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



Beneath the Surface


by Debby K



Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Beneath the Surface
by Debby K

************
Chapter 1
************

Sully heard the voice, "Abigail?"

Her blue eyes implored, "Sully, come to me."

"I.... I can't," he felt a lump in his throat.

"It's gone," her eyes saddened. "What I had of you is gone."

"Abigail," he felt his heart ache. "Why are you doin' this? Why are you here?"

"I need you," she stepped closer and touched his cheek.

Sully felt a shock rush through his entire body. Awaking with a start, he caught his breath. It was another dream. They had been haunting him for the past week. To calm himself, he focused on the familiar objects in the bedroom. Everything was in place. Quickly turning to check, he saw Hope in her cradle. The baby was safe. He was safe. It was just a dream.... the dream.... again. But why?

His senses became more alert. It was nearly twelve at night, and the place beside him in bed was empty.

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

By the lamplight, Michaela sat reading in her homestead office. She heard a soft knock at the door. Looking up, she noticed Sully standing at the entrance.

"It's goin' on midnight," he noted.

She rubbed her eyes and yawned, "I'm sorry. I got caught up reading this."

"Must be interestin'," he stepped into the room. "What's it about?"

She held up the work, Advice to a Mother on the Management of Her Children by Chavasse."

He grinned, "You don't need advice. You're already a good mother."

She smiled, "I think you might be biased, Mr. Sully."

"'Course I am," he retorted. "But that don't change the facts. What makes ya wanna get advice?"

"I'm simply trying to remain current," she pointed out. "It's a new work, and...."

He interrupted, "And ya wanna make sure you're doin' everythin' right."

"Do you mind?" she tilted her head curiously.

He folded his arms, "Only thing I mind is that you ain't gettin' enough sleep. Three or four hours a night's not enough."

Michaela knew he was right. She was tired. Overly tired. Rising to her feet, she lowered the lamp. Then she stepped toward her husband and slid her arm around his waist.

Sully perceived, "Somethin' weighin' on your mind?"

"I was just about to ask you the same thing," she noticed his clammy appearance. Touching his forehead with the palm of her hand, she commented, "You're perspiring."

"I just fell asleep too close to the fireplace in our room," he dismissed. "So, tell me what's botherin' you."

"Nothing in particular," she sounded unconvincing.

He knew better, "Let's take 'em one at a time. What's top of the list?"

She paused, "You and the children."

"Why?" he probed. "We're doin' fine."

She turned up the corner of her mouth, "I still worry."

He continued, "What else is on your list of worries?"

She spoke as they entered the living room, "My patients, the hospital...."

"Any patients in particular?" he queried.

"Lexie," she returned. "Her baby is due any day."

Sully lowered the lamps, "She's doin' okay, so far."

"So far, yes," she agreed. "But I am concerned that there may be complications. Then there's Hank.... he's still got that opium den operating in town, and...."

Sully noted, "Lexie'll get the best care any woman ever got with you watchin' over her, an' Matthew's workin' real hard t' get the den closed."

Michaela savored his embrace, "Thank you, Sully. What would I ever do without you?"

"I don't want ya t' ever find out," he teased.

Finally reaching the top floor, they checked on the children, then retired to their room. Sully drew back the covers and helped Michaela into bed.

Then he went to Hope's cradle, "She's asleep." There was no response from his wife, "Michaela?"

Stepping closer, he smiled. Michaela was already asleep. He secured the blankets around her.

Then softly, he kissed her forehead, "I love you."

"Mmm," she murmured, rousing only for a moment. "Love you, too."

Sully quietly exited the room and descended the steps. His mind flashed to the dream that wakened him. Why was he having it? Hoping to distract himself, he entered Michaela's office, lifted the book she had been reading and made the return trip to their bedroom. Opening to the first page, he began to read.

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

Matthew held his ears, "Emma, we gotta do somethin' t' stop Michael's cryin'."

Her nerves were frayed, "I don't know what else to try."

Matthew rubbed the baby's back, "Maybe we should take him t' see Dr. Mike."

Her eyes widened, "At this hour?"

"Well, we're never gonna get any sleep 'til we find out what's wrong with him," he pointed out.

"What if your mother thinks we don't know what we're doing?" she hesitated.

"Then she'd be right," Matthew's head was beginning to throb. "Come on, wrap him up real warm, an' I'll hitch the wagon."

She caressed the crying baby's dark hair, "All right."

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

"Katie," Josef spoke near his sleeping sister's ear.

She bolted up with widened eyes, "Joey! What are you doin'?"

"I been thinkin' about what t' get Mrs. Slicker for Chris'mas."

She sighed, "Christmas is over a month away."

He folded his arms, "Mama don' like me t' wait 'til the last minute."

The little girl yawned, "All right. What did ya wanna get Mrs. Slicker?"

He smiled, "A baby bwother for lil' Maria."

"What?" she frowned. "Joey, you can't give her that."

"Why not?" he tilted his head. "I was gonna ask Cloud Dancin' for a baby, then give it t' her. It worked for Mattew an' Emma."

The silhouette of their father appeared at the door, "What's goin' on? Are you kids all right?"

Katie was relieved, "Poppy, ya gotta have a talk with Joey."

Sully entered the room, "Joe, what are you doin' in here?"

Katie added, "I think ya need one o' them father-son talks."

Sully grinned, "Come on, big boy. Let your sister sleep."

"But, Papa...." he started to protest. "I got a good idea."

Katie settled back into her bed as Sully led Josef from the room.

Sully whispered to his daughter, "'Night, sweet girl."

"'Night," she smiled.

When Sully and Josef reached the little boy's room, Sully tucked him into bed.

Josef folded his hands atop the blanket, "Don' ya wanna hear my idea?"

"Sure," Sully sat on the edge of the bed. "Then ya gotta get some sleep."

"'Kay," Josef began. "Could ya taked me t' Cloud Dancin' after school t'morrow?"

"What for?" he was curious.

"'T get a baby," Josef stated.

"A baby?" Sully was surprised.

"Yep," Josef nodded. "For Mrs. Slicker."

"Uh.... Joe," Sully hesitated.

"It's for Chris'mas, Papa," he explained. "Don' ya think that would be a good gift?"

"Well...." Sully pondered how to explain to his son.

Josef added, "You an' Mama always tell us kids we're your best gift. So, I figure I could give Mrs. Slicker one, too."

"That's real thoughtful of ya," Sully rubbed his son's belly. "But, that's somethin' Mr. an' Mrs. Slicker give t' each other."

"Cloud Dancin' gave a baby t' Mattew an' Emma," the child noted.

"Uh, that was different," Sully returned.

Josef pondered, "I know. Emma didn' have the baby inside her furst. I ain't sure how that works. Maybe I could talk t' Mr. Slicker an'...."

Sully interrupted, "Joe, sometimes ya gotta let things happen naturally."

The little boy sighed in frustration, "If I don' give her a Chris'mas pwesent...."

Sully ruffled his hair, "You'll think of somethin'. Ya got a while yet. But now, I want ya t' get t' sleep. Okay?"

"'Kay," he agreed.

Sully leaned down to kiss him, "'Night."

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

Still unable to sleep, Sully descended the steps of the homestead again. At that moment, he heard a wagon approaching. He anticipated it might be someone in need of Michaela's services, but when he opened the door, there stood his oldest son and his family.

"Matthew?" he heard the cries of the baby. "What's wrong?"

The young man escorted his wife and baby into the house, "It's Michael. He's been like this all night."

Before Sully could summon her, Michaela appeared on the staircase, "I thought I heard a baby .... Matthew, Emma?"

Emma placed the baby in her arms, "We can't stop his cryin', Dr. Mike."

Michaela gently set the baby on the kitchen table and began to unwrap his blankets. His crying continued, and soon Bridget, Katie and Josef joined them.

Sully eyed his children, "Katie, Joe, go on back t' bed."

"I can' sleep with all this wacket," Josef protested.

Lifting his son, Sully firmly stated, "Then you best try."

"Aw, Papa," he sighed.

Carrying the boy in one arm, Sully clasped Katie's hand and led them back up the steps.

When they reached the top floor, Josef queried, "Is Michael huwt?"

"No," Sully assured. "Sometimes babies cry. That's all."

"Like Annie," Katie reminded.

"Right," Sully tucked her in again. "Now, try t' get some sleep, honey."

Katie settled back on her mattress and placed a pillow over her head.

When Sully set Josef on his bed, the little boy spoke up, "Papa, when's Bran comin' home from Wash'ton, CD?"

Sully amended, "That's Washington, DC. He said he'd be home for Thanksgivin'."

Josef counted on his fingers, "That's two days."

"Right," he smiled.

"Why'd he go there?" the little boy was curious.

Sully replied, "He went t' write about the election of our new president."

"We got a new one?" Josef's eyes widened. "What was wwrrong with the old one?"

"Folks didn't want him anymore," Sully explained. "They had an election, an' a man named Garfield won."

"Gawfield," Josef repeated the name. "Never heard o' him."

"I reckon you'll hear a lot about him," Sully grinned. "Brian will tell us all about the election."

Josef pondered, "Did I ever go t' Wash'ton, CD.... DC?"

"Sort of," Sully touched his son's nose. "Your Ma an' me found out she was expectin' you when we visited Washington."

"She was expectin' me?" he tilted his head.

"Like Mrs. Lawson's expectin' a baby," Sully mentioned. "She's gonna have it real soon."

"Did Mama have me soon?" he continued his questions.

"You were born a few months after our trip," Sully informed him.

"Oh," the child seemed pacified.

"Now, close your eyes," Sully kissed his forehead. "Night, big boy."

"Do I gotta say my pwayers again?" Josef wondered.

Sully responded, "Do ya wanna add somethin'?"

The little boy scrambled onto the floor and positioned himself on his knees, "God, please help Michael."

Just as quickly, he returned to his prone position in bed.

"Good prayer," Sully stroked his son's hair.

"'Night, Papa," Josef shut his eyes.

As the wailing from downstairs continued, Sully opened the twins' bedroom door to check on them.

Noah was standing in his crib, wide awake.

Sully lifted him, "Did the cryin' wake ya, son?"

"Yep," Noah placed his index finger in his mouth.

Sully recognized the little boy's expression of concern, "It's okay, No-bo. Matthew an' Emma have Michael downstairs for your Ma t' take a look at."

"Mama huwt him?" the child tilted his head.

"No," Sully smiled and caressed his hair. "She's gonna make him better."

"Mama no sleep," Noah considered.

"I reckon not," Sully sighed.

Bridget reached the top step, "I came t' see if ya need some help with these leprechauns."

"No, thanks," he winked. "Why don't you go back t' bed?"

"Now that ya mention it, lad," she paused to open her door. "Ya talked me int' it."

"Good night," Sully offered.

"'Nigh'," Noah waved to her.

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

Downstairs, Michaela gently felt the baby's abdomen for any obstructions or irregularities, "How long has he been crying?"

"Several hours," Matthew folded his arms. "But he's done it every night this week."

Next, Michaela gently massaged the child's gums, and the crying began to ebb.

Emma's eyes widened, "What did ya do, Dr. Mike?"

"He's teething," she continued her gentle ministrations. "See here? I think this tooth is about to make an appearance. I imagine you've also seen him drooling more than usual."

"Yes, we have," Emma nodded. "So there's nothin' seriously wrong?"

"It's perfectly normal," she explained. "When he starts to fuss or cry, try massaging the gum. If that doesn't work, I'll give you something to apply to the surface."

"Thanks, Ma," Matthew was relieved. "I guess we don't know as much as we thought we did about raisin' a child."

"I'll give you a book to read," she handed the baby to Emma.

Michaela started for her office when Sully descended the steps with Noah.

When she returned, Michaela remarked, "That's strange. I was reading it this evening at my desk, but now it's gone."

"Mama," Noah reached for her.

"What are you doing up, young man?" she enfolded him in her arms.

Matthew chuckled, "I figure Michael's cryin' woke the whole house."

Sully recalled his wife's comment, "What's gone from your desk?"

"That book I was reading," her brow wrinkled.

"I took it upstairs," Sully gestured. "I'll get it for ya."

He bounded up the steps.

"We won't trouble ya anymore, Dr. Mike," Emma wrapped the baby.

"It's no trouble," she caressed Michael's dark hair. "I enjoy seeing my grandson."

Matthew exhaled slowly, "Maybe we jumped int' parenthood too soon."

Emma was taken aback, "Matthew! What are you sayin'?"

He frowned, "Don't get me wrong. I love him, an' I'm real glad we took him in. But.... well, it's not like what I thought it would be. Sully an' Ma make it seem so easy."

Michaela's eyes widened, "Easy? Good heavens, it's anything but easy. However, we work together, and we have Bridget."

"I wish we could borrow her," Emma stated.

Sully arrived in time to hear the end of her remark, "Borrow who?"

"Bridget," Emma repeated.

"Here's the book," Sully handed it to Michaela.

"Try this," Michaela suggested as she gave the text to Emma.

"Thanks," Emma accepted. "We'll leave you folks t' sleep now."

Sully showed them to the door and bade farewell.

Noah was wide awake, "We play?"

"Play?" Michaela raised an eyebrow. "It's way past your bedtime. Back to bed."

"No, Mama," he protested.

"Yes, my darling," she kissed his cheek and started up the stairs.

Noah frowned and leaned his head against her shoulder, whining halfheartedly, "No."

"Shhh," she whispered. "You're sleepy, and you know it."

By the time she reached the twins' room, Noah was asleep. Sully joined her and helped her tuck him in. Michaela stood for a moment watching the twins as they slept. Then she felt Sully's arms encircle her.

He spoke low near her ear, "They've about outgrown these cribs. I started makin' them their own beds for Christmas."

She felt a tear well in her eye, "Another milestone. No longer babies."

He kissed her temple, "We still got a baby, who's ready for her own crib."

"Oh, Sully," she felt her emotions swelling. "They grow so quickly. Katie is such a young lady, and Josef's in school now."

"Speakin' of which," he guided her to the hallway. "He's wantin' t' give Miss Teresa a unique Christmas gift."

"Oh?" she was curious. "What might that be?"

Sully replied, "A baby."

"A baby?" she was surprised.

"Yep," Sully chuckled.

"Why on earth would he... could he think of something like that?" she marveled as they reached their room.

Sully smiled, "'Cause we taught our kids they're our greatest gift. So he wants t' go see Cloud Dancin' an' get a baby like Matthew an' Emma did."

"Oh, my," she touched the sides of her face. "I never know what to expect next from that little boy."

"I told him that he's gotta let Teresa an' Jake take care o' things naturally," he quipped as he closed the door.

"Sully," she patted his side. "You didn't tell him about the birds and the bees, did you?"

"Sure," he replied. "He's almost a man."

She recognized the teasing gleam in his eye, "And how did Josef respond?"

"He agreed that it's best t' let Nature take its course," he smirked.

"As we did?" she raised an eyebrow flirtatiously.

He placed his hands on her waist, "Mmm. I love lettin' Nature take its course."

She kissed him sweetly, "It's very late, Mr. Sully."

"I know," he sighed. "An' you need t' sleep."

"As do you," she toyed with the hair at his temple.

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

Lexie awoke to a strange sensation, "Hank."

"Mmm?" he kept his eyes shut.

"Hank," she shook him. "Wake up."

"Why?" he yawned.

"Something's happening," she felt her abdomen. "The baby."

He bolted up, "What?"

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

Chapter 2

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

Matthew and Emma stood beside Michael's crib, watching the little boy sleep.

Matthew sighed, "It don't seem possible that this is the same baby we took t' Dr. Mike. He's sleepin' so peaceful."

Emma peered into her husband's eyes, "What you said tonight to your mother.... about us not bein' ready for parenthood.... did you mean it?"

He rubbed his eyes, "I.... I guess I did. We did jump int' this kinda fast. We ain't even been married a year."

"It will be a year next month," she asserted. "Dr. Mike and Sully had Katie in the same amount of time. Besides, I was ready, Matthew. Why didn't you say somethin' if you weren't?"

"'Cause I wanted t' make you happy," he noted. "An' the time seemed right, Cloud Dancin' findin' that baby, an' all."

"You love Michael, don't you?" she studied his expression.

"'Course I do," he quickly assured. "But.... maybe we oughta start readin' that book Ma gave us."

"In the morning," she yawned. "Let's get some rest while the baby lets us."

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

Hank tried to calm himself, "The baby. You mean it's comin'?"

Lexie began to relax, "I felt a pain. It was real sharp, but it's passed now."

He stood up and pulled on his pants, "I best get ya t' the hospital. We can't take any chances."

"Dr. Mike won't be up at this hour," she hesitated.

"I'll fetch her then, once I get you t' the hospital," he told her.

"Hank," her eyes were fearful. "I'm scared."

He concealed his concern, "Hell, there's nothin' t' be scared of. It's just a little pain, then we got our kid."

"That's easy for you to say," she was unconvinced. "You're not the one in pain."

He sat beside her and gently clasped her shoulders, "You're gonna be fine, Lex.... you an' the baby both."

She felt tears welling, "It's happening, Hank. We're going to be parents."

He nodded, "Yep. So, let's go get the hard part over."

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

Sitting in the rocking chair, Sully watched his wife as she slept. The flames from the fireplace cast dancing flickers of light onto the walls and ceiling of their room. He felt his heart warm at her beguiling features.

He longed to join her, but if he fell asleep, the dream might return.

He sensed something else returning, as well.... the feelings of sadness that sometimes gripped him.

If he allowed them to overtake him, he would sink further. Then the megrims would return. Since he was a child, when his mother died....

"That's when they began," he said to himself.

Michaela had already noticed something was bothering him. If he shared what it was with her, she would worry even more. And she would wonder why he was dreaming about Abigail. He wondered the same thing himself.

Sully rose from the chair quietly. He went to the basin and poured some fresh water. Splashing it on his face, he glanced back at his wife.

"God, she's so beautiful," he thought. "She deserves so much more than I can give her."

He had often told her that he was the luckiest man alive, and he meant it. While she had returned to spending her days and sometimes evenings at the hospital, he was hand-crafting Christmas gifts for the children. He had carved ornaments for each, personalized with their names. He had also begun to design new beds for the twins. Working with his hands, doing things for his family, made him feel useful.

But what could he give Michaela? Over the ten years of their marriage, he had worked hard to provide her with fine things. But.... he paused to look at their room. This is nothing like what she had in Boston. He was reminded of the elegance of her life there when they returned for Colleen's graduation.

His shoulders slumped. He was doing it. He was allowing himself to sink deeper.

"Think, Sully," he closed his eyes. "Think about the good things."

He stepped closer to Hope's cradle. Unable to resist his daughter, Sully lifted the sleeping baby and gently kissed her forehead.

Hope contoured her little body snugly to her father's shoulder. Sully loved the scent of his children, the warmth of their unconditional love. After another kiss, he tenderly set her back in the cradle.

"Sully?" Michaela's voice startled him. "Is the baby all right?"

"Yea," he kept his voice low.

She yawned and looked toward the clock on the mantel, "You're still awake?"

"Uh huh," he forced a smile. "Go on back t' bed. You need your rest."

She extended her hand, "Not until you tell me why you're awake."

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

Hank had hitched the wagon and looked toward the door, waiting for Lexie to exit their ranch house.

"Where the hell is she?" he rubbed his hands together for warmth. "The woman will be late t' have her own kid."

Just as he reached for the doorknob, he heard his wife scream.

"Lexie!" he hurried into the room.

She was on the chair, her face contorted in pain. He rushed to her side, but she shoved him away.

"What should I do?" his heart raced.

"Go get Dr. Mike!" she yelled.

He feared, "But what about...."

"Now!" she cut him off.

With that, Hank rushed out of the house. Lexie slid to the floor and began to cry.

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

Sully stepped closer to his wife, "Nothin's wrong."

"Sully," her voice was soothing. "I can tell that something's bothering you. If it's the long hours I've been putting in at the hospital, I can assure you that...."

"No," he gently placed his index finger to her lips. "Your work's important."

She countered, "Not more important than you or the children."

He took a deep breath, hesitant to burden her.

"Tell me," she tenderly stroked the side of his face. "What's number one on your list of worries?"

Sully turned his head to kiss her palm.

Michaela felt her body react, "Is that it? You miss our being intimate? I'm sorry we haven't...."

He smiled slightly, "Shhh. You think too much. Just go back t' sleep. I'll join you soon."

She stood still, contemplating why he was so uncommunicative, "We tell each other everything. Don't we?"

He considered, "Not always."

She knew there had been times when secrets between them had hurt the other deeply, "But we've learned how important it is to share when one of us is burdened with something. Please tell me, Sully. Perhaps I can help."

He swallowed hard, unable to look her in the eye. Without another word, he exited the bedroom.

"Sully," she followed, catching up when he reached the front door.

She blocked his exit.

"Michaela," he put his hands on his hips. "I was gonna go out t' the barn t' work."

"And not get any rest tonight?" she was surprised. "You must be exhausted."

"You, too," he noted.

Her stubborn nature compelled her to remain.

Sully exhaled in frustration and started toward the kitchen door.

"No," she clasped his hand and drew him back.

She guided that hand up to cover her heart. Sully closed his eyes, feeling its rapid beat beneath his palm. Then he allowed himself to look into her eyes. They were beginning to redden.

"Don't leave me," she whispered, fear in her eyes.

"Leave you?" he reached up to cup her cheek with his other hand.

"Do you.... want to go away?" her voice was faint. "You don't know how to tell me."

"No, Michaela," he assured. "It ain't like that. I won't leave you."

Her emotions were surging as she rapidly implored her husband, "I need you, Sully. Please, whatever it is that's troubling you.... I'll help you. If it's something I've done or haven't done....'

"Shhh," he embraced her. "It ain't you. There's nothin' wrong with you. You're as perfect a wife an' woman a man could ever want."

"No," she knew better. "I'm not. I'm stubborn and opinionated...."

He regretted, "I'm sorry, Michaela. I didn't mean t' upset you. You're takin' off thinkin' o' things that shouldn't be worryin' ya."

"Then tell me what's wrong.... why you're acting this way," she implored.

He contemplated, "Maybe we're just too tired t' think straight. In the mornin', things will seem different."

She felt an ache in her heart, "I'm not too tired to recognize that...."

Michaela stopped and linked her fingers in his. Then she took a deep breath to calm herself. She was allowing her emotions to get the better of her. This was not like when they were first married, when she would see a far off look in her husband's eyes and wonder if he longed for his solitary life.

Over the past ten years, Sully had proven repeatedly that their marriage and family were the most important things in his life. But she also knew that by trying to pressure him to communicate when he was not ready, she might push him away.

Michaela composed herself and peered into his eyes, "If this is something you need to work through on your own, I'll respect your wishes. But.... please know, that if you need me, I'll be there."

"I do know that," he felt a lump in his throat.

She lifted up and kissed him, "Good night, Sully. I love you."

"I love you, too," he returned.

At that moment, they heard a rapidly approaching horse.

"What now?" Michaela drew back the kitchen curtain. "It's Hank."

"Hank?" Sully stepped to the door and opened it.

"Sully!" the sheriff was frantic. "Wake up Michaela. Lexie's havin' the baby. Now!"

Michaela stepped closer, "Get her to the hospital, and I'll meet you there."

"No," Hank shook his head. "She can't travel. She's at the ranch."

Sully looked at his wife, "I'll saddle the horses."

Michaela spoke over her shoulder as she rushed to the stairs, "Hank, go home, and try to keep her calm. I'll be right there."

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

Lexie had another contraction and let forth a horrific scream. She felt as if she were ripping apart.

"Damn you, Hank Lawson," she panted between pains. "Where are you? And if you think you're ever getting in my bed again...."

Another contraction gripped her. Writhing in agony, she told herself to focus on something, anything. The fireplace. She gazed at the flames. The pain began to subside, and she attempted to calm herself with deep, cleansing breaths.

Glancing toward the clock, she calculated Hank had been gone about half an hour. Plenty of time to get Dr. Mike. But where were they?

Just as she felt the wave of another contraction, Hank burst through the door.

He was horrified at the sight of his wife on the floor, "Lexie! Are ya all right?"

She reacted with sarcasm, "I couldn't be better if you took an ax and rammed it into my temple. Now, where's Dr. Mike?"

"Ya gotta stay calm," he reached for her.

"Calm?" she screamed. "Calm when I feel like I'm being ripped apart?"

"Uh...." he struggled with what to say. "How 'bout a shot o' whiskey?"

"Whiskey?" she was incredulous. "Have you taken leave of your senses?"

"Kinda," he admitted. "But don't tell no one. Dr. Mike said I should keep ya calm."

"Well, you're not doing a very good job," Lexie frowned.

Another pain gripped her. Hank attempted to rub her belly, but she slapped him. He stood back, feeling helpless. Finally, as the pain began to subside, he heard the approaching horses.

Michaela rushed into the ranch, followed quickly by Sully, who closed the door behind them.

"Lexie," Michaela knelt at her side.

"Thank God," the poor woman closed her eyes in relief.

Michaela directed, "Hank, Sully, can you carry her into the bedroom?"

The men silently did as she requested.

Michaela began to roll up her sleeves, "I'll need as much clean water as you can get me."

Hank nodded and left them to fetch it.

"Sully...." Michaela glanced at her husband.

He anticipated, "I'll heat it."

"Thank you," she smiled.

Lexie grasped Michaela's hand, "Please, Dr. Mike. Help me."

Michaela assured, "It will all be over soon, Lexie. Then you'll have that little one to love and cherish."

After finally putting the water on to boil in the other room, Hank paced and lit a cigar.

"Ain't that supposed t' come after the baby's born?" Sully noted.

Hank tossed the cigar into the fireplace, "I don't know how you done this so many times."

"I didn't have t' do the hard part," Sully quipped.

Hank folded his arms tightly against his chest, "I never thought it'd be like this. I figured she'd go int' the hospital, have the kid while I waited...."

Lexie's scream interrupted them. Hank went to the bedroom door and stopped.

Turning to Sully, he frowned, "Can't Michaela give her somethin'?"

"She knows what she's doin'," Sully calmly stated.

Hank pondered, "What am I gonna do? I'm gonna be a father. That means the kid's gonna depend on me for...."

Another scream from the bedroom.

Hank went to the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of whiskey. Removing the cork, he gulped down some of the liquor.

Sully gauged the temperature of the water was about right.

He knocked on the bedroom door, "Michaela, it's ready."

She opened it, "Could you bring it in and set it by the bed?"

Sully did as she asked, then stepped back respectfully into the other room with Hank.

"What's the water for?" Hank sat at the kitchen table.

"Cleanin'," Sully answered simply.

Hank took another swig from the bottle as his wife's screams continued.

The sheriff sighed, "I don't know how much more o' this I can take."

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

Sully glanced at the clock. Lexie had been in labor for nearly three hours, and he knew his children would be anxious about where their parents were as the sun was rising.

Hank stared out the window.

"You okay?" Sully approached him.

Hank sighed, "How much longer is this gonna take?"

He shook his head, "It was never the same with our kids. Michaela was in labor with Katie all night."

"Seems like it's been all night with Lexie, too," Hank gestured toward the closed bedroom door.

"I'll go check," Sully offered.

He knocked softly on the door.

"Come in," Michaela beckoned.

Sully opened the door and tentatively stepped into the room. Lexie was covered in perspiration.

Michaela looked exhausted.

He spoke low, "How you girls holdin' up?"

Michaela sighed and drew back a lock of her hair, "If the baby doesn't come soon...."

Lexie let forth another yell.

Hank rushed into the room, "For God's sake, Michaela. Can't ya give her somethin'?"

Sully patted Hank on the chest as he escorted him out, "Come on. Let's let 'em be."

"Sully," Michaela stood up, somewhat dizzy.

"Hey," he noticed. "I think you better sit down."

"I'm having some difficulty focusing," she whispered to him. "I think perhaps I...."

At that moment, Michaela fainted. Sully caught her and gently set her back in the chair.

"Hank!" Sully called to him.

When the sheriff came into the room, he was stunned, "What's wrong with Michaela?"

"She's exhausted," Sully explained.

"So she passed out in the middle o' deliverin' a baby?" his eyes widened.

Sully reached for the spirits of ammonia in his wife's medical bag. He held the open lid beneath her nose. She quickly roused.

"Wha.... what happened?" Michaela was disoriented.

Lexie's screams soon brought her back into focus. Michaela examined the woman again.

"Gentlemen, if you'd like to leave now, I believe this little one is finally ready to be born," she looked up.

"I ain't leavin'," Hank asserted. "What if you faint again?"

"Hank...." Michaela paused. "I don't think you realize...."

"I'm stayin'," he was adamant.

"Suit yourself," Michaela looked at Lexie. "All right, when the next contraction comes, I want you to push."

"Me?" Hank pointed to himself.

Michaela rolled her eyes, "No, Hank, but if you'd like to be helpful, you can position yourself at her head and support her back when it comes time to push."

"Okay," Hank was finally feeling useful.

Sully stepped back into the other room to wait. He listened to the familiar sounds of a woman bringing a new life into the world. It was a sound he had heard with great anticipation when his own children were born. As he paced before the fireplace, he felt his heart sinking again.

"Sully," he quietly told himself. "Ya gotta stop this. There's no reason 't feel sad. There's a baby comin'. Think about Hank and Lexie. How happy they'll be. Think about...."

His thoughts were interrupted with a louder scream than the others.

In the other room, Michaela urged, "One more, Lexie. One more push. The baby's almost here."

Hank encouraged, "Come on, Lex. You can do it."

Suddenly, the baby slipped into Michaela's hands. She worked quickly to clear the blood, secretions and mucus from the newborn's mouth and nose.

Hank spoke up, "Why ain't it cryin'?"

Michaela elevated the baby's feet higher than its head and gently tapped its feet.

"Dr. Mike," Lexie spoke out of breath. "What's happening?"

Michaela noticed the baby's complexion begin to turn pink and smiled, "Mr. and Mrs. Lawson, I'd like to present you with your daughter."

"Daughter?" Hank stood up.

At that moment, he felt lightheaded. Without another word, he collapsed unconscious onto the floor.

"A daughter," Lexie reached out to hold the child.

Michaela continued to clean the infant and placed her on her mother's abdomen.

"She's not crying?" Lexie wondered.

"Don't worry," Michaela returned. "As soon as...."

Lexie interrupted, "Hank! Hank, wake up."

Michaela took the spirits of ammonia and waved them under his nose.

"What the hell...." he awoke with a start.

Lexie glanced down at him, "Hank, look at her. Look at our little girl."

"Damn," he got up. "Leave it t' you t' go an' have a...."

He stopped when he caught sight of the infant.

Michaela's smile broadened, "She's beautiful. Isn't she?"

Hank felt a lump so big in his throat, he could scarcely swallow, "That ain't the word for her."

As she placed the child in his arms, there was a faint knock at the door. Michaela stepped to open it and smiled.

She clasped Sully's hand and whispered, "It's a girl."

"Good," he grinned.

"Do you think you could take Hank into the other room while I finish with.... you know," she kept her voice low.

"Sure," Sully agreed. "Hank, how 'bout that cigar?"

Hank was reluctant to release the baby, "Can't ya see I'm busy?"

Sully persisted, "You'll get t' do plenty o' that. Let's go in the other room while Michaela takes care o' some things."

"What things?" his brow wrinkled.

"Would you like to faint again?" Michaela was blunt.

"I didn't faint," Hank protested. "There was somethin' slick on the floor.

Michaela reached for the baby and prepared to bathe her.

Hank turned to Lexie and squeezed her hand, "Good job."

"You, too," she smiled faintly.

"I'll see ya in a little bit," Hank turned to go. Then he pivoted and spoke to Michaela, "Don't drop her."

When he joined Sully in the kitchen area, Hank queried, "So, what's Michaela doin' that she didn't want me t' see?"

Sully hesitated, "Uh.... well, just some cleanin' up."

Hank started back toward the bedroom, "I can help with that."

Sully patted his back to stop him, "Stay in here, Hank."

"But...." he began to protest. "Oh, all right."

He reached into his pocket for a cigar, "Want one?"

"No, thanks," Sully declined. "By the way, I wouldn't smoke them around the baby."

"I know that," he was defensive. "Well, now I reckon things can get back t' normal."

"Normal?" Sully raised an eyebrow. "Normal will be real different for ya from now on."

Hank was curious, "How's that?"

"That little girl in there's gonna dictate what time ya sleep, when ya get up, an' all sorts o' things you never even thought about," Sully advised.

Hank scoffed, "You let your kids do that?"

Sully chuckled, "It ain't a matter o' lettin' 'em. It just happens that way."

Hank lowered his volume, "I wanna ask ya somethin' kinda personal."

"What?" Sully wondered.

"Well.... I been real good about.... ya know, stayin' away from other women...." Hank began.

"Good," Sully replied.

"But...." Hank blew a circle of smoke into the air. "I got needs, ya know? An'.... well.... how long before Lexie an' me can.... be t'gether again?"

"She'll let ya know," Sully returned. "But give her time. Don't pressure her. You're used t' comin' first. That's gonna change, too. The baby's gonna be first now with Lexie.... least for a while."

Hank exhaled, "I see."

"One more thing," Sully paused. "Lexie's gonna go through a lot o' emotions. One minute, she'll be fine.... smilin' an' talkin'. Next thing ya know, she might be cryin' or upset about somethin' an' not even know why."

Hank frowned, "That's normal?"

"Yep," Sully folded his arms. "Just let her know ya love her."

Hank nodded, "'Course, I love her."

Sully repeated, "Tell her often."

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

"Dr. Mike," Lexie held the baby to her breast. "Am I doing this right?"

Michaela smiled, "Perfectly."

Lexie's emotions surged with feelings she had never experienced before, "This is incredible."

"Yes, it is," she nodded.

"How will I know when she's had enough to eat?" the new mother queried.

"Well, she'll stop," Michaela answered simply. "I'll write down some instructions and things you'll need to remember."

Lexie's eyes welled, "I don't know how to thank you. She's the most beautiful.... incredible...."

Michaela touched her hand, "Just love her."

"I already do," tears streamed down Lexie's face.

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

When Sully returned from taking the children to school, he entered the homestead and spotted Bridget in the kitchen.

"Michaela in bed?" he assumed.

"Aye," she looked up from the stove. "Poor lass was dead tired. Her head hit the pillow the moment she walked upstairs. Are ya hungry?"

Sully knew the feeling, "No, thanks. I'm gonna try t' get some rest before the twins wake up."

"You don't worry about them," she assured. "I'll keep 'em occupied, I will. We got lots t' do t' prepare that Thanksgivin' feast."

"Thanksgivin'," he suddenly realized. "I almost forgot."

"Dr. Mike said Lexie had a darlin' little girl," she smiled. "There's lots t' be thankful for."

He smiled and approached her.

Kissing her cheek, Sully winked, "Thanks for remindin' me."

Her cheeks flushed, "Now get up there t' bed before I forget you're a married man."

He chuckled, "What would we ever do without ya, Bridget?"

"Sure, you'd fall apart, ya would," she quipped. "Now, off with ya."

Sully mounted the steps slowly and as quietly as possible, entered his bedroom. Michaela was asleep atop the bed. She had not even changed her clothes.

"Good thinkin'," he whispered as he walked to his side of the bed and stretched out beside her.

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

Hank heard the baby stir as she lay between Lexie and him.

"Lex," he whispered. "The baby's gonna cry."

"No, she's not," Lexie did not open her eyes. "She needs to sleep, just like we do."

"I don't think it works that way," he sat up.

Tenderly lifting the infant, Hank cradled her in his arms. The baby's lips puckered.

Hank touched his wife's arm, "I think she's hungry."

Lexie opened an eye, "Maybe she'll go back to sleep."

"Nah," he shook his head. "She's got her mouth all ready."

Lexie focused and saw that he was right, "Dr. Mike said she'd be hungry about every two hours or so."

Positioning herself so she could feed the baby, Lexie began to nurse her newborn daughter.

Hank watched with interest, "Looks like she knows just what t' do."

"Dr. Mike gave me some advice," Lexie observed.

Hank yawned, "Sun's been up a while. You hungry?"

"Not at the moment," she replied. "Hank, we haven't discussed a name for her."

"We could just call her 'The Kid,'" he joked.

She mused, "'The Kid' Lawson. Yes, that has a good ring to it."

His expression became serious, "I'd like t' call her Ilse."

"Ilse?" she was puzzled.

"After my Nana," he clarified. "My grandma."

Lexie noticed the way he spoke the name with love, "She was special to you?"

"Real special," he nodded. "She was the only one I ever gave a damn about an' who gave a damn about me."

"She's gone?" Lexie suspected.

His voice quivered slightly, "Few years back, she came here t' say goodbye. She had a heart condition an' was returnin' t' Norway."

"Your family's from Norway?" she smiled.

"I got a letter not long after she went there," he swallowed hard. "She died."

"I'm sorry," Lexie touched his hand. Then she looked at the sleeping baby in her arms, "Ilse Lawson. I like the name."

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

Michaela wakened and rolled onto her side. Sully was slumbering beside to her. Next she cast a glance toward the clock. Noon. Could that be right? She had slept until noon?

She lightly brushed back a lock of hair from her husband's face. Poor Sully, she thought. He was so helpful with delivering Lexie's baby. Whatever it was that troubled him, she hoped he would share it with her soon. It pained her to see him burdened.

Quietly rising from the bed, she stepped to Hope's cradle. The baby was awake.

Michaela whispered to her, "Hello, my darling. How are you?"

The little one moved her legs vigorously and smiled at her mother's voice. Michaela lifted her and felt her diaper. Setting the little girl on the bed, Michaela changed her diaper, then left her beside her father. Michaela removed her own blouse, skirt and undergarments. While keeping an eye on Hope, she washed up, but before she could manage a change of clothing, the baby began to fuss.

"Shhh," Michaela rushed to her. "Don't wake up Papa."

Hope's lower lip curled under.

Michaela could tell a cry was near and again lifted her daughter, "Are you hungry?"

Carrying the baby to the rocking chair, Michaela began to nurse Hope. She clasped her daughter's tiny fingers around her thumb and rocked back and forth. Her emotions began to swell as she cradled this miracle baby in her arms.

More rested than she had been in quite some time, Michaela found herself having other feelings, amorous ones, as she glanced at Sully. He was so incredibly patient and dear to her. Those months apart, early in their marriage, had taught her how precious their time together is. She suddenly longed to show him what he meant to her.

With the baby's belly now full, Michaela rose from the chair and donned her robe. Then she carried Hope out of the room and down the stairs.

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

Sully sat up, disoriented. He felt rested. The dream had not come to him. After running his fingers through his hair, he sat up. He could see that the cradle was empty.

"Michaela must've taken her downstairs," he thought. "I best get started on my chores."

At that moment, Michaela entered the room with a tray of rolls and jam.

"Hello," she smiled.

Sully yawned, "How long you been up?"

"Not long," she set the tray on the table. "Are you hungry?"

"Not really," he started to get out of bed.

Michaela kissed his cheek and gently pushed him back down. Sully drew her next to him and enfolded her in his arms.

"'Mornin'," he kissed her sweetly.

"I'm afraid it's afternoon," she toyed with the hair around his ear.

"Then I reckon Bridget was good t' her word," he remarked.

Michaela raised an eyebrow, "Oh?"

"Yep," he ran his hand down her back. "She said she'd keep the twins quiet for us."

"I was just with them," she related. "They're being as good as angels."

Sully chuckled, "She must be bribin' 'em."

"Colleen must be wondering why I haven't come to the hospital," she realized.

"After I took the kids t' school, I stopped by t' tell her you were up half the night deliverin' Lexie's baby," he informed her. "She said t' not worry about things there."

"Good," she snuggled closer.

"Michaela," he paused. "About last night...."

"You want to talk about it?" she was hopeful.

"I wanna apologize for worryin' ya," he stated.

She looked away, saddened that he still could not bring himself to discuss it with her.

"Hey," he touched her chin with his finger. "Look at me."

She did.

He smiled, "No prettier eyes on this earth than yours."

"Thank you," she warmed at the timbre of his voice.

He commended, "You did real good deliverin' that baby."

She turned up the corner of her mouth, "After I fainted."

"Seems there was a lot o' that goin' on," he retorted. "She's a beautiful little girl."

"Yes, she is," Michaela agreed. "And as soon as things settle at the Lawson household, I'm going to speak with Hank about setting a good example for his daughter. Perhaps now he'll consider closing that opium den and ending prostitution."

Sully kissed her to silence her. Michaela savored the sensations he was awakening. Turning farther, she lifted up to more fully kiss him back.

He whispered, "Who taught you how t' kiss so good?"

Her cheeks flushed, "I believe it was practice, Mr. Sully."

"Better be with me," he caressed her thigh.

She tingled, "Only with you."

"Good," his hand continued to roam.

Suddenly, he stopped.

Knowing where they were headed, he drew back, "If you'd rather not...."

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

Noah lifted on tiptoes to try to see what Bridget was making at the table.

She noticed, "Here, now, don't ya know curiosity killed the cat?"

"We got Woff," he pointed. "No cat."

She smiled, "I'll put ya on this chair t' watch. Where's your sister?"

The little boy called out, "Annie!"

"Shh!" Bridget placed her finger to her lips.

Annie arrived in the room, "Up wif Noah."

Bridget sighed and hoisted the little girl to share the chair with her brother, "Now, quiet with the both of ya."

Noah requested, "We make kees?

"Pies," Bridget specified. "Pumpkin."

"Mumpin," Noah attempted.

The nanny offered, "I'll give each of ya some dough. We'll see what ya can make."

"I make pie," Annie grinned.

"I make Woff," Noah countered.

Bridget spoke under her breath, "Now this I wanna see."

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

Sully rolled away from his wife.

"Sully," Michaela touched his side. "I didn't say I didn't want us to...."

"It's okay," he assured as he sat up. "I know you're tired. Ya had a long night an' could use some more rest."

"Please," her voice spoke of longing. "Come back to me."

"I ain't goin' anywhere," he forced a smile. "But someone's gotta do the chores, get things ready for Brian. An' Thanksgivin's t'morrow."

"Thanksgiving," she had forgotten.

He stood up.

She reached for him, "I want to tell you something."

"What?" he put his hands on his hips.

She beckoned with her finger, "Come closer."

He leaned down.

"Closer," she gestured again.

Sully positioned himself inches from her face.

"I love you," she kissed him.

He smiled, "I love you, too. Now get some rest."

"What are you going to do?" she queried.

He began, "Milk the cow, feed the chickens an' pig, gather the eggs...."

"Do you think you could delay doing that?" she stood up.

"Delay?" he was puzzled. "Why?"

She came around to him, "Because I have something else I need you to do first."

"Sure," he agreed. "What is it?"

She began to unbutton his shirt and separate the material. Leaning closer, she kissed his bare chest.

"Michaela," he grasped her shoulders.

She pulled the shirt from his buckskins and wrapped her arms around his waist. Sully was beginning to lose himself in her caresses. Michaela continued to ply kisses across his chest as she undid his buckskins. Gulping, he knew that soon he would not be able to stop.

"Michaela," his voice was different.

Sliding his pants down his muscular thighs, she whispered, "I'd like for us to be together."

He could no longer resist. Stepping out of his buckskins, he lifted her and set her gently on their bed. He kissed her chin and neck as he loosened her robe to caress the valley between her breasts. She breathlessly arched her back slightly, roused further by his attention.

He raised up to join her in bed. He reached toward the jam and dipped his finger into it. Smiling seductively, he applied a dab to each of her breasts. Then his lips began to consume the sweet substance, prompting Michaela to moan softly. Then she returned the favor, applying some jam to his chest. Each took loving care to temptingly please the other as a prelude to what was to come.

If they had stopped at this point, neither would have cared, so comfortable were they in each others arms. But their bodies longed for more. Cravings that had never waned in ten years of marriage began to consume them.

Michaela gently stroked the sides of his face, feeling even closer to him, "I want you to know something."

"What?" he guided the palm of her hand to his lips.

She uttered, "I want you to always know how happy you make me, Sully. You bring out things in me I never knew existed. You give me courage and support. Most of all, you make me feel so incredibly loved, and I adore you for it."

His heart filled, "That's how I feel, too."

Her words reached his very core, "Promise me you'll never lose sight of how deep our love is."

"I promise," his voice cracked slightly.

Michaela whispered, "I need you so much."

His body needed no further invitation as he drew her flesh against his own. The scent of her filled his senses, escalating his already fervent desire for her. He kissed her lower lip, then her upper. Next he leaned down to kiss the lobe of her ear.

His feather light touches quickened Michaela's heartbeat. She lightly ran her hand across his chest, lingering at points which she knew would heighten his pleasure.

All anguish that Sully had felt through the long night was quickly vanishing. It was as if Michaela were reaching into his soul, vanquishing that which tormented him and leaving only her love.

He paused to drink in her countenance, "How do ya do it?"

"Do what?" she was uncertain.

"How do ya put yourself so deep in my heart?" he spoke low.

Michaela's eyes shone with love, "I was thinking the same thing."

He was moved to recite:

"...I love her heartily!
For she is wise, if I can judge of her,
And fair she is, if that mine eyes be true,
And true she is, as she hath proved herself;
And therefore, like herself, wise, fair, true,
Shall she be placed in my constant soul."

She smiled slightly, "Was that Marlowe?"

"Shakespeare," he replied.

She positioned herself invitingly closer, "I never seem to guess correctly."

"That's all right," he kissed the softness of her neck. "You do a lot of other things correctly."

At that moment, his desire for her, to join his soul with hers, was overpowering. His heart throbbed nearly out of his chest. Any hesitation he had about making love to his wife had vanished as she opened her heart anew. Tentatively, he maneuvered to partake of all that she offered.

Michaela discerned the difference in him as their bodies began to awaken. His sullenness of last night was evaporating, replaced by the ardor of his passion for her. She needed him, and she needed for him to know how much. A warmth was building within her.

Their movements culminated in a powerful climax of bodies and souls. As they caught their breaths and prolonged each pleasurable sensation, tender caresses followed. There were no words for what they experienced. Enfolded in each others arms, they quietly drifted back to sleep.

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

At Grace's Cafe, Jake finished paying off the last of the winners in the Lawson Baby Pool. He counted the remaining cash, then pocketed it.

Loren raised an eyebrow, "Not many thought it would be a girl."

Preston chimed in, "I still can't picture Hank with a baby."

"I can," Myra contributed. "He was always real sweet with Samantha."

Horace frowned, "Too sweet."

Dorothy took her pencil from behind her ear, "I'm gonna write an article about the birth for The Gazette."

Jake cleared his throat, "Anyone wanna bet what they name her?"

Myra nodded, "My guess would be after his Nana."

"Ilse," the Reverend remembered.

Jake scoffed, "You think he's that sentimental?"

Dorothy chuckled, "Look who's talkin'. Ya named your daughter after your Ma."

He added, "An' Teresa's."

Preston smirked, "Isn't it refreshing to have a new baby in our fair town whose last name isn't Sully?"

Everyone frowned at the banker's remark.

Preston smiled uncomfortably, "I was only joking, of course."

Loren eyed him sternly, "Of course."

Grace stopped at the table, "Can I get you folks anythin' else?"

Loren extended his cup, "More coffee, please."

She poured, "So, Mr. Mayor, do ya have a count of how many're gonna be comin' t' the town Thanksgivin' feast t'morrow?"

Jake tilted his hat back, "Let's see. How about you folks?"

The Reverend raised his hand, "Isabel, Wendell and I plan to attend. Oh, and we've invited that new teacher at the school for deaf and blind children, Mary Conway."

Dorothy smiled, "Cloud Dancin' an' I will be here."

Jake put his hands on his hips, "What about all them Injun children at the school?"

She frowned at his term, "Some of the older children will be attendin'. I thought it would be good for them t' experience the charm of our town."

Preston said, "Things are rather slow at the Chateau. I'll be here."

Horace raised his hand, "I'm plannin' on bein' here."

Myra joined in, "Samantha an' me, too."

Jake turned to Loren, "What about you?"

"I'm gonna be at Dr. Mike an' Sully's," he replied.

Grace teased, "You like Bridget's cookin' better than mine?"

Loren spoke with a gleam in his eye, "No comment."

Grace wondered, "Why ain't Dr. Mike an' Sully comin'?"

Dorothy explained, "She said they will next year when Hope's a little older."

Loren shook his head, "It wasn't that many Thanksgivin's ago that Dr. Mike told us she was expectin' her first. Now Katie's nine years old."

Jake calculated, "I think a couple o' them nuns from Dr. Mike's hospital are comin', too."

Grace made some notes on a tablet, "Some folks from shantytown will be here. Plus, Robert E, me an' little Abraham."

The mayor nodded, "Teresa, Maria an' me, too."

Loren put his fingers in his vest pocket, "I reckon it's safe t' say Hank an' Lexie won't be here."

The Reverend informed them, "Isabel and I are taking turkey and fixings out to them."

Dorothy noticed a familiar figure approaching, "Brian! Welcome home."

"Thanks," the young man set down his suitcase. "What's the big meeting all about?"

The redhead stood up and kissed his cheek, "The town's Thanksgivin' dinner."

"I'm glad I made it home in time for Thanksgiving," he smiled. "I've missed everyone."

Dorothy invited, "Sit down. Tell us all about your trip an' the big news about the election."

Brian pulled several papers from his suit pocket, "I wrote it all up for ya, Miss Dorothy. It was real exciting."

Loren patted his back, "Good t' have ya back, lad. So what's this Garfield fella like?"

Brian shrugged, "I didn't meet him, but he's not new to Washington. He used to be the Speaker of the House."

Preston added, "Yes, he was involved in that Crédit Mobilier scandal under President Grant."

Brian noted, "That was never proved, but his political opponents sure tried to make it a campaign issue."

Loren agreed, "I hear tell the Democrats put up signs with 329 on 'em."

Horace was puzzled, "329?"

Brian explained, "Garfield was accused of taking a bribe of $329 in the scandal."

Dorothy mentioned, "He only beat Hancock by about 10,000 votes."

Brian clarified, "But the electoral vote wasn't close, 369 to 155."

Horace scratched his head, "I never did understand that electoral vote thing. Seems a man can win the vote o' the people but not become president."

Preston commented, "And that's exactly what happened in the previous election, my good man. Tilden won the popular vote, yet Hayes became president."

Horace frowned, "I ain't your good man."

Brian sighed, "Well, President Garfield's gonna have his hands full keeping peace in his party. The Republicans are split between supporters of Conkling and supporters of Blaine. Both of them wanted to be President, too."

Jake recalled, "The Stalwarts an' the Half-Breeds. Ain't that what the two sides are called?"

Brian nodded, "Yep, and the president has to please both sides."

Loren counseled, "When ya try t' please two sides, ya end up not pleasin' either. Then they're both out t' get ya."

Grace chuckled, "Ain't you the sage now."

Brian lifted his suitcase, "Well, I think I'll head on home. It's nice to see everyone."

Grace stopped him, "Wait, Brian. Ya ain't heard the big news. Who wants t' tell him?"

Loren took the opportunity, "Hank an' Lexie had a baby girl."

"A girl?" Brian grinned. "That's real good news. Did Ma deliver her?"

Jake replied, "Yep. We heard she was up most of the night."

Brian joked, "I best be quiet when I get home then."

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

Abigail touched Sully's sleeve, "Now I have nothing of you. She has it all."

Sully swallowed hard, "Michaela's my wife."

"So am I," she insisted. "I want you back."

"Abigail," Sully awoke with a start.

Quickly, he turned to see if Michaela had heard. Her back was to him, and she did not move. He quietly rose from the bed and dressed. Then after tenderly touching his wife's hand, he exited.

When Michaela heard the door close, she opened her eyes, "Sully, why did you speak Abigail's name?"

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

Sully had finished his chores, but lingered in the barn rather than going back into the house. He sighed and pitched some additional hay for the animals.

Then he concentrated on his dreams, "Abigail.... sayin' she wants me back. What can it mean?"

Suddenly, he recalled something he had heard many years ago in the mining camps. Just before people die, they're visited by loved ones who have already gone before them. The thought disturbed him even more. Was Abigail visiting him because he was going to die soon?

Another memory flashed before him. His mother. Before she jumped from that bridge into the Hudson River....

"She'd been talkin' a lot about Pa," he spoke to himself.

Though he was quite young, he vividly recalled her words.

Katherine Sully stroked her son's hair, "Oh, Byron, you have no idea what it's like. I loved your Pa so much. I miss him terribly."

The lad felt tears welling in his eyes, "Me, too, Ma."

She glanced out the window, "He calls to me. In my dreams, he visits me."

Byron tilted his head, "Could ya ask him t' visit me, too?"

She smiled faintly as she touched his cheek, "You look just like him, you know. His blue eyes.... those dimples. He was the handsomest man I ever met."

The little boy questioned, "Why'd he have t' leave us, Ma?"

"The farm," she paused to choke back her emotions. "It broke him.... broke his spirit, his heart."

"Maybe I could've helped more," the little boy considered.

She shivered slightly, "Byron, I want you to know something.... no matter what happens. I want you to understand that.... I love you."

He grew anxious at her tone, "I love you, too, Ma."

She lowered her head, "Things can happen inside a person's mind.... things that they don't have control over. Do you understand?"

"No," he struggled.

She embraced him and kissed the top of his head, "Maybe someday you will."

"Are you talkin' about the bad man who hurt ya?" he asked.

She tensed, and her face turned pale at the recollection of her rape, "Don't ever speak of that again."

His voice quivered, "I'm sorry I wasn't there t' help ya, Ma."

She clasped his shoulders, "None of it was your fault. And.... what's going to happen.... It's not your fault either, Byron. Don't ever blame yourself."

He was curious, "What's gonna happen?"

Now a grown man, Sully reflected, "Ma was thinkin' about jumpin' off that bridge when she spoke t' me."

At that moment, Sully heard the sound of an approaching wagon, then noticed Wolf wagging his tale. When Sully stepped outside of the barn, he recognized Brian with Robert E.

Robert E stopped the buckboard, "Look who I brung ya for Thanksgivin'."

"Hey," Sully embraced his son. "It's good t' have ya home."

"Thanks, Pa," he grinned. "It's good to be home."

"How was your trip?" Sully queried.

"Great," Brian's face lit up. "I'll tell ya all about it."

Robert E lifted the reins, "I best be gettin' back t' town before Grace thinks up even more things for me t' do."

"Much obliged for bringing me home," Brian shook his hand.

"You're welcome," he smiled. "You folks have a nice Thanksgivin'."

"You, too," Sully waved.

After a hardy pat on the back, Sully lifted his son's bag.

"I can carry it, Pa," Brian insisted.

"Whew," Sully set it down. "It's heavy. What's in it?"

Brian joked, "I got a lot of little brothers and sisters who want souvenirs."

"They missed ya," Sully noted.

"I heard about Hank and Lexie's baby in town," he related. "I bet Ma's exhausted."

"She was still sleepin' when I came out here," Sully informed him. "But I know she'll wake up for your homecomin'."

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

Michaela sat in the rocking chair of her bedroom, pondering what to say to Sully. Years earlier, before he had declared his love for her, Michaela had to battle the ghost of Abigail. Sully's weekly visits to her grave.... his hesitation to open his heart again.... the wedding picture and baby clothes.... the hand crafted rocking horse. She herself had been visited by the spirit of Abigail. From that experience, Michaela had come to the conclusion that Sully's first wife was a strong-willed woman, stubborn, yet sensitive and caring.

Michaela rose from the chair and folded her arms tightly against her chest. Was Sully comparing Abigail to her as a wife.... or lover?

"No," she tried to dismiss the thought.

There had certainly been no hint of that in their intimacy earlier. It was magical. The totality of their physical passion had never wavered, and Sully held nothing back in that regard. Then, what could have prompted his calling out Abigail's name in his sleep?

Her thoughts drifted back to an afternoon not long after she married Sully. They had been awkwardly adjusting to their newly married status and his penchant for going off on his own without telling her. When she had come home from the Clinic one afternoon, she had found him planting a garden.

Sully had knelt down, digging into the hard soil with his tomahawk. Michaela had come up to him, surprised to hear him refer to "our" garden.

He had said, "I been thinkin' about the old homestead, how you put your garden in the same spot Abigail's was."

Michaela had been uncertain about where his train of thought was leading.

Then he had spoken the words that allayed her fears, "Marryin' her was different." With his piercing blue eyes, he had looked up at her, "I never had the same kinda feelin's for her that I have for you."

Moved by his sentiments, Michaela had knelt beside him, placing her hand on his shoulder.

He had caressed her hand, "I ain't always gonna be able t' be with ya. Sometimes I just lose track o' time, or I get holed up in a blizzard."

She had sympathized, "Or I'm late at the Clinic."

He had continued as he stroked her arm, "But you're right. It ain't just you an' me anymore. It's us. No matter where we go or how long we're away from each other, our spirits are one."

Michaela came back to reality. Those weren't the words of a man who still desired his first wife. Or had something changed? Was this what had been troubling Sully? Could he not bring himself to tell her that he had been thinking of Abigail? It was a double edge sword. Was it worse that he had been thinking about her or worse that he could not speak of it?

Michaela paused to look around the bedroom. Stepping toward her husband's dresser, she opened the top drawer and touched his shirts. She smiled, recalling how soiled his clothes were before they married.

"My mountain man," she mused.

Just beneath the surface of the shirts was a small box in which Sully kept his wedding photograph with Abigail. It also held the picture of Hannah, his stillborn daughter.

"Beneath the surface," she touched the lid of box.

Beneath the surface of the mountain man lay so many layers of the husband who held her heart. After ten years, hadn't she discovered all of those layers?

"Oh, Sully," tormented thoughts overwhelmed her.

She closed the drawer and left the memory box undisturbed.

At that moment, she heard the twins greeting Brian downstairs. Quickly, she dressed and headed down to welcome her son home.

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

Katie collected her art supplies and placed them in her bag. The hallway of the college was noisy with students enthusiastically sharing their plans for the upcoming holiday. Katie's weekly art classes were a nice addition to the routine of school. Actually, it was not a routine for her. Katie savored every moment in the classroom. Learning was like breathing to her, and her curious mind often led her to strike up conversations with college students.

As the little girl stepped toward the professor, he smiled.

"Very good, Katie," he commended. "Your artistic technique is improving."

"Thanks," her cheeks flushed.

He queried, "Is your father coming to pick you up?"

"No," she shook her head. "My brother Matthew is."

"I see," he nodded. "Well, enjoy your Thanksgiving."

"Thanks," she departed.

In the hallway, she spotted a familiar face, "Dr. Kelly, hello."

"Well, hello, Katie," he grinned. "I heard that Brian has been covering the election."

"Yep," she proudly proclaimed. "He's due home today."

"Ah, yes, for Thanksgiving, I'm sure," he acknowledged.

She noticed the book under his arm, "What ya readin'?"

He held it upright for her, "It's about heraldry. I was lecturing about it today."

"Never heard of him," she remarked.

He chuckled, "No, no. Heraldry is the study of family crests, coats of arms, insignias..."

"Coats of arms?" her interest intensified.

He endeavored to explain, "Many surnames trace back to the Crusades, when knights went into battle wearing a unique insignia, so as to be recognized by their men in battle."

Her brow wrinkled, "What's a shorename?"

He corrected, "Surname. It's one's family name. In your case, Sully."

Katie's eyes widened, "There's a coat of arms for my family name?"

"Well," he began to leaf through the pages. "Let's take a look.... Yes, here. Sully."

Katie was amazed as she pointed, "What's this thing?"

"It's a helmet," he detailed. "It symbolizes wisdom and security in defense, strength, protection, invulnerability."

She examined more closely, "What's these three pointed things?"

He clarified, "Those are called chevrons. That means protection, builders or others who have accomplished some work of faithful service."

"My Poppy protects us," she smiled. "What about that animal at the top?"

"That's a lion," he identified. "The lion sejant, or sitting, for dauntless courage."

Katie's eyes widened, "My family means all that?"

"Your family coat of arms does," he smiled.

"Dr. Kelly, do ya think I could find out more about my family?" she queried.

"Why don't you simply ask your parents?" he suggested.

She sighed, "Poppy don't say much about his. I know he was born on a ship comin' from England, but I don't know his father's name."

"What about his mother's name?" he was curious.

"Katherine," she noted.

"Katherine Sully gave birth to a baby, bound for America from England," he pondered. "Did she have other children?"

"Poppy had an older brother, but I don't know his name," she answered. "He gets real sad talkin' about him 'cause he was dragged t' death by a horse. That's why Poppy won't let me ride one."

"Hmm," he pondered. "Do you know the year in which they arrived in the United States?"

Katie calculated, "Poppy's 45 years old. Does that help?"

"Do you know the month and day on which he was born?" he questioned.

"February 16," she specified.

"So, he was born on February 16, 1835," Kelly rubbed his chin. "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll wire some people I know in Boston and in New York. Those would be the most likely ports of entry for ships bound from England."

"New York," she recalled. "That's where Poppy's family lived."

"That's a start then," he relished the challenge. "We shall investigate it further."

Katie requested, "Could you not tell Mama an' Poppy about it? I wanna surprise 'em."

"Of course," he smiled.

"I wanna paint this coat of arms for their Christmas present," she determined.

"That would be a lovely gift," he touched her nose. "I'll let you know what I find out. Good bye, Katie."

"Thanks, Dr. Kelly," she waved.

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

While Lexie slept, Hank studied the features of their tiny daughter. Ten fingers. Ten toes. She seemed perfect. Her dark hair was close to Lexie's in color.

"So," he whispered to the infant. "If ya think you're gonna wrap me around your little finger, you're wrong."

At that moment, he felt the baby squeeze his finger.

"Well," he frowned. "Maybe just a little."

"Hank?" Lexie yawned. "Is she okay?"

"Yea," he leaned closer to kiss his wife. "How 'bout you?"

"Sore," she replied. "But I guess that's normal."

"You did good, Lex," he commended.

She linked her fingers in his, "So did you."

His smile broadened, "I didn't do much."

"You helped me," she reminded. "You held me. That was plenty."

"Okay, we helped each other," he compromised.

Lexie's eyes welled with tears as she stroked the baby's arm, "I can't believe I thought about...."

"'Bout what?" he tilted his head.

"When I first found out I was pregnant and thought the baby belonged to that monster...." she paused. "I wanted to...."

Hank stopped her, "Don't go thinkin' about that. Just think about what we got."

"I never imagined when I first came to this town how much my life would be changed," she contemplated.

"Me either," he folded his arms. "But.... I can't say I mind all that much."

"Oh, that's good to know," she smiled.

"Don't let it get around," he winked.

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

"Ma," Brian drew his mother aside. "Is Pa all right?"

"Of course," she tensed. "Why do you ask?"

He studied her reaction, "Just wondered. He seems kinda.... I don't know.... like he doesn't have his mind on things."

Michaela excused, "We were up very late last night. He's just tired."

"I guess that's it," he smiled.

She changed the subject, "It's wonderful to have you home again. We missed you."

He embraced her, "I missed you, too."

Annie walked in on them, "Bran, play."

The older brother grinned and hoisted her into his arms, "Okay."

When Brian and Annie went into the living room, Michaela took the opportunity to slip into her office. She could not shake her thoughts about Sully and Abigail. Stepping to her desk, she sat down and leaned forward on the desk.

"Abigail," she whispered to herself. "I thought you had let him go. I thought...."

"Michaela?" Sully knocked softly. "You okay?"

"Yes," she stood. "Come in."

He entered the room, "You mentioned ridin' out t' check on Lexie. I was gonna take ya."

"Thank you," she lifted her medical bag.

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

On the ride to Hank and Lexie's ranch, Sully spoke to his wife, "You warm enough?"

"Yes, thank you," her formal tone suggested that more than the weather was cold.

"Somethin' on your mind?" he noticed.

She was curt, "Nothing."

He slowed the surrey to a stop, and pivoted to face her, "I.... I wanna tell ya somethin'."

She thought to herself, "Thank God. Finally."

"What is it?" she anticipated.

He took a deep breath, "I been havin' some dreams."

"What kind of dreams?" she probed.

He hesitated, "I need ya not t' get upset if I tell ya."

She lightly placed her hand on his arm, "You can tell me anything, Sully."

He looked down and swallowed hard, "I.... I wanna make sure you an' the kids are well taken care of. I know you won't need money, but...."

She interrupted incredulously, "What are you talking about?"

"Just in case somethin' happens t' me," he stated.

"I don't understand," her brow wrinkled. "You say you're having dreams, then tell me something may happen to you?"

He linked his fingers in hers, "You been around plenty o' people who died. What d' they usually talk about right before they pass away?"

She thought the question odd, "What do dying people talk about?"

"Yea," he waited.

Michaela considered, "Many things."

"You ever notice a connection?" he queried.

She was becoming frustrated, "A connection between what?"

He attempted to clarify, "A connection between what most folks talk about when they're dyin'."

She pondered, "They often speak about regrets they have.... concern for their families...."

"What else?" he persisted.

"Sully," she sighed. "Why are you asking this?"

He felt a lump in his throat, "I don't wanna worry you."

"You're already worrying me," she frowned.

"I'm sorry," he lifted the reins.

"No," she stopped him. "I want to know why you're asking me about this. Your dreams.... are they about Abigail?"

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

Sully was surprised at his wife's perceptiveness, "Abigail?"

"Yes," she asserted. "You spoke her name."

"You heard?" he felt ashamed.

"It was rather loud," she nodded.

"I'm sorry," he regretted.

"Sully," she did not conceal her pain. "You spoke her name after we made love."

"No," he denied. "Not after we made love. It was after I was sleepin'."

Her eyes filled with tears, "What am I supposed to think when my husband cries out the name of his first wife after he makes love to me?"

"No, Michaela," he clasped her hand. "It ain't like that. You're all I think about when we're t'gether. You're in my heart an' mind."

She fell silent and averted her eyes.

"Look at me," he bid. "We been married for more than ten years. You're the only woman who holds my heart."

"If there were another woman, perhaps I could fight it," she choked back tears. "I can't compete with a ghost."

"You ain't in competition with anyone," he gazed at her intently. "My dreams.... they do have Abigail in 'em, but...."

"But what?" she urged.

He hoped to explain, "They ain't romantic thoughts."

"Then what are they?" she wondered.

He tensed further, "You said you'd let me work things through on my own, Michaela."

She countered, "That was before you spoke her name."

Sully took her hand and raised it to his heart, "Please give me some time t' sort this through. Trust me."

"I do trust you," she felt tears welling anew.

"We best get t' the ranch," he lifted the reins again.

Michaela regretted, "Sully, I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" his brow wrinkled. "You don't have anythin' t' be sorry about."

"Yes, I have," she insisted. "I accused you of...."

"Shhh," he gently touched her lips. "You had a right t' be upset."

She perceived, "You're frightened about something, aren't you? Is that why you asked me about what dying people talk about?"

The muscles in his jaw constricted, then he urged the horse onward.

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

Lexie had fallen back to sleep. Hank took the opportunity to go into the kitchen and pour himself a glass of whiskey. After several gulps, he began to relax.

"Damn," he considered. "What am I gonna do with a little girl? Her Ma's gonna want t' dress her in pink frilly things. I can't teach her t' drink an' smoke. Hell, I can't even swear around her."

There was a knock at the door.

Hank opened it, "Michaela, Sully."

"How's Lexie?" Michaela entered the room.

Hank replied, "Sleepin'. She's done that a lot."

"She needs it," Michaela removed her coat. "We brought a few things we thought you'd need."

As Sully carried in a cradle, blankets and a basket of diapers and clothing, Michaela requested, "May I see Lexie and the baby?"

"Go on in," Hank gestured.

When she departed, Hank looked at Sully, "You're awful quiet."

Sully did not reply.

Hank continued, "Want a drink?"

"No, thanks," Sully watched him.

Hank poured himself another, "So, I got a daughter."

"Yep," Sully nodded.

"What am I supposed t' do with a little girl?" Hank rubbed his upper lip.

Sully answered simply, "Love her."

"That ain't what I mean," he eyed Sully. "I mean what can I teach her? What can I do with her?"

Sully thought about it, "Ya won't need t' do much but feed an' change her diaper for a while. Maybe you'll think of more t' do in that time."

Hank scoffed, "I ain't changin' no diapers."

"I'll give ya some advice if ya want it," Sully offered.

"What?" he was curious.

"If ya think takin' care of a baby is just woman's work, you'll never have the joy of gettin' t' know your kids," Sully counseled. "Become a part of everythin' your little girl does."

"Who told ya that?" he frowned.

"No one," Sully answered. "I sure didn't have a Pa around t' set an example for me. I missed out on Katie's life for several months when I was in hidin'. I've always regretted it."

Hank took another drink, "I didn't have a Pa around either."

"But ya had your Gran'ma," Sully mentioned. "Look how much she cared for ya."

Hank pointed out, "That still don't help me now."

"Suit yourself," Sully shrugged.

"I can't offer anythin' t' a little girl," Hank stated.

"That's fear talkin'," Sully stated.

"I ain't afraid," Hank denied.

Sully accused, "Sure, ya are. It's only natural. There's a new little life in there countin' entirely on Lexie an' you."

Hank swallowed hard.

Sully continued, "An' ya wonder.... what if I make a mistake? What if I don't do somethin' I should? Then ya start thinkin'.... how can I protect her from gettin' hurt?"

Hank nodded, "You got any answers?"

Sully smiled, "Just like I said before. Love her. The rest'll take care of itself."

"Takin' care o' her," Hank hedged. "It takes money."

"I know," Sully nodded.

"You don't got money worries," he noted.

Michaela joined them, "Well, it appears that Lexie and Ilse are doing quite well."

"Ilse?" Sully grinned.

Hank felt a lump in his throat, "Seemed like a nice way t' remember Nana."

"Hank," Michaela decided to broach the subject. "I'd like to speak with you about money."

"Oh, yea," he reached into his pocket. "How much do I owe ya for deliverin' the baby?"

"No," she interrupted. "That's not what I mean."

Hank was puzzled, "Then what do ya mean?"

"I want to discuss your reason for retaining the services of that prostitute who plies your customers with opium," she straightened.

"Damn it, woman," Hank's volume rose. "How many times I gotta tell ya that ain't your business?"

Sully stepped closer, "Don't raise your voice."

Hank looked incredulous, "What makes ya think that ya can come int' my house an' tell me how I can an' can't make money?"

Michaela came to the point, "I want to make you an offer."

Hank smirked, "In front of your husband?"

Sully rolled his eyes.

Michaela's cheeks flushed, "I'm offering you a loan, Hank. Interest free."

"A loan?" he was suspicious. "For what?"

"So that you don't lose this ranch to Preston," she clarified.

"I ain't gonna lose it, an' I don't need no loan," he gestured toward the door. "Now, go on home."

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

After a busy evening of stories from Brian, Michaela, Bridget and the children retired early. Sully crept down the steps and entered his wife's office. He scanned the titles of books on her shelves, looking for something, anything that might help. Was Abigail sending him a message that his own death was near? She was calling out for him to come back to her. Was something going to happen to him, or.... would it be at his own hand, like his mother?

"Never," he dismissed the idea.

At that moment, he recalled a conversation with Brian about Horace's attempted suicide several years ago. The child had wondered if thoughts of sadness could lead anyone to want to kill himself. Sully had assured him that when people had much to live for and realized that being alive is a precious gift, they would not consider such an act.

"If life's a gift," he swallowed hard. "Then why'd my Ma kill herself? Why couldn't she see how much I needed her?"

Sully began to realize that he had suppressed his feelings about his mother's death. He was just a child. He couldn't understand. He only wanted to run. He had run physically, and he had run emotionally.

He found a book. In the index, it listed seven categories of mental illness: mania, melancholia, monomania, paresis, dementia, dipsomania, epilepsy. He thought hard. What did Michaela call it when Horace was so sad? Melancholia. She mentioned a doctor who recommended treatments.

Dr. Greisinger. That was the name. Michaela had called him the foremost expert on melancholia. Sully found the doctor's name in the book. Greisinger recommended a program of stimulation to counteract the effects of the melancholia.... a busy regimen of revitalizing activities. Long walks and rides, hot and cold baths, games and music. Dr. Greisinger cited at least four cases where patients reported marked improvement in appetite and mood following exercise sessions.

Sully remembered, too, that when those remedies did not work with Horace, the town thought about putting him in a sanatorium. If only there had been something like that for his mother or even someone to recognize her problem.

He swallowed hard, assessing his feelings. At times, he had known overwhelming sadness, but he had never contemplated suicide. Or had he?

"After Abigail died," he whispered. "I joined the Army.... t' lose myself."

Lose himself or.... kill himself?

He struggled to bring his long-suppressed feelings to the surface. If only he understood more about his mother.... why she had left him alone. And he wondered, was it possible that whatever had possessed her to take her life.... could it drive him to the same point?

"Poppy?" Katie's voice distracted him from his thoughts.

"Hey, sweet girl," he smiled. "What are you doin' up?"

She yawned, "I don't know. I just woke up."

"You want a glass o' warm milk?" he offered.

"No, thanks," she crawled onto his lap. "What ya readin'?"

Sully returned, "Just lookin' through one o' your Ma's books."

She looked carefully at the page, "Mel-an-cholia. What's that?"

He set the book down, "Just somethin' that people get sometimes. How 'bout I tell ya a story? Maybe that would make ya sleepy."

She smiled, "Tell me a story about when you were little, Poppy."

"Uh," he hesitated. "When I was little?"

"Uh-huh," she leaned her head against his shoulder. "Were ya like me?"

He enfolded her in his arms, "I wish I would've been more like you, Kates."

"You do?" she was surprised. "Why?"

He kissed the top of her head, "'Cause ya know how much your Ma an' me love ya."

"Didn't your mother an' father love you?" she questioned.

"My Ma said she did," he swallowed hard. "But.... her actions didn't seem t'...."

He stopped. Katie turned up to look into his reddened eyes.

She gently touched his cheek with her palm, "You're sad, Poppy."

He cleared his throat, "I'm never sad when I'm with you, honey."

Her expression reminded him of Michaela's.

She offered, "Maybe I could tell you a story."

"Okay," he grinned. "I'd like t' hear that."

"Once upon a time," she rested her hands atop his. "There was a little girl who wanted t' give her father a gift."

"What kinda gift?" he raised an eyebrow.

"A surprise gift," she giggled.

"Oh," he frowned.

Katie resumed, "So the little girl did some investigatin'."

"Investigatin'?" Sully smiled. "That's a pretty big word for a little girl."

"I'm learnin' lots o' big words, Poppy," her expression was serious.

He mused, "Just like your Ma. So what kind of investigatin' did this little girl do?"

"That's a surprise, too," she did not divulge.

"Hmm," he rubbed his chin. "That's a real good story. How's it end?"

She leaned against his shoulder again, "I don't know yet."

He held out his open hand.

Katie set hers on top, "Your hand sure is big, Poppy."

He gently closed his fingers around his daughter's, "That's t' protect you, sweet girl."

"I think I can sleep now," her eyelids grew heavy.

He lifted her up, "Then I'll take ya upstairs."

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

Hank covered his ears when Ilse began to cry, "Lexie, ya better feed her."

"I'm trying," she sounded frantic as she held the baby close.

"Why ain't she eatin' then?" he raised his voice.

Lexie began to cry along with Ilse. Hank took a deep breath, then recalled Sully's words about her moods and the baby dictating their lives.

"Here," he reached for the infant.

Cradling the newborn in his arms, he began to pace. Soon the little girl calmed.

"I guess she wasn't hungry," he whispered.

"You're good with her, Hank," Lexie smiled.

"'Course I am," he stated. "It's my kid."

She observed, "Apparently, she just wanted to be held."

"That's what I figured," he continued the gently rhythmic motion.

Lexie mused, "Who'd have thought Hank Lawson would spend an evening holding a baby?"

"It ain't so bad," he considered.

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

"Sully?" Michaela heard him enter the bedroom. "Where have you been? It's after midnight."

"Just talkin' t' Katie," he removed his beads and set them on the bedpost.

Michaela lifted up, "At this hour?"

"She couldn't sleep," he began to unbutton and remove his shirt.

"Is she all right?" she remained concerned.

Sully stepped to Hope's cradle and lifted the baby, "She's fine."

"Good," she lay back and watched him by the flickering firelight.

Sully swayed as he rested his lips on the top of his daughter's head.

"You'll waken her, you know," Michaela spoke softly.

He gently stroked the baby's back, "Would that be so bad?"

"I suppose not," Michaela continued to study his movements. "She certainly loves her Papa."

He carried the baby to the bed. Keeping the little one snugly against his chest, he positioned himself beside his wife.

Hope began to fidget and pucker her lips.

Sully noticed, "She's hungry. I'll go fix her bottle. Be right back."

As he departed, Michaela hummed softly to calm the baby. Soon Sully returned and handed Michaela the bottle. Hope contentedly filled her belly, then fell asleep.

Tenderly kissing her child, Michaela realized, "This is her first Thanksgiving."

"Yep," Sully caressed Hope's dark hair.

Michaela commented, "It's nice to have the children all home again."

He spoke softly, "I can't thank you enough, Michaela."

"For what?" she was uncertain.

He felt a surge of emotion, "For givin' me these sweet reasons t' live."

Sully slid his arm beneath Michaela's shoulders and drew her closer. Enfolding his wife and baby in his arms, he closed his eyes.... hoping to sleep, but not to dream.

Michaela felt his steady breathing, but his words disturbed her. Giving him reasons to live? She prayed that he would soon confide more in her. The helplessness she felt was profound, and she wanted nothing more than for him to be at peace.

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

At dawn, Michaela awoke to find Sully gone. She quickly went to the window and drew back a portion of the curtain in time to watch her husband mount his horse and take off.

"Sully," she folded her arms against her shawl.

Her mind raced. Would he return for their Thanksgiving dinner? Where was he going? Had he dreamed about Abigail again?

She stepped toward his dresser and opened the top drawer. This time, she moved his shirts aside and lifted the small wooden box containing his wedding photograph.

She ran her finger lightly across the picture, "What do you want, Abigail? I thought you had let him go."

After studying the photograph for a few moments, she returned it to its position in the drawer.

She sighed. There was much to do to prepare for the family feast. Matthew, Emma and Michael would be arriving. There would be Colleen and Brian, of course. Bridget had asked Loren to join them, as well. And the children.

She shook her head, "Who would have thought ten years ago, we'd have five of them?"

Then Sully's words returned to her, "Sweet reasons to live."

Her heart grew heavy. She knew that he was keeping all of his anguish to himself for fear of worrying her. But could he not see that his silence was worrying her even more?

"He loves me," she told herself. "And I must trust that he'll let me know when he's ready."

She took a deep breath and prepared to face the new day.

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

Cloud Dancing greeted Sully, "My brother, you have come about the dreams?"

"You know about them?" he was surprised.

"I have had them, too," the medicine man revealed. "The Spirits tell me you are troubled."

Sully confided, "I been dreamin' about Abigail."

"Does she speak to you?" he queried.

Sully revealed, "She keeps tellin' me t' come back t' her."

"She is your spirit protector," Cloud Dancing told him. "We must go to her."

"Go t' her?" Sully was unsure. "Ya mean her grave?"

His friend nodded, "Yes. When did you last visit her?"

Sully contemplated, "A little over a week ago."

Cloud Dancing questioned, "Did anything appear different?"

"Not that I recall," Sully shook his head. "But there was a brief spell of time, maybe a couple o' minutes, where I took off t' track down Annie. The other kids were left alone at the grave. Why?"

He contemplated, "Do you remember many suns ago... the drought?"

"Yea," Sully nodded. "Back in '68. Thanksgivin'."

He recounted, "You and Dr. Mike came to the reservation, and I showed you that when there is no water from the sky, we must find it in the earth. Where we see a willow tree, we know there is water beneath the surface."

"What's that got t' do with dreamin' about Abigail?" Sully was puzzled.

The medicine man noted, "What appears to us above the surface may only be part of what is true. We must search deeper for its meaning."

Sully's brow wrinkled, "What'll I find?"

"You must discover that, my brother," he advised.

************
Chapter 7
************

Michaela, Bridget, Colleen and Emma were in the homestead kitchen, preparing the Thanksgiving meal. The aroma of turkey and pumpkin mingled in the warm air.

Josef entered on the scene, "You girls need some help?"

Michaela touched her son's nose, "What kind of help are you offering?"

The child considered, "Mmm. I could taste somethin' for ya."

Bridget put her hands on her hips, "Would that somethin' happen t' be a pickle?"

"Now that ya mention it," Josef smiled.

Michaela shook her head, "Not before dinner, young man. Now go see who's winning the checker game."

"Bran's winnin'," Josef informed her.

"Then could you check on the twins for me?" Michaela encouraged.

Josef frowned, "You twyin' t' get wwrrid o' me, Mama?"

"Never, my darling," she smiled. "But we ladies need to finish, or there won't be a meal."

"'Kay," he reluctantly departed.

Michaela turned to her daughter-in-law, "How did Michael sleep last night, Emma?"

She smiled, "Much better, Dr. Mike. I guess it helps t' have a doctor in the family."

"Unfortunately, doctors don't have all the answers," Michaela observed somewhat pensively.

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

Sully knelt at Abigail's grave and dusted away the light coat of snow which covered the rocks.

"Nothin' looks disturbed," he examined the area. Then he spotted something. "Wait. My lock of hair. It's gone."

"Lock of hair?" Cloud Dancing was uncertain.

"The day I married Michaela, I cut off the braid I had let grow t' remember Abigail, an' I put it here under the rocks," Sully explained. "It's gone."

"Then you must find it," Cloud Dancing instructed.

Sully reasoned, "That's what she wants? That's the part of me that's gone?"

The medicine man nodded, "Yes."

They began to search the area but saw nothing.

Sully stood up, "I'll ask the kids."

"Sometimes two eyes are not enough to see all that the little ones do," Cloud Dancing grinned.

Sully sighed, "What if I don't find it?"

His friend counseled, "Then you must give her something else."

"Cloud Dancin'," Sully felt the need to confide. "I been havin' some disturbin' thoughts."

"More dreams?" he assumed.

"No," Sully said.

The medicine man paused to listen.

Sully folded his arms, "These dreams with Abigail.... They got me thinkin' about people we love who die.... how they come t' us before we die ourselves. An' well.... It got me thinkin' about my Ma.... how she died. I was wonderin' if somethin' like that could happen t' me."

"Your mother took her own life, my brother," Cloud Dancing recalled. "Do you have thoughts of doing this?"

"No," he shook his head. "But Ma was real sad. So sad, she felt like she couldn't go on anymore."

"And you believe this could happen to you?" Cloud Dancing repeated.

"Sometimes I get sad, an' I can't explain it," Sully confided. "There's no reason for it. I'm happily married.... with a beautiful family. But when I get like that, I go off so I won't worry Michaela."

The friend advised, "She is your heartsong. When you go off, it worries her even more."

Sully looked at Abigail's grave, then sighed, "Am I like my Ma?"

The medicine man advised, "Maybe the lock of hair is not the only thing that you must find."

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

Hank opened the door, "Well, look who's here."

The Reverend requested, "May we come in, Hank?"

"Sure," he stepped back.

Isabel held a basket, "We brought your Thanksgiving dinner.

The minister remarked, "The Lord has blessed you abundantly this year."

"Yea," Hank rubbed his upper lip.

"May I see the baby?" Isabel queried.

Hank paused, "Let me check Lexie t' see if she's sleepin'." Momentarily, he returned, "She says t' go on in."

The Reverend held his wife's elbow as she guided him into the bedroom.

"Reverend," Lexie smiled. "Isabel. Thanks for coming. Hank said you brought us Thanksgiving dinner."

Isabel's eyes widened when she beheld the baby, "Look at this little girl. She's beautiful."

Lexie's smile widened, "She is."

The Reverend quipped, "I assume she looks like Lexie."

Hank allowed, "Very funny."

Isabel requested, "May I hold her?"

"Sure," Lexie gently handed the baby to her.

Isabel cradled the infant, "Have you named her?"

"Ilse," Hank informed them.

The minister smiled, "A very good name. Of course, you'll want her to be baptized."

Hank answered, "We ain't discussed it."

Reverend Johnson offered, "I'd be happy to do the honors."

Hank changed the subject, "So is the town gettin' along all right without me?"

When the minister reached out to touch the baby, Isabel placed his hand on the little girl's head, "They've been planning our community Thanksgiving dinner."

Lexie asked, "Where's your little boy?"

Isabel noted, "Wendell is in town helping Grace peel potatoes."

Hank remarked sarcastically, "Sounds like fun."

The Reverend informed them, "Everyone is delighted about the baby, and they can't wait to see her."

Isabel returned the infant to Lexie, "Timothy, we must be going. Lexie, if there's anything you need, please let us know."

"Thank you," Lexie smiled. "Dr. Mike and Sully dropped off some things.... a cradle, diapers, clothing."

Hank gestured, "Thanks for bringin' the food."

He showed them to the door and closed it. For a passing instant, he wished he could be going into town, too. He missed the excitement of the Gold Nugget.... the banter with his customers and friends...

"Hank," Lexie called.

"Comin'," he stepped toward the bedroom.

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

Sully kissed his wife, "Sorry I took off this mornin'. I had somethin' I had t' do."

She peered into his eyes, "Something to do with your dream?"

"Yea," he replied simply. "Would ya mind if I use your office t' speak t' the kids for a few minutes?"

"My office?" she was surprised. "No, I don't mind."

At that moment, he was surrounded by the children. Lifting the twins, he carried them into his wife's office. Katie and Josef followed.

Michaela watched, perplexed. Then she returned to the preparations.

In the office, Sully sat on the floor and invited the children to do likewise.

Josef spoke up, "Are we gonna play a game, Papa?"

"No, Joe," he was serious. "I gotta ask you kids some questions."

Katie wondered, "What about, Poppy?"

Sully stroked Annie's hair, "You remember Sunday before last, after church, we went t' Abigail's grave?"

"I 'member," Josef smiled. "What's the nex' question?"

Sully continued, "Annie wandered away from us, an' I went t' get her."

"I 'member that, too," Josef raised his hand.

Katie eyed her brother, "Joey, this isn't school. Ya don't have t' raise your hand."

Josef folded his arms and quieted.

Sully stroked Josef's back, "I'm glad ya remember, Joe. Did any of ya see somethin' beneath the rocks?"

"Some hair," Josef nodded.

"Hair," Noah grinned.

Sully felt a ray of hope, "Did ya do anythin' with it?"

Josef pointed, "Noah taked it."

Sully turned to his youngest son, "No-bo, what did ya do with it?"

Katie remembered, "It was braided."

"Right," Sully nodded. "Where'd ya put it, Noah?"

Noah's lower lip curled under, "Mine."

Sully told him, "No, son. It's not yours."

Katie perceived, "It was your hair, Poppy?"

"Yea," he swallowed hard.

"How'd it get there?" Josef wondered.

Sully attempted to explain, "I let a lock o' hair grow real long after Abigail died, t' help me remember her."

"That helps ya 'member stuff?" Josef's eyes widened.

Sully smiled, "It was just a way t' keep her part of me. But when I married your Ma, I cut it off."

Katie understood, "An' ya left it with Miss Abigail so she'd still have a part of you."

"Right," Sully marveled at his daughter's perceptiveness. "But that lock o' hair is gone now, an' I think maybe Abigail wants it back. So, Noah, where did ya put it?"

Noah's cheeks reddened and his eyes welled, "I want."

"Son," Sully clasped his little hand. "Ya can't have what ain't yours."

"I find," the child persisted. "Mine."

Josef looked at his brother, "Noah, ya better give it back."

"No," the toddler spoke firmly.

Sully sighed. There was a knock at the door.

Sully beckoned, "Come in."

Michaela opened the door, "It's time for the children to wash up for dinner."

Katie, Josef and Annie started for the door, but Sully held Noah back.

"I go," Noah insisted.

"Not yet," Sully's tone was stern.

As the children passed her, Michaela stepped into the room, "Sully, has Noah done something wrong?"

"Yes," he held the little boy.

"Noah," Michaela's look was serious. "You must be a good boy."

"I good," he pointed to himself.

Michaela hoped her husband would explain, "Sully?"

Sully released the child, "Go with your brother an' sisters, No-bo."

The little boy bounded out of the room. Michaela stepped to the door and shut it.

Then, pivoting, she looked at Sully, "As his mother, I think I deserve an explanation."

He took a deep breath. She regretted her tone.

Before he could speak, she went to him and embraced him. Sully wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. She waited, hoping he would tell her.

Sully released her, "I went t' see Cloud Dancin' this mornin'.... about my dreams."

"Good," she anticipated. "Was he able to help you?"

"He thinks my dreams are because Abigail's grave was disturbed," Sully revealed.

Michaela was shocked, "Disturbed? Do you mean by grave robbers, or... vandals?"

"No," he swallowed hard. "By Noah."

"What?" she was taken aback.

He explained, "After church. Noah took somethin' I left at her grave years ago."

"You left something?" she raised an eyebrow.

He reached for her hands, "The day we got married, I cut off my braid an' left it under the rocks at Abigail's grave."

She turned up the corner of her mouth, "I always wondered what happened to it."

"I had grown it ever since her death," he swallowed hard at the memory. "But I told her it was time t' move on."

Michaela sympathized, "I know it must have been terribly difficult."

He embraced her, "I never looked back. But in my dreams, Abigail's been sayin' that what she had of me was gone. I didn't understand 'til I went t' see Cloud Dancing. He told me t' go t' the grave. That's when I discovered the braid was missin'. When I had the kids there after church week before last, Noah took it."

She assumed, "And he won't tell you where it is."

"Nope," he smiled. "He's kinda stubborn."

"Should we punish him?" she considered.

"Let's talk t' him after dinner," he suggested.

"Sully," she paused. "When you do get the braid back, are you going to return it to Abigail's grave?"

"That's what Cloud Dancin' says t' do," he nodded.

"Thank you," she cupped her palm to his cheek.

"For what?" he was puzzled.

"For finally telling me what's been bothering you," she smiled.

He hesitated, "Michaela...."

"Yes?" she gazed at him with the distinctly dissimilar eyes he adored.

"Nothin'," he kissed her. "Let's go eat."

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

After dinner, the family gathered in the living room to listen to Loren spin tales as only he could. He related to the children of his venture to run away to Bolivia. Brian added his perspective, much to the delight of the little ones.

Michaela knelt down and whispered to Noah, "Come with Mama, Sweetheart."

"No," he frowned. "I stay."

"Noah," she was firmer. "Right now."

She lifted her son and carried him to her office. The little boy began to squirm in her arms. Sully joined her and closed the door behind them.

Noah insisted, "Down, Mama. Down."

She set him down, but held his hand, "Noah, we want to speak with you about the braid of hair."

"Mine," he insisted.

Michaela tried again, "When we take something that doesn't belong to us, it's wrong. You're such a good boy, why do you insist on keeping something that isn't yours?"

"I find," Noah told her.

Michaela returned, "Yes, you found it.... but it was put there by Papa. He wanted it to stay there."

"I keep," the toddler stated defiantly.

************
Chapter 8
************

Sully spoke up, "Noah, when your Ma an' me came home from Philadelphia, do ya remember what we gave ya?"

He grinned, "El'pant."

"Right," Sully smiled. "An' that stuffed elephant is yours. No one can take it without you sayin' it's okay. Right?"

"Uh-huh," the little boy nodded. "Mine."

Michaela smiled at her husband's line of questioning.

Sully continued, "Now, if Josef came an' took your elephant, that would be wrong."

"Yep," Noah agreed.

"So, it's bad when ya take things that don't belong t' ya," Sully reasoned. "Ya need t' ask permission first."

Noah became uncomfortable, and he turned to hide his face in his mother's skirt.

Michaela stroked her son's hair, "What should you do, Noah?"

He looked up, "Give Papa."

"That's right," she smiled.

Noah's shoulders slumped, "I bad."

"No, my darling," Michaela comforted. "You're not bad. You're going to do the right thing."

"I be back," he turned toward the door.

The little boy lifted high on his tiptoes but could not reach the knob. Sully turned the knob for him and opened the door.

Michaela looked to her husband, "Well done, Mr. Sully."

He shook his head, "He's somethin'."

"I believe you taught him a valuable lesson," she spoke admiringly.

Noah returned, clutching the braid in his small hand.

He stepped to his father and offered it, "I sore, Papa."

"Sore?" Sully was puzzled.

"I believe he means he's sorry," Michaela clarified.

Sully knelt down and scooped the child into his arms, "Thanks, No-bo. You wanna go back with your brothers an' sisters?"

"Yep," he smiled.

Sully patted his bottom, "Go on then."

Noah departed.

Michaela studied Sully's expression as he held up the braid and fingered its leather strap, "Would you like to be alone?"

"No," he stepped closer. "Let's go back with our family."

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

Jake leaned back and rubbed his belly, "Not a bad Thanksgivin' meal."

Grace retorted, "Comin' from you, I'll take that as a compliment."

The Reverend added, "Everything was delicious."

Jake looked at Isabel, "So tell us about Hank's baby. Who's she favor?"

Isabel detailed, "She has Lexie's dark hair, but many of her features resemble Hank."

Jake chuckled, "Poor kid."

Preston inquired, "So when will the good sheriff be resuming his duties?"

Dorothy chimed in, "Lexie's gonna need some help. We women can go out t' the ranch."

Grace offered, "I can spare a little time."

Myra raised her hand, "Me, too."

Preston frowned, "I assume you mean after bank hours."

She nodded, "'Course I do."

Teresa volunteered, "I can help."

Jake looked at his wife, "When? You got your own responsibilities."

"Maria and I can spend a little time to help her," she insisted.

Dorothy said, "I'll organize us then. I'll ride out t'morrow an' let Lexie know. They'll need diapers, a cradle, clothes."

Jake wondered, "Didn't they prepare for that?"

Dorothy observed, "I think things have been kinda hectic for them."

Isabel noted, "Dr. Mike and Sully took them a few things left over from the twins."

Preston's sarcasm shown through, "I'm so glad the Sullys decided to return to having children one at a time."

Jake could not resist, "'Least they got a family. All you got's a money belt."

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

As Sully finished saddling his horse, he heard the squeak of the barn door. Turning, he saw Michaela.

"What are you doin' out here?" he wondered. "I thought you were gettin' the kids ready for bed."

"Are you going to Abigail's grave now?" she came to the point.

"Yea," he stroked his horse's mane.

She came to him, "I hope this helps, Sully."

He felt a lump in his throat, "Me, too. I'll be home soon."

She embraced him. Softly, he caressed her auburn tresses. Then he led his horse to the door, mounted it and departed.

Michaela pulled her shawl more snugly around her shoulders to protect against the chill. With a sigh, she headed back to the house.

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

Sully knelt down at the grave, "Abigail. I brought it back. The braid. I'm sorry it was taken from ya."

Recalling precisely where he had originally left it, he lifted several of the rocks and placed the hair on the ground. Then he stacked the rocks back atop it. His hand lingered on the stones for a moment.

"Sully?" it was Loren. "What are you doin' out here in the dark?"

"Just come t' pay my respects," he stood. "What about you?"

"Same," he informed him. "Dinner was good. Thanks for askin' me."

"We enjoyed havin' ya," Sully replied. "The kids love hearin' your stories."

Loren edged closer to the grave and held his lantern up, "You been movin' the rocks?"

"Just makin' sure it looks right," Sully stepped to Hannah's grave and knelt.

He lovingly touched the wooden cross above the tiny grave.

Loren watched him with interest, "Bein' around your kids.... well, it kinda makes me feel like I'm part of a family. Sort of like things might've been if Abigail had lived."

"You are part of our family," Sully rose to his feet.

"Thanks," Loren rubbed his sleeve across his nose. The older man watched Sully more closely, "You okay?"

Sully nodded, "Yea. I best be gettin' home now. You take care, Loren."

"You, too," he watched the mountain man depart. When Sully was nearly out of sight, Loren said to himself, "No, you ain't okay, Sully. There's somethin' eatin' at ya."

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

When Sully arrived at the homestead, the house was quiet. He locked up, then mounted the steps to check his sleeping children. In each room, he kissed them, whispered that he loved them and secured their blankets around them for warmth. He lingered a bit longer with Noah, ensuring that his son was all right after his lesson earlier.

As Sully walked down the hallway toward his own room, he saw the light filtering from beneath the door. Michaela was waiting for him. He paused, suddenly overcome with a surge of sadness. He leaned against the wooden panel and closed his eyes.

"Don't do this, Sully," he said to himself. "Don't let yourself feel this way."

The door opened and Michaela immediately noticed his expression, "Sully? Are you all right?"

He quickly composed himself, "Fine. I'm fine."

As he stepped into the bedroom, Michaela scrutinized his behavior. Sully went to Hope and reached down to caress her dark hair. Then he removed his beads, setting them on the bedpost.

Michaela closed the door and paused at the fireplace, "Did you return the braid?"

"Yea," he pulled his shirttail from his buckskins. "I ran int' Loren. He said he enjoyed himself t'day. Said he feels like part of our family."

She agreed, "He is."

"That's what I told him," Sully looked at himself in the mirror. "I reckon I should shave."

"It can wait until morning if you're tired," she pointed out.

He turned to look at her. Her eyes reflected her concern. Sully instantly felt guilty. He was doing just what he did not want to do. He was worrying her.

"I'm sorry, Michaela," he felt a lump in his throat.

"For what?" she struggled to understand.

"For worryin' ya," he specified. "I'm fine. Everythin's gonna be okay now."

She removed her robe and draped it across the bed, "I'm glad to hear that."

He detected the doubt in her voice and came to her. He placed his hands on her slender waist and turned her to look at him.

Tenderly, he lifted his hands to the sides of her face and whispered:

"I that have love and no more
Give you but love of you, sweet;
He that hath more, let him give;
He that hath wings, let him soar;
Mine is the heart at your feet
Here, that must love you to live."

She felt a swell of adoration for him, "I want to help you."

"Don't you know how much ya already help me?" he kissed her. Slowly, he pulled back. "That was Algernon Charles Swinburne."

"You didn't let me guess," she slid her hand beneath his shirt.

With his index finger, he elevated her chin for another kiss. Michaela felt her heart skip a beat, and she melted into his arms. The scent of him quickly filled her senses, prompting her body to ardently react to his loving overtures. Michaela parted her lips slightly, sensing the intensity of his need.

Sully savored their contact as their pulses raced. He leaned down to kiss the silky skin of her shoulder. Then his lips trailed toward her neck. Michaela tilted her head back to welcome his attention.

He paused, speaking breathlessly, "You're so beautiful, Michaela."

She peered into his blue eyes longingly, "I love you, Sully. I love you so much."

His hand found its way to her thigh. Slowly, he bunched up the material of her nightgown, all the while kissing her. When his hand reached a particularly sensitive spot, Michaela softly gasped.

He lingered there to further inflame her desire. Michaela put her arms around him to draw even closer. Sully's body instantly responded to the closer contact. He placed his hands on her hips and pressed her against himself. Michaela began to run her fingers through his hair, then moved her arms fully around his neck.

She uttered softly, "I need you."

"Not half as much as I need you," Sully kissed her again as he stroked her hair down her back.

He lowered the straps of her gown, coaxing the garment to fall down to the floor. The he lifted her into his arms and tenderly set her atop the bed. Watching him pull his shirt over his head, Michaela felt a shiver down her spine. After undoing his buckskins, he soon joined her in bed. Michaela maneuvered to invite his full attention.

They were so close, their hearts began to beat as one. Sully lifted up on his elbows, studying every feature of her lovely countenance. Flesh against flesh, he slowly moved toward the most intimate contact with her.

Michaela closed her eyes, relishing the sensations that he was igniting in her. A heat began to build within them. Every fiber of their beings longed to unite. The flame of their passion escalated until, in a blinding flash of ecstasy, it melded their souls into one.

When their bodies began to calm, Sully saw tears welling in his wife's eyes, "Michaela, did I hurt ya?"

"No," she caressed his temple.

"You're cryin'," he drew back. "What's wrong?"

"My love for you," she choked back her emotions. "Sometimes, it frightens me."

He linked his fingers in hers, "Frightens ya? Why?"

She endeavored to explain, still feeling the warmth of him, "When your heart aches, so does mine. And.... I know your heart is aching, Sully."

He gently kissed her forehead, "My heart is full of you. That's all that matters."

He rolled onto his side, drawing her against him. Tenderly, he kissed her tears.

She pledged, "I want to help you through whatever it is that's troubling you."

His arms surrounded her, "What just happened between us.... I want ya t' know what it means t' me, Michaela. An' I don't ever want ya t' be frightened by what we got. We spent too many years runnin' from love. But bein' t'gether like this reminds us of how far we've come."

The timbre of his voice began to comfort her.

She spoke softly, "When I saw you in the hallway, I was worried. You looked.... frightened."

He contained his emotions as he stroked her arm.

She revealed her innermost fear, "Sully, there are times when I look into your eyes, and.... I see sadness."

He swallowed hard, hoping she did not notice his reaction.

"Everybody's sad from time t' time," he pointed out.

She agreed, "That's true. I know that I have experienced melancholy after our babies. Even though I have so much, there were times when the feelings overpowered me. When Marjorie and mother died.... my miscarriages.... Washita...."

He reminded, "Ya got through it."

"Thanks to you," she commended. "So, when.... if you feel sad, I hope you'll lean on me."

He wondered, "You think somethin' like melancholia could...."

She was curious, "Could what?"

He tried to be vague, "Do ya think it could run in families?"

Her initial reaction was as a physician, "Jules Falret calls it Manic Depressive Psychosis, and he believes that it appears in certain families. But even without a family history of melancholia, it is my opinion that when people experience trauma or are reminded of their losses in life, depressive feelings can surface."

"Like Horace," he ventured.

"Horace?" she was puzzled.

He remarked, "Remember when he had that spell of melancholia after Myra left with Samantha?"

She shuddered, "He nearly killed himself."

Sully's eyes saddened, "Killin' yourself don't solve anythin'. It only makes it harder for the folks who love ya."

Michaela listened, uncertain as to where his train of thought was leading.

He noticed the look of concern on his wife's face and pointed out, "Horace seems fine now."

"Yes," she agreed. "At least on the surface."

Sully posed the question, "You think he really ain't okay?"

"I don't know," she sighed. "He stopped talking to me about it years ago."

He observed, "I reckon he's got his reasons."

"When someone no longer discusses what troubles him, the feelings can intensify," her words had a deeper meaning.

Sully softly kissed her shoulder, "Sometimes a person don't need t' talk. They might just be workin' things through on their own."

"Yes, I suppose so," she agreed.

They fell quiet.

However, Michaela's thoughts swirled. Her intuition told her that Sully was not really thinking of Horace. He was talking about himself. His mention of melancholia was disturbing. Certainly, his dreams about Abigail could trigger thoughts of sadness, perhaps even memories of other losses in his life like the death of his mother.

He was so young when she took her life. Not much older than Katie. At Michaela's request, they had named their first daughter in honor of the woman who had borne her husband. But the fact that he rarely spoke of her suicide, even though it was so many years ago, was evidence that he had not made peace with it. And his question about melancholia running in families.... Did he believe the same thing could happen to him?

She avowed that as long as there was breath in her body, Sully would always know what he meant to her.

Michaela embraced him more fully and kissed his temple, "I love you."

"I love you, too," he returned the kiss.

At that moment, they heard a child's cry.

"One of Annie's spells?" Sully wondered.

Michaela rose from the bed and reached for her gown, "It sounds more like Noah."

************
Chapter 9
************

Sully slid from bed and drew on his buckskins, "I'll check."

Momentarily, he returned with Noah.

"Mama," he reached for her.

Michaela settled him on her lap, "Did you have a bad dream, Sweetheart?"

"Uh-huh," he tilted his head against her shoulder. "I 'cared."

She rubbed his back, "Scared? What did you dream about?"

Noah wiped a tear, "El'pant come."

Sully clasped his son's hand, "Was he runnin' or walkin'?"

The little boy considered for a moment, "Walk."

Sully nodded, "Then I reckon he was comin' t' visit. Or maybe he was gonna take ya on a trip."

Noah began to relax, "Where?"

"Hmm," Sully rubbed his chin. "Where would ya like t' go?"

The child shrugged, "No go. I stay here."

Michaela stroked his dark locks, "And we love having you here with us."

Sully sat beside them, "You feel better now, No-bo?"

He nodded, "Uh-huh."

Michaela kissed him, "What a big boy you are."

Sully held up his hand, "You sure are. I remember when you were born, I could hold ya right here in the palm o' my hand. But now look at ya."

Noah sat up straighter, "I big."

"Yep," Sully stroked his son's hair.

"Big boys 'cared?" Noah wondered.

"Sometimes they get scared," Sully nodded. "But long as they got folks who love 'em, they can get through it."

Noah smiled, "I love."

Michaela kissed the top of his head, "We love you, Noah. So very much."

"Annie," the little boy pointed toward the door.

"You wanna go back with your sister?" Sully interpreted.

"Uh-huh," he reacted. "Sweep."

"Sleep well, my darling," Michaela kissed him.

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

Hank entered the Gold Nugget. A round of applause erupted among the customers. Hank grinned, then began shaking hands and handing out cigars.

"A girl, huh?" Loren smiled. "Don't that just beat all."

Hank joked, "Yea, well Lexie didn't do everythin' like I told her."

Jake queried, "So who's she look like?"

Hank retorted, "Ya mean the Reverend didn't tell ya?"

"Very funny," Loren chuckled. "Come on. Tell us."

Hank poured himself a drink, "She looks like a little girl."

"That's it?" Jake was disappointed.

Hank frowned, "What more can I say?"

Loren perceived, "Ya don't seem very happy."

"I'm happy, I'm happy," Hank gulped down the liquor.

Loren observed, "If you was any happier, we might have t' hold a wake for ya."

Jake tilted back his hat, "You disappointed 'cause it wasn't a boy?"

Hank pointed out, "I already got a son."

Jake came back, "He's all grown up now, an' ya missed out on all them years."

Loren eyed the sheriff, "That's it. Ain't it? Ya feel guilty about Zack."

"What d' you know, old man?" Hank frowned.

Loren replied, "I know I'd give anythin' I own t' have back one day with my little girl."

Hank swallowed hard, "Well, my little girl needs a roof over her head an' food in her belly. So, I best get back t' work."

Loren leaned closer to confide, "Don't do it, Hank."

"Don't do what?" he asked.

"Don't pull away from her," Loren counseled.

Hank rolled his eyes, "What the hell ya talkin' about?"

"Don't pull away from your baby girl just because you're scared o' your emotions," Loren explained.

Hank sighed, "Now ya sound like Sully."

Loren noted, "Well, Sully an' me both know what it's like t' lose a daughter."

Jake tried to lighten the mood, "We heard ya named her Ilse."

"Yea," Hank raised his glass. "Here's t' Ilse."

Everyone shared in the toast.

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

Sully shook hands with Cloud Dancing, who gestured for them to enter the Cheyenne lodge.

The mountain man informed him, "I took the braid back t' Abigail's grave last night."

"And did she return in another dream?" his friend inquired.

"No," Sully said.

"Then her spirit rests," he observed. "But.... the Spirits say that is not true for you."

Sully exhaled, "I just can't shake this feelin'."

"What feeling?" Cloud Dancing queried.

Sully poured forth his emotions, "I been thinkin' more an' more about my mother.... how she died. Deep down, I don't understand. I know she was sad over what happened t' her, but.... she left me all alone. Havin' kids o' my own now, I can't imagine doin' that t' your child. But, then it gets me thinkin'. Did she lose control of herself t' the point that she couldn't think clearly? An' could somethin' like that be passed on t' your children?"

"You mean could it happen to you?" the medicine man interpreted.

"Yea," Sully's eyes reflected his concern.

Cloud Dancing encouraged, "You must look into your heart, my brother. That is where you will find the answer."

"My heart...." Sully touched his chest. "My heart tells me I'd never commit suicide."

"Then your heart must assure your mind," his friend smiled.

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

Michaela approached Bridget, "I'm going to ride out to check on Lexie and the baby."

The nanny nodded, "I'll keep the wee ones occupied."

Brian overheard, "I'll help."

"Thank you," Michaela smiled at them.

As she lifted her medical bag to depart, Sully entered the homestead.

He noticed his wife's putting on her coat, "Where ya goin'?"

"I'm going to see how Lexie and the baby are doing," she replied. "Would you like to come with me?"

"Sure," he agreed.

He escorted her out the door and onto her horse. There was an uncomfortable silence when they departed.

Then Michaela broached the subject that had dominated her thoughts, "Did you have the dream last night?"

He looked at her with adoring eyes, "Only about you."

She turned up the corner of her mouth, "Where were you this morning?"

"I went t' see Cloud Dancin'," he said.

"How is he doing?" she inquired.

"Good," he responded.

Michaela slowed Flash to a stop, "Sully...."

"What?" he reined in his horse, as well.

She struggled with what to say next, then mentioned, "There's someplace I'd like for you to accompany me after we visit Lexie."

"Where's that?" he was curious.

"You'll see," she urged Flash to resume their trip.

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

Dorothy finished cleaning the kitchen table at the Lawson ranch house, then stepped into the bedroom, "All right, Miss Lexie, things look much better in there."

Lexie smiled, "I don't know how to thank you, Dorothy. I can't imagine what it looked like with only Hank doing the cooking."

"It wasn't that bad," the redhead assured. Then she looked at the sleeping baby, "Ilse Lawson. She's adorable."

"Thank you," Lexie's smile broadened. "I think so, too."

Dorothy heard a knock at the front door, "That might be Grace, bringin' your lunch."

"I'm so grateful to the ladies of town for helping me," she added.

"Be right back," Dorothy touched her hand and exited.

Lexie could hear Michaela's voice, and soon the doctor entered the bedroom.

"Dr. Mike," Lexie smiled. "It's good to see you."

Michaela set her medical bag on the bed, "You're looking much better today."

"I'm still sore, but I have been resting when the baby does," Lexie informed her.

"Good," Michaela nodded. "I think today would be a good day for you to walk a bit."

"Walk?" Dorothy questioned.

Michaela explained, "I believe the sooner, the better. I'm not talking about a marathon, mind you. But a little bit each day will help you regain your strength. And it would be best to do it while someone is here with you initially."

"You're the doctor," Lexie agreed.

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

Sully and Michaela stopped their horses at the base of the mountain.

He looked up, "This is where ya wanted t' bring me?"

"Yes," she dismounted Flash. "Our mountain."

He slid from his horse and secured the animals to a tree.

Michaela extended her hand to him. He clasped it and followed her. Ascending in silence, Sully began to wonder what his wife had in mind. Finally, they reached the spot where he had first brought her twelve years earlier.

They paused, fingers entwined, to look at the magnificent horizon, "Sure is pretty."

"Yes," she savored the view. "Do you remember what you told me the first time you brought me here?"

"Yep," he slid his arm around her waist. "I told ya it's where I'd come t' find my way. Not even...."

He stopped.

She completed his thought, "Not even Abigail knew about it.... But you shared it with me. I was so honored by that, Sully."

"Honored?" he raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," she nodded. "Sharing something so personal with me.... well, it made our love even deeper."

He suspected her motives, "Michaela...."

"Shhh," she sensed his hesitation. "You don't have to share anything right now. Just look at the magnificence of this sight."

He kept his eyes on her, "I am."

She sat down and urged him to join her.

Taking both of his hands in hers, Michaela spoke softly, "I want you to know that I am here for you, Sully, in any capacity in which you need me."

"I know that," he felt a lump in his throat.

She added, "And I want you to know that if you need to go away.... if you have to get away from the distractions of Colorado Springs, I understand. You must do whatever you have to in order to...."

He interrupted, "Michaela, I don't think of you an' the kids as distractions."

"I didn't mean to imply that you do," she felt awkward. "I simply mean that if family life is placing pressures on you to the point that you feel trapped or...."

"No," he cut in. "I don't feel that way."

She felt tears welling in her eyes, "I only want to help you."

He caressed her cheek, "How long have ya known me?"

Her brow wrinkled, "What?"

Sully kissed the palm of her hand, "In all the years we've been t'gether, I never ever felt trapped. You're my home, Michaela. You're my heart an' soul."

She saw the truth in his eyes, "I just want you to know that if you do need to go for a while, I'll understand."

He felt a swell of love for her, "I done a lot of goin' from you."

She placed her hand over his heart, "No, I've been right here with you."

He looked out to where the sky met the distant mountains, "Maybe I've just had too much time on my hands lately."

"Too much time?" she was uncertain.

He shared, "Too much time t' think.... t' get my thoughts muddled."

"We all need time on occasion to reflect where we are and where we're going," she stated.

He clasped her hand, "Where do you wanna go, Michaela?"

"Do you mean places?" she questioned.

"Is there someplace you've never been to that you'd like t' see one day?" he clarified.

"Europe," she smiled. "What about you?"

"Europe sounds good," he stroked her arm.

"What about your life?" she probed. "Where do you want to go in that regard?"

"My life...." he paused to contemplate. "I wanna spend all the time I can with you an' the kids.... watch 'em grow up, get married, have families of their own. An' I wanna grow old with you."

She queried further, "Is there anything you haven't done that you wish you could?"

"Besides helpin' the Cheyenne?" he asked. "I wish I could...."

He stopped himself.

She gently squeezed his hand for support, "Tell me."

He took a deep breath, "I wish I could give ya more."

"More?" her eyes widened. "I can't imagine having more than what we have right now."

"I mean finer things," he specified. "Like what ya had in Boston."

"I left that life," she noted.

He mentioned, "An' I saw your eyes last time we were there.... fancy receptions, dinners, culture."

"Don't you remember what I said after our dinner at the Ritz?" she recounted. "I told you I have it all."

He nodded, "I remember ya added, 'And Boston, too.' Michaela, look at our house, our room. They're nothin' like Boston."

"Oh, Sully," her eyes saddened. "Now I must ask, how long have you known me?"

He tilted his head quizzically.

She went on, "Do you think for one moment that I would trade what we have here for a life in Boston?"

He looked down, "You could have all that with the money you got."

She felt a pang, "My inheritance was a gift from Mother. It's all I have left of her, and I try to spend it on ventures that...."

He interjected, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

"No," her brow wrinkled. "It's obviously something that's on your mind. I know that the money has created a rift between us."

"Rift?" he looked up. "No, Michaela, not a rift."

"But it disturbs you," she knew.

He hoped to express his feelings, "It makes me feel like.... Like you're missin' out on things that ya might really want."

She assured, "I'm not missing out on anything. I have a husband, eight children and a grandchild whom I adore. Those are the things that mean the world to me, and none of that can be bought with my inheritance."

He was quiet for a moment.

"Sully," she broke the silence. "I would happily live in a rundown shack or a lean-to just to be with you."

He smiled, "I remember when I first showed ya the lean-to I lived in. I don't know if ya felt that way back then."

She cupped her palm to his cheek and tenderly kissed him, "That's before I knew what I was missing."

He grinned, knowing what she meant.

She took a deep breath, "Sully, if I were to.... to give away my inheritance, what would you think?"

"Give away your inheritance?" he was surprised. "No, Michaela. I'd never ask ya t' do that."

"I know you wouldn't ask," she replied. "But if...."

He interjected, "No. Never give up somethin' so precious. Ya said yourself, it's all ya got left of your Ma."

His eyes began to redden.

She embraced him, then kissed his temple, "Your mother.... you were so young when she died. You must have been such a frightened little boy."

His reserve began to crumble, "They put me in an orphanage, but I ran away t' the docks. Then I took off west. But there wasn't anyplace I could run t' get her back."

"Oh, Sully," her eyes welled with tears. "I'm so sorry."

His emotional floodgates began to open. Safe in his wife's comforting arms, he began to weep. Michaela held him, feeling the grief that Sully was finally sharing with her.

After some time, he was composed enough to speak, "I never told anyone how I felt.... how I still feel, like I got a hole in my heart. If only I could've stopped her."

She touched the moisture on his cheeks, "It wasn't your fault."

"I know," he looked down. "Most likely, she had that melancholia. But.... I never got t' say goodbye, tell her I loved her."

"I'm certain she knew," Michaela assured.

He confessed, "I don't think so. She couldn't hear me on account o' all the grief an' pain she felt. T' be that sad.... t' not even think about your son.... t' just jump off a bridge...."

"Sully," she caressed his temple. "There are those who believe there is a link between suicide and depression. Circular insanity, Farlet called it."

"Insanity?" his brow wrinkled.

She related, "What I'm trying to say is that your mother's actions could have been out of her control. Her mind might not have been thinking rationally."

He pondered, "You told me last night that Farlet said it could run in families."

"Yes," she nodded.

His silence spoke volumes.

"No, Sully, not to you," she clasped his hands. "Never."

He sighed, "How do ya know?"

"Because I know you," she said. "And.... that hole in your heart. I promise I'll do everything in my power to fill it. I'll never let anything happen to you."

He smiled for the first time, "My protector?"

"That's right," she replied.

"I thought I'm supposed t' protect you," he remarked.

She stroked his arm, "Perhaps we can protect one another then."

He confessed further, "I never told anyone before, but.... I been angry with my Ma all these years. An' that makes me feel real guilty."

She gave a gentle squeeze to his hand, "I remember you once told me that you were so angry with your father for dying that you would go down to the docks and scream up at the sky."

"Yea," he recalled sadly.

She raised her head to look skyward, "Would it help to do that with your mother?"

"No," he sighed. "I can't yell at her. I just wanna understand her. There's a part o' me that can never truly rest or be at peace 'til I do."

She studied his expression, "I think you've already taken your first step toward that end."

"I have?" he was puzzled.

She affirmed, "Yes, by talking about your feelings. I have no answers for you. But I care and will listen anytime you want to discuss it. You can even yell at me, if you want."

He caressed her cheek, "Yell at you? Never."

"Sully," the thought occurred to her. "I have an idea."

"What?" he anticipated.

Michaela encouraged her husband, "Why don't you write a letter to your mother?"

"A letter?" he was surprised.

"Yes," she explained. "In it, you can express all of the feelings you've held beneath the surface. Anger, abandonment, guilt, fear."

He hesitated, "I.... I don't know."

She spoke softly, "Think about it. Perhaps it would help."

"I'll think on it," he consented.

They turned their gaze toward the view of the pristine land they loved.

"Michaela," his eyes shone with love. "How 'bout we go home an' see those kids of ours? I wanna hold 'em an' tell 'em how much I love 'em."

She smiled, "I think that's a marvelous idea."

He helped her to rise to her feet, then drew her into his arms, "Know what?"

"What?" she ran her finger along the line of his jaw.

He softly kissed her, then drew back, "I'm glad ya brought me here."

She caressed the hair at his temples, "It's where you come to find your way. Remember?"

"I remember," he took her hand and began to guide her back down the mountain.


THE END



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