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



Recovery


by Debby K


Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Recovery
by Debby K

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

"Hey," Sully approached his wife as she sat on the front porch swing of the homestead.

"Hello," Michaela smiled.

"Mind if I join ya?" he motioned toward the open space beside her.

She patted the area, "Please do."

Sully sat and let the back and forth movement of the swing transport him to a relaxed state. He slid his arm around her shoulders.

"It's quiet for a change," he noted.

"Yes, it is," she acknowledged. "It's rare to have all of the children napping at the same time. I imagine the heat plays a part."

They fell into an uncomfortable silence.

Sully detected her mood, "Anythin' you wanna talk about?"

"Not in particular," she tilted her head against his.

In the six weeks since her miscarriage, Michaela had not discussed her feelings at length. She knew that Sully was just as saddened by events as she, and she did not wish to upset him with her thoughts. She had returned to work at the Clinic, but her heart was not in it. She seemed to be going through the motions of life.

"I been thinkin'," he paused as he gauged her reaction. "Maybe you an' me oughta get away for a few days."

"I don't know," she hedged. "I have patients. And the children...."

"They'd be okay for a few days," he pointed out. "There's lots o' babysitters t' go 'round."

"Where do you want to go?" she was curious.

"You name the place," he invited.

"Really, Sully," she shook her head. "I don't think it would be wise...."

"We got two choices," he persisted. "We could go explorin' around all that land ya bought, or we could go someplace with culture for ya...."

"Culture?" she was curious.

"Ya know.... opera, fine restaurants...." he gave examples.

"Where might that be?" she wondered.

"We could go t' Denver," he recommended. "Maybe spend Fourth of July there."

"Independence Day," she pondered. "I loved that holiday as a child. The fireworks.... reading of the Declaration of Independence.... It was one of the few days on which Father would make a point for all of us to be together as a family. Boston is steeped in tradition."

She shifted in the swing.

"Ya wanna go t' Boston then?" he offered.

"No," she looked down.

He placed his hand on her abdomen and caressed it, "You feelin' okay, Michaela?"

"Yes," she placed her hand atop his. "My incision has healed. There are no signs of complications, infection or need for...."

"For what?" he was concerned.

"For a hysterectomy," she exhaled slowly.

"That's good then, ain't it?" he questioned.

"Yes," she was brief.

"There's somethin' more," he assumed. "More than what you're sayin'."

She felt her eyes well with tears, "No."

"Maybe you've healed on the outside, but not the inside," he perceived.

Michaela gazed into his eyes, "Thank you for your concern, Sully. But, really.... I'm fine."

He dropped the topic.

"I'm sorry," she felt guilty. "I know this hasn't been easy for you. If.... if you want to go away for a while, I'll understand."

"Not without you," he insisted.

Sweetly, he kissed her. For a moment, she closed her eyes and savored the warm sensations he aroused in her. Then she pulled back and looked away.

"Michaela?" he was puzzled.

"I.... I'm not ready for...." she grew uncomfortable.

"I know you're not," he toyed with the hair at her temple. "I just wanted ya t' know I love ya."

She returned her gaze to him, "I know that with all my heart."

"Good," he grinned.

She smiled for the first time since their conversation began.

"So, ya haven't given me that answer yet," he returned.

"Answer?" she questioned.

"About goin' away with me for a few days," he reminded.

"Could I think about it?" she requested.

"Sure," he smiled.

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

Hank studied the wanted poster at the Depot. Posted on the bulletin board was a sketch of a dark haired, mustached man with the caption "Wanted for Armed Robbery."

Hank rubbed his stubbled face, "$1,000 reward, eh?"

Matthew approached him, "You thinkin' about goin' after him?"

"Trent Cutler," Hank read the name. "Wells Fargo must want him bad with that kinda bounty on his head."

Horace chimed in from the doorway of the Depot, "Rumor is, he travels with a woman."

"A woman?" Hank raised his eyebrow. "Now it's gettin' even more interestin'."

Matthew noted, "There's probably half a dozen marshals an' a score of bounty hunters lookin' for him."

"Maybe they're lookin' for the wrong person," he rubbed his stubbled face.

"No, that's what he looks like," Horace pointed.

Hank rolled his eyes, "No, I mean maybe they oughta be lookin' for the woman. What d' they know about her?"

"Hold on," Horace turned back into the Depot.

Momentarily, he returned with a piece of paper.

He read aloud, "He's been seen travelin' with a dark haired woman. That's all it says."

Hank grinned, "Where was the last robbery?"

Horace glanced at the paper again, "Robbed a Wells Fargo wagon over near Manitou."

"Not far from here," Hank nodded. "They might be layin' low around these parts."

Horace's eyes widened, "Ya mean they could be close?"

"Real close," Hank grinned.

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

"Lexie," Trent Cutler called. "Come here an' help me count this money."

Lexie turned and frowned, "You don't need my help. Leave me be."

Born Alexandra, Lexie had been given her nickname by her brother Trent when she was born. With long dark hair and eyelashes that set off her clear blue eyes, Lexie had been the object of many men's proposals in her thirty-five years. But none was her equal, and she could not oblige settling for anyone whom she did not love. She was tall, slim and a better rider than most men. A woman of spirit and adventure, Lexie Cutler much preferred her life before Trent embarked on his crime spree. She had been a rancher, but her older brother had aimlessly searched for easy riches. Her presence prevented him from killing, but not from robbing. Silently, she vowed that this would be her last journey with him. Besides, she told herself, she did not actually participate in his illegal activities.

Trent Cutler was dull where Lexie was bright and charming. He adored his sister, however, and appreciated her companionship. His blue eyes matched hers, and his long handsome face proved attractive to many a young lady.

He approached his sister as she watched the setting sun, "You homesick?"

"Homesick?" she folded her arms to ward off the chill. "Yes, I'm homesick. And I'm sick of the life we're leading."

"This is it, Lexie," he pledged. "I promise there won't be any more robberies."

"Damn right, there won't be," her eyes narrowed.

"Hey," he raised his hands. "Don't go talkin' that way. It ain't right for a lady."

"I'm no lady," she sighed. "I'm nothing anymore."

He placed his hands on her shoulders and began to massage them, "You're just tired. That's all. A good night's sleep, and you'll feel lots better."

"We'll see," she set out her bedroll.

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

After dinner, the children gathered around Sully in the living room. Michaela and Bridget cleared the plates from the table.

"Papa," Annie stepped awkwardly toward her father and clenched his beads with her tiny hand.

"Hey," he smiled. "Look how good you're startin' t' walk."

"Ba," she pointed toward Brian.

"Say Brian," Sully coached.

"Ba," she repeated.

Brian chuckled, "She'll get it one o' these days."

Bridget noticed their conversation and turned to Michaela, "Why don't ya join 'em, lass. I can finish the dishes."

Michaela did not respond.

"Dr. Mike?" Bridget gained her attention. "Why don't ya go in the livin' room? I'll take care o' the dishes."

"Oh...." she smiled. "Thank you, Bridget."

Michaela joined her family. Sitting in one of the wing back chairs, she gazed lovingly at the children. While Katie coached Noah into walking toward her, Josef watched Brian work on a bridle for Taffy. Sully caressed Annie's silky blonde hair.

Sully touched Michaela's knee, "Wanna hold this little girl?"

Michaela reached for the baby, "Hello, my darling."

"Mama," Annie smiled.

Michaela positioned the child on her lap and gently rested her lips on the baby's soft hair.

"Hey, Pa," Brian spoke up. "Why don't ya tell the kids about the white buffalo?"

"White buffalo?" Katie's eyes widened. "I never saw a white one."

"Did they paint it?" Josef imagined.

"No, Joe," Sully chuckled.

"Tell us 'bout it, Papa," the little boy requested.

"All right," Sully settled Noah on his lap as the older children slid closer to him. "A white buffalo's only one in a million."

"Are there a million buffalo left, Poppy?" Katie wondered.

"Back when the story takes place, there were," he responded. "Many years ago, Cloud Dancin' was out near Cedar Lake. It was winter, an' the lake was frozen over. He was near a ridge when he heard the sound of ice crackin'. He climbed the ridge t' see what was goin' on. There he saw a couple hundred buffalo tryin' t' cross the creek."

"If the ice was crackin', they must have been fallin' in," Katie reasoned.

"That's the interestin' thing, Kates," Sully touched her nose. "Suddenly, the white buffalo appeared before him. It was huge an' white as the snow, an' his eyes glowed red like hot coal in the fire. The Cheyenne believe that the white buffalo protects the herd. They call him Runnin' Ghost."

Josef scooted closer to his father. Sully put his arm around the little boy.

"Is he a real ghost, Poppy?" Katie swallowed hard.

Sully smiled, remembering that same question from Brian years ago, "The Cheyenne say if ya see him, then he's real."

"Was Croud Dancin' scared?" Josef probed.

"Yep," Sully nodded. "He said that ghost buffalo looked at him, like he could see right int' his spirit."

"Did he save the herd from fallin' in the ice?" Katie inquired.

"He did," Sully kissed the top of Noah's head. "They stopped dead in their tracks, then went back t' the safety of shore. The white buffalo turned an' disappeared int' the trees."

The children were silent, pondering the story. Michaela turned up the corner of her mouth, recalling that same reaction when Sully had told the tale to Matthew, Colleen and Brian many years earlier.

She also shuddered slightly, remembering the reason Sully had been with them at the old homestead. He had been beaten nearly to death by Rankin, the buffalo hunter. Paralyzed and broken, Sully had been brought to the homestead by Cloud Dancing.

"You okay?" Sully touched her arm.

"Yes," she swallowed hard. "Just remembering why you were staying with us back then."

"You nursed me back t' health," he smiled. "Ya always do."

She lifted Annie higher and kissed the baby's cheek. What would her life have been like if she had lost him those many years ago? Or what if his paralysis had not been temporary? Certainly she would not have their beautiful children.

"Michaela?" Sully's voice brought her back to reality.

Bridget called from the kitchen, "All right, you leprechauns. Time for your baths. Then it's t' bed with ya."

"I'd better help Bridget," she rose from the chair.

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

Sully watched from their bed as Michaela lingered longer than usual at her vanity brushing her hair.

"I checked on the hospital's progress t'day," he informed her.

"Oh?" she did not turn. "How's it coming?"

"Good," he answered simply. "Have ya thought anymore about you an' me takin' that trip?"

"No," she set down the brush.

Rising to check on the twins, she caressed their backs. Then, turning, she strolled toward the bed. Sully pulled back the sheet for her. She smiled slightly to thank him. Then she crawled into bed and lowered her lamp.

Sully waited to see if she would snuggle closer to him. She did. At least that had not changed, he thought. Gently, he spooned against her back and draped his arm across her. Softly, he kissed the top of her head.

She did not react.

"I love you," he whispered.

She glanced over her shoulder at him, then lifted her hand to stroke his hand, "I love you, too."

As much as Sully ached for the loss of their baby, he was growing more concerned about Michaela's inability to come out of the melancholy she was feeling. Though he could not see her face, he could tell that she was still awake.

Michaela felt the warmth of her husband's body against her back and the protective strength of his arm around her. She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. She wanted to speak to him. Wanted to share with him all that she was feeling, but she could not bear to relive the pain. The pain which she felt would never go away.

"Michaela," he spoke low.

"Mmm?" she responded.

"Talk t' me," he implored.

She rolled over to face him. Lifting her hand to his cheek, she leaned closer to kiss him. He took her hand in his and placed it over his heart.

"You can tell me," he invited. "You can tell me anthin'. Ya know that. Don't ya?"

She hesitated, then was barely audible, "Yes."

"I know you're hurtin'," he sympathized. "Deep down, it seems like it'll never go away."

She marveled at his sensitivity.

"I wish...." he stopped himself.

"You wish what?" she squeezed his hand lightly.

"I wish I could take us back t' before all this happened," he pondered. "Then try t' prevent it from takin' place."

"But we can't do that," she realized.

"I'm worried about ya, Michaela," he confessed. "I don't wanna lose ya."

"You won't lose me, Sully," she assured.

"I remember when Myra left Horace," he looked away. "He got so depressed, he even thought about...."

"No," she interrupted. "I'd never do that."

His eyes peered into her soul, "Please. Please come with me. It can be wherever ya want. But I gotta get ya away from things so you can find your way again."

She felt a lump in her throat, "All right. I'll go."

"Promise?" his eyes lit up.

"Yes," she nodded slightly.

"Thank you," he lifted her hand to his lips.

"Sully," she toyed with the hair at his temple.

"What?" he feared she had changed her mind.

"We'll go to the land," she stated. "Not to a city."

"Good," he knew she was doing this for him.

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

Several of the townsfolk had gathered at Grace's Cafe. Grace herself had been back running the establishment for the past two weeks. Robert E had set up a shaded area for little Abraham's crib, and Sully had made a sling for carrying the baby when she wanted him with her.

"Poor Michaela," Dorothy shook her head. "She hasn't gotten over losin' that baby yet."

"Maybe it's more than that," Grace speculated.

"What d' ya mean?" the redhead wondered.

"I mean, not only did she lose that child," Grace sat down. "But.... she can't have any more."

"She just needs somethin' t' cheer her up is all," Loren tucked his napkin under his chin.

"What are ya talkin' about?" Dorothy's brow wrinkled.

"A party," he raised his eyebrows.

"Ya can't throw a party for a woman who's lost a baby," Dorothy chided.

Jake joined in the conversation, "What if she don't know it's for her?"

Grace picked up, "Ya mean have a party for the whole town, but it's really for Dr. Mike?"

"Yea," Jake grinned.

"Jacob," Teresa frowned at her husband. "What if we have this party, and she does not attend?"

"She'll attend," Loren stated.

"How can you be so sure, Senor Bray?" Teresa questioned.

"I'll make sure she does," he asserted.

"Well, I better come up with a menu then," Grace pulled out her tablet.

"Don't ya need a theme?" Myra considered.

"It's July," Grace paused. "We got Independence Day, but that's too soon. I'll need more time t' get ready."

"I just read in the children's history book that Zebulon Pike left St. Louis for his journey to the West on July 15, 1806," Teresa contributed.

"An' our Pike's Peak was named after him," Horace added.

"Ya don't say," Hank was sarcastic.

Loren's eyes lit up, "We could have a Zebulon Pike Dance."

Hank rolled his eyes, "You think Michaela's gonna come t' somethin' like that?"

"Like I said before, leave her t' me," Loren assured.

Dorothy began to write down the information, "I'll put out invitations an' a story in The Gazette."

"Maybe I'll see what kinda food they ate on their journey," Grace pondered.

Hank turned up his nose, "I don't know if we'd wanna eat that. Probably had t' live on grubs."

Jake chuckled, "Then Sully will come for sure."

"All right then," Dorothy smiled. "The Zebulon Pike Dance, it is."

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

"We can make camp here," Sully reined in his horse.

"It's so beautiful here," Michaela marveled.

"An' it's gonna stay just like this, thanks t' you," he smiled.

"Sully, look!" Michaela pointed.

"Dome Rock," he nodded.

"It's magnificent," she dismounted Flash.

"Lots of game here, too," he tied the horses to a tree. "Elk, bear, bobcat, bighorn sheep an' mule deer."

She smiled at his description.

"What?" he was curious.

"You're in your element," she remarked.

He stepped closer and embraced her, "You're who I like bein' around most."

She rubbed his back as he sweetly kissed her.

"We'd best make camp for the night," he drew back. "It'll get pretty cold."

"Cold?" she was surprised. "It's July."

"Weather up here's unpredictable," he informed her. "There's always a chance of rain an' frost at night."

She placed her hands on her hips and surveyed the scene, "I'm glad we came, Sully."

He paused and looked at her with love, "Me, too."

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

"Did ya get the supplies?" Lexie approached her brother.

He dismounted his horse, "Yep. Rode int' Colorado Springs. Even brought ya a couple of things."

"What?" she was curious.

"Soap, for one," he pulled it from his bag. "Scented like lilacs."

"Thank you," she could not help but be pleased.

"An' I saw somethin' interestin'," he raised an eyebrow.

"What?" she wondered.

"This," he withdrew a paper from his pocket.

Lexie unfolded it and read aloud, "A dance? What's so interesting about that?"

He took a deep breath, "I know I said I was through robbin' banks, but this one is too temptin' t' pass up."

"What are you talking about?" she frowned.

"Lex," he clasped her shoulders. "Everyone in town's gonna be at this Zebulon Pike Dance."

"So?" she grew more leery.

"So," he grinned. "They got a bank just ripe for robbin', an' what better time t' do it than when the whole town's at a dance?"

"No, Trent," she insisted.

"I promise, this will be my last time," he pledged. "An'.... I brought ya somethin' else."

"What?" she was unconvinced.

He reached up for the box he had attached to his saddle, "This."

Her eyes widened as she opened it in anticipation. Inside was a beautiful deep blue colored dress.

"Trent," she was speechless.

"We're goin' t' that dance," he announced.

"I want ya t' see what finer things in life this money's gonna bring us," he kissed her cheek.

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

"Katie," Josef spoke from his bed.

"Shh," she responded. "Go t' sleep."

"Is Mama an' Papa thinkin' 'bout us?" he wondered.

"Sure they are," she rolled onto her side to look at him. "Why ya ask?"

"'Cause I think 'bout them," he bordered on tears.

"Don't worry, Joey," she comforted. "They won't be gone long."

"I miss 'em," his lower lip curled under.

Katie rose from her bed and went to him.

Gently stroking his arm, she soothed, "They love us a lot. But sometimes, they gotta go away."

"Why?" he toyed with the edge of his sheet.

Katie took a deep breath, "I think it's 'cause they've been so sad about losin' the baby."

"But they got us," he pointed out.

"Joey," she took her brother's hand. "When ya lose someone ya love, it makes ya sad."

He attempted to absorb her comments, "Why don' they take us with 'em?"

She reasoned, "Maybe we remind them of the lost little baby."

"But we not babies," he insisted.

"We were when we were born," she explained. "And maybe when they see us, they wonder what the baby would've been like."

"Poor Mama an' Papa," he shook his head.

"They lost other babies before, too," she stated. "That makes them more sad."

"More than one?" he tilted his head.

"One before you were born an' one after," Katie detailed.

"How ya know?" he was puzzled.

"'Cause I remember," she sighed. "I've known Mama an' Poppy almost all their life together."

"Before they married?" he raised his eyebrows.

"'Course not, Joey," she patiently corrected. "They couldn't have us 'til after they got married."

"Oh," he replied.

"Do ya understand?" she asked.

"I guess," he sighed.

"You'll see," she told him. "When they come home, Mama will smile again."

"She not smile in a long time," he thought about it.

"Poppy will make her smile," Katie knew.

Josef grinned, "With jokes?"

The little girl nodded, "Prob'ly."

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

Michaela leaned back against Sully. His legs straddled her body as he massaged her shoulders.

"Your hands have healing powers, Mr. Sully," she closed her eyes.

"Just my hands?" he leaned closer to kiss her neck.

"Your lips, too," she savored his loving gesture.

He stopped his movements and repositioned himself beside her. Linking his fingers in hers, he raised her hand to his lips.

She was mesmerized by the atmosphere, "I must confess, it is quite relaxing out here."

At that moment, the cry of a bobcat was heard. She jumped. Sully placed a reassuring arm around her.

"We're safe," he assured.

She inhaled deeply, then exhaled through pursed lips. He stroked her back. Finally, she began to calm.

"The children are no doubt asleep," she gazed at the stars.

"I doubt it," he disagreed.

"Oh?" she raised an eyebrow.

"Right about now, Katie's comfortin' Joe, tellin' him we'll be home soon," he smiled.

Her heart ached at the thought, "Didn't we explain it sufficiently?"

"You know him," he grinned. "Ever since we were gone that month t' Montana an' Yellowstone when he was real little."

"I remember," she felt a tinge of guilt.

"He'll be fine," he avowed. "Katie knows how t' calm his fears."

"She's an incredible little girl," her heart filled.

"Just like her Ma," he added.

Michaela tilted her head against his, "Tell me what you're thinking, Sully."

"What I'm thinkin'?" he pondered.

"Yes," she said.

"Well," he sighed. "I'm thinkin' it's gonna get cold t'night, an' I better put some more wood on the fire."

"That's all?" she encouraged.

"You want somethin' more meaningful?" he retorted.

"Actually, I do," she invited.

"Okay," he turned to face her. "I'm thinkin' I'm the luckiest man alive. I'm out here in the fresh air, under a starry sky with the woman I love. I don't see how life gets much better than that."

"The woman you love...." she hesitated.

"That would be you," he touched her chin.

She smiled, "You were right about the temperature. I can feel it getting colder already."

"Sometimes I'm right," he winked.

She remarked, "Thank you for being so persistent in wanting us to come."

"I can be real persistent," he teased.

She watched him prepare their sleeping area for the night. She was exhausted. Physically, she had totally recuperated from the miscarriage, but her emotions often left her feeling drained. As she continued to observe her husband, she marveled at his graceful movements and precise coordination. She had never told Sully, but sometimes when he was working outside their home, she would stop what she was doing and walk to the window simply to watch him: cutting wood, grooming the horses, repairing a fence. It did not matter. It filled her with love.

"Your turn," he said.

"Pardon me?" she came back to reality.

He extended his hand and escorted her to the lean-to he had constructed.

Spreading out her bedroll, he specified, "Your turn t' tell me what you're thinkin'."

"Oh," she positioned herself on the soft blanket.

Sully covered her to insure her warmth.

"Aren't you joining me?" she reached out for him.

"Yep," he put down his bedroll beside hers.

Michaela lifted her cover blanket to invite him to share. He took the cue and cuddled closer.

"This is snug," she smiled.

He toyed with a strand of hair which draped across her cheek.

"I'm waitin'," he smiled.

"For me to tell you what I'm thinking?" she knew.

"Um-hum," he anticipated.

She touched his chin, "I'm thinking about being out here in this beautiful location, with the man I love, under a starry sky. It doesn't get any better."

"See?" he joked. "Sometimes we think alike."

"Just often enough to make it interesting," she retorted.

"You're always interestin' t' me, Michaela Quinn," he ran his finger along the line of her jaw. "When ya talk t' me, I can't help wonderin' where you'll lead me."

"I lead you?" she pointed her index finger into his chest. "I always thought it was the other way around."

"Hmm," he considered. "Maybe we both lead."

They fell silent, each suspecting that the conversation needed to remain light, and neither knowing what more to say. But that was all right. There were times when they could speak volumes to one another in their intimate quiet.

"Sully?" she broke the silence.

"Mmm?" he drew her closer for warmth.

"Did you ever imagine our lives would be like this?" she posed the question.

He pondered an answer, "I imagined us lovin' each other. But.... what we got goes way beyond that."

"How so?" her heart melted at his words.

"When we first met, I know we had feelin's we both fought," he explained. "But after we got married an' got used t' the idea of bein' accountable t' another person..... it just got better an' better."

"Being accountable to another person," she repeated. "We did have some awkward moments getting accustomed to that."

"You with your doctorin'," he specified. "Me with my wanderin'."

"What kind of wandering?" she lifted her head.

"Not that kind," he chuckled. "You know what I mean. Comin' an' goin' when I pleased. Not thinkin' about the time o' day."

"You don't regret making compromises, do you?" she had trepidations.

"All the time," he spoke with a deadpan expression.

"Sully?" she reacted.

"'Course I don't, Michaela," he assured. "When I asked ya t' marry me in that sweat lodge, I pledged my heart at that instant. An' that meant compromisin'.... committin'.... an' communicatin' with ya."

"Always my poet," she stroked the hair behind his ear.

He drew her closer and recited:

"By ready nature for a life of love,
For endless constancy, and placid truth;
But whatsoe'er of such rare treasure lay
Reserved, had fate permitted, for support
Of their maturer years, his present mind
Was under fascination;--he beheld
A vision, and adored the thing he saw."

"William Wordsworth?" she assumed.

"Good," he grinned. "Now, close your eyes," he sweetly kissed her cheek.

"What if I'm not tired?" she softly protested.

"I know ya are," he countered. "Besides, ya need t' rest up for t'morrow."

"Tomorrow?" she wondered.

"I got some strenuous exercises planned for us," he noted.

"More strenuous than today?" she raised an eyebrow.

"Lots more," he closed his eyes.

"Sully?" she cupped her hand to his cheek.

"Mmm?" he opened an eye.

"I love you," she smiled.

"I love you, too," he lifted up to kiss her. "Good night."

"Good night," she settled closer to him.

The warmth of his body next to hers made the chilly temperature evaporate. His wit had lightened the ache in her heart just a bit. He was trying so hard in his uniquely special way to help her. And she was more grateful than mere words could express.

"Thank you, Sully," she whispered.

He was asleep.

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

Michaela awoke to find Sully gone. She sat up and nervously scanned the area.

"Sully!" she called.

"Right here," he approached with their canteens. "Just went t' fill these up."

"Oh," she was relieved.

He gestured in the direction from which he had come, "If ya wanna freshen up, there's a real pure stream about forty yards away."

"Yes," she nodded. "I would like to before we leave."

"You okay?" he knelt beside her.

"Fine," she clasped his hand.

He leaned closer to kiss her, "Better get movin'. I'll have breakfast ready for ya soon."

"Thank you," she smiled.

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

"So, how's them plans for the big dance comin'?" Hank spotted Grace at the Cafe.

"They're comin'," she poured a cup of coffee for him.

"Grubs on the menu?" he joked.

"I'll add them just for you," she made a note on her pad.

"Don't trouble yourself," he waved to Loren and Jake.

They neared his table.

"Preston offered the Chateau for the dance," Jake sat beside Hank.

"The Chateau?" Hank frowned. "Now, wouldn't that just add fireworks t' things. Can ya see Sully goin' there?"

"I told Preston the meadow would be just fine," Jake chuckled.

Loren contributed, "No use lookin' for trouble."

"So are you takin' Bridget t' the dance, ol' man?" Hank teased.

"More than likely," he placed his fingers in his vest pocket. "Who you bringin'?"

"Don't know yet," Hank smirked. "Maybe a few o' my girls t' keep the gentlemen entertained."

"Awe, don't be bringin' your whores," Jake protested.

"Why not?" Hank returned. "Business is business. Besides, Jake, you don't seem t' mind 'em all that much when you're in the Gold Nugget."

"Jake!" Grace was horrified. "You been flittin' around with....."

Jake raised his hand, "I don't deny likin' their company when I'm havin' a drink, but it's just for fun."

"What's your definition of fun?" Grace probed.

"You really want details?" Hank retorted.

She stormed away to check on Abraham.

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

Sully placed Michaela's plate beneath the lean-to and began to wonder what was taking her so long to return. Concerned that she might need some help, he turned and headed for the stream.

Michaela stood in the cool water up to her waist. On the shore, watching her with endless patience for the past fifteen minutes sat a bobcat. Michaela dared not come out or call to Sully for fear the feline would attack.

Sully cleared the thicket and was shocked at the scene before him. The bobcat heard his arrival. Swiftly turning, the animal bared its teeth. Sully drew his knife. The bobcat reacted and lunged for him.

"Sully!" Michaela screamed.

The animal screamed as Sully plunged the blade into its ribs. Instantly, the bobcat fell to the ground. After insuring that it was dead, Sully quickly waded into the stream to his wife.

"You okay?" his hands trembled.

"Yes," she embraced him.

"You're cold," he observed. "Let me take ya back t' our camp."

Lifting her into his arms, he carried Michaela the distance and gently set her down.

"Get out o' those," he gestured to her undergarments.

"I left my clothing by the stream," she suddenly realized.

"I'll go get them," he turned.

"No, Sully!" she reached for him. "Don't leave me."

He quickly knelt beside her and helped her out of her clothing. The sight of her skin, glistening in the morning sunlight, stirred him. He felt guilty for having such thoughts and attempted to suppress his longings.

Drawing a blanket around her, he stroked her cheek, "Better?"

She exhaled nervously, "Yes. I.... I can't say I'd like to wake up that way every morning."

He smiled at her attempt at humor, "I don't blame ya. Soon as ya dry off, we can get movin'."

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

For several days, Michaela and Sully explored the vastness of the Colorado landscape. He logged all of the animal and plant life, along with rock formations, and she gathered medicinal varieties for her Clinic. In their nearly one week of travel, they saw no other human beings. The relaxing pace and atmosphere brought an added closeness to them, but still unspoken was the topic of their baby.

As they began their last evening in the wilderness, Michaela again watched Sully prepare a fire. When he finished, he walked over to sit beside her.

"You're an incredible man, Byron Sully," she spoke low.

"For buildin' a fire?" he joked.

"For everything," she commended.

"How ya feel?" he broached the subject.

"I feel...." she hesitated.

He tensed, hoping the trip had helped her heal.

"I feel very fortunate to have such a wonderful husband," she clasped his hand.

Sully smiled. She still did not want to talk about her deeper feelings, he sensed. And he respected her desire to avoid the topic, but he also knew that if she did not discuss it soon, she could become more depressed.

"Michaela," he hoped to open the subject. "We been out here quite a while.... an' we still haven't talked about.... our feelin's."

He noted a subtle reaction in her body.

"You know me," he assured. "I ain't one t' make anyone discuss somethin' they don't wanna talk about, but.... I also know you. I know this is eatin' at ya. An'.... well.... maybe it would be a good idea t' get your feelin's out."

"I can't, Sully," her voice trembled. "Not to you."

"Why not t' me?" his brow wrinkled.

"Because...." she hedged. "I don't want to see the disappointment and hurt in your eyes."

"Look at me," he guided her chin upward. "All you'll ever see in my eyes is love for ya."

She took a deep breath and gazed at him, "Perhaps it's my own disappointment and hurt I fear."

"You're too hard on yourself," he observed. "Michaela, I never met anyone so intent on doin' things, bein' everythin' t' everyone, as you. But we all have limits. No one, especially me, expects that much of ya."

Sully knew that she was verging on letting her emotions out. He feared that if he pressed too hard, it might be worse for her.

"Hey," he kissed her cheek. "You know how much ya mean t' me an' the kids."

"But...." her voice trembled.

"But what?" he smoothed back the hair at her temple.

She stared into the fire and fell silent.

"Michaela," his voice beckoned. "Please, tell me."

She finally allowed her emotions to flood forth, "But I can't give you any more children."

There it was. The reality which she had found so painful to accept.

Sully embraced her, "I love you, an' nothin' can change that."

Feeling protected in his warm embrace, she began to permit all of the tears which she thought had been shed, to burst forth anew. Here in this pristine sanctuary, she did not have to put on a facade of strength and courage. Here in her husband's arms, she could finally allow herself to release all of the hurt and pain she was feeling.

"Go ahead," he whispered. "Let it out."

Her weeping echoed throughout the forest. Every animal seemed to hush, and only the sound of this lone human being's grief could be heard. The longer she cried, the more difficult Sully found it to remain strong. His own eyes welled with tears. Tears for their lost child. Tears for his wife's anguish. And tears for the close of this chapter of their lives.

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

It was morning at the Sully homestead, and Bridget had just served breakfast. Katie and Josef sat attentively before her.

"Did ya feed that pig now?" the nanny placed her hands on her hips.

The little girl answered, "We made our beds, folded our clothes an' fed Iggy. Yes, Ma'am."

Bridget smiled, "I reckon ya think I'm a drill sergeant."

"What's that?" Josef questioned.

"That's a military person who sets the troops in line," she chuckled. "Are your things ready? Your brothers are takin' ya on a picnic with Samantha an' Wendell t'day."

"You comin', Miss Bwidget?" Josef anticipated.

"No," she wiped her hands on her apron. "Someone has t' stay here with the wee ones."

"Noah twied t' climb out o' his cwib yesterday," the little boy announced.

"That he did," she nodded. "An' your Ma an' Pa would have had me head if he would have succeeded, don't ya know."

"Why they want your head?" Josef's eyes widened.

"Just an expression lad," she touched his nose.

"Do ya think Mama an' Poppy will come home today?" Katie hoped.

"They'll be home when it's time, darlin'," the nanny replied.

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

Michaela awoke, exhausted, but feeling an inner calm which she had not experienced in weeks. She rolled over and extended her hand to Sully. He was not there. She sat up. There was no aroma of breakfast, nor any sign of her husband.

"Sully?" she beckoned.

There was no response. She rose to her feet and glanced around the campsite. Perhaps he went to shave and wash up by the stream. She lifted her soap and towel, then headed in that direction.

As she neared the flowing water, she did not see her husband.

"Sully?" she called again.

She turned and spotted him, leaning against a tree. His back was to her. Michaela stepped closer.

Approaching him, she placed her hand on his shoulder, "Good morning."

He turned and cleared his throat, "Mornin'."

It was then that Michaela saw the redness of his eyes. When she cupped her hand to his cheek, he forced a smile.

"You don't have to pretend with me," she spoke. "You were crying."

"Me?" he dismissed her comment. "Nah. Just havin' some trouble with the mornin' air is all."

"Sully," she slid her arms around his waist. "I know what you were doing."

He encircled her in his arms.

"It's your turn," she looked up into the eyes she adored. "Your turn to lean on me."

"You got enough t' deal with," he countered.

She stroked his chest, "You can tell me."

He took her hand and led her to a fallen log. They sat and watched the water rush across the rocks of the stream. Michaela waited for him to express his thoughts.

Finally, he took her hands and faced her, "Michaela..... it breaks my heart t' see ya so sad. I thought bein' out here, away from things, might help, but.... I can't help thinking.... if only I could've gotten t' ya sooner, before Reed stabbed ya."

"This isn't your fault," she brushed back a lock of his hair from his face.

He felt a lump in his throat, "I just want ya t' know.... even though we can't have more kids, it doesn't change what I feel about ya.... how I look at ya."

She glanced away, "It changes how I look at myself."

"Why?" he guided her chin back to face him.

"I can't give you any more babies," she confessed. "I feel.... incomplete."

"Incomplete?" he struggled to understand. "Do you think that's how Matthew sees Emma? Or how the Reverend sees Isabel?"

"Of course not," her brow wrinkled. "Why would you ask that?"

"Because Emma an' Isabel can't have children," he pointed out. "Ain't there more t' you.... more t' us than that?"

"Certainly," she answered. "That's not what I mean, Sully."

He lifted her hand to his heart, "What if things were reversed?"

"What do you mean?" she was puzzled.

"What if somethin' happened t' me?" he asked. "What if I was hurt.... an' couldn't give you children? That nearly did happen. Remember back when I was helpin' investigate that fella, Alfred Packer?"

"And you fell from your horse," she recalled. "But that's different."

"How?" he queried. "How is it different? If things would've been as serious as I originally thought, I could never have given ya more children."

She reasoned, "It wouldn't change how I feel about you."

He pointed out, "I worried back then that I couldn't be a real husband to ya. I'd be less than a man."

"You need never have worried," she assured. "I would love you no matter what, and I certainly would not have looked at you as less than...."

She stopped, the truth of his message suddenly hitting her.

Sully watched her intently, "What?"

"I see your point," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

He embraced her, then lifted her chin for a tender kiss.

"You'd make a fine attorney, Mr. Sully," she smiled.

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

As Matthew and Brian set out the picnic items on a blanket, Katie, Samantha, Josef and Wendell played hoop and stick. Wendell whacked the hoop with the stick as hard as he could, causing the wooden stick to snap in half.

"Wendell," Katie frowned. "Why'd ya do that?"

"T' make it go far," he put his hands on his hips.

"We can get another stick," Samantha suggested. "There's plenty at the edge of the meadow."

"I ain't goin' there!" Wendell quickly responded.

"I go," Josef headed off.

"Wait, Josef," Samantha called. "I'll come with you."

As the two children went off to find a stick, Katie decided she should tell her older brothers where they were going. Nearing them, she overheard their conversation.

"Wendell seems t' be gettin' along okay," Matthew remarked.

"Yea, the Reverend an' Isabel love him," Brian agreed. "That helps."

"Poor Wendell," Matthew shook his head. "I hope he never finds out what his Pa did."

"I know," Brian nodded. "What would cause a man t' kill his wife like that?"

"He was plain crazy," the older brother replied. "Ma an' Preston are lucky they survived what he did t' them."

Katie's eyes widened. She backed away, unseen and unheard by her brothers. Wendell's father had been the man who stabbed her mother? The revelation shocked the little girl to her core. Quickly, she returned to Wendell just as Samantha and Josef arrived with a new stick.

"Your turn, Katie," Josef held out the stick.

"No...." her voice trembled slightly. "I don't wanna play anymore."

"Why?" Josef noted her demeanor.

"'Cause I don't, Joey!" she yelled.

Katie took off running toward the church steps.

"You take turn, Saman'ta," Josef gestured. "I go see Katie."

Wendell and Samantha resumed the game.

Matthew called to Katie and Josef as they passed, "Food's almost ready."

Josef reached his sister. It was then that he noticed her tears.

"Katie?" he was alarmed. "Why ya cwyin'?"

"Leave me be, Joey," she turned her back to him.

He touched her shoulder, "Ya mad?"

"No," she lowered her head.

Deciding to tell his older brothers about Katie, Josef rushed to the picnic area.

"Whoa, there," Matthew smiled and stopped him. "What ya in such a hurry about?"

"Katie's cwyin'," he pointed.

"Did she get hurt?" Brian stood up.

"I don' know," Josef answered.

"I'll go check," Brian left them.

"I help," Josef took a step.

"Wait, Josef," Matthew held him. "Go tell Wendell an' Samantha lunch is ready. Okay?"

"'Kay," Josef ran to get them.

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

Brian sat on the church step beside his little sister, "Hey, Katie. You okay?"

"I don't wanna talk, Brian," she did not look at him.

"Why not?" he was puzzled. "Lunch is ready. Aren't ya havin' fun?"

"No," she shook her head. "Could ya take me home?"

"Home?" he was surprised. "Katie, what's wrong?"

"I wanna go home" her tears intensified. "An' I want Mama an' Poppy t' come home."

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

"There it is, Sully," Michaela spotted their homestead as they rounded the last bend in the road.

"Feels good t' be back," he smiled as Wolf rushed out to greet them.

"Yes," she reined in Flash. "I've missed the children so."

"And Iggy," he pointed toward the pig's pen.

"I believe she's grown," Michaela commented.

The front door opened, and Bridget's cheeks flushed, "Sure, it is you two, home at last."

"Hello, Bridget," Michaela climbed the steps and embraced the nanny. "Where is everyone?"

"The boys have Katie an' Josef on a picnic," she returned. "An' the wee ones are in your room sleepin'."

Michaela quickly headed for the stairs to see the twins.

"Hey, Bridget," Sully carried their travel gear into the house.

"I suppose I'll be needin' t' wash them things for ya," she put her hands on her hips.

"I'll be glad t' wash 'em," he grinned.

"I just bet ya would," she patted his back. "It's good t' see ya, lad."

"Good t' be home," he sighed.

Bridget made certain Michaela was out of earshot, "How's she doin'?"

"We had some rough spots," he told her. "But I think she made some progress."

"How 'bout you?" she sympathized. "How are you doin'?"

He assured her, "We're gonna be fine, Bridget."

"That's good, then," she smiled. "The children oughta be home soon. Why don't ya go on upstairs with Dr. Mike. Ya both look like ya need t' wash up."

"We were ridin' all mornin' t' get home," he agreed. "Everythin' okay here?"

"Ya mean other than the youngest lad tryin' t' climb out o' his crib?" she smiled. "Matthew an' Brian did a good job keepin' the leprechauns entertained. But they still missed ya."

"We missed them, too," he said. "Hope they didn't wear ya out."

"Me?" she raised an eyebrow. "Takes more than that t' do in the Irish, lad."

"Michaela's Irish, too," he winked. "I got a soft spot in my heart for that country."

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

When Sully entered their bedroom, he saw Michaela sitting in the rocking chair with both babies in her arms.

"I see they're awake," he grinned as he removed his belt and placed it on the bedpost. "Need some help?"

"They're so adorable, Sully," she kissed Noah's forehead.

The child giggled, "Mama."

"Pa," Annie reached up to her father.

"They got their Ma's good looks," he cradled the little girl as he sat beside his wife.

Annie clasped Sully's beads and promptly began to put them into her mouth. Gently, he removed them and kissed her fingers.

"Were you a good boy?" Michaela spoke to Noah.

"Up," he pointed.

Sully clasped Noah's little hand, "Bridget said he tried t' climb out o' his crib."

"Noah," her eyes reflected concern. "He certainly has a fascination for heights."

"He's just a curious little boy," Sully smiled. "Bridget said the kids will be home soon. We best get cleaned up."

After kissing the children, Michaela and Sully placed them in Noah's crib to play.

"Sure is somethin' how they get along," he observed.

"I was afraid they would be jealous of one another, but they're incredibly close," she noted.

"Give 'em time," he retorted.

"It is good to be home, in our own room again," she slid her arms around his waist.

"What?" he feigned surprise. "Ya don't like sleepin' on the ground with bobcats waitin' t' eat ya for breakfast?"

"As long as I'm with you, I don't mind where I sleep," she lifted up to kiss him.

Sully ran his hands up and down her back, "It is good t' be home."

At that moment, they heard the sound of Brian's and Katie's voices downstairs.

"So much for gettin' cleaned up," Sully drew back. "Sounds like they're home now."

Suddenly, they detected footsteps running up the steps and down the hallway to their room. Katie burst in crying.

"Mama," she rushed to them. "Poppy."

Sully lifted the little girl and kissed her.

"What's the matter, Sweetheart?" Michaela noticed her tears.

Brian entered the room next, "Hey, Ma, Pa, it's good t' have ya home."

"What's wrong with Katie?" Sully's brow wrinkled.

"I don't know," Brian shrugged. "We were at the picnic, and all of a sudden, she wanted t' come home. Matthew still has Josef at the meadow with Samantha and Wendell."

The mention of Wendell's name prompted Katie to hug her father more tightly.

"Thank you, Brian," Michaela kissed his cheek.

Brian sensed that his parents wanted to speak to Katie alone, "I.... I'll be downstairs."

He closed the door behind him as he departed. Sully sat on the rocking chair with Katie, and Michaela joined them. For several moments, they did not speak. Finally, Katie's tears began to ebb.

"Wanna talk about it now, sweet girl?" he asked his daughter.

Katie reached for her mother's hand.

Michaela suspected, "Did Wendell say something to upset you?"

Again the little girl's body tensed. Sully looked at his wife with growing alarm.

"Katie," Sully urged. "Tell your Ma an' me what's wrong."

"I don't wanna worry ya," she leaned against her father's shoulder.

"Sweetheart," Michaela paused. "We love you, and we want to help you with whatever it is that's bothering you."

"I heard somethin'," she broached the subject.

"Heard what?" Michaela probed.

She was silent.

"Did you hear a noise that frightened you?" Michaela guessed.

The child remained quiet.

"If you don't wanna talk about it yet, that's okay, honey," Sully comforted. "We'll just hold ya."

"I like when ya hold me," Katie relaxed slightly.

Michaela wanted to further question their daughter, but Sully's look indicated that they should probe no further at this time.

"We brought you something," Michaela smiled.

Sully reached into his pocket and pulled out a stone, "Take a look."

"It's pretty," Katie commented halfheartedly.

"Someday we'll take ya out t' look at all that land, Kates," Sully smiled. "You can take your art supplies an' draw pictures of the animals an' rock formations."

"Were the twins well behaved?" Michaela asked her.

"Yes," she linked her fingers in her mother's.

Michaela could stand it no longer, "Katie, you know you can tell us anything. We won't be upset with you."

As Katie struggled with what to say, Sully softly kissed his daughter's temple.

Finally, the little girl revealed, "I.... heard Matthew an' Brian talkin' about who stabbed ya, Mama."

"What?" Michaela's voice trembled.

"It was Wendell's Papa," the child began to cry again.

"Oh, Katie," Michaela's eyes welled.

"Kates," Sully caressed his daughter's cheek. "Your Ma's okay now. An' he can't hurt anyone ever again."

Katie's cries continued.

"Shh," Sully comforted her.

"Ka--" Noah stood at his crib and called.

Michaela rose to go to the baby, "She'll be all right, Noah."

As Michaela tended to the babies, Katie slid from her father's lap. The little girl walked to her mother. Michaela knelt down and embraced her.

"It wasn't Wendell's fault, Sweetheart," Michaela wiped the tears from her daughter's cheeks. "Please don't blame him. He doesn't even know."

"What if he finds out, Mama?" she began to calm.

"Then...." Michaela pondered. "Then he will need us to be understanding. But we mustn't be the ones to tell him, Katie."

"I know," she sympathized. "I'm glad you're home safe."

"We're glad, too, my darling," Michaela kissed her.

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

"An' Katie Sully got all upset an' made her brother take her home," Wendell finished telling Isabel.

"What upset her so?" she grew concerned.

"Not me," he defended without accusation.

"Was she ill?" she wondered.

"I don't think so," he shook his head. "She was cryin'. We wasn't very hungry after that, so the picnic ended.

"I see," Isabel suspected more to the story.

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

"Papa!" Josef entered the house and saw his father. "You home!"

"Hey, Joe," Sully lifted him. "How ya doin'?"

"Good," his face beamed. "But Katie's not good."

"She's okay now, son," Sully assured him.

"Why she cwy?" he questioned.

"Just needed t' talk a little," Sully answered.

"Where's Mama?" he was anxious.

"In bed restin'," Sully replied. "Katie's with her."

"I go see, pwease?" the child implored.

"Sure," Sully set him down.

As the little boy rushed up the stairs, Matthew patted his father on the back.

"How's everythin'?" the young man questioned.

"We're okay," Sully assured. "But now I'm worried about Katie."

"I don't know what happened t'day," Matthew paused. "But whatever it was, she sure was upset."

"She told her Ma an' me what it was," Sully kept his voice low. "She heard you an' Brian talkin' about Wendell's Pa."

"Oh, no!" Brian sighed. "I'm sorry, Pa. We thought the kids were playin'."

"We got her calmed down," he assured. "But sooner or later Wendell's gonna hear, too. Most folks in town know what happened."

"Poor kid," Matthew shook his head. "Just about the time ya think he's gonna have a calm life, somethin' else happens.

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

Josef reached his mother's door. He softly knocked.

"Come in," Michaela spoke low.

Josef turned the knob slowly, then peered into the room. Asleep on the bed beside her mother, was Katie.

"Mama," he climbed up to embrace her.

"I'm so happy to see you," she smiled.

Josef touched the side of her mouth, "Katie say Papa make ya smile again."

"Yes, he did," Michaela agreed.

"I ask ya somethin'?" he probed.

"Certainly," she responded.

"Did ya go 'way 'cause o' the lost lil' baby?" he was direct.

She hesitated, then took his hand in hers, "Papa and I went away because we were sad about losing the baby, yes."

"I got idea," he leaned closer to whisper. "Ya make another baby."

Michaela felt a lump in her throat.

At that moment, Sully entered the bedroom, "Everythin' okay?"

Josef looked up, "Yep. Mama smile again, an' I give her idea."

"What idea's that, Joe?" Sully sat on the edge of the bed.

"You gotta make 'nother baby," the little boy returned.

Sully looked to his wife, then back at their son.

"Joe," Sully clasped his hand. "That can't happen."

Michaela was growing more uncomfortable.

Sully scooped the child into his arms, "How's Iggy doin'?"

"Good," his eyes widened. "She dig with her nose."

"With her nose?" Sully's eyes widened.

"Uh-huh," Josef nodded.

Michaela added, "Papa brought something for you."

"Ya did?" the little boy looked to his father.

Sully lifted another stone from his pocket, the same type which he had given to Katie.

"I like it," Josef's face beamed. "Thanks."

"Why don't ya go put it in your room?" Sully suggested.

"'Kay," he immediately slid from the bed and rushed out.

"Whew," Sully shook his head.

Michaela clasped her husband's hand.

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

"I hear Michaela an' Sully are back," Hank sampled Grace's meatloaf.

"That's good t' hear," she rushed off to serve another table.

Loren remarked, "I'll talk t' Dr. Mike t'morrow t' make sure they know about the dance."

"Knowin' about it an' comin' to it are two different things," Hank returned.

"Like I said, leave Dr. Mike t' me," the shopkeeper winked.

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

Michaela checked on the twins, then glanced toward the bed. Sully appeared to be asleep. Quietly, she opened her door and tiptoed to Katie and Josef's room. They, too, were soundly sleeping. After insuring that her son had not taken one of his toys to bed, she stepped toward the open window. She was pleased that a slight breeze would make the room more comfortable from the July heat.

Then she returned to Katie's bed. She lightly stroked her daughter's hair. Michaela knew that the little girl would not say anything to Wendell about what she had heard. If anything, Katie would defend the poor boy if anyone else tried to torment him with the news.

"You're so like your father," Michaela whispered.

"Is that good?" Sully stood at the doorway.

"Very good," Michaela looked up at him.

"They okay?" he wondered.

"Yes," she spoke low. "I was just...."

"I know," he smiled.

Extending his hand to her, Sully guided her toward their bedroom. Then he removed her robe and set it across the sheet. When she sat down on the edge of the bed, he removed her slippers.

"Why all of this attention?" she posed the question.

"I like helpin' ya get ready for bed," he grinned.

"You're very attentive, Mr. Sully," she relaxed.

"How ya feel about bein' back home?" he massaged her feet.

"I feel...." her voice choked slightly.

"Michaela?" he grew concerned.

Suddenly overcome by her feelings, she reached for him. He enfolded her in his embrace.

"I feel like I'll never move past this, Sully," she felt her heart ache. "I love being home, with you, with the children.... but then my thoughts turn to our baby."

She curled up in his arms, and he smoothed back her hair to kiss her.

"Three times," she trembled. "Three times we've lost a child. How do I get past that?"

"Ya don't get past it like ya might think," he reasoned. "It's always with ya."

"And you, Sully," she touched his cheek. "You've lost four children."

"An' we got four children," he pointed out. "Beautiful, healthy, happy.... It amazes me every time I look at 'em. Their unconditional love for us.... their enthusiasm for life. That's how I get through. I see all the hope of the world in their eyes."

"Yes, hope," she acknowledged.

"I think that's what weighs heaviest on ya, Michaela," he said. "This has caused ya t' lose some o' your hope."

She silently considered the wisdom of his words.

"Do you remember what Dr. Nelson told you?" he inquired.

"Yes," she tensed. "I'll never forget."

"Tell me," he invited. "Tell me everythin' he said to ya."

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

Michaela paused, then began, "Dr. Nelson informed me that the knife blade punctured my uterus.... and there was danger of infection.... which could necessitate a hysterectomy."

"But that danger's gone now, right?" he clarified.

"Yes," she patted his hand.

"Is that all he said then?" he questioned.

"He said...." she recalled. "We must refrain from intimacy...."

"We been doin' that," he added.

"Sufficient time has passed in that respect," she noted.

"Only when you're ready," Sully kissed her hand. "Anythin' else?"

Her expression changed, "Dr. Nelson advised that he would not rule out the possibility that if I healed properly, I could become pregnant again, but said it was highly unlikely."

"If ya did get pregnant again, would it be dangerous t' you or the baby?" he asked.

She did not answer.

"Michaela," he touched her chin.

"He said it could happen, Sully," the notion began to sink in.

"There's the hope ya been lookin' for then," he pointed out.

"I.... I shouldn't rely on that," she knew. "As a physician, I know when something is out of the realm of probability."

"'Course we gotta be realistic about things," Sully pointed out. "But if that outside chance gives ya hope....."

"I know what you're doing, Sully," she returned. "And I love you for it, but....."

"But what?" he questioned.

"But, how can I dare to hope for another child?" she stated.

He offered, "There's nothin' wrong with hopin' as long as it's physically possible."

She observed his expression, "I recall having a conversation somewhat like this once before."

"Ya do?" he folded his arms.

"The first few months after we were married, and we'd been trying so hard to have a baby," her voice trailed off.

"An' you thought maybe ya couldn't," he remembered. "That maybe you were too old."

"But you never gave up hope," she smiled slightly.

"We had a lot o' fun tryin'," he grinned impishly.

"I dare say we did," she blushed.

He drew her into his arms, "You look like you could use some holdin'."

She positioned herself closer, "I could."

He lowered the lamp, "Let's get some sleep. It's good t' be home in our own bed."

She raised an eyebrow, "You prefer a bed, Mr. Sully?"

"You got a way of makin' it preferable," he grinned.

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

Michaela entered the church and cleared her throat.

"Can I help you?" Timothy Johnson turned.

"I came to speak with Isabel and you, Reverend," she said.

"Dr. Mike," he smiled. "Isabel and Wendell are at the Mercantile. What did you want to talk about?"

"Wendell," she identified.

"What about him?" the minister was curious.

"Perhaps it would be better if we wait for Isabel to return," Michaela hedged.

"If that's what you want," he nodded. "How was your trip?"

"It was...." she sighed. "It was quite beautiful out there. We saw a wide array of animal and plant life."

He raised his hand, "That's not exactly what I meant."

"What did you mean then?" she was puzzled.

"I mean.... that is, I thought that maybe you had gone in search of the Lord's healing," he explained.

"Healing," she folded her hands. "I don't know if that's entirely possible."

"A recovery such as yours does take time," he sympathized. "But the Lord has also blessed you with...."

"Yes, Reverend," she interrupted. "I am quite blessed. Thank you for reminding me."

"I've upset you," he perceived from the tone of her voice. "I'm sorry."

"No," she placed her hand on his arm. "I'm sorry. I should not have been short with you."

"Dr. Mike?" Isabel's voice came from the back of the church. "It's nice to see you. I heard at the Mercantile that you'd returned."

"Hey, Dr. Mike," Wendell rushed to her. "How's Katie?"

"She's fine, Wendell," she smiled.

"Ah... Wendell," the Reverend spoke up. "I was wondering if you might pull the weeds in Mrs. Johnson's garden?"

"Right now?" he asked in disappointment.

"Yes, please," the minister returned.

"All right," the boy sounded less than enthusiastic as he pivoted to depart. "See ya, Dr. Mike."

"Good bye," she smiled.

Reverend Johnson turned to her, "Now, what did you want to discuss with us?"

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

"My brother," Cloud Dancing embraced Sully. "You have returned."

"Got back yesterday," he noted. "How's everythin' goin' here at the school?"

The medicine man's expression changed, "It.... it is becoming more difficult to conceal from the Army what we are doing."

"What do ya mean?" Sully asked.

"We teach the children the ways of the white man in front of them," Cloud Dancing glanced toward a nearby soldier. "But in small, private groups, we show them the ways of their grandfathers. I think the Army is becoming suspicious."

"Have they said somethin'?" Sully questioned.

"No," he responded. "But they seem to be watching us more closely."

"I'll go talk t' Dirksen," Sully adjusted his belt.

"You know the Army will not listen," he pointed out.

"Don't hurt t' try," Sully headed off.

He neared the Army tents and was met by a young private.

"I'm here t' see Sergeant Dirksen," Sully identified.

"He's in town," the young man replied.

"When will he be back?" he questioned.

"Don't know," the private shrugged.

Sully pivoted and went back to Cloud Dancing.

"I'll go back t' town," Sully informed his friend. "I'll let ya know what happens."

"Before you go," the medicine man paused. "How is Michaela?"

"She's...." he took a deep breath. "She's still havin' a rough time."

"The trip was not good for her?" Cloud Dancing wondered.

"It did a lot o' good, I think," Sully assessed. "But she's still got a ways t' go."

"She is a strong woman," he assured.

"Strongest I know," Sully smiled slightly.

"I shall ask the Spirits to guide her," the medicine man offered.

"Thanks," Sully acknowledged.

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

"Is something wrong, Dr. Mike?" Isabel's brow wrinkled. "Wendell said Katie was very upset at their picnic yesterday."

"She's fine, thank you," Michaela said. "But the reason for her upset is quite disturbing."

"What is it?" the Reverend queried.

"She found out that it was Wendell's father who stabbed me," she revealed.

"Oh, no," Isabel covered her mouth.

Michaela assured, "Katie won't say a word of this to Wendell, but I am concerned that he may learn of it from another source.... and.... I wanted you to be prepared for that eventuality. Actually, I'm surprised he hasn't heard about it from someone prior to this."

"That concerns us, as well," the minister nodded.

"Timothy," Isabel turned to her husband. "I believe it's time for us to tell him."

"I know we should," he sighed. "But.... I don't know how he'll receive the news."

"I believe it would be better if he hears it from you," Michaela reasoned.

"You're right," he swallowed hard. "We'll tell him."

"It must have upset Katie terribly," Isabel sympathized.

"We've stressed to her that she should not blame Wendell," Michaela explained. "She knows that I'm fine now."

"If you'll excuse me," the Reverend stood up. "I have some preparations to make for Sunday."

"Of course," Michaela responded.

Waiting for her husband to leave them, Isabel turned to Michaela, "Dr. Mike, I hope you won't think I'm out of line, but I wondered how you're doing."

"I'm..... getting along," Michaela folded her hands.

She sympathized, "Losing your baby like that.... I can't imagine what you must be feeling."

Michaela felt a lump in her throat, "I must concentrate on all that I have, not what I've lost."

"Yes," Isabel smiled. "That's the best thing."

"I appreciate your concern," Michaela touched her arm. "I really do."

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

"Dirksen," Sully caught up with the Army sergeant at the Depot.

"Mr. Sully," he acknowledged.

"I wanna talk t' ya," Sully eyed him sternly.

"About what?" the soldier challenged.

"I wanna make sure you an' your men ain't interferin' at the Indian School," he said.

"Interfering?" Dirksen folded his arms. "I don't know what you mean."

Sully pointed his finger into the man's chest, "I think ya know exactly what I mean. You tell your men t' back off. It's a private school, an' you got no right t' use any kind of intimidation tactics."

"My men and I do as we are commanded," he brushed Sully's hand aside. "And our orders do NOT come from you."

"Keep your men back," Sully warned.

"Or what?" Dirksen waited.

Sully walked away from him.

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

"Mrs. Slicker," Michaela opened the Clinic door.

"I'm sorry to bother you," Teresa looked over her shoulder. "I do not have an appointment."

"That's quite all right," Michaela stepped back to invite her in. "Are you ill?"

"I.... have a problem," she spoke low.

Michaela closed the door, "What can I do to help?"

"This is very embarrassing, Dr. Quinn," Teresa's voice trembled.

Michaela assured, "You can tell me."

"I am having a problem.... of a delicate nature," she hesitated. "I have burning..... down there.... and when I have my monthly, there is.... yellow...."

"Why don't I examine you?" Michaela offered. "Then we can discuss the nature of your problem."

"Gracias," Teresa nodded.

When Michaela began to give Teresa a gynecological examination, she was surprised.

"Mrs. Slicker.....," Michaela looked up. "How recently have you and Jake been.... intimate?"

"That is a very personal question," she tensed.

"I'm sorry, but it's very important," Michaela encouraged.

"We are not.... together very often," she pondered. "The last time was maybe.... two or three months ago."

Taking a deep breath, Michaela spoke, "I'll give you something which should clear this up. But, you can have no contact with him of an intimate nature until this is gone."

"Dr. Quinn," Teresa struggled to understand. "I got this from my husband?"

"Yes," she saw tears in the woman's eyes.

"And my husband got it from...." Teresa could not continue.

Michaela touched her hand, "I'm sorry."

She turned her head away, "My husband has turned to a.... prostituta."

"I'll need to see Jake, too," Michaela informed her.

"No, por favor," she objected. "I do not want him to know I have this...."

"He has it, too," Michaela stated. "He must be treated, as well."

Teresa's tears flowed more freely, "I am so ashamed."

"You haven't done anything wrong," she assured.

"It is because I do not perform my wifely duties, that Jacob has done this," Teresa wiped the moisture beneath her eyes.

"Mrs. Slicker," Michaela hoped to comfort her. "Jake is at fault, not you."

"This could jeopardize my position as a teacher here," the thought occurred to her.

Michaela asserted, "This will be kept in the strictest confidence. I'll tell no one about it. But I must treat Jake."

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

"Ya busy, Dr. Mike?" Loren stood at the Clinic door.

"Not at the moment," she smiled. "It's good to see you."

"You, too," he stepped into her office. "You an' Sully have a good trip?"

"Yes, thank you," she was polite.

Loren noted her expression, "I'm real sorry for what happened to ya."

"Thank you," she felt her eyes well. "And thank you for being so kind to our children."

"I think o' them like I would my own grandchildren," he offered.

She smiled, "And they think of you as a grandfather."

He changed the topic, "Did ya read about the big dance comin' up?"

"Dance?" she was curious.

"The annual Zebulon Pike Dance," he specified.

"Annual?" she pondered. "I don't recall our having one before. Is that what they're building in the meadow? A dance floor?"

"Yep. This here's the first year for it," Loren noted. "So ya think you an' Sully will go?"

"I.... I don't know if I'm up for a dance," she hedged.

"Awe," he looked disappointed. "I was hopin' ya might save one for me."

"For you?" she raised an eyebrow.

"Sure," he put his fingers in his vest pockets. "I know ya like t' dance. An' so do I."

"Loren," she became suspicious. "What's this about?"

"I already told ya," he cleared his throat. "It's about Zebulon Pike. He discovered our peak."

"I'm well aware of our geography," Michaela looked at him intently. "Why are we suddenly having a dance in his honor?"

"Somethin' t' do," he shrugged. "Ya know.... in the middle o' summer. So, will ya come?"

"I'll speak with Sully about it," she consented.

"Good," he winked.

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

"Wendell," Isabel spotted the child when he entered the church. "The Reverend and I would like to speak with you."

"What about?" he worried.

The minister took a deep breath, "About something that you should know."

"What?" the little boy tensed.

"It's about your father," Isabel broached the subject.

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

"Dr. Nelson," Michaela was surprised to see him at her Clinic door.

"Dr. Quinn," he smiled. "You're looking well."

"I feel well," she stepped back to invite him in.

"And you've returned to the Clinic full time?" he queried.

"Yes," she acknowledged. "As full as my four little ones will allow. Thank goodness we have Bridget to help."

"How is Mr. Lodge?" he wondered.

"He has resumed his full business schedule," she noted.

Nelson chuckled, "He resumed conducting business the moment he awoke from his injury."

"I was wondering.... as long as you're here, if I might impose," she broached the subject.

"No imposition," he assured. "What can I do for you?"

"Examine me," she requested. "I want to be certain that I've healed completely.

"Of course," he consented.

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

"My father's dead," Wendell insisted. "Why do I gotta think about him?"

The Reverend took a deep breath, "Because.... he did something very bad and.... we want you to hear about it from us."

"It's important that you understand this it doesn't change how we feel toward you, Wendell," Isabel assured. "We love you very much."

"What did my Pa do?" he questioned.

"He hurt.... and he.... killed some people," the Reverend revealed.

"Killed?" Wendell's eyes widened. "Who?"

"He killed a detective... and he...." Isabel could not go on.

"Wendell, he took your mother's life, as well," the minister came out with it.

"My Ma?" the little boy swallowed hard. "Why? Why'd he do it?"

"We're not certain," Isabel drew him closer and stroked his back.

"How'd he kill her?" the child wanted to know.

"With a knife," the minister informed him.

"A knife?" Wendell pulled away and walked toward a window.

Glancing out, the child stared at the graves of his parents.

Then the thought occurred to him, "Dr. Mike an' Mr. Lodge was hurt with a knife, too. Did.... did my Pa do that?"

"I'm afraid so," the Reverend spoke softly.

Wendell clutched the ledge of the window, and suddenly felt awash in guilt. He began to cry.

"All them people," he sobbed. "Dr. Mike must hate me."

Isabel rushed to him, "Please, Wendell. This is not your fault. No one blames you. No one hates you."

"Katie...." his eyes saddened. "She knows, don't she?"

"Yes," Isabel was truthful. "But she doesn't hold it against you."

"I don't blame her if she does," his shoulders slumped.

Isabel embraced him, "Oh, Wendell. You're a precious and innocent child in all of this. Katie is your friend."

"So is Dr. Mike," the Reverend went to them.

"I got nobody," tears streamed down the little boy's cheeks.

The minister stroked his back, "You have us. We'll take care of you and protect you. No one will ever hurt you like this again."

"People will find out what Pa did an' blame me," he feared.

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

Michaela arrived at the homestead and was warmly greeted by her children. When she sat on the floor with them, Katie and Josef spoke rapidly about their day, including the antics of Noah and Annie. Bridget watched in amusement while Michaela attempted to absorb their chatter and give each child special attention.

"Ya look like ya could use a glass o' ice tea," the nanny approached her.

"That would be nice, thank you," Michaela smiled in relief. "Is Sully home?"

Bridget shook her head, "I haven't seen the lad since mornin'."

"Maybe Papa went huntin'," Josef offered.

"No, I don't think so," Michaela caressed her son's cheek.

"Mama," Katie tapped her hand. "Noah tried t' climb outa his crib again t'day. I think he's gonna fall."

"Noah," Michaela drew him closer. "What are we going to do with you, young man?"

"Ba-" the baby's blue eyes brightened as he smiled broadly.

"Brian will be spending the night in town with Matthew," Michaela informed Bridget.

"One less place at the table then," Bridget acknowledged.

"How was your day, Mama?" Katie expressed interest.

"I saw one of your favorite people," Michaela smiled. "Mr. Bray stopped by to say hello."

"Did he now?" Bridget overheard.

"He mentioned a dance," Michaela remarked.

"Aye," the nanny nodded. "Will you an' Sully be goin'?"

"I'm not certain," Michaela caressed Noah's hair.

"Would be good for ya, lass," she pointed out.

"When is it?" Michaela was curious.

"T'morrow," Bridget informed her.

"You love t' dance, Mama," Katie encouraged.

"I'll discuss it with your father," Michaela agreed.

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

"Jacob," Teresa Slicker met her husband at the door. "I wish to speak to you."

"I know what you're gonna say," he lifted Maria. "An' even though I ain't said nothin' about it yet, I'll take ya t' the dance."

"I dance, Papa?" Maria requested.

"No," he smiled. "It ain't for kids."

"That is not what I wish to discuss with you," Teresa stated. "Maria, go play with your doll now. Dinner will be ready shortly."

Jake set his daughter down, and the little girl reluctantly left them alone.

Stepping toward the sink to wash his hands, Jake noted, "Supper smells good."

"I saw Dr. Quinn today," she approached him.

"Yea, I heard she's home," he nodded.

"I went to her Clinic," Teresa added. "She examined me."

Jake's face paled, "You sick?"

"Yes," she looked away. "I have not been feeling well."

"What did Dr. Mike say?" he was concerned.

"I have.... a disease...." she hesitated.

"Disease?" he touched her arm. "What's wrong with ya?"

"Jacob, it is a disease which I got from you," she stood straighter.

"From me?" he pointed to himself. "I.... ain't sick."

"Yes, you are," Teresa felt her eyes watering.

"You ain't makin' any sense," he sat down at the dinner table.

She joined him, "It is a disease which you got at the Gold Nugget, no doubt."

"I don't know what you're talkin' about," he grew uncomfortable.

"Yes, you do," her eyes glared at him. "You have been with a prostitute."

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

Sully stepped through the doorway of the homestead. Bridget and Michaela were in the process of settling the children at the dinner table.

"Papa!" Josef rushed to him.

"Hey, Joe," he hugged his son. Approaching Michaela, he kissed her cheek, "Sorry I'm late."

After kissing each of the children, Sully sat at the head of the table. Michaela spoke a prayer before the meal, then began to feed the twins. Sully cut the meat for Katie and Josef while Bridget doled out portions of potatoes and carrots for them.

"Where were ya, Poppy?" Katie inquired.

"I went back out t' the Indian school," he answered.

"I thought you were there this morning," Michaela queried. "Is everything all right?"

"Seems the Army's been gettin' too close t' the children," he noted. "I spoke t' Dirksen about it."

"What did he say?" she was curious.

"Not much," Sully returned. "But I told him t' keep his troops away."

"Do you think he will?" Michaela wondered.

"I ain't sure," he rubbed his upper lip.

"It's hot," Katie wiped her brow.

"It is rather warm this evening," Michaela agreed.

"Ninety degrees," Sully nodded. "I looked at the thermometer when I came in."

"It will be even hotter upstairs," Michaela sighed.

"Let's sleep outside," Katie suggested.

"That's a good idea, Kates," Sully grinned. "Be a lot cooler out there."

"Yea!" Josef applauded.

"I'll be stayin' in the house," Bridget smiled. "Too many critters out there for my taste."

"You should try waking up to a bobcat," Michaela chuckled.

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

"Wendell," the Reverend sat on the edge of the boy's bed. "Did you say your prayers?"

"Yes," he was curt. "But it won't do any good."

"Of course it will," the minister said. "What did you ask the Lord?"

The little boy did not speak.

"Did you say the prayer I taught you?" Reverend Johnson queried.

"I said it," Wendell sighed.

The Reverend reached out for his hand. Wendell clasped it.

"Could I ask ya somethin'?" the little boy looked up at him.

"Of course," he replied.

"Could I call you 'Pa?'" the child requested.

"I'd be honored," the minister smiled.

"Do you think I could call Mrs. Johnson 'Ma?'" he went on.

"I know she would like that," the Reverend agreed. "Except in school."

"So, if you're my Pa an' Ma, that means what my real Pa did don't matter, cause he ain't my Pa anymore," Wendell reasoned.

"I suppose you could look at it that way," the minister nodded.

"Then if kids say somethin' t' me, I'll just tell 'em that," the little boy considered.

"What are you two discussing?" Isabel entered the room.

"Good night, Ma," Wendell spoke to her.

"Ma?" her cheeks flushed.

"That's what Wendell wants you to be," the minister grinned. "And I'm his Pa."

"I will love being your mother," she kissed Wendell's cheek. "Good night, son."

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

Jake Slicker entered The Gold Nugget.

"Whiskey," he demanded of Hank.

"Ya look like ya lost your last friend," Hank responded as he poured.

"How often does Dr. Mike check your girls?" Jake questioned.

"It's been a while," he reminded. "Why?"

Jake frowned, then downed the contents of his glass, "Give me another."

Hank refilled it, "Why you wanna know about my girls?"

"'Cause one of 'em gave me somethin'," he gulped down another drink.

"You been t' see Michaela?" Hank inquired.

"No, but it looks like I'm gonna have to," he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

"How ya know ya got somethin' if ya ain't been t' the doctor?" Hank was puzzled.

Jake grabbed the bottle from Hank and poured himself another drink, "I know."

"I'll have Michaela look at the girls t'morrow," Hank nodded. "Meantime, I better cut off their socializin' t'night. This is gonna cost me a lot o' money."

"Ain't near as much as what it might cost me," Jake lamented.

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

Beside the homestead, Katie and Josef helped their father prepare a sleeping area for the family. They laid out the bedrolls side-by-side. Then they gathered wood so that Sully could build a fire. When all was ready, Bridget and Michaela brought the twins outside.

"Da-" Annie glanced around in awe.

"Come here, honey," Sully reached for her.

"Papa," her face beamed.

"Why ya make a fire if it's hot out?" Josef questioned.

"For some light, Joe," Sully winked.

"We could use lamps," Katie suggested.

"I don't wanna waste the kerosene for out here," he answered. "Don't ya want a fire?"

"I do," Michaela smiled at her husband.

"Then it stays," Sully grinned.

"Would ya tell us stowy, Papa?" Josef requested.

"Would ya like t' hear the story of how the coyote stole fire?" he leaned Annie against his chest.

"Yea!" the little boy's eyes widened.

Sully directed, "Lay down there beside your Ma."

Michaela made certain that Katie and Josef were settled, then drew a sleepy Noah onto her lap.

Sully began:

"Long ago when man was new t' the world, he didn't understand the importance of preparin' for winter. When the chilly air would arrive, an' the daylight time was shorter, he was afraid the winter could kill the tribe."

"When's the coyote part?" Katie was curious.

"It's comin'," Sully touched her nose. "The gray coyote was watchin' the humans one day. An' he heard 'em cryin' about how the winter is so hard without the warmth of the sun. They thought, 'if only we could have a piece of the sun.' Coyote felt kinda sorry for them, so he decided t' help."

"What did he do?" Josef yawned.

Sully smiled, "He knew where three Fire Beings dwelt on a mountaintop. These Bein's kept fire t' themselves, guardin' it night an' day. The coyote went up t' the mountain an' started watchin' them. At first they thought he was there to steal the fire, but when he didn't try anythin', they just ignored him."

"Why was he watchin' them?" Katie was puzzled.

"T' see how they guarded the fire," he explained. "He discovered that there was a brief time in the early mornin' when one o' the Bein's didn't come out real fast when it was his turn t' watch the fire. An' durin' that switchover time, the fire was unguarded."

"Did coyote take the fire then?" Josef assumed.

"Yep," Sully nodded. "Soon as he grabbed it, the Bein's took off after him. An' they caught up t' him as he was runnin' down the mountain."

"Uh oh," Josef sat up.

"Shh," Michaela rubbed his back. "Back down while Papa finishes."

"This gettin' good, Mama," the little boy looked at her.

Michaela drew him closer, "All right."

"What did they do t' the coyote, Poppy?" Katie snuggled closer to him.

Sully resumed, "When he reached the bottom o' the hill, he screamed. Suddenly, there were all kinds of animals there t' help. One of the Bein's reached out a clutchin' hand, but all she did was nip the end of the coyote's tail. Still, that touch was enough t' turn the hairs white, and coyote's tail-tips are white t' this day."

"I wondered 'bout that," Josef considered.

Sully went on, "The coyote shouted, and flung the fire away from him. A squirrel saw the fire fallin', and caught it. She put it on her back and ran away through the treetops. The fire scorched her back so painfully that her tail curled up and back, like squirrels' tails still do t'day.

"I wondered 'bout that, too," Josef remarked.

Sully returned, "When the Fire Bein's chased the squirrel, she threw the fire t' a chipmunk. Chatterin' with fear, the chipmunk stood real still until the Bein's were almost on her. Then, as she turned to run, one Bein' clawed at her an' tore down the length of her back. It left three stripes that ya can still see on chipmunks' backs even t' this day."

Katie turned to her brother, "Didn't ya wonder about that, Joey?"

"Nope," he shook his head. "Then who got the fire, Papa?"

Sully spoke, "The chipmunk tossed the fire t' a frog, and the Bein's turned on him."

Josef interrupted, "I think they need Wunnin' Ghost."

"What?" Katie was amazed at her brother's leap of logic.

"White Buf'lo," the little boy indicated. "He could save the aminals."

"Joey," Katie informed him. "The White Buffalo only helps buffalo."

"Oh," he sighed. "How 'bout White Coyote?"

Sully chuckled, "Anyway, just as one of the Bein's caught the frog's tail, he gave a mighty leap and tore himself free. But he left his tail behind in the Bein's hand. Ever since then, frogs don't have tails."

"Was every animal affected by the fire?" Katie questioned.

"Pretty near," Sully acknowledged. "But now, as the Bein's came after the frog again, he threw the fire ont' the wood. An' the wood swallowed it."

Josef folded his arms, "Ha. That twick the Bein's."

Sully tussled his hair, "The Fire Bein's gathered around, but they didn't know how t' get the fire out o' the wood. They promised it gifts, sang t' it and shouted at it. They twisted it, hit it an' tore it with their knives. But the wood didn't give up the fire. Finally, the Bein's went back t' their mountain-top and left the people alone."

"That's a good story," Josef yawned again.

"Wait," Katie tapped her father's arm. "Did anyone know how t' get the fire out o' the wood?"

Sully smiled at his daughter, "The coyote did. He went t' the village an' showed 'em the trick of rubbing two dry sticks together. From that time on, man was safe an' warm through the cold of winter."

"That was a real good story, Poppy," Katie smiled.

"Thanks," he glanced down at the sleeping baby in his arms. "This one's out."

"As are these," Michaela gestured to Noah and Josef.

"I reckon I oughta have a thick skin about my stories," Sully joked. "I didn't think they were that borin'."

"They're not borin', Poppy," Katie insisted. "But your voice sounds real good. An' it makes us relax."

"Good answer," Sully placed Annie on a bedroll.

Michaela set Noah beside his twin sister. Sully guided Josef back beside Noah, and Katie cuddled next to Annie. Then Sully positioned Wolf at the feet of the twins, should they attempt to go toward the fire during the night.

"Night," Katie smiled at her parents. "Love you."

"We love you, too, Sweetheart," Michaela stroked her hair.

Sully leaned down to kiss her cheek, "Thanks for stayin' awake t' the end o' my story."

"That's okay," she embraced him.

Within minutes, the steady breathing of their children assured the loving parents that they were soundly sleeping. Michaela leaned her back against Sully's chest. His legs were parted, and she rested her arms on his thighs.

"You tired?" Sully kissed the top of her head.

"Not really," she noted. "Though it was a busy day."

"Did ya get a chance t' talk t' Isabel an' the Reverend about Wendell?" he asked.

"Yes," she linked her fingers in his. "They're going to tell him what his father did."

"I don't envy them," he stared at the flames of the fire. "It's gonna be hard."

"What about Sergeant Dirksen, Sully?" she returned to the subject of the Indian school. "What do you think he's up to?"

"I ain't sure," he sighed. "Could be nothin' but intimidation. But Cloud Dancin's gonna be careful."

Her thoughts turned to Teresa Slicker. That was another household not to be envied. Michaela raised her husband's hand to her heart, then to her lips. What would she ever do if Sully turned his attention to a prostitute? Quickly, she dismissed the notion. He was nothing like Jake. And their love and trust in one another would never permit either of them to stray.

As she gazed into the fire, and she felt the warmth of his body next to her, Michaela began to long for more intimate contact with Sully. In the weeks since her miscarriage, he had been understanding in that regard. She knew that he would never press her to resume their intimacy. But.... now, Michaela realized that she needed him. She craved to feel the effects which their love making had on her, knowing without words that her husband felt the same way.

Sully began to massage her shoulders. She tilted her head against his hand, then kissed it.

"Anythin' else happen t'day?" he wondered about her quiet.

"Apparently, there's going to be a dance," she said. "Loren thinks we should go."

"Do you want to?" he inquired.

************
Chapter 7
************

"I.... I suppose we could go to the dance for a while," Michaela pondered. "Loren was rather insistent."

"What's the occasion?" he questioned.

"Now, that's an interesting thing," she grinned. "The Annual Zebulon Pike Dance."

"Zebulon Pike?" he chuckled.

"Loren said it would give the town something to look forward to during the mid-summer," Michaela repeated.

"There's other things t' look forward to," he leaned closer and kissed her neck.

"I've been thinking," she warmed at his gesture.

"Oh?" he invited. "About what?"

"About our.... abstinence," she turned to look fully at him.

"I'm sorry," he pulled back.

"No, Sully," she clasped his hand. "I want us to be together again."

"Right now?" he teased as he glanced at the children.

"No," she tapped his arm.

"You sure you're ready?" he questioned.

"Yes," she felt her cheeks flush. "Dr. Nelson stopped by the Clinic today, and I asked him to examine me."

He felt a wave of anxiety, "Everythin's okay, ain't it?"

"Yes," she squeezed his hand slightly. "He confirmed that I have completely healed."

"Good," he relaxed.

"I was thinking...." she hesitated. "What if we have the children stay at the Clinic tomorrow night, and after the dance, we'll have the house to ourselves?"

"Michaela Quinn," he raised his eyebrows. "You gonna try t' take advantage o' me?"

"The thought crossed my mind," she turned up the corner of her mouth flirtatiously.

"Dancin' an' romancin'," he grinned. "I like it."

"Especially, the romancing, if I know you," she caressed his cheek.

"Don't you like romancin'?" he queried.

"I love it," she turned and leaned against him again.

Sully's hands began to wander until Michaela clasped them and whispered, "Tomorrow, Mr. Sully."

"I love you," he spoke low.

"I love you, too," she smiled. "Very much."

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

Sully reached the Indian school and dismounted his horse. He walked toward the open-air classroom where the younger children were having their morning reading lesson. Dorothy smiled at him, then resumed her teaching. As he continued to walk, he saw college students working with the older children on techniques of planting and harvesting crops.

Sully stopped when he spotted Cloud Dancing with a small group of youngsters. From his friend's gestures, he detected that the medicine man was telling a story. No doubt, a story of the Cheyenne people. Surveying the scene, Sully noted that there were no soldiers lurking.

Maybe his warning to Dirksen had been taken seriously, but Sully doubted it. He stepped closer to Cloud Dancing.

"Children," the medicine man stopped. "That is all for now. Go on to your lessons."

The young ones left them alone.

"How are things with the Army?" Sully inquired.

"The soldiers have stayed away this morning," he responded.

"Maybe they were just bored," Sully theorized. "Started comin' closer for somethin' t' do."

"I do not believe that," Cloud Dancing shook his head. "And neither do you."

"Just be careful," Sully advised. "Don't wanna give them an excuse t' do somethin'."

"Dorothy and I will be careful," the medicine man agreed. "How is Michaela?"

He smiled, "She's doin' better. We slept outside with the kids last night."

His friend grinned, "Did you sleep?"

"Not with our brood," Sully chuckled. "Noah is gettin' real active. He's climbin' a lot. Tries t' get outa his crib. I'm thinkin' of puttin' a top on it t' contain him."

"He was crowded with his sister inside of his mother before his birth," Cloud Dancing speculated. "Maybe he is making up for that time."

"Maybe," Sully pondered. "But Michaela's afraid he's gonna fall."

"The little ones must always fall," he returned.

"She's protective of him," Sully indicated. "We came real close t' losin' him when he was born."

"I remember," the medicine man nodded. "But too much protection is not good. The young one must explore."

"Try tellin' that t' Michaela," Sully grinned.

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

"Hank?" Michaela was surprised by his arrival at the Clinic.

"How ya doin'?" he stepped into her office.

"Fine, thank you," she was polite. "What can I do for you?"

He came to the point, "I want ya t' check my girls."

"It has been a while," she sat at her desk. "I can see them before lunch."

"Good," he turned.

"Hank," she called him back. "Why are you suddenly making this request?"

"I got my reasons," he replied. "I'll send the girls over."

Michaela added, "Should I check you, as well?"

"Nah," he shook his head. "I ain't been with any of 'em for a while."

She attempted to gauge the truth of his statement.

"All right," he sensed her doubt. "Check me, too."

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

Trent Cutler sat on a fallen log cleaning his gun.

Lexie approached him, "I wish you wouldn't take that with you tonight."

"Why not?" he was surprised.

"I don't have a good feeling about this, Trent," she expressed her doubts.

"Look," he rose to his feet. "Nothin's gonna go wrong. We'll go t' the dance. When the town's all caught up in havin' a good time, I'll go over an' rob the bank. You signal me if ya think there could be trouble. I'll signal you when I got the money. Then we'll take off, gone before anyone knows what happened."

"Don't take the gun," she repeated.

"It's just in case somethin' goes wrong," he stated.

"You said nothing would go wrong," she countered.

"There's always an outside chance," he shrugged and walked away.

Lexie watched him, remembering how she used to look up to her brother. Now, she was disgusted by the life he was leading and ashamed of herself for going along with him. She reached for the box containing the dress he had given her. Closing her eyes, she imagined dancing with the most handsome man in town.

"That will never happen for you, Lexie," she quickly brought herself back to reality. "You're not destined to meet a man to love."

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

Jake swallowed hard, then tentatively knocked at the Clinic door. When he heard Michaela's voice, he opened the door.

"Jake," she looked up from her files.

"Hey," he forced a smile. "I.... I come for some medicine."

She was not going to make this easy for him, "Oh? What kind of medicine?"

"You saw Teresa yesterday," his tone changed. "You know what kind."

"I also saw Hank's girls today," she folded her arms. "It appears that one of them is ill. I'll venture that you have what she has."

"Just give me the medicine, will ya?" he tensed.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," she accused. "You're a husband and father. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"You wouldn't understand," Jake avoided looking at her.

"Why?" she shook her head. "Why did you do this to Teresa?"

"Things ain't been right between us for a long time," he told her. "Ever since that effort by the wives in town t' withhold.... you know."

"That time has long passed," she went to her medicine cabinet.

"Not for us," he lamented.

"But you made vows to Teresa," Michaela emphasized.

He raised his hand, "Don't go givin' me one o' your lectures. I know what I done, an' I know I'm gonna pay for it."

"Pay for it?" she was uncertain.

"If Sully had done somethin' like this, what would you do?" he posed the question.

"Sully would never......" she was interrupted.

"But what if he did?" he interjected.

"I'd be heartsick," she knew.

"You'd be more than that," Jake returned. "You'd divorce him."

"Teresa would never divorce you," Michaela asserted.

"Look," he cleared his throat. "Could we get this over with?"

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

"You goin' t' the dance with Emma?" Brian sat in his brother's office.

"Yep," Matthew nodded. "Who you takin'?"

"No one," Brian replied. "I told Ma I'd watch the kids at the Clinic."

"Why the Clinic?" he was curious.

"I guess they wanna be alone at the homestead t'night," Brian reasoned. "Bridget's goin' t' the dance with Loren, but she'll stay at the Clinic with me after it's over."

"I'll spend the night there, too," Matthew volunteered.

"Thanks," he smiled. "The kids can be a handful."

"So, Ma an' Sully wanna be alone," Matthew grinned. "That's a good sign."

"Matthew," Brian was embarrassed.

"What?" he winked. "I think it's nice."

"They're our folks," Brian considered. "We're not supposed t' think about them doin' that."

Matthew joked, "How ya think we got so many little brothers an' sisters?"

"I know, but...." he stopped. "Could I ask ya somethin'.... kinda personal?"

"Sure," Matthew nodded.

"Have you ever.... ya know.... been with a woman?" Brian posed the question.

Matthew immediately grew uncomfortable, "Why ya ask?"

"'Cause I haven't," Brian answered.

"That's okay," the older brother informed him.

"The way my love life is goin', I'll never get married or have kids," Brian lamented.

"You're only twenty years old," Matthew reminded.

"Most men are married by my age," he stated.

"The right woman will come along," Matthew assured.

"Are you an' Emma plannin' on gettin' married?" he questioned.

"Eventually," Matthew returned. "She doesn't want us t' move too fast."

"I thought she came back because she loves ya," Brian recalled.

"She did," he acknowledged. "But..... I guess I was a little too anxious."

"What do ya mean?" the younger brother was puzzled.

"I asked her t' marry me right after I broke up with Lily," Matthew recounted. "Emma just wants t' be sure I don't still have feelin's for Lily."

Brian pondered his words in silence.

Matthew perceived his upset, "Don't worry, little brother. The right woman is out there."

"Yea," he shrugged. "But when am I gonna meet her?"

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

Cloud Dancing walked through a wooded area near the Indian school. He stopped abruptly when he heard voices speaking low. He remained out of sight. Peering toward the two men engaged in conversation, the medicine man overheard their words. They were soldiers assigned to guarding the school.

Soldier 1: "So, when's it gonna get here?"

Soldier 2: "I ain't sure. But I don't think this is right."

Soldier 1: "We can't do anythin' about it. We gotta follow orders."

Soldier 2: "Orders? Don't they know this could backfire?"

Soldier 1: "How?"

Soldier 2: "Smallpox is real contagious. It could spread beyond the school grounds."

Soldier 1: "We been vaccinated. We can't get it."

Soldier 2: "It still ain't right. These are children."

Soldier 1: "Injun children."

Soldier 2: "They ain't done anythin' wrong. It's not a battlefield. They ain't combatants."

Soldier 1: "Our orders are when the contaminated clothes get here, we give 'em t' the children."

Cloud Dancing swallowed hard, shocked at the horror of the Army's plan. His jaw tensed. Sully must be told.

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

Jake entered his home, hoping to find his wife. She was standing at the kitchen stove preparing dinner. He stepped closer and placed his hand on her shoulder. She pulled away and did not respond.

"I went t' see Dr. Mike," he informed her.

She said nothing.

"Teresa," he exhaled slowly. "I know how upset ya are."

"Upset?" her eyes reflected pain. "Upset that my husband slept with...."

She glanced at the ceiling, hoping that their napping daughter had not heard.

Jake took her hand, "I made a bad mistake. It was only one time."

"Only one time?" Teresa frowned. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"It's supposed t' let ya know that I ain't havin' an affair or anythin' like that," he explained. "I love you. I miss us bein' t'gether. I'm only human, Teresa. I had too much t' drink one night, an'....."

"Do not attempt to excuse your behavior, Jacob Slicker," she scolded.

"What d' ya want me t' do?" he held out his hands. "I said I'm sorry. It won't ever happen again."

"Oh?" she doubted. "What about the next time you have too much to drink?"

"Look," he paused. "I know I got weaknesses, but.... when we got married, you made me wanna overcome them. You an' Maria are the best things that ever happened t' me."

"You have a sorry way of showing it," she shook her head.

"Okay," he raised his hands in frustration. "Punish me. Do what ya want. I can't convince ya that this was just a mistake."

"Do you know what marriage means to a woman?" tears began to well in her eyes. "It means that her husband commits himself to love, honor and protect his wife."

"It also means the wife has certain duties," he countered. "You know what I'm talkin' about, an' you ain't been real good where that's concerned."

His accusation stung her, "Perhaps it is best that you stay in town tonight."

"Gladly," he pivoted and slammed the door as he exited.

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

Sully knocked on the Clinic door. When Michaela bid him enter, he stepped through the doorway and kissed her.

"You ready t' go home?" he saw the stack of folders on her desk.

"Yes," she consented.

"What?" his eyes widened. "With all that on your desk?"

She placed her hand across his lips, "Nothing more important than you."

"We best go help Bridget get the kids ready t' spend the night here," he smiled.

"I'm looking forward to our evening, Mr. Sully," she smiled flirtatiously.

"Me, too," he kissed her.

Their contact began to deepen, and their breathing quickened. An urgent knock at the door interrupted them.

"So much for goin' home now," he rolled his eyes.

Sully stepped toward the door and opened it.

"Cloud Dancin'?" he was surprised.

"Sully," he was out of breath. "I'm glad I have found you."

"What's the matter?" his brow wrinkled.

The medicine man's face reflected his concern, "I have learned what the Army is planning."

************
Chapter 8
************

"What have you learned, Cloud Dancing?" Michaela reacted.

The medicine man revealed, "The Army intends to introduce small pox to the children through a donation of clothing."

"What?" Michaela and Sully responded simultaneously.

"I overheard two soldiers talking about it," Cloud Dancing explained.

"I knew they had t' be up t' no-good, but this...." Sully was astounded.

"Cloud Dancing," Michaela touched his arm. "Don't worry. I inoculated you and the children when the school first opened."

"There is no danger for them?" he wanted to be certain.

"The vaccine is still in effect," she assured.

Sully rubbed his upper lip, "I gotta report this. The Army can't get away with it."

"Who will believe you, my brother?" Cloud Dancing questioned. "I am the only one who heard them. And the soldier who was questioning doing this would not go against his orders."

"Could we wait for the clothin' t' arrive, then use it as evidence?" Sully speculated.

"That could be quite dangerous," Michaela assessed. "Anyone along the route who comes in contact could be exposed to the disease."

Sully wiped his brow, "Welland Smith is in Denver. I don't wanna risk the Army interceptin' a telegram t' him. I'll take the train up t'morrow an' talk t' him."

"Can he do anything?" the medicine man questioned.

"I don't know," Sully answered. "But I don't know who else t' turn to."

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

The Zebulon Pike Dance began when local musicians struck up "Blue-Tail Fly:"

"When I was young I use to wait
On my master and give him his plate
And pass the bottle when he got dry
And brush away the blue-tail fly.
Give me cracked corn and I don't care
Give me cracked corn and I don't care
Give me cracked corn and I don't care
My master's gone away....."

Having settled their children at the Clinic, Sully and Michaela strolled toward the meadow where the sounds of song and laughter became louder. There were Bridget and Loren traipsing across the wooden dance floor. Horace and Myra also turned and whirled along. Matthew and Emma, Grace and Robert E, the Reverend and Isabel, along with numerous other couples, were already enjoying the festivities.

Hank leaned against a post puffing lazy circles of cigar smoke into the air when he spotted Michaela and Sully arrive.

"Well, well," the sheriff smirked. "Looks like things'll really start gettin' excitin' now."

"It's nice to see you, too, Hank," Michaela smiled demurely.

Sully asked his wife, "You thirsty?"

She raised an eyebrow, "We haven't danced yet."

Sully took her hand and quietly led her into the group of dancers. With their eyes locked onto each other, it did not matter what the song was. Their focus never wavered. Sully held her near, and raised her hand to his heart.

"You dance wonderfully, Mr. Sully," she spoke near his ear.

"You're bein' kind," he retorted. "One, two, three.... one, two, three."

She tapped his shoulder, "I know you're doing this for me. I appreciate it."

"Oh, it's real hard for me t' dance with ya," he joked. "I gotta hold the most beautiful woman in the world close.... feel ya next t' me.... smell your perfume...."

She smiled.

"Look at that," Loren gestured toward Michaela and Sully. "I knew this would perk her up."

"Aye," Bridget agreed. "The lass does seem in better spirits t'day."

Lexie Cutler sipped a cup of punch, surveying the faces around her. She smiled and nodded her head, appearing to be enjoying the dance. As she turned to her left, she noticed a strikingly handsome man, leaning against a post. Working her way in his direction, she hoped he would notice her.

Hank saw the beautiful woman approach. He felt a rush of excitement at her proximity.

"Care t' dance?" he offered his arm.

"I'd love to," Lexie set down her cup.

Hank pulled her quite close, but she did not draw back. In fact, Lexie rather enjoyed his initiative.

He spoke softly, "My name's Hank."

"I'm Lexie," she found his tone exciting.

"Where ya from?" he queried.

"Uh.... Manitou," Lexie was losing herself in his arms.

"Manitou, huh?" he smiled. "Ya came just for our dance?"

"I read about it and decided to come," she found herself unable to take her eyes off of his blue eyes.

"By yourself?" Hank was surprised.

"Yes," she noticed the music had stopped.

Hank continued to hold her, "Kinda bold, ain't it? Beautiful woman like you comin' t' a dance by herself."

"I enjoy being bold," she smiled suggestively.

"Good," he raised an eyebrow.

"I think the music has stopped," she noticed.

"What music?" Hank continued to hold her close.

Sully stepped toward the refreshment table to get a cup of punch for Michaela. Watching him leave her side, Preston stepped closer.

"Michaela," he grinned. "What a pleasure to see you here this evening."

"Mr. Lodge," she acknowledged politely. "How are you feeling?"

"Fit and hardy," he inhaled deeply.

"That's good," she said.

"Would you.... care to dance?" he offered his hand.

"No, she wouldn't," Sully returned in time to hear.

"No offense intended," Preston raised his hands.

Michaela took the beverage from Sully's hand, "My husband holds all but one of the dances on my card this evening."

"Oh?" Preston was intrigued. "Who has the other one?"

"I do," Loren approached them. "Dr. Mike?"

Michaela handed Sully her cup, then took Loren's arm onto the dance floor.

"Well, boy-oh," Bridget looked up at Sully. "I'm available."

Sully grinned, "Love to."

Handing the two cups of punch to Preston, Sully led the nanny out to dance. The banker looked down at the cups and sighed.

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

Trent Cutler noticed few lights on in town. There were several on in the upstairs level of the town Clinic, some at the saloon, but that was all. He found his way to the Bank's back window and lit a lamp. Cautiously glancing around, he continued with his plan. He was able to easily pry open the window and enter the bank. Gingerly, he pulled a stick of dynamite from his pocket. If he found himself unable to coax the safe's combination open with his talent for manipulating locks, he would blow it off and make a quick getaway.

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

"Ya look like you're havin' a good time," Loren smiled.

Michaela returned, "I am."

"Good," he gauged her sincerity.

"Would you tell me something?" Michaela raised an eyebrow.

"Sure," he nodded.

"What was the real reason for this dance?" she was direct.

"T' honor Zeb...." he was interrupted.

"Loren," she interjected. "The truth."

"Truth?" he became uncomfortable. "Urr.... well.... we wanted t' do somethin' for ya."

"For me?" she was surprised.

"You done so much for us, Dr. Mike," he opened up. "It broke our hearts t' see ya so sad. You always been here for us, an' we wanted t' be here for you."

A tear glistened in the corner of her eye, "You're a dear man."

"Ya don't mind?" he hoped.

"Mind?" she was uncertain.

"Havin' a dance t' lift your spirits," he detailed. "Some folks didn't think you'd be up for it, so soon after losin' the baby."

"I think it's very sweet," she smiled. "And I have a suspicion that you were behind the whole thing."

"Me?" he pointed to himself.

"Yes, you, Loren Bray," she leaned closer to kiss his cheek. "I appreciate your friendship."

"Awe," he blushed slightly. "That's all right. Long as it helps ya."

"Knowing how fortunate I am to have such loving friends does help," she assured.

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

Trent smiled as the last click indicated his success with the safe's lock. He turned the handle and opened the door. Quickly, he began to fill his saddlebag with the cash. Keeping himself alert for any sounds of danger, he completed the task within a matter of seconds. Then he closed the door of the safe and exited through the back window.

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

Hank escorted Lexie to the refreshment table, "Care for somethin' t' drink?"

"Yes," she consented.

He set the full cups on the table, then pulled a flask from his pocket, "This'll put a kick in' it."

"Whiskey?" she assumed.

"Special blend," he leaned closer.

After adding the liquor to his drink, he began to return the flask to his pocket.

"None for me?" Lexie noticed.

"You want some?" he was surprised.

"Of course," she smiled.

"You ain't one o' them prohibitionists?" he chuckled.

"I know what I like," she returned. "And a little libation now and then is okay."

"I never met a lady like you," he added some whiskey to her cup.

She raised her cup for a toast, "Here's to meeting interesting people then."

"I'll drink t' that," he clicked his cup to hers.

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

Sully and Michaela walked toward an unoccupied bench. They sat as Sully fidgeted with his collar.

Michaela observed, "Would you like to go home?"

"It's kinda early yet," he looked into her eyes. "You tired?"

"Actually, I'm rather energized," her voice was inviting.

"I don't mind dancin' if that's...." he stopped, perceiving her intention. "Energized?"

"Yes," she touched his thigh.

"Michaela," he gulped.

"Let's go," she whispered.

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

Lexie spotted her brother at the edge of the dance floor. He nodded, then turned and departed.

Hank smiled, "What ya thinkin' about?"

"Nothing in particular," she replied. "Tell me, Hank, what do you do here in Colorado Springs?"

"I own the Gold Nugget Saloon," he gestured toward town. "An' I'm the sheriff."

"Sheriff?" she tensed.

He joked, "Yea. Ya ain't plannin' on robbin' the bank, are ya?"

She laughed, "No. I was just thinking that's a dangerous job."

"No more dangerous than runnin' the saloon," he chuckled. "What d' you do? I assume ya ain't married."

"No, I'm not," she smiled. "I used to be a rancher."

"Rancher?" he was surprised.

"Yes," she acknowledged. "I love the outdoors, cattle drives...."

"Ya said ya used t' be a rancher," he questioned. "Why'd ya stop?"

"To take care of my brother," she fibbed. "He was ill."

"He better now?" Hank probed.

"Yes," she knew she should depart.

He noticed her discomfort, "Don't ya wanna talk about it?"

"I'm sorry," she stepped back. "I really should be getting home."

"Wait," he reached for her hand. "Not yet."

Lexie turned and was immediately captured by his piercing eyes.

"Stay in Colorado Springs tonight," Hank requested.

"I...." she did not know what to say.

"You can stay at the Gold Nugget," he offered. "It wouldn't be good for a beautiful woman t' travel all alone back t' Manitou at night."

"All right," she did not know why she was agreeing.

"Good," he grinned. "Care t' dance some more?"

"I'd like that," she smiled.

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

Michaela and Sully stopped by the Clinic to insure that the children were sleeping. Then they headed for the homestead. When they arrived, Sully unhitched the horse and took him to the barn, while Michaela entered the house.

She knew that her husband would be occupied in the barn for a sufficient amount of time for her to prepare their bedroom. She lit several candles around the room, then stepped toward her bureau. There it was. The negligee her mother had given her for her wedding trousseau. Slipping out of her dress, Michaela removed her undergarments, freshened up and put on the special gown. She liked the feel of the cool silk against her skin. Even more, she loved the look in Sully's eyes when she wore it.

When all was in readiness, she walked to the open window and savored the cooling breeze. She saw Sully's silhouette as he left the barn and headed for the house. Then she heard the sound of the front door. Suddenly, she felt nervous.

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

Teresa Slicker lifted her sleeping daughter and placed her in the back of the carriage.

The child awoke, "Where we go, Mama?"

"To bring your father home," she was honest.

"I scared," Maria's voice trembled.

"It is all right, little one," Teresa caressed her hair. "I am with you."

As she guided the carriage toward town, her emotions varied between anger and fear. Anger that Jake again had turned to liquor instead of his family. Fear that she was losing him.

In spite of everything, Teresa admitted to herself, she loved her husband. Each time he would disappoint her, she would think back to the terrible days shortly after her arrival in town when her first husband had been mauled to death by a mountain lion. She was left to pay for the mortgage on their house.

Jake's kindness and understanding soothed her upset. He patiently courted her, and with the exception of a misunderstanding about her teaching Hank to read, he had been incredibly loving. Eventually, he won her heart.

But now their lives were so different. And it was all because of his drinking. If only she could persuade him again to reject the bottle, to give their marriage another try. But could she forgive his infidelity?

Maria awoke again, jostled by the carriage movements.

"Papa here?" the little girl questioned.

"Not yet," Teresa caressed her cheek. "But I know where he will be."

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

Sully stepped into the kitchen and washed his hands. Then he pulled a glass from the shelf and filled it with water. He downed the liquid in a few gulps. After wiping his mouth, he noticed a letter on the table. On closer inspection, he saw his name on it.

He lifted the envelope and opened it. Inside was a letter from Michaela. Silently, he read:

"Dear Sully,

I want to express to you, with these written words, how much you mean to me. As we have faced this most recent loss, you have been my dearest friend and companion. You have comforted me and wiped my tears. All the while, your own heart ached, as well. I do not know what I would do without you. You have given me a home filled with love, security and the joyous sounds of our children. You are my best friend and confidant. And, your loving touches fill me with overwhelming sensations.

When we married, I had so many questions and uncertainties about whether I could make you happy. But through your gentle tutoring, I grew in confidence and understanding. I have shared everything with you these past nine years of marriage: joys, sorrows, challenges and successes.

I remember your telling me once, "My heart is yours." I did not fully comprehend the power and rapture contained in those words at the time. But now I do. I treasure your heart and how it fills me with love. It was my lucky destiny to share my love and life with you. Thank you for all that you give to me.

Your loving wife,

Michaela."

Sully folded the paper and exhaled slowly. He absorbed the power of his wife's words, hoping that Michaela realized everything she said about him was exactly how he thought of her, as well. He placed the letter in his pocket. He knew she was upstairs waiting for him. Nervously, he took a deep breath and climbed the stairs.

************
Chapter 9
************

Sully reached the bedroom and stopped at the doorway. Michaela stood in the middle of the room waiting for him. He felt his heart skip a beat at the sight of her. The golden glow from the candles gave a surreal quality to the room.

"All locked up for the night?" Michaela folded her hands.

"Yea," he stepped closer. Removing the envelope from his pocket, he held it before her. "I read your letter."

"I'm glad," she felt her cheeks flush.

"It was beautiful, Michaela," his eyes captured her soul. "It says all I feel about you, too."

Reaching out to place her palms on his chest, she felt the rapid beating of his heart.

"You sure you're ready for this?" he ran his finger down her temple, past her ear and along the line of her jaw.

Michaela suddenly felt every fiber of her being awaken, "I.... I'm rather nervous."

"Me, too," he grinned.

"You?" she was surprised.

"Kinda like our first time," he lifted her hand to his lips.

"I suppose it's good to know we can be nervous after all these years," she attempted some humor.

"When I look at you in that gown," he paused. "I feel like I did on our honeymoon."

"I hoped you'd notice I was wearing it," she smiled.

"Notice?" he chuckled. "I'd have t' be dead not t' notice."

He ran his hands lightly along the contours of her body. Michaela quivered slightly at his touch.

As he kissed her earlobe, she tilted her head back to permit easier access. Sully trailed kisses along the soft skin of her neck, just below the line of her jaw.

Michaela drew back slowly, savoring the sensations he had awakened. While she slid her palms up his chest and began to undo his buttons, he pulled his shirttail from his pants. As he took off the garment, Michaela kissed his chest.

Sully felt as if his heart would pound out of his body. Michaela gazed up at him, hopeful that she was stirring in him the same sensations he was awakening in her. One glance indicated that she was succeeding.

Sully lightly ran his fingertips up her arms and across her shoulders to the straps of her gown. Michaela trembled slightly.

He spoke low, "I love you."

His soft voice calmed her trepidation. Sully slowly slid his fingers beneath the straps of her negligee, and drew them downward. Noticing her slight gasp, he paused.

"Don't stop," she invited.

He continued his tantalizing movements by softly kissing her breasts. Michaela inhaled deeply, stirred by his enticing caresses. She closed her eyes and felt every pore of her body afire. Sully continued his kisses upward to claim her lips.

"I love you," she ran her fingers through his long hair. "So very much."

The timbre of her tone heightened his desire. He lowered her gown past her hips, then lifting her into his arms, carried her to their bed.

He tenderly set her upon the mattress and caressed her cheek, "You're so beautiful."

"Are you still nervous?" she framed his face.

"Kinda," he admitted. "You?"

"I think I'm getting over it," she smiled.

Sully kissed her again, then stepped back from the bed to undo his trousers. Free of all clothing that would encumber their contact, he climbed onto the bed and positioned himself beside her.

Their soft kisses and tender touches resumed. Sully raised up slightly to trail his kisses down the valley between her breasts, to her stomach and lower. When he reached her abdomen, he lightly placed his finger tips on her scar. He kissed it, then felt a rush of guilt over what she had suffered.

"It's all right, Sully," she sensed his hesitation. "It doesn't hurt."

He looked up at her with anguished eyes, "I'm so sorry, Michaela."

She smiled and gently clasped the sides of his face, "Come here."

When he repositioned himself beside her, Michaela began to kiss his neck. Sully shut his eyes and felt himself transported by the softness of her. She ran her palm lightly across his chest and down to his stomach. Her kisses followed the path of her hand.

The powerful effect her initiatives had on his body was immediate. As she worked her way upward again, Sully clasped her shoulders and guided her onto her back. He lifted up to fit his form to hers.

The intensity of their gazes silently signaled that they were ready to take their passion further. Sully gently smoothed back the hair from her face to gaze at her more fully.

Michaela spoke softly:

"I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense."

"Good thoughts," he smiled. "Was that Shakespeare?"

"Anne Bradstreet," she returned.

She lowered her hands to stir him further.

Sully gulped, "I reckon I ain't nervous anymore."

"Nor I," she smiled.

With that, they commenced the union of their bodies. Michaela linked her legs around her husband's and clasped his shoulders. Then she slid her hands down his muscular arms. The warm scent of her filled Sully's senses and emboldened him to continue.

Their contact deepened in waves of rhythmic pleasure. At that moment, all that their hearts possessed was opened and shared. While their movements escalated, they lost themselves in one another. Finally, unable to control their appetites, they gave their bodies fully to each other.

Their hearts raced, and neither could speak, so spent were they from the potency of what they had shared.

When his body finally began to calm, Sully whispered, "You okay?"

"Yes," she stroked his moist hair. "I'm very okay."

"Good," he smiled.

"That was...." she could think of nothing to describe their passion.

They both burst into laughter.

"I never knew you t' be at a loss for words," he teased.

"I don't think words exist," she returned.

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

"Why don't I walk ya t' the Gold Nugget?" Hank offered to Lexie as couples began to leave the concluding dance.

Lexie silently rested her hand on his arm and accompanied him. She suddenly questioned her judgment. Why was she doing this? Her brother had just robbed the town bank and expected her to meet up with him. Here she was with the sheriff who would no doubt pursue Trent at daylight.

"What ya thinkin' about?" Hank wondered.

Lexie took a deep breath, "Just how glad I am I came here."

Hank stopped and gazed at her intently, "Not near as glad as me."

He leaned over to kiss her. Lexie raised her hand between his lips and hers.

"Sorry," he pulled back. "I meant no disrespect."

"None taken," she smiled. "But I don't even know you."

"That's easy enough t' solve," he resumed their walk. "What would ya like t' know?"

"What's your last name?" she queried.

"It's real long an' hard t' say," he joked. "So I just go by Lawson."

"Hank Lawson," she spoke.

"I like how ya say it," he smiled. "What's your last name?"

She knew that if she told the truth, he would immediately suspect her true identity.

"My last name?" she raised an eyebrow and noticed the facade of the Clinic to their left. "Uh.... Stone. Lexie Stone."

"Is Lexie short for somethin'?" he suspected.

"Alexandra," she revealed.

"Alexandra Stone," he stopped. "Real fine name."

He raised her hand to his lips and softly kissed it.

"I'll get ya a room," he offered.

At that moment, Teresa Slicker slowed her carriage in front of the Gold Nugget.

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

With Sully's body tucked against her back, Michaela stroked her husband's arm. She still basked in the afterglow of what they had shared. The hot, humid night only increased her sensations. She sensed from his steady breathing that Sully had fallen asleep.

Taking his hand as it draped across her, she guided his palm to her abdomen. She thought about the glimmer of hope that Sully had encouraged in her. Another baby, she pondered.

Suddenly she realized his hand was moving, warmly caressing her stomach.

"I thought you were asleep," she rolled over to face him.

"Almost was 'til I felt ya movin' my hand," he smiled.

She lifted his hand to her lips and placed his index finger in her mouth.

"You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" he grinned.

"Perhaps," she pulled herself closer.

"I'd say ya are," he kissed her. "An' since I got ya all t' myself t'night, I better take advantage of that."

"I thought I was taking advantage of you tonight, Mr. Sully," she touched a particularly sensitive area.

Sully's body reacted, "Have it your way."

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

"Teresa?" Hank was surprised to see her arrive at the Gold Nugget. "What's wrong?"

"Is Jake here?" she questioned.

"I don't know," he shrugged. "I been at the dance."

"Would you please go inside to check?" she requested. "I do not wish to leave Maria."

"Be right back," he touched Lexie's arm.

Teresa stared at her uncomfortably.

Lexie glanced at the child cuddled beside her, "Cute little girl."

"Gracias," she returned.

"How old is she?" Lexie touched the child's dark curls.

"She is three," Teresa noted.

Hank quickly returned, "He's.... here."

"Please tell him I wish to speak with him," she requested.

"Teresa," Hank swallowed hard. "He's passed out in the corner."

"Do you think you could put him into the back of the carriage?" she requested.

"I'll get a couple boys t' help," he nodded.

Soon, they had a belligerent Jake in the back of the carriage. Then he quickly passed out again, and Teresa drove off.

"Interesting town," Lexie folded her arms.

"Don't it make ya wanna stick around?" Hank grinned.

"At least for tonight," she smiled.

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

Wakened by the morning light and sounds of the town outside, Noah sat up. The little boy crawled to the rungs of his crib and drew himself up. He spotted Katie and Josef in the bed nearby.

"Ka-" he spoke. "Up."

There was no response from his siblings. Noah lifted himself higher, prompting the railing to give way. He swung his body over the side of the crib. Suddenly, he lost his grip and toppled to the floor. The little boy burst into tears. Katie and Josef bolted up. Annie then began to cry in sympathy for her brother.

Brian rushed into the room, "Noah!"

As he lifted his little brother to calm him, Bridget hurried into the room and tended to Annie.

"Oh, no," the nanny quickly figured out what had happened. "He finally made it over the top."

"An' onto the floor," Brian stroked his back. "It's okay, Noah. You're all right."

"Ba-," his lower lip curled under.

"You'll be fine," the older brother soothed. Then Brian noticed blood. "He cut his hand."

"I knew it," Josef shook his head.

"Maybe I oughta take him out t' the homestead for Ma t' check," Brian reasoned.

"Aye," Bridget agreed.

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

Periodically, Teresa Slicker glimpsed at the carriage through her kitchen window, hoping that her husband would waken in the back seat.

Maria finished her breakfast, "I see Papa?"

"No," Teresa refused. "He will be up soon."

Maria frowned. The little girl still wanted to check on her father. She slid from the wooden chair while her mother was not looking.

Walking to the parlor window, she shouted, "Wake up, Papa!"

"Maria," Teresa immediately came to her.

"Papa up," the little girl pointed.

Teresa opened the door. There stood Jake, disheveled and with a throbbing head.

"You look awful," his wife observed.

"Can't be as bad as I feel," he ran his fingers through his hair.

"Papa," Maria reached for him.

"Not now, honey," he brushed past them and headed for the kitchen.

"Maria," Teresa stroked her child's hair. "Go to your room while Papa and I talk."

Accustomed to being told to leave her parents, the little girl's shoulders slumped, and she left them.

"Jacob," Teresa followed him into the kitchen.

He raised his hand, "Not now, Teresa. I ain't in the mood t' hear you harp at me."

"We must resolve things between us," she asserted. "For our sake and for that of our daughter."

He took a deep breath and sighed, "I don't wanna miss seein' her grow up. My Pa left us, an' I ain't leavin' her."

"Maybe we could speak to someone," she pondered.

"Speak t' someone?" he was surprised. "What the hell are ya talkin' about?"

"Please do not use the profanity in front of me," she warned.

"All right," he calmed. "What do ya mean talk t' someone?"

"Maybe my cousin," she considered.

"Father Carlos?" he laughed. "What does a priest know about marriage?"

"Would you prefer Reverend Johnson?" she offered.

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

Lexie awoke in the small but neat room above the Gold Nugget. She rolled over, for the moment forgetting her original purpose for coming to town. All night, she had dreamed about dancing with Hank.

"Hank," she spoke his name and felt herself warm. "What have I gotten into?"

At that moment, she heard a soft knock at the door.

She sat up, "Who is it?"

"Me," Hank spoke.

"Just a minute," she reached for her dress.

Without waiting, he opened the door. Quickly, Lexie covered herself. Hank grinned, having caught a glimpse of her.

"Brought ya some breakfast," he held a tray.

"That was very thoughtful," she smiled. "Do all of your guests receive this kind of treatment?"

"Most of my guests are hung over an' still passed out," he joked.

"What made you think I would be awake?" she tilted her head.

"Lucky guess," he set the tray on the table beside the bed. "'Sides, I wanted t' get on your good side so I could talk ya int' stayin'."

"Staying?" she was curious.

"Sure," his tone softened. "I'd like t' show ya around. Let ya see this town's got a lot more t' offer than Manitou."

"Oh," she looked away.

"You can stay the day, can't ya?" he hoped.

She sighed, then smiled, "I guess so."

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

Preston met Myra in front of the bank.

Looking at his watch, he smiled, "Eight thirty a.m. You're early. I like that in my employees."

"I know," she folded her arms.

Preston unlocked the door and gestured for her to enter first. When Myra entered the bank, she paused.

"Something wrong?" he was curious.

"I think so," she sensed.

"What is it?" he gazed at her face.

"I got a strange feelin'," Myra scanned the room.

Preston went to the safe, "It's secure."

"The window," she pointed.

Preston turned to check it, "It's been tampered with."

"Maybe someone tried t' get in last night," she speculated.

"Nothing appears to be out of place," he surveyed the room.

"I think ya better try the safe," she pointed.

"Why?" he countered. "No one knows the combination except for me."

"I don't have a good feelin' about this, Preston," Myra warned.

"If you insist," he leaned over and spun the dial of the lock.

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

Sully awoke. Michaela was lying on her stomach beside him, her arm resting on his chest.

"Mornin'," he lifted her hand and kissed it.

"Mmm?" she opened an eye.

"I said 'mornin,'" he grinned.

"I wasn't dreaming?" she smiled.

"About last night?" he pulled her closer. "If that was dreamin', I don't wanna ever wake up."

"Nor I," she made lazy circles in his chest hair with her fingertips.

"Think all that abstinence energized us?" he retorted.

"You were rather energetic," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

"Me?" he raised an eyebrow. "Seemed t' me like you were right there with me."

"I always want to be right there with you," she gazed into his eyes.

"God, when ya look at me like that, Michaela...." he felt his pulse race.

"Are you feeling energetic this morning, too, Mr. Sully?" she lifted up slightly and kissed his chest.

"Now that ya mention it," he closed his eyes. "I'm gettin' that way."

Michaela lowered her hand along his physique. Sully's body instantly reacted to her overtures.

"You tryin' t' tell me somethin'?" his voice sounded different.

"Only that I love you," she kissed him.

Gently, Sully guided her onto her back. His lips quickly warmed and excited her. With his arms resting on either side of her and his eyes locked on hers, he spoke with a slight rasp:

"Love in her eyes sits playing,
And sheds delicious death;
Love in her lips is straying,
And warbling in her breath;
Love on her breast sits panting,
And swells with soft desire:
Nor grace, nor charm, is wanting
To set the heart on fire."

Michaela reached up and drew him closer for a kiss, "Who was that?"

"John Gay," he cited the poet.

"Love me, Sully," she invited.

"With all my heart," he could not resist.

************
Chapter 10
************

Michaela felt the energy of her husband course through her body. Her touches and soft murmurs heightened his vigor. Her passion matched his as their love culminated in overpowering waves of pleasure.

When their breathing began to calm, Michaela ran her fingers through Sully's hair. She felt his body relax atop her until he finally rolled onto his back.

She turned to continue watching him.

"Still outa words?" he joked.

"How about the words 'I love you?'" she offered.

He traced the line of her jaw with his finger, "I like 'em a lot. But I'm gonna have t' leave for town so I can make the mornin' train t' Denver."

"I wish I could have you all to myself today," she lamented.

"Gives me motivation t' come home soon as I can," he kissed her temple.

"Sully...." she hesitated.

"Mmm?" he touched her chin.

"Do you think there's a possibility...." she hedged again.

"Possibility of what?" he encouraged.

"That we made a baby," she was barely audible.

He turned to look at her more fully, "We did everythin' right. But...."

"But I shouldn't get my hopes up," she read his mind.

"I was gonna say but I sure do enjoy tryin', even if it don't come t' be," he grinned.

"You are so dear to me," she caressed his cheek.

Sully lowered his hand to gently rub her abdomen, "You always amaze me, Michaela Quinn. An' it wouldn't surprise me if that possibility does happen."

"But I'll try not to dwell on it," she added.

He mocked surprise, "You? Dwell on somethin'?"

She lightly tapped his side, "Don't mock me."

"Never," he kissed her.

"Sully," her tone was serious. "I don't want you to think that I look upon our intimacy for strictly that purpose."

He smiled at her sentiment, "Ya mean you make love t' me for another reason?"

She blushed, "You know I do."

"'Course, I know," he lifted her chin for a sweet kiss. "But feel free t' take advantage of me whenever ya like."

At that moment from downstairs, they heard the front door open and close. The cries of Noah startled them.

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

Lexie watched Hank with interest as he guided the buggy through Colorado Springs to the outskirts of the town.

"Our population's growin' by leaps an' bounds," he noted. "But we sure could use one more. An' we got some good land for cattle ranchin'."

She studied his face, the face that filled her dreams the evening before.

"So?" he folded his arms. "What d' ya say?"

"Why are you trying so hard to convince me to locate here?" she eyed him.

Hank took her hand and raised it to his lips, "'Cause I let someone special get away once before, an' I ain't gonna do it again."

The intensity of his gaze unsettled her.

"So?" he waited.

"I need to think about this," she said. "I want to return to Manitou.... to speak to my brother."

"He's welcome t' move here, too," Hank offered.

She chuckled.

"What's so funny?" he smiled.

"I like you, Hank," she touched his arm.

The feel of her hand against his sleeve warmed him, "I like you, too. A lot."

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

"Myra!" Preston was shocked. "You were right. The safe.... we've been robbed."

"I'll go tell Hank," she quickly pivoted and headed out the door.

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

"Ma!" Brian called from downstairs.

Michaela quickly donned her robe and rushed down the steps. Seeing her baby crying, she swiftly lifted him into her arms.

"What's wrong?" she felt his forehead.

"He went an' fell out o' his crib," the young man explained. "I guess when he was pullin' on the railin', it gave way."

"Shh, Sweetheart," Michaela held the baby's cheek against hers.

Sully arrived from the top floor and instinctively retrieved his wife's medical bag for her.

"Hey, No-bo," Sully smiled at the little boy.

"Papa" the baby pointed to his father.

"He cut his hand," Michaela observed as she began to feel the child's body for any other injuries. "That appears to be all."

"Prob'ly scared him, more than anythin'," Sully rubbed the baby's belly.

Just as Noah's tears began to ebb, Michaela applied medication to his cut. The sting prompted the little boy to cry anew.

"Mama's here, my darling," Michaela lifted him and held him against her bosom.

Sully clasped the baby's hand, and he soon began to calm.

"That's better," Michaela smiled at her son.

The baby returned the smile and touched his mother's mouth.

"Thank you for bringing him so promptly," Michaela commended Brian.

"That's okay," the young man rubbed Noah's back. "I figured he wouldn't stop cryin' until ya held him."

"I better get ready," Sully glanced at the mantel clock. "Train leaves in less than an hour."

"Anythin' I can do?" Brian offered.

"Wanna come with me?" Sully patted his back.

"Sure," Brian's face lit up.

"I'd better get dressed, too," Michaela determined. "Bridget will need my help bringing the children home this morning."

"You not workin' at the Clinic t'day?" Brian smiled at the gleam in his mother's eyes.

"No," she answered. "I have no appointments, so I'm going to play hooky."

"Hoo," Noah repeated.

"Hooky," Michaela touched the baby's nose. "And I'd rather you not learn that word too well, young man."

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

The back and forth movement of the train made Sully slightly drowsy. He smiled to himself, remembering the reason for his fatigue this morning.

"Pa?" Brian tapped his arm.

"Mmm?" Sully became more alert.

"Could I talk t' ya?" the young man requested. "Sort of.... man t' man?"

Sully straightened up, "Sure, Brian. What's on your mind?"

"Women," he simply replied.

"Women?" Sully raised an eyebrow.

"I've been thinkin' about them a lot lately," he confided.

Sully swallowed hard, uncertain about his son's meaning, "You meet someone?"

"No," he leaned his elbows on his knees. "An' it's startin' t' bother me."

"You wanna find the right woman, ya mean?" Sully clarified.

"Yea," the young man nodded. "Matthew an' Colleen found the right person for them. But....."

"Give it time, son," Sully counseled.

"How much time?" Brian questioned. "The only woman I ever thought I loved was unattainable. An' it turned out I really didn't love her anyway. How am I supposed t' know when the right woman comes along?"

"Oh, you'll know it," Sully smiled.

"But what if she doesn't come along?" he feared. "I'm already twenty years old."

Sully held back his grin, "That ain't exactly old. Look at Dr. Mike. She was thirty seven when we got married."

"She's an exception," Brian was unconvinced.

"She's exceptional, all right," he smiled.

Brian's expression was increasingly glum.

Sully placed his hand on his shoulder, "You want us t' do some matchmakin'?"

"No!" he was horrified at the thought. "I don't want people t' think I'm desperate."

"There's lots o' nice young ladies in Colorado Springs, Brian," Sully informed him. "Ya just gotta go t' places where they're likely t' be."

"Like where?" he challenged.

Sully pondered, "Well.... there's...."

"See?" Brian interjected. "You can't think of anyplace."

"There's the church," Sully quickly thought. "An' the college. There's some gals enrolled there."

"Maybe I could start takin' a few courses again," he warmed to the idea.

"Sure," Sully smiled. "But..."

"What?" his forehead creased.

"Just make sure ya don't rush int' anythin'," Sully cautioned.

"Pa, could we keep this conversation between the two of us?" Brian requested.

"You don't want your Ma t' know?" Sully grinned.

"She might...." he hesitated.

"Take it upon herself t' find ya someone?" Sully knew. "Don't worry. I won't say anythin' unless you want me to."

"Thanks," Brian smiled.

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

"My horse is at the livery," Lexie gestured as Hank turned the corner by the Clinic.

"Okay," he reined in the horse.

Lexie suddenly realized that she was leaving him. Hank had been friendly, kind and seemed to know exactly what to say. In fact, she mused, she herself had said very little, for the first time in her life.

Hank extended his hand to help her down from the buggy. For a moment, she did not move. She continued to clasp his hand, captivated by the warmth of him. Lost in the blue of his eyes, she felt herself drowning.

Hank could not take his eyes off Lexie, enraptured by the spell that she seemed to be casting on him. Her dark hair, her blue eyes made his heart race.

"Hank!" Myra called. "Where ya been? We been lookin' all over for ya!"

He returned to reality, "Myra. What's wrong?"

"Preston discovered the bank was robbed last night," she informed him.

Lexie's face paled.

"You okay?" Hank noticed.

"Yes," she assured, taking a nervous breath.

"I'll be right there," he told Myra. Then turning to Lexie, he spoke tenderly, "I don't want you travelin' by yourself back t' Manitou. Not with a bank robber on the loose."

She insisted, "A bank robber would have no use for me."

"Lexie," his tone was serious.

"I'll be fine, Hank," she asserted.

"I guess I'm discoverin' you're a stubborn woman," he shook his head.

"You go on ahead, and do what you need to about the bank," she said.

"When will you be back?" Hank questioned.

"I'm not sure," she answered.

"Please," he spoke low. "Please come back."

"Can I help ya, Ma'am?" Robert E approached.

"Yes," Lexie smiled. "I've come for my horse."

Hank paused to look at her one last time, then hurried across the street to the bank.

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

"Sully!" Welland Smith's eyes lit up. "It's good to see you."

"Good t' see you, too," Sully grinned. "You remember my son, Brian?"

He shook hands with them, "What brings you two gentlemen to Denver?"

"It's business, sort of," Sully lowered his voice. "Is there somewhere private we could go t' talk?"

"Yes," he gestured toward the stairway of the hotel lobby. "My room."

When they reached Smith's room, he offered them refreshments, but both declined.

"What's on your mind, Sully?" Smith noticed his demeanor.

"Some information has come t' my attention," Sully paused. "An' there's not many men I'd trust with it."

"I'm honored.... I think," he smiled. "What is this information?"

Sully explained what Cloud Dancing had overheard at the Indian school. Smith's expression grew more concerned with each revelation.

"Smallpox," he shook his head. "My God."

"We got no proof that this is their plan," Sully concluded. "It was all just Cloud Dancin' overhearin' the soldiers talkin'."

"I'm stunned," Smith reacted.

"It's nothin' new for the government or the Army," Sully's jaw tensed. "They've used every means they could t' kill off the Indians an' steal their land."

"But to think they would contemplate doing this to innocent children," he shook his head. "It's inconceivable."

"Without proof, I ain't sure what t' do about it," Sully stated.

"I'll see what I can find out," he suggested. "In the meantime, I think I'll pay a visit to the Indian school. Perhaps my presence will signal to the Army a tacit government approval of the efforts there."

"I'd sure appreciate it," Sully smiled.

"I could write up your visit in The Gazette," Brian contributed. "With newspaper coverage bringin' attention t' it, maybe the Army would be less likely t' try somethin'."

"Good idea," Sully patted his son's back.

"I'll head over t' the Rocky Mountain News office while we're here t' see if they might be interested in carryin' the story, too," Brian volunteered.

"Think I'll pay a visit t' Dr. Bernard," Sully pondered.

"Why?" Brian was curious.

"For a little advice," he returned.

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

Hank observed, "No scratches or signs that the safe's been tampered with."

"I can assure you that its contents have certainly been tampered with," Preston's expression was serious. "I've been robbed."

"I believe ya," Hank assessed. "But whoever done it was real talented."

Matthew saw a crowd gathered at the door of the bank and worked his way inside.

"What's wrong?" he questioned.

Myra answered, "Safe's been robbed."

Matthew folded his arms, "When?"

Hank overheard him, "Must've been last night while the dance was goin' on."

"So whoever did it might've known about the dance and figured no one would be around t' see what he was doin'," Matthew offered.

"I checked outside," Hank mentioned. "Footprints of one man. He headed west outa town." He increased his volume, "I'm gettin' a posse t'gether. We leave in an hour."

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

Jake and Teresa entered the church. The Reverend was sitting at the piano, practicing a hymn.

"Reverend," Jake spoke up.

The minister stopped his playing and tilted his head, "Jake?"

"It's me," he responded. "An' Teresa."

"What can I do for you?" the Reverend inquired.

Jake hesitated until Teresa nudged him, "We come for some advice."

************
Chapter 11
************

"You want advice from me?" Reverend Johnson asked Jake and Teresa.

"Si," Teresa nodded.

"Well, I'll do what I can for you," the minister offered. "Tell me what concerns you have."

Jake cleared his throat and took a deep breath, "Me an' Teresa have been havin' some problems."

"Go on," he encouraged.

"I guess it's on account o' my drinkin'," Jake confessed.

Teresa added, "When he drinks, he does things that.... are not good for our marriage."

"Drinking has been the ruin of many a marriage," the minister agreed. "Go on."

"Our house burned down because of his drinking," Teresa felt tears well in her eyes.

"I told ya I was sorry for that," Jake defended.

"Let Teresa say what's on her mind," the Reverend raised a hand.

"His latest actions have created much pain for me," she wiped the moisture beneath her eyes.

"Jake?" the Reverend wondered.

Jake's jaw tensed, "I got a little drunk an'...."

"And what?" the minister waited.

"I got a little too close with one o' Hank's girls," he confessed.

The minister swallowed hard, attempting to not seem shocked.

"There is more to it," Teresa said. "He caught a disease from her.... one that he gave to me."

"Oh, my," Reverend Johnson sighed.

"I reckon you'll never forgive me now," Jake looked at his wife.

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

"Dr. Bernard," Sully shook his hand. "I'm glad ya could see me."

"You're not one of my typical patients," the obstetrician joked.

Sully smiled, "I reckon not. But I'm here t' talk to ya about Michaela."

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I read of her misfortune in the paper. That madman.... what Dr. Quinn went through."

"Physically, she's doin' fine," Sully informed him. "But.... Dr. Nelson told her it's not likely we can have more kids."

"And, knowing Dr. Quinn, that is very difficult for her to accept," he nodded. "Was a hysterectomy necessary?"

"No," Sully noted.

"The newspaper said that she did not know she was expecting a child," Dr. Bernard recalled.

"That's right," Sully found the memory difficult. "But we'd been talkin' about havin' another baby before it happened."

"She's a strong woman, Mr. Sully," the physician indicated. "She'll get through this."

"Sure she will," he swallowed hard. "But I was just wonderin' if ya got any suggestions on how I could help her."

"Talk to her," Bernard advised. "Assure her that you love her no matter what...."

"I been doin' that," he stated. "But I also encouraged her t' hold on t' that glimmer of hope that we could still have another baby.... Was I wrong?"

"Without examining her, I cannot say categorically that she could not become pregnant again," the physician qualified. "But if Dr. Nelson doesn't think it's likely, I have no reason to question his opinion."

"I see," Sully looked down.

Bernard sympathized, "You must understand that this will weigh heavily on your wife for some time, Mr. Sully. She will need you... and your family to help her accept the reality of her situation."

Sully felt his heart grow heavy, "I... shouldn't have encouraged her t' have that hope."

"Dr. Quinn is a physician," he pointed out. "Intellectually, she is well aware of the probabilities. Perhaps she is holding on to this hope because she thinks it's what you want."

Sully had not considered that, "You might be right. Maybe I been settin' back her recovery."

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

Lexie arrived at the camp where her brother awaited.

"What the hell took ya so long?" Trent accused.

"I didn't want to raise suspicion by suddenly taking off," she reasoned.

"I guess that makes sense," he accepted. "Look, Lexie. Look at all this money."

"I see," she felt uneasy.

"Somethin' wrong?" he observed.

"You said this would be your last robbery, right?" she reminded.

"Right," he agreed.

"Then I want the money from the bank in Colorado Springs.... to start a cattle ranch," she held out her hand.

"What?" he was puzzled. "Don't you wanna go back home?"

"No," she answered. "I'm staying in Colorado Springs. Just give me my money, and take off. Quickly. They have a posse out looking for you."

"But Lex," he protested. "I thought you and me would stay together."

"You thought wrong," she stated. "I've gone along with you, knowing how wrong it was, but feeling the need to watch over you. You have money enough to last you the rest of your life. Now that you're finished with your life of crime, I'm going to resume my life."

"What if I don't give up this life?" he posed the question.

"Trent," she folded her arms. "These past couple of years, I gave up everything for you.... including my conscience. But I don't want to live like this anymore. It's wrong."

"If it's so wrong, why do you want the money I stole from Colorado Springs?" he challenged.

"Because it's the only way I can get back my old life," she explained.

"All right," he conceded.

As he lifted his saddlebag and handed it to her, he felt his eyes water.

"I'm gonna miss you," he wiped his nose.

Lexie stepped forward to embrace him, "I'll miss you, too. Just take care of yourself."

"I will," he pledged. "An' I'll be back t' see ya soon as everythin' calms down."

"Be careful, Trent," she cautioned.

They began to part.

She touched his cheek, "I need you to do one more thing."

"What?" he hoped she had experienced a change of mind.

"Hit me," she ordered.

"What?" he was taken aback.

"Hit me across the face," she repeated. "I want it to look like I was attacked."

"Lex, are you crazy?" he was horrified.

"I know what I'm doing," she avowed. "Now, do it."

Reluctantly, Trent struck her across the face. Her lip began to bleed.

"You all right?" he regretted his action.

"I'm fine," she clasped his hand. "Now, go! Get out of here!"

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

"Teresa," Reverend Johnson inquired. "Do you think you can forgive Jake?"

"Forgive him?" she felt her anger build. "Forgive him for breaking my heart? For being unfaithful? For being untrustworthy?"

"What about you, Teresa?" Jake challenged. "This ain't all my fault."

"I did not do these things to you," her voice trembled.

"You ain't exactly been the warmest person t' live with," he returned. "An' ya sure don't do everythin' a wife oughta do."

The Reverend grew uncomfortable, "I think the issue is whether or not to forgive each other for whatever wrongs either of you may have committed."

Jake and Teresa fell silent.

The minister tried again, "What do you hope to accomplish by coming to me?"

"I don't know," Jake frowned. "This was her idea."

"I hoped that you could show Jacob how wrong he has been," Teresa charged.

"You don't believe Jake already knows?" Reverend Johnson queried.

"I do know," Jake stood up. "I know it, I admit it an' I told her I'm sorry. What else am I supposed t' do?" Then he pointed at his wife, "But you tell me, Teresa. Have you told me you're sorry for anythin'? For lockin' me out o' my own bedroom? For closin' your heart t' me? Just one time, have you ever apologized t' me?"

She did not reply.

"Well," the minister sighed. "I think you each have much to think about."

"I got nothin' t' think about," Jake put his hands in his pockets. "This was a waste o' time, an' I got a business t' run. Good bye."

"Jake!" the Reverend called after him as he left them.

"I am sorry," Teresa regretted. "I thought this would help."

She stood up to leave.

"Teresa?" the minister's brow wrinkled. "Where are you going?"

"I am going to see Matthew Cooper," she replied.

"Why?" he was concerned.

"To ask about a divorce," she told him.

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

Michaela tiptoed to the cribs where Annie and Noah napped. She lightly caressed her son's hair, relieved that his injury had been so minor.

Josef entered the bedroom and whispered, "Mama."

She kept her voice low and knelt down to greet him, "What is it, Sweetheart?"

"Misser Bway here," he related.

"I thought I heard someone at the door," she clasped his hand.

"He wants Katie an' me t' go fishin'," he frowned.

"Why that look?" she noted his expression. "Don't you want to go?"

"Not without Papa," the little boy embraced her.

"Do you miss him?" she sensed.

"Uh huh," Josef admitted.

"I do, too," she touched his nose. "But he'll be home by suppertime. Wouldn't it be nice if he could eat some fish for dinner?"

"Good thinkin'," the little boy's eyes lit up. "I catched him some."

"Good," she caressed his hair. "Do you think your sister would like to go, as well?"

"She will if I put fish back after I catched 'em," he nodded. "But then Papa can't eat 'em."

"Well, let's ask her what she would like to do," Michaela smiled.

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

"Thank you for seeing me, Matthew," Teresa sat down before his desk.

"That's all right," he smiled. "What can I do for ya?"

"I wish to inquire about a divorce," she came to the point.

"Divorce?" he was surprised. "You wanna divorce Jake?"

"Si," she nodded.

"Well...." he hesitated. "I.... need t' ask ya some questions about why. It could get kinda personal."

"I am prepared," she clutched her handbag.

"Teresa," he took a deep breath. "Before we get int' this, I gotta tell ya somethin'."

"What is it?" she queried.

"If you get a divorce, it could cost you your job," he was blunt.

"My job?" she was concerned. "Why?"

Matthew folded his hands on the desktop, "For one thing, most towns frown on havin' a divorced woman teach school. An' for another, as mayor, Jake's the head o' the town council. He could get ya fired."

"Are you telling me that I should remain in a marriage where love has died?" she feared.

"I'm just tryin' t' warn ya about the consequences of what you're thinkin' of doin'," he cautioned. "If you still wanna go through with it, I'll help ya. But I gotta advise ya t' think about this long an' hard first."

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

As the train headed south toward Colorado Springs, Brian propped his writing tablet on his knees and began to pen an article for The Gazette. Sully watched him with pride. Then his thoughts turned to Michaela. He withdrew her letter from his pocket and began to read it again.

"What's that?" Brian noticed.

"Just somethin' your Ma gave me," Sully answered. "What ya workin' on?"

"I'm making some preliminary notes for a story on Mr. Smith comin' t' town tomorrow," he stated. "I can put out a special issue of The Gazette publicizin' it."

"I'm real proud of you, Brian," he smiled. "You're doin' a fine job runnin' the newspaper since Miss Dorothy's at the school so much."

"Thanks," the young man grinned. "That means a lot t' me, Pa."

When Brian resumed his writing, Sully opened Michaela's letter again. The expression of her love for him filled his heart. Then he felt a lump in his throat over what Dr. Bernard had said. Sully considered his own actions. Had he been hindering his wife's recovery? Was he encouraging her to cling to something that could never be?

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

Teresa carried Maria into their empty house.

"Papa home?" the little girl hoped.

"No, my jija," she kissed her forehead. "We cannot depend on that anymore."

"Why?" the child asked.

"Because...." Teresa felt her eyes water. "I do not want you to worry. Mama will take care of you. Somehow, I will find a way to take care of us both."

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

"I ask ya somethin', Misser Bway?" Josef looked up at the older man.

"I reckon," Loren supervised his fishing line. "What is it, boy?"

"Your head catch on fire?" the child inquired.

"What in tarnation are you talkin' about?" Loren was taken aback.

"Your hair," Josef pointed. "It's white."

"Gray, child," Loren qualified. "It's gray." Loren glanced at Katie, "Do you have any idea what your brother's gettin' at?"

Katie smiled, "Poppy told us a story about how animals got white streaks on their fur. It was about a coyote who stole fire. When it touched the animals, it turned them white."

"So he thinks fire touched my hair," Loren returned his glance to Josef.

"Yep," she nodded.

Loren lectured, "I got this hair from a lifetime of worryin' about things."

"What ya wowwy 'bout?" the little boy inquired.

"Gettin' old," he pondered. "Bein' alone."

"You not 'lone," Josef slid closer to him. "Ya got us."

Loren put his arm around the little boy's shoulder, "I know."

"Maybe your hair will stop bein' gray now," Katie offered.

"No," Loren explained. "Once it's gray, it's for good. Though, I did try t' color it brown once."

"Why?" Josef queried.

"I thought it would make me young again," he wistfully recalled. "But ya can't go back t' bein' young."

"I guess we better enjoy it then," Katie reasoned.

"That, ya should, honey," Loren nodded.

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

Hank raised his hand to stop the posse, "Look. Over there."

"Hank!" Lexie raced toward the group, then stopped her mare.

"What happened?" he jumped from his horse.

"That bank robber," she paused. "He stopped me."

"How ya know it was the same man?" he questioned.

"Because I escaped with the money," she held up the saddlebag.

"How'd ya do that?" Hank tilted back his hat.

"Could we get back to town?" she urged. "I'd like a doctor to look at my lip."

He gently touched it, "Did he hit ya?"

"Yes," she reached up to clasp his hand.

"He'll pay for this," he declared. "I'll have one of the men take ya back t' town, an' I'll find him."

She pointed out, "He's long gone. And there's no reason to go after him now, since I have the money. Please. Would you take me to Colorado Springs?"

"All right," he softly touched her lip. "I'll take ya. You boys keep after him."

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

"Papa!" Josef saw his father's horse approach the house. "Mama! Papa's home!"

Michaela stepped toward the window, "Sooner than I expected."

Katie and Josef met their father at the door. He lifted them into his arms and kissed each cheek.

Michaela went to her husband and embraced him, "Welcome home. I missed you."

"Missed you, too," he smiled.

"Where's Brian?" she inquired.

After checking Noah's hand, he kissed the twins, "Brian stayed in town t' work on a special issue of The Gazette about Welland Smith. He's comin' here t'morrow t' visit the Indian school. Wanna ride out there with me t' tell Cloud Dancin' an' Dorothy?"

"Of course," Michaela agreed.

************
Chapter 12
************

By dinnertime, Michaela and Sully were headed home from the Indian school. Sully had not spoken since they left Cloud Dancing and Dorothy.

Michaela was curious, "Is something bothering you?"

He forced a smile, "No."

She perceived otherwise, "Are you still concerned about the Army?"

"I still ain't sure Smith's visit will do any good," he admitted.

"At least the Army will know that a high government official condones what we are doing there," she stated. "That could discourage them from acting against the children."

"Maybe," he seemed miles away.

"Sully," she reined in Flash. "Please don't lose hope about this."

"Hope," he stopped.

"Yes, Mr. Sully," she reached for his hand. "You're the one who encouraged me to hold on to it. Remember?"

"I remember," he linked his fingers in hers.

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

"My money!" Preston's eyes lit up. "Congratulations, Hank. Well done."

"It wasn't me who got it back," he shrugged.

"Then how?" the banker was puzzled.

"Lexie Stone," Hank informed him. "She was on the road t' Manitou when she came across the robber. She managed t' escape from him with the money."

"I must thank her," he returned. "Perhaps offer her a reward."

"She's restin' at the Gold Nugget," Hank gestured. "I'm headed out t' fetch Michaela. That robber hit Lexie. Cut her lip."

"Oh, my," Preston's brow wrinkled. "Well, I'll pay my respects to her while you're gone."

"Just see ya don't get too friendly," Hank warned.

"Pardon me?" he missed his meaning.

"Never mind," Hank dismissed. "Better put your money in the safe."

"I'll count it first, of course," Preston paused.

"Of course," Hank mocked.

"What about the thief?" the idea occurred to the banker. "Did you apprehend him?"

"No," he admitted.

"Did Miss Stone give you a description?" Preston persisted.

"She's kinda shook up at the moment," he allowed. "I ain't had time t' question her much."

"I see," Preston was suspicious. "Well, then, you'd better get Michaela."

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

"I wonder who that is?" Michaela spotted a horse in front of the homestead as they returned.

"Looks like Hank's horse," Sully recognized.

At that moment, Hank descended the steps to greet them, "Hey, folks."

"Hello, Hank," Michaela smiled.

"Think ya could come int' town, Michaela?" he got to the point.

"Of course," she consented. "Is something wrong?"

"You two hear about the bank bein' robbed last night?" the sheriff asked.

"I heard at the Depot this mornin'," Sully nodded. "Did ya catch the robber?"

"No," he returned. "But a woman he came across on the road t' Manitou retrieved it."

"A woman?" Michaela was curious.

"Name's Lexie Stone," he revealed. "The thief hit her.... cut her lip."

"I'll come with you to check on her," Michaela volunteered.

"Thanks," Hank tipped his hat.

"Sully?" Michaela turned to her husband.

"Go on ahead," he smiled. "I'll help Bridget with the kids."

"I'll be late for dinner," she knew.

"We'll manage," he assured. "Take care o' that lady."

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

Lexie's lip throbbed. She hoped that Hank would return with the doctor soon. It seemed he had been gone forever. She attempted to focus on something that would take her mind off of the pain.

"Hank," she spoke his name.

As she leaned back against the headboard of her bed at the Gold Nugget, she sighed. Hank Lawson. She knew nothing more about the man than his name and profession. Yet, she was embarking on a new life in Colorado Springs because of him.

She had little money and only the clothes on her back. How could she, a single woman, procure a loan to buy a ranch with no collateral other than her horse? And she was not willing to part with the animal.

A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts.

"Hank?" she anticipated.

"No," the door opened slightly. "I'm Preston A. Lodge III. I own the town's bank. May I come in?"

"Yes," she straightened her hair.

Preston held his hat in his hand, "I've come to thank you, Miss Stone. You're a very brave...."

Suddenly Preston stopped. He did not even notice her lip. He was struck speechless by her incredible beauty.

"I.... hope to...." again he could not speak.

"I know I must look terrible," Lexie covered her mouth.

"No!" Preston disagreed. "You look.... stunning. You were at the dance last night, weren't you?"

"Yes," her lip was throbbing.

He gestured toward her injury, "It must hurt."

"I'm waiting for the doctor," she wished he would leave.

"I won't stay long," he smiled. "But before I go, I want to offer a token of my appreciation. A reward."

He withdrew an envelope from his pocket.

Lexie raised her hand, "That's not necessary. I only did...."

"Hank told me that you broke free from the robber, with my money," Preston's eyebrows rose. "I insist that you accept this."

She took the envelope, "Thank you. I sure can use it."

"Oh?" Preston perceived. "You're in need of money?"

"I was a rancher," she revealed. "I left it to.... take care of my brother. Now, I'm interested in relocating here and....."

"Say no more," Preston interjected. "You must let me help you find just the right property."

"I don't have much money," she noted. "And no collateral."

"Miss Stone...." he stopped. "May I call you Lexie?"

Before she could answer, he continued.

"I shall take care of everything," he insisted. "And don't worry about money. You may stay at my Chateau, all expenses paid, until you establish that ranch. As a matter of fact, I have been considering getting into cattle myself. Perhaps you would consider me for a partner."

Again, Lexie did not have time to respond. Hank entered the room, followed by Michaela.

"I see ya met Preston," he pointed.

"Yes," Lexie acknowledged.

"I am curious about one thing, Lexie," Preston stated. "How exactly were you able to retrieve my money?"

"Can't ya see she needs medical attention?" Hank interjected. "Now ain't the time t' discuss that."

"I'll be on my way then," the banker said. "Michaela, good to see you."

"Bye, Preston," Hank gently pushed him out.

Michaela sat on the edge of the bed and began to examine Lexie's lip.

"This here's the doctor," Hank grinned. "Michaela Quinn."

"A woman doctor?" she was surprised.

"Hank tells me you're a heroine," Michaela smiled.

"I think I was just in the right place at the right time," Lexie attempted levity.

"From the look of your lip, perhaps it was the wrong place," Michaela opened her bag. "It's going to require a few stitches. I can put you to sleep so that you don't feel the pain."

"No," Lexie refused. "I can handle it."

Hank rubbed his chin, "Stubborn."

Michaela noticed the way Lexie looked at him, "Didn't I see you at the dance last night, Miss Stone?"

"Yes," Lexie returned. "I was there."

"Dancin' with me," Hank grinned.

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

As Michaela exited the Gold Nugget, Teresa Slicker called to her. The school teacher was carrying her daughter. The little girl was crying.

"What's wrong?" Michaela hurried to them.

"Maria," Teresa was out of breath. "She does not stop crying."

"I'll open the Clinic," Michaela reached for her key. "I'll take her while you get Jake."

Teresa ignored the directive and followed her into the Clinic. Swiftly, Michaela began to examine the sobbing child.

"Did she eat dinner yet?" Michaela questioned.

"Si," Teresa nodded.

"What did she eat?" she queried.

"She had a little bit of ham.... some green beans...." Teresa recounted.

"Her stomach is distended," Michaela noted.

"What?" she did not understand.

"Enlarged...." Michaela defined. "Bloated."

Going to her medical cabinet, Michaela retrieved a bottle and mixed a small amount of its contents in a glass of water.

"Drink this, Sweetheart," Michaela held it for the little girl.

Maria sipped as much as her tears would permit. Suddenly, the child let forth a mighty belch. Almost instantly, the little girl's pain went away, and her cries subsided.

Teresa smiled, "The doctor has made you well, yes?"

"Uh-huh," Maria clutched Michaela's blouse.

"How much do I owe you, Dr. Quinn?" Teresa questioned.

"Nothing," Michaela held Maria close.

"Thank you," Teresa reached for her daughter. "I shall take her home now."

"No!" Maria turned away from her.

"Maria!" Teresa frowned. "Do not behave like this."

"I want Papa," the child insisted.

"Your father is too busy for us," Teresa's tone was curt.

"Is Jake....." Michaela began.

Teresa interrupted, "My husband is none of your concern, Doctor. If you will excuse us, I shall take Maria home now."

"No, Mama!" the little girl continued to cling to Michaela.

"Please," Michaela raised a hand. "Let's not upset her. If she wants Jake, perhaps you should ask him to come here."

"He does not care about us," Teresa's voice choked.

"Of course he does," Michaela grew concerned.

"No, Dr. Quinn," the woman's eyes grew redder. "Our marriage is over."

"Your marriage may be none of my business," she paused. "But this little girl's well being is. I believe that you and Jake must resolve your differences for her sake. Or her tummy ache may turn into something much worse."

"What are you talking about?" Teresa challenged.

Michaela specified, "The child is worried. Can't you see it? She's only three years old, for heaven's sake."

"I'll thank you to take care of your own children," Teresa's volume increased. "And leave mine alone."

There came a frantic knock at the Clinic door. When Michaela did not respond, the door opened.

"Dr. Mike?" it was Jake. "Loren said he saw ya rush in here with Maria."

"Do you care?" Teresa wiped her eyes.

"'Course I care," he reached for his daughter.

The little girl went to him willingly, "Papa."

He held his daughter and stroked her back, "What's wrong with her?"

"Nothing that her parents can't cure," Michaela was blunt.

"What?" Jake turned to her.

"I'm talking about your relationship," Michaela clarified. "Do you argue in front of your daughter? Do you reject her overtures to be with you?"

"That is none of your business, Senora," Teresa frowned.

"You sayin' what me an' Teresa are goin' through is affectin' our kid?" Jake wondered.

"Precisely," Michaela was frank.

"Then you an' me gotta talk," Jake looked at his wife.

"We have tried that, Jacob," she returned. "Remember?"

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

"What a day," Michaela sighed as she brushed her long tresses.

"Wanna talk about it?" Sully spoke from the bed.

"Jake and Teresa," she sighed. "Their marriage is in jeopardy, Sully. And their problems are having an adverse effect on little Maria."

"That's too bad," he was concerned.

"I don't know what to do," she turned to look at him.

"They gotta work it out themselves," he counseled.

"But that child," she felt her eyes well. "I spent only a brief amount time with her when Teresa brought her to see me."

"What was wrong with her?" Sully questioned.

"She had a tummy ache, but she clung to me, craving attention," Michaela informed him. "Oh, Sully, my heart ached for her. If one of our children ever...."

"Hey," he rose from the bed and went to her. "We love our kids, an' we make sure they know it every day."

"There must be a way," she swallowed hard.

He knelt before her and clasped her hand, "Maybe we could have Maria over t' play with the children one day soon. Let her know she's a special little girl."

"That's a lovely idea," she caressed his cheek.

Sully drew back and returned to the bed.

"Are you certain you're all right?" Michaela recalled his quiet since he returned from Denver.

"Yea," he rested his head against the pillowcase she had given him.

Michaela stepped toward the door, "Did you hear that?"

"No," he tilted his head.

"I thought I heard one of the children," she left the room.

In her absence, Sully began to think about his discussion with Dr. Bernard. In fact, it was all he had thought about since he left Denver. Was he helping or hurting Michaela by encouraging her to hold out hope about another baby?

She reentered the room, "Your son had to use the privy."

Sully smiled, "Everythin' okay now?"

"Yes," she joined him in the bed. Snuggling closer to her husband, she lifted up to kiss his temple, "I know that something is bothering you, Sully. And I'm here if you want to discuss it."

"I know," he stroked her arm. "But I don't want you worryin' about me. I'm fine."

She rested her palm on his chest, just above his heart, "I love you."

"I love you, too," he slid his arm beneath her shoulders.

He closed his eyes, knowing she was watching him. Michaela felt his steady breathing, and her heart filled with love. She knew that Sully was concerned about the Indian school, as was she. But she sensed that there was something else on his mind. Had something happened in Denver when he met with Welland Smith?

Then another thought occurred to her. Had Smith offered her husband another job? Her mind recalled the invitation several years ago when the Interior Department official had asked him to move to Yellowstone. Sully had been reluctant to discuss it with her then, knowing that she would not want to move their family into the middle of that wilderness.

"Sully," she whispered.

"Mmm?" he did not open his eyes.

"Did Welland Smith offer you another job?" she asked.

"What makes ya ask that?" he opened his eyes.

"I just wondered," she studied his expression.

"No," he pulled her closer. "He didn't offer me a job."

She sighed, "Have I done something?"

He assured, "No, Michaela."

"Please," she continued. "Tell me what's bothering you."

He took a deep breath and lifted up to look at her more fully, "I love you so much."

"I love you, too," she ran her fingers through his hair. "Which is how I know something is troubling you.... something beyond your concerns about the school."

He smiled slightly at her perceptiveness, "I just wanna be the best husband I can for ya."

She assured, "You need have no doubt about that, Mr. Sully. You are the very best."

"Michaela," he linked her fingers in his. "If you thought I wanted somethin' but.... it wasn't good for you.... what would ya do?"

"If you wanted something...." she hesitated. "I would try with all I possess to get it for you."

"But what if it wasn't good for you?" he questioned.

"I don't understand," she shook her head. "Why would you want something that wasn't good for me?"

"Never mind," he resisted going further.

"No," she insisted. "What are you talking about, Sully?"

"Let's get some sleep," he rolled onto his side away from her.

Michaela touched his back.

He filled with guilt. How could he tell her that they would never have another child, when it was he who let her hold out hope in the first place?

She drew back, uncertain of what to do. Whatever was on his mind, he was determined to not burden her with it. Had something happened in Denver that disturbed him? If it wasn't Smith, what could it be? Perhaps Brian could shed some light. She would speak with him tomorrow.

Michaela sighed and tucked herself against her husband. When she slid her arm around his waist, she felt him clasp her hand. Kissing his back, she closed her eyes, hoping that he would soon be able to confide in her.

************
Chapter 13
************

Jake slicker awoke in a chair. Disoriented at first, he then realized that he was home. He scratched his head and stood up. Glancing toward the staircase, he hesitated, then made his way up to the second floor. He paused at Maria's room. Quietly, he neared his sleeping daughter. The little girl was sucking her thumb, a habit both he and Teresa had been attempting to stop.

Softly, he reached down and brushed back a strand of the little girl's dark hair. Teresa's hair, he thought.

"Oh, God, Teresa," he sighed to himself. "What's happened t' us?"

Uncomfortable with the emotions he was feeling, Jake craved a drink. He wanted to down a bottle of whiskey and feel no more pain or anger. He would let the alcohol numb his problems.

Gazing again at his daughter, the reality hit him that he hardly knew this child. He and Teresa had been bickering for so long. And when they fought, he would drown his guilt in a bottle. Through it all, he had paid little attention to this life he had helped to create.

He leaned over and softly kissed Maria's cheek. When he straightened up to leave, he turned and saw Teresa.

"She is beautiful, yes?" she spoke low.

"She looks like you," he swallowed hard.

Teresa was unsettled by his rare show of tenderness.

"Would.... would you like some breakfast?" she offered without looking at him.

"Yea," he agreed. "I'd like that real good."

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

When Sully awoke, he saw Michaela leaning over Noah's crib.

"He okay?" he whispered.

"Yes," she looked up. "His hand is fine. No infection."

"Good," he sat up and ran his fingers through his hair.

She warmed at the sight of his muscular torso, but quickly averted her eyes.

"Michaela," he noticed. "I'm sorry I been so.... quiet. Please don't let it worry ya."

"How can it not worry me, Sully?" she crossed the room to him. "You're my husband. What concerns you, concerns me."

He cupped his hand to her cheek, "We got a busy day ahead."

She placed her hand atop his, then turned it over to kiss his palm.

"Kids will be up soon," he suppressed the urges she was stirring in him.

She nodded and withdrew her hand.

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

Lexie awoke to the soft sound of a knock on her door.

"Come in," she suddenly felt a pain shoot through her lip.

"Mornin'," it was Hank. "How ya feel?"

"Not too bad.... if I don't talk," she returned.

"I was hopin' t' take ya t' breakfast," he invited. "Ya feel up t' it?"

"I think so," she nodded. "But I don't have a change of clothing and...."

"I took care o' that," he returned to the hallway.

Momentarily, he stepped into her room with a box.

"What's that?" she inquired.

He set it beside her, "Open it."

She did so and was pleased to find a new dress, "Hank, you shouldn't have."

"I don't want folks thinkin' ya got nothin' else t' wear," he retorted. "So, get dressed."

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

"Dirksen," Sully introduced. "This is Welland Smith from the Department of Interior."

"Sergeant," Smith noted the stripes on his uniform sleeve. "I'm here to visit the school."

"Yes, sir," the officer obliged. "We'll keep an eye out for ya."

"Keep an eye out?" Smith queried. "Are we anticipating an attack by the children?"

"Never know," Dirksen returned.

"Well then, why don't you stay right beside me?" Smith encouraged. "I would appreciate your pointing out to me the dangerous ones as we go along."

"If that's what you want, sir," the soldier agreed.

"Lead on, Mr. Sully," Smith gestured.

The mountain man guided Smith around the lodges and structures of the Indian school grounds. The government official observed the children studying reading, mathematics and writing, and he viewed them working on the school grounds utilizing the farming techniques they were learning.

Michaela and Brian accompanied them, but fell back a few paces.

"Could I ask you something?" Michaela spoke to her son.

"Sure, Ma," Brian consented.

"When you and Sully were in Denver yesterday, did he see anyone other than Mr. Smith?" she probed.

"When I went t' visit the newspaper office, Pa said somethin' about goin' t' talk t' Dr. Bernard," Brian revealed. "Why?"

She smiled, "I was simply curious. Did the newspaper want to publish any of your stories?"

"Yea," he smiled. "They're gonna run my story on Mr. Smith's visit here."

"That's wonderful, Sweetheart," she patted his arm.

"We better catch up," he speeded his pace.

As the group concluded its tour of the school, Smith made it a point to direct his comments to the soldiers.

"From all that I have seen here, I must commend Cloud Dancing and Mrs. Jennings for their undertaking," Smith stated. "My colleagues at the Department of Interior will be very interested in your work. In fact, I think it should serve as a model for other Indian schools."

"Thank you, Mr. Smith," Dorothy's cheeks flushed.

Smith turned to Dirksen, "Oh, and thank you, Sergeant, for the fine protection you provided for my tour."

"Just doin' my job," the soldier remarked.

"Your job, yes," Smith nodded. "I can see that federal money is being well spent by having you and your men here to guard the good people of Colorado Springs from these school children."

"Unlike you politicians, I follow orders, sir," Dirksen could not resist the sarcasm.

"As I did when I was a soldier in the War," Smith agreed. "At any rate, rest assured that I shall be making frequent checks on the quality of life and treatment of these children."

"Very good, sir," Dirksen was less than sincere.

"And, Dr. Quinn," Smith turned to her. "I want to commend you on the outstanding medical attention these children are receiving. I understand they have been inoculated against smallpox, as well."

Sully cast a quick glance at Dirksen. The soldier's mouth gaped open.

"Yes, Mr. Smith," she smiled. "They have been."

Smith raised an eyebrow as he gauged Dirksen's reaction, "After all, we don't want anything to happen to our model."

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

"An' this here is Loren Bray," Hank finished the introductions of Lexie to those townsfolk who had gathered at Grace's Cafe.

"It's nice to meet all of you," Lexie smiled.

"How'd ya get away from that bank robber?" Horace probed. "Was it Trent Cutler?"

She tensed, "Uh.... Trent Cutler?"

"There's a wanted poster on him at the Depot," Horace pointed. "They say he travels with a woman. Did ya see her, too?"

"No," Lexie denied. "I didn't see a woman."

"So, you goin' lookin' for the robber?" Loren questioned Hank. "The posse couldn't find him."

"We ain't gonna catch him now," he replied. "'Sides, the money's back."

"He could strike again," Horace insisted.

Matthew smiled, "So you're plannin' on stayin' in Colorado Springs, Miss Stone?"

"Call me Lexie," she was grateful for the change of subject. "And, yes, I am." She glanced fondly at Hank. "I find the scenery here quite appealing."

Hank grinned, "Just what I was thinkin'."

"I'd like to return to ranching," she indicated.

"I tried my hand at that," Matthew shook his head. "It's real hard work."

"I don't shy away from that," Lexie smiled.

"If ya need any help, let me know," Matthew offered. "I'm a lawyer now, but I know how t' build fences."

"A lawyer," she pondered. "Maybe you could help me find some land."

Suddenly Preston's voice was heard, "I told you I would take care of that, Lexie."

Hank rolled his eyes at the banker's arrival, "Damn."

"Watch your language," Horace frowned. "You're in the company of ladies."

Preston tipped his hat and sat beside Lexie, "A pleasure to see you again. I have good news for you."

"You're leavin' town?" Hank interjected.

Preston ignored the dig, "I've found the perfect parcel of land for your ranch. And I took the liberty of drawing up papers making me your partner in the enterprise."

"Whoa," Hank controlled his temper. "Who said anythin' about you bein' her partner?"

"Why.... I spoke with her about it earlier," Preston smiled.

"That right?" Hank turned to Lexie.

"Well, yes, but...." she was interrupted.

Hank rose abruptly and stormed off.

"What's wrong with him?" Horace questioned.

"I believe it's called jealousy," Lexie stood up. "It was very nice meeting all of you. Thank you for a delicious breakfast, Grace. And.... Mr. Lodge, I am interested in the land.... but not a partnership. Excuse me."

With that, Lexie left them and headed after Hank.

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

Michaela entered the church and spotted the Reverend sitting pensively in a pew.

"Reverend?" she approached. "Am I disturbing you?"

"Dr. Mike?" he lifted his head. "No. Do come in."

"How's Wendell?" she asked.

His face lit up, "He seems to be accepting things better than I expected. He has decided to call Isabel and me 'Ma' and 'Pa.'"

"That's wonderful," she smiled. "I remember when Brian first called me 'Ma.'"

"How is your family?" he changed the subject.

"Active as ever," she chuckled. "Noah tried to climb out of his crib and fell."

"Oh, my," he sighed. "It seems they go in every direction at that age."

"Yes, they do," she acknowledged.

"Is there something I can do for you?" he sensed.

"I came for some advice," she said.

"What about?" he queried.

"I'm concerned about Maria Slicker," Michaela specified. "It pains me to see how she is being affected by the troubled marriage of her parents."

"I'm concerned about their situation, as well," he offered. "Maybe I'll pay a visit."

"Would you?" she hoped. "I'm afraid Mrs. Slicker does not take well to my counsel."

"Certainly," he consented.

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

"Hank," Lexie found him at the bar.

"What?" he did not look up.

"I think maybe you misunderstood something," she folded her hands.

He downed a glass of whiskey, "What did I misunderstand? Preston findin' you a ranch or Preston bein' your partner?"

"Aren't you going to offer me a drink?" she stepped closer.

"What?" he was surprised. "Ladies don't drink in a saloon."

She looked around the empty room, "Who would notice?"

He leaned against the bar and eyed her intently, "I never met anyone like you, Alexandra Stone."

"Don't change the subject," she pointed to the bottle. "I'd like a drink, please."

He placed an empty glass on the bar and poured if full of whiskey.

"Satisfied?" he quipped.

"Yes, thank you," she downed the contents.

Hank's eyes widened as he watched her consume the drink.

"Want another?" he offered.

"No," she declined. "Now, about Mr. Lodge."

Hank's anger resurfaced, "I should've known he'd worm his way int' your life."

"What?" she stifled a laugh.

"He sees a pretty woman an' moves in t' try t' charm her," Hank poured himself another glass of whiskey.

She moved her glass forward again, "I'll take another drink then. If you're going to get drunk and exaggerate the truth, you might as well have company."

"I ain't exaggeratin'," he countered.

"I do not find Mr. Lodge charming," she informed him. "And he has apparently taken it upon himself to find this land for me. I assumed it was out of gratitude for the return of his money. As for being my partner, I never agreed to any such thing."

"Ya didn't?" his tone softened.

"No," she placed her hand atop his. "And I don't intend to."

"So ya only wanna buy the land?" he clarified.

"That's right," she smiled.

Hank's heart beat faster at that small gesture, "Why don't we go take a look at it?"

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

Jake finished his breakfast without speaking.

Teresa offered, "Would you like some more coffee?"

"Yea," he held out his cup.

"You are late for work," she glanced at the clock.

"I open when I open," he stated. "It ain't like folks are lined up waitin' for a haircut."

There was a knock at the door.

"I wonder who that could be?" Teresa walked to the front door. As she opened it, she was surprised, "Reverend."

"Hello," he removed his hat. "I asked Robert E to escort me out for a visit, if you don't mind."

"We do not mind," Teresa stepped back to guide him into the parlor.

Jake joined them and immediately grew uncomfortable.

"After our talk yesterday, I wanted to see how you both are doing," the minister inquired.

"We're fine," Jake was curt. "No need t' bother yourself, Reverend."

"It's no bother," he returned. "I was also wondering how Maria is doing. I heard that she took ill yesterday."

"She's fine," Jake folded his arms uncomfortably. "In fact, she's still sleepin'."

"Good," he nodded. "Children are so sensitive to us, aren't they? But I guess I don't need to tell you that, Teresa. You've seen more than once how children's home life can affect them."

"Yes, I have seen," she acknowledged.

"I'll walk ya back t' town, Reverend," Jake stepped toward him. "I'm goin' t' work."

"That would be very nice of you," the minister sensed their conversation had ended.

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

Michaela sat at her desk, staring at her patient files, but not focusing on writing in them. She stood up and went to the window, wondering where Sully might be. After taking Welland Smith to the Depot, he had kissed her goodbye and taken off.

She wondered what her husband had said to Dr. Bernard. It was obvious that he had visited the doctor with her health in mind, but.... is that what was troubling him? Had Dr. Bernard told him something disturbing? If so, what could it be?

As possibilities swirled through her mind, she concluded that the physician must have discussed the unlikelihood of her conceiving again. But.... they already knew the chances were slim.

She returned to her desk and sat down again. Picking up a file, she began to note the medication and treatment she had administered to the patient.

There came a knock at the door.

"Come in," she beckoned.

"Hey," it was Sully.

"Hello," she rose quickly and went to him. "I've been thinking about you."

"I been thinkin' about you, too," he kissed her. "Can ya get away for a while?"

"For you?" she smiled. "Of course."

"Good," he took her hand. "I wanna talk to ya, an' I have somewhere special where I wanna do it."

"Oh?" she was intrigued. "Then, lead on, Mr. Sully."

************
Chapter 14
************

Sully halted the wagon and helped Michaela down.

"Recognize this place?" he asked.

"Yes," she looked around. "The old Indian Reservation. You brought me here to discuss something?"

Taking a blanket from the back of the buckboard, he spread it out and helped her to sit upon it. Then he joined her. Lifting some nearby pebbles, he began to toss them aimlessly.

"Michaela," he began. "When I was in Denver, I talked t' Dr. Bernard."

"About what happened to me?" she assumed.

"Yes," he lifted some more stones.

Michaela broached the subject, "Did he say something that disturbed you, Sully?"

He gazed into her distinctly dissimilar eyes and sighed, "Yea."

"Tell me," she encouraged.

He took a deep breath, "It was wrong for me t' encourage you t' think another baby is possible."

"Dr. Bernard told you it was wrong?" she was puzzled.

"Not exactly," he swallowed hard. "But he said I need t' help ya accept the reality of things. He said it would weigh heavy on ya an'...."

"And what?" she waited patiently.

Sully spoke softly, "An' he said that maybe you're holdin' on t' the hope of another baby 'cause ya think it's what I want."

"I see," she felt tears welling.

He touched the moisture beneath her eyes, "I only wanna help ya, Michaela. I don't want ya t' have false hope or t' cling t' something just 'cause of me."

Michaela's heart went out to her husband for the quiet anguish he had been going through over this. She felt the need to be strong for him, and she wanted to relieve his concern.

He lowered his head. Michaela gently lifted his chin and leaned closer to kiss him.

"I'm sorry," he spoke softly.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," she assured. "And you haven't given me false hope."

"But...." he was interrupted by her fingers on his lips.

"I know what our chances are, Sully," her voice faltered slightly. "And I know how much I love you. I'm sorry you've been so tormented because of me."

He clasped her hand tightly, "I don't wanna see your heart break anymore. It's like a dagger in me."

"My heart is protected from breaking," she turned up the corner of her mouth. "Because it's in your kind and gentle care."

"Michaela," his eyes watered. "I'm so sorry all this happened."

She embraced him, "Please don't think that you've been hurting me. You could never do that."

He stroked the hair at her temple, "But I ain't been helpin' ya deal with the truth."

"I know the truth," she trembled slightly. "And you have helped me beyond my ability to convey. You give me strength."

"I wish I could protect ya from the hurt the truth brings," his eyes saddened.

She ran her fingers through his hair, "Just be patient with me, as you always are."

"I love you," he kissed her.

"I love you, too," she tilted her head against his.

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

"Well," Preston made a sweeping arm movement. "This is the land. What do you think, Lexie?"

"I love it," her face brightened. "How much is it?"

Hank pointed a finger into Preston's chest, "An' don't go gouging."

"I think we can come up with an agreeable price," the banker grinned.

"Price, not a partnership," Lexie specified.

"Whatever you want," Preston agreed.

"No tricks," Hank glared at him. "I've seen you in action before."

"I.... I'll ride back to town and have the papers drawn up," Preston nervously offered.

Hank watched the banker mount his horse and take off.

Turning to Lexie, he cautioned, "I don't trust that man."

"I got that impression," she smiled.

"So, ya love this place, huh?" Hank gazed at her.

"I think it will be ideal for ranching," she nodded.

"Last rancher woman I knew was Miss Olive," he became pensive.

"Miss Olive?" she was curious.

"Loren's sister," he identified. "She died on a cattle drive a few years back."

"I'm sorry," Lexie sympathized.

Hank's tone softened, "You're a lot prettier than she was."

"Thank you," she averted her glance.

"Have I told ya how glad I am ya decided t' move here?" he grinned.

"Hank," she touched his arm. "I wonder if I'm crazy to be doing this. And... at the same time, I've never been more certain about what I'm doing. Does that make sense?"

"Does it have to?" he was losing himself in her eyes.

"I've always considered myself a sensible person," she melted in his gaze.

Hank stepped closer and slid his hand around her waist. When she did not resist, he leaned closer. The scent of her ignited his desire to kiss her. Lexie raised her hand to brush back his long blonde locks. He waited, mesmerized by the effect she was having on him.

"Aren't you going to kiss me?" she invited.

He ran his finger along her chin, then pulled her close for a kiss. Instantly, it deepened. Lexie forgot the pain in her lip, feeling transported by the warmth of him.

Finally, Hank drew back, "I knew it would be like that."

"So did I," she whispered.

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

"Sully," Michaela glanced around at the remnants of the Reservation. "Why did you bring me here to discuss your conversation with Dr. Bernard?"

He took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, "This here's where you told me we were gonna have our first baby."

"I remember that joyous Thanksgiving," she smiled.

"Me, too," he grinned.

"I couldn't believe it," she recalled. "After how hard we had been trying.... I thought I would never conceive.... and it turned out I was already pregnant."

They fell silent. Michaela reached for his hand. Sully took it and raised it to his lips. The quiet reality of never having another child hung over them. But in the warmth of their touch, they found the strength to accept it.

"We're so blessed, Sully," Michaela spoke tenderly. "Thank you for bringing me here to remind me how very much."

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

"Jacob?" Teresa was surprised to see her husband. "Why are you home so early?"

"Slow day," he shrugged. "Where's Maria?"

"She is napping," Teresa noted.

"Oh," he sounded disappointed.

"Would you like a cup of coffee?" she offered.

"No thanks," he declined. "I.... I guess I'll head on back t' town."

"Please...." she touched his arm. "Stay."

He swallowed hard, "I.... I don't know what's gonna happen t' us. I don't know what t' say t' ya."

"We have said so many things," her eyes watered.

"How could we come t' this?" he sighed. "I remember the first time I saw ya, Teresa. The first time I told ya I loved ya, an' when you told me you felt the same way at the Sweetheart's Dance."

"I remember these things, as well," she added. "But I also remember the hurt of seeing you drink.... and turning your affections elsewhere."

"I never turned my affections elsewhere," he asserted. "No matter what I done bad, my feelin's for you have never changed."

"How can you love someone, yet continue to hurt them?" she challenged.

"I could ask you the same thing," he became defensive. "I did a lot of adjustin' for you. Went t' that Catholic Church in Denver.... listened t' your Aunt's insults...."

"I do not wish to argue with you," she backed off.

"Where do we go from here then?" he posed the question. "How we ever gonna get back what we had?"

"I do not know," she was frank. "Sometimes I wish that we could start over. But there has been too much hurt."

"Do you want a divorce, Teresa?" he swallowed hard.

She did not answer.

His brow wrinkled, "Is that what you want?"

"I do not know," she tensed.

He started for the door.

"No, Jake, do not leave again," she urged. "We can never solve our problems if you keep walking out."

"You don't wanna work them out," he charged.

"We have a child," she pointed out. "Should we not try for her sake?"

"I'd walk through fire for that little girl," his voice faltered.

"So would I," she wiped a tear.

"When we got somethin' like her in common, we oughta be able t' make things work," he reasoned.

"I will try," her lower lip quivered. "But you must promise me.... promise me that you will never drink again."

"I can't promise that," he knew. "I ain't strong like you, Teresa. I can try an' try, but then.... things happen.... an' I drink."

"You went to that Clinic before," she remembered. "I thought you had a complete recovery."

"Recovery?" he confessed. "Within a couple o' weeks after I came home, I was sneakin' drinks."

"I do not know what to do.... where to turn...." she sighed.

"Me either," he felt a lump in his throat.

"Mama! Papa!" it was Maria's voice.

"Coming, my darling," Teresa headed for the steps.

When she departed, Jake stepped toward the dining room hutch. He opened the bottom drawer, and reaching into the back, pulled out a bottle of whiskey.

"One drink," his hands shook. "Just one drink t' calm me."

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

"Hank, Lexie," Matthew greeted as they entered his office.

"Matthew," Hank said. "We was wonderin' if you could look over these papers Preston had drawn up for the sale of land t' Lexie."

"Sure," the young man accepted. "Can't say I blame ya for wantin' t' be careful with Preston." Matthew read the document, "It seems in order t' me. Only thing is, if she can't make her mortgage payments on time, the land reverts back t' Preston."

"I'll make them on time," Lexie pledged.

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

"Papa," Maria's voice startled Jake.

Swiftly, he wiped his mouth and returned the bottle to the hutch.

"Hey, darlin'," he knelt down to greet her.

"We play?" she requested.

"Sure," he grinned. "We can play. Ya wanna go out on the swing?"

"Yea!" her little face beamed.

Teresa watched Jake carry their daughter through the front door. Turning, she glanced at the hutch. She opened the drawer and lifted her husband's bottle. Then she stepped into the kitchen and began to pour out its contents.

The aroma of the alcohol filled her with anger and pain, "What is to become of us, Jacob?"

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

Katie knocked on her parents' bedroom door. When she heard her mother's soft voice beckon, she entered. Michaela and Sully were sitting in the large rocker, hoping to lull the twins to sleep.

"What ya doin' outa bed, Kates?" Sully questioned.

"Joey's snorin'," she clasped Annie's hand.

"That usually don't bother ya," Sully smiled. "Somethin' else on your mind?"

"Wendell," she revealed.

"What about him, Sweetheart?" Michaela stroked Noah's back.

"Ka-" the baby boy pointed to his sister.

"Shh," Michaela hoped he would grow sleepy.

Katie went to her parents' bed and climbed atop it to watch them.

"Wendell said he's got a new Ma an' Pa," she noted.

"That's true," Michaela acknowledged.

"I'm glad for him," the little girl smiled.

"You're a good friend to him," Michaela filled with pride.

"Least they won't hit him," Katie observed.

"The Reverend and Miss Isabel?" Michaela said. "No, they would never do that."

"What we doin'?" Josef entered the room.

"What are you doing up, young man?" Michaela queried.

"He prob'ly woke himself up with his snorin'," Katie sighed.

"What's snorin'?" Josef inquired.

Michaela defined, "It's a sound created by the vibration of your uvula and soft palate."

Sully noted his son's blank expression, "You're makin' noise when ya sleep, Joe."

His eyes widened, "I am?"

"Yes," Katie folded her arms. "It woke me up.

"Sowwy," Josef frowned.

"Perhaps, if you slept on your side, it would help," Michaela suggested.

"I don' know how I do it," Josef considered.

"Mama," Noah began to bounce up and down.

"I don't think we're having much success in getting these little ones to sleep," Michaela sighed. "Perhaps some warm milk would help."

"I'll help ya fix it," Katie volunteered.

"Thank you, Sweetheart," Michaela rose from the chair.

Handing Noah to his father, she took Katie's hand and left the room.

"I help ya with the babies," Josef climbed onto the rocker beside his father.

"Thanks, Joe," Sully smiled and settled Annie onto the little boy's lap.

"Papa," he looked up. "Do you snore?"

"I don't know," he kissed the top of Noah's head. "You'd have t' ask your Ma."

"Does Mama snore?" Josef queried.

"Sometimes," he answered.

"I gotta stop," Josef was concerned.

"Just do what your Ma said," Sully recommended. "When ya go t' bed, lay on your side."

"Which side?" the little boy persisted.

"I don't think it matters," Sully chuckled. "Either side's okay."

"'Kay," Josef accepted. "I ask ya somethin' else?"

"Sure," the father smiled.

"Are you an' Mama gonna make 'nother baby?" the child innocently posed the question.

"No, Joe," Sully spoke softly.

"Then how she be happy?" Josef's brow wrinkled.

"You kids already make her happy," he assured. "Ya make us both real happy."

"Ya sure?" Josef hoped.

"Real sure," Sully smiled.

"I ask ya 'nother question?" Josef awaited.

"You can ask me anythin', big boy," Sully nodded.

"What's a uvula?" Josef wondered.

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

"Are you okay, Mama?" Katie watched her closely.

"I'm fine," she smiled as she poured the milk into a pan.

"I know ya been sad," the little girl sensed.

Michaela assured her, "I'm feeling much better."

"That's good," Katie embraced her.

Michaela knelt down to the level of her eyes, "I love you, my darling. And I appreciate your caring heart."

"That's okay," the child stroked her mother's long hair. "Long as you're happy."

"My children make me very happy," she assured.

"An' Poppy," Katie added.

"Yes," she touched her nose. "I'm a very fortunate woman."

"Me, too," the little girl nodded.

Michaela set a tray on the table, and placed cups atop it.

"I was wondering something," Michaela paused. "What would you think if we invite little Maria Slicker to spend the night sometime soon?"

"That's a good idea," Katie agreed. "I like her. But she seems sad sometimes."

"Perhaps we can lift her spirits," Michaela offered.

"Yep," she agreed. "Just have her talk t' Joey."

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

Lexie pondered the day's events as she positioned herself on the bed. The rush of excitement from Hank's kiss had made sleep impossible. Things were moving very quickly, and she wondered if she was doing the right thing.

She had not offered Hank an explanation for how she had escaped with the bank's money or how she even knew that the money came from the Colorado Springs heist. The banker, Preston, seemed the type who would press her for more information eventually. She would have to formulate a story that they would accept.

With the passage of time, Hank would want to know more about her. Obviously, she could never reveal her true identity. She would have to live a lie. But that was far better than the life she had been living with Trent.

"Trent," she spoke to herself. "What will I do if you decide to show up one day?"

She rolled onto her side and closed her eyes, uneasy and yet excited for what lay ahead in Colorado Springs.

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

After finally setting Katie and Josef into their beds, Michaela entered her own room. There on the bed was Sully, dosing with the twins sleeping atop his chest. She warmed at the sight of the little ones so tenderly cradled in their father's strong arms.

She tiptoed closer and sat on the edge of the bed to whisper, "Mr. Sully?"

"Mmm?" he awoke disoriented.

"These darlings are asleep," she smiled.

"I was dreamin' I couldn't breathe," he joked. "Let's tuck 'em in."

They kissed the babies and placed them into their cribs. Then they climbed into bed themselves.

"I think Welland Smith's visit might do some good," Sully's thoughts turned to the Indian school.

"I agree," she returned. "He was very effective in what he said to the Army."

"An' if they know the Interior Department's gonna keep an eye on the school, maybe they'll back off their schemes," he noted.

"Yes," she concurred. "But why must it always be such an uphill battle?"

"That's what life is, I reckon," he commented. "Still, I'm gonna keep checkin' on what they do out there. Did you see Dirksen's reaction when Smith told him about the children bein' vaccinated? Ya could have driven a wagon through his mouth."

"Indeed," she toyed with a lock of his hair. "Speaking of children, I've been thinking about your suggestion regarding Maria Slicker. Perhaps you could ask Teresa if the child could spend the night with our family soon."

"Why me?" he pointed to himself.

"Teresa would never agree if the suggestion came from me," she knew.

"Okay," he consented. "I'll ask. That little girl could use some stability in her life."

"I feel terrible for her," her heart went out. "And I don't know what's going to happen to Jake and Teresa."

"Drinkin' controls Jake's life," Sully determined. "He puts it ahead of lovin' his family."

"Speaking of love...." she leaned closer to kiss him.

"Umm...." he enjoyed her movements.

"I heard some rumors in town about Hank," she pulled back.

"Rumors?" he was curious.

"It seems that he's quite smitten with the woman he met at the dance.... do you remember her?" she asked.

"I was too busy lookin' at you," he touched her in a sensitive place.

Michaela was momentarily distracted, "Uh.... anyway, she's the woman with the cut lip whom Hank wanted me to treat."

"The gal who retrieved the bank's money is the one he met at the dance?" he recalled.

"Yes," she answered.

Sully chuckled, "Seems like Preston would be smitten with her, too, since she got his money back for him."

"Everyone in town is talking about Hank and Lexie," she revealed. "She's even moving to Colorado Springs and buying a ranch."

He smiled as he watched her enthusiastic description. This was the Michaela he knew. She seemed her old self again, interested in the town and its goings on.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" she suddenly noticed.

"Like what?" he stroked her arm.

"With that grin," she touched the edge of his lips.

Sully drew her finger into his mouth. Feeling his tongue against it, Michaela stirred.

He smiled at her reaction, "I always love lookin' at ya, Michaela."

She positioned herself closer to him, "You make me feel so special, Sully. So loved."

He was moved to recite:

"And all her face was honey to my mouth,
And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
The long lithe arms and hotter hand than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs,
And glittering eyelids of my soul's desire."

Michaela's heart beat faster, "That was rather.... provocative."

He ran his hand along her thigh, "It's what you provoke in me."

"Was it Herrick?" she guessed.

"Algernon Swineburne," he identified.

A powerful longing swelled within her, "Do you think.... That is.... I wondered...."

He grinned, "You short on words again?"

"Sully," she spoke softly. "I want us to be together."

"We are together," he teased.

"You know what I mean," her cheeks flushed.

"I do?" he kissed her. After her enthusiastic reaction, his question became a declaration, "I do."

She framed his face in her hands, "I was hoping to show you how much I love you.... with no thoughts of...."

"Of what?" he was uncertain.

She stroked his hair, "With no thoughts of making babies."

He grinned, "So ya just wanna take advantage of me?"

"Why is it I can't resist your incorrigibility?" she shook her head.

"'Cause ya love me?" he offered.

"So much so, that I scarcely know where your heart ends and mine begins," her eyes reflected her adoration.

Sully cupped her face in his hand and tenderly, sweetly kissed her temple, cheek and sides of her mouth. He lifted a lock of her long tresses to inhale the scent of her.

Michaela could feel his body react next to her, and she encouraged his appetite further with her touches.

"I love you with all of my heart," she spoke against his ear.

"I love you, too," he positioned himself to share his love.

Thus began the union of their souls. Gently, he maneuvered to look down upon her. Trembling slightly in anticipation, she stroked his sides. His hand ran along her silky skin. Soon, neither was able to resist the intense attraction they felt. Their contact escalated until, in a blinding burst of passion, their bodies melded as one.

Michaela breathlessly clung to him until they were no longer able to sustain their connection.

"You're incredible," Sully smiled.

"I am highly motivated," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

"One of the many things I love about ya," he traced the line of her jaw with his finger.

"What else do you love?" she was curious.

"How much time ya got for me t' list them?" he joked.

"I have a lifetime," she stroked his arm.

Sully began, "I love your eyes.... your lips.... hair...."

"Those are merely physical things," she tapped his side.

"Don't interrupt," he touched her nose. "I love your enthusiasm.... your kindness.... caring.... compassion.... dedication.... your passion...."

He stopped.

"That's quite a lot," she smiled.

"I love your intelligence...." he resumed. "The way ya have with our children...."

"I don't know how effective I was with them tonight," she mused.

"One thing, though...." he raised a finger. "I'm not so sure Josef understood your definition of snorin'."

"Oh?" she was interested.

"He asked me what a uvula is," he chuckled.

"And what did you tell him?" she was curious.

"I told him t' ask you," he retorted.

"Don't you know what it is?" she lifted up slightly.

He kissed her, "Am I on the right track?"

"You're very close to it," she nodded. "It's that little projection that hangs down in the back of your throat."

"Oh," he pretended disappointment.

"What were you expecting?" she tapped his side.

"I don't know," he joked. "It sounded like it would be a lot more excitin' than that."

"That's biology for you," she sighed.

"Normally, biology's real excitin'," he grinned. "Especially when you explain it."

"You've taught me more than I've taught you, Mr. Sully," she noted.

"Let's consider it a draw," he reasoned.

"If only others could have what we do," she pondered.

"Like Jake an' Teresa?" he speculated.

"Yes," she felt a lump in her throat. "They made vows to each other, brought a precious child into the world only to...."

"It ain't over for them yet," he pointed out. "Maybe they'll work things out."

"I don't see how," she sighed.

"Maybe they'll be inspired by Hank an' Lexie," he joked.

"I wonder if Lexie will be so enamored with Hank when she learns about his exploitation of women," she stated.

He speculated, "Could be she's got somethin' in her past she ain't proud of, too."

She smiled, "It will be interesting to watch."

He became serious, "It's good t' see ya like this again."

She kissed him, "I'm on the mend. Some days will be good, and others not so good. But I'm certain of one thing."

"What's that?" he queried.

She linked her fingers in his, "My recovery is in good hands."

THE END



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