I’ve always loved to write “what ifs.” What if things had happened just a bit differently from the way that they had in the series. This is one such story.
Michaela sat alone in her home, bitter, sad, and worried. Somehow, having a husband on the run from the law, with a dead-or-alive bounty on his head, who could never risk coming home, was even lonelier than having no husband at all. She thought back again to her private humiliation at having to lie to the entire town and claim that Sully was dead, at having to bluff her way through a farce of a memorial service knowing that he was alive and well and hiding in the woods. Shame burned in her cheeks. At least the children were in on it; she didn’t have to lie to them, too. But on the other hand, they were no comfort tonight, as none of them was home.
Someone pounded noisily on the door. Startled, Michaela rose hesitantly; it seemed that she did everything hesitantly these days. She opened the door just a crack. It was shoved roughly out of her hands and the rest of the way open before she could even exclaim.
Hank Lawson and Jake Slicker barged rudely in on her. Michaela’s protest froze unspoken in her throat as she blinked at their rumpled appearance. The two of them had clearly had quite a day. They were dirty and disheveled, and their clothes were torn.
“What…? What…?” she faltered, trying to decide whether to be concerned or amused. “What happened to you??”
“Injuns!” Jake managed to make the word sound like a curse. She imagined that, to him, it was.
“Are you hurt? I could….”
“No!” Hank barked venomously. “We’re not hurt.”
“Well then what…?”
“We just wanted you to know who we saw out there!” Something in Hank’s tone and eyes froze her heart. She instantly knew whom he had to mean. Fear welled up and threatened to spill from her eyes. Hank saw her recognition of his point. “That’s right! We saw Sully! He’s alive! And you knew all along that he was!”
Michaela struggled to speak, but words deserted her.
Jake chimed in, “You’ve been lyin’ to the whole town! You, the proper, the principled, the fancy Dr. Quinn! The one everybody counts on for the straight story in everything!”
Hank shouted viciously, “Admit it! Even you can be a lying, unprincipled sneak! Admit it!!!”
Thoroughly intimidated now, Michaela could only nod mutely in submission. Beyond her worries for Sully, she was now genuinely afraid for her safety. She’d known these men for years, quarreled with them often, but she had never before seen them this angry with her. Were they going to strike her? Beat her? Both looked entirely capable. They’d clearly been through quite an ordeal, their patience long since exhausted. Did they intend violence toward her?
“You’re right,” Michaela managed to blurt. “I was wrong. Please don’t hurt me! I meant no harm to anyone; I only wanted to protect him! Please, you’re frightening me! I can see that you’ve been through a lot!” Her voice now unleashed, she was beginning to babble desperately.
“Save it!” Hank spat on the floor, and she squashed her natural impulse to protest. But she backed away from him a step. Reading her fears, he shook his head once, roughly, at her. “Beatin’ you won’t change anything.”
“On the other hand, you’ll want us to keep quiet about this, won’t you?”
Her heart leaped with hope. She’d assumed that they would blab, disgrace her, endanger Sully.
Jake took over smoothly, “You won’t want us to go tell the entire town just how unethical you really are.”
Michaela, shuddering, shook her head vigorously.
“And go tell the army just where we saw Sully, so they can go shoot him.”
She shook her head even harder, and tears welled.
“So I would imagine that our silence would be worth something to you,” Jake concluded.
She blinked. They were going to be mercenary about this? But she nodded obediently. “You want money. How much do you…?”
“No,” Hank said through gritted teeth. “Not money. There’s a price for our silence, but money’s not it.”
She was genuinely confused. “But then what…?”
He interrupted her again. “You. You’re the price. We’ve each always wanted you, for as long as you’ve been here. Now we’re gonna have you.” Even through his tiredness, he managed to leer at her.
Alarmed, Michaela retreated several more steps. “Please don’t!!”
Hank held up a placating hand. “We’re not gonna rape you. You’re gonna let us.”
Affronted, she retorted, “What kind of a woman do you think that I am?!”
“The kind of woman that wants her husband back alive,” he replied softly.
Jake regarded her disparagingly. “Don’t give us that righteous act. Not after you’ve lied and cheated and broken the law. We can be just as unethical as you.”
The remark stung her terribly. She sagged in despair, and pleaded, “Don’t do this to me! I’m married to him! I belong to him! I can’t let you…!”
“Michaela!” Hank cut in harshly. “Would you rather be an adulteress…or a widow?”
She fell into a chair, more than actually sat in it.
“Because those are your choices,” Hank finished succinctly. After a moment, he became almost whimsical. “Think of it this way: nearly everybody figures Sully’s dead. So you’re not really cheatin’ on him anyhow.”
She stared up at him hopelessly.
Jake asked firmly, “Now, do you invite us upstairs? Or do we go pay a visit to the army camp?”
She turned her eyes up to him dully. But then, the details of what he’d just said began to sink in on her. “‘Us?’” she quoted. “Both of you?? At the same time??? No!! Please!!! It’s inhuman!!!”
Hank laughed unpleasantly. “No, it’s fun. A little decadent, I s’pose, but then you’ve sunk pretty low lately, haven’t you, Michaela?”
“Please, no!! You’re
terrifying me!!!” Tears flowed down her cheeks.
He was unruffled. “And don’t give us that scared-virgin routine; we know you’re way past that point.”
She swallowed hard, and then thought of something else that Jake had said. “Upstairs? In our bed?? In Sully’s and my bed???”
Jake half-grinned. “Well, you’ll have plenty of time to change the sheets before he gets around to comin’ home.”
Their insensitivity made her shudder. Then another ominous thought came to her. “What guarantee do I have that you won’t talk anyway?”
Hank shrugged. “We’d have to be fools to tell it, because then you wouldn’t invite us back again.”
This time, his meaning sank in immediately. “You…intend to make a habit of this?!”
“Only for as long as Sully keeps hidin.’ And only about once or twice a week.” He smirked.
“Once…or twice…a week??” Her head spun. “The children…!”
“You’ll think of excuses to send ‘em away now and then.” Jake smiled.
“You’ve got this all figured out, haven’t you?!” she accused resentfully.
“Most of it,” Jake said agreeably.
“Well, what’s to stop you from…bragging…about…conquering me?! I know that you men do things like that! But then people would wonder why I let you, and you’d have to explain, and…and…!”
“Michaela,” Hank said almost sympathetically. “That’s schoolboy stuff. Jake and I have both had enough women that we’re way past the point of needin’ to brag about any of ‘em.”
She shivered in revulsion, and then went on desperately, “Well, how do I know that you won’t get drunk and accidentally let it slip?? You both drink a lot, and….”
“You don’t,” Jake cut her off abruptly. “You have to hope. We promise to do our best. And you’re grasping at straws, inventing questions.”
“You’re stalling,” Hank agreed. “Putting it off, buying time. But it won’t do you any good. Now let’s get on with it. Either show us upstairs, or show us to the door, and then we go to the army.”
Her eyes blurred with her tears. “Do you want Sully killed??”
Hank smiled. “That’s not the point. Choose, Michaela. Upstairs? Or the door?”
“I’m afraid!! I may no longer be a virgin, but I’m still frightened! Be…gentle! Please!!!”
Jake chuckled softly, but then nodded. “You have our word.”
Hank grinned broadly. “I’ll treat you like a virgin. Like a prize filly I’m breakin’ in for my…harem.” He beckoned firmly.
Trembling horribly, she rose, and groped fumblingly for the stairs. They followed closely behind her. In her terror she stumbled, and Hank caught her. She didn’t like where his hands were, but realized with a sob that that was only the beginning of where his hands would be. She murmured, “Sully, forgive me!”
“Now, easy,” Jake soothed. “You’re savin’ his life.”
“If there were any other way….”
“I beg you not to, please!!!”
“Keep movin,’” said Hank.
At the top of the stairs, she repeated, “Please don’t do this to me!!”
Hank mused, “I s’pose you’ll think it’s your wifely duty to cry all the way through this. Would it be so terrible if you enjoyed it?”
Shaking uncontrollably, Michaela said, “I’ve always been a little afraid of you two in this way. Afraid that you’d find some way to…to….”
“Coerce you?” Jake said coldly, but then his eyes lit diabolically, and he suggestively added, “Seduce you??” He eyed her lustily, confidently.
“Face it, Michaela.” Hank leered at her. “Even while you feared us, you wondered what it would be like. Admit it.” His eyes bored into hers.
Instead, she wailed in emotional agony.
The instant that Michaela awoke the next morning,
she began to sob inconsolably, in the memory of what they’d done to her. She’d
been appalled at how smugly Hank had bade her to “Sleep well,” as the two men
had left last night. In reality, it had taken her hours to fall asleep. She
finally had, but only from the exhaustion of incessant crying and shrieking.
And now, she had a new horror: how could she bear to go to town? How could she ever risk facing them? But she had to go to the clinic. She had to behave as if nothing were amiss. But even if she could manage that in front of others, sooner or later she would see them, and then what?? At the very least, this was going to be a long, harrowing, nerve-wracked day.
Feeling as if the whole world watched her in stunned horror, she rode into the town, and up to the clinic. She somehow couldn’t stop herself from glancing toward the saloon, and…there they were! Right out front, watching her! Michaela felt herself blush hotly. She dismounted hastily and nearly tripped as she scurried into the refuge of the clinic, like a small animal into its bolt-hole.
She collapsed into her chair, dropped her head to the desk, and lay there sobbing desolately. Would Hank and Jake keep their vow not to tell on Sully? When Sully came back, should she tell on them? But what might he do? Murder the two of them and hang for it? But how could she not tell; how could she manage, year after year, never to tell Sully what Hank and Jake had done to her as the price for their silence?? For that matter, would the two of them back off and leave her alone once Sully returned, or would they sense her fear of telling Sully and continue to blackmail her that way, so that they could still take advantage of her any time that her husband was away from home???
The door opened abruptly. Michaela sat up with a start, realizing that she’d been sobbing too loudly, must’ve been heard, and must look a mess besides.
Preston Lodge managed to look charming and alarmed at the same time. “Are you all right??”
She wiped hastily at her eyes. “Yes! Just…the grieving widow, you know,” she excused herself lamely.
“Ah, yes. Actually, that’s why I’m here. I’d like to take you to dinner, to Grace’s this evening, to…cheer you up, that sort of thing.”
Michaela stared, stunned. Go out on a date? In public?? Cheat that way, too??? Suddenly, she remembered her perfect excuse. “Preston, it’s too soon! Sully only just…!”
“Oh, of course. I understand. It’s only been…what…a few months? Well, then, I’ll ask again in a few more.”
“Preston, please!” She felt like she couldn’t take any more, and rose from her chair.
“Just say that I’ll have a chance!”
“I need some air!” She brushed past him.
He followed, still talking. “I wanted to get my bid in early! I can well imagine that Hank and Jake, and maybe even Loren, will be making their moves….”
“Preston, stop it! Leave me alone!” She barreled out of the door, with him in close pursuit. Hank and Jake, indeed!
In her haste, she rushed right past the saloon, realized it belatedly, froze, looked up, and felt her heart nearly stop. Sure enough, Hank and Jake were staring at her, in growing amusement at the spectacle, whatever the cause.
Preston saw their reaction, and felt the need to explain to them. “I asked the grieving widow out on a date, to cheer her up, you know.”
Hank promptly guffawed. “You know what they say: ‘There’s really only one way to comfort a widow!’”
Jake leered at her, at the irresistible irony.
Preston eyed her rather lecherously, also, understanding Hank all too well.
“Vultures!!!” Michaela cried, and stormed away from them. But she heard footsteps behind her; her arm was seized, and she was spun to face Hank.
She was about to bellow angrily at him, when he cut her off smoothly, and suggested quietly, ominously, “Michaela? Have you ever imagined three at once???”
She deflated like a broken balloon. Tears welled automatically. “Please don’t!! Oh please, don’t!!!” She pulled free and fled.
Back at home in the late afternoon, she trembled
uncontrollably. She was at their mercy. And now, on top of everything else, she
had a new fear besides: she was terrified that they would involve Preston in
their vile cruelty, as well.
Later that same evening, her heart jolted at a knock on the door. Dreading it being any number of the men, she opened it in extreme trepidation, to find just one, Preston Lodge, on the other side.
“Michaela, before you say anything, let me apologize! I’m afraid that I offended you today. That remark that Hank made: I can see how it made us seem like vultures, but I didn’t say it, and I don’t support it. Now I can understand why you wouldn’t want to be seen dating in public so soon, but let me make all this up to you. May I just talk to you as a friend? You must need friends to keep you company in your loneliness.”
Michaela felt helpless in the face of such gallant and reasonable kindness. She looked resigned, and Preston took that as a “yes.” He pushed open the door, entered around her, and sat. She sighed heavily, closed the door, and followed, whereupon Preston abruptly remembered his manners, jumped back up onto his feet, and waited for the lady to sit first, before reseating himself with a sheepish blush.
If Michaela found their conversation to be stilted, tedious, and awkward, she was to look back upon it as paradise compared to the events of a mere half-hour later. Another knock hammered at the door, and to her distress, she opened it to Hank and Jake. Suspicious of the coincidence, and suddenly taken with the horrid notion that they and Preston were in cahoots, and that the banker had just hidden it well, Michaela hissed at them in a low voice, “Please say that you didn’t tell him!”
“We didn’t,” said Jake.
“Yet,” Hank added ominously.
Hank pushed past her and Jake followed. Upon sight of them, Preston rose stiffly to his feet.
“What’re you two doing here?”
“We could ask you the same question. We saw your horse out front, and….”
“I’m visiting,” he declared defensively. “Just as a friend, mind you, in her time of grief. But Hank, you hardly seem the ideal candidate to console anyone.”
“Preston, we need to talk.”
“No!” Michaela begged.
Preston misunderstood and grinned. “Ahh, Hank, maybe we need to fight over her! Good! I remember fondly that other fight that you and I had! I’d be eager to go at it again!”
Michaela was so frightened that Hank would tell Preston and include him in her abuse, that she ran to Jake. “Help! Please!!”
Nonplussed, Jake guiltily put his arms around her and patted her back consolingly.
Preston stared, stunned. “Well, Hank, it looks like we both already lost.” Stiffly, he concluded, “If you’ll excuse me.”
As he walked out of the door, Hank looked about to say something, to perhaps call him back, but then shrugged and didn’t bother.
But with a sinking heart, Michaela could read his current intentions all too clearly, as he turned back to her with an unsavory leer.
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