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.


Cupid's Crooked Arrow (or Despair & Delight)
(26th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

Good morning to you, valentine;
Curl your locks as I do mine ---
Two before and three behind.
Good morning to you, valentine.

(Verse from old English children's song)

Gretchen Call stared at her husband. He slept soundly in their small bed. Her green eyes widened as an idea sprouted in her mind. It was what Call would say was one of her Coyote Ways. Gretchen tilted her head, swinging her long, flowing hair which hung halfway down her back, across her shoulder. She covered her mouth with one hand, to keep from giggling too loud, then took a handful of her hair and lightly brushed it over Call's face. He involuntarily rubbed his nose, frowning. Gretchen waited patiently for a minute, then performed the act once more. This time Call groaned slightly. He turned his head away from Gretchen. Again, she paused, then lightly ran her soft, flowing hair across his exposed ear and cheek. Call reacted somewhat angrily, throwing his hand toward his cheek. Gretchen giggled out loud, waking Call. He squinted, looking at his wife. He ignored her and closed his eyes.

"Call?" she moaned. Gretchen leaned over to tickle him again but Call opened his eyes, laughing, and reached out to grab her, pulling her down against him. "Aahhhhh! Hey! No fair! You fooled me, Call."

"C'mere, you Little Coyote, you." Call squeezed Gretchen, holding her warm body close to his. He moved his head to bring his mouth near hers, so he could kiss her. "Ow!"

Gretchen giggled, holding her teeth clenched gently over his lower lip. She opened her mouth. Her eyes lit up. "I love you sooo much, Call. I'll love you forever."

Call pressed his mouth passionately against his wife's mouth as they both moaned with pleasure. He was relieved to see her laugh. For the past week, ever since she shot the Cheyenne in the cave, she struggled with depression.

Gretchen pulled her mouth away from Call's mouth. "I'll go make us some breakfast. Then maybe we can start packing for our trip to Missouri."

"We ain't leaving for another six or seven weeks, Gretchen. Kind of early, ain't it?"

"I'm just so excited, Call," Gretchen replied. She jumped back on the bed, landing on top of Call.

"Uuuhhhh! Oohh!" Call groaned, reaching for his groin.

Gretchen began giggling. "Oh, Call! I'm sorry, Sweetheart." She slid her knee away from his manhood. "Do you want me to make it better?" she whispered, lightly touching him.

Call pulled her down across his hips.

"Call! Don't you dare spank me!" She wiggled to get free but that aroused the two of them even more.

"Breakfast can wait," Call grunted, rolling Gretchen on her back.

"Anything you say, Call," she whispered, staring at him eagerly.

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

"You can't leave, Olivia. What will I do without you, cousin, dear?"

"You will be fine, Ashley." Olivia Jessup had lost the glow in her eyes. "You do understand, don't you? I must go."

Ashley looked down at the floor. "It's so nice . . . the four of us. You and I. Clay and Robert."

Olivia barely smiled. "I'm so happy that you are no longer living in the past. I hope you find happiness with Clay. The poor man has never been able to let go of his Mary." She folded a camisole and gently placed it in her suitcase. The images of those filthy men ripping her clothes flashed in her mind. Even though she wasn't raped, it was too close. All she wanted now was to return to New Orleans. To a place where she could lose herself and perhaps put her awful ordeal behind her. She couldn't do it in Curtis Wells.

"There. That's everything." Olivia turned to her cousin. "You will see me off, won't you, Ashley?"

"Why, Olivia. I declare. Of course I will. I do wish you would remain here longer. It's Valentine's Day next week."

There was a soft knock on the open door. Clay Mosby stood in the doorway. "The stage is ready, my dear. Robert and I will bring your luggage down for you."

Fifteen minutes later, Olivia waved a white lace handkerchief out the small window as the Black Hills Stage pulled away from the three Southerners. Ashley Jessup's face lit up as she suddenly thought of something. She let her sapphire blue eyes seductively stray to Clay Mosby and smiled. She nodded slightly.

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

Mattie Shaw had been withdrawn lately. The conversation with Gretchen Call had caused a lot of emotions to dance around inside her head. Mattie was a confused woman. Because of Call she first left Curtis Wells. When she returned half a year ago, an established and successful businesswoman, thoughts of Call persisted. It was clear upon her return that the aloof, coldhearted Newt Call had fallen deeply in love with a little minx from Missouri. Then, he up and married her. Nothing seemed to go Mattie's way. She allowed herself to willingly be seduced by both Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby.

Mattie sat alone in the Dove, contemplating what she really wanted. She was lonely. Taking in the orphan boy, Dewey, had done little to fulfill her needs as a woman. She gazed across the room at Ashley Jessup. If she wanted Clay Mosby she was going to have to fight for him. Mattie closed her eyes. Decisions were never easy.

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

Almost a week had passed since Olivia Jessup left Curtis Wells, to return to New Orleans. Ashley Jessup browsed inside the Brandt Sisters' dry goods. "How are you getting along on your pregnancy, Mrs. Cleese?" she asked Victoria, pausing to gaze at a pierced silver nosegay with decorative flowers, and a silver handled clothes brush and hair comb."

"Very well, thank you, Miss Jessup. The morning sickness has passed," Victoria gratefully acknowledged.

Ashley picked up a silver heart shaped locket and bracelet. "Wouldn't this thrill any woman if she were to receive it tomorrow, for Valentine's Day?"

"No one's bought it yet," Paige replied. She had taken a liking to Ashley Jessup. "I wish I had a beau and he wanted to give me that lovely bracelet."

"Your time will come," Ashley assured Paige. "You're a very lovely young woman. Why, I declare. You'll have more beaus . . .!"

Paige curtseyed. "Thank you, Miss Jessup. I just can't hardly wait until I become a mother."

Ashley smiled. "Your sister, Gretchen," she said to Victoria, "and how is she getting along with her pregnancy?"

Paige and Victoria looked at each other. "We're very concerned about Gretchen. She's been suffering from depression since . . ." Victoria paused. It wasn't required that the sentence be finished. Ashley had heard about the Cheyenne warrior and Gretchen having to shoot him.

"It must have been awful," Ashley quietly replied.

"Dr. Cleese said if she doesn't snap out of it she may lose the baby," Victoria said.

"NO! She can't!" Paige ran down the aisle to the back of the store and rushed outside. She began to cry, worried over her sister and the baby she carried.

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

Call finished mending the corral's broken gate. He turned toward the barn. Gretchen was standing inside the doorway, clearing away loose hay with the pitchfork. He stared at her. He wanted to take away her burden. Free her from the entanglement that had bound itself securely inside her mind. He knew she was strong. Hadn't she told him, "we get up and we fight and we go on." She said it just before throwing the fried chicken at him, then fell off her horse. Call had blurted out that he loved her. It was the first time he had allowed his true feelings for her to show. But how could he remove something inside her head? He frowned, then walked quietly up behind his wife.

Gretchen's back ached. She stood up, holding the pitchfork alongside her, with both hands resting on the wooden stick. Troubled thoughts still haunting her. The darkened image of shooting the Indian with Call's sawed-off, always nearby. She didn't hear her husband come up behind her. Call reached out and placed his hands on her waist. Gretchen screamed, lowering the end of the wooden stick as she turned.

"Aaagghhh!" Call groaned. His head dropped as his hands went up to grab his face from the impact of the pitchfork hitting him just below his left eye.

"Call?!" Gretchen cried out, surprised. She looked at him for a moment as his knees bent and he slightly staggered one or two small steps. She covered her mouth with both her hands and began to giggle. "Oh, Call. I'm so sorry. You shouldn't have snuck up on me."

Call shook his head. "I didn't know I was." The whole left half of his face and head throbbed in pain. Ear, jaw, cheek. Nothing was spared. He blinked, trying to stop the little lights flashing before him.

Gretchen stepped close and took his face in her hands, softly kissing his cheek. "Oh, Call. You're going to have an ugly bruise because of me. Do you forgive me?"

With half of his face still throbbing and his left eye half closed, Call reached out and grabbed his wife around her waist. "It ain't easy to get riled at you, Coyote Girl."

"And on our three month wedding anniversary, too, Call." She bit her lower lip and stared at him. "Won't this be something to tell our children?" She giggled, nuzzled her face into his chest and sighed. "These last three months are the happiest days of my life. Being your wife, Call."

"I reckon I feel the same." He lifted her chin to gaze at her warm, smiling face. "Happy anniversary, Gretchen."

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

(Tuesday, February 14, 1882)

The sun appeared for the first time in days, warming the cold Montana plains. It was Valentine's Day and the children of Curtis Wells were all exchanging cards with ribbon or lace. Dewey got a few cards. He said they were dopey, since he hadn't discovered the opposite sex yet. Mattie had to laugh. She felt good. Today she would proclaim her feelings to the man from Virginia she cared the most for.

******

Ashley Jessup sat in her room, upstairs in the Dove. She hummed contently while carefully writing with ink and paper. Upon completion, she raised the piece of paper, lightly sprayed her most enticing perfume into the air, waved it with her hand, then read it.

My desire for you is a flame that burns with passion.

Come and partake my pleasures.

Ashley smiled. "Why, Ashley, I declare. You have outdone yourself," she said out loud. Folding the Valentine message in half, then in half once more, she went downstairs and looked around the dining room. Most of the early morning customers sat quietly eating breakfast.

"Mr. Finch? Excuse me?" Ashley said, hurrying to the door where Unbob stood, slightly hunched.

"Morning, Miss Jessup. Today's Valentine's Day. Course . . . I ain't real sure if I'm supposed to give something special to my chickens and pigs."

Ashley smiled. "Why, I just know you'll think of something. You're such a resourceful man."

Unbob smiled, feeling a warm tingling in his chest.

"Would you please do me a big favor, Mr. Finch? It's terribly important."

"I reckon I could," Unbob agreed.

"You are so sweet. Please take this note to Mr. Mosby. Do you understand? Only Mr. Mosby."

Unbob nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Give this note to Mr. Mosby."

"Thank you," Ashley beamed then hurried back up the stairs, in anticipation.

******

Unbob stepped outside the Lonesome Dove Hotel and looked into the sky. He squinted, then closed his eyes, feeling the cold, winter sun caress his face.

"What're you doing, Unbob?"

Unbob opened his eyes. "I was letting the sun touch me on my face."

Dewey frowned. "Don't it burn? Cause the sun is real hot, ain't it?"

"Well, I reckon so," Unbob said. "I guess it just feels real nice on account of it's been so cold around here."

"Yeah, it's nice," Dewey replied, shrugging his bony, little shoulders. "Bye, Unbob."

Unbob nodded as the boy ran off. He slid his hands in the pockets of his worn out overalls and strolled casually into the street.

"Unbob!"

Unbob turned. "Yes, Miss Mattie?"

Mattie walked quickly up to Unbob. "I have a case of rifles that I need help lifting. Can you spare a minute?"

"Well, sure I can," he said, immediately heading for the gunsmith shop. "Uh oh," he suddenly said. He stood like someone stuck in mud.

"What is it?" Mattie asked.

"Good morning, Mattie. Morning, Unbob," Josiah Peale said. He had just come from visiting Dr. Cleese.

"I was supposed to bring something to Mr. Mosby," Unbob replied, pulling the folded note out of his pocket.

"Well, I happen to be going over to the Ambrosia," Josiah said. "I can deliver it for you."

Unbob nodded. "That'd be good, I guess? Then, see, I could go and help Mattie lift the rifles."

"I'll see that Clay Mosby gets the note." Josiah held his hand out as Unbob handed him Ashley Jessup's note. Unbob went inside the gun shop with Mattie, as Josiah noticed his son, Austin, across the street.

"Father? Why are you so happy looking today?" Austin asked.

"It's Valentine's Day, Austin."

"It's nothing to me, Father. Why don't you go inside and have some breakfast?"

Josiah nodded, rubbing his stomach. "I suppose I am hungry. I was detained. Will you be eating with me, Austin?"

"No. I have some things that need doing. They can't wait." Austin headed up the street toward the jail.

"What's so important?" Josiah quietly grumbled. He unconsciously slid the note into his pocket and went inside the Dove.

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

"Call, they're so beautiful!" Gretchen said as she took the small handful of wild flowers and kissed him. "Thank you, my husband."

Call frowned. "I ain't much on picking flowers, Gretchen. Ain't hardly any out there to pick."

Lifting her free hand, Gretchen gently touched his cheek, under his left eye. "Oh, Call. Look at you." She shook her head. "I'm so sorry."

Call smiled. He had a purple and dark red shiner under his eye. The eye was slightly closed from the swelling.

Gretchen smiled warmly. "Our first Valentine's Day together, Call." She raised the small bunch and inhaled deeply. "They smell so good. Call. Thank you. You're so good to me." Gretchen gently placed the flowers on the front porch and turned to Call. She reached out and interlocked her fingers with his fingers, raising their arms up, then down, as she stared into his eyes. She stepped close to him and leaned up to kiss him, wrapping her arms around his neck. Then she took their hands and interwove them again. "Our baby is going to be so fortunate having you for a father."

"My guess is the baby's gonna be mighty fortunate having you for it's mama." Call pulled Gretchen close and held her tight.

Gretchen looked at Call. Her green eyes aglow with love. "Good morning to you, valentine; curl your locks as I do mine --- two before and three behind. Good morning to you, valentine." She began to giggle and pressed her face into his chest.

"Where'd you learn that?" Call asked, smiling as he kissed her head.

"Mother used to sing it to us when we were little girls. I think it's English?"

"Sounds kind of nice . . . specially coming from you, Gretchen."

She finally, with reluctance, let go. "I better put these flowers in water. I'll go fill the bucket." Gretchen stepped into the yard, walking toward the well with both hands behind her back. She turned and smiled at her husband, then turned to continue. She stepped in a small hole that caught the toe of her shoe, causing her to fall forward. She extended her hands to protect herself but still fell on her stomach.

"Gretchen!" Call yelled. He jumped off the porch, rushing toward his wife.

"Uhhh. Oh, Call. I'm all right," Gretchen said, brushing herself.

Call dropped to his knees and gently straightened Gretchen up. He looked her over quickly. "Let's get you on your feet."

Gretchen nodded as she stood slowly up with Call's help. "See? I'm . . . Ooohhh! Uunnhh! Call?! My stomach!" Gretchen doubled over, grasping her belly, wincing in pain. "Cramps! I'm getting cramps! Oh, it hurts! Call? What if I lose the baby?" Her eyes were colored with fear.

"Don't go on like that, Gretchen," Call said. He walked her to the porch and gently sat her down.

"Uuunnhh! Ooohh! Call. It hurts! Please, hurry!"

Call quickly prepared the wagon and brought it to the front of their house. He carefully lifted Gretchen into the back and laid her on a blanket. He climbed up and led the wagon toward Curtis Wells.

"Call? I don't want to lose our baby," Gretchen moaned. She stretched her hand high, taking hold of the fringed end of his jacket.

"You ain't gonna lose the baby, Gretchen. Just hold on."

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

Josiah Peale was in a jovial mood. He even winked at Amanda a time or two as she swished by serving customers their hot meals. Maybe it was the moon? There was an old Lakota belief about strange going-on's during a half moon. Valentine's Day seemed to affect folks. It was in the air. Folks just seemed to be friendlier this morning.

Amanda finally pulled out the chair across from Josiah and sat down. She leaned forward, using the back of her hand to wipe her forehead. Josiah's eyes were fastened on her full breasts and cleavage, almost popping out of her blouse. Amanda wasn't aware of anything as she began talking. "I need more help. Clay puts Robert Shelby in charge of my hotel, and he's never around when I need help." She laughed. "I'll just sit here and pour myself a cup of coffee." She looked over at Josiah with her big eyes. "Can I get you anything else?"

Josiah shook his head. "I have to get back to the Statesman. Hubie Kellner has been so helpful." Josiah reached into his pocket, pulled out some coins, and dropped them on the table. He didn't see the note fall on the table. "You look exceptional today, Amanda."

"Well, thank you, Josiah." Amanda momentarily watched him leave.

Josiah paused, turning to gaze at the voluptuous woman.

Amanda looked at the folded note with curiosity. Ignoring the money, she grabbed the note and opened it. Her mouth opened wide. She gasped as she read:

My desire for you is a flame that burns with passion.

Come and partake my pleasures.

Amanda's eyes widened. Josiah had always been such a gentleman. He never hinted at anything sexual. She had heard about his wife dying some years ago. He was never seen in Twyla's. Amanda stared at the table for maybe two solid minutes before she slowly, almost in a fog, reached out to lift her cup of coffee. She brought the cup to her lips then suddenly placed it back on the table, spilling some. She stood up, wiped her hands and went back to work.

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

Clay Mosby poured drinks and smoked his cigar. He took a moment to observe Luther Root and Mason Dobbs. Two men in the prime of their lives. Strong men. Clay thought on how neither man had ever taken a wife. He knew Luther had lost a wife some time back. Clay bent over to rub his leg. It was healing -- almost completely back to normal.

Sheriff Austin Peale walked through the door.

"Join us, won't you?" Clay signaled, waving a bottle.

Austin trudged over to the bar. He watched as Mosby filled each man's glass.

"To four of the five most eligible bachelors in Curtis Wells," Clay said, raising his glass.

"I'll wager one or two of you boys might dispute that," Mason said. "Right, amigo?"

"Precisely. If Robert were here right now . . . hmm? Where is he?"

"I sent him over to the No.10," Austin boasted, noticing the reaction of the other men. "Just a fight between two drunks. Nothing important enough that requires that I personally be there."

"Oh, of course," Clay replied. It was a sarcastic remark, which produced an angry glare from the town's sheriff.

"Call should be here with us," Luther said. He turned suddenly, knocking his powerful frame into the smaller, wiry Mason Dobbs. "Oopps. Sorry, Mason."

"I'll wager you have a fairly good reason for mentioning Newt," Mason replied. He wiped the whiskey off of his vest and shirt, which had been jarred from his drink.

"I believe Mr. Root is referring to the fact that Newt Call is probably the least likely candidate in Curtis Wells that would ever put a ring on a woman's finger and actually marry."

"Yeah!" Luther nodded in an exaggerated motion. "What you just said, Mosby." It was plain enough for even a casual observer to see that Luther Root was drunk. "I never saw that coming. Let's drink to Call."

"If you'll permit me," Mosby said, setting the bottle on the counter, "I have business with Mr. Shelby. Enjoy the whiskey, gentlemen."

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

The sign hanging on the door said, Back in 10 minutes. It was still swinging on the glass pane that sat within the dry goods door as Victoria and Paige walked into the hotel, across the street from their store.

"Only ten minutes, Paige," Victoria admonished, looking back toward their store. "People expect us to be open today."

"I know that, Victoria," replied the youngest Brandt sister. "It's so busy in here today." She tossed her head left and right, noting the fairly crowded dining room. Her long blondish-light brown hair sweeping her slender shoulders.

"Well," Amanda Carpenter said. "What can I get for you two?"

"I think two cups of tea is all we have time for," Victoria commented. She frowned at her youngest sister. "Paige, you really should have taken the time to put your hair up."

Amanda looked at Paige, then at Victoria. "I have to agree with her," she said to Paige. Amanda then touched Victoria's hair. "It looks much nicer up -- like your sister wears hers." She let her hand linger for a moment, then said, "I'll get your tea." She smiled at the sisters then, unaware, a small note fell out of the sleeve of her blouse, onto the table, near Victoria. Amanda walked over to Ike and began talking to him. Ike nodded and hurried out the hotel doors. Amanda turned, her eyes scanning the dining room, not really looking at anyone in particular, then hastened up the stairs, disappearing down the hall.

"What's that?" Paige asked Victoria. She pointed to the folded piece of paper.

Victoria paused, then looked toward the stairs. "I believe Miss Carpenter put it here. I wonder why she would give me a note?"

"Open it, Victoria!" Paige said, excitedly. "What does it say?"

Victoria picked up the note. "It's scented," she commented. "Strange?" She unfolded it and read it out loud:

"My desire for you is a flame that burns with passion

come and partake my pleasures."

"Oooohhhhh! Uuuuhhhhh! That is so disgusting!" Paige cried. She closed her eyes, made a sour face, then shook her hands near her face, cringing at the thought.

"I'm certain there has to be an explanation for this," Victoria calmly replied. "At least, I hope there is," she quietly said, arching her eyebrows.

"What is there to explain, Victoria? Ooouuhh! Miss Carpenter wants to be intimate with you!"

"Keep your voice down, Paige," Victoria chided. "We've never known of Miss Carpenter to be . . . strange!"

"Well, it would all be done in secret, Victoria," Paige reminded her. "Uuuhhh! And there is no other place to eat in town," she groaned. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Stop behaving that way!" Victoria ordered. "You're embarrassing me."

"Victoria, let's leave. Please?"

Victoria sighed. "Very well. But, I will thank you to not be judgmental until we learn about this. Understood?"

Paige rolled her eyes. "Yes, Victoria."

***

Victoria and Paige stepped outside the Lonesome Dove Hotel. Victoria's attention was drawn up the street, where a wagon was hurrying into town.

"Newt? Why is Newt racing . . . ?" Victoria covered her mouth. "Something's happened!"

"Where's Gretchen, Victoria?" Paige asked. "I don't see her."

Call pulled to a stop in front of the mining supplies building. Suddenly, both sisters realized where Gretchen was.

"Gretchen's lying in the back!" Paige screamed. "Victoria? What if she lost the baby? She can't lose it! She can't!"

Victoria took hold of Paige's arm. "Listen to me, Paige. Gretchen needs us to be strong right now. Seeing us panic will only worsen whatever is already wrong." They hurried across the street. Call jumped in the back of the wagon and unlocked the wooden tailgate, then lifted Gretchen into his arms.

"Newt! What happened to Gretchen?" Victoria asked.

"She fell! She's got cramps!" Call stepped down. "I gotta get her up to Ephraim."

"I'll open the door," Paige cried, hiking her skirt and running down the alley between Mattie's shop and Ephraim's, then up the stairs. Call followed, Gretchen in his arms, moaning.

"Oh, my goodness! What happened?" Dr. Cleese asked, stepping out onto the small landing.

"Gretchen fell," Call said as he carried his wife inside the doctor's office. "Where do I put her? Hurry!"

"In here," Ephraim replied, opening a door. "On the table, Call." He turned to the three of them. "I need to examine her immediately. Victoria? Please wait with Call and your sister."

Victoria knew exactly what her husband meant. He would need her to stay with Call, to calm him down. Victoria watched as Call paced across the office floor -- back and forth -- continuously back and forth.

"Newt?" Victoria finally said, standing in front of him. "Try to sit down. It won't do any good pacing like some caged animal."

"Won't do no good sitting, Victoria," he said. Victoria noticed a wild, fearful look in his eye. "Can't lose the baby. Can't lose the baby," he whispered, then paced the floor again.

Victoria turned to Paige -- the youngest Brandt sister was on her knees, praying.

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

Josiah Peale knocked on the door. "Yes?" came the voice from within.

"Uh . . . Amanda? Ike said you wanted to see me." Josiah fiddled with his hat. "He said you wanted me to come up to your room."

"Come in." the muffled voice answered.

Josiah turned the brass knob and stepped inside Amanda's room. He closed the door and looked at her, blinking once. "Why are you wearing that robe? It isn't bedtime yet."

Amanda laughed slightly. She slowly and deliberately tugged on the string, opening her silky robe, exposing her treasures. Josiah's eyes bulged as he stared at Amanda's naked body.

"I'm glad to see something else bulge, besides your eyes, Josiah."

"What are you doing, Amanda?" Josiah asked. He was breathing harder now.

"I never knew," Amanda replied. She stepped close to him, pressing her firm body into his. "Take me, Josiah."

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

Mason Dobbs walked through the doors of Twyla's, looking around the lobby. Rosa jumped up from the tattered, worn couch, and went to him.

"Hello, Senor Mason. I have not seen you for a long time. Are you here to take me up on my offer?" She smiled at him.

Mason winked at Rosa.

She grinned, took his hand, and led him up the stairs. "This is my Valentine present to you," she quietly said. "It will be muy grande, as I told you."

Mason grabbed a half-full bottle of whiskey that sat on a small table in the hallway. Then disappeared into Rosa's room.

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

"Hello, Mattie," Clay Mosby said, as he stepped inside the gunsmith shop.

Mattie looked up from an old gun she was repairing. She smiled at Clay.

"What in the name of creation is that?" Clay asked, pointing to the antique in her hands.

"Old, isn't it?" Mattie replied.

"Apparently," Clay said. He stared with interest at the gun. "I suspect what you hold in your hands is older than I am."

"Or at least close," Mattie joked. "It's a Pepperbox. From '37. An old percussion pistol."

Clay extended his hands to look at the gun. Mattie placed it carefully in his hands. "Who would this belong to?" he inquired.

"Oh. You know Mr. Dias, don't you, Clay? He has a small place outside of town. A gray haired man. A gray beard. Sort of thin."

"I've met him."

Mattie nodded. "Couple months back he . . . Unbob? Where's Dewey?"

Unbob had just walked in through the back door. "He's up the hill near the graves. Whole bunch of kids. They're throwing rocks at trees."

Mattie turned back to Clay. "Well, like I was telling you, Mr. Dias brought in an old one-shot flintlock. One of those old smoothbore muskets."

"You rarely see one of those any more," Clay commented. "Well, I should be getting back to my saloon. I need a box of shells, Mattie."

"Clay?" Mattie placed the Pepperbox pistol on the glass counter and put her hands on her hips. "I have something that needs being said and I suppose with this being Valentine's Day, I best say it here and now."

Clay gave her his undivided attention.

"I have strong feelings for you, Clay. More than just friends. I don't quite know how I feel about Robert. But it isn't the same. I intend to fight for you, Clay Mosby!" Mattie leaned over the counter and put her lips on Clay's mouth and kissed him deep.

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

Victoria and Paige had given up on their attempt to calm their brother-in-law. They quietly sat together, watching Call pace nervously across the floor.

"He's like an animal," Paige whispered to Victoria. "I think I would be afraid of him if he wasn't married to our sister, and I didn't know him."

Victoria nodded. "He loves her so very much. I never thought it would work. He's so in love with her. Gretchen knew, didn't she?"

Paige smiled. "Yes. Yes, she knew. The moment we stepped off the stage, the very first moment she saw him. She knew." Paige suddenly became solemn. "Victoria? What if she loses the baby?"

Before the oldest Brandt sister could answer, the door opened. Gretchen sheepishly stepped into the larger room, Ephraim behind her.

"Call!" Gretchen said and ran into his arms. "I'm so sorry, Call."

Call held his wife. "Did you . . . ?" He hesitated, swallowing hard. "Gretchen . . . ?"

"She hasn't lost the baby, Call," Dr. Cleese said. "She was quite fortunate, though."

Gretchen stared into her husband's eyes, rubbing her hands up and down his arms.

"Will she be all right?" Call asked, staring into his wife's hypnotic green eyes.

Victoria and Paige stood near Gretchen.

"She has to let go of the incident inside the cave," Ephraim replied. "It's causing far too much stress inside her. She's a very strong woman . . . but if she does not stop thinking about it, she could conceivably still lose the baby."

"I'm sorry, Call," Gretchen whispered. Her eyes were watery.

"Ain't no cause for that, Coyote Girl," Call said, gently squeezing her. "I don't want nothing happening to you."

"Take her home, Call," Ephraim said. "She needs rest. It's been quite a stressful day. Her cramps will dissipate eventually."

Call nodded, then looked at his wife's two sisters. "Obliged you were both here."

"What happened to your eye, Call?!" Paige exclaimed, suddenly taking notice of the dark bruise.

Victoria looked closely at it. "Worrying so as we did about Gretchen, we hadn't noticed it. Oh, Newt."

Gretchen looked at Call, giggling.

Call just shrugged. "Was just an accident, is all."

Victoria and Paige both hugged Gretchen. Even Call allowed them a hug.

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

Josiah Peale didn't remember walking down the stairs and leaving the Dove. He didn't remember crossing the street and going back to the Montana Statesman. He had a dazed kind of smile on his face, though. And, he had a tingling feeling in his lower belly and groin that felt just about better than anything else.

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

Amanda Carpenter slid her magenta stocking over her foot, then pulled it up her leg, just past her knee. She did the same with the other stocking, then held both in place with a leather of silk garter. She continued dressing -- corset, drawers, petticoats, skirt, and blouse. Amanda adjusted her ample bosom so that a fair amount of cleavage could be seen. She shook her head as she put her shoes on. "If I only knew . . . Josiah!"

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

By afternoon, Victoria and Paige were busy inside the dry goods. Victoria looked up, upon hearing the door open.

"Hello, Mr. Mosby," she smiled.

"And, how are you, Mrs. Cleese? I trust the good doctor is basking in the fruition of his new painting?"

Victoria frowned. "Yes. Ephraim is quite delighted with it. However, I cannot say I was saddened by the departure of Mr. Etienne Meloche. I suppose he returned to those savages?"

"He was rather adamant about returning," Clay replied. "Now, if you would be kind enough, Mrs. Cleese, I have need of acquiring two handkerchiefs."

Victoria bent down and rummaged through some items, then placed two new, white handkerchiefs on the counter. When Clay laid some coins on the counter, Victoria reached into the pocket of her skirt to find change. A folded note fell onto the counter. Victoria walked over to the cash register. Clay observed the folded, white note and looked toward Victoria, wondering if she had just discreetly given him a message. Clay scooped the note into his hand and slid it into the small pocket of his silk vest.

"Thank you, Mr. Mosby." Victoria smiled at him.

Clay nodded. "Good day." He strolled out the door, pausing near the street. Opening the note, he read:

My desire for you is a flame that burns with passion

come and partake my pleasures

Clay read the note a second time. He turned toward the dry goods, rubbing his chin, contemplating. Not one to tarry, he instantly decided his course of action. Clay walked back inside the dry goods. Straight to Victoria.

"Might I have a moment of your time, Mrs. Cleese?" Clay said.

"Yes, of course, Mr. Mosby." Victoria looked at him. "What it is?"

"I must say, Victoria, I am quite flattered by your feelings for me and quite honestly, I find you to be, by far, the most attractive of the three of you." Clay's countenance suddenly changed from favorable to serious. "However, I must regrettably inform you that I am appalled that you so loosely throw your affections at another man, having a decent, good man such as Dr. Cleese for your husband."

"What?! What did you say to me?!" Victoria's voice raised. Paige stopped dusting and stared at them.

"This note says it all," Clay replied, handing it to Victoria.

Just then, Mason Dobbs stepped inside the store, having heard from Dr. Cleese that his nephew's wife had almost lost her baby.

Victoria looked at the note. She gasped. "How dare you accuse me of something so vile?!" Victoria slapped Clay across his face. It was exceedingly hard. Clay's face budged some and his cheek immediately stung as if dozens of needles were stabbing him. "You get out of this store!" Victoria loudly said, "and you are no longer welcome in here, Mr. Mosby!"

Clay's anger blazed. "Was it not you who gave me that note?!"

"I did no such thing!" Victoria loudly replied. Her nostrils flared. Her face reddened in anger.

"Well that may well be," Clay said, lowering his voice just a little. "The fact is, that note was among the change you put on the counter, my dear Mrs. Cleese!"

Paige ran over to them. "Miss Carpenter gave that note to Victoria! We were in the hotel's dining room when she put it on our table."

"What?!" Clay said.

"Hooo boy!" Mason added, scratching his head. "This one's turning into a tussle."

Clay read the note for a third time. "I find it most perplexing that Amanda would write and hand this to you, Mrs. Cleese?"

Staring at Mosby with daggers, Victoria said, "then perhaps we had all go across the street and settle this ridiculous matter? Once and for all!"

Paige waited to see if her oldest sister was going to pick up something and break it in a fit of anger, as Gretchen would surely do.

"I agree," Clay answered. "After you, Mrs. Cleese."

All four of them, Victoria, Clay, and Paige, pulling Mason by his arm, crossed the street and entered the hotel.

"Miss Carpenter!" Victoria loudly called out. Amanda, still feeling the after effects of her surprise encounter with Josiah, came over to the group. The dining room was empty.

Victoria held up the note. "Why did you give me this note?"

Amanda shook her head. "Excuse me? I never gave you any note." She paused, thinking. "So, that's what happened to it!" She laughed. "It must have fallen out of my blouse sleeve."

"This is far from humorous, Miss Carpenter!" Victoria replied. "Mr. Mosby just accused me of being a slut!"

"To which I now most regrettably crave your forgiveness, Mrs. Cleese," Clay offered, in his smooth, Southern style.

Victoria was still tense and angry. Part of it was over the fact that her younger sister, Gretchen, had come close to losing her baby. She nodded. "I would hardly be a decent Christian woman if I refused your apology, Mr. Mosby."

"Well, good," Clay smiled. He had never witnessed Victoria as angry as this.

"Then . . . you aren't interested in my sister, Miss Carpenter?" Paige asked.

Amanda laughed. "Honey, I like men, only."

"Well, just who was that note intended for?" Mason Dobbs wondered out loud.

"Josiah gave it to me," Amanda revealed. Then, in a low voice, said, "he sure did give it to me!"

Clay shook his head, in doubt. "I find it rather unusual that Josiah would perfume a note."

Amanda frowned, realizing Mosby's observation made a lot of sense.

Clay turned to Victoria. "Shall we proceed to Josiah? This has become quite interesting."

***

"Unbob gave me the note," Josiah replied, when asked about it. When the story was revealed, he rubbed his head. "I never read it. I must have dropped it on the table and Amanda found it and thought I gave her it. No wonder she . . ." He smiled, lost in a memory of lust and passion.

***

"Now I remember," Unbob said, smiling. "This morning, Miss Ashley give me a note and said to bring it to Mr. Mosby." He squinted. "I guess I sort of got sidetracked?"

"I believe we now know just exactly where the note originated from," Clay said to Victoria.

"I suppose you'll have to forgive me also, Mr. Mosby," Victoria said. "Gretchen almost lost her baby today. It's been a difficult day."

"My sincerest apologies, Mrs. Cleese. To you and your sister." Clay bowed slightly. "Now, if you will forgive me, I believe the final stop in tracing the note should be completed by me, alone."

"Yes, Mr. Mosby." Victoria took Paige by the arm and headed back to their dry goods store.

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

"Call? You don't have to make such a fuss over me. You really don't."

"Ain't hardly no fuss at all, Gretchen," Call said as he held his wife in his arms and carried her into their small bedroom.

"Wasn't it nice of Victoria and Paige to bring us food so I wouldn't have to cook tonight?" Gretchen giggled. "Maybe they were fretting you would burn everything if you cooked?"

"I can make a favorable biscuit," Call said. He shrugged. "It was real friendly of them, bringing us food." Call sat on the bed with Gretchen in his lap. "You best do like Ephraim said." He gently cupped her chin with his thumb and finger. "You gotta put it behind you, Gretchen. For the baby's sake. For our sake." He looked into her eyes. "I love you too much to lose you. I never felt this way before."

Gretchen nodded. "I'll try, Call. I . . . I really will. Our very first ever Valentine's Day as husband and wife." She pressed her face into his chest. "It was almost the worst day ever." She took a deep breath and smiled. " I've never felt this way before, either. Let's get in bed early tonight, Call. I want you to just hold me close."

Call nodded. "I expect that's best. I intend to make sure you rest up like Ephraim said." He smiled then. "Say that thing again, Gretchen."

"What thing, Call?"

"That Valentine thing your mama learned you."

Gretchen smiled and nuzzled close to Call. "Good morning to you, valentine; curl your locks as I do mine --- two before and three behind. Good morning to you, valentine."

Call nodded, then laughed.

Gretchen laughed. "Happy Valentine's Day, Call. I love you, forever."

"I love you, too, Gretchen. Forever."

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

Clay Mosby knocked on the door and waited. The door opened slightly. Clay waited. It opened further. He stepped inside.

"Clay Mosby, where have you been? I was expecting you hours and hours ago!" Ashley stood before him, fully dressed. He groaned quietly. He had expected, or at least hoped, that she would stand before him without a stitch of clothing on her body. It was, after all, Valentine's Day. He opened his mouth to speak but Ashley placed one finger on his lips.

"Shhh!" She giggled some. "I have something I need to say. I don't know if you are aware of it, Clay, dearest, but I have substantial holdings in New Orleans, as well as other places."

"I was not aware of that, my dear Ashley." He lifted his hand, showing the note.

"Did you just get that little ol' thing, now?" Ashley asked. She was surprised. "It was such a simple matter for Mr. Finch."

Clay smiled. "I have a quite a story to tell you about this note of yours, my dear, Ashley!"

"Why, I declare, Clay! You simply must let me speak first."

"By all means, Ashley. Do proceed." Clay waited.

She stepped closer to him. "Today . . . being Valentine's Day . . . Oh! Just say it, Ashley! Here goes." She looked into his eyes with her sapphire blue eyes and took hold of his hand. "Francis Clay Mosby You are going to be a father!"

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

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