Riding back into town, Michaela tried to focus not on the pain that found its home in almost every muscle and sinew in her body, but rather on the feel of Sully’s back pressed against her chest. She’d never been so grateful for the safety that his presence granted her, never before allowed herself to breathe in the scent of him quite so deeply. The days they’d both spent out in the open was hardly rose scented bath water, but Sully’s scent was always one that reminded her of warmth, security….of home.
Thinking back over the weeks before her abduction, Michaela admonished herself for allowing her time with Sully to have been interrupted. She had been hurt by the time he had spent with Catherine, and devastated by the fact that Sully’s lips had belonged briefly to another woman. She understood that Sully loved her but the taunting voices that told her they were too different to spend a lifetime together were louder than her heart on the day she told him that she needed time apart. Of course, he hadn’t gone far, trying everyday since to show her that he only wanted to be by her side.
If only it hadn’t taken the dog soldiers and several long, difficult days apart to help Michaela to realise what truly mattered. Her life in Colorado Springs had been full of challenges and dangers, but nothing compared to the hours she had spent captive, praying to a God she wasn’t sure she still truly believed in to guide Sully to her, to let her see her children’s faces again, to be back where she finally felt she belonged. It was on a rocky hillside, when the travelling party had stopped for water, that she had felt a strange tugging in her heart, something calling out to her. Normally, Michaela wouldn’t have imagined she would allow herself to give any credence to such superstition, but after days of being dragged barefoot across rocks and over river beds, it was clear to her that Sully was calling to her. She had sometimes questioned whether she felt things as deeply as others, whether she was even truly normal in some ways, but the feeling of Sully’s heart reaching out to hers was deeper and more real than any physical sensation she’d felt. It wasn’t something she could explain with science, and nor did she wish to. Perhaps the delirium of days without sleep and food had opened a new plane of emotion up to her, she had thought afterwards, and when Sully had lifted her into his arms and guided her across the river to safety, she vowed never to ignore this part of her conscience again.
She was jolted back to the present at the sight of the gallows in the meadow. Sully had warned her of the events in town, explaining that they’d need to ride at this punishing pace to make it to town in time to save the lives of so many of their friends. As Matthew helped her down from the saddle, she only had a moment to mourn the loss of Sully’s warmth before Brian and Colleen clung to her through the blanket whilst they watched in horror as Custer ordered his men to carry out their orders. It was only when Sully helped Cloud Dancing down from the wooden platform that Michaela’s feet would propel her forwards to stand with them on the grass. Whilst she and Sully shared with their friend his son’s brave sacrifice, Michaela felt herself to be only half present, with a layer of her conscience only able to focus on the feeling of the soft grass between her calloused toes. The wool of the blanket seemed to scratch at every inch of skin not covered by her filthy clothes and her stomach started to churn as if to protest the absence of any real food over the last few days. As Sully kept his arm firmly around her shoulders and guided her towards the clinic, she felt her knees give way as if in both defeat and relief and found herself once again in Sully’s arms, his panicked voice calling out her name as he carried her to the clinic.
Colleen readied the bed in the exam room whilst Dorothy and Cloud Dancing brought clean water and bandages to dress the wounds covering Michaela’s usually unblemished skin. Sully brushed off Matthew’s hand at his elbow, starting to guide him towards the clinic door, instead giving the young man the look and nod of the head he understood as a signal to take his younger brother outside. At Brian’s protests, Dorothy ushered the two to the bench outside and took a deep breath before returning to her friend, unsure of the pain she might be feeling both on her body and in her heart. As a woman who herself knew what it was like to be used so cruelly by a man, Dorothy prepared herself for the possibility that her dear friend had suffered a similar atrocity.
Inside, Michaela began to rouse from her semi-conscious state and reached instinctively for Sully’s hand, grasping at his fingers whilst Colleen cleaned the wounds on her arms, her legs, her feet. Sully swallowed and clutched her hand to his chest, wishing that he could heal the wounds with his own hands and with his lips, desperate to close the cuts and lessen the bruises with the strength of his love for this suddenly tiny, frail woman. He’d never seen Michael so vulnerable and small before. He’d held her when she fretted over her return to Boston, carried her almost lifeless form in his arms when she succumbed to the grippe and even combed her hair whilst her breath came in small, shaking gasps on the side of a mountain. But this woman lying before him seemed more exposed and frail than he’d ever seen her before, totally without the usual pull of propriety that prevented her from relaxing into his kisses, the passionate fire in her eyes unleashed when an injustice was occurring, no matter how large or small, totally without the usual strength and spirit that made her their Dr Mike. He began to lose himself to the worry that perhaps she would never be that same woman, when he was pulled back to the present by her scream.
“I’m sorry Dr Mike!” Colleen cried as she applied the alcohol to the most tender spots of Michaela’s feet. The young girl, seeming simultaneously older and wiser than her years and just as young as Brian in this moment, looked to Sully for reassurance.
“It’s alright Colleen, go ahead,” he bent down with some difficulty, momentarily reminded of his own injuries, bringing his face close to Michaela’s, now twisted in pain. “‘’Chaela, I know it’s hurting ya, but just look at me, I’m here, you’re safe now….” He trailed off, further words failing to arrive at his lips as he instead used them to kiss away the tears that ran down her face. As he stroked her hair, he looked over to Cloud Dancing with the pain evident in his eyes. Both men know the power of a healing ceremony, but that would have to wait until Michaela was ready to go back out to the woods. Right now, Sully just willed the bandages to wind themselves around her feet faster so that this part of the journey could be over.
“Sully?” Michaela sobbed as the hands of the others left her body, “Sully, please I want to go home.”
Dorothy watched as Sully gently lifted her friend’s shoulders from the bed with a tenderness she’d never seen in any other man. He held her to his chest and stroked one hand through her hair whilst the other clutched at her waist, enveloping her in an embrace intended purely to make sure she knew she was safe. Dorothy gasped as she noticed for the first time the dark patches of blood seeping through Sully’s shirt.
“Before you go anywhere Michaela, I think you should try to drink and eat something and try to sleep a little. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal and I think your body needs a little time to rest before another journey, no matter how short. Why don’t you try to lie down upstairs?” Michaela met her friend’s eyes for the first time since she had returned to town and nodded gently, the fog that the pain had brought finally clearing enough for the doctor inside to recognise the wisdom of Dorothy’s words.
Instinctively, Sully wrapped his arm around Michaela’s waist, helping her to stand. Once satisfied that she wasn’t about to fall again, he started towards the door to lead them upstairs.
“Why don’t you all stay down here for a few minutes? I can help Michaela up the stairs and out of these clothes.” After a pointed look in the direction of his stomach, their eyes met and Sully understood that the older woman meant for him to have his own injuries dressed before joining them upstairs. His stomach lurched at the thought of his heartsong once again being out of sight and did not settle any when he caught the sudden fear clouding Michaela’s face as she raised her chin to look into his eyes. Before loosening his grip on her waist, Sully pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead and whispered to her, “I’ll be right here. Let Dorothy help you change into some clean clothes, alright?” She nodded and leaned more heavily on her friend as the two women headed upstairs to the recovery rooms.
Colleen breathed a sigh of relief and ran outside to let her brothers know that their ma would be ok, and the three of them headed to Grace’s to request a basket of Dr Mike’s favourite foods, certain they could help her to feel better right away. Sully was left standing in the clinic with his friend, grateful for the peace that settled over the small room. For the first time in almost a week, he felt like perhaps one day soon he could breathe again.