vision. He sat, intently listening. As she concluded, she showed him the four leaf clover.

She spoke softly, "I can't explain how I woke up with this in my hand."

His eyes welled with tears. Standing, he walked to his chest of drawers.

She was curious. "Sully?"

He opened the top drawer and lifted a book of poetry. Beneath it, pressed to the wood, was a delicate four leaf clover.

Carefully, he lifted it and held it up. "Just like this."

Michaela rushed to him. "Carlton said they came to you in Andersonville."

His voice quivered. "I thought it was a dream, too, Michaela, but I kept this."

"My God," she uttered as she caressed his cheek. "They truly came to us both, Sully."

With tears trailing down their cheeks, Michaela and Sully embraced. For several moments, they were overcome by the emotional realization. Their life together had been filled with extraordinary and inexplicable spiritual connections. None had ever touched them as profoundly as this. It was truly an epiphany for them both.

As they parted, they placed their four leaf clovers atop the chest of drawers. Their hands touched, then clasped.

Sully spoke low, "There's somethin' ya said earlier that I wanna talk about."

Michaela wiped the tears from his cheeks. "What's that?"

"About disappointin' me," he reminded. "I need t' make you understand that you never disappointed me. We been through so much, Michaela. There's no one I ever knew who filled my heart like you do."

She uttered, "Sully.... I saw Abigail and Hannah in my vision, as well."

He questioned, "Ya did?"

************
Chapter 4
************

"Abigail said to tell you that they're fine." Michaela paused. "She's glad you found happiness and didn't want you to be alone the rest of your life."

His lower lip quivered slightly. "An' Hannah?"

"She's beautiful," Michaela smiled. "She thanked me for her brothers and sister."

Sully enfolded his wife in his arms. "They're all t'gether then."

She closed her eyes, relishing the warmth of his embrace. "Yes." Michaela drew back and tenderly cupped his cheek in the palm of her hand. "I love you so much, Byron Sully."

"I love you, too," he smiled.

Her eyes turned toward the four-leaf clovers. "I want us to do something special with these."

He nodded in agreement. "Me, too. We'll think of somethin'."

She rested her hands on his shoulders. "You've been so patient with me."

"I got no choice," he teased.

She smiled. "Aren't you the one who says we always have choices?"

He pondered for a moment. "Well, in some things, like love, I reckon we don't. I just couldn't help but love you."

She considered, "That moment on the train, when you told me that you loved me...."

He cut her off, "An' you bolted on me...."

She countered, "I made up for it when I came back from Boston. I told you that I loved you, right there in the middle of the street."

Sully drew her closer. "That's right. Took a lot o' courage, but then you always were good at public speakin'."

She stroked the sides of his face. "Do you realize that soon we'll have our entire family home with us again?"

He grinned. "We got a lot t' celebrate this Christmas."

Michaela turned up the edge of her mouth in a smile. "We certainly do."

He noticed her demeanor. "You got a look that I love, Mrs. Sully."

She lowered her head, but her eyes never left his. This alluring glance never failed to stir him.

Sully's voice was raspy. "You know what that does t' me."

Michaela feigned innocence, "I don't know what you mean."

"That look ya give me," he specified. "You're flirtin' with me."

"That's impossible," she smiled. "I don't flirt."

He grinned. "Okay. I must be wrong."

As he started to move away, she clutched his arm. "No. You're not wrong. I was.... inviting you."

He smirked. "Invitin' me t' what?"

She blushed, "You know...."

"T' do this?" His lips brushed hers.

Her heart raced as she replied breathlessly, "Yes."

"An' this?" His fingers caressed the nape of her neck.

"Most definitely." She was losing herself to him.

"How 'bout this?" His finger traced the line of her jaw.

She uttered, "Sully, I need you."

"I reckon your look told me that already," he stated. "Just so happens, I need you, too."

She tenderly stroked the sides of his face.


Sully needed no further invitation. They sat down near the hearth. For several minutes, they tempted one another with tender kisses and touches. With his hand protectively buffering the back of her head, he guided her back onto the rug. Then he smiled, mesmerized by her beauty.

Michaela reached up to draw him closer. Their light kisses began to intensify, and their clothing was soon discarded around them. The warmth of their contact shot through both of them.

Sully hesitated to ensure that his wife was ready for more intimate contact. Her kisses assured that she was. Slowly, he brought himself to her. The fullness of him drove to her very core and ignited every pore of her being.

They clung to one another passionately until they were spent from the intimate exchange of their love.

Sully sighed, "Whew. You sure are wonderful."

When he settled onto his back, Michaela rested her head upon his chest, making lazy circles on his flesh. Suddenly, he felt the warm wetness of a tear on his skin.

He gently lifted her chin to look at her more fully. "Michaela? You okay?"

She shook her head as added tears streamed down her cheeks.

"Hey." He sat up, drawing her with him. "Talk t' me. What's wrong?"

She was too overcome to speak.

"Michaela," he worried. "Did I hurt ya?"

She composed herself enough to utter, "No."

He ran his hand along her arm. "Then what is it?"

She finally confessed, "I.... can't believe it's still like this for us, Sully."

He did not understand her upset. "Like what?"

She ran her finger along his jaw. "Like this when we make love.... so incredible."

He grinned. "Why can't ya believe it?"

She mused, "Well, I have patients who confide that their marriages are dull. Their love... and intimacy fade. But ours endures, grows even stronger."

He quoted:

"Without warning,
As a whirlwind
Swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart."

She loved his quotation. "Was that Swinburne?"

"Sappho," he identified.

She raised an eyebrow. "The Greek poet?"

"Yep," he answered simply.

He wiped the last tear from her face. "Michaela, I want ya t' do somethin' for me."

She raised up slightly to peer into his eyes. "Anything, Sully. What is it?"

He hedged, hoping she would not be upset. "The way you an' me are t'gether.... the way we can sense when somethin's wrong with the other.... our connection, I think that's why the children came t' us."

She assumed, "Our love brought the vision to us?"

He explained, "It was more than a vision, an' it wasn't just coincidence. There's a deeper meanin'"

Michaela probed, "What deeper meaning?"

"I don't claim t' understand everythin' about what makes us the way we are," he considered. "But I believe they sent an important message."

She silently watched and waited for him to continue.

He affirmed, "I think they don't want ya t' blame yourself."

She tensed. "Sully, I can't help...."

"No," he interrupted. "You been carryin' this guilt an' thinkin' the miscarriages are your fault, or that they wouldn't have happened if I'd married a younger woman. Ya gotta stop thinkin' that way. Please understand, I don't blame ya. An' after what we just shared t'night, I can't make it any clearer that I married my heartsong."

She filled with love for him. "You are such an amazing man."

"Just speakin' the truth," he smiled. "I can't imagine life without you."

"I apologize for saying that you should have married a younger woman," she acknowledged sincerely. "Perhaps it's true that the children don't want me to harbor this guilt. But, if it's true, then their message applies to you, as well."

"Me?" he asked.

"Yes," she nodded. "You must stop blaming yourself for not being with me when I had the first miscarriage. I know it's a burden that you've carried all of these years. If the children can forgive us, can't we forgive our own guilt, too?"

This was harder than he imagined. Sully found it so easy to forgive his wife of anything but nearly impossible to forgive himself for not being with her. He had long been convinced that his absence, the stress of her having to run their household alone with him in hiding and the fear that he would be discovered, had caused her to lose the baby.

She noticed that he was struggling with this. "Please, forgive yourself. For our babies? For me?"

Sully inhaled deeply. "It still hurts so much.... I let you down an'...."

Gently, she interrupted him with a kiss. "We'll be with them one day, Sully. I can't let go of my guilt if you still hold on to yours."

He could never refuse doing something for her. "I'll work on it."

"Mother and Father told me that they had asked God's permission to show me our children," she recalled. "I confess that I've been so wrapped up in my own guilt and pain, I haven't properly thanked Him for all of my blessings."

Suddenly, Sully rose, drawing his wife up with him. He opened the cedar chest where Michaela kept extra quilts and blankets. On top lay the colorful one that Cloud Dancing had given him earlier this year.

Michaela was puzzled. "Are you cold?"

"No," he replied as he unfolded the blanket.

She queried, "Then why...." She stopped, recognizing the fabric.

Sully explained the significance of its colors, "Red is for confidence. Orange is balance. Yellow gives vision. Blue represents healin' an' green brings faith. The Great Creator has shown us our children."

Sully draped the blanket around Michaela and his himself.

Then he invited, "Why don't ya offer that prayer of thanks.... from both of us, Michaela?"

She closed her eyes and uttered words of gratitude to God. As she spoke, they both filled with an overpowering sense of oneness.... oneness with each other and with a power greater than themselves.

Sully embraced her more fully and kissed the top of her head. "The Great Creator has heard your words, and he knows what's in our hearts. The healin' will come."

************

At dawn, Michaela was awakened by a burst of cold air. It was Sully, returning from bringing more firewood into their bedroom.

He noticed her wide eyes. "Sorry I woke ya."

She began to rise. "I'd better check on the children."

"I just did," he spoke as he set the wood onto the hot embers. "They're fine. I put an extra blanket on the girls."

She settled back into bed and drew the wedding ring quilt higher. "You think of everything."

"We got a good six inches of snow last night," he informed her as he rubbed his hands for warmth. "That's gonna make it hard t' get the kids t' their Christmas pageant."

"Oh, Sully, we have to try," she pleaded. "They've worked so hard on their lines."

"I know," he smiled and stepped close to the crib to check on Hope. With a whisper, he added, "I didn't say we wouldn't go. I just said it would be hard. Since when did that ever stop us from doin' somethin'?"

She gestured with her index finger. "Come here, Mr. Sully."

He smiled and removed his boots. Then he lifted the blanket to join her under the covers.

She shifted to let him circle his arms around her. "Mmm. That feels better."

He kissed her temple. "Always feels better when we're together."

She closed her eyes and sighed.

"That a good sigh or a bad one?" he queried.

She retorted, "It's a sigh of contentment. We have it all, Sully. A beautiful family and home.... each other."

"Um hum," he agreed. "An' t'morrow's Christmas. We'll have Brian home, too."

"I wish that he would consider settling down here," she said wistfully.

Sully ran his hand along her arm. "Maybe he ain't ready t' settle down yet. Some men take longer than others. He always wanted t' see the world. Reckon he's gettin' that outa the way while he's young."

Michaela mentioned the young woman who ran the school for deaf and blind children in town. "I thought perhaps he and Mary might be getting closer."

He pondered, "I figure he's sweet on her but not ready t' make any commitments yet. Bein' a bachelor has its advantages."

She raised an eyebrow. "Oh? What advantages?"

Sully maintained a serious expression. "Well, for one thing, a bachelor don't have t' answer t' anyone. He comes and goes when he likes."

Michaela tensed.

He went on, "Then a bachelor can have a gal in every...."

"Byron Sully!" she interrupted. "Are you telling me that you would rather...."

"Michaela Quinn!" he grinned. "Don't you know when I'm teasin'?"

She was embarrassed. "Well, I wasn't so certain when you mentioned having a girl in every.... every what?"

"Town," he completed the sentence.

Her brow creased, "Did you have a girl in every town before you married Abigail?"

"You really wanna know?" Sully raised up.

Michaela studied his expression, then caressed his cheek. "No."

He embraced her again. "Truth is, Michaela, I never did think much of a man who led women on. I'll teach our boys t' respect a woman's feelin's when it comes time for them t' think about courtin'."

"Just as you taught Brian," she knew. "Do you remember when he ran away because he was afraid of puberty?"

Sully chuckled, "Yeah."

"And now he's a grown man." She shook her head in disbelief.

"Well, even grown men run away," he noted. "I done my share of that."

"As long as you always come home to me," she added.

He kissed her sweetly. "I know I've given ya cause t' worry over the years, but as long as I got breath in me, I'll come home t' you."

"Dorothy once told me you were like a compass that points true north," she recalled. "That was when I thought you and she were...."

He shook his head. "That imagination of yours...."

She linked her fingers in his. "Thank you for tolerating me."

"The way I look at it...." He paused and peered into her eyes. "Bein' married has a lot more advantages than bein' a bachelor."

"Oh?" She raised an eyebrow. "Care to name one?"

He kissed her fingertips. "You know I ain't much for talkin'. I'd rather show ya."

With that, Sully pulled the blanket over their heads and began to make love to his wife.

************

Brian warmed his hands near the stove in the Denver train depot lobby.

Dell approached him. "The train to Colorado Springs is delayed because of the snow."

"I figured it would be," Brian acknowledged. "Well, at least it won't disappoint my folks, since they think I'll be home tomorrow."

Dell smiled, "I feel like I'm coming home, too."

Brian patted his back. "You might just want to stay."

"What about you, Brian?" he questioned. "The way you talk about home, I would think you'd want to find a young lady and settle down."

Brian tried to conceal his flushed cheeks. "There is a gal I'm kinda sweet on, but.... well, I'm just not sure."

Dell chuckled. "Then you haven't met the right one."

"What about you?" Brian challenged. "You ever been sweet on a lady?"

"Millions of times," he grinned. "But never enough to settle down. I have this notion that when I find the right one, I'll know it instantly."

"That's the way it was for Sully and Ma," he quipped. "Except, they danced around for a couple of years before they admitted it to each other."

Dell stated with certainty, "I won't dance around when I find the right one. I'll tell her then and there."

Brian laughed. "And what if she doesn't feel the same about you?"

"Sometimes you just have to take that chance," he considered. "Carpe diem."

Brian added, "You might just scare her off."

Dell's eyes were sincere, "My grandfather once told me that the Spirits guide our hearts to the love of our life. All we have to do is listen to our hearts."

He posed the question, "You ever read Thomas Jefferson's letter about a debate between the head and the heart?"

"No," Dell responded.

He detailed, "Jefferson was always considered a man of reason, but his heart felt strong emotions. So, he penned the arguments for and against listening to each."

"And what did he conclude?" Dell wondered. "Who won the debate?"

He replied, "The heart."

"See?" Dell grinned.

************

Sully finished hitching the horses to the sleigh that he had purchased from Robert E before winter hit. Steam from the horses' nostrils wafted upward as the animals consumed the treats their master had given them.

Sully rubbed their noses and made certain that the rigging was secure. When he turned toward the homestead, he noticed four faces framed by the frosted window panes, anxiously awaiting their father's return.

He smiled and waved to his children.

Inside, Katie turned to their nanny, "Miss Bridget, I can't remember where I left my hat."

The nanny gestured toward the pegs on the wall near the front door. "Right there with your coat, darlin'."

Katie sighed.

While carrying Hope, Michaela descended the steps and noticed her older daughter's demeanor, "What's wrong, Katie?"

The child confessed, "I'm kinda nervous."

"Nervous?" Bridget was surprised. "Why? Ya know your lines forward and backward."

"I'm not worried about my lines," the little girl explained. "I'm nervous Joey will forget his."

Josef turned to his sister and frowned. "I know my lines."

Michaela smiled, "Well, I think it's just darling that you two will be reciting "A Visit From St. Nicholas."

Katie clasped her brother's hand. "Joey, we better go over it one more time."

He rolled his eyes. "All right."

The sister began, "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house...."

Josef continued, "Not a creature was stirrin' not even a louse."

Katie's eyes widened in horror. "Mouse, Joey! 'Not even a mouse!'"

Josef turned to his mother and winked. "I knew that. I was jus' jokin'."

Katie inhaled deeply. "Josef Michael Sully!"

The little boy continued to chuckle. "You sound jus' like Mama."

Michaela hoped to calm her daughter, "Sweetheart, Josef will do fine. Now, you two help Miss Bridget bundle up the twins while I get Hope ready for the ride into town."

At that moment, Sully entered the house and stomped his feet loudly on the rug by the door to loosen the snow on his boots. "Whew. Sure is cold out there."

Michaela advised, "I want you children to make certain that your scarves are wrapped around your mouths and noses to prevent frost bite."

Josef giggled, "We'll look like bank robbers."

Noah chimed in, "Le's rob the bank!"

Michaela was horrified. "Noah, that's against the law."

"I jus' teasin', Mama," he quipped.

Michaela shook her head. "I swear you boys act more and more like your father every day."

Sully knelt down to secure the children's scarves. "That ain't so bad now, is it?"

Josef advised, "I don' think girls like teasin', Papa."

Sully smiled, "Well, not all girls anyway." Whispering, he added, "Your Ma kinda likes it."

Michaela spoke up, "I heard that."

************
Chapter 5
************

It seemed as if everyone in Colorado Springs had crowded into the church for the children's Christmas presentation. Several groups sang Carols and played musical instruments. Michaela was pleased at Katie's piano duet with Samantha Bing.

From the back of the church came the jingle of sleigh bells. Suddenly, Loren Bray, donning a white beard, padding and a Santa suit, appeared. The children in attendance cheered with excitement at his arrival. He made his way forward carrying a large black sack filled with gifts which had been anonymously donated.

Loren sat on a large chair near the altar. All of the little ones quickly came forward to gather on the floor around him. Katie gestured to her brother to join her. Josef nervously stood and went to her. They faced the audience, which had quieted to listen.

Sitting on the edge of the pew, Michaela smiled in anticipation. Sully, with Hope asleep on his lap, nodded his encouragement.

Katie cleared her throat and began, "A Visit from St. Nicholas: 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house..."

Silence. Josef was frozen with stage fright.

Katie repeated, "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house..."

The boy was still paralyzed with fear.

Michaela lipped the next line for him, but Josef's eyes began to well with tears.

Katie clasped his hand and whispered, "It's okay, Joey. Don't be scared. I'm here. Just look at me when you say it, like we do at home."

As a single tear trickled down his cheek, Josef turned to face his sister. Katie smiled and winked.

Then she began again, "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house..."

Josef started softly as he uttered the next line, "Not a creature was stirrin', not even a mouse."

Michaela exhaled the breath that she had been holding.



Katie continued, "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care..."

Gaining confidence, Josef added, "In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there."

The children went on, even adding the arm gestures which their mother had suggested. Sully cast a glance toward his wife, who was nearly bursting with pride. He rested his lips tenderly on Hope's soft head and closed his eyes for a moment. The sweet smell of his youngest child, and the enthusiastic tones of his older two, filled his heart with love. He had much to savor this Christmas.

Finally, Katie cued the final line of the poem, "But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight..."

Josef waved and spoke in a deep tone, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

Michaela jumped to her feet, clapping energetically. The rest of the congregation followed her lead. The sounds wakened Hope, who was disoriented for a moment. Then realizing she was in her father's arms, she twisted around to clap her little hands, as well.

Annie left the group of children which surrounded "Santa" and rushed to her mother. "They done good, Mama!"

Michaela kissed her. "Yes, they did, Sweetheart. Now go join the others so that Santa can give you your gift."

Annie quickly obeyed while everyone returned to their seats and waited for Santa's presentation.

Loren rose to his feet. "All right, you kids, Santa's about t' give ya each a present. But first, I wanna thank Mrs. Slicker an' Mrs. Johnson for helpin' me an' my.... er.... elves get them in my sleigh."

Noah questioned, "Can we see your reindeer?"

Loren's cheeks flushed, "Uh... no, young man. They're up on the roof."

The little boy persisted, "Can we jus' see Vixen?"

Loren muttered. "Er... they're sleepin' up there. We got a busy night ahead of us."

Hank shouted out, "Hey, Santa, I think I might have a vixen or two."

A few of the men chuckled at his suggestive quip as Lexie elbowed her husband to his ribs.

Loren fidgeted with his beard, then smiled. "Now, listen here, no more askin' questions while Santa's talkin'."

Noah frowned and folded his arms. At that moment, Sully whistled a soft bird call. The child quickly pivoted and eyed his father. With a subtle look, Sully indicated for Noah to be quiet and appreciate the moment. Noah's lower lip curled under, ashamed that he might have disappointed his father.

Loren began to read each name tag on the gifts and presented the eager children with them. Inside each package was a Christmas ornament with the child's name and the year 1881.

Sully placed his hand on his wife's. "I wonder who donated the gifts."

She shrugged, "I have no idea."

He cast a doubting glance. "I bet."

She smiled, knowing that her husband suspected it was she who had contributed the presents.

He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "It was real nice of ya."

"Don't you dare say a word to anyone," she cautioned.

He winked. "Wouldn't dream of it."

When Loren completed the task of handing out the gifts, Reverend Timothy Johnson rose to offer a prayer of gratitude.

Then Grace announced, "All right, folks. Time t' move on over t' my place for a social like you ain't never seen before."

************

With the track cleared sooner than anticipated, Brian and Dell were able to board the southbound train. Brian pointed out various features of the landscape to his friend. The young man's enthusiastic narration fascinated him.

Dell quipped, "I feel like I'm listening to a travel guide."

Brian blushed. "I'm sorry. I hope I'm not boring you."

"Not at all," he assured. "I'm enjoying it, but you don't sound like someone who's unsure about where he should live."

Brian assessed, "I know this is where I want to eventually settle down. It's where my roots are, but.... I guess my uncertainty is about when I should do that."

"Like I said back in Denver, you'll know when it's time," he stated. "Meanwhile, don't put pressure on yourself. Enjoy this time with your family, and in case I didn't tell you already, I'm grateful for the invitation to spend Christmas with all of you."

"From Ma's last letter, there was to be a Christmas pageant with the children at the church, but we've missed that," Brian informed him. "I hope we'll be on time for the social at Grace's Restaurant."

************

Michaela spoke to her children as they neared Grace's restaurant. "Now, I want you to be good as gold for Colleen and Miss Bridget. Mind your manners. Papa and I shall join you soon."

Josef wondered, "Whatcha gotta do, Mama?"

Colleen informed her siblings, "They're going to the hospital to spread some Christmas cheer to the patients there."

The little boy persisted, "Can't ya spread it here?"

Michaela touched his nose. "We'll do that when we return. Go on now."

As the children turned, they spotted Matthew, Emma and Michael. There were no more questions as they rushed to see their oldest brother and his family.

Michaela handed Hope to Colleen, "Thank you, Sweetheart."

"Take your time," the young woman smiled. "We'll be fine."

With that, Sully helped his wife into the sleigh. A gentle snow had begun to fall again. Sully made certain that Michaela's lap was covered with a large buffalo hide, then he joined her in the front seat. With a flick of the reins, he directed the horses toward St. Francis Hospital.

As they rode along, Michaela raised her buffalo hide so that Sully could share. He smiled and kissed her cheek.

She linked her arm in his. "Isn't it beautiful, Sully?"

He gazed only at her. "Sure is."

"I'm referring to the landscape," she mused.

He quipped, "That, too."

"The Sisters at the hospital assured me that the gifts would all be wrapped," she informed him. "After I call on the patients, we can go on to Shantytown."

Sully smiled. "Sure is nice bein' married to a rich woman."

Michaela's jaw dropped. "Byron Sully, I never thought I'd hear you say that!"

He chuckled. "Me either. But when I see all the good ya do with your money, it makes me real proud."

"Why, thank you," she commented.

Suddenly Michaela noticed that they veered off onto a different road, one which led toward a forested area just outside of town.

"Sully?" She tilted her head. "This doesn't go to the hospital."

"I know," he nodded. "I'm takin' a detour."

She was puzzled. "But why? We'll be missed at Grace's social if we don't distribute the gifts now."

"We'll be back in plenty o' time," he assured.

They rode on in silence until he slowed the sleigh at a point where the trees were too close together to allow passage.

Michaela glanced around. "Are we lost?"

Sully jumped down and secured the horses. Then he came around to his wife's side of the sleigh. Raising his arms, he invited her to join him.

"Where are you taking me?" she queried.

He retorted, "You ask more questions than the kids."

Carrying the buffalo hide, he led her further into the trees until they reached a small clearing surrounded by rocks. Nearby steam was rising from one of the hot springs.

Michaela was still baffled. "I'm afraid I don't understand why we've come here when we have so much to do."

Sully stopped and turned to face her. "After all these years, I gotta explain everythin' to ya?"

She put her hands on her hips. "I suppose so."

Sully drew her into his arms. "I just wanted t' spend some time alone with my wife. Ya see, with our house full of family t'night, I don't think I'll have much time for this."

He leaned in and tenderly kissed her.

She felt her heart begin to race but pulled back slightly. "That's very thoughtful of my husband, but...."

Another kiss stopped her. This time, it was Sully who drew back.

He raised a finger and ordered, "Stay right here."

"But...." she began, but he touched her lips to silence her.

Sully spread the buffalo hide on the grass near the spring. Then he removed her coat and invited her to sit on it.

She hesitated, "Without my coat, I'll be...."

He interrupted, "You'll be plenty warm enough. Be right back."

Quickly, he headed to the sleigh and returned with a package. He knelt down beside her and withdrew a sprig of mistletoe from his jacket.

He grinned. "Wouldn't be a proper Christmas without this, now would it?"

She raised up to her knees, her gaze meeting the glorious clear blue eyes that she adored. "Sully, I don't know what to say."

"That's a first," he joked. "Say ya love me."

She shook her head. "What I feel for you is more than love."

He whispered, "Lust?"

"Sully!" Her eyes widened.

His smile widened. "Good t' know I can still make ya blush."

"Well, aren't you going to kiss me?" She looked up at the mistletoe still in his hand.

He slowly, teasingly leaned closer, then pulled back, then closer again. Michaela placed her gloved hands on his cheeks to still his movements. Then she kissed him. Once. Twice. A third time.

Sully felt his pulse quicken, and with parted lips, their kiss deepened.

When he drew back, he whistled, then said, "Now THAT's a kiss."

"Satisfied?" she expressed breathlessly.

He handed her the wrapped object. "Not until ya open your present."

She sounded disappointed. "You're not going to give it to me tomorrow?"

"Not this one," he quipped.

She accepted the gift and ripped the paper from it.

Her eyes gleamed. "Sully!"

"It's his newest edition," Sully detailed. "Just came out this year."

She ran her hand lightly across book's golden cover. "Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman."

He encouraged, "Open it up. Look inside the cover."


There, in the author's handwriting Whitman had penned, "The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first--Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged--keep on--there are divine things, well envelop'd; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell. Leaves of Grass-page 125 Walt Whitman."

She turned to him. "Sully! Thank you!"

Pleased at her reaction, he smiled, "You're welcome."

"I can't believe you went to all of this trouble of having Mr. Whitman sign this," she spoke excitedly.

"Well, Walt thinks very highly of you," he replied. "He was happy t' do it."

She was curious, "But... I don't understand why you wanted to give the book to me here, in this secluded place."

Sully took the book from her hands and carefully set it on the hide. Then he removed his jacket and placed it with her coat.

Embracing her, he spoke low, "'Cause I thought I might recite what's on page 80 to ya myself."

She began to melt in his arms. "Page 80?"

"The book?" he whispered. "Page 80.... in Walt's book?"

Her heart raced at the timbre of his voice.

"Leaves of Grass?" she returned.

Sully ran his hands up and down her sides. "Uh-huh."

She invited, "I'd like to hear you recite it, Mr. Sully."

He kissed the lobe of her ear, then spoke low in a husky voice against the wisps of her hair:

"I love you---O you entirely possess me,
O I wish that you and I escape from the rest,
and go utterly off--O free and lawless,
Two hawks in the air--two fishes swimming in the sea
not more lawless than we;
The furious storm through me careering
I passionately trembling;
The oath of the inseparableness of two together
of the woman that loves me, and whom I love more than my life
that oath swearing;
O I willingly stake all, for you!
O let me be lost, if it must be so!
O you and I--what is it to us what the rest do or think?"

She kissed him, then trailed her lips closer to his ear. "I believe I understand why you preferred to recite that in private."

"Mmmm." He touched her chin to guide her lips back to his. "That ain't all I hoped t' do in private."

She gulped. "Sully.... we can't do.... that.... here...."

His kisses were having an effect on her resolve.

He drew back for air. "You sayin' you don't wanna...."

She silenced him with a fervent kiss.

Sully ran his palms along her form before his fingers began to undo the buttons of her dress. Finished with that task, he leaned her back against the animal hide and drew it protectively over them both as a buffer from the cold. Beneath its warmth, Sully's hands worked their magic. His warm kisses and touches elicited powerful longings.

Sully tenderly maneuvered Michaela's hair away from her face. "Like Walt said, there are 'things more beautiful than words can tell. That's you, Michaela."

She luxuriated beneath him. "You make me feel that way.... always. I don't think I've ever loved you more than I do at this moment."

He kissed the tip of her nose. "Kinda nice bein' out here like this.... an adventure in the woods."

She sighed, "Part of me wishes we could stay here."

He touched a particularly sensitive spot. "Which part?"

She giggled, "Sully!"

Suddenly he heard something that sounded like the cocking of a gun. Michaela instantly noticed the change in his demeanor and knew her husband was reacting to a danger.

Their senses in heightened alert, they dared not move.

Then a voice became recognizable as it neared.

"What's going on here?" It was Preston Lodge.

Michaela's eyes widened in horror that the banker would discover them. Sully's mind raced for an explanation if Lodge lifted the hide.

Standing between two rocks, Preston aimed his rifle at the buffalo pelt.

Then he spoke to someone, "Cover me. I'm going to see what's under there."

************
Chapter 6
************

"Wait a minute, boss," the man spoke up. "What if it's some wounded animal or one foraging for food? It might attack us."

Preston pondered. "This animal is human. Look at those coats. And furthermore, whoever is under it is trespassing on my property."

The other man cleared his throat. "Them coats might be all that's left of someone the animal attacked."

Beneath the hide, Sully discerned the fear in his wife's eyes. He felt a pang of guilt that he had put her in such a compromising situation. He couldn't let Preston shoot at them, but if the banker lifted the hide, it would humiliate Michaela.

Then an idea occurred to him. Long ago, he had mastered the ability to not only imitate the call of animals, but he could also throw his voice, making it sound distant. There was a just enough of an opening near where the buffalo fur approached the ground for him to project the sound. He subtly moved his head so that his voice could travel through the opening.

Placing his tongue flat against his mouth, he pushed a sound like a cougar upward from his abdomen, to his larynx towards the roof of his mouth. He recalled the position the rocks near the spring and hoped that the sound would echo off of them.

Preston turned his head quickly. "Did you hear that, Wilson?"

"Yea," the man's voice trembled. "Sounds like a mountain lion."

Preston frowned. "Don't be ridiculous. We're not on a mountain."

Wilson advised, "They've been known t' come where there's people when they're hungry."

"Hungry?" Preston paused. "Perhaps a retreat is in order."

Sully could hear the two men depart quickly.

Finally certain they were alone, Sully sighed, "Michaela, I'm so sorry."

************

The Denver train slowed to a stop at the Colorado Springs Depot. Stepping onto the platform, Brian smiled warmly at the familiar surroundings. The large Christmas tree in the town square was decorated. He even recognized several ornaments, which he had made as a child, now adorning the fir.

He patted Dell on the back. "It's definitely a white Christmas."

Dell nodded. "Do you think we might admire the snow from inside a building?"

Brian retorted. "What's the matter? Can't stand the cold?"

"Oh, I can stand it," he replied. "But I'm hungry. Let's get our bags and head for this restaurant you've told me so much about."

"Grace's," Brian clarified. "Everyone will be there. I can't wait to see the look on my family's faces. Come on."

************

Sully watched his wife in admiration, distributing gifts to patients at the hospital, then for the children of Shantytown. She was truly the most beautiful woman he had ever met, inside and out. Her philanthropy was one thing, but the way she compassionately connected to people warmed his heart. Even if he had never married her, he would still count himself among the luckiest of men merely to have known her.

He was lost in those thoughts, when her voice roused him. "We can go now, Sully."

He nodded and helped her onto the sleigh.

As they rode along, he noted his wife's quiet demeanor. "Michaela, I'm real sorry for what happened at the hot spring."

Her tone was terse, "It wasn't your fault."

"That ain't how you sound," he observed. "I know you're mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you," she asserted.

He implored, "Can we talk about it? You ain't said a word t' me since...."

"Since we were nearly shot?" she cut in. "Or, should I say nearly exposed?"

He tried some levity. "One day, we'll look back and laugh about it."

"I hardly think so." She turned her head away.

He placed his hand on her leg. "You gonna stay this way all through Christmas?"

She sighed. "I don't know how I'm going to be. We were nearly humiliated, Sully."

"Nearly don't count," he reminded. "Our secret's safe."

She sighed, "Can you imagine if Preston would have seen us like that?"

He stated with emphasis,"But he didn't! You an' me are the only ones who know."

Her jaw tensed. "Our children, Sully! What about them?"

"Michaela...." he was cut off.

She interrupted, "My practice.... the hospital.... everyone in town...."

He interjected, "Why ya goin' on an' on like this? I know what could have happened."

He was met with silence.

************

The moment Brian and Dell stepped into Grace's restaurant, they were enveloped by the scrumptious aromas of the owner's savory New Orleans' cuisine.

Dell smiled. "Ah, this is heaven."

Suddenly, Colleen spotted her brother. "Brian! We didn't expect you until tomorrow!"

"I thought I'd surprise everyone," he kissed her. "I brought a friend, too. Clearing his throat, Brian introduced, "Colleen, I'd like you to meet Dr. Dell Pearson. And Dell, this is my sister, Dr. Colleen Cook."

Colleen smiled and extended her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Pearson."

Dell stared at her, mesmerized by her brown eyes, sweet smile and blonde tresses, done up with ribbons. His palms grew sweaty, and his heart fluttered. God, he had never seen a more beautiful woman.

Brian elbowed him. "Dell? My sister?"

Snapping back to reality, he accepted Colleen's hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you.... may I call you, Colleen? I've heard so much about you. But your brother's description did not do justice to you."

Colleen's cheeks flushed. "Yes, Colleen is fine. Thank you."

Brian glanced at one, then the other, as the pair simply stared in awe at one another.

Colleen noted Dell's piercing blue eyes, so sincere and compassionate. As he stared at her, they drew her in... warm, inviting, as if they could peer into her very soul. His wavy dark hair and strong jaw were striking. Never had she seen a more handsome man.

Suddenly, the couple realized that they were still clasping hands, and slowly, they let go of one another.

Brian wondered if his eyes were deceiving him. Neither his sister, nor his friend was ever short on conversation, but the silence between the two became uncomfortable.

Gradually becoming aware of music in the background, Dell gazed into Colleen's eyes. "Do you think I could have this dance?"

"I'd love to," Colleen replied without hesitation.

Brian mentioned, "But... I thought you were hungry."

Ignoring the remark, Dell confidently led Colleen to the dance floor and began to expertly guide her through the steps.

Brian's mouth was agape at the sight of his sister and friend so enamored with one another. If he didn't know better, he would have thought they were in love. Love at first sight? No, that only happened in dime novels and with Ma and Sully.

At that moment, Matthew and his other siblings noticed Brian's presence and rushed to greet him. Rapid fire questions and embraces followed.

Finally, when the children settled, Brian queried, "Where are Ma and Pa?"

Matthew explained, "They went off to deliver some gifts."

Josef commented, "If ya ask me, they been gone a long time."

Brian laughed, "Look at how tall you kids have gotten."

Matthew put his arm around him. "And look who's talkin', little brother. But you're too thin. Ma's gonna try t' fatten you up."

Josef shook his head. "I reckon that means eatin' veg-tables."

Emma gestured toward Colleen. "Have you boys seen your sister? She's dancing with someone."

Matthew turned to glance in that direction. "And Andrew looks like he don't like it."

Brian identified, "That's my friend, Dell Pearson. I invited him to spend Christmas with us. He's a real interesting fellow, and he has a lot in common with Colleen."

Matthew nodded. "They sure look like they got a lot in common."

************

Dell held Colleen close, his eyes never leaving hers. "So, that's my life story in a nutshell. When Brian invited me, I couldn't resist coming back here to the land of my grandfathers."

Colleen smiled shyly, "You've led a fascinating life. Maybe.... well, maybe you'll like Colorado Springs so much, you'll decide to stay."

He returned the smile. "I'm liking it more and more."

************

Andrew frowned at Loren. "Will you look at Colleen?"

The older man leaned back with his thumbs tucked in his vest pockets. "I see her. Sure does look like she's smitten. Last time I saw a couple lookin' like that at each other.... well, it was Sully an' Dr. Mike."

Jake smirked, "Hey, Andrew, why don't you go cut in? See if she'll dance with you?"

Hank sipped on his spiked punch. "Yea. I'd love t' see a good brawl."

Andrew asserted, "I'm not going to do anything."

"Afraid?" Hank nudged him.

Andrew answered, "More like disappointed. Loren's right. The way they're making eyes at each other...." His voice trailed off.

Loren questioned, "Who is that fella anyway?"

Hank gestured. "I saw him come in with Brian Cooper."

Loren's eyes lit up. "Brian's home? I'm gonna go see him."

Jake turned to Hank, "I smell somethin' in your punch. Where'd ya get it?"

Hank patted his jacket pocket. "It ain't a party without a little libation. I brought a flask."

Jake extended his cup. "Got some left for me?"

"I thought you was on the wagon." Hank eyed him.

Jake replied, "A little bit won't hurt."

************

Preston was about to enter Grace's Restaurant when he saw Michaela and Sully's arriving on their sleigh.

He paused at the door and smiled. "Well, well. Running late are we?"

Michaela stiffened. "We were, uh... running some last minute errands."

Not replying, Sully came around to his wife's side and helped her step down.

Preston's brow wrinkled when he noticed the contents of the sleigh. "What sort of animal hide is that?"

Michaela's cheeks flushed, and she turned to her husband.

Sully glared at the banker. "None o' your business."

Preston raised his hands. "An innocent question. It just looked familiar. It must keep you very warm."

Michaela remarked, "If you'll excuse us, Mr. Lodge, as you said, we are running late and...."

Preston persisted, "What errands were you running?"

She became defensive. "If you must know, we went to the hospital and then to Shantytown."

"Shantytown?" he chuckled. "Why on earth would you go there?"

Sully glared at the banker, prompting Preston to back off. Sully opened the door and escorted Michaela into the party.

Preston remained, puzzled at their behavior and curious about the pelt. He stepped toward the sleigh and ran his hand across it. "Why, this looks like that hide I saw on the ground near that hot spring.... What would it be doing on Michaela's sleigh?"

Preston prided himself on his memory. The coats he had seen near the hide.... They were the ones Michaela and Sully were wearing. Why on earth would they have been at the hot spring, with their coats on the ground and....

His jaw tensed as the answer occurred to him. "Disgusting."

Hank overheard him as he came through the door to light up a cigar. "Disgustin'? You thinkin' about all the nasty things you done t' folks this year?"

Preston ignored the barb. "It's disgusting what a man and woman would do."

"Jealous cause you ain't got a woman?" Hank probed.

The banker frowned, "You have no idea what they were doing."

Hank grinned mischievously. "Sounds like fun. Who ya talkin' about?"

"Michaela and Sully," Preston stated. "They were at one of the hot springs on my land.... beneath a buffalo hide. It's disgusting. It's uncivilized. It's.... it's scandalous."

The lawman questioned, "Hold on. You saw Michaela an' Sully underneath a buffalo hide?"

"Well, I didn't exactly see them because they were under it," he clarified.

Hank was amused. "Sounds pretty far fetched t' me. What makes ya think it was them?"

"Because that hide is now on their sleigh!" He gestured. "And the coats they were wearing when they arrived here.... I saw those on the ground near the spring, too."

"What color were the coats?" Hank inquired.

Preston stated simply. "Black."

Hank let forth a loud laugh. "Half the folks in Grace's wore black coats here."

"I know what I saw," he insisted.

Hank shook his head. "Ya saw a couple o' black coats on the ground along with a buffalo hide."

"You make it sound insignificant," Preston replied.

He exhaled in frustration. "Okay, for argument's sake, let's say it was Michaela an' Sully under it. So what? Did ya see them movin' around?"

"Well.... no," He thought back.

Hank quipped, "You got a real good imagination, Preston."

"It wasn't my imagination," he declared.

The sheriff challenged, "So, if ya thought they was under the hide doin' somethin' improper, why didn't ya just lift it up an' confront 'em?"

He stated. "I heard a mountain lion."

Hank let forth a hearty laugh, "You got any idea how ridiculous this sounds?"

"I don't think the town will find it ridiculous," Preston warned.

Hank's expression suddenly turned stern. "I suggest ya keep quiet about this, unless ya wanna be laughed outa town."

"Keep quiet?" Preston questioned. "I should say not! When the town's most prestigious physician, a member of the town council, is cavorting on my property with...."

Hank poked his finger into Preston's chest. "Since you didn't actually see anythin', I reckon you got nothin' t' tell folks."

"You don't think her patients would want to know?" he went on. "And the town council? The ladies quilting circle? Their fine lady doctor is nothing but a...."

Hank's jaw tensed. "Keep your mouth shut, if ya know what's good for ya."

"Keep my mouth shut?" Preston straightened. "Are you threatening me, Sheriff?"

"Just a friendly warnin'," Hank responded.

Preston asked, "Why should you care about this? You and Sully have had your difference. So have you and Michaela."

Hank stepped back. "You been warned." With that, he tossed his cigar into the snow, turned and reentered the party.

Preston grinned. "Your threats mean nothing to me.... not when I have something this delicious to use to my advantage."

************

Michaela finally let go of her embrace of Brian. "You're much too thin."

Sully patted his son's back. "Ya look great t' me."

The young man smiled. "I hope ya don't mind my coming home early."

"Mind?" Michaela embraced him again. "Not in the least! I'm thrilled."

Brian gestured toward the young man dancing with Colleen. "I brought my friend, Dell Pearson along."

Michaela turned to glance at them. "Colleen and he seem to be getting along well."

Matthew added, "More than well, Ma. They been like that for the past hour."

************

As the afternoon turned into evening, Michaela grew more uncomfortable at Preston's presence. He seemed to be lurking everywhere she turned. Sully noticed, too, and it took every ounce of self-restraint he possessed to not throw the man out.

Hank approached the mountain man. "So, you an' Michaela were late t' the party."

Sully said nothing.

The sheriff added. "Preston was askin' me about it."

Sully turned his attention to Hank. "It's none o' his business."

Hank nodded. "Ain't none o' mine either, except I thought I should warn ya, he thinks you two were out by one o' the hot springs...."

His pause alarmed Sully. "We was at the hospital an' Shantytown."

Hank smiled. "If you say so."

Sully eyed him sternly. "I said that's where we were."

Hank shrugged. "Like I said, it ain't my business. But I thought ya oughta know that the banker's got a different notion on your whereabouts."

At the other side of the room, Dorothy approached her best friend. "Michaela, you all right?"

She replied, uncomfortably, "All right? Of course. It's a lovely party. My family is home. Why would you think otherwise?"

The redhead tilted her head. "I think otherwise 'cause I know ya. Ya don't look happy."

"Don't be silly." She averted her eyes. "I'm perfectly happy."

Dorothy touched her arm. "It's me you're talkin' to, Michaela. Ya forget what we been through t'gether? What's got ya frettin'? Maybe I can help."

Michaela inhaled deeply, then exhaled a purging breath. "If you knew someone who.... who did something that could prove embarrassing for others to learn, what would you advise them to do?"

Dorothy carefully studied her expression. "You did somethin' embarrassin'?"

Michaela's shoulders slumped. "I.... I didn't say it was I. And.... it wasn't exactly embarrassing.... That is, if it were known, it would be embarrassing."

The redhead smiled. "Does this somethin' involve you an' Sully?"

Michaela leaned closer and whispered. "He wanted to give me my Christmas gift early. So, before we went to the hospital and Shantytown, he stopped near a hot spring. It was so romantic that...."

She stopped when she felt her cheeks grow hot.

Dorothy assured, "Oh, Michaela, ya didn't do anythin' wrong. You're married, for goodness sake. Why would you be embarrassed about.... You two were alone, right?"

"We thought we were," Michaela sighed.

Her face paled. "Someone saw ya?"

Michaela explained, "No. We were beneath a buffalo hide. Preston came along and...."

"Preston!" Dorothy's eyes widened.

"Shhh," Michaela cautioned. "He didn't see us"

Dorothy nodded. "Then what are you so worried about?"

"His friend and he nearly shot us out there," Michaela informed her. "Sully made a sound like a mountain lion and scared them away."

"So all they saw was the hide then," Dorothy concluded. "Not you an' Sully."

"As far as I know," Michaela glanced toward the banker. "But when we arrived here, he noticed the hide on our sleigh and started to ask all sorts of questions. He's been lurking around me ever since we got here."

The redhead advised, "Well, then, we gotta think of somethin' t' get his mind off o' what he thinks he saw."

"Pardon me?" she questioned.

Dorothy clarified, "We gotta think up some logical explanation."

"I certainly don't intend to broach the subject with him," she asserted.

Dorothy smiled and straightened her hair. "Then leave it up to me."

"You're going to say something to him?" Michaela's voice quivered.

She retorted, "Don't worry. I ain't a writer for nothin'."

Dorothy turned and headed for Preston.

The banker smiled and bowed his head when she approached, "Nice to see you here, Dorothy. May I get you some punch?"

She brushed back a strand of hair from her cheek. "No, thank you, Preston. A real fine social, ain't it?"

"Indeed," he nodded. "I must commend Grace. She certainly knows how to throw a party. And it appears everyone is here."

"I'll have quite a lot t' report in the social column of The Gazette," she agreed.

Preston grinned, "I imagine so. Of course, the social column could become even more interesting if you reported what went on before everyone arrived."

She tilted her head quizzically. "I don't understand. What went on before everyone arrived?"

He gestured toward Michaela. "Since you're her friend, you would probably defend her."

"Michaela?" Dorothy answered. "What's to defend?"

He leaned closer. "Perhaps you don't know our prim and proper doctor as well as you think."

Dorothy eyed him. "I know Michaela very well. What does that have to do with my social column?"

He questioned, "What if the town were to find out that she and her husband were... delayed in their arrival here because of something scandalous?"

************
Chapter 7
************

Hank neared Preston and Dorothy. "So, what are you two talkin' about?"

Preston cleared his throat, "I can assure you, it's nothing that would be of interest to you."

"Try me," Hank persisted.

Dorothy wondered why Hank would come over to speak with them, particularly since he loathed Preston. She studied the Sheriff's expression. There was something stern in his eyes, almost warning Preston. Did Hank know what Preston had seen?

Dorothy smiled. "Preston was just about to give me some information for my social column."

Hank rubbed his jaw. "That so? Like what?"

Preston was growing increasingly uncomfortable. He began to perspire and fidgeted with his shirt collar.

Hank noticed. "Somethin' wrong? Ya don't look so good."

He took a deep breath. "I think I need a drink of.... punch."

Hank put his hand on the banker's shoulder. "Let me help ya. I know a lot about punches."

The two men turned and headed for the beverage table. Dorothy frowned. She would have to find another opportunity to throw Preston off Michaela's trail.

************

Following the Christmas Eve church service, the Sully-Cooper family headed home. The children chatted excitedly about the impending arrival of Santa Claus. Michaela insisted that her entire family spend the night. So, Matthew, Emma, Michael, Colleen, Brian and Dell followed the sleigh back to the homestead.

While the men took care of the animals in the barn, and Emma helped Bridget change the children into their night clothes, Michaela had the opportunity to question Colleen about the party.

Michaela smiled, "So, tell me what you think of Dell?"

The young woman's cheeks flushed. "He's very nice."

"Only nice?" Michaela probed. "He certainly monopolized your attention through the entire party."

She shrugged, "He's nice, and he's interesting."

The mother questioned, "That's all? You seemed quite taken with him."

"We discovered that we have a lot in common," she answered.

Having removed their coats, Michaela gestured toward the kitchen. "Help me make some warm milk for the children?"

"Sure." Colleen followed. "Just like old times."

"All of my children gathered around, while I read A Christmas Carol,'" Michaela spoke excitedly. "I shall treasure each moment."

Colleen nodded. "Dell said that he might stay in Colorado Springs for longer than a visit."

Michaela raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

She began to set cups on the table. "Um-hum. Did you know that he's part Cheyenne?"

"No, I didn't," Michaela acknowledged.

Colleen went on, "He wants to do something for his grandfather's people."

As she spoke, her enthusiasm for the handsome doctor was evident. Michaela smiled, nodded and probed no further. Within a matter of minutes, Colleen had detailed Dell's life story. Her daughter gushed with enthusiasm over his accomplishments and his character.

Finally, Michaela placed her arm around Colleen's shoulders. "I haven't heard you speak about a man this way in a long time."

She sighed, "Oh, Ma. I just wonder if he's too good to be true."

"He certainly sounds wonderful," Michaela responded. "Do you have reason to doubt his sincerity?"

"No, not at all," she returned. "But, given all that's happened to me, I sort of question my judgment."

"Well, I don't question your judgment," Michaela assured.

Before Colleen could speak again, the front door opened. Sully and the young men traipsed in, shivering from the temperatures outside. The sound of the children became louder as they descended the stairs.

Michaela leaned closer to her daughter. "We'll speak about this again?"

Colleen smiled. "I'd like that."

Soon, they all gathered around the living room fireplace to listen to Michaela read. Periodically, she paused to drink in their sweet faces. She noticed, too, that Colleen and Dell seemed so lost in each other, they paid no attention to A Christmas Carol.

Michaela concluded the Dickens tale, "And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"

Hope had long fallen asleep in her father's arms, but the rest of the family applauded.

Michaela glanced at the mantel clock, "And now my darlings, it's time for bed."

Josef protested, "I think ya need t' read another story, Mama."

Sully spoke up, "Do what your Ma says, Joe."

Katie took Annie's hand. "Come on. All us girls can sleep in my room."

"All?" Michaela mused.

Katie announced, "Mama, Colleen, Emma, Miss Bridget, Annie, Hope an' me."

Michaela's brow creased, "Sweetheart, your room isn't large enough for that many grownups. It will be fine for you children. I think Annie, Hope and you can share your bed. Josef, Noah and Michael can use Papa's bed roll and sleep on the floor in your room."

Matthew offered, "Ma, there's not enough room for all of us in the house. Why don't we go back...."

Michaela interrupted. "I want all of my children to sleep in our home tonight. That way, we can all wake up on Christmas morning together."

He retorted, "I don't think there'll be much sleepin', but if it makes you happy."

"Very happy," she smiled. "Now, Emma and you can sleep in Josef's room, Brian and Dell can share the twins' room. Colleen, I think you'll find the settee in my office quite comfortable."

Colleen offered, "I'll sleep with the children, Ma."

Bridget interceded, "You sleep in my room, Miss Colleen. I best stay with the leprechauns to make sure there's not pokin' around tryin' t' catch Santa Claus."

Josef folded his arms. "Ya know me too well, Miss Bridget."

"Aye, Lad," she winked.

Michaela nodded. "It's settled then."

************

With the family retired for the evening, Sully set about bringing in the multitude of gifts from the barn and placing them around their tree. When he was finally finished, Sully climbed the steps and entered his bedroom. Michaela was in bed, eyes closed. The only light came from the flickering fireplace.

He lightly pulled the quilt higher on her, then walked to the basin to remove his shirt and wash up. When he had finished, he put on a clean shirt, stepped toward the window and pulled back the curtain slightly. The silent night was beautiful. Pristine snow blanketed the ground, while a few shimmering stars dotted the darkened sky.

His thoughts turned to Michaela. He didn't blame her for being upset with him today. Her honor, dignity and reputation were nearly compromised by his....

His thoughts were interrupted by the feel of her warm hand on his back.

He pivoted to draw her closer. "I thought you were sleepin'."

"I was, but then I smelled you," she spoke low.

He grinned. "Smelled me? Do I need a bath?"

"No," she circled his waist with her arms. "You smell good."

"Thanks." He kissed the top of her head.

They stood quiet for several moments, enjoying the view of the winter landscape through their frosted window pane.

Finally, he broke the silence. "There were times this year when I didn't think I'd ever see Christmas with the kids an' you."

She shivered at the memory of his ordeal at Andersonville. "I'm incredibly grateful to have you by my side again."

His tender voice soothed her. "I know you're real happy t' have everyone home again."

She wondered, "Do you think I was too bossy with my insistence that they all spend the night with us?"

"Yea," he agreed.

She looked up at him with a curious expression.

He smiled. "But I like it when you're bossy."

She lifted up to kiss his cheek. "Thank you, Mr. Sully."

"You're welcome," he replied.

She broached the subject, "What do you think of Brian's friend Dell?"

"Seems like a nice fella," Sully assessed. "Looked like Colleen thinks real highly of him."

"You noticed?" she smiled.


"I'd have t' be blind t' not notice how those two were lookin' at each other," Sully quipped.

"Yes, Colleen is certainly taken with him, and after just meeting him," she noted.

Sully drew his wife near. "Just like another couple I know."

"Horace and Myra?" she teased.

He chuckled. "Colleen didn't have t' fall in the mud t' get Dell's attention though."

Michaela raised an eyebrow. "Do you honestly think that I fell into that mud puddle deliberately, to get your attention?"

"Sure," he retorted. "Fastest way t' a man's heart."

She shook her head. "I dare say there are cleaner ways to turn a man's head."

"Name one," he challenged.

She gazed at him enticingly.

Sully admitted, "Okay. You win."

"Good," she smiled.

Sully turned to a more serious topic. "Michaela, I think we oughta talk about what happened with Preston.... I don't want it comin' between us."

She sighed, "I told Dorothy about it."

"When?" He was surprised.

"At the party, she wondered why I seemed so upset," Michaela responded.

He was curious, "What'd she say?"

"She said to leave it up to her," Michaela informed him.

Sully was puzzled. "What's she gonna do?"

She shook her head. "I don't know, but she implied that her writing skills would play a part."

"She's gonna write about it?" His eyes widened.

"I think she meant she would distract him with some explanation of what he saw," Michaela stated.

"Hank said Preston was askin' a lot o' questions about us," Sully revealed.

Michaela's heart skipped a beat. "Hank knows?"

"Don't worry," Sully counseled. "He don't know anythin', an' even if he did, he wouldn't say anythin'."

She sighed.

He rubbed her back. "Everythin's gonna be all right. All you gotta do is concentrate on havin' a wonderful Christmas."

"I hope you're right," she returned.

He smiled. "Sometimes that happens. So, you ain't mad at me anymore?"

"Watching the children this evening, so eager for Christmas.... Well, it made me realize that I can't dwell on what nearly happened or what someone thought he saw," she detailed. "I nearly lost Annie and you this year and...."

He knew why she stopped and drew her hand to his heart. "Cole...."

"He's waiting for us," she knew. "You and I have made it through so much, Sully. I truly believe that it's made our bond, our love, even stronger."

He took her hand and guided her toward the bed. "Come on. Let's get some sleep. The kids will be up soon. I wanna be well rested for the special day ahead."

They slipped beneath the covers and into each others arms. Exhausted from their day, they soon fell asleep.

************

At the Chateau, Preston was preparing to ascend the lobby stairs for the evening when he spotted Hank entering the building.

He folded his arms. "Well, well, Sheriff. What brings you here on Christmas Eve? I would think you'd be home with your family."

"The wife an' kid are asleep," Hank quipped. "Besides, I thought you'd like t' know that I did some investigatin' about the poachers you saw t'day."

"Poachers?" Preston frowned. "What are you talking about?"

Hank rolled his eyes. "Don't ya remember tellin' me about seein' somethin' near one o' your hot springs?"

Preston put his hands on his hips. "You know very well those were not poachers."

Hank explained, "I got a telegram from the marshall over in Manitou. Says he caught some poachers stealin' buffalo hides. There were ten stolen off a train. Seems the poachers only had nine when they was caught."

"What I saw was not stolen property," he affirmed. "Let me read that telegram."

Hank dismissed him, "Can't. It's official business."

Preston grinned. "I don't believe you for one second."

Hank rubbed his stubbled chin. "Since you was the last t' see that missin' hide, I might have t' take ya in for questionin'."

"That's ridiculous," Preston mocked.

Hank suggested, "I reckon you wouldn't mind me searchin' the premises for that stolen property then."

"I will not have you disturbing my guests with such a spurious claim," he affirmed.

"I ain't lookin' for spurs," Hank grinned. "I'll be lookin' for a buffalo hide."

"Then I must insist that you have a warrant." Preston knew the law. "And since it's Christmas Eve, there is no way that you can obtain one."

Hank nodded. "Yea, well, ya got me there. But there's nothin' t' keep me from stayin' here an' keepin' an eye on you, t' make sure ya don't go tryin' t' sell that hide."

Preston sighed in exasperation. "All right, Sheriff. You win. I didn't see anything. I don't know anything. There's no reason for you to stay here."

Hank raised his eyebrows. "Ya mean that?"

"Yes, I mean it," he pledged.

Hank shrugged. "Okay then. If ya think ya remember anythin' more about this.... crime, I'll be back t' question ya."

"Certainly, Sheriff." Preston escorted him to the door. "Good night now, and have a Merry Christmas."

With Hank's departure, Preston glanced around the ornate lobby of his chateau. Outside of Denver, its luxurious amenities were the finest in Colorado. He had spared no expense to entice travelers from as far away as Europe to enjoy the restorative powers of its hot springs. He was successful and rich.

His only regret in life was that he had no wife with whom to share it, nor did he have any heirs to pass it along to at the end of his life. What he wouldn't have given to have had the beautiful and fiery Michaela Quinn as his devoted wife. She would have been quite a match.

Preston straightened up and vowed to himself, "If I can't have you, then no man should, Michaela. Hank's ploys will not deter me. You've brought this on yourself, and now you'll have to pay for rejecting me for the likes of Byron Sully."

************

Hank pounded a second time on the door of The Gazette. Finally, he saw the flicker of a lamp. Then Dorothy's form came into view.

She opened the door and stepped back. "Hank? What on earth...."

"I need t' talk t' ya," he announced.

************
Chapter 8
************

Sully knew it was well after midnight, but he couldn't sleep. He didn't want to waken Michaela with his tossing and turning, so he rose from the bed and put on his buckskins. He crept to the hearth and placed two logs on top of the embers. Then he sat back on the rug and gazed into the resulting flames.

"Sully?" Michaela stirred. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he assured softly. "Go on back t' sleep."

"What's wrong?" She sat up.

He replied, "Nothin'."

She reached for her robe and stepped into her slippers. Reaching her husband, she knelt behind him and began to massage his shoulders.

"That feels good," Sully admitted as he felt the tension leave his body.

Michaela leaned closer to kiss his shoulder. "Sorry I dozed off and didn't help you with putting all of the gifts around the tree."

"That's okay" he sighed.

"You're quite tense," she observed. "Is your back bothering you?"

He closed his eyes, relishing the healing touch of her hands. "No. I'm all right."

She smiled, then sat down to face him. "Care to discuss what's bothering you?"

He took a deep breath, then exhaled through pursed lips. "Nothin' for you t' worry about. Remember? We're gonna enjoy Christmas Day with our family."

"You're my family, too," she reminded. "And if something's bothering you, I want to know what it is, so that I can help you."

He caressed her cheek. "Truly, there's nothin' botherin' me. I just wanted t' sit here real quiet, an' know that everyone I love is under our roof t'night."

Her eyes grew moist. "That's a beautiful sentiment."

He linked her fingers in his, then drew them to his lips. "There's moments in life when I need t' stay awake an' ponder what things mean t' me. When I was on my own, nighttime was when I'd think about all I lost. Now, when the house is quiet, the kids are asleep, an' you're next t' me, I think about all I got."

She drew closer and kissed his temple. "I love you so much, Byron Sully."

He kissed her hand. "I love you, too. Ya know, t'day when you were handin' out those gifts t' the patients an' the folks at Shantytown? It hit me how foolish I was about you inheritin' your Ma's money."

"You weren't foolish," she whispered. "Stubborn perhaps, but not foolish."

He grinned. "Anyway, I want ya t' know how proud I am of you, Michaela.... not just proud of the wife, mother an' doctor that ya are. I'm proud of the human bein' ya are. I still have so much t' learn about ya, an' the more I know, the more I love."

Her voice caught in her throat, so moved was she by his tender admission. He smiled at her expression, then softly traced her facial features with his fingertips.

Michaela's heart raced at his electrifying touch. "You're an incredible man. You described precisely how I feel about you. All that you've done over the years to protect the Indians and the land.... you've truly touched the future, Sully, for our children, our grand children and great-grandchildren.... generations of Sullys to come."

He uttered, "You've given me that future. Your love brought me back t' life.... more than once. Ya gave me your precious heart an' our sweet children t' cherish. I feel like I'm the richest man in the world."

Again, his affectionate words filled her with a myriad of emotions. She tilted her head toward his, and they sat, reveling in the feelings that their light touches evoked.

Then he sat up and peered into the mismatched eyes he adored. "Ya know what?"

"What?" she anticipated.

He placed his hand against his heart. "I promise ya that 1882 is gonna be a perfect year for us."

She shook her head. "You can't promise that, Sully."

"I just did," he avowed. "I'm gonna make sure that no harm comes t' our family."

"No bumps, bruises or crying?" she mused.

"Nope," he pledged. "Nothin' bad. Only good things. Your happily ever after is long overdue."

She affirmed, "But I am happy."

Sully clasped her hands. "I ain't takin' any more chances. I ain't gettin' int' any quarrels or fights."

"What about with Preston?" she mentioned.

His demeanor quickly changed. "I reckon I can steer clear of tanglin' with him, long as he leaves you alone."

"That may never happen, you know," she pointed out.

His exhale was audible. "A promise is a promise."

She gazed at him adoringly. "I love you for wanting to protect us from all harm."

He grinned, "You sleepy?"

She replied "No. You?"

"Nope," he winked.

Her voice was breathy, "You know I can't resist your charms when you look at me that way."

He smiled and moved closer for a kiss. "It ain't so bad, not bein' able t' resist me, is it?"

She smiled ever-so-slightly. "No. Not bad at all."

Sully slowly drew her up and into his arms as he rose to his feet. Their desire for one another was fueled anew with each kiss and caress.

He guided her onto the bed, then joined her. Quietly, he slid the robe off of her shoulders. Then he kissed the nape of her neck, savoring the scent of her as he moved.


She stroked his bare arms and back, drawing strength from their strength. "A perfect year, first begins with a perfect night."

His voice was raspy in reply, "You becomin' a poet on me?"

"You inspire me," she returned.

He spoke low, near her ear.

"But boundless oceans, roaring wide,
Between my love and me,
They never, never can divide
My heart and soul from thee."

She raised an eyebrow. "Was that you or a poet?"

"Robert Burns," he identified. "I ain't nearly that eloquent."

She maneuvered ever closer. "To the contrary, Mr. Sully, you're quite eloquent."

Their kisses deepened and intensified. As they were reaching the point of no return, they heard a soft rapping at the door.

Sully raised up. "Did you hear somethin'?"

"One of the children?" She quickly pulled up her robe.

Sully took deep breaths, trying to calm his surging pulse.

When Michaela opened the bedroom door, there stood Noah, his eyes red and his hair tussled.

Michaela knelt down. "Sweetheart, what's wrong?"

"I been cwyin', Mama."

Sully raised the lamp as Michaela pulled the little boy into her arms.

The mother embraced her son. "Did you have a bad dream?"

"My arm," He held up the limb. "It huwts."

Sully offered, "I'll go get your bag."

As her husband left the room, Michaela carried the little boy over to the double rocking chair.

After settling him on her lap, she began to rock back and forth.

She spoke low. "When you were just a tiny one, Papa and I would hold you beneath our clothing to keep you warm and safe. I wish I could still protect you from...."

Lulled by the movement and warmth of his mother's arms, the child had already fallen asleep.

When Sully returned, he knelt before them and whispered, "I reckon he'll be spendin' the night with us."

She smiled, sensing her husband's disappointment. "Do you mind? I'm sure he's not comfortable on the floor in there. It must have aggravated his pain."

"Mind?" Sully gazed at her with love. "I never mind watchin' you with our kids."

Sully sat beside her and tenderly kissed Noah's head. "Seems like only yesterday he could fit in the palm o' my hand."

"We worried so that his lungs wouldn't develop," she recalled.

Sully retorted, "They're good an' strong now. How 'bout I put him in bed with us, an' we get some sleep?"

"That sounds wonderful," she responded.

************

Dorothy invited Hank into The Gazette office and closed the door behind him. "What did ya wanna talk about at this hour?"

He rubbed his hands together for warmth. "Preston Lodge."

The redhead inquired, "What about him?"

"He's got a fool notion about Michaela an' Sully," Hank mentioned. "I need ya t' write somethin' in the paper."

She probed, "What kind 'o fool notion?"

Hank remained vague. "Let's just say it ain't somethin' they'd want folks t' know about."

"You're confusin' me here, Hank," she said. "If it's somethin' Michaela an' Sully don't want folks t' know, why do ya want me t' put it in The Gazette?"

"I saw ya talkin' t' Michaela at the party t'day." He rubbed his chin. "I think ya know what needs t' be done. I got an idea that you can use with them writin' skills o' yours t' give folks an explanation before Preston can tell his version of things."

Dorothy reached for her tablet and pencil. "I'm listenin'."

Hank began. "I heard about some thieves who stole buffalo hides off a train."

Dorothy glanced up from her writing. "Buffalo hides?"

He continued, "Preston mentioned t' me at the party that he saw one on the ground out by one o' his hot springs."

As she wrote, Dorothy tried to contain the faint smile on her face. Hank had come up with a story to prevent Preston from tarnishing Michaela and Sully's reputation. The gruff Sheriff had certainly changed.

Hank related, "I investigated t' see if this hide was the one that was stolen off the train. Turns out it was. So, thanks t' Preston, it was returned."

She finished jotting down her notes. "And they lived happily ever after?"

He grinned impishly, "Only in fairy tales."

She nodded, "This is very thoughtful, Hank."

He shrugged. "Don't let it get around. I got a reputation t' protect. You can add any details ya want t' the story. I best get home before Lexie gets worried."

She added, "Merry Christmas."

************

It was not much after dawn when Michaela and Sully heard the excited voices of their children, eager to go downstairs to find their gifts.

Sully yawned and sat up. "I better go help Bridget."

Noah kissed his mother's cheek. "Mewwy Chwismas."

"Merry Christmas to you, my darling," she returned. "How does your arm feel?"

"All bettah," he grinned.

Sully stood and lifted his son. "Come on, No-bo. I bet there's somethin' for you under the tree."

"But I was bad, Papa," he contritely admitted.

"On Christmas Day, all the bad things we do are forgiven," Sully noted.

************

The children were overwhelmed by their gifts: Clothes and shoes, dolls and dollhouses, fire trucks, boats, stuffed animals and trains, puzzles, toy soldiers, dreamcatchers, moccasins and drums, tea sets, baseballs and bats.... They had never seen so much. For the grown children, there were books, pen sets, watches and china dishes. They were stunned by the generosity of their parents.

Michaela and Sully sat, hand in hand, smiling at the enthusiasm of their family.

Annie stopped opening presents and walked over to her parents. "Santa must be rich!"

Michaela kissed her cheek. "I think he knows what a special family lives here."

The little girl quickly rejoined her siblings.

Sully shook his head. "Never thought I'd enjoy seein' my kids with so many presents."

"Are you having second thoughts about buying them so much?" Michaela questioned.

"Nope," he smiled. "Look at how happy they are."

Michaela stood up. "I think Santa may have forgotten one."

"What?" Sully feared that he might have left something in the barn.

She stepped away and went into her office.

Returning shortly, she set a package on to Sully's lap. "This."

He grinned and shook it. Then he ripped the paper away. Opening the box, he found a navy blue pea coat.

He was pleased. "Michaela!"

"It's for that lost little boy who ventured west and ultimately found me," she uttered. "Perhaps you can wear it on occasions when you don't feel like wearing your buckskin coats."

He kissed her. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," she replied.

Sully stood up. "Come t' think of it, Santa forgot somethin' else."

He retreated to the kitchen and came back with a package for his wife.

She was puzzled. "But you gave me my gift yesterday. 'Leaves of Grass.'"

He grinned. "That was just t' throw ya off track. This here's your real gift."

She imitated his action earlier of shaking the box, then tore off the paper and opened it. Inside was a necklace choker made of strings of pearls. Attached to it, at evenly spaced intervals, were ivory cameos of children, each depicting a girl or boy. There were large ones for their children and slightly smaller ones for those they had lost. Engraved on the back of each was the name of the children.

Tears streamed down her cheeks. "Oh, Sully! It's magnificent."

"Just like their Ma," he noted.

"But... how could you afford this?" she inquired.

He retorted, "Just planted a few extra trees for General Palmer."


Dell sat quietly watching from the dining room table. The warmth and love of this family were incredible, he thought. He caught sight of Colleen, who glanced his way and smiled. His heart skipped a beat. She truly was the most special woman he had ever met. Though he had known her less than a day, his spirit was already filled with thoughts of her.


She approached him. "I'm sorry we don't have anything for you. If we had known you were coming, we could have...."

He cut in, "Trust me, I have everything I could ever want."

She sat beside him. "Dell, I.... I'm glad that you came here with Brian."

"Me, too," he nodded. "I've decided that I'm going to stay."

Her eyes widened. "You have? That's wonderful. You can work at the hospital and...."

He interrupted again. "Hold on. I don't want to impose myself on to your mother's staff."

"No, not at all," she insisted.

Dell informed her. "I want to work with the Indians, improve the conditions on the reservations. I know it will involve traveling, but I'll make Colorado Springs my home."

She offered, "Maybe you'll need some help?"

"I'd like that a lot," he agreed.

************

The aroma of Bridget's cooking filled the Sully homestead, With the family engaged in enjoying their Christmas gifts, Michaela paused to observe them. Her heart was full of love and gratitude. They were all here. She could feel truly happy.

A knock at the front door roused her from her reverie.

Sully stepped forward to open it. "Hey, Dorothy, Merry Christmas."

With rosy cheeks, she smiled, "Same to you, Sully."

"Come in," he invited.

Michaela embraced her. "Can you stay for dinner?"

"Oh, no, thank you." She withdrew a copy of The Gazette from beneath her cloak. "I'm goin' out to the the Indian School t' be with Cloud Dancin', but I wanted to give you this first."

Michaela accepted the newspaper, somewhat surprised. "You put out an issue today?"

"A special edition," Dorothy amended. "I think you two will find it real interestin'. Now, I best be goin'. Merry Christmas."

When she departed, Sully closed the door behind her, then turned to his wife. "Wonder what that was all about?"

Michaela did not answer, as she was already perusing the front page story. "Sully, look at this."

He glanced over her shoulder. There in black and white was the fictional account of the stolen buffalo hide that Hank had concocted and Dorothy had embellished. Michaela and Sully were speechless. There was no way that Preston could contradict the story. It portrayed him as a hero.

Michaela shook her head. "I can't believe she wrote this."

Sully grinned. "Sounds like a real good story, don't it?"

"But Dorothy is risking her credibility as a journalist," Michaela challenged.

He took the paper from her hands. "You an' me both know newspapers don't always print the truth."

"But..." She began to protest.

Sully stopped her with a kiss. Then he gestured above their heads where he had hung a sprig of mistletoe.

She playfully patted his sides, and drew back from their kiss. "I have one more Christmas gift for you."

He raised his eyebrows in anticipation. "Does it involve a buffalo hide?"

"Sully!" she exclaimed with a disapproving tone. Then she clasped his hand. "Follow me."

After leading him into the quiet of her office, she closed the door behind them.

Sully enfolded her in his arms. "I like the way ya think."

She teased, "And I know the way you think. But that's not why I brought you in here."

He released her after one more kiss. "Okay. Where's my gift?"

Michaela stepped to her desk and opened the top drawer. She withdrew a folded piece of paper and handed it to her husband.

Sully was puzzled. "This?"

"Open it," she encouraged.

************
Chapter 9
************

Sully opened the note from his wife. Printed on it was the phrase "IOU Yellowstone."

He turned the paper over to see if there was more. "IOU Yellowstone? I don't understand."

A look of pure love glistened in her eyes. "Remember the letter Welland Smith sent you about forming a corps of men to prevent hunters from depleting the game population in Yellowstone?"

"That was months ago," he shrugged. "I figure he's found someone by now. Besides, I never could have gone. That was when we lost the baby."

She lifted up and kissed his cheek. "I contacted Mr. Smith. He hasn't found anyone. If we depart in...."

Sully was surprised, "You contacted him behind my back?"

"I wanted to surprise you," she allowed.

He challenged, "Michaela, what are you talkin' about? What about your medical practice? The kids' schoolin'? Your hospital?"

She explained, "What I'm talking about is how much you've sacrificed for me throughout our marriage. You have always put my needs ahead of your own. And so, I am telling you with this note, that if you want to go, I'll follow. We'll follow, willingly, lovingly."

Sully felt a lump in his throat. When he had received the offer from Smith, the mountain man assumed he would be going alone and be gone from his family for months. After the year they had experienced, and the loss of the baby, he had put away any thoughts of leaving.

"I know you're a man of few words, but say something," she mused.

He swallowed hard. "I.... I don't know what t' say. I never looked at what I did as a sacrifice. You're the one who's sacrificed for me.... nursin' me back t' heath, worryin' every day when I was hidin' from the Army all those months, securin' my freedom...."

She tenderly placed her hand to his cheek. "I love you, Sully. I would do anything for you, and I know that you feel the same about me. Wherever we go, I'll still be a doctor. As for the children, I can teach them, and Colleen can run the hospital."

Sully tilted his head. "You sound like you wanna move."

Michaela embraced him. "No, that's not what I mean. Remember how you once told me that this is where our roots are, where Katie was born?" Then she lightly placed her palm on his chest above his heart. "But this is where my heart is. I can think of no better man for this job than you. So, for however long you need to complete your work, we'll stay there."

Sully ran his fingers through his hair. "We need t' think on this some more."

"Think all you wish," she kissed him.

Sully melted at her expression. "You'd do this? It could take months."

"Then I'll pack accordingly," she joked.

He teased, "I don't think ya can take all your fancy gowns."

"What?" She pretended to be shocked. "They don't have balls and socials in Yellowstone?"

His expression turned serious. "Michaela, ya know how primitive ya thought Colorado Springs was compared t' Boston? Well, Yellowstone's even worse. No comforts like we got here."

"Are you forgetting that I've seen parts of Yellowstone?" she recalled.

He remembered her near-rape there. "It wasn't a good experience."

"That wasn't Yellowstone's fault," she returned. "I want our children to see it, and I want them to witness their father's helping to protect it. Imagine their beholding abundant wildlife in their natural habitat. Imagine our being there to see it through their eyes."

It suddenly occurred to him. "What about Bridget? What if she don't wanna go?"

Michaela considered, "We could ask Colleen to live here in the house so she would have company."

He shook his head in disbelief. "Your days might be pretty borin'."

"With our children there?" she joked.

His thoughts raced. "I... I don't know what t' say."

"Say yes," she encouraged.

Sully took her hands and raised them to his lips. "You're sure about this? No doubts?"

"I'm certain. No doubts," she pledged.

He nodded, "Then I'll wire Smith t'morrow."

************

By Christmas evening, Matthew, Emma and Michael had returned to town, and Colleen and Dell had gone out on a sleigh ride.

Sully opted to help Bridget prepare the children for bed, providing Michaela an opportunity to chat with Brian in the living room.

She glanced at her son in admiration. "I've read all of the articles you've written, Brian. I'm so proud of you."

He blushed slightly. "Thanks, Ma."

"You seem quite happy in your work," she observed.

"Yea, I am," he agreed. "It gives me the opportunity to travel, but what I'd really like to do next is visit Europe."

Her eyes brightened. "Europe? How wonderful! Will Harpers Weekly send you?"

"I think so," he nodded. "I want to do a feature on some of the men who have been working on developing aircraft."

She raised her eyebrows. "Aircraft? As in flying machines?"

"Uh-huh," he acknowledged. "There's a naval officer in Russia named Alexander Mozhaisky who just got a patent for his heavier-than-air flying machine. I've seen his drawings. With a government grant of 2,500 rubles, he's bought two 20- and 10-horsepower steam engines to run three propellers."

"I see," she said skeptically. "But it hasn't actually flown yet?"

"He's planning on trying it next year," Brian stated. "I'd love to be there when he does. Imagine it, Ma."

"I know the topic has always fascinated you," she recalled.

Brian continued enthusiastically, "Mozhaisky's not the only one who's been working on a flying machine. There's a Frenchman named Louis Mouillard. He wrote a book called L'Empire de l'Air, in which he proposes a fixed-wing glider with cambered wings."

The prospect of her son participating in these experiments unsettled Michaela. "Do you intend to do more than merely write about these men?"

"What do you mean?" he inquired.

She clarified, "Do you want to fly these machines yourself?"

Brian touched her hand. "Whatever I do, I'll be careful, Ma."

"I know that you're a grown man," she paused as a tear formed in her eye. "But I still worry."

"I know," he smiled. "And I love you for it."

"How long can you stay home with us?" she queried.

"I'm returning to Washington at the end of January," he responded. "So you'll have me here for a month."

Her face brightened. "Wonderful!"

Brian glanced at the mantel clock. "I didn't realize it, but I guess I've become a matchmaker."

"Dell and your sister?" Michaela knew.

He added, "It's funny. He and I were just talking in Denver about one day finding the right woman. He said he would know right away. He'd feel a connection. He said the Spirits guide our hearts to the right one. All we have to do is listen to our hearts."

She observed, "Dell sounds like an astute young man."

"You know, in many ways, he reminds me of Sully," Brian mentioned. "He's wise in the way of the Cheyenne and about life, nature...."

"A good match for Colleen?" Michaela speculated.

He grinned. "Maybe."

At that moment, Katie, Josef and the twins, bathed and ready for bed, bounded noisily into the room.

Josef announced, "Time for a story."

Katie suggested, "Brian, could you tell us one? Something about Washington, DC?"

"Sure," he agreed.

************

Sully cradled a sweet-smelling Hope at the kitchen table while Bridget draped the towels near the fireplace to dry.

He decided to mention Yellowstone. "Bridget, if Michaela an' me was t' take the kids someplace next year, would you be interested in goin' along?"

"Of course, lad," she returned. "Just like your other trips."

He rubbed his upper lip. "This would be different."

She brushed back a lock of her red hair and sat beside him. "Different how?"

"To Yellowstone," he stated. "No comforts of home, no runnin' water or nearby towns."

Her eyes widened. "Yellowstone, ya say! Well, now, that would certainly be somethin' t' see."

"Does that mean you wanna think about it?" he wondered.

She winked, "It means I'd love t' see the place."

************

Colleen and Dell stopped to admire a distant view of the homestead.

He remarked as he put his arm around her, "It's a beautiful home."

She did not resist his overture. "It holds a lot of fond memories.... Ma and Pa have filled it with love."

Dell nodded. "That's what I'd like one day, too. A home full of love."

She turned to face him. Tentatively, they gazed at each other, suddenly aware of how close they were.

Colleen smiled nervously. She felt like a teenager again.

He ran his finger along her jaw line. "You have a beautiful smile."

She lowered her gaze shyly.

Dell asked, "Did I say something wrong?"

"No," her voice trembled slightly. "It's just.... this is happening so fast."

He questioned, "What?"

She looked up. "Well, unless I'm misinterpreting our being out here together like this...."

He completed her thought, "You're not misinterpreting. And, you're right, our feelings are happening very fast. That's how it should be."

She was uncertain. "What do you mean?"

"When you find the right one," he clarified. "The Spirits guide you to find the love of your life."

Colleen drew back. "The love of your life? Dell, we've only just met."

He assured, "I don't mean to frighten you. Believe me, my intentions are purely honorable, but I know what I feel."

A look of concern crossed her features. "Wha... What do you feel?"

Dell peered into her brown eyes. "I feel as if I can tell you anything. I feel like I want to... kiss you."

Colleen hesitated, then leaned in and sweetly brushed his lips with hers. The electricity was instant. She pulled back, her heart pounding rapidly.

Dell requested. "Could we try that again?"

"I'd like that," she uttered breathlessly.

Again their lips met, tenderly adjusting to the feelings that coursed through them. The outside world disappeared. It was as if their souls were melding into one. Slowly, they parted, but not before one last soft kiss.

Dell took a deep breath. "Whew. That was...."

"Wonderful," she finished, feeling her cheeks warm.

He grinned, "I think I'm going to like courting you."

She was shocked. "Courting me?"

"That's what comes next, isn't it?" he mused.

"Dell, I.... This is rather complicated," she hedged.

He tilted his head. "What's complicated? After what just happened.... that kiss.... I want to court you."

She cleared her throat uncomfortably, "What's complicated is Andrew."

"You're divorced, aren't you?" he remembered. "Do you still have feelings for him?"

"I have affection for him," she acknowledged. "And he still loves me."

Dell nodded. "I mean no disrespect to you and your feelings. If you'd rather I not court you, then I'll...."

She interrupted, "I'm flattered by your attention. I just think I should talk to Andrew about it."

He rubbed his chin. "You want to discuss being courted by another man with your ex-husband?"

"I know it sounds absurd," she admitted. "But, he's also been a very good friend to me. This is going to be difficult for him."

He sighed. "Okay. I suppose we should return to the homestead. I don't want to worry your mother."

"How do you know she'll be worried?" Colleen queried.

He shrugged. "I just know."

She sensed he was upset. "Dell, please give me some time to sort through my feelings."

"Of course," he consented. "I'll give you all the time you need. I'm not going anywhere."

************

Sully and Michaela settled into bed, exhausted from the activities of Christmas Day. While he lay on his back, she leaned against the headboard, compiling a list.

He stared at the ceiling, contemplating what it would mean for them to stay in Yellowstone. He knew Michaela was sincere in her offer, but he began to wonder if there would come a time when the life they would lead there would overwhelm her. He was accustomed to roughing it in the wild, but.... the dangers for the children and her....

"Sully?" Michaela's voice interrupted his train of thought.

"Mmmm?" He rolled onto his side to look up at her.

"Do you think Robert E might rent us a covered wagon?" she questioned.

"Covered wagon?" He rubbed her arm.

She nodded. "Yes, for the trip to Yellowstone. I would rather have the children under cover during the journey."

He answered, "I reckon he would. He might even let us have it for nothin'."

"Good." She returned to her list. "I'm glad Bridget will be going with us. That will make things easier."

He studied her expression. When Michaela was focused on a task that required much forethought and concentration, a small crinkle formed between her eyebrows. And lists.... she always made lists.

Sully repositioned himself on his back and sighed. This was going to be harder than he first thought. What would the government supply in the way of shelter for them? Or would they have to build a cabin on their own? He couldn't bear the thought of his family living unprotected in the wilderness until he could construct a dwelling.... that is if he even had time to build one.

His job would be to recruit and train a corps of men to protect the wildlife. That would mean being away from his family more often than not. And where would he recruit these men? Should he put notices in newspapers? He knew that the military was in Yellowstone, too. That did not sit well with him, given his run-ins with them over the years.


"Sully?" It was Michaela again.

"Yea?" He anticipated another question.

She inquired, "Where will we be located in the park?"

"I don't know yet," he responded. "There's a lot that needs t' be thought through."

"Yes, there certainly is," she noted. "But we have sufficient time to carefully plan and...."

He cut in, "Michaela, I ain't sure about this."

She was puzzled, "About the location?"

"I ain't sure about takin' you an' the kids out there," he clarified. "I won't always be there t' protect ya."

She assured, "You've taught me how to survive. We'll be fine."

"I don't want ya t' just survive," he affirmed. "I wanna give ya a good life."

"I have a good life, Sully," she stated. "You and I have survived in the woods before. I don't mind."

He sat up and ran his hand through his hair. "But the children. They'll get int' things. They could fall off...."

She was surprised. "How often have you lamented the fact that they've never seen the land as it was before man spoiled it? Before the train? Think of it, Sully. This will be your opportunity to teach our children everything that you love about the West. They'll learn firsthand. It's not something they could ever glean from a book. With your guidance and tutelage, they'll grow up wanting to preserve the land, as well."

He fell silent. She was right. But second thoughts continued to nag at him.

Michaela could tell that he was still unsettled. "Perhaps Cloud Dancing could go with us. Would that ease your concerns?"

He pointed out, "The Army's been runnin' Indians out o' the Park. They ain't likely t' welcome him."

"But you could say that he's your scout," she reasoned. "Even the Army uses the Indians as scouts."

Sully folded his arms against his chest. "I need t' talk t' him about this.... see what the Spirits say."

Michaela rested her hand on her husband's shoulder. "You don't believe that I would want us to go if I imagined anything bad happening to the children, do you?"

"'Course not," he knew.

She smiled, "Whatever happened to thinking only good thoughts, not bad?"

He exhaled. "I guess after the year we've had, it just comes natural."

"But you promised a perfect 1882, remember?" she retorted. "You'll protect us from all harm."

With that, she set her list on the night stand, lowered the lamp and sweetly kissed her husband.

Snuggling closer, she whispered, "Merry Christmas, and thank you for my gifts. I love you."

"Thanks for all you've given me." He enfolded her in his arms. "I love you, too."

Michaela soon drifted off to sleep, but Sully's mind continued to race with notions of all that could go wrong in Yellowstone. He determined to speak with his Cheyenne brother tomorrow.

************
Chapter 10
************

It was still dark when Sully bolted up in bed, shaken from a nightmare. In it, his children had fallen into a boiling mud pot at Yellowstone. His breathing was quick, and his body was steeped in perspiration.

He felt Michaela's hand on his shoulder. "Sully?"

He sighed, "Just a dream. Go on back t' sleep."

She lifted up. "You're soaking wet."

He attempted to control his breathing. "I.... I'm okay."

She slipped out of bed and went to the vanity to get a towel. Returning, she dabbed the perspiration from his head and torso.

"I don't mean for ya t' go t' any trouble." He panted as he leaned his elbows against his knees.

"You're no trouble," she assured. "It must have been quite a dream."

He lay back against his pillows. She maneuvered beside him and drew back a stray lock of his hair from his face.

She kissed his temple, then whispered, "Tell me."

He gazed at her with a pained expression. "I dreamed about the kids. They fell int' one of them mud pots in Yellowstone. They were burnin' up. I couldn't get t' them in time."

Michaela clasped his hand. "Shhh. Imagination's a powerful thing. We'll teach them about the dangers and protect them. Nothing bad will happen."

"I couldn't bear it, Michaela," his voice trembled.

She lovingly ran her fingers through his hair. "I hope that speaking with Cloud Dancing will calm your fears, but if the thought of going troubles you this much, we'll stay home."

He swallowed hard. "You don't mind?"

"Mind?" she assured. "Sully, I thought accepting this job would please you, not torment you. We don't have to go. I just want for you to be happy."

He began to feel ashamed. "I'm sorry. I just can't shake these feelin's."

She toyed with the hair on his chest, and kissed him. "I've known you long enough to trust your instincts. Let's not worry about it anymore tonight."

He clutched her hand and drew it to his lips. "Thanks for understandin' me, Michaela."

She turned up the side of her lips in a smile. "Did I say I understand you, Mr. Sully?"

He chuckled, "Ya said just what I needed t' hear. Ya wiped my brow."

"Oh, that," she retorted. "I do that for all of my patients."

She drew closer and softly kissed him.

He joked, "Ya do that for your patients, too?"

"Just the ones I adore," she smiled. "And, oh, how I adore you."

Sully's heart raced at her proximity. Cupping the back of her head with his hand, he drew her closer for another kiss. Warming from the contact, he undid the buttons of her nightgown and trailed his lips across her soft form.

The moistness of his skin, the earthy, masculine scent of him caused Michaela's senses to soar. She pulled back and glanced over her shoulder toward the door.

He wondered, "Somthin' wrong?"

"Just making certain we're not interrupted," she smiled.

Her caresses went from his shoulders to his chest and lower. Sully gulped, his head buzzing with anticipation. Her movements were deliberate and calculated to please him. His wife had learned much since her shy and tentative months as a bride.

Sully ran his thumb along the curve of her chin and spoke low:

"Love and harmony combine,
And round our souls entwine
While thy branches mix with mine,
And our roots together join."

Michaela ventured a guess at the poet, "Was that Coleridge?"

"William Blake," he identified.

She held him closer. "After all these years, you still find poetry to woo me, Mr. Sully."

He clasped her shoulders and guided her back to kiss her lips fully. Then he lifted her, prompting her onto her back against the pillows. His feather light touches elicited goose bumps on her flesh. Where he left a kiss, her skin flushed.

Their senses were soon inflamed from the prelude of love. Secure in each other's arms, they began to meld together. Their hearts were one, and so, too, their bodies craved the same unity.

Sully poised just above her, drinking in the beauty which never failed to stir him. Michaela smiled and stroked his sides. Soon they consummated their longings. The unity of body and spirit engulfed their senses, and as their bodies calmed, sleep finally claimed them.

************

The next morning, Sully invited Brian and Dell to accompany him out to the Indian School.

Cloud Dancing welcomed them, then after hearing about Dell's background, added, "I remember your grandfather."

The young man stated, "I would love to learn about Cheyenne medicine."

"It will be my honor to teach you," the medicine man added.

Brian offered, "Speaking of teaching, would you mind if I show Dell the school?"

Cloud Dancing agreed, "That is a good idea."

When the two departed, the medicine man escorted Sully into his lodge. "You are troubled with thoughts of a journey."

Sully folded his legs by the fire. "I can't shake the feelin' that somethin' bad will happen t' my children if I take my family t' Yellowstone."

He nodded. "There are many dangers there, but you have learned that even in your home, bad things can happen."

"Do the Spirits tell ya if we should go?" Sully asked.

Cloud Dancing stared into the flames of the fire. "They tell me that there is much to do in the Yellowstone. The future depends on the right man doing it."

Sully exhaled loudly in frustration. "I promised Michaela I wasn't gonna take any more chances. Too many things have happened t' us. I just want my family t' be safe an' happy."

"You must tell me how that is done," he replied wryly.

Sully asserted, "I'm serious. We been through too much."

Using a stick, Cloud Dancing moved some of the stones surrounding the flames. "I am certain that will be for the best. It will teach your children a good lesson."

He was puzzled, "What d' ya mean?"

"Keeping them in your home, safe and protected," his friend clarified. "That is the best place for them to learn about Mother Earth."

Sully reasoned, "I'll still teach them. I don't need t' go t' Yellowstone t' do that."

"Yes, Colorado Springs has everything that Yellowstone does," he nodded in agreement.

Sully frowned, "Look, I know what you're doin', an' it ain't gonna work on me."

The medicine man tilted his head. "Then why did you come here, my brother?"

"I told Michaela I'd get your advice about this trip," Sully informed him.

He replied, "Have I given you advice?"

"Look," Sully paused to collect his thoughts. "I trust your judgment more than anyone's. I know that you'll tell me the truth an' make me think about things I might not've considered. But my mind is made up."

Cloud Dancing spoke softly, "There is an old saying: 'Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.'"

"I remember hearin' it," he acknowledged.

The medicine man went on, "You teach your children stories and beliefs of the Cheyenne. What will you tell them when it is time to give the land to them?"

"I'll tell them that I kept them safe so they'd inherit the land," Sully pledged. "I'll teach them t' respect Mother Earth."

"Will you teach them this as they watch the logging camps and dams destroy the land?" Cloud Dancing's voice became slightly louder with emotion. "Will you tell them this as they pass buffalo carcasses piled high beside railroad tracks? Will you show them the beaver, elk and wolf on the streets of Colorado Springs?"

Sully stood up abruptly. "Why are you doin' this t' me?"

Cloud Dancing rose to his feet. "My brother, I cannot make you do what you do not want to do. I can only try to help you to see what you truly want, and then to find the courage to do it."

His lower lip trembled. "Maybe I don't have the fight in me anymore."

Cloud Dancing gestured for him to sit again, and Sully obeyed.

They were silent for several minutes, then the Cheyenne medicine man spoke, "Mother Earth provides us with food, medicine, shelter, and clothing. When she is gone, where will we get these things? If the children do not learn to protect her, how much longer can man last?"

Sully inhaled deeply. "Why do I have t' be the one t' go t' Yellowstone? There must be someone else who wants t' help."

"There may be such a man," Cloud Dancing responded. "But he has not been offered this job in Yellowstone."

He folded his hands and stared into the fire. "Have the Spirits told ya what might happen t' us?"

"On this, they are silent," his friend returned. "You say you don't have the fight in you anymore. Then you must find it again, and I think I know where you can find the answers you seek."

"Where?" Sully anticipated.

"In the very ones whom you wish to protect," he suggested.

"My kids?" Sully questioned.

Cloud Dancing smiled. "Sometimes the young ones can teach as much as they learn. But.... you must first watch and listen."

"I'll do what ya say," Sully accepted.

Cloud Dancing mentioned, "One more thing, my brother. If you decide to go to Yellowstone, I shall come with you."

************

Sully spent the afternoon observing his children. As they played with their Christmas presents, he began to realize that they did indeed have much to teach him.

To begin with, they invited him to participate in each game and activity. They joyfully shared toys with each other. Furthermore, Katie and Josef watched over the younger ones, guiding and teaching them how to do things without being bossy. When Hope happily sang a song comprised of nothing but babbling, her siblings clapped and encouraged her.

Sully had loved each of them from the moment he knew Michaela was expecting them. He had often told them stories, played with them, guided and disciplined them. But he had never simply sat down and absorbed what all they had to offer to each other and to him.

How could he not want to preserve Mother Earth and animals for them? How could he not give them every opportunity to learn first hand about the creatures that would soon becoming extinct if nothing were done to protect them?

Katie noticed her father's pensive expression and approached him. "Did we wear ya out, Poppy."

He invited her to sit on his lap. "No, sweet girl. I'm just enjoyin' watchin' you kids."

She smiled, "Ya wanna play some more then?"

"You go ahead," he grinned. "I'll join ya soon."

It was on this scene that Michaela entered the house. The children rushed to greet her, all speaking simultaneously and enthusiastically about what they were doing. She set her medical bag on the table and removed her cloak.

Sully peered over his shoulder from a wing-back chair and winked.

Just as quickly as the young ones had welcomed their mother, they returned to their toys.

Michaela stepped closer to Sully, who drew her down onto his lap and kissed her.

Her cheeks blushed. "Sully! The children will see."

"I want 'em t' see," he replied cheekily. "I want 'em t' know how much their Pa loves their Ma."

Josef overheard and looked up from his toy train. "Oh, we know that. You're always kissin'."

Michaela's cheeks became a brighter shade of red, and she informed her son, "This is only for married people, young man."

"Colleen an' Dell kissed, an' they ain't married," he countered.

Michaela sat up straighter. "Where did you see them kiss?"

He pointed toward the doorway. "Under the mistletoe."

She looked at Sully.

He shrugged. "He's right. They ain't married. An' by the way, Cloud Dancin' was impressed with Dell t'day."

"I am, too," she agreed.

Sully contributed, "Ya know he's plannin' on stayin'?"

"Colleen mentioned it," she noted. "I think that's why Matthew invited Brian, Colleen and Dell to supper this evening. He wants to get to know him better."

Noah approached his parents. "We eat?"

"Soon, Sweetheart." Michaela kissed the top of his head. "When Miss Bridget finishes preparing supper."

Sully rubbed her back. "I reckon he'll be courtin' Colleen."

She closed her eyes, savoring the relaxing ministrations of her husband.

He felt her muscles begin to relax. "Difficult day at the hospital?"

"I delivered two babies," she sighed. "One was breech. But all are doing well."

"They're lucky t' have such a good doctor," he complimented.

She noticed, "You seem in much better spirits. Did you have a good visit with Cloud Dancing?"

"I talked t' him while Brian showed Dell the school." He gestured toward the children. "But they're the ones who helped my spirits."

She was curious. "What did they do to put their Papa in such a good mood?"

"Nothin' special," he shrugged. "An' everythin' special."

She was puzzled. "Pardon me?"

"I'll tell ya later," he grinned.

Michaela mentioned, "Did you know that Brian might go to Europe?"

"No, but it don't surprise me," he accepted.

She detailed, "He wants to write about men who are developing flying machines in Russia and France. I know he wants to fly on one himself."

Sully smiled, "Since he was a little boy."

"I wish...." she was cut off.

He interrupted, "You wish that he wouldn't."

"It isn't safe, Sully," she affirmed. "I've read of men who have been killed attempting flight."

He returned, "We've taught him t' use good judgment. That's all we can do. He's smart. He knows the risks."

"Yes, well, I dare say that those men who died were smart and knew the risks, too," she countered.

"Kinda like takin' the family t' Yellowstone," he compared.

She frowned. "Not at all. We have time to prepare the children and ensure their safety with proper supervision."

"It's still a risk," he stated. "No matter how much ya plan an' prepare. But... ya just have t' decide if a risk is worth takin'."

"Are we speaking of Yellowstone or Brian?" she questioned.

He smiled, "Both. I've decided. We'll go t' Yellowstone, Michaela, just like Brian will go t' Europe."

She kissed him. "It will be a grand adventure."

"Are we talkin' about Yellowstone or Brian?" he teased.

"Both," she kissed him again.

Sully added, "Cloud Dancin' said that if I decided t' go, he'd go with us."

"Will that make you feel better?" she hoped.

"Yea," he acknowledged.

She slid her arm around his shoulders. "I think 1882 is going to be a perfect year indeed."

THE END



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