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



Steps in the Darkness


by Debby K



Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Steps in the Darkness
Debby K

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

"Mama," Josef approached Michaela in the living room. "Papa come home t'day? He gone a long time."

"Two weeks," she smiled at her son. "Papa's been gone two weeks. His telegram said he will be home today. With Brian, as well."

Josef knelt down beside his mother as she played with the twins on the floor.

"These kids are gettin' big," he tickled Annie's side.

"Just like you," she raised her eyebrows.

"What Papa do in Denver?" the little boy inquired.

"He's been helping to build a hotel there," she ran her fingers through her son's hair.

"What's a hotel?" he wondered.

"It's a building where people can stay when they travel," she said. "Like the Gold Nugget in town or Mr. Lodge's Chateau."

"You an' Papa stay at Chat-chat...." he stumbled on the word.

"Chateau," she repeated slowly.

"You stay there," he pointed out.

"Well...." she blushed slightly. "Sometimes married people stay at a hotel for.... special reasons."

"Like what?" he leaned against her.

Michaela kissed the top of his head, "Like the anniversary of when they married."

"How long you an' Papa married?" he lay down beside Noah on the blanket.

"Nine years in May," Michaela found it hard to believe.

"I didn' know ya then," Josef said.

She chuckled, "No, you didn't."

"What did ya do 'fore?" he persisted in his inquiry.

"Before Papa and I married?" she paused. "Well, I lived in Boston, as you know. I studied to become a doctor, like my father. Then, after he died, I came to Colorado."

"That when ya see Papa," he surmised.

"Yes," she smiled wistfully.

"Ya get married then?" Josef tilted his head.

"Not right away," she lifted Annie. "We were simply friends at first. And.... we were quite different."

"Is that bad?" the little boy questioned.

"It turned out to be quite good," she confessed. "Your father and I did have many things in common. Our friendship grew into love."

"Ya think I get marwied?" he posed the question.

"Not for a while," she turned up the corner of her mouth. "But, one day, yes."

"I marwy a doctor," he asserted.

"Oh?" she smiled.

"Jus' like you," he hugged her.

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

Sully glanced at his son as their train headed for Colorado Springs.

"Your Ma's gonna be real happy t' have you home for her birthday," he remarked to Brian.

"I wouldn't miss it," the young man smiled, returning to his newspaper.

"What's so interestin'?" Sully was curious.

"I wanted to surprise you and Ma," he beamed.

"Did they publish one o' your articles?" Sully smiled.

"No," the young man handed Sully the paper. "But they wrote up an article about Ma."

"About your Ma?" he was curious.

"Read it," Brian suggested.

Sully began to peruse the column. As he did so, his smile turned into a frown. Brian wondered why his father was reacting in such a way.

"Damn!" Sully finished.

"What's wrong, Pa?" Brian was surprised at his reaction. "Don't ya like it?"

"Brian," Sully looked up. "This changes everythin'."

"What do ya mean?" the young man was puzzled. "It says all kinds of nice things about Ma."

"That's the problem," he tossed the paper aside. "Why'd they have t' go an' tell all about her money?"

"The nuns in Denver told the editor what she had done, an' he asked me about Ma's donation to build the hospital in Colorado Springs," Brian explained. "He thought it would make a good story for the society page."

"Don't ya see?" Sully's jaw tensed. "Now everyone will know your Ma's rich."

"What's wrong with that?" he was still clueless.

"It means more folks will start pesterin' her for money.... or worse," Sully explained.

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

"You see this?" Ben Kincaid pointed to The Rocky Mountain News.

Alvin Smithton leaned closer to look, "Why ya readin' the society page?"

"'Cause that's where they talk about rich folks," Ben noted.

In his early thirties, Ben Kincaid had made a living gambling and bilking unsuspecting society ladies out of their money. Alvin, younger by a few years, had recently been released from prison, and Ben invited him to join him in Colorado to seek their fortune. The two had been inseparable as boys in Ohio, but drifted apart when Ben's parents moved west.

While Ben was handsome and dark haired, Alvin had a disgusting appearance with disheveled black hair and an unbathed look which repulsed even his relative. Yet Ben found him to be a very willing comrade in his schemes--the strong arm to his smooth talking.

Ben also recognized a sinister side to Alvin. The younger man's dark side often revealed itself with sudden outbursts of temper and violence. During those times, Ben knew better than to approach him and learned with a black eye to never question why Alvin had been incarcerated.

Ben read aloud, "Dr. Michaela Quinn Sully of Colorado Springs has made a sizable donation for the construction of a hospital in her town. The daughter of a wealthy Boston family....."

"So you think she might be ripe for the pickin'?" Alvin grinned.

"I don't think it," Ben paused. "I KNOW it."

"How we gonna do it?" Alvin questioned.

"I think this one will be done quick," Ben's eyes narrowed. "If everythin' works out, we'll have her money in no time."

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

"Myra," Horace spoke to her after entering the bank. "I wish ya didn't have t' work here again."

"I gotta make a livin'," she replied.

"Is this a social visit, Horace?" Preston glanced up from his desk.

"What if it is?" the telegrapher responded defiantly.

"Myra does have work to do," the banker frowned.

"So do I," Horace felt his temper rising. "I want a few words with her, then I'll leave."

"What did ya wanna tell me?" Myra eyed her ex-husband.

"I was wonderin' if maybe you an' me could go out t' dinner this evenin'," he invited. "Somethin' real nice.... at the Chateau."

"Chateau?" she was surprised. "Horace, you can't afford that."

"Sure I can," he countered. "I been savin' my money real good."

"I...." she considered his offer. "I'd like it."

"Good," he beamed. "I'll pick ya up at six o'clock."

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

Michaela and Bridget made certain that the children were neatly dressed and on time at the Depot to greet their father and brother. Michaela felt her heart beat a little faster in anticipation of their arrival. Two weeks had seemed like an eternity.

"It'll sure be good t' see Poppy an' Bran," Katie excitedly proclaimed.

"That it will, lassie," Bridget straightened the bow in the little girl's hair.

Josef eyed a mouse as it made its way toward some crates stacked behind the Depot. The little boy followed and attempted to catch it.

"Sweetheart," Michaela beckoned after him. "Don't get dirty."

The mouse was proving more elusive than Josef expected. Ignoring his mother's instructions, he knelt down onto the planks of wood to crawl between the crates.

In the distance, the train whistle blew.

"They're home!" Katie pointed.

Bridget bent down and looked at the twins in the perambulator, "I guess these two couldn't stay awake long enough for the train."

"Joey, look!" Katie knew her brother loved to watch the locomotive.

There was no response from the little boy.

"Josef?" Michaela saw that her son was missing.

She began to walk toward the Depot office, "Horace, have you seen...."

"Gotta meet the train, Dr. Mike," he rushed past her.

"Josef!" Michaela called again.

The chugging of the train engine obscured any further shouting on her part. Michaela spotted the stacked crates nearby and wondered. When she reached them, she crouched down and beheld her son amid them, covered in dust and holding a mouse.

When the train came to a halt, Michaela spoke up, "What do you have there?"

"Mouse," he proudly held it up.

"What did I tell you about staying clean?" she reminded.

"I wanted t' see it, Mama," he defended.

"Seeing and catching are two different things, young man," she extended her hand. "Come now. Papa and Brian are home."

Josef released the creature and began to pivot so that he could join his mother. To his dismay, he found himself stuck among the boxes. He pushed with all of his might, but still could not move.

"Mama," his blue eyes implored.

Michaela crouched lower and reached in for him, "Give me your hand, Sweetheart."

Josef could not reach her. His eyes began to tear up.

"Mama!" his repeated call reflected a growing fear.

"Shhh," she tried to calm him. "It's all right. We'll get you out."

"Michaela?" Sully touched her back. "What are ya doin' down there?"

She looked up, "It's Josef. He's lodged among the crates."

Sully immediately sprang into action. One by one, he began to hoist the top crates from their position and move them out of the way.

Michaela hoped to calm her son, "Don't worry, Josef. Your Daddy's here."

While she kept the little boy occupied in conversation, Sully continued his efforts until finally, he had cleared all most of the boxes which were directly above the little boy.

"Hold still now, Sweetheart," Michaela encouraged.

Tears streamed down Josef's cheeks, but he did as his mother instructed. Finally, Sully cleared the last of the crates above his son.

Michaela swiftly lifted the child into her arms, "Josef."

"Mama," he burst into sobs.

Sully rubbed his son's back reassuringly.

Josef then turned to him, "Papa."

Sully smiled and kissed his cheek, "You're okay, big boy."

"I scared," Josef's voice quivered.

"I know, my darling," Michaela held him tighter. "But you're safe now."

"That the last time I look for mouse," the little boy affirmed.

"You were supposed to stay clean, remember?" Michaela reminded.

"Sowwy," Josef glanced down contritely.

Sully leaned closer to his wife, "Happy birthday."

"Thank you," she kissed him sweetly.

"What's goin' on?" Brian approached.

"Your brother was on another of his adventures," Michaela teased. "Welcome home, Brian."

He tickled Josef's side, "Happy birthday, Ma."

"Sorry I missed Valentine's Day," Sully touched her cheek. "Hope I can make it up t' ya."

"We'll think of a way," her look was flirtatious.

They returned to their waiting family by the train.

"Let's go home," Sully smiled.

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

"Ruth," Kid Cole clasped his wife's hand as another coughing spell subsided.

"Right here," she squeezed.

"I... I wanna go see Dr. Mike.... one last time," he spoke weakly.

Her voice trembled when she noticed the blood in the corner of his mouth, "Ya need t' build up your strength first."

"If we catch the mornin' train...." he paused to catch is breath. "We could be there before evenin'."

"I don't think...." she was interrupted.

"Please," he implored. "Just make the arrangements."

"All right," she agreed nervously.

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

"Where's that husband o' yours?" Bridget smiled as she peeled a potato.

Michaela stood beside her to help, "He's being attacked."

"Attacked?" the nanny questioned.

"By his children," Michaela gestured with her head toward the living room.

The sounds of giggles from the young ones emanated from the other side of the kitchen hearth.

"Why don't ya go rescue him, lass?" Bridget chuckled. "I'll manage the potatoes just fine."

"Perhaps I should," Michaela dried her hands.

When she reached the edge of the dining room table, she could not help but smile. There was Sully prone on the rug before the fireplace with the twins on his chest, Katie grasping his left arm and Josef holding down his right. Brian pretended to secure his father's feet.

"Mama!" Josef called. "Come help."

"What are you doing to your poor father?" she stepped closer.

"Wrasslin'," the little boy informed her. "We winnin'."

"Five against one, I'm not surprised," Michaela knelt down beside them.

Quickly, the twins crawled to their mother.

"Three t' one now," Katie frowned.

Michaela cast a loving glance toward her husband, whose smile conveyed much more than words. He was home.... and right where he wanted to be.

Suddenly, Brian released him, and Sully bolted up. Unexpectedly, he scooped Katie and Josef into his lap, with a kiss on the cheek for each.

"Papa!" Josef squirmed. "How you get up?"

"He was just lettin' us win, Joey," Katie embraced her father.

"He was?" the little boy was amazed.

"I been wrasslin' him a long time, an' I know Poppy's lots stronger than us," she explained.

Josef squeezed his father's muscular arm in admiration, "How ya get so stwong?"

Sully tickled his son, "Wrasslin' with my kids."

Josef squeezed his own arm, "Ya think I get stwong?"

Sully grinned, "Some day."

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

"I sure enjoyed dinner, Myra," Horace stood awkwardly beside her at the boarding house door.

"I did, too, Horace," she shyly returned.

Each waited in uncomfortable silence.

Then he spoke again, "I reckon Samantha's asleep."

She nodded, "I told Dorothy t' make sure she got t' bed early with school t'morrow."

"I see," he nodded.

"If ya wanna come in t' see her....It'd be okay," Myra offered.

"I don't wanna wake her," he accepted.

"Well, I best be gettin' t' bed myself then," she looked up.

"Could I kiss ya good night?" he inquired.

"I reckon," she consented.

Horace leaned low to reach her, then gave her a tentative kiss. Myra returned it sweetly. Slowly, they parted.

"Good night, then," he gulped.

"'Night," she smiled.

He started to depart, then pivoted to face her, "Think I could see ya again real soon?"

"Sure," she agreed. "I'd like that."

"Good," he stood a bit straighter.

Myra watched as he crossed the street and headed for the Depot.

"Horace," she sighed once he was out of earshot. "How can I tell ya?"

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

Sully lay in bed, watching his wife slowly brush her hair. She seemed preoccupied, but maybe it was just his imagination. Or her mind could be on a patient. After a final check of the twins, she lowered the lamp near the door.

Michaela draped her robe across the bottom of the bed, "Brian showed me the article in The Rocky Mountain News. He... he said you were upset about it."

Sully pulled back the covers for her to join him, "That what's on your mind?"

"Are you?" she avoided answering.

"Am I what?" he asked.

"Are you upset with Brian?" she waited.

"No," he was sincere. "But I don't think ya oughta have all that publicity about your money."

"The article was more about the hospital," she pointed out.

"Still, I want ya t' promise me you'll be careful," he urged.

"Of course I shall," she touched his hand. "Don't worry."

He grinned, "It's still your birthday."

"Weren't the children adorable with the cake?" she smiled.

"Faces covered with icin'," he chuckled.

"Prompted by their father," she climbed into the bed and snuggled closer.

He kissed her temple, "Can't help smilin' when I'm around 'em."

"I missed you so," she lightly caressed his cheek.

"I brought ya somethin'," he opened the drawer of his bedside table. Lifting a small box, he handed it to her, "Happy birthday."

"What is it?" she shook it.

"Open an' see," he encouraged.

Complying with his wishes, she unwrapped the gift and beheld two charms.

"Sully!" her eyes shone with love. "They're beautiful."

"Just like you," he noted.

"One for Annie and one for Noah," she admired the engraving on the back of the shiny silver silhouette ornaments.

"T' go with the others on your bracelet," he reminded.

"The bracelet you gave me when we were expecting Josef," she recalled.

"Yep," he smiled. "One for each o' the kids."

"And for our adventures together," she added.

"Sorry I missed Valentine's Day," he ran his finger along her chin.

"Do you recall how we spent it last year?" she turned up the corner of her mouth.

"Um..." he hesitated.

She drew his hand down to her abdomen, and he caressed it.

"Now I remember," he grinned. "At the Chateau."

"It was incredibly romantic even though I was the size of a barn," she recalled. "We saw the play.... then....."

"Then...." he lifted up slightly to kiss her.

"Oh, yes, then...." she smirked. "Nothing is the same when you're not here. The children are quieter, the....."

"Maybe I oughta go away more often then," he joked.

"No," she grew serious. "My heart aches when you're away. I think about you to distraction."

He kissed the tips of her fingers and quoted:

"All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
Are all but ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame."

"Was that Poe?" she ventured.

"Coleridge," he returned. "I wanna hear all about the kids."

"Right this moment?" she touched him in a provocative place.

He gulped, "You tryin' t' tell me somethin', Michaela?"

"Only that I missed you," her tone was inviting.

His ardor was rising, "I missed you, too. Thought about ya every minute. Nights were hardest. I missed your scent, your soft skin next t' me...."

She closed her eyes, warming at his enticing touches and kisses, the timbre of his voice. Sully ran his hand along her form, opening her nightgown as he did. Then he began to trail his kisses across her chest.... lower to her abdomen and back up to her lips. She wrapped her arms around his neck to invite his love. Slowly building in intensity, their bodies finally joined with the intimacy each had longed for.

"Thank you for my gift," she whispered near his ear.

"You're welcome," he kissed the sides of her mouth. Then with the teasing humor which had become tradition on each of her birthdays, he smiled, "So, how old are ya?"

"Sully," she tapped his side playfully.

"Just had t' ask," he grinned impishly.

She slipped from his arms and rose from the bed.

"Michaela," he reached for her. "I'm sorry. You know I was only jokin'."

She did not respond, but walked to her jewelry box and opened it. Lifting the lid, she withdrew her charm bracelet. There, dangling from it, were the silhouettes for each of their other children and miniature versions of a medical bag, a tomahawk, a teepee and a train.

Sully joined her and wrapped his arms around her waist, "I told ya each one represented a gift ya gave me."

"Shall we add the ones for Annie and Noah?" she smiled.

Sully went to the nightstand and retrieved the small silhouettes. Carefully, he linked them to her bracelet. Then he latched it around her wrist.

"Thank you," her smile beamed.

"Not much room left on it," he pointed.

"I suppose you'd have to buy me another bracelet if we were to have more children," she teased.

"Michaela?" he wondered. "You tryin' t' tell me somethin'?"

"No," she caressed the side of his face. "I'm not pregnant."

She took his hand and guided him to the cribs. Tenderly, he rubbed the backs of his sleeping children.

"I suppose these two little ones will be the last for us," she leaned against his shoulder.

"You sayin' ya want more?" he questioned.

"No," she smiled. "Unless.... do you? Do you want more children, Sully?"

"I once told ya I'd love whoever comes along," he toyed with a lock of her hair. We got more than I ever imagined."

"I know what you mean," she turned her attention back to the babies. "I'm grateful for these precious little lives. And I'm content.... if you are. But... if you did want more children, I'd..."

He leaned down to kiss her before she could complete her thought.

"Seven seems just right t' me," he drew back.

"To me, as well," she ran her finger along the line of his jaw.

"'Sides," he joked. "I can't afford anymore lumber t' expand this place for a while."

Her sudden look of melancholy puzzled him.

"Talk t' me," he encouraged. "Somethin's botherin' ya."

"I just missed you," she drew lazy circles on his chest.

"Tell me," he clasped her hand and held it over his heart.

Again, she fell silent. Sully gave her a gentle squeeze for encouragement.

"They're growing so quickly," she gestured toward the babies. "Katie's halfway through second grade already. She's so independent and strong, sensitive and caring."

"That's good, ain't it?" he tilted his head.

"It's very good," she nodded.

Sully ran his hands along the top of his daughter's soft hair, "Annie, reminds me o' Katie at that age."

"I know," Michaela smiled. "But do you think Noah will be anything like Josef?"

Sully grinned, "Ya only get one like Joe to a family."

Michaela turned to softly rest her hand on their baby boy, "They're so beautiful."

Sully pulled her close again, "I think you need a reminder."

"Reminder?" she raised an eyebrow.

"Yep," he scooped her into his arms.

"What are you doing?" she was caught by surprise.

He kissed her neck, "Remindin' ya."

"Reminding me?" she melted in his arms.

Tenderly, he laid her on the bed, "Remindin' ya that I love ya."

She ran her fingers through his long locks, "Are you sure this is only for my benefit, Mr. Sully?"

Carefully, he positioned himself, "Well... I'm all for doin' what I can t' cheer ya up."

Her body tingled from his movements, "I believe it's working."

"I love you, Michaela," his kisses awakened every pore of her being.

"I love you, too," her heart raced.

Again, they came together as one. With a surging energy that coursed through them in waves of pleasure, they clung to each other. Michaela savored his warmth as he filled her with his love. Finally, with tender touches, they began to calm from the encounter.

"Think that lifted your spirits?" Sully retorted.

Michaela smiled, "Oh, yes."

"Good," he felt his eyelids grow heavy.

"Sleepy?" she detected a yawn.

"Uh huh," he lovingly rubbed her arm.

"Close your eyes," she spoke softly. "And know that your heart rests with mine."

She stroked his hair as she felt his breathing slow. With his humor and his loving gestures, he had managed to lift her spirits. The troubling case which burdened her seemed less worrisome in his embrace. For now, she had her love beside her. Somehow, that lightened the burden she carried.

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

Michaela awoke early for her appointment at the Clinic. She stretched, then rolled onto her side to look at her husband. Her heart beat a little quicker at the nearness of him. Tenderly, she drew back a stray lock of the hair which covered his eye. Torn between her work and her love, she sighed. He needed to rest. She clasped his calloused hand and lovingly kissed his palm.

Then she whispered, "I love you, Byron Sully. See you this afternoon."

Next, she rose from the bed, checked on her sleeping babies and prepared for the day.

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

"Mornin', Dr. Mike," Myra entered the Clinic.

"Good morning," she concealed her concern with a smile. "How are you feeling?"

"Same," Myra shrugged. "I had dinner with Horace last night."

"And?" Michaela waited.

"It was real nice," she avoided looking at the physician.

"Myra," Michaela rose from her desk. "You didn't tell him."

"How can I, Dr. Mike?" she felt tears welling. "How can I tell him I could be dyin'?"

"I'm going to do everything in my power to see that you live a long...." Michaela was interrupted.

"I got no guarantees," Myra shook her head. "We don't even know for sure what I got."

"I've ordered additional journals from Denver," she mentioned. "And I want to find out everything I can about the current research from Europe."

"Maybe it's my punishment," Myra believed. "'Cause o' my lifestyle before I married Horace."

"It's not a punishment," she countered.

"I just wish I knew what was wrong," Myra nervously folded her hands.

"Unfortunately, medicine is not an exact science," Michaela shook her head. "Perhaps, somewhere along the way, if I would have been more attentive to your symptoms when you worked for Hank...."

Myra assured, "This ain't your fault."

Michaela explained, "I treated you several times. What if my treatments merely masked other symptoms?"

"Don't you go blamin' yourself," Myra interrupted. "This is MY fault. I looked the other way plenty o' times, thinkin' what I had would go away."

"Myra, about your possible reconciliation with Horace...." she hesitated. "If you were to remarry.... there should be no.... intimacy between you."

"We been gettin' along real good," the young woman's voice choked. "Just like when we first fell in love. I was startin' t' think maybe we could get married again. Have more children. Poor Samantha. She wants a little brother or sister."

"You need to tell him," she touched her arm.

"I know I should.... before things go any further," Myra realized. "Why is it just when ya think your life is on track, somethin' happens t' tear it apart?"

"I don't know," Michaela shook her head. "But, I do know that in the midst of crises, if we're fortunate enough to have love, we can face anything."

"I wish me an' Horace could've been like you an' Sully," Myra pondered. "You never gave up on each other."

"And we never shall," Michaela spoke with certainty. "Horace never stopped loving you, Myra. He won't give up on you."

"When I think about it, it's best for him that we did get that divorce," Myra speculated. "Saved him, in a way."

Michaela commented, "I'll need to check them.... Horace and Samantha."

"What?" she was shocked. "Why?"

"Just to be certain," Michaela specified.

"You think Samantha could have this?" Myra was horrified.

"The possibility exists that this disease could be transmitted by a mother to her baby, yet not be immediately evident," she noted. "I can't ignore that."

"Oh, God," Myra's shoulders slumped. "What have I done?"

Michaela placed her hand on the young woman's back, "I'll do anything I can to help."

"Could.... could ya help me tell Horace?" she requested.

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

"An' where might you be goin', boy-oh?" Bridget stopped Josef at the top of the steps.

"Gonna wake up Papa," the little boy stated. "He's sleepin' all day."

"Your Pa's tired, lad," the nanny explained. "He worked hard in Denver on that hotel for Mr. Tabor. An' now he needs some rest."

Josef pursed his lips in frustration, "Bran's not here, an' I wanna play with the babies."

"They're sleepin', too," she folded her arms. "Maybe you could come help me."

"How?" he tilted his head.

She offered, "We'll think o' somethin'. Come on, now."

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

"Pa-pa," a little voice spoke from one of the cribs.

Sully opened an eye. Attempting to focus, he extended his hand to feel Michaela's side of the bed. Empty and cold. He opened his other eye.

"Pa," the voice repeated.

Sitting up, he smiled at his son, who was peering at him through the bars of his crib railing.

"Hey, No-bo," Sully reached for his buckskins.

Then he glanced at the clock. It was after ten in the morning. He could not recall the last time he slept that late. As he neared the crib, Noah reached up to his father.

Sully lifted him and kissed his cheek, "How's my boy t'day?"

"Ma-ma," his little finger pointed toward the bed.

"Mama's at work, little fella," Sully felt the dampness of his son's diaper. "Looks like ya need changin'."

As he undid the baby's diaper, he whistled the sound of a bird. Noah put his finger in his mouth and listened intently. Then a smile from the little boy revealed a few teeth.

"You got your Ma's smile," Sully kissed his belly.

"Papa!" Josef rushed into the room. "I hear your bird call."

"You got good ears, Joe," Sully lifted him up to sit beside his brother.

"I think we gotta talk," Josef's expression was serious.

"Sure," Sully finished placing a clean diaper on Noah. "What about?"

"You," the child said.

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

Michaela closed Myra's file after noting her condition to date. She was baffled by the symptoms her friend was exhibiting. In some respects, it was consistent with a venereal disease, yet there were other signs which were puzzling. It was like taking steps in the darkness to diagnose and treat an ailment for which the medical research was so limited.

Of one thing she was certain. Myra must not run the risk of having relations with the man she loved, and particularly not conceive a child until or IF a proper diagnosis could be made. She sighed and glanced at the photograph of her family on her desk. Running her finger along the faces, she smiled faintly. A knock at the door disturbed her reverie.

"Come in," she beckoned.

"Dr. Quinn?" it was Ben Kincaid.

"Yes?" she rose from her chair.

Ben had a panicked look, "Could ya come quick? It's my cousin. He's hurt real bad."

"Of course," she replied. "Where is he?"

"Couple miles east o' town, Ma'am," he gestured. "I can drive ya in my wagon."

"What's wrong with him?" Michaela inquired as she began to gather supplies for her bag.

"He fell," Ben responded. "Fell from a tree. He's cut an' bleedin'."

"Try not to worry, Mr...." she paused. "What's your name?"

"Uh.... Benjamin," he said.

"I'll be right there, Mr. Benjamin," she went to her desk and pulled out a slip of paper.

"What are ya doin'?" he frowned.

"Writing a note for my husband to pick up our daughter, in case I'm not back by the time school's out," she detailed.

Kincaid watched her nervously. Then, as Michaela raced out the door, he swiftly placed another note on her desk. His quick motion caused a movement of air sufficient to blow her hand-written note to floor where it landed beneath the desk. Having no time to retrieve it, Kincaid quickly followed after Michaela.

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

"How ya doin'?" Sister Ruth touched her husband's shoulder as their train ambled toward Colorado Springs.

"I'm all right," Kid Cole's face was pale.

"Ya don't look like it," she asserted.

"You ain't my doctor," he became defensive.

"Old fool," she spoke under her breath.

"How much longer 'fore we get t' Colorado Springs?" he wondered.

"Few more hours," she determined.

"I see," he closed his eyes to rest again.

Ruth rubbed his arm. She prayed for healing, but knew her husband was fading fast.

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

"What did ya wanna talk about, Joe?" Sully finished with Noah's diaper.

"I was thinkin' I help ya next twip," the little boy offered.

"I sure appreciate you wantin' t' do that," Sully grinned. "But I won't be goin' away again for a while. I'm gonna start workin' on the additions t' our house soon."

"I help with that then," the child nodded.

"Good," Sully patted his back.

Josef leaned over to tickle his brother's side, "Wanna wrassle, Noah?"

"Joe," Sully's tone became serious. "Don't go doin' anythin' like that. You're lots bigger than he is. You could...."

"Papa," Josef giggled. "I let him win like you let Katie an' me."

"No wrasslin' babies," Sully asserted. "You understand?"

"Uh huh," the child became contrite.

"Wanna come int' town with me?" Sully changed the subject. "I gotta order some supplies from Loren."

"Sure!" Josef's eyes lit up. "Misser Bway give me pokle, an' we can see Mama."

"I figured you'd like that," Sully winked.

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

"How much longer, Mr. Benjamin?" Michaela inquired.

"Not much," he stated.

"Could you describe the nature of your cousin's injuries?" she requested.

"Well...." he began. "He's got a gash across his temple, and his leg looks like it could be broke clear through."

"You said he fell from a tree?" she recalled.

"Uh...." he tried to remember. "Yeah, that's how it happened."

Michaela began to wonder at his behavior, "Is he still outside?"

"No," Kincaid replied quickly. "I took him int' our cabin."

"Why was he in a tree?" she questioned.

"Uh...." he hedged. "He was cuttin' back some branches that were too close t' the cabin."

"I see," Michaela became more suspicious. "I hope I have sufficient medical supplies to properly treat him. I.... I may need to return to my Clinic for additional materials. Yes.... I think I should return."

"No," Ben countered. "We'll be there in no time."

Michaela grew increasingly unsettled by the minute. She glanced at Kincaid. The man did not seem nearly as distraught as he had earlier. And the wagon was not traveling as fast as when they sped out of town. Nonchalantly, she opened her medical bag.

"What are ya doin'?" his voice seemed sinister.

"Double checking," she covered. "I want to be certain that I brought enough morphine."

"Morphine?" he challenged.

"I'm certain that your.... cousin is in excruciating pain from his injuries," she explained. "A compound fracture is...."

"Okay," he quickly cut her off.

During her explanation, Michaela had managed to remove some clamps from her bag. As stealthily as she could, she let them slip from her hand and fall from the wagon as they journeyed on. Praying that dust from the road would not obscure anyone's seeing it, she swallowed hard. She could not shake the feeling that she was in danger.

Her mind raced to thoughts of Sully's warning. He had cautioned her to be careful, particularly after the article in The Rocky Mountain News. Her trust in the innate goodness of people had caused her to..... She stopped her train of thought. She had no true reason to suspect Mr. Kincaid of anything. She was letting her imagination run wild.

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

"Hey, Sully," Horace approached him in the Mercantile.

"Horace," Sully acknowledged with a nod.

"Where's Dr. Mike?" the telegraph operator inquired.

"At the Clinic," Sully kept an eye on Josef as he investigated the lower shelf near the store's stairway.

"No, she ain't," Horace returned. "I was bringin' a delivery t' her, but when I knocked at the Clinic door, there was no answer."

"Maybe she was upstairs," Sully offered.

"I knocked real loud," Horace shrugged. "Oh, well. Tell her I got a package for her."

"I can take it for ya," Sully offered.

Horace handed the small package to him and departed.

Loren approached, "Here's that catalog ya asked about, Sully. Prettiest windows you'll ever see in it."

He smiled, "I wanna surprise Dr. Mike."

"Papa," Josef looked up. "Where my pokle?"

Loren chuckled, "Okay if I give him one?"

"Sure," Sully lifted his son. "What d' ya say, Joe?"

"Please?" the little boy responded.

"Here ya go," Loren handed the child a pickle.

"Thanks," Josef's face beamed.

Sully sat him down and reached into his pocket, "Here's the payment for everythin' I ordered so far."

"You don't have t' pay in advance," he waved his hand. "With all the money Dr. Mike's got....."

"I'm payin' for the house, Loren," Sully cut him off.

"Oh," he regretted his implication. "All right then. I'll mark it paid in full."

"Much obliged," Sully nodded. "Come on, Joe. Let's go see your Ma."

"Mama!" the little boy raised his eyebrows.

"See ya, Loren," Sully clasped his son's hand.

"Here," the older man handed the child a small tin of candy. "Share this with Katie-girl."

"I will," the little boy nodded appreciatively. "Thanks."

"Bye," the shopkeeper acknowledged. "Come back soon, Josef."

"I will," the child spoke between chews of his pickle.

Josef struggled to keep pace with his father as they strode toward the Clinic.

"Papa," he tugged. "I not walk fast."

"Sorry," Sully realized.

"We in a wush?" Josef savored his treat.

The father smiled, "I guess I was thinkin' about somethin' else, Joe."

"What ya thinkin' 'bout?" he looked up.

"I was thinkin'....." he paused and glanced at the adoring eyes below him. "Thinkin' how lucky I am."

"Yeah, ya are," Josef agreed.

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

"Mr. Kincaid," Michaela's brow wrinkled. "I thought you said your cousin was a couple of miles outside of town. We've been traveling quite a distance."

"I think it's time you shut your mouth," he suddenly pulled a gun on her.

"Wha-?" she was horrified.

"I said shut up!" he ordered.

Kincaid stopped the wagon. He unhitched the horse from it and placed a saddle on the animal, all the while keeping his gun trained on Michaela. He covered the wagon with several large cut bushes. Next, he commanded her to mount a second horse which was at the ready. She requested her medical bag as he tied her hands behind her back. He obliged and lashed it to her horse.

"What are your intentions?" she demanded.

"My intentions?" he scoffed. "My intentions are to become a very rich man."

"So.... this is a kidnapping?" she deduced.

"That article in the Rocky Mountain News didn't mention how smart you are," he was sarcastic. "Or how beautiful."

They rode for some distance before Michaela worked up the courage to ask, "How much money do you want?"

"It's all in the letter," he stated.

"What letter?" she questioned.

"The one I left for your husband," he reigned in their horses.

After helping her from the horse, he shoved her toward a dirt path.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"To the cabin, of course," he laughed.

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

Sully knocked on the Clinic door. No response. He knocked again.

"Michaela ain't there," Hank called from the porch of the Gold Nugget. "Saw her ride outa town on a wagon with some fella. She had her medical bag. They looked in a hurry."

"Any idea who the fella was?" Sully queried.

"Nope," Hank returned. "You know Michaela. Prob'ly rushin' off t' help some wounded animal."

Josef tapped his father's shoulder, "Ya think aminal's hurt, Papa?"

"Shhh, Joe," Sully rubbed his back. "Thanks, Hank."

"What we gonna do?" the little boy questioned.

"We can take a look at the lock on her medicine cabinet," Sully tickled his side. "Your Ma asked me t' fix it before I left. Never got around to it."

"I help ya," Josef offered.

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

"Kid Cole!" Horace recognized the gun fighter as he attempted to step down off the train. "Sister Ruth! Good t' see ya."

"Thanks, Horace," she smiled. "How's your gout?"

"It's all right," he shrugged.

"Could ya give a hand?" she requested as her husband struggled to breathe.

"Ya here t' see Dr. Mike?" the telegraph operator assumed.

"Ruth," Kid Cole stood taller. "I don't need any help."

"Yes, ya do, ya old coot," she insisted.

"I can walk all right," he pulled away. "Now, let's go see Dr. Mike."

"I'll have your bags sent over t' the Gold Nugget," Horace offered.

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

Josef became bored watching his father work on the broken lock. He decided to retreat to his favorite hiding place, beneath his mother's desk. After setting his tin of candy atop Michaela's desk, he crouched down to slide under it and pretend to fix an imaginary lock there.

"Papa, han' me that Scwooge dwiver," he called out.

Sully chuckled, "That's screwdriver, Joe."

He handed the little boy the tool.

"Lookie here," Josef peeked out, holding a note. "I find paper."

Sully glanced at it as he sat in Michaela's chair, "It's from your Ma."

"Wead it," Josef requested.

Sully read aloud, "Dear Sully. I have gone with Mr. Benjamin to tend to his injured cousin east of town. Please pick up Katie in case I am not home in time. All my love, Michaela."

"Who Misser Benjamin?" Josef tapped his leg.

"Never heard o' him," Sully shrugged.

A loud knock at the door interrupted them. Sully rose from the chair and opened it.

"Kid Cole! Sister Ruth!" his eyes widened as he greeted them.

"Hey, Sully," Cole smiled.

"It's good t' see ya," Ruth embraced him.

Josef shyly approached his father, finger in mouth.

Ruth leaned over, "Who's this little fella?"

Sully lifted the child, "This here's Josef. He's our son."

"Well, well," Cole grinned. "You an' Dr. Mike gave that pretty little Katie a brother. Thought ya might've named him Ezra."

"Gave her a couple o' brothers an' another sister," Sully beamed. "We got twins at home."

"Bless my soul!" Ruth raised her hands to her cheeks.

"Michaela will be real glad t' see ya," Sully stepped back to invite them in.

It was then he noticed Kid Cole's pallid appearance.

"Have a seat," Sully offered.

"Where is Dr. Mike?" Ruth's expression was serious.

"Out helpin' a patient," Sully set Josef down.

Tentatively, the child approached Kid Cole where he sat in Michaela's chair.

"Ya huwt?" the little boy tilted his head.

Cole's bright smile appeared, "In a way."

"Mama make ya better," Josef nodded.

"You look a lot like your Ma," Cole touched the boy's chin.

"Mama got weal long hair," he asserted.

"I remember," Cole stifled a cough.

Ruth kept her voice low as her husband chatted with Josef, "He's dyin', Sully."

He swallowed hard, "Maybe Michaela can...."

"No," her expression was grim. "The Lord's callin' him home soon."

"I'm real sorry, Sister Ruth," Sully noticed a tear appear in the corner of her eye.

"I was hopin' Dr. Mike could at least make him more comfortable before.... it happens," her lower lip quivered.

Sully placed his hand on her shoulder, "She should be home soon."

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

Michaela surveyed the single room cabin in which she was being held. To one side was a fireplace. Near it was a table and four wooden chairs. A small bed was on the opposite wall.

"I take it you have no cousin," Michaela nervously spoke.

"Right here, Dr. Quinn," a man stepped through the door at that moment.

When Alvin approached, her pulse raced with fear. He smiled, then touched her cheek.

"Prettier than I imagined," he leaned closer.

Michaela controlled her disgust, "How long are you going to keep me here?"

"'Til your husband comes up with the money," Ben stated.

"You leave the letter?" Alvin asked.

"Yeah," his cousin nodded. "On her desk. Her husband can't miss it."

Michaela closed her eyes, hoping this was a bad dream. But the sound of their voices and the musty smell of the cabin brought reality back quickly. They forced her to sit in a one of the chairs, then bound her hands and ankles tightly to it.

"Where did you leave a letter?" she became curious.

Smithton placed his calloused hand on her shoulder, "Ya ask too many questions."

"I already told her to shut her mouth once," Kincaid scoffed. "It doesn't seem to work."

"I got ways o' shuttin' a woman up," Smithton's hand caressed her neck.

Michaela flinched away, fearing their intention was more than kidnapping.

"Now, we wait for Mr. Sully," Kincaid folded his arms. "He better come up with the money quick. After this job, we can retire in style."

"I'm goin' out t' cover your tracks," Smithton said. "Then we wait."

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

The Coles left for the Gold Nugget, and Sully glanced at the clock.

Josef noticed, "We get Katie now, Papa?"

"Yep," he smiled.

"Yeah!" the little boy applauded.

Sully grinned, "Come on."

"Wait," Josef stopped. "I fowget my candy."

"I'll get it for ya," Sully stepped toward his wife's desk.

Lifting the candy, he noticed an envelope addressed to him. Sully slid his finger beneath the flap to open it. Then he read.

"My God!" he swallowed hard.

"Papa, ya pwayin'?" Josef heard.

Sully read the note again to himself:

"We have your wife. We will not harm her as long as you do exactly as we say. If you want to see her alive, place $1,000,000 in National Bank Notes in two saddlebags, and take it to the big bend in the Old Post Road tomorrow at dusk. Come alone. Set the bags beside the road, then leave. If anyone comes with you, or if you try anything, we will kill your wife. If you do as we say, we will leave instructions of where to find her."

"What's wrong, Papa?" Josef sensed his father's angst.

Sully lifted his son into his arms, "Come on, Joe. We're gonna get Katie."

With that, he bolted out the door of the Clinic.

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

"Pa!" Brian burst into the homestead. "Matthew told me...."

He stopped when he saw Sully speaking to Katie and Josef.

"Bran!" Josef rushed to him. "You home!"

The young man lifted his little brother. "Sure am. What ya up to?"

"Papa go 'way again," the little boy's blue eyes saddened.

Brian swallowed hard, "Pa.... Matthew said everyone's gonna meet at the church."

"Good," Sully nodded. "Could you watch the kids while I have a word with Bridget?"

"Sure," Brian carried his brother into the living room.

"Lad," Bridget's brow narrowed. "What's wrong?"

"It's Michaela," Sully's voice choked. "She's been kidnapped."

"Saints preserve us!" she exclaimed.

"Shhh," Sully glanced over his shoulder. "The boys an' me are meetin' with folks in town t' see if anyone saw anythin'. I'm gonna take you an' the kids t' the Clinic until.... until Michaela gets home."

"Jesus, Mary an' Joseph," she shook her head. "Who would do such a thing?"

"Someone who knows that Michaela's worth a million dollars," Sully spoke low. "My guess is they read that article in The Rocky Mountain News."

Brian stood at the edge of the fireplace, having overheard, "It's my fault then, Pa."

Sully placed his hand on his son's shoulder, "No, Brian. Ya had no way o' knowin' somethin' like this would happen."

Brian's eyes watered, "What have I done?"

Sully clasped his shoulders, "Don't matter what's past. We're gonna get your Ma back."

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

"An' I saw her an' some fella ridin' outa town in his wagon," Hank concluded his recollection of the last time Michaela was seen.

Sully folded his arms, "What direction?"

"East," he noted.

"Ya didn't recognize him?" Matthew chimed in.

"Never saw him before," Hank grew impatient. "Now, we gonna sit here chawin' the day away, or are we gonna go after Michaela?"

"It seems to me that your only option is to pay the ransom," Preston voiced his opinion.

"Who cares what you think?" Hank scoffed.

"Preston's got a point," Loren agreed. "The note said they wouldn't harm Dr. Mike, long as they get the money."

"No guarantee they won't kill her anyways," Hank asserted.

"What d' you think, Robert E?" Sully turned to his friend.

"I reckon we oughta have more than one plan," he figured. "We could go lookin' for her while ya get the money ready, too. If we don't find her, the ransom can be paid."

"I would be more than happy to act on your behalf in procuring the funds," Preston volunteered. "With my Denver connections, and access to Michaela's accounts, I can have it by tomorrow afternoon."

Hank acquiesced, "Meanwhile, we go lookin'."

"Sully," Grace touched his arm. "You don't worry, now. I'll help Bridget with the children."

"Me, too," Myra offered.

"We all will," Dorothy agreed.

"I'm gonna need Cloud Dancin's help," Sully looked to the redhead.

"I'll get him right away," she swiftly exited the church.

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

"Might I have a drink of water?" Michaela's requested of her captors.

"Sure," Alvin found a smudged glass.

He left the cabin, returning momentarily with a pitcher of water. Just as he reached her, he pretended to trip slightly, causing the liquid to spill down the front of her blouse.

"So sorry," he mimicked sincerity. "Better get that wet blouse off ya 'fore ya catch cold."

"No!" she insisted.

"Let her be for now," Kincaid chided.

Michaela's mind raced. For now? Did they have intentions of not releasing her? Or worse?

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

"I wanna help, Sully," Horace implored.

"Horace," he prepared to mount his horse. "I need ya t' stay here in case any word comes from the kidnappers."

"I'll need your services, as well," Preston interjected. "If I'm to have that money ready for tomorrow, I have several wires to be sent."

"Poppy," Katie frantically called to her father from the Clinic porch.

He swiftly went to her, "Come on, Kates. I told ya t' stay inside."

"Why's everyone gettin' on horses?" she questioned.

Sully lifted her to the level of his eyes and kissed her cheek, "Sweet girl...."

"It's Mama, isn't it?" the little girl perceived. "Somethin's happened t' her."

"I'm gonna bring her home," he maintained a soothing tone.

"Where is she, Poppy?" Katie's voice quivered.

He cupped his hand to the back of her head and kissed her forehead, "She's gonna be okay."

Katie hugged him tightly, "You be careful."

"I will," he closed his eyes to savor the feel of his precious daughter's embrace.

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

Ben spoke low to his cousin, "Now, after we get the ransom, we gotta split up for a while. We can meet in St. Louis in two weeks."

"An' what about the doctor?" Alvin gestured toward Michaela.

"We let her go, of course," Ben replied.

"I'll take care o' that," he smirked.

Michaela's back ached and her wrists burned from the friction of trying to loosen the rope's hold. Ben and Alvin were huddled in conversation at the table. She struggled to listen, but their hushed volume was too low.

She spotted her medical bag on the floor about three feet from her. There was no way she could get to it without their seeing. Perhaps when they went to sleep....

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

"My brother," Cloud Dancing arrived at the Clinic.

Sully sighed in relief, "Glad you're here."

"Let's get goin', then," Hank waved the men on.

"Hold it right there," Kid Cole's voice spoke with authority from the porch of the Gold Nugget.

"Hey, it's the gunfighter!" Loren pointed.

"Kid Cole!" Ruth called. "Where do ya think you're goin'?"

"I'm goin' with these boys t' find Dr. Mike," he asserted.

"Kid," Sully shook his head. "I don't think...."

"You know anyone better t' have beside ya?" the gunfighter posed the question.

"Much obliged," Sully nodded.

"Ya can't do this!" Ruth implored.

Cole reached for her hand and gave it a slight squeeze, "More than one time, the doc saved my life. 'Bout time I paid her back."

"I'll fetch ya a horse," Robert E offered.

Ruth sighed, knowing there was no dissuading him.

Soon the posse embarked in a cloud of dust. Sully led Matthew, Brian, Hank, Robert E, Jake, Kid Cole and Cloud Dancing. Wolf followed.

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

Michaela shivered. The saturated blouse against her skin intensified the chill. Her captors had not lit a fire, she presumed to keep a smoky chimney from drawing attention to their whereabouts.

Alvin rose from the table and walked toward her. He noticed the subtle shaking of her body.

"You cold?" he leaned closer.

"Do you care?" she defiantly spoke.

"Not really," he laughed.

It was then that Michaela took a closer look at the ogre. His dark eyes diabolically leered at her. She averted his glance out of revulsion.

"You got good reason t' be afraid," he noticed her reaction.

"The least you could do is untie me," she spoke up. "I'm not going to go anywhere."

Ben heard her, "No need to worry, Dr. Quinn. It won't be much longer. Your husband's got a deadline of tomorrow at dusk to get the money."

"How much money?" she inquired.

"A million," Alvin leaned over just inches from her face.

"A million dollars!" she gasped. "That's impossible. We don't have that much...."

Suddenly, he struck the back of his hand across her face, "One thing you better learn real fast is that Alvin Smithton ain't a fool."

"Alvin!" Ben was shocked. "Why'd ya go and hit her?"

"Bitch!" his temper fumed. "She's got a million, an' we know it."

Michaela's lip swelled quickly, and a trail of blood trickled down her chin.

Kincaid reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe away the blood, "Leave her be. We need her in good condition when we turn her over."

"Ha!" Alvin scoffed.

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

The posse reached a fork in the road. Fresh wagon tracks were visible on both routes.

"We're gonna have t' split up here," Sully spoke up. "Hank, Robert E, Brian an' Jake, you take the branch goin' north. Me, Cloud Dancin', Matthew an' Kid Cole will head east.

With that, the group divided and headed in their respective directions.

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

"Alvin," Ben asserted. "It isn't right to keep her tied up. If one of us kept watch through the night, we could free her hands and still make sure she doesn't get away."

Alvin wiped his mouth, "An' if we keep her tied, we can both get a good night's sleep. We're gonna need all the rest we can get for t'morrow's ride."

"But...." he was cut off.

"Leave her tied!" Alvin interrupted.

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

The eastbound posse stopped as dusk approached.

"It's gettin' too dark t' see," Matthew shook his head.

"We keep goin'," Sully asserted.

"Wait," Cloud Dancing raised his hand.

Wolf had stopped to sniff something in the dirt.

"What is it?" Sully's heart raced.

Cloud Dancing slid from his horse and knelt beside Wolf at the road's edge. Soon, Sully joined them.

"Look," the medicine man pointed.

There, nearly covered over by the dirt, was a surgical clamp.

Sully lifted it, "It's Michaela's. She left us a sign."

"So this is the way they came," Matthew concluded.

An outburst of coughing by Kid Cole interrupted. Cloud Dancing stepped forward and pulled a root from the medical pouch at his hip.

"Here," he offered. "Chew this."

"What is it?" Cole questioned.

"It will help you," Cloud Dancing suggested. "Until I can make you a tea from it. Chew just a little for the juice."

The older man complied.

Sully swiftly mounted his horse and without a word, continued on. Respectfully, the others joined him.

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

"Miss Bwidget," Josef toyed with the edge of the blanket. "I wanna go home."

"Joey," Katie tapped his arm as she lay beside him in the recovery room bed. "Poppy wants us t' stay here."

"Why?" he was puzzled.

"I think 'cause it's safer," she attempted to explain.

"We safe at home," he protested.

"Here now," Bridget tucked them in. It was then that she saw tears streaming down Josef's cheeks. "What's this?" The nanny lifted him into her arms. "There, there, boy-oh. Things'll be all right."

"I want Mama an' Papa," the sobs grew louder.

"Hey," Myra entered the room with Samantha. "What's wrong, Josef?"

"He's missin' his folks," Bridget rubbed the boy's hand.

"Ya know what?" Myra stepped closer.

"What?" Josef's lower lip curled under.

"I sure would like it if you'd tell Samantha an' me a story," she smiled.

"I tell you?" Josef tilted his head.

"Sure," Myra charmed him.

"I don' know any," the little boy lifted up slightly.

"I know one," Katie spoke.

"Let's hear it," Samantha settled next to her.

"Once upon a time," the little girl paused to see if her brother was watching. "There was a little prince."

"What's his name?" Josef probed.

"Uh...." Katie hesitated.

"Prince Josef," Samantha recommended.

"Okay," Katie agreed. "Prince Josef. An' he lived in a castle by the woods."

"He go huntin'?" her brother became absorbed in the story.

Katie turned up her nose, "No, he had other people do that. He sat around the castle chasin' a mouse."

For the first time, a smile appeared on Josef's face.

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

The pain in Michaela's lip was growing more intense. As she attempted to determine the extent of her injury, Ben Kincaid stepped closer.

"Could you...." Michaela winced in pain. "Could you loosen my hands so that I can tend to my lip?"

"Not while Alvin's awake," Ben told her. "He's started drinking, so he'll be out soon."

"Thank you," she felt a tear trickled down her cheek.

"If you try anythin, you'll have more than my cousin to worry about," he threatened.

"I won't try anything," she pledged. "It's just...."

Her face contorted in pain.

"It does look pretty bad," he assessed.

"After he falls asleep, could you get me some cold water?" she implored.

"Why?" he frowned.

"To ease the swelling," she explained.

"I guess I could," he replied. "Soon as we get that money tomorrow night, I don't have any reason to keep you."

"You don't," she spoke in hushed tones. "But.... what about him?"

"Let me worry about him," Ben determined.

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

With a cloudy sky, visibility for the posse was impossible after sunset.

Kid Cole called the mountain man, "Sully."

Then he began to cough again. Pulling the root from his pocket, he chewed a bit more.

Sully soon returned to his side, "You okay?"

"The horses," Cole's breathing was labored. "We're gonna have t' rest 'em."

"You can rest," Sully shook his head. "I ain't stoppin'."

"We ain't gonna find Ma in this darkness, Sully," Matthew determined. "Fact is, we could be overlookin' other signals she might've left us."

He was right. Sully swallowed hard, then nodded his agreement.

"We can make camp here," Matthew dismounted. "Get started again, first thing in the mornin'."

Sully's shoulders slumped.

"We'll find her," Matthew assured.

"I know," Sully spoke with certainty.

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

"He's asleep," Ben whispered to Michaela. "I'll get ya that water now."

"Thank you," she smiled faintly.

Quietly, Kincaid stepped through the cabin door. He soon returned with a cup of chilly water.

"My hands," Michaela requested. "Could you untie them so that I might hold it on my lip?"

"I will," he agreed. "But if you try anything...."

"I won't," she swiftly responded.

When he loosened the rope that bound her hands, Michaela's shoulders writhed with pain. She mustered the strength to clasp the cup and held it to her lips. Her face contorted from the shock of the icy substance against her skin.

"I'm sorry," Ben sympathized. "There was no call for him to do that."

She felt a tear trickle down her cheek.

Then she glanced up with reddened eyes, "He doesn't intend for me to be released when my husband pays the ransom, does he?"

"What are you two doin'?" Alvin Smithton's voice surprised them.

"Her lip," Ben indicated.

"Tie her up again," Alvin commanded. "We can't take any chances. Her husband could be nearby, for all we know."

Michaela closed her eyes and silently prayed, "Oh, God, yes. Please let Sully be near."

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

As Sully rolled onto his side, he dreamed of Michaela. They were strolling in a field. It was spring, and blooming flowers abounded.

"Where are you taking me?" she smiled.

"For a walk," he was deliberately vague.

"Sully, I have work at the Clinic," she resisted. "I don't have time to...."

He stopped, "No time for me?"

Her heart melted at his expression, "I always have time for you."

"Good," he smirked.

"But can't you at least tell me where we're going?" she repeated.

They passed through a grove of trees. Nearby, a stream flowed, and four young people sat tossing pebbles into it. The two dark-haired young men, one slightly taller than the other, seemed to be in competition to see who could throw the farthest. The two girls, with sun streaked auburn hair, smiled at their antics.

"Sully," Michaela pointed. "We shouldn't intrude."

"Watch," he suggested.

"But...." she resisted.

"Shhh," Sully put his finger near her lips.

"Who are you takin' t' the Sweetheart's Dance?" the taller boy teased the other.

"I don't know," he shrugged.

"Who are you taking?" the older of the girls glanced up.

"Thought I might ask Samantha," he grinned.

"Samantha?" the younger girl was surprised. "She's older than you."

"So?" he put his hands on his hips. "Ma was older than Pa."

"They're brothers and sisters," Michaela deduced.

"Yep," Sully nodded.

"But it's not time for the Sweetheart's Dance," Michaela was curious.

She returned her attention to the young people.

"I don't know what to wear to the dance," the younger sister shook her head.

"Green," the older girl returned. "It brings out the different colors of your eyes, just like Mama had."

"I wish she were here," the young girl's expression saddened. "All I know of her is what Papa told us.... and her pictures."

"She'll always be with us," the older one replied. "Come on. Poppy will wonder where we are."

"Poppy?" Michaela's eyes widened.

"It's our kids," Sully spoke low.

"Our children?" she was puzzled. "But.... they're grown."

"Look at 'em, Michaela," he smiled. "They're strong an' healthy."

"But...." she was suddenly horrified. "I missed their growing up. Our babies."

"I did the best I could with 'em," he gazed into her eyes. "I told 'em every day how much their Ma loved 'em. Wasn't easy. God, I miss you, Michaela."

"Miss me?" her eyes welled. "Sully.... did I.... die?"

He did not answer.

"Sully?" her heart was breaking. "Smithton killed me? Oh, God."

"Stay with me just a little longer?" he implored. "I don't wanna let ya go."

She nodded, "I don't want to go."

He led her on, paralleling the stream, then stopping to rest where a small waterfall emptied into a pool.

"Look," he grinned. "Recognize this spot?"

"How could I forget?" she turned up the corner of her mouth.

"Can I touch ya?" he extended his hand.

"Of course," she welcomed his gesture.

As he stepped closer, his body reacted to the scent and nearness of her.

"Would you like to go into the pool?" she tilted her head.

"Sure," he smiled.

Fully clothed, they slowly lowered themselves into the cool water.

Sully stroked the sides of her face and spoke tenderly:

"When thy beauty appears,
In its graces and airs,
All bright as an angel new dropp'd from the sky;
At distance I gaze, and am awed by my fears
So strangely you dazzle my eye!"

She lifted up slightly to kiss him.

"Aren't ya gonna guess who that was?" he teased.

"Thomas Parnell," she replied.

"You seem pretty sure o' yourself," he joked.

"I am," she wrapped her arms around his neck to kiss him more fully. "Sully...." her voice was breathless. "We had so little time."

"I know," his blue eyes saddened. "All these years, just me an' the kids without ya."

The notion suddenly occurred to her, "There was no one else? You didn't.... find someone else?"

"Someone else?" he was taken aback.

"You and I found one another after having lost others," she pointed out. "I just thought.... perhaps you might.... be lonely."

"I have been lonely," he drew back a stray strand of hair from her face. "But, I could never fall in love again," he affirmed. "Not after what we had. I couldn't even bring myself t' look at another woman in that way. My heart was so full of you. Our love's immortal."

"I'm sorry," her tone changed.

"Sorry?" he wondered.

"I'm sorry I left you," she leaned her head against his chest.

"Sometimes my heart aches from the emptiness," he choked back his emotions.

"With every breath you have taken, I've been there inside of you," she touched his chest.

"Be with me now," he requested.

She raised her eyes invitingly to his. Neither could part from their gaze. As the soft breeze carried the scent of the flowers past them, Sully lifted her and carried her to the stream's bank. Gently setting her down, he could not tear his vision away from her. The effect the water had on her clothing revealed her body's reaction to him.

Sully tucked his form beside hers, "I been dreamin' about this every night since you.... left."

Her lips parted slightly as he leaned closer to kiss her. Each reacted more enthusiastically to the contact.

Sully raised up slightly, "Your sweet, sweet kisses. The memories are all floodin' back."

"Sully," her expression of his name inflamed him further.

"I have loved you all of my days," he whispered.

"And I, you," she responded. "I remember now.... the day I died."

"No," his heart broke at the thought.

She touched his chin, "You were my last thought. Your love. It lifted me."

"I remember the first time I ever saw you," he smiled. "Your beautiful hair. Those eyes that looked into my soul. I loved ya from that moment, Michaela."

"It took us so long to confess our feelings," she regretted. "We had walls around our hearts, fearing to be hurt again."

"We weren't ready, is all," he assured. "But look how much we had once we did admit how we felt."

"Had," her voice faltered.

"A few years, but a lifetime of memories," he observed.

"May I confess something?" she smiled flirtatiously.

"Sure," he grinned.

"That which I most feared about marriage...." she paused and blushed.

"Makin'.... love?" he helped.

"Yes," she smiled. "It became the most beautiful expression of how those walls around our hearts were vanquished forever."

"An' it gave us the most beautiful children we could ever imagine," he agreed.

She fell silent, pained by the thought that they had only memories.

"Michaela," he regained her attention.

She read his intentions, "Yes."

He cupped his hand to her breast, then bent lower to kiss it through the material of her dress. She gasped slightly. She felt herself begin to float, transported by his caresses.

The only man with whom she had ever been intimate still had the ability to rouse her passions. But.... how could she feel passion if she were.... dead?

"Sully," her breathing quickened. "I love you."

As he initiated closer contact, his body grew warmer. Sully felt as if years of loss and regret had disappeared, and he was finally free of the guilt he felt. Guilt at not protecting his precious wife. Guilt over not reaching her in time.

Michaela felt his growing need and moved to eagerly receive his loving warmth. Soon their bodies melded in an overpowering surge of passion. Sully shared all that was within him. Michaela gave herself as never before.

"Wake up!" it was the voice of Alvin Smithton.

Michaela roused from her dream. She was.... still alive. But hovering over her stood the figure of Smithton. He had not been a dream.

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

Wolf licked Sully's face.

"I'm up, boy," he opened his eyes.

Sully sat up and surveyed the scene around him. The cold morning created small puffs of frosty air as he exhaled. The others were still sleeping. Lightly stroking Wolf's mane, he let his thoughts drift. If only he could sense where Michaela was. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, willing himself to sense her presence. Nothing.

Cloud Dancing stirred and looked at his friend, "You spoke of Michaela in your sleep."

"I was dreamin' about her," Sully ran his fingers through his hair.

"She is safe?" the medicine man hoped.

Sully paused to recall, "She was dead. Her spirit had come back t' me for... a little while."

"Perhaps she is trying to tell you where she is," Cloud Dancing speculated.

"Cloud Dancin'...." Sully's voice shook slightly. "What if I don't...."

"You will find her, my friend," he interrupted. "Think about that dream again. The Spirits are telling you more than you know."

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

"Myra," Dorothy entered the Clinic.

"Mornin'," she straightened her hair.

"Ya look like ya didn't sleep a wink last night," the redhead commented.

"I didn't," she sighed.

"Is there somethin' on your mind.... I mean other than Michaela's kidnappin'?" she probed.

The young woman brushed away a tear, "Sort of."

"You can tell me, Myra," Dorothy patted her hand.

She took a deep breath, "Dr. Mike was helpin' me."

"Is there something I can do?" the redhead offered.

She struggled for the words, "Dorothy.... if someone had a.... disease that could kill them, would it be okay for them t' fall in love?"

"Of course, it would," Dorothy asserted. "There's too little love in this world as it is. But I'd tell that person t' make sure the one they loved knew about it, right up front.

"But wouldn't it be better for the person t' just go away?" she pondered.

Dorothy suddenly realized, "Are we talkin' about you, Myra?"

She looked down at the floor, "I don't know how long I got."

"None of us does," the friend counseled. "But if you an' Horace have been workin' your way back t' each other, then I say it's grand. He's got a right t' know about.... whatever it is ya got, though."

"Dr. Mike was gonna help me tell him," she sighed.

"If ya want, I'd be willin' t' help ya," Dorothy volunteered.

"Thanks," Myra attempted a smile. "I might take ya up on that."

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

By late afternoon, Sully and the others spotted a deserted cabin. There appeared to be no trace of any human presence there in some time. Suddenly, the mountain man felt an inkling, the possibility of a connection to his wife. As they continued onward, the feeling passed.

"My friend," Cloud Dancing touched Sully's arm to slow their pace. "It is time for us to return to town."

"I know," he looked down in frustration.

"Maybe the others have found something," the Cheyenne offered.

"Sully," Matthew sympathized. "We can keep on lookin' while ya go back an' get the ransom ready."

He took a deep breath and weighed his son's proposal, "I reckon that's the way it'll have t' be."

Sully glanced at Kid Cole, who was barely able to remain upright in his saddle.

"Why don't ya come with me?" the mountain man spoke to the gunfighter.

"I'll stay," Cole managed to speak. "You go on home, Sully."

With a subtle nod, he agreed.

Then he spoke to Wolf, "Stay with Matthew, boy."

With that, he departed.

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

Alvin Smithton tightly held his hand to Michaela's mouth, "One word, one breath, an' I'll blow your brains out."

They had heard the horses outside. Michaela tried to think of a way to alert whomever it was, but her captor's grip was too powerful.

She felt tears and wished with all of her being that it would be Sully.... that he could sense her presence as he had so often done. Then the sound of the horses passed.

Michaela's spirits fell. Her only hope of rescue was gone.

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

Hank raised his hand to stop the posse, "It's no use. We got no way o' knowing how far they came. Could've gone off on any o' the side roads."

"I gotta agree," Jake folded his arms in frustration.

"Maybe Sully an' the others found somethin'," Robert E offered.

Brian felt his guilt intensify, "We can't stop lookin'."

Robert E placed his hand on the young man's shoulder, "We won't stop."

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

"Lil!" Josef's faced brightened when the young woman entered the recovery room.

"Hey, Josef," she smiled. Then looking at Grace, she added, "I just returned from Manitou and heard."

"What ya hear?" the little boy tilted his head.

Grace explained, "She heard.... uh.... you was stayin' here, o' course."

"Papa say we gotta t' be safe," Josef stood up on the bed. "Katie don' go t' school, an' the babies cwy a lot."

Bridget entered the room, "I thought I heard your voice, dearie."

"Hello, Bridget," Lily greeted her. "Can I help with the twins?"

"They're missin' their Mama, poor darlin's," the nanny shook her head.

Katie spoke up, "Then we gotta help 'em, Joey."

"How?" he frowned. "When they want Mama, they cwy."

"We could tell 'em a story," the little girl suggested.

"Yeah!" the little boy's eyes widened. "Tell 'em the stowy of Pwince Josef!"

Katie smiled and shook her head.

Then, taking her brother's hand, she led him to the door, "Come on."

When the youngsters had left the room, Lily turned to Bridget, "Is there no word about Dr. Mike?"

Grace felt a tear, "All them men lookin' for her.... they'll find her."

"I hope you're right," Bridget spoke low. "But I don't got a good feelin' about this."

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

Sully mounted the steps at the Clinic slowly. Nearing the door of the recovery room, he heard Katie telling a story to her siblings. Josef was following intently, and the babies sat in the crib attentively listening to their big sister.

"Don' forget Pwince Josef marwy the beau'ful pwincess," Josef interjected.

Sully felt a lump in his throat. How could he tell them? How could he tell his children that he had not brought their mother home? He pulled back from the threshold. Entering the hallway, he leaned against the wall. There, overcome by his fears, he bent his knees and let his back slide down the wall until he was crouched against it.

This was the same hallway in which he had often comforted Michaela when she had difficulty facing a patient. Who would comfort her now?

With eyes shut, he silently prayed to the Great Spirit. Then he felt a small hand on his shoulder.

"Poppy?" it was Katie.

He turned his head away quickly and wiped a tear, hoping she hadn't noticed. The little girl circled around him and lifted his chin. Then she removed a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed lovingly at the moisture beneath her father's eyes.

Sully wrapped his arm around her, "Hey, sweet girl."

She knelt down beside him, "Is Mama okay?"

"Yep," he swallowed hard.

"You can tell me," she sensed otherwise.

"I told ya I'd find her," he searched for the words. "An'...."

"An' you will," she nodded. "Just like ya found me."

"I love you, Katie," he touched her cheek.

"I love you, too," she turned up the corner of her mouth, suddenly looking so much like her mother to Sully. He took her into his arms and stood up, "Let's go see what your little brothers an' sister are up to."

"Don't worry about us, Poppy," she patted his back.

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

With her mouth parched from lack of water, Michaela attempted to swallow. She had flexed and relaxed her arms and legs as often as possible to prevent their stiffening, but they ached from being tied in one position for so long.

Embarrassed at not being able to properly relieve herself, she glanced down at her skirt. Even when she had been abducted by the Dog Soldiers, they had permitted her that one amenity. The realization deepened that this man... no, this monster had no intention of releasing her after Sully paid the ransom. And his cousin seemed increasingly unable to control him.

Her only hope was to escape, but how could she loosen her arms and legs? And if she did manage to free herself, would her legs be strong enough to carry her?

Michaela concentrated, hoping to focus on a plan of action, as Smithton approached her.

With the odor of stale liquor on his breath, he leaned closer, "What you thinkin' about?"

"My bag," she glanced toward it. "I'm concerned that my lip will become infected. If I could put some...."

"You want me t' loosen your hands?" he smiled.

"Yes.... if you could, please?" she hoped her eyes did not betray the hatred she felt.

"Sure," he surprised her. "What I got in mind for you will be a lot easier if your hands are free anyway," he began to untie the rope.

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

With her hands free again, Michaela rubbed her wrists. Then she leaned down to undo her ankles.

"Not so fast," Alvin grabbed her arm. "Leave 'em tied."

"But...." she was interrupted.

"I said leave your ankles tied!" his volume increased.

"My bag," she pointed. "Could you hand me my medical bag?"

He complied. She opened it and found a mirror. The instant she saw her face, she cringed. The lip was swollen, as she already knew, but the cut did not appear to need any stitches. Then she pulled out a bottle to disinfect and clean the wound.

Smithton watched with amusement, "Women shouldn't be doctors."

Michaela resisted the temptation to reply to his baiting remark.

He continued, "So you got seven children. If the girls are as good lookin' as you...."

Suddenly she winced as the disinfectant touched her lip.

"That newspaper said it ain't been that long since you gave birth t' twins," he stepped closer. "You still nursin' 'em?"

Then he touched her breast. Michaela shoved his hand away and glared at him.

"If I was you, I wouldn't be rejectin' me," he chuckled. "I'll have my way with or without your permission."

It was all she could stand, "You'll never get away with this. My husband will...."

"Your husband?" he laughed. "Your husband won't recognize ya when I finish with ya."

The statement struck terror in her.

Regaining her wits, she reached into her bag again, "If you don't mind, I'd like to finish treating my injury."

"Sure," he stepped back. "Wouldn't wanna stop the lady doctor from playin' with her toys."

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

"All is in readiness," Preston nervously set two saddlebags on Loren's counter top.

"A million dollars," the shopkeeper gawked at the leather pouches.

"Of course, it's.... a million dollars," the banker began to pace.

"What's wrong with you?" Loren's brow wrinkled.

"Me?" he pointed to himself. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

"Then why ya wearin' out the boards on my floor?" Loren pointed.

"Having this much money out like this makes me nervous," the banker replied.

"Then put it in your vault," Loren responded.

Preston pulled his watch from his vest pocket and glanced down, "Sully is not leaving himself much time to take the ransom to the designated spot."

Loren returned, "There's no guarantee that these kidnappers will release her even after the money's paid."

At that moment, they saw Hank and Jake pull up to the Gold Nugget.

"Wonder where the rest are?" Loren reached for his coat.

Preston grabbed the saddlebags and followed him out the door.

"No luck?" Loren neared the men.

"We was hopin' the others might've come back," Jake shook his head. "We broke int' smaller groups t' search."

"I see Sully's back," Hank pointed toward on the Clinic steps.

"Poor fella," Loren shook his head.

The mountain man approached and glared steel-eyed at Preston, "Is that the money?"

"Yes," he held up the saddlebags.

"Thanks," Sully accepted them.

"You leavin' now?" Hank asked.

"Soon as I say goodbye t' my kids," he returned. "The others are still out there lookin'."

"I'm comin' with ya t' deliver the money," Hank asserted.

"But the ransom note said....." Jake was cut off.

"I'm goin' with him," Hank spoke with greater determination.

"Behind me, not with me," Sully clarified. "I don't want 'em t' see ya."

"All right, then," Hank agreed.

Lily stepped onto the Clinic porch holding Josef.

"Papa!" the little boy called.

"Give me ten minutes," Sully handed the saddlebags to Hank.

"Well...." Preston began to retreat. "If I'm no longer needed here...."

"What's wrong with you?" Hank noticed his behavior.

"I...." the banker hedged. "I have some work to do. Good evening, gentlemen."

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

Sully held the twins on his lap as he settled onto the bed. Silently, Katie and Josef sat on either side of him.

"Pa-pa-pa," Annie reached for her father's mouth.

"Shhh," Sully gently clasped her little hand.

"We goin' home now?" Josef tapped his father's arm.

"No, Joe," he shook his head. "Not yet."

In turn, Sully lifted each twin and kissed their cheeks. Annie clasped a lock of his hair while Noah held tightly to his finger. Silently, the father stroked their backs and whispered that he loved them.

Then he turned to Katie and Josef.

He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, "I want you two t' be good for Miss Bridget. Help her with the babies."

"Mama come home now?" Josef questioned.

"I promise," Sully assured.

"Do ya think she's scared?" Katie felt a tear.

"Your Ma's real brave, sweet girl," he answered.

Katie held her father's hand, "When they took me from ya, I was scared. I think Mama must be, too."

"I'm sorry, honey," he knew she was remembering her own kidnapping almost two years ago to the day. "No one's gonna take you from us again."

"I wanna come with ya, Papa," Josef implored. "I be qwiet."

"Joe," Sully paused. "I appreciate you wantin' t' help."

"But I too little," he frowned. "Mattew an' Bran help ya, but not me."

"Josef," the father's voice was tender. "I need t' know you're safe an' watchin' over your sisters an' brother. Please try t' understand. I gotta go now, an' before ya know it, your Ma will be home with us."

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

"Why are your tying my hands again?" Michaela demanded. "I haven't...."

"Shut up," Alvin yelled. "I got business t' attend to."

Kincaid entered the cabin, "Horses are saddled."

"You're meeting my husband?" she anticipated.

Smithton un-holstered his gun and checked to see that it was fully loaded, "Yeah, we're meetin' him."

A nagging fear began to grow within her that they would try to harm Sully. But she knew her husband would be careful, and that in all likelihood, he would follow her kidnappers after they picked up the money.

Then Smithton took two handkerchiefs. With one, he blindfolded her. The other, he wrapped around her mouth.

"We won't be gone long," Smithton headed for the door.

She sickened at the sound of his disgusting voice. Never had she imagined such evil could exist in a human being. As the door slammed, she struggled to loosen her hands. It was useless. They were bound too tightly and she was too weak to attempt anything.

Her thoughts returned to Sully and the children. Would she ever see them again? Oh, God, she prayed. Please help me.

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

With not much daylight remaining, Brian and Robert E reined in their horses by the livery. Exhausted from the search for Michaela, they were hopeful that there would be news of her when they returned.

Jake ambled across the street from his shop.

"Nothin'?" the barber looked up.

Brian shook his head. Robert E sympathetically patted the young man's back.

"Sully an' Hank just took off t' deliver the money," Jake stated. "Matthew, Kid Cole an' Cloud Dancin' ain't back yet."

"I'm headin' over t' the church," Brian dismounted. "I wanna talk t' the Reverend."

The young man silently left them, his concern for his mother mounting as he walked. Passing the Gold Nugget, he heard a familiar voice.

"Brian?" it was Sister Ruth.

"Hey," he stopped.

"Where's Kid Cole?" she clutched her Bible.

"He's still out lookin' for Ma," he informed her. "Matthew an' Cloud Dancin's with him."

"You all right?" she noticed his demeanor.

He attempted to control his emotions, "This is all my fault."

Her brow wrinkled, "What d' ya mean?"

"Ma's kidnappin'," he swallowed hard. "I gave the Rocky Mountain News the story about her bein' rich."

"Rich?" she was puzzled.

"It's kinda a long story," he remarked. "I'm goin' over t' the church. Would ya like t' come with me?"

"'Course I would," she smiled. "No place better than the house of the Lord."

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

Kid Cole's hacking cough was becoming worse. Not even the Cheyenne medicinal root was working anymore.

"We need t' head home," Matthew concluded.

"When..... we find.... her," Cole was barely able to say.

"No," Matthew explained. "It's gonna be dark soon. Sully will be deliverin' the money t' the kidnappers. Let's go."

"You fellas go on ahead," Cole told them. "I'll follow soon as I rest."

"You sure?" Matthew questioned.

"Go on now," he covered his mouth to cough. "They're gonna need ya back in town."

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

Sully neared the spot which the kidnappers designated for the ransom drop. All the while, he trained his senses on his surroundings. The slightest sound or movement garnered his full attention.

Meanwhile, Hank kept a sufficient distance. He carefully concealed himself to view the drop off. He observed the back and forth movement of Sully's head, knowing full well that the mountain man was aware of his presence.

Sully dismounted his horse and lifted the saddlebags containing the money. Then he carefully set them at the roadside, remounted and rode off.

Once out of sight from the designated area, he directed his horse to climb an incline nearby. He left the horse, and traveled on foot to watch and wait.

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

"Alvin," Ben Kincaid turned to his cousin as they rode. "About Dr. Quinn...."

"What about her?" he rubbed his chin.

"We gotta let her go.... after we get the money," Ben avowed.

"You're weak," he scoffed.

"It's not weakness," he countered. "We're going to have all the money we'll ever need in a hundred lifetimes. The woman's got kids. We can't.... kill her."

"The woman's a witness," Alvin glared at him. "She knows what we look like."

"So?" Ben noted. "We won't be sticking around to get caught."

Alvin nodded, "All right. We'll let her go."

Ben's brow wrinkled. Had he won the argument that easily?

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

Katie rested her hands on the edge of the crib containing her baby brother and sister. She attentively watched the little ones sleep. As she looked at them, she thought about their mother.

Filling with fear, she stepped back and wiped a tear from her cheek. Mama was always there for her.... to calm her when she was frightened.... to cheer her when she was sad.... to make everything seem right.

"Hey," Myra spoke low from the doorway. "You okay?"

"I guess," the little girl did not look up.

Myra entered the room and, sitting down, patted the edge of the bed, "Wanna talk?"

"You're a nice lady, Mrs. Bing," Katie came to her.

"You can call me Myra," she smiled. "Samantha's downstairs eatin' supper with Josef an' Miss Bridget. I came up t' see if maybe ya wanted t' join 'em."

"Not right now," Katie replied. "I'm not hungry."

"I reckon you're thinkin' about your Mama, huh?" she said.

"Uh huh," Katie nodded.

"Kinda scared, too?" she perceived.

"Yes," Katie's voice faltered.

"Know what I think?" Myra smiled.

"What?" the little girl tilted her head.

"I think Dr. Mike's gonna be just fine," she stated.

"I think Mama's scared," the child spoke low.

"What do ya do when you're scared?" Myra asked.

"I talk t' Mama an' Poppy," Katie confessed.

"An' what d' they do?" the woman posed the question.

Katie pondered for a moment, "They hold me an' tell me everything's gonna be okay."

"If ya want...." she hesitated. "I could hold ya."

"Thanks," Katie crawled into her lap.

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

Michaela could neither see nor speak. The darkness was unbearable. Her body ached, and she shivered from the cold. Each sound only heightened her angst. What would happen to her once the kidnappers had the money? Would they leave her there, never to be found? Would they return and kill her? Her mind raced.

As she began to pray, her thoughts transported her to the homestead. She could see the faces of her children. They embraced her and told her that they loved her. The feelings of love overwhelmed her, lifted her. Their sweet faces, their tender voices swept over her.

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

"I'll keep a watch," Alvin directed his cousin when the neared the ransom site. "You pick up the money."

"I see the bags," he made out in the dimming light.

"Check inside t' make sure it's no trap," Alvin drew his revolver.

Slowly Ben Kincaid approached the saddle bags where they lay on the ground.

************
Chapter 7
************

Matthew and Cloud Dancing arrived at the Clinic, with Wolf not far behind. Bridget met them at the door.

"Did ya find....." she stopped when she saw their faces.

"Did Sully leave?" Matthew questioned.

"Aye," she nodded. "'Bout a half an hour ago."

"Is Brian back?" the older brother wondered.

"Over at the church," the nanny gestured.

"Cloud Dancin'," Dorothy called from the porch of The Gazette.

"I will be with Dorothy if you need me," the medicine man touched Matthew's back.

As he left, Matthew spoke low to Bridget, "The kids okay?"

"The wee ones are worried," she informed him.

Loren spotted the duo standing at the Clinic doorway and ambled in their direction.

"I'll go check on Brian, then be back t' see the kids," Matthew tipped his hat and departed.

"Still no word on Dr. Mike, I reckon," the shopkeeper spoke to Bridget.

"Let's be gettin' inside an' out o' the cold," she shivered.

They entered Michaela's office and went to the stove to warm their hands.

Loren glanced upward, "How them kids doin'?"

"Josef don't quite understand it all," she paused. "Katie's takin' it right serious."

"She was kidnapped herself almost exactly two years ago," he recalled. "Took her Ma an' Pa two months t' find an' bring her home."

"Poor child," the nanny shook her head.

"They by themselves up there?" he folded his arms.

"No," she shook her head. "Myra an' Samantha's with 'em."

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

Sully's eyes narrowed. He saw a lone horseman approaching the drop off point. The man glanced around nervously, then stopped his horse and dismounted. He lifted one saddle bag and opened it. Removing two bundles of money from it, he slammed them down in anger.

Sully's brow wrinkled. Something was wrong. He watched more anxiously as the man repeated the process with the other saddlebag. Glancing at the bundles on the ground, the man kicked them, then quickly mounted his horse and rode off.

In an instant, Sully jumped on his horse and took off after him. Hank was about to follow when he heard another horseman near. It was Kid Cole.

"Somethin' go wrong?" Cole queried.

"The one who picked up the money took off," Hank rubbed his beard. "But first he threw out some o' the money."

The sheriff knelt down beside the stacks for a closer look.

"No wonder he was mad," Hank's jaw tensed. "Look at this."

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

Sully kept his distance as he followed the man with the money. Ben Kincaid sensed a presence nearby and glanced around nervously. He speeded his pace and lost the man.

When he rendezvoused with Alvin, he was out of breath, "We gotta get outa here. The money isn't all here."

"What?" Smithton questioned.

Ben revealed the contents of the saddlebags, "Some of the stacks of money had blank paper."

"You tryin' t' pull somethin'?" Alvin reached for his gun.

"No!" Ben defended. "I swear."

"Quick! Give me the saddlebags," Alvin demanded.

Ben complied, "What are you doing?"

"I told ya you were weak," Alvin aimed and fired a single shot into the chest of his cousin.

"No!" Ben gasped as he fell to the ground.

Smithton secured the saddlebags to his horse and took off.

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

Sully heard the sound of a single gunshot. Though visibility was difficult in the fading light, he took off in the direction from which it had been fired. Within minutes he saw the kidnapper on the ground, his chest drenched with blood.

Swiftly dismounting, Sully approached him and knelt down, "Where's my wife?"

Ben Kincaid drew his gun, "Get away....."

"My wife!" Sully was more demanding.

He struggled to speak, "Ca...."

At that instant, Kid Cole and Hank entered the clearing.

Ben panicked and fired his revolver, hitting Kid Cole in the chest. He fell violently back and tumbled from his horse.

Just as quickly, Hank fired his revolver at the kidnapper. Kincaid died instantly. Sully rushed to Cole's side.

"Sully," the older man clutched his friend's hand.

"We'll get ya back t' town.... t' Sister Ruth," Sully pledged.

"Tell her.... tell her I loved her," Cole closed his eyes.

Sully swallowed hard, still clasping his hand, "Hold on."

He applied pressure to the man's wound and was able to stop the bleeding.

"This one's dead," Hank checked Kincaid. "No sign o' the money."

Sully raged, "Why'd ya kill him?"

"He was shootin' at us!" Hank countered. "I saved your life, 'case ya didn't notice."

Sully attempted to focus, "I gotta go after Michaela. This man had at least one partner. He must've met up with him, gave him the money, then was shot by him."

Hank shook his head, "Preston's got a lot t' answer for. He didn't put all the money in the saddlebags."

Sully's jaw clenched, "If anythin' happens t' Michaela because o' his greed, I'll kill him."

"First things first," Hank reminded.

"His partner can't have gotten that far yet," Sully rubbed his chin. "Can you get Kid Cole back t' Colorado Springs?"

"Go on," Hank nodded. "Get movin'."

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

Alvin Smithton contemplated heading for the cabin, but his taste for whiskey and female companionship prompted a change of heart. He would head for Colorado Springs. That lady doctor would be in no shape to satisfy him anyway. After counting out several hundred dollars, he dug a hole and buried the remaining saddlebags. Then, after covering his tracks, he urged his horse onward.

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

Michaela struggled to clear her head. Her throbbing lip was parched, and her body was becoming numb. The darkness. The terrifying darkness. Her anxiety intensified, not knowing when her abductors would return. Finally, a thought occurred to her. Deciding that the frail chair to which she was lashed might break if she tilted over, she began to rock back and forth from side to side. She soon toppled over, only to writhe in pain as her head hit the floor.

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

Sully started a small fire for warmth. He wondered if Michaela was warm. And what was she thinking.... feeling?

Then he agonized over what had happened to Kid Cole and how Sister Ruth would feel. The older couple had found love, and now it could be over. Michaela would be heartsick.

"Michaela," he spoke her name in a whisper.

Where was she? Cloud Dancing counseled him to think about what the Spirits were trying to convey. As he lay back against his saddle, he heard a noise.... the sound of someone approaching. He swiftly drew his tomahawk.

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

"Sister Ruth," Hank knocked on the door of her room at the Gold Nugget.

"Come in," she rubbed her eyes and closed the Bible.

Awkwardly, he struggled for the right words.

"I...." he hesitated.

"Just say it, son," she encouraged.

"I brought Kid Cole back," he said.

"Where is he?" she sat up straighter. "Is he at the Clinic?"

"Yeah," Hank nodded. "He's been shot."

"What happened?" she swallowed hard.

Hank's expression was glum.

"Tell me what happened," she stood up.

"We caught up t' one o' Michaela's kidnapper," he explained. "He fired at Kid Cole."

Ruth raised her hand to cover her mouth, then she lowered it to rest over her heart.

Hank told her, "He ain't regained consciousness."

Lifting her Bible, Ruth stepped toward the door, "I best help him get ready."

"Ready?" Hank was puzzled.

"Ready t' meet the Lord," she replied.

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

Sully listened intently, his tomahawk poised. Suddenly the animal burst forward, tail wagging.

"Wolf!" he embraced his pet.

Barking twice, the animal licked his master's face.

"We gotta find Michaela, boy," Sully ran his hand along his thick coat of hair.

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

Preston heard the pounding on the bank door. He did not move from his desk.

"Open up!" Hank commanded.

Steeling himself for the confrontation, the banker rose from his chair and went to the door. After unbolting it, he was thrust back against the wall by Hank's forceful entrance.

"What the hell did you do?" Hank clutched his lapels.

"I.... I.... I can explain," Preston stuttered.

"Explain nearly gettin' a man killed?" the sheriff spat out.

"Sully?" he wondered.

"Kid Cole," Hank shouted. "He's at the Clinic now. An' we got no idea where Michaela is."

"I.... I.... thought this would work," Preston attempted. "I could not arrange for the entire amount on such short notice. I reasoned that if some cut paper were placed at the bottom, they would not look further down in the saddlebags, and by the time they did, Michaela would be free."

"Well, you reasoned wrong!" Hank shouted.

"It was a calculated risk," Preston excused.

"If anythin' happens t' Michaela...." Hank spoke through clenched teeth.

"I'd forever blame myself," he completed the sentence.

"There'll be no place you can hide from Sully," Hank glared at him. "Or me."

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

Hank stood at the door of the Clinic, pausing before knocking. Finally, he took a deep breath and tapped.

Matthew opened the door and invited the Sheriff in, "He's still alive. Jake took out the bullet. Cloud Dancin's lookin' after him."

"I need some men t' help look for Michaela in the mornin'," Hank folded his arms. "Sully's gonna need all the help he can get."

Matthew volunteered, "Brian an' me will go."

"We'll find her," Hank assured.

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

Katie turned from her position at the top of the Clinic steps where she anticipated the arrival of her parents. Instead, she had heard the entire conversation with Mr. Lawson. Both her mother and father were still somewhere out there. She slouched down and began to weep.

Hearing her cries, Sister Ruth stepped into the hallway, "What's wrong, darlin'?"

"It's Mama an' Poppy," her tears flowed freely. "They're not comin' home."

"'Course they will," Ruth lifted her.

"Somethin' happened," the child shook her head. "They didn't get Mama, and Poppy's stayed out there t' find her."

"He will," Sister Ruth stroked her hair. "You know your Papa will find her."

"I'm worried," Katie leaned her head against the woman's shoulder.

She rubbed the little girl's back, "It's okay, Katie. Everythin' will work out just fine. The Lord will watch over them."

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

Michaela was disoriented when she awoke. With the blindfold on, she had no concept of time of day. Her head ached, but.... suddenly she realized that the chair was in shattered pieces beneath her. Though her hands and ankles were still bound, she was no longer tied to the chair. She rolled onto her back and began to work on getting her hands in front of her. Perhaps there was hope for her. Hope that she could escape from this nightmare.

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

Preston entered the Chateau and eyed the customers who were socializing in the lobby. At least there was some semblance of civilization in the midst of this God-forsaken place, he thought.

Byron Sully would indeed be looking for him, regardless of what happened to Michaela. Could the fool not see that his was the only way to trick the kidnappers into thinking that the ransom money was all there?

Michaela.... he paused to consider her fate. The beautiful and spirited woman whom he had.... dare he think it.... loved, from the first moment he set eyes on her. But he could never fathom her attraction for the uncouth mountain man. He considered Sully's hold on her to be merely physical. Call it a curiosity about the enigmatic vagabond.

Preston had so much more to offer her. Money, position, similar tastes.... even stimulating conversation. Yet, this lovely and desirable woman had done nothing but express contempt for him. It was an emotion he knew well. An emotion that he held toward Byron Sully.

A voice at the front desk caught his attention.

"I want a room," the man demanded.

"Your name, sir?" the clerk inquired.

The gruff looking man spoke, "Smithton. Alvin Smithton."

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

As the sun dawned over the crisp February morning, Sully was already up and moving. With Wolf by his side, he employed every tracking skill that he possessed. His eyes darted from ground to bush to tree, searching for any sign, any inkling that Michaela might have passed through the area.

In the pit of his stomach was a growing feeling of hopelessness. He could not sense her presence as he had so often experienced in the past. His fears intensified that Michaela was.... dead.

He stopped to gather his thoughts. He was physically exhausted and overwhelmed by his emotions.

"Think, Sully," he told himself. "Cloud Dancin' said t' think about the dream of Michaela. What was she tryin' t' tell me?"

Wolf tilted his head with curiosity at his master's words.

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

"Sully!" Michaela cried the name of her love.

Frustrated in her attempts to free herself from the ropes that held her, she began to lose hope of his ever finding her. Tears filled her eyes, only to be absorbed by the tightly bound kerchief around her head.

"I love you, Sully," she feared she could not hold on much longer.

Closing her eyes, she fell into a state of sleep. Escaping to her dreams, she was free. No more ropes. No more kerchiefs. But.... where was she?

"Michaela," Sully's voice prompted her to turn.

"Sully!" she rushed to his arms. "You found me!"

"Nothin' can keep me from you," he gently stroked her cheek. "Nothin'."

"Please.... take me home," she requested.

"You are home," he touched his hand to his heart. "Right here."

"The children," she wondered. "Where are they?"

"They're fine," he said. "We'll see 'em soon."

She leaned against his chest, feeling the warmth of his arms embrace her.

"The darkness, Sully," she spoke with urgency. "I.... I can't stand the darkness."

"It's okay now," he stroked her hair. "No more darkness. I'm sorry I wasn't there t' protect ya, Michaela."

"You're here now," she glanced up with her distinctive eyes.

"God, how I love you," he returned.

"I love you, too," she clung to him.

Suddenly, a noise roused Michaela from her reverie. Who was it? The kidnappers returning? Her heart filled with terror.

"Sully," she uttered his name again.

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

"Sully," he raised his head as if Michaela had suddenly spoken his name.

He closed his eyes, attune with every sound in the air. Yes, he had heard it. Michaela spoke his name. She was alive. Of that, he was now certain.

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

Preston spotted Smithton in the dining room of the Chateau and approached.

"I trust you had a good night's sleep?" the banker smiled.

"It was all right," he replied gruffly. "Sure could've used a whore or two with me."

Preston's eyes widened, "Ah.... well.... I don't run THAT kind of establishment."

"I'll do better in town," Smithton placed a coin on the table. "Maybe bring some female companionship back with me t'night."

As the man rose and departed, Preston's brow wrinkled. What would his customers think?

************
Chapter 8
************

Katie awoke first, her brother beside her in the bed, clinging to the sleeve of her nightgown. Gently, she loosened his grip. She slipped from the bed and walked to the crib. Both Annie and Noah were awake, softly babbling. When they saw their sister, smiles appeared.

Noah kicked his feet, "Ka..."

"Shh," Katie stuck her arm through the rungs of the railing. "Go back t' sleep."

"Mam-ma," Annie's little lips puckered.

"Mama's not here," Katie stroked her baby sister's belly.

Noah pointed his finger into the air, "Mam."

"Quiet, Noah," the little girl encouraged. "Joey's still sleepin'."

Bridget's voice whispered from the doorway, "The wee ones are up, I see."

"Uh huh," Katie nodded.

"I'll get their bottles ready," the nanny turned.

"Miss Bridget," Katie spoke up. "Will Poppy bring Mama home t'day?"

She knelt down, "Dearie, ya gotta have faith that your Papa will do everythin' t' find her soon as he can. Ya know how much he loves her, an' love leads a man t' do amazin' things."

"I know," she nodded in agreement.

"These little ones are lookin' t' you for strength," Bridget counseled. "Long as you're strong an' have faith, they will, too."

"Sometimes...." Katie hesitated.

"What, darlin'?" Bridget encouraged.

"Sometimes I don't wanna be the strong one," she confessed.

"That's okay, too," Bridget grinned. "After all, you're just a lassie. But, knowin' who your folks are, I got a feelin' ya can't help but be strong. Your Mama an' Papa are right there inside ya."

"I'm strong 'cause of Mama an' Poppy?" she considered.

"Aye," the nanny nodded. "It's in your nature."

"What about Joey?" the little girl pointed to the bed. "He's got Mama an' Poppy in him, too."

"An' he's strong," Bridget replied. "He just don't know it as well as you yet."

"When's he gonna find out?" Katie asked.

"Soon as it's time," Bridget responded. "Now, could ya keep an eye on the wee ones while I get their bottles?"

"Aye," Katie imitated her brogue, then smiled.

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

As he prepared to depart with a posse, Hank watched the stranger at the bar. The man was not dressed in fancy clothes, yet seemed to have an endless supply of cash.

He approached, "You a miner?"

Smithton eyed him, "What's it t' you?"

Hank grinned, "Just wonderin' where ya got all that money."

"Won it in a poker game in Denver," Smithton lied. "Now, leave me be. I got business with these.... ladies."

Hank stepped back, uneasy at the man's attitude. There was something about him he did not trust.

"Hey, Hank," it was Myra's voice.

"Well, well," he grinned. "Look who's here."

Smithton noticed, as well, "How about this one?"

"Leave her be," Hank's voice turned sinister.

Smithton backed off and returned to the bar, where the girls quickly diverted his attention.

"What brings you int' my devil's den at this hour?" Hank looked at Myra. "It ain't time t' look over my books."

"I thought...." she hedged. "Maybe we could talk."

"Gotta be later," Hank checked his revolver. "We're ridin' out t' look for Michaela."

"Sure," she smiled. "Poor Dr. Mike. I hope ya find her."

"We gotta find her," his jaw tensed. "I'll see ya later then."

"Bye," she waved.

Sensing that Smithton was watching her, Myra quickly exited the saloon.

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

Wolf led Sully toward a cabin he recognized in a glade, "We already been past here, boy."

The animal was undaunted, and began to whine.

"There's no footprints," Sully scanned the ground. "No one's been here in a long time."

Wolf began to paw at the door. Deciding to humor the animal, Sully tentatively knocked. No response.

"Come on, boy," Sully commanded. "Let's go."

Wolf persisted in clawing at the frame of the door. Sully stepped forward again, this time trying the knob. It was locked. Wolf barked.

Sully thought he heard a moan from inside.

"Anyone home?" he called out.

Michaela began to rouse, "Sully!"

He heard her. With all of his might, he kicked the door open. There lying on her side amid splinters of wood was his wife. He rushed to her and fell to his knees.

"Michaela!" he loosened the kerchiefs from her mouth and eyes.

He took his knife and cut the ropes. Michaela wanted to embrace him, but was too weak. Sully lifted her into his arms as Wolf wagged his tail.

She attempted to speak, "You... found me. It's not a dream."

"Are ya hurt?" he tried to assess her condition.

"Water," she implored.

Sully lifted his canteen and uncorking it, lifted it to her lips. She was able to consume a few sips. Sully rubbed her arms and legs, attempting to stimulate her circulation.

"I'm a mess," she was embarrassed because of her appearance and odor.

"No," he lightly touched her swollen lip. "You're the most beautiful woman in the world."

"Sully," the thought suddenly horrified her. "They'll be back."

"One of 'em's dead," he informed her. "How many others?"

"One," she felt her stomach churn. "Please.... please, take me away from here."

"Shh," he embraced her again. "You're safe now. I'll get us out."

"Thank you," she weakly touched his chin.

Sully kissed her forehead, then lifted her into his arms.

"My medical bag," she indicated.

"I'll get ya on the horse, then come back for it," he said.

Soon, they were on their way home. Michaela sat in the saddle, with Sully behind her on the back of the horse. As they forded a stream, Michaela shivered. Sully removed his coat and wrapped it securely around her.

"It's so good t' feel ya in my arms again," he kissed the side of her head.

She continued to tremble, "The children.... how are they?"

"They're fine," he assured. "I had 'em stay at the Clinic while we looked for ya."

She leaned against his chest and savored the warmth of his embrace.

"Michaela," he thought he should tell her before they reached home. "Kid Cole an' Sister Ruth showed up in town."

"They did?" she smiled slightly. "How is he doing?"

He was silent.

"Sully?" she glanced at her husband over her shoulder. "What's wrong?"

He explained, "We formed a posse t' come lookin' for ya. Kid Cole insisted on comin' even though his cough was terrible. When the ransom money was dropped off, we went after the kidnapper. I got there first. When the others arrived, he shot Kid Cole."

"Shot him?" her heart sank. "Is he...."

"I don't know," Sully squeezed her slightly. "Hank took him back t' town. Him an' Hank saved my life."

She placed her hand atop his as he held the saddle horn, "Then I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude."

"We tried t' talk Kid Cole int' stayin' in Colorado Springs, but he insisted on helpin' t' find you," he linked his fingers in hers.

"Poor Sister Ruth," Michaela shook her head.

"I know," he sympathized.

"You said one of the kidnappers was killed," she recalled.

As Sully described the appearance of the man, she recognized, "That was the man who took me."

"Your lip," he caressed her cheek. "What did he do, Michaela?"

"The other one did this," her voice choked. "The most despicable, vile...." she became more agitated.

Sully's tone was soothing, "I'll find the him."

"No," she grasped his arm. "He's pure evil, Sully. Promise me you won't."

"I can't promise that I won't go after him, Michaela," he was honest. "An' Preston Lodge."

"Preston?" she was curious.

"He arranged for the ransom," Sully stated. "Then without tellin' us, he didn't put the full amount in the saddlebags. Filled the rest with paper."

"Why?" she inquired.

"I don't know," he controlled his anger. "But I'm gonna find out."

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

The posse stopped at the point where Kid Cole had been shot.

Hank directed, "Okay, let's break int'...."

"Look!" Brian pointed. "It's Ma an' Pa!"

The duo approached. Matthew dismounted quickly, Brian at his side.

As Sully stopped the horse, Michaela extended her arm downward to clasp the hands of her sons.

"I'm all right," she attempted to smile. "Contrary to how I must look."

Hank joked, "Ya look like hell."

Michaela turned to the Sheriff, "Hank.... Thank you. Sully told me you saved his life."

"Wasn't anythin'," he shrugged. "I just figured I'd never hear the end from you if I let him get shot."

Brian raised his arms to Michaela, "Ma, I'm so sorry."

"I'll be all right, Brian," she blushed. "But.... I'm not very presentable."

"I don't mind," he smiled. "But... I'm the one who got ya int' this mess."

"No, Sweetheart," she consoled.

While the young man offered his heartfelt apologies, Sully spoke softly to the others.

"Pa," Matthew's eyes saddened. "She looks terrible."

"She's been through a lot," he nodded. "I wanna take her t' the homestead, let her get cleaned up before the rest o' the family comes home."

"We can bring the kids out later," Matthew agreed. "Long as they know she's all right, they won't mind waitin' a little longer."

"She is all right, ain't she?" Hank asked.

"She will be," Sully assured. "An' then I'm goin' after the man who's still out there."

"Not alone," Hank added. "We'll help ya."

"An' I'm gonna pay a visit t' Preston Lodge," Sully asserted.

Hank returned, "You'll have a hard time gettin' t' him. He's gone int' hidin'."

"Figures," Sully shook his head. "How's Kid Cole?"

"Still alive," Jake informed him. "I took out the bullet. Now, Cloud Dancin's lookin' after him."

"Sully?" Michaela beckoned.

"We'll see ya back home later," Sully spoke to the men. "An' thanks for all ya done."

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

Alvin Smithton, with a woman of ill-repute on each arm, entered the Chateau.

The front desk clerk attempted to stop him, "Ah.... sir! Sir, you can't...."

Smithton handed him a twenty dollar bill, "I can't what?"

"Uh," the man examined the cash. "Did I say 'can't?' I mean can! You can have anything you want. Just let me know."

"What I want is t' be left alone," he sneered.

"Say no more," the clerk nodded enthusiastically. "Eager to serve."

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

Sully gently assisted Michaela from the horse. She stared at their house, breathless from the realization that she was finally home.

Sully put his arm around her, "Can ya walk?"

"I believe so," she stepped forward.

He held her arm as he assisted her up the steps, then opened the door. Again, she paused, a tear forming in her eye.

"Michaela?" Sully stroked her back.

Swiftly, she turned her face into his chest and began to weep. Sully wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head.

"It's all right," he whispered.

Finally able to compose herself, she removed her coat and glanced down at her soiled clothing.

"I'll get the tub," he offered.

Soon, the kitchen was filled with steam from the hot water. As Michaela bathed, Sully took her clothing out to the barn. When he returned, he found her asleep in the tub.

"Hey," he knelt down beside her. "Let's get ya finished."

He lathered his hands and lovingly caressed her form. Then he shampooed her hair and poured a pitcher of clean water on it to rinse away the suds.

"Ya sure smell good now," he smiled.

"I had only one way to go," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

Sully cupped his hand to her chin, "I could use some cleanin' up, too."

He rose and began to undress. Michaela watched him, her heart skipping a beat at his handsome physique.

"Sully," she averted her eyes. "Could you help me up?"

"Sure," he took her hand and pulled.

"Your turn," she stepped from the tub and reached for a towel.

Sully sat in the bath water and quickly rubbed the grime from his skin. Michaela pulled on her robe and sat in a kitchen chair, sipping from the cup of tea her husband had prepared.

"Kids'll be here soon," he rinsed off.

"I can't wait to see them," she smiled.

He stood, dripping the excess water into the tub. Michaela again felt a rush of warmth at the sight of him. Sully noted her expression. After drying off, he reached for his buckskins and put them on.

"It'll be dark soon," he remarked as he reached for a clean shirt.

"No!" she was horrified. "Please, Sully. Don't let it get dark. I can't bear the darkness!"

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

"An' Dr. Mike's all right?" Myra needed Hank's reassurance.

"She looks like hell, but she's okay," the Sheriff nodded. "We're goin' after the remainin' kidnapper t'morrow. Now what was it ya needed t' talk about?"

"Huh?" Myra's brow wrinkled.

"This mornin', ya said ya wanted t' talk," he reminded.

"Oh," she sighed. "I reckon it can wait."

"No it can't," he interpreted her expression. "Come on. Let's go in the back room."

"Hank," she hesitated. "Ya got customers. What if they notice?"

He gestured to the men seated around the Gold Nugget, "You really think they give a damn about me an' you goin' in the back room?"

She considered, "I guess not."

"Then let's go," he led her.

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

"Michaela," Sully kissed her temple. "I'll light the lamps."

She regretted her reaction, "I.... I'm sorry. It's just.... they blindfolded me, and...."

"It's okay," he lit a match.

Soon the kitchen was brightly illuminated.

Then Sully drew her into his arms again, "Better?"

"Yes," she nodded. "Thank you."

They heard the wagon approaching, quickly followed by the anxious voices of their children coming up the steps.

"Mama!" Katie and Josef burst through the door.

She sat in the chair to greet them, "Hello, my darlings."

As Josef climbed up onto her lap, she masked the pain of his weight.

"Here, Joe," Sully pulled another chair close and set him on it. "Your Ma's kinda sore right now."

Katie lightly touched her mother's lip, "What happened?"

"I'm all right," Michaela evaded answering.

"Ma!" Brian rushed to her holding a crying Noah.

He leaned over so she could kiss them. Michaela stroked her sons' faces. Finally, Noah began to calm. Next Matthew held Annie closer for her.

"It's so wonderful to see you all," Michaela's eyes welled.

"You, too, lass," Bridget was last to approach her.

"Bridget," Michaela smiled. "You must have had your hands full."

"T'weren't anythin'," the nanny modestly replied.

"Sister Ruth said she'll be out t' see ya t'morrow," Brian informed her.

"How is she holding up?" Michaela clasped Katie's and Josef's hands.

"She's okay," Brian replied.

Michaela closed her eyes to relish the sounds and scents of her home.

"Come on," Sully extended his hand. "Time for you t' get some rest."

"We'll help Bridget take care o' the kids," Matthew offered.

Michaela paused before climbing the steps, "It's wonderful to be home. I love you all."

"We love you, too, Ma," Matthew spoke for the children.

Michaela noted the smiles on their faces, all save Katie.

"I'll light the lamps upstairs," Sully perceived that the little girl needed to speak to her mother.

Michaela sat on the steps and beckoned her, "Sweetheart."

Katie rushed to her side.

Michaela stroked her blonde curls, "Are you all right? Is there something you want to talk about?"

"I was scared, Mama," the child embraced her. "Just like before."

"Oh, Katie," Michaela understood. "We're safe now."

"I guess so," the little girl nodded.

"Papa will take care of us," Michaela assured.

"You look tired, Mama," Katie observed. "Better go t' bed."

"Would you tuck me in later?" the mother smiled.

"Me tuck you in?" Katie pointed to herself. "Sure."

"Thank you," Michaela kissed her cheek. "Thank you for being my little girl."

"You're welcome," Katie's face lit up.

Michaela rose, then took a step upward. Casting a glance at her daughter, she smiled. Katie returned the smile.

************
Chapter 9
************

"We been sittin' here an hour, Myra," Hank folded his arms. "An' all ya been talkin' 'bout is the weather an' Dr. Mike. Why don't ya get t' the point?"

"The point," she steeled herself. "Okay. The point is.... I got a disease."

"What kinda disease?" his brow wrinkled.

"It's kinda mysterious," she said. "Dr. Mike ain't quite sure, but she thinks I got it from workin' here."

"Syphilis?" he was direct.

"She said I got some symptoms like that an' some not like it," Myra returned.

"What's she gonna do about it?" Hank sat up straighter.

"She's gonna investigate some more," she answered.

"Investigate?" he scoffed. "With all that fancy education an' books, she oughta know what t' do."

"Hank," Myra folded her hands. "This ain't Dr. Mike's fault."

"I s'pose ya think it's my fault," he glared.

She was silent.

"I paid for the doc every time you was sick, Myra," he defended. "This ain't my fault."

"I ain't blamin' you," she shook her head. "I.... I just wanted t' tell ya, is all."

"Why?" his temper began to flare. "Why'd ya wanna tell me?"

She looked down, "I reckon 'cause there's not many people I can talk to about it."

"Can't ya talk t' sweet ole understandin' Horace?" he was sarcastic.

"I ain't told him yet," she was barely audible.

"Why not?" he scoffed. "Ain't he the man ya love?"

"Hank," she stiffened her resolve. "There's a chance that Horace an' even Samantha could have this, too. Maybe even...."

"What?" he wondered.

"Maybe even you got it," she came out with it.

"Me?" he was incredulous. "You an' me ain't been t'gether since you married Horace."

She explained, "If I got it workin' for you, you just might have it, too. Dr. Mike says it could take years 'fore the symptoms show up."

"Well, I ain't got anythin' wrong with me," he asserted.

He studied her expression.

"You said Samantha might have it?" his tone softened.

"Uh huh," she nodded. "I might've given it t' her at birth."

"So, Michaela's gotta check out Horace an' her, too," he assumed.

"Yeah," she cleared her throat. "She'd check you, too, if ya want."

"Hell, no!" he bolted out of his chair. "I ain't gonna let Michaela give me that kinda checkup."

She rose from the chair, "I best be goin' now. I don't want Samantha t' worry."

"Myra," he touched her arm. "If ya wanna talk some more.... I...."

"I know," she interrupted. "Thanks, Hank."

The Sheriff watched her exit, then opened the lower left drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. Dispensing with a shot glass, he drank straight from the bottle.

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

"There," Katie finished snugly tucking in her mother's blanket. "All nice an' warm."

"Thank you, Sweetheart," Michaela could hardly move.

Bridget chuckled from the doorway, "I'm gonna keep the twins in with me t'night, dearie, in case they waken during the night."

"Might I kiss them good night?" Michaela requested.

"All those kids thought 'bout was you, Mama," Josef informed her.

"Oh?" she tussled her son's hair. "Did they tell you that?"

"They cwied," he put his hands on his hips. "So Katie an' me...."

"Katie and I," Michaela corrected.

"You wasn't here, Mama," he retorted. "Katie an' me told 'em stories. The best was 'bout Pwince Josef."

"Prince Josef?" Michaela cradled Noah. "Did your big brother tell you a story?"

The baby boy smiled at his mother's expression. Michaela then held Annie and tenderly kissed her forehead. As she handed the babies back to the nanny, Katie noticed the redness around her mother's wrists.

"Mama," she touched her. "What happened?"

"I don't want you to worry about it, Katie," Michaela avoided.

"Does it hurt?" the little girl persisted.

Michaela cupped her hand to the child's cheek, "I'm rather tired, my darling."

"Come on, kids," Matthew clapped his hands. "Time t' let Ma rest."

After each one said their good nights, they departed, leaving Sully and Michaela alone. He sat on the edge of the bed.

"Could you loosen the blanket some?" she requested. "I'm afraid Katie has it so that I can hardly breathe."

"I guess she takes tuckin' in pretty serious," he chuckled as he undid the cover. "Better?"

"Yes, thank you," she linked her fingers in his.

Sully raised her hands to his lips and turned them slightly to kiss her wrists.

"Do they hurt?" his eyes saddened.

"A little," her eyes reflected a greater pain than she let on.

"God, Michaela," he leaned over to lay embrace her. "I was afraid I lost ya."

She ran her fingers through his hair, "And I feared I'd never see you or the children again."

"You need t' sleep," he sat up.

"I should go check on Kid Cole," she hesitated.

"Just like you," he smiled.

"Pardon me?" she was curious.

"Just like you t' worry about someone else when ya need t' take care o' yourself," he stroked her arm. "Cloud Dancin's with him. They'll send word if there's any change."

"I pray that he'll recuperate," she sighed. "And Myra."

"Myra?" he was puzzled.

"She has something, Sully," she explained. "I can't determine exactly what it is, but.... I believe it to be life threatening."

"Can ya help her?" he worried.

"I must," she avowed.

"She's in good hands," he kissed her hand.

"Horace and Samantha may be in danger, as well," she told him.

"Same disease?" he was curious.

"Yes," she yawned.

"Come on," he touched her cheek. "Ya need t' get some rest."

"Would you hold my hand until I fall asleep?" she requested, sounding nearly like a little girl.

"I'll do more than that," he smiled.

He lifted the covers and climbed into bed beside her. Safely snuggled in his arms, Michaela finally began to relax. Sully stroked her temple and sweetly kissed her. When he thought she was finally asleep, he reached over to lower the lamp.

"No!" she suddenly was alert. "Please don't."

"Okay," he embraced her again. "We'll leave the light on all night."

"Thank you," her body quivered.

"Michaela," he grew more concerned.

"I.... I need the light," she sounded frantic. "And your arms, Sully. Your arms around me, protecting me."

He swallowed hard, filling with guilt over what she had experienced. It must have been terrible. But she was not ready to talk about it.

He caressed the hair at her temple, then recited softly:

"Let others sing of Knights and Paladines
In aged accents and untimely words,
Paint shadows in imaginary lines,
Which well the reach of their high wit records:
But I must sing of thee, and those fair eyes
Authentic shall my verse in time to come;
When yet the unborn shall say, Lo, where she lies!
Whose beauty made him speak, that else was dumb!
These are the arcs, the trophies I erect,
That fortify thy name against old age;
And these thy sacred virtues must protect
Against the Dark, and Time's consuming rage.
Though the error of my youth in them appear,
Suffice, they show I lived, and loved thee dear."

"Whose verse is that?" she sighed.

"Don't ya wanna guess?" he teased.

"No," she grew more drowsy.

He kissed the top of her head, "Samuel Daniel."

Her soft breathing indicated that she had fallen asleep. As her warm skin touched his, the realization hit even harder of how close he had come to losing her. Their life together had seemed too full of perilous moments like that. But each time they had stepped toward death's door, their love pulled them back. Back into each other's arms.

He contemplated the love and joy that Michaela had brought to his soul. Even the stubborn streak, which at times exasperated him, was part of that joy. He relished her fiery debates and crusading causes. Her courage, her principles, her smile, all filled him. He caressed her cheek.

The labors of love which she had endured to bear their family stirred his heart further. Her insecurities over giving herself to him, pleasing him and providing for him made his love for her even more enduring.

Drawing back, he marveled at each nuance of her face and body. She looked so pale and vulnerable at that moment. But he knew the fire within her still burned. His Michaela.

A soft knock at the bedroom door interrupted his thoughts. He rose, wondering which of the children he would find.

"Poppy," it was Katie.

He knelt down, "You all right, sweet girl?"

It was then that he noticed the redness of her eyes.

"Could I...." she hesitated.

Sully drew her into his arms and kissed her cheek, "You wantin' t' sleep in here?"

"Uh huh," she nodded.

"Quiet, so ya don't wake your Ma," he lifted her.

Lovingly, he set the little girl on the bed so that she would fit between her parents.

Then he spoke low, "Close your eyes now."

Michaela stirred, prompting both husband and daughter to lay perfectly still.

Sully smiled, "Kinda reminds me when you were just a toddler. You'd get scared at night an' your Ma an' me would bring ya in with us."

"That's when I was your only little girl," she remembered.

He touched her golden tresses, "Don't seem that long ago."

"Poppy," she glanced at her mother. "I'm worried about Mama."

"Her cuts an' bruises will heal," he assured.

"What about the inside?" she questioned.

"Inside?" he was uncertain.

"Mama might be hurt on the inside," she perceived.

"She just needs us t' love her," he counseled.

"I do love her," Katie touched her mother's arm. "I don't know what I'd ever do without you an' Mama."

Sully kissed her cheek, "That's how we feel about you, too, Kates. We'd do anythin' for ya."

"I think I'm gettin' sleepy now," she confessed. "You can turn out the light."

"We'll leave it on," he smiled.

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

Shadows grew shorter as the sun rose in the sky. Sitting at the Cafe, Hank checked his revolver. Grace spotted him as she was serving coffee to a customer several tables away.

"Ya mind puttin' that thing away?" she stepped closer to chide the Sheriff. "It scares away the customers."

"You seen Jake?" he ignored the dig.

"Comin' now," she gestured. "What scheme are you two cookin' up?"

"Goin' after Michaela's kidnapper," he informed her. "But I wanna talk t' her an' get a description first."

Grace rested her hand on her growing belly, "Poor Dr. Mike. I don't know if she's in any shape for talkin' this mornin'."

Jake sat down, "You ready?"

"Yeah," Hank nodded, placing a coin on the table. "Let's go."

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

Michaela's head throbbed. Feeling the knees of her daughter tucked against her back, she opened her eyes.

Sully, already awake, whispered, "She came in last night."

Michaela rolled onto her side to kiss Katie, "Such a beautiful little girl."

"Yep," his smile beamed. "Just like her Ma."

"Sully," Michaela speculated. "This has reminded her of what happened to her.... her own kidnapping."

"I know," he agreed.

"I don't want her to relive it," tears welled in her eyes.

Sully reached over to touch her arm, "She'll get through. Just like you."

"Thank you again for what you did yesterday," her eyes shone with love.

"T' tell ya the truth, it was Wolf who found ya," he retorted. "He wouldn't give up 'til I checked inside that cabin."

"I'll see that he receives extra table scraps from now on," she teased.

"Mama," Katie opened her eyes.

"Right here, Sweetheart," Michaela brushed back a lock of her hair.

As the child snuggled closer, Michaela concealed her pain.

Sully began to rise from the bed, "I got a few things t' do this mornin'."

Michaela reached for him, "Please... stay."

"The sooner I get movin', the sooner I...." he did not finish.

"You insist on going after.... him," she knew.

Sully glanced at Katie, "He's not gonna get away with this. Neither is Preston."

"Can't Hank and others do it?" she implored.

"Poppy?" Katie had been listening. "Please don't upset Mama."

"I don't mean t' upset her, honey," Sully caressed his daughter's cheek. "But I gotta protect our family."

Michaela became flustered, "I.... I don't want you to do this, Sully."

"Michaela," his brow wrinkled.

"No, Poppy!" Katie suddenly shouted.

************
Chapter 10
************

Both Michaela and Sully were taken aback by their daughter's outburst. Katie was normally so even tempered and good natured.

Sully gently touched his daughter's chin, "Ain't like you t' shout like that, Kates."

The little girl began to cry with greater vigor.

"Katie," Michaela put her arm around her daughter.

"Shh," Sully whispered. "It's okay, sweet girl."

"Please, Poppy," she implored.

"Sully?" Michaela questioned.

A soft knock at the door interrupted.

"Ma? Pa?" it was Brian. "Hank an' Jake's here."

Sully rose up from the bed, "I'll go."

"Come back soon?" Katie requested.

"Sure will," he touched her nose.

As Sully departed, Michaela forgot her own pain and enfolded her daughter in her arms, "Tell me what's bothering you, Sweetheart."

"I'm afraid," Katie confessed.

"Afraid?" Michaela wondered.

"Afraid the bad men came back for me an' took you instead," Katie came out with it.

"No, my darling," the mother assured. "That's not what happened."

"We can't be safe anymore, Mama," the little girl began to cry anew.

Michaela winced as her daughter embraced her, but the pain was nothing compared to the ache in her heart over the child's tears.

Stroking her back, Michaela spoke soothingly, "Katie, this had nothing to do with you. No one is looking for you. You're safe. I promise."

The little girl leaned against her mother, and Michaela tenderly stroked her hair. With each movement, she could feel her daughter relax, assured by her mother's words and loving attention. As they sat in silence, Katie began to grow drowsy. Guiding her to lay back on the bed, Michaela spooned her daughter against her and sweetly kissed the top of her head. Soon, the little girl drifted off to sleep.

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

Brian stayed to listen as Hank and Jake spoke to Sully.

"She ain't ready t' talk about what happened," the mountain man informed them.

"Ain't ready?" Hank stood in disbelief. "I'd think she'd be wantin' this man t' hang from the gallows."

"She even tell ya what he looked like, Sully?" Jake tilted his hat back and placed his hands on his hips.

"No," he shook his head.

"You ready t' come with us?" Hank questioned.

Sully sighed. Brian perceived his father's hesitation.

"I'll go," the young man offered.

"You don't know nothin' about trackin'," Jake pointed out.

"He knows plenty," Hank stroked his beard. "He's Sully's son. Might as well come with us, then."

"Brian," Sully placed his hand on his shoulder. "Be careful."

"I can't believe you ain't comin'," Jake eyed Sully.

"Don't you think I want to?" he frowned. "It's takin' everythin' I got in me t' not go. But Michaela....."

"Ma needs ya here right now," Brian completed his thought.

"Suit yourself," Jake shrugged. "Come on."

Sully added, "Matthew will wanna come, too."

Sully accompanied Brian to the barn to help him saddle his horse and provide some last minute reminders of the skills he had taught him through the years. When they finished, he placed his hand on the young man's shoulder.

Brian anticipated, "I'll remember what ya taught me, Pa. Don't worry. I'll go say g'bye t' Ma."

Sully watched him run toward the house. Little Brian no longer, he thought. The little boy who taught him what it was like to have a child was now a grown man. And he was going to use the tracking knowledge Sully had taught him to find Michaela's kidnapper.

Conflicting emotions overcame him suddenly. The rage he felt toward this ogre was tempered by his abiding love for his wife. Brian was right. She needed him here right now. But if the others returned empty handed, he would find the man. He would find him if it took the rest of his life.

Feeling Wolf's cold nose against his hand, Sully looked down, "You'll go with him, boy."

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

Brian entered the bedroom, finding his mother and sister snuggled on the bed. Thinking that they were both asleep, he knelt down and kissed Michaela's cheek. She quickly opened her eyes.

"Ma," he spoke low.

Michaela lifted her head, "Where's Sully?"

"Still outside with Hank an' Jake," he gestured.

"He's going with them, isn't he?" she swallowed hard.

"No," Brian shook his head. Then, pausing, he added, "I am."

"What?" her voice rose slightly.

Katie stirred, then settled back to sleep.

"I know ya need Pa here with you," he stated. "So, I'm goin' in his place."

"No.... please," she clasped his hand.

"I gotta do this, Ma," there was resolve in his eyes. "What happened t' you is my fault."

"That's absurd, Brian," she countered. "You had nothing to...."

"It was the newspaper article that caused it," he interrupted. "I'd never forgive myself if anythin' had happened to ya."

She knew there was no dissuading him. Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly.

"I'll be careful," he assured. "We'll take Matthew, too."

"I love you, Brian," she felt her eyes welling.

"I love you, too," he kissed her cheek.

The young man touched Katie's arm, then left them. Michaela felt her tears flowing more freely. Little Brian, she thought. The child who had first called her "Ma" was now a man. And he was stepping into danger to find the ogre who had held her captive.

She rolled over, turning her back to the door. As she quietly wept, she did not hear Sully reenter the bedroom. But he heard her. He knew she was crying, and it broke his heart. Stepping toward the cribs, he lifted Noah.

"Pa," the baby smiled.

"Hey, No-bo," Sully kissed his belly.

Michaela glanced over her shoulder, quickly wiping her tears, "Brian's gone?"

Sully nodded.

"Did they have any word on Kid Cole?" she changed the topic.

"Hank said he's still the same," he informed her.

She sighed.

"Want some company?" he held Noah closer.

"I'd love some," she sat up.

He placed the little boy beside his mother, hoping to lift her spirits. Then he sat on the edge of the bed beside them.

Spotting his sister, a broad grin appeared on Noah's face, "Ka."

"He's learnin' her name," Sully caressed his daughter's curls.

"Just like Josef did at that age," she wrapped the baby's fingers around her thumb.

Sully glanced at Katie, "Glad she was able t' go back t' sleep. You should try t' get some more rest, too."

"Sully," Michaela paused. "Katie told me that she's afraid the bad men came back for her and took me instead."

"Oh, no," he regretted.

"I believe that she may have suppressed her fears and anxieties over her own kidnapping two years ago," she detailed. "My ordeal seems to have caused them to resurface. What should we do?"

"You got your own demons t' contend with," he squeezed her hand lovingly. "I'll take care o' her."

"I'm not so fragile that I can't help my own daughter," she countered.

He smiled.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" she challenged.

"I love that fiery look, Michaela Quinn," he retorted.

"I'm serious, Sully," she avowed. "Katie needs our help."

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

Preston nervously glanced out his office window each time a horse pulled up to the Chateau. Surely Byron Sully would show his uncouth face today. A guard was posted in the lobby for just such an arrival.

Rising from his desk, Preston opened his door and surveyed the lobby. All quiet. He stepped toward the front desk.

"No sign of him, sir," the guard spoke.

"Good," Preston placed his fingers in his vest pockets. "He is not to set foot in this hotel."

"I understand," the man nodded.

Then a loud voice caught the banker's attention. He sighed and rolled his eyes. It was that obnoxious Smithton again. If it were not for the man's money, he would have tossed him out, as well.

"Keep an eye on that one, too," Preston pointed to Smithton.

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

"Poppy," Katie opened her eyes.

"Hey, sweet girl," he smiled.

Michaela drew her closer, "You and I have been quite the sleepy heads, haven't we?"

The child yawned and sat up, "Where's Joey?"

"He's downstairs with Miss Bridget and the babies," Michaela responded.

"I'll go see what they're doin'," the little girl began to rise.

"Before ya do...." Sully touched her hand. "Your Ma an' me wanna tell ya somethin', Kates."

"Are you goin' away again, Poppy?" she feared.

"No," he assured.

"We want to discuss what happened to me, Sweetheart," Michaela clasped her hand. "It's important for you to know that it was because of money, not because of you."

"Money?" Katie tilted her head.

"You know that your grandmother left me a great deal of money," Michaela explained.

"Uh huh," the child nodded.

"Some bad men thought that if they took me away, Papa would give them the money in order to get me back," Michaela continued.

She looked at her father, "An' ya gave 'em the money?"

"Things didn't go exactly as we thought they would," Sully informed her. "But we got your Ma home, an' that's the most important thing."

"An' now the bad men got your money?" the little girl's brow wrinkled.

"Yes," Michaela replied.

"You gonna get it back, Poppy?" Katie looked to her father. "That's stealin'."

"The money is unimportant," Michaela glanced at her husband. "What is important is that we're safe now, here with our family."

"Ya gotta catch the bad men," Katie stated.

"We caught one of 'em," Sully responded.

"What if the other one comes back t' get ya again?" the child worried.

"I won't let that happen, Kates," Sully avowed.

"So you see, there's nothing for you to be concerned about, my darling," Michaela kissed her daughter's forehead.

Katie seemed unconvinced, "He might come for ya when Poppy's not here."

Sully tenderly rubbed her back, "I'll make sure the bad man never hurts anyone again."

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

"Horace," Myra entered the Depot. "I need t' talk with ya."

"Sure," he closed the door behind her. "Step over here next t' the stove t' warm up."

"No thanks," she fidgeted with her hands. "I wanted t' tell ya somethin'."

"Go ahead," he sat at his desk.

She took a deep breath and stared at him.

"Myra," he waited. "What did ya wanna tell me?"

At that moment, the telegraph began to tap.

"One minute," he raised his index finger.

With great concentration, Horace began to jot down the message.

"This here's for Sully....." he scribbled some more. "From Washington, DC."

"I'll leave ya be then," she turned to leave. "You're gonna need t' deliver that right away."

"Ya don't mind?" he looked up.

"Nah," she forced a smile. "I understand. I'll talk t' ya later."

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

"This here's the place where I shot the man," Hank informed them. "Somewhere before he reached this point, he met up with the other kidnapper."

"How ya know that?" Jake questioned.

"'Cause the one I shot didn't have the ransom money on him," Hank returned.

"He might've hidden it," the mayor speculated.

"We need t' backtrack from here," Brian suggested. "Between here an' the place where the money was left. We might see tracks of another horse if they rendezvoused."

"Let's go then," Hank commanded.

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

Sully split another log with the a single swing of his ax. He had come outside to work off the frustration he felt. He wanted to go after the man who had done this to his wife, but her pleas and the need for comfort by his daughter had prompted him to stay home.

Michaela watched from the bedroom window. She perceived that Sully was restless. She knew he wanted to go after her abductor. Deep down, Michaela wanted the man to pay for his actions, too. But most importantly, she wanted her husband beside her.

"Hey," Josef nonchalantly entered the bedroom. "Why ya outa bed, Mama?"

She turned, "I was just watching your Daddy."

"He said I not come outside t' help," the little boy regretted.

"Sometimes he needs to be alone," she counseled. "To think."

"I know," he nodded. "He thinkin' a lot."

She smiled, "Would you do me a favor?"

"Sure!" his eyes widened.

"Would you go tell Papa I'd like to see him?" she requested.

"Yep," he rushed to the door.

"Don't forget your coat," she called after him.

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

"Hey, Sully," Horace neared the barn and dismounted his horse.

"Horace," Sully wiped his brow. "What brings ya out here? Is it Kid Cole?"

"Got a telegram for ya," he handed him the note. "From Washington, DC. It's official like."

"I appreciate it," Sully smiled.

"See ya, then," the telegraph operator departed.

As Sully opened the message, Josef bounded down the steps.

"Papa," he called. "Mama wants ya."

He looked up from the telegram, "She okay, Joe?"

"Uh huh," he tugged at his father's hand. "She was watchin' ya out the window."

Tucking the telegram in his shirt pocket, Sully lifted his son and headed for the house, "Let's go see what she wants then."

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

"Now what?" Jake surveyed the ground around them. "This is the spot at the Old Post Road where the money was dropped off. There's too many tracks t' tell where the other kidnapper might've gone."

"Then we don't look at tracks," Brian spoke up.

"Huh?" Jake wondered.

"We look at branches an' bushes," the young man noted. "See if any are recently broken."

"So we retrace our steps by lookin' at bushes?" the mayor rolled his eyes.

"If that's what it takes, that's what we do," Matthew agreed.

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

As Sully stood before her, Michaela searched for the right words.

"You okay?" he grew concerned.

"Yes," she was barely audible.

"Michaela?" he drew her into his arms. "Are ya rememberin'?"

"I rarely stop thinking about it," she felt her eyes well.

"I'm sorry," he kissed her forehead.

"I want you to go," she came out with it.

"What?" he was puzzled.

"Go after him," she affirmed.

"But I thought....." he paused.

"I've been asking you to go against what you believe in," she commented.

"You sure?" he searched her face.

"Yes," she caressed his cheek.

"Oh," he reached into his pocket. "Almost forgot. This came from Washington."

He handed her the letter.

"Sully!" her eyes widened.

"They've given the okay for that Indian School," he detailed. "Long as the army sends some troops here t' keep an eye on things."

Her face suddenly saddened.

"What's wrong?" he wondered. "It's what ya wanted. Cloud Dancin' an' Dorothy can still run it."

"I have no money to purchase the land for it now," she noted.

"We'll think o' somethin'," he assured as he latched his belt.

She was beginning to have qualms about his departure, and watched in silence as her husband prepared.

Sully sensed her concern, "I'll be careful. I promise."

"I know," she forced a smile.

He gently clasped her hands, then raised them to his lips, "No one's gonna get away with hurtin' ya like this, Michaela."

She nodded slightly, steeling her resolve to let him go.

"Can ya tell me anythin' about him?" he requested. "How he looked.... how he talked."

She turned up her nose and struggled to focus on his image, "Tall. Dark hair, dark eyes. Evil."

That was all she could manage.

Sully embraced her, "I love you."

"I love you, too," she returned.

He kissed her softly, allowing for the soreness of her lip, "I'll explain t' Katie an' Josef before I go."

Lightly, he touched the cut, then with one last glance, he departed.

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

"Here," Brian pointed to a twig that had snapped off at about the level of his saddle. "Someone went through here not long ago."

"How'd you see that?" Jake was amazed.

"Don't matter," Hank wiped his upper lip. "Let's go this way then."

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

Alvin Smithton could not contain his curiosity. He stood defiantly on the front porch of the Gold Nugget, puffing on a thick cigar, as he gazed across the street.

"So this is your Clinic, eh, Dr. Quinn?" he spoke low.

Loren overheard as he stepped through the doors to return to the Mercantile, "You know, Dr. Mike?"

"Oh, yeah," Smithton smirked. "I know her real good. Ain't seen her for a while tough."

Loren innocently commented, "She's been through a lot."

"Oh?" he raised an eyebrow.

"Was kidnapped," Loren detailed. "Sully, that's her husband, found her. Got her home now."

"That's good," the kidnapper was surprised. "They find whoever done it?"

"One of 'em," Loren shook his head. "Half the town's out lookin' for the other."

"Sully, too?" Smithton wondered.

"Wild horses couldn't stop him," the shopkeeper remarked.

"She still live out west o' town?" Smithton guessed.

"Naw," Loren waved his hand. "She an' Sully's homestead's east. 'Bout 2 miles."

"That's right," Alvin folded his arms.

"Have a good day, now," Loren left him.

"You, too, ol' man," he nodded.

So Sully had found the doctor. And had taken her home. Maybe it was time he paid a visit to check on her.... condition.

************
Chapter 11
************

As Sully began his trek, he could not erase from his mind the look on his wife's face when she realized that she could no longer purchase the land for the Indian School. Her money was gone. It was more important that she was safe at home, but....

"Preston...." his jaw tensed as he spat out the name.

The Boston banker had nearly cost Michaela her life with his maneuverings of her money. The idea suddenly occurred to Sully that Preston might have had other reasons for not placing the entire ransom in the saddlebags. What if he was keeping it for himself?

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

Preston entered his office at the Chateau, relieved that the morning had passed without incident. That repulsive Smithton was nowhere in sight, and Sully had not shown his face.

As he plopped into his stuffed leather chair, he felt a chill.

"Don't get too comfortable," it was Sully's voice.

"How did you get in here?" the banker's face became ashen.

"I got ways," Sully's rested his hand near his tomahawk.

Preston pointed nervously, "I'm unarmed."

Sully grabbed the banker's jacket and lifted him out of his seat. Though he was a good four inches taller than the mountain man, Preston cowered.

"I did my best with the ransom money," Preston defended. "You don't understand the intricacies of banking...."

"I understand you almost got my wife killed," he shoved him back into the seat and drew his knife.

With the blade against his skin, Preston struggled to remain calm, "Some of Michaela's finances were tied up. The hospital, trusts for her children....."

Sully's blue eyes burned, "An' you didn't bother t' tell anyone about it. It could've gotten her killed."

"She's home now," Preston pointed out.

"Are you really that stupid?" Sully pointed his finger into Preston's temple.

"Far from it," he countered. "My education was top rate. I excelled in...."

"You excelled in selfish, dishonest manipulation," Sully spat out the words. "An' I give ya this warnin'. You don't ever come near my wife again."

"Or what?" Preston swallowed.

"You really wanna know?" Sully placed the knife near his ear.

"My lawyers will...." he was interrupted.

"Your lawyers can think about how t' get Michaela's money back," Sully threatened. "She was gonna buy land for a school."

"A school?" Preston's brow wrinkled.

"For Indian children," Sully responded.

"Hardly a priority," he scoffed.

Sully grabbed him again, "You ain't even worth the time it takes t' spit on ya."

"Yes, that's your way, isn't it?" Preston baited. "Threaten. Bully. Spit. What else? Cut me? Break a limb? Break a chair? Wouldn't that impress Michaela? What is your furniture repair bill like, anyway? Oh, I forgot, you like to make those primitive pieces of junk yourself. A woman of Michaela's refinement deserves...."

Sully clenched his fist and thrust it across the banker's jaw. Blood immediately burst forth from the Preston's mouth. Drawing a handkerchief from his pocket, he attempted to curb the bleeding.

"I'll sue you," Preston threatened.

Without reply, Sully opened the door and walked into the lobby.

Preston rose from his chair and staggered after him, "Stop that man! Stop him!"

"Sir," the security guard tapped Sully's arm.

"Hold him!" Preston instructed.

The guard drew a gun and held it on Sully, who stopped and raised his hands slowly.

"Mr. Lodge," the front desk clerk approached him. "About Mr. Smithton's bill."

"I'll deal with that later," he neared the guard holding Sully.

"But, sir," the clerk insisted. "Alvin Smithton left without paying his bill."

Sully's brow wrinkled. Where had he heard that name?

"Who'd you say left without payin' his bill?" Sully turned to the clerk.

"Alvin Smithton," the young man repeated.

"Get me a doctor!" Preston saw blood on his shirt.

"What'd he look like, this Smithton?" Sully demanded.

The clerk held his hand up, "About this tall, black hair, dark eyes. Very rude. And.... a fondness for..... prostitutes."

Sully lowered his hands and tapped the shoulder of the guard, "You better get him a doctor."

With Preston screaming for help, and the guard and clerk tending to him, Sully calmly left the scene.

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

Michaela heard her bedroom door open.

The voice of Josef whispered, "Mama. I come in?"

"Of course," she rolled onto her side to look at him.

"How ya feel?" he approached her tentatively.

"Much better," she smiled.

"Can I explore?" he requested.

Her son's inquisitive nature never failed to amaze her. And his penchant for getting into mischief had evolved from a source of frustration to one of joy for her.

"Where would you like to look this time?" she questioned.

"Mmm," he looked around the room, then pointed. "There."

"The cupboard?" she pondered.

"Yep," he nodded.

"All right," she acquiesced. "But not too loud. The babies are sleeping."

Before she could caution him further, he spoke up, "An' don' make mess."

"You know me," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

"Sure I do," he shrugged. "You my Mama."

"To my great delight," her eyes shone with love.

"Ya got them other kids, too," he pointed toward the cribs. "They a han'ful."

As Josef began to open the drawers, Michaela questioned, "Where's Miss Bridget?"

"Helpin' Katie," he found something made of buckskin.

"Helping her?" she was curious. "Is something wrong?"

"I don' know," he was distracted by his discovery. "Lookie, Mama. This like my pants."

Michaela smiled as the little boy lifted the Cheyenne wedding shirt, "That was your father's. He wore it on our wedding day."

"It heavy!" he proclaimed. "I twy it on?"

"It's too big for....." she stopped when she noted his expression. "Very well, you may try it on."

Josef spread it flat on the rug and then knelt down at the large opening along the bottom. Lifting the upper edge, he began to crawl inside.

Michaela could not help but chuckle, "One day, you'll wear it for your wedding."

"When I marwy my doctor wife," he grinned as his head finally reappeared at the neckline.

"Josef," she suddenly thought of her dream.

"What?" he struggled to stand up with the heavy garb on.

"I had a dream about you when I was gone," she stated.

"'Bout me?" he inquired.

"You were a grown man," she recalled. "All of you were grown, Katie, Annie and Noah, as well."

"Was I tall?" his eyes widened.

"Yes," she smiled. "And very, very handsome."

"What I do in your dweam?" he was curious.

"You made me quite proud," she said.

He attempted to hold out his arms as the shirt draped across him and down to the floor.

"I look like a Cheyenne?" he suggested.

"You look very much like your father at this moment," she caressed his cheek.

"I do?" he was thrilled.

"You do," she assured.

Bridget and Katie entered the bedroom.

"Joey!" the little girl exclaimed. "That's Poppy's!"

"I know," he nodded.

"Dr. Mike," Bridget spoke low. "I need t' see ya."

"Is something wrong?" Michaela interpreted her expression. "Is it Kid Cole?"

"I thought I saw someone lurkin' down by the barn," the nanny indicated.

Michaela sat up, "Keep the children here. I'll go check."

"You're in no condition t' do any such thing, lass," she protested.

Michaela drew on her robe, "Lock the door behind me."

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

Looks like someone's been here," Brian pointed to a clearing amid some bushes. "Several branches snapped."

"Over here," Matthew called. "Look at these leaves."

"Looks like they been piled there," Hank determined.

"Wonder what's under 'em?" Jake thought aloud. "Could be a dead body. Maybe another kidnapper."

"There was only one other," Hank shook his head. "Think he buried himself?"

"Only one way t' find out what's under there," Brain said. "We dig."

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

"Sister Ruth," Grace set down the tray of soup beside her.

"Thanks," she looked up from reading her Bible.

"How's he doin'?" Grace glanced at Kid Cole.

"He's been breathin' real heavy," she responded. "I don't think it'll be long now."

"Ya want me t' get Cloud Dancin'?" Grace asked.

"No," she returned. "My husband's restin' peaceful."

"I'm real sorry about what happened," the Cafe owner offered.

"He'd rather go this way," Ruth speculated.

"What d' ya mean?" Grace tilted her head.

"Kid Cole lived his life with the gun... 'til I met him," she reached to touch her husband's hand. "He'd think it was a whole lot better usin' that gun t' save the life o' someone like Dr. Mike than t' die coughin' his head off."

"I'll leave ya be now," Grace said. "If ya need anythin', holler."

"I will," Ruth lifted her Bible again.

Grace descended the stairs. Cloud Dancing and Dorothy looked up when she reached Michaela's office.

"I think we oughta tell Dr. Mike," Grace suggested. "Sister Ruth said it ain't gonna be long now."

"I'll go out t' the homestead," the redhead volunteered.

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

Sully entered the Gold Nugget and scanned the dimly lit room. Spotting Loren at the bar, he approached.

"Dr. Mike okay?" he spoke up.

"She's fine," Sully nodded. Then he turned to the bartender, "Anyone named Smithton come in here lookin' for some.... female companionship?"

"Why?" the barkeep was curious.

"Just a hunch," Sully noted.

"Can't say I recognize the name," he shook his head. "What's he look like?"

As Sully described him, Loren's eyes widened, "I saw a fella like that here t'day."

"Oh?" Sully was interested.

"Said he knew Dr. Mike real good," Loren remarked. "He was even curious about...."

He stopped as a chill ran through him.

"What's wrong?" the mountain man probed.

"Sully, he was askin' about where ya live," Loren related.

"Why would he wanna know where I live?" he wondered.

"Not so much you as.... Dr. Mike," the shopkeeper clarified.

"You said he claimed t' know Michaela real good...." Sully's face suddenly paled.

"What's wrong?" Loren grew concerned.

"I know where I heard his name now," he bolted for the door.

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

"Sully!" Dorothy spotted him rushing from the Gold Nugget.

"Sorry," he called over his shoulder as he ran to his horse. "Gotta get home."

"It's Kid Cole," she spoke up. "Tell Michaela, he's fadin'."

Sully had barely heard. His heart pounded through his chest. The horse seemed to be moving in slow motion. The dream. That's where he had heard the name of Smithton. The first night out, looking for Michaela, he dreamed of her. They saw their children fully grown, and she spoke of a man named Smithton killing her. Cloud Dancing was right. The Spirits had tried to tell him.

"Oh, God, Michaela," his voice trembled. "What if he's got you an' the kids?"

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

Michaela reached the bottom step and steadied herself against the kitchen fireplace. She turned to lock the kitchen door, then made her way to the front of the house. With both latches now secure, she walked toward the living room fireplace. Mounted on the mantle was Sully's rifle. She lifted it and checked to see if it was loaded.

Supporting the heavy barrel caused her arms to ache, but she managed to insert the bullets. Then she looked out the nearest window toward the barn. She saw no one. Fear filled her, as she wondered whom Bridget had seen.

Could it be her kidnapper come back? But why? He had her money. He should be hundreds of miles away by now. Perhaps Bridget was mistaken. Or perhaps someone was just passing through their land.

A sudden sound, like the wind slamming a loose shutter distracted her. When she turned to look, she saw the shadow of a man near the kitchen door.

"Mama," Josef's voice beckoned from the landing.

"Shh!" she hurried to the stairs. "Go back with Miss Bridget."

"But...." the little boy whined.

"Josef Michael Sully," her voice was stern. "Go to my room immediately."

She heard the scampering of his feet up the steps, then the shutting of her bedroom door. Taking a deep breath, she edged closer to the kitchen door and cocked the rifle.

Suddenly, the front door burst open. There stood Alvin Smithton, gun in hand. Michaela was too slow to react, and he lunged for her, grabbing the weapon from her arms.

"Well, well," he smirked. "We meet again."

"What do you want?" she demanded. "Why are you still here?"

"You didn't think I was finished with you, did ya?" he chuckled.

From overhead came the cries of one of the twins.

"Hope I didn't wake the little tykes," he forced her to sit in a kitchen chair.

"Please," she implored. "Leave here. I.... I'll go with you. Just leave my children alone."

"Temptin' offer," he ran his dirty fingers along her neck and shoulders.

"Let's go, then," she began to rise.

"Not so fast," he shoved her down again. "I was thinkin' I'd like a little somethin' before we leave."

"I.... I'll fix you something to eat," she offered.

"There's more than one kinda hunger," he cupped his hand to her breast.

"Please," she steadied her nerves. "Not here."

"Okay," he smirked. "Fix me somethin' t' eat."

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

Brian's eyes widened, "It's the saddlebags with Ma's money!"

"Why'd the kidnapper leave 'em here?" Jake wondered.

"Maybe t' throw off suspicion," Matthew speculated.

"Meanin' he's coming back for 'em," Hank added.

"So we wait here?" Jake suggested.

"Maybe a couple of us wait here," Brian recommended. "The others keep on lookin'."

"Jake, why don't you an' me wait here?" Matthew directed. "Little brother, you an' Hank go on lookin'."

"Sounds good," Brian nodded.

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

"Horace," Myra approached him at the Cafe.

"Hey, Myra," he rose. "Sorry about earlier t'day when ya wanted t' talk."

"Ya got some time now?" she reasoned.

"Sure," he offered her a chair. "What's on your mind?"

She folded her hands and took a deep breath, "Us."

"Us?" his eyes widened.

"There's somethin' I gotta tell ya," she began.

"Ya don't look very happy," his brow wrinkled.

"What I got t' tell ya ain't very happy news," Myra looked away.

"Hey," he touched her chin. "You can tell me."

"This is the hardest thing I ever had t' tell anyone, Horace," she returned.

"Can't be that bad," he encouraged. "it ain't like you're dyin' or anythin'."

She reached for his hand, "Yeah, it is like that."

"What?" he gulped.

"I'm dyin'," she was direct. "Least ways, it looks like I am."

"What are ya talkin' about, Myra?" he was horrified.

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

Sully reined in his horse as he neared the homestead. Studying the landscape, he searched for anything out of the ordinary. Then he saw it. The front door was wide open. He directed his horse to approach the house from the rear. Dusk was falling, and he could smell the aroma of bacon emanating from the homestead.

He dismounted and stealthily made his way to the kitchen door. He looked in and could see no one. Then he made his way to the window beside it. He saw Michaela, dressed in her robe, standing at the stove. What he saw next filled him with terror.

************
Chapter 12
************

A tall, dark haired man stood with his back to the window and a gun trained on Michaela. There was no sign of the children. Sully reasoned that Michaela had gotten Bridget upstairs with them. And given her captor's personality, he also knew that she and they were in grave danger.

Sully's attention was momentarily diverted by the sound of an approaching horse. It was Dorothy. She had said something to him before he hurried out of town. What was it about? Oh, yes, Kid Cole.

Glancing back into the house, he saw that Smithton had heard the arrival, as well, and had shut the front door.

With the intruder's attention diverted elsewhere, Sully took the opportunity to show his face at the window, hoping Michaela would see him. She did. Pointing, he motioned for her to get into the living room.

Michaela's eyes shone with fear, but she complied with his wishes.

"Someone's here," Smithton waved the gun toward her. "Come t' the door, an' get rid o' her."

Dorothy knocked, and Michaela opened the door tentatively.

"Michaela," the redhead was out of breath. "It's Kid Cole. He ain't got long."

"I.... I'm afraid I can't come into town right now," her voice sounded different.

"I understand," Dorothy nodded. "Just thought ya oughta know, bein' he was your friend."

"Tell.... tell Sister Ruth that I wish I could be with her," Michaela continued.

As she spoke, Sully unlocked the kitchen door and entered the house. He silently snuck toward the fireplace, keeping his eye focused on Smithton, who held his gun toward Michaela's head. With tomahawk drawn, Sully suddenly hurled it at the man.

Though distracted momentarily, Smithton did not drop his weapon. Sully leapt on him in an instant and struggled for control of the gun.

"Michaela!" Dorothy screamed. "What's goin' on?"

"Quick, Dorothy," Michaela shouted. "Run! Go get help. It's the kidnapper. Sully's fighting with him."

"But...." the redhead was stunned.

"Do it!" Michaela screamed.

From above, the sound of the children calling for their mother could be heard.

Dorothy rushed down the steps and quickly was headed for town.

"Sully!" Michaela saw Smithton's gun pointed perilously close to his head. "Watch out!"

With all of his might, the mountain man was able to push back the gun from his temple just as Smithton pulled the trigger. A shot rang out and penetrated the wooden planks above them.

Then they heard Bridget scream out.

"Sully!" Michaela was frightened. "The children!"

With all of the force he possessed, Sully slammed his knee into the midsection of Smithton and knocked the wind from him. Then with the handle of his tomahawk, he swung across the face of the man, rendering him unconscious.

"Michaela," he was out of breath. "Go check on the kids. I'll tie him up."

As she hastened for the stairs, Sully took his knife from his belt. With hatred festering in his belly, he raised the blade up and prepared to take the life of the man who had threatened his wife and children. Then his hands began to tremble. He hesitated. Lowering the knife, he entered the kitchen to get a rope.

"Poppy!" Katie rushed down the steps to him.

He embraced her and repeatedly kissed her, "You okay, honey?"

"Yes," she tried to see the man who had intruded on their home.

Sully lifted her, "Go upstairs with your Ma, sweet girl."

"Poppy," her voice quivered. "Joey's hurt."

"What?" he felt his heart stop.

"A bullet came up through the floor," she said.

"Oh, no," he set her down. "You stay here, Kates, while I tie up the bad man."

"Joey's bleedin', Poppy," the little girl had tears in her eyes.

"Wait right here," he struggled to keep calm.

Swiftly, Sully bound the hands and legs of the unconscious Smithton and took his weapon. Then he returned to Katie.

"Come on," he hoisted her into his arms and, grabbing Michaela's medical bag, headed up the stairs.

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

A breathless Dorothy finished describing the events at the homestead.

Loren spoke up, "Robert E an' me will come out."

"Hurry!" Dorothy was frantic.

"What is wrong?" Cloud Dancing had heard the to do in the street.

"The kidnapper's come back for Michaela," Dorothy explained. "He's fightin' Sully."

"I'll get the horses," Robert E raced toward the livery.

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

"Myra," Horace was taken aback. "What are ya sayin'?"

"I got a disease," she explained. "Dr. Mike ain't sure exactly what it is, but.... it's got some symptoms that are sorta like....."

"Spit it out," Horace encouraged.

"Syphilis," she kept her voice low.

"Got it workin' for Hank?" his eyes narrowed.

"Yeah," she avoided looking at him. "But... there's more, Horace. I could've given this t' you an' Samantha, too."

"What?" he was shocked.

"Dr. Mike's gotta check ya both," she revealed.

"I.... I don't got any symptoms," he pondered. "An' how on earth could Samantha have it?"

Before she could explain, they heard Robert E's talking to his wife.

"Be careful, now," Grace called after him.

"What's happened, Grace?" Horace rose from the table.

"That kidnapper's at the Sully homestead," she wiped her hands on her apron. "Sully needs help."

"I'll go," the telegraph operator rushed toward the Livery.

Dorothy spotted Myra and sensed from the expression on her face that she had told Horace about her illness.

The redhead approached, "You all right?"

"Yeah," she nodded.

"Come on," Dorothy put her arm around her. "Let's go over t' the Clinic."

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

Sully reached the top step, then gently set Katie down. Bridget stepped out of the children's room and spoke to the little girl, "Come on, lassie. Come help me with the babies."

Sully rubbed his daughter's back, urging her to obey. The little girl squeezed her father's hand and looked up at him.

"Go on," he whispered. "Everythin's gonna be okay."

Katie went to Bridget, while Sully turned toward the doorway of his room. As he entered, he saw his son, blood on his face, lying on the bed.

"Michaela?" he tried to control the tremble in his voice.

She looked up with relief in her eyes, "It's not serious."

Sully felt himself able to breath again, "I brought your bag."

She opened it and began to tend to the child's injury, "Hold still, my darling."

"Papa," the little boy reached for his father.

"Shh," Sully clasped his hand. "Don't move, Joe."

"It huwt," the child's sad little voice broke his parents' heart.

It was then that Sully noticed that Josef had on his wedding shirt, "What's he doin' wearin' that?"

"He found it earlier today and tried it on," Michaela tenderly cleaned the blood from the little boy's ear. "I believe it saved his life."

"How?" he wondered.

"The beads," she pointed to front of the ceremonial shirt. "See how several are chipped? The bullet obviously slowed when it came through the floor, then struck the beads and was deflected away from him. But, still, it grazed his ear."

Sully leaned closer and touched his son's cheek, "Poor little fella."

"I be okay?" the little boy questioned.

"Yes, Sweetheart," Michaela comforted.

"It still huwt," Josef repeated.

"What about the man?" Michaela turned to her husband.

"I got him tied up downstairs," he replied. "Michaela.... I almost...."

"What?" she glanced at him.

He lowered his voice, "I almost killed him.... but I stopped. Then Katie came down an'...."

She clasped his hand, "Sully."

They suddenly heard the front door of the house. Terror filled Michaela's eyes as her husband rushed from the room.

When Sully reached the bottom step, he saw Robert E, Loren, Cloud Dancing and Horace with guns drawn.

"Over there," Sully pointed toward the living room. "I got him tied up."

"Everyone okay?" Robert E asked his friend.

"Josef's hurt," the mountain man responded. "Bullet grazed his ear. Michaela says he'll be all right."

"This the man who kidnapped her?" Horace pointed to the unconscious man on the floor.

"Yeah," Sully's jaw tensed. "Alvin Smithton."

"We'll take him back t' town," Robert E stated.

"Dorothy said somethin' about Kid Cole," Sully turned to Cloud Dancing.

The Cheyenne medicine man nodded, "His condition is worse."

"I don't know if Michaela's gonna be up t' comin' t' town," Sully said.

"I understand," Cloud Dancing returned. "I will tell Sister Ruth."

"Thanks," Sully patted his back. "Thanks t' all of ya for helpin'."

Loren paused as the others left the house, "Everyone's okay?"

"Fine," Sully smiled. "Bridget's with the kids."

"Good," the older man grinned.

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

Michaela stepped into the recovery room. There in the dim light sat Sister Ruth and Reverend Johnson beside Kid Cole's bed.

Without looking up, Ruth knew it was Michaela, "He's been waitin' for ya."

"What?" Michaela approached.

Ruth rose to greet her, "He wanted t' hear your voice 'fore he passed on."

Michaela wiped the moisture from her eyes, then sat beside him on the bed. She felt his pulse and checked his breathing.

"I'm so sorry, Sister Ruth," she turned to her friend.

She spoke softly, "He wouldn't have had it any other way." Ruth noticed the redness around her wrists, "You okay?"

"Yes," Michaela nodded.

"Come on, Reverend," the older woman retreated to the doorway. "Let's go downstairs for a spell so's Dr. Mike can talk t' him."

Before Michaela could protest, they were gone. Returning her glance to the gunfighter on the bed, she took a deep breath and sighed.

"Kid Cole," she brushed back a lock of his hair.

"Mmm?" he opened his eyes.

"It's me, Dr. Mike," she smiled.

"It's good t' see that pretty face," his breathing was labored.

"You need to rest," she clasped his hand.

"I got plenty o' time for that," he replied. "You take care o' them beautiful babies o' yours."

"I will," tears began to stream down her face. "I want to thank you for coming to my rescue.... and for saving Sully's life."

"You're welcome," his face grew more pale.

"I've so many memories of you," her voice choked. "Serving as our sheriff, traveling with Sully and me for Thanksgiving.... "

He smiled, "Got some more travelin' t' do now. Ruth says I'm goin' t' the Promised Land."

"Yes, you are," she saw serenity in his eyes.

"No use keepin' 'em waitin' then," his breathing ceased.

"Kid Cole," she felt for his pulse again.

Nothing.

She closed his eyes and leaned her head against his arm, "Good-bye, my friend."

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

Horace sipped a drink of sarsaparilla at the Gold Nugget. Others who had gathered to hear Hank describe the retrieval of Michaela's money imbibed stronger spirits.

At the end of the bar, Preston could find no comfortable way to partake of his drink. His swollen lips found it too painful.

Hank approached Horace, "What's wrong with you?"

"None o' your business," the telegraph operator shot back.

"Why don't ya go see Myra?" he suggested. "She needs ya."

"You know?" Horace frowned. "You know about her illness? It's all your fault."

"All I know is she's stupid enough t' love ya," Hank poured a glass of whiskey. "So go t' her."

Horace studied his face. Hank did know, and, he was ashamed to admit, Hank was right. Myra did need him. Setting a coin on the bar top, he left.

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

"Can we get you anything, Sister Ruth?" Michaela finished helping Bridget make up the bed in Brian's room.

"No, thank you," she responded. "It was real nice o' ya t' put me up for the night."

"You won't change your mind and stay a while?" Michaela encouraged.

"No, thank ya," she insisted. "After Kid Cole's funeral t'morrow, I'll be headin' on. I've still got plenty o' the Lord's work t' do."

Michaela embraced her, "He was a wonderful man."

"Yes," she held back her tears. "He was."

"I.... I wish you two could have had more time together," Michaela lamented.

"Ain't the amount o' time you're t'gether that counts, Dr. Mike," Ruth observed. "It's how ya spend the time ya got that matters."

"That sounds like something Sully would say," she smiled.

"You an' him know how t' spend your time," Ruth nodded. "Makin' every second count."

Katie stood at the doorway, "Mama."

"Come on in, Sweetheart," Michaela extended her hand.

"Would ya tuck me in?" the little girl requested.

"Go on ahead, Dr. Mike," Ruth urged. "It's all part o' makin' that time count."

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

Michaela escorted her daughter into the children's room. After saying her prayers, the little girl climbed into bed.

"Joey's gonna be okay?" she glanced at her brother's empty bed.

"Yes," Michaela adjusted the blanket.

"An' Poppy caught the bad man," Katie assured herself.

"Yes," she nodded. "Just as he promised."

"An' ya got your money back?" the child continued.

"Yes," Michaela nodded. "Brian and Matthew took care of that."

"That's good," the child fidgeted with the edge of the covers.

"We're all safe, Sweetheart," Michaela's voice was calm. "There's nothing to fear."

"I know," she smiled.

"Have I told you lately how beautiful you are?" the mother touched her chin.

Katie's smile broadened, "I love you, Mama."

"I love you, too, my darling," Michaela leaned forward to kiss her. "And I'm so thankful you're my little girl. Good night."

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

"Myra?" Horace stood at her door.

"Hey, Horace," she stepped back to invite him in.

"I.... I'm sorry.... about your illness," he removed his hat.

"I'm kinda scared," she admitted.

"Me, too," he placed his hand on her shoulder. "But.... I'm gonna do everythin' I can t' help ya. I'll be with ya, no matter what."

She choked back her emotions, then threw herself into his arms.

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

Michaela entered the bedroom. She glanced at Sully as he held Josef in the rocking chair. Nothing so filled her with love for her husband as the sight of him with their children.

"He's asleep," he spoke softly.

"Poor darling," she ran her fingers lightly through the little boy's hair.

"I'll put him in his bed now," Sully rose.

He paused so she could kiss their son, then left the room. When he returned, he found Michaela gazing out the window.

Sully approached her and slid his arms around her waist, waiting.... hoping that she might talk about her ordeal. Softly, he drew back her hair and kissed the nape of her neck.

"It was horrible, Sully...." she began to open up.

He gently turned her around to face him. Lightly, he touched her lip.

"Smithton struck me," she drew back slightly. "And he touched me...."

Suddenly the thought occurred to Sully that his wife had been violated, "Michaela...."

She saw the concern in his eyes, "No.... not like that. They kept me tied up. Then, when they left to get the money, they blindfolded and gagged me. I...."

He drew her closer.

She leaned against his shoulder, "The darkness was unbearable. I lost all sense of time and.... and I didn't know if I'd ever see you or the children again. I was convinced they were going to kill me, even after they had the money."

"I'm sorry I didn't find ya sooner," he filled with guilt.

She cupped his face in her hands, then smiled slightly, "We're together now.... safe."

He sweetly kissed her, "Ya must be exhausted."

"Would you hold me?" she glanced toward the bed.

"Sure," he nodded.

Michaela climbed into bed and eyed her husband as he began to unbutton his shirt. She felt herself warm, stirred by the sight of his magnificently muscular torso.

"All that wrassling," she smiled.

"Mmm?" he undid his buckskins.

She drew back the covers for him, "I was just marveling at your physique."

He blushed slightly.

"What's this?" she touched his cheek.

"You're embarrassin' me," he grinned.

"It embarrasses you to know that your wife finds you incredibly handsome and desirable?" she teased.

"Funny, ain't it?" he raised an eyebrow. "It's usually the other way around."

"I do find you desirable, you know," she ran her hand along his chest.

Sully attempted to control his racing heart, "Even when ya been through so much?"

"I dreamed about us when I was being held captive," she revealed.

"Tell me about it," he slid his arm beneath her shoulders.

As she related the dream, he realized it was identical to his own.

"Michaela, I had that same dream," he was amazed. "That's how I ended up findin' Smithton. You spoke his name t' me in the dream."

"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised," she noted. "Where we're concerned, the bond, the connection is inexplicable."

Sully kissed her temple and spoke tenderly:

"When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curved point,--what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented?"

"Was that Wordsworth?" she guessed.

"Elizabeth Barrett Browning," he corrected.

She found herself more attracted to him, "I love you so much, Sully. I feel as if our souls, our minds, our hearts are one."

"They are," he lifted her hand and kissed the palm.

"Poor Sister Ruth," she lamented. "She and Kid Cole found each other so late in life."

"Never too late t' find love," Sully counseled.

She recalled, "Remember their last visit.... when his illness was worsening?"

"Uh huh," he stroked her arm. "Sister Ruth might've lost him back then if it wasn't for your medicine."

"Life is so fragile," she sighed. "Sully.... I've been thinking about Mother's money."

"Your money," he amended.

She added, "I've decided to give it all away to charities."

"You sure that's what ya really want?" he raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," she affirmed. "It's brought nothing but trouble since we returned from Boston?"

"How can ya say that, Michaela?" he read her expression. "You're buildin' a hospital an' a school for the Indians. Our kids will have their education paid for, an'.... the mountain. Ya bought a beautiful mountain t' keep it safe forever."

"I'm rather surprised that you would want me to keep the money," she remarked.

"It's yours t' do whatever ya want," he rubbed her arm. "Your Ma entrusted it t' her best daughter."

She smiled, "Best daughter? Might you be somewhat prejudiced?"

He sweetly kissed her temple, "It ain't the money that caused all this. It was the wrong people knowin' about it."

"I suppose so," she pondered. "But.... I don't want anything to come between us.... to jeopardize what we have."

"What happened t' sister Ruth.... an' Myra... makes me appreciate what we got, too," he avowed.

"And Josef," she added.

He held her closer, "I got a feelin' he's gonna milk his injury for a while."

She smiled, "He's very much your son, Mr. Sully."

"You sayin' I milk my injuries?" he retorted.

"I'm saying he's brave and handsome, just like his father," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

"Good thing he's got his Ma's intelligence," he grinned.

"Thank you for bringing me home to them, Sully," she caressed his chest. "And for being their most devoted Papa."

"Can't imagine a man not feelin' that way," he pondered. "Except maybe Preston."

"I take it you spoke to him about the ransom money," the idea occurred to her.

"I gotta confess I did more than speak," he looked away.

Michaela touched his chin to draw him back to her face, "What did you do?"

"Ya know the effect he has on me, Michaela," he felt a rush of anger.

"Sully," she sounded disappointed.

"Could we not talk about him?" he stated.

They both lay still, each regretting the sudden turn of their conversation.

"I love you, too," Sully whispered.

Her heart melted, "What shall I do with you?"

"I got a few ideas.... if you're up t' it," he grinned.

"I am feeling up," she kissed his chest.

"With or without the lights on?" he teased.

She tensed, "I.... I hadn't thought about that."

"I'm sorry, Michaela," he realized the reminder of her ordeal.

"Go ahead and turn the lamps down," she affirmed.

"But...." he hesitated.

"When I'm with you, the darkness disappears," she gazed into his eyes.

Sully reached across her and lowered the light. As he came back to her side, he enfolded her in his arms. He felt her breathing quicken. His own body began to react to the proximity of her.

"I love your skin," he ran his hand along her neck. "How ya smell."

Tenderly, he kissed the sides of her mouth. She drew back slightly when he neared the sore area where Smithton had struck her.

"Michaela," he kissed the spot ever so lightly.

Suddenly, it did not hurt. His kisses only filled her with overwhelming love. Sully sensed the change in her and relished the eager movements of her body next to his. Sensuously, she touched him in all of the places which she knew would arouse his ardor. He positioned himself above her, preventing his full weight from pressing down on her.

"Come closer," she beckoned softly.

"I don't wanna hurt ya," he gazed lovingly into her eyes.

"I need you, Sully," she invited further. "I need for us to be together."

He continued his kisses and caresses until her eager anticipation reached a fever pitch. At last unable to contain their need for each other, they came together, renewing and reaffirming their undying devotion. Soon a peaceful sleep claimed them. They had taken steps in the darkness and now felt only the light and warmth of their love.


THE END



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