This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belongs to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended.


So Far From Home
(19th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

Sometimes it might seem like it was planned
for you to roam empty hearted through this land.

("Two Hearts" - Bruce Springsteen)

Luther Root stood outside the Black Hills stage grinning at his lone passenger sitting inside the Concord coach.

"I do wish you would enlighten me as to what seems to be so humorous?" Clay Mosby said.

"I never thought you'd be my passenger, Mosby," Luther confessed, still grinning. He looked through the back window at the solitary figure, sitting stiffly on the brown upholstered bench. "It ain't likely to be a comfortable ride up to Frazer, you know that, don't you?"

"This is hardly a pleasure trip, Luther," Clay replied, finding little humor in the situation. "Now, if we could begin our journey?"

Luther laughed and nodded as he brushed his long hair back and placed his hat on his head. He climbed up into the driver's box and yelled, "haah!" loudly as he snapped the whip to stir the four-horse team to action.

As the Black Hills stage pulled away from Curtis Wells, Clay Mosby reached into his burgundy vest pocket and retrieved a folded piece of paper. He carefully and methodically unfolded it, reading the message he had received yesterday, on Thursday, December 15th. He read it for the third time:

My dearest Clay

please proceed to Frazer

Cousin Ashley expecting me

have been detained

hope to leave forthwith,

love, Olivia Jessup

Clay spread his thumb and index finger wide. He rubbed both sides of his manicured beard as he reflected back to his time in New Orleans when he had met Olivia's cousin, Ashley Jessup. He remembered that she had been grieving the death of her fiance, a Confederate soldier, a Private Bobby Joe . . . ? something or other? He had been a well liked, curly-headed young man, no older than the young Colonel Mosby, himself. The fact that his death came just before the end of the War at Fort Mahone after the evacuation of Petersburg, made the pain so much more bitter.

He remembered Olivia's cousin, Ashley, as an unglamorous weed. She had been dressed in dark, mourning colors from head to foot. She had reminded Clay of one of those far off desert country women who were surrounded by creatures called camels. He never really got a good look at her face but assumed she most likely resembled one of those foreign beasts with the humps. He snickered slightly. If dear Olivia was the fairest flower of New Orleans, then her thorn-in-the-side cousin, Ashley, was the least fairest flower of New Orleans.

Clay shook his head as he adjusted to the bouncing of the coach as he would have preferred to let someone else escort Olivia's cousin to Curtis Wells. And, why Curtis Wells, he thought? He hadn't seen Miz Olivia Jessup for two or three years now. Couldn't she arrange to meet her cousin somewhere else?

Clay drew his Remington and made sure it was loaded. The recent rash of stage robberies had ended once the outlaw gang led by Nels Hammack were gunned down in Curtis Wells. Still, a man like Clay Mosby knew it was wise to be prepared at all times. He looked out the window at the empty plains that stretched as far as the eye could see. Patches of brown twigs silently standing above the snow-covered ground like tombstones. He watched a flock of some thirty wild geese land in the distance and poke their beaks at the ground for food. He was still troubled by the death of Nehemiah Vernon. It exhausted as well as irritated him that others had put him on a pedestal as if he were saintly. He knew he had fallen from being observed as a gallant knight in shining armor to phases in his life where he was a manic depressant, a thief, and a murderer. There was always foolish men who had never tasted the horrors of war penning romanticized versions of his breed. He laughed out loud just a little. Olivia knew him well. She never pulled punches with him. She knew he was a scoundrel. He began to relax and closed his eyes. Maybe Miz Ashley Jessup would be just the tonic he needed as Christmas neared. Not likely, he thought.

***************************

As Luther Root guided the one-passenger stage north beyond Sand Springs toward Jordan, he and Clay observed two men on horseback tuck their heads down low as they rode south, passing the stage. Luther noted that each man wore two guns and they had a professional look to them. He was relieved as both riders paid no heed to the stage as they silently rode by.

"Hey! Mosby!" Luther yelled over the thunderous noise of the horses' pounding hoofs. "Try and get some sleep. It's a two day ride up to Frazer."

Clay grumbled and tightened his arms across his chest, trying to keep warm. He had already fallen victim to the 'horribly weird feeling' that accompanied the effort to resist slumber. He would awaken from what seemed like hours of sleep to discover that only minutes had elapsed. He thought about the trip. Two days to reach Frazer, along the Missouri River. They would return to Curtis Wells by Monday, the 19th. He didn't look forward to the meals that would be served at the stops along the way. Fried salt pork, corn dodgers, dried fruit, and bitter coffee. Damn it. Miz Ashley Jessup had better be worth it, Clay thought as he closed his eyes once more and attempted to maneuver himself into a somewhat comfortable position as he rocked and bounced.

*******************************

Sheriff Austin Peale handed Hubie Kellner the telegram. Dr. Cleese, as well as his wife, Victoria, and a most interested Paige Brandt, watched eagerly as the young man cautiously opened the folded piece of white paper.

"Is this real?" Hubie asked Austin.

Austin nodded as he turned to look at the two Brandt sisters and the town doctor. "Right from Ben Potts, the Territorial Governor."

Hubie turned to Paige. "He gave me a pardon, Miss Brandt. I don't have to go to prison. I'm free!"

Paige giggled happily as she reached out to hug her oldest sister, Victoria.

"I must inform you, Mr. Kellner," Ephraim mentioned, "your bullet wound was quite serious and I must insist on you proceeding cautiously for a week or two."

"Yes Sir, Dr. Cleese," Hubie replied as he stared happily at Paige.

"One more thing," Sheriff Peale added, "my father is expecting you at the Statesman. It seems you made quite an impression on him with your knowledge of printers and newspapers."

"Now you can take me to dinner, Hubie," Paige boldly said.

Victoria shook her head and looked at her husband, the doctor. "I think she's going to be like Gretchen."

*********************************

Mattie Shaw stood in the doorway of the hotel, alongside Amanda Carpenter. Amanda noticed Mattie staring up the street at Robert Shelby as he stepped outside the Ambrosia.

"It's quiet for a Friday night," Amanda suggested.

Mattie looked at her companion. "I suppose."

"With Clay out of town for a few days, Robert has to watch the Ambrosia," Amanda said.

"Sometimes," Mattie softly began, "I wonder if it's even worth all the trouble to be with a man?"

Amanda laughed. "Sure, it's worth it!" she enthusiastically replied. "Face it, Mattie. We need men."

Mattie smiled at Amanda.

"Don't be too hard on Robert, Mattie. We're still an uncivilized society." Amanda looked up the street. "At least out here in the West."

Two men walked down the steps of the Ambrosia as they passed Robert Shelby. He turned to go back inside the saloon but paused to wave to Mattie. She smiled and nodded back.

**********************************

"Come on, Mosby!" Luther bellowed as he slapped his hand across Clay's leg. "We need to get us an early start if you want to pick up that woman in Frazer."

Clay Mosby jumped at Luther's exaggerated wake up call. He noticed Luther grinning. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

"I guess I am," Luther replied, still grinning. "I bet that nice, soft bed of yours upstairs in the Ambrosia would feel mighty comfortable right about now." He looked at Mosby on the hard cot.

Clay grumbled like an old bear as he stepped across the cold floor of the way station. He poured himself a cup of coffee and looked around the room.

"There's a plate of fried corn bread cakes on the table," Luther said, pointing to the middle of the room. "We might get us some antelope steak on the way back."

Clay Mosby didn't respond to Luther as he stepped over to the table and picked up one of the cakes. He squeezed it slightly. "I assume these would come in quite handy if we were to run out of bullets?"

Luther spit his coffee out as he laughed first then choked slightly from Mosby's comment. He brushed the dark brown liquid off his shirt and looked at Mosby. "The steamer Far West is docking in Frazer later today. It's my job to get you there on time. We're pulling out now."

Mosby downed his coffee and grabbed another corn bread cake and followed the burly stage driver out into the morning cold. A fresh team of horses had been hitched up and were ready to go.

************************************

December wasn't the kindest month for Newt Call. Memories of the tragic death of Hannah still bothered him. Even though he loved Gretchen more than anything he still felt the pain and had been short tempered the past couple days.

By Saturday afternoon both Newt and Gretchen Call were irritable. Gretchen paused to look at the small calendar near the stove as she carried a pot of her stew over to the table. She looked down at her husband's left hand. He had accidentally cut it and dried blood spread across the back of his hand like red rivers winding jaggedly on a map. She quietly dished the hot stew into two empty plates then put the pot on the table. She wiped her hands on her white apron and sat down.

"Why don't you let me clean and bandage your hand, Call?"

"Just leave it be," he mumbled as he began eating the stew.

Gretchen watched him eat. "Do you like the stew, Call?"

"I like it fine."

"Call, it's Christmas in eight more days," Gretchen said.

"So?"

"I want to go to my sister's for dinner. We're a family. We belong together. And don't you dare say it's not your family, Newt Call, because it is your family now!"

"I just ain't got a mind to be spending time around all them folks," Call said as he quickly gobbled down his plate of stew and stood up.

"Well then you should have married an orphan with no sisters or any family," Gretchen angrily replied as she stood up and stormed the short distance to the small table near the stove.

"Maybe I should of!" Call barked.

"Oooouuuhhhhhh!" Gretchen screamed as she grabbed the porcelain flower vase and smashed it to the wood floorboards. "You make me so mad, Newt Call!"

"You keep busting things pretty soon we ain't gonna have us nothing. We just finished paying back your sister for the vase you busted half a year ago. Now you can clean it up," Call mocked as he grabbed the brass doorknob.

"Clean this up!" Gretchen yelled as she grabbed a tin cup and flung it at Call, hitting him square in the back. Call turned and stared at Gretchen, surprised by her action. He opened the door and stepped outside, slamming the front door. "Call?!" Gretchen whispered then ran into their small bedroom and threw herself on their bed, crying.

Call stormed toward the barn as his Uncle Mason Dobbs sat with one boot resting atop the saddle of his gray.

"I'll wager that a Missouri tornado just whipped through your house, nephew," Mason said as he dismounted. "So? Who won?"

Call turned and threw his fist into Mason's face, nailing him in the eye. Mason stumbled back. "Shut the hell up, Mason! I ain't in no mood for this."

***********************************

Victoria Cleese sat down on the bench behind the dry goods. Her husband, Ephraim, hastened out back with a cup of water.

"Here, my dear," he offered, "drink this."

Victoria accepted the cup and sipped the water. "Ephraim, what's wrong with me? I'm sick every morning now." She placed one hand over her stomach.

"I think I know, Victoria," he smiled.

Victoria's eyes lit up as she noticed her husband's smile. "Ephraim? Could it have happened already?"

"It has only been a month, my dear," Dr. Cleese replied. "However, the signs point to it. I propose we do not get too excited just yet. We should know for certain in another two weeks or so."

"Won't Paige be surprised?" Victoria giggled. "She wants Gretchen and I to have children so badly."

Ephraim looked back toward the inside of the store. "Speaking of your youngest sister, where is Paige?"

Victoria stood up. "She walked down to the newspaper office with Hubie Kellner to see Mr. Peale."

********************

Josiah Peale flashed a big grin. "Young man," he said to Hubie Kellner, "you are hired as of right now. If I intend to publish the Montana Statesman, it's going to require a great deal of work. More than I could possibly handle alone."

"Thank you kindly, Mr. Peale," Hubie said as he extended his hand toward Josiah. "I have some ideas maybe I can share with you one day."

"Of course," Josiah answered.

"Well, I had better get back to the dry goods or Victoria will come looking," Paige said as she turned to leave. She smiled at Hubie then left.

****************************

Mason Dobbs winced in pain as he lightly touched his eye and cheek. "Sorry, Newt. I didn't mean . . ." he paused as he watched his nephew pace angrily in front of the barn. "That little coyote gal inside the house sure means a lot to you, doesn't she, Newt?"

Call turned to his uncle and blinked. "I reckon I love her more than anything." He shrugged. "I . . . never felt this way before."

Mason laughed then suddenly winced from squeezing his cheek. "I intend to mount up and ride out. I rode out to visit you. I'll come calling tomorrow." He pointed at Call. "Get in there and make up with your wife, Newt. It's what you both want, anyway." Mason winked at his nephew and mounted his gray. "Adios, Newt. See you manana." Mason clicked heels and rode off, leaving Call standing alone in front of the house.

Call turned with his head hung low and raised his eyes. "Dammit, Gretchen," he mumbled and stepped up to the door, opened it and walked inside. He closed the door, paused for a moment, then went into their bedroom. He stood in the doorway gazing at his wife as she laid across the multi-patterned bed spread face down. He looked at her, staring at her flowing, long brownish-red hair across her shoulders. He stared at her waist and hips and noticed how her blue and white gingham dress had ridden up some, exposing the bottoms of her white cotton stockings and her black high-button shoes.

"Gretchen," he quietly said.

She turned over on their bed. Her green eyes were swollen from crying and her cheeks were wet. "Call?" she whispered.

He held one hand out toward her.

"Call," she cried and rushed into his arms where they both squeezed each other as tight as they could.

"I'm sorry, Gretchen," Call quietly said in his wife's ear then he kissed her ear.

"Call," she whispered. "I'm sorry too, Call. I love you more than anything."

Call held her close to his body, feeling her firm breasts pressed against his chest. He rubbed his hand down the back of her head, brushing her soft hair against her back.

"I'm sorry for throwing that cup at you, Sweetheart," Gretchen said as she stared into his eyes.

"You got yourself a fine aim there, Coyote Girl," he laughed. "And some temper."

"I don't ever want to do anything to hurt you, Call," Gretchen replied.

He smiled and taking one finger, wiped the tears from underneath her eyes. "Kind of fun . . . the making up part. Ain't it, Gretchen?"

She stared into his eyes then smiled at him. She giggled a little and buried her face into his chest and nodded. Call took two fingers and gently raised Gretchen's chin so he could place his mouth on her mouth and kiss her wet lips.

"I love you, Gretchen Call."

"I love you, Newt Call."

He lowered them both to the bed as she began unbuttoning his shirt and he began unbuttoning her dress.

***************************************

Clay Mosby stood among a dozen or so folks as the steamer Far West docked along the Missouri River in Frazer. The packet boat had become famous five years earlier when Captain Grant Marsh, the pilot, made a record seven hundred miles journey in fifty-four hours carrying the wounded from the outlying battles related to Custer's Little Big Horn.

These days, the steamer carried passengers and provisions along the Missouri and Milk Rivers. Clay Mosby's eyes were alert as he watched the wooden plank laid from the boat to the shore and passengers begin to exit to shore. He stood patiently waiting as each passenger made their way off the boat. His attention was broken as a man backing up a wagon for supplies yelled at a boy who was daydreaming and nearly was run over by the wagon. Clay laughed slightly as the boy practically jumped out of his skin to avoid being knocked down.

"Colonel Mosby?"

Clay turned back toward the plank and the unknown female voice.

"Yoo hoo. Colonel? Over here."

Clay's eyes widened as he stared at a vision of southern beauty.

The woman smiled and waved a lacy, white handkerchief at Clay. "Why, Colonel Mosby. I would recognize you anywhere."

Mesmerized, Clay walked over to the woman. She could be no one but Miz Ashley Jessup, the unattractive cousin of Miz Olivia Jessup. Yet, this woman was breathtaking as every man paused to gaze at her lovely features. Clay swallowed and blinked a time or two as his eyes had to give a second look to be sure it actually was Miz Ashley.

"My goodness, Colonel Mosby," she blushed. "I do declare. You are the very first gentleman I have seen since leaving New Orleans that reminds me of what a true Southern gentleman should look like."

Clay smiled. This was one of the rare times in his life when he struggled to find words. "Miz Jessup," he finally managed to say as he removed his hat and taking her gloved hand, bent over and lightly kissed her hand.

"Colonel Mosby," she cooed, "you do know how to charm a lady."

Clay stared at Ashley. She was nothing like the last time he had met her. Now, her honey blonde hair was piled high, revealing a sculptured neck that resembled white porcelain. Her eyes were a dark blue, like sapphire. And her cheeks were red, as if they had been pinched just before leaving the steamer.

Miz Ashley Jessup batted her eyelashes twice. "I do hope you are not disappointed, Colonel? Ever since Cousin Olivia suggested I leave New Orleans and . . ." she paused as she looked around at her surroundings and frowned, " . . . journey to this uncivilized frontier, I have put all my hopes in one basket that you, dear Colonel, would still remain the gallant knight of our fair South."

Clay smiled as his mind was still trying to calculate the extreme transformation of this incredibly attractive Southern Lady. "I assure you, Miz Jessup, one would hardly refer to me as a gallant knight."

Miz Ashley Jessup boldly allowed her blue eyes to flutter slightly as she met his apparently lustful gaze. "Oh, hush, Colonel. As always, you are a true and noble gentleman and I find myself literally swept off my feet by you." She lowered her gaze as her face reddened.

"Perhaps it would be wise if I were to gather your belongings and make our way to the stage that will bring us to Curtis Wells," Clay suggested. "If you will allow me to walk you to the stage, Miz Jessup, I will make sure every one of your personal belongings are accounted for."

"By all means, Colonel Mosby," she politely replied.

****************************************

The next morning, Sunday, December 18, 1881, the Reverend Daniel Scully, the man whose brother, Abner Scully, had sold his house to Newt and Gretchen Call, held a church service in Curtis Wells. Convinced by folks like Dr. Ephraim Cleese and Josiah Peale, to remain in town and bring the word of God back, he drew a decent sized crowd for his first official sermon.

After their fight yesterday, Gretchen Call wasn't about to argue with her husband about attending the church service. She asked him if he would please attend with her on Christmas Sunday. Call agreed and Gretchen went to church with her two sisters and Dr. Cleese, while he went hunting with his uncle.

**************************************

While some of the town was gathered inside the church, Robert Shelby walked up behind the gunsmith shop and looked at Mattie Shaw as she leaned against the doorway in the back.

"Morning, Mattie," Robert said as he noticed Unbob and Dewey some twenty-five to thirty yards out in the field playing in the snow.

"Morning, Robert," Mattie replied. "I guess church isn't on your list for today?"

Robert shook his head as he stepped up alongside her then slipped inside the doorway where he wrapped his arms around her. "It has been a long time since I felt like attending church, Mattie." He tilted his head and kissed her on the neck. "I thought we could take a ride outside of town today."

Mattie closed her eyes and enjoyed feeling Robert's lips on her soft flesh.

"Besides," he continued, "it's Sunday. Almost everything is closed."

"I'd like that," Mattie finally agreed. "I'll get my hat and coat."

*****************************

Mason Dobbs looked at his nephew, Newt Call. "How many of those geese you figuring on shooting?"

Call turned and looked up at his uncle. "You just stay up in that there saddle, Mason. I can get two of them before they hightail it."

Mason held the leather reins belonging to the Hellbitch. "Do I get an invite to dinner one night? A man tends to get hungry now and again."

Call lifted his hand as he squatted slightly and moved silently through the crooked row of pines. He stared patiently, a predator, watching one large goose stretch its wings out wide and flap them three or four times, chasing a few smaller geese away. Call shut his left eye and aimed carefully through the sight with his right eye and squeezed the trigger.

Bam!

The sound thundered and echoed as one goose fell into snow and the rush of the thirty something began flapping madly as they flew off. Call aimed and hit another before it was four feet off the snow-covered plains.

Suddenly, a large wolf appeared at Call's right flank.

Bam!

Another shot was fired as the growling wolf crashed into the snow. Call spun around toward his uncle.

"Wasn't me, Newt," Mason said as he pointed to the left. "That shot came from yonder."

Two riders came trotting up to Call and Mason. "We hope you boys aren't offended none?" one of the men said. "Can't abide a wolf mauling a man."

Call looked up at the pair. Their features bore a striking resemblance. Most likely they were brothers. "I reckon I owe you a thanks."

The other man casually waved his hand. "Aw, it was just the decent thing to do."

Mason rode up and eyeballed the men. He noticed they both were wearing two guns and had the look of professional men. For a moment there seemed to be a heavy silence between Mason and the two strangers. The man who shot the wolf put his fingers to the brim of his hat and nodded. "It's too cold up here in Montana. We got us some riding to do."

Both men rode off as suddenly as they had shown up.

Call watched them for a moment then turned to his uncle. "You recognize them boys, Mason?"

Mason looked at Call. "It just be that I do."

"I best get them geese. We can ride back to the house and clean them for Gretchen to cook."

Mason quietly nodded as he rubbed his fingers over his Colt and watched the two strangers until they were tiny specks in the white distance.

*****************************

Clay Mosby sat entranced as he was unable to pull his eyes away from Miz Ashley Jessup. She would politely smile at him and ask boring questions. The road was rough and Miz Jessup wasn't used to the rigors and hardships of frontier life. Finally, she wrapped her arms around her chest and said, "Colonel Mosby? I do not like to make a fuss, but I would trade all the brandy and cigars in New Orleans for a warm coat right now. I'm afraid this paisley shawl was never meant for protection from the elements. It is really for decoration. Foolish girl that I am, I left my overcoat in my luggage." She looked up the ceiling. "I declare my coat must be very warm up on top of this stagecoach."

Clay immediately removed his gray coat and leaned across to hand it to her. "Here. Take this. We should be arriving at the next stop soon and I shall inform the driver to retrieve your overcoat."

"I do declare," Ashley said with a smile, "Colonel Mosby, you are a true gentleman." She gently took hold of his coat and tucked her chin to hold it over her breasts and neck while holding it across her shoulders.

"I fear I must inform you, Miz Jessup, that our accommodations this evening will in no way be as hospitable as last night in that somewhat . . . antiquated hotel."

"Olivia warned me in her last letter that I was in for quite a shock." Ashley's blue eyes stared deeply into Clay's eyes. "I must say, Colonel Mosby, you are still as young looking as those many years ago when first we met."

Clay laughed. "You flatter me, Miz Jessup."

"Your memory of me must be a horrid picture," Ashley admitted. "I was mourning the death of my fiance at that time. I no longer attended parties and it was a long time before I began to miss the gaiety and laughter." She looked at Clay, taking in the tight fitting burgundy vest over the white, ruffled shirt and gray trousers. "Have you ever managed to let go? Of your own lost, I mean."

Clay swallowed and looked out the small window at the endless sea of snow. He shook his head. "Sadly, I never have. I do not know if I ever will. I adored that woman. I loved my Mary so very much. I do not see how one ever gets over the love of their life."

Ashley Jessup leaned forward and placed her soft, white hand on Clay's hand. "I spent so much of my time holding on to ghosts and hiding from the world. Maybe one day love will find you again, Francis Clay Mosby."

He looked into her eyes. "And, what of you, Miz Jessup? I should hope you would desire the same for yourself."

"As you can quite honestly see, Colonel Mos . . ."

"Perhaps I could implore upon you to refer to me as Clay?"

Ashley Jessup fell silent for a moment as they bounced on the bench seats from the ride. "If I may be so bold? Clay," she smiled as her eyes lit up.

Clay nodded. "Now, do go on, Miz Jess . . ."

"Oh, I must insist on you addressing me as Ashley." She batted her eyebrows at him.

Clay laughed and agreed. "Of course . . . Miz Ashley."

"Then, to answer your question, I do not hold my breath in hopes of love in my life. I am well past my prime as a woman, being in my mid-thirties now. I dream of being swept off my feet but alas, I simply must face the fact that the candle is burning out."

"That is a rather depressing outlook, Miz Ashley. I find that you are quite an attractive woman," Clay replied.

"Whoa! Whoa!"

Clay and Ashley both looked out the windows as Luther Root brought the stage and its weary team of horses into the way station where they would spend twenty minutes to change horses, eat, and freshen up.

****************************************

Inside the barn both Call and Mason were cleaning the geese.

"I'll wager this here goose is going to be the sweetest tasting meat," Mason said as he licked his lips. "Your wife, the little coyote. Can she cook?"

Cal nodded as he cleaned his goose. "Gretchen can cook just fine, Mason."

"Call! Call!"

Call looked toward the doors of the barn. "I best go see to that," he mumbled and hurried outside toward the sound of horses and wagon pulling to a halt.

Dr. Cleese, Victoria, and Paige were sitting in the wagon with Gretchen. Call hastened to the side of the wagon so he could help Gretchen down.

"Call, she almost fainted," Paige nervously said.

"You watch her closely now, Newt," Victoria added as both Brandt sisters carefully observed Gretchen.

"I'm all right, Call," Gretchen smiled as her husband pulled her close to him.

"What happened?" Call asked Gretchen and quickly snapped his head to look up on the wagon at the others.

"I was just lightheaded, Call, darling. I'm fine now. I really am," Gretchen softly said as she hugged him. "I already feel so much better being in your arms."

Call stared at her then turned to Dr. Cleese.

"She's fine, Call. It would be wise to observe her. I am quite secure in knowing you will watch your wife most attentively."

"I'm fine, Call," Gretchen whispered as she stared into his eyes.

Suddenly, two riders came across the snow-covered plains, pulling up in front of the Call's house. It was the same two men who had killed the wolf that was ready to pounce on Call.

********************************

Unbob Finch shuffled past the front of Twyla's as Sadie stood in the doorway of the whorehouse.

"It's only one more week till Christmas, Unbob," Sadie said. "Why don't you treat yourself to a poke? I can make the ceiling spin around for you."

Unbob paused and looked up at the second floor of Twyla's Sporting Club and frowned. "You mean you have one of them fans that turn real fast like?"

Sadie shook her head. "No, Unbob. I can do things to you that will feel so good." She looked at his crotch and smiled.

Unbob looked down at his crotch then back at Sadie. "I'm having a hard time trying to find something for Mattie for Christmas."

Sadie opened her mouth then threw one hand up. "Oh, never mind, Unbob."

He smiled. "I'm going over to Mr. Creel's so's I can buy Dewey some jawbreakers."

*****************************

Clay Mosby assisted Miz Ashley Jessup back into the stage then climbed in after her.

"I declare," she replied, "that was the quickest twenty minutes I can remember. How can a lady perform any of her duties when it's 'get out and get in' so fast?"

"I suppose the stage has a schedule to keep," Clay said as he watched her adjust herself in the seat. He took a moment to look at her honey blonde hair underneath her bonnet. "The next stop will be for the night, Miz Ashley. Tell me, just when, exactly, is your cousin Olivia supposed to meet you?"

"I'm sure I do not know, Clay. I did expect her to be waiting in Curtis Wells when I arrived."

The stage rocked back and forth as Luther snapped the whip to pull out.

"Ooohhh!" Ashley cried out as she was thrown across the inside of the coach right into Clay's arms. She blushed as he held her close. "My," she replied, "you are quite strong, Clay. I probably would have injured myself if you hadn't been sitting here."

Clay inhaled the sweet scent that she had perfumed her body with.

"You can let go of me now, Clay," Ashley said as she tugged at his hands to free herself.

"Oh? Yes, of course," he replied and placed her back on her side of the coach.

"Perhaps you could tell me how you came to be in this far off frontier?" Ashley commented as she adjusted her bonnet and brushed her hands over her skirt to smooth out all the wrinkles.

**************************************

Inborn sense kicked in and Call immediately felt the desire to protect and defend not only his wife, Gretchen, but her two sisters and Dr. Cleese. He looked warily at the two men on horseback. "You boys seem bent on hanging round this area hereabouts," he said.

"Lookit that?" one of the men said as he elbowed the other man. "It's that kid we saved from the wolf."

Gretchen looked at Call then at the two men.

"Pardon us for riding into your property. My name's Howard. Thomas Howard. And this is my brother . . . "

"You boys are far from home, ain't you, Jessie? Frank?"

Gretchen noticed the pair of rider's expressions change at Mason Dobbs comment as he stood in the doorway of the barn. The men stared at Mason.

"Well, I reckon it's a common mistake, friend," one of the men replied. "Folks tend to be confused. Sure ain't the first time me and my . . ."

"It's no mistake, amigo," Mason said as he stared unflinching at the two men. "I'll wager I've got the right pig by the ear.

"Pig?" the second man replied. "Friend, that's a poor . . ."

"I ain't your friend," Mason said as he walked toward the men with both pistols drawn. He nodded toward Call. "My nephew here is a bounty hunter with a whole bunch of notches. That fella in the wagon with the specs is Deadeye Doc. A mean killer."

The two men looked quickly at Call then over to Dr. Cleese. Ephraim swallowed nervously and immediately broke out into a sweat.

"Something about you is real familiar," the man who called himself Thomas Howard said to Mason. "Where you hail from?"

"Concho County, Texas."

"That's Mason Dobbs," the other man said to Mr. Howard. "We heard of him and those Texas boys."

"You boys are far from home. What're you doing way up here in this country?" Mason asked.

"We're on our way back to Missouri," Thomas Howard replied. "I got a wife. A young son. And a baby girl."

"I thought their accents were familiar," Victoria whispered to Paige as they sat huddled near Dr. Cleese.

"They sound like Missouri boys," Paige whispered back to her oldest sister.

"It is not our intention to deprive you good folks of any belongings," the other man said. "Bounty hunter, eh?" he said, looking Call up and down.

Call frowned as he held Gretchen and maneuvered at an angle so his body was shielding her. "That's right. Figure I owe you boys a favor . . . for the wolf."

"That's Woodrow Call's son," Mason commented and winked at the James brothers.

"Damn," one of them quietly said. "Everyone's heard of Captain Call."

"I suspect we've seen posters of each other, Dobbs. So now what?" Jessie asked.

"You boys ride out and head home. Call it . . . professional courtesy," Mason said. "Adios, amigos."

Jessie and Frank James looked at each other. They turned their mounts and nodded to the group and rode across the snow-covered field and over the low rolling hill.

"Was that really Jessie James?" Paige asked.

"Yes it was, Little Coyote," Mason answered, "those boys are without a doubt the notorious James Brothers."

"What was he saying, Call?" Gretchen asked her husband, "about saving you?"

Call shrugged. "A wolf looked like it was bound to throw down on me. I never saw it. Them boys shot it." He looked at Gretchen. "I reckon I best get you inside if you're feeling lightheaded."

"Anything you say, Call," Gretchen smiled and laid her head against him.

"There goes my goose dinner," Mason groaned.

**********************************

Next morning Robert Shelby opened the door to the gunsmith shop and smiled at Mattie.

"You're in an awfully chipper mood, Robert," she mentioned.

"I believe my mind is still near that frozen pond with the moonlight reflecting like silver on it," Robert replied as he walked up to Mattie.

"That was real nice, Robert," Mattie said as she leaned over the glass counter to accept Robert's kiss. "If it hadn't been so cold out there I think I would have liked to sleep there."

"Let's you and I do exactly that in the springtime," Robert insisted.

Mattie laughed. "Isn't Clay due back today?"

"Yes, he is," Robert replied. "The stage is due late this afternoon." He laughed. "Poor Clay. He must be miserable bouncing in that four-wheeled contraction."

"Well, I suppose he's doing a good turn by escorting that woman back here. Did you ever meet her, Robert?"

"It was after the War. I met her once. Well, I had better get back to the hotel and earn my keep. I hope to see you later today, Mattie."

*********************************

By early afternoon the stage had journeyed southwest past Jordan, through Sand Springs, on its final leg of the trip. Another two and a half hours and Clay Mosby would be home in Curtis Wells.

"You must think me an awful ninny to be traveling this ghastly time of the season?" Ashely Jessup said as she looked across the coach at Clay.

"Nonsense," he assured her. "I prefer to think that the time for traveling is appropriate whenever one has the desire to do so. Including winter." He grinned at her.

"Why, Francis Clay Mosby?" Miz Jessup coyly replied, "are you flirting with me?" She let her eyes drop to the floor where she gazed at his shiny, black riding boots.

Clay laughed slightly. "Miz Ashley, I hardly imagine you walking through a single day without some man attempting to flirt with you. I must say," he paused as his dark eyes burned through her as if he were viewing her unclothed, "you have become literally quite breathtaking to behold."

Ashley Jessup's dark blue eyes lit up with a fire. She waved her light blue, embroidered fan in front of her face as Clay admired her cape collared overcoat that was draped over her slim shoulders.

"Oooohhhh!" she suddenly cried.

Luther yelled from the driver's box to control the four-horse team hitched to the stage.

Clay raised the brown leather curtain to the side window and as he bounced, peered out as Luther hollered at the spooked horses. A butchered carcass of an elk whose pungent odor of blood had been inhaled by the horses nostrils had frightened the entire team and now they galloped out of control along the road. Luther used every ounce of his legendary strength but the superior power of the four horses was overpowering.

"Clay?! What's happening? I'm frightened!" Miz Ashley Jessup cried out.

Before Clay Mosby could answer her the horses suddenly broke off the road and charged to their right.

"NO! NO!" Luther screamed as the veins in his huge neck bulged and he sensed losing control of the team.

The stage sharply followed the hitched team as it abruptly turned right and the thoroughbrace underneath jammed against the left front wheel. Ashley screamed in fear as the top-heavy coach teetered on only two wheels then fishtailed as the spooked team broke to the left to avoid crashing into a sturdy pine tree. Luther used his massive thighs to forcibly press down on the brake shoes, causing the wheels to smoke.

"Hold on, Miz Ashley!" Clay hollered as the two passengers were tossed across the padded bench seats.

"Clay! Help me!" Ashley cried.

Her voice was the last sound heard from inside the stage as the coach smashed violently against one of the towering pine trees, splintering the door as the front of the stage arched down, throwing Luther headfirst out of the driver's box. The horses tumbled into the cold, hard ground, breaking necks and legs as the battered stage crashed mercilessly onto its side and slid across the slippery ground until it smashed against a pair of pines, crushing the front boot and driver's box through the stage itself.

The two exposed left wheels spun as they squeaked from need of oil as the destroyed stage laid on its side. The four horses lay dead in the snow and Luther Root had been thrown against a large boulder that protruded from the snow. Inside the coach there was no movement. Not even a whispering sound of life to be heard.

To be continued . . .
(Conclusion of the story will have a different title)

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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