River Deep, Mountain High
Standard disclaimers apply to this piece of Christy fan fiction.
This story continues where the TV series left off. Any similarities to other works of Christy fan fiction are purely coincidental.
Time seemed to come to a halt – the world seemed to stop spinning on its axis – as she stood there in the schoolyard holding the heart-shaped box and glanced at the diamond ring peaking out from the blue inner folds. The children were gathered in front of the school in silent awe, waiting for their teacher to speak or even just to move. Christy turned her gaze from David when she took the velvet ring box in her hands, increasing her distance from him. She couldn't bear to look into those eyes again to see the hope and pleading shining from their blue depths when she knew that her own were a pool of doubt and confusion.
And then there was Doctor MacNeill. Neil…
He had followed her to the schoolhouse after she'd witnessed a shared embrace with his wife, Margaret. Christy had gone to Neil's cabin, riding Price with a sense of urgency unlike any she had ever known, to tell him what she had discovered by talking with Fairlight moments before. She needed to tell him how much he meant to her. That he was her best friend. That she wanted him to be happy more than anything. She'd felt a lightness in her heart but then it sunk into the pit of her stomach when she found Neil with Margaret in his arms. She did not understand why she was so upset. Margaret was his wife.
Christy felt a fool. Neil was a married man, after all. She chided herself as she jerked Prince's reins around and forced the horse back up the hill and through the woods towards the school.
Hearing the sound of branches breaking under hooves which signaled the young woman's hasty departure, Neil left Margaret's side without a thought and raced after Christy on Charlie.
Neil tried to catch up to her, but Christy rode faster and harder than he thought possible, especially for someone who had, until recently, been so timid and nervous around the big black mustang. He called out after her, but she heard nothing, only the wind in her ears and the pounding of Prince's hooves against the hard ground mingled with the jumble of thoughts floating around her head.
Now Neil sat atop Charlie at the edge of the schoolyard as Christy's trembling hands held the blue ring box. His eyes traveled first to the ring, and then to Christy's blue eyes which had begin to fill with tears.
Her eyes met his as she turned away from David. Neil's eyes held an expression that she could not fathom. Why had he come here? Why had he followed her? She saw Neil swallow hard, his face constricting in pain. She felt more confused than ever before. Cautiously, she turned her focus back on David, but he was not looking at her anymore. His brow was furrowed and his stabbing eyes pierced towards Doctor MacNeill.
David should have known it had something to do with MacNeill when she rode into the schoolyard like the devil himself was after her. Somehow the doctor was always getting in the way, showing up at precisely the wrong moment and confusing Christy's feelings.
Christy glanced back down at the ring in her hand. The tiny diamond sparkled and danced in the sun's afternoon rays when she moved it even the slightest bit. Looking back at the children, with their eyes wide and mouths agape, she sighed deeply, not realizing she'd been holding her breath.
After what felt like an eternity, Christy closed the box and walked towards the mission with long strides. As she reached the front steps of the mission, she knew that things were never going to be the same again.
She closed the door and did not look back.
Christy remained in her room until dark. She did not speak to anyone since she had walked out of the schoolyard, though she could hear Ruby Mae outside her door and then Miss Alice trying to keeping the talkative redhead from disturbing 'Miz Christy'.
Looking out her window, Christy saw the smoke blue mountains disappearing into the veil of night. She wished it would come and swallow her up as well so she could hide, vanish into the cloak of darkness like the folds of a blanket. But Christy knew she could not hide forever; she would have to face it sooner or later. Though the dread she felt welling inside sat in her stomach like a pile of rocks, she decided to leave the sanctuary of her room and head downstairs for supper.
Conversation at the table was practically non-existent, the mood strained and tense. David looked so upset and irritated that Christy could barely look at him, let alone bring her eyes to meet his. The set of his jaw told her that David was angry. Christy suddenly felt ashamed and confused.
Ruby Mae brought in a platter of rolls from the kitchen and sat down to eat. She glanced at David and Christy, neither of whom met her gaze, and then at Miss Alice, who tried to give the girl a reassuring look.
"Lordy, ye'd think somebody done mortally died in the next room!" Ruby Mae exclaimed in exasperation.
Christy continued to sit at the table, barely eating. She simply pushed the food around on her plate as she hoped her agony could end and she could return to the shelter of her room, far away from David's disappointed, scowling looks. When the meal had finally ended and Ruby Mae cleared the table, Christy volunteered to wash the dishes and quickly excused herself from the table.
Lost in her thoughts, Christy had not noticed how long she stood there at the wash basin with the same plate in her hands, rubbing it over and over again with the cloth. Miss Alice came to stand just inside the kitchen, but again, Christy was too preoccupied to notice until the woman spoke.
"Christy," she began cautiously, not wishing to startle the girl.
Christy spun around, and Alice approached, taking the plate from her hands. "Christy, I wondered if you wanted to talk about what happened today. Thee needs to unburden thyself."
Miss Alice's heart ached for Christy. She loved her as a daughter, and it pained her to see Christy in such agony.
"No, thank you, Miss Alice," Christy responded. "I need to think things through on my own first. I'm not even sure how or what I'm feeling right now."
Smiling slightly in understanding, Miss Alice approached Christy and placed a gentle hand on her cheek. "Then open your heart to God. Take thy burdens to Him, Christy. Thee need not carry them alone. And when you want to talk to me, I will be here."
Christy raised her hand to cover Alice's own on her cheek. "Thank you, Miss Alice."
Then Miss Alice left Christy alone with the dishes and her thoughts.
Standing just outside the kitchen in the breezeway, David overheard the brief conversation between Christy and Miss Alice. He desperately wanted to talk to Christy, but he was also afraid to push her to the point where she would refuse his proposal altogether. Fighting the urge, David retired to his bunkhouse for the night and decided to wait to confront Christy until she was not so upset, thinking her response might be more favorable.
That night, sleep seemed as though it would never come to Christy. She tossed and turned in her bed, scenes from the events of the day playing in her mind, over and over. She kept thinking about how she should marry David. She thought about how good he was, how sweet and attentive. David had been her hero when he stood up for her after Bessie Coburn made up that lie which almost forced Christy to leave her teaching position, the Cove, and the people she'd grown to care deeply for. Christy thought about how frightened she was of losing David when he'd been shot by Jarvis Tatum. Then she thought about the hurt she felt when she thought he had been visiting with the flossy girls at the El Pano Teahouse. Christy wondered if the fact that she was so upset meant that she really cared for him in that way. Did that jealousy reveal something about the feelings that were locked away in her secret heart?
Christy's mind then strayed to Doctor MacNeill. She remembered how angry he had been with her when she questioned his abilities as a doctor after Opal McHone's baby girl died as a result of mountain superstition. She recalled the embarrassment she felt when he questioned her belief in Christianity and she'd had no real answers. Christy thought of the way Neil always rebuked her when he thought she was trying to change things and people in the mountains too drastically or too quickly. The doctor questioned her motives more on more than one occasion. He often made her feel like a child.
But then Christy thought about the love Neil had for these people of the Cove, especially for the children. She admired the sacrifices he had made, giving up several opportunities at a prestigious medical career in a big city to stay in Cutter Gap and help the impoverished people with whom he'd grown up. She could not imagine how many lives would have been lost in the Cove and its surrounding areas had Doctor MacNeill not been around with his medical skills. Even Christy's own father might never have walked again after his stroke. Neil MacNeill brought him back to her and made him whole again. She would always be grateful to him for that.
Unbidden, Christy's mind wandered through the catalog of her memory, causing more recollections of Neil MacNeill to bubble to the surface. She suddenly remembered when she was at Neil's cabin for the first time shortly after she first arrived to Cutter Gap. She had nearly fallen into the river when Old Theo got stuck in mud, and Neil helped lift her off the sinking mule and let her stay at his cabin while her clothes dried. Christy thought about the way Neil looked at her when she came down wearing Margaret's lavender dress, her damp hair falling loosely over her shoulders in soft cascades.
Then Christy thought about his hands, so gentle, when he was operating on Little Burl, working to save the life of a child. She thought about how he sat caressing and soothing Becky O'Teale while he told her the story of the Selkie, searching for his lost love. Christy had wondered at the way he told the tale, as if stirred from emotions buried deep within. It was not until later that she realized Neil told of his own experiences, searching for Margaret when he thought she'd been washed away and drowned in the river.
The river…that night by the river when Neil found her there staring up at the full moon, Christy had felt anxious and restless and she had not known why. But being there with Neil made her feel better, at ease. Just like the other day when she went to him because she had been hurt by David's visit to the Teahouse. Neil was so patient with her; he touched her face with such tenderness. He shared his special place and taught her to fish. Neil had given her the gift of the river. He had given her the gift of himself…of his friendship.
Though the thoughts and memories continued to swirl around her mind for hours, Christy's weary mind eventually succumbed to sleep. It was a dreamless one.
The next morning, Christy awoke bright and early to the sounds of nature and sunlight streaming into her room. As she did most mornings, she opened the doors to the balcony and drank in the majestic view of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance. That vista had always brought comfort to her, a sense of peace and newness. It was as if the world was refreshed each day as the sun washed the mountains in its rays of yellow-gold warmth.
Yet Christy felt little comfort in them now as the events of the previous day still weighed heavily upon her. She knew it was only a matter of time before David was up to start on the endless list of chores and repairs that always needed doing at the Mission. Christy did not think she could bear another meal sitting in strained silence with David only feet away from her, the disappointment radiating from his countenance. Nor could she tolerate Ruby Mae's incessant questions and constant chatter. So, Christy quickly dressed and decided to set out early before anyone else was awake. It was Saturday, thankfully, so she was free to take some time for herself.
Christy wandered through the Cove, not really knowing where she was going, letting her feet, and her heart, guide her. Walking at a fast pace seemed to help drown out the voices in her head and distract her from the questions that floated through her mind. She trekked through the tick brush of the woods, heedless to the burrs and branches tugging at her skirt.
Finally, she ended up at the overlook at the top of Bear Ridge, the spot Fairlight had taken her not long ago. It was Fairlight's special place, one that no one else knew about, and sharing it with Christy had been a symbol of their close friendship. It was the place where the two had talked only the day before. Christy had asked Fairlight how she knew Jeb was the one she wanted to marry. In return, Fairlight asked her some provoking questions that would help reveal the people in Christy's life who meant the most to her.
Christy sat on the edge of the rock, staring out into the mountain ranges. She could hear the sound of the river flowing in the valley in the distance. The otherwise stillness around her gave her some measure of peace, though the burdens she carried were still present.
The sound of footsteps startled Christy. She whipped her head around to see Fairlight standing nearby. Relieved, Christy sighed. "Fairlight."
"Had a feelin' I'd find you here," she told Christy, tossing her a biscuit. Fairlight sat besides Christy in a graceful, sweeping motion.
"I'm so happy to see you, Fairlight," Christy said.
"My young'uns told me what happened at the school yesterday. Couldn't stop goin' on 'bout it," Fairlight said, her voice soothing and understanding. "An' I woke up this mornin' with a feelin' that ye'd be needin' me."
Christy felt as if she was going to cry. The tears stung the back of her eyes but she blinked hard against them.
"Oh Fairlight," she began, "I'm so confused. I don't know what to do about David."
"How do ye feel about the preacher, Miz Christy? Do ye want ta marry 'im?"
Christy thought for few moments. She shook her head and looked into her friend's eyes. "I don't know, Fairlight. I know I care about David a great deal. I mean, I respect his work and his commitment even though he's struggled with his feelings about God and had his differences with the people of this Cove." She paused again, trying to gather her thoughts. She began, her voice taking on a sensible tone. "I know that David will be a kind and faithful husband. We share our faith, and we can work side by side to do God's work. He's the logical choice."
Then Christy thought to herself that there is no choice other than accepting David, or accepting no one. Doctor MacNeill was not a choice. He was a married man, and he was not an option.
"Ye tryin' ta convince me or yerself?" Fairlight probed, her eyes glittering with a perceptive expression.
Christy's mouth began to form the words of her answer, but she was quickly silenced when she knew she had none. She dropped her gaze, realizing her friend could see straight through her.
Fairlight simply signed and said, "'Sides, since when is the heart about logic, or doin' the sensible thing?" A pregnant pause passed between them, and then Fairlight dared to ask the question that hung in the air around them, unacknowledged. "Do you love David?"
"Well, I…sometimes I think I do," Christy stated, her words sounding forced and uncertain. "Like when I see him working so hard to keep the mission and schoolhouse running." Her voice began to take on a dreamlike quality as she continued to talk about David. "When I listen to the passion in his sermons Sunday mornings. David tries so hard to impress me, though he always ends up so nervous and awkward, like the time we tried courting."
Christy smiled to herself tenderly at the memory. She and David sat in the gazebo, and he was dressed in his finest suit and starched celluloid collar. He'd prepared a special tea for them that ended in a proposal of marriage. He gave her his great grandmother Eliza's sapphire ring.
"I know we would have a good life together, Fairlight," Christy conceded. "I believe I would learn to love David the way a wife loves a husband. In time."
"But Miz Christy," Fairlight touched her friend's hand affectionately, "it shouldn't be that hard. Ye shouldn't have ta work at it so." She moistened her lips and continued. "Love should jest come nat'ral, like the birds singin' or the stars shinin'. If it wuz right, ye wouldn't feel so tore up about it." Fairlight looked hard at Christy. "Yer eyes wouldn't have so much pain an' doubt in 'em."
Christy did not know what to say. Fairlight was right. She was always right. She tilted her head to gaze out into the mountains in the distance, hoping to find the answers in their quiet, misty grandeur.
"An' what about Neil?" Fairlight asked, a knowing look on her face.
Twisting to face Fairlight once more, Christy responded, "Doctor MacNeill is the most confusing man I've never known. He's a puzzle to me. It feels like most of the time, we're in some heated debate. He can be so infuriating, and then other times…" She dropped her gaze and shook her head. Her brow furrowed in a moment of confusion before her shining blue orbs met Fairlight's again. "Other times, I feel like he knows me better than I know myself."
Fairlight pondered what Christy said for a few minutes. She took a bite from a biscuit she brought with her. "Remember how yesterday I asked who makes yer blood boil? Who do ye count on to come through in a pinch?" She paused, looking at Christy squarely. "Who's yer best friend? Who do ye tell yer deepest thoughts to?"
Christy sighed. "I told you it was Neil MacNeill who made me so angry, he made my blood boil. I didn't tell you at the time, but I also realized Neil is also the one I count on in a pinch."
How many times had she gone to Neil for advice, or asked for his help rather than turning to David or Miss Alice? Christy thought. Neil MacNeill was always honest, brutally honest at times. He made her see truths about herself that she often did not want to acknowledge. As much as Neil infuriated her, and as much as he still remained an enigma after more than a year, Christy found that she turned to him time and again…because, in the end, he made her feel better.
Turning her body towards Fairlight, Christy confessed what she felt in her heart and what she suspected Fairlight knew as well. "Neil is my best friend, Fairlight. I know that now. And, besides you, he's the one I tell my deepest thoughts to."
"Oh, Christy," Fairlight whispered, gripping Christy's hands as if to transfer some of her strength to her troubled young friend.
"But he is a married man, Fairlight." Christy fought to steel herself against the storm of emotions she felt building inside, knowing that such a relationship with Neil MacNeill was impossible. "Yesterday, after we spoke, I went to Neil's cabin to tell him how much his friendship meant to me. I went to tell him that I wanted him to be happy. That's when I saw him with Margaret."
Fairlight clearly saw the hurt in Christy's eyes. She had not heard this part of the story. Fairlight had only been made aware of the very public proposal by Reverend Grantland, with Doctor MacNeill in the background, and how Christy had simply walked away without giving an answer.
"I know Neil's place is with Margaret," Christy said, swallowing hard. "She's his wife, and she needs him. I even told her the other day at the Teahouse that she needed to come back and make her peace with Miss Alice and Neil because…because he was worth fighting for."
Fairlight seemed startled at the revelation that Christy was the impetus behind Margaret's return to Cutter Gap. At the same time, Fairlight knew how unselfish Christy was and how she always worked to help mend fractured relationships of the people she cared about.
"But now that she's back," Christy continued, "I feel like I've lost Neil. Like our friendship can never be the same again."
Silence enveloped the two friends for a moment as they each focused on the natural beauty surrounding them, hoping to draw strength and solace from the mountains.
"Oh Fairlight, I don't want to hurt anyone," Christy acknowledged. The two women looked at each other. "What am I going to do?" The desperation was clear in the tone of her voice.
"No one can tell ye that 'cept yer own heart," Fairlight said with a sigh. "Ye best think an' pray on it, 'fore ye make a decision ye might regret. But I'll be here fer ye, if'n ye need ta talk, or jes' want someone ta listen."
Christy smiled with appreciation. She was truly blessed to have such a dear friend. "Thank you, Fairlight."
Fairlight patted Christy on the shoulder lovingly. She rose from her spot and left Christy alone with her thoughts. As she headed back to her cabin, Fairlight said a silent prayer for her beloved friend.
The late afternoon sun was starting to sink behind the trees in the west, painting the sky with bands of deep gold, pink, and red. Christy realized she had been sitting there overlooking Bear Ridge for hours thinking about what had happened, all that had happened leading to this point. She had prayed to God to help her learn what was in her heart, her secret heart, as Miss Alice called it.
As the hours passed, she found she still did not have the answers she sought. But at the same time, the lack of answers and certainty in itself gave her the clarity she needed to know that with the presence of such doubts, she should not accept David's proposal. It would be wrong to allow David to hope for his love to be reciprocated when Christy wondered if it ever would. She did love David, she confessed. She loved him as a friend, as a partner, as a brother, but not as a husband.
Christy pulled the small blue box out of her pocket and opened to see the ring nestled inside. Though the precious stone weighed an insignificant amount in her hand, the burden it represented was too great. She closed the lid on the box and tucked it inside her pocket once more as she rose to her feet and started back towards the mission.
Christy arrived back at the mission that afternoon dreading the conversation she knew she must have with David. There was no way around it. She thought about running away, but where would she run to? She knew she had to face David.
David looked up from the sermon he was drafting when he heard Christy's footsteps approaching. He had been sitting outside his bunkhouse trying desperately to write this week's sermon, though he found his thoughts were focused on Christy and what had happened the day before.
"David," Christy said.
"David, I need to talk to you."
"Let's go for a walk," David suggested, seeing Christy struggling a bit.
They walked over to the gazebo where David had proposed the first time several months ago. Christy took a deep breath and sighed as she leaned over to look at the shining waters of the pond, the sun dancing off the surface, illuminating the tiny ripples.
She turned to face David and pulled out the ring box from her pocket. She swallowed hard, trying to find the courage to say what she knew she must. "David, I care about you a great deal. But I'm so sorry, but I can't marry you." She handed the ring box back to him.
David hesitated for a moment before taking the box. His eyes searched hers. Christy could see the hurt clearly. But then his blue eyes turned icy. "This is about MacNeill, isn't it?"
"David, believe me when I say this has nothing to do with Doctor MacNeill," Christy said resolutely. "This is about you and me."
"Why I find that hard so to believe." He thrust the ring into his pocket, his jaw clenched tightly to reveal the hollows of his cheeks and sharp angles of his facial strong features.
"David, I love you as a friend. A very dear friend." She reached out to hold his hands, looking into his eyes deeply, pleadingly. "But I just don't love you the way a woman should love a man she is going to marry." This was so hard for Christy. Why was David making it harder? "I've thought and prayed about it, and I simply don't see marriage in our future."
David pulled away from her. Hurt, Christy continued, "I can't tell you how many times I wished I could love you like that. There were times when I thought maybe I did love you. I wished it could be so simple. And I know now that it was wrong of me to let you believe that one day we could be together. To allow you to hope...You're such a good man, David. A fine minister to these people and a true friend to me." She shook her head, "But I can't love you the way you want me to."
"I need you, Christy" David pleaded, one last time.
"I think you've confused need with love, David," Christy told him. "You've told me in the past how important I am to you, how much you need me…I can't be your crutch, David."
Yes, David needed her. He needed her to make living in this backwoods place bearable. He needed her strength and independence. She had found a home and friends in the Cove when he still felt apart from these people even after two years. She had such faith in God when he had struggled with his own. She felt love and peace in the mountains of Cutter Gap, where David felt distance and loneliness. Loneliness until Christy had come to the mission and into his life.
He brushed the thoughts aside, refusing to see the truth in Christy's words, as they stung him acutely. "I told you I was going to ask you to marry me one last time," he reminded Christy of the ultimatum he'd given her days before. "I said I wanted to put this ring on your finger, or put the notion of our marriage together behind us forever."
"David, I'm so sorry." Christy said, tears beginning to form in her eyes. "I hope you can forgive me for leading you on. I pray that one day you'll realize never meant to hurt you…"
David said nothing. He steeled himself up against the feelings in his heart and walked away.
Christy watched him leave and then turned back towards the pond, the tears now falling freely down her face. She felt awful. She knew she had broken David's heart and felt bad about hurting him so. But at the same time, she felt a measure of relief wash over her. She exhaled deeply and said a silent prayer for strength to face the difficult days she knew were ahead.
Two weeks went by since Christy gave David her answer to his proposal. They were the longest weeks she'd ever known in her life. She and David were civil to each other, but their relationship was clearly strained. David avoided speaking to her whenever possible. Christy had tried to reach out to him after a week, tried to let him know that she was still his friend, and that she cared deeply for him. But David brushed her aside coldly, keeping to himself or busying himself with work around the mission. Miss Alice had been gone the last 10 days to Cataleechie, so she hadn't had time to speak privately with either Christy or David.
Christy busied herself as well, focusing her energies into her schoolwork and the children. But she couldn't deny that she felt a sadness and emptiness inside her. She had not seen Doctor MacNeill since that day in the schoolyard. He was especially busy on his rounds since Dan Scott left to return to Kentucky to care for his mother who was ailing.
Dan had felt the need to keep a low profile after he wrongfully accused Bird's-Eye Taylor of burning down his cabin. There was no telling how or when the vengeful mountain man might act out on his anger, so Dan's sudden leave of absence seemed to come at an appropriate time.
Still, Christy longed to see Neil. To talk to him. About what, she didn't know. She just knew she missed him. She missed their friendship, especially now that her relationship with David was so fractured. With Miss Alice gone, and Fairlight spending so much time working with Jeb and Tom to harvest the honey for the year's crop, Christy felt she had no one to turn to. But she knew she should not interfere with Doctor MacNeill's marriage. The word in the Cove spread quickly that Margaret had come back to stay with him while the other girls at the Teahouse left for Atlanta.
Christy stayed late that night in the schoolhouse after the children left for the day. She'd already cleaned up and had the next day's spelling words on the chalkboard. She felt restless. She knew Ruby Mae would have supper on the table any minute, but she couldn't bring herself to face another meal with David, hearing nothing but the scraping of silverware on the plates and the constant tick ticking of the clock in the parlor as they ate.
Christy put away her lesson book. In the past, she struggled to stay more than a day or two ahead, but with all the time she had dedicated to her schoolwork lately, she had lessons planned for the next month. Her fingers ran absently over the sketchbook sitting on the desk. She opened the book and thumbed through the pages to see the images she'd sketched. The first drawing was of Miss Alice from the lecture she had given at Christy's church. That was the turning point in her life, when she felt the call to come to Cutter Gap to teach. Then she saw a sketch of Mountie after she'd sewed the buttons on her coat and she started to speak. It was such a stark contrast to the girl on the previous page, with the tattered plaid coat and eyes so sad it still hurt to look at. She turned the pages of the sketchbook, taking a moment to look at each drawing, each one evoking specific memories in her mind.
She came to a drawing she'd nearly forgotten about. It was a drawing of man and little girl. It was Doctor MacNeill and Becky O'Teale. It was the night when Christy had rushed the child to the doctor's cabin when she discovered Becky's infected eyes. Doctor MacNeill soothed Becky, who was frightened both by the condition of her eyes and by the horrible storm that raged outside the cabin, when he told the Tale of the Selkie, searching for his lost love. In the drawing, Becky was staring intently at Doctor MacNeill, mesmerized by the story, her fears temporarily vanished. But the Doctor's focus was somewhere else. Somewhere far away. And in the drawing, it was as if his eyes were staring straight through the paper and into Christy's own. Unconsciously, Christy ran her finger lightly over the paper, over the lines that captured the rugged features of the doctor's face.
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by something. Something unknown but so urgent and powerful that Christy felt a chill travel throughout her entire body. "Go." It called to her. She closed the sketchbook and quickly gathered it and her lesson plans into her satchel. Somehow, she knew that something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong. Without hesitation, she ran out the schoolhouse and headed down the familiar path that ran along the river near Doctor MacNeill's cabin.
Though darkness was rapidly descending over the mountains, Christy ran through the woods, the brush snaring her legs, thorns and burrs snagging her clothes, though she paid them no mind. She heard a call and she had to obey. It was like Miss Alice told her. The story of an unheeded call which resulted in a little girl's brutal rape. Christy prayed this situation was not as dire. But when she neared the river just outside Doctor MacNeill's cabin and she saw the shadowy outline of a figure crumpled over by the river bank, her heart caught in her throat.
"Margaret!" Christy screamed. She ran to the spot where Margaret was kneeling over, one hand barely supporting her body while the other covered her mouth. She was coughing uncontrollably, her breathing ragged and painfully between fits. Her chest heaved and spasmed before she collapsed in a heap on the ground.
Christy fell to the ground beside Margaret, lifting the woman's head to rest on her lap. She could see now even in the faded daylight that Margaret's hand and mouth were stained with blood.
"What…are…you…" Margaret tried to speak before her body was wracked by another horrendous coughing fit.
"Shhhh, Margaret. Don't try to speak." Christy brushed back her long wavy black curls and held her as she struggled to control the coughing. Christy looked around for signs of Doctor MacNeill but saw none. He must be on rounds or with a patient, Christy thought to herself.
Margaret's coughing bout was subsiding, though she shook terribly. "Margaret, do you think if you lean on me we can get you back into the cabin?"
Margaret nodded. Christy began to stand, slowly and gently pulling Margaret up with her. Margaret was exhausted, spent from the crippling coughing fits. It took all the strength she had left just to keep from collapsing even with Christy's support. She winced painfully as Christy's arms wrapped around her waist.
"I'm sorry, Margaret. You'll feel better once we get you inside."
The fifty or so yards uphill towards the cabin seemed as insurmountable as climbing the Smokies themselves. But Christy fought to keep her balance, determined to get Margaret safe inside the walls of the cabin that had stood over 150 years. Slowly and steadily, they made their way to the cabin and up the stairs. Christy opened the door and helped Margaret into a chair. Both of them seemed to breathe easier now.
Still struggling to catch her breath, Margaret spoke, her voice broken and quiet, "Thank you, Christy."
Christy just nodded as relief washed over her. She found a rag and submerged it in a bowl of water, bringing it to Margaret's lips to wipe away the blood. Margaret sat there obediently, and let Christy tend to her. Christy went back into the kitchen and ladled some water in a cup and handed it to Margaret. She brought the tin cup to her mouth, feeling the coolness of the metal on her lips as the water created a soothing sensation as it went down her throat.
After a few moments, Christy asked, "Do you feel better now?"
The cup resting in her hands on her lap, Margaret answered, "Yes. Thank you so much. If you hadn't come here…" She stopped mid-sentence, not wanting to complete the thought. Then she asked, her face awash in both gratitude and confusion, "Why did you come here, Christy?" Then her face changed in a flash to anger and then hurt, "As you can see, Mac isn't here."
"I didn't come here to see Doctor MacNeill," Christy responded. "I don't really know why I came here or what I'd find." Christy looked confused, as did Margaret.
"I felt something inside tell me to come here." With more surety, she continued, "God told me someone needed me. You needed me."
Margaret didn't know what to think. She should have spat with laughter, incredulous of Christy's claim to have heard God calling. But she looked at Christy's eyes, so blue and unwavering in their sincerity. Whether it was true or not, it's what Christy believed with ever fiber of her being.
Margaret allowed her cynicism to take over once again, "Too bad God doesn't see fit to send the same messages to Mac."
"Maybe God tried to speak with Neil but he wouldn't listen," Christy said.
"Maybe," Margaret whispered.
Christy pulled up another chair and sat with Margaret as she drank more water. Her breathing had returned to normal, and the two just sat in silence for a long time. Eventually, Margaret dozed off into a light slumber, her body done in by the effects of the episode.
Christy looked at the clock above Doctor MacNeill's mantle. It was after 9pm. She wondered if he would be home tonight or not. Everyone was probably worried sick. But Ruby Mae was likely carrying on and practically in hysterics when Christy had not come home from school. Well, maybe David wasn't worried. No, Christy chided herself. That's not fair. She knows David still cares for her, despite how cold he'd been to her as of late.
Her thoughts were again interrupted when she heard the sound of horse's hooves outside the cabin.
"Oh, thank God!" Christy said to herself, as she instantly rushed from her seat and out the door.
"Christy?" he looked up shocked to see her there.
Without another word, he bounded up the stairs and followed Christy inside.
"Oh Lordamercy, Preacher! It ain't like Teacher to jes' up 'n' disappear!"
"Ruby Mae, Miss Christy is probably just out with Fairlight. You know she's had a lot on her mind lately."
"Somethin' ain't right, Preacher! Teacher wouldn't jes' take off like that without tellin' no one where she'd be gone to!"
Ruby Mae continued to pace in the parlor as David tried to read, ignoring her request to go out and search for her.
Christy waited on the front porch while Doctor MacNeill examined Margaret. For the first time she looked down and noticed the dried blood staining the front of her skirt. She paced nervously. "What could be taking so long?" Christy thought.
When Doctor MacNeill first arrived and Christy saw that Margaret was being cared for, she thought she should leave and get back to the mission. But something in Margaret's eyes pleaded with Christy's to stay. Like that time in the Teahouse when she first discovered Margaret was back in town. She didn't know how the woman who sometimes acted as though Christy was a rival one minute and then cried out to her the next minute for something, she didn't know…for friendship, perhaps? "Maybe if there had been someone like you," Margaret said to her when she first came back to Cutter Gap many months ago with Theodore Harland. She knew Margaret had to have lived a lonely existence. Always running away from her past and the people who'd loved her most, from her illness, maybe from herself. So Christy stayed, and she could have sworn she saw gratitude in Neil's eyes that she did.
The door squeaked behind her, and Christy turned to see Doctor MacNeill emerging from the cabin. The light filtering out from the cabin illuminated his face as he stepped into the darkness. He looked more haggard and worn than she'd ever seen him. Even after the Scarlet Fever epidemic. He looked like he hadn't slept in days, and the lamp light danced off the tiny reddish blond stubbles of hair that ran along his jawline.
"How is she?" Christy asked, her voice laden with worry.
"I probably don't need to tell you that Margaret has relapsed," Neil sighed heavily. He moved to stand next to her near the railing of the balcony. "She'd told me she was in remission, but she confessed today that this was not the first episode she's had since she returned."
"I'm so sorry, Neil," she said quietly.
"Now I know why she begged me to let her stay here." Neil leaned on the railing, gazing out into the night, the sound of the river flowing quietly in the distance.
"She didn't want to be alone," Christy acknowledged. "She needs you, Neil."
Neil turned to face Christy once more. "Yes." He shook his head somberly.
"Christy, I want to thank you for everything you've done for Margaret. If you hadn't found her…I don't want to think what could have happened." He dropped his glance again. He was struggling so.
"There's no use wondering what would have been." And as if reading his thoughts, she touched his arm bidding him to look at her again. "If you flog yourself, you'll be no good to anyone." Her eyes flashed a twinkle for a moment. "A very wise doctor once told me that."
The corner of his mouth turned up as he chuckled slightly at her words, remembering when he'd said the very thing to her. Opal had overhead Christy using the death of her baby girl as an example to Ruby Mae about the dangers of superstition. It sent Opal into a deep depression, from which Christy feared Opal might never recover. She'd blamed herself for her callousness. She blamed herself for almost taking Opal away from the family that needed her so, then more than ever. Christy was devastated. But then Doctor MacNeill came to her. He put his arm around her and comforted her with his words and his presence. It would not be the last time that Neil had been there for Christy and made her feel better.
"Margaret said you told her God sent you here," Neil said, interrupting Christy's thoughts. The look on his face was unfathomable.
Christy became a bit defensive. "I know you don't believe me…" She knew the Doctor was agnostic and didn't believe in God intervening in people's lives.
"I'm not saying I don't believe you, Christy," Neil silenced her protest. "I can't explain what brought you here to find Margaret tonight. I'm not going to deny what you feel or believe." He could see the indignation melt away on Christy's face. "All I'll say is that you have quite a knack at sensing when someone needs you."
Neil thought of that night after Margaret's sudden appearance and then disappearance from the Cove. He'd gone to the river, seeking the comfort this place offered only to find none. He'd been thinking of Margaret. He suddenly found himself trapped in a marriage to a woman who had led him to think was dead. All hope of moving on with his life was shattered. Then he found Christy standing by its banks gazing up at the moon. The perspiration glistened off her cheeks and brow, her hair hanging loosely around her shoulders. She looked into his eyes and read what was in his soul. He and Christy stood there and talked. She had no answers to the puzzle that had become his life, but she provided the solace he desperately needed but hadn't realized.
Memories of that fateful meeting by the river also flooded Christy's mind. She'd felt a restlessness. Not unlike the one she felt this very evening in the schoolhouse that led her to revisit the drawings in her sketchbook. Though she'd had a fear of the dark since she was a little girl, Christy ambled through the woods unfettered, guided by the comforting moonlight, until she came to the very river that ran along Doctor MacNeill's property. The same spot where she'd found Margaret.
Feeling a blush rise to her cheeks as she recalled the night by the river with Neil, Christy gazed back towards the sky, thankful for the concealment of the darkness. It was the same moon shining that night, but it provided no comfort.
"Christy, Margaret is dying," Neil admitted.
Christy spun back to see a painful acceptance written on Neil's face. Though he'd already mourned her death three years ago, it still hurt to know he would now have to relive the loss of his wife, but now he would have to witness a slow, daily decline.
"Oh, Neil, I'm so sorry," Christy cried. She reached for his hand on the railing and held onto it. He accepted her hand with gratitude, willing her strength into his own body.
Then Christy suddenly said, "Neil, how do we tell Miss Alice?"
David's voice pierced the night, Prince coming to a sudden halt near the foot of the cabin steps.
"David! I'm up here!" she called down to him.
David leapt from the big black mustang, tossing the reins over a tree branch and ran up the steps.
He was breathless with worry. "Thank God!"
The temporary relief on his face was quickly replaced with anger and hurt as he saw Christy and Doctor MacNeill holding hands.
Self-consciously, Christy dropped the Neil's hand and ran toward David.
"David," Christy began, hoping to calm David and allay his anger. This was no time for an argument or scene. "It's Margaret."
"The consumption has returned," Neil told him. "It is worse than before, and I fear she won't survive it."
David looked at Doctor MacNeill, his face softening, "I'm sorry Doctor MacNeill."
"David," Christy said tenderly, she moved closer, touching his arm. "I didn't mean to cause you to worry. I found Margaret…"
Seeing the pain and sincerity in Christy's eyes, David stopped her explanation. "That's alright, Christy. I'm just glad you are safe. And that you helped Margaret."
Christy smiled at David. David gave a small smile in return. It was the first time in weeks that he had looked at her without hurt etched on his face. She felt that perhaps their friendship might be mended after all.
Feeling out of place at the seemingly tender moment, Doctor MacNeill turned to go back into the cabin. "I'd better check on Margaret."
"Doctor?" Christy turned back to face him, questioningly.
"Go home, Miss Huddleston," he said coolly, the detached manner taking over him.
"Alice is due back tomorrow, Doctor MacNeill," David told him. "We'll inform her of Margaret's condition and tell her to come by immediately."
"Good," was Neil's curt reply.
With another quick glance, the doctor disappeared behind the door.
David and Christy rode back to the mission on Prince in silence. She had not realized the toll the night had taken on her until she felt herself slip into a comforting blackness, the rhythmic movement of the galloping horse lulling her to sleep.
Her eyes fluttered open when she felt the constant motion suddenly stop as David pulled Price to a halt in front of the barn. Strong arms helped her down from the saddle, but she still felt somewhat disoriented, trying to take in her surroundings.
"I'll get Prince settled for the night," David said. "Can you make it to your room by yourself?"
Nodding, she said, "I think so. I just hadn't realized how tired I was. It must be past midnight."
Christy began to get her bearings as she watched David taking the bridle off Prince. "David, thank you for coming after me."
"You should be thanking Ruby Mae," he said, as he kept working on the horse. "I decided it was better to go searching for you so I could get away from her constant talking."
Christy laughed. "I imagine she was raising quite a fuss." Knowing the chattering red-head, David wouldn't have a moment's peace until he brought her home safe.
And speak of the Devil, Ruby Mae came running out of the mission towards them. "Oh Miz Christy! Lordamercy!" She ran and was in such a tizzy that she nearly tripped and fell in her nightgown. "Oh Miz Christy! I was jes' so worried about you! I tol' Preacher he'd bes' go lookin' for ya, not knowin' what coulda happened to ya! Oh Lordamercy! I was rightly skeered more 'n' a body oughter be!"
Then she saw the blood on Christy's skirt and let out a horrifying scream. "Oh Miz Christy! You're bleedin!" She covered her mouth with her hands
"Calm down, Ruby Mae," Christy said, trying to get Ruby Mae to take a deep a breath. "I'm fine."
"Oh, but where wuz ya, Miz Christy? What's that blood on yer dress?"
"It's late, Ruby Mae," Christy said, leading the girl back towards the house. "I'm exhausted and I must get some sleep."
Ruby Mae was disappointed but relieved.
"I promise you, Ruby Mae, I will tell you in the morning. Just know that I am alright."
The girl nodded reluctantly, but then smiled.
The two went into the mission house and settled into their rooms for the night. Christy quickly undressed, tossing her clothes, including the blood-stained skirt on the floor. She put on a fresh nightgown, poured some water into the wash basin and pressed a damp cloth her face. Exhaling deeply, she set the cloth aside, blew out the lamp, and fell into her bed. The mattress felt so cool and welcoming as she slid her legs beneath the covers. Succumbing to the fatigue, she fell asleep immediately.
Telling Miss Alice the news of Margaret was one of the hardest things Christy had to do. Miss Alice immediately went to Neil's cabin to see her daughter. She could not turn her back on her now when Margaret needed her most. Christy wanted desperately to go with Miss Alice, to be there to support the woman who was like a second mother to her, but the quiet Quaker woman said she needed to go alone.
It was Saturday, and without school to keep her mind occupied, Christy's thoughts were continually on Miss Alice and what must be going on inside the MacNeill cabin. She remembered how Neil had turned on her at the end of the night when David came to find her. He retreated into his distant, guarded self so quickly. He had such an ability to turn it on and off. She never knew what she would find when she looked into the doctor's eyes. Margaret's moods were as changing as his, Christy noted. One minute she was angry, defensive, and the next she was as needy and desperate as a child. Christy wondered if this common trait was a source of some of the MacNeill's problems.
David saw Christy's concern and restlessness. He came up behind her and put his hand on her back comfortingly.
"David," she started, "I am so worried about Miss Alice."
"Miss Alice is strong, Christy," he said. "But she'll need you now more than ever. And our prayers."
Christy nodded. "I only hope she and Margaret will be able to reconcile."
"I am certain the severity of Margaret's condition will soften her heart, knowing her time on Earth is limited. I only pray that she will allow God into her life as well," David told her.
"I hope so, too," Christy answered.
The two slipped into a comfortable silence, and then David, starting to understand Christy's heart, said, "You're worried about Doctor MacNeill, too. You're thinking about him now." There was no malice in his voice this time.
Unable to deny her feelings, Christy nodded. "Yes," she admitted. "I am. Margaret is his wife, and I know he still cares for her. No matter how she hurt him. I'm afraid he'll blame himself for not seeing that she was still sick."
A short pause, "David, I want to thank you. Thank you for coming to look for me last night…and for still being my friend." She looked deeply into his eyes. She saw that the bitterness was gone, though some of the hurt and disappointment remained. She knew they would be able to be close once more…in time.
"Christy, I will never stop caring for you. Or being your friend. It might take some time for me to get over you, and I know it will be hard for a while. But I promise I will always be there for you when you need me."
Christy smiled gratefully. "Thank you, David. I will be here for you, too."
David gently touched her cheek, and then he left her alone.
Miss Alice sat next to Margaret, holding her hand. Margaret just had another bad coughing episode, and she could barely keep her eyes open from the exertion. Miss Alice sat and silently prayed for her dear daughter.
"Mother," Margaret began, her voice weak and raspy from the effects of the coughing, "I wanted to ask you to forgive me." Desperation, and the desire like that of a little child for her mother's love, shone in Margaret's eyes. Saying those words were so difficult for her. She had pushed aside her mother's love for years…done everything she could to alienate her. Why should mother forgive me now, Margaret wondered.
Alice saw the sincerity in her daughter's expression. Feeling the sting of tears behind her eyes, she responded, "Of course, I forgive thee. As God forgives thee…if you will only ask it."
Margaret did not respond. Her eyes darkened at the mention of God. Though on her deathbed, she did not want to be preached to. She felt that she did not need anyone telling her about God.
Margaret fell asleep and after several long moments sitting with her daughter, Alice left the bedside to find Neil.
Neil looked haggard, his clothes disheveled. He stood leaning by the fire, holding one of the photographs of some of the men who had paid for him to go to medical school. He owed them so much. They gave a mountain boy the opportunity to be educated so that he could come back to this Cove and help his people. But he felt utterly useless now. What good had it gotten him?
His reverie was broken when Alice cleared her throat to speak to him. "Neil."
He barely met her gaze. "What is it, Alice."
"How long, Neil?" She could scarcely get the words out. As if saying them made the inevitable even more real. More true. "How long will Margaret be with us?"
Neil shook his head. "I cannot say for certain. The tuberculosis is worse than before. Her lungs are scarred beyond repair, and I've no doubt the severity of the coughing episodes has degraded her health even further."
"I thought she was in remission," Alice said, almost in disbelief. "She seemed fine a few days ago when she came to see me in the church." Tears stung her eyes as Alice recalled the awful fight they'd had. The terrible words that passed between them. The memory of disowning her own daughter, telling her there was no room left in her heart.
"We've both been fooled in the past by Margaret's secrets and lies," Neil said. "She confessed that she had to leave before receiving the full course of treatment because she could no longer pay. She owed some great debts, and 'dancing', if that's what you want to call it, was the only way she thought to earn enough to keep the moneylenders from chasing after her."
"She did mention to me that she was in trouble financially, and that she did not even own the clothes on her back," Alice said, clarity starting to form over the situation. "She did not tell me that she left treatment early. She said she was fine! Had I known she was still unwell, I would have found a way to get her the money to continue the treatments!" Alice asserted, growing more upset.
"As would I, Alice" Neil confessed with a sigh. "But she'd have none of it. She's too stubborn to ask for anyone's help, except when it's too late."
Alice composed herself, straightened herself out and gathered her words. "Yet she came back to Cutter Gap, Neil. She came back because she needs you."
"I failed her as a husband, and as a doctor. But I will not fail her now, Alice." Neil said with a new conviction ringing in his voice. "I know I cannot be the husband she wants me to be, and I cannot make her well. It is too late for that. But I will make certain she is well cared for, and that she is as comfortable as possible until…" He couldn't bring himself to finish the thought. "I will do all I can to ease her pain."
"Thank thee, Neil." She smiled slightly. "That is all I could ask of thee."
The days passed by, and soon Christy found that she had slipped back into her routine. Teaching school, grading papers, working on lesson plans, helping Fairlight with her reading lessons, and always the endless amount of chores that needed doing.
And yet, with that routine came a loneliness and longing that Christy had never felt before. Miss Alice was away most of the time visiting with Margaret at Doctor MacNeill's. David filled his time with much needed repairs to the barn. He wanted to make sure they were finished before the weather grew cold. And then there was Neil. She hadn't seen him since the night she found Margaret by the river. She wanted so much to see Margaret, thinking that perhaps they had bonded a bit that night. But she was afraid. Christy was afraid of seeing Margaret deteriorating, and taking Neil and Miss Alice with her.
The few times she saw Miss Alice after returning from a visit with Margaret, she looked so sad, more downtrodden than she'd seen anyone look before. In her customary Quaker style, she would silently return and she spent the rest of her evenings alone in her bunkhouse, fixing herself a plate of food or tea and taking it to eat alone in her bunkhouse.
And Neil. Christy longed to see him…to speak with him. To tell him she cared and was his friend. But she didn't want that to be the reason she went to see Margaret. It would be wrong. Neil was married, and his wife was dying. She didn't feel right intruding on their private life.
She thought about going home to Asheville, but school was still in session and she could not disappoint the children. The one saving grace was that she still had the children. The gleam in their eyes when they learned something new made everything else that weighed so heavily on Christy temporarily melt away. The joy of the children, the sound of their laughter at playtime, it gave her hope. And peace. She held tightly to those precious moments during these difficult times. She fought to keep holding on. "Hold onto joy," Miss Alice had told her during those first difficult days in Cutter Gap.
Christy sighed deeply, "I'm trying, Miss Alice. But sometimes it's just so hard."
It was Saturday, and Christy was in the schoolhouse grading papers, or at least trying to. She found it hard to concentrate. Between the sound of the hammer striking in the distance as David continued to work on the barn, and her own thoughts taking her to the doctor's cabin miles away, she could not focus for more than a few minutes at a time.
So deep in her thoughts was she that she did not hear Miss Alice until she was far inside the one-room schoolhouse.
"Miss Huddleston," the woman said.
"Oh, Miss Alice," Christy awoke from her dazed state, "I guess my mind was someplace else."
"Our hearts and minds have both been occupied by Neil and Margaret as of late," she acknowledged.
Christy wasn't sure how to take that comment. Did Miss Alice still think her relationship with Neil was somehow inappropriate?
"Miss Alice, I—"
"Christy," Alice silenced the teacher. "I wanted to apologize to thee."
Christy was confused.
Miss Alice approached Christy. She sat on a bench in the front row, and signaled for Christy to join her.
"I have not been there when thee needed me most," Alice confessed. "I left for Cataleechie without having the chance to talk to thee about what happened with David. And now that Margaret is--" she couldn't bring herself to say the word, "she has consumed my days and my thoughts."
"Miss Alice, there is nothing for you to apologize for. Yes, there were times over the past month when I wanted so much to talk to you. But I knew that learning what was in my heart was something only I could do, with God's help. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, but I know I made the right decision about David."
"And I believe thy relationship with David will be all the stronger for it," Miss Alice said.
"I hope so."
"I came to see thee for another reason, Christy." Christy looked up at her questioningly. "I have just returned from visiting with Margaret. She has been asking to speak with thee."
"I hope she is not angry at me for staying away, Miss Alice. I can't tell you how much I've wanted to go see her. But I wasn't sure…"
"Please, Christy," Alice pleaded. "Margaret needs thee." She paused and looked deeply into Christy's eyes. "Neil needs thee, also."
"Alright, Miss Alice," Christy nodded. "I'll go now."
Alice gave a painful smile and nodded, obviously filled with emotion. She rose from the bench and walked out of the church-schoolhouse.
Christy gathered her papers and put them into her bag. She slung the satchel over her shoulder and headed out of the schoolhouse towards the MacNeill cabin.
As she approached the cabin, Christy could hear the sound of Margaret's coughing from inside. She listened for a moment and hesitated, but then gathered her composure and knocked loudly on the door.
She heard muffled sounds inside. It must be Doctor MacNeill talking to Margaret, Christy thought.
The door opened suddenly, startling Christy somewhat. The doctor looked as if he hadn't slept or bathed in days. His ruddy curls were more unruly than usual, and his clothes were wrinkled, like he'd been sitting up at nights in a chair. Despite his disheveled appearance, Neil's countenance indicated that he was relieved to see the young school teacher there.
"Ah, Christy," he opened the door wider, "Please come in."
"Doctor MacNeill," she acknowledged.
"I'm glad you came. Margaret wishes to speak with you."
"I didn't come just to see Margaret," she told him, looking deep into his blue eyes, bloodshot from the sleepless nights, and perhaps tears.
"Mac?" her voice called from behind the ajar door. "Is that Christy?"
The spell broken between Neil and Christy, she answered. "Yes, Margaret. It's me."
Christy stepped past Neil and walked towards the room where Margaret lay. The door creaked slightly as she opened it wider and stepped inside.
"Please close the door, Christy," Margaret requested, her voice raspy from the coughing fit.
Christy turned back around to close the door, her eyes meeting Neil's as he shrank from sight.
"Here, sit by the bed," Margaret motioned to the chair.
Christy sat, unsure what to say. Margaret looked so ill. So frail and pathetic. Her skin was almost a ghostly green, the bloom gone from her lips and cheek. Her hair lacked the luster it once had. Gone was the spark from her eyes.
"Miss Alice said you wanted to see me," Christy started.
Swallowing deeply, even that looked like a painful struggle, Margaret said, "Yes. I wanted to thank you. For coming to the Teahouse that day to see me. What you said made me come back."
Christy thought back to that day. She'd told Margaret that Neil was worth fighting for, that she needed to reconcile with him and Alice before she ended up old and alone. Christy had no idea at the time that Margaret was ill.
"If it weren't for you, I would be dead somewhere. Alone."
"No, Margaret," Christy shook her head.
"It's true, Christy. I would have gone back to Atlanta and died alone. Without friends or family. Without even a single person who'd have given a damn." She started to cough. Christy quickly moved to the bed and helped Margaret to sit more upright. She found the glass by the bedside table and helped Margaret to drink.
Doctor MacNeill flung the door of the bedroom wide open, having heard Margaret's hacking and wheezing in the main room. "Margaret?"
Luckily, the coughing soon subsided. "I'm alright, Mac."
Neil turned his focus on Christy, and then back to Margaret. The pain in his eyes was immeasurable. The cough gone, and knowing there was nothing more he could do, he quietly left the room.
"Don't try to talk too much, Margaret," Christy said.
She took the glass from Margaret and set it on the bedside table. She noticed the Bible there, and wondered if Miss Alice had been reading to Margaret. If she had been talking to her about God. Christy didn't want to push Margaret, but she desperately hoped that Margaret was finally letting God into her heart.
"No, I'm fine, Christy. Really." Her breathing was back to normal, so Christy moved back to chair besides the bed. "You're always finding a way to help people, aren't you? At first, I thought you were just another do-gooder." Her face broke into that cynical smile for a moment before it faded and was replaced by something very sincere. "But when you found me that day by the river…You've given me another chance. A chance to ask Mother and Mac to forgive me." Tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks freely.
"Oh, Margaret, I'm so happy you were able to reconcile with Miss Alice and Neil. I know it means a lot to them."
"Christy, you told me God sent you to the river that day you found me."
"Yes," she nodded.
"What did He say to you? I mean, how did you know?" Margaret wondered.
"I can't really explain it," Christy began. "But I just felt something inside me. An inner voice, stronger and more powerful than anything I'd ever felt before, telling me to go to the river."
"But how did you know it was God? Not just a gut feeling?"
"I believe that gut feeling, that instinct, comes from God. How else would it have gotten there?" Christy told her. "It's a knowing, Margaret. A feeling deep inside that you're needed, that you're loved, that somehow, everything is going to be alright. And you are loved, Margaret. Your mother loves you, and Doctor MacNeill loves you. And God loves you."
Margaret looked pensive, pondering Christy's answer.
"Would you read me something? From the Bible?" Margaret asked.
"I'd be glad to," Christy said, smiling. "Is there anything in particular you want to hear about?"
"You know the Bible better than I do," Margaret joked lightly. "I just want to hear something pleasant. No stonings or battles or oppression." Christy smiled.
Margaret slid down into the bed and pulled the covers higher toward her chin, making herself comfortable as Christy read to her.
Though she tried to stay awake and listen, Margaret eventually drifted off into sleep. It was difficult for her to stay awake for more than a few hours at a time. She was so fragile, and the coughing episodes drained the energy from her.
With Margaret asleep, Christy quietly rose from the chair and left the room, closing the door as gently as she could to limit the squeaking. She wondered why Doctor MacNeill didn't just oil the hinges. But she figured he was preoccupied with more urgent matters.
Christy looked around the room, but Neil wasn't there. But she could smell the smoke from his pipe so she knew he was nearby. He stayed close to the cabin at all times, making his rounds to visit other patients only when Miss Alice was there to keep watch over Margaret. They both suffered extreme sleep deprivation because of their continuous vigils.
Seeing the cabin door ajar, Christy walked towards it, finding Neil leaning over the porch railing smoking his pipe. It curled around his head in figure eights. As Christy moved to stand beside him, wordlessly, the smoke tickled her nose. But the scent was comforting, somehow.
Feeling him glance in her direction, she looked at him and smiled weakly. "Margaret's asleep."
"Good, she needs as much rest and quiet as possible," he said. "The fits are getting worse and worse, and she has lost quite a lot of blood. All I can do is make her comfortable."
"Margaret seems more at peace than I've ever seen her," Christy said.
"Yes." He took another drag on his pipe. "Thanks to Alice…and you."
Sheepishly, Christy averted her gaze and shook her head. "I didn't do anything, Doctor"
"You underestimate yourself far too much, Christy," he told her.
"I just did what anyone would do."
Blast it! Why couldn't this woman ever take a compliment or accept the praise she deserved? Didn't she know that he didn't offer it lightly or undeservedly?
"In any case, your coming to see Margaret today means a lot to me, Christy. You've brought her comfort, and I am grateful to you for that."
"I told you before that I didn't just come to see Margaret," Christy began, a little nervously. "I came to see you, too, Neil."
Christy looked deeply into his eyes, so tortured that it almost hurt. She felt his pain, too. She wanted to unburden him. She wanted to see him smile, so see his eyes dance and twinkle with laughter when he teased and joked with her. What could she mean? Neil wondered. Did he dare to hope?
The way he was peering into her eyes, searchingly, Christy began to feel self-conscious. What would she tell him? She covered her tracks quickly.
"We've missed your special visits at school," she said.
Seeing Neil's face fall, she chided herself for lying. Yes, of course the children missed him. But she missed him, terribly. "I'm sorry, that's not the truth." Seeing him look questioningly, she tried to correct herself again. "I mean, of course you've been missed at school. The children are always dazzled by your science experiments and mesmerized by the history lessons. But what I meant to say, is I've missed you, Neil."
"I've missed you, too, Christy," Neil admited. "In light of present circumstances, I know we haven't been able to talk the way we used to."
Neil brought the pipe back up to his lips, and suddenly caught glimpse of Christy's left hand resting on the railing next to his, and he noticed the absence of a ring on her finger. Thoughts of that day in the schoolyard flooded him. He'd tried to shut those memories out. He couldn't be thinking of Christy when he had Margaret laying dying in his bed. He never asked Alice or David when they visited what had happened after Christy walked away in the schoolyard with the ring still in its box. Somehow he didn't want to know.
But now his heart began to surge with hope. A hope he had no right to feel, Neil quickly reprimanded himself. He was a married man, still. Even with Margaret's life fading quickly, he knew it wouldn't be right to succumb to that dream.
He took a drag on his pipe and then exhaled deeply. He looked pensively at Christy. "Why did you come to the cabin that day, Christy? Before you ran off?
Christy could feel the intensity of his stare, an urging need emanating from those blue orbs. She realized what he needed to hear, and what she needed to say.
"I came here to tell you that you're my best friend, Neil. That I wanted you to be happy."
When she said the words, she felt nothing but relief. Why should she feel ashamed? She'd neither done nor said anything improper.
Neil smiled, gratitude in his expression. He reached and took Christy's hand in his own. "You're my best friend too, Christy."
Christy wanted to reach out with her other hand and touch his face, feel the warmth of his cheek and the roughness of his ruddy stubbles. But she fought against the urge.
The sound of Margaret's coughing pierced the sweet serenity of the moment. The connection broken, both Neil and Christy ran into the cabin and into Margaret's room. She was on her knees in bed, doubled over with violent convulsions. When she lifted her head to look at Neil, the blood running down her mouth and pooling on quilt was visible.
Neil?" she whimpered, her voice barely a croak.
Neil ran to her side without hesitation and cradled her head in his hands. He had to keep her upright lest she choke on her own blood. Christy found she could hardly move. Her heart was pounding so.
His head whipped around to look at Christy. "Run and fetch Alice, Christy!" he told her, his voice filled with an undeniable urgency that startled Christy into awareness. "And hurry!"
Christy ran from the cabin towards the mission as fast as she could. She wished she'd ridden Prince earlier. She had to get to Miss Alice. Christy just hoped it wouldn't be too late by the time she arrived.
TO BE CONTINUED