For personal and select distribution only (c) by Sandi 99 and Jean McQuaid
By Sandi99 and Jean McQuaid
"Marjorie, what's this ... ah ... slop you've been puttin' in my girls' heads?"
"Well, they're exercising free choice, Hank. I thought you supported that?"
"They're my employees."
"And you treat them disgracefully."
"Look, I don't take this stuff from your sister and I ain't gonna take it from you. Now, mind your own business!"
Hank and Marjorie - Starting Over.
"What the devil are ya doin', woman?"
Hank lunged through the swinging doors of the saloon before grabbing onto the railing of the front porch for support. He swayed slightly as his stare pierced through Vi Patterson. The saloon girl stood, frozen with apprehension, in the middle of the street.
"Didn't I tell you that ya couldn't have time off today? Huh? Didn't I?" He shoved away from the railing and stepped down into the dirt. The girl drew back as he stomped over to her. He grabbed her roughly by one arm.
"I didn't think it would matter, Hank," she whispered, her brown eyes wide with fear. "It's the middle of the day. We ain't busy and ..."
"I'll be the one who decides how busy we are!" Hank roared. He gave her arm a shake. "You whores are getting' outta control- doin' whatever ya please, takin' off and leavin' me to look after things by myself. Ya ask my permission first. Ya hear me, Vi? I ain't puttin' up with it no more."
His words were slightly slurred and his voice sounded thick. Vi Patterson bit down on her lip and eyed him, warily. "You've had a lot to drink, Hank," she soothed. "Why don'tcha come on inside and I'll ..."
"Don't be tellin' me what ta do," Hank drawled, glancing around at the gathering crowd. "And what the Hell are all of you starin' at?!" he demanded. "This ain't no one's business but mine. Now, quit yer gawking!"
A few people scurried off, intimidated by Hank's hostile glare. Others shook their heads or muttered to each other.
"Hank," Vi hissed. "Calm down. This ain't helpin'."
"I told ya," Hank snapped, returning his full attention to the diminutive woman in front of him, "don't be orderin' me around!" He scowled at her. "Ya got no respect, just like the rest of 'em. I know what you're thinkin' - I know what all you whores think. You think I've gotten soft, don'tcha?"
Vi shook her head, wildly. "No! No Hank, I'd never think that. I ..."
Hank's top lip curled into a sneer. "Yeah, ya do. But I ain't. Want me ta prove it to ya, Vi? Want me ta show ya how much of a man Hank Lawson really is!"
He yanked her against him, his fingers digging into the soft flesh of her upper arms. He seemed to be unaware of the pressure behind his tenacious grip, oblivious to the tears gathering in Vi's eyes. "Hank... stop. Please let go. You're hurtin' me."
Hank grinned slowly, before lowering his head, intending to cover her lips with his mouth. Before he had the chance, a hand clamped onto his shoulder and spun him around. He released Vi abruptly as he came face-to-face with Sully.
"What do ya think you're doin?" Hank demanded. Sully's blue eyes sparked as he challenged him. The saloon keeper still had enough sense, in spite of his drunken state, to brace his feet and watch the man, cautiously.
"You're hurtin' the lady, Hank," Sully said, slowly. "Why don't ya go somewhere and sober up?"
"Why don't ya keep yer nose outta my business?" Hank growled, but he made no move to take a step toward Sully. Hank had enough run-ins with the man over the years to carefully avoid any confrontations. Sully always managed to win.
"He's right, Hank." Jake Slicker had crossed the street from his barber shop and he now stood behind Sully, lending support. "Every time ya get liquered up, ya get nasty with your girls."
Hank sneered at him. "Look who's talkin', Jake. You know all about getting' liquered up, don'tcha?"
Jake opened his mouth to protest but Loren cut him off. He'd stepped out of the crowd to join the others. "Look Hank, why don't ya come on over ta Grace's with us. I'll buy ya a nice cup of coffee and ..."
"I don't want coffee, old man!" Hank bellowed. He shoved past all of them and headed back in the direction of the saloon. Just before he crashed through the swinging doors again to re-enter his establishment, he swung around to target Vi Patterson. "And don't be thinkin' ya got off easy," he warned, pointing a finger of accusation in her direction. "I ain't finished with you yet!"
Michaela watched the scene unfold from the doorway of her clinic. At one point, she seriously considered interfering but Sully and the others seemed to have the situation well in hand so she hung back, giving her husband free reign to subdue the enraged barkeep. Once Hank stomped off toward the saloon, the crowd dispersed. She noticed Violet Patterson smiling up at Sully, shyly, as she thanked him for his assistance. Then the woman scurried over to the Gold Nugget and disappeared inside.
Sully approached her and she smiled at him. "Well, she certainly seemed appreciative," Michaela remarked, attempting to mask the tinge of jealousy in her tone. She'd seen plenty of women gaze at her husband with the same look of admiration that Violet Patterson had just displayed. The woman had every reason to feel grateful but it ran deeper than gratitude - Byron Sully was an extremely attractive man.
Sully shrugged off Michaela's comment. "Wonder what that was all about?" he mused. "Hank's been ornery for weeks now."
The corners of Michaela's mouth puckered. "Isn't he always?"
"Maybe," Sully conceded, "but he's worse than usual these days. Somethin's wrong."
Michaela laid a hand on his arm and changed the subject. "I meant to tell you yesterday. Duncan Lodge was saying that some of the leaders in Washington are starting to question the railroad's tactics. They're asserting that certain men the railroad hires are using far too much violence against the Indians."
She expected this new information to please Sully. Instead his eyes darkened and his voice grew snide. "Yeh? What else does Duncan say?"
Unlike Michaela, Sully didn't even attempt to hide his jealousy. A smile crept over her lips and she had to lower her head so Sully wouldn't notice. As if on cue, Duncan Lodge stepped out of his office, beside Bray's Mercantile, and headed down the street, in the direction of Michael's clinic.
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" Michaela suggested, brightly. Sully glowered at her.
Michaela watched the lawyer approach. Preston Lodge had always been wiry and slender. Unlike his brother, Duncan Lodge was a muscular, broad-shouldered man. He carried himself with dignity, chin raised into the air, body straightened to its full height. He had an easy, loping walk that made Michaela assess him as a man who was comfortable, someone who always possessed self-confidence. His hair was darker than his younger brother's, almost black in fact, and he had alert brown eyes that offset the squareness of his face, making him appear observant and intelligent, as well as powerful and masculine at the same time. It was difficult not to notice how attractive he was and Michaela could understand Sully's jealousy - well, almost understand it. In spite of Duncan's appeal, however, Michaela Quinn's admiring glances fell on her husband - and only her husband. Sully was more than attractive, more than appealing. From the first day she'd seen him, Michaela believed that he was the handsomest man she'd ever met and now, all these years later, she still believed it. His blue eyes glinted in the sunlight, the intensity in their depths stealing her breath away. With his honey brown hair framing a rugged, flawlessly chiselled face and his muscular body, slim waist and narrow hips, no man alive could match Byron Sully. He had no reason to feel jealous of Duncan Lodge. None whatsoever.
But Michaela knew Sully's feelings toward Duncan were far more complicated than that. Preston Lodge has always been condescending toward her husband, openly critical of Sully's lifestyle and snide with his biting comments. Duncan, although far more discreet than his brother, seemed to share the same opinion of her husband. He talked 'down' to Sully, a tendency that irritated Michaela immensely. It was the one character flaw in Duncan Lodge that she found intolerable.
He halted in front of them now and treated both of them to a demonstration of this pompous behaviour.
"Good afternoon, Michaela." His eyes held a soft light as he smiled at her. Then he nodded toward Sully, his chin lifting into the air slightly as Duncan stared down his nose at him. "Sully."
"Duncan." Sully's tone was frosty and Michaela glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.
"Isn't it a beautiful day?" Duncan swept an arm out to indicate the landscape. "Puts me in mind of a fine, autumn afternoon in Boston, Michaela. The leaves turning, the summer sun waning, the whispy clouds overhead predicting yet another cool night. Almost like a harbinger for the harshness of winter that is to follow, wouldn't you say?"
Michaela nodded, smiling. Duncan's next words wiped the smile from her face.
"A harbinger," he said, addressing Sully, "is somewhat like a forerunner, a messenger, if you will - that announces the arrival of something else." He was saying the words slowly, as if he spoke to a dim-witted child. Adding further insult to injury, he asked, "Understand?"
Sully's eyes narrowed as his entire body tensed. "I understood the first time, Duncan," he snapped. He dismissed the man as he turned toward Michaela, brushing her mouth softly with his lips. "I got better things ta do than stand here, discussin' the weather," he stated. The remark was aimed at Michaela but the intended recipient was, undoubtedly, Duncan Lodge. "See ya later."
"Where are you going?" Michaela asked, frowning.
Sully shrugged. "To meet Cloud Dancin'. We told Luke's mom, White Feather, that we'd help patch up their roof today."
"You're going out there again?" Michaela couldn't control the irritation that surged over her. "You were just there yesterday."
"There's a lot ta do," Sully informed her. "The place is run-down, Michaela. There ain't been anyone around to fix it up since her husband passed on. We're working with Luke, showin' him what needs ta be done, but he's young still. He needs help."
His explanation did little to ease her annoyance. As far as she was concerned, there was plenty of work to do at their own homestead. Sully's time had been severely restricted since he took an interest in White Feather and her son.
"Will you be back in time for supper?" she asked now, attempting to cover the accusation in her voice.
"Dunno. Maybe. Don't worry bout it. I'll get somethin' when I come home." He kissed her again, with more affection this time, and her body responded as the kiss deepened. She pressed against him, momentarily forgetting Duncan's presence. When he released her, Sully glanced at the man, unable to conceal the smug expression flitting across his features.
Duncan tipped his hat. "Have a good trip, Sully. Say hello to your Indian friend for me."
Sully's mouth tightened . "Right." Sarcasm oozed from the word. He swept past the man, and moved off in the direction of the livery.
Duncan stood, staring after him until he disappeared from sight. Then he sighed heavily and returned his attention to Michaela. "I know I shouldn't say this, Michaela," he began apologetically, "and please forgive me if I seem forward but ... whatever drew the two of you together? I mean, look at you." His eyes ran down the length of her body in obvious appreciation, before returning to her face once more. "You're a beautiful, educated, sophisticated woman and Sully ..." He snorted, softly. "Well, Sully is ... Sully."
Michaela raised her eyebrows, her flushed face betraying her irritation. "You under-estimate my husband, Duncan," she stated, her tone crisp and offended. "Sully is one of the most intelligent men I've ever met."
"Really?" He looked like he was holding back a laugh but he had the good sense and courtesy to contain it. "I apologize, Michaela. I was out of line. I'm afraid that I've over-stepped my boundaries. It's just that I don't quite understand these ....woodsy types. You must admit, we didn't see many of them in Boston."
When Michaela failed to answer him, he re-doubled his efforts to pacify her. "I suppose I've been a little influenced by my brother's description of life in the west. He drew such a colourful picture of Colorado Springs and the people here. I must confess that I arrived in town two months back with ... rather preconceived ideas. I will make every effort to erase his opinions from my mind and view this town, and its inhabitants, from an unbiased perspective. Will you forgive me?"
He flashed her a charming, crooked smile and she softened. "Preston wasn't overly fond of our town, as I recall - or all that friendly toward many of our townspeople. I suppose it would be quite easy to draw the wrong conclusions. But I do hope you intend to show better judgement in the future, Duncan."
"Indeed I do," he consented, heartily. He extended his arm. "Would you allow me to escort you to Grace's? I would like to buy you a cup of coffee, to make amends for my ... shoddy behaviour."
Michaela acquiesced. Slipping a hand into the crook of his arm, she returned his smile.
Sully was practically all the way to Luke's cabin before his anger subsided. He'd had numerous conflicts with Preston Lodge when the man was living in Colorado Springs and, even though Sully wasn't a vengeful man by nature, he was somewhat relieved when Preston finally packed it in and surrendered to failure, leaving town. He'd never counted on Preston's older brother, Duncan, appearing.
When the man first set foot in Colorado Springs, he'd told the townspeople that he was looking to establish a new law practice, far away from the fierce competition in the city. He was intrigued by his brother's description of their town, he'd asserted, and his curiosity lured him west so he could see this 'charming haven' (those, of course were his words) for himself. He hastily reassured everyone that he was nothing like his brother - that he was ashamed over some of Preston's antics and somewhat embarrassed by his younger brother's failings.
"I'm afraid, as the youngest in our family, that Preston lacks the discipline required to succeed. You will find that I am quite different."
Duncan was different but, in Sully's opinion, the man was worse! Preston was annoying, even devious but, most of the time, relatively harmless. Duncan, however, was not. He not only held power, he knew how to manipulate people to his own advantage. And Preston A. Lodge the third never openly displayed his attraction toward Michaela, although Sully was always aware that the attraction was there, lurking beneath the surface. Duncan C. Lodge not only boldly admired Sully's beautiful wife, he also challenged Sully at every turn. He knew that Michaela didn't entirely understand Sully's hostility toward the man and she believed that her husband over-reacted to Duncan's comments and insults. What she didn't notice - but what Sully saw every time the man came within a hundred yards of his wife - was Duncan's ill-concealed desire, the looks of longing he directed toward Michaela. He made no move to hide his admiration of Michaela, or his scorn toward Sully.
But Sully had made a decision not to mention any of this to Michaela. She had to work down the street from the man. Her clinic was only a few buildings away from Duncan's law office, on the other side of Bray's Mercantile. And she encountered the man every single day. Alerting her to Duncan's feelings would only make her uncomfortable and make it difficult to act naturally. She'd feel awkward and there was no need for it. Sully was certain that Duncan would continue to admire his wife from a distance. There was no reason to think that his affection would ever be expressed, either verbally or physically. As long as he respected Michaela's status as a married woman, and understood that Sully would strangle him if he so much as laid a finger on her, Sully felt fairly secure. Duncan did seem to realize one thing - the fact that Sully could easily defeat him when it came to a show of physical strength. It was the only glimmer of respect Sully received from the man.
He shoved all thoughts of Duncan Lodge out of his mind as he drew his horse up in front of the cabin and dismounted. The cabin was enclosed by thick forest on all four sides, evidence that Luke's father Jeremiah O'Donnell shielded himself from civilization. Cloud Dancing was sitting on a fallen log, off to one side of the cabin. Sully approached him, a smile on his face.
"I have been waiting for you, my brother," Cloud Dancing stated. "We will lose the light if we do not start the repairs soon."
Sully nodded. "Sorry. Got caught up with somethin' in town."
Cloud Dancing raised his eyebrows, silently urging him to continue.
"There was a problem with Hank."
"The saloon keeper?"
Sully nodded. "He had too much whiskey and he was gettin' rough with one of his girls. We had to calm him down."
Cloud Dancing frowned. "Do many of the men in your town treat women in this manner?"
"Some of 'em," Sully admitted.
"The Cheyenne people value the women of the tribe, as much as the warriors," Cloud Dancing stated.
"You ain't ever seen one of the braves hit a woman?"
"Not in my village," the medicine man said. "It was not necessary. I do not understand why the white men need to do this."
"Me neither," Sully informed him.
The door to the cabin swung back on its hinges and White Feather stood, framed in the doorway. Sully squinted against the afternoon sunlight as he studied her. She was tall and slim, the curve of her hips and the swell of her breasts noticeable beneath the thin fabric of her buckskin garment. Like all Cheyenne women, she had shimmering black hair that fell to her waist and soft brown eyes. The high cheekbones made her delicate facial features seem even more fragile. There was no denying it - White Feather was a beautiful woman.
"I have made a rabbit stew," she informed the man now, in her husky voice that always sounded sultry. "When you are finished, you will come inside to eat."
It was an invitation but it sounded more like a command. Sully had grown accustomed to White Feather's manner of speaking. The meaning behind her words could easily be misinterpreted, a problem caused partly by her limited knowledge of the English language and partly by the timbre of her voice. Nevertheless, he found himself agreeing before he had a chance to think it through rationally. She smiled at him and disappeared back inside the cabin.
As he propped a ladder against the side of the cabin and climbed up to the roof, he wondered what Michaela would say. Missing dinner was one thing but accepting White Feather's invitation was quite another. Michaela was always annoyed at him when he spent too much time with Luke and his mother. It was a source of conflict between them but Sully grew more stubborn each time the issue was raised. He was normally a reasonable man but he was not accustomed to taking orders from anyone. And Michaela's disapproval made him feel like she was attempting to control him, make him explain his actions. He didn't like it one bit.
Jake Slicker slumped against the bar, nursing a sarsaparilla. Normally he avoided the saloon any more, frustrated by Hank's teasing. Ever since he gave up the bottle, Hank had taunted him unmercifully.
"What can I get ya, Jake? Milk? Do ya think you can handle it or should I ask Theresa if you're allowed ta have some?"
Few people could embarrass Jake as much as Hank. The man had a way of getting under his skin. So Jake stayed away from the Gold Nugget - and away from Hank's remarks.
Today though, he had a good reason for lingering at the bar. He'd known Hank for years and, after all that time, he knew how to read the man. There were times when Hank was just plain ornery and times when something was wrong. This time, something was definitely wrong. The bar keeper came out of the stockroom, lugging a case of whiskey. He set it down on top of the bar and began to unload the bottles, shoving them onto a shelf underneath the counter. He ignored Jake completely.
"Ya feelin' any better yet?" Jake asked him, after a couple of minutes.
Hank glowered at him. "Can ya give me a good reason why I should be?" His voice was still slurred but he seemed more rational at least. Not enough time had passed to allow Hank to sober up yet. "Dunno."
Jake studied him until Hank lowered his gaze to the whiskey crate once again. "When you're finished doin' that, how bout we sit down at that table over there," Jake suggested, gesturing toward one corner of the room.
Hank looked up again, his eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"No reason," Jake lied, giving a small shrug.
"What? Ya plannin' on stickin' yer nose in where it don't belong, Jake just like everyone else in this town?" Hank smirked at him. "Did someone tell ya to talk ta me? Who? The Rev? No? Don't tell me, let me guess ... who else would it be? Michaela, right? She tell ya to come over here and calm me down, Jake? Well ya can go back and tell her that she's wastin' her time. I don't need nobody's help and I sure as Hell don't need no advice - specially not from that interferrin', nosey woman!"
"Dr. Mike didn't tell me ta do nothin'," Jake denied. "No one else knows I came over here ta talk to you. I did it on my own - as a friend. We've always been friends Hank, you and me. We've always talked bout stuff that was botherin' us."
Hank considered his words for a long moment before glancing around the bar. It was still early in the day and the saloon was practically empty. One group of men sat at a back table, engrossed in a poker game. Another old, bearded prospector sat all by himself at a second table, muttering into his glass of whiskey. The rest of the place was deserted. Hank sighed and leaned forward, lowering his voice.
"Do ya ever ask yourself what you've done with your life, Jake?" he muttered. "I mean, what you've really done?"
"I done alright," Jake replied. "Got myself my own business - married Theresa - built a nice house. I ain't complainin'."
"Yeah? What about all the time ya wasted, Jake? All that time when you was drinkin' and not doin' much of anythin'. Or the times when ya could have been doin' somethin' ta make your life better but ya just didn't bother. What about those times?"
Jake frowned at him. "What are ya drivin' at?"
"I dunno." Hank looked past him, a far away expression in his eyes. "I've been thinkin' a lot bout Zak lately, wonderin' if I should have kept the kid around. I mean, least if he was here, I'd have somethin' ta show for my life, ya know? Just don't seem like I got much of nothin' - no kids, no woman at home cookin' my meals and warmin' my bed, nothin'."
"Ya got the saloon," Jake offered.
"Yeah." Hank snorted. "Once was a time when I could count on some respect cause I owned this place but that don't happen anymore neither. Look at Vi today - takin' off without tellin' me, or askin' me. I used to be someone important ta my girls, someone they was afraid ta cross, someone they listened to." He shook his head. "Ever since Myra walked out on me ta go off with Horace, I've been losing the respect of all my girls. I should've never let her go."
"Too late for that. Sides, her and old Horace didn't last very long."
"Don't much matter how long they lasted," Hank argued. "The point is, I couldn't stop her. And my girls saw it - they all thought I was weak."
"Naw .. they didn't," Jake disagreed.
Hank ignored him and continued. "Thing is, I don't feel like I got much of anythin' anymore. I been thinkin' ... maybe I should sell this place and move on."
"Where would ya go?" Jake asked. He felt alarm creeping over him. His life had changed since he married Theresa and stopped drinking - that much was true - but he still considered Hank to be his best friend. Jake couldn't imagine what Colorado Springs would be like without him.
He forced a lightness into his tone. "Where? Bolivia, like Loren?"
Hank snorted and shook his head. "I ain't that loco yet. I dunno. Maybe I wouldn't even bother ta buy another place - maybe I'd go ta work for someone else. I'm gettin' too old for this kind of thing anyway - always tryin' ta keep my whores in line. Tires me out, ya know? Maybe I'd find a woman somewhere and get hitched up."
Jake choked on his sarsaparilla. "You? Come on, Hank. You ... married?"
Hank shrugged and returned to the task of storing away the rest of the whiskey. "Maybe. Just thinkin' bout it, that's all. A man can think bout things, can't he?"
Jake stared at the top of Hank's head as the man bent down to arrange the whiskey bottles. He didn't take his friend all that seriously. Hank had been drinking and the bottle not only loosened his tongue, it probably made him say things that he didn't mean. Still, he'd never heard Hank talk this way before. The Gold Nugget was Hank's whole life. Jake frowned, remembering a time when Hank held a loaded gun to Myra's head. One thing was certain - Hank had never been quite the same since Myra walked out on him. He'd lost something, like a part of his spirit went out that door along with her.
Duncan Lodge sat across the table from Michaela Quinn, eyeing the woman as she sipped her coffee. He'd managed to find a way to delay her, offering to buy her a late lunch then encouraging her to talk about Boston and her experiences in medical school. So far he'd kept her at the café for an hour and a half and she seemed quite comfortable reminiscing. Duncan suspected that few people in town showed much of an interest in the woman's past life in Boston, and even less people talked with her on an intellectual level. They were two of a kind really - both born into wealth, both raised in the upper crust of society, both from well-established, respected Boston families. Her education and breeding rose to the surface every time they conversed and Duncan detected a spark in her eyes. She needed to touch base with someone who could challenge her mentally, someone who stimulated her formidable mind. That husband of hers certainly couldn't!
And he loved her company. She was the loveliest woman he'd ever seen. Her smile warmed him from the inside out and her laugh was infectious. He loved her unusual eyes, the creamy texture of her skin, her perfect, petite figure. So many times, at social outings or at church on Sundays, he'd find himself staring at the woman and he'd wonder just how long he'd been watching her before he became aware of it. Then his gaze would shift and he'd meet Sully's eyes, see the fury boiling in their blue depths, and Duncan would realize that the man read every thought and emotion in his mind. At those times, Duncan felt a stab of fear.
Byron Sully looked dangerous - murderous. He'd quickly look away.
No one knew his true reasons for coming to Colorado Springs to set up his law practice. The townspeople bought his story about escaping the competition from other law firms in the city. They had no reason to doubt him. Not one of them questioned why he'd choose to establish a practice in a town where his younger brother had failed so miserably. What they didn't realize was that Duncan was here partly because of Preston's failure. He wanted to prove to this town that the rest of the Lodges were shrewd businessmen, that they had level heads on their shoulders. It was a matter of family pride, a desire to protect the Lodge reputation. Coming here would prove to everyone that Preston was nothing but a weak link in an otherwise solid ancestral chain.
But there was another reason - one every bit as compelling. He'd listened to Preston's description of Michaela Quinn - both in his letters and then, later, when his brother returned to Boston, shrouded in defeat. The vision of this strong, fiercely independent yet beautiful woman filled his dreams and he had to travel here himself - just to meet her. He now had to admit to himself that he'd been in love with Michaela before he ever laid eyes on her.
She was laughing again, telling him about the expression on one of her professor's faces at medical school when her chemistry experiment practically set fire to his classroom. Duncan joined in with her laughter, genuinely delighted. God, what an incredible woman!
Suddenly Michaela's eyes widened and she glanced at the empty tables surrounding them. "What time is it?" she blurted out.
Duncan took his pocket watch out of his vest pocket and snapped open the cover. "Almost three thirty."
"What?" Michaela lunged to her feet. "What was I thinking? I have a three-thirty appointment with a patient and I intended to have a report written before she arrived. I've been sitting here, wasting my day, when I should have been working."
Duncan rose to his feet as well. Reaching out, he grabbed onto one of her tiny hands and cradled it between both of his. "I hope that you don't consider sharing my company as a waste of a day," he quipped, smiling.
She blushed, slightly. "Of course not. I didn't mean that."
Discreetly she eased her hand out of his grasp. "I'm sorry, Duncan, but I must be going. Thank you for lunch."
"Any time," he replied but she was already scurrying away as the words left his lips. His gaze followed her until she disappeared around the corner of the clinic. Only then did he sit down again, his eyes troubled as he tried to quiet his raging emotions. If he lived to be one hundred, he was certain he could never love another woman as intensely as he loved Michaela Quinn - but he was also just as certain that he could never possess her. At that moment, he hated Byron Sully.
* * * * * * * * * *
by Jean McQuaid
Everybody has one, they dare not to confide,
A lonely little secret hidden way down deep inside.
With some it's shame that keeps them from willing to reveal
And others think that no one will understand just how they feel.
But every human on this earth at one time or another,
Has locked away a secret hoping no one will discover.
Deep within the soul, secrets surface now and then,
A reminder that haunts the memory, time and time again.
You can see it in their eyes, hear it in their speech,
But they'll never let it slip, it's just out of other's reach.
Is it really all that horrid that you can not tell a friend?
Will you take it to your grave when your life comes to an end?
Is it really worth the agony it takes to hold it in,
And if you wanted to let it go, God, where would you begin?
I'm quite sure within each soul that's alive or left this earth,
A secret has been buried and will never see rebirth.
For what frightens us the most is that our secret might be told,
That reality of what we've done in life, will painfully unfold.
And people will think less of us, not like us, be so cruel.
Others will see our spirit as weak and treat us like a fool.
So keep that little secret to yourself, but do beware,
They have a way of getting loose and for that time, you must prepare.
......... By: Jean McQuaid
There it stood - home. The solitary light escaping from one of its windows intensified Sully's regret for being so late. Michaela was probably still awake and no doubt, in one of her moods. He'd planned on being home in time for supper, but neither he nor Cloud Dancing had the heart to offend White Feather and graciously accepted a plateful of her rabbit stew. However, he wasn't about to make any more excuses to his wife. He would stand up to her and show her she wasn't the only one who could be headstrong and stubborn. The fact was, he could be every bit as pig-headed as Michaela, and then some.
Throwing caution to the wind, he opened the front door expecting to see her standing there suspending either the broom or a frying pan over her head, ready to pounce on him. But Michaela was no where to be seen and he assumed she might have retired after all. Suddenly the sound of something gently hitting the floor turned his attention to the fireplace. There she was, curled up in one of the chairs like a soft little kitten, sound asleep. She was so beautiful when she was sleeping, so peaceful and yet, even in sleep, she could arouse something so sensual, so powerful from the depths of his soul, melting any anger or frustration he had towards her. He picked up the book that had obviously fallen from her hands and placed it carefully on the table beside her. He hated to awaken his sleeping beauty but remembered the many mornings she'd awoke with a kink in her neck from sleeping in one of those chairs.
"Michaela?" Gently, he touched her shoulder sending a shiver throughout her body that made her awaken suddenly. "Sorry. Didn't mean to startle ya."
She looked up in a daze, her eyes still trying to focus on the image before her. "Sully?" She yawned. "What time is it?"
"It's late Michaela. Want me to help ya up to bed?"
"Bed?" She yawned and stretched out her arms nearly landing a blow to his chin as he backed away. "But I saved you some supper."
Once again overcome with guilt he replied, "I've already eaten."
Now fully awake, he could see the look of disappointment on her face. At this point, there was nothing he could say. Clearly, she was annoyed and he hoped by engaging her in idle banter, he could steer away from having to explain himself. He sat down in the chair across from her. "Whatcha been readin'?"
She knew full well what he was up to, but it was late. Besides, she knew where he'd been and there was no need to upset either of them by getting into that topic tonight. "It's just a book that Duncan loaned me. Although I must say, I find it rather odd for a man like him to be reading romance novels, but it is very well written."
Sully leaned back in his chair. He wasn't pleased that Duncan was now offering his wife romantic stories to read but it didn't surprise him. He had a feeling that Duncan, in his own scheming way, was once again trying to show Michaela that her choice in men was completely inadequate. But if she wasn't going to pursue his being late, then he would let his feelings about Duncan Lodge go for tonight. "Katie and Brian asleep?"
Michaela's face suddenly beamed and she sat for quite some time in silence, feeling rather complacent. "I expect they are by now. However, I'm afraid you'll have to ask Colleen and Andrew about that."
It was obvious by the curious look on Sully's face that he hadn't a clue as to what she was talking about. "Ask Colleen?"
"Why yes, Colleen." Again Michaela grinned, quite happy with herself. "You see, Katie and Brian are spending the night with Colleen and Andrew. I had hoped you'd be home a little earlier than this and we'd be able to have a nice, quiet dinner ...... alone."
Michaela felt very smug now and sat up straight, crossing her arms over her chest. She fully expected him to hang his head in shame and indulge her in a very sympathetic apology. But she was not prepared for the reaction she did get.
Sully rose from his chair and pulled the blanket from her lap, carefully spreading it out on the floor in front of the fire. Michaela gasped as he lifted her up into his arms and placed her gently on the blanket, whispering, "Don't move. I'll be right back," leaving her stunned as he disappeared into the kitchen. When he did return, he held a plate with a piece of apple pie on it in one hand and a fork in the other. Kneeling down beside her, he cut a small piece of the pie with the fork and directed it towards her mouth, urging her lips to part. She finally gave in and delighted in the sweet taste of the apple pie she'd made earlier. There was no doubt about it, her culinary skills had greatly improved and this pie was delicious. But even more captivating was the sultry sparkle in her husband's eyes as he watched her eat. The next forkful went into his mouth and he returned to hers with yet another morsel, going back and forth until the plate was empty.
Now Sully felt smug. He knew he had her right where he wanted her and yet he was enjoying this game far too much for it to end just yet. "So, anythin' else excitin' happen today?"
It was like a slap in the face to Michaela, but two could play this game and she was not about to be the loser. "The Reverend came to see me this afternoon. It seems that Mrs. Slicker was quite upset about the display Hank put on in front of the whole town. She asked the Reverend to speak with him." She was talking, but it was very evident that her heart wasn't in what she was saying. Obviously Sully's little offering of desert had affected her and she blushed even thinking about it, hoping he hadn't noticed.
But Sully had noticed. He knew his wife very well and she was playing right into his hands. He started to laugh, "Now there's a sight - Hank gettin' his own personal sermon. You and I both know he ain't gonna like that."
"Well, according to the Reverend, Mrs. Slicker's main concern was for the children. She never did understand the friendship between Jake and Hank nor did she approve of it. Up until this point, she'd decided to keep silent, but she feels that Hank has gone too far this time and that he's getting worse. She wants the town council to ban both 'The Devil's Drink', as she calls it and 'The Devil's Women.' The Reverend agreed with her that something has to be done but knows all too well, laws like that will never pass in this town." Michaela looked up at her husband after gazing into the fire. She had regained her composure now and a look of deep concern swept across her face. Her hand rested on the cover of the book beside her. "Frankly Sully, I couldn't tell you what this book is all about. I've spent most of the evening thinking about Hank. Theresa is right, he is getting worse. I've never seen him so violent, so hostile towards anyone, let alone one of his girls".
"The man's got a bad temper. You seen it before when he held a gun to Myra's head and he sure wasn't happy when Emma left either. But Hank's Hank and there ain't none of us gonna change him . You autta know that by now, Michaela."
Sully hadn't anticipated the conversation to become quite so intense and decided it was time to get back to more important matters. "How 'bout some more dessert?"
"Oh Sully, I couldn't eat another mouthful of pie."
"Who said anythin' about pie." And, with that, he lifted her into his arms and carried her up to bed.
Duncan Lodge sat staring into the mirror, overly pleased and secure with the reflection that stared back at him. But patience was not one of his better virtues and he was beginning to lose what little he had left with Byron Sully. Determination never allowed anything to stand in his way before and he wasn't about to let it get in his way now, now that he was so close. He picked up a family photo from the dresser and ran his fingers over it, remembering the many times he'd taken Preston down with his caustic and cutting manner.
"Preston, even as a child you were such a feeble little waif. Useless! And how you managed to hoodwink Father was beyond me. Such lavish tactics may have deluded him, but I saw right through that mendacious façade. You didn't fool me in the least. And where have all those dreams of prosperity and excellence gone now, little brother? " Tossing the photo, he turned back to the mirror. "Preston, Preston, Preston, you poor little misguided simpleton, wanting so much to please Father, to be like him in every way, to be the one son he could be proud of. But alas, dear brother, don't look to me for sympathy. After all, where were you when Father cast me out?!!
Where were you when I couldn't find a bed to lie in nor even a scrap of food to fill my belly?!! I am what I am today because of my own perseverance and determination to survive and don't underestimate my capability and proficiency to get what I want, and I will get what I want. I will!!"
Duncan prepared himself for bed, taking care of every minor detail meticulously and thoroughly in the disciplined and precise manner which had now become his whole way of living. Not a hair out of place nor a wrinkle in his suit. Everything was exact. It was his idea of perfection. Tomorrow was another day but, for tonight, he would sleep and dream about the only woman who he felt was worthy of him, the only woman as close to perfection as he was.
"Tur-a-lur-a-lur-a, tur-a-lur-a-li.......tur-a-lur-a-lur-a, that's an Irish ........ lull...a...bye!"
Hank's head lifted slowly as he cupped his ears with his hands. "What in the hell's that noise?" Trying to focus on where the sound was coming from, he turned to see a middle-aged man in a top hat sitting alone at a table in the corner, the same table where the old bearded prospector had been sitting when Hank first passed out.
"When Irish eyes are smilin' sure...."
"Hey! Old man! Shut the Hell up!" Hank barked as his head dropped back down on the table.
The man slowly got up and limped his way over to the table where the bartender was slumped. "Now then laddy, that be no way to speak to a payin' customer ye hear!"
Painfully Hank lifted his head again and looked up. He could barely make out the figure of a man who stood with his hands on his hips, obviously prepared to argue. "Bar's closed."
"Well is it now. Funny ting is, I don't be seein' a closed sign on the door sonny boy. So me says tis still open!" Patrick O'Donnell stood firm. He had come a long way to find his brother and was in need of a little 'nourishment', as he put it, if he was to continue the search for the brother he hadn't seen since they were boys back in Ireland.
Hank's anger once again peaked and he stood up suddenly, nearly losing his footing. Towering over the annoying stranger, he rested his weight back against the table. "I said, The Bar's Closed old man. Now if ya don't wanna be tossed out on yer head, then get out!!! Now!!"
Patrick could see that there was no reasoning with the man in a sane and gentlemanly way, so there was nothing left to do but raise his fists as he'd done many a time back home, and prepare for battle.
"So, ya wanna fight do ya? Well lucky you, ya just got yerself one!" And, with that, Hank lifted the man into the air, carried him to the door of the saloon and tossed him into the street. "Like I said, bar's closed!" he turned and locked the door behind him, leaving the body of the man lying face down in the dirt.
Several of the girls had overheard the commotion and were standing at the top of the stairs. Violet Patterson was the only one brave enough to venture down to see if her boss was all right. She was afraid of Hank now, more afraid than she'd ever been, but she needed this job and, if she had to face his wrath of terror once more, then now was as good a time as any. With his threat, "I ain't finished with you yet!" still ringing in her ears, she quietly made her way down the stairs and inched over to where Hank's body was again slumped.
"You all right, Hank?" Fear causing her voice to break, and obviously too soft for his ears, she repeated her message, "You all right, Hank?"
This time, he heard her and looked up. "You! What do ya care Vi? Don'tcha think it's a little late for showin' some respect to yer boss now?" Hank's voice grew louder and his eyes burned red as he reached out and grabbed her by the arm.
"Hank, let go, you're hurtin' me! Hank? Please let go."
But her plea went unheard and he stood to take hold of her other arm, now shaking her. "Damn whores!"
By this time the other girls had made their way down and, although terrified, started beating at Hank's back until he finally released Vi. She fell to the floor, tears of pain streaming down her cheeks.
"Get her the Hell outta my sight before I....." Hank paused and, again, the memory of the humiliation and embarrassment Vi had caused him swelled up inside until he burst. "Before I kill her!"
Together the girls lifted Violet and helped her climb the stairs as she whimpered. They knew better than to talk back to him when he was like this and, hopefully, things would be back to normal by morning.
Sully could feel Michaela's body tremble as he pulled the sheet over their heads, trying to block out the brilliant sunlight that poured in through the open window. Surely it couldn't be time to get up yet. It seemed like they'd just fallen asleep. Just a few more minutes, curled up with his wife, was all he asked but she threw back the sheet and jumped out of bed, racing for her robe.
"Sully, I told Brian and Katie to meet us at the clinic this morning. I'm sure they're sitting there wondering where on earth their parents are."
Sully slipped one arm under his head, allowing him a better view of his wife as she frantically tried to dress. "I'm sure Brian'll come up with somethin' to tell Katie. He's a young man now, remember. He don't need no explanations."
Michaela blushed as she looked back at her husband. If only she could get her body to do what her heart really wanted to do at that moment, throw off the robe and crawl back into bed with Sully. Over the years, their lovemaking had become more intense and thrilling but, last night, it was pure magic. She smiled as she ran the hairbrush down her back. It always seemed better after they'd had some sort of disagreement. Although they really didn't argue, there had been an unexplained tension in the air last night. "I really should bake more apple pies," she teased, not realizing she was actually speaking out loud.
Sully, in turn, laughed as he arose to get dressed. "Apple is my favorite."
A small group had gathered around the clinic door and appeared to be relieved as Michaela and Sully's wagon came into town.
"It's about time you got here!" shouted Loren. "I just hope he ain't dead already."
Michaela frowned at him as she excused her way through the small crowd.
There, on the bench outside her clinic, was a middle-aged man sandwiched in between Brian and Katie. His eyes were closed shut and his body void of any movement. Alarmed, Michaela quickly checked his vital signs. After a few seconds, she turned back to the anxious crowd. "You can rest assured, he's very much alive. Where did he come from?"
"Why, I found him laying out in the middle of the street when I opened up this mornin'. Said him and the barkeep got ta fightin' last night and then he passed out. I figured he died right then."
"Like I said, he's not dead, but when he wakes up I'm sure he'll wish he was."
Loren looked at the doctor, puzzled by her crude remark.
"Although he does appear to have a dislocated shoulder and a few minor cuts and bruises, this man is suffering more from the effects of too much whiskey. We'd better get him into the clinic. Sully?"
"Mama, is he gonna be all right?" Katie's worried look was always one of genuine concern.
"Yes, sweetheart. After I tend to his wounds and he's had a good sleep, I'm sure he'll be just fine. Did you have a nice time with Colleen and Andrew last night?"
"Yes Mama. We had lots of fun and stayed up real late. Did you and Papa have fun too?
Michaela looked over at Brian to see the huge grin now covering his face. He kneeled down to his little sister, offering assistance to his Ma. "I'm sure Ma and Pa had a real good time, Katie. So let's say you and me head home. I don't know about you but I'm real tired after stayin' up so late last night."
By the time Michaela was finished with the stranger and had him comfortably settled in one of the beds upstairs, the majority of people had dispersed, no longer interested. But, just as she stepped outside to make her report on the man to those who did remain, Theresa Slicker abruptly shoved her way past her husband and Loren, who stood talking with Dorothy, and came to rest not two feet from Michaela.
"Dr. Quinn, I think it's about time someone had a talk with Hank. He's gone too far this time, trying to kill a man, and I fear that his next victim won't be so lucky!"
Her voice was loud and carried across the street to where Hank stood, taking in every word spoken and returning every scowl with one of his own.
Evidently, this woman already had her mind made up that the 'someone' would be her, Michaela, a fact that, at this moment, annoyed her. What gave the people of this town the right to assume that it was her responsibility to always be the one who had to take care of problems like Hank? She was a doctor of medicine not some mediator that could be called upon whenever they felt the need. But, as she looked over at the faces of Dorothy and Jake and Loren, she couldn't help but feel she was her own worst enemy. How many times had she and Sully disagreed about her involvement in other people's lives? If she'd only listened to him then, she wouldn't be in this difficult situation right now.
"I'll see what I can do," she said and started across the street, just as Sully stepped out of the clinic. One thing he did know about his wife was that there was no sense in attempting to hold her back, and he had long since stopped trying. But he still didn't like it and would never get used to the many predicaments she put herself through. For now, all he could do was keep a close eye on her and make sure Hank's current turmoil didn't boil over and put his wife in any danger.
But Hank had done just about all the talking he was going to do and he stood, looking down on her with a tempestuous glare.
"Hank, I think........"
"Ya, an' I think too Michaela, that you do too much thinkin'." Hank's cynical remarks had never intimidated her and she moved closer hoping to appeal to his sense of dignity, if he had any. But he became more enraged and struck out with a blow to her shoulder, sending her reeling off the porch. "Damn it woman, leave me alone!"
Furious, Sully bolted across the street and reached his wife, just as Hank disappeared into the saloon, locking the door behind him. Michaela, instinctively, reached out to stop him, knowing Sully had every intention of following Hank to seek revenge. "Sully, No!"
He caught his breath and took his wife into his arms. "You all right?"
She nodded. "Yes, but I'm afraid he's not. I've never seen him so angry, Sully and, frankly, it worries me."
"Michaela! Michaela!" The sound of Dorothy's voice caused them to turn their attention back towards the clinic. There, stood the stranger, clutching for dear life to one side of the open door. Dorothy quickly took one of his arms and helped him take a seat on the bench. "There ya go."
Michaela looked up at Sully. "I wonder where he came from?"
"Musta stopped inta the saloon last night for a drink and got more than he bargained for."
Sully was right. Likely he and Hank were both drunk and got into some kind of confrontation., although Hank didn't usually throw his customers out into the street unless they caused trouble. "I'd better go check on him."
Duncan Lodge stayed hidden in the shadows watching with great interest as the lady doctor, once again, showed her great tenacity and daring. He'd never known any woman like her before, brave enough to stand up to someone like Hank Lawson, who towered over her not only in height but ferocity. He could have beaten the rogue bartender senseless for having the audacity to lay a hand on Michaela, if Sully hadn't been there. He wouldn't have let him get off so easy, but then Byron Sully wasn't half the man he was, and there would be plenty more opportunities to show Michaela Quinn what a real man was like.
Gasping for her last breath of life, she closed her eyes, praying to God that her nightmare would soon be over. What a fitting end to a life that had overflowed with hostility and hate from the first day she discovered she, herself, had come from the womb of a whore. Feeling it was her destiny, she followed in her mother's footsteps and became the only thing her mother told her she'd ever be good for, pleasing the appetite of a man in need of a woman. Her only shame was in not being born with the strength to defy those men not worthy of her expert profession, those men who were usually so drunk they gained no pleasure from the way she tried so hard to please them. After all those years of serving man, had she not earned the right to feel loved like any other woman? Was fate going to be so cruel as to end it all before she had a chance to find the true happiness she deserved? It shouldn't be ending like this. It was supposed to be the happiest night of her life. Remembering the enormous adulation she felt as she took one last look in the mirror before pulling the hood of her cape up over her head and fleeing into the night. All she had read about love and passion were to be hers tonight had she not met such an untimely fate. It was never her choice to keep her secret from Hank and in good time she would have told him.
Yet the anger that seemed to radiate from Hank lately, cast off heat as if he was the devil arising from Hell. Some days his words cut deeper than any knife and his eyes burned right through to her soul. Why couldn't he show compassion, if only this one time in his life? Why was it so hard for him to understand that all she ever wanted was to be respected and loved by one man? But he never gave her that chance and now, it was too late.
She felt something warm trickle down her cheeks and wasn't sure, at this point, if it was her own tears or blood. Either way, she knew it was the end and she would have to find some consolation that her pain would soon be gone and that the world would go on without the likes of Violet Patterson in it. Sadly, she knew there would be many who'd say she was just another whore, but maybe someone, anyone would say a prayer and cry for her and God would open his arms, welcoming her into his home. There she would find peace and love, at last, taking the secret of her slayer with her, on into her next life.