Episode 6
Passing the Torch

"Andrew," Rebecca Lee said to her son as they were finishing breakfast, "Would you go over to the church and find out what's taking your father so long? He left before dawn to go work on his sermon."


Andrew folded his napkin and placed it beside his empty plate as he stood up. "Yes, Mother."


"It's not like him to miss breakfast," Amanda stated, standing and touching her mother in law on the shoulder as the older woman started to stand up. "Why don't you stay here, Mother Lee and I'll clean the plates from the table. That way you can keep Reverend Lee company when he comes in?"


Rebecca smiled at Amanda's thoughtfulness. "Thank you, dear."


Picking up Andrew's empty plate, Amanda said, "I'll bring the coffee when I come back. I'm sure you could use a warm up."


Looking through the dining room window, Rebecca had a view of the church, and watched as Andrew went inside. When he came back outside alone just a few moments later, she saw him glance in the direction of the parsonage before continuing down the steps. Rebecca stood and walked to the window watching as he continued down Front Street, but she wasn't able to see where he was going. Perhaps Matthew had gone down to the Cafe for some reason, she thought, and Andrew had gone to find him.


"What's wrong, Mother Lee?" Amanda asked as she returned.


"Andrew went into the church, then came back out and went across the street," she explained, continuing to watch for Andrew and Matthew as they returned. But instead of Matthew, Andrew's companions were Doc Hawkins and his nephew, and they went directly to the church. Rebecca turned from the window and went through to the front door, with Amanda right behind her.


The two women were at the top step of the church when Andrew came back out and stopped suddenly upon seeing his mother and his wife standing there. "Mother -"


Amanda saw the sadness in his eyes, and knew what he was going to say, but Rebecca's gaze was focused beyond her son, into the church building.


"Mother, I'm sorry. Father - Father's - dead."


"What? No," Rebecca insisted. Amanda and Andrew both tried to stop her as she continued into the church, where Doc was standing beside the front pew, and Dr. Mitchell was kneeling beside the body of her husband. "Matthew?" she called softly. Finally she looked at Doc. "Dr. Hawkins? What - what happened?"


Doc helped her over to sit on the front pew, keeping hold of her hand. "Rebecca, it was likely his heart."


"Nonsense. Matthew was as strong as a horse. He -" she fell silent as Doc shook his head slowly.


"He came to me a few months ago about pains in his chest. He didn't want you to know." He looked at Andrew as he continued, "He didn't didn't want either of you to worry about him. But he knew that it was just a matter of time. He'd made his peace with that. I'm sorry, Rebecca. I truly am."


"How like him to be more worried about us than himself," Rebecca said, taking a handkerchief from her sleeve as she began to cry.


Andrew stood there, and Amanda saw his gaze move from the lifeless body of his father up to the pulpit. She reached out to place a hand on his arm. She knew what he was thinking - he was wondering if he was up to the task of replacing his father on a full time basis, and she hoped that her eyes told him that he'd been ready from the day he had surrendered to preach. He covered her hand with his for a moment before drawing a deep breath and turning to his mother. "We'll take her home," Andrew told Doc, who nodded and helped Rebecca to stand. "Thank you, Doc."


"I'll be over in a little while," he said. "In the meanwhile, if you need anything -"


Andrew nodded as he and Amanda assisted his mother out of the church. As they came out, he stopped upon seeing that several people had gathered at the bottom, and every face revealed curiosity and concern. Turning to Amanda, he said, "Take Mother back to the parsonage."


"Andrew -" she began, wanting to remind him that her place was at his side, but he shook his head.


"I'll be right behind you," he assured her.


Amanda led Rebecca down the steps, and the crowd parted in silence to let them pass. Once they were through the crowd, Andrew took another deep breath. "My father - Reverend Matthew Lee - is now in the presence of his Lord, the same Lord and God that he served faithfully for many years." The crowd began to murmur, and some began to cry. "No tears, please," Andrew said. "He wouldn't want that. He would prefer that you celebrate the fact that he's in Heaven, and that we'll see him again some blessed day. Don't mourn his passing, but rather, celebrate his life. Remember all of the things that he said and done for this community. Yes, you can be sad - sad at the present loss of his wisdom and knowledge in our day-to-day lives. But rely on God to give you comfort from that sadness. Pray for our family, for the changes that we will face. And we will pray our thanks to God for placing us in such a loving, giving community." Squaring his shoulders, Andrew went down the steps and to the parsonage.




Elizabeth drove the buggy into town, making note of how close the new train station was to being complete. Her attention was diverted by the fact that several people were already on the street, most of them coming from the direction of the church, and curiosity sent her past the livery stable. Seeing Doc and Thad come out of the church, she stopped the buggy. "Doc? What's going on?" she asked, getting down to talk to him. "What's happened?"


"Matthew Lee -" he said, then paused, clearly upset.


"What about him?"


Thad came over and placed a hand on her arm to get her attention. "Reverend Lee died this morning," he told her.


"What? He - what happened?" she asked, looking from Doc to Thad and back again.


"Probably his heart," Thad answered. "He'd been having chest pains for awhile now."


"I have to go see Amanda," she said, then looked at Doc again. "Are you okay? I know how close you and Reverend Lee and my Pa were."


"I'll be okay," Doc assured her with a slight smile. "Go visit your sister. And don't worry about the office today. Thad and I will manage."


Thad agreed. "Somehow," he added, and Elizabeth managed a wan smile in reaction to his comment. Over the last few months, they had begun working together frequently.


"I'm going to go see Martha," Doc told his nephew as Elizabeth moved away. "Would you mind taking Elizabeth's rig to the livery stable?"


"She might need it to get back to the ranch," Thad suggested.


"I'd rather she not drive that distance right now," Doc told him. "Stop by the hotel and tell Nick what's happened. He'll ride out and tell Jess and Kevin. They need to know. Ask him to stop by the Sheriff's office before he goes."


Thad nodded in agreement both to the words and to his instructions, watching Doc walk slowly across the street toward the Sutton house.




Elizabeth knocked softly on the front door of the parsonage, impatiently waiting for someone to answer the summons. When the door finally opened, she was relieved to see her sister standing there. "Amanda -"


She found herself inside and enveloped in Amanda's arms as both cried softly. "Oh, Elizabeth," she whispered. "Thank God you're here."


"Where -?" Elizabeth asked, looking around.


"Mother Lee is in her room, resting. Andrew went up with her. I came back down to put some coffee on and finish the breakfast dishes - just in case people start - I can't believe -" She was talking fast - too fast, Elizabeth worried.


"Doc said it was his heart?"


Amanda nodded. "Apparently he'd known for some time that he had a problem, but didn't tell any of us. Mother Lee is - I've never seen her so lost."


"They were married for a long time," Elizabeth reminded her sister. "I'm sure she *is* feeling lost. She's going to need you and Andrew."


"I know. Come into the kitchen with me while I finish up - Unless you have to go to Doc's office?"


"No, he told me that he and Thad can handle whatever comes up. But I think it will be Thad doing it. Doc was heading over to Ma Sutton's when I came in here."


"He and Reverend Lee and Pa - there aren't a lot of the original settlers' left," Amanda observed.


"I'm sure that Doc's thinking about that." Elizabeth sighed. "Do you remember what today is?"


Amanda stopped for a moment, frowning. Suddenly she lifted her eyes to Elizabeth's. "Pa."


"It's been five years. Jess was up and gone before breakfast, as usual."


"She'll never stop doing that until she finds out what happened to him."


"If she ever does." Elizabeth fell silent for a minute. "You know, Providence should do something to recognize those twenty families before all of their patriarchs are gone."


Amanda looked up from the pan of dishwater. "That's a good idea. Maybe if you mention it to Jess -"


"I'll do that. Now, what can I do to help?"


Amanda nodded toward the dishtowel. "Pick that up and start drying?"




Kevin was about to ride out with the hands when he saw Spirit coming toward the house at a full gallop. Worried that something might be wrong with Amanda or Elizabeth, he handed his horse over to Pedro and went to meet Nick as he dismounted. "Where's Jess?" Nick wanted to know.


"She rode out early this morning," he said. "What's wrong?"


Nick shook his head. "Let's go inside. Lily needs to hear this as well."


"What?" Kevin said again, following his friend up the steps and into the house.


"Nick!" Lily said, smiling until she saw the look on his face. "What's wrong?"


"That's what I've been asking him," Kevin told her.


"Reverend Lee is - dead," he told them.


"Oh, no!" Lily said, sitting down on the settee.


"What happened?" Kevin wanted to know, sitting down beside her.


"Dr. Mitchell said he had a heart attack. He was in the church, working on a sermon. When Andrew went to get him for breakfast, he found - I need to tell Jess," he insisted. "Where is she?"




From her perch up on what they called the Western Ridge, Jess saw the white horse and rider coming in her direction at a full gallop. Frowning, she wondered why Nick would be pushing Spirit that way. She glanced behind her to the pile of rocks and started toward Midnight - but stopped. Usually she didn't want anyone up here with her - on this day of all days - but maybe it was time that she changed that, and returned to the rise to watch his ascent.


Midnight whinnied as Nick and Spirit reached the top of the trail. "You're in a hurry," she noted as he got off of the horse and looked around, focusing on the rocks, neatly piled into a small pyramid. "This is where it happened," he said.


Jess nodded. "It was his favorite place on the entire ranch." "I wanted to bury him up here, but Kevin and the twins insisted that he should be at the cemetery in town with Ma and Olivia." She re-positioned the top rock on the pile. "So every year, I add another rock here." She stood and waved her arm in an arc to the east. "He said he could see everything from here - even joked about almost seeing all the way to New York," she told him with a sad smile. "He liked to come up here at night when he couldn't sleep - especially on a clear night with a full moon. The first time I came up here with him, I couldn't believe the way things looked."


"He came up here alone that night."


"Yes." She looked at the ground. "He never got off of his horse. Whoever killed him was either here waiting for him or came up here after he arrived. Both horses were shod, so his killer wasn't an Indian. Pa's gun was still in its holster, so it was someone he knew and trusted. Someone that used a knife and stabbed him in the heart." She buried her face against Midnight's neck as she had once before. Nick had wanted to comfort her that time. This time, he pulled her into his arms, surprised when he discovered she wasn't crying. She seemed to struggling inwardly for a moment before speaking again. "We found the other horse's hoof prints and followed them to the flats -" she pointed to the south west, "but lost them out there."


"You still have no idea who might have killed him?" Nick asked, keeping his arm around her.


"No. It wasn't a robbery - he still had ten thousand in cash he was carrying for a cattle buying trip that he was supposed to leave on in a couple of days." She lifted her head to look at him. "Why did you come out here?"


Nick took a deep breath. "You're needed in town."


"Why?" Her mind began working. "Elizabeth? She was going to work at Doc's office -"


"Elizabeth's fine. Amanda -"


"What's wrong with Amanda?"


"Reverend Lee had a heart attack this morning while working on his sermon." He watched her carefully as he spoke, keeping her from falling onto the ground as her knees seemed to go weak, but otherwise, she seemed fine.


"A heart attack? Is he -?"


"I'm sorry. He's dead," Nick confirmed.


"Dead?" She looked at the pile of rocks, then turned to bury her face against Nick's shoulder. "Dear Lord, be with Mrs. Lee and Andrew and Amanda, and all of us who were blessed to know your servant," he heard he murmur softly before she pulled back, still without a single tear managing to escape. "I do need to get to town," she agreed. "Can you go back to the ranch with me and wait for me to change into something more suitable?"


Nick thought that her black riding skirt and blouse would have been suitable, but he had an idea that she wouldn't agree with his assessment. "Of course."


While they were waiting for her to change clothes, he asked Kevin, "Have you ever seen Jess cry?"


Kevin shook his head. "Not since she was a little girl. I know she overheard him tell me once that strong men didn't cry, and it would take a strong man to run this ranch once he was gone. Maybe she decided that in order to help run this place, she had to be just as strong as he was."


"I kept expecting tears up there on the Ridge, but they never came."


"I know that she usually takes off after things are settled, goes somewhere by herself. Maybe then she -"


"Are you ready?" Jess asked as she returned, now wearing a black dress. "Where's Lily?"


"She said that she would come in later, after she and Mariana finished the stew to bring in for the family." Jess nodded, pulling on her gloves. "Give Amanda my love, okay? And tell her I'll come into town later with Lily."


"I will." She hugged her brother and went out to find the buggy waiting, with Spirit tied to the back. Pedro, his eyes filled with tears, helped her into the rig. "It's a sad day, Miss Jess," he said quietly.


She grasped his hand. "He's with Pa again, Pedro. Pa and all of the others who've gone ahead."


Nick joined her on the seat, picking up the reins.




Doc was just leaving the parsonage when Jess and Nick pulled up. She didn't wait for Nick to help her down. "Doc!" she said, rushing to him.


"Oh, Jess," he sighed, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. "He knew. He knew and wouldn't let me tell anyone."


Jess looked at Nick. "Could you go get Ma, please?"


"She's inside -" Doc told them. "I was going - back to the office -"


"I'll walk you over, Doc," Nick told the older man. To Jess, he said, "I'll leave him with Thad and be right back."


She nodded and watched them move away before going to the parsonage door and knocking. Andrew opened the door, smiling. "Miss Jess," he said, accepting her embrace as he closed the door. "Thank you for coming."


"How could I not? Where are Amanda and your mother?" she asked.


"In the parlor with everyone else," he told her.


"Andrew?" Amanda asked, coming out of the room. "Who - Jess! I'm so glad you're here."


Jess gave her sister a hug. "I'm so sorry," she said to them both. "Lily and Kevin will be here later. Mariana was making some stew that she wanted to send in with them."


"Where's Nick?" Amanda wanted to know.


"He took Doc back over to the office. I'm worried about him."


"We were just discussing that," Amanda said, leading Jess into the parlor that was filled with more people than the room had been designed to hold with any comfort. Ma Sutton, Betsy, Nedra, Milly and the others greeted Jess, along with Elizabeth, who was busy pouring coffee into cups.


When she saw Jess, she smiled. "Would you like some coffee?" she asked.


"Not at the moment. Thank you." She quickly found Mrs. Lee and went to kneel before the woman. "Mrs. Lee, if there is *anything* that we can do for you, please don't hesitate to let us know."


"Thank you, Jessica," she said, drawing a ragged breath and dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. "I appreciate that." She grabbed Jess' hand and held it. "I've been thinking how fitting it is that it should have happened today - of all days."


Jess smiled. "I guess Pa needed five years to make sure things were ready for Reverend Lee's arrival."


"I've no doubt, Mother," Andrew chimed in, "that the two of them are up there singing as loud as they can." That comment drew laughter from those gathered, since neither man had been particularly musical. There was another knock on the door, so Andrew left the room, returning with Nick, who came over to Mrs. Lee, pausing to assist Jess to her feet, but he retained her hand in his as he spoke.


"Mrs. Lee, I know I haven't been in Providence for very long, but I want to tell you how much I respected your husband."


"And he respected you, Mr. Everett," she told him. "He told me about a conversation that the two of you had not very long after you came here."


Nick chuckled softly, nodding. Seeing Jess' curiosity, he explained. "He was sitting at the Cafe one afternoon reading his Bible and drinking a cup of coffee when I went in to have an early supper. I was surprised when he invited me to join him at his table. In my experience, preachers didn't usually seek out gamblers or newly minted saloon owners, and I fully expected a sermon on the evils of drink and gambling." He smiled at Mrs. Lee. "But instead we discussed Providence's future, and then talked about my family back east. By the time Betsy," he nodded in that lady's direction as she smiled, probably recalling the meeting that he was describing, "brought my meal, he was asking why I had decided to stay in Providence and why I had bought a half interest in the saloon." He grinned. "I told him that I had several reasons. One, I believed in Providence's future, just as he did. Two, I hoped that by giving Lily more time away from the saloon, she would decide to marry Kevin. And the third reason -" He smiled at Jess before continuing. "The third reason was because I wanted to get to know Jess better - because I intended to marry her someday." Several of the ladies in the room tittered at his words, or smiled knowingly. Jess made no move to pull her hand away, but Nick felt her muscles tense. At that moment, he didn't care. It was time that she knew about this.


Mrs. Lee nodded. "He was delighted to know that Jessica had found someone," she told him, covering their joined hands with one of hers. "I know he had been looking forward to -" she paused, bringing the lace hankie to her eyes again before finishing. "To officiating at your wedding."


"He'll still be there, Mrs. Lee," Nick assured her, wondering if Jess were aware that they had just received the woman's blessing. "He told me much the same thing that day. And then I asked why he hadn't given me a sermon about the evils of drink, as I'd expected him to do."


"What did he say?" one of the women asked. Nick wasn't sure who it had been, since he was still focused on Mrs. Lee.


"I suspect Mrs. Lee could answer that as well as I can," he told them, and she nodded, but remained quiet, so Nick spoke again. "He said that the problem with drinking wasn't the drink, but the amount of drink. So as long as there was no problem with public drunkenness in Providence, he would have no reason to preach against it. Lily and Jake always kept an eye on how much customers were drinking. If they showed signs of having enough, Lily - and now I - send Jake to take the customer home. Knowing our customers helps us to know if they're spending money on drinks that they might need for bills or their families. Sheriff Morgan told me early on that he had never had to arrest anyone for drunkenness since he'd been here."


"And the same for games of chance," Mrs. Lee nodded. "Matthew was impressed that there had been no complaints or arguments there, either."


Nick smiled at her. "So am I. But I never take all of a player's money - and," he lowered his voice and moved closer, as if telling her a secret, "most of them don't realize it, but we don't serve them as much to drink if they're playing."




"I'm not going to apologize," Nick told Jess as they walked along the street, heading toward the saloon.


She slipped her arm through his. "I didn't expect that you would. I think I understand why you did it. You were trying to keep Mrs. Lee's mind focused on remembering the good things."


"Tell me, how long is this agreeable Jess Donager going to be around?" he wanted to know.


"I wouldn't question it, or she might disappear."


"Yes, ma'am," he told her. The doors to the saloon were closed, and the building was dark. "What -?" she asked, looking up at him.


"I told Jake and the girls to take the day off," he said. "Out of respect for Rev. Lee's memory. We'll open again tomorrow, and then close for the day of the funeral - any idea when that will be?" He guided her past the saloon as they continued to talk.


"Amanda mentioned that it would likely be on Saturday. I need to send Uncle Otis a telegram -"


"Lucas Morgan sent one this morning. I'm sure the Judge will be here by Saturday."




The Right Reverend Matthew Lee was laid to rest on Saturday morning, with so many people in attendance that the funeral service had to be held outside of the church, before the cemetery beside the building. Andrew led the service, standing behind the wooden pulpit which had been brought out of the church. The same pulpit from where his father had preached years worth of sermons.


As he neared the end of the service, he fell silent for a moment, his fingers grasping the wood, now worn smooth by so many years of use. Raising his head, he spoke again. "My father never preached a funeral without including an invitation. I'm not going to break that tradition. If God is speaking to you, I beg you not to ignore His voice. Don't put it off. Don't say that you'll answer it tomorrow. Because, as my father preached so many times, and as he proved: we're not promised tomorrow. Or next week. All we are promised is *now*. *This moment*. Don't ignore it, please. I'm not asking you to come up here to me. All you have to do is to bow your head and let God speak and then listen. But don't let it pass without responding to that voice. Let us pray..."


Nick stood beside Jess, wiping a tear or two from his own face, aware that Jess, while she had brought a lace handkerchief to her eyes a few times, hadn't shed one tear. Not one single tear. As the crowd began to break up, he watched as she moved to where Judge Maxwell had been standing, having arrived moments before the service had begun.


Even Otis Maxwell had been moved to tears. "I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner," he was saying as Nick joined them. "Hello, Nick."




Amanda caught sight of her godfather and ran to him. "I'm glad you got here, Uncle Otis," she said.


"And I'm sorry that I wasn't able to be here for your wedding," he replied. "Do I call you Mrs. Lee now?" he asked as they moved toward her husband and mother in law.


Jess told Nick, "I'm supposed to go help set up the Town Hall to feed the family. Would you make sure that Uncle Otis gets there?"


"Of course." He stopped her when she would have turned away. "Jess, are you sure you're okay?"


She smiled tightly. "I'm fine," she told him, but Nick wasn't sure that he believed her. He had no choice but to let her go, however, and watched with troubled eyes as she moved toward the building with Elizabeth and several of the ladies behind her.




Halfway through the wake, as family and friends began to share stories and memories about Matthew, Nick realized that Jess wasn't there. Finding Kevin, he asked, "Have you see Jess?"


"Not in the last few minutes," he said, looking around the room as Andrew spoke quietly to Amanda, who shook her head. He seemed insistent about something, and Amanda looked around the room as well, frowning as she spoke to her husband once more.


Andrew noticed Nick and Kevin, and crossed the hall to join them. "Where's Miss Jess?"


"That's what I'm wondering," Nick told him.


"Well, Amanda wants her here. Can you find her, Nick?"


"I'll do my best," Nick replied, looking into each of the side rooms before leaving the hall.


There was only one place in town that she might go to be alone, and Nick went directly to her office. Entering the outer room, he expected the inner office to be locked, and it was. "Jess? Are you in there?" he called. There was no answer, so he knocked on the door. "Jess, Amanda needs you over at the Hall. She sent me to find you."


Nick quietly left the office, stepping down into the street once he was past the windows, and moved quickly through the freight warehouse to the alley behind it. Once in the alley, he made his way to the back door that led from Jess' office and stood there until it opened and the lady appeared.


"I knew you were in there," he said, and she jumped, turning to try and go back inside, but Nick refused to let her close the door and pushed his way into the office.


"You have no right -"


"I think I do," he said, moving closer to her and lifting her face so that he could look at her. "You've been crying."


She pulled away from him. "No, I haven't," she denied. "I just - there were so many people, the room was closing in - What's wrong with Amanda?"


"She just wants you over there," he said, "but you're not going to distract me, darlin."


"Distract you? Why would I -?"


"To maintain the fiction that you're a strong woman who never lets things get to her to the point of tears. Except for happy moments, Kevin told me that he's never seen you cry - not even when your father died."


"Just because Kevin didn't see me cry doesn't mean -"


"I see that now," he told her. "Jess, you are the strongest woman I've ever known - but keeping things bottled up isn't good for anyone."


"Pa said -"


Nick ground his teeth before interrupting her. "John Donager might have been one of a kind, but if I saw him right now, I'd likely break his jaw."


"What? Why?"


"Your father never intended for you to stop being a woman in order to help run that ranch," he told her, moving toward her slowly, aware that she was as skittish as a newborn cat. "I'm certain of that. And I'm not asking you to start crying in front of everyone. But if you trust me at all, darlin', then know that you can be yourself when we're alone -"


Jess gave a harsh laugh as she shook her head. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said shakily. "I'm fine. Really."


Nick stood there, his eyes meeting hers as he remained silent, waiting for a sign that he had gotten through to her. When she turned away from his sharp gaze, he sighed and nodded. "All right. I'll go -" he was going to tell her that he was going back over to the Hall to tell Amanda that he hadn't been able to find Jess. But Jess' reaction to those two words actually surprised him.


"Nick!" she said, whirling back around. "Don't go. "Don't - leave -"


Nick met her halfway across the room, wrapping his arms around her as she cried. "Oh, Jess, darlin'. I'm going anywhere," he murmured softly. "I've been trying to tell you that." He waited for the tears to subside before he pulled back enough to see her face. Pulling his kerchief from a pocket, he wiped her cheeks. "Shall we go find out what Amanda wants?" he asked.


Her eyes widened. "I can't go over there, looking like this," she insisted. "They'll all know that I've been -"


"They'll all know that you've been crying because someone you cared about is no longer here," he said. "Just like everyone else in town."


She shook her head. "How am I supposed to face them -"


"By holding your head up and not caring two cents what they think, just like you've always done," he told her. Going over to the wash basin, he poured a little water from the porcelain jug into the basin and dipped the kerchief into the cool liquid. "Now, wash your face, and we'll go back over there."


"You're telling me what to do again," she noted, taking the damp kerchief from him.


Nick smiled, laughing softly. "There's my Jess," he said, dropping a kiss onto the tip of her nose. "Ready?" She folded the still damp handkerchief and handed it back to him, not surprised when he returned it to his pocket before opening the back door of the office. "After you, Miss Donager."




If anyone noticed Jess' red-rimmed eyes, none of them said a word as she and Nick returned to the Hall. Most of the crowd had left to return to their homes - except for the family and some of the ladies who were starting to clean up the Hall. "Sorry," he told Amanda and Andrew, "She went for a walk and I had a hard time finding her." He couldn't help but notice that Amanda didn't look as happy to see her sister as Andrew did, but thought he might be mistaken.


"What's going on?" Jess asked Amanda, who looked at Andrew.


"It's time, Amanda," he said. Turning to those around them, he said, "We were going to wait until Sunday after dinner at the Diamond D to tell the family, but -"


"Andrew," Amanda said softly, making one more attempt to stop him, but he simply took her hand in his and continued.


"We're having a baby," he announced.


As everyone reacted, Elizabeth turned to Thad. "Did you know about this?"


"No. But I think my uncle did," he told her, and Doc nodded.


"Amanda came to me the day before - before Matthew passed and told me that she was sick in the morning and we talked, and -"


"And he confirmed what I already suspected," Amanda said, looking at her mother in law. "Mother Lee? You haven't said anything."


"I'm delighted, dear," she said. "I can't help but think about what Matthew's reaction would have been, and I know that he would feel the same way." She pulled both of them close to her and hugged them. "We're going to have to decorate the extra room at the parsonage for the baby."


Andrew smiled at Amanda, and Nick realized that he had hoped the news would give his mother a reason to go on - even without her husband.




"I have to go lock the back door of the office," Jess told Nick as they finally left the hall.


"Mind if I go with you?" he asked.


"Would you listen if I did?" was her reply.


"Probably not."


"Then it's a good thing I'm okay with your company," she said. Once they were inside the office, she opened the door through to the inner office. "There's something that we haven't discussed."


"What's that?" he wanted to know, lounging against the door frame as she straightened the things on the desk.


She finished and came over to him. "Children."


"As in - do I want any?" She nodded. "I'm not sure that it's up to either of us, is it?"


"If not us, then -?"


"What would Reverend Lee have said?"


Jess sighed. "Children are a gift from God. I know that he and Mrs. Lee went for a long time before they had Andrew."


"And Doc and his wife never had a child of their own," Nick continued. "But he told me awhile back that he considers every baby that he's ever delivered to be at least partly his." Jess nodded again. "Jess, I don't care if we never have a child of *our* own - as long as we have each other, that will be enough for me."


She relaxed against him, wrapping her arms around his chest. "Thank you. I mean," she looked up at him, "I'm not exactly a young woman anymore - and I can remember Doc worrying about Mrs. Lee when she was going to have Andrew. He talked about how older women sometimes have more trouble-"


"And we'll handle it, whatever happens. I figure that God's already given me you. Anything more would just be an extra helping of happiness."


"You always know the right thing to say," she told him.


"Part of my charm, darlin'," he said with that half grin.


"Why do you that?" she asked.


"Do what?"


"Drop the g from darling?"


"It's a holdover from my misspent youth," he answered. "I told you that I learned to play poker by sitting in on some of the servants' games -" she nodded. "Well, most of them were Irish. After they stopped letting me play, I started going out to local saloons and card parlors, but I didn't dare use my real name, so I came up with an alias that required me to sound like a son of the old sod."


"What was the alias?"


"Nicky O'Rourke," he told her. "It was the only accent that I was able to mimic - and I did it well. Even fooled a few true Irishmen." He smiled at her. "Do you mind my calling you 'darlin'?"


"No." She frowned. "You told Kevin that you learned to play poker in the Army," she recalled.


"So I did. I played on the sly before I left home. I played openly as myself after I was transferred to Washington. And trust me, I learned a lot playing with those men. I consider my time playing cards with my father's servants and in local saloons to be like grade school. The Army was a trial by fire."


"So you - honed your skills?" she asked, and Nick grinned.


"Something like that. Com'on. I'm supposed to be taking you home."




As Benjamin, Lily and Kevin rode back to the ranch, he asked his mother. "Are you ever going to have another baby, Ma?"


Lily and Kevin looked at each other. "Would that make you happy, Benji?" Lily asked her son. She saw Kevin give her a surprised look, but he didn't say anything.


Benjamin looked thoughtful. "I don't know. Maybe."


"Why just maybe, son?" Kevin asked. "Wouldn't you like a baby brother or sister?"


"That's just it," Benjamin said. "I'm not your *real* son, am I? Would you love a new baby more than me?"


Kevin stopped the buggy and turned to look at the boy. "Benjamin, you are as much my son as any child could be. That's why we went to court and I adopted you, remember? You're my son. And no other baby will ever change that."


Lily smiled. "That's good to hear," she commented, making a show of straightening her skirt.


Kevin and Benjamin looked at her, then at each other, and then at Lily again. "Lily?" Kevin asked. "Is there something you need to tell us? Tell me?"


"I was going to tell everyone on Sunday, too," she said. "I had no idea that Amanda -"


"Woo-hoo!" Kevin yelled, tossing his hat into the air, and Benjamin copied him. "You haven't been sick-"


"I wasn't with Benjamin, either," she said. "Now, do you think we can keep it a secret until tomorrow when the family's all here for Sunday dinner?"


"I'll try," Kevin nodded. "But it won't be easy."


"It won't be easy at *all*!" Benjamin echoed. Both of his parents turned to look at him. "But I'll try."




"Are you sure Doc will be okay while you're taking me home?" Elizabeth asked as Thad picked up the reins of the buggy. "I can drive myself -"


"Uncle Mark insisted that I take you, so I'm taking you," Thad reminded her.


"But you don't want to -"


"Did I say that?"


"No, but -"


Thad sighed. "Elizabeth, -Miss Donager, please sit there and be quiet. I'm driving you home, and that's that. I'm fully aware that you are more than capable of driving yourself, but there's no reason for you to do so."


Elizabeth sat back, crossing her arms. "Humph." She focused her attention on the nearly completed railroad station, examining it as they passed, so she missed his smile at her grunted response.


"Are you always this quarrelsome?" he wanted to know.


"Only when I'm not working in the office," was her reply.


"Why don't we call a truce?" he suggested, pulling the buggy to the edge of the road and stopping it.


"Do you still think I'm only playing at being a nurse?" she asked him.


"I never -" She turned to look at him. "Okay, maybe I did think that when I first got here - but I learned my lesson over those first two weeks - we've been working together with no problems since then, haven't we?"


"I've thought so," she nodded. "But I also know that you've been talking to Grace about helping -"


"Not with patients," he said. "And she said no anyway."


"She did?"


"I thought you and she were good friends?"


"We are, but -"


"But you haven't been talking to her because you're jealous."


"Jealous?! Of Grace? Why would I *ever* be jealous -"


"Well, I've noticed it mostly on the two times that I've mentioned having supper with her - at her mother's by the way, and Uncle Mark and her brother were present as well."


Elizabeth stared at the road. "About Doc-" she said, changing the subject, "is he okay? Reverend Lee's death has hit him hard."


"It's difficult to lose someone you've considered a friend for so many years," Thad told her. "He is talking about stepping back from the practice a bit more quickly than he had planned. I mean, he'll still be available for me to consult on cases, but he won't be there for the day to day. So that means I'll have to rely on you for help. If you're willing to stay on and work with me."


"I think I might be able to manage that," Elizabeth answered in a prim tone. "Why did Grace refuse to work in the office?"


Thad picked up the reins. "Harry Collins has been calling on her."


Harry was two years older than Mavis, and like all of the Collins children - excepting Mavis - worked at the hotel/cafe. "Harry? Oh my. I had no idea."


"She seems to like the idea of helping in the Cafe," he told her.


"She should. She's an excellent cook. Harry and Grace. Oh my."




After heating some stew on the stove, Mariana left for the rest of the evening. Only Benjamin wanted to eat, and after he'd done so, Lily took him up to get into bed.


"But I'm not sleepy, Ma!" he insisted as they climbed the stairs.


"You've had a long day," she reminded him, "and we have church in the morning. Your father and I are going to bed early, too."


"Pa's out in the barn," Benjamin noted.


"He'll be back inside soon."


"Goodnight, Benjamin," Elizabeth called after them.


"G'night, Aunt Elizabeth!"


Jess shook her head in amusement as she led Elizabeth into the parlor, where two cups of coffee were waiting for them. "He's excited about Amanda's baby," Elizabeth told her. "I can't believe that Doc kept it from me."


"She's a patient. You should know that a doctor can't go around telling people about what someone is being treated for."


"I suppose you're right." Elizabeth took a sip of her coffee. "He's talking about retiring sooner rather than later," she told Jess.


"Did he tell you that?"


"No, Thad - Dr. Mitchell told me when he was bringing me home. We were discussing my staying on to help him."


"And are you going to do that?" Jess questioned, stirring her coffee, a knowing smile on her face.


"I am. Oh, and he told me that Grace is seeing Harry Collins!"


"I thought he was calling on Frances Grover?"


"Oh, no, that was over some time ago. Frances had no intention of working in the hotel *or* the cafe."


"Isn't she still helping her father at the stage and freight office?"


"She is. And she's looking forward to working at the train station once it's finished and the railroad comes through."

"Back to Doc, I can understand his decision to retire. Reverend Lee's death hit him hard."


"It's hit everyone hard," Elizabeth insisted.


"But for those who came out here with Pa and started the town, seeing one of their number pass on - don't you remember how it was when Pa -When Pa passed?" Jess ignored the look at her sister sent her way as she hesitated. "There are only seven or so left out of the twenty."


Elizabeth nodded. "Amanda and I were talking about this the other day. I think the town needs to recognize those families in some way. A plaque or maybe a statue - A statue," she decided. "Something that lists the names of all of the families who chose to stay here and settle in the middle of nowhere. Do you think it's a good idea?"


Jess considered the plan. "It might be worth looking into. I'm not sure about bringing idea before the town council - Four of the five are town fathers. Let me talk to Nick and see what we can come up with."




Since it wasn't Andrew's first sermon, the service went much like previous services - only this time, his father didn't deliver the opening prayer. His mother, however was at the organ as she had always been, and Amanda played the piano.


After the service, Brother Andrew - as most had started calling him - stood at the front doors, shaking hands and accepting the usual glowing comments about the sermon.


Amanda, standing beside Rebecca, told Jess, "We'll be out after everyone's gone."


"Is it all right for you to ride out there, Amanda?" Lily asked.


"Doc said that I could still go places in a wagon for the next month, but after that, he told me to say close to town," she told her sister in law, who nodded, looking thoughtful.


"Are you sure you don't mind our coming out to dinner?" Rebecca asked.


"You're welcome at the ranch anytime, Mrs. Lee," Jess assured the woman. "I hope you know that."


"Thank you, Jessica," she said as someone else caught her attention.


Kevin brought the surrey up to the steps, helping Lily and Jess into seats and stepping back so that Benjamin could climb up on his own. "Is Elizabeth coming back with us?" he asked, looking around for his youngest sister. "There she is," he said, looking to where she was talking to Dr. Mitchell. "Elizabeth!"


She turned and spoke to Thad, then came over to the surrey. "I'm sorry. I was asking Th- Dr. Mitchell if he would come to dinner."


"What did he say?" Lily asked as Kevin helped the young woman into the carriage.


"He's going over to Ma's today. He said that he thought it would be best if he spends the day with his uncle."


"What about Nick?" Kevin asked Jess.


"He went to get his horse," Jess answered, looking around. "He's just coming out of the livery stable."


Kevin drove the team to where Nick was standing. "Tie him on," he told his friend.


Nick joined Jess on the second seat as Benjamin scrambled to claim the third seat for himself.


"We all set?" Kevin asked, then set the horses on the road.


"I can see where they've laid rail," Jessica said, peering into the east as they passed the station.


"Wow!" was Benjamin's response. "So can I!"


"It won't be long now," Kevin stated, "will it, Nick?"


"Not long at all," Nick agreed. "Another month, possibly, before they reach Mesa City. I got word last week that there are crews already in that area getting things ready for laying the spur and turnaround. The snow we had slowed things down a little."


"How much more needs to be done to finish the station?" Lily wanted to know.


"Paint and furnishings, mostly."


"The station will be ready," Jess assured them. "*Before* the first train pulls in."




Once dinner was finished, Benjamin - for once - joined the family in the parlor instead of making his usual headlong dash to play with Daisy and her puppies.


"Now, Ma?" he asked Lily. "Can I -?"


Lily stood with Kevin and nodded. "You may, Benji."


"What's going on ?" Nick asked.


"Benjamin has something that he wants to tell everyone," Kevin replied, placing his arm around Lily's waist. "Go on, son."


"I'm going to get a baby brother - or sister!" he announced.


"You too?" Amanda asked Lily, clearly delighted by the news as the two women hugged each other.


Elizabeth shook her head. "Doc has some answering to do this time," she said. "Not telling me about Amanda was bad enough, but this-!"


"I haven't talked to Doc, Elizabeth," Lily said.


"Then how do you know -?"


"I've been through it before, remember?" she said, nodding in Benjamin's direction. "I know the signs and symptoms. But I'll go see the doctor before long."


"I'll tell Dr. Mitchell when I see him tomorrow," Elizabeth said. "He'll be seeing most of the patients in town." She sighed. "Doc's serious about retiring, from what Thad - Dr. Mitchell told me earlier."


Rebecca smiled at Jess, taking her hand. "Your father would be overjoyed by the idea of not one but two more grandchildren, dear."


"I know he would, Mrs. Lee."


"So what do you hope it is, Benjamin?" Nick asked. "A brother or a sister?"


"I think I want a brother," he answered. "Then I can teach him how to ride and rope and brand cows - all the things that Pa has taught me."




"I still can't get over it," Jess said later as she and Nick walked out to the corral. "Amanda and Lily *both* having babies."


Nick chuckled. "Benjamin's reaction is what I liked. He was bursting at the seams to tell everyone."


"I kept wondering why he was so jumpy all morning - even during church he was fidgety. And that's not like him at all."


"And I'm sure you noticed the way that Elizabeth keeps having to remind herself not to call Dr. Mitchell by his given name -"


Jess turned and leaned against the fence rail. "And your point is, Counselor?"


"Only that everyone in town is aware which way the wind is blowing, darlin'."


"They barely know each other!" Jess declared as Nick moved closer to her, bracing a hand on the fence on each side of her.


"We knew each other for a week before I declared my feelings for you - or have you forgotten?"


"I still don't see those two getting married anytime soon. He's too old for her anyway."


"How much older than her mother was your father?"


Jess sighed. "It's not the same thing. Pa had already been married when he married Olivia."


"You're not answering my question."


"He was thirteen years her senior," Jess admitted at last.


"How did they meet?"


"She came out on the wagon train with her brother and sister in law. Sam and Anna Longdon started a small farm - but Anna died from the fever that killed so many others."


"Including your mother."


Jess nodded. "Sam - gave up. He stopped working the farm, because abusive toward Olivia. He didn't want her going to town, tried to keep her out of school, but Pa and Uncle Charles convinced him to let her go."


"Uncle Charles. Your mother's brother, right?"


"He was younger than Ma - he followed them when they left New York and got married. Ma tried to send him back, but he said he would just run away again, so they brought him along."


"Why did he leave?"


"That goes back to Olivia again," she said. "Uncle Charles was over at the Longdon farm when Sam accidentally set fire to the house. He managed to save Olivia, but Sam -" she sighed sadly. "Uncle Charles brought Olivia here, since we were closest to the farm. Before that, she hadn't spent much time around Pa - just Uncle Charles."


"I think I see where this is heading," Nick said. "Olivia fell in love with John Donager and decided to marry him instead of your uncle."


"That's what happened. Uncle Charles wasn't happy. He accused Pa of stealing Olivia from him, accused her of wanting to marry Pa because of who he was, not because she loved him -"


"So he left."


"He said that he was going back East, to try and convince his father to take him back, but he never got there - or if he did, no one that Pa still knew back there heard about it."


"Were you close to him?"


"Kevin and I both were. He was funny. I remember him making even Pa laugh at lot when I was little. After he left, I came out every day and watched, waiting for him to come back -"


Seeing the glimmer of tears in her eyes, Nick pulled her close. "Maybe he'll come back someday," he said.


"I don't know why I'm crying," she told him. "It's been almost twenty years."


"I'm just glad to see you crying at all," he said, taking his kerchief out and handing it to her.


"Thank you." She managed a smile. "Elizabeth has an idea that she wanted me to ask you about -" She told him about the plan to recognize and honor the founding families. "She suggested a statue and plaque of some kind -"


Nick was nodding in agreement. "It's a good idea. But one that I can't see any of the council members - except maybe for Greg - agreeing to it."


"We think alike, sir. So we have to present it as a -"


"Fait accompli?" he suggested.


"We'll have to find someone to do the sculpture and the plaque -"


"And figure out where it's going to go." He looked thoughtful. "At the end of Front street - in front of the church - has anyone ever thought about putting something there?"


"The road is big enough to put a drive around - a circle -"


"I've seen them in other places," he nodded. "Do we want a bronze statue or marble?"


"I'm not sure - what do you think would be best?"


"Bronze. It will cost a bit more, I think, but I might know someone who can handle it. We need to decide about the statue itself -"


"Well, since we're honoring the first families of Providence, why not a man, a woman, and two children?"


"You're brilliant," he declared.


"That's what I've been trying to tell you," was Jess' reply. "Do you think we can pull this off?"


"I'll need a list of family names, and I'll get a letter off to my friend Paulo in Denver via the next mail."


"We make a good team, don't we?" she asked, sliding her arms around his neck.


"That's what I've been trying to tell you," he said, using her words. "I love you."


"I love you," she said as they kissed. When the kiss ended, she suggested, "Why don't you stay here tonight and I'll get that list of names so you can take it with you tomorrow morning?"


"If you insist," he said, "But I'm not ready to go back inside just yet," he told her, pulling her close for another kiss.




Jess opened a cabinet in the study, looking inside. "I know that I have a list of the founding families here somewhere," she told Nick. Turning to Elizabeth, who had been delighted to hear that Nick wanted to help with her plan, she said, "Elizabeth, some of Pa's papers are in the bottom right drawer of the desk - would you mind looking through them?"


"Can I help?" Nick asked.


"I don't -" Jess began, then stopped. "Yes! Father's journal is there - in the bookcase. There might be a page listing the families in it."


Nick went over to the bookcase, surveying the volumes. "I hadn't realized that you don't have a full law library," he noted, before finding the leather bound journal. "Volume one, I'm guessing?"


"Yes," she nodded, continuing to look through the papers before her. "No, I take that back. It would be in the second volume. The first covers the wagon train coming west."


"You should read it sometime, Nick," Elizabeth said. "It's fascinating."


"You've read it?"


"The four of us have read them all," Jess confirmed. "I'm a believer in knowing about family history. And in this case, it's not just the family history - it's the history of Providence -" She held up a paper. "Eureka! I found it!" she declared, holding the page out to Nick. "I wrote it after Pa died," she told them.


Nick read through the names. "Most of these I've heard of in the area - but one's missing."


"Which one?" Elizabeth asked, looking over his arm to read as well.


"Donager," he said.


Jess smiled. "Everyone knows about John Donager and his decision to stay here when the wagon train stopped. What we're trying to do is to recognize those families who stayed and built a town."


Nick watched as she turned back to the cabinet and began to return papers inside. "Your sister is amazing, Elizabeth."


"Yes, she is," Elizabeth agreed. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed his cheek. "And so are you. As Amanda would say - a match made in Heaven."


"Careful, baby sister," Jess warned, moving to put their father's papers back into the desk.


"Night," Elizabeth said, going to the door, obviously in search of a hasty retreat. "And thank you again, Nick."


"Remember," he told her, "not a word to anyone until everything is set. I doubt we'll get the monument delivered before the train starts running into town."


"Don't worry. I can keep a secret," she promised, smiling as she left them alone.


Nick looked at the list again. "I had no idea that the Garnetts were a founding family."


"He originally planned to open a jewelry shop, but there wasn't enough business, so he started farming - he still does work on rings and watches - but it's a side-line. He likes farming."


Silently counting, he told her, "From what I can see here, there are only about eight of the founding fathers still alive."


She looked over his arm, nodding. "You're right. Those first years were brutal. Between the weather and indians - More than one family has no representation in the area for those reasons."


"Can I take this list or do you need it? I can make a copy -"


"No, I have others," she told him, looking around the room. "I just can't put my hands on them easily." She noticed that he still had the first of her father's journals. "I suppose I need to organize Pa's papers better. Do you want me to put that up for you?"


"Would you mind if I take it and read it?" he asked. "It might help me to understand you a little better."


"Me? It's Pa's journal," she pointed out.


"True. But you *are* your father's daughter," he said with a grin. "Of course, if there's something in these that you'd rather I now know about -"


"He stopped writing them after Ma passed," she told him. "Too busy with running the ranch and raising us, I suppose."


"I'd still like to read them," he said.


"Then you should."


"Thank you," he said, pulling her into his arms for a kiss. "I wonder if Mariana left any coffee on the stove?" he wondered.


"Why don't we go find out?" she suggested, but her arms found their way around his neck and she pulled him down for another kiss. "I wish I knew why kissing you is so -"


"Intoxicating?" he questioned when she paused.


"Mmm," she murmured as he kissed her again. "Totally and completely."


"I seriously doubt that you've ever been intoxicated, darlin'," he told her. "You're too much of a lady."


"I'm intoxicated by you," she replied.


"I hope you always will be," he told her. "And that you never find a cure." He gave her one more kiss. "Now, let's go find that coffee, shall we?"


She sighed. "Do we have to?"


"Unless you're ready to set the date, we do."


Jess slowly slid her hands to his shoulders, sighing again as she turned to the door.




"Isn't Doc here?" Hortense Garnett asked upon entering the office and seeing Dr. Mitchell sitting at the desk.


"I'm sorry, no, he's not," Thad apologized hastily searching his memory. "Can I help you, Mrs. Garnett?"


"I'm not sure - he's been giving me some pills," she said, pulling at the cotton handkerchief she was holding. "They're almost gone, and I need more."


"Do you have the bottle?" he asked.


"Oh," she said, digging into her reticule. "Here it is."


Thad made a show of studying the bottle and it's contents. "I think I can refill these," he said, and she smiled.


"Oh thank you, Doctor."


"But - before I do, I'd like to make sure the we're giving you the correct dosage."




He nodded. "My nurse will be here soon. Would you mind if we examined you - just to make sure that you're not taking too much of the medication?"


"I - suppose it would be all right," she said slowly, clearly uncertain about the request as she sank into a chair.


"How long has it been since Dr. Hawkins did an examination?"


"Oh, I'm - not really sure. You think I'm taking too much?"


"It's possible - and that could make you feel worse. Once Miss Donager arrives, we'll start. Unless you have things to do and would prefer to come back -?"


"Well, I suppose that I could go over to the Mercantile so that they could start filling my order."


Thad stood up. "An excellent idea," he pronounced, helping her to her feet and to the door. "When you're done there, come back. Miss Donager will be here shortly, as I said."


She nodded, but he could tell that she still wasn't certain about him. He stood in the open doorway, watching as she crossed the street, pausing once to glance back at him. Thad smiled and waved, intending to close the door. He was surprised when he saw Elizabeth pull a buggy up in front of the office, since she had been leaving it at the livery stable whenever she worked. Seeing that her sister in law was with her, he opened the door as they got out of the buggy. "Mrs. Donager," he greeted Lily. "This is a pleasure." He smiled at Elizabeth. "Are you working today?"


"Yes. Lily wanted to see you, so -"


Thad escorted them into the office and closed the door. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Donager?" he asked, indicating the chair in front of the desk as Elizabeth removed her gloves and tied an apron over her dress.


"I thought you should know that I'm going to have a baby."


He looked from Lily to Elizabeth, who was smiling with delight. "Are you certain?"


"I have all of the symptoms - except for nausea," she told him.


"You already have just the one child?"


"Yes, Benjamin. He's eight. I wasn't ill when I was pregnant with him -" she explained her other symptoms as Thad listened.


"When was your last -?" A glance toward Elizabeth revealed that her cheeks were slightly pink, as though she might be embarrassed at the content of the conversation, but other than the blush, she seemed cool and collected.


"Two months ago," she answered. "Almost three, actually."


Thad picked up the stethescope from the desk and stood, coming around to where she was sitting. "Would you mind if I -"


"Not at all, Doctor," she replied, remaining still as he placed the device on her abdomen and listened. When he straightened, she asked, "Well?"


"I heard the heartbeat," he confirmed. "Have you felt any movement yet?"


"A flutter or two, but nothing more than that."


"How is your health otherwise?" he wanted to know.




"Excellent. I think you know what to look for in the way of possible problems," he told her, and Lily nodded. "I will say that I don't recommend riding a horse - or too frequent buggy or wagon rides into town. If you need my assistance, I'll be here - or you can ask Elizabeth to help, since she lives in the same house."


"Thank you, Dr. Mitchell," Lily said, standing. "I'll see you at supper, Elizabeth."


"Be careful going back to the ranch," Elizabeth told her, watching as she got into the buggy.


"How are you going to get home this afternoon?" Thad asked.


"I'll probably rent a buggy at the livery," she answered, unnecessarily straightening some of the things on his desk.


"Would you mind if I drove you home?" he asked.


Elizabeth went still before saying, "No. No, but I don't want to put you to any trouble -"


"I offered, didn't I? Now, we need to get ready for Mrs. Garnett's visit." He picked up the almost empty bottle and held it out to her.


"She's been here and didn't get the new bottle of medicine?" Elizabeth questioned.


Thad told her about the woman's visit and his ruse to examine her to revise the 'dosage'.


"I'm impressed, Doctor," Elizabeth told him. "That was very quick thinking."


"I really think that we might just be able to wean her away from needing them at all if we're careful." Elizabeth ignored the little thrill she felt when he referred to them as though he thought of them as a team. "We'll give her the pills, and then require a new examination every few months until we can tell her that they've been so effective that she's cured."


"If you can do that - That's something Doc hasn't been able to do in ten years."


"I did discuss it with him," Thad assured her. "The examination idea was his, not mine. But he also knew that having a new doctor might give her a reason to accept the idea about dosage."


"She's coming out of the Mercantile now," Elizabeth informed him.




Hortense Garnett left the office with a brand-new bottle of pills with a 'lower' dose of the prescribed medication, a huge smile on her face at the news that she was much improved from the last examination that Doc had done. Thad saw her out to the buckboard that was already loaded with her order from the Mercantile, then returned to the office, where Elizabeth was just coming out of the exam room after cleaning up.


"How much did you lower the dosage?" she asked.


"Half as much sugar, but I did up the iron a touch," he told her as they watched Mrs. Garnett drive out of town. "Uncle Mark was right: that woman is as healthy as a horse." They both chuckled. "I could use some coffee before we leave for rounds."


"I'll get you a cup," Elizabeth told him, turning toward the wood stove where a well used pot sat.


"Pour yourself one as well," he suggested, looking threw some papers on his desk. Once she returned with the coffee, he told her, "Sit down and we'll go over the patients that we're going out to visit."



"Leroy's back in town, boss," Jake said as Nick entered the saloon not long before noon. "Saw him ride in this morning."


"And probably ready to lose more money playing cards," Nick replied. No one seemed to know exactly where Leroy got his money, but he always seemed to have ready cash - and loved to lose it playing poker with Nick.


"Probably," Jake repeated. "Coffee's hot," he said, putting a clean cup on the bar.


"Thank you." He was just pouring a cup when Eban entered the saloon. "Good morning, Eban."


"Mr. Everett. Sorry I'm late. Told Ma that I needed to be over here early to start working on the books, but she decided I needed to sleep."


"It's fine. There's no time-table on getting them done. And how many times do I have to remind you that if someone works for me, it's Nick, not Mr. Everett?"


Eban sighed. "Sorry. Not used t'using Christian names with someone who's -" he stopped, looking uncertain as Jake laughed. "Sorry - Nick," he said.


Nick laughed and shook his head. "Don't worry about it. The books are in the office as always - get you a cup of coffee before you go in there."


"Thank ya," he told Jake as the bartender gave him a cup.


"Still not having any problems with the books?"


"Nope. Smooth as glass. I like totin' up numbers and such. I was thinkin' that I'd make a full count - take inven-tory later today, if that's ok with you, Mr. - Nick?"


"Whatever you need to do, Eban," Nick told him. "You're the bookkeeper."


Eban grinned and disappeared into the office as Jake shook his head. "He's a funny one."


"He's still getting used to being around people, Jake," Nick said. "I have some news about Lily -"


"What? Is she okay?"




Nick told the girls as they came down about Lily's good news, smiling as they talked excitedly among themselves about how wonderful it was. He looked up to see Lucas standing inside the saloon, and went over to him. "Afternoon, Sheriff," he said. "How about a beer?"


"Maybe later. I thought you should know that they're setting up the new rail camp out to the west of town -"


"They were supposed to stop in and see me before setting up camp," Nick told him.


"That's what I told the man in charge, but he insisted that it was his camp and he knew best."


"What's his name?" Nick asked.


"Fordham. Abner Fordham."




Nick and Lucas rode out to the area just past the new station, waving at the men who were working there. Those men were standing at the end of the platform, watching as the tents were being raised for the workers. Nick's jaw tightened as they neared the camp.


"Where is Mr. Fordham?" he asked one of the men, a rough, unkempt man who peered up at Nick through narrowed eyes. The man pointed to a group of men standing a little further down the way. "Thank you," he told the man as he and Lucas continued onward.


At the middle of the group was a grizzled man of indeterminate age, barking orders. "Let's get this camp set up! We have to start laying the rail for this section first thing in the morning! You there! Finish with the dining tent!" He turned as Nick and Lucas dismounted. "Sheriff," he acknowledged. "I told you that we're not moving -"


"I think you will," Nick said in a firm tone.


Abner Fordham turned to look at Nick. "Oh you do? And just why do you think that? I have a hundred men here who -"


"You were told to talk to someone here before you set up camp," Nick told him. "Why didn't you do that?"


"I don't have time to go looking for anyone. I have a job to do -"


"You won't have a job if you don't listen to your instructions."


Fordham stood there defiantly, his hands on his hips. "And who the hell are you?"


"Nick Everett," Nick told him, stepping closer to the smaller man. "A member of the board of this railroad - so that makes me your boss."


Fordham didn't back down, but his attitude modified slightly. "Sorry, Mr. Everett. I was told that you'd meet us when we got here. When I didn't see you, I took it on myself to give the order to set up. I guess I got the message wrong -"


"I sent the message via telegraph. I'm sure you have a copy in your files. You can't set your camp up this close to town."


"Look, we'll be needing supplies - and when my men aren't working or sleeping, they like to go into the nearest town to let off some steam -"


"You can get supplies even if you're a mile farther away -"


"A mile?"


"As for the men - they're welcome in Providence, but if they step out of line, they'll be in jail, and then they won't be able to work."


"What the -?"


"Do I make myself clear, Fordham?" Nick asked.


"Listen, Mr. Everett, these men work hard every day laying cross-ties and rails. It's hot, back-breaking work. Are you going to begrudge them time to relax?"


"Not at all," Nick answered. "As I said, they're welcome. I'll personally welcome them to my saloon - but they won't be getting drunk or fighting. Providence is a quiet town and we like it that way. If I have to talk to the town council and have an ordinance passed to stop these men from coming into town at all, I will. If they agree to the rules, there won't be a problem."


Fordham glared at Nick before stepping back and calling out, "Strike the tents, men! We're moving down the road!"


There was a collective groan of disappointment before the process began, and the tents that had just gone up started falling. Nick and Lucas mounted their horses and sat watching, leading the crew out to the spot that had been marked for the camp.


"Thank you, Mr. Fordham," he said. "And if you'll keep your men under control while they're here, you'll get a bonus from the company."


Fordham gave a short, sharp nod in response before setting the crew to work once more.


"You can be tough when you want to be," Lucas noted as he and Nick rode back to town.


"Surprised, Lucas?" he asked.


"Not really. Do you think he'll be able to keep them from trouble?"


"I hope so. But maybe you *should* consider swearing in a couple of deputies as long as they're in the area."


"Already decided that. And I know who the first one is going to be."


"Who?" Lucas grinned at him, and Nick shook his head. "Look, I have a business to run -"


"And what better place for a deputy to hang out than in the place where those men will come?" Lucas suggested. "You have to admit that I'm right, Nick. You told me that you have experience as a peace officer -"


"I spent six months as a deputy US Marshall," Nick told him, then sighed. "Okay. You've got a deputy. Jess isn't going to believe this."


Lucas burst out laughing at his comment.




After a brief stop at the station to talk to Niles Bradford and his crew, Nick went to Lucas' office and was sworn in as a deputy. Pinning the badge onto his vest, he saw Lucas' look of disapproval. "Not many will see it with your coat on," he noted.


"They'll see it when it counts, Sheriff," he promised. "See you later."


Nick considered riding out to the Diamond D to let Jess know about the rail crew camp, but when he saw Elizabeth sweeping the walk in front of the Doctor's Office, he crossed the street to speak to her. She looked up as he came close, and smiled. "Hello, Nick."


"Slow day?" he asked.


"Just taking advantage of a lull," she told him. Dr. Mitchell and I are about to leave for afternoon rounds."


"And here I was hoping I could talk you into having lunch with me."


She swept up to where he was standing, forcing him to move so that she could continue. "We had an early lunch," she told him. She leaned on the broom handle, giving him a knowing look. "What's going on?"


Nick grinned at her. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Miss Donager," he said. "The rail crew is setting up just to the west of town - about a mile out."


"So that's where you and Sheriff Decker rode off to earlier."


"I'll tell Dr. Mitchell. I'm sure he'll want to drop by and let them know that he's in town if needed."


"The man heading up the crew is Mr. Abner Fordham. I thought you could tell Jess and Kevin about it when you get home later."


"Don't worry. I'll tell them. I'm sure Jess will be in first thing tomorrow morning."


"Ask her to come and get me and I'll ride out to the worksite with her."


"I'll suggest it," she told him. "You and I know what her reaction will be if she thinks that you don't think that she can take care of herself."


"The same as your reaction would be," Nick said, shaking his head. "Very well, then, suggest that I'd like to ride out there with her."


Thad Mitchell appeared in the doorway. "Are you about ready to leave, Miss Donager?" he asked, pausing as he saw her laughing with Nick. "Mr. Everett. I didn't realize you were out here. I'm sorry for interrupting -"


"You weren't, Doctor," Elizabeth assured him. "Let me put the broom away and wash my hands, and I'll be ready to go. Bye, Nick."


Nick touched the brim of his hat as she went into the office. "Goodbye, Elizabeth," he told her. Nodding, he stepped down off of the boards and into the street. "Doctor."




"I thought Nick Everett was engaged to your sister?" Thad observed as they set off in the buggy.


"Yes, he is," Elizabeth confirmed, frowning. "Why do you ask?"


"You and he seemed - close when I came out of the office."


"I could have easily developed an infatuation for him if it hadn't been clear from the moment he arrived in town that he was attracted to Jess," she admitted. "He *is* a friend, however. He dropped by to tell me that the railroad crew has set up camp -" she pointed to the west - "Out that way, and I told him that you would probably want to stop in and see the man in charge."


"If they're just setting up camp, why don't we start out to the east, and work our way back around to the camp?" he suggested quietly. "I'm sorry, Miss Donager - I thought -"


"What did you think? That I was flirting with my sister's fiance?"


"I'm trying to apologize," he said.


"Very well, Dr. Mitchell. I accept your apology."


"My friends call me Thad," he told her.


"And mine call me Elizabeth. But would it be - proper in the office with patients -?"


"I don't think anyone will mind if we use our given names when we're alone or not working," he told her.


"Okay - Thad," she agreed.




The town was already buzzing about the arrival of the railroad crew when Nick slipped away from the saloon just before three to walk to the school. Climbing the stairs, he opened one of the doors as quietly as he could, but every head in the room turned toward him, and he smiled. Mrs. Drummond looked surprised.


"Mr. Everett. We were about to dismiss for the day," she told him, a frown forming as she no doubt recalled his last visit to the school when Mavis Cooper was ill.


"I thought you might be," he told her. "And I wanted to speak to children, if you don't mind."


"Is something wrong?" she wanted to know.


"No. It's good news, actually. The railroad crew has arrived and is camped outside of town." As he had expected, all of the children - especially the boys - began to chatter with excitement at the news.


"Children," Mrs. Drummond said, getting their attention.


"The reason I'm here," Nick told them, "is to make sure that you're all aware that a railroad work area can be a dangerous place."


Benjamin lifted his hand. "Yes, Benjamin?" Nick said.


"So we're not supposed to go and watch them," he said. "Because we might get hurt if something goes wrong."


"You can watch," Nick said, "but only from a safe distance." He knew that boys being boys, they would all want to go see what was going on. "Make sure that your parents know where you're going before you go."


"An excellent idea," Mrs. Drummond agreed. "Thank you, Mr. Elliott. Is there anything else?"


"No, I think that's all I have to say," Nick told her.


"Thank you. Class dismissed," she announced, and most of the children made a bee-line for the doors. Benjamin lingered, coming over to Nick.


"Can you take me out there, Uncle Nick?" he asked.


"Well, they're not working right now, and the camp isn't a place for children," Nick said, turning the boy toward the doors as he nodded in the teacher's direction.


"Oh. And we have school for the next four days. They'll be finished by the time Saturday gets here!" Benjamin declared.


Nick laughed softly, "Not at all. I promise you that I'll take you out there on Saturday, okay? *If* your folks say that I can."


The boy turned around to look at him. "I'll ask them tonight -" his eyes grew wide. "Uncle Nick! Are you wearing a badge?!"


Taking a deep breath, Nick opened his coat to reveal the deputy's badge on his vest. "I am." He knelt down at the foot of the steps. "Sheriff Decker asked me to help keep an eye on things with so many strangers in the area."


"Wow!" Benjamin reached out to touch the badge with his finger.


"I hate to ask this, but - is there anyway you could *not* mention it to your Aunt Jess, buddy?"


"Why? Won't she want you to be a deputy?"


"I'm sure she'll be fine with it, but, well, I'd rather tell her about it myself, if that's okay."


"Like a surprise," Benjamin nodded.


"Exactly. Like a surprise." He hated asking the boy to keep a secret, but he wasn't sure of Jess' reaction to this particular bit of news.


"Okay. But can I tell Ma and Pa?"


"As long as Aunt Jess doesn't know."




"Com'on. I'll walk you down to the livery stable to get your horse."




Kevin was in the barn discussing the tack room with Pedro when Benjamin rode in. Coming out, Kevin ran a hand over the pony's neck. "You must have been in a hurry to get home," he noted.


"I sure was," Benjamin nodded as he jumped to the ground. "I'm going to brush him out, Pa, but I thought you'd want to know what's happening!" He started unfastening the cinch as he continued to talk. "The railroad people are here! Uncle Nick came to the school as we were getting out to remind us not to go near where they're working. But he told me that he'll take me over there on Saturday to watch them!" He slid the saddle off of the pony's back and carried it over to the rack where it was kept, tossing the blanket beside it. Picking up a brush, he started to take care of the horse.


"Is that all?" Kevin asked, a grin on his face as he watched his son's excitement.


"Well," Benjamin began, looking around. "Where's Aunt Jess?" he asked.


"She was in the house, last I saw. Why?"


"Well," the boy said again, turning his attention back to the horse. "Uncle Nick's a deputy!"


"Really? And why does that involve Aunt Jess?" Kevin asked.


"Because he told me that he didn't want her to know about it yet. He wants to surprise her."


"He does, does he?"


Kevin and Benjamin both turned at the sound of her voice. "Aunt Jess! You weren't supposed to hear -"


"So you said," Jess told him. "I came out to go for a ride," she said, moving to lead Midnight out of his stall and saddle him.


"Jess," Kevin began, placing his hand on the boy's shoulder, trying to keep him from being worried. "Why don't you wait -?"


"I'm just going for a ride, Kevin," she said, tightening the cinch. "I might or might not be home for supper."


"Aunt Jess?"


She paused after she got into the saddle and looked down at Benjamin. "It's okay. I just need to talk with Nick about asking you to keep secrets."


"He said I could tell Ma and Pa -"


"But not me," she finished, and he nodded. "I'll make sure he knows you tried to keep that promise," she assured him as she left.


"I'm sorry, Pa," Benjamin said.


Kevin shook his head. "Not your fault, son. Your Uncle Nick should have known better. They'll work it out." Kevin stood in the barn doorway, watching as the black horse disappeared in a cloud of dust toward Providence.




Jess saw that there were several horses tied in front of the saloon, and considered going in anyway, but instead she turned Midnight to the hitching post in front of the Sheriff's office. Lucas was coming from the backroom when she opened the door and entered, and smiled at her.


"Jess. Surprised to see you this late in the day. Everything okay at the ranch?" he asked.


"Why did you deputize Nick?" she asked without preamble.


Lucas sat down behind his desk. "Is there a reason why I shouldn't have?"


"I -"


"Listen, Jess, it makes sense that if any of those men from the rail camp cause or get into trouble, it will be at the saloon."


"There are others who-"


"Such as? Other than Nick, there aren't a lot of unattached men who can do the job." Lucas had a long-standing policy of preferring unmarried men to work as deputies.


"Nick's not -"


"I know, I know. You're engaged. But you're not married yet. I've also deputized Harry Collins and Eban Sutton. Harry's a decent shot and will be able to keep an eye on the cafe and hotel. Eban's working for Nick, but he'll be around town in case of trouble. Would you prefer that I asked Jason Grant or Carl or Leon -"


"I understand, Lucas," Jess said, putting an end to his roll-call. "It's just - I've heard stories about the way some of those men act in towns where they're laying rail. We've tried to prepare everyone for it -"


"And that's why I appointed three deputies," he told her. "And why Brother Andrew is arranging for prayer vigils - something that Nick suggested, by the way."


"Are you still going to talk to Nick?"


"Probably. He asked Benjamin not to tell me about him having been deputized."


"Aha. So that's what you're *really* upset about - that he was trying to keep it a secret from you."


"Maybe. I still don't like that it's happened."


"For what it's worth, he does have experience in the job, and he *did* refuse when I first mentioned it."




Nick looked at his cards, eyeing Leroy before picking up some cash. "I'll raise you twenty," he announced.


Leroy narrowed his eyes, studying his own cards. This game was down to just the two of them, and Leroy was determined not to lose this hand. "I'll see your twenty," he said, "and add another."


Nick heard the conversation in the room fall silent, but continued to concentrate on the game. Sometimes that happened when he and Leroy were this close to the end of a hand. "I think you're bluffing, Leroy."


"Gonna cost you twenty more to find out," Leroy told him, grinning at a spot just over Nick's head.


Nick finally dropped his hand. "Take it," he said, watching as Leroy leaned over to rake the pot toward himself. The smile on his face froze as he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, the smile vanished. "Jess! What are you -"


"I needed to talk to you," she said, "but you were busy, and I didn't want to interrupt your game."


Nick ignored the grins of those around him as he led her toward the front doors, telling Jake that he would be back in a few minutes. Once outside, he turned her toward the street, where they crossed toward her office. "Jess, you really shouldn't -" he began.


"Go into your place of business?" she asked, entering the outer office when he opened the door. "Would any of the other merchants up and down this street tell their wives the same thing?"


"You know it's different, Jess, darlin'," he said.


"You deliberately folded a winning hand," she accused.


"And I've told you that I do that sometimes. Why are you in town?" he asked.


She placed her hands on his chest. "Maybe I just wanted to see you," she replied.


As her hands moved upward, Nick knew. "You know, don't you?" he asked.


"Know?" she questioned, trying to look innocent. "About what?"


"Let me guess: you overheard Benjamin telling Kevin or Lily about my being a deputy."


She ran her fingers over the metal badge. "No, I heard him telling Kevin that you didn't want *me* to know that you're a deputy."


"I wanted to tell you about it myself. He happened to see the badge when we were talking before he left town, and I told him I wanted it to be a surprise."


"Why did you agree in the first place?"


"Were you this upset when Kevin's been deputized in the past?" he asked.


"Of course not. He's my brother, but - I'm not in love with Kevin. The idea of something happening -"


"I don't think anything's going to happen. This is all just in case the crew foreman can't keep a tight enough rein on the men." He touched her chin. "Besides, I can take care of myself, you know."


She shook her head. "Don't use my own words against me, Nick Everett," she told him.


"If I were to ask that you not visit the camp without me, -"


"I can -" she stopped talking as he covered her lips with his, and her hands moved past the badge up to his shoulders. "Okay, I won't go without you," she told him when the kiss ended.


"Then you can ignore what Elizabeth says when she gets home later." Seeing Jess' confusion, he laughed and told her about his conversation with her sister.


"At least you didn't try to get her to keep something from me again," she said. "What's this about your having experience as a deputy?" Now it was his turn to look confused. "I talked to Lucas before I went over to the saloon," Jess explained.


"Tell you what, if you'll stay in town for supper, I'll tell you the story."


"I told Kevin that I'd probably eat in town," she agreed.


"Let's stop by the saloon and let Jake know where I'll be, then we'll go over to the cafe."




Since it was still early, they were able to sit at a corner table that had a bit more privacy than some of the others. Once they had coffee and had placed their order with Grace, Jess turned to look at Nick. "I'm ready," she told him. "How did you end up working as a deputy?"


"To explain, I have to go back to the war," he began. "Before I was transferred to Washington, I was in field, still a Lieutenant. We were in a battle in Georgia - Blue Water Creek," he said, stirring his coffee. "Sergeant Sorenson and I were sent out to scout around the area by our Commanding Officer. We caught sight of a handful of Confederate soldiers and started back to our outfit, but they saw us and chased us back -." He paused as Grace brought their food and refilled the coffee cups. "Thank you, Grace."


Once they were alone again, Jess prompted, "You and the sergeant were being chased. What happened?"


"Major Barrett saw us coming and gave the rest of the men an order to open fire."


"Major Barrett?" Jess questioned. "Major Evan Barrett?"


"Yes. Why? Do you know him?"


"No," she answered, shaking her head. "I saw his name on a letter once - the one that Tom Scott's father got from his commanding officer after Tom - after he was killed." She toyed with the food on her plate, moving it around with the fork in her hand.


Nick reached over and captured her hand in his. "I'm sorry, Jess."


"It's just - a shock, that's all. That you both had the same commanding officer. Did you - do you remember Tom?"


"I remember a young, scared young Private Scott, but I didn't know him. He transferred into the Major's unit just before I left." He squeezed her hand gently. "I *am* sorry, Jess. I had no idea that Private Scott was the young man that -"


She finally looked up at him. "It's okay. Really. It was just a surprise, hearing the name." She smiled. "Did the Major really tell the soldiers to open fire with you and the sergeant in between them and the Confederate soldiers?"


"He did. I was so shocked that I couldn't believe I'd heard the command. If Sergeant Sorenson hadn't pulled me down into a gully, I would likely have been shot. I was transferred to Washington right after that battle."


"So he saved your life. I still don't understand what this has to do with your being a deputy."


"Sergeant Victor Sorenson became a US Marshall after the war," he told her. "In Kansas. I stopped in to see him and thank him for saving my life, and he asked me to help him capture a gang who was robbing stagecoaches, and banks and anything else you can name. I tried to talk my way out of it, but he reminded me that he'd saved my life, so I agreed to help him finish rounding them up. Took two months."


"How come I get the feeling that there's more to the story?" Jess asked.


"While we were taking the last one into custody, the man drew a bead on me, and -"


"He saved your life again," she guessed.


"He did. And he got shot for his trouble. In the leg."


"Was he okay?"


"He lived, but had to use a crutch for another four months. Since he had saved my life -"


"Again," Jess said, laughing softly.


"Again," Nick continued, "I agreed to stay on until he was able to put the crutch away."


"Six months? You were there for six months?"


"Not because I wanted to be. And I wasn't able to play cards much - only when I was off duty, and that wasn't very often."


Jess' laughter bubbled over. "Oh my. You poor, poor thing."


Nick enjoyed seeing her laugh and not care about the fact that everyone in the cafe was looking at her, and finally joined his laughter with hers.


"How did Lucas find out?" she wanted to know as her laughter began to fade away. "I can't see you telling him about this."


"Turns out that it is a very small world. Lucas knows Victor. Apparently Victor sent him a letter about how some gambler friend of his from the war had helped him in rounding up the Morgan gang, and mentioned my name. He sent Victor a telegram, asking if he knew me. Victor sent one back saying that yes, he knew me, and that if Lucas had need to take advantage of my experience, he'd been a fool not to. He showed me the telegram from Victor, and I had to admit to having served as Victor's deputy."


"So, how many more deep dark secrets do you have that I don't know about?" Jess asked.


"I could ask you the same question, darlin'," he said with a grin, not surprised when she picked up her fork and started eating again. Nick picked up his own fork and said, "It's okay, we have the rest of our lives to find out all of each other's secrets, don't we?"


"I think I'm looking forward to it," she told him, focusing her attention on her meal.




He saw her back to the livery stable, and took advantage of the dark street to steal a kiss. "Be careful going home," he said.


Jess touched the gun she was wearing. "I will. You be careful, too."


"I will be. You coming into the saloon the way you did taught me a lesson, though. I'm going to make a few changes - different table, different chair so I can keep a watch on who's coming into the place. I don't think getting caught off guard is something any lawman worth his salt would do. So - thank you for coming in tonight."


She slid her arms around his neck. "You're welcome, Deputy," she told him, giving him a kiss.


"With rewards like that, I might just sign on full time," Nick said, sighing. "But I do need to get back to work." He helped her up into the saddle. "I doubt you're aware - Andrew wants to take the town council out to the work area and bless the workers and work."


"That's a good idea. It might give them some idea for why we'd prefer that they behave themselves while they're here. Bro. Andrew - came up with the idea?"


"He said that his father mentioned the possibility before he died."


"I'll just come to town early," Jess told him. "I have an appointment with a Ma tomorrow at ten. She asked me to draw up a codicil for her will."


"You don't have to tell me -"


"She wouldn't mind your knowing. She wants to leave Doc some money. Thank you for letting me know. What time?"


"They start work at 6 am," he told her.


"I'll be there," she told him. "But will you be? Six is pretty early for someone who runs a saloon," she pointed out with a teasing smile.


Nick reached up to cover her hand on the saddle-horn. "I'll manage. I love you."


"I love you," she told him. "Go win some of that money back."


"I will. Night." He stood on the street, watching as the dark horse disappeared into the darkness before going into the saloon. "I'm back, gentlemen," he announced, studying the room. "Why don't we move the game over to that table? I'll take the chair in the corner."


"Don't matter to me where we play, Nick," Leroy replied. "I'm feeling lucky tonight."




The flatbed rail car and hand cart were parked on the completed rails. As the surrey and horses of the Providence Town Council approached, they were greeted by the workers unloading heavy wooden ties as other men worked to make sure the ballast was ready for them.


"Alright, men, let's get to work -" Fordham was called out. One of the men close to him said something and pointed toward the approaching townsfolk, and the foreman turned to glare at them, clearly not happy with any delay. "Mr. Everett," he said once the group came to a stop, "we need to get started -"


"You'll be able to start soon, Fordham," Nick assured him. Indicating the men in the surrey, he said, "These men are the town council of Providence. Gregory March, Carl Collins, Niles Bradford, Leon Carter, and Paul Grover. Gentlemen, this is Abner Fordham. I'm sure you remember Sheriff Morgan."


"Sheriff," Fordham said with a nod before his gaze moved to the other rig, which held Jess, Amanda, Mrs. Lee and Andrew. Andrew and Jess had both tried to talk Amanda out of coming out in the wagon, but she had been determined, and promised to go back to bed once it was done.


Nick turned toward Jess as he spoke. "And this is Jess Donager, legal counsel for the town."


"Miss Dona-ger." Fordham stumbled over the name as Nick's words sunk in. "Legal counsel? As in -"


"I'm an attorney, Mr. Fordham," she informed him, enjoying the man's surprised reaction. Turning to the others, she said, "This is our minister, Brother Andrew Lee, his wife, Amanda and his mother."


The foreman looked as if he were totally lost. "Excuse me, Mr. Everett, but what's this about?"


"It's my fault, sir," Andrew said. "I decided that it would be a good idea for us to come out and bless your men and the work they're doing."


"Bless - you interrupted work to -"


"To say a prayer for your safety, Mr. Fordham," Nick said calmly. "And the safety of your men. If you would be so kind as to ask them to come closer?"


Fordham was angry, it was clear by the set of his jaw and his flaring nostrils, but he turned and called out, "This way, men, and take off your hats!"


The men did as ordered, forming a dense circle around them, and Nick nodded at Andrew. "Dear Lord, we ask Your blessings on these men and the work that they are doing. Protect them, keep them safe, and may they feel your love and grace. We ask these things in Your name, Amen." Andrew finished the prayer and then said, "Mr. Fordham, you and your men are welcome to attend church on Sunday morning."


"Thank you, Reverend, but we work on Sundays. Half a day, anyway."


"Not while you're in Providence," Carl Collins said.


Fordham turn to Nick. "Mr. Everett?"


"No one works on Sunday in Providence. Your men can take the day off. But you should also know that the saloon and everything else is closed on Sunday." He ignored the soft murmurs of some of the men gathered around them. "It might be advisable to stock up on any supplies you'll need at camp on Saturday."


"Begging your pardon, but this place is the craziest place I've even seen. You say you want the railroad, but you put up roadblocks -"


"One day isn't a roadblock, Mr. Fordham," Greg commented. "I'm sure your men will appreciate having a day off to rest and work all the harder on Monday because of that rest."


"Don't fight it, Fordham," Nick told him, calling out to the men. "Time to get back to work!" as he stepped into the stirrup and got into the saddle. "We'll get out of your way." He could feel the foreman's angry gaze boring into his back all the way to town.


"I don't think Mr. Fordham is very happy," Lucas told Nick.


"Doesn't have to be happy - just do his job."




Nick walked Jess to her office from the livery stable. "I'd still like to go out there to see them actually working," she told him.


"How about Saturday morning? I promised Benjamin a trip out there. I think it might be a good idea for me to stay away from out there for a few days."


"Mr. Fordham does seem a bit - disagreeable," she said, removing her hat once they were inside.


"He wasn't any better yesterday when Lucas and I went out to the camp."


"He does know that you're -"


"On the board of directors and therefore one of his bosses?" Nick nodded. "Yes, he knows. He's not used to someone looking over his shoulder. Especially not someone who can terminate his employment. Add that to the restrictions the town has put on him -"


Jess unlocked the private office, and Nick followed her inside to sit on the edge of her desk as she took some papers out of a drawer. "That doesn't happen very often, I suppose."


"Not that I've ever heard. But I don't have knowledge of the everyday operation of the railroad," he reminded her. "I am going to send a letter to the board, suggesting that they send someone to towns ahead of the crews to find out what a town might or might not accept from the crews when they arrive."


"That's a good idea," she said, coming around the desk. "We still have some time before my appointment - and I'm willing to bet that you haven't had breakfast this morning."


Nick pulled her closer. "You'd win that bet," he told her, then grinned.


"And did you win *your* bets last night?" she asked.


"I did. So why don't we walk over to the cafe and I'll buy breakfast?" he suggested, giving her a kiss.


"In a minute," she told him, leaning forward for another kiss.


"Jess, darlin' -"


"Hmmm?" she asked, her lips almost against his.


"We discussed this, remember?"


Jess sighed and said, "And you say that I'm stubborn," as she moved away from him.


He turned her back to him and swept her into his arms. "Jess, I don't know how else I can say it. I love you, but I won't - no matter how many times you try to make me - I won't go any further than embraces and kisses."


"Until we're married," she said.


"Until we're married," he repeated, cupping her chin with his fingers. "Okay?"


She grinned. "Okay. But that doesn't mean that I won't keep trying."


"Shameless woman," he sighed, "But I love you anyway. Let's go get breakfast."




"He just - he just makes me so angry sometimes, Ma," Jess told Ma Sutton after the codicil to her will had been signed.


"'Cause he wants to marry ya?" Ma asked.


"Because I'm just not ready to get married yet, and he keeps - pushing."


"He loves ya, girl."


"I know that, Ma," Jess admitted, sitting down in the other chair. "And I love him."


"So why aren't ya ready?"


"I don't know - I promised Olivia - my stepmother that I'd take care of my sisters -"


"Amanda's married. As for Elizabeth - Mark's pretty sure that his nephew is fallin' in love with her."


"They barely know each other," Jess said.


Ma laughed. "I ever tell ya how long my Ethan and I knowed each other afore we got married?" she asked, and Jess shook her head. "Two weeks!"


Jess' eyes widened in surprise. "Two - weeks?! Really?"


"Yep. He come inta town t'buy mining supplies. My Pa owned a gen'ral store. Shoulda known them what I was lettin' m'self in for, but I took one look at that man and I just - knew that I wanted t'spend my life with him. He was a good man, even if he was struck with the gold fever."


Jess reached over and touched her arm. "I'm sorry, Ma," she whispered.


"Only other man I've felt that way 'bout keeps sayin' he's too old t'start over. But I'll keep tryin' t'convince him that he don't need t'be alone anymore."


"If anyone can, you can."


Ma covered Jess' hand. "Don't wait too long, Jess."




"People are going to start talking," Elizabeth said as Thad drove her back home on Friday evening.


"Talking? What about?"


"Well, this is the fifth day this week that you've taken me home."


"Would it bother you if they did start talking?" he asked.


Elizabeth was surprised at the question. "No, I don't think that it would. Would it bother you?"


He gave her a grin. "I'm here, aren't I?" They were quiet for a few minutes before he spoke again. "I'm too old for you."


"My Pa was fifteen years older than my Ma," she told him. "You're only ten years older than I am. We have a lot in common - we both want to help people."


"Sounds as if you're thought about this," he noted, and chuckled when Elizabeth blushed in embarrassment. Cautiously, he reached out and took her hand in his. "I've enjoyed this week. Working together, getting to know each other. You know, I really thought that you and Eban Sutton were courting when I arrived in town," he confessed.


"Me and - oh, no. He and Grace and my sister and I are around the same age, so the four of us spent time together - mostly to help them learn how to be around other people. You know from spending time with them and their mother - they grew up with only family around. Eban told me that he doesn't want to get married until he's older. Wants to be sure whoever he marries isn't doing just because of his mother's gold."


"You certainly spent quite a bit of time with him at your sister's wedding."


"Only because I thought that you didn't want me to work in the office as a nurse," she replied. "After what Doc told me -"


"I did tell him that, but I didn't know you then. Once I saw how dedicated and knowledgeable you are, I had no choice but to admit I was wrong." He squeezed her hand gently. "So, you won't mind if I speak to your brother about - courting you?"


"Mind? No, of - of course not."


Once they arrived at the ranch, Thad went inside to see how Lily was feeling, then went out to find Elizabeth's brother.


Kevin was at the corral, just getting off of his horse after a day on the range with his hands. Seeing Thad, he looked concerned. "Dr. Mitchell. Is something wrong?"


Thad shook his head. "No, I brought your sister home, and well, I wanted to speak to you."


Removing his hat, Kevin wiped inside the brim with his kerchief. "To me? Why?"


"Well, I'd like to ask your permission to - court your sister."


Kevin stopped and looked at him. "Jess?" he asked, trying not to smile as the doctor looked totally surprised.


"No. I thought - she's engaged to marry Nick -" Suddenly he saw the glint in Kevin's eyes and smiled as well. "Elizabeth," he clarified.


"With a view to - what, exactly?" Kevin wanted to know.


"Why, marriage, of course. I know that she's still young, but after having spent some time in her company since my arrival in Providence -"


Raising a hand, Kevin said, "You don't have to convince me, Doctor. She's a different person since meeting and working with you. She's - grown up, practically overnight. You have my permission."


"Thank you, Mr. Donager."


As they shook hands, Kevin told him, "Kevin, remember?"


"And I'm Thad."




As promised, Nick rode with Jess and Benjamin out to watch the rail crew working on Saturday morning. They kept enough space so not to distract the men as they smoothed earth, laid ballast and ties, and then placed and nailed the heavy iron rails into place.


"Those are really heavy, aren't they, Uncle Nick?" the boy asked, watching a group of men carrying one of the rails into place.


"They are," Nick nodded, moving Spirit closer to Midnight, but keeping a watch on the boy. Jess was focused on the work being done as well.


"They're amazing," she told him. "Do you think the men come into town tonight?"


"I think a few might. But I also think that Fordham will be riding herd on his crew because he wants that bonus that I promised him. He came in last night and bought some bottles of whiskey to take to the camp - and made sure that he let me know that he normally doesn't allow alcohol in camp, but that he's making an exemption to try to keep them out of trouble."


"He *does* want that bonus."


"Uh huh." He relaxed in the saddle. "I had breakfast with Thad Mitchell this morning," he told her, and wasn't surprised when she turned to look at him with an expectant air. "He told me that he'd asked Kevin for permission to court Elizabeth."


She sighed deeply. "He did. Kevin told me about it last night."


"You don't approve?" Benjamin moved forward a few feet, and Nick called out to him, "Back this way, buddy."


"I don't disapprove," Jess replied. "I still think that Elizabeth is too young to get married."


"And Amanda wasn't?" When she didn't reply, Nick reached over and grasped her hand. "I love you."


"I'll admit that I'm not sure about Elizabeth and Thad because -"


"Because then you don't have any excuse not to say yes?" he asked.


"You're right," she told him, the sharpness of her tone causing Nick to wince slightly. "Benjamin, we need to head back to the ranch," she called out.


"Just a few more minutes, Aunt Jess? Please?"


"I'll bring him home if you have something that you need to do," Nick offered, refusing to release her hand when she moved away until he was forced to do so or be pulled off of his horse. "Jess -" but she was gone, sending Midnight into a full gallop across the range.


Benjamin pulled his pony back until he was close to Nick. "Is Aunt Jess upset about something?" he asked.


"She'll get over it, buddy," Nick told the boy, and pointed out what the men were doing to get his attention off of his aunt's sudden departure.




She was cordial the next morning when they came into town for church, but Nick saw the look in her eyes - it reminded him of a wild animal that was slowly being cornered into a trap. She said all the right words, smiled when it was necessary - and hid the fact that she was terrified from everyone except for the one person who knew her best - Nick.


At the end of the service, Andrew told the congregation that Doc wanted to make an announcement. Rising from his seat beside Ma Sutton and her children, Doc moved to stand before the church.


"I've been the doctor here in Providence for 30 years - Brought a lot of new life into this world, and I've been present when a lot of lives left - but I think that it's time that I let someone else take over taking care of the citizens of Providence and the surrounding area. I'm officially retiring from actively practicing medicine." The church was filled with murmurings. "Please, friends. I believe that my nephew, Dr. Thad Mitchell, has more than proven himself during the last months. Now, I'm not going anywhere, and I'll still be available if Dr. Mitchell needs any help or to consult on a case, but I won't be seeing patients. Thank you all for your support over the last years. Without it, I would have given up after Constance passed. Thank you." He moved to sit down again. Ma reached over to take his hand in silent support.


No one moved, until someone in the back stood up and began to applaud, and then everyone else in the building joined in.


As they left the church, Nick saw Jess pass the surrey and head toward her office. Turning to Kevin, he said, "You and the others go on. Jess and I will be along in a bit." Lily had remained at the ranch, due to her condition, and so Kevin, Elizabeth and Benjamin got into the surrey to return home.


Nick opened the outer door and entered the office. The door to the inner office was locked, as he had expected. Leaning against the door frame, he called out. "Jess." He thought he heard the sound of muffled tears. "Jess, darlin', I'm not going anywhere, so you might as well unlock the door." He was about to go out and around to the back door when he heard the sound of the key in the lock, and he opened the door.


She was standing across the room, facing away from him. "I'm - sorry," she said. "I knew it - it's not like he'll be gone, but -"


Nick stood there until he finally closed the distance between them and turned her into his arms. "It's okay, darlin'. You don't have to apologize. Things are changing. Reverend Lee's gone and Bro. Andrew is in his place. Now, Doc retires and is replaced by Dr. Mitchell. And you're terrified of all the changes because you don't want things to change. It's understandable. But it's also a part of life."


"I'm not - ter-ter-ri-fied," she insisted, but the fact that she was still crying as she said it disproved her words.


"Yes, you are, and I'm to blame for part of it," he said. "I'm sorry for that. For trying to push you into something that you don't want."


She finally lifted her head to look up at him, blinking back the tears. "What - what are you saying? Have you - do you mean that - that you don't want to -"


"Oh, darlin', that's not going to change. I've told you more than once that I'll love you for the rest of my life - marriage or no marriage. But I don't want to force you into something that makes you unhappy."


Suddenly she was crying again, and Nick lifted his eyes to the ceiling as he sought to figure out what he'd said to cause it this time. "Jess." The tears seemed to be drying up, and he cupped the back of her head in his hands. "Jess, why are you crying now?"


"I don't know. I haven't cried this much since - since I was a little girl."


"Then you have a lot of them stored up, and they want to come out. I'm glad that you feel that you can lean on me when you feel this way," he told her, looking into her eyes, he leaned down to kiss each one. "Oh, Jess. Right now, I could -"


"Could what?" she asked.


"I could break every promise that I've made to myself -" his lips found hers, and his kissed her - hard. But his lips softened as the kiss continued. Jess moaned, wrapping her arms around his neck, pulling him closer.


"Oh Nick," she whispered as the kiss broke into shorter touches of their lips, as if neither one really wanted the kiss to end. "Nick," she said again, looking into his dark eyes that were even darker than usual.


Suddenly he went still and shook his head. "I'm sorry, darlin'. I shouldn't have -"


"I'm not complaining," she told him, trying to kiss him again, but he put his hands on her arms and sighed.


"I can't do it, Jess. I want to." He gave her a crooked smile. "God knows that I want to. But - I'm sorry if it makes you angry that I love you as much as I do."


She let her arms drop to her sides. "I know you've - been with women who - are more - experienced -"


Nick chuckled, kissing her again. "Trust me, Jess, -" he stopped. "Is that what you're afraid of, darlin'?" he asked. "That you think I might find you - wanting somehow?"


"Well, it would be natural, considering -" She sighed. "Women - ladies aren't supposed to - but when I'm with you -"


He lifted her chin so that she would look at him. "Oh, darlin', I am going to enjoy showing you -"


"You won't be - disappointed?"


"Never," he promised her, dropping an almost chaste kiss on her lips. "Come on. The family is waiting for us to have their dinner."


"I love you, Nick," she told him.


The End

Jess, Nick and the rest will return in the next installment of "The Donager Saga".