For personal use and select distribution only © November 2003 by Amber Stockton
Michaela put the finishing touches on a patient file and stood to return the folder to the drawer in the cabinet along the other wall. Her hands froze over the assortment of folders as the door to the clinic crashed open.
Pain clutched her stomach when her eyes focused on the limp form Horace and Robert E carried between them. Shock prevented the reflexive exclamation from escaping her lips. Her breath came in short spurts. Her heart pounded.
This couldn't be happening!
But it was.
Finally, she found her voice.
The two men took great care in placing Sully on the examination table. Then, they stood back and cast worried looks in her direction. Her medical instincts took over, and she rushed into action.
"What happened? Where did you find him? How long has he been like this? Has he made any sounds at all? Has he regained consciousness?"
She fired the questions off one after another in rapid succession, barely stopping to take a breath.
Horace took a step closer. "Uh, Dr. Mike, I ... uh ... I'm not sure exactly what happened, but some fellas at the train station brought him in. They said something about finding him out along the stagecoach trail. They thought he mighta been hit or fallen off his horse. Didn't know how long he'd been there."
"He came to for a few seconds while we were gettin' him off the train," Robert E added. "I couldn't make out anythin' except your name."
Michaela cast a quick glance between the two men, and offered a half smile. "Thank you for bringing him to me. I'll have to perform an examination to determine the full extent of his injuries. I'd appreciate you both staying in case he awakens and fights me in any way."
Horace nodded. "Sure thing, Dr. Mike."
"You got it," Robert E echoed.
She inhaled a deep breath to bolster her strength, then rolled back the sleeves of her muslin shirt and cleaned her hands. "Well, let's get to work." She gathered together the instruments she would need to examine her husband.
She couldn't think of him like that. Impartiality was essential, or she might not be able to do what needed to be done. Michaela straightened her back and closed her eyes for a brief moment to mentally prepare herself. Then, she set to work.
She poured a small amount of chloroform on a clean cloth and handed it to Horace. "Keep this near his face in case he awakens during the examination. If he does, hold it over his mouth for just a few seconds until he settles again."
Horace nodded and assumed a determined expression as he focused all of his attention on Sully. Robert E stood opposite her, with his hands ready in case Sully stirred or reacted to her touch.
As she ran her skilled hands across Sully's body to check for any bone breaks or swelling, a lone tear escaped from her eye and trailed down her cheek. She remained focused, despite the inner battle raging against the emotions she held in check. It wasn't the first time he'd been brought to her injured, and for some reason, she knew it wouldn't be the last. She owed it to him to give him the best care possible, and to do that, she had to maintain her emotional distance.
But, it wasn't easy.
They'd only been married for six months, and a lot of that time had been spent dealing with the adjustments they both had to make in joining their lives together. Two somewhat independent individuals, they learned within the first two weeks how important it was for them to communicate and share everything.
For Sully, after so much time spent as a loner, it had been quite an adjustment. Although a bit more social, Michaela had struggled with sharing her innermost thoughts and fears – something she'd always avoided in order to appear in control. Being accountable to each other in every aspect of their lives caused some tension, but she felt they'd adapted quite well. Even now, she recalled the words she'd spoken to him that first morning after they returned from their honeymoon.
"It isn't you and me anymore; it's us."
And it still is, Sully. She wiped another tear from her cheek and moved to examine the area of Sully's head Horace had indicated in his account. It didn't take her long to locate the lump formed as a result. Thankful to find no wetness or stickiness from blood, Michaela raised her stethoscope to her ears and placed the other end on his chest.
"There appears to be no other indication of injury other than the distended surface above his right ear." She returned her stethoscope to her neck and shifted her gaze between the two friends who stood across from her and her husband who lay on the table. "Based upon initial examination, I couldn't establish or identify any other explanation for his unconscious state, nor could I determine sufficient cause for further treatment other than rest and attention until he awakens."
Robert E drew his eyebrows together and ran a hand across his jaw. "Now, would you mind repeatin' that in plain English, Dr. Mike?"
Michaela offered a sympathetic smile, but his request reminded her of how unemotional she could sound when delivering a medical prognosis. "I'm sorry, Robert E. Horace." She took a deep breath. "Considering the circumstances, I thought it would be easier if I—"
"Don't worry about it." Robert E held up a hand to halt her explanation. "I know how you feel."
She shared a look of compassion with the blacksmith and recalled some of the incidents in his own life that he'd shared with her over the years. As an ex-slave who had lost his first wife and seen his children taken from him, he did understand.
"I am sorry, though. From my examination, there are no other obvious injuries I can find, aside from a bump on his head."
"So, why's he been out so long?"
"I wish I knew, Robert E. It might just be his body responding to the injury and giving itself time to recover. The best I can do is allow him to rest and wait for him to awaken. Hopefully, he'll be able to tell me what happened then."
"You want us to help you, Dr. Mike?
"Yes, Horace, thank you." She walked around the table toward the interior door that led to the hallway. "I don't have any patients upstairs, so you can put him in the first room."
"Come on, Horace. Let's make Sully more comfortable," Robert E said and positioned himself at the head of the table.
A few minutes later, Michaela thanked their friends again then waited for them to leave before pulling the lone chair in the room alongside the bed. She immediately took Sully's hand in hers and pressed it against her cheek.
"I'm right here, Sully. I'm not leaving." She took a shuddering breath. "It hurts me to see you like this, but I'll be right here until you wake up." Leaning forward, she placed a soft kiss on his lips. "Come back to me, Sully. Please," she whispered, then rested her head on his chest, taking comfort in his strong heartbeat and steady breathing.
Succumbing to the emotional exhaustion the entire ordeal had caused, not to mention being without Sully for an entire week, Michaela drifted into much-needed sleep.
* * * * *
The darkness nearly suffocated him. He clawed at the walls and tried to escape, but they only seemed to compact around him. Dropping to the floor in exhaustion, he placed his head in his hands and gave in to the despair that threatened to consume him. Hope fled in the wake of the realization that he was never getting out.
Sully opened his eyes and tried to focus on his surroundings but saw nothing. The dream seemed all too real, until he noticed the soft cushion beneath his body and the fresh air around him, not the dank smell from his dream. He realized he was in a bed somewhere, but couldn't determine where. After a few blinks, he figured night had fallen and no one had lit a candle in the room. Wherever he was, not even the moonlight shone through the windows – if there were any.
An unfamiliar weight on his chest made him shift his position, but the hand that held his was quite familiar.
He squeezed her hand and tried to sit up, but a sharp pain above his eyes shot through him, and he dropped back against the pillows.
"Michaela," he tried again, this time louder.
The weight lifted from his chest, and he felt her squeeze his hand in return.
A chair scraped against a wooden floor and the bed sunk as she sat down next to him. Her hands moved across his chest then caressed his face. A moment later, her lips covered his in a kiss of relief mixed with fear. She trembled against him. He sought to calm her by placing his hands against her face and gently pushed her away from him.
"Michaela, I'm all right, but where am I?"
"You're at the clinic."
Her tone held a note of questioning in it, and he wondered why. "Well, is it night? Why don't you light a candle?"
"No, Sully, it's the middle of the afternoon. Can't you hear the wagons or the voices in the street below?"
Now that she'd mentioned it, he turned his head and heard the rumbling wheels of the wagons against the packed dirt. The whinnies of horses accompanied by the muffled sounds of voices filtered into the room. He knew the doors to the second story porch were closed, or he'd be able to hear the conversations too.
Then, another realization came to him. If he could hear and feel everything, and if it really was the middle of the afternoon but he only saw darkness, that could only mean one thing.
He was blind!
"No!" He yanked his hand from her clasp and turned his head away from her.
He fought against the pain in his head when he sat up and gripped the bedclothes. "Michaela, this can't be right." He dug at his eyes with this fists and blinked several times, believing his sight would be restored with that simple effort. When he opened his eyes again and saw nothing, he fell back against the headboard. "My eyes! Michaela, my eyes! I can't see!"
"Oh my God, Sully. Are you sure? Not even a pinprick of light?"
"No. Nothing, Michaela. When I first opened them, I thought I was in a cave. Once I took stock of everything, I knew that couldn't be right." He fumbled for her hand, relieved when she laced her fingers with his. "Then I felt your hand in mine and knew you were here. All I wanted to do was see your beautiful face." He reached up and pressed his fist against his lids. Closed or open, it didn't make a difference. "But I can't. I can't see a thing!"
"Oh, Sully," she breathed, then leaned across him and ran her fingers through his hair.
He pulled away from her and groaned. "Michaela, what's causin' this? What happened to me?"
"I was hoping you'd tell me, Sully. Robert E and Horace brought you into the clinic around noon, but Horace couldn't tell me much. He only said some men at the train station found you and didn't know how long you'd been there."
Sully reached up and touched the bump on his head, wincing at the pain. "I don't remember much, just coming home from Denver and bein' out on the trail. Somethin' spooked my horse, and it threw me." He reached up to take one of her hands, then drew it across his chest to hold it between both of his. Having something to hold helped him stay somewhat calm. "I musta hit my head or somethin', ‘cause next thing I know, I'm wakin' up here."
Her fingers touched his head just above his right eye, and he flinched. She kept her hand there but lightened her touch to a soft caress. "You do have a sizeable lump here. If I had to guess, I'd say you hit a rock when you fell, and then you blacked out." She brushed his hair back from his face. "Horses spook for any number of reasons, and there's often no way to prevent it."
Sully moved his fingers in and out of the space between hers, alternating between holding her hand and intertwining it with his. She returned his touch, but it only gave him minor reassurance. In one way, he was glad to have her with him. But in another, frustration and anger boiled inside of him at his current state, and he just wanted to be left alone.
Silence stretched between them. He knew she struggled with what to do. No doubt her doctor's instincts would kick in any moment, but for now, she seemed to be adjusting to the blow he'd delivered by announcing his blindness.
Michaela played with his fingers, and he could imagine the uncertainty she had on her face. She most likely was trying to hide it from him, even though he couldn't see it. That only made him want to see her more.
She touched the lump on his head again. A second later, Michaela pulled away and inhaled a quick breath. The bed shifted when she stood. The rustle of her skirts and petticoats brushed against the chair and floor.
"Michaela?" He heard a snap and the creaking of leather. "What are you doing?"
"I'm getting out my eye scope and magnifying glass so I can examine your eyes."
The strike and fizz of a match and the ensuing pop as the flame grew accompanied her words. The bed sunk again as she resumed her previous position next to him.
"Now, I'm going to move the candle back and forth across your line of vision. I want you to tell me if you see anything at all, even the slightest hint of light."
Sully sighed. He didn't want to endure all of this, but with a doctor for his wife, he had no choice. "All right."
The heat from the flame passed from the right side of his face to his left then back again. Sully fought the urge to follow the direction of the candle and instead kept his eyes looking in front of him. At least, he thought they were straight ahead. He had no way of knowing for sure.
"Nothing at all?"
Michaela's warm breath followed by the smell of a candle snuffed out wafted into his face.
"I'm going to go downstairs and get some liquid drops for your eyes. Cloud Dancing once told me he used it when his son had gotten some ash and dirt in his eyes. It won't harm you in any way, and it might help your eyes heal."
"I don't know why you're bothering with all of this. We might as well face it. I'm blind."
The bed shifted with her sudden movement. "Well, I'm not going to give up so easily. I intend to do everything I can to help you and make sure you get better."
Based upon the indignant and determined tone of her voice, Sully could picture Michaela with her hands planted on her hips as she pinned him with a look. He almost smiled, but couldn't find a hint of mirth to accompany it. Maybe when all this was over, he could find amusement or comfort in his situation, but for now, he only felt anger.
"How long you think it will take?"
"To be honest? I don't know. You could heal in a few days, a week—"
"Or not at all," he ground out, once again punching the bed next to his thigh.
"Sully, there's nothing to indicate that your injury will become permanent. When I examined you earlier, I couldn't find a trace of trauma to any other part of you. Just now, I couldn't see anything in your eyes that might be cause for concern. The blindness you're experiencing is most likely a result of the swelling on the part of your head where the bump is." She moved her fingers around the wound and prodded gently. "Remember, when you experienced the temporary paralysis at the hands of Tate Rankin?"
"How could I forget?"
"It was caused by an accumulation of fluids pressing on the spinal column. Well, this is no different. Fluids accumulating in and around the wound would be placing pressure on the temporal lobe. Damage to this can also cause a disturbance of auditory sensation and sometimes impaired language comprehension or speech ability." She rested her hand on his chest. "The fact that you had no trouble hearing the sounds in the street and can communicate without any difficulty is an excellent sign."
"It don't make me feel any better. I still can't see."
Michaela clasped his right hand in hers. "Sully, I know this is difficult for you, but—"
"You have no idea how I feel, Michaela!"
Her hand tightened around his then relaxed. She inched back until he could barely feel her presence next to him. Immediate remorse filled him at the harsh sound of his words, but he couldn't help it.
The faint voice traveled up the stairwell from the main room of the clinic, but it wasn't one Sully recognized.
Michaela withdrew even more. He wanted to say something – anything – to apologize and let her know he didn't mean what he'd said.
Pride silenced him.
She stood, and he heard her place her instruments back into her doctor's bag, then close it with a snap.
"I'm upstairs!" She called out a reply to the patient downstairs. "I'll be right down."
Michaela took several deep breaths. He thought he detected a slight shudder at the end, but couldn't be certain. Guilt pricked at him for being the cause of her emotional shift. A rustle of skirts preceded her voice, not quite as strong as it had been.
"I'll be back as soon as I can. Then, we'll talk about getting you home."
"Well, I sure ain't going anywhere."
She paused then left. Her footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor and clicked against the stairs as she descended to the lower level. The door to the main room creaked as Michaela entered, then closed.
Sully was left with nothing but silence.
As he lay in bed, he reflected on the past week and thought about the ramifications of his loss of sight. It didn't matter if it only lasted a day or two. He wasn't going to be able to do anything without help – and he wasn't sure he could ask for it. In many ways, he'd grown in his relationships. But in others, he still reverted to what was comfortable.
Even now, he hated lying in bed, unable to go anywhere or do anything about his situation. He thought about going home or facing his friends and the rest of his family. So much of what he did depended on his sight. Not being able to see the faces of those who meant a lot to him made him furious.
He slammed a fist against the headboard then winced as the pain sensation made its way to his brain. "Well, at least that's still working," he mused aloud. Michaela told him she couldn't find anything else wrong with him and nothing else affected, but that didn't mean anything definite. He'd seen other men suffer even less and end up having permanent effects as a result. There was nothing to reassure him that he'd get his sight back, no matter what Michaela said.
For all either one of them knew, he could be blind for the rest of his life.
* * * * *
Sully gritted his teeth and released a sigh. A thought came to mind. What was preventing him from getting out of bed and testing the rest of his body? Why should he wait for Michaela to return? He was in the clinic, after all, and he'd spent a lot of time there over the past three years.
Judging from how Michaela had left the room and how fast she reached the stairs, she had him in the first recovery room. That meant the dresser stood to his left along the side wall and a chair sat in the corner. The chest was at the foot of the bed with the doors leading outside to his right.
With determination, he threw back the covers and turned to place his feet on the cold hardwood floor. A little to the right, he found the woven rug and tentatively stood, testing the response of his legs as they supported his weight. Everything seemed fine.
From there, he kept one hand on the bed and the other extended in front of him as he took first one step, then another. Everything was different. Without his sight, his confidence shattered in pieces around him. He hesitated with what should be instinct, and that only incited his anger once more.
Forcing that emotion to abate, he reached the end of the bed, turned and allowed his hands to guide him toward the double doors that led to the porch. He stubbed his toe as he shuffled, but ignored the pain and continued forward. Stumbling blindly with both hands in front of him, he took tiny steps forward until his hands ran into the cool curtained surface of the doors.
A moment of uncertainty made him hesitate. With determination, he felt for the handle and turned it, then stepped back awkwardly to open the door. The fresh air mixed with a hint of horses and the smells associated with animals assaulted his nose. Wagons rumbled in the streets below, and voices floated up to him from all directions. Just a hint of Grace's meatloaf registered and made his stomach rumble in response. Everything felt so familiar, yet so different.
Before he stepped onto the porch, he paused to run his hands across his own body and down his legs to make certain he was fully clothed. When his fingers touched the soft leather of buckskin and the somewhat coarser fabric of his shirt, he relaxed and straightened, then located the door once more.
Just as he took the next step forward, he heard someone coming up the stairs.
Michaela's voice startled him, and he lost his balance, catching his foot against the doorframe. He stumbled and tried to prevent his fall, but couldn't. His shoulder slammed against the other door – or the wall – and he crumbled in a heap on the floor. At least he had the foresight to extend his hands in front of him to break his fall. The last thing he needed was another blow to the head to aggravate his already prohibited condition.
"Sully, are you all right?" Footfalls echoed as she rushed to his side.
She tried to help him up, but he shook off her hands, angry at himself for even attempting such a stupid stunt, and angry to be so helpless.
"Just leave me be, Michaela. I'll get up myself." His voice held a bite he knew would cause her to pull away from him, but he couldn't help it. She had no idea how it felt to be like this. No idea what he was feeling or what this did to his confidence, let alone his ability to see himself as capable.
Once he regained his feet, the throbbing in his shoulder became almost unbearable. He rubbed it in an attempt to alleviate the pain. Michaela remained quiet, no doubt trying to figure out what to do or say. Well, he'd make it easy on her.
"Michaela, I want to go home. I don't want to see anyone or talk to anyone. I just want to get out of here and get back home."
She sighed. "All right, Sully. I'll do my best to guide you downstairs. Just hold onto my hand and we should be able to get to the wagon out front without any problem."
Momentarily surprised she offered no argument, Sully decided to remain quiet while he had her agreement. He did as she suggested and followed her voice as well as her lead. In his mind, he envisioned where they were with each step. He knew the moment they entered the main room of the clinic again and when they stood at the front door. Michaela left him for a moment then joined him again. With his hand in hers, he heard the click of the door as she opened it.
He took a deep breath and had to remember to keep his eyes open, though it didn't make any difference. The last thing he needed was someone to see him and come over, asking questions. Hopefully, they could get up into the wagon and out of town without incident. Assuming a confidence he didn't feel, he walked with Michaela and listened carefully for her quiet instructions.
"We've come to the edge of the porch. Step down," she murmured. "Now, we're in front of the wagon. I have you right where you need to climb up." She released his hand, but kept her own at his elbow.
He uttered a silent prayer to the Spirits to help him as he blindly reached for the back of the wagon seat and hoisted himself onto the bench. Out of habit, he turned and held out his arms to assist his wife. If he was going to make it look believable, he might as well go all the way. Michaela clasped his forearms and in a moment sat beside him. He heard and felt her reach for the reins, and the slap of leather against wood followed by the creak of the wagon were the only sounds before they headed for home. They left the town behind, and he was thankful no one had interrupted their escape.
As the horses rumbled along the dirt path, Sully felt every rut in the ground, every bump and turn. He'd never noticed it before, but his inability to see heightened his other senses and made him more aware of his surroundings. A chill saturated the air, a telltale sign of winter not far away. A rustle in the trees to his left gave him a start. He realized that although they'd most likely make it home without incident, if anything happened, he'd be unable to help. The wheel could hit a gopher hole, one of the horses could misstep, or they could even spook and take off running at high speed. What would he do then?
With each stretch of road that brought them closer to home, Sully allowed his anger and emotion to get the better of him. By the time Michaela stopped the horses, he was in no mood to see anyone. He only wanted to go off on his own and spend some time alone.
But he had no such luck.
The front door to the homestead opened, and he heard the resounding bump as it swung on its hinges to tap against the hooks on the wall behind it. Footsteps clamored on the front porch and down the steps. A second later, he heard the voices of Colleen and Brian.
"Sully! You're back."
"Hi Sully. Welcome home."
Brian's excitement and Colleen's warm greeting did little to assuage the discontentment welling inside. Michaela alighted from the wagon seat then clasped her hands around his as she guided him down from the high perch.
More irritation settled around him.
It should be him helping Michaela down, not the other way around. Taking care to move slowly — although he wished he could hop down like he always did — he positioned his foot on the board alongside the wagon, allowed Michaela to place his hands on her shoulders, and managed to find his way to the ground.
"What's the matter with Sully, Ma?"
"He hit his head against a rock or something when his horse spooked on his way home. I believe the injury has caused a temporary loss of his sight."
"You mean he's blind?"
"For now, yes. He—"
"I can speak for myself, Michaela." Sully turned in the direction of the children's voices and hoped he was at least looking in their general direction. "Kids, I don't know everything about what happened, and there don't seem to be anything else wrong. I just can't see."
"Don't worry, Sully. We'll help you," Colleen replied.
"Yeah, it'll be just like when you couldn't walk. Besides, like Ma said. It's only temporary. You'll be back to normal in no time."
Sully appreciated Brian's optimism, but he couldn't fight the paralysis that rendered him incapable of seeing any good in the situation. Still, he had to put on a good front for the children, so he forced a smile he didn't feel to his face. "Thanks, Brian. Colleen. I appreciate it." He turned back toward where he hoped Michaela still stood. "Now, could we get inside? I'd rather not be out here in case someone comes by."
"Of course, Sully." She tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and guided him as she had at the clinic. He could feel Brian and Colleen watching him, so he did his best to maintain his neutral expression.
"I've got supper all ready," Colleen announced as soon as the door closed behind them.
"Wonderful. Why don't we all sit down and enjoy a nice meal?" Michaela suggested. "We can talk about how things are going to change around here for the next few days."
"I'll get the plates." Brian's shuffled steps echoed into the kitchen.
A chair scraped against the hardwood floor next to him. "Sully, why don't you sit and allow us to get everything ready."
"Can't do anything to help," he muttered under his breath as he felt for the chair and lowered himself in an uncoordinated manner.
As soon as Michaela stepped away, he heard plates clatter against each other and utensils clanging against the plates. The hollow sound of tin against wood gave evidence that Brian had moved to the table. A rustle of skirts and the thump of heavy pans told him Colleen had brought their supper from the stove. He sat in uncomfortable silence as he listened to his family move about with ease around him while he remained helpless to do anything. The rich aroma of beef stew reached his nose, but he couldn't muster up much of an appetite.
Scooting back and almost toppling the chair, Sully stumbled to his feet. "You know, I'm really not all that hungry. I think I'll just go upstairs."
"Would you like me to help you?"
"I can manage!" His voice came out much gruffer than he wanted. "I'm sorry." He could feel their stares, their uncertainty of what to say or how to act.
There was only one solution to that. He'd make himself scarce.
Turning toward Michaela's voice, he offered a halfhearted smile. "Actually, if you could get me to the bottom of the stairs, I'll make it from there. This is one path I know quite well."
"Of course." Michaela took his arm again and walked him across the room.
He wished he could see her face — see anything for that matter. This darkness didn't do anything for his confidence.
"I'll be up later," she whispered in his ear when they'd stopped.
A part of him wanted her to join him now, but reality overshadowed that desire. He couldn't exactly do much about it anyway. Besides, she had to eat and needed to spend time with Brian and Colleen. Michaela could explain everything to them and talk with them about his situation a lot easier without him, and he didn't want to be there when she did.
His entire situation left him with more anguish than he thought he'd ever feel. Being helpless was not familiar to him. Even depending on others took great effort on his part. How was he going to survive however long it took for his condition to heal?
* * * * *
Michaela stood at the foot of the stairs and watched her husband take slow and uncertain steps forward. His hands remained in constant contact with the wall and handrail. The way he hung his head sent waves of sympathy through her. She didn't like seeing him in this state anymore than he wanted to be in it. But she couldn't do anything about it. His injury had to heal on its own. She could only make him comfortable and do her best to not make him feel as helpless as he believed himself to be.
That started with them – the children and her. Since he didn't have any jobs to take him away from the homestead right away, he could let his body rest and recover without putting additional strain on it. She turned away from the stairs when Sully rounded the corner. The only sound of his struggle was a few stumbles and the brush of his arm against the wall. When the door closed to their bedroom, Michaela went back into the kitchen to join Colleen and Brian.
Their faces showed their uncertainty. She'd have to reassure them and gain their cooperation – something she didn't think would be a problem. With a glance toward the ceiling, she put her concerns for Sully and her desire to be with him aside then focused on her children. She could be with her husband later.
After supper, Colleen and Brian helped clean the dishes then kissed her good night, assuring her they'd close up the house and make everything secure for the night. She smiled her thanks and ascended the stairs. Taking a deep breath, she reached the bedroom door and placed her hand on the knob, unsure of what she would encounter beyond it.
Sully's attitude had given her reason to be concerned earlier. How would he be after several hours alone? He hadn't made any sounds since he left them, and a part of her wondered if he'd gone to sleep. She hoped he hadn't, as she'd had a much different welcome home in mind. Sleeping alone for the past week hadn't been easy. She treasured his presence and missed the feel of his arms around her as she slept. But, this injury would no doubt change all of that.
"I'm not going to find out standing in the hallway," she reprimanded herself. After another deep breath, Michaela stepped inside and closed the door behind her.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed the only light in the room was the blazing fire crackling in the fireplace. Thankful for Brian's forethought, she luxuriated in the cozy atmosphere created by the flickering flames. Shadows danced on the walls, and her gaze traveled from the hearth around to her left where Sully sat on the edge of the bed, his back to her. He hadn't given any indication that he even knew she was there.
"Is everything all right?"
"Michaela, how can you ask a question like that? Of course it's not."
Affronted by his gruff tone, she took a step back and ducked her head. "I'm sorry, Sully, but—"
"It's not your fault I'm like this."
He turned around on the bed and sat cross-legged as he faced her. The last time she had seen him hunkered down like that was when she happened upon him on the train in Boston. The dejected slump of his shoulders and grim line of his mouth mirrored the way his face had looked then.
His eyes moved back and forth. "Could you say something, so I know where you are?"
His request touched her heart. "I'll do even better than that," she said and positioned herself on top of the bedclothes, reaching for his hands. "There."
She reached up to touch the lump on his head. "Have you noticed any other pain or symptoms that could indicate a change?"
"No dizziness or reduction in auditory sensation?"
A ghost of a grin formed on his lips. "Not a thing," he replied then reached up and took her hand back in his. "Now, have you made your analysis, Doctor, or would you like to make a more thorough investigation?"
Michaela almost responded to his teasing, but something held her back. Although his eyes were blank and empty, a twinge in his facial expression and the tightness of his jaw showed more than his words could say. As much as she wanted to take him up on his offer, she knew he only resorted to the lighthearted manner to hide his true feelings. When his grin faded, and his hold on her hands relaxed, she knew her observation had been correct.
"I'll cease my interrogation for now, but I intend to keep a close eye on you and your condition." She squeezed his hands, but he pulled them from her clasp.
His physical withdrawal signaled a distancing on a much deeper level. Michaela felt it and shivered with the chill that had overtaken the room. Despite Sully's physical presence, he was no closer to her now than when he had been in Denver. She attempted to break through the barrier he had erected between them, but it was no use.
Sully wanted nothing to do with her.
And that hurt.
More deeply than if he had struck her with his hand, his willful emotional separation wounded her deep inside, and her heart cried at the pain.
Knowing she couldn't change his current attitude, Michaela slid back off the bed and changed into her nightgown. Sully turned his back to her and fumbled for his shirt to remove it. The sight of his muscles rippling across his now bare back stirred her, but the nonverbal sign was there.
With a resigned sigh, Michaela banked the fire for the night then slipped underneath the covers and laid her head on the pillow. She had to fight every instinct within her not to reach out for Sully and snuggle into his arms. It felt like she was sleeping with a stranger.
Tonight would be one of the longest nights of her life.
* * * * *
The next morning, Sully sat up and swung his legs around before he remembered what had happened the day before. Unable to get a sense of placement, his leg bumped against the bedside table and made the lamp teeter back and forth. With a glimmer of hope, he rubbed his eyes and willed them to see something – anything.
Only blackness greeted him.
His situation hadn't improved. Swallowing the anger that threatened to spill out from him in a fit of frustration, he attempted to stand, but his movements had awakened Michaela.
Her sleep-laden voice made him pause.
"Do you need help?"
Sully released a long, drawn-out sigh and pushed down the resentment that crowded out the gratefulness he should feel at having her there with him. "Yes," he managed to admit, although anger once again surfaced.
He managed to go through his morning routine with grudging acceptance of Michaela's help to get dressed and go downstairs. Even the most basic needs required her assistance. Complete dependence on others was new to him, despite the handful of times he'd been injured before. Nothing had been this bad. With the newness of their marriage, he had started to adjust to having Michaela and the children around more. But this injury caused a greater level of helplessness, and Sully wasn't sure he could adjust.
Although he wanted to get outside and return to the chores he knew had to be done, Michaela and the children assured him they would handle everything. That didn't help his mood, but he did his best to conceal the inner battle he fought.
Once Colleen and Brian were on their way to school, Sully attempted to make his way toward the living room in an uncoordinated manner. He felt like a child taking its first steps and groaned in frustration.
Michaela approached from behind and clasped his elbow, offering her support and guidance. With no other choice than to accept it, Sully allowed her to direct him to one of the wingback chairs.
"I'm going to get some cleaning done," she said as soon as he was seated. "If you need anything, call for me."
"Don't you have to go to the clinic?"
"I don't have any patients scheduled today, and if there's an emergency, they know where to find me." Michaela touched the side of his face and trailed her fingers down his cheek. "I'm staying with you."
Her devotion warmed him, but didn't overtake the bitterness invading his soul. Sully wasn't about to admit he didn't her help. He did. But, he would only ask her as a last resort. Despite the inhibitions caused by his situation, he was determined to do something about it.
She gave his shoulder a loving squeeze then set about her work for the day.
Wolf approached and laid his head in Sully's lap with a soft whimper. He reached down to stroke the animal's soft fur. "I know, boy. I know. I wish I could do more too."
The two of them remained there for several hours, although Wolf had soon curled up by his feet. Michaela checked on him several times, and each time, his answer was the same.
"I'm fine, Michaela. Go back to your work."
She tried to convince him to eat something, but he didn't have much of an appetite. So, she ate alone. It bothered him to know his attitude and aloofness were affecting her too, but he couldn't help it. She just didn't understand.
Now, what he guessed to be around mid-afternoon, Sully stared in front of him, trying to imagine the dancing flames of the fire Michaela had come to light earlier. He drew upon his memory to create a vivid image in his mind. For a while, it worked and helped him relax. Then, recollection of his situation would crash into his false reality, and anger would take precedence.
Tired of doing nothing but sitting in the chair, Sully heard Michaela upstairs and figured now would be a good time to test his ability to walk around his own home. If he took it one step at a time, his memory should guide him well enough to at least get some exercise. Being cooped up inside all day was not his idea of fun.
So, with slow and cautious movement, Sully began his exploration. His hands stayed in constant contact with something -- a chair, a table, or even Wolf as he walked around the living room. At one point, he heard Michaela descend the stairs. She stopped at the bottom and Sully knew she was watching him.
He tried not to react. Instead, he continued his tour. But, the knowledge that she hadn't moved inhibited him.
"Michaela, you don't have to watch me every second."
"I'm sorry, Sully, but I don't want you to hurt yourself."
He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists at his sides, standing up straight and refusing to look in her direction. "I'm not a child, Michaela. I can handle it."
After that, she remained silent and left him alone. Even when the children came home and headed back out to tend to their chores, Sully stayed away from everyone. His only companion was Wolf, a friend who didn't stay by his side out of pity.
The rest of the evening passed in much the same manner. Although they tried to involve him, he wanted no part of it. When they retired for the night, Sully turned his back to Michaela once again and only acknowledged her bid good-night with a mumbled response.
A small part of him ached with the pain he was causing her to endure, but if he gave in to his desires, it would only lead to more frustration when he couldn't do everything he wanted. So, rather than put himself through that, Sully withdrew from it all.
* * * * *
By the second evening, his condition hadn't changed. He had spent the entire day inside and was no closer to dealing with his blindness any more than he had the temporary paralysis after his run-in with Rankin a few years ago. He'd even ventured out onto the front porch of the homestead when he needed some fresh air. Even that didn't help.
The swelling had gone down, but there had been no change in his vision. A nagging fear settled around him at the thought that his condition might become permanent. How would that affect his life? How would that affect his relationship with Michaela? He knew his anger wasn't fair to her, but he couldn't seem to control it.
"Sully, would you like sit outside while Brian and Colleen work in the barn? You could snap beans with me for supper."
"No, I don't want to help with supper or sand down any wood or brush another horse," he shot back. "I want to get on a horse and ride. I want to walk outside without having to rely on someone for help. I want to open my eyes and see the first hint of light through them, instead of nothing but darkness." He turned toward the back door. "I just can't keep doing this, Michaela!"
In a fit of rage, he stormed out of the homestead, bumping into the wall and the washtub on his way out. He slammed the door behind him and stumbled down the steps before dropping into a dejected heap on the bottom stoop. At least he could have time to himself to sulk.
* * * * *
Michaela didn't know what to do to help Sully through this. When she came home from work earlier than usual, she found him sitting in the same place she had left him that morning — in the dark and cross-legged on the rug in front of the fireplace. His anguish and despair only made her heart heavier. His state of depression had gotten worse and had taken its toll on her as well. She had been tired more than usual lately, had switched between having no appetite at all to wanting to have the most unusual foods.
The last time she recalled being like this was when Brian had suffered a similar condition due to a blow to the head when he fell from the tree. It wouldn't do anyone any good to worry, so Michaela tried to put that part of the situation from her mind and focus on the present. Maybe Sully just needed options. Thanks to a telegram she had received that day, she had one.
With Colleen overseeing supper preparations and Brian finishing up his chores, Michaela ventured out back and joined Sully on the steps. It took a great deal of restraint not to enfold her hands in his arm and lean against him. He didn't even move or acknowledge her presence. Despite that, she forced a cheeriness to her voice and prayed he'd be receptive to her suggestion.
"I received a telegram today that I thought might interest you."
"What could you have received that I'd be interested in?"
Ignoring his abrupt tone, Michaela plunged ahead, afraid that if she stopped to think about it, she'd lose her nerve altogether. "Well, when I got to town this morning, I consulted some of my medical books about your condition. Then, I contacted a colleague of my father's back in Boston. He's a brilliant physician with a specialty in eye injuries. There have been numerous advancements in medicine and treatment for eyes in recent years." She took a fortifying breath. "He even suggested a school where you could be with others who also suffer from loss of vision and receive the best—"
"Wait a minute, Michaela." He turned toward her, although his gaze didn't meet hers.
Even after almost three days, she couldn't get used to his sightless eyes. She used to be able to tell what he was thinking by the emotions that played within the blue depths, but now there was just emptiness.
"Are you telling me there's a school for blind people and you want me to go to it?"
"Not exactly. I'm merely suggesting it as an option for your current situation."
"And where is this school? Denver? St. Louis?"
Michaela closed her eyes and knew what Sully's reaction would be when she answered him. "New York," she said softly.
"New York?" He raised his voice. "You want me to travel all the way across the country just to go to some school and be with other invalids like me?" Sully stood up and took a faltering step forward. "Michaela, you have to be kidding."
Michaela also stood and touched his elbow. He didn't pull away and she considered that a good sign. "Sully, I didn't say I had registered you and booked passage on the next train. I just wanted to tell you about it."
"So, this is your answer then?"
She drew her eyebrows together. "I don't understand."
Sully waved his hand absently in the air. "To my situation. You want to send me away to a school almost two thousand miles away."
Michaela thought she detected a note of disappointment, but couldn't be sure. He wasn't looking at her, but he wasn't withdrawing either. "It's not my solution, Sully. It's just an option. Dr. Chatham comes highly recommended and is the best in his field. I only wanted to let you know there are things we can do to help. This school and doctor might find something I've missed."
Sully sighed and stared off into the distance. For several moments, he didn't say a word. Then, he nodded and turned toward her.
"All right, Michaela. If it means that much to you, I'll go. Send a telegram or write to them for the information, and we can discuss it when it arrives."
In her excitement of his agreement, Michaela wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him tight against her. His arms came to rest at her waist after a moment or two, but he didn't fully return the embrace. Nevertheless, she was happy to see a hint of improvement in his demeanor.
She pulled back and turned toward the door, eager to tell Brian and Colleen about a possible trip she and Sully might be taking. With her hand on the knob to the back door, she paused and cast a look at Sully over her shoulder. Her happiness faded a bit when she caught a glimpse of something in the expression on his face and the dejected slump to his shoulders.
What could Sully be keeping from her?
* * * * *
It almost broke Sully's heart to not be honest with Michaela about going to New York. Leaving his home and his family was the last thing he wanted to do. But, Michaela seemed quite optimistic about it, so he did his best to be interested. Sully didn't feel she wanted to get rid of him. On the contrary, he knew she only wanted to help. Since she couldn't do that herself, she sought the advice of someone who could.
After a full night of speculation, he had come to this conclusion. At first, rejection and disappointment fought for control inside of him. But, Sully knew Michaela wouldn't do or suggest anything to him to get him out of the way. Nevertheless, he battled with his own inadequacies when it came to his sight and deep down wanted to do what he could to get better.
Now, as he sat once again in the wingback chair in front of the fireplace, Sully reached down to stroke the soft fur of his faithful companion who had never left his side. Wolf lifted his head and started to whine. Sully turned toward the door and heard a sound of someone coming up the steps.
"Who could that be this early in the morning?" Michaela had gone to the clinic only half an hour ago and the children left not long before her for school. He wasn't expecting any visitors, but the definite sound of someone outside piqued his curiosity.
Wolf whined again.
"It's all right, boy. We'll see who it is." Sully reached down to stroke Wolf's head again and slowly stood as he made his way toward the front door. Just as he reached it, a firm knock sounded.
With slight hesitation and drawing comfort from the fact that Wolf remained calm, Sully reached for the doorknob and opened the door. His sightless eyes looked at what he hoped would be the person standing in front of him. Uncertainty washed over him at having answered the door in the first place until a familiar voice spoke.
"I have missed my brother."
"Cloud Dancing!" Sully said the first thing that came to mind then stepped forward to embrace his Cheyenne brother. Only, he misjudged the distance and stumbled instead. Inwardly angry, he tried to cover his error by pushing Wolf aside as if the dog had been the cause.
Cloud Dancing helped to steady him and didn't say a word. A moment later, the Cheyenne medicine man embraced him in a firm hug. "I felt you were in pain, my brother, and I have come to help."
Sully stepped back. "Do you want to come inside?"
"No, I think you should come out here."
"I know about your accident. You do not have to pretend with me."
"The Spirits showed it to me in a vision. I knew then I must come and see you."
"I don't know if it's such a good idea for me to be out there, Cloud Dancing. I ain't been outside much."
"You will not know if you can do it unless you first try."
Sully smiled at the sage council of his wise friend. No matter the circumstances, he knew he could always count on that from Cloud Dancing. With a hesitant nod, Sully took one step forward. Then another. He extended his hands for the doorframe and carefully moved toward it.
"Do not think of yourself as being unable to see. Remember everything around you as if you can. Remember the house you built with your own hands, and the wooden boards you put together one by one. Let your mind show you what your eyes cannot."
Sully paused and did as Cloud Dancing suggested. He closed his eyes and focused on his surroundings, calling to mind the time when he had constructed the homestead and when he and Michaela had moved their personal items inside. He pictured the location of everything and the view of the homestead from the outside. With the image firmly in his mind, he took another step, this time with more assurance.
In no time at all, he had reached the railing that surrounded the front porch. Cloud Dancing remained by his side. So did Wolf. It helped having someone there to guide him and show him he could do something for himself.
"Are you ready to attempt the steps? I know you do not want to stay inside. I can see it in your face."
"Cloud Dancing, you know as well as I do that I'm not meant to be cooped up inside a house all day long. I need to be out working the land or riding and feeling useful." Sully sighed and ran his hand through his hair, his fingers brushing against the swollen lump on his forehead. He leaned against the wooden railing in hopeless dejection. "But, being unable to see stops all that."
"That is where you are wrong. You must not let an injury keep you from doing what you are born to do. Instead, you must draw strength from the loss and allow your body to make itself whole again. It cannot do that if you are keeping it from healing."
Sully knew what Cloud Dancing said was right, but his stubborn pride didn't want to admit it. It couldn't be as simple as that, not when he had spent the past three days feeling sorry for himself and making everyone around him miserable. He couldn't believe it was all his fault. But, no other excuse existed.
"All right, you've made your point." He offered a rueful smile. "Now what?"
"You must want to heal. To do that, you must return to what you did before you lost your sight. But, do not do it all at once. One thing at a time until you are confident again. Then, you conquer another."
"It ain't gonna be easy."
"No, healing seldom is."
Sully sighed again. "All right. Let's get started."
* * * * *
Go to PART TWO
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