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



Making Peace


by Debby K


Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Making Peace
by Debby K

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

Professor Kelly stepped into The Gazette office and greeted his former student, "Hello, Brian."

"Dr. Kelly," the young man extended his hand. "It's good to see you."

"And you," he smiled. "I've been reading your articles, including the one in Harper's Weekly. Excellent work."

"Thanks," Brian beamed. "That means a lot, coming from you. What brings you here?"

Kelly broached the subject of his visit, "I wanted to discuss something your sister asked me to do."

"Colleen?" Brian guessed.

Kelly identified, "No, Katie."

"Oh?" the young man was curious.

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

Mary Conway exited the dormitory of the school for deaf and blind children. Pulling her cloak tighter to ward off the chill, she headed for The Gazette office. The Reverend had asked her to place an ad in the paper and to post at Bray's Mercantile a help wanted notice for someone to clean the school each night.

Wisps of her auburn hair blew toward her face when the wind kicked up. Her slender figure walked briskly to make the journey faster.

As she approached The Gazette, Mary noticed a handsome young man with sandy blonde hair speaking to an older gentleman. When she entered the office, the young man seemed deep in conversation.

Dr. Kelly queried, "So I've piqued your interest?"

"You sure have," Brian agreed.

Kelly invited, "I thought perhaps I might explain over lunch."

"Sure," Brian suddenly noticed the beautiful, blue eyed young woman at the door. "Hello."

"Hello," Mary smiled. "I hope I haven't come at a bad time."

Dr. Kelly perceived a spark of interest between the two, "Ah, Brian, I'll see you at Grace's Cafe in, say.... twenty minutes?"

Brian returned, "I'll be there. Thanks."

Mary nodded to the professor as he exited.

Brian extended his hand, "I don't think we've met. I'm Brian Cooper."

"Mary Conway," she introduced herself. "I teach at the school for deaf and blind children."

"Oh, yes," Brian could not take his eyes off her. "I read the interview Miss Dorothy did when you first came to town from St. Louis. My Pa built the school."

"I don't remember seeing you here in the office," she remarked.

"I've been away," he explained. "In Washington, covering the presidential election."

"How exciting," Mary's eyes widened. "I once met President-elect Garfield."

"You did?" he was amazed.

She informed him, "Did you know that he can write with both hands?"

Brian grinned, "No, I didn't."

She mused, "Greek with one and Latin with the other."

He laughed, "That's real interesting."

She withdrew a slip of paper from her cloak pocket, "I was wondering if you could place this ad in The Gazette on behalf of the school."

"Sure," he lifted a pencil.

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

In the barn, Sully finished polishing the last bedpost just as Michaela arrived home from the hospital.

He stepped outside and helped her dismount her horse, "You're home early."

She kissed him, "I wanted to come home for lunch."

He took her hand and proudly escorted her into the barn, "I finished the twins' beds."

Michaela beheld the fine workmanship, "Oh, Sully, they're magnificent."

"Thanks," his grin widened.

She ran her hand across the carving of a soaring hawk on one of the headboards, "Noah will love this."

"I thought so," Sully was satisfied.

She put her arm around his waist, "Your talents never cease to amaze me, Mr. Sully."

He gestured, "What about Annie's bed?"

Michaela inspected, "I love the beveled edges and how the top rolls into the posts."

"Sort of like a crown for a princess," he nodded. "Think I should set 'em up tonight?"

She cautioned, "I believe we should prepare the twins for the adjustment of big beds first. Perhaps tomorrow night"

"These are gonna be a tight squeeze in their room," he commented. "We'll have t' take some things out."

She sighed, "They still insist on sleeping in the the same room together and not with Katie and Josef."

"I reckon we could work on talkin' 'em int' that, too," he speculated.

"Perhaps we should simply order them to sleep with their older siblings," she joked.

He chuckled, "Ya mean not let two an' a half year olds boss us?"

"Yes," she smiled.

"You up for a night of cryin'?" he grinned.

"For us or for them?" she smiled.

"Both, I reckon," he remarked.

"Come," she clasped his hand. "I'm hungry."

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

Teresa Slicker concluded her spelling lesson. Suddenly, she felt lightheaded. Clutching the side of her desk, she attempted to steady herself.

Katie Sully noticed first and rushed to her, "Are you all right, Mrs. Slicker?"

"Yes, I am fine," she nodded. "I am going to dismiss you children for lunch now. Be sure to put on your coats."

Josef stepped toward his sister, "Can I eat with you, Katie?"

"Sure, Joey," she smiled. "Bundle up warm, an' save us a good seat at the picnic table. Okay?"

"'Kay," he dashed from the room.

Katie returned her attention to Teresa, "Want me t' get Mrs. Johnson?"

"No, thank you," Teresa assured. "I do not wish to disturb her, but thank you for your concern."

Hesitating to ensure that her teacher was all right, Katie exited the school.

Teresa sank onto her chair, "Of all times to be sick. I have much to do before Christmas, and...."

At that moment, everything went black, and she fainted onto the floor.

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

Brian spotted the Professor at Grace's and approached him, "Hey, Dr. Kelly."

"I'm glad you could join me," he smiled.

Brian sat down, "Now, what's this about Katie asking you to do something?"

Kelly detailed, "Shortly before Thanksgiving, I ran into Katie at the college. It was after one of her art classes. She expressed an interest in something on which I had been lecturing."

"Something about history?" Brian questioned.

"Heraldry, specifically," Kelly clarified. "When I explained what it was, she wanted to look up the Sully coat of arms and draw it for your parents."

"I see," Brian smiled. "They'll love it, I'm sure. So that's what she was asking you about?"

"I'm coming to that," the professor enjoyed taking his time. "Katie was frustrated in the lack of information on your father's family."

Brian understood, "Pa doesn't like to talk about them."

"That's what Katie said," he nodded. "But after she told me the date and circumstances of his birth, I agreed to investigate."

Brian's eyes widened, "Did you find out something?"

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

After lunch, Michaela and Sully sat near the living room fireplace. Nearby, Noah petted Wolf, while Annie pretended to brush her doll's hair.

"Children," Michaela summoned them to come closer. "Papa and I would like to discuss something with you."

Annie approached her mother with the brush, "You turn, Mama."

Michaela leaned closer to permit her daughter to brush her tresses, "Sweetheart, what would you think of having a big bed like Katie's?"

"I like," Annie grinned.

Noah stood up, "I want big bed."

Sully smiled, "One for you, too, No-bo."

Bridget overheard, "So, ya finished 'em, did ya lad?"

"Yea," Sully looked up at her. "But I thought the kids might put up more of a fuss over not havin' their cribs anymore."

Michaela was amazed, "Yes, so did I, but they seem positively enthusiastic about new beds."

Bridget was skeptical, "Sounds too easy, if ya ask me."

"I was thinking," Michaela looked toward the corner of the room. "Perhaps we could get the Christmas tree tomorrow. The children could help us."

Noah's eyes widened, "Cwis'mas!"

Sully grinned, "It's not for another week, son."

"I good?" he pointed to himself.

"An angel," Michaela tickled his side.

Bridget chuckled, "An angel, indeed."

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

Brian leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table.

Professor Kelly came to the point, "I received a telegram from one of my friends in New York. He has access to customs records. Immigrants only had to pass through Customs in 1835."

"Immigrants?" Brian raised an eyebrow. "He found something about Pa's family?"

He noted, "Apparently, my friend came across something about him. He's sending me a package."

The young man was astounded, "A package? What's in it?"

"I won't know until it arrives," the professor smiled. "But I wanted to tell you about it because it might contain items of a sensitive nature. I don't want to simply hand the package directly to Katie without someone in her family knowing. On the other hand, I don't want to spoil her surprise for your parents by telling them. So, I thought you might know how to best handle the delicacy of all this."

Brian pondered, "Thanks for telling me."

He added, "I'll give you the package when it arrives then."

Brian considered, "I think it's best to not say anything to Katie until I see it."

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

Teresa Slicker opened her eyes. She was on an examining table in the hospital, where Colleen Cooper stood looking down on her.

Colleen smiled, "There you are. How do you feel?"

Teresa began to sit up, "I feel...."

She plopped down again.

"Not so good, I guess," Colleen noted.

Teresa's brow wrinkled, "What happened?"

"You fainted," Colleen informed her.

She insisted, "I must return to my students."

"Miss Dorothy is watching them," Colleen assured. "In the meantime, I'd like to examine you."

"Examine me?" she became uncomfortable. "I merely skipped breakfast and became weak."

Colleen inquired, "Why did you skip breakfast?"

"I was not feeling well," Teresa replied. "My stomach has bothered me for the past several mornings."

"I see," Colleen made some notes.

Teresa sat up gingerly, "I am fine now. I do not need an examination."

The young doctor eyed her skeptically, "Your symptoms tell me otherwise, Mrs. Slicker."

Teresa became defensive, "You sound like your mother. I do not need you to tell me what is wrong with me."

Colleen cautioned, "Your symptoms could become worse. I'm merely concerned for your wellbeing."

"I do not need your concern," she stood up.

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

When Michaela entered the hospital, she was greeted by her oldest daughter, "How was lunch?"

"Wonderful," she smiled as she donned her medical apron. "Sully finished the new beds for the twins. Did anything happen in my absence?"

Colleen noted, "Mrs. Slicker was here."

Michaela speculated, "With one of the school children?"

"No," Colleen showed her the patient notes. "She fainted."

"I see," Michaela scanned the chart. "She refused an examination?"

Colleen nodded, "She's a stubborn woman."

Michaela acknowledged, "I've experienced that first hand."

"What should we do?" Colleen questioned.

She sighed, "Well, we can't force her to be examined. I have a feeling she'll be back if her symptoms persist."

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

After dinner, Michaela and Bridget washed the dishes, and Katie dried. The twins busied themselves at the kitchen table, pretending to write along side of Josef. Sully was looking over his son's letters.

"These look real good, Joe," Sully commended.

Josef lifted his head, "Papa, you know much about Abwaham Lincoln?"

"Some," Sully nodded. "Why?"

The little boy questioned, "What ya know about his ass?"

Michaela nearly dropped a plate, "Josef Michael Sully!"

"What?" Josef gazed at her innocently.

"Joe," Sully suspected. "Did someone put ya up t' that question?"

Josef replied, "Mrs. Slicker said somethin' 'bout his ass in a theater."

Michaela sighed in relief, as Sully figured out his meaning, "I think she probably used the word assassinated. President Lincoln was assassinated in Ford's Theater. That's in Washington, DC."

"Oh," the child contemplated. "What's assassidated mean?"

Sully defined, "It means he was shot an' killed there."

"In a theater?" the little boy was amazed.

Michaela chimed in, "By an actor."

"Didn' he clap for the actor or somethin'?" Josef posed the question.

Michaela sat beside her son, "Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Sweetheart. He was a great president, but the actor didn't want the slaves to be free."

"Why wasn't slaves free?" Josef queried.

Michaela attempted, "The South depended on the slaves to grow and pick their cotton, and they didn't want to pay them wages, as northern workers were paid. So, they used the labor of slaves."

Josef's brow wrinkled, "He got shot 'cause o' cotton? I don' know what's wrong with people."

"Don't think too hard on it, Joe," Sully advised.

Katie broached the subject, "Mama, when can I see Mrs. Lawson's baby?"

Michaela answered, "One day soon."

Sully addressed the children, "Hey, your Ma an' me were thinkin' we'd like some help gettin' the Christmas tree t'morrow. You kids know anyone who might like t' come with us?"

All of the children promptly raised their hands.

Sully glanced at his wife, "Well, Michaela, it looks like they all wanna help."

"Splendid," she smiled.

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

Brian prepared to lock up The Gazette office for the night when he spotted Mary Conway walking toward Benson's Boarding House.

"Hey, Miss Conway," he quickened his step to catch up to her. "May I walk with you?"

"Certainly," she smiled. "You're working awfully late."

He observed, "Looks like you are, too."

"Sometimes I stay late to help my students," she noted. "Today was their last day before their Christmas Holiday."

"Have you had supper?" he inquired.

She replied, "Yes, I ate with the children."

He noted, "I really admire what you're doing.... working with deaf and blind children."

She clarified, "Actually, I work more with the deaf. My parents were both deaf."

"That must have been hard on you," he reflected.

"No," she spoke wistfully. "It was a wonderful way to grow up. I learned a great deal from my mother and father."

"Are they still in St. Louis?" he asked.

"No," she looked down. "They're dead."

"I'm sorry," Brian sympathized.

Mary looked up at the boarding house sign, "Well, here we are. Thanks for the conversation, Mr. Cooper."

"Please call me Brian," he encouraged.

She smiled, "If you'll call me Mary."

"Mary," he grinned. "May I...."

"Yes?" she anticipated.

Brian worked up the courage to request, "May I call on you sometime?"

Her cheeks flushed, "I'd like that very much."

************
Chapter 2
************

Michaela leaned against her pillow, finishing the article in her medical journal. Her eyelids began to grow heavy, and she barely stayed awake to complete it.

She glanced toward Sully as he sat pensively in the rocking chair, pencil and paper in hand. At first, she worried that he might be experiencing a bout of melancholy.

"Aren't you sleepy, Mr. Sully?" she spoke low.

"Not really," he looked over at her. "Will the light bother ya if I stay up a while longer?"

"No," she set her journal on the nightstand. "What are you doing?"

"I'm doin' what ya asked," he was vague.

"What I asked?" she was uncertain.

He clarified, "I been writin' a letter t' my Ma."

She was interested, "That's wonderful."

"Would ya read it?" he stood up.

"But it's private," she hesitated.

He sat beside her, "Not from you."

Michaela accepted the piece of paper and began to peruse it:

"Dear Ma, I been wanting to tell you this for thirty-five years. I got a wife and kids now. We named our first daughter after you, and we call her just what Pa called you.... Katie Sully. It's hard for me to remember what you look like sometimes. Then, there's other times when I close my eyes, I think I see you. I think I have even caught a glimpse of you in the faces of my children.

"When you died, they put me in an orphanage, but I ran away. You used to tell me I was stubborn, and I guess I was and still am."

Michaela looked up and smiled, "Stubborn? You?"

He shrugged, "I figure I gotta be honest."

She returned to the letter:

"My wife, Michaela, told me it might help me if I wrote down how I feel about you dying. She said I got a right to the feelings, and I should let you know what they are. So, I'm going to try.

"I feel angry and hurt about your death. First Pa, then Percy, then you left me. Of all people, Ma, I didn't think you would go. You cared about folks. You cared about me. You'd rock me to sleep and sing sweet songs every night. You told funny stories to make me laugh."

At that instant, Michaela gained a profound insight into her husband's personality. He possessed the very qualities he admired in his mother. Michaela continued with the letter.

"But then you changed. It was after that man attacked you. I feel so terrible about that. I wasn't there for you. Even though I was real young, maybe I could've run for help if I had been there. I hope you can forgive me."

Sully noticed Michaela had reached the end, "That's all I got so far. Do ya think it's okay?"

"It's beautiful," her eyes brimmed with tears. "Is it helping?"

"It's gettin' me t' think more about how I feel," he answered. "But I don't know if it'll do any good in the end."

"Give it time," she counseled.

He lowered the lamp, "I'm keepin' you up. We got a tree t' chop down t'morrow."

She reached up to cup his cheek with her palm, "Thank you for sharing your letter with me. I love you so much, Sully."

He sweetly kissed her, "I love you, too."

Sully removed his clothing and crawled into bed beside his wife. Spooning his body next to hers, he drew back her long tresses and kissed her shoulder.

"'Night," he whispered.

She clasped his hand against her heart, "Sully...."

"Mmm?" he anticipated.

"I'm so proud to be your wife," she raised his hand to her lips.

He felt a lump in his throat, "I hope you'll always feel that way."

"I promise I shall," she pledged.

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

"Brian," Katie whispered when she saw her older brother pass by her room.

"Mornin', Katie," he smiled.

"Shhh," she raised her finger to her lips. "Come here. I wanna show ya somethin'."

"What is it?" he lowered his volume.

When he entered her bedroom, Katie closed the door behind her.

She reached under her bed and drew out her sketch pad, "I wanna show ya what I'm makin' for Mama an' Poppy for Christmas."

When she uncovered it, he smiled, "A coat of arms."

"You've seen it before?" she was surprised.

"I've seen others," he clarified. "Never one for the Sully family. It looks real good."

Her cheeks flushed, "Thanks. Professor Kelly showed me a book with this in it. Do ya think Mama an' Poppy will like it?"

"I know they will," he nodded.

"Good," she was satisfied. "I'm gonna add color to it later. Do ya think ya could help me find a frame for it? I don't know how much it will cost."

"'Course I can," Brian softly patted her back. "I have an idea. Why don't you let me buy the frame?"

"You wouldn't mind?" she wondered.

"It could be my gift for Ma and Pa," he added.

"Okay," she smiled. "Thanks."

He turned his attention to the drawing again, "You're becoming quite an artist."

"I like drawin'," she turned the pages of her sketchbook.

It was then that Brian noticed, "You sure have a lot of horses."

She grinned, "I was thinkin' I could leave 'em around the house, an' maybe Mama an' Poppy would get the hint."

He understood, "You still want a horse."

"It would be the best gift I could ever think of," she contemplated. "But I don't want it just for myself. When they get old enough, Joey an' the others could ride it, too."

His mind flashed back, "When I was little, Matthew and Colleen would put me up with them, and we'd all ride to school together on the same horse."

Her eyes brightened, "Oh, that sounds like lots of fun."

"It was," he spoke wistfully.

"Sometimes when I ride with Poppy, he lets me hold the reins," Katie remarked. "But...."

Brian assured, "He'll come around. It took a long time before Sully even learned to ride. I think Ma had something to do with it."

"She did?" Katie's eyes widened.

Brian related, "He was always coming out to the old homestead to see us, bring us things...." He laughed softly. "Truth is, it was more to see Ma. He got tired of walking."

Katie always enjoyed stories about her parents, "When they were courtin'?"

He tickled her side, "Where'd you learn that word?"

She shrugged, "I don't remember. Tell me more about them, Brian."

He leaned back on his elbow, "Before they were married?"

"Yes," she was intrigued.

Brian recalled, "There was one time when the town was celebrating George Washington's Birthday."

"February 22," the little girl recited.

Brian smiled, "Right. Very good. Anyway, I was supposed to portray Washington as a little boy and recite my line in front of the whole town."

Katie was curious, "What was your line?"

"I cannot tell a lie," Brian chuckled. "I said it right after I chopped down a cherry tree. I said my line okay, but then Ma embarrassed me by jumping up on the stage to kiss me."

Katie posed the question, "Why did that embarrass you?"

"I guess boys at that age think they're too old for their Ma to kiss them," he mused.

"How old were you?" she tilted her head.

He calculated, "Around nine."

"My age," she pointed to herself.

"Yep," he grinned.

"What did Poppy do?" she wondered.

"He just sat back and smiled," Brian noted. "Then when I came off the stage, he gave me a hug. That night before the fireworks and reading of the Declaration of Independence, we ate a picnic supper that Ma made."

"Mama cooked it?" her eyes widened.

He laughed, "Yep, and it wasn't that bad. After dinner, when she and Pa didn't know we could hear, they kinda said some sweet things to each other. See, they'd been separated from us kids during an epidemic and they went through a lot to get home to us."

"That sounds like them," Katie warmed. "What sweet things did they say?"

Brian remembered, "Ma held his hand and thanked him. Pa didn't know what for, and she told him it was for being there for her when Matthew was sick during the epidemic. She said Pa was her strength, and she'd never forget that. He said he wasn't so strong."

"Oh, yes, he is," Katie asserted. "Poppy's real strong."

"He's humble, too," Brian reflected. "He doesn't take credit for all the good things he does for our family."

"Maybe he doesn't know how much it means t' us," she pondered. "I want to learn everything I can about Poppy."

Brian concealed his knowledge of her talk with Dr. Kelly, "Katie.... if you never learn everything about him, it doesn't change what a wonderful man he is."

"I know that," she smiled. "But I think there's things Poppy doesn't know about himself, and that bothers him."

Brian asked, "What makes you think that?"

"Just a feelin'," she replied. "Thanks for tellin' me about Mama an' Poppy. It makes me feel kinda warm inside.... like I was part of how they first fell in love."

He caressed her golden tresses, "In a way, you were part of it."

Her eyes widened, "How?"

"Well," he paused. "It's hard to describe, but I think Ma and Pa were meant to be in love from the moment she stepped off that stage coach. Having a family.... that was part of their destiny, too. Two people as much in love as they are just gotta spread that love to others. I'm glad I was there from the beginning. I hope I can be happy as they are one day."

Katie put her hand atop his, "The right girl will come along for you. Just give it time."

He touched her nose, "You sound like Pa."

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

Michaela thought she heard Sully whispering, or was she dreaming? Opening her eyes, she observed her husband in the rocking chair feeding Hope her bottle.

"Good morning," Michaela sat up and yawned.

"Sorry if we woke ya," Sully set the empty bottle aside and stroked the baby's back. "But this little girl was hungry."

Michaela sighed, "I must be a terrible mother not to have heard her."

He smiled, "Truth is, I woke her up."

"May I hold her?" Michaela reached out.

"Sure," Sully brought the baby to his wife.

Cradled in her mother's arms, Hope clasped her finger.

"Have you been working on her, Mr. Sully?" Michaela teased.

"Workin' on her?" he was unsure.

Michaela kissed the baby's forehead, "To say 'Papa.'"

"Well...." he hedged. "Maybe a little."

Michaela turned up the corner of her mouth, "I thought so. Are the others up?"

"Bridget is," he noted. "I reckon we better get the kids up so we can get the tree."

She smiled, "I love it when the house smells of pine."

"Me, too," he agreed.

Michaela thought back, "I remember when Father used to pack us all in a carriage to shop for the perfect tree. You know, it wasn't until around the time of my birth that Massachusetts resumed celebrating the holiday more traditionally, even though many still frowned upon it. It was actually totally banned for 22 years beginning in 1659."

"Why?" Sully sat beside her and caressed Hope's hair.

Michaela explained, "Several reasons. For one, it reminded the Puritans of the hated Church of England's customs, from which they were trying to escape. For another, they didn't consider December 25 to be an accurate date for Christ's birth. Thirdly, they believed the holiday led to drinking, feasting and playing games. Sometimes wassailing even became violent."

"Wassailing?" Sully tilted his head. "What's that?"

"The poor would go to the homes of the rich and beg or demand food or drink in exchange for a toast to the good health of the rich," she smiled. "If the host refused, there were threats of retribution."

"Sounds like the Gold Nugget," Sully chuckled.

She handed the baby back to her father, "At any rate, I much prefer the way we observed Christmas. Father often did not conform to the dictates of society."

"Like practicin' medicine with his daughter?" Sully set Hope in her cradle.

"Yes," Michaela reached for her robe.

Sully stepped closer and slipped his hands around her waist before she could close the material, "I don't think I gave you a proper good mornin' kiss."

As he leaned down, Michaela wrapped her arms around his shoulders and deepened their contact.

"Mmm," he pulled back slowly. "Maybe we don't have t' leave right away."

She smiled alluringly, "Or we could quickly find that tree and spend a leisurely day decorating it with our children. Then.... perhaps tonight, you and I could share some special time beneath the mistletoe."

"No wassailing?" he joked.

"If you'd prefer that to...." she was interrupted.

He kissed her, "I like how you think. Let's go."

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

Jake sat at the kitchen table showing Maria a magic trick while Teresa set a dish of scrambled eggs before them. Teresa was beginning to feel ill again. She had avoided telling her husband about her fainting spell, but the sensation was returning.

"Thanks," Jake portioned some eggs onto his daughter's plate, then onto his own. He noticed his wife was not eating, "Ain't you hungry?"

"No," she sat down.

Jake eyed her, "Ya look green."

Teresa wiped her hand across her forehead, "My stomach is a little upset."

"Want me t' give ya somethin' for it?" he offered.

She tensed, "No, thank you. The feeling will pass."

He became suspicious, "How long's your stomach been botherin' ya?"

She was vague, "Not long. It is probably something I caught from the children."

He held his palm against her forehead, "Do ya have a fever?"

"No," she suddenly stood up and rushed from the room.

"Mama!" Maria called after her in concern.

"I'll check on her, darlin'," Jake hurried after his wife.

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

Sully slowed the buckboard as they reached a grove of evergreens. One by one, he helped the children out of the back.

He cautioned, "You kids stay close." Then he turned to Wolf, "Keep an eye on 'em, boy."

Wolf wagged his tail.

Michaela folded her hands behind her back and began to inspect the pines, as Sully followed with ax in hand.

Katie pointed, "How about this one?"

"Crooked," Michaela assessed.

Josef circled a tree, "Mama, look at this one."

"Not tall enough," Michaela responded.

Noah pointed, "Dis one."

Sully laughed, "That ain't a pine tree, No-bo. That's a sugar maple."

Annie lunged for her brother and tackled him. They were soon rolling around in the snow and giggling. Suddenly, Josef joined them, and the twins piled atop him. Katie ran to the pile and playfully rolled with them.

Michaela paused, hands on her hips, "Where are my helpers?"

"We're playin'," Josef shouted to her.

Sully shrugged, "'Least we know they're in one place. Let's keep lookin'."

"This one," Michaela beheld a beautiful pine.

"You sure?" Sully hesitated before chopping.

"Yes," Michaela nodded.

Just as Sully struck the ax into the bark, one of the children cried out.

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

Sully set aside his ax and hurried to his children, "What happened?"

A crying Annie held up her index finger. Michaela reached the children and inspected her daughter's hand. In her mother's arms, Annie began to calm.

Assured that the child was not seriously hurt, Sully returned to chopping down the tree.

"Stowy, Mama," Annie requested.

"A story?" Michaela was surprised. "Why don't we have a story when we get our Christmas tree set up and decorated?"

Katie requested, "Would you tell us a story about a Christmas you and Poppy had before we were born?"

Michaela smiled, "Certainly. Now, let's help your father with the tree."

"I help," Josef rushed to Sully. "Come on, Papa. Let's get this thing home 'fore someone else gets huwt."

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

"Teresa," Jake entered the bedroom and observed his wife heaving into a basin. "You need a doctor. Why don't I go fetch Dr. Mike?"

"No," she insisted. "I shall be fine."

"You ain't fine," Jake countered.

She wiped a damp cloth across her forehead, "Do not tell me how I feel, Mr. Slicker."

He frowned, "We been gettin' along so good lately, Teresa. Why are you actin' like this with me?"

"I am acting fine," she tried to stand up. "Now, I think.... if I can only...."

With that, she fell back onto the bed and passed out.

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

Sully finished securing the base of the Christmas tree and stood it in the corner of the living room.

"That looks wonderful," Michaela's face beamed.

"I'll go get the decorations," Sully headed for the steps.

Josef bolted after him, "I help, Papa."

"Thanks, Joe," Sully paused for his son to catch up.

Noah clapped his hands, "Cwis'mas."

Annie settled on the floor next to the tree, "No peasants."

"Presents, Sweetheart," Michaela amended. "First we must decorate."

Sully and Josef returned with a box of ornaments.

Michaela carefully unwrapped the paper around the top ornament, "This was my Grandmother Quinn's. She brought it over from Ireland."

"Ireland?" Katie tilted her head. "Your family came from Ireland?"

Bridget chuckled, "Sure, I knew there was somethin' special about ya, lass."

Katie determined, "So we're English and Irish."

Bridget put her hands on her hips, "I wouldn't go braggin' about that in Ireland, darlin'."

"Why not?" Katie was curious.

The nanny explained, "The two don't get along well, don't ya know."

"Mama an' Poppy get along," Katie pointed out.

Sully drew his wife into his arms, "Sure do. Maybe we oughta take over runnin' them two countries."

Michaela's cheeks flushed, "Back to work. Let's finish our decorating."

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

Horace knocked on the boarding house door, "Dr. Kelly, ya in there?"

The older man responded, "Yes, who is it?"

"Horace Bing," came the reply. "Got a package here for ya. It come all the way from New York City."

Kelly put on his glasses and opened the door, "Thank you."

Horace handed him the parcel and accepted a tip, "Much obliged."

Kelly tore the brown paper from the package and opened the lid of the small wooden box. Inside he found several papers, a diary and two birth certificates. One was for a male, born February 16, 1835 aboard a ship. He also noted a brochure titled "The Ajax, passage between Liverpool and New York City." Then the professor found a note from the friend who had sent the package.

He read aloud, "Enclosed you will find the possessions of a Mrs. Katherine Sully. Said woman's belongings were originally in the possession of a Mrs. Evelyn Powderly, a neighbor of the Sullys, who passed away in 1850. Byron Sully had been taken to a Catholic orphanage, but he had run away, and the possessions were sent to the New York Police Department. My investigation of the Sully family's emigration to the United States led me to the police and to these belongings of the late Mrs. Sully. I hope you have found Byron and can give them to him. If not, please return the package to me. I shall continue to see if I can find out anything more in the matter."

Kelly ran his hand along the diary, "Katherine Sully, you are about to meet your son."

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

Sister Mary Martha entered Colleen's office, "Dr. Cook, Mr. and Mrs. Slicker are here. They are in the examining room."

"Thank you," Colleen closed her book and followed the nun.

When she entered the examining room, Jake sighed, "Where's Dr. Mike?"

"She's not in today," Colleen replied. "Did you have another fainting spell, Mrs. Slicker?"

Jake's eyes widened, "Another?"

Teresa remained defiant, "I did not feel well yesterday."

"I wanna know what the hell's goin' on," he frowned.

Colleen suggested, "Jake, why don't you step into the waiting room?"

"Because I wanna know what's wrong with my wife," he stated.

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

Katie admired the Christmas tree, then turned to her mother, "Why'd Poppy go t' the barn?"

Michaela smiled, "He has an early gift for you children."

Josef wondered, "Does that mean we won't get anythin' on Christmas?"

"No," Michaela touched her son's nose.

At that moment, Sully entered the house. In his arms was a wooden box.

"What is it, Poppy?" Katie rushed to him.

Sully set the box on the floor, "Careful now."

He sat down, and the children gathered around him. Sully lifted the first carved wooden ornament. It was the figure of a running horse, and on it was engraved the name, "Katherine."

"For you, Kates," Sully handed it to his daughter.

"Oh, Poppy!" Katie was delighted. "It's beautiful! Thank you."

Sully grinned, "You're welcome, sweet girl."

Next he lifted a second wooden ornament. It was in the shape of a wolf, and on it was neatly carved the name, "Josef."

"Here, Joe," Sully handed his son the ornament.

"Thanks, Papa," the boy was pleased. "But if I got a Wolf, what did ya carve for Wolf?"

Sully chuckled, "Maybe you could share it with him."

"Sure," Josef agreed.

Then Sully held up an ornament of a butterfly, "This here's for Annie."

Annie toddled closer and clasped it with both hands, "Tank, Papa."

"You're welcome," he kissed her cheek.

Annie ran her small hand across the letters of her name, "Cheyanne."

Michaela felt a lump in her throat as she held Hope and watched their reactions. The baby attempted to clap her hands each time one of the children received a gift.

"My tun?" Noah approached his father.

"Let's see," Sully separated the straw in the box and dug deeper. "Here's yours, No-bo."

Sully held before his youngest son a carving of a soaring hawk with the name "Aenohe" etched in the wood.

"Good, Papa," Noah's smile broadened. "Tanks."

Katie requested, "May we hang them on the tree?"

"Certainly," Michaela nodded.

Sully gestured toward a bare spot on the tree, "Right here looks good."

Josef turned to his father, "What about Mattew an' Emma an' Colleen an' Bran an' Hope an' Michael?"

Sully pointed to the box, "There's an ornament for each of them, too."

"May I hang Hope's on the tree?" Katie asked.

"Sure," Sully lifted it from the box.

It was a carving of a swan and engraved with the name "Hope."

Katie took it to her baby sister, "Look, Hope. Look what Poppy made for you."

Hope reached out her tiny hand and touched it, "Ba."

Katie smiled, "She likes it."

"They're all so beautiful," Michaela commended.

Sully sat on the arm of the chair beside her, "Thanks."

"Well done, Mr. Sully," Michaela touched his knee.

Josef approached them, "What about Miss Bwidget, Papa?"

"There's one for her," Sully winked as he rose from the chair.

He knelt down and lifted an intricately carved owl, on which "Bridget" was engraved.

"An owl?" Bridget chuckled.

Sully nodded, "For wisdom, truth and patience."

He handed the ornament to the nanny.

"Thanks, lad," a tear formed in her eye.

Josef pointed to the tree, "Here, Miss Bwidget. Put it next t' mine."

"Aye," she smiled and ruffled the boy's hair.

"Uh-oh, Papa," Josef put his hands on his hips. "Where's yours an' Mama's?"

"I'll give your Ma hers later," Sully smiled at his wife.

Katie pointed out, "You told Miss Bridget what her owl means, Poppy. What do our ornaments mean?"

Sully explained, "Kates, I gave you the horse because it means strength. Plus, ya been leavin' those drawings all around the house."

"You noticed?" she turned up the corner of her mouth.

Sully chuckled, "It was hard not to."

"Your father and I know what you are trying to say, Katie," Michaela added.

"And?" the little girl anticipated.

Sully spoke up, "And now I'll tell ya what the other animals mean."

Josef queried, "Mine?"

Sully detailed, "The wolf is loyal an' don't give up."

Annie stepped to her father, "Me?"

Sully caressed her blonde tresses, "The butterfly transforms an' makes dreams come true."

Noah jumped up and down, "Me, Papa?"

Sully grinned, "The hawk is the great observer an' messenger of the sky."

Katie questioned, "And the swan for Hope?"

Sully explained, "The swan is for grace an' innocence."

Josef tilted his head, "Maybe ya oughta give it t' Miss Gwace."

Bridget clapped her hands together, "Well, you leprechauns, how about some cookies?"

"Yea!" the children rushed into the kitchen.

"Thank you," Bridget smiled at Sully.

"We're the ones who owe you the thanks," Sully gave her a hug.

The nanny sighed, "Well, I best go keep those wee ones from tearin' the kitchen t' pieces."

When she left the room, Sully turned to his wife, "I reckon I should bring in the twins' beds."

"Why don't you wait for Brian and Matthew to help you?" Michaela suggested.

"I kinda wanted everythin' done before supper," he explained.

"So that after supper...." Michaela paused.

He winked and headed for the door.

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

Professor Kelly entered The Gazette office, "Good afternoon, Brian."

"Hey," the young man greeted him. Then he noticed the package and sensed, "From your friend in New York?"

"Yes," Kelly nodded. "I believe you'll find it quite interesting."

Brian opened it and sifted through the contents, "This is incredible."

"You'll tell your sister?" he questioned.

"I'll talk to her about giving it to Pa," the young man nodded. "Thanks, Dr. Kelly."

"You're quite welcome," he shook Brian's hand. "Good luck."

When the older man departed, Brian felt his heart beat with anticipation, "I wonder what Pa will think of this?"

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

Colleen removed the stethoscope from her ears, "Mrs. Slicker, your heartbeat and lungs sound fine."

"I told you I am not sick," the contrary woman asserted.

Colleen countered, "However, your symptoms indicate that there is something.... out of the ordinary."

Theresa felt a rush of anxiety, "I cannot be sick, Dr. Cook. I have too much to do."

"Mrs. Slicker," Colleen's tone was understanding. "Would you permit me to do a more thorough examination? I can't help you if I don't know more about what's causing your fainting spells."

Teresa's nervousness persisted, "No."

Colleen touched the woman's hand, "I understand that you're frightened. But isn't it better to know what you're dealing with and to do something about it than to wonder and live in.... fear?"

She knew Colleen was right, "I.... I suppose so."

"Good," she smiled. "Let's begin."

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

Brian arrived at the homestead and was greeted by the children.

"Bran, Bran!" Josef tugged his hand. "Papa made us orneryments."

"Made us what?" he was uncertain.

Michaela clarified, "Ornaments. Sully made one for you, as well."

"That sounds great," he smiled.

Katie added, "He put our names on them, too."

Josef urged, "Let's find yours."

Michaela hesitated, "We should wait until your father is here."

"Where is he?" Brian wondered.

"Upstairs assembling the beds for the twins," Michaela returned.

Brian offered, "I'll go see if he needs some help."

The young man mounted the steps by twos and headed toward the small room which the twins occupied. Sully had placed two chests of drawers in the hallway.

Brian navigated around them and glanced into the bedroom, "Hey, Pa."

"Hey, Brian," Sully wiped his brow.

"Need some help?" the young man offered.

"Sure," Sully stood up and rubbed his back. "I got the frames set up. All that's left is the mattresses."

Brian looked around the room, "Kind of a tight squeeze."

"Yep," Sully nodded.

"I got an idea," Brian suggested. "Maybe you could put the twins in my room, and I could move in here."

Sully replied, "You need a big room, son. The twins can manage. Thanks for the offer."

Sully and Brian lifted one of the mattresses and set it on the first bed. Soon, they had both beds in place. There was no room for the chests of drawers.

"What are you gonna do with their cribs?" Brian posed the question.

Sully determined, "We'll give one t' Matthew an' Emma for Michael. Hope is ready for the other."

They soon finished the task of setting up the beds.

Brian admired, "They look real good, Pa, but I wish you'd reconsider putting the twins in my room. I don't mind. I'm not home that much anyway. Besides, maybe one day soon, I'll be moving out and having a place of my own."

Sully raised an eyebrow, "Soon?"

The young man's cheeks blushed, "Never know. I kinda met someone."

"Who?" Sully grinned.

"Her name's Mary Conway," Brian identified. "And.... I really like her."

Sully patted his back, "Love at first sight?"

"Do you believe in it?" Brian wondered.

"Sure do," Sully answered. "Except, I didn't allow myself t' think it at the time. I'm glad you ain't afraid t' admit what ya feel. How long have ya known this Mary?"

"I met her yesterday," Brian replied.

"Yesterday?" Sully mused.

Brian confessed, "She's real special, Pa. She works at the school for deaf and blind children."

"That the girl Dorothy wrote about?" he recalled.

"Yea," Brian acknowledged. "She's smart and funny and...."

Sully interrupted, "Pretty?"

"Yep," he grinned.

"Maybe we oughta have her over for supper soon," Sully suggested.

"That sounds good," Brian agreed.

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

Colleen waited as Teresa stepped from behind the screen where she had put on her dress.

"Well?" Teresa anticipated.

Colleen hoped to allay her fears, "Well, it's nothing serious."

Teresa was curious, "But there is something wrong?"

"I certainly don't believe so," Colleen was vague.

Teresa grew impatient, "Dr. Cook, what is it?"

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

Colleen's smile broadened as she informed Teresa, "Mrs. Slicker, you're going to have a baby."

Teresa swallowed hard, "A baby? That is impossible."

Colleen's brow wrinkled, "Impossible?"

"Well...." Teresa hedged. "That is, I did not anticipate something like this. You are certain?"

"Yes," Colleen nodded. "We can calculate your due date if...."

Teresa sighed, "I.... I can't believe this."

"You don't seem happy," Colleen detected.

"I am not," she confessed.

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

After dinner, Michaela, Sully and Bridget bathed the children. The entire family gathered in the twins' room to inaugurate the new beds and tuck in the little ones. Their stuffed animals were nearby to help make the transition smoother. Then, they reminded Michaela that she had promised to tell them a story.

Sully held Hope and sat on Noah's bed, with Josef positioning himself beside his little brother. Michaela and Katie sat on Annie's bed.

Michaela began, "I believe you wanted to hear about a Christmas your father and I shared before you were born."

"Right," Katie smiled.

"Well, let me see," Michaela pondered. "I think the first Christmas after we fell in love was quite special. We were going to a party at the church. Matthew, Colleen, Ingrid and Brian were with us. Just as we arrived, Robert E told us a young couple was in need of medical attention at the Livery."

Josef interrupted, "Was the young couple huwt?"

"No," Michaela smiled. "She was going to have a baby."

Katie was amazed, "At the Livery?"

"Yes, amid the straw and animals," Michaela nodded. "It seems they had run off to get married against the wishes of their families, and they were hiding from their fathers."

Josef pointed out, "Ever'time I hide from Papa, he finds me."

Sully grinned, "Let that be a lesson, Joe."

"Don' hide?" the little boy assumed.

"Right," Sully winked.

Michaela resumed, "The fathers arrived in town with a sheriff, looking for their son and daughter. We hid them at the Livery because the parents were less likely to look there. One by one, first your father, then Matthew, Colleen and Brian came to the Livery to see what was happening."

"Did the Papas come, too?" Josef queried.

"Eventually, they did," Michaela replied. "But by that time, their grandson had been born. Their disapproval vanished when they saw that little boy."

Katie realized, "Just like Baby Jesus bein' born in a manger with the animals all around."

Michaela smiled, "It had been a very difficult delivery. Both they and I were exhausted, but your father put his arm around me and handed me a candle he had saved for me. We sang carols and had a splendid time watching the lighting of the town tree."

"That was a good story," Katie approved. "I bet you an' Poppy were happy."

"We were," Michaela agreed. "There's nothing more special than being with those whom you love at Christmas."

Josef pointed out, "But we wasn't there."

"There's one more thing that was special about that Christmas," Michaela recalled.

Annie spoke up, "What?"

Michaela stroked the little girl's arm, "I sensed the spirit of a very special person who reminded me of the blessings in my life."

Josef innocently guessed, "Your Papa?"

"No," Michaela cast a glance at Sully. "It was Charlotte Cooper."

Katie's eyes widened, "Matthew, Colleen an' Brian's Ma?"

"Yes," Michaela said. "Through the ordeal of delivering that baby, I felt her presence, encouraging me each step of the way and showing me that what I was doing as a doctor in Colorado Springs was important."

"Didn' ya know that, Mama?" Josef posed the question.

Michaela smiled, "Let's just say, I needed to be reminded."

Katie suggested, "Didn't Poppy remind you?"

Michaela glanced at Sully lovingly, "Always."

Sully spoke up, "I reckon we all need t' be told how important we are."

Michaela looked at the baby in his arms, "Hope's asleep, and I think it's time for the rest of you to go to bed, as well."

Brian appeared at the door, "How are the new beds?"

"Good," Annie patted it. "I sweep."

Josef eyed his big brother, "Bran, did ya know that Charlotte helped Mama deliver a baby?"

"I recall her telling me about it," he winked.

Michaela stood up, "Come, children. Let's let Annie and Noah try out their new beds."

Sully handed Hope to Michaela and guided the twins under their covers, "Say your prayers."

The children closed their eyes and raised their hands in prayer. When they were finished, the parents kissed them and lowered the lamp. As Sully escorted Josef to his room, Michaela turned to take Hope to her crib. She noticed Brian and Katie pausing in the hallway.

Brian whispered to Katie, "Could I speak to you for a minute?"

Michaela overheard, "Is something wrong?"

"No," Brian grinned sheepishly. "Christmas stuff."

"Oh," Michaela smiled and left them alone.

Brian escorted Katie into her room.

"What is it, Brian?" the little girl was curious.

"Dr. Kelly wanted me to tell you something," he broached the subject.

"Somethin' about Poppy's past?" she assumed.

"Yes," he nodded.

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

Teresa Slicker sat in the bathtub wiping the tears from her eyes.

"Teresa," Jake knocked on the door. "Maria wants t' say good night t' you."

"I will be right there," she attempted to compose herself.

Rising from the tub, she dried herself off and donned her robe.

"Mama," the child's dark eyes lit up when her mother appeared in her daughter's room.

"Good night, little one," Teresa leaned down to kiss her. "Sleep well."

Teresa lowered the lamp and exited the room.

Jake spoke softly when his wife reached the hallway, "You sure smell good."

"That is not unusual after a bath, Mr. Slicker," she replied coldly.

"Teresa, what's wrong?" he frowned. "You said Colleen told ya you're all right, but ya ain't actin' like it."

"I am all right," she fought to retain her composure. "But I am very tired. Good night."

With that, she turned to enter their bedroom. Jake remained in the hall, uncertain as to whether he would be welcome in the room with his wife.

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

Matthew poured over the legal brief he had prepared, searching for any potential loophole. Suddenly, Michael began to cry.

"Emma!" Matthew called. "Could ya keep the baby quiet? I'm tryin' t' work here."

She appeared in the doorway with the child, "I'm tryin' t' keep him quiet, but it isn't workin'."

Matthew looked up, "Is he teethin'?

"I think maybe he is," she nodded.

He offered, "Did ya try massagin' his gums like Ma showed ya?"

"Yes," frustration was in her reply. "And I gave him the medicine, too."

Matthew sighed, "I guess his cryin' should stop soon then."

Emma offered, "I'll take him in the front room. That should be far enough away from you."

Matthew stood, "I'm sorry I can't help right now."

"That's all right," she sounded less than sincere as she left him.

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

Hank dabbed his favorite cologne onto the sides of his face and stepped into the bedroom.

He spoke low, "I'm goin' int' town now, Lex."

She looked up from nursing the baby, "Do you have to?"

"Hell, yea," he checked his revolver. "It's Saturday night."

She swallowed hard, holding back her emotions, "And the Gold Nugget needs you."

"Right," he leaned closer to kiss her. "I'll be home late."

"Hank," she caressed his cheek, "Be careful."

"I will," he rubbed the baby's arm. "Take care o' this little girl."

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

Sully approached Michaela near the living room fireplace, where she rested in one of the wing back chairs.

He sat at her feet and leaned back, "Seems quiet upstairs."

Michaela began to massage his shoulders, "Except for Brian and Katie. They were deep in conversation. Something about Christmas."

"Hmm," he mused. "Wonder what it could be?"

She bent over to kiss the top of his head, "Something for their father, perhaps?"

"Or their Ma," he gazed up with adoring eyes.

Michaela melted at his expression, "The tree looks beautiful."

"It pales in comparison t' you," he grinned.

Her cheeks flushed, "Thank you, Mr. Sully."

He held up his hand and invited her to join him on the floor. She obliged. Enfolded in his arms, she warmed.

She observed, "You didn't give Brian his ornament."

"I forgot," he returned. "I'll do it in the mornin' before church."

Michaela sighed, "It was a perfect day. Don't you think?"

"Mm-hmm," he toyed with a lock of her hair. "You thirsty?"

"Thirsty?" she was surprised.

"Bridget made some eggnog," he kissed the lobe of her ear.

She tingled, "Does it contain liquor?"

He linked his fingers in hers, "Now, Dr. Quinn, do ya think I'd give you somethin' like that?"

"You might attempt to take advantage of me, Mr. Sully," she remained straight-faced.

He feigned surprise, "Take advantage of your honor? Never."

She turned to look into his eyes.

Then she softly caressed his cheek, "Eggnog sounds delightful."

"Be right back," he rose.

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

Brian concluded, "Katie, the package has things that Pa should see."

The little girl hesitated, "But...."

"But what?" he wondered.

She expressed her concern, "What if they upset him?"

"That might happen," Brian observed. "But on the other hand, maybe they'll help him make peace with his past."

"Did Dr. Kelly give you the package?" the little girl wondered.

"Yes," Brian nodded.

"Could I see what's in it before you give it t' Poppy?" she requested.

Brian left her for a few minutes to retrieve it. When he returned, he set it atop his sister's bed. Katie lifted each item in it and examined them.

She paused when she got to the brochure with a ship on the cover, "The Ajax?"

Brian assumed, "It must be the ship that brought Pa's family from England, the one he was born on. See? Here's the birth certificate."

Katie considered, "It would be better t' give this t' Poppy in the mornin'."

"Sure," he consented. "I'll keep it in a safe place. Okay?"

"Okay," she smiled. "Good night, Brian."

"'Night," he leaned down to kiss her.

Brian closed the door behind him. Katie rolled onto her side, considering what her grandmother's diary might say. Would it make Poppy happy or sad? Even though Brian said he has a right to know, the notion frightened her. She had hoped to bring her father part of his past, but now, she was not so sure if it was a good idea.

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

Sully rejoined his wife and handed her the cup of eggnog. Michaela took a sip. She could not discern any taste of alcohol.

She smiled, "I believe my honor is intact."

He kissed the remnant of the beverage above her lip, "Maybe."

She ran her fingers through his hair, "I wouldn't mind terribly if you did take advantage, you know."

He lifted the cup from her and set it on a nearby table. Smiling alluringly, Michaela felt her heart skip a beat.

Sully undid the top three buttons of her blouse and slid his hand beneath the material, "Like this?"

She caught her breath, "Yes, like this."

Sully continued his enticing movements as he kissed her neck.

"Sully," her voice was barely audible.

"Mmm?" he did not pause.

"I love you," she placed her hands on his shoulders and guided him closer.

"I love you, too," he kissed her more urgently.

At that moment, they heard a little voice at the bottom of the steps, "Mama."

Suddenly, they ceased their amorous advances. As Michaela quickly rebuttoned her blouse, Sully shielded her from view and spoke to their son, "No-bo, what are you doin' up?"

The child stepped closer, "Whachya do?"

Michaela was flustered, "We were just.... that is.... Papa and I...."

Sully drew the boy into his arms, "Your Ma an' me were just lookin' at the tree. Can't ya sleep?"

"Bed," he pointed up. "Hard."

Sully understood, "It's a new mattress, son. Ya gotta give it time."

"Big bed, Papa," he yawned.

Sully kissed his cheek, "Yep, ya got a big bed now. All yours. Want me t' take ya back upstairs?"

"Mama," he reached for his mother.

Michaela embraced him, "Papa's right, Sweetheart. You'll get used to the bed soon."

"I stay," he tilted his head against her shoulder. "No sweep."

Sully sighed, "I gotta talk t' him about his timin'."

Michaela cradled the boy in her arms and gently rocked back and forth, humming Noah's favorite lullaby. Sully's heart filled with love as he watched his wife tenderly minister to the child. That's the way she was, he thought. Always giving their children just the right word of encouragement and loving touch. That's the way she was with him, too. Salve to his soul.

Soon, Noah was asleep. Sully reached over to lift him.

"Be right back," he whispered.

Within minutes, Sully returned to Michaela's side, "Now, where were we?"

She kissed him sweetly, "Does this refresh your memory?"

"Mmm," he grinned. "Sure does."

"I have a question," she paused.

He raised an eyebrow, "You forget what comes next?"

She tapped his side playfully, "No, I was wondering where my Christmas ornament is. You told the children you'd give it to me later."

"Ah," he crawled to the ornament box and reached in to retrieve hers. Returning, he handed it to her.

Michaela's mouth opened in awe. He had intricately carved two eagles, side by side, in flight. At the base, he had placed their names.

Michaela commended, "Sully, they're magnificent."

"Thanks," he smiled.

She mused, "Do eagles mate for life?"

"Yep," he nodded. "Wouldn't have it any other way."

"Good," she caressed his cheek.

"So, where should we put it?" he queried.

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

Jake stepped into the Gold Nugget and approached the bar.

"Well, look who's here," Hank grinned. "Didn't expect t' see you here, Mr. Mayor."

"I come an' go as I please," Jake bragged.

Hank set a glass before him, "So, what'll it be?"

"Beer," Jake stated.

Loren approached, "I hear tell Teresa's been havin' some faintin' spells."

"Yea," Jake replied. "I took her t' the hospital t'day t' get it checked out."

Loren questioned, "What'd Dr. Mike say?"

"Colleen saw her," Jake took a sip of beer. "Said everythin's fine."

Hank challenged, "Everythin' ain't fine when a woman faints."

"How d' you know?" Jake frowned.

Hank smirked, "Sounds t' me like she's pregnant."

Jake's face went pale, "Pregnant?"

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

Jake asserted, "That's impossible. Teresa can't be pregnant."

Hank retorted, "Another immaculate conception?"

Loren frowned, "Don't be blasphemous." Then he turned to Jake, "You mean you an' Teresa ain't been t'gether?"

Jake swallowed hard, "We been t'gether, but.... I didn't think...."

Loren came back, "Didn't think ya had it in ya?"

Jake gulped his beer, "What if she is? Good grief."

"Do ya want another kid?" Hank posed the question.

Jake tilted his hat back, "Sure. Ya know, this could explain a lot."

Hank poured a second beer for him, "Looks like you could use another drink."

Jake moved the glass away, "No, I better not. I best get home."

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

Sully and Michaela placed their eagle ornament near the top of the Christmas tree. Then he enfolded her in his arms.

"What does the eagle symbolize?" she questioned.

He explained, "Lots of things. But the one I like best is that it protects folks."

She warmed in his embrace, "As you protect us."

"I try," his breath was warm against her skin.

"Do you suppose there's any eggnog left?" she wondered.

"I'll get it," he reached toward the table and held the cup to her mouth.

Michaela sipped. The inviting look in her eyes prompted Sully's heart to race.

He spoke low, "I was wonderin' .... maybe you an' me could...."

His pauses enticed her further.

Anticipating, she anxiously replied, "Yes."

"Here?" he gestured toward the floor in front of the hearth.

"Yes," Michaela knelt down.

Sully joined her, "I remember once when we kissed here by the fireplace."

"When I discovered the headboard of the bed you were making for us?" she smiled.

"Yep," he peered into her eyes lovingly. "For your weddin' gift."

She touched his cheek, "I don't know what might have happened if we hadn't stopped kissing."

"Yes, ya do," he grinned.

"Are you sorry we stopped?" she asked.

"'Course not," Sully guided her back. "I'm happy we waited, but I don't think I wanna stop t'night."

"Nor do I," she confessed. "You make me so happy, Sully."

"That's what ya said then, too," he recalled.

Michaela smiled, "And that's before we ever.... you know."

He ran his finger along her chin and spoke low:

"Does not all the blood within me
Leap to meet thee, leap to meet thee,
As the springs to meet the sunshine."

She ventured, "Was that Herrick?"

He identified, "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow."

Sully cupped her head in his hand and leaned her back toward the floorboards. Slowly, he lowered himself to her. Michaela ran her fingers through the hair at his temples.

He grinned as he brushed back a lock from her eyes, "Tell me again."

She smiled, "Tell you that I love you with my whole heart?"

"Uh-huh," he kissed the sides of her mouth.

She continued, "Tell you that I can't live without you?"

"Yep," he continued his kisses.

"Tell you that my heart is yours?" she smiled.

"That's what I told you back then, too," he noted.

"Byron Sully," she stopped.

He waited, longing in his eyes.

"I adore you," she brought her finger to his lips.

Sully parted them and toyed with her finger using his tongue.

Michaela moved her legs, ever so subtlety. Instantly, she felt his arousal. The thought excited her further.

"I adore you, too," he began to undo her buttons.

Michaela slid her hands down his muscular arms. Then she closed her eyes, transported by the sensations his kisses awakened. A soft moan escaped her lips when he touched a particularly sensitive area.

At that instant, a voice spoke from the bottom of the steps, "Mama."

Both parents jumped, "Annie!"

Sully attempted to calm his breathing while Michaela did up her blouse.

Annie toddled closer, "I hungy."

Sully swallowed hard as he embraced his daughter, "I bet ya need a glass of water, honey."

"Watah," Annie smiled. "Pwease."

Sully winked at his wife, "You wanna remind me why we had these kids?"

Michaela spoke low, "Simply look at your little girl's face."

Sully melted at Annie's smile, "Good answer."

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

Jake stepped into the darkened bedroom and fumbled to find the lamp.

"Mr. Slicker," Teresa's voice was stern. "Have you been drinking?"

"Just one beer at the Gold Nugget," he was truthful.

He heard her begin to softly cry.

"I stopped myself, Teresa," he assured. "I know I promised I wouldn't drink anymore, but.... well, ya been so different lately, it upset me."

"Your promises are empty," she wiped a tear from her eye.

"I wanna ask ya somethin'," he finally found the lamp and illuminated the room.

"What?" she turned away from him.

Jake sat beside her and touched her shoulder, "Look at me."

"No," she did not budge.

Jake was tender, "Please, look at me."

Teresa acquiesced and rolled over to eye him.

Jake swallowed hard, "Are we gonna have another baby?"

She wondered, "How did you.... who told you?"

"Hank did," he said.

"How could Hank know about this?" her brow wrinkled.

"He told me, from your symptoms, you must be pregnant," Jake felt his heart race. "God, Teresa, is it true? Are we gonna have a baby?"

"Si," she responded.

He grinned, "Ain't ya happy about it?"

"I am not sure," she turned away from him.

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

Sully and Michaela looked down on the twins, finally sleeping in their new beds. Sully clasped his wife's hand and led her to their bedroom. They paused to observe Hope in her crib.

Michaela kept her voice low, "I wonder how she'll do in the crib tonight."

"I reckon she'll be wakin' up soon," Sully leaned closer to lightly touch the baby's soft cheek. "Seems like our kids are plottin' t' spoil our romance t'night."

Michaela placed her hand on her husband's back, "Are you tired?"

He stood up and embraced her, "Ya mean do I wanna give it another try?"

She stepped to her dressing table and consumed some wild carrot seeds. Sully knew what that meant. His pulse surged at the beguiling look in her eyes.

Michaela returned to his side, "I'm willing if you are."

Sully had a twinkle in his eye, "I'm always willin'."

Michaela lifted up to kiss him.

"Turn around," he spoke with a rasp in his voice.

She did so. Gathering her hair, he draped it to the side and leaned down to kiss the nape of her neck. His tongue prompted Michaela's sensitive skin to tingle. Slowly, he turned her around to face him. Placing his hands on both sides of her face, he lightly kissed her eyelids, nose and chin.

Michaela instantly felt her senses soar. It was as if she were floating in her husband's arms. He unbuttoned her blouse and slid the material off her shoulders. His kisses trailed across her silky shoulders as she arched her head back to savor his touches. Next, he undid her skirt and lightly tugged on it until it fell to the floor. Michaela trembled slightly. Sully sensed it and embraced her.

Kissing her temple, he whispered, "I love you, Michaela."

She looked up into his piercing blue eyes, "As I love you."

Sully undid his shirt and lifted it over his head. Michaela lightly ran her hand across his muscular torso. Tilting her head forward, she kissed his chest. Sully put his arms around her and guided her closer. His hands caressed her. Soon her undergarments lay in a pile beside her skirt.


Lifting her, he gently set her atop the bed. He removed his shoes and buckskins, then positioned himself beside her.

Sully touched Michaela's thigh. His hand was warm and strong. It sent a wave of heat along her flesh. His mouth met hers. They began to lose themselves in the growing passion of their contact. As their ardor intensified, they shared all with the other. The totality of their union was powerful. Clinging to one another, neither wanted the sensations to end. But eventually, their bodies began to calm.

Sully embraced Michaela and tenderly held her until she fell asleep. Then he quietly rose from the bed and pulled on a pair of cotton drawers. He checked Hope. The baby had not wakened during the encounter between her parents. He smiled and caressed her dark hair.

Then Sully lifted the letter he had been writing. With one last loving look at his wife, he began to carefully compose the words he wished to say to his mother.

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

Josef knocked on his parents' door, "Time t' get up! Time for church."

Sully opened an eye and spoke to Michaela, "You hear somethin'?"

"I believe it was your son telling us to get up," she yawned.

"It's six a.m.," he sighed. "Church ain't until ten."

The knocking persisted.

Michaela attempted to focus, "He certainly seems anxious for us to get there."

She donned her robe and stepped to the door.

Opening it, she knelt down to the level of Josef's eyes, "Sweetheart, are you the only one up?"

"Uh-huh," Josef nodded. "But Papa's gotta give Bran his orneryment."

Bridget appeared at the door, "Sure, the lad is like t' raise the dead. I'll take him downstairs, Dr. Mike."

Michaela smiled, "Thank you, Bridget. We'll be down shortly."

Josef leaned closer to his mother and whispered, "Don' take too long."

She kept her voice down, "Yes, sir."

With that, she closed the door and went to Hope.

She commented to Sully, "This one seems to have adjusted to her new bed quite nicely."

"Speakin' of which," he sat up. "We better check on the twins."

Michaela noticed Sully's letter sitting on her vanity, "You wrote some more?"

"Yea," he stood up. "I left it there t' read when ya got a chance."

"When did you have the opportunity to work on it?" Michaela was curious.

Sully grinned, "After you fell asleep last night."

"Last night," her body tingled at the recollection. "It was quite memorable, Mr. Sully."

"Sure was," he drew her closer for a kiss.

"Mmm," she closed her eyes and relished his attention. Then she remembered, "Josef wants you to give Brian his ornament."

Sully nodded, "Okay. Let's get dressed."

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

Bridget inspected the children, "Josef, wash your hands again."

He protested, "I washed one."

"Both, boyoh," she rolled her eyes. "Annie, darlin', your ribbon needs fixin'."

As the nanny straightened the little girl's hair, Michaela and Sully descended the steps, dressed up for church.

Katie smiled, "You look pretty."

Michaela kissed the children, "And so do you, my darlings."

Josef tugged at his father's sleeve, "Orneryment, Papa."

"Right," Sully tapped Brian. "Come on. I have somethin' for you."

The family followed the duo as they entered the living room. Sully bent over the box and lifted the decoration for Brian.

The young man admired the carving, "It's real nice."

Josef struggled to see, "What aminal is it?"

Sully noted, "It's a deer."

Brian understood the significance, "I remember, Pa. Thanks."

Josef offered, "You can put it by mine, Bran. I'm the wolf."

"Very appropriate," Brian smiled.

"What's that mean?" Josef queried.

Brian defined, "It means that it is just right."

Josef noticed a new ornament near the top of the tree, "Hey, look there. What's that?"

"Two eagles, for your Ma an' me," Sully explained.

"Very appopate," Josef remarked.

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

Jake glanced across the breakfast table at his wife. Her silence was disturbing to him. He felt a lump in his throat. He had been trying hard not to drink, and he felt mostly successful. His relationship with Teresa had improved to the point that she had permitted him back in their bed. He sincerely wanted another child.

He cleared his throat, "So when's the baby due?"

Teresa did not look up, "June."

"That's good," he nodded.

"I suppose so," she was barely audible.

Jake studied her features. He began to fill with guilt over the years that he had spent drinking and leading his wife to no longer trust him.

He gestured toward their daughter, "Think we should tell Maria?"

The little girl looked up, "Tell me?"

Teresa replied, "You may tell her."

Jake smiled, "Honey, how'd ya like a little brother or sister?"

Maria's eyes widened, "For Cris'mas?"

Jake chuckled, "Well, it won't be for a while."

"I like it," Maria's brown eyes lit with excitement.

Teresa rose from the table, "If you will excuse me. I am going to lie down."

"Sure," Jake watched her leave the room.

"Mama sad?" Maria's brow wrinkled.

"No," Jake assured. "She's just tired."

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

The Sully family converged on their home after church service. They were joined by Colleen, Matthew, Emma and Michael.

Josef spoke up, "Papa, we gotta give orneryments t' ever'one."

Colleen was puzzled, "Orneryments?"

Michaela clarified, "Ornaments. Sully made one for each of you."

Colleen smiled, "Thanks, Pa."

"You're welcome," Sully grinned. "Come on in the livin' room."

Josef rushed ahead to the box, "Here they are!"

The rest of the family joined him to watch the gifts be presented.

Sully lifted one and handed it to Josef, "Give this one t' your sister."

Josef held it up, "It's a bear."

Colleen smiled, "It's beautiful. Thank you."

Sully noted its symbolism, "For the protector and healer."

Josef pointed to a branch on the tree, "Put it here, Colleen."

Sully lifted the next one, "This is for Matthew."

Josef identified, "Elk."

Matthew accepted it grinning, "Thanks."

"What's it mean?" Katie was curious.

Sully explained, "Strength an' freedom."

Josef nodded in approval, "That's a good one, Papa."

Matthew hung the ornament beside Colleen's.

Sully handed another to his son, "This is for Emma."

"Emma," Josef said. "It's a fox."

Sully described, "The fox is intelligent an' represents cleverness."

Matthew teased his wife, "She's clever, all right."

"Thank you, Sully," Emma smiled. "Josef, would you hang it on the tree for me?"

"Sure," the child obliged. Then he turned to Michael, "Papa's got one for you, too."

Sully handed the final ornament to his son, "Here ya go."

Josef admired, "It's a buffalo."

Sully turned and spoke directly to Michael, "The buffalo means everythin' t' your people, Me'o' stse. It's the source of survival an' power."

Matthew commented, "Thanks, Sully. It's beautiful. They're all beautiful."

Michaela placed her hand on her husband's arm, "He's been working on these for some time."

Sully conveyed his motivation, "I wanted t' give my family somethin' special for all the gifts they've given me."

Katie stepped toward her father, "Poppy, I have somethin' special t' give t' you, too."

He knelt down, "What is it, Kates?"

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

Michaela looked at Katie, "Sweetheart, don't you want to wait until Christmas to give your father his gift?"

Brian spoke up, "This gift is kind of unexpected, Ma. It's not his official gift from her."

Josef was puzzled, "We gotta give official gifts?"

Katie explained, "This gift really isn't from me. It's from.... your Mama."

Sully's brow wrinkled, "My Ma?"

Michaela was puzzled, "Katie, what are you talking about?"

The little girl looked to her brother, "Brian?"

"I'll go get it," he exited the room and headed for the steps.

Sully turned to his wife, uncertain. Her expression was one of bewilderment.

Matthew glanced at his wife, "I think we oughta keep the kids occupied."

Emma set Michael down on the floor. The baby began to crawl.

Josef smiled, "Look at him!"

"I do," Noah began to imitate.

As the children directed their attention to Michael, Sully spotted Brian descending the steps with a box in his hands. The young man paused at the office door. Katie approached him. Then Sully stepped forward, and Michaela followed. They entered Michaela's office.

Michaela inquired, "Brian, what's this all about?"

He looked at his little sister, "I'll let Katie explain."

Katie clasped her father's hand, "Poppy, I asked Dr. Kelly at the college if he could find out anythin' about your mother an' father. I told him what I knew.... about when ya were born an' how it was on a boat comin' t' America."

Sully swallowed hard, "Why, honey?"

The little girl revealed, "I know a lot about Mama's family. But I don't know anythin' about yours. I thought maybe you'd like t' know more, too."

Brian continued, "Dr. Kelly made some inquiries with a friend who has access to immigration records in New York. He sent this. It's been with the police all these years."

Sully eyed the package, "What's in it?"

Brian set it on Michaela's desk, "I think you should see for yourself." After setting the package down, Brian took Katie's hand, "We'll leave you alone now."

Sully ran his hand along the lid of the box as his heart raced.

"Sully?" Michaela watched him. "If you want me to leave, too...."

"No," he extended his hand to her. "Stay with me."

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

Lexie paced. Hank had not come home all evening. Finally, after dressing the baby warmly, she determined to head for town to look for him. As she turned toward the door, it opened, and Hank stepped in.

Lexie was half glad, half mad to see him.

"Where have you been?" she put her hands on her hips.

"I stayed at the Gold Nugget," he removed his coat.

"Why?" she felt her anger grow. "You could have at least sent word."

"I stayed in town other times without sendin' word," he took off his gun belt.

Lexie stated, "Hank, you have a family now. I worry about you."

"Lower your voice," he set his hat aside. "You'll wake Ilse."

Lexie countered, "She's a sound sleeper."

Frustrated at his insensitivity, Lexie pivoted, entered the bedroom and slammed the door.

Hank lifted a bottle of whiskey and poured, "You don't understand, Lex. Business is business."

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

Michaela observed in silence as Sully lifted the lid of the box containing his past. His hands trembled slightly. She reached out and touched his back for reassurance. He turned to look at her, his eyes reflecting his gratitude for her presence.

Peering into the box, Sully saw the letter from Dr. Kelly's friend. After reading it, he looked at the contents of the box, beholding first a diary. Lifting it, he opened the front cover. The first page read:

"January 1, 1845-." There was no ending date on the page.

Sully swallowed hard, uncertain about continuing, "It's the year she died."

"Are you all right?" Michaela's voice was soft.

"I don't know if I can do this," his jaw tightened.

Michaela sensed, "Sully, I know this is a lot to absorb. You don't have to do it now."

He confessed, "I never knew about the diary."

Michaela scanned the birth certificates, then spotted the brochure in the box, "The Ajax. The dates and schedules indicate this must have been the ship which brought your family to America, the one on which you were born."

He had not taken his eyes off the diary, "Maybe if I just read the first few pages...."

Michaela's heart ached for him, "It will certainly be difficult. Perhaps another time, after the holidays...."

"I been denyin' my feelin's for a long time," his shoulders slumped. "Maybe if I read it, I can understand what she was goin' through.... why she killed herself."

Michaela assured, "I'll be here if you need me, Sully."

He drew her closer and uttered softly, "I know."

There was a knock at the door and Brian's voice could be heard, "Dinner's ready. You okay in there?"

"We'll be right there," Michaela replied. "Sully?"

"You go on ahead," he nodded.

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

"Lexie," Hank rapped softly on the bedroom door.

There was no response.

"Come on, Lex," he spoke softly. "I ain't had any sleep all night."

Her voice spoke up from the bedroom, "There's a nice chair out there. Put it to use."

"Hmph," he shook his head. "Damned women."

With that, he donned his hat and coat, strapped on his gun belt and stormed out of the house.

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

With dinner finished and the family converging in the living room for checkers and other games, Michaela stole away to her office with a plate of supper for her husband.

She set the food before him, "I brought you something to eat."

He looked up, "Michaela, my Ma worked on the Underground Railroad."

"What?" she was amazed.

"I been readin' about some o' the runaway slaves she helped," he said. "She kept it hidden from me."

"That's incredible," she pulled up a chair beside him and sat.

He turned back to a page, "Listen t' this:

'How my heart goes out t' the pour child. She can't be more than ten years old, my Byron's age. Her name is Sarah, and her journey began in Philadelphia. From there, she was taken across the Delaware River to Camden, where she was given temporary shelter in a church on Spruce Street. She hid there until she could be taken t' Burlington City. Then it was northeast t' Bordentown and Princeton.

From Princeton, Sarah was guided t' New Brunswick. The Raritan River crossing is dangerous because it is patrolled by bounty hunters, slave-catchers, an' spies. Thank God we have spies of our own. One of 'em, who lives close t' the river, alerted her of the presence of a slave catcher. That enabled her t' take a secondary route to South Amboy, where the child could find safe passage to New York City. Tomorrow, Albert Morrow will transport her in his wagon t' Tarrytown.

I won't rest until the last remnants of this evil institution are gone. I am teaching Byron t' treat all people with dignity and respect. One day, I'll tell him about my actions, but it's too dangerous for him t' know now.'"

Michaela placed her hand on his, "Your mother was quite a woman."

"She sure was," he smiled.

Michaela remarked, "I recall Father had some Quaker friends who were quite active in the Underground Railroad. One of his acquaintances even hosted John Brown, the abolitionist, when he came to Boston. They tried to interest Father in helping to finance Brown's scheme to incite a revolution."

"Did he give 'em money?" Sully was curious.

"No," she shook her head. "How long was your mother involved with the Underground Railroad?"

Sully responded, "After Pa an' Perce died, we lost the farm an' moved t' New York City. Ma found work in a shoe factory. We lived in a ground floor tenement room. Apparently, Ma used the basement of the buildin' t' hide the slaves."

Michaela turned up the corner of her mouth, "Now I know where you get your strong sense of fighting for what's right."

He spoke softly, "I'm learnin' so much about her."

"Good," she stroked his hand.

Laughter from the other room interrupted their conversation.

"I reckon everyone's wonderin' why I'm in here," he suddenly realized.

"They know that you're reading your mother's diary," she informed him. "They understand."

He stood up and drew her into his arms, "Let's go on out with the children. I'll read more of this later."

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

When Hank entered the ranch, Lexie was waiting up for him.

"I don't wanna fight," he became defensive as he removed his coat.

"I don't either," she folded her arms. "But I would like to know where you were all day."

"At the Gold Nugget an' Sheriff's Office," he returned. "I been busy."

"Too busy for your family?" she accused.

Hank eyed her sternly, "Ain't no female alive can make me feel guilty, so don't even try."

She gestured toward the bedroom, "What about that little female in there? You remember? Your daughter?"

"I remember her," he unbuttoned his shirt.

Lexie felt herself stir at the sight of his physique, something she had not experienced in weeks.

Composing herself, she sighed, "I don't suppose it would do any good to talk about things."

Hank poured himself a glass of whiskey, "Why is it women always need t' 'talk' about things?"

She shrugged, "I guess I always assumed that communication was a good thing."

He accused, "That why you hid your true identity from me when we first met?"

She was stung by the remark, "Why would you bring that up now? That was a long time ago."

He pointed out, "Face it. Neither one of us has led an innocent life."

"I don't claim to have been a saint," Lexie looked down. "But I want to be the best mother I can for Ilse."

"You sayin' I don't wanna be a good Pa t' her?" he frowned.

"What do you consider being a good father, Hank?" she posed the question.

He replied, "Givin' my kid food an' a roof over her head."

"Material things," Lexie noted. "What about loving her.... taking time to be with her.... hearing her say her first word.... watching her first step?"

He defended, "Sure, I want that."

"Then you have to be with her at least some of the time," Lexie stated. "Are you afraid of something?"

"I ain't afraid of nothin'," he became defensive.

The thought occurred to her, "Is something going on at the Gold Nugget?"

"You know what goes on there," he took another drink. "Drinkin' an'....

"Whoring? Smoking opium?" she interjected.

"Business," he answered simply.

Lexie sighed, "I'm not the type to be a sweet little wife who sits back quietly watching while her husband helps unsuspecting miners and railroaders become addicted to opium, Hank."

He eyed her sternly, "My God. This is like havin' Michaela around tryin' t' preach t' me on her soapbox."

"Dr. Mike is right about the opium, and you know it," Lexie affirmed.

With that, she stood up. The light from the fireplace showed through her gown, revealing the silhouette of her form. Hank's heart skipped a beat at the sight. Lexie detected the longing in his eyes. Then, sighing, she went into the bedroom.

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

That evening, after tucking in the children, Michaela and Sully retired to their room. Settled in each other's arms, conversation turned to the diary sitting on his nightstand.

Sully stated, "This is an incredible feelin' Michaela."

"Tell me," she ran her hand along his chest.

"I buried all my thoughts about my Ma so deep, but I'm learnin' now that they've never left me," he pondered. "It's like a fog liftin'."

She cast a glance at the diary, "I think Katie is concerned it might bother you to learn more."

His brow wrinkled, "Ya do?"

"Just a feeling," she noted.

Sully sat up and drew on his buckskins, "I'll go talk t' her."

"It's late," Michaela pointed out.

He touched her hand, "Be right back."

Sully made his way down the hallway to his daughter's room and knocked softly.

Her voice beckoned, "Come in."

Sully entered the room.

The child assumed, "Did ya forget somethin', Poppy?"

"I sure did," he sat on the edge of her bed and gently kissed her forehead. "I forgot t' thank you."

"I didn't do anythin'," she was puzzled.

"Katherine Sully," he paused as he clasped her hand.

"Mama calls me that when I misbehave," Katie smiled.

Sully caressed her cheek, "You know it was my Ma's name."

"Uh-huh," she nodded.

Sully felt a lump in his throat, "You carry the name of a very special woman. I wanna thank you for carin' about me.... for thinkin' that I'd like t' know more about my mother."

"You're welcome," she replied softly.

He explained, "Readin' her diary is helpin' me learn a lot, Kates. It was real thoughtful of you t' ask Dr. Kelly for help. I love you, sweet girl."

Katie lifted up to embrace her father, "I love you, too, Poppy."

He settled her back and pulled up the cover for warmth, "'Night."

"Good night," Katie responded.

Sully closed the door and returned to Michaela's side.

She snuggled closer, "You had a nice talk with your daughter?"

"Yep," Sully reached to lower his lamp.

"She's a special little girl," Michaela felt a swell of pride.

He remarked, "You did real good at that."

She was curious, "At what?"

He lifted her chin for a kiss, "Gave me children who are special."

She smiled, "I believe you had something to do with it."

He joked, "They got their talents from their Ma."

"Don't be so modest, Mr. Sully," she ran her fingers through his hair. "Your ornaments are absolutely lovely. I appreciate the work you put into them."

He stopped her with a kiss, "I love you."

"And I you," she spooned herself against him.

Cocooned in her husband's arms, Michaela soon fell asleep. Sully quietly rose from the bed and lifted the diary. Determined to read a few more pages, he exited the bedroom and headed to his wife's office.

************
Chapter 7
************

Michaela awoke with a start. It was still dark, but Sully was not beside her. She drew on her robe and slippers, then went to look for him.

When she descended the staircase, she saw the light beneath her office door. Quietly, she opened it. There was Sully, asleep in her leather chair. The diary lay open across his chest. She crossed the room and lifted it. Setting it on her desk, she leaned over to kiss her husband.

Sully smiled as he woke up, "Am I dreamin'?"

She ran her finger along his lips, "If you are, I certainly hope it's about me."

He drew her onto his lap, "What are you doin' up?"

"I was about to ask you the same question," she put her arm around him.

Sully guided her chin close to his and kissed her again, "It's gonna be dawn soon."

"You fell asleep reading the diary," she noted.

"I guess so," he noticed it sitting on the desk. "I was readin' about the Underground Railroad."

Michaela was curious, "How much more did you read?"

"Several pages," he ascertained. Then he stroked her arm, "We should try t' get some sleep."

She smiled, "I rather like it here in your arms."

He raised an eyebrow, "You could be in my arms upstairs, too."

"True," she considered. Then she clasped his hand and bid him to stand, "Let's go back to bed."

He doused the lamp and followed, "You plannin' on goin' t' the hospital t'day?"

"No, I want to stay with you," she informed him.

He put his arm around her, "I'm okay, Michaela. I don't wanna keep ya from your work."

She changed the subject, "That reminds me, Colleen told me something interesting at dinner."

"What?" he wondered.

She kept her voice low, "Teresa Slicker is expecting a baby."

"That's good news," he was pleased.

"One would think," she hesitated. "But Colleen said that Teresa doesn't seem happy."

"I thought Jake an' her were gettin' along good now," he tilted his head.

As they reached their bedroom, Michaela removed her robe and climbed into bed, "Perhaps Teresa is overly emotional due to her condition."

Sully pulled her closer in the bed and lightly placed his hand on her belly, "We were real happy every time we found out about another baby."

Michaela warmed at his touch and placed her hand atop his, "Yes, we were. However, we see our children as an affirmation of our love, a blessing beyond measure. Not all couples view them that way."

Her words triggered a memory in him, "My Ma always called me her blessin'."

Michaela rolled over to face him, "I'm certain that you were."

His blue eyes saddened, "I didn't feel that way after she killed herself."

Michaela caressed his cheek, then tenderly kissed him, "Never doubt that you were loved, Sully. I know she loved you."

He wondered, "How can ya be so sure?"

"Because I'm a mother," she stroked his hand. "I truly believe that the more you learn about your mother, the stronger you will feel her love."

He fell silent.

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

Brian arose early and headed into Colorado Springs to work on an article about the town's Christmas festivities. There would be the decorating of the tree, the social at church and a Chateau gala that Preston was planning in order to boost business and entice further investments.

When Brian arrived at The Gazette office, Dorothy was already there.

"Morning, Miss Dorothy," Brian removed his coat.

"'Land's sake, you're up bright an' early," she remarked.

He chuckled, "When ya have five little brothers and sisters, it's hard to sleep late."

She smiled, "I don't know how Michaela an' Sully do it."

He nodded, "Bridget's the lifesaver. Anyway, I want to finish my article early and head home to help with the kids since they don't have school this week."

"Speakin' of school," she paused. "I heard somethin' interesting."

"What's that?" he was curious.

"Loren said that Teresa Slicker's gonna have a baby," she revealed.

"That's good news," his face lit up.

"I think I'll do a little feature on it," she removed the pencil from her behind her ear.

Brian queried, "Do you think you should talk with Miss Teresa first.... just to confirm it?"

"'Course, I will," she shook her head. "Loren's not exactly who a journalist should rely on."

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

Sully watched out the window as his children played in the snow below the front porch. They had built two forts, and a snowball battle had commenced. He had cautioned them to be careful but listened for any signs of upset. Their laughter indicated that all was well.

With diary in hand, he sat in one of the wing back chairs. Aromas of baking pies found their way from the kitchen, where Bridget was busily preparing supper.

Sully was contented, but he knew the hard part, reading his mother's last thoughts, was coming. There would be her rape and feelings of depression. Would he be able to cope with them? He immersed himself in her writings and did not hear his wife enter the room.

"The children should come in soon," she glanced out the window.

"They're fine," he looked up.

She noticed the diary in his hands, "I'm sorry I interrupted."

"That's okay," he assured.

"I'm going up to check on Hope," she said. "She's outgrowing her clothes faster than I can get larger ones out of storage."

"You need some help?" he offered.

"No, thank you," she touched his shoulder. "You go ahead and read."

She mounted the steps and entered her bedroom. There, Hope was alertly sitting up in her crib and babbling.

A broad grin crossed Michaela's lips, "Well, hello, my darling."

"Ba-BAH," the baby's face lit up at the sight of her mother.

Michaela lifted the little girl and kissed her cheek, "Was that Papa or Mama?"

"Ba!" Hope seemed enthralled with the tone of her own voice.

Michaela opened her armoire and knelt down.

Settling Hope beside her, she began to look through the baby clothes, "You're outgrowing things faster than your older brother and sisters, young lady. Mama's going to have to put you in a larger size."

Hope rolled onto her belly. Michaela laughed and rubbed the baby's back. The little girl righted herself again, and clinging to her mother, started to rise to her feet.

"Sully!" Michaela called out.

Frightened by the sudden outburst of her mother, Hope plopped down. Her lower lip curled under as she prepared to cry.

"I'm sorry, Sweetheart," Michaela enfolded her in her arms. "I was just calling Papa to watch you stand up."

Sully rushed into the room, "Michaela? What's wrong?"

"Ba," Hope reached up for her father.

He lifted the baby and kissed her.

Michaela informed him, "She was trying to stand. I wanted you to see."

Sully sat beside his wife and set Hope on the floor between them.

Holding the baby's fingers, he encouraged, "Can ya stand up, honey?"

Hope exerted all of her energy and soon made it to an upright position. Her legs were wobbly, but she stood for several seconds before collapsing to the floor.

Michaela reached for her daughter, "What a big girl. You'll be ready to walk soon."

Sully smiled, "Then she can keep up with the kids."

A tear formed in Michaela's eye, "Such a big girl."

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

Jake approached his wife as she lay in bed, "You feelin' okay?"

She replied coldly, "What are you doing home?"

"I closed up the shop," he returned. "Thought I'd spend the day with you an' Maria."

Her tone softened slightly, "I am tired."

Jake put his hand on hers, "Teresa, you sure you're okay? Maybe...."

"Fatigue goes with my condition," she interrupted.

He nodded, "I remember when you were expectin' Maria. Remember how happy we were?"

"Si, I remember," she acknowledged.

Jake wondered, "Why can't we be happy about this baby?"

She considered several moments before replying, "A lot has happened since then."

He sighed, "I know I ain't always been the best husband," he looked down. "But.... I want you t' be happy."

She agreed, "I would like to be happy, but...."

"But what?" he tilted his head.

She confessed, "But I know that every time that I have allowed myself to be happy in our marriage, you do something to upset that happiness."

"You mean my drinkin'," he assumed.

"Si," she choked back her tears. "It is a life of never being able to fully trust. I see how it affects little Maria, as well."

Jake stood and went to look out the window, "I can't change the past. I can only try t' do better here an' now, one day at a time. I don't expect ya t' feel sorry for me, but I didn't exactly have an ideal family life growin' up. I know how it feels t' not be able t' trust. It hurts like hell."

She posed the question, "If you know what it's like, why do you do the same thing to your own wife and child?"

"I don't know," he pivoted to face her. "Maybe.... I'm scared o' bein' hurt."

"I have not hurt you," she stated.

"Sure ya have," he folded his arms. "Think back. What about that campaign you helped organize t' have the town women withhold affection from their husbands?"

She recalled the effort to end prostitution in Colorado Springs.

"Well?" he waited for a response. "That hurt me."

Teresa sat up, "Does it make up for all of the drunken hours? Burning down our house? Breaking your child's arm? Being with.... that other woman?"

He tensed, "I said I was sorry for all them things."

"Saying one is sorry.... that is merely words," she began to put up her guard again.

"Look," he paused. "Why'd ya let me back in your bed if ya didn't want things t' work in our marriage again?"

She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, "I do want things to work."

He frowned, "Ya sure as hell got a strange way of showin' it."

Teresa confessed, "I do not know where to begin."

Jake's tone softened, "I reckon trustin' again is just like stayin' sober. Ya gotta do it one day at a time."

"Perhaps," she agreed.

"So," he extended his hand to her. "How about we start that first day t'day?"

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

Loren looked up from his ledger when he heard someone enter the store, "Brian! How are ya, lad?"

"Good," he smiled.

The older man raised an eyebrow, "Here t' do some Christmas shoppin?"

"Sort of," he nodded. "How long would it take to get one of those fancy frames from Denver?"

Loren rubbed his chin, "I could have it day after t'morrow. You wanna look at the catalog?"

"Yes, please," Brian nodded.

The door opened and a burst of cold air ruffled the curtains. Brian turned. It was Mary Conway.

"Hey, Miss Con.... I mean, Mary," he grinned.

"Brian," she smiled in return. "It's nice to see you."

"You, too," he acknowledged.

Loren noted the exchange, "You two met?"

"Yep," Brian did not take his eyes off the lovely young lady. "How is school?"

She explained, "The children have gone home to their families for the holidays. Things are very quiet."

"Did you find a custodian?" he wondered.

"Not yet," she replied.

Loren nudged Brian, "So, did ya find someone t' take t' the church social t'morrow night?"

Brian rolled his eyes, "Well.... I.... uh...."

Loren continued, "What about you, Mary?"

"The Reverend mentioned the social," she nodded. "But.... I.... uh...."

Loren interjected, "Seems you two got a lot in common, what with the way ya hem an' haw. Why don't ya go t'gether?"

Brian got the message, "I.... I'd be honored to escort you, Mary."

Her cheeks flushed, "Thank you, Brian. I'd love to go with you."

Loren grinned, "Ah, youth. They catch on so quick."

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

Sully read his mother's words:

"March 10, 1845. I saw Albert Morrow earlier today. He told me to expect a parcel this evening. I prepared the room with food and water. The runaway arrived after Byron had gone to bed. She was cold and shivering, having fallen out of the boat on the river crossing. She nearly drowned. I fear she will become sick."

Sully heard one of the children cry and set the diary aside. Rushing out into the cold air, he spotted Annie on the ground. Her lip was bleeding.

Lifting the little girl, he rushed into the house, calling over his shoulder, "Katie, bring the kids inside now."

Michaela had heard the cries of her daughter and hurried down the steps with Hope in tow. Bridget took the baby while Michaela examined Annie.

Katie, Josef and Noah entered the house and gathered around their crying sister.

Michaela applied pressure to the bleeding, and it began to ebb, "Would one of you children like to tell us what happened?"

Josef spoke up, "I would, but ya might not believe me, Mama."

"Of course, I'll believe you," Michaela was surprised.

Josef detailed, "Annie fell off the top step an' rolled down the other steps an' hit Wolf, an' he jumped up an' scared her an' made her run int' the railin'."

Sully tickled Annie's belly, "Sounds like ya oughta get a prize, honey."

"Pie?" Annie's eyes brightened.

Bridget sighed, "That child has a sweet tooth."

"All right," Michaela looked at her children. "Let's get you out of these clothes and into a tub. Sully, could you...."

"Bring in the tub," he completed her thought. "Yes, Ma'am."

Michaela's shoulders slumped, "Am I being too assertive?"

He kissed his wife's cheek, "Not for me."

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

Jake heard a knock at he door.

When he opened it, he was surprised, "Dorothy?"

"Hello, Jake," she smiled. "I've come t' see Teresa."

"She ain't feelin' well," he mentioned.

"Oh?" her brow wrinkled. "I'm sorry t' hear that. Is there anythin' I can do?"

He lowered his voice, "Maybe you could talk t' her."

"About what?" she was puzzled.

He explained, "Women things."

"I'd be happy t' speak with her," she smiled.

"This way," he gestured.

Jake led Dorothy to the bedroom door, "Teresa, Dorothy's here t' see ya."

"I do not wish to be rude," her voice replied. "But I do not feel up to visitors."

Dorothy tried, "I won't stay long, Teresa."

The bedroom door slowly opened. There were tears beneath Teresa's eyes.

Dorothy turned to Jake, "Why don't you go fix us some tea?"

"Sure," he left them.

Dorothy put her arm around Teresa, "Now, let's go sit down."

When Teresa sat on her bed, her tears began to flow more freely. Lowering her head into her hands, she wept uncontrollably.

Dorothy spoke not a word but gently stroked the woman's back in the hopes of comforting her.

Finally, Teresa began to compose herself, "I am sorry."

"No need t' apologize," she offered. "I know how you feel."

Teresa looked up quizzically, "How could you possibly know how I feel?"

Dorothy revealed, "My husband Marcus drank, too."

"That is not all," Teresa felt another wave of emotions.

"You're pregnant," Dorothy acknowledged.

"Si," Teresa looked at her with reddened eyes.

"I do know how ya feel," Dorothy assured. "Lost, helpless, wantin' your baby, but not wantin' it."

Teresa was surprised, "You did not want your baby?"

Dorothy explained, "Marcus beat me, an' he beat my children. I didn't wanna bring another child int' that life. You're luckier, though. I lost two babies on account o' my husband."

Teresa eyed her sympathetically, "I am sorry."

Dorothy sighed, "It's all in the past now. But you got a new baby t' look forward to."

"I do not look forward," Teresa confessed.

"Feelin' kinda helpless?" she questioned.

"Si," Teresa acknowledged. "I do not know what to do."

Dorothy assured, "This baby needs you. Little Maria needs you, too. And whether or not you admit it, you need them."

"My daughter gives me great joy," a slight smile crossed her lips.

"So will this new baby," Dorothy added. "And it will be a joy to Jake, as well."

Teresa fell silent.

Dorothy was blunt, "Do you love him, Teresa?"

She tensed, "That is none of your concern."

"Yes, it is," Dorothy countered. "You're my friend. Ya both are. I know there is a soft and lovin' side t' Jake, but it's not always easy for him t' show it."

"How do you know this?" her brow wrinkled.

Dorothy informed her, "There was a time when Jake an' I.... well, we sort of courted."

"You and Jacob?" she was surprised.

************
Chapter 8
************

Dorothy informed Teresa, "Jake an' I courted until my surgery."

"Your surgery?" she was taken aback.

"I had to have a breast removed," Dorothy's eyes saddened at the memory. "I wasn't very desirable t' him after that."

"I am sorry," Teresa sympathized.

"Cloud Dancin' doesn't think it makes me less of a woman," Dorothy noted. "'Course, he don't know about it either."

They both chuckled.

Dorothy patted her hand, "That's better. Things could always be worse, Teresa. Keep tellin' yourself that this baby's gonna bring a lot o' joy t' your family."

"I shall try," Teresa expressed.

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

Brian arrived home just in time to help dry off the children from their baths. Annie insisted on showing him her injured lip. Josef recounted the story of how it happened. Then Colleen arrived and the stories began anew. After dinner, the children were exhausted from their day and were tucked into bed without protest. Bridget decided to retire early, as well.

In the living room, Colleen and Brian settled into a game of chess. Sully and Michaela sat in the wing back chairs, warming themselves near the fire.

Brian told his sister, "I asked Mary Conway to the church social tomorrow night."

Michaela overheard, "Mary Conway?"

Brian's cheeks flushed, "Uh-huh. Are you an' Pa going?"

Michaela cast a glance at Sully, "I haven't been asked yet."

Sully winked at her.

Colleen offered, "I'll watch the children if you want to go. That way, Bridget can go with Loren, too."

Michaela smiled at her daughter, "That's very thoughtful of you, Colleen."

"Lewis invited me," Colleen paused. "But I think I'd rather avoid gatherings like that."

Michaela grew concerned, "You're still thinking of Andrew?"

Colleen admitted, "I had a letter from him. He's lonely."

Michaela suggested, "Why don't you wire him, and see if he'd like to join us for Christmas?"

"You wouldn't mind?" Colleen questioned.

"Of course not," Michaela smiled.

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

Hank entered the ranch. All was quiet. He removed his coat and set the gifts he had purchased on the table.

Lexie came out of the bedroom, "I thought I heard you. You're home early."

"Brought ya somethin'," he pointed to the table.

"What's this?" she was puzzled.

"Open an' see for yourself," Hank invited.

She lifted the largest gift and removed the wrapping, "Chocolates?"

"Yep," he smiled broadly.

Lexie opened the other package as well, "My favorite perfume."

"I figured you could use a little cheerin' up," Hank rubbed his upper lip.

She stepped forward to embrace him, "Thank you."

He kissed her passionately, "You're welcome."

Lexie stirred at the proximity and scent of him. She lifted up and kissed him again. Their breathing began to quicken.

Hank pulled back, "You sure you're ready?"

Lexie framed his face in her hands, "I've been thinking about us."

He lifted her and carried her into the bedroom. Their movements were quick and heated. When they began to consummate their longings, Lexie experienced discomfort. She hoped it would pass. It did not.

"Hank," she placed her hands against his chest. "We have to stop."

He was breathless, "Stop?"

"It hurts," she nodded. "You're hurting me."

He felt as if he would explode, but he rolled off of his wife.

"I'm sorry," she touched him.

Swiftly, he grabbed his clothes and headed out the door.

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

Michaela looked up from her medical journal and cast a glance at Sully, who was next to her in bed reading his mother's diary. He seemed lost in its contents.

She kissed his cheek, "I'm rather tired. I think I'll go to sleep."

"Okay," he caressed the line of her jaw. "'Night."

"I love you," she kissed him again.

"I love you, too," he returned to his reading.

He tried to visualize his mother's descriptions:

"May 15, 1845. A slave catcher came to the apartment last night. He said he was on the trail of a runaway. I informed him that I was a widow with a small son and had no room to harbor runaway slaves. He spoke to the other tenants upstairs. Then he headed for the basement. Thank God, I had covered any remnants of my last passenger, but the catcher's dog persisted in barking. Byron petted the animal and gave him a soup bone. The dog wagged his tail and stopped its barking. My son has a way with animals."

Sully looked up, suddenly remembering the encounter with the dog. He recalled thinking at the time that the man was a policeman looking for an escaped prisoner. He resumed his reading.

"May 16, 1845. I told Albert about the incident with the slave catcher. He said I had to stop being a station master for a time. I want to continue to help, but I'll do what he says."

Sully yawned and felt the warmth of his wife's body next to him. He set the diary on the table and lowered the lamp. Sliding lower, he drew Michaela near. She instinctively spooned herself next to him.

His thoughts turned to the close call his mother had experienced with the slave catcher. What if she had been caught? He swallowed hard, knowing what was coming in her life. It was a book whose ending he knew. He had relived it every day of his life since then. What if Michaela was right? Maybe it would be too difficult to read. With these anguished thoughts swirling in his mind, he fell asleep.

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

"Byron," Katherine Sully knelt before her son. "I want you to hide under the bed."

"But why, Ma?" he protested.

"Someone's coming, and I don't want him to see you," she explained.

There was a knock at the door, and Byron scampered under the bed in obedience of his mother. He closed his eyes and was very quiet.

He heard the man's deep voice, "Katie, I'm bringin' a parcel t'morrow night."

Byron discerned his mother's reply, "Albert, I've been hearing some disturbing things."

"What kinda things?" he questioned.

Byron wondered why his mother was silent. He tried to steady his breathing so that he would not make a sound.

Katherine kept her voice low, "We'll discuss it when the parcel is delivered."

"I gotta go," the voice replied.

Byron heard the door close. Quickly, he slid from beneath the bed and rushed to his mother's side. She was crying.

"What's wrong, Ma?" he clasped her hand.

"Nothing, darling," she embraced him.

"Tell me," he insisted. "Why are ya cryin'?"

She wiped the tears from her eyes, "There's something I have to do."

"I'll help ya," Byron offered.

"No," she affirmed. "This is something I must do alone."

She walked away from her son.

"Ma!" Sully bolted up in bed.

Michaela heard her husband, "Sully? What's wrong?"

He was breathing fast, and his body was steeped in perspiration.

Michaela raised the lamp and noticed his appearance, "Sully, tell me what's the matter."

He rose from the bed and went to the basin, "I'm all right. You go back t' sleep."

She went to his side, "You're not all right."

She dampened a cloth and tenderly wiped it across his face to cool him.

"I had a dream about my Ma," he began to calm.

"Her death?" she wondered.

Sully swallowed hard, "No, it was somethin' I remembered.... a man who came t' see her."

Michaela caressed his cheek, "This wasn't something you read?"

"No," he held her hand to his heart. "It was somethin' I remember.... as a little boy."

Her brow creased, "It frightened you."

He took a deep breath, "I'm okay now." Sully stepped away from her and placed his hand on Hope's crib railing, "Hard t' believe she stood up. Huh?"

"Yes," Michaela smiled slightly.

Reaching down to softly stroke his daughter's back, Sully felt a lump in his throat, "I wanna protect our kids, Michaela. Protect 'em from ever bein' scared an' alone. When Katie was kidnapped, I...."

He stopped, and Michaela slid her arm around his waist, "That was a long time ago, Sully. She's fine. She's safe. We're all safe."

He embraced her firmly and kissed the top of her head, "I'm sorry I woke ya up."

"That's all right," she peered into his eyes.

Her loving gaze nearly took his breath away, "You're so beautiful."

She lifted up slightly to kiss him, "Let's go back to bed."

Linking her fingers in his, she guided him back to their bed. They held each other close, and for a while, neither spoke.

Michaela thought he had fallen back to sleep when she heard him whisper, "Promise me somethin'."

"Anything," she returned.

"Promise me if anythin' ever happens t' me, you'll make sure our kids know that I loved 'em," he requested.

Michaela lifted up, concern in her eyes, "Sully, nothing's going to happen to you."

"It nearly has more than once," he reminded. "I want the kids t' never question or doubt what they mean t' me."

She lightly stroked his face, "They already know that."

He shook his head, "They're too young."

"Sully, we don't have the same difficult circumstances that your mother had in trying to raise a child," she explained. "Our children have both of their parents and a secure home. They know how much we love them."

He lightly ran his fingers down her arm, "I guess it's just my fears an' insecurities talkin'."

"I'm glad I can be the one to reassure you, for a change," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

He smiled, "I love when ya do that."

"Reassure you?" she raised an eyebrow.

He caressed the edge of her lips, "When ya look at me that way, it makes me feel like we're the only two people in the world."

"There are times, like this, when we are the only two," she contemplated. "But then we'll hear a little voice beckon."

"An' one of us goes t'....." he stopped.

"Sully?" she wondered why he stopped.

He slid from her arms and stood up. Pulling on his buckskins, he headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" she sat up.

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

Hank sat at a corner table in the Gold Nugget. He leaned back in his chair, eying the customers through the smoke-filled din.

"They all look satisfied," he said to himself.

May approached him, "I thought you went home."

"I changed my mind," he took a sip of whiskey.

She sat beside him, "Married life not as happy as you thought it would be?"

Hank shrugged, "I never thought about it one way or another."

"Then why did you do it?" she posed the question.

He returned, "There was a kid on the way."

"Oh," she nodded.

"Why ain't you upstairs?" he wondered.

May replied, "I needed some fresh air."

He scoffed, "This ain't exactly where you'll find that."

"It's fresher than my room," she noted.

He leaned forward on his elbows, "You sure have improved business here."

"I offer a service that's irresistible," she noted wryly.

He frowned, "Yea, opium's like that."

"You have said yourself, 'business is business,'" she reminded.

"Finally, a woman who understands," he retorted.

May eyed him flirtatiously, "Oh, I understand many things."

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

Michaela caught up with Sully in the twins' room. She watched him pull up the blankets to ensure that the children were warm.

When he stepped to the door, she questioned, "Why did you suddenly leave?"

"I thought I heard Annie," he put his arm around her.

They returned to their room. Michaela watched him as he climbed back into bed. He turned his head and looked at her invitingly.

"Michaela," he extended his hand.

She removed her robe and joined him. He enfolded her in his arms and tenderly kissed her.

She caressed the hair around his ear, "Sully, this is breaking your heart. I hate to see it upset you."

"I thought that myself, Michaela," he confessed. "But I gotta keep readin'. I owe it t' my Ma."

She conceded, "Very well."

He stroked her arm, "I'm a lucky man t' have you."

She smiled, "I'm the lucky one."


His incredibly blue eyes reached into her soul. He kissed her again. Her lips parted, inviting deeper contact. His hands began to work magic across her body, arousing every pore.

"Sully," she uttered his name with love.

Her voice touched the very core of him. He kissed her chin, neck and breasts. Michaela's pulse raced, unable and unwilling to stop what was happening between them.

Sully beckoned, "I need you so much."

"I'm here," she trembled in anticipation. "And I'll always need you."

He buried his kisses in her shoulder, up her neck to the lobe of her ear. She kissed his chest as he supported himself above her. Then, moaning softly, she felt his need for her growing. Michaela wrapped her arms around his waist.

Unable to hold back his passion, Sully searched her eyes to assure that she was ready. They shone with desire.

"God, I love you," he whispered.

"As I love you," she repositioned her hips.

Michaela's smile indicated she was well aware of the powerful impact she was having on him. When they came together, their souls mingled and spiraled upward toward a magnificent light.

In the midst of their union, there ceased to be an outside world.... only these two soul mates who had forever pledged themselves to one another. As Michaela stroked his hair, Sully continued to drive them toward a wondrous conclusion. When they reached it, their bodies trembled from its magnitude. Gradually, they calmed, affirmed in their love and devotion to one another.

Sully plied tender kisses to her, then recited:

"Love is the emblem of eternity.
It confounds all notion of time,
Effaces all memory of a beginning,
All fear of an end."

Michaela ventured, "Was that Emerson?"

"Madame de Stael," he identified. He swallowed hard, "Thank you, Michaela."

"For guessing the poet?" she teased.

He clarified, "For this moment. For lovin' me."

"Sully, you're always on my mind and in my heart," she told him. "When we're together like this, it's as if our souls are one."

"We are one," he nodded.

She stroked the side of his face, discerning the fatigue in his eyes, "You need to sleep."

He grinned, "I am kinda tired. You take a lot outa me."

She playfully tapped his side, "How would you like to go Christmas shopping with me in Denver tomorrow morning?"

"I'd love to," he smiled. "Oh, an' I was wonderin' if you could do somethin' for me."

"What?" she was curious.

He took her hand and kissed it, "Would you do me the honor of goin' t' the Christmas social with me?"

"And here I thought I'd have to go alone," she mused.

Sully became serious, "I'll never let you an' our kids be alone again, Michaela."

She lay her head on his shoulder, "I know."

************
Chapter 9
************

On route to Denver, Michaela poured over a medical journal while Sully resumed reading his mother's diary.

He absorbed her words:

"May 25, 1845. I received word that the slave catcher returned to Maryland. I resumed providing a safe haven for the runaway slaves. The one who came tonight is a beautiful girl, a house slave from North Carolina. Her name is Dinah. She told me a very disturbing story. She said that one of our conductors forced himself on her. The poor girl is too frightened to go on. She described the man to me. It made my blood run cold."

He looked up, suddenly chilled by the revelation.

"Sully?" Michaela touched his arm. "We're in Denver."

"Um?" he looked up.

"Are you all right?" she queried.

"Fine," he assured.

She smiled, "Our shopping awaits."

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

Hank entered the ranch. Lexie was up and fixing breakfast. The aroma of bacon sizzling in the skillet filled the room. The table was set for two people.

Hank joked, "You expectin' someone?"

"You," she did not look up.

He went to her, "You okay?"

She finally glanced at him, "I'm sorry about last night. I guess I thought my body was healed more than it was."

"I guess ya figured why I had t' get out," he removed his gun belt.

Lexie nodded, "You were pretty uncomfortable."

"The cold air helped," he retorted, then stepped toward the bedroom. "How's Ilse?"

"Sleeping," she replied.

Hank quietly entered the bedroom and leaned over to look at his infant daughter in her crib. He placed his index finger into the palm of her hand, and her tiny fingers curled around it. He smiled.

Sighing, he removed his shirt and washed his face. Donning a clean top, he returned to the kitchen area. Lexie had already sat down to eat.

He sat opposite her. There was silence for a long while.

Then Lexie finally broke it, "So, how was business at the Gold Nugget?"

"Busy," he replied. "Lota men don't like the time leadin' up t' Christmas. They're lonely, an' they don't wanna be reminded o' when they were kids."

The thought occurred to her, "Would you like a tree?"

"Tree?" he was puzzled.

Lexie clarified, "A Christmas tree. For Ilse's first Christmas."

"If you want one, I'll go cut it down," he nodded. "I was thinkin' maybe you'd like t' go t' the church social t'night. Ya been cooped up here for a long time."

She rubbed her belly, "I don't know if I can fit into anything nice."

He smiled, "I'll get ya somethin'."

"Hank," she paused. "Can we afford it?"

"Sure," he avoided looking at her. "Like I said. Things have been busy at the Gold Nugget. I'll pick out somethin' special for ya at Loren's. We'll take Ilse with us t'night. "Other folks bring babies t' socials."

She smiled, "I'd love to go."

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

Lewis approached Colleen in her hospital office and knocked on the frame of the open door.

She looked up from her medical book, "Lewis, good morning."

"Hello," he smiled. "I was wondering if you could give me your opinion on something."

"Sure," she sat up straighter. "Something medical?"

"No," he sat opposite her. "It's about.... a friend."

"What about your friend?" she wondered.

Lewis took a deep breath, "Well, I have this friend who seems terribly unhappy. She...."

"She?" Colleen grew suspicious.

"Uh," he hesitated. "Yes, her name is.... Marian."

"Marian," she nodded. "Go on."

"Marian just lost her husband.... Robert," he explained. "He ran off, you see, and Marian is terribly miserable about it. She has thrown herself into her work."

Colleen smiled slightly, "What sort of work does Marian do?"

"She... uh, she has a hat shop," he answered.

Colleen raised an eyebrow, "Here in Colorado Springs?"

"No," Lewis quickly interjected. "It's in.... Manitou."

"Oh," she continued to smile.

His brow wrinkled, "You don't seem very sympathetic to her situation. I thought that because you've been through a similar experience, you might be able to offer some suggestions about how she can get past her feelings of sadness."

Colleen rose from the desk and went to the window, "I suppose the only way to get through sadness is to let time pass. I.... Marian should remain open to possibilities of friendships with other people. Does she have family?"

"Yes, lots," he stood and went to her.

She pivoted and peered into his blue eyes. Suddenly, Colleen became aware of something she had never imagined she could feel toward Lewis. She was attracted to him. It was there, palpable. It made her feel guilty.

Lewis perceived something different about Colleen. A drop in her usual reserve around him. The way she looked at him.... was he imagining it, or was there an attraction?

Colleen cleared her throat, "I.... I should check on my patients.... if you have no more questions about your.... friend."

Lewis did not want the moment to end. Dare he say more?

"Colleen?" his eyes implored. "I...."

"Yes?" she anticipated.

"I'm very fond of you," he spoke what had long been on his mind.

"I'm fond of you, too," she replied. "Ever since we were children, I...."

He interrupted, "No, not the fondness of childhood friends. I mean, I truly feel.... something between us. Please don't think me forward. I mean no disrespect. But.... I think you feel it, too."

She folded her arms, "I'm not sure what I feel."

He backed off, "I understand. You have many other things on your mind. I'll leave you now."

"Lewis," she touched his arm. "I don't think I'm ready to feel anything just yet. Can you understand?"

"Sure," he forced a smile. "I shouldn't have bothered you."

"No," she countered. "You didn't bother me. You're a dear, sweet man, and I.... if things were different, I'd...."

Suddenly, she burst into tears. Lewis instinctively drew her into his arms and stroked her back.

"Oh, Colleen," he comforted. "I'm sorry."

After several minutes, she began to compose herself. Lewis offered her a handkerchief. She wiped the moisture beneath her reddened eyes.

"Better?" he queried.

She nodded in the affirmative. Lewis again peered into her eyes. This time, Colleen found it impossible to resist him. Slowly, they leaned toward one another until their lips met. It was a sweet kiss. That of old friends?

Lewis drew back, "I hope.... that is.... I didn't mean to...."

"Thank you," she interrupted.

"For what?" he was puzzled.

"For caring," she returned.

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

Hank rubbed his chin as he eyed the merchandise in Loren's selection of dresses.

Loren chided, "I don't think these are the kinda dress your girls would...."

"It ain't for my whores," Hank interjected. "It's for my wife."

An elderly lady overheard the gruff remark, "Well.... I never!"

Hank smirked, "Maybe that's your problem."

Loren frowned at him, "Don't go talkin' t' my customers that way." Turning to the woman, Loren smiled with all the charm he could muster, "Now, Widow Whitney, pay him no attention. Could I help you with your order?"

Hank reminded, "You were helpin' me."

Loren lowered his voice to Hank, "When you see somethin' ya like, let me know. Meanwhile, don't go insultin' the other customers."

Hank found a dress he thought Lexie would like.

When he looked at the price tag, he shouted, "Why don't ya just put a gun in folks' backs an' rob 'em?"

Loren put his hands on his hips, "Why don't ya go t' Denver t' shop?"

Hank countered, "I don't have time."

"An' I don't have time for...." Loren was cut off.

The Sheriff whispered, "You think I could buy this one an' pay ya later?"

"Put it on your account?" Loren hedged. "I don't know, Hank. You ain't paid me what ya owe already...."

Hank urged, "It's Christmas."

Loren turned up the corner of his mouth as he contemplated, "Aw, all right. But I want my money after the first of the year."

"You'll get it," Hank promised.

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

Josef continued to look out the window of the homestead.

Bridget went to him, "Your folks aren't due back for a while, boy-oh."

He sighed, "I miss 'em."

She drew him into an embrace, "How 'bout ya play a game with the twins? That always cheers ya up.?"

He pivoted and noticed his siblings sitting near the tree, "I don' know, Miss Bwidget. I don' think I'm in the mood."

She contained her amusement, "Now, now. What's got ya so outa sorts?"

He put his hands in his pockets, "I wanna go t' the social with Mama an' Papa t'night."

She nodded, "I see. Ya like singin' an' dancin', do ya?"

"Uh-huh," his eyes widened. "An' I wanna see the town twree."

The nanny suggested, "Why don't ya talk t' your folks when they get home, then? Maybe they'll take ya?"

"Ya think so?" his face brightened.

She touched his chin, "I know they'd do anythin' t' make you children happy."

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

Hank entered the ranch with a package under his arm, "Lex, I got somethin' for ya."

She entered from the bedroom, cradling the baby in her arms, "What?"

"Open it," he removed his hat and reached out to hold his daughter.

Lexie undid the ribbon on top and removed the wrapping paper. When she lifted the lid, her countenance changed.

"Hank!" she marveled at the dress. "It's beautiful."

"Go try it on," he recommended.

She held up the scoop-neck navy blue silk gown, "I'll have to wear a corset under it."

"So?" he was puzzled.

She lifted up to kiss him, "So, I'll go try it on."

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

Sully slowed the wagon as they approached the homestead, "I'll pull up t' the barn an' unload the gifts. We best hide them out here."

Michaela agreed, "That's a good idea. Little hands might just be tempted to explore packages in the house."

He gestured toward their home, "Look, Michaela."

Katie and Josef were peeking out of the living room window.

Sully sighed, "I reckon they've seen the gifts now."

"Perhaps we can tell them it's for...." she was stuck.

"For the animals?" he joked.

"Or we could tell them the Reverend asked us to hide some gifts for the children at his school," she suggested.

"True," Sully smiled. "Or we could change the subject."

"I'd prefer that," she confessed. "I'll go on inside," she held his shoulders as he helped her from the wagon.

Sully set to work taking the parcels into the barn. He marveled at the number of gifts Michaela had purchased, but then with eight children, a grandchild, friends and neighbors, she felt obliged to be generous.

When he finished, he sat down, "Michaela's the most generous woman I ever...." He stopped when he spotted his mother's diary atop his coat. "Ma was generous, too. She risked her life t' help others." Opening the journal, he began to read.

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

"Mama," Josef took her hand the moment she entered the house. "Can I go with ya t' the social?"

"May I go," she corrected.

"You're already goin'," the little boy returned.

Michaela removed her coat, as the other children gathered around her.

Katie spoke up, "Were the decorations in Denver pretty, Mama?"

"They were lovely," she smiled.

Josef was direct, "Is Papa hidin' our gifts in the barn?"

"Joey!" Katie scolded.

Michaela stroked her son's hair, "Now, about your going to the social tonight...."

"Could I?" he implored. "I never been t' one."

"You were once," she smiled. "But you were only a few weeks old."

"I don' even 'member," he scratched his head. "I gotta 'fresh my memory."

Michaela informed him, "Colleen is coming over. She wants to spend the evening with you children."

Josef considered, "She's not goin'?"

"No," Michaela said.

Josef turned to the nanny, "You goin', Miss Bwidget?"

"Aye," she wiped her hands on her apron. "I'm goin' with Mr. Bray."

"Then I gotta go!" Josef declared.

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

Michaela entered her bedroom to freshen up for the social. As she removed her blouse and began to wash her face, she heard Sully enter.

"All done," he noted.

"It took you a long time," she stated.

Sully set the diary on the nightstand, "I got caught up readin' some more."

She paused and studied his expression, "Are you all right?"

"Fine," he was sincere. "Joe told me he wants t' go with us."

She sighed, "Your son is rather persistent, Mr. Sully."

He grinned, "Can't imagine where he gets it."

"Should we take him?" she posed the question.

He shrugged, "I reckon we could take him an' Katie. They're old enough t' enjoy it."

"And to practice their social skills," she offered. "Would you like to invite them while I finish preparing?"

Sully went to her and slid his hands around her slim waist, "Need some help.... preparin'?"

She tingled at his touch, "We'll be late if you help me."

He drew her closer for a sweet kiss, "You sure?"

"Positive," she was melting in his arms.

His hand began to wander along her form, "I could make sure everythin' fits ya just right."

"Sully," she gulped. "If you keep this up, we might never make it."

"Would that be so bad?" he grinned impishly.

She was losing herself in his eyes. She stroked the side of his face tenderly. Sully kissed the palm of her hand.

Before things went further, she whispered, "Perhaps we could pick up on this after the social?"

He took a deep breath to calm his pulse, "I'll look forward t' it. Now, what was it ya wanted me t' do?"

"Invite your children?" she reminded.

"Right," he kissed her again.

************
Chapter 10
************

Sully descended the steps, "Katie, Joe, where are ya?"

"Here, Papa," they met him at the bottom of the steps.

Sully guided them into the living room, "Your Ma an' me were thinkin' maybe you'd both like t' go with us t' the social."

Josef declared, "I wanna go."

Katie added, "I'd like to go, too. May I wear my blue dress?"

Sully smiled, "Sounds good. Your Ma will help ya get ready, Kates. Go on upstairs."

The little girl rushed away. Josef began to follow.

Sully scooped him up, "An' I'll help you."

Josef protested, "I can get weady myself, Papa."

"You won't mind if I help, will ya?" Sully tickled his side.

Josef giggled, "Okay."

"Good," Sully smiled. "Your Ma's gonna want ya t' wear a suit."

"The one with short pants?" Josef frowned.

"That's the one," the father nodded.

Josef shook his head, "Uh-oh."

Sully pointed out, "Well, ya wanted t' go."

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

Isabel and Grace finished applying the final touches to the decorations at the church. Jake and Teresa arrived, followed by Horace, Myra and Samantha. Next, Matthew and Emma stepped into the large gathering. Emma held Michael. When Dorothy and Cloud Dancing entered the church, they began to dote on the baby. Robert E took up a position near the punch bowl, under instructions from his wife to see that no one added liquor.

When Hank and Lexie showed up with little Ilse in tow, many of the townsfolk gathered around to catch their first glimpse of the baby. Preston arrived alone and proceeded to complain at the plainness of the decor. After the room was virtually full, Sully and Michaela arrived with Loren, Bridget, Katie and Josef. The children were pleased to see that Samantha and Wendell were there. Then they spotted the Lawson baby and swiftly made their way to view the child.

Wendell eyed Josef's suit, "Where'd ya get that?"

Josef's shoulders, "Mama got it."

Wendell frowned, "Where? A circus?"

Josef replied, "I thinked in one o' them cat'logs."

Wendell shook his head, "If my Ma made me wear that, I'd run away."

Katie overheard, "Wendell, that's not nice."

"Well, look at him," he gestured.

Josef sadly glanced at his own outfit, "I don' gotta wear it all the time."

Wendell assessed, "Good thing."

The music began, and couples started to dance. Sully removed Michaela's wrap and tilted his head quizzically.

"New dress?" he wondered.

"Actually, no," she smiled. "It's one of my older ones, but I never got to wear it on the occasion I wanted."

"Which occasion?" he was puzzled.

"I wore it for my first Christmas in Colorado Springs," she explained. "The children and I were snowed in at the old homestead, so we couldn't attend the town social."

"Now, I remember," he grinned. "I came t' the homestead with gifts. I remember you wearin' it now."

He set her cape aside, and spoke near her ear, "You look beautiful in it."

She placed her hand on his shoulder, "May I have this dance, Mr. Sully?"

"My pleasure," he began to waltz with her.

"Sully," she paused to look around the room. "I don't see Brian. Isn't he attending with Mary Conway?"

Sully joked, "Maybe they stopped t' do some sparkin'."

She tapped his side, "Brian is a gentleman."

"So am I," he raised an eyebrow. "But when a man's courtin', it's hard t' resist a beautiful woman."

"Courting?" she was surprised. "They've only just met."

He drew her closer, "So? Don't ya know about love at first sight?"

Her cheeks flushed, "Still.... I believe that.... that is, they should...."

Sully loved it when he flustered his wife, "Just calm down. They'll be here."

When the dancing ended, Hank approached the couple, "'Evenin'."

"Good evening, Hank," Michaela responded. "It's nice to see you and Lexie here this evening."

He joked, "Yea, well, I figured it'd be a good idea t' take her out. Even bought her a new dress."

Michaela commended, "She looks lovely. If you gentlemen will excuse me, I think I'll go speak with Lexie."

When Michaela left them, Hank turned to Sully, "I'm kinda glad she's gone."

"Michaela?" Sully was puzzled.

"Yea," Hank admitted. "I wanna ask ya somethin'.... kinda delicate."

Sully waited.

Hank kept his voice low, "I remember you tellin' me that I gotta be patient.... let Lexie tell me when she's ready for us."

Sully anticipated more, "Yea?"

Hank took a deep breath, "Well, we kinda almost did it, got real close.... too close, an'.... had t' stop 'cause I was hurtin' her."

Sully's brow wrinkled, "You hurt her?"

"I stopped," Hank denied. "But.... I got needs Sully. I damn near burst when she made me stop."

Sully was uncomfortable, "Why are you tellin' me this?"

Hank confessed, "'Cause I can't tell anyone else. I'd never hear the end o' the jokes. I know I can trust you t' keep it quiet. Plus, you been through this a few times. I just wondered how long I gotta wait."

Sully pointed his finger at Hank and eyed him sternly, "Don't ever force yourself on your wife or any other woman."

Hank evaded, "I never had any complaints."

Sully informed him, "Lexie wasn't complainin' when she made ya stop. It's just too soon. Maybe she hopes she's ready, but she ain't healed. A woman goes through a lot when she has a baby, Hank. Ya gotta respect her body."

Hank folded his arms, "Bein' a husband is hard work."

Sully smiled, "It's worth every minute."

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

Brain held his arm for Mary as they began to stroll toward the church.

"It's a beautiful night," she remarked as she gazed at the firmament.

"Sure is," he smiled. "See that star? My Pa taught me how to navigate using it."

"He's a sailor?" she assumed.

"No," he chuckled. "A mountain man. Now he does just about everything.... carpentry, surveying, negotiating with Indians, government work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Parks Service."

Mary remarked, "He sounds like an interesting man. How did he meet your mother?"

Brian explained, "Well, to tell you the truth, they're not my blood parents. Our real Ma died from a snake bite. Dr. Mike came here from Boston. She took us in, and when she married Sully, they adopted us."

"Dr. Mike?" she was curious. "Is that your mother's nickname?"

He clarified, "Dr. Michaela Quinn."

"A real doctor?" she was amazed. "Wait, I've heard Dorothy Jennings speak of her. She established the hospital, didn't she?"

"Yep," he acknowledged. "It opened just a few months ago. Before that, she ran a clinic right beside The Gazette office."

Mary was intrigued, "So, how did a lady doctor from Boston meet and marry a mountain man?"

Brian shrugged, "Ma calls it Kismet."

"Fate," Mary recognized. "I'm a believer in that myself. What about you, Brian?"

"Me?" he pointed to himself. "Sure, I believe in it. I got five little brothers and sisters to prove it."

She laughed.

When they began to cross the bridge near the church, Brian cautioned, "Careful here. It's kind of icy."

He reached for her arm to support her, but it was too late. Mary's boot slipped, and she tumbled onto the wooden planks.

"Mary!" he fell to his knees. "Are you all right?"

"My ankle," her voice trembled. "It.... hurts."

"Hold on," he removed his jacket and placed it under her head. "I'll get my Ma."

With that, the young man bolted for the church. When he burst into the room, it took him a moment to find his mother.

"Ma!" he rushed toward her.

"Brian?" Michaela held his shoulders. "What's wrong?"

"It's Mary," he caught his breath. "She fell and hurt her ankle."

By now, others in the room began to gather around them.

Sully reached for his wife's cape, "Here, Michaela."

"My bag," she paused. "I didn't bring it."

Brian stated, "Ya gotta come quick. Please. I left her at the bridge."

Sully approached Bridget, but she anticipated his request, "I'll watch the wee ones. Off with ya."

Brian, Michaela and Sully hurried from the gathering and into the cold night. It did not take long to reach the unfortunate young lady.

Michaela knelt beside her and in a calm tone, requested, "Show me where it hurts."

Mary pointed to the side of her ankle. Sully held up a lantern while Michaela ran her fingers along the area.

She determined, "I don't believe it's broken. Sprained."

"It hurts a lot," Mary's face contorted in pain.

Michaela informed her, "We'll get you to the hospital. I can give you something for the pain and wrap it properly there."

Mary smiled slightly as she extended her hand, "We haven't formally met, Dr. Quinn, but I've heard a lot about you. I'm Mary Conway."

Michaela shook her hand, "Please call me Dr. Mike. This is my husband, Byron Sully."

Sully shook Mary's hand, as well, "Just Sully. Pleased t' meet ya."

Brian apologized, "I'm sorry you had to meet under these circumstances."

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

Wendell folded his arms and challenged Josef, "I say ya can't."

"Yes, I can," Josef countered.

Loren overheard, "Can't what?"

Wendell quickly covered, "Uh, dance. I don't think Josef can dance. Can you, Mr. Bray?"

Loren turned to Bridget, "Come on. Let's show these youngsters how it's done."

He drew her into his arms and began to whirl around to the music.

Josef frowned, "You lied t' Mr. Bway."

Wendell defended, "You can prove me wrong. So, try it."

Josef hesitated, "I don't think I should."

"You're afraid," he challenged. "The son of a brave mountain man's scared. I've heard a lot o' stories about your Pa, but you sure ain't like him."

Josef was nearing tears, "Crawlin' under a table don' make me bwave."

"Bwave," Wendell mimicked. "You can't even talk wwwrright."

"Stop it, Wendell!" Josef raised his voice.

"Make me," the boy challenged.

Unable to control himself, Josef lunged for Wendell, knocking him against the table and upsetting the punch bowl.

Hank quickly stepped forward, "What's goin' on here?"

The two boys gazed up at the giant of a lawman.

Wendell pointed, "Josef Sully started it."

"Well, I'm finishin' it," Hank declared. "You two are gonna clean up this mess, or I'll lock ya up for disturbin' the peace."

Grace countered, "I'll clean it up. I don't want 'em breakin' somethin' else."

Bridget made her way to them, "Jesus, Mary an' Joseph, what have ya done, lad?"

Hank turned to her, "I think ya better leave Jesus an' Mary outa it. Just Josef was behind it."

Matthew and Katie approached.

Matthew took his little brother's hand, "What happened?"

Josef wiped his sleeve across his now-running nose, "Wendell said bad things."

Isabel and Timothy Johnson overheard.

The minister queried, "Wendell? What have you done?"

"I didn't do anythin'," the boy denied.

Josef countered, "Ya called me names."

Katie spotted something, "Joey, your suit's ripped."

Josef looked down and saw the seam of his knickers was torn, "Oh, no. Mama's gonna be mad."

Bridget drew him closer, "We'll take care of it, boy-oh. Meanwhile, you're done talkin' t' Wendell t'night."

As she led the child away, Isabel turned to Wendell, "And you're going home this instant."

"But, Ma...." he began to protest.

"Now," she pointed.

Hank returned to his wife and baby, "Well, I guess I earned my pay."

Lexie chuckled, "Yes, breaking up those two boys was a lot of work."

He raised an eyebrow, "Care t' dance?"

She glanced down at the baby in her arms, "What about Ilse?"

Hank noticed Katie Sully nearby, "Hey, cutie. Come here."

"Me?" Katie pointed to herself.

Hank spoke under his breath, "Leave it t' Michaela's kid t' not know when you're talkin' right at her." He tried again, "Yea, you. How'd ya like t' watch the baby?"

Katie's eyes widened, "Sure. I'd love to."

"Good," Hank lifted the infant and placed her in Katie's arms. "We'll be right over there dancin' if ya need anythin'."

"Hank," Lexie began to protest. "What if Katie doesn't know how to...."

He cut her off, "She's got all them other kids around the house. Sure, she knows how to."

With that, he swept her onto the dance floor.

Preston approached Katie as she sat cradling Ilse in her arms, "I see you've met our newest citizen."

Katie smiled at the baby, "She's real cute."

Preston agreed, "Yes, she is. So, what have you been doing to prepare for Christmas?"

"I haven't been investin' my money like ya told me to," Katie informed him. "Poppy said I'm not allowed to take your advice, Mr. Lodge."

"Pity," he sighed. "Your father should not let his personal feelings toward me get in the way of following my expert advice as a banker."

Katie confessed, "I haven't been followin' the stock prices much lately."

Preston revealed, "They've begun to use the telephone instead of the telegraph on the floor of the exchange. That means even faster information and greater volume. Of course, the telegraph is still used to transmit information to newspapers around the country."

"Telephone," Katie pondered. "I think Mama oughta get one connectin' the hospital with our house. I heard you got one at the Chateau. Mama an' Poppy are comin' t' your party there. Maybe they can see how it works."

He perked up, "Yes, I'd be delighted to show them. I use it between the depot and chateau. I'll look forward to seeing Michaela and Sully."

"You wanna hold the baby, Mr. Lodge?" she offered.

"No, thank you," he forced a smile. "So, you still haven't told me what you've been doing to prepare for Christmas."

Katie told him, "I've been workin' on the Sully coat of arms for my parents. Then the diary came an'...."

"Diary?" he stopped her.

"Katherine Sully's," she nodded. "That was my Gran'ma. She died when Poppy was little."

"How intriguing," he rubbed his chin. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I'll leave you to enjoy the baby's company."

"Nice talkin' with ya," the little girl smiled.

Nearby, Lexie had not taken her eyes off her daughter, "Preston is leaving them now."

"Good," Hank held her close. "I wouldn't want my kid pickin' up any ideas from him."

Guided by Isabel, Reverend Johnson approached the dancing couple, "Hank, Lexie.... Sorry to bother you, but I wondered...."

Hank interrupted, "Wondered if ya could cut in an' dance with my wife? Not a chance."

The minister denied, "No, I wanted to ask you about Ilse's baptism."

Hank stopped dancing, "Baptism?"

The Reverend explained, "Yes, I assumed you would want her to be properly baptized."

Hank put his hands on his hips, "Why would ya assume that?"

"Baptism is a sacrament, Hank," he noted. "Don't you want...."

Hank cut him off, "I wanna dance with my wife at the moment."

Lexie interjected, "Reverend, Hank and I will discuss it. Thank you."

As Isabel led the minister away, Hank turned to his wife, "Why'd ya tell him that we'll discuss it?"

Lexie replied, "Because we will."

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

Sully sat with Brian in the waiting room of the hospital.

Looking at his concerned son, he offered, "Can I get ya some coffee?"

"No, thanks," Brian folded his hands. "Seems like this is taking a long time."

Sully encouraged, "You know Mary's in the best hands right now. Your Ma will take good care of her."

"I know," he acknowledged. "I just feel like this is my fault."

"How's it your fault?" Sully wondered.

Brian explained, "I saw the bridge had some ice on it, but I didn't hold on to her securely."

"The weather ain't your fault, Brian," Sully counseled. "There's plenty o' things outa our control in life."

Brian sensed a deeper meaning, "You doin' okay, Pa?"

"Sure," his answer was brief.

The young man doubted, "What about the diary?"

Sully admitted, "It's gettin' harder, the closer I get t'...."

He did not finish his sentence.

Brian contributed, "I know what it's like to lose your Ma when you're little, but I was lucky. I had you and Dr. Mike."

Sully felt a lump in his throat, "We found each other. You came along when I was grievin' over losin' Abigail an' Hannah."

He smiled, "I was telling Mary about our family while we were walking to the church. She was real interested in us."

Sully grinned, "Sounds serious."

Brian looked down shyly, "I know it's too soon to feel anything...."

"No, it ain't," Sully cut in. "She's showin' an interest in you."

Brian's heart beat a little faster, "You're right. I guess I just don't want to be let down."

At that moment, Michaela entered the room, "Mary's doing fine. It's a sprain, as I suspected. She'll have to use some crutches for a few days and take it easy, but she'll be able to continue her normal routine soon."

"Could I see her?" Brian stood.

"Certainly," Michaela smiled. "Sister Mary Martha will take you to her room."

When Brian departed, Sully remarked, "He's real serious about her, Michaela."

"I believe the feeling is mutual," she noted. "Mary did nothing but talk about him while I was treating her."

Sully pulled his wife into his arms, "You thinkin' we might be havin' a wedding soon?"

She felt a tear, "Oh, my. Our little Brian."

"He ain't so little anymore," Sully observed.

"Well, I hope they don't rush into anything," she cautioned.

Sully assured, "Brian's got a good head on his shoulders."

"So did Colleen," she pointed out the irony.

************
Chapter 11
************

"Hey, Mary," Brian tentatively entered the examining room. "Ma says you're going to be fine."

"She's an incredible woman," Mary spoke admiringly.

He grinned, "I agree. So, how are you feeling?"

"Much better," she returned. "Dr. Mike gave me some sort of tea. She said it was a Cheyenne remedy. At first, I was hesitant to try something like that, but your mother is a convincing woman."

"The Cheyenne leader Black Kettle gave her the name Medicine Woman after she saved his life," Brian informed her. "She's learned a lot from the medicine man Cloud Dancing. He's Sully's best friend. The Cheyenne admired her abilities."

"So do I," Mary noted. "She said I can go home, but...."

He wondered why she stopped, "But what?"

Mary admitted, "I was looking forward to the social."

Brian glanced at the clock, "It's not too late. I'm sure it's still going on, but if you're tired, I can take you back to your boarding house."

"I'm not too tired," she admitted. "I'm afraid I won't be much for dancing."

"That's okay," he grinned. "We can just talk."

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

Colleen had put the children to bed and sat down to read one of her mother's medical journals. Just as she settled in the chair, she heard the sound of an approaching horse. The family couldn't be home this early, she thought.

She rose and went to the living room window. Approaching the doorway was Lewis Bing. She opened it before he could knock.

"Lewis?" she was curious. "What brings you out here?"

He removed his hat, "May I come in?"

"Of course," she stepped back. "Is something wrong at the hospital?"

"Nothing major," he replied. "Your mother had an emergency with Mary Conway. Apparently, she slipped on the ice."

"Mary Conway," Colleen repeated the name. "That's who Brian was taking to the social."

"I doubt if they'll be socializing much tonight," he sympathized. "Anyway, I just stopped by to see how you were doing with the children."

"Oh, they're fine," she assured. "Would you like a cup of tea?"

"I'd love one," he removed his coat. Then he noticed her reading material, "Anything of interest?"

"Yes," Colleen put on the water to boil. "I've been reading about Robert Koch's work in growing pure cultures of germs outside of the body."

His eyes lit up, "His findings are significant. His introduction of pure culture technique using a mix of potatoes and gelatin is intriguing."

She noted the enthusiasm with which he spoke, "Yes, it is."

For a moment, their eyes met. Colleen felt her cheeks warm.

"The water's boiling," Lewis broke the spell.

She turned to lower the heat, "Would you like sugar or cream?"

"No, thanks," he smiled.

At that moment, they heard the baby crying.

Colleen pivoted, "I'd better check on her. I'll be right back."

He offered, "I'll fix the tea for us."

"Thank you," she headed up the steps.

A few minutes later, Colleen returned with Hope.

Lewis grinned, "Hey, Hope. Did you have a bad dream?"

The baby instantly smiled at him.

Colleen noticed, "She likes you."

He held Hope's hand, "I love children. I'd like to have a houseful one day. Being an only child makes one long for such things."

She sat down with the baby on her lap, "Andrew and I discussed having children."

"Didn't he want them?" Lewis wondered.

She grew uncomfortable and did not reply.

"I'm sorry," he regretted. "I shouldn't have pried."

She assured, "That's all right. Would you like to hold Hope while I fix her bottle?"

He extended his hands toward the child, "If she'll let me."

The baby instantly settled in his arms. She began to play with the lapel of his jacket.

Colleen teased, "It's not quite like her Pa's beads, but she's entertained."

Lewis smiled, "I'm glad I came over to see you. I can enjoy the company of two pretty ladies now."

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

At the social, Josef sat alone, feeling remorseful for his actions. When Katie approached him, he said nothing.

She sat beside her brother, "Everythin's gonna be okay, Joey."

He thought otherwise, "Mama an' Papa will be dis'pointed in me."

She knew, "Wendell teased ya until ya got mad."

Josef's lower lip turned down, "Papa say count t' ten when I get mad. I only made it t' four."

At that moment, their parents arrived, followed by Brian and Mary. Michaela and Sully noticed their children sitting quietly aside while the festivities were going on.

Michaela tapped Sully's arm, "I suspect a problem."

He agreed, "I wonder what Joe did."

They strolled toward the children.

Katie interceded, "Wendell started it, Poppy."

Sully folded his arms, "Started what?"

Josef took a deep breath, ready to explain, when Bridget spoke up instead, "Nothin' major, lad. You know how accidents happen. The punch bowl went by the wayside when the wee one fell."

Grace overheard as she brought in a fresh batch of punch, "Let's try drinkin' this one instead o' wearin' it."

Michaela apologized, "We'll pay for the broken bowl."

Sully knelt down beside his son, "You got somethin' you need t' say, Joe?"

The boy burst into tears, "I'm sowwy, Papa. Wendell said bad things, an' I pushed him."

Sully studied the boy's pained expression, "Did ya tell Miss Grace you're sorry?"

"No," he wiped his sleeve across his nose.

Michaela noticed and gave him a handkerchief, "Perhaps this would help."

Josef blew his nose into the cloth, then said, "Miss Grace, I'm sowwy."

Grace tousled his hair, "That's all right. Just as long as ya don't upset my other table with the desserts."

The little boy's shoulders slumped.

Michaela took her son's hand, "I wonder if I might have this dance."

"I'm too short t' dance with ya, Mama," Josef pointed out.

"We won't tell anyone," she took him in her arms.

Josef's face beamed as his mother led him across the dance floor.

Sully extended his arm to his daughter, "Would you do me the honor, Miss Sully?"

Katie turned up the corner of her mouth in imitation of her mother, "I'd be delighted."

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

Jake cleared his throat and tapped on the side of a glass to get everyone's attention.

When the room finally quieted, he spoke, "Before Grace leads us in singin' some carols, I'd like t' make an announcement. Me an' Teresa are gonna have another baby."

The townsfolk applauded and stepped forward to offer their best wishes. Michaela and Sully extended congratulations, as well. Candles were distributed to all, and as they were lit, Grace led them in singing carols. Then those in attendance exited and headed for the town tree.

Michaela directed Sully's attention, "Brian and Mary seem lost in conversation."

"Yep," he agreed. Then Sully glanced toward Katie and Josef, "I reckon we best get them home. They look tired."

Michaela remarked, "I'm certain they'll want to sleep late."

"I hope so," he grinned impishly. "I seem t' recall that we were gonna do somethin' special t'night."

She pretended, "Oh? What might that be?"

He shrugged, "We'll think of somethin'. Let's go home."

Brian approached his parents, "I'm gonna stay in town at the Clinic t'night. I told Mary I'd help her at the school in the mornin'."

Matthew overheard, "I thought her students went home for the holidays."

Brian blushed, "They did. But some supplies arrived, an' I told her I'd help her put things away."

Sully patted Brian's back, "Sounds good."

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

When Michaela and Sully entered the house, they spotted Colleen and Lewis by the living room fireplace. Hope was asleep in the arms of the young man.

Michaela kept her voice low, "Lewis? It's nice to see you. And who's the little one in your arms?"

"She's adorable, Dr. Mike," his blue eyes gleamed.

Colleen explained, "Lewis stopped by to keep me company."

Sully entered carrying a sleeping Josef. Katie yawned and went right to the steps.

Sully paused, "Hey, Lewis. Nice t' see ya."

"You, too, Sully," the young man stood up.

"I'll take her," Michaela reached for the baby. "We're going to bed. Good night, you two. Thank you for watching the children."

"They were no problem, Ma," Colleen assured.

When the Sullys had ascended the steps, Lewis turned to Colleen, "Well, I'd better be going. I enjoyed the evening."

Colleen chuckled softly, "I'm afraid it wasn't as exciting as the social."

He assured, "I can't think of anyplace I would rather have been."

She stepped closer and kissed him, "Thank you, Lewis. Good night."

Michaela caught a glimpse of the kiss as she returned to the kitchen, but she said nothing. Lewis donned his coat and hat, then departed.

Michaela cleared her throat, "It was quite nice of him to stop by and keep you company."

"Yes, it was," Colleen agreed.

Michaela poured a glass of water, "Katie was thirsty."

"I see," Colleen smiled suspecting that was merely an excuse.

The mother admitted, "You and Lewis seemed rather.... friendly."

"You saw me kiss him," she returned.

"I must confess that I did," Michaela conceded.

"Ma," Colleen paused. "We kissed earlier today, too.... at the hospital."

"You did?" Michaela raised an eyebrow.

"Do you disapprove?" she wondered.

"Of course not," Michaela denied. "I just hope.... well, you're a grown woman."

"A recently divorced woman who still has feelings for her former husband," Colleen clarified. "And you're worried that I might not be ready for another.... relationship."

Michaela interrupted, "No, Colleen. I don't want you to think I'm meddling."

"I don't," she kissed her cheek. "Good night, Ma. Am I sleeping in Katie's room?"

"Yes, Sully put her in with Annie," she informed her.

"Thanks," Colleen stretched her arms. "Are you and Pa going to bed yet?"

"Soon," Michaela noted. "To tell you the truth, he hasn't slept well since the diary arrived."

"How is he handling it?" the young woman queried.

Michaela observed, "It's been difficult. He woke up with a nightmare last night."

Colleen commented, "I hope eventually it helps him make peace with her death."

"I do, too, Sweetheart," Michaela put her arm around her daughter. "Good night."

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

While waiting for Michaela's return, Sully read his mother's words with angst.

"May 27, 1845. Tonight I confronted Albert Morrow about what Dinah told me. At first, he denied being the man who forced himself on her. I told him I didn't believe him. The girl's description was of him. Then he said, 'What if I did have my way with her? There's nothing you can do about it.' I'm afraid this is true. I cannot report him to the police for fear of jeopardizing the entire Underground Railroad. But I must think of a way to stop him from ever doing this to another woman. I am convinced he is a dastard and he is not at all sincere in his desire to help the runaway slaves."

"Sully?" Michaela's voice prompted him to look up.

"Mmm?" he was still absorbing his mother's words.

She offered, "The children are all asleep. Can I get you anything?"

"No, thanks," he drew back the covers for her to join him.

Michaela removed her robe and climbed into bed, cuddling closer to him. She anticipated he would mention the diary. Sully kissed her hand and sighed.

"Tell me," she whispered.

He tensed, "One of the conductors on the Underground Railroad forced himself on a passenger named Dinah. Ma's real upset about it."

Michaela noticed his use of the present tense and said nothing.

Sully set the diary aside, "She can't do anythin' about him, can't go t' the police 'cause it could jeopardize the system of helpin' slaves escape."

"Are you going to read more tonight?" she was curious.

He enfolded her in his arms, "I just wanna hold you. I wanna feel safe an' loved."

Michaela repositioned herself to kiss him, "I do love you with all my heart."

He drew a stray lock of hair from her face, "I love you, too, Michaela."

She lightened the topic by turning to the social, "What did you think of Mary?"

"Seems like a nice young lady," he remarked. "Kinda reminds me of someone."

"Who?" she was curious.

"You," he teased.

"Me?" she raised an eyebrow.

Sully nodded and ran his hand down her tresses, "Long brown hair, smart, pretty...."

Michaela assessed, "I like her."

"Good thing," Sully grinned. "I got a feelin' we're gonna be seein' a lot more o' her."

Michaela noted, "You'll never guess what I saw when I went downstairs to get Katie a glass of water."

"What?" he anticipated.

She revealed, "Colleen was kissing Lewis."

Sully said, "I reckon we'll be seein' more of him, too."

"You're not surprised?" she asked.

"Nope," he replied. "I've seen how Lewis looks at Colleen. He's in love."

"Oh, dear," Michaela's brow wrinkled. "I don't want to see either of them get hurt."

Sully offered, "Then be happy for 'em. Maybe they'll find love. It's been known t' happen."

She tilted her head against his chest, "Jake's announcement about the baby was interesting."

"Oh?" he was puzzled.

"Did you see Teresa?" Michaela pointed out. "She made no reaction to it. She didn't even smile."

He sighed, "Maybe she'll change. She's always been a hard woman t' figure out. Kinda cold. But she's real good with children. Maybe this baby will make her happy."

Michaela doubted, "I wish I had your confidence. Theirs is not a happy marriage. We've seen the impact of that on little Maria."

Sully said, "Jake seems t' be tryin' t' stay sober."

"I hope he continues," she added. "In contrast to Teresa, Lexie looked positively radiant."

"I didn't notice," Sully kissed his wife's temple. "I only looked at you."

Michaela teased, "Then how did you know that Mary has brown hair and is pretty?"

He chuckled, "Uh.... Brian told me."

"Liar," she tapped his side playfully.

They fell silent, content in each others arms.

Michaela toyed with the hair on his chest, "What about us?"

"Us?" he was unsure.

"You mentioned our doing something special tonight," she reminded.

"Anythin' I do with you is special," he kissed her sweetly.

From his expression, she suspected that his mind was elsewhere and reasoned, "I think perhaps you'd rather read a bit more."

He stroked her arm, "You don't mind?"

"Not at all," she caressed his cheek. "I'm here if you need me."

Sully lifted the diary, "I do need you, Michaela. This is gonna get harder t' read, an' I wanna get it over with."

She comforted, "Promise me that you'll stop if it upsets you too terribly."

His jaw tensed, "I don't think I'll be able t' do that."

Michaela's heart ached for him, "I don't want you to go through the anguish of losing her all over again."

He confessed, "I've felt that loss every day o' my life. But more than anythin', I wanna understand why she did it. Maybe this will tell me."

A sympathetic tear formed in her eye, "I hope so."

************
Chapter 12
************

Sully opened the diary but had difficulty focusing on it. His mind drifted back to a conversation he had had with his mother after his brother died.

"Byron," Katherine kissed her son's temple. "Percy's with God now."

"Why?" he struggled to understand.

"I don't know, darling," her voice trembled. "Maybe Papa needed him."

The child felt a surge of bitterness, "That ain't right. We need him more. I don' want Perce t' go 'way."

Katherine Sully tried to comfort him, "I don't either, but we have to go on, Byron. We have each other. I don't know what I'd do without you."

He began to cry, "I won't leave ya, Ma."

Sully closed his eyes and set the diary aside. He couldn't read it tonight. He felt Michaela's steady breathing beside him. Her body was warm against his arm. Shifting to his side, he spooned himself against her. Then he slid his arm across her waist to link his fingers in hers.

Sully's mind was restless. It had been more than thirty-five years since his mother's death. He now had the opportunity to read her last thoughts, but his resolve to continue was faltering. He took a deep breath, hoping to clear his head.

"Sully," Michaela glanced over her shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"Yea," he sounded less than convincing.

She rolled onto her side to look at him, "Are you certain?"

"Michaela," he paused. "Do you remember when ya took in the children after Charlotte's death?"

"Of course, I do," she nodded.

"How'd ya do it?" he sought her opinion. "How'd ya deal with tellin' children their Ma was gone?"

"Well," she paused. "They were there in the room with her when she passed away, so I didn't have to tell them. When I took them home with me, they were bitter at first. At times, they took out some of their anger over losing her on me. It was a difficult adjustment."

He fell silent. She waited for him to go on.

Sully finally spoke, "But you were there t' listen when they needed t' talk."

She noted, "So were you. I don't know how I could have managed without you."

He pensively replied, "I didn't do that much."

"Oh, yes, you did," she affirmed. "I knew nothing about being a parent."

"I didn't either," he pointed out.

She caressed his cheek, "You knew what they needed. You had been through the same kind of grief."

"I didn't have anyone after Ma died," his eyes reddened. "No one cared."

Tears began to form in her eyes, as well, "You do now, and we won't leave you, Sully."

He fought to compose himself.

She embraced him, "I wish I would have been there to help you."

He attempted some humor, "A twelve year old, helpin' a ten year old?"

She suddenly recalled, "Twelve years old.... I went to New York that year, when I was twelve."

"You did?" Sully was amazed.

She thought back, "Yes. Mother, my sisters and I went with Father to a medical meeting of some sort. Wait, I remember. He had gone to inspect and make recommendations for improvements at Bellevue. Not only were the conditions appalling, but the site also included an alms house and penitentiary. Father often spoke about it."

Sully was interested, "Do ya remember what month you were there?"

"June," she calculated. "It was just after school had let out."

"Michaela," the thought occurred to him. "Ma killed herself in June. You were in New York when it happened."

The notion that they were both in the same city at the time of Sully's tragedy was sobering.

Michaela observed, "What an incredible coincidence."

"Maybe it wasn't," Sully pondered.

"What do you mean?" she wondered.

"What's that word you use?" he mentioned. "When things happen like they were meant to."

She identified, "Kismet."

He commented, "I wish I would've met ya back then."

She smiled, "I'm afraid I wasn't very interested in boys at that age."

Sully ran his finger lightly along the line of her jaw, "I bet they were interested in you."

"I always had my nose in a book," she chuckled.

He kissed her, "Thanks, Michaela."

"For what?" she was uncertain.

Sully gazed at her with love, "Thanks for waitin' 'til I came along."

She turned up the corner of her mouth, "It was more than worth the wait. Now, I want you to do something."

"What?" he wondered.

"Close your eyes," she bid him.

"I don't think I can go t' sleep," he countered.

She stated, "Doctor's orders. Close your eyes."

He complied. As he did so, Michaela began to massage his temples. She could feel him relax beneath her touch.

Sully sighed, "That feels good."

Michaela softly kissed the sides of his mouth.

Sully opened an eye, "You tryin' t' relax me or energize me?"

She smiled, "Relax. I want you to sleep."

He returned, "Yes, ma'am."

Michaela repositioned herself next to him, "Good night, Sully."

"'Night," he savored the warmth of her.

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

Lexie sighed as she lay next to Hank in bed, "What a night."

He stroked her raven tresses, "You were the best lookin' woman at the social."

She rubbed her belly, "Even though I don't have my figure back."

Hank touched the area, "You'll get it back."

"Our daughter was very cooperative this evening," Lexie glanced at the sleeping baby.

"Nothin' seemed t' wake her up," Hank noted. "Not even the punchbowl crashin' t' the floor."

Lexie remarked, "I think she could sleep through an earthquake."

"Well, that's good," he grinned. "'Cause when you finally feel up t' bein' with me again, I intend for us t' rattle the windows."

"Hank!" she was shocked.

He smirked, "Ain't it always been like that for us?"

"Yes, but...." she was interrupted by the sound of Ilse fussing.

Lexie sat up, "She's probably hungry."

"You go ahead an' nurse her," he sat up. "I'm goin' back int' town."

Lexie's brow wrinkled, "At this hour?"

"Yep," he nodded. "I'm gonna count the money at the Gold Nugget, then check the streets t' make sure no one gets int' trouble on the way home."

She lifted the baby and held her close to her father, "Say good-night to Papa."

"Papa," Hank repeated the word. "Won't that be a day when she calls me that."

Lexie decided to broach the subject, "Hank, about baptizing Ilse."

His tone changed, "What about it?"

"Why don't you want her to have a proper baptism?" she questioned.

"It's just gibberish," he frowned. "Hogwash that some hypocrites thought up t' make people feel bad if they ain't had some water dumped on 'em."

The thought occurred to her, "You've never been baptized, have you?"

"No," he put his hands on his hips. "An' it ain't hurt me none."

Lexie informed him, "I'm far from religious, but.... it seems that we should do this."

"What makes ya say that?" he was puzzled.

"Well, marriage and baptizing your children...." she paused. "They go together."

"More hogwash," he shook his head. "I gotta go now. I'll see ya later."

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

Jake turned to face his wife in bed, "I had a good time at the social. How 'bout you?"

Teresa did not open her eyes, "Yes, I suppose so."

"Somethin' botherin' ya?" he sensed.

"I'm just tired," she replied.

"Oh," he toyed with the edge of his blanket. "You think you might wanna go t' Preston's shindig?"

"Shindig?" she was uncertain of the term.

"He's havin' a party at the Chateau t'morrow night," Jake informed her.

"You want to go so you may announce my condition to a new audience?" she was terse.

Jake sat up and exhaled loudly, "Look, Teresa, I'm tryin' here. I'm really tryin' t' make things work between us, but ya gotta do your part."

She tensed, "Do my part?"

"I love you," Jake softened his tone. "I love you, an' Maria, an' this little one. I want us t' be a real family."

It was the first time Jake had said he loved her since.... she could not remember.

"You love me?" she looked at him for the first time.

"'Course I do," his expression was tender. "Don't ya know that?"

"How could I know it?" Teresa reacted. "You never say it, and you have done very little to prove it."

"Well...." he paused. "I'm sayin' it now, an' I'll do everythin' I can t' prove it to you."

Teresa wondered if she should let down her guard. What if he drank again? What if he slept with a whore again? What if.... Was love worth the risk?

Jake swallowed hard, "Don't you love me?"

She hesitated, then confessed, "I do."

Jake pulled his wife into his embrace, "Then don't be scared."

She looked up at him, "Why would you think I am scared?"

He ran his finger along her chin, then kissed her, "'Cause I am, too."

"Why are you frightened?" she did not comprehend.

Jake took a deep breath, "'Cause I made so many mistakes. I don't wanna make anymore. I don't wanna hurt you or Maria."

"Please," Teresa implored. "Don't hurt us again."

Jake softly kissed her.

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

Grace opened her eyes, "You awake, Robert E?"

"I am now," he frowned. "What's wrong?"

"Nothin'," Grace snuggled closer to him.

He knew otherwise and slid his arm beneath her shoulders, "Tell me."

She sighed, "I think I'd like t' go t' Preston's party."

"We can't afford that, woman," his brow creased.

"Ya know," she contemplated. "Every time this town has a social, I gotta cook for it."

"That's a good thing, ain't it?" Robert E posed the question. "It means folks like your food, an' it's good for your business."

"I know," she conceded. "But I wanna go t' somethin' where I don't have t' cook for others. I'd like t' dine out with my husband an' enjoy the evenin'."

Robert E lifted up on his elbow, "Well... I reckon you're worth it."

She smiled broadly, "Thank you, Robert E."

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

When a slit of dawn's light entered the bedroom and shone in Michaela's eyes, she awoke. Sully's hand was on hers. She smiled, then quietly rose from the bed to check on Hope.

The baby was cooing in her crib.

Lifting the child, Michaela greeted the alert little one, "Good morning, my darling."

"Bah," Hope smiled.

Michaela kissed her cheeks, then cradled the baby. The mother's hand became damp.

"I believe we need to change that diaper," she set Hope atop the bed.

As Michaela removed the soiled diaper and cleaned her daughter, Sully awoke.

He turned up his nose at the foul smell, "You wearin' a new perfume, Michaela?"

She was not amused, "Your daughter is."

Sully's voice changed as he smiled, "Hey, Hope."

"Bah!" the baby repeated.

Sully picked up the child, "I think I heard 'Pa.'"

Michaela denied, "Not yet. Could you put her back down while I finish changing her?"

Sully did as she requested, "How many diapers you think we've changed?"

Michaela could not help but laugh, "Certainly more than I ever imagined."

Sully caressed Hope's curls, "I never minded one time."

Michaela smiled, "Nor I."

He chuckled, "You figure there's somethin' wrong with us?"

"Not at all," she lifted the sweeter smelling baby. "It's all part of being a parent, and we want to savor every moment of it."

He reacted, "I never want my children t' go through what I did."

"Sully," Michaela touched his hand lovingly. "I'm so sorry for the pain you've been through. And now, with the diary, you're reliving it all over again."

He felt a lump in his throat, "But I got so much now, Michaela." He reached for Hope, "Sometimes it's hard for me t' feel like I deserve it."

Michaela recalled what he had once told her in Boston and replied, "You deserve it all."

He touched Hope's cheek, then Michaela's.

Michaela leaned closer, "I don't believe I bade you a proper good morning."

Sully drew her closer for a kiss. As their lips met, Hope grabbed her mother's hair.

"Ouch," Michaela gently loosened the baby's grip. "I believe I've done this quite a bit, as well."

Sully grinned, "Me, too."

Michaela stepped toward the basin to wash her face, "My Christmas gift for the children is due to arrive today."

"I thought we got all their gifts in the barn," he mentioned.

"I bought this one in Denver when I asked you to wait in the park for me," she turned to face him. "I arranged for it to be delivered. I want it to be a surprise.... for you, as well."

He held Hope closer, "This little girl was your best gift this year."

Michaela stepped toward him and sat on the edge of the bed, "Sully.... I was thinking about one more gift, something for Katie."

"What?" he anticipated.

She hesitated, "Perhaps this isn't a good time to discuss it."

"Christmas ain't that far away," he pointed out. "If you wanna get her another gift, there's not much time. What is it?"

She steeled herself for his reaction.

************
Chapter 13
************

Michaela informed Sully what gift she wanted to give their daughter, "I think Katie is ready for a horse."

He tensed, "Michaela...."

She explained, "Brian had one at Katie's age, and she's dreamed of this practically since she could walk."

"You're right," he swallowed hard. "This ain't a good time t' discuss it."

"I'm sorry," she was sincere. "It was thoughtless of me, particularly since you've been thinking so much about your family lately."

He clasped her hand, "You're my family, an' ya ain't thoughtless. I just wanna finish this diary an' try t' sort it all out."

Michaela studied his expression, "I have an idea."

"What?" he waited.

"I'll take the children for the day and leave you to read the diary," she offered. "You can sort out your feelings without any distractions."

Sully gazed adoringly at Hope, "You an' the kids don't distra...."

A knock at the door interrupted them.

Michaela smiled at her husband, "You were saying?"

There was another knock, then Josef's voice was heard, "You two up?"

Sully frowned, "What ever happened t' the kids sleepin' late?"

"It's the anticipation of Christmas," she noted. "I was the same way at their age."

Michaela opened the door to admit the little boy.

"Hey," Josef strolled into the room. "What we doin'?"

Sully eyed his son, "I was just gonna ask you the same thing."

Josef yawned, "I thought ya could use some comp'ny."

"You did, did you?" Michaela embraced him.

Josef climbed up on the bed to see his sister, "Hey, Hope."

The baby reached up to touch his mouth.

Michaela inquired, "Josef, how would you like to go ice skating today?"

His eyes widened, "Good thinkin', Mama. Want me t' go ask Katie?"

Michaela glanced at the clock, "Not quite yet. Let's let her sleep."

Josef looked to his father, "Papa, could ya teach me how t' spin?"

Michaela intervened, "Papa's going to stay here with Hope, but I'd be happy to teach you."

"Miss Bwidget can watch Hope," Josef pointed out.

Michaela mentioned, "I thought perhaps we could ask her to come along with us."

Josef eyed Sully, "Don' ya wanna come?"

Sully smiled and rubbed the little boy's back, "Sure. But...."

Michaela leaned closer and whispered to their son, "Papa needs some alone time."

Josef's eyes widened, "Oh." Then the thought occurred to him, "How can he be 'lone if he's with Hope?"

Sully admitted, "I wanna read some more of my Ma's diary, Joe."

Josef glanced toward the journal, "I don' like that book."

Michaela was curious, "Why not?"

"It makes Papa sad," the child observed.

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

Teresa hummed as she prepared breakfast. Jake sat down, yawning.

"Good morning, Mr. Slicker," Teresa's tone was merry.

"'Mornin'," Jake yawned again.

Maria looked at her father, "Papa seepy."

He smiled, "Takes me a couple cups o' coffee before I wake up, honey."

Teresa smiled, "I was thinking about your offer."

Jake ran his fingers through his hair, "Which offer?"

"To go to the Chateau this evening," she reminded.

"And?" Jake waited.

Teresa nodded, "I accept your invitation."

Jake grinned, "Good."

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

With Hope asleep, and Michaela and Bridget entertaining the children, Sully settled into a wing back chair to read his mother's diary. No sooner had he opened the journal than there came a knock at the door. Assuming Michaela had forgotten something, he hastened to open the door.

It was Horace Bing, "Hey, Sully."

"Horace," Sully noticed the package in his hands. "Got somethin' here for Dr. Mike."

"It must be the gift she bought in Denver," Sully accepted it.

Horace noted, "No, this one's from her sister Rebecca in Boston. The Denver gift is gonna take several men t' bring out."

"Several men?" Sully was curious.

Horace nodded, "It's huge. Well, I gotta go. Lots t' deliver t'day."

"Much obliged, Horace," Sully remarked.

Horace turned, "You an' Dr. Mike goin' t' Preston's t'night?"

Sully tensed, "Yea."

Horace smiled, "Just shows how much ya love Dr. Mike. I know how ya feel about Preston."

"You an' Myra goin'?" Sully inquired.

"Too expensive for my blood," Horace shook his head no. "I'll see ya, Sully."

Closing the door behind Horace, Sully returned to his mother's diary. Wolf came to him and licked his hand.

"Hey, boy," Sully petted the top of the animal's head.

Wolf settled near the hearth in his favorite spot, and Sully opened the diary to read. Immediately, he noticed the hand writing was different.... appearing to be rushed and somewhat shaky.

"May 30, 1845. I can scarcely describe what happened to me tonight. Albert Morrow, the most heinous son of a bitch I have ever met...."

Sully stopped and closed his eyes. This is it, he thought. The rape of his mother. He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the rest. Then he read on.

"I rendezvoused with Albert at King's Bridge to escort the passenger on the next leg of his journey. Albert had another man with him, who took the passenger and left. But Albert said he wanted to talk to me. He took me from the bridge to a wooded area along Spuyten Duyvil Creek. God, why did I trust the man? He pulled a knife and held it to my throat. He threatened to kill me if I reported what he was doing to the runaway slave girls. Then he..... Oh, God, I can't write the words."

Sully wiped the tears from his eyes and continued to read.

"Albert left me on the ground, bruised and violated. I screamed for help. Finally, a policeman came. I'm so ashamed. My neighbors know now. I must tell Byron, but.... how?"

Sully swallowed hard, remembering the night his mother came home after her rape.

"Ma," he noticed the swelling of her cheek. "What happened?"

"Byron, sit down," she controlled her tears. "I.... Something happened to me. A man...."

She began to weep.

"Ma!" Byron rushed to her side. "Don't cry. I'll help ya."

She looked at him with reddened eyes, "It's too late to help me, darling."

"Who did this?" he tensed.

She took a deep breath, "A man.... forced himself on me."

Working at the docks had made the boy wise about such things. He had heard the conversations of the workers and sailors.

"I'll kill him!" Byron exclaimed.

"No," Katherine embraced her son. "I'll take care of him."

He lightly touched the bruise beneath her eye, "I'll never let anyone hurt you again, Ma."

She pulled away from his touch, "I.... I'm unclean, Byron. I can't.... I don't think I'll ever be clean again."

Sully closed the diary, the memory of that conversation still fresh in his mind. He set the journal on the table and folded his arms tightly against his chest. Tears began to roll down his cheeks. Closing his eyes, he fought the helpless emotions that resurfaced after these many years. Then he heard a baby's crying.

"Hope," he stood and hurried up the steps.

When he reached his bedroom, the child's crying was more urgent.

Lifting the baby, Sully stroked her back, "Papa's here, honey. I'll never let anyone hurt you."

The little girl began to settle in her father's arms. Then she reached up to touch the moisture beneath his eyes. Sully felt awash in the unconditional love of his daughter. The ache in his heart lessened ever so slightly.

He kissed her tiny fingers, "I love you, Hope."

"Ba," she smiled at him.

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

Brian stepped into the Mercantile, "Hey, Loren."

"'Mornin', lad," Loren smiled. "How's Mary?"

"Her ankle's hurting, but Ma said that would be the case for several days," Brian mentioned. "I helped her with some supplies for the school this morning."

Loren raised an eyebrow, "You two hit it off real good, eh?"

Brian grinned, "She's so easy to talk to. I like her a lot."

The older man's face lit up, "I can tell. So, what can I do for ya?"

Brian reminded, "You said you'd have that frame I ordered from Denver today."

"Oh, yea," Loren began to search a lower shelf. "Here it is."

Brian held it up admiringly, "Looks real good."

"That'll be $2," Loren tabulated.

Brian reached into his pocket and handed him the cash, "Could you wrap it for me?"

"Sure," Loren tore off some paper. "So, you goin' t' Preston's with Mary?"

The young man hedged, "I don't think she'll be up for that, what with her ankle."

"Strike while the iron's hot, lad," Loren advised.

"I told her I'd bring her some lunch from Grace's," Brian informed him. "Maybe I'll mention it."

"Good," Loren winked. "Even if she don't feel like goin', the fact that ya asked will mean a lot."

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

When Michaela and Bridget arrived home with the children, the little ones clamored for lunch. While Michaela removed their coats, hats and scarves, Bridget headed for the kitchen to prepare lunch.

The nanny spoke up, "I wonder where Sully is."

"I go find Papa," Josef offered. "I tell him about spinnin'."

Michaela mused, "Most of your spinning was on your behind, young man."

The child bounded up the stairs. When he reached his parents' room, he skidded to a stop. There on the bed was Sully asleep with the baby atop his chest. Josef quietly closed the door and headed back to the kitchen.

Michaela looked up, "Did you find your father?"

"Yep," Josef climbed up on a chair. "Sleepin'. Hope, too."

Michaela set the coats before the hearth to dry, "Then we should be quiet so as to not disturb them."

Noah reached for a cookie that Bridget had set before them.

The nanny caught him, "Not until ya eat your lunch, darlin'."

Noah frowned as he reached again, "I want."

Michaela guided his hand away, "And Miss Bridget said not yet, Sweetheart."

Noah began to cry.

Michaela scooped him into her arms and informed the nanny, "I believe a nap is in order."

"I nap," Annie offered.

Bridget put her hands on her hips, "An' just who am I fixin' lunch for?"

Katie, Josef and Annie raised their hands and spoke in unison, "Me."

When Michaela carried Noah up the steps, Josef remarked, "You skate good, Miss Bwidget."

"When ya live in Boston, ya learn to, lad," she smiled.

"That must be why Mama skate good," he stated. "She lived in Boston."

"Aye," Bridget nodded. "'Tis a fine city."

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

By the time Michaela reached the top step, Noah was practically asleep. More than his siblings, he had taken to skating. And being the smallest, it exhausted him. His natural athleticism reminded Michaela of Sully.

After tucking her son into his bed, Michaela made her way to her own room. Peeking in, she spotted Sully and Hope. She smiled and entered the bedroom for a change of clothing. As quietly as she could, she undressed and poured some fresh water in the basin to wash up.

Suddenly, she felt warm hands on her waist. Then a kiss to her neck.

She did not turn, "That had better be my husband, or I'll have a lot of explaining to do."

Sully's breath was warm against her flesh, "I agree."

Pivoting in his arms, she savored a sweet kiss with him, "I tried not to waken you."

"I heard Noah cryin'," Sully admitted. "How'd the kids like skatin'?"

"They loved it," she informed him. "They became quite good at it, especially Noah."

Sully's half smile indicated he was not focused on her reply.

She rested her hands on his arms as they circled her waist, "You read more?"

"Uh-huh," he stepped back and went to the window.

Michaela approached and touched his back, "How much more?"

"The rape," he shuddered. "God, Michaela. What she went through."

His wife's silence reminded Sully that Michaela had nearly experienced the same thing.

He turned to face her and cupped his palm to her cheek, "It almost happened t' you near Yellowstone."

She felt a wave of nausea at the memory, "I just wanted to wash away the smell of him, the touch of him. It disgusted me so."

"That's the way Ma felt," he agreed. "When I was readin' her words, it was like what you went through. I remember you tellin' me, you'd never feel safe again."

"I was wrong," she kissed his hand. "You made me feel safe again."

He swallowed hard, "But I couldn't help Ma."

"You were just a boy," she noted.

Sully revealed, "The man who did it.... she knew him in the Underground Railroad. He was doin' the same thing t' some runaway slaves."

"You mentioned he had attacked one named Dinah," her jaw tensed. "Violating her trust."

"An' Ma's," he added. "My mother was never the same."

"Are you going to read any more today?" she queried.

"I don't think so," he went to the crib to gaze at Hope.

Michaela offered, "We can stay home tonight. I know how you loathe Preston. His Chateau is the last place you want to be."

Sully went to her and lifted her chin for a kiss, "You're lookin' forward t' the party. I don't intend t' let you down."

"That was before all of this," she noted. "I don't want you to...."

He silenced her with a kiss, "I'm takin' my wife t' a fancy gala. I wanna see her in a fine gown, with her hair done up real nice. I wanna hold her in my arms an' dance all night."

Michaela toyed with the hair at his temple, "All night?"

Her close proximity stirred him, "Well...."

Michaela smiled, "The children want to tell you all about their adventure."

Sully grinned, "I can't wait t' hear. Oh, a package arrived for you. At first I thought it was that surprise you bought, but Horace said some men are bringin' it out later."

"A package for me?" she was intrigued.

"From Rebecca," he specified.

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

Preston scanned the ballroom of his Chateau. Tables were set, candles were in place, and the decorations were impeccably ornate.

"Yes," he spoke to himself. "Perfect."

One of the waiters overheard, "Did you say something, Mr. Lodge?"

"It's splendid," Preston's grin widened. "This will certainly impress her."

"Her?" the young man wondered.

Preston noticed a speck on a tablecloth, "Replace this tablecloth at once."

"Yes, sir," the waiter moved quickly.

Preston took a deep breath, then left the room. He strolled through the lobby to his office. Sitting at his desk, his mind turned to the information Katie Sully had divulged.

"A diary," Preston said aloud. "Sully's mother. Intriguing. Katie was named after her. Katherine Sully."

He stood and walked to his window. Gazing at the scenic view, he meditated further.

He pondered, "Katie said she died when Sully was young. What secrets could this diary contain?"

He clapped his hands together, considering the possibilities. Clearly, the mountain man had a past that was worth investigating. He would make inquiries.

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

While Sully carried Annie up for a nap, Michaela went to the kitchen to open the package from her sister. Katie and Josef were quite curious to see what the contents might be.

By the time Michaela had ripped off the wrapping, Sully had joined them.

Josef could not contain his curiosity, "What is it, Mama?"

"You'll know when I do, Sweetheart," Michaela lifted the lid of the box.

Inside were items that had been individually wrapped in newspaper. When Michaela revealed the top one, she raised her hand to her mouth.

"It's the Nativity," she felt a surge of emotion.

"What's Navity?" Josef was uncertain.

Katie told him, "It's baby Jesus, with Mary an' Joseph. Like Mama's story about the couple an' the Livery."

Michaela carefully set each piece on the table, "This was brought by my Grandmother from Ireland. Each one is made of hand-painted porcelain."

Bridget was in awe, "They're magnificent."

Josef reached for one.

Michaela cautioned, "Children, these are irreplaceable and quite fragile. You mustn't touch them. Promise Mama."

"I pwomise," Josef swore.

"Me, too," Katie assured.

Josef added, "I won' let the twins neither."

Sully eyed the children skeptically, "Maybe we should put 'em high up so little hands won't be tempted."

Michaela studied the expressions on her children's faces, "They'll be good. Won't you, my darlings?"

************
Chapter 14
************

Alone in her boarding house room, Mary sat with her leg elevated. She opened a book to keep her mind off feeling sorry for herself. Then she heard a knock at the door.

"Who is it?" she called.

"Brian," the voice returned.

"Come on in," she beckoned.

Brian stepped into the neat little room, "Hey. I thought you might like some company."

She sighed, "Indeed I would. Staring at four walls is not my idea of fun."

"Speaking of fun...." he paused. "How would you like to go to the Chateau gala with me this evening?"

"Won't there be dancing?" she questioned.

"Sure," he nodded.

She fought back the tears forming in her eyes, "Oh, Brian. You've invited me to two dances now, and just look at me."

"Hey," he stepped closer and touched her arm. "Don't cry. We don't have to go. I'll stay here and keep you company, if you like. I just thought maybe you'd like to go see the decorations."

"Oh, I would," she nodded. "This is the first Christmas I've spent in Colorado Springs, and you've been so nice to me."

The expression on her face touched his heart, "Mary, I can't think of anyone I'd rather spend my time with."

She was surprised, "I.... I feel the same way."

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

The Sully children pressed their noses to the window pane, watching the men lift a huge crate from the wagon. It was at least four feet tall, Katie assessed as she counted ten of them carrying it up the steps. When they negotiated it through the door and over to the corner of the living room, Michaela tipped them each some money and thanked them.

The entire family gathered around the box.

"Is it a new house?" Josef wondered.

"No, Joey," Katie rolled her eyes.

Josef added, "Can I play with the box after it's opened?"

"We're not going to open it until Christmas," Michaela informed them.

Sully rubbed his chin, "It's just gonna sit here?"

"That's right," Michaela smiled mischievously.

Katie wondered, "If we guess what it is, can we open it sooner?"

"No," Michaela smiled. "You'll have to wait."

Sully glanced at the clock, "I got an errand I need t' run before we go t' the Chateau t'night."

Josef tilted his head, "We're goin' t' the Chappo?

"Chateau," Michaela corrected as she touched her son's nose. "Just Papa and I are going tonight."

Josef sighed, "Is it 'cause I spilled the punch?"

"No," Michaela knelt down. "It's because it's for grownups."

Sully donned his coat, "I'll be back in a little while."

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

Sully stepped into the Mercantile, "Hey, Loren."

"Afternoon," the shop owner looked up from his ledger. "You come for Dr. Mike's gift?"

"Yep," Sully nodded.

Loren opened the box and showed him the contents.

"Perfect," Sully nodded as he handed him the payment.

Loren noted, "It's a lot o' money, lad."

"She's worth it," Sully winked.

Hank entered the store at that moment, "You got that order o' whiskey for me?"

Loren frowned, "Why ya always gotta interrupt me when I'm talkin' t' payin' customers?"

"I'm a payin' customer," Hank countered.

Loren was sarcastic, "Ya ain't paid me in months. Now, hold your horses."

Sully lifted the gift. As he turned to leave, Hank tugged at his sleeve.

"Ya got a minute?" Hank asked.

"Sure," Sully nodded.

"Outside," Hank gestured.

The two men stepped onto the front porch of the Mercantile.

"Somethin' on your mind?" Sully assumed.

"Baptism," Hank kept his voice low.

"What about it?" Sully questioned.

Hank took a deep breath, "Your kids all been baptized?"

"Yea," Sully folded his arms, anticipating more.

"Why?" Hank challenged. "You believe all that hocus-pocus with water?"

Sully eyed him sternly, "I believe in a Great Spirit, an' I believe in prayers. The Cheyenne say...."

Hank interrupted, "I don't care what some Injuns say. What d' you believe? Did ya let your kids be baptized 'cause Michaela talked ya int' it?"

Sully measured his words carefully, "My kids are part o' Michaela and part o' me. We want them t' grow up knowin' how we both believe."

"So ya don't believe in baptism," Hank concluded.

"I didn't say that," Sully asserted. "Whether it's sprinklin' water on an infant or puttin' soil on their shoulders as a reminder t' care for Mother Earth, it's sacred. They gotta live in a world with many beliefs. We want them t' know there's a power higher than themselves no matter what path they take."

Hank stated, "I never been religious. Never understood how men could kill each other sayin' one religion was right an' another wrong."

Sully explained, "Religions don't have t' be opposites. Michaela an' me have a lot more beliefs in common than opposite. We want our children t' know God, no matter what He's called."

Hank sighed in frustration.

Sully determined, "Lexie wantin' t' baptize the baby in church?"

"Yea," Hank replied.

"An' you don't want her t' be?" Sully assumed.

Hank's jaw tensed, "I don't want my kid bein' manipulated int' bein' somethin'."

"Or you don't wanna be manipulated?" Sully turned it around. "Ya feel trapped."

Hank started to deny the accusation, but stopped.

Sully assessed, "Bein' a father ain't easy. Neither is bein' married."

Hank folded his arms, uncomfortably.

Sully patted his back, "There's always compromise."

Hank pointed to himself, "Me? Compromise?"

Sully chuckled, "Good luck."

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

Michaela spotted her son kneeling before the large box attempting to pry open the corner.

"Josef Michael Sully," she spoke up.

The little boy backed away, "I was just makin' sure it's not bwoke, Mama."

"The truth?" she waited.

He confessed, "I was twyin' t' see what it is."

"Be patient," she advised.

"I'm not sick," he informed her.

She was puzzled, "Pardon me?"

"I'm not a patient," he repeated.

"Being patient means that you wait calmly for things to happen," she shook her head. "You amaze me, young man."

"Uh-oh," he frowned. "Ya callin' me a young man."

"So?" Michaela wondered.

"That means I gotta act gwown up," he explained.

She embraced him, "Would you like to help make some Christmas cookies?"

"Sure," he smiled. "When's Papa comin' home?

"He'll be home soon," she answered.

"Mama, I gotta tell ya," he looked up at her. "People's actin' stwrange."

"Strange?" she was uncertain. "How so?"

"Comin' an' goin'," he observed. "Hidin' stuff."

She smiled, "I think it will be worth it in the end."

"The end?" he was puzzled.

She touched the tip of his nose, "Christmas morning."

"You gonna rrwead that stowy?" he wondered.

"A Christmas Carol," she identified. "Of course."

Josef sighed, "Could ya just rrwead the end this time?"

She raised an eyebrow, "You don't like the entire story?"

"Like ya said, I'm not a patient," he shrugged.

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

When Sully entered the house, he saw only Bridget.

Removing his coat, he inquired, "Where is everyone?"

"Dr. Mike has the children upstairs readin' a story," she gestured. "Did ya get the gift?"

Sully held Michaela's gift before her and opened the lid, "Here."

She touched her cheeks, "Oh, my. 'Tis beautiful. Dr. Mike will love it."

He smiled, "I hope so. I best hide it now."

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

Sully walked into his bedroom just as Michaela was concluding the story of Jesus' birth.

She said, "So, children, the true meaning of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus."

Katie realized, "That's what the Nativity figures are for. Right, Mama?"

Michaela acknowledged, "Yes, Sweetheart."

"Why we give gifts then?" Josef questioned.

Katie answered, "'Cause the wise men gave 'em t' baby Jesus."

Annie repeated, "Baby Jesus."

Josef persisted, "I didn' hear nothin' 'bout Santa Claus in the story."

Michaela explained, "Santa Claus is the nickname for Saint Nicholas. He lived much later and was known for giving gifts to the poor."

"Uh-oh," Josef frowned. "We not poor. No gifts for us."

Sully stepped into the room, "We got lots a' gifts already."

Katie's eyes lit when she saw her father, "Poppy, do the Cheyenne believe in Christmas?"

He detailed, "They believe in givin' gifts an' offerin' prayers of thanks t' the Great Spirit for what we got. When they no longer need a gift, they give it t' someone who does."

Michaela glanced at the clock on the mantel, "All right, your father and I have to get ready. I expect you to be good as angels for Miss Bridget tonight."

Josef queried, "What time ya comin' home?"

Sully tickled his son's side, "It'll be after you're sleepin', big boy."

Josef insisted, "I wait up for ya."

Noah seconded, "Me go."

Sully clapped his hands together, "Come on, everybody. Give your Ma some time t' get dressed."

The children quickly departed, leaving Sully and Michaela alone.

She studied his expression, "You were gone quite a while."

He began to unbutton his shirt, "Had a few things t' do."

"I was starting to grow concerned," she confessed. "After what you read today in your mother's diary...."

He assured, "I'm okay. I tried not t' think about it."

She stepped closer, "I know you. You can't put something like that out of your mind so easily."

He started to mix some lather for a shave. Then he felt Michaela's hand on his shoulder. She noted the tear in his eyes.

Cupping her hand to his cheek, she whispered, "Sully."

He closed his eyes, struggling to contain his emotions, "It's so hard, Michaela."

"I know," she embraced him.

His tears began to flow more freely. Drawing him to the rocking chair, Michaela sat beside him and held him in her arms.

She kissed his temple, "You don't have to be strong now."

After several minutes, he began to compose himself, "What would the kids think if they saw their Pa cryin' like a baby?"

She caressed his cheek, "They would admire him for holding such a powerful love for his mother."

"There's not many pages left t' read in her diary," he revealed.

She offered, "I'll be right here beside you when you finally finish it."

He did not respond.

"Sully, let's stay home this evening," she said.

He took a deep breath, "No. I want us t' go."

"But...." she began to protest.

He tenderly stroked her neck, "Let's get dressed."

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

Preston had spared no expense in decorating the Chateau for the gala. Holly and mistletoe hung in each doorway. A large tree stood in the corner of the ballroom, trimmed with ribbons, strings of beads, lace stars and ornaments imported from Germany. Wreaths were mounted on the walls. The aroma of pine permeated the room.

When the first guests began to arrive, Preston cued the orchestra to start the music. With great vigor, he greeted the politicians and financiers from Denver, whom he hoped to impress. Various couples from town strolled in. There were Jake and Teresa, Matthew and Emma, Robert E and Grace, Brian and Mary.

Preston checked his pocket watch. No sign of Michaela. He paced. Where could she be? Then he looked up to see her on Sully's arm. Preston caught his breath. She was surely the most stunning woman he had ever seen. His pulse quickened.

"Michaela," he grinned broadly. "You look positively radiant."

"Thank you, Mr. Lodge," she remarked as Sully removed her cape. "You have quite a turnout."

"Yes," he stood taller. "Many of my investors and supporters from Denver made the trip." Then he looked at Sully, "You must feel quite out of place here all dressed up."

"Nope," Sully put his arm around Michaela. "Feels just like home."

With that, he guided his wife toward a table.

Michaela eyed her husband, "You handled that quite well, Mr. Sully."

His jaw tensed, "Did ya see how he looked at ya?"

"I didn't notice," she replied.

They joined Matthew, Emma, Brian and Mary.

Michaela smiled, "How are you feeling, Mary?"

The young woman returned, "Well, I won't be dancing any, but I certainly will enjoy the company."

Brian's cheeks reddened.

Sully took his wife's hand, "Speakin' of dancin', I believe they're playin' a waltz."

"Shall we?" Michaela eyed him flirtatiously.

"Love to," Sully led her onto the floor.

As he held her close, she smiled, "You dance quite well."

"'Long as it's a waltz," he gazed into her eyes. "'Course I got the most beautiful woman in the world in my arms. No one notices how I dance."

She commented, "Did you see how Brian and Mary looked at one another?"

"Yep," he grinned. "I think they'll be courtin' real soon."

She did not respond.

Sully wondered, "Does that upset ya?"

"No," she replied. "But it's a reminder of how time flies."

Sully changed the subject, "You got any special plans the rest of this evenin'?"

She raised an eyebrow, "I believe my dance card is full."

"I wasn't talkin' about dancin'," his voice was low.

When the dance concluded, Preston stepped closer to them, "You're quite a dancer, Sully."

Sully replied, "My wife makes me look good."

Preston was sarcastic, "Yes, she certainly does. Actually, I'm surprised to see you here this evening. I would have thought you'd be home reading your mother's diary."

A chill shot down Sully's spine, "That ain't your business."

Preston persisted, "So tragic that she died when you were young."

Michaela glared at the banker, "My husband said this is none of your business, Mr. Lodge."

Preston knew he had hit a nerve, "I would think you'd find comfort in the words of your mother."

Michaela felt Sully's hand form into a fist, "I think we'll get some punch."

"Punch," Sully spoke through clinched teeth. "Sounds like a good idea."

They strolled away from Preston.

He watched them depart, "My, my, we are tense. Just what are you hiding, Byron Sully?"

************
Chapter 15
************

Hank sat by the fireplace, holding a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a lit cigar in the other. He heard Lexie enter from the bedroom, but did not look up.

She drew a shawl around her shoulders, "Something on your mind?"

He tossed the cigar into the flames, "Ya know, my life used t' be pretty simple."

Lexie frowned, "You mean before you had a wife and child?"

"Yea," his words were slightly slurred.

She sat on the stool near him, "You're lucky."

"Lucky?" he looked at her.

"Yes," she folded her arms. "If your life until now was simple. Mine has always been very complicated."

He leaned back and drank a swig of whiskey, "Care for some?"

"No, thanks," she replied. "Maybe I can help make things simple for you again."

"How ya gonna do that?" he tilted his head.

"I don't know," she shrugged. "Why don't we start by you telling me what's bothering you."

He sighed, "You wouldn't understand."

"Try me," she encouraged.

"This ain't personal, Lex," he paused. "But havin' a family.... it ain't somethin' I bargained for."

"Well, speaking as part of your family, that makes me feel much better," she noted. "What did you think it would be like, Hank?"

He described, "I figured I'd go about my life like always, comin' an' goin' as I please."

She tilted her head, "You don't come and go as you please?"

Hank exhaled loudly, "No. I gotta deal with.... important questions."

"Such as?" she anticipated.

He responded, "Such as baptizin'."

Lexie stood up and walked to the fireplace, "We don't have to baptize Ilse if you're that against it."

"Then you'll go an' try t' make me feel guilty," he speculated.

"No, I won't," she denied.

Hank pondered, "Then if we don't baptize her, you expect somethin' in return."

"There's only one thing I expect of you," she eyed him sternly.

"What?" he waited.

"The truth," she answered.

His jaw tensed, "I ain't sure you can handle the truth."

She challenged, "Try me."

He took a deep breath, "I ain't sure about us anymore, Lex."

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

Sully had been quiet the entire ride home. When they reached the homestead, Michaela explained to Bridget why they had arrived home earlier than anticipated, and Sully remained in the barn to unhitch the surrey.

As Michaela prepared for bed, she heard Sully in the hallway, pausing by each of the children's doors. Then he entered their room.

She turned to face him, but he said nothing. Tensely, he walked to the mantel and stared at the flames. Michaela watched the muscles in his jaw tense and relax.

She finally broke the silence, "Are the children still asleep?"

"Yea," he did not look up.

"Sully," she went to him. "Don't let what Preston said...."

He cut her off, "How'd he know about the diary, Michaela?"

"I don't know," she replied. "Perhaps he overheard someone discussing it."

"He couldn't wait t' mention it," Sully's tone was controlled. "Couldn't wait t' see how I'd react."

She offered, "I think you handled it well."

No longer able to control his rage, Sully ripped off his tie in anger. He opened his vest and slammed his hand against the wood of the mantel.

"Sully!" Michaela was shocked.

He suddenly realized he had frightened her, "I'm sorry."

Concern creased her brow.

He confessed, "It's just.... he baits me.... he knows just how t' make me look bad t' you, an'...."

She interjected, "Make you look bad to me? Sully, that's preposterous."

"It's what he thinks, Michaela," Sully turned away from her. "He thinks makin' me look bad will make ya look at him."

She touched his chin to guide his gaze back, "Nothing and no one can make you look bad to me, nor can they make me look at any other man. You know that."

"But he don't know it," Sully returned. "He never gives up tryin'."

"Are you suggesting that I encourage his attention?" the thought occurred to her.

"I didn't say that," he denied.

"You implied it," she was becoming more upset.

"No, I didn't," he asserted.

She sighed, "I knew we shouldn't have gone to the Chateau."

At that moment, there was a soft knock at the door, "Dr. Mike, Sully, I'm goin' t' bed now."

It was Bridget. She had already been in bed. This was her subtle way of telling them that she could hear their argument. That meant the children might be wakened if they continued.

"Good night, Bridget," Michaela replied. "And, thank you."

Michaela went to Hope's crib. The baby was undisturbed by the raised voices of her parents.

Sully stepped closer and whispered, "She okay?"

"Yes," Michaela secured the child's blanket. "Oh, Sully, I don't want us to fight."

"Is that what we're doin'?" he eyed her intently.

Michaela reached up to cup his cheek in her palm, "Are we going to let Preston upset us?"

"I'm sorry," he kissed the palm of her hand.

"So am I," she acknowledged.

He drew her closer for a sweet kiss, "You looked so beautiful at that party."

"Thank you," she turned up the corner of her mouth. "And you were the most handsome man there."

They held each other for several moments.

Then Michaela spoke low, "May I have this dance?"

"My pleasure," Sully took her into his arms and began to sway.

She mused, "You dance divinely."

"I'm divinely inspired," he smiled.

Tilting her head against his shoulder, she murmured, "We have so much, Sully. Each other, the children...."

He inhaled the scent of her, "Every time I tell myself I won't let him get t' me, he does. I don't know why."

"Perhaps he provokes an insecurity that goes back to your childhood," she speculated. "You came to believe that you would lose those whom you loved."

"I did lose 'em all...." he stopped. "Until you."

She felt a lump in her throat. It was true. He had lost everyone dear to him. His parents, his brother, Abigail, Hannah.

Michaela stopped swaying, "Sully, I've never known anyone like you. You're the most decent and honorable human being I've ever met. I know it's no consolation to you, but.... your life, your losses made you who you are. You're the man I adore.... the man I'd give my very soul to love."

He leaned down to kiss her, then drew back saying, "Thank you for lovin' me."

She toyed with the hair at his temple, "I'm afraid I couldn't help myself."

"An' I'm sorry we argued," he apologized. "Seems like there's better ways we could spend our time."

"Oh?" she smiled flirtatiously.

Her look prompted an immediate physical response in him.

"Mmm-humm," he kissed her.

Running his hands down her sides, Sully bunched up the material of her gown and caressed her hips. Michaela tingled with anticipation. She untucked his shirt and undid the buttons of his trousers. His hands began to roam across her skin, arousing a deep desire.

He spoke near her ear:

"My lady is perfect, and transfigureth
All sin and sorrow and death,
Making them fair as her own eyelids be,
Or lips wherein my whole soul's life abides;
Or as her sweet white sides
And bosom carved to kiss.
Now therefore, if her pity further me,
Doubtless for her sake all my days shall be
As righteous as she is."

Michaela could scarcely find her voice, "Was that Swinburne?"

"Yep," he grinned. "Good guess."

Sully raised her gown over her head and let it fall to the floor. Then lifting her, he gently set her atop the mattress. Michaela watched as he undressed and positioned himself beside her. Tender kisses and caresses followed. Each guided the other to the places they found most pleasurable.

Suddenly, Hope began to fuss in her crib.

Sully started to sit up, but Michaela clasped his shoulders, "Maybe she'll fall back to sleep."

They paused, waiting to see if the baby settled. She did not. Sully went to the crib and lifted his daughter.

Kissing Hope's cheek, he spoke softly, "I'm sorry we woke ya up, honey."

Hope's lower lip turned under, and she began to whimper.

"I'll try," Michaela reached for the child.

Sully handed his daughter to Michaela, then stepped to the fire to add some logs. Turning, he watched as Hope began to settle in her mother's arms.

Michaela finally whispered, "She's asleep."

Sully carried the baby to her crib, kissed her forehead, then set her down. Securing the blanket, he stroked Hope's back several times.

Michaela reached out her hand to him, "Where were we?"

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

Matthew and Brian sat by the stove in the old Clinic's examining room. Matthew and Emma had turned it into a waiting room for their businesses.

Matthew offered, "Can I get ya anythin', little brother?"

"No, thanks," Brian sighed in contentment. "So, what did you think of Mary?"

Matthew grinned, "I like her. But the more important question is, what d' you think of her?"

Brian leaned back in the chair, "I could listen t' her talk all day. She's real interesting."

Matthew rubbed his chin, "Sounds like it's pretty serious."

"You and me have been real lucky, Matthew," he confided. "We both found love again after losing someone we cared deeply about."

"Just like Dr. Mike and Sully," Matthew compared.

Brian added, "You've got true happiness now with a wife and baby."

"Happiness ain't always how we think it'll be," Matthew noted.

Brian tilted his head, "You saying you're not happy?"

"No," he quickly defended. "It's just.... well, I think we change our definition of happiness as we get older. Emma wanted a baby, and little Michael came t' us just at that moment. Happy as I am about it, havin' a baby changes things for a couple."

Brian recalled, "I remember how much things changed after Katie was born."

"Right," Matthew nodded. "So, the fact that you're talkin' about marriage an' babies leads me t' conclude that it's on your mind."

Brian grinned, "I want what you an' Emma have.... what Ma an' Pa have."

"In good time, little brother," Matthew counseled. "First thing is t' get t' know Mary as well as ya can. That way, there won't be any surprises if an' when ya do wanna settle down."

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

Lexie stared at Hank, "What do you mean you're not sure about us?"

He gulped down a mouthful of whiskey, "I'm not sure we should be married."

She put her hands on her hips, "Why?"

Hank began to feel uncomfortable, "I ain't good at puttin' my feelin's int' words."

"Oh, I don't know," she shot back. "Saying you're not sure about us is fairly plain. You don't love me?"

"I didn't say that," he answered.

She surmised, "But you're not a one woman man."

He did not reply.

"That's it, isn't it, Hank?" she probed. "You want to be with other women."

"I got needs," he stated. "I know ya can't be with me right now, but.... well, it seems t' me I oughta be able t' satisfy myself with...."

She interrupted, "I don't understand you. One minute you buy me a beautiful dress, take me out dancing. The next, you're telling me you're not sure about us. Suit yourself, Hank. Go be with one of your whores."

He stood up, "You wouldn't mind?"

She frowned, "Wouldn't mind? What kind of a man are you? Marriage is a commitment to one person for the rest of your life. Is being intimate with your wife just 'business' with you, too? How would you feel if I told you I needed to be with other men?"

The thought caught him off guard, "I.... I don't think a wife an' mother oughta do somethin' like that."

"Free love," she recalled. "I've read about that. Is that what you want? If it is, just remember what's good for the goose is good for the gander."

"Hold your horses," Hank stood up. "I didn't say that."

"Good-night, Hank," she went to the bedroom door and slammed it shut.

Hank said to himself, "That went well."

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

Sully kissed Michaela's shoulder, hoping to rekindle their intimacy, "You tired?"

She ran her fingers through his long locks, "No. Are you?"

"Not at the moment," his eyes reflected his longing. "Think the kids will let their Ma an' Pa have some time alone?"

"Shall I have a talk with them?" she offered.

He kissed her chin and sides of her mouth, "Right now?"

"Well...." she hedged. "Perhaps now is not the time."

She shifted her position to fit his form.

"Better?" she smiled.

"Much," he continued his kisses.

Michaela clasped the side of his head, guiding his kisses to pleasing spots. Then she ran her hand down his chest. Sully's arousal was immediate.

"I love you, Michaela," his voice was urgent.

"I love you, too," she whispered.

He peered into her eyes. They shone with unbridled desire for him. Michaela pressed her body closer to his. Flesh against flesh, their hearts began to beat in synchronized harmony.

Sully trailed his kisses across her chest, prompting her skin to tauten. Every pore of her being was inflamed. Then, in a fluid motion, he brought himself to her. Michaela closed her eyes to relish the oneness she felt with him. With rhythmic tension and relaxation, their bodies and souls began to interwine.

At just the moment when neither thought they could hold back any longer, their passion spilled forth in glorious bliss. A completeness beyond measure enveloped them and lifted their bodies to unimaginable heights. Gradually, as tender kisses concluded their union, their heartbeats began to calm.

"It's incredible," Michaela caught her breath. "How you complete me, Sully."

He whispered, "You're part of me."

They held each other until sleep finally claimed them.

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

Sully rose before dawn. He stopped by the children's rooms to offer a tender kiss, then he headed out, his mother's diary in hand. He had decided he would not read the conclusion of her journal with his family around.

Michaela heard the front door close. She felt the cold place beside her in bed and realized that her husband had left. Perhaps he was going out to.... Then she noticed as the first rays of dawn entered the room. Not only was Sully gone but so was the diary.

"Oh, Sully," her heart ached.

She rose and dressed quickly. She would not let him go through this alone.

************
Chapter 16
************

Dr. Kelly stopped at the Depot window and greeted Horace, "Any mail for me today?"

Horace turned to check, "Matter of fact, there is. This here's from New York City."

Accepting the envelope, the professor offered, "Thank you, Horace."

"Have a merry Christmas, in case I don't see ya before then," the telegrapher offered.

"You, too," Kelly stepped toward the Depot seats.

Opening the envelope, the professor read:

"Dear Harold,

Enclosed you will find two items which I came across pertaining to Katherine Sully. One is the police report of what happened the night she died. The other is her autopsy report. If I can be of any further assistance, do not hesitate to let me know.

Regards,

Benjamin."

Without examining them, the professor left the documents in the envelope and turned toward town.

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

Sully spread out a blanket beneath the lean-to he had constructed. When he sat down cross-legged on it, Wolf joined him. Sully paused to pet the animal before opening his mother's diary.

"You an' me been through a lot, eh, boy?" he spoke softly.

Wolf whimpered.

Sully added, "I'm afraid there's more t' come."

Sully opened to the page at which he had left off. As he read Katherine Sully's entries, his heart sank. She was falling deeper and deeper into depression. She was ostracized at work and in her apartment building. People gossiped that she had invited the attack, coming and going at odd hours of the night.

Sully's jaw tensed. He should have cleared his mother's reputation. He recalled getting into a fight at the docks with another boy who had heard what happened to his mother. The boy had won the scrape and given Sully a black eye in the process.

He steeled himself to read on.

"June 24, 1845. I have made up my mind about a course of action. I told Albert I want to meet him five nights hence. I'll stop him from ever doing this to another woman again. I must make arrangements for Byron, should I be apprehended. I have spoken with an orphanage."

Sully looked up and thought, "Ma was goin' t' try t' stop the man?"

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

Brian heard the door to The Gazette office open.

"Hey, Dr. Kelly," the young man smiled. "It's good to see you."

"And you, Brian," he smiled. "How is your father handling the diary?"

"Well," Brian paused. "He's been reading it, but I think he's putting on a brave front in front of the family."

The professor posed the question, "How do you think he would react to another bit of information."

"There's more?" Brian was surprised.

Kelly withdrew the envelope from his pocket, "This."

Brian accepted it and skimmed the contents, "I guess Pa has a right to everything, no matter how upsetting it is."

"I've always believed it's best to know the whole truth," the professor nodded.

"Dr. Kelly, I want to thank you for what you've done," Brian offered his hand. "And I'd like to wish you a Merry Christmas."

"Thank you," the older man smiled. "The same to you."

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

Sully inhaled the crisp cold air. His thoughts drifted back to that terrible morning when the police came to tell him of his mother's death.

The officer queried, "What's your name, laddie?"

"Byron Sully," he responded.

"Byron, I need t' tell ya somethin'," the policeman said with a glum expression.

"What?" he stepped closer.

The officer knelt down, "Somethin's happened t' your mother."

Byron felt a rush of anxiety, "What's happened t' Ma?"

The policeman placed his hand on the boy's shoulder, "She.... she passed away, son."

"No!" Sully's eyes filled with terror. "No, she didn't!"

"We found her in the river," the policeman explained. "Do ya have any other family?"

"No," Byron's eyes reddened. "They're all gone."

"Your Ma left a note mentionin' an orphanage," the officer nodded. "I'll take ya there."

"I don't wanna go," Byron pulled back.

The policeman lifted him, "It's the only place left for ya, lad."

Sully's reading was distracted by the distant call of a hawk. He looked up.

"The only place left for me," he repeated the words. "So I ran away."

"Maybe you were running toward something else, my brother," Cloud Dancing's voice startled him.

Sully looked up, "Cloud Dancin', what are you doin' here?"

"Dr. Mike was worried," he explained. "She came to the school and told me she thought you should not be alone. She wanted me to help her find you, but I told her it would be best if I came by myself."

Sully looked down, "I been relivin' my Ma's death. I don't wanna bring down Michaela, especially with Christmas comin'."

"Dr. Mike said you have your mother's words in a book," the medicine man remarked. "Whether the words in writing or handed down through generations of story telling, it is good to have them. Yes?"

Sully informed him, "There's not much left t' read. Just the end."

"It will be the hardest part," his friend acknowledged. "But you will be stronger in the end."

"Stronger?" Sully questioned.

"Like a bone that has broken," the medicine man compared. "When it mends, the section where the break was becomes the strongest part of the bone."

"I ain't so sure," Sully doubted.

"I have heard you say that before, my brother," Cloud Dancing replied. "Now, if you want me to leave so that you may read the last part alone, I shall go."

Sully took a deep breath and looked at the diary, "I don't want to read it alone."

"Then I shall stay with you," he offered.

"No," Sully resolved. "I need t' go home."

Cloud Dancing smiled, "Yes, that is best."

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

Lexie rose and went to the cradle. Ilse was still asleep.

Smiling down at her daughter, she sighed, "Your father.... what am I going to do with him?"

At that moment, there was a knock at the door.

Hank's voice came from the other side, "You awake?"

"Yes," Lexie returned. "What are you doing here? I would have thought you'd be at the Gold Nugget."

"I slept here last night," he opened the door. "An' I'm gettin' damn tired o' sleepin' on a chair when I'm home."

"Would you prefer to sleep here?" she gestured to the bed.

"Yea," he put his hands on his hips.

"There's a price," she asserted.

Hank raised his voice, "Damn it, woman, I live here."

"So do I," she shot back. "And so does our daughter, so lower your voice."

Hank went to the chest of drawers and began to remove his shirts.

"What are you doing?" Lexie queried.

"I'm takin' my things t' the Gold Nugget," he shouted. "I ain't gonna be told when I can come an' go by you."

Lexie attempted to maintain control of her emotions, but they got the better of her, and she began to cry. Hank glanced over his shoulder when he heard her sniffles.

He accused, "Don't go thinkin' that's gonna work on me neither."

Lexie sat on the bed, lowered her head and began to weep. When Hank had finished emptying the drawer, he pivoted. Lexie's cries began to pull at his heart.

"Cut it out, will ya?" he felt his anger rising.

She continued to weep. Finally, Hank grabbed her arm and raised her up. Her cries made something inside of him snap. He lifted his hand to strike her when.... he suddenly stopped.

Lexie was horrified at what he had nearly done. Hank instantly regretted his reaction.

He released her, "I.... I'm sorry. I wouldn't've hit ya."

Her eyes doubted.

"Honest t' God, Lexie," he repeated. "I wouldn't hit ya."

Her brow wrinkled, "And what will you do when Ilse won't stop crying one day?"

He became flustered, "Look, I ain't gonna lie an' say I never struck a woman before. But.... I wouldn't do that t' you or t' Ilse."

"Why not me?" she posed the question.

"Because...." he hesitated.

"Because why?" she persisted.

He confessed, "Because I love ya. You're all I think about.... all I want."

"You sure as hell have a funny way of showing it," she glared at him.

Hank shook his head, "Ya got my stomach turnin' upside down. When I'm at work, I wanna be with you. But when I'm home, we argue. It ain't supposed t' be like this. That's why I said I ain't sure about us. We got on a whole lot better when ya didn't wear a weddin' ring."

"Hank," she tilted her head. "You don't know how to love a woman."

"'Course I do," he denied.

"No," Lexie said. "You know how to make love. God knows, you're an expert at that. But you fight the feelings of tenderness inside. What are you afraid of?"

"I ain't afraid of anythin'," he waved his hand.

"Yes, you are," the realization hit her. "You're afraid of me. Afraid of loving someone other than yourself."

"That's ridiculous," he responded.

"Kiss me," she stood.

"What?" he was taken aback.

She stepped closer, "I said, kiss me."

"Why?" he was skeptical.

She taunted, "Prove to me that you're not afraid."

Hank leaned in and kissed her cheek, "There. Happy?"

Lexie placed her hand on his chest and slid it through the opening of his shirt. His heart sped. She could feel it. She pressed herself against his body and felt his instant reaction.

"Lexie," his voice changed. "Don't go startin' somethin' ya can't finish."

"I'll finish," she informed him.

"You can't," he reminded. "It hurt ya. I ain't gonna go through that again."

Lexie raised her hand to draw him closer. She began to kiss him. Their lips parted. The familiar flames of their passion ignited. Hank lifted her nightgown over her head. His hands and lips found their way across her form.

Lexie stepped back toward the bed, clasping his hand to bid him follow. Hank paused to remove his shirt and pants. Then he positioned himself atop her. This time, when he came to her, Lexie closed her eyes and willed herself to not feel the pain. Hank was so lost in satisfying his physical need, he did not see the anguish in his wife's eyes, the sacrifice she was making to hold on to him.

When at last, he reached his release, he cried out. Not since his teens had he gone so long without a woman. He had kept his wedding vows, and now as his body trembled with the exhilaration of being with Lexie again, he fell back, spent from the experience.

When he reached up to caress her face, he saw the tears on her cheeks.

"Lex?" his voice was tender. "What.... what's wrong?"

She made no reply, still aching from the pain.

Hank sat up, stunned by the realization, "I hurt ya. You let me hurt ya. Why didn't ya...."

"Because I love you," she whispered.

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

Sully entered the homestead and heard no sounds. He mounted the steps. Hope was in her crib, but where was everyone else? They wouldn't have left the baby alone. Returning down the steps, he heard movement in Michaela's office. When he opened the door, he spotted his wife at her desk reading.

"Hey," his tone was soft.

She stood, uncertain of what to say.

He stepped closer and drew her into his arms, "I didn't wanna be alone."

She confessed, "I sent Cloud Dancing to...."

"He found me," Sully noted. "He offered t' stay with me, but.... I remembered somethin'."

"What?" she rested her hands on his shoulders.

"When I was hidin' from the Army, an' you had that miscarriage," he felt a lump in his throat. "Ya finally told me about it when I came home, but it tore me up not bein' with ya when ya needed me most.... when you were goin' through it. You had t' face that alone, Michaela. I never felt so guilty in all my life as then."

"Why would you think about that?" she was puzzled.

He explained, "I'm bein' selfish, wantin' t' finish my mother's diary all by myself. I didn't stop t' think that you might need t' be with me t' help me through it."

She marveled at his sensitivity, "Our hearts are one, Sully. When yours aches, so does mine."

"I know," he swallowed hard. "So...."

"You're ready to finish reading it?" she assumed.

"With you by my side," he pulled the diary from his pocket. Then he thought about the quiet. "Where is everyone?"

"Loren came by to invite Bridget and the children to the church," she explained. "There are games and a puppeteer from Denver."

Sully nodded, then took her hand.

"Where are we going?" she was curious.

"Livin' room," he gestured.

When they reached the hearth, he sat down. Reaching up, he took her hand and guided her to join him.

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

Brian finished his chores at The Gazette. He felt his pocket one more time to ensure that the envelope from New York was still there. He decided to take it to his father at once.

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

Michaela and Sully sat by the hearth for several minutes. She waited for him to say something.

He began to summarize, "Ma is plannin' on tryin' t' stop Albert."

Michaela's brow wrinkled, "The man who raped her?"

"Yea," he nodded. "She's goin' through hell. Folks are talkin' about her. I even remembered gettin' int' a fight in defense of her."

Slowly, he opened the diary, and read aloud:

"June 27, 1845. I have been dreaming these past few nights. My beloved Hugh comes to me."

Michaela lifted an eyebrow, "Hugh?"

"My Pa," Sully revealed. Then he read on:

"I miss him so terribly.... his arms.... his kisses...."

Sully stopped and looked up, "It gets kinda personal."

Michaela smiled, "She was deeply in love with your father."

"Uh-huh," he ran his finger down the page and continued:

"Am I going mad, to dream about my husband? I hear his voice and see his face. He calls for me.... waits for me. But I have Byron. His dear, sweet love has kept me going these past three years. Albert must be stopped. If my plan works, I shall take my son far away from this city. We can be with Hugh and Percy. Byron looks at me with those precious blue eyes. I know he wants to keep me from sinking deeper into despair. He doesn't understand what my mind is...."

"Why are you stopping?" Michaela wondered.

Sully noted, "Her writin' .... The thoughts don't seem connected. They been jumpin' around, the last couple pages."

"It's her melancholia," Michaela reasoned. "Oh, Sully what you went through watching her."

He amended, "What she went through. I was watchin' my Ma, my best friend, sink away from me."

Michaela offered, "Do you want to stop there?"

"No," he shook his head. "I wanna finish."

His hand trembled slightly as he turned to the last entry.

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

Hank sat in a corner chair in the Gold Nugget. No one approached him, fearing his wrath, as he had been in a fowl mood all morning.

He downed another shot of whiskey, having lost count of the number he had consumed.

Loren entered the establishment and after his eyes adjusted to the darkness, stepped closer. The older man sat down beside Hank.

Hank looked up with bloodshot eyes, "Someone ask you t' sit there?"

"I heard ya been havin' a bad mornin'," Loren opened.

"Bad?" Hank laughed. "Where'd ya hear that?"

Loren shrugged, "Folks talk."

"Yea?" Hank held his glass in a toast. "Here's t' talk then."

"Aw, Hank, why ya doin' this?" he questioned. "Ya oughta be home enjoyin' that new baby, gettin' ready for Christmas."

"I know," Hank became sarcastic. "If only you had your little girl back, an' if only it was Christmas 40 years ago."

Loren scowled, "Don't make fun of my feelin's. Can't ya see I care? I'm tryin' t' help ya.... give ya someone t' talk to."

"Help me?" he slurred. "You can help me by gettin' the hell outa here."

"What's wrong with you, anyway?" Loren challenged. "Ya ain't been yourself in months...."

Hank cut him off, "This is none o' your business, Loren. Now, leave me alone."

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

Sully took a deep breath, "This is Ma's last entry.... the day she died."

Michaela clasped his hand, "I'm here."

************
Chapter 17
************

Sully kissed Michaela's hand. Tears began to form anew in his eyes. Setting the diary aside, he leaned his head against his wife's.

At that moment, they heard Hope's cries from upstairs.

Michaela slowly pulled back, "I'll check on her. Please don't read any more until I return."

"All right," he agreed.

As Michaela rose to check on the baby, Sully leaned back against the chair. He tried to calm himself by glancing at the familiar objects in the room.... photographs, tatting, drawings by the children. His gaze turned toward the Christmas tree and the ornaments he had crafted. When he looked up at the mantel, he spotted the feather Michaela had mounted there before their wedding. It had been a gift from Snow Bird to bring many happy suns to their lodge and marriage. He closed his eyes. There had been many happy suns. Many sad times, as well.

When his mother died, he had thought he would never feel sadder. He had been alone in the world.... only 10 years old. It had been the start of a solitary life for him that would bring him to Colorado Springs. And here, he would experience the overwhelming sense of losing his loved ones again.

His thoughts were brought back to the present when he heard Michaela descend the stairs.

She approached, holding Hope.

The baby smiled when she saw her father, "Bah-ba!"

Sully could not help but grin, "Hey, little girl."

The child reached for him. Michaela gently set Hope in her father's arms. Sully tenderly kissed the baby and smiled as she began to toy with his beads. For the moment, the heaviness in Sully's heart lifted. He savored the scent of his daughter.

Michaela looked on lovingly as Sully held their youngest child. She imagined that the experiences of his own lost childhood had given him the ability to connect so profoundly to their children.

"Ba," Hope repeated as she attempted to put the beads in her mouth.

Sully gently removed them from her grip, "Can you say Pa?"

With a broad grin, Hope energetically bounced in his lap.

Then Sully surprised Michaela, "Would you read the last page?"

"Read it to you?" she clarified.

"Yea," Sully rested his lips on Hope's head.

Michaela reached for the diary and cleared her throat, "Are you certain?"

"Yes," Sully nodded, holding the baby a bit closer.

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

Hank staggered toward Grace's cafe. Finding an empty table, he sat.

Grace approached, "From the looks of ya, you could use some strong coffee."

Hank did not speak as she set a cup before him and poured from the large pot.

Grace waited, then spoke, "You hungry?"

Hank was sarcastic, "That's why folks come here, ain't it?"

"Folks usually tell me what they'd like, while they're at it," she shot back.

"What I'd like...." his voice trailed off.

She decided to change the subject, "Robert E an' me enjoyed seein' your baby at the social. She's a sweet one."

"Yea, she is," Hank nodded absently.

Grace put her hand on her hip, "Never thought I'd see you a Pa t' a little girl."

"I ain't much of a Pa," he spoke more to himself than to her.

Grace studied his expression, "What makes ya say that? You an' Lexie couldn't keep your eyes off that little girl all evenin'."

Hank looked up at her and attempted to focus, "Looks can be deceivin'."

Grace sat down, "You an' me ain't exactly friends, Hank. But if you wanna talk about what's ailin' ya, I'll listen."

At first, he stiffened, not wanting to reveal his feelings. Then, noting the sincerity on her face, he relaxed a bit.

"You'd listen t' me after all I done t' you over the years?" he wondered.

"Like I said," she paused. "I ain't inclined t' be your friend, but I'm a Christian, an' I believe in forgiveness."

"Forgiveness," he repeated. "I ain't much on that."

"What's botherin' ya?" she came to the point. "Ya act like ya lost your last friend."

"You say you're a Christian," he leaned forward on his elbows. "Tell me why a baby's gotta be baptized."

Grace smiled, "Anyone can be baptized, not just babies."

"But why?" he repeated.

"It's t' wash away our sins," she explained.

Hank retorted, "They'd need a river for me. Come t' think of it, I remember a Baptist preacher came here one time, dippin' folks in the river."

Grace shook her head, "Never thought there'd come a day when I was talkin' with you about Christianity an' sinners. Are you thinkin' about baptizin' Ilse?"

"Lexie wants us to," he revealed.

"Well, that oughta count for somethin', shouldn't it?" she posed the question. "She's her Ma."

Hank scoffed, "Doin' somethin' just cause my wife wants me to? How does sprinklin' some water on a kid wash away sins? What kinda sin does a baby have?"

Grace noted, "I think it's more than that."

"More?" he was interested.

"Well," Grace chose her words carefully. "When ya take the baby t' the church for baptism, you're introducin' her t' the whole community. You're sayin' that she's part of somethin' real big, an' she's gonna need God an' all of us t' help her through life. Ya tell everyone the name you've chosen t' give her, an' ya pick some godparents t' raise her in case somethin' happens t' you an' Lexie."

"So it ain't just the water," he assumed. "Why's it gotta be done in a church?"

"'Cause it's spiritual," she answered. "An' the church is the spiritual center of our town."

Hank absorbed what she had been saying, then frowned, "You gonna tell anyone what we been talkin' about?"

Grace returned, "Who'd believe me if I did?"

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

Matthew placed his elbows on his desktop and covered his ears, trying to drown out the sound of Michael's crying in the next room. He could hear Emma humming to the baby, hoping to calm his tears. Sighing, Matthew stood up, and went to his wife and son.

"What's wrong with him?" Matthew rubbed the little one's back.

Emma sighed in exasperation, "I don't know. I don't think it's teething this time. His diaper's dry. I just don't know."

"Does that book Ma gave us have anythin' t' say about babies' cryin'?" he wondered.

She replied, "I haven't had time t' do much reading."

"I'll look," he lifted it and began to scan the table of contents.

The baby's tears did not subside, and it was difficult to concentrate on the book.

"I say, let's take him t' the hospital," Matthew set the book down. "Colleen's on duty."

"All right," Emma began to wrap the child in a blanket.

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

Colleen sat at the partner's desk she shared with her mother. She glanced out the window, grateful for the calmness of the day. Her thoughts turned to Lewis and the kisses she had shared with him. They were sweet, lovely in fact. Smiling, she leaned back in her chair.

Then her mind drifted back to her wedding day to Andrew. She had been only 17 years of age, too young, her mother had thought.

A knock at the door frame roused her from her reverie.

"Hello," Lewis smiled. "Not much business today, huh?"

"No," she gazed up at him. "That's a good thing in my profession."

He offered, "Maybe I could keep you company until your services are needed."

"I'd like that," she was pleased to see him. "But I don't want to keep you from your work."

Lewis grinned, "The nice thing about my work is that I determine my own hours."

"That's true," Colleen acknowledged. "Are you going to work tomorrow?"

"Uncle Horace has invited me to accompany Myra, Samantha and him to Christmas Eve service at church. Then we're having supper."

"That sounds nice," she remarked.

"How about you?" he queried.

She returned, "We usually go to church, as well. The children will be real excited.... probably too much so to sleep. And it's Hope's first Christmas."

He spoke wistfully, "Sharing a baby's first Christmas must be quite special."

The thought occurred to her, "Why don't you stop by after your dinner tomorrow night?"

His eyes widened, "Do you think it would be okay with your family?"

"Of course," she assured. "They're very fond of you."

His blue eyes peered into hers, "I feel the same way.... about them, that is."

"Lewis," she stood and stepped closer to him, feeling her pulse race as she did so."

"Yes?" he anticipated.

"About last night...." she paused. "When we kissed...."

"Yes?" he swallowed hard, beguiled by the nearness of her.

"I...." she gazed longingly into his eyes.

Lewis leaned closer and lifted her chin for a kiss. This time, Colleen felt herself tingle. Her lips parted slightly, inviting more. Lewis wrapped his arms around her and drew her closer. Colleen's hands traveled to the back of his neck. They pressed closer to one another.

"Dr. Cook!" it was Sister Mary Martha.

Colleen quickly separated from Lewis and caught her breath, "Sister...."

The nun informed her in a disapproving tone, "You have a patient. Your brother has arrived with that Indian baby."

"Michael?" her brow creased.

Lewis excused himself, "I'll speak with you later, Colleen."

"Yes," she reached for her stethoscope.

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

Hank entered the ranch, having sobered some from his morning binge. When he stepped to the bedroom, he first reached for the doorknob. Then, on second thought, he knocked.

There was no answer. Quietly, he opened the door. Lexie was asleep. He stepped toward the cradle, where Ilse was wide awake. The baby looked up at her father. Hank noticed a smile cross the infant's face. Tenderly, he lifted her and sat on the edge of the bed, his back to Lexie.

"Hey, sweetie," he whispered. "Whatcha doin' awake?"

The baby cooed and puckered her lips.

"You hungry?" Hank interpreted. "Well, ya need t' wait if ya can. Your Ma's sleepin', an' she needs t' rest. She's had her hands full with me lately."

Lexie had awakened when he knocked but only pretended to sleep. Now, listening to Hank speak to the baby, she felt a surge of love for him. How could he nearly hit her one minute, then speak so lovingly to their baby? He was a perplexing man.

Hank continued his soft tone, "Ilse, I gotta tell ya somethin'. I been thinkin' 'bout this baptism thing. I don't think I agree with it, but your Ma wants it. They say it's t' wash away your sins, but I don't much see how someone as perfect as you could have sins."

Lexie felt a tear trickle down her cheek.

Hank put the baby back in her cradle and stroked her belly, "I reckon I'm bein' selfish. I been thinkin' only about what I want an' need.... not what you or your Ma might wanna have."

Suddenly, he felt Lexie's hand on his back.

He glanced over his shoulder, "I didn't mean t' wake ya up."

"That's all right," Lexie replied.

He noticed the tear beneath her cheek, "You still hurtin'?"

"No," she linked her fingers in his. "I heard you talking to the baby."

"So ya know what I think," he turned more fully to face her. "I never felt like this before, Lexie. Knowin' how I hurt ya.... it's tearin' me up inside. I was selfish. Man like me oughta be able t' control himself better."

"You're used to getting what you want," she pointed out.

"Can't do that when ya got a family dependin' on ya," he observed. "I... I'm sorry about what happened with you an' me last night."

"I forgive you," she smiled.

He eyed her intently, "A woman's never done t' me what you do."

"What's that?" she questioned.

"Make me wanna be a better man," he recalled the words Sully had once spoken to him.

Lexie mused, "I think it might be a full time job."

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

"Jacob!" Teresa's voice sounded frantic.

"What is it?" he rushed into the kitchen.

He saw his wife bending over, her hand to her abdomen.

"Teresa!" he gasped. "What's wrong?"

"The baby," she closed her eyes. "I... I think I...."

With that, she collapsed onto the floor. Swiftly, Jake called to his daughter, then lifted Teresa and carried her to the buggy outside. Maria was frightened by the sight of her mother. In less than a minute, they were off. The ride was bumpy, and Teresa cringed with each jostle of the buggy.

"Quickly," Teresa urged.

"I'm goin' fast as I can," he replied.

"Mama, what wrong?" Maria's eyes reflected her concern.

Teresa could not answer.

Jake spotted the hospital ahead, "We're almost there. Hold on."

He slowed the buggy in front of the steps and gently lifted his wife. Maria climbed down and followed her parents into the structure.

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

Michaela spoke the last written thoughts of Katherine Sully.

"June 29, 1845. I am ready for whatever God has in store for me. Tonight, I meet Albert at King's Bridge. I have obtained a gun from my neighbor, Mrs. Powderly. It belongs to her husband. I told her it is for my protection. I shall also leave her this diary to give to my son in case I do not return. She has been so kind to me since this happened. These past weeks have.... Byron, I write these words for you. If I do not come back, I want you to know that I love you. No matter what happens. I am doing this to stop an evil man. My heart will always be with you. One day, you'll be a grown man. Maybe you'll understand then. Maybe you'll forgive me. I will always be with you."

Sully looked up, "Michaela, you know what this means?"

Michaela added, "It appears her intention was to kill Albert, not herself."

He sighed, "But she knew she might not return. It was so dangerous."

Michaela tried to gauge his reaction, "She wrote nothing more."

He sighed, "At the orphanage, they told me she killed herself. They never gave me her diary."

"You said you ran away," Michaela recalled. "Perhaps they didn't have the opportunity."

"No," he interjected. "They wanted me t' think she killed herself. Told me a big story. It was lies. I lived all these years believin' she jumped from that bridge."

At that moment, their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Brian.

Michaela glanced at her son, "Brian? What brings you home at this hour?"

Brian removed the envelope from his pocket, "This arrived from Dr. Kelly's friend in New York."

She was curious, "What is it?"

Brian answered, "It's the police and autopsy reports for Katherine Sully."

Sully handed Hope to Michaela, then stood up and accepted the documents. Michaela rose to join him. Silently, Sully withdrew the papers.

He scanned them for several moments, then uttered, "My God."

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

At the hospital, Colleen tended to Michael, while Emma and Matthew looked on.

Matthew queried, "What's wrong with him?"

Colleen assessed, "It's his gums."

She went to the medicine cabinet and withdrew a bottle. Gently, she began to rub some of its contents on the baby's gums, and gradually, his tears began to ebb.

Emma observed, "Thank goodness."

Colleen smiled, "He's having a lot of difficulty cutting his first teeth, poor darling."

Emma was able to lift the little boy and prompt a smile, "Thanks, Colleen."

"You're quite welcome," she said.

Suddenly, Sister Mary Martha burst into the room, "Dr. Cook, quickly. It's Mrs. Slicker."

Matthew and Emma stepped out of the room so that Teresa could be brought in.

"Jake," Colleen urged. "You need to wait outside."

His face was pale, "Will she be all right?"

"I have to examine her," Colleen was firm.

Jake turned and joined Matthew and Emma in the hallway. Maria had discovered Michael and was attempting to make the baby smile.

Matthew offered, "Come on, Jake. We'll stay with ya in the waitin' room."

Jake's voice trembled, "Could ya do me a favor?"

"Sure," Matthew nodded.

"Go get your Ma," he urged.

Matthew began to protest, "Colleen's a good...."

"Please," he implored.

Matthew nodded, "All right. Emma will you stay?"

"'Course I will," she agreed.

With that, Matthew left them.

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

"Sully?" Michaela grew concerned. "What does the police report say?"

Sully perused it, "Seems an eyewitness saw the whole thing. On King's Bridge, Katherine Sully pulled a gun on an unidentified male. They struggled, an' the weapon discharged. The man was hit in the chest at close range. He grabbed Mrs. Sully an' fell into the river, dragging her with him. His body was not recovered, but Mrs. Sully's was."

Brian noted, "Pa, why'd she want to shoot a man?"

Sully gazed at his son with reddened eyes, "'Cause he raped her an' other women." Then Sully looked at the autopsy report, "I.... I can't believe it."

************
Chapter 18
************

Michaela looked at her husband with anticipation, "Sully, what does the the autopsy report say?"

"Look who signed it," Sully was stunned.

Michaela stepped closer to check, "Josef Quinn? That can't.... Wait. I remember Father's mentioning that when he was at Bellevue, they brought in a woman who had been found in the river. He performed the autopsy. I remember because Mother was so upset that it delayed our return to Boston. This is incredible."

Sully went to the fireplace and rested his hands on the mantel. His world seemed to be turned upside down.

"Brian?" Michaela held Hope for him.

He took the cue, "I'll take her upstairs. Pa, are you okay?"

Sully nodded but uttered nothing.

When they were alone, Michaela touched her husband's back, "Sully."

He pivoted, shock on his face, "This don't seem real, Michaela."

"I know," she related.

He folded his arms tightly, "I been livin' a lie."

"No, you haven't," she assured.

"Yes, I have," he asserted. "Do you know what it's like t' find out somethin' you believed your whole life didn't happen?"

"The closest I ever came to that was when I found out David hadn't been killed in the War," she related.

He took a deep breath, "I blamed myself for Ma jumpin'. I thought I could have stopped her.... if only I could've been a better son. It's all a lie. It's like discoverin' the person ya thought ya were don't exist."

She affirmed, "Sully, you're still the same person. You're the man I love. That hasn't changed. What we have is very real."

He lowered his head, "Why'd they tell me she killed herself?"

Michaela lifted his chin, "Perhaps we could write to them.... see if any of the sisters at the orphanage remember you and the circumstances."

"They'd prob'ly lie again," his jaw tensed.

She offered, "I know this is so much to absorb. I wish I knew a way to help you."

His tone softened, "You bein' here with me helps. You remind me that I got plenty t' be grateful for in my life."

She suddenly recalled, "Sully, Rebecca sent me Father's journals after Mother died."

"So?" he wondered.

"Since he signed the autopsy report, he might have written about your mother's death in them," she noted.

"Where are they?" he questioned.

"In a trunk in the attic," she pointed.

"Let's go," he took her hand and headed for the stairs.

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

Teresa Slicker focused on Colleen's face, "My baby.... is it...."

"You're going to be fine," the young physician tried to assure. "I need you to remain calm."

"It is my fault," tears streamed down Teresa's cheeks. "I was not happy about the child. If I lose it, it is my fault."

Colleen affirmed, "We're going to do everything possible to prevent you from losing the baby."

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

Sully set the trunk on the floor in the hallway.

Hearing his parents, Brian joined them, "Hope's asleep."

Michaela informed her son, "Your Aunt Rebecca sent my father's daily journals. They might shed some light."

"Here," Sully found the one for 1845.

Quickly, he scanned to find late June. He ran his finger along the page.

Then he stopped to read aloud, "Listen t' this:

'June 30, 1845. At Bellevue this morning, the authorities brought in a woman who had been found in the Hudson River last night. Doctors Hanratty and Schmidt asked if I would perform the autopsy on the poor woman. Her skull had been fractured and her spine broken. I ascertained this to be the cause of death since the lungs do not indicate drowning. In filling out the papers....'"

"MA!" Matthew's voice called from downstairs.

Michaela's brow wrinkled, "Matthew? What...."

Matthew bounded up the steps, out of breath, "Ya gotta come quick t' the hospital."

"What's wrong?" she questioned.

"It's Teresa Slicker," he swallowed hard. "Colleen's tendin' t' her, but Jake wants you. She might lose the baby."

Michaela cast a concerned glance toward her husband.

Sully encouraged, "You go. I'll be fine."

She kissed him, then departed with Matthew.

"Pa," Brian put his hand on his father's shoulder. "I'll stay with ya."

"Thanks, Brian," Sully nodded.

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

Bridget gathered the Sully children and began to bundle them up for the ride home.

Katie spoke for her siblings, "Thanks for bringin' us, Mr. Bray."

He touched her nose, "You're welcome, Katie girl. Now, I was thinkin', it might be nice t' have a treat."

Josef asked, "A pokle?"

"No," Loren chuckled. "I think some candy, if it's all right with Miss Bridget."

She returned, "One piece is all."

"Good," Loren lifted Annie. "Let's go over t' the store."

Josef looked up at the older man, "Know what?"

"What?" Loren anticipated.

"Would you like t' be my gwan'pa?"

Loren grinned, "That depends. What do I have t' do?"

Josef shrugged, "Jus' give me all the pokles I want."

Katie cautioned, "Joey, you'd get sick."

The little boy smiled, "Good thing Mama's a doctor."

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

Michaela rushed into the examining room, "Colleen?"

"Ma," the young woman was relieved to see her.

Michaela quickly washed her hands and sat down to check Teresa, "Has she been bleeding?"

"No," Colleen informed her. "But she has had some uterine contractions. I'm preparing some black haw."

Teresa spoke up, "Dr. Quinn.... My baby...."

"We're going to give you a tea, Mrs. Slicker," Michaela explained. "It's made from black haw."

Teresa feared, "This is an Indian medicine?"

"Yes," Michaela patted her arm. "It will help to relax your uterus."

Colleen stepped to the stove to check on the tea while Michaela continued her examination.

Michaela asked Teresa, "Are you experiencing any pain now?"

"No," Teresa replied.

"Good," Michaela smiled.

"I do not want to lose my baby, Dr. Quinn," Teresa felt tears welling. "I pray that God will not punish me for not wanting the child at first."

Michaela spoke softly, "Shhh. We'll do everything we can to see that you and this little one are safe."

Colleen watched her mother with admiration. Dr. Mike's ability to calm a patient with her healing techniques and empathy had inspired Colleen as a teen to seek a career in medicine. She also knew that Dr. Mike could relate to the fear Mrs. Morales was going through, having lost three babies of her own.

Michaela looked to her daughter and smiled, "You did well."

"Thanks, Ma," Colleen offered. "The tea's ready."

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

Sully sat on the edge of the bed. Brian pulled up a chair and faced him as his father read Josef Quinn's journal to him:

"In filling out the papers certifying the woman's death, the police supplied me with some information. A witness overheard the man on King's Bridge calling her name before she shot him. She was Katherine Sully. The witness said after she fired the gun, the man grabbed her shoulders. They both plunged into the water. The authorities also found along the river's edge a note in which she mentioned a son, whom the police have taken to an orphanage. Owing to the child's age, they debated what to tell the lad about his mother's death. The police told the sisters to inform the boy that his mother had jumped from the bridge, rather than have him grow up thinking she was a murderer."

Sully stopped, "She wasn't a murderer."

"Does he say anything more?" Brian questioned.

Sully resumed Josef Quinn's journal:

"I told the police it might be better for the boy to be told the truth, but they disagreed."

Brian shook his head, "They should've told you the truth."

Sully nodded, then turned the page, "Listen t' this:

'July 1, 1845. I have not been able to get my mind off the little boy to whom the police and orphanage intend to lie. There is something that compels me to intervene in this matter. Mike is 12 years old, and it is unlikely that Elizabeth will conceive another baby. Much as I love my daughters, I would like a son. I spoke with Elizabeth about our adopting the boy. She, however, was adamant about our not taking him in. Due to his age and background, she fears he would not adjust to....'"

"Why ya stopping, Pa?" Brian was curious.

"He was thinkin' of adoptin' me," Sully pondered. "You realize I could've been raised as Michaela's brother?"

Brian marveled, "Looks like destiny brought you together anyway. But it is incredible to imagine."

Sully returned to the journal:

"July 2, 1845. I went to the orphanage to check on Mrs. Sully's son. They told me he had run off. Poor child. I cannot imagine what he must be thinking. If only my wife had been more amenable to adoption. We return to Boston tomorrow. Elizabeth and the girls are anxious to go home. The Sully boy has no home, no family. What will become of him?"

Sully closed the journal and ran his hand across the cover.

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

Michaela entered the waiting room, "Jake."

He rose nervously, "Is she okay? Is the baby...."

"Both are resting comfortably," she assured.

"She didn't lose the baby?" he noted.

"No," Michaela responded. "But it is imperative that she rest. The next 48 hours could be critical, and we'll have to monitor her pregnancy very carefully from now on."

"I'll see that she rests," he pledged as he embraced Maria.

"You don't mind spending Christmas at the hospital?" Michaela questioned.

Jake grinned, "Long as I got my family, it don't matter where we are."

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

The children entered the homestead, and Sully and Brian met them at the door.

Bridget noticed Sully's expression, "You all right, lad?"

"Yea," he patted her arm. "Thanks for your concern."

Bridget informed him, "These leprechauns were good as gold."

Sully knelt down to remove their coats, "I wanna hear all about it."

Annie embraced her father fully, "I like pup."

"Puppet," Katie corrected.

Josef tilted his head, "Where's Mama?"

Sully explained, "Emergency at the hospital."

Josef shook his head, "Always somethin'."

Sully spoke softly to his son, "A doctor's real important, Joe. They do more than just take care o' people's injuries."

He countered, "I want Mama here."

Sully was compelled to tell him, "The most important thing is that ya know your Ma's comin' home t' ya."

Katie sensed her father's words held a deeper meaning, "We're real lucky, Joey. We got Mama an' Poppy, an' we got each other."

Josef put his hands on his hips, "I know. I jus' ain't a patient."

Sully ruffled his son's hair, "Come on, big boy. Tell me about the Christmas program."

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

It was after dinner when Michaela arrived home from the hospital. The house was quiet, and Bridget had kept supper warm on the stove for her. Before eating, Michaela climbed the steps, hoping to say good night to her children and to find out if Sully had learned more from her father's journal.

When she reached the top floor, she heard Sully's soft tones in Katie's room. Pausing at the doorway, she saw the children gathered to listen to their father.

Noah spotted his mother, "Mama!"

Michaela smiled as she entered the room, "Is Papa telling a story?"

"Yep," Josef patted the bed. "You can sit by me, Mama."

"I'd love to," she touched Sully's arm, then positioned herself next to Josef.

Noah quickly climbed into her lap.

Sully whispered to his wife, "Everythin' okay?"

"Yes," she smiled. "With you?"

"Yea," he nodded. "I'll tell ya more later."

"Store, Papa," Annie reached for her father's lips.

Katie informed Michaela, "Poppy's tellin' us about his mother."

Michaela was interested as she listened to Sully's words:

"As ya know, my Ma was named Katherine Sully. She was a carin' woman who risked her life t' help others escape from slavery."

Josef recalled their conversation of a few days ago, "I thought Lincoln helped 'em."

"He did," Sully added. "But this was before they were free. A lot of 'em ran away t' Canada."

Josef interrupted, "We ever go there?"

"No, Joe," Sully smiled.

Michaela leaned closer to her son, "Let Papa speak, Sweetheart."

Sully resumed, "There were folks in the North who helped the runaway slaves on their journey. The people who led them t' freedom formed somethin' called The Underground Railroad. My Ma was part o' that. Both the slaves an' those who helped 'em were real brave."

Katie nodded, "Grandma was brave."

"Yep," Sully acknowledged. "I'm real proud o' what she did. An' I want her grandchildren t' know she was a hero."

"Hero?" Noah looked at Michaela.

She clasped his little hand, "Someone to admire and look up to."

Josef wondered, "I never hear 'bout her, Papa. We heard lots o' stowies 'bout Gwan'ma Quinn. Why?"

Sully replied, "I never knew much about my Ma until your sister helped."

"Katie?" Josef pointed.

"Katherine," Sully smiled at his daughter.

Katie's cheeks blushed, "I didn't do anythin'."

Sully's heart filled with love, "You did more than you know, sweet girl."

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

With the children asleep, Michaela sat beside Sully in the bedroom rocking chair.

"How's Teresa?" he inquired.

"She didn't lose the baby," Michaela spoke with relief.

"Good," he acknowledged.

"But she's going to have to spend a few days in bed," Michaela informed him.

"Good thing school's not in session," he observed.

"Well?" she anticipated. "What did you learn from Father's journals?"

He raised her hand to his lips and eyed her intensely, "I learned somethin' you won't believe."

"What?" she was intrigued.

************
Chapter 19
************

Sully lifted Josef Quinn's journal and opened it to the page he had discovered earlier, "Read this."

Michaela perused it with great interest.

She exclaimed, "Sully!"

"I know," he nodded.

She commented, "To think that Father wanted to adopt you...."

He added, "Things worked out the way they were meant to."

"Imagine if you had come to Boston, lived with us, gone to school there...." her voice trailed off.

He completed her thought, "Been your brother."

"Oh, my," she raised her hands to her cheeks.

"Well," he amended. "Not your blood brother. I still would've fallin' in love with ya, just a few years earlier. Your Pa also wanted them t' tell me the truth about how Ma died."

Michaela said, "At least now you know why they lied, not that it's any consolation."

At that moment, there was a knock at the door.

"Come in," Michaela kept her voice low.

The door opened, and Josef approached his parents.

Sully assumed, "You need t' go t' the privy, Joe?"

"No," he neared his mother. "I need t' tell Mama somethin'."

Sully asked, "Somethin' private, or can I hear?"

Josef replied, "You can hear." Then with the blue eyes of his father, the little boy looked up. "Mama, I wanna tell ya, I lucky guy."

She turned up the corner of her mouth, "You are?"

He reached out to embrace her, "I knowed ya come home fwom the hospital t'day. That makes me lucky."

Michaela hugged him and kissed his cheek, "I'm lucky, too, to have a little boy like you."

Josef grinned, "I twy t' be a patient."

Sully rubbed his son's back, "That's good, Joe."

Josef looked at his mother, "I don' touch that Navity, neither."

She smiled, "That's my good boy."

The child stepped back, "'Night."

"Good night," Michaela returned. "We love you."

"Love ya," Josef departed.

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

Christmas Eve arrived. Teresa Slicker's condition improved. Hank and Lexie decorated a small tree at the ranch. Throughout Colorado Springs, families and friends engaged in last minute purchases and preparations.

At the Sully household, Michaela unveiled new outfits for the children to wear to the Christmas Eve service at church. Katie, Annie and Noah adored theirs, but Josef turned up his nose at the suit his mother had purchased for him.

As Bridget dressed the little boy, he squirmed.

"Hold still, lad," she grew frustrated.

"Miss Bwidget," he faced her. "I can't wear this. Wendell will say mean stuff."

"Just ignore him," she counseled.

Josef raised his hand, "I be wright back."

With that, he exited his room and headed for his parents'. Knocking at the door, he waited impatiently for the okay to enter.

Sully's voice beckoned, "Come in."

Josef opened the door and paraded around the room, "We got a pwoblem."

"Don't you look adorable," Michaela's face beamed.

Sully stifled a grin at his son's appearance in the short pants and rounded collar.

"Mama, I can't wear this," the little boy asserted.

Michaela's brow wrinkled, "Why not?"

Josef held his arms out to the side, "Look at me."

"I am," she nodded. "You look handsome."

The little boy turned to his father, "Papa, help me."

Sully ventured, "Ah, well, Joe, your Ma thinks ya oughta...."

"Papa!" Josef implored.

Michaela glanced at her husband, "Don't you like it?"

Sully rubbed his chin, "I reckon that's the fashion in Boston."

Josef reminded, "We ain't in Boston."

Michaela corrected, "Aren't in Boston. What's wrong with wanting my son to look his best at church?"

Sully defended, "It would be okay if other boys dressed that way, Michaela, but...."

Her lips pursed, "Fine. Josef Michael Sully, wear your buckskins."

"Can I?" the child's face lit up.

Sully intervened, "Joe, let your Ma an' me talk for a minute. You go back t' your room."

"Can I change?" his eyes widened.

"Just wait there," Sully advised.

Josef left the room, closing the door behind him.

Sully approached his wife and placed his hands on her shoulders. Drawing closer, he kissed her forehead.

She was upset, "You're on his side."

"There isn't a side here, Michaela," he pointed out. "Just our boy showin' an independent streak. Wonder where he got it?"

"Sully, it's Christmas Eve," she stated. "I want him to dress well."

He smiled and touched her cheek, "I know ya do. But...."

"Fine," she pivoted. "He can wear what he wants."

Sully put his hands on her waist and bid her to look at him, "Remember our weddin' day?"

"What's that got to do with this?" she challenged.

"Your mother brought us clothes from Boston t' wear, but we had other ideas about what we wanted t' do," Sully reminded. "So we compromised."

A slight smile appeared at the edge of Michaela's lips, "You wore the Cheyenne ceremonial top with tuxedo trousers."

"An' you wore a gown that combined what your Ma brought from Boston with what the ladies in town had made for ya," he nodded.

"Compromise," she sighed.

Sully suggested, "How 'bout we tell Joe, he's gotta wear part of the outfit you got him, but he can choose somethin' he likes t' wear with it?"

Michaela mused, "You realize that he'll wear the round collared shirt with buckskin pants?"

"Maybe," Sully grinned. "Then again, maybe he'll surprise us."

"Agreed," she smiled.

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

After the church service, Michaela was delighted to host all of her children at the homestead. Matthew and Emma seemed happy, though somewhat awkward still with the baby. Michaela watched Brian and Mary with interest. She detected a definite attraction.

Matthew approached his mother where she stood near the kitchen fireplace, "You seem kinda quiet. Everythin' okay?"

"Fine," she smiled pensively. "I was just thinking how fortunate we are."

Matthew put his arm around her shoulders, "Sure are. But I got a question for ya."

"What?" she anticipated.

"Who picked out Josef's outfit?" Matthew chuckled.

Michaela looked at him with a gleam in her eye, "A formal shirt with buckskin pants? Whom do you think?"

Matthew assumed, "Looks like a little compromisin' was goin' on."

They chuckled.

Then she clapped her hands, "I think I'd like to open the large gift tonight."

"Yea!" the children became excited.

Sully looked up, "I better get my tool box then."

"I get it for ya, Papa," Josef offered.

"Too heavy, Joe," Sully noted. "But thanks."

Soon Sully was at work unveiling the gift, while "oohs" and "ahs" emanated from the room.

Katie was thrilled when it was finally revealed to them, "A piano! Mama, it's beautiful."

"I want to fill our home with music," Michaela smiled. "And each of you will learn to play."

"I can play it now," Josef started for the instrument.

"Hold it, Joe," Sully cautioned. "There's more t' it than pounded the keys."

"I don' see keys," the little boy looked around.

Sully explained, "That's what ya call the movable top pieces on it."

Michaela turned to her son, "Brian, would you?"

He stood reluctantly, "I haven't played in a while, Ma."

Matthew encouraged, "Like ridin' a horse, little brother."

Brian sat on the chair Sully had placed before the piano, "What would you like to hear?"

Michaela requested, "Deck the Halls."

Soon, just as she had wished, the house filled with music and singing. After supper, Lewis arrived, and Michaela gathered the family to read "A Christmas Carol." However, Annie, Noah, Hope and Michael did not last to the final, "God bless us, every one."

Lewis and Colleen stepped into the kitchen.

He smiled, "I think this is the nicest Christmas Eve I can ever remember."

"It's the first in a some time that I can remember feeling merry," she remarked.

Lewis stepped closer, and looked up, "I see your father has hung some mistletoe."

She shyly raised her eyes, "It appears so."

He queried, "Do you observe such traditions?"

"What traditions?" she coyly asked.

Lewis lifted her chin and tenderly kissed her.

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

Outside, a gentle snow began to blanket the landscape. Andrew spotted the Sully homestead in the distance. Feeling a sense of relief, he smiled. Right about now, Michaela would be reading "A Christmas Carol." Colleen's telegram, inviting him to join them for the Holiday, could not have come at a better time. He had been feeling sorry for himself since leaving Colorado Springs. Evergreen kept him busy, but he was also lonely.

Dismounting his horse, Andrew climbed the steps. Then he saw through the window into the kitchen. There was Colleen.... kissing Lewis.

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

Jake sat beside his wife's bed at the hospital. Maria was asleep on his lap. He kissed the top of his daughter's head. Not exactly how he had envisioned spending Christmas Eve, but.... Teresa was fine and had not miscarried. He wondered if she should return to teaching after the holidays. The strain and being on her feet all day could prompt another spell.

"Papa," Maria looked up. "We have Chwismas here?"

Jake stroked her dark tresses, "This year, we will, honey. But I promise, next year we'll be home, an' you'll have a baby brother."

"Good," she closed her eyes and went back to sleep.

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

Hank watched as Lexie nursed the baby, "So who should we get for her godparents?"

"What?" Lexie looked up.

"Well, if she's gonna be baptized, she needs godparents," he shrugged.

Lexie smiled, "Hank...."

"Don't get sentimental on me," he frowned.

She contemplated, "Well, who do you think we should have?"

"Let's see...." he paused. "I'm kinda partial t' Horace for the godfather."

She raised an eyebrow, "I bet you are."

"What about Preston?" Hank continued to joke.

"Keep thinking," she urged.

"You ain't answered my question," he returned. "Who d' you want?"

Lexie's expression became serious, "I think the best godparents we could choose would be Dr. Mike and Sully."

Hank shook his head, "I knew you was gonna say that."

"Well?" she waited.

"I think so, too," he leaned forward to kiss her.

Then he reached into his pocket and held out a small package.

"What's this?" Lexie asked.

He gestured toward their sleeping daughter, "Trade ya."

Lexie gently set the infant in her father's arms and accepted the package.

"Merry Christmas," Hank whispered.

Lexie's eyes filled with tears, "I don't have anything to give you."

He gazed down at the baby, "This'll do. Now, open it."

Lexie unwrapped the package and opened the lid. Inside was a ring with a small diamond chip.

"Hank!" she held it up to the light.

"I figured you could use an' engagement ring even though we never got around t' bein' engaged," he quipped.

"It's beautiful," she admired it.

"Put it on," he encouraged.

Lexie removed her wedding band, slid the engagement ring onto her finger, then put the wedding band atop it.

Hank nodded, "Looks real good on ya."

"You shouldn't have," she looked at him with love. "We can't afford...."

He interrupted, "It's Christmas. Enjoy it."

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

Andrew stepped into the Gold Nugget. Inside, he found only the bartender and May.

The prostitute noticed his arrival, "Well, well. Look who's here."

Andrew did not respond, but instead, walked to the bar and ordered an entire bottle of whiskey. Removing the cork, he approached her and sat down.

May smiled, "What brings you back to town?"

"Nothing," his eyes were red.

She sensed, "You look like you could use a friend. Or maybe some...."

"No," he asserted. "I'm not partaking of that hideous drug again. I went through hell trying to stop before."

"Suit yourself," she did not press the issue as she positioned herself to reveal more cleavage.

"May," he sighed. "Do you know what Christmas is?"

"Yea," she nodded. "The slowest day of the year."

"No," he gulped the whiskey. "It's when a man who has nothing realizes no amount of work can fill the emptiness he feels."

May touched his hand, "There are other things that can fill the emptiness."

"Such as?" he waited.

She grinned provocatively, "A good woman."

"I had a good woman," his heart ached.

She noted, "There's more than one in the world, you know."

"Not for me," he lowered his head. "Not for me."

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

Just before sunrise, Sully awakened to the sound of his children's excited voices in the hallway.

"Michaela," his lips were near her ear.

"Mmm?" she opened an eye.

"Merry Christmas," he kissed her lobe.

She pivoted in his arms, "Merry Christmas to you."

"I think we better get up," he yawned. "The kids are awake. They'll wanna open their gifts."

She snuggled closer, "But it's warm here."

He kissed her again, this time on the lips, "Sure is."

Suddenly there was a light tapping at the door.

"Mama, Papa," Annie's voice beckoned.

Sully grinned, "I'll get her."

He pulled on his buckskins and opened the door.

Annie bounded into the room to proclaim, "Happy bir'day."

"What?" Michaela was uncertain.

Annie announced, "Baby Jesus' bir'day."

Sully scooped his daughter into his arms and kissed her belly, "Merry Christmas, darlin'."

Annie erupted into giggles.

Michaela rose from the bed, put on her robe and slippers, then kissed the child.

"Come, let's open our presents," Michaela smiled as she lifted Hope.

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

After Bridget and the children had opened their gifts and merrily accepted them with gratitude, it was Michaela and Sully's turn.

Michaela stepped to the serving drawer and pulled out Sully's gift.

Handing it to her husband, she smiled, "For the man whose vision guides us all."

"I don't know about that," he humbly accepted the present.

The contents revealed a set of binoculars and leather case embossed with his initials BNS.

"Michaela!" his eyes widened. "This is real nice. Thank you."

"You're welcome," she was pleased at his reaction.

"Your turn," he retrieved her gift.

She undid the paper and discovered a brass name plate, engraved with "Michaela Quinn, MD."

Sully grinned, "I figured you could use it for that brand new hospital."

Michaela kissed him sweetly, "Thank you. It's perfect."

Katie approached her parents, "I have somethin' for you both."

The child then presented the coat of arms drawing to her parents.

Michaela's eyes widened, "Katie, it's beautiful."

Sully stroked his daughter's hair, "Sure is, sweet girl."

"You know what it is?" Katie tilted her head.

Michaela smiled, "Our family coat of arms."

"Right," she was pleased. "It's what got me interested in Poppy's family."

Sully embraced their daughter, "It's real special, Kates. Thank you."

Brian cleared his throat and handed them another gift, "This goes with it."

Michaela unwrapped the paper and beheld the frame, "Brian, it's perfect. We'll hang the coat of arms above the mantel."

Katie tilted her head, "On stone?"

Michaela glanced at Sully, "Your father will figure a way."

"Thanks," he winked.

Josef eyed the binocular case, "Papa, what's BNS?"

"That's the first letter of my names," he replied.

Josef reasoned, "B for Bywrron. S for Sully. What's the N?"

"The N is for Never mind," Sully tickled his side.

Katie observed, "I think this is our best Christmas ever."

Sully added as he smiled at Hope in her bassinet, "An' it's this little girl's first."

Josef spoke up, "Maybe Mama can give us another baby next Chwris'mas!"

Michaela's eyes widened, "Josef! Perish the thought!"

Sully raised his finger, "There's one more thing I almost forgot."

************
Chapter 20
************

Katie questioned her father, "What did you almost forget, Poppy?"

Sully cleared his throat and lifted Hope, "Besides this precious little girl, I received somethin' else real special this year. I got t' know my Ma."

Josef interjected, "An' the under wrrailwrroad."

"Right," Sully smiled as he knelt down to face his children. "Somethin' you all have is the love o' your parents. You know every night when ya go t' sleep that your Ma an' me are here t' tuck ya in an' hold ya when ya get scared."

"I got scared when Mama put that suit on me," Josef related.

Katie frowned at her brother, "Shhh, Joey."

Sully caressed the faces of his children as he talked, "Knowin' you're loved is a special gift. It helps ya face your fears. An'.... well.... there's a fear I've had for a long time that's kept me from givin' you a gift from my heart."

Michaela was puzzled, "Sully? What are you talking about?"

He placed Hope in Michaela's arms and glanced at the clock, "It's time t' show ya.""

With that, he put on his coat and exited the house. Katie and Josef rushed to the living room window to watch their father.

"Where is he going?" Michaela cradled the baby.

Brian observed, "He's going to the barn.... no wait, he's beside it, but he's not going in."

Michaela followed to the window, "It looks like he's waiting for someone."

Josef ventured, "Santa Claus?"

Katie rolled her eyes, "He's already been here, Joey."

Brian spotted a distant figure nearing the house, "Someone's coming."

Michaela identified, "It's Robert E."

Suddenly, Michaela realized what was happening, "Children, get your coats on."

"Why?" Josef was curious.

Bridget offered, "Should I get the twins ready t' go out, Dr. Mike?"

"Yes, please," she nodded.

Quickly, the children were ready to go outside. Handing the baby to Bridget, Michaela drew on her jacket and stepped out into the cold, crisp air. Katie and Josef bounded down the steps and rushed toward their father, who was speaking to Robert E.

The blacksmith grinned, "Merry Christmas, kids."

Katie smiled, "Merry Christmas. How's Miss Grace an' Abraham?"

"Good as gold," he replied.

Josef questioned, "Why didn' ya bring 'em with ya?"

Robert E looked at Sully with a smile, "Well.... I'll be gettin' home t' them real soon. But first, your Pa wanted me t' do somethin'."

Katie was puzzled, "What, Poppy?"

Sully waited for Michaela and the twins to reach them, then put his arm around his wife.

Clearing his throat, he explained, "Robert E brought a horse for ya."

Katie's eyes widened, "A horse! Oh, Poppy, does that mean what I think?"

Sully lifted his daughter and kissed her cheek, "It means you can learn t' ride, Kates."

Michaela gazed at her husband, then told the little girl, "You must be very careful, Sweetheart."

Sully cautioned, "There's two conditions, Katie."

"Uh-oh," her shoulders slumped. "What?"

"When each of your brothers an' sisters reaches the age of nine, you gotta share the horse," he noted.

"I can do that," she anticipated. "What's the other condition?"

Sully informed her, "You're each gonna have three teachers when ya start t' ride."

Josef queried, "Who?"

Sully identified, "Your Ma, me an' Cloud Dancin'."

Robert E patted the animal, "This here's a real gentle one. He belonged t' a farmer who passed away last month."

Michaela inquired, "How old is he, Robert E?"

"Ten," he answered. "He's a good size for children, too."

Sully grinned, "Well, kids, I guess he's ours."

"May I name him, Poppy?" Katie requested.

"Sure," Sully nodded.

Katie pondered, "I think we should call him Ajax."

Sully and Michaela looked at each other in amazement.

Josef tilted his head, "Ajax?"

Katie explained, "It was the ship that brought Poppy here."

Sully felt a swell of emotion, "Ajax is a real fine name."

Robert E handed the reins to Katie, "Well, I best be gettin' home t' my family. You folks have a Merry Christmas."

Sully patted his friend's back, "You, too. Thanks for everythin'."

"Any time," Robert E mounted his horse and departed.

Michaela spoke up, "Josef, would you help me take the twins inside?"

The little boy hesitated, then obeyed.

Sully looked at Katie, "We best show Ajax his stall."

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

Andrew entered the hospital, where Sister Mary Margaret recognized him, "Dr. Cook! It's nice to see you."

"You, too, Sister," he forced a smile.

"What brings you here?" she was curious. "Did you come to spend Christmas with...."

He cut her off, "I came to pick up a few things that I left."

She inquired, "Did you have the opportunity to see your wife and Dr. Quinn?"

Andrew's jaw tensed, "I saw my wife, yes."

"We miss you here," the nun stated.

His eyes saddened, "I doubt if I'll be back, but thank you for the sentiment."

The sister observed, "You seem troubled, Doctor. Is there anything I can do for you?"

He sighed, "I wish there were, but.... no."

She nodded, "Well, I'll leave you to gather your things. Have a Merry Christmas."

"You, too," he swallowed hard.

Entering his former office, he sat down at the desk. He leaned back in the leather chair and closed his eyes. His thoughts drifted back to the day when Colleen and Becky taught him to ride a horse. He chuckled at the memory. The two girls had been best friends, and they both had expressed an interest in the new doctor. Becky had been a sweet young woman, and her blue eyes had reflected a caring disposition.

But it had been Colleen Cooper who had captured his heart. He had always felt at ease when he was with her. From the moment he had fallen face first in the mud upon his arrival, to that first operation on Horace, Colleen had been beside him offering support.

"Just a girl," he whispered. "Her blonde hair blowing in the wind.... those brown eyes that...."

A voice interrupted, "Dr. Cook?"

It was Dr. Cassidy.

Andrew stood up quickly, "Uh, Dr. Cassidy.... I was just.... that is, I stopped by to...."

He smiled, "No need to offer an explanation. You're alone on Christmas. So am I."

Andrew was curious, "You have no family?"

"My wife passed away two years ago, and my daughter lives in Philadelphia," he detailed.

"I see," Andrew folded his arms uncomfortably.

"Would you like to join me?" Cassidy offered a flask of liquor.

"No, thank you," Andrew declined.

Cassidy questioned, "Are you planning to return to Evergreen?"

"First train in the morning," he answered. "There's nothing here for me anymore."

The physician nodded, "It's hard when you feel you don't belong anywhere. But you're young. You'll bounce back."

Andrew gazed out the window, "I have many fond memories of Colorado Springs. It's difficult to let go of them."

"You and your wife," Cassidy paused. "I assume you know she's been seeing a lot of Lewis Bing."

"Yes," Andrew's voice faltered. "Of course, she's free to do so. We're no longer married. They were childhood friends, you see."

"That doesn't make things any easier for you," the older man concluded. "When we lose those we love, we have to find a way to make peace."

"Have you done that?" Andrew was curious.

Cassidy noted, "My wife and I were never really close. She disapproved of my gambling and drinking. Nonetheless, she enjoyed the prestige of being a physician's wife."

Andrew remarked, "I.... appreciate our talk, Doctor. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to pick up a few of my things and go to the Chateau for the night. Merry Christmas."

He acknowledged, "Same to you."

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

When Sully and Katie finished in the barn, they headed toward the house. As they reached the steps, they heard an approaching wagon.

Sully recognized, "Looks like Hank."

Katie agreed, "And Miss Lexie. They've got the baby!"

Sully's brow wrinkled, "I hope nothin's wrong."

He stopped to greet them when Hank slowed the buckboard, "Hey, folks, Merry Christmas."

Hank climbed down, "Yea, same t' you."

Sully eyed the baby, "Everythin' all right?"

Lexie smiled, "Fine. We wanted to speak with you and Dr. Mike?"

"Sure," Sully gestured. "Come on inside."

When they entered the house, Michaela greeted them. After settling in the living room, the Lawsons came to the point.

Hank cleared his throat, "We were thinkin' that we'd like t' ask ya somethin'."

Michaela tilted her head in interest, "Ask us something?"

Lexie smiled, "Would you and Sully consider being Ilse's godparents?"

Sully cast a glance at Hank, "You agreed t' baptize her?"

Hank shrugged, "Yea, well, it don't hurt 't be safe. Ya know, make sure the kid is covered."

Michaela spoke up, "We'd be honored to be her godparents. When do you plan to have the ceremony?"

Lexie mentioned, "After the first of the year."

"We'll be there," Sully consented.

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

"Andrew!" Preston's smiled widened when he spotted the young man in the Chateau lobby. "I didn't know you were coming."

"It was sort of a last minute decision," he informed him. "I arrived last night."

"Last night?" Preston tilted his head. "Oh, you must have spent the evening at Michaela's."

"Uh, well, no actually," he did not want to mention the Gold Nugget. "But I'd like a room here for tonight."

"Of course," Preston lifted a pen. "I'll register you myself. Give you the finest room, on the house."

"That's not necessary," Andrew raised his hand. "I don't expect...."

"Nonsense," Preston protested. "It's Christmas."

"Yes, Christmas," Andrew sadly spoke the words.

Preston sensed, "We'll talk. Man to man. I have some fine port, cigars. It will be good to reminisce about old times."

"I really don't want to remember old times, Preston," he returned.

Preston patted him on the back, "Then we'll discuss the future. There are infinite possibilities, my good man. All one needs is a positive attitude and a plan."

Andrew was puzzled, "A plan?"

Preston winked, "How to get ahead of the competition, of course."

"Of course," Andrew sighed.

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

Michaela and Sully settled into bed.

She cuddled closer, "What a day."

"Yep," he slid his arm beneath her shoulder.

"Sully," she paused. "What made you decide to buy the horse?"

He replied, "What happened t' my brother.... I can't let it guide how we raise our kids. It was an accident. Perce was careless. We'll teach our children t' be careful an' responsible. That's the best we can do."

She turned up the corner of her mouth, "Why didn't you tell me you were going to buy one?"

He grinned, "Why didn't you tell me you were buyin' a piano?"

She tapped his side playfully, "I wanted to surprise you."

Sully contemplated, "Seems like both gifts will help the children learn self-discipline and the importance of practice."

She agreed, "Developing their minds and bodies."

He became silent.

She tilted her head to look up at him, "We haven't spoken about how you feel now that you finished reading your mother's diary."

"I was thinkin' about somethin' Clement William Scott wrote," he said.

She looked up, "What did he say?"

"Honor was due to one whose soul was tender,
Whose nature quicken'd at the touch of art;
Now that the struggle's over, God will send her
Mercy and peace to soothe her troubled heart."

Michaela nodded, "Your mother is at peace. now"

Sully gazed into his wife's eyes, "I never thanked you for wantin' us t' name our first-born after her."

She smiled, "I believe you've thanked me on numerous occasions."

He kissed the palm of her hand, "Still, it ain't enough, Michaela. Katie wantin' me t' learn more about my Ma, it seems like it was all meant t' happen the way it did. She's amazin', just like you."

Michaela noted a less troubled expression on her husband's face, "You seem different."

He took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, "Somethin' occurred t' me while I was readin' your Pa's journal."

"What?" she wondered.

He explained, "After I lost my Ma, I felt so alone. There was no one t' love me or take care o' me. But, now I know, there was someone who did care.... cared that there was a little boy who needed love an' compassion. Your Pa. He wanted t' take in a child he'd never even met. You got a lot o' your father in ya, Michaela."

She smiled, "I had the same revelation about you and your mother while you read her diary."

"Brian said it," he paused. "Destiny brought us t'gether."

"Indeed," she was in awe.

Sully observed, "It makes our connection even stronger."

"I didn't think it could be any stronger," she placed her hand on his arm.

He kissed her sweetly, "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," Michaela gazed lovingly at his tranquil expression. Then she placed her hand gently above his heart and whispered, "Be at peace, Sully."

THE END



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