Episode 7
The Return

"This is so exciting!" Nedra Carter declared as the gathered crowd waited for the first train into Providence.


"I think I heard the whistle!" Benjamin declared, staring down the tracks to the east.


"I can see the smoke from the engine!" Someone else called out as Lucas spoke up.


"Step back from the edge of the platform, please! And from the tracks - there could be sparks when they hit the brakes!"


All of the ladies except for Jess backed away from the tracks and edge of the platform, pulling children with them. "There it is!" Kevin called out, taking Lily's hand as they sat in the wagon. He had tried to convince her not to come into town, but she had been determined to be there for this moment, knowing how much it meant to everyone. So Kevin had agreed - but only if she remained in the wagon instead of climbing down and up to the platform.


On the platform, Jess, dressed in riding clothes, stood with Nick. "I wish Pa was here," she said, taking hold of Nick's hand. "He's the one who started all of this."


As the engine neared the crossing and station, the whistle blew several times, delighting the crowd. As it braked to a stop, the engine and tinder were past the platform, with the freight car and passenger car behind that, and a red caboose bringing up the rear. "There aren't very many cars," Jess observed.


"There'll be more boxcars as more freight is shipped," told her, watching the people as they came from the passenger car. "Paulo's telegram said he would be on the train," he said.


The tall, dark haired man jumped onto the platform and smiled as he caught sight of Nick. "Nick! My friend!" he called out, coming over to shake Nick's hand.


"Paulo!" Nick stepped back. "You're looked very prosperous, my friend!"


"It's all pretense," the sculptor insisted, turning to look at Jess. "And who is this?"


"This is Miss Jess Donager. My fiancee. Jess, this is the infamous Paulo Delvecchio."


"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Delvecchio," Jess said.


Paulo took her hand and bowed over it. "The pleasure is entirely mine, Miss Jess. Such loveliness should be captured in marble, don't you agree, Nick?"


Jess laughed softly at his flirtatious charm, aware that Nick looked slightly jealous. "Thank you, sir. I've never thought about having a statue made of myself."


"Speaking of statues," Nick said, glad that everyone else seemed to be looking elsewhere. "You *did* bring it, didn't you?"


Paulo pointed toward the boxcar. "In there. Wait until you see it, you'll be amazed at my genius!"


Nick started to turn away, his hand on Jess' arm, but she stopped as someone spoke.


"Jess?" The man looked vaguely familiar to Nick. He was tall, with faded red-blonde hair and green eyes. "You have to be Jess. With that hair -" No, Nick, decided, it wasn't just the man, it was his voice. He'd heard it somewhere - but where?


Jess stopped, turning toward the man. "Uncle - Uncle Charles?" she said, clearly surprised to see him. Before Nick knew what was happening, she was in the older man's arms, welcoming him. "I can't believe -" Finally she turned to Nick. "Nick, this is my uncle, Charles Davis. Uncle Charles, this is Nick Everett. We're engaged."


"Mr. Everett," Charles said, shaking Nick's hand.


"Mr. Davis." Nick touched Jess' shoulder as she started looking around the platform. "I'll go with Paulo and take care of what he brought," he told her, aware that her mind wasn't on their plan to surprise the town with a monument to the founding families. "Catch up with you later." He nodded in Charles' direction, still trying to remember where they had met as he followed Paulo down the platform toward the boxcar.


"Kevin!" Jess was calling out, moving off the platform and to the wagon where her brother and Lily and Benjamin were sitting. "You'll never guess who -" she began, but Kevin jumped down from the wagon.


"Uncle Charles! You're home!"


"Hello, Kevin," Charles said before looking at the woman and boy. "And who is this?"


"My wife, Lily, and our son, Benjamin," Kevin told him. "Lily, Benjamin, this is my Uncle Charles."


Elizabeth came over to the wagon. "Lily, Thad told me that he thinks you should -"


Charles had gone pale upon seeing the young woman, murmuring, "Olivia," under his breath, and Kevin frowned.


"Uncle Charles? Are you all right?" he asked.


The youngest Donager daughter heard Kevin's concern and turned to look at the man. "He looks pale," she noted, and reached out to touch his hand, but Charles pulled away from her.


"No," he insisted. "Who - who are you?"


"She's my sister," Kevin explained.


"Olivia's daughter," Charles realized, nodding. "I'm sorry," he said to Elizabeth. "You look very like your mother when I knew her."


"You knew my mother?"


Kevin made the introduction. "This is Uncle Charles, Elizabeth."


"Oh. It's a pleasure to meet you," she said. "I'll go find Amanda," she told Kevin, and then turned back to Lily. "Thad wants you to stop into the office before you leave town, Lily. He wasn't happy that you decided to come to town with your time so close."


Lily smiled, placing a hand on her swollen abdomen. "I'm fine, really. But we'll stop in. I think I saw Amanda over on the platform a little while ago, she might have gone inside the station with Mrs. Lee."




Nick surveyed the canvas-wrapped monument, aware that the news of Charles Davis' return had turned most people aside from their excitement over the train's first stop in town. "Do you want to see it?" Paulo asked.


"Not right now. I have some men who will move it down to the old freight office until it's installed. I'll look at it then. Too many eyes here right now."


"And where is going to be - installed, my friend?"


Nick looked out of the sliding door and pointed down the street. "Do you see that spot where this street dead ends into the other street? In front of the church?"


"The round area, outlined by white rocks?"


"Yes. The ranch hands from the Diamond D did the work to get it ready. We're still trying to surprise the people who are represented on the plaque."


"Oh yes, the plaque," Paulo said, moving around the boxcar until he found that item. "It reads precisely as the text that you sent to me. I hope that it's acceptable." He saw Nick's gaze move to the wagon on the street beside the station, where a crowd of people were welcoming the prodigal home. "Forgive me, Nick, but - the arrival of this man - it troubles you?"


"It shouldn't," Nick said. "But I know that I've seen that man somewhere. I'm sure I'll remember eventually." He smiled. "Let's go find someone to get this thing off of the train."


"This thing?" Paulo questioned. "I will have you know, Nick, that this - *thing* is a work of art that only I, the great Paulo Delvecchio could create!"




As word spread about Charles' return to town, he found himself shaking hands and renewing old acquaintances. His reaction to Amanda hadn't been as much of a surprise, except, of course, for the fact that the girls were identical twins. The crowd flowed toward the town hall, where a celebration had been prepared before the train came into the station.


Lily sat in the doctor's office watching Elizabeth as they waited for Thad to join them, and couldn't help but think that the young woman seemed disturbed. "What's wrong, Elizabeth?" she asked.


"Wrong? Oh, nothing. I just - something about the way Charles Davis looked when he first saw me -" she shook her head and shivered.


"Well, from what Kevin's told me, he *was* in love with your mother," Lily pointed out. "I'm sure that seeing someone who reminded him of her -"


"I understand that. But - I can't really explain how that look made me feel. Maybe - like a drop of cold water running down my back."


"Give him some time, I'm sure he'll get used to the resemblance."


"If he stays -"


"You don't think that he will?"


"I don't know *what* I think, honestly."


"Think about what?" Thad asked, coming into the office. "Sorry you had to wait," he told them. "Mrs. Garnett wanted to tell me that she's feeling so much better and that she's ever so grateful to me for that." They all laughed as he managed to mimic Hortense Garnett perfectly. "Now, why don't we go into the examination room -" he began, and Lily started to get up from the chair, only to cry out and place a hand on her stomach as she dropped back into the chair.




Thad turned back to his patient. "Lily?"


"It - hurts," she managed.


Thad slowly helped her to her feet, and turned to his nurse. "Elizabeth, go find your brother and have him come over here, please, and then get back so you can assist me."


"Yes, Doctor," she said, not waiting for them to get into the exam room before heading toward the town hall, saying a silent prayer that Lily and the baby would be okay. She easily found Kevin, laughing along with the others as his Uncle Charles had related an amusing story. Moving to his side, she touched his arm to get his attention. "Kevin?"


He turned to her, placing an arm around her shoulders. Charles smiled upon seeing her, but Elizabeth didn't pay much attention. "You just missed a funny story," Kevin said.


"You need to go over to the doctor's office," she told him, and his wide grin faded.


"What's wrong?"


"Thad asked me to come get you - Lily might be going into labor."


"What's wrong, Pa?" Benjamin asked.


"Your little brother or sister is about to be born," Elizabeth told the boy.


When he started to follow his father, Kevin stopped and started looking around for someone to keep an eye on Benjamin. "Son, it might be best if you go -"


"I'm going with you, Pa." Kevin finally nodded and took the boy's hand, leading him through the crowd to the door with Elizabeth following.


Nick, who had been across the room, talking to Lucas, came over to Jess. "I'm going over there," he told her. "Are you -"


"Of course. Where is Amanda?" she asked.


"She and Andrew followed Kevin out," Mrs. Lee informed her. "I'm glad that you've come home, Charles," she said. "I'm going over to the church to prayer for Lily and the baby." Her announcement caused several women in the room to follow her out.


Jess and Nick took a few steps toward the doors, but she stopped. "Uncle Charles? Are you coming?"


"Well, from what I remember, Doc's office was pretty small. It's going to get kind of crowded if we all pile in there." He shook his head. "I saw a saloon when we were coming down the street - is it open?"


Nick pulled out his watch, checking the time. "Only just," he nodded.


"I'm sure we could find room for one more, Uncle," Jess said, her hand on his arm.


He covered her hand. "You go on. I'm sure that Kevin needs you there for support. You were always stronger."




The moment that Kevin, Elizabeth and Benjamin entered the office, Thad called out from the other room. "Miss Donager? Elizabeth, could you come in here, please?"


She turned to smile at Kevin. "Sit down, and I'll come out in a minute to tell you what's going on."


Kevin sat down, staring at the now closed door. "Where is Ma?" Benjamin asked.


"In the other room, son," Kevin said, taking the boy's hand in his in an effort to reassure him. He didn't turn when the outer door opened and the others came into room, until Jess touched his arm and knelt beside the chair. "I was afraid something like this might happen if she came to town. But she insisted that she'd be okay." He drew a ragged breath.


Andrew placed a hand on his shoulder and began to pray for Lily and the baby.


A moment later, Ma Sutton and Doc entered the office. "Doc," Kevin said. "Lily -"


"I know, I said that I was going to stay away - but I thought I should be here for the next generation of Donagers comes into the world." He knocked once on the door before going inside.


"Why don't they tell us something?" Kevin asked.


"Stop troublin' y'self with fear and worry, Kevin," Ma said. "Women been birthin' babies ever since Eve . Wasn't no doctors t'help her, just her husband. I birthed five kids - the last two mostly on m'own. Your Lily, she's strong. You keep the faith and trust in God."


Every now and then, they heard Lily crying out, and Jess, seeing how frightened Benjamin looked, held out her hand to him. "Benjamin, why don't you and I -"


But before she could finish, The sounds ended, and there was silence. That silence ended with the sound of a baby's cry. The connecting door opened, and Doc came out, pausing to survey the room for a moment before smiling. "Kevin, Lily wants to see you."


"She's okay?" he asked.


"She's just fine."


"Can I go in?" Benjamin asked, and Doc nodded down at him. "You can."


Doc stepped out of the room to take Martha's hand as the others moved to stand in the doorway, and Elizabeth stood beside Thad as Kevin approached the bed in the room, where Lily lay with a small bundle next to her. "Lily," Kevin whispered.


She reached out to take his hand. Kevin kissed her hand as she smiled at Benjamin. "Do you want to meet your sister, Benji?" she asked, releasing Kevin's hand to lift the blanket from the infant's face.


"A sister?" Benjamin questioned. "She's so tiny!" he declared.


"She'll grow," Lily assured him. "Before you know it, she'll be as big as you are."


"But - a *sister*!" He sighed in disappointment. "I really wanted a little brother."


"You know, Benjamin," Nick said from the doorway, "you can teach a sister to ride and rope, too, just like your Aunt Jess does."


He considered that idea for a moment. "Yeah, that's right, Uncle Nick! I can!"


The adults all laughed at his excitement before Amanda came forward, "Benjamin, why don't you come with Uncle Andrew and me so your mother can rest?"


"Can I go tell Johnny Grant about my baby sister?" he asked.


"You may - as long as you go directly to the parsonage right after that," Kevin told the boy.


"Does she have a name? Johnny will want to know her name."


Kevin looked at Lily. "We discussed names -"


"Katherine Margaret," Lily nodded. "For my mother and yours."


Kevin smiled as Benjamin looked at the baby once more. "Katherine Margaret," he repeated. "That's a long name for something so little."


Once the new parents were alone, Kevin watched the baby silence as he held Lily's hand. "She's beautiful," he finally said.


"Are you sure that you're not disappointed that she's not a boy?" she asked.


Kevin shook his head. "I already have a son," he told her. "Besides, I'm used to little girls."


"I love you," she told him.


"And I love you." He gave her a soft kiss as the baby stirred and opened her eyes, looking up at him. "Hey there, Katherine."


A soft knock on the door preceded Thad's entrance. "Sorry, but, Lily does need to rest -"


"When can Katherine and I go home, Doctor?" Lily asked.


"Probably tomorrow," he said. "I'd prefer that you stay in town overnight - you're welcome to stay here -"


"What will you and Benjamin do?" Lily asked Kevin.


"We'll get a room over at the hotel."


"It's not necessary," Thad told them.


"It'll save us the ride back in tomorrow to get her," Kevin pointed out. "Jess can tell Hank when she gets back there later. so that he'll handle the work assignments at the ranch tomorrow morning."




Nick steered Jess over to the old freight office. "We need to go tell Uncle Charles about the baby," she said. "And I'm sure Jake and the girls -"


"In a minute," he told her, closing the door behind him. "I thought you would like to see Paulo's masterpiece."


"You got it over here?"


"Between Paulo and I and Robert and Hank and a few others," he nodded, untying the rope the held the canvas.


"And no one else saw it?"


"Everyone was distracted by your uncle's return to notice. We had enough trouble with the council when we created the circle, the last thing I wanted to do was face their questions about what this was." he pulled the canvas back for her to see the bronze figures.


"Oh my," she breathed. Even in the dim light, the statue was awe-inspiring. The four life-sized figures were grouped together as if they were looking into the distance. The two children, a girl and a boy, stood before their parents, the mother's hands on their shoulders as the father's arm was around her shoulders. "It's - wonderful," she said. "What about the plaque?" she asked, and Nick dug into some nearby hay to pull it out before moving to cover the monument once more.


"This is perfect. I'll have to remember to thank Paulo for his hard work getting it done."


"About Paulo, Jess," Nick began, taking the plaque from her and returning it to the hay near the statue.


"I know, I know," she told him, turning to slide her arms around his chest. "He's an incurable flirt and doesn't mean anything by it."


"Oh, he's an incurable flirt, but he likes to *try* to divert a lady's attentions from me. Usually, I let him do it."


"And this time?" she asked, looking up at him.


"Not in a million years," he told her, capturing her lips. "You're mine, Jessica Donager. Don't ever forget that," he said once the kiss ended.


"Keep kissing me like that and I'm not likely to," she replied.


"I love you."


Jess frowned, sensing that he was troubled. "What's wrong, Nick?"


"Nothing. I guess - Lily having her baby and - trying to get this -" he nodded toward the statue, "ready - and your uncle coming home -"


"What does Uncle Charles have to do with it?"


"I don't know. I feel like - I think I know him from somewhere, but I don't remember where."


"You should ask him. Maybe you were both in the Army during the war, or maybe saw each other in a saloon somewhere -"


"I'll figure it out," he said. "I'm sure it doesn't matter." He kissed her again. "Let's go. I need to tell Jake and the girls about the baby - if they haven't already heard about it. News travels fast around here." As they left the warehouse, Jake asked, "Are we still on for an early supper?"


"Would you mind if I begged off?" she wanted to know. "I'm sure that Kevin will stay in town - and Elizabeth, so I don't want to leave Uncle Charles alone at the ranch on his first night back home. I'm sorry, -"


Nick shook his head. "I understand. It's been at least twenty years - you have a lot to catch up on. We can do it another night. I thought we could discuss some of the particulars - we need to get the invitations out -"


"They're done and ready to be delivered," she told him.


"What about the town council? They've been grumbling about the circle," he told her.


"Well, we can meet with them at the end of the week. That will give us a chance to get the invitations out and decide exactly how much we want to tell them before the unveiling."


"Hmm. Maybe we shouldn't meet with them at all," he told her. "Let them find out at the ceremony, along with everyone else."


Seeing Kevin coming out of the doctor's office, Jess called out to him. "Hey!"


"How are Lily and the baby?" Nick asked.


"They're fine. Jess, Benjamin and I are going to stay here in town tonight - Thad wants Lily and Katherine to stay here and go home tomorrow - so could you tell Hank when you get home?"


"Of course. Have you seen Uncle Charles?"


"He was going to have a drink when we left the town hall," she told him.


Nick said, "I'll let him know that you're looking for him." He brought Jess' hand to his lips. "I'll see you tomorrow, I guess. I love you."


Jess saw Kevin look away - anywhere but at them, and laughed softly. "I think we're embarrassing Kevin," she told Nick. "I'll see you tomorrow."




Jess had ridden Midnight into town that morning, so Charles rented a horse from the livery stable to ride back out to the ranch with her. After a brief stop at the station to grab the small valise that he'd left there, they set off to the south.


"Looks just like I remember it," he said as they rode along the road. "We used to take a short cut from town to the ranch house." He nodded to the southwest. "That way, I believe."


"We still use it sometimes if we're on horses. It's not smooth enough for a wagon, though."


"We're not in a wagon," he pointed out with a grin, pulling his horse to the right. "Com'on!"


Laughing, Jess followed, easily catching up to the smaller horse and passing it before slowing Midnight and looking back until he joined her. "I should have warned you, Uncle. There's not a horse in this area that can beat Midnight," she told him, reaching forward to pat the animal's neck.


"He's a good looking animal, all right. Where'd he come from?"


She continued to rub the black hair, smoothing it unnecessarily. "From Pa. It was - the last thing he gave me before -" She saw him frowning as he looked past her, and at first thought it was because she had mentioned her father, but when she turned to look, she saw the house. "That's right. You've never seen the house."


Charles shook his head, moving forward again. "No. When I left, we were still in the house he built right after we got here -" he pointed to the smaller house behind the larger one.


"Mariana and Pedro are living in that house now. He built the new one right after -"


"After he married the woman I was in love with," Charles finished.


"I'm sorry, Uncle Charles," she apologized, and suddenly he was all smiles.


"It wasn't your fault, Jess. Com'on, I'd like to see what the place looks like."


"Olivia made drawings of what she wanted, so it was mostly her tastes."


They took the horses to the barn, where Pedro took them. He and Mariana had been in town earlier, so they already knew that he was back. She asked Pedro to let Hank know about Kevin staying in town because of Katherine's birth, and he told her that he would be glad to.


"Barn's bigger than it used to be," Charles noted.


"We enlarged it a few years ago," she confirmed, slipping her arm through his as they walked around the house to the front.


Charles looked up at the long porch and tall white columns. "A fitting place for a major landowner," he observed, with a hint of disapproval. Jess sent him a look, and he sighed. "Don't mind me. It's been a long, tiring day."


She led him up the steps and inside the house. Charles stood in the entry hall, whistling softly. "That old house would fit inside of just this room," he told her.


"Not quite," she said with a smile. Pointing to the left, she told him, "The study is over there, and down that hallway is the dining room side entrance. The parlor is through there -" she opened the doors and entered, stopping as she realized that he wasn't following. Turning, she saw that he was looking at the portrait of her father over the mantel. "Kevin and I had a terrible time convincing him to sit for that," she told him. "But it turned out really well, we thought."


Charles moved into the room at last, still focused on the painting of a man that he had come out here with - a man that he had said he hated. Mariana came into the room, smiling. "Hello, Mr. Evans," she said. "I didn't have a chance to tell you in town - welcome home."


He finally turned from the portrait and returned Mariana's smile. "Thank you. I'm still getting used to being here. Things are - different."


"Miss Jess, I have some of my stew on the stove - I wasn't sure how many to expect for supper -"


"Well, I think it will just be Uncle Charles and me, Mariana. Kevin and Benjamin decided to stay in town since they'll be bringing Lily and the baby home tomorrow morning. And Elizabeth stayed to help take care of Lily and the baby so that Dr. Mitchell could get some rest."


"She cares a lot for him, I think," Mariana said with another smile.


"Yes, she does."


"I prepared the bedroom at the end of the corridor for Mr. Evans," Mariana said. "Pedro said that you didn't have any cases with you?"


"No, I'm used to traveling light," he said. "I left my valise in the hallway."


"I'll take it to your room for you," she told him, leaving them alone once more.


He pointed to the door that she had come from. "Dining room, right?"


"Yes. And past that, the kitchen, which is Mariana's domain. The only ones allowed in there are the twins."


"Still not much of a cook, I guess," he said, smiling at her.


"No. Both she and Olivia tried, but - I can do beans and bacon over a campfire, but that's about it."


"And now you're going to get married."


"Eventually," she nodded, sitting down on the sofa.


He looked at her. "No date set for the wedding?"


"Not yet. And before you ask, I don't know why."


"Don't tell me that your Nick is dragging his heels."


"No, it's not Nick who's hesitating," she said, looking down at the ring on her finger.


"You?" She nodded. "Why?"


Jess shrugged, sighing. "I wish I knew."


"Maybe because you're not in love with him?"


She finally looked up. "Oh, I am in love with him, Uncle," she said. "So much that it hurts sometimes."


"He owns the saloon, doesn't he?" He grimanced. "I talked to the bartender while I was there. He said Nick was his boss."


"He co-owns it. He bought a half interest from Lily."


"Kevin's wife?"


"Yes. They became friends after the war when she and her first husband were running a gaming place in Memphis. After her husband was killed, he helped her with some legal issues -"


"Legal issues?"


"He's also a lawyer. That's how we met. He came to Providence a little over a year ago to prosecute a case that I was defending - and stayed."


"And he's a gambler."


"Yes. He enjoys playing cards. He wins most of the time."


Charles looked up at the portrait. "You think that *he* would approve of your marrying a saloon-owning poker player?"


"Honestly? I think that he and Nick would like each other. They're both strong men who know what they want and do whatever is necessary to get it." She stopped as she realized what she was saying. "I'm sorry, Uncle Charles."


He looked around. "Is there any whiskey around here? I could use a drink."


Jess stood and went to the table beside the door and poured him a glass from the decanter sitting there. "Here you go."


"And then I think I'd like some of that stew that Mariana mentioned. Been a long time since I tasted any of her cooking. From what I remember, she was the best twenty years ago."


"Betsy Collins has tried more than once to steal her away for the Cafe in town," Jess told him. "Come on, I think I can brave the kitchen to get us both some stew."




"I still think you should have gone home with your sister and uncle," Thad told Elizabeth as they had a quick meal at the cafe while Kevin and Benjamin spent a little while with their patients. "I could have handled taking care of things -"


"It's really okay," she told him. "I'd rather be here."


"But your uncle -"


"He's not *really* my uncle," she told him. "His sister was Kevin and Jess' mother. He left when Pa married Amanda and my mother."


"Oh. I see. Uncle Mark mentioned him a couple of times. He was in love with your mother, wasn't he?"


"So I've always been told."


"You don't believe it?"


"I don't know. I mean, if you love someone - I mean *really* love someone, wouldn't you want them to be happy, even if that happiness wasn't with you?"


Thad smiled at her, reaching over to take her hand in his. "I'm not sure that I'd be able to just step aside if you told me that you were in love with someone else."


"Nick told Jess that that's what he would do," she told him. "Even said that he would stay here and be her friend if it happened. But that he would still be in love with her."


"Nick's a better man that I am, then. So, you think that if your Uncle - if Charles Davis had really loved your mother, he wouldn't have run away and stayed gone for all these years?"


"Something like that. Why come back now? After twenty years?"

"Maybe it's as simple as the fact that he's homesick and wants to be with his family."


Elizabeth shook her head. "You didn't see the way he looked at me when he first saw me," she said.


"What do you mean?"


"It was like he'd seen a ghost - at first."


"Uncle Mark told me that you and Amanda look a lot like your mother."


"But almost immediately, it was like - like - I can't explain it. But it gave me cold chills, Thad."




After supper, Charles and Jess sat in the parlor, talking about the ranch, and her time in St. Louis at school - and the plans to raise a monument to the Founding Families. "Where did you go after you - left, Uncle Charles?" she finally asked. "Pa said you were going back home to New York."


Charles went to get another drink. "I did. Father refused to see me. Said that I had made my choice to follow Margaret and *that man*, as he called John."


"I'm sorry."


"You need to stop apologizing for things that weren't your fault, girl," he told her. "No, he was right. I had a chance to go home after they discovered me in the wagon, and I refused to go."


"So what did you do then?"


"Went a bit of everywhere. Did most anything. Punched cattle, did some mining, hunted buffalo, even herded sheep. Never stayed long in one place."


"Were you - did you fight in the war?" she asked slowly.


"I fought," he nodded, finishing his drink. "Why?"


"Something Nick said earlier. He thinks he might have met you or seen you somewhere. He was in the war - but he was only in the field for a year. After that, he was transferred to Washington."


"The only way he would have seen me during the war was at the end of rifle barrel," Charles told her.


Jess realized that he'd fought for the South. "Oh."


"How did he get a transfer to Washington?"


"His - father arranged it because he didn't want Nick fighting and risking his life."


"Who was his father?"


"Carlton Wentworth Nelson," she answered.


Charles' jaw dropped. "You said his name -"


"He legally changed his name after the war because of his father."


"So I guess that means that he's not hanging around to get his hands on the ranch or your money."


"He wouldn't be anyway," she said. "The way that Pa's will is set up, it was left equally to each of his children. Except for a set amount of money to each child, the majority of the money is in a trust for the ranch. None of us can sell our part of the ranch except to one of the others."


"And what about if you or the - twins marry. I believe one of them is married to Reverend Lee's son -"


"Amanda. Her husband has no say about the ranch. If something happens to any of us, our share either reverts to the other three, or to our children if we have any."


"Surely the father would have say over the children's -"


Jess shook her head. "No. Their share or shares - as is the case with Kevin's children - would be held in trust by the trustee of the estate."


"And let me guess: you're the trustee?"


"I am. Uncle Charles, you should know that even though you left here saying that you hated him, Pa left you part of the ranch - and some money -"


"He what?"


She nodded. "You remember the hundred acres down by the lake?"


"That's where I wanted to build a house for - for me and Olivia," he finished, looking up at the portrait again. "Damn. I can't believe - He really thought that I would accept *anything* from him after -"


"In the end, Uncle Charles, you both lost her," Jess pointed out in a soft voice.


Charles took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "You're right. Look, I'm exhausted. Would you mind if I call it a night and head up to my room? I think that after the whiskey and the stew, I'm going to sleep like a log."


"I hope you do. I'm sure things will look better tomorrow." She rose to walk him to the bottom of the stairs. "I'm glad you're home, Uncle Charles," she told him. "I've missed you."


He gave her a hug. "Night."


Jess watched him walk up the stairs before going into the study to find the copy of her father's will containing the codicil relating to his brother in law. She'd show it it him tomorrow. Maybe it would change his mind and make him realize that John Donager or Olivia had never meant him any harm. People didn't choose who they fell in love with.




It was just after midnight when Nick and Paulo came out of the saloon. As Nick turned the key in the lock, Paulo spoke in a soft voice, but on the dark street, his voice carried.


"You are still the best poker player that I have ever seen, my friend. It was a *privilege* to lose to you."


Nick grinned, shaking his head as he pocketed the key and turned toward the hotel. "It was a privilege to *take* your money," he replied. He glanced at the sheriff's office, seeing Lucas come out to start his rounds. "I need to talk to the Sheriff," Nick told Paulo, stepping off of the walkway.


At that moment, a shot rang out, and Nick fell. "Nick?" Paulo said, kneeling beside his friend as Lucas ran across the street to join him.




"What was that?" Lily asked, startled out of a sound sleep by a loud noise. Across the room, Elizabeth stirred from the chair in which she had been sleeping. "Elizabeth? Did you -"


Doc and Thad's footsteps on the stairs from to the two room flat over the office caused Elizabeth to open the door into the front room, where Thad was lifting his suspenders over this shoulders. "That was a gunshot," Doc said, opening the door.


"Be careful, Uncle Mark -" Thad warned, keeping Elizabeth behind him.


"It was only one shot, Thad," Doc told him, looking out at the street.


Lights were going on up and down the street, and Kevin came from the hotel. "What's going on, Lucas?" he asked, joining the Sheriff and Paulo. "Nick! What happened?" he asked.


"We were leaving the saloon," Paulo told them. "Someone shot at Nick -" he pointed to the north, "From that direction, I think. He's been shot in the back."


"Let me through," Thad said to the men gathering around the man. Kneeling, he examined Nick. "He's alive. I need some of you to carry him over to the office-" He stopped, seeing Kevin. "Kevin, could you please carry Lily over to the hotel? Have Elizabeth bring the baby, then send her back over to the office, please. I'll need her help." Kevin nodded and took off for the office, where Elizabeth was standing in the doorway. Out of the corner of his eye, Thad saw his uncle heading toward the end of the street, no doubt to let Ma Sutton know what had happened.


As the men picked Nick up, he murmured Jess' name, and Thad turned to Lucas. "Could you go and get Jess? If he wakes up, he'll want to see her."


"What are you going to do?"


"I'll know when we get him over to the office, but -" he shook his head and followed the men, warning them to be careful.




"What's going on, Kevin?" Lily asked her husband as he came into the office. He had paused to tell Elizabeth something that had caused her to gasp before moving ahead of him to pick up Katherine.


"Dr. Mitchell asked me to take you across to the hotel," he said. "He needs the room for another patient."


"What other patient?" she asked as he picked her up. "Kevin? I heard a gunshot, I think. Who got shot?"


He didn't stop as he answered, trying to keep himself between her and the men carrying someone up onto the walk. "It was Nick."


"Nick? Is he -"


"If he was dead, honey, Thad wouldn't need the office. He's alive, but Thad needs to examine him."


"Oh dear God. Jess - someone needs to -"


"I think Lucas went to get her."


As they entered the room where he and Benjamin had been sleeping, he found his son standing at the window, watching the street. "What's going on, Pa?" He asked, turning. "Ma?"


Kevin placed Lily into the bed, and Elizabeth put Katherine into her arms. "Thad wants you back over there, Elizabeth," he told his sister, aware that she was more than a little rattled by what was going on. Taking her arm, he shook her gently. "Elizabeth - go on." She nodded and left the room.


"Pa?" Benjamin asked, coming over to the bed. "What's happening? I saw them carry someone into the doctor's office."


Kevin sat on the edge of the bed, his arm around Benjamin's shoulders. "Someone shot your Uncle Nick, son. He's alive, but Dr. Mitchell has to take care of him and try to save his life."


"We need to pray for him," Benjamin declared in a quiet voice as tears began to fall down his mother's cheeks.


Kevin nodded and held Lily's hand tighter as the three of them began to pray for their friend, and for Dr. Mitchell - and for Jess.




Lucas, not trusting himself on the shortcut, stuck to the road out to the Donager house. Even with a half moon, there just wasn't enough light for him to safely see his way. Once he finally reached the house, he barely let his horse come to a stop before jumping up onto the porch and banging on the front door. "Jess! It's Sheriff Morgan! Jess!"


She opened the door, just tying a robe around her nightclothes. "Lucas! Why on earth are you out here at this time of night?" she asked, and then froze as she saw the look on his face. "Something's happened."


"Nick's been shot," he told her.


"He's been - he's not -?"


Lucas shook his head, reaching out to steady her as she swayed. "He's alive. Or he still was when I left to come out here. Dr. Mitchell had him taken to the office, and sent me to get you."


"Okay. I'll - I'll be dressed in a few minutes. Can you - saddle my horse for me?"


"Sure thing. You sure you wouldn't rather have a buggy -?"


"No. I'll ride in. It'll be quicker." She turned back toward the stairs, and realized that he was still standing there. "Go. I'll be out by the time you're done." She heard the front door close behind him, and forced herself to put one step in front of the other to climb back up the stairs.


In her room, she grabbed a riding habit and boots and got dressed at record speed - even for her. Pulling her hair back with a ribbon, she didn't think about the fact that it was one of the ribbons that Nick had given her on the date of the anniversary of his arrival in Providence. Leaving her room, she started toward the stairs, but she heard a door open, and saw Charles come from the direction of his room, scratching his head and yawning.


"What's going on?" he asked.


Jess drew a deep breath. "Nick - someone shot Nick," she managed to say. "I have to go into town."


"I'll get dressed and -"


"No, I don't have time to wait," she said. "If you want to, you can come in later. I have to get to town now. Before it's too late." If it's not already too late, her mind told her.


Lucas was just bringing Midnight around when she stepped onto the porch and used the steps to get into the saddle. Without a word, she kicked the animal into a gallop. "You're gonna break your fool neck!" Lucas called after her.


"I don't have time to ride slow!" she called back, finally veering off the main road to take the shortcut into town. She knew it was dangerous, but having ridden it earlier, the path was fresh in her memory, so she decided to risk it. She didn't have time to waste. She's wasted too much as it was.




"Jess," Nick murmured again as Thad and Doc examined his wound while Elizabeth stood by, waiting for them to make a decision. He was laying on his stomach, and the wound on his back was ugly and dangerous-looking


"Well?" she finally asked. "How bad is it?"


"He's probably bleeding internally," Thad told her. "We know that it must have missed his heart, or he'd be -"


"Dead," she finished in a shaky voice.


"It looks like it might have hit his backbone, but there's so much swelling around the wound -"


"What about his lungs?"

"He's not coughing, and he seems to be breathing okay," Doc told her. "The wound is low enough on the spine that -" They all heard the sound of a horse's hooves at a full gallop approaching.


Thad looked at his uncle. "You need to go and talk to her."


Doc sighed and nodded. "Cover him up so that she can't see the wound," he told them. "Jess is strong, but - I have no idea how she's going to handle this."




Kevin was on the street when Jess pulled back the reins and leapt off of Midnight's back. "How is he?" she asked.


"I'm the one you need to talk to about that, Jess," Doc said, stepping out onto the walk in front of the office. Why don't you come in here?"


Kevin picked up the horse's reins and lead it toward the livery stable.


Inside the office, Jess looked around, then her gaze locked on the door to the examination room. "Doc?"


"Sit down, Jess," he said, pointing toward a chair.


"No. Not until I see him."


"And you're not going to see him until you sit down and listen to what I have to say."


Jess sat in the chair, her gaze still on that door. "Lucas said he was shot?"


"I said you need to listen. Yes, he was shot by someone as he was leaving the saloon. The bullet hit him in the lower back, below his lungs, but above his hips. The bullet *might* have hit his spine, but we have to wait for him to regain consciousness to know much more."


"He's unconscious?"


"In and out. The only thing he's said when he's lucid is your name."


"Doc, is he going to -?"


"I don't know."


"Can't you operate?"


"Not on his spine. At least, *I* can't."


"What about Thad?"


"He could do it. He's done something similar back east."


"Then why isn't he doing it?"


"We need Nick to be conscious so we know more about what's happening, remember?"


"And I need to see him, Doc. Now." She stood up and moved toward the door. Grasping the cool glass of the doorknob, she turned it and went into the room. Nick was laying on the bed, a piece of wood under him, a clean white sheet over his body. Suddenly the room seemed to tilt, and Jess grabbed the doorframe to keep herself upright.


"Get her a chair, Elizabeth," Thad said, coming over to help Jess into the chair as Elizabeth placed it close to the bed. "I need a cool towel."


"I'm fine," Jess insisted, looking at Nick's face.


"Don't argue with the doctor," Elizabeth told her sister, handing her the damp cloth. "Wipe your face. You wouldn't want him to see that you've been crying, would you?"


"I haven't -" Jess began, and then remembered feeling the tears down her face as she rode into town. Taking the cloth, she wiped her face, realizing that between the tears and the dust, she must have looked a sight.


"That's better," Elizabeth said, kneeling to finish the job. Jess saw the concern in her eyes, and managed a smile.


"Thank you." Without looking away from Nick, Jess asked, "Doc said something about surgery?"


"It's a real possibility," he confirmed.


"Jess," Nick murmured again, and she leaned closer.


"Nick?" she said, but his eyes closed again. She looked up at Thad. "Can he hear me at all?"


"Maybe. Maybe not. There's no way of telling for sure."


"But it won't hurt for you to talk to him just in case," Elizabeth said.


"Nurse -"


"Will it, Doctor?" she said.


"No, I don't think it would hurt," he agreed. "May I see you in the outer office for a moment, Miss Donager?" Turning to Jess, he said, "We'll be right back."


Jess nodded, giving him a grateful smile as the door closed behind them. Moving close to the bed, she leaned forward to speak softly. "I love you, Nick. What's more, I *need* you. If you d-die, you'll be breaking a promise, and I -please, Nick, please don't leave me," she whispered, burying her face in the sheet. "If you get better, I'll say yes. I'll say anything you want me to." Hearing the doorknob begin to turn, Jess quickly dried her eyes on the sheet and sat back in the chair as Thad returned.


"Thank you," she told him.


"Ma Sutton's out in the waiting room - she wants to talk to you."


"I don't want to leave -"


"If he wakes up, I'll let you know."


"Where is Elizabeth?"


"I sent her over to check on Lily and the baby at the hotel."


"I hadn't even thought about where they might be."


"That's understandable." He gave her his hand to help her to her feet. "Just making sure that you're steady," he told her. "Even the strongest people have their breaking point."


"I have to be strong right now," she told him. "The only person that I can lean on -" she reached out to touch Nick's cheek before turning and leaving the room.


She almost broke down when she saw Ma standing in the waiting room. Still, when the older woman's arms went around her, Jess found herself closing her eyes tightly to keep the tears at bay. "Oh, Ma," she whispered. "I'm afraid that I waited too late-"


"You don't be sayin' such things, girl," Martha Sutton . "Don't go frettin'. He wouldn't want ya t'do that."


They sat down in the chairs before the desk. "If he d-dies, I don't know what I'll do."


"You'll go on, just like any of us do. Ya go on, rememberin' the good times. Ya think it was easy for me, or for Doc?"


"But you had years with your husband. The same for Doc. I've - I've wasted so much time, time when we could have been together. But I- let my stubbornness -"


"What you have t'do right now is pray, girl. Pray as hard and as much as you can. Most of the town's over to th' church right now, prayin' for Nick. Can you do any less?"




"What happened, Lucas?" Kevin asked as the sun was just starting to crest on the eastern horizon. After Jess' arrival, he had stayed with Lily and the children before deciding to go talk to Lucas.


Lucas pointed to Paulo, who was sitting in front of the desk, his head in his hands. "He was there when it happened."


"You're Nick's friend from Denver, right?"


"Paulo Delvecchio," Paulo nodded, looking up at Kevin. "And you are -"


"This is Kevin Donager," Lucas told him, moving to the gun rack to load a rifle.


"Ah. You want to know what happened - We were leaving the saloon and heading toward the hotel. Nick mentioned something about needing to talk to the Sheriff. He stepped out into the street, and that's when someone shot him."


"Do you know what he wanted to talk to you about, Lucas?"


"I have no idea, but -" he indicated the stack of wanted posters sitting on his desk. "Nick asked me to look for an old poster that I might have from Colorado - a stage was held up a few years ago by a gang that never leaves any witnesses. They held up a stage that Nick was on, and while he *was* wounded, he survived. The gang didn't know that he was only pretending to be dead. He heard the voice of one of the robbers, and managed a glance at one of the masked bandits before he and the others rode off."


"So Nick is the only witness against the man?"


"Apparently. There was a poster put out for that bandit, but without a name, and only a partial description, the chances of finding the man aren't good."


"What's this got to do with Nick being shot in the back?" Kevin wanted to know.


"He told me yesterday that he thought he might have seen the bandit here in town, but didn't want to say anymore until I found the poster and he had a chance to check on some things."


"He was distracted last night," Paulo told them. "He played brilliantly, but that happens when he has things on his mind. He won every game."


"Was Leroy in the game?" Kevin asked.


"I believe that was the name of one of the other players," Paulo confirmed.


"I've already talked to Leroy," Lucas told them. "He admitted to having lost a large amount of money last night, but swears that he was already halfway out of town to his cabin."


"And he's lost money to Nick before - he had no reason to want to kill Nick." Kevin went to the window, staring down the street past the saloon. "Did you talk to Jake? Maybe someone else came in -"


"He said that the only person who came into the saloon yesterday that he didn't know were two men who got off the train yesterday - and your uncle, Charles Davis."


"Did those two men -"


"They rented horses from the livery and rode out of town after supper," Lucas told him. "I went down the street and looked around, but there were so many people out there after Nick got shot that I didn't see anything unusual. I've been waiting for dawn to go out and see if I can't find any thing."


"I'll go with you," Kevin said.


"Don't you have to take Lily and the children home?"


"She told me that she's not leaving town until she knows that Nick's going to be okay." Lucas nodded, as if he had expected that reaction. Both men looked at Paulo.


"I would like to go as well," he told them. "I owe Nick very much. If I can help to find the person who shot him, -"


"Let's go get some horses from the livery stable," Kevin told the sculptor. "And then I need to tell Lily and Jess that I'm going out on the posse."




Jess was sitting beside the bed when Nick opened his eyes. "Nick?" she said, drawing the attention of Elizabeth and Thad across the room.


"Jess, darlin'," he murmured before frowning. "Where am I?"


Thad approached the bed. "You're in my office. You were shot."




"You don't remember?"




"What do you remember?"


"I was walking down the street with Paulo, and stepped out to go talk to Lucas - that's it. Who -?"


"We don't know," Jess told him. "Lucas and Kevin and Paulo rode out a little while ago to see if they could find the person." She hadn't been surprised when Kevin had told her that they were going, and had almost wished she could be out there with them. At the moment, however, she was glad that she wasn't.


Nick tried to move, but his frown deepened. "Thad?"


"Where was I shot?"


"In the back - above your waist - are you in pain?"


"No. I - I can't feel my legs."


Thad moved to pick up a needle and touched Nick's leg. "Can you feel that?" he asked.


"No." The response caused Thad to turn to Elizabeth. "Would you ask my uncle to come in, please?"


Doc came in, watching as Thad continued his examination, with no sign of feeling in either leg or his hips. From the waist down, he was totally paralyzed. "So what now, Doctor?" Nick asked, and Jess was amazed at how calm he sounded.


"We have two options," Thad told him. "We can wait and see if sensation returns on its own."


"That's not an option," Nick responded.


"Nick -" Jess began, but Thad put his hand on her arm, shaking his head.


"The second option is for me to operate to remove the bullet and hope that it didn't damage your spine enough to prevent a full recovery."


"And what are my chances for the second option?"


"I'm not a gambler, remember?"


"And I'm not talking about poker, Thad. I'm talking about my being able to walk out of this room."


"With the surgery? If you survive the surgery itself, I'd say the chances of walking again would be 70 per cent."


"Can I talk to Jess? Alone?"


As they left the room, Jess leaned forward. "Nick -"


"I know you're not happy about surgery."


"At least you'd be alive," she told him.


"And unable to walk," he pointed out.


"I don't care if you can walk or not," she told him. "As long as you're here and alive. You don't need your legs to play poker or to run a saloon -"


He held out his hand. "But I need my legs to ride a horse. Or to be a proper husband. I can't saddle you with half a man, Jess."


"Even without your legs, you're still more man than any man I've ever known." She kissed his knuckles. "You told me that when I was ready - all I had to say was yes -"


"Oh, Jess," he sighed, his voice raspy with emotion. "Right now, I want to hold you in my arms and kiss you -" she leaned forward to place and awkward kiss on his lips.


"I can have Andrew over here in ten minutes," she told him, and rose, trying to pull her hand away, but he refused to let it go.




Jess sat down again. "You don't want to -"


"Of course I do - but only when I can stand beside you."


"But -" she swallowed as her voice broke. "What if - Nick, we've already wasted so much time - and that's all my fault, I know that. Why can't we be married now?"


"I can't - I won't do that to you. If you still feel the same way once I'm back on my feet, I'll hold you to that 'yes'. I love you, Jess."


"Nick, do you have any idea who it was that shot you?" she asked, and he smiled at her.


"I'm not going to tell you - because I don't want you to go out and risk your life trying to find him."


"So you do know."


"I have a suspicion," he corrected. "And I'm still not going to tell you."


She sighed, shaking her head. "You know that I -"


"Can take care of yourself," he finished. "I know."


"That's not what I was going to say. I was going to say that I love you. And I don't want to consider my life without you in it. I want to spend the rest of my life making it up to you for this last year, when we could have been -"


"Ssh," he whispered, "No regrets, darlin'. I love you. You can ask Andrew to say a prayer for me."


"He's already doing that. If Ma is to be believed, so is most of the town."


"Where is Lily?"


"Over in the hotel. Do you want to see her?"


"Not right now. But I do need for you to ask Dr. Mitchell to come back in so that we can get this surgery started."


"Oh, Nick, -"


He reached out to touch her cheek. "Are those tears for me, darlin'?"


She nodded into his palm, afraid to speak.




The three-man posse paused on the south side of town. "A single horse came through here from North Street," Lucas noted, pointing at the tracks.


Kevin got down and examined the imprint. "And the animal was missing a nail on the front right. Went due south."


"What is out in that direction?" Paulo asked.


"My house," Kevin answered, getting back in the saddle. "Let's go."




Standing in the waiting room, Jess kept looking at the closed door, pacing back and forth until the front door opened and Cara entered. It was clear that she had been crying, and even now she held a lace-trimmed handkerchief in her hand.


"Miss Donager. How is he?" she asked.


"They're trying to remove the bullet from his back," Jess told the girl. "Right now he - he can't move his legs."


"I was just over with Lily," Cara explained. "I almost had to tie her up to keep her from coming over here. So I offered to come for her and find out what was going on. Were you able to talk to him before -?"


Jess nodded. "Yes. I'm glad you came over, Cara. I've been trying to figure out a way to get word to Lily about Nick's condition."


Cara nodded. "Well, I guess I'll go tell her -"


"Cara, would you do me a favor?"


"A favor, Miss Donager?"


"First, please call me Jess."


Cara smiled. "You know, when I first saw Nick Everett, I seriously thought about making a play for him. I'd never seen anyone like him. But it didn't take me very long to realize where his heart lay. Anyone can see how much he loves you. I might flirt a little, but I would never go further than that."


"Thank you for being so honest with me, Cara."


"What was the favor you wanted me to do?"


"Go over to the church and let them know what's going on, please."


"I'll go after I've talked to Lily again," Cara told her.


"Thank you."




Charles Davis rode into town on the horse he'd rented the night before, his gaze moving to acknowledge that there weren't many people out and about. The saloon doors were open, and he tied his horse up at the rail before stepping up onto the boards.


As he pushed through the swinging doors, the bartender looked up. "Sorry, we're not - Oh. Mr. Davis. It's you."


Charles went over to the bar. "Too early to get some whiskey, I guess?"


"No, I guess, since it's you -" Jake said, putting a glass on the counter and pouring some whiskey into it.


"Thanks." Charles said, throwing the drink down his throat. "I heard there was some excitement in town last night."


"Someone shot Nick," Jake nodded. "In the back," he said with a sneer. "Ain't nothin' worse than a dirty back-shooter in my book."


Charles nodded. "I had a friend who was killed that way awhile back. Would you happen to know where my niece and nephew might be?"


"Kevin's out with the posse, trying to track the scum who shot Nick," he said. "Jess, well - she's still over at the doc's office."


"Is she okay?"


"She will be once Nick -" he looked up again as Cara returned. "I thought you were just going over to see Lily?" he said to her.


"She wanted me to go find out from Jess how Nick's doing," Cara explained. "Then I had to go back over to Lily and let her know - and then Jess wanted me to let them know at the church. I stayed long enough to say a prayer for him."


"How is he?" Jake wanted to know. "They're operating on his back to remove the bullet. He can't use his legs."


"Wow," Jake said as he saw tears falling down Cara's face. Coming out from behind the bar, he pulled her into his arms. "He'll be okay. Nick's strong. I can't see anything getting him down for long."


Neither of them noticed when Charles left the saloon.




Lucas was frustrated as they looked out over the flats. "We've lost him. The flats don't hold a track."


"Just like when Pa died," Kevin said.


"You don't think Nick being shot could have anything to do with John Donager's murder, do you?"


"I don't see how it could be connected, Lucas," Kevin said. "Just making an observation, that's all."


"So what do we do now?" Paulo asked. "Just give up and go back to town?"


"I'm not sure we have any other option," Lucas told him. "The only tracks we saw for sure were probably made by Jess when she came into town early this morning - I told you that she veered onto the shortcut while I stuck to the road in the dark."


"But we did find that other set -" Paulo reminded him. "With the missing nail -"


"And those end here as well," Lucas pointed out. "Whoever was on that horse could have gone for miles down the flats before heading away. The flats go almost to the hills to the west, and close to the same distance to the east. "


Paulo nodded, his shoulders drooping in defeat. "I understand, Sheriff."


"Let's go back to town and see how Nick's doing."




Jess was still pacing when the door opened again. "Uncle Charles," she said, moving to throw herself into his arms. "I'm so glad you're here."


Charles put his hands on her upper arms, looking toward the closed door. "They're still operating on him?" he asked.


"Yes. They hope that - that he'll recover - his legs -"


"I stopped into the saloon before I came here," he told her, nodding. "I'm sorry, Jess. Sorry that this had to happen." He held her again before asking, "Did you - have you talked to him at all?"


She nodded. "We talked for a few minutes."


"Does he have any idea who might have done this?" Charles wanted to know.


"He said he thought he knew, but wouldn't tell me." She smiled slightly. "He said that he didn't want me to chase whoever it was down."


"Wise decision on his part. I can just see you taking off on that kind of chase."


"I would, if I knew who'd done it," she admitted, her chin set as she considered the idea.


"You really do love him, don't you?"


"Oh, yes. I told him that I was ready to get married. I don't want to wait any longer than I have to. It will be so wonderful to have you at the wedding -"


"Jess, -" he said, sighing. "I wish I could be there."


She stepped back, looking up at him. "What are you saying?"


"I'm sorry, Jess, but - I can't stay."


"Of course you can."


He shook his head. "I've been a tumbleweed for too long. I don't have roots to put down anymore."


"You just got here. If you give it some time -"


"I don't belong in Providence anymore. Maybe I never did."


"Can't you at least stay until the wedding?"


"I don't think so. In fact, I'm going back to the house and get my valise and head out - I'll need a horse -"


"Tell Pedro I said to pick one out for you, if you're sure that you have to go -"


"I'm sure."


"Will you at least keep in touch this time?"


"I'll try. No promises, but I'll try." He gave her a quick hug, then turned and left the office.


Jess stood at the window, watching as he rode away, wiping the tears away from her cheeks.


At that moment, the other door opened, and Jess spun around as Doc came out, holding something in his hand. "You might want this as a souvenir," he told her, dropping a bullet into her hand. "That man is blessed beyond measure," he commented.


"What do you mean, Doc?"


"It nicked his spine, but there was no major damage."


"Then why couldn't he feel his legs?"


"The full answer is pretty complicated, but the bullet caused the tissues to swell and the 'nick' in his spine was pinched - blocking sensation to anything lower than that spot."


"So you're saying that -"


"That he should make a full recovery," Thad informed her, coming out of the room.


"Thank you," she told them, hugging first Doc, and then Thad. "Can I see him?"


"He'll be asleep for awhile," Thad reminded her. "But go on."


As Jess entered the room, she heard Doc tell Thad that he was going to go tell Ma and the others, and suggest that Thad send Elizabeth over to see Lily. She hugged Elizabeth before pulling the chair back over to the bed and sitting down. "We have all the time in the world now, Nick," she whispered, brushing his hair from his forehead. "I love you." He mumbled something, and she moved closer. "What, Nick?"


"Chales," it sounded like he was trying to say something. "Chales."


"Charles?" Jess questioned, frowning. "Is that what you're trying to say? Charles?"


"Char-els", he said, and Jess felt her blood run cold. Surely he wasn't saying that her Uncle Charles had shot him. Why? What reason could he have had to shoot Nick?


"Thad?" she called out, and he came into the room.


"What's wrong?"


"Nothing - but - you're sure he's going to be okay?"


"As long as there's no infection, I believe he'll be fine. Why?"


"I have something that I need to do," she answered. "If - when he wakes up, tell him I'll be right back."


"Jess?" he called out, but she was already through the waiting room and out the front door, leaving Thad alone with his patient.




Jess stayed on the main road to the ranch, hoping on one hand that she would catch her uncle, and on the other that she wouldn't. At the house, she entered, calling out. "Mariana! Mariana!"


She came from the direction of the kitchen. "Miss Jess! You're home. How is Nick? Cassie and I have been praying for him."


"They say he'll recover," Jess told her, looking toward the stairs. "Has Uncle Charles been here?"


"He came back a little while ago," she said, "and then went out to the barn. He said that he was leaving."


"How long ago was he here?"


"Not very long ago. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes."


Jess ran up the stairs to her room, grabbing her gunbelt and putting it on before checking that the gun was loaded. She went back out to Midnight, riding him to the barn, where Pedro was looking at a bridle. "Miss Jess! How -"


"Nick will be okay," she told him shortly. "Did you see which direction my uncle went when he left?"


He examined the bridle in his hands. "I don't understand," he muttered.


"What don't you understand?"


"This bridle. I put it over on the other hook when I left the barn last night. This morning, it was outside on the remuda fence."


"One the hands probably moved it," she told him. "Which way did Uncle Charles go?" she asked again.


"To the west," he told her. "In the direction of the Ridge."


"Thank you," she said, turning the horse to follow Charles.




Thad heard the posse and went out onto the boardwalk to meet them.


"How's Nick?" Paulo asked him.


"Looks like he'll recover," Thad said. "Did you meet Jess on your way in?"


"No," Kevin said, frowning. "You mean Jess isn't over there with Nick?"


"She took off a few minutes ago, said she had something to take care of," he told them. "I don't know why, but something about the way she took off made me nervous."


"When you've known my sister long enough, Thad, you'll know why," Kevin said as he, Lucas, and Paulo turned their horses to ride out again.




Jess knew he was probably up there, watching her approach. Without a way to hide, she decided to go the direct route, but got off of Midnight around the corner from the last turn up to the Ridge to continue on foot. That gave her the ability to enter the clearing from a point other than the pathway.


He was standing before the pile of stones as she pulled her gun from its holster. "You don't need that gun, Jess," he told her, turning to look at her.


"Then unfasten your gunbelt and let it drop," she told him.


"You don't really believe that I would use my gun on my own niece, do you?"


Jess didn't move. "Let's just make sure," she said. Charles took a deep breath and moved his right hand. Jess pulled the hammer back on her on gun. "Left hand, please, Uncle Charles."


He unbuckled the belt and reached down to untie it from his leg as it fell to the ground. "Happy now?"


"Kick it away."


"How's Nick, by the way?"


"He'll recover."


"Good. May I ask why you're here instead of at his bedside?"


"I think you know the answer to that."


He shook his head. "Obviously you're upset with me for some reason - I can't believe it's because I decided to leave again -"


"You shot Nick."


Charles turned to look at her. "What?"


"I don't know why - I'll probably have to wait until he wakes up so he can tell me, but I'm sure it was you."


"Jess, why don't you just - let me go? I'll leave and never come back -"


She shook her head. "I can't do that, Uncle Charles."


"Sure you can. Just turn your back -"


"I'm a lawyer, remember? An officer of the court. It's my duty to take you to the nearest peace officer and turn you in."


"So you're arresting me."


"For attempted murder," she confirmed.


"Do you want to tell me the reason, or do I have to wait?"


"You asked last night if I fought in the war, do you remember?"


"I remember. I thought maybe that's where Nick had seen you."


"No, most of my fighting took place in Kansas. I wasn't an official soldier."


Jess understood. "You were one of Quantrill's men," she realized.


"After the war ended, a lot of us found it impossible to go back to our homes and pick up where we left off. I didn't really have a home to go back to." He looked out over the flats. "So we did whatever was necessary to survive."


"Robbing banks and trains," Jess nodded.


"And stages. Some of my friends and I were doing quite well at that - mostly because we never left any witnesses to identify us. Nick was on one of those coaches. We all thought he'd been killed - I know he was shot, I saw the blood - so we thought we were safe. Until a few weeks later when a wanted poster got sent out with my description on it. I didn't know who had told the authorities about me until I got off that train yesterday and saw him." He turned to look at Jess. "I wanted to stay, Jess. I thought I'd be able to, with John gone. I figured enough time had passed that I could do it. But seeing Nick, I knew I couldn't risk his recognizing me. So I snuck out of the house last night, took a horse from the corral, and rode into town using the shortcut, then came back out the same way."




Nick's eyes opened, and he focused slowly, blinking. "Jess?" he called out.


"She'll be right back," Thad told him. "How do you feel?"


"Fuzzy. Some pain in my back -"


"That's a good sign. We got the bullet out. There doesn't seem to be any damage to the spine that won't heal."


"Bottom line, please."


"Full recovery," Thad told him, seeing his eyes close in relief.


"Thank you God," Nick murmured. "Where is Jess?"


"She went somewhere -"


"Where did she go?" When Thad hesitated, he said it again, louder this time. "Where did she go?!"


"She rode out not long after we finished the surgery and she knew you were going to be okay. She was in here with you - and then took off on her horse."


"She what?"


"When she left, you were mumbling something about chaz or cha-rels or -"


Nick's jaw tightened in anger and concern. "Dear God, please let her be okay."


"If it makes you feel any better, Kevin and the Sheriff and that friend of yours rode out after her."




Charles looked down at the tower of rocks. "I'll bet you put these here, didn't you? One to mark each year since his death."


"Yes," she said. "I come up here every year and -" Jess frowned. "How did you know that he died here?" she asked. "That's something that no one knows outside of Providence."


"The last time I was here," he said, moving away from the stones and turning his back to her, closer to the edge of the precipice, "it was night. The moon was almost full. I came up here to wait, wanting to try to talk to him, to see if we could settle things." Charles shook his head, and Jess moved closer to him as he continued. "He seemed glad to see me, but then he said *her* name, told me that she was - dead. I saw red. I never planned on it happening, but suddenly I had my knife in my hand and lunged toward him -"


"*You* killed him," Jess said, seeing the three horses out on the flat, riding toward them. "Uncle Charles -"


Suddenly he came around and knocked the gun from her hand, and her off of her feet. Jess was caught off guard, but still had the presence of mind to grab the deringer that she always carried. "Stop, Uncle Charles," she said, "or I'll shoot."


He reached for the reins of his horse and glanced around to look at her, then raised his hands without turning around. "You won't shoot me in the back. Besides, I'm unarmed, remember?"


"Don't test me, Uncle," she said, not taking her eyes off of him as she knelt to pick up her gun. Charles must have heard her movement, and made a move to pull something from his saddle. Jess fired one shot from the derringer at his feet. "The next shot won't be in the dirt," she warned him, seeing the knife in his hand. Aware that it was probably the same knife that he had used to kill her father, Jess forced her voice to remain calm. "Drop the knife." Putting the derringer away, she grabbed the six-gun. "Do it!"


Charles' hand opened, and the knife fell to the ground at his feet. "Don't you understand, Jess? They'll put a rope around my neck! Is that what you want to happen?"


"I don't have any choice," she insisted.


"Yes, you do! You can just let me ride away. No one would ever know -"


"I'd know. If I let you go, then I would be accountable for any crimes you commit - including Nick's shooting and Pa's murder."


"Then you'll have to shoot me. Because I'm not going to the gallows!" he declared, turning and making a run toward the edge of the bluff.


"Uncle Charles! " Jess yelled, following him to the edge as he fell, plunging headfirst into the rocks below...




Seeing Charles' fall, Kevin, Lucas and Paulo headed toward the base of the cliff, and were standing around the body when Jess rode up, Charles' gunbelt hung over the saddlehorn, and his horse's reins in her hand. "He said that he wouldn't go to the gallows," she said, jumping down to the ground, her eyes sad.


"Are you all right, sis?" Kevin asked, putting an arm around her shoulders.


"He shot Nick," she told them, then looked up at Kevin. "And," She held out the knife that he'd dropped, "- he - he killed Pa."




"I have to get back to Nick," she said. "I'll come into your office later, Lucas, and tell you the whole story."


Lucas nodded, and the three men watched as she turned Midnight toward town at a full gallop, as if she could outrun everything that had happened. "Let's get the body up across his saddle," he told the two younger men.




Nick was asleep again when Jess returned to the office. Elizabeth grabbed a cloth and dipped it in a bowl of water before holding it for Jess to use. "What happened?" she asked.


"Uncle Charles is dead," she told her sister, trying to keep her voice low as she wiped her face with the cool rag.




"He - killed Pa."


"Jess?" Nick's voice called from the other room as he heard her voice and woke up. "Is that you?"


She gave the cloth back to Elizabeth and went through the door, sitting in the chair beside the bed. "I'm here," she told him, touching his cheek. "I'm sorry. I had to -"


"What happened, darlin'?" he asked, and Jess found herself burying her face in the sheet once again, grateful for the feel of Nick's breath on her hair, and his hand against her back. She had cried more over the last hours than she'd done in her entire life.


"Oh, Nick. I - Oh, Nick. Un-cle Charles! He shot you -"


"I'm sorry, Jess," he murmured. "Shhh. It'll be okay. Shh."


"And - he - he killed Pa -"


Nick clenched his jaw again, wishing he was able to get up and find Charles Davis and finish him off. "Is he in jail?" he asked.


She didn't look up as she shook her head. "He - He - jumped." Nick wanted to be able to hold her as she started crying again, to do more than just lay there.


"I thought I recognized him from that stage robbery," he told her. "But I wasn't sure. It had been four years, and I'd only seen him for a second that day. I should have talked to him instead of keeping quiet, but I didn't want to upset you in case I was wrong."


Jess finally stopped crying. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to - fall apart this way."


"It's understandable," he said. "He was a connection to someone you loved. But you do know that there are other connections. Doc, for one. Ma Sutton. She met your father once. And Mrs. Lee -"


"Almost everyone in town," she nodded, finally smiling. "I love you."


"I love you," he said. "I guess you heard that I should make a full recovery -"


"I did."


"Once I'm back on my feet, I'll let you say yes again."


"Well, I've been thinking about that," she told him, smoothing his hair.


"Really? I only want you to say it if you're ready, Jess. I don't want you to feel pushed by - by what happened. So -"


"I still intend to say it, but - I can't really say yes." Nick frowned at her words, clearly confused. "Because I haven't been *asked* the question yet."


"But, I -"


Jess smiled widely. "If you will consider, Counselor, you have never *asked* me to marry you. You've talked about marriage. And you *told* me that we would get married, but -"


"-you don't like being told what to do," he finished. "And I promised you that I wouldn't -"


"I release you from your promise, sir," she told him.


"Well then - I can't get down on one knee, but - Miss Jessica Donager, would you do me the inestimable honor of becoming my wife?"


"I may need a little time to think about -"


"Jess," he said, and smiled when she laughed.


"Yes," she said. "Yes, yes, yes! I will marry you, Mr. Everett."


She turned her head and kissed him as the door opened behind her.


"Excuse me," Thad said, and Jess moved to pull away, but Nick's hand on her back prevented the action as he deepened the kiss as much as he could. "Well, I just wanted to let you know that Ma Sutton's offered to let you stay at her place until you've recovered. We're rounding up some men to carry you over there." When the two other people in the room didn't respond, Thad stepped backward. "Let me know when you're - ready to -" The door closed behind him again.


Nick finally let her pull away, smiling at her as she asked, "Did you hear something?"


He grabbed her hand. "Thad came in," he confirmed, bringing her hand to his lips. "I'll be glad when I can move again."


"What was that he was saying?" Jess questioned.


"Something about moving me over to Ma's house while I'm recovering, I think."


"But - isn't that dangerous? Moving you so soon?"


Nick grinned at her. "I'm sure that Thad wouldn't agree to it if it was. He knows what he's doing."




An hour later, Nick was settled into a lower room at the Sutton house. "Thank you, Ma," he said to that lady as she moved around the bed, making sure he was comfortable. "Except for having to sleep on my stomach, I'm fine."


"Well, don't be thinkin' that you're goin' t'be laying in that bed for long," she said. "Just as soon as Thad gives the go ahead, we're gonna make sure that ya get up and use those legs as much as possible. I've seen miners with similar injuries and once they start getting' better, th'thing t'do is get 'em up and about."


"Trust me, Ma," Nick told her, reaching out to take Jess' hand again. "I have every intention of walking again as soon as possible."


Ma looked from Nick to Jess. "Is that so? Somethin' you two need t'tell me?"


Nick looked at Jess, leaving it up to her. "I said yes, Ma."


"Praise be!" Ma declared, a huge smile on her face. "This is good news! Any idea when?"


"As soon as I'm fully recovered," Nick told her. "A month."


That surprised Jess. "A month?"


"Don't think you'll be ready by then?" he asked. "Tell you what, why don't we bet on it? Ma, you're a witness."


"And if you do walk in a month?"


"We walk down the aisle of the church and get married," he said.


"And if you *don't* walk in a month?"


He grinned. "We still get married, just a little later."


"That sounds like a bet you can't lose," Jess told him.


"Do you agree or not?" he asked.


"You know I do. But if we're getting married in a month, there are a lot of things to be done."


"We also need to finish plans for something else -" he said, glancing at Ma. "Could we have a few minutes alone, please?"


"Not too long. Thad wants ya' t'get some rest. And there's a few people out here who want t'see you before it gets late. Lily and Jake t'start with."


"This won't take long," he said, and she nodded, leaving the room. "What are we going to do about the Founding Families Day idea?" he asked.


"We could wait until you're better -"


"Can we keep that monument under wraps until then? Paul Grover isn't using that space now, but if he needs it -"


"Let me talk to Kevin and Elizabeth. Maybe we can come up with something. How would you feel about joining our wedding to the unveiling?" she suggested. Seeing him smile, she asked, "What?"


"You - talking about our wedding. You do realize that by doing that, it would mean the wedding would be much bigger than you've seemed to want -?"


"Right now, I don't care," she told him.


"Ah. Agreeable Jess is back," he teased.


"For now," she told him, giving him a kiss. "I'm going to go. I need to get a room at the hotel -"


"Jess - No. You go home. Get some rest. You've had a long, very trying day."


She nodded, suddenly remembering that while she was happy over Nick's recovery, other things had happened as well. "I need to go talk to Lucas anyway about - what happened."


"I love you."


"I love you. I'll see you before I leave town - or tomorrow morning if you're asleep when I come back."


"I doubt I'll be asleep," he sighed. "I've never been able to sleep on my stomach. But I'll try. I'll just think about how soon I'll be sleeping with you in my arms." Seeing Jess' cheeks turn pink, he chuckled softly and kissed her hand.




Jess found Paulo, Jake, Lily *and* Benjamin sitting in the front parlor, waiting to see Nick. "Aunt Jess!" Benjamin said, giving her a hug. "How is Uncle Nick?"


"He's tired right now, but I'm sure he'll be glad to see you," she told the boy, looking at Lily over his head. "Where's the baby?"


"Elizabeth and Kevin are with her until we see Nick, and then we're going home. Kevin told us about -" She looked down at Benjamin without finishing. "I'm so sorry, Jess."


"Thank you," Jess said, taking her hand. "We'll talk about it later after we're all at home. I have to go see Lucas about - everything that's happened."


As Lily and Benjamin entered Nick's room, Jess left Ma's house and went to the Sheriff's office, where she recounted her realization that Charles Davis had been the one who had shot Nick, and her confrontation with her uncle on the Ridge.


Lucas pulled a wanted poster from his desk and held it out. "There's a thousand dollars reward - I know you probably don't want to collect it, but -"


"No. I don't want it - Is there a way that you could contact the person that put the poster out and see if they could give it to the families of the people on that stage with Nick?"


"I can try. At least now we know what happened that night on the Ridge," he told her. "We took the body over to Joe. He'll keep it there until Mike Lawrence gets a coffin ready. What about a service?" Joe Baker was the town's barber - and undertaker when necessary.


Jess shook her head. "I don't know. I haven't considered - I need to talk to Kevin about it. Can you tell Joe that we'll get back to him about it tomorrow, probably?"


"Sure thing. You need to go home and get some rest," he told her.


"I will. I need to go see Amanda first. And then stop in to check on Nick before I leave town."




With two months before she was due to have her baby, Amanda was upstairs, resting, Andrew told her. "I went over and spent a few minutes with Nick," he said. "He tells me that I need to keep my calendar clear for a wedding in a month?"


"At the earliest," Jess confirmed. "Nick's convinced that he'll be fully recovered by then."


"You know what? I think he'll do it. I'll make sure that it's on my calendar," he assured her. "What about the funeral for your uncle?"


Her smile faded. "I need to discuss that with Kevin and Elizabeth," she told him. "I'll see you about it tomorrow, will that be okay?"


"Of course. I'll be here when you're ready to talk."




Once Benjamin was in bed that night and the baby was sleeping in a cradle in the living room - the same cradle that all of the Donager children had used - Jess told Lily, Kevin and Elizabeth about what had happened up on the Ridge.


"He tried to deny having shot Nick at first," she said. "And then he tried to make excuses for why he'd done it - He rode with Quantrill during the war," she told them, and they all nodded, aware of what that meant. "Nick was on a stage that he and some other men robbed. They never left witnesses, and thought Nick was dead, but he heard them and saw one of them -"


"Charles," Elizabeth realized. Seeing Jess' reaction to her not using 'uncle', she shrugged. "I'm sorry. There was - something about him when I first met him. His reaction to my looking like Ma - that was understandable. But his eyes - they were cold. Like - like he hated Ma instead of being in love with her. "


"He might have hated her," Jess said. "I guess I didn't see that from him. He was Uncle Charles. Nick said it was because of his connection to Pa."


"He was probably right," Kevin nodded. "How did you find out that he had -"


"Killed Pa? He asked if I had put the stones there to mark the years since it happened. From the way he asked, I realized that he knew where Pa had been killed - and he admitted to doing it. He said he had gone up there to talk to Pa, thinking that maybe he could come home - but Pa mentioned -" she glanced at Elizabeth before continuing, "Olivia, and told Uncle Charles that she was dead, and something snapped in him. He said he hadn't planned it, that he grabbed his knife and -" She blinked away a tear that threatened to escape from her eye. "When I told him that I was going to arrest him for murder and attempted murder, he said that he didn't want to hang and threw himself over the cliff before I could stop him." The tear escaped, and she wiped it away with her fingers.


Elizabeth placed a hand on her arm. "It must have been horrible for you."


"At least now I know what happened. I don't have to worry that Pa's killer is still out there somewhere."


"And you're going to be married in a month!" Lily exclaimed, hoping to lighten the mood.


"Do you really think Nick will be recovered by then?" Kevin asked.


"The important think is that *Nick* believes it," Jess told him.


"I think he will be," Elizabeth declared. "He's got a reason to get better - to marry Jess."


"Oh, and we've decided to hold the wedding and then unveil the monument," Jess said.


"Well, if it becomes an annual event, it's an easy way for Nick to remember his anniversary," Kevin pointed out.


"I don't think that *Nick* will be the one who has trouble remembering that," Elizabeth teased Jess.


"You're probably right," Lily agreed, giggling. "*Now* can we start planning the wedding?" she wanted to know.


"I thought we did that when they became engaged," Elizabeth said as she grinned.


"We'll discuss this tomorrow," Jess decided, standing up. "Right now, I'm going up to bed."




As Jess was riding into town the next morning, she saw Paulo coming out of the station. He saw her as well, because he stepped off of the platform, waving at her. Jess reined in Midnight and climbed out of the saddle. "Ah, the lovely Miss Donager," he said, bowing. "I hope you slept well."


"Surprisingly well," she confirmed, watching as he put a ticket into his pocket. "Are you leaving?"


"Well, after speaking to Nick this morning, and being told that my masterpiece won't be revealed for a month, I decided that I should return to Denver until then."


"Then you'll be here for the - unveiling *and* the wedding?"


He smiled. "Oh, yes. I wouldn't miss either event. I made Nick promise to send me a telegram as soon as everything is fully confirmed. I was just purchasing my ticket for the inbound train when it comes back through from Mesa City."


"Then why don't we have lunch at the Cafe before you go? The train won't be back until around two this afternoon."


This time, he took her hand and bowed over it. "That would be my pleasure, Miss Donager."


"Call me Jess," she said. "The only time I'm 'Miss Donager' is in court or dealing with a stranger."


"Are you going to see Nick?" he asked.


"Yes. How is he this morning?" she asked, walking toward the livery stable to leave her horse for the day


"Ready to get out of that bed. He swore that he barely slept all night, but Mrs. Sutton told me that he slept more than he realized. He'll be glad to see you. He is - concerned about you because of what happened yesterday."


Jess nodded. "I know. He's not the only one who is concerned. But I'm all right. And it's a relief, in a way, to finally know who killed my father. I'll see you at the cafe, around noon."


"I'll be there," he assured her, continuing toward the hotel.




Finding the front door of the Sutton house open, Jess paused in the doorway. "Ma?" she called softly.


"Com'on in," Ma called back. She was seated in her rocking chair, her open Bible on her lap, and a cup of coffee on the table beside her. "I been expectin' ya. And he's been askin' 'bout ya."


Jess came over to take the woman's hand. "How is he?"


"Sleepin', last time I looked. Thad and Doc both said he'd probably sleep quite a bit 'cause of the stuff they gave him during the operation. Want a cup of coffee?"


"Not right now. Thank you, though. Would it be all right if I go in and sit with him?"


Ma smiled. "Sure. He'll be glad t'see you when he wakes up."


Jess returned her smile and went to Nick's room. She grabbed a chair and pulled it over to the bedside. Reaching over, she captured his hand as it lay on the bed, trying not to wake him. He needed to rest if he was going to get well. And she wanted him to get well.


After having almost lost him, Jess knew for certain that he was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. He was charming, and funny, and generous to a fault - and he loved her. She had always considered herself to be strong, but he was right: she needed someone equally strong so that she could let down her guard sometimes. It was hard, always being the one people looked to for strength, even when that strength wasn't really there.


She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, and felt Nick's fingers tighten around hers. Opening her eyes, she saw that he was awake. "Good morning," he said. "I missed you."


"I seem to remember you telling me to go home instead of staying at the hotel," she told him, leaning forward, her face inches from his. "I was only doing what you told me to do."


"Did you get any sleep?"


"Some. I woke up a few times - once, I almost got dressed and rode into town to be closer to you."


He brought her hand to his lips. "I love you," he told her.


"What about you? Did you get any rest?"


"I say no, but Ma insists that every time she looked in on me, I was sound asleep."


"I saw Paulo when I was coming into town. He had just bought his ticket back to Denver."


"There's no reason for him to hang around here - trust me, if he spent too much time in the saloon and starts drinking, he could spill the beans about why he's really here."


"I'm having lunch with him at the Cafe," she said, and saw his eyes narrow. "Don't worry. I'm immune to his particular brand of charm."


"But not mine, hmm?" he asked, smiling crookedly.


"Not from the first day," she replied.


"Come here," Nick murmured, releasing her hand to place his on her back to pull her closer so that he could kiss her. When it ended, he sighed. "I'll be glad when I can kiss you properly again. Thad's not sure how much longer I'll have to stay on my stomach. He wants the stitches to come out before that happens."


"Can you feel anything yet?" she asked.


"I thought I felt a little when Thad examined me early this morning, but I am feeling a little pain from the site of the surgery. He says that's normal."


"Did he give you anything for the pain?"


"He offered it. I refused." Jess nodded. "After lunch, I have to go talk to Andrew about - Uncle Charles funeral." Nick waited for her to continue, but continued to hold her hand. "Kevin and I decided that he should be buried next to Ma."




"Tomorrow, probably. Mr. Lawrence said he would have the coffin ready this afternoon sometime." She sighed. "And then - I suppose I should start looking for a place in town -"


"A place in town?" he questioned, not pointing out the change of subject.


"For us - to live in after we're married. I'm sure you intend to keep running the saloon, so it will easier if we're living in town. I mean, it's not as though I do any real work out at the ranch -"


Nick smiled, shaking his head. "Jess, I could no more ask you to leave that ranch than I could ask you to stop breathing. No, I'll ride home after work every night - and if the weather's bad, I'll stay here in town at the hotel for the night, then go home to you the next morning. I remember you telling me about how much you missed the ranch when you were back east in school."


"It will mean sharing the house with Elizabeth and Kevin and Lily - not to mention Benjamin and baby Kate."


"We'll manage," he told her, giving her a sideways grin. "We'll just make sure our room is far enough away from theirs." He was rewarded with a tinge of pink on her cheeks in response to his comment.


"Nick!" she said, but she was smiling as well.


"I don't think we'll have to worry about Elizabeth being there for much longer," he said. "I've spent a little time around her - the woman absolutely glows when Thad walks into the room. Anyone can see it. I'm sure you've noticed it."


Jess nodded. "I have. I didn't want to acknowledge it because what it meant to your - plan."


"And now?"


She smiled again, smoothing his hair. "I don't care. I can still keep my promise to Olivia even if I'm married. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to understand that."


"Remember- no regrets, darlin'," he told her, pulling her even closer for a kiss. Surprised by his action, Jess found herself falling toward the bed, so she put out her right hand to steady herself. It landed on the back of his left leg, but she didn't really notice until he ended the kiss and looked at her. "Jess? Where is your hand?"


Realizing what had happened, she quickly removed her hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean -"


"Jess, do it again." Very slowly, she reached out and placed her hand on the blanket covering his leg. "I can feel that," he told her. Kissing her other hand, he released it. "Go get Ma and ask her to find Thad, please."


Jess turned and went to the door, opening it. "Ma?" The parlor was empty, and Jess was heading toward the front porch when Ma came from the kitchen.


"What is it, child? Is Nick okay?"


"He can feel his legs - he wants to see Thad."


"Thad and Elizabeth went out on rounds this mornin'," Ma told her. "Doc's over t'the office. I'll go get him."




"I've said it before," Doc told them after finishing his examination. "You are likely the most blessed man I've ever known, Nick. There is significant return of sensation - and you'll likely have more as the inflammation shrinks around your spine."


"And the incision and stitches?"


"I'd say at least a week - knowing how quickly you healed after your shoulder wound - But I'm sure that Thad will be over here when he gets back to town to examine you for himself."


"I understand, Doc. I'm just - "


"Rushing things a bit," Doc told him. "Once you can move your legs without someone helping you, then you need to move them so the muscles won't become lax. It will help you to get back on your feet faster once you've healed from the surgery."


"Thanks, Doc," Nick told him, clearly still frustrated by his inability to walk.


Jess gave the man a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you."


"You're both very welcome."


She kept a hold on his arm. "Doc, while you're here - I'd like to ask you to do something for me."


"For you, Jess? Anything."


"Well, would you be willing to walk me down the aisle at our wedding?"


"Me? Not Otis Maxwell?"


She shook her head. "I've known you longer."


Doc chuckled. "All your life," he agreed. "I'd consider it an honor," he assured her, kissing her on the forehead. "Even if it is to give you away to this gambler who doesn't deserve you."


"I'll be the first one to agree with that, Doc," Nick reached out to take Jess' hand in his, knowing that the doctor was making a joke.




After lunch, Jess saw Paulo off on the train as Elizabeth and Thad returned to town. She stepped off of the platform to follow the buggy to the stable, telling them about what had happened during her visit with Nick. Thad nodded.


"That's good news. I was hoping that the small nick wasn't enough to cause serious damage. Looks as though I was right. I'll go over and examine him once I get Elizabeth back to the office and relieve Uncle Mark."


"You won't need Elizabeth's assistance?" Jess asked.


"Not for a simple examination," Elizabeth answered for him. "Right, Doctor?"


"Right, Nurse," he replied, taking her elbow as they walked.


Watching them, Jess could easily see how they felt about each other. Nick was right: it was there for anyone to see, no matter how they tried to hide it with professional titles of 'doctor' and 'nurse'. Jess walked with Thad and Doc to the corner, where they turned toward Ma's house, while she continued across the street to the parsonage to talk to Andrew.




Early the next morning, with his family and a few people who remembered him from the old days watching, Charles Davis was laid to rest beside his sister Margaret. Andrew stood over the coffin, looking at Jess and Kevin.


"Charles Davis was one of those who settled Providence. Yes, he lost his way for many years, but he finally came home, back to those who loved him and knew him as the brother of Margaret Davis Donager, and the uncle of Kevin and Jess. While his life ended in violence, many remember a different man. Don't remember the things that Charles did on his last visits here - instead remember the man he was before he left - a man full of laughter and joy, who helped so many as they settled this area. Pray for peace and comfort for his family. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In the sure and certain expectation of the resurrection, in the Lord's name we pray. Amen."


Jess stood watching as dirt was placed on top of the coffin. "I'm not sure that I can forgive him," she said as Andrew moved to her side.


"Who will it hurt if you don't?" he asked. "He's dead, so it won't hurt him. Release that anger or it will hurt you and those you love."


She turned to look at him. "You sounded like your father just then."


"I hope so."


"Thank you, Brother Andrew," she told him, turning to follow the rest of the family out of the cemetery.




"He's right," Nick agreed once Jess told him about the conversation over Charles' grave. "It's best to move on."


She paced across the room. "I want to. But then I remember everything that he did - not just shooting your or killing Pa - all of those other people that he seemed to have no remorse about having killed. I just don't understand how he went from the man I knew as a child to what he became."


"That's likely something none of us will ever know, darlin'," he told her. "Loosing someone they love can cause a person to change. And then there's the war - it destroyed so many people - too many." He sighed. "And riding with Quantrill - that would be been even worse. There are others out there who rode with him who are just as filled with rage as Charles was."


She nodded. "I suppose you're right." She came over to sit beside him, taking his hand. "Has Thad been in to see you today?"


"He has. There's even more feeling today. And the stitches are healing."


"I ran into Eban on my way through town. He said that he'd just been over talking to you."


Nick chuckled softly. "He's still working on the inventory at the saloon."


"I thought he finished that?"


He grinned. "So did he, until he realized that the storeroom in the back was full."


"So now he has to amend the inventory," she realized. "Poor boy. He did say that he thought Jake and Cara were handling things very nicely."


"Jake was in for a few minutes yesterday while you were at lunch - he said that Leroy's threatening to come over here and play cards, since he can't find anyone else to give him a challenge."


"I supposed that I could -" Jess began, but Nick stopped her.


"No, thank you."


"I told you that I can play poker," she reminded him. "Pa taught me -"


"I'm sure you're a good player, Jess, darlin', but if you go in there and beat Leroy at his own game, he'll be likely to accuse you of cheating somehow."


"He's never accused you of cheating, has he?"


"No, he hasn't. But -"


"You're not a woman, and he doesn't think that a woman could *possibly* be good at poker."


"Not that good, anyway," he nodded. "And certainly not better than *he* is."


Jess' eyes narrowed. "Why do I think that you don't believe me when I say that I can play?"


"I believe -"


"No, you don't. I'll wager that you've never found a woman who could play as well as you do, so you don't believe that I might be able to."


"I know you can. Even before I talked to Kevin about it. He told me that he refused to play with you or your father because he was tired of always losing to one or the other."


"Then why don't you want me to play poker with Leroy?"


"He's good. Not as good as I am, but I have enough experience to know when to back off and let him take a hand. As good as *you* might be, can you honestly say that you have much experience playing the game with anyone other than your father or brother?"


Jess sighed. "I guess you're right."


He rubbed her hand with his thumb. "Still, it might be interesting to play a few hands - just the two of us once I can use both hands again. I mean, how else am I going to find out just how good you really are?"




After supper, Eban left to go work on the books at the saloon again, and Grace excused herself to go help at the cafe, leaving their mother, Doc, and Thad to have coffee in the parlor. Ma stared into her cup as the two men discussed a couple of patients.


"Thad," she finally said when they finished, "may I ask ya a question?"


"Of course, Ma," the young man said. "Anything."


"How long afore you plan on askin' Elizabeth to marry you?"


"Martha," Doc said, shaking his head. "Really."


"It's all right, Uncle Mark," Thad told him. "We've only known each other for a few months. And while I'm sure about how *I* feel, Elizabeth is still young. I don't want to rush her into something that she might not be mature enough to handle."


"Fair enough," Ma nodded. "And where would ya live once ya get hitched?"


Thad laughed. "Over the office, I expect -"


"With you're uncle here?"


"I'd most likely move over to the hotel," Doc explained.


She seemed to ignore the comment. "But those two rooms wouldn't work once ya had a couple of young-uns," she pointed out.


"You are - very direct, Ma," Thad told her.


"Just talkin' th' truth. I was thinkin' - you and she could move in here - this house is too big for just me. No idea why I thought havin' a place with so many rooms was a good idea."


"Eban and Grace -" Doc reminded her, and this time she acknowledged him.


"Grace'll be getting' married afore long. And Eban's been making noise 'bout gettin' a place of his own."


"Still, you're very generous, but - I'm not sure that Elizabeth would be comfortable, starting out our life together in a house with others -"


Ma laughed again. "She's growed up with two sisters and a brother. I don't think she would be too troubled by th' idea, long as you and she was together. The idea that I got is that you could move your office here, too."


"Here? To this house? Martha -" Doc objected.


"That office is too small," she declared. "Here, you'd have room for a proper operatin' room, and a couple of rooms for patients that need t'be here overnight. I started thinkin' 'bout the other day, when poor Lily and her baby had t'move out of the office so's you could treat Nick. If you'd had the room then, she could'a stayed here, and there'd still have been a place for Nick."


"You're talking about making this house into a - a hospital, Ma," Thad pointed out.


She considered his words, then nodded. "Yep. That's what I'm talkin' about," she confirmed.


"And what about you?" Doc wanted to know. "Where would you stay?"


"Right here. I can help out with some basic nursin'," she pointed out. "And I can cook meals, keep the place clean - Grace even said she would help out when she wasn't busy at the cafe."


"You seem to have done quite a lot of thinking about this," Thad told her.


"That I have," she nodded. "With th' railroad comin' thru here, there'll be more people - and it would be a boon to Providence t'have a place like this t'take care of those people."


"Martha, may I point out that Thad can't take care of more than one patient at a time? No decent doctor can."


She finally turned to look at him, but spoke to Thad. "Thad, would ya mind givin' your Uncle and me some privacy so we can talk?"


Thad stood up, putting his empty cup and saucer on the table. "Of course. I need to make some notes on some patients anyway." He smiled. "Supper was delicious as always, Ma. See you later, Uncle."


Martha squinted at Mark until she was sure the younger man had gone. "Now, Mark Hawkins, you and me are gonna have a talk."




She shook her head. "And *you* are gonna listen t'me. What part of my idea don't you agree with? Usin' this house as a doctor's office and hospital?"


"No, I suppose that would work."


"And for Thad and Elizabeth to live here once he gets up the nerve to marry her?"


"That would work as well, I guess."


"And I'm discoverin' that I'm bored, sittin' here with nothin' t'do all day. I've enjoyed takin' care of Nick. This town don't need another hotel. Or a boardin' house."


"But you've earned the right to -"


"To stop bein' helpful and fillin' a need?"


"Of course not."


"I know this ain't the way it should be, but, well, I'm tired of pussyfootin' around the subject. You and me are gonna get married, Mark Hawkins. And if I have t'do the askin', then I will."


This time it was Mark who ignored her comment. "What about Thad being able to take care of more than one patient?" he asked.


"Well, what've you and he been doin when he goes out for rounds?"


"I watch the office -"


"You could keep doin' that. And if we're both here, then you and he can trade off takin' care of any patients who might need t'stay th'night."


"I can't do surgery anymore," he reminded her, holding out his hands. "My hands aren't as steady as they need to be."


Martha put her cup down and reached out to take his hands in hers. "Thad can take care of that. You can examine patients, and con-sult th'way you been doin'." She smiled. "You think 'bout I said. We can talk 'bout it later."


He pulled her to her feet, nodding. "You are an amazing woman, Martha," he told her, lifting her hands to touch them to his lips.


"Nah. I'm just a woman who loves you. Now go on. It's gettin' late, and I need t'check on the patient afore I turn in."


Mark sighed deeply. "I'll think about what you've said, Martha," he promised as she walked him to the door. "Thank you for supper."


"You're welcome. G'night."


"Goodnight," he told her, leaving the house.


Martha stood on the porch, watching him until he turned the corner and headed back up Front street before going back inside and into Nick's room. Touching his forehead, she smiled and noted that it felt cool. As she made sure he was covered, he spoke. "So, do you think he'll say yes?"


Ma laughed softly. "You 'bout startled me into an early grave," she said. "Thought you was sleepin'."


"I couldn't help but overhear the conversation," he told her. "Well?"


"He'll say yes," she answered firmly. "That old man needs someone. He's been alone too long, and he knows it. So have I, for that matter."


"He's right," Nick told her. "You *are* an amazing woman."


"You get t'sleep. Anything y'need afore I go?"


"Not unless you can find a way for me to sleep on my stomach."


"You been doin' it," she reminded him. "Night."


"Good night, Ma," he told her, smiling as she closed the door behind her.




"I know it's been two weeks," Thad told Nick, "but you are not going to rush your recovery. If you're not healed enough from the surgery, you could undo everything."


"Look, Thad, my legs are fine - I've been moving them the way you told me to - and there's not -" he winced as he moved and amended his words, "there's barely any pain in my back."


"But there *is* some pain," Thad pointed out.


"When I move wrong, yes."


"And if you're walking and 'move wrong'? What then?"


"Look, I'm not asking you to release me - just give me the okay to sleep on my back, and let me take a few steps - across the room, at least."


Thad sighed. "Can you - slowly - roll over onto your back?"


Nick slowly rolled onto his side, waiting for pain that would stop him from doing so. Thad stood ready in case he was needed as his patient continued to roll over onto his back. "There. Happy now?"


"Any pain?"


"A little," Nick confirmed, "but not a lot." He looked ruefully at the tousled sheet and blanket over his lower half. "I'm going to need something wear -"


"I'll go to your room at the hotel and get you something," Thad offered. "As long as you promise me not to try to get out of bed on your own. When I get back, we'll discuss what happens next."


"It's a deal," Nick replied. "Oh, it feels good to be able to look around. Can I sit up?"


Thad sighed. "We'll discuss that when I get back, too," shaking his head as Nick grinned.




Lying flat on his back, Nick managed to doze a little before he heard Thad's voice in the hallway. "I'll probably need some help getting these on him," he was saying to someone. What Nick really wanted was a full bath, not just the quick washdown that Ma had done the last two weeks. But he knew what Thad would say if he asked for that. He closed his eyes again, thinking that Doc had come back with Thad to try to convince Nick that he wasn't giving himself enough time to heal properly. The door opened, then closed.


"I think he's asleep," Thad said, pulling the covers back.


"I'm not asleep," Nick told them, opening his eyes to find not Doc, but Ma standing beside the bed. Realizing that he was buck naked, Nick grabbed for the covers, but they were out of reach - so he used his hands to cover himself. "Ma!" Looking at Thad, he stammered, "What - what are you thinking, Thad?"


Ma laughed, the same cackle he remembered the first time they met. "Listen here, Nick Everett, I raised me three boys, and took care of ev'ry miner in Sutton's Creek afore they left. You ain't got nothin' I ain't seen afore. Just pretend I'm your Ma."


"I was never in the - altogether in front of my mother after I grew up," Nick informed her.


"Maybe. But if she was here right now, I think she'd be tellin' you the same thing. Now, you gonna worry 'bout false modesty or wait til Jess gits here so *she* can help?"


Nick glared at Thad as he tried his best to keep a straight face while Ma was taking him to task. But the mention of Jess caused Nick to sigh and relax. "So how are we going to do this?" he asked.


"Might've been easier if you were still on your stomach," Thad observed, looking at Ma for suggestions.


"Can he set up?" she asked.


Thad saw Nick's grin. "Okay, Nick. I'll put my arm around your shoulders and help you sit up - try to let me do most of the work, please."


"Anything you say, Doctor," was Nick's reply, his grin changing only slightly into a grimace as Thad lifted him into a more upright position.


"Now let's swing his legs over the side of the bed," Ma directed, holding the long underwear in her hands as Nick turned and moved his legs so that they were off of the bed - slowly, of course. "Ya did that real good," she told him. Squatting, she put the underwear on each leg. "Now, you're gonna find out of them leg'll support ya atall."


"Ma -" Thad said, clearly believing that Nick might not be ready for this. But she shook her head.


"He's gonna try it th' minute we leave him alone, anyway. Wouldn't ya rather his first time on his feet be with you here in case somethin' goes wrong?"


"Okay," Thad nodded, moving around to place his arm around Nick's back to support him. Ma pulled the longjohns up as far as she could before standing and taking Nick's other arm. "Put your hand 'round my wrist," she said. Once that was done, she asked, "Ya ready?"


Nick drew a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, ma'm."


Ma pulled on his arm as Thad assisted Nick to his feet, then bent to pull the knitted fabric over Nick's hips and up to his waist. Thad kept his gaze locked on Nick's face. "Since we've gone this far, do you feel like giving it a try?"


"I've been ready for two weeks, Thad," was Nick's reply. Thad removed his arm, leaving Nick standing on his own beside the bed. He reached down to button the top of the longjohns, smiling.


A knock on the door caused all three of the room's occupants to look at each other. "Who is it?" Nick called out.


"It's me," was Jess' reply. "The front door was open, so I thought I'd come in -"


Thad put his hand on Nick's arm, shaking his head, but Nick just grinned. "Come in," he called out.


"I wasn't sure -" Jess was saying as she opened the door. The sight of Nick standing beside the bed surprised her, and she blinked. "Nick?!"


He held out his hand. "Stay there, darlin'," he told her, looking down at his feet and willing them to move. One step - and Thad was at his side, just in case - two steps- by this time, Nick felt the drops of sweat rolling down his forehead, but he took another step, and then another, and then Jess was in his arms. "Oh, Jess," he murmured. "Jess."


Jess didn't care if Thad or Ma saw her tears as he held her and she held him. These were happy tears.


Things were going to work out after all.


The End

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