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.


Ladies' Night
(3rd in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

Like the other characters of the western frontier,
the adventuresome females who traveled west
were no shrinking violets.

(The American Frontier - William C. Davis)

Unbob was the first one up. He washed his face and licked his hands to flatten down his hair. He brushed his clothes and peered into the small mirror. He smiled from ear to ear. No fella dressing up to get hitched ever looked better. He hurried outside so he could tend to his chickens and pigs. The sun hadn't even risen yet.

Unbob sat on the bench outside the general merchant. It was still hours before Mattie Shaw would arrive. He opened the white piece of folded paper in his hand and read it for the sixteenth time. He looked up and stared off past the windmill. Mattie had written about a surprise and Unbob couldn't figure out what it was.

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

It was somewhere in the vicinity of half past mid-morning when Florie and Twyla strolled outside the sporting club like a pair of peacocks. They sat on the bench along the side of their establishment and spoke of Mattie's return. They shared memories of her kindness to them and how she never looked down at them or judged them for their lot in life.

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

Clay Mosby removed the pocket watch from his vest pocket and opened the cover. 11:03am. He tucked it back in its proper place. Josiah Peale sat with him in the Ambrosia as they too spoke of Mattie in fond words. Josiah shared his concerns for the restless and unsatisfied behavior of his son, Austin. They passed the time discussing Austin as they awaited Mattie's arrival.

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

The buckboard carrying Mattie Shaw appeared at 11:40am coming from the east. She rode the two-horse team past the jail and livery as she turned at the pump heading for her old shop. Unbob knocked over the jar containing the three white flowers he had picked for her as he jumped up. Mattie was smiling and waving as Unbob hurried around the side of the mining supplies building toward the gunsmith shop.

The girls from Twyla's waved back at Mattie as she climbed down from the bench seat of the wagon. Then, Unbob and the others noticed something. She wasn't alone. Sitting next to where Mattie had been driving was a young boy. Mattie helped the boy down then turned to hug Unbob.

"Oh, Unbob. It feels so good to be back," Mattie said. "And just look at how handsome you are." She looked around at the gunsmith shop, then turned to look at the street. Unbob was staring at the boy. "Unbob, this is Dewey. Say hello to Unbob, Dewey."

The boy looked up at Unbob and slowly extended a skinny hand. Unbob smiled warmly and took the boy's hand. "Dewey," he said. Confused, Unbob looked at Mattie.

"I'll explain everything as soon as I get my things moved back inside." She paused as she gazed around at the town. "It feels like I've come home."

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

Paige Brandt opened the door to the dry goods and stepped in. "I saw her. I just saw Mattie Shaw. She sure is something else. She's actually wearing pants like a man. And a shirt and vest like a man."

"My goodness," Victoria said as she paused to look up from the supplies list she was writing out.

"That's not all," Paige replied. "She has a man's hat on her head and you won't believe what else."

"What else?" Gretchen asked while dusting the shelves.

"She's wearing a gun and holster, just like Call and Mr. Mosby wear theirs."

"That is absurd!" Victoria remarked. "There are some strange things out here on the frontier."

Paige walked up to Victoria. "See? Didn't I tell you? This is modern times, Victoria."

"Well, I like being a girl," Gretchen said as she took hold of her skirt and twirled around once. "And I like having a man want to protect me."

Victoria nodded. "I think that's what most women want." She looked at Paige. "Even if it is modern times such as the 1880's. Well, I imagine we'll meet her soon enough."

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

Clay Mosby's shirt was rolled up to his elbows. Josiah was slightly out of breath. Even Amanda Carpenter was tired as she waved her hand in front of her face like a fan. Along with Unbob, they had helped empty the buckboard and either carried personal belongings upstairs or unloaded the heavy cases of Winchesters and smaller firearms inside the shop. Mattie gratefully voiced her appreciation over the help and warm welcome she had received.

Mattie looked over at young Dewey. He sat on the floor watching a brown spider quietly disappear into a crack in the wood then reappear moments lately, as it continued its trek through unknown territories. The boy had dark brown hair, parted near the middle. He had haggard cheek bones and wore a striped shirt with overall that were slightly too short.

"Dewey," Mattie said as he pried his eyes away from the spider. "Why don't you take this nickel and go up the street to the left and buy some candy at the general store? You can walk around town. Just come back in an hour or two."

The boy stood up and walked over to Mattie. He opened his hand to take the nickel and quietly thanked Mattie. He looked at each person inside the shop for a moment then hurried out the open door to claim his treasure.

Mattie watched the boy run up the street until he was out of view then she turned to the others. "I know what you're all thinking."

"Well," Clay said, "we never expected you to return with a young boy. How old is he? Seven? Eight?"

"He's nine. Both his parents are dead and he has no where to go. I found him sleeping outside the gunsmith shop I own in Miles City. I've had a run a good fortune. The soldiers from nearby Fort Keogh buy exclusively from me. That's why I was able to return and take over this shop."

Mattie walked over to the front of the store and looked out the window. "Dewey was sick and skinnier than he is now. He had no one else."

"So you took him in," Amanda said.

"Quite a generous act I must say," Clay added.

"I couldn't send him to an orphanage. I couldn't just leave him sleeping outside like a dog."

"You've done a very commendable thing, Mattie," Josiah said.

"I can take him fishing," Unbob suggested.

"That would be so nice, Unbob. Thank you," Mattie replied. "Tell me what's new in Curtis Wells."

They informed her that the new sheriff was Call's uncle, Mason Dobbs. They told her about the sisters from Missouri that were running the dry goods and clothing store. Then they all excused themselves to return to where they had been. All except Unbob.

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

Late in the afternoon Mattie stood outside the dry goods store with Unbob. Unbob had wanted to introduce Mattie to his new friend, Paige. They stepped inside the store as a woman was leaving.

"Miss Victoria. Miss Paige," Unbob said, seeing only two of the sisters. "This is my bestest friend in the whole world, Mattie Shaw."

The sisters warmly greeted Mattie as Unbob proclaimed Paige as his second best friend because she sat with him and talked to him. They exchanged stories about Mattie living in Curtis Wells previously and now owning her own gunsmith shop in Miles City and they spoke of the journey from St. Joseph, Missouri, almost 900 miles in an uncomfortable stagecoach.

Unbob suddenly blurted out, "well there's another. Miss Gretchen. Where's she?"

"Gretchen is out riding with Call, Unbob," Paige said. "They should be back soon."

Another customer walked into the store. Mattie and Unbob parted company from the sisters.

***********

As Mattie stepped back into the street, there was a commotion heating up down the street, in front of the general store. Mattie saw old man Creel yanking Dewey by his ear, as a few folks were gathering around. Mattie walked quickly down the street as Unbob followed behind like a shadow.

"Leave him be!" Mattie forcefully ordered as she reached the circle of gawkers.

Old man Creel looked up at Mattie. "This urchin stole candy and almost caused Mrs. Tarbell to slip and fall on some marbles. You pay up right now!"

Mattie looked at young Dewey. His cheeks were swollen and there was yellow, red, and blue stains on his mouth. His face was wrinkled in pain from Creel stretching his ear, but he kept his mouth shut.

"What do you have in your mouth, Dewey?" Mattie asked, pushing Creel's hand off the boy.

The boy shook his head and held his hands out as if saying he had nothing.

"Open your mouth, Dewey. Your cheeks are puffed up like to burst," Mattie ordered.

Dewey opened his mouth and spit three large jaw breakers, yellow, red, and blue, into his dirt-covered hand.

"He's paying for those!" Creel angrily demanded.

The boy turned and extended his hand toward Creel, offering the candy to the store owner.

"I don't want that after it's been in your mouth. You'll pay for it or else I'll get the sheriff," Creel complained.

Suddenly, a new voice rang out. "Am I to serve a warrant from the muzzle of a gun to this small desperado?"

Mattie turned to the sound. "Call?" she mumbled. She looked at the man again. He resembled Call but it wasn't him.

"Ma'am," Mason Dobbs said to Mattie as he smiled at her.

Mattie must have appeared confused because she seemed to momentarily forget her mouth and her voice.

"What's the damages, Creel?" Mason asked the store owner.

"Seven cents. Three cents for the jaw breakers and I saw him take eight marbles. They're two for a penny. That makes seven cents, Sheriff Dobbs."

Mason dropped down to one knee so he was face level with Dewey. "How much dinero are you holding, boy?"

Dewey tilted his head, puzzled.

"Coins, amigo. Money," Mason added.

The boy popped the jaw breakers back into his mouth and with his candy-stained hand dug into his pocket and pulled out three marbles and one nickel. Mason took the nickel and gave it to Creel.

"Here," Mattie said, as she handed Creel two pennies. Creel took his money and without a thank you stormed angrily back inside the general store.

Mason looked at Dewey. "So you almost caused a woman to fall down? You have to roll the marbles when she lifts her foot, not when she puts it on the floor." He winked at Dewey. The boy smiled back.

"You're Call's uncle, aren't you?" Mattie finally said.

"We are most definitely kin." He looked at Mattie. "It's my pleasure to meet you, Miss Shaw. Mason Dobbs." He removed his hat.

For one of the few times in her life Mattie was speechless.

Mason looked down at Dewey. "Take care of her, boy." He put his hand on Dewey's shoulder and walked away.

Dewey nodded as he sucked all three jaw breakers while Mattie put her hands on her hips and just stared at Mason.

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

Early in the evening while there was still daylight, Call and Gretchen came riding back. They brought their horses into the livery and had finished unsaddling them when Gretchen turned to Call.

"I have a surprise for you, Call."

"Oh?" Call said. He looked down at Gretchen's black high button shoes which could barely be seen underneath her brown skirt, then his eyes rode up the length of her body, stopping at her green eyes.

Gretchen's eyes widened and she giggled. "Not that, Call," she said as she pushed him back some.

Call smiled.

"You have to close your eyes, Call. And you can't cheat. Don't look now, all right?"

Call nodded and closed his eyes. Gretchen turned and opened the saddlebag on her horse, Sugar. She stepped back to Call. "Now, Call. Open your eyes."

Call opened his eyes.

Gretchen handed him a neatly folded tan colored shirt. "I made this for you, Call. I've been staying up late at night. This is to replace the one that got torn when you were taking us to Sand Springs, even though we ended up spending the night at that Indian village."

Call looked at the shirt, and then at Gretchen. Her smile seemed to turn him into soft butter. "Well thank you," he said as he took the shirt, though he felt uncomfortable accepting a gift.

"Try it on now, Call. Please?" Gretchen said as she stepped close to him and began unbuttoning the shirt he was wearing.

**********

Mattie Shaw decided to take a walk around town and she found herself at the doors to the livery stable. Hearing voices laughing down at the other end gave her pause. But curiosity won out and she stepped inside and quietly headed toward the far end. She saw a hat thrown on the floor and could make out the voice of a woman and a man. She paused once more, as she stood two stalls away from the unsuspecting couple and listened shamelessly, as she now saw a rolled up shirt get thrown to the floor near the hat.

"Stand still, Call, I'll never get this shirt on you." Giggling and laughter from both of them followed. "Call! Not now, Call. Ooohhh! You're impossible." There was smacking sounds like two people kissing as Mattie couldn't hold back any longer and she advanced to see what was happening.

Unaware of the silent intruder, Gretchen was trying to button the shirt she had made for Call. He was pulling her close which caused her to embrace him as she would wrap her arms around him as she let go of the shirt. "Don't you like it, Call. I made it just for you."

"I like it fine, Gretchen," he replied. She giggled some more as they both hugged each other.

Mattie turned to leave but her boot kicked the edge of the stall, causing Gretchen and Call to both look up. Mattie turned back.

"Hello, Call," Mattie said. She looked at Gretchen. "You must be Gretchen."

"Oh, hey, Mattie," Call said as he held Gretchen close to him. "Heard tell you were coming back."

"Hello," Gretchen said as she smiled and then turned back to Call and buried her face into his chest while giggling.

"I didn't mean to interrupt," Mattie said as she turned and hurried out of the livery. Once she reached the street she leaned against the livery. Sounds of laughter could still be heard. Mattie walked away quickly.

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

By mid-evening most of Curtis Wells was quiet. Stored has been closed and only saloons, Twyla's, and the Dove were open for cash customers. Outside the Ambrosia, Clay Mosby and Mason Dobbs tipped their hats to Mattie as she headed from her shop to the hotel. The young boy she had shown up with walked alongside her. She smiled back at Clay and Mason.

"I've been contemplating a most interesting thought, Mason," Clay said as he looked away from Mattie to the sheriff.

Mason smiled. "I'll wager it has to do with the two of us, amigo."

"It does, indeed, my Texas friend. I have long envisioned the development of this town into something much bigger. Power, Mason. Power and wealth."

"I seek no power and progress does not interest me," Mason replied. "But money does."

"I was quite impressed with what our combined efforts produced recently," Clay said. "I see no reason why the two of us, working side by side, cannot attain power and wealth if we go about it with the utmost discretion."

"The Governor's of New Mexico and Texas have offered me a full pardon amnesty if I stay on the right side of the law," Mason said.

"And you shall have your amnesty. And much, much more," Clay replied. "We need brains and courage." He looked at Mason. "We lack neither."

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

Amanda sat with Mattie watching young Dewey slowly nod off as his head rested on the top of the table.

"He sure gobbled up that apple pie," Amanda remarked.

Mattie smiled then looked over a few tables to where Call was sitting with Gretchen and Paige Brandt. The girls had been giggling and even Call could be heard laughing on occasion. Finally, Mattie came right out and asked Amanda, "Is there something going on between Call and that girl?"

Amanda turned. "Gretchen? You know me, Mattie. I mind my own business."

**********

"Hopefully we won't have an accident this time," Paige said.

"You have the list of supplies we intend to pick up, don't you, Call?" Gretchen asked as she slid her hand over to his.

"Yep."

"I suppose I should be a good little sister and leave you two alone," Paige commented as she giggled again.

"That would be nice," Gretchen replied as she stared at Call.

Paige stood up. "Goodnight, you two. Try not to wake me when you climb into bed, Gretchen. See you in the morning, Call."

Call nodded as Gretchen squeezed his hand and smiled. "Let's go somewhere, Call. Just you and me."

"It's a fine night to go to our spot," Call said as he stood up.

"I'm ready, Call," Gretchen replied as she stood up with him.

Mattie stared at them as they hurried out, unaware of her and Amanda.

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

Clay Mosby looked around at the quiet surroundings. A half dozen men drinking and gambling. It was getting late. The return of Mattie Shaw was good for the town. Good for Clay. It appeared that things were finally beginning to move forward. The Brandt Sisters running the dry goods and now Mattie back in the gunsmith shop. Curtis Wells needed women. It needed families.

Clay's attention was momentarily broken as one of the men yelled to express his good fortune at the roulette table. Clay smiled. He would get it back. If not tonight, then tomorrow night. He was more concerned about Mattie's revelation of owning her own gunsmith shop in Miles City. It was true the U.S. Cavalry was situated close to Miles City and would most definitely provide for a business more profitable than in Curtis Wells.

Clay allowed his thoughts to wander to Miz Victoria Brandt. She was so different than her two younger, more carefree sisters. She was for him a most refreshing addition to this mud-infested town.

He sighed and thought of Mattie. She had mentioned only briefly her desire to discuss an interesting business proposition with him tomorrow. Well, tomorrow would soon arrive.

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

Once they had gone outside beneath the star-filled, summer sky, Gretchen wrapped her arms around Call's arm and laid her head on his shoulder as they crossed the street. Mattie had gotten up and walked to the doors to watch. She just stared at such unusual behavior from Call until the two of them disappeared into the night.

Gretchen sat down on their log and smiling at Call pulled him next to her. Call noticed her shiver slightly and removed his jacket then offered to hold it so she could slip her arms through it.

"Thank you, Call. I like wearing your jacket." She looked at the tan colored shirt he was wearing under his vest. "You look so handsome in this shirt, Call." He laughed a little, embarrassed by her comment. She leaned against him and said, "Call?"

"Yeah?"

"Mr. Peale came in the store today. He didn't buy anything. He wanted to talk to me."

"Josiah?"

"Uh huh . . . Call? . . . I know you were married . . . to his daughter."

Call looked off for a moment then back at Gretchen. "Was a long time ago."

There was an awkward silence for a minute then Gretchen took hold of his hand and squeezed it. "Call, I want you to know I will never try to change you." She stared at him with her green eyes and smiled. "I really think you're perfect just the way you are. I really do, Call."

He smiled.

"There were boys back in St. Joseph that liked me. I just didn't care for them."

Call looked Gretchen in the eye and shrugged. "I reckon it would be easy for anyone to fa . . . uh . . . I mean . . . to like you, Gretchen."

She turned her head and bit her lip while closing her eyes and smiling. A tear of happiness welled up in her eye. Gretchen turned back to face Call and brought her mouth to his so they could kiss.

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

Gretchen removed her shoes before tip toeing into the small cabin Clay Mosby had provided for them behind the Montana Statesman. The door to the room the sisters slept in was open. Gretchen quietly stepped past the small bed Victoria was sleeping in and sat on the slightly larger bed she shared with Paige. As she began removing her clothes Paige awoke and sat up. She waited for her sister to change into her bed clothes and slip under the covers.

"Gretchen?" Paige whispered. "Was it nice?"

Gretchen hugged Paige. "Yes!" she excitedly whispered back. "I can tell he wants to say things to me but he's afraid. I told him I know about his past."

"Did he get upset?" Paige asked as they continued whispering quietly so as not to awaken Victoria.

"No, he didn't. I really think he has strong feelings for me but he just can't tell me."

"Hush, you two!" Victoria scolded. "You can whisper all you want in the wagon in a few hours."

"Goodnight, Victoria," they both said as they giggled.

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

Clay Mosby felt the warmth of another summer morning touch his skin as he stepped outside the Ambrosia and into the street. Another day in Curtis Wells. The clanging of the blacksmith's hammer striking his anvil was always a comforting sound. Nothing out of the ordinary as Clay strolled leisurely across the street toward the gunsmith shop to check on Mattie and the boy.

Clay was met with an unusual sight as he reached the gunsmith shop. Mattie was standing at the top of the stairs that led to her room above the store. The orphan boy she had brought from Miles City was sitting on the roof of the adjoining Assay Office laughing as he dangled his little legs just out of reach from Mattie's arms.

"Thank goodness!" Mattie said. "Can you help me get him down, Clay?"

Clay Mosby smiled. "I'm not exactly an authority when it comes to children, Mattie."

"I'll wager I can settle this little dispute," came a new voice.

Both Mattie and Clay turned to see Mason Dobbs. "Excellent, Sheriff," Clay said as he quickly dismissed himself from the location.

"I'm thanking you, Mr. Dobbs," Mattie said.

"It's just plain Mason, senorita. Now, what's the boy's name?" Mason slowly took a step as he reached into his shirt pocket.

"His name is Dewey," she replied.

"Dewey?" Mason said as he took another two steps upward. "Dewey is one of the finest names a man can have. You look like a man worthy of such a fine name," he said while making eye contact with the boy. Dewey wrinkled his face as if he had just swallowed a spoonful of Castor Oil. No one had ever referred to him as a man before. Mason took his hand out of his pocket and held two jaw breakers up.

""I could sure use a man like you, Dewey, right about now. See these two jaw breakers?"

Dewey's eyes were glued to the jaw breakers. Mattie watched with fascination as Mason slowly crept closer to the top of the stairs.

"I can't decide if I want the green one or the white one." Mason held them up and looked at them as if they were precious jewels. "Why don't come on down and take one so I don't starve trying to decide, Dewey? Come on, son, I'll help you."

Dewey flexed his arms and pushed up then dropped down to the small landing. Mason opened his hand as Dewey inspected the two jaw breakers before deciding the green one was the one he wanted the most. He smiled up at Mason.

"Don't be a hard case to your mama next time, understand me, amigo?" Mason winked at the boy. Dewey laughed and ran down the stairs and into the street.

"I'm not his mother," Mattie said. "He's an orphan."

"Well I'd venture to say he's a mighty fortunate boy to have you. Now, I'm on my way to the Dove for breakfast. This sheriffing business tends to make a man hungry. Care to join me, Miss Shaw?"

Mattie smiled. "I'd like that. But first, I have to talk to Call. Do you know where he is?"

"Gone to Sand Springs with two of the Brandt Sisters in the wagon to pick up supplies. They left before sun up. He should be back by nightfall."

"Oh," Mattie said, surprised at the news.

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

She watched him as he made his way up the sidewalk, pacing evenly, decisively, with his expression fixed in a glare, his hands in his pockets, and his open duster flowing behind him. From a distance, he looked like a bird of prey spreading its great leather wings. His greeting to acquaintances was abbreviated to a terse nod. Most stepped out of his way as he passed them without breaking his stride.

Victoria stashed the broom in the corner and hurriedly untied her apron as she saw him approach. Without the benefit of a mirror she brushed a few loose strands of hair back from her face, and pinched some color into her cheeks. Her skirt was dusty with flour from a broken bag she'd accidentally torn and just finished sweeping up. She shook as much of it as possible out of the folds of her skirt and tucked in her blouse where it had slipped out of her waistband. It also bore scattered traces of flour, but the more she fussed with the powdery smudges, the more they resisted her efforts. She should have left her apron on. At least it would have looked tidier.

"Good morning, Victoria." As he entered the store, Clay's scowl gave way to a pleasant smile. "I must say you're looking fine today -- fresh as a spring sunrise." As usual, the polite greeting was followed by a flattering comment -- whether or not it was deserved.

"Clay, I swear, you must stay up late at night dreaming up compliments." She couldn't help being pleased by the chivalrous gesture. "Not that they're unappreciated, mind you." She turned toward the counter, hoping he wouldn't notice the flour, or the blush that had crept into her face.

"Not at all, my dear." He swept off his hat with the flourish of a cavalier. "I dare say, the fairest flower would wither with envy in your presence."

She smothered an embarrassed laugh. "And since there aren't many flowers in Curtis Wells this time of year I'll just have to look to you for reassurance."

He smiled back. "Needless to say, you may rely on me for that." He glanced at the shelves behind the counter, unconsciously drumming his fingers on the brim of his hat.

"Well, then, what can I do for you this morning?" she asked. "More boot polish, perhaps?"

"Not today. I believe I have an adequate supply at the moment."

She looked down at his boots. "I can see that the Walther's Boot Polish works particularly well. It's remarkable given the amount of mud in the streets. You must have some sort of guardian angel that hovers over you and repels dirt."

"No, but some of my men are especially adept at spit polishing -- given the proper incentive."

"I'm sure. Nothing says *authority* like a pair of clean, shiny boots." There were plenty of people in Curtis Wells who would be happy to polish Clay Mosby's boots, and to lick them if circumstances demanded it. She glanced away briefly. "I can remember shining my father's boots when I was a girl. The three of us used to quarrel over who got the honor of that task." She tilted her head as a wave coquettishness slipped past her normal reserve. "Someone has done a nice job with yours -- almost with a woman's touch."

He grinned. "I'm sure my new man Brody will be pleased to hear that. It's the only thing he's done right since I hired him. Perhaps if all else fails, he'll have a future in the shoe-shining trade." He looked up at the goods that filled the higher shelves. "I see you have a sizable inventory. From now on I'll know just where to come for everything I need." She followed his gaze as it took account of the stock items, and finally halted at the boxes of cigars that she'd piled on the far end of the counter.

She moved to the end of the counter and picked up a neatly bound wooden container. "Well then, what about some cigars? These imported ones just arrived. I haven't even had time to open them." The picture on the top of the box showed an exotic young woman enjoying a smoke as she gazed out seductively from the cover. "My goodness," she observed as casually as possible, "some manufacturers' are rather explicit when it comes to advertising."

"It's meant to raise eyebrows," he replied as he studied the box. "Actually, European women smoke cigars routinely -- but only while seated, of course."

"I'm sure European women do a great many things that are considered ... innovative. Nevertheless, with respect to foreign custom, I'm not convinced that it's incumbent on us to copy such habits." She put down the cigar box. Why had she said such a prudish thing, and, at the same time, made it sound as if she was referring to habits other than smoking? She smoothed down her blouse again. "Oh dear, I hope you don't think I'm being judgmental. I only meant that...."

He picked up the box, as if to study its decorative design. "Not at all, Victoria. In fact, I'm quite pleased to know your feelings on the subject. In the future I'll remember not to smoke in your presence."

She hadn't meant to chastise him. The words had simply broken loose from her thoughts, and her senses -- all of which felt heightened well beyond normal range. "No, please, Clay, feel free -- whenever it suits you. I'm afraid I'm not sufficiently advised on the latest European styles to discuss them fully, but I have cultivated some refinements of my own." She straightened and looked directly into his eyes."In fact, I rather enjoy the aroma of fine tobacco. I keep several varieties in stock, including some dipped in brandy. I even have one that's cherry-flavored."

"Indeed. I'll make it a point to try those, although I should tell you that I prefer my brandy straight, and that I lost my fondness for cherries some time ago." His smile was nothing short of licentious. "My personal taste runs to flavors that are more warm and, uh ... savory."

"Oh, I agree. Cherries are more suitable for candy and children's confections. I've also given up sweets in favor of essences that appeal to a more adult palate -- adult preferences, you understand ... I mean as far as items like tobacco are concerned."

"A wise decision, if I may say so." An odd expression, one that she had never seen, swept over his face. "And tell me, my dear, what is your preference these days -- in cigars, that is?"

It was as if he'd read her most secret thoughts about him, and now he was taunting her with them. Fine. She could play that game, too. She gathered up all her nerve in one breath and faced him squarely. "Well, since you ask, I can tell you that what I most admire is a large, smooth, firmly packed 'El Presidente' -- hand-rolled, of course -- the kind that is robust, long-lasting and flavorful to the end."

"Ah, hand-rolled, by all means," he grinned. "and sealed, I'm told, by drawing one's tongue along the length. But, given your expertise on the subject, I'm sure you're familiar with that practice." He leaned on the counter as he glanced around the room, focusing on nothing in particular. "It strikes me as a rather primitive technique in these industrialized times, but in some instances, I've found that certain informal methods are still the most satisfying when all's said and done. In any case, I must say it's refreshing to hear such an informed opinion. I can see that you're a woman of very discriminating and sophisticated taste -- in a number of areas." His eyes narrowed into gold crescents as he smiled. In their depths she could see his undisguised glee.

She reached for her apron that lay draped over the counter, searching for words as she awkwardly tied it around her waist. "Well, I haven't had a chance to open the boxes yet, but I'll be happy to if you'd like to inspect the merchandise."

"That's won't be necessary," he answered as his eyes flicked from her face to hem of her skirt and back again, all in less than a heartbeat. "I have no doubt that the merchandise is of the finest quality." He took her hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it. "And knowing what all is available right here will give me ample reason to return." He reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out a clean white handkerchief. "May I?" he asked, as if his permission was actually required, and lightly touched it to her nose. "Just a bit of flour," he explained as he brushed another powdery smudge from her cheek.

Her hand went instantly to the spot he'd touched. She felt her face turning scarlet. She'd spoken to him in the most brazen manner, daring to tease him, and flirting like a common hussy. She'd have scolded her sisters for behaving as shamelessly. And yet, their repartee was strangely invigorating. Unbecoming as it was for a lady to engage in such lascivious discussion, she'd enjoyed it -- holding her own in a "man's conversation," demonstrating her competence in the business world, asserting her spirit of equality while luxuriating in his attraction to her womanly grace. It might have been a praise-worthy performance had she not had presented it with such feigned elitism and underscored its seriousness by looking like a circus clown.

"Good Lord," she sighed, wishing she could drop through a hole in the floor and vanish.

"You must think me a complete fool."

He only smiled down at her. "Not in the least." He dabbed once more at a small white patch. "I'm not sure that this will become the fashion anytime soon, but if it does, I'm certain no one else could look as fetching." He returned the handkerchief to his pocket. "Now, I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me. There's some business I must attend to." He strolled leisurely toward the entrance and paused in the doorway. "Oh, and uh, I'll look forward to savoring one of those new cigars."

She managed a wordless "good day" as he turned and disappeared out the door.

Thank all that was holy, neither Gretchen nor Paige had been in the store. It was a prideful display of wilfulness and impropriety which she had accomplished with all the dignity of a scullery maid. She'd never have heard the end of it had her sisters witnessed her folly.

Thoughts of women's independence and equality would have to wait, at least for the time being. She hurried into the back room to wash the flour and embarrassment from her face before any more customers came in.

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

Sand Springs was a small town constructed in the shape of an "L." The Big Dry Creek ran a narrow strip down to the town where a dock sat some one hundred yards away from town which allowed for travel up to the Missouri River. Rafts, canoes, and keel boats commonly carried cargo from steamer to outlying towns.

Early in the afternoon the wagon sat in front of Malachi Kettering's general store. Call stood at the back of the buckboard watching Gretchen and Paige cross the street to see the new fashions inside the dress shop. Gretchen paused as she turned and smiled warmly at Call while bending her fingers to wave at him before disappearing inside the store.

Mr. Kettering waited patiently as he observed the eye contact between the two of them. "I've watched those girls grow since they were holding on to their mother's apron strings. Gretchen used to tell me there was one very special young man out there somewhere." He looked directly at Call and smiled.

"I best start loading the supplies," Call said as he lowered his head. "Ain't gonna get loaded by standing around," he mumbled as he headed into the store.

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

Call latched the tailgate and leaned back against the fully-loaded wagon. He pulled his hat off and wiped his forehead as dirty tangles of hair covered his eyes. He grabbed his jacket and dropped it through his arms. He was ready to head back to Curtis Wells. He stood there only a few minutes before Gretchen and Paige came out of the dress shop. They were excitedly discussing the dresses they had just seen and accidentally bumped into a couple of ranch hands. The sisters apologized and stepped into the street to join Call. The two young men followed them and grabbed their arms.

You best get your hands off them girls!" Call said loud enough for them to hear.

"Call!" Gretchen cried.

Call moved quick to aid the sisters. The two men whispered something then separated as if to circle Call.

"Go to the wagon," Call ordered Gretchen and Paige.

The girls obeyed immediately as the men closed in on Call. One of them rushed Call as he sidestepped him like one of those fellas in Spain fighting the bulls. The other came from behind to wrap his arms around Call like a bear hug. Gretchen screamed as Call shook him off violently. Call's gun was knocked out of his holster into the dirt as he charged the first man and threw a punch that landed on the side of the man's jaw.

Folks were now watching this scene as Gretchen hurried and quietly bent down to pick up Call's gun. The second man who had been thrown to the ground was up and running at Call again. He lowered his shoulder and drove his full weight into Call as both men tumbled roughly into the hard dirt street. The first man kicked Call in the side as Gretchen screamed again as she saw him wince in pain.

Mr. Kettering came running out of his store holding a long-handled spade to assist Call. Call had managed to gain his feet as the three men were bound like a small tornado.

Bam! A gunshot was fired into the Montana sky. "Next one will tear flesh!" a voice called out. Call's eye were wild as the new man stepped near him with a gun pointing only at him. "You heard me, boy!"

Gretchen and Paige ran over to the man as they noticed the tin star on his shirt. "Those men attacked us," Paige said.

"No we didn't, Ed," one of them replied.

"You two go about your business," the man wearing the badge said to the local ranch hands. He grabbed Call. "I'm locking you up, boy."

"He didn't start it!" Gretchen angrily said. "Those other . . ."

"I'm in charge," the man interrupted. "And I say this one here did it."

"You're not the sheriff, Ed," Mr. Kettering said.

"I'm in charge till the sheriff returns tomorrow, storekeeper. You remember that."

The acting sheriff pulled Call away toward the jail down the street.

"No! Call!" Gretchen pleaded. Paige hugged her sister as she turned to Malachi Kettering.

"Why did he do that?" Paige asked.

"His name is Edward Martindale Jr. His father runs the bank. The sheriff left him in charge but he abuses his authority. Come inside, girls. I fear we are now at his mercy."

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

Mattie Shaw walked up to Clay Mosby outside his saloon. "I'd like to discuss business with you tonight, Clay."

"Business, Mattie? After dark. Sounds intriguing." Clay Mosby smiled. "Shall we say 10 0'clock?"

"That's fine," Mattie replied as she hurried off to find young Dewey.

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

Gretchen Brandt's spirit was downcast. Not only at the dismal thought of being separated from Call but also at the fearful realization of being alone. Paige, however had an idea. She whispered it to her sister. They hurried to send Victoria a telegram informing her they would be home the next day due to a small delay.

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

By early evening the streets of Sand Springs were quiet.

"Why don't you sit down , boy!" acting sheriff Edward Martindale said to Call. "You make me nervous pacing back and forth like some caged animal."

The door suddenly opened to the office as Paige and Gretchen stepped inside.

"If you come to see my prisoner I'm not allowing him any visitors," Ed said.

"We aren't here to see him," Paige said.

"He's just some low born saddle trash we hired to drive our wagon back home to Cat Creek," Gretchen added while avoiding eye contact with Call.

"What we desire is to hire you once the sheriff returns," Paige said as she smiled at the acting lawman.

"Hey!" Ed said to Gretchen as she moved closer to the cell where Call was being held. "I said no visitors."

Paige immediately changed the subject as she raised her skirt to her knees and placed her left foot on the seat of an empty chair. "We want you to tell us whose legs you favor."

Edward Martindale stared at Paige's exposed legs then stepped nearer to her. Paige smiled at him and brought her foot back to the ground. As the acting lawman reached out to touch her, Paige took a small step and with all her might drove her right knee into his groin. Ed made a sickly sound as he doubled over. His hands dropped to cup his private area as his legs buckled.

Gretchen, who had kept her hands behind her back, exposed them, revealing Call's gun. She held it like a hammer with both hands as she swung it against the back of his head. The blow wasn't strong enough to knock him out but it did send him to the floor.

"Get the key over there, quick!" Call said as he pointed to the key ring hanging on the nail near the back wall.

As Paige moved to locate the key Ed whipped his arm across the floor catching Paige's legs and causing her to trip. Ed grabbed for her foot but Paige kicked at him.

"Hurry!" Call urged as he watched helplessly.

Paige slid back and jumped up as she ran to the jail key. Ed managed to stand somewhat and closed in on her.

"Give me that key you little bitch!" he yelled as he reached out for Paige's hand.

"Call! Here!" Paige cried as she threw the large ring toward Call's cell. The key fell short of the cell as Paige tried to get away from Ed's grip. Call dropped to the floor and stretched his hand under the cell as far as he could but his fingertips were barely out of reach.

"Get the key!" Call yelled again.

Ed now had Paige. As he turned to retrieve the key, Gretchen grabbed the pot of hot coffee sitting on the pot belly stove. She quickly pulled the lid and as Ed came toward her she threw the hot liquid in his face.

"Aaaaarrgghhhh!" he screamed as his hands clutched his face. Gretchen swung the coffee pot and hit him across the temple as he lost his balance and fell.

"Hurry!" Call said again as Paige now picked up the key and with her hand shaking tried to fit it into the lock.

Ed Martindale rolled around knowing he had to draw his gun before it was too late. Paige finally opened the cell door and Call rushed out just as Ed pulled his gun. Call kicked the acting lawman's gun out of his hand and punched him in the face. He then grabbed him and lifting him slightly, slammed Ed's head into the wood desk. Ed sank to the floor. Call opened the desk and searching quickly found a pair of handcuffs. He brought Ed's hands behind him and cuffed him. He then found a towel to gag his mouth. He finished it off by throwing him inside the cell he had been locked in and slammed the door.

Both Gretchen and Paige rushed into Call's arms now. The girls were laughing, more out of fear than anything else. Paige let go first as Gretchen held on and squeezed him tight. "Call," she said. He squeezed her just as tight.

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

It was a little before ten when Mattie walked into the Ambrosia. Clay waved her over to his private table. "You're early, Mattie."

"Dewey fell asleep so I thought I best make good use of the time," she replied as she sat down. "Good. You have a deck of cards," she added as she noticed Mosby shuffling a deck.

Clay had actually been thinking about Miz Victoria Brandt and business wasn't what he desired right now. But he was a gentleman and Mattie was a friend.

"I would like to play poker with you to set terms of my renting the gunsmith shop. A nice old man in Miles City taught me a few things."

"I see," Clay said. "And what stakes shall we set?"

"If I win you give me six months rent free. If you win I'll pay double for six months," Mattie replied. "Clay, I own my own shop in Miles City. I want to save enough to purchase this one too."

Clay rubbed his neatly trimmed beard as he contemplated the proposal. "I assume you can cover the cost if you lose?"

"I wouldn't suggest it if I couldn't," Mattie said.

"Agreed," Clay answered.

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

The clock had just struck ten inside the Sand Springs jail. Acting Sheriff Edward Martindale was unconscious and locked in his own cell. Call opened the door to freedom and peered out at the empty street.

"Hurry, Call. Let's leave," Paige said.

"No," Call replied as he closed the door and locked them inside.

"Call, what are you doing?" Gretchen asked.

"We can't ride now. Too dark. It'd be best if we stay put till before first light. Then we'll leave." He walked up to Gretchen. "Far less trouble that way."

Gretchen's green eyes burned into his very soul as she stared at him. Call shook his head and laughed a little. "I reckon you two were mighty convincing."

Gretchen and Paige looked at each other and giggled. "We were, weren't we," Paige agreed.

Call stepped close to Gretchen. "Your legs as nice as your sister's there?" He had a wicked smile.

Gretchen's mouth opened. "You'll just have to wait and see, won't you, Call?" She began giggling as she buried her face in his chest. Call pulled Gretchen close to him and just held her while Paige smiled.

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

It was past midnight now. The Ambrosia had emptied out. Clay and Mattie were still involved in a poker game that lacked energy. Mattie had played her hands remarkably well, yet her mind was not in the game.

"What's so special about that girl Call's hanging around with?" Mattie finally asked.

"Miss Gretchen Brandt?" Clay replied. "Are we a little . . . jealous? Hmm?"

"I tried to reach out to him, Clay," Mattie confessed.

"You tried to change him, Mattie. You don't throw a rope around a man like Newt Call."

"Well, little Miss Giggles seems to have done that!" Mattie angrily replied.

"Miss Gretchen Brandt has not tried to change Call." Clay placed his cards face down on the table. "She made it clear from the moment she stepped off the stage and saw him sitting on that damn bench that he was perfection in her eyes."

Mattie shuffled uncomfortably in her chair.

"Perhaps we should forego this game," Clay suggested as he pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time.

"No! I have an idea," Mattie said. "What would you say the odds are of dealing twenty-five random cards and making five pat hands?"

"Clay tilted his head. "I would say quite substantial."

"All right then. Deal me twenty-five cards and if I make five pat hands I win the bet. If I can't . . . then you win."

Clay looked at Mattie. "Mattie, that is a very foolish bet. I have no desire to take your money . . . well, at least unfairly."

"I can afford it," she answered back.

Clay sighed. "I hope your feelings for Call aren't clouding your mind." He looked at her once more. He saw a determined face. "Very well." He gathered the cards and shuffled them, then counted out twenty-five cards. "Good luck, Mattie. I mean that sincerely."

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

In the quiet of night within the Sand Springs jail, acting sheriff Edward Martindale Jr. could only make undistinguishable muffling sounds as he struggled to free himself. Call had bound him securely so there was little chance of him loosening his bonds.

"We were like desperados breaking into the jail and freeing someone," Paige boasted proudly. "It was so much fun, Call."

Call just smiled. He held Gretchen close to him as they sat on the floor awaiting the moment they would leave and take the wagon back home.

"Both did real good. I'm proud of you," Call said.

Gretchen just smiled and squeezed Call a little tighter.

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

Mattie's face brightened. "There! I did it!"

Clay stood up and stepped around the table to see for himself. His eyes scanned the five sets of pat hands. Five hearts. Five diamonds. Five clubs. Five spades. And five leftover red cards which made a six-high straight. Four flushes and one straight. Mattie had done it, and remarkably quick. Clay gathered the cards and then tapped his fingers into his palm to softly applaud her success. "Well done, Mattie. It would appear you now have six months rent free with the gunsmith shop."

"I intend to buy it outright, Clay. Just like I did the one in Miles City."

"If you intend to raise that orphan boy, you'll need some luck," Clay added.

"Goodnight, Clay," Mattie said as she hugged him gently. "It's good to be back here again."

Clay walked Mattie to the door where she paused. "That card trick works nine out of every ten times, Clay." She laughed and headed toward the room above her shop to begin a new life in Curtis Wells with the young orphan boy, Dewey.

Clay locked the saloon and walked back to the table they had been using. He emptied his shot glass and picked up the cards. "Actually, that little trick works ten times out of every ten times." He smiled and headed for the stairs to fill his thoughts with Miz Victoria Brandt.

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

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