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.


Honor and Responsibility
(27th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

No wonder the maidens love you!
Take me away with you -- let us hurry!
Let the king bring me into his chambers.

(Solomon's Song of Songs 1:3, Holy Bible)

You are going to be a father! Going to be a father! A father! It was a shocking statement, resounding like a church bell, echoing within Clay Mosby's mind. Miz Ashley Jessup's sudden announcement that she was carrying his baby had caught him as unaware and off guard as the time he rode into an ambush -- leading his men to what would have ultimately resulted in their doom, had he not reacted with stunning boldness and undeniable courage.

He was surrounded by men and horses once more. An unforgettable day, the spring of '63. Chancellorsville. General's Lee and Jackson, with a risky plan of attack, split their forces against the vastly superior numbers commanded by Union General "Fighting Joe" Hooker.

In a twelve mile march around the Federal's right flank, it was Mosby, and the 14th Virginia Regiment, that rode into an ambush. It was a dense thicket of second growth -- swarming with Union horse soldiers -- closing in on the Rebs from four directions. Mosby's lightning-quick reflexes, as well as his ability to make decisions under critical conditions, not only saved his men from being cut to pieces, it assisted greatly in the Confederacy's underdog victory.

Clay remembered the stench -- the smell of smoke. He led his men straight through the Union's most fortified point in the forest. Hacking his way through a sea of blue-clad flesh. He had afterwards stood before his troops, congratulating them for their courage and ability to obey orders under extreme conditions. A victory expected is naught but triumph without meaning. A victory seized from the ashen ruins of defeat, that is a victory in which minstrels would sing and poets write. Those were the words he had spoken to his men, as they hurrahed the gallant, young officer.

Clay's thoughts returned to the present. February, 1882. There would be no strategic maneuvers this time. He prided himself on being a man of dignity. A man whose word stood for something. In the end, there would be no debating the issue -- no seeking another course. Clay Mosby was a man of honor. And a man of honor would marry a woman carrying his baby. End of discussion.

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

A night of restless sleep tends to make a man irritable. Newt Call was irritable. He dropped the bow-saw he was using, letting it fall to the ground, when he noticed Gretchen lift a basket of wet clothes. Walking over to meet her at a quick pace, he said, "I reckon it'd be best if I carry that load inside."

A night of restless sleep also tends to make a woman irritable. Gretchen sharply twisted her body, avoiding Call's hands. "I can do it! I'm not a cripple." She continued toward the house.

Call stared at his wife for a moment, then hastened to catch up. "I ain't saying you're a cripple."

"Then just leave me alone, Call. This is my responsibility." She raised her knee, balancing the heavy basket, then reached out to open the door. "You have enough chores to do out here." She stepped inside their home without looking at him, then kicked the door closed.

Call's face knotted up. His eyes blazed as tension built. They both knew what was coming next. He stepped up to the door and threw it open. "Dammit, Gretchen! You're supposed to rest."

"Don't you swear at me, Newt Call!" she loudly replied.

Call squinted. It was an unexpected remark. He hesitated, watching her hang the wet laundry near the fireplace.

"Are you going to just stand there gawking at me all day?" She continued hanging their clothes, not looking at him. "There's a hole behind the barn that needs patching. It's big enough for a wolf to squeeze through. Go finish cutting the wood and repair it. And Sugar and the Hellbitch's stalls require cleaning. You should be out there working."

Call reached his limit -- which was minimal, by other men's standards. "What the hell is wrong with you today, Gretchen?! You been ornery all morning. What's wrong?"

Gretchen snapped her head around, her long, straight hair sweeping across her shoulders. "You're smothering me, Call! That's what's wrong."

Call stared at her. "I'm only trying to help. Ephraim said . . ."

"I don't need any help, Call!" she quickly interrupted him. "I'm not helpless."

"I don't want you to lose the baby." His voice softened.

"I won't lose our baby, Call. If you listened to what Ephraim told us, the problem is in my head." Gretchen paused. "I feel like you're treating me as if I were a child. I'm not!"

Call stood motionless, not sure what to say or do. He knew he was being overprotective of her. It was because of his past. He loved Gretchen more than anyone he had ever known and it scared him bad that he could lose her, or the baby she carried inside her.

"Just go outside, Call. I'm tired and I'm not in a very good mood today." She turned back to continue hanging the laundry.

Call glared for a moment, then turned. He didn't speak. He just stormed out of the house. Gretchen closed her eyes, trying not to cry.

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

Mattie Shaw liked when Clay Mosby wore his burgundy vest, along with his gray suit. She had decided he looked his handsomest when wearing that outfit. Unless he wore nothing at all, which she also approved of wholeheartedly.

Her eyes lit up and she smiled brightly as Clay walked into her gun shop wearing the outfit she liked best. "Hello, Clay. You look nice today. I've thought of you a lot. I've thought of us, a lot."

Clay offered a weak smile in reply. He didn't delight in what had to be said.

Mattie frowned slightly. "What is it, Clay? You don't look like a man who's happy."

"I suppose it would be regarded as to exactly what we are discussing, whether I am happy or not," he replied. Clay noticed that both Unbob and Dewey weren't present. It was better that way. His words should be heard by Mattie, alone.

Mattie laughed a little. "I'm not sure I know just what it is you're trying to say."

A lesser man would have lowered his eyes to the floor. A lesser man wouldn't have bothered to face her. Clay Mosby was a man of honor and regardless of consequences, knew he had to face Mattie. "Yesterday, you revealed something quite personal to me, Mattie."

Mattie smiled. She was hopeful. There was always hope if one only believed in it.

"I had considered the prospect of us in a . . . long term relationship," he began.

"Yes?" Mattie felt optimistic.

Clay's eyes met her's. His look said it all. Mattie's heart sunk. She suddenly experienced a sickening feeling inside her throat and stomach. Her smile melted into despair.

"I'm awfully sorry, Mattie. However, I would have you know the truth, regarding this matter."

"It doesn't matter," was Mattie's disappointed reply. She tried to smile but it was plain that she couldn't. "You have your reasons. You don't owe me anything."

Clay groaned in frustration. "I am trying to explain the situation to you, Mattie." He hesitated. "It is quite difficult and I would appreciate you at least allowing me that."

Mattie pushed herself out from behind the glass counter and walked with heavy, heart-saddened footsteps toward the door. Suddenly, it had become unbearably hot inside her shop and she had need to open the door. Clay found his eyes lustfully drawn to her hips and shapely behind, with little left to the imagination due to the tightness of her pants.

"Miz Ashley Jessup is pregnant." Clay thought his voice sounded different. "She told me last night."

Mattie froze -- her eyes widened. She turned around. "I should have been the one carrying your baby." She laughed -- sort of ironically. "We had enough opportunities. I guess it just isn't meant to be, is it, Clay?"

There was a heavy feeling of melancholy, like a thick fog, in the gun shop.

"Mattie? What do you want me to do? For God's sake, Mattie . . ." Clay paced slowly. "I have no choice. I am about to become a father."

"I suppose it's for the best." Mattie stared blankly out the window. "She's more your type."

"Mattie . . . ?"

"Please, Clay? Just go." Mattie's eyes were wet with tears. She wouldn't be able to hold them back much longer. "Go. Before I tell you how much I love you." It was too late. The tears began sliding down her cheeks. She pushed past Clay -- running into the back room.

Clay sighed deeply. Sometimes, honor was a price too high. He walked out the door, quietly closing it.

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

Oh, Amanda! Oohhh! The door slammed, terminating Josiah Peale's fantasy. His eyes blinked open, then he groaned. "Austin?! What do you want? I'm busy."

Sheriff Peale looked around the quiet newspaper shop, frowning. He ignored his father's comments. "Here." Austin handed his father a wanted poster.

Josiah sat up in his chair, safely keeping his ruffled coat over his lap. "What's this?" he moaned, observing the poster. "Shanghai Red Finley. So? What's this got to do with anything?"

"There's a one thousand dollar reward on him. He's wanted out in California. For hijacking men in San Francisco. On the waterfront docks. He killed a lawman there. Slit his throat with a knife the size of your arm."

"Austin? I still don't see what this has to do with us?" Josiah was anxious to return to his thoughts of Amanda Carpenter.

"He's been traveling northeast," Austin said, smiling. It was a confident smile. "There were sightings in Bannack, White Sulphur Springs, and in Cat Creek, yesterday. I believe he plans to cross the border. He's heading for Canada."

"So what?" Josiah wasn't particularly interested, although Austin was quickly ruining the setting.

"I want you to print what I've told you in the Statesman. Let folks know about it," Austin said.

Josiah nodded. "Very well, Austin. I won't have any peace until I do this." He rose from the chair, no longer having need of covering himself. Austin had taken care of that.

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

It had begun raining. A cold rain, turning to hail at times. Call refused to stop working. He was stubborn that way. He finished repairing the hole behind the barn and had cleaned out the two stalls. He loaded the piles of horse dung in the wheelbarrow then pushed it a fair piece away from the house, where it was dumped. Flies could be bothersome. They had to be kept away as best as possible. After returning the wheelbarrow to its place, he went and foolishly sat on the corral fence.

What is he doing? Gretchen wondered, watching him from the window inside, near the door. She turned, looking at the stove where she was baking bread. She wiped her hands on her apron and grabbed her shawl, wrapping it loosely over her shoulders. "Call? What are you doing sitting out here in the rain?" Gretchen asked, stepping out onto their porch. She folded her arms in front of her chest.

"Nothing!" he barked.

"Well, fine, then!" Gretchen stomped her foot on the wooden porch. She looked up at the sky, winced, then hiked her skirt and walked from the house to the corral, a distance of maybe twenty-five yards. She climbed up to sit with her husband.

"Gretchen?! What're you doing?!" Call asked. He quickly took hold of her arms to help her up.

She looked at him. "If you won't come inside, then I'll sit out here with you, Call." She was skillful at using her Coyote ways.

"You shouldn't be out here in this rain . . . you could get yourself sick," Call admonished her.

"And you shouldn't be out here in this rain, either, Newt Call," Gretchen insisted, staring into his eyes. "You won't do me or the baby any good if you come down with pneumonia and die on us."

He shook his head and slid off the fence. He extended his arms. She allowed him to lift her into his arms. "What am I going to do with you, Coyote Girl?"

Gretchen laughed slightly. "Just love me, Call," she whispered, wrapping her arms tightly around him. "And, be patient."

Call carried his wife into the house. While still holding her in his arms, he pulled her close, kissing her. Gretchen welcomed his advances, tightening her grip as she kissed him back.

He let his mouth linger, treasuring the intimacy of her warm breath. Pulling his face back some, he looked at Gretchen. There were tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Gretchen?"

"Call," she whispered. "I want you to fuss and fret over me. But you can't do everything for me. We're husband and wife, Call. We do things together. I'm not sick. I know what Ephraim said . . . about losing the baby.. It's all right, Sweetheart. I'll be fine. Really, I will." She kissed him lightly on the lips and smiled. "This was a good fight, today," she giggled.

Call squinted. "Good? Ain't no such thing as a good fight. How you figure?" He lowered her to her feet.

"I didn't break anything." She stared at him. "And that's good. Isn't it?"

"I swear, Gretchen," Call said, shaking his head. "How's any man supposed to figure out the going-on's inside a woman's head?"

She put her hands on his cheeks and leaned close to kiss him. Instead, she bit his lower lip, let go and giggled, smiling warmly at him.

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

It was quiet inside the Ambrosia Club. The shadowy figures of two men could be seen from the street. A solitary lamp burned on the middle of a table near the bar.

"You always wanted a son, Clay. Perhaps Miz Ashley will now give you one." Robert Shelby expected to support his closest friend. "She's one of us, Clay. We'll always be Southerners."

Clay Mosby lifted his chin. "I suppose you're right, Robert." He stared off in the darkened saloon, smiling. "I thought Mary would give me sons and daughters, and the Mosby name would live on forever. We even spoke of your son and my daughter . . ." he hesitated.

"That was a lifetime ago, Clay. The infernal Yankees destroyed our lives. We don't belong this far from home." Robert's tone had become bitter.

"Home, Robert? We have no home." Clay sighed deep, from the pit of his belly. "The truth is, Miz Ashley Jessup is as ambitious as I. She can only strengthen my vision. Provided I am capable of satisfying her . . ." he paused, laughing, ". . . her insatiable appetite for amorous affections."

"You devil, you," Robert teased. "As your closest friend, I am volunteering my services, should they ever be required, where the charming Miz Ashley is concerned. Some mares are better suited with two stallions."

Clay looked at Robert. The flickering light danced across his strong features. "I shall keep that in mind, Robert."

"By all means, do, Clay," Robert grinned.

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

It was three days until the third month anniversary for Dr. Cleese and his wife, Victoria. She had begun to show. The baby was growing inside her stomach, and it was noticeable. Not a lot. Still, it was noticeable.

Ashley Jessup strolled into the Brandt Sisters' dry goods store. "Good morning," she waved to Paige, then walked up to Victoria. "How are you feeling today, Mrs. Cleese?" she asked, pointing to Victoria's stomach with a smile.

Victoria giggled slightly. "Very well. Thank you, Miss Jessup."

Ashley smiled. "All these babies that will be born in Curtis Wells," she quietly said. "It seems the Brandt women are quite adept at conceiving babies."

"It's true," Victoria agreed. "Gretchen and I have conceived. We still have another six months to go. I pray every morning that the Lord will bring these babies safely into the world."

"An old Indian woman in Red Crow's village said Gretchen is going to struggle when she has the baby," Paige said, joining them.

Victoria turned to her youngest sister. "What would an old Indian woman know about Gretchen's baby?"

"I'm sure I don't know, Victoria," Paige replied. "I'm only saying what she told us."

Victoria frowned. "News such as that can do nothing beneficial. I trust you'll remember that, Paige."

"I will," Paige said, twisting the strands of her hair. "But . . . we should tell Ephraim. Just in case."

Victoria frowned at Paige.

"Well," Ashley said, "I just came in to say hello."

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

Saying something was one thing. Doing it was sometimes a whole different matter. Call and Gretchen had gone through another restless night -- tossing and turning about. Both were short tempered. Gretchen asked Call to take her into town so she could visit her sisters. It made sense to Call. They had need of a few supplies. He hitched up the wagon and helped his wife climb into the seat, then they headed for Curtis Wells.

Call thought it best to ride through town, leaving the wagon in front of the Brandt Sisters' store. Victoria, Paige, and Ephraim were inside as Call helped Gretchen down. When they parted without kissing, all three knew something was wrong.

"Morning, Gretchen," Paige said, hugging her older sister. "Where's your husband going?"

Gretchen turned, looking out into the street. Call was heading down the side of the real estate brokers building, near the windmill. "I would imagine he's going to get drunk."

Victoria and Ephraim looked at each other briefly. As the oldest pair, it was their responsibility to act as peacemakers. "This must be about losing the baby," Victoria said.

"He's smothering me!" Gretchen blurted out. "I feel like a child."

"Perhaps you should talk to him, Victoria?" Ephraim suggested. "Let me speak to Gretchen." Victoria nodded and grabbed her shawl, then hurried outside. Ephraim smiled at Gretchen. "Please, have a seat. There are some things you should know."

Gretchen obeyed her brother-in-law, and sat in a chair. Paige sat near her. Ephraim adjusted his specs and began. "You are well aware that Call was married to Josiah's daughter for a short time?"

Gretchen nodded. "I know she died."

"It was quite tragic, really," Ephraim said. "Some men were stranded here during a severe snowstorm. The roads were impossible to travel. They were outlaws and a terrible fight ensued. Hannah was killed when the mercantile building exploded. Call was outside. He had been shot in the leg. Mosby held him or he would have gone inside and died as well."

Ephraim's account caused both sisters to gasp. "I never knew how she died," Gretchen quietly said. "He doesn't talk about it."

"That is not all of it," Ephraim replied. "Call left town immediately. It was too much for him. When he left, his hair was short and he was much cleaner. It was almost two years before he returned, looking rather haggard and shabby. He was mean and cold. He had become a bounty hunter. Perhaps you should allow him to exercise his anxiety and apprehension. It is quite obvious that Mr. Newt Call is very much in love with you, Gretchen. He is trying to protect you the only way he knows. You are, in all honesty, the only person he has allowed to get close." He paused. "I suppose his uncle, Mason Dobbs, is close."

Gretchen's green eyes were watery. "I've been a terrible wife, haven't I, Ephraim?"

"Not in the least," he replied. "You are just the opposite. Call seems to have finally found peace inside his tormented soul. He killed a man recently because he made inappropriate comments about you."

"I remember that," Paige said. "Antonio. He was disgusting."

"It is beneficial that you be informed as to why your husband is, as you put it, smothering you." Ephraim waited for Gretchen's response.

"Thank you, Ephraim. Telling me this will help me," Gretchen replied.

***

"Newt! Newt! Ooh! I can't walk as fast as you with this skirt."

Call turned his head. "Victoria?"

She caught up to him in the seedy section of tent town. The Chinese. The downtrodden. Drunks staggering between tents. One bottle-carrying drunk bumped into Victoria, frightening her. Call shoved the man aside, then lightly put his hand on Victoria's arm. "I reckon it'd be best if we found us another place to talk."

Victoria smiled, allowing Call to guide her out near the windmill -- away from annoyances.

"Have you or Gretchen had any sleep? You both look weary."

"We ain't slept hardly at all since Gretchen almost lost . . ." he couldn't say it. "What's this about?" he asked his older sister-in-law.

Having already heard the same story Ephraim had just told Gretchen, Victoria was a step ahead. "Dear, sweet Newt."

Call's face wrinkled, then he tucked his chin down, slightly embarrassed.

Victoria found his humility somewhat pleasant. "Paige and I have come to love you as our brother. I think it might prove to Gretchen's and your gain, if I share something with you, about her."

Call nodded.

"When we were growing up in St. Joseph, we had family living twenty miles away in Union Star. On our mother's side. One cousin in particular, Mildred, married about five years ago. Her husband was a good, hard working man. She took advantage of his kind heart and sat around doing absolutely nothing. That poor man, foolish as he was, washed the clothes, cooked the meals, did all of Millie's chores, including his own job in town. He finally grew tired of carrying both of their loads and packed his things and left her."

Call shrugged. "I don't rightly see how that has anything to do with me and Gretchen?"

"Gretchen swore she would never be lazy like Millie. She said when the time came and she met that one perfect man, wherever he was, she would never take advantage of him. She's strong and she's a good worker, Newt. She's afraid if she lets you start helping her with her chores you might tire of her and leave."

"That ain't gonna happen!" Call said, adamantly. "Not ever! I love her. I'm bound to her."

Victoria agreed with Call's sudden zealousness. "I know you won't leave her, Newt. Just be patient with her. You've only been married for three months. She loves you more than anything. That won't prevent the two of you from arguing at times. Well, I should get back to the store. Are you planning on getting drunk, still?"

Call frowned. Victoria sure was acting like a big sister. "I guess one or two won't set no one off," he grumbled.

Victoria leaned close and kissed Call on his cheek. "You are a good husband, Newt Call." She shook her head. "Did Gretchen really give you that black eye?"

Call laughed. "Yep."

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

Call stood in the doorway of the No.10 Saloon. Mason Dobbs, sitting in the corner, waved him over.

"What's that there?" Call asked.

Mason folded a piece of paper and shoved it, as well as a small pencil, into his shirt pocket. "I've been writing. It's become a means of passing the time. Sit down, boy. We got business to discuss."

Call sat down. "What sort of business?"

"There's a fella up Cat Creek way. Goes by the name of Shanghai Red Finley. Do you know who he is?"

Call shook his head. "Nope. Should I?"

Josiah Peale mentioned him. One thousand dollars on his head. Dead or alive." Mason winked at his nephew. "I'll wager between us two we can track that cur. Five hundred dollars each. He's heading for Canada. If we're riding, it'd be wise to start now."

"Seems to me Austin would favor running down that fella," Call said.

"He would. Josiah put something in his boy's coffee. The sheriff can't seem to get himself away from the outhouse before he turns and has to get back inside. Josiah doesn't want him going."

Call looked at the table, thinking. A couple of days apart might be good for him and Gretchen. It seemed all they were doing was arguing the past two days. "I just need to stop and see Gretchen, first. Tend to that, then we can ride."

Mason nodded. "I'll get my gear and meet you at the store."

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

Ashley Jessup smiled upon hearing the soft knock, then rose to open her door. "I've been expecting you, Clay. I knew, being a man, you would need time to think about . . . our situation."

Clay stepped inside Ashley's room, taking her soft, smooth hand and kissing it. "There is nothing to think about, Ashley. I shall arrange for us to be wed. I assume you prefer a large wedding?"

Ashley shook her head. "Heaven's, no!" She wrapped her arms around his arm. "I think a quaint little wedding would do, don't you, Clay, dearest? Why, Sunday is perfect!"

Clay looked at Ashley. "I would most surely have put my money on you desiring a festive occasion, Ashley. However, if you are quite set on doing this immediately . . ."

"Why, of course I am, Clay, darling. The sooner the better. And I will perform as a dutiful wife. I simply must work all the more to help you achieve your goals."

"I have a small task that requires my service." Clay stepped to the door. "We shall discuss the significance of these matters over supper tonight. We shall dine at 7 o'clock, sharp." He bowed. "Until then, my dear Ashley."

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

"You're . . . you're leaving now?" Gretchen's voice was shaky. "Call, we haven't made up proper yet."

Call looked into his wife's eyes. He hadn't expected her to react this way. "I reckon it can wait till I get back."

"Call?!" Gretchen wrapped her arms around him, laying her head into his chest. "Maybe it's time to stop bounty hunting and accept the Captain's offer. You have responsibility now."

"That responsibility means tending to you and the baby. We need money, Gretchen. It's going to require most everything we got for the Missouri trip."

"Call, I don't like it when you're gone. When will you be back?" asked Gretchen.

"Two days, likely. Might be best to get away. Keep us from fighting," he said.

"If anything happens to you . . . Call. We won't fight." Gretchen hugged her husband tightly and kissed him long and deep. "I'm not staying at Victoria's. I want to be in our house, Call." She turned to her sister. "Paige, will you stay with me?"

Paige nodded. "You know I will, Gretchen."

Gretchen took hold of her husband. "I love you, Call."

"I love you, Gretchen."He kissed her lips again, then put his hand on her lower belly, where she was just beginning to show. "You take care of the baby and yourself, Gretchen. I'll be home soon."

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

Friday morning, February 17. Ashley Jessup danced with an invisible partner in her upstairs room inside the Dove. She would pause, take hold of her hair brush, count ten strokes through her honey blonde locks, then curtsey and resume dancing with her unseen partner. She insisted on preventing any thoughts other than last night's dinner with Clay from entering her mind.

Clay had informed her that a preacher was nearby. A Daniel Scully, temporarily staying with his brother. The folks who sold their home to the Call's. Clay had given his word to send for the Reverend and make the preparations for a Sunday wedding. It didn't matter that Clay voiced his concern over inadequate living quarters and to allow the necessary time for constructing a suitable place of residence for a woman of Ashley's background. Her only response was to take him by the hand, lead him up the flight of stairs, into her room, where she devoured him from head to foot, displaying a passionate appetite for lust that few women had ever portrayed.

Three raps on the door brought her back to the present. Ashley opened the door, hoping to view the handsome features of Clay Mosby.

"Ohh?! Miss Shaw!" Ashley stared at Mattie. She frowned slightly -- the gun and holster caused that reaction.

"Do you mind if we talk?" Mattie asked. Her face was solemn.

Ashley stepped back, allowing Mattie entry into her room. She pulled her loosely hanging robe tight. "Whatever is this about, Miss Shaw?"

"I think you know," Mattie said.

Ashley looked at Mattie. "Well, I haven't got the faintest notion what you're talking about."

Mattie smirked. "It's about Clay Mosby."

Ashley smiled. "All the maidens love the king." She tilted her head, staring at Mattie. "Why, Miss Shaw, you simply must allow me to give you one of my dresses. We seem to be the same size, in most places. You were quite lovely the night Clay arranged that dance in honor of my birthday."

"I sell weapons. Like my daddy did. No one is going to buy a gun from me if I dress like you." Mattie paused. "You're making me suspicious. You're not pregnant, are you, Miss Jessup? You're trying to trap Clay."

"Why, that's the silliest thing I ever heard of. The silliest thing." Ashley paced the room. "I love Clay Mosby. Am I to be faulted because I am the one carrying his child, and not you?"

"Well," Mattie calmly replied. "There is a way to find out. I can ask Dr. Cleese. Good day, Miss Jessup."

Ashley's breathing accelerated as Mattie left. She dropped her robe and immediately began to dress.

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

Mason Dobbs and his nephew, Newt Call, trailed north, alongside the Musselshell River, veering west toward the small town of Cat Creek. The Hollister family lived nearby -- longtime friends of Mason, from Texas. This wasn't an occasion for socializing. They stopped briefly in Cat Creek, seeking only information regarding Shanghai Red Finley, and his whereabouts. For a five dollar bribe, a grizzled, old saloon keeper confided that a man answering the description had been there -- having purchased a fresh mount, then quickly riding north.

Call and Mason headed north, toward a string of mountains. Temperatures quickly dropped the higher they rode. It began snowing -- lightly, at first. By late afternoon they happened upon prints in the fresh snow.

"I'll wager he's up yonder in that opening," Mason said, pointing to a solitary hill, separated by a huge gathering of pines, stretching for at least a mile. "Not enough daylight for him to cross that pass beyond this hill. That opening appears big enough to protect a man and his horse from the elements."

"Bears are moving about," Call said.

"I'd venture to say those critters are in hibernation. It's still winter, Newt."

"That ain't the way I see it. Look!" He pointed to a large pine in front of them. "Scratch marks! Long ones. If a bear was in the hollow those marks wouldn't be there. One slid down that tree not long ago. You best watch yourself, Mason."

"You watch yourself too, Newt."

Call nodded, drawing his Winchester from the scabbard on the Hellbitch's side. "It'd be best if we leave the horses tied up down here. Less mischief if we climb without them."

A plan was quickly determined. Mason would advance through a thicket of growth, straight to the location they presumed Shanghai Red had taken refuse in. Call was to circle to his left, rising until he reached the flats above the opening.

Mason moved quick, crossing a shallow stream that ran down from the towering white peaks that jutted out past the sea of green timber. Drawing only one of his two pistols, he crept to the opening, where he paused, before cautiously poking his head inside. It required a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkened hole. He realized it was a small cave, possibly ten feet by ten feet. Then he recoiled. A large black bear, rolled up like a boulder, laid on the floor -- two newborn cubs huddled under its fur. Mason backed out with measured steps.

Call reached the flats above the small cave. He stood with one boot balancing where the hill suddenly angled sharply down. Higher up the hill, to the right, a glint of light reflected underneath a large, protruding ledge.

"Newt! Behind you!" Mason yelled. As Call twisted his upper body, a shot was fired from under the ledge. Call lost his footing, tumbling down the sharp incline, crashing hard into the solid trunk of a pine tree. Mason, reluctantly was forced to retreat as shots whizzed near him. When a fair-sized black bear emerged from under a smaller ledge, Shanghai Red Finley took the opportunity and escaped behind the hill. He mounted his horse and rode north.

As Mason raised his head, he saw the black bear nudge the unconscious Call, rolling him over. Mason rushed to his gray, nearby, drawing his own rifle. The bear nipped at Call's back, then viciously pawed his limp body as if it were a rag doll. The fact that Call had been knocked unconscious when his head hit the tree was the only thing that prevented the bear from mauling him to death.

The bear suddenly became agitated, twisting its head and growling.

Mason began firing his Winchester, though not too close to the bear, for fear of hitting Call. The bear rose to its feet, defiantly waving its paw toward Mason. He fired again, this time cutting into the beast's flesh. The bear cried, turned and ran off on all four padded paws. Mason rushed to where his nephew lay deathly still.

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

In the distance, a lone coyote howled. Paige turned in bed, looking at her sister. "Gretchen's outside howling at the moon, again." She giggled softly.

Gretchen rolled over, facing Paige. She didn't smile. "I miss him so, Paige. I long for him to hold me. What if something happens? What if . . . ?"

"Now, you hush, Gretchen!" Paige insisted. "It won't abide a body to fret over things we can't control." Paige sat up and lit the lamp. "Since you can't sleep, I can brush your hair for you. Or, we can read Jane Austen. I packed Emma. I'm at the part where Miss Taylor, the Governess, marries Mr. Weston, the neighbor. It's quite amusing. Shall I read?"

Gretchen nodded, sighing. "All right, Paige. Maybe it will help me relax . . . a little."

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

Early next morning, Clay was awakened by the first rooster's crowing. He rose silently from Ashley's bed, dressed quietly, then paused to look upon her soft features before departing. As a young man back in Virginia, his father had warned him about girls. Can a man place a flame inside his coat without being burned? It was something to that effect he had been told. Concerning the ever-possible threat of impregnating a woman, due primarily to the lustful cravings of the flesh.

Clay gazed at Ashley. For a woman in her late thirties, she was quite beautiful, maintaining a well proportioned figure, due in part, to having never bore children. Apparently, that would soon change. He smiled. She would be a strong influence in assisting him toward his vision for the future. He quietly exited her room. It was important she be portrayed as a lady.

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

Paige Brandt had just come out of her sister's bedroom from dressing. She wore a yellow dress with white polka-dots. Gretchen stood over the stove, wearing her coarse brown skirt with the green blouse. Wood had already been lit inside the fireplace, giving off warmth to the small house.

"Victoria's house is so much bigger," Paige commented.

"This is perfect for Call and I," Gretchen replied, looking around the room, while stirring a pot of porridge.

"And for your baby, when you give birth," Paige added.

"Yes," Gretchen agreed. She turned to look at her sister. "Paige? What are you . . . ?"

Paige stood up, knocking over the chair as she placed both hands on her open mouth, as if in shock. Gretchen turned to look outside, where Paige stared.

"Call?!" Gretchen said, seeing two horses riding in slow. She recognized Mason leading another horse. "CALL!" she screamed, running outside. Gretchen and Paige both hesitated on the porch as Mason stopped. He held the reins to the Hellbitch.

"No!" Gretchen said, her breathing accelerating as she stared at Call, hunched over, his head against the Hellbitch's mane. His own tangles of long hair hanging straight down, the same as his arms. Gretchen shook her head as tears welled up to the bursting point. "No, Call! No!" Gretchen ran to her husband as Mason dismounted. Shaking, she looked at Mason, afraid.

"He's alive, Coyote," Mason solemnly said. "I'll get him inside, in a warm bed. Then I'll ride to your sister's place and bring Doc back."

"Call?! Call?! Wake up, Call?!" Gretchen shook his limp arm. "Call?! Please, Call?!"

Mason carefully slid him off his horse and carried him inside, laying him on top of the bed. "We ran into trouble. I'll tell you about it once I bring Cleese back. Keep him warm."

Neither Gretchen nor Paige answered as Mason rushed outside, mounted his gray, and rode off for the Cleese house. At first they stared at him. Dried patches of blood caked on his face and head. A temporary bandage covered his stomach, stained with blood, where his shirt had been shredded apart. Gretchen quickly recovered and along with Paige, began cleaning the wounds. They removed his boots and holster belt. "What happened to you, Call?" Gretchen whispered, tears falling. She lifted his hand, cupping it between her own.

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

Clay had entered his establishment. Since it was early, he locked the doors. Robert Shelby also had a key and entered soon after Clay. "Where do you intend to live, Clay? You can hardly expect Miz Ashley to live upstairs, above your saloon."

"I intend to house her across the street, in the hotel. At least, until I have a new home built."

Robert shook his head. "It doesn't make sense, Clay. You should have the biggest wedding this sorry territory has ever seen."

"I agree, Robert," Clay replied. "However, Miz Ashley has requested I wed her immediately. The fact that she is carrying my child dictates my decision." He shrugged. "It is to my good fortune that she happens to be a true, Southern lady."

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

Gretchen had run to Victoria, seeking comfort in her reassuring arms. The sisters were still fearful and tense, even after Ephraim had acknowledged with certainty, that Call would be all right. Mason Dobbs recounted the tale up to where the bear had lumbered off.

"There was a mama bear hibernating with two newborn cubs nearby. I'll wager neither one of us would have made it back if she woke up. The horses were close enough where I carried Newt and tied him on the Hellbitch so he wouldn't fall off. That cur we were chasing got away when the bear showed. I headed back with Newt. There was an abandoned line shack. I kept Newt wrapped in blankets and was on the trail home before first light. He hasn't woke up yet." Mason paused, looking sheepishly at Gretchen. "Sometimes things tend to happen unexpected. It comes with this line of work."

Gretchen sat down, next to Call. "Maybe he shouldn't be doing this kind of work any more." She became angry. "Look at him, Mason."

"It isn't Mason's fault, Gretchen," Victoria remarked. "He saved your husband."

Gretchen's eyes were red and swollen. "I . . . I know, Victoria. I'm . . . sorry, Mason. But, look at . . . ?" She shook her head. "He . . . look what . . . ! . . . he shouldn't . . ."

"He was quite fortunate, actually," Dr. Cleese replied. He pointed to the long strips of shredded flesh on the side of his stomach. If that bear had clawed him harder, he may well have bled to death before anything could have been done. Those claws are literally as sharp as razors. We could easily be burying him right now."

Call's body suddenly contracted involuntarily. His head lurched forward slightly, his eyes opening. He mumbled incoherently then winced from the pain, reaching for his side. His eyes darted, taking in his surroundings. "What . . . happened? How'd I get home?" His face was tense -- the pain radiating throughout his body.

"Call, a bear attacked you. Mason brought you home," Gretchen said, taking his hand.

Call grimaced in pain, turning his head slightly. "That fella get away? Uuhh! My belly's burning. My head . . ."

Dr. Cleese offered some laudanum to Call.

He frowned. "No."

"You are in a great deal of pain, Call. Perhaps a small amount?" Ephraim suggested. Call opened his mouth, accepting some of the opium-based liquid.

Mason nodded. "We'll talk later. Rest now." He walked out of the room.

Victoria and Paige both leaned down, kissing Call on his forehead. Ephraim left a small vial of laudanum, for the pain. Gretchen remained at her husband's side.

"Call," she whispered. "Don't ever frighten me like this again. Please?"

Call stared at Gretchen. His mind was still sorting out the details, as well as adjusting to the throbbing pain he felt.

Gretchen put her hand on his face, brushing a tangle of hair from his eye. "I want you to do something for me, Call. Please, Sweetheart? I don't want you bounty hunting any more." She shook her head, sobbing. "What if you died, Call? I don't care about the money. I don't care if we go to Missouri, Call. It isn't that important. You are. We are. And the baby. Call, you have responsibility now. You gave up some things. But, we're together. We're married. We're going to have a family soon. You're going to have a son. Or, a daughter. I . . . I told you I wouldn't try to change you and I won't. But, please, Call? Please? Think about the three of us." Gretchen wiped her tears and carefully laid near Call. "I just love you so much," she whispered.

Call lifted his arm, with some difficulty, and held his wife. He didn't speak for a few minutes. He finally said, "You're right, Gretchen. I got responsibility now."

"You're going to take the Captain up on his offer, Call? You'll do it?"

He nodded.

Gretchen closed her eyes and smiled. "Thank you, Call."

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

Sunday morning, February 19, 1882. The church was full. Not to hear Reverend Daniel Scully's sermon. The assorted citizens of Curtis Wells gathered for the hastily assembled wedding between Clay Mosby, the town's self-proclaimed king, and Miz Ashley Jessup, the lady from New Orleans.

"I must uphold Miz Ashley's honor, Robert," Clay commented, "as well as my own."

Robert said nothing in reply. There was nothing to say. For a Southern gentleman, there was a price to pay for certain behaviors.

Clay was fond of Ashley. He cared about her. But, to love her? No one would ever, most likely, replace his Mary. He had loved Mary in a way that was similar to how he viewed the love between Call and Gretchen. A once in a lifetime love.

Clay met Ashley and together they crossed the field of snowy patches and brown weeds, as they entered the brown church building, where Reverend Scully and most of the town folks waited. As they stood before the preacher, comments were made as to how attractice a couple they were together. The Reverend began the wedding.

"Bothers and sisters, we are gathered here in the sight of God for the marriage between Colonel Francis Clay Mosby and Miss Ashley Jessup. If anyone has reason to prevent this wedding, speak now. Let us then proceed with the wed . . ."

"Stop the wedding! I have something to say."

"What in the . . . ?" Clay spun around, as did Ashley. "Mattie?!"

Mattie Shaw stood in the open doorway of the church. "There's something you should know about Miss Jessup, Clay!"

Ashley nervously tugged at Clay's arm. "Clay! Get her out of here! Please?"

"This had better be good, Mattie!" Clay angrily replied. His face was set tense.

Mattie smirked. "Ashley Jessup is not pregnant! She never even seen Dr. Cleese!"

"What?!" Clay loudly said.

Mattie continued. "And that's not all of it, either!"

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

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

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