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.
When All Is Said and Done
As are life's realities, sir,
By late afternoon, Monday, December 19th, 1881, it was snowing again. A light snow at first, then heavier. Robert Shelby stepped out of Mattie's gunsmith shop laughing with the blonde-haired, lady gunsmith at his side. He stopped laughing as he gazed up the street toward the telegraph office, next to the bank. He squinted, then turned to Mattie.
"The stage should be here by now." He stared at the banking house. "Does Luther run late very often?"
Mattie, still smiling, looked up the street. "I suppose. The road is probably icy and Luther's taking his time bringing the stage in. I'm sure Clay and that woman from New Orleans will be arriving any minute, Robert."
Robert turned his attention back to Mattie. "In all likelihood you're right. I need to check on things at the hotel, Mattie. I look forward to being with you later."
"I do too, Robert," she replied as he hurried across the street toward the Dove.
Newt Call stood in the late afternoon snow watching his wife, Gretchen, with a content feeling he had never experienced before. There was still anger and the short fuse, hair trigger attitude. But, there was a strange peace now. Gretchen turned and smiled at him.
"Call? Come help me finish our snowman. You're not tired from gathering snow, are you?" She giggled and stuck her tongue out at him. Then she bent down and scooped a ball of snow in her gloved hands. She stood up and threw it right into his face. Surprised at her accurate throw, Gretchen began laughing and screaming as she tried to run away.
"You little coyote!" Call said, pretending to be angry. He out ran her in less than ten strides and as Gretchen laughed he tackled her into the snow, while their fat snowman watched in silence.
"No, Call!" Gretchen screamed through the laughter as Call grabbed fresh snow and rubbed it in her face. "Uuuhgg! Tthhhpt! Call!"
"Ow!" Call yelled.
Gretchen rolled over giggling.
"You bit my finger!" Call said in mock pain. He wrapped his arms around her as Gretchen suddenly stopped giggling and smiled. Her green eyes staring into his eyes. "Kiss me, Call," she whispered.
Call leaned in and kissed his wife as she moaned softly and squeezed him tight against her.
"Call?! Is that you?" a new voice said loud.
Call and Gretchen separated their lips and turned to see who was there.
"Enona?" Call replied as he looked up at the smirking bounty hunter. Gretchen laid in the snow alongside her husband, looking up at the woman dressed like a man with a gun and holster.
"This is my wife, Gretchen," Call said then looked at Gretchen. "That's Enona Horn. She's a bounty hunter."
"Hello," Gretchen said.
"Mrs. Call," Enona replied with a nod. "You look happy, Call."
Call turned to Gretchen then back to Enona. "I reckon I'm about as happy as a man can be. Got me the best little woman ever made," he said as he stood up and pulled Gretchen up from the snow with him.
"Would you like some coffee, Enona?" Gretchen asked as she shook her head from the loose snow and brushed her long hair out of her face.
"I could use some coffee," Enona said as she climbed down from her mount.
Gretchen hugged Call and went inside the house, reappearing within two minutes with a steaming tin of coffee.
Enona nodded as she accepted the cup and watched with interest as Gretchen went to Call's side. "I'm trailing Jessie James. Him and his brother were seen in these parts. I had them in my sights but lost them when I took a fall."
"We seen them boys yesterday," Call said as he wrapped his arm around Gretchen's waist.
Gretchen nodded. "Call's Uncle Mason drove them away."
"Your uncle?" Enona smirked again. "You're full of surprises today, Call." She emptied her coffee and handed the tin back to Gretchen. "Obliged for the coffee, Mrs. Call." She looked at Call. "Looks like married life agrees with you. Maybe one day I'll say yes to Luther." She mounted up and clicked heels to her horse and rode off.
Gretchen bent down and scooped some snow and pulled the back of Call's straggly hair aside then wedged the snow down his back. She giggled and ran off as Call turned and ran after her, laughing.
Sheriff Austin Peale was leaning over the bar sipping a beer with his hat on top of the counter when Robert Shelby approached him.
"It's now half past six, Sheriff. I'm beginning to worry about Clay," Robert said.
Austin turned and looked at his deputy. "I don't see any reason for you to be concerned, Shelby. Luther knows the roads well enough. I'd say he probably stayed over at the last way station because of the weather."
Robert shrugged. "Perhaps you are right, Sheriff Peale. I suppose they will be here sometime tomorrow morning."
"If not," Austin said as he paused to swallow some of his beer, "we can ride out along the trail and see if anything unexpected occurred."
Enona Horn had ridden out from Call and Gretchen's house at a fast pace as she tried to find the lost trail belonging to Jessie and Frank James. She cut across the southern trail and rode east for an hour before coming upon the road between Sand Springs and Curtis Wells. There was hardly any light left when Enona suddenly drew rein on her horse. She squinted as she tried to make out the shredded debris of wood on the road. The snow hadn't covered the wheel ruts completely and they could still be seen, zig zagging wildly out of control in the silent, snow-covered ground.
Enona looked around with the wary, skillful eye of a good bounty hunter.
"Luther?!"she barely breathed as she noticed a large, long-haired figure half covered with snow, laying dead-like against a massive boulder. Enona rode quickly up to the location and jumped out of her saddle, sinking her boot heels some two inches into the soft snow.
"Oh no! LUTHER!" She yelled as she grunted from the strain of overturning his huge frame, which was now dead weight. "Luther! Wake up! Please, Luther!"
Dried, paste-like blood was caked on his left cheek from where he collided with the boulder. His left leg was bent at an awkward angle, broken from crashing into the boulder. Enona momentarily began to shake as she was overwhelmed at the possibility of attempting to move his huge body by herself. Fighting back tears, Enona hurried to her horse where she untied her bedroll and used her knife to slice the four corners. She knew it would be impossible for a woman of her size to lift the over two hundred pounds of dead weight belonging to Luther.
"I don't even know if you're alive," she suddenly said as she dropped to the ground and knocked her hat off her head so she could place her ear against his chest. "Oooohhhh!" she groaned in appreciation as there was a heartbeat. It was weak and it was slow, but he was alive. Enona began searching for tree branches large enough to make a litter for Luther to be moved in. As she neared a darkened grove of birch trees she suddenly heard a ticking type of sound and drew her gun. A large owl came swooping out of the trees at her.
Mason Dobbs stepped out of the No.10 just as Amanda Carpenter was reaching for the door to the tent saloon. "Mason!" she exclaimed. "Where's Call?"
Mason gazed at the well-endowed Miss Carpenter. "I'll wager he's at home with his wife right about now."
"Luther didn't arrive with the stage," Amanda said as she held a white shawl over her shoulders. "Do you think you could stop staring at my cleavage for a minute, Mr. Dobbs?"
Mason's eyes raised from Amanda's chest to her eyes. He winked at her, slightly drunk.
"Charmed, I'm sure," Amanda replied. "I'm worried about Clay Mosby. If something happened, Call's the best tracker around here. Can you ride out to get him?"
Mason shook his head and looked up at the snow falling out of the cold, night sky. "First off, Miss Carpenter, it is too dark to go riding." He teetered a little. "I'd venture to say I might have allowed for one too many drinks tonight." He grinned at Amanda. "I'm feeling warm and . . ." he paused as he stared unashamedly with lustful eyes at Amanda's body.
Amanda suddenly felt a rush of wickedness and smiled coyly at him. "Is that what it's going to take in order for you to get Call to search for Clay Mosby?"
"I can't speak for my nephew but I can say that's what it's bound to require to move me to ride out to his place."
Enona Horn threw herself into the fresh, powdery snow as the claws of the owl barely missed her head. She knew it was only protecting a nest of young that was close by and she didn't desire to kill it. She fired two shots, one on each side of it, hoping to scare it off until she could get Luther out of the cold snow.
She jumped up and began once more to desperately search for any large branches that she could make a litter with. Within ten minutes she had secured two crooked branches that were strong enough to support the more than two hundred pounds of dead weight of Luther's body. Rigging two ropes from the hastily-made litter to her saddle horn, Enona rolled Luther onto his stomach and wrapped her last bit of rope around his waist and the litter. She mounted her horse and as the snow began falling harder, she crossed the road and headed southeast in search of any place offering warmth and shelter.
"Damn you, Luther Root," Enona turned her head back and said as tears slid down her cheeks, "you better not die on me."
There was no sound or movement from the litter. Only an eerie silence.
The next morning, before sun up, Amanda elbowed a thoroughly content Mason Dobbs. "Rise and shine, Mr. Dobbs. I delivered my share of the deal. It's your turn now."
Mason yawned as Amanda sat up and reached for her robe. He caught a glimpse of her naked body and smiled. Amanda wrapped the silk material around her full figure as Mason slowly kicked the bed sheets on the floor and pulled his pants on.
"It's a mite cold," he grumbled as he turned his eyes toward Amanda and winked.
"Oh no," Amanda said defiantly. "you want to be warm, ride out to Call's place."
Mason hurried and dressed then before leaving Amanda's room paused and looked at her. "I'll wager an experienced woman makes a better lover than a young gal any day of the week."
"That's a wager you would win, Mr. Dobbs," Amanda agreed. "Now go get Call. Just in case . . ."
It was obvious by noon that something unexpected had happened to the stage. Robert Shelby and Sheriff Austin Peale had gathered a half dozen of Mosby's best men to ride out on a search party. Amanda Carpenter and Mattie Shaw tried to persuade the posse to wait until Mason Dobbs brought Call back but Robert Shelby wanted to get started as soon as he could. He led the way as Austin, Zeke, and some of Mosby's men rode past the jail, heading east toward Sand Springs.
Twyla and Florie watched from outside the sporting club as the posse rode off. "I hope nothing bad happened to Clay," Florie quietly said as her hand unconsciously rubbed over the buttons of her robe.
"Curtis Wells needs Mr. Mosby," Twyla replied.
"Curtis Wells don't need Mosby," Call frowned as he continued brushing Gretchen's horse, Sugar. "'Sides, it ain't my problem, Mason."
Gretchen stood in the barn with her arms folded across her chest. Mason looked at her and smiled then turned to his nephew and in a low voice, said. "I sort of made a deal with Amanda. I spent the night with her, Newt."
Call stared angrily at his uncle.
"Hell, you're married boy. I run low on dinero and Amanda was one prime piece of beef. Not that I would ever consider a woman just a piece of beef." He elbowed Call. "Come on, Newt. Let's say you owe me for punching me in the eye three days ago."
Call looked at the blue and yellow shiner under his uncle's eye and laughed slightly. "I ain't of a mind to go off and leave Gretchen out here all alone. Not after what happened about a month ago."
"So we bring her to her sisters on the way out," Mason said.
Gretchen lifted the hem of her brown skirt so it wouldn't drag in the muddy snow at the doorway and walked toward her husband. "Call, I heard some of the conversation. I don't like being apart from you any more than you do. I miss you so much and I worry so about you." She put her arms around him. "But if Mr. Mosby and Luther are in trouble . . ."
"There's a woman, too," Mason added. "Word is she just come out from New Orleans to see Mosby."
Gretchen looked into Call's eyes. "See, Sweetheart? You have to at least try."
"That the way you want it, Gretchen?" Call said.
"No, Call," she replied, "it's not the way I want it. But it's the right thing to do." She kissed him with her warm breath. "Come back to me, Call. I need you so much."
Call nodded. "Pack a few things and we'll bring you to the store. You best stay with Victoria till we get back, you hear? This might take a day or two."
"Yes, Call. I hear you. I love you forever, Call," Gretchen said and hurried back to the small house to gather a few belongings.
By mid-afternoon, Tuesday, December 20th, Robert Shelby led the small band of riders into the area where the stagecoach had lost control. It had snowed all through the night, Monday, and most of the tracks were covered by now.
"Oh my God!" Robert cried out as he saw the destroyed remains of the stage up ahead lying on its side. The men rode in between the towering pines as they came upon the carcasses of the four dead horses. Robert jumped off his horse and casting all fears away he climbed on the overturned thoroughbrace and pulled himself on top so he could look down into the inside of the stage.
"No," he whispered as he stared at the crushed and smashed insides. "No!"
When Call rode into town with Gretchen holding on tight behind him and Mason Dobbs alongside the newlyweds, some of the town folks hastened to join them.
"Mr. Call! Mr. Call!" Unbob said as he waved his arms like some animated scarecrow.
"Newt," Josiah Peale said as he and his young assistant, Hubie Kellner, advanced on the trio.
"Well," Amanda said as she looked only at Mason Dobbs. "A man of his word. I'm impressed."
Mason winked at Amanda as Mattie and Dewey added themselves to the ranks. "So was I . . . last night," he quietly said to Amanda.
"I'd be obliged if you could look after Gretchen until I get back?" Call said to Victoria and Dr. Cleese as they, along with Paige, came out of the dry goods store, where Call had stopped with the Hellbitch.
"You know we will, Newt," Victoria replied. "I've taken care of this little minx for twenty years now," she giggled as she reached out to hug her younger sister, Gretchen. Ephraim nodded in agreement with his wife.
Call ignored the others that were standing around, leaving Mason for that job. He stared at his wife and she turned and took hold of him.
"I love you, Newt Call. I'll be waiting for you," Gretchen softly said as she held him close.
"I love you too, Gretchen Call." Call smiled and kissed his wife. He held her tight then let go. "Reckon it's time."
"Are they alive, Shelby?" Austin Peale asked as the men stood nervously about waiting for the answer. "And where's Luther?"
Robert leaned up from looking inside the coach. He turned to Austin and raised his left arm when suddenly a shot was fired.
"Aaagrhhhh!" Robert yelled as a bullet pierced his left forearm, stopping a deadly projectile that would have gone through his head. He fell back off balance into the snow as multiple shots were fired and whooping cries were heard from four or five Blackfeet Indians on horseback nearby.
"Take cover!" Austin hollered as he grabbed Zeke and pulled him to safety behind the overturned stage. One of Mosby's men didn't make it to cover and fell in the snow, dead from at least three gunshot wounds.
"What the hell's going on?!" Austin yelled as he looked to Robert Shelby for the answer. Seeing that Robert was holding his right hand on his left forearm as blood stained his fingers, Austin pulled out his handkerchief and wrapped Robert's arm while bullets whizzed overhead or struck the smashed stage with an exaggerated and thunderous sound.
"If they circle us we're dead," Robert replied, as he realized the severity of their situation.
Zeke and the other Mosby men took turns rising and firing then ducking for cover. "This looks bad, Mr. Shelby," Zeke said as he emptied his gun and hurried to reload it.
Suddenly, shots could be heard coming from across the opposite side of where the Blackfeet were. The painful groans of two men crying their death grunts and the sudden firing in the opposite direction gave a new hope to Shelby and Sheriff Peale. The remaining renegades rode across the open road as if retreating. Robert and Austin rose and fired at the escaping Indians, hitting one in the side and dislodging him from his mount where the others were unable to alter directions and trampled him to death as they rode away.
Robert looked out toward the pines, where the unexpected help had come from. "Well, I'll be," he said as Mason Dobbs and Newt Call came riding in with guns drawn. "You Texas boys sure know how to make an entrance," he said as Mosby's men emerged from behind the stage.
"Now what about Mosby?" Austin asked again. "Are they inside the coach?"
Mason and Call pulled up alongside the others.
"No," Robert said. "It's empty inside. There's blood all over the seats. They must have . . ." he looked around, confused. "They must have gotten out and are nearby. Spread out! Clay and Miz Jessup must be somewhere close by."
"What about Luther?" Austin demanded.
"You can see plain enough, can't you, Peale?" Robert said. "No one is here. The three of them must have left together."
One night earlier, while it was snowing and cold, both Clay Mosby and Miz Ashley Jessup lay bleeding, battered, and unconscious from the wreckage of the Black Hills stage. They had been tossed roughly across the small confinement of the enclosure and Clay bravely and heroically risked his very life as he gallantly shielded Miz Jessup's body with his own body.
As the toppled coach slid violently into the massive pines, shattering the driver's box and front boot as that section was driven through Clay Mosby's seat, both Clay and Ashley had suffered several cuts and bruises as their bodies lay motionless while the frigid snow began covering them.
It had been a grim scene as the dead horses were still in harness.
Unaware that Enona Horn, the bounty hunter, had labored furiously to haul the unconscious, and possibly dying Luther Root away in the dark of night, Clay Mosby was the first to regain consciousness. The first sensation he was aware of was the numbing cold as he suddenly began shivering. His body temperature had dropped to where his body reacted involuntarily as it shook violently, unable to stop.
"Miz Ash . . . Ash . . . ley," he stuttered as small clouds of steam formed near his mouth. Thinking quickly, his mind relived the sudden and terrible crash as he determined it absolutely urgent that he immediately remove himself as well as Miz Jessup from the wreckage before both of them froze to death.
"Uuuhhhhhhhh!" Clay suddenly yelled as he jerked his head upward from severe, burning pain. He managed to turn his head and twist his body slightly as he realized that the black metal floor of the front boot, which usually supported the strong box, had impaled his right thigh, underneath the hip. As he struggled to free his right arm from shielding Miz Jessup, he rubbed it over the jagged, splintered wood of the coach's inside, tearing his coat and shirt as it shredded his flesh. Gritting his teeth and shaking from the ripping of his flesh, Clay finally reached where the sharp metal had lodged itself in the back of his thigh. His pants were pasty and sticky from the lost of blood which had partly dried since the horrible collision some five or six hours earlier.
Clay closed his eyes and breathed hard. He shook his head. "You are not going to defeat me this easily!" he promised as he took hold of the metal and yanked it out of his stabbed thigh. "Uuuhhgrghhhhhhh!" he bellowed as he felt warm blood suddenly slide down his leg. Feeling enough pain to cause most men to pass out, Clay Mosby yelled as he exerted all of his strength to lift himself up. His Herculean act was all about the heart of a man, having little to do with mere physical strength. Refusing to buckle and surrender under the grimmest of situations, he rose as a conqueror in the lonely and frigid night that was closing its icy death grip around his throat.
"Miz Ashley?" Clay said as his teeth chattered. There was no answer. He wasn't even sure if she had survived the crash. Either way, he had to get both of them out of the coach and someplace that would shield them from the bitter cold and snow. With every single bone and muscle aching to the point of madness, Clay gently lifted the cold and unmoving body of Miz Ashley Jessup. She was so cold. Clay looked at her features in the darkness. He kissed her forehead and groaning under excruciating pain he lifted her half way through the door opening. He rested her body but had no room to squeeze through himself. With a minimum of room, he drew his Remington and using the handle as a hammer, broke the slabs of wood that were between door and window.
Clay's eyes rolled up into the back of his head as he now moved on heart alone while pulling his injured body through the opening. He could feel the trail of warm blood oozing down his leg from the sliced opening in his thigh and soaking up like a sponge inside his boot. Exercising an iron will to survive, he labored under heavy breathing as he slowly removed the body of Miz Jessup from the wreckage.
"Aaarghrghhhhhhh!" Clay yelled as the severe pain radiated from his stabbed thigh, buckling his legs as he collapsed to the icy snow. Miz Jessup's body fell on top of him and Clay once again gained his feet as he lifted the lady from New Orleans into his shaking arms and began to step through the snow. What he had done was akin to the legends of men like Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett.
After six or seven steps Clay's body out bid his heart and he fell to the ground, no longer conscious, as the merciless snow began to cover both Clay and Miz Ashley Jessup.
Unaware of any passengers or even the destroyed stagecoach, due to her feelings for him, Enona Horn had pulled the hastily-made litter carrying an unconscious Luther Root off the main road knowing there would be likelier chances of stumbling onto a cabin. It was her good fortune after almost an hour and two miles through wooded flatlands that she came upon a solitary ranch in the snow. Lights were flickering inside the dwelling and Enona quickly knocked on the wooden door. The rancher, with shotgun in hand, fearing the strangers and having a wife and four small children, ushered Enona and Luther into the barn. Enona was thankful for the shelter and immediately began attempting to revive Luther.
Remembering the times her and Luther had rode hell-bent across the territory, Enona's tears fell on Luther's sullen and quiet face as she prepared a bed of hay in an empty stall. Enona then set about to taking a slab of timber and pulling her spare shirt from her saddlebag, and ripped it into long, shredded pieces. She secured Luther's broken leg with the splint as his breathing steadily grew stronger. Enona then took a spare horse blanket draped over another stall and laid close to Luther to keep his body warm throughout the night.
When Clay Mosby's Herculean efforts finally gave way to the reality of blood lost and injury, the fate of death by freezing became a better-than-even bet. It was only minutes since he collapsed when the crunching sound of heavy feet in the snow was heard. Not by Clay or Ashley. If it was a predator, like some hungry cougar or bear, the pair would most definitely be attacked and their flesh torn apart. If it was thieves, they would most likely be stripped of their belongings and clothing, and left to die in the cold night.
The sound of someone or something approaching suddenly stopped as breathing and grunting sounds echoed in the towering pines.
"Tarnation! Jezebel, take a gander at this." The bent-over figure of a bearded old man stared with a crazy set of eyeballs at Mosby and Miz Jessup. "Well I'll be! I recollect this here young fella. Never laid eyes on the girl. Hmm! She's a pretty one, she is." He turned to the mule. "I better set about to toting these two poor souls to our camp before they freeze to death."
The grizzled old timer rolled Mosby off Miz Jessup and grunting from age and the cold, he lifted Ashley's limp body and carefully draped her body across the reluctant mule.
"Jezebel! You behave yourself now," the old man ordered as the mule nervously exhibited its disapproval by moaning loudly. "Tarnation! I can't carry these folks. Now, you simmer down and I'll feed you an extra carrot tonight."
The mule quieted down, as if understanding the old man's message. The old man grunted his approval and set off for the smashed and battered stage where he used a large, sharp Bowie knife to cut away the rear boot's canvas covering and pulling a medium-sized hatchet from the pack bound on the mule, he hacked away at two strong branches from the closest birch trees. Working in the dark Montana night as if it were day time, the old man strung together a secure litter. He placed Mosby on the litter and removed his bearskin coat and placed it over the unmoving body of Ashley Jessup.
"I ain't sure if she'll live through the night. Come on now, Jezebel!" he ordered and began trudging through the falling snow as he headed southeast.
Though it had stopped snowing by morning, the sun was now just a dull light in the cloud-covered sky as it descended toward the far western horizon.
"It's going to be dark soon," Robert Shelby yelled to the posse. "Hasn't anyone found tracks?!"
Sheriff Peale and Mosby's men either rode or walked in a large perimeter around the wreckage and dead horses. The urgency of the situation and the frozen ground allowed for the dead man who had worked for Mosby to remain unburied for the time being.
While Shelby and his group searched at close range, Call and Mason extended the search as they quietly moved away from the road and into the scattering of trees where the posse hadn't trampled the ground yet.
"I'll wager the three of them didn't cross the road and move north where those Blackfeet came from," Mason commented.
"Ain't likely," Call replied as he studied the ground.
"Over here! Over here!" Robert Shelby yelled. "Hurry! I found something!"
Dr. Ephraim Cleese walked into the dry goods store as his wife, Victoria, was closing up. Gretchen had been staring blankly out the window, her thoughts only on Call. As she turned to greet her older sister's husband, she swayed off balance.
"Oohhh!" she cried.
Dr. Cleese reached out to grab her arms. "My goodness, Gretchen. Are you all right?"
Gretchen placed her hand on her forehead. "I . . . felt lightheaded." She looked at Victoria and Paige.
Ephraim looked at Gretchen then at Victoria. He smiled just a little. "Shall we get your younger sister to our house, Victoria? Perhaps she needs rest."
Paige helped Gretchen out of the store as Ephraim and Victoria carefully observed.
Enona had stayed close to Luther all through the night and all through the next day. As darkness was overtaking the day, the rancher entered the barn with his shotgun.
"You reckon that fellow is ready to ride?" the rancher asked Enona.
She stood up with her hand touching her gun handle, causing the rancher to backtrack a few steps. "We aren't causing you any grief! He was hurt bad. The stage must have had a bad accident. He would have frozen to death if we didn't find shelter. I don't even know if any others were out there." She turned to the sleeping Luther then back to the rancher. "I'll pay you for use of your barn. He can't ride just yet."
"I don't know the likes of you folks but I got a wife and four young children inside. It don't pay to be a fool," the rancher replied.
"We're not a threat to you or your family!" she angrily said. "He nearly died. We just need a warm place to let him heal."
The rancher looked at Enona, seeing her eyes redden. "Guess I could try to rustle up some grub for the two of you." He backed up to the door. "Wait here."
Austin, Zeke, and the rest of Mosby's men gathered about forty yards from the wreckage as Robert announced finding something. "Look!" Robert said as he pointed to the boulder Luther had crashed into. "There's blood on this boulder and tracks leading through the trees."
"We found other tracks over there," Mason rode up and replied as he pointed in the opposite direction.
"Tracks we found show a man's boots walking through the snow. He had a horse . . . or mule. I reckon it was carrying someone. The animal's marks are weighed down. Too heavy to not carry a body. There's a litter being hauled by the animal," Call added as he rode up behind Mason.
Robert Shelby looked around. "Clay would never leave Miz Jessup alone. Nor would he go off without her. We need to split up and track both trails. Dobbs? Will you travel with me? I'm following the tracks you Texas boys found."
Robert looked at Call. "Will you and Sheriff Peale follow these other tracks?"
Call shrugged. "It don't matter none to me which tracks I follow."
"Then let's move out," Austin said as he mounted his horse and rode off without Call.
Call looked at his uncle and shook his head. Mason winked at his nephew. "Mind your hair, boy," he said as Call rode off.
Robert turned to one of Mosby's men. "Gather Mosby's hat and Miz Jessup's luggage. Bring them back to Curtis Wells. Someone has to do it. We have enough men to continue."
Robert Shelby led his group in the opposite direction as daylight was fading.
The first sounds Clay Mosby heard as he regained consciousness was a low, grunting type of laughter. His eyes locked on the shadowy figure looming above him as he realized it was a familiar face from the past.
"Uh huh, uh huh," the white-bearded old man nodded. "Name's Curtis. Like I tell folks, just Curtis. I ain't rightly sure if it's my front name or the back one. That there's just what I tell them."
Mosby looked around the campsite as if he were confused and still dazed.
"If you ain't a sorry sight to look upon," the old man grumbled as he bent down and offered Clay some hot coffee. "Here, drink this, son. You ain't well. Not by a long ways."
"Thank you," Clay replied as he reached for the tin cup. Suddenly, he sat up. "Ashley?! What have you done with her?!"
Curtis pulled back the steaming cup of fresh coffee and grunted. "Is that her name? She like to died on me. She's not gonna make it."
Clay kicked the blanket off his body and jumped to his feet. His face was painted with pain as he attempted to put his weight on both legs. "She has to make it!" he yelled. "Where is she?"
"Simmer down, son," Curtis said as he patiently stared at Mosby. "She ain't dead just yet. Nothing I can do for her way out here. She needs a doctor. Her pulse is weak. And you ain't in no condition to go off riding with that leg of yours."
"I will be the judge of that, Sir!" Clay said as he grit his teeth from the burning pain in his stabbed thigh.
"Damnation!" Curtis laughed. "If you ain't spitting fire. I'm still avoiding Bearclaw and his Blackfeet devils up in these woods. Even if you had a horse, which you ain't got, how far you think you'd get with that little gal? Those devils will run your tail to hell." Curtis grunted and offered the coffee to Clay once more.
Clay ignored him as he spun around and saw Miz Ashley Jessup lying frighteningly still near the open fire. Curtis had covered her with a blanket. Only her face was exposed to the chilly night air. Clay dropped to his knees as his jaw tightened from the pain, and took hold of Ashley's soft hand.
"Her hand is like ice," he said as he turned to Curtis. "I have to get her to a doctor. Don't you understand?!"
"Curtis Wells is the nearest town but ol' Jezebel ain't much for . . ."
"Tarnation!" Curtis yelled as he rolled to the snow-covered ground. "I didn't hear them devils sneak up on us."
Clay noticed two horse-bound Blackfeet nearby. He drew his pistol and as another shot ricocheted inches from his boot, he pointed his gun and shot one of intruders in the belly. The Indian groaned and leaned into his pony as he rode toward Clay. Clay hobbled aside and shot the Blackfoot in his side. The Indian grimaced in pain and toppled off the horse. Clay lunged into the pony's side, trying to secure the reins.
"You damn fool!" Curtis yelled, "that's the surest way to kill yourself."
Clay was dragged about ten yards before the horse stopped. Curtis rose and fired with his .50 caliber Hawkins rifle at the other Blackfoot but the Indian moved through the trees and could be heard riding away.
Clay, battered and sweating great drops from the intense pain in his thigh, pulled the saddle-less pony to the campsite and looked at Curtis. "Help me put Miz Jessup on this horse? I know I can get to Curtis Wells if I stay on the road."
"Are you a complete fool? Bearclaw must have a dozen of them devils out night crawling. Won't be long before you're moanin' and groanin' and I can't move fast enough to save your sorry hide," Curtis argued. "What do you think they'll do to that little gal when they catch you? At least wait till first light to make a run for it. Can't be more'n another hour or two."
Desperate to find his closest friend, Robert Shelby struggled with Mason Dobbs and the way he searched for tracks.
"Clay may be in dire need of us at this very moment, Sir," Robert protested. "Can you not move quicker?"
Mason paused and leaned on his saddle horn. "Look, Johnny Reb, there's no moon lighting up the ground. We been riding blind for hours. Take a look at your men back there. They're all sleeping in their saddles. I have no desire to see Clay Mosby suffer or perish. This is as fast as I go."
Robert frowned. "I apologize, Sir. I know you have led us this far. I am just concerned about . . ." he paused.
"We'll find them," Mason assured Robert Shelby.
While the temperature dropped and the night wore on long past midnight, Call and Austin followed tracks in a different direction. Call finally paused as he took note of the secluded ranch and barn up ahead.
"I reckon that's where we'll find them," Call mumbled, steam forming in front of his face.
"Whoever lives there is going to sleeping," Austin mentioned.
Call's eyes were set on the ground. "Tracks from the litter lead up to the doors of the barn." He dismounted and walked the Hellbitch up to the doors and opened them. He looked inside the dark, quiet barn. Austin stood behind him.
Over in the corner stall to the left, a lamp was lit. "Who's there?" a woman's voice asked. The lamp was raised as she suddenly said, "Call? Sheriff Peale?"
"Who're you?" Call asked.
"It's me, Call. Enona," she said as she approached the two men. "How did you find us in this weather? And at night?"
Call looked over to where Luther lay on the ground. "He gonna be all right?"
Enona turned and nodded. "He gave me a scare, Call. He split his head open and has a broken leg. But he'll live."
"You don't have to go home to your wife, Call," Austin said. "You got Enona to warm you." He laughed.
"Shut up, Austin," Call replied.
"Go on , Call," Austin said as he nudged Call against Enona.
Call spun and without warning threw a punch high, hitting Austin on the chin. The sheriff staggered back slightly and shook his head. "Is that the best you've got?"
"Stop it!" Enona said.
"He start . . .uuhh!" Call groaned as Austin swung his fist into Call's belly, doubling him over. Call charged into Austin, both men slamming against the wooden stall.
"Damn it, you two!" Enona yelled. "Stop it!"
Austin held the shorter Call at arm's length and threw a hard right fist across Call's cheek, knocking him roughly into the stall.
As Call bounced off the stall Austin punched him in the stomach, then across the side of his face again, knocking Call to the ground.
Enona drew her pistol and twisting it, slapped the handle across the back of Austin's shoulder and neck, missing his head. "I said stop it!"
Austin turned to Enona as Call Scrambled to his feet.
The three of them jumped, startled by the shotgun blast. "What's going on in here?!" the rancher demanded as he aimed his shotgun at Call and Austin.
"Put up that gun, Mister," Call said. "There was a sorry stage wreck." He pointed to where Luther lay unconscious. "That fella is the driver."
"Right now I don't give two hoots about any stage wreck. I feel an urge to shoot all four of you, including that big fellow on the ground," the rancher angrily said. "Waking decent folks up in the middle of the night."
"I'm the law," Austin replied as he rubbed his neck and shot an angry glare at Enona. "Sheriff Peale from Curtis Wells." He pulled back his duster, revealing the tin star pinned on his vest.
"That don't wash with me," the rancher said. "Right now you're all bound here."
Before first light, Wednesday morning, Clay Mosby was on the road for Curtis Wells. Old Curtis had helped him lift Miz Ashley Jessup onto the Blackfoot pony. A blanket was draped over her cold and unconscious body and Clay sat behind her as he desperately sought to reach Curtis Wells.
As clouds of steam shot out of the pony's flaring nostrils at Clay's urging to run, the sound of advancing horse hoofs could suddenly be heard. Mosby knew he could never outrun a party of hostiles and drew his gun.
"Clay! Clay! Pull up!"
Clay Mosby turned and squinted as he realized it was Robert Shelby and a few other men.
"Clay! Clay! We found you!" Robert cried loudly as he pulled alongside his closest friend. "You gave me quite a scare, Clay."
"I need to get Miz Jessup back to town, Robert. She requires medical attention. I cannot allow her to die," Clay said.
Robert Shelby looked at the slumped-over woman and nodded. "Then we shall speak no more until we have reached Curtis Wells."
The group rode off following the road in a southwest direction as the sun rose behind their left shoulders.
By mid to late morning Clay Mosby arrived in Curtis Wells with Robert and the others alongside him. Miz Jessup was carried up the stairs to Cleese's office by Zeke and another of Mosby's men. Robert assisted a weary Clay into the office.
Mason headed across the street to the dry goods to check on his nephew.
"Howdy, Girls of Missouri," Mason said as he entered the store and removed his hat. "Did Newt ride in yet?"
Gretchen dropped the feather duster and hurried over to Call's uncle. "No. We haven't heard anything." She didn't curtsey this time. She looked at him with concern in her eyes. "Wasn't he with you, Mason?"
Mason hesitated a moment, seeing the worried look in Gretchen Call's face. "We split up. "Newt followed Luther Root's trail with Sheriff Peale."
Victoria walked up to her younger sister and placed her hands on her shoulders. "I'm sure Newt will be back soon, Gretchen."
Clay Mosby refused to rest or even leave Doc Cleese's office until he knew for certain whether Miz Ashley Jessup would live or die. He spent the entire afternoon by her side, his hand in hers as he periodically dozed off. He was continuously interrupted by the likes of Amanda, Mattie, and Josiah, as they looked in on him, relieved that he was safe in Curtis Wells.
As it was beginning to darken outside Miz Ashley Jessup stirred and opened her eyes for the first time since the crash. Her breathing was exceedingly weak from the concussion she had received. She stared blankly at the ceiling then looked at Clay.
"Dearest Clay . . . what . . . ? . . . what . . . happened?"
Clay tightened his grip around her soft hand. "We had an accident, Miz Ashley. With the stage. Do you remember anything?"
She frowned as she tried to remember. "My head is aching as if Yankee cannons were going off inside it. I declare that I feel very weak . . . and dizzy."
Dr. Cleese stepped near them. "Clay, she needs her rest."
Ashley nodded slightly. "I do feel tuckered. Dearest Clay," she smiled and squeezed his fingers then closed her sapphire blue eyes.
Clay was able to wire a telegram to Denver, notifying Miz Olivia Jessup of an accident but things would end well. The return wire proclaimed Miz Olivia before the start of the new year.
Victoria and her two younger sisters were walking out of the dry goods as Gretchen suddenly noticed three riders with a litter coming down the darkening street.
"Call! Call!" Gretchen cried out as she giggled and holding her white shawl with one hand, ran into the street after her husband. "Call! You're back!"
Call angled the Hellbitch away from Austin and Enona and quickly dismounted as Gretchen ran into him and hugged him. "Call! Sweetheart! I missed you so much. I'm so relieved that you're safe."
Call pulled Gretchen tight against him and kissed her.
She held him close and happily kissed him back.
"Call? Your face," Gretchen moaned as she lightly brushed his hair away and touched the bruised and cut cheek.
"It's nothing," he said as he stared into her green eyes, smiling.
"Is Luther all right?" Gretchen asked, looking off at Austin and Enona as they rode to the front of Dr. Cleese's office.
"I reckon he'll be fine," Call said.
Mason, as well as Victoria and Paige joined the newlyweds. Mason explained things about Mosby.
During the next few days Dr. Cleese kept busy tending to the injured trio from the stage wreck, including patching up Robert's bullet wound. Clay Mosby reluctantly accepted crutches to speed the recovery of his stabbed thigh. Luther Root needed crutches also for his broken leg and he had a concussion to go along with it. Miz Ashley Jessup rested and seemed to never run out of conversation whenever Clay Mosby sat with her.
By Sunday morning, Christmas Day, Dr. Cleese had released all three patients. The Reverend Daniel Scully, preached to a full house in church as for the first time ever in Curtis Wells' memory, Clay Mosby and Newt Call were in attendance, together. Clay Mosby reluctantly attended, at the eyelid-batting insistence of Miz Ashley Jessup. And Newt Call reluctantly attended at he had promised his wife, Gretchen.
Even folks such as Amanda Carpenter, Austin Peale, and Robert Shelby attended as respectful thanks for Mosby's safe return.
Luther Root attended with Enona Horn at his side, to everyone's surprise.
Mason Dobbs was there for his nephew and Paige Brandt giggled at how only young Dewey looked out the windows more times than her brother-in-law, Call.
Both Call and Mosby felt incredibly uncomfortable and completely out of place during the assembled singing of Christmas songs such as Child In The Manger or Angels, From The Realm of Glory. They felt smothered and like caged animals during the sermon. Clay would glance at Call and snicker, angering Call. Call smirked at Mosby which slightly irritated him. If not for Miz Ashley Jessup as well as Mrs. Gretchen Call, those boys might have brought the building down.
But they didn't. And the church survived as folks emerged out into the snow-covered town and friend and stranger alike wished one and all a Merry Christmas. For one day at least, there would be peace on Earth in a little town in Montana.
+++++++++++++++++++++ The End +++++++++++++++++++
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