by Jean Campbell
Daniel was tired. The Christmas holidays had been taxing; Hank's picking a fight with him at the Tree decoration had certainly not been a symbol of peace on earth. But the overriding, mentally and physically exhausting reason for his lassitude was his worry about the safety of Sully and Michaela. Many times he had envisioned her limp, lifeless body lying in the cruel wilderness, her blood staining the grass. His heart had almost burst in his chest when the couple had returned safely on Christmas Eve.
'Michaela.' His blood warmed at the whisper of her name beneath his breath. The sight of her smiling face framed in the open doorway of the homestead was all the Christmas gift he would ever desire in his life. He smiled at the remembrance of her slim figure bustling about the holiday table, of her flowing, shimmering hair swirling about as she bent to place biscuits on the table, to lift baby Katie from her high chair. How he longed to bury his hands in her hair¹s silken softness.
'Sully,' he mused, recalling his best friend`s emotional embrace,his glad, relieved smile, his genuine gratitude for Daniel¹s help when he returned from hiding in the wilderness.
"Thank you for everything you`ve done for Michaela and my family," Sully had murmured. "I can never repay you." His sincere blue eyes gleamed with moisture.
"Aw, talk of payment between friends ain`t necessary, Sully; you know that," Daniel had responded, not mentioning that any idea of a debt could be paid in full forever by the caress of Michaela`s soft hand on his blonde hair.
He was glad that Sully said no more but turned to place another log on the blazing, welcoming fire. Daniel had brought in the fragrant,warmth-giving wooden chunks, but now it was Sully`s responsibility to keep his home and family comfortable and safe. The friend glanced away as Sully reached for his wife and pulled her close to the leaping, glowing flames.
"When I was in that cold cave I kept warm by imagining you and me here before our fireplace," he whispered. His arms enfolded her and together they gazed into the golden depths. Daniel could not help overhearing the loving reply.
"I dreamed of it, too, my darling," Michaela answered, raising her color-drenched lips to his tender kiss as the fire`s glow bathed them in peaceful hues of rose and gold and flickering blue.
Daniel become conscious of feeling in his palms; looking down he realized he had clenched his fists so forcefully that his fingernails had pierced his flesh and fresh blood oozed. Hurriedly, he wiped his hands on his pants and strode to the chilly window. "Hey, it`s snowing!" he called out as fluffy whiteness began to blot out the stark darkness of Christmas night.
Confessing that he was weary, Daniel retired early. Gazing around the simple room he had been assigned, he noticed the handwork of Sully: a burnished wooden cradle perhaps awaiting a future baby; a sturdy, comfortable, slatted baby crib constructed of cheery wood; a delicate, inviting , child-sized rocker. Then from atop the mantel he lifted a miniature dresser, complete with a tiny mirror. Loving hands had crafted the small sides with skill, had shaped the little drawers that pulled out easily, had added knobs almost too tiny to grasp, had inscribed: 'to daughter Katie with love from her Papa.' A disturbing image of Sully`s hands rose before his eyes: Sully`s hands adding logs to the fire, carving the succulent turkey, stroking his wife`s vibrant hair, clasped in Michaela`s loving embrace.
He shuddered as he realized that his haven for the night was baby Katie`s room- the room of the child that Michaela and Sully had planned and conceived in love. He could not bear thoughts of their married intimacy and hurriedly splashed water on his burning face from the washbowl by the extra bed in the corner.
Picking up a warm garment Michaela had given him, he held it up, allowing its length to unfold. Devoted hands had cut it out of soft flannel cloth, had deftly added long sleeves for warmth, had delicately fashioned sturdy button holes and sewn on dime-sized buttons. "Here, Daniel," Michaela had laughed, "you can borrow one of Sully`s nightshirts; they don`t get a lot of wear." With a curse the friend flung the clothing high into the air. Barely avoiding the glowing fire it descended in a heap onto the floor.
Daniel chose to sleep in his clothes, removing only his boots. The bed was short, obviously used by someone much smaller on infrequent nights when the child needed supervision, for irregular naps when the baby desired comfort and closeness. But he was accustomed to his feet anging over the end; the fire was soothing and cozy; the patterned quilt covered him comfortably. His weary body and spirit soon yielded and sleep overcame him, despite the fragrance emitting from the soft pillow beneath his head--Michaela`s fragrance. Only the crackle of the fire was heard.
Flickering shadows from the smouldering fire lingered on the log walls, on the white-washed ceiling, on the entwined couple in the arm chair by the fire. Sully`s arms surrounded his wife protectively, his cheek rested on top of her glossy head that lay on his heart. The fresh, pleasant fragrance of her skin and hair stirred his senses.
"You smell so good, wife," he murmured, "so much better than my serape," he teased, knowing she would look up in protest and he could kiss her peeved lips.
"I should hope I smell better than an old mouldy blanket," she protested, raising her face to encounter his seeking mouth that placed cherishing kisses on her eyes, her nose, her cheeks, her lips.
"That old mouldy blanket could tell a lot of stories,wife," he whispered in her ear.
Laughter bubbled from her throat as she realized he was being mischievious. Their peals of merriment mingled with the quiet crack of a breaking log, with the telling tick of the mantle clock. "I have missed you so much my silly Sully," she breathed against his chuckling throat, her fatigue and worry replaced by God`s gift of humor, by the joyous acknowledgement that her husband was home.
Daniel was awakened by scuffling on the stairs, by muffled outcries and laughter. Instantly reaching for his gun, he suddenly remembered that he was in a room next to his hosts. Danger should be minimal. Maybe Katie had strayed from Colleen¹s bed and fallen down the stairs, he worried.
Then familiar voices emerged from the hall. "Sully, put me down," Michaela giggled; "you do not have to carry me over the threshold!"
"Well it`s dark and you are pretty heavy,wife," a male voice answered,"you`ve been eatin` too many biscuits while I`ve been away." Laughter accompanied the husband`s insult, along with banging against the door and an excited squeal.
A heavy door squeaked and the sound of a burden hitting the bed resounded. "Sully! Sully! You will wake up Katie!"
"Colleen took her to her room,'member?" was the reply. The voices intensified and the listener became aware that near his bed the door to the closet in the other room had been opened. The wall between the two rooms did little to block out the sounds of the impish lovers. Giggles continued.
"Here, Sully; here is your nightshirt," a playful voice exhorted. "I loaned Daniel one."
"Let him wear it, wife. I don`t need one to keep me warm," Sully responded. Daniel did not need one either as heat pulsated through his body when fumbling in the closet continued. Daniel clutched the soft coverlet with frenzied fingers.
The listener lay in agony, dreading the next sounds, yet straining to hear the lovers. Rustling covers and shrill shivers told him the man and wife were in bed and he held his breath fearfully. Then peals of laughter electrified him, jolts of fire seemed to shock his astonished body.
With an oath he clenched his teeth on his words: "He`s tickling her!" His imagination could not bear to visualize the exquisite forture of Michaela¹s willing, writhing body as choking screams were muffed intoher pillow and Sully¹s heart chuckles reverberated in the room.
Flinging himself face downward, the intruder endeavored to ease his pain, to block out the sounds of loving laughter that scorched his ears.The laughter quieted to giggles.
Michaela lay serenely in her husband`s arms. Her vibrant hair covered his bare chest like a russet shawl. "Did I hurt you, darlin'?" he questioned contritely, caressing her silken back.
"No, sweetheart," she mused, "but I am afraid we might awaken Daniel." Her fingertips stroked his strong shoulder and chest, pausing on the pulsating area of his heart where her cheek rested on the steady vibrations.
"Daniel don`t wake up easy, Michaela; besides he knows I`ve been gone a long time," her husband murmured as he returned her caresses. Their muted whispers and gentle kisses and barely spoken endearments stirred the silence.
The silence was worse than the clamor, Daniel decided. In the silence, his imagination could function freely and he struggled to suppress his own cries as his body fought against the images assaulting his mind. Wet with sweat, he threw the quilt and pillow across the room.
Softly and sweetly the unseen sounds filled both bedrooms: theardent touch on bare skin; the almost imperceptable motion on smoothsheets; the passionate breathing and adoring endearments and precious promises; the rapturous kisses-the reverent stillness. The room became hallowed with the sounds of God¹s gift of married love.
Daniel`s groans of pain were muffled in his hands as he coveted his friend`s wife , as he understood that although he had comforted and aided and strengthened her for months, his desire was useless, that Sully was Home to reclaim the love and fidelity that belonged to him only.
The friend felt no remorse. Gladly he would have risen in the darkness , made his way into the hallowed room and strangled with his bare hands the man he had grown to love like a brother, the man for whom he would give his life. But reason was overwhelmed by longing and dreaming and dark, desperate desire.
He prayed for sleep- for himself and for the man and wife. He prayed for surcease from the torment that wracked his body. A peaceable hush semed to envelop and soothe him and he sighed with relief.
Then a new sound broke the stillness, a low, mellow, moving fragment of melody that seared Daniel`s soul, that pierced his heart. From the other room, Sully`s voice intoned a familiar song of love by the Scotsman Bobby Burns to his beloved. With a poet`s words the husband pledged a sacred vow of devotion:
braes are bonnie
where early fa`s the dew,
And twas there that my Michaela
*gae me her promise true;
Gae me her promise true
which ne`er forgot weel be,
And for my bonnie Michaela
I`d lay me doon and *dee."
The listener fled from the room of the child born of love, from the house built by the husband`s hands, from the mesmerizing melody that would haunt his dreams forever. He plunged into the frigid, Stygian void of the night where his cries would be unheeded, his torture or his life ended.
From the cold hearth`s surface a dark figure rose awakened from his comfortable night¹s haven by the smouldering fire. Casting off his warm blanket, he strode to the open door, staring for a moment into the impenetrable blackness. He had seen before the possive passion burning in the fleeing man¹s eyes, hidden before the husband. He raised his bronzed hand in the age-old gesture of parting or blessing.
"Ha ho," he spoke in the tongue of the Cheyenne; he paused, framed in the open door. "Good bye, Daniel," he spoke in the tongue of the White Man; "good riddance!" With a wide smile,Sully`s friend Cloud Dancing closed the Homestead door.
All through the winter night the snow fell, blanketing the earth with a glistening, pure expanse of white, silencing nature`s sounds. A full silver moon illuminated the trees, the barn, the sleeping house with light almost as bright as day. With glowing rays the moon touched with fingers of light the golden heads of two sons, the babe beside her sister, the couple lying in each other`s arms in the bed made by the husband, as Sully reclaimed his Home, his Dear Ones, and his Life.