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.


Gordian Knots
Conclusion of previous story, "Ephraim's Blunder"
(25th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

It isn't necessary that any history should be written;
let the storytellers invent it all.

(John Singleton Mosby - to a newspaper reporter, 1904)

Robert Shelby was the first to realize something was amiss. The last cannonball had been fired nearly seventeen years earlier at the conclusion of the War between the States. The tormented souls who survived the horrors and atrocities of battle carried scars that ran deep inside them. It changed a man. Changed him unfavorably. Fortunately, there were occasions where experience allowed him to save himself. Or save someone else.

He couldn't say exactly what it was, but something bothered Robert. It was a feeling. He had unhitched the team of horses from the wagon that Olivia and he had gone riding in, then stepped out into the street, near the livery. Everything appeared normal. But still, there was that feeling. He walked quickly across the street and entered the Ambrosia. Clay would either assure him nothing was amiss or else he would join him and together they would not only determine the issue, but would solve it as well.

When told by Carson, the barkeep, that Clay Mosby had ridden away with Mason Dobbs, and that he was carrying the painting he had just posed for, Robert felt certain that his senses were accurate. He quickly strode along the wooden sidewalk and went inside the sheriff's office. Laying in the middle of the floor was Austin's holster, along with his gun still inside the scabbard. Robert snapped his head toward the cells. Austin lay crumpled in a pile on the floor. He didn't move. Robert grabbed the jail keys off the floor, unlocked the door, and shook Austin, trying to revive him.

"Uuhhnhhh," Austin moaned. He was slow to awaken, causing Robert to shake him violently. "Oohh? What . . . ? Ohhh! Unnhh, my head."

"Wake up, damn you, Peale!"

Austin opened his eyes and immediately winced as he reached for his head and groaned in pain.

"What happened?" Robert ordered. "Who did this? What did they want? Tell me!"

"Ow! Leave me alone!" Austin cried. He flinched, then breathing hard, pulled himself to a sitting position and leaned back against the cot for support. "Uhh?" He squinted, trying hard to remember. "Someone . . . came looking . . . unhh? . . . Olivia! Olivia Jessup."

Robert took hold of Austin's duster and shook him. "What did you say?"

"Uunhh . . . I . . . uunnhh, said she . . . she was in . . . Dove."

"You stupid sonofabitch!" Robert yelled. He shoved Austin to the floor then charged out into the street.

"Get Cleese," Austin moaned. "My head."

***

Robert burst into the hotel, startling customers. "Amanda!" he loudly called. "Have you seen Olivia? Or, Ashley?"

Amanda paused, then looked over at the table they had been sitting at. It was empty. "They were sitting over there," she pointed to the table. "Someone, I never seen him before, was with them. Next thing I knew, they were all gone. Robert?"

Shelby charged up the stairs, two at a time. He ran down the hall and flung open the door to Olivia's room. "Ashley?!" he cried. He stepped inside and quickly untied Ashley Jessup from the chair she was bound to. The bed had been torn apart and the sheet ripped to supply the bonds for her hands, feet, and mouth.

"Oh, Robert! I declare. Some evil man kidnapped Olivia. He's bringing her back to Denver."

Robert looked Ashley over quickly. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you?"

"Good gracious, no! He never touched me. We have to find Clay, Robert. Olivia is in serious danger. I don't believe for one little ol' moment that he plans to bring her to Denver."

"You stay here, Ashley," Robert ordered. "I'll try to find Olivia. When Clay returns, tell him what happened. Sheriff Peale was hit in the head. He needs help. I'll get Zeke and ride out immediately."

"Do be careful, Robert," Ashley warned. "He frightens me."

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

Olivia Jessup rode side saddle. The nameless man who threatened to gun her down rode alongside her. She knew that if she had taken the stage and arrived in Curtis Wells the first time she was expected, this wouldn't be happening right now. She knew this man had no intentions of taking her all the way back to Denver, Colorado. She knew he planned to rape her. Or else kill her, and take the jewels and ride anywhere but Denver.

Olivia sighed. Clay Mosby wasn't in town. She couldn't determine how long it would be until he returned and discovered she was missing? By then . . . she didn't want to think about it. She despised the way this man kept looking at her. He would stare at her body. If only she hadn't allowed herself to be enticed by Charles Langford II. He was rich and spoiled. He flashed diamond necklaces and strings of pearls in front of her, promising to bestow these and more on her if she loved him. Olivia honored her portion of the arrangement. Charles Langford II did not. He lied and refused to give her the necklaces, deciding it was easier to throw her out of his mansion after tiring of her female charms. All she had done was sneak inside the mansion and take what was by rights, hers.

Olivia gazed at the man alongside her. His eyes were locked on her breasts. She knew she had to escape before he put his hands on her.

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

At first, shock set in over the discovery of the missing wagon and horses. Then, anger replaced shock. For some, despair set in. The oldest Brandt sister, Victoria Cleese, couldn't ignore the feeling of despair. She was grateful Newt, Mason, and Clay Mosby were there. All three men were capable of surviving in desperate occasions. Although Victoria was adept at town life, out of the three sisters, she was the least adaptable to frontier hazards. It was natural that she would worry about their plight.

Gretchen Call was confident that her husband would find a way to either recover the horses and the buckboard, or at least find a way to safely bring them back to Curtis Wells.

"Only two choices, far as I figure," Call said to Mosby and Mason.

"That's a true enough statement," Mason Dobbs replied. "Those Cheyenne are a sneaky lot. Either them or else someone happened along the trail and found easy pickings. I suggest me and Mosby, here, follow the tracks. You'll want to stay near your wife, Newt, boy."

Call nodded. "I reckon if them Cheyenne done it, I can sneak down into that valley come night and get our property back."

"Then, it is agreed," Clay Mosby acknowledged. "It would, however, be wise to proceed with a measure of caution. Don't you agree, Mason?"

"Wholeheartedly, amigo. Let's go."

Call walked up the S-shaped path, returning to his wife and her sisters, as well as Ephraim Cleese and Etienne Meloche, the painter. As soon as he stepped inside the cave's opening, Etienne Meloche approached him.

"Monsieur! Pardonnez-moi. I am hungry. We have no food."

"Mister, I reckon I ain't in too favorable a mood right now," Call sternly said. "So you best get out of my way and don't pester me none. Two of these women are pregnant. One's my wife. Seems to me they require food more than you." Call stared at the painter with unflinching eyes.

"Perhaps I can go down to the Indians. They were friendly enough with me. I can implore upon them for food, oui? I cannot simply ask for the horse I rode, since they would consider it as leaving and not returning. You understand, Monsieur?"

Call grabbed Etienne Meloche by his shirt and tugged. "We got us enough grief without you sticking your damn nose in it, hear? Just stay the hell away from me. Go sit down somewhere. I ain't of a mind to look at you." Call shoved the French Canadian painter, then he walked over to where his wife stood with her sisters and Dr. Cleese.

"I fear it is entirely my fault," Ephraim remarked, shaking his head.

Call paused, then placed his hand on the doctor's shoulder. "Ain't hardly your fault at all, Ephraim. Just something that happened, is all. I need you to stay calm. Support these women." He gave the doctor a reassuring nod. "I'm depending on you."

Dr. Cleese smiled weakly. "Thank you, Call."

"We best get you down one of them caves," Call said, turning to the Brandt Sisters. Taking a lamp in one hand, and holding Gretchen with his other hand, Call chose the second to last crevice going left off the main cave. They descended off the main avenue, winding down deeper into the mountain, past intricate and narrow paths. They reached a fairly large chamber. Call led the party inside. "This ain't too far from the main cave." He handed his sawed-off to Gretchen. "Take it. Anyone comes near you or your sisters, aim it at their belly and squeeze the trigger."

"I can do it, Call," Gretchen assured him, though praying such an occasion would never materialize. "Where are you going?"

"I'm gonna watch the Cheyenne camp. See if our property turns up. Reckon I might sneak down there tonight if Mason and Mosby don't find nothing."

"All right, Call." Gretchen wrapped one arm around her husband and kissed him.

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

"Austin! Will you stop fidgeting!" Amanda Carpenter was serious. "You're lucky he didn't hit you harder or you'd need stitches."

"Miss Olivia is gone. Her cousin, Ashley, said that man kidnapped her," Josiah replied, standing nearby.

"I intend to go after that son of a bitch who hit me," Austin proclaimed. He pushed Amanda's hand aside and wincing in pain, slowly stood up. "Uuuhhhnnn!" he cried out, involuntarily. Overcome by nausea, he slumped back into the chair.

"Austin!" Josiah scolded. "You can't ride now. You've been hurt."

"Someone has to go after him," Austin angrily replied.

"Someone has," his father said.

"Robert Shelby and Mattie Shaw rode out in one direction," Amanda commented. "Zeke and two of Mosby's men rode the other way."

"I don't feel good," Austin groaned. "I need to lie down."

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

The three Brandt Sisters huddled close together against the back wall of the chamber. Dr. Cleese and Etienne Meloche sat adjacent to them, at the left wall. A deep stillness embraced them in the dark cave. Only three of the six lamps were currently being used, for fear of burning the oil too quickly. The girls held two, Ephraim, the other.

"This place reminds me of that book. Remember?" Paige looked around the darkened chamber, her voice echoing. "Hello!" she loudly cried. "Hello, lo, lo, lo . . ." Both Paige and Gretchen giggled. Victoria quietly sighed. She found it difficult to understand how her two younger sisters could remain optimistic and carefree during a crisis.

"Gretchen loves Call!" Paige loudly said. "Loves Call, all, all."

"I love you, Call! Forever!" Gretchen loudly added. "You, Call . . . forever, ever, ever . . ."

"We are perhaps going to die of starvation and those two play children's games," Etienne Meloche quietly said to Ephraim.

Gretchen took hold of Paige's arm. "What book are you talking about?"

"The one that man from Hannibal, Missouri, wrote. Umm . . . Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

"Oh, yes," Gretchen replied. "Mr. Clemens."

"That's right!" Paige agreed. "It was published . . . ? Umm . . . I think something like five years ago? Oh, silly me. I'm so forgetful. Yes! I was fifteen . . . I think?" Paige looked around the dimly lit chamber. She leaned close to Gretchen and whispered, "why doesn't Ephraim sit near Victoria? Call would sit near you."

Gretchen looked over at Dr. Cleese and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe he feels comfortable enough with us sitting near her."

"I've knitted two blankets, Victoria," Paige said in a louder voice. "For when the babies are born. One for your baby and one for Gretchen's baby."

Victoria smiled and stretched her hand out to touch Paige's hand.

*****

The only time Call let his eyes stray was when he heard the sisters' voices echoing from down below. He allowed a small smile to cross his face then immediately returned to his duty of vigilance. He had crawled on his belly to the mouth of the cave at the back of Field Glass Point. He laid his hat down and on occasion had to either shake the hair out of his eyes, or brush it away from his face so he could see better. His keen eyes took in everything. The few women cooking or stretching hides. The few skinny children playing with sticks by the creek. The Cheyenne dogs. Mongrels that would pose the biggest threat once darkness came and he attempted to sneak into the camp. Like a predator bird searching for prey, he looked slowly around the inside of the Big Paw Mountains. By the position of the cold, January sun, Call determined that as much as two hours had elapsed since Mason and Mosby had gone off to track the wagon and horses. He noticed that at least one of the young braves that had been present when they first converged on the Cheyenne camp was no where in sight.

Call knew that if he could secure even one Cheyenne pony, Mason could ride for Curtis Wells and bring back the necessary transportation required to return the group back safely. His mind was filled with the things that were now his responsibilities. A wife. A baby that was due in seven months. Two sisters-in-law. One of them carrying a baby, also due in seven months. He had to figure a way to find food, especially for the women. It was to their advantage to remain out of sight from the Cheyenne. If the small band were hostiles, they could bottle up the cave by setting fires at each entrance. Call wasn't looking to put his wife or her sisters in that kind of danger. He now had to adjust his thinking. No longer could he be wild and reckless. He had to consider the safety of the girl he loved more than anything else in life. He had to consider Gretchen.

Then there was the real and serious threat of the Cheyenne entering the cave once it grew dark outside. Lighting would be poor and it would be a simple matter for silent warriors to advance on the flickering lights. Dammit, Mason. Where the hell are you? Call wondered. He drew his .45 out of his holster and checked for bullets . . . for the third time.

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

Olivia Jessup was afraid to stop. She was also afraid to continue on. The further they rode, the less chance there was that someone would rescue her. She decided to try her last opportunity. "I do not have the necklaces with me, whoever you are."

The nameless man drew both horses to the stop. "Let me guess." His eyes undressed her as he rudely stared at her body. He nodded with his head toward her chest. "You hide them there? Plenty of room by the look of it."

Olivia frowned. He was filthy and he was disgusting. "No, they are not with me. I knew there was the likelihood that something such as this might occur so I deposited them in a bank."

The man hadn't expected to hear that. He rubbed his chin. "Then, I'll tear your clothes off. Every stitch." His ugly face grinned at her.

"No! I have the key. The necklaces are locked in a safe deposit box inside a bank. I'll throw the key away. Either you'll never find it or if you find it, you will not know what bank or what town." Olivia tensed her body. It was her last gamble. She shook slightly, awaiting the man's next move.

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

Mattie Shaw rode alongside Robert Shelby. There was an urgency to the moment. She still wasn't quite sure why she suddenly suggested riding with Robert. She didn't like Olivia Jessup and since her conversation with Gretchen Call, hadn't decided whether she wanted Robert Shelby or Clay Mosby. For that matter, she wasn't even sure any more that she even wanted a man. But she despised the possibility that some man could force a woman to do things against her will. So she found herself volunteering to ride with Robert. This freed up Zeke to take men and follow the road west of town. Mattie hoped that they would find Olivia Jessup and that she would be unharmed. Sometimes, Mattie knew she was a dreamer.

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

When Clay Mosby and Mason Dobbs returned, Call heard their footsteps before they had gotten halfway through Field Glass Point. He crawled back from the cave's back entrance, until it was safe to stand up, in case the Cheyenne were watching the mouth of the cave. Within a minute, he could make out the shadowy forms of both men. One of them held a lamp. The other limped.

"You find anything?" Call asked.

Mason lowered the lamp. "The tracks split up about a half mile north, around the mountain."

Call frowned. "Damn. Ain't gonna be easy." He looked at Mosby. "What the hell happened to your leg, Mosby?"

"I suffered a minor inadvertency," Clay replied, frustrated and irritable.

"Can't a man get a simple answer out of you?" Call suddenly barked. "You're so damn set on using your big, fancy words that no one else knows."

Clay smirked. He was going to tell Call that he was the only ignorant one when it came to common English, but knew Call was already tense due to the situation of having his wife, Gretchen, in a hostile surrounding. Instead, Clay just shrugged. "I happened to take a fall on the leg I injured last month in the stage accident with Miz Ashley Jessup."

"Should of said so in the first place," Call angrily said.

"Why don't you just shut up, Call!" Mosby said, raising his voice.

"Why don't you make me, Mosby?!" Call loudly answered, stepping closer to Mosby.

"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" Mason interjected. "Simmer down, Amigo. Newt. We're on the same side." He spread his hands out to keep them apart.

"You're right, of course," Clay replied. "Nothing beneficial will come from this bickering. I propose we draw up a suitable plan of attack. The sooner we retrieve our possessions, the sooner we can return home." And the sooner I can get away from you, Call, Mosby thought.

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

"What are you doing?! Where are we going?!" Olivia Jessup knew the man wouldn't answer her. He didn't speak to her. He led both horses off the main road, in between two groves of pine trees. The sun would be setting soon. If anyone attempted to find her, it would be more difficult once the horses were between the trees. Tracking would be nearly impossible.

"After I finish with you," the man said, his voice now husky with the anticipation of what he was going to do to her, "you'll tell me anything I need to know."

"No! Please?!" Olivia cried. She panicked as she tried to slide off the horse, falling to the cold ground. She scrambled, struggling to get to her feet but the awkwardness of so many layers of clothing underneath her skirt hampered her movements. NO!" she screamed loud as the man dropped down on top of her. She was pinned down by his weight.

"NO!" Olivia cried. She tried to roll away. The man shoved her shoulder hard to the ground, causing Olivia to wince from the pain. He took hold of the front of her mustard colored bodice and ripped it open. Ribbon and ruffled lace strewn recklessly. Olivia's full breasts straining inside her corset. "No!" she whimpered.

The man groaned lustfully. He stood up to remove his pants.

Bam!

Olivia cringed as blood splattered on her face and chest.

The man teetered then fell next to her, blood draining quickly from his skull. His body thrashed weakly. He let out a groan of air, then stopped moving completely.

Breathing hard and crying now, Olivia looked up at the two approaching figures. "Clay? Robert?" she said, swallowing hard.

Her saviors stood above her.

Olivia realized she didn't know who these two men were. "Thank you. He was going . . ."

"We'll finish what he started," one of the men said.

"What?! No! No! Please? Dear, God! No!" Olivia weakly cried. She tried to crawl backwards but her attempt was halted as she backed into the trunk of a large pine.

The men looked at each other. "If I've calculated our situation right, we should have plenty of time with this one. It's our lucky day, says I," one of them said.

Olivia squinted, feeling faint. It now appeared hopeless for her.

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

The sun's fading glow had just been swallowed up by the distant range of mountains. At most, there was close to an hour before darkness would envelope the land. A plan had been laid out. It was Mason Dobbs who determined that his nephew, Newt Call, although highly skilled at advancing on an enemy at night, would serve the group more efficiently by remaining in the cave to protect the women, the doctor, and the painter. Mason reasoned that Newt loved his wife, Gretchen, so much, being separated could result in a serious and deadly error on his part. Even though Clay Mosby had re-injured his wounded leg, he was still blood cousin to John Singleton Mosby, the 'Gray Ghost'. Bad leg or no, Clay Mosby could advance on an enemy in darkness with a superior skill and ability. It was his good fortune that no Yankee bullet, no Yankee forty-pounder, no Yankee saber, had ever cut short his life. It was his skills as a horseman, his inborn ability to lead, his strength and fortitude which sometimes made him the equal of two good fighting men, that kept him alive.

As the shadows on the ground bled into each other, the Montana terrain changing into black, Clay and Mason crept out the mouth of the V-shaped opening in which the party had initially entered. They moved quickly but with caution. Hugging the foot of the Big Paw Mountains, they proceeded toward the splitting of the tracks. Both men were determined to advance on the tracks leading away from the mountain. Both men were set on retrieving their horses, as well as the buckboard.

As they crept further, the wagon ruts veered to the right, away from the mountain. There was a place where the creek broke off toward the mountain. They crossed ankle deep through the cold waters and followed up the shallow bank, into a thick grove of birch.

Clay Mosby suddenly put his hand out. Mason immediately halted. The smell of wood smoke hit Clay first. As they stood motionless, they could hear the crackling of a campfire. Five or six birds flew out of the trees past them. They drew nearer. Clay saw two men sitting at the fire, their faces glowing from whiskey and the dancing flames.

"I recognize one of them," Clay said, his voice barely above a whisper. "That one on the left, his name is Crooked Eyes. He's the half breed Etienne Meloche hired as his guide."

"I can see the horses . . . the wagon, too," Mason said.

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

Newt Call's hands were wrapped around his holster belt. He leaned against the left side of the opening leading down to the chamber where his wife and the others were waiting. From this position, Call could see either to his left or his right along the Field Glass Point. If the Cheyenne were hostile, unless there was an entrance underground, they would have to move along the opening before him. It was his hope that nothing bad would come to pass. It was just an unfavorable situation all around. Two pregnant women could hardly be expected to walk the five or six mile distance back to Curtis Wells. Plus, it was winter.

Call's thoughts were interrupted as Etienne Meloche emerged from the crevice. "Ah! Monsieur Barbarian. I am, how you say . . . ? all closed-in down below. Oui? I need to view the outside world. Am I not a painter, non?"

"That's as far as that lamp goes," Call said. "You got a mind to head over to that opening, you best not let them boys down there see that light. Just put it down."

"Oui, Monsieur," Etienne agreed. "Oh? What is that? Down the other way?"

Call snapped his head toward the far end. Suddenly, Etienne Meloche hurried past him with his lamp. "You sonofabitch!" Call turned and went after him.

Etienne reached the back opening and looked down into the dark valley, toward the Cheyenne camp. "Ah! Look, Monsieur. Inside that large tent."

Call snatched the lamp from the painter. "Damn you! If they see this light . . .?"

"But, non, Monsieur. Look! Are they not all inside that large tent, oui?"

"How the hell do I know?" Call barked. "Could be some of them are setting out right now, watching for us." He stared at Etienne. "I ought to throw your fool ass down there. And one more thing, Frenchy, that big tent is called a medicine lodge."

"Medicine lodge?! But of course. They are inside right now. George Catlin sketched the Mandan torture ceremonies many years ago. I have seen his work. Young men are suspended on poles with cords strung through their flesh. I should go down and paint,"

"Forget them! Just . . . just go back with the others. I got enough grief without you adding to it," Call ordered.

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

Ephraim Cleese had chosen not to comfort his wife. It wasn't that he didn't love her. He did love her. It was just that he felt she would draw more comfort from her sisters, having known them her whole life. He watched as Gretchen hugged Victoria and on several occasions reminded her that Call would get them out of it. There was confidence in her voice. He admired how the younger Gretchen had so much faith and trust in her husband. Witnessing the dramatic change in Call -- his warmth -- his fierce devotion to Gretchen -- his unselfish acts that were for her behalf, filled Ephraim with joy.

Paige Brandt suddenly stood up and with lamp in hand, headed for the opening.

"Where are you going?" Victoria asked.

"Oh, I'm . . ." she rubbed her behind, "tired of sitting down here. I think I'll explore some of these nearby paths. Gretchen? Come with me?"

"Paige?" Ephraim interrupted. "I don't think Call would like you wandering around. He specifically said to stay in here."

"I don't intend to go far, Ephraim," Paige replied. She was determined to have a look and set on going alone if her sister refused. "Gretchen? Are you coming or not?"

"Paige? There's bats down here," Gretchen said. "You'll get lost."

"I'll be back in five minutes. I promise," Paige replied. Then, with her lamp held up in front of her, she moved through the opening and back along the path. She paused at the branching of the corridor, shining her lamp toward the dark and narrower crevice that led to the right. It was off the corridor they had used to reach their current chamber of hiding. Paige realized that the entire inside of the mountain was a labyrinth of caves, with crooked passages leading to who knows where.

Her heart pounded loud and quick inside her chest as she proceeded, one cautious step at a time, down this new corridor. Her throat felt dry as she swallowed. Suddenly, there was an opening to her left, leading into another chamber. Paige turned her head toward the direction she had just come from. It was blacker than night. I wish you were with me right now, Gretchen, she thought as she gingerly entered the chamber.

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

Olivia Jessup had no where to go. She assumed these two strangers were her saviors only to realize instead of one man raping her, there were now two. She got to her feet then stumbled over her torn skirt and fell to the cold, hard ground. Pleading for mercy, she dug her fingernails into the ground, trying to find anything she could to fight with. One of the men roughly grabbed her by her hair and yanked her toward him, causing Olivia to scream loud. He forced her on her knees and pulled her arms behind her. The small, jagged rocks on the ground cut through the petticoats and skirt, into her knees.

The sound of something whizzing by was heard by Olivia. She felt the man release his grip on her. She looked up and saw arrows in each man's body -- one in the back of the man who had grabbed her -- one in the throat of the other man. Two more arrows whizzed through the air. Both men fell to the ground. Neither one would ever stand again.

Olivia couldn't believe the strange fortune and turned, only to see two Indians on horseback.

Clouds of darkness overwhelmed her as she fainted.

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

Clay Mosby dispatched Mason Dobbs to circle the small encampment, then both men would close in on Crooked Eyes and the other man. Mason had nearly reached his predetermined location when he stepped on a dry twig. The severing of the wood was magnified by the silence of the winter night, startling both Crooked Eyes and his companion. They rose to their feet.

"You're surrounded on all sides!" Clay Mosby loudly said. "Hold your hands up high or be gunned down like the dogs you are!"

"Who are you?" Crooked Eyes asked, looking around nervously. "We're just poor travelers."

"You're trash-bred thieves, is what you are," Clay remarked, stepping closer to the pair.

Mason stepped over to where the three horses were tied. "Recognize these, amigo?"

Clay held his Winchester on the men and let his eyes move slightly. "As a matter of fact, I do."

"Same here, amigo. The Hellbitch . . . your pony . . . my gray. They hang men for stealing horses down Texas way," Mason commented.

Clay smiled and nodded.

"I'll wager one of these trees can do the job. No time like the present," Mason said.

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

Paige Brandt didn't want any more adventure. She wanted to return to where her sisters were. She turned to leave but paused, her foot touching something on the dark floor of the chamber. She stretched the lamp toward the ground, trying to make out the odd shape. She realized it was clothing. A man's set of clothes. Then she saw the white bones of a skeleton poking out of the tattered, musty clothes, where a hand should be. Her lamp moved slightly and Paige now saw the horrible, grinning face of the skeleton, as if staring at her. She screamed as loud as she could and turned and ran out of the chamber. Still screaming, she became momentarily disoriented and ran to her left, instead of to her right, in the opposite direction of where her sisters were.

Victoria and Gretchen both jumped up, screaming for Paige. Ephraim and Etienne Meloche also jumped up. The two sisters hurried out of the chamber, yelling for Paige. They heard her screams fade as they tried, to no avail, to peer into the forbidding, black corridor she had disappeared into.

"What happened?!" Call yelled as he charged through the dark crevice, almost running over the four of them. His gun was drawn, ready to use.

Gretchen took hold of Call and held him tight. "Call. It's Paige. She screamed. She's down there somewhere."

Call snapped his head. Gazing down the blackened path Paige took and back to Gretchen and her sister.

Call and Gretchen's eyes met for a moment then Call said, "get back inside where you were. You shoot anyone who ain't us."

Gretchen nodded as Ephraim guided the four of them back. Call turned and ran down the dark, crooked corridor.

"PAIGE! Where are you?!" Call yelled. "Paige!"

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

One of the Cheyenne braves, a hotheaded young man named Angry Face, had seen the lamp's flickering light at the mouth of the cave when Etienne Meloche ran pass Call to look into the valley. The stories told by the old warriors, and of how many scalps they had taken, made him bitter. His insides were filled with rage at never having scalped a white man. His friend, Has No Scalps, was also filled with fury. The two of them, having already gone through the torture ceremony one winter earlier, snuck away from the Cheyenne camp, while everyone was inside the medicine lodge. Each man carried a torch and a knife.

They crept silently up the mountain path, passing wiry bushes. When one of the Cheyenne dogs followed them, Angry Face viciously burned the animal with his torch, sending it yelping in pain down the mountainside. They paused to peer inside the mouth of the cave. They neither saw nor heard anyone. They entered the dark cave. At the second crevice leading downward, they heard a woman's voice scream, followed by screaming and yelling from other women. The Cheyenne warriors were familiar with the twisting and turning paths descending deep into the earth, having used the cave's intricate labyrinth on several occasions after altercations with the U.S. Cavalry.

Angry Face crept down the same corridor that Call brought the others to earlier in the day. Has No Scalps traveled along Field Glass Point until he came to another corridor leading down. He heard a woman crying and silently descended the path. It didn't matter if the scalp was from a man or a woman. Even one scalp dangling from a lance would bring the honor and respect from the tribe that he craved.

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

It was Red Crow himself who had found Olivia Jessup. Along with one of his Lakota braves, they had wrapped her in their blankets and placed her on Red Crow's pony.

"Hold it right there!" a voice ordered. The sound of two guns being cocked was heard.

Red Crow turned. "This woman has been hurt. We take her to our camp."

"That's Red Crow," Mattie said.

Red Crow looked hard at the woman on the horse. "I remember you."

"I suppose you would," she sarcastically replied.

"We'll take her with us." It was a statement Robert Shelby made, not a suggestion.

Mattie dismounted. "What happened here?" she asked, suddenly noticing the three dead men.

"Those two were attacking the woman. We killed them." Red Crow looked at the first man. That one . . . he was already dead when we heard the woman scream." His head laid in a small pool of dark red, almost black blood.

Robert dismounted. "Take that dirty blanket off her. I'll use my own saddle blanket for Miz Jessup." He pulled Olivia off the Indian pony and carried her to his horse.

"You are welcome to bring the woman to our camp," Red Crow offered.

"Thank you, Red Crow," Mattie said. "I think we should get her back to Curtis Wells as soon as possible."

"It will be as you say," Red Crow replied.

Robert placed Olivia on his horse. She was unconscious. Mattie stared at Robert, and the way he seemed to fuss over Olivia. They both mounted up and headed back to town.

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

In her state of panic, Paige Brandt had stumbled to the end of the musty corridor, where three new openings spread out in different directions, east, north, and west. The darkness swallowed up most of the light given off by the lamp. Her screams had become sobs. It suddenly dawned on her that she was lost. "No! Help! Victoria! Help me! Call!" She screamed loud and squinting to see the darkened paths through her tears, she stepped into the opening to the far right, thinking it would bring her back to her sisters. She didn't realize that she was wandering further away, or that a Cheyenne warrior, thirsty for his first scalp, was approaching her.

Moving as quick as he could in the black, winding corridors, Call paused as he reached the three-way split. "Paige! Dammit, Paige! Answer me!" Call squinted, his lantern giving off too little light. "PAIGE!"

Paige heard Call yelling and stopped. "Call?!" she said in a low voice. Her eyes widened. "Call! Down here! Down here, Call!"

Call gritted his teeth. "Damn!" Her voice was muffled through the labyrinth of tunnels. "Paige!" He thought he saw a glimmer of light down the far right path and moved through the opening.

Paige turned. "Call?" She moved through the black corridor slowly, her free hand lightly touching the cold walls.

Call heard her somewhere up ahead. It was difficult to judge accurately just how far off she was in the deep blackness. There seemed to be two dark figures moving toward him as he raised his lantern, trying to tip his head so his hat's brim would shield the light in his eyes.

"Paige! Behind you!" Call hollered, suddenly seeing the dark silhouette of the Cheyenne brave. The Indian raised his arm, his sharp knife reflecting just a spark of light.

Paige turned. "Nooooo! Aaahhhhhh!"

In one smooth, quick reflex, Call raised his arm, cocked his Colt, and having no time to aim, fired once. Both Cheyenne warrior and Paige Brandt fell to the dark floor.

"PAIGE!" Call ran the remaining eight or ten yards. "Paige?!" He dropped quickly to one knee, watching the Cheyenne. The Indian's torch exploded with one final burst of light, then was extinguished on the cold, damp floor. Call shifted his lantern toward the Cheyenne. There was no movement from either him, or Paige. He held the lamp over the Cheyenne's head. Blood trailed down his forehead, across his nose, sliding to the ground. Call's shot had hit its target. There was a small hole in his forehead. He put the lamp on the sunken floor and took hold of Paige's shoulders, lifting her off the floor. Grunting, Call lowered his legs, providing the support he required to lift Paige over his shoulder. He figured she had fainted from fear. Holstering his gun and grabbing the lamp, he stood up and carried Gretchen's sister back toward the three-way split.

"Aaaaaaahhhhhh! Aaaaahhhhh!" Bam! . . . Aaaahhhh! Call!"

"Gretchen?!" Call tried moving faster down the pitch black corridor. "GRETCHEN!" He couldn't leave Paige alone but had to reach his wife. He ran as best he could down the long straight tunnel, back toward the chamber the others had been inside. As he neared the chamber his lantern smashed against a jutting in the rocks, shattering as the light went out. He hurried still, seeing the opening up ahead where other lights were flashing about.

Suddenly, a dark, shadowy figure limped toward the exit. It was Angry Face, the Cheyenne. As he attempted to escape, another shot was fired from the direction of Field Glass Point. The Indian groaned and slouched to the floor. Clay Mosby stood over him, a thin trail of smoke rising silently from his pistol.

All at once, Ephraim and the French Canadian painter emerged as Mason Dobbs and Clay Mosby joined from the opposite direction.

"Call?! Call!" Gretchen cried, running to her husband. "Oh, no! Paige! What happened?"

"She's fine," Call said. "What happened here? Are you all right, Gretchen?"

"Gretchen shot that Indian," Victoria replied, stepping near to help lower Paige from Call's shoulder.

"What?!" Call said.

"He came at us," Gretchen cried. "I never shot anyone. I . . . I, shot . . . a man."

"Gretchen!" Call said, taking hold of his wife. "He would have killed you! He would of killed all of you."

"I know, Call." She dropped his sawed-off and buried her face in his chest, crying.

"We gotta get ourselves out of here, pronto," Mason said. "Everyone follow me." He bent down and lifted Paige into his arms. "Lead us, amigo," he said to Mosby.

Ready to fire his Winchester, Clay Mosby proceeded up the narrow, winding path, back to the cave's opening V-shaped mouth. He grabbed his painting which had been sitting at the cave's opening. Ephraim held his wife, Victoria, close to him and Etienne Meloche followed behind the doctor.

Call grabbed his sawed-off from the floor and with Gretchen clinging tightly to him, brought up the rear. The party hurried down the S-shaped path, where the horses and the wagon stood waiting.

"I suggest we ride with urgency," Clay informed the group. He looked up into the night sky. "Fortunately for us, we have a full moon providing us with just enough light to safely guide us back home."

The three Brandt Sisters sat in the back of the wagon. Gretchen protested, wanting to ride double with her husband. Call explained quickly that if the Cheyenne attacked them, it would be safer if she was low in the wagon. Paige was coming to and would need the comfort and strength of her sisters.

Mason Dobbs sat on the bench seat of the wagon, taking the reins to lead them away. Dr. Cleese sat next to him. Clay Mosby and Call rode on each side of the wagon, guns drawn in case of an ambush. The painter rode Mason's gray. Inside the wagon were two pairs of boots and two pairs of pants. Mason couldn't resist telling everyone how him and Mosby had made Crooked Eyes and his fellow thief remove their pants and boots and run as fast as they could or they would be hung. No one seemed to care. No one seemed to hear the story.

*****

At best, the ride had been uncomfortable. The wagon's back axle nearly broke when Mason pulled out of the creek's low point, roughly hitting a small, protruding boulder. It shook the Brandt Sisters up, but was tame in comparison to the stark reality they had just come from. Paige saw her young life flash inside her mind when the Cheyenne warrior raised his knife to kill her. Gretchen had never fired a weapon at anything living, whether human or animal. The thought of shooting the Cheyenne in his thigh disturbed her. Victoria was slightly angry at Ephraim for the whole incident.

As the moonlight reflected like sparkling diamonds upon the cold waters of winter, each one quietly reflected on the near-tragic events. They reached Curtis Wells without incident.

********

The events of the evening happened like this:

Clay Mosby, upon entering his saloon was immediately sent across the street to the Dove. Robert Shelby and Mattie Shaw had returned with a badly shaken Olivia Jessup a half hour earlier. Clay, being adept at listening to multiple voices simultaneously, was shocked to hear about Olivia's desperate situation as Robert, Mattie, and Ashley all spoke at the same time.

"Why, I declare," Ashley Jessup replied, batting her eyelashes, "Clay Mosby, you have saved all these poor folks lives and rescued them from a horrible fate. I simply must insist that . . ." she leaned close to Clay and proceeded to whisper in his ear exactly what she proposed to do for him in the privacy of his upstairs room later that night.

Clay was renewed with strength and an anticipation that would build inside him until the realization exploded inside Miz Ashley Jessup.

****

The Lonesome Dove Hotel was fairly vacant, due to it being the middle of winter. Etienne Meloche was given a room and hoped to purchase anything he could, come morning, that would allow him to paint Dr. Ephraim and Mrs. Victoria Cleese.

****

Before leaving town to return home, Paige Brandt hugged her brother-in-law and thanked him. "You saved my life, Call. You're always saving us. If you weren't married to my sister, I just might set myself on making you mine." It was emotions talking. They all knew Paige was more like Victoria when it came to the kind of man they wanted. She kissed Call on his cheek and hugged him again. Then, Ephraim brought Victoria and Paige to their house, not far from town, in the wagon.

****

Gretchen was set on Call and her going home. She needed to be alone with him. After shooting a man, even though she didn't kill him, she needed to stand inside the small house her and Call had bought. The house that belonged to them. The house where their children would grow. After hugging her sisters, she climbed behind Call and held him tight all the way back to their home. It was their good fortune that the full moon provided decent lighting on the cold ground. The ride went quick. Neither spoke till they unsaddled the Hellbitch and walked inside their house.

Unable to hold it in any longer, Gretchen broke down and began weeping. Call reached for her. "I shot a man, Call."

"You did good, Gretchen," he gently replied. "I'm real proud of you. You know you had to pull that trigger, don't you, Coyote Girl?"

She swallowed, looked into his eyes, and with tears sliding down her high cheekbones, nodded. "I feel sick inside . . . my stomach, Call."

Call knew the reality of what she did as well as being pregnant had taken a toll on her. He lifted her up into his arms and carried her through the doorway, into their bedroom. Gretchen laid her head against Call's chest, feeling comforted. He lowered her to their bed.

It was after midnight sometime. Half of Gretchen's body was on top of her husband. Call had his arm around her and his face touching her head. "Call?" she whispered, "are you awake?"

"Yep," he quietly said. He squeezed her a little and kissed her head. "Having trouble sleeping?"

"Um huh," she quietly replied. "Can we light the lamp, Call? I want to read the Bible some."

"I reckon we can do most anything you favor, Gretchen." Call sat up and reached over to the small nightstand and lit the lamp.

"I love you, Call," she softly said.

Call pulled Gretchen close him. "I love you, Gretchen."

*********

Mason Dobbs, from Concho County, Texas, considered himself to be somewhat of a mixture between his nephew, Newt, and Clay Mosby. After everyone went their own ways, Mason headed over to the No.10 Saloon. It was quiet inside. He got himself a bottle of cheap whiskey, went and poured the three lone customers that were half asleep a drink then settled at a corner table. Using his sleeve, he wiped the spilled whiskey that had been sitting there since morning off the table, reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded piece of white paper. He unfolded it and pressed his hands over it to smooth it some. Then, he pulled a small pencil from his shirt pocket and began to write.

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

Epilogue:

The West As I Saw It

Know, O reader, that somewhere between the days when fabled mountain men tread the fertile lands and crossed the jeweled waters, and the coming of settlers, countless as the stars, onto the western frontier, there lived a time unlike any other before it, when golden lodge and dwelling lay spread across the west like tanned kingdoms beneath Heaven.

Hither came Clay Mosby, the Virginian, dark haired, ruthless, a leader of men. Another came as well. Newt Call, the Texan, long haired, sullen-eyed, gun in hand, with exceeding gloom. They walked the bountiful, dirt-covered Earth under their boots.

M. Dobbs

+++++++++++++++++++++ The End +++++++++++++++++++

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