I could feel the heaviness of my eyes as I tried to open them. There were so many things that I needed to talk to Neil about. I wanted so desperately for him to understand and know the feelings I had for him. I wanted to tell him once and for all that my heart belonged to his and not David's. I needed to wake up and see his comforting face. Slowly I urged my eyes to flutter open. At first everything was a blur and I struggled to focus on the things in my room. My shoulder was still searing with pain and it made me wish that I could retreat back into a deep and peaceful slumber. I finally gathered the strength, propelled by my desire to see Neil, to hold my head up slightly so I could search the room. Neil was still here by my side. He was slumped over in his chair with his head resting on the side of my bed and his hand lightly covering mine. I wasn't sure if I should wake him or not. The night had probably been a long one for him and I was sure he had not slept much, but I decided that it was probably best if I did. With my good arm I reached down and gently stroked his golden curls. He stirred slightly and then looked up at me with big hazel eyes that showed little to no sleep. A small smile of joy spread across his face, replacing the lines of worry that I had been on there earlier.
"Christy," he said with such exuberance that I couldn't help but return his smile. "You're awake. Welcome back Miss Huddleston." He then turned and called for Alice and David. Both of them came eagerly running into my room.
"Miss Huddleston, thee gave us quite a scare." There was such joy and happiness in each of their voices that it made me wonder if it was a surprise for them to see me alive and staring at them.
Neil saw the questioning look on my face and responded, "We thought we were going to lose you. You had lost a lot of blood and were very weak. There were times throughout the night when I wasn't even sure I could feel your pulse."
I looked at David and he nodded in agreement. "Welcome back Miss Huddleston." I caught the fleeting moment of surprise on Neil's face as David referred to me so formally as Miss Huddleston.
Then my attention suddenly swung back to Miss Alice as I remembered her trip to Atlanta. "Miss Alice, I'm so sorry. I've messed up your trip to Atlanta."
"My trip to Atlanta can wait a few more weeks. I would feel much more comfortable going knowing that thou are well and that thy body is restored. Do not worry about me Miss Huddleston."
Then as if the house were on fire Ruby Mae came bursting through the door, "Doc MacNeill! She was gasping for air to try and finish her statement. "There's been an awful accident in El Pano. Two houses burnt plum down to the ground. They said they're in need of medical help."
I could hear a small groan escape from under Neil's breath. He looked at me with worry written all over his face and then back at Alice. I could tell he was being reluctant to leave and as much as I wanted him to stay with me I knew he had to go help those people.
"Neil," Miss Alice spoke up, "She will be fine now. The danger is over and we can take care of her while you're gone. All she needs is to rest and regain her strength. There is nothing more that thee can do to make that process happen any faster."
"Go Neil, Miss Alice is right. I'll be fine. I'm already feeling a lot better. They need you."
"I'll be back Miss Huddleston. No heavy lifting and make sure she gets plenty of rest."
I rolled my eyes at his incessantly protective tone. "Neil, I'll be fine. Now go, you're needed."
After talking with Miss Alice briefly in the corner of my room he turned and left. My talk with him would have to wait until he returned.
Two weeks had gone by and there was still no sign of Neil. He had called to tell us that he would have to go to lower gap to take care of a man who had been in a farming accident. My arm that was now in a sling was starting to heal nicely and the pain that had once racked my body was slowly dissipating. I missed Neil a great deal, but my heart surged with pride for the way he took care of his people. Part of me wondered though if he wasn't purposely avoiding me since he did not know yet that David and I had broken our engagement. I was; however, relieved when Miss Alice told me that I could start teaching again as long as I kept my duties light and did not do anything too foolish to cause more damage to my healing shoulder. I hoped that time with the children would keep my mind occupied and that the days till Neil came back would go faster if I kept myself busy. Seeing the children again lifted my spirits greatly. On my first day back I walked up the steps and into the schoolhouse to find the children gathered around my desk, their smiling faces and joyfully twinkling eyes made my heart soar with love for them. They had brought flowers for me and had filled my desk with cards and pictures that they had hoped would make me feel better. I couldn't help but smile right back at them and I eagerly thanked them for their thoughtfulness. They excitedly went to their seats, ready to start a new day of learning.
That first day back the children were like angels. They were extremely attentive to everything I said and helpful to a fault. I had never seen them so committed to their tasks as they were that day. It was so quiet that I could have heard a pin drop; even Creed Allen had left his usual antics at the door. It actually made the day pretty uneventful and left me wishing that they would do or say something to make it a little more lively. The noon lunch hour finally came and I sent the children outside to eat and have recess time. I quickly ate my sandwich and then decided that I needed to clear my desk and hang all of their heartfelt cards and pictures around the room. I turned and looked at the space to the sides of the chalkboard and decided that was where I would hang them so that they could see that I truly did appreciate their effrots. I retrieved some pushpins out of my desk and proceeded to try the arduous task of hanging the cards using only one arm. I finally realized that this was just not working for me and that I would need help from one of the students to complete the project. I stared at the wall in disappointment and frustration. A rise of giggles and whispers from some of the older girls outside caught my attention and I whirled around ready to go and search for the source. I had only taken one step toward the door when my breath caught in my throat. Looking up I saw the tall broad frame of Doctor MacNeill standing in the doorway, staring at me with his deep hazel eyes and an expression of amusement on his face. I suddenly felt very nervous and very self conscious.
"Miss Huddleston, I hope you were not trying to put those pictures up all on your own." A broad teasing grin spread across Neil's face. He knew my stubbornness would eventually win out over my reason. "I came to check on you and see how you were doing."
"I'm doing much better. The pain is nearly gone and Miss Alice says the wound is healing nicely with no signs of infection."
"So she told me. I just came from the mission house and she said I would find you here." He glanced at my desk that was still covered in pictures. "Would you like me to help you put those up?"
"That would be wonderful, thank you," I smiled. As we stood there putting the pictures on the wall I was trying to think of a way to approach the subject of my break-up with David, but the nearness of the doctor as we hung pictures and his hands brushing against mine made it difficult for me to think. I prayed that he could not hear my heart pounding in my chest. I held the next card on the wall as Neil pushed a pin into it and then he froze staring wide eyed at my hand that was still holding the paper to the wall. His sudden awareness of my empty finger made me nervously remove my hand from the wall and withdraw it to my side. I looked up at him and our eyes locked.
A curiously confused and hopeful expression was written all over his face. "Where's your ring," he questioned, "you're not wearing it."
I took a deep breath. He had presented me with the opportunity I was searching for. "Neil, the day that I got shot by the hunters I was coming to find you to tell you that David and I broke off our engagement."
He shook his head, "I do not understand. I thought……." I put my finger up to his lips. He grabbed my hand holding it in his as if he was afraid this moment would slip from him. His eyes were searching mine.
"Neil, I can't marry David when I have feelings for another man, feelings that run deeper than I ever could have imagined. Neil, you're my best friend. I share my thoughts and ideas with you before I share them with anyone else. It's you that I love Neil, not David."
Still holding my left hand Neil took his other hand and reached up to softly cup my chin in his hand. My heart started to flutter and I could feel my pulse start to race when I realized what he intended to do. My eyes widened with excitement as he slowly lowered his head and captured my lips with his in the gentlest, sweetest kiss I had ever felt. My head was in a whirlwind of excitement as he broke away smiling at me, causing me to become completely lost in his sparkling eyes.
"Christy Huddleston, I've loved you since I first laid eyes on you that day at the Spencer's cabin and the feelings that grew inside of me scared me a little because I wasn't sure if I was the man that you needed in your life, but I know now that I can't live without seeing you're smile every day for the rest of my life. You challenge me in so many ways and I think that is what God had planned all along. He brought you into my life to show me how to truly love and trust again and how to believe in myself." He dropped down on one knee and my heart leapt with joy. "Christy Huddleston, I don't have much to offer you, but I love you so much and I want to spend the rest of my life dancing with you. Will you marry me Christy?"
I smiled down at those sparkling hazel eyes that I was so hopelessly lost in and answered, "Of course I will. I love you Neil MacNeill." He stood up hugging me and stole another kiss from my lips that I was so freely willing to give. All of the sudden we heard a loud sound of clapping and cheering coming from the schoolhouse door along with giggles and children whispering "ooooo…..teacher and Doc kissin' in the schoolhouse."
Then we heard Miss Alice's voice boom above the chaos, "What is going on here children?" Her voice trailed off as she reached the top of the steps and saw the two of us standing there with sheepish grins on our faces. Slowly, as she realized what was happening, a small grin spread across her face. "I do believe that I told thee once to hold onto joy Miss Huddleston and I believe thee has."
I looked at the children first, then Miss Alice, and then up at Neil who was still holding me in his arms. I had found joy here in these mountains and in this place called Cutter Gap. The lessons I had learned far outweighed the lessons that I had ever given. These people and taught me how to enjoy life and how to give without expecting anything in return. They taught me that traditions and family heritage were things that needed to be preserved and passed down through the generations. God had opened my eyes and heart and I was so grateful for everything He had shown me, including all the people he had brought into my life and my heart was filled with an unexplainable dance of joy that really did matter.